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!