Thursday, May 27, 2010

Freezing Cilantro

This year has brought an unexpectedly robust crop of cilantro, which enjoys such a brief season.  You simply must keep cutting it back, or it will flower and go to seed.  Then you have a bumper crop of corriander, which is a completely different problem (in that I have no idea what do with it, in spite of the fact that I keep harvesting and saving it).  The cilantro, though, you want to keep producing for all of those Latin dishes that get their unique flavor from it.

This year, I have decided to freeze some cilantro for winter use in guacamole and ropa villeja.  It couldn't be easier:  simply take a good size handful, chop it fine, and put it in a half pint freezer jar.  I like the plastic ones from Ball.  Then,fill with olive oil, being sure to fill all the nooks and crannies.

That's it.  The top picture shows the end result; just pop it in the freezer, then thaw during those winter months when it feels like you need to head to Key West if you are ever going to get good Cuban food again.  (Not that I have a problem with that approach, either, but this is cheaper.)

The Analysis

Fast:  The entire process takes probably 10 minutes from harvest to freezer.

Cheap:  Your only costs are the start-up costs from reuseable freezer containers, and of course the olive oil.  I try to use a good extra virgin olive oil, which I have discovered I can buy in bulk for cheap at a local Italian market.

Good:  Since cilantro doesn't dry well, this is your only method to really ensure you have that summery flavor for Latin dishes year-round.  I am going to put up at least four, if not six, of these half pints.
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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Beans are A'Poppin

There they are.  You can barely see them, but those are my beans popping up out of the ground.  I am useless on the day the beans start popping; I keep running outside to see if any more are up, and if the ones that are up have unfolded their true leaves.  Today will probably be no different.  So let me leave you with some short thoughts about growing your own beans.

Beans are remarkably easy to grow.  They aren't terribly particular about when you plant them, so you can succession plant throughout the season, getting several crops or just getting a late start.  I grow a bush variety that takes up very little room in the garden; you could probably sneak a few in to your foundation landscaping if that is all of the land you have available.  They freeze very well, requiring just 3 minutes of blanching before you throw them in the freezer.  And, for those of you with kids (or just fumbly fingers), the seeds are large and easy to handle.

The Analysis

Fast:  Just shove them in the ground and watch them grow!

Cheap:  A single pack of bean seeds (often $2-3) will yield enough beans to keep a small family going most of the year.

Good:  Fresh beans, or those you froze yourself, are infinitely better than those mushy things from cans.
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Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Could You Make?

I just finished reading Paul Roberts's excellent examination and indictment of the industrialized food economy, The End of Food.  In it, he suggests that as a way of measuring one's own ability to lead a sustainable life, one should occasionally look at what comes home from the grocery, then think about how/whether one could secure the same item from one's own back yard or the local foodshed. 

I think this is a great idea, and I decided to work through the exercise with this week's groceries.  This is a fairly normal haul for DH and I, perhaps on the small side, but representative of the things we typically buy.

We grow our own veggies and herbs for the most part, and we can, freeze, and dry them so they are available all year.  Typically, what is used up is not replaced from the grocery; we substitute others until the season comes again.  For example, I haven't had sun dried tomatoes since last December, because that is when the supply ran out.  But I still have canned tomatoes and chili sauce as tomato products.

We get our eggs from a local farm through a colleague of mine, so I'm set there.  We also stock the freezer with hormone- and antibiotic-free meat from a local farm, so that reduces the amount of meat I buy.  That leaves:

  • Milk:  I buy hormone-free milk at the grocery.  Presumably, I could find a local farm that sells milk if the industrial food system falls apart, but I worry about supply.
  • Limeade:  Luxury item.  I do have a dwarf lime tree that is budding this year, so I might occasionally have limes to make it myself one day.
  • Club soda:  I hate to think that my mojito supply might be compromised by a lack of club soda, but I hear you can make them with plain water in a pinch.
  • Cookies/Snack Cakes/Brownie Mix:  [Cringe]  You caught me.  These are luxury items, because we have a sweet tooth.  I have been baking a batch of cookie each week since the first of the year, and my goal this summer is to do all of our dessert and bread baking.  But right now, the desire for sugar frequently outweighs the desire to be sustainable. 
  • Pizza crust mix:  Sort of a luxury.  I can certainly make my own, but I do like the flavor of the Jiffy mix once you add a little flax meal to it, so I buy it when it is on sale.  Giving it up wouldn't be a hardship, but when it is 50 cents a box, it wouldn't be that much of a savings either.
  • Sliced provolone:  I can make my own cheese; I have the citric acid and the rennet in the fridge right now, waiting for me to make a batch of mozzarella.  However, if the End comes, hard cheeses like provolone might take a back seat until I improve my technique.
  • Maple syrup:  Easy.  I know of a local farm that bottles maple syrup; if it comes to it, I'm not above tapping a tree and boiling sap.  In fact, that may be the only reliable source of sugar I have in a true crisis.
  • Avocados:  My new veggies luxury.  You don't grow avocados anywhere near Ohio, so there goes my new-found guacamole habit.
  • Yarn, ear plugs, deodorant, hair spray:  Not sure whether to include these as "groceries," but they are regular purchases from the super store.  Suffice to say, I imagine getting cotton yarn might be a problem in a true crisis.  I will probably be growing my hair for a pony tail if the End comes, so that takes care of the hair spray.  The deodorant is a concern (yes, tea tree oil, but where do you get that locally?), and the ear plugs might have to be replaced with some make-do so I can get some sleep.
Ultimately, I'm not in too bad a shape.  My main concern, should I have to make things long-term, is securing sugar and milled flour.  A truly long-term crisis would lead to more locally-available wheat (and other products), but right now, I don't grow wheat or any grain I can mill.  In a pinch, I guess I start keeping bees and use their honey as sugar, along with maple syrup.

So, yes, this is a crazy little thought exercise.  When I do it, I imagine a breakdown on December 21, 2012.  But you really don't have to be thinking about some cosmic End to be concerned; as Roberts argues, we are really just one crop failure, oil price spike, or disease outbreak away from a problem, especially since we source so much of our food from concentrated areas.  So, it is not hard to imagine (if you watch the news at all), an E. Coli outbreak disrupting the supply of produce from California, an oil drilling platform disaster driving gas prices to extremes along with food prices that carry their own transportation costs in their price, or a new piece of research determining that the way we farm our meat is killing us. 

So, take a look at your groceries this week.  What did you buy that you could make if you had to?
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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Basil Pesto Orzo

With the herbs growing quickly in the garden, it is time to get serious about cleaning last year's stash out of the freezer.  Last year, I froze 14 half pints of basil pesto -- really, just the beginnings of pesto, as I run basil leaves and olive oil through the food processor with a little garlic, then freeze.  Later in the year, I thaw and add salt and parmesan cheese to make a pesto topping.

This is exactly what I have done here.  The orzo, which we will see again later in the year with an awesome zucchini recipe, gives the pesto a nice texture.  However, feel free to use any pasta shape you like.

1 half pint frozen basil pesto (preserved from last year)
1 box orzo, cooked (on sale for $1.09)
1 5oz. bag shredded parmesan cheese (on sale for $1.67)
ground sea salt
ground pepper

Cook orzo, then combine in a saute pan with basil pesto and sea salt to taste.  When thoroughly combined, add the parmesan, and continue heating until melted.  Top with fresh ground pepper.  Makes 3-4 side dish or lunch servings.

The Analysis

Fast:  If you make sure to thaw your basil pesto ahead of time, this cooks up in under 20 minutes.  Don't worry, we'll deal with making the pesto later this summer if you don't have any on hand.  Whatever you do, don't succumb to the $3.39 an ounce version in the stores!

Cheap:  This comes in at $2.76, plus a few cents for the salt and pepper.  This is a case in which preserving your herbs really makes a difference.  I got four lunches out of this for about 70 cents each.

Good:  Yum.  This is one of my favorite lunches, or it makes a nice dinner with some grilled salmon.
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Friday, May 14, 2010

Unsustainability: The Kleenex Company

I am not the first blogger to mention this, but a big boo-hiss this week to the Kleenex company, which has taken paranoia to the extreme in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.  They have introduced -- wait for it -- disposable hand towels for the home.  Yes, that's right, if your bathroom is missing that "airport restroom" feel, you are now one step closer to the dream.

Don't get me wrong, we have a free marketplace, and companies have spent at least a century creating needs that they can fill with products.  In the early part of the 20th century, Listerine probably reached the pinnacle of this "emphasizing the negative" advertising technique with their "often a bridesmaid, never a bride" series.

(Source:  Better Homes and Gardens, 5/1/1936)

Poor Edna.  She's nearing the "tragic thirty mark" and yet here she is, catching that blasted bouquet again, with no hope of ever walking up the aisle unless she gets rid of that funky breath.

But at least bad breath is a real problem, albeit maybe not the absolute barrier to marriage that Listerine wanted to imply.  Germs, on the other hand, are the marketing gift that keeps on giving, because you never know if they are gone.  You can clean and sterilize all day, and there will still be germs.

Kleenex has capitalized on this, noting "Your hands are only as clean as the towel used to dry them."  Their new disposable towels give you that homey feel of living in a surgical suite, while allowing you to spend over $3.00 per box of 60 to fill your trash cans (and later the landfill) with unnecessary paper.

You know that spouse you cuddle with in bed at night?  You're killing him or her if you expect to share a washable hand towel.  And those kids you would do anything to protect?  Yep, you're killing them if you hand them a towel made of cloth; God only knows what germs could lurk there!

Here's a news flash, Kleenex:  Germs exist, and there are far more germs on the bathroom door knob than will ever be on a plain, old fashioned towel.  Our immune systems need exposure to germs to stay ready to fight other invaders.  And unless you are preparing to do surgery in your bathroom, there is no reason to find any merit in a disposable towel.

The Analysis

Fast:  No extra time for drying your hands, but Kleenex has found an extra item for me to check out, pay for, lug to the car and into the house, and then carry to the curb when used.  Thanks a heap for the extra chore.

Cheap:  Not even.  I can knit a hand towel for less than $2.00, or I can buy 60 of these for more than $3.00.  Assuming I wash my hands just four times a day, I will go through a box in about two weeks -- and I wash my hands more than that.  Realistically, a family of just two people could go through four boxes of these a month, which I'm sure is $12+ that the Kleenex company would love to have.

Good:  A big raspberry on this one.  So much waste of money, time, and resources!  Wash your hands with soap, dry them on a traditional towel, and, if you are worried, change your hand towels every day and wash a load once a week.  You'll be just as clean, and you'll be far ahead in saving resources.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Suburban Rebellion

Behold my new herb bed!  (Public thanks to DH for hauling most of a ton of landscaping brick and topsoil from the hardware store to the house!)  A beautiful bed of multicolored herbs will now brighten my summer, but it will also serve as my own little act of rebellion.

Front yards are wonderful spaces; those of us lucky enough to own some land should be thankful.  I recently realized this when engaging in a conversation about gardening with an urban dweller; when I started into my standard suburban apology for only having .71 acre on which to garden, he admitted to buying a house sitting on a tenth of an acre, almost solely because he could garden on it.  I feel very blessed.

But often these front yards drive us far away from our neighbors, into our back yards.  It is true of me:  Sure, I trim the grass, prune the trees, and plant flowers out front, but the real fun -- the vegetable gardening -- goes on in the fenced in back yard.  It is the same for many suburbanites:  the front yard is for show, and the back yard is for living.

So this year, I planned and executed a little suburban rebellion, by expanding my food operation into the front yard.  Yes, I picked the prettiest plants -- the amethyst basil, the lime thyme, the feverfew -- for the front yard, but this year I will be kneeling out front, pulling weeds, and harvesting some of my herbs while the neighbors walk by. 

Maybe they'll ask me for a sample.  Maybe they'll be inspired to grow a food plant for the world to see, too.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all did?
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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Philosophy 101: Gypsies in the Palace

I have just returned from a family wedding in California, and during the trip, I got to thinking a lot about perspectives on sustainability, particularly when it comes to how we treat the environment.  It seems to me that there are two extremes in opinion.

First, there are those who view human beings as a pest on the Earth.  "Live lightly on the land," to this group, means to diminish human impact as much as possible.  Returning the Earth to a state that it would be in had humans not "interfered" would be ideal, if that were even possible.

Second, there are those who say that God gave humans dominion over the Earth, so we should use it as much as possible.  If it is ours to do with as we see fit, why not leave as big a footprint as we can?

I take a middle approach.  (Although I am probably doomed for using both God and Jimmy Buffett in the same analogy.)  God has given us dominion, true, but that is like asking someone to housesit for you while you are on vacation.  You want your housesitter to enjoy:  have a beer from the fridge, sleep in the guest room, run a load of laundry, and use the hot tub.  After all, he or she is kind enough to take care of things while you are away.

However, you probably don't want your housesitter to throw a giant kegger, bust a hole in the wall, and drink up your vintage scotch.

So what are you going to do with the resources God has given?  Are you going to use them wisely and respectfully, or are you going to be one of the "Gypsies in the Palace?"
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