A Frugal Spring

I am a bad, bad blogger. As you can see, the scene in my backyard has changed dramatically since my last post. It's been way too long since I've posted and for that I have a few excuses:

Excuse number one: Being a locavore in March is tough. There's really not a lot of exciting things to cook. Usually I would usually contradict that and say that there's always something new and exciting to be done even with a limited palate, but excuse number two limits me even even further.

Excuse number two: I am buying a house. As part of the deal, my credit union is requiring me to have a nice chunk of cash in savings. Hence, I have had to cut back my spending to the bare minimum. I've been eating as much as possible from the freezer, trying to stay as local as I can - which is no easy feat if you are broke and it's March in Wisconsin. Right now I have milk, cream, cheese, leftover beef stew (beef, the last of my carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, and frozen tomatoes), butter, cabbage, eggs, honey, and potatoes. That, plus some non-local peanut butter, oatmeal, pasta, bread, and mayonnaise is literally all I've got on hand. If I had my usual cash flow, I would be able to purchase beautiful and pricey hoop house spinach, the last of the storage apples, large quantities of local sunflower oil, beautiful cuts of local meat, and other March fare. At the moment, those delicacies are out of my price range.

I don't mean for this to sound like I'm feeling sorry for myself. My wonderful boyfriend Stanley has been inviting me over for meals quite a lot, and I'm finding it interesting to see how cheaply I can live. I've been hyper-conscious of all my spending for the past few weeks, and it's been an interesting process. Consuming less is something many of us could use to think on, and I've used this forced frugality to test my limits. Little things like paper towels and disposable sponges have proved to be unnecessary. I've stopped sneaking in that extra $1.25 cookie and expensive coconut water for lunch at work. Some things I've deemed to be vital: cat food, toilet paper, laundry soap.... these are things I need and I've continued buying, but I'm thinking about conservation in ways I never did before.

In the meantime, real spring has come to Wisconsin! The crocus are blooming, the peepers are peeping, and the daytime temperatures are reaching into the 60s. Despite my money woes, I can't help feeling giddy about the season!

The garlic I planted in the fall is showing itself through the dried leaves I piled on top of it back in October. I'm moving out of the house I'm in now in June, and I'm hoping the garlic will have formed at least little heads by then so I can harvest it before I go.

The seeds I planted a few weeks back have germinated (or at least most of them).

Three kinds of tomatoes (Ox Heart, Candy Stripe, and Black Cherry), tomatillos, basil, and peppers. It's so hard to believe that these tiny little sprouts will bear fruit in just a few short months.....

This is how I started my day today: biscuits and gravy made using Stanley's family recipe. I made the biscuits, he made the gravy with local Willow Creek Farm sausage and Sassy Cow milk. Mmmmm...... this meal is almost more suited for a dinner than a breakfast. Lucky for us, we had garden plans that would help burn of at least some of the calories!

Just to prove that I'm a bad blogger, I forgot to bring the camera when we did the work at the Main Street Garden, but I did take some pictures afterward. Meg and Dave had started expanding some of the beds yesterday, and Stanley and I helped for the better part of the morning.

What you see in the foreground is the community garden that my brother, sister in law, and mom have been tending for a few years. The bed you can see in the very back (with a big pile of dirt on one side), was dug this morning. There's also a new bed to the left of the picture that you can't see very well.

Here's a closer look. It was so good to get my hands in the dirt! The sun was shining, I was working with dear friends and family, and the soil was not too wet but not too dry. Perfect!

Here's another view. The top of this view is the railroad track. We're not yet sure what will be planted here - We'll have to have a big family garden summit to plan it all out...... since it's not even April yet, we still have some time.

We also expanded the plot that Dave and I dug last year for our sweet corn, squash and beans. The plan for this year is to plant it entirely in potatoes.....

To top it all of, it so happened that there were some Jerusalem artichokes growing wild where we were digging, and I scored some tubers. These are really crispy and really sweet. They'll made a great salad, and they were free. Spring, I love you!

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Maple Spring Chicken

I feel that I owe everyone an apology. I've been absent from this blog for far too long. I have a good excuse though - I'm in the midst of buying a house! It's my first time getting through this process; It's been arduous and stressful, and hasn't left me with much time or inclination to blog..... plus it's March and my locavore diet is at it's most boring and monotonous - cabbage, carrots, potatoes, meat, dairy, and that's about it..... I'm beginning to have wild dreams of asparagus.... I can't wait!

I did manage to make a meal worth blogging about last weekend, thanks to this maple tree in my backyard. Though it's not a sugar maple (it's a Norway maple), I decided to tap it and collect some sap just to see what it was like. I'd heard that the sap is considered by some to be a spring tonic, and I was sorely in need of such a thing.

Dave came over and helped me drill this hole in the tree (not that I wasn't able, but unfortunately I don't posses a cordless drill). He drilled up at an angle so the sap could easily escape. It's hard to see in this picture, but the sap immediately started trickling out of the hole.

I purchased some spiles online, and all we had to do was hammer them into the holes. The whole thing took about 5 minutes. Very easy.

Instead of springing for the official maple sap collection buckets available online, I bought two feed buckets from Farm and Fleet and they worked just fine. I hooked them onto the spiles and voila - I was collecting maple sap!

We drilled the holes in the early afternoon, and by evening I had almost a quart. I quickly decided that maple syrup was not in my future - it takes 40 quarts of sap to make just one quart of syrup.... and that's with sugar maples. Norway maple sap has less of the sugary syrup component and would probably take more than 40 quarts. I was excited to see what the raw sap was like though.... it was delicious! It reminded me of the coconut water that's all the rage in the natural foods world. Refreshing, slightly sweet..... a spring tonic indeed!

On to the chicken. On a recent trip to Black Earth Meat's little retail shop in Black Earth, I was delighted to find some local chickens in their frozen case. I'm always really happy with the quality of their grass-fed beef, and I was excited to try the chicken. Except.......

..... when I pulled it out of the packaging I discovered that it had no legs! I'm not one to say this usually, but WTF? The gizzards were stuffed in the cavity, but there was most definitely something missing from this bird!

What's a girl to do? I was planning roast chicken brined in maple sap, and I wasn't about to change the menu over some missing drumsticks!

I soaked the bird for about 8 hours in a maple sap, salt, dried sage, and brown sugar brine. I was hopeful that the maple flavor would come through.....

For a simple dressing I mixed cubed bread from The Batch with fresh (or fresh frozen to be more exact) parsley from the garden, dried sage, salt, pepper, an egg courtesy of my chickens, and a little local sunflower oil.

I chopped up the gizzards and added them too.

I know it's funny looking, but the cavity was still quite stuff-able.

Just to be sure nothing fell out, the back end got covered with aluminum foil. I rubbed the bird with local sunflower oil and into the oven it went. I started it hot (450) to brown the skin, and after 10 minutes turned the oven down to 350 to roast.

Since spring was the theme, and the day was warmish and sunny, I decided to make a potato salad to go along with the chicken. I've had enough roasted, mashed, or boiled potatoes for a while. Potato salad seemed just the thing to get me out of my winter rut.

These are definitely not spring carrots however. The storage crops are still around, but looking a lot worse for wear at this point. No matter, after a good washing and scrubbing these looked as good as new.

My potatoes were starting to grow eyes that had to be cut out. It's the time of year when they decide that it's time to grow again....... soon little potatoes, soon.

Carrots, frozen garden corn, and lots of fresh frozen parsley for the salad.

Just add mayo, and here it is! A beautiful potato salad to remind me that summer will be here eventually.

The legless chicken turned out quite well. There was only two of us for dinner, so we had plenty of meat.

I couldn't decide if I could actually taste the maple sap or if I could only imagine I tasted it. Stanley swore he could, but maybe he was just being nice. Either way it was delicious!

Another sure sign of spring - I've got seeds started in the basement!! Tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, catnip, and basil. These will all be transplanted at the new house in June. The tomatoes and peppers will probably be in pots this year..... no germination yet, but soon!

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Good Things from the Freezer

It's officially March! Today I stood outside and felt real warmth from the sun on my face for the first time in months. I know winter is far from over, but today I feel like spring is coming!

Late winter/early spring is one of the hardest times for us locavores - The storage crops from autumn are running short, yet the spring harvest is still far off. Lucky for me I still have lots of good stuff in the freezer!

And there is so much good meat around! These boneless country ribs are from Willow Creek Farm.

I've still got quite a few yellow onions left from the big bag I bought in the fall. I've been storing them in a dark cupboard and they're still as good as the day I bought them.

I combined the onions and pork ribs in the crock pot with some of Dave's home-made hard apple cider, a little apple cider vinegar, salt, and dried sage. It cooked slowly for 3 1/2 hours.

Somehow I'd managed to forget about all the corn I grew and froze in the summer. I decided it was high time to dig it out of the freezer and make some creamed corn. I also got out a bag of roasted green bell peppers to add to the mix.

While the veggies thawed under warm water, I readied the dessert: apple raspberry crisp.

These Cox Orange Pippin apples from Future Fruit Farm have been at the Co-op periodically. They're little and scarred (organic apples usually are), but boy are they good! At this point they're a bit soft and they've lost some of their zing with age, but they still have a wonderful flavor. Cox Orange Pippin is an old English heirloom dating from 1825.

More treasures from the freezer! I picked these raspberries at Blue Skies Farm in September. They've held up really well in - now I just have to think of ways to eat them all before berry season gets here again....

Apples, raspberries, a little lemon juice, brown sugar, ginger, and nutmeg.

I whipped up a quick crisp dough of brown sugar, oatmeal, flour, wheat germ, cinnamon, and lard. Lard?? Yes, we're selling local lard at the Co-op now, and I bought a tub of it to experiment with. It makes excellent pie crust, and it's also really good mixed with beans. Basically it's a substitute for butter (or rather butter has been substituted for more traditional lard in many modern recipes).

Fruit on the bottom, crisp dough pressed on top and into the oven it went.

Now back to the creamed corn. I sauteed one more onion and the green peppers in butter till the onion was translucent and the peppers had lost a bit of they're sogginess.

I added the corn and cooked it a while longer to meld all the flavors.

Butter, cream, some frozen basil from last year's garden, and a little salt was all it needed. I was honestly surprised by how sweet, creamy, and delicious this was. It would make a meal unto itself.

By the time all else was ready, the pork in the crock-pot was perfectly done. The hard cider makes a wonderful cooking medium. It's like a really nicely flavored white wine - and it's 100% local!

I finished off the meal with a beautiful loaf of bread from The Batch Bakehouse on Willy Street. Ian, the owner, makes the best bread in Madison, hands down. If you live in Madison and you haven't been there, you should go. Now.

Here's dinner.

Oh yeah, and dessert.

The lard did an excellent job - I don't think I'll have any trouble using up the tub I bought! The apples and raspberries gave the perfect fruity almost tart flavor. The fruit combined with the rich sweetness of the crisp topping made this dessert just wonderful. The perfect end to a delicious meal.

County Ribs with Hard Cider

Boneless Pork Country Ribs
2-3 Yellow Onions
Hard Apple Cider
Apple Cider Vinegar
Dried Sage

Put pork and chopped onions into a crock pot. Cover with cider. If you don't have enough cider, add water to cover. Add a little vinegar, sage, and salt and cook on low for 3-4 hours or more. When it's done, taste and add vinegar, sage, and salt as needed.

Creamed Corn
Frozen Sweet Corn
1 Yellow Onion
2 Roasted Bell Peppers
Basil, fresh, dried, or frozen

Saute the onion and pepper until onions are translucent. Add corn and cook about 4 more minutes. Add enough butter to coat the vegetables, then enough cream to make the desired consistency. Season with basil and salt to taste.

Apple Raspberry Crisp

6-7 Small Apples (cox orange pippin preferably)
1 Cup Frozen Raspberries
Brown Sugar
Lemon Juice
Powdered Ginger
Nutmeg (preferably fresh ground)
Rolled Oats
Wheat Germ
Lard (or butter)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut apples into small pieces. Toss with raspberries, a few tablespoons of lemon juice, and brown sugar, ginger, and nutmeg to taste. Put fruit on the bottom of a pie pan.

Mix the crisp dough. I don't ever measure for a dough like this - it's something like one part flour, one part oats, one part flour, and two parts sugar with a little wheat germ tossed in for texture. With your fingers, mix enough lard or butter into the dry mixture to make little pea sized clumps. Once you learn the right texture, you'll never have to measure.

Press the dough on top of the fruit and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until the top is golden and you can see the fruit bubbling up from underneath. Serve with a little milk or cream.

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