Monday, January 31, 2011

"Everything" Storm coming! Be Prepared for Ice!

The Maple outside of our house
There's nothing more important today than making sure that we all have at least the basic things that will keep us safe, warm and functioning with the coming storm.

It seems to me that Philadephians are getting hardened to snow storms - but, and this is a big but, Ice is a whole different experience, and it has the potential to do some serious damage.

Please be sure that you have working flashlights, a battery driven radio of some kind (there's probably an old Boom Box in a closet somewhere!), and some candles and matches and magic matches at the ready.  Also, consider what systems in your household would be affected by any power loss.  For example, in our home, we know that we will be able to manually light our burners to cook, but our oven definitely won't work because it's an electrical ignition that starts it, even though it's gas.  What kind of heat do you have?  If your heater is driven by a fan, you will lose heat.  And of course, if you have electric heat, you will also lose heat.  If you have a working fireplace, now is the time to be sure that you have, not only wood or duraflames or whatever, but also kindling to get fires started.  And be sure that your flue is clean and open!
Many of us have "put up" food products - and for many of us a good deal of that putting up is freezing.  Freezers will mainly be OK for a couple of days if they are well packed and if they are not opened.  The same is true of the refrigerator of course.  We are considering a big cooler out on the deck filled with water, juices, and some foodstuffs, just in case.  That way we will have access to some refrigerated items without having to open the 'fridge.
Take notice of the power and cable lines around your house - we live in the city, they are everywhere - know where the ones around your house are.  Ice has major impact on power lines; we lose power when they come down, but falling down doesn't necessarily mean that they have lost power.
If you share your life with dogs, and the world becomes encased in ice, you do have a challenge when your buddy has to go out.  Keep sand, and/or dog friendly ice melt near the front door and sprinkle it liberally to at least get out the door with the dog.  You know, during these times, it is how well you trained your dog that will come back to bite you.  We tried through another ice storm to get our dogs to go to the bathroom out in our back yard.  Of course, using our beloved back yard as a doggie bathroom is usually a big no-no.  And it remained that way in the ice!!  And so we slid! 
If you feed the birds in your area, now would be a good time to get some extra seed out there so that they can feast a bit.  They have a very hard time when everything is frozen over.

Lastly, one of the great things about living in the city is having neighbors close by.  Neighbors who we know and talk to!  Keep your eye on the others on your block or neighborhood - especially older folks and those who live alone.  It is a good time to reinforce the city practice of looking out for each other!

Expect limitations.  Understand that some things will be canceled and delayed - and that's fine and they should be.  Be safe!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Surviving Winter and a Simple Frozen Fruit Tartlet

Evergreen in our Garden totally bent over by heavy snow!
I have to admit that whenever I look at this picture, I am struck by the metaphor it provides for all of us in Philly over the past couple of weeks.  The snow, the sleet, the ice, and the cold have been unrelenting - our spirits are flagging, our sense of humor is lessening and we are wondering if there will ever be an end!

The good news is, yes, there will be an end - we call that end, "SPRING"!  It's the gift that Mother Nature gives us as a reward for living in a 4 season environment and if you are reading this Blog you are most probably a person who loves those changing seasons.  This is the challenging part to that love, folks!  Let's not wish away our lives . . . let's enjoy!  I am going to keep at this, because frankly, I think we have only just begun to experience this winter, so we might as well start rolling with the punches - or percipitation.  If you prepared your garden, pots, or balcony well, this kind of weather is probably good for your growing season.  See there's a positive!  Shoveling is very good cardio exercise if you are reasonably healthy; the way your joints and back feel after lifting loads of wet snow is giving you a preview of how you would feel if an 18 wheeler hit you - so you'll be reminded to be careful around 18 wheelers!  And, come on, the Food!!!  The Food - comforting, rich, hot, and lots of it - well, folks,  it IS our reward.

So the other night, I was sort of moaning to my significantly better half that I was thinking about fresh fruit and berries when she reminded me that we had "put up" - in this case frozen - many bags of New Jersey finest Blueberries!  And this simple, tasty, fabulous little gem was born (remember, any berries or fruit that you have canned or frozen will work):

Il Moya Quick Blueberry Tartlet

Make a pie crust, or use a frozen or prepared one - make it easy on yourself!
Roll the crust out in the shape of your favorite shallow tart pan - in our case, I love the rectangular pan
Shape the rolled out dough into your preferred tart pan
"Dock" the dough - make a few holes all over it with a fork - and sprinkle it with a bit of sugar
Take your previously frozen and now defrosted Blueberries (about 2 cups) and mix them with sugar to taste and a teaspoon of arrow root (to thicken them a bit as they cook)
I did this last step right in the bag that the berries had been in in the freezer - they defrosted and there was just enough water in there to work in the sugar and the arrow root

Pour the Blueberry mixture into the tart pan, onto the dough you prepared

You can get creative like I did with some of the left over dough and do a little lattice, but it's not necessary

Sprinkle the top with a bit of cinammon
Put it into a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes
Let it cool.  When it's cool, sprinkle on some confectioner's sugar, if you have it
Serve with ice cream, whipped cream, creme fraiche OR nothing at all!
Delicious and it WILL MAKE YOU HAPPY because not only is it incredibly tasty, it is an experience of Summer in the middle of a very demanding Winter.

Lastly, I don't about the rest of you gardeners out there, but with many of the seed and garden catalogs in hand, I am having a great time reading, fantasizing, and planning while the snow falls. 

My Recommended Catalogs (so far):

Burpee (of course, they are local and let's face it, they are good!)
Seed Savers Exchange (an orgy of heirloom seeds and transplants and many, many species that can be grown in pots and containers!)
RHShumways (wonderful, beautiful and educational)
Gardeners Supply Company (not a lot of seeds and transplants, but one of the things that they offer is an online "Garden Planner"; If you go to their site, just put "Garden Planner" in the search - it's fun and you can print it and/or save it - nice)

There are more catalogs, as well as websites, and I will report on them as I work my way through them.

Who has their garden planned?  Who has their edible garden planned?

Hang in there folks!  Let's face it, at least it hasn't been boring!


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Alert! Beware of "Pictsweet"; Keeping Warm; and Alternatives to Plastic Wrap

Hello Philly Foodies! 

I hope that you are enjoying the Winter so far, keeping as warm as you can, and cooking up lots of cold weather dishes!  And, aren't we all missing our Farmers' Markets?  The good news is that two in our area remain open all year:  Clark Park and Fitler Square.  All that work freezing and canning is paying off now, isn't it?  A friend messaged me the other day telling us how much he was enjoying the canned peaches in syrup we gave him as part of his Holiday gift box.    Yes, there's nothing like eating a delicious, sweet peach half, dripping with syrup, while sitting in front of the fire!

Before we go any further, I want to share something that is very concerning for those of us who are trying to promote fresh, seasonal and fairly produced food products.  There is what will seem to Philadelphians a "new" producer of frozen vegetables and mushrooms now advertising on local TV.  The company name is:  "Pictsweet" and there are many, many issues as to why you want to avoid it - and why you want to educate others to avoid it as well. 

Pictsweet is a Tennessee (Bells) based factory, with a mushroom factory in Salem, Oregon.  It was founded in the late 1940's and incorporated in 1956.  Originally the business was family owned by one family; that is now not the case.  The products of Pictsweet are most commonly sold in Wal-Mart, Kroger's, and other, membership driven Big Box stores.  In recent times, products of Pictsweet have been recalled frequently - lastly in 2010 due to the discovery of glass shards in bags of frozen vegetables.

Pictsweet also has an abysmal record as an employer.  In Salem, working conditions are awful to say the least (due in part to how mushrooms must be raised), and are not addressed for workers or for the surrounding community.  Workers are paid minimum wage - no matter how long they have worked for Pictsweet!  They are never paid overtime no matter how many hours they work and there is very little in the way of benefits.  The mayor of Salem made some statements against the company's practices and received death threats!  Just a little family farmer?  I think not.

The reason I bring up all of this information - available easily through Google or any search engine and the Better Business Bureau - is due to the fact that Pictsweet is now running TV ads in our area.  The advertisements feature a man who is supposed to be dressed up as the advertisers idea of what a farmer looks like, while a man on a tractor passes behind him.  The pitch is that Pictsweet is coming to you "right from the Farm" and is raised by Farmers in a natural and sustainable way.  Not so!

This is another example of the growing abuse by the factory food industry of co-opting words like "Farm", "Organic", "Local", and "Family Owned"!  We have got to be educated consumers and we must pass the message along to others who may be confused by it.  Factory food production is a business in America that is seriously under fire; a good thing, by the way.  Rather than change their practices and methods, they have obviously made the decision to "throw a little farm and organic terms at 'em".  That's us - the purchasing public - who are perceived by those in advertising as folks who don't pay significant attention to detail and who spend our money without doing the due diligence!  All you have to do is recall the fact that High Fructose Corn Syrup is soon to be known as Corn Sugar, if the producers get their way.  Has it changed?  No.  Is it still in almost every mass produced factory made product?  Yes!  They just figured that changing the name was all that was necessary.  Don't let them get away with this - learn the facts and pass those facts along.

And let's face it, in this area of the country, we have many better options than "Pictsweet" frozen factory produced products!

Keeping Warm:  How are you faring with keeping your heating bills manageable?  Even if you have unlimited disposable income (and if you do, please feel free to get in touch! ), remember that for most of us, fossil fuels are involved with heating our homes - we have to figure out how to reduce our dependence on these fuels.  By now your home should be closed up tight - that means good insulation around windows and doors.  Also, something we sometimes forget:  if you aren't using a room or aren't using it very often, evaluate your need to heat that room.  There is so much information available on the internet re: keeping the heat inside your house.  Take the time to check it out.  Also we have some local businesses that can be of help as well.  For example, Greenable in Northern Liberties is a great spot for products, ideas and consults.

Let me share a few things we've learned that has our heater running minimally.  First of all, we keep our thermostat set at 65 degrees during the day and overnight.  In our home, "layering" is the way to go.  We wear sweaters, sox, and generally long pants - it IS winter, after all.  Even our Terrier has a house sweater! Really, living in high, artificial heat is not very healthy - when you get used to a lower temperature, it is very difficult to spend any time in a space that's heated to say, 76 degrees or more. 

Also, as we are blessed with Southern exposure on one side of our home (end of the row) - we take advantage of this "passive solar" reality.  We open all drapes and shades on that side of the house first thing in the morning and let the sun beat in all day.  The trick is to get those drapes and shades closed back up when the sun goes down!  After the sun sets, we raise our thermostat to 67 degrees for a few hours.  It goes back down to 65 degrees at 11:00 PM.  As I have mentioned here, we use bio-ethanol fuel in our fireplace - we no longer burn wood, but a nice small fire is not only warming,  it is psychologically warming, so we do that as much as possible.  Lastly, and especially if you have furry family members, remember to clean the filter in your heater regularly - you'd be surprised how much stuff builds up!  Good luck with your efforts to stay warm, enjoy your home, and still manage your use of fossil fuels!

Worrying that you use too much plastic wrap?  I do! It's horribly non-biodegradable.   I just found some great suggestions for substitutes at:  Check it out!

Snow in the City at 11:00 PM
 Just a thought:  Let's try to enjoy our frequent snow storms.  I know that they can be a real hassle, especially for those who have no option and who have to navigate around in heavy snow, freezing weather, and treacherous travel conditions.  But during one storm or another - and we do seem to be getting more, not less - look upon a snow storm as Nature's way of saying, "go ahead, have some down time".  Find your inner child and have some FUN.  Go out and join in the neighborhood shoveling, take the kids sledding, build a snow person and then come inside to hot chocolate and a fire and some board games - Scrabble is a biggie for me.  Yes, it all sounds so corny.  It is - we need a little "corny" from time to time - it's what is missing in most of our lives.

The seed catalogs are all out!  Have fun dreaming of planting time!  Please keep in touch.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Foodist 2011 Resolutions!

No Knead Bread - Baked in a Mussel Pot!

Happy New Year All!  I don't know how you are feeling, but I am convinced that 2011 is going to be a very good, positive Foodie/Green/Sustainable year for urbanites.  But in order for that to happen, we all have to be positive and sieze every day and do the best that we can with it.  OK, that was an Oprah moment, admittedly - but it is heartfelt.  My optimism is driven by what I see happening around me:  more urban folks trying in so many ways to live in a sustainable, green way; friends deciding to "grow their own" - or at least some of their own - as well as so many folks learning to can (or "put up" as we used to say).  The frequency of urban dwellers composting continues to rise and we all have happily watched the increase in the availability of Farmers' Markets in almost every neighborhood.  I have to say I also love the Recycle Coupon program - rewarding neighbors for getting their recycling out and not hiding it in the trash yields coupons for all sorts of things from discounts at our fabulous Reading Terminal Market (and Fair Food Farms within) to discounts at local restaurants as well as lots of other local private businesses.  A great incentive to recycle!

For me, in the coming months, the issues along with my first love - Local and seasonal food and cooking - are going to be living in a more sustainable, sufficient manner.  I am going to be exploring what I can't do for myself or my home that I think I should be able to do - thus my own issues of self-sufficiency. I will continue to pursue ways in which we can cut down even more on the amount of real "trash" that our home produces; and, of course,  I plan to find as many ways as possible to continue to share information about Food:  where it comes from, how it's raised, good local stores, markets, restaurants and purveyors, and of course, creative, fun and delicious ways to cook.  I am also interested in what it is we really need.  I will be looking at the issue of "stuff" from every angle:  the kitchen, the garden; the home; and of course, personally.

So far, along with filling up our basement larder with tomatoes, tomato sauce, peaches, salsa, and other foods that we, and others, have canned, we have also filled up the freezer with fresh vegetables and fruit, along with assorted locally raised chicken and beef and pork, and some seafood.  We have been working on finding the best area in our basement for storing potatoes and squash and we have been developing a number of recipes for "make your own" staples that I will be posting here throughout the year.

The compost is having its first winter - so I think we are doing OK by it; I have already seen the fabulous rich, black loam that will be available to us in volume as we start up the gardens - can't wait to use it!

In the coming weeks, I will share our experiences here in our winter urban landscape. We will soon be planning  our "urban farm" for the coming season; I will share ways we are discoverying to keep our energy costs down; and I will be posting recipes that may intrique you - like making organic butter at home; making your own nut "butters",  and making a variety of easy breads and other foods that we use frequently ourselves.  And, of course, we'll discuss these things in terms of the time and the resources required. 

The challenges to sustainable living and self sufficiency can be off putting for the city dweller.  We all live busy lives and we appreciate that "busy-ness" as a part of what city living is all about.  It is very easy to "turn it over"; to always take what we perceive to be the easy way - usually meaning the fastest way - to get what we need and want.  I hope we can discover that we can in fact take more of a lead in our own lives, in what we eat, how we shop, what we cook, how we maintain our homes and our neighborhoods, and, in general, be more "in charge" and happier and healthier as a result!

So that's the plan - I look forward to the discussions and to hearing from you as well.