Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pumpkin Pie - Locavore Style

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers! Whether you'll be traveling like us or staying home, whether you'll be at a big gathering or with just a few friends or family members, there are a few dishes that just make it feel like Thanksgiving. Most people would agree that a pumpkin pie is one of them. Here at You Can't Eat a Lawn world headquarters, we were put in charge of that very pie for one of our families' feasts. Naturally, we started out the same way everyone does:

What? You mean everyone doesn't make a pumpkin pie from a whole pumpkin?? Okay, okay, we know the ubiquitous cans of Libby's pumpkin are really handy, and we have made our fair share of pumpkin dishes in that way. But here in Iowa (and the Midwest), there are so many places where you can get a whole pumpkin fresh off the vine, grown by a local farmer. In fact, we got our little pie pumpkin at a lovely pick-your-own patch called Wills Family Orchard, just a short drive from our house.

The Wills Family grows a whole variety of pie pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, squashes and gourds. We picked up a couple of jack-o-lanterns for carving, but we made sure to buy one pie pumpkin for baking. In theory you could use a jack-o-lantern for pie, but it doesn't really have the right qualities. Jack-o-lanterns are bred to be larger, with thin walls for easy carving. That means not much flesh for a pie. A pie pumpkin wouldn't impress sitting on your front porch, but it'll make a great pie.

So, once you've got a pie pumpkin, then what? It's actually really easy! First, cut it in half and remove the seeds and stringy guts. Be very careful when cutting, since the skins are quite tough and your knife can end up slipping. We use a very sharp knife and wear a cut resistant glove, just in case. Once you've got the pumpkin cut open, it'll look like this:

We placed the halves, cut side down, in a 9x13 baking dish, tented with foil over the top. They went into a 350 degree oven for 90 minutes, by which time the flesh had softened up noticeably. You can really tell that it's done by poking around various spots with a fork. When it pierces the flesh easily, the pumpkin is done. As this picture shows, it may not look much different, so you'll have to go by feel.

Next we scooped the flesh away from the skin. The cooked pumpkin is really soft, and it should be quite easy to scoop out with a spoon. We placed all of the cooked pumpkin directly into a blender and pureed it until it was silky smooth.

And honestly, that's about all there is to it! This puree in the blender can be used just like the canned stuff you buy in the store. But you have the added bonus that it was grown locally this season, probably by a small family farmer. You can use this in any recipe you like; we opted to make our pie using a recipe from the always-helpful When it came out of the oven it looked like this:

Tempted though we are, we dare not cut into this pie until the feast tomorrow. If you can judge it by aroma alone, this is sure to be a delicious dessert. It may have been a little more initial effort than simply opening a can, but we're sure it will be worth it.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Growing a Better Lunch

One of the things they don't warn you about being a grown-up is that you have to make your own lunches. Seriously. Like, either the night before (and who plans that far ahead?) or else early in the morning before work, as you're trying to get your sleepy self dressed and out the door in some sort of societally-accepted state. It's kind of a bummer, and makes us yearn back for the simpler days of being in school, when a brown paper bag would just be ready and waiting in the morning, full of delicious goodies for us to eat at lunchtime. Those days are sadly no more.

So, what's a grown person to do? Well, you can go out to eat, but that gets expensive and likely unhealthy in a hurry. Or you can just deal with the annoyance of having to make your own lunch, and try to offset that by making it as good a lunch as you can. We've certainly come a long way in that regard. It wasn't that long ago that we were packing baloney sandwiches with american cheese on white bread for some of our first working lunches. We gradually transitioned to higher quality lunchmeat on whole grain bread, but even that wasn't ideal. Deli meat is pricey, processed and loaded with sodium, and even eating grains is suspect now if you believe in all these low-glycemic index diets. We tend to have more of an "everything-in-moderation" philosophy, but even so we knew we wanted a change.

Lunch needs to have a protein source, so we started there. What sort of cheap, readily available, healthy protein do we have at our disposal at any time? It's hard to recall exactly, but maybe these gals can help us remember (gratuitous chicken photos!).

Of course, eggs! Our backyard chicken flock provides us with more than enough eggs to each eat one or two a day. The manner in which to serve the eggs was a little less clear though. There's egg salad sandwiches, which are amazing, and which we honestly haven't made enough of. But for the days when we weren't doing that, we decided to make chef salads of sorts, with hard boiled eggs and whatever veggies we had from the garden atop mixed greens. That's a tasty start to a lunch.

Only one problem. Many would argue that salad greens are healthier than deli meat, but honestly, they're not much cheaper. We use about a pound of either one per week, and if we buy what we think to be the higher-quality versions (as close as we can tell), that's still $6 or $7 in what amounts to pretty basic ingredients. Not a really big amount of money, but it adds up over the course of the year, and the greens are certainly not local at this time of year. So we started to think about ways to get salad greens more cheaply and locally. Being farmers, we would certainly grow them ourselves, if only it weren't fall/winter and getting so cold. We egregiously mistimed planting our fall garden, so we're out of luck. Or are we...

As you can see, we've already got a growlight on in the house, attempting to start some columbines (flowers, not even edible!) for a planter bed next spring, but they only take up the left half of the light. The right side was literally shining on nothing. The cats seem to enjoy laying under it, but that doesn't really do us a lot of good. So we ran to the local nursery and picked up a packet of mixed salad green seeds. We already have lots of spinach seeds which we also intend to plant. The goal, or the experiment here, is to try to not only start lettuce indoors, but to actually grow it to a full enough size that we can harvest it and use it to make our lunches. It's not terribly crazy - others online have done the same thing. But it's new for us and we're excited to give it a try.

It's possible this won't work very well, or that it won't save us much money compared to storebought greens. But we're farmers, darn it, and it just feels wrong not to be growing anything! We'll keep you informed as to how this is going, as we try to build a sack lunch that gets closer and closer to being truly "homemade."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Meatless Monday - Kale and Bean Soup

There's been increasing talk lately about the concept of a "Meatless Monday," perhaps coming to a head earlier this summer with a big dust-up between the USDA and the meat industry. First the USDA issued a memo supporting the idea, then various livestock organizations got upset, the USDA retracted the memo and said it never officially endorsed Meatless Monday at all. And for a few days in July, a nice environmental movement was politicized by every talking head on TV. Sigh.

Fortunately, here at You Can't Eat a Lawn, we don't need anybody's permission (the USDA or the Cattlemen) to try something out, and we're happy to introduce a new and hopefully recurring segment about Meatless Monday here on the blog. For the record, we do eat meat, but it's indisputable that the production of meat uses up significantly more resources than plant-based protein sources. For instance, it takes 1800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef (link), where beans only take 43 (link). So we try to have a meatless dinner at least once a week, and we'll share our favorite recipes here.

This week started with a trip out back to the garden, just like many of our meals have begun all summer long. Unlike the summer months, we were greeted by a small smattering of plants instead of our former cornucopia. But one crop that grows well in Iowa and can tolerate a mild frost is kale, and we had a lot of it! Kale is a really tasty leafy green (in the same family as broccoli) and it's very good for you, full of healthy omega-3's, iron and calcium, just to name a few. We knew this needed to be part of our meatless meal, and luckily we had just the recipe to go with it: Noodle Soup with Kale and White Beans, adapted from Fine Cooking. We'll put our adapted recipe at the end of this post.

As we always do when we start cooking, we began by arranging the ingredients in a pretty formation (kidding!). We were able to make use of a few home grown items in the kale, onion, and our frozen, homemade chicken stock. Other items we bought - we never had good carrots this year, didn't grow celery, and augmented our homemade stock with one box of storebought. Generally speaking, we like to rehydrate dry beans, but we didn't plan ahead enough this week and ended up going with canned. Either one is fine for the recipe; it's just a trade off between the low cost of dry versus the convenience of canned.

As our vegetarian friends will notice, we might have a slightly different definition of "meatless" than others.  Yes, we used a chicken stock, but you could just as easily use vegetable stock if that's your preference.  We still feel like using chicken stock is in keeping with the spirit of Meatless Monday, because stock is typically made from bones, and those are a by-product that would otherwise be thrown away. We'd rather see those scraps get some use, and since the actual chicken was used in another meal, we're choosing not to count the stock.  (We'll make the same exception for lard in the future.)  By all means, if you'd rather make a vegetarian soup than a meatless soup, don't let our choice of stock stand in your way.

This is a pretty easy soup to make, with nearly as much time spent chopping things as actually cooking. We first made and sauteed a mirepoix in olive oil. The mirepoix is shown in the picture above - it's really just chopped carrot, onion and celery in about equal proportions. But call it a mirepoix and you're sure to impress your friends! After we'd reveled in our fancy culinary abilities, it was quickly on to everyone's favorite step in soup-making: throw everything in a pot and let it simmer. By the time the savory smell of hot soup on the stovetop becomes too much to bear, everything should be done and it's time to dig in!

This is one of our favorite soups, hearty and flavorful without needing any meat. It has a hint of lime that makes it just as appropriate for the summer, but with enough savory body to warm you up in the fall, too. With the goodness of the kale and the other veggies, you can go back for multiple bowls knowing that this is as good for you as it tastes. It's a delicious option for Meatless Monday, or any day.

Kale and Bean Soup


2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1/2 box whole-wheat spaghetti, broken into thirds
2 quarts chicken stock
1 bunch kale, ribs removed, leaves chopped
1 can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
3 Tbs lime juice
salt and pepper

1. Finely chop 1 medium onion, 2 carrots, and 2 stalks of celery. Call it a mirepoix and be really proud of yourself.
2. Heat olive oil in skillet and saute mirepoix until tender
3. Combine chicken stock, mirepoix, kale, lime juice and spaghetti in large pot.
4. Simmer 8-10 minutes or until kale is tender and spaghetti is cooked.
5. Salt and pepper to taste, serve and enjoy.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

October Harvest Update

As an urban farmer, you never really know just when the gardening season is going to end. Toward the end of the summer, the tomatoes and peppers will be producing like crazy to the point where you can't think of how you could possibly use them all. Then one night you hear a foul five-letter word on the news and your stomach sinks. F-R-O-S-T, and you know it's only a matter of time before you have to pack it all in for the year. For us, that moment occurred on October 5th, just before we left on our travels to Chicago that we talked about earlier.

Suspecting that our plants wouldn't live to see our return, we hastily ran out to the garden and picked everything that even looked marginally ripe. We had multiple kinds of peppers, both hot and sweet, and a multitude of tomatoes that had at least a tinge of orange to them. We gathered all that we could carry and brought them in. It was quite a haul!

We only had time to leave them on the counter before we set off on our action-packed trip, but when we returned we were glad that we had at least done that. It turned out the temperature in Des Moines had dipped as low as 28 degrees, which had killed off everything that wasn't frost-hardy. We came home to a backyard full of plants that looked like this:

Any fruits that remained on the vines had turned pale and oddly squishy, as though Bunnicula had gotten to them, and the plants were brittle with droopy leaves. All that's left for the rest of the gardening season is to pull out and compost the dead plants. So, our October harvest totals are, with the exception of egg gathering, most likely our last totals for the 2012 season. Here's how we did:

4.7 ounces of cherry tomatoes
6.8 ounces of kale
1 lb 8.2 ounces of Anaheim peppers
1 lb 9.7 ounces of Poblano peppers
2lb 1.0 ounces of Bell peppers
4 lb 1.4 ounces of sauce tomatoes
5 lb 3.7 ounces of slicing tomatoes
and 173 eggs

It was clear after picking everything that we had a lot, but nearly 10 pounds of tomatoes in one harvest was still a bit of a surprise! We've been trying to use this all up before it goes to waste, which has been fun, but still a challenge. Having a good, freeze-able pasta sauce recipe on hand has been a real help in that area.

Next year we'd like to do a better job of planting a late season garden of crops that can survive a light frost, but our busy schedule this fall meant that we missed our opportunity to get it done this year.  We hope that by this time next year we're still growing broccoli, greens, carrots, and brussels sprouts.

We haven't yet totaled up our bounty for the whole year, and we haven't bothered to track the costs of our inputs all along, so it's not easy to determine if we've saved money by maintaining a garden this year. However, it is clear that we've had a ton of fresh, healthy, locally grown food, and that has been quite the reward in itself!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Chickens (and the Eggs!)

Although we're fortunate enough to have plenty of excitement and unpredictability in our lives, many days here on the urban farm fall into a comfortable, familiar routine. We go to our day jobs, spend 8 or more hours doing whatever it is that engineers do, come home, gather fresh eggs, and prepare dinner. Oh, wait... That may be our routine these days, but of course the egg part is sort of new, not to mention unusual for city dwellers like us. Our chickens are just so easygoing and low-maintenance that they've become part of our new normal with hardly a second thought.

Part of that may be because we see them every day, but it's been a little while since we've shared any chicken news here on the blog. As you can see in the picture, they've continued to get bigger, and the coloration of some (particularly the Easter Eggers) has changed slightly. But they're still very much the same in temperament. They like to beg for and devour pretty much anything we give them, from the storebought chicken treats to old kitchen scraps to the bugs we want to get out of the garden. And they loved scratching and pecking at the fresh grass in the photo, from the chicken run addition we put on a few weeks ago.

As fun as the chickens are to watch, we got them for a more practical reason: eggs! And in that area they sure haven't disappointed. From the mention last month of our first egg, production has steadily ramped up to the point where we now expect 6 to 8 eggs to be laid each day. Some days every single hen lays an egg and we have nine! From day one to today, we've gathered a whopping 286 eggs.

Now, we both like eggs, but that's a heck of a lot for us to eat. In addition to giving them to neighbors and friends, we've found that keeping a stash of hard-boiled eggs helps use them up. A quick breakfast when we're running late, or chopped up on a salad for lunch, it's just a great thing to have around. But hard boiling farm fresh eggs is more difficult than you might think. You see, we're trying to boil our eggs within days of harvest, whereas a grocery store egg has sat for a few weeks before it even gets to you. This allows some separation to occur between the shell and the membrane inside, so the peeling process goes better.

A really fresh egg doesn't have that gap, so when it comes time to peel after boiling, the shell sticks to the outside of the egg white, and you end up tearing up a lot of egg trying to get the shell off. So, what to do? The secret is to help create that separation yourself. That way you can enjoy fresh eggs without the frustration of a "bad peeler." Here's how we do it.

Use an ordinary pushpin, and poke a hole into the fat end (not the pointy end) of each egg you want to hard boil. This is the scariest step, because the first time you'll feel sure that you're going to shatter the egg. At least, we did. But if you keep up gentle pressure, possibly while rotating the pin back and forth a bit, you'll end up punching just through the shell and not through the membrane. Another reason to like pushpins for this step is that you can usually just push down all the way to the hilt of the pin, and the hole ends up being that proper depth. Sometimes it may push just into the white, but that's actually okay too.

Here's what a half-dozen prepared eggs looks like. You may have to look pretty closely, but you can see the tiny pinhole in each one. Now they're ready to boil! Everyone seems to have a slightly different method for doing this, but here's ours: Bring a pot of water to a boil, place the eggs in using a slotted spoon, bring the water back up to a boil if the eggs have cooled it, then cover the pot and let it sit for 15 minutes. There's actually enough heat in the water at that point to perfectly cook the eggs, and you don't have to keep using gas or electricity to heat it any further.

We mentioned that it's possible the pushpin will poke into the egg white in some instances. Well, again, that's nothing to worry about. You'll just notice a thin ribbon of white stream out of the hole for a bit, then it will separate off and float around in the pot. That small portion of egg is lost, but it's really an insignificant amount, and once it separates away, that should be all of it. The peeled egg may have a small depression in that area, but it's truly worth the risk because...

The eggs will peel perfectly! Here's a batch of ours, following the procedure we just went over. Each one was an absolute dream to peel, especially after the struggles we've had before we discovered this method. We've been happy for a long time to be gathering fresh eggs from our backyard chickens, but it makes it even more rewarding when we can enjoy them that much easier. We've seen a lot of so-called "guaranteed" methods to hard boil eggs, but this is the only one that's worked consistently for us. Give it a try next time you've got some fresh, local eggs, and enjoy!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Where Have We Been? (and Sept Harvest Update)

It's been a really long time since we've posted on here - probably a longer gap between posts than we have ever had before. So what's the deal? Don't worry, we haven't run out of ideas or gotten tired of the blog. It's just that in the past week and a half, we've been... well, all over the place. But even though we haven't been local, we've still managed to eat local.

We started by going 305 miles to see Greg's family in the Chicago suburbs. It was great to spend time with them all again, considering it had been quite a while since our last visit.

We'd only been there a day before setting off 101 more miles to Milwaukee to coordinate winter storage for Greg's Dad's boat. Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped at our favorite little locally owned bakery, Wild Flour. Everyone chowed down on delicious sandwiches made with breads baked fresh on-site. A popular (and tasty) choice was the Cranberry Bog, a turkey and Swiss sandwich on cranberry-walnut bread, topped with spinach, tomato, carrot, plus hummus and cranberry mustard. Yum!

The next leg saw the 101 mile return trip from Milwaukee plus a short jaunt (11 miles) out to the Arcedium Coffehouse in St. Charles, Illinois. This cozy coffeshop not only crafts fantastic lattes, it does so using coffee beans roasted right inside the store. In fact, the coffee roaster is the centerpiece of the entire shop, highlighting the importance of fresh and local roasting of the beans. On a cool fall morning, a pumpkin or chestnut latte made with freshly roasted coffee is hard to beat.

Since we were so close to Chicago, we had to go in to the city, so a short 39 miles later, we found ourselves wandering around Greg's sister's neighborhood. A highlight of this part of Chicago is Uncommon Ground restaurant, which specializes in locally grown food. Entire posts could be written about Uncommon Ground (oh, hey, they have been!), and this return visit didn't disappoint. The three of us who ate there got vastly differing entrees: a pork belly BLT, perch tacos, and clam linguine, and each one tasted as great as the next. Cocktails also made from local ingredients provided the perfect accompaniment.

The drive back home was long, so we decided to break it up into smaller increments. An even 200 miles from Greg's family's home is the small town of Elkader, Iowa. In many ways it's a typical rural Iowa town, but the fact that it has Schera's is pretty noteworthy. Probably the only Algerian restaurant in the entire state, the unassuming exterior belies the exotic flavors found in the perfectly crafted food. From flaky samosas to the spiced-and-seared apricot chicken, and even down to the beverages. One of the featured drinks is the Lemon Verbena drop, in which roof-grown lemon verbena is steeped on-site in vodka to create a real one of a kind flavor.

So you can see that even though we've been far from home the last week or so, we've still been staying true to our mission to support the ideas and producers of the local food movement. And, in the time that we haven't been traveling, we've been eating even more locally: from our backyard. September is long since over, but here are the numbers for what we harvested in that, one of our most productive months yet.

1.0 ounce of kale (though we could have gotten much more, but opted to leave it on the plants)
1.9 ounces of carrots
2.5 ounces of strawberries
2.7 ounces of Nebraska Wedding tomatoes
6.3 ounces of Poblano peppers
10.3 ounces of green bell peppers
12.7 ounces of Anaheim peppers
14.5 ounces of red bell peppers
1 lb 8.2 ounces of cherry tomatoes
2 lb 14.5 ounces of Early & Often tomatoes
3 lb 8.2 ounces of sauce tomatoes
3 lb 8.8 ounces of zucchini

and 120 farm fresh eggs!

After so much travel in such a short time, here's hoping we get to stay around the urban farm a little bit more in the near future. There always seems to be something to do around here, and it makes it hard to get it done when we're not here. The harvests will slow down as we get further into the fall, but construction, upgrades, and future planning continue on. We'll be sure to let you know how that goes.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The End of the Zucchini

There's an old joke you sometimes hear from small-town gardeners about zucchini. They'll tell you about how quiet and safe their town is, and that they never even bother to lock their car doors... with one exception. During the peak of zucchini season, if you don't lock your doors, someone will sneak into your car and leave a bagful of giant zukes, just because they have so much they need to get rid of.

Our plants have mostly lived up to this stereotype, keeping us in more zucchini than we usually know what to do with. We've given a few extras to pretty much anyone we could think of that might like one, but without being brazen enough to leave them in unlocked cars, we've been fairly inundated ourselves. Despite the unceasing attacks from all manner of bugs, our zucchini plants kept trucking along and churning them out one after another. But whether it was due to those pests, or just the fact that it's nearly the end of the season, it was clear by this weekend that they were done.

It's almost hard to see the zucchini there, since they've gotten so wilted and overrun by weeds and grass, but you can spot a few leaves here and there. Since they clearly weren't going to be producing any more zucchini, we went ahead and pulled the plants out to compost them. By next year they should be providing nutrients to the next generation of zucchini and other plants.

In the meantime, though, we still had a ton of zucchini! It's a little tricky to preserve zucchini, so we've done our best to make the most of the zucchini season. So for fun, here's a quick review of some of our favorite ways to have the summer's most plentiful vegetable.

Before they become baseball bat-sized, one of the best ways to eat zucchini is simply sauteed on the stovetop or cooked on the grill. With a little bit of olive oil, salt/pepper/any other spices, and cooked until they're soft and just translucent, you've got a quick and easy veggie side dish. Or you can throw the sauteed zucchini into any other dish you might be cooking. We've put sauteed zucchini into pasta sauces, casseroles, stir fries and veggie enchilada filling.

When you don't want to to eat zucchini with every meal, it works well to disguise it by putting it into dessert! We've mentioned our zucchini bread in the past, which is a favorite in our household. We've also made very tasty chocolate zucchini cake, and have given some thought to trying zucchini brownies in the future. Baking with zucchini never uses up quite as much as you might hope it will, but it gives you a good excuse to eat sweets, since you're really having vegetables, right?

This was an interesting experiment, and it ended up being quite a success. Everyone's heard of baked potato boats, so why not zucchini boats? We made ours Italian-themed, stuffing them with a mixture of local Graziano's sausage and marinara sauce, with some shredded mozzarella on top. This was a good way to use up some slightly bigger zukes from the garden, since we started by scraping out all the seeds and guts. Then we roasted the boats in the oven until they felt soft with a fork. Alternatively, you could probably soften them in boiling water or a steamer, if you have one. This was pretty tasty - a bit like an eggplant parmigiana, but without the breading.

And our most recent creation - cheddar zucchini biscuits! This came from a recipe online, albeit with a few substitutions. They called for Bisquik, which was really easy to make on our own. We used this formula, though of course we substituted our home-rendered lard for the processed shortening. By the time we'd finished substituting and baking, we had delicious moist savory biscuits. We served these with a hearty split-pea soup for a delicious fall dinner. The zucchini gave them a really light texture, especially compared with the density you frequently find in biscuits. These were delicious and we definitely plan to make them again.

There have probably been a few other things we've done with zucchini so far this year, but those are some of the highlights. That said, we still have a ton of zucchini to use up! The plants may not be producing anymore, but when they were we sure weren't able to keep up. We used a first-in first-out system so all our remaining zukes are still pretty fresh. It wouldn't be a surprise if over the next few weeks we end up making each of these recipes another time over. But we like to try new things so there will probably also be some unique dishes that we haven't even come up with yet.

Got any ideas for us? What's your favorite way to enjoy zucchini?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Sauce of Our Own

One of the many perks of having a plot of fresh produce just outside your backdoor is how easy it is to cook simple, delicious meals. We both enjoy cooking, in pretty much all its forms. There are nights that we want to make something from a fancy recipe, and spend hours in the kitchen rolling roulades, whipping up demi glaces, and scads of other french-sounding culinary tasks. If we're in the right mood, that can make for a whole evening's entertainment. But other nights we just need a simple way to use some of our fresh garden produce.

This has particularly been the case recently, as our planned canning tomatoes have come in bit by bit rather than in one giant harvest. It seems we never have enough at one time to can up, yet if we try to wait for more to ripen, the first few will start to go bad.  So why not make up a batch of garden-fresh tomato sauce, not to save, but to eat right away? A tasty sauce, inspired by this find on the internet - roasted tomato sauce from the "Sweet Pea Chef" blog.

We started with two pounds of our sauce tomatoes, romas and a variety called agro. Both of these tend to be meatier than a regular slicing tomato, so you don't end up with a bunch of watery goosh when you cook them. We opted to use some of our older ones as well, just cutting off any parts that looked or felt a bit past their prime. These we cut in half, and placed into sprayed baking dishes, along with a roughly chopped onion, several cloves of smashed garlic, and a couple cut-up carrots (they were small ones). As an added bonus, every single one of those ingredients was grown by us in our own backyard!

We drizzled the pans with a hearty amount of olive oil, then salted, peppered, and threw them into a 350 degree oven for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Hey, we said it was simple; we never said anything about quick! After an hour, the house began to fill with the aromas of roasting tomatoes, and by time we pulled them out, some of the veggies were just starting to blacken a bit and caramelize, like this.

Now you have to resist eating the lovely roasted tomatoes on their own - remember, we want a sauce here. And this is another time where an odd little kitchen tool really comes in handy. Sure, you could blend up the vegetables and probably get a good, smooth sauce. But if you use a food mill, it will separate the slightly tough skins from the now-softened meat of the tomatoes. No tomato skins getting stuck in your teeth, they all get caught in the top of the food mill! Either way, the whole pan's worth - tomatoes, onions, garlic, and carrots - all get pureed through the food mill.

Those skins at the top sure don't look too appetizing, so they go to the compost bin, while we go on to making this into a meal. The sauce is yummy enough on its own that you could use it with noodles if you wanted a basic spaghetti marinara. We wanted to fill it out more into a full meal, so we added a couple cut-up links of chicken sausage, plus some chopped zucchini that we just sauteed in olive oil. Put all that together on top of some spaghetti noodles, grate some parmesan cheese and sprinkle on some fresh basil, and that's a hearty dinner.

Spaghetti with red sauce is never going to earn any Michelin stars or make it into a fancy French cookbook. But it's delicious comfort food, and sometimes it's just what you feel like. We've long felt that food doesn't need to be fancy as long as it's made from quality ingredients. This is a perfect example. We know that the tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, zucchini and herbs are grown in a manner we agree with, because we grew them. And short of making our own sausage (eww) or making our own pasta (time consuming), this is about as close to an entirely homegrown meal as you can get. We may have taken some inspiration from a recipe we found online, but this really was a meal we grew ourselves. Not just from farm to fork, we took this from seed to sauce!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Our Long Overdue August Harvest Update

Wow, this is embarrassing! September is almost half over, and we still haven't updated our harvest totals for the month of August. We can only milk the excuse that we're exhausted from grape picking for so long, and a week and half later is probably long enough. But not to fear, we have still been keeping track, just on our kitchen whiteboard rather than the blog.

In case you can't read Greg's fine penmanship chicken scratch, here are the numbers from August:

0.7 ounces of Anaheim peppers
1.6 ounces of red peppers
1.7 ounces of strawberries
2.2 ounces of "Nebraska Wedding" slicing tomatoes
5.0 ounces of Poblano peppers
1 pound, 3.4 ounces of carrots
2 pounds, 6.3 ounces of cherry tomatoes
6 pounds, 7.1 ounces of "Early and Often" slicing tomatoes
7 pounds, 3.3 ounces of Roma tomatoes
25 pounds, 4.9 ounces of zucchini

and 20 eggs!

This is kind of a good rebound on several fronts, especially the tomatoes. Last month we were complaining about the various maladies they had, and while those have continued to be an annoyance, we've been able to harvest lots of nice tomatoes. We still throw some into the compost bin for blossom end rot or splitting or bug attacks, but we've also been able to make our own salsa, spaghetti sauce, BLTs and salads without having to buy any tomatoes. The only bummer at this point is that we haven't quite had enough (especially all at one time) to can any tomato products - salsas and sauces -  for this winter. But that just means we've been busy enjoying the fruits of our labor while they're in season.

In other news, we've acquired a handy new gardening tool! Or actually, it's more of a blogging tool. You may have noticed that while we love to add photos to our posts, the quality of the shots usually isn't the greatest. And as all amateur photographers know, the best way to get better pictures is to buy an expensive camera! Just kidding. But yeah, we did go buy a new, more expensive camera.

This one, a Panasonic Lumix FZ47. Now, real photo experts will immediately notice this isn't a true SLR, but it is still a huge step up from the pocket point-and-shoot we had before. It's called a bridge camera, which is a good "inbetweener" for novices like us. Greg took a photo class way back in high school, and wanted to try out a camera that offered full manual control, which these do. Now, obviously it's going to take a lot of education and experimentation to figure out how to use those settings to get good photos, but we'll see if we can't make this blog a bit prettier by doing so.

As a start, here's a picture from the first day of messing around with the new toy, a portrait of official farm cat lay-around-the-house-and-do-nothing cat Velma. She contributes absolutely nothing to the urban farm, but hey, she looks good doing it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Wrath of Grapes

It's Labor Day weekend in America! A holiday that is usually filled with people taking part in their favorite summer traditions before fall really sets in. There are backyard barbecues, landscaping projects, and final dips in the swimming pool happening all around. But thanks to an abnormally warm summer, this pair of urban farmers spent the weekend taking part in a quintessential autumn experience. And that experience involved quite a bit more "labor" than either one of us could have imagined.

Stacia's mother has quite the farming streak of her own, and her latest endeavor is tending a one acre vineyard in the picturesque hills of northeast Iowa, not far from the town where Stacia grew up. She has been spending her summer caring for the vines and it was time for the harvest.

The vines were heavy with clusters of brilliant, purple fruit. After weeks of sampling the flavor and testing the sugar content of the grapes, she gathered up her family, friends, and neighbors to spend part of their weekend among the vines. Naturally, we couldn't let her down, so we grabbed our pruning shears and work gloves, and hit the road.

Neither one of us had much experience with grapes before, but the instructions seemed pretty simple.  Grab a ripe cluster of grapes, snip it off of the vine, place it in a bucket, and repeat. We settled in to a spot with lots of ripe fruit and started picking.

It sure didn't take long to realize that this was going to be hard work! The vines are tall, so we spent a lot of time with our necks and arms stretched upward. The sugary fruit was swarming with bees who loved their sweet flavor as much as we did. Each row seemed to stretch on and on, and when a row was finished, there was always another one to begin. Even on an overcast day, we quickly worked up a sweat.

Harvesting grapes is a task that hasn't changed much over the years. The grapes will burst if they are handled too roughly, so mechanical picking equipment is no substitute for a pair of hard working hands. Our hands were busy over the course of the weekend, and by time we were all done, our crew had taken 5,000 pounds of grapes from the vines.  A figure like that really puts our backyard harvests into perspective!

Spending time working in the vineyard got us hot, tired, sweaty and achy, but it also gave us a new appreciation for all the hard work that goes into crafting a bottle of wine. We'd worked ourselves to the absolute brink of exhaustion working a single acre, and we didn't even harvest everything we could have. If we'd had the energy to stick around, we could have picked lots more. But it was really all we could do to haul ourselves back to town for some rest as the grapes were hauled down the road to be turned into wine.

As we sit back at home to compose this post, we're enjoying a lovely glass of last season's red wine that is easy to sip, but took quite the effort to make. If we're fortunate enough to get some wine made from this year's crop, it will probably taste even better knowing that we contributed our part into that effort.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Egg-cellent News!

About 18 weeks ago, we told you all about the new baby chicks that we were raising on our urban farm.  We gave each fuzzy little bird a name, fed them, and kept them warm.  Then we talked about how fast they were growing up and we moved them out into the coop we built in the backyard.  And now today we are very proud to share our latest milestone in chicken keeping.

We've been keeping a close eye on the chicken coop lately; checking the next boxes and glancing around the outdoor run.  And today we finally found what we've been looking for - our first egg!  

This little egg is a bit smaller than an average hen's egg.  That is common for young chickens and it shouldn't be much longer until we're getting full sized eggs from each one of our birds.  We didn't actually find this egg in the nest boxes either.  Evidently one of chickens decided she'd rather lay her egg outdoors.  When Greg spotted the egg, we were pretty sure that it hadn't been there long, but admittedly, we had been checking the next boxes more thoroughly than the rest of the coop.  So we thought we'd better make sure that the egg was fresh.

An easy test to check the freshness of an egg is to simply place it in a glass filled with water.  Our egg sank to the bottom of the glass and sat on its side.  That means that it's very fresh and we can feel confident about eating it safely.

To help you see that our egg is a little on the small side, we placed it inside the carton of local eggs that we recently bought at the grocery store.  Can you see which one is ours?

We aren't sure which one of our chickens actually laid the first egg.  It wasn't one of our Easter Eggers, because they lay blue eggs.  But our Plymouth Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and Rhode Island Reds will all lay brown eggs, so it could have been any one of them.  Whichever it was, we do hope that she starts giving lessons to the rest of the flock!

Edited to add:  After a couple of days observing the flock, we think the chicken that laid our first egg is the Rhode Island Red that you can see standing behind the water jug in the last photo.

This post has been shared with Simple Lives Thursday.

Friday, August 17, 2012

When Life Gives You Cucumbers...

Way back when we were buying seeds, we bought (or already had on hand) seeds for cantaloupe, butternut squash and cucumbers. The plan was to find a place in the lawn to dig out the sod and put in a vine patch. But with all the other work that we were doing on our raised beds, we simply never found the time to set this space up. Eventually we mounded up three hills in the very back section of the lot and planted seeds for those three plants, thinking at least giving them a try was better than not having it perfect. It seemed like a good plan.

Which it was, in theory. The trouble was that reality didn't agree much. The back of the yard was the former owners' garden area, and for whatever reason, has really bad soil. Maybe it was very intensively planted and never rebuilt with compost or organic matter, but it's never been able to hold moisture very well. So we should have been watering the plants pretty regularly, but for the second issue. We bought over 200 ft of hose, but even that doesn't quite reach the hills. When we'd irrigate, we'd have to get as close as we could and shoot the water up in a big arc, just barely reaching the plants. Probably not the best way to water. Add in frequent rabbit attacks, and by time the big drought came along this summer, it was an easy decision to just let these plants go and prioritize our water elsewhere.

Which was fine, except it meant we didn't have any of these:

And that's where the generosity of our fellow Iowans comes into play. A coworker of Stacia's had way more cucumbers than he could eat, and knew that we were into eating local, healthy produce. So he offered up a batch from his garden. The next week, one of Greg's coworkers had extra cucumbers and brought those into the office to share. Before we knew it, we had a pile of cukes we needed to use!

Some went into cucumber salad, others onto Chicago-style hot dogs, but we were still left with plenty, mostly the bigger, seedier specimens that didn't look as good for fresh use. We knew we couldn't let these go to waste, so we dusted off our trusty canner and took a look at the incomparable Ball Blue Book for a recipe. We settled on Dill Relish, since it wouldn't use the big seeds these particular cucumbers had, and well, because we like hot dogs.

The first step was to get rid of those seedy centers. This was easy enough; just slice down the center and use a spoon to scoop out the centers. You'll notice we also peeled ours since they were pretty big and had tougher skins. With thinner skinned cucumbers, you probably could leave them on.

From there, we just followed the step-by-step instructions in the Blue Book. We've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating that following the Blue Book is a really good way to go when home canning. Doing it wrong can make you very sick (or worse), so we tend to trust the experts. To make relish we started by finely chopping the cucumbers in a food processor. This was a bit tricky - we had to use very short pulses to make sure we were chopping and not pureeing them to mush. After this we sprinkled the chopped cukes with the prescribed amounts of salt and turmeric, then covered the mixture with water and let it stand for 2 hours.

It didn't look bad, but it wasn't particularly appetizing at this point. Not much changed over the course of the few hours, at least not visually. But we faithfully let it sit this way for a few hours before we drained the liquid off the cucumber solids. This was a good start, but it needed some seasoning to become actual relish. The recipe from Ball called for chopped onions, sugar, white wine vinegar and dill seed. Note that dill seed is not the same as dill weed, and they apparently have a very different flavor. We originally thought we could use the dill weed in our cupboard but had to run out to get a bottle of dill seed at the last minute. We cooked this all together for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, it was starting to look more like relish. Still mostly cucumbers but with enough spice, vinegar and chunks of onion that we felt pretty confident it would be tasty. Because of that vinegar the relish was acidic enough that it could be processed in a boiling water canner, not a pressure canner. We had started with about 5 pounds of cucumbers and ended up with 4 nearly full pint jars. Each one sealed with a nice audible POP! but we left them on the counter with the rings on until the next morning. Then we gently pressed on the jar lid to make sure it was sealed and we threaded the rings off. When they were done, they looked like this:

We haven't had any hot dogs since we made these jars of relish, so we actually have no idea how good or not good it might taste. Thus far everything we've made from the Ball Blue Book has been delicious so there's no reason to think that this will be any different. Either way, it was a great way to use someone's excess cucumbers. We did what we could to enjoy the fresh veggies when they were in season, but that time can be pretty fleeting. Canning is a great way to preserve the harvest for later, even if it's not our harvest.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

July Harvest Update

If it feels like it's been a really long time since we've posted, trust us, we feel the same. We've both been on the road a lot lately for our (non-farming) day jobs; Greg was in Atlanta last week, with Stacia in Dallas right now. That makes it hard to keep up with even maintaining and caring for our garden, much less finding time to blog about it. So here's a brief (and overdue) update on our fruitful July harvest, after which we should be back to our regular posting schedule.

As we mentioned last time, it seems that we have all the zucchini plant pests you possibly can. But those plants are real troopers, and just keep churning out zucchini after zucchini. We've been pretty diligent in harvesting them before they reach baseball bat-size, but it's still a heck of a lot of zucchini. This shows just the amount we happened to have on hand this evening, not counting the many we've already eaten or the three that are almost ready to pick. Considering the duress they're under, these are some pretty incredible plants!

Not surprsingly, zucchini lead the way in the harvest totals. Overall, in July we harvested:

0.4 ounces of snow peas
0.7 ounces of Poblano peppers
1.1 ounces of Roma tomatoes
9.8 ounces of Anaheim peppers
12.2 ounces of strawberries
12.3 ounces of kale
12.7 ounces of cherry tomatoes (52 tomatoes)
13.9 ounces of green beans
1 pound 13.1 ounces of garlic

And... 11 pounds 12.5 ounces of zucchini (8 zukes)!

Unfortunately, while the zucchini haven't seemed to show any sign of slowing under the attack of the various bugs, the same can't be said for our tomatoes. We've had a lot of the fruits split, most likely due to uneven watering with the intense drought we've been having this year. Well, the cucumber beetles have been using those soft spots as entry points into the tomatoes and just wreaking havoc. They don't all look this bad, but we do have our share of tomatoes that end up looking tunneled through and chewed up like this.

We should probably keep a better eye on watering so they don't split so bad to begin with, but for now it's been necessary to cut out the good bits to keep around the damage. They taste great, but it would be nice if they didn't look so terrible.

And of course, we still have chickens, and have probably been criminally negligent in not posting photos of them. The ladies still haven't laid any eggs, but according to what we read online and in books, we're very very close to that happening. Most likely within another couple of weeks we should have our first egg. Other than that, they're doing well - they may not enjoy the heat we've had but they've been dealing with it very well. And how's this for a fun chicken discovery: they seem to love the taste of Japanese beetles! Thankfully we don't have very many of those around the garden but when we find one, we pluck it off and give our hens a snack. With tastes like that, who wouldn't want backyard chickens?