Now We’re Cooking With the Sun

solar_ovenA friend gave me her solar cooker last year because she lives in a shady neighborhood and it just wasn’t working for her.  I was very excited to receive it but had trouble getting motivated to use it until I picked up a book at the library this spring.   “Cooking with Sunshine” by Lorraine Anderson and Rick Palkovic has a great selection of recipes and tips but also talks about different options for when you have more or less time available.  They have some recipes that cook entirely in the cooker and others where you either do some cooking ahead of time (such as sauteing onions) or some cooking afterward (such as converting cooked rice into a rice salad).  They also talk about what foods you can leave in the solar cooker all day without worrying about burning or drying out.  I don’t want to admit how many times I have scorched rice or beans by leaving it on the stove for too long so I was very relieved to learn that wouldn’t be an issue with the solar cooker.

It also took awhile for me to grasp the idea that even if I only use the solar cooker for part of a meal (say cooking a pot of beans which I then incorporate into burritos or chili) I am still reducing my carbon footprint and taking advantage of free, clean energy.  Somehow I got caught up in the idea that if I were going to go solar I had to go all the way and the world would come crashing down if clouds rolled in and I had to put my beans in the oven to finish cooking them.  Silly but true.

solar_oven_condensationAnyway, now I’m starting to get into the solar cooking routine although I’m still learning the ins and outs; we had some rather crunchy baked beans last week that hadn’t cooked quite long enough – although the flavor was excellent!  I’m also on the hunt for the perfect solar cooker dish.  Ideally, it would be an oven-safe dark colored pyrex or ceramic dish with a tight-fitting lid.  Right now I’m using a white casserole dish with a clear lid and covering it with a blue cloth to try and soak up some extra heat.  It works pretty well but the lid isn’t quite tight enough to keep in steam and so the top panel often gets covered in condensation, which reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the food.  It’s a common challenge for solar cooking and one solution is to vent the lid slightly but that also reduces cooking efficiency.  I have seen a lot of variations of solar cookers and it would be pretty easy to build your own.  This one is a little bulky but it’s well constructed with a moveable set of reflectors, a plexiglass lid on a rubber lip, and a shelf inside to keep the pot off the bottom of the oven.

solar_oven_checking_beans

I set the solar cooker up on our front porch (which is south-facing) and let it cook from about 10:00 to 4:00.  If I’m home, I’ll turn it a couple of times during the day so that the reflectors capture as much sun as possible but if I’m going to be gone, I just leave it pointing as close to due south as practical.  On a sunny day, the oven quickly heats up to 250 degrees.  On a cloudy day, it tends to hover at more like 150.  So far I’ve been sticking with grains and beans but I’d like to try some bread recipes and maybe a quiche.  I was surprised to see that egg dishes are considered fairly easy for the solar cooker but the reasoning is that they cook pretty quickly so you don’t have to have a perfectly sunny day.  I am also contemplating using the solar cooker to sterilize some potting soil for my next round of seedlings.

Have any solar recipes or tips to share?

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Using Energy for Good

Seed Starting ShelvesSo we signed up for the SIREN Energy Challenge and have been trying to figure out where we use electricity and how we can cut back, which means Will is running around using his Killowatt on everything.  At the same time, I am planning my garden for spring and also thinking about how we will take advantage of the summer bounty.  My dad helped me set up a seed starting system with three shelves of fluorescent lights and I’m trying to talk Will into getting a chest freezer so we can store the summer’s vegetables but all he can think about is the increased electrical consumption.

It’s a tough balance!  We have managed to cut down on our natural gas consumption this winter despite unusually low temperatures.  I hope it’s from our vigilant caulking or perhaps our installation of a homemade insulating curtain over the window by our bed.  Still, our electrical use seems relatively high even after replacing our water heater (which we thought was wasting a lot of electricity).  The two main suspects right now are our refrigerator and our laptops.  Laptops are more energy efficient than desktops but we both do use our computers quite a bit since we mostly work from home and we also use Will’s laptop for much of our TV and movie viewing.

I think we’re getting close to the point where we can’t cut much more energy use without major changes to our standard of living.  I also think that it’s reasonable to use electricity for food production and storage, since homegrown food has other benefits in the form of increased nutrition, lower grocery bills, higher assurance of organic quality, and reduced transportation of food.  Still, it’s always tough to evaluate all the pros and cons and I know for now much of my lobbying is based on the fact that I’m super excited about gardening.

Did you know it’s not too early to start planting seeds indoors, even though it’s freaking cold outside here in Indiana?  I am ready to plant onions, kale, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage so I have nice fat seedlings ready to transplant when the ground thaws in March.  (All those except Brussel sprouts are available through Nature’s Crossroads and I’m enjoying the employee discount on seeds very much.)  I suspect this will be another year when I bite off more gardening tasks than I can keep up with but I’m really hoping this will be the year that I feel like I mostly get it.  Of course, there’s always more to learn so I won’t be too upset if I face a few more garden disasters…

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I just found out I’m a green goddess

I was interviewed for a podcast on WFIU a few weeks ago and just stumbled across it on the web.  I was tickled to hear myself described as a “green goddess of local food.”  It was a great plug for the Local Growers Guild  but a bit disappointing that they managed to get a few things wrong.  I have very little luck with journalists – they can’t seem to get things quite right!!  (In this case, it was a pretty flattering mistake; they gave our four-year-old organization credit for creating the thirty-year-old farmers’ market in Bloomington.  Pretty impressive, eh?)

Anyway, thought you might enjoy a little snippet from the local food scene in Bloomington.  There are also a few pictures and for the truly brave, the full 10-minute interview rather than the polished shortened version.

WFIU Earth Eats – Maggie Sullivan of the Local Growers Guild

Actually, last week I was pictured and interviewed in the local newspaper so maybe I should include a link to that one as well except that our local paper is very protective and doesn’t want people to see its precious content…  I think you can look at the webchat I did, if you’re interested.  I supplied all the content so I can’t complain about any errors.  :)

Herald Time Live Chat – Maggie Sullivan of the Local Growers Guild

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Nature Nerd Presents Wild Edibles

Redbud tree in bloomThey say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach but I’ve found it to be equally true with children, especially if the food you are offering is exotic or intriguing in some way.  Kids are strangely drawn to disgusting and/or weird foods if they’re presented in the right way.  They may turn up their noses at mom’s brussel sprout special but if Nature Lady takes them outside and plucks something off the ground, they’re totally happy to eat it.

Part of the trick is peer pressure – there’s always one kid who will eat it and if he/she has any sort of strong reaction, everyone else has to try it too.  It’s kinda like that old stand up routine about the guy in every office who comes around saying “Man, this coffee is terrible!  Try it!”  The other trick is to  give kids just a small taste so it’s not like they’re eating a whole plate of it.  This time of year is great for sampling redbud tree blossoms.  Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are beautiful trees, one of the early spring bloomers, and they also have heart-shaped leaves that are pretty easy to identify.  The flowers are edible and were allegedly eaten by pioneers who were eager for some fresh vegetables.  The taste is, well, plant-like.  I think it tastes like grass or maybe a strong variety of lettuce.  A couple of kids told me it had a minty flavor.  Several descriptions I’ve read claim it has a nutty flavor.  I guess I should disclaim that I have a pretty uneducated palate; I’ve never been good at describing the tastes of wines or cheeses much beyond “I like it!” or “I don’t like it!”

Spring is my second favorite season (after fall) and I love introducing kids to frog calls and spring wildflowers but I find myself returning time and again to edible plants.  I did a presentation today with some kids at Unionville.  They were very excited to sample the redbud flowers and wild onions growing in the schoolyard and immediately began bringing me plants asking if they were edible.  I told them that I think of plants as being in three categories – edible, neutral (like grass; you can swallow it with no ill effects but you can’t actually digest it), and poisonous.  I can identify between 30 and 50 wild edibles and tend to leave everything else alone.  One of the boys was very disappointed and gestured around the schoolyard saying “You can only find two edible plants here?”  I pointed out a number of other plants that either weren’t ready or weren’t very kid-friendly –  red clover (flowers), wild black berry (fruit), autumn olive (fruit), dandelion (bitter greens), pine tree (tea from needles), sassafras tree (tea from roots), violets (flowers) – and he changed his tune.

“You sure know a lot of things,” he told me, shaking his head in awe.  It’s nice to be admired.

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Organic on the cheap

Hands holding a piggy bankAs our economic troubles deepen, Americans all over are cutting back. Before leaving organic food on the cutting room floor, try these strategies for reducing the cost of organic food. If you have any additional ideas, let us know in the comments!

Grow your own

It’s a long-term strategy, but growing your own food can be a good way to turn time into money. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck for things like fruit trees and berry bushes that produce year after year. Highly producing plants like tomatoes, peppers, and zuchinni are also good. If you don’t have space for a garden outside, or you want to get started before it warms up, you can grow herbs in your kitchen.

Shop co-op

Although not available everywhere, co-ops can be great ways to get cheap organic food. The National Cooperative Grocers Association has a map of stores, but there are many co-ops that aren’t part of the organization. Some co-ops will give a rebate at the end of profitable years. Others will give a discount if you volunteer for an hour or two a week or for paying a one-time membership fee. It’s worth checking out!

Coupons and sales

Organic food tends not to be used as a loss leader at grocery stores, but you can sometimes find coupons anyway. Check the website of organic brands that you buy (like Organic Prairie or Kashi) and see if they have any coupons. Our local co-op even puts their sale prices online, so that you can check for bargains easily.

Buy bulk basics

Instead of getting packaged foods, buy the ingredients and make your own. Pizza, for example, can cost $6 for a small frozen, $8 at a local restaurant, and $3 if you make it yourself! Bread and pasta are similarly cheap. If you can find a local store with bulk bins, you can usually get good deals on beans and rice as well. Some co-ops, ours included, even have bulk containers for shampoo and soap!

Join a CSA

This is pretty similar to buying in bulk, but a CSA can give you additional savings. Basically, you pay up front (or agree in advance to pay through the season) and in return you get a discount. If you’re a picky eater or plan to be gone some weekends, get a friend to join with you and split your CSA. We did this with Maggie’s parents and it worked well. Some places even have dairy, bread, or meat CSAs!

Visit the farmer’s market

In some places, the farmer’s market is significantly cheaper. Around here, it’s about the same, since our co-op buys from the same people who show up at the farmer’s market. Even here, though, there are bargains to be had. If you show up towards the end of market, farmers are more willing to make a deal. Anything they don’t sell they have to get rid of (if it’s perishable) or lug back home (if it’s not), so they’re motivated. The drawback is that your selection is liable to be limited, although a CSA can generally fill in the gaps.

Pick and choose

If, in the end, you decide that you still can’t afford to eat organic, don’t quit entirely! Figure out what organic items matter most to you and splurge on those while cutting corners elsewhere. For example, Maggie has decided that organic butter is better, so it’s worth the premium. Other things, like beans, don’t matter as much to us. If health is your main concern, focus on organic goods that bioaccumulate (like dairy products). If environmental impact is what gets you to buy organic, then maybe you should get local, organic beef.

This is also a good time to be buying local, whether it’s organic or not. Money spent at local businesses is much more likely to stay within your community and might make the difference between a lean year and going out of business.

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Rebuilding our Local Food System

Maggie in Local Growers Guild shirtI work for the Local Growers Guild, a cooperative of small farms (and the restaurants and community members who buy from them), working to strengthen the local food economy.  We want to make small, sustainable farms viable, we want to shrink our community’s carbon footprint by encouraging the consumption of locally grown food, and we want to rebuild our local food distribution system.  There was a time when communities sourced a large percentage of their food from farms in the region and had things like a local dairy, a local butcher, a local baker, and a local produce market where farmers could bring their goods to be sorted, washed, packaged, and sold.  Nowadays that local infrastructure is pretty much gone (with the exception of our most excellent farmers’ markets).  We have restaurants and hospitals and schools that say they are interested in using more local food but no good way to connect them with the growers.  There’s also that chicken-and-egg challenge of the fact that growers don’t really want to grow more if they don’t see a market but institutions don’t want to buy food until it’s available in quantity.  What’s a cooperative to do?

Well, our current plan is to conduct a feasibility study evaluating what resources are available now, what challenges are preventing the effective distribution of local food, and what steps we can take to make it happen.  Today we took a field trip down to Louisville to see some of the projects they’re working on.  Kentucky is actually very progressive in the local food arena thanks to a non-profit group called the Community Farm Alliance (CFA).  Kentucky is well known for horses, booze, and tobacco and that really was the vast majority of their agricultural production until the late 1980’s when the world suddenly decided that tobacco was bad.  Tobacco farmers got very nervous about what was going to happen when their farm product became illegal.  CFA started bringing farmers together to talk about how to deal with the change and also to lobby their state government to direct funds from the tobacco settlement money into retraining tobacco farmers into sustainable food production.  Well, they were quite successful and managed to get something like $1.7 billion over twenty years allocated to developing a sustainable food system.

They have done a lot of cool projects so far.  Initially, they focused a lot on connecting rural small farmers with fresh vegetables and urban residents of West Louisville who live in a “food desert” where there are no good grocery stores and there is no access to fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables.  It has been a challenge to find ways to get the food to the urban communities in a way that is profitable for the farmer and appealing to the urban residents, who may not have any experience cooking fresh vegetables.  They have had a few attempts that have floundered but are currently working on a model that will consist of specialized vans that can drive to a neighborhood and then open up to become produce vendors.  Sort of like an ice cream truck but healthier.

Our main destination was Grasshoppers Distribution, a farmer-owned warehouse and distribution system that buys food from local farmers and resells it to restaurants, groceries, and institutions as well as running a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) program.  Each week they contact the fifty-ish farmers they work with to find out what products are available.  They compile the list and send it out to their buyers, who then place orders.  Grasshoppers then contacts the farms to place the orders.  The next day, they drive around to pick up the produce, bring it back to their warehouse, sort it into orders, and deliver it all.  It’s a lot of logistics and they have to work hard to keep communication channels open but it seems to be going pretty well.  We are considering a similar model for Bloomington but the overhead costs are rather steep (real estate and trucks are not cheap).

A somewhat simpler model is City LIFE Local Food which strives to “deliver fresh local food to the busy professional.”  Subscribers log on to a website once a week and order a box of fresh produce, which is then delivered to their workplace.  This way they can pick exactly what they want and skip a week or two if they’re not interested.  I think the group also includes other food products like meats, cheeses, and honey.  Their system appeals to me because it has relatively low overhead and is a great way to deliver to a large group of people at once (one of the companies they work with has 9,000 employees).

Louisville has been thinking about local food a lot a couple years ago the city hired a consultant to do a thorough study.  One of the recommendations was to build a year-round farmers’ market, which is now starting construction.  The plan is to develop an entire city block with an assortment of retail spaces for food businesses including the local chef’s warehouse Creation Gardens, a local Buffalo company, some smaller indoor permanent market booths (perhaps a butcher and a baker?), some more temporary outdoor market booths (for farmers to use in for three seasons), and a little gathering space outdoors where there can be bands or other entertainment.  It’s going to be pretty impressive but talking with the developer made me realize how intimidating these sorts of large projects can be – beyond the money, there is also a ton of politics and negotiations with other property owners and struggles to get timing and commitments down.  Crazy.

I’m still digesting it all and thinking about what would be the logical next step for Bloomington.  I really like the idea of having a warehouse space that could be used to consolidate produce from different farms and distribute it through a CSA or as restaurant deliveries.  But warehouse space is expensive (especially if you have coolers or freezers) so it seems like there would need to be a major commitment for use before it would be worthwhile.  Hmmmmmmm.

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The last Dr. Pepper

Dublin Dr. PepperAs I sit here writing this, I’m drinking the very last of the Dublin Dr. Pepper I got for the wedding. Some people are fanatics about a cola; I love Dr. Pepper. I was a cola drinker as a child, apart from brief flings with regional specialties like Cheerwine, until we went on a long summer vacation without soda. By the time I got back, my tastebuds had changed. Cola was no longer sweet ambrosia but a caustic acid. Dr. Pepper, however, remained tasty.

I now drink about one can per day, although I used to drink more. At one point, I drank at least on bottle (which is 50-75% more than a can) a day. Of course, I also used to play soccer 20 hours a week, so the extra calories were useful (as Warren Buffet says about Coke, if I hadn’t been drinking so much soda, I’d have wasted away).

Dr. Pepper and I haven’t always had a smooth relationship. When I started to seriously examine my lifestyle, I began to worry about the caffeine consumption. I do occasionally get migraines and caffeine (or caffeine withdrawal) can be a trigger for some people. I read horror stories and decided that I needed to cut down while I could do it slowly rather than wait until I had to quit cold turkey sometime.

And then I looked up some actual numbers and found that an 8 oz cup of coffee has around twice as much caffeine as one can of Dr. Pepper. The horror stories I’d read had been about people who were consuming ten times (or more) as much caffeine as I was! Instead of using my carefully designed course of gradual reduction, I immediately dropped down to no more than a 20 oz bottle a day (which I usually got by walking to the grocery store and back).

Later, I decided that 20 oz was usually more than I wanted to drink and switched to 12 oz cans. This was also quite a bit more frugal, since instead of paying a dollar per soda, I could get my cans in bulk and pay about a quarter.

Unfortunately, Dr. Pepper has another problematic ingredient besides caffeine: high fructose corn syrup. I’ve become much more concerned with high fructose corn syrup than caffeine. I don’t eat much that has caffeine in it, but everything seems to have high fructose corn syrup.

I assumed that I’d have to just have to live with it (or give up Dr. Pepper) until I ran across Dublin Dr. Pepper. The bottling plant in Dublin, Texas is the oldest one around. Back in the 70s and 80s when all the other plants switched to high fructose corn syrup, the Dublin plant stuck with the original cane sugar recipe.

It’s quite a bit more expensive than regular Dr. Pepper, although primarily because of the shipping costs. When we were ordering drinks for the wedding, I decided to go ahead and take the plunge. Although they sell normal-looking cans, I went whole hog and ordered the classic 8 oz class bottles.

A week later, I had my corn-free Dr. Pepper. Maggie says that she can’t tell the difference, but I find that it has a stronger, fuller flavor. There’s also something appealing about drinking from the small glass bottles. I have childhood memories of getting soda in glass bottles from a vending machine, but it was rare that you could find one that didn’t just dispense cans.

It was a worthwhile experiment. I’ve proven to myself that high fructose corn syrup isn’t the reason that I like Dr. Pepper. We also got some great bottles that we can reuse with our own soda. I probably won’t re-order, though. I’d like to say that this was actually my last Dr. Pepper, but like most Americans (and probably most people), I’ll take the short-term pleasure and cost savings over the long-term quality.

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Eco Cheapo Leftover Kit

Dinner Kit from Bocadorada at flickr.comOne of the downsides of going to conferences is that although the food is free, it’s often not the best quality (even at a conference about food!) and it is almost always served on disposable dishes.   I tried to minimize my trash generation this week by reusing napkins and drinking out of  a waterbottle but I was super impressed by a fellow conference attendee who brought his own little tupperware container and metal utensils to eat with.  (Lunches were served buffet-style so he was able to pass up all the plastic dishes and silverware quite easily.)

It’s something I’ve thought about a lot and Will and I do make an effort to take our own leftover containers to restaurants, especially Bajio, but I’m always looking to do more.  I was telling Will the other day that what I really need is a handy little kit to take with me that would include a cloth napkin, reusable silverware, and a leak-proof container (or two) for leftovers.  This would also allow me to avoid using plastic silverware or paper napkins at restaurants.  The biggest challenge is to make it small enough to be handy.  It would also be great to keep it plastic free, although that’s rather a hard one.  I’m very intrigued by the wrap-n-mat foldable sandwich holders but they are made with PVC, LDPE, or PEVA which they claim are on the FDA food-safe list but don’t sound especially safe to me.

I told him a couple weeks ago that I think there’s a market out there for someone who can create a product like this that people could carry around to restaurants.  I came up with the name “Eco Cheapo Leftover Kit” but Will cringed and suggested I leave the marketing to someone else.  I started thinking about names that play off “doggy bag” but it really didn’t get any less cringeworthy.

Do any of you know if there’s already a product like this out there or have aspirations to make one?  I’d buy a few, and I’m sure they’d make great gifts.

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Paint me a Picture of Sustainable Business

Today I attended the first day of “The Politics of Food”, a conference organized by the Environmental Leadership Program.  The goal of the conference is to bring together young leaders who have different causes they are working for (workers’ rights, environmental protection, hunger relief, nutrition education,  etc.) so they can rally around the idea of changing our food system to address all these issues.

So far it has been fascinating but a bit overwhelming.  How do you create a food system that is fair to all the workers who make it (including farmers, processors, transporters, cooks, and waiters) and that protects the environment (in production, transportation, processing, and distribution) and is accessible to everyone (by price, location of retail outlets, timing)?

I also must confess I got a little worn out by all the strong opinions and the cries for action.  I deeply respect people who dedicate their lives to improving the world and work hard for positive social change but it seems sometimes activists are unable to switch off their rallying cry and well-rehearsed rant.  Even when I agree with the topic at hand, sometimes I just get tired of hearing it.

Overall, the first day of the conference is great but I haven’t had time to process it into a nice concise post.  I was most intrigued by the afternoon session, which was a panel discussion about sustainable business.  There were three businesses profiled – Honest Tea (low sugar organic beverages), Niman Ranch (naturally raised meat products from family farms), and Equal Exchange (fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and snacks).  All three talked about their core values and how they structured and ran their companies to achieve them.

There were two big questions raised that I am still mulling over.

1. What does a sustainable business look like?  (What parts need to be sustainable?  How would you judge them?)

2. Does a traditional corporate structure make it impossible to have a sustainable business?  (This partly came up because HonesTea is now partially owned by Coca-Cola and may eventually be bought out, as happened with Stonyfield Farms and Burt’s Bees.  It also partly came up because Equal Exchange set up their business with a totally different structure to make it (they believe) more democratic.)

I hope to craft my thoughts into a coherent educated post later this week but for now I have only questions.  Have any answers?

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Fried Green Tomatillos

TomatillosHow often do you discover a new vegetable?  I’m generally not too adventurous but this year I’ve made a few delicious discoveries thanks to Lost Pond Farm CSA.  CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture” and the idea behind it is that a group of consumers give money (and sometimes labor) to a farmer at the beginning of the growing season in exchange for a cut of the farm’s production.  In our case, we signed up to get a weekly delivery of about a quarter bushel of produce, enough for a family of two for a week.

We never know what we’re going to get but it’s always in season and it’s always fresh.  I’ve been working with Pete Johnson for awhile through the Local Growers’ Guild and I love his passion for organic growing and special varieties.  So far I think my favorite item has been the blue potatoes.  They’re pretty recognizable as potatoes but they’re a fantastic shade of blue and also exceptionally tasty.   I’ve also enjoyed being introduced to new and different produce options.  One week we received tiny Mexican cucumbers that are just a little bigger than jellybeans and taste like they’ve been pickled.  Another week it was a plant somewhere between broccoli and kale that provides the texture of broccoli heads while withstanding hot Indiana summers.  (Around here, you can get broccoli and brussel sprouts in the fall or in the spring if you start ’em early but they wilt during the summer.)

More recently, we received a bag full of tomatillos (pictured above).  They’re similar to tomatoes but fairly small, fairly tart, and you’re supposed to eat them before they get too ripe.  You also have to peel the husks off first, which is kinda fun although they get a little sticky.  I have only found a couple of tomatillo recipes, many of them variations on salsa verde, but decided to stick with fried green tomatillos, especially since we’re here in the South.  The recipe is pretty simple – mix cornmeal, eggs, herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper as a batter.  Dip the tomatillo slices in and fry them in oil.  The batch I made this evening wasn’t quite as good as I’ve had in the past (I didn’t include quite enough spices) but they were still pretty good.

I must confess, though, my tastes are alread turning to autumn.  This afternoon I made applesauce bread with the last bit of applesauce from 2007.  It’s about time to cook up some of this year’s orchard crop.  Applesauce, apple butter, dried apples, frozen apples, apple cider, apple soda….   Mmmmm.   I’m  excited to see what other exciting fall goodies will be in our CSA basket this fall.  Only time will tell.

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