Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Baking from Scratch

There was a time that I was terrified of making anything with flour. Breads, cookies, muffins, even pancakes were a disaster. I wasn't above buying those biscuits in the cardboard tube that virtually explode when you crack them on the counter and had some mysterious white bits that I'm sure raised my cholesterol a few points.

With the guidance of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything I had the courage to keep trying and somehow I think I've gotten the hang of basic baking from scratch*. I can whip up biscuits or pizza dough on a weeknight and we've been enjoying this  delicious no-knead bread multiple times a week. Of course feeling comfortable with flour also means eating a lot of butter. I mean, how can you make delicious cookies and pies without it? When I first got the hang of baking we ate way beyond the scope of what any human should consume in butter, flour and chocolate chips. Suffice it to say I've calmed down a bit in terms of quantity, but the quality (in my opinion) is still quite good. We also started buying local flour in bulk (50#) from the co-op, which has saved us some money and will keep us in gluten heaven for a while.

Here are some of my favorite baked goods that are in a regular rotation:

Whole Wheat Apple Muffins and Grapefruit-Yogurt Cake from Smitten Kitchen (A grapefruit cake is cooling on the counter right now...)

Zucchini-Pecan Flaxseed Bread 

Whole Wheat Muffins with roasted pumpkin

Mocha Pudding Cake, served with vanilla ice cream, of course!

Pizza dough, biscuits, cornbread, and classic chocolate chip cookies from How to Cook Everything 

At this point baking from scratch is just how I do things and, honestly, making biscuits without the cardboard tube takes less effort. I don't have to go to the refrigerated section or shorten my life from the stress of the exploding tube. An added bonus is that  I don't have to worry about mysterious ingredients, like those white things. Once I got the hang of things like kneading, measuring and cutting in butter, baking wasn't so daunting. It also helped that the results were so delicious!

I'm off to slice some cake. :)

*Note: I still struggle with kneaded-dough recipes due to our elevation. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I Am an Urban Homesteading Pirate

Some of you may have heard about the Dervaes family trademarking the term Urban Homestead among several related words and phrases that have been around long before their spot in Petaluma. If you'd like to read the nitty-grity, you can check out Crunchy Chicken's post here.

If you already know about this bit of ridiculousness, suffice it to say that I am not willing to give up the notion of calling what we do Urban Homesteading. Sure, it may be a bit faddish and cliche, but we do many of the things that homesteaders of yore did and we're slowly moving further and further away from consumer culture. Look at our house, for goodness sakes! It doesn't get much more DIY than that. Today has been dubbed Urban Homesteaders Blog Like a Pirate Day since we are not supposed to use that phrase anymore. If you're a UHer post about what you do and add your url to Crunchy's comment page for this post.

If this is your first time visiting,  welcome! We've only been blogging about our desert homestead since August and sporadically at that. We have two chickens, four young fruit trees, a pantry full of jams, and a tilled rectangle of clay that will some day become a real, live garden. I love to cook and eat, eat eat!  I also find a strange satisfaction in cleaning out the chicken coop in exchange for an egg every day or so.

Feel free to poke around. You might find something that makes you laugh, or shake your head, or a recipe or two to try out at your house. And, if you live in the Albuquerque area I'd love to hear about your food growing/homesteading trials and successes. We need all the help we can get.

Viva Urban Homesteading!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Vegan Thai

Food is one of the great pleasures in life and one of the ways that environmental-types like us can feel a ton of guilt. We are both omnivores, but mostly choose not to eat meat. This stems from a variety of reasons including the treatment of animals in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and their negative environmental impact. CAFOs are subject to Environmental Protection Agency oversight due to their potential to pollute waterways with animal waste. Animals in CAFOs are kept in overcrowded, sometimes unsanitary conditions that can lead to illness and disease in animals that are destined for supermarkets and restaurants around the globe. We disagree with raising animals in this fashion, but buying humanely raised meat is difficult and can be expensive in restaurants. So for these reasons and others I won't get into here, we are generally meat-free and oftentimes our meals at home are vegan as well. So imagine our excitement when a vegan Thai restaurant opened not too far from our house.

Thai Vegan is in the Northeast Heights neighborhood on Osuna. In its previous incarnation it was a Thai place called Blue Lotus. The food at Thai Vegan is phenomenal. What sets it apart are the offerings of faux meats--chicken, steak, fish and even shrimp! These are  made from soy or wheat gluten and added  great texture and flavor to all of the dishes we've tried. Even the tofu is great--it isn't deep-fried like you find at most places.

We have tried their soups, curries and other dishes and have not been disappointed. Their peanut-sauce is fantastic and their coconut ice cream is made in house! A closed-circuit camera in the kitchen plays in real time so you can watch the chef at work, which I think adds a touch of quirkiness. Most of the times we've been there he has come out and spoken with us and other diners. He grew up in Buddhist monasteries in both Thailand and India and is lovely to speak with.

Eating there inspired me to make this Spicy Sweet Potato and Coconut Soup. It lived up to its name: the red curry imparted a warm heat complimented by the coconut milk and sweet potatoes. This was a cinch to put together--especially because I roasted the sweet potatoes the day before and generally have things like coconut milk, red curry paste and cilantro on hand. 

Even if you are an omnivore or think vegans are weird, give Thai Vegan a try. I don't think you'll be disappointed. In fact, I think you'll be surprised at how delicious meat-free can be.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nordic Skiing

Variety is the spice of life and has become the philosophy behind our recreational activities. There are times where we'd rather go to the resort and downhill ski, or mountain bike, or go bike touring/camping, or tool around town on the single speeds or hike or just stay home and work on the house. There are even times where we'd rather do absolutely nothing and lay around reading fiction and drinking tea. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the time we thought we'd take up rowing on Town Lake in Austin. An interesting idea, but not great in its execution.

Lately, however, we've caught the Nordic ski bug. Nordic skiing, a.k.a. cross-country skiing, is not something that comes naturally to either of us. Lane can carve through the trees like nobody's business on a snowboard and I do fairly well on the downhill skis. Cross-country, however, is a whole other ball of wax. We slip and slide and both do our fair share of falling. I'm smiling in the picture above and that's because I hadn't fallen down for at least 5 minutes and managed to ski down a (very) gentle slope without  completely losing control. 

One of the reasons we enjoy this new sport is that we can be in nature in a more quiet, serene setting. Sure there will be other people out on the groomed trails and some of the yahoos from the ski resort can be heard through the trees, but generally our experience has been one where we feel pretty alone: just us, the aspens and the wind.

This was our view most of the day.

Last weekend our friends took us to a favorite spot near the top of Sandia for a quick outing. After some initial frustration and being passed several times by a pair of men on skate skis, we found a quiet trail and enjoyed ourselves. We were just below the crest of Sandia and figured we missed some great views so Saturday we took the tram  and skied some of the Crest Trail. The tram is a feat of modern engineering and is a great way to get to the ski area from town. The 15 minute drive sure beat the hour or so it takes to get to the East side of Sandia. The weather was incredible and the visibility was easily 100 miles. From some points on the Crest Trail you can see the entire city and Mount Taylor to the west, the length of Sandia and the Manzano Mountains to the south and more mountains and unknown areas to the east. It was really spectacular. The snow was quite windblown and crusty, so it wasn't the best for learning how to use the xc skis efficiently but we got better at falling, getting up and side stepping up short inclines.

Today we had hoped to go to the Valles Caldera for some more skiing but their snow report said they had only 4-6 inches which didn't seem like enough to cushion our frequent trips to the forest floor. Instead we headed north to Santa Fe and the Norski nordic ski trail. It is the only groomed nordic ski loop in the Santa Fe area and is maintained/groomed by volunteers. As such, dogs are prohibited and snowshoeing is strongly discouraged. Sadly, we saw both packs of snowshoers and a few dogs which really makes for a more difficult time on the trail.

I really enjoyed this area. The aspens were stunning, the snow (and landing) was soft and the trail was well marked. A beginners route was clearly laid out with several opportunities to bail out should you need to. I had a rough start, falling often and having a difficult time with anything remotely downhill and Lane really hit his stride. Towards the end of our first loop, I felt like I was getting the hang of it and was even able to make it all the way down a (seemingly) sizable descent.

This little shelter was along the trail.
After our first lap we had hot chocolate, homemade bread and cheese at the trailhead. Feeling a bit tired our second lap was not as long, but it was far more successful! We only had a few spills and the last one left us in stitches. Turning on cross-country skis is not easy and stopping is even more difficult. We were descending this slight incline with me in the lead and Lane quickly catching up. I couldn't move along fast enough and his skis slid between mine. We had ceased accelerating but were a bit tangled and, unable to follow the bend in the trail, headed off, with a large aspen finally helping us come to rest. We were a mess of skis, poles and laughter and it took a few minutes to unwrap ourselves from the tree and get back on track. It would have been quite a sight had anyone come upon us.

The other view--from the ground!
Arriving home a few hours later we had a great dinner of borscht, sauteed beet greens,  roasted potatoes with garlic aioli and this pudding cake--a hearty meal perfect for replenishing lost calories and capping off a lovely weekend.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Jam On

Today is my fourth day out of work due to weather-related issues. The last three days were directly related to snow, frigid temps, and road conditions. Today, with the State of Emergency school closures are related to the need to conserve gas and electricity. Luckily our house was not impacted by the limited natural gas as our wood stove is still waiting for a chimney. This project is next on our agenda. We were able to use our gas furnace and plenty of comforters to stay warm. I'm wondering if this is just the first in a series of natural-resource-related school closures. Will this become a trend in the depths of winter and, to make up the days, push school into the summer? Then the issue of school closures will persist because so many resources are needed to run the cooling systems.

While I could fret and worry about the state of our depleted natural resources, I chose instead to put some food by. The Beneficial Farms CSA had frozen figs on offer and I ordered some for the last of our pickup with them. We're down to just one CSA because the Beneficial Farms pickup day/time was not working for us. Originally out of Santa Fe, Beneficial Farms began offering shares to folks in Albuquerque a little less than a year ago. Sadly, the Albuquerque option is in a state of crisis and needs more people to sign up to be able to continue the service. Do I feel some responsibility? Sure, but it was becoming too stressful for us to manage.

Pickups are on Friday evenings at the Las Montanitas warehouse. If you are interested in supporting this CSA, click here for more information.

To make these lovely fruits into jam, I went right to  Put 'Em Up, my new favorite book on canning and preserving. The recipes are interesting and she doesn't rely on alcohol for flavor as Eugena Bone does in Well Preserved. I think Well Preserved is a fantastic resource for canners who both eat quite a bit of meat (to utilize the many recipes) and have liquor on hand. Put 'Em Up, however is more or less alcohol-free and uses unique ingredients.  Her fig jam is more than just sugar and fruit, for example. It also has balsamic vinegar, which lends an air of sophistication. Here is the finished product:

Might pick up some bleu cheese to enjoy with the jam on fresh bread.

The CSAs have also provided us with a plethora of apples, so I turned them into spicy apple chutney, also from Put 'Em Up. It smelled heavenly with the cider vinegar, brown sugar, curry, ginger and allspice simmering on the stove for nearly an hour. This is what it looked like in the pot. Here it doesn't look so appetizing, but believe me it smelled and tasted divine.

If you're thinking "isn't canning usually done in the summer?" I can tell you the benefits of canning in the middle of winter are many.
  1. It heats up the house (if I had listened to the local news and heard about the natural gas shortages, I probably would not have spent the day with the stove on and the canner boiling away, but so it goes).
  2. It adds humidity to our dry indoor climate
  3. I can avoid canning burn-out when all of the fruit and veg comes in at once. Freezing it allows me time to space out canning projects and tackle them when I can, not when I must. 
  4. I didn't sweat to death in a sweltering kitchen for hours. It was rather pleasant, really.
  5. Did I mention how much more comfortable it is to can when the outdoor temperatures are not in the 90s?
We still have blackberries, peaches and apricots packed in the freezer but I think I'll take a break from the canner for today. I'm ready to get out of the house for a bike ride and a cup of tea at the local vegetarian place. It's going to be a balmy 36 degrees today! I hope that wherever you may be, you are safe and warm.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Airing Out Our Clean Laundry

With our abundant sunshine we usually have enough heat and solar energy to dry our clothes outside. The last few days have seen the temperatures well below freezing and snow falling from the sky. When the weather doesn't cooperate we will sometimes  drape our wet clothes over the furniture and any available drying surface. Lane, however, has hatched a different idea:

The ladder/hangar setup in front of the gas heater has worked swimmingly. It may not make it into the New York Times Home and Garden section, but it is certainly effective. We just rotate the ladder from time to time and everything dries well.

In Corinne Tippett's book Just a Couple of Chickens she recounts a time where inclement weather drove her inside to de-feather a chicken and warm up her two daughters. She sat on the couch of their trailer and plucked feathers off a chicken's carcass in their living room. Imagine her husband's surprise upon returning home to find his wife inside their home, hunkered over a half-naked chicken and her realization of what their life had become now that they were poultry farmers in the country. That's sort of how I feel about our dirty ladder drying rack. It may not be pretty, but it gets the job done and, that's just how our life is.

Neighbors and Chickens

Before we put up our fence, our chickens got their fair share of interest from the neighbors.

  • Our closest neighbor always asked when we were going to kill and eat them. 
  • The young girls from down the street would stick their heads out the window screeching "chicken, chicken, chicken" as their family hurtled around the corner.
  • When they visited their grandparents, two young boys would come by and offer to clean the coop and collect eggs and ask a lot of questions about chicken biology.
With the fence the girls aren't so visible, but the curiosity remains. The girls still screech around the corner and the boys will try to peer over the woodpile. I wonder what would happen if one day one of the hens was missing, swiped from our yard. Would our neighbors rally in support to find her? Would there be outrage? Snickers?

In this article from the New York Times, this very thing happened to a family in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn.  With all the opportunities to get depressed about the state of mankind, this story restored some of my faith in humanity. Check it out, even if you don't have chickens of your own, but especially if you do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Winter Cooking

We've fallen victim to a winter storm that has stuck around for a few days. I think we received just under 3 inches of snow and tonight's low is forecast to be -4. School has been canceled for two days leaving me with lots of time on my hands. Weather like this combined with oodles of "free" time calls for using the kitchen to keep the house toasty.

Yesterday I baked a loaf of peasant bread which made the house warm and smell of delicious yeasty goodness. A spicy lentil soup (recipe to follow) and hummus were whipped up for lunch with fresh radishes and other veggies delivered by our CSA. Dinner was this delicious Shepherd's Pie

I modified it a bit, using meatless soy-free crumbles to replace the ground beef and added the carrots to the pie filling rather than mash them into the potato "crust."  We ate more than our share and both needed a giant mug of Eater's Digest tea to combat the full bellies.

Today I'd like to try these two wintry recipes for dinner: Slow-Baked Beans with Kale and Creamy Cumin-and-Garlic potato gratin. Comfort foods at their best (I hope!). For meals like this, one needs to plan ahead--casseroles and such take time and I have the lima beans soaking now so they'll be ready to slow cook come dinner. I get a lot of pleasure from planning and anticipating these types of dishes and am glad that today I have the luxury of time to make them happen.

Here is the recipe for the spicy lentil soup I made yesterday. It comes from my well-worn copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. If you don't already have this cookbook, it is a must have. I've used it countless times when I'd like to try an unfamiliar grain or something shows up in the CSA share that I've never cooked before.  His How to Cook Everything Vegetarian looks pretty great, too.

Lentil Soup
Makes about 4 servings

1 C. lentils, washed and picked over
Several sprigs of fresh thyme or a few pinches dry thyme
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch or smaller cubes
1 celery stalk, cut into 1/2 inch or smaller cubes
About 6 cups water or chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, preferably warmed
2 T olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 t. minced garlic
1 C. chopped tomatoes (canned are fine)
1/2 C. minced parsley or cilantro
1T. peeled and minced fresh ginger
1/4 t cayenne
1/2 t. ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Place lentils, thyme, carrot, and celery in a medium pot with 6 cups of the stock. Bring to a boil , then turn the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally.

2. Meanwhile, place the olive oil in a small skillet and turn the heat to medium-low. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until it softens. Add the garlic and stir. Cook for one minute more. Add the tomatoes, parsley or cilantro, ginger, cayenne and cumin. Stir to combine.

 3. When the lentils are tender--they usually take about 30 minutes--fish out the thyme sprigs and pour the onion mixture into the soup.

4. Add more stock if necessary; the mixture should be thick, but still quite soupy. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Barn Wood Veneer

While we remodeled our house, we rented the house next door. After 6 months of a mostly ideal living situation, we were more than ready to call our place home, even if the house wasn't "finished." One of the finishing touches we were willing to live without was lovely-looking structural beams.

The first visit from the county inspector affirmed our suspicions that the house was on the county's radar. It had been "red tagged" and considered unlivable for many reasons: an illegal sewer hook-up, the electrical wiring was definitely not up to code, and the house was structurally unsound. This is what the house originally looked like:

Not structurally sound & with questionable electric

With the help of a structural engineer it was determined that we needed to put in three beams to sufficiently bear the load of the roof. We chose to use tri-lams. These are boards laminated together and would be appropriate for our needs. While we liked the look from the running glue and the lettering stamped on the side, we also knew they could look better. Enter the now ubiquitous barn wood.

Our neighbor dismantled a barn several years ago and the wood has been aging further in his yard. Practically all of the wooden features of our home have been constructed out of this wood that has so much character. (See this post for shelving and kitchen pics.) We love its warmth and the instant lived-in/rustic feel it adds to the house. Compare the tri-lam beams to the barn veneer:

View from the living room before.

The view from the living room with the barn veneer.
The bathroom before

The bathroom after. Can you see the saw marks?

The veneer is temporarily tacked up and will be permanently installed some time in the future. I hesitate to say when because while starting a project is easy, finishing one never is. I'll post pictures when the project is finished.

And for those ornithologists out there, we know that our roadrunner latch hook  is not anatomically correct--a roadrunner has 4 toes, two that face forward and two towards the rear. We're ok with some artistic license to satisfy aesthetics.