Thursday, December 30, 2010

This Week's Local Food Finds

Beginning this week, I plan to make regular visits to Three Rivers Market in Knoxville, to see what local foods are available, and then report on them here. Here's what I found this visit:

The market is supportive of local farmers and artisans, and carries baked goods from three excellent local sources, Hogan's Bakery in Knoxville, The Bakery Lady in Seymour, and Tellico Grains Bakery in Tellico Plains. Products are delivered several times a week. Whatever I choose from the bakery rack has always been delicious.

If you have not yet tried the sheep's milk cheeses produced by Locust Grove Farm your are missing a treat. The well-aged "Galloway Reserve" is as good as any imported product. The farm offers other cheeses and free range lamb, too.

On left, butternut squash; on right, chayote.
The biggest surprise was beautiful chayote squash from Jefferson County, TN. Many people are unfamiliar with this tropical member of the cucumber family, but it is well known along the US Gulf Coast and in Mexico. Latinos call it "chayote," while in Louisiana it is a "mirliton" and may also be known as "vegetable pear" or "christophine." By any name, it is delicious and a nice change of pace from winter squash, which is much sweeter. The pale green flesh of the chayote has a nuttier flavor, too. To prepare, begin by dropping the entire fruit into a large pot of boiling water, and cook until it is fork tender. Remove from the water and let cool until you can handle it. Peel the chayote with a vegetable peeler, and then cut it in half lengthwise, like an avocado. The large seed is edible and delicious, and can be added to salad. The rest of the cooked squash can now be sliced or chopped and added to soups, stir fries and other dishes where you'd use summer squash. Culinary legend and cookbook author Paul Prudhomme recommends hollowing out the halves to create a shell about a quarter of an inch in thickness. He then breads them with seasoned flour, an egg wash, and seasoned bread crumbs, and deep fries them to make a container for various creamed vegetable and seafood fillings. With that technique in mind, we plan to experiment with the specimen we brought home.

Also from close by were sweet potatoes, including some small yams, from Grainger County, TN, although they were small and somewhat shriveled. Better ones were available from Macon County, GA.

From the other side of the mountain came freshly cut basil from Asheville, NC, and beautiful organic Red Delicious and Rome Beauty apples from Hendersonville, NC.

From Davidson County, TN, about 200 miles from here, came several types of fresh sprouts, along with dill and mint. Eggs from Englewood, TN, produced the old-fashinoned way, were also available.

Notable products from further afield were ginger from Alabama, cucumbers from Georgia, winter squash and green bell peppers from South Carolina.

I was disappointed that the mushrooms, of which there were several types, came from Pennsylvania, although the selection included shiitake, crimini and portobellos, all very good quality. Monterey Mushroom Company has a large production facility in Loudon County, TN. I wonder why I don't see Monterey's mushrooms in more places.

While out food shopping I stopped at my favorite supermarket and picked up some genuine Georgia pecans. I'd actually hoped they would be on sale after Christmas, but that was not the case, and I paid $7.50 for a 12 ounce package. However, they are worth it. Georgia pecans have a different flavor from California grown nuts. They are slightly less sweet, but have a taste reminiscent of hickory nuts, to which they are closely related. Pecan trees don't grow well here in Tennessee, but hickory nuts, especially from the shagbark hickory, were a special treat in the autumns of my childhood. My grandfather and I would gather them in burlap sacks after they dropped from the trees, and then spend hours cracking them and separating the shells from the delicious meats. The shagbark hickory does not domesticate well, apparently, and one almost never sees the nuts offered for sale. But my fond memories of the flavor of hickory nuts explain why the Georgia pecans taste so good, no doubt.

From the Garden
Available from our garden today are spinach, baby carrots, baby lettuce, cilantro (maybe) and parsley, plus viola blossoms to decorate a salad. The indoor growing space offers oregano, French thyme, and rosemary.

Book Recommendation

You can learn more about the philosophies behind America's "slow food" and locavore movements by reading In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. The author charts the course of his awakening to the problems with our industrialized food system and the way out. Pollan spends time on an organic farm, hunts wild boar, and gardens in his backyard in order to better understand our society's "food chain." This book should be in the library of anyone committed to sourcing more of their food locally.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pay Dirt Blog Moves to This Site

One of the nice things about blogging is the ability to cover as many topics as you like. Besides growing food and improving the local environment, gardening can also be a way to earn extra money.

In January, 2010, my latest book, Pay Dirt was released. In it, I offer sound advice for starting your own "microfarm" in the backyard. You can apply many of my suggestions to any home-based business. I've included loads of tips for gardeners, whether you are gardening for profit or just for fun. Click on the link at left to purchase a copy from Amazon.com.

Last year, I started a blog at http://backyard-paydirt.blogspot.com/. That project included a learning curve for me, and I did not add many posts. If you have found me as a result of visiting that blog, thanks for your continued support. This blog will be updated much more frequently, and will include a broader spectrum of information, from gardening and food to ecology and permaculture.

Recipes for Seasonal Food Finds

Winter's chill always sends me to the kitchen for extended periods. Here is a great idea for getting the most out of the abundance of citrus fruit available at this time of year:

Candied Citrus Peel

Candy that's good for you! You can candy the peel from any citrus fruit. If you mix the different peels in the same pot, however, the flavor of the finished product will be a mixture, too. Use a vegetable peeler or sharp knife to remove strips of peel from any citrus fruit. You should remove some, but not all, of the white pith beneath the colorful peel. Or, if the peeling comes off easily, as with tangerines and clementines, use the peel as is.

Left to right: orange peel with demerarra sugar, lemon peel with granulated sugar, orange peel with confectioner's sugar.
After peeling the fruits, you can squeeze out the juice and freeze it for later use. Just place the juice in an ice cube tray, freeze, then turn out the cubes into a plastic freezer container. (It helps if you know the capacity, in teaspoons, of each cube. Then, you will know how many to use in recipes later.)

Cut the peel into strips about one quarter inch wide. Drop them into a measuring cup, packing loosely. For each cup, bring 1 1/2 cups of water to a rolling boil in a pot. Drop in the strips of peel. When the water returns to a boil, start timing. Boil for 5 minutes, then drain, discarding the water. Repeat this process 3 times. Drain the peel well and rinse under the tap.

Note: Boiling for 5 minutes each time produces a slightly bitter peel. If you want to eliminate all bitterness, increase the blanching time. Ten minutes per blanching should be the maximum, however.

For each cup of peel that you began with, combine 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water in the same pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring occassionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the peel and stir to combine. Cook uncovered over low heat at a slow simmer until all but a tablespoon of the syrup has been absorbed by the peel. Remove from heat. Using tongs or a fork, remove the candied peel to a plate well sprinkled with confectioner's sugar. Roll the pieces in the sugar and transfer to a wire rack. Allow to cool and dry at room temperature for two hours. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Try using different types of sugar to vary the finished product. Instead of confectioner's sugar, use granulated, turbinado, or demerarra sugar. For a truly scrumptious confection, choose large, perfect pieces of candied peel and dip them in melted chocolate. Place on a rack to cool, then store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Welcome to the New American Homestead Blog!

Welcome to the blog! The title of my next book will be The New American Homestead: Sustainable living for the 21st Century. It will be released in about a year by Howell House, an imprint of Wiley Publishing. One of the reasons we are lauching this blog now is to obtain your input as to what we should include in the new book. It will cover food gardening, food crafts such as beer brewing and cheese making, home crafts such as soap making and other topics related to self-sufficient, sustainable living in urban and suburban settings. Please use comments to share your thoughts about what a compendium such as The New American Homestead should include, what we can leave out, or anything else you'd like to comment on.

My previous book, Pay Dirt: How to make $10,000 from your backyard garden, sold over 10,000 copies in its first six month. Thank you, dear readers, for this support. Please tell your friends about the book, and share your ideas, questions and success stories with us via this blog! Your homestead can supply you with income as well as food.

We hope this (almost) daily look at how things are going on a suburban homestead in the heart of middle America will serve as a source of inspiration and ideas for folks who are trying to accomplish the same thing, wherever you might reside.

What's Growing Now?

Our food garden sits right smack on the border between USDA Hardiness Zones 7 and 6. So far, we've had a cold, wet, early winter. Lows dipped into the lower teens just last week.  But the tiny coldframe we  built last fall continues to supply us with lovely greens: spinach, 'Red Romaine' and 'Buttercrunch' lettuce, and 'Even Star Winter' arugula. Next year, we will remember to include carrots, cilantro, and perhaps potatoes in our coldframe garden. And we are definitely building additional coldframe growing space. We have already proved to ourselves that we can extend the season by at least a month on each end. Gardening friends report winter long harvests of several cool season crops, and we have no doubt that we can duplicate their successes. Above is a photo of the coldframe, which was built for under $20, not counting the raised bed itself, which we've used for years. In it you can see the greens we were growing in October, including 'Black Seeded Simpson' a splendid heirloom that has been a favorite in this region for decades. We now have a third planting of lettuces and arugula coming along.

Ginger is growing in a pot indoors. We planted the rhizome about a month ago, and the shoots are already four inches tall. After spending the summer outdoors, the ginger plant should yield about a pound of roots when we harvest next fall.

After the holidays, it will be time to reset the beds holding our main cash crop, hardy Chinese ground orchids, Bletilla striata.

With the arrival of the winter solstice, we wish you a happy and prosperous New Year, and the very best for the holiday season.