Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

This may be a very interesting and challenging year coming up, so I'm wishing everyone a Healthy, Prosperous and Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Prepping, and Thoughts During a Winter Storm

Photo By jumpinjimmyjava 

I've been a 'Prepper' most of my life, having been raised in the Hurricane Belt. Living in snow country isn't much different for prepping, except for the cold weather. The recent ice storm left my area without power for several days, and I am happy to report that I was just fine thanks to my preps. I had plenty of heat, illumination after dark via candles and LED lights, food, water...

The big hole in my preps, though, was 2 sided. On one side, I was bored to tears, totally isolated, and had only a few library books. On the other side, I had plenty of time to fret about 2 freezers full of meat, and how long the power outage might extend. Fortunately I got lucky with the return of power just before I would have lost the freezer contents.

As a result, I plan to delve deeply this coming year into safe meat (and other food) preservation that doesn't require any power refrigeration or freezing, yet still retains safety, quality and taste. It will mean lots of experimenting, and probably loss of some meat during my trials, but I will feel better in a year if I have that option of preservation.

I have canned and dried foods for years, and canned a few meats along the way. What I don't have is a place to store jars of canned goods that could freeze and break in extreme cold. I want to better insulate my root cellar for canned goods, but I also want to store some meats that are not canned so I have some variety. Making cheese once I have a 'cave' is also high on the list!

There is something called 'rabbit starvation' whereby folks had only rabbit to eat, but starved to death because the body (especially the brain) requires fats to survive... and vegetables generally do not provide the fats that most animal meats, eggs and cheese do. Hence the interest in preserving meat, along with cheese and eggs.

My feet have been teetering at this threshold for some time, with my desire to learn to make cheese and charcuterie, but it's time to get more serious and cross over the damn line... get busy and make something! Charcuterie such as fresh sausage still requires refrigeration or freezing, but there are dry-cured meats (like chorizo, pepperoni and summer sausage) that keep at room temps. Some meats can be cured (salted), smoked, and hung in a cold (even if not freezing) place over winter; some pre-cooked meats can be stored immersed in a crock of fat in a cool place, and some meats can be dried. There is a lot for me to learn out there!

Update: I wrote this post above Dec. 19, after our ice storm. Then the East Coast Christmas Blizzard came along, and I worried about losing power again. Thankfully, although we got a ton of snow, the power stayed on! I worked on making sausages, which I will cover in several posts over the next week or two.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quasi-Baking on a Wood Stove in Power Outage

During our recent several-day power outage, I cooked and heated water for coffee on my wood stove, something I have done many times before. Usually I have cooked soups and stews, but generally not much more than that. Coffee is easy since I use an old Chemex pot every day anyway and it makes great coffee! All you need is boiling water to pour over the ground coffee in the filter paper.

One of the power-less days I decided I wanted a baked sweet potato. I was getting bored with hot soups/stews!  I wrapped 2 sweet potatoes in aluminum foil and put them on the hot cast iron stove top. (Ignore the nasty pot on the left; I keep water in it to add humidity to the room, and it has a mineral build-up from our hard water.) After a few minutes, though, I decided I would probably get potatoes cooked on one side where they touched the stove, or cooked unevenly even if I rolled them over occasionally.

I don't have a Dutch Oven that I might be able to bake in, so I improvised, creating a contained heated space by inverting a disposable aluminum container over the potatoes. I stuck the instant-read thermometer between the 'taters and stove top; the temp read 350ºF. Hey, it's not rocket science... but I was hungry and it worked!

Hindsight says I should have checked the temp in the enclosed air space around the potatoes, but I didn't think of it at the time. The potatoes baked just fine, although they were steamy from being in the foil. I had wrapped them only because the stove is sooty and it's hard to clean a HOT stove. I also didn't time baking the potatoes; it was difficult to read my wristwatch in dim light, and frankly I didn't much care at the time. I squeezed the potatoes occasionally, and took them off when they felt soft. 

There were 2 long thin spots along the bottom of the potatoes where they sat on the cast iron, and those places were just very slightly browned but not hard and dried out. I slathered on some butter, and YUM!

Since I am still without the oven on my electric kitchen range, I want to see if I can actually bake a cake or muffins on the wood stove, without anything more than some kind of cover to contain heat around the pans.I have a Le Creuset 7 quart French Oven on my Wish List!

Update: The above was written before Christmas. Since then, my sister has had a repairman come and fix the electric oven on the kitchen range. So, I again have an oven for convenience. BUT I still need to learn to bake on a wood stove for eventual power shortages and outages. 

Baking on a wood stove may not sound like a big deal, but if you've never tried it, how do you learn? Another option for baking is a solar oven... easy to make, and use on sunny days... but I'm not thrilled with the idea of using one on a snowy, windy day in the dead of winter. That will be a summer project!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why Brine?

Photo from Average Jane's Photostream

It is past Christmas and a brine for a Goose this year, but maybe you have a duck or turkey planned for New Year's Day? You could still brine it! I've been brining my annual Thanksgiving turkey for 3-4 years now, and throughout the year I brine whole chickens and even Cornish game hens. I haven't brined any pork or beef roasts yet, but now it's on my List.

If you had asked me before now why I brine, my answer would have been "to make it juicier", but with no real scientific knowledge behind my observations.

Now, thanks to Harold McGee's book On Food and Cooking, I know that the salt disrupts the structure of the muscle filaments... that is, salt uncoils/unbinds the proteins to form looser bonds. How that actually works is that a 3% salt solution dissolves part of the protein structure that supports the contracting filaments in muscle tissue... and a 5.5% salt solution actually dissolves the filaments themselves. By such actions, the meat actually becomes more tender!

Secondly, the interaction of salt with the proteins result in a greater water-holding capacity in the muscle cell structure, thus the meat loses less moisture when cooked... in other words, the meat is juicier. This is especially important if you are smoking meat a long time over slow heat.

Another benefit of brining is the infusion of added flavors. The moisture in both meat and brine travels back and forth between them until it reaches equilibrium, and any flavorings (herbs, spices, lemons, oranges, and even the salt) you have added to the solution end up in the meat... IN the meat, not just in the outer surface of the meat. Because of that transfer of flavorings, it is important to brine with the correct balance of salt to water, and to brine for the amount of time recommended for the weight of your bird or whatever you are brining. Otherwise, you could end up with a salty bird.

See some brine recipes and tips here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Interruption by Weather, and a White Christmas coming...

Photo from HAM guy's photostream

My posting schedule has been interrupted by the WEATHER. For the last few days we were without power, thanks to an ice storm. Fortunately I had some posts in the pipeline... I will be posting later about how well my emergency preparations played out. 

For now, our forecast is for additional snow tomorrow, and then 3+ days of more snow over the Christmas weekend, bringing us a White Christmas!  I had already planned to take a break from posting over the Christmas Holidays, but now I'm extending it so I can shore up weather preparations and get my self, and house, ready for the coming Christmas and New Year holidays.

Thankfully, we are not forecast to get 2 feet of snow like NYC did recently. (The sculpture above is by G Augustine Lynas. I love it!!)

(Source Unknown)

I'll be back in a few days. For now, I'm Wishing everyone Good Food and a Happy Holiday, whatever your take on it happens to be.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cranberries for my Garden

Photo of flowering cranberries, Courtesy of Todd Boland

I have been following a chat thread on Dave's Garden about what new edibles we are planning for the next planting season. I have decided to include cranberries on my list! I love cranberries, and they were both dear and scarce this year, so why not grow some?

Cranberries, Vaccinium macrocarpon, grow wild from North Georgia to Canada, usually in damp and swampy areas. However, cranberries are not necessarily grown in bogs; they can be grown on dry land. They prefer the colder zones 2-6/7, and do best in acidic (pH of 4.5-5.0, just like blueberries) and fertile soils. The are perennials, and the shallow root system grows just in the top six inches of soil. Many commercial growers add an inch of soil or sand after harvest to help protect the root system over winter. 

The best time for planting is late October or early November before the ground freezes, or in April and early May.

In my clay soil, I can just put them in the ground, in prepared planting holes 8" deep and a foot apart, filled with blood meal, soft rock phosphate and bone meal well-mixed into peat moss (the peat is for acidity). The clay keeps the soil around the roots from draining too much, but they need to be closely watched as they may need frequent watering to prevent fully drying out during the growing season. One year old plants will fruit in 2 or sometimes 3 years; the average fruit yield is one pound of fruit per square foot of plants. As plants get old and woody, they should be replaced for better production.

Once you have a few plants established, you can take softwood cuttings in the summer to root for additional fall plantings, and be sure to take cuttings from old woody plants you are replacing. The cranberry is basically a low-growing ground cover, growing to about 12" tall, putting out fast-growing horizontal runners. Short "canes" grow up from the runners and produce the spring flowers that become the fall fruit.

Plants are available from Park Seed, Gurney's, Jung, and Shooting Star Nursery. The University of Maine has a fabulous website about cranberries, with curriculum helps and printables for teachers. (There are a lot cranberry facts and information for classroom use with children of all ages on the U. Maine website.) 

I can't see that I have anything to lose by trying to grow a few cranberries in my garden!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spiced Dried Pear Chips

I came across a recipe for pear chips dusted with cocoa powder mixed with sugar and some spices, and decided to make a trial batch of the chips without the 2 tablespoons of cocoa since I'm not a big cocoa fan. Kids would probably love these pear chips WITH the cocoa!

The recipe called for baking in a 275ºF oven, but our oven is non-functioning at the moment. (My sister ran the self-clean cycle and now the door won't open. She'll have to get a repair man out since I've tried every trick I could find online.)

I sliced just one peeled and cored pear on the mandoline, and spread the slices out on a dehydrator tray as a trial run.

I mixed 3 Tbs. sugar, 1/2 tsp. ginger, 3/4 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. cloves and 1/2 tsp. galangal* together and lightly dusted the slices. Maybe should have left out the cloves? Note added later: No, I won't change the spice mix; it's tasty and subtle just as it is!

(*Galangal is ground from the rhizome of blue ginger. The flavor is similar to ginger, but more flowery with less peppery heat and a lingering intensity.)

Of course, I didn't think to put a cookie sheet under the dehydrator tray, so now I have a sugary mess all over the counter in addition to what actually landed on the slices. What a dunce!

Since I'm making this up (with no oven) as I go along, I put the tray in the dehydrator at the highest heat setting for an hour. Then I'll turn it down to about 135ºF until they are fully dry but still somewhat pliable. They will get stored in mason jars in the pantry but probably won't last very long anyway if they are as tasty as they smell!

Spiced Pears on left, plain dehydrated pears on the right

Update: The spiced pear chips are really yummy, but a little  too sweet for my taste. (These particular pears are exceptionally sweet and juicy, more so than the ones from my other neighbor. Even the Belgian Pears I made with no sugar added are pretty sweet.) I'm dehydrating a few pears with the spice dusting sans sugar, and also dehydrating several trays of just plain pear slices. 

These are the pears I dried. Only the smaller jar had spiced pear chips; the others are just dried pear slices. Isn't the pattern of the core interesting on the single slice? (I sliced some of the pears across the pear rather than from stem to bottom.)

How to use spiced pear chips (other than as a snack): They would be great on a cheese tray. Put a few pieces on sliced havarti cheese with sprouts and/or bibb lettuce on a hearty bread sandwich. Add a few to a sweet potato casserole. Soak a few slices and drape over a pork loin roast, or a roast chicken. YUM!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Can-Can

Just a little musical fun for everyone shopping for Christmas gifts!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Living on USDA Budget, Update 1

It's halfway through December, and here's where I am so far by the USDA Food Budget Allowances. I'm using the lowest budget, the 'Thrifty' budget. In actuality, this is almost all I will spend for food for the whole month since I put away much of what I bought, although I will need fresh cream for coffee before the month is over.

I have spent $146.34 (before tax of 2.5%) which is 97% of the 'Thrifty' budget @ $5 per day, or 81% of the 'Thrifty' budget @ $6 per day. The eggs and some of the meats are free range, but nothing else is even organic except a 10 oz. bag of coffee that was on sale. 100% of my meals and snacks are eaten at home.

Another thing to keep in mind is that beans and grains, even though less expensive, are not allowed on my food protocol (although I sometimes cheat a tad). As far as I can  tell, the USDA Food Guidelines do not address folks with dietary restrictions, but are aimed at the average diet. 

My food expenditures break down in general categories like this:
Dairy (eggs, cream, yogurt, cheese): 24%
Meat: 29%
Fruit/Vegetables: 15%
Staples that will carry over like flour, spices, olives, ketchup: 17%
Other Groceries (coffee, bread, crackers, canned tomatoes): 15%

However, I have also consumed the following foods that were either purchased before December, or canned/frozen/stored from my garden.
Butter 1 lb
Olive oil, unknown (forgot to measure!)
Rendered lard or tallow for cooking ½ lb
Chorizo, ½ lb
Lamb neck bones, 1½ pounds
Bacon, ½ lb
Ground Beef, lamb and pork 5 lbs
Thanksgiving Turkey leftovers, ~1 lb
Thanksgiving Dressing and gravy leftovers, 2 meals
Green beans from pantry or freezer, 2 meals
Winter squash from root cellar, 2 meals
Apples from root cellar, 2 desserts
Clafouti from cranberries and pears on hand, 2 desserts
Poached pears, 2 desserts

The meat portion of my budget is really hard to figure. I bought a pound of prepared (not free range) breakfast sausage, a half-pound of Lebanon bologna lunchmeat, and splurged on a pint of oysters for oyster stew that stretched over 4 meals. The rest of the meat money went for free range pork shoulder on sale (and sausage casings) to add to the donated venison I have on hand to make sausage. I estimated the sausage will last 3 months, so I only included one third of the costs for the pork, and one sixth of the cost of the casings, which should make more than 3 months' sausage.

A big expenditure in January will be a variety of cultures to make cheese, and extra milk. I have no idea how to spread that amount out since some of it may go to waste, depending on my failure rate!

I can see tracking food expenditures over just a month, or even several months, will not give me a complete picture because I "put foods by" either freezing, canning or storing foods in the root cellar. I'm hoping that a full year will give me a good snapshot, though.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sugar Plums... There's a Thought!

Sugar Plum Fairy Photo Courtesy of scillystuff's photostream

After hearing so many Christmas songs, seeing repeats of The Nutcracker and so forth, it dawned on to to consider looking into Sugar Plums, and maybe even to make some.

Plums Photo Courtesy of kthread's photostream

First I discovered there are as many descriptions and variations of what are called 'sugar plums' today as there are UFO sightings. Some are hard candies, some had no plums and some are a confectionery of dried fruits and nuts. In between and throughout those descriptions, there are a zillion other recipes. So, what was originally the real sugar plum?

I found what might be THE answer on a site called Gode Cookery: A compilation of medieval recipes from authentic sources adapted for the 21st century kitchen, along with diverse facts on food & feasting in the Middle Ages & Renaissance and other historical culinary items.

Sharon Cohen wrote Visions of Sugarplums reprinted on that site above, based on research through some 16th century books on preserving or sugaring plums. She included a recipe version for today's kitchens, which I copied, thinking to make some.

I think not!!  

Actually, I just can't make them for this Christmas! Sugaring the plums (assuming I could even find any decent plums) requires a 3 day process that is repeated 3 times, for a total of 9 days. Then it takes from a few days to as much as 2 additional weeks to dry the sugared plums. Ms. Cohen goes on to say that plums sugared in this manner in summer are still soft and chewy at 12th Night, so I'm putting it on my To-Do List for next year. 

Meanwhile, Visions of Sugarplums will have to dance in my head!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Old-Fashioned, Better By-Hand, Methods and Tools

I've been thinking a lot on old methods of doing things that really work exceptionally well, even if they are not common usage anymore. This post is merely a beginning point to write about them; more will follow as time flies by.
Using a scythe for mowing comes to mind, although I don't have one YET. I've read several websites thoroughly, and several times over, about using a scythe. The problem many folks have had with using one is "fit", and if the scythe isn't fitted to the user, all attempts at using it will be frustrating and backbreaking. 

So, I hope to order a scythe next spring, funds permitting. Our back yard is too steep to safely cut with a riding mower, although it can be done... just not by me! It is also too large to consider cutting with a hand push or motorized mower and cutting with a scythe would do the job nicely. If I am lucky enough to get a small dairy goat next year, I can let the grasses grow for supplemental hay I can cut with a scythe.

Sorry, I don't remember where I got this cranberry rake/scoop photo

Another tool that has come to my attention is a wooden cranberry "rake" for dry-harvesting. Cranberries are among my top favorite fruits although I have had little knowledge of actual production and harvesting. I see the commercials showing fields that are flooded, but that's about all I knew last week. I did take a miniature train ride once through some cranberry bogs near Boston when I was a child, but I only remember the train! I lived in Boone, NC for many years, and a nearby community, appropriately named 'Cranberry' used to grow cranberries a hundred years ago. Today most US cranberries are grown in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington and Oregon.

The Rodale newsletter recently had a story about the first, and maybe the only organic cranberry grower in the US, a 4th generation family business, recently turning from dairy to organic cranberries. They now use an Amish-made wooden rake to dry hand harvest their cranberries, for several reasons. By not flooding the fields and mechanically churning up the berries to float, and then vacuuming the berries into huge trucks, they avoid damaging the berries, which extends the shelf life of the berries and results in far fewer culls. Also, berries that are not flooded to harvest are not over-saturated, so they have minimal shrinkage. They say gentle handled, hand harvested cranberries can last for several months.

The video is interesting for the technique, but in my opinion it should have been several minutes shorter.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lamb Osso Buco

Technically, it's not Osso Buco since it is not made with veal shanks, plus it is cooked in the slow cooker since my oven is still on the fritz. However, this is part of my learning curve on how to cook tasty entrées with less expensive cuts of meat. In this case, I used lamb neck bones. I don't remember exactly what I paid the local sheep farmer for them, but somewhere around $2 for this package, which made 3-4 meals for me..

First I diced a large onion (along with a couple of shallots and scallions that needed to get used up). I also diced a large carrot, a rib of celery and 2 small garlic cloves. I set those aside so I could brown the meaty bones first.

After I rinsed the neck bones and slightly dried them, I dusted them with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Usually I just add salt and pepper to the flour.) Then I coated them well in all-purpose flour, and browned them in 2-3 tablespoons of home-rendered lard.

As I browned the meaty bones, I added them to the slow-cooker, and while the sauté pan was still hot, I poured in a cup of white wine, stirred up the browned bits, and set the pan aside to soften the bits that didn't scrape up easily.

In another sauté pan, I heated 2 tablespoons of butter and cooked the onion and carrots over medium heat until the onions were about half translucent.

I added the celery and garlic and cooked the mix until everything was medium-soft. The pan to the right has the wine stirred into the browned bits from the neck bones.

The veggies were put in the slow cooker on top of the browned neck bones, and then I added the wine with the browned bits. Next I added a small can (14.5 oz.) of diced tomatoes, drained, and one cup of chicken broth. Threw in about half a teaspoon each dried rosemary and thyme from my garden... Turned the slow cooker to high heat, cover, and waited for the delicious smalls to waft through the room!

Somehow I didn't get a photo as it all went into the slow cooker. Sorry.

To make it easier to serve and eat, I removed the meaty bone pieces so I could take the meat off and be sure I got all the marrow out of the centers. The meat was falling off the bone, very tender, but not falling away from the bones in the pot due to the intricacies of the bones.

As you can see, there was a lot of meat (right side of plate) from that small amount of neck bones (left side of plate), and it's very flavorful. Unfortunately, the photo above isn't focused even though taken soon after the photo above it. (I didn't download my photos until the meat was placed back in the sauce, and it was too late by then!)

Osso Buco is traditionally garnished with gremolata, which is a dozen or so chopped Italian (flat) parsley sprigs, a clove or two finely minced garlic, and the zest of a lemon. Gremolata also is good on seafood as a garnish.

Traditionally, Osso Buco served with Risotto alla milanese (a risotto made with beef stock, marrow from the veal bones, and cheese... and flavored and colored with saffron), I served mine over buttered wide noodles.

Another successful meal on a small budget!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ruby Jewels: Pomegranate

When I was about 14, someone gave me a pomegranate. I thought it was very tasty, but FAR too much work for what I got from it. Now (and better late than never) thanks to the internet, I found out it is unbelievably easy to get the tasty juice pods (called arils) from the fruit.

Due to what must be an enormous advertising budget, most of us have POM Wonderful's pomegranate juice in our grocery stores.

Antioxident graph from POM Wonderful's website

I have even bought some of their juice for the superb antioxident properties, but I always have a niggly feeling at the back of my neck because it is a processed product. (Wonderful, by the way, is the name of a pomegranate cultivar originating in Florida and first propagated in California in 1896. it is the leading commercial pomegranate in California, and better for juice rather than eating fresh.)

My favorite almost-local grocery store had a huge bin of fresh pomegranates outside the front door recently, 3/$5. I guess that might be a good price considering they are usually shipped in from California or else imported... my in-town store had some at 2/$5 and they were quite a bit smaller. (Buying them goes against my food politics for eating local, but so does my coffee.) So, I bought some, mainly because I had just seen the video on how easy it is to seed them.

I had planned to include pomegranate in some dish for Thanksgiving, but then the oven died and I got caught up trying to bake in my small tabletop oven... with many failures before some small successes. Finally I had time today to fetch my 3 pomegranates from the root cellar, and seed them. Actuallym they will keep for months in a root celler, but I want to use them soon. For now, I shall freeze them scattered on jelly-roll pans so they don't stick together. Recipes will follow later when I make something from them!

The video (below) is pretty explicit, but I'd like to add a few notes from my experience. Yes, they do bleed. It stains! I cut the top off the first one too deeply, cutting some of the arils and losing their juice, leaving only seeds. I also scored the skin too deeply on the first one. For the next two poms, I scored the skin in 6 sections rather than 4 like the video, and found them much easier to handle. (The photo above is the second one I cut, and that amount cut off the top and bottom worked the best.)

I also didn't start with enough water in my bowl, as you can see above. When I increased the amount of water, it was much easier to gently rub the arils loose without damaging them. More water helps the membranes float free more easily, too. (I just used a skimmer to scoop the membranes off.)

There were a few immature arils in the first one I cut. You can see them at the left in the photo above, but not very well. They were sort of a yellow-gray color, and soft and squishy. I also had a few arils where the pith stuck to the tip, and I set them aside as I was sorting (on the right in the photo above). All it took was a flick of a fingernail to remove that bit and add them to the bowl.

I ended up with about 5 cups of arils, and a huge pile of peel and membrane! There are many recipes for pomegranates inline. POM wonderful has a few that intrigue me, here. I also found a few recipes here. Their pomegranate sorbet and pomegranate flan both sound yummy.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Can You Live on the USDA Food Budget?

On one of the blogs I read, the husband and wife are attempting to stay within the USDA food budget amount allotted to food stamp recipients for one whole month. That works out to be about $5-$6 per day, per person. I had no clue what amount food stamps provide, but I thought I'd look into the USDA budget.

Starting with December 1st, I started to track what I really spend for food, so I can compare that to what the USDA has to say about budget amounts. I know I have to be very frugal or I wouldn't eat the entire month, but I have no real clue what monies I actually need on average per month to feed myself. There are things I buy where the use or life of the goods may span several months... things like apples and winter squash by the bushel, or spices, condiments, bulk meats, and that makes a budget complicated. 

It will probably take a whole year of tracking for me to get a reasonably close figure of my true average cost. I do know that I don't believe it is possible to eat a healthy diet on the budget allowance the USDA suggests. Their budget suggestions are based on the Standard American Diet, or S.A.D., which is indeed sad. The SAD is very high in empty carbs (like white flour in cakes and pastries, bread, sugar, sodas), and very low in things like essential amino acids found only in saturated fats. However, that diet discussion is best left for another post...

The USDA food figures fall into four categories, and each category is further segmented by gender and then by age or family size: a single male; a single female; a family of 2, and a family of four. These are the category budgets and from what I can see, food stamps provide the lowest category, Thrifty.
and this USDA website has all the breakdown figures beginning with 1994.

I am in the category for a single female, age 51-70, and the monthly cost of food figures (June 2009-May 2010 averages) are these:

Thrifty: $147.60/month
Low-Cost: $183.10/month
Moderate-Cost: $ 227.50/month
Liberal: $ 235.60/month

To add insult, the USDA says my food cost average goes down when I turn from 70 to 71. HUH???

Out of curiosity, I downloaded the PDF's for 2000, 2005, and 2010, and made the chart above showing only my age category in the various spending ranges, just to see how the USDA thinks my costs have increased in just 10 years. In the "Thrifty" column, costs have increased almost 50%, and even in the "Liberal" column, costs have increased around 33%. 

For 8 of those 10 years, Social Security has been my only income, and Social Security income certainly has not had a COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) that reflects the kind of increases shown in the food costs. In fact, there has been no COLA since January 2008 and none expected for next year, 2011... or perhaps ever again.

At any rate, I eat... and plan to continue to eat, so it will be interesting to chart my extreme frugality against what the USDA says is is the norm. (I don't even want to think about charting other expenses like utilities, auto and homeowner's insurance, or gasoline.)

How do you stack up against the USDA figures?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cheese Slows Tooth Decay

Photo from cwbuecheler's photostream

I found this lovely little nugget about slowing (and maybe eliminating?) tooth decay with cheese in a book I'm reading by Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. The book is NOT a recipe book, just factual knowledge about food.

The whole first chapter (60 pages) is all about milk, and milk products. The very last paragraph in that chapter is quoted here in its entirety:

Finally, it has been recognized for decades that eating cheese slows tooth decay, which is caused by acid secretions from relatives of a yogurt bacterium (especially Streptococcus mutans) that adhere to teeth. Just why is still not entirely clear, but it appears that eaten at the end of a meal, when streptococcal acid production is on the rise, calcium and phosphate from the cheese diffuse into the bacterial colonies and blunt the acid rise.

What that says to me is very clear: simply eating a bit of real cheese immediately at the end of the meal cuts down on tooth decay. Isn't that amazing? I've always wondered why, despite close attention to dental hygiene, I still developed tooth decay. A simple bit of food science could have saved me untold amounts of money and agony!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Grade B Milk?

Yes, there actually IS a Grade B milk... but you will not find on the grocer's shelves in fluid form. Nevertheless, Grade B milk is consumed daily; most of it in the form of cheese.

Did you know that Grade A milk actually is further graded into classes? 

* Grade A Class I milk is used for all beverage milks. 
* Grade A Class II milk is used in fluid cream products, yogurts, ice cream, cottage cheese and other perishable manufactured products.
* Grade A Class III milk is used to produce cream cheese and hard manufactured cheese.
* Grade A Class IV milk is used to produce butter and any milk in dry form.

Grade B milk is also called 'Manufacturing grade' and it is milk not meeting the fluid Grade A standards. The USDA says "less stringent standards" may apply. Some examples are: how often the facilities are inspected for cleanliness of the facility and of the cows, suitability of the milking parlor and sanitary handling (and cooling) of the milk, and the allowable bacterial count in the milk. Grade A farms are inspected every six months, while Grade B farms are inspected every two years. The bacterial plate or loop count of Grade A milk may not exceed 100,000 per mL, while Grade B milk may not exceed 300,000 per mL.

Grade B milk can be used only for manufacturing selected dairy products, such as cheese, butter, or reduced fluid-content like condensed milk, evaporated milk and dried milk. Some manufactured dairy products, such as ice cream and drinkable milk beverages, can only be made from Grade A milk. 

It gets a little complicated, though, for us as consumers. When Grade B milk is made into another product, the new grade assigned is not based on the grade of the original milk. Instead, the new product is graded after it is manufactured, on the standards set for that 'new' product. So, you could have butter or cheese that is Grade A by the standards for butter/cheese even if it started out as lesser quality Grade B milk.

Not all manufactured products are made from Grade B milk. Since milk is perishable, sometimes Grade A milk nearing its expiration date may be quickly used (rather than losing it to spoilage) for a manufactured product that will keep longer in cold storage. 

By the way, from the get-go, farmers are paid far less for Grade B milk than even the pitiful amount BigAg pays for Grade A milk. So following the money, my assumption is that all of the dry powdered milk and less expensive cheese or butter (esp. store brands) probably started out as Grade B milk by design, simply because the profit is higher for the manufacturer.

There is another category of milk, although we seldom see it in stores. Certified milk is produced under exceedingly high sanitary standards and is sold at a higher price than Grade A milk. Certified specialty milks include Golden Guernsey milk, which is produced by purebred Guernsey cows, and All-Jersey milk, which is produced by registered Jersey cows. Both command a premium price because of their higher milk fat content and creamier taste.

Source: USDA: Milk Pricing in the United States/AIB-761.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fiona's Belgian Pears, with Options

There are blogs all over the internet highly touting Fiona's Belgian Pears, and since I had a glut of pears, I decided to make some. Surely, they couldn't be as good as the raves, but good nonetheless. And I had LOTS of pears.

Original Belgian Pears Recipe

The first batch I made with small pears a neighbor gave me, and followed the recipe exactly. I posted about them here. Then, because they really were wonderful, but a bit too sweet and short of pear taste, I made a batch with the larger, sweeter pears, using just half a cup of sugar. They were sweet enough that I probably could have left out the sugar altogether. It was a small trial batch and made just one quart, with a dish of them left over for my dessert. They did not look nearly as caramelized as the ones from the original recipe but the taste was similar, just not overly sweet.

Feeling adventuresome, I got a bottle of plum wine and made another small batch, using 6 ounces of plum wine, 2 ounces of champagne vinegar, and again, no sugar. I was hoping the pears would take on a pretty pink color from the wine, but they did not. They were sweet, and had a subtle taste that must have been from the wine.

Next up, pears using red wine to poach... and twice wine as much as in the plum wine batch. With all the batches, none have had enough liquid to cover all the pears sufficiently in the jars. I also added almost a cup of sugar, 3 ounces of champagne vinegar, and 2 small cinnamon sticks.

I started turned them half an hour into the process so they would get evenly colored and cooked. 

Somehow I didn't take a photo of the finished pears in the pan before I canned them, but here's a few on a plate. YUM!

So, here's a line-up of jars of the various Belgian Pears. Left to right: Original Recipe, Minimum sugar recipe, plum wine recipe, and finally red wine recipe.

Close-up of the pears in red wine on the right, my favorite of the bunch. YUM!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Am I a Foodie??

Do I think I am a Foodie? Or do I harbor a secret desire to be a Foodie? Oh LawdyMercy, NO!

I have to laugh at myself though... I am preoccupied by food much of the time. I have spent many hours, over many days, and many weeks reading some really interesting food blogs, but by no means do I consider myself a "Foodie", or even want to be considered one. Oh, I can (and sometimes do) make some of those fancy things, but that has not been my primary interest in foods for the last several years.

What I am interested in is learning the basics necessary to eat well now, and continue to eat well if and/or when food becomes more scarce and expensive than it already is... plus also learning to prepare foods that are not full of chemical additives. In other words, Real Food.

I don't mean that the Foodie blogs aren't real food, but far too few of the luscious-sounding recipes are ever made with ingredients from their backyards, or locally sourced and relatively inexpensive. At least it appears they generally don't seem to use the foods like those found in my backyard, or even local to me. I can only dream of the luxury of some of their ingredients if I don't consider the true cost to our fragile planet and resources.

Over the last several years my food budget has remained the same by necessity, yet it now buys far less than it did in 2004-2008. To be sure, a few items are more expensive today simply by my own choice in source and quality. For example, my local free-range ground beef is slightly over twice the cost of CAFO ground beef from the grocery store.

However, I am learning to augment my budget with less expensive cuts and/or other meat items (but still free-range). Some of them are not usually found readily anymore in supermarkets... like liver, shanks, hocks, heart, oxtails, tongue, short ribs, beef cheeks, sweetbreads... and more. In fact, I can get some items almost free because the local abattoirs and/or farmers don't know what to do with them.

Brining or salting cheap cuts for 24 hours in the refrigerator can turn an inexpensive cut almost into a prime cut, and braising makes some cuts fit for a queen.

I am slowly learning some basics, and also discovering a taste to foods just as they are grown or raised. I really had no knowledge before this year of what even a simple 'naked' food like hamburger with no seasonings or condiments actually tastes like. I now can taste the difference in ground beef from a free-range Red Devon vs. a free-range Angus or Holstein, and there really IS a difference! It was only when I embarked on my journey to free-range meats that I ever tasted naked ground meat, for surely that scrap stuff from the CAFO lots is not fit to taste by itself. I'm not even sure it's fit to eat in the long run, if you consider health in the equation.

Then there are other foods like vegetables and fruits. Green beans straight from my garden, or fruit and berries from my yard or neighborhood... they simply have some discernible taste of their own, unlike the mass produce that's trucked thousands of miles and lives in cold storage until someone buys it. All those local foods have a unique taste of their own, and are simply enhanced by the addition of seasonings or sauces, not disguised.

Eventually I hope to be adding more layers of taste; I already do quite a bit with herbs and spices. But for now, my focus is still on basics.

Last night I started carefully reading Charcuterie, The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. I really like that they have written this book with the home-cook foremost in mind! They build the how-to's in gradual steps, and every recipe and technique stresses that this craft evolved as a means of using and keeping the less expensive cuts of meat, and turning all the scraps into something edible and wonderful. 

I believe I can make nutritionally good use of inexpensive cuts of meat by making sausages, terrines and påtés, thereby adding increased variety to my meals. (Terrines can also be vegetable or fruit terrines; they are not limited to meat preparations.) So, sausages and other charcuterie are soon to be on my menu!

In December when I get my order of hog and sheep casings, I will start making more types of sausage. (I made some venison sausage last year, using collagen casings, and I was not happy with those casings. I still have several hundred feet new in the boxes.) Sausages loke Italian, bratwurst, chorizo, and kielbasa are not cheap around here, and I can make 10 pounds for under $30 using top-quality ingredients. Merguez (lamb) sausages on are $29.80 for 1½ pounds (plus shipping!) and I can buy free-range ground lamb locally for $5/lb.

I recently posted a scrumptious cranberry pear clafouti, but there are many clafoutis I can make that are savory (with vegetables and/or meat rather than sweet and with fruits) that become delectable, above ordinary fare. Technically, clafoutis is the wrong term, according to French language purists. "A clafoutis is only made with black cherries. Period." Any other filling makes it a Flognarde, or flaugnarde, pronounced "flow nard". I'll probably continue to call mine clafoutis, not being a purist and not speaking French either!

Whatever you choose to call it, they all include eggs in the custard/batter, which would increase my choline intake, just recently known to be essential for health. I don't eat enough eggs because I get bored with them... I can eat only so many fried eggs, scrambled eggs, or hard-boiled eggs! (Liver is also an excellent source of choline and there will be some free-range liver in påtés coming from my kitchen soon.)

Another food biggie for me is cheese. I love cheese, all kinds of cheese! (Well, maybe not Limburger and a few others I couldn't get past my nose!) The artisan cheese, including raw milk cheese, showing up in stores like Whole Foods cost over $10-15/lb and usually more for a quality cheese. I don't even want to think about what a good cheese costs in a specialty gourmet shop! One solution is to make my own.

An average pound of cheese takes around 5-6 quarts (10 pounds) of whole cow or goat milk to make, and less (~6 pounds) for sheep cheese. (Sheep milk has more fat solids.) I have no source for sheep milk, but I can get fresh goat and cow milk locally for $6/gallon. Any cheese I can make will be only marginally cheaper if I don't include my time, but certainly more readily available.

The nearest store with a decent variety of good cheese is over 100 miles away, and there's always expensive mail order... but either way, my real cost for cheese has to include travel or shipping. I know I can do better cost-wise by making my own cheese. I doubt I can make a world-class cheese, but surely I can make cheese that's tasty and nutritious nonetheless.

I have already made a few types of soft cheese, but an aged, hard rind cheese takes a special environment of humidity and temperature to cure. Luckily for me, a friend has just offered an old but working wine cooler that will do the job. I will have to fetch it, then make a cheese press, and order some molds and cultures with my January check, but that will be my Christmas gift to myself. Besides, any new endeavor is always entertainment for me!

Wine is not as much of a problem on my budget since I don't drink anymore, but I do use it in cooking, especially for marinades, and in a braise or stew. Wine is fairly easy and inexpensive to make, and I have several gallons maturing already. Some of the wine will get turned into vinegars, and I use a lot of flavorful vinegars on fresh salads from my garden.

All in all, my interest in making more of my own foods is very rewarding financially, emotionally, and health-wise.

Central to that interest, I am trying to grow what I can in my own garden, and when the growing season is upon us again there will be more gardening posts here. I fervently wish I could add some animals to my yard, like a good milk cow (pref. Jersey or Guernsey) or milk goats, plus a few chickens and ducks... but I'm finding that's not easily accomplished, having arrived at age 70 with limited resources and waning strength.