Stacking Functions Garden

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Book review: Toolbox for Sustainable City Living

toolboxAuthors: Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew

This book is full of ideas for really hardcore people who want to practice radical sustainability and preferably live in a mild climate.  The whole time I was reading it I kept picturing the people on the high bikes in the Minneapolis MayDay parade, and what they must do in their spare time.  Maybe they really do install humanure composting toilets in their homes?

Let me share a quote from the book so you can really get a flavor for what I’m talking about:

Will cities still be capable of supporting their populations when big trucks are no longer delivering food?  What will happen when it becomes too costly to heat buildings?  Will basic sanitation collapse as water becomes scarcer and more expensive to pump?

So basically we’re talking about: how to get set up so that you and yours can still feed yourselves come the apocalypse (or, the collapse of a petroleum-based society).  This is one of those weird areas where far-right people and far-left people actually are quite a bit alike.

It would be easy to just dismiss this book, and the writers’ philosophy, after reading a quote like that.  But the thing is, they are so right about so many things.  They call out modern farses like green consumerism:

Green consumerism encourages consumption of a different variety.  It does nothing to challenge the patterns of over-consumption and excess that have created the environmental crisis.

Yes.  Right on.  Although maybe for some people “green” consumerism is a small first step.  If you’re really dedicated to this stuff and are interested in some ideas on how you can take it to the next level, I recommend this book.  It also helps if you live in a climate where the temperature rarely dips below 32 degrees, because most of the systems they describe don’t function well or even at all in the frozen tundra of Minnesota.

They cover the very basics of: raising chickens, perennial food crops (including mushrooms), aquaculture (including small-scale fish farming), insect breeding, water conservation including rainwater catchment and greywater systems, various compost systems, using biofuels, and creating some passive solar systems, all sprinkled in with scary talk about peak oil.  Note that they only cover the very basics; if I were going to install a greywater system I would get an entire book dedicated to only that subject.

I feel like this is the “next level” from us and I’m honestly not quite there yet.  I’m getting a lot closer to convincing Adam that we should get chickens, but having a hard time getting my head around composting toilets and the like.

But maybe I should try to get there, as a new report by the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy predicts a sharp drop in projected future world oil output (compared with previous expectations).   Click here to read more on that, then get your bikes greased up.

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Human hormones + chemicals = bad

Part of me is saying “duh.”  But part of me is glad that we have mounting scientific evidence that I can cite when people accuse me of being paranoid.

According to an article in today’s Strib, chemicals in literally every single product most of us eat or put on or near our body are endocrine disruptors — they mess with our hormones.   Quote:

“Endocrine disruptors have been blamed for playing a role in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, cancer, diabetes, earlier puberty, immune problems, obesity and infertility.”

Once again, the FDA and the EPA in the last 30 years have served only to protect industry, not consumers.  So once again it’s on our backs to figure out what’s safe and what’s not.  This has the potential to turn on my “anti-tax” gene: why am I funding agencies that are protecting corporations at the expense of my health?  It’s completely ridiculous.  Now that Obama’s in office I have more hope than I had before, but we’re talking about 30 years.  That includes a couple of Democrats who did nothing to change or stop it.

Japan banned BPA 10 years ago.  TEN years.  America still hasn’t banned it outright, although several states have now stepped up (including Minnesota).

Here’s a link to the article.

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CSA: week 1


Yesterday our first CSA box arrived!  We decided to split a share of Food 4 Thought CSA with our next-door neighbors.

Things that are cool about Food 4 Thought:
1. They deliver to your door (only in Mpls)
2. They get produce from 3 different farms, minimizing your risk
3. Fruit is included!  (YAY!)

For those of you who are new to this stuff, CSA stands for either Community Sponsored Agriculture or Community Supported Agriculture.  I’ve seen it both ways.  But the basic gist is: you pay a fee to own a “share” of a farm’s crop for a season.  You take on a small risk of crop failure.  In return, you get fresh produce, directly from the farmer, right when it’s at its peak.  Google Community Supported Agriculture and you can read for hours about it if you like.  Or Wikipedia’s entry is pretty good too.

I will post every week to report what we got in our box.  It should be a great primer on seasonal eating.  So without further ado, our box for June 11, 2009 consisted of:

csa61109B3 heads of lettuce (different varieties), 2 bunches of spinach, 1 large bunch of savoy, 2 bunches of radishes, 2 bok choys, and some (!) parsnips.  I am really curious to know how those parsnips came to be… are they from last year, over-wintered?  I know its been done.  Or did they start them inside from seed in like January and plant them in March?  I may have to do a “farm visit” to get these burning parsnip questions answered.

Here’s what our share looked like (after giving half to the neighbors):

csa61109CI am really glad we decided to do the halfsies thing.  With our garden and everything, we would be overwhelmed by that much produce.  I do still work a 9-5 job, ya know.

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Recipe: three great peanut sauces

What can you use peanut sauce on?  Anything really.  Dip spring rolls or egg rolls in it.  Stir it into some stir-fry.  Spread it on your sandwiches.  Dip fresh vegetables in it.  Pour it over rice noodles for Asian spaghetti. (Can you tell we’ve got toddlers?)  Natural, unsweetened peanut butter works best for all three (with or without salt is fine).

Recipe #1: savory, thick peanut sauce
2 scallions, finely chopped (or about 1/4 of an onion)
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
Generous pinch of chili powder
1 tsp. granulated sugar
1 T. white vinegar
2 T. soy sauce
3 T. peanut butter (crunchy or smooth)

Mix ingredients together with a fork and let sit at room temperature for a good 30 minutes.  This one is really thick and works great as a dip.  This is from Christine Ingram’s vegetarian and vegetable cooking.

Recipe #2: BBQ peanut sauce
2 T. rice vinegar or white vinegar
2 T. sugar
1 tsp. salt
3 T. peanut butter (crunchy or smooth)
1/2 tsp. chili flakes
3 T. BBQ sauce

Combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a pan and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 2 minutes.  Remove from heat and add peanut butter, chili flakes, and BBQ sauce.  This one is also very thick and good as a dip, or spread onto meat on the grill.  This is from 1000 vegetarian recipes from around the world.

Recipe #3: Real Thai peanut curry sauce
1/2 c. unsweetened coconut milk
2 T. red curry paste (or less if you’re wimpy)
3/4 c. stock (vegetable or chicken)
2 T. brown sugar
1/4 c. peanut butter or roasted peanuts chopped very fine
2 T. lemon or lime juice
1/2 tsp. salt

Warm the coconut milk in a saucepan over medium heat until it comes to a gentle boil. Simmer, stirring now and then, until it releases a sweet fragrance and thickens a bit, about 5 min.  Add the curry paste and cook 3-4 min. longer, being sure to mix well.  Add the stock and sugar, continue to simmer for 5 minutes.  Add the peanuts or peanut butter and cook for about 3 more minutes, or until the peanut butter is all melted and incorporated.  Remove from heat, add lemon juice,  and salt & pepper to taste.  Use immediately or refrigerate for up to 2 days.  It gets rather thick and gelatinous in the refrigerator, so you might want to thin it with a little stock if you re-heat.

I like all three of these sauces, but the 3rd one tastes the most like peanut sauces that I’ve had at Thai restaurants.  It is relatively thin, so it would be good to pour over vegetables and rice, so the rice can soak it up.  It is much sweeter than the previous two.  This recipe is from the very useful Real Vegetarian Thai by Nancie McDermott.

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Ginger beer: FAIL

You win some; you lose some.  Our ginger beer recipe resulted in vat of very delicious-smelling but decidedly not delicious-looking ginger beer:


Yes, that’s mold.  So this was a good $5 worth of ginger and sugar, down the drain (well, into the compost pile, anyway).  I am not going to give up though; if I can get this recipe right it would provide us with a really yummy beverage that costs considerably less to make than to buy.  The ginger brews we’ve bought at the CO-OP in the past (the long past, before we had kids) were $6-$7 for a 6-pack of bottles.  This would have given us 2 gallons, for around $5 worth of supplies.

Fortunately my friend Tracey is taking a fermented foods class around the end of June where she will be learning more about ginger beer; I’m hoping she gets a better recipe than the one that we used (we used the one featured in Nourishing Traditions).  Tracey, I hope you’ll share that recipe along with any tips and tricks you find out in your class.

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Garden update, now with animation!

I try to keep my inner nerd at bay, but I love good old-fashioned animated gifs.  So today we present an animated garden update.

Guild #1: Beans & garlic (when the beans are done I will plant kale in their spot)


Guild #2: peas and pole beans (since only a handful of the peas came up, I threw some pole beans in there too)


Guild #3: Brussels sprouts (interplanted with a couple handfuls of green onions and dill) & lettuce


Guild #4: Lettuce & peppers


Guild #5: Radishes/parsnips.  This one is the strangest to look at because we ate most of our radishes in the past couple of weeks.  The small plants that are just coming in are the parsnips.  Parsnip seeds take forever to germinate.  There are also quite a few onions to the left right along the fence (you can sorta make out a little row in the more recent pic).


You all will have to wait (with baited breath I’m sure) for my tomato animation because I took today’s picture from the wrong angle and now it’s dark outside so too late to re-shoot.  And tomorrow my twins turn 2 (TWO!) so there won’t be any posting tomorrow (many celebrations are planned).

But here are some other bonus pics.  First, my three sisters guild.  I have two of these, on either side of the window wells in the very back of the garden:

3sisters060809This is the one behind the brussels sprouts.  Corn/beans to the right, zucchini to the left.  Yes, the zucchini is the plant that looks so lush and healthy.  A moron could grow zucchini.  I may regret planting two hills…

Now for some fennel:


I planted them in with my rose bush and some other perennial plants.  One shows signs of rabbit breakfasting, but otherwise all five or so of them are looking great.  I planted some more in another area of the perennial garden; we’ll see what the rabbits get.  I guess I’m using 2009 as a test year to see what they really have a taste for, because I put all sorts of herbs around in the open in my flower gardens: thyme, basil, cilantro, fennel, parsley, and oregano.

Here’s my parsley, happily sheltering under a dogwood:


So there it is, garden update for early June.  It’s going great so far!  I did a major weed-pull session today so I’m feeling pretty zen right now.  We also got a ton of much-needed rain this weekend so I shouldn’t have to water until next weekend at the earliest (esp. now that everything’s sprouted).

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A local food economy

Everything really is all coming together, and I am absolutely thrilled.  Just look at this article from today’s Strib:

Farming out the back yard

I read about this exact same business concept in San Francisco about a year ago and wondered if it would ever work in Minnesota.  Apparently it works quite well, at least on a small scale.  This is exactly the kind of thing that could and should power true economic and environmental stability — no bailout required.

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I was lucky enough to be able to attend the sold-out screening of FRESH last night at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis.  Awesome event, and so inspiring.  The movie was so optimistic — it made it seem like a regional food economy is really possible.

When I first started caring about this stuff over 10 years ago in college, it was always through the framework of animal rights.  But it has become so much more than that, and it needed to if it was ever going to go mainstream.  Having a healthy regional food economy is now about EVERYTHING.  Human rights, the environment, our urban and rural economies, our health, and yes, animal welfare.

I highly recommend this movie.

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Recipe: steel-cut oatmeal


Steel-cut oats are awesome!  Steel-cut oats are much less processed than traditional rolled oats (which are precooked and steamrolled into that flat shape we all recognize).  Plus, they stick to your ribs better.  They also have a very nice chewy texture when cooked.  Two methods for cooking them:

Method #1
Bring 4 c. water to boil.  Stir in 1 c. oats.  Bring to a boil and boil for a few minutes, then simmer for 30 minutes on low.  Optional variation for more creaminess: use only 3 c. water and then gradually stir in 1 c. milk during the simmering.

Method #2
The night before, set out 1 c. oats in 2 c. water to soak overnight.  In the morning, add a good 1.5-2 c. milk, bring to a boil, stirring frequently.  Reduce to a simmer and still give it a good stir fairly often.  Should be done cooking in 5-10 minutes.  (You could just use all water to cook, milk is optional.)  Honestly, I don’t measure the water or the milk, I just eyeball it.  I pour the oats in the pan, cover with water by a good 1/2 inch, then in the morning add a tiny bit more water, bring to a boil, then add the milk as it simmers.  You can make it as thick or thin as you like.

Method #2 is the Weston A Price approved method because soaking grains neutralizes phytic acid, something that apparently is not great for you that whole grains contain.  (This stuff is still very new to me, so I refer you to Wikipedia.)

What I really like about method #2 is that the soaking brings out more of the oats’ natural sweetness.  Which reminds me:  if you’re used to Ye Olde Instant Quaker Oats (was anyone else besides me RAISED on that stuff?), you might want to add a wee bit of brown sugar to your steel-cut oats.

Optional add-ons: brown sugar, craisins or other dried fruit (add during the cooking process so that they rehydrate a bit), spices like cinnamon or ginger, a tiny bit of molasses, maple syrup, or even peanut butter and jelly.  I also usually stir in 1/2 c. of ground flaxseed after the oatmeal gets done cooking, for extra nutritional value.

Steel-cut oats are one of those things that some people get really mental about.  This blogger had to post a retraction about his steel-cut oats recipe.  The first steel cut oats Adam and I bought were McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal, and they recommend serving with fresh buttermilk.  Nowadays we always buy the oats in bulk because they are much cheaper and more local than from Ireland.

Both recipes above make enough for 2-3 people.  Sometimes I double the recipe and store the leftovers in the fridge so I can just heat them up in the microwave the following day.  I do that a lot less often, though, since I started using method #2.  My kids are absolutely mental for this stuff.

UPDATE, mid-August 2009: My kids are in a growth spurt right now, so I am changing the amount I make.  I am now using about 1 1/2 c. of dried oatmeal and that feeds all four of us.

UPDATE, mid-October 2009: I also recently started stirring in 2 T. of butter.  For some reason, you don’t need to sweeten it as much if you put a little butter in there, and DANG is it good.  (Trying to cut back on sugar right now.)


Where the new home economics are taught

Sorry for the light posting schedule over the weekend.  I’ve never been so busy in my life; I either have my hands in the dirt, my head in this book, or one toddler in each arm.  In my spare time I washed many, many dishes.  This weekend we tried:

sourdoughstarter1) Sourdough bread. We made “starter” last weekend and it was ready to be made into bread this weekend.  Result: FAIL. I tried this method because it seemed so easy.  I think the problem is that I did not “proof my sponge” long enough.  The directions said when it is frothy, it is ready.  I don’t think I let it get frothy enough — it had a couple bubbles and I jumped the gun.  I got my dough all kneaded and ready to go and it never rose.  Here’s my leftover starter in the fridge.  Going to try again next weekend.

2) Chicken.  We roasted a chicken on Saturday, then Sunday I simmered the carcass all day long to make bone broth.  Then I froze the broth in ice cube trays so we can use it as needed in recipes.  Bone broths like this are apparently quite good for you.  And it makes sense.

gingerbug3) Ginger beer! At the same time we started our sourdough bread, we started a ginger beer “bug.”  You can see it at right; the sediment on the bottom and the gingery goodness on top.  Ginger beer is a non-alcoholic fermented beverage recipe that we found in Nourishing Traditions. (Where else?)  This weekend we did step 2, which is to introduce your “bug” to a large amount of water and some sugar.  Now we let it ferment for another week before bottling it.  IF it turns out (and I have some serious doubts) I will do a full post about it, with recipe.

Another little obsession of mine lately is planning a trip around taking a class in the New Home Economics.  For some reason I can’t get Adam excited about broom making or humane chicken processing.  Yes, there are schools for this stuff.  Here are some in the Upper Midwest:

Driftless Folk School
In southwestern Wisconsin, they offer courses in things such as Flyfishing, Making Herbal Salves and Lotions, Repairing and Maintaining Farm Equipment, Hand Woodworking, Broom Making, Rug Braiding, Blacksmithing, Fermented Foods, Chicken Butchering Basics, and even silly things like Appalachian Clogging.  Most of the courses are one-day or one weekend.  Needless to say, I’d like to go there and just move in for a good month.

Simple Living Series
A six week course in cheese, fermented foods and beverages, herbal soap and handcrafted herbal wares.  In Sheboygan, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee).

North House Folk School
Located in Grand Marais, Minnesota.  Unique feature: boat building.  It seems most of the classes here involve artistry — basket and jewelry making, and the like.  Not things you necessarily need in your every day life, but it sure would be cool to make your own boat, no?  Practical classes include rug braiding and whole grain sourdough bread baking (a class I obviously need).

The Clearing
Located in Door County, Wisconsin.  This school focuses more on fine arts.

More of these “fine art” types of folk schools in the upper midwest, can be found here.

Finally, this one is not in the upper midwest but I saw it on google and it sure looks cool:

John C. Campbell Folk School
Located in Brasstown, North Carolina, this looks very similar to the Driftless Folk School, but offers an even greater variety of classes.  They go beyond the practical stuff and into a lot of folk art like basketry, knitting, photography,  printmaking, and writing, as well as cooking and gardening.  Here’s a list of subjects they teach.

There, that was one heckuva long post.  Hope you’re having a good week.

6/2/09 update: Minneapolis Community Education (classes in spring and fall) always offers a bunch of really great, affordable classes too.