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Homespun Life in the City

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

Erin SheehanDoes anyone else use the cooking philosophy that any recipe can be changed pretty much in any way? That's my cooking method through and through, especially at this time of year; we're starting to run out of certain vegetables from our freezer and cold cellar. We ran out of onions two weeks ago. We're down to three packages each of broccoli and spinach. We're out of shredded zucchini. We haven't bought veggies like zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, or cucumbers for years, so when the freezer and cellar run bare, we're looking for substitutes.

Cooking at the kitchen counter

Here's a few of my favorite substitutes:

Onions or scallions = chives. I freeze bags of cut-up chives in late spring. We don't grow scallions and I refuse to buy them, so chives are close enough! We grow lots of onions, but by the end of February they are usually sprouting and getting soft so I use chives instead, when possible.

Celery = cucumbers. We don't grow celery but we grow loads of cukes, and in lots of recipes no one will know the difference.

Cucumbers = zucchini. If we have a bad year for cukes, zukes work just as well!

Zucchini = frozen tomatillos. I cut tomatillos into quarters and freeze them without blanching. If a recipe calls for zucchini, I will substitute these in. Zucchini only freezes well when it's shredded, so I never have it available cubed in the winter.

Winter squash = pumpkin. I use these interchangeably. We have "pumpkin bread" made with butternut squash and "squash soup" made with pumpkin. It's all the same in our house. I also throw squash and pumpkin into nearly everything. We grow 200+ pounds of it a year, and 1/4 cup can be hidden into most anything!

Sweet potato = winter squash/pumpkin. This doesn't work in every recipe, but it works in most. We don't grow sweet potatoes, so even though squash has a little different flavor and texture, generally this substitution works well.

Other substitutions are more random — I use beet relish if a recipe calls for beets and something tart like lemon juice or vinegar. Homemade pickles always substitute for any pickle called for. I never use garlic powder; we grow so much garlic it's only the real thing.

I'll bet I'm not the only cook out there who throws in everything but the kitchen sink! When you grow your own veggies, it's hard not to use what you've got rather than buy from the grocery store.

Holiday Season at the Homestead

Erin SheehanWe passed the shortest day of the year just a little while ago. At this, the darkest and coldest time of the year, it may seem hard to find joy and light. But at our homestead we embrace the season as a time of rest, and a time to deepen our relationships with one another.

From spring through fall, we are so busy with the garden and putting up food that we miss out on many of our favorite pastimes. One of those is reading the Sunday paper. Every year when winter hits for good, I put in for my annual, 12-week, home delivery subscription to the Sunday newspaper. This paper is so large that it can take several days to fully digest. I revel in sitting by the fire, reading my New York Times, and knowing that I have no weeds waiting to be pulled or tomatoes that will rot if I don't get them jarred up.

reading

We also spend time making music together at this time of year. Music brings us together and lifts us up. We may not be ready for a Carnegie Hall debut, but to us it sounds wonderful.

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I spend a lot of time in the kitchen during the winter trying new recipes and making things I just don't have time for during the rest of the year. January is a great time to bake homemade crackers, soft pretzels, cinnamon buns, and other complicated and time-consuming recipes. I have a penchant in winter to bake things that are cheaply purchased, but that take hours to make from scratch for some reason!

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Even if reading, making music, or baking aren't your cups of tea, instead of railing against the darkness and cold, try taking a moment every day to appreciate the sheer beauty of winter. The sky as sunset approaches is uniquely stark and can be stunningly beautiful. The silence of the woods is like no other time of the year. If you are lucky enough to live where there's snow, that a blanket of white makes everything look sparkling and fresh again.

Winter gives us an excuse to slow down, to take it easy and spend time talking with each other, enjoying our hobbies, learning about topics that interest us, and planning ahead. There's something in each season for everyone if we just look hard enough.

Easy, DIY, Wine-Cork Ornament

Erin SheehanFor more than ten years now I've been doing a Christmas ornament exchange with friends out on the west coast. We each make an ornament and ship it off in mid-December. Over the years, my tree has more and more decorations from this exchange. It's been terrific!

This year, I did a simple, wine-cork craft ornament. We make our own wine, so we have plenty of unused corks available. I suppose you could use a used cork, but I'm not sure.

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Wine Cork Ornament

If you want to try to make a cute wine-cork ornament for yourself, here are some easy instructions:

Wine-Cork Christmas Ornament

Materials:

• Small piece of fabric (any color is fine)
• Wine Cork
• Small piece of orange fabric
• 2 eyes
• Twig, about 3 inches in length
• Wire (I used wire we saved that had been wrapped around new garden fencing)
• Invisible thread (for hanger)

Instructions:

1. Cut your fabric into the shape of a hat and sew it shut.

2. Glue the hat to the cork.

3. Cut out a small, triangle nose and glue it to the cork.

4. Glue eyes to the cork.

5. Using needle-nose pliers, shape 2 pieces of wire into legs and feet shapes. Stick the wire ends into the bottom of your cork.

6. Wrap your wire legs around the stick and secure with glue.

7. Use invisible thread to create a hanger.

Storing Pumpkins and Winter Squash

Erin SheehanLast summer we only grew about 200 pounds of squash and pumpkins. I say "only," because the year before we hit 290 pounds! For the last five years, we've been in the 150+ pounds range for this crop.

We've tried every storage method you can think of. We tried putting them up as is. We tried washing off the dirt or leaving the dirt. This year, we used a solution that really seems to work. I washed every squash and pumpkin in a dilute solution of bleach and water. About a cup of bleach for 2 gallons of water.

I carefully wiped off the dirt from all of the squashes and pumpkins and submerged them in the bleach solution. I wiped them down with a cloth, and then dried each one before putting them in our storage cellar.

So far, it seems to be working. Usually by mid-December my crop is getting rotten spots and going fast. This year, though, I'm doing great. This is what we have left:

Pumpkins

I did find a rotten butternut today. It had been chewed by a rodent but had healed. The rotten portion was toward the wall, and I just never saw it!

Pumpkins are not great for storage, so to have two that are hard and perfect over two months after the harvest is terrific!

We enjoyed pumpkin waffles (made with butternut squash!) by the fireplace this morning at breakfast. Not a bad way to enjoy the fruits of our labor!

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Five-Minute Pumpkin Pie Recipe

Erin SheehanWhen you grow in the neighborhood of 200 pounds of pumpkin and winter squash every year, you eat a lot of pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie. Plain pumpkin pie can get boring, so I am always looking for a new way to make it. This recipe was an instant favorite!

This pumpkin pie is not baked, so for the purists out there, don't make this for your Thanksgiving feast. But if you want something super-quick that won't take up any space in your oven for the holiday, you are all set!

Ingredients note: This does use a pre-made graham cracker crust, but you could make your own if you prefer.

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Lickety-Split Refrigerator Pumpkin Pie

Ingredients:

• 1 pre-made graham cracker crust
• 2-1/2 cups pumpkin puree (you can substitute one 15 oz. can, but if you do so then up the whipped topping to 8 ounces to fill the crust)
• 8 ounces cream cheese
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
• 4 ounces whipped topping

Instructions:

1. Using your Kitchen Aid with the whisk attachment, (or a large bowl and whisk by hand) mix pumpkin puree, cream cheese, sugar, and spice. Whip until completely incorporated, about 2 minutes.

2. Add whipped topping, and whisk until blended.

3. Pour into pre-made crust. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until firm.

Enjoy!

Pressing Apples for Apple Wine

Erin SheehanLast year we made apple wine with cider we purchased at a local orchard. This year we decided to press the apples ourselves to convert into wine. Unfortunately for us, it was a terrible year for wild apples, so we had to buy them all for this project. We'd hoped to be able to pick apples both in the urban area where we live and also out in the country from abandoned trees, but an early warming followed by a frost meant no wild apples this year — not even crab apples, which would have added a nice tartness to the flavor.

First order of business was to cut up the four bushels of apples that Jim bought at the orchard.

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Then we put them through the grinder to chop them up further.

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Finally, into the press!

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Luckily it was a beautiful day, so we could enjoy the sunshine out on the deck while we worked. And it was work. We spent nearly eight hours making five gallons of cider!

It was so delicious that we couldn't resist having a glass to enjoy our efforts. The rest went into a glass carboy on the kitchen table, where it will ferment for a while.

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Eventually Jim will rack it, and it will go to the basement to sit until February or so, when we bottle.

Fried Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Erin SheehanI have always wanted to try to do something with squash blossoms. What held me back was simply that I didn’t know how to distinguish between male and female flowers. I was afraid to pick flowers that might turn into squash. Come to find out, it’s easy to distinguish between the two.

To identify the male flowers, just look for a stem between the plant and the flower. Female flowers grow right next to the plant, but male flowers come off a long, slender stem. That’s all there is to it.

Blossoms

You can use any squash blossom for frying: pumpkin, winter squash, zucchini, yellow summer squash, anything. My favorite is tromboncino squash flowers. Tromboncinos are similar to zucchini but grow very large. I like the flowers because they are also very large and easy to handle. They are a little tougher than smaller flowers, however, so you may want to take that into consideration when you are harvesting your flowers. Yellow summer squash have small, tender blossoms, but they can be hard to work with due to their size and fragility. No matter what you use, they get stuffed with cheese, dredged and deep fried, so you really can’t go wrong!

The recipe below is one I pulled together after reading through several recipes online. Some people fry without stuffing, but where’s the fun in that? I thought if I go through the trouble to fry them, I want them to be hearty and filling. I hope you will give fried squash blossoms a try!

Fried Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Ingredients:

• 10-16 (depending on size) squash blossoms
• Spaghetti or pizza sauce for serving

For the filling:

• 1 egg
• 1 cup ricotta cheese
• 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
• A few sprigs each of fresh basil, parsley, thyme and oregano, minced
• 1 clove fresh garlic, minced
• 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
• 1/2 teaspoon salt

For the frying batter:

• 1 cup flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 3/4 cup water
• 1 egg

Instructions:

1. First, ready your frying batter by stirring all ingredients together. Set aside to rest while you prepare your other ingredients. The batter should have the consistency of pancake batter; if it is too thick or thin, adjust your water or flour accordingly.

Batter

2. Clean squash blossoms carefully. Cut off the stem and slit the side of the flower open. Remove the pistil or stamen (the inside of the flower, which has a bitter taste). Wash under running cool water to remove any critters that may have tried to make a home in there. You may find squash bugs or other small insects, but they wash off easily.

3. Mix together all filling ingredients and stir well.

Filling

4. Carefully stuff your blossoms with the filling. Place them on a plate or tray as you work. Don’t worry if they look overstuffed, or even if some of the filling is bulging out — it doesn’t really matter.

Stuffed

5. Heat up oil to a depth of one inch in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. If you have a thermometer, heat your oil to 350 degrees F.

6. Dredge each stuffed blossom through your batter. Let the excess drip off. Gently put each blossom into the hot oil and cook for about two minutes on each side. Only add four or five at a time to your pan, or the oil will cool down too much. A spatula works best to turn them.

7. After they are sufficiently cooked — they should be a pale golden brown — remove from the pan and place on a few paper towels to cool.

Finished

8. Serve with your favorite tomato sauce. Enjoy!