The Solution

Now I’ve had to settle for good enough right now, but that doesn’t mean I have to settle forever.  My first step was to make sure I had enough food that was good enough to feed us throughout the winter.  My second step was to figure out how to fix the problem.  What is the problem?  Fresh vegetables in the winter.  I learned that it’s just not possible to get good fresh vegetables in the winter on the island.  Everything is flown across, and if the weather is bad, the plane can’t fly and the vegetables sit in the hanger and freeze.  It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the nature of life on the island.  But I’m not going to let that stop me from eating a salad in the winter.

What is my solution?  Hydroponics.  I want lettuce and tomatoes.  I’d be happy with just lettuce, but if I’m going to grow stuff indoors, why not some tomatoes too?  So I now have two small lettuce rafts, 10 Tiny Tim tomato plants, 5 full sized tomato plants, 2 Mini Bells pepper plants and a Kamo eggplant.  I decided to grow some microgreens as well.  I’m having a lot of fun growing things indoors.  With proper light and nutrients, the plants are thriving.  I have a lot to learn, and each day I come up with another experiment I want to do.  Which variety of lettuce is best?  Which ones perform best under low light?  Which tomato variety is best?

I’ve learned a lot so far and have a lot more to go.  I’ll go into details on the different systems I’ve decided to use and why, information on lighting choices and why I chose what I did, as well as growing medium and nutrients in future posts.

A fresh salad in January while watching a blizzard blow outdoors?  Why not?

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Good Enough

I take things to extremes.  When I get excited about something, I pursue it with my whole being.  I immerse myself in it.  I want to know everything about it.  And then I can become a bit of a purist about things.  I have to do it completely, obsessing about the details, getting everything perfect.  I’m a perfectionist.  I admit it.  And this is something that I’ve been working on, and the move to Beaver Island has forced me to confront this in our food.

I’ve made all our family’s tomato sauce for over 10 years.  I started by buying bushels of tomatoes at the farmer’s market and making sauce.  Then I grew our tomatoes and made sauce, and eventually switched to all heirloom tomatoes, grown organically.  That is the best sauce ever.  Each batch had a couple of varieties of tomatoes, but the big batches had over 20 varieties of tomatoes, each adding it’s own flavor profile, making for the best, most complex, delicious tomato sauce.

And this year we sold that garden, and I moved in August.  No tomatoes.  I didn’t even bother planting heirlooms at the old farm because I knew that I wouldn’t be there to harvest them.  And no tomatoes at the new farm.  The soil is too acidic to grow much.  We have a lot of work ahead of us to make the gardens that I know we will eventually have.  But the big question, how was I going to feed our family this winter?

And then I started to explore ‘good enough.’  We have to eat.  Tomatoes are a staple of our grain free diet.  I use tomato sauce and lots of it.  We don’t eat spaghetti, which is what most people do with tomato sauce.  I make tomato soup, curries, salsas with eggs, serve sloppy joes over mashed potatoes.  Tomatoes and tomato sauce are so versatile and useful.  I needed canned tomatoes, sauce and paste that was acceptable.  I needed to buy canned food!  I hadn’t bought canned tomatoes in over 10 years.  Well, maybe once or twice a can here or there, but not like this.  I needed cases of canned tomatoes.

After doing some research, I figured I had to just try different brands and types and see what was acceptable.  I believe that our taste buds can tell us where the nutrients are.  The best tasting will be the best for us.  I had also heard that the San Marzano tomatoes grown in Italy on their rich volcanic soil are excellent.  One friend even claimed that they are better than any sauce he’d made from locally grown tomatoes.  So I tried some.  They are good.  Not as good as my heirloom sauce, but pretty tasty.  And I found my answer.  Good enough.  I bought cases of San Marzano tomatoes grown in Italy.  Hopefully next year I’ll be able to make my own tomato sauce again.  But the perfectionist in me had to learn a lesson, sometimes we just need good enough.

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Salad Dressing

I used to hate salad.  My mom would tell me stories of the leaf lettuces she grew when I was very young.  But after we moved, the neighbor’s tree shaded the yard so much that she had to give up on gardening.  After that, it was just grocery store vegetables, and back then that meant iceberg lettuce.

I wasn’t a fan of iceberg lettuce.  My mom dressed her salad up with canned pickled beets and three bean salad, both of which I hated, so I hated salad.

I have since come to love a good salad.  Heirloom lettuce, I don’t care what kind, homemade dressing and an assortment of toppings.  Salmon or shrimp with dried fruit and candied nuts or a beef taco salad with homemade salsa are two of my favorites.

There is one recipe that I get the most requests for, my salad dressing.  It doesn’t matter which one, it’s always a favorite.  And it’s really easy and really only one recipe with a lot of variations.  It takes less than 5 minutes to make, so there’s really no reason to buy expensive dressings or those full of bad oils and bad ingredients.

You can use a whisk or for to blend the dressing, but those dressings are more prone to separate later on.  The oil just doesn’t emulsify as well.  I love my mini-food processor for this.  It costs about $25, and is well worth it for dressings as well as chopping small stuff and grinding spices.

Honey Mustard Viniagrette

  • 1 T. Mustard
  • 1 1/2 to 2 T. honey
  • 1 T. cider vinegar
  • splash of water
  • pinch of salt
  • olive oil

Put the mustard, honey, vinegar, salt and water in the food processor and blend until mixed.  You might have to scrape the honey off the bottome to incorporate it.  Turn on the processor and fill the top drip tray with olive oil.  You will probably needed to fill it two to three times.  It will start to get thicker.  Stop and taste it from time to time to see if it’s to your liking.  The harsh flavor of the vinegar will mellow as you get more oil mixed in.  Adjust with honey and salt if needed.

Mustard is one of the best ingredients to aid in emulsifying the dressing.  If you want a thick dressing, add some more mustard.

The variations are endless.  I routinely make a balsamic vinaigrette with less mustard, balsamic vinegar instead of cider, and using more vinegar.  To make it creamy, add a little yogurt or sour cream.  Sometimes I use a fruit jam instead of the honey for a strawberry, cherry or raspberry viaigrette.  Just try things.  I find most are good, and rarely ever do I throw out a dressing.

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Growing Carrots

Carrots are one of the first vegetables people mention when I ask them what they want to grow.  The problem is that they are one of the hardest to grown and are not a good place to start for the beginner gardener.

There are many different ways to plant carrots, and one year I decided to try a bunch of them and figure out a way to get a reliable harvest.  The following is the method I use that works for me.  Really, whatever works for you is the right way for you.

First, carrots are slow to germinate.  They typically take up to 2-3 weeks to pop up their little heads.  This causes a lot of problems, mostly in watering and weeding.

The first thing you need to do is prepare a bed that has as few weeds as possible.  I struggle with quack or orchard grass.  I use a pitch for tup pull up all the roots I can so that the grass doesn’t come up before the carrots do.  You also want the bed as light and fluffy as you can get it, giving the roots a loose soil in which to grow straight and long.

I like to plant my carrots on both sides of a drip irrigation tape.  I make a small trench on either side of the tape, about 4 inches away.  I lightly scatter the seeds in the trench and then take my finger and just run it along the trench.  I don’t lover the seeds.  The really don’t want to be buried, only maybe covered by a little bit of soil.  Covering them will be too much.  They just won’t be able to come up.

And the most important thing is to keep them watered.  They need to stay wet until they come up.  That means a good soaking every day if you have sandy soil, or every couple of days if your soil has more clay.  I watch the dirt, and if it’s dry, it’s time to water.  I get up in the morning and I if I still see the wet path around the drip tape, I know it can go another day.  And by a good soaking, I mean you want that soil to be saturated at least a foot down.  Not a light sprinkle.  With a light sprinkle the water evaporates off the surface and doesn’t plump the seeds, giving them the moisture content they need to germinate.

When the seedlings are up, about 4 inches or so, it’s time to thin.  I usually weed and thin at the same time.  It takes a while, but is worth it.  Thin to one carrot every 1 1/2 to 2 inches.  The patch will look a bit pathetic, but give it some water and wait a week and you’ll see a sea of little carrot seedlings thriving.  I usually don’t need to weed much after that, only wait for a big harvest.

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Pops

Scott had a very special relationship with his grandfather, Pops.  Pops was a wonderful man.  Kind, generous, but feisty and full of fight.  Nothing could crush his spirit.  He had an aneurism that killed him, but they brought him back from the dead to give him 15 years of life.  A life that he enjoyed despite severe emphysema.  It was at the end of those 15 years that I met him.  He couldn’t do many of the things he once enjoyed, so he set out to find new things to enjoy that he could do with his reduced health.  His wife lived those 15 years as borrowed time, enjoying every minute with him, wasting not even a moment on the things that aren’t important.

We were living in Chicago, pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Chicago.  At least once a year we’d make the treck up to Northern Michigan to visit Pops and Grandma.  They were very social people, and we loved to see them as much as they enjoyed us visiting.  On on of those visits, after listening to Grandma’s story about visiting Chicago, Pops said “The city is no place to raise a family.”

That phrase stuck with us and has been a large driving force in our lives.  Dreaming, planning and working towards a life that Pops would be proud of.

We’ve done it, Pops.  I know he’s looking down with pride in the life we are able to give our children.  Not in the city and the rat race, but on an island in Northern Michigan, at home with their parents, surrounded by friends.

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We’re Moving!

We have been dreaming of moving to Beaver Island for years.  8 years ago we bought 10 acres with the intent of building a home on it and moving to the island.  All we needed was a job to bring with us.  The last 8 years has been dedicated to finding that job to bring with us so we could live on the island.

And now Annie’s is big enough to support us, and we are able to make our dream a reality.  Construction prices were so high that it was a better idea to buy an existing home, so that’s what we did.  39 acres of semi-wooded and semi-cleared land on one of the old Mormon farms on the island with a small farm house.  Perfect for us, well perfect after a lot of hard work.  The land hasn’t been farmed in at least 50 years, so no fear of stripping it of nutrients or it being full of chemicals.  But the soil is sandy and acidic and the grass is sparse.  We have years of lime, green manures, and compost to apply.  But it’s exciting to start from scratch, creating the perfect farm.

I’m not on the island yet, but Scott and the kids are.  They are loving it, tending the few gardens I’ve put in, and preparing the land.  Junipers and pine trees will be removed from the cow pastures in the next few weeks.  We hope to turn the initial 10 acres into a certified organic seed farm.  A few acres there will be cleared to start the green manures and pastures for the livestock that will provide the much needed manures for the organic seed production.  There are already goats and chickens there, grazing what little grass is available and starting the long process to soil fertility.

By the end of the summer I will be up there.  Just in time to build the winter livestock housing and prepare all the raised beds for the garden.  Compost materials will be gathered, and we’ll start the long road to a very lush and fertile farm.  I can’t wait!

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Brussels Sprouts and Bacon and an Egg

We just finished eating dinner.  The kids are mad at me for eating the rest of them.  I grew up disliking brussels sprouts.  My mom would boil them until soft and put a pat of butter on them.  That’s it.  Slimy outer leaves, slightly salty, and really not very good.  And then I watched Jacques Pepin and Julia Childs cook vegetables, and I had to try them again.  Boiled lightly and then chopped and either fried in butter, stirred with sour cream, or flavored however you’d like.  They taste sweet and good instead of bitter.  No slimy leaves, and a little firm but not hard.

This recipe is a mix of several recipe’s I’ve made.  Start by preparing the brussels sprouts.  Cut off the bottom and peel off the loose outer leaves.  This is the next step that I learned from Julia, cut a small plus sign into the stem part of each sprout.  This allows the hot water to penetrate the sprout, allowing it to cook through properly instead of getting that mushy, slimy leave and a hard inside.  Cook in salted boiling water until they are starting to soften.  It’s usually around 10 minutes.  You don’t want to cook them until they are super soft, just soft enough to stick a fork into them.  When they are cooked, drain them and put them on a cutting board.  Chop into small or large pieces, whatever you prefer.

Meanwhile, chop up some bacon.  Cook it in a saute pan until it’s almost cooked.  When it’s almost finished, add some diced shallots and cook everything until the shallots are soft and the bacon is cooked.  If there isn’t enough fat in the bacon, add a little olive oil or butter.  Stir in the chopped brussels sprouts and cook for a few minutes, until all the flavors blend and the sprouts are hot throughout.  Remove from the heat.

For the final step, stir in a little romano cheese.  I’ve been using a wonderful sheep’s milk pecorino romano that adds a nice salty and tangy flavor.

Top each serving with a sunny side up fried egg.  This is the best part.  We went to a wonderful Asian fusion restaurant in Chicago last year.  I had brussels sprouts with miso topped with a quail egg.  The runny yolk makes for a wonderful sauce with the sprouts, adding creaminess and that wonderful mouth feel that only a raw yolk can do.  Yes, you can eat brussels sprouts without a fried egg, but why would you?

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Preparing for Winter – the Livestock

There’s a lot to be done to prepare for winter.  For those of you who live in the South, it probably isn’t as big of a concern.  For those of us who live in the North in places with several months of freezing temperatures, cold winds and snowstorms, it’s a big concern.

Every year we change something with the livestock.  It takes a long time to figure out exactly what species and breeds you want to keep.  I know I like keeping egg laying chickens, but I’m always trying a new breed, or 6.  I tend to run experiments, testing 6 or more breeds against each other to see which one I like best.  I still haven’t decided.  We’ve had layers for almost 10 years now, and I still can’t decide.

Last year I tried ducks.  I love ducks.  They are neat birds, and the eggs are great.  So now I have to decide if I want only ducks or ducks and chickens.  I think I want both.  The farm is a work in progress, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have it all figured out.  I’m not really sure I want to ever have it all figured out.  I’d get bored and have to start something new if I didn’t have something to learn.

We have finally settled on a breed of cow, the Dexter.  They are miniature cows from Ireland.  They are very hardy and graze well on less than ideal forage.  We have a sweet little bull, with a huge body and stubby little legs.  One reason I like them is that the bulls are really gentle.  I don’t worry about the kids walking in the pasture with him.  He just isn’t aggressive.  You can milk the cows, and the fat globules are smaller, making Dexter milk easier to digest.  I do much better with Dexter milk than other breeds.  And the cows are nice.  The breed is just a little more like a dog in behavior than other breeds of cows.

This year I also got some Dwarf Nigerian goats.  I love goat milk, and I find my body just prefers it.  Goats are difficult to fence and their personality tends to be contrary.  They do everything you don’t want them to do.  The Dwarf Nigerians are tiny, easier to fence, and have a nicer temperament.  I got a few Pygmy goats, which are meatier than the Dwarf Nigerians.  I like them too.  I’m loving the milk, too.  It’s high in butterfat and tastes amazing.  And I also love it that the kids can play with them.  Our 3 year old climbs the fence to go play with the goats.  They come up for a scratching but don’t jump or knock her over.

Because the animals I keep changes a little every year, I need to make adjustments to the winter yards and sheds every year too.  We used to have pigs.  Now the goats are in the pig hut, and I built a different yard and pasture for them.

I needed a more predator proof chicken house, so we buried chicken wire around the inside wall of the chicken house.  It’s a nice, tight structure with chickens and rabbits in it.  This winter I’m going to be having a bunch of baby goats born, and I need a good place for them to spend the night away from their moms.  I’m thinking that a nice little dog house inside the chicken and rabbit house will work well.  I’m going to build a little yard for them to play in and have the chicken house to keep them warm at night.  The more animals sharing a house the better.  They keep each other warm.

One final problem that we keep struggling with is where to keep the calf.  We only have one this year, and he really needs to be kept away from the rest of the herd.  The rest of the herd usually drives away the calves from the hay, making it hard for the little ones to eat.  That, and sometimes not being allowed inside the shed, means that they have a difficult time surviving the winter.  But being alone in a yard isn’t good either, since one calf can’t stay very warm when it’s alone.  This year we’re going to try keeping him with his mom in their own little shed and yard.  She’ll let him eat.  Hopefully she’ll also prevent him from nursing once she gets close to calving in the spring.  I’m in the process of building their new shed.  I’m cobbling it together out of pieces of other sheds that are no longer needed.  So far I have the frame and roof up.  Today the walls go on.  It should be a nice little place for mom and calf to spend the winter.

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Hello Fall

We had our first really hard frost last night.  I harvested all the tomatoes and peppers a few days ago.  I had a sheet over one pepper plant, we’ll see if it survived.  If not, it’s not a big deal.  We had a good summer with pretty good harvests.  We had a pretty warm start to the summer with a cooler finish.  As a result we had lots of peppers, but they stayed green, not ripening to beautiful yellows and reds.  I have a big basket of green peppers.  I much prefer the super sweet flavor of a ripe Golden Treasure pepper, but the green ones are good too.  The tomatoes ripened reasonably well, giving us a lot of great tomato soups and salsas.

That’s one of the great things about gardening.  It doesn’t get old.  Every year is different.  Drought, heat, cold, winds and storms, they all bring their own challenges.  Add in critters that eat stuff, bugs that help or hurt, and the specific weather patterns that intensify everything, and you won’t find a year that is routine.  I like the challenge.  I like learning something new.  I know that each year will bring it’s own ups and downs, and I look forward to the possibility that it brings.

Fall is upon us.  The weather is cooler.  It’s time to get the garden ready to go to sleep for the winter.  Tearing out the tomatoes and peppers to prep the beds for next spring and then mulching all the roots that will overwinter.  After a summer of hard work, it’s nice to have this down time too.  The shelves are full of tomato sauce and soup, the freezers full of asparagus, peas and corn, and the basement is full of potatoes and onions.  We’ll eat well, remembering all the bounty of the garden all winter long.

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‘Gumbo’

I don’t really know what Gumbo is.  I know it has flour in it, and you can’t really make it without, so I haven’t really given it much thought.  I’ve been looking at some Andouille chicken sausage sitting in the fridge, and I just had to try something.  The sausage is decent.  It has a kick, tastes acceptable, and doesn’t make the family sick from weird preservatives.  I looked around the fridge and saw the lima beans, some frozen corn, onions, the tomatoes and a few sweet peppers, and I was inspired.

The start is like my favorite corn casserole.  Saute a chopped onion in olive oil until starting to brown.  Meanwhile I boiled some lima beans in salted water until they were tender.  I also threw the sweet peppers under the broiler to roast them.  After they blackened, I peeled them and chopped them.

To the cooked onions I added some chopped tomatoes and cooked for a few minutes until they were tender and a part of the sauce.  I threw some frozen corn in with the onions, enough sour cream to coat them and make a nice sauce.  After the corn was thawed I threw in the limas and peppers and some Andouille chicken sausage that was cut into disks.  I salted it to taste and served after everything was heated through.

Delicious and fast.  Sometimes you just need a one pot dish that can feed the kids fast.  And they ate it all up, fighting over the seconds.

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