Saturday, November 29, 2014

Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

Now that the turkey roaster (or deep fryer) has been put away, the tetrazzini or hash consumed, and the good dishes washed and stored, it is time to think about the Christmas season. Our neighbors have been putting up decorations this weekend, which gave me the notion to blog about sustainable Christmas decorations.

Your first choice should be the evergreens in your yard, or perhaps that of someone you know. Fresh cut pine boughs, along with spruce and Leyland cypress, are likely to be the most widely available. Don't overlook broadleaf evergreens, such as holly, also. Just take care not to remove too much foliage from any one tree or shrub. If someone you know is pruing or removing a tree, take advantage of the bonanza. Freshly cut evergreen boughs will remain green and pretty longest if they are stored in a cold, dark place until you need them. A plastic storage box on the back porch would be ideal.

You can use florist wire to form individual branches into garlands, or to secure branches to a wire form to make a wreath.

Another time-honored way to make Christmas decorations is to use pine cones, sweet gum fruits, acorns, nuts and other natural objects creatively. A bit of red ribbon and some silver paint turns a pine cone into a decoration.

If you are not the creative type, seek out seasonal decor at the farmer's market or produce stand. You will find an array of wreaths, garlands, and other items, all crafted locally. Also visit a local, independent garden center for blooms, such as poinsettia and Christmas cactus, to help brighten up your all-natural holiday.

When it comes to lights, we do recommend taking advantage of available technology. LED holiday lights consume a tiny fraction of the electricity of their forebears, and do not pose a fire hazard, as candles do.

If you do choose to purchase holiday items, consider that plastics not only require fossil fuels as raw materials, but also for the manufacturing process and to transport them here from Asia.

Let's all work together to make this holiday season a sustainable one.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Seed to Supper

My wonderful agent, Grace, has succeeded in selling another book. My third sale of 2014 is Seed to Supper, which will be published by HCI. My new publisher is best known for the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, which has sold millions of copies worldwide. I am exicted to be working with such a successful nonfiction publisher.

Seed to Supper will include both growing instructions and recipes for about 40 varieties of garden vegetables, herbs and small fruits. The book is organized according to the amount of growing space required to produce a reasonable quantity of each crop. Thus, we begin with herbs and greens that can be grown in a sunny window or under lights, and progress to outdoor containers, raised beds, and finally edible landscapes. The book will feature over 100 recipes for every course from appetizers to desserts, along with instructions for preserving seasonal flavors in pickles, jams, jellies and other products.

If you are interested in testing one or more recipes, please indicate your interest in the Comments section below. Everyone who tests three recipes will receive an autographed copy of the book. Everyone who tests at least one recipe will be mentioned in the Acknowledgements section of the book. I am presently compiling the final recipe list, and will send everyone who expresses interest an email with testing guidelines and the list of recipes from which you can select. First come, first served.

Recipe testers will be doing every reader of Seed to Supper a huge service. Although I try my best to present clear instructions for every recipe, only in practice can we be sure anyone who tries to make the dish with succeed.

Please let me know ASAP of your interest, and thanks!

Friday, November 21, 2014

The First Hard Freeze

We received our first hard freeze earlier this week, when the thermometer dipped into the 20s. We harvested everything usable the day before the freeze was predicted, and now have the refrigerator stocked with lettuces, sorrel, and a nice mess of turnip greens.

With the arrival of the cold, the garden is pretty much done for the season, although the Lacinato kale is unfazed. This extremely hardy variety will continue to provide leaves for cooking off and on for most of the winter, although it will only grow if the weather warms up sufficiently. This variety is sometimes called "dinosaur kale" in the produce market, because the leaves look like they might be modeled after a reptile's skin. They are thick, dark green and highly nutritious. Kale can be used in any recipe calling for collards, turnip greens or other cooked greens.

This is the time of year to think about comfort foods loaded with rich sauces, protein and pasta or other carbs. Two of the most difficult things to provide from a home-scale garden are protein and grains. Both need to be produced in significant quantities, even for a small household, and sufficient space is seldom available. Legumes provide one of the most economical sources of protein, especially when purchased in dry form in the bulk section of the market. I always stock up on several kinds of beans, field peas, and peanuts in the fall, when the new crops will have arrived in the market.

Grains are also cheap when purchased in bulk. Rice, flour and cornmeal are the primary ones around our house. Gluten-free eaters will want multiple kinds of rice, and alternative grains such as quinoa, amaranth, and millet.

With regard to flour and cornmeal, as a native Southerner I insist upon White Lily flour for biscuits and pastry crust. I use all-purpose flour for everything else. I also prefer White Lily self-rising cornmeal mix for making cornbread that approximates my mother's version. It also makes a crispy breading for okra or fritters. I like coarse organic yellow cornmeal for polenta, but the grains are too large for breading, as they absorb too much grease and become gluey.

Mom's cornbread is easy and delicious, thanks to the White Lily, but it is not truly an old-fashioned recipe. To duplicate my grandmother's cornbread requires more effort. First, it is necessary to locate cornmeal made from regionally grown Tennessee Red Cob corn. This yellow corn was the only one my grandfather grew for making meal. It is still around, but difficult to find and expensive. Next, you will require a package of Benton's bacon. This is easy to come by, and is produced from the same type of heritage breed hogs my grandfather raised. You also need farm-fresh, free range eggs and real churned buttermilk. Both are now readily available. (Find all these products at Three Rivers Market.)

Old-Fashioned Tennessee Cornbread

In a 9-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, cook three strips of bacon until crisp, remove them from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Save the bacon for another use, or crumble it and add it to the cornbread before adding the hot bacon drippings as described below. Reserve the drippings in the skillet. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Set the skillet in the oven to heat while you prepare the cornbread batter.

In a bowl combine 1 cup of cornmeal, 1/2 cup of White Lily flour (NOT self-rising), 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix these ingredients together with a wire whisk. In a separate small bowl, combine one whole egg and 1/2 cup of buttermilk, whisking to combine well. Make a well in the cornmeal mixture and add the liquid, whisking with a few quick strokes. Add more buttermilk if necessary to make a smooth batter. Using protective gloves, carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and pour the bacon drippings into the batter. Quickly set the skillet on the stovetop and whisk the batter to combine. Pour the batter immediately into the hot skillet. It should sizzle. Return the skillet to the oven and bake until lightly browned on top, about 35 minutes. The cornbread should move when the skillet it shaken gently. Remove from the oven and tip out the cornbread on to a heatproof plate. Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Winter Arrives Early

Welcome to winter! It's only a couple of months early. Records were broken for snowfall all over our region, although none at all fell here at the house. East Tennessee received snow before Colorado's Front Range area, something that has not previously happened in living memory. Some areas of South Carolina received snow on November 1 for the first time since records have been kept. If this is any indication of the winter we have in store, we should all be making some preparations.

With the falling temperatures, the garden has rapidly entered dormancy. Our first killing frost occurred overnight, as evidenced by brown leaves and collapsed, mushy foliage. Turnip greens, collards and kale are all unfazed, however, and will continue to provide nutritious meals for another month, at least. The snap peas should hang on for a while, too. We will probably harvest the last of the pods today, but the shoots, the outermost 8 inches of each branch, will remain usable until we have a really hard freeze. I like to add pea shoots whole to stir fried dishes. Add them at the end, as you would spinach or another delicate vegetable. They are also good in other dishes where you might use blanched spinach as an ingredient.

Our last planting of lettuces has also fared well. They are located in a spot that is somewhat protected by tall grasses, and have escaped frost damage. Combined with a few of the cherry tomatoes that continue to ripen in the basket on the kitchen counter, they will make a few more salads before the weather finally does them in. Sorrel is another green crop that does not mind the cold too much. It adds a lemony note to salads, and can be added to soups, too. The leaves get particularly large and succulent during cool weather. Sorrel is a perennial, although in the Tennessee Valley it may heat-kill during a particularly oppressive summer season.The plants form a mound about two feet in diameter, and are easy to grow if you have a suitable spot. Sorrel likes water, and protection from harsh afternoon sun.

With the prospect of a bad winter, now is the time to make preparations in case you are without electricity, or the roads are impassable. Here in East Tennessee, it can sometimes take a long time for road crews to reach all the secondary roads, owing to the fact that most winters are mild. If you live away from the city as we do, it is possible to be stranded for a day or two. Therefore, we always try to anticipate problems and prepare for them.

If you have preserved some of your garden harvest, you should have a well-stocked pantry. Make sure you keep staples on hand. Flour, sugar, coffee, tea, rice, dried beans, oil and cornmeal constitute my short list. Don't forget paper products and soap. If you have pets, make sure to keep their foods on hand, too. We have gas heat, which is unlikely to be interrupted. Nevertheless, we keep a tank of propane and a propane indoor space heater in the garage, just in case. We also have a butane stove, and a couple of extra cans of fuel, so we can cook even if power for the electric range is out. This is also a good time to check your medicine cabinet for first aid items. If anyone in your family takes prescription medicine, be sure they have enough on hand to last a couple of days.

If you have children, also be prepared with games or whatever other activities you deem appropriate, in case they are home from school for a while.

Generally speaking, our worst winter disruptions only last a day or two. Taking a few simple precautions can make the difference between a miserable time and a relatively pleasant one.