Don Sanderson: Harvest Time


The year’s harvest is all in and put away for the winter, except for the sauerkraut that is in the making. There were many pluses and a few negatives, but all in all a good year here in our little slice of paradise, much to be thankful for. We celebrated with friends and family around one of Adam’s and Paula’s turkey with all the trimmings. In the following, it may seem I’m bragging, which sometimes I may be, but primarily I intend this as an example of sharing ideas locally and much look forward to your reports.

Thanks to the rains, about which I will not complain, the gardening season started late and many of the fruit trees –pears, peaches, apricots, plums, and most of the apples – didn’t set fruit. But, the subsequent tomato, pepper, bean, and corn crops were quite remarkable with eggplant and cucumbers thrown in. Because we tended to these first, the squash were planted late and weren’t much; I was distracted and the gophers got many of our potatoes and the sweet potatoes vined nicely, but didn’t set worthwhile roots. Our winter brassica have all been planted and are thriving as are some winter potatoes, so next year’s harvest is hopefully on the way. Our last harvest for this year was the first weekend in December. Out of it, we had our last meal of fresh green beans. But, the big deals were the tomatoes.

In earlier years, at the end of session just before the first frost, we brought tomatoes still attached to the vines into the garage to sort of ripen. Most got tossed. Then, last year, I had an insight that green tomatoes are much like tomatillos and chile verde came to mind. So, we invented green tomato salsa. In this year’s version, after we, actually Marlene, had harvested a bushel or more green tomatoes, we trimmed them and cooked them down until thick. Along the way, we added the last of our peppers and a few that had been previously dried – we like it hot – and a variety of seasonings: fresh oregano leaves, lots of garlic, cumin, cinnamon, mustard, and ginger. We smooth the result with our hand-held Kitchenaid blender, which we also use on tomato and apple sauce – we always leave the skins on, which would make them lumpy otherwise. The result is humongous on hamburgers and pork. We canned 14 quarts.

This year our green salsa was different in another way. The one fruit that bore very well this year were the persimmons. I’m speaking of Fuyus, the flat ones. What we habitually do is harvest them when they are just becoming edible. We let them ripen for a few days in the house until they are at about the crunchy sweet stage  of ripe apples. We then slice and dry them. The results are the color of and as sweet as honey. That is something else we did this last weekend. We got eight quarts, which will give us wonderful munchies to entertain us while we’re sitting around the fire this winter.

We ate a our fair share of fresh persimmons and a few got soft-ripe and became cookies. Another inspiration came to mind. We dumped some into the green salsa while it was cooking and as a result added some interesting sweetness – green tomatoes aren’t sweet. Some of the tomatoes showed signs of ripening and remain on the counter – they must be blemish free or forget it. Others, so-called winter keepers, are ripening more slowly in a cool back bedroom – last year we had ripe winter keepers for Christmas and after. So, don’t give up on the tomato seasons too early.

Sunday night following our last tomato harvest we had our first frost. How is that for just getting it right. A couple days later we had 29 degrees here in the McNab Ranch lowlands under those great oaks. So what about that global warming I ever preach about? Well, to begin with, weather isn’t climate. Climate certainly affects the weather, but the latter has a chaotic mind of its own as demonstrated by the inaccuracies of NOAA’s predictions. In my youth, farmers always read the Farmer’s Almanac to find out what to expect. I guess NOAA is better. NOAA is now predicting a La Niña winter, so expect a repeat of last year, drought in the Southwest and rain in the Northwest – which are we? But, NOAA also is making sunspot predictions. We are now moving into a period with increasing sunspots, so the sun will be warmer. But, scientists now say that sunspot warmth is in the form of ultraviolet rays that warm the upper stratosphere and never make it to the surface, while when sunspots aren’t present the sun mostly emits visible light that does reach us. There appears to be recent validation: 2009 and 2010 were the warmest years and the years with the fewest sunspots both or record. NOAA predicts the present sunspot cycle also promises low activity. 2011 is reportedly “only” the 17th warmest recorded year, maybe because of increasing sunspots or La Niña(?). I wonder if anyone has checked how well NOAA’s predictions compare with the Farmer’s Almanac. Anyhow, it strikes me that much of our cold nights now as well as in recent winters have been the result of the ground losing heat to the wide open sky desert-style. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Anyhow, global warming isn’t going away, I truly fear.

This year’s corn crop was marvelous both because of the productivity, the large ear size, and the colors – all the usual ones in many shades plus oranges, greens, and blacks. I like lots of color and “Indian” corn has enthralled me since I was no more than 6 years old. Before the days of hybrid corn, colored ears sometimes appeared and were grabbed by me to add to my collection. But, the crop isn’t only for color; last years crop has been almost entirely consumed.

Unfortunately, given the tiny size of our property and my age, there is no way we can be self sufficient. Next life, maybe? For almost all the remainder of our food we rely on local farmers. Extra vegetables and fruit come almost entirely from the farmers’ market or Renaissance Market’s local selections. Our beef comes in 50 lbs. boxes from Ford Ranch, our milk from a local CSA, and our pork, chickens, and turkey from Adam and Paula. We buy a whole pig complete with head and hoofs and butcher it ourselves, deboning most of it so it will fit in our freezer. Marlene preserved maybe 10 pints of lard, made some wonderful smoked bacon, and boiled the bones for many quarts of stock, which were frozen. Whenever we have poultry, Marlene also boils the carcass for stock, so we never lack for soup and sauce makings. Marlene even makes the food for our dog – have you investigated what that commercial gunk is made from? This weekend, we converted about 12 lbs. of Paula’s cabbage into sauerkraut wanna-be and began curing a brisket. Yum!

The stuff we do for ourselves seemingly requires a lot of labor and certainly good equipment; the ingredients that we purchase costs us maybe 2 to 3 times or more what it would at the supermarket. So, why, you may reasonably ask, do we bother? We have several reasons: we personally know the farmers and know the care they take; we appreciate the nutrition and taste qualities that result; we much enjoy the growing and acquisition and cooking and preserving activities; we are minimizing, mostly entirely eliminating, the environmentally, socially, and economically expensive middle man; we feel it is important to invest in local self sufficiency, given the deteriorating state of our world; and most of labor is actually play. It’s all about principles and good times. So, we “sacrifice” in other ways. In fact, we don’t sacrifice. We enjoy exceptional quality foods exceptionally well prepared; we even like reading cookbooks. Cooking is the quintessential fine art form, or should be, in which creations constructed from the choicest ingredients are consumed once and forever in the here-and-now, not tacked on museum walls or stored in attics. Marlene is a wonderful scratch cook and, I swear, no local restaurant can compare with her everyday meals; any that might compare elsewhere are typically much more expensive. Do I want to lure you, even shame you into following our lead? Surely.

One good news is that CSA raw milk dairies, our local ones and others around the state, are working with the Californian Department of Agriculture with the Secretary’s interest to develop a small farm raw milk law that will permit these CSAs to thrive. Then, new county regulations need to be put in place. If you can have any idea how truly bad commercial milks are, you’ll understand the importance of their success. While Marlene makes some very tasty fresh cheeses that go so well in salads and on crackers, I must admit we do purchase cheeses and butter on the commercial markets and argue to ourselves that their source milks weren’t abused too much. Sing a song of raw milk artisan cheeses in the old European styles.

Doug Mosel has opened an important new door with his grain CSA. The first of this year’s shipment arrived a couple weeks ago: two varieties of bread flour grains, rye, barley, oats, and nearly white Sonora wheat that I can attest makes fine cookies. He promises much more to come. While Doug will grind it for one, we prefer whole grains because we’ve noted that whole grain flours quickly grow rancid. Breads and other items baked with fresh ground flour are so much more tasty as well we find. Marlene grinds most of our grains as needed with a thirty or more year old electric Magic Mill, which has whirling knife-like blades that quickly produce fine flour without overheating. The Magic Mill is no longer manufactured; the Nutrimill Wheat Grinder appears to be the premium, not cheap, replacement using the same technology. These and similar mills grind flour very fine and, though claimed to be adjustable, they really aren’t. Our hard corn heats the Magic Mill up if used for too much. We like coarser grained cornmeal, semolina, and couscous, which these mills can’t deliver. We are considering the purchase of a German-made Family Grain Mill that does; a flaker mill attachment and a hand crank base are options – it has been reviewed as the most easily used hand mill available, one that an 8 or 9 year old can use. The Family Grain Mill will not produce fine pastry flour, but will bread flour. Finally, to finish this tale, we have a hand oat roller from Italy, a Marga Mulino, that reminds of a pasta machine and works beautifully – for oats, but not any other grain.

I’m the designated family bread baker. I use a powerful sour dough starter that I captured myself several years ago from fresh pressed organic grape juice, Anderson Valley Petit Sirah I believe. With the arrival of the grain shipment, I got the urge to make crackers as well. A recipe:

4 cups of different grain flours, one of which is higher gluten – buckwheat, spelt, and previously-cooked quinoa also are acceptable, coarser ground cornmeal and semolina pluses – add some grated hard cheese and experiment with cooked lentils,
2 tsp sea fine sea salt,
1 tsp baking soda,
Enough water to make a firm dough.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Blend dry ingredients thoroughly before adding the water. Add water and mixing until a firm yet still slightly moist dough is formed. Knead for a few minutes. Place pieces of size appropriate for the size of your baking sheet on a floured board, flatten a bit with the hand, turn over an flatten a bit more, and finally roll from the center out to thickness desired – add flour to keep from sticking. Oil the baking sheet with olive oil. Transfer rolled dough to sheet by first rolling on the rolling pin. The dough can be cut into cracker shapes by pressing lines with, say, a spatula, while knives will tear. When oven reaches temperature, bake for maybe 10 minutes until cracker is finished to your desire without burning – watch closely the last few minutes. The time it takes from starting until you’ll be sampling the first crackers is about 30 minutes.

Cumin, sesame, and coarse ground mustard seeds, coarsely grated black pepper, shredded coconut, or what you will may be pressed into the top of the rolled dough; scattering with coarser grained sea salt will create your own saltines. Be creative.

You may notice that your dough could easily be folded over fillings and made into pasties, empanadas, dim sum, or whatever you want to call them.

I’ve been known to lecture on the virtues of low-carbohydrate diets, meats, milk products, vegetables, eggs, fresh fruit, and nuts if you will – throw in a glass of wine or two and maybe crusty sourdough bread to soak up the sauces. These remain the typical centers of our main meals, but those fresh-ground grains are so tasty and promise other adventures. Also, chocolate has to be added in somewhere. The French have demonstrated that this approach is quite healthy and our doctor seems to agree at least in our cases.

Another recipe: we have been experimenting for several years curing our own olives the way we like them and are finally succeeding. Pick olives that are preferably nearly ripe, some showing black – around Thanksgiving. Soak in water for nine days, draining and rinsing each day. At the end of this period, soak in a salt solution of two tbsp. salt per cup of water until the olives reached the mouth feel you desire. Drain and cover with marinade made according to the following proportions:

1½ cups white wine vinegar,
1 tbsp. salt dissolved in two cups water,
3 lemon wedges,
2 cloves garlic.

Pour ¼ inch olive oil over to seal out air. They will be ready to eat in a few days. These olives may be stored in a cool place for an extended period, but the lemon and garlic should be removed or they will come to dominate. Last year, ours lasted well into summer.

I must recommend at least one book. I attempt as far as I can to use permaculture methods. Thus, “Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening: With information on mushroom cultivation, sowing a fruit forest, alternative ways to keep livestock, and more” came to hand. Holzer is an Austrian who farms on a most unpromising mountain side in the coldest part of Austria – and thrives. In an interview, he explained, “Respect for nature is everything. Nothing is excluded. It’s a whole. The most important thing is you have to put yourself in the position of your opposite partner, the plant, animal, whatever. You are the plant, the fish as well as the human. If the earthworm feels well, that’s my main worker and I have healthy soil. If it doesn’t feel well, I have sick soil, I have sick plants, and this will come to the animals. If nothing is feeling well, the worm, the plant, the animal, then that sickness comes to the human. It all starts from the plants, the crops, the agriculture. I end up with a sick product and less crops. For me it’s very clear that every entity has life, has consciousness. And all the time there is communication.” Most of what he describes is of little use to we small California gardeners, but there are useful hints here and there. For instance, he recommends against pruning fruit trees, asserts that this damages them and production.

It seems that for much of my life I’ve planted trees, even on rental properties such as the one on which we now live. This year I seem to have almost been planted out of room, except for a handful of pawpaws, that most wonderful escapee from the tropics that grows along streams in the Midwest. Pawpaws won’t ship, so commercial types aren’t interested; they require years to produce after planting, so I don’t guess you’ve have heard of them. While living on Kauai, we grew dozens of remindful tropical fruit species, one more delicious than the other, that you have almost surely also never have tasted. We grew over fifty varieties of bananas alone, almost all far more delicious than the supermarket ones. We also had fruit-producing cacao (chocolate) and coffee trees and various spices – cinnamon, black pepper, …. I sometime dream I am back in the tropics, but we couldn’t make a living there. I almost hope for global warming so that I can grow those fruits and vegetables here – bite my tongue.

An old story is told of a young man approaching a Sufi master seeking direction. He was sent to tend the group’s garden under the tutelage of an older man. In only a short while, he became bored and moved on. Years later he returned to the area and found that the gardener was now the master. He asked this master how that could have come to be and was told that that master had simply continued to garden until he was selected as the old-master’s replacement. I’m of the mind that gardening, animal raising, and cooking are sacred here-and-now activities when mindfully performed with all one’s heart, that deep empathy for other beings and the Earth will result. This doesn’t mean that I am enlightened nor that I am guaranteeing you will become enlightened by such activities – but, it wouldn’t hurt your prospects.