Thursday, July 9, 2009

Heritage Homestead Preserving More Than Just Fruits and Vegetables

As my garden grows, so does the bounty and the dilemma of what to do with it all. So, I decide to tackle the art of canning and preserving, how hard can it be? Well, after reading several books on the subject, the realization hit me that if I made a mistake while attempting this I could cause illness or egads...botulism. Canning and preserving involves some basic science as does baking, and I am not the best baker.

My mom's family were not only excellent bakers but also extremely noted canners and preservers. My Choctaw Indian great-grandmother was known for her beautifully preserved crab apples and her canned fish. According to family lore, my great grandfather was quite a fisherman and would travel to places like Yellowstone and beyond to fish for rainbow trout and salmon. The family could not eat all of the fresh fish at once so my great grandmother would prepare it and cure it by canning it. It was a special treat for the family in Texas where catfish ruled the special occasion dinner table, salmon and trout were apparently, quite exotic.

My cowboy's ancestors all canned here where we live too. In fact, there is an old shed that still stands on one of his cousin's properties that still holds some of his great aunt's jars from way back. While exploring this old shed, we were still able to distinguish summer squash that had been canned over 20 years ago.

Until our fast food nation and mentality took over, canning and preserving if not taught by a family member at home, was taught in school or by a local county extension agent. During World War II when victory gardens were at their peak, community canning centers began popping up throughout the Country. Women would bring their garden fruits and vegetables and utilize the equipment at the center. It was a social event much like quilting or sewing clubs of the day. For canning at home, there would be a wood burning stove placed outside or on a porch since the boiling and steaming could go on for hours, depending on the amount of food to be processed.

After some internet research, I came across some homesteading courses that are offered in Texas only an hour away from our farm. Homesteading courses have gained popularity with the decline of the economy and the rise of healthy eating and the popularity of the slow food movement.

Heritage Homestead is a Christian based community located just outside of Waco in an area known as Chalk Bluff. The 510 acre working farm named "Brazos de Dios" along the banks of the Brazos river, is home to 30 families. The majority of the buildings and structures are salvaged log cabins, barns and mills brought piece by piece from around the United States and lovingly restored with historical accuracy but incorporated with hidden modern conveniences (AC, plumbing, electricity).

As soon as you drive through the community you are struck by simplicity, orderliness and the balance of modern and old fashioned rolled into one. Heritage Homestead is self sustaining and self contained, producing: natural pastured meat, organic vegetable gardening and orchard production, dairy barns, gristmill etc. They are also master metal forgers, furniture makers and builders.

Each and every building and surrounding gardens reflect their heritage. I arrived at the cooking center, which to my delight was partially housed in a beautifully restored two story 1800's log cabin from Missouri (with a modern commercial kitchen building hidden behind). I was greeted by a very nice woman in her 50's who was the lead instructor, accompanied by four other young women (one being her daughter)to assist with the class training. Two of the young women, Jessie & Rebekah would be doing the actual teaching on this day. They had been canning since childhood - this type of cooking method was as natural to them as popping in pre-fab food in a microwave to us.

The class size was just right, nine participants of all ages and all walks of life (from housewife to Austin restaurateur & caterer)surrounded the log cabin hearth as we listened intently to the instructors. From there we went through the antique doors and stepped into a very modern day large kitchen facility. Everyone took their place at the amazing butcher block work table that faced the stoves and ovens. As we learned the ins and outs of this lost art, and I can honestly say, it is a lost art - we bonded and assisted each other with the various steps. My mind immediately conjured up images of those old community canning centers and for a moment, I felt deeply connected to the past.

Our course began early in the morning and did not finish till late in the afternoon with a much needed lunch break at their on site deli and bakery. It is not often that you get to eat homemade bread, grass fed beef, handmade cheese, fresh squeezed lemonade and freshly made ice cream all in one meal all produced at one location.

By the end of the day, I had successfully canned or preserved the following: grass fed beef chuck, pinto beans, green beans, tomatoes, peaches, jalapenos, strawberry preserves and cabbage for sauerkraut. Now, I can safely say "of course I CAN"!

As stated earlier, there is a real science to canning, after learning the basics, you can add your own flare and touch to your canning recipes and arrangement of the food within the container. Learning from a professional (be it a homesteading course, family or friend) is essential for this particular craft. These skills are handed down through centuries and are honed to perfection by places such as Brazos de Dios and Heritage Homestead.

As time and money permits, I will be returning to the homesteading school to learn other essential craft and agrarian homesteading skills. Some of those courses include bread making, soft and hard cheese making, handcrafted soap making, organic gardening etc. There is a profound purpose and sense of accomplishment in rediscovering and mastering these skills. One of the best rewards possible is to taste the fruit of fulfillment and accomplishment and getting in touch with my own heritage.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Personal "Victory" Garden - How To Get Started

The reality is that almost half of my life was lived in a high rise overlooking the Atlantic ocean. The closest I got to a garden was walking by the potted plants in the entry way of the lobby of my childhood building.

Gardening was not really a part of my vocabulary. I did love driving through the sugar cane fields in Brazil when I was a child and the many farming communities when visiting Texas. But at the time, I had no idea that I would be living that life one day.

Fast forward to 2009 - now living in Texas on a farm that once yielded large crops of watermelons, peanuts, purple hulled peas, cotton, corn and other staples. In the 50's the farm switched to Brahman cattle due to the government cotton credit program.

My artist cowboy's family has carried on the tradition of raising registered Brahmans but due to their temperament and size have become less popular in recent years. I love all of our bottle fed Brahman babies but as the economy continues to spiral downward, we have chosen to revert the cattle ranch back into a working farm with some small profitable heirloom crop production and possibly an agritourism location in the near future. Feed Me Farms will one day feed the mind, body and soul!

In order to achieve our long term goal, we decided to plant a "test" garden to see what would grow well. We took our inspiration from the victory gardens of the 1940's.
The term "Victory Garden" was coined during World War II, when food was being severely rationed. The U.S. government began a campaign for Americans to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Americans heeded the call out of necessity and victory gardens began cropping up in the new urban areas, places where people had lost touch with living off the land. Magazines and newspapers featured articles on vegetable growing, canning and preservation at home. Beautiful, whimsical posters and artwork were part of the campaign, many depicting patriotic images and vegetables, hand in hand.

History repeats itself. Newspapers, magazines and television news have been covering stories about home gardening, CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture) and local farmers markets. Even Leisure Learning, a Houston adult continuing education program has really jumped on the train. Once upon a time it was full of stock market and real estate classes but on the cover of the latest issue it touted backyard chicken and goat tending. Publications such as Mother Earth News, Grit Magazine and Hobby Farms are having a renaissance of many newspapers and magazines are witnessing a decline, these publications readerships are growing on a daily basis.

I am happy that we are a part of this. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a little seedling take root, grow and bloom, then ultimately bare a fantastically tasting fruit or vegetable. I have lost all interest in purchasing massed produced food from supermarkets. Their waxy evenness is almost creepy. Our food sources have all been polluted with genetically modified seeds, massive amounts of pesticides and flavorless fruits and vegetables all in the name of progress.
One bite of an heirloom tomato will have you begging for more locally produced food and possibly inspire you to provide for yourself - even if you did grow up in a high rise! Yes this is my personal "victory".

How to Plant Your Own Victory Garden:

1) Start small, even if you have many acres to play with. Support companies who provide only non GMO (genetically modified) seeds. My absolute favorite company is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds @
Their catalog is not only beautiful but very educational. They offer heirloom seeds from around the world. I had almost 100% germination with their seeds. I boycott companies that are associated with Monsanto (GMO) seeds. Most of the seed companies sold in major stores like Home Depot, Lowe's and Walmart are NOT very good and many are flavorless.
2) Do not be afraid, just jump in. I was so hesitant and indecisive that it actually took me weeks to finally plant one seed. I read so many gardening books that I eventually got overwhelmed with information. I go back to the "kiss" philosophy (keep it simple stupid).
3) Do keep a journal, it really helps to keep things organized. I made my own gardening book. I titled pages with planting dates, first sprout dates, first harvest and last harvest dates. I also keep track of significant occurrences such as frosts, rain, drought conditions, pest invasions and lack of germination (possible reasons). Make a diagram of the garden and keep track of where you planted what. This will help if markers are washed away and will help you rotate for next year.
4) Prep your soil but do not overthink the process. Our ancestors grew tons of crops with little intervention and so can you. We use all natural fortifiers for our soil. Compost, fish emulsion and other natural infusions.
5) Do smother weeds or grass before planting. The easiest way to do this is with newspapers and tarps, allow a few weeks for the area to wilt and die and then begin working the soil. If you are doing raised bed planting then this is not a big issue.
6) Do not be afraid to plant the seed directly in the ground, especially if you live in the South. You do not need a fancy greenhouse to get those little seeds started.
7) Pick fruits and vegetables that you like and will eat. It is also important to picks seeds that are known to flourish in your climate.
8) Have fun with it, don't be upset with a few small failures. The big victories are well worth everything!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Oven Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

Tomatillos have taken off in our heirloom garden. Two varieties have both grown equally well. My tomatillo verdes yielded rich, vibrant green fruit. The big surprise was the Purple Coban tomatillos, a native mountain variety from Guatemala. The Purple Cobans are a lush, purple and green mottled fruit much sweeter than expected. When roasted, they become even sweeter.

Tomatillos are thought to have grown wild in the Andes mountains eventually being domesticated by local tribes and then spread to other South and Central American cultures such as the Aztecs. Tomatillos are often confused with green tomatoes but are very different in both texture and flavor. Tomatillos are a member of the nightshade family but are closer to a gooseberry than an actual tomato. When ripening on the vine, a husk evolves first protecting the tiny fruit bud until it matures and breaks through the papery skin. The husk is almost the size of the full grown tomatillo throughout the growing period of the fruit itself. Tomatillos are ready to pick when the fruit catches up to the size of the skin and can be seen peeking through.

Salsa is now in the top five condiments of the U.S. right up there with ketchup and Tabasco. The name "salsa" most likely was given by the Conquistadors for the concoction of chilies, tomatillos or tomatoes used by the indigenous cooks of Central America.

*****culinary tip - tomatillos have a sticky, soapy residue between the husk and the fruit. Fill a sink with cold water and rinse the tomatillos twice to remove all the residue. I made this for a pot luck dinner party to serve with my homemade carnitas cornbread casserole, so I was cooking for a crowd. This recipe can be easily halved.

Oven Roasted Tomatillo Salsa:
40 tomatillos
8 to 10 garlic cloves
4 Poblano peppers
2 to 4 fresh jalapenos or serrano peppers
2 1/2 cups of coarsely chopped onion
1 cup chopped cilantro
olive oil
sea salt (to taste)

Set oven to broil.

Place all the ingredients except for cilantro, olive oil and salt on rimmed cookie sheets. Roast all ingredients until the tomatillos begin to burst and caramelize and the poblanos get very dark and their skins begin to separate. Keep turning all the vegetables until all sides are roasted.

Remove poblanos and place in zip lock bag. Allow to sweat, then peel off the roasted skin. Add back to the roasted vegetable mixture.

Allow for the roasted vegetables to cool slightly, begin scooping the roasted vegetable mixture into a large capacity food processor, be sure and add all of the juices from the roasted vegetables. Add a handful of cilantro and process. Continue this until all roasted vegetables and cilantro have been processed.

Add sea salt to taste and a bit of olive oil for consistency. Best if made the day before and allowed to sit overnight in refrigerator. Can be reheated or served cold.

* Can also be combined with Crema Mexicana for a beautiful green cream sauce.

happy hour @ FMF

happy hour @ FMF
party till the cows come home