Saturday, August 30, 2008

Moss Graffiti

As a city gardener, I like to see quirky stuff people are doing in public spaces. The photo is from an installation at a Philadelphia subway station, using moss. I want to find a place to try moss graffiti. Most of my house's brick surface is too sun-baked.

You blend up chunks of moss with yogurt and sugar. Then you paint it on the surface you want to decorate, like a brick or stone wall. You can spell things, stencil, make patterns. Here is a how-to from the Instructables site. More examples here, here, and here (click moss graffiti).

Eventually it makes a real moss colony and the pattern is lost when it grows, but I still think it's cool. I may propose a public project at our local community art center, the GoggleWorks, which has plenty of brick walls. I think it would be a fun project for kids.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Philly's Weaver's Way Co-op

Last Saturday, I took DD15 to a youth group meeting in Germantown, a neighborhood of urban Philadelphia. I have always wanted to visit the Weaver's Way co-op, so we left home early and made the stop.

Oh, dude. Now I want to live near it. It is on a corner, like any corner store. But it was packed on a Saturday afternoon. No room for carts - people put baskets and bins on a counter and bring their groceries to the bin until they are done shopping, then they move the bin up to the end of the counter to get in the check-out line.

There is a big series of bins with bread and goodies from bakeries all over the city. There is a meat counter, a deli case with lots of store-made goodness. A dairy case full of organic stuff. Loads of bagged bulk grain, beans, pasta, rice, and a wide assortment of organic canned and boxed products. Upstairs is the cosmetic and toiletry department (we didn't go) - and across the street is another room full of pet food and supplies.

The produce is all organic, and much of it comes from the co-op's own Farm, right in the city. When you buy a share in the co-op ($30/year), each adult family member agrees to work 6 hours a year in the store, at the farm, or doing some other service that supports the co-op.

I got some hummus and pita to take to the meeting, and a quart of Seven Star vanilla yogurt for me (mine!). I also bought bags of red lentils, French green lentils, garbanzos, bulgur, black beans, and yellow split peas - all organic. The green lentils were only a few cents more than the non-organic ones I can get close to home at a bulk shop. We paid a 10% visitor's surcharge since we were not members, but I was still happy to shop there.

People talked to me in the check out line! No one chats in the grocery check-out at home. Outside, they have recycling bins for members to bring stuff the city doesn't take. There are plants for home gardeners. A huge community notice board. There is a used book store next door, a massge place, a cafe. Weaver's has been here for 30 years, so they have had plenty of time to build a neighborhood nexus of eco-healthy-coolness.

There were houses for sale right up the street - but I am afraid to price them. I know we can't afford this neighborhood. Most of the houses have gardens - tomatoes in front yards!

DH grew up in this area, so I was also assigned to stop at Golden Crust Pizza on Germantown Ave and bring him a sausage and sweet pepper pizza. (Which he ate cold over two days.) He really misses living there. DD15 badly wants us to move back to the Philly area, where she has a bunch of friends. But we just can't afford the cost of living - rent, car insurance, food prices, gas prices, and local taxes are all higher. Even cable costs more.

I guess I will have to start something here in Reading. Maybe it could one day look like Weaver's. I am going to talk to some neighbors this weekend about starting a little carpooling and bulk food club. It won't be all crunchy and organic and green, but it will be a start.

I love my children!

I just love my 15-year-old daughter. We are out of milk and bread, and nothing seemed to want to come together into a meal, in my groggy morning condition. But she started grits, made just plain with water, and I thought "Blech!" But then she went out in the yard and got parsley, thyme, and sage, and made rich a herb gravy with half & half and roux. She found a packet of cottage bacon from our Bacon Of The Month Club*. Then she scrambled up some eggs for protein - all without ruffling her orange bathrobe. The grits-n-gravy is Fabulous! A year ago, we'd never even eaten grits, being Northerners. She made every pan dirty, but it was worth it.

DD11 tidied her room this morning without me having to ask more than once. It was shaping up to be a scary day - where were MY kids, and who left these two Changelings that clean and cook??

Ahh... but then the mail came and they commenced to yelling and smacking each other over the art center course catalog - all is well. My kids are home.
*Last December, the food website Serious Eats offered a series of holiday prizes donated by advertisers looking for promotion. All you had to do was make a blog comment in a particular thread. and I won one! I have been getting a package of bacon shipped to me in an insulated box each month. I blogged my way to Bacon Of the Month! I would never buy such a thing, but if you have the money (almost $300 by the time you add shipping) - it really is a cool gift. It would make a good raffle prize for a fundraiser. We have gotten to try no-nitrate bacon, several smoked or sugared bacons, and cottage bacon (a wide less-fatty cut that is good for sandwiches). There is apparently no such thing as bad bacon.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 17

Our new kitchen cabinet, sanded, scrubbed, and set at the back of the kitchen table. Note ghastly brown-patterned paneling on the walls. I put the egg cartons and berry baskets on top - we recycle them to our favorite truck farming family. Finally have a safe place for my hobnail cake plate up there. The photo is dark, even with camera flash and all the lights on- but take my word for it, it looks great in person. DD11 was a bit more critical: "That just makes you and all your jars look old."
Planted: Kale and spinach in fish boxes. Beets and carrots direct sown in ground. Another round of peas.

Harvested: A bunch more gourds from that prolific volunteer vine. Some cute chocolate-colored peppers. Another large Brandywine tomato. Black-eyed peas drying in pods on the back porch. I am not going to get very many of them from a little 6' row, but they were very easy to start and grow, so I will plant more in a bigger space. The cabbages and broccoli are both forming heads now - the first I ever grew. I hope no one messes with the pumpkin growing on the ledge outside the back fence. It has the first hint of orange.

Preserved: Decanted the yarrow oil I made 6 weeks ago. I have about 12 oz. of yarrow-infused oil now. I am supposed to pick up a lump of beeswax at the farmer's market this weekend, so I can try making my first salve. It smells pleasantly herbal.

Cooked: DD15 invented a fried zucchini sandwich with tomatoes and basil. She breaded and shallow-fried zuke slices. Nothing else very new: rice pudding, PB cookies, curried chicken, pork stock. Got pork neck bones, chicken legs, and burgers on sale. Monday seems to be a good day at Weis - lots of reduced day-old bread and marked down meat close to expiration. Must keep that in mind if we get the freezer. I feel sad when I go there lately - an elderly woman was killed crossing the street in an unsafe manner, and I think of it every time I drive by. Stay in the crosswalks, people!

Stored: Bread flour. Too busy with other stuff to shop.

I found a heavy porcelain utility sink via Freecycle. A bit battered, but it will be perfect as an outdoor bin for potting soil and screened compost. If we need to do some laundry outdoors in the future, it will also work as a double wash tub that we can set up to drain into a bucket, or the garden. I found a metal strand to use as a base, and we installed the sink in what we hope is a convenient spot in her backyard, not far from the future location of a rain barrel. We have a pile of pavers to make place to stand in front of it.

Managed: We uncovered an old cabinet under a drop cloth at Mom's (photo at top). She thinks it might be something she salvaged from her father's workshop when her childhood home was sold. It will hold at lot of my jars of spices, beans, lentils. If it helps keep the table clear, I will then have room for baking and bread-making. I put the big jars of flour and sugar on the bottom shelf. Need to find more big jars of different kinds of flour - bread, pastry, all-purpose. The spelt and wheat flour is in the fridge. This also cleared counter space where the jars used to be - yay!

Reorganization continues - we recycled a large mass of old homeschooling paperwork. The basement is almost ready for storage. Now I have to go find some free 5-gallon buckets. I eventually want to use Gamma lids, but they are too pricey for right now. D11 went back to school, so I have been working with DD15 until her online school begins - we are reorganizing maniacs.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled:
Spotted a pile of pallets behind a hardware store with a "free" sign, and got a few for my cellar floor. If anyone else wants some, they are next to Leinbach's Hardware in Mt Penn.

The new kitchen cabinet covers a heavily-used wall outlet, so I ran a multi-outlet surge protector from it. That will give us a switch to turn off all the
energy-vampire rechargers.

Local/Family: Our neighborhood playground is being renovated. No idea what the plan looks like, or where to view it, or how the design was developed. DD11 has been using the playground for 5 years. I am sure she had some ideas, but no kids seem to have been asked for input. The project was awarded to Bertolet Construction (Wernersville) for $318,864 in local, state, and federal funds. The Recreation Department webpage says it will be done by the end of October - construction fence was up Thursday. I hope we at least get some benches or picnic tables, so we can have neighborhood meetings.

Talked to Mom about coming to stay at our house this winter, from the end of December to the end of March. It would save her a heating season, and we could still work on her house, without us worrying if she is warm and safe. It will be a good test of how well the five of us would do together. It will require some work here, to make room. I have asked the landlord to insulate the attic, to start, so we can move the girls up there.

I am concerned that "the Depression" has already come to Reading. This week we were reported to have the highest poverty rate of cities in the state. According to the Census Bureau, "
Almost 35 percent of the city's population lives below the poverty level, which was an annual household income of $21,203 for a family of four in 2007." More than a third of the city! Almost every kid qualifies for free lunches. My blue-collar neighbors report that manufacturing jobs paying $8-10/hour are hard to find, and better jobs at $12-18 almost impossible.

Learned: The "Adapting in Place" class is back in swing, now talking about security, death, sex, and money. There was homework over the quiet week, but many people were overwhelmed by the assignment to make a short, medium, and long-range plan for well, everything. I will work on that after the course is over.

Researching root cellaring, to see what I might try to keep in the cellar this winter. Lots of apples, root vegetables, squash, potatoes, and cabbages will be available in the markets soon. My cellar is very damp - the sump pump runs when it rains hard. I thought that would make it a bad storage cellar., but my reading tells me that the humidity is actually good, as long as the cellar is under 40F, as close to freezing as possible. Since we no longer use the oil furnace or the clothes dryer, most of the cellar should be pretty cold.

We are also looking into buying a 8-10 cubic foot freezer to put down there. A new model is more energy efficient than used. Manual defrost makes food last much longer, but requires an annual defrosting effort. Also saw plans to convert a freezer to a high-efficiency chest fridge, but I think I want to try that with a used freezer first, in case it burns out the compressor.

Library: DH is catching on to my new range of interests. For our 11th anniversary on Monday, DH got me a book. How to Survive Anywhere: A Guide for Urban, Suburban, Rural, and Wilderness Environments, by Christopher Nyerges. I flipped through it and already learned about magnesium fire starters, which I will add to our list for bug-out bags.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 16

Not much to report this week. We attempted a few days at the beach, interrupted by work. We are now hip-deep in back-to-school preparation. Lots more work to go back to public school, compared to homeschooled. Paperwork. Dress-code clothing, shoes, lunch containers, backpacks, etc. Wow - summer is so over.

Planted: Nothing new. Ordered seed garlic. Put the fall Master Gardener Plant Sale on my calendar - starts at noon on Sept 12. I should be able to find some nice perennial herbs.

Harvested: Brandywine tomatoes are now more productive and better-looking than the first few. Some nice peppers, and many more on the way. Gourds from the volunteer squash plant. Fresh herbs and celery for cooking. The black-eyed pea pods are starting to dry on the vines, and I have been picking the ones that seem done. The last zucchini.

Preserved: The white onions are dried now, so I trimmed them and put them into a fruit basket. We will use them first, since they store less well than yellow onions. Froze a quart of green beans; DD15 eats frozen beans like candy.

Cooked: Ham-n-bean soup isn't new, but I made this last batch from storage and the garden. A meaty ham bone and chicken stock from the freezer, beans from storage, and lots from our garden: carrots, onions, celery, parsley, sage, thyme. Garlic was store-bought, but I am planting some at Mom's this fall.

Made sauce from the tomatoes. Usually, I just collect a lot of tomatoes, and then throw more than half away as they rot, waiting for sauce-making. This year, I didn't have time to can, but at least I put them in a pot and made some sauce one night. It will be just fine, uncanned, from the fridge next week.

Stored: Visited the famous Weaver's Way food co-op in Germantown (a Philadelphia neighborhood) this weekend, while taking my daughter to a youth event. I wish I lived up the block from it! I bought a few pounds each of: bulgur, black beans, yellow split peas, garbanzos, red lentils, and French indigo lentils.

Managed: Lots of household reorganizing. We are making changes to how the kitchen is organized, to reflect changing patterns of cooking and storing. Looking at ways to use the house spaces better this winter.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: We sent a formal letter to the landlord, asking him to insulate our attic and fix our windows. The windows are old first-gen aluminum replacement windows, and they are loose in their tracks, making them dangerous to use and horribly leaky. In the winter, the curtains move in our bedroom when the wind blows, with the storm windows closed. We do hang heavy curtains, but I want landlord to also make them less leaky. We will see what happens now.

Local: Shopped at the grower's market, patronized the most local producers at the other farmer's market. Bought peaches and corn at a boy's road-side stand.

One of the growers, Two Gander Farm in Oley, has flyers out for a winter CSA. It's $475 for 20 bi-monthly boxes of winter roots and greens, including a 14 oz jar of honey with each distribution. Work out to $23.75/week, which isn't bad. I would normally spend that much at the weekly market among 5-6 vendors, but I never have a chunk of food money that large all at once.

Learned: Reading about "ollas" as watering devices in containers. You can make your own by gluing two clay pots rim-to-rim. I am definitely going to try that next year, to smooth out the moisture roller-coaster for my veggies.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Vacation Review: Asbury Park, NJ

A vintage HoJo restaurant is now the Salt Water Beach Cafe, featuring fresh ingredients produced in New Jersey. I really enjoyed the Artisinal Cheese plate ($14), and DH loved the Lobster BLT Salad ($12). The hostess was excellent, but the service was poor. The waiter repeatedly forgot things we asked for, and we were left sitting with one and then two of three meals for a long time. We had to ask for flatware. No one cleared when we were finished eating. My lukewarm clam chowder ($8) was delish, but lacked the promised North Country Smoke House bacon, and I suspect the server forgot to garnish with it. It's been open more than year, so it was not a new place working out the bugs. I checked web reviews later, and service seems to be a recurring issue for them. (Photo:
Asbury Park: B+ overall
Beachfront: A, very clean
Our Hotel: C, but cheap
Food: B, needs breakfast
Parking: D+

We had never been to Asbury Park before. DD15 was going to a youth leadership retreat in Ocean Grove, and we thought to make a family weekend out of driving her there. We couldn't find an available room in Ocean Grove (a historic Tent Revival resort - whole 'nother story). We decided to try next-door Asbury Park, overcoming our vague dread of Bruce Springsteen.

I was prepared to be disappointed. "We have a hotel, a beach, and there is a restaurant. I have a book to read. Everything else is bonus." But I liked it! The beach was very clean and has friendly attendants. It's $5 for a daily beach tag. The short Boardwalk is very walkable, and not numbingly commercial. A few nice shops, good stuff to eat, mini-golf, a cute kids' water park under construction. Lots of empty shops with "Coming Soon" signs. But our focus was relaxing on a beach, and there was plenty of that. Nice beach showers and clean public restrooms. I liked that there were not so many kids that the place seemed frantic. Nice age diversity. Lots of gay and lesbian couples. Saw some cool body art.

I sampled the ocean, but was quickly humiliated by a wave that knocked me over and left me feeling old, fat, and beached by bad knees. I retreated to a bench on the Boardwalk with a book and an iced chai latte. While recovering my dignity, I overheard a lot of chatter among regulars. Apparently, this is the first summer the beach has really started to cook since they re-opened it. It's been rated one of the cleanest in NJ, and I have to agree. Right now, the beach front area consists of two hotels, Convention Hall with a great facade, a few vintage rock-n-roll bars, and some new restaurants and shops on a short Boardwalk to an empty Casino building also being restored. But the overall atmosphere was very relaxing and clean. We saw a Redevelopment Plan in a window, with spots reserved for beach clubs, condos, and a little more commercial development.

I really liked the series of small shops installed in modified shipping containers along the Boardwalk. I read that architect David Rockwell designed them. Great visual texture contrast to the larger and more permanent-looking arcades housing bigger shops. But I am a fan of container structures in general. I should have taken more photos, but I was afraid of getting sand in the camera.

My unsolicited suggestions, as a tourist: the boardwalk area could use a book/news stand, a convenience store with drinks and snacks to take back to rooms, and a place to rent a bike. Desperately needs a breakfast place along the beachfront. Locals directed us to Frank's diner at Main and Sunset, but we didn't go, for fear of losing our free parking space.

There was a concert by pop band Paramore at Convention Hall, which impressed my teen/tween girls. It was fun seeing the tour vehicles line up in the parking area, and the slow assembly of security barriers, t-shirt stands, band catering truck, etc. We could see bits of the stage being set up, through the glass doors of the hall, and DD11 tried in vain to catch a glimpse of a band member. Ticket holders started lining up at the barricades in early afternoon for the 6 PM show. The concert-goers were a show of their own, and more fun than the art show that pushed us off the boardwalk benches on Sunday morning.

Food: We had nothing but good eats, which was very pleasant. We don't go out to eat often at home. Not terribly over-priced, and all within a few minutes walk from the hotel, on the Boardwalk. The beach apparently brings out the fried seafood in us, and the first place we picked was Biggie's Clam Bar in the Convention Hall arcade. Biggie's seems to be a new location for a Hoboken family-owned restaurant. The fried shrimp basket was great with 6 perfectly-breaded shrimp and fries ($7.50). The fried clams ($6.50) were almost too many to eat, and the onions rings ($3) were light and melt-in-your-mouth. DD11 found her hot dog very good.

We had a few good sandwiches - a nice Cuban, a sausage-and-pepper, etc. Very nice Reubens on Challah bread at O'Toole's Irish Pub. Great locavore food, but poor service at the Salt Water Beach Cafe. Good drinks at Eddie Confetti's Ice Cream.

I brought a loaf of zucchini bread with us, to eat in the car. Good thing, since the hotel had only chips and soda. I snacked on zuke bread all weekend, and DH made a convenience store run to find bottled drinks.

Accomodations: We stayed at the 200-room Berkeley Hotel, built in 1923, vacant for a few years, and now renovated and re-opened. Or rather, still under renovated. Trendy black/white/tan interior redecoration, with too many animal prints. Clean pool, good towels, comfy beds. Our Double Queen room was large. It was a good value at $139/night for a hotel across the street from a Boardwalk. Free WiFi in the lobby, but few places to plug a power cord; would be much better extended to the rooms. Could seriously use small fridges in the rooms.

This hotel has a lot of rough edges and is understaffed. No concierge, little bell service, slow housekeeping service, no lifeguard. No one seems to be in charge - no one ventures out from behind the Front Desk, and all of the staff members seem stressed and defensive.

Little things are missing, like robe hooks - there is a painted-over spot on the door, where a hook used to be. A plumbing connection lacked a face plate. The digital flat screen TV has fuzzy analog cable and no pay-per-view. There was a weird little tile shim to level the bathroom vanity, making it easy to stub your toe. Elevators often don't go where they are told, and sometimes go nowhere at all, while the staff pretends to have just heard about it. Odd wires and panels hang from walls and ceilings. A lot of the renovation work looks poorly done, in the rush to open. The lobby lounge was still trashed the Saturday morning after a large family group relaxed around the pool table Friday night. Multiple building entrance doors stand open with no doorman all night, allowing anyone to enter and prowl the halls - a security disaster waiting to happen.

If you look through the crack in the floor in front of the elevator door, you can see a huge trash pile illuminated in the basement. Once DD11 pointed it out to me, we couldn't resist looking down there every time we got on the elevator. It was symbolic of our stay - the dissonance of dysfunction visible beneath a veneer of newness.

The continental breakfast is bagels (and not good ones, especially considering the NYC clientle), coffee, and watery OJ. The toasters were cheap discount-store models and worked poorly. A jar asking for tips seems awfully rude at a self-serve table with plastic flatware and paper cups. The pool railings were wobbly. Most of the landscaping was untended and half-dead. But, if these things are ironed out, it will be a decent hotel, and the price will undoubtedly go up. I have stayed in worse beach hotels, and at higher rates. If I want it to stay cheap, maybe I better quit my bitchin'.

Parking: Street parking is out of the hotel's control, and could become a real problem for them. The weekend we stayed, the city decided to start enforcing the new parking meter system. But the electronic system wasn't working right, and people were getting ticketed after having paid, or were not able to pay at all. I overheard people complaining to cops, who shrugged - city offices are not open on weekends. Bad move for a city trying to revive tourism. The hotel does not have enough of its own parking spaces out back. The semi-circular front drive is the hotel fire lane, and is not supposed to be used for more than drop-off. With a concert hall right across the street, unhappy hotel guests had to park too far away.

The only other hotel is the smaller 100-room Empress, NJ's only "official" gay hotel. Asbury Park has become a popular summer spot for the GLBT crowd, much cheaper and cleaner than Fire Island and other traditional retreats, I overheard. There is also a motel somewhere nearby, but I heard it was really dirty. Funny, Ocean Grove has dozens of B&Bs only 5 minutes away, but there don't seem to be any in Asbury Park. I am always surprised by the dramatic differences between little New Jersey beach towns.

I read somewhere that the old Casino carousel building is slated to become a farmer's market. I would like that, if I was staying for a week or so in a place with a fridge. Food tourism is huge, and the locavore movement is not to be ignored. Vacation travel is way down, but I think that if Asbury Park attracts the right projects, it could again become a popular place to vacation, even with gas prices rising. The NJ Transit train stop is a huge advantage over many other beach areas. But they need jitneys to run from the train to the downtown (a few blocks inland) to the beach-front hotels. If there were taxis, they were invisible, and I didn't see a place to rent a bike. If they focus a bit more on non-automotive tourists, they may be able to jump into a niche market.

Next time: I wouldn't mind having a summer spot we return to each year. I would bring my own supply of snacks, drinks, and a cooler. I would stay longer and visit the large weekend flea market nearby. I would try the Ketchup restaurant at the Empress Hotel, walk around the downtown shops, and spend an afternoon checking out hyper-cute Victorian Ocean Grove (above) or other nearby beach towns.

My worry: Will the crappy economy, the writhing construction industry, and the tight housing credit market kill off this beach revival before it gains enough momentum? They gotta sell some condos to make this work.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tour: Farmer's Market in West Reading, PA

The photo is our market haul from last week. Local organic spelt flour and pastured beef hot dogs, corn, peaches, nectarines, Swiss chard, Italian zucchini, chives. Not seen: 2 dozen pasture-fed eggs. This stuff is from the Sunday grower's market, where we try to spend $20-30 a week from our food budget. This seems like a good time to talk about what "farmer's market" means around here.

There are variety of farm food markets in Berks County, but only three within a reasonable driving or bud-riding distance for the Reading city resident to patronize on a regular basis.

The Fairgrounds Farmer's Market in Muhlenburg is the largest, open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It really bustles on a Saturday morning. There are a mix of vendors. The meat vendors and bakeries tend to be local (or at least no further than Lancaster), but not organic. One of the butchers has an on-site smoker. There is an "organic stand" that sells meat, dry goods, produce, dairy, etc - but it is pricey and mostly not local. There are three large produce vendors who carry some local produce in season, but often just carry the same stuff as a grocery store. There are specialty stands for candy, snacks, ethnic food, seafood, lots of prepared food, etc - but almost none of it is either local or organic. I do buy a lot of food there, because the vendors themselves are local businesses. The bulk product stand is a good place to try a half pound of some new ingredient. Jambalaya Jay's Cajun food stand has an excellent Blue Plate Special: two crab cakes on jambalaya for $7.95. I get nice day-old loaves of bread from a Mennonite bakery for $1, and $0.25/lb pork bones to roast for stock. There are a number of local sources for my favorite cured meat: smoked ham shanks. It's just a better shopping experience than a grocery store. We snack on broasted chicken drumsticks and bottles of locally-made Sarsaparilla. DD15 used to work at a fish stand here, and we see a lot of regulars that we know.

The Shillington Farmer's Market is smaller and the building newer. Same Thursday-to-Saturday schedule. It tends to have somewhat more expensive vendors, and includes a local organic poultry stand where I buy chicken backs for making stock, a 3-4 pound bag for $2. Again, the meat is mostly local, the produce is mostly not, but the stand owners themselves are local businesses I want to support. One of the produce vendors has a half-price clearance of most produce on Saturday afternoons. They also have a bulk vendor, but I noticed the ground flax meal is not refrigerated, so it makes me wonder what else is stored poorly and thus lower in nutrient value. I must admit that part of the draw of this market is the Good Will clearance center down the block, where we like to rummage.

By far, my favorite market is the smallest, the West Reading Farmer's Market on Sundays from 9 to 1 PM, it is set up outside on a sidewalk, across from a handy parking lot. A policeman crosses you to the market side of the street. There areabout a dozen vendors, but every one of them grew or produced the food they sell. I heard someone call this market "a joke," and maybe it is, compared to larger city producer markets. But I prefer to call it "a start." It is the only place I can go and really feel like I know where the food came from. We try not to miss a market day, and to buy something from as many stands as we can within our budget.

We usually start from the east end, at B&H Produce, Erica Bowers' stand (above). She and a partner run an organic farm and CSA in Morgantown. We get their organic beef hot dogs at $3/pound, sold frozen. They have beef, whole chickens, soap, and a lot of nice heirloom produce. She is also my spelt source. Last week, I bought lemon cucumbers to try pickling. The week before I bought a pretty Italian zucchini, which she told me was not woody at a larger size than most other zukes.

Walking down the block there are a few more produce stands. where I often buy corn from Fisher's Farm and peaches from Stoudt's Produce (above). Then we come to my favorite herb lady, Carrie Rose (below). She sells generous 50 cent bundles of herbs, cut flower bunches, herb plants, and bamboo poles and stakes. Last week, she also had fabulous blackberries. I've been drying her nice sage all summer, and I am trying to root a piece of her fine-leaf basil.

There is a musician in the middle of the block, Bob Hassler (below), who sometimes brings other musicians. We usually put a dollar in his guitar case. We always stop at the Faller's Pretzel table. They produce crisp pretzel sticks in a historic brick oven, now fed with biodiesel. We will visit the bakery one day soon and I will post about it. We buy a $3 bag of pretzels every week.

We pass the cookie lady, the dog treat maker, and the cheese maker - not in our budget. Shollenberger is here, the organic chicken man from the Shillington market. Then we come to the Two Ganders Farm stand. I like these two young guys from Oley, who sell produce and honey. They sell interesting veg - garlic scapes, asian melons, bok choy. They plan to offer a winter CSA I will look into. They are another example of why I like this kind of shopping: when I bought a Tiger Melon, the guy could discuss which melons are more susceptible to wilts, which is useful to my gardening self.

Next door is the other herb lady that we like, from Creekside Gardens. She brings her two little red-haired boys (below). They often try out their own sales pitches if their mom is busy selling her herbs, flowers, and handmade soap. I've started to grow so many herbs of my own that I don't always need more, but I try to buy something if it fits into my budget.

At the far end is another favorite stand, run by the Reigel family, who drive from Kempton (25 miles) each week to sell eggs, produce, and jelly. They are another family with kids, which we like to support. I buy two dozen eggs and some produce next week. She has pullets laying small eggs that she feeds to the her dogs as a treat. We plan to visit their farmstand when we go up to County Line Orchard to pick organic apples later in the season.

See? I know these vendors far more intimately than a grocery store clerk. I see them every week, and they remember us. We chat. I *trust* their food. I want to see them succeed, and to see the market attract new customers and vendors. We need these local growers to sell us the Berks County produce that so often ends up in the organic markets of other cities.

Note: I have added a link to this post at the Farmer's Market Report. You might want to look for other market reports there. Philly-area market blogs: Farm to Philly does CSAs and local food reports; Robert's Market Report covers Headhouse, Reading Terminal, Clark Park and other Philly markets.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 15

Posting a fast update before we go on vacation. Going to try to make some overdue posts about markets and the garden before we go. When I get back, I *must* figure out what to do about the exploding spice cabinet (above). Our great new food experiments have tripled the number of spices we store.

Planted: Nothing this week. The temperatures have been cool the past week, which has reminded me that fall is close - and winter right behind it. I am starting to figure out how to take a lot of herbs inside this winter. I have started ordering seeds for next spring, to beat the rush. Small orders from ebay and Victory Seeds have arrived. I am looking for a big airtight container for seed storage.

Harvested: Mint, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and some kind of volunteer squash or gourd. Bought peaches to make jam, but they got eaten; planning to pick more after vacation. Got a lot of green tomatoes from a neighbor that thinned her overladen plants. I plan to make Green Tomato Chutney from a new recipe.

Preserved: Dried sage from the market. We tasted the bread-n-butter pickles I made a few weeks ago. I like them, and DH a pint already. First you get the crunch, then the sweetness, then the bite of the vinegar, and then finally the lingering spiciness. They do need to mellow a little longer to tone down that bite. We couldn't wait the whole 6 weeks to try them. I am going to pickle some lemon cukes next.

Cooked: I made a half-pint of jam while I dinner was cooking Sunday night. We were having roasted local turkey thighs with DD15's famous gravy, and fresh corn-on-the-cob. I had a handful of fresh blackberries left from market, and threw in a handful each of frozen black raspberries, and frozen blueberries. I put in some sugar, a splash of lemon juice, and just cooked it all down until it reaching gel. So, I made a half-pint of jam while I made dinner. I'm working on making canning part of my routine. I didn't process that jar, since I plan to eat it immediately, but if I had large quantities of berries, it would not have been hard to process. It's yummy, but seedy. I think I will make juice and strain berries after this.

Managed: Got plastic reusable lids for canning jars. Immediately used them up by lidding open jelly jars and transferring bagged spices to jars. Need more jars and lids.

Found French green lentils and mung beans at the bulk shop in the market, adding to our experimental legume collection. If we like them, I will buy larger amounts.

Stopped in at a Vietnamese grocery store, but they didn't take credit cards and I didn't have cash with me - I am going back with DH and DD15 to shop - they have exotic ramen noodles, cute little dumpling wrappers and all sorts of interesting thing. Who knew? I have driven down that street a thousand times without noticing the shop was more than the usual city corner store.

Stored hand soap concentrate. We like those "foaming" hand soap pumps, because it rinses quickly. But the refills are more expensive than regular hand soap - even though it is mostly water. We make our own foaming refill by diluting the regular soap with water 10:1.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Helped mom set up for a yard sale. Didn't go as well as well as it could have. There wasn't enough stuff out - some people just drove past slowly and didn't even stop. Shoppers want to think, "Wow, look at all that stuff. Surely there is something I need there." Mom took back some stuff she put out, and actually discouraged a shopper from buying something she felt we rushed her into putting out. She did get rid of some larger pieces, thankfully. I think she made about $60.

Read a great article about the many re-uses of newspaper. For several years, I have been getting a free newspaper subscription. One of our neighbors had a paper route, and gave us a leftover paper almost every day. But they have given up the route - they kids got too old to help, and the vehicle expenses ate most of the pay, which had gotten lower over time. They suddenly realized the husband can make the same amount of money working 3 hours of overtime, and no one has to get up at 4AM.

Got three pair of free used soccer cleats for the girls, and put our outgrown cleats into the recycling box at the soccer field. I am worried about the cost of driving to far-flung games around the county. I will make an effort to combine the trips with looking for new food sources.

Local: I may be underestimating DD11. She weeded a new neighbor's front planter and dug up mint in our alley to put in it. I saw her giving a tour of our garden - they must have decided to start gardening themselves. She has been making friends with the girl. The family is from Puerto Rico and mostly have no English, but the three kids are all close in age to DD11.

In our neighborhood, it is not unusual to people to stand back and wait to see what sort of people move in. Admittedly, one new couple was arrested having a drug party within a month. But, perhaps it would be more productive to immediately welcome people with baked goods, making it more likely they will turn out to be folks that will be good neighbors. Kids are good ambassadors.

Soccer season started, which also starts the season of sitting around with the team Soccer Moms three times a week. This year, everyone is worried about money, fuel prices, and the coming winter. I don't want to look like Chicken Little with the peak oil stuff, but I think I will suggest that we network more purposefully and help each other find things we need. I am looking for canning jars, someone else might be looking for kids clothes, etc.

Learning: Lots of learning this week. I have been researching alternative peach jam recipes after my first batch was pale and un-peachy. Learning the differences between jam, preserves, conserves, and jelly.

Investigating ways to hang/dry clothes indoors this winter. I like saving money by not running our electric dryer, and I finally have the kids trained to the outdoor clothesline. But that won't work from December to Late March. The laundry line in the basement can take days in the winter, now that we don't use the oil furnace that used to make the basement warm. The cellar is cold and damp, and clothing comes up smelling of mildew. I am looking into various ways to use bamboo poles to build racks or hold hangers. Perhaps some sort of rack that could be raised and lowered, to take advantage of how heat rises in a room/house. And the added humidity would help with the dryness of heated indoor air. But how to implement in a rented house, where installing contraptions may be viewed as damage? Still working it out.

Starting the second week of Sharon Astyk's online course "Adapting in Place." There are about 40 people on the course discussion list, and we have covered introductions, our worst fears, sharing descriptions of our options, our families' views, our plans for making a living, and arrangements for food and water. We've started this week with heat, cooking, and laundry. I am reading a lot, thinking about what might work for us, massaging our future plans. I have asked DH to start reading Sharon's blog, so we can discuss more from a common starting point.

Royal Indian Spice and Food

Earlier this month, I had to drive DD15 to a youth conference near Philadelphia. I took the opportunity to visit some friends in Conshohocken, who told me about a little Indian grocery store.

Royal India Food and Spices is just north of the King of Prussia Mall on Route 202. (map) The store is a Petro gas stations, but instead of the usual gas station snacks and soda, the store is stocked with Indian spices, dry goods, and some produce. They also distribute Indian movies and rent Uhaul trucks. When we were there, two nice Sikh gentlemen waited on us and advised me about moderately-priced rice.

We bought a huge hand of ginger root for $1.99/lb. I also got a 10 lb bag of basmati rice for $13.99. (It is almost $20 in our grocery stores.) I also spotted a 2-lb bag of masoor daal (split red lentils) for $3.99. We bought bags of ground garam masala spice blend, black mustard seeds, and ground cardamom. I brought home a jar of ginger paste, thinking it might be handy when fresh ginger is not available.

I definitely plan to stop in whenever I am in the area, adding ingredients as we try new dishes. I want to try chanaa dal next, a small split yellow bean. It is very popular in India, but not well known in the West. Apparently vendors try to substitute yellow split peas, but I bet Royal India will have the real thing.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My first blog award

Herbalist and fellow blogger Lisa Zahn has nominated my blog for the Brilliante Award. Thanks, Lisa!

  1. The winner can put the logo on her/his blog.
  2. Link the person you received your award from.
  3. Nominate at least 5 other blogs.
  4. Put links of those blogs on yours.
  5. Leave a message on the blogs you’ve nominated
  6. List 5 random things about yourself that we might not pick up from your blog.
Here are 5 random things about me:
  1. I'm a fan of Doctor Who and Torchwood, as well as a number of other BBC shows.
  2. Forced veggie-eating in my childhood made me dislike green beans and many other vegetables as an adult. I am slowly finding ways to get over that, although I may never eat green beans.
  3. I met my DH through an AOL personal ad.
  4. In my first tiny apartment, I painted the living room Miss Piggy pink.
  5. I like pretzels and collect old pretzel cans from my area.
I need some time to make a list of blogs to nominate myself. I think Lisa and I read a lot of the same blogs, so some obvious choices have already gotten the award. I'll edit this post when I have time to think of nominees.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 14

This is an extra-long update, covering 10 days. I was too busy to post on Thursday. My daughter went to a youth conference 50 miles away, and I drove 200 miles this week. Expensive ($50 in gasoline), but worth it just for the leadership experience she is getting. We also made some valuable connections during our trips - more below.

Planted: Fine-leaf basil from a cutting I rooted out of a market bunch. Also took rooted slips of a new yarrow from Mom's yard and potted them to establish for planning next year.

Harvested: 17 Taylor Dwarf Horticultural Beans - not 17 pods, just 17 beans, from 5 pods off one plant. I let them dry on the plant. Only one seed germinated from some I swapped last year, and I plan to use all 17 to grow a bigger crop next year. The beans are cute, cream with dark pink speckles. The plants are only 6" high. Also picked basil, and spearmint growing back from the drive-by weed-whacking a few weeks ago.

Cherry tomatoes, and the first three from the heirloom Brandywine - ugliest tomatoes ever! There was a big windy storm with hail last Sunday, and they started to split badly, so we picked them. The unripe ones are less cat-faced and split - so I probably became more regular with water and feeding as the season wore on. I should not wait until they are all red; I think the shoulders stay a little green.

Harvested potatoes and learned valuable lessons. I had planted a muck bucket with both Yukon Gold and Pontiac Red seed potatoes, starting shallow and adding dirt as the plants got taller. I will never mix varieties again. The YG grew, bloomed, died back, and started to rot before the Reds even bloomed. I finally dumped out the bucket this week, and got a short yield of both - most of the reds were very tiny and obviously needed more time. I had been concerned this whole time that the soil was too muddy and compacted, or that pill bugs were eating the taters underground. Neither of those things happened - the compost I mixed in did great, and the bugs only seemed to eat the tender shoots early on. But - that's what this little yard is for, experimenting for future larger planting. Maybe I should try buying storage potatoes from local growers, and just grow sweet potatoes, which went very well last year, with almost no care.

Preserved: A pint of pickled carrots and 4 pints of bread-n-butter pickles. Wow, pickling is a sweaty 3-day process: liming, brining, and canning. The boiling brine was enough to drive me out the back door for air at one point. I want to try Chow-Chow for my mom, but I'm using a refrigerator recipe for that one! Froze some split chicken breasts that DD11 spotted being marked to half-price at the store.

Cooked: Tried new banana bread and zucchini bread recipes, neither of them very exciting. This week's zuke bread is pleasant but crumbly, and the banana tastes like baking soda. I'm looking for never-fail recipes I can make without thinking twice. I do have some quick breads like that, but they often include lots of nuts and fruits for the holidays, like my Loaded Pumpkin Banana Bread. I even sold 6 loaves to a caterer last year. I love my parsnip coffee cake and Oatmeal Breakfast Loaf. But what if all the extra stuff were not available, and I just had thawed banana mash or grated zuke and local spelt flour? I want tasty, sturdy loaves for breakfast and lunch boxes. Not oily and heavy, but also not crumbly, without relying on cream cheese to give them life and structural integrity. Am I asking too much?

The spearmint tea I made was much less minty than the tea from chocolate mint, using a fresh handful of similar size in the same pot, with one white tea bag in a gallon pitcher for color and depth. As I experiment more with my own tea blends, I think the spearmint will be good as a secondary note in a blend with other flavors, where it will not overwhelm. The chocolate mint is good alone, and will probably make good mint jelly or syrup.

I have a food weakness from childhood: Kraft boxed macaroni-n-cheese. But this week, I think I developed a replacement that is just as easy to make. Boiled 1/2 lb of elbows (too much - have to work on portion size), buttered them a bit, added some grated Pecorino Romano, a splash of dairy, and a spoonful of pesto. The pesto made a big difference - instead of a taste that my "mouth memory" would want to compare with the packaged stuff, it made a new mouth memory. I think that a key to slowly eliminating packaged food favorites is finding new favorites, not trying to duplicate the old ones. DD15 has been making curry right and left lately, and wants to learn to cook more Indian food.

Experimented with making peach BBQ sauce from the disappointing peach preserves. Will also try the jam as a yogurt sweetener with additional fruit. I have 6 more half-pints of jam that is a medium peach color, way too sweet, and not very peachy tasting. It was the Blue Book recipe, so I expected better. Peach season is just cranking up, so I have time to try more.

Managed: Stored a lot of Indian spices (a blog post about that coming up next), 10 lbs of basmati rice. I notice the jam-making is really making us run through the stored sugar. I need to buy it in larger bags and arrange barrel storage sooner, rather than later. Bought more spelt flour.

At yard sales, we found four nice casserole/soup crocks, and two flat baskets for drying herbs or onions. Fixed, cleaned, and sorted things. Fixed the weed whacker.

Got wonderful bench for the porch on Freecycle (photo at the top). The woman that gave it to me told me that her grandfather made the bench for her mother and aunts to sit and eat breakfast as children in the 1930's. I don't think I would have given it away, but she was downsizing and moving closer to her job to save gas as three of four teen daughters headed to college. It looks great on the porch.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Gave away an over-sized upholstered chair to make DD15's room roomier. Our house always looks messy, partly because we read and haven't enough shelf space. We have lots of books, magazines and papers in various piles. But we also have "stuff" like my large collection of egg beaters and potato mashers. And now the kitchen is crammed with new supplies and equipment. Gotta keep the house from 'sploding, somehow.

DD15 starts a new job as a barista next week, and we did the cost calculations of driving. We asked for her to work several longer shifts, instead of a lot of short ones, to make the 3 mile commute worth the time and energy. I would suggest biking, but the highway she would have to travel is dangerous. The job has the advantage that she is allowed to read and do school work during the slow times.

Think I got DH to order a Kill-A-Watt. Planning to have DD11 work on tracking our electric usage this fall. She will like that.

Local: Took a lot of photos at our little producer market, to make a blog post I can use to promote the market to local friends. The more business it gets, the more vendors will be attracted.

Visited two sets of friends that go on "the list" of people to stay in touch with in a crisis. One is a our former landlord and his wife, who has assembled a set of five city rowhouses on the edge of Philadelphia. They are surrounding themselves with their "family of choice" by selectively renting the houses. They have planted fruit trees, collected tools. The wife is a chef, who told me about the Indian grocery store we visited. The husband is very good at renovating, salvaging, building. Their houses are right on the train line that would connect to Reading. They are going to Burning Man, in the Nevada desert, in August, which is nothing if not an exercise in planning and eating out of stored food and water, while building a survival community with strangers.

The other set of friends are from the martial arts community. Very fun - she does roller derby. martial arts, and is taking med-tech classes. He is an artist, art installer, origami folder, black belt everything, skate boarder, and a good shot. They have their own connections to other multi-skilled people, and get along well with our kids. They have already moved from car to motorcycle. They might be interested in our local food explorations.

Learned: Suggested a skill to DH: locksmithing. Caught his fancy. Fits his previous experience as a Private Investigator. He got right to work looking for courses and checking our state's certification process. I think that could be a great sideline for him. He is also looking into becoming a notary public.

My "Adapting in Place" class starts online this week. Classmate introductions and preliminary discussions have begun. It promises to be fascinating to hear more about the challenges each different household faces.

Library: Found a 1972 recipe booklet Quick Pickling from the Heinz corporation. It describes the open kettle method for canning, so I will not be using the instructions, but the recipes themselves might be good. Have been working on printing out more of my recipe collection, as well as some related articles about preserving and storage.