Wednesday, April 23, 2014

waking up

It was a slow crawl through winter. We more or less escaped winter for three years here in Philly, and it finally caught up to us. Some might say our luck ran out. I think we were full of luck and finally had a winter we deserve. Snow can be a hassle, and the cold can be unpleasant, but I loved this past winter. I don't understand why people complain so much about seasons. It may not seem like it in the moment, but you know the next one is always on its way. And sure enough, while maybe a little late, spring is here.

Spring's sleepy start had a domino effect, and it wasn't until this past weekend that plants were purchased, holes were dug and the watering can remembered what it was like to be full again. This year's garden is taking a little different turn. It's a focus on longevity and lasting growth. What exactly does that mean? Fruit! Bulbs! Projects!

Settling into their new spaces in the ground are three types of blueberry bushes, two plum trees, irises and Dutch windflowers. And the asparagus! A friend gave me several clumps of asparagus roots (I'm not entirely sure what to call them...they looked like stringy monsters) that are starting to grow! I've never had any luck growing asparagus before, but I'm excited by the success of these old transplants because I love to eat asparagus.

Indoors, the tomatoes are started, there's a mango tree (the seed was a remnant of a recently brewed beer) sprouting in a pot, the mail-order hops are winding their way up a sunny window and there's an evergreen seed bomb that is being willed to life...maybe it'll sprout someday soon.

Overall, things are creeping along, just like all the spring bugs. Seasons are changes, and with this season comes a bit of change to this space. Still the same ideas, the same feeling, just...more. I have dreams of becoming a farmer someday. No definition to the scale of said farming, but I want to be a farmer. That's my American dream - going back to the roots of our skills as human beings and the roots of our country. I can't wait to share the journey.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

a hearty winter meal...and what i think of hunting and modern farming

It's that time of year when hunters are enjoying the fruits of their labor - maybe a venison stew or chili. I'm not a hunter (although maybe some day), and neither is Ashley, but a friend sent him a package of bacon-wrapped venison chop steaks so we enjoyed the fruits of a hunter's labor as well.

This is the first time I ever cooked venison, and really the first time I've ever had a meal of it. I've heard cooking venison can be a little tricky, so I emailed the processing company to find out if they had any tips or recipes. The chop steaks are basically really thick burgers, and the bacon wrapped around the edge of them gives them a little moisture while they cook.

The cooking recommendation from Hudson Meats was to cook the chop steak like you'd cook a burger. Sprinkle the steaks with a little salt, pepper and garlic, or another preferred seasoning. Use high heat to sear both sides (on a grill or in a frying pan), then reduce the heat to medium to cook the steak through, reaching an internal temperature of at least 150 degrees (160 for a well-done steak).

Here's what I prepared:

Bacon-wrapped venison chop steak, mashed red potatoes
with cheese and roasted brussels sprouts with garlic.

To prepare the steak, I used:
-worcestershire sauce

Rub each side of the steak with a little worcestershire sauce, and then sprinkle with a little salt and black pepper. Sear each side on high heat, then reduce the heat and let the steak cook through. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature.

The steaks took quite a long time to cook through. I'm used to brussels sprouts taking the longest, so I put them in the oven for 10 minutes before beginning the steaks in a frying pan. Next time, I'll start them at the same time.

I haven't eaten beef in years, but when I did, I like a medium-well steak or burger. Parts of this venison steak were still a little too pink for my tastes, though. We still have a few more in the freezer, so next time I'd like to try cooking them on the charcoal grill, or perhaps under the broiler in the oven.

And...just's my two cents on hunting and why I think I'd like to hunt in the future:

Many of us are meat eaters, and meat tends to be the most expensive part of a meal whether it is chicken, beef, pork or even fish. Already being the most expensive part of your meal, that makes buying the humanely raised and slaughtered and properly fed (or wild caught, for fish) meat even more of a stretch. I've done some shopping around for local, free-range chicken and even those prices are a little shocking. However, I know the value that goes into raising and processing and animal and I do think it's worth it.

I think modern day agriculture sucks...both for produce and for meat. We use a lot of chemicals. We see the bottom line now, more than ever, and often getting there and ensuring it's the largest bottom line possible involves some short cuts. We owe a lot to the animals that live just to die for our consumption, and I don't think they get anywhere close to the treatment they deserve for such a large sacrifice. Can you imagine existing solely to die? Sometimes I wonder, considering factory farmed animals, whether we deserve to eat an animal if we can't stand to see it suffer and die. I had this thought recently while re-watching Food, Inc. and feeling unhappy as the pigs at a factory farm were run through the gates to be slaughtered. It's tough to watch. And really, what makes us so privileged that we feel we can or even should be removed from all aspects of our food's growth and production? Yeah...I can't answer that one, because I don't think we should be so removed. That's what makes it dangerous.

So anyway, I think when people hunt for food (more than for sport), they are or become more appreciative of the source of food. You spend time with the animal in its environment...maybe gain even more appreciation for nature, the resources found in it and the peace it can bring us when we take care of it. The animal you kill has lived a natural life. It hasn't been confined between metal bars, or fed antibiotics or forced to eat an unnatural diet (you do know that factory farmed cows are often fed fish meal, right? and that you wouldn't naturally find a cow chomping on an ear of corn? ...just making sure). As soon as that animal you're hunting goes down, you can thank it for its sacrifice. Not only is it feeding you, but it's allowing you to sharpen your skills...patience, hunting, relaxation, maybe even butchering. You won't find that on sale at the supermarket.        

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

super sides: crock pot apple sauce

After coming home with nearly 18 pounds of apples from a local orchard last Sunday, I certainly had some work to do. I'm hoping to have plenty of apples for pies in the coming months (we were told at the orchard that if you put the apples in a plastic bag in the coldest part of your fridge, they will last 6-9 months...amazing!), but I also wanted to try making apple sauce for the first time.

I found a couple of recipes online, and decided to go with the crock pot version. Making apple sauce in the crock pot is perfect because you can prepare the apples in the evening, then let them cook all night. When you wake up, you have warm apple sauce ready for breakfast. Plan about a half an hour for prep time and 3 hours cooking time if setting your crock pot temperature to high, or overnight for a lower temperature setting. I made quite a few adaptations to the original recipe, which are all noted in the description below.

what you need:
3-4 lbs apples (peeled, sliced and cored)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp cinnamon (or other spices - nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice, etc.)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup water
crock pot
hand potato masher (or food processor or blender)
kitchen scale (not necessary, but helpful)

what you do:
1. Rinse, peel, slice and core your apples. I do all of this by hand rather than use and apple coring device.
2. Measure the quantity of apples either by weight or volume. If using a kitchen scale, don't forget to tare the scale with the empty container on it before adding the apple slices. If your scale does not have a tare feature, weigh the empty container first, then subtract its weight from the total weight of the container and apple slices. If measuring by volume, 3 pounds of apples was around 16 cups. The original recipe calls for 4 lbs of apples, but my crock pot got pretty full around 3 lbs.
3. Dump all of the apple slices into the crock pot. Then add the sugar, cinnamon (or other spices), lemon juice and water, stirring all of the ingredients together in the crock pot. I added measurements in the ingredient list as a starting point, but I eyeballed the amount of lemon juice and cinnamon. You can omit the sugar from this recipe completely, adjust the amount, or perhaps try another sweetener like honey or maple syrup. Also, the 1 cup of water is for 4 lbs of apples, but it did not make my apple sauce too thin, even with only 3 lbs of apples.
4. Cover your crock pot and set the temperature. The original recipe calls for 3 hours on high or 6 hours on low. I cooked my apples on high for about 2 hours (stirring the apples a few times), and when I went to bed, I changed the temperature to the "keep warm" setting to continue cooking overnight.
5. After the apples have cooked, turn your crock pot off and use the hand potato masher to mash the apples right in the crock pot. They should be soft enough to mash into a nice consistency sauce with some small chunks. If using a blender or food processor, ladle apple slices (they are still whole) and liquid from the bottom of the crock pot into the blender or food processor in small batches. Use a pulse setting until the apples are just blended. Make sure all of the liquid is used - that's where all the flavor is!  
If you've made a larger batch than you can eat fresh, apple sauce can be canned using the water bath method, and can also be frozen in air-tight containers or freezer/food storage bags.

I'm usually in such a rush in the mornings that I never make time for breakfast. In fact, the same container of oats is still unopened on my counter from when I bought it about 3 weeks ago and haven't had time to make stove top oatmeal for breakfast. It was so nice to wake up to a pot of warm apple sauce and get to enjoy it first thing in the morning.

sunday funday: apple season

We had amazing weather on Sunday, and local apples were ripe for picking, which meant an afternoon spent at the apple orchard - after we stuffed ourselves silly on some amazing wings (priorities, you know). Ashley and I headed to an orchard in one of the city's northern neighboring counties, and it looked like everyone else had the same idea. We got to the orchard and waited in a line of cars until we were directed to a place to park. There were lines of people everywhere - a line to get into the market, a line of people waiting to hop on the wagon for a ride to the orchard and a line of people with full bags of apples waiting to pay. Not one to waste time standing in lines and not wanting to waste such a nice afternoon, I almost suggested we ditch the idea and find something else to do. I'm glad we stuck to our plans, because it ended up being a great afternoon.

I was really hoping to load up on honeycrisp apples, but the biggest part of the orchard open for picking that afternoon was full of piñata apples. We were told they're a newer variety, really sweet and great for baking or eating. We had fun climbing the ladders to get the apples from the tops of the trees and filled our bags up pretty quickly. Ashley ended up with 11.5 pounds of apples and I think I left with somewhere around 18 pounds. He's looking forward to brewing another apple beer, and of course I want mine for baking (first, apple sauce!). And we may or may not have snuck around to one of the unopened rows and picked a few contraband apples.

As we were walking back to the car and stuffing our faces with fresh apple cider donuts (is there anything better than a warm apple cider donut sprinkled with sugar?), we saw two hot air balloons on the horizon. Well, what else are you going to do on a late Sunday afternoon other than chase them down? Off we went! We wound our way through back roads and neighborhoods until we spotted the chase vans and were close to the balloons. It was so cool! You could see the flames at the base of the balloon and make out the shape of a few people in the basket. They must have had an amazing view from all the way up there!

If I keep up the baking frenzy, maybe we'll make it back to the orchard another time or two before the season's over.

Friday, September 27, 2013

crafty home style: an autumn wreath

Autumn's officially here! Since I was a kid, it's been a favorite time of year for me. I loved school (nerd alert). I loved raking leaves in the yard - then jumping in them or running through them with the dogs. We won't mention that time my friend and I drove through the neighborhood late one night, blowing through everyone's leaf piles on the edge of the road. Ooops. My mom's birthday is on Halloween, so that was always a big event, too. There was dinner and birthday dessert at the grandparents' house, then all the cousins getting ready together for trick-or-treating. We'd rake in all the candy we could after making rounds through two neighborhoods...and my loot sat in my trick-or-treat bag all year on my closet floor while I was still developing my sweet tooth (my, how times have changed). Closing out the season, Thanksgiving was always a rowdy event - up in the morning to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade while the day of cooking began. Again, the whole extended brood usually gathered at the grandparents' house where we would sometimes overflow into two dining rooms while we feasted. So you see, it's more than just being about the debut of the pumpkin spice latte, and I'm always excited to welcome the season.

I can't wait until the day when I have my own front porch to decorate with corn stalks and jack-o-lanterns, but for now a few decorations here there will have to work for apartment living. A holiday wreath is perfect for that. 

I found a tutorial for making felt flowers, and wanted to use that idea for a fall wreath. With a $5 grapevine wreath, a spool of ribbon, a few small sheets of felt, silk autumn leaves, straight pins, glue sticks and a hot glue gun, you'll have everything you need for your wreath. 

To make the flowers: Place a circular object like a CD on the sheet of felt. The small sheets in the craft section are big enough for three CD-sized circles. Trace the circular object with permanent marker. First, cut the full circle out of the felt. Then, begin cutting the full circle into a spiral toward the center. If you cut a wavy-line spiral instead of a cutting a smooth edge, when you roll the felt up, your flower edge will look like real petals. Once you've cut the spiral, pinch the inside end of the spiral-cut felt, and begin wrapping the strand counter-clockwise around the outside of the pinched end. Poke a straight pin through the flower from the outside edge to the middle, and you're finished! Super easy. You can also use hot glue to glue down the outside end of the felt strand after wrapping it.  

Make as many flowers as you want in as many colors. I chose a deep red, orange and yellow. The craft store had lots of pretty shades (you know, to avoid looking like you're making a decoration for the front door of your neighborhood McDonald's). Once your flowers are all made and secured, set them aside.

I bought a strand of leaves from the craft store, and cut off individual leaves that I wanted to use for the wreath. I played around with the different sizes, shades and overlap of the leaves. Once I figured out an arrangement I liked, I just wove them, stem first, into the vines of the wreath without any further securing. My wreath will be hanging indoors, but for an outdoor wreath you may want to use hot glue to secure the leaves to the wreath. 

After your leaves are placed and secured, it's time to add the felt flowers. If you finished your flowers with a straight pin, be sure to arrange them so that the head of the pin is not showing. The backside of the flowers should be mostly flat, making it pretty easy to add hot glue and attach them to the wreath. A spiral of glue on the back of the flower and pressing and holding it in place for a few seconds should make it secure. Allow the wreath to remain on a flat surface for a few minutes while the glue dries to be sure everything stays tightly in place.  

With your spool of ribbon, you can make a loop to hang your wreath - measure twice, cut once! Use a solid colored wide ribbon, or get creative by mixing different colored or patterned thinner ribbons and twine.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

awesome appetizers: baked pulled pork wontons

Every so often at my house, we love to pig out on homemade pulled pork. I make it in the crock pot with beer. Dark, delicious, flavorful beer. And a few other ingredients. It's great as leftovers for lunch or dinner (I think the flavor gets better a day or two later) and it freezes well. But the last time we made pulled pork, Ash had an idea to try something new with the leftovers: pulled pork wontons.

The wontons were super easy and quick to make.

what you need:
leftover pulled pork
wonton wrappers
BBQ sauce (if desired - for recipe and for dipping)
small dish of water (a shot glass size is plenty)

what you do:
1. Lay your wonton wrappers flat on a baking sheet.
2. Put a small amount of pulled pork in the center of each wrapper (shred a little finer if needed).
3. If you like, add about 1/2 tsp BBQ sauce on top of the pulled pork (another option is to mix the pulled pork with BBQ sauce before making the wontons)
4. Dip your finger in the water, and lightly wet each corner of the wonton wrapper, then fold all corners up and pinch closed.
5. Space the folded wontons on the ungreased baking sheet about an inch apart.
6. Bake at 275º for about 15 minutes, or until the edges of the folded wonton wrappers become golden brown.

These were a great snack! The pulled pork had really absorbed the flavor of the beer and seasonings, so the wantons certainly held their own in the flavor department with or without the BBQ sauce.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sunday Funday...a day early

A couple Saturdays ago, Ash and I made the three-hour drive from Philly to the Hudson Valley area of New York for a family reunion - where relatives of my great grandmother's family (she lived from 1911-2003) gathered to share stories, reminisce, or in my case, meet each other for the very first time. Our family has deep roots in that area of New York - the original farm house still stands amid rolling hills on Cottekill Road just west of the Hudson.

I've visited the area many times, one being several years ago to interview for a job and scope out potential places to live. Truth be told, my heart was set on settling there over Philadelphia. There's something about places you belong, whether you consciously know you belong in them or not, taking you in and making you aware of something you haven't known before. My moment happened on a late night drive down a dark, wooded road during the summer of 2007. I was on my way to an old mansion on the grounds of Bard College, where I would stay the night before my interview. The song I listened to over and over around the time my great grandmother passed had, almost by some play of the universe, come on. It was blasting through my speakers, and as I made my way down this road I'd never driven before, I suddenly felt at home.

As things go, I didn't end up moving to Kingston or Rhinebeck or any of those other beautiful little towns on the Hudson, but I relish every moment I get to spend there because to me, it still feels like home.

After the reunion, we drove across the river to Poets' Walk Park (free!). A couple of years ago I read about the park and have wanted to visit ever since. It's a place that's rumored to have inspired Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle and to have been a haunt of many other well known authors. Naturally built structures across the landscape invoke feelings of the Transcendentalists, and taking in the majestic views, it's almost impossible to deny nature of the glory she deserves.

We hiked through meadows, through woods, over creeks and to look-outs above the mighty Hudson River. We saw the remnants of the 17 year locust brood emergence. I saw my first bald eagle ever in the wild and coolest of all, it had a fish in its talons and was flying back to the treetops from the river. So cool! And then we saw another, sans fish.      

It was a pretty great day. The bugs were crazy in the woods, but the meadows were gorgeous and the views couldn't be beat. I can't wait to go back for a visit again soon.

Photo by Ash at Poets' Walk Park