Category Archives: books

On this week’s goat milk adventure

I bring you fudge!

Of the two books I have on using the products of one’s home dairy, I have teed off fairly roundly on the one, but I haven’t said anything about the other.  “The other” would be a slim spiral-bound book called, crazily, Goats Produce Too:  The Udder Real Thing, Cheese Making And More Volume II by Mary Jane Toth.  Once I got beyond the utter church-ladies-recipe-book style of  the thing in both format, tone and (frankly) badly written instructions, I have decided that the late Mary Jane Toth is my hero in all things dairy.  (Deep bow.)

The fudge was a start.

Don’t judge a book by its cover says the nag in my head.  Surely, there’s plenty of appeal to Ricki Carroll’s book: it’s glossy, there are 75 recipes in it, plenty of pictures and how-to’s and it’s gone through the hands of an editor and a graphic designer but goodness you get to a recipe, get all excited to make it and realize DUH you don’t have the one thing needed to make the cheese happen:  and in 74 of 75 cases that one thing is something she’s glad to sell you.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  It just means 1.  I should really read the recipe closely and 2.  I should continue the idea that my cheese will continue to cost me money in terms of ordering the stuff to make it.

But Ms Toth’s book is refreshing, despite its lack of panache.  It’s totally commonsensical.  And:  you don’t need to pay her a dime to make cheese, or anything else dairy-related.  In point of fact, you can get many of her recipes for free on the internet, and most of the needed ingredients right out of your refrigerator (yogurt as thermophilic starter, buttermilk as mesophilic).

Incidentally, I have never made fudge before.  It was tasty, and chewy…or I should say “is” because I am sure it will take us weeks to eat it all!

On meat-eating

P1010907Not gory, not fleshy:  last night’s salad

A call came in.

“Do you want a backbone?” asked my friend.

See, I am not missing a backbone, and never could have been accused of such:  I’m pretty spiny (in more ways than one, especially if you rub me the wrong way).  No.  This call related to a pig’s backbone, as its owner didn’t know what to do with it.  Apparently, a pig came her way (these things are known to happen if you live with your ear to the local food rail) and she got smart and called the itinerant animal killer/butcher to come over and help her out.   He did, killing and hoisting that boy onto the branch of a tree.  She took it from there, with one of her children holding the butchering book.

But I didn’t want a backbone.  Backbone of poultry, backbone of beef, yes, I wouldn’t have said no.  But pigs don’t make great stock, and that would be why I would need a backbone.  (Maybe I can smoke it, then use parts to flavor bean dishes. Hmm.)

“Do you have any meat you don’t want, or fat?  Or the head?  That, that I could deal with,” I said.

Jonathan Safran Foer has a nonfiction book out now called Eating Animals.  I have never been able to stomach his fiction, but he’s a clearer, less annoying voice when he’s researching things and telling stories from his life.  A vegetarian who’s wavered between carnivory and veganism, this book prods us to think about what it is that we DO eat.  One of the more outlandish outtakes that’s been covered in the media is his questioning our taboo of pet flesh.  (I would throw horse in there too:  there are peoples all over the world who eat pets AND horses, as you might know.)  For the most part, though, the book is a look at the meat industry, and how it has accomplished its highest goal:  keeping us away from knowing what it is we eat.  Keeping us blissfully ignorant, in fact; the average American consumes 21,000 animals in his or her lifetime.  (How so many, you ask?  Ground beef in your burgers is how:  there could be up to 400 individuals in your patty.)

As a new-ish returned carnivore (two years this month, all due to producing my own meat) I obviously have very strong opinions on this issue.  My reason for 16 years of vegetarianism is that I could not be ignorant, no matter how hard I tried.  No, it was too cruel, eating meat from factory farms; it wasn’t who I was, or am.  But I am not blind to the way my own animals live and die, and I can easily eat those of the beef and pig farmers I know.

That’s all it’s about.  Being a little less cruel.  Being a little more open-eyed to the reality of our food.  And being game when backbones come your way.

On good ideas


My garden guru has a new book.  It’s all about winter gardening, and I am so pleased he wrote it.

You have to understand one thing about me:  I am guru-less as a matter of principle.  I never quite could understand the need to follow, be it some kind of spiritual leader or some kind of money person or some kind of visionary politician:  good ideas speak to me, not the people who spout them.  Plus, I am a firm believer in the idea that the best shepherd follows his flock, leading from behind.

And Eliot Coleman is chock-full of good ideas, and very familiar with the phrase “you can do it.”  A born tinkerer, it has been his fervent goal to work with less and less inputs, growing the things that will best grow in the conditions they are given.  For this reason, he “discovered” the unheated winter greenhouses used in Europe for the last 100 years or so.  The northern half of the U.S. and southern Canada, though colder than Europe in the winter, have a lot more sunlight:  thus, we can also grow things in the winter, despite the cold.

This new book, however, is geared much more toward the small market grower, much like his first big published book, the New Organic Grower.  Sure, there are a ton of tips in it; in particular, he makes some fine distinctions regarding the methods his farm employs to grow their produce.  All his greenhouses, save one, are mobile.  To aerate the soil, he moves each greenhouse twice a year over a single rectangle of land:  dead in the middle of this land is an electrical hookup and a hose bibb so the structure always has access to both.  He has one greenhouse that stays in place, and is heated to just above freezing.  It is in this greenhouse that he and his workers clean their lettuces and produce year-round.

He also makes a fine labeling distinction between these greenhouses.  See, *I* call my own growing structures “greenhouses” because most people have no idea what a high tunnel, hoophouse or polytunnel are, and I don’t want to be so imperious as to school them on the distinction.  He thinks “greenhouse” is inaccurate because it is not the glassed-in, immovable enclosure filled with palms and orchids that most people know.  “Hot house” is accurate, but only for half the year.  So, his movable, unheated greenhouses?  He calls them “cold houses,” and the one where he’s got a propane heater in it a “cool house.”  I like this distinction.

For the average homeowner itching to perhaps extend their season beyond spring-summer-fall, this might not be the best book to own.  To really get dreaming on what’s possible in your back yard, Four-Season Harvest is your book.  He wrote this for just this kind of ambition, and it’s what got me noodling around with sketches and graphs years ago.  He details coldframes to low tunnels to the cold- and even cool houses above, including charts and lists of crops you can grow.

What I admire about the man is his extreme passion for fresh produce.  Everyone should have a farmer like him nearby:  wouldn’t that be a wonderful world?  Fresh produce year-round, local, and using “deep organic” methods…and that’s why he wrote this book:  it’s his dream too!

SO:  small market growers?  BUY THIS BOOK.

On starting new gardens

3408013991_7a179fc0e5Planting red set onions.  Set onions (little bags of seed onions you’ll find at garden stores now) can be eaten at any size, and the greens can be eaten at any time too.  They’ll never get as large as onions you grow from seed but they’ll do in a pinch.

I thought I would give a bit of a primer on garden-starting, considering that we’re starting our school gardens from scratch (and have great plans for them soon).

Whenever you start anything, of course, there’s a bit of an up-front investment you must make in time and materials.  Before that first seed can sprout, some earth probably needs to be turned.  In our school garden’s case, we had a working garden: it produced pie pumpkins most recently, so the whole garden was covered first with weed-suppressing fabric and then a layer of woodchips.  To start our beds, we needed to build the beds (each bed required (2) 2″x8″x8′-0″ boards and (1) 2″x8″x6′-0″ boards cut in half), rake away the woodchips, cut the fabric away, and do a bit of weeding.  Our soil at school is rather nice, but raised beds are nicer:  they warm up/dry out earlier in spring, they’re easier to weed and water, and–probably most importantly–are off-limits to little running feet!  We dumped some semi-composted sheep poop and bedding onto the bottoms of the beds, then we filled each bed with about 4-6 loads of topsoil.

(The above steps assume you have:  1. a saw, 2. a drill, 3. a rake, 4. a shovel, and 5. a wheelbarrow.  Having access to sheep poop is a bonus, and topsoil is the dream but not reality for many gardens:  raised beds do NOT need to be filled to the brim, especially not with topsoil.  Do what you can with what you have.  I certainly do!)

We expect to end the school year with a Harvest Festival sometime during the third week of May.  Our last frost date here in chilly Michigan is somewhere between May 1st and May 15th:  and yes, I am expecting a harvest of goodies 2 weeks later!  Am I crazy?  Nope.  I am simply working with things that don’t mind the cold.  Some of these things I am starting from seed both indoors at school and inside the semi-warm confines of our home greenhouses.  Many of the seeds, though, are being planted in the beds now:  peas, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, potatoes, set onions, lettuces.

3408764690_5723b3109eLettuce seedlings can take a bit of frost, and the smaller they are, the hardier they are.

Our garden’s focus this semester is Asia.  Fortunately for us, many Asian countries grow things that appreciate the coolness of a Michigan spring, and have a very short (under 40 days) growing season.  I ordered a large portion of our seeds for things like mibuna, pak choi, flowering Chinese broccoli, Napa cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, daikon radishes, etc. from the esteemed Kitazawa Seed Company in California:  they specialize in Asian goodies AND have both a fantastic selection and really wonderful literature supporting each seed variety.  At $3.50 a seed packet they’re running nearly double what you’d find at a garden center of your local big-box retailer, but the seed quantities are generous AND you can’t expect to find Oka Hijiki (seaweed mustard) on a rack at Home De(s)pot.  But say you’re not that interested in Asian vegetables.  You can still easily start your garden now by planting many of the other things I listed.  And don’t stop at the big-box stores for sourcing cheap seeds!  Get out of the city and suburbs and find a feed store in the country.  Most farmers still have kitchen gardens out back and it is at their local farm/feed store that they often get their seed potatoes, carrots, and beans.  Most feed stores sell seeds out of a bin, cheaply:  expect to pay 40-80 cents for more carrots than you could ever eat in a year.

Your gardens needn’t be (16) 3’x8′ raised beds to be productive.  A family of four could easily do quite well in trimming their grocery bill with four raised beds of such size.  The key to a great harvest, frankly, is constant production.  If I were such a family of gardeners, I would use approximately 1/4-1/3 of one bed as a seeding bed (i.e., using it to start seeds and then move the leafy seedlings around to other beds as they get big); I might even place an old window on top of this area to heat things up and hurry things along.  Most root crops (carrots, turnips, potatoes) like to stay where they’re planted, so having a seeding  transfer bed mainly helps leafy greens.  To save space, tomatoes and pole beans can be trellised, as can certain kinds of vining melons and squash; going vertical does save lots of precious growing area for other things.  There are many great get-started-gardening books out there:  I would recommend Square Foot Gardening or Ruth Stout’s method of Lasagna Gardening to get you thinking about both how to maximize a small garden and how to garden without breaking your back.  My absolute favorite beginning-gardening book is Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer:  she’s very approachable, and she covers more than just veggies.  I also worship her husband Eliot Coleman and have used his Four-Season Harvest to get my own greenhouses up and running.

Get digging, everybody!  Spring is here in half the world, fall in the other:  both are great times of year to start new garden beds.

On cross-quarter festivals

For the past few years I’ve picked up The Old Farmer’s Almanac at the feed store in November for the coming year.  It’s a bit of a lark, really.  It normally sits on my nightstand, vying for space with the 6-20 books I am juggling at any one time.  I find it a fun flip-through, a kind of pocket agrarian Wiki, that gives me a tiny something to think about before I turn out the light.  I flipped through it Friday night and realized that, thankfully, Candlemas is on Monday.  Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Imbolc:  all three of these quasi-religious festivals overlay an important earth-based event.  It’s the halfway (cross-quarter) point between winter solstice and spring equinox.


After a long winter like this one, I can see the need for a party, even if it’s only to celebrate the fact that we’ve made it through half the winter.  Now raise a glass with me, will you?

*Interesting thing about Imbolc:  this is the day that The Winter Goddess (Cailleach, an old woman) in Celtic lore would gather her firewood for winter.  If it was sunny, then she’d have enough light to gather more wood, thus meaning the winter would be longer.  Does that sound familiar?


On cheap leeks


Snowcover has a way of throwing a brand-new look to the garden, making you look closely at what’s already out there.  After the first snow, my eye and the camera fell upon a spouting leek blossom.  Lookee that, I thought.  What an anomaly.

I had allowed this particular leek to go to seed because it had the fortitude to live through a tough winter.  It duly sent up three big flower stalks this spring, followed by a couple of leek pearls and at least one leek bulb.  So I cut and harvested the seedheads this fall after they’d dried, and harvested the leek bulb for a greenhouse transplant, but I ignored the rest of the plant.  Well, we must have had a wetter autumn than I had previously thought because one of the smaller blossom’s many seeds had sprouted right on the bloom itself.

When I was a kid of about 11 or so, I picked up a ratty copy of The After-Dinner Gardening Book by Richard Langer at a library sale.  This one unassuming paperback has actually been one of the most influential books of my life.  It was written by a sun- and soil-deprived New Yorker who had a hankering to see what he could grow from the castoffs of his meals.  (The 1970s were, after all, the Age of Indoor D.I.Y. Plants:  whose house didn’t have an avocado pit or a sweet potato half sprouting in a jar of skunky water, toothpicks stuck in their midsections?)  Anyway, this book was transformative for me, a gangly preteen with a hankering for her own windowsill garden.  It certainly made me look (and continue to look) at any and all plant-like things as POTENTIAL.


So here I am, not even a day of snow-covered ground behind me, and I am pulling the sprouting leek blossom apart, planting the babies in a leftover take-out container filled with seedling mix, leftover take-out chopstick as my planting tool.


The babies will sit inside on the dining room table for a while, inside a perforated plastic bag to keep our one evil plant-munching cat from eating it.  The babies will get bigger, get a haircut, get bigger still and then they’ll be transplanted out in the greenhouse.  It’s quite possible I will never get a leek from them, as the trip from warm house to chilly greenhouse might signal them to go to flower this spring.  But I couldn’t just let the blossom winterkill with all those little babies clinging to it.  What would Richard Langer say?

On note-taking

In the category of “You know it is fall when…”, I started this year’s garden notes.

Are any of you ardent note-takers?  If so, I take my sunhat off to you.  Me, well…I started with the best intentions when I moved here in late fall of 2004.  My first season’s notes were copious, with each variety of vegetable and each bed elaborately detailed.  (How I ever pulled this off with a one-year-old I still don’t know.) Now, I have settled in to creating three sets of notes per annum:  a seed inventory/seed order, seed-starting notes, and then the garden bed inventory.  The latter is what I began last night.

The bed inventory is a bit of a trick, considering I am a manic succession-planter.  My main objective is to label each bed to show what I grew in it that year, thus avoiding putting the same stuff, or same family of stuff, into it again.  Mostly, I simply remember what went where.  Having the notes is kind of a nice crutch though.

But golly:  I had 47 beds of stuff this year to take notes on.  Yipes.