Sunday, March 9, 2014

Seasonality: Early Spring

Red Pontiac Seed Potatoes, 1015 Onion Sets and Fresh Eggs

SEASONALITY. Every creature on this planet is governed by it, except for a single species – we schmucks who have access to a supermarket 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

I’ve long wanted to dedicate this blog exclusively to the concept of seasonality, and I’ve succeeded to some degree, but it’s becoming more and more apparent in matters of homesteading, gardening, butchering, cooking, fermenting – all of the things I love – most people fail to understand that seasonality is the single most-immutable law on this planet. We have no natural instinct or common sense left regarding this concept. Oh, I suppose it might kick in if we had no other choice. Over time. A long time, probably. If we survived long enough.

I subscribe to a number of food blogs and I’m on various Facebook food groups. I also love food history and enjoy ethnic and period sites. (“Period” food describes recipes, dishes and feasts that were prepared during a specific time and place in the past.) The other day someone on a “Medieval/Renaissance” food group was whining that she couldn’t find a “period” recipe for squid fritters. I suggested that she google “conch fritters” since conch meat is about the same texture as squid meat. Oh no, it MUST be a period recipe. (me rolling eyes) Sure enough, someone from the Florida Keys later commented that she could just google conch fritters and she screeched at them that it MUST be a PERIOD recipe!!!

Now, here’s the deal with people who lived on this planet a hundred years or more ago…. They seldom wrote down recipes that were simple common sense. Fritters, fish cakes, meat balls, meat loaves – they are all the same basic recipe. You mix something flavorful that you have quite a bit of (onions, fish, corn, meat -- IN SEASON!) with one or more binders (flour, egg, bread) and various SEASONINGS (herbs, seeds, spices, vegetables) and you deep-fry, boil or bake them in that form. It’s as simple as that. My German grandmother, who was born in 1903, didn’t write down common sense recipes – she wrote down recipes for cakes and puddings and pie fillings, and that’s about it. What was the point? She knew how to cook – everything else was common sense.

The other thing about people who lived before 1900… they had no refrigeration and few ways to preserve perishable items. Therefore most food prepared had to be used in its SEASON! So if your period recipe for the ever-elusive squid fritters contains onions and bell peppers and it’s February, if you go to the grocery and purchase those items, the recipe is no longer “period” because it’s not SEASONAL! If you can’t be a purist while being demanding, what’s the point?

The same rule of seasonality would apply to charcuterie (cured meats). Animals on a farm (medieval or modern) are bred, birthed and slaughtered in their SEASON. Traditionally, pigs were butchered/hunted in the fall/winter because that was when they were at the peak of their flavor and plumpness. Because pork fat is almost always added to other meat sausages for flavor and juiciness, there might be times when you would have to rely on already-cured pork fat (bacon, lardo, speck) to have the fat at all. For instance, if you wanted to make lamb sausage but needed the pork fat, you might need to rely on cured fat in the spring when you butchered lambs. So if a “period” recipe for sausage calls for pork fat, wouldn’t it just make sense that it would be whatever fat is available SEASONALLY, not what you can find on a Styrofoam tray?

I’ve had to cheat on the seasonality issue quite a bit for the last couple of years whilst making the transition from my Texas homestead to my Oklahoma homestead.  At my best and most efficient, I often went weeks without grocery shopping in Texas. We were able to subsist at one point for 6 weeks on ONLY what we had in the pantry and garden. We are getting to that point here, funneling all of our capital into fencing, breeding stock, tools, animal housing, fruit trees, perennials, etc. Meanwhile, I think it’s important to note the distinction between arriving at that point, and getting there.

Everything we are working towards right now is quite expensive. But not in the overall scheme of things. Once we have breeding stock, housing, perimeter fencing, etc., the cost will be minimal to maintain our homestead. We will have a mostly-closed system of constantly renewable resources. At most, we will require a little feed and hay, but pastured animals are not reliant on such things year round. And the hope is that we will have much of value to trade for our few expenses. We will have eggs, meat, produce, cheese – perhaps even smoked, baked and homebrewed goods. (Mind you, I am not talking about a legal, regulated business model here – I’m talking about TRADE and BARTERING, pure and simple.)

Back in January, we acquired breeding stock of our American Guinea Hogs. But it will still be awhile before we can breed them, and even longer until we have pork, bacon, ham, etc. We decided it was ridiculous to keep buying supermarket pork when we could go ahead and get set up to finish out a couple of market hogs for butchering. So that’s what we’re doing right now. But it is expensive to feed a couple of pigs that large for a month and feed them WELL. We don’t want them finished on corn and soybeans alone – that is a guarantee for the same flavorless pork we could’ve bought from the supermarket. So we had to take a look at LOCALLY-SOURCED, SEASONAL options that are reasonably–priced and available.

We have a long-term food-storage pantry that is well-stocked with flour, grains and dried beans. And plenty more of those things may be added for around fifty cents a pound. I am baking bread every other day whilst learning the intricacies of sourdough bread baking – it’s essential to bake regularly to keep my starter active. There are eggs….. oh, but there are eggs! (Pigs and chickens LOVE eggs!) Steam-rolled oats are available from the feed store for about twenty-five cents a pound and they are excellent quality. But the real find during this time of year is seed potatoes! They are available by the fifty to one-hundred pound bag for gardeners for only fifty cents a pound. 

Now, if you’ve never eaten seed potatoes, they are a real treat. Not only are they cheaper than supermarket potatoes, but they are fresher and taste better! They are ALIVE and starting to sprout. There is still a little cold soil clinging to them and they haven’t been sprayed with sprout inhibitor or anything else. They are quite delicious and nutritious, even if they aren’t “organic.” You can cut off the crowns for planting (the pieces with the most eyes) and return them to the burlap bag and they will be just fine. You can use them freely in any recipe. And of course, the pigs and chickens just love them.

In the picture above, you will also notice there are tiny little onions in a basket.  Now, if you don’t live seasonally from your own farm, you may not know that if you had to depend on LOCALLY-GROWN, SEASONAL produce, bulb onions would NOT be available year round. Unlike most produce, bulb onions cannot be grown on rotations. You have ONE shot to get a crop each year and once they are mature, you have between two and six months (depending on the type you are able to grow in your area) to use them before they start rotting. What you would have this time of year (IF you grew your own or sourced them locally), are either green onions (called slips) or small onions (called sets) that you would use to grow bulb onions from. 

Now in all fairness, we easily go thru ten pounds of onions from the supermarket just about every week. But the little onions pictured above are available in nurseries, garden centers and co-ops this time of year for about a dollar a pound. (Which beats the heck out of the three dollars a pound I last paid for gourmet cipollinis!) They are a bit of trouble to prepare but so wonderful pickled and used in stir-fries and soups. But that will probably be my next blog post.

There are many other wonderful foods that are available this time of year that are both LOCAL and SEASONAL.  The crappie are spawning and biting like crazy right now. Or so I have heard – it has been too darned cold for me to test that theory! We caught these back in July.

Winter is the birthing season for many farm animals, including cows and goats. Pictured is one of the two Nubian dairy goats we will be bringing home when she’s weaned, in June. We met her the day she was born and just fell in love. By this time next year, she will have kidded and we will be milking her every day. There will be fresh milk, cream, cheese and (hopefully) butter.

It is still pretty cold and fresh bread comes out of the oven every other day. More than we can eat, so we share with the pets and livestock.

There are plenty of beans and other dry goods put back in the winter pantry for warming soups and one-pot meals. Here is a Bean and Bacon Soup made with Northern White Beans. Pinto beans are frequently on the menu as well – I usually cook two pounds in the crock pot – one for us, one for the pigs. Cilantro and parsley are winter herbs here and frequently find their way into our soups and garnishes.

And here’s another seasonal favorite: “Sausage and Cabbage Soup” which takes advantage of either fresh cabbage or sauerkraut (both are available right now), seed potatoes, garlic, caraway, sour cream, and a fresh sausage I just made (also from seasonal ingredients). It is garnished with pickled eggs and fresh dill (also in season).

Mother Nature gives to us the foods we should be eating in their own seasons. Honoring Her abundance and wisdom can only lead to better health for ourselves and this planet. Try eating seasonally here and there – you just might become addicted!

Barney-our newest Hampshire feeder pig
Wilbur-Barney's brother