Archive for July 8th, 2008

Food Preservation, Food Storage and the Locavore

Sharon July 8th, 2008

I knew the idea of local eating had penetrated when I quickly ran into a grocery store while visiting my Mom, and this older couple came up to me and asked “Honey, could you read where it says where the plums came from?  We’re trying to eat local but neither of us brought our glasses.”  If I can’t get in and out of a supermarket in 3 minutes without running into someone trying to eat local, I know we’ve gone mainstream. 

 And how wonderful is that?  It is great for the small farmers, great for people eating better food, great for the environment – and people who have begun to think about where their food comes from can start to think about wider issues. 

There is, I think, a typical order of things for people who discover local eating – it doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think it begins this way.  They start with a CSA share, the farmer’s market or maybe a home garden.  The first venture is to find local produce during the growing season to use in day to day meals.  Next they start thinking about eggs, dairy and meat, if they eat them. 

And if people do these things, they begin not just a shift in where their food comes from, but in how they eat.  Instead of thinking “Wednesday is spaghetti night” they are looking into their CSA baskets and thinking “What can I make with peas?”  This means also a shift from a kind of cooking that assumes that you can always get everything you want to one that is genuinely seasonal.  

Often people are enticed by the food and serious about it – and sorry when the season ends.  And thus, the question begins to arise in peoples’ minds – what do we do when the CSA season ends?  Sometimes the CSA itself raises these questions, when it sends large quantities of some exuberant producer - and eaters are forced to ask “why would they send me six months worth of garlic – and what do I do with it?”

Then, if they eat meat or eggs or dairy products, many people seek these foods out locally as well.  And they begin to be aware that even animal products have seasons – that milk is flush when grass is lush and that eggs naturally proliferate and are cheap in spring, and pricey in winter.  Even meat has a season – autumn, when it is time to use precious reserves of hay is a good time for butchering, and of course, the time when hunting is permissable.

And if they take it seriously, the next step is to start looking for grains and beans – particularly for the budget conscious, who can’t afford large quantities of local meats, and for vegetarians.  This is easy in some grain producing areas, and harder for many of us that aren’t close to them.  Finding producers of staple foods can be as easy as buying a 50lb sack of potatoes in the fall, or as difficult as mail ordering from far away.  And as part of this shift in priorities comes the awareness that it is less expensive, more efficient and more environmentally sound to get all one’s bread flour or cornmeal or rice in one fell swoop, directly from a farmer.

In short, Food Preservation and Food Storage are logical steps in locavore life.  Many new local eaters haven’t made them yet – and some people haven’t quite made the intellectual leap required.  But the truth is that if we want to eat sustainably, and build the kinds of food systems that we’re going to need in the future, one step is getting the idea of eating locally while in season, but the season ends and either we’re back to eating mealy, oil-drenched supermarket tomatoes, or we’ve begun to think about how to keep the links going all year around. 

Food Preservation and Food Storage are two slightly different things.  Food Preservation is home or community level preservation of locally produced foods – it includes freezing, canning, pickling, lactofermenting, dehydration, root cellaring, preservation in salt, wine and sugar, smoking.  The idea is to preserve at home or at local food processing facilities the foods you will need during the season in which they are not available.

Food Storage involves the bulk purchase of staples (and also sometimes purchase in smaller quantities of an additional reserve), ideally from local or distant farmers, and bought direct.  To minimize energy costs, it is easiest to buy larger quantities – a bushel, 50 lbs, 25lbs at a time.  Right now we use an increasingly costly, environmentally destructive and unsustainable just-in-time delivery system to get food to our store shelves, and then private cars to get it to us as we need it.  That can’t last – our (now large) homes have to take the place of the supermarket in many cases for a host of reasons.  The best way to ensure that you have food that is safe, available and secure is to preserve your own (and support community food preservation efforts and local small producers and preservers) and to buy staple food direct from farmers or through coops whenever possible.

It is possible to eat mostly local all year round, even in the harshest of climates – but eating that way is fundamentally different than eating out of the supermarket.  Eating a mostly local diet, based on staple foods and local sources, with preserved foods added is really, deeply different than the way the average American eats.  Not only different, but radically better in a host of ways – nutritionally, flavor wise, environmentally, and depending on how and what you eat, often cheaper than processed diet – almost certainly cheaper when health costs are calculated in. 

But local eating and CSA support is just a start – we have to begin to think in terms of this fundamental change in diet, and in terms of food storage and preservation as fundamentally integrated into local eating.

The Food Preserver's Year

Sharon July 8th, 2008

A while back I wrote a very detailed post on low-energy food preservation, and I thought that as a supplement to it, it might be useful to take a look at the cycle of food preservation – I think of it as a year-round process. 

 Now this post will be most useful for people living in approximately the same climate I do – if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, or much south or north of me, you’ll have to get to know your local food sources, and find out what time of year things come at.  And our family eats somewhat differently than most other families - there are foods we put up a huge amount of that most people wouldn’t need nearly as much of, and foods we don’t bother to preserve, because we are content to eat them fresh.  But I think the process of making up a food-year calendar for yourself can be a great exercise, and I’d encourage all of you to do it.

How do you do it?  Well, you take a good look at what is available in your garden, at local farmer’s markets and elsewhere, and think about whether you want to preserve it for the dormant season (winter where I live, but summer in some hot, dry places, or the rainy season in other places) when you need to rely on other sources of food.  If you do, how do you like it preserved (here you may need to do some experimentation to see what you and your family like to eat)?  What recipes do you use it in?

Note how important that last part is – I want to emphasize that while you can go crazy trying to can or dry every single thing you’ve ever liked to eat so you can have it every day of the year, honestly, I think that in many ways, that’s just as nuts as eating the pasty supermarket strawberries in January.  That’s not to say that I’m not just as addicted to salsa in the winter as you are, just that the more you can get used to eating the foods that are actually in season – either fresh (think season extension) or stored fresh in a root cellar or equivalent, the easier on you all this preserving will be, and the easier it will be to find the time to do it.  Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.  

On the other hand, sometimes a little hard work really does save us time.  Yes, it can be a PITA to chop up all those tomatoes for pasta sauce, but it is sooooo convenient to be able to dump the whole wheat pasta into the pot and pour over not gloppy, super sweet, supermarket sauce, but your own roasted tomato and vegetable sauce.  You are investing time now for freedom later.

So here’s my food preservation year – it sounds more impressive than it is, since often I don’t get it all done.  I’ve left herbs out for the moment, because I’m going to do a post on preserving herbs on Thursday.  And I’m going to start my preservation year when things first start get going, in My.  Some of you will be able to start it much earlier, others later.

May: Can rhubarb sauce (a favorite dessert, and quickie breakfast dumped over raw rolled oats – tastes much better than it sounds ;-) ), freeze eggs for baking and scrambled.  The rhubarb is just coming in, but the eggs are in full boom – I’ll also coat some with shortening and store them at room temperature, but because I won’t want them until fall, that will be later in the season – they keep about six months, so I do this more with late eggs.  Early extra eggs get sold or frozen.  Eggshells are baked and pounded up and stored in a coffee can to be added to home produced chicken feed and to the watering can.  Lactoferment dandelion green kimchi, although this isn’t really a “storage” item since it always gets eaten almost immediately.  Freeze and can up any squash or sweet potatoes we haven’t used up.

June: Pickle garlic scapes,  dehydrate strawberries, can strawberry jam, strawberry sauce and strawberry-rhubarb pie filling.  I should pickle some early baby beets, but somehow I never get to it.  Freeze snap peas, dehydrate sweet shelling peas.  Dehydrate greens (this is especially good for greens on the verge of bolting late in the month – they can be ground up and added as a filler to flours and soups).  Can mint syrup for adding to water in the winter.  Dry onions.

July: Preserving Boom Begins!!!  Can: Blueberry jam, blueberry sauce, currant jam, currant juice, peach sauce, peach jam, apricot sauce, apricot jam, raspberry sauce, raspberry jam, peach chutney, .  Dehydrate blueberries, apricots, peaches, black currants, red currants.  Can beets.  Make kimchi out of various greens and roots.  Freeze grated zucchini to use as a meat extender for ground beef.  Dehydrate zucchini.  Pickle green beans (I don’t bother to preserve green beans any other way – we don’t like them frozen, dried or canned, so they, like asparagus, are one of those things we enjoy when we’ve got them.).  Dry and braid garlic.

For us, tomatoes, corn and peppers do start this month, but they are too new to bother preserving – I wait for the glut later in the season.  I manipulate my cucumber harvest so that most of them come in around September, when it is cooler.

 This is also when I seriously start my root cellaring garden.  Some things, like parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and brussels sprouts have already gone in, but most of the carrots, beets, cabbage, celeriac, and other root crops are planted in july, as is some more kale and collards. 

August: Freeze and dehydrate sweet corn (this is my most single hated job of the year – I buy 200 or 300 ears of sweet corn from a local Amish farm and freeze it (mostly for corn chowder) and dry it (for soups and stews over the winter – dehydrated sweet corn is terrific!).  But shucking all those ears, steaming them and  cutting the corn off the ears is not my favorite job – but boy oh boy is it worth it.  So I put on loud rock and roll and just suck it up.

Can tomatoes – salsa, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes.  Dehydrate tomatoes.  Dehydrate sweet peppers.  Freeze watermelon.  Can watermelon juice (surprisingly good).  Dehydrate watermelon (really good!).  Make watermelon rind pickles.   Freeze sweet peppers, pickle, dehydrate and freeze hot peppers (depends on the variety - cayenne, kimchi, aleppo and poblanos get dried, jalapenos, fish peppers and bananas get pickled, serranos get frozen).  I might make some cucumber or zucchini pickles too, if it isn’t too hot.  Or I might not. 

August is also when the last crops of greens, peas and favas go in, except spinach and arugula, which can keep going until September.  Oh, and when I make raspberry vodka.

September: More of all of the above, plus cucumber pickles and beets.  I also usually pickle some onions.  By late September I may be harvesting dried-on-the-plant foods like dry corn, popcorn, amaranth and dried beans as well, or I might wait until October, depending on how things look. 

We also start canning applesauce and dehydrating apples.  Most of the early apples don’t keep that well, so they are better eaten fresh, sauced and dried.  Since September tends to be the last month I can reliably solar dehydrate, I try to do the dried apples then, but if I don’t get it done, they can be hung up behind the woodstove.

October – Harvest all the stuff we dried on the plant, can more applesauce, pear sauce, green tomato pickles, preserve late fruit (raspberries, apples, quinces, pears) in liquor, make apple butter, make cider syrup for pancakes, make late fruit leathers.  It is also when we start butchering chickens and turkeys, and if I’m really ambitious, I’ll can some of them – the meat and the broth, since I’m trying to minimize my freezer usage. Usually they get frozen, though.  I make more late tomato sauce until the last harvest comes in.  Also my own V8 juice.

We also start filling the root cellar – digging the poatoes, beets, turnips, harvesting the cabbages, etc… But the balance is hard – because our root cellar is actually an unheated porch, we have to wait to put things in until it is consistently cold – but if we wait too long we get the fun of pulling beets out of frozen ground.  So there’s always a race.

November: Most years, the race goes into November these days.  So we’re digging potatoes and seeing if we have to buy more, putting the carrots is buckets of sand, hanging the onions, etc…  Add to that the fall butchering goes on, and there’s the late canning.  Also, November is when we have seriously begin putting up the coldframes and mulching things to overwinter.  We’re still preserving food, although the focus has moved away from canning and dehydrating (not totally apart from it).  Also time to gather the nuts – if we can beat the other nut-eaters.

November is also when it becomes cold enough to let us do large-scale lacto-fermentation – so far, we’ve been making kimchi and sauerkraut in small quantities, to be eaten right away. Now we move towards big bucketfuls, because the process of fermentation slows down and we can keep it for months.  So daikon, cabbage, carrots, napa, bok choy and other greens get fermented. 

December: This is the time to make presents, and make cute little baskets of things.  And to rest on our laurels a little – usually a quiet time in the food preservers year – most of the root cellared stuff is new enough that there’s no need to preserve it another way, and there’s little new coming in, maybe just a few greens from the garden. 

January- April: Now comes the project of management in earnest.  You have to track the stores – when onions show signs of shrivelling, we put them in the dehydrator.  When the apples start to go soft, I start canning applesauce.  A squash develops a spot?  Great, cut it up and freeze it, or can it.  It isn’t dense, the way summer preserving is, but it is constant, a little here, a little there, it all adds up.  And that’s pretty much the way it will be until May, when the cycle starts again.

 Sharon

Food Storage 102 – 2 Weeks Is Not Enough

Sharon July 8th, 2008

Last time I ran the food storage class, I started off with a Food Storage 101 post that discussed the bare minimum for food storage – the 2 weeks recommended by both the US Department of Homeland Security and the American Red Cross.  I reviewed the fact that 2 week extended periods in which we are unable to shop or get supplies are actually not at all uncommon – that they have occurred many times in rich world nations including the US, and that all of us should, as simply commonsense preparedness, have a 2 week supply of food.  I then went along trying to get you all to store much more food than that, but I didn’t want to push too hard on that, because I know that for some people, the idea that you might not be able to get food at the store for more than a couple of weeks due to a short-term disaster is just plain crazy talk. 

But this time around, I’m going to push the issue, even if it makes you think I’m nuts (if you are just figuring this out, you may be new to the blog ;-) ).  Because the truth is that 2 weeks is nowhere near enough – 3 months really should be the minimum.

 Why?  Five reasons, all of them, I think important.

1. Longer periods of large scale crisis/limited supplies are well within the realm of the possible – they fit with planning scenarios.  Government agencies and some nations are recommending larger quantities – often 3 months worth of food.

2. People planning for very short terms actually are at a disadvantage, both economically and in terms of how they think about their personal infrastructure – that is, in many ways, it is cheaper, easier and better to make plans for longer term disruptions, because the strategies commonly used for them are cheaper and better and make more sense.

3. Because it is mistake to view food storage and preservation as merely a hedge against a major, widespread national disaster.  Personal disasters occur all the time, and can be just as devastating as a national supply crisis.  Buying food now, and storing it in bulk means you can keep your family fed in a medical crisis, after a job loss, etc… 

4. Many crises mean you may be caring for more than just yourself. It is easy to look around at your family right now and say “ok, there’s me, Mom and my brother, we need that times 2 weeks” – but the truth is that a crisis in your region or your area may involve extended family who evacuate, your neighbors coming to you to admit their pantry is completely empty, and do you have anything at all for their hungry kids, someone coming and asking if you have anything at all to share with those who are worse off – and don’t doubt worse off can almost always happen.  

5. Those with the knowledge and ability to do so have the obligation not to drain resources needed for those who didn’t have the capacity to prepare.  So let’s say that the disaster does only last two weeks, and that there are people out there with soup waiting – is there enough soup for everyone?  You don’t know, and resources are almost always stretched thin in a disaster.  The mindset that says “I just have to make it until the safety net picks me up” is the wrong one.  I believe in safety nets – but they work best when people can be trusted not to use them unless they really need them.  Right now most of us (and yes, I know that there are some readers of this blog who simply can’t do anything or any more than they have already) have the ability and the knowledge of the coming crises to remove ourselves from the emergency lines when the time comes, and that’s both a privelege (we can protect ourselves and our loved ones) and a burden (we are now responsible for ourselves).

Let’s talk scenarios, and why 2 weeks food storage is not an adequate minimum.   The first reason is that a whole lot of people dealing with these issues think it is not unlikely that you might have to endure a much longer period of time without resupply than just two weeks.  For example, in the case of a flu pandemic, various government agencies estimate that a influenza wave might require quarantine periods of up to 12 weeks. The Australian Government suggests that average Australian stockpile food for 3 months.  So that’s just one possible scenario in which you’d want a much longer supply – in the case of a widespread epidemic, you don’t want to have to go the grocery store during periods where contagion is spreading. 

But more importantly, the scenario planning that government agencies are doing tends to focus on a short term, localized crisis – a tornado, a flood, wildfires.  The assumption of the two week theory is that there will be one big disaster, and the nation’s response will be mobilized to get to you there.  Even when that’s actually what happens, the two week limit hasn’t been adequate a number of times – in the ice storm that paralyzed much of the Northeast in the late 1990s, for example, there were areas of New York, Vermont and New Hampshire that didn’t have power back or road access for 16 days more.  In Kobe Japan, during the last major earthquake, it took more than 2 weeks for rescue workers to reach some of the hardest hit suburbs – and Kobe was one of the best prepared cities in the world for earthquakes. 

But let us imagine a non-localized crisis – either multiple natural disasters occurring simultaneously (not super likely, but not at all impossible), or a dramatic, sudden rise in energy prices that cut off many areas from food deliveries (again, not super likely immanently, but hardly impossible).  In that case, everyone has needs that have to be answered right now – and there’s simply no way for even the best organized response to cover everyone.

Finally, the most likely disaster to befall you is this.  You lose your job.  Your spouse losess their job.  You spend your savings on a medical crisis or two.  You are stretched trying to keep your house/pay your rent/buy gas to get to work, and you don’t have any money for food.  Your kids are hungry, and the food pantry is, as at least one US pantry was, down to stale Doritos because of the huge demand.  Maybe you get food stamps (assuming the program can still be funded after a radical drop in tax revenue), but they don’t stretch to the end of the month.  And two weeks worth of food won’t save you.  Neither will three months, but it gives you options.

I know that some of you can’t buy extra food because you can’t buy enough food.  For the rest, you need to do what you can, both to protect yourself, and to make sure that you don’t compete for food resources with those who have no ability to protect themselves, maybe ensure that you can drop a few cans at the food pantry, even when things get tough at home.  That means a minimum of three months of food.  Build it up gradually, write down what you eat, focus on meals based on staple foods like grains, dried beans, locally produced and home preserved vegetables.  I wrote during my last class about what a 3 month supply of food looks like.

I know this is hard – in March I was being soft, and helping people with baby steps.  I’m going to be blunt now – I don’t think we have that much time before it gets harder and harder for more and more of us to prepare and get ahead.  I don’t think it will be that long before many of us can’t afford those extra bags of rice anymore.  So I’m not going to suggest baby steps anymore – I think all of us should get very, very serious about this.  And I wish I didn’t think that.

 More soon,

 Sharon

Food Preservation – Class 2 – Welcome!

Sharon July 8th, 2008

I’m sure some of you are wondering if I can actually come up with a months worth of new topics on food preservation – I’m not sure, but I’m going to try.  I feel like for most of us, things are still going sort of ok – not great, but ok – and that we may well transition away from ok pretty rapidly.  So it is important to me to get the message that we need a reserve of food out to as many people as possible.  Thanks for bearing with me if some of these seems like territory we’ve already visited.

When I did the class last time, I produced over 300 pages of material in a month, and I covered a lot of basic ground.  So if you are new to my blog, new to food storage, and you are wondering why I haven’t explained where to get the buckets to store food in or mentioned bulk sources yet, I’d encourage you to read through all the posts written in March of this year (most of them are listed under “food storage” in the categories but a few escaped and I haven’t relisted everything yet) - and if you have time, the wonderful, wonderful comments that were so terribly helpful.  I’ll also link back to specific posts as I go along.   Thanks for bearing with me as I try not to duplicate my own prior work ;-) .

Ok, here’s the schedule:

Tuesday, July 8 -  General basics – the basics of food storage, finding space, finding time, what’s ready/ripe/available when, and how to get a balanced diet from storage.

Thursday, July 10 – Dehydrating and Preservation in Salt

Tuesday, July 15 – Food storage in a changing world – what do you need, how do you get it ethically, local sourcing, dealing with rising costs, finding the best and fairest deals.

Thursday, July 17 – Water Bath Canning and Lactofermentation

Tuesday, July 22 – Cooking from food storage, and the way that living with a food storage diet is different than the contemporary diet.  We’ll also talk about special needs, children, infants, the elderly, foods to store for emergencies when you have to evacuate.

Thursday, July 24 – Pressure Canning, Preservation in Sugar and Alcohol

Tuesday, July 29 – Making use of stored food without conventional appliances, tools you might want,  managing your reserves, and anything people want to discuss we haven’t covered.

Thursday, July 31 – Season extension and Root Cellaring – keeping fresh food available year round

You’ll notice that each Thursday, there’s a couple of specific techniques we’ll be focusing in on.  You’ll also note that freezing is not on that list – generally speaking, I think rising electric costs may push freezing out of the comfort zone of many people, so I’m leaving it off.  At the end of each Thursday class, I’ll offer a few recipes and suggested projects for those who actually want to put the material to work.

On Tuesdays, we’ll talk about more general issues – bulk buying, how to find the money, the time, the place to store it, meta concerns, and most of all, how food storage changes your diet.  Because unless you are putting your food away in a cave and leaving it to rot unless the TEOTWAKI comes, bulk purchase of food, growing your own and home preservation changes the way you have to eat.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  So we’ll focus a lot on diet along with storage.

Ok, moving on!!!