Category Archives: Alaska Diet

5 Ways to Put Away Food for the Winter

IMG_2770It’s mid-July and the garden at the Williams Street Farmhouse is overflowing with vegetables and berries.  Although it feels like summer has just begun, this is the time we normally start putting things away for the winter.  Over the years, we have experimented with various ways to preserve our garden bounty, and have found there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  What we use over the winter depends very much on how we cook, which is constantly changing.  One year we use up every last parsnip, and have shredded frozen zucchini left over and the next year it is opposite. Every year we try something new and keep finding amazing products like Matt’s fermented tomatillo salsa.

No matter which method you choose, start with best quality produce for the tastiest and most nutritious results.  Vegetables that are overly mature do not store well.  Also, process vegetables as soon as possible after you harvest them. Produce continues to respire after harvest and enzymes begin breaking it down, affecting flavor and nutrition.

  1. Canning: Canned produce is convenient because it is shelf stable and will last for years. It requires no thawing or cleaning or rehydrating. Unfortunately, it is laborious, destroys up to 65% or the original nutrition value, and can be dangerous if not done properly. We can tomatoes, jam, applesauce, and bone broth.
  2. IMG_2054Cold Storage: Easy when you have a good spot to do it, as the veggies require minimal preparation. Temperature needs to stay 35-40º and humidity around 90-95% for optimum storage for most vegetables.   We insulated a small room in our unheated garage and put in a heater on a thermostat. You can also adapt a crawl space or minimally heated garage.
  3. Drying: A simple and ancient method of preserving food, dried foods are easily stored. The nutritional content is similar to frozen foods, and the flavor is better than canned. Many herbs lend themselves well for drying, although you can dry many fruits and vegetables as well. Most vegetables need to be blanched before drying.
  4. Freezing: Freezing is an easy way to store food that preserves many nutrients. Generally vegetables that are eaten cooked as well as already cooked foods freeze well. The downside is that you can quickly run out of freezer space and freezers are expensive to buy and run. It also takes a little planning to take what you need out of the freezer ahead of time so it can defrost slowly.
  5. DSC_0457Fermentation: The only method of food preservation that actually increases the nutritional content of the food! Fermented food is extremely good for you, and can actually heal many gut problems. Many people are familiar with sauerkraut, but you can ferment almost anything. Fermented food must be stored in a refrigerator or cold storage to slow fermentation.

One of the most difficult aspects of leaving this fall is not having our normal food stores.  I can’t quite imagine what we are going to cook!  I am so used to having our garden food available in some form or another year-round.  Matt and I cleaned out our cold storage yesterday and found a treasure trove of garden products.  Perfect produce preserved in various mediums ready whenever we want… chutney, relish, jam, wine, and the best surprise… our very own raw apple cider vinegar.

IMG_2767Since we can’t take all our garden produce and preserves with us on our trip, we are selling what we can at our new self-serve farm stand in our garage.  I stock it up on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays when we are around, but you can stop by anytime and see what we have!  Leave your money in the jar and if you don’t see something you want, don’t hesitate to ask.  It has been a lot of fun sharing our garden bounty!

 

8 Early Greens You Will Never Have to Plant Again

IMG_9458After a long, cold winter of eating from the cold storage and the freezer, nothing tastes better than a fresh salad.  Greens are my tonic, giving me energy and vitality.  I eat salads lunch and dinner and throw greens into quesadillas, soups, eggs, and more.

I always plant an early crop of hearty greens. The beauty is that these greens can withstand freezing so you do not need to wait until the danger of frost has passed.  This year due to the lack of snow I planted some greens on the south side of the house in March.  The ground was still frozen underneath, but the hearty greens and the lettuce still came up.  I also planted some greens in flats in the greenhouse which came up a little faster and were ready to eat sooner.

The busier my life gets, the more I appreciate plants that I don’t have to sow.  I have several varieties of perennial greens as well as some self-seeding annuals.  These are brilliant because they come up whenever they are ready.  You don’t have to stress about planting them at the right time, or at all. They just take care of themselves.  You probably already have some of these in your garden, and right now is the perfect time to plant the ones you don’t have.

IMG_25761. Orach: Red, purple or green, orach is a relative of spinach and self-seeds readily in the garden.   It has a very mild flavor and can be eaten fresh or cooked.  The purple variety looks awesome in salads, and the green variety can be used as a straight-up substitute for spinach.  I have a patch of both.

2. Lamb’s-quarters: A relative of orach, you most likely already have this green in your garden. Also known as goosefoot or fat hen, this green has been eaten since the time of hunter-gatherers.  Although often discarded to the compost, it is high in phytonutrients, fights viruses and bacteria, and has been shown to inhibit the growth of breast cancer.

2. Sorrel: Sorrel is a perennial that has a lemony flavor and can be used to add pizzaz to salads or cooked.  It also self-seeds in the garden which can be useful since it does experience occasional die-back.  Because it is perennial and has a lot of energy in the root, it is often one of the first greens to emerge in the spring.

IMG_94464. Dandelion: Another perennial you almost surely already have, dandelion greens are at their best in the spring before they flower. Compared to spinach, dandelion greens have eight times more antioxidants, two times more calcium, three times more vitamin A, and five more times vitamin K and vitamin E. Iceberg lettuce has 1/40th the bionutrients as dandelions(Jo Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side).  If you don’t like how bitter dandelion is (this is actually a sign of the phytonutrients) you can temper it with fat (avocado or olive oil) or honey.

5. Arugula: Another self-seeder, arugula is notoriously difficult to grow during Alaska summers because our long daylight hours encourage it to bolt.  But you can get a few cuttings of it in the early spring.  Arugula has a delicious peppery flavor and is full of glucosinates, cancer fighting compounds.

IMG_26086. Good King Henry: Another spinach relative, GKH is a perennial and self-seeder that is a great multi-purpose plant.  The shoots can be eaten as asparagus, the buds like broccoli, and the seeds like quinoa.

IMG_25727. Asparagus: While not exactly a “green,” asparagus is a tasty perennial spring vegetable!  Asparagus is on the edge of its zone here in Anchorage so put it in your warmest spot.  We ate our first asparagus this year and it was well worth the 5 year wait!

8. Chives:  Another delicious perennial, chives are up early in the spring and pep up salads, dips, eggs, soups, salmon and more.  We threw some on the grill the other night and they were excellent.

We ate our first salad this year on May 3rd.  With fresh garden greens every salad is different.  I never get tired of enjoying the healthy and flavorful bounty from the garden.  Plant now to enjoy your bounty this year and extra early next year!

All About Rhubarb

IMG_9450When the rhubarb starts poking its alien heads out of the ground, you know spring is finally here.  The alien heads become giant deep green leaves that contrast beautifully with bright red stalks.  Beautiful, easy to grow, and delicious, rhubarb belongs in every yard.

Planting

It’s easiest to start with a rhubarb plant, which you can get from a nursery or from a friend.  Choose a warm location for the earliest harvests such as next to your house or on the sunny side of a fence.  Rhubarb will take partial shade, so the east or west side of the house works well, or at the edge of a forest like how it would grow in nature.  Keep in mind that once you plant rhubarb it is very difficult to remove.

Rhubarb loves rich, well-drained soil, so if your soil is poor, you may want to spend some time improving it with compost or a sheet mulch bed. Set the plant in the soil at the same depth it was in the pot or in the ground and water it in well.  Mulch around it to prevent encroachment from weeds or grass.  Let it get established for a year before you start harvesting from it.

Maintaining

IMG_2331_2Rhubarb loves water, especially in the spring when it tends to be very dry in Anchorage.  Use your finger to test the ground for moisture and water deeply whenever it is dry.

Rhubarb loves manure and can be fertilized liberally with any manure that isn’t too hot (high in nitrogen).  Goat or rabbit can be used straight, but chicken, horse, or cow should be composted or mixed with plenty of straw.  Cover the manure with leaves or wood chips to keep the smell down and allow soil microbes to break it down.

Rhubarb should be divided every 5-6 years to keep from getting overcrowded. In the spring, when they are emerging from the ground, choose a section that has at least 3 eyes. Use a sharp spade to cut it off from the main plant. Repeat if necessary. If you don’t take too much off the mother plant you can still harvest from it that year. Otherwise it is best to wait one year.

In years past, my dad has been unable to find someone to take his rhubarb divisions, so he just tossed them into the woods next to his patch.  Wouldn’t you know, they rooted and now he has more rhubarb than he knows what to do with!

Harvesting

K7A15C51CA025E_1000247When you harvest rhubarb just grab the stalk and twist gently while you pull and the whole stalk will come out.  If you use a knife, you will leave a piece of the stalk in there which might rot and damage the plant.  Twist the leaf off and leave it beneath the plant as mulch.  This will keep weeds down, the ground moist, and return nutrients to the soil.

Some people like to harvest all of their rhubarb at one time for jam or preserves, but be sure to let it grow back again before fall.  If you don’t let it recover, it may not have enough energy to come back the next spring.  I prefer to just harvest when I need it and enjoy having a consistent supply.  Towards the end of the summer, the stalks may become tough and stringy, so test them before you bake your pie.

Preserving and Eating

Rhubarb is easy to freeze, just chop it up and put it in a ziplock bag and you can have your favorite rhubarb desserts all winter long.  It also makes excellent jam, chutney, BBQ sauce, etc. Growing up my mom would make rhubarb sauce popsicles for a healthy summer treat and her famous rhubarb crunch, which has graced every important summer event for as long as I can remember.  Thanks mom!

Rhubarb Crunch

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt and cinnamon
  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 3- 4 cups rhubarb
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs tapioca
  • 1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
  1. Mix together first three ingredients with a fork, then add melted butter. Mixture will be crumbly.
  2. Pat one half of this mixture into lightly greased 8 x 8 pan. Add rhubarb to almost top of pan.
  3. In a small saucepan, cook water, sugar and tapioca until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Pour over rhubarb.
  4. Cover with remaining brown sugar mixture.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Tastes best the next day!

Winter Food Stores, 2014

Chard

Chard

One of our goals with our garden is to provide as much of our food year-round as possible.  During the Alaska Food Challenge in 2011-2, we had no idea how much food to put away.  I put away way too much kale and shredded zucchini.  We now have a better idea of how much food to put away, although each year the exact composition depends on what did well in the garden that year.  Last year we had a ridiculous overabundance of winter squash (I still have some under the bed), and this year we only got 8.  This year we did really well with tomatoes and tomatillos while the potatoes and peas, two reliable producers, struggled.

This year we froze about 48 pounds of vegetables and 13 gallons of berries.  Most vegetables are frozen in 1/2 pound packages which I have found to be a good portion for us and the recipes we use.  The major player here are: romanesco (6#), broccoli (8#), beans (3.5#), kale (5.5#), zucchini (6#), celery (8#), leeks (6#).  Berries are frozen whole on sheet pans and then put in gallon ziplocks.

Parsnips

Parsnips

In our root cellar we have approximately 7 gallons of carrots, 8 gallons of potatoes, 3 gallons of beets, 3 gallons Jerusalem artichokes, 4 gallons parsnips, and 4 gallons of apples. We have 4 cases of sauerkraut, 3 cases of fermented tomatillo salsa, as well as a few jars of pickles. We canned 3 cases of tomatoes and 2 cases of applesauce.

In the house we have 8 winter squash, two gallon ziplocks with dried herbs, and herbs frozen into ice cubes.  We also have 2 gallons of honey from our bees and a (somewhat) steady supply of eggs. All this is from our 9,000 square foot city lot.

Additionally, we put away about 100 pounds of pork products, almost 100 pounds of salmon and salmon products (sausage and smoked), and 70 pounds of caribou.  We canned two cases of crabapple sauce from our neighbor’s tree.  We dried a quart of bolete mushrooms.  And we picked 2 gallons of blueberries.

Every year we get better at getting ready for winter.  I’ve learned to put things away throughout the summer instead of all at the end.  I’m faster at blanching and I have my systems for packaging salmon and caribou down.  It isn’t this big, exhausting unknown thing anymore.  It has become a part of our routine, what we do in our daily lives.  And I have to say, it is a really rewarding way to live!

tomatoes

tomatoes

Kale

Dinosaur Kale

Dinosaur Kale

Everyone kept asking, ” What are you going to do with all that kale?”  I didn’t mean to plant so much… some of it was left from my spring greens mix and everything else had bolted except the kale.  And some of that kale wasn’t really kale, it was sprouting broccoli or broccoli rabe that never sprouted.  So I’m left with eating the leaves which is kind of like kale.  And then there was the extra 2 kale plants I stuck in the corner because I had extras.  Oh, and the black or dinosaur kale I planted under the apple tree.  It is excellent in salads but the leaves are so skinny that there is not much leaf on there and they are more work for freezing.

I have already brought 2 large loads of kale over to the MIssion soup kitchen, but the main patch was still left.  I had a couple friends help me harvest it on Monday and we had a huge bucket full in less than 5 minutes.  I sent them home with some, but the bucket was still overflowing.

IMG_1818Tuesday I got all set up to freeze it.  I have my system down.  I get the water steaming on the stove while I strip the leaves off the stem and throw them in the wash water in the left sink.  As the first batch is steaming I fill the right sink with ice water and get out a large towel for drying.  Three minutes for each batch in the steamer, them I throw it in the ice water, fish it out, and squeeze it dry.  It gets packed into ziplocks in 1/2 pound packages and labeled and into the freezer.

After about 10 batches I had barely put a dent in the bucket.   I started having flashbacks from our Alaska Food Challenge year.  I froze WAY too much kale and we got a little sick of it.  Matt has been a little anti frozen kale since then.  There was no way we were going to use all of this kale this winter.  Besides, I already had beet greens and chard put away.  I texted my friend, “Help!  Too much kale!  Save me!”

Kale and Celery Salad with apples and green onion

  • 1 large bunch dinosaur kale, stemmed and cut into thin strips
  • 4 stalks celery, with tender leaves, chopped
  • 1 tart apple, sliced thin
  • 3 green onions, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine kale with vinegar and salt and mix very well.  Let sit 20 minutes.  Add olive oil and toss again, then add the rest of the ingredients.

 

Butchering

IMG_1642As I stared at the caribou leg in front of me and tried to figure out how to get the meat off the bone, I suddenly remembered how I would hide in my room when my dad and brothers came home with their catch.  It seemed kind of gross and I just wasn’t interested.

Now I am fascinated by how the muscles wrap around the bone, layer upon layer.  It is a puzzle to unwrap it and remove the tough tendons and gauzy connective tissue.  It is a lot of work for a few hamburgers-worth of meat.  I can see why some hunters might leave this behind, but our ethics will not let us waste anything useable.

My dad grew up in Palmer and hunting was a huge part of his life.  He has many epic tales that occasionally come out when you can get him to talk.  My grandparents were not farmers so they relied on wild game as a big part of their diet.  For us it was the same.  There were four of us kids and my mother didn’t work, so money was tight. There was the occasional holiday ham, but other than that it was mostly caribou or moose.  Sometimes there was hares or dall sheep, and one time we got some black bear from a family friend.  We were thankful for what we had because some years we didn’t get anything.

Occasionally my mom would drag me downstairs to help grind the burger.  After getting over the gross-factor, I enjoyed working together with my family to get the job done.  Everyone was in a good mood and there was a comradery in the kitchen that didn’t exist at other times. Our normal sibling bickering temporarily ceased and for a while there was just good-natured teasing.

When I went away to college my mom warned me not to become a vegetarian.  She was concerned the liberal school I had chosen would corrupt me.  My first semester I took an ethics class where we discussed animal rights and I learned about the cruelty of slaughter houses.  I stopped eating factory farmed meat but would still eat wild game when I went home.  This seemed to be semi-acceptable to my mom as she didn’t have to make too many concessions with her cooking.  But while I was away from Alaska I didn’t have access to wild game and ate vegetarian.

Four years ago, Matt went on his first Alaskan hunt and brought home a spring black bear.  We awkwardly butchered it and put it in the freezer. Although black bear is not known for being good-tasting, we thought it was wonderful and were hooked on having our own meat.

When Matt got a caribou the following fall we had my parents help us butcher so we could learn from them.  Over 60 years of butchering knowledge passed on to us.  We learned the names of all the cuts and which ones made the best stew.  We learned how to package it safely and effectively.

IMG_1658Today Matt and I are working efficiently together.  My mom is watching the kids and it is eerily quiet in the house.  We have developed our own, slightly different practices that suit our cooking styles.  Matt breaks down the large muscles while I work on the smaller stuff and package everything for the freezer.  We will grind the meat when we use it.  Later we will make stock from all of the bones for use in soups, stews and sauces.

Having a freezer full of meat now seems like such an important part of our lives that I have a hard time believing I ate vegetarian for so many years.  My eating habits have come full circle now, returning to a simple place-based diet similar to what I grew up with.

Cherries and Berries

IMG_9270

Evans cherry, only in its second year!

The garden is really starting to mature at the Williams Street Farmhouse and we are harvesting more fruits and berries this year than ever before.  Cherries gleaming like jewels, bowls of strawberries, neon orange sea berries, red and black currants drooping off their bushes, big juicy gooseberries, endless raspberries, enormous sweet juneberries and apples as big as my fist.  I am in awe of the abundance flowing from my garden.  

IMG_9234

Graysen taste-testing the strawberries

We’ve been stuffing our faces all summer with these vitamin-rich foods.  Graysen learned quickly to only pick the red strawberries, and was lecturing his father for picking some that had some white on them.  Every time we go on a walk we start and end by grabbing a few handfuls of raspberries, which Rylan loves as much as his brother. Rylan is also a big fan of gooseberries and will climb the stairs to find a bowl of them.

IMG_1498Picking like mad and sharing with friends, as I clean and pack away in the freezer I am thinking about what I am going to do with all this abundance.  We can only eat so much jam, so we have to be creative in finding other ways of enjoying them.  

I love to make smoothies for me and the boys, especially because I can slip in frozen greens along with the berries and yogurt, making them nutrition powerhouses without any added sugar.  Matt prefers juice, so I make currant, sea berry, cherry, and rhubarb juice concentrate which he dilutes to taste.  To make into a soda, we dilute it with soda water.  I also made a simple syrup to easily sweeten it if needed, although he likes the juice tart.  Matt made a dry raspberry wine this spring with some older raspberries from the freezer, which came out excellent.  

IMG_1334We’ve also experimented with chutneys… gooseberry and black currant being our favorites to pair with meats, soft cheeses, and curries.  Most of the berries I don’t have time to do anything with right now, so I freeze them on cookie sheets and then transfer to gallon zip-locks for storage. This way, I can take out as many berries as I need at one time.  I’ve found the frozen berries are great in pies, tarts, purees for cheesecakes, pancakes, and coffeecakes.  Graysen even likes to eat them frozen straight up!  I can also make them into chutneys, jams, or sauces later.

As I’m writing this, I’m seeing that there is a lot to say about these berries and I need to include some recipes, so I’m going to do a blog post for each fruit/berry that includes more information about it, more pictures, and recipes! What is your favorite way to use your berries?