Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Soup Night #2

French Onion Soup, straight from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol 1. That's what 22 cups of sliced onions looks like in a great big bread bowl. If we had smellovision, I could also share what the house smelled like after caramelizing them in two big pans for about 45 minutes and simmering another hour. No one complained though, and a good time seemed to be had by all.

It was an economical way to feed 22 people. The onions, grown a block away, were a trade for a mattress we no longer use. The (cheap) soup bones for the stock came from the Mexican butcher down the road, and were so meaty that I made carne asada for tonight's dinner out of them too. The rest of the stock ingredients were lurking in back corners of the vegetable drawer. I bought a little gruyere to jazz up the cheap Swiss and Romano that comprised the bulk of the cheese. Some butter, some olive oil, a couple baguettes, a bit of wine, et voila. Life is good. Gathering with friends on a dreary rainy night is excellent. Sampling Deb's brownies, Rena's chocolate coconut torte, Mary Jane's soda bread and other treats is yet another bonus.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Independence Days challenge week 2

I’ll post this here until it gets transferred to Sharon Astyk’s blog at www.sharonastyk.com

Plant something – Sugar snap peas and early lettuces are in. I’ve been clearing out in the garden during our nearly annual early-February warm spell, aka the “sucker season” since it lures us into thinking it’s time to start the warm weather crops. The peas and lettuces should be fine, just slower, even if we do get more snow and hard freezes. Next up is potatoes in tubs. 

Harvest something – Mixed greens—kale, chard, radicchio, and corn salad. Not much of any of them, but it added up to the greens for one dinner. 

Preserve something—Roasted red peppers; winter squash purée. 

Waste not: I’ve logged another week of cooking with the produce that the Food Bank can’t distribute: It’s Food Bank Fresh 2 at nwlocalfoods.blogspot.com 
My neighbors also let me glean from their winter garden; they have surplus leeks that soon will be heading to seed. 
I’m going to try a hot bed this spring to jump start some tomatoes and peppers, so I’ve been stockpiling coffee grounds from the local stand. Probably I’ll get some of my neighbor’s surplus chicken manure too. I’ll be using the instructions from my classic 1914 guide, Garden Work for Every Day. 

Want not—I finally made it to Cash and Carry to get my baking yeast by the ½ pound instead of those little glass jars. Now that I’ve begun baking bread again, this saves money and keeps a supply on hand. 

Eat the food –I put applesauce from last fall into some baked goods and made fruit salad from odds and ends that no longer looked so enticing as snacks. 

Build community food systems –Bought cheese, and had a nice chat, at Pleasant Valley Farm, which has been supplying artisan raw milk gouda and farmstead cheeses in Whatcom County for decades, and got eggs from Twisted S Ranch, which, sadly, no longer supplies buffalo. They sold the herd and closed down in December after a dispute over environmental requirements. It’s ironic that it seems to have been a conflict between buffalo and salmon habitat—two once essential native food supplies that people are trying to preserve. 

Skill up (learn to do something new)—Nothing this week, although I’m soon to see if I remember how to darn socks. My best pair of Smartwool hiking socks have weirdly developed holes on top of both toes—worth a try to see if I can keep them going.

Food Bank Fresh #2

This week's Food Bank rejects included  some limp purple kale, several red peppers with small cuts or soft spots, pears and apples (likewise), a couple zucchini, a chayote squash, and a bulk food bag of ground cardamom, smelling like heaven. There was also a mysterious pale yellow "squash" that turned out to be a melon. (The tub at left in the picture has a couple of chards and raddicchios that are waking from their winter's nap. There were more before I used some as a bed for marinated chicken the night before.)

I don't usually buy non-organic sweet peppers, which, given the cost of organically grown ones, means that I rarely eat them unless it's a good year in my garden. (I've learned the sticker code from my fellow volunteers. Organic produce has a 9 at the start of the ID number.) Bell peppers are a regular on the Dirty Dozen list of produce that shows up in the market with the most pesticide residues. But it was just too hard to throw these beauties away, and part of this project is about learning what it's like to plan meals from what's available at the Food Bank.  So I decided to roast them and remove the skins to sort of split the difference. (A good resource for pesticide residues on food is www.whatsonmyfood.org)

I roasted the peppers by putting them on the burners of my gas range, turning them as the skins began to blacken. It was an arresting sight--the bright red peppers arrayed across the shiny black stove--and as Ron pointed out, it smelled as though someone in the house was smoking weed. Once they were blackened and blistered over most of the skin, I put them in a plastic bag. The resulting steam loosens up the skin and makes them easier to peel. I stored them with just a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and boy are they good. We had pasta with the peppers, the zucchini (grilled), a little garlic, oil and salt. Grated cheese on the side, home made bread, and some Organic Girl salad greens, also from the Food Bank courtesy of Trader Joe's. Volunteer sorters always hope to get the TJ boxes because they are top quality and tidy--no rooting around through rotten apples and assorted scraps to get at the good stuff. 

I made fruit salad from the melon (which provided more bulk than taste, I have to say), pears and apples, and a couple of oranges whose skins were starting to harden up in my fruit basket. We had that at breakfast for the next few days. The saggy kale went into a glass of water and has now revived and looks fresh as can be. I'm having it for lunch today. I ended up composting the chayote, and I am still deciding what uses to make of the cardamom. Clearly some curries are in my future, and cookies. I also got a full box of rolled oats that couldn't be distributed because of a small tear in the security seal, so my granddaughter and I made oatmeal raisin bars and I'll crank out another batch of granola shortly. My friend Gale shared her granola recipe with me; it's simple and quick, and I never get tired of it: 

3 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup sunflower seeds
scant 1/4 cup light oil
6 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped nuts (I prefer walnuts)
spices to taste--I like cinnamon and ginger
raisins, cranberries or other dried fruit to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F.  

Combine everything but the fruit in a large bowl. 

Spread out mixture on a lined cookie sheet, bake for 15 minutes. Remove and stir to redistribute the granola and bake another 15 minutes. 

Remove from oven, add dried fruit (if used) and cool before storing. 

Even with the pricey maple syrup, this is way cheaper than store-bought, and so good. 

I have yet to "work the line" at the Food Bank, meaning actually helping with distribution to clients. I'm eager to get to know some clients and see who gravitates to the fresh produce, since canned goods and box food are also a big part of the distribution. When I think about how well we've been eating using Food Bank produce the past few weeks, it's easy to discount the reality that I have a well-stocked kitchen, no picky eaters (aka children) at home, and the time to chop, roast and simmer. Still, I'm guessing that many clients could do more if they knew more, and we are looking for ways to share that kind of knowledge.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Food Bank Fresh

I’ve started volunteering at the Food Bank, sorting and cleaning donated vegetables and fruit one morning a week.
My co-sorters are a lively crew, ranging from teenagers to people in their 70s, and they have been teaching me the rules. Especially in winter, when fresh produce is scarcer, there are many judgment calls about whether a tomato is too soft or a carrot too wiggly to go out on the line to the waiting clients.  However, some rules are clearly stated: If there’s a break in the skin, it can’t go out. And if you saw the company some of those items keep in the donation boxes, you would see why they can’t risk anyone eating them raw. (Produce that doesn’t make the grade for distribution to humans goes in a bin for a local hog farm, except for the apples and carrots that are boxed up for someone’s horses.) Still, it’s tough to throw away a beautiful firm potato with a one little nick, or a carrot that’s bendy but not rotting, just a bit dehydrated. At least it's tough if you make as much vegetable stock as I do. That's what bendy carrots are for. Volunteers are allowed to take some produce home, and though I feel funny about helping myself to anything that could have gone to someone in need, I figure it's ok to take the ones that would otherwise feed pigs. Today I decided to gather some of the not-quite-good-enough items to see what I could do with them that was both safe and tasty.

 The top photo shows my nicks-and-dents veggie haul for today, plus a log of Trader Joe's brie that couldn't go out because the outer plastic had a tear. In includes tomatoes (organic), carrots, parsnips, zucchini, potatoes, peppers, and a chayote squash. Also a pear, but on second thought I've sent that to the compost,  although it's pristine except for the small cut. Hidden from view somewhere is an avocado.

I didn't want to have any of it raw or lightly cooked--better safe than sorry. So here's what I made:

Roasted peppers, tomatoes and chayote and lentil soup
I roasted the chayote and most of the tomatoes and peppers at 400, stirring occasionally, until they were very soft and starting to char. (Non food bank additions were a bit of olive oil, salt, and hot sauce.) That's at left. 

Most of the rest of the produce went into lentil soup. I didn't get the lentils from the food bank, but they are available to clients, so I figured it was still a realistic meal. I used olive oil, a little red wine, Spike seasoning salt, lemon juice, and paprika. If I'd had a soup bone I wouldn't have needed as much extra flavoring, but there's hardly ever a surplus of meat for distribution.

Same basic information from the food bank website: 

Who We Serve 

You might be surprised to learn who asks Bellingham Food Bank for help in feeding their family. Did you know that most recipients waiting in line at the food bank also work?

  • 15% of all families in the Bellingham city limits use the food bank at least once a year
  • 50% of food bank recipients are children or senior citizens
  • 60% of food bank families skip or cut the size of meals on a weekly basis
Every month Bellingham Food Bank receives more than 9,500 visits and responds by handing out approximately 220,000 pounds of food.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Independence Days" Challenge, via Sharon Astyk at The Chatelaine's Keys

Sharon Astyk, who farms, writes books and blogs, teaches homesteading skills, and raises a big family in upstate New York. is relaunching her Independence Days challenge. The idea is for people to document the steps they are taking to build independence (and community interdependence) to adapt more gracefully to changes in climate/economy/fossil fuel availability. Part of the point is that small changes can accumulate over time to create a new way of looking at the resources around us.

Participants post weekly to her blog, detailing steps they've taken in the categories below. As she has lots of followers, the result is a compilation of ideas and mostly small, feasible projects around the world. Here's my opening contribution, which I have arbitrarily expanded to the cover the last month.

Plant something -- Not yet. I will have reduced garden space this year and the bed that usually houses my earliest plantings won't be available.
Harvest something --The parsley, thyme, and rosemary made it through our last snowstorm and hard freeze (thank goodness the snow preceded the single-digit temps to provide insulation) and have been going into soups and sauces. Kale, collards, chard, spinach and corn salad all are waking up as daylight reaches that magic 10 hours threshold. Garden veggies tonight!

Preserve something--My granddaughter and I got a box of apple seconds at a local orchard and made applesauce.

Waste not: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." With an eye to the reduced garden, I went through my seeds and took ones I won't be using to the community seed swap (see community food systems below); my nice neighbor Kate gave me used chicken bedding for my compost pile, and I continue to pick up used coffee grounds from the espresso place down the street. The compost bins are in good shape for the soil amending that will take place soon. We are lucky to live in a city where recycling is easy--between the curbside pickup for glass, plastic, papers and food/garden waste, and the drop-off center near my house for stuff like broken plastic flowerpots and plastic film, not a lot goes in the garbage. 
I also recently went on metered water--it's still optional here--so that I can track what I use and be more mindful; good thing all three rainbarrels are full to the brim.

Want not-- This is about stocking up, building long-term supplies of storage foods and household  essentials. Not much going on here at my house. The only supply I've added to lately is soup bowls. I bought a bunch at Goodwill to accommodate my guest list for a monthly Soup Night gathering.

Eat the food --This category includes trying new recipes that make the most of what we have on hand, rotating our stocks of stored foods rather than saving them for an even rainier day, etc. When making the vegetable stock for the aforementioned Soup Night, I was able to use most of the no-longer-in-their-first-youth parsnips, carrots, and Jerusalem artichokes that were languishing in my fridge. Soup for 27 people means a lot of stock, and it was delicious. I'm also proud to have caught a couple of stored winter squash just before they went bad. Given the space they take in my small garden, it would be a real shame not to eat them.

Build community food systems-- The Community Seed Day, aka Seed Swap, is in its fourth year in Bellingham. It's a great idea and a wonderful place to meet and greet fellow gardeners. Hundreds of people came. 
On Monday I had my first volunteer day at the Food Bank, preparing vegetables for distribution. It's impressive how much food flows through one big room, and where it goes. Since no vegetables with any kind of cut on the skin can be distributed, and since some of the donations are marginal at best, a lot doesn't make it to the clients. But neither does it go in the garbage. Volunteers can take home the slightly mangled onions and nicked zucchinis that can't go out on the distribution line. A local pig farmer picks up the less savory produce, except for apples, which go to a horse farm.

Skill up (learn to do something new)--I just learned how to remove and replace a toilet and how to check for natural gas leaks with soap spray.

For more information on the Independence Days challenge:

For more on Sharon Astyk and her books:

For the Community Seed Day, in case you want to start one of your own: