Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween for a locavore

Ok, it's halloween. I much prefer the tradition of the "Dia De Los Muertos" (or Day of the Dead), which happens in Mexico on Nov 1 & 2. This is a celebration that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and relatives who have died. The holiday is connected to the American "All Saints Day" or "All Souls Day" which also stake place on those days. Traditions of Dia De Los Muertos include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts.

Scholars trace the origins of Dia De Los Muertos to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years, and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess named Mictecacihuatl (or "the Lady of the Dead"). Food, skulls, candles and so on (equated with our halloween) have come from this holiday.

Similar holidays are celebrated in many parts of the world; for example, it is a public holiday in Brazil where many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain there are festivals and parades, and at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray to their loved ones who have died. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and in Asian and African cultures (thanks Wikipedia!).

And we have halloween. So, what does a local-food inclined person who believes more in the traditional ritual mentioned above, and who does not want to support a multi-national corporation like Nestle, or hand out more sugar and chocolate to kids that are already getting bagloads of it, do? I like the idea of people on the street observing a common celebration, even if it has become a little skewed over the years, so I do want to participate in some small way. We can't give out apples or handmade treats anymore (at least to people who don't know us), as people don't trust anything that's not made in a factory setting and triple plastic sealed. I tried giving out non-food items like colourful fancy pencils and stickers one year, but this did not really go over very well. It didn't feel very good to see so many disappointed young faces, even if I was trying to teach an alternative.

Well for the people who we do know, including the parents who walked the young toddlers around, I made up pumpkin cookies (using local organic pumpkin). For those who didn't know us, I had granola bars (store-bought, alas), sesame snaps, and organic fruit leather. I felt pretty good about the selection, both in terms of what we were offering being fairly healthy yet still exciting enough to a trick-or-treater, and the response we got from kids (even the older ones seemed to appreciate the option of organic goodies).

Here's that pumpkin cookie recipe. Really easy, very tasty. You can leave out the chocolate chips and add more spices to get more of a pumpkin pie experience.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup veg oil
1 egg
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp vanilla
2 cups chocolate chips
1/2 cup pecans, optional

Mix well. Bake in preheated 350C oven, on greased cookie sheets, for about 10 minutes (until golden and lightly firm).

Hazelnuts, Chestnuts & Heartnuts - grown locally!

I made my final purchase for the season at the Bailey's Local Foods pick-up today. The list of available local foods (even at the very end of October) was staggering! Nina had outdone herself, sourcing everything from butter & cheeses to free-range turkey, produce (including bushels of the last red peppers, bushels of apples, fresh herbs) to peanutbutter, popcorn to pickles, salsa to squashes, sparkling applecider to blackcurrant jam, pear sauce to peach custard pie, 12 kg bags of organic flour to locally handmade pasta, canned peach slices to raspberry cookies, dried beans and much more. Wow! I wish my wagon was bigger to be able to cart home more items (actually it was my handy baby stroller and a large backpack that carted my food home today, as Maya came along with me sleeping all the way).

In the end I had restrained myself and settled on only ordering a few special things that I can't find at our local farmer's market (because I do love going there each Saturday). In particular I was excited about the source for 100-mile nuts that she found. I had not known about the Society of Ontario Nut Growers (or SONG), and their active promotion of nut-tree growing in Ontario (see Nina found a particular farm in the Niagara region that grows chestnuts, hazelnuts and heartnuts in their nut orchard (yes, it's still called an orchard), and was offering these to food buying club members by the pound. I can just imagine savouring these nuts over the course of the winter, bringing them out for after a holiday meal, and roasting the chestnuts in our new woodstove (or even outside in a small fire for a Winter Solstice treat). There is something precious about holding an edible nut (like any seed) in your hand and really thinking about what this means - the potential held within it, the possiblity of a full-grown tree someday - making it all the more potent knowing this nut is fresh, has been sustainably grown and harvested by hand, and came from only an hour or two from here...

The SONG website offers helpful advice for the would-be nut farmer, such as starting a nut orchard, how to harvest nuts, grafting, starting nut trees from seed, value-added products, and more. I was amazed to read that nut trees able to be grown in Ontario make up quite a long list, including the aforementioned heartnuts, hazelnuts, and chestnuts, but also Persian walnuts, black walnut (which we have four of on our property), butternut, buartnut, ginko (didn't know this was an edible nut tree), northern pecan, hican, shellbark and shagbark hickory, nut pines (in our climate the Korean, Swiss and Siberian pines), and even almond. On the site there are links to each variety of nut with more growing details, history, and photos. Many of the nut trees can successfully be started from seed here in Ontario, so I am hopeful to try sprouting some of the nuts I just purchased and start a nut tree orchard of my own. If the seedlings take, I'd love to develop a small urban tree nursery and pass on edible tree seedlings to people at our annual May 24 seedling sale.

Quince Membrillo

A friend passed on a huge sack full of quince to us, which had come from a local tree in her mother's backyard that seldom gets harvested or used. This is the first time I've made anything with quince, and so I did a little sleuthing as to best ways to preserve it.

Turns out quince is similar in flavour to apple and pear, but is not desirable to eat uncooked as it is too astringent raw. Therefore quince has not become a popular fashion in grocery stores or farmers markets. It is ripe when it turns from green to yellow and softens slightly. It also has a lovely sweet smell, likened to the aromas of honey, pineapple, guava, or fresh flowers. Very aromatic! In older cookbooks (20-50 years ago) when quince was more well-known it is often referenced in applesauce recipes as a thickener, as it has a high amount of natural pectin. It can be made into sauce, jelly, jam, syrup, and a thick spread called "membrillo". This membrillo is a tradition of Spain, eaten on slices of good quality hard cheese or with cuts of meat. I decided to make my quince into membrillo and here is the recipe I used. I made it over the course of a few days (chopping and cooking down the fruit one day, saucing it through a food strainer the second day, cooking it into membrillo the third day, and canning the membrillo on the fourth day) - so it really was not a labour intensive process at all. The result is a gorgeous pink-purple coloured sweet smelling, rich tasting jelly.

Very simple traditional membrillo recipe:
Lemon juice, optional

1) Quarter the quince, not bothering to peel or core them. Add a small amount of water and cook down slowly in large pot until quince is softened.
2) Strain quince through food strainer to obtain a smooth puree.
3) Measure quince puree and add the same amount of white sugar (e.g. 1 cup quince puree = 1 cup white sugar)
4) Cook quince puree and sugar with a small amount of water, on low heat, stirring occasionally as it will start to thicken. When fairly thick, remove from heat and ladle into baking pans.
5) Bake in a very low oven (150-200 C) for several hours until quince becomes a thick jelly that can be sliced. Alternately, can the hot quince jelly in a food canner as you would any other jam (process in boiling water for 5 minutes). If not canned, the membrillo should be kept in refrigerator wrapped in plastic or stored in sealed container.
6) Serve with cheese wedges, meat cuts (or grilled tofu), or spread on bread. Would be great as an alternate to cranberry sauce for thanksgiving or holiday meals.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fall planting & saving seeds

I wanted to make a note here that I planted our garlic bed (just over 100 cloves) a few days ago. I've also cleared up the garden beds for the winter, doing one final harvest of peppers, eggplant, green tomatoes, beans, basil and chard just before the first frost came (Oct 21). I prepared two coldframe grow tunnel beds, which have been planted up with winter greens, spinach, lettuce varieties, mache, chard and kale. I still want to add Asian greens like tatsoi but haven't been able to find seeds at our local OSC. May need to mail-order these from a supplier that has a greater variety of greens available (Vesey's, William Dam, Stokes). I also harvested seeds, saving tomatoes, hot peppers, bean varieties (french filet, cherokee cornfield), lettuce, and various annual herb seeds (fennel, dill, coriander, calendula, marigold), all to be planted again next year.

A few suggestions on saving seeds:
- "wet" seeds like from tomatoes, zucchini, squashes, and peppers can be washed free of pulp and dried on papertowel or newspaper
- hot pepper seeds like cayenne can be dried in the pod itself (I usually lay out cayennes in a large wicker basket to dry, then store in glass jars for cooking during the winter months and planting in the spring)
- annual herb seeds can be picked when they have dried on the plant itself (it will be obvious that the seeds are ready, as they will be completely dried and the stalks will break off easily from the plant stem)
- beans also need to be left to dry on the vine, then picked in their pods and shelled (either for eating as cooked beans in winter, or storing to be planted again)
- garlic is harvested in the fall, and to replant separate out the cloves and let air-dry for 24 hours, then plant out before frost if possible as you would other bulbs

Documenting Strawbale Addition - 7

Weather is turning much much colder, with several nights that have seen frost by now and days that are barely over zero degrees C. We've decided that we won't finish plastering the outside of the strawbale addition this year - if the weather is cold like this it would be difficult to get the plastering done well, with chances of it not drying properly, or cracking, and then having to redo the work in the spring. We can wrap the house with ty-par paper and open this up again in the spring when the weather is warm and we have renewed energy to do this work again!

As for the interior, we've now finished the two coats base plaster and are moving to the finish coat. We could tint the top coat, or paint over with clay or milk-based paints, or simply finish with a lime wash as the traditional natural white. I think we'll opt for this, as it will create a bright interior where light bounces off the walls and reflects the sun coming from the three large south-facing windows. We've installed windows and doors, insulated, and set up lights so we can work after dark (which comes early these days!). Still left to do: floor work, ceiling woodwork, some drywall on the vestibule, window & door trim, tiling the new bathroom and installing fixtures (including our clawfoot tub!), getting plumbing work done, and hooking up the electricity. May sound like quite a long list, but given everything that has come before, this actually feels very manageable. We have several friends who have experience with strawbale work who are now helping on a part-time basis, so this is moving us ahead in great leaps. We are still hopeful to move in before Christmas.

Central ArtWalk Success!

Yesterday we participated in the first annual Central ArtWalk - a walking studio tour of artisans and crafters in our neighbourhood, ranging from pottery, handmade chocolates, music, painting, knitted goods, handbound journals, woodwork, and much more. It was inspiring to see the variety of talents that have been hidden throughout our neighbourhood - more than 30 artists participated - and we hope this will become an annual event that draws more people out each year. We estimated that about 70-80 visitors come by our house, and the five artists who were set up here thought the day was worthwhile. It's so important to have these kinds of events to build community cohesion. Our neighbourhood is one that seems to just be coming "into it's own" and needs exactly this kind of opportunity for people to meet each other and to help develop the unique character of our neighbourhood. Thanks to everyone who dropped by and helped make this day a success. Here are a few photos of the vendors set up at Little City Farm - wooden games made from reclaimed wood; reconstructed clothing made from wool sweaters; silkscreen patches & handmade cards; herbal soaps, teas and salves...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Documenting Strawbale Addition - 6

Plastering has started! Here are a few updated photos of the strawbale progress. It's been a busy long weekend, as the weather was cooperating and we had a good crew of people to help. We finished sewing up the balewalls, being ever reminded how important it is to keep the walls stitched tightly to the mesh. Though tempting to hurry this process, it's valuable to painstakingly stitch the walls so that all the subsequent work of plastering is not lost.

After the stitching, we sprayed on a clay slip (made of locally purchased powdered clay and a small amount of wheat flour paste). It was helpful to have a rental texture sprayer as this made the job much faster, especially reaching up to the second story of the tall wall. Then today the base plastering started - spread on in a satisfying way by hand, and something that reminds us how age-old this building process really is. In fact, as one volunteer reminded us, this is the "normal" way of building when you look at how homes are constructed on a global scale: people using natural materials that are sourced locally, and building by hand. We like to call this "traditional" building rather than "alternative" building for this reason.

One photo above shows an arched "niche" being formed into the wall. This is a common element in strawbale homes, using the wall cavity to form shelves, niches, recessed benches, etc. We will also include a "truth window", a section of raw straw left unplastered to show that there really is straw insulating these walls and remind us of this link to our local farm community where we sourced the straw.

Tomorrow, more plastering...thanks again to all the friends who've been helping out. It's been great to have kids on the site as well, including two babies - it's really another benefit of strawbale or natural building when entire families can be involved in the build!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cooper's Hawk in the yard

This morning I heard an unusual ruckus coming from the chicken pen in the back part of our yard. I rushed out to see what was going on, and saw a large hawk swooping over the yard, coming from the chicken run area. It settled on a low dead branch of a nearby tamarack tree, to watch as I approached. Usually as soon as I open our front door, the hens come running to the edge of their pen to wait for snacks and attention. Now, not a single hen was visible, obviously hiding from the hawk. They were all hiding under a huge pile of dried sticks and branches which we have left in their yard as shade/cover, and now I was extremely glad they had this refuge. I neared the tamarack and the hawk flew off, but not before I could get a fairly good idea of colouring to identify it.

I am pretty sure it's a Cooper's Hawk, and once I read more about this type of hawk I was pretty assured that's what we had. The Cooper's Hawk is well known by farmers and has earned the nickname "chicken hawk" for it's predatory nature on chickens in poultry yards. It's main diet is smaller birds, as well as chipmunks and other small mammals. In the 1950s-60s the Cooper's Hawk population dwindled, and some suspect it was due to DDT chemical spraying. Today, populations have risen again to the point where these hawks are becoming nuisances again. They are becoming well-known in urban areas as well (as cities encroach on farmland and hawk habitat), and many urban chicken keepers mention seeing these hawks in their yards or even having their hens attacked (and sometimes eaten). We back onto the railroad tracks lined by tall trees, and have heavy tree cover at the back fence of our property, so plenty of places for this hawk to live. I know this may all be part of nature, and the life of a farm (urban or rural), but I would be very upset to see one of our hens taken. We'll have to consider covering the run with mesh to keep unwanted predators away as this hawk may become a regular visitor now that it knows the hens are here.