Cooking by Feeling

My mom and I both love to cook, but we have a very different approach from each other.

My mom has a floor to ceiling bookcase that is built into the wall, shelves drooping from the weight of cookbooks. She then has two large cardboard boxes, organized by file folders, full of newspaper-clipped recipes from over the years. When she feels dreamy or has a specific craving,  she looks through her collection to find a recipe she would like to do. If she doesn’t have the ingredients, she will get them from the store.

I am recipe-free! I loooove my mom’s cooking, and sometimes I will look at a recipe for ideas, but I like to think of myself as a “cook by feeling.”

It starts with what I have available. If I am selecting produce, whether that be from a store or market, or from the field, I choose what I bring home by what feels good rather than what makes sense. This is most often what is ripe and in season. Maybe the red chard looks a little brighter than the collards today, or maybe my body tells me that nutritionally, it would really like what’s in those raspberries. Those raspberries smell so goood and I am salivating! Chard and raspberries.

It then goes to the kitchen. I most often cook in one big cast iron skillet. The exceptions to this include when I am cooking something acidic like tomatoes (I will then use a stainless steel pot), dried beans or slow-cooking meat and bones (crock pot), or baking squash, sweet potatoes, or a casserole (the oven rack or a glass pan).

I love using cast iron, and although I cook with a lot of oil, butter, and lard, I still appreciate a well-seasoned pan. To accomplish this, I:  1) Use it often  2) Leave oily remains in it when otherwise fairly clean  3) And, when I do wash it, I dry it on the stove and sweep a tiny bit of oil over it afterwards. Paul Wheaton gives thorough details on seasoning (as well as how to remove old seasoning and start from scratch) in his article, Using a Cast Iron Skillet Ain’t So Hard! (You can find the article at www.richsoil.com)
So! In goes some butter until it is ready to make things sizzle. Then, more often than not, in go some onions (meals just don’t seem right without onions). It is free-flowing from here. I take my spread of options in, and come out with a combo that makes me nod my head and, in my own nerdy way, feel giddy for my creation. I love experimenting with flavor, and I love how cooking time and the use of herbs and spices yield different tastes and textures with the same core ingredients.

I have found the greatest delight in charting new territory for  myself. The fact that I cook for someone else for work only adds to the thrill. A dish will harmlessly be coming along, rather average and ordinary…I have to do something different! Bring out the random odds and ends! How about some juice from the pickle jar? or some dried fruit? or some ground pumpkin seeds? The field is wide open. It’s all game.

Playing in the kitchen like this can yield some beautiful surprises, all the while nourishing my inner Creative. I discovered one of my favorite creations while in college, and although it never turns out the same twice, it is a general “recipe” I love that turns would-be compost into something delicious.

Here it is:

Moist Carroty Loaf

Save the pulp from the juicer. My favorite combo is carrot, apple, fennel, ginger.

Mix together some wet ingredients: eggs (I like a lot, like 4, but it depends how big of a pan you fill), some coconut oil or melted butter (not so hot that it cooks the eggs), a tiny bit of sweetener like agave, or honey.

Throw in some dry ingredients: a handful or two of flour (I do gluten free flour, like brown rice flour), a pinch or two of baking soda (optional), a few dashes of sea salt.

Throw in something fun just for the heck of it: Some cut up prunes? Some ground flax? Apple pie spices?

Make sure things are hydrated enough after a few minutes, if not, add some juice or water.

Put in a greased pan and bake! I like to take it out before it gets too dry. Keep your noses alert.

I hope you enjoy the results as much as the process!

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Sustainable Lawns

Just finished mowing my friend’s lawn–and it was wonderful! He has a Neuton Cordless Electric mower, which involves no gas or manual start-up. All I have to do is pop in the battery, push the handle, and enjoy–rather quietly–the smell of fresh-cut grass and the sunshine…far from a chore.

Lawn care is an interesting subject to broach in the permaculture arena as it often brings up some flags. Having recently moved from a relatively earth-aware community in Arizona, I understand the idea that lawns are a luxury–that food and water are more appropriately made available for the high desert plants suited to the area, as well as the critters there that need them (including us).

And yet…especially having grown up rolling around in a lush Virginia yard, I am rather attached to the joy of having at least a little lawn. Thinking clear-headedly about it is important, but I don’t have to get stuck in limitation thinking. I can be creative and still make sure my ecosystem’s needs are met!

Lawns can be really awesome, and they need not involve chemicals, nor constant maintenance. They also need not exclude having edible landscaping, nor does every “plot” need one–a modest patch in a community area will do! They become run-around spaces for kids, places to gather, and can be really beautiful.

Some words on sustainable lawn care:

Many people believe that they will have to mow less often the shorter they cut the grass, and this is not necessarily true. According to Paul Wheaton’s lawn care article at richsoil.com, “Your grass needs grass blades to do photosynthesis (convert sunshine into sugar) to feed the roots. When you whack the blades off, the grass has to RACE to make more blades to make sugar. It then grows amazingly fast.”

Mowing high has other advantages as well. For one thing, weeds do not survive when they are shaded, and the grass naturally wins out when it is healthy. With height comes health: “The fast growth [that comes when we mow too short] uses up a lot of the grass’s stored sugar, and weakens the plant. It is now vulnerable to disease and pests! Tall grass is healthier and can use the extra sugar to make rhizomes (more grass plants) thus thickening the turf.” (lawn care at richsoil)

We have even more of an advantage over weeds when we frequently mow high, as the sensitive growing point for grass is near the soil and the sensitive growing point for most weeds is near the top of the plant. So in Paul’s words, “when you mow, it’s as if you are giving your grass a haircut and cutting the heads off of the weeds” (lawn care at richsoil).

It is also a good idea to let the grass go without watering until it starts to show signs of thirst (the grass will start to curl before it turns brown). This way, the grass is encouraged to send its roots down deep to find moisture, and the shallow-rooted weeds will weaken. Watering deeply every once in a while, (such as after a rain, as funny as that sounds) will get water down to the deeply cultivated grassroots, and discourage the survival of weeds on any in-between dry days.

Lastly, nourishing the soil is key. It helps to leave the grass clippings after mowing, as well as to utilize compost. Additionally, professionally checking your pH will give insight to what your soil needs. I would recommend Paul’s article for this as he does a better job than I at the details: lawn care at richsoil.

Another great resource for organic lawn care is the permies forum.

Here is a permies link on alternative mowers: good non-gas mowers

And a link to the lawn care forum, which is full of a wealth of knowledge on any lawn care question you could muster!

including…”Neat stuff you can grow in your lawn” which is fun:) I think there is nothing more magical than crocuses popping up early spring…

The Beauty of Having Perennial Food

A major emphasis in the world of permaculture is in growing perennials.

I first considered the value of perennial cultivation a few years ago when I heard Wes Jackson, of The Land Institute speak at Prescott College. He told us about the research being done breeding perennial wheat, crossing annual wheat and intermediate wheatgrass. What stands out the most in my memory was him showing us a picture comparing the root structures of the perennial vs annual plants. (Here is a link showing him next to this picture: http://capenews.net/blogs/under_the_lens/2011/02/11/wes-jackson/)

The roots of the perennial plant are awesome in that they reduce erosion, (not to mention forgoing yearly tilling), aerate the soil for healthy micro-organisms and bugs to better thrive in, and sequester more carbon–which enhances soil cation exchange as well as nutrient and water retention. On a nutritional level, the wheatberries produced from these plants are consequentially awesome. According to the Land Institute, “Lab tests have shown that flour made from perennial wheat has 40 percent more protein, 10 times more folate and lutein, and up to 600 percent more nutrients than traditional wheat flour” (The Perennial Promise).

And of course this is not only true of the wheat! There are all sorts of perennial fruits, and many vegetables, including asparagus, artichokes, fennel, garlic, onions, horseradish, all sorts of herbs, sweet potatoes, water cress, certain kinds of kale, spinach, and collard greens, and rhubarb. Researchers in China and Sweden are breeding for perennial corn and rice, as well as oil-producing plants like mustard and sunflowers. (The Perennial Promise) One could have an entirely perennial garden or farm if they so desired, and many permaculturalists do!

Planting perennial polycultures–especially when organized in ways where land features and a variety of plants work with and benefit each other–minimizes energy input, (labor, water for irrigation, money for seed or starts, fertilizers, pesticides, and often fossil fuels to till or plant with) helps the garden or farm become self-sufficient (which means more time being creative/sipping lemonade in the hammock), and helps heal the greater ecosystems (which is just awesome).

What particularly stands out to me about allowing our food systems to be more self-sustaining is the incredible shift we are stepping into in how we see and connect with nature. With our use of conventional agriculture through the years has come an almost colonial mindset of objectification–the control of the biotic and abiotic factors of the land in order to guarantee feeding ourselves. With permaculture, we bring a sense of wildness back into food cultivation–a more cyclical and circular thinking. We rejoin with the rest of nature, in a sense, by cooperation and assistance rather than conflict (with this pest or that weed), and a dependency on human action. Lastly, (this is the ecopsych major coming out here), this shift affects our mental health. The main idea in ecopsychology is that the inner reflects the outer, and the outer the inner–so what a release to enter into natural flow, resistance-free. As we help to heal places, they help to heal us back. Here’s to health and happiness!

For a discussion thread on perennial grainfields, visit: http://www.permies.com/bb/index.php?topic=4609.0

And for a discussion thread on breeding for permaculture, visit: http://www.permies.com/bb/index.php?topic=7542.0

Biodiversity and Grazing

A symbiotic relationship I learned of a few years ago was of wildebeests and zebras. I forget which traits belong to which species, but one ate the taller grasses and had good eyesight, while the other ate the shorter grasses and had good hearing. You would always see the two grazing together, both to make the best of food available and for better awareness of approaching predators.

This interweaving of species makes the proverbial “web” stronger. Similarly to the wildebeests and zebras, having a great diversity of grazers, plants, soil organisms, and wild critters on pasture makes for a stronger farm ecosystem. According to author Greg Judy of Acres Magazine (Vol 40, No 5), “The sheep consume a lot of the forbs and brush that the cattle refuse to eat. The cattle eat more of the grasses and legumes. We also introduced goats, which go after the woody-type plants. The pigs went after the legumes and cow pies. Having the pigs spread out the cow pies severely impacted the fly larvae and also covered a larger area spreading out the manure” (14). Chickens also do what the pigs do. He goes on, “When it comes to parasites, our cattle act as dead-end hosts for the sheep parasites. The sheep parasite cannot complete its life cycle on the cow. The same goes for the cattle parasite – the sheep are dead-end hosts. We do not use any form of parasite control on anything, and our animals are healthy” (15). Pretty cool.

Now we look a little more below the surface… According to author Jerry Brunetti (of the same issue), all green plants produce plant secondary metabolites (PSMs) for the purpose of protecting themselves from weather, UV rays, insects, diseases, and overgrazing. These PSMs combine synergistically with the PSMs of other plants that grazers consume to support the animal’s digestion and immune system. Grazers with greater biodiversity of forage are thus less vulnerable to pathogens and parasites.

Brunetti states, “We’ve viewed our livestock and ourselves as isolated organisms, rather than recognizing that we are all ‘super organisms,’ or more accurately, complex ecosystems that are self-organizing, cooperating, self-sacrificing and constantly communicating with each other” (14). To me, this is where the philosophy of the Ecopsychology movement meets the scientific reality of our physical function. The imaginary line containing the “personal” psyche, or the “isolated” organism, instead becomes an open system of an infinite number of ingoing and outgoing lines–the more involved, the stronger each nested hierarchy becomes, from cell-level to organism to ecosystem.

Brunetti encourages more “lines” by welcoming wildlife in to the picture, “especially birds and bats, reptiles and amphibians. Groundhogs dig holes, bringing up subsoil, a great mineral lick for the livestock.” He continues, “Use riparian corridors and woodlots appropriately. You’ll remove invasives, encourage natives, and develop a symbiosis between the ecto-fungal-dominated forest leaf litter and tree roots and the endo-fungal and bacterial-dominated grassland. Create wetlands, swales and ponds to invite more water to both come to the farm and stay there as well. As the organic matter increases, the farm becomes a water magnet, and the soil substrate becomes a coral reef of life for producers, prey and recyclers.” The best part is that at this point, the input to pasture you are left requiring is mainly sunlight, CO2, N2 and water–letting nature do its thing is awesome!

Bringing Farming Back into Town

Reasons why urban and suburban farms/gardens are AWESOME:

**It is possible that we will all need to be more directly in charge of feeding ourselves as countries around the world dump the dollar, and we see a large rise in pricing for things such as fossil fuels.
**The suburbs are full of back, front, and side yards…glorious space! We can grow food right outside of our homes and still be physically close to our communities. Cities have a surprising amount of space available as well–just takes a little more creativity.
**The closer to others we are, the less dependent we are on our cars and trucks for transportation. It is also easier to share–foods, knowledge, relationship–and easier to take care of those who need help.
**With knowledge of permacultural practices, we can raise food without nearby natural water sources such as streams. We can create spaces that require little to no irrigation, and use rainwater for when we need it.
**Rather than sprawling further and further out, we can allow wild spaces to stay wild–not that humans or change are bad–just to respect the integrity and unique needs of other species.
**Bringing food and earth awareness out in places where it has been forgotten (often, cities) is a powerful source for healing–for everyone–not just at-risk youth, or other populations of “affliction”–but truly everyone (including the soil and living ecosystems). It brings us back to our health, our sanity, and our felt connection (as opposed to just an intellectual connection) to the earth.

While living in Prescott, AZ, I was particularly impressed with our local “Karma Farms,” who are a decentralized group of folks that have taken advantage of Prescott (town) as farmable land. For Karma Farms, people donate their yards for being gardened, whether or not they decide to physically participate in the farming. Karma Farm volunteers then ride around every morning (by bicycle) to tend to the immediate needs of the different yards, pick up compost material from local cafes and restaurants, meet in a local coffee shop, take care of whatever particularly needs attention for the day, and eat together. They raise vegetables, as well as animals for meat, eggs, and milk. You will even see them walking their goats around “pasture” spots (where they’ve gotten permission to tend and graze) once a day. No money is ever exchanged, and they are able to buy things they need off of donations and fundraisers. They have a free farm stand every week, laying out food for the taking, and they have set up community compost drop-off sites around town.

There are similar stories to Karma Farm popping up around the country, and, while many of them still operate by the sale of what they grow, they are still incredibly awesome. Here in Missoula, we’ve got Garden City Harvest, which offers community education, consists of many community garden spaces in low-income parts of the city, as well as larger neighborhood farms which grow food for those who need it. They also have a therapeutic employment program for adolescents, who work the sites and sell the food at a low cost to seniors and people with disabilities who live in subsidized housing in town. Check them out at: www.gardencityharvest.org.

Raising Chickens and Having Eggs

Unfortunately, the reality behind a lot of store-bought “organic” eggs is rather discouraging. The Cornucopia Institute (at: www.cornucopia.org) is a watchdog group that follows up on how companies actually operate, and many are factory farming. To help discern who is doing what, they created a scorecard (which you can check out at: http://www.cornucopia.org/organic-egg-scorecard/) rating different brands.

And of course you can raise your own! There are tons of awesome resources out there on raising chickens, and many different approaches. At Paul Wheaton’s richsoil website, he discusses six: factory, coop and run, chicken tractor, truly free range, pastured poultry pens, and pastured poultry paddocks. He then rates them on being vegetarian (which he finds unnatural for them), their access to bugs, poop cleaning, poop hygiene, amount of work, natural habitat, confinement, and food cost. Check out the full article at: http://www.richsoil.com/raising-chickens.jsp. He also has a podcast and several youtube videos at: http://www.richsoil.com/permaculture/category/chickens/.

There is also a great discussion thread at the permies forum:  chicken coops/runs/tractors/paddocks/pens/etc.

as well as others under the forum title: critter care

Back to Sepp Holzer for a Minute…

I want to mention that Paul Wheaton, a Missoula-based permaculturalist, is giving free monthly presentations at the Missoula Public Library. May 12th (at 6:30 in the large conference room) he will be showing two 30-min Sepp Holzer films and hosting 30 minute discussions after each one. The films are, “Farming with Nature” and “Terraces and Hugelkultur.”

If you don’t know what “hugelkultur” is, it is when you take old, rotting logs and incorporate them into raised beds. With the exception of woods like black walnut and cedar (which put out natural pesticides/toxins), the wood provides hugel beds with incredible nutrients, air pockets, and conditions for happy soil life. To quote Paul,

“[the rotting wood] makes for raised beds loaded with organic material, nutrients, air pockets for the roots of what you plant, etc. As the years pass, the deep soil of your bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets – so your hugelkultur becomes sort of self tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm your soil giving you a slightly longer growing season. The woody matter helps to keep nutrient excess from passing into the ground water – and then refeeding that to your garden plants later. Plus, by holding SO much water, hugelkultur could be part of a system for growing crops in the desert with no irrigation.”

For more on hugelkultur, you can visit Paul’s article at: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

or watch some youtubes at: Hugelkultur – proof that it works!                                  and:  Hugelkultur – raised bed gardening sans irrigation

For the full schedule of Paul’s upcoming presentations this year, visit: http://www.permies.com/permaculture/missoula