The things I do for compost…. (on soil ecology and spring garden prep!)

Three years ago, when I decided we needed to try and grow as much food as possible on our 1/5 acre lot, I bought a book.  I declared I would read it from cover to cover.  I learned that in order to have a thriving garden – you MUST start with the soil.  Since then, I’ve become a bit obsessed with dirt, compost, manure and humus.   Let me explain…

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Many things that I read about that first year would only prove helpful as I got out in the garden and dug.   When we first dug up most of the lawn in 2011, we removed the sod layer with a sod cutter, then rototilled.  The moist soil underneath seemed dark – which was good, we thought.  We left it in mounds as we decided where to put our beds.  After a day or two, the soil began to dry out and it’s real qualities were evident.  There was little to no texture, besides thick, hard, dense CLAY.  What looked dark and crumbly while moist, had turned into a mass of rock-hard clods when dry.

One very important aspect of good soil is something called ‘humus’.

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“Humus is vegetable or animal matter that has died and been changed by the action of soil organisms into a complex organic substance that becomes part of the soil”.

There is an entire page in my book dedicated to humus.  It is what gives rich soil it’s texture, nutrients and water-holding capacity.  It acts as a sponge, stops erosion, feeds beneficial organisms as well as earthworms, and contains all of the elements that plants need – and releases them slowly.

“Humus is the firm basis of good gardening.  It is possible to grow inferior crops on humus-deficient soil by supplying all of your plants’ chemical requirements, mainly in the form of nitrates, out of a fertilizer bag, but if you do this, your soil will progressively deteriorate and, ultimately blow or wash away, as the topsoils of so much of the world’s surfact, abused by humankind, already have.” ( p. 16 The new self-sufficient gardener)

My soil at the start, had practically NO humus.

The simplest way I can explain how to build in humus, is to relate it to nature.  Think of the last time you walked into the forest.  The ground there is spongy, as the layers of leaves, needles and decaying wood have built up.  Over time, the sun and rain – along with fungi, bacteria and other decomposers have begun to turn all of this organic matter into dark, rich soil.  But the soil cannot be easily seen!  You would have to dig down, peel back the loose layers of this slowly decomposing matter to find the dark, rich, sweet-smelling soil underneath.  The soil is protected by a thick covering which keeps it safe from erosion and deterioration.

Over the past three years as I’ve immersed myself into homesteading, organic gardening and permaculture principles – I’ve heard this re-iterated again and again.  I’ve experimented with soil testing – but I have so many different areas and raised boxes – that it was tricky.  Thankfully – I’ve learned that adding compost regularly will eliminate your need to balance the soil.  The slow-releasing of complete nutrients in humus-rich soil is nature’s way of fixing most problems. If my plants are suffering from something specific (like blossom end-rot for example – I know the soil there needs more calcium, and I can add this).

Ruth Stout (in the video linked below) talks about the incredible results she’s had by keeping a very large layer of straw mulch on top of her garden.  She never tills, and amazingly… rarely waters!

The ‘Back to Eden’ film (which can be viewed on the link below) is another family who discovered amazing results (without tilling) by using large amounts of wood chips as a mulch layer.

http://www.backtoedenfilm.com/

This film has incredibly fascinating facts in it about soil, why it’s important to preserve (rather than ignore it) and the problems that our modern farming systems have created.    I highly recommend watching this. (You can watch instantly on Netflix).

Now… contrast what I described on the forest floor – with what we see in modern farming.  It’s no wonder we are confused when we want to start growing vegetables.  If you drive by a typical farm – you’ll see acres and acres of  tilled soil – exposed to the elements – waiting for a new tilling or planting.  Wait a few months, and usually you’ll see corn or soy growing for miles.   As the above quote says – you CAN grow vegetables this way.  To grow plants, you really only need air, water and nutrients.  Some farmers supply their plant’s nutrients with chemical fertilizers, spreading manure and tilling- or both.  On a very large scale, this seems to be the only way to produce in the quantities they are desiring.

BUT…

If you want to build your soil naturally…. the easiest way to do this, is to mimic what nature does, so well.

Back to our story.  We had some really dense clay soil that first year.  Because we didn’t know any different but to till the soil, we bought a load of compost and mixed it in.  That was a good first step, but we left the soil uncovered.

I am learning more with each passing year – through trial and error.  But I’ve decided that if  “humus is the firm basis of good gardening”, then creating more humus-rich soil in my garden must be the goal.

Here are the steps that I am taking to do this.

  • Compost everything that I can.  Every bit of organic matter that I can find, goes into our compost heap.  Kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, garden waste, dry leaves.  In our setup, the compost pile is in the chicken yard.  The hens eat what they want, scratch through it and it breaks down.   We add pine shavings and/or straw to the chicken coop to keep the smell down, then – every week we rake it out and add this manure/bedding mixture to the compost heap.  The combination of nitrogen-rich poop plus carbon-rich dry bedding –  heats up well and breaks down beautifully.  Usually in late summer or fall, I dig down and begin shoveling what is at the very bottom of the pile (it will be dark and crumbly) and put it into another pile (covered) to let mature.  In the spring – this rich, dark and crumbly garden gold is ready to add to my garden.  An important tip, when you think your compost is done… smell it! It should not have any bad odor like manure or ammonia, but should smell sweet.  Here is a very helpful video to give you some more specifics on how to compost:

  • Always keep the soil covered.  I have been experimenting with mulching ever since I heard of Ruth Stout’s methods.  The benefits are – you keep your soil protected (like the forest floor) which is the ideal place for earthworms and beneficial bacteria and fungi to thrive.  As that top mulch layer breaks down, it feeds the organisms in the soil – which give nutrients and texture (humus). It also holds in moisture, meaning you’ll have to water less.   I’ve tried using straw, leaves and wood chips on my garden.  Really – you can use anything that will eventually break down – but it’s good to know what works best for your climate.  Living in Colorado – we have lots of sun in the summer, frozen winters and not as much rain.   I’ve learned that things break down quickest when they have lots of heat and moisture.   All winter here, since things are frozen – not much happens.  Then, in the mid-summer – there’s not much rain.  I tried installing a drip system, wanting to conserve water – but that did not work well to help the mulch layers break down, as there was not enough moisture on the mulch to make this happen.  Instead, my mulch layer on top remained dry and wanted to blow away – and the clay soil underneath created deep cracks where the water gravitated toward.  I now have replaced the drippers with sprayer/misters to my system which moistens the entire top layer of the garden beds – allowing the mulch to get wet and decompose as well.  I try to make sure and water in the evenings or early morning. I realize I will use more water this way, but I feel it’s worth it, to benefit my soil.
  • Look for compost/humus wherever possible, and add it generously with each new planting.  This year, we expanded our garden from 1,673 square feet of space – to 2,359 square feet.  We dug up the end of the driveway that we don’t need, and got rid of more front lawn.   Because of these large areas that we added – we needed large amounts of additional compost.  More than our chicken yard and rabbits could provide.  I also have some neighbors who are willing to let me farm their yards – which will require extra soil amending.

We have a favorite lake nearby, which we love to visit.  The girls play and explore,  and enjoy collecting driftwood.   While there with a friend, I bent down and noticed how black and beautiful some soil was that had collected at one part of the shore.  ‘Look at all of this beautiful compost!!”  (funny, the things I notice these days!)

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I noticed that there was a place not too far where I could park, and determined to come back.  I have since been back three times to collect loads of this beautiful humus-rich soil.  I spread out a tarp in the back of my vehicle, brought along some large bushel baskets and would collect trash as I dug through the decomposing sticks to reveal layers and layers of rich compost (which hopefully included some fish that went belly-up as well).  The area didn’t have anything growing in it – so I felt good about taking some home.

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my girls say “whoa, Mom – you are really crazy about compost!”

Then, the other day as we were doing a dreaded chore (moving rock out from around our rasied beds) the girls and I noticed how much good compost there was in between the rocks. (This was due to leaves that break down over time). When I had a bit more time, I decided to see how much could be collected.

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I grabbed a bit of leftover wire from an old rabbit hutch, set it on top of a 5 gallon bucket, and would shovel a pile of rocks on top, shake to sift, and dump the rocks away.  This way, my rock pile was cleaner (just rocks, no soil mixed in) and I was able to collect about 5 buckets-full of lovely compost to add to some of my new beds!   It was definitely a bit tedious – but I was thrilled to be outside working in the sun, and it felt great to end up with a nice (free) little load of humus.

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For the rest of my compost needs, I have been asking around to friends – hoping to find a farm with more animals who might have some aged manure.  Yesterday, we found just the person!  A neighbor of our family has a HUGE pile of cow manure that has been aging (and has been turned a few times). He has enough that he was willing to share with me before he spread it out on his fields.   We looked for the part of the pile that was oldest, and dug to the bottom.  It was dark, crumbly and lovely – and smelled sweet.  Perfect!!  I will be getting my exercise shoveling and filling up the trailer several times this week to gather enough.

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If you are looking to add compost to your garden, but don’t have animals – it makes sense to ask around.  You could certainly buy it at a garden center, but there are plenty of people who will sell – or give it to you for free.  Compost, rich in humus – I believe, is the absolute key to a bountiful garden.

Here are a few pictures of my garden beds this year.  In the fall I spread out some rabbit manure on each bed, and covered them with as many fall leaves as I could.  Some beds got another layer of straw as well.  As this is only my second year experimenting with deep mulching, I still have quite a bit of clay in the soil below.  I don’t mix in the leaves, because mixing in too much carbon-rich content (dry leaves, wood chips that haven’t decomposed) will tie up the nitrogen in the soil – and make it unavailable to the plants.  Just using them as a top layer will protect the soil and draw up the earthworms and decomposers – and they will do the job of enriching the soil.  I also don’t till anymore – because I’ve read that too much disturbance in the soil can hinder the microbial growth in the soil.

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I have been going around with a large fork to lift the clay soil beneath – aerating the beds a bit, and breaking it up a bit.  This will allow the microbes to get in, and when I add more compost when I plant, will give some air to the ground below.

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When I am direct-seeding plants like carrots, onions, beets or peas – I spread away the mulch layer, add a nice layer of compost to plant in and let them germinate.  I’ve noticed that I didn’t have good luck with my seeds germinating when I tried to sow the seeds and then cover deeply again with mulch.  There was not enough warmth in early Spring for mine to germinate well.  After they emerge from the soil and get a few inches tall, though I will move the mulch layer back around the plants to protect it.

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This triangular bed has peas which I’ve just planted. Once the peas have begun to climb the wire trellis, I will spread the leaf mulch back over the soil.

I have had very good luck with my raised boxes on the south side of my garden.  I believe it’s because of a few things.  I get lots of hot sun on this side, and they thaw out earlier than the ground thaws – being raised up.  I have been watering evenly with the sprayers, and the sides of the boxes keep the mulch in place (it doesn’t blow away as easily).

I used a guide from the Square Foot Gardening method to build the soil when I first filled the boxes.

‘Mel’s Mix’ is:

1/3 peat moss,

1/3 vermiculite,

1/3 compost (from as many sources as possible).

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I’ve added rabbit poop and compost to the tops of the beds after the plants are done in the fall, then covered with thick layers of mulch (straw, leaves) before winter.

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In the spring – this is what I find.  TONS of earthworms and dark, crumbly rich soil!  Excited to plant again in these boxes!

I hope this information is helpful to those of you who are on this adventure of growing food.

Remember… in order to get this:

taken july 25 (27)

You’ve got to first start building this:

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Happy gardening!

The difficulty, beauty and artistry of MEAT.

Meat. For much of my life it was mostly an object, a thing.  Something that we picked up at the grocery store, and which created heavenly aromas from the stovetop, oven or barbeque.  There is no denying that we relished it’s flavor.  But to say I felt the sacrifice of a living creature which died so that I could eat?  Not so much. It wasn’t until these recent homesteading years that this has become very, VERY real. Butchering our first chickens as a family was a good first start. I’m very comfortable with a whole chicken.  I can piece it out into it’s parts – legs, thighs, breasts, wings.  It’s a wonderful simple skill to have.  So… the chicken butchering wasn’t too traumatic – we learned that the most daunting part (plucking) wasn’t actually too hard. The process that took it from being seen as an animal to being seen as food was interesting.

  1. It began with an animal we knew, had raised and fed with care.
  2. Then, it became a dead animal – bleeding and maimed… but soon,
  3. it seemed to magically transform into… well… food!

It was that satisfying moment when the last feather was plucked, the feet were clipped off and all of a sudden – voila! The recognizable naked, headless, footless chicken – looked…. edible.  And definitely not as intimidating. To my grocery-store trained eye – THAT was food. Raising rabbits has been another step deeper into this intimacy with meat. I have killed, dressed and cooked a chicken on my own.  Start to finish.  It was an emotional experience to take the life (even of that mean rooster) but I did it. The rabbits are a bit different.  I would have to be really hungry to do the killing myself.   Having raised them when he was young, my husband knows how to quickly and humanely kill the animal.  He removes the head and pelt, guts the rabbit, and places it to chill in cold water.   The girls and I work on fleshing and salting the pelts – then move the rabbit meat to the fridge to rest.   We are experimenting with tanning these gorgeous rabbit hides – hoping to end up with some fur-lined winter caps, ear muffs or fur-lined slippers for next year.

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dried and salted rabbit pelts, ready to continue to tan.

Knowing an animal throughout it’s life – becoming somewhat attached to it’s quirks, or even just the comfort of regularly seeing it on the homestead, makes eating it  - different.  Because this was the purpose of us breeding these animals – we know this from the start. Still – I must admit to realizing… it is a heavy thing to be a carnivore.

There’s no denying the visceral experience of piecing out a rabbit, learning at what part of the backbone to cut through the vertebrae in order to divide the pieces evenly.  I have a backbone, too … I ponder.  Or removing the legs and thinking of how I watched this baby rabbit bounce sideways with energy in the backyard just a few months before. Here’s the difference between the grocery store meat and my own animal’s meat:  There’s a connection. It is no longer just an object. It’s a beautiful creature that lived a healthy, happy life under my care. It’s also delicious and very nourishing.  Because it died so that my family and I could enjoy it as food – it should be respected.  And used wisely. I am up past midnight writing this – feeling filled up with inspiration because of these videos from Farmstead Meatsmith.

My husband and I had a fabulous time watching them, we kept pausing to talk about what we were learning, how fascinating it was to see each step.  These videos are SO educational, artistically done, quirky and just… fantastic.  I am struck by the fact that butchery and charcuterie (fancy name for curing meat) have become lost arts in America.  I am inspired and look forward to the day when we gather several families together, work hard to slaughter an enire pig, give thanks for the bounty, take care to use every part, and revel in the delicious result. My love for history plays into this emotional evening as well.

This year I’ve been enjoying studying and digging deep into Italy – my relatives, the culture of food and traditions that feel so close to my heart.  I can’t help but think of how lovely it is to be going back to the way that my grandparents lived.  For them, watching a pig killing would have been very normal. And it wasn’t only my Italian family that lived this way – but my relatives from both sides of the family.  (Don’t worry Dad – I haven’t forgot your side!)  I enjoy reading the details of life on the homestead in Indiana where my father’s grandfather lived before moving to California.    The fact is, 100 years ago – ALL families knew how to butcher an animal to provide for their needs. In my favorite series “Two Greedy Italians”  Gennaro Contaldo and Antonio Carluccio share what it was like for them to take part in a festa del maiale (pig killing).  ” this is one of the most important scenes in any Italian village, they share. (The relevant scene in this video clip begins at 6:36 – though your life will be enriched if you watch it in it’s entirety)

“In our day, everyone had a pig. The meat would feed a family for a whole year.  Pig produce is central to the Italian way of eating.” Antonio goes on to say that the pig was the ‘ultimate sacrifice of the pig for the good of the family’.

There’s something to stop and ponder.

This pig is not simply ‘some cuts of meat’ – it’s not just an object. I love this scene. These two grown men are standing, watching a pig about to be slaughtered.   They are being flooded with memories of taking part in this important, but difficult act as young boys. Gennaro winces as the pig is killed (it is not shown on film).  He rolls up his sleeves nervously, as if about to help.  He goes on to say how he would watch his mama – wondering why she didn’t cry.   It is emotional.

It should be emotional.  

A beautiful animal just died… ‘for the good of the family.’ In our society, the artisan skills that once could be found in every village – have been taken over by large scale factories.  This ‘ultimate sacrifice for the good of the family’ is done in secret – behind large gates, (often under horrible conditions) and we are sheltered from this important but difficult aspect of our survival. Watching Gennaro make pig’s blood chocolate pudding, watching children helping to stuff sausages.

These are experiences that I want to have!  I yearn for the intimate knowledge of the food that I eat.  There is satisfaction in getting your hands dirty, working hard along with family and friends – to put every part of the animal to use.    Knowing that your larder is full and you will eat well for the year.  Eating the delicious products from an animal that lived a happy life, was treated and fed well – and appreciating it’s sacrifice. There is such beauty, enjoyment and richness in taking part of every step of producing food.   I hope that my daughters will recall these memories into their old age, and be able to pass them on to their children.

Goodbye Grapeseed oil – what actually IS a healthy fat?

It looks like I WAS WRONG about Grapeseed oil.    I had read about it having good health benefits with a high burn point and thought I had found a mild tasting oil that was healthy to cook with at high temps.  After more reading and research – it seems I only had HALF of the story correct.  It looks like Grapeseed oil does have a few good health benefits:

  • High in vitamin E
  • Has a slightly higher smoke point than olive oil

BUT… the bad facts outweigh the good.  

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“Grape seed oil has a high smoke point.For this reason, it is advertised as a good choice for high heat cooking like frying. This is based on a huge misunderstanding… the smoke point of an oil is NOT the determinant of whether it should be used for cooking or not. The number of double bonds in the fatty acid molecules is much more important.  Polyunsaturated fats are called poly (poly=many) because they contain many double bonds. These double bonds are reactive and tend to react with oxygen when heated, forming harmful compounds and free radicals. Because grape seed oil is so incredibly high in polyunsaturated fats, it really is one of the worst oils you could possibly use for cooking. The healthiest cooking oils are those that contain mostly saturated fats (like butter and coconut oil), because they don’t have double bonds and are therefore less likely to react with oxygen when heated.” (read the rest HERE)

oh dear…  and look here:

THE TRUTH ABOUT POLYUNSATURATED FATS:  What’s so bad about those PUFAs? Well, basically, human bodies can’t handle very much of them at all, without running into some serious health problems. And for almost all of human history, we consumed only a very small amount of polyunsaturated fat—whatever was naturally present in the food we ate.     But as the industrialization of our food supply brought new technology for creating all sorts of changes to the food we eat, that changed. We started extracting oils out of seeds that we never could have before. Making olive oil is easy—you squeeze it. But squeeze a kernel of corn, a soybean, or a sunflower seed? Not much happens, without lots of big machinery and a high-tech, chemical-based process.     So as a result, we began consuming more polyunsaturated fats (concentrated in modern cooking oils) than ever before. Today, we consume 1,585% more PUFA than we did 100 years ago. That’s a lot. It’s been by far the biggest change to our diet in recent history.     Healthy human cell walls are comprised of fats and cholesterol. And very, very little polyunsaturated fat. When we have too much polyunsaturated fat compared to the saturated fat that’s supposed to make up the fat in our bodies, bad things happen from that imbalance. “  (read the rest HERE)

At this point, you may be confused.  There are so many opinions out there about good fats and bad fats, who to believe??  Many mainstream doctors and health websites tell you the reverse about saturated fat!  I will explain why I don’t look to the mainstream ‘experts’ any longer for my health advice.

Here’s a quick version of our story.

My husband and I spent our first 10 years together listening to our doctors, eating the way most Americans eat, and feeding our kids that way.   Granted, we were on the healthy side of the American diet.  Lots of fruits and veggies (though I never considered buying organic) and home made meals, but we got our meat, milk and butter from the grocery store (from animals raised in confinement), and our diet included unhealthy oil and sugar-laden processed food items  like breakfast cereals, crackers, chips and breads.

Emma's preschool graduation (21)

Things seemed normal … until some health problems seemed to stack up and become chronic for my husband. The doctors happily prescribed more antibiotics and never mentioned our diet.  Also, our girls were in the doc’s office each winter with several ear infections and we started down the road that many American families go down… a benign infection leads to antibiotics, which returns again and again, which leads to a conversation about tubes in the ears and other medical interventions.  (Read the full story here).

Over the past 5 years we have eliminated processed food, transitioned to more of a ‘traditional’ diet.  Eating whole, nutrient-dense food (growing as much as we can to keep it affordable) and sourcing things locally.  This means we are returning to eating the way our grandparents ate.   Having a connection to the land and the animals which your food derives from – is where it begins.

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It has been evident for years that traditional diets, from cultures with the closest connection to local food are most healthy (think Mediterranean diet).    And it’s worked for our family, too.  We have found that these lifestyle changes have improved our health and immune systems by leaps and bounds:

OK, OK… I began this post talking about searching out which oil or fat to is healthiest to cook with… let me try and come back to the topic at hand.  So… did our great- grandparents generation cook with healthy oil/fats?  It turns out they probably did.  Before the rise of industrialization and factory-made oils, people cooked with whatever they had local access to.

Although Extra Virgin Olive oil is incredibly healthy,  I was interested to learn that the majority of Italian peasants in centuries past – although they grew and picked olives – would not primarily cook with it.  It was a valuable cash crop which they sold.  Most families would use their own rendered pork fat (from the family pig) to cook with.  Really, you ask?  Italians cooked with LARD?  Yes, they did.   And you may be surprised how incredibly good for you – lard  (from pastured pigs) is!!  (We aren’t talking about shelf-stable processed lard you might see in a grocery store).  Read these incredible health facts here and here.

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My first batch of fresh rendered pork fat (lard) from pastured pigs

I am a big fan of the Weston A. Price foundation, which shares nutritional information from the research of Weston A. Price, a dentist and researcher.  He and his wife travelled the world and studied traditional cultures, food and health.  They  discovered that the rise of modern, processed foods was the culprit behind the deteriorating dental health as well as overal physical degeneration of societies.     I get much of my nutritional information from this source, and other traditional diet perspectives.  The WAP foundation is not funded by any large food company – it’s a grassroots, non-profit organization and has helped me immensely as I’ve learned how to eat healthfully.  

My favorite farmer, Joel Salatin (sustainable farmer, author and activist) recommends the Weston A. Price foundation – and Sally Fallon Morell’s cookbook, Nourishing Traditions.  The type of recipes you will find in here are old, slow and like the title suggests…nourishing.   If you haven’t read Joel Salatin’s book ‘Folks, this aint normal’, by the way – READ IT!!  It’s an entertaining, easy read and will be a real eye-opener on these issues.

Folks, This Ain't Normal - Cover salatin

For those of you who like to delve deep into the science of fat (things like short and long chain fatty acids, saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) This article gives more details.  Turns out, it’s not as simple as I’d hoped to be able to explain!   The last paragraph, however is worth quoting:

“In summary, our choice of fats and oils is one of extreme importance. Most people, especially infants and growing children, benefit from more fat in the diet rather than less. But the fats we eat must be chosen with care. Avoid all processed foods containing newfangled hydrogenated fats and polyunsaturated oils. Instead, use traditional vegetable oils like extra virgin olive oil and small amounts of unrefined flax seed oil. Acquaint yourself with the merits of coconut oil for baking and with animal fats for occasional frying. Eat egg yolks and other animal fats with the proteins to which they are attached. And, finally, use as much good quality butter as you like, with the happy assurance that it is a wholesome—indeed, an essential—food for you and your whole family.”  

So, here’s my conclusion on the healthy fats I will continue to cook with:

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  • Extra virgin olive oil – for drizzling, dressings, dipping and lower heat sauteeing
  • Extra virgin Coconut oil – for baking, some light frying (pancakes, etc.)
  • Home-rendered fresh lard (from pastured pork fat) for sauteeing, or occasional frying (Lard from pigs raised in confinement will NOT have the same benefit)
  • Pastured, Organic Butter (for whatever I can think of putting it in, or cooking with it!)  (Organic Valley is an accessible brand)
  • Any other animal fat I can skim off the top of what I’ve cooked.  Often this will be from chicken, pork or beef.  Since all of the meat I buy comes from local, sustainably raised and pastured sources – I can know that this fat is beneficial, and high in nutrients.  After making pork carnitas (recipe here) I save the fat and add it to roasted potatoes, or cook a fried egg in it.  YUM!    

If you do the reading on the above linked sources –  I believe you will feel confident, as well – that delicious fat from good sources will play a big part in keeping you healthy!

Thankfully, our half- opened bottle of Grapeseed oil will not be wasted. We are using it to oil our butcher blocks and wood cutting boards!  ;)

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Thanks for being along for this journey of discovery with me.  I welcome your comments!

On bacteria – bad AND good!

thriftygoodlife:

As this has been my most read and shared blog post, I thought I would update it with some other immune-system tips. Hope it’s helpful!

Originally posted on thriftygoodlife:

I did not expect to become such a hippie.

Having spent most of my life growing up in Santa Cruz, CA – it would seem natural.  My lovely momma fed us very well – we ate lots of fresh veggies – but you wouldn’t have spotted any sprouting grains on the countertop or kefir fermenting away.  I had lots of friends in Santa Cruz who grew up this way … they were the ‘interesting’ ones.

I am now, fully embracing these ‘interesting’ foods.  I make yogurt and kefir regularly, we’ve become huge fans of sauerkraut of late, as well.  My new obsession is sourdough – and I’ve even started making my own home-brewed kombucha tea. (though I’m learning as I go)

All of these foods are VERY rich in natural probiotics, which we need to foster a healthy immune system.  I didn’t start making these foods because they were hip…

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Simple, healthy birthday sweets

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We have at least one birthday per month from January through May.  So as soon as the holidays are over… it’s birthday season in our house.

Because we don’t eat sugar or artificial sweeteners, and also avoid most wheat –  a birthday party spread looks different in our house… or does it?

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The above birthday cake is grain-free, has no refined sugar, is high in protein and full of healthy fat.  It was moist and dense with just the right amount of sweet – and almost everyone who ate it wanted seconds!

As I’ve said before, I’m not the best baker.  Most recipes make me feel creatively restricted and I’m really into spontaneity and using what I’ve got on hand.

This doesn’t always work as far as baking is concerned.

The reason I chose this recipe, (found originally on this beautiful site labeled as a pound cake) is because my husband would eat it (grain-free), and it had a short list of ingredients.  I changed it a bit – (to use what I had on hand) and it turned out wonderfully!!  With such a discovery, I felt I had to share.  

We are not a grain-free or Paleo family for a few reasons.  First – to eat only well-raised meat and organic fruits and veggies, we’d have to make a lot more money.  I do believe that it can be a smart way to eat, limiting carbs has improved our health in big ways.  We need our beans and rice though, to balance out the extra money we spend on pasture-raised meat and organic produce.

Second – I believe that grains which are properly prepared can be very nutritious (click HERE for my favorite article on why we soak grains).    This means, for us – we only eat sourdough based breads, or overnight soaked baked items. (I’ve had good results with making my banana bread the night before, letting it soak with yogurt added – then baking the next day).  SO, making a quick-rise cake meant I needed to go grain-free.

Now to the sugar issue.

The only sugar we buy is for making Kombucha (since the fermentation process requires it).  From my research, I’ve learned that refined sugar significantly supresses the immune system and can lead to many different health difficulties.  (Read more here and here.)  Now, we still eat some sweets.  We buy raw honey from a local farm, and use stevia and maple syrup in moderation.  Life without sweet would be no life at all…. (all joking aside, I WOULD consider it if treating a serious illness).

I believe the goal is to move drastically away from the typical American diet which is dominated by processed food: (refined carbs, chemical flavorings & HUGE amounts of processed sugars.)  Have you tasted a grocery store birthday cake lately?  The shockingly high amount of chemical-sweet taste is astounding.  Not to mention the chemical food colorings added (which are linked to disease and banned in Europe, by the way).  It saddens me that so many American kids eat extreme amounts of sugar and chemical additives with every meal. (Juice, chocolate milk and soda to drink, refined breads, and cereals, trans-fat fried food, convenience meals made with unhealthfully-raised meat, loaded with antibiotics).

So often, kids are labeled ‘picky’ – when often – it could be that they’ve gotten used to artificial flavors and extreme sweets ruining their taste buds and keeping them from appreciating  REAL food.  Forgive my rant…I’m sure that I’m preaching to the choir here – most of you already know these things … I get SO passionate about it!

Grain-free, naturally sweet Coconut Flour Cake

Makes 1 layer of cake.  Double or triple for your desired amount of layers!

  • 1/2 cup coconut flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 6 fresh eggs
  • 1/2 cup melted coconut oil or grass-fed butter (I prefer using half and half)
  • 1/3 cup honey or maple syrup
  • 1-2 Tablespoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
1. Mix the coconut flour, salt and baking soda  together until it is free from clumps.
2. Beat the eggs, melted fat, honey (or maple syrup)  and vanilla together (in a mixer if you use one).  Get it nice and frothy so that your cake will be airy.
3. Add the dry ingredients gently to the dry ingredients, and mix until well blended and smooth.  Do not over-mix.
4. Pour into a well oiled & dusted cake pan and bake for 30 – 35 minutes. (If your batter isn’t pourable, add a smidge of water and mix again.) It’s done when you insert a toothpick and it comes out clean.

We doubled the recipe to make 2 layers of cake.

For the frosting – I used grass-fed heavy whipping cream from Organic Valley (a great source of healthy fat) – whipped it in my mixer, added some vanilla and honey to taste.  We added organic blueberries, whipped cream in the middle , then frosted the outside with the whipped cream and topped it with more berries.

The results were a lot of empty plates like this.  Hope you give it a try!

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Winter Kale Pesto

Winter in Colorado is beautiful.  I love snow, and the welcome change from busy outdoor life to cozy fireside planning. 

I had hoped to keep a lot of plants alive through the winter months by covering them with a layer of frost blanket and plastic.  Things were going well until our unexpected deep freeze week that hit in December.

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Lettuce, chard & kale still thriving earlier in December

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Since then, we’ve eaten most of the kale that survived the sub zero temperatures and I’m hanging on to a handful of very hardy, if pitiful-looking collard plants which I’m still picking from.

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My fall planted garlic and leeks under cover with the few remaining collard plants.

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Even when a bit sad & wilted from the cold, these collard leaves are still so pretty and delicious.

Over Christmas, the girls and I were enjoying Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jamie at Home’ show on youtube, and were thrilled to hear him describing our favorite kale variety – ‘Cavolo Nero’ (black cabbage in Italian).  In our area, it’s quite easy to find in most natural supermarkets – labeled as ‘Lacinato’, ‘Tuscan’ or ‘Dinosaur’ kale.

He stopped in his garden, picked a leaf of this ‘Cavolo Nero’ and said “now, this cabbage is grown everywhere in Italy.  Italians have SO many recipes for this variety”.  Of course, I was thrilled – since this is the kind I grow a TON of each season, because I love the taste and texture so much.

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He proceeded to share a simple recipe – something I’d never done with it before – a simple kale pesto.

Basically – you strip the leaf away from the vein – so that you are left with the most tender part of the kale leaf:

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Then, you toss a few good handfuls into salted boiling water with a couple of whole garlic cloves for just maybe 3 or 4 minutes.  Drain them, then ‘wazz’ them up in the food processor with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and salt.

There you have it – a luscious, vibrantly green simple pesto.

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Jamie says that the Italians he knows will toss this with pasta, or drizzle over meats or veg.  This winter, we used it on top of a steaming baked potato, as a dip for crusty bread.  It has a simple mild flavor – since the garlic has been blanched – but I’ve added red pepper flakes and a squeeze of lemon to mix it up. Fun!

Here is another recent meal that we LOVED using the kale pesto:

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Oven roasted winter squash with caramelized onions & kale pesto. Lentils and rice on the side. Hearty winter fare!

I plan to use my winter collard greens in a pesto, since their flavor is very similar.  Winter grown greens are especially sweet, as the frost or freeze makes them less bitter.  I love the challenge of trying to eat mostly what is local or in season.  Eating lots of green helps to subdue my winter woes – and hopefully I can last until our garden looks like this again!:

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Simple, Stunning Sourdough – easy enough for kids, amazing result.

I have a friend named Will.  I’ve written about him before.  He is one of my dearest foodie friends. Some of my earliest memories of our friendship are when he would bring me a paper-wrapped parcel of warm sourdough goodness.  On my front porch, he’d explain that he just had to share a chunk of his latest freshly baked bread.

…olive and garlic… cheese and herb… sun dried tomato…

Each time we tasted some our eyes rolled back into our heads.  That wonderful, crusty exterior. The warm, flavorful inside.   So I decided I had to learn.  He was kind and shared some of his sourdough starter with me (which he’d practically started himself and kept alive for 15 years!)

Unfortunately, I am not a natural baker.  I am too spontaneous,over confident and always think I can change and substitute. Well… with the sourdough recipe he gave me, I thought I’d try it without the bread flour since I didn’t have any (can’t make that big of difference, right?) and I didn’t have a cast iron pot (so I figured I’d just use my stainless steel pot with a lid – same thing, I guessed).  Did I let it rise for the correct time?  I don’t know. Seemed close enough…

It turned out like a big, dense flat brick.  Totally inedible.

To my shame, I will admit that I left my sourdough starter in the fridge after that for months, unheeded.  I kind of gave up.

An unfailing friend, Will kept bringing us tastes of his heavenly loaves.  Eventually, I got the courage to ask him to teach me again.  THIS TIME – I would patiently listen and do it RIGHT.   Sadly, since I’d left the starter in the fridge for probably 6-8 months without feeding it – Will had to bring me a new batch.

I promised to be a better starter-keeper from then on.

I bought myself a simple cast iron dutch oven and was thrilled to get started.  After that first loaf turned out amazing, I was hooked.

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The rest is Sailer family history…

We bake a loaf (or some kind of sourdough product) at least every other day – sometimes every day.    Garlic and rosemary loaves, cranberry apple cinnamon loaves, olive and scallion loaves, blueberry vanilla loaves, lemon zest and caper loaves … new creations emerge every week.

There are several things that make this bread incredible.

  1. It really is easy.  I know – I made it sound like it was complicated at first… but if you knew me – how easily distracted I am… you’d understand.  Now that I’m in a rhythm, I can do it with my eyes closed.  My kids bake it without my  help now.
  2. It’s the best kind of bread you can eat.  Health-wise – sourdough is leaps and bounds above other breads.  Because the wheat (or other grain) has fermented overnight with the aid of the cultured starter – the gluten and phytic acid in the grain has already begun to break down, making it easier to digest.   In fact, another reason I was so motivated to try again – was because Emma (after having MRSA and taking some terrible antibiotics- before we knew any better) began to get stomach aches when she ate wheat.   I learned that sourdough is easier to digest – and it is.  She could eat the sourdough with no problems.
  3. It’s affordable.  Since I order my wheat and bread flour through a local co-op, my price for each loaf is literally pennies on the dollar.  If you purchase organic flour at the grocery store and make it yourself, the price comes out to about 65 cents per loaf!  It costs me time (which I love to generously spend on food) and saves me money.
  4. It’s stinkin’ beautiful.  I’m talking farmer’s market beautiful.  No… better.  Europe beautiful.  Did I mention to you that my friend Will learned how to bake while he was traveling through Greece?  He lived there for awhile and learned from a bunch of cranky Greek men – sweating over an open bread oven.  Are you ready to try this recipe yet?? Here’s a photo to get you excited.

Really, even if you’re a terrible baker, you can bake THIS at home:Image

I am going to give you a quick tutorial on how to bake this bread – but first, you will need a 4-6 quart cast iron pot with a lid (don’t get one with enamel coating, unless it’s safe up to 500 degrees).  Will’s is actually made of soap stone – but a cast iron pot works beautifully, since it holds in the heat close to the loaf and can get VERY hot without cracking.

Next you need to find some sourdough starter.  Ask around in your local area.  Anyone who bakes sourdough will have some that they can feed and share with you.  You can order online (I’ve seen some dried starter for sale through http://www.culturesforhealth.com) or better yet – make your own!  Here is a link for instructions.  Anyone who lives in my local area (Northern Colorado) is welcome to contact me about getting some.

Once you have your pot and a source for sourdough starter – you can get started with these simple ingredients:

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  • Bread flour
  • Whole wheat flour (or other – I use Kamut grain, spelt or other ancient grains work)
  • Salt
  • Filtered water

You’ll need a sturdy spatula and I also recommend a pastry/dough scraper.  This helps out a lot if you end up with a sticky and hard to handle loaf.

Let’s begin.

I’ve adapted Will’s original recipe to feed our family of 6, but you can make your loaf smaller if you like, by reducing the amounts (don’t be scared, I do this all the time).

MIX YOUR DOUGH

In a large mixing bowl, combine:

2.5 cups organic bread flour

2.5 cups whole wheat flour (freshly ground is best)

1 cup sourdough starter

2 cups filtered water

1/4 cup whole flaxseed (optional)

2 tsp. salt

Mix these ingredients until well combined.  I usually have to add a bit more water to get the consistency right – probably because I add in the whole flax, which absorbs moisture.  I like to add flax to every loaf – it’s hardly noticeable, and even though the flour is fermented, I still rarely use white flour at home.  The girls know why… “it sticks like glue to your gut!”… we say around here.  I think it’s important to keep even that easier to digest flour moving through ya.

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This is the smaller recipe here – my dough is much larger now – you’ll need a medium to large sized mixing bowl.

Cover your bowl with a tea towel and plate on top.  This method makes it easy when you’re ready to shape your loaf.

Before putting everything away – (this is very important!) – you MUST feed your starter. You see, your starter is alive – it needs attention.  You don’t have to be exact here, but I usually feed mine almost as much as I just took out.  So – I’ll give it just under a cup of flour.  Then add in filtered water (not too much – just enough to bring it back to the same consistency that it was).  Stir well, and cover loosely.  Cultured foods do best kept in a dark place.  I keep mine in a cupboard while I’m using it regularly. If it’s out at room temperature – it needs to be fed no less than every other day.  If you’re not sure you can remember or want to bake that often – just keep it in the fridge.  Then, when you want to use it – take it out, feed it and it will be ready to use the next day.   As long as you take your starter out of the fridge once a month to feed it (let it bubble up for a day) it will stay alive!

Okay.  Back to the loaf we are baking.

Let your loaf sit out at room temperature for 12-24 hours, undisturbed. You’ll notice that the bread will rise quicker in the warmer months, and it will take longer when your kitchen is a bit cooler.  You will see when it’s ready – it will have risen, and there will be tiny bubbles that have formed in the dough.

To keep it simple – I’ve figured out that as long as I bake my sourdough in the afternoon or evening – I’ll be able to bake it the next day for breakfast, lunch or dinner. (It can sit a bit longer than 24 hours and be fine).

(NEXT DAY) – SHAPE LOAF

Dump your dough out onto a floured board or countertop, keeping it together as best you can.

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Next, pull the dough and fold it halfway over on one side, then the other (think, east then west).  Then, pull and fold north, then south.

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This loaf wasn’t too sticky, so I just used my hands.  Sometimes you’ll have better luck with the dough scraper.

Next, flip the loaf over so that the seams are on the bottom.  Then tuck and turn as you gently shape it into a loaf.

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Set your tea towel onto the plate, and dust it generously with flour. Lift your loaf onto the tea towel and sprinkle the loaf on top with more flour.  Gently fold the towel over the loaf (not tight – it will expand a bit and you don’t want it to stick).

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Let your loaf proof for another 45 minutes.  Preheat your oven to 500 degrees – about halfway through this rest period.  Make sure your dutch oven (with the lid) is preheating inside the oven.

BAKE LOAF

Now that the oven and pot are preheated to 500 degrees, your loaf has been resting for 45 minutes, you are ready to bake!  Gently fold back the tea towel and slide your hand in between the plate and the towel, to remove the loaf.  I do this over the sink so that some of the dusting flour doesn’t go all over the floor – but it still usually makes a bit of a mess.Image

Carefully open the oven with your other hand and remove the lid to the (very hot) dutch oven.  Flip the loaf upside down into the pot (the seams will now be on top) and cover it with the lid.

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Bake, covered for 25 minutes.

Next, remove the lid, and bake uncovered another 15 minutes until nice and brown.  Will says always bake it until it’s nice and brown (for a european-style thick crust) – he’s right.  Don’t chicken out and remove it too soon.

You may have to experiment with the length of baking time.  I am baking in high altitude (though I’ve baked it the exact same way in Arizona and it was perfect).  If you are at a lower elevation, perhaps try to bake yours for 20 minutes covered, and another 10 uncovered.  Also, adjust the time if you make a smaller loaf.   My sister tried hers on convection bake the first time (in Texas) and it burnt and stuck to the pan.  Don’t bake it on a convection setting.  Also, be sure to season your dutch oven before baking (even if it says it’s pre-seasoned).

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Will would have kept this loaf in 5 minutes more.

It looks amazing!  But there’s one LAST step…. it’s probably the hardest:

WAIT 15 MINUTES BEFORE CUTTING INTO IT.

I know, I know.  The aromas are wafting.  Everyone is excited.  The loaf looks beautiful.   The soup is ready.  But wait.  The steam is still cooking those moist inner layers, and the loaf will still be warm after you wait 15 minutes.  If you cut in too soon, the middle will be too soft.

Once you get the process down, you can start adding in herbs, garlic, sweet and tart things… the possibilities are endless.  Just remember – if you add dried things or seeds – that will absorb moisture – adjust the water by adding a bit more.  If you add in frozen berries or fresh apples, that will release moisture – so add a bit less.  Easy peasy.

You can start with using just the bread flour, too – it will yield an amazing, airy texture:

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I like using half whole wheat for the flavor and nutrition benefit.  As long as you use at least half bread flour, you’ll get nice rise.

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Emma making an olive garlic loaf

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Bella with her first loaf – blueberry vanilla cinnamon!

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ALRIGHT FOLKS.

I have a video for you.

It’s adorable – because my daughters are teaching and showing you how to bake sourdough. It’s not the best because their Mom took the video and edited it herself.  It’s small and not super clear because I took it on my phone – but I still thought you’d enjoy seeing it done in person.

I hope you enjoy trying this wonderful bread.  I am not exaggerating when I say that it’s probably my MOST favorite thing I’ve EVER learned to cook in the kitchen.  SO rewarding and lovely to look at.  Please let me know if you try it!

Cucina Povera – ‘the food of the poor’

The girls and I have been studying Italy lately.  We enjoy camping out on a subject and digging in deep.  It’s not hard (obviously) for me to dig deep into Italy.  We started with studying where our Italian relatives came from – learned about Ellis Island, then turned our attention to working on learning Italy’s 20 regions – and what makes them distinct.

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While searching for information about the Campania region – we stumbled upon this BBC series that has captured us, called ‘Two Greedy Italians’.  I was jumping up and down in my kitchen, actually – when I realized this show includes my favorite Italian chef – Gennaro Contaldo.  Remember him? I’ve posted a link to his video on how to make home made pasta.  I feel like he is family to me, somehow.   I just LOVE watching him cook, hearing him passionately talk about food.

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In this episode, these two crazy, hungry Italians share about how ‘poor man’s food’ – or ‘Cucina Povera’ came out of very difficult economic times in Southern Italy.  It led to food like pasta & pizza – when the more expensive food items were out of reach for most families.

We talked about Cucina Povera in the kitchen as we tried rolling out our own ‘fusilli’ like the 89 year old lady on the documentary had done.  (Wow, what a skill!  Ours took 4 hours, and didn’t look half as pretty as hers).  

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Our first attempt at making hand rolled ‘fusilli’ – a dried pasta

The next day, we talked about it some more.  I didn’t have ‘anything’ for lunch… but I DID have that dried pasta, and onion and garlic.  We picked some collards from the garden, sauteed them with onion, garlic and a tiny bit of anchovy for flavor.  I dumped in some cooked garbanzo beans and even threw in a leftover cooked sweet potato.  After the pasta was done, we tossed it with our sauteed mixture.  Longing for some Parmesan which I didn’t have… I remembered that Italian families who couldn’t afford cheese on their pasta would toast some stale bread crumbs to sprinkle on top, instead.

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We basked in the glory of that simple lunch.  All of our bellies were full – even though our meager pile of home made dried pasta had looked so small to begin with.

We can relate to Cucina Povera.  We live on a small business income – my hard working husband supporting the six of us.  Although we are so grateful that his work has stayed steady – there still can be gaps of several weeks when we have to make things stretch.  This week was one of them.  As I looked over the cabinets and fridge – I had to prioritize the bills that are due this week – and make some smart decisions about how to make what we have on hand  last until that next check comes.  I usually take lots of deep breaths and quietly pray for creativity.  This time, the lesson fit too well into our studies not to discuss it with the girls.

I order bulk items from a co-op (which allows me to get them at near wholesale price) so I usually have a good stash of wheat/kamut (for grinding into flour), a good selection of beans, dried corn and rice.   Then we have our large garden, which is nearly done at this time in November.  But we still are harvesting some items.  

It was fun to talk openly with the girls about it.  ‘OK ladies.  Let’s get creative.  We get to use ‘Cucina Povera‘ this week and figure out how to make some great meals with what we have.  Want to help me think? What do we still have in the garden to pick?  “Swiss chard!”  “Beets & carrots!” “Radishes, kale, collards”.  These cuties lit up as they helped me decide if we should do cooked beets, or slice them raw for a salad.  We talked about the fact that although we don’t have any meat on hand, we DO have a lovely full bag of bones and scraps for making soup stock.  We put those in a pot to simmer, and enjoyed the wonderful smell that it brought to the house.  

We did purchase a bag of potatoes, simmered onion and garlic and picked herbs from the garden to sautee in some fresh bacon grease we’d saved.  Nothing ‘povera‘ about those aromas.  A lovely potato & carrot soup emerged from our home that night.  Some of the beet tops were chopped and added at the end.  We smeared toasted bread (baked the day before) with a home made fennel pesto (from the recent trimmings of our fennel bush that would soon freeze) – put the crusty bread in the bottom of each bowl -and ladled the warm goodness on top (an idea that Gennaro & Antonio had inspired). We had a raw beet, radish, carrot & kale salad that had marinated in some vinegar while the soup cooked.  Of course, I thought about how good that soup would have been with some lovely sausage floating in between the potatoes, or how nice some Parmigiano Reggiano would be melting on top….

But that meal was delicious.

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 The girls slurped down every bite and went back for more, and husband said it was his favorite meal in weeks.  It sure DID get me in touch with the exact things that my Italian ancestors must have done.  Saving scraps, bits of fat, meat and things can stretch and give incredible flavor to humble food like potatoes and stale bread.  

It was interesting to hear some questions that the girls asked that day – “Mom, are we poor?”  They ask these kind of questions at different times.  Sometimes it’s “Are we rich?”  My answer is usually the same.  

“We are both.  And we are neither.  We can feel either way, depending on who we compare ourselves to.”  This is where our discussion floats to Haiti, The Philippines, Mexico or other places I’ve visited – and feeds my longing to take them to these places.  My favorite way to look at it is that “we have exactly what we need.”  

Although I’m just learning the word for it, Cucina Povera to me, is a good friend.  It has been with me for years.  It challenges me to think above my struggle and dig deep with creativity.  To stop comparing my life to the friend who never sweats when she has to buy groceries, but instead, remember my great-grandparents who were rewarded (as I am) with the deep satisfaction of making something really, really good out of ‘nothing’. 

Making Farfalle – a fun homemade pasta for kids

In a previous post, I shared how simple it is to make homemade pasta from home.  It doesn’t require much but a rolling pin, a large surface to roll the dough and a knife.

Making Farfalle (or bowtie pasta) is especially fun and really only requires one extra tool – a fluted pastry cutter.  You can get one online for around $5.

First, make your dough (simply crack a few eggs into a pile of flour on your counter or cutting board).  Mix well, knead until smooth, wrap with plastic and let it rest for 30 minutes.

After your dough has rested in the fridge, divide your ball of dough into 2 or 3 pieces and begin rolling it out.  Try to get it as thin as possible using the rolling pin.  Pick up the piece of dough and flip it over each time, sprinkling a bit of flour if it’s sticky.  Keep rolling it until it’s about as thin as a coin.  (If you have a pasta roller – you can use it to get it extra thin, but it’s not necessary).

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I love knowing that my great Grandma Scarpentii used this very rolling pin, board and pastry cutter. These tools are special treasures that connect me to my family’s past.

Once your pasta has been rolled out very thin, cut long strips with the pastry cutter – about 1 1/2 inch wide.

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Next, cut the strips into rectangle shapes, and pinch at the center. So simple and fun!

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Kids love to get their hands in on this part!

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Lay the Farfalle out gently and bring a large pot of salty water to a rolling boil.

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This ‘spider’ tool is wonderful to have around. We made our pasta in 2 batches this time (one of us had to leave early). It is so nice to keep the pot of boiling water going, and be able to throw more pasta in later.

Cook until just al dente, drain and serve with your favorite sauce.

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First Cucuzza Meal

Ever since last week’s momentous meal, I’ve been in my Italian happy place.

Early this spring, my cousin  (Kim Cucuzza) and I found a source for the seed that shares our Italian name.  My mother and Kim’s father are twins.  I’ve always loved my Mom’s maiden name: Cucuzza.  Pronounced (ga-gootz-ah).  I had known that the name meant some type of squash, but didn’t realize it was something unique – or that I could get it!!  I ordered the seed in April with giddy excitement, amazed that I would hopefully be able to grow this food with such a strong tie to my family name.

Starting this seed carefully in the basement, then transferring it outside once it was warm enough – I watched it every step of the way.

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Baby Cucuzza plant, with the vine first starting to reach upward.

Would our summer be hot enough?  I’d read that they grow beautifully in the hot, humid south…

Soon, it became evident that I didn’t have much to worry about.  The 3 plants I’d started took off!

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Before long it completely took over the whole side of the house!  But then, I began to worry.  Many of the small squash that began to grow would get a few inches long, and then start to rot and die.

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I began to think that I might not get any of this squash at all the first season.  I researched and it seemed it was due to a calcium deficiency in the soil….so I added bone meal to the soil, all the while being realistic that it might be too late.  I even tried a foliar spray to get calcium to those little babies.  The situation was dire!

Before long though, I soon saw one, then two, then three long Cucuzzas forming on the vine.  I read later that the male and female flowers do not open at the same time – making it very difficult for the fruit to set.  So it might not have been calcium issue at all.  At any rate – I had some Cucuzzas and I was happy!  I have been getting out there with a tiny paintbrush to hand pollinate them – I want to make sure I have enough squash growing for when my cousin Kim comes again to visit this fall.

It was SO fun watching these beauties appear.  They were peeking in my windows and grabbing onto the screens…

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When the day finally came to pick one, I was emotional.  For how many years had my famiglia been growing these wonderfully long almost silly looking squash in Italy?  Perhaps they farmed it and were named after it – or it was named after them?

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After picking this 3 foot long squash, we marched inside – uncorked some red wine and turned up the music.  The girls all had a turn being silly and pretending it was a baseball bat, and we made sure we all knew the words to this song:

Pretty cool, huh?  Even Louis Prima knew how special Cucuzza is!

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First, you peel the pale skin, and chop. Remove seeds (if too large) this one was perfect, no need to remove them.

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I made a very simple red sauce with onion, (lots of) garlic, red wine & basil and some Italian sausage.  I added the Cucuzza and cooked it for about 20- 25 more minutes until really soft and tender.

We served the sauce over Farfalle in my Grandma Scarpenti’s old stone bowl and served up each plate with some fresh grated Parmesan.  I told everyone to wait to take a bite until we all sat down together … this was not any ordinary meal and we had to stop and savor it together…

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first bite

Here’s the fun part… I’d assumed that the only unique thing about a Cucuzza was it’s odd size.  Once I cut it open and cooked it, I thought it would probably taste like a zucchini or any other mild squash.  (Many recipes I’d looked up said you could substitute zucchini for the Cucuzza).

BUT IT WAS DIFFERENT!!

All of us were so surprised to taste a bright tang with our first bite.  It has a bit of a citrus taste – very unique – which was such a pleasant surprise.  Even more wonderfully, I read that you also can eat the greens!!

The tender young leaves of a Cucuzza plant when harvested and cooked is called Tenerumi.  The leaves and flowers of this plant are totally unique.  They don’t have the prickly, hollow stems of a zucchini, and the flowers are a beautiful papery white – instead of yellow.  The leaves are soft, but I still didn’t believe they would actually taste good cooked…

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I picked just a couple of small leaves, chopped some garlic and added a glug of olive oil to the pan. I fried those chopped leaves and tasted some on top of some crusty bread.

Mama Mia! They were delicious!!

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Almost too much for one evening…

Since then, we’ve eaten Cucuzza breaded & fried, sauteed in white wine and we hope to stuff one this week.  I’m thrilled to have this family Italian squash and I plan to save the seeds and pass them on for my grandchildren to enjoy.

I plan to teach them that their Italian ancestors probably closed their eyes, moaned and cried when they ate too.

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Teaching Creativity for Haiti

I love discovering new places in the world.  This Spring I had the chance to experience a beautiful new culture.

Haiti is a lush island with beautiful mountains, clear ocean and beautiful people.

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I’ve shared about this trip in a previous post that you can read, here,   Here’s the gist: my cousin Amy asked if I would come and help with the gardens at their land, a place they’ve started to support mothers of malnourished children.  Amy and Jenn are two incredible young women who are empowering Mothers in Haiti through their organization - Second Mile Ministries.  They focus on helping mothers who are at a dangerous point of not being able to care for their children.  Because of poverty and illness, many women end up making the painful decision of giving  their babies up to orphanages – in order to save their babies lives.  In fact, most of Haiti’s orphans are not actually orphans at all.  They are babies who have mothers – mothers who want their children – but are completely desperate and have no options when their babies get sick or become malnourished.  As a mother myself, the thought of being at that point (having to decide whether to stay with my child and watch them die, or give them to someone else) is unfathomable.

The reality is, these are the decisions that many of the mothers in the world face.

Amy and Jenn watched this happen first hand (as they’d worked in the orphanage setting previously) and became impassioned to do something about it.  They had a dream of creating a place to help empower these mothers.

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With God’s help and a LOT of hard work, they’ve created this place!

At Second Mile Haiti, women are being given the chance to learn how to care & provide for their children.  They are being offered hope.   Not only are these babies getting the nourishing food and medical care that they need, the mothers are being taught how to keep their children healthy.  Amy & Jenn have hired other Haitians to teach them business skills, so that after the women go home – they will have the means to provide for their families in a new way.   At Second Mile they are very committed to hiring local Haitians to run the organization.  I was so amazed and inspired to see the way this is having an effect on the community.  Not only are these Moms being touched – the workers hired to care for the land, the gardens, the clinic – are all being employed and are being empowered with new job skills and a livelihood.

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Amy and Jenn with their first mom. These 2 ladies fundraised enough to purchase land, build 6 recovery homes, a clinic and more! SO inspiring.

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Joseph, Amma & Wesley – now employed by Second Mile

It was an incredible gift to be able to partner with them on the garden project – such a time of inspiration and fulfillment of personal dreams for me.

I am eager to bring the whole family back to help some more!  

My husband has skills which would be incredibly useful over there, and I’m excited for my girls to experience this culture also.  We hope to go for 3 weeks and get a lot done for them.  In a recent email to my cousin, asking if she still thinks we could be helpful, her reply was:  ” WE NEED YOU!!!”  Some of the potential items she listed that they could use further help with was:

  • further work on the gardens
  • teaching a composting model for the mothers to use at home
  • new experiments in composting at the land
  • new rabbit hutches
  • landscaping
  • build a bread oven
  • building shade areas
  • building seating/tables/workspaces
  • teaching sewing to the moms

I think they have enough projects to keep us quite busy for a few weeks!   We’ve got a savings account started, and in an attempt to continue to raise funds towards this goal…

I’ve decided to start some kids sewing classes in my home again.

I’ve taught sewing to young creatives in the past and I’m excited to do it again – this time to raise money to support a wonderful cause.

Do you know any young creative kids who would love to learn to sew, or be taught creative gift ideas that they can make this year?

Here are the details on the sewing class:

NEW KIDS CRAFTING/SEWING WORKSHOPS

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Young budding seamstresses working away! Love spending time with these ladies!

I will be holding classes at my home this fall for kids ages 10+ geared toward creating unique Christmas gifts.  We will be doing basic  projects (working toward intermediate level) that will incorporate:

  • machine sewing skills
  • hand-stitching
  • applique to personalize hand made items
  • using fabric to cover items & create gifts
  • simple silk screening
  • re-purposing used clothing into new gift items

Each student will need to bring their own sewing machine and thread/notions, but all other materials will be provided.

Cost: $20 per class

DAYTIME class:  Fridays 10 – 11:30am  Beginning Friday, Sept. 6th – for 8 weeks

WEEKEND class:  Saturdays 9 – 10:30am Beginning Sat. Sept 14th – for 8 weeks

Send me an email at sarahksailer@gmail.com if your child is interested in joining and I will let you know how much space is available.

Please spread the word here, locally (Loveland, CO area) if you would – and if any of you (non-locals) would like to contribute (getting the Sailers to Haiti) – you are welcome to donate via paypal by clicking the button here:

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Thanks everyone!!

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My beautiful cousin (and nurse) Amy – doing what she loves.
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Joseph, myself and Wesley in front of the first compost bin at Second Mile.

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Amma and I. Amma is a neighbor and head gardener at Second Mile. A wise, kind and humble man.

Award winning simple salsa!

My hubs tells me I shouldn’t share this recipe.  He wants it to stay ‘in the family’ …

It’s been shared with friends and family already, though – and it’s such a super-delicious and easy recipe … what can I say – I’m feeling generous.  ;)

Here’s the story.

My brother in law Armando’s mother Maria made a spectacular tostada spread for my sister’s graduation party several years back.  Being an authentic Spanish-speaking family… it was a wonderful experience (taste buds included)!

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I was enthralled by the simple red sauce that his mother put on the tostadas, and asked Armando to translate – “How did you make this amazing sauce?  It’s SO good! ”  I was expecting to hear a long-drawn out process of slowly letting the tomatoes cook and simmer… adding secret spices etc…

Instead, with a smile, my brother in law translated back to me “It’s called El Pato.  Look for a small can in the Mexican food aisle with a duck on it!”

I was amazed!

I began to experiment from then on with the magical El Pato.  You can find this product in nearly EVERY grocery store’s Hispanic Foods aisle.

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On it’s own, its a bit spicy… but it adds the PERFECT amount of heat to a medium salsa .  Here is our favorite salsa recipe that came from those beginnings:

Now, I will admit there is a compromise in this recipe.

I typically only purchase canned goods with BPA-free lining because of the health risks involved.  That means I soak my beans (saves money as well as improves digestibility), use frozen corn instead of canned… so really the only canned items that I purchase are  tomatoes and Coconut Milk.  Muir Glen Organics has a BPA free lined can, and so does Native Forest Organics (for Coconut Milk).

But, if you’re up for ‘tainting’ your otherwise pure & organic ingredients a bit… this would be the time to go for it.

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SARAH’S SIMPLEST (not perfectly pure) SALSA 

  • 1 large can whole tomatoes
  • 1 can El Pato spicy tomato sauce (green or yellow can)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro (or a large handful)

Empty contents of both cans into food processor.  Grab approx. half of the bunch (or a large handful) of cilantro and throw it into the food processor.  Pulse until cilantro is blended in, but not totally pureed. You want a bit of texture.

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Chop onions by hand (important step) into a small dice.  Add these to food processor and pulse just a few times to incorporate the onion.  If you add the onion and puree it in – the onion flavor will be too strong.

That’s about it!

Of course, there are many ways to add or enhance this salsa – fresh corn, jalapeno are just two of the ways you can change it up and have fun with it.

Dig in with your favorite chips, blend it into avocado for a heavenly guac, or top these fabulous Carnitas tacos with it!

I’ve had friends win salsa contests with this recipe – and it’s always a hit wherever I bring it.  Hope you enjoy!

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I shared this Pork Carnitas recipe on the fabulous Plan To Eat blog.  Get that recipe here.

The important role of animals on our Urban Homestead

Every year on our little micro-farm brings new knowledge.  Most of the things we’ve learned have come from making mistakes, and trying again.

We added animals to our homestead even before we dug up the lawn and began growing our own food.  Since my husband and I both had grown up raising chickens, we started our first flock early.

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It was only later that we realized how very beneficial it is to incorporate animals into any food growing operation.  Here are the reasons why we love having animals on our homestead:

  • They provide us with a constant supply of fertilizer for the garden (by turning food scraps and yard waste into food for your garden).

Every week,(ideally) the chicken coop is raked out, and the chicken manure and bedding is dumped into the compost pile. Chicken manure is ‘hot’ and cannot be used added directly to the garden until it has composted sufficiently.  Having our chickens in with the compost pile is an ideal situation – as the chicken manure heats up the pile, adding extra beneficial bacteria to break down the yard and food scraps.  The chickens scratch through the pile, eating the bugs and worms that are attracted to the decomposing material.  The chickens benefit from eating the fresh yard and kitchen scraps, as well as the protein-rich bugs for added nutrition.  The compost gets turned or aerated every month or so, and after about 4-6 months, we are able to add the rich, dark crumbly compost to our garden for the boost that keeps our plants thriving.

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Rabbits are another excellent source of manure.  Unlike chickens, their waste can be added directly to the garden, so there is no waiting on the poop to compost before you can add it to your gardens. (read more here on why rabbit manure is the best.) Adding a worm composting bin directly below the rabbit hutch is another wonderful way to reap benefits from animals.  Worm castings (vermicompost) is a highly desirable form of fertilizer that works especially well for seedlings.  I am hoping to master this in time for next Spring’s seed starts.  Right now our worms are composting kitchen and yard scraps in a rubbermaid bin, but soon we will also have some underneath one of the rabbit hutches.

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  • They do an excellent job of scratching and tilling a garden bed after one crop is removed.

Although I don’t let our chickens out to scratch in my garden during the growing season, I like to let them get in and scratch for bugs after I remove a row of vegetables.

  • They provide us with a steady supply of fresh, healthy eggs & meat.

Eggs are – of course – one of the main benefits of keeping chickens.  There is no comparison to the pale yellow grocery store eggs from hens that never see the light of day (or any green or living thing to munch).  Hens that scratch for bugs, eat green things and have fresh air produce healthy eggs with dark yellow/orange yolks full of omega 3 fatty acids, which are essential to good health.  Most hens (during the warmer months) will lay about one egg per day – sometimes every other day.  We have a flock of 19 hens and get about 12-14 eggs per day.  (My daughter is now selling some to the neighbors!)  If you are looking to save money on eggs by keeping chickens, the math just doesn’t add up.  Look at them as being partners with you in a sustainable garden & home.  They do their job to keep everything going.

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Once our hens are past laying age (they only lay consistently for about 2 years), we butcher them.  We also raise our rabbits for meat.   We are still learning about how to keep our rabbits producing throughout the year.  So far, we’ve only had litters of bunnies in the summer months.  Rabbit is one of the most sustainable forms of meat you can raise.  The amount of space to raise them is small, they are quiet, eat lots of common greens found in many yards (though caution must be taken – some things are toxic to rabbits), and they reproduce quickly – often with large litters.  One of our does just had a litter of 6 – and in 4-5 months they will be at full weight, ready to head off to ‘freezer camp’.  The meat is delicious and mild tasting, very low in fat – and one full sized rabbit will feed our family for one meal.

The best thing as far as the girls are concerned is – we will always have a steady supply of baby bunnies to play with.  Once they are full-grown  (and not so easy to cuddle) they become our dinner and the excitement builds for the next litter of bunnies to be born.  I could write a whole post about how healthy it is for people to become more connected to the meat they eat… but I will say that our girls are learning to respect the lives of animals, where their food comes from, and the value of the process.  For me, it’s taught me to value the time and care it takes to raise an animal for food.  It should never be normal to pay $.99/pound for meat.  If we get used to paying so little for our meat, we will only continue to encourage the disastrous way that animals are raised (in CAFO operations) which is devastating our planet, making the animals (and humans who eat them) sick, as well as treating these beautiful creatures like objects, instead of valuing them and treating them with care.  Here’s a link to the place we purchase our meat from locally, and a site that will direct you to local sustainably raised meat in your area. (ahem… deep breath. rant complete.)

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  • They teach our children about responsibility & hard work.

I wish I could say that our girls skip with delight when it’s time to clean out cages or coops… but I would be lying.  We definitely get the whining and dragging of feet when these routine chores are to be done.  They are used to the daily routines of watering and feeding, collecting eggs – counting, recording amounts and washing them.   Selling eggs and taking their animals to fair are all experiences that are preparing them for the responsibilities of life.  Losing hens to a fox because the coop wasn’t locked up tight – or waking up at night to screaming rabbits from a cage left unlocked (yes, they do scream when in danger) is no fun at all – but important to learn from, nonetheless.  Helping to pluck chickens, placing the doe into the buck’s cage to mate, researching ways to use the beautiful rabbit fur pelts… these are all adventures that may not be the average American child’s normal… but in these ways – we are glad to be a bit abnormal!

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Thriving italian cucumber in hanging trough

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Emma showing her rabbit at fair

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marinating rabbit meat, ready for the grill

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Home made pasta – no fancy tools required…

I dream of traveling to Italy.  The land of my maternal heritage holds such a strong personal draw for me.  Italians find immense pleasure in growing, cooking & eating food.   We delight in the process – and seem to value knowing where each ingredient comes from.  In my own imagination… all other Italians can relate to stopping after that first bite of food (that which you took part in growing, cooking & serving) and getting a bit teary eyed at the wonder of it all.   Below is a picture of my maternal grandmother – Marina Scarpenti – standing proudly in front of her green beans.  And me in my garden, the first year we dug up the lawn.

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I do not have many Italian relatives left with whom I can learn from.  I want to visit Italy – see the villages and towns that mia famiglia came from -and meet some of them.  I don’t need to do the typical tourist thing… I hope to find a sweet, thick-ankled Italian mama who will let me sit in her kitchen and watch her cook.  Someday…

Until then, I find great joy in creating simple dishes that remind me of something Grandma Scarpenti might have made.

Home made pasta is an experience.  

Why go to the trouble?  Because it is completely different than dried pasta… and for me – the process of making it from scratch is romantic – and it connects me to my roots.

The process is also quite simple.  All you need are eggs and flour.

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In Italy – they use Tipo ’00′ flour – which is very finely ground.  In my local searching – Bread flour is comparable.  It’s very finely ground.  Also, blend in some Durum Wheat Semolina.  This contains high levels of gluten to make it elastic.

I like to make a ‘well’ on my cutting board with the flour.

Then, crack in some beautiful fresh eggs.

Begin mixing together.  I use my pastry scraper at first…

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But eventually, you have to get your hands into it…

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Mix and knead for a few minutes,

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Until it’s nice and smooth

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Wrap it in some plastic to keep from drying out – and let rest for 30 minutes.  It needs to rest so that you can roll it out.  Otherwise, it will want to shrink back up, and will be difficult to roll thin.

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After it has rested, begin rolling.

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You want to get it as thin as you can.  I pick mine up, flip it over, dust it with a bit of flour if it’s still sticky and keep rolling.

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Then, take your large sheet of nice, thin pasta and roll it up gently.  Taking care not to squish it.

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With a sharp knife – cut your pasta to the desired thickness.

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Gently unroll each piece and set it aside to wait while the water boils.

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Little people love this part…

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Add some friends, and it’s done in a flash!  (we made a huge batch this evening!)

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Bring a BIG pot of water to a boil while you are making your pasta.  Salt the water generously.  It should taste salty.  This is important.   You will only need to boil this fresh pasta for a couple of minutes.  Taste it and don’t over-cook!

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Here is a quick lunch I made the other afternoon when I didn’t know what to make.  I was out of a lot of things… but I DID have eggs and flour.  This batch was made with bread flour and (freshly ground) whole wheat flour.  I sauteed some garlic in some bacon drippings, then added chopped broccoli leaves (and a few florets) from the garden – salt and pepper and some grated hard cheese… perfecto!    Simple yet delicious.

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If you want to watch another Italian making pasta – you’ll love watching Gennaro Contaldo make pasta dough.   And seeing how quickly he can roll it out.

If you have dietary restrictions – just adjust the flour type you use.  The other night, I made three different pasta doughs to suit my guests.

Traditional Pasta Dough:  

  • 3 Eggs
  • 2 cups bread flour  and 1/2 cups semolina flour

Gluten-free Pasta Dough:

  • 3 Eggs
  • 2 and 1/2 cups Rice flour, Quinoa (or corn) flour  (I added a bit of arrowroot powder – though it’s not really necessary)

Egg-free Pasta Dough:

  • 2 and 1/2 cups Semolina & bread flour
  • enough water & drizzle of olive oil to bring the dough together

I will admit – the traditional recipe was the best.  But I love the fact that it’s possible to adjust things for those in your life whom you love.  Everyone loves to twirl up a bite of pasta.  I’d love to know if you give this a try!

Buon appetito!

My favorite use-up-the-leftovers meals – part one – Frittata

I’m not the best planner.

I was humbled and a bit nervous when I was asked last month, to be  a contributing writer  for the wonderful website  ‘Plan to Eat’.

I am thrilled to be a part of it, and I love the concept (I hope to eventually try out their amazing meal-planning software.)

There is such truth to the fact that if you don’t plan to eat, you won’t eat well.

I suppose I do some general planning each week when I buy meat, fruits and veg  for the basic layout of my meals.  The thing is, I live for the spontaneous.  I dread routine.  I love the challenge of opening the fridge, scoping out the chilly landscape – and creating.

The downside to my planning weakness is that  I usually end up out of clear ideas – 3 days too early… (my shopping day is Friday).   This is when I have to really dig deep.  Most of the time, this is when the magic happens.

The other day, I had a friend (and her 5 kiddos) over.  We chatted away the morning while our kids ran amuck and before long it was lunchtime.

Lunch is another hard thing for me.

I never plan for lunch.

I usually depend on my Italian make-too-much-food-at-every-meal problem/blessing to cover our lunches.  It usually does the job.

On this particular day, I lucked out.  I had my daily sourdough loaf (if you slice it thin and give it a quick toast it stretches far), and two leftover meals from the nights prior:  Egg Frittata (a crust-less quiche) and Meatloaf.

Both of these make fabulous cold sandwiches.

They also pair wonderfully with my home made milk mayonnaise and some Dijon mustard.  I topped the the Egg Frittata sandwich with sauerkraut  and some cracked pepper – and wow!  Heaven.

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When I look  more closely at these two wonderful things:  Frittata and Meatloaf, I realized – they are also my two favorite use-up-the-leftovers meals.

Let me explain how.  I’ll start with the Frittata.

When I made this particular Frittata for dinner, we were out of mostly everything…but we always have eggs.

I had some random bits that needed eating.  Some stale-ish roasted potatoes (not enough for all of us to eat for lunch) and another small-ish helping of leftover asparagus.   I was plum out most other desirables  (usually I love to put in some fresh zucchini or roasted red peppers) but… it gets worse… I was OUT OF ONIONS.

Even when I’m out of all other fresh produce, I usually NEVER let myself run out of onions (and garlic).  I buy a lot of them… for this Italian – it makes me a little shakey just to talk about it…

BUT – I pushed on.  Thank goodness for Spring garlic chives.  I ran out to the garden, clipped off a nice large handful to use instead.

Never be afraid to improvise!

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These green tops of the garlic plant are great to use in place of green onions (they have a garlic flavor). Just don’t cut the whole top off, just pick off one outer leaf at a time.

Garlic chives went into the cast iron pan with some oil, salt, then the other bits: (cut up asparagus, and potatoes).  I seasoned generously with salt and pepper and moved to the next step…

Here’s how to make one from start to finish:

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USE-UP-THE-LEFTOVERS FRITTATA

  • A glug of olive oil or  (free-range) pork/bacon fat (read here if you don’t believe it’s healthy!)
  • Onions and/or garlic (any type)
  • Your favorite seasoning (or whatever you have on hand) dried or fresh herbs, etc. Don’t forget salt.
  • Fresh Vegetables or Meat (this is when using whatever you have is great)
  • Cheese (a handful of any kind works) - not totally neccessary if you don’t have it
  • Splash of milk – more milk makes it more moist and custard-like, less makes it firmer (I use raw milk, but I’ve used coconut too) – not necessary if you dont’ have it
  • About a dozen eggs (use more or less depending on the size of your skillet)

Pre-heat your oven to 350.

Start by making sure your skillet (cast iron is what I use) is well oiled.  Add your onions and garlic and cook until softened.  Add herbs/seasonings.  Add any vegetables that need to cook through. (if using raw potatoes or raw meat like sausage, make sure they are mostly cooked before adding egg.)

If using leftover cooked veggies, add them just before adding the egg, so not to over-cook.

Whisk eggs, milk & cheese together in a bowl.  While the skillet is still on the stove top (with the veggies/add-ins) pour in your egg mixture.  Allow egg to  fill the pan, (tip slightly if you need to distribute the egg) but don’t stir at all.  Turn off stove top, and carefully lift your skillet into the pre-heated oven.  (You obviously can’t use a skillet with a plastic or rubber handle.)

Keep an eye on your Frittata and check after 10-15 minutes.  Take it out when the center is firm and it no longer jiggles in the middle when you shake the skillet.

Slice and serve, sprinkled with sea (or kosher) salt.  Add a salad on the side for a full meal!  I think it tastes even better the next day cold.  Great for breakfast with some toast & honey, or as I shared earlier, on a sandwich.

Here are some of my favorite combos (usually the simpler the better!)

potato & roasted red pepper

sausage & onion

bacon & leek

zucchini & fresh fennel

jalapeno & cilantro

onion & herb

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Pictured above:  jalapeno & cilantro frittata topped with salsa and fresh homemade yogurt!

Part 2 will be how meatloaf-ish meals can be another great place for certain leftovers…

-Sarah

Freezer Scrap Soup Stock!

Having a world traveler or two in your life is essential.  We have one of those.

Ours is Will.  Having cycled through Southeast Asia, Africa and parts of Europe, his travel experiences have given him a wealth of stories as well as incredible resourcefulness.

He tells a story of being in Africa.  He always had a small crowd of onlookers as he prepared his meals and set up camp.  One day, after packing up his things to go, he saw some children pick up some of the papery garlic skins he had discarded.  They took them up to their mouths and sucked on them to savor whatever flavor they could draw out.  “This struck me”, he said. “That there is still so much flavor to be found in food scraps we so often toss out”.

I love a good story behind an idea.  This idea is what I call ‘Freezer Scrap Soup Stock’.  My name for it might not be appealing, but the idea is simple and brilliant.  Ever since Will shared the idea – I try not to let those bits of flavor leave my kitchen without drawing out as much goodness as possible.

Here’s the scoop: Grab a plastic bag (a used produce bag works fine) the next time you are chopping vegetables.

Make friends with it.  It will live in your freezer for awhile.

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Start pulling out your freezer bag whenever you chop veggies. Collect all of the scraps (normally headed for the compost bin or chicken yard) and keep them in your freezer bag.  You will be amazed at how quickly the bag will fill up. That half of onion that was a bit brown (but not moldy), the rubbery carrot that sat in the fridge too long – the parsley in the fridge that is a little old… throw them ALL in!

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(Don’t worry if they start to get a bit icy in there – it will all melt off).

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Once your bag fills up, just dump all of the contents into a large stock pot, add salt & pepper and maybe a bay leaf if you’re so inclined… (not necessary if you’ve got lots of herb stems already in the bag) and let it simmer for several hours. If you are a crock pot type of person – throw it in there.

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After a few hours, your collection of almost-tossed-out veggies will have let go of their flavor and given you a beautiful thing:  stock.  (since it’s seasoned it is technically broth).

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Freeze this lovely liquid into smaller containers – and you can guarantee you’ll have a super flavorful soup or sauce when you use it.

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Collect any: onion & garlic bitscarrot endscelery topszucchini ends, swiss chard stemsstems from fresh herbs …  in your freezer bag!  I typically avoid scraps from the cabbage family (not a big fan of that flavor in my stock) though you could try it to see if you like it.

Items to avoid: NEVER use any green parts from vegetables in the nightshade family (tomato, pepper, potato) as these plant parts contain toxic elements.  This means – avoid the stems or leaves of bell peppers, tomatoes as well as potatoes with any sprouts on them or green color.  Never use any vegetable with black mold or any old/rotten meat. 

I also save and freeze meat bones from our meals (roasted chicken, pork chop bones, etc.) to add flavor to the stock.  You would be amazed, however – that just the veggie scraps alone – plus salt – give a wonderful result.

Your compost (or chickens) won’t mind that you pulled some of the flavor out of the veggies first.  After I’ve drained my stock – I toss the cooked veg into the compost!

A parting note from our wise friend Will:

“waste is a relatively new concept…”

Ordinary World Changer. HAITI, here I come!

My cousin Amy is a world changer.

I have been watching from afar, as she and her amazing friend Jenn (both under 26) developed a passion for the people of Haiti – and have raised funds and started their own ministry:  Second Mile Haiti – a home for malnourished children and their mothers.

Amy is gentle, compassionate & a skilled nurse, and though I haven’t met Jenn yet – I can tell that she is a visionary with awesome administrative & leadership skills.

Jenn too, is a world changer.

They seem to be a dynamic duo and the evidence is in the incredible progress they’ve already made.  They have already purchased land in Cap Hatien, Haiti and have nearly completed finishing the buildings on the property:  a clinic, education building, recovery homes, apartment – all within 17 months of solidifying their vision.  AMAZING.

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When I say I’ve been watching from afar for the past few years of my cousin’s life…  I’ll be honest – I’ve been watching with LONGING from afar.  I had done shorter term trips to Brooklyn, NY & Mexico trips as  a teen.  I met my hubby just before leaving on a 6 month trip that included Korea and The Philippines. When Jeremiah and I were first married, we traveled together to Indonesia to stay with a friend.  Back then, before having kids of our own – we felt a tug to involve our lives ( in some way/form) in overseas work.  And later, it was a big part of our decision to homeschool.  We’ve dreamed of raising our kids part of the year (somehow) in a developing country.  We’ve wanted them to  see that this American life we lead is not the norm for most of the world.   We want them to be touched by the beauty of people in different cultures.  With people who live with poverty and yet are full of  joy.

In moving to Colorado to buy a home and start our little family – we did not know what we were in for:  years of intense job struggles, having FOUR daughters, starting and failing at a small retail business, deciding to homeschool, beginning a life of church-in-the-home-and-whole-of-life,  struggling with health issues through diet & natural remedies.  We’ve been in Colorado for 10 years now and it has been a ride.  Those old dreams of travel and purpose faded to the background as we focused on surviving.

Part of my spiritual journey has been my own struggle for significance.  I lived with a deep fear that unless I tried very hard, my life might not matter.  I was anxiously looking for ways in which I could make a BIG difference in the world.  I didn’t want my life to be ‘ordinary’.  I wanted to do something important with it.

I felt frustrated that in my Mommy routine,  my ‘big dreams’ of overseas impact seemed worlds away.  Instead, I was living with small business debt – struggling to buy groceries, drowning in diapers and laundry and feeling like a failure in many ways.   In the midst of all this, I was not alone.  And my struggles were not for nothing.

Our marriage was being strengthened through hardship, humbling circumstances and lessons in forgiveness.  I was being taught how to be thrifty and resourceful with little.  The financial and health struggles led to an unexpected love for gardening, I never knew I had.  I’ve developed a deep love for my little neighborhood community here in Loveland.  I do lead a very un-ordinary life! (I grow food, eat lots of fermented things, butcher my own meat, homeschool, and experience ‘church’ in the home)… this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind…  and yet it has opened up for me a life that I LOVE.

Eventually, I’ve begun to embrace where I’m at – instead of wishing I was somewhere more significant. Instead of striving for a ‘better, more ‘significant’ life – I’m relaxing.  Trusting  that the passions and gifts God has put uniquely inside of me are there for a purpose.  I’m learning to love the job I’ve been given as a Momma, Lover, Food-Cultivator & Educator right here in Colorado.  I can admit something:

I am a world changer, right here, today.

I am an ordinary world changer with a God who specializes in making beautiful things out of hard things.

I am God’s beloved child.  And so is everyone else.

I’m changing the world as I raise my daughters, love my neighbors, show up for my friends and continue to keep my eyes open for opportunities where my passions and gifts can be spent on the needs of the world.

Last month… Amy emailed me.

She told me that they (the Haiti world-changers) had been reading my blog.  She said they were inspired and wondered if I would want to come out and help them with food gardening/homesteading ideas for the land there.

I almost peed my pants.

I thought of those dreams of overseas travel (pushed down deep, the ones I had named unrealistic & unattainable).  The financial battles and handfuls of daughters and piles of laundry and unorganized drawers and mountains of dishes had not completely buried them.  Uncovering those old dreams beneath these 10 years of life… they look different.  Maybe because I am different.

So I’m heading to Haiti in a little over a week!   I’m going by myself for 10 days – (to soak it all up, help with what I can, make plans, share ideas).  I’m also stopping in Florida at ECHO to view and learn from their tropical education food gardens.  (excited squeal)  I have SO much I hope to learn.

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Second Mile will be housing 12 mother and (malnourished) child pairs at a time at the recovery homes on their property.  They will be teaching the women job skills, health care knowledge (to care for their own babies).  They want to have a large food garden with animals to supply as much of their own food needs as possible, as well as sample small home gardens for the women to learn creative ways to grow their own food and become as self-sufficient as possible.

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I hope to help by getting my hands dirty,  jump-starting ideas on composting & soil prep, roof-top gardening, gardening in small spaces, vertical-trellising, small livestock production and how it works into the garden.

Once I get home, we will continue to pray and plan for more trips with the family – however the need & opportunity arises.   I want to return with my other half (who is the practical skill behind my dreams) and our girls at some point.  This is a new adventure for us – but SUCH a fitting one.

Amy, Jenn & I could use your  help.  I thought I would enlist a few more of you ordinary world changers…

They have been busy raising funds for buildings, solar electricity, medical supplies and it’s been amazing to see funds come in.   They are currently low on funds for their food gardens and it would be amazing if we could raise some extra money so that we might get started on some projects while I am there.

If you would like to be a part of this, please click here.   Click on DONATE NOW and add in the comments that you want to donate to the food gardens.  So simple!!

We also have big dreams for our own homestead in Loveland.  We will be partnering with an incredible friend and gifted neighbor to add a wood-fired bread oven to our property.  We hope to add rain water barrels and a  Tilapia pond in the near future.  Our vision for our home is that it would be a helpful place and inspiration for our local community as a learning garden, sustainability center and resource.  I have dreams of teaching classes at my home on composting, soil management, food preservation and cooking someday.  Now that we are beginning this adventure in Haiti – I can see how our experiments in sustainability may be a wonderful asset to share with them as well.

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We each have our own unique passions and skills to share with the world. We are all ordinary world changers!

Thanks for being a part of my journey and for doing your part to offer yourself to the world in your own beautiful way!

Excited,

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The Birth of the Sailer Urban Homestead – Part Two

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Planting a dormant seed… and watching and waiting for it to burst out of the soil is a powerful experience.  My seedlings down in the basement quickly became ‘our babies’ and our attention to them was rewarded by little peeks … Continue reading

Day after St. Patty’s Day leftovers..

I am not Irish.  But who doesn’t love an excuse to throw a party with great friends, good food and Guinness?  This year was a last minute one… we’d planned on a simple family dinner, and purchased a small-ish corned beef roast from Whole Foods (not thrifty) the day before.  After reading up on the preservative ‘saltpeter’ or sodium nitrate – which is added to normal corned beef – (finding that it is also used in explosives) – I had planned to try and cure my own.  There is a salt brine that I had read about - (see here) - but I was not going to have time to cure it for a week… so the spendier Whole Foods one was our next best bet.  

Sunday morning – last minute, we had extra friends who wanted to join.  We didn’t have time to go up to WF again… so we decided to break down and buy some nitrate-filled roasts to cook, too.  We’d feed the natural beef roast to the kids (spare their pure little bodies of the chemical) and take one for the team.  It was fun to compare and contrast the flavors of the natural vs. the nitrate-filled meat.   I was worried that the natural one would pale in comparison – but it was great!  (though I did add some more pickling spice, allspice & garlic to the cooking water to make sure it was flavorful enough).  Corned beef takes 5-6 hours to cook, so we started them in the morning with the carrots and potatoes in the pot.  Then, I like to add the chunks of cabbage at the last minute so they don’t get too soggy.  A lovely plate of corned beef & vegetables served up with a selection of mustards, a big green salad and a tall glass of Guinness = St. Patty’s Heaven.

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What I wanted to quickly share today, though – was a recipe to use up the leftovers!  We usually never have much meat left… but I always have lots of cooked potatoes, carrots and cabbage.  Since they’ve been simmered in water to cook, they are a bit too soft to fry up in a pan – and in year’s past – they hadn’t been a favorite leftover.

I had planned to make a potato and leek soup sometime that week – but had used up all of my potatoes for the Corned Beef & Cabbage the night before.  

We were gifted a BlendTec blender by some dear friends that same night of the party (insert angels singing the hallelujah chorus here!!) so I was excited to put it to use.  I simply took my cold, cooked leftovers: potatoes, carrots, cabbage – and pureed them quickly in my new toy!  A new soup emerged:

Leek, Butternut & St. Patty’s Day Leftover Soup!

  • 3 large leeks – washed & sliced
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic
  • fresh and/or dried herbs (I used fresh marjoram & dried herbs de provence), chili flakes, s&p
  • 8-10 cups chicken stock
  • 1 whole butternut squash – peeled & cubed
  • a splash of our favorite hot sauce for added ‘umami’

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I started the soup by slicing 3 large leeks and a generous amount of garlic and sauteeing with a combo of fresh and dried herbs, salt & pepper.   After about 10 minutes, I added my frozen chicken stock (previously made) – and a whole butternut squash – (peeled & chopped into small chunks).  After the chicken stock melted in the pot of leeks & squash, I added the pureed St. Patty’s leftovers.  I let it simmer on the stove for a few hours and then tasted.  It needed a bit more salt – and (what my favorite cooking show calls ‘umami’ – it’s that added flavor component that can kick up a dish’s appeal) … so I added a splash of Pepper Plant.  The soup was creamy & flavorful – and it was a fun way to use up some soggy leftovers.

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We ate it for lunch again today… tasted even better. (note the leftover egg in the background that my 4 year old wouldn’t finish from breakfast – now it’s a prelude to lunch!) We are anti-food-waste around here…

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Good to the last drop!

So … next year I will plan better – take a try at curing my own corned beef – and invite a heap of friends…  it will be fun having an easy go-to soup to make the next day, as well!

Trash to treasure. Our reclaimed wood adventures…

Something I dearly love about my hubby is that he loves old stuff.

When we met, the only vehicle he owned was his rusted out, old ’67 International pickup. I loved it.  I remember admiring his small corner collection of old records, scouting a vintage Hawaiiana print on his wall, admired an old tablecloth of his grandmother’s on the table at his place.   My momma used to work in antiques and was forever finding treasures, which my whole life I’ve been surrounded with.

Jeremiah and I both love one-of-a-kind items with a story to tell.  One of our favorite dates is walking through thrift stores together, antique malls, hitting up a garage sale or a good flea market… in fact – he will even tell me “slow down! We’re going to miss something..” if my meandering pace is too swift and makes him feel rushed.  This year – two highlights of our anniversary date were collecting driftwood at our favorite lake, and going to the recycle yard to collect discarded fence paneling.

…which brings me to THIS post!

A couple of years ago - I fell in love with vegetable gardening – and Jeremiah got behind my dream of growing as much produce as possible on our (less than) 1/5 of an acre lot.  We start seeds in the basement under grow lights every winter, now – and since last February – I get to transfer them to my very own greenhouse in the early spring!

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One of the most exciting parts of watching him build this greenhouse – was seeing the way that the materials for the project came together.  We are often not in the position to just go right out and purchase a lot of the things we desire – (even if they will eventually save us money).

We dream.

Clip from magazines.

Sit on the floor at the bookstore with a stack of home and garden books and say “ooh” a lot.

But little by little – as we wait and watch and trust… I can see how God loves to blow our socks off by providing even more creative ways to give us little pieces of our dreams.  Small and big gifts that speak love to my heart.

This greenhouse came together so beautifully – as the skills that he has acquired through years of struggle and hard work – worked their magic alongside traded windows from a dear neighbor, reclaimed doors, hardware, collected bricks and yes… some new material from the big box stores.  I absolutely love the way it turned out…. but my FAVORITE part is the inside walls.  We used wood from discarded cedar fence paneling.

feb mar 2012 199Because a greenhouse needs optimum light for plants to grow, we decided it was best to whitewash the wonderful old distressed wood.

It was such a fun project and made us start to think… what ELSE can we use this (free) wonderful recycled lumber for??DSC_0013

Jump ahead one year.  Our family of 6 is busting the seams of our little 1100 square foot house.  We decide to try and ‘finish’ one section of our attic … just to make a fun extra play room for the girls.  We found an old window we loved at our local recycled building supply store.  That went in last summer.  Getting the floor in was SO exciting!  We threw a rug up there and some white lights – and the girls would go up and play games and peek out the window into the backyard.

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Once the walls were framed in, we could start to picture how the room would feel.   We were excited to find that recycled denim insulation was actually a bit cheaper than the horrible-to-install fiberglass type, so we used this for the walls.   As the room began to take shape – we could tell that this attic was the next perfect place for our reclaimed wood.

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We paneled both ends of the room with the cedar fence panels (just like the greenhouse).

Don’t you love how I say ‘we’… when I clearly mean ‘he’?

After searching online, we saw a great idea  - to put small shelves into the wall’s paneling – so we (he) put those in on the window (west) wall.

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Once both walls were paneled, we used an idea we’d found in a book where they used trim to cover the seams of the drywall in an old cabin.  This creates a seamed/paneled look while avoiding the time consuming step of tape, mud & texturing the walls.  We had extra floor space to the south, so we were also able to add a long storage space with doors to store sleeping bags, toys and such…DSC_0085

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I love the little details like the rounded window shelf that he added.

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Next step – white-washing…

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The empty, but finished room at Christmas time. Such a fun play space.

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The room with the doors to the storage area.

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Other end of the room with the trap door entrance.

The room turned out to be so cute – we finally decided to make it into a bedroom.  It has added so much room to our home – and our two littlest girls can walk around upright for now – so it works for them!

Here are a few pictures of the room as it is now… beds and all!  Ruby and Gia feel like the luckiest girls around, with their special attic bedroom!

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The attic ladder is inside of the closet. Ruby and Gia’s old room (very tiny) is now our office/school room!

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Come on up to my room! … (entry area and stairs still a bit unfinished…)

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Gia at the top of the stairs.

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I love my new room!

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This little boxed wall around the entrance helps make the entrance spot safer, but the girls all know that it’s still a place to be very cautious!  Babies/toddlers are not safe without constant supervision up here.

So this is how we got creative and made a small house a little bigger.  Sometimes when you’ve got a bunch of kids, you’ve just got to put them up in the attic!

The birth of the Sailer Urban Homestead – Part One

When my hubby and I purchased our home 10 years ago, we did not realize then – what our 1/5 of an acre lot could become. We were just thrilled to have purchased a spot where our girls would be able to play and run.  We could not foresee rising green bean trellises, spreading squash forests, ducks waddling, litters of baby bunnies in the spring, or a greenhouse brimming with veg.

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This adventure in growing our own food grew up organically, you could say.

Our own family health issues led us on the journey of discovering how intricately FOOD is linked with GOOD HEALTH.  Once this had permeated our thinking, organic produce became a priority.  We’d grown small gardens with a few tomatoes and beans here and there each year (which was a wonderful beginning) but it never amounted to enough to make a difference in our grocery budget.  And a difference is exactly what we needed.  My husband began a new way of eating (no carb, no sugar) for the management of his own health – and I realized we just couldn’t afford to purchase such large quantities of fresh, organic veggies.  We had to figure out another way.

This is where my over-confident optimism kicked in (a character trait of mine that I’m not sure whether I love or hate).  “We should just try and grow our own produce!  I am sure if I research enough – I can figure it out!”

I ordered this book:

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I will admit, I ordered this book equally because of the content and the illustrations. It’s a beautiful and inspiring read.

I determined to read every page until I understood how to grow food well.  I did read every page…. and I did learn a lot.  In reality – it was a wonderful place to start – but I would learn MUCH more from the experience of trying, failing, succeeding, being inspired by other gardeners and tasting the wonderful results of our hard work.

This is Part One of our Homesteading story.  When we bought our house – the yard was very run-down.  The lawn was dead, the house needed work – but we soon had it looking nice.  Here is our side yard before any big garden had even entered our minds:

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Later – we put up a fence – and the side yard seemed so much larger:

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My hubby built me some garden boxes (you can kind of see them behind the pool here) and we packed in as much as we could (2010):

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Those were great beginnings, but 2011 was the year we decided to GO BIG….

We spent time sketching out where we wanted the beds… and although it was January (and much of the deep ground was frozen, we rented a sod cutter and started in on removing the lawn!)  It’s amazing that we didn’t break the machine… (I’m a little impatient, I’m sure it was my idea NOT to wait until Spring).  It did work!  We got most of the sod out.   (I did not like the fact that my hubby used spray paint on my soon-to-be organic veggie bed – but some things can’t be battled over.)  I shouldn’t complain… he does so much to turn my dreams into realities!!


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I will admit to some mild panic after we dug these huge patches out of the lawn.  I wondered if I’d just totally ruined our beautiful yard (though NOTHING looks very beautiful in the brown mid-winter).

We rented a tiller and really turned the sod in and under to break things up after a week or so.   I have learned, since – that tilling is not the most beneficial way to improve the soil.  Adding compost to the top, and then covering well with mulch will draw up the earthworms and they will do the hard work for you.  I think it would have taken much longer, though if we hadn’t tilled.  We have not tilled since – and the results (with heavy mulching only) have been wonderful.

Here is an incredible video about the benefits of mulching instead of tilling (saves water, keeps weeds at bay, enriches soil).  Ruth Stout’s ‘no work garden’ has given me inspiration, for the years since.  I have learned to mulch, mulch, mulch from this funny lady.  I don’t leave my garden as ‘untidy’ as hers… nor do I garden naked…  but her methods are amazing!

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Sweet Emma – ready to help mix in compost.

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Me in my zone … I love plugging in a podcast and getting to work!

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Spring – after the snow had melted.

We ordered seeds online from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. and Seed Savers Exchange, and in February we got prepared to plant indoors.  There’s nothing like potting mix on the kitchen table!  Although we did purchase some standard seed starting trays, we also had fun creating pots from toilet paper rolls and newspaper.

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We experimented with newspaper pots, toilet paper roll pots and standard seed starting trays.

This year we are saving all of our egg shells and planting our first seeds in those.  They make a nice little starting pot, and when you are ready to transplant into a larger one – you just crush the very bottom a bit and plant the egg into a larger size.  The calcium from the shell helps to feed the plant as it grows.

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Wasting less, re-using more. 2013 garden seed starts are being started in eggshells!

spring 2011 076It was fun for the girls to be a part of the whole process.

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Gia was 3 at the time, she was definitely into the experience.

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This year – we made our own seed start mix.  I spent a lot last year on pre-made bags of potting mix.

 Here’s a simple seed start mix recipe:

  • 3 parts peat moss or coconut coir (coco coir is ground up coconut husks and is more environmentally friendly) – this is your water holding agent (acts like a sponge)
  • 3 parts compost (vermicompost is best for starts – which is worm castings – we’ll hopefully have plenty next spring from our new worm bin) – this is your feeding agent – rich in nutrients.  Starting a simple backyard compost pile will keep you supplied with rich, home made compost each spring.  Post on that, later!
  • 1 part perlite – (the white puffed rock) – this is your air agent – keeps the soil aerated and not compact.
  • 1/2 part greensand – this is a natural mineral agent that slowly releases nutrients and retains water. *I didn’t have it this time… but will add in my next mix!

* note * – I purchased organic compost this year for my seed starts.  I hadn’t started my worm bin in time – and my outdoor compost pile is still quite frozen.   Sometimes you’ve got to use whatever you can and just get started!

2013 seed starting mix

Excited to be getting my hands dirty again!

spring 2011 097Jeremiah installed grow lights in the basement, which has been the perfect place to give our seeds their start.  He was given some of these old light fixtures – and fitted them with plant bulbs.

In this first year – I started a lot of the wrong things – too soon (beans, squash & tomatoes) – and was just SO eager that I ended up losing most of them because I didn’t harden them off before planting them outside.

Still… it was SO exciting to see the basement filling up with green, while it was still drab outside.

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The next step was re-potting a lot of these little starts into larger pots, and then ‘hardening them off’(once large enough) to move to the outside greenhouse.  Jeremiah started building this for me in 2011, but we finished it in 2012.  The first year, I kept my pots all throughout the house (near windows, in our bedroom… everywhere!) until the weather was warm enough to plant out.

More details on the making of the greenhouse in The birth of the Sailer Urban Homestead – Part Two … but here’s a sneak peek!

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March 2012 greenhouse

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It’s not too late to get your seeds started for this year’s garden… make a plan (start small) and give it a try!  The rewards of this rich learning experience are so worth the effort.

-Sarah