Archive for the ‘Solar food drying’ Category

  • sweet potatoes with peanuts, cowpeas, and collards

    sweet potatoes with peanuts, cowpeas, and collards

This is the fourth year, of the past five, that I’ve eaten only what I’ve grown on the Fridays in Lent. I call these days Homegrown Fridays. I find that it deepens my understanding of what it takes to feed ourselves when I limit myself to only what I’ve grown. By this time of year stored food supplies are diminished and the garden is not quite awake. Our garden and food preservation program has evolved to depend on staple crops that can be stored, rather than canned or frozen. Although I did do a little canning this year, most of the things that couldn’t be stored properly to keep were dried in our solar food dryers.

In the photo you will see one of our Homegrown Friday dinners. It consisted of cowpeas, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and collards fresh from the garden. I often try new things on these days and that day I boiled peanuts. We (my husband and I) decided that eating them raw or roasted was our preference. I depended a lot on peanuts at lunchtime this year. Maybe it was because I seemed to be extra busy on these days. I’d grab some peanuts while sweet potatoes were cooking for lunch. My peanut harvest had picked up in 2012 when I planted some after Austrian winter peas in the rotation. The previous year I had peanuts in a bed following onions and garlic. At harvest time there was a definite difference in the yield in the onion half of the bed compared to the garlic half. Winter peas were the winter cover crop preceding the onion sets that had been planted in the spring. I was pretty sure that the increased peanut yield was due to the winter pea cover crop and not the onions. In 2012 I planted one bed of peanuts after winter peas and one in a bed that had had garlic, onions, and kale. The onions were multipliers and had been there with the garlic and kale since the previous fall. The yield following the Austrian winter peas was three times the one following the alliums and kale.

roasted carrots and beets with black walnut oil

roasted carrots and beets with black walnut oil

I had a great carrot harvest this winter. You can read about it in my post on Winter Carrots. I also had beets in the garden through the winter. The black walnuts yielded in 2012 so I shelled some and made some oil to put on the carrots and beets when I roasted them. Shelling the walnuts and pressing oil took a long time. I wouldn’t want to depend on that for my cooking oil. Frying locally grown bacon and saving the fat for cooking is a lot easier, but that wasn’t an option for these Fridays, since I hadn’t raised the pig. The roasted carrots and beets were delicious.

Soup made from dried ingredients is always on the menu during this time. One soup I made had no dried ingredients. It was made from carrots, butternut squash, and garlic. I cut them up and roasted them—no oil that day. Then I added water and simmered the cut up, roasted vegetables for about 20 minutes. It all went in the blender and resulted in what you see in this third picture. It was good, but a little bit of dairy added—sour cream, yogurt, or milk—would have been nice. Onions would have been a good addition, but I was down to my dried onions and they were in short supply.

butternut squash, carrot, and garlic soup

butternut squash, carrot, and garlic soup

Dried onions went into bean burgers using the same recipe as I did in 2012. Our staples for these meals from stored crops were sweet potatoes, peanuts, cowpeas, garlic, sorghum (for flour) and corn (for cornmeal). Fresh from the garden came collards, kale, carrots, and beets. I ground Bloody Butcher corn to make cornmeal mush for breakfast. We have chickens, so we have eggs. I use an egg or two occasionally on Homegrown Fridays, but not much because I don’t grow all the feed for the chickens. Since some of their nutrition comes from our property, an occasional egg is included. Dried tomatoes were important for sauce and other dried vegetables and herbs provided variety in our meals. I’ve already written about our new tea ingredient—Red Thai Roselle Hibiscus. With such a great honey harvest last year we could sweeten our cornmeal mush. Unfortunately, our two beehives didn’t make it through the winter, so I’ll be looking for new bees this year. We had mead made from our honey and grapes, and popcorn cooked without oil.

Observing Homegrown Fridays at this time of year makes me more determined to work out my vole problem with the potatoes to make sure I have enough to last through the winter. I’m also acutely aware that I need to up my wheat harvest. I had an interesting conversation with Eli Rogosa of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy in January while I was preparing an article for Mother Earth News that will appear in the June/July 2013 issue. Eli filled me in on heritage wheat and how to grow it. A chart with her recommended varieties for each region of the U.S. will appear in the article. A chart with crops I’ve mentioned here and varieties recommended for each region will also be included in the article. You will be interested in that article if you want to grow staple crops for your meals.

If you have done any of this, even in a small way, I welcome your comments. It is in sharing, both information and food, that we will move forward on this journey.  Homeplace Earth

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Red Thai Roselle teaIn August 2011, I was on a tour of the gardens at Acorn Community, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, when we came upon the hibiscus plants—specifically Thai Red Roselle. This was entirely new to me and the Acorn residents were visibly excited about it. Well, you know how it is when you see your friends really excited about something.  I just had to give it a try. I put it into my 2012 garden plan.

Hibiscus is what puts the color and zing in Red Zinger tea. Hibiscus tea could lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system and supply you with antioxidants. Since it has an effect on your blood pressure, if you are taking medication for that, you might want to check with your doctor before making it a part of your life. The leaves can go into your salads, but I was after tea ingredients—whatever it was that would give me a red, zingy tea.


Three Red Thai Roselle plants.

This plant is a perennial in the tropics and grown as an annual as far north as New Jersey. The variety Thai Red Roselle is the variety you want to grow if you live north of the Sunbelt. It matures earlier, which means more harvest before frost. Even at that, my harvest didn’t begin until late in August. I’ll pay more attention this year and make it a priority to get the transplants in the ground around the time of the last frost, or soon after.

Red Thai Roselle calyx?When it began to flower, I realized I didn’t know exactly what I should be harvesting. I learned to harvest the calyx, which is the part beneath the flower. When the flower fades, the red calyx grows into a pod that holds a green ball. The seeds that are beginning to develop are in that ball, but I only needed the calyx. The seeds are not yet mature at the point you want to take it for tea. I left some to grow larger and harvested them for the mature seed later. I bought seeds to start from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, but will be planting my saved seeds this year.

Once the harvest began I would check every 3-7 days for something to pick, prepare it at my garden washing station and put the calyx pieces in the solar dryers. After a day or two, when they were dry, I’d bring the trays in and store the dried pieces in a jar. It’s just that easy and it was a good use for the solar dryers in September and early October when my vegetable drying slowed.

Preparing hibiscus for drying.Hibiscus should be planted at least three feet apart, but as much as five feet between the plants may increase your yield per plant. They need plenty of sun. I had three plants in 2012 and was really encouraged by my experience. I’m looking at my yard for just the right microclimate to plant them in this year.

You can make hot or cold tea from just your dried Red Thai Roselle or add it to different herbs. It is interesting to make herb mixes for tea. Using spearmint or bee balm as a base, you could add any number of things. Hibiscus is great alone, and its red color and fruity taste is a nice addition to blends. Sometimes I’ll make a jarful of a mix, putting the ingredients in a blender, then storing them in the jar, ready for tea-making.

Lent is approaching—it begins February 13—and as I’ve done the past few years, I’ll be observing Homegrown Fridays. Homegrown Fridays is a personal challenge of mine when, during the Fridays in Lent, I only eat (and drink) what I’ve grown. Water from our well, of course, and salt in the pickle ferment is allowed in my challenge. Although I don’t necessarily do it for religious reasons, Lent is an appropriate time, since it is a time for reflection. Also, doing this in February and March makes it more challenging and fun. I’ve written of my Homegrown Friday experiences in 2011 and 2012. This year Red Thai Roselle tea will be on the menu!Homeplace Earth


For more thoughts on Red Thai Roselle tea see http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/red-thai-roselle.aspx#axzz2LRYfjI6u

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swt potatoesX3, kale, cowpeas--BLOG

sweet potatoes, kale, and cowpeas

Once again, I decided to observe Homegrown Fridays, eating only what I’ve grown on the Fridays in Lent.  Anything you see in bold followed by * is listed on the Recipes page of this blog (click on the recipe tab at the top).  This year was more of a challenge because of other commitments.  I started two weeks early so I could get in seven Fridays and even at that, two of the Fridays were actually Thursdays.  I finished early so that I could be off on another adventure.  If you’re reading this the first week in April, 2012, I’m at Tillers International in Michigan finding out more of what they do there while my husband is taking a class in timber framing.

The delicious dinner you see in the photo was one of my meals.  It consisted of kale harvested fresh from the garden, Arkansas Razorback cowpeas, and three varieties of sweet potatoes–Ginseng, Beauregard, and purple.  When I have no “homegrown only” restrictions, I would probably put butter on the cowpeas and sweet potatoes and vinegar on the kale.  I enjoyed the natural flavors of that food without butter and vinegar. 

polenta with tomato sauce--BLOG

polenta with tomato sauce

I had dried a variety of things in my solar food dryers last summer and had looked forward to using them for Homegrown Fridays this year.  I made a soup using as many of them as I could*.  Dinner one Friday was polenta topped with tomato sauce*.  Cooked Mississippi Silver cowpeas accompanied that meal.  Polenta is just another name for cornmeal mush that has been cooked a little longer and let set to thicken.  I cooked it in a crockpot the day before, then put it in the refrigerator.  At dinnertime I put tomato sauce over it and heated it in the oven.  When I cooked the cornmeal and water for polenta, I added dried onions.  I froze some, which made an easy lunch to heat up on another busy Homegrown Friday.

I was fortunate to have peanuts this year and made peanut butter for the first time in my GrainMaker  mill.  I had better luck grinding raw peanuts than grinding roasted peanuts to make peanut butter.  I made it twice and, although I’m sure I’d get better at it with practice, it’s a whole lot easier, and less cleanup, to just eat the peanuts as they are.  The folks in Biosphere 2 grew peanuts with the intent to press them for oil, but decided to just eat them as a snack.  Peanuts were one of their main sources of fat.  Their two year experiment with eight people living in a completely sealed environment and producing all their food is documented in the book Eating In: From the Field to the Kitchen in Biosphere 2 by Sally Silverstone.  I made peanut butter to have with carrots from the garden.  That day I also made sorghum crackers.  Recalling a recipe for greens in peanut sauce from the cookbook Simply in Season, I made a version of that with my dried collards.  I put peanut butter with the dried collards and water while it cooked.  We ate it as a vegetable for dinner, but I liked it better as a sandwich filling for a meal another day.  It would have made a good dip.  

bean burgers and sorghum breadsticks--BLOG

bean burgers and sorghum breadsticks

I made “bean burgers” for the first time.  It’s something that’s long been on my “to-do” list.  I used cooked cowpeas, reconstituted dried onion and dried sweet pepper, and minced garlic.  The cowpeas were boiled until really soft.  I mashed everything together and made it into patties that I topped with tomato sauce and baked.  Breadsticks made with sorghum flour were served with that.  

One day lunch was home-canned green beans cooked with dried cabbage and onions.  Sorghum patties (made like corn patties*) rounded out that meal.  A couple lunches were sweet potatoes, peanuts, and raisins.  Peanuts, raisins, and popcorn were great to have among my choices of homegrown food.  Last summer I dried grapes for raisins by cutting the grapes in half and drying them in the solar dryers.  The seedless grapes were best for that.  Popcorn was popped in a pan with no oil for a snack some days.  Just be ready to shake the pan a lot to prevent burning.  When limiting your diet like this, it is good to plan for something quick to eat if you are really hungry and you still have to plan dinner.  Peanuts, raisins, and popcorn filled that need nicely and could be taken along if I had to be gone somewhere. 

cornmeal mush with hazelnuts and honey--BLOG

Bloody Butcher cornmeal mush with hazelnuts and honey

Breakfast was the easiest meal and always the same.  I had cornmeal mush made with my Bloody Butcher Corn.  I sweetened it with honey from my bees and added hazelnuts, which were great.  You can read about my hazelnut harvest in my last post.  My black walnut trees seem to bear alternate years and didn’t drop nuts in 2011. The staples in this homegrown diet are cornmeal, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and greens.  I had sorghum and wheat for additional flour and the dried vegetables were much appreciated, especially tomatoes and onions.  I had some naturally fermented sour pickles and garlic that I chopped up and added to cowpeas for lunch one day.  Herbs, dried and fresh, add diversity to the flavors.  I was happy to harvest fresh celery leaves in the garden.  The parsley I used was dried.  Eating this way makes you really appreciate each additional flavor and texture.  You might be interested in reading about  my 2011 Homegrown Friday experiences.

I drank water or herb tea.  Currently my herb tea blend consists of spearmint, bee balm, lemon balm, and basil.  On these Homegrown Fridays my husband and I often opened a bottle of mead made from our honey and grapes or elderberries.  We feel very fortunate to have such bounty from our garden.  At the same time, we are mindful of those in the world who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.  We hope that our work here will help towards the understanding of what it would take to feed others.  The learning is in the doing.  I hope some of you will try a Homegrown Friday or two at any time of the year.  It is definitely an experience.  

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It has been an interesting and fun year with the solar food dryers.  As you can see from the picture, I made a summer home for my solar dryers in my garden, laying down pavers which can be easily moved if I change my mind.  That area is 44 feet north of a maple tree.  It got plenty of sun throughout the summer, but in September the shade started to creep in and I had to move the dryers.  When the dryers were in the garden, we didn’t have to worry about mowing around them.  Although I had a grill cover for the small one, I usually left it uncovered out in the weather.  Now, it is in its winter home in the barn with the grill cover on to keep it clean.  The large one will be moved back to the garden, wintering there, ready for next summer.  For information about the cost of these dryers and how I made them, take a look at my post on May 31, 2011.

I had the privilege of having the solar food dryer from Acorn Community in Mineral, VA at my place for comparison.  As you can see, it is similar to my larger dryer.  It has a deeper angle to the collector and the collector box is shallower.  Also, the back legs fold up under the collector, which made it easy to transport in my pickup.  It seemed to heat up a little quicker in the morning than my large dryer, but other than that, they worked pretty much the same.  I assume the steeper angle of the collector caught that early sun. I had it here in early August.  I imagine that steeper angle would have made even more of a difference if I was using it in September and October when the sun was lower in the sky.  My solar oven has a leg in the back that can be adjusted to raise the oven to more of an angle to catch the sun.  I needed to do that during these fall months.  

My friends Susan and Molly, and daughter Betsy decided they each wanted to build a dryer this summer.  We had a series of work days to accomplish that.  If you want to build one, get a friend involved.  It’s a lot more fun and it helps to work out the challenges that are sure to pop up.  Susan added handles on the sides of hers to make it easier to move around.  I like that and would do it if I didn’t occasionally have to load mine in the car to take it somewhere.  On my large dryer, I had a piece of plywood across the handles to make a shelf to put the trays on when I was moving them in and out. 


Those handles of Susan’s made a built-in support to rest the trays on.  When not in use, Susan kept her dryer in a covered work area.  Molly kept hers on the front porch and brought it out in the yard to use it.  There are so many trees where Betsy lives, she put hers in the middle of a field to avoid shading.


  Before she had it at that location she had some problems with ants crawling up the legs.  She moved it to the field and put it on a pallet and had no more problem with ants.  Just in case, she put Vasoline on the legs to stop the ants. It promptly melted in the summer heat and ran off.  Betsy’s dryer stayed out in the weather for the rest of the summer.  They finished their dryers in July.  Another friend made one, following the directions in The Solar Food Dryer book.  His only regret was that he didn’t make it sooner.


We all enjoyed success and agreed we are all still learning.  July had 5 inches of rain and August had 6 inches, with the accompanying humidity.  Most summers are drier.  You can never predict, so it is good to have a variety of food preservation methods to use.  Of course, the best way to eat your food is straight from the garden all year.  So, we have carrots in the ground and row covers over collards and kale now in late November.  Garlic and onions from summer harvest are stored, along with sweet potatoes, winter squash, and any Irish potatoes that may be left. 

I found that I didn’t have much success with green beans in the solar dryer.  They are so easy to pressure can and the home-canned beans have been my convenience food for a long time, so I think I’ll stick to canning the beans.  I used to can spaghetti sauce using my tomatoes, peppers, basil, parsley, garlic, and onions.  I would check through my onions and use the ones that wouldn’t store as well.  Now that I dry most of my tomatoes, I have turned to drying those onions that need to be used first.  I determine that by pushing my thumb into the center of the onion where the top comes out.  The hardest ones, with no give, are set aside to braid and store for winter use.  The softest ones are used first in spaghetti sauce and summer cooking, and now, solar drying.  They dry beautifully, as do peppers.  I chop the peppers before I dry them.  Of course, we used fresh peppers from the garden until frost, which was not until Oct. 30 this year.  I had some Ruffled Hungarian peppers that were loaded in late October and I chopped up some for the freezer.  We still have a few green peppers in the crisper drawer of the fridge from that last harvest. By choice, we only have the freezer space above our refrigerator, so I don’t depend on it for preserving the harvest, but it was nice to put some late peppers in there.  The peppers dried through the summer will be used as needed this winter and spring.  

We bought two bushels of apples from an orchard in late September.  I solar dried several loads of them, filled the crisper drawers in the fridge, and left the remaining ones in a basket on the porch.  Once the basket was empty, we started using the ones in the fridge, which are half gone now.  When those are used, I’ll get into the dried apples.  They are great for applesauce or to eat as is.  Peaches dried quicker than the pears I tried.  I bought the peaches from an orchard.  I made raisins from both seedless grapes and ones with seeds.  I cut the grapes in half first, so they don’t look like the raisins from the store.  I would like to propagate more vines from my seedless variety for raisins so that I don’t have to cut out the seeds like I did with the second variety.  That variety with the seeds made great mead with our honey.  Each variety has its best uses. Sorry, I planted those two vines years ago and don’t remember the names of the varieties.

Tomatoes are a given for solar drying, however, since you could have a bumper crop and the climate doesn’t always cooperate, you may want to have alternate plans.  I like to can tomato soup, another convenience food, and it doesn’t require long cooking down like spaghetti sauce.  Tomato juice is easy and relatively quick to can, not heating the kitchen up too much.  It can be used in so many dishes.

This year I had a harvest from some of the filbert trees I planted in 2007.  I was busy when the harvest was coming in and I didn’t want to lose them on the ground or to the squirrels, so I harvested some of the nut clusters when they were on the tree.  Wanting to make sure they were dry, I put them in the dryers.  I grew some cotton this year and got it in later than planned.  Some of the bolls still hadn’t opened when the frost killed the plants.  I put those bolls in the solar dryers and many of them opened.  Another time I used them to dry seeds.  I was happy to find so many uses for these dryers so late in the season.  Having the dryers out in the garden ready to go, I used them as often as I could.  Next year, I want to dry more okra, raisins, and onions, among other things.  It would be nice to grow some mushrooms for drying.    This winter I want to experiment with sauce and soup mixes from my dried supply for quick meals. 

 How did all of you do?  Anyone make a solar dryer and use it?

Click on any picture and it will open larger in a new window.

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Aladdin lamp

Aladdin lamp lit up our evenings

Earthquakes and hurricanes!  Some of you from far away may be wondering how we’ve fared with the earthquake so close and Hurricane Irene coming past on her way to Vermont.  First, about that earthquake.  Here in Ashland, Virginia we are about a 45 minute drive from the epicenter.  Out there it did considerable damage in places, closing two schools that may have to be rebuilt.  I was sitting on the back porch and suddenly felt the house shaking behind me.  Some people who were walking or driving in Richmond at the time may not have felt a thing, but if they were in a building they did.   It was big excitement for sure around here, but no damage at our place.  People needed to check their plumbing and chimneys to make sure nothing shook loose.

We also escaped damage from the hurricane.  We can count our blessings that the only disruption for us was that our electricity was out for four days.  Many big trees came down in the area, some on houses, but I remember much more damage from Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  At that time we lost power for 5 days and some lost it for two weeks.  Say a prayer for the people in Vermont who suffered so much flooding from Irene.  Since our electricity was out, my access to the news was limited to what was in the local paper, so I’m not up on the details.  I just know things were pretty bad up there.  All of this has made me really think about our food supply and general household management.  If a tree falls on your house or a flood washes it away, you have way more problems.  My thoughts here are about managing without electricity.

So far, when the big power outages have come, they are expected in the form of snow and ice storms and hurricanes.  I make sure the laundry is done up and the house is clean, since I wouldn’t be able to vacuum.  I would already be thinking about emptying the refrigerator.  What I’m worried about is that there will come a time in the not so distant future that the power grid will go down SUDDENLY while we are all about our everyday lives.  After a few days, and for sure, by the end of a week, the challenges of a sudden change in lifestyle begin to take their toll.  Those with no thought or preparation for these changes are hit the hardest and even twenty-four hours without electricity is stressful enough for them.

For us the biggest challenge is water, since we have a well with an electric pump.  We have some rain barrels so there is always water available for toilet flushing, even without warning.  Anticipating a power outage, I fill lots of containers with clean water in the house to use for cooking and drinking.  For Irene, I thoroughly cleaned four five-gallon buckets and put them out to catch rainwater (after the roof was washed from the rain) and used that water for washing dishes and ourselves.  We used it conservatively and only needed two buckets before the power was restored. A hand pump on our shallow well would be a good thing to have. 

Refrigeration is probably our next biggest challenge.  In 2001 we were gone for two weeks for the first time ever.  We returned home to find that our freezer filled with meat had stopped working.  At one time we had a milk cow and raised our own beef.  We sold the cow in 1996 and began buying beef, a year’s supply at a time, from a friend.  However, by 2001 there were farms where we could buy grass-fed beef by the cut.  Besides that, we were eating less meat and concentrating on eating more in season from the garden all year.  We decided not to have the freezer repaired and make do with the freezer on the refrigerator.  Also, if the power would ever go out, I didn’t want to have to worry about keeping a freezer going.  Many people have generators, but my husband and I really dislike the noise they make.   Power outages often push people outside, with the TVs and computers turned off.  It is a nice time to sit on the porch in the evening or eat dinner at the picnic table in the fading light.   The noise pollution from the neighborhood generators, however, makes it not so nice.  Without a separate freezer we only had to worry about the fridge in the kitchen.  We ate a lot of food and put the rest in a cooler with ice.

preparing beans for salting

My food preservation methods are drying, canning, and fermenting so what I had put up was safe.  In fact, during the time the power was out, I salted down beans from the garden in a crock and dried tomatoes and peppers in the solar dryers.  In case of flooding it is advisable to keep all your stored food off the floor.  You can elevate crocks at least an inch or two by putting them on rolling platforms, which makes it easier anyway when you have to move them.  In case of shaking from an earthquake, it is advisable to have the shelves firmly attached to the wall and to make sure they are strong enough to hold what you put there.  I will be speaking about Low Energy Food Preservation at the Heritage Harvest Festival on September 17, 2011.  Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, will also be there.  Find more information at  http://www.heritageharvestfestival.com/  I’ll also be giving a presentation on garden planning.   

Kelly Kettle for boiling water

Kelly Kettle for boiling water

To cook our meals we used the solar oven and gas grill.  The grill is my husband’s domain, so it was kind of nice having him make oatmeal or pancakes in the mornings.  I would not want to depend on the gas grill for an extended period, since the fuel could be hard to get when there are shortages and everyone is after it.  Besides, it depends on fossil fuel and I’m trying to move away from that.  I used a Kelly Kettle to boil water for tea.  That is really great to have and works well with the dried food.  You can boil water using sticks as fuel!  Using the same principle is the rocket stove.  I didn’t need it for this disruption, but I have one that I should use more often so that it becomes another way of life.  This summer the solar oven has gotten a good workout.  One thing about hurricanes, usually nice sunny days follow.  We have a wood stove in the house and in the winter I can use that to cook on and heat water if necessary.  Otherwise, I would use the rocket stove much more.  You just need sticks!  You can find directions to make a rocket stove at http://www.aprovecho.net/offerings/publications/.   Download the publication Capturing Heat II and check out the rest of the website.  To make my rocket stove I used a lard can that I purchased at a hardware store.

rocket stove

You can build a rocket stove!

Lighting was taken care of mostly with our Aladdin lamp, which was a Y2K purchase from Lehmans.  It gives enough light to read by, which we did in the evenings after dark when we weren’t playing Scrabble or Dominoes.  We also used candles and flashlights when necessary.  The oil in the lamp was Ultra-Pure oil which is liquid paraffin.  The candles were beeswax.  In fact, we made more candles during the power outage by melting wax in the solar oven and pouring it into molds.  The wax was saved from the cappings gleaned when we harvested the honey in June.  Longer term accommodations could be made by adjusting our activities to make the best use of the daylight both inside and outside the house.  A more major adjustment might be skylights.

How can you prepare for similar disruptions?  Think of challenges as new opportunities.  Learn new skills and begin acquiring the tools you will need.  Even if you never have to use them in dire emergencies, it will give you peace-of-mind to know you can.  During the power outage, my grandson and I visited Monticello, a trip we had planned for weeks.  I couldn’t stop thinking of how that whole place was run without electricity back in the day.  We can learn a lot from history.  Once you have the skills and tools, you will have already begun transitioning your life to a new one.  I have not read it, but there is a book called Transition Handbook which has spurred the Transition Town Movement.  You can find more information at http://www.transitionus.org/.  If we really want to transition away from a fossil fuel economy, we need to think about it as communities. Yes, we need to stock our pantries, have food coming from our gardens year-round, and look to the needs of our families.  At the same time, we need to support community efforts toward taking care of everyone.  If you know something, teach it to others who want to learn.  It will take some time, but we can make changes that will benefit our families and communities for the long term, no matter what happens.  Enjoy the journey!

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solar food dryers

Last August, I built a solar food dryer according to the plans in Eban Fodor’s book, The Solar Food Dryer.  It’s the blue one in the picture and I’ll refer to that as the SunWorks (SW) design.  I wanted to know if I could actually dehydrate food with the sun in humid Virginia.  The answer is Yes!  In October, I built a second solar dryer according to plans developed by Appalachian State University (ASU).  Those plans were in two articles that I found online from Home Power magazine, issues #57 (Feb/March 1997) and #69 (Feb/March 1999).   I’m studying how to lessen my dependence on fossil fuel as far as food is concerned, so solar drying is high on my list to explore.  I have an Excaliber food dehydrator that I bought used in 1992.  In those days, I was deep into canning our extra produce and learning a new method of food preservation did not fit into my schedule.  Besides, when in use the Excaliber pumped hot, humid air into the house and it made noise.  Of course, canning produced hot, humid air, so at the time, it was the noise that bothered me the most.  I might have used it for tomatoes more, but even with nine trays, it only held about 10 lbs. of tomatoes and it took 24 hours for them to dry completely.  I was processing lots of tomatoes in my kitchen for our family of 6 and would run 2-4 times that amount through the canner in an afternoon and be done.  I used it periodically for making beef jerky.

Times have changed.  Now it is usually only two of us at the dinner table and I’m open to some new ideas.  I still don’t like noise and I also want to eliminate the hot, humid air of both canning and from the electric dehydrator (not to mention all that fossil fuel).  Last summer, I found that the tomatoes in the solar food dryer would be almost dry by the end of the first day.  I could leave them in the dryer overnight and they would be finished the second day.  That was okay because I didn’t have to listen to a motor or have any disruptions in the house.  The only concern was if it would rain the next day.  The SW design has an electric option that I built.  One day I had tomatoes in it and was gone for the afternoon.  That day a storm came up with a brief rain.  My tomatoes were fine inside, but I plugged it in that evening to complete the drying, since the next day would be cloudy.  I found that I used it so much more because it was just there and the sun was shining.  I would look around the garden each day to see what I could put into it.  I never did that with the Excaliber.

The SW design has only 60% of the drying area as my Excaliber.  Since I’m interested in processing a large quantity of food, I built the larger ASU design which has 1.4 times the drying space of the nine tray Excaliber and about 2.25 times the drying capacity of the SW design.  Last fall, I was acutely aware of how fast the sun was sinking each day because I had to keep moving the solar dryer so as not to be shaded by the trees on our property whose shadows kept getting longer.  When I finished the second dryer by October 21, I was able to dry two batches of apples before I called it quits for the year.  The larger dryer stayed out in the weather all winter and the SW dryer spent the winter in the barn.  Now that it is time to use it, it is outside all the time with an old grill cover thrown over it during down times. 

When I built the first dryer, deciding on how to build the screens was a big thing.  I sized the dryer to the storm window I had. To have one screen on each level required screens that I thought would be unwieldy getting in and out of the house, so my design called for four screens, two on each level.  I ordered food safe screening material from the author’s website at http://www.solarfooddryer.com/ and I’m pleased with it.  I made one screen frame with some old wood, cut to 1/2″ by 3/4″ and was unhappy with the results.  Then I found out how easy it was to make the aluminum frames and made the rest with that.  Once I used them my feelings changed.  The aluminum frames were HOT to the touch when in use and the wood frame wasn’t.  Also, I may be doing something wrong, but I have to keep resetting the plastic spline in places or the screening will pop out of the aluminum frames. 

dryer screen detail

 When I made the larger dryer I made nice wooden frames with knot-free wood cut to 3/4″ by 3/4″.  The corners are glued lap joints with one screw.  These screens are wonderful and actually cheaper than the aluminum ones, but they require more skill to make.  They don’t get hot and I can stack them with the food on when carrying them in and out of the house.  Having a tablesaw and a terrific husband as my helper is my secret to success. 

I added 8″ to the length of the legs on the SW dryer and put old lawn mower wheels on one end.  To make it level on the other end, I added aluminum corner strips, which hold the legs 2″ off the ground, protecting them from rot.  In spite of having some materials already, such as the window, wheels, sheet metal, screening for vents, and aluminum tape, I spent $162 (before tax) on the SW dryer.  If I would have made wood framed screens instead of the aluminum ones, I would have saved $18.  Hardware adds up quickly and I spent $7 on the two side carrying handles, which I felt were important to the use of the dryer.  Hinges also add to the cost, so if you can scrounge the hardware, you will be well ahead.  Including the electric option cost me $23, with the porcelain sockets costing $5.49 each.  By the way, the ONLY place I could find those fixtures was at an ACE Harware store.  I tried other places and other sockets, and those were the only ones that would do.  My goal was getting it built and seeing if it worked, not building it with the least money.  I’ll be helping a few friends build their dryers in a couple weeks and my experience will help them save some money and time.  They’ve already visited the Habitat Restore and found a good deal on some hardware.  This dryer is lightweight and easy to move around.

The ASU dryer cost me $385 (before tax) to build and I bought everything except the wheels, washers, and caulk.  I wanted to do a good job on it, since it would be out in the weather and I wanted it to last a long time.  I had to buy twice as much glazing as I needed and cut it lengthwise.  The price includes only what I used for this project.  I’m sure I’ll have use for the rest sometime.  This is a large object, so be sure you have a sunny spot that is large enough before building it. 

The price per square foot of drying area comes out pretty close to the same for these two dryers, which is about $3 more per square foot over the price of a new nine tray Excaliber that I found online.   I noticed that the new Excaliber is listed at 600 watts and my old ED-301 model is 1050 watts.  The ad also says that it has 15 sq. ft. of drying area.  The 15″x15″ trays in my Excaliber actually only have 14″x14″ of screened drying area, with a 1/2″ plastic frame all around, for a total of 12.25 sq. ft. for the nine trays.  My calculations compare the actual screened area on all three dryers.

drying in the sun

So, I’m ready to go this summer and I want some company.  The more of us who are out there doing this and talking about it, the more we can share what we know and build the momentum of learning.  I don’t have lots of experience using the solar dryers yet, but I’ve used them enough to know that they work.  Last summer, I dried tomatoes, peppers, peaches, apples, summer squash, snap beans, onions, greens, and made raisins from my grapes.  Last week, I dried collards twice.  They were easy and were done the same afternoon.  There was lots of sun during the week, however the clouds moved in this weekend, after I had put some summer squash in.  It served as a reminder that we need to be flexible when we are working with things like this.  I’ll use the dryers when I can, but if we have a week of rain and produce is coming out of the garden faster than we can use it, I’ll get out the canner.  The biggest adjustment to using the dryers is to get the trays filled as early as possible in the morning, to take advantage of the sun.  I encourage you to read Fodor’s book, even if you are going with your own design.  It’s full of much valuable background information.   You might not have a good place to use a solar dryer yet, or the skills, time or inclination to build one, but you could obtain an electric one to get started learning about dehydrating food.  The important thing is to get started.  By the way, people have told me they put their electic dehydrators in a spare room so they didn’t have to listen to them.  On September 17, I’ll be giving a presentation on Low Energy Food Preservation at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello.  Come and hear about my summer with the solar dryers.  Sandor Katz of Wild Fermentation fame will also be there.

My next post on June 14 will be about growing grains in your garden, so stay tuned.

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homegrown lenten meal

This year, looking for something meaningful to do for Lent, I’m repeating what I did in 2009. I decided that on the Fridays in Lent I’d eat only what I’d grown. It is both a challenge and an opportunity in so many ways. Since I’m an experienced grower, this might appear to be easy, but February, March, and April are lean times in the garden, with stored supplies becoming low, and I would need to provide all my calories since, except for eating less on Good Friday, I wasn’t fasting.  Besides knowing I could do it, I wanted to better understand what it would take if, as communities, we needed to depend only on local food supplies. Further from home I thought about the people in impoverished areas worldwide whose food supply was already limited to local production. I feel that if we truly want to help people feed themselves worldwide we need to first understand how to feed ourselves from local supplies. The only things that would be included in my meals that I hadn’t grown would be salt for the sourdough bread and fermented vegetables and pickling lime for the hominy.   Anything in bold and marked with * is included on my new recipe page.  See the recipe tab above and go there to learn how I prepared it.

That first Friday in 2009 my most important insight was the need for clean water. Without water I couldn’t prepare a meal. Fuel is an issue, but I’ll stick to food in this post. I grow Bloody Butcher corn to grind for cornmeal, so breakfast was easy.  Although I usually make cornmeal mush with milk, I cooked it with water. I was fortunate to have honey from my bees, not a lot, but enough.  I used the honey on the mush and in herb tea, but I could have done without it if necessary. The herbs for my tea were a mixture of bee balm, spearmint, and lemon balm.  Sometimes I add sage and basil.  Mississippi Silver cowpeas are the dried beans I grow for our table and I used them for lunch and/or dinner.  Easter is late this year and the collards and kale are bolting now, but they have been an important addition fresh and dried. In 2oo9 I had what I called “fall ferment”*.  I chopped the vegetables to a relish after they fermented whole in the crock.  A dish of  collards and fall ferment is good.  In the photo above you see that, plus poached eggs and wheat tortillas.  In 2009 I had wheat for tortillas and sourdough bread.  I allowed some eggs both years because I had grown a small amount of the chicken’s feed.  My supply of onions was running low this year, so I rationed them over the seven Fridays.

tomato sauce, sorghum noodles, collards

I didn’t have any wheat left to use this year, but I did have sorghum that I grew several years ago and hadn’t used.  Using the eggs, I made sorghum noodles that we ate with tomato sauce*.  Steamed collards completed that meal. Those leftovers went into a soup early the next week, along with green beans (home canned), garlic, onions, celery seed, and dried Jerusalem artichokes*.  That soup was meaty in taste and appearance, I guess due to the sorghum noodles I had chopped up.  It was so good I saved some for the next Friday’s dinner.  Sweet potatoes have been a plus.  Sweet potatoes, greens, and cowpeas are a good meal.  Although I often have butter on sweet potatoes and cowpeas and vinegar on the greens, I easily enjoy them plain on Homegrown Fridays.  I eat the greens (kale and collards) steamed, the cowpeas boiled and simmered, and sweet potatoes baked.  I have never owned a microwave oven and believe it destroys nutrients in the food.  Sally Fallon agrees with me on this in Nourishing Traditions.

sweet potatoes, black walnuts & honey

One Friday I made a dish using masa (ground hominy) I had made from my corn.  My plan was for tortillas, but that wasn’t working that day, so I layered the flattened masa dough with mashed sweet potatoes, boiled cowpeas, and steamed greens, lasagna style.  I topped it with tomato sauce and baked it.  You can mix any flour you make from your grain with water, roll it out, and use it this way with whatever you have to use as a filling.  Last Friday I finally got around to shelling some black walnuts I harvested in September and used them as a topping on mashed sweet potatoes.  I drizzled honey over that  and baked it for about 20 minutes.  Yum!

butternut squash & dried greens soup, corn patties

One thing that became a favorite quick lunch this year is soup made with  butternut squash leather*.  That plus dried kale or collards all cooked in water with maybe some leftover cowpeas was a great lunch.  I also used  zucchini leather* for the same purpose.  Make some corn patties* and chop some into the soup.   Raisins from our grapes were a welcome snack between meals and we even enjoyed some mead made from our own honey and grapes or elderberries.  I discovered that my homegrown popcorn could be popped in a pan without adding oil.  My staples this year were corn, sweet potatoes, greens, squash leather, dried tomatoes, and cowpeas, with a limited amount of eggs.  If you find that interesting you should read The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe.  This was an exercise for me to explore a homegrown diet.  In reality we don’t have to do this alone.  We live in communities and if we use our talents and resources wisely we can each do what we do best and share the surplus through our local economy.

I surprised myself at the variety of the meals I came up with.  You might want to have similar meals, adjusted to your circumstances.  Even if you don’t grow anything, a meal of only locally grown food could be a challenge in itself.  If you do start to think about this, don’t be too hard on yourself and become overwhelmed.  Long ago one of the first milestones I reached was to grow and can enough green beans for the year.  Another was to be able to make spaghetti sauce with all the ingredients coming from the garden.  Maybe growing all the parsley and basil you’ll need for the year, or the herbs for tea, is where you’ll start.  These meals were not meant to supply any specific nutrients or calories for a day.  Their goal was to be tasty, homegrown, and fill me up.  My husband,  a less adventurous eater, joined this project only for the evening meal and he enjoyed every one.     

This week on Good Friday I’ll be preparing a soup made from cowpeas, sorghum, and dried tomatoes, peppers, green beans, Jerusalem artichokes, and hominy.  I’ll add garlic and the last of the homegrown onions. My food is grown using biointensive techiques, feeding back the soil as I grow.  I’ll spend time reflecting on the fact that I have the means to buy more onions and anything else I may need at the grocery store, although that food may not have been grown in a way that nourishes the earth.  I’ll be mindful that buying food is not an option for many other people in the world, no matter how it is grown.  It all comes down to the eating.  What will we eat, and will there be enough for all.

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