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Review: The Urban Farm Handbook

I find it a little ironic that I did not read this until AFTER I’d moved to the country... But you need not live in an urban area for the Urban Farm Handbook to be useful to you. I admit that I did find myself briefly missing Berkeley’s lovely year-round growing season and generous sunshine as I read about the author's endeavors in the Pacific Northwest, but then I remembered the price of real estate in the Bay Area and how I never could fully adjust to the reality of earthquakes and the feeling (mostly) passed.

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything other than a cookbook but this eased the transition since it includes lots of yummy recipes to accompany its excellent hands-on, detailed instructions for how to do things like grind your own grains, raise chickens and goats, make your own cheese, yogurt, kefir and more, start or join a buying club with friends and neighbors to buy in bulk directly from local farmers, start and maintain your own bee colony, establish a year-round garden, slaughter your own animals, make your own soap, salves and lotion, and build a community of like-minded people doing the same stuff to support you in it.

Here’s what I especially liked about the book:

Annette and Joshua, the two Seattle-area friends who wrote the book together, weave their own stories about their journeys from “normal” consumers to urban farmers throughout the book.In 2008, Annette developed a “mid-life food crisis” (kicked off by her son’s severe acid reflux and allergies) that led her to stop buying traditionally produced foods and start growing her own.

Annette in her garden by Harley Soltes, copyright 2011.

Through this journey, she met Joshua, who also had a young family and was interested in a lot of the same things and they both began to move further towards self-sufficiency and away from grocery stores. The fact that the book was written by two people who did not grow up farming makes the information much more accessible to those of us who are new to this.

Joshua and chicken by Harley Soltes, copyright 2011.

Their down-to-earth tone does not gloss over the challenges and failures they’ve faced along the way. They cover things like how to pacify angry neighbors when your chickens start the day at an ungodly hour, how to soothe a spouse who ends up eating half a caterpillar in his spring greens soup, and how to tempt notoriously picky eaters to try new things.

Throughout the book, they offer several “levels of crazy” that give you good options for how far you’d like to take each particular project/area/change.

For example, the opportunities for change in the Seeds section are:

1. Buy seeds only from seed companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge.

2. Buy only organic or biodynamically grown seeds.

3. Buy only open-pollinated heirloom seeds.

4. Save your own seeds.

I personally found the sections on bees, chickens, grains and grinding, espaliering fruit trees, and goats, particularly interesting. And I appreciated overall attention to detail and usability of the information and advice - for example, the book provides a good overview of the types of grain mills available to home millers and several considerations for each.

Goat happily munching while being milked by Harley Soltes, copyright 2011.

The chapters are also sprinkled with great recipes. From rhubarb custard pie (see the recipe below) to horseradish crusted salmon with cucumber dill sauce, caramelized onion jam, apple breakfast sausage, and more, I found myself practically drooling as I read. My copy is now dog-eared in numerous places as I will be making many of these things!

Fresh eggs from the backyard flock by Harley Soltes, copyright 2011.

Bottom line: this is a great book if you’re interested in even a few of these types of things. You can pick your own “level of crazy” throughout (and maybe even kick things up a notch as you start to feel more comfortable.) You can find the book's web site (filled with resources!) at: http://urbanfarmhandbook.com/ and you can also find Annette at her blog, Sustainable Eats.

Rhubarb Custard Pie
Makes one pie
Ingredients
* 1 double pie crust
* 2-3 cups finely chopped rhubarb (you want however much you need to fill your pie crust and the fresher it is, the better)
* 3 beaten eggs
* 2 cups sugar (adjust up or down to your liking next time)
* 1 teaspoon vanilla
* 3 tablespoons flour
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
* 1/4 teaspoon mace (not necessary but adds to the flavor)
* 1/2 cup heavy cream
Directions
1. Preheat your oven to 425 F. Roll out roughly half of your pie dough to be 1½” wider than the pie dish and fit it into the pie dish, folding the edges under and fluting them.
2. Mix together the eggs, sugar, vanilla, flour, salt, nutmeg, mace and cream.
3. Line a deep dish pie plate with one crust, then line the inside of the crust with aluminum foil and fill with beans (or use pie weights if you’ve got ‘em) and blind bake the crust for 15 minutes and remove from oven.
4. Fill the crust with the chopped rhubarb and pour the custard over the top. Use cookie cutters to cut shapes from the remaining crust and arrange them on top of the pie. Sprinkle the cutouts with sugar or a cinnamon sugar mixture.
5. If you have any extra crust or filling (which is likely), fit them into ramekins and bake until the edges are done and the middle is still wiggly like gelatin.
6. Bake for 10 minutes then reduce the oven to 325 F and continue baking for 1 hour. If the edges of the crust start to get too dark, you can cover them with aluminum foil.
Thanks to the good folks over at Civil Eats for sending me a review copy of this fine book.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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