Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Going Whole Hog

Believe it or not, there are a few things that you simply can't grow/raise on a half-acre urban farm. We're willing to push the limits on some unconventional backyard additions, but neither the city of Des Moines nor our consciences would allow us to try to keep pigs, for example. When that happens, you do the next best thing - find a small (non-urban) farm that you know and trust, and buy your beef, pork, etc there. That's what we do during the farmers market season, albeit in a piecemeal manner. Need pork chops? Buy a pack or two. Short on chicken breasts? Pick up a few pounds. But winter is coming, and with it, a long cold stretch with no markets.

Which brings us to the exciting electronic arrival that came while we were out of town for the holidays. Confirmation and instructions for our purchase of half a hog! Maybe we neglected to tell you all, but when we went To Market, To Market a few weeks back, one of the things we did was Buy A Fat Pig! To be more specific, we put down a deposit on a half hog from Crooked Gap Farm. Crooked Gap is a small farm not far from Des Moines that is owned by a couple relatively new to the farming trade, and who we could have visited this summer if our schedules had worked out better. They raise heritage breeds of pork, much unlike the bland mass-produced kind found in stores, and have a strong focus on the welfare and happiness of the animals. A perfect match for us! Oh, and we've purchased individual cuts of their pork at the farmers market this summer, and it's delicious, so that helps too.

Now if you're a city slicker like Greg, you might hear "half hog" and imagine an entire pig sliced in half (no joke, that's kind of what I thought -G). Not to worry, all it means is that the farmer takes the pig to the meat locker to be processed normally, and all of the meat from one half of the pig is ours. It will come in neatly wrapped white paper packages, which hopefully will fit into our chest freezer without overflowing.

So, why buy a half hog in the first place? If we wanted to stock up, we could have tried to buy a bunch of packages of individual cuts to last us through the winter. But that's not really sustainable, and it's not great for the farmer. Sure, everyone loves pork chops, but the farmer isn't raising chops; he's raising pigs. So if everyone just buys chops, there's a lot of perfectly good meat that isn't being sold and could be going to waste. Think about it next time you're at the meat counter and see those rows and rows of nice pink pork chops. Where's the rest of all those pigs? Whole (or half) hog is win-win. The farmer sells an entire hog, and in return we get a pretty favorable price compared to just buying hundreds of pork chops. Which brings us to the exciting arrival this week.

Crooked Gap breaks down the hog by section, then lets us choose how each section is processed and cut. For example, in the loin area, we can get the entire loin, or it can be cut into roasts, chops, or tenderloins. Same for all the other parts of the pig: shoulder, ham, ribs, and side (meaning bacon!). Most of these cuts we know pretty well, but some are things we've never tried. Then there's all the parts we'll call "less desirable." Buy purchasing the hog as a half, we can receive pieces like hocks, heart, liver, jowls and lard. What on earth do you do with a pork heart, or liver? We don't know, but it sounds like it might be worth exploring. This half hog could be a big crash course in many new ways of cooking. We'll try to be like the proverbial Indians using every part of the buffalo, and document our adventures here.

If any of that offal stuff (hahaha) bothers you, you can still buy a half hog and respectfully decline the organs. You'd still be doing a service to the farmer by buying some of the less popular cuts and you'll expose yourself to some delicious new flavors; shoulder roast carnitas anyone? Who knows what the next pork-y discovery will be? The farmer says jowls taste like bacon, and it's hard not to be excited to try that. We may never be able to raise a hog in our backyard, but this comes pretty close!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Eastbound and down

It's hard to believe that it's Thanksgiving, especially when you step outside and are greeted by sunshine and 60+ degree temperatures. But our calendars seldom lie, so it must mean that we're within hours of joining 40 million of our closest friends on the U.S. interstate highway system. Perhaps driving isn't the greenest choice to traverse the Midwest, but at least the multi-hundred mile journey will be in our compact little Saturn, which sips gasoline like a cute blue miser.

Now of course everyone wants to bring something along to Thanksgiving dinner, but that becomes a bit trickier when over the river and through the woods means the Mississippi River and the entire width of the state of Illinois. In years past we've made desserts, including an interesting pumpkin pie made with a local pumpkin and a slightly too-heavy pour of bourbon (Seriously, bourbon pumpkin pie is a real thing - we swear!). But this year has been a pretty poor one in the community garden space, and our backyard plot is clearly not up to production yet. So that means we're faced with buying something unique to our local area and bringing it along with us.

The question then becomes, what can we pick up that screams Iowa? Corn might be the obvious answer to the causal passerby, but its season has come and gone. We have some sweet potatoes still hanging around from the farmers market that we'll bring, but unless you're Greg, they're not a real showstopper. So I guess that leaves... Dutch chocolate.

Greg's Mom first discovered Chocolaterie Stam at their now-closed store in Pella, Iowa as a side trip when visiting him at Iowa State University. Since then it's been a tradition of sorts to bring along a winter assortment when traveling back to Chicago for the holidays. They're delicious and creamy-smooth, and they make such a fun addition to the Thanksgiving table when they've got festive harvest shapes like these.

It's not entirely clear on their website how a Dutch chocolate-making family decided to branch out and set up shop in central Iowa, but it's hard to argue with the wisdom of their choice as you're biting into a mushroom-shaped piece of dark chocolate raspberry ganache. Sure, we'd love to bake another pie (not a booze pie this time!), bring along a local heritage turkey, or grow our own beans for the green bean casserole. But once you reach the time of Thanksgiving day where you want to veg out on the couch and watch Home Alone, it's hard not to reach for a piece of Stam chocolate to munch on. It's local, and it's something we out-of-towners can provide.

What else is out there that's the true taste of Iowa, or of your hometown that you just have to bring along? Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

To Market, To Market...

Downtown Des Moines is no Chicago or New York, but it has its fair share of tall office buildings, all interconnected by a maze of skywalks. During the day on any given weekday, these corridors are awash with workers. On the weekends things settle down quite a bit, and you could likely walk the skywalks on a Saturday morning without seeing a soul. One notable exception took place this past Saturday, a day we'd been looking forward to for several weeks.

That's Capitol Square, a fairly typical office building in Des Moines, occupied Monday through Friday by lawyers, architects, business people. But on two Saturdays a year it transforms into a vibrant indoor Farmer's Market! Des Moines has one of the best Farmers Markets we've ever seen, and in-season it is one of our top sources for meat and produce that we don't grow ourselves. Fortunately for us, even after most of the harvesting is done, there are Winter Farmers Markets on the weekends before Thanksgiving and Christmas.

They absolutely fill the first two floors of Capitol Square with booths selling everything from handmade crafts and jellies to fall produce and meats. We're always thrilled to see our favorite farmers from the summer markets, especially after a few weeks off for our pantry to run down a bit. This time we were running a little late, so we didn't end up getting another butternut squash like we'd hoped. However, we were able to stock up on chicken from Foxhollow Farm, a great heritage breed poultry farm. Their meat has become our go-to for any chicken recipe, so we grabbed enough to last us for quite some time.

We feel so fortunate to have an event like this right here in our city, knowing from experience that not every locale can support a Farmers Market so late into the year. This gives us a way to continue enjoying fresh local food, and we're already looking forward to the next Winter Market in December. If you're reading from the Des Moines area, be sure to check it out on December 17th. You might be surprised what's still growing this winter. Maybe we'll even see you there!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fall's First Harvest

You might think that late fall is a quiet time on the urban farm, but we seem to always be busy. In fact, the past few weeks have been prime harvesting time. But what are we harvesting? Didn't we already say that there was no food growing on our homestead when we bought it? Well, here's a bit of a clue. This picture of the house shows one section totally harvested.

Yep, that's right. It's a tree with all of its leaves already fallen. And where are said leaves? Certainly not on the lawn...

That's because LEAVES are our first harvest in our new home! Now don't worry, things haven't gotten so dire yet that we plan to eat them. Just like you can't eat a lawn, you can't really eat fallen leaves either. But I suppose after several steps through the food chain, these leaves will provide us some nourishment, albeit indirectly.

You see, leaves are a vital component of great compost. We told you earlier about the compost bin we built, but we still haven't done much to fill it. Lots of different kinds of organic matter can be composted, and we'll get into more detail on how that all breaks down in a future post. But leaves are a really handy source of carbon-rich compostable matter, and with all these trees, we had a great source of them.

The best way to compost leaves is to shred them first, but having bought our home in October, we haven't actually bought a lawn mower yet (and weren't quite ready to decide on one anyway). So we found a different tool.

That's Greg using our Toro Ultra Leaf Blower/Vac. This thing really sucks. Literally. And it shreds and packs the leaves into the attached bag. It's been a near-daily task the past month to spend at least a  little time working on vacuuming the leaves off the lawn, and as you saw in the first few pictures, we're pretty much done with the front yard. The back is still a work in progress, but it's not just busywork when you think of it as a harvest. Check out our bounty!

With any luck, these leaves will last us well into next year as we add them bit by bit into the compost bin. And if we do that right, eventually we'll have fantastic broken down material to add to the soil in our garden boxes. So, from that perspective, I guess we actually will be eating these leaves!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Best Laid Plans

Of mice, men, and it turns out, locavores, oft times do go astray. Sigh...

It all started several weeks ago at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market. At the time it was mid-October, which meant wonderful fall vegetables were available. In the future we'll plan to grow many of these on our own "farm," but neglect and theivery had left us with none in our community gardening space. In the interim, we simply had to pick up some of each of our fall favorites: sweet potatoes for Greg and butternut squash for Stacia.

Now, the classic butternut squash dish is soup, but Greg really wanted to try something different, so we settled on a squash, sage and pine nut pasta recipe found online. It had been several days since we'd seriously cooked, so we were both excited.

We cut open our squash and scooped out the seeds. (Pretty, isn't it?)

Chopped it up with some onions (from our garden!), garlic (from the farmer's market) and sage (which we had been growing ourselves but lost to cold temperatures, so we got packaged stuff from a nearby herb farm). It looked like this, and the whole house smelled sage-y!

Into the oven it went to roast while we cooked the pasta and fried up some more sage. If you've never fried sage in olive oil, man that is a fragrant and tasty concoction.

Look how crispy they are!

Finally, we threw the squash mixture into a big pot with the pasta and the pine nuts to cook for a bit, then tossed with some shredded parmesan cheese and voila! - fancy dinner. Time to uncork a nice bottle and turn on the dinner jazz!

But wait... Isn't something missing? Nowhere in that whole list of steps was there mention of a sauce. And with starchy pasta, starchy squash and sticky parmesan cheese, that quickly became apparent. Great sage and squash flavor, to be sure, but it sure was hard to eat. And with this being our first really home-cooked meal in a while, it became even more disappointing.

But if there's one thing we've learned, it's that cooking is not an exact science, and adaptability is key. With a half-full pot of leftover squash pasta, simply giving up wasn't an option. We opted for the lazy route - buying a storebought alfredo jar, not wanting to spend a lot of time or effort if it wasn't salvageable. Fortunately Bertoli came to the rescue and, though the final product may not have been our favorite dish ever, at least we were able to polish off the leftovers the next day.

We can probably chalk this up to being a bit rusty in big-deal cooking lately. With all the moving and the yard work, most of our meals have been quick and easy, so we forgot the obvious steps of reading through the comments on the recipe (many others commented on how dry it was) and just critically thinking through the process. We should have recognized right off the bat that this pasta needed a sauce, but we stuck to the directions and needed to improvise at the last minute.

Fortunately there's another farmer's market in a few weeks, and hopefully someone will still have squash available. It would be sad for Stacia if this were her only butternut squash experience of the fall. Now we'll just need to decide what to make with the next one. Perfect this dish, make the traditional soup, or something else entirely? What's your go-to for squash?

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Most of our backyard plans involve adding things to the backyard to create our little urban farm.  We'll be building, planting, raising, and growing all sorts of things.  But shortly after we moved in it had become clear that one aspect of the backyard was just going to be in our way; so a little destruction was in order.

Fruit trees are wonderful.  We've taken lots of trips to orchards where we could spend time amongst the trees and pick our own apples or cherries.  But these fruit trees were not so wonderful.  They were over-grown, unpruned, diseased, and hadn't borne fruit in many years.  The apple tree had a giant dead section devoid of any leaves, and the pear had so many suckers growing out of its base that it was hard to see the actual trunk. Though we wanted to find a way to save them, it was pretty clear that it wouldn't be feasible.

That opinion was echoed by the convenient horticulturist next door - our neighbor's nephew who stopped by to chat about our plans for the yard and diagnosed our trees as unsaveable. He then casually mentioned that he had a chainsaw and would be happy to cut down our problem trees. Naturally, we took him up on the offer.

Before this happened, we were actually toying with the idea of cutting these "small" trees down by ourselves.   Renting a saw, maybe watching some YouTube instructions, and winging it from there. We sure are glad that we didn't!  Trees look a lot smaller when they are standing in the air than they do when they come crashing to the ground.  We tried to look busy dragging branches around while our new friend with the chainsaw did most of the work.  He even tied a rope around each tree to guide its fall away from our fence and garlic bed.  So we can't really take much credit for this project, but that didn't stop Stacia from posing for this triumphant shot.

What you can't see in this photo is the decomposing interior of the tree trunk. Some portions of the tree were so decayed it was like dirt, inside the tree itself. That helped us feel better about cutting the trees down, showing us definitively how unwell they really were. So, with relatively clear consciences, we found ourselves with a humongous pile of brush and a stack of firewood we will be challenged to ever use up.  We hope to remain carbon-neutral by replacing these two with a couple of new trees next year, but that will be a project for another day!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

One Man's Trash...

The day that we moved our belongings out of our suburban condominium and into our new house, we were fortunate to have help from Stacia’s Mom.  She traveled down to Des Moines from the Minneapolis area and brought along a trailer to haul our bigger items across Des Moines.  We hauled all the furniture you'd figure we would have in a condo, plus a few other things that you might not expect.

Among the rest of our furniture, we loaded up a stack of four used shipping pallets.  These pallets had been collected from beside a dumpster, where they were likely bound for a landfill.  But we spotted them, and saw a new purpose in their future.  Stacia’s Mom didn’t even have to ask about the shipping pallets before we explained that they were to become our new compost bin.

Some parents might still be a bit confused after that explanation, but not ours. Both our families have had compost bins in their gardens since we were young, and they're definitely into the idea of creative recycling.  On top of that, Stacia's Mom is known for having plenty of “brilliantly crazy ideas” of her own.  If we had a plan to take something useless and create something of value, she was on board.

Just a few short days after our move-in we tackled the construction.  It was a pretty simple project, perfect for our level of woodworking skill.  We took our four shipping pallets (all approximately the same size), then added four L-shaped brackets, two hinges, a gate latch, and a caster.  We placed three of the pallets in a U-shape and used the brackets to hold them together.  The fourth pallet would serve as our gate, so we raised that a few inches off the ground to prevent it from dragging and attached it to one side of the U with our hinges.  We added the gate latch to the other side so that we could close it up.  The bin wasn’t quite rigid enough to hold the gate up, so we added a caster under the end of the pallet with the latch to stop it from sagging.  And here’s what we had created:

It had everything we needed in a compost bin.  It allowed us to contain a pile of decomposing material, provided needed air flow between the slats, and gave us an easy access through the "gate" to allow us to turn the pile.  We had just one problem; it was pretty ugly.  Go figure that a bunch of old shipping pallets don't exactly look like they came out of Better Homes and Gardens. So in an attempt to keep it from looking like something we snatched from a dumpster, we added a coat of paint.  And we were finished!

The color is just a bit more tropical pastel than we were expecting, but it lends a little brightness to the garden anyway. Now we’ll just fill it up with organic stuff and if all goes well, we’ll have rich compost to use in our garden next year.  It seems fitting to be turning what's essentially trash into a really useful material inside a bin that itself was saved from the landfill. We’ll keep you posted to see how it goes!