The Southern Urban Homesteader Goes to Italy

Where have I been lately?

The short answer is in Italy. Last month, my sweetie and I took eleven days to eat and drink our way across Tuscany and Umbria—a trip I have been fantasizing about for years. It wasn’t until a few months ago, however, that the stars finally aligned: timing, travel partner, finances.

One of the many lovely things about my sweetie is that he is as food-centric as I am, so the decision to fly into Rome and then immediately leave the city behind to find deliciousness in farms and villages was quick and easy.

So was the good eating itself. Our first stop was Orvieto, where we stopped into a small market shortly after we arrived and bought salami, bread, fruit, cheese, and wine, thinking that this would cover us for lunch for a few days. The proprietor smiled when we saw our purchases and poked a bit of gentle fun at the Americans: “Il cibo pronto, eh?” Ha. Yes, fast food—the only way to do it in the birthplace of Slow Food.

And so it began. Our pattern quickly became to grab a pastry and a caffe latte in the mornings, nom on our market goods throughout the day, and then either find or prepare a feast for dinner. That is where it became interesting. I found myself bringing my own habits from home to our routine in Italy: what could we find that would be fresh, in season, inexpensive, and absolutely delicious?

We began with lessons from the pros. The region is having its coldest winter in about three decades, and it had been snowing like crazy. Most of Orvieto was closed—either because it was the low season or because no one could get to work. Staggering a little from the combination of jetlag and icy cobblestones, we tromped around until we finally found an open place—Ristorante Piazza del Popolo. A gentleman seated us, took our order, poured our wine, went into the kitchen and prepared our food, and served it to us. We were the only guests in the restaurant, and Jostino, the owner/chef, was the only one working. The menu and the staff were limited due to the weather, but the meal was simple and perfect—I had a fennel and orange salad on greens, followed by a tagliatelle pasta with cinghiale, the local wild boar meat. The flavors were fresh and uncomplicated and light-handed. There was no garlic (a surprise to us—we thought garlic was the defining flavor of Italian food).

So we learned: find fresh, don’t overcomplicate, don’t worry about the garlic. And a couple of days later, in San Gimignano, we picked up pancetta, an onion, tomatoes, pasta. I had bought some fresh pecorino with black truffles in Pienza earlier in the day after reading somewhere that the pecorino of the region is creamier this time of year because the sheep are eating grass instead of hay. I stole a sprig of rosemary off a shrub on the side of the road during a walk (yes, still a forager!).  We had a small apartment with a kitchen, so we put it all together – complete with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar stocked in the kitchen.

We had a few more blowout restaurant meals (especially worth noting was the incredible seafood feast we had in Bracciano with a friend of mine from college and her family), but we enjoyed our self-catering just as much. Apples, pears, more cheese, cinghiale prosciutto, fresh bread, spinach, mixed salad greens, more pasta, more wine. We would just dig out whatever we had — sometimes even just sitting in our tiny rental Fiat Panda, to stay warm — and picnic.

At some point during our indulgences, I remarked to my sweetie that the way we were eating on this trip was not all that different from the way we eat at home—fresh, local, seasonal, unprocessed. The main difference was the flavors we encountered by virtue of the locale. The cheese was fresher and creamier, truffles were much more plentiful and affordable, and cinghiale is certainly not easy to come by in Decatur. 

But since we returned home we have taken a definite Tuscan and Umbrian turn in the kitchen. I found my old pasta maker, dusted it off, and put it into the sweetie’s hands, along with some all-purpose flour and a bunch of my girls’ eggs.

He figured it out and cranked out some fettuccine, which we combined with fresh kale from the garden and some local sausage I had in my freezer (nope, no garlic).

We walked up to the farmer’s market on the square, too, where I picked up some carrots and cabbage for a minestrone with barley and some aged pecorino with black truffles from Antico Mercante, purveyor of cheeses and cured meats from you-know-where. (I tried out my Italian on Franco. He didn’t seem terribly impressed.)

I used the rind of the cheese in the minestrone. Then I grilled a slice of homemade bread and poached an egg to go on top—just like the soup we had in a trattoria in Orvieto.

  

Buon appetito!

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It takes a village to do my Christmas shopping.

Y’all know I love a good barter. What I hate is shopping. Malls make me cry, and Wal*Mart makes me hyperventilate.

Over the years, however, I have managed to get my Christmas shopping down to a stress-free science. My goal is to give Christmas gifts that are full of love and joy, that support the local economy as much as possible, and that recognize who the recipient is and what they need and appreciate. Pardon my bragging, but yes, I can do this without ever setting foot in a mall or a big-box store.

My approach changes slightly every year. Always there are the homemade jams, and in more recent years I have added knitting. This year, however, I actually did go somewhere. I walked two doors down, to my neighbor Emily’s house. Talk about keeping it local!

Genius at Work

Earlier this year, Emily decided to do what she does best. In the past, she has been an excellent teacher, and briefly she was an advocate for families of children with learning disabilities in a law practice, but Emily’s true gift is at the sewing table. I have never known anyone with her eye for bringing together color, texture, and pattern in completely new and beautiful ways.

Today the mother of three really cute children, Emily learned to sew years ago as a newlywed living in rural New Mexico, worlds away from anything like the neighborhood where we live now — where our houses sit a few feet apart and where we don’t hesitate to walk into one another’s homes to borrow milk, pine nuts, a glass of wine, a can of tomatoes or beans. I love this about my little street in Decatur. We have impromptu parties all the time. We are all up in one another’s business, and it’s great. This village is my family.

I have had a front-row view of Emily’s process of turning a self-taught hobby into a cottage industry (literally — she sews in the front room of her cottage). Baby clothes, coffee cozies, lavender-scented eye masks, teddy bears, fabric-covered journals, shoulder bags — stuff just started pouring out of her sewing machine and filling up her house. So she secured a booth at a local arts fair last spring and started selling it. Then she did it again at another crafts fair. Suddenly, her business was taking off.

I said, “Emily, you need a website.”

So one night last summer over a glass of wine, she and I worked out a barter — a website for her in exchange for Christmas shopping for me.

Here is Emily’s business website (the business is called Two Peas): http://twopeasbyhand.com/

And here are some of her creations. (Don’t ask me whether it’s stuff I got in our barter, because you might be on my Christmas list, and I’m not telling!)

   

  

Emily is on Etsy, too. Check her out! She is still cranking out adorable things (cashmere bunnies! Owl heat packs from recycled wool sweaters!), so you can still place Christmas orders.

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Hoop Dreams

Regular readers of this blog know of my ongoing war with the evil squirrels who are intent on decimating my garden. My best defense so far has been the squirrel-proof net tent, which has covered the garden bed closest to the house for 2 1/2 years. It has worked magnificently, but tough luck for the several other garden patches I have growing in other parts of the backyard, exposed to the wiles of these demonic creatures.

The largest of these areas is a 20 x 25 bed next to the chicken coop. It’s too big for a giant net tent like the one next to the house, so I  usually grow crops back there that the squirrels aren’t likely to be interested in—peas, beans, arugula.

I decided, however, to see if I couldn’t take advantage of that area for a winter garden this year, to give the SPNT bed a rest. But instead of enclosing the whole area under a net, I decided to cover just a portion of it with hoop houses. I’ve seen hoop houses work on a smaller scale, mostly over raised beds, and I could see no reason why they wouldn’t work for a longer bed about five feet in width.

Off to Home Depot I went for ten-foot lengths of PVC, foot-long sections of rebar, zip ties, garden netting, and spring clamps.

Supplies

And here’s what I did with all of that:

The rebar went into the ground in pairs five feet apart, spaced about every four feet.
I bent the PVC over and secured each end on the pairs of rebar.
Over the bent PVC I draped the netting and secured it with the zip ties. I left a “tent flap” on the front as a entrance and secured it with spring clamps.

Inside the hoop house I have planted kale, Swiss chard, and cilantro—all things that the squirrels of eee-ville dug up and ate when I planted them in that area last year. I’m pleased to report that a few weeks after I built the hoop house, everything is thriving unmolested. Here’s what the kale looks like today.

I have started a second hoop house but haven’t yet covered it with netting. All my fall seedlings are planted out, so I have nothing to plant in that space until spring! I’m hoping that will be a great space for tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers next year.

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Southern Urban Homestead FAIL

Typically I am pretty good about owning up to my disasters. It’s a whole nuther thing, however, to own up to them on a public blog. But I’ve decided, as a character-building exercise and to show that perfection is not the goal in this ongoing quest of mine for balance and bounty in the city, to fess up to some of my most spectacular flops. I hope you enjoy them and won’t think less of my skillz.

Blackberry Rude (as opposed to “Cordial”)

Last year I went crazy with the blackberry picking. I made jams and cobblers and stuck some in the freezer for fruity desserts at the holidays. And I still had about a half gallon of berries left, so I decide to steep them in some vodka and sugar with a few spices. I had visions of Anne of Green Gables and the delicious raspberry cordial she mistakenly served to her bosom friend, Diana, in a chapter titled “Diana is Invited to Tea with Tragic Results.”

Tragic results indeed. Eight weeks later I strained the blackberries out of the liquid and bottled it all up. It was so pretty–dark reddish purple and clear in the jars. I was imagining creative cocktails, ice cream concoctions, and just some tasty sipping. What I got, however, was cough syrup. Ew. I think I just overdid it with the cloves. They overpower the flavor. I can’t bring myself to dump it all out (that was good, expensive vodka), so let me know if you have a cold. I have a  home remedy to share.

The Soap with Ugly Dead Things In It

I really should stay out of Michael’s stores. I accidentally come home with all sorts of little fake crafty things that are unnatural and useless, such as the glycerin soap making kits, complete with blocks of glycerin and cute little plastic molds in the shapes of hearts and stars. It was supposed to be easy: melt the glycerin and pour it into the molds. But no. I had to make it a little more complicated by adding some herbs and essential oils.

Maybe my mistake was using fresh herbs. Because guess what? Glycerin soap does not preserve lavender, eucalyptus, and rosemary as fresh green, succulent leaves. No, the sprigs of lovely shrivel and turn brown, emanating dark, gooey halos suspended in the hardened soap. Best to leave the soapmaking to those who know what they are doing.

Persimmon Poo

When I gathered the persimmons from a nearby tree last fall, I had a vague idea in my head about persimmon butter. Finding nothing helpful in my home canning and preserving books, I googled around and learned, first off, that persimmons don’t have enough acid to be canned without growing yourself a healthy crop of botulism. So I settled on freezer butter. And here is why googling can be bad for your health: I took a recipe here and a recipe there, made some substitutions, added some spices, took a few calculated risks and short cuts. Cooked it down, put it in jars, processed it, stuck it in the freezer.

The day I concocted this mess, my parents were visiting. I showed my father one of my jars of persimmon butter. My dad is typically a poker face, but when he peered into the jar, well, let’s just say his look betrayed his skepticism. “That looks interesting,” he said. A few weeks later I opened the freezer and pulled out a jar of “persimmon butter.” Rather than the brilliant autumnal gold I was expecting, it had turned sort of brown–a bad sign I chose to ignore. I thawed the jar and opened it. The substance within had shrunk away from the sides of the jar and thawed into a dry, solid chunk of you-guessed-it.

  

  

Do Not Neglect The Cucumbers

Generally I am a successful cucumber grower. I make nice, fluffy, generous hills and enrich them with buckets of compost. I mulch deeply and water often. I make lots and lots of pickles. This year, I got cocky. My cucumbers, I told myself, would know what to do. So I made a few hills, stuck the seeds in, and proceeded to neglect them.

What I got was an infestation of squash bugs that chewed everything I had planted to a withered crisp. I saw the first few appear and instead of picking them off and dusting with diatomaceous earth, I decided my historically vigorous cukes would fight the good fight and win . . . simply by virtue of being my cukes. But no, the squash bugs won, and I got no cukes this year. Here is what they looked like. Try not to cry.

A few careless mistakes, a few risks gone bad, a few lessons learned. But there are no morals to be drawn here. Just laugh, please, and if you happen to figure out persimmon butter, please share your recipe.

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Filed under Gardening, Making things, Putting Up

My Pretty Great Housekeeping Seal of Approval

My neighbor Emily (who is also an amazing fabric crafter, and you should check out her website and buy her gorgeous homemade things) passed along a wonderful resource to me the other day. Remember how excited I was to find a recipe for homemade laundry detergent? Well, here is a whole array of homemade housecleaning products. These are on the website of the David Suzuki Foundation, downloadable from this page as a .pdf. I’ve tried a few of these, and so far my favorites are the carpet deodorizer and the all-purpose cleaner #1.

The great thing about these recipes is that they call for ingredients I just have around the house anyway — stuff like baking soda, borax (my new favorite cure-all — sprinkle it around the exterior of hour house to keep those annoying sugar ants out), castile soap, lemon juice, vinegar.

Here is the carpet deodorizer: baking soda, corn starch, bay leaves, and ground cloves. I heated the tip of an ice pick over the gas flame and poked holes in this plastic container (these come from the DeKalb Farmer’s Market when you buy parmesan cheese) to create a “shaker” for it. Worked perfectly for sprinkling over my carpets and rugs. I’ll store it by stacking it inside another identical plastic container.

And here is the all-purpose cleaner: castile soap (I used peppermint), white vinegar, hot water, borax. And an old plastic spray bottle.

I used it on my kitchen counters and bathrooms. Right now, my house smells like cloves and peppermint instead of wet dog. Nice!

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Upside-Down Economics

For me, one of the great rewards of the “urban homesteading” lifestyle is that it enables me to live pretty frugally. Or perhaps “frugal” is not exactly the right word. More accurately, I have greater control and choice over where my hard-earned dollars go. It shifts some of the variables in the cost-of-living equation.

For example, instead of spending lots on utility bills and things like Tide laundry detergent, I use a clothesline and make my own laundry soap. There is some meat in my diet, but it isn’t a daily thing. I get a lot of protein from other sources (eggs, beans + grains, and my dearly beloved cheese)—which is much less expensive, so when I do buy meat, I can splurge on something local, sustainable, grass-fed, and fabulous. If I grow a lot of my own food and buy from local farmers, I’m putting my money into a local organic chicken feed co-op and Saturday farmer’s market instead of the fossil fuel industry.

One of the conundrums, though, of the “locavore” movement is that it has upscaled quality basic ingredients. Restaurants that feature locally and sustainably grown foods tend to be very pricey. Unless you are at a certain income level, a McDonald’s hamburger meal is still going to be the more practical option than, say, a Farm Burger  meal—which is an incredibly good value but still more expensive than McDonald’s. I love that Decatur’s local farmer’s market accepts Electronic Benefits Transfer  (EBT — the electronic version of food stamps from the state) cards and that it is strategically located within easy walking distance of the city’s public housing development. But then again, if you’re stretching your EBT allocation as far as it can go, and you can get a much bigger bunch of carrots at Kroger, where would your common sense take you?

These complicated questions about food, sustainability, class, culture, accessibility, and economy are beginning to filter into the media. NPR recently ran this story about Hardwick, Vermont, a town many think of as a kind of epicenter for local food production in the Northeast. But as one Hardwick high school student observed, “There’s the side of the town that’s for the local food movement, but I think there’s an even greater side of the town, with more people, that can’t afford the local food. I work at our local supermarket grocery store, and I see most of the people in town there.” One farmer in the area is responding to this concern by introducing a more “industrial” edge to his processing: more frozen, pre-washed fruits and vegetables that will be packaged specifically for the local supermarkets.

And yesterday, a piece in the New York Times about locavore queen Barbara Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, who has struggled in the last several years to start a restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia, where they live, in the heart of the Appalachians. The concept for Harvest Table is noble: locally sourced produce, meats, and cheeses; other stuff that they ship in is organic and/or fair trade. His vision is egalitarian, “built by and caters to the community,” the article explains. But Harvest Table has yet to make a profit in its four years. It’s too expensive for the locals. The average annual income in the area is $15,750. From the article: “‘If you go over there and eat, you have to pay $20,’ said Kay Thomas, 69, who has been farming in Meadowview with her husband for a half-century. ‘You can go to Pizza Hut and eat for $6. With the economy the way it is, you have to watch what you do.'”

What kind of upside-down economic system renders the most basic, most simple, most easily produced food the least accessible? What can you do to turn it aright? For me, it goes back to that question of redirecting my resources — and it goes to thinking about my lifestyle in simple economic terms. If I make some kind of purchase for my garden — for instance, a Growcamp that I spent $600 on earlier this year — I think of it in the long-term, and as an investment for future food production. Last year I hired someone to help me improve my rainwater catchment system — a significant up-front expense, but I haven’t watered my garden from a spigot on the house at all this year.

Maybe “frugal” is the right word, after all. I want my food to be cheap. So I consider the flow of goods and funds in a different way. If I sell a few dozen eggs, my fancy organic chicken feed is paid for. As regular readers know, I’m always on the hunt for a good barter and the alt-economy it helps create. The value of goods and services seem more real somehow, and so maybe in some scheme it helps bring the greater system back down to earth.

And while I love and appreciate  the upscale restaurants that have embraced the local food trend, especially the ones right around here in Decatur, I also love preparing great meals at home with food I have grown myself. They are very cost-efficient if I think about what ingredients I have on hand and build a menu from that: Flour, water, salt, and yeast. Mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant from my garden.

Suddenly, my pizza is cheaper than Pizza Hut’s, and much more delicious.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Conservation

Jam Fusion

Every year about this time, fruit ripens all around me. I’m a longtime jam and butter maker: strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, fig, apple, pear, among others. It’s a basic concoction of fruit and sugar and sometimes a splash of lemon juice.

It’s always delicious, but it’s pretty much fruit and sweet. Last summer, though, a friend gave me a jar of raspberry-balsamic jam. I loved the piquant tang behind the fruit, and I realized the creative possibilities that I had not even begun to explore. So when the pears came in with the fall, instead of straight-up pear jam, I added some fresh grated ginger to the bubbling fruit, and voilá! Pear-ginger jam.

My friend Beth from New England came to visit that October. Beth has one of the most adventurous palates of anyone I have ever known (and one of these days I’m going to get her to write a guest blog post on some of her ice cream creations, which are amazing), and she is a discerning cheese lover. So I requested that she bring some cheese from her beloved cheese shop, and for several days she and I wolfed down cheese with giant dollops of the pear-ginger jam, the perfect complement. I sent her home with a big jar, which, she reported, didn’t last long.

With that success in mind, when the strawberries came in in May, I did some research and came up with a recipe for strawberry lavender jam. Fusing these flavors take a little longer because you actually have to allow the strawberries and lavender to macerate together in sugar for hours—24, in my case. You layer the lavender on top of the strawberries and pour sugar on top, then chill. They look like they’ve been sitting in snow—really quite lovely. Then you add some more lavender to the pot when you boil the fruit and sugar, and remove all the stems before processing in jars in a hot water bath. My kitchen was incredibly fragrant, and the resulting jam is nuanced and delicious.

Now the blackberries are coming in, and I got  brave and made up a flavor combination on my own. A fan of cardamom paired with other fruits, I added a teaspoon of this unique Indian space to nine cups of blackberries and six cups of sugar. It’s a delicate, complex fragrance at the moment, while it’s boiling away on the stove, and I can’t wait to sample the result.

I’m interested to know what other interesting fusions have successfully wound up in jams, jellies, and preserves. Readers, please share your experiments and recipes!

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Filed under Putting Up