Time to Start Some Seeds!

I know it’s hard to believe… we haven’t had much of a “real” winter here yet, but the calendar doesn’t lie.  It’s February and it’s time to start some seeds.  In fact, I should have gotten the onions and leeks started earlier, but I was on vacation in Mexico.  Gardeners need their sun, you know.

IMG_3228This weekend I managed to slip out to the greenhouse. Last year I had some problems with damping off, where your seedlings die just as they germinate.  It’s caused by a number of different pathogens which can hide in your used pots and seed-starting trays.  So, I decide to sterilize my cell-packs this year.  I grab two 5-gallon buckets of water… one with a bleach solution and one for rinsing.  I put the cell-packs in the bleach solution, making sure they are in complete contact with the water, and let them soak for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, I find my potting soil.  I use Pro-Mix which I get in big bales at Alaska Mill and Feed.  It is more economical than buying small bags and already has mycorrhizae in it, which is a fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant and helps them grow bigger and stronger.

IMG_3232When potting soil comes out of the bag it is dry, dry, dry.  It is so dry that it will repel water.  I moisten it before I fill my cell packs or pots, otherwise, I will never get it evenly moist and my seedlings will suffer.  I dump my potting soil into a big plastic tote, pour some water in, and mix it up.  I keep pouring and mixing until there are no dry spots left and it is about as wet as a wrung-out sponge.  I gather a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball.  No water runs out, and when I open my hand, it stays in a nice ball.  Perfect.  TIme to fill the seed trays.

IMG_3226I use plastic cell packs like the ones you buy at the nursery to start my seeds.  I can fill a whole tray with soil and plant it in no time.  They are convenient and easy to move around.  And when I plant, the seedlings pop right out.  I do not mess with individual pots, paper pots, egg shells, and especially not the peat pots that are so popular lately.  They will not break down fast enough in our cool soils and the plants will suffer.

I rinse the bleach off of the cell packs, put them in the trays, then fill them with potting soil.  I mound the potting soil on, then brush the excess off the top.  Each cell is evenly filled to the top… not packed too tight.  Then, because Matt is inside with the kids and my hands are cold, I bring the trays inside to plant.  Onions, leeks, celery, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.

It feels deeply satisfying to have the trays stacked up in the corner, waiting to germinate.  Each flat holds a potential for 72 (or more) food-bearing plants that will fill our bellies this summer and fall. It is a promise that winter will soon give way to spring.  That we will soon feel the heat of the sun on our back as we sink our hands into the earth and breathe deeply.


Winter Food Stores, 2014



One of our goals with our garden is to provide as much of our food year-round as possible.  During the Alaska Food Challenge in 2011-2, we had no idea how much food to put away.  I put away way too much kale and shredded zucchini.  We now have a better idea of how much food to put away, although each year the exact composition depends on what did well in the garden that year.  Last year we had a ridiculous overabundance of winter squash (I still have some under the bed), and this year we only got 8.  This year we did really well with tomatoes and tomatillos while the potatoes and peas, two reliable producers, struggled.

This year we froze about 48 pounds of vegetables and 13 gallons of berries.  Most vegetables are frozen in 1/2 pound packages which I have found to be a good portion for us and the recipes we use.  The major player here are: romanesco (6#), broccoli (8#), beans (3.5#), kale (5.5#), zucchini (6#), celery (8#), leeks (6#).  Berries are frozen whole on sheet pans and then put in gallon ziplocks.



In our root cellar we have approximately 7 gallons of carrots, 8 gallons of potatoes, 3 gallons of beets, 3 gallons Jerusalem artichokes, 4 gallons parsnips, and 4 gallons of apples. We have 4 cases of sauerkraut, 3 cases of fermented tomatillo salsa, as well as a few jars of pickles. We canned 3 cases of tomatoes and 2 cases of applesauce.

In the house we have 8 winter squash, two gallon ziplocks with dried herbs, and herbs frozen into ice cubes.  We also have 2 gallons of honey from our bees and a (somewhat) steady supply of eggs. All this is from our 9,000 square foot city lot.

Additionally, we put away about 100 pounds of pork products, almost 100 pounds of salmon and salmon products (sausage and smoked), and 70 pounds of caribou.  We canned two cases of crabapple sauce from our neighbor’s tree.  We dried a quart of bolete mushrooms.  And we picked 2 gallons of blueberries.

Every year we get better at getting ready for winter.  I’ve learned to put things away throughout the summer instead of all at the end.  I’m faster at blanching and I have my systems for packaging salmon and caribou down.  It isn’t this big, exhausting unknown thing anymore.  It has become a part of our routine, what we do in our daily lives.  And I have to say, it is a really rewarding way to live!




Dinosaur Kale

Dinosaur Kale

Everyone kept asking, ” What are you going to do with all that kale?”  I didn’t mean to plant so much… some of it was left from my spring greens mix and everything else had bolted except the kale.  And some of that kale wasn’t really kale, it was sprouting broccoli or broccoli rabe that never sprouted.  So I’m left with eating the leaves which is kind of like kale.  And then there was the extra 2 kale plants I stuck in the corner because I had extras.  Oh, and the black or dinosaur kale I planted under the apple tree.  It is excellent in salads but the leaves are so skinny that there is not much leaf on there and they are more work for freezing.

I have already brought 2 large loads of kale over to the MIssion soup kitchen, but the main patch was still left.  I had a couple friends help me harvest it on Monday and we had a huge bucket full in less than 5 minutes.  I sent them home with some, but the bucket was still overflowing.

IMG_1818Tuesday I got all set up to freeze it.  I have my system down.  I get the water steaming on the stove while I strip the leaves off the stem and throw them in the wash water in the left sink.  As the first batch is steaming I fill the right sink with ice water and get out a large towel for drying.  Three minutes for each batch in the steamer, them I throw it in the ice water, fish it out, and squeeze it dry.  It gets packed into ziplocks in 1/2 pound packages and labeled and into the freezer.

After about 10 batches I had barely put a dent in the bucket.   I started having flashbacks from our Alaska Food Challenge year.  I froze WAY too much kale and we got a little sick of it.  Matt has been a little anti frozen kale since then.  There was no way we were going to use all of this kale this winter.  Besides, I already had beet greens and chard put away.  I texted my friend, “Help!  Too much kale!  Save me!”

Kale and Celery Salad with apples and green onion

  • 1 large bunch dinosaur kale, stemmed and cut into thin strips
  • 4 stalks celery, with tender leaves, chopped
  • 1 tart apple, sliced thin
  • 3 green onions, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine kale with vinegar and salt and mix very well.  Let sit 20 minutes.  Add olive oil and toss again, then add the rest of the ingredients.



IMG_1642As I stared at the caribou leg in front of me and tried to figure out how to get the meat off the bone, I suddenly remembered how I would hide in my room when my dad and brothers came home with their catch.  It seemed kind of gross and I just wasn’t interested.

Now I am fascinated by how the muscles wrap around the bone, layer upon layer.  It is a puzzle to unwrap it and remove the tough tendons and gauzy connective tissue.  It is a lot of work for a few hamburgers-worth of meat.  I can see why some hunters might leave this behind, but our ethics will not let us waste anything useable.

My dad grew up in Palmer and hunting was a huge part of his life.  He has many epic tales that occasionally come out when you can get him to talk.  My grandparents were not farmers so they relied on wild game as a big part of their diet.  For us it was the same.  There were four of us kids and my mother didn’t work, so money was tight. There was the occasional holiday ham, but other than that it was mostly caribou or moose.  Sometimes there was hares or dall sheep, and one time we got some black bear from a family friend.  We were thankful for what we had because some years we didn’t get anything.

Occasionally my mom would drag me downstairs to help grind the burger.  After getting over the gross-factor, I enjoyed working together with my family to get the job done.  Everyone was in a good mood and there was a comradery in the kitchen that didn’t exist at other times. Our normal sibling bickering temporarily ceased and for a while there was just good-natured teasing.

When I went away to college my mom warned me not to become a vegetarian.  She was concerned the liberal school I had chosen would corrupt me.  My first semester I took an ethics class where we discussed animal rights and I learned about the cruelty of slaughter houses.  I stopped eating factory farmed meat but would still eat wild game when I went home.  This seemed to be semi-acceptable to my mom as she didn’t have to make too many concessions with her cooking.  But while I was away from Alaska I didn’t have access to wild game and ate vegetarian.

Four years ago, Matt went on his first Alaskan hunt and brought home a spring black bear.  We awkwardly butchered it and put it in the freezer. Although black bear is not known for being good-tasting, we thought it was wonderful and were hooked on having our own meat.

When Matt got a caribou the following fall we had my parents help us butcher so we could learn from them.  Over 60 years of butchering knowledge passed on to us.  We learned the names of all the cuts and which ones made the best stew.  We learned how to package it safely and effectively.

IMG_1658Today Matt and I are working efficiently together.  My mom is watching the kids and it is eerily quiet in the house.  We have developed our own, slightly different practices that suit our cooking styles.  Matt breaks down the large muscles while I work on the smaller stuff and package everything for the freezer.  We will grind the meat when we use it.  Later we will make stock from all of the bones for use in soups, stews and sauces.

Having a freezer full of meat now seems like such an important part of our lives that I have a hard time believing I ate vegetarian for so many years.  My eating habits have come full circle now, returning to a simple place-based diet similar to what I grew up with.


Cherries and Berries


Evans cherry, only in its second year!

The garden is really starting to mature at the Williams Street Farmhouse and we are harvesting more fruits and berries this year than ever before.  Cherries gleaming like jewels, bowls of strawberries, neon orange sea berries, red and black currants drooping off their bushes, big juicy gooseberries, endless raspberries, enormous sweet juneberries and apples as big as my fist.  I am in awe of the abundance flowing from my garden.  


Graysen taste-testing the strawberries

We’ve been stuffing our faces all summer with these vitamin-rich foods.  Graysen learned quickly to only pick the red strawberries, and was lecturing his father for picking some that had some white on them.  Every time we go on a walk we start and end by grabbing a few handfuls of raspberries, which Rylan loves as much as his brother. Rylan is also a big fan of gooseberries and will climb the stairs to find a bowl of them.

IMG_1498Picking like mad and sharing with friends, as I clean and pack away in the freezer I am thinking about what I am going to do with all this abundance.  We can only eat so much jam, so we have to be creative in finding other ways of enjoying them.  

I love to make smoothies for me and the boys, especially because I can slip in frozen greens along with the berries and yogurt, making them nutrition powerhouses without any added sugar.  Matt prefers juice, so I make currant, sea berry, cherry, and rhubarb juice concentrate which he dilutes to taste.  To make into a soda, we dilute it with soda water.  I also made a simple syrup to easily sweeten it if needed, although he likes the juice tart.  Matt made a dry raspberry wine this spring with some older raspberries from the freezer, which came out excellent.  

IMG_1334We’ve also experimented with chutneys… gooseberry and black currant being our favorites to pair with meats, soft cheeses, and curries.  Most of the berries I don’t have time to do anything with right now, so I freeze them on cookie sheets and then transfer to gallon zip-locks for storage. This way, I can take out as many berries as I need at one time.  I’ve found the frozen berries are great in pies, tarts, purees for cheesecakes, pancakes, and coffeecakes.  Graysen even likes to eat them frozen straight up!  I can also make them into chutneys, jams, or sauces later.

As I’m writing this, I’m seeing that there is a lot to say about these berries and I need to include some recipes, so I’m going to do a blog post for each fruit/berry that includes more information about it, more pictures, and recipes! What is your favorite way to use your berries?


Planting Time!

Conventional wisdom in South-central Alaska says not to plant anything in the ground unImagetil Memorial Day weekend.  My gardening is anything but conventional, so you might guess I plant a lot earlier than that.  Especially during a spring like this one… how can anyone wait?  We’ve been planting in the garden for a month and a half, and we are already eating fresh greens from the garden.  Nothing compares to the taste of spring greens straight from the garden and I have been eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  My body craves them like a tonic to cleanse my body from the fatty foods of winter.  

The last average frost date for most of Anchorage is May 15th, but many young seedlings can handle a light frost.  If you put floating row cover over your seedlings, you get an extra 3-7 degrees of protection, plus your plants will grow much faster.  Floating row cover is a spun polyester fabric that lays right on top of your plants like a blanket.  Air, light, and water pass right through it, but it creates an air pocket of warm air right next to the ground where your seedlings need it.  I consider it essential in my garden and I also use it for hardening off seedlings and keeping out the cabbage root maggots.  It lasts for many seasons and is well worth the investment.  

I start planting greens in my warmest beds just as soon as they are free from snow and the soil warms up a bit.  The beds directly in front of the south side of the house and greenhouse are ready at least two weeks before anything else.  This year that was the first of April. Last year I already had baby greens growing in the ground when we had that late snowfall.  I stapled some plastic to the greenhouse to shed the snow and they were fine.  Next I like to get my carrots, parsnips, onions and potatoes planted.  The sooner I plant, the sooner I can harvest and eat. I cover the carrots and parsnips with row cover because it helps keep the soil moist while I’m waiting for them to germinate.   I try to plant out my broccoli and other cabbage family starts in the first part of May.  

ImageIn fact, the only thing I wait until the end of May for is the tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash, which truly are frost sensitive and will do poorly if subjected to cool temperatures.  With this amazing weather we’ve been having, I’m going to put all those out to harden off so they will be ready to be planted next week.  It is essential for me and my large garden to spread the planting out over two months because I couldn’t possibly get it all done at once.  

If you’ve been waiting to plant your garden, wait no longer!  Get out there in this beautiful weather and start planting.  Just remember to harden off your seedings by putting them in the shade for one week before planting.  Throw some row cover over them for extra protection.  Happy planting!!

Bone Broth

Bone broth is an incredibly nourishing food that has been lost in the modern American diet.  When Matt began hunting 3 years ago, we made bone broth in an attempt to use as much of the animal as possible.  We were sold from the very first pot of divine broth that no bouillon cube could ever match.  It has since become an indispensable part of our cooking, going into stews, soups, stir-fries, and sauces.  We pressure can it in pint jars and freeze it in ice-cube trays for throwing into dishes for a burst of flavor.  We use all of the bones from Matt’s caribou plus some from my parent’s caribou, and sometimes we even get more bones from the butcher to make additional stock.

Not only is bone broth delicious, but it’s extremely good for you as well. It gives you strong bones, teeth, tendons, and connective tissue, it protects the integrity of your digestive track, and it helps digest meats and other food.  Bone broth is rich is the amino acid glycine, which balances methionine, another amino acid found in meat and eggs.  Methionine can disrupt cellular communication leading to a number of issues such as mental disorders or cancer.  (Source: The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care by Sally Fallon Morell) This is why it is always good to use bone broth in a sauce when you are cooking meat.  Bone broth is especially good to use when you are pregnant or trying to heal tooth decay.

Caribou (or moose, beef, or bison) Stock

  • 6 pounds caribou bones cut into 2-4 inch pieces. Include some that have marrow such as leg bones and some that are meaty such as ribs or neck vertebrae. 
  • Image2 medium onions, quartered
  • 1 pound carrots roughly chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, roughly chopped, including some leaves
  • 1 tablespoon peppercorns
  • 6 unpeeled garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 small tomatoes, chopped, or ½ cup canned tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 4 parsley stalks
  • 8 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs tarragon, optional
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Preheat oven to 450º.  Put the bones and the vegetables into a roasting pan (or two) and roast 30-40 minutes until they are medium brown.  Use tongs to put vegetables and bones into a large stainless steel stockpot (do NOT use an aluminum pan!).  Pour off accumulated fat and deglaze pan with 1 cup of water on stovetop.  Scrape up tidbits on the pan and then pour it into stockpot. 

ImageAdd the rest of the ingredients and enough water to cover bones by a few inches and bring to a boil.  Simmer slowly for 6-12 hours, skimming off any scum that floats to the top.  Add more water as necessary to keep bones submerged. Strain the stock, pressing all the liquid out of the ingredients.  Let cool and skim off the fat that congeals on the surface or use a degreasing pitcher.  You may also return the stock to the stovetop and boil gently to reduce it further.  

 To can your bone broth, reheat it to boiling and pour into glass jars.  Put on lids and process in a pressure canner at 10 pounds of pressure for 20 minutes for pints, or 25 minutes for quarts.