Friday, 13 February 2009

The Pantry Dwindles: Winter Diet Report

By Kate
Living The Frugal Life

It was never a formal goal of mine to become a local or seasonal eater in 2008. But it seems to have almost happened that way, largely on its own. We're not strict about this; we do still cook with olive oil, drink tea, use bread flour, and eat some chocolate, none of which are produced in our region. But a very significant percentage of what we eat is local or homegrown. This is likely a function of my insistence - on frugal, more so than ethical, principles - that we eat what we've grown first, before purchasing food from the grocery store. We're in the depths of winter here, and I thought a little confessional on our diet would be in order right about now.

We're still making soups, pasta dishes, and casseroles with our homegrown ingredients. But these days there are a lot of purchased ingredients going into our meals too. Much of what we have left of our own produce is coming out of the freezer or a canning jar. We've noticed that even store bought green salads that we eat when invited to someone else's home taste amazingly good to us right now. Despite our frozen supplies of homegrown kale and chard, there's no replacing fresh green things. This has prodded us to think very hard about ways of providing ourselves with homegrown salad greens for a longer part of the year.

We ate our last homegrown pumpkin very recently, and only the smallest, most-time-consuming-to-wash potatoes remain in the garage. Some few leeks still stand in the frozen garden. I harvest a couple whenever it gets above freezing, which is rarely these days. I will try to have leave more of them this year for winter use. Our homegrown and canned salsa and tomato sauce still form ranks in the basement. We need to use them both up at a faster rate than we have been.

There are a few items that we must now buy regularly from the store. We're completely out of fresh homegrown garlic, and there's no local garlic to be had. We will not willingly go without garlic. I mean, really: is it reasonable - or even sane - to go without garlic? It was galling to have to pay for garlic though, and to realize we won't have any of our own again until late June or July. We've always bought our starchy staples, such as rice, pasta, pearl barley, oats, and flour at the store. But this year we also have a small supply of our homegrown soup beans, which we've been enjoying. We'll grow two kinds of soup beans this year.

I've been baking a lot of bread this winter. I'm also putting more effort toward finding bartering opportunities with my homemade organic loaves. Fortunately, I've found that farmers are very willing to barter dairy products, eggs, and some other items for my bread. That has kept us in yogurt, cheese, honey and eggs through the winter months. I don't do much baking during the hot summer months, so it's especially nice to be able to supplement our diet by way of a homemade product when the garden is bare. We don't grow our own wheat for the flour, but my skill and labor are still securing food for us for very little cost.

I anticipate that as we eat through our remaining preserved homegrown foods, we will increasingly shop for produce at the grocery store in the next few months. I expect that March and April will be the months when we will be most obliged to buy non-local food. After that the earliest crops in our garden will start coming in, and the local farmer's markets will re-open. I've already been buying onions, carrots, celery, and fresh herbs at the store. This year I'm going to do my utmost to grow a large crop of onions, so that we needn't purchase the other indispensable cooking ingredient. I don't know how to cook without onions.

We still have a fair supply left of our own cider that we pressed from our untreated apples late last fall. This raw cider is a treasured drink for us, so sweet that I sometimes must dilute it with a little water. The concentrated taste of fresh apples is an incredible treat for us during the winter months. Augmented by my stores of frozen berries and dried fruits, it mostly carries us through weeks without fresh fruit. My husband has an unbreakable banana habit though.

On the other hand, I'm not running to the store for salad greens yet. Instead I found myself flailing about for strategies to extend our growing season for this year. I've decided to grow stinging nettles for their early spring emergence and their incredible nutritional qualities. This will be a plant to enjoy during a short season each year, since the plant becomes increasingly potent and unpalatable as it develops through the year. I also took the plunge and ordered a very durable row cover from Johnny's Seeds. I plan to use this very early this year to start lettuces, arugula, scallions, and spinach. Then in late spring I will use it to get the tomatoes and peppers into the ground a week or two before I otherwise would. At the far end of the year, I'll again use the row cover to raise and protect a crop of greens that will feed us through at least a few months of cold weather.

From a nutritional perspective, we're not doing very well right now in terms of getting our quota of fresh green vegetables. From a frugality perspective, we're doing incredibly well at feeding ourselves for very little money, and with very little waste. And from a homesteading perspective, we're doing a so-so job of providing our own subsistence. The upshot is that I see at least a few strategies that can help us improve both the quantity and the quality of the food we are able to grow for ourselves this year.

To sum up, our gardening habits and our diet are co-evolving. Our dietary preferences inform our gardening decisions. And the climatic and soil properties of our garden inform our eating habits to a large degree. As we go through the seasons, notice how our diet affects us, and listen to our bodies' messages about what we are eating, we adjust our plans. We'll experiment with growing and eating a few new crops this year to see how they might fit into a sustainable, frugal, healthy, and local diet. This deepening connection to our own backyard and foodshed feels right, natural, and inexpressibly satisfying to me. I don't feel any particular craving for fruits or vegetables we cannot grow in our abundantly productive region, only a keen interest in making the best use of the possibilities we have.


ChristyACB said...

Very insightful and timely! Two others of us were remarking on it being gratifying as each jar empties. Feeding ourselves that way.

Must be a winter thing!

As for other and new crops, I don't know what kind of room you have, but Amaranth is a nice and easy to grow grain that produces a great deal of seed from each stalk. Golden Giant is a good one for taste and ease.

Em said...

Would it be possible for you to sprout grains/legumes/seeds indoors, or is it too cold through your winter? They can be an easy to grow green supplement, sitting on the kitchen bench, if you have a spot that is warm enough.

Sadge said...

Stored cabbage and sprouts are my home-grown greens right now, and a curly kale plant still hanging in there out in the garden. But spinach and arugula I sowed last fall when I planted my garlic have sprouted and, although currently only the size of a dime, as soon as the weather warms up a bit they'll really take off.

But I know what you mean about salads tasting so good now. Whenever I go to a buffet-style luncheon meeting, I fill at least half my plate with salad.

mrsdirtyboots said...

I hear you! We're nearly out of onions and I can't cook without them. Each year, we generally buy a bit less though and I'm sure you will too!

Chiot's Run said...

I think we were made to eat seasonally and as part of that we have to get over our idea that we need to eat green veggies all the time. That being said, I do crave a salad occationally in the winter, but I know I'll get my fill in the spring/summer/fall. Right now we're enjoying more squashes & pickled beets for our veggies (along with a few canned beans & frozen greens, and sauteed cabbage).

I would suggest growing spinach under a row cover in the winter. If you plant it early enough in the fall and it's full grown you'll be able to harvest it throughout the winter and it will start producing leaves much earlier in the spring. Ours is doing wonderfully this winter, I'm very impressed. It actually looks better than my mache plants and they're supposed to be the most hardy winter greens.

And yes, buy garlic. Can you really cook without it. I'm almost out as well, and I'll be buying some for sure.

el said...

Hi Kate: I agree with Em's comment about sprouting. We supplement lots of what we eat with home-grown sprouts, and sprouted wheat berries in our bread is a big family favorite. So yeah we're eating lots of cabbage or beet or carrot salads too but we add a bit of a bite with radish, broccoli and alfalfa sprouts.

But garlic. I tend to employ many tricks to keep my garlic supply alive, mainly by growing pounds of it, but there comes a time in March where we're out too. Fortunately the onions, chives, and garlic sprouts are up in the greenhouse by then, and the multiplier (Egyptian walking) onions are huge in the garden. So we shift from garlic-focused cuisine to onion-focused, that is, until I harvest the first green garlic cloves in May.

But yeah it's a bit of a switch, moving away from the grocery store. Your seasonings need to shift too.

livinginalocalzone said...

This is really a timely post, matches some of my own thoughts this week. I eat locally almost completely, and right now the greens are pretty much non-existent. I haven't been able to bring myself to go into my freezer stash yet (with the summer/spring veg and all the greens in soups, etc) so its been potatoes, turnips, winter squash, etc. for the past month or so.

One of the things that helps me most is having small batches of "green" - sprouting moong and other local beans gives just enough of that punch to help get me through. It is really easy, and I don't use special equipment at all, just a warm place near where I am starting seedlings and some water.

El made a great point about looking for alternatives to experiment with. That is one of the things that I've slowly been learning, what I thought might be "essential" or hard to live without really can be modified, making some new dishes in the process. And plus, that first salad of fresh lettuces will taste amazing :-) It's all about finding new possibilities right in our own areas.... though I will be more than happy not to see another turnip for a long time after this winter!

Kate said...

Thanks for all the suggestions on how to augment our homegrown diet, everyone.

Christy, how do you process and use amaranth seed once you've grown it?

Em & El (M&L?), I like the idea of sprouts, but we do keep our home rather on the chilly side. How warm do they need to be? I suppose I could always sprout them on the radiant heat floor...

CR, that's exactly what we plan to do with the row cover. I hear you about seasonal eating, and gorging on what is in season, each season. But we definitely went without greens for too much of last year. Didn't get a fall crop in at all. We've learned our lesson there. Such is the gardening process.


el said...

Hi Kate,

Our house is really cold and sprouts still find a way to get going. I wouldn't really worry too much about the temperature; just don't let 'em dry out. Give it a try!

I made a post about them a while back that might be helpful:

Deb G said...

I'm in the same place. Just ate the last of my winter squash last night. Still have onions, garlic, and carrots. And spinach in the cold frame. That worked very well this year. I am going to try sprouts...craving green stuff!

One thing I have decided is that (if I can afford to) any store bought canned items that I buy to replace my home canned stash will be donated to my local food bank when I preserve this years harvest.