canning for the urban homesteader

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I have fond childhood memories of spending many a summer day on my grandparents’ farm in the South.  My brother, cousins and I spent many a hot and humid day playing in the fields and romping through the woods, but also working hard and helping to harvest beans, corn and potatoes.  Although I don’t recall Grandma being an avid canner, I do remember several occasions when she and Mom worked all day (or at least in my mind so it seemed) in the small hot and steamy kitchen at Summer’s end.  Its not something I ever really recall having a strong interest in or remember questioning.  Its just what was done.  A seasonal part of everyday life.

Today, like a growing number of Americans, I’m more attuned to food.  Thanks to authors like Michael Pollan (Cooked is my latest favorite), Barabara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and Karen le Billon (French Kids Eat Everything), I’m at least more aware of our Western industrial food factory mentality and understand to a greater degree the importance of jumping off of that treadmill.  Our family is taking baby steps and one of those steps is canning.  I’ve never attempted the canning my grandmother implemented for several practical reasons.  When I first started canning a few years ago, we lived in a small farm house in northeastern Montana.  Since summers are short there, we didn’t have an air conditioner.  However, when Summer did show up on our doorstep it was blazing hot!  Canning in an already swealtering house was not appealing to say the least.  My solution was to use a steam canner, which I found at our local hardware store.  It was great and allowed me to can fruits, including tomatoes, without heating up the kitchen too much.  Also, we were limited on storage space and it didn’t take up too much room.

This year, much to my surprise and sheer delight, we received an early Christmas gift from my Mom…..a Ball freshTech “automated home canning system”.  Its amazing and just the perfect thing for many an urban homesteader (or suburban homesteader!).  Like the steam canner, it doesn’t heat up the kitchen.  Again, that is really important for our household.  Although we are no longer in Montana, we do live in the high desert now.  Many homes here do not have central air, but rather have a swamp cooler.  Our cooler is quite ancient and inefficient and the last thing I want to do at Summer’s end or even in early Fall (when we are still quite warm) is to heat up the kitchen.  Another unique canning challenge is that we have an old stove with a too-low-who-the-heck- installed-this-thing microwave  hovering above.  I’m serious, folks.  Its a real problem.  I can’t even lift a lid off of a large pot on the back burner without being threatened by steam burning my hand.  So, “old fashioned” canning is absolutely not an option right now.  Nor is a new appliance.  And, lastly, storage is always a question.   And, yes, I know people say you can use the monstrous canning cauldron for other things but I can’t justify giving up that much real estate in my kitchen for it because I don’t see us using it throughout the rest of the year.

In contrast, the freshTech is smallish.   I have enough storage room for it and my canning jars in one small cabinet of the kitchen.  It comes with  a recipe book which I love.  Others who are seasoned canners may not love it because you’re limited to those recipes.  I’m sure that as the freshTech gains in popularity that there will be more “approved” recipes to use.  But, honestly, there are enough in there to keep this {sub}urban homesteader happy.  For example, I really just need one recipe for canning tomatoes.  All I want is to be assured that real food is sitting in that jar instead of buying a can of organic tomatoes from the store and not knowing if there is neotame in it or not because companies, organic or not, aren’t required to list it on the label.  And, I love that I can also make jams and jellies with this baby.  Most of all, the freshTEch allows me to can in small batches.  To me, that is a huge advantage.  I know it may cause others to guffaw.  But it means I’m not spending an entire Saturday canning.  It means that I put aside some time for food prep, put the jars in the machine, push a button or two and then take off with the family for a hike or to go and see my son’s flag football game that morning.  You don’t have to stick around while the freshTech is doing its thing!  It allows me to “homestead” or at least jump away from our industrialized food dependence for a bit and yet still keep up with our more {sub}urban and active family lifestyle.  I can only imagine that if we were living back in the Los Angeles area again or in another true metropolitan area that the time saving aspect of the freshTech would be even more amplified.

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harvest

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Did you know that Ball makes these great little reusable spice jars in which to store dried herbs?  I came across a set of these in the grocery store last summer and they are so handy!  After drying our sage and parsley in the garage in the Fall, all I did was to crumble up the herbs and place them in the jars.  And, dried herbs from the garden are so much more tasty than what you’ll find in the stores!

snack attack!

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Lately, I’ve been working on providing economical and yet more wholesome snacks around here for our hungry Sprouts.  They are eating more and more these days and I honestly can’t even imagine what our kitchen is going to be like when they are teenagers.  We’re on the road soon for a new beginning in this household…..travel league baseball!  So, to cut down on our food budget and to hopefully provide some yummy-but-good-for-you-eats, I experimented a bit in the kitchen this weekend.  Thanks to a good friend who is quite saavy with whole foods cooking and understands the whole “kid factor” when it comes to cooking, I whipped out some pecan pie larabars, sweet and salty chicpeas, granola bars, and a pan of chocolate chip energy bars.  Most were received quite well, except my chickpeas didn’t roast long enough and so weren’t crunchy.  The snacks didn’t take too long to make and, when compared to store bought varieties, were quite cheap.  My eventual goal is to have a “go to” list of quick and easy whole foods type snacks (because, quite frankly I want to be out playing with my Sprouts rather than spending endless hours in the kitchen).  Do you have a recipe you’d like to share?  If so, please share it in the “comments”.  I’m all ears!

Here are the links to the recipes I tried (ahem, note the recurring chocolate theme):

chocolate chip granola bars

homemade pecan pie Larabars

chocolate chip cookie energy bars

sweet and salty chicpeas

chocolate chip granola bars
chocolate chip granola bars

 

homemade pecan pie Larabars (sooo yummy!)
homemade pecan pie Larabars (sooo yummy!)

 

chocolate chip cookie energy bars (before cutting)
chocolate chip cookie energy bars (before cutting)

 

salty and sweet chicpeas
salty and sweet chickpeas

 

the big {blu} apple

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While just slightly larger than a tennis ball, the Blu Apple is “big” as an eco-friendly way to preserve fruits and veggies!  I discovered these gems while poking around our Natural Grocers a few months ago.  At the time, I was taking an amazing online whole foods cooking class and was hunting for some foreign-to-me ingredients that I can’t find at our usual grocery stomping grounds.  The advertisement on the packaging for Blu Apple has proven to be true, believe it or not.  Our produce (kept out of plastic bags but remaining in the crisper drawer) stays fresher longer and thus we are saving money by not tossing that veggie I was planning on steaming four or five days ago.  Ahem, or even last week.  How does it work?  Refill packets placed in the Apple use the same ethylene gas absorption technology that growers and shippers have used for decades to keep fruits and veggies fresh between the farm and market.  Ethylene gas is what causes produce to over ripen.  Once the packet expires (it truly lasts for three months-that was very obvious at our house), you can recycle it by using the packet contents as fertilizer.  For our family of five, using the Blu Apple has made perfect sense as we strive to save money and yet eat as naturally as possible!

P.S. Please note that I do not receive kick backs from any advertisers.   I’m just sharing what works for our family in hopes that it will help others out there in the blogosphere.  You can find out more at http://www.theblueapple.com.

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great chicken “pho” kids

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Late last week, I got what my grandma used to call a “bee in my bonnet”.  After hearing a recent podcast by Inquiring Minds that featured Michael Pollan (The Science of Eating Well And Not falling for Diet Fads) and coming to the stark realization that, in the next few years, our growing and extremely active Sprouts are going to be consuming massive amounts of food, I decided that we needed some newer recipes.  Ideally, those which feature “clean” food and little or no processed ingredients.

On a brief Googling quest, I stumbled onto Smitten Kitchen.  I love that Deb is very frank about being wary of  “excessively  fussy foods and/or pretentious ingredients”.   Without reading the full recipe (ha!), I landed on her adaptation of Charles Phan’s chicken pho (he wrote the well known Slanted Door).  Deb recommends a variety of spices to try in the pho.  We used  cinnamon, star anise, coriander seeds, and cloves.  The ingredients weren’t too extravagant, although I wasn’t expecting the star anise to be so pricy.  If you try the recipe for yourself, be warned that, unless you really love the taste of licorice, it only takes one star anise.  The recipe was really quite easy, but more time consuming than expected (I am unfortunately notorious for not reading recipes thoroughly and then getting myself into hot water as a result).  Needless to say, I’m glad that I decided to make it on a weekend.  I made the broth on Saturday and we ate on Sunday.  The entire time, I was desperately hoping that all of my hard work would pay off and that the Sprouts would not greet this new meal with an collective “yuck”!  The great thing about the recipe is that for our family of five, we had enough for everyone to enjoy seconds and I still had enough broth left over to freeze for one to two additional meals.  And, much to my relief, all three of the kids loved it!  Whew.  Sometimes risk taking is worth it.  My two who are very texture oriented liked the chicken especially.  Its very tender since you boil a quartered whole chicken to make the broth.  And the mixture of all of the flavors from the spices, lime, basil, and cilantro were absolutely amazing!  The next time around, we’re making double the amount of shallots.  Yum.

spices
spices
broth in the making
broth in the making

 

P.S. My apologies for the un-acceneted “o” in pho…. I don’t have the capability to accent letters on this computer!

 

a (mostly) handmade Halloween

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We had a ghoulishly fun time around here yesterday.  I hope you did as well!  I loved seeing photos of friends’ kiddos posted on Facebook yesterday and on the 30th which is Beggar’s Night in Des Moines ( during times like these, I’m so glad I didn’t shut down my FB account…)  The Sprouts were thrilled to have our decs out this year since last year our beloved Halloween items were still in boxes since we’d just relocated.  All three kiddos added to the mix with homemade bats, spiders, and spooky finger knitted garlands for the stairs!  We also opted for a combo of handmade costumes and Goodwill finds in an attempt to tone down the holiday and be a bit more frugal.  At first, I was a bit concerned that they would balk at this idea since, like every other kid, they adore the store bought variety.  (It doesn’t help matters that Halloween catalogs start showing up in the mail mid-August!)   Instead, they were off and running with the idea!  The boys drew countless diagrams of JedI costumes until they solidified the designs.  And, it was a great lesson in measuring and economics as we figured out how much fabric we needed and priced the fabric to figure out the most frugal options.  They also had to get creative in reinterpreting their costumes for school.  Juniper Ridge Community School sent out a costume policy that prohibited scary costumes, masks and costumes based on movies, TV shows, and video games.  In addition, the costumes needed to be “archetypal” which wasn’t clearly defined in the school’s typical vague Waldorf way.  Despite the multiple constraints, I was really impressed with what the boys came up with on their own.  And, truly, when you look at a Jedi robe what do you see?…….monk attire!  So, they decided that they were still Obi won Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker but that they were on a secret intergalactic mission and thus in disguise as Monk Kenobi and Monk Skywalker.  We found writing plumes to replace the light sabers and they constructed their own “Bibles” in which to “scribe” (this idea was heavily influenced by The Story of the World, Volume 2!).  And, I’m pleased to say, the monks made it though the school costume parade without detection!

Our tiniest Sprout lucked out at Goodwill with a $5 velvet witch dress (with very cool spiderweb sheer sleeves and a spider brooch!), a $3 Dolly Parton-ish wig, and 75 cent witches hat.  We pinned the hat to the voluminous wig and she was good to go!  She was super thrilled to be a witch with Mommy (I found a beautiful $7 dress at Goodwill too).  We also made some very easy ghoulish eats throughout the weeeeek: sugar spider cookies, cheese ball and blue tortilla witches hats, spider nest pies (chicken pot pie variation), apple teeth, tangerine pumpkins, and worm crusted eyeball pie as the grand finale last night (a spaghetti pie).  Easy.  Yummy.  (And lots of fun.)

I looked at several online tutorials before attempting to make the robes and vests.  Instead of making a pattern, I each boy lay down on the fabric while I drew the costume freehand with an old piece of soap.
I looked at several online tutorials before attempting to make the robes and vests. Instead of making a pattern, I had each boy lay down on the fabric while I drew the costume freehand with an old piece of soap.
monks
monks
Our wonderful and amazing hairdresser offered to attach the finger crocheted yarn "braids" to the boys' hair.  She used an extension bead and the boys started Halloween night feeling like real Jedi knights!
Our wonderful and amazing hairdresser offered to attach the finger crocheted yarn “braids” to the boys’ hair (they came up with the idea and made them themselves!). She used an extension bead and the boys started Halloween night feeling like real Jedi knights!

whole food kitchen

IMG_3251I love the change of seasons, don’t you?  Our first day of Fall was cool and rainy but I don’t think anyone really minded.  The leaves on the Grand Mesa are starting to change and I’m sure that next weekend will be beautiful up there!  Ben and the boys are doing their first adventure race so I’ll be sure to have photos posted of the foliage and my muddy guys.

Fall and winter are my favorite times to cook.  It just feels comforting to be cooking up warm food for the fam.  In my quest to have our family live more sustainably, I’ve been exploring cooking and have realized that one of the most sustainable things a person can do is to eat a more plant based diet.  Last week, I started an online cooking class, Whole Food Kitchen, with Heather Bruggeman at Beauty that Moves.   Heather is a New England homeschooling mom who is also well versed in whole food cooking, yoga, and sustainable living.  If you’ve ever read Amanda Soule’s books, you’ll find that Heather was a fantastic contributor in The Rhythm of Family.  Last week, the class got me cooking with ingredients that I haven’t used in a while: quinoa, kale, spinach, and then some other stuff like miso and Herbamere that I’ve never bought.  I’ve made several of last week’s recipes and I’d say that since my crew actually ate two of the entrees that its a success so far.  To celebrate the first day of Autumn, I modified the risotto in our class by cooking spicy sausage, onion, garlic , kale , and chicken broth together and then placing it on top of orzo rather than brown rice.  Its tricky, you know, with kids.  Texture is a big deal with them and if there is too much texture then mine will balk.  I’m also learnng that if we serve the new adventurous food with something they are used to, then the meal is much more convincing.  So, we also served up fresh bread and had carrot cake for dessert:

extremely modified "risotto"
extremely modified “risotto”

 

mmm..who can resist Daddy's fresh bread?
mmm..who can resist Daddy’s fresh bread?

 

the carrot cake was somewhat acceptable with cream cheese icing
the carrot cake was somewhat acceptable with cream cheese icing

 

And here are the other experiments from the week.  Some passed and others failed!  But that is part of the fun, right?

millet porridge: a fail with the kids but I thought it was yummy
millet porridge: a fail with the kids but I thought it was yummy

 

Mediterranean Stew with beans, spinach, quinoa, and topped with Parmesean.  A keeper!
Mediterranean Stew with beans, spinach, quinoa, and topped with Parmesan. A keeper!

 

The lemon un-cheesecake was the biggest thumbs down, although I think others would love it.  My crew didn't like that it was so dense (it has a lot of different types of nuts in it and the lemon wasn't detectable).
The lemon un-cheesecake was the biggest thumbs down, although I think others would love it. My crew didn’t like that it was so dense (it has a lot of different types of nuts in it and the lemon wasn’t detectable).

 

What’s cooking in you kitchen these days?  I’d love to know!  Happy Fall, my friends!

 

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