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Changing it Up

About a year ago, Matt and I were enduring another dreary Anchorage spring when my brother sent us an article about a family that drove to Argentina in a camper van.  “Let’s do it,” Matt said to me, with a glimmer of excitement in his eyes.  “OK,” I countered simply, accepting his challenge.  “I’m serious, let’s go,” he said, not sure if I understood. “I know, I am too.”

Although it seemed like a rash decision for a family so rooted in their house and community, life had been calling us in this direction for a while.  Matt was bored with his work and ready for a new challenge. I was teaching as many garden classes as I could, but looking for ways to make a bigger difference. The gardens were more or less “done.”  We were ready to move out of the duplex but couldn’t find anything else in Anchorage that we could afford that spoke to us. We thought about moving somewhere else but couldn’t decide where.

In short, we were in a rut.  We needed a change.  But we were so entrenched in our life that we couldn’t envision what was next.

What better way to disconnect than to go traveling?  When you travel you experience new sights, new sounds, and new people. You can break free from your routine, get lost in your thoughts, and gain new perspectives on life. It gets you out of your bubble.

We were no strangers to travel, and always imagined continuing to explore the world when we had children.  We met enough other people traveling with children to know that it could be done.  Maybe not with just backpacks and busses and hostels, but we could definitely find a way.

And so, we started doing research, selling our belongings, and preparing the house to go on the market.  I still had a garden to plant and tend and classes to teach, so we couldn’t leave until the end of the summer, but that gave us 6 months to prepare.  Plenty of time…. right?

Somehow, we managed to drive out of Anchorage on October 3rd, the day after I taught my last gardening class, with our little travel trailer packed and all our extra belongings we couldn’t get rid of in a friend’s shed.

I was very sad to leave our home, the Williams Street Farmhouse, but comforted in knowing it was going to another passionate couple who appreciated the hard work we had put into it.  I was even more sad to leave our family and friends.

But I was also excited for the next chapter of our lives to unfold.  And unfold it has. Since we left we started a new blog, chronicling our adventures, Moxie Trek. We also took my gardening curriculum and created an e-book to give other people the tools to start their own garden education business at Teach Gardening. In the next few months, I will be turning teachgardening.com into a valuable resource for anyone who wants to, or already is teaching gardening.

We are still in the process of disconnecting and unwinding, like peeling the layers of an onion. We still don’t have much of plan, but are learning to follow our hearts and live in the moment.

If you want to follow our fantastic family adventure, please subscribe to Moxietrek.com.  If you are interested in teaching gardening, or exploring that option, come on over to teachgardening.com.  I won’t be updating this blog in near future.  Hope to see you all soon!

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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!

 

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!

Time to Start Some Seeds!

I know it’s hard to believe… we haven’t had much of a “real” winter here yet, but the calendar doesn’t lie.  It’s February and it’s time to start some seeds.  In fact, I should have gotten the onions and leeks started earlier, but I was on vacation in Mexico.  Gardeners need their sun, you know.

IMG_3228This weekend I managed to slip out to the greenhouse. Last year I had some problems with damping off, where your seedlings die just as they germinate.  It’s caused by a number of different pathogens which can hide in your used pots and seed-starting trays.  So, I decide to sterilize my cell-packs this year.  I grab two 5-gallon buckets of water… one with a bleach solution and one for rinsing.  I put the cell-packs in the bleach solution, making sure they are in complete contact with the water, and let them soak for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, I find my potting soil.  I use Pro-Mix which I get in big bales at Alaska Mill and Feed.  It is more economical than buying small bags and already has mycorrhizae in it, which is a fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant and helps them grow bigger and stronger.

IMG_3232When potting soil comes out of the bag it is dry, dry, dry.  It is so dry that it will repel water.  I moisten it before I fill my cell packs or pots, otherwise, I will never get it evenly moist and my seedlings will suffer.  I dump my potting soil into a big plastic tote, pour some water in, and mix it up.  I keep pouring and mixing until there are no dry spots left and it is about as wet as a wrung-out sponge.  I gather a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball.  No water runs out, and when I open my hand, it stays in a nice ball.  Perfect.  TIme to fill the seed trays.

IMG_3226I use plastic cell packs like the ones you buy at the nursery to start my seeds.  I can fill a whole tray with soil and plant it in no time.  They are convenient and easy to move around.  And when I plant, the seedlings pop right out.  I do not mess with individual pots, paper pots, egg shells, and especially not the peat pots that are so popular lately.  They will not break down fast enough in our cool soils and the plants will suffer.

I rinse the bleach off of the cell packs, put them in the trays, then fill them with potting soil.  I mound the potting soil on, then brush the excess off the top.  Each cell is evenly filled to the top… not packed too tight.  Then, because Matt is inside with the kids and my hands are cold, I bring the trays inside to plant.  Onions, leeks, celery, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.

It feels deeply satisfying to have the trays stacked up in the corner, waiting to germinate.  Each flat holds a potential for 72 (or more) food-bearing plants that will fill our bellies this summer and fall. It is a promise that winter will soon give way to spring.  That we will soon feel the heat of the sun on our back as we sink our hands into the earth and breathe deeply.

 

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

Planting Time!

Conventional wisdom in South-central Alaska says not to plant anything in the ground unImagetil Memorial Day weekend.  My gardening is anything but conventional, so you might guess I plant a lot earlier than that.  Especially during a spring like this one… how can anyone wait?  We’ve been planting in the garden for a month and a half, and we are already eating fresh greens from the garden.  Nothing compares to the taste of spring greens straight from the garden and I have been eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  My body craves them like a tonic to cleanse my body from the fatty foods of winter.  

The last average frost date for most of Anchorage is May 15th, but many young seedlings can handle a light frost.  If you put floating row cover over your seedlings, you get an extra 3-7 degrees of protection, plus your plants will grow much faster.  Floating row cover is a spun polyester fabric that lays right on top of your plants like a blanket.  Air, light, and water pass right through it, but it creates an air pocket of warm air right next to the ground where your seedlings need it.  I consider it essential in my garden and I also use it for hardening off seedlings and keeping out the cabbage root maggots.  It lasts for many seasons and is well worth the investment.  

I start planting greens in my warmest beds just as soon as they are free from snow and the soil warms up a bit.  The beds directly in front of the south side of the house and greenhouse are ready at least two weeks before anything else.  This year that was the first of April. Last year I already had baby greens growing in the ground when we had that late snowfall.  I stapled some plastic to the greenhouse to shed the snow and they were fine.  Next I like to get my carrots, parsnips, onions and potatoes planted.  The sooner I plant, the sooner I can harvest and eat. I cover the carrots and parsnips with row cover because it helps keep the soil moist while I’m waiting for them to germinate.   I try to plant out my broccoli and other cabbage family starts in the first part of May.  

ImageIn fact, the only thing I wait until the end of May for is the tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash, which truly are frost sensitive and will do poorly if subjected to cool temperatures.  With this amazing weather we’ve been having, I’m going to put all those out to harden off so they will be ready to be planted next week.  It is essential for me and my large garden to spread the planting out over two months because I couldn’t possibly get it all done at once.  

If you’ve been waiting to plant your garden, wait no longer!  Get out there in this beautiful weather and start planting.  Just remember to harden off your seedings by putting them in the shade for one week before planting.  Throw some row cover over them for extra protection.  Happy planting!!

Bone Broth

Bone broth is an incredibly nourishing food that has been lost in the modern American diet.  When Matt began hunting 3 years ago, we made bone broth in an attempt to use as much of the animal as possible.  We were sold from the very first pot of divine broth that no bouillon cube could ever match.  It has since become an indispensable part of our cooking, going into stews, soups, stir-fries, and sauces.  We pressure can it in pint jars and freeze it in ice-cube trays for throwing into dishes for a burst of flavor.  We use all of the bones from Matt’s caribou plus some from my parent’s caribou, and sometimes we even get more bones from the butcher to make additional stock.

Not only is bone broth delicious, but it’s extremely good for you as well. It gives you strong bones, teeth, tendons, and connective tissue, it protects the integrity of your digestive track, and it helps digest meats and other food.  Bone broth is rich is the amino acid glycine, which balances methionine, another amino acid found in meat and eggs.  Methionine can disrupt cellular communication leading to a number of issues such as mental disorders or cancer.  (Source: The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care by Sally Fallon Morell) This is why it is always good to use bone broth in a sauce when you are cooking meat.  Bone broth is especially good to use when you are pregnant or trying to heal tooth decay.

Caribou (or moose, beef, or bison) Stock

  • 6 pounds caribou bones cut into 2-4 inch pieces. Include some that have marrow such as leg bones and some that are meaty such as ribs or neck vertebrae. 
  • Image2 medium onions, quartered
  • 1 pound carrots roughly chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, roughly chopped, including some leaves
  • 1 tablespoon peppercorns
  • 6 unpeeled garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 small tomatoes, chopped, or ½ cup canned tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 4 parsley stalks
  • 8 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs tarragon, optional
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Preheat oven to 450º.  Put the bones and the vegetables into a roasting pan (or two) and roast 30-40 minutes until they are medium brown.  Use tongs to put vegetables and bones into a large stainless steel stockpot (do NOT use an aluminum pan!).  Pour off accumulated fat and deglaze pan with 1 cup of water on stovetop.  Scrape up tidbits on the pan and then pour it into stockpot. 

ImageAdd the rest of the ingredients and enough water to cover bones by a few inches and bring to a boil.  Simmer slowly for 6-12 hours, skimming off any scum that floats to the top.  Add more water as necessary to keep bones submerged. Strain the stock, pressing all the liquid out of the ingredients.  Let cool and skim off the fat that congeals on the surface or use a degreasing pitcher.  You may also return the stock to the stovetop and boil gently to reduce it further.  

 To can your bone broth, reheat it to boiling and pour into glass jars.  Put on lids and process in a pressure canner at 10 pounds of pressure for 20 minutes for pints, or 25 minutes for quarts.