Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Backyard Animal-less Farm

So I know you've been dying to see my backyard garden. Here it is behind the white fence. Enter the gate, and this is what you see.

Not much to see this early in the season, but if you look very closely you might just see some onion, asparagus, peas, kholrabi and radish.

I try to utilize every inch of sunlight throughout the yard as well. The result is a strawberry patch next to the garage....

Herbs in our front walkway beds...

And pots filled with edibles randomly strewn throughout the yard (yep, those are tomato plants).

Monday, May 24, 2010

Speaking of Dairy, You've Got to Try Making Yogurt

I believe God gives each mother exactly the talents and traits needed for her to properly raise the specific children He gives her. However, I'm still not sure what He was insinuating by giving me a momma who can only cook two items: french toast and cereal. I grew up in the most spotless house, thanks to her, but if it weren't for my father, we all would've starved.

And my dad cooks "manly" things like country fried steak and the best ribs on earth. Canning and making yogurt aren't part of his repertoire. These things I had to teach myself.

I attempted water-bath canning first as it seemed the least dangerous. If the seal failed, I would likely know in a month or two when the mold started to grow. Yogurt, however, was MUCH scarier. I could poison my kids with live bacteria! I was always raised that dairy products are to remain cold all the time. Any exception to this and you'll wind up doubled over in your bathroom...or worse.

Turns out, that's not quite right. If it were, we wouldn't have sour cream, buttermilk or yogurt.

Thanks to Katie Kimball at Kitchen Stewardship, I no longer live in fear of "live and active cultures". Her simple, failproof instructions for making yogurt are here. The only thing I do differently is that when I put the jars of milk into the fridge to cool, I do NOT put the lids on. I make 4, quart-sized jars at a time and they last my family 2 weeks. None of us have even gotten sick.

One beauty of homemade yogurt is that if you incubate it for about 6 hours, it is not nearly as tart as store bought. My kids will gladly eat it with fresh fruit and no additional sugar or sweetner (although they won't turn down honey if it's offered!).

Try it. For the cost of a gallon of milk and a cup or so of Dannon plain yogurt you might surprise yourself. Although she's never tried, I bet my mom could make it, too.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mom, There Are Chunks In My Milk!!

I've been really lazy about getting my hands on raw milk. It took quite awhile to navigate the underworld of farmers to locate a few local dairies still willing to sell milk, albeit for "non-human consumption" *wink, wink*. Now I have to go and buy glass containers to store the milk in. Can you believe I've been meaning to do that for like 2 months now without success?

One reason I've been stalling is that I've found a non-homogenized, vat pasteurized, grass fed, no added hormones milk from small family farms in Iowa selling at Whole Foods in Schaumburg (yes, it FINALLY opened in early May). It sounded like a great solution, until the next morning, when my gallon-guzzling son wrinkled his brow and exclaimed "MOM, there are chunks in my milk!!!". I explained to him the value of the type of milk he was drinking, but his 5-year old senses were having none of it.

He's been on a dairy product strike for 2 weeks. I've created a meat-eating vegan.

Now I'm not the kind of mom who trims crust off of bread or negotiates eating brussel sprouts. I cook, you eat. No exceptions. And I know what they say about a kid having to be served an unusual food 20 times before they accept it. I'm telling you, the boy would rather eat his shoe. The only way I can imagine him even considering it would be to serve it from a different container (because kids make such serious connections between the package and the product--ask any fast food marketer) and strain it. I just can't do that. It runs completely against my grain.

My last hope is that a trip to the farm to see the cow and milk it himself will offer just enough novelty to rekindle his love of dairy. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eureka! Local Ingredients Only!

My recipe collection is ridiculous. The shelves are overflowing with cookbooks, random scraps cut out from magazines, and homemade binders with internet printouts. While I've managed to make it looked relatively organized to the outside world, the reality is that I'm secretly a recipe hoarder. There is no organization to my collection and I refuse to throw anything away unless I try it and it's unbearably gross. It would take at least two lifetimes to try every recipe I've stuffed on those shelves.

Despite my massive compilation, finding a recipe that doesn't use A) foreign ingredients or B)ingredients that are never naturally in harvest at the same time, is a monumental task. Two nights ago, I found one. And it was yummmmyyyyy! It is a beautiful, sweet and easy to prepare soup (especially if you have leftover baked potatoes lying around). The texture was a bit surprising. The broth is simply milk. While I expected the potatoes to thicken it up a bit, it never really did. It was a bit like eating warm, sweet, vegetable cereal. I know it sounds bizarre, but I wouldn't post it if I didn't love it.

Summer Sweet Corn Soup
(adapted from Weight Watcher's Summer Corn, Bacon and Potato Chowder)
4 servings

1 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup onion, chopped
4 ears corn on the cob, cooked and kernels removed with a knife
1 red sweet bell pepper, chopped
4 oz Canadian bacon, diced
2 cups whole milk
2 medium baking potatoes, peeled, cooked and mashed
salt & black pepper, to taste
hot pepper sauce (optional), to taste
  1. Melt butter in a saucepan.
  2. Saute celery, onion, corn and red pepper over medium-high heat for 5 minutes.
    Add bacon, milk & mashed potato.
  3. Season with salt, pepper and hot pepper sauce.
  4. Cover and simmer 10 minutes (do not allow to boil).

Monday, May 10, 2010

CSA: A Win-Win

As I’ve mentioned, I have not yet devised the perfect method by which the amount of sun-kissed land in my yard can sustain my family’s fruit and vegetable needs all on its own. Nor do I have chickens for eggs or my own turkey for our Thanksgiving bounty. I have to call in for back up. I order a CSA box. I let Scott and Kathy Mor at Green Earth Farm do all that work for me.

To find a CSA near you, try an internet search (Local Harvest is a great resource), ask your locavore neighbors, or speak directly to the farmers at your local farmers market. Many farmers selling at the market also offer CSA shares to their farm. While most CSA’s are only available for the growing season, we found a farmer who delivered grass fed meat and eggs all winter long! Network! Network! Network!

With a CSA box, you have absolute no control on what’s put in your box. That’s half the fun. Kholrabi. Black heirloom tomatoes. Delicata squash. Earthly delights that I could have gone an entire lifetime having never tasted without my CSA box!

The reason I chose Green Earth Farm is that Scott and Kathy treat each CSA shareholder as an owner. You are welcome to stop by the farm anytime and they encourage families to come and experience farming hands on. Last year they hosted a CSA member open house where my kids got to feed the goats and horses, chase the turkeys, hunt for real eggs, and sample some treats made with food fresh from the farm. Each year there is also the possibility of working on the farm a few hours a week to subsidize the cost of your box. I’m helping the Mor’s live out their dream, and in return they fill my kitchen with homegrown goodies! In corporate speak, it’s a clear “win-win”.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Talking Shop

My palms were sweating, I had bags under my eyes from the excitement that prevented me from sleeping the night before, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. We were enroute to the first farmer's market of the season!

The Woodstock Farmer's Market is my first every year. It opens a little earlier in the year than most. It's also arguably my favorite because all of the vendor's must produce their goods locally. While that sounds like a given, it's not so. Crystal Lake's Farmer's Market is a blend, and you really have to be an educated shopper and ask a lot of questions if you're a locavore-in-training.

Early in the season, pickin's are often slim. Usually the offerings are limited to plantlings and flowers, soaps, honey, breads and other not-so-seasonal items. If you're lucky and you get there early enough, you can snag the limited vegetable selection. So despite the 39*F, rainy weather, the kids and I ventured out on our hunt!

At the market this week, I scored:
  • Jersey asparagus

  • Butterkase cheese

  • 2 dozen free-range large eggs

  • 1/2 lb pasture-raised Canadian bacon

  • bunch french radish (organic)

  • spinach (organic)

  • lettuce (organic)

  • tart cherry preserves

One of my favorite aspects of the market is you can chat with the farmers about how their crops are growing and compare it to your home garden. In my experience, the farmers are always happy to talk shop. Ask them about bugs, or plant varieties, or any other gardening questions you have and I guarantee you'll leave the market with information more valuable that whatever dollar amount you spent. Also, if you're trying to find a particular local food that they don't offer, there is a good chance they know someone who produces it. Thanks to my discussions with some farmers this week, I learned some tips on growing asparagus, located a few additional raw milk sources, and was invited to an upcoming open house at one of the local farms! Make it a goal to make the acquaintance of one new farmer each week.

Here are some other farmer's markets in Mchenry Country.

Here you can search for farmer's markets in your local area, wherever that may be!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake!

My family is the anomaly among most of our friends. We have two kids in a prep school, I work, dad stays at home and we only own one car (yes, a minivan). Most of our friends are significantly larger families who homeschool with mom staying at home and dad working. So whenever we all get together, which is usually twice a month or so, we feed our army potluck style.

What all those kiddos don't know is that they are my own personal test kitchen tasters. The youngest of the crowd are so brutally honest that there is no mistaking whether a recipe gets a thumbs up or down. Color, taste, texture--they let you know what's not working!

So last weekend, I took a risk and pushed my luck. I brought Black Bean Avocado Mocha Cake. Gluten-free AND 2 super nutritious foods. Rather than keep my trap shut, I kept "warning" the grown ups of the unusual ingredients before they took a bite. I mean, my reputation was on the line!

No one could believe it! Word of the cake spread like wildfire across the room, and before I had the time to say "Black Bean Avocado Mocha Hazelnut Cake" three times fast, it was gone! Give this recipe a whirl. I double dog dare you.

Black Bean Avocado Mocha Hazelnut Cake
(adapted from this recipe at 'The Crazy Kitchen')

-15 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
-3 eggs
-1/4 cup butter
-1/2 cup agave nectar
-6 Tbsp cocoa powder
-1/8 tsp salt
-1 Tbsp vanilla extract
-1 Tbsp decaf instant coffee
-1/2 cup hazelnuts
-2 tsp baking powder

-1 ripe avocado
-1/4 cup agave nectar
-2 Tbsp cocoa powder
-2 1/2 tsp decaf instant coffee
- 1 Tbsp hazelnut liqueur

1. Preheat the oven to 350*F
2. Puree the first 8 ingredients in a food processor until smooth.
3. Add hazelnuts and baking powder. Pulse about 8 times.
4. Pour batter into a GREASED 8x8 pan.
5. Cook for about 35 minutes. It is ready when the cake looks dry with some cracks in the middle.

1 . Puree the flesh of the avocado and the last 4 ingredients in the food processor for about 2 minutes, or until smooth and fully mixed.
2. Once the cake is done baking, top it with the icing.
3. Cover and refrigerate until the cake is completely cooled, at least 2 hours.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Small Business Spotlight: The Cocoa Cabana

Small businesses are the fabric of each suburb’s charm. Yesterday, while tooling around for an ice cream fix, my family stumbled upon a local gem: The Cocoa Cabana. Although we must have passed this shop a million times on our commute along Route 31 to my children’s school in Elgin, we’ve never stopped. Its location in one of the many forgettable strip malls shadowing the Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee doesn’t do justice to the quality of small-batch, hand-dipped chocolates you find upon entering. In fact, I had an “open-mouth-insert-foot” moment when I asked the female shop owner, Ronda, (local, small business, AND female-owned—triple score!) what chocolatier she ordered from. She looked puzzled and politely informed me that she hand-dipped them right there and then generously offered each of us a sample of the chocolate-dipped potato chip. Yes, potato chip. In chocolate. Yum!

Unlike the novel potato chip, the majority of their selection is more standard, sophisticated, higher-quality chocolate fare, at honest pricing. Chocolate dipped pretzels run $5.95 for a small bag. A 1 lb. box of assorted chocolates is $19.95.

Mental note: they do fondue for $11/person, but you have to call ahead. Good date night or special outing for the kiddies. And if you’ve had enough Chuck E Cheese parties for the rest of your existence, remember Cocoa Cabana for your next 5+ year old’s birthday party. Need a party favor? Give them a call. No doubt you’ll get the personal attention that only a local, small business provides.

Just a reminder, Mother’s Day is on Sunday (hint, hint). They ship anywhere in United States.

Oh, and the ice cream was outstanding, although not homemade.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

0.25 acre is all I've got. 95% of it is dense shade. The 5% with full sun is jammed pack with edibles. Sometimes I step into my yard, look up at our mature maples, and daydream of a time when our half-dead grass is replaced with lush vines and stalks. I know, I know--it's environmental blasphemy to wish for the early demise of our trees. But just look at the Dervaes family's front yard in Pasadena and tell me honestly that you aren't drooling, too!

I have completely failed to embrace the shade. Or our relatively short growing season.

Cramming everything I want to grow into our limited space is a test in geometry that I seem to get a C+ on every year. I've tried square foot gardening, row gardening and container gardening. There is usually enough produce to have a few meals of homemade happiness each week, but not enough to preserve for the off season. And to my daughter's dismay, not enough room to grow corn. I need to perfect my layout considering that my backyard farm is the most local food I can get.

While I try to keep my farming methods as organic as possible, there are times where I find myself utterly powerless to the woo of the non-organic seed racks and plantlings in the local garden center. However, I try to order as much as I can from Seed Savers Exchange. Not only is their variety of heirlooms unbeatable, but they are based in Decorah, Iowa (zone 4) which has a similar plant hardiness zone to Crystal Lake, IL (zone 5A). I can usually trust that if a seed performs well in their garden, it will in mine as well.

This year my garden features the following Seed Savers varieties:

Golden Sweet Peas (I grew these last year and they were a great performer. Yummy stir fry!)

200 mile road trip to Seed Savers' Heritage Farm anyone?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

I love where I live. I love it so much that I sacrifice 2 ½ hours every weekday of my life traveling on the Metra train from my quaint, butter yellow, 1936 American foursquare in historic downtown Crystal Lake, IL to my modern office with a view in the downtown Chicago Loop and back. My life suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.

City dwellers argue that Crystal Lake is an exurb rather than a suburb, but if the number of minivans, strip malls and soccer moms defines a suburb, I win the debate hands down. My suburb just also happens to include plenty of cornfields and John Deere.

A year ago I stumbled upon the book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. It was a life-changing read. If you haven’t read it, flip over to Amazon or your local library’s website this instant and get it. Barbara and her family ate locally for an entire year from their farm in rural Virginia. Inspired by her words and motivated by her recipes and children’s apparent love for all things green, I set out on a mission to make a change in my family’s eating habits. I mean, how hard could it be to get all of my food from within, say, 100 miles of my home in America’s heartland? Boy, was I in for a rude awakening!

Necessity is the mother of invention. Before Barbara took on the challenge of eating locally for a year, she undoubtedly did her homework. Unfortunately, she didn’t publish the detail of it. This blog is a tale of my year of preparation before embarking on a local suburban eating challenge of my own. You will watch this weekend homesteading warrior learn to make cheese, maintain a worm compost farm, and maybe even start a beehive. I’ll share how networking within your community is the key to locating raw milk, eggs, grains, vegetables, fruits and meat. I challenge you take this journey with me and help fill in my gaps and share your experiences and sources along the way.

Make this commitment with me to vote with your wallet. Vote for produce that actually tastes good. Vote for local farmers who are properly caring for the world’s precious soil. Vote against the use of foreign oil. Vote to enrich your community by meeting new neighbors. Vote to bring back the family table with home-cooked food you feel good about serving your family.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Nutrition-Common Sense or Nonsense?

I'm a self-diagnosed orthorexic; I'm obsessed with healthy eating. Only, I don't actually eat that way all the time, I'm just neurotic about devouring any information on the topic. I tend to eat by the "if some is good, more is better" mantra. Yes, I'm a true American.

The BMI charts say I'm walking a tightrope between "healthy" and "overweight". I exercise regularly (I even ran my first half-marathon last year), and rarely eat out--so what gives?!

As I've been drinking diet Coke to keep my calories low and eliminating entire food groups from my diet, my weight keeps creeping up (and my running times too). I've also complicated my life by cooking separate meals for myself and my family in my dieting attempts. The irony is that my husband and kids are squarely within ideal weight ranges despite the fact that they are eating full "homestyle" meals. Makes you wonder...

So I'm going to try this novel idea: eating real food as close to its original form as possible. What fascinates me is that when it comes to the topic of "real food", there is such dissent among its advocates over what constitutes a "real food". Case in point: milk. Whole or skim? My common sense is telling me whole, raw milk is best since that's its original form. However, for as long as I can remember doctors (who, like many Americans, I've trusted to know better than me what is best for my body) directed me to skim.

I trust God with all other aspects of my life, why not trust that what he provides is good enough for me to eat?

I'm giving up the nonsense and trying common sense.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Are those elephant ears?

When we first purchased our home, I envisioned the possibility of a sunny backyard garden brimming with a cornucopia of fresh vegetables. It would always be beautiful to look at and provide any desired vegetable at any given time of year---sort of like the produce department at the grocery store, only closer! More about this misconception later....

The first new home task my husband and I set out to do was clear out the 400SF raised garden plot that the previous owner had let go au naturale. And when I say clear out, I mean the equivalent of taking a machete, wearing battle armour and blindly swinging. We had everything from a miniature pine tree to head-high thorn bushes to the dreaded invasive mint growing. Worst of all, we seemed to have about 13 plants of what looked to be "elephant ears" with root systems anchored in the center of the earth. Those large leafed pesky weeds!

"Yeah", said our new neighbor, "how much rhubarb can one family eat?".


I rationalized that even if it was a real vegetable that theoretically belonged in a kitchen garden, it didn't matter that we yanked it all out and whisked it into the trash heap. I don't know how to cook rhubarb anyway. And the only recipe I'd ever heard of using it was strawberry rhubarb pie. My husband is allergic to berries, and I don't "do" pie crust. So it's all good.

My heart sighs when I reminisce back 4 years ago when we dismembered all that rhubarb. Since then, I've developed an obsession of cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Rhubarb has become a spring staple in our house, but alas, I have no rhubarb plant to call my own and am at the mercy of 2 lowly plants belonging to my generous, 90+ year old neighbor for my annual supply.

For those totally unfamiliar with rhubarb:

1. Don't eat the leaves. They're poisonious.
2. You don't have to peel the rhubarb when using it in a recipe.
3. Click on this link to learn how and when to harvest rhubarb.

And if you think your kids won't eat it, try this:

Whole Wheat Rhubarb Cake
(modified version of Rhubarb Cake I by Barb Oke on

1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups white sugar (I'm tempted to try honey, but I haven't yet)
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups rhubarb, chopped
1 tablespoon whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup packed brown sugar (Maybe try sucanat?)

1. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together. Beat in egg and vanilla.
2. In another bowl, whisk the flours, baking soda, and salt.
3. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk to creamed mixture.
4. Toss rhubarb with 1 tablespoon whole wheat pastry flour and stir into batter.
5. Pour batter into buttered 9 x 13 inch pan.
6. Make the topping by blending together 1/4 cup softened butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar, then sprinkle on top.
7. Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes.

Now I need your help. I challenge you to modify this recipe to increase the number of local ingredients and/or nutritional value.