Friday, April 20, 2012

The New Homesteading: Turning Vague-an

Rebekah says goodbye to one
of the chickens, a Barred Rock.
When I arrived at the homestead in January, I was surprised by how much milk my sister and brother-in-law were going through: a gallon a week of the delicious raw stuff, half of it from cows and half from goats. Rebekah was making a couple quarts of yogurt a week, and the rest was going onto Peter's oatmeal, in their coffee, and into various breads and other baked goods. (Among other things, my sister happens to make the best English muffins I've ever had.)

Rebekah hasn't typically been a huge milk lover. In fact, many years after her long run of vegetarianism ended decades ago, I remember her being fairly horrified by the fact that I would sometimes drink an entire glass, with or without a cookie. But in the dozen years of living with Peter here in southern Maine, she has adapted to a diet that includes plenty of animal products -- and animals themselves, of course. They've raised chickens and turkeys for meat, and have traded for, bought and otherwise been the recipients of various cuts of pork, lamb and venison, too.

Meanwhile, I've been wondering how I'd manage to reconcile my own diet, which has become vegetable-focused at home (partly to make up for the heavy meat eating I sometimes do at restaurants), with the more than 200 pounds of meat (more than 160 pounds of it chicken) that was packed into the freezers when I arrived. And then there's the fact that I'm testing recipes for my next cookbook, which I plan to make a celebration of vegetables: not vegetarian per se, and with dairy, eggs and even fish and meat accents here and there. But certainly not enough chicken to make a dent in that freezer stash. It's a good thing it's another cooking-for-one book, I thought, because I might need to eat drastically differently from the other two members of the household, especially once we slaughtered the two pigs we had ordered up and were expecting to get this spring.

Then things started to shift.

The runner ducks, aka The Unit.
Just as in DC, where over the last year or two I found myself cooking less and less meat at home, we discovered we weren't turning too often to those frozen packages of chicken sausage, whole broilers, thighs, breasts and wings, not to mention the pork, lamb and venison from friends. It's going to be awhile before we have access to all the bounty the gardens and fields here will yield, but after a winter crop failure in the coldhouse the spinach, arugula, claytonia, sorrel, baby kale and collards have been supplying us with the makings of beautiful salads. And there have been plenty of potatoes and beans to keep us satisfied, not to mention the veggies we'd buy at winter farmers markets in the area, and the frozen packages of green beans and other vegetables in the freezer.

More importantly, as Peter and Rebekah have been more interested in providing for themselves as much as possible without bringing in much from the outside, budgeting money for organic feed for the ducks, the chickens and then two piglets that we put on order was starting to make less and less sense.

But the real shift came when Peter opened a box from Amazon one day a couple months ago, and pulled out "The China Study." Do you know it? It has its detractors, for sure, but also plenty of people who have read it and decided to stop eating animal products. Rebekah was visiting family in Texas when Peter made his way through it, and coincidentally, I was testing hamburger recipes for a freelance project, meaning we were eating beef, beef and more beef. It put a strain on the both of us, frankly. And it might have helped push Peter over the edge. By about page 70 or 80 he was declaring those burgers the last meat he would eat, another few chapters had him giving up milk and eggs, and pretty soon he was talking about selling off the meat in the freezer.

Initially, he mispronounced the word, leading us both to immediately see the humor in the idea of going "vague-an," or vaguely vegan. I'm glad they're not being too extreme about the whole thing, and excited to be here when they're making this transition, because it involves so much more than what they're eating. Given that it's planting season, they're reconsidering the garden strategies, with a whole year's worth of meal planning in mind. They were already trying to be more systematic; I helped them draw up a much more ambitious spreadsheet than they have used in past years, detailing planting dates inside and out, varieties and locations. But now more vegetables need to be planted, to take the place of the meat, particularly since next winter they will be leaning so heavily on frozen, canned and dried vegetables. The new growing plan includes many more beans, peas, greens and grains, among other crops.

But there are also fewer animals to take care of, so there's more time and resources for such changes. The first animals to go were eight runner ducks, whom Rebekah had nicknamed The Unit because of their tendency to move everywhere as one. The ducks were brought in last year primarily to eat bugs in the garden, but after a hawk got two of the initial 10 earlier this year, Peter enclosed the remaining eight, protecting them -- but also rendering them useless (except for the fact that they started laying luscious eggs as spring arrived).

Next to go: the chickens. Not all of them, thankfully, but nine of the 12 were sold to a family who drove a couple hours to get them. Three, Peter figured, could probably live on the kitchen scraps, alleviating the need to buy organic feed, and we could still handle the three eggs a day they'd lay at their peak (i.e. now). That's a far cry from the dozen a day we had been getting -- we traded most of those with a friend in return for his delivery after a milk run -- but it's still almost two dozen a week, a lot for a household with only one non-vegan. As much as I love eggs (I'm writing about them in the Washington Post Food section next week), even I can't keep up with that pace, so I've been using the opportunity of dinner parties here and there to make Kimchi Deviled Eggs and other such dishes to get through them.

The pig house Pete designed and built. What will become of it?
Rebekah and Peter have started eating some eggs again here and there (they don't want to be purists), but they both have drawn the line at cheese and milk. Rebekah has dusted off her copy of "A Good Cook ... Ten Talents," a Seventh-Day Adventist cookbook originally published in the 1960s (and reissued in 2008 as "Ten Talents Cookbook"), and has been revisiting some of her favorite recipes from back in the day, including non-dairy milks. She's been on something of a tear, really, experimenting with various recipes for almond milk, almond-coconut milk (my favorite), oat milk, and more. In the fridge on any given day are some pretty great soy milk from Elizabeth Andoh's "Kansha" (using the homestead's own soybeans, dried from last year's harvest), quinoa patties from Heidi Swanson's "Super Natural Every Day" and cashew cream from Tal Ronnen's "The Conscious Cook." 

Meanwhile, I've taken up the yogurt-making, seeking out raw milk from Brookford Farm and inoculating it with a culture I started from Cultures for Health, recommended by the great and powerful fermentation guru Sandor Ellix Katz

If things had gone differently, we would be expecting the arrival of a couple of piglets any day now, but instead we canceled our order, sold virtually all the pork and lamb in the freezer (but not the chicken quite yet) and put our energies to other use. It wasn't too late to get our money back for those pigs, but it was too late for a project Peter had already spent a few days on: building a cute little pig house. I helped him with it here and there, including the chore of moving it (with the help of a tractor and some ingenious leverage) to the lower garden, where it now sits, awaiting a decision on its reuse.

More than one person has suggested we turn it into a sauna. I like the idea, but as the days get longer, the weather starts to heat up, and the soil-preparation and planting projects come fast and furious, that's going to have to wait. Preferably until winter.

Almond Coconut Milk, homemade.
Almond-Coconut Milk

Of all the non-dairy milks my sister, Rebekah, has been making, this has been my favorite for its touch of coconut and hint of sweetness. It's excellent on granola. The nut pulp that you're left with can be added to rice or veggie patties, or mixed with honey, nuts, dried fruit and coconut and rolled in chocolate for quick dessert truffles. Note that this is best made with a high-powered blender such as a Vita-Mix; if you use a conventional blender, it won't be as silky smooth. Adapted from "A Good Cook ... Ten Talents" (College Press, 1968).

Makes about 5 cups

1/2 cup whole blanched almonds
1/2 cup unsweetened finely shredded coconut
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon safflower or other neutral oil
1 quart cold filtered water

Combine the almonds, coconut, sesame seeds, honey, salt and oil in a blender (preferably a high-powered model such as Vita-Mix), add half the water, and pulse a few times until blended. Turn the machine on high and gradually pour in the rest of the water and blend for a full 3 minutes, turning the machine down if the mixture starts to froth up so much it comes out of the top.

Strain through a very fine-mesh strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Gather the cloth up around the milk, twist, and gently squeeze the liquid out of it until you are left with dry, somewhat chalky pulp inside. Transfer the milk to a glass jar, seal, and refrigerate for up to 5 days.


  1. I love reading about and tracking your life on the homestead, and this post might be my favorite yet. Though I am sorry there won't be any baby-runner-duck photos.

    (Also, I think I'm going to have to co-opt "vague-an" as a self-descriptor, if your BIL doesn't mind...)

  2. Thanks, Erin! And sure thing, spread the vague-an gospel!

  3. Interesting, I hadn't heard about this China study book. Anything that makes us think, about our food and consumption, is welcome. Helps us make informed choices