Kitchen storage

Well Preserved's post about kitchen storage got me thinking about ours today -- I'm actually pretty proud of the changes we've made since we've moved in. We have a long way to go, but the kitchen is a lot more usable than it used to be. We keep most of the items we use frequently in one shallow upper cabinet; I've finally managed to figure out a configuration that almost never requires moving things to get other things out:

Mug hooks are my best friend - we hang lots of things on the insides of cabinet doors. I had been thinking about how effective that is (and absolutely hating our one other upper cabinet with a passion) for a couple of years when I recently decided to redo it, and I'm thrilled with how it turned out. It went from a cabinet with several short shelves that nothing much fit on to being very handy. I took out most of the shelves, moved one down to the bottom, and hung grids (purchased at Daiso <3) on all the interior surfaces.

Now I can get everything out easily and get to my small pots one at a time. We hang a lot of our most-used kitchen utensils on a wall grid behind the stove...

...so the less-frequently-used ones (like spare canning tongs and the candy thermometer) go here, along with other things that are difficult to store, but which I didn't want to shove into the abyss of our couple of almost-useless lower cabinets (rolling pin, pastry mat, mixing bowls, etc.).

So where do the big pots go? The ones that are fairly flat hang on the wall (either on our big grid behind the stove or from another wall shelf), but the others, we store up high. We don't have space above our cabinets, so we had to make some for the two big stock pots:

Coffee mugs (which have a high turnover) and smaller pot lids (which are currently being washed) also go on this wall. The big pot lids are stored on the pots to keep the dust out.

Most of our bulk food goes on a bookshelf we got cheap at a church library sale (hooray for no longer being in an earthquake zone!) and painted to match the cabinets. It stands alongside the fridge in the 10 or so inches we have that don't encroach on the walkway. I'm particularly happy with the spice shelves we put in this summer -- they're a compromise. I wanted to be able to access the spices easily and see what we've got on hand, and David wanted to make sure they were stored in the dark so they didn't degrade. So we used craft wood and L-brackets to put these guys in in the empty space above the canisters on two shelves. I still have to paint them, but they satisfy both our requirements and use space that otherwise is wasted.

Finally, we do have a small pantry in the kitchen (thank goodness!) that we use to store the less attractive food and our cookie sheets (they're on the same kind of shelf as the ones above them). We overhauled this recently in the hopes of cutting down on the amount of convenience food we keep in the house, so we took out some door shelves and consolidated the bagged/pouched/boxed stuff so we can get through it faster. These little $3 IKEA shelves are my fourth-favorite organizing tool (after mug hooks, grids, and mason jars) because they'll fit on the inside of even narrow closet doors.

The canning jars next to the orange basket are pre-measured for our rice cooker so we don't have the excuse of not wanting to go to the basement to get rice -- this has actually turned out to be really handy, and we've definitely cooked more by adding that little extra convenience. We keep a few things upstairs from our ridiculous basement room-converted-into-pantry (below), but the bulk of our home-canned stuff stays in the dark, cold basement. It's a lot less convenient, but the food keeps much longer in those conditions, and the trips up and down the stairs are good for us.

Those shelves are 18" deep and consist of virtually every piece of furniture we had for a while -- I moved 11 times between 2002 and 2009, so when I worked at Storables in Seattle I would buy a piece or two at a time of the Industrial Post shelving and carry it home on the bus because we didn't have a car. (Yeah, I got some strange looks.) We used it for everything -- desks, end tables, kitchen storage, fish tank stands, you name it. Once we finally bought a house we didn't have to worry about moving around so much, so eventually we took apart all the IP stuff we had and built this gargantuan thing. The whole shelving unit is actually interconnected, so it was pretty insane to try to figure out the order in which the pieces went together, but it's about the only thing I can think of that's actually sturdy enough to hold this many canned goods.

One thing I don't have a picture of is some of our re-purposed grocery store display shelving behind the door in the pantry. All of my canned soup, coconut milk, etc. is actually stored in cardboard shelves. This might seem crazy, but if you look at many of the sale displays in your local grocery store, you'll see that they're incredibly sturdy -- in most cases they have to not only be strong enough to hold canned or jarred products, they also have to be tough enough to withstand shipping. I work in the corporate office of a major grocery retailer/wholesaler, so mine were sample displays that were thrown away, but you could get these by asking for them at your grocery store -- they just get recycled when they're empty.


I wouldn't be on "Hoarders," but if they ever come out with "Canners," I'm screwed.

Maybe I'm the only one, but no one ever seem to talk about what happens to your house when you spend all your time doing things like canning. Mine ends up looking rather like a tornado has passed through a farmer's market and a thrift store and deposited everything it sucked up on the way in my living room. You know you've been canning too much when:

- You start sterilizing a couple of extra pint jars with each batch just so you have a clean dish to drink wine out of while the jars are processing
- Your chickens have a look of terror in their beady little eyes every time you come out with another bowl of food scraps
- The fruit flies now outnumber the human residents to such an extent that the bills start arriving addressed to them instead of you
- That strange thumping in the hall is all three cats batting around tomatoes they've found god-knows-where, and your first reaction is a flash of icy-cold terror that you still have tomatoes somewhere in the house, and you don't know where!
- You're working in the kitchen all the time, but you haven't eaten anything other than sandwiches, instant mashed potatoes, or toast for the past six weeks because there's never a free burner to cook anything else.
- You start constructing molecular diagrams out of the hundreds of canning rings lying around just so their presence looks intentional
- Your efforts to disassemble the Jam Tower and actually put things away are thwarted by the city informing you that a project of this scope requires permits and a public input period.
- The cats are no longer afraid of the vacuum because they can't remember what it does.

One of these years I'll get the hang of all this juggling, I'm sure. Or at least I hope so, because my other option is to simply move to a new house every November. xD


Why We Bother

It was a light weekend so far as canning goes -- I only got 19 jars done: 13 pints of carrots, 5 quarts of sweet pickled crabapples, and 1 12-oz. jar of pickled cranberries with the leftover syrup from the apples. Of course there's more to do this week (35 pounds of grapes and over a bushel of red bell peppers to roast for red pepper spread), but we had other things to do over the weekend, so those bigger projects just had to wait. But, oh, the grape juice and pepper spread will be so worth it after I finally get around to them!

One of the things we did this weekend was go over to my in-laws' for dinner. Inevitably our latest canning projects come up in conversation when we do this, and equally inevitably we get questions like, "But wouldn't it be cheaper to buy X in the store?" (My MIL appreciates the non-monetary benefits of "slow food," but I think my frugal FIL and BIL think we're nuts!) I suppose that in a culture where the primary consideration for everything has shifted to whether it's sufficiently cheap, that's a fair question, but saving money is not why we do many of the things we do. (Or at least it's not the primary reason -- there are some things, like my herb-infused vinegars (below), that are a big savings to make myself, and very pretty to boot!)

So why do we? There's a whole laundry list of reasons. For one thing, we're trying to shift to a local diet. We're not fundamentalist about it, and we don't refuse food provided by others (we admire freegans for recognizing that wasting food in the name of a holier-than-thou food philosophy is wrong), but we've started the long process of phasing out food that can't be grown in our region and discovering new favorites that can. It's rare anymore that my grocery cart contains bananas or mangoes, or tomatoes or berries in the middle of winter, though I haven't given up on citrus as yet. We're hoping to provide our own eggs, starting buying more milk and butter from local dairies, and David is working on sourcing grains through Whole Grain Milling so we can buy ingredients rather than processed foods.

Part of this is a disillusionment with our entire food system. Both of us have spent a significant portion of our working lives working in the grocery industry in one way or another, including on the wholesale side. My father, who works in industrial refrigeration, has also been taken by his work into various parts of the industry, including slaughterhouses, produce warehouses, grocery dry goods warehouses, and large dairies, and has shared some of those experiences with us. While the grocery chain that gets food onto the shelves of your local store is an impressively efficient and accurate system, we don't really think it's equipped to face the realities of peak oil, when that really starts to hit. (And I think the way retailers have recently begun to embrace local sourcing is at least as much because they realize this as well as because of consumer demand for local products.) Nor do we entirely trust the safety of the industrial food system -- retailers, who work with customers daily, do a fairly good job of policing their shelves, and pull unsafe food quickly, but too much of the industry on the vendor side of things is under-inspected, self-policed, or just not taken to task when they do let contaminated food slip through. It's not your local grocer's fault that that lettuce or canteloupe or pork you just got sick off of was teeming with pestilence, but there's also no way for him to be sure that the food that came from Giant Industrial Farm #786700b is really safe. He can only look after his links in the chain.

All of that is fairly easy to convey, but the other two concepts are more difficult to get across: work as leisure and the up-sides of slow food. I'll come back to work as leisure in another post, but for the up-sides of slow food...how can you really make someone who almost never eats fresh produce understand the difference between it and what they normally eat? Those grapes we bought from a local farmer, and we got them within four hours of their being picked. Just sitting in their boxes in the living room, they pervaded an entire floor of our house with their tangy grape smell. How many people who buy seedless grapes from the grocery store do you suppose even realize that grapes have a strong smell? I shared some of our salsa with co-workers, and despite the fact that we do nothing special at all to make it besides use fresh, local ingredients, people were amazed by how good it was. I can't take credit for that -- that's just the difference between a salsa made with canned whole tomatoes grown a thousand miles away and which have been sitting on a shelf for six months and one made with tomatoes that were sun-ripened and picked two days ago in a field hour outside the city.

It's not just freshness that matters, it's also selection. Seeking out local foods gives us access to things you'll not find in a grocery store, because one of the major criteria that determines what produce you can buy is how well an item ships. Many of the most delicious foods -- tart cherries, several kinds of melons, heirloom tomatoes, many plums -- bruise easily or don't keep well for many weeks or don't ripen after they've been picked prematurely, so you'll never see them on a shelf at the supermarket. There are other foods that can be grown in our region that are scarce for other reasons: currants of all types, a native fruit, were largely eradicated at the behest of the lumber industry. They're delicious, productive, pest-resistant, and take up very little space. They're also very good for you. Lingonberries are not grown in large quantities in this country, but they're also very tasty, and are hardy down to a zone 3. Seaberries (sea buckthorn) are another hardy, productive shrub, and one of the potential replacers of citrus fruit in our diets, as its juice is tart, orange, and high in vitamin C. Mulberries and wild blackberries don't ship well, but they grow here in abundance, and are far better than the mushy, flavorless berries you get in little plastic clamshells. There are many other hardy fruits that can be grown without having to have a greenhouse or ship food from South America -- pawpaws, quince, hardy plums, honeyberries, juneberries, gooseberries, hardy grapes -- and we'd have tried almost none of them if we weren't trying to eat more locally. I don't like all of them, but I like many of them, and I would be missing out on a lot of wonderful food if I just stuck with imported bananas.

For all the endless choice we seem to have in giant grocery stores, there's actually very little variety. Trying to eat more locally forces you to try new things, many of which you'd never encounter otherwise.

And then, of course, there is the ethical side. We know one person who started keeping rabbits for meat because he visited a slaughterhouse and was appalled that part of his buying "normal" meat included the assumption that someone else was going to do that awful, miserable work for him. Culturally we have this huge assumption that it's okay to both demand rock-bottom prices and demand that someone else do all the dirty work of food production for you, and that doesn't sit right with me. My dollar a pound for apples grown in WA translates to rock-bottom wages and poor living conditions for farm workers, the shutdown of family farms in favor of huge industrial conglomerates, and other social issues I have a huge problem with. And the depressing of wages and elimination of jobs in favor of having a few more dollars hit the bottom line cascades through the economy, hurting us all. (A major problem I have with a lot of vegans is that they wail about the treatment of animals and then head off to the grocery store to buy vegetables and fruit that were basically produced with slave labor -- this is an uncomfortable truth of our food economy that even many of the otherwise ethically-conscious are loathe to admit.) Either I am willing to pay for the privilege of having another human being do the unpleasant parts of my food production, or I am willing to do it myself. There's not an ethical middle ground, for me.

Not that I really consider harvesting and canning my own food unpleasant, most of the time -- and there's a huge payback in the pride you can take in something you've made yourself. :)


Roots and Fruits

So, for the past couple of years we've just kind of been growing random things without an overall plan; we've tried out new plants and bought things on a whim and stuck plants in the ground any old place without a whole lot of planning. This is more my fault than David's -- but we've both agreed after this year that this is high on the list of skills we need to work on next growing season.

Part of the reason for this is that we're pushing our luck on the tomatoes and peppers at this point -- we've had them in the same place for a couple of years now, and that's just asking for trouble. Another issue is that we suck at succession planting, so our harvest comes in all at once. Yet another hurdle is that there are some fairly basic things we've just not taken the time to learn how to grow properly -- like spinach and lettuce -- so things that could be an ongoing harvest have been overlooked in favor of things like tomatoes, and tomatoes are so much work that anything else that needs to be processed at the same time stands a chance of going bad while it waits for me to get around to it. And we should eat more spinach anyway, especially since I love it raw. So next year is going to be Back to Basics Year.

This doesn't mean I'm not going to plant anything new. It does mean I'm going to reign in my tendency to purchase fifty tomato plants, though. Next year we're going to focus on growing things we eat and that store well with minimum effort, like potatoes, carrots, and onions. We're also going to work on picking up some of those basics we've not paid enough attention to, like greens. And we're going to try our hand at a few new staples: beans are a given now that we've discovered what a joy it is to harvest them dry instead of trying to consume pounds and pounds of green beans, which we're indifferent to at best; the amaranth did well enough this year that I really want to give quinoa another go next year; and we've discovered that it is possible to successfully grow sweet potatoes in our climate, as the Amish who supply them to our co-op do so. We'll still grow a few tomatoes and a lot of peppers (the bells in particular are very cost-effective!), but since we end up buying most of the tomatoes for our big processing batches anyway, we'll take a year or two off the intensive growing to reduce the risk of disease.

The other thing we're going to do is pay more attention to our fruits. We've planted a frankly astonishing quantity of fruit on our small lot over the past three years, and we're finally starting to get harvests worth mentioning. This year we added a number of things, including two tart cherry trees and three grapevines, so next year should be even better. But at some point we need to take the time to do things like renovate the strawberry bed and learn to prune back our bramble-berries and the plum tree, so it might as well be next year. And I need to take the time to really clear out the persistent weeds sprouting around our fruiting trees and shrubs so they don't have to spend so much energy competing.

There's a laundry list of other things we've been "meaning to get around to" that will make our garden more productive, but which have been procrastinated in favor of shinier, more exciting things like planting my herb garden or getting the chicken coop started: we desperately need to clean up the yard waste "compost pile" (which is really more of a sod graveyard), rake up the mulch around the raised beds and put in thick cardboard to beat back seven or eight trillion of the quackgrass plants, take out hundreds of pounds of extra dirt back by the alley to start new raised beds, and deal with the mess that is our post-giant-stump boulevard, once and for all.

I feel like up until now, what I've been doing is building the bones of a great garden -- pulling out sod, planning a layout, getting a start on where things are going to eventually go, and just trying to keep it from being too hideously ugly. But at some point you have enough bones and you need to work on covering them over, or else all you have is a skeleton, a half-accomplished idea, and it's frustrating to always look out the window and see something that feels more like "incomplete project start" than "well-balanced work-in-progress."

Even so, it's going to be tough to resist the siren call of the Baker Creek Heirlooms catalog!


Food Swap!

Okay, so we've gone a little nuts over this Food Swap thing.

I should backtrack and explain a little. In early September I found out about something called a "food swap," which is basically an event during which a bunch of food nerds swap homemade or homegrown foods. I love barter, and thought this was a brilliant idea, but figured it was probably one of those things going on in New York or Seattle or somewhere like that, and was surprised to find out that one of the more successful ones is going on monthly, right here in Minneapolis. We seemed to be too late to get in for the September event that was happening three days after I found out about it, but at the last minute (Friday afternoon for a Saturday event!) some tickets opened up and we were able to go.

I think we did pretty well for having so little notice -- I raided my Leaning Tower of Jam in the pantry (that's a whole other post -- the Jam Tower consists entirely of flats of half-pint jars of jam I've made since June, and it is now, while sitting on the floor, actually taller than I am!) and David whipped up some of his tasty garlic-havarti rolls; we grabbed some jars of salsa and took off for the swap.

I was too busy during the event last month to get pictures, but the whole thing is very well-organized, and takes place in a lovely space provided by Open Arms. Basically everyone comes in and sets up their wares, and then everyone wanders around for a half-hour or so, checking out what the others have brought, chatting, and enjoying samples. Each item has a little info slip in front of it with its description, ingredients, and so on, and at the bottom are lines for folks who want to "bid" on that item to do so. So, for example, if you saw some wonderful olive tapenade (which I did, and which, alas, I did not get), you'd write down your name and what you're willing to trade for it (say, strawberry jam). While you're doing that, other people are checking out your stuff and writing their bids on your strawberry jam's info sheet. (Amounts are not as much a concern as you'd think -- David observed that a half-pint seemed to have become the standard unit of "currency" for a trade almost by default, but people weren't really crazy about sticking to that.) At the end of the bidding time, you go back and check out your offers and the swapping begins.

The amount of variety is pretty incredible -- there were jams and jellies, spice mixes, a wide variety of baked goods from the basics to the artisan, chocolates, chutneys, fridge pickles and relishes, canned goods, homemade dog treats, salted caramel sauce, fresh herbs, and other things I've probably forgotten. The presentation blew me away -- we'd skimped on that due to the short notice, but others did not, and it was as much a feast for the eyes as the appetite. We found plenty to trade for, and while we didn't get everything we wanted (such as the aforementioned tapenade and the amazing caramel sauce), we did get a lot of great stuff to diversify our pantry and munch on for the rest of the week.

So, not to give it all away, but this month we're anticipating bringing more of David's fresh-from-the-oven rolls, his killer homemade caramelized onion hummus, more jam, of course (for which I have more samples this time, since I've had more notice), and some of my flavored vinegars, infused with my homegrown herbs. If the hens get off their lazy fluffy butts and start laying soon, we'll have home-raised eggs for future swaps. I've made a number of things specifically for the swap -- which is where the "gone a little nuts" part comes in -- and tried some things I'd not have ordinarily tried (like the Spiced Ginger-Carrot Jelly I made the other night while I was pressure-canning pints of carrots), but I'm not normally all that adventurous in the kitchen, so maybe that's a good thing.

Next month's swap is coming up fast, so hopefully I will remember to get pictures this time and post a recap. ^_^


Gardening Mistakes Made This Year

I'm inspired by The Crunchy Chicken this morning to recap some of this year's garden bloopers, not in the spirit of self-recrimination so much as in the spirit of not making the same mistakes over and over again. So here are this year's "oopses:"

1. Planting the wrong things. Every spring I experience a bout of temporary insanity and plant cabbage. This is stupid for two reasons: first, I could get enough cabbage to make a kiddie pool full of sauer kraut for less than ten bucks at the farmer's market, come September. Second, my yard was apparently build on an ancient cabbage burial ground full of angry cruciferous spirits, so I've never had a cabbage actually make it to maturity and remain edible. Also, I should really give up on growing watermelons from seed in Minnesota. It's mid-September and the only way I'm using watermelons is if I can them whole in light syrup...in a quart jar. Some things were just never meant to be.

2. Getting lazy about weeding from early July through late August. When I need a saw to take down the lambsquarters, it's been too long. #1 and #2 may be related -- next year I think I'll just stir-fry the quackgrass roots and have a side salad of lambsquarter and wood sorrel and skip planting crops altogether. If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em. Well, except for the deadly nightshade.

3. Not getting seedlings in the ground -- this was largely due to our extremely late spring this year, but it did emphasize for me the importance of having cold frames, mini-hoophouses, or row covers to protect plants so I can get them in the ground on schedule. Now that Jackie Clay has moved to Minnesota and demonstrated all this year the benefits of growing things like peppers in a hoophouse in this climate, I'm sold on the idea. It's just a matter of getting the materials together and actually building them.

4. Forgetting that tomatoes aren't timid little shrubby or viney things; they're vegetative monstrosities capable of dismantling steel cages with their bare stems. I don't need tomato cages; I need a high security tomato lockdown facility with reinforced concrete supports, electrified perimeter fencing, and a moat. That's not to keep the garden pests out -- that's to keep the tomatoes in.


Just another modest proposal from big agribusiness...

Thank heavens for the internet, showing me the error of my ways -- according to this fellow, "conventional" farming is better for the environment and even for animals being raised for food. He suggests that caged chickens are better off than free range chickens because they are less stressed due to their confinement.

Maybe he's on to something. If, indeed, intensive cage farming is better for the chickens because they consume fewer calories and thus resources and are not troubled by natural behaviors like moving around and establishing a social hierarchy, why not expand the concept? Why not solve this problem of expanding food needs by caging humans as well? Surely keeping humans in banks of tightly-fitting cages would be better for us, as it would eliminate such stressors as war, poverty, and competition for mates. We would take up much less space, which would be better for the environment.

And if we went one step further and fed us recycled bits of human as they feed chickens recycled bits of other chickens, we could drastically reduce our need to raise food animals -- and thus our impact upon the Earth. Such humans might not be able to lift their arms due to the tight quarters, but in the past raised arms have been used to hold weapons and intimidate others, so it's really better if we can eliminate these types of distressing behaviors altogether. And, really, isn't the lifespan of the average human right now a little over-the-top? If we can condense all this living into a smaller physical space, we might as well do what we do with chickens and condense it into a smaller temporal space as well. Meat chickens hit their peak at, what, six weeks? It would be hard to argue that people haven't hit their peak by thirty-five or so. If we could just select for the shortest-lived and fastest-growing humans, we could streamline things to fit many more generations into a century of time. And once you hit thirty-five, you still get to give back to the community by becoming people kibble. What could be more environmentally friendly than that?


One of the things I inevitably spend way too much time doing is weeding. Our yard was a terribly neglected weed-patch when we bought the house, and between that and the weeds you get even in the best-tended and mulched garden beds, there's a lot of ground to cover. Hunched over in the hot sun or swatting away mosquitos as I dig out roots and rhizomes, I'm inclined to curse these out-of-place plants -- but a little research and a lot of closer looking has changed my outlook somewhat.

For all that the weeds drive me crazy, there are relatively few in my yard that are "useless," and several that are useful enough that it's astonishing that as a culture we've dismissed them so thoroughly. So this summer I want to talk about a few of these that you just might have sprouting around your yard, and even if you don't decide to eat them, you might regard them a little differently.

Some of the plants I'm going to mention require a lot more effort to use than it's probably worth most of the time. (After all, who wants to spend hours digging, cleaning, and pounding quackgrass roots to make bread when we have far more effective ways to do it? What we might do in a time of need may not be worth it in a time of relative plenty.) But this one is easy; you can pick it as-is, rinse it off, and pop it right in your mouth, and it's delicious. It grows all over the place and isn't difficult to find or identify, so it's free...how can you beat that? :) This is wood sorrel, a diminuitive clover-like plant common in the Midwest:

This plant is not too problematic to identify, because the only thing it closely resembles is clover, which (while far less palatable) is not toxic. There are a couple of ways to distinguish it; a patch of sorrel isn't going to have clover flowers, for one! (Its flowers are the dainty yellow ones in the picture; they can also occasionally be white depending on the sorrel variety, but they don't look anything like clover flowers.) Clover also tends to have duller green leaves with lighter-colored markings on them (as in the picture below), which wood sorrel lacks. If all else fails, you can tell by taste -- a clover leaf tastes...leafy...while the taste of sorrel is hard to miss.

Wood sorrel has a delicious, tangy, lemony flavor that will surprise you if you've never tried it before. It tends to grow in clumps, so you can gather enough for a meal in just a few minutes. I toss mine into a cup or paper bag and then rinse it out in a colander in the kitchen sink the same way I'd rinse lettuce leaves, then use in a salad either by itself or with other greens like spinach and basil. The flavor is strong and pleasant enough that it doesn't need much dressing up; I use just a tiny amount of oil and vinegar (citrus balsamic is absolutely fantastic with it; in the Twin Cities you can get this stuff cheap at Holy Land). Sesame seeds or almond slivers are good in this kind of salad, too.