Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Urban Land Scouts--Saving Seeds

7 - The Urban Land Scout plants and cares for seeds.
Seed saving is an important gesture of both hope through the winter and self reliance. It is how generations of growers have preserved heirloom varieties or hybridized new strains with combinations of desirable traits.

Last year, our CSA share included Sungold Tomatoes. I don't know what it was--I usually prefer a slightly tart tomato, and love Green Zebras--but the Sungolds won my heart. I would dig them out from the half-bushel basket as soon as we would get into the car to drive home, and eat a few right then and there. I tried rationing them throughout the week, but quickly found out that when ripe, these little golden spheres don't last long; I knew that I'd been saving them for too long when a few of the Sungolds' skins broke. It was then that I decided that I must save some of the seeds and plant them in the spring, rather than just composting the tomatoes.
I know that because we're signed up for the same CSA this year, we'll probably get more Sungolds, but I don't care--I could eat these tomatoes every day. Besides, there are rumors that the Sungolds make a beautiful tomato jam, and I'm itching to try to make a few pints of this, knowing how much I like home-made ketchup. So, about a month or so ago, I started some of the tomato seeds inside. We haven't had as much sun as I'd hoped for, and our window sills aren't the best for tomatoes, but they seem to be doing well. I have a couple plants of few different varieties, but I'm most excited for the Sungold tomatoes.

If you've never saved tomato seeds before, you should try it; it's not difficult, and very satisfying. Even if you just grow one tomato plant, the work is worth it; and it's completely worth it to know exactly where the seeds came from, too!

I would also like to encourage you to consider Urban Land Scouts. There are several workshops coming up, and all of them are a great way to sharpen awareness of the natural world and to meet some wonderful folks. Being a part of the Urban Land Scouts has challenged me personally to do more, to be involved in the community, to be aware of my environment. As I expressed in my essay for the ULS blog, the program is a positive "response to fragmented communities, and people's dissatisfaction of being alienated from their surroundings." The steps it encourages you to take may be small, but they have deeper reverberations in your life and the life of others.

Of course, I later learned that saving seeds from the Sungold tomato is not advisable, as it is a hybrid. You can see my post about heirloom seeds and John Coykendall here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Future Canning Classes

Aside from just a few things--kimchi ingredients.
This month's preserving workshop was a fantastic experience both for me and (dare I speak for them?) the people who attended. The change of pace from canning was really nice, as I had the chance to share with people my rather new-found passion for all things fermented--not just kimchi. Especially during the second round of the kimchi workshop, I got a few people excited about brewing their own kombucha! And as always, I got to spend time with some great people and talk about preserving, gardening, and all those exciting things that are on their way with the spring season.

Next month, there will not be a canning or preserving class because I am still in the process for looking for a new space, however, I have a few exciting prospects in mind, and will resume classes (maybe even have more of them) starting in May (just in time for strawberry season). I also recently acquired a pressure canner, and hope to be teaching a class using it sometime in June or July. Stay tuned--there are many exciting things under way.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fermented Pepper Hot Sauce

In November, as the farmer's market season was winding down, and as there were fewer and fewer vegetables available at farmers' booths, we bought the hot sauce that would change our lives. Jim, the creator of the hot sauce, had sold us some of his jalapenos, which were some of the spiciest I've ever had; he also usually had a good variety of peppers available. And it was just something about that cool and cloudy day that prompted us to try some of the hot sauce (he dripped a little onto our fingers with a pipette); after one taste, we were hopelessly hooked on the stuff. It had a pleasant spiciness that intensified after a few seconds, and a slightly sour/complex taste that often accompanies fermented things. The flavor was also bright and tangy, and slightly sweet. I couldn't imagine 1) that I'd gone through life without this stuff and 2) that I used to not like spicy things. 

I liked the hot sauce so much, I knew that I had to try making some of our own, so we got some Tennessee cherry peppers from Jim. At his instruction, we went and bought a decent bottle of riesling, made a brine using the wine, and fermented the peppers in that brine for two months. After two months, we split up the peppers into 3 groups: one was frozen for later use, one went into making a simple hot sauce, and the third was blended with peaches, molasses, mustard powder, and other delicious things to make a sweeter, more complex hot sauce. 
Hardly a savory meal goes by without us using one of the hot sauces. Even though we made at least a quart and a half of hot sauce, we have gone through half of it already, and I'm glad that we have some peppers frozen, should there come a day when we run out. 

Tonight, we doused our southern-themed (sauteed collards, barbecue tofu steaks, and pumkin cornbread) dinner in the plain hot sauce. If you've never considered making your own hot sauce, I suggest admonish that you at least give it a go--you won't be disappointed with the results.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Robert Frost Poem

Every now and then, I am reminded of the name of this blog, and the fact that more often than not, I write about food, but not literature or philosophy. And although Matt engages with philosophy more often than I, I still read and teach a course on writing about literature. I'm not making any promises, but I'd like to post about literature more often.

I taught this poem a few weeks ago, and had forgotten about how complex it is. Now that I'm grading student essays on poetry, I thought I'd revisit it and share it with you.

The Silken Tent

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

My students often miss the comparison that begins the poem, and so I spend a couple minutes at the beginning of class explaining how it works. I also like this poem because it reminds me that summer is on its way, and soon.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reduce, Re-use

Three years into being a vegan, veganism is normative to me; it's not necessarily always easy (I still have to ask questions every time I eat at an unfamiliar restaurant, and I continue to meet people to whom I explain veganism), but it is what is normal. There are definitely some things that I could still continue to figure out--in terms of cooking, or buying, or what-not, but for the most part, I don't spend as much time just contemplating veganism. And I think that I miss that, a little. I like thinking about the importance of daily objects, and how the domestic is the political. I know that making ethically-informed purchases is important--whether it's shampoo or food. And partially as an extension of my canning endeavors--which have shifted our dependence onto a different, and often local producer of ingredients, I've started thinking about other things in slightly different terms. Now that veganism is normative, I want to see if there are other areas in my life that I can change for the better.

Part of the change that I'm envisioning is a more radical reduction in my production of trash. I'm not sure how much I can reduce our output of trash, but I'm starting to try. I try to ask for ceramic mugs at coffee shops, where the baristas often automatically reach for the paper cups. I'm going to start trying to take more of my bulk containers to the co-op when I'm buying bulk items. I recently made lotion again, and am storing it in a mason jar. As of tomorrow, I will be out of shampoo, and I'm not buying any more; for that matter, I'm never buying body wash or face wash again, and am using castille soap and baking soda for cleaning not just myself, but just about everything. I know that a lot of the things that I'm not going to be buying anymore come in recyclable containers, but many of these containers are plastics that get down-cycled instead of recycled. Too often, we forget that reducing and reusing come before recycling. Reducing and reusing is more difficult than recycling, too, in that both force us to re-examine our methods of consumption, rather than just adding a step to our methods of disposal. Reducing, or doing without some things ultimately makes a bigger difference.

The main questions that I've been trying to ask of things are 1) Do I need this at all? and 2) Can I make (cook, can, or grow) it myself? I know that I can't make essential oils or baking soda or castille soap, but I know that buying those things means a much greater reduction in the number of cleaning agents that I buy. I hope that I can keep up with this, along with my resolve to not buy new clothes this year, and I'll try to note the kind of difference that it makes, before this, too--I hope--becomes natural and normative.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day--give some extra attention to the women in your life!

Also, today marks three years of being vegan.

I predict a good day all around!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Mustard Tiger--A Year In

It has been about a year since we've taken Mustard Tiger into our house. As you can see, he has fully recovered from his injury; he is incredibly well-adjusted and friendly to everyone. He is one of the most loving cats I've ever met, and there is not a day that we are not grateful for having him in our lives. I am so glad that we made the right decision and offered him a home, even when things were financially difficult for us. Thank you for a great year, Musty!

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Kombucha is not photogenic. The kombucha mother is especially unattractive, but I thought I'd post about this anyway--partially because I can't help but feel a certain sense of pride for this grown-up kombucha mother. You see the thick, firm white layer? You see the nicely active fermentation bubbles? I grew this kombucha mother using a bottle of GT's kombucha, some tea and sugar.

I first heard about kombucha a few years ago, when I was eating raw for a week while Matt was away at Louisville, and I decided to try it, despite its price. I can't say that I loved it immediately, but there was something intriguing about the taste, and it reminded me of kvass--something that I used to drink during my childhood in the former USSR. So I kept coming back to it, buying it occasionally, as a little boost for a crummy day, or just because. On one of these casual acquisitions, a cashier at Whole Foods turned to me, just as I was leaving, and said, "You know, you can make this stuff yourself. It's not that hard."

I, of course, took that as a challenge, and became determined to make my own kombucha. I started reading about it, obsessing about it, looking up reputable dealers of the mother culture...and actually didn't do anything about it for over a year. I kept telling myself that I didn't have enough time to tend to kombucha, that I would somehow ruin it and let it mold, that I wasn't a fit parent. And then what?

Jars came along. I've written a little bit about how canning has changed the way I look at food; but it's not just about canning. Jars have changed the way I look at food. We buy more bulk items because I love storing them in jars. And once I acquired a few half-gallon jars, I just had to put them to use. One of them holds the granola that I make almost weekly, a few of them hold the mellowing liquors, and one of them is a dedicated kombucha jar. It wasn't until I had the proper vessel that I decided to brave the kombucha-making experience.
To grow the beautiful mother that you see, I bought a bottle of kombucha, dumped it into a sterilized half-gallon jar, and added two cups of strong black tea sweetened with a half-cup of sugar. Because I started the growing in the winter, it took about a month for the liquid to form a thin, but cohesive film layer. I added a few tablespoons of sugar every few weeks, to feed the baby culture, and two months later, I had a mother culture that was barely over an eighth of an inch thick, floating smugly atop the vinegary-smelling tea ferment. I may have rushed things a bit, but at that point, I started the production of kombucha--I poured off about 3/4 of the finished kombucha, then brewed about 6 cups of tea, sweetened it with half a cup of sugar (waited until it was at room temperature), and added it to the jar. And thus, every week for a couple months, now. I've even flavored small batches of kombucha with ginger-syrup! I'm glad that I gave it a try. If you would like, ask me in a couple months (when the mother culture is stronger yet,) and I can share a little baby SCOBY with you, too.