I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.

I’ve written this post a dozen different ways in my head, but nothing works. In those imaginary publications, I list the ways I’m over-committed, offer lengthy descriptions of my desk piled high with un-filed papers, walk through misty-eyed retrospectives of the past 5 1/2 years and 455(!) posts, wax prosaic on intense desires to start knitting again and stop taking pictures of my food. But none of these are reasons to stop blogging, not in and of themselves. Everyone is busy — you are busy, I am busy, we’re all busy — my desk has been messy for eternity past and I’ve knitted plenty of things over the years, while blogging (though admittedly not simultaneously).

The truth is, I don’t really know why I need to stop. I just know it’s time.

When I first started writing, there were about three people, all close friends, who read my blog. It will never cease to amaze me that over the course of five years, many more than that original trio have read it — people I’ve never met, people across oceans have even chosen to read it regularly. I think that fact alone has kept me blogging during the times it was a really hard thing to do. Simply typing the words thank you in no way communicates the level at which I appreciate those of you who’ve invested your time in reading what I have written here — I have truly loved the connections that blogging has given me to people all around, from my own neighborhood to across the country, from people I’ve seen and hugged to people I’ll never meet face to face. Blogging can be crazy that way, crazy good.

Once upon a time, I wrote when I felt like it. I posted a photo every so often, if I happened to have time to take a snapshot. I loved it — I did it because it poured out of me, a river of words that was impossible to stop and I was just thankful to have a place to let the current flow.

But the past (almost) year has been a struggle. I can no longer sanely keep up with it regularly, and it has come to feel more of a burden than a joyful outlet for creativity — which is unfair to all involved, as I and blog and reader all suffer. When asked by my (loving and concerned) husband on more than one occasion how long are you going to do this? my answer was always until I no longer enjoy it.

And I’m sad and a little bit relieved to say that day has finally come.

But the question for me remained: what does it look like, to stop blogging?

For me, it’ll probably be more of a break than a break up. I’m not deleting my blog — for the time being, this blog and all of its archives will still be here. And I will likely even post again — I would love to finish my series on Grocery Budgeting — but for the immediate future I will not post with any regularity. I will also be retreating a great deal from social media — that is one part of blogging that can be the biggest drain on an introvert like me. For those of you who read only occasionally, you will likely not notice any change — for those who faithfully read (hi Mom & Dad!), you can expect a much lower frequency, especially in coming months.

Some things won’t change. I’ll still (always) be cooking — frazzled, enamored, frustrated, eternally delighted with food.

Just quiet. And deeply thankful for those who have read.

Giveaway: The Art of Fermentation

Last week, I promised an exciting giveaway was in the hopper. And tell me — do I deliver, or what?

I would enter this giveaway, if I could.

The winner, who unfortunately cannot be me (did I say that already?), will receive a beautiful, brand-spanking-new copy of The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Katz.

This is the bible of fermentation, friends. This summer I borrowed a copy from Suzanne, just long enough to read up on my beloved half-sour pickles, but returned it before she could hold it against me in our friendship and also before I could read it cover-to-cover (and yes, I would totally do that, on a Friday night — because that’s how exciting or shockingly anti-social my life is, depending on your age and personal obsession level with fermentation).

If you have any interest in making/understanding fermented foods — everything from cultured veggies to kombucha to yogurt to tempeh — seriously, I think he covers EVERY. THING. — then you want this book.

The only caveat is that, if you win, you have to let me borrow it.

(ok, not really — just if you live in Indianapolis)

No, really, I’m totally lying. You don’t have to ever show it to me, you just have to let me call you with all of my fermenting questions.

Enough, seriously — you really don’t have to do anything. Except fill out the form below (for real this time).

I’m rooting for YOU.
……………………………………………………..

To enter this giveaway, simply fill out and submit the following form before Friday, September 21, at noon EST. The information goes directly to Chelsea Green Publishing, and you will automatically be added to their e-newsletter list (unsubscribe any time). One entry per person; the winner will be selected at random by the publisher, notified via email, and the book will be shipped directly from Chelsea Green.

[This giveaway is now closed : ( ]

……………………………………………………

I am super-grateful to the folks at Chelsea Green Publishing for agreeing to and facilitating this giveaway. I’ve received nothing in exchange for hosting, just the burning jealousy joy I’ll feel for the lucky reader that wins! Also, Kaitlin — you rock!

What I did with those 90 pounds of tomatoes

I’ll admit: the first time I canned tomatoes, I felt empowered. Like a woman who could save the world, in a pinch, with her preserved foods.

Save the world, I say — with SIX! QUARTS! of TOMATOES! (picture the recently-awakened Dr. Evil, in one of the Austin Powers movies, making his demand for ONE! MILLION! DOLLARS!). Yes, immediately after that empowerment, I was a little dumbfounded at what a big box of tomatoes actually looks like once canned.

I wondered: was it worth the effort?

But then I spent all of last winter making tomato soup, and spaghetti sauce, and realized that there was a noticeable, even significant difference between the flavor of a soup made with home-canned tomatoes versus store-bought. Add to this the fact that I’d love to avoid BPA-laden cans altogether, and it seemed that the whole canning thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

So this year I bought an extra box, bringing my total up to 90 pounds (the jury’s still out on whether I’ll go for yet another 30-pound box — the jury being made up of 75% myself and 25% my husband, who is likely now trained to panic whenever he walks into the house and smells simmering romas, as he knows I will be preoccupied with sloshing tomato juices for the next 12 or so hours).

But it’s just. So. Hard to stop.

To give perspective — you can look at this list and choose to be either impressed/jealous or surprised/disappointed at the yield. From 90# roma tomatoes, I now have:

  • 6 quarts marinara sauce (two have already been eaten, after having not sealed on my and Suzanne’s first attempt at pressure-canning).
  • 6 quarts thin tomato juice/broth (leftover from straining chopped tomatoes before cooking down).
  • 6 quarts stewed Italian-style tomatoes
  • 6 pints tomato salsa
  • 10 quarts diced tomatoes (in the two “dueling canners” above, as diced tomatoes can be either water-bath or pressure-canned — I plan to compare the flavor of both!)

…aaaaaaaand that’s it. Looks nice stacked up in my stockpiling warehouse basement — but the jars are so precious, I wonder if I’ll be afraid to use them.

In other news — I have a super-fun giveaway planned for next week. Be sure and check back, especially if you’re interested in learning more about fermented foods.

…………………………………….

Want to get set-up for canning? This is the water-bath canner I use, pictured above-left (cheaper, and a great intro to canning). For a step up in complexity, or to can lower-acid foods, this is the type of pressure-canner I use (above-right).

 

On choosing a beef farmer

Well, it’s that time of year again. The deep-freezer is empty of most everything except a few jars of frozen stock and the organ remnants of last year’s beef quarter that I’ve never gotten around to trying to serve my family (heart or liver, anyone?). We’re transitioning from a summer of grilled brats and fresh-vegetable-heavy dinners to the wonderful season of hearty soups and stews, roasts and meatloaf. In other words, we’ve gotta get that freezer filled back to capacity with a fresh beef quarter.

I’ve had a few conversations with friends in the past few weeks, wondering: where is the best place to purchase freezer beef? Well, we’re making that decision again, too — and the answer to that question basically comes down to three factors that must be placed into some sort of priority rubric: type of beef, flavor, and price. Every family will end up with different priorities, often weighing different preferences within families (what we must contend with in our house, though my husband admits I get final vote since I cook it all). Not to mention finding a local farm who can meet your priorities once they’re set. It’s not an easy task — but once you find a solution, the money saved is well worth the effort.

  1. Type of beef
    We’re not talking breed, though that might be important to you (watusi, anyone?) — we’re talking about what the cow ate. Was it grain-fed, grass-fed, or grass-finished? Here’s the breakdown of what those mean:

    • Grain-fed beef has been raised on soy and corn. This makes for quickly-growing steers that end up with lots of extra fat. For many of us westerners, this is the beef we grew up eating — it’s the flavor we’re used to. The drawback to this type of beef is that research shows that it’s not a very healthy beef. Cows aren’t supposed to eat corn — they are ruminants, designed to eat grass. When fed grain regularly, they are often more likely to get sick, and that can mean more antibiotic use.
    • Grass-fed beef eats grass its entire life — 100% grass-fed is never given grains at all. This means leaner beef, but also many more micro-nutrients and a heart-healthy balance of omega-3s-to-omega-6s (grain-fed beef has no omega-3s at all). A farmer who chooses to feed grass-only is often also very conscientious about not using hormones or antibiotics, as well as giving the animal good, natural living conditions.
    • Grain-finished beef ate grass for a portion of its life, but was finished on grain to add fat. This can be a fantastic option for those wanting the benefits of grass but the flavor of grain. But be careful: there is no regulation for what “grain-finished” means. A local farm in Indianapolis that sells to many markets is labeled “grain-finished,” but when I called the farm I was told that the cows spend just 8 months on grass, and then about 14 months on grain — so almost 65% of their life on grain (perhaps they should use the term “grass-started” instead?).
  2. Flavor
    This is also dependent on what the cow ate while roaming the earth — and will likely play a part in your decision.

    • Grass-fed beef is much leaner than grain-fed. Often this is given as the sole reason that grass-fed is healthier: fat is bad, so less fat means healthier. I actually believe that it’s more the chemical make-up of the fat that’s still there (see info above re: omega fat ratios), and often wish our grass-fed beef had MORE fat. Grass-fed can be more difficult to cook for this reason: fat means flavor and moist texture, and there is less of it.
    • Grass-fed beef can have a slightly gamey flavor. This depends on the grasses it ate, and a single farm’s beef can taste different from one year to the next.
    • Grain-fed beef will often have more classic fat marbling, which again is what our western palates are accustomed to.
  3. Price
    This is often a huge part of the decision. And what a range it is!

    • Grain-fed beef portions can be unbelievably reasonable — I’ve heard prices ranging from $2-$3/pound of finished beef.
    • Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, can be twice as much. The lowest price I’ve found for 100% grass-fed beef was $5.70/pound, which is what we paid last year. Grain-finished beef is often cheaper, but again — ask how long the cow was on grain.
    • One last note on price: figuring out price per pound can be SO VERY CONFUSING. Many farms tell you a price/lb for “hanging weight.” Which can look deceivingly low — just $3/pound or so. But the hanging weight is much higher than the weight of the animal once processed — so that $3/pound can easily become $5/pound once the beef is processed. Ask the farm how to accurately estimate the price per pound of processed and packaged meat.

In my ideal world, I would find a local farm that truly “grain-finished” their beef — as in, let the cow eat grain only for the last few weeks of life. We have not found that yet in our area — and so I instead have opted for 100% grass-fed options. But they are very pricey, and my larger half wasn’t so crazy about the flavor (objection overruled, but here’s hoping we can all be happier with the flavor this go-around).

Have you bought a beef quarter? If so, what are your preferences, and have they changed since the last time you filled your freezer?

Tomato-corn pie with grain-free crust

A thing I’ve had to truly mourn this year: Tomato Pie.

It’s like summer in a pie plate. Like someone sat down one day and wondered, How can I fit all of summer into this pie dish? And that is what was born. Garden tomatoes, basil, and really good cheese baked into a delicate pie crust.

However, sadly… there is no tomato pie for the grain-free. And while I hear that really good pie crusts can be made gluten-free, grain-free is an impossibility.

But I refuse to be doomed to a life without my own pie plate full of summer. Just had to think outside the box a bit.

I’ve long heard praises sung for this recipe for a Corn-Tomato Pie over at Smitten Kitchen. And while I still don’t believe it’s as good as the pure unadulterated tomato-ness of my classic, it’s still a darned good pie. A bit richer, with its lemony-mayo and layers of summer corn. And as luck would have it — very adaptable to a grain-free crust.

This pie was loved by all but two of my three children. Which in our household means a winner. I’ll be making it again, likely long after I’ve re-embraced grains in my life. It will just be added as a distant cousin to the first and favorite savory summer pie in my repertoire.

If you are still among the grain-consumptive, definitely check out the original recipe (I’ve made very minor changes to the filling in the version below), which utilizes a double-classic pie crust. Otherwise, there’s still time in these weeks before September 22nd for the grain-less among us to get our fill of sunshine on a plate.

[amd-zlrecipe-recipe:11]

Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics

In another life, I was a teacher of fresh, eager college students. For most of my very short teaching career, I had the immense pleasure of teaching a group of fiercely-talented burgeoning designers — the kind of kids you really didn’t have to teach at all. They were competitive and eager, which made it easy to come into class the first day and tell them that if they did enough to get by in my class, they’d make a C. That B’s and A’s were hard work, and I wasn’t giving them away (insert my scariest mean face, pretty much the opposite of this one in the Indy Star where I was caught at DigIN with food falling out of my open mouth).

This is how I approach the subject of grocery budgeting, too. There are levels of how much work you can do — and the fantastic thing about living in our plush western world is that you can choose how much you want to do. This goes for me, too — and on any given month, I make anywhere from an A+ to a resounding, thud-like F! when it comes to staying within our food budget.

So, today: the bare minimum. Do these things alone, and you’ll be facing solidly in a direction of staying within your real-food budget.
Continue reading “Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics”

The (chicken) House that Tim Built

There are two questions people tend to ask when they find out we have chickens:

Do they smell?
Are you saving money on eggs?

I was surprised by the first question, because I’d noticed no odor at all from our chickens. I’m not sure if it’s the way we’re keeping them (in a coop with a large run, vs. in a shed or some other closed environment?) or if somehow chickens have garnered an entirely unwarranted reputation for stink — but our chickens don’t smell bad. Not even during that week that Tim was out of town, when I dutifully kept the girlies fed and watered and closed up at night, but failed to scoop the poop from the coop.

Scoop the poop from the coop. Say that three times, really fast.

(made you do it.)

Does having chickens save money on eggs? Probably not much. Especially if your initial investment includes purchasing or building a coop (you can buy them locally built, or order some uber-hip ones online) which can run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (check this “urban chicken residence“). Once your chickens have a place to lay their head eggs, they just need to be fed — and depending on type of feed, it’ll cost $15-30 a month for four chickens.

Our coop was designed and built by my big-picture-gifted, detail-challenged husband. He rounded up free-cycled materials, so our coop ended up costing about $75 (plus his time, which he assures me is worth mountains of cash). The frame was built using old shelving from an auto-parts-store-turned-urban-culture-center:

He said it was like playing with a grown-up-sized Erector Set — he just fit the pieces where they needed to be and bolted them together. My favorite part is the ladder, which was a shelf for oil filters in a previous life. Next up was adding the walls, roof and windows:

The particle board and trim pieces were leftover from DIY projects, and the windows and roofing were extras given to us by friends. I had randomly bought a box of cedar shingles at a yard sale about a year ago — we have them on our house, and I figured it didn’t hurt to have extras (classic thought-pattern of a hoarder) — so we decided to get matchy-matchy with house and coop.

At night, the chickens roost in the coop, and during the day they have access to a run. We close the run off each night with a sliding gate, since it’s not adequately wrapped underneath with wire to prevent dig-under predators (no one wants to wake to an early-morning bloodbath in the ol’ backyard). We can open the top hatch of the bump-out to feed them, and there’s a side door that opens to give us quick access to eggs in their laying box.

(I should note that one of my favorite things is accidentally opening the door on a chicken in the laying box. It has the same feeling as walking in on someone using the restroom — and the chickens react in a similar manner, warbling an embarrassed complaint.)

It’s not chic, not magazine-worthy. But it fits well in our not-huge backyard, looks like it goes with the house; the chickens seems happy (would we know if they weren’t?), and Tim followed our general life philosophy of spending as little money as possible.

The thing about chicken coops — there are about as many variations of them as their are houses. If you’re local to Indianapolis and are thinking about keeping chickens, I highly recommend seeing a variety of coops in action at Tour de Coops, on September 16. I went with a friend last year, and it was the first time I seriously considered having chickens. A fun way to see many coop varieties, first-hand, and be inspired to think about what could work well in your space.

(And if you go, take a whiff at each coop, and report back any smellage. Gotta know if our birds are anomalies.)

Interested in keeping chickens? Is there something I’ve not covered that you’ve been wondering about?