Archive for November, 2011

On the Merits of Sleep

Sharon November 27th, 2011

It is a dark time of year now, and it makes me drowsy.

Americans carry enormous sleep debt - if you put the average American in an extended sleep study, exposed to natural light and allowed to sleep as much as their bodies demand, they will sleep 14 hours a day for the better part of a month, until they catch up and naturally begin to average out around 8 hours. We spend a lot of our lives ignoring our natural sleep patterns, and at some real cost to ourselves. 10,000 car accidents a year occur as a result of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is associated with depression, anxiety and the development of hypoglycemia and even diabetes. Because of sleep deprivation, we consume enormous quantities of caffeine, with negative effects on the gestation of our children, our blood pressure and our ability to sleep…which causes us to spend almost a billion dollars each year on medical sleep aids which in turn….

While there certainly are intractable and medical sleep issues out there (as a parent of an autistic son with sleep issues, that’s something important to remember), the evidence suggests that the solution to most sleep related medical problems for MOST people  is simple. Turn off the artificial lights as much as possible. Go to bed at the same time each night. Get as much rest as you really need.  Move your body more during the day.

Now for some of us, this isn’t realistic. There are people who have to work nights. New parents are probably never going to get as much sleep as they’d like. There are some people whose bodies really do seem to be implacably on a late night cycle. But most of us aren’t - sleep studies show that even “night owls” when exposed to enough natural light and darkness tend to move their cycles back towards everyone else’s.

Now if we were to obey that advice, what would the environmental consequences be? What would they be, for example, if pretty much everyone in the US turned off their lights at 10 pm and actually went to sleep for 8 or 9 hours?  If instead of pushing harder, we went to bed earlier when days get short and nights are long?   If we all turned down our heat, flicked off the power strips and otherwise simply did what their bodies were telling them. What if we unplugged the coffee pot?”

Trust me, I am not innocent here at all - I have a tea habit of my own, and the tendency to burn the candle at both ends.  One thing, however, that years of chronic child-related sleep deprivation have taught me, however, is that few things are worth more to me than some sleep, and that I’m happier if I go to bed rather than playing late with the computer or trying to make myself as productive at night as I am in the day.

These are small things, of course, but they are significant. And think about what kind of *people* we’d be if we were getting enough rest. We’d be less grumpy with each other, maybe a little better at making community. We’d be better able to face the physical burdens of a human powered economy. We’d be less prone to illness, saving ourselves a great deal of money, discomfort and lost wages. We’d be better able to face change - tired, grumpy, overwhelmed people never look on difference as a good idea. Would it change the world? Probably not. Would it save energy and improve our lives in a host of ways? It just might.

When the nights get long, my first impulse is to put on the lights and push hard - admitting that the change of seasons changes my body and my needs can be difficult.  The rewards, however, of sleep are great, and I’ve learned over the years to appreciate the long nights and the time to rest.

Naps are good too, but that’s another post.


The Pie Crust Chronicles

Sharon November 21st, 2011

Despite the fact that I’m somewhat famous for my association with pie ;-) , piecrust has always intimidated me a little bit.  I’ve made some truly dreadful crusts over the years (most hideously the first time I tried a coconut oil crust from a loathsome recipe that not only tasted bad but crumbled into dust).   I’ve also made some pretty decent ones, but I wanted a pie crust that was functional, could be used all the time, tasted good, but also was low input - no food processors (mostly because I don’t want to clean all the food processor parts just for pie dough), no running back and forth to the freezer to put the butter and flour in to keep them perfectly cold, etc… just the same basic tasty pie dough that has been filled with just about everything in human history - that thing that wrapped up pumpkin and pecans and mincemeat, bits of beef and onion for lunch and vegetables in broth for dinner pot-pie.  I wanted it easy, I wanted to be able to do it my sleep, and most of all, I didn’t want any vegetable shortening or lard in it - vegetable shortening because the stuff is gross, lard because I keep kosher. (Once years ago we stopped at an Amish farmstand and bought an elderberry pie, and I was filled with passionate admiration for the crust and went back to ask the woman who made it how she did it - her recipe began with “render your lard” and I realized that sadly some heights might be denied to me - I’ve come to terms with it, since suet makes a fine crust for meat pies.)

Thanksgiving is the season of pies - and of pie-related adventures.  The great virtue of pie is that you can put just about anything into it - parsnip pie is a family favorite, so is leftover chicken bits with root vegetables.  Sweet potato pie, of course is ubiquitous, and I make a not-very-sweet pumpkin pie my children love for breakfast (a Yankee, by definition, is someone who eats pie for breakfast).

My two favorite crusts are butter and suet.  The trick with the butter is to keep it as cold as possible (I do not fetishize this, however - the reality is that people have been making crusts in summer for a long, long time), and also not to try and perfectly mix it with the flour.  This was the bit I had to learn myself - what you want are small pieces of butter not fully combined, so that they can create that flaky quality.

Here’s a fabulous recipe for butter pie crust. While she is rightly concerned with temperature, this time of year that’s not too hard to achieve - just stick your ingredients outside if need be (remember not where the dog can get them ;-) )

Does beef fat (suet) crust sound disgusting to you?  It is actually really good - I got the idea from a New York Times article of a few years ago, and because we can’t use a butter crust with meat fillings or meat meals (mixing dairy and meat is not permitted in a kosher home) I really needed a good savory piecrust.  All suet is great for meat pies, but suet and coconut oil are really good for a nice pareve crust for a cherry or pumpkin pie.  I also like it in biscuits. Even kosher suet is quite inexpensive, and doesn’t have to be rendered to use it - none of the standing over a hot pot of lard business.

I think demystifying pie crust may join with learning to can in my most important kitchen moments - I hope some of you who are still intimidated find, in this season of pies, a happy ending dessert.


Filling the Root Cellar

Sharon November 14th, 2011

As those of you who have been reading for a while know, I don’t actually have a true root cellar.  Instead, what I have is a south-facing sunporch that doesn’t freeze until we get to about -20 (which happens about 1-2x per winter here).  So for 99% of the time between November and March, I have a highly functional, if imperfect cold space for storing produce.  I hang blankets over the windows to prevent excess light from sprouting tomatoes and keep spare blankets for tucking over the produce if things get crazy-cold.

We put up, for a family of 7, about 250lbs of potatoes, 2oo lbs of onions, around 50-60 good sized squash of various types, 100lbs each of carrots and parsnips (we would eat more carrots than this, but they don’t store as well as some others), 12 bushels of apples (lots of apple fiends in my house, including our new little guy, M.), 200 lbs of sweet potatoes, 60+ heads of cabbage, 100+ heads of garlic (we really like garlic ;-) ) and lesser quantities of beets, turnips, celery root, pears, quinces and other vegetables.  While some things will run out over the course of the winter, we will still be eating onions, potatoes, squash and apples into May most years.  Add to this our in-garden crops (usually more than this year, since we lost the garden to Hurricanes Irene and Lee), which usually include spinach, scallions, kale and winter lettuces, and our preserved and stored food - bulk grains and legumes, condiments and home-preserved items and this forms the bulk of our diet for a good portion of the year.

Normally we fill the cellar gradually, over the course of a sustained harvest season.  With the destruction of our fall garden and many of our summer crops, this year is a little different - our root cellar produce is coming from further away, from farms up in the hills and downstate that weren’t hit as hard as the surrounding ones.  We’ve always relied at least a little on other farms to supplement a bad crop in a difficult year or to expand on what we grow (for example, we grow sweet potatoes here, but it is just too cool and wet for them to be totally happy - mine run small, whereas the sandy-soiled farms in the valley produce real lunkers great for roasting, so we always buy some), but this year we’re doubly grateful for the interconnections that bring food from further away (still not terribly far) to us.

There’s an art to timing root cellaring - for those with true underground storage with fairly consistent temps, this isn’t such a big deal, but for us, we have to wait until things are fairly consistently cold.  An occasional January thaw or November or March day in the 60s is no big deal if the nights are cool - the blankets and insulation help keep things stable, but an extended warm stretch can cause problems.  Still, in general some temperature fluctuations are mostly handled pretty well - at least by everything but the carrots.

We are unable to keep perfect humidity or apples entirely away from potatoes, and find that this just doesn’t matter that much.  Most of the foods in our cellar last fairly well - we could optimize, of course, but that would require more energy and resources than we want to put into it, and we find it more useful to put our energy into say, making kimchi out of the carrots and cabbage nearing their end, or making applesauce out of the apples that shrivel.

This sort of lazy-woman’s root cellaring is the kind of thing that probably many families can do - finding an underused closet and cutting some ventilation, or walling off a corner of a basement, porch or mudroom with insulation enough to keep things from freezing.  The money and time it saves is enormous, and the quality of food we get is also wonderful - things taste fresh, sweet and delicious for months, and it allows us to put our food dollars where we most want them - back in our pockets in years when we grow our own, in the pockets of nearby farmers the rest of the time.

The meals that come out of our cellar are wonderful too - we always have the ingredients of delicious, flavorful meals - a little broth and we’ve got vegetable soup with rich, complex flavors.  A little meat and we have stew.  Some curry paste and we’ve got curried vegetables.  Some tofu and we’ve got a stir-fry.  Add chicken and we’ve got a classic sabbath dinner of roasted chicken, roasted vegetables and greens.  Shepherd’s pie, lentil soup, massaman curry, bubble and squeak, kimchi-vegetable soup, sweet potato pie… it all comes almost effortlessly from our vegetable cold storage.