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I’ve never felt so trendy before… (via Eat Local Challenge)

While we’ve been largely successful in our efforts to eat locally for the past two months, we’re well aware that we’ve been doing this at the most bountiful time of year, at least in terms of cultivated crops (spring and summer are arguably better for wild foods). Local farms have probably been producing the greatest diversity of crops they are likely to do all year, and the farmers’ markets are hopping. At least some chickens are laying (ours aren’t, probably because they’re moulting), and goats are producing milk.

This is all likely to change in the next month or two as the weather cools off, and we’ll have to adjust our diet accordingly. Already we’ve seen a strong shift toward more greens in our diet, although our old staples of potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, and beans are all still major components of our diet. Most importantly from my perspective, fresh chiles are still available. Tomatoes are also still available. These two important crops will likely vanish from the farmers’ markets soon, unless our abnormally warm weather continues. Our average first frost date is rapidly approaching (November 23rd or 24th), but I would be very surprised if we see freezing weather anytime around then. We were seeing near record highs until just a couple of days ago, when a low pressure system finally moved into the area and brought our high temperatures down to around the climatological average (mid-70’s), though our low temperatures are still about 10 degrees about average for mid-November. There’s actually a possibility of rain later this week!

Anyway, on to the point of this post: With the change in season will come a change in the types and quantity of foods available to us. Food preservation is an important skill which has enabled people to set aside food when it’s abundant so that they can eat when it’s less abundant otherwise. We should have been actively preserving the summer and fall harvests for our (blessedly short) winter, but we didn’t get our act together to do any canning of any sort. We did manage to take the lazy route of freezing a little bit of food. This should help us cope with the lack of certain things during winter, but we really only froze enough to barely supplement our diet, rather than really contribute to it substantially. Here’s a rundown of what we’ve saved in our freezer:

  • A dozen large whole tomatoes
  • Several apples and peaches, sliced
  • Half of a cooked pumpkin
  • A large jar of prickly pear juice
  • A large jar of pasta sauce
  • A small jar of arugula pesto
  • A small jar of desert hackberries
  • Lots and lots of chiles (both roasted and unroasted Anaheims, plus some jalapeños and Gueros)

Eventually we hope to get more sophisticated with our food preservation techniques. In the meantime it will be an interesting challenge to find fresh local food during the winter.

Desert Harvesters is having its final two mesquite milling events this week. The first event will be at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market on Thursday from 3 to 6 PM, and the second event will be at the Dunbar/Spring Organic Community Garden on Saturday from 9 AM to 2 PM. The hammermill will be available at both events, so bring your mesquite pods to grind if you haven’t already done so! Both events will also feature mesquite pancakes (a donation of $3 is requested), and the Dunbar/Spring event will also feature live music. More information is available from the Desert Harvesters website. Come to either (or both) events and help support the great work being done by Desert Harvesters!

As a side note, this week’s Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market is the last of the season. After this week we’re going to have to adjust our shopping schedule a little bit, since we’ve come to rely on this market to provide us with much of our food for the latter half of the week.

After this week I may try a different strategy for these link dumps: highlighting interesting articles as they appear.

Over the weekend Marci went hiking in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains with our friend Erin. At one point they stumbled upon some desert hackberry plants (Celtis pallida) full of large ripe orange berries. Unfortunately they were not equipped to harvest many of the berries, but they brought back a small jarfull. The berries are delicious and we are excited to make some hackberry jam.

We went out later to look for more hackberries in the Tucson Mountains, but the plants were mostly devoid of ripe berries. They’re at a lower elevation than the plants in the Santa Catalinas, so we’re not sure when they were producing, but we’ll have to remember next year that mid-fall is hackberry season!

The berries began to spoil very quickly (after the first night they were starting to turn brown), so we froze them until we can figure out something interesting to do with them.

A wash in the Tucson Mountains

A wash in the Tucson Mountains, a typical habitat for desert hackberries and many other native species.

Closeup of native desert vegetation in the Tucson Mountains

A closeup showing characteristic native vegetation along the wash (especially desert hackberries, Acacia, velvet mesquites, etc.), and further from the wash (saguaros, palo verdes, etc.).

A desert hackberry

A desert hackberry (Celtis pallida) along a wash in the Tucson Mountains. This plant was devoid of ripe berries.

Recently I’ve tried modifying our mesquite flour tortilla recipe in a couple of different ways. First, I tried using raw goat milk in the dough instead of water. This didn’t have a huge impact on the consistency of the dough, but seemed to provide an ever-so-slightly richer taste.

The second modification involved using popped amaranth grain in place of some of the mesquite meal (1/4 cup of amaranth and 1/4 cup mesquite flour, plus 1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour). I was very pleased with these tortillas, as the amaranth seemed to provide for a much moister and smoother dough, resulting in softer and more flexible tortillas. I did knead the dough a little bit longer than usual, though, so it’s unclear how much of this difference in texture is attributable to the amaranth. The amaranth changed the flavor of the tortillas subtly, but noticeably. I think next time I will try using less amaranth, as the mesquite flavor was too subdued for my tastes, and perhaps I will use carob again as well. Expect a post titled “Amaranth carob mesquite flour tortillas” sometime soon! We’re also working on making local corn tortillas (we’ve made the masa, but haven’t tried making the tortillas yet). We don’t mean to make this a blog about tortillas, but there are worse things to blog about, right?

Tacos made with amaranth mesquite tortillas

Tacos made with amaranth mesquite tortillas. The tacos were filled with fried eggs, fresh tomatoes, arugula, grilled bell peppers and onions, goat cheese, and a salsa made from tomatoes, Anaheim chiles, garlic, and red onion.

We’ve been negligent with our blogging lately, as we’ve been very busy, but we have several posts in mind for the next couple of days. To help get us back into the blogging routine, here are several photos of what’s happening in our yard currently.

Pomegranate

A ripe pomegranate on our tree.

Globemallow

A blooming globemallow (Sphaeralcea sp.). This beautiful native plant is common within urban Tucson, and blooms in both spring and fall. We have several globemallows scattered throughout our yard.

Hansel, lime and graywater

Hansel, our kitten, watching the graywater go from our washing machine to our small lime tree.

Tamarind tree

A small tamarind (Tamarindus indica) tree we started from seed earlier this year. Tamarind is a subtropical species which produces delicious edible pods, used worldwide to flavor a wide range of dishes. Our winters may be too cold for them to survive here, but we’re going to try to grow this tree anyway! This winter we will bring it inside the house on frosty nights, and in the spring we plan to put it in the ground in the last remaining spot in our yard suitable for a large tree.

Tomatillo

A tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) in our garden. I love tomatillos, and we attempted to grow a lot of them in our garden this year. Unfortunately, the plants had a really rough time: they were overshaded and then got hammered by both chrysomelid beetles and Manduca hornworms. Still, a couple of the plants are finally starting to produce a small crop of small fruits.

Tepary bean

A green tepary bean (Phaselous acutifolius). This is one of the few crops that we consistently have success with. These beans are native to northern Mexico and southern Arizona and were grown by the ancient Hohokam people, as well as by their descendents, the modern-day Tohono O’odham. The dried beans are delicious, though they take a long time to cook. The plants do amazingly well in very harsh conditions, requiring very little water. We have a number of them scattered throughout our gardens and growing up the chicken wire fence of our chicken coop. Next year we will try to grow a lot more of them, since they are so productive. The plant pictured here is growing up a native amaranth plant (Amaranthus palmeri).

Melon

We’re not yet sure what this cucurbit is, since we planted both lemon cucumbers and melons in this part of the garden. We’ll find out soon!

Devil’s claw

The devil’s claws (Proboscidea sp.) we planted are still going strong. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how productive they’ve been. This is another plant we will grow a lot more of next summer.

Okra

We had less success with the okra we planted. We’ve managed to keep one plant alive through the harsh summer and fall we’ve had, and amazingly it seems to be about to bloom!

Sorghum

We had some success with sorghum, although birds have already gotten to most of the grain.

Garden

The fall and winter garden we planted is growing very slowly. It’s been a hot and dry fall – our high temperatures are still in the upper 80’s and lower 90’s, which is almost 10 degrees above the climatological average, and it’s been very dry. Still, the plants are hanging on, and we can just about start to harvest a little bit of onions and greens.

One of our favorite discoveries during our initial local eating experiment was amaranth grain. We’d eaten it before, but hadn’t fully appreciated how delicious it was. It quickly became one of our favorite snacks at night. We’d mix the popped grain (purchased from Native Seeds/SEARCH, who grow it in Patagonia, Arizona) with some local olive oil (from Queen Creek Olive Mill in Phoenix), salt (from Sonora, Mexico), and guajillo chile powder (also grown by Native Seeds/SEARCH). It makes a great popcorn substitute (I think it’s better than popcorn, personally).

We later learned of another way to use amaranth grain. We attended the Native Seeds Sustainable Gardening Tour in September, and part of this tour was a demonstration by Diana Peel, the Community Relations Coordinator for Native Seeds/SEARCH, of how to cook with amaranth grain. We loved her recipe for amaranth patties, and have adapted it somewhat.

Basically, to make amaranth grain patties we first combine the following ingredients (we haven’t paid attention to exact proportions – the following are just approximations):

  • 2 cups popped or unpopped amaranth grain (or some of both)
  • One large egg
  • One tablespoon of whole wheat flour (to help it hold together)
  • Half of a small yellow onion
  • One clove of garlic
  • Half of a green bell pepper
  • Half of a red Anaheim chile
  • A tablespoon of chopped fresh basil leaves
  • A teaspoon of crushed coriander
  • Half of a teaspoon of salt
  • One cup of water

We sometimes use other ingredients as well (such as tomatoes or crushed chiltepines). The recipe is very forgiving and flexible – basically you can use whatever you have on hand that would be good in an omelette. You can make it wetter or drier by adding more or less wheat flour or amaranth. It should ideally be about the consistency of thick oatmeal.

The final step is simply to fry the mix in a pan with a little bit of olive oil over medium heat. Let it cook for a minute and then flip it over and cook the other side for another minute. The patties are delicious served with fresh salsa.

Marci made some of these amaranth patties for dinner tonight, and we topped them with a salsa she made from tomatoes, roasted Anaheim chiles, red onion, white wine vinegar (non-local), and salt. She also made delicious mashed potatoes with butter (non-local), guajillo chile powder, turmeric (non-local), and salt. Finally, she prepared a salad using arugula, basil, mizuna, mibuna, Portulaca, radishes, tomatoes, and pomegranate, with a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar (non-local).

It was a delicious meal. For dessert we’ll probably finish off the bag of chocolate chips we had from before our local experiment. We’ve come to really appreciate chocolate – of all the foods we can’t get locally, chocolate is probably the one we prize the most!

Dinner 10-24-2007

Amaranth patties, mashed potatoes, and salad

There were more great articles last week than I could keep up with! Here are some of the best:

  • Your Food Doesn’t Come From the Store: A journey into the heart of industrial agriculture (Grist) – Grist had a great week-long series of articles on food and farming. In addition to the article linked above, I’d recommend the following:

  • Lazy-Ass Nation (Vanity Fair) – This is a funny and saddening look at our overriding quest for convenience. I found the following section to be particularly disturbing:
    “Hunting and the Internet nearly made the best combination since peanut butter and chocolate: Texas entrepreneur John Lockwood came up with a way for people sitting in front of home computers to shoot animals on his canned-hunting ranch. Lockwood had it rigged so that a customer, with a mere click of the mouse, could activate a .22-caliber rifle on his property. He managed to realize at least one instance of online hunting, when a friend of his logged on and shot a wild hog in the neck from his desktop, before state and federal lawmakers outlawed the practice. For now it looks as if Lockwood will have to be content to go down as some sort of lazy-ass pioneer.”

  • Climbing Down The Ladder (The Archdruid Report) – Yet another great article by John Michael Greer on succession and civilization.
    “In the middle term, societies that combine sustainable subsistence strategies and economies with an effective use of the industrial age’s legacy technologies will likely do much better than the lingering fossil fuel-dependent societies they replace, or the ecotechnic societies that will replace them in turn. Only when fossil fuel production has dropped to the point that coal and oil are rare geological curiosities, and the remaining legacies of the industrial age no longer play a significant economic role, will ecotechnic societies come into their own… Instead of trying to make the leap to an ecologically balanced, fully sustainable society all at once, it may turn out to be necessary to climb down the ladder a step at a time, adapting to changes as they happen, and trying to anticipate each step in succession in time to prepare for it, while working out the subsistence strategies and social networks of the future on a variety of smaller scales.”

  • Diet for Small Planet May Be Most Efficient if It Includes Dairy and a Little Meat, Cornell Researchers Report (Cornell University) – This was a very interesting study which found that a purely vegetarian food production system in New York state would feed fewer people than if it also integrated small-scale animal production. This makes intuitive sense, but it’s nice to see the numbers worked out. Sharon Astyk (author of Casaubon’s Book) has published a nice take on this study as well.
    “‘Surprisingly, however, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most efficient in terms of land use,’ said Peters. The reason is that fruits, vegetables and grains must be grown on high-quality cropland, he explained. Meat and dairy products from ruminant animals are supported by lower quality, but more widely available, land that can support pasture and hay. A large pool of such land is available in New York state because for sustainable use, most farmland requires a crop rotation with such perennial crops as pasture and hay. Thus, although vegetarian diets in New York state may require less land per person, they use more high-valued land.”

  • Shipping Pollution ‘Far More Damaging Than Flying’ (The Independent) – A new study finds that emissions from shipping exceed that from aviation. While I think it’s important to draw attention to the immense pollution arising from the shipping industry, and to do something to reduce it, I think this article is a bit unfair in that it doesn’t compare the numbers of most importance: the pollution generated from transporting X tons of goods by ship versus transporting X tons of goods by jet. I suspect that the latter would be orders of magnitude higher.
    “Recent studies in the US and the Netherlands showed pollutants from ships contribute half of the smog-related sulphur dioxide in Los Angeles. In Rotterdam, North Sea shipping lanes run within 25 miles of the shore, spewing pollution that can travel up to 1,000 miles. ‘If you want to improve air quality on land, you will have a larger effect from spending one euro at sea than you will have spending one euro on land,’ said Pieter Hammingh, from the Dutch environment agency.”

  • As the World Burns: Powerdown Revisited (Richard Heinberg) – An interesting discussion of the possible societal and governmental responses to post-peak economic decline, plus a depressing summary of recent events from a Peak Oil perspective. This article is a nice complement to the one I linked to above by John Michael Greer, as they both hit on some similar themes.
    “Where shall we focus our efforts? As I suggested in Powerdown, there is important work to be done at all levels of social organization. Individuals and families should take to heart the advice given prior to every commercial airline flight: ‘Secure your oxygen mask before helping others.’ In other words, see to your own survival prospects first. This is not necessarily selfish behavior: communities and nations in which individual members are prepared and relatively self-sufficient will fare much better than those in which everyone is dependent and unequipped. If no one is prepared, who can teach others what to do? Learn the life-skills of the pre-fossil-fuel era; know how to use and repair hand tools; know where your water comes from and how to compost wastes; grow food. Communities must begin now to redevelop their local support infrastructure – especially local food systems… In any case, two things are absolutely clear: business as usual is not one of the options; and the more we do now to prepare at every level, the better off we all will be.”

  • A Carbon-Negative Fuel (WorldChanging) – A great article about gasification and biochar (aka terra preta), which have a ton of potential to provide both a fuel source and an agricultural fertilizer, while sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere. In my opinion this is one of the few energy technologies we should really be putting our resources into developing.
    “We’ve mentioned terra preta before: it’s a human-made soil or fertilizer. ‘Three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous, and twenty times the carbon of normal soils, terra preta is the legacy of ancient Amazonians who predate Western civilization’… These simpler molecules are more easily broken down by microbes and plants as food, and bond more easily with key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. This is what makes terra preta such good fertilizer. Because terra preta locks so much carbon in the soil, it’s also a form of carbon sequestration that doesn’t involve bizarre heroics like pumping CO2 down old mine shafts. What’s more, it may reduce other greenhouse gases as well as water pollution… As it happens, the process of burning/pyrolisizing agricultural char is also a way to produce energy.”

  • Prairie Chicken: Why environmental groups have been slow to fight the border wall (Grist) – This is an interesting article about the insane wall being built along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the political reasons that environmental groups have shied away from fighting it more vigorously.
    “However, a 2006 NBC poll found that a significant majority of people said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who favored building a fence along the border. And that may explain some of the momentum. Precisely because of the wall’s ineffectiveness in stanching the flow of people across the border, it’s the perfect solution for the many members of Congress who want to show their constituents they’re doing something about illegal immigration — without actually cutting off the supply of cheap labor demanded by Big Ag and the service industry.”

The University of Arizona is hosting a week-long series of events about sustainability, starting this Wednesday, October 24, and going through next Wednesday, October 31. This is in conjunction with the Educating for Sustainability Conference, which is happening on the U of A campus from October 25-27. It should be an interesting week! I’m especially excited to hear Jonathan Overpeck (who is a member of the IPCC, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore) speak on Thursday night, and to hear Gary Nabhan speak on Friday night. Both of their lectures are free and open to the public. I’m going to try to make it to as many of the other events as I can, and will report back on anything interesting I see or hear.

Update: Well, we didn’t end up making it to many of the events during the UA Sustainability Week, but we did catch Gary Nabhan’s talk on Friday night. He gave a great presentation on “sustainability”, a concept he said he prefers to think of as a verb (rather than a noun) to indicate its nature as an ongoing process, rather than a hypothetical endpoint. I think this is a great point, and worth keeping in mind. We thoroughly enjoyed his talk and thought it was very inspiring.

I also heard Jonathan Overpeck speak on Monday about global warming (this was separate from his talk on Thursday). He gave an interesting and informative talk about recent data on climate change, with a partial emphasis on drought in the western U.S. I was already somewhat familiar with most of what he talked about, but it was great to hear it from someone actually involved in much of the research (if it can be “great” to hear such scary and depressing information). Apparently the current prediction for the Southwest is a 10% drop in average winter precipitation by the end of the century (if I’m remembering the timeframe correctly), though it’s completely unclear what will happen to our monsoon rainfall. In terms of temperature, one of his graphs seemed to suggest the possibility of a roughly 10° F increase in average temperature for southern Arizona by 2100. It’s going to get interesting around here…

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