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Checking our pledge – How we’re doing at the 3/4 mark

April 2, 2012

The pledge that Randy and I had worked out for this challenge is published further down this page. Today I am reporting on how we’ve done in comparison to that pledge in the first nine months. For the challenge, each participant had their own pledge, with different rules and exceptions – this one is just specific to Randy and me.

Overall Goal: Eat Alaskan-grown food to the greatest extent possible for one year beginning June 21, 2011.
Goal: Increase our knowledge of native Alaskan plants to increase the amount of food acquired through foraging:

  • Cloudberries: we tried these for the first time this year – they make a wonderful mildly orange-flavored jam and have a lot of natural pectin.
  • Nettles: Rather than harvesting nettles just for beer and wine, we harvested to supplement the greens we grow and store for the winter. We blanched and froze them like spinach, and they are a great green as a side dish. This will be one of the earliest crops to forage this year – available long before our greens will be harvest-ready.
  • High-bush cranberries: these usually play second fiddle to their low-bush cousins, but this year we harvested them and made a liqueur usingAlaskavodka, which turned out beautifully.
  • Still to come: first greens of spring, which may included fiddle head ferns (we tried them last year and did not much enjoy them, but I’ve learned more about cooking them, and will try again). Fireweed shoots can be used as asparagus, and I know just where they’ll be popping up!
  • We also found more ways to use what we’ve always foraged – new blueberry recipes, cranberry sauce, and using fresh and dried cranberries in place of raisons in any recipe that calls for raisons.

Goal: Learn to replace foods regularly purchased from outside by identifying foods inAlaska that comprise a viable substitute:

  • I’ve mentioned many of these in earlier posts – using Delta wheat and barley is a huge change, we use cracked wheat and barley in place of oatmeal, and exclusively local flour for our cooking and baking. I can’t help but think that flour that is ground moments before use has lost fewer nutrients than pre-ground flour from a store.
  • Honey turns out to be only a partial substitute for sugar, I had little luck with honey in jams (it didn’t gel) and it adds a strong flavor to some recipes that  I used it in. Although we’re still buying and using Alaskan honey, we are still buying sugar as well.
  • Fruits – we’ve had marginal success, and are not sure whether the frozen and canned fruits have as good a nutrient value as fresh. We were able to collect plenty of berries and apples, enough for the winter, the questions for us is nutrition, not just quantity.
  • Chicken broth – something we usually bought in bulk – has been almost entirely replaced by our own chicken/turkey broth and vegetable broths we started saving when boiling or blanching vegetables. In a pinch, I can make a batch of vegetable broth using a jar or tomatoes boiled on the wood stove with onion, celery and carrot. We may have bought 2 – 4 cans of broth since we started, so a great reduction.

Goal: Learn the nutritional composition of local foods to verify the diet is healthy and sustainable: Have found some information on this, but not much is Alaska-specific. Short of contracting out some chemical tests (or learning to do them myself) I don’t know how to come up with this information.

Coming on Springtime – Out come the Seed Catalogs!

February 20, 2012

We found out that we have been awarded two hightunnels through the USDA program. Commitments that we have to keep to get a reimbursement include testing our soil and developing various plans for good farm management, as well as keeping specified records through the growing season. Now we have our noses buried in the seed catalogs,  trying to figure out what new items we can grow this year. After this food challenge, we know more about preservation, including knowledge of which things we can just throw in the root cellar. I am looking forward to winter squash and pumpkins!

On the eating front, our aerogrow is up and running, providing fresh greens, which are quite welcome. Randy has discovered/developed a great caribou breakfast sausage recipe. It turns out the secret is to blend it the night before so that the flavors can infuse the sausage. After running out of store-bought pasta, we’ve pulled out the pasta maker and begun making our own. Not difficult at all and the secret to success is also resting – allowing the pasta dough to rest for at least a half hour before rolling it. We are using the Alaska cooperative extension service recipe for barley pasta, and it is turning out beautifully (although it forgets to mention the resting thing).

Our food supplies are holding up well, and we see no problem in continuing through June on what we have. A cost comparison of money spent on food by quarter shows that we have spent about $400 less per quarter on food for the first two quarters. We are still buying some things (wheat, barley, Matanuska potoato chips, onions, milk, cheese, etc) but are sticking to local there, too. Spices, coffee and sugar are our main exceptions to the local food purchases. I have found that the Health Food store in Eagle River stocks local honey, as does Fred Meyer and Walmart. At Fred Meyer and Walmart, it is in the Alaska souvenier section, not with the rest of the honey, in case you’re needing some!

Winter Solstice – Halfway through

January 8, 2012

Winter has descended and we are holed up in the house living on what we grew, caught and harvested last summer. To answer the most commonly-asked question: what do we miss most? I’d say fresh fruit, there’s nothing like the crunch of an apple or the juice squirting out of an orange! The applesauce is delicious, but just not the same. The farmer’s market still has winter squash and pumpkin available, as well as cabbage, but it is the fruit we miss most.

Poultry would be the second thing – but we’ve finally found a source of turkey and chickens – we bought a half turkey that weighs in at 20 pounds, and we’ll be roasting it up tonight. We’re getting a chicken next week, to freeze until we need it.

We had a fruit episode in November, Randy broke down and bought a couple of apples. I can’t blame him – when I travel, which I do quite a bit, the rules have to go out the window, to an extent. I do try to eat locally even when traveling, but in some places I would starve if it were all I ate. In other words, I get the occasional apple or orange (or pineapple) at these times, whereas Randy doesn’t. So this slight break of our pledge is OK in my mind. I’ve separated out food costs for local vs nonlocal foods, so at the end of the challenge we can quantify how much we spent this year on out-of-state food.

One question we both have is how much the nutrient values are changed or reduced by the freezing/canning/other preservation methods we use, and whether the foods we’ve preserved are better or worse nutritionally than buying month-old apples shipped from the other side of the world. Any comments on this would be appreciated!

Ready for winter (?)

November 2, 2011

Years ago I had a friend who had been stationed in Scotland. She commented on her return that she found it odd that in the grocery stores, they only had seasonal produce. “In the middle of winter,” she said, “all they had were root vegetables, no fresh fruits or vegetables.”  Now Randy and I are in that place – a root cellar full of root vegetables to last a year, with berries and greens in the freezer that we hope will last until greens start popping up in April, or maybe May. We left spinach in the garden to overwinter, and have hopes that the leeks and garlic will last under a nice layer of mulch.

The farmer’s markets provided pumpkins, and extra onions, as well as apples. Randy went on a crabapple foraging trip in early October with other food challenge participants. They asked people in Anchorage with crabapple trees whether they could pick. All of them said yes, and he came home with 40 pounds to preserve on top of the 30 pounds of apples we had bought or picked earlier.

Canned, we have applesauce, tomatoes, pickles, jellies and jams. The pantry looks comfortingly full, but we’ve never tried to get through a winter only based on what we’d grown, foraged, or bought locally and preserved. Luckily, the farmer’s market is still going strong with dairy, eggs and meat as well as seasonal produce. We are still waiting to hear how the Delta Junction wheat and barley came out this year, but have 60 pounds of wheat left from our purchase in the spring. With the caribou and salmon to provide the protein, we’re feeling pretty confident now, but I’ll keep up this blog as the winter comes on and let you know how it’s going.

Food Numbers

October 27, 2011

The harvest tallies, as well as everything we’ve purchased and foraged are in!  We didn’t quite make our goal of pulling a ton of food out of the garden this year, but we doubled our production at 1622 pounds.  It was a rather cloudy summer, and not all our garden spaces were at max fertility so some crops struggled.  But we put in a lot of new garden space, and I’m confidant we can reach that goal next year. Our portion of the harvest was 1212 pounds, which includes food we ate, gave away, and fed to others.  Some of our biggest successes were almost 140 pounds of winter squash, 72 pounds of onions, 75 pounds of kale, 128 pounds of potatoes, and 39 pounds of raspberries!  We also harvested 20 pounds of chicken for the freezer and about 40 dozen eggs over the last 4 months. READ MORE…..

Travelling with the Food Challenge

October 24, 2011

I travelled in England and Ireland in the end of September (leaving Randy to cope with the harvest!) and found that local eating is already important to the residents of those countries. In Ireland, the menu often stated the origin of the food, including who had made the black and white puddings, and where the meat had come from to make them. One of the B&B waitresses lived an a local farm, and was able to tell me all the news, who had good crops this year, what was grown, etc.

In England, I was treated to a delightful meal on the first evening, with a friend of the host arriving with freshly caught trout for dinner, which was accompanied by local new potatoes and snap peas. The host did not know I had taken the food challenge pledge, this is simply the way she normally eats! Investigating the farmer’s market the next day, I found that the apples were labeled with their orchard of origin, and the vendor could tell me how many miles each apple had traveled (I chose the 10-mile apples).

Hard Work

September 3, 2011

Two women were walking by my garden yesterday as I was harvesting and stopped to ask some questions.  There was the usual, what’s this and what’s that?  Then one woman asked, “Are you trying to grow all of your own vegetables?”

“Well, yes, actually, I am,” I answered.

“What about the winter time?  Can you grow anything then?”

“No, not really.  We grow everything in four months and then freeze, can, dry, and put it in cold storage for the rest of the year.”

“Hmf, sounds like a lot of work!”  (read more)

Alaska Native Plants

July 16, 2011

When we started thinking about the food challenge in February, it was amazing how many things we assumed we could not get or grow in Alaska that it turns out are readily available. I (Cathy) attended a weekend intensive course on Alaska native plants, and those things that we had thought of as weeds suddenly filled a whole new niche. When I walked out into my front yard on the Monday after the class, I saw salad, greens on par with asparagus or spinach, roots that later in the year could provide winter root vegetables, as well as a pharmacopia of medicinals. The spiciness and flavor of many of the plants (which we had used to make our meal on the final day of the intensive) do not replace, but supplement, the spices we thought we needed to import. I see a summer of foraging ahead if we really want to replace the imported fruits and vegetables we usually buy all winter.

Alaska Food Challenge Pledge

July 9, 2011

This is the pledge that Randy and I came up with for this year of eating locally:

We pledge to:

Eat Alaskan-grown food to the greatest extent possible for one year beginning June 21, 2011.
Increase our knowledge of native Alaskan plants to increase the amount of food acquired through foraging.
Learn to replace foods regularly purchased from outside by identifying foods in Alaska that comprise a viable substitute.
Learn the nutritional composition of these local food to verify the diet is healthy and sustainable.
Exceptions include condiments, herbs and spices not available in Alaska, coffee, maple syrup, oils (when we can’t use local butter as a replacement) and sugar (where we can’t use local honey as a replacement).


June 30, 2011

Wow, are we spoiled.  After actually logging what we eat for the food challenge I’m still comfortable that we eat pretty local. Day one was 95% local, day 2 about 80% and so on, well above the 70% or so we expect for the long haul. The spoiled part come when I look at the non Alaskan ingredients and how far they’ve come. Rice from California, sugar from South America, pine nuts from China, olive oil and balsamic vinegar from Italy and a raft of spices from the four corners of the globe. As I look at the variety of food in our life I am thankful, and awe inspired by it’s diversity, but I am also aware of the huge amounts of energy used to transport these goods and the stunning amount of resources that are consumed in the packaging alone. I began eating as locally as possible because fresh tastes best, but as I think and learn more, I realize how important it is to eat local as much as possible so we can save those resources used to ship up cheap carrots and potatoes that aren’t very good, and use them for the important stuff like cumin and fine olive oil.