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.

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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?

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?

 

 

 

Grocery Budgeting 101

The first time I had a grocery budget was during the summer of 1992. I was in summer school, living solo in a dreary on-campus dormitory. I had a mini-fridge, a microwave, and a set amount of cash in my bank account that had to last all summer. I would go to the grocery store on Sunday night, and buy my food for the week: my budget was $20. I remember apples, tuna fish, and bagels as regular items on a list that rarely changed due to its budgeting and belly-filling dependability.

A decade later, I had graduated to a full-sized refrigerator and started a family. It was a few years after I’d been managing the cooking, grocery-shopping, and most household budgeting that I realized one day: a college degree in home economics really does sound useful.

(I should admit to not previously having much respect for that line of study. I never even took Home Ec in school — to me, it was a semester of brownie-making and apron-sewing. And those things were so… simple. Who needed a class to learn how to make brownies when you can just follow instructions on the back of a box? said my 14-year old know-it-all self.)

But trying to keep a family fed with nourishing food that’s as high-quality and local as possible on a limited budget is really bleeping hard. It take time, knowledge, organizational skills, flexibility, and resourcefulness.

Anyone who says it is easy is lying through their teeth.

I did a little blurb at a cooking class last week, taught by my friends Alex & Sonja at A Couple Cooks. My assignment was to talk a bit about budgeting and feeding a family. Only a few of the almost 20 students actually had children — but many of the budgeting tips I offered could be helpful to anyone, not just those feeding larger households. This is a subject that comes up often in conversations with friends — how do we stay in our grocery budget and still eat well?

To have that conversation, we should start with a question: what’s a good amount to spend on groceries? In conversations with a random assortment of friends, I’ve discovered that families in what I would consider to be similar economic lifestyles have a vast range of grocery budgets. On the low end, a married mother of two has a budget of $450/month (that’s about $28/person a week, a good 20 years after my poor-college-student-summer budget of $20/week). And I have plenty of friends who spend $800/month or more for families of five.

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, points out that, in 1960, Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food. Today, we spend just 9.9% (you can see the whole quote in this post, where I first publicly sighed over the ubiquitous grocery budget). As a culture, we expect to spend less and less on food, any yet we are also less and less healthy. The stats beg some questions, both culturally and individually: what should be our goal when it comes to providing food for our family? What should we sacrifice in order to eat well? In what battles do we stand firm and hold our ground (because we can’t win them all)?

Fully realizing that this is not a one-size-fits-all topic: over the next couple of months I plan to share a few of the practices we’ve put in place to get the most for our food money. But I would love for this to be a conversation that carries over to comments and Facebook — so think about your own grocery-buying habits, your budget if you have one, and your priorities when it comes to feeding yourself and those in your care. The more tricks we have up our sleeves, the better job we can all do when it comes to bringing home the (literal) bacon.

So today, I ask: what is your priority when it comes to setting your current food budget?
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Ready to tackle the basic steps that will help keep you in-budget? The next post in this series covers them!

Indy Groundwork Conference

Ever heard of the Weston Price Foundation? I’ve mentioned it here, mainly in that infamous post where I take out my soaking-and-fermenting frustrations on one Sally Fallon, the unofficial (or official?) guru of the current national organization.

The short of it: the Weston Price Foundation is an organization dedicated to education and practical application when it comes to incorporating a “traditional diet” into the lives of people worldwide.

So, what’s this “traditional diet?” you might wonder. Well, the best way to think about it is not how our grandparents ate, but likely how our great-great-grandparents ate. Or better yet, our ancestors of a thousand years ago.

The traditional diet incorporates methods of whole food preparation that were the norm for thousands of years in cultures on every corner of the globe. It turns out all of those practices passed down through generations were more than just convenient, they inherently made foods more nutrient-dense and digestible. Lots of soaking of grains, fermenting of everything, and eating animal fats and raw dairy. Cream and fat, topped with butter. It’s like Paula Deen without her need for Novo Nordisk. Because all this food is actually good for you, when the source is of quality.

I incorporate lots of traditional food practices in my cooking — things like my soaked muesli, granola, and bread, along with more recent obsessions with fermentation, didn’t come about accidentally. I’m not a fundamentalist by any stretch — but I believe much of the science behind the methods, and will likely incorporate more practices when I ween off my wacky diet (and hey! there’s a session on that!).

The good news is that there’s going to be a regional conference here in Indianapolis, in September. I am super-excited about this — some of the topics included in the lineup:

  • The Benefits of Animal Foods (Chris Masterjohn, PhD)
  • The Woes of GMO’s (Don Huber, PhD)
  • Food Freedom: Raw Milk in Indiana (a panel of farmers and state representatives)
  • Dangers of Statin Drugs (Stephanie Seneff, PhD)
  • Flouride: The Inside & Outside Story (Dr. Michael Grossweiler, DDS)
  • The GAPS Diet (Dr. Catherine Rupp, MD)

And there will be food! And demos, of fermentation and sourdough!

If you’ve ever been interested in learning more about Weston Price and/or a traditional diet, or if you’re just interested in health topics in general, this will be a great day of learning. The conference will be held Saturday, September 15, from 8:30-5:30, in downtown Indianapolis at the Harrison Center for the Arts. I’ll be there, notebook in-hand, fretting over which sessions to attend (still haven’t figured out how to be in two places at once, I guess that’s why they invented podcasts?).

The early-bird ticket price is $55 — but hurry, you must register* by August 1st for this price (afterwards it is $60-$65, with special pricing available for students and seniors). If you’d like more details on the conference and available sessions, read all about it at indygroundwork.com. If you have more questions, shoot a message my way — I’ll do what I can to get an answer!

* Affiliate links. If you register through these, you are willingly contributing to my stash of canning jars.

 

 

Zucchini-corn fritters (gluten-free)

I like petite zucchini. There’s just something about the scale of a giant summer squash that seems, I don’t know, wrong. I know it’s not wrong, that this is just some silly subconscious preconceived notion about what should be the limits of squash growth, something probably covered by Freud in one of his texts. But reasoning with myself on this does no good. I will fish out the little guys from the bin at the farmer’s market, loving them for their convenient circumference and polite volume of seeds.

But of course, I also won’t turn down a big specimen, not when offered one from a friend’s garden.

Which is what happened a few weeks ago — my in-laws came through town, and I was handed a large zucchini, fresh from their vegetable patch. I brought it home with gratitude, and within a few hours had it shredded down to the perfect amount for making up a batch of zucchini fritters. I had leftover grilled corn cobs in the fridge to use up, with the challenge of making this batch grain-free. The skillet was heating up as I was stripping the corn of its kernels.

I ended up using the fritters as a base for dinner — one that involved sautéed kale and an over-easy egg on top. But several inspirational recipes included dips of sour cream cut with a little lime juice and spiked with chopped chives, or creme fraiche (easy to make at home). The sweetness of the corn (with a smoky component if you use grilled) perked up the texture and flavor of my usual standby fritter. My kids rejected them outright, so that left me with about 10 fritters all to myself over the next day or two — which I had no problem consuming, they were that good.

Good, and able to clear my conscience of squash discrimination.

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For this recipe, it can help your knuckles if you have a food processor — this one is my favorite. You’ll also do well to have a good pre-seasoned cast-iron pan.

 

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This post was linked up to the Seasonal Recipe Roundup: Zucchini at GNOWFGLINS.

 

 

City Pickers

In a move that would have shocked my 10-year old self, we have become a family of berry-pickers. What feels like a lifetime ago, I loaded up my 3 1/2-year old and 1-year old (my third child still a proverbial twinkle-in-the-eye), and drove to a farm about 20 miles outside of Athens, Georgia to pick strawberries. We returned each year, eventually adding blueberries to the list. Then we moved to Indiana, and for the past three years I’ve loaded up the car and driven half an hour to a berry farm on the north side of the city, once again in pursuit of short-lived farm-fresh berries.

Because that’s what you have to do when you live in a city. To pick berries, you have to load up and drive to the country.

Unless, of course, you don’t.

I could hardly believe it when an article in last week’s Indianapolis Star profiled a blueberry farm in the middle of one of the most strip-mall-plagued areas of our city. A mere 10-minutes from my house. As if that wasn’t enough to shock the berries out of my jam, the farm is also organic.

This city, I’ll tell ya. It has yet to cease to amaze me.

So last week I loaded up an 8, 6, and 3 year old, and made the very short drive to Driving Wind Blueberry Farm. We were the second car to pull up when they opened at 9am on a hot morning, hats on, buckets at-the-ready.

My kids. Minus the 3-year old, who could mostly just be expected to not pick pink berries — my kids were champions of picking. They attacked bushes independently, picking them almost entirely clean of ripe blue berries. After 45 minutes of picking, we had about 7 pounds, had picked a whole row, and had just enough time to pay and chat up the owners a bit before I had a full-fledged heat-induced trifecta-meltdown on my hands (I guess my genes finally kicked in).

And these berries. They are the best blueberries I’ve had in recent memory. Sweet, juicy, completely addictive by the handful.

We’re freezing most of them — using them all through the year in muffins, on pancakes, and in smoothies. But I experimented this week with a blueberry frozen yogurt (tastes like a frozen sweet-tart! recipe below), and have plans for a grain-free tart in coming days.

I almost didn’t post this story, because it ends with bad news for the locals: the farm is just about picked out. The shrubs are not yet mature, only 3 feet high, and the demand for the crop far outweighed supply. This weekend, the facebook page offered appointments for two final picking days, and I snatched one up as soon as I got the message (at time of posting, there were still spots available!). But even if you live near and don’t get to pick, rest assured that next year the shrubs will be an additional foot tall, with more plantings in the works. Pond-irrigated, bee-pollinated, organically-grown blueberries, up to 6 eventual acres if plans hold up.

Just what a city needs.

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Recipe: Blueberry Frozen Yogurt
(naturally-sweetened, GAPS-adaptable)

: makes about 1 quart
Adapted closely from a recipe in The Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz

The yogurt is richer when using Greek yogurt, or strained yogurt. To make your own strained yogurt: line a colander with a very thin tea towel or several layers of cheesecloth. Nest into another bowl, and pour 3 cups yogurt into the colander. Cover with a plate, and let sit on the counter or in your refrigerator for 4-6 hours. The thickened yogurt should reduce by half, giving you the amount needed for this recipe. If desired, store the leftover liquid in the bowl (whey) in a jar in your refrigerator for up to 6 weeks — it can be used for lacto-fermentation or in smoothies for extra probiotic boost.

This recipe can be made legal for the GAPS diet by using 24-hour yogurt.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt, greek yogurt, or strained yogurt (see note)
  • 3/4 cup mild honey
  • 3 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
  • 2 tsp fresh lemon juice

Instructions

  1. In a blender, combine the yogurt, honey, blueberries and lemon juice. Blend until smooth. If desired, pass the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer to remove seeds.
  2. Chill completely in the refrigerator, then freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.