Friday, February 12, 2010

Two Kinds of Texas Winter

These photos are from Christmas, which we spent with family in West Texas. It was beautiful in its own rugged, spare way.

  And this is what we came home to, in Central Texas. It was cold. In the forties and fifties. But we still had not had our first really hard freeze. We've had several hard freezes since then and the grass has gone brown. In fact, we've had some record freezes and lost plants and trees that had been surviving our winters for a some five years or more with no problems. It's just part of the cyclical nature of our weather here. This summer I'll chance it again, probably, and plant some marginal things -- subtropicals that will grow for five or ten years, or longer if I baby them, and if luck and nature don't take me by surprise.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Making Sauce From Frozen Tomatoes

Last summer I just plain could not keep up with the tomato canning and ended up doing something that frankly, made me shudder. I froze some tomatoes. I'd read that a lot of people do that when they run out of time. I never really trusted that frozen tomatoes would be any good, and so ended up buying some store bought tomatoes when my own canned ran out two months ago. Of course store bought tomatoes in winter are pretty sad things as well.

So here I am in February, finally using those frozen tomatoes. It turns out they're just fine. They work almost as well as home canned and are about a thousand times better than anything that can be bought out of season. I did fire roast about half of the tomatoes before I froze them and those are actually quite excellent. The other were frozen whole or quartered, without roasting or even blanching. Now I'm glad I didn't bother with blanching. Freezing serves the same purpose, which is to allow the skins to slip off.

I did remove the skins for the first few batches of sauce. Then I thought, why be so picky? You ate store bought tomatoes and didn't die. Surely you can eat the skins from your own homegrown, albeit previously frozen tomatoes. A Vitamix, or some other high speed blender, is key, I suspect, to the success of this venture. You can even blend the tomatoes without defrosting them first. You'll end up with a thick, chilly, bright pink tomato puree that can be cooked into any sauce at all, and those skins don't have to end up in the compost pile. Plus, you save the entire five seconds it would have taken to remove the skins from the tomatoes.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Planning the Tomato Crop

I can't think of any crop that's more important for happiness than home-grown tomatoes. They are one of the veggies that, in my opinion, money can't buy.

Last year I planted tomatoes three times. The first batch was killed by a surprise hail storm, the second by a series of late season freezes that even a couple of makeshift hoop houses couldn't withstand. The last batch made it through most of the season until we lost our agricultural water in July. Still, we ended up with enough tomatoes to supply our household for about 3/4 of the year. I say 3/4 but that's a guess. I still have some tomatoes in the freezer, and one jar in the cupboard as well, because I was so stingy with them throughout the year. Also, I bought fresh tomatoes from the store from time to time.

This year I want to go all the way. I want to grow enough to keep us up to our necks in preserved tomatoes for the entire year. And have enough to share. And enough green ones at the end of the season to store and use as they ripen. I'm not sure exactly how to calculate this amount except to well, just guess, and double the number of plants. I do know one thing. I'm going to keep better records this year, and actually measure output by variety if I can.

I'd love to hear how others plan their tomato crops.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Toad For Breakfast

Here's a happy collection: A few slices of leftover no-knead homemade bread; some fresh eggs from a friend's backyard chickens; butter I made several months ago, from local raw cream, and that had been hiding in a corner of the freezer. Quite naturally on a Sunday morning, my thoughts turned to toad-in-a-hole. Making it is simple. Use a biscuit or cookie cutter to make a hole in the middle of a piece of bread. Melt butter in a frying pan. Add eggs, cook, flip, cook some more. The best part is the little rim where the eggs meet the bread. And in my neck of the woods we eat this homemade salsa.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Using It Up

One of the prompts for Frugal February was a post I read somewhere, sometime, about the huge waste that is most people's experience with buying a chest freezer. That is, most folks fill it up, thinking they're being careful and frugal and all in all good planetary citizens. Then they lose track of what's the deep recesses of said freezer until too late -- all this fine food gets tossed away.

Last summer I canned and dehydrated and froze fruits and veggies from my garden. I purchased a quarter of beef from the finest grass feeding ranchers in the state, not to mention some similarly fine pork. I bought bulk grains, oils, and spices through my native nutrition community buying group. It was all in service of creating a functioning home economia, and the hope was that we would have the best foods, as local as possible, as organic as possible, bought and preserved or used in season. And I would get it all at the best price. Moreover, I hoped we would be less subject to the vagaries of a crazy economy and possible disruptions in food supply (whether from natural disaster, ordinary weather patterns, zombie invasion, or whatever).

But somewhere along the way I did a poor job of measuring. I think I simply stockpiled too much. I did not quite realize how much could be grown on a fraction of an acre in my climate, given good soil and lots of labor on my part. So I still have quarts and gallons and more quarts of frozen and canned fruits and veggies in store. Too much jam and jelly. Excessive amounts of beef. And there are other things that I've run out of all year long, things I've had to buy lower quality versions of because I didn't produce enough. So in the month of February, as I go through our cupboards and freezers, I hope to measure, plan, and reevaluate for the coming year.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Frugal February

I really should have made this post on February 1 but what's new about me running behind on every single thing in my life? February has always been a funny month for me, and for central Texas also. It's really the end of our short winter and I think it catches a lot of folks by surprise. We're worn out from Christmas, January just flew by. It's cold and gray; it's wet; it's icy; from time to time it's cold, wet, grey, and icy all at the same time. Just the perfect time to let myself slip into a funk of guilt and self-recrimination. Why did I spend so much at Christmas? How could I have eaten all that? Why is the house so cluttered? More generally it's also a time when central Texans actually start complaining about things like rain and cool weather. I mean, really, these are things we cry and gasp for in the dog days of summer and now we complain about them. Such ungrateful behavior and yet another reason to slip into a pattern of guilt and self-recrimination.

Last February I managed these gray days by declaring Frugal February and I'm doing it again this year. It seems like a good month to use up the stores I have on hand, to boycott shopping, to reset my spending patterns -- kind of like the way Ayurveda has you go on a fast to reset your taste buds to purer foods and rest the digestive system. Only I can promise, I shall not be going on a fast. Here are the contours of Frugal February: no shopping at all for the entire month. That's it.

OK, that's not quite it. An exception has been made, and I won't say who in my household has made this exception, except to say it wasn't me. Bananas will continue to be purchased during Frugal February.

But other than that exception, no shopping. Believe me, this will not be onerous. I keep such a huge store of emergency foods here that I suspect we could go six months without buying groceries. And as for non-food shopping like clothes, we could go far longer yet. What I hope to accomplish is to just rest my system, enjoy the freedom of bowing out of the spend/consume cycles for a while, and take stock of what we have. I hope to discover how well we're planned out little home oeconomia here. We'll see how well the winter greens and herbs from the garden hold out, and use up the last of my canned, frozen, and dehydrated garden foods from last summer. We'll see if monotony sets in. As I recall from last year, I came away feeling very refreshed and ready for the fine, fine spring ahead.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Jig's Up, Spaghetti Squash

I first encountered spaghetti squash when a friend of mine was doing Weight Watchers, in the 90's, when the low fat craze was in full swing. She cut the poor squash in half, microwaved it, shredded its innards with a fork, and then served it with fat free marinara sauce from a jar. Is it any wonder I've had a hard time loving spaghetti squash?

But it turns out there is much to love about this squash. It's easy to grow, drought and insect tolerant, and most of all, stores forever on a counter top. Last summer I planted a single hill from some seeds I'd saved from a supermarket squash. Then I forgot all about that hill, moved some of my beds around, and rearranged my watering system. Somehow the spaghetti squash got left out in the cold, metaphorically. More literally, it got left in a spot that I completely forgot to water and often tromped across, dragged a hose over, and snapped of bits of vine.

Still, I ended up with dozens of squash. Dozens and dozens. I gave some away. We ate a few. And I filled a huge basket with about twenty of them back in July. We're down to four, after eating two of them last night as a main course, with garlic, butter, and parmesan. Which brings me to what I consider the primary virtue of spaghetti squash. Because they store forever, without canning or freezing, you can have fresh summer squash in February. That's right -- fresh, not frozen or canned, summer squash. Not winter squash.

It wasn't until I realized this that I started to really, really love spaghetti squash. You see, this squash had been sold to me under false pretenses. It was supposed to be like spaghetti. In fact, except that you can shred it with a fork and make something vaguely spaghetti shaped, there is no similarity.

Which is why I am announcing to all spaghetti squash everywhere that the jig is up. You are not spaghetti. You are squash. Stop pretending. Be proud of your vegetable nature. You are delicious, just like you are.