Rural Legend

Freezing Your Scraps

Brent and LeAnna Alderman StersteI guess I have a huge thrifty streak, but I just hate seeing food go to waste. So I have been scheming with my freezer to find ways to save more of our food. Here are some of my tricks.

1. Scrap bags

Since we have toddlers, we always seem to have a collection of half-eaten bananas in our house. To combat this, we started the banana bag. I break the leftover bananas into pieces and tuck it in a bag in the freezer. Then we can use the frozen bananas for banana bread or smoothies. Once I started the banana bag, I became inspired to see what else I can save. I now have the stock bag: old carrots, onion skins, pieces of celery to toss in when we make our own broth. I also have the stuffing bag. In it, I crumble up leftover cornbread, and also add diced, stale bread. I then can use this to make stuffing. My mom has what she calls the soup bowl. She puts little bits of leftover veggies like peas, green beans, and corn in the bowl, then makes a big pot of vegetable soup when there is enough.

2. Cookie Sheet

If there is one thing I learned from watching Top Chef, it's that if you want to freeze anything and have it be edible later and not one big frozen chunk, you freeze it on a cookie sheet first. We froze all of the blueberries we picked this way last year. After spreading them out on the cookie sheet and freezing for an hour or so, I put them all into quart size freezer bags. Now I can get out berries for pancakes or muffins by the cupful instead of defrosting first. This also works great for other fruits and berries or vegetables like broccoli or spinach. Just blanche the veggies in boiling water for a few minutes, spread out on the cookie sheet, freeze for an hour, then put them in a bag.

This also works really well for dough. I sometimes make a triple batch of biscuit dough. I cut the biscuits out and freeze on the cookie sheet until firm. Then put them all in a bag and take out and bake as needed. You can also prescoop your cookie dough and freeze like this. I also sometimes make a double batch of pizza dough. I freeze one ball on a plate until it's firm and then store it in a bag.

3. Muffin Pan or Ice Cube Tray

If you want to freeze anything liquid like broth, soup, lemon juice, or small amounts of spices like pesto, or lemongrass, muffin pans and ice cube trays work great. You can use the 1 cup jumbo muffin tin or the 1/2 cup regular muffin tin or the ice cube tray if you want very small amounts. Freeze your broth or soup in the muffin pan or tray. Let it freeze solid. Then run some warm water over the back of the tray to pop out the contents. Add the cups to a large freezer bag and take out as you need a cup of broth.

4. Bulk items

We do a lot of our grocery shopping at a bulk warehouse store so I am often coming home with giant bags of cheese. Fortunately, cheese freezes really well. I split the shredded cheese into sandwich size bags or cut the giant bar of cheese into smaller bars. Then I can take out a pound or so at a time and don't have to worry about the cheese going bad before I use it. One time we got inspired by a jumbo bag of lemons. When we saw they were going to go bad, we juiced them all and zested them all. We froze the juice in an ice cube tray and the zest in a small bag.

Lately, I've been using my freezer to combat the large amount of food coming in from our farm share. Last week when I knew I wasn't going to be able to cook the broccoli before it went bad, I chopped it up, blanched it, froze it on a cookie sheet. Now I have a bagful of broccoli for whenever we're ready for it.

Do you have any other freezer tricks?

Pretzels: The Official Bread of Lent

Brent and LeAnna Alderman StersteIf you’ve read any of our past blogs, it will probably become pretty clear that LeAnna and I love to bake.  We go through 25-pound sacks of King Arthur flour and 6-pound packs of butter like some people go through quarts of milk. 

But during Lent, that all comes screeching to a halt. 

Our pantry – all stocked up for when baking resumes!

Given our obsession with sweets – and not just the home-baked kind, we also have been known to indulge in the occasional 5-pound bag of gummy bears from Costco – we usually decide to fast from sugar for the 40 days leading up to Easter. The idea, for those of you not familiar with this odd church tradition, is to temporarily sacrifice something you love for a higher purpose. We find that this helps keep us focused on the things in life that really matter – that when we crave a donut, we remember that what we really want is a deeper experience of faith. When we want to stick our head into an already-available bag of Easter jelly beans and not come up for air until they’re gone, we remember that as easy as it is to strive to fulfill our own needs, what we really desire in life is to have God provide what He knows is best for us. So we deny ourselves pleasure now – in hopes of a greater future fulfillment of those desires.

Normally, we’re very serious about candy in this house.

You can imagine our joy, then, when we discovered that apparently the pretzel has long been considered the “official bread of Lent.” While the heart of holiness is not searching for the loophole, we were nonetheless greatly relieved to have found an officially sanctioned baked good. 

Having purged their homes of all rich indulgences, such as butter and eggs, the faithful were left with pretty slim pickings as to how they could enhance their homemade bread. A basic pretzel recipe requires only flour, water, yeast, and salt. Apparently there’s even a little folktale that goes along with this – and while I suspect it’s apocryphal, I still like it. The gist of the story is that earlier Christians didn’t pray with their hands folded.  In some communities, it seems, believers would cross their arms, placing each hand on the opposite shoulder. You may guess where this is going. Apparently a creative and enterprising monk, brainstorming a reward for local children, shaped bread into praying arms, creating the first twisted pretzel. A tasty reward indeed!

Pretzels: The official bread of Lent!

So, we’ve been enjoying making pretzels this season and thought you might enjoy our family’s favorite recipe. This recipe does involve butter and eggs, so for those of you feeling devout in a particularly medieval manner, this may not work for you. We have heard, however, that you can use most any bread dough in place of the pretzel dough – simply prepare the dough as directed and pick the pretzel recipe up right before the shaping.  If you try that, please let us know!

Here you go – enjoy – and wherever you are faith-wise, may this season give you some deeper experience of God’s love and care for you! Please let us know if there’s anything special you or your family do during this season!

Soft Pretzels

Original recipe by Alton Brown 

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for pan
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Pretzel salt or kosher salt for pretzel tops
Directions
Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly brush 2 cookie sheets with the vegetable oil. Set aside.
Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan.
In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 12-15 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a long, thin rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto your cookie sheet.
Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 or 2 at a time, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula. Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Tending: The Need to Nurture

Brent and LeAnna Alderman StersteThere are no signs of spring here except for a vague stirring in our hearts. Always in spring, Brent’s heart turns to puppies (and rabbits and chickens and shaggy miniature donkeys). That’s why it is dangerous to send him off to the Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association Massachusetts conference where he took some classes in rabbit and bee-keeping and only narrowly avoided coming home with a very-affordably-priced angora rabbit. Of course, Brent has good company in his longings. Now Ella, our 3-year-old, has begun praying a faith-filled prayer every night: “Thank you for my puppy and my bunny and my nice little kitten and my turtle and my farm.” Her favorite toys of late are a tiny rubber pet mouse and a hockey puck she pretends is a turtle. Even Mabel has begun wandering around the house saying, “Dog. Dog.” So far we have settled on the not-terribly satisfying compromise of a betta fish instead.

Sadly, this is the only dog we have!

After some discussion of Brent’s trip to the NOFA conference on Facebook, my uncle recommended we read a memoir called 40 Acres and No Mule written fifty years ago by Janice Holt Giles, who moved back to her husband’s homeplace on an isolated ridge in the western Kentucky hills. One of my favorite parts of the book is when, soon after moving, an older neighbor lady comes to visit and asks her what she plans to tend: chickens, a cow, a hog? Giles explained that between writing and farming, she would have little time for tending, but it wasn’t long before her neighbor showed up with a dozen chicks, and said, “As I told ’em, Janice ain’t never had nothing to tend in all her life an’ she just don’t know how a flock of leetle chickens’ll pleasure her.”

As Brent pointed out, we can’t even lay claim to 40 acres and no mule here. We are more like 0.126 acres, two crazy cats, and a small herd of worms on a cold-induced hunger strike. But despite our lack of land, we have been thinking a lot about tending. Lately we have begun to wonder if there’s not something in our soul that is made to tend. After all, it is the first job God gave people – to tend a garden. Since I quit my job to stay at home and tend our children, I have been surprised at the pleasure I get from simple things like baking bread, growing a garden, sewing, and learning to make the things we need from scratch. It seems tied to the root of the word tend: attend. To attend: to show up, to pay attention, to listen, to serve, to minister to. In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, maybe we need more tending to help us to slow down, pay attention, connect with nature and with God, and to get over our self-absorption and do things for other people. Maybe that is why we get such pleasure out of our pets (the nice ones at least) and our gardens and our baking.

So to all you tenders of gardens and chickens and children and dogs, may your spring be blessed. May we come by and pet your puppies sometimes?

Ella tends her winter garden.

A Homemade Food Retrospective

Brent and LeAnna Alderman StersteAfter a super busy holiday season (visit LeAnna’s Blog) for a glimpse of what we were up to), we’ve taken the sweet lull of January to reflect on the past year. Last year was the first time we ever made anything resembling resolutions. For us, it was a list of goals and dreams for the coming year, scrawled out on a steno pad and magneted, totally ignored, to our refrigerator.

While our actual goals were varied in nature, the essence of most of them was that we wanted to learn more old-fashioned skills and move toward a greater level of sustainability for our family. The good news is that even though we never checked back in with last year’s list, we actually achieved a fair number of our goals. While not everything we did was food related, it sure was a recurring theme. So here are some highlights from our year in food:

We baked all of our family’s bread.

We started making our own yogurt.

We learned to make mozzarella, ricotta cheese, and butter.

We made pizza from scratch (crust, sauce, and cheese).

We started making our own granola.

We turned half of our backyard into a garden and ate or canned the produce.

We canned tomato sauce, apple butter, pear caramel butter, huckleberries, wild blackberries, strawberry jam, marmalade, and peaches.

We made a lot of sundried tomatoes and pesto.

We froze gallons of wild blueberries.

We made really hokey apple wine.

We made our own marzipan from fresh almonds and marshmallows from scratch.

And we failed repeatedly at making an edible bagel.

Here’s a little collage of our yumminess:

A yummy summary of Brent and LeAnna's homemade year, or a year in food

Two pounds of yeast and a bunch of canning jars later, we’ve discovered that we had been duped into believing that the homemade lifestyle is far more difficult than it actually is. Rather, we found that it was not only enjoyable but empowering to take control of our family’s food, that the end-product was far better than its processed equivalents, and that spending time in the kitchen with our children was easily the highlight of the day.

You can expect more homemade updates in the future as we continue to expand our old-fashioned, made-from-scratch lifestyle. In the meantime, if any of you have a good cracker recipe, we’d sure be grateful if you’d share it!

Did you learn or try anything new this year? What are your goals for the coming year?

Apple Butter Time

Brent and LeAnna Alderman StersteIf I had to choose one taste to remind me of childhood, it would be homemade biscuits (my maternal grandmother’s recipe) spread with homemade apple butter made by my paternal  grandmother. I inherited my grandma’s apple butter kettle, which is a large traditional copper kettle blackened with use, which stands on four cast-iron legs to be used over an outdoor fire. It looks a lot like this one they use at my parents’ church. That’s my dad stirring the apple butter.

Dad stirring the apple butter kettle at their church in West Virginia.

I dream of getting my grandma’s kettle cleaned up someday and using it again, but for now we are forced to make our apple butter indoors. This year we bought a bushel of low-spray Ginger Gold apples from our friend’s farm.  A whole lot of them were eaten straight off, but we did manage to save some for canning.

We used an old-fashioned peeler to prep the apples, which worked great. Ella in particular loved cranking the handle.  (The worms loved the peelings.)

Our new, old-fashioned hand-crank apple-peeler.

After we peeled all the apples, we gave them a coarse chop so they’d cook down faster.   We finally found a way to keep our preschooler busy while we were work: We gave her a butter knife and some apple slices and set her to work.  She took her work very seriously and ultimately declared, “I love helping you cook, Daddy!”

Ella was a great helper with apple chopping.

All those chopped up apples went into a stock pot along with a bit of fresh apple cider to start them steaming.

The apples cooked down with just a bit of cider to get them steaming.

When they were very soft, after an hour or so, Brent mashed them up with a potato masher, all the while regretting having given away his immersion blender years ago.  Once we had a fairly smooth apple sauce, we added lots of cinnamon and some sugar.   This lovely, fall-ish concotion simmered for another hour or so until it had cooked down by about a third and, most importantly, it looked and tasted like apple butter. We packed the hot apple butter into sterilized jam jars. While lots of old-timers will just let the jars seal themselves, we processed ours for 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.  Here’s our finished product all set for winter eating and for giving as Christmas gifts.

The finished jars of apple butter.

After we made this, Brent found an amazing sounding recipe for Pear Caramel Butter, and we decided to try that too.  We made some changes to the recipe that we’re quite pleased with.  We left out the lemon juice, cut the nutmeg down to just a pinch or so, and added a couple teaspoons of vanilla extract.  It made a fantastic spread and is definitely worth your trying!  We enjoy it spread on all kinds of things – pancakes, biscuits, and of course, a spoon.

How’s your fall canning going?

Egg Money the Modern Way

Brent and LeAnna Alderman StersteWhen you decide as a family to live on one-income so one parent can stay home with the kids, people will often tell you, “You’re so lucky to be able to afford to do that.” But the truth is there’s very little luck involved. Instead there’s a whole lot of cutting back, reprioritizing, and being extremely creative about how you spend your money and live your life. You also find a lot of creative ways to make extra money. In the past, they used to call it egg money: the money that housewives would make selling their excess eggs from their chickens. In our family, since we don’t have chickens, our egg money has come from a lot of other places: LeAnna writes and edits local history books and radio shows. Brent sold two lbs. of our red wiggler composting worms. Brent does a little computer consulting for a friend. He even sold a few photos to GRIT!

A stencil made from one of our old-fashioned canning jars.

Lately we’ve been working on a family mission statement. We realized that we really wanted to prioritize raising our kids ourselves and also making our home a center of creative industry.

To that end, we came up with an idea to make some new egg money. That’s how our unhipster etsy store was born.

A few months ago, Brent and I were preparing to travel to New York City. As I lay in bed that night, I began to realize how dreadfully unhip I had become. There was no way I could ever be as hip as anyone in New York City. In fact, after a few years as a stay-at-home mom, I was so unhip, I could be an unhipster.

Since then, I've begun to embrace my life as an unhipster and it's been surprisingly liberating. For one thing, if you're worried about being hip, it's never really cool to like something too much. But if you are an unhipster, you can feel free to revel in all kinds of old-fashioned, unhip things like cooking biscuits in my grandma's cast-iron skillet, making strawberry jam, and dreaming of living on a farm in the country some day.

T-shirt made with a stencil based on my grandmother’s cast-iron skillet.

I also discovered that there were a lot more unhipsters like me out there. Are you an unhipster?

You might be an unhipster if:
Your idea of a good weekend would be building your own smoker,
You get totally geeked out at a Farmers’ Markets,
You forage for your own food,
You spend more money on potting soil than Pottery Barn,
You are saving up for a pressure canner instead of an iPhone,
You grow your own food no matter where you live.

T-shirt made with a stencil based on a tractor crossing sign.

That is how I happened upon the idea for an unhipster line of t-shirts featuring silhouettes of timeless, rural gear like cast-iron skillets, canning jars and tractors. The designs are hand-painted from hand-cut stencils based on my artistic renderings of old-fashioned stuff (mainly from our kitchen).

Feel free to check out my new Etsy shop called Unhipster: Gear for Rurally-Inclined, Old-fashioned People.

Would any of you consider yourselves unhipsters?

Do you have any creative ways you make “egg money”?

Garden Update: Tomatoes, Beans, and Zucchini

Brent and LeAnna Alderman StersteWe have had our gardening ups and downs this year. You may have heard that it has rained almost every day this summer in Massachusetts, so our poor waterlogged plants haven’t had much of a chance. But we are beginning to reap the benefits of our home garden. We’re getting a bowl full of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes every day. At first every ripe tomato went directly into Ella’s mouth, but finally there are enough to share. We have tons of other unripe tomatoes on the vine waiting for some sun to ripen. We have some yellow leaves, so we’re praying they don’t get hit by the late blight, which is wiping out whole fields of tomatoes around here.

Garden in Augus

We’re also getting quite a few zucchini, which seem to grow about four inches overnight. Fortunately, we are big fans of the secret placement of zucchini in everything from cookies to bread to smoothies, so we are happy. Ella has even rewritten the Raffi song, “I like to Eat Apples and Bananas” to be “I like to Eat Apples and Zucchinis.” Of course, she doesn’t really like to eat zucchini that much at all, but we’re hoping the song will sink in. We also started a whole host of other squash, pumpkin, and gourds, which we forgot to label, so now we are watching every day to see what they will turn out to be. 

Our bean crop had a few disadvantages going in. First we mixed up our beans and planted the pole beans in the garden and the bush beans by the fence. Next we actually followed the directions on the package that said to plant them 6 inches apart. So we only planted like 12 plants. We could have planted them a couple of inches apart and actually produced more than two servings of beans. Good to know for next year. The Royal Purple Pod Beans did win the most interesting vegetable from the garden though. We love the color combo of the dark purple with the vivid green when you break them. Of course, when you cook them, they turn just plain old green.

Royal Purple Pod Beans

We’ve also got peppers, cucumbers, carrots, onions, our second planting of lettuce, tons of basil and other herbs including lemongrass.

Our biggest surprises were our berry crops. The good surprise is we actually have strawberries on the plants Brent grew from seed. Our friend who works on an organic farm said we should probably pick them off so the plants will produce next year, but we just couldn’t do it. Our first strawberries!

First strawberries

The less good surprise was that the very prolific huckleberry bushes we also started from seed are not the wild huckleberries that grew on LeAnna’s grandparents’ farm in Kentucky, but are actually garden huckleberries, which don’t actually taste very good. Any ideas for what we can do with them?

We’ve definitely learned a few things in our garden experiment. First, we need to plant a lot more to feed our family for the summer and be able to can. Second: it seems to benefit most anything to start it from seed before planting it in the ground. Third: We miss our CSA more than we thought we would, especially those giant u-pick fields. Depending on how the rest of the month goes, we’re thinking about joining a local college’s Fall Semester CSA and trying to take advantage of the u-pick and seeing what we can preserve. Until then we’re supplementing our diet with lots of free, foraged berries and local fruit and produce from farmstands. How has your garden been growing?