Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Long-Term Food-Storage Pantry, Part 1

Home-canned Milk, Butter & Lard
Non-Refrigerated Eggs
How To Stay a Year Ahead of Inflation with Your Grocery Bill

I want to say up front that we don’t really think of ourselves as survivalists. I’m sorry, but if our country goes nuclear or there is mass chaos on a nationwide scale, I don’t expect many of us would survive that no matter how well-prepared we are. But I’d like to believe we could easily survive for several weeks if there were a short-term emergency, and we’d be able to survive for several months if we ever found the grocery-store shelves bare and had to subsist entirely from our farm while we recovered.

It was March of 2007 that we decided to build a closet under the stairs going into our attic and start an "Emergency" Pantry. At the time, we seemed to just be making ends meet, but both of us working outside of the home was out of the question and wouldn’t have made much economic sense anyway. We were just learning to plan our gardens around ourselves and long-term storage and had pretty much come to terms with the utter uselessness of marketing our produce to others, outside of bartering and occasionally selling surplus or a single cash crop.

We made a list of every food item we thought we might need to supplement our own farm goods for one year and headed to the mart. Two cart-loads later and plenty of comments about how we must have a large family J, we brought everything home and began stocking the closet. From that day since, not a single item has gone into the pantry that didn’t have the date clearly marked and sometimes I jot down the price we paid (which is very enlightening regarding how much food prices rise in a single year).

After that trip, I began ordering harder-to-find items in bulk. There are a number of companies that ship such items at a very reasonable price and I began stocking up on 50# bags of whole grains and industrial-sized cans of things that are expensive in small quantities, like bouillon granules, potato flakes, herbs and spices. (More on how to store these safe things safely later in this series.)

And of course, I was learning to can and dehydrate as much of our own food as I could during this time. Since ’07, we’ve added a pretty good supply of basic medications and emergency first aid supplies (for ourselves and our animals), plenty of disposable goods (zip-locs, plastic wrap, etc.), an ample supply of toiletries, lamp oil, candles and Coleman fuel and anything else we think we might need in a true emergency. We bought these things as we could afford them and didn’t cough up a big chunk of money for anything.

I might also add here that our "emergency pantry" is no longer just for emergency use. We live from it year round. On a weekly basis, we still buy things – dairy, deli meat, steaks, non-essential items like beer, wine and sodas. But I’ve often gone 3 weeks at a time without making a single trip to the grocery and if it came down to it, I could go a LOT longer than that! We could eat entirely from our pantry and our farm for months.

Whatever our original reason for starting the long-term pantry, it’s been one of the smartest things we’ve ever done. There are simpler disasters in life than being without power or gas. Not having to worry about your weekly food bill is one of the biggest insurance policies a family can have.  Knowing that your family will still be able to eat well if you or your spouse lose your job, or suffer a long-term illness or (God forbid), one of you dies falls under that category of “one-less-thing-to-have-to-worry-about.” Furthermore, if there is a financial crisis one week (the car needs work, the dog needs emergency vet care, the electric bill burns your hands when you open it!), it’s hardly a blip on your radar because it affects your ability to feed your family not at all. And it goes without saying that if you keep your pantry well-stocked, you’ll never find yourself making a special trip to the store for just one item.

It was 2008 (about a year after starting our pantry) that gas prices first began getting scary. We needed to restock and so we made our list and headed to the store. Having not purchased many of those items in a full year, I was completely floored at how much food prices had risen. That’s when I realized we were still eating food at last year’s prices and the food we purchased that day would be even MORE expensive a year from now. So essentially, you stay a year ahead of inflation by purchasing your food in advance.

Furthermore, if you stock your pantry a little at a time from the get-go, you can take advantage of sale items and wait until you find the best price on an item before putting it in your pantry in the first place. And the best part about this? We almost NEVER have to shop at Wal-mart anymore. (That alone makes it worth doing!) You can almost always find good prices on items locally and buy them in bulk as long as you’ve shifted your focus to long-term storage and away from making that weekly trip to the grocery.

It also seems like every year, more and more of our pantry is supplied by goods from our own farm. One of our top priorities right now is better fencing so we can acquire our own dairy animals and more meat animals. I’ve been canning milk, butter and cheese for years now and I’m looking forward to being able to supply those items from our farm rather than the supermarket. Still, buying a gallon of milk from the supermarket and canning it in quart jars is a heck of a lot cheaper than buying those tetra-cubes of Parmalat or paying for it by the 12-oz can. Tastes a lot better too!

I should probably mention a word here about expiration dates. I don’t know what year it was made mandatory by whatever nanny agency decided it (probably the USDA and FDA), but every single food item for sale in a supermarket (except for produce) now has to carry an expiration date. (To protect us from our own stupidity, of course!) Food that has been properly canned does NOT expire a year after being manufactured! This is just another example of our American tendency to need something to be paranoid about and an excuse to waste perfectly good food.

If there is something wrong with a can or jar of food, you’ll know it. The can will be bulging, the pop-top lid on a jar will be popped, the food may be cloudy or foamy or smell bad. This can happen regardless of the expiration date. Those cans with pop and peel lids seem to be the worst about getting their seals damaged, so just keep on eye on your pantry. Keep everything rotated and throw out anything that is suspect, but NOT because of the expiration date. The worst that might happen is that food canned in tin cans may taste a little metallic, but this doesn't mean the food is spoiled. That flavor can mostly be prevented by maintaining a cool temperature in the pantry & keeping stock rotated.

I also need to point out that when you’re stocking your long-term pantry, stock it with things you already like and are comfortable preparing and eating. If you don’t already LOVE beans and rice, your family will be quite uncomfortable living on such things in a true emergency. The occasional deep-fried treat or dessert will go a long ways towards making a bad situation tolerable, if not pleasant, so be sure to include some oils, fats and sweeteners in your pantry for when your family needs a morale boost.

Long-term food storage takes time, discipline, knowledge and space and of course, one must actually have some cooking skills, but I believe it’s one of the biggest insurance policies a family can carry in an uncertain world. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fast-Growing Greens

62 Pak Choy Seedlings
I like things that are easy.  When it comes to the garden, carrots are easy. And green beans – those are not only easy, but downright pleasurable – a five-gallon bucket of them to string and snap gives me a good excuse to watch TV for a couple of hours. J But if I want not only easy, but fast, convenient and delicious, the little Asian greens are the way to go.

Willhite Seed, just down the road from me in Poolville, carries three different types of the fast-growing Asian greens: Pak Choy, Tatsoi (Taht Soi) and Mizuna. A full ounce of seed runs less than $5, which gives me monthly rotational plantings for several years. In North Texas, we can set them out as early as mid-February, though a severe freeze may cause them to bolt (go to seed). The Tatsoi seems to handle cold weather best and I’ve started them as late as October and harvested well into winter. They will all have the best flavor grown in cooler weather, but can be grown thru the summer as well.

These little greens are related to mustards but they’re very mild in flavor. They are all good stir-fried or simply cooked with a little onion in some olive oil. (Or with some salt pork or bacon, like collard greens.) I like to use the Pak Choy chopped in spring rolls. The Mizuna has delicate, feathery greens that are good raw or in a mesclun salad mix.

This morning I set out the flat of Pak Choy I started 3 weeks ago. Just look at the size of them already – that’s a LOT of growth for a 3-week-old plant. In the garden, I plant them intensively, meaning I set them out every 4 inches in rows only 6 inches apart. In a 4-foot bed, 60 plants (one flat) only take up about 4 linear feet of bed space, or 16 square feet. That’s a lot of bang for your buck, especially considering they’re ready to harvest in about another month, freeing that space up for something else.

Newly Transplanted Seedlings Awaiting Mulch
I notice the bugs are already chewing on this batch. I haven’t even looked to see what’s doing the damage, but a hand-sprayer with some organic pyrethrum/rotenone always controls the little buggers. Be especially mindful of Harlequin bugs during really warm weather – they love plants from the brassica family and can wipe out a planting of greens in a day or two. The caterpillars of Cabbage loopers are also fond of them.

The little greens are not heavy feeders (compared to cabbage or peppers, for instance), but they grow quickest with plenty of water and lots of organic matter worked into the soil or regular doses of fish emulsion. Like all mustards (and most members of the brassica family) they go to seed quickly after they mature and must all be harvested at once just as soon as a flower stalk appears on the first plant. They keep for several weeks in the fridge, if they last that long!

Freshly-Harvested Pak Choys
(There are a few more seed companies with a good variety of Asian greens, notably: Baker’s Creek, Kitazawa Seed Company, Pinetree & Johnny’s Selected Seed.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Seasonal Asian Fare

Hot & Sour Soup, Egg Rolls & Sweet Chile Sauce
We have a new grocery store here in Bridgeport and I’ll admit I’ve gone a little nuts. It’s been ten years since we’ve had access to such exotic fare without driving 45 miles and even though the produce isn’t any more flavorful than it is anywhere else, by golly, it’s prettier and fresher! Course the deciding factor as to whether I would shop there frequently was…

Spring Roll Wrappers! Good ones. The kind that can hold a full 1/3 cup of filling. The kind that don’t tear. At an affordable price. Course the fact that the new grocery also has a good selection of fresh and flash-frozen seafood hasn’t diminished my opinion of them either. That’s another thing we’ve really missed!

Over the weekend I thinned the turnips and snowpeas. I have several bags of baby turnip greens and pea shoots in the fridge. And of course we always have our own carrots. March thru May is also the time of year when over-wintered cabbages are ready in Texas. Pak choys and Tatsois that were set out mid-February are also ready now, and with succession planting, will be available until mid-May. The first spring onions are also ready to pick and this is the only time of year asparagus is affordable if you don’t grow your own. So there’s a virtual cornucopia of wonderful things with which to fill spring rolls and make stir-fries.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a craving for Curtis’ incredible “Hot and Sour Soup”. He’s the only one that’s allowed to make it. (I’ve made it several times and it just doesn’t turn out the same – go figure!) It’s chilly and blustery today and it just seemed like the day for it. (That, and it’s a good use for all the fresh chicken broth we have right now!)

A pot of soup and a platter of spring rolls, perhaps a stir-fry and some good, steamed jasmine rice – what more do you need out of life? J

Preliminary Prep Work
Before beginning, consider chopping (in the food processor, separately) a big knob of ginger and a handful of garlic cloves. Thinly slice a bunch of spring onions (about 6) by hand, separating the green pieces from the white in separate bowls. Have on hand and readily available:
Soy Sauce
Mirin or Sherry
Sesame Oil
Rice Vinegar
Miso (optional, stores forever in the fridge or freezer)

Curtis’ Hot and Sour Soup
6 cups chicken or pork broth, or dashi
1 tablespoon grated ginger
whites from 6 green onions, thinly sliced
¼ cup cloud ears
4-6 dried shitake mushrooms
¼ cup lily buds or golden needles (optional)
¼ pound pork, cut in matchstick pieces
¼ cup bamboo shoots, cut in matchstick pieces (optional)
10 medium shrimp, coarsely chopped,
(or 1 (4.25 oz) can Small Shrimp)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sherry or mirin
3 tablespoons rice vinegar (more to taste)
½ tsp white Pepper
1 cake firm tofu, cut in small cubes
Hot sauce to taste (Tabasco, Hot Oil, etc.)
1 tablespoon miso
2-3 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with ¼ cup water
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Thinly sliced green onions for garnish

(Assemble ALL ingredients before beginning!)
Soak cloud ears, mushrooms and lily buds in hot water for about 15 minutes. Drain and slice or shred.
Bring broth to a boil.
Add pork and simmer for about 5 minutes.
Add cloud ears, mushrooms, lily buds, bamboo shoots, soy sauce, sherry, salt and shrimp (if using the can of small shrimp, add later). Simmer for about 5 minutes.
Add vinegar, pepper, tofu and hot sauce (and can of small shrimp). Simmer about 3 more minutes.
Scoop some broth from the soup into another container and whisk in the miso. Add the mixture back and simmer a few more minutes.
Taste and season as needed. (Will probably need more vinegar.)
Combine cornstarch with water and add, stirring gently until soup thickens.
Continue to gently stir and slowly add eggs so that they form long strands.
Stir in sesame oil.
Garnish with Onion or Scallion.

Diane’s Spring Roll Filling
It’s helpful to have 2 sets of hands to make these – one person to assemble them while another cooks them. Be sure to brush an egg wash on the inside of each wrapper before filling and brush the outside of the finished roll with a pastry brush dipped in flour or cornstarch to keep them nice and dry. We can crank out a platter of these in less than half an hour.

Assemble raw ingredients in a VERY large bowl and set aside. (I chop everything in the food processor.):
4 cups cabbage or cabbage plus mixed greens
2 stalks celery
3 thinly sliced green onion tops
1 large carrot
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic

Assemble cooked ingredients:
1 pound finely ground pork
4 ounces chopped fresh mushrooms
1 teaspoon grated ginger
½ teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil

Brown pork in wok or large skillet, separating it into as small of pieces as possible. (A pastry blender is handy if your skillet isn’t teflon-coated.) Add the remaining ingredients and chow for several minutes. (Don’t let the mushrooms sweat too much or the mixture will be too wet – if this happens, sprinkle in a bit of cornstarch.) Remove from heat.

At the last minute (right before assembling and after oil is hot), add pork mixture to raw ingredients, along with scant ¼ cup soy sauce and 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Mix thoroughly. Assemble using about 1/3 cup of filling in each roll. Fry them 3 at a time in hot oil. Makes about 20.

We used to make these in a deep-fryer set on 350-375. Now we usually just use a cast iron skillet with about an inch of oil on medium high heat. Using REAL lard results in a far superior product if you’re willing to cook with it.