Getting back into the swing of things…

The last few weeks have been crazy!

First I had finals week.  Let me just say that going back to school as an adult feels very odd.  It’s one thing to have finals week when you’re 18, but when you’re 28 it feels strange to say it.  Regardless, finals went well.  Straight As in all my classes!

Then came Spring Break (another oddity), which I was expecting to use to get caught up on blogging, gardening, organizing my house, etc.  Unfortunately nature had other plans for me inasmuch as I caught the PLAGUE.  I very rarely get sick but when I do it hits me like a ton of bricks.  This time was no exception.  In all of this, I was also working 3 days a week, so blogging kind of fell by the wayside.

I did manage to accomplish some projects, though!

First up, to continue the UFH challenge theme for the month, I made chevre (that’s pepper on the top, in case you’re wondering):

On the gardening front, I got two of our beds tilled and amended with compost (aka chicken poop!) and gypsum.  The chickens had a field day out there with me looking for worms.  My husband moved a lot of our shrubs to other spots in the yard to make room for the vegetables I want to plant.  We also put in some raspberry bushes that we still need to trellis.  I’m a little nervous about putting in berries, since we have an entire hill of blackberries behind our house that we have to attack every year with machetes, but he really wanted them.  Hopefully with the trellising they won’t get too out of control.  More on the yard in another post.  Speaking of the chickens, though, look at the gorgeous eggs they’ve been laying!

Also, I finally managed to get my seeds started for the year!

My set up is certainly not state of the art (unless you consider old paint cans state ofart), but it works.  I already have some sprouts coming up: peas, kale, and onions!

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Well Cultured

After my success with cheesemaking yesterday, and in keeping with this month’s home dairy theme, I decided that I should also try my hand at making some yogurt.  My mom makes yogurt and yogurt cheese all the time and assured me that it was pretty darn easy, so I read a couple of tutorials about the process online, picked up some yogurt and a  heating pad from the store, and got to work.

Yogurt is made through a bacterial fermentation process.  The basic idea is that you heat the milk up to 185 °F, cool it down to 110 °F, then inoculate it with your yogurt bacteria and let it sit at that 110 °F temperature for 7 – 8 hours.  The initial heating kills any undesirable microbes and denatures the milk proteins so they’ll stick together rather than forming curds.  The long, warm fermentation is because that’s the temperature the bacteria like to ferment at.  The bacteria convert the lactose in the yogurt to lactic acid, the same acid that gives sauerkraut its flavor.  Microbiology is so cool!

The easiest way to inoculate yogurt is to add some existing live culture yogurt to your warm milk.  I added about a tablespoon and a half of Nancy’s whole milk plain yogurt to get things started, then turned on the heating pad and let it go.  Then I discovered something about this heating pad.  It has a 2 hour automatic shutoff.  I’m sure that that is a vitally important safety feature when people are using it in their bed, but when it’s in my kitchen and I have better things to do than come by every two hours to turn the damn thing back on, it is irritating.  It also lost about an hour of good heating time, so it took longer.  Boo!

Once the yogurt firmed up a bit, I stirred it and poured it into a couple of containers, then stuck them in the fridge.  I tried the yogurt tonight and it is pretty tasty, but a little on the thin side (I blame the heating pad!).  My mom suggested putting it through a yogurt strainer, which I may try.  I’m also wondering if I should just heat it up again and let the bacteria keep doing their thing.

Oh well.  In the mean time, it is delicious with a drizzle of maple syrup!  Not bad for a first attempt.

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

This month’s UFH Challenge is home dairy!  Now, if you know me, you know that I love cheese.  And we’re not talking about some brief affair that fizzles with time.  If I could marry a dairy product, I might marry cheese (apologies to my husband).  The first challenge is indeed cheese making and is posted over at the Eating Rules blog.  It involves starting off with a simple ricotta-like farmers cheese, using lemon juice for the acid.  While I really want to get my hands on some mozzarella one of these days for some awesome homemade pizza, this seems like a good place to start.

The equipment listed is as follows:

  • A good pot. Already in the pantry.  Excellent!  Off to a good start.
  • A dairy thermometer.  Let me take a little aside here to lament how much trouble I have had finding kitchen thermometers.  I have tried analog, electric, praying to the candy thermometer gods, etc. and have still yet to find one that doesn’t read COMPLETELY wrong.  Usually it reads way too high, so I end up freaking out and taking the candy I’m trying to make off of the stove thinking it’s ruined and then it doesn’t set because it didn’t get freaking hot enough.  Thermometers are the bane of my existence.  OK, back to the point.  I was going to pick up a dedicated dairy thermometer but our local cheese supply store (yes, we have one of those.  Haven’t you seen Portlandia?) is closed on Mondays and so I opted to use our brewing thermometer, which has the right range.  It doesn’t clip to the side of the pot but I figure I can deal with holding it for my first cheese attempt.  Also it is one of the more accurate thermometers I’ve used.
  • Cheesecloth or Butter Muslin.  Again, already in the pantry.  This is cake!  Err…cheese!
  • Slotted Spoon, Measuring Cups, and Measuring Spoons. Check, check, and check.

I didn’t need to buy any equipment!  Not bad for trying a whole new food making process.  Ingredients are simple as well:

  • 1/2 Gallon Whole Milk.  This should not be ultra-pasteurized and I have a fondness for non-homogenized.  I went to our local co-op hoping to find some locally sourced milk but their options were sadly limited.  I ended up buying some Strauss (which is darn good, but unfortunately from California).  Then when I was at New Seasons I found local milk for cheaper.  Damn you co-op!  Oh well, next time.  And it was really only 50 cents difference.  Next time I will go to New Seasons first.  Alternatively, I will actually make the time to drive back via the Valley and got to Kookoolan Farms, where I can get raw milk.
  • 1/4 to 1/2 Cup Lemon Juice (Another way to use my lemons!  Kismet!)
  • 1/2 tsp Cheese Salt (My first thought was,  “What the heck is cheese salt?”.  My second thought was, “Thank you, internet!”.  Apparently it’s flaky, non-iodized salt.  Unfortunately with our cheese making shop closed, I couldn’t get any.  Then I realized we had Maldon Salt, which is flaky, non-iodized sea salt.  Score!
  • Chopped Herbs (Alright herb garden!  Glad it’s been a mild winter.)

So really I already had everything I needed except for the milk.  So far, this experiment into cheese making was rockin’!

The first step is heating the milk to 175 °F.  The challenge post said to do this on the stovetop, but I figured a double boiler method would be more forgiving in terms of not accidentally burning the milk, so I went with that.  I boiled water in our stockpot and used that to sanitize the milk pan, the thermometer, and the spoon I’d be using to stir the milk.  Then I put the milk pan into the stockpot and poured the milk into it.  The downside of using non-homogenized milk is that the cream at the top can prevent the milk from coming out, but I poked at it with a knife until it was enough mixed in to at least come out of the bottle.

I stirred the milk and held the thermometer in it until it reached 175 °F, then took it out of the water bath and added the lemon juice.  Fifteen minutes later, sure enough, I had curds and whey!  I felt a little like Miss Muffet.

These got put through a cheesecloth-lined colander to drain them then hung up to drain further over the sink.  We consider binder clips to be essential kitchen items for instances just such as these.

After a couple of hours, I emptied the curds into a bowl, mixed in 1/2 tsp of salt and some chopped oregano from our garden and voila!  Cheese!

It tastes really good, too.  The lemon imparts a slight tanginess and the oregano adds some complexity.  I can’t wait to try this with some fresh bread.  Assuming it lasts long enough for me to make some bread.  I may just eat it all on its own before that happens.  Also, I bet this would make AMAZING blintzes.  The next time I make it, I think I may have to channel my grandmother and roll some of those.  Yum!

They wormed their way into my heart.

Wiggly Field is a go!

We are officially vermicomposting!  My sister brought over the bins this morning and helped me get set up.  The system we’re using is the Worm Factory 3 Tray Composter.  The idea is that you add food scraps to the top tray while the worms munch in the tray below.  As you fill up the trays, you add more on top and as the worms finish eating they climb up into the next tray and you can remove the bottom one and use it as compost.  Additionally, it has a spigot in the bottom to collect so called “Worm Tea” that you can spray directly on your plants.

Here’s what the empty composter looks like

We started off by tearing up a paper bag and dampening it, then mixing it with some soil from our garden and a little bit of potting soil.  This provides the worms with some bedding.  We probably could have shredded the paper a little finer–in the future we’ll probably use a paper shredder–but this should work for now.

Next up was getting the worms!  I called this morning and arranged to pick up half a pound of red wigglers from Pistils Nursery and they harvested them for me from their own worm bin.

These went into the bin on top of the bedding along with the soil they came in.

On top of them, I added about a pound of food scraps that we had from our kitchen.  I put them through the food processor before adding them, since worms like to eat things that are a little smaller.  I also tore up the newspaper that they were transported in for some fiber.  Again, probably should have shredded it, but oh well.

From there, I put the top on and let the worms go to work!  The whole project took about an hour and I’m looking forward to getting some great compost and worm tea from these guys in the coming months.

Mission Compostable

This month’s Urban Farm Handbook Challenge theme is soil building. As I mentioned, I jumped on the bandwagon a little late (hey, there were still two days left in February!), but this is something I’ve been thinking about anyhow, so it was actually perfect timing.

Soil Challenge #1: Plan for Compost

The first part of the challenge was straight up composting. In the past I have always been pretty lax about composting.  I think I mentioned that our city has an urban food scraps composting program, so we do that.  Other than that we do a lot of “throwing soiled chicken bedding in a pile and ignoring it”.  This is the current state of said pile:

Note that this is not so much a compost pile as a pile of chicken…well, you get the idea.  There are other issues with this pile as well.  The location, while out of the way, is a pain in the patootie to get to, since it’s uphill (and up-terracing) from the chicken coop.  You do not want to be wrestling a bunch of this stuff up the hill in our crappy plastic wheelbarrow when it’s raining, which it does a lot of in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s also become a location where we end up throwing a lot of green waste before we have a chance to take it to our local green waste disposal area, as can be seen here.  Note the remarkably still green Christmas tree, considering that I took this this morning.

Another problem with it being on the hill is that as it actually turns to compost, the rain washes most of the good stuff immediately washes back down the hill to the chicken coop, which you can see in the corner of the above photo and in the photo below.  Not great.

Putting together an actual composting bin seems like it would solve a lot of these problems, but many of the ones out there seem to be too small or too expensive.  Urban farm challenge to the rescue!  They suggested constructing a bin out of wooden pallets, which many people are offering for cheap or free on craigslist.  I have an email in to one of these people and hopefully by this weekend I will have my very own two-bin composting system in place and a better place to throw the chicken droppings and all those leaves (although that means we’ll actually have to get around to raking…no plan is perfect.)

 Soil Building Challenge #2: Buy fertilizer in bulk or make it from scratch.

I have a confession: I didn’t realize that fertilizer was different from compost.  My husband has always been more of the gardener in the family, so I am learning a lot of this stuff as I go.  I know about soil amendments as they relate to viticulture, but not so much with the home gardening.  Nevertheless, I was really excited that the UFH people posted a recipe for making your own fertilizer designed for soil here in the PNW.  I’m not sure if I’m ambitious enough to make that much fertilizer on my own yet, but we’ll see how I feel when I get to the feed store.

Soil Building Challenge #3:  Build a Worm Bin

This is the part of the challenge that was really kismet.  My sister had a tray-style worm compost system set up that she had to take apart when she moved into her current apartment a few months ago.  A few days ago I asked her if she was using it and she offered to bring it over and help me set it up.  She’s bringing it over today and I am picking up half a pound of red wrigglers this afternoon.  More on that later!

2012 Urban Farm Handbook Challenge

UFHChallenge

So I am not the best blogger, or really the best gardener. I do, however, LOVE food, especially really great vegetables. So with that in mind, I am getting on my workboots and getting out in the dirt! I’ve decided to participate in the Urban Farm Handbook Challenge this year to keep me motivated and on track, both for blogging and for gardening.

Month 1 is February, which yes, ends tomorrow. Luckily, before I even found out about the challenge, I was working on it! The challenge for this month is soil building and we have some things in the works.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed to have some really fertile soil. However, composting and providing nutrients to the plants you’re growing is still really important. Currently we have a sort of haphazard compost pile that is really more just a spot for us to pile chicken droppings. I think we can probably do better. I am liking the idea of building a couple of compost bins that we can put over by the chicken coop and throw yard waste into.

Also, on Wednesday we’re picking up some red worms so that we can start worm composting most of our kitchen scraps. We have the set of trays to put them in and we certainly go through enough stuff in the kitchen! I am super excited about that. Our city does residential food scrap composting, but I think between giving scraps to the chickens and the worms, we should be minimizing our output.

Speaking of the chickens, we had quite the scare this week! On Sunday night one of our hens, Lady Cluckerpants, didn’t come back to the coop. I spent an hour searching for her and when she didn’t come home yesterday morning, either, I thought she was gone for good. Amazingly, one of our neighbors found her on the other side of our hill, lost and thirsty. She took her to one of our other neighbor’s houses since she knew they had layers. Our neighbors knew we were missing one and now Lady Cluckerpants is home safe with the rest of the flock. I am so grateful to everyone involved!

And finally, the sauerkraut I posted about the other week is coming out awesome! We had a bowl of it a couple of days ago and it is tasting delicious. Yum!