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HOMEGROWN Life: It’s Fall. Time to Eat!

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN LifeSome folks love summer. I prefer fall and winter. Why? Blame it on the food.

Already with the change of seasons, I’m a cooking fiend. There’s something about a fire crackling in the fireplace on an autumn night that sends me straight to the kitchen, bursting with ideas. The house is full of the aroma of winter squash roasting next to trays of sweet potatoes and pans full of Aroostook County Yukon Golds drenched in olive oil, tossed with Maine sea salt and fresh rosemary clipped from the fall garden. Roasted herb-crusted chickens fresh from a friend’s farm. Baked golden custards made with my turkey hen’s cache of eggs and sweet winter milk. Comfort food.

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I’ve been pickling, canning, putting up, putting by, and storing everything I can get my hands on. The last of the green tomatoes are jarred and nestled on the shelf next to the heirloom lemon cucumber pickles. The pumpkins are roasted, canned purée ready to fill piecrusts and bake into breads all winter.

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I’m proud to say I am not a mainstream shopper. Instead, I choose to raise goats for their milk and I turn a good portion of it into cheeses for myself and others. I’m blessed to walk out my door and pick heirloom apples from their branches while the girls dance around my feet. Gathering the remainder of my meals from like-minded folks who work to bring heirloom veggies, small-farm-raised meats, and a variety of other local foods to the table in turn brings me closer to people. I like that.

It takes time to raise good food. Hours of tending and weeding precious plants, feeding and caring for beasts through spring and summer. It also takes time to eat good food. I like knowing that, as long as my girls and I meet on a daily basis, I’ll never want for tall glasses of delicious milk. Butterfat content in the girl’s milk runs higher this time of year, so things are even creamier and tastier now. Likewise, while there are dry spells due to molting or to somebody deciding her eggs need to get converted into fluffy new chicks, I always have at least enough eggwash to brush on a freshly rolled piecrust.

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Speaking of pies! The past season’s jars of mincemeat were screaming to me from the shelves last week. Twice now they’ve found their way into savory crusts brushed golden with a mixture of the girls’ sweet milk and the ladies’ neon yellow yolks. Who says mincemeat is just for the holidays? I hope our local mincemeat guru will be producing and bringing more to the Grange Hall Christmas Mart in—dare we say—just a few weeks. I’m down to one jar!

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How do you resist the comfort of a hearty dish of mac and cheese brimming with a variety of local cheeses? Yes, I’m probably biased as a cheese maker, but I have to say that there are some unbelievably tasty and really good cheeses produced here in Maine. Nothing goes to waste in cheese making. Every meal is like a new adventure in tasting all the goodness that comes from the season.

Summertime is so busy, I find myself grazing through fresh salads filled with crispy greens. Cucumbers sliced wafer thin, marinated in freshly made chive blossom vinegar. Tomatoes of every shape layered on platters, sprinkled with fresh chevre, straight out of the cheesecloth bag.

Even so, fall and winter foods bring so much more flavor and color to the table. I lived in Florida for a brief time, and I remember missing the seasonal foods. Somehow, when it’s 90 degrees outside for ten months of the year, I’m just not inspired to throw a couple of sheets of gingersnaps in the oven. Living where foods change with the seasons, I find myself becoming more adventurous with flavors and textures of all kinds.

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We’re expecting a Nor’easter here today, but not even the prospect of a winter storm is daunting when my belly is full of the season’s best. With fresh ginger harvested from a neighbor’s garden, I’m preparing for wind, rain, and cooler temps. After milking this morning, I popped some gingerbread into the oven. Gingersnaps are next. Goats like a little comfort food, too, when the storms are blowing out over the bay.

So I’m grabbing a dish, lighting the kindling, and hunkering down. Let the wind roar, the flakes blow. (Well, maybe not quite yet, but soon.) If you’re a summer person, I salute you. For me, it’s all about slow cooking, knitting needles flying, sitting by a fire lit early in the evening with a plate full of all the goodness the season has to offer.

 

HOMEGROWN Life: Dyan RedickDyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.

ALL PHOTOS: DYAN REDICK

HOMEGROWN Life: The Great Pumpkin Debate

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

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Those who know me know just how much I LOVE Halloween. Tom and I even got married on Halloween, in the ultimate DIY labor of love. Half of the tower is packed with Halloween decor, most of it being the classy Martha Stewart-esque type of decor. No plastic crap for us.

So it was kind of a surprise last year when I decided to forgo growing pumpkins. Between pumpkins and zucchini, I didn’t want to deal with the whole saving-seeds thing. (Both are the same species, C. pepo.) I also decided not to “waste” space on nonedibles. Pumpkins, the jack-o’-lantern types, are edible but bland, watery, and stringy. We just don’t eat them. Of course, when I made my decision, fall, my favorite time of year, was well behind us. I think my judgment was clouded, because now I’m sitting here mad that I didn’t grow any pumpkins.

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Granted, I did grow some Musquee de Provence squash, otherwise known as “fairytale pumpkins.” They’re gorgeous but they just aren’t the same. They aren’t easy to carve, and I would prefer not to waste them on jack-o’-lanterns because they are good eating. But they’re also big, and I find that, around here, big squash go uneaten because we never want to cook a whole one all at once. We generally don’t want to eat squash two days in a row, either. The other squash we’re growing this year, rather unsuccessfully, is Marina di Chioggia, also known as a sea pumpkin. (Notice a theme here?) It’s a type of turban: big, green, and warty. It has the most amazing flavor I’ve ever had in a squash. But they don’t make very good substitutes for pumpkins.

DIF3I’ve spent years growing pumpkins. Most years were pretty disappointing, but I continued to try to grow them. I remember how excited I was about the very first pumpkin I was able to produce. The plant in the picture at left gave us four of these monsters, each weighing more than 50 pounds, with the largest topping out at 75 pounds. These weren’t even a giant pumpkin variety. They were Howdens, the typical jack-o’-lantern, grown with a good helping of chicken manure. if you couldn’t tell, I’m very proud of these. So is Squeek.

This is what I want to start growing again. Big orange pumpkins. So this coming year, I’m going back to growing pumpkins—and also some other squash, such as Tromboncino, Acorn, Spaghetti, Marina di Chioggia, and probably some other random types. I’m rather enamored with Iran squash, which Baker Creek now carries seeds for.

Are you growing gourds this year? What kinds? Got any suggestions to add to the Leftover Pumpkin Parts 101?

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better! 

HOMEGROWN Life: Growing, Curing & Storing Onions

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENAround here, we go through half a dozen onions a week because we’re slightly nuts, but they add so much flavor to meals, how could we not? There’s no possible way we could grow enough onions to provide for all year long unless we severely cut back, but who would want to do that? We do, however, try to grow as much as we can to meet at least some of our onion needs. There are several different types of onions: Bunching, walking, multiplier, and bulb are the most common. Here, I’ll be talking mostly about bulbing onions.

Once you figure out what works best for you, growing onions can be very rewarding. If taken care of in the beginning, they’re kind of a set-it-and-forget-it crop until harvest.

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Choosing Onions

Growing onions can be very rewarding but it can also be a bit confusing. When you look up onions in your seed catalog, the description will read “Long Day,” “Short Day,” or “Day Neutral/Intermediate.” These descriptions refer to how and where, geographically, the onion grows best. When you plant onions, they’ll start out looking like scallions. When the day length reaches a certain point, the onion will start to bulb. The trick is to get the most greens on the plant before it does this. More and bigger greens = a bigger bulb. But you don’t want it to take so long that it will bolt too early before harvest and before you have a bulb.

  • Short day varieties require 12 hours of daylight to start bulbing.
  • Long day varieties require 14 to 16 hours of daylight to start bulbing.

The general rule is, if you live above the 35th parallel (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington, DC) you’ll want to grow long day onions because you will get longer days to encourage bulbing. Growing a short day variety in the north will cause your onion to bulb too early and end up being too small. Below the 35th parallel, you’ll want to stick with short day varieties. Growing a long day variety in the south will result in an onion that bolts before it ever bulbs because the days never got long enough. If you’re pretty close to the 35th parallel, you can do either type pretty successfully. Our most successful onion variety at our house is Yellow of Parma, which is a long day variety. Day neutral, also called intermediate, can be grown anywhere.

Next you’ll need to figure out what types of onions you want to grow. A good rule of thumb is the sweeter and milder the onion, the shorter the shelf life, or about two months. If you have a bumper crop of red onions, you can preserve them by pickling, or even caramelizing and then freezing them for future use. Onion varieties like Vidalia, Maui, most red types, and Grano are going to have a short shelf life and are best eaten fresh. The more pungent yellow and white onions, such as Yellow of Parma, Ailsa Craig, Copra, and Cortland, can be stored for as long as 12 months. We usually grow one-third red onions and one-third yellow onions.

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Growing Onions

There are several ways you can plant onions. You can use seeds, transplants, or sets. Sets are basically miniature onions that you plant out. Sets are 1-year-old onions, so they can sometimes be more prone to bolting early, as onions are biennials and flower in their second year. Onions transplant very well, so you can start with transplants to get a jump on the season. I usually start with seed but have found that onions are a bit finicky about direct sowing, so I start them indoors and then transplant them out. I like to use seed mostly because there are many more varieties available that way than in any other form.

You can plant your onions en masse. When you do, just tease them apart. I start them in flats in the greenhouse and once they are about 3 inches tall, I transplant them in a well-amended, loose bed of soil. Don’t use a high nitrogen fertilizer for onions, although you do want to offer them some nitrogen. What you want is more phosphorus to encourage root growth. A good amendment would be a combination of poultry and steer (or goat) manures.

There are two very important things to know about growing onions. They need a good amount of water, especially when they’re young, and they really dislike competition from weeds. You can mulch around them with straw after they’re big enough to help with both of these issues.

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Harvesting Onions, Curing Onions & Storing Onions

When the tops of the onions start to fall over, you are nearing harvest time. We usually wait until almost all of the tops are down and most are beginning to dry up before harvesting. We harvest in August, when it’s bone dry here, but if you live somewhere that rains, make sure to wait until you have a nice break in the rain and the ground has a chance to dry out some before harvesting. Don’t pull the onions out by their tops. Instead, use a shovel or a fork to gently lift them out of the ground. You want to keep the top on through the curing process to avoid opening the onion up to pathogens that could cause their early demise.

Other things to watch out for are bruising and onions that have bolted. The bolted onions will have a stiff stem coming up through the center. It is safe to assume that any onions that have dropped on the ground are bruised. These we set aside to be used first. The rest of the onions we lay out on a table in a single layer in a warm area with good circulation but out of direct sun. We have a metal patio table with a mesh top that works well for this but we also use a wood table with just as much luck. Don’t wash them or peel off any layers.

Allow your onions to cure for about 2 weeks. The tops and roots of the plant will dry down to nothing. Once they are completely dry, the curing process is done and you can trim the top and the roots. Store them in a cool, dark place. We store them in small burlap bags in our water tower and garage. I prefer the smaller bags because it allows all of the onions to get plenty of air circulation. The larger, coffee-bean-sized burlap bags always end up causing the onions in the center to rot first.

A proper curing will ensure that your onions keep for a good, long time. I do find as they age they become more pungent and oh, boy, can they leave you in tears! Just throw them in the freezer for about 10 minutes prior to cutting to avoid crying all over your cutting board.

Some resources for onion seed:

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!