Posts Tagged ‘local food’

Nettle Ale, and notes on the Drinkmate

One of the nicest things about having an active permaculture garden is that you have strange plants around you in all phases of growth and you’re led to read and to experiment. A couple of months ago I found myself eyeing my healthy nettle patch, where the nettles were almost three feet tall and well past the greens phase, and wondering what could be done with them. I got on the Internet and came across British recipes for nettle beer. I was curious about it because the cooking water from nettles has a strong and distinctive taste that I don’t find exactly pleasant, yet people reported liking the ferment. Well, no harm in trying. I started with three gallons of water in my huge stockpot, and picked (with sturdy leather gloves) about 75 nettle tops. I also added 10 large hops leaves and 10 large Concord grape leaves on grounds that, if the brew was revolting, at least it would contain some resveratrol and chalcones. I boiled all this at a full rolling boil for fifteen minutes, and then let it cool. I fished all the plant material out with a strainer scoop, pressed all the residual juice out and returned it to the pot, and gave the pressed mass of leaves to the chickens. No sense in wasting those nutrients.
I brew by instinct and not by recipe, and I think the next step is the most important: TASTE THE COOLED JUICE AND THINK ABOUT THE FLAVOR before sweetening the liquid. The sweetness will be fermented out, so it’s important not to think of it as part of the finished flavor.  Don’t think in terms of a recipe that you’ve read. Think about what it needs to improve the flavor, and try to supply that.  This juice was not promising, with a strong nettle taste and little other flavor. It lacked any acidity so I added the juice of four oranges and one lemon, giving it a light but pleasant acidity. I decided to go with the strong herbal flavor and added a large angelica leaf and stem, which would remain in the fermenter during primary fermentation.  I also added back the squeezed rind of one of the oranges. Use organic if you do this. Next, I needed to give the yeasty beasties something to eat. I sweetened with one pound of organic sugar per gallon of water, for an eventual alcohol level of 4-5%, just above near-beer, and pitched a yeast intended for hard cider. This all went into the primary fermenter, where it bubbled merrily for a couple of weeks. When the bubbling slowed, I racked it into a clean fermentation bucket, leaving the angelica leaf and rinds behind with the sediment. I tasted  the brew at this point,  and to my surprise the distinctive nettle taste was completely gone.  I could taste the aromatics from the oranges, a slight and becoming touch of bitterness from the angelica and hops leaves,  and an overall mild herbal flavor, and while the brew  still tasted raw and unfinished, it was pleasant.  After another two weeks, it was racked into a keg and put under carbonation.   Chilled and  carbonated, it has become one of our favorite choices for a quick glass of something-or-other in the evening.  It is blessedly  low in alcohol and good with light meals like salads. It tastes best sweetened slightly with a drop or two of liquid stevia or similar added to a glassful. We like it so much that I promptly started another batch dubbed Stinger Brew II,  but this time I left out the oranges and just added the juice of one lemon to a 4 gallon batch.  When primary fermentation is finished and I rack it off for secondary fermentation, I will taste and see if it needs any more acidity, and I plan to dry hop it at this stage because my hops should be in full bloom at that point. Where Stinger I is more like a light herbal wine, Stinger II will be more like a light true ale.  If you really want it to taste like a beer rather than a wine, you could use malt syrup  or malt extract  to sweeten the juice, but I like the more winey  quality that comes from using sugar.

So, as I am always saying, embrace the experimental nature of cooking, brewing, gardening, and life.  If I did this commercially, I would have to keep very exact measurements for consistency between batches and would have to try to maintain each batch exactly like the one before, since that is what customers expect.  But my ingredients are variable, my process is variable, I am variable, and I do not want two batches that taste the same.  This is very freeing.  Liberating yourself from the tyranny  of the recipe is one of the nicest things that can happen to a cook and brewer.

Beer, wine, and mead can be carbonated by charging with some sugar, bottling in swing-cap bottles, and waiting. But there are easier and surer ways. If I want a large quantity carbonated, my husband oversees a kegerator made for refrigerating and carbonating 5 gallon kegs, and then the bubbly stuff is dispensed via a tap. It’s very handy, but needless to say, you don’t necessarily want 5 gallons of any one thing. In those cases, I use the Drinkmate. It’s a sleek carbonation device that uses smaller CO2 canisters and special bottles to carbonate a liter or less at a time in just a couple of minutes. There are a number of carbonation devices on the market, and they all work just fine for carbonating water. The Drinkmate is different because it will carbonate any liquid. Carbonated juice could be delicious if you drink juice, and it occurs to me that sparkling mint tea would be delicious in the summer.You can read more about the device here. If you want to buy one, you can get it here. Replacement CO2 cylinders are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, and empties can be traded in there for half-price new cylinders. Order a few extra bottles when you order your Drinkmate. I’ve noticed that when plain carbonated water is available in the fridge, I drink more water in total, and sparkling water is better with meals than plain water. Carbonation also brings out the flavor of water kefir, which I make in large quantities. With or without a drop of sweetener, it’s delicious.

Local readers, your input is needed!


A reader who is moving to Albuquerque soon left the following comment on my “About Us” page:
“My husband just accepted a job in Albuquerque that starts in Nov, 2011 so we’ll be moving there from Northern Colorado. We currently raise/sell goats, chickens, and pigs for meat. We also sell eggs. (Our other critters are 4 llamas, and 2 sheep). I garden for our own eating pleasure and am striving to be more self-sufficient each year.
Would any of you be willing to take part in a conversation regarding raising farm animals in the Albuquerque area? Do you have contacts or websites that I should be sure to check out?
Some of my questions are as follows:
Chickens don’t like to lay eggs in extreme temperatures (too cold/too hot). How do you handle this in ABQ?
Is there a market for meat goats? (Boer goats)
Pigs: do you know of anyone who raises pigs to market weight and sells to local friends/neighbors that I might talk with? Do you need to compensate in any way for the heat?
Thanks for getting me excited about the Albuquerque area and starting our new adventure!”
Becky – Meadow Muffin Acres – Loveland, CO

I’m going to invite my local readers in Albuquerque to respond to Becky’s questions. Please leave a comment if you know anything that would be helpful to her. My own responses are as follows:
1. I haven’t had any major temperature-related issues with my laying hens. They lay almost all the way through the winter, with a lull in late December and early January, and they slow down a little during the hottest months, July and August, but even during the most scorching seasons I get three or four eggs a day from my six hens.
2. I don’t know how much market there is for goats, but it seems worth a try, especially if they were grass-and-browse raised, because there’s a substantial market for grassfed meats here.
3. I no longer know anyone who raises pigs, more’s the pity, but there would be a good market for them. I would definitely be one of your buyers! I used to know a family who raised pigs just a few miles south of Albuquerque, and they told me that a mud wallow was essential to keep the pigs cooler on hot days. Access to shade was also essential, and on the hottest afternoons their son used to go out and spray down the pigs with the hose. The pigs loved it, and would keep trying to shove their way into the stream.
4. If you are looking for other farm-based business opportunities, a micro chicken-processing facility would be well worth considering. Many of us like to raise our own meat chickens but on a single-household scale the plucker and scalder that make butchering efficient just aren’t affordable. When I had a farm in upstate New York there was a couple who had the equipment and would process chickens for the rest of us, and it was a huge convenience. I would happily work with anyone who had the set-up to process my chickens, as well as pay for the processing. So keep it in mind!
The people at the Urban Store have their finger on the local pulse when it comes to this sort of enterprise, so I would definitely give Kathy a call or email her from their website. All best wishes to you, and welcome to town.

Food Inc.

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       Recently a follower of my site asked me if I ever receive pay or free goods for recommendations that I make about products. The answer is no, never. I prefer to be able to say whatever I think, and am careful not to accept gifts or samples for this reason. I don’t recommend a product unless I have eaten it, know how it’s produced, and think it’s a good thing. I also don’t recommend anything that I didn’t pay for, because forking over the cash myself is a good reality check about perceived quality/cost ratio.

       In this case, though, I’m going to recommend a movie that I have not seen and haven’t (yet) paid for a ticket to. The movie is Food Inc., and it opens in Albuquerque on July 31st. The filmmakers are people with solid credentials in the area of sustainability, and I think it will be good. Also, attendence at this film will be scrutinized to see if there is  broad support for more sustainability and safety in our food supply.
          Here’s a little more about why I think this film will be important: the picture above was taken last week when I visited old friends of mine in Los Lunas who have a small pig operation. Everything about their place respects the needs of pigs: these pigs have lots of room to stretch out and to socialize with other pigs, walls are sturdy to keep them safe, both sun and shade are available, they have both indoor and outdoor space, and no inhumane practices like tail-docking or farrowing crates are used. The pigs have plenty of water to make the muddy wallows where they cool off on hot days, as you see above. You will not see any of this in a large commercial pig operation.
        Sure, it takes extra effort to seek out meat from farmers like this instead of buying it in plastic at the grocery store. You may need to buy a quarter or half animal at once, and the cost will probably be higher than the factory-farm price.  You will probably need to eat less meat. That’s a good thing.

        The movie Food Inc. is likely to get more people to think about these issues. That’s a good thing, too. www.foodincmovie.com
And no, I won’t be getting any free passes.

The Jewels of Summer: flowers and local food

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Now that the idea of local food is popular, a backlash is detectable. I’m beginning to see comments and articles attacking the  idea of obtaining all your food locally. I’m familiar with the debate technique of building a straw man and knocking him down, so this doesn’t especially surprise me; caricaturing your opponents’ views is a way to make them seem ridiculous. All I will say in this context is that few of us obtain all our food locally, or want to. Coffee, chocolate, wine, and olive oil are among the foods that I love dearly and will happily buy from other areas. On the other hand, local fruits and vegetables are fresher and superior, and we have some truly superb grass-fed local meats available. If you aren’t ready to make a big lifestyle change, try shopping at one farmers’ market a week and cooking what you find. If you want the cooking done for you, try one of the prepared foods, cheeses, or breads.  Don’t go there with strong notions about what you should eat. Instead, look around and see what you want to eat.  Local farmers and artisans will benefit, and so will you.

If you don’t want to try any  local foods, buy some local flowers. One of the greatest pleasures of my gardening  lifestyle is eating my own food on my patio among my own flowers. Beauty feeds the spirit as surely as vegetables feed the body, and our local seasonal flowers didn’t require greenhousing, pesticides, fertilizer, petroleum fuel, or poorly paid labor to reach us. The flowers are the fringe benefits of  growing locally, and sometimes they are beautiful enough to stop you in your tracks, which can only be good for your health.

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winter salads

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As part of our Christmas dinner, we had salads made entirely from our own yard produce. I had not used any season-extending devices at all, and we’d had cold weather and a few light snows, so these are the greens that thrive on cold and neglect. The “trim” is a ring of pansies, which I wrote about in an earlier post. The greens included arugula (see the post before this one,) pansy leaves (cool, tender, and delicious,) chervil, a few nasturtium leaves still surviving in a sheltered corner, my new favorite lettuce, and sunflower sprouts.
The lettuce that I’ve enjoyed most this year is a gorgeous deep red romaine called “Marshall.” I think I got my seeds from Territorial. the color is a dramatic foil for almost anything else, and it doesn’r get bitter in our sudden hot springs. It’s beautiful in the garden, too. You can see it poking up through a light mulch in the photo below.
The other photo shows my sunflower sprouts, and I wish I had known earlier how delicious they are. The first taste is pleasant and mild, but a delicious nuttiness rapidly reveals itself. These are the only sprouts that I’ve enjoyed eating out of hand, but they’re even better in a good mixed salad.
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Sunflower sprouts seem to be best when soil-grown, and they need a little light. I have a grow-light for my spring seedlings, and it usually goes unused in the winter, so I used it to grow the sprouts, but a sunny window would be fine.
Start with a large flat container. I used a terra cotta saucer intended to hold a large potted plant, just because I had one sitting around. Put in an inch of good organic soil. Scatter raw organic sunflower seeds (in shell) very thickly on top, touching each other. Pat them into the surface, cover with another 1/4 inch or so of soil, water well but don’t make the soil soggy, and wait a few days. The books say to presoak the seeds, but I didn’t and they did fine. When they start to emerge, begin giving them light, and harvest when they are green and are trying to shed their shells. I snap them off at soil level with my thumbnail, flick off the clinging shell, rinse well and dry, and start snacking. They go well with spicy mesclun mixes but can also give depth to a simple lettuce salad. Grow lots, so that you can use them lavishly.

Arugula, my favorite weed

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At times I’m very surprised by what grows well in my high desert garden. I wouldn’t have guessed that arugula would not only grow well but would naturalize and happily spread itself about. Arugula is my favorite salad green, and I’ve learned to love it for cooking too. Something about its tender nutty sharpness is like watercress gone to heaven. It likes cold weather, and manages with surprisingly little water.

First, get your seed. I don’t recommend the wild-type often sold as “sylvetta” because the leaves are small leading to low yield, and in dry conditions it can get too sharp to be pleasant. Try to get the type designated as ‘cultivated” or the named variety Apollo, although the latter lacks the frilly leaves that make such a nice show on the salad plate. In winter or very early spring, scatter the seed in drifts on prepared ground and rake them in lightly, or scatter them in prepared containers and scratch the seed in a little with your fingers. Water occasionally and keep an eye out. Early in the spring, you’ll notice the little plants struggling up bravely. Give them a little water when the soil is dry, and thin them out to stand about 4-6″ apart. Throw the washed thinnings in your salads, of course. When the plants are about 6″ tall, harvest them heavily for salads, but don’t cut the crown or pull the roots up. Use dressings containing nut oils and good olive oil. Never dress the arugula more than a couple of minutes before eating, because it wilts easily. Eventually the plants will start to bolt to seed. Do nothing to stop them. The next phase of the arugula season is starting.

The maturing plant will now stand about 2 feet high, with small clusters of buds. It’s perfect for cooked greens now. Leave one or two plants to bloom and make seed, and cut the rest down to about 3″ high, and bring the cuttings into the kitchen. Pull off and save all leaves, and break the bud sections off wherever the stem will snap without resistance. These are your cooking greens. Wash them carefully. If you want to use the large stems that are left over, cut them in cross sections no more than 1/4 inch long, because they contain strong  stringy fibers. I compost them instead of eating them. blanch the washed greens in a large quantity of rapidly boiling water for 1 minute, no more. Drain and proceed as desired toward dinner. They have a flavor a little like broccoli rabe, and I love to eat them with pasta. See recipe below, and for other recipes see my website, www.localfoodalbuquerque.com, go to the “recipes” page, and click on “greens.”

Now, what about the plants you left alone? They will develop into great wispy clouds of small white flowers, a little like annual baby’s breath. Bees adore them. Then they’ll set hundreds of tiny seed pods. When these dry out, let some spill around the mother plant (which can now be pulled up, and should be, because it looks pretty scruffy by now) and toss the rest around wherever you want more arugula. Usually these seeds will be dry and ready for seeding in late summer, will sprout by September, and will be in the salad stage by late October. Leave them over the winter, and the cycle continues.

clich here for the recipe

Thanks Giving

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What a deeply joyful Thanksgiving I was privileged to have: here in New Mexico we had both a new president and a good long soaking rain, and in the high desert it’s a little hard to say which is more exciting. The garden is still providing some lettuce, arugula, herbs, and carrots, but I have more time to reflect on what I’m doing. This has led to thinking about what, exactly, my urban homestead means. It certainly doesn’t mean self-sufficiency. That won’t happen until I can grow coffee and olive oil. It doesn’t mean grimly making do. It’s a happy celebration of what one small piece of city dirt can produce. I have a medical practice and a number of hobbies, but growing my own food in the most space-intensive way possible is a lot of fun, and I have a website and blog to let other people know that, if they want to provide for themselves a little more, they don’t need to quit their job and move to the country. I don’t even think that’s the best way to start. Start where you are, with what you have. People with no land at all can bake sourdough bread and brew beer, and those are indoor “yeast gardens.” People with a balcony can grow herbs in pots. People with a tiny yard can utilize it. In the quest for local food, we can have the most local food of all, and if we have more garden space at other points in our lives, we’ll know more about how to use it if we’ve practiced in small ways. Please go to my website, www.localfoodalbuquerque.com, for more about urban gardening, and look at my blog entries on other pages for details about the many small pleasures that crop up along the way.

Most of my winter posts will be about canning, preserving, and using what was made during the summer. That’s also a way of remembering the abundant season and being grateful for what I received. So, here’s a fond look backward at

the colors of summer.   august-08-029