Cathy’s Cooking Corner: Selecting Pots and Pans

By Myron Horst

Cathy and the girls do the cooking and the boys and I take care of most of the farm work. One of my priorities is that Cathy’s workshop (the kitchen) is properly outfitted with the tools and equipment that she needs to work efficiently and provide good-tasting food. Before we started farming, I worked for 14 years in the Washington DC area in high-end houses, observing people’s kitchens and the pots and pans that they had in their kitchens. Actually, I was a carpenter and cabinet maker, and worked for months at a time in different houses and would see what kind of pots and pans that they were using. It was very interesting seeing firsthand how wealthy people lived. That lifestyle was not as appealing to me viewing it from the inside as it looked from the outside. One of the things that amazed me was the poor quality cookware that many people had. Some did not know how to cook, and felt a certain amount of inferiority because if it. Cathy’s pots and pans were better quality than what many of those people had, even though they had many times the level of income that I had.

Pots and pans do not make a good cook, but poor quality cookware makes it much more difficult to achieve good results. Poor quality cookware burns the food much more quickly and requires closer attention during the cooking or frying process. If the food doesn’t burn on the bottom of a pan, it is much easier to wash up. Price is not necessarily a good indicator in buying good cookware.

One of the most important things to look for is a thick, heavy bottom. You can see that the skillet on the left and the pot on the right have extra metal attached to the bottom. A thick bottom is important to distribute the heat evenly and prevent “hot” spots that burn easily. The center pan is a Farberware pan and is a good choice also. It has received a lot of use. It has a layer of aluminum to distribute the heat evenly over the bottom. Handles on pots and pans are attached by welding or with rivets. The best attachment is heavy rivets like what is on the skillet on the left.

The stock pot on the right is the best designed with a thick bottom and riveted handles. The glass lid is a nice feature also. I purchased it at the Asian grocery store, H-Mart, in Gaithersburg for a very reasonable price.

The stock pot on the left is a piece of junk as cookware. The bottom is very thin. I bought it at a thrift store for $3 and it had a spot of burnt food tightly stuck to the bottom. I bought it as a stainless steel container for making cheese and uses other than cooking. The stock pot on the right has spot welds that hold the handles in place. So far they have held up well, but it is a weak point that is not as strong as rivets.

This is Cathy’s favorite roaster pan. The lid can be used as a skillet. Both the pan and the lid have thick bottoms. It is also attractive enough that it can be set on the table to serve from.

This is Cathy’s favorite non-stick skillet. It is a cast iron skillet with a wood handle. The wood handle is nice because you do not have to use a pot holder to handle it. It is probably over 50 years old and will last many more years of hard use. We have tried many kinds of non-stick skillets. Some were guaranteed to last 25 years. Before long, they got scratched and the coating started coming off. After hearing about the dangers of the chemicals in non-stick pans, we abandoned them. To make a cast iron skillet non-stick, “season” it by coating it with oil and let the pan get hot until the oil starts to smoke a little before you put food into it. Do this any time the cast iron gets the oil washed off. It has to have the oil to make it non-stick. A cast iron skillet is so easy to wash. Do not wash it with soap, because it will remove the oils in the metal. Just scrub it with a stainless steel scrubbing pad while running hot water over it. Dry it with a paper towel.

We do not have a microwave because of what it does to the food when it cooks it. To cook things quickly, Cathy bought this new style of pressure cooker that is much easier to use than the old style of pressure cooker, and it cooks food in a short period of time. If you buy one, get a cookbook that explains how to use it. One that we recommend is Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna Sass.

When it is hot, Cathy sometimes uses this large electric roaster and sets it on the porch. That way, she does not have to use the oven and heat up the kitchen.

Weeds in the Garden

by Myron Horst

I have observed that it is easy for gardeners to get focused on the wrong things in gardening. Weeds are one of those things. I have observed people going to great lengths and expense to control weeds, as if gardening is all about controlling weeds, rather than producing an abundant crop of nutrient dense food. Controlling weeds becomes a big burden for them and takes the fun away from gardening. Weeds and grasses can be an important fertilizer, they can be a curse, or they can be a lesser part of the gardening experience.

This past winter, someone sent us the link to the “Back to Eden” video. It is the story of a man who implemented a method of gardening very similar to the Ruth Stout method of using mulch to control weeds, except he used a lot of Bible verses to make it sound like it was God’s method of gardening. It was an impressive video with great pictures of beautiful plants. He portrayed his method as an almost no work method of gardening. We decided to try the method on two rows in each of our gardens. It was not “no work” gardening!! It was a lot of work loading the wood chips into wheel barrows and wheeling it into the garden and spreading it. I was glad we did not have to cover both of our gardens with wood chips.

Recently I looked at the “Back to Eden” garden again and realized that it was only about 1/3 the size of our smaller garden and 1/6 the size of our large garden. I was surprised at how few plants he really had in the garden. There was a lot of space between the plants. What is easy to do on a very small scale in a hobby garden for fresh eating can become very labor intensive if you are trying to grow most of your food. If we are going to produce enough health giving food to sustain ourselves and our family, there has to be a better way.

Carey Reams, who discovered how to grow high quality, nutrient dense food, said that one of the best ways to control weeds is to plant rows close together so that the plants shade out the weeds. We have tried that method for the last several years and it has worked very well for us. It has allowed us to spend little time on weeding. We now spend much more time harvesting than weeding. We garden intensively in rows.

The first thing is to get the right nutrients in the soil. We spread about an inch and a half of composted chicken manure on the garden in the fall and plowed it under. Each year we put down some soft rock phosphate and high calcium limestone. The first year, put down about 50 lbs of soft rock phosphate per 1000 square feet and 100 lbs of high calcium limestone per 100 square feet. Each year after that a smaller quantity of each should be put down to replace what was removed and depleted during the year.

In the spring, we rototill the garden and plant the rows of green beans, corn, and other row veggies in rows 24 inches apart. The potatoes we plant 30 inches apart. This spring we made the mistake of planting some of the sweet corn 30 inches apart. That allowed significantly more grasses and weeds to grow. The rest of the story we will tell in pictures.

After the plants emerge, we use this small tiller to cultivate out the small weeds. It has only a 14 inch tilling width and easily goes down the rows planted 24 inches apart. It only takes about an hour and a half to till a 1/4 acre garden. We then hoe out the weeds in the row. In the sweet corn and potatoes we cover the small weeds as we hill the corn or potatoes. It is much faster than hoeing out the weeds. About a week or so later, we run the tiller between the rows again. This is the last time it needs to be tilled. By then the plants are starting to shade out the space between the rows and the weeds don’t have a chance.

This is 10 rows of green beans 50 feet long. There are another two rows of green beans that are to the right of the picture.  Notice how the rows have grown together, shading out the weeds and shading the ground from the sun and reducing the drying out of the soil. When a wider row spacing is used, it allows sunlight to reach the soil and germinate lots of weed seeds. The ground has the desire to always be covered.

Does planting the rows close together reduce the yield? Not if there are enough nutrients in the soil. The first picking of green beans was four buckets. The second picking was last Monday with about 13 buckets of green beans.

The third picking on Friday produced another 15 1/2 buckets of green beans. The beans had very few bug holes and when cooked were tender and delicious; nothing like what you buy in the store. The yield so far is the equivalent of 5.6 tons per acre and there are still more beans growing on the plants. Cathy and the girls canned about 200 quarts of beans and froze another 100 quarts. We all helped pick and snap the beans. It took much longer to pick the beans than what we had spent total in weeding. The outdoor canner was great because the ladies could can 26 quarts at a time and it kept the heat out of the house.

The zucchini was planted in a row and the squash and pumpkins to the left were planted 5 feet apart in each direction. That is a 6′ step ladder with a sprinkler on top which shows how tall the squash plants are. I am realizing that watering the garden before it gets really dry is an important part of controlling weeds because it allows the vegetable plants to continue growing rapidly and stay ahead of the weeds.

This picture illustrates the goal with weeds: make the weeds unhealthy and the vegetable plants healthy. The weed in the center is bug eaten and the beets are strong and healthy. Too often, it is the opposite. The key is learning how to feed the vegetables and not the weeds. Nitrogen will make weeds grow just as fast or faster than the vegetable plants that we want. Too much nitrogen attracts bugs to the plants we want. Soft rock phosphate and high calcium limestone are important elements in the soil. It is also important to foliar feed the plants with a spray each week to keep the brix of the leaf above 12 so that the bugs leave it alone and go after the weeds. The foliar sprays that we use are in this article:

This year we also discovered another foliar spray that dramatically raised the brix of our pasture grasses and some plants in the garden. It is important to test how a foliar spray is working by testing the sap of a plant leaf with a refractometer. The same spray can cause the brix to drop in some plants and raise it in another. The formula is 4 of our raw pasture raised eggs and a tablespoon of feed grade molasses in a gallon of water. It puts a glossy shine on the leaves.

Weeds and grasses are an excellent fertilizer, as the trees in our American chestnut orchard illustrate. These trees were planted as nuts only five years ago. The gate is about 9 1/2 feet high to the cross bar. The trees have grown so dense that it is difficult to walk through the orchard. We repeatedly hear that it is important to keep the weeds down so that they don’t compete with the plants that we want. You often see orchards where they have sprayed RoundUp under the trees to control the grass and weeds. We did the opposite in this orchard. When the trees were smaller, we allowed the grass and weeds to grow 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall before we mowed it. It was not unusual for some of the grass to be above the hood of the lawn tractor. What we were doing was building topsoil with the grass. The roots of the grass go down about the same distance as what the plant is tall. When it is mowed off, the roots of the plant die off until they are about the same size as the plant that is above the ground. Those decaying roots made topsoil to the depth of two feet. By repeatedly allowing the weeds and grass to grow tall and mowing them off year after year, it created a soil that allowed the chestnut trees to grow rapidly. The same principle can be applied in the garden. After a crop is harvested for the year, rather than tilling up the ground and letting the ground be bare, allow the weeds and grass to grow, but mow them off before they produce seeds. Use the weeds to your advantage.

Living Hand to Mouth?

One day Cathy and I walked into our local Giant grocery store, and as I walked in, the thought that struck me was: we could not stock up on food for the winter at that store. It is a HUGE grocery store but every thing is sold in small quantities. The selection of food is incredible. Apples are sold by the piece, but you can’t buy a bushel of apples. You can buy one sweet potato, but not a 50lb. bag.

Bulk food
We like to purchase as much as we can in 50lb bags. We buy the whole wheat grain and grind our own flour. Wheat, when it is made into flour, loses almost all of its vitamins in 72 hours.

Even cereal can be purchased in single serving bowls for $1 each. I realized that the HUGE grocery stores give the impression that there is an abundance of food to eat, but they have forced Americans to live hand to mouth by only being able to purchase small quantities at a time. They have also forced people to buy food the most expensive way possible – in small quantities. People find themselves running to the grocery store multiple times a week.

The grocery stores also function on a hand to mouth mentality. Most fruits and vegetables are not purchased locally and stored to be sold during the winter. Instead, there is a global dependence. Much of the fruits and vegetables that are produced locally are consumed in the summer months. For the rest of the year, we depend on other countries supplying much of our fruits and vegetables. We as a country are living hand to mouth, more dependent than we would like to admit, on other people all around the world supplying our food for us when we want it.

But the good news is that all is not doom and gloom. It is possible to eat local, eat healthy, and significantly cut your food costs. The key is to buy in season, in a large quantity, and store it for the winter. It is usually much cheaper buying a 50lb bag of potatoes or a bushel of apples than buying them by the individual potato or apple in the grocery store. When you buy it locally, you can find out how it was raised. When you buy those fresh fruits and vegetables one at a time in the grocery store in the middle of winter, you have no idea what unregulated pesticide might have been sprayed on it in that distant country on the other side of the world, even if it is called organic.

There is a real satisfaction in having food stored up for the winter. I enjoy opening the freezer and seeing it full of good food for us to eat this winter, or looking at the pantry shelves full of food that we raised ourselves and canned for the winter months. Our family has opted out of the hand to mouth mentality of purchasing our food in small quantities. We do not want to go back!

One of our freezers full of sweet corn, apple cider we made at our neighbor’s house, cucumber juice, peaches, and meat.

One of Cathy’s pantry shelves with peaches, tomato sauce, pickles, apple sauce, apple butter, apple pie filling, and beets.

Yukon Gold potatoes from our garden stored for the winter in our cellar.

If you want true pasture raised chickens to eat this winter, this fall is the time to stock up. Over a year ago, we upgraded to a heavier 2mil plastic bag for packaging the chickens and turkeys. That has improved the amount of time that the poultry can be held in the freezer without freezer burn. Cathy recently got some turkey soup bones out of the freezer from almost a year ago (last Thanksgiving). She did not find any freezer burn. Our biggest chicken customer likes to eat local all winter. They plan to have 100 chickens in the freezer to last until May. While that sounds like a lot of chickens, it is only about 4-5 chickens a week until the May 2011 chicken processing. That "customer" is our family. Yes, we eat a lot more than just chicken. When you set four hard working, growing boys down at the dinner table, it had better be more than just a salad!

Another one of our freezers full of home grown food – Chicken, green beans, and raspberry jam.

The Principle of Preparing For Winter

In these times of economic uncertainty, the principle of preparing for winter helps us understand how to prepare for the uncertainty of the economic future. If you want to be self-sufficient in raising your own food, how many months’ supply of food do you need to store up for the winter? Three months’ supply? Four months’ supply? Six months’ supply? Our ancestors understood the importance of raising food and storing it up for the winter when they couldn’t grow food, and neither could anyone else around them. We have lost touch with what it means to store up food for the winter.

As a boy in the 1970’s I loved to explore my grandma’s basement. There were so many things to look at. It was so full of stuff that there were only paths to get around the basement. In one corner there were shelves that went from floor to ceiling, full of jars of canned fruits and vegetables from her garden. Plus there were boxes stacked on the floor that had more jars of canned food. The lid of each jar had on it the year when it was canned. I quickly discovered that she had at least two years’ supply of food from her garden in that corner. She used the oldest jars first, so she was always eating from what she had grown two or more years before. There were two freezers and they were always stuffed full of food year round. It was just her and my one single uncle that lived in the house, and yet every year she still planted two large gardens, one on either side of the house.

I thought at the time that my grandma was excessive in having so much food stored in her basement. However, in reflecting back on her food storage method, I learned an important lesson about how much food needs to be stored for food self-sufficiency. Just enough food to make it through the winter is not enough. If a person wants to be self-sufficient as much as possible food wise, you need to have more than just one years supply of food. In gardening, you never know how much of a particular vegetable will be produced each year. One year you will get a great crop and the next year little or nothing. If you only have enough to last one year, you will be without that particular vegetable until the next year.

There is another reason for storing several years worth of food. Grandma lived through the Great Depression and raised 12 children. She understood the importance of having food on hand. A two years’ supply of food enables a person to have time to adapt to whatever happens. A person with only a one week supply of food is quickly in an emergency crisis if something happens and they are not able to purchase food. There are a lot of things a person can live without. If a person can’t afford to live in a house, it is possible to live in a tent. However, if a person can’t purchase food, sawdust will not substitute!

My grandfather used to tell the story of a man who wanted to cut the cost of feeding his horse. So he started gradually converting the horse over to eating sawdust. He slowly increased the amount of sawdust that he added to the feed. Everything was going well and he almost had the horse converted over to eating all sawdust, when the horse died! 🙂

The principle of preparing for winter for self-sufficiency is, that a person needs at least one year’s supply of food and preferably two years’ worth. In preparing for economic uncertainty, if we have shelves full of food, and the clothes we need for the next year or two, it gives a satisfaction and comfort that having $10,000 in the bank does not give. You feel like a squirrel that has stored up its nuts for the winter.

Preserving the Harvest

People today do not have time to preserve the harvest nor do they need to. At least that is what most people think. However, if we are going to eat local, or if we have a good source of healthy nutrient dense food this summer, we need a way to store the food so that we have it to eat this winter. Of any season of the year, the winter is when we need good nutrient dense food the most. Winter time is when we tend to get sick the most. Many advocate eating fresh fruits and veggies to keep healthy. But in the middle of winter those fresh fruits and veggies come from the other side of the earth where it is warm. They are probably picked green so that they will ripen during the long trip. It is probably a variety that is bred for its ability to ship well rather than for its nutrition quality. What is it sprayed with to keep it fresh, even if it is organic? Michael Pollen in The Omnivore’s Dilemma mentions that organic salad greens are sealed in plastic bags with inert gases that keep them fresh for 14 days. What are those inert gases? That organic "freerange" chicken in the grocery store in February never saw a blade of grass. It was raised in a big dusty ammonia filled chicken house just like a Purdue or Tyson chicken except it received organic feed.

There is something satisfying about having a supply of food stored away for the winter. One of the easiest ways of storing food is in a freezer. For our family of eight we have four large freezers that we use just for our family. In addition, Cathy likes to can pickles, tomato sauce, ketchup, salsa, apple pie filling, apple sauce, jelly, etc. Several of our boys are going to design and build a root cellar as a school project where we can store the potatoes, squash, pumpkins, carrots etc.

If any of you have a suggestion of how to make preserving the harvest easier, we would enjoy hearing about it, especially about doing a large quantity at a time. Doing larger batches at a time is most efficient. Many canned items will keep for two years, so canning a large quantity one year frees up time the next year to can something different. One idea we have to share with you is using a deep bowl kitchen sink propped up on concrete blocks to do the canning, rather than canning on the stove.  You could also use a large galvanized tub. Put a wire rack in the bottom to keep the jars off the bottom. It keeps the heat out of the kitchen, and is much faster than doing 7 jars at a time in a conventional canner. We were able to can two batches of tomato sauce in about an hour. The sink we used holds 20 quart jars at a time. We used a large weed burning type propane torch under the sink as the heat source.  A 90 degree pipe elbow was put on the torch head to direct the flame upwards and a vise grip pliers clamped on to the torch keeps the torch head from falling over. Attached is a picture of the canning setup. The large galvanized tub in the picture would hold about 19 quart jars. Whatever container you use for canning, it needs to be deep enough for the water to fully cover the jars.

A Big Canner