apricot compote

Today I made a bit of apricot compote.

Bought some 5 kg of fruits from the market,  not so ripen.

Ronen opened the fruits, took the seeds out. I sterilized the jars (only shortly boiling them under water), stuffed them with halves of fruit, almost to the top, poured hot water over, to cover.

I made 7 big jars with NO sugar, nothing added for sweetening and 6 big jars with two pills of stevia for each.

I closed the jars then I boiled them into a pot, not covering them entirely with water. Water was only coming to the half of the jars, I covered them all with a wet towel, boiling them for about 40 minutes (two batches: 7 and 6).

Them I took them out fast and put them under thick blankets to cool down slowly.

 

Curious how the no-sugar fruits will stay… how the ones with stevia will taste :).

 

I also cut some of the ripen apricots and put them into the dryers, repeating last year experiment (tasty!).

Apologies to the Salad Gods

Some weeks ago I made a comment on how salad season is coming to an end … it was prompted by the sudden disappearance of peppers and tomatoes.

Well since then I’ve been eating amazing fall salads. Spinach, salad leaves (when I can get them), chopped cabbage (red and white), grated carrots, radishes (when I can get them), onions make a splendid salad. Actually a salad I prefer over the summer salads – during summer I prefer to eat vegetables fresh cut into bit sized chunks … not salads. I’ve been eating lots of it … like an unplanned and oh so welcome wave of vital nourishment before the real cold winter sets in.

fallsalad

To further anchor the experience of abundance I find that no matter how hard I try I can never make a salad small enough for one person. So I usually end up with a “day salad” … that is a salad that I revisit twice or three times a day.

So, my apologies to the salad gods for an early dismissal and my thanks for these amazing fall salads.

Solar Food Dehydrators

At the end of last summer I built our first two solar food dehydrators and our first experiments with them were really great. I have been asked a few times about our choices so I finally got around to writing this.

First things first. Why dehydrated food?

  • It is an additional option for preserving and storing food.
  • Dried foods are potentially more nutritious then pickled or cooked (tomato sauce, zakuska) preservation since they don’t go through any cooking … just drying … removal of water.
  • Dried foods require no energy to prepare (just the sun) or to store (such as freezing) … just a sealed jar.
  • Dried foods can generally last much longer.
  • Dried foods are easier to process. It is much easier to cut up tomatoes and put them in a solar drier then it is to process them into tomato sauce.

A LOT Of my research starts (and often concludes) at BuildItSolar.com. Since this was my first solar project I invested quite a bit of effort in developing a basic understanding of thermal dynamics. It wasn’t easy at first but it was well worth the investment. If you plan to collaborate much with the sun (as I do) I suggest you do the same. Make an effort to understand how the designs work.

There are many designs and systems of solar dehydrators. In preparation for this post I found these two documents about solar drying stored on my computer. I browsed through them and they seem to offer a good overview – so you are welcome to have a look at them:

After much research I was able to dismiss some designs by identifying a few criteria that were important for us:

  1. All passive – no electric ventilation – solar heating creates air flow, air flow dries food.
  2. Simple to build – I have woodworking tools and basic skills, I use mostly roughly sawn pine and I am unable (for now) to produce high precision, constant sized wood.
  3. Simple to use – a system with no “options” – no thermostat and no adjustments possible – fresh food goes in and dried food comes out.
  4. No backup heat – no option to hook it up to another heat source (such as a stove) for complementary heat on when the sun isn’t sufficient.

I was left with three possible designs. It seems that the most popular design is a cabinet-like design where a solar collector feeds hot air into a cabinet in which trays are placed with food for drying. The following design roughly describes them though their actual shapes and dimensions may vary:

The solar collector heats air and since warm air rises, in this case it rises into the cabinet (which is placed above the solar dehydrator). This flow of warm air passes across the trays of food, absorbs moisture and escapes out the top.

A major improvement over this design (though theoretical for me since I built neither design) is the downdraft dryer. Once upon a time I found a drawing of such a drier but I have had no luck finding it again. The main difference is that hot air enters at the top of the cabinet, falls down in it  (and across the shelves) … all the way down, and then is sucked out (flows up) through a chimney (often a separate chamber built into the cabinet itself). You can see both cabinet designs in this video:

What is the improvement in the downdraft design? In the first (popular) design as the air rises it collects moisture and cools … and cool air tends to sink … which means that two opposing forces are now at work.  Warm air is trying to rise from the collector and cool air is trying to drop down inside the cabinet. From what I’ve read this conflict can result in diminished air flow, which means that food may not dry well or fast enough, which may lead to mold … a conflicted design. The downdraft design works with the natural tendency of cool air to drop (which can be further improved by re-heating the air in the evacuation chimney so that air is both pushed in and sucked out) so it should result in better, more consistent airflow … and better drying.

Both designs rely on one core feature – air flow. For efficient air-flow the entire system needs to be built as air-tight as possible … so that air cannot get sucked in or escape anywhere but where you want it. That small, often understated requirement can prove to be either difficult and/or expensive to achieve (and maintain … remember, this thing is exposed to the elements). I was about to embark on constructing a downdraft cabinet dryer when I realized that I achieving air-tightness was not going to be trivial (within the constraints of tools and resources I have available to me). I do not believe these designs to meet the 2nd criteria – simple to build (even though they are presented as such).

Both designs are excellent space savers (many trays in a small space). Yet even when such designs do work well there is a functional inconsistency built into them. In both designs the top and bottom trays will never experience the same temperature, humidity and air-flow. In both designs humidity and odors build up as air passes through the shelves. Though this may work it does require more planning and thinking during usage (what goes on top, what goes on the bottom, what things do not go together, etc.). This does not meet the 3rd criteria – simple to use.

So I changed my mind and went looking for something else. Eventually I arrived at Bob & Larisa at Geopathfinder. They have a lot to offer on sustainable living, drawing from 30 years of experience – including solar food drying. Their design is simple to build (with a very high tolerance for error), simple to use and, from our limited experience so far, provides reliable results. One drawback is that their design takes up more space. This is not an issue for us (living in the countryside) though I am not sure it is an issue for anyone if you take into consideration ease-of-use and reliability. I see no need to repeat information that is presented simply and clearly on their website HERE. They offer a free PDF with images from a construction workshop showing in detail how they are built.

Last year I built a pair of solar dryers based on their design and in the coming weeks I will be building another pair. Spring has just started and the dryers are already working drying spring flowers for our year round tea consumption:

solardehydrators

 There is a lot to learn about food dehydration. Different foods require different times. There are varieties (such as with tomatoes) that are more suitable for drying than others. Some things dry really fast (herbs), other take longer and need to be timed properly especially for food (again such as tomatoes) with a high water content – in which case you need to start on a sunny day to get through the initial drying (to prevent molding over night). Most things are dried without direct exposure to sunlight, others benefit from sun exposure (mushrooms are supposed to become saturated with vitamin D).

The Solar Dryers, though a do it yourself project, were not inexpensive. The most expensive material (for us) was the mesh upon which the food was placed – this need to be something that comes in contact with food that you will east (so no rusting, off-gassing, etc.). Following Bob & Larisa’s advice we searched (and just barely found in Romania) stainless steel mesh upon which the food is placed. I estimate the total cost of materials to be ~250 lei per square meter (every dryer is one square meter divided into 4 trays).

 

When to Get Food?

When it’s available! That seems like an obvious answer but if you have gotten used to super-market mentality then that answer is not so obvious. If you shop in super-markets you can probably get pretty much whatever you want whenever you want it (though prices may fluctuate) … and you are used to it being that way.

Members of Cutia Taranului experience a different reality. Food is delivered when it beomes available. When it comes to vegetables, the boxes in spring are light and fluffy as they contain a lot of salad leaves, the boxes get heavier in summer when tomatoes and peppers appear and even heavier in fall as potatoes and other root vegetables become available. For the most part this cycle is governed by nature and it provides, when it comes to vegetables, a continuous supply of fresh food for 6-8 months (in Romania). We know it isn’t obvious because many (happy!) members were surprised when, last fall, the vegetable-box deliveries ended.

However there are other kinds of cycles in nature that are less continuous and more concentrated. We’ve recently launched a box with lamb-meat. This is a unique box since it is only available once a year.

In Romania (maybe also in other places, I am not a religious scholar so I don’t know) it coincides with the Easter holiday. However, and more importantly, it coincides with a natural flow. This is the time of year when lambs are born. Most local-Romanian sheep-herd owners, who have established herds, do not want to expand (potentially doubling) their herd (they have limited resources available for their herd and need to maintain it accordingly). This is also a time when sheep-milk-based dairy products are revived (sheep milk is available after lambs are born) and if the lambs consume all (or most) of the milk, then very little is left for producing cheeses. So the lambs need to be butchered (or sold!) now.

If you like lamb-meat then this is the time to get it. If you want it available for a longer period of time then you can purchase more, cut it up into servings, freeze it and thaw it as needed. Healthy, grass fed, organic lamb-meat (in the above mentioned box the lambs are slaughtered in the pre-dawn hours and delivered in the morning hours – it doesn’t get any fresher then that) is only available at this time of year. It won’t be available again until next year.

A similar cycle exists with pig-meat. In villages pigs are butchered for the Christmas holiday season. However there are practical reasons for that too. By that time pigs have matured and grown to provide plenty of meat and the cold weather conditions make it easier and safer to deal with fresh meat (which would spoil much faster in hot weather).

Even in our own small homestead where we grow Muscovite-ducks and chickens and we could theoretically butcher fresh meet whenever we want it (and sometimes we do), our freezer is filled in cycles. After the mating season we will cull some mature males (keeping only ones we wish to breed again next year). In early winter we cull the flock so that we don’t have to feed too many animals throughout winter (we keep good mothers and healthy males).

So keep your eyes open for these special boxes. Food is available when nature provides not when you want it. Consume it when it is available and preserve it for when it isn’t.

Farmstead Meatsmith

I don’t eat meat. But, to my surprise, I am learning to slaughter (so far chickens and Muscovites) while Andreea does butchering. Andreea eats some meat (not much) and we prefer to eat home-grown foods, including meat (I do enjoy eggs, and I do eat a morsel of meat from every animal that I slaughter, out of respect for the animal … and Muscovite meat is the best I’ve tasted in my entire life … I used to eat meat). The truth is that even if you keep chickens just for eggs, you will end up, eventually, with chickens that need to be slaughtered (old hens, too many roosters …).

My first visit to Romania took place during the holiday season, the time of year where many (if not most) villagers butcher a pig. Everywhere we visited people tried to impress me with their meats (a symbol of wealth) when all I really wanted was their potatoes ( a symbol of poverty) and other root vegetables. Andreea was constantly on the lookout to make sure that they didn’t fin a way to inject me with meat (like cooking Mamaliga in pork-fat, or mixing in a chopped pork for good measure). At the time, when this piece of meat was placed before me I couldn’t handle it and asked politely that it be moved away:

Fast forward two years and I found myself living in a Romanian village and documenting up close the slaughter of not one but three pigs. I got to witness how different people approach butchery in different ways and it was easy to spot the one doing the best job … even there quality was evident.

Slaughter and butchery is still common knowledge in Romania. Even many current city-dwellers have village-life in their pasts and they can take apart a large pig very efficiently. However there isn’t much quality and there isn’t much appreciation. It is another typical opportunistic action, something that’s done to provide food for the cold winter. Andreea has tasted quite a bit and she wasn’t very impressed by the cooking either.

Then, a couple of weeks ago I find Andreea drooling in front of her computer. She was watching the beautiful people at Farmstead Meatsmith. They are reviving meat harvesting in the USA. They do it with exceptional quality and care … from butchery through to cooking. Andreea was very hungry when we stopped watching.

I joined  her as we watched their introduction video (used to raise money on Kickstarter for more video productions):

<br/>And then this video, the first produced after their successful Kickstarter campaign:

<br/>Beautifully produced videos, by and of beautiful people doing beautiful work.

 

Food is not cheap

One of the challenges that good & sustainable farming deals with is market prices. General wisdom amongst both producers and consumers seems to be that food is or should be cheap. General wisdom is wrong.

Satisfying Hunger

When we were still living in Israel we couldn’t afford organic products but we did make it a point to eat good nutritious whole wheat bread. It cost 3 or 4 times more then the standard white bread. This went on for many years until one day we forgot to purchase our good bread and had to settle for the regular white bread that was available in the small village shop. The bread felt empty, I had to eat twice as many slices of bread as I was used to just to satisfy my hunger. So the real price of this “cheap” bread was actually twice its label price.

Nutritional Value

That same bread had very poor nutritional value. I could at best get more calories (energy) from eating more of it but no matter how much of it I ate … I couldn’t consume what wasn’t there. There are many nutritional elements that our bodies need and expect to find in food. If those elements are not in the food we eat then we don’t supply our bodies with what they need. From there one of three things can happen:

  1. We live with deficient nutrition … and that leads to health problems which come with a heavy price (monetary and then some).
  2. We rely on food supplements that are very expensive for regular consumption.
  3. We eat too much … our bodies continuing to look for what they need … and we become overweight … fat … and obese … and that leads to other health problems which come with a heavy price.

So how cheap is that cheap food?

But even that is not the whole story.

Subsidies

In most western/industrialized countries many (if not most) food products are “protected” and regulated by subsidies. There can be diverse motivations for subsidies but the end result is that government controlled funds are passed on to producers. If, for example, egg production in your country is subsidized, that means that in addition to profits from selling eggs, a producer receives additional payment from the government. “From the government” really means “from taxpayer money” and that really means “you”.

So when you, for example, purchase an egg, in addition to what you pay in the store, you have already paid an additional sum of money through subsidies. How much? I don’t know … but it can be a substantial amount of money. Many farmers have become reliant on subsidies (rather then profits) for their sustenance.

Now consider that subsidies are just one form of market manipulation. They are a simple manipulation because they directly allocate resources for a specific purpose. What about indirect interventions? What effects do trade agreements between countries have on food prices? What effects do trade agreements between international corporations have on food prices? What effect do trade agreements between countries and corporations have on food prices? And for Romanians … what effect does corruption have on food prices?

Food is not cheap. Period.

The bottom line is that whatever you pay for food in a store does not reflect the true price (let alone value) of food. Food is more expensive to produce and deliver then we want to believe it is. It’s easy to blame large corporations and corrupt governments but we have all worked together to create this situation. We were convinced that industrialization and commercialization would be a good thing – we liked the idea of being able to have anything we want to eat available to us for low prices whenever we want it. Governments merely represent us and our desires. Large companies merely look for potential markets and try to make a profit from them. We all worked together to create the food reality we live in … and for a while it seemed nice.

Yet is hasn’t worked out has it? Food prices went up. So, being true to our dreams, we continued to push … food became even more indutrialized, efficiently processed … and …  less tasty and less nutritious … and sometimes unhealthy (in some ways even poisonous). And still food prices continued to rise … and still do … everywhere. We ended up paying more and getting less. This is a direct result of all of us, together, pursuing our dream of cheap food. Maybe its time to dream up something better?

Dreaming up something new isn’t easy to do. It demand personal sacrifice and change. We all have to re-examine our values:

  • Do we prefer to eat cheap food or healthy food?
  • Do we prefer poor food all year long or healthy food when it is naturally available?
  • Do we prefer that others prepare and pre-process our food for us or to take the time to lovingly prepare and cook our own food?
  • Do we prefer a global menu of food that comes from all over the world or a menu that is based on what grows locally?
  • Do we prefer to support industrial food production (large corporations) or small-scale local producers (our neighbors)?
  • Do we prefer “organic” food that is transported long distances or local, traditional food that is grown nearby?
  • Do we want to be dependent on international corporations for our food supply or do we want to be a self-sufficient community?
  • What is more important to us: fast cars, fancy furniture and electronic gadgets or food?

We dreamt up and created our current food-reality. We can dream up and create a better one.