Monday, November 30, 2009

Your questions...

You've been I'll be answering. A different question every day until they are all done. 

Question from Gary: How's the composting going?

(Asking about my rotting poop? Now that's above-and-beyond the normal bonds of friendship. Thank you Gary.) 

Now that winter has arrived, my compost pile has slowed waaaaaay down. As in, stopped. Or at least stopped to the naked eye, which is what I'm using to make my inspection.  And this is despite the fact that one can hardly call our Bay Area winters cold. We haven't even had an overnight frost yet. But still, a slowdown in rotting is normal. But it leaves me with a problem:Where do I put my scraps now?  I've pretty much filled the bin, and since it will be a few more months until the compost inside it is ready for distribution, I have nowhere to put my daily non-chicken-friendly food scraps.  So I'm back to throwing away food, which feels...terrible. 

I could buy another composter, and fill it in anticipation of the spring rotting season.  But that doesn't really feel all that productive to my instant gratification needs. So, I've decided to step up my composting profile by adding a wriggly wranch (sic) to the equation. Worms. Lots of them.  Safe and snug in my laundry room, they will happily convert my organic materials into supersoil all winter long. I've done the research, of course. I can get a ranch at a discounted price through my county waste management authority.  And I can get worms from the local vermiculture supply house. (Ya gotta love the Bay Area, folks!)

It's the obvious next step, but I'm a little reluctant. To the uninitiated, vermiculture sounds really complicated.  There are worms, and there's bedding, and it all has to be damp but not wet, and then food and organics should cover the surface, and then there's a removal process that I still haven't gotten a handle upon.  It sounds a lot Shudder. 

An offset to this is the fact that worm castings (the polite term for worm poop) are considered even more beneficial to a garden than kitchen compost. Furthermore, generating castings is certainly a quicker process than composting. In all liklihood, my first batch of castings will be ready long before my first compost, despite the fact that my compost has a 2 month head start. 

So, what's the delay? Why haven't I ordered my ranch and my wrigglers, and shredded up a mess of old newspapers so that my worms can get working?  Well... personal revelation time. And don't hold it against me, but despite the fact that Christmas is still a month away I already have spender's fatigue. Yep, you guessed it, I just wrote my semi-annual property tax check. Festive! So little Libby is feeling like short-sightedly hoarding her diminishing pool of pennies rather than investing in long-term green solutions right now. How very... American of me.  Sad, but true. But don't fret too much, dear reader.  This fatigue happens every year at this time...and doesn't often slow me down for more than a week or two. Eventually, my guilt at throwing away food scraps will overcome my post-property -tax-pouting. And I'll be back to being as close to zero waste as I can be. 

Next Post: You've asked. And I've been reluctant to answer lest I jinx it all. But you deserve to know.  Next week, an update on the male/female ratio of my flock, complete with pictures of the mostest beautifulest of my girls. Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Using it ALL

I have no problem with meat.  Really.  I'm an omnivore through and through.  But I'm starting to have a real problem with factory farming. Not that I won't, in a moment of weakness, scarf down an utterly-unsustainably-raised-but-delicious order of crispy deep-fried chicken strips from Jack In The Box.  I am human after all. 

But if I'm going to buy meat for my family, or prepare something for guests, I will go out of my way, and pay a premium, to get something that was sustainably raised.  Call me an idealist, but I want to buy chickens that ran around, kept their beaks, and grazed on grass.  I want to buy beef that didn't spend the last six weeks of its life hip-deep in its own excrement, trying to digest a grain for which its ruminant belly is clearly not evolved.  When I eat meat, I want my dollars to create demand for smarter, earth-and-animal friendly farming practices.  (And yes, I did read the Omnivore's Dilemma.  And yes, it got to me.  Which won't surprise anyone who reads this blog.)

So a couple of weeks ago I decided to roast a chicken. I researched recipes, sending out an appeal via facebook for my friends' favorite versions.  Once the recipe was selected,  I went to the Alameda Natural Grocery and bought a free-range, pasture raised, air-dried roaster. I rubbed her with salt and pepper and olive oil.  I stuffed her with a steaming lemon and some fresh herbs. I roasted her and her potato friends gently (as the recipe commanded) and then when she wasn't crisping up, I broiled her skin into tasty yumminess.  She wasn't the best roasted chicken I've ever had (there's no beating Zuni's wood-fired oven) but she was damned good. 

At the table, our little family did homage to the lovely bird.  Between the three of us, we ate almost all of the white meat (paired with a front-yard salad, naturally). Normally, I'm a dark meat girl, but the white meat on this thing was so moist and flavorful that there was no need to go for the higher-fat slices. I packed away much of the rest of the meat for Kalin's lunch the next day.  All that was left was the meaty carcass, the wings, some funky gristly bits, the underdone skin from below the bird, and the raw chicken neck.  

Given my recent reading, I was keenly aware of the fact that every animal that is slaughtered to provide a meal like this one has an environmental impact.  Even organic, humanely raised chicken, the waste of whom is composted into fertilizer, has an environmental cost... particualry when it is shipped in trucks that burn fossil fuels.  Given this, wasn't it my responsibility to get the absolute most from this animal?  To use it ALL?

So instead of tossing them, I plopped those leftover parts into my stock pot.  I tossed in a couple of bay leafs, a handful of garden cut rosemary, some pepper corns, some kosher salt, and some semi-fresh thyme that had been residing in my fridge for about two weeks too long. I cut a few limp carrots in half, quartered an onion, threw in the last rib of celery from the depths of the produce drawer, and covered it all with water. Total prep time?  Maybe 2 minutes. Absolutely clean veggie drawer?  A happy bonus. 

I brought the whole mess to a boil, turned it down and let it simmer all evening. Watched bad TV. Watched Rich tickle Kalin. Nibbled dark chocolate. Read another food book that will undoubtedly lead me deeper into the slow-food wilderness.  Never checked the stove. Just let the simmer do the work.  

Just before bed, I turned off the burner and poured the contents through a colander into another clean pot.  The disreputable-looking solids went in a bowl in the fridge.  The next morning, they'd go to my backyard coop.  My opportunistically omnivorous ladies would gleefuly devour every edible scrap, thus converting everything but the bones into future eggs. 

But the main result of my endless simmer was a fragrant, rich, golden liquid.  I poured most of it into empty yogurt containers (about six of them...I made a LOT of broth) and stored them in the freezer.  The rest? Kalin slurped it down.  My child, who has never enjoyed a soup in her life, not only drank a cup of broth fresh from the stove, but had me warm up more broth the next morning...for her breakfast. Apparently, she's a fan.

In the intervening weeks I've made several dishes with this stuff.  It's a marvel.  I needn't do anything fancy to make it tasty. Defrost, throw in some veg, and some noodles, and voila, something delicious that my daughter will actually eat. 

All the years I've been using Swanson's broth seem laughable now.  I'd always assumed that Swanson's was fine.  Sure I wouldn't want to warm it up and drink it. Nasty! But it tasted fine cooked into food.  Or so I thought.  How was I to know that homemade broth, which tastes good on its own, would make exponentially tastier food?  Now that I write these words, they feel obvious...but they weren't obvious to me.  And just in case they weren't obvious to you either, I'm sharing.  

So what are you waiting for? The holidays, with their stuffings, and gravies and casseroles are around the corner, crying out for good broth.  Next time you serve a chicken, or T-Bones, or a bone-in fish, boil up your leftovers. Believe me, it's culinary gold.  And you'll feel wonderfully virtuous when  you use it all!

As for the small mumified child that started this particular diatribe, my apologies. You guys get mad at me when I don't include a photo, and I didn't take a photo of my roasted-chicken carcass. So I improvised.

Remember, Kalin Tut says "Throw that carcass in the pot!"

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Look!  We have Lettuce!  

While the front part of our garden bed, the part that gets less light, is growing glacially, (I'm not sure we'll be eating beets until spring!) the full-sun part is in full swing.  We have lettuce. We have arugula. We have broccoli raab. The English peas didn't make it, but the snow peas are climbing, and blooming.  And we have the worlds smallest, cutest radishes.  My daughter, who wouldn't eat a radish to save her life, is happily pulling them up, and crunching them up, claiming "Mmmm....good."

My broccoli hasn't flowered yet; Brassicas are notoriously slow in winter.  But really, who cares?! The leaves are selectively making their way into our salad bowl, lending a lovely texture to what we eat.  If we don't get flowers, we'll still have gotten our happy money's worth from them. 

We are eating a salad from the garden practically every day now: our own mesclun made of lettuces, kholrabi leaves, even the tender greens from nasturtiums. We harvest every day with no appreciable dent being made in what is still out there.  It's good, it's fresh. It's worth every effort that went into its growth.

The other day, I made a winter soup out of some homemade chicken stock, (more on that next post!) some mirepoix, some shiitake mushrooms and a handful of barley.  I tasted it.  The homemade stock was so good that it needed nothing else. Well, almost nothing else. It was brown. Very brown. Unappetizingly brown.  So out to the garden I went, and came back with a big handful of broccolli raab. The soup was much improved.  Not only did the greens improve the look of the soup, but they added a freshness to the rich, earthy mix.  

And better still, using the greens made the soup mine.  I planted the seeds.  I transplanted the seedlings.  I watered them.  I worried over them. I threw them into my soup.  And I ate them.  I can't eat anything from my garden without feeling that blooming sense of prideful ownership.  It's a strange, but a welcome feeling.

Next step?  Sharing my bounty with other people.