A Healthier (sorta) Valentine’s Day Treat

cookie2With the little guy in daycare, there is a need to supply treats every once in a while. Since we like homemade stuff, I decided to surf the web for a recipe for cut out cookies that were a bit healthier than the norm. I found this great one from Kim’s Cravings and modified it slightly — see below. They make a really nice cut out cookie with crisp edges and a slight coconut/vanilla taste. I bet you could add some lemon zest or other spices to make them different, but they are tasty as is. Of course, I probably negated the nutritional value of the cookie by lightly coating them with a powdered sugar/water glaze and dipping them in sprinkles, but hey, they ARE cookies!

Vegan Cut Out Maple Cookies
(adapted from Kim’s Cravings)

  • 3 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (plus a few tablespoons extra – you may need it to make dough a bit stiffer)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp cornstarch
  • pinch salt

To Do:

  1. Mix together coconut oil, maple syrup and vanilla in a bowl. In a large measuring cup or other bowl, mix the dry ingredients and then add to wet (I have also just dumped everything into the bowl and it was OK).
  2. If the dough is too wet, add a bit more flour. You want the dough to come out of the bowl with minimal stickiness. Make it into a ball, throw it in a baggie and smush it into a flat disc.
  3. Put it in the fridge for a couple of hours. Take out, roll and cut out to your heart’s content! Bake at 350F for 7 minutes and 30 seconds. They will firm up quite a bit while cooling. Over bake and they will be too hard. Bottoms should be very lightly brown.
  4. Let cool and ice. I use a mix of powdered sugar and a bit of water and then dunk in sprinkles.
cookie3

Check out those edges!

 

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Seed Starting

While folks just 10 miles south of us were getting buried under the Great Blizzard of 2016, we didn’t even get a dusting of snow yesterday and we spent the day starting some of the very early tasks of the upcoming garden season.

Over the last few years our home garden has started down the long road from the $64 tomato toward an ecologically self-sustaining and economically sensible food source, but we still have a long way to go and a lot of factors to figure out.  Despite the investment of time and money in improving soil quality and even watering, we still found ourselves with uneven results at the end of last season.  We had a lot of success, as usual, with beans and peas.  We also got two great arugula crops – spring and fall.  Our cherry tomatoes did pretty well by the end of the summer, but our big tomatoes were mostly a bust –  especially the ones we tried to grow in big pots to save real estate in our raised beds.  Our brassicas were mostly a flop with the exception of one glorious Ragged Jack kale plant that kept us in greens for months.  Our beets were a bust.

Since we did have some plants thrive (beyond just the nitrogen fixers), I feel pretty secure that our garden soil is at least viable enough to support food production.  I bet that we could still up our watering game in order to keep the plants from getting either over-watered or thirsty.  But in addition to that, I’m trying to tackle two other basic issues that I think undermined our yield in years past: our planting schedule and the health of our seedlings.

First, I’m fairly certain that we’ve started planting way too late in years past.  We generally grow most of our veggies from seed rather than buying starts at garden store so that we can be pickier about our varieties.  For a lot of early season veggies, this means planting seeds indoors way before the average last frost date (which happens late April/early May around here).  We’ve never really started doing any garden work before, say, late March which means we likely got our cold season seedlings planted outside both too late and too small to be viable.  I’m trying to correct for that this year by following the timeline in the Week by Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook.

week by week garden

This book gives you a gardening schedule based on weeks before and after your local last frost date to tell you, among other things, what to plant when.  As a result, we’re definitely getting a jump on things this year – we already planted some shallot seedlings.

The other thing I think has been holding us back is the health of the seedlings we’ve been putting in the garden.  Up until now I’ve been resisting the idea of using any thing other than a window sill to provide heat and light.  But I think it’s time I come to terms with the fact that we just don’t have a spot that stays warm and bright enough to support unassisted seedlings.  Our seedlings are often pretty leggy by the time we move them outside, or we move them outside in their trays long before they’re ready for transplant in order to get them more light and they end up being exposed to wind and temperature extremes that either kill them outright or weaken them so much that they remain stunted after transplant (at least I think this is what happens).

So we’ve invested in both a grow light setup and a heating pad so our seedlings grow up strong during their early days.  Also, we got a cold frame as a holiday gift so we’ll be able to harden off our seedlings before planting them.  Hopefully, with strong and healthy seedlings going into the ground, we’ll get plants that can handle what our great outdoors has to throw at them – heat waves, powder mildew, aphids, and all.

Of course, none of this will solve the problem of how we grow a decent beet or carrot – both of which we just direct sow.  For that maybe we’ll have to give our garden problem solver book a more thorough read.

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Coffee CSA

As I mentioned in the last post, we recently signed up for the North River Roasters “CSCR” – community-supported coffee roasting.  Basically, we now get coffee on a CSA subscription model. NRR is a local social venture in Poughkeepsie that will eventually be housed in the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory.  From their website:

We want to build a business that makes a difference to our community and is both sustainable and ethical in every way possible.  As a social enterprise we’re about making a difference, not just a profit.  We are committed to:

  • Sourcing coffee beans that provide fair wages to farmers and are grown sustainably
  • Hiring local residents and youth, and paying a living wage
  • Giving back to the local community
  • Using sustainable and recyclable materials

Coffee is one of the things on our regular food purchase list that simply can’t be produced (as in grown) locally, so we were glad to find a way that we could get a product that was at least processed locally and where the processor was keeping a keen eye out for social and environmental concerns.

As usual, the local, socially conscious, green options comes at a cost premium.  Our 13-week subscription delivers 12 ounces of whole beans a week at a cost of $156, or $16/lb of coffee.  This is a little over a 50% cost increase from the coffee we’re used to buying, but since we seem to be able to fit it into our overall home budget we’re glad to be able to make the investment in a better product that supports our local community.

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Resolutions

With the new year comes a recommitment to blog projects that may have slipped by the wayside during the holiday season.  So here we are.

Actually, while we haven’t done any writing in a while we have been trying to keep up with our localism challenge.  We did our best to source as many of our holiday gifts as possible from local shops and producers, including a lot of books from Three Arts Bookstore, coffee from North River Roasters, amazing smoked maple syrup from Red and Brown, cheese from Sprout Creek Farm, Black Dirt bourbon and an array of hard ciders from up and down the Hudson Valley.

We’ve also been trying to keep up with buying local for ourselves.  We invested in a half gallon of local maple syrup to keep up with our sugar substitution efforts and just signed up for North River Roasters’ coffee CSA.  We also got ourselves some warm winter clothing from the Pleasant Valley Department Store.

The biggest thing on the horizon for us in the new year is the gut renovation of our kitchen in the early summer.  Since this project is so big and because the kitchen is probably the most important room in the house for us, it’s going to be the first time we’re bringing in a designer and a general contractor.  So in terms of local spending, we’re going to be working with all sorts of local professionals, starting with Mill Road Design who’s been working with us on the design process and helping us shop around for contractors.

On the other hand, this renovation is going to be a huge financial investment for us and it’s going to require us to be a lot more mindful of our spending in other areas.  In order to stick to a budget for groceries, among other things, will mean that we’ll have to make compromises about our local shopping in the instances where it means spending more.  In some ways though this will lend some structure to our project and will help us stay more mindful about how and where we’re spending our money.

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Local Culture – Yogurt

(rimshot)

We went on a trip to our local health food store the other day to take advantage of their bulk beans and spices.  Buying staples in bulk lets you avoid excess packaging and is therefore often cheaper than branded goods.  Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the case if you compare the per pound cost of dried beans from the health food store with a bag of Goya beans, but at least we’re supporting a local shop.  And for some reason, our local supermarket only sells candy, cookies, and peanut butter in bulk.

Anyway, while we were there, we also wanted to pick up some plain whole fat yogurt, which is a surprisingly elusive product in stores around us.  Our standby is Seven Stars, which is made just under 200 miles away in Pennsylvania.  This time, however, we noticed they also carry Trimona Bulgarian Yogurt, which is made in Chenango County, NY (though the company is maybe based on Long Island?).

Apparently, Bulgarian yogurt has some particular strains of beneficial fermenting bacteria.   If you want to read a detailed and extensively footnoted article about it (and about the advantages of organic dairy) by a nutrionist/microbiologist, this link’s for you.  Health benefits aside, the Trimona yogurt cuts about 50 miles off our yogurt’s travel for an extra 30 cents ($5.29 for a 32oz container as opposed to $4.99 for the Seven Stars).  Not a huge difference in either distance or price, really.

And (to play devil’s advocate) if you compare this to the $2.78 you’d spend on a 32oz container of Dannon plain whole fat yogurt at Walmart, you’re clearly still investing more in your yogurt by buying a local (and organic) product.  No surprise there.

There are indication here and there that the Hudson Valley Fresh dairy coop started a yogurt line, but it’s not listed on their website and we haven’t noticed it at the supermarket.  If it’s out there, that might be the most local option.  We’ll have to be on the lookout.

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DIY Calendula Oil

Calendula Flowers

Fresh calendula flowers.

A few weeks ago, our little guy got a rash all over his body. It wasn’t bothering him (it definitely bothered us!) and his pediatrician suggested it was a viral and it would go away with time. He also suggested a few things that could speed up recovery: sunlight, aloe, baking soda baths and calendula oil or cream.

Calendula is also known as “pot marigold” and is a hardy perrenial (something else for our herb garden?). Oil or tincures are used topically for treating acne, reducing inflammation, controlling bleeding, and soothing irritated tissue. While poking around the Poughkeepsie Farm Project‘s herb garden, I found a stash of the flowers and decided to try and make calendula oil.

This is a pretty easy DIY if you have lots of time. Most herbal oils are made using the “cold method.” You put dried herbs in a jar and cover them with a carrier oil (olive oil, grapeseed and almond are all recommended). Shake the jar every day for 2-4 weeks and then sieve the herbs, making sure to press them to release every bit of extract. I didn’t have that long to wait, so I decided to use the heat-infused method with our yogurt maker.

I first dried the calendula flowers in our dehydrator. Wet flowers would cause the oil to go rancid!Dried Calendula

I then put it in a jar and covered with olive oil.

Flowers in jar

And then I let it hang out in the yogurt maker for a few days.

Strained and pressed – the finished oil!

Finished oil

I doubt it was just the oil, but as soon as we started using it, the rash dissipated. Definitely looking forward to making more oils in the future. Sage, anyone?

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Lamp.

Floor lamp, actually.  For some time, we’ve needed a floor lamp to replace a duct-taped-together piece of junk that serves as the primary light source in our office since we moved in.  Yesterday, I  happened to  see a tweet from our county executive announcing a local lighting company was opening a new factory just a few miles away.

To be honest, I hadn’t considered the possibility that there might be local lamps, but now I know.  And not only is Hudson Valley Lighting local, they have really beautiful stuff.   and while they don’t have their own showroom, their website pointed us to another local business, Route 9 Lamp and Lighting, that carries their products.

Unfortunately, when we got to the store and started looking through the options, it turned out that a Hudson Valley floor lamp was clearly out of our price range for this particular purchase (over $600).  But while our dream of a local lamp has been deferred, we were able to do the next best thing  – we got a restored antique lamp from the local lighting store.

It’s a really beautiful 1930’s piece and while it wasn’t what I’d call cheap (about $250), it’s clearly built to last in a way that some $40 faux bronze thing from the big box store would never be.

IMG_9677

We’ll definitely go back to Route 9 Lamp and Lighting again.  As for Hudson Valley Lighting, we’ll want to check back on pricing for smaller fixtures, like wall sconces we’ll eventually need to replace in the upstairs hallway and potentially add to the kitchen when we fully renovate it next year.

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Let Them Eat Cake

It doesn’t seem like there anything about bread that should make it difficult to get farm-to-table local bread around here.  And yet.

We’ve purchased a couple of loaves from local bakeries – the most recent being a loaf of tasty whole wheat made by All You Knead bakers down in Beacon – which have been very enjoyable, but have led us into two familiar stumbling blocks in our localism challenge: it’s not always clear how many of the ingredients are local and it ain’t cheap.

The website for All You Need says they make their products with “locally-sourced” ingredients.  Good to know, though some of their breads include olives or pecans and at least one features grains “from across New York State”.  So, how much of what goes into the bread we bought is as local as we’d like it to be?

Then there’s the issue of cost.  The All You Knead loaf was the cheaper of the local breads we’ve bought recently at $5.  Not outlandish, but more expensive than our prior habit of sticking exclusively to the day-old rack or the 5-for-$2 Portuguese rolls at the supermarket near our house.

So how do we ensure we’re getting bread from truly local ingredients and that we’re not finding yet another way to increase our food budget through localism?  Well, we could make it ourselves.  We just picked up  a couple bags of flour from Wild Hive Farm, which is based a mere 14 miles away in Clinton Corners.  They sell their local flour  either by special order or at a number of local shops (we picked it up at a local farm store/gun shop).

We got two 1.5lb bags – one of corn meal and one of whole wheat – for $6 apiece.  We used it to make some really tasty cornbread, but at $4/lb, it was definitely a pricier flour than the King Arthur we often get, not to mention the supermarket brand.  And if a loaf of bread uses about a pound of flour, we’re already pushing the cost of the store-bought in cost of flour.  Even if the costs of the other ingredients (local salt, anybody?) are marginal, we’re not saving any real money against the nice artisinal stuff from the store.

So then the next question is whether we can save significant money buying the local flour direct from the farm and in larger quantities and store it over a longer term.

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A Mostly Local Grocery Trip

Yesterday I took my first trip to the grocery store where I was trying to shop as exclusively local as I could.  We’re lucky to have a locally-owned grocery store chain – Adams Fairacre Farm – that stocks a pretty good amount of local goods.  Up until now, our grocery strategy has generally been to shop at Adams for produce (aside from what we get from the CSA), dairy, eggs, and bread and then to one of several supermarkets for the few canned goods we buy and dry staples like beans, rice, and flour.  Adams sells all this other stuff as well, but in our experience all lot of it tends to be “gourmet” brands that are significantly more expensive.

Our pantry is pretty well stocked right now and we’re still flush with CSA veggies, so this wasn’t going to be a huge shopping trip.  Here’s how we got:

Three and a half pounds of peaches, which were marked “Local” but I don’t know where exactly from.  There are a few peach orchards nearby, so…here’s hoping.

A dozen eggs from Feather Ridge Farm in Elizaville – about 30 miles north of us.

A gallon of apple cider from Minard Farms in Clintondale – right across the river and not 10 miles away.  This is a replacement for the Apple & Eve organic apple juice we were buying for the kid before.  I turns out the Apple & Eve Corporation is based in Port Washington on Long Island, but from their website FAQ it seems like they have a global supply chain:

At certain times of the year, our apple juice is made from apples grown in the United States. At other times, when domestically grown fruit is in short supply or the quality is not up to our standards, we use apple concentrate of the highest quality made in the United States or imported from one of several countries.

So, Minard is a lot closer although sort of a trade-off in that as far as  I can tell they aren’t organic.  I guess this is kind of a classic conundrum in terms  of sustainable eating.  We’ve never been exclusively organic shoppers, but we do try to head in that direction for stuff the kid is eating.

A loaf of rye bread from Silver Bell Bakery in Queens. 82 miles away and probably not a safe bet that it’s made from locally grown ingredients.

A small piece of cheese from Sprout Creek Farm, which is very local (and a nonprofit) and makes really terrific cheese.  But at $21/lb, it ain’t cheap.

Since all three of us like our cheese, I decided to supplement with some less expensive cheddar.  Adams sells Adams New York Farmstand Cheddar for $6/lb.  This I asked about and it turns out that it’s not a store brand – it’s made in Adams, New York which is about 25o miles from Poughkeepsie.  Not really our ideal in terms of local, but if the average meal travels 1,500-ish miles, I guess 250 mile cheese isn’t the end of the world for now.

And…a bunch of bananas.  The kid eats one pretty much every day and they’re the only food he asks for verbally at this point, so that’s an area of compromise for us.

$32.77 total spent and definitely not a full week’s worth of groceries even with the CSA veggies added in.  I’m not so sure whether buying local made too much difference in the pricing on this trip.  I think I just bought a bunch of stuff that’s sort of expensive by nature.  For example, the Sprout Creek cheese was the most expensive item ($7.26) but I think that’s more about quality than location since imported artisinal cheese is often just as expensive.

It also wasn’t difficult to source what we needed locally, though that’s probably going to change when the veggie growing season is over, when we need to buy staples like oats and dried beans, and if we look for bread that isn’t just baked locally, but also made of local ingredients.

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Local Sugar Substitutes: Looking at Stevia

In our last post, commenter Theresa asked “have you thought about growing (or using locally grown) stevia?” Well, it just so happens that we have access to some stevia that our CSA grows in their meditation herb garden! In addition to some rhubarb, nasturtiums and lemongrass, I cut a bit of stevia to play with at home last weekend.

steviaLeaves

Stevia is typically grown in South America, and while its extract is about 150-200 times sweeter than sugar, it does not raise blood insulin levels. According to Wikipedia, it has “been used for more than 1,500 years by the Guaraní peoples of South America, who called it ka’a he’ê (“sweet herb”). The leaves have been used traditionally for hundreds of years in both Brazil and Paraguay to sweeten local teas and medicines.” I also learned that it was banned in the U.S. for a while and the FDA still does not approve of using “whole-leaf Stevia or crude Stevia extracts.” This post via FoodBabe goes into a lot of detail about what the FDA deems “safe” in Stevia on the market, so I’m not going to go into the politics. I’m gonna trust that it’s been used for a while elsewhere and just leave it at that.

Stevia is pretty easy to grow and is a perennial, so we could even add it to our herb garden if we can find a good way to use it because it is SWEET. Like crazy aspartame sweet. I took a nibble of a raw leaf and thought I had just eaten about 5 packets of Sweet n Low straight. Luckily, I was able to get Phil’s reaction on camera.

A video posted by Minnisingh (@minnisingh) on

Since I already got the leaves, I figured I may as well dehydrate them and grind into a powder. The smell of the drying leaves was pretty awful — like hanging steviadryingout in a closet full of mothballs. This post doesn’t really give this plant too many kudos, does it? Anyways, I am now in possession of a tiny amount of dried stevia leaves. Researching this stuff some more, the amount of dried stevia varies widely. One site says 2 tablespoons equals 1 cup of sugar, another says 1 tablespoon and another says one teaspoon will do the trick. I suspect I will have to play around to determine how sweet my leaves are and see if I can find any good recipes, because it does have a funky taste. A lot of places recommend making extract or a liquid sweetener, as it reduces the funky bitterness. I think that’s what I’ll attempt after gathering more leaves. For now, I’ll just gaze at this jar of powder and ponder.

driedstevia

All of those leaves and smelliness and THIS is what I get.

Does anybody have recommendations for recipes using powdered stevia?

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