Friday, January 30, 2009

Natural Limits

It's time to think about natural limits. This can be a bit frightening to those of us brought up to believe that the sky's the limit, there will always be more of everything, our children will always have it better than we did, the Dow Jones will always go up, well, you put in your favorite pipe dream here....

Overshoot is a fact of life on a finite planet. In the web of life, some life forms follow a slow and cautious path, having evolved ways of not overrunning their subsistence. Other life forms go for growth, growth, growth, inevitably followed by crash. Even a slight knowledge of the growth cycles of forms of life on this planet corroborates this fact. Lemming populations follow a bubble of growth, outrunning food supplies, then a crash. Their predators follow a similar pattern.

The motto of the cancer cell is growth at all costs, even at the cost of the life form it inhabits. This bears a startling similarity to the raison d'etre of the corporation: growth at all costs. Corporations are a very simple form of life. And the less supervision they have, the more they will adhere to their simple goals of more growth and profit for themselves, and externalizing the costs of their decisions.

There are some qualities that we have which are infinite. A teacher once told me that "the treasure which we have, which is Attention, is infinite". Yes. We can always pay better attention to ourselves, our bodies, our families, our earth, our behavior. And, most spiritual traditions believe in an infinite spirit, a universal soul or God. Most people believe that there is an infinite place of delight for us after death.

But there is no way that there is an infinite amount of physical "stuff" for every person on Earth; there is not an infinite amount of energy available to the ever-growing population of Earth. There is not an infinite amount of food, or an infinite number of acres of land on which to grow it. If we can't bring ourselves to live within our means on this planet, there are four predators which will do it for us: Famine, Pestilence, Plague and War.

Let's look at some practical, near-at-hand examples of limits.

1. Residential real estate cannot continue to rise in value far faster than the average take-home pay of the people who buy the homes. The real-estate bubble started about 2000. Take-home pay (adjusted for inflation) has been flat for decades. The real estate meltdown will stop when the relationship of home prices and take-home pay reaches historic norms again. You can't trick this process, or have the government bail it out by maintaining irrationally high real-estate values. If take-home pay sinks, as it looks likely, the real estate will need to sink to match.

2. The stock market cannot rise in a stable way any faster than the basic value-creating abilities of our society. This includes what we make, what we grow, what we dig out of the ground. Anything more than that is speculation and leverage. Leverage by its very nature cannot continue forever; it is a Ponzi scheme. Unfortunately, the news is even worse on this front. At the end of World War II, the U.S. had the largest manufacturing sector of any nation on the planet. Now, our claim to fame is that we have the largest retail sector, and the largest imbalance of trade. Well, you just can't make money selling "BUYING". Not in the long run, anyway.

What needs to happen? First, we need to start making things again. We need to restore the manufacturing industry in this country. We're smart enough to do this. Second, we need to stop buying cheap stuff from other countries, much of it worthless, some of it toxic. Third, we need to put some controls on the rampant leverage some organizations and traders are using to cheat the system and pull the nation's long-term value into their own short-term pockets.

3. We need less retail space. This is painful, I know, especially when it is a small business started by someone using their life savings. It is absolutely impossible for the people in the U.S. to continue the buying spree they have been on for the last decade. Can't be done. No more residential ATM. So, most unfortunately, small and large retail businesses have ramped up as if not just the spending, but the growth in spending, was going to last forever.

What we can do to help: support small businesses, local businesses. Keep the money in our community. Support local families with the dollars that you do spend. It is not our job to support people in China, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Barbados, etc., by taking out debt that we cannot afford.

4. There is a natural limit to the energy available on the planet; almost all of it is nuclear energy--from our sun. The Earth has a sun budget coming in every day in the form of direct heating, ocean waves, wind, and hydroelectric. (How do you suppose that water got up into the sky in the first place?) The other basic source is Earth's natural radioactivity, which came from the dust of dead stars. We can tap that with geothermal energy installations. And Earth-based nuclear power plants, though there are lots of unsolved problems involved in that. (Peak uranium, anyone?)

We've been living way beyond our means on fossil fuels. They're called fossil fuels because it takes geologic time to make any more. The readily-obtainable fossil fuels are half gone, the easier half too I might add. Getting oil out of shale and tar sands is tremendously expensive in fuel and water, and it's uncertain that the world can afford it long term. Like somebody who has been poor for a long time and suddenly gets a big windfall, we've been drunk on the wonderful nearly-free energy we found. So much of it was wasted, and is still being wasted now.

The fossil fuels had a role to play in the planet's thermostat too. When the fossil fuels were laid down, the Earth was very hot, and the carbon dioxide level was very high. This carbon was sequestered under the ground, even under the oceans, where it couldn't do any harm. Like children, we found the wonderful treasure trove of carbon, dug and pumped it up, and are busy burning it, putting that dangerous carbon dioxide back into the air. Not much surprise that the Earth is heading toward a hot future.

5. There is a natural limit to the ability of Earth's natural systems to detoxify all the waste we're putting into it. When the population of the Earth was 50 million, with low technology, there was no problem. There was always clean air and water over the next mountain. No more. We have filled the planet, and now are filling the air and oceans with our waste. This is pretty serious, since we would like to have a human-friendly Earth in thirty years, in one hundred years, in a thousand years. Sure, all of us living now will be gone. But I don't want to think that my actions are leaving a toxic waste dump for my great-great-grandchildren.

This post has gotten into some serious long-term issues. Panic is not called for, and won't help us. In future posts, I want to consider a simple question: what would it take to have food on the table 100 years from now? 100 years is not that much time. The children of children living now could be alive then. Your grandchildren, perhaps, or their children. What actions can we take now to save something for them? to build something for them? to restore something for them? It is a matter of simple integrity in our lives to leave the world better than we found it, not worse. Starting from the goal of food within 100 miles, which is still a valuable goal, let's begin to look at "food for 100 years".

We will probably find that the two have a lot in common.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

January: What We're Eating

We're pretty much on winter rations now; it takes a little time to adjust from eating fresh food in harvest and putting it up, to admitting the harvest is over and eating the stored foods.

We're still eating fresh apples, the late fall Winesaps from the Western Slope, that have been keeping wonderfully fresh and crisp in our cool garage. Winesaps are marvelous storage apples, good for fresh eating or pies.

We have four different kinds of potatoes: Yukons from our CSA, blue potatoes, red thumb fingerlings, and Russian banana fingerlings from White Mountain Farms in southern Colorado. They're holding out well in the cool garage in paper bags, protected from light.

We're just finishing up the Colorado red onions I bought in the fall from the cooperative, and have plenty of yellow onions from our CSA.

We still have pumpkins from our CSA; they're holding out remarkably well in a fairly cool and dry room. I need to push myself to use them, while they are still good. I used the other squash I had. The spicy pumpkin soup is a big favorite of ours. And cubed pumpkin goes nicely in stews or chile.

I fixed Parsnip Spice Cake recently; I'll post the recipe next time. Kind of like carrot cake; very moist and good. I used brown rice flour (CA), raisins (CA), and pecans (OK). It doesn't need frosting; I amazed our hosts by taking it to a potluck. Parsnip cake?

We're getting loads of carrots from our CSA; there is never a problem finding good uses for carrots. We're also getting a steady supply of daikon, potatoes, onions, leeks, beets and turnips, as well as several kinds of cabbage.

We've been eating the broccoli, green beans, and snap peas I froze last summer. I think I will cut down on the blanching time next season, since all of them are a little softer than I'd like.

I've been throwing some dried bell peppers into soups and stews; they are very nice and I think I'll make more of them next season. I've also been munching on dried peaches, both homegrown and Colorado organic, prunes and apricots. We don't fix many desserts since we both have to watch our weight, so we usually have our fruit as its own sweet self.

I've been using home-dried herbs in cooking, particularly parsley. I ended up getting way too much parsley at the coop, and dried several jars full, but it's coming in handy now.

We're really enjoying the nectarines I put up in light honey syrup. I loved the fresh Colorado nectarines so much, I got carried away preserving them, with 40 pint jars put up. Oh well; we can have one a week until the next harvest. I've also opened up several jars of spiced peaches, which make a wonderful ice cream topping. We've also had several jars of the Santa Rosa plums.

All the tomato products I use now are from tomatoes I preserved last summer and fall: tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and juice. I love the flavor. I find that homemade tomato sauce is not as thick as commercial, so for pizza topping I just cook it down a little more with herbs and olive oil.

We have really been enjoying the cucumbers and green beans I put up last summer. We've polished off four jars of cukes and two of green beans. The green beans get cut up for salads, or served as a side dish. I have one jar of cukes and one jar of green beans left. Next year: more pickled green beans, fewer frozen.

I also made several kinds of sauerkraut which are good, and lactofermented salsa which turned out really well. I haven't bought salsa in over a year.

I've been cooking blackeyed peas and dry baby lima beans, having one or the other on hand most of the time as a side dish. We've also been having some pinto beans. I haven't yet cooked the black beans we got at the coop in January, though I had a very nice dish of them at a friend's house. I've got Colorado garbanzos soaking now.

DH gets his weekly homemade pizza, made with Golden Buffalo flour (NE), homemade tomato sauce, Rocky Plains sausage (Kersey CO), mushrooms (Hazel Dell, Windsor), fresh mozzarella (Windsor Dairy), and sometimes black olives (CA), and a little non-local trim in the form of artichoke hearts.

I've been enjoying the gluten-free oats (WY), or Colorado millet for breakfast. Local eggs are hard to find this time of year; sometimes we have to settle for "store" eggs. Maybe this summer we can get our own chickens again.

I've been cooking the Colorado quinoa, mainly in the form of Quinoa Cooked Like Pasta. Use lots of boiling salted water, add a cup of quinoa, and let cook for about 15 minutes, then drain. This is nice with (homemade) basil pesto, or other sauce.

Meat, etc.----
Most of our meat comes from Rocky Plains in the form of Colorado-raised buffalo, pork and lamb. We've been enjoying the pastured poultry available through Eastern Plains. One chicken makes several nice meals, and then the broth and meat from the carcass makes several more in the form of soups and casseroles. So although the chickens are expensive by the pound, they have a tremendous amount of flavor which is very satisfying and make a lot of nutritious servings.

Seafood is a miniscule part of our diet; once every few months, a meal of Alaskan wild-caught salmon.

Compared to last year, I've eased up a little on the restrictions. I've bought balsamic vinegar, mustard, occasionally artichoke hearts, and regular and gluten-free pasta for infrequent meals. And for New Year's Eve, a carton of ice cream as a treat. Try butter pecan ice cream, home-canned spiced peaches, and a little Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur poured over. Yum!

Although I've loosened the restrictions, we're still using way more local foods than last year, when I was using the on-hand foods we still had. Central to our diet this winter are the fruits and vegetables I've stored in various ways, and the staples acquired through the cooperative.

I'm keeping track of how much I stored, and how much I'm using, so I can calibrate my efforts for next summer and fall.

I'm enthusing over these foods that we have, and sometimes I say we eat like "kings and queens", but really, these are simple ordinary foods, not expensive. And we're eating not like kings and queens, but like ordinary people did 100 years ago, foods from diversified farms and gardens. The foods are fresh and flavorful, and satisfying.

By getting vegetables through our CSA, and bulk foods through the coop, we can get high quality for very reasonable prices. Cooking and putting up is essential for this kind of eating. You can't buy nectarines in light honey syrup no matter how much you have to spend, but for a modest cost you can make your own.

Like lots of things in life, it's the attention that you pay that makes the difference. Take time to find local foods; take time to cook; take time to preserve them for the winter. Cook and eat them with appreciation and respect. And give thanks for the bounty.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pumpkin--More than Pie Timber

We still have several nice-looking pumpkins from our CSA, and one from my garden. They keep fairly well at cool room temperatures, but it's time to use them. If you have pumpkins stored in your house, look them over every week or so, and be sure to immediately cut up and use any that are starting to get soft spots.

I have a pumpkin article from last year too: A Pumpkin of Your Own.

Fresh Pumpkin Pie
For this recipe you will need about 2 cups of homemade pureed pumpkin, just a little more than a pint jar if you have canned or frozen pumpkin. Commercial pumpkin is great, but it's mixed with squash and has some water squeezed out of it, so it is a little thicker. However, in a pinch you could use it in this recipe, just increase the milk by 1/4 cup. For your own pumpkin, be sure to start with pie pumpkins, not jack-o-lantern types.

2 cups pureed pumpkin (local)
2/3 cup honey (local)
1/2 tsp salt
3 to 4 teaspoons spices, chosen in your favorite combination from ginger, cinnamon, cloves (less), allspice, mace, nutmeg, or cardamon powder
1 cup milk or light cream
4 beaten eggs (for extra-large, use 3)
1 9" uncooked piecrust, preferably homemade

Heat oven to 450 degrees while you mix up pumpkin, honey, salt, spices, milk and beaten eggs. You can use a whisk or a mixer. Pour into pie shell, bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce heat and bake at 350 until done, about 45-50 minutes. You can test it with a table knife, inserted into the filling about half-way out from the center. If the knife comes out clean, the filling is done. Good with whipped cream.

For a 10" pie pan, increase the recipe by half (3 cups pumpkin, etc).

Making pie crust at home is really not hard, and your results are bound to be better than commercial crusts, since you are using better ingredients. Here are recipes for "normal" wheat-based piecrust, and gluten-free piecrust.

Homemade wheat pie crust
1 1/3 cup white flour, Golden Buffalo flour, or whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbs homemade lard (for pete sake don't use shortening or commercial lard, but you can use butter)
1 tbs vinegar
a little cold water

Mix flour and salt, then rub in the lard by hand until particles are small. Add the vinegar, then a couple of tablespoons cold water, and knead the dough together. Add more cold water until the dough hangs together. Roll out on floured surface, transfer to pan. Fill and bake.

Homemade gluten-free pie crust
1/2 cup millet flour
1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/3 cup sweet rice flour
1 tsp xanthan gum
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbs homemade lard or butter
1 tbs vinegar
a little cold water

Mix flours and salt. Rub in lard or butter. Then add vinegar and a couple of tablespoons cold water, kneading until it holds together, adding a little more water as needed.

Now, instead of driving yourself crazy trying to roll out this delicate dough, pat it into the pie pan with your fingers. Take some time to get it even on the bottom and up the sides. Fill and bake.

Cubed Pumpkin--Ingredient
Start with a pumpkin, cut in two on the equator, scoop out the seeds, separate them from the strings but do not rinse, and roast the seeds in the oven at 325 degrees with a teaspoon of oil and a little salt, until they are nice and roasted. With the remaining flesh, cut in narrow strips, cut off the remaining strings and the shell, and cut the meat into small pieces. If you do a good-size pumpkin you will have enough for several recipes. It keeps for several days in your frig.

Pumpkin Soup
2 1/2 cups peeled cubed pumpkin
1 goodsize carrot, peeled and cut into small chunks
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 1/2 cups chicken broth or water
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup heavy cream, or 1/2 cup half and half
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped, or 2 tablespoons dried
1/2 to 1 tsp chipotle chili powder (ground smoked jalapenos)
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice

Put into kettle pumpkin, onion, garlic, carrot, broth or water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, simmer 30-40 minutes, until tender. Let cool a few minutes, then blend the soup in a blender and return to the pan. Add olive oil, cream, and spices. Add more water or broth if it is too thick. Simmer ten minutes, then taste for seasoning. You can add more chipotle, cinnamon, allspice, salt or pepper as you like.

Millet Pilaf
This recipe combines two of my favorite foods. Millet has a natural bitter coating like quinoa, which needs to be removed by toasting or by pouring boiling water over and soaking overnight. This recipe uses toasting.

1 cup hulled millet
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium or 1 large chopped onion
1 to 1 1/2 cups peeled cubed pumpkin
one quart chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
optional: one cup sour cream
optional: one cup sliced fresh mushrooms

Toast the millet in a dry cast iron or other heavy skillet until it starts to brown. Remove. Add oil to skillet, saute the onions, then add back the millet, the pumpkin, salt and pepper. Transfer to casserole dish, and pour the broth or water over it. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. Keep a lookout and add more broth if it gets too dry. When done, stir in the sour cream if you like. You can also add the sliced mushrooms to the saute, before the baking step. Garlic could also be a nice addition at this point.