Friday, October 17, 2014

From Homestead to Market: Food Grown to Be Eaten

Pickled Serrano Peppers

Eventually it crosses the mind of most folks into off-grid living: “Is it possible to supplement my income or even earn a living from my homestead or small farm?” Lots of people do it. Some are moderately successful, some enormously successful, and some fail at it miserably. Personally, I have fallen into all three categories at one time or another. Allow me to share some of my failures, successes and observations…..

It was 15 years ago I moved from the city to 10 acres in Bridgeport, TX. We had good virgin soil – a nice sandy loam with a clay base, a good mixture of cleared pasture and oak forest, and plenty of privacy as we were surrounded by a 3000 acre wildlife conservation ranch. Our first mistake was that we bought a tractor. And not just any old tractor, but a pretty, shiny, brand-spanking new John Deere with trailer, mower and tiller attachments. We already had 2 car payments and the tractor set us back an additional $300 a month for 5 years, but that’s another story…..

I ordered my first chickens while I was still commuting into the city for work – a straight-run batch of 25 Barred Rocks. Soon we were getting eggs and I was looking at needing to butcher some roosters. All that went well enough and I had tilled up a quarter acre of ground and had an incredible garden the first year (virgin soil will virtually guarantee that!), so I began formulating my plan….. “Why, this is so easy there’s no reason I can’t make a living of it!” And so the garden grew and the chicken population grew.

I had discovered a homesteading group on Yahoo and on it was a sage, older Appalachian man who cautioned against such enterprises in general, and especially with so little experience. One day he wrote a wonderful essay called “Food Grown To Be Eaten.” In summation, his admonishment was that food grown on a homestead for personal use is not the same as food that is grown to be sold, that it takes on a completely different character when we grow for market. Over the years, I have found this to be mostly true, with only one exception.

The first brick wall a market farmer hits is that consumers are very uneducated about farming and food in general. They want you to grow food that LOOKS exactly like what they are already used to buying, but they want it grown in a healthier manner and to taste better. They expect you to provide the full cornucopia they are used to buying from the grocery twelve months a year, no matter the season. They want eggs during the holidays when the hens slow down laying, they want spinach and lettuce in August, and tomatoes in February. They have no concept of seasonality.

Nor of variety. American consumers spend the majority of their produce dollars on the same few items – apples, bananas, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, celery, etc. The majority of them do not purchase turnips, beets, chard, kale, collards, shell peas, blackberries, winter squash or string beans. But the reality of farm/homestead life is that you will most likely end up planting and eating a LOT of these things because they are easy to grow and fill a niche in the seasonality of your climate.

Now, HERE is the exception to the rule of “Food Grown To Be Eaten” when attempting to be successful at market farming. You MUST be actively eating the food you grow, and not just that, but you must LOVE to prepare, cook and eat your own food! If you are offering 10 varieties of winter squash no one has ever seen before, sausage-shaped tomatoes, strange looking peppers or eggplant, or (gods forbid!) any okra that doesn’t look like Clemson Spineless, or a green bean with strings on it, you will NOT be able to sell those items unless you are eating them yourself and can educate your customers about them. This is true even of common varieties of produce. The absolute worst thing you can say to a potential customer when they ask about the properties of this or that veggie is “I don’t know. I haven’t tried it yet.” Or “I just grow ‘em, I don’t eat ‘em!” (In which case your customer is going to think you are an idiot and will move on to the next stall, AS WELL THEY SHOULD!) This is the distinction between food that is grown to be eaten, and food that is grown to be sold. If you don’t absolutely LOVE the food you are growing and can passionately educate people about it, they will just go to Costco and buy bagged spinach and California broccoli.

To Organic or Not To Organic – A few years back, I had a good long conversation with a USDA certified organic grower. We happened to be in the same place at the same time and had a couple hours to waste. Oh, but what a setup he had! Only about 5 acres, but with high-tunnel greenhouses (plastic in the winter, shadecloth in the summer), a small tractor to make beds in those houses, and to top it off, HIRED HELP! So I started asking questions…..

“Have you tried the wonderful Green Velvet varieties of okra?” No, people won’t buy that, he replied. It has to be Clemson. “Polish Linguica or Sausage tomatoes?” No, people want tomatoes that are shaped like tomatoes.

“But the okra gets longer and stays more tender than Clemson and fits into a canning jar perfectly for pickled okra, and the flavor of those tomatoes is out of this world.” Oh yeah (says he) I make a fortune on my canned goods, but I have to charge a lot for them too. By the time I rent the church’s kitchen for the day because of state-certification and pay a couple people to do the canning, I’ve already got $3-$4 in every jar. We keep everything real standardized and use a packaged salsa mix in our salsa so it always tastes exactly the same too. (Yum, standardized salsa in a jar – glad someone thought of that!)

And so on the conversation went. No matter what I asked about flavor and variety, the answer was always the same “People won’t buy that.” I’m pretty sure whatever he grows, he rarely eats it either. Does he make money on it? I’ve looked him up several times over the years and he seems to make a very modest living at it. But I contrast him to the people I know who are passionate about their food (organic or not) and their businesses are successful and thriving.

As for the “USDA Certified Organic” status, it’s not for beginners. Most of us did not grow up eating organic food. In fact, the world population would not be what it is today if we’d only had organic food to eat. Like it or not, most of us are alive today because of Big Ag. However, as a gardener, I do believe there comes a point in our lives where we realize growing food naturally simply tastes better. And you’d have to be blind not to notice how beautiful a garden becomes when grown organically, and how much more food you can produce in a smaller space than with conventional farming.

And for the record, if you decide to up your game from homesteading and feeding yourself to some type of certification, “USDA Organic” is not the only way to go. There is “Certified Naturally Grown” and “Demeter Certified” and a new one I can’t think of the name of right now….. But all that is still putting the cart before the horse.

State-Certified Kitchens and Cottage Laws – Thankfully, over the last few years, the demand has become so great for locally-grown, healthy food, the lawmakers have had to cave a little on regulations. They don’t like it one little bit and most of the time, they leave the law very vague so that it can be interpreted in their favor whenever possible. Individual states determine what is allowed to be sold and how and where, but make no mistake, the USDA and FDA still set the guidelines.

Most states now allow some leeway for home-produced goods, as long as the products are considered non-hazardous from a food safety perspective. (To find what is allowed in your state, google “(your state) Cottage Laws”.) Raw milk can now be sold in some states as long as it is sold directly from the farm (google “Real Milk Finder” and “LocalHarvest” to see what’s being sold in your area). Eggs can be sold directly from the farm but most states insist on sanitizing them, and if they are transported to a market, it must be in a refrigerated unit, not an ice chest. Even canned and baked goods have a ridiculous amount of restrictions when they are allowed – only pickles, high-acid salsas, jams and jellies (NO pressure-canned veggies or meats); no cheese or meat in baked goods (including cheesecakes and cream cheese frostings); fruit pie fillings must be store-bought, not fresh (one of those very vague laws, just in case….). And oh, the labels! And the fees! Oklahoma charges $175 to set up under state cottage laws, then $125 a year thereafter. So obviously, you’ve gotta be serious about this just to get started, which doesn’t really fall under the “sell the surplus” condition I’ve been talking about. If you are going to sell stuff from your kitchen, it’s GOT to be food that was grown to be sold.

Blackberry Pie and Fillings -- NOT allowed under most Cottage Laws

The Big Exception – So, when I first started “marketing” I did it the old-fashioned way. Every Saturday, I loaded up an 18’ tractor trailer with baskets of produce and set up in town. There were no other vendors at the time and we didn’t have a farmer’s market, so I set up at the feed store. And I was successful! Within a couple weeks, I had repeat customers and they were so happy to have locally grown, fresh food. (It was organic, but I couldn’t call it that – the USDA owns that word.) Then, and I remember it clearly, I had my biggest haul yet – sweet corn, a few melons, some tomatoes – all the things people love. It was July 4th weekend. Almost no one showed up because they were busy doing other things! That’s when I decided it was time for a new plan….
Our county appraisal district’s website was public at the time, so I scoured the site for high-dollar properties. Then I drove to those properties and made notes of the street addresses from the mailboxes. Sometimes I’d strike it rich and find a small housing development tucked away out in the country and I’d make note of the most affluent-looking homes. I sent them all a postcard for produce for sale each week. In no time, I had more customers than I could take care of, so I decided to revamp the plan once again. (CSA’s were not hugely popular or successful yet some 15 years ago….)

By this time, I realized that I could have my choice of customers and that, as a homesteader FIRST, I could only take care of so many in the first place while still having time to feed and put food back for ourselves. I set the number at 5 families and refused to take on any more. And that was the plan I stuck with. It worked most of the time, but I’d made one mistake – recruiting from the high-dollar market meant I had to be super-careful about regulations and I couldn’t offer most of those customers canned goods, meat or home-baked goods of any kind, since we didn’t have Cottage Laws then. But I did it sometimes with the more sensible ones anyway, especially with bread and butchered chickens. And I made a decent living at it – I was clearing about $200 a week from those few customers and that still left me plenty of time to take care of our own needs. It was enough.

Also, never underestimate the power of barter, though you don’t want to do it with just anyone – you want to make sure that you are trading the best of what you have for the best of what they have – not just cleaning out the freezer of what either of you haven’t eaten yet. We had a wonderful neighbor who lived for hunting and fishing and he traveled all over the world for such things, and brought the meat back whenever possible. We often enjoyed fish from Alaska and the Gulf, and such delicacies as moose and elk from his many trips. His family loved my heritage chickens and rabbits and we both had gardens, but didn’t always raise the same things, so that was another avenue for trade.

Another great market is ethnic groups. In Texas, the Hispanics were some of my best customers – especially for sales of live animals since they prefer to butcher their own. And generally speaking, they do NOT care about food safety laws and other regulatory crap. A friend who sells lamb and sheep caters to the Muslim market and even allows them to butcher on his farm. Here in the Arklahoma area, we have a lot of Asians, though many of them are market farmers themselves. So keep the ethnic market in mind when deciding what to sell or barter.

Now that I have moved to another state and we are setting up a new homestead, we are looking forward to our own version of “selling the surplus.” We have so many wonderful things to offer and more to come – pork, lard, goat milk, chevon, cheese, eggs, wine, baked goods, canned goods – along with good produce. And we have no intention of getting mired down in the BS of regulations and fees. We will sell and trade only with a few good friends and only what we are already growing, raising and preparing for ourselves. We are raising food that is meant to be eaten, not sold. Just try and prove that we are doing otherwise….. (big grin).

Salsa -- Allowed under Cottage Law in Arkansas, but not Oklahoma

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Light Summer Foods

Homemade Pimiento Cheese and Cream of Tomato Soup

There are things I will not buy already-prepared. Mayonnaise and salad dressing (of any kind) have long been at the top of that list, along with bread, canned soups and store-bought chicken. Pimiento cheese recently joined those ranks. I was in Texas for a wedding and was stuck in the city for a couple of days. Now you’d think being in the heart of DFW, there would be plenty to eat – nice restaurants, good grocery stores, even fast food if one was desperate; but fact of the matter is, you get used to REAL food on a farm and there just is not much of that to be had while traveling. Normally on trips like that, I take along hard-boiled eggs, cooked bacon, bread, yogurt, hard cheese, decent fruit and a few other slow-to-perish treats, but I neglected to do that on this trip and regretted it almost as soon as we hit the city.

I hadn’t had pimiento cheese in years, but I found a decent selection of crackers and it sounded good at the time. The jalapenos were a nice touch and it was pretty spicy and a decent brand and I would have purchased it again here in Oklahoma, but could not find it. I tried two different brands after returning and both were so sweet with corn syrup I could not even finish them. So I went in search of a recipe and much to my surprise, the first one I tried (with a little tweaking!) turned out so delicious I will never buy it again. It is great as a dip on crackers, cold on sandwiches, or heated like a grilled-cheese sandwich.  Best of all, it uses fresh peppers from the garden and slathered on a thick piece of Italian bread, goes great with a bowl of Cream of Tomato Soup (with fresh basil), also from the garden. This has become one of my favorite summer meals ever!

Fresh Pepper and Sriracha Pimiento Cheese Spread

*1 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
*1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese (slightly warm for easy stirring)
*3/4 cup (approximate) mayonnaise (preferably homemade, simple recipe to follow)
*1/2 cup (or more to taste) any sweet red pepper, finely chopped
*1 hot pepper (or more to taste), seeded and finely chopped (optional)
*1-2 cloves garlic (minced or grated)
*1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
*1 tablespoon cumin or caraway seeds, freshly crushed
*2 teaspoons sweet paprika powder
*1 teaspoon onion powder
*1/2 teaspoon salt and white pepper, or to taste
*Dash of Worcestershire
*a little sugar if your mayo isn’t sweet, maybe as much as a tablespoon, to taste

--Just stir it all together and adjust the seasonings as you go. Go easy on the mayo until it is the right consistency for easy spreading.

Homemade Mayonnaise

Seriously, don’t make this difficult! Use a hand-held mixer with a single whisk attachment (not both) or an immersion blender and make the mayo in the container you plan on storing it in – a pint-sized wide-mouth Mason jar or even a clean container that previously held sour cream or other dairy. Place in the container:

*2 egg yolks
*1 tablespoon white vinegar
*1 teaspoon stone-ground mustard
*1 tablespoon sugar (if you want it sweet)
*a pinch of salt and white pepper

--Blend with the mixer while slowly drizzling in a neutral-flavored oil. I use sunflower, grape seed or extra-light TASTING olive oil (do NOT use extra-virgin olive-oil – it will taste terrible!). Of course you can also use canola or regular vegetable oil if you so choose. It should take a little less than a cup before it starts to thicken. The only thing there should be to clean up afterwards is your whisk!

Cream of Tomato Soup

Those who know me know I don’t go strictly by recipes much. The original recipe calls for 1 small onion, 1 small carrot and a 28-oz can of tomatoes. But really, it’s best with fresh, dead-ripe tomatoes (about 4 cups, peeled and diced). If you have lots of tomatoes from the garden, of course you can make it with your own canned tomatoes or you can make up the soup base and water-bath it by the pint or quart that way, adding the butter, cream and herbs just before serving.

The soup base amounts are approximate -- it's 1 small onion, 1 small carrot and some garlic -- chopped and sautéed in a little olive oil. Add about 3.5-4 cups of blanched, peeled, cored, diced tomatoes (juicy tomatoes are best). I liked to use some chicken bouillon granules instead of salt because it adds some richness to the soup. Grind in a little white pepper and let it simmer 15-20 minutes. Whether or not you plan on canning it, add some lemon juice -- about 1.5 T. per batch -- the acid will ensure it's safe to water-bath and the lemon will give it a nice, fresh, bright flavor.

Let cool a bit before running it thru the blender or food processor (!) and take the opportunity to measure/blend it a quart at a time if you're canning a large batch so you'll know how many jars to get ready. Bring the whole batch back up to a gentle simmer, then ladle into hot, sterilized jars If canning. I'd water-bath it for no more than 20-25 minutes. (Remember there's a tiny bit of olive oil in the recipe and you don't want to boil it so long it forces any oil residue thru the seal.)

When you get ready to eat it, add 2-4 T butter and 1/2 cup cream per quart batch. I used Thai Basil in this one, but any variety basil or rosemary or chives or parsley -- whatever you have --- is also good. This soup is also delicious with Indian flatbread (Naan) and fresh hummus.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Buttermilk Biscuits with Cream Gravy, Strawberry Jam and Bacon

Awoke this morning to the sound of thunder….. Then went back to sleep and awoke famished! It’s still raining so I decided it was a good day to put up the buttermilk biscuit recipe and tutorial I’ve been promising. Threw in the cream gravy recipe for good measure because everyone seems to think it’s hard to make gravy. It’s not difficult on the stovetop, but I make mine in the microwave because I really don’t need more dishes to wash. (Sausage gravy can also be made entirely in the microwave, by the way.) I’ve been making three pounds of bacon a week in the oven (which takes just a little over an hour for three batches on a large baking sheet), so that’s already made and just needs a few seconds of reheating to crisp it.

The biscuits are just standard buttermilk biscuits with some yeast added. That does not make them a yeast bread! The reason for adding it is because it gives them a little more rise and it keeps them very, very tender. The only other difference is that these go straight into a cold oven – there is no preheating. As for the fat, chicken fat actually makes the very best biscuits and cakes due to the nature of the fat, but right now, home-rendered lard is what we have and that’s what I used. Butter is also fine. (You can also use Crisco or vegetable oil, but please don’t tell me about it!) Please keep in mind that you are not making a pie crust here and cold ingredients aren’t desirable.

This recipe should make no more than 9 biscuits in a 9” round pie pan. You can use a square casserole, but the biscuits won’t snug up against each other quite the same. You may notice at the end of this, there's almost NO clean-up unless you just enjoy making a mess.(wink)

So here’s the basic recipe with pictures to follow:

Country-Style Buttermilk Yeast Biscuits
*1/4 cup water
*tiny pinch sugar
*packet (2¼ teaspoons) yeast
*3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
*1 tablespoon baking powder
*1/4 teaspoon baking soda
*1 teaspoon salt
*1 tablespoon sugar
*1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons good lard, chicken fat or butter – melted
*about 1 cup whole fat buttermilk (or yogurt/sour cream thinned with milk)
(And do NOT add it all at once!)

Whisk together the water, sugar and yeast and set aside. (Stir it down if it tries to foam out of the container before you can use it!)

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients.

Melt the ¼ cup of fat (stovetop or microwave).

Place the remaining 2 tablespoons of fat in the pie pan and melt that. Set aside.

Drizzle the melted fat over the flour.

Whisk it together thoroughly, then rub it between your hands or use a pastry cutter to mix it thoroughly. (The hands work best!)

Break it apart a little more with your whisk.

Make a well in the center and add your yeast mixture plus ½ cup of the buttermilk.

With a very sturdy fork or spoon, begin stirring in the center.

Continue to stir in the center until the dough won’t pick up anymore flour.

Add another small splash of buttermilk, maybe a couple tablespoons.

Continue to stir in the center until the dough again becomes too dry.

Add another splash of buttermilk

And stir again. At this point, the dough has picked up about as much flour as it can while stirring.

So, turn it over gently with your hands a few times, make a well in the center and add another splash of buttermilk.

Sprinkle some of the remaining flour into the well and knead gently a few times until most of the flour has been incorporated. At this point, it will feel mostly dry to the touch, but if you’re an experienced bread builder, if you were continue to knead, it would become sticky again. That’s the consistency you’re aiming for. Add a little more buttermilk if needs be, but be careful at this point.

Leave the dough in the bowl and flatten it with your hands (not a rolling pin) until it’s about ½” smaller than the pan you are baking it in. That’s the pan sitting on top of the dough as an example. (trust me, this works!)

Now, begin on the outer edge and start cutting out your biscuits. This is just a drinking glass that has been dipped in flour. A tomato sauce can with both ends cut out is about the same size. (I have real cutters somewhere…..) Continue along the outer edge of the dough keeping the cuts as close together as possible.

Do not place the biscuits in the pan yet. Just set them to the side.

This is what you will have left over.

Stick it all together, divide it in half and make a couple more biscuits out of it. Try not to knead too much.

Now, make sure that the fat is still warm in your pan and reheat it if necessary. Dip the smooth side of the biscuit into the fat and turn it over so all the biscuits are greased on top and bottom. Snuggle the biscuits together closely on the outside, but leave a little space around the center biscuit (if possible) so the center cooks all the way through.

Place the biscuits into a cold oven on the center rack and turn it on to 425 degrees. My oven beeps when it reaches the correct temp and here’s what they looked like between 4-5 minutes later when it beeped at me. (and that’s the yeast in action!)

After the beep, I set my timer for 20 minutes (during which time i made the gravy and got everything else ready). At exactly 20 minutes, this is how they looked:

Notice how brown the bottom and sides are:

A single biscuit, crispy on the bottom, soft, dense and cake-like on the inside. Perfection!

Simple Cream Gravy
You can make this with either flour or cornstarch. I prefer cornstarch because I like the silky texture better. I also like it with lots of black pepper, but someone in my household can’t eat it, so I leave it out. The chicken bouillon gives it a nice flavor and some restaurants in the south make it this way, but plain salt is traditional.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter or bacon/sausage drippings in a 4 cup measure.

Add a splash of cream if you’d like, then fill the measure up to the 2 cup mark with whole milk.
Whisk in either:
*1/4 cup cornstarch OR 1/2 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
*1 teaspoon salt OR 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon granules
*black pepper

Cook in the microwave for about four minutes total, whisking between each minute. (It might take a little longer or a little less time depending on your microwave.)