Odds and Ends

With some new posts formulating in the background, here are a few shorts to keep you interested:

Since my second post I haven’t returned to the subject of kombucha brewing (except for a brief nod sometime about mid-Kansas) but in spite of the lack of attention it’s been getting, my kombucha mother has remained by my side and afloat in her jar of tea. In Kansas she paired nicely with green tea and orange; in Colorado, chai spice had her going; in Canada she was fashionably BCBC (British Columbia Black Cherry), and in Washington she’s had some great herbal-root brews (burdock, yellow dock and dandelion). And all the ‘babies’ she has produced have gone to either friends, people who attended my home-brewing kombucha talk or to making more batches on my counter.

Mama sank

So, a few tips on keeping her happy and ease of kombucha brewing in general:
– If you have to travel with her and you’re in the middle of a batch, pour a little of the liquid off into another, smaller jar with a lid so that the large jar won’t slosh out all over the car, or; brew your batch in a gallon-sized pickle jar and hold onto the lid, just remember to give her some air every few hours.
– Try to keep the temperature as stable as possibly. Mine really likes temps around 75F.
– Don’t use Earl Grey tea. I haven’t figured out why yet (though experts say this too), but it won’t ferment right and the kombucha you’re going for won’t be the end result; something in Earl Grey inhibits the mother from spreading. (Perhaps some raging anti-fungal properties of bergamot?)
– She doesn’t like Montana for some reason.
– If your mother sinks instead of floats, don’t fret. Some mothers work from the top down, others work from the bottom up. Either way, you should have a healthy skim of a ‘baby’ on top when the kombucha is done.
– For that really carbonated type of kombucha, gently pour off the finished brew into serving-sized bottles and cap (not too tightly, though) and let sit a couple more days at room temp. This introduces a bit of anaerobic fermentation which really gets the bubbles going. At this point you could also add some juices to flavor or color; but beware, grape juice is known to cause spewing in fountain-like jets – something to do with their natural yeasts.
– For all you Lindsay Lohan fans (or should I say ex-fans if you ever were to begin with?) fresh kombucha may contain a small amount of alcohol, but even then only about the same amount as non-alcoholic beer – although when it’s been sitting in bottles on the shelves for longer periods of time, even refrigerated, it will slowly, anaerobically ferment to the point of turning some of the sugars to alcohol. So drink it fresh (and the best way to do that is to make it yourself!)

But baby's happily floating

– Try some cool infusions if you want: when you pour the tea in the jar add some rosemary sprigs, lavender petals, dried fruit, fresh ginger root or other spices. The mother will pick up some of these flavors, but not enough to taint your next batch. *Also beware, just like Earl Grey has fermentation-inhibiting properties, so might some spices like cloves or cinnamon or turmeric. I haven’t tested them personally, but just consider it.
– Need a cheap Christmas present idea? Brew a batch and give the gift of a “baby mama.”

Some of you may know about my being enrolled in an online school; since May 2008 I’ve been working on my B.S. in Holistic Nutrition. Well, good news and bad news: I’m finishing up my final project to conclude my degree program (I should be the proud owner of a Bachelor’s come Christmas time) but the school, Clayton College of Natural Health, took a blow in the (semi) recent economic downturn and had to cease its operations. Thankfully, they are able to offer independent teach-out options for those who are close to finishing and I’m able to still send in my tests, projects and essays to a faculty person.

What will I do with this freshly printed degree? Beats me. Though I am considering starting a consultation practice on a freelance basis, helping individuals who want to find out what their natural health options are and how to live a more natural, green and sustainable health life. I also love to cook for others, and a catering, meal-planning, or cleanse-planning route may be down the road. Any questions, ideas or suggestions?

It’s a commonly held belief that winter is the hardest month for ‘locavores’, but with some ingenuity and networking one can find many and diverse recipes for these dormant days. One great resource is this site’s annual challenge. And I’ll be posting seasonal meals as I make them and winter preservation techniques as well.

And finally, there are a plethora of topics I’ve been covering lately in my personal writings, as with winter sneaking in there is less for a farm gal to do outside. And after talking with some locals here in PT, surfing the web for freelance opportunities and approaching some great friends with a publishing business, I’m excited to be working towards getting some pieces published in the local paper and perhaps a few magazines, as well as venturing toward a book (or two). Stay tuned for more info about these endeavors. A welcome winter respite that pairs nicely with a mug of tea and a crackling fire (to grossly over-romanticize a writer’s day in the life), huh?

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Pumpkin Cake and a Blessing

Despite Thanksgiving’s controversial status among some people (liberty and freedom from oppressive Old World monarchies and religious leaders sure; but are the Native Americans so thankful?) its role in bringing families together over a meal is outstanding.  Though not with my family this year for the second time in my life, I spent it very happily with some new and semi-new friends from the church I’ve been attending since coming to the peninsula.  Among some of the “traditional” fare were a few cultured and newly created dishes: Ethiopian-style carrots and string beans (sort of steam-sauteed with garlic and onions), lima bean and pepper salad, and a completely new version of cole-slaw with apples and pineapple chunks (yum!)  My contributions were roasted root veggies (red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and beets this time) and a first time go at a pumpkin cake with a special buttery orange glaze. Probably one of the best baked goods I’ve taken out of the oven to date……….

Buttery Orange Glazed Pumpkin Cake

4 eggs
1/3c. oil canola oil
1/2c. honey
1c. evaporated cane juice
About 1 1/2c. pumpkin puree

1c. whole wheat flour
1c. flour
3tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2tsp. ginger
1 1/2tsp. nutmeg
1 1/2tsp. allspice or cloves
3/4tsp. salt
2tsp. powder
1tsp. soda

Mix dry ingredients together well.  In another bowl beat eggs very well for about 30 seconds to a minute then add sweeteners, oil and pumpkin. Fold dry mix into wet ingredients til just combined.
Pour into greased 13×9 baking pan or 2 loaf pans.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, then rotate and bake for another 15-20 minutes.
While it/they are cooling, melt half a stick of butter in a small saucepan and add 1/3c. honey to just liquified. Add 1 1/2tsp. orange extract and stir well.  Let cool a bit and then drizzle with a spoon over the cake.
Perhaps some orange zest?

Day-after snackstravaganza

And so, I hope you all had a marvelous Thanksgiving, with whomever you spent it and I leave you with a blessing from Deuteronomy:

May the Lord bless His land with the precious dew from heaven above and with the deep waters that lie below; with the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield; with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and fruitfulness of the everlasting hills; with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness………………..(33:13-16)

Easy as Savory Seasonal Pie

Cooking together with others has proven strengthening to the bonds of friendship many times over.  Some of my best friendships were forged over a sizzling range or hot oven.  It’s a great way to spend time together and be productive all at once.  And when I can cook with like-minded, seasonal-searching, risk-taking foodies all the better.

One recent instance of this occured in while visiting a friend in NY (not only a like-minded foodie, but a like-minded farmie as well).  Coming to the end of the harvest season there are still lingering squashes, leeks, garlic bulbs, greenhouse herbs, beets, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, carrots, hearty kale and chard greens and an odd green onion or two.  Pair this knowledge with a gal who had more of a CSA share than she could possibly put away herself – pounds of pastured ground beef, asian greens, mini delicata squashes – and a couple of free pie shells from the ‘seconds’ bin at the co-op where she works.  Voila, you have an end-of-November-local-meal.

For the savory pie we used:
1lb. ground lamb
1lb. ground beef
4 mini delicata squash
(no matter what part of the country you live in, it seems that this year was the year for undersized winter squash)
A few fresh herbs – parsley, dill, basil
2 spelt pie crusts
A few dried, sliced tomatoes for fun

The great thing about this pie is that you don’t have to have exact measurements to follow through.  Simply brown the meats, bake the delicata til tender and mix all the ingredients (sans crust and tomatoes) then dollop and press into the pie shell (we lined the bottom of the shell with the tomatoes, and pressed a few on top for looks) and bake at 350 for about 25-30 minutes, til the pie shell is flaky and a bit browned.
*Though the squash made this pie really creamy and it held together well, it would be just as easy to add an egg or 2, or some milk or cream to the mix if you’re so inclined.

Roasted root vegetables were the accompaniment to our main dish.  Now I’ve used various root vegetables in my roasting pans and my favorites end up being: sweet potatoes, beets, carrots and turnips. I’ve also added potatoes, whole garlic cloves, rutabagas, radishes and parsnips.  Except for the potatoes, all of the above need very little oil to get them through a round in the oven without sticking.

3 medium-sized rutabagas
1 large sweet potato
4 medium beets
salt and pepper
any dried herbs, my favorites being: savory, thyme, rosemary, oregano and sage
a bit of olive oil or a pat of melted butter

Wash and cube the veggies and toss in a bowl with the oil.  Lay out in a single layer on a baking pan and sprinkle the seasonings and herbs over top (I’ve found that if you add the herbs to the mixing bowl that they stick together and concentrate in patches and don’t provide as uniform a taste for the whole batch).  Bake this anywhere from 325-375 for 25-45 minutes, with a few stirs from time to time.
*If roasting potatoes you can soak them in cold water for about 15 minutes before mixing so that they won’t absorb as much of the oil.  Also, more frequent stirring is a good idea – they really tend to start sticking to the pan towards the end.

To lighten our fare a bit we also included a fresh winter greens salad of finely chopped kale, chard and bok choy, some minced fresh garlic, a couple of diced green onions and some fresh herbs (basil, dill and parsley) and tossed in some chopped raisins and walnuts.  A light spritz of apple cider vinegar and olive oil sealed the deal and we were in business.

The business, that is, of oohing and ahhing and further moanings of praise while patting ourselves on the back with our forks and claiming this to be “the best supper ever!”  Yes friends, I testify that friendships are formed and solidified over such things as place settings, browned beef juices, garlic mincing skills, seasonal fare and savory pies.

Of Milking and Hibernating

Great view of the morning, eh?

One of the reasons I love having animals on the farm setting is the routine they bring to the daily chores.  Most anyone with farm animals will tell you that the first thing you do when you wake up – before coffee or breakfast or reading the newspaper (ok, what farmer has time to read a newspaper?) – is to check on the animals; especially when there are calves or lambs that need more attentive care with feeding and milking, or when animals have to be moved out on pasture every day and brought into a paddock or barn at night.  And in the case of a dairy operation, milking is usually done at 12-hour intervals, somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-7am, and again at 6-7pm.  Besides, I like to rev up my body a little bit and get the blood pumping before devouring a hearty breakfast.

There’s something refreshing and peaceful about starting your day before the sun, even on chilly New England fall days, the cold, crisp air hitting your face wakes you up like nothing else.  This morning as we treaded past hilltop orchards on our way to the barn, we were admiring Venus in her celestial spot before the first rays of sunlight blinded her out.

Waiting for their scoops of grain

We arrived at the barn around 6:30 this morning and roused the 6 milking cows up from their slumbering in the barnyard; trying to give them adequate chance to use the little-calves’ room outside before being brought into the milking parlor.  Once all the ladies were up, we cleared the way for them to rush straight into the barn to their own, numbered and recognized stanchion (animals are routine like that and like to walk in the same order in line and stand in the same spot to be milked.)  To keep the cows from getting rowdy while we’re marauding their udders, they’re given grain to nibble on.

Into the strip cup

This particular dairy milks by machine, so all we did was wash the udders and teats with warm, soapy water (this helps the cow to let down her milk and wipes away anything she might have been laying in,) strip each teat into the sieved strip-cup, iodine dip and wipe each teat before hooking up the 4-prong, suction-power milk vacuum.

On the average, it takes about 8 minutes for the machine to milk out a cow, and we got around 2 1/2 gallons from each lady.  After each milking, we hauled off the 2-3 gallons in a pail to the holding tank where the fresh milk is cooled to about 35 degrees and slowly and constantly mixed to keep the cream from separating.  This farm sells both raw milk (on premises, per NY legalities,) and pasteurized milk and yogurt.

Once the deed is done, we unhooked all the cows from their positions and herded them into their pasture for the day across the road.  They walk in a single-file line, and like to have someone in front to guide them, though they need to have someone in back to poke and prod them on.

We told her we wanted to get a silly one

Yes, milking and animal chores first, then breakfast.

Some lately planted overwintering greens and herbs in cold frames

General garden cleanup is happening too; now that lots of things have died back with the first frosts (and with more time in a farmer’s busy schedule) we’re doing some maintenance landscaping – pulling up and cutting back deadness and old-growth to give the garden a bit more air and breathing space.  But overall, the feeling in the garden this time of year is one of unhurried-ness, a breathing out, more talking and conversation and less regimented daily orders of tasks.  There are no wilting deadlines to beat, no market deadlines to harvest before, no plant-by deadlines to ensure a profitable and successful season.  More of just relaxing and taking in all that the garden did this year, all that you ate and put by, more opportunities to check out that yoga class you didn’t have time for earlier, or getting to play around with baking some new ideas and recipes (both to come close to a warm oven and because you actually have the time now.)  The cycle of the year is coming to a close with winter coming on, hibernation and rest are the keywords for this time of year.  Planning next year’s endeavors will come in no time.

Inside the farm stand at the Pfeiffer Center

And so go the natural cycles; fall closes into winter and the garden goes to sleep for a bit, and though you may get to whip up some breathtaking baked goods and work on perfecting those poses, the animals are still there to regulate your daily cycles of attention – just to keep you on your hibernating toes.

The Dirt on Biodynamic Compost

Friend Kirstin

So I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from the West Coast and am visiting another farm gal up here in the historic and beautiful state of New York.  Who would think that 45 minutes outside of the city, the charming village of Chestnut Ridge holds the nation’s first Waldorf School and education center based on the writings of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and the principles of

Rudolph Steiner, grandfather of biodynamics. 

Kirstin with Eva

  The Pfeiffer Center here in the valley boasts 120+ acres of summer camp, a school, a eurythmics studios, intern and staff housing, an organic/biodynamic cafe, two miniature draft horses, historic barns and a community-centered garden.  My good friend is here doing a year-long internship with the garden and is getting an intensive education of all things biodynamic.

To start off with, the soil and its health are everything to the biodynamic farmer.  Live cultures and a viable life energy are the focus of building the soil through intensive composting and different concoctions made out of both plant and animal material that are added to the compost piles or made into a “tea” and sprayed over the crops and soil.

This morning we brought all the compost bins (trash cans on wheels) from around the community; one from the Waldorf school where the kids toss in everything from half-eaten apples, to lunch leftovers to the tired jack-o-lanterns of the last holiday; two from the co-op store up the street where the staff toss in food and drink leftovers from to-go meals and coffee; one from each dorm building on the campus where mostly kitchen waste and the occasional bouquet of flowers makes its way in; and even food scraps dropped off by neighbors and members of the greater community.

The mesh-lined compost bins are lined with straw or dried leaves on the bottom and around the sides as more is added to the heap, and between each good 5″thick layer of fresh food scraps about 2 cups of powdered lime is sprinkled on top and covered with a thin layer of readymade compost from a previous pile – a sort of inoculant to the new batch, kind of like keeping a sourdough starter going to use in fresh bread every week – before putting the mesh-lined lid of the container over top.  After about a month the container pile will have decomposed and packed down enough to scoop  by the forkful to an open pile that is then covered with straw and allowed to fully decompose and break down to the point that it resembles rich, dark garden soil.  At this point the pile will be gradually added to the garden rows after heavy-feeder crops (like corn and all the Brassicas) and also used as the inoculant for the contained fresh piles.

The thermometer is reading over 100 degrees

I have yet to encounter anyone or any farm that focuses so heavily on composting, makes it into a weekly ritual even.  And from first-hand experience, the folks here can tell you that the ‘biodegradable green cups’ (like what most hip, organic coffee shops give you to take your morning latte with you) are still in the piles after the rest has turned to humus, so they’re probably not the best composting material out there.  Although, the corn- or sugar-based utensils and cups that mimic their plastic counterparts break down readily and are don’t leave a trace as they break down just as fast as whole-food waste.

As I mentioned before, there are some compost ‘preparations’ that are used regularly; their purposes are to fertilize, make nutrient uptake more efficient, protect against diseases and give a certain vitality to the plants.  It could be said that these preparations give biodynamic produce that little bit of an edge over conventional and even organic produce from the same region – if you haven’t tried it, trust me (and then try it), biodynamic produce just tastes better!

Prep #500 (this doesn’t mean that there are 499 before it, it’s just the name assigned to the concoction…don’t ask me)  Manure is stuffed into a female cow’s horn (it’s hollow, as opposed to a bull’s horn) and buried in the ground for a year.  After a year it’s dug up, mixed into a barrel of water – stirred quickly one way and then the other for about an hour, this is said to “introduce chaos and potentize the tea” – and flung onto crops with a large paintbrush.  It’s said to stimulate root activity, promote beneficial bacteria, regulate pH and mineral content and help seeds to germinate.

Prep #501  Silica is also stuffed into a horn and buried for a year, then dug up and stored in direct sunlight.  It’s mixed in the same way as the manure tea, by short and quick rotations of stirring one way and then the other before being flung onto garden plants.  It resonates with light metabolism in the plants (photosynthesis and the making of chlorophyll) and heavily influences the color, flavor, keeping qualities and even aroma of the plants.

Prep #502  Dried yarrow is stuffed into a stag’s bladder, hung up over the summer and then buried for a year before being placed by the teaspoonful into a slot made in the compost pile then covered back up.  This happens anytime the compost pile is turned, maybe once every 6 months.  It helps plants take up any trace elements in very miniscule amounts for their optimal nutrition preference.

Prep #503  Chamomile is buried from fall to next summer inside cow intestines and upon being dug up also placed as a teaspoonful into a slot made in the pile and covered up.  It helps majorly with stabilizing the nitrogen (N) in the compost and invigorates the soil “life” which helps stimulate plant growth.

Prep #504  Nettle is another herb used in the compost pile, usually at its center, or “heart”, as nettles are known to enliven the soil and resonate with circulation and iron content.  A teaspoonful is placed in the middle of the pile and covered back up.

Prep #505  Oak bark is chipped off a tree and ground into a fine meal before being moistened and stuffed inside the cavity of a cow skull and buried in a swampy, moist area for a year.  A teaspoonful goes into the compost pile the same way and gives healing qualities to the plants to combat diseases; like a dose of white blood cells for your crop.

Prep #506  Dandelion is placed inside the mesentery of a cow, buried also and placed in the pile similarly.  It helps forge a bond between silica (Si) and potassium (K), and thus aids Prep #501. 

Prep #507  The nectar of valerian flowers is droppered into water to make a tea form that is then dripped into a hole in the compost pile as well.  Its use is for proper phosphorus (P) usage in the soil and plants.

Prep #508  The final prep is a spray of horsetail tea that is sprayed over the compost pile once all the other preps have been placed inside it.  It helps in resistance to fungal diseases and improves the moisture content of the soil.

*This is a great visual source for the preps

Sound cosmic, paganish or just plain weird? Maybe.  But the strong spiritual ties that biodynamic farmers feel in relation to the soil, garden and animals (in particular, cows) is attested to in the fantastic flavor and heartiness embodied by biodynamic produce.  To quote a member of Monday’s sauerkraut-making party: “It’s biodyummy!”

Mulching with Seashells

I know it’s been a while since my last post – travelling, visiting friends back home and generally taking a break from farming/gardening has kept me from the typed page and, more specifically, information for the terroir-tracing blogosphere.  But now, on vacation at my parents’ beach house with them on the Outer Banks of N.C., I have both topic and time to report.

Two-year-old Vern's Brown Turkey

Ocracoke Island, N.C., is rather known for its fig population; grown here since the 1700’s, most old-time islanders have a few sitting in their backyards, fig preserves are among the most rampant of local fare and nearly every local church and restaurant recipe book contains a recipe for Ocracoke Island Fig Cake (with a Buttermilk Glaze).

Last winter while on vacation for the Christmas holiday with family and friends here at the beach house, I brought with me a Vern’s Brown Turkey fig tree that I had purchased from a local plant nursery in Asheville.  Figs are best transplanted in the late fall/early winter when they are dormant.  And so my fig tree has been in place for nearly one year and produced one fig over the summer (so I’m told) that became a local snack for a local bird.

But my spirits continue to press on and I’m trying to take care of the tree the best I can in hopes that one day, I’ll be able to whip up my own backyard fig cake.  And one of the ways I’m caring for the fig tree is by mulching.

Mulch has come to mean so much more to me than when I was younger and dump-truck-loads on the side of the highway boasting chips and slivers of wood and bark was all I thought of as ‘mulch’.  But mulch encompasses so much more; from wood and sawdust, to cardboard or newspaper, to uprooted weeds or mown grass, to broken pottery to leaves and pine needles, to even plastic.  And out here on the island the most prevalent, handy and useful mulch item is seashells.  Clams, mussels, oysters and a host of other sea-dwelling creatures retire their shells all the time, and they can be easily found on the beach, on the shores of the Pamlico Sound, even in the woods and on paved parking lots in the middle of the island (flooding tides are a norm here on Ocracoke, where tropical storms and hurricanes are known to ravage through, mostly from August to October).

Seashells offer calcium in the form of calcium carbonate and are a fairly balanced (if low source of) fertilizer, offering about 1.5-1-.5 (N-P-K).  They can be crushed for a more uniform appearance and duty, or left in broken bigger chunks; I chose to leave mine larger because a) it’s a perennial fruit tree that I’m mulching and will therefore benefit from a longer, slower, constant release of minerals, and b) because of the inherent sandy-ness of the soil, anything to weight it down will help hold moisture and ground better (whereas, if I was mulching with seashells on clay soil, I’d want to chip them up as much as I could and maybe even mix them in so as to offer more aeration to the clumpy, heavy clay).

Fig trees do so well on the island because they can thrive in the sandy soil conditions, like a bit of winter chill but prefer the more moderated climate of a coastal location and the naturally more alkaline offerings of an area surrounded by mineral-rich seawater and seashells (I’ve also read that powdered or crushed seashells can be a substitute for lime in the garden as they raise and moderate a higher pH level).

Depending on the weather extremes between now and the next time I visit the island I may have to reapply the mulch or do some refreshing to it, and probably over the winter or some time next year I’ll have to do my first pruning job on the tree – mainly cutting off any new growth that threatens to grow towards the inside of the tree or one of two branches that may rub up against each other.  But for the most part, there won’t be a lot to do except wait and have patience; and perhaps explore some of the many options for keeping pesky and hungry birds at bay (or, Sound :).