Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Leaf Fairy Arrives

The sound of a dumptruck pulling into our driveway last week was music to the ears of this wintertime gardener. Our city's leaf pickup program lets you sign up for leaf delivery, and this year we ordered five dump truck loads of leaves. This will be the spot we'll be expanding our garden to next summer, so getting it filled in with a nice huge pile of composting leaves is just about perfect.

I'm ferrying some of the leaves to cover our raised beds in the backyard, some will cover the existing garden and mulch the landscaping and fruit trees, and some will get moved to the chicken pen for them to dig through and peck over.
And best of all, since our city uses giant leaf vacuums (the size of street sweepers) instead of requiring people to bag up their leaves, it saves a literal ton of plastic bags from being used in the process.

The only difficult part of the whole process is that when people sweep their leaves off of their property and onto the side of the street to await the leaf vacuums, it can pose a pretty bad hazard to cyclists, so fall accidents on leaf slicks are unfortunately not uncommon.
I'm always extra-vigilant when cycling, especially if you have to divert around a leaf pile and out into traffic.

I have noticed leaf piles springing up in yards all over our neighborhood, so I know that we're not the only house that the leaf fairy has visited this week. It's great to see so many people taking advantage of such a wonderful and free resource. I have to admit that as city budgets get tight, I worry that programs such as this may be the first on the chopping block. It can seem pretty "non essential" to hand-deliver leaves to people all over town. But encouraging self-sufficient food supplies needs to be near the top of the list, and since organic fertilizers and bagged compost are expensive and leaves are free, this can encourage people to become gardeners who may not have the resources to create a spend-to-grow style of garden.

There have been lots of fundraisers lately to save our County extension service as well, which gives free gardening advice and helps with all kinds of questions on food growing, preparation, preserving, etc. I've called the Extension more than a few times with thorny questions and have always gotten great advice. Again, this kind of service seems like it will become more and more necessary, not less, as times get lean and fuel prices begin to rise again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Why I Love Holiday Letters

Oh I know it's the time of year for all of the grouchy editorialists to bemoan and/or lampoon the holiday letters they get from family and friends. But I'm here to say, even if I'm the lone voice, that I love holiday letters. I love them even if they only tell me about the A that little Johhnie got in choir and not the D he got in Math, even if they tell about Uncle Jim's fishing trip to Mexico and not the fact that he spent a week in rehab, or omit from the glowing accounts of Jennifer's stage debut that she threw up in the costume room from stage fright.

I don't care that it's the "best of" each family's year. I'm just happy to see their faces and hear their exploits (seriously edited though they may be), and am sincerely joyous that they have things to celebrate in their letter. I'm happy that they may have taken trips to tropical places, that their kids are doing outstanding things, or that their puppy is the cutest on the planet. Why not spend this time of year rejoicing in our loved one's accomplishments instead of demeaning them because they don't give us the nitty gritty details of every derailment along the way. After all, those omitted bloopers are all just steps on the same path of the accomplishments that they choose to share.

And having lost a few good friends and family members on the path of my life, people who will never again have the opportunity to send me a corny or even boasting letter, I'm all the more happy to see the ones that do arrive each and every year. So bring 'em on, I say, send 'em to me. Share the holiday joy.

And yes, as this is my "sustainability blog" I know that an e-card might be better than a paper one, environmentally speaking. But I really love the physical act of getting cards and letters. It doesn't happen all that often these days, where an email or text message is more likely to arrive. If we're going to cut down on paper use and mailing, let's tackle all of those endless credit card proposals, junk mail flyers, and the avalanche of political stuff I got this year before taking away the sweet traditions of the holiday cards and letters.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Best Ever Gingery Gingerbread Cookies

From the snowy Pacific Northwest, I send you warm greetings as our days begin to get longer. I hope that the holidays find you with family or friends, community, and plenty of laughter and love. And here's the best gingerbread cookie recipe I've ever found. Everyone at our dessert stop in our progressive dinner agreed that these are the absolute bomb. For an extra good twist, throw some lemon flavoring in the frosting!

3 C. Flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
3/4 t. soda
1/4 t. salt
1 heaping T. ginger
2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. cloves
6 T. butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 C. Molasses
2 t. vanilla

Cream butter and sugar together until smooth. Add in well-beaten egg, molasses, and vanilla. Sift dry ingredients and add a little at a time until all is blended. Store at room temperature for 2 - 8 hours, roll out 1/4 inch thick and cut out shapes.

Bake at 375 degrees on greased cookie sheets for 11 minutes. Frost and enjoy!

Getting Progressive

To celebrate the solstice and the return of the light, our neighbors suggested a progressive dinner through the neighborhood. So four families started at one family's house for appetizers, on to another for some yummy salad and a pumpkin-mushroom soup that was divine, then on to a third house for pizza and a spicy red pasta, and then up to our house for dessert: gingerbread cookies and homemade peach crisp. It was such a great idea, and we had a wonderful time with our neighbors. One of our neighbors is a professional storyteller and she had prepared a couple of solstice stories from different places around the world to tell. At our house, I played carols on the piano and several of us sang along. It felt like a kindling of the kind of holiday spirit that really draws people together during this darkest time of the year. We all enjoyed it so much that we're planning to make it a quarterly event on the equinoxes and solstices.

Since we've been snowed in off and on this week, it has really made me appreciate the good neighbors that we have, and the things in our neighborhood that people here have made a priority. When you regularly support a small local food store that carries local foods and has a great little restaurant/coffee shop attached, then when you can't leap in your car and roar off to a big supermarket, you have this great walkable place right there and available. I think our culture has long favored the supposed "convenience" of big box shopping, tons of choices and bulk amounts and shopping once a week over patronizing a smaller more local store. Our store doesn't have the aisles and aisles of stuff that a larger grocery would carry, but by making sure we keep it in business, we're never stranded without close access to a terrific little grocery.

Likewise, our town has invested in a good transit system that serves a large part of our city. So even without the ability to bike, we could still get downtown to the gym and to the library. I wasn't without books or a swimming pool, even though the roads were iced over!

And the fact that our neighbors always come together out on our hill whenever it snows to sled and chat over cocoa or hot tea makes me look forward to these wintry days. One neighbor made big signs that alerted the few drivers to the fact that children were sledding. Snowball fights, sled trains, and sled races abounded as the kids came out to enjoy the wintry weather. It's wonderful to be surrounded by so many nice families and people interested in making a strong and thriving community, whatever the weather.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dark Days "Special Eggs" and Pumpkin Pie

For this week, I fell back on an easy mostly locally-sourced favorite for our main dish. Our family calls it "special eggs", since that's what my son started calling it years ago when he was younger. I make eggs scrambled with milk, sun-dried tomato pesto, feta cheese, and chives. Each year I've been sourcing more and more of the ingredients. First the eggs, from our chickens starting 3 years ago. Then the goat milk, about a year after that, then the cheese, which I got at the Farmer's market last week, and the chives from our garden. Only the sun-dried tomato pesto is not local, but next year when we grow a bigger tomato crop, I plan on making that myself.

But the tour de force of this week's preparations was a homemade pumpkin pie. I've been skimming the cream off of our raw milk to save for making pie. I picked sugar pie pumpkins to grow in our garden this year so that the ones that didn't get turned into jack-o-lanters could be made into yummy pies. The kids helped pick them, then we roasted the halves, toasted the seeds for snacking, and mixed with eggs, cream, and spices for a pie that the kids pronounced "the best pumpkin pie we've ever had!"

My tip for pumpkin pies: if you have extra pie fillings, pour it into ramequins and bake for a crust-less pumpkin custard. Top with whipped cream or eat plain. Our entire family likes to eat this for breakfast!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Crying Over Spilt Milk

You know the old saying "don't cry over spilt milk"?? That one never made sense to me when I was a kid. I mean, you spill some milk, so what? You clean it up, you go to the store and get another gallon of milk. Big deal.

Now that we're getting our milk locally and only once a week, I would certainly cry if we spilled one of our precious half gallons. As it is, if we use some for one thing, we have to go a little short on something else. Of course, we've still got the option of going to the store and getting some cow's milk for Wayne and I to drink (only the kids are allergic and need the goat's milk), and luckily for us we can actually get local, organic cow's milk in glass bottles at our corner market. People who invented the saying about crying over spilled milk I'm sure didn't have that option. They had whatever came out of the cow, goat, or sheep that day, and that was it.

Now that it's winter and our hens aren't laying as much, eggs are another precious commodity. I dropped one a couple of nights ago coming back from the chicken coop and knew that meant one less egg for breakfast. It may seem archaic to live from hen or goat to mouth as it were, but I also think it brings with it a much greater appreciation of both your food and its source.

Mackenzie just read Old Yeller and its sequel Savage Sam. The picture of pioneer life it paints shows just how tenuous their hold on basic survival was. Their food for the winter depended on keeping the raccoons and skunks out of their corn patch and the wild animals away from their drying salted meat. Any excess milk had to be made into cheese or butter or it couldn't be kept.

I also just finished reading Life As We Knew It, which will really get you to thinking about all the conveniences of modern life, and how well you would cope if they all suddenly disappeared. Would you be making do, or crying over spilt milk? It's a reasonable read if you're interested in how the world might cope without its current transportation system (though that's not really the theme of the book or anything).

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Local Meal, Dark Days Challenge

Since my computer crash, it's been hard for me to get time to post about our local eating, but we're still doing the Dark Days Challenge here. Our Thanksgiving wasn't a 90% local meal, but we did try to incorporate a lot of local foods into our Thanksgiving dinner. The best surprise from that was that when you use really great ripe, fresh local cranberries then cranberry sauce tastes AMAZING. It's nothing like that stuff you get in a can, or even the stuff I've made from scratch before. Luckily, Oregon is a major grower of cranberries, not too far from here on the coast. Unfortunately, our local supermarket (who used to be better about showcasing local growers) had bags of Ocean Spray cranberries from Vermont out on their Thanksgiving display! I had to ask where the local cranberries were, and I was so glad that I did. They were wonderful. We also had local greens and veggies, and I made a pumpkin pie from scratch with pumpkins from our garden, cream from our local raw goat's milk, and eggs from our own chickens. The kids proclaimed it the best pumpkin pie ever!

So on to our local meal for this week. I decided to make San Francisco Stew, a recipe from my grandma, it's like a savory chili with some bacon and brown sugar. We're quite lucky here as it's very easy to source a lot of local foods. Our small corner grocery that's a few blocks away sells local grass-pastured ground beef, so I picked up a pound of that. We buy a 1/3 of a pig each year and have it butchered, so that takes care of the bacon.

I was fortunate enough to get in on a bulk order of dried pinto beans a couple of months ago. They're local and transitional organic. Still, they have a fair bit of dirt and rocks included, so first Asa had fun sorting beans from rocks. Then we brought them to a boil and then let them soak overnight.

At our karate dojo, someone brought in a basket of onions and garlic from their garden for free, so those were chopped up and cooked up with the ground beef and bacon.

Last month, my mom told me that if I gathered in all of the green tomatoes from my garden and individually wrapped each one in newspaper and kept them cool, they'd ripen up on their own. So I unwrapped all of my tomatoes and lo and behold had some gorgeous red ones from my own garden. Those went into a pot to boil down into tomato sauce for the stew base.

To this I added the only non-local ingredients: salt, pepper, and some brown sugar (there aren't many local sugarcane sources in the Pacific Northwest! though I might experiment with substituting honey in the recipe in the future).

Along with the stew, we had peppers and purple carrots from our garden (the last of the peppers, but I still have a few more carrots left), and for dessert some yummy homemade applesauce from some windfall apples that my neighbor said I could glean from their trees.

With all of the various ingredients that we were able to grow, glean, trade, or buy locally, I'd say this meal was about 99% local, very cool! I love that this challenge really got me thinking about what I could use from around here.

My Unofficial Bike Count

While gas prices continue to plummet (fortunately at least signalling that we're collectively using less of the stuff), I have been surprised to note that the number of bike commuters has remained relatively high. Even as we head into December and the colder and wetter weather that comes with the winter months, I have noticed an unusually high number of bike commuters on my regular routes.

I usually keep my own personal tally as I commute to work, and as I bike home from the gym in the morning. Two years ago, it was typical to see about 10 - 15 cyclists on my 2.5 mile route (one way). This year, it's about doubled to an average of 32. That's more than one cyclist per block on my route!