The New Home Economics


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Growing soil sprouts indoors

I heard about Peter Burke’s book for the first time last spring. I had already started lettuce outside, so I figured I’d wait until fall to give it a read. I requested it from the library in late October, and honestly: this one’s a game-changer. I don’t say that lightly!

Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening by Peter Burke

Book: Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening: How to Grow Nutrient-Dense, Soil-Sprouted Greens in Less Than 10 Days, by Peter Burke.

What really excited me about Burke’s process is that is has a low start-up cost. He doesn’t use grow lights, and he grows his sprouts in reusable foil half-loaf pans, wonderful for people short on money, time, and space.

I read the whole book and it seemed silly not to give it a try. My initial investment was around $40—and even if it completely failed, I would be able to use everything I bought in my regular garden next summer.

Soil Sprouts - getting started, via The New Home Economics

It was a gorgeous fall day so I worked outside this first time. The seeds I sprouted, from left to right: radish, sunflower, buckwheat, pea, and broccoli. After soaking the seeds overnight and preparing some seed starting mix (you add compost and liquid kelp to it), spread the seeds out on the surface and cover with soaked, folded up newspaper. Place in a dark, warm cupboard–warmth is important to get them to sprout quickly and without rotting.

Newly sprouted soil sprouts, via The New Home Economics

Here’s what mine looked like after several days. My buckwheat (left) did not germinate very well at all this first round; I think it was because the furnace was not running very much that week, so the cupboard was not at an ideal temperature. At this point, they did not look appetizing at all. The kids said “EW!”

Soil Sprouts, ready to eat

After placing them in a bright window for a few days, they started to look much better!

Soil Sprout Salad, via The New Home Economics

Here they are all cut up and ready to eat. I was still very skeptical at this point. Would the kids even be willing to try them? Happily, the kids tried AND liked them very much. We ate our third sprout harvest last night. Next week, I’m going to increase my production from one to two meals per week. Burke grows enough to eat these every day… will I get to that level some day? Perhaps.

I did have to order more seeds already and soon I will have to order more seed-sprouting mix. But my total cost per meal is less than what I’d pay for California lettuce, and tastes fresher. Also, because these are the “seed leaf” of the plant and not the true leaves, the nutrition levels are higher than normal lettuce. They taste so good that Anneke has been sneaking sprouts before we even harvest them.

Soil Sprouts at Seward Co-op, via The New Home Economics

At the Seward Co-op the other day, I saw that I’m not the only one experimenting with these. The prices don’t seem too terrible, but suffice to say it’s still cheaper to DIY this one.

My favorites are the sunflower and pea shoots. The buckwheat shoots taste delicious but continue to be the poorest in germination rates, though I’ve seen improvement since that first round.

This book is now on my DEFINTELY BUY list. I highly recommend giving this a try.

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Summer Lessons Learned

Greetings! Every summer has to come to an end, and this one is no exception. We’re having a hot Labor Day weekend, but there can be no doubt the end is near–Minnesota’s first frost averages around September 21, only two weeks away. Obviously I hope it won’t come that early, but it definitely could.

It’s time to talk about what worked well for us this year and what gave us mixed results. It’s a great exercise to record your successes and failures–especially with gardening–because otherwise you might be doomed to repeat your mistakes.
ClotheslineFirst new thing for 2015: clothesline! Now that we have the large trellis over our deck in the back, it’s really easy to stretch out a couple of lines from the deck to the swingset. We’ve been putting it up on the weekends. Does it save a ton of money? Probably not, but this is one of those things that just makes sense. I expected to be quickly bored by the drudgery of hanging out sheets but in the end found that it really didn’t take any more time than loading up the dryer–they actually dry faster outside anyway.

Monarch Release

We released 16 monarchs that we had raised from caterpillars this year. I still see some butterflies flitting around, but their breeding season is over and they’re on their way south now.

Pigeon River Middle Falls Grand Portage

In August, we took a trip up to the very tip of Minnesota’s arrowhead, camping at Judge CR Magney State Park and hiking Grand Portage State Park (among other adventures). Here’s a view of Canada, across the Middle Falls on Pigeon River. I can only hope that the next time we see this it does not have a fence anywhere in the picture. Common sense will prevail, right? At least in this one small area?

Praying Mantis

On a whim, we bought an egg sac of praying mantises in May. They hatched in June, and we released them all over the yard. We didn’t see any for quite some time, then in the last two weeks we found two of them in different areas. THEY ARE HUGE. Also: they’re working. I have zero aphids on my flowers, which are usually covered with them by September.

Despite this effectiveness, I still have mixed feelings about the mantises. They’re not native to the United States–and they kill both beneficial and pesty insects. I’m particularly worried about whether they killed any monarch caterpillars. My proposed solution to the kids is to capture them and donate them, in a terrarium, to their school’s STEM teacher, who can feed them crickets in the winter. Now we just have to catch them.

Drying herbs

I get more forgetful all the time. So this year, when drying herbs, I wrote myself helpful notes at the bottom of the basket to help me remember what everything was. Many of them end up looking alike when they’re all dried out. You can always crush a leaf and eat it, in order to guess what it is, but this made it very easy.

carrots

Apparently my skill with carrots is similar to my skill with archery: wildly inconsistent. I tried the Chiot’s Run carrot method this year and got mixed results due to less-than-ideal germination rates. I had to reseed the entire thing in late June, and those newer carrots are just not catching up. I’m trying the method again next year (as far as the template part goes) but I’m going to put more seeds in each hole, and cover it with a little potting soil, not just the rice hulls.

Parsley and black-eyed susans

Parsley keeps growing wild all over my garden, and this year has been a banner year for it. These petite Black Eyed Susans are new; transplanted from a co-worker’s garden. I’m making tabouli this afternoon. One of the great things about curly parsley (besides the fact that it keeps coming back), is that it’s very frost tolerant. If it doesn’t get covered by snow, I can still harvest it into November.

Hops

This was the first year of growing brewing hops on our new trellis. They didn’t provide much shade, but from what I know of hops we’ll have much bigger plants next year, so hopefully we’ll get more screening and shade in years to come.

Kohlrabi chips

School started two weeks ago already. Minneapolis has a very early start. One of my kids’ favorite lunchbox treats is kohlrabi chips. Simply peel and slice kohlrabi, sprinkle with salt and pepper. They are delicious, easy, and nutritious. I am going to try harder with kohlrabi in the garden next year–it needs A LOT of sun for a long time, so I am going to give over some of my pumpkin and potato space at the community garden plot to some kohlrabi.

Broom Corn

I’ve never seen anything like this broom corn that Rowan planted this year. We got the seeds from his STEM teacher and planted it on a whim. It’s 14 feet tall! I don’t know if we’re actually going to make a broom with it, but we’ll definitely make some pretty dried flower arrangements or maybe even a shock of corn for Halloween decor. That stuff has been unreal, and survived a few high wind events to boot.

Solomon's Seal

Here’s another native plant I want you to think about: Solomon’s Seal. I’m growing it in a very challenging spot: dry shade. It took a few years to get established, but now it is starting to flourish and spread. It is a beautiful choice, particularly if you want to add more native plants to your garden and are afraid you might not be able to distinguish weeds from plants. It has a very distinctive form, is easy to grow, and birds like the berries (which are poisonous to humans, by the way). This one is in my back yard in some dry shade under a large Silver Maple, but next year I’m going to add some more in the front yard under my large Elm. I have tried *many* different ground covers under that Elm and have not had very good survival rates. So, here’s one to try for 2016.

Dried cranberry bean

Lest you think harvest season is nearing an end: we’re not even close to being done. We have at least half our potatoes still left at our community garden, all of our pumpkins, these True Red Cranberry dried beans (still growing; we don’t pick them until they’re dried out), and lots of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers still coming like crazy. Adam also hopes to harvest a deer: bow hunting opener is just two weeks away. He was unsuccessful last year, so we’ll see what happens.

I’m planning on harvesting another big round of herbs for drying as soon as the weather cools off–herbs tend to have better flavor when it’s cool. We also have quite a bit of kale growing in various places around the yard. In a couple weeks, I will pull out the seedy and weedy lettuce in my stock tank, transplant all the kale in there, and put on the hoop house. Then hopefully we’ll have kale into November–maybe December?

As for now, I’m off to the farmers’ market to buy some beets; as mine were a total fail this year. Despite everything I grow, I still go to the farmers’ market on a regular basis, but I look for very specific things. This year it was zucchini, kohlrabi and beets. I can’t grow everything, after all.

Happy Labor Day to you, and thanks for reading!


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Book review: The Art of Fermentation

Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix KatzThe Art of Fermentation
An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World
By Sandor Ellix Katz

I met Sandor Katz a few years ago, shortly after I purchased his first book, Wild Fermentation. I feel fortunate that I took a class from him when he was still relatively unknown; the likelihood that he’ll be teaching inexpensive classes at local co-ops again in the near future seems pretty low.

Wild Fermentation is a true recipe book; in it you will find recipes for things like sauerkraut, kimchee, mead, and a whole host of other fermented foods. But one of my main issues with it was that I wanted to know the WHYs of every recipe. Why is it OK to eat brined pickles that are a bit moldy on the surface? Why did my brined pickles fail? Actually, how do I know whether they failed? Why is lacto-fermentation as safe (or safer) than canning? Does lacto- mean it involves lactose?

I had a lot of questions, clearly. Some of them were answered slowly, over time, as fermentation became mainstream. When I made my first batch of yogurt four years ago, google searches turned up almost no answers. Now, there’s even an heirloom vs. modern yogurt debate. I retired my yogurt maker and switched to the oven method a year ago.

Actually, the reason I read Wild Fermentation was in search of answers to MANY questions that I had after reading Nourishing Traditions. If you’ve ever read either one of those books, or had mixed success with some of the recipes, The Art of Fermentation is an invaluable resource. It covers everything the WAPF-ers are passionate about, from proper preparation of grains to culturing dairy products to the value of live-fermented foods, but the difference is Katz includes the science and logic to back up every single claim. Wild Fermentation and Art of Fermentation are truly complements to each other.

Here were some of my favorite bits from Art of Fermentation:

Botulism
If you’re confused about the now generations-old association between canning and botulism, Katz puts this question to rest once and for all. For starters: fermenting is completely different than canning, even though it may use the same jars. The acidic environment present in any and all fermented foods prevents botulism spores from ever gaining a foothold, as they can in warm, sterilized canned food environments. Katz includes an anecdote about Native Alaskan peoples’ techniques for preserving/fermenting fish, which involve burying them in a pit in the ground. Recently, people interested in reviving the tradition have tried fermenting fish in plastic bags and buckets instead of pits, and the results have been questionable enough that the US Centers for Disease Control conducted a test. To me, this was one of the most powerful passages in the book:

Two batches were prepared the proper traditional way, and two were prepared…using plastic bags or buckets. One of each batch we inoculated with botulism; the other was left natural. After the fermentation process was complete, we tested them. To our surprise, those batches of foods prepared the traditional way had no trace of the botulism toxin, not even in the foods that were inoculated with botulism spores. On the other hand, both batch of foods prepared in plastic tested positive for botulism. The advice that came out of that experiment was—”keep on fermenting your food, but never use plastic bags or buckets, and be certain that you do it the traditional native way without any short cuts or changes.”

Do you really need whey, or what?
I found the Nourishing Traditions fermented vegetable recipes confusing. The book made it sound (to me anyway) like if you do not use liquid whey (and I was unclear whether the whey should be from raw or pasteurized dairy), that your fermented foods will not turn out. My own anecdotal evidence plus this book has now settled this issue for me. Whey: not necessary at all. There’s no harm in using liquid whey; adding it is sort of like adding a “starter”–think sourdough. In vegetable ferments, it can help fermentation get started quicker, but it’s not necessary.

Yogurt
I’ve already documented a couple different yogurt-making methods that have worked for me, and Katz says his method has evolved as well. For one thing, he uses only 1 T. of starter per quart of milk and only cultures it for about 4 hours. Also, Katz clarifies the differences between using store-bought yogurt and heirloom cultures. But this is one of the great things about him: he doesn’t fuss about contentious issues like raw vs. pasteurized milk. He wants people to ferment foods which they have access to, whatever those may be.

Butter
I’ve always been confused about what is the difference between sweet cream and cultured butter. The difference is this: sweet cream butter is made from agitating fresh cream until the butter and the buttermilk separate. Cultured butter is made from cream that has first been “soured”–on it’s way to becoming creme fraiche. To make creme fraiche, simply add 1 T. of yogurt or buttermilk to 1 c. cream and leave it out for 24 hours. Refrigerate until set for creme fraiche, or shake it up for cultured butter. Now it all makes sense!

Water
I now understand why several of my brine ferments have failed in the last few years: up until 2012, I always used tap water. Katz recommends against using city water because it has chlorine in it, which upsets the natural balance of bacteria. I had a feeling about this, so I used spring water for my pickles in 2012, and not one jar went bad. I don’t like buying bottled water, but for this one thing, it’s worth it. There are ways to de-chlorinate city water, but most simple filtration systems don’t remove enough of it. Yes, of course, I’d love to get a super expensive filtration system, but… maybe someday.

Other topics
Just to give you an idea, Art of Fermentation also covers all of the following: kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, wine, beer, sake, hominy, coffee, cheese, salami, cod liver oil, brined mushrooms, kimchee, cider, fermented urine as garden fertilizer, sourdough breads, koji, and 100 year eggs. That’s only a sampling.  There are only a few recipes, in the traditional sense of the word; this is a book of methodology and inspiration. If you decide to make one of the more complicated ferments, such as salami, Katz urges you to read more on the subject and gives you ideas of where to start. On the other hand, with simpler vegetable and cultured milk ferments, there are SO many right ways to do them that knowing the basic methodology (and science behind why it works) is really all you need.

Fermentation, wow, who knew I would become so obsessed!? I love it!


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Recipe: chicken wild rice soup in a crock pot

Chicken Wild Rice Soup

This recipe makes a lot of soup. I use a 5 quart crock pot (a no-frills oval-shaped one we received for a wedding present 12 years ago). Adjust accordingly if your pot is smaller:

Crock pot chicken and wild rice soup
4 chicken thighs
1 onion, chopped
6 carrots
1 1/2 c. wild rice
1 tsp each of dried oregano, basil, parsley
1 pint heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Early in the morning, place the chicken and onion in the bottom of the crock pot. Fill with filtered water, leaving an inch or two at the top. Add a splash of vinegar. Set the crock pot on low or “auto” and leave it for 8-10 hours.

When you get home from work, pull out the chicken and set it on a plate to cool for a bit. Add peeled, sliced carrots, wild rice, and spices. Remove the meat from the bones and return it to the pot. Cover it and let it cook another 60-90 minutes or until the wild rice is done. The wild rice could be parboiled or soaked ahead of time to shorten this second cook time substantially.

When the wild rice splits open, turn off the crock pot. Stir in salt and pepper to taste, then stir in the pint of cream. If you use a 5 quart crock pot, this recipe makes A LOT—a good 10-12 servings. I always make big soup recipes, freeze the leftovers in pint jars, and take them to work for lunch. I know you’re technically not supposed to freeze cream soups, but I thought this one was still great after being frozen.

This soup is very simple. But as one of my favorite cookbook authors says, 90% of good cooking is good shopping (or good gardening). I used meaty free-range chicken thighs, Minnesota wild rice, herbs from my own garden, and the best cream a person can buy in the Twin Cities. Quality makes a HUGE difference. You don’t have to choose recipes with 15 hard-to-find harder-to-pronounce ingredients to serve up a satisfying, nutritious, spectacular meal. This soup really brought that concept home for us.

My initial interest in grass-based dairy and meat grew from reading how much more nutritious they are (3.5MB PDF). Now I’m completely hooked on the taste as well. Homemade soup in a jar—your hipster co-workers will be impressed/jealous.


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Time to replace the thyme

If you’re not growing thyme, well, you’re really missing out. It’s a perennial even here in the northland. It tastes great in nearly everything, and is featured in many different regional cuisines. It has health benefits. There was even a restaurant in southwest Minneapolis for a few years called “Never Enough Thyme” — and it’s true.

I’ve written about home-grown thyme’s superiority to store-bought, and also showed you how we dry it. It’s true that thyme is a perennial, but it’s a short-lived one. Our main thyme plant was at least 3 years old this spring, and starting to look a bit ratty:

See all those woody stems with no leaves?  This thyme was past its prime. Fortunately new thyme plants are very inexpensive. I took this one out, and the leaves are drying right now in my super sophisticated herb drying system. Three new baby thymes are in its place:

Oregano to the lower right, sorrel in protective cage to the upper right, super invasive lemon drops to the left — I cannot eradicate those things!  This is a part-sun location fairly close to our large elm tree in front of our house.  I like growing lettuce and herbs in part-sun situations because they take longer to flower than in full sun.

There’s our thyme supply until about 2015 or 2016!


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Yogurt: oven method

When I started making yogurt 3 years ago, I had a hard time finding information and recipes.  Now the internets are practically exploding with yogurt methods — crock pot, oven, yogurt maker, heating pad, back seat of your car, you name it. Yes, there is even heirloom yogurt now. (Thanks, Christina!)

Anyway, as my kids kept getting bigger I started having to make yogurt with my little yogurt maker twice a week. I have limited time, so I put the yogurt maker away for a while. Here’s how we’re doing it, three years later:

Start with a 1/2 gallon of the best whole milk you can get your hands on. Heat it to just around the boiling point, or 180 degrees F. Remove from heat, plunge into a sink full of cold water, and bring the temperature back down to 110-115 degrees F.

Stir in a cup or so of yogurt from your last batch. Whisk.

My oven has a setting called “proofing” — for people who have time to bake bread (some day I’ll get back into it, sniff) — it holds the oven at around 100-110 degrees.  Perfect. I bake my yogurt overnight usually, around 8-9 hours. Simple, and it makes quite a bit — usually around 80 ounces.  Still no plastic to recycle (though now the city of Minneapolis does take yogurt containers).

A little chunky for ya? That’s what happens when you use non-homogenized milk. Doesn’t bother me, honestly. A solid week’s worth of full fat yogurt from grass-fed cows who live less than an hour away (and who I’ve actually met) for only about $5. Cool!


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Recipe: Sorrel and Chive Soup

Finally had sorrel soup tonight. I’ve been looking forward to it, and it did not disappoint.  Well, it did disappoint a bit in the photography department — not the most photogenic soup I’ve ever made.  But it tasted great, and the 4YOs ate it willingly. I call that a victory.  It is based on Bittman’s Creamy Sorrel Soup recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

Sorrel and Chive Soup
2 T. butter
4 c. coarsely chopped sorrel
2 c. chicken stock
2 c. cream or milk
1/2 c. or more coarsely chopped chives

Heat the butter in a soup pot, then add the sorrel and chives and cook until the sorrel wilts. Add the stock and bring almost to a boil. Cook for a minute or two. Use an immersion blender to puree the greens.  Add milk or cream and heat until hot but not boiling. Season with salt and pepper. DONE.  EASY!

Ours turned out a bit thin because we used milk rather than cream. Hence the toasted cheese bread on the side.

About sorrel: sorrel is one of the few perennial greens we can grow up here in the northland. It can get quite big in full sun, as my friend Jodi‘s has.  My plant is actually from a division of hers, and it stays relatively small in my part-shade location.  But we get enough for a few pots of sorrel soup every year, anyway. I believe I have French Sorrel.  It really is delicious.

Spinach or watercress could also be substituted in this recipe.