The next time you go to buy a tomato at the grocery store, remember that a perfectly round, slightly reddish tomato is boring. Live on the wild side and eat good tomatoes. Each one is a jewel filled with it’s own unique set of vitamins and nutrients, flavor and beauty. Eating tomatoes should be an adventure. Shop your local farmers market, start supporting a local CSA farm or better yet, grow your own. Even a very small back yard has plenty of room for an assortment of beautiful tomato plants.
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We’ve been having an incredibly busy spring around here so I’ve really been slacking on keeping up with this blog. The good news is farming is going great! We have lots of new growing areas, our soil is looking really good after big efforts building it up and we have just received a grant from the amazing folks at the Farmer Veteran Coalition. We are getting ready to build a walk-in cold room and greenhouse. Here are a few pictures of what’s been going on around here.
We have been working a lot on building soil fertility lately. We live in a very arid region, right on the Mexico border in the mountains of Southern California. Water is a serious issue here. We are in an extreme drought with the very real possibility that it could carry on for many years to come. We never have as much as we would like and are forced to learn about ways to conserve water for agriculture. Our soil is sandy and poor, lacking in organic matter and having difficulty holding onto either water or nutrients for long. We have almost 1/2 an acre in cinder block raised beds with soil we have built from composted horse manure, alfalfa and dirt from our property. Everything is on drip irrigation and timers. As we expand the farm we are working on building up the soil on other parts of our property. we have studied a lot of farms in arid regions of Australia that have been dealing with years of extreme drought and various other farms around the world using organic growing and permaculture techniques. We continue learning about just how much good soil and mulch can reduce the need for watering.
It takes a lot of hard work to build good soil, a lot of scavenging and composting and wheelbarrowing. We use all of our chicken manure, composted horse manure, composted wood chips, grass and stinging nettle clippings, weeds, excess vegetable and plant matter, seaweed, hay, straw, leaves, fish, charcoal, egg shells, coffee grounds and worm castings to build our soil. We are also growing cover crop when we can though even that can be difficult when our dry winters force us to irrigate the cover crop.
Drip irrigation allows us to water slowly and deeply and heavy mulch keeps the water from evaporating. It’s a labor of love for sure, but coupled with our growing interest in more drought tolerant vegetable varieties we are seeing our hard work pay off with beautiful abundant harvests and are less stressed about what the weather’s got to throw at us.
Storm turns four-years-old today. life without her seems a distant memory, some other world that never really belonged to me because it was lacking her. She is unruly, fierce and wild. She argues and quests for knowledge and has to have an answer for everything. She plays too rough for everyone, makes me crazy, never stops talking. Sometimes I long for the days before her, the quiet simplicity of life when I could move through my day unencumbered, left alone to my thoughts. But I watch her growing so quickly, and she pushes me to constantly change and evolve with her. I have learned more about myself in four years with her than in all the rest of my life. The times we spend together, just her and I, riding horses, working in the garden, chatting about fossils and bugs, looking at the stars, these are the times when I realize I have something special here. When I see that she is so much more than this heavy burden that the mothers of toddlers carry. She is truly a storm, this one, bringing nourishing life to those who need it. I love her like I have a hot ember burning deep in my heart.
We would love to thank our CSA members who have faithfully stood by us these last few years as we have dealt with having and raising small children, busy work schedules, deployments and droughts. We have given it our best shot with what little we have had of ourselves to give and still find great satisfaction in growing food. It is a noble endeavor I believe, something worth doing with your life.
I read this online this morning and sometimes words just strike me as true. I would love to give credit to whomever said it, but alas none was given.
“With farming the only argument you have is with the weather and, you know, nature and you can’t win so there’s no real point in arguing. It’s just the flow of the seasons and you take what’s coming.”
I have learned a few things over the course of growing food for people. I know now that very few really give thought to their food. They are so accustomed to grocery store perfection, food that just magically appears on the shelves no matter the season, the weather, the climate. Many people are not satisfied with what comes from a local farm. They don’t want to be limited in their vegetable choices, they want to have what they want when they want it and it should never have aphids or a worm hole or a little dirt. They don’t know what to do with beet greens or turnips and have certainly never seen a cardoon or a burr gherkin.
There are however some hardy souls who are truly game for anything, who take Jerusalem “fartichokes” in stride, who don’t give up after the first attempt at cooking something and eventually are won over to loving things like rhubarb, fennel and eggplant. These are the same people who truly believe that supporting small farms is important, that in order to make the world a better place they must put some trust in those of us willing to break our backs, wrinkle our skin and callous our hands for the sake of growing real food, old-fashioned food. The food that is getting swept away and forgotten in this age of industrial agriculture, monocropping and genetic engineering.
It’s easy to look the other way, to grab what you are comfortable cooking, to go for the shiny waxed apples and bleach dipped eggs. They are safe, they are familiar, and they look good. Or so we are told. Approximately 3,000 people across the country die every year from food-borne illnesses though and hundreds of thousands more are sickened. Millions of pounds of meat and produce are recalled regularly. You have no idea what has been spliced into the genes of your tomato and more and more farmers are wearing lab coats. I don’t feel good about this. I am no scientist, no genius, but I do spend a lot of time with my hands in the dirt. I hold thousands of tiny open-pollinated seeds in my hands and it scares me a little that I see them getting harder and harder to come by.
I grow food. It’s what I know how to do and what I am good at. It’s the one small way that I can feel I have a reason to be here, that I can leave a legacy worth leaving even if it’s a small one. Growing food the way I do can be monumentally heartbreaking. It is also life-giving. I can watch plants get battered by wind and dust and frost and all my plans and hard work ruined just like that. I can also see that a tiny dry seed with a little bit of water and a little bit of light can spring into being and grow and thrive and provide food for bees and birds and people alike. It is magical.
So take a minute to think about your food. Really think about it. If you want to plant a garden but don’t know where to start, call me. I want to see gardens everywhere. I want to see people planting fruiting trees and beets in their flower beds. My advise is always available for those who would use it to take control of their own food and are willing to learn. If you can’t or don’t want to grow a garden then really do consider making choices about where your food comes from. Find a small farm and give it your best go to eat what they produce.
At the end of a long hard day of farm work and kids, with a deployed husband and everything on my shoulders, the last thing I want is to spend an hour cooking dinner. So instead I yank a bunch of baby beet greens out of the ground, grab a couple hands full of sunchoke tubers and a few scoops of baked pumpkin that I have staged in the fridge from a pumpkin I baked a few days ago. I chop the beet greens fine, cube the sunchokes up small and toss them into a hot pan with some local free range pig lard from our friends at Cook Pigs ( remember, real lard is the new margarine). I sauté the sunchokes until tender. I then add the chopped beet greens to the same pan with a little salt & pepper and spoon a couple scoops of pumpkin into a pile in the pan and warm it with a little honey and nutmeg. Start to finish maybe 15 minutes, including washing the dirt off and only using 1 pan. Amazing dinner. I also often add a hunk of meat that can be braised quickly in the same pan. The beet greens can easily be substituted for kale, swiss chard or collard greens.The sunchokes can be substituted for beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas or parsnips. The pumpkin can be substituted with butternut, acorn or any other winter squash. Mix it up, keep it simple. This is farm to table.
I can’t even begin to tell you how often I hear people tell me how they would love to eat better but they are just too busy to cook from scratch. It’s complicated recipes with lots of ingredients that take time. It’s taken me a while to learn this, but food doesn’t have to be complicated to be good. And good food can be cheap too. Here in southern California we have the luxury of being able to grow a garden all year round. A small plot in any yard can yield an incredible amount of food. If you actually eat what you grow and break your habit of buying everything from the grocery store you can eat amazingly healthy for very little money. Hunting is an excellent way to provide fresh healthy meat for your family. If you just can’t bring yourself to grow a garden consider joining a CSA where you get a good quantity of whatever is in season every week. Change up your way of thinking about cooking, toss the cookbooks and packaged food and I promise you’ll never look back.
WILD BOAR BURGERS
- 4 LBS GROUND WILD BOAR
- 4 EGGS
- 2 to 4 CLOVES CHOPPED GARLIC
- 1.5 TABLESPOONS OF LAWRY’S SEASONED SALT
- 2 TABLESPOONS WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE
- 1/3 CUP OF YOUR FAVORITE BBQ SAUCE
This is Jason’s recipe for making our wild game into some amazing burgers.
Place 4 lbs of ground boar or other wild game burger in a large mixing bowl. Remember if you are grinding your own wild game to add 20% fat by weight. Pork or beef fat are both fine and should be readily available from your local butcher.
In a separate bowl add the rest of the ingredients. With a whisk or egg beater mix until all the ingredients are evenly blended. This will take a minute or two.
Pour mixed ingredients over the meat and using your hands knead the burger until it has soaked up all the liquid.
Press out your paddies and wrap them in plastic wrap. I place the plastic wrap over the bottom of my burger press and then add some burger and then plastic wrap on top so when I press the paddies they are wrapped at the same time.
Place your paddies on a tray or cookie sheet and put them in the freezer. Once they are frozen you can stack them in a ziploc bag and keep them in the freezer.
Pre-heat your grill. Unwrap the burgers and place the FROZEN paddies on the grill. This is key. If you put thawed paddies on the grill they will fall apart. As they cook through the egg will hold them together. Don’t worry, you can’t taste the egg and you won’t even know it is there.
We have just finished our certification with the Farmer Veteran Coalition and are really excited about becoming part of the growing movement to help get more veterans into agriculture. This is an amazing organization that has tremendous resources for the farmer veteran community.
I have been working for a while now on buying less from the grocery store. Everywhere I look I am surrounded by an abundance of food. Baskets of tomatoes and squash sit on my counters and floors, basil and parsley are bunched in mason jars on my windowsills and counter like herb scented flower arrangements. My refrigerator is stuffed full of cucumbers and beet greens. Outside I have wheelbarrows and wagons sitting with overgrown zucchini and squash waiting to go to the pig. I have even started collecting and drying my own sea salt. Our freezer is always plentiful with wild game. The reality is that if I change my cooking and eating habits some, I have very little cause to buy much of anything from the grocery store. Breaking the habit of bread and pasta is a bit of a challenge for me, but I am making progress. It becomes a bit more difficult with toddlers in the house, they are not about to willingly give up their milk and cheese and while I would love to have fresh milk, at this point in my life I am not ready for a milk cow. We had them when I was growing up and I am fully aware of just how much work milking a cow twice a day every day is. The kiddos also really love pasta and bread, so while I am not completely self sustainable at this point, I am making steady strides in the right direction.
I recently started making dried tomato chips in the dehydrator and am totally in love with them as both a snack food and a cooking ingredient. They are easy to make and such a great way to use up an abundance of tomatoes.
What you need to do:
Wash your tomatoes and slice them into slices about 1/4 inch thick. You don’t need to worry about being too precise, it will all work itself out in the dehydrator. Place the slices on your dehydrator trays and sprinkle them with a little sea salt and some fresh chopped basil. If you don’t have fresh basil dried will work too, but it is hard to beat the taste of the fresh stuff. Go easy on the salt because the tomatoes will shrink and dry, but the salt will not. Dry them at 120-135 degrees for 8-12 hours until they are all crispy. That’s it. You can eat them fresh like chips or store them in the freezer for the long haul and pull them out as needed. They are a great addition to just about any recipe as well. I toss them with salads, add them to scrambled eggs, eat them on pizzas, you name it.
September is a crazy busy time around here. The summer vegetables are producing full force and need major picking every day. The amount of squash, zucchini, eggplant, raspberries and tomatoes that I harvest is overwhelming at times. Everything that is not sold right away needs to be preserved, so I work outside all day and then preserve late into the night. The freezer is overflowing with berries, the pantry is filling up with jars of glossy red tomatoes, the dehydrator is running full-time and even my oven is always stuffed with trays of something drying. On top of the steady harvesting, delivering and preserving, it is also time to get fall crops in. Beets, turnips, radishes, kale, collards, rutabagas, parsnips, salad greens, carrots, green onions, broccoli, cauliflower… the list goes on. I am starting flat after flat of seeds, setting out transplants and tilling new soil. Here is a look at some of the stuff going on right now.
If there is one thing that I look forward to all year it is fresh berries. We are in the height of berry season right now and my hands are permanently stained, my arms are scratched, our freezer is overflowing with gallons of frozen berries and I couldn’t be happier. We eat berry pies, berry smoothies, make berry jam, fruit leather, muffins and sauces, and eat berries on cereal and pancakes. We have started opening our farm up for some u-pick berry opportunities and have such fun watching everyone pick their fill of berries.
Great little write up about us by Pete’s Paleo. It’s been fun working with these guys. They are always game to cook up whatever I throw their way.
A lot of people really think they don’t like eggplant. They have either never had them cooked correctly, or are still harboring a grudge against them from childhood and as adults are unwilling to give them a chance. When you grow them, pick and cook them daily though it’s hard not to get swept off your feet by the eggplant. The sheer diversity of color, shape and size, the exotic names, satiny skin and versatility make the eggplant a true gem of a plant.
For the first time this year we are growing the beautiful French heirloom artichoke, Violet de Provence. The plants are large and very thorny, making picking these beauties quite a challenge. The artichokes themselves are pretty small, and have a lovely taste, but are best when picked very young. The color can range from solid deep purple to mostly green with purple tips. They have ferocious thorns on the tips of each leaf, so it’s best to trim the tips with a pair of scissors before cooking to make eating them more enjoyable. They are fun to grow and worth eating, but the beautiful plants can also be let go to flower for a stunning display in your garden.
Why everyone doesn’t have chickens, I don’t know. Chickens are some of the easiest animal to keep and they are incredibly useful. Besides supplying eggs, they eat a ton of bugs, provide valuable fertilizer for your garden, make great pets and are fun to have around. You can also always eat them if you are so inclined.
I recently put our chickens to work for us in another way. We do a lot of composting around here, the old plants and leaves that come out of the garden typically go straight to the compost pile. We have old hay and straw from the horses, grass and weeds from mowing, chicken and horse manure and all our kitchen scraps. Normally a good compost pile requires a lot of turning and time to make sure temperatures get hot enough and everything breaks down evenly. Not long ago I decided to build a simple cage from 1/4″ hardware cloth inside our chicken pen with some steps for them to get in and out easily and began filling it, in hopes that the chickens could save me some work. My base layer came from cleaning the chicken coop itself. Old hay and chicken manure is some of the best composting material you can get your hands on. Plus it gave me a great excuse to give the coop an extra thorough cleaning. I then added leaves and plant scraps from the garden, some oak leaves I raked up and the clippings from the lawn mower. I thoroughly wetted everything down and let the chickens go to work. They are busy creatures and scratch constantly, so they do an excellent job of turning the compost themselves. Every day I add our kitchen scraps and some greens from the garden and they quickly devour what they like and scratch the rest right into the compost. This has the added bonus of giving caged chickens something to do so they don’t get bored and some extra nutritious feed, cutting down on our feed bill. The hardware cloth contains the compost while allowing it to get enough air circulation and is easily assembled and disassembled. I put the whole thing together in about 15 minutes with materials left over from other projects. If you purchase all the material new you should be able to build this for under $50 and it will last for ever.
After two weeks things are starting to look pretty good.
I do turn the pile by hand several times, just to make sure everything is cooking and looks good, but I have found that this is a much easier and quicker way to compost than other methods I have used. Plus it is very entertaining for the chickens and helps cut down on the feed bill.
Simple DIY Chicken Compost Pile
Things you will need:
- 20 Feet of 1/4 inch hardware cloth (3 ft tall)
- (4) 3 foot T-posts
- Wire for tying ends
- 6-8 cinder blocks or something else for steps
Pound your four T-posts into the ground in a 5×5 foot square. Attach 20 feet of 1/4 inch hardware cloth to posts with wire or twine. Leave one side that is easy to open for turning compost and removal. Stack blocks or whatever you decide to use for steps. Add compost material and let your chickens go to work!
Root vegetables are among the most easily grown, beautiful, and delicious vegetables there are, and yet they are often very misunderstood. It doesn’t help that the ones I see at the grocery store typically look like they have been stored for 100 years, leathery, wrinkly and pale, instead of bright and crisp. They are however an amazing source of food that most of us don’t use nearly enough. With the common go-to veggies being potatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes, other root vegetables are often overlooked. Potatoes and carrots are great in their own way, in fact I believe carrots are a very underrated vegetable, but there are so many more and even better root veggies that everyone should be adding to their meals.
Beets, rutabagas, parsnips and turnips can all be cooked similarly to a potato or carrot, but they add a nice variety of flavors and colors to liven up your dishes. They each have high levels of vitamins and beets especially are packed full of antioxidants. Their bright colors make them fun to cook with and they each have their own unique and wonderful flavor.
Beets can add the most beautiful shades of reds and golds to your dishes. Some are even candy-striped and with their sweet and mellow flavor and incredibly high levels of antioxidants and vitamins they are one of the healthiest foods you can eat.
Rutabagas, a cross between a turnip and cabbage, are larger than turnips and can easily replace potatoes. They are lower in starch than potatoes, have a lovely golden color when cooked and a rich, buttery flavor.
Turnips with their bright white bottoms and colorful purple tops are both pretty and tasty. They have a bit more of a peppery flavor than a rutabaga and don’t grow quite as large.
Parsnips are similar in appearance to a large, white carrot, but slightly woodier and less sweet when eaten raw. Their sweet, nutty flavor really shines when cooked though.
Each of these vegetables deserve so much more recognition than they ever get and really should be a staple in everyone’s diet. The next time you are at the grocery store or farmers market, grab a big bundle of rutabagas or parsnips. Look for ones that appear fresh and are not leathery or dry-looking. If the greens are still attached and not wilted that is the best indicator of freshness. I promise you wont be disappointed.
Two things have revolutionized canning for me recently. The first is the addition of my new steam canner. It takes a lot less water, heating times are faster and it is MUCH easier to deal with.
The second is pectin free jam. I make a lot of marmalade since citrus is everywhere around here and marmalade typically doesn’t call for pectin. Since I like the effect of pectin free marmalade, I did some research and realized that there really is no need for pectin in any kind of jam. The trick is simply to cook your fruit and sugar down to a thick enough consistency that it will set on its own. This takes a bit more cooking time, but you get a much richer flavor and you have a lot of freedom to play with the amount of sugar and ingredients in your recipe. For example, the original recipe I found for a rhubarb jam called for the same amount of rhubarb, but also SIX CUPS of sugar! I reduced the sugar down to 1 1/2 cups and it is perfect. Fruit is naturally acidic and a bit of citrus juice will ensure acidity is at a safe level. Just be sure to sterilize your jars and lids well and start getting creative.
This time of year I am always overwhelmed with blood oranges. It’s a good problem to have, I know, but it makes me think long and hard about just what to do with these beauties. They are a bit sour for eating more than a few, the juice is lovely, but again tart. I have made TONS of blood orange marmalade and after discovering that I like the taste of lime marmalade better, I tossed my recipe and started searching for something new. Since it has been so warm this winter that our rhubarb has yet to freeze back, I started thinking that rhubarb and blood oranges might make the perfect pairing. The combination is amazingly flavorful and the subtle sweetness of the vanilla bean adds just the right touch to make it one of the very best jams I have ever made. Add the stunning ruby color and this is a truly magnificent jam.
Rhubarb, Vanilla and Blood Orange Jam
(makes 4 half-pint jars)
6 Cups Rhubarb (diced)
1 Cup Blood Orange Juice (about 4-5 oranges) regular oranges can be substituted if you can’t find blood oranges.
Zest of 1 Blood Orange
1 1/2 Cups Sugar
1 Vanilla Bean
This makes an amazing fresh or freezer jam. It is also wonderful canned. If you are going to can it get canning pot, jars and lids sterilized and ready. (directions at bottom).
1. Dice rhubarb.
2. Zest the peel from one blood orange. (I like to do this with a knife, carefully slicing the peel off and leaving the pith behind. Then chop peel into very small slices.)
3. Squeeze the juice from 4-5 blood oranges until you have 1 cup of juice.
4. Add rhubarb, juice, zest and sugar to a shallow stainless pan and begin cooking over medium heat.
5. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape seeds into fruit mixture. Put the remaining bean in the pot too.
6. Cook over medium heat stirring regularly until the jam begins to thicken and most of the liquid evaporates.
7. Pour into containers for freezing or refrigerator storage, or if canning fill hot sterilized jars with jam leaving 1/4 inch head space. Process in water bath or steam canner for 10 minutes.
Wash 4 (half pint) canning jars well with hot soapy water. Place in a water bath canner or steam canner and bring water to a boil for at least 10 minutes to sterilize the jars. Turn burner off and allow the jars to sit in hot water while you prepare the jam.
Place rings and lids for jars in a separate pan and bring water to a simmer. Allow rings and lids to simmer gently while you prepare fruit.
When the jam is ready remove the hot jars from the water with a jar lifter and fill, leaving 1/4 inch head space.
Wipe jar rims with a damp cloth or paper towel and place sterilized lids and rings on jars.
Place the jars back into canning pot and return the water to a boil. Once the water is boiling rapidly start a timer for 10 minutes. When 10 minutes is up turn the burner off and allow the jars to rest in the canner for several more minutes.
Remove the jars and allow to cool. You will hear the lids pop as the temperature drops. This is the sound of the jars sealing. Test the seal after they are cool by pushing down on the center of the lid. If it pops up and down the lid has not properly sealed. Place any unsealed jars in the refrigerator. (the most common cause of jars not sealing is forgetting to wipe the rims after jam is placed in jars.)
December is one of my favorite months here along the Mexican border. The parched land starts to soften and green with the nourishment of some much-needed rain, the dust settles and things begin to grow. While most of the country hunkers down for a long cold winter, we begin to feel the sweet taste of spring. And with the rains and cooling temperatures come the mushrooms, one of the amazing foods nature sees fit to provide us even here in the desert chaparral. Every year we check the trees we have established as reliable providers, and keep our eyes open for new mushroom bearing trees. The “Lion’s Mane” or Hericium erinaceus mushroom pictured above weighed almost 8 pounds and tasted like a dream. These Honey mushrooms, pictured below, are a bit past their prime, but can grow in huge clumps weighing over 30 pounds per group. They often sprout from the base of dead or dying oak trees. Remember, always use extreme caution when harvesting wild mushrooms. There are poisonous varieties that can look very similar to the edible ones. When in doubt err on the side of caution and leave them be.
And with the rains comes lots of rooting by the wild pigs that have been making a strong presence in the back-country of San Diego county. They are softening up the hard packed ground and fattening up on acorns. They are very elusive and mostly stick to the canyons, but it’s easy to spot where they have passed through.
Last spring we planted Heritage raspberries. I didn’t expect much out of them the first season, but even after planting them late and cutting them back they are surprising us with a nice quantity of these amazing berries. There is something about the sun-kissed flavor of a raspberry picked straight off the cane that you will never experience with a berry out of one of those little plastic containers from the store.