Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where to start building food security?

For those of us not raised on a farm (which is the vast majority of Americans), it can be daunting to think of where to start when remaking our homes into the source of our food.  You may have had a few vegetable growing experiences, the taste of a tomato fresh from the garden, or an apple or an orange right off the tree, but a few fruits here and there don't add up to much of a meal.  To get some real nutritional value out of your plot of land, you are going to have to have something growing that you can count on day in and day out. 

Which is why I am going to start in an unusual place -- those ingredients that keep cropping up over and over, like onions and peppers and herbs like parsley and thyme.  Maybe add carrots and celery to the list as well.  This combination of a few vegetables and herbs is the starting point in many cuisines.  In French cuisine, a mirepoix is some celery, carrot, and onion, chopped up and sauteed.  It is a start for soups, stews, casseroles, you name it.  If you have these growing in your garden, you can always at least get dinner started, then add whatever else you have on hand. 

Onions are a must have for the food security garden -- specifically the Egyptian walking onion variety.  Bulbing onions are too much work, you have to harvest them in the summer and then dry them and store them, why not just keep a stand of Egyptian walking onions going and clip them as needed?  They are fairly winter hardy, so unless you are in the frozen northland, a bed of them could keep you going through the winter.  The only time I have found them lacking is in early summer, when they are putting all their energy into making new topsets, most of which are too small to cook with.

Peppers are perennial plants, although most American gardeners think of them as an annual.  When I lived in coastal California (where it never freezes), I had a hedge of hot peppers outside the kitchen door.  Jalapenos, tabasco, serrano, and pequin at the ready any time they were needed.  With a little planning and preparation, you can lift your pepper plants out of the garden with winter approaching and keep them going if you have a sunny indoor location.

Carrots and celery are biennials, so they can stay in the ground and be harvested as needed.  I prefer the European celeriac to the American fondness for stalk celery; it is less fussy in the garden and you can clip the small stalks as needed while you are waiting for the root to grow to harvesting size.  Carrots can go anywhere in the garden.  They are good companions for every other plant, although there are some things that will cause them to come up stunted.  Parsley, if you get the kind that makes a carrot-like root is another biennial that can wait in the ground until needed. 

Think about the vegetables that you like to have on hand all the time.  What's sitting in your freezer?  A sack of broccoli and carrots that you put into stir-fries, casseroles, the crock-pot?  How difficult would it be to have those vegetables growing in the garden, ready to harvest any time?  For true food security, you have to quit thinking in terms of a big harvest and look at your garden space as one big pantry. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What is food security?

I've been writing this blog for a while, but I've never really given a definition to  "food security".  I suppose it means different things to different people, but whatever it is, it's the opposite of being food insecure.  Agencies that track hunger try to monitor food insecurity, which they define as not having enough food today, or not having enough food to last out the week or the month.  Along that line, I will tentatively define food security as having available foods on hand to be able to cook up a meal.  Maybe not if a dozen guests drop in unannounced, but enough for the members of the household for the foreseeable future. 

And how do you ensure that there is enough food on hand?  I can think of two alternatives: (1) the warehouse solution, where your pantry is well stocked with grains, beans, pasta, canned goods, etc., or (2) the food forest solution, where everything growing around your residence is an edible plant of one type or another.  The Mormons are great boosters of the former solution, and recommend that each Mormon household have a year's worth of provisions in the pantry.  While I like to have a well-stocked cupboard, if it is stocked by trips to Costco or Sam's Club, it is not as sustainable as the latter solution, having food for the gathering right outside the door. 

If you want to evaluate your food security, you need to do more than to just count up the boxes of mac'n'cheese and packages of ramen noodles in the pantry.  You need to take stock of all the edible plants that are within foraging distance.  I've made a spreadsheet where I have taken account of all the edible plant species that I have access to.  At last count, I was up to 126 species.  Some are perennial crops I grow (figs, apples, strawberries), some are annuals (cilantro, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers), some are weeds that are naturalized here (henbit, dock, dandelions, chanca piedra), and some I don't even grow on my property. 

I have no kudzu, but there are plenty of places I can go and cut it.  I've been feeding it to the chickens and guinea pigs for a while, but today was the first time I actually tasted it.  With the rain we have been having, there were some nice, big, young leaves, and I had to satisfy my curiosity -- why is it the guinea pigs' favorite food?  It tastes like spinach, maybe a little blander.  I suppose you could cook it as you would any leafy green, but it is going to need something to give it some flavor.  The bottom line?  No one in the South should be food insecure, not with all the kudzu we have.  I know that Japanese cuisine makes use of starch obtained from the root of the kudzu, but I have not seen much in the way of recipes for the leaves.  Perhaps I should research this.