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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Our Standard Agricultural Model Shouldn't Be a US Export

Because I don't live in the country, one of the blogs I follow is City Farmer News, which gathers urban farming stories from around the world. City Farmer News always publishes an excerpt from a longer story; sometimes they do well to abbreviate tedious stories, and sometimes they leave a lot of good information out from interesting stories.  One of their recent stories is one of their abbreviated ones that's much more interesting in its original form.

If you'll follow this link you'll find the original story which is about what the US can learn from Cuba about agroecology. Agroecology is pretty much what it sounds like; it's the application of ecological principals to agricultural practices in order to make them sustainable, and Cuba is making it work well and has been for a long time.

My takeaway from the original story is that the United States has been agriculturally really bad for the world.  Instead of learning over the years from countries with active agroecology programs by any other name, we've foisted our version of ecologically and economically expensive agriculture on some of the countries that can least afford it, and the world is no better off for it.  In a lot of places, it's a lot worse off. With the US and Cuba beginning to normalize relations, I can only hope that we follow the author Professor William G. Moseley's advice and choose to learn from the Cubans instead of imposing our questionable agricultural practices and products on them.

Raul, if you're reading this, run away fast as you can.

And if you're an agriculture student, see if you can do a semester down there at their university to see what Cuba knows about agroecology before we've had a chance to screw everything up.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I Can Do It - 2015

You know that I only post when I have some sort of progress to report, right?  You know that.

Well, we don't have too much going on homestead-wise right now, although we did earn the supreme compliment from my SIL who told me that we were "the most homesteady people" she knows. Which made me feel really good, although I know in my heart of hearts that we could probably be doing a lot more.

I've been on kind of a personal odyssey this autumn, not that I'd intended that.  2014 saw me get diagnosed (finally!) with a variety of things, which I managed to piece together quite by accident as symptoms of atopy, which is a faulty response from the autoimmune system.   It was a variety of doctors all at different times that gave me the pieces to the puzzle, which is probably why no one doctor said anything that would give me a good idea of what's going on.  But since figuring it out for myself, I very quickly, also by accident, found out how to fix it.  I read in several, oddball and unrelated places that folks with asthma or eczema and more serious autoimmune issues were getting good results with a paleo diet, so I grabbed a copy of It Starts With Food, by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. *

So to cut to the chase, I'm doing their Whole30 for the month of January, not because it's a New Year's resolution or anything- I don't believe in New Year's resolutions- it's because it's the next full month after reading this book and I'm anxious to get started.   And I'm anxious to get started because I want to get my asthma, eczema, non-allergic rhinitis, and allergic conjunctivitis under control.  And since all my symptoms showed up one after the other, I'm doing it now before a fifth condition, eosinophilic esophagitis, shows up. Of all the miserable, hyperallergic symptoms I've been struggling with, the worst has got to be the itching inside my ears, because it itches all the way down to my throat, and I can't scratch it.  You're not supposed to know exactly where your eustachian tubes are but I know where mine are and I can tell you that they are a lot shorter than you think they are, thank God. But I can also tell you how I now feel for dogs that can't scratch the inside of their ears.  By the way, if you want to make a quick and eternal friendship with a dog, rub the inside of its ears- just get the first knuckle of you index finger right in that ear canal and give it a good rubbing.  Then go wash your hands. The dog will probably follow you to the sink.

Anyway, before you automatically assume that this is an unhealthy, low carb diet, let me point out a few things:

You eat a ton of vegetables which are full of carbs.  The starchy veg only gets eaten before a workout, but otherwise everything you ingest is nutrient dense.

We haven't evolved to digest cereals, legumes and dairy (past infancy for dairy, that is), and before you say that's preposterous, consider this: modern humans hit the scene about 200,000 years ago and agriculture was born only 10,000 years ago.  We simply haven't had enough time or the necessary evolutionary pressure to evolve the right gut for digesting cereals, legumes and dairy.  In fact, since modern man is in the business of adapting his environment to suit himself, rather than adapting to the environment, we've probably all but stopped our evolution.

The real kicker for me is the certain knowledge that the soy and corn and wheat growers, the alcohol industry, the dairy industry, and the sugar industry have probably or will probably fund all kinds of studies that will prove this diet to be unsafe, because they will otherwise lose money if they don't. They won't profit if people take control over their food choices and eat nothing but animal protein, vegetables, some fruits and nuts, and healthy fats.  If you think about it, with the right conditions, this is the kind of diet that most people can almost completely grow for themselves.  I've thought about this: I could conceivably be able to provide almost all my own calories and be healthier for it.

Don't let the skinny arms fool you -
I am really thick around the middle.
Overlapping flesh and everything.
Jeezus - I look like a hobbit!
So let's see if I can do it. I'm not posting any pictures of me because I'm a fat blob (hah! there I am), but I'll give you the stats: I'm five feet two inches tall and when I started eating a more paleo diet at the beginning of the month I weighed 155 pounds. When I last weighed myself on the 26th, I weighed 151 pounds.  I ate Christmas chocolate all day long and a little spaetzle at dinner on Christmas day, but otherwise did not fall off the paleo wagon and I can tell you that I did not gain any weight over the holiday.  So since this is the time for New Year's Goals, my goal for 2015 will be to lose my symptoms, get healthy and take off forty pounds.  That's all.  I may get some other things done this year, but this is the only goal I have this year: get healthy and lose weight.

I'll keep you posted on how I'm doing and how I'm feeling, but if you want to learn more, check out the Hartwig's book.  I tried to get it from the library but the hold list was too long, so I asked for it for Christmas. I'm really glad I didn't wait.

And in the meantime, I hope that you all have a happy and safe New Year and that 2015 will be an especially great year for you.

* Don't be fooled by the It Starts With Food Cookbook, which has nothing to do with the Hartwigs.  It's by Whole Foods, who is looking to capitalize on the Hartwig's work. 




Saturday, December 13, 2014

So Much Corporate Bullshit

If you did not grow up with Sunset magazine, you will perhaps not understand my extreme dismay and disgust over the news that Time, Inc., has sold the seven acre Menlo Park (California) campus on which the magazine has been produced since 1951.

I thought it was bad enough when Lawrence Lane sold the magazine to Time Warner in 1990; TW changed a lot of things in the magazine and it hasn't been as good as it used to be ever since then.  I had a subscription as a gift for a year but didn't care in the least for it- it just wasn't the same and not any good anymore, in my view.  Lots of things were missing from it, most especially the great how-to articles and plans.  I told the gift's giver not to bother with renewing it for me when she asked.

Here is the birth and history of the magazine, and its death knell.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving always distills my sense of gratitude every year- it never fails.  This year it seems I have more than ever for which to be thankful, but having Steve in my life always tops everything else.  But even if I didn't have him, I would still have more than a lot of folks.  I'm really glad that we have a day to remind us of everything that's good in our lives.

Warmest wishes to everyone for a Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Scary Story

Wow! If you weren't convinced before that you need to raise as much of your own food as you can, maybe this story will convince you.  And here is the PBS original story.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Seasoning New Cast Iron and a Review of Lodge's Pizza Pan

Steve and I have been making pizzas at home for a long time, and we're pretty good at it, but we still hadn't nailed down the crust yet.  We've been using a pizza stone for a long time and have tried it in all the positions in the oven; from the bottom to the top and everything in between.  We've tried different temperatures, different baking duration, different recipes, different amounts of water in the recipe we like, topping the pizza with cheese before putting it in the oven, baking the crust with the sauce for a few minutes, and then topping it with cheese, etc.  The crust would come out either too underdone for the bottom to be crunchy, or it would come out like hard tack- it was never just right. Until last Friday.

I read about pizza steels on SeriousEats.com, but they are really spendy.  Then somehow, and I can't remember how, I wound up on Amazon looking at Lodge cast iron, and found they make a pizza pan. And their pizza pan had great reviews.  Out of 764 reviews, 694 were five stars. I found the ones by A. Stribling and S. Peterson (their reviews are near the top) were the most fun and useful, and didn't read much more.   That, and the high number of five star reviews was enough for me, so I went ahead and ordered one.

However, when it showed up, it had the same problem all new cast iron has anymore, enameled cast iron excepted; it has a really pebbly cooking surface.  I have a really old Wagner pan that I've had since my late teens that has a very smooth cooking surface, which is really non-stick.  When Steve and I got our wood stove, his sister gave us a small cast iron frying pan for Christmas that would fit on the wood stove.  I haven't really used it because it too, had a pebbly surface.  Then I found out that you can sand cast iron and smooth some of that out.  Who knew?

So I attacked both pans with sandpaper- first 80 grit, then 150, and then 220.  I also did this on the stove with the hood fan running full blast, because inhaling that stuff would give a new meaning to iron lung.

This is the small frying pan:

You can see what I mean about pebbly; in this picture I only took off the top of the surface on the sides of the pan because I didn't feel like wasting time on a surface that will only occasionally get food on it.  All the action really occurs on the bottom of the pan:

Even after sanding most of the high spots off the pizza pan, you can still see the low spots that were left. That's okay, because it would really take a long time and a lot of iron off the pan, and besides I know the best way to season cast iron, because after all this sanding, I was going to need to do that anyway:

The absolute best oil to use for seasoning a new cast iron pan is flax seed oil.  I learned it here, and I'll let her explain why it works, but I will say that it does do a great job.  It will also let you heat your pan to the 500F you need for baking a pizza.  700F is better, but I don't have a brick pizza oven, so I have to settle for what my ovens will give me, and 525F is the top end on one of them. 

This crust was the closest we've ever come to pizzeria pizza- crunchy on the bottom as well as on top, but nice and soft and thoroughly cooked all the way through:

This works because cast iron, while being a lousy conductor of heat, holds on to what heat it gets for a long time.  Some folks have tested it and found that outside of the exact spot where the burner on your stove is, the rest of a cast iron pan doesn't really get as hot as the part over the burner, and you can test this yourself on any of your pans by spreading flour evenly over the cooking surface and cranking the hell out of the burners.  In fact, after a late turn on the seasoning, I turned off the oven and left the pans in the oven, and they were still warm when I got up the next morning six hours later.  At any rate, in the oven, getting blasted by heat from all directions, cast iron heats up pretty well and stays hot for a long time, so if you preheat it well before putting your dough on it, it will start baking the bottom of the crust while you are still topping your pizza.  And you don't have to leave the whole pizza in the oven for a really long time, drying out the crust and burning the cheese just trying to get the center of your crust baked through.   

I love this pan!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Kouign Amann At Home

Sometime last summer I learned about Kouign Amann (pronounced Queen A-mahn, but if you remember your high school French you'll recall that the three letters o, u, and i, together as in oui, are actually pronounced 'ooh-wee' really fast, so it would be koo-ween a-mahn and the koo-ween would roughly come out Queen), which is a French pastry from the Brittany region of France.  It sounded pretty wonderful, so naturally I forwarded several online recipes to Steve to choose from.  We have this deal: he makes the dough and I finish the item- soft pretzels excluded).  We set one aside to wait for the weather to cool down as we don't like to bake in the house during the summer.

Then a few weeks ago when we had to go into Portland after brewables, we stopped at a bakery that had Kouign Amann (after having scoured the city bakery menus online to find out who did them).  We got the last two they had, and they were just okay- not shaped as expected and really greasy and not terribly buttery.

This past Saturday we finally got around to baking them for ourselves. The recipe came from here, and as promised, it was pretty easy, and didn't take too long.  It does help to start the night before, and finish up the morning you want to eat them.  We had them for breakfast, and then again for dessert with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on them.  They were way, way better then the ones we got from the bakery.

And in case you're wondering, I started my diet yesterday.



Sunday, November 2, 2014

Will There Be Gravy?

This was an oft-repeated question of Steve's over the course of our marriage, which, coincidently, will be thirteen years old tomorrow.  He usually asked this about things for which there certainly could be gravy, but generally did not lend themselves to gravy, such as baked chicken, or maybe pork chops.  Honestly, there was a while there when I thought he thought that gravy just happened, like spontaneous combustion.  Clearly, he had no clue what good gravy required, and that would be pan drippings.  The problem was, I'd learned to bake chicken in a glass baking dish, and the drippings usually got thrown out.   But then it dawned on me, and you probably figured this one out long ago: bake the chicken in a frying pan, remove it to a platter to keep warm, and make gravy with whatever's in the pan!

So that's what I do: the chicken parts (thighs, usually) get baked and removed to a platter to keep warm, and then I add whatever amount of flour the pan looks like it needs to make a good roux.  Then I add stock (if I have it) or more likely, water and chicken bouillon and herbs (thyme and marjoram) and fresh ground nutmeg and pepper.  The gravy gets to simmer for a little while to thoroughly cook the flour in the roux and thicken somewhat.  Tonight I poached the carrots in the gravy to impart a little flavor and color to it and the carrots were divine. The gravy wasn't too bad either.

Since starting this method anytime I announce that I'm going to bake chicken for dinner, Steve no longer asks the question.  He knows.

There will be gravy.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Compost Trick

I hit upon a great way to get my compost to break down faster.

Instead of waiting for the various compost constituents to break down from larger pieces to smaller, I figured I could help them along with the lawn mower. The contents of my last compost pile went into the bed at the back of the yard, along with the contents of the chicken yard.  They are under warps for the duration until I can move the asparagus into them.

So I needed to start a new compost pile for the winter, which I determined should be in the first bed that I'm rehabbing.  This summer I planted buckwheat into it, which I took down last weekend.  Then from the big bed, I needed to take the pole beans and cucumbers down from their respective trellises and cut them up for the compost.  But I didn't want to have to cut them up the hard way, and I didn't want to leave them whole; plus, I needed to add a lot of carbon to the pile, which I why I keep straw in the garage (I really need a barn, but then, I also need a truck and I'm not getting that anytime soon either).  Using the mower with the bagger removed so that it would 'mulch' sounded like a good idea.  Ideally, you want to end up with a C:N ratio of 30:1, but compost will work between 25:1-40:1*. You also want your compost to be damp, but also be fluffed up enough for air to pass through it.  A compost pile with little to no air in it will decompose anaerobically, and trust me, it will smell bad.  Having the straw chopped up into little bits goes a long way to keeping air in the pile.  This is how i did it.

First I laid down a layer of straw:

Then I put the bean and cucumber plants on top of that:

Then I put a little more straw over that:

Then I had Steve run the mower back and forth over it:

Then I raked it into a row and had Steve run over it again:

This is what I got:

If it looks like a lot more straw than green stuff, that's because it is.

At one point, I added a bunch of old cucumbers:

And this is what I used to chop them up:

This is my mangel chopper, or fodder root chopper that I got from Red Pig Tools (I love my Red Pig tools- I have a bunch of them).  It was a whole lot easier than attacking them with a machete, which I also have. Between the mower and the mangel chopper, I think I can retire the machete.

After chopping it all up and dumping it onto the new pile, I mixed in the buckwheat from the bed and some kitchen scraps, and then covered it loosely with a large sheet of plastic because it was going to rain the next day.  A rainy day will cool down a compost pile and worse, leach nutrients.   It's still a short pile, so I'm not expecting too much to happen right away.  A compost pile doesn't really start cranking until it hits a critical mass, which starts at roughly a cubic yard.  Some compost piles that are so large have been known to produce enough heat to spontaneously combust.  This is the best explanation of how that can happen that I've seen.  I never seem to have enough material on hand at any time, so I doubt that will ever be a problem.

Even if this pile is alway so small that it takes longer to break down than I want it to, at least I didn't have to chop it up with a machete, which is just plain taxing.

* See this for a great Carbon:Nitrogen calculator that will help you get your mix just right.