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).

 

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?

 

 

 

Ferment Friday no. 3: Kombucha

I have converted my family into a tribe of kombucha-lovers.

Well, all of them except the tallest one. He claims to be wary of the scoby. I can’t imagine why, it’s not creepy at all — I only get warm fuzzies when looking at it.

But, wait. Did I lose you at scoby?

The word, or the photo?

Ok, so let’s just pretend you didn’t see that, and back up a bit.

Kombucha is a cultured tea beverage. A culture, or SCoBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria & Yeast) is used to ferment sweetened black tea (green tea and yerba mate can also be used, but caffeine and sugar are both necessary to feed the yeast). The culture forms a “mat,” or in the words of my kids, “that ewwww! creepy thing that OH MY GOSH YOU’RE TOUCHING IT eeewww!! sits in the tea.”

The drink has been around for thousands of years (via China and Russia), and is known for its detoxing properties and probiotic benefits. It’s slightly fizzy, and has a pleasant sweet-tart flavor (most sugar is converted during culturing, and from what I’ve read the caffeine is also greatly reduced in the finished tea). You can buy commercially-produced kombucha for about $3-$4 per 16-oz bottle — or, you can make it at home for about $1/gallon.

…..aaaaaaannd in case you don’t want to do the quick math on that: that’s about TWENTY-EIGHT DOLLARS versus ONE DOLLAR. My kind of savings.

What do you need to make kombucha at home? You need organic tea, organic sugar, filtered water, a gallon jar, and a scoby.

I bought a scoby online a couple years ago from a very reputable source. I then set out to make my kombucha in the dead of winter. This plan? Bad. Idea. Jeans.

Kombucha likes warmth. In fact, this winter, I might invest in a little electric warming mat for my kombucha jar (thought about trying to rig this thing to do it, it’s cheaper than the official ones). So, lesson #1: if you’re buying a scoby online, I recommend starting it before the cold of winter sets in.

The very best way to get a scoby is to find a friend who’s making kombucha. The scoby’s multiply, or add new layers, as they culture. You can just separate the layers and give them to a friend to start a new batch. The scoby I have now was given to me by a friend in my culture club — and it makes the best kombucha I’ve ever tasted.

If you’re concerned about home-brewing safety, as I am — simply invest in pH strips or a pH meter. Kombucha is safe to drink at a pH of 3-4 (3 is ideal), which is the right acidity to prevent extra bacterial growth but not so acidic to hurt our tummies.

In case I’ve not sung the praises of kombucha enough:  this is, by far, the lowest-maintenance cultured product that I make at home. It only requires making a gallon of sweet tea every 1-2 weeks (depending on how fast your tea is culturing) and bottling the finished tea.

Still unsure? Go by the health food store and buy a few jars of GT’s plain kombucha (only drink about 1/3 of a jar per day). You’ll be hooked in a week, back here, desperate for information on how to make your own.

Mark. My. Words.

(This, from the woman who still hasn’t gotten her unbelievably stubborn husband to drink it. My next plan includes resorting to incessant mockery, for his “fear” of “icky things.”)

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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!

Tip Tuesday, no. 4

Green smoothies are all the rage, right? All over pinterest, in the to-go mugs of lululemon moms everywhere. They’ve been one of my favorite breakfasts since I went grain-free and my standby granola went by the wayside.

Most smoothie recipes call for grabbing a bunch of fresh leafy greens and grinding them to liquid with some other yummier items (bananas or other fruits). This is what I did most of last summer, pulling straight from our garden, where our little patch of kale was prolific for many months.

But then I kept reading things about raw greens* containing chemicals that can worsen the effects of hypothyroidism. My thyroid has lately tended to be slightly weak — so while I loved getting my greens in my morning smoothie, I thought it best not to eat them raw every day.

Solution: cook a batch of kale, puree it down in a blender or food processor, and freeze it in ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop out and store in a zipper bag. When it comes smoothie time, just grab a cube and stick it in the blender with the rest of your ingredients. You get your serving of dark greens, but they’re cooked to inhibit those goitrogens.

If you drink green smoothies every day, you might consider keeping these kale cubes in your freezer to alternate with raw green smoothies (of course you could do this with any green, I just prefer kale). Perfect for those days you’re clean out of fresh greens — the flavor is still mild, usually overcome by fruits, and you start the morning with a serving of veggies.

* Goitrogens are not present in lettuce greens — so eating all the salad you want doesn’t effect thyroid function. It’s the sturdier greens, including spinach, along with cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.

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Looking for a great way to add immunity-supporting probiotics to your smoothie? Check this Kid’s Probiotic Smoothie — it’s for grownups too (delicious with kale cubes added)!

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This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday.

Do not taunt Happy Pressure Canner

It’s been baby steps, really.

It all started with an innocent batch of freezer jam. Jars, purchased for their cuteness, held runny strawberry jam, my first-ever batch, frozen until ready to consume.

Then came water-bath canning. I sneaked sideways into that venture — using an old stockpot as a canner, jars of crock-pot apple butter sitting directly on the bottom, I was officially canning before I could think too hard about what I was doing.

And then I started getting gadget-happy. I graduated to stainless utensils, and invested in a good, on-sale enameled water-bath canner. It was still fun and games until I bought my first case of tomatoes, and let’s just call those a gateway drug to pressure canning. Because it starts to get tricky with tomatoes — what with their new-variety acidity levels, etc. — and worlds of possibility would truly open up, if only you had a pressure canner.

But isn’t a pressure canner the equivalent of a stick of dynamite, handed to a toddler with a lit match between his teeth, standing in your kitchen? Isn’t it just so easy to blow you, your house, and perhaps your entire city to smithereens with one wrong move with a pressure canner? I mean, so-and-so’s grandmother lost her finger in a pressure-canning accident, right?

Is any amount of home-canned tomato sauce worth that risk?

Well, I was just dying to know. So I did something very characteristic of myself: I waited until I acquired a pressure-canner for free to find out. My mother-in-law had a Presto dial-gauge canner (similar to this new one) that had rarely been used. She decided there was a much better chance that I’d use it than she would, so she passed it on. And then, I refused to do anything with it* until a friend who’s taken the Master Preserving Class could come to my house and show me how to use it.

Because I’m just so daring that way.

And so I spent Tuesday in the company of uber-gracious Suzanne, who traded her vast pressure-canning knowledge,** her time, and her kind listening ears (I sort-of had a morning of emotional vomiting — she totally didn’t sign up for that) for a smoothie, a few dilly beans, and a spoonful of cashew butter. Seems fair, don’t you think?

Wanna know what I learned yesterday? I learned that pressure canning just isn’t that scary. That — while you should follow directions carefully and pay attention to what you’re doing, it’s not rocket science. A pressure canner is basically a big pot with a lid that has a good seal on it. When it gets really hot, it builds pressure inside. The dial (on my version) tells you what pressure you’re at, and if it gets too high, you just turn off the heat (not ideal, because you have to start over, but explosion-free). I learned that pressure-canning is often much quicker than water-bath canning, and causes less heat in the kitchen. That the biggest risk you run is not losing a digit, but losing a canner-load of food. Which would totally suck. But still — not dismemberment.

I also learned, when my husband phoned mid-process from Portland, that there’s no shortage of euphemisms when it comes to pressure canning. My canner has a petcock, for crying out loud.

Long story short: with the exception of one hiccup that caused 2 jars not to seal, I now have 4 quarts of pasta sauce and 4 quarts of tomato juice, ready for storage (those jars of juice accomplished solo!). I’m no master, but I’m no longer afraid. I have dominion over the pressure canner — it is not a weapon of mass destruction. Might I go so far as to say — the pressure canner is my friend.

I’ve come a long way, baby.

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* I did do one thing with it, solo: I took it to my local county Extension office to get the gauge calibrated — something you’re supposed to do each year, to make sure your canner is operating at the right pressure.

** The Master-Preserving Class is FORTY HOURS of classes. I think that’s the equivalent of a PhD in canning.

 

No way. Whey.

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of mention here, in these parts, about whey.

No, it’s not the protein powder. It’s the stuff of Little Miss Muffet.

You remember her — she sat on her tuffet (questionable action), eating her curds and whey.

Now, I’ll stop here, and admit that the first time I made mozzarella cheese (no eye-rolling — it’s remarkably easy, I’ll tell you all about it sometime), and realized that I was actually stirring a pot of of two ingredients that completely flummoxed me during my formative Mother Goose years, I was delighted. But that delight quickly fell way to further confusion, because the whole point of cheese-making is that you remove the curds from the whey — you don’t eat a bowl of them together.

Now that I’m thinking about this again, I’ll probably lose sleep tonight.

Anywhey.

See? There’s no end to this.

So what is this mysterious liquid of Miss Muffet and her curious arachnid? Whey is the liquid that separates from milk solids when making yogurt or cheese or other cultured dairy products. When making cheese, this separation occurs in dramatic fashion when acid is added to the milk. With yogurt, it requires a little more time, and often requires straining (though sometimes yogurt separates on its own in the container — that liquid in your yogurt cup? yep — it’s whey). It’s full of enzymes, beneficial bacteria, and lactic acid — and is good for digestion and nutrient absorption.

Whey is used in all sorts of lacto-fermentation. Many folks put it in their cultured vegetables — I use mine in bread-making, overnight-soaking of grains and legumes, fermentation of fruits and homemade mayonnaise, and lately in making beet kvass (a fermented beet beverage, my new favorite). I always have whey in my refrigerator — which is pretty easy to do, since it lasts in a jar for about 6 weeks.

One of the greatest things about whey-making day is the byproduct of this method: yogurt cheese. It’s the consistency of cream cheese, though more tart — and with a little honey, vanilla, and cinnamon added, it makes a fantastic probiotic dip for fruits and crackers. I have at least two children who gobble this stuff up — and the third gets mocked by the whole family when she doesn’t. It’s fun times.

Oh, and greek yogurt? It’s nothing more than strained yogurt — just like what we do here in this process (you’d just stop after the first straining step, when the yogurt is very thick but still creamy).

So get off your tuffet and give this a try. Helpful hints: my favorite cheesecloth is this brand — and I’ve been using and washing the same cut-off 18″ square now for about 6 months, so it’s worth the tiny extra investment. Also, if you’re not into sweet dips, then by all means just use some chopped garlic, fresh herbs, and sea salt for a lovely savory dip. I’m sure Miss Muffet and her voyeuristic spider would approve.

 

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