Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Eating Down the Larder - Week Two Wrap-Up

I have a confession. We have a spring ritual. It really is a thing for us, and while we could have just not done it this month, because of the food pantry challenge, we decided that we like our rituals, and we did it anyway - even though it violated the challenge.

Maine winters can be tough. It's cold. On the beach, the wind coming off the winter ocean is so cold it feels like it's ripping the skin right off our faces.

During the summer, the beach and downtown areas are so inundated with tourists, we can't even move down there. I avoid downtown during the summer, except on certain weekdays, in the middle of the day, early or late in the season when it's still summer, but some tourists have to get their kids home to go to school. So, like, the whole month of July we avoid downtown. Early June and late August, we might go down, but only during the day (before noon), and only in the middle of the week - Tuesday or Wednesday - because there are fewer tourists.

We've had friends who tell us how lucky we are that we live at the beach, and I won't disagree, except to say that we, residents, don't get to enjoy the full splendor of the beach, because we have so many summer visitors.

With all of that in mind, our first visit to the beach in the spring, when it's warm enough to go barefooted in the sand, is a big deal. It's usually in April. The visit always includes a stop at Lisa's Pizza, one of the only places downtown that stays open all year. It's a walk-up pizza place (they sell fried foods and pizza) with no seating, except the benches on the sidewalk, and every order is always "to go." During the winter, they put up a temporary wrap-around enclosure so that they can stay open. When Lisa's Pizza takes down their winter enclosure, it's spring. We take a walk on the beach, and then, stop at Lisa's for some fries before we head home. It's a thing. We've done it every year since the 2007 Patriot's Day Storm, when we walked down to the beach the day after, and then, had fries on the walk home.

Last week after volunteering at our local Food Pantry, it was a beautiful day, and we decided to stop at the beach on the way home. Lisa's enclosure was down. It was time. We had some French fries - not from our own kitchen.

Every other meal, however, was from our own pantry, including breakfast, and snacks while the girls were at dance and lunch on Thursdays when we have co-op. Popcorn is a featured treat for snacking. We also made some granola using blueberries we dried last summer.

For Sunday dinner, I made an amazing roast chicken with vegetables (using up the last of our carrots). Chicken ... on Sunday. How cliché, right? Monday was pizza. Tuesday we picked up the cow share, and so dinner was a roast. Wednesday we had Tacos. Thursday we had chili. Deus Ex Machina was craving steak, and since we had the cow share, we had grilled steak with mashed potatoes on Friday. Saturday we whipped up a stir-fry.

We have managed to use all of the potatoes, carrots, and squash that we had stored, but the Jerusalem artichokes are ready to be dug. We're out of apples, although we still have a couple of jars of applesauce, plus a bunch of berries in the freezer. The garlic is gone, but we still have onions. We still have rice and beans aplenty and also lots and lots of meat in the freezer (not even including the beef). We have plenty of bread, plus: flour (buckwheat, wheat, and sunchoke), corn meal, and gluten-free baking mix. We have fresh eggs, the chives are coming up in the garden, a few wild edibles are just about ready to pick, and the rabbits born over winter are ready for harvest.

We're not even close to starving, and we're not close to running out of food. Meals might get more bland, or more weird, in the next week, but we'll still probably eat well.

Are you doing the challenge? How have your meals been?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Eating Down the Larder - Week One Wrap-Up

When I agreed to do the challenge, I really thought we would have a hard time - not because we don't have enough food, but because our lives are so incredibly busy. A couple of years ago, I went to see my doctor. We chatted about my health and my concerns - one of which was my increasing waist-line. The issue is that we eat so late at night. Some nights, dinner (my primary meal of the day) is served as late a 8:00 PM. I know families whose kids are in bed before then.

My doctor agreed that eating so late was probably my biggest issue and asked if I couldn't change it. Three years later, nothing has changed. We're still eating dinner really late on several nights during the week.

Which is our other issue, because some of those late nights end with carry-out, and we can't have carry-out during the Pantry Challenge.

Luckily, my daughters are very committed to this challenge - interestingly - and on those days when I just wanted to cheat (who would know? :)), they would keep me in line. The fact is that we have a lot of food, and we managed, for the first week of the challenge, to make dinner at home, even when our busy, busy lives would have encouraged us to take the easy way out.

We officially started the challenge on Monday, April 6. That night, we had chicken soup. Tuesday, we had pasta. Wednesday, we had sandwiches and chili (from the freezer).

Thursday is a crazy-busy day. We leave home in the morning, drop Deus Ex Machina at work, and go to co-op. After co-op, I drop the girls at their dance classes, and go home to let the dogs out and check on things. Then, I pick-up Deus Ex Machina, and we go back to pick-up Precious at the dance school. On a usual Thursday, there would be just enough time to go to the grocery store before Big Little Sister and Little Fire Faery were finished for the evening, and then, back home.

We walk through the door, after that whirlwind day, at 8:30 ... and then, it's time for dinner. It's always been very easy to pick-up something quick at the grocery store (they have a salad bar and some prepared foods in the deli area), or to stop and pick-up a pizza. This week, we just came home, and we had eggs for dinner. It was delicious.

Friday, I cooked the last of our stored Hubbard squash. Big Little Sister made squash bread, and we had the bread, some of the cooked squash and pork chops for dinner.

Saturday was another of those crazy busy days. Big Little Sister and Little Fire Faery have dance until after 3:00 PM. In the morning, Deus Ex Machina usually has music, and Precious has group music lessons right after. Usually, Deus Ex Machina plays chauffeur, because he also has music lessons, but this Saturday he stayed home to boil sap. Saturday night we had a dance show for the girls, but we had just enough time between them finishing their dance classes and us having to travel back out to the dance show to put the maple syrup into jars, douse the fire, clean the pans, and gobble a couple of bowls of curried squash soup.

I picked up our cow-share from the butcher today, and so this week will feature beef in the latter part of the week. We're almost out of potatoes and carrots (clearly, we don't store enough of those!), and the cheese is just about gone - much to my daughters' dismay.

But we still have a lot of food! We just may end up with some very odd combinations for dinner in the next two weeks. Steak with corn muffins and pickled green beans, anyone?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It Must Be Spring ...

I found a Post-It note on my desk a few weeks ago. It said something about how it had snowed somewhere out west of us - Michigan or somewhere like that - on April 14, 2014. I guess I don't understand why we're so surprised by what we woke up to this morning.

Except that, perhaps, it's not surprise, but dismay. People keep talking about how hard our winter was, like we got so much snow exclamation point. This winter's snow totals weren't the most snow I've seen in a single winter in the time I've lived here in Maine.

The problem is that it all happened, mostly, in the month of February. In February 2015, it snowed, here in Maine - significant snow of more than 6" each time - every three days or so. In fact, it was so bad that Deus Ex Machina had his first, ever in my memory, snow day.

Businesses closed down. People were advised to stay off the roads. It was tough cleaning up with so much snow all at once.

That's what made it a hard winter. And that's what made last night's storm difficult. We ended up with a couple of inches - enough to cover the exposed grass. Two inches of snow? A dusting! Most people haven't even bothered to shovel. It's been that kind of winter.

But it's not winter anymore, in spite of the snow. It must be spring, because we have baby chicks.

We ordered three new hens, and two straight run (we wanted hens, but didn't have that choice). The breeds this year are: light Brahma (one of the white ones), two silkies (the straight runs - one black and one white), one Cuckoo Maran (because we wanted chocolate brown eggs :)), and one Plymouth Rock.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Eat Down the Larder Challenge 2015

I can give up if it's not working, right?

So, Erica, over at Northwest Edibles, has decided to make her Eat from the Larder Challenge an annual thing ... I guess. Well, anyway, she started it last year, and she's doing it again this year.

Last year Deus Ex Machina and I weren't in the right place (mostly mentally) to participate in the challenge, although we probably had the food. There was a lot of stuff going on, including Deus Ex Machina having just started a new job, and our need to find a contractor to do some repairs on our house (which we're still working on - and for the record, it's not just "home improvements" - although it's certainly that - but rather it was a repair, as we had a leaky roof that was too serious for just putting down new shingles, a door that wouldn't open, because it was improperly installed to begin with, and mold. Yep).

This year is a new year, and when I proposed the idea to Deus Ex Machina, he was actually interested in giving it a go. Wow! Right.

So, I forged right ahead, and we're in! We got a late start. Deus Ex Machina was traveling last week (he got home on Saturday night), and so we didn't "officially" start until Monday, but we're really excited to see how well we do, although there are a few areas where I can see that we're already going to be lacking.

First, though, our rules:
  • No buying groceries for the month of April. In spite of raising all of our own chicken and having a respectable garden each year, we still spend a lot at the grocery store. We eat well and never skimp on getting exactly the food we want to eat, which means we spend a lot on organic/fair trade foods, and yes, we still do buy groceries, which is what makes this challenge even more exciting, but it will definitely test our food storage.
  • We can use any food that is already here at the house, was "on order" before the challenge started, is foraged, or is given to us, that is, if we are invited to dinner, we can feel free to go without guilt. That box of Girl Scout cookies my sister-in-law gave us today is also allowed.
  • There will be no last minute purchases to "stock up", and this one I may regret.
  • Beverages are excepted, including milk purchased from our local farmer.

What makes challenges these days really difficult is that our schedule has gotten incredibly crazy. We have classes and/or volunteer obligations five days a week, and Deus Ex Machina and I still have "day jobs." Plus we only have one car now, and I'm spending a lot more time driving than I ever have.

What makes it much easier than in the past is that Big Little Sister has turned into quite a talented and resourceful little cook. In fact, on her sister's birthday, she had planned to make a rainbow cake. No big deal, right? If that's what you thought, you'd be wrong.

Her plan was to make a sheet cake for EACH color of the rainbow. Yes, it was, a six-layer cake. The problem was that Little Fire Faery's birthday is during a time of year when our chickens aren't really laying very well, which means we didn't have enough eggs for six layers. So, she improvised. She found several substitutes for eggs in cake recipes.

But then, we also ran out of baking powder, and she found substitutes for that, too.

As such, I'm actually pretty excited for this challenge, because I can't wait to see what she improvises later in the month when we don't have as many choices as we have right now.

As for areas where I'm sure we will be lacking, I can already see that the cheese is going to run out, which will be really disappointing, because the cow-share will include hamburg, which we haven't had in a few months, and we would make chili or tacos, but without cheese, it won't be as much fun.

My goal is to blog, at least, once a week to share what we've been cooking. It should be fun, but don't look for any super exotic meals.

Well, except, maybe some of this for dessert some evening, because I was given some very overripe avocadoes, and I need to use them in something.

If you're interested in joining the fun, be sure to visit Erica's blog. This is going to be fun ;).

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Suburban Homesteading

In 2013, I was privileged to be invited to speak at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania (for the second year).

For years, I've referred to myself as a suburban homesteader, and I knew that there were a lot of people around the country who were doing just what my family was doing. The key difference seemed to be that the people who were making the biggest splash in the area of having a tiny farm on a miniscule piece of land were childless couples or families with adult children. So, I began to wonder about the "average" suburban family, and whether or not I could find people, like me, with kids who were also trying to farm their suburban lots.

There are, actually, several families, like mine, close enough to me that I could drive to their homes, and I called them, asking for an interview. At my presentation in 2013, I featured three families: mine, a family who lives on a small "town" lot on the Cape Elizabeth/South Portland line in Cumberland County, Maine (very urban), and this family, who live in a rural suburb.

The 17 year old featured in this piece raises our pig for us each year. They have a pretty remarkable farm, and when I asked the Mom, if she thought they could turn their hobby into something that could make them more resilient in hard times, she thought for a second. She said yes, with hesitation, but only because she admitted that farming as a way of life was not their goal. But she also admitted, in our interview, that if they had to transition to supporting themselves with their farm, small as it is, they probably could. They would just have to do a lot more with gardening than they do (she said it was, usually, a haphazard endeavor that yielded more weeds than produce, and I, promptly, encouraged her to eat the weeds ;)).

She also said something else that was pretty profound, and I thought made a lot of sense. For them, it wasn't so much a pursuit of self-sufficiency for her and her husband, because she never wanted a farm, but rather that she has given her daughters some incredible skills.

In addition to the animal husbandry lessons (and there are many given that they raise so many different kinds of animals), they've also learned how to make soap and cheese (from goat's milk), they've learned the value in a day's work, and they've learned to keep very good records (Lucia has to know how much it costs to raise our pig so that she knows how much to charge us). They've learned some business skills (they sell their soap, for instance, at craft fairs) that will carry over into other endeavors.

And all of this, because they had a little hobby farm on their rural suburban homestead.

I often tout starting a homestead so that we, the PARENTS, can be self-sufficient, and I don't, often, talk about the great lessons that kids can get from growing up on a small farm. One of the best lessons is self-confidence on one's ability to fend for oneself.

Here on Chez Brown, we're in the midst of the maple sugaring season, and my family is boiling sap today to make syrup. It's a lot of work, and they're all working pretty hard at it. If all goes well, by the time we're headed to our relatives' house for dinner this evening, we'll have a half gallon of syrup cooling on the counter.

My daughters may not be homesteaders in their future, and the Almeida girls may decide that they don't wish to raise sheep when they get older, but the bigger lessons, the important lessons, they won't forget, and those will be the things that propel them into a life of self-sufficiency and independence.

If you asked me if our nanofarm was worth all the bother, I'd say yes, every time. I'm pretty sure Wendy Almeida would, too.