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“Fast” Food

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Today was the first day back to school around here. Lots of cars on the road. When we commuted, this week (and the week after New Year’s) were the busiest on our local roads. Commuting took longer. Everyone seemed to be back on the highways and coming home meant delays. You got home tired, hungry and in no mood to cook.

My friend, Julia, who writes a local blog, posed the question about how to deal with cooking when your work days are long.

I thought I would take a crack at answering her question. How do you keep from dialing that delivery place, or picking up really bad for you food, because you are just too tired to cook?

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This is my secret weapon. My cast iron pan. It sits on the stove all the time. I use it at least twice a week. Sometimes more. Here I am making bison burgers. I had a pound of bison from the CSA. We made burgers for dinner one night. Two for dinner. Two became bison chili later that week. All ground up with black beans, crushed tomatoes with chilis, peppers, onions and spice.

I use the pan to make frittatas. Like this one.

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Another easy dinner. I nuked one potato. Sliced it. I had made a baking sheet full of bacon over the weekend. This was some of it. The rest you saw on those burgers above. Mixed up eggs, milk and herbs. Eggs in the pan. Covered with potato, sliced tomato, bacon and grated cheese. A few minutes on the stove and a few minutes to finish in the oven. Quick, easy. Really a good meal.

Besides my cast iron pan, I also rely on make ahead and freeze meals. Like these.

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Stuffed peppers. Some leftover pork sausage. Rice from the rice cooker. A can of tomatoes. I made four of them. Two one night and two in the freezer for later.

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Turkey meat loaf. This time I made two, but I have made four of them. I always have some sort of meat loaf in the freezer. Oh, and lasagna. My other favorite freezer meal. I don’t have to buy them from the store. I just make a large pan, and freeze at least four more meals for the two of us.

I can put together a good dinner in 20-30 minutes. A simple salad. Some bread. Maybe some pan cooked fish or sausage. A few microwaved potatoes.

There is no need to get fast food pick up. You can easily put a meal on the table with simple ingredients. Yep, it takes practice, but it’s worth it to avoid all that sodium and sugar in those prepackaged meals.

Now, if we could only get the traffic under control around here.

Processing

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This is the time of year where I spend days reaping the benefits of the garden harvest. It’s quite a bit of work, sometimes more than I expect. But, it is worth it in the dead of winter when I am pulling pints of tomato sauce out of the freezer.

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Real tomato sauce. That spends hours simmering on the stove. I have been perfecting my technique these days. Learning how to best extract the “meat” of the tomato from the seeds and skin.

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I blanch my tomatoes after cutting the tops off of them. Let them cool down before peeling and seeding. The batch I made yesterday used 24 tomatoes. Yielded two quarts of sauce.

I did get lucky with some “gleaned” tomatoes.

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Split and damaged tomatoes. We were harvesting from one of the community gardens while the plot owner was away. These tomatoes weren’t in the best of shape. Not good to use for food bank harvest. For an avid gardener though, these tomatoes could make some awesome sauce. I cut away quite a bit of them. You need to get the infested areas out of the tomatoes, or risk a ruined sauce.

My sauce is easy to make, in terms of work. It just takes patience.

I start with onions, celery, carrots, sweet peppers, garlic. Sweated down in olive oil. Add the meat of the tomatoes to the pan. Add salt, pepper, Italian seasoning. A pinch of sugar.

I like my tomato sauce to be chunky. So I don’t blend it at all. Right now I have a dozen containers in the freezer from three sessions of sauce making.

If you have never made your own sauce, you do need to try it. At least once. To see just how much time our ancestors spent putting up food for the winter. It does make you appreciate what we can buy instead of make. Even though I have found that making my own food yields greater flavor.

Here’s to harvest, and the fruits of our labor.

Bugs and Brews

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Thursday night. One of the more popular events for the over 21 crowd. Out at Mt. Pleasant, Howard County Conservancy picnic grounds. The second in the series of annual “cocktails and nature” themed events.

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Dr. Mike Raupp, the bug man, famous in this area for his vast knowledge and enthusiasm for all things buggy. Dr. Paula Shrewsbury is also presenting and she and Mike will be leading an informal walk through the meadow trails to search for interesting bugs, bees and butterflies.

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This year the theme is Bugs and Brews. Heavy Seas beer is available to enjoy. The event is free. The beers will be a nominal charge. You don’t have to imbibe to attend, but the beers are excellent.

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This was last year’s crowd. As I said, this event has been a big success. Thursday night we hope to see all of Mike’s fans, and lots of beer lovers, too.

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For those of us who have been here a long time, Heavy Seas Beer is the very popular craft beer company started by Hugh Sissons. Sissons opened in Baltimore back when I was a newlywed with Baltimore roots. A pub we visited on our trips to the Inner Harbor. It’s still going strong and held by Sissons’ family members.

Come join us. Six PM is the starting time of the event. Have a beer. Talk to Mike and Paula. See what interesting insects they bring to the party. August 25th.

Melon Season

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Here we are again, in the abundance of summer Community Supported Agriculture world, where all of a sudden a fruit or vegetable dominates your weekly allocation. These past two weeks? Melons.

All sort of melons.

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Last week there were three of them. This week, four. YES, FOUR!!!!

Those melons in the picture above included an heirloom cantaloupe. A “modern” cantaloupe. A yellow seedless watermelon.

As for the difference between heirloom and modern cantaloupe. Just a touch different in terms of acidity.

And, a soft fragile rind.

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I remember from my childhood, only having cantaloupe in the summer. Getting them fresh from the fields on the way to or from the ocean. Maryland Eastern Shore cantaloupes. They were a breakfast treat. Sliced into quarters. Sprinkled with salt.

Now, we get more creative with melon. I have become enamored of this recipe lately. It is very similar to my watermelon, feta and mint salad, but with a more complex dressing.

As for what we are doing with this week’s watermelon. I am thinking melon margaritas, if the weather stays this hot.

This week’s basket included four melons. A French Chanterais. An heirloom cantaloupe. A “baby doll” watermelon. A regular cantaloupe.

Anyone have other ideas for what to do with all this melon?

This Weekend

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Two very different interesting programs out at Mt. Pleasant. Howard County Conservancy.

Heard of the Perseids? These meteors will streak across the dark sky for the next few nights. Peak viewing should be Friday night. Dr. Joel Goodman (star doc) and Dr. Alex Storrs from TSU will be at the Conservancy talking about the meteors and along with the dozens of attendees (this is a well attended event) will be hanging out in their lawn chairs searching the night skies and counting meteors.

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The sky above the Conservancy is one of the nearest non light polluted places here in the county to watch the meteors. Event is 10pm until 1:30am. Details here.

Then on Saturday morning I will be leading an event with another program volunteer, Wendy Ng. The two of us have been following the progress in the community gardens. Watching the diversity in plantings. Seeing how what was just a traditional European influenced mix of plants has now evolved into many different cultures.

Come wander around with us. 10am on the 13th. See some interesting plants. Learn how they are used. Take home a few recipes.

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This program combines nature, gardening, history and more.

You’ll even get to see some of the more interesting fermentation ideas, the best way to preserve the fruits of your garden.

A Few Good Volunteers

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Actually, a few hundred to start. The clean up effort of public and private lands ravaged by last weekend’s flash flooding continues. Now, looking for people to help in teams with leaders. Currently, just show up at the volunteer tent on North Ridge Road, Walmart parking lot. Daily. 8-4:30. Teams will be assembled and sent where needed.

Ellicott City, my county seat and one of my favorite places to shop and eat locally, was pretty much devastated with the massive flooding Saturday night. Tomorrow, access to areas that need to be cleared of run off and debris has been granted.

The efforts are coordinated through the county Recreation and Parks department. Registration is required. Minimum standards must be met. Age, physical ability, and proper clothing are listed in the web announcement.

As someone who frequently volunteers, and also leads volunteers, at my “job” at the Howard County Conservancy, I can offer some practical advice for those willing to volunteer their time. I have four things I stress when looking for people to help.

1. Dress for Success
2. Be Prepared.
3. Safety first.
4. Know Your Limits.

We lead groups on Earth Day doing clean up. I lead service learning groups from the local schools. We have work days on food bank gardens, and over the years I have gotten better at volunteering and at making volunteer efforts of others much more enjoyable, because we learn what works best. After all, a happy volunteer comes back over and over. A stressed, or unappreciated, or underutilized, or overworked volunteer doesn’t.

Dress for Success – the announcement from the county asks that you wear long pants, closed shoes, preferable boots, and that if you can, bring work gloves.

Dressing right is really important. You don’t want to get scratched by thorns, get wet feet, or blisters, by not having work clothes.

This is mosquito and tick season. It’s also the time of year those annoying little bees come out of the ground and want to sting you. Also, hats are a big help, to provide cover from the sun, and to keep little pests out of your hair.

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I am showing a picture of a construction crew on site at our house (installing part of our storm management solutions, more on that in another post), but they absolutely demonstrate what works best when working outdoors to avoid problems.

Long sleeve lightweight shirts. Hats. Glasses. Boots. Gloves.

The second item on my list. Focus on basic supplies to help you. I carry sunscreen and bug spray. Bandaids. In my car, when I get out for my volunteer work, I have spare shoes, socks, and a change of shirts in my car.

Safety. I never try to do things I can’t control. No attempts to climb over obstacles. I wear safety glasses. I use heavier gloves. I try to avoid contact with poison ivy, or if I know I have carried logs covered in vines, I never wipe my face with my hands. I carry a bandana, just in case. I also come home and immediately put everything in the wash, to avoid carrying ticks around.

I always take the face masks if offered, when dealing with excessive pollen, which drives my allergies nuts, or when handling debris that may include insulation fibers or other possible inhalants.

My limits. I know what I can’t pick up. I don’t qualify to help with the Ellicott City clean up efforts right now, because I can’t lift 40 pounds. I can’t carry heavy items. Back surgery put an end to those days for me. The days of lugging 35 pound bags of mulch or top soil.

I know I can’t volunteer to help with the current clean up efforts. Somewhere along the way, they will be looking for help disinfecting or scrubbing down cleared out spaces. I can do that. Patience is a virtue, they say.

As for right now, my help will be in supporting fund raisers. And, finding out when my favorite places find temporary or new homes, and giving them as much business as I can.

If you do volunteer, you will know the satisfaction of making a difference. Just be an asset, follow directions, and realize you are appreciated. Like those groups that help us at the Conservancy.

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Here’s to better days ahead, and the return of our favorite places.

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Frustration

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That would be how this week has been. One that frustrates me. Why? Premature replacement of very expensive appliances.

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This would be my seven year old fancy fridge. Which decided to fail a week ago. You know you are in trouble when this is the temperature in your freezer.

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With the setting at -2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Thankfully, I have a chest freezer in the basement. Not particularly full at the moment because we haven’t started the food processing from the garden. I managed to salvage all the local meat, and cram it into the chest freezer.

The verdict from the repair person. Somewhere there is a seal leak. Typical in these refrigerators. Could be over one thousand dollars to fix. If we can pinpoint the leak with injected dyes.

Not happy. Our older, not fancy refrigerators lasted decades. All of them. Not seven years, like this one. Spending close to 50% of the purchase price to attempt to fix it is not an option.

So, today a new behemoth came into our lives.

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I use a large refrigerator because I have large amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables.

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I want room for salad spinners. Fruit. Vegetables. Fresh dairy and deli. This is not a repository for a few processed items. It is the storage unit for a CSA basket, and for farmer’s market finds.

This past week we did quite a bit of frantic cooking. Those items I thought may have been defrosting, as they were in the top of the old freezer.

Some bison. Some bacon. A hanger steak. Catfish. Most of it local. Good for the Buy Local Challenge.

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I did do a very good frittata with local bacon and eggs. My tomatoes.

Overall, I suppose it’s not the most traumatic of weeks. Not a bit annoying. Refrigerators shouldn’t fail after seven years.

Oh, by the way, Bray and Scarff is awesome, when it comes to recommending good repair people and when it comes to absolutely fantastic delivery and set up teams.