Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas in June

Suppress your anger now, folks, because I am going to share a handy idea for de-stressing your NEXT Christmas. Not this one. This post probably won't do you a lick of good for the current holiday season. 

For the sake of this post, let’s assume that you have a group (or several groups) of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, clients, etc. to whom you enjoy giving a token of appreciation every Christmas. Just a little something to say “I like you.”

Yet even if you only spend $5-10 on each aforementioned gift, this amount can quickly add up. Plus, you have to go shopping for those gifts, potentially adding to stress during the holiday season and/or consuming resources that might better be left under a mountain or inside a barrel.

Enter Christmas gifts made in June.

Now I don’t know about you, but when Thanksgiving rolls around, and everything needs to be done in oh-my-God-the-next-thirty-days, I have other things to do besides create home-made presents, which is one of the key ideas that everyone recommends for de-consumerizing, de-stressing, de-stickershocking the holiday season. 

You know what I mean: batches of fudge, loads of home-baked cinnamon bread, jelly jars full of make-your-own food projects (hot chocolate mix, soup, etc.). Yumminess that will, in short order, be augmenting the fat reserves of the gift recipient. I am the lucky friend of several of these enterprising folks, but have never been inclined to do this myself. No, I discovered this particular technique, the topic of this blog post which you are now wishing that I would actually begin discussing, quite by accident.

There was no clever strategizing or thinking ahead involved; just the happy fact that the plums growing in my backyard ripen in June, and they need immediate attention, which means processing. My plums happen to be quite tart and so, the first year that they ripened, I turned the whole harvest (one tree’s worth) into jam, somewhere around four batches of it, yielding around 26 half-pints of plum jam. 

Then, when the holiday season rolled around, I remembered all that jam in my pantry, already conveniently made, ready to give to friends without any additional post-Thanksgiving effort on my part. As it turns out, plum jam happens to hold a special place in the hearts of many Americans.

At least here in Oklahoma, plum jam is closely associated in the minds of a great many people with their sweet sainted Memas or Nannas or Grannys, who used to spread the stuff on fresh-baked biscuits so their darling grandchild could snarf it down while cuddling with Gramma while reading their favorite Pooh book for the seventieth time while receiving cherished toys while getting kisses on their jam-smeared cheeks.

You know… love.

And so, when one gives a jar of plum jam to one’s friend/colleague/client/acquaintance, one might immediately acquire an invisible aura that reads “Someone a bit like my Granna who loved me so much.” The aura might subsequently be addended to read (depending on your jam-making skill): “who makes jam so incredibly delicious that I would fight in the Mad Max Thunderdome for it, if I had appropriate armor and weapons available.”

Ahem. Not saying that’s me.

As I mentioned before, I discovered the Plum Jam Granny Love connection quite by accident, because I had an entire pantry full of plum jam  and a simultaneous need for gifts for wonderful friends, and I only noticed the happy coincidence of the matter after the nineteenth person told me that their Nanny used to make plum jam JUST LIKE this, and by the way, it’s already three-quarters gone, in case you happen to have any more???

So, long story short: whether or not you happen to have plums ripening in your backyard next summer, there is undoubtedly a regional food specialty associated with loving kindness in your area, and, because of the nature of ripening fruit, it will most likely need to be batched up in June, July, or August. 

So if you don’t mind being mentally associated with all the best, most magical and loving memories of your friend’s childhoods, you might consider making your Christmas presents next summer, and save yourself some money, time, and trouble when December rolls around. 

Tips:
  • If you don’t grow your own fruit, you may need to scavenge the plums/apples/peaches/blackberries from an abandoned orchard (with permission of course), or harvest the fruit at a u-pick operation, or simply buy the stuff from the farmer’s market. The taste and ripeness of the fruit is essential, however, appearance is unimportant: ugly fruit is quite acceptable.
  • Think ahead: ensure you have the proper equipment and supplies before the time comes to make your project, whatever it is - apple pie in a jar, plum jam, preserves. A water bath canner is most likely a necessity, and tools like jar lifters and lid lifters can make the whole process much easier and safer. You could borrow the equipment for the first year, to find if you like the experiment, and then invest in it if you plan to continue the project (or when you simply fall in love with jamming and canning). You will, however, need to purchase the jam jars and new lids for your project.
  • Follow the instructions closely and completely. If you're like me, you like to experiment by adding or omitting ingredients or decreasing the amount of fat and sugar in your nightly meal recipes. That is NOT a safe practice when you are jamming and canning. Use the recommended amount of sugar, even if it seems completely outrageous. Luckily, there is a low-sugar recipe for plum jam that is quite tasty. It's available in the Sure-Jell box.  




Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shelter from the Tornado

I live in Tornado Alley, in Oklahoma City. The suburb located fifteen miles south of our home, Moore, averages a tornado every 2.5 years since 1991. Until recently, I had believed that it was sufficiently prudent to watch the weather carefully during May, have a tornado bag assembled, and be prepared to shelter in the interior of the house, away from windows, covered by a mattress.

Until two years ago, that is, when I heard weatherman Mike Morgan yelling "Get underground! A closet will not keep you safe during this tornado!"  At that point, I grabbed my son and headed down the street to our neighbors, who have an above-ground safe room (a metal box bolted deep into the foundation of the house), and stayed with them until the tornado watch expired.

Mike Morgan's warnings were accurate during the tornado that recently struck Moore, killing and injuring dozens of people and wiping neighborhoods from the map, leaving only foundations and rubble. I'm sure you've already seen images of the destruction - words won't do it justice.

In 2011, my family signed up to have an underground shelter installed in our garage. We had to wait several months, as the companies that install them are typically swamped with orders after significant tornado strikes. Installation and materials cost approximately $3,000 for a four-to-six person shelter; the process was simple and took about four hours.

Here is a simplified description of the process: the two-person team cuts and removes a section of the garage floor concrete, then uses a Ditch Witch to dig a rectangular cuboid about six feet deep. Concrete is poured in the base of the hole, then a metal box is placed inside, and concrete walls several inches thick are poured around the exterior of the metal shelter. The shelter is topped with a rolling metal lid, and is designed to be narrow enough for a car to park over it.  When a tornado weather threatens, I pull my car forward an extra two feet for easy access to the rolling lid.





Our finished tornado shelter includes steps and two benches. I keep an old pillow, bottled water, and a crank-powered LED lantern in the shelter.  Also, a large plastic bottle with lid -- you never know how long you might be stuck down there - possibly for up to a day or longer for rescue workers to find and dig you out.

We have created a GO bag to bring into the tornado shelter with us, and for possible evacuations. The GO bag took about an hour to assemble, plus an hour to create a printout of important information. Our GO bag includes the following:

  • NOAA crank / solar radio-cell phone charger-flashlight
  • Bag of snacks
  • Entertainment items: cards, dice, coloring book and crayons, notepad and pens
  • Gloves (in case we have to dig ourselves out of the shelter)
  • Toiletry items (hotel sample size), bugspray and SPF 30 lotion
  • Change of socks and underwear
  • Bag of camping toilet paper rolls
  • First aid items - bandaids, tweezer
  • Printout of essential insurance and financial information and important phone numbers
  • Tiny fold-up tarp
  • Swiss Army knife
On top of the bag, I have placed a list that reads:
  • Dog
  • Tornado bag
  • Laptop
  • Cell phones
  • Purse / wallet
  • Nook / book
We have also stored some important digital documents and pictures in web storage, so that if we don't have time to grab the laptop, our important documents and our family pictures will still be available.

It has been such a relief to have this shelter for the last two years, during the extreme weather that is common in Oklahoma. Having the shelter allows me to feel confident in reassuring my son that we will be safe even during a major tornado event.  Even if a tornado wipes away our home, we can still survive, underground.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The year of fruit

Although 2012 was a dismal year for my garden, for some reason it was a fabulous year for fruit. The abundant success of our fruit and nut trees, which require much less watering and care than annual vegetables, has rewarded us for the years of faith and patience that it took for the trees to grow large enough to bear fruit. Now that they have, I'm just trying to keep up with them.

My husband and I began planting our micro-orchard in 2006 on a mid-sized lot in an inner suburb in Oklahoma City, not bigger than a third of an acre. We planted three apples, two pears, two peaches, three plums, a persimmon, a fig, and a cherry. Towering above them all is a fifty-year old pecan tree. We pruned and thinned and watered our trees through the drought of the last three years (aside from the cherry, which perished, and the fig, which we are half-heartedly trying to kill). In 2012, we began to witness the amazing amount of fruit that a small orchard in the middle of a city can yield.

It began unexpectedly in May, with our first-ever bounty of plums. These were quite tart, so they were made into jam and given away to our friends in the resilience team we have jokingly dubbed "Plan T."


In June (about four weeks earlier than usual), we had an impressive peach harvest -140 pounds from two semi-dwarf trees. One of our friends was kind enough to help us by trading two hours of thinning in return by a home-cooked sirloin steak dinner. We ended up with peach chips, peach pie filling, peach jam and more fruits to our family and friends.


Around this time, our Plan T friends at Rose Ranch Jones called us to their farm for some free blackberry picking. After some prickly pain and sweat, we froze a lot of blackberries for blackberry pancakes and made some blackberry jam, perhaps my favorite home-made variety yet.

Next, our first-ever harvest of pears and apples. Admittedly, we only got two pears, as the majority dropped off before I realized they were ripe. We did pick 30 pounds of apples, augmented by a trip into Jones, OK, where a member of our Plan T group had a line on some apple trees that the owner did not want to harvest. We dried our share of apples (90+ pounds) into apple chips, which have become a staple of my son's school lunches.

In August and September, some non-perennial fruit: Orangeglo and Ali Baba watermelons and Rich Sweetness 132 mini-melons, from Baker Creek seed.  Maybe about 150 pounds of watermelons were eaten and given away.


Toward the end of 2012, we got our first harvest of persimmons from our Asian-American hybrid, Nikita's Gift. Persimmons seem to take forever to ripen - hanging on the tree until December - although (in my opinion) they are worth the wait, being as sweet as candy with a fun pudding-like texture.


To top off the year, we harvested the first pecans we have had in five years (our last harvest was in 2007). We took most of the crop to be commercially cracked, to reduce the labor in shelling the pecans, reserving a few for my son, who for some masochistic reason, wanted to crack them with the Reed's Rocket by hand. We ended up with over 80 pounds, plenty for snacks, potlucks and salads through the year.

The generosity of the trees in our mini-orchard, and the friends in our resilience team, have reminded me that we need not grow a huge amount of our own food to participate in a thriving local food system - if we have a group of friends who are willing to barter, share, gift and trade. This comes as a relief, as I can't seem to grow a tomato. Instead, my trees can take on the work of growing plums, pears, apples, peaches, persimmons, and pecans, and I can simply harvest and preserve their bounty, saving some for the pleasure of giving away.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Team Kimchi

Fourteen people gathered on Saturday in our kitchen to make kimchi, the Korean dish of cabbage, peppers, ginger and garlic; a smelly, spicy fermented superfood reputed to repel colds, infections and other assorted health downers.

Our group, a Resilience Team that has been together since 2010 under the mantra of "Share~Save~Support," has work-partied together numerous times - picking apples, harvesting pecans, canning peaches, learning how to use a marine battery for backup power, even making sausage - along with sharing seeds, plants and fruits, and showing each other support in a thousand ways. Never, however, have we attempted to make kimchi as a group.



We planned our escapade using Sandor Katz's recipe from wild fermentation, purchasing our ingredients in bulk from the Farmer's Market, and receiving a nice discount in return for ordering in advance. The members of the group assembled at 4 p.m. ready to slice, dice, and drink wine (after numerous large sharp and serrated knives were safely put away).


Controlled chaos ensued, building to a fever pitch as we hauled out a 5-gallon brewing bucket and donned latex gloves to mix the jalapeno-ginger-garlic paste into the napa cabbage-carrot-daikon radish base. By 8:30 p.m., after just a little work, some dice and cards, and a potluck, each participant had several jars of kimchi to take home, with a helping of juniper-berry sauerkraut promised from one family who created a batch while all others were pursuing our kimchi-making dreams.


Today, the distinctive kimchi odor is already in evidence as the fermentation bubbles along on my countertop. We were perhaps a bit too diligent in rinsing the salty brine out of our kimchi, and so as I pushed the veggies back into the brine I also added a bit of salt. The kimchi should be fermented to my taste in about a week.  After that, I'm looking forward to a winter of addictive kimchi taste adventures, as well as many more work parties and other escapades with our team of resilience-pursuing friends.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The most wonderful (gardening) time of the year

Growing a garden during the regular summer season here in Oklahoma can be a slog of uncomfortable heat and drought. 114+ temperatures, weeks without rain...painful. Without our reliable perennial fruit trees, some of us would grow little at all. Many Oklahoma farmers and gardeners have even begun muttering about giving up completely on the summer garden. But the fall season? Now, that's a different story.


Zone 7 gardeners can start a second round of plants in the late summer for a fall crop - selecting warm- or cool-season plants that yield quickly in September and October. Others plant cool-season crops that will survive through the fall, winter, and spring with the simple, cheap, and low-tech protection of a row cover. In Oklahoma City, the first frost is traditionally between Nov. 1 and Nov. 10.  However, along with much earlier springs, we have also recently been enjoying later first frosts, giving plants plenty of time to get established (and giving us plenty of time to plant).

In the cooler fall temperatures, it's more enjoyable to get out in the garden to plant and easier to water, since evaporation levels are lower. In fact, I rarely have to water after the seeds sprout and the plants get established. Plus, weeds and pests are fewer, making fall gardening a cinch for anyone to try - and succeed.

Here is a short list of some plants that enjoy cooler temperatures:

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage / Napa Cabbage
  • Lettuce
  • Peas
  • Swiss Chard
  • Spinach
  • Parsley
  • Turnips
  • Beets

You'll notice that many of these choices are some of the most nutrient-dense vegetables available. Garlic and onions are great immunity-boosters, while all leafy-green vegetables are "super-stars" of nutrition, with high levels of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals.

My two favorite fall crops are kale and garlic. Garlic is tasty, nutritious, stores well, and is absolutely easy to grow. Home-grown garlic has much juicier cloves than the stuff available at the store. The difference is noticeable. To grow garlic, plant individual unpeeled bulbs in the late fall (here in Oklahoma, I usually plant in early October), water them a few times, and forget about them until the early summer, when you notice that they need to be harvested. Dig them up, let them "cure" for a few days, then tuck them away to use throughout the year. Then, re-plant in the fall.

I also love kale. Kale provides an amazingly long, virtually never-ending harvest of leafy greens. Eating kale is like taking vitamins, but in the form of a whole food with extra nutritious phyto-chemicals and fiber to fill you up. Although the taste of spinach (which is similarly green and nutritious) is milder and more attractive to my family, I have a hard time getting spinach seeds to germinate, even after soaking them overnight.  Kale is easier, in my opinion.

Last fall, as cooler temperatures arrived, I planted kale in two locations - one protected by a simple row cover, one completely un-protected. Both survived the mild winter, even as I repeatedly harvested the leaves. They then put on a heroic burst of growth in the spring, giving me early-season greens until April. The kale I planted in the fall performed much better than the kale I planted in the spring.

This year, I am planting garlic, kale, broccoli, napa cabbage, lettuce, carrots, and swiss chard, and I'll plan to protect everything (except for the garlic and carrots) with row covers as soon as frost approaches - or as soon as I notice any cabbage moths.  About half of  my garden space is currently filled with warm-season crops that are still yielding (okra, watermelons, peppers, basil), but in typical fashion, my tomatoes and squash have already withered to the point that they were useless. So I yanked them to give me space for my fall crops.

After several years of frustration, I had almost given up on growing broccoli. The darn cabbage moths always got them, no matter how much I picked away the little green worms. But this spring, I tried protecting the broccoli plants with row cover, and they actually yielded a nice harvest (despite a small hole which let some moths inside). So, I'm planting broccoli again this fall.

In short, planting in the cool autumn season offers much higher returns than planting in the spring. It's easier, has a longer harvest, yields some of my favorite crops, and takes less water and work. Trouble-free yields for six months? In my opinion, it's completely worth investing a few dollars and a few hours of planting time.



Sunday, September 9, 2012

Where have I been?

Apologies for the long sabbatical. For several years, I've been dreaming of an extended vacation of hiking, beach-combing, and exploring in Washington - specifically, in Olympic National Park, where there are so many varied terrains, including waterfalls, beaches, lakes, mountains, and a temperate rain forest.

Our son is now old enough to travel, so we set out this summer to have some fun - you know, while the airlines are still in business and we still have jobs.  My parents tagged along to spend time with their grandson.  As we live in a different city, they don't see him as much as they'd like. They were treated to numerous games of tic-tac-toe by their grandson.


The Park did not disappoint. Everything was breathtaking. Marymere Falls, Olympic National Park



Starfish, Ruby Beach


I was proud of my son, who hiked several miles a day. Though we chose mostly flat hikes, some had steep stairs, and one had a 700 foot ascent / descent over 3.2 miles - not much for a fit adult, but a lot for a four-year old who had never been hiking before. We took plenty of pictures to prove he made it to the top.



Hurricane Ridge


Sequim lavender fields


Sol Duc Falls


Exposed wood grain of fallen tree, Hoh Rain Forest

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Mighty Dehydrator

I started dehydrating food out of simple necessity. I needed a fast and easy method to preserve the hundreds of pounds of peaches I get from my two peach trees every year. However, I soon became a food dehydration fan, searching out foods to dry to see how they would taste. This year my goal is to stop buying fruity lunch snacks for my son, who loves the dried peaches, bananas, apples, pears, cantaloupes, and even the tart plum chips that I make for him.

Like any food preservation technique, dehydration helps me to eat more local and organic food. I can preserve the tons of excess produce from my garden and fruit trees at the height of summer (picking at peak freshness for best flavor), which enables me to eat locally year-round. I can also take advantage of farmer's market / supermarket specials to purchase foods at low cost and preserve them. At the same time, I'm creating food storage for my family that will last for many months.

Not only does dehydration help me eat more locally and organically, but it also helps my family eat in a more environmentally friendly way, because it reduces packaging waste. Since I can re-use glass jars and lids repeatedly, I don't have to eat food stored in plastic, and we don't need to throw away packaging after only one use. This may seem like a small benefit, but it makes me surprisingly happy.

Although I also can, freeze, ferment, and jam, when I've got a lot of food to preserve, I usually prefer to dehydrate. Why?

1. Inexpensive.
I purchased my Nesco food dehydrator for about $50, and I store my dried food in glass jars found at garage sales. Both the jars and lids can be re-used over and over (unlike with canning, where a new lid is required each time.)  The only other equipment needed is a cutting board and a knife, although an apple corer does come in handy. I don't have to purchase any kind of special extra ingredients to add to the food.

2. Makes great snacks.
Dried fruits are quite sweet even without adding any sugar because the natural sugars are concentrated when the water is removed. Fruit dried at home is cheaper than the organic fruit strips or dried fruit from the store, and without questionable additives or preservatives. In my experience, most dried fruits keep for a year or more.

3. Simple and fast.
Dehydration is great for beginners, because generally, there are no complicated instructions to remember. I simply cut up the food, put it in the dehydrator trays, and turn on the dehydrator. When the food is finished drying, I put it in glass jars and seal it with lids and screwtops. I prefer to get the food pretty dry so that I have no concerns about food safety; I put any food that is still moist in the fridge or eat it within a few days.

4. Takes up less space.
You might be amazed by how much food can be stored in a quart jar after it has been dried. If your pantry or freezer space is limited, dehydration is your best friend. In fact, dried food shrinks up so much that it's a little frightening - but don't worry, the fiber, calories, minerals, and Vitamin A are still in there.

Although dehydrating food is a great preservation technique, there are a few quirks. Dehydrators make noise and put out heat. Therefore, when I am using the dehydrator, I always place it in the garage, up on a ledge. This is especially crucial in the summertime, when I don't want any extra heat in the house.

Preparing food for dehydration does not take much time, perhaps half an hour, although peaches require more time because I first remove the skins. However, the actual dehydration process consumes many hours, and unfortunately, most dehydrators do not have timers attached. I've found that drying times vary according to many different factors. I usually dry peaches for twelve hours; apples, which are much less juicy, for four to six hours. So, if you are trying to preserve a lot of food at once (for example, 160 pounds of peaches or 70 pounds of apples), you might want to purchase or borrow a second dehydrator, use multiple techniques for preservation, or time your preservation so that you can kick off a batch in the morning and then overnight. I use all of these strategies at the height of food preservation season.

One of the best parts of dehydrating food is that I can listen to Great Courses, Peak Moment TV, interviews on the Energy Bulletin, books on tape from the library, or chat with a friend at the same time. An activity that could have been a chore becomes as fun as watching a good movie or reading a book - but with quarts of inexpensive, tasty, local, organic food storage at the end.