Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I wanted to title this post "the miracle," but then there are so many miracles it might be confused with other posts later.  This post is about the miracle of seeds.  I was so caught up in the details and science of planting day that I it didn't really hit me until this morning, after the rain all day and all night.  I wasn't expecting to see much, especially with the cucumbers which hadn't sprouted after more than 8 weeks in the basement.  I knew they were fragile and didn't like replanting, so I didn't think they would make it.  However, as we went out to the deck we saw this:

So later today I was meditating on the miracle of a little, tiny seed that turns into a plant, that turns into food for us, and that becomes a seed to be planted again.  I guess it is just science, but it still seems a little incredible that a seriously dead-looking thing could become something so full of life.  I remembered Jesus' analogy to his death and resurrection in John 12:24,  "I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces many others and yields a rich harvest."

And then I remembered all the parables about seeds, especially the one about the the good soil, birds (you might insert "chickens"), weeds, and rocky soil, and I realize how much work it actually takes to make sure the seeds sprout and don't get eaten or trampled or choked with weeds.  It suddenly makes more sense about why faith like a mustard seed would matter.  Assuming that the mustard seed is planted in some good soil, watered, and given sunlight, a very small thing that appears dead turns into a crazy, living bush-weed.  And the kingdom of heaven is like that seed.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Planting Day: Round 1

At least 5-8 weeks before April 15 (last day of frost), we dutifully planted our seeds and placed them under a grow light in the basement.  We decided to start small, so we ordered from Seed Savers Exchange a variety of seeds.  The seeds from Seed Savers are heirloom seeds, which means they haven't been genetically modified so there is a better chance of saving seeds from year to year.  Each year that we save and seed, our plants will get more adapted to our soil and climate and hopefully, get stronger.

It also means that there is a greater variety to choose from, as follows: Miniature White cucumbers, Thai Green and Listada de Gandia eggplant, Merveille des Quatre Saisons and Slobolt lettuce, Garden Sushine and Napoleon Sweet peppers, Rhubard Red swiss chard, Stupice and Siberian tomatoes and Cilantro.  Most of the plants are smaller varieties, so we hope they won't take up as much room.  We also seeded basil and parsley from Lowe's or somewhere, purchased last year, marigold seeds (from Grandma's house), and pole beans and green beans found in the lunch room.  The chives survived the winter from last year.

Between the tornadoes, cold weather and weddings, we haven't managed to plant yet, but as it turns out... that's how it goes sometimes.  We also hadn't finished getting the raised beds ready, including cages to keep the chickens out. Also, right out the gate we already made a few mistakes.  For example, we shouldn't have started the pole beans, cucumbers and cilantro inside because they don't transplant well.

For the last few weeks, we have been hardening off our seedlings by taking them outside for a few hours each day.  This hopefully got them ready for planting day.  Meanwhile, back in the basement, everything had sprouted except the green beans and the cucumbers.  The green beans might have just been old.  We aren't sure about the cucumbers.

Today, it was cool, which was good for the lettuce.  However, it started raining half-way through, so this is to be continued.

This is part of why it has taken us so long.  Despite their many benefits, they will eat anything green in sight. Buzzards.
Compost pile and the rain barrel both constructed by my husband.  The wood was free, the barrel about $15, plus some other materials. 
The cage is PVC pipe and chicken wire.  The raised beds are 6", 8" and 10" deep, and 3'x3', all made out of scrap wood. The soil is 1 part top soil, 1 part leaf compost, and 1 part sand, *Note: Do not, repeat, do not use sand.  with a little bit of our own compost thrown in.  The chickens have been plowing this for a week or so. 
And a soaker hose runs through it, which is connected to the rain barrel.   To the right is our lettuce bed with a pole bean in the middle for shade.  Some of the lettuce was already started indoors and some we seeded today.
The rest of the seedlings waiting to be planted.  Some of them will go in the self-watering containers (more on those later).  The baby gate is because of the chickens and the baby.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Buying Bulk Grains

Several people have asked me where I get whole grains and bulk foods.  In the past, or I should say, once, I bought from bulkfoods.com. We (our family) ordered all the ingredients to make granola for months.  At that time, I wanted to go in with other people but not many were interested.

Recently, a friend organized a drop in St. Louis with Azure Standard, so because other people were interested in going in on 50 lbs. of millet, I put in an order.  Because of a clerical error it didn't come this month, but will arrive in May, so I will keep you all posted on how it works.  I think they have more organic stuff across the board, although there are non-organic options. Also, it's not just bulk grains.  There is everything from frozen food options to shampoo and cleaners to choose from. 

I don't think when it comes to whole grains there is such a thing as "too bulk."  1)  It is actually quite hard to find whole grains in stores.  You usually have to shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, which for us is not only far away, but 2) then when you do find them, they are pretty expensive and in a little bag which lasts about a month, if that.   With the exception of rolled oats, most whole grains are at the best price when you buy them at 5, 10, 15, or even 50 lbs. 

Now here is the trick that co-opers before us figured out: if you buy WITH people, you can get the great bulk price and still only end up with 10 lbs. of whatever.  (I always think of Marila in Anne of Green Gables... "20 pounds of brown sugar!" as Anne twirls around in her blue dress.)   And if you store the 10 lbs. of whatever in a cool, dark place in a container that critters won't get into, it will last for months. 

This is what I've uncovered so far.  I think we have moved pretty far away from the hippie, co-op days of our parents.  Even among "crunchy" friends, we are still pretty individualistic.  Or maybe it is the advent of the Internet, which despite making the purchase of bulk food much easier, is actually not so great for hashing out the details of a group bulk food purchase.  Maybe that's the connection to urban restoration... the renewal of the group mentality that allows for sharing food, recipes, homes, the face-to-face connection, and all that hippie jazz.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Fair Shares Pick Up: Week 1

As some of you know, we have been on the waiting list to join a CSA for a while called "Fair Shares" in St. Louis.  For the record, there are not many CSAs in the St. Louis area (especially not compared to the population) and the ones that exist have waiting lists a year long.  Anyway, we received the e-mail that we were in for a full share for the 2011-12 season, starting at the beginning of April and ending in March.

So the idea behind Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is that small, local farmers, organic or not, need capital when they need to buys seeds, plant, and get things going... but don't get paid until they have a harvest.  Solution?  Community members commit to pay up-front with the understanding that they will get a weekly share of what the farm produces.  Fair Shares is a combined CSA, so some nice people organize a bunch of local farmers and producers.  The result is that we get a wider variety than just the traditional bunch of seasonal fruits and veggies.  And we possibly pay a little more for it.  We pay monthly, and it averages out to about $50 per week.

The process is fairly simple.  Every week at the same time we go to a pick-up site and get what they have for us.  The list changes every week and rotates for each pick-up site.  Okay, that's a bit complicated.  I'll keep it simple and stick to what we get each week.  

Week 1: 

Yellow Wood Farms Eggs (went to my mother-in-law since she watches the baby so much... and we have eggs already)

Hinkebein Hills Beef Bratwurst
If they look funny, it's because I didn't know that I wasn't suppose to remove the casing, and to my defense the casing looked different than I had ever seen before and didn't really cover the whole brat.  They still tasted great.  


Ozark Forest Fresh Mushrooms

It looks as if these are some of the seasonal selection, so we will be getting mushrooms for the next 7 weeks.  They are shitake and oyster mushrooms. This week it will probably be mushroom and spinach pasta for dinner.

Schroetter Farms Spinach
This got a very good soaking... several times.  The spinach was very crisp and good. It is also seasonal, so spinach for another seven weeks.

After a few rinses...

Final stage in the spinner...

Show Me Produce Mizuna
We had the choice of arugula or this delightful young mustard green. Next week (and for the next 7 weeks) we will probably choose other green selections. 

Marcoot Farms Cheese
It looks like we will get cheese or eggs every week.  We haven't tried this yet, but it might go well in our pasta sauce with the mushrooms and spinach.  We had a choice, and this one was supposed to be a bit sharp.  $5-6 for 8 oz.


  Hilty Pickles or Beets

(We chose pickles, but also bought the beets.  My husband was in heaven.  I liked them, too, and the baby enjoyed the beets. 16 oz. jars for $6)

Jailhouse JalapeƱo Brew (spicy mustard)
Companion Pretzels
The big, fat, soft, delicious kind.  So guess what we had for dinner.

And for dessert... 

Frozen peaches that we bought for $6.50 thawing in the fridge.  With whole-milk yogurt.  Yum.

I had a few "moments" (i.e. uncomfortable moments) while cooking and eating tonight.  The first one was when I looked at the brats and realized I had never seen brats that weren't shiny from casing... which my husband informed me, when he came home, is usually animal intestines.  When I researched it, I found out that only the very best and most expensive brats are actually cased in real animal intestines.  In other words, the brats that I have eaten all of my life had man-made casings.  

I'm sorry.  Hold the phone.  

Man-made from what?  I don't actually know.  Anyway, tonight I thought that the brats were wrapped in paper, but what I didn't know I was looking at was real, dead animal intestine...  which would have made them a little more shiny that what we ended up with.  However, like I said, they were delicious. 

The other moment was when, as we enjoyed our very local dinner, I realized that although I said I was not the kind of person who would intentionally spend more money on food because of  X, Y, or Z... I did.  I spent more on food because it was local.  And really... natural.

I do have my limits.  For instance, although I have been looking into switching to raw milk for health reasons, raw milk is $10.50 per gallon.  I feel like that is going too far.  And yet, I just brought home 8 oz. of cheese for $6.  

The verdict is still out, but this is only Week 1.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Granola Story

At this point, I have to give props to my mother who made granola while I was still in diapers.  Thanks, Mom. 

The granola story goes like this.  Last Christmas, we were brainstorming about what to get our family as presents.  One day, I was looking through "More with Less" and saw a note above a granola recipe about how the author gave granola as a Christmas present, and voila--we were off.  The next step was to see how to make this an economical choice, because besides the obvious reasons of adding a little personal TLC to our Christmas presents, we were also trying to not break the bank.  I looked on many websites, and found that the only way to make granola at a lower price than what you buy at the store was to buy grains, seeds and nuts in bulk (with a few exceptions).  Also, the choice of sweetener is key--honey is the most expensive, of course.  Fortunately, "More with Less" is all about making do with what you have, saving money and being healthy.

The other motive behind the Christmas granola caper was that we were going to make massive amounts of granola for our family, and while we were at it, make a bunch for ourselves.  This was good motivation for me, actually, since I was slightly intimidated by the whole thing.  I mean, was I really going to keep this up, month after month?

I should also add at this point that I continued reading in the "More with Less" cookbook about commercial cereal.  There are obviously some that are healthier than others, but the bottom line--most commercial cereal is more expensive than meat per pound.  Stop and meditate on that for a minute.

I was committed.  I researched prices on-line for weeks and decided that oats are oats just about anywhere, walnuts are cheap at Aldi, local honey is preferred anyway, brown sugar is about the same most places, but other than those items, we would save big $$ if we bought bulk.  I bought 5 lbs. of flaked coconut (a family favorite), 5 lbs. of whole millet, buckwheat groats, 5 lbs. of wheat germ (which is quite a lot, actually), sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and steel-cut oats.  We have been cycling through a variety of these for a few months now, even after making granola for our whole family (6 cups each for about 15 people).

Buckwheat groats

Our biggest discovery was molasses.  It's cheaper than honey, less processed than white or brown sugar, and in moderation, adds a nice flavor to the cereal or granola.

For me, making cereal is about saving money, not being wasteful with excess packaging, learning to do something ourselves that might come in handy, and being healthy.   I'm not completely opposed to commercial cereal, and I don't judge people for buying it.  We still buy toasted O's for the baby.

Today's adventure is about gathering up the fragments.  I didn't have quite enough oats left to make the normal recipe, so I just grabbed all the whole grains in the house (you can even use rice).  I used about a cup of each of these: wheat germ, whole millet, whole buckwheat groats, steel-cut oats, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, chopped walnuts, coconut and 3-4 c. of rolled oats.  I might have forgotten something... yes, I forgot to put in flax seed.  Next time.

Dry mix

I heated up a cup of oil with 1/2 c. molasses and brown sugar (w/ a little water) and then mixed in the dry ingredients.  The two cardinal rules of granola or cereal are 1) don't burn the sugar and 2) don't burn the granola.   There is no going back or salvaging it if you do.  Make sure to stir the cereal frequently.  I like to use this oven-safe pot so I do fewer dishes and I don't spill in the oven when I stir, but you can use cookie sheets, also.  The only thing to watch with molasses is that the color is already dark brown, so color will not be a good indicator if the cereal is done. 

Plus molasses, sugar and oil

In the end, I have been making cereal for a few months now, and I have it down to a couple hours during which I am also doing other things.  So it's like my Saturday activity.  My husband is in charge of making bread. :o)

The basic recipe

Sunday, April 3, 2011

City Chicks

First of all, the title is actually a real book that I should reference and recommend, City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers by Patricia Foreman.   

So the story about why and how we got chickens...is fairly undramatic, actually.  My husband and I talked about it once. Then one day, I met a guy from our neighborhood who gave me a haircut at my house and talked about how he had chickens and he helped people set up coops.  When my husband got home, I mentioned it again.  My husband proceeded to find some chickens on craig's list in Imperial that were 5 mos. old (only 3 mos. older than our baby at the time).  That weekend, we went out and bought the chickens, 4 for $35.  The next weekend (and the following), my crafty husband put together a coop (with the help of my brothers) out of scrap materials.  After that, we drove out to pick up the chickens (then about 6 mos. since we had gone out of town for a weekend), and that was it.  It was winter, so we put a light bulb with a cage over it and set the light on a timer for 2am until 5am to give the ladies 14 hrs. of day light.  They started laying, and have been laying about an egg each per day.   

Now, in retrospect I can't remember why we jumped on this thing so fast.  My husband was really excited about it, and he has (to be fair) been doing most of the work, which for the record, is less than you would do to take care of a dog.   I think we had thought about a garden, and we knew that the chicken crap would make great compost.   We also liked the idea of eggs.  Having said that, the chickens were definitely the catalyst for everything else... finding a CSA, starting a garden (the great compost was demanding it!), reading farming memoirs, urban and rural.   

Now we are totally urban chicken advocates.  We let them free-range during the day, which doesn't mean we are animal rights activists, although I'm glad our chickens are happy in the sunshine eating bugs.  The biggest benefit is not the chickens' morale, but the fact that our eggs have great amounts of vitamin D and protein in them as a result.   

Chickens are so easy to keep if you have a little bit of knowledge.  Non-organic, Purina chicken feed runs about $12 for 50 lbs. which will last about a month with 4 chickens and yields at least 8 dozen eggs, which would be about $15 for regular eggs, in which case we break even, or $24 dollars for cage-free eggs.  But chickens will also mow your lawn for you, turn your compost, and eat bugs (and mice...remind me to tell that story).  They will eat food scraps, including meats, although we don't give them chicken... That's just weird.  So really, they can be very economical, especially considering what they give in return.  

Having your own chickens has become a status symbol recently, but I want to see this turned on it's head and the people who live in food insecurity have the opportunity to raise chickens. I have heard arguments that if all chickens were cage-free, nobody could afford eggs.  Apparently, their memory doesn't extend beyond 50-60 years ago, when many average folks had chickens and could afford them just fine.  They weren't status symbols, it was just how people fed their families.  The eggs were far superior to the insipid, pasty-yellow-yolk eggs you can find at your local supermarket, not because of more technology, but because it was just how God made chickens to function.  Oh, how far we have progressed. 

Off my soapbox now... and here are a few pics to inspire you! 

I had to put this in--our first egg.  Gorgeous, right? The yolk is even better.  You'll never eat store bought again.

The front and the yard.  We always lock them in at night.  So far, no critters have gotten to them.  The food and the water are out here, too.  You just have to make sure the water doesn't stay frozen in the winter, and doesn't run out in the summer.  They dehydrate easily. 
The whole back opens up.  In retrospect, we should have made this a little more "people-friendly" but it's not that bad to clean out.  We (my husband) cleans it out about monthly, but adds new bedding every few days.  There are "windows" for ventilation up top, which we covered with cardboard during the winter. 

They only lay in one box, actually, although we had three in case they needed some privacy.  You have to kind of train them where to lay, otherwise you will find eggs in random places in your yard.

The incredible, edible egg.
They seem to like their house.  They come in as soon as it is dark.  However, we are currently building cages for our raised bed gardens.  They will eat any green thing.  Small price to pay, I guess.