29 April 2009
This is a true wild honey bee, not a domesticated bee gone feral. They are about 30% smaller than the domesticated bees. These guys are to domestic bees what a wild ox is to a Holstein milker. Domestic bees were bred to be larger so they could carry more pollen, and produce more honey. Many beekeepers are breeding their bees back to the original smaller size, as a protection against varroa mites, Small Cell Beekeeping. The smaller bees hatch out one day earlier, and the mites need that one extra day in order to hatch out with the bee. The smaller bees are also said to be more active, and keep their hives cleaner. We would like one day to start beekeeping, until then, I keep my eyes on the wild bees.
We also had our first glorious salad yesterday, as a noonday reward after a morning of planting seeds under the sun. It is a mixture of Mesculn greens, Mizuna mustard greens, and Dandelion greens. And a salad dressing of homemade goat ghee, homemade apple cider vinegar, apple butter, salt, coriander and a touch of cayenne. We certainly relished it, spreading a blanket in the shade to further enjoy the delight of spring.
I always leave some Dandelions in the garden after the fall harvest, so that I can dig them up in the spring for the nutritious early greens, as well as the nutritious roots. I planted some coffee Chicory last spring as well. I left most of the crop to go to seed, but had to try some Chicory and Dandelion coffee. The coffee Chicory roots are much larger than I expected, and are a crop well worth planting. I scrubbed the roots and trimmed off the fine root hairs from the Dandelions,
and roasted them in a 200 degree oven until crisp and golden brown.
27 April 2009
All signs pointed to an early spring, and they have not disappointed, we are working ground and planting seeds at least two weeks earlier than last spring. And we are taking full advantage of the time. All signs are pointing to a dry season as well, so we are planting in time to catch the generous spring rains, and then mulching over much of the garden to hold that precious rainfall in the soil. We cannot count out a late snow fall yet, but a bit of snow wouldn't hurt the crops we have planted: potatoes, carrots, parsnip and peas so far. The onions, beets, turnips and grains will follow next. I also re-planted the biennial seed saving crop of onions, carrots, beets, and turnips, as well as the solitary leek that overwintered under mulch in the garden.
We are amazed at how quickly the snow melt has been absorbed into the ground this spring, the ground seemed thirsty, and our well had dropped quite low over the winter. Our cumulative snowfall for the winter of 2008/9 came to 13'4", just under last winter's at 14'2", but if I hadn't kept records, I would have thought this past winter had half the snow as 2007/8, judging by the ground moisture.
An early spring has also meant an early re-appearance of Spring Peepers, as well as the migratory birds. Although the Peepers sounded their first herald of spring with gusto on Saturday evening, the migratory birds have not shown up in their usual numbers. Last spring we could not count the dozens of Robins, Grackles, Red-Winged Blackbirds and Starlings that flooded the sodden pastures, overturning manure for the treasure trove of earthworms. This spring, only a modest 4 dozen Grackles, a handful of Blackbirds, no Starlings as of yet, and perhaps 6 dozen Robins. Again, last spring the view out my kitchen windows was hopping with pairs of a half-dozen species of Sparrows, scooping up weed-seeds and flitting back and forth to the trees. This spring, only a single pair of Song Sparrows have graced my view. Not to mention the song, last spring it was a cacophony, and this spring it is a mere twitter.
We were aware of the decline of the swallow, flycatcher, and wood thrush populations locally, and have greatly desired their healthy return, to contend with the abundance of biting and blood-sucking insects. But there seems to be a decline in even the heartiest little bird fellows. Birds can be an invaluable ally in the organic garden, and I am learning more about how to create habitat, here in their summer breeding grounds, but if they simply do not return, it is a sad loss.
The return of the birds, the emergence of the peepers and the awakening of the bees are the three crucial signs of ecological health I watch closely. The bees are yet to appear, although this past weekend, sunny and 60F, should have brought them out, searching for pollen. And there is a source of pollen awaiting them in the trees. Dandelions and clover blooms are still a month away, but the hungry little bees make their first honey from an unlikely source.
This poplar bud has burst into long catkins, covered with minuscule flowers, all dusted with pollen.
Maple flowers are starting to open, revealing their nectar.
And the furry pussy willow has transformed into a bristle of delicate yellow stamens.
20 April 2009
Now that the milk is all ours, I have been rubbing my hands together with all of my dairy desires. Butter and yogurt are on the top of the list. I have a mid 20th century cream separator, designed for the home dairy in mind, but that would be the home cow dairy. It is inefficient to put less than a gallon through the separator, so I saved up milk for two days, so that I would have a gallon and a half. When we were milking a Jersey cow, I separated the cream twice a day, and also had to wash the darn thing twice a day. So I am quite happy to reduce that chore to once every two days.
The milk must be warm to separate, between 95-105F, so I warmed it on top of a pan of boiling water, double-boiler style, to be sure that the milk did not scald.
The cream separator works just as well for the goat's cream as it did for the cow's cream. In fact, I think it separated better with the temperature of the milk above 100F. Cream is more viscous when it is warm, and does not stick to the discs inside of the separator as much. My pail of fresh cow's milk, after being filtered, would likely have cooled down to 85 to 95F by the time it made it to the separator. When I took the cream separator apart after the first run with the goat's milk, I noticed that very little cream had been left inside.
One perk of using a cream separator is that it makes perfect cappuccinos! I worked as a barrista at a fancy restaurant in my city days, and in my prime could hardly have made such perfect peaks as these.
I collected cream for 6 days, until I had a quart. It took about 4 gallons of milk to make a quart of cream, which would work out to 4% butterfat. The cream is perfectly white, instead of the rich creamy color of Jersey cream, but it has a delicate and mild flavor, and it kept well without going sour. I actually think that the goat's cream has a more mild flavor than the Jersey cream, and I had more problems with cream spoilage. I could usually only keep the Jersey cream for 4-5 days max before it would start to sour and make off-flavored butter. But not so with the goat's cream, it was still sweet and fresh on the sixth day.
Again, my butter churn is designed for the home cow dairy, and can fit up to 2.5 quarts of cream, but one quart is the minimum. It came with a small hand-crank, and I used to turn that handle for at least 20 minutes before churning the butter out, but Mr. Fritillary, always looking to improve designs, fitted the drill onto the shaft that the handle was screwed onto, and made churning butter into a 3 minute job.
The goat's cream behaved just the same as cow's cream, except that it can be worked at a slightly lower temperature, between 55-60F.
The butter is pure white, and again, I would use the word delicate to describe it. Both in texture and in flavor. It was slightly softer than cow's butter when I was working the buttermilk out, due to the factor that it seems to melt at a lower temperature. I made sure to drain off the buttermilk first, it was sweet just like the cream, and great for baking.
The butter is delicious, creamy, mild, and not at all "goaty". Never once, in my home goat dairy experience, have I found either the milk, or any products of it, to be "goaty" in flavor or smell. We did try some goat's milk from the farmer's market before buying our goats, and found it to be slightly tangy, but not off-putting, and figured we would get used to the flavor. But the flavor of the milk, whether cow or goat, is often due to handling, cleanliness and freshness. And our own goat's milk is fresh, clean and from a healthy animal, and that makes all the difference.
One quart of cream makes one pound of butter, so I should be getting one pound of butter every 6 days, along with a quart of yogurt a day, and 1.5 quarts of skimmed milk a day. And that is with a single dairy-cross goat. It is perfect for us, and we would be able to put away plenty of milk and butter for the dry-season, as well as making cheeses, with one more dairy-cross, or with just one pure dairy goat. But with the two dairy-cross does, we will also be able to provide for our own meat as well, from the kids. And two does still consume about 1/3 the amount of one small dairy cow.
I couldn't resist making up some buttermilk pancakes with fresh butter, what a treat!
And with all of that extra skimmed milk, made some yogurt. Dairy heaven! In the past, I have purchased store-bought yogurt, Balkan style, with active acidophilus cultures, as my yogurt starter. But I thought I'd try the freeze-dried packets at the health food store. It has three bacterial cultures, including acidophilus.
The resulting yogurt has a thinner texture than I expected, but creamy and well flavored, slightly-tangy. In my second batch, I used 1/2 cup of yogurt from the previous batch, to culture each quart. I'm not sure that this yogurt will work well for drained-yogurt, a cream-cheese-like spread. If not, then I will try again with the Balkan style yogurt starter.
17 April 2009
The hardiest of our perennials and biennials are left un-mulched, and completely un-bothered by the snow and cold. I am always amazed to see green leaves appear from under all of that snow. Thyme and oregano are some tough little herbs.
This mullein plant was started last spring, and needed no mulching. The spine covered leaves are like a fur coat.
I left a few tender biennial vegetables heavily mulched in the garden, as an experiment to get both early greens and to produce seeds. I used spoiled hay, propping the compressed biscuits around the plants, with at least 2-4 inches of insulation from all directions. When the snow melted this week, exposing my mulched plots, I found a lot of mold on they hay, not surprising, but unfortunately, again encouraging the decomposition of the plants. The kale stems are rotted, and not likely to sprout. We used our wheat straw over the garlic, which to be honest, I don't think really needs to be mulched in our climate. But the straw did not promote decomposition and mold, like the spoiled hay did, so next winter I will try both an un-mulched plot of late planted kale, and a plot mulched with straw.
I also mulched around four leeks with the spoiled hay biscuits, with not much success. One of them still has a firm crown, and looks like it will sprout. Again, I will try the straw and see if that makes the difference.
15 April 2009
And the does are nibbling on poplar buds and bark. The tannins in the poplar bark have a de-worming property, along with pumpkin or squash seeds, parsley and wormwood, we are treating them for worms. Neither looks to be infested, along with their general condition, we check the color of the inside of their eyelids. Pink-red means very healthy and shades of pale pink mean that the animal is anemic. They are both on the pink-red scale, but spring is a good time to treat for worms.
Pilgrim finally had his first good bucking romp in the field this Saturday (before we got another foot of snow on Sunday, still melting). He started with a good series of bucks, which I of course missed with the camera, except the very last one, he is in mid-buck when this little clip starts. Not bad for a 13 year old ex-racetrack horse. The dogs got pretty excited about the whole thing too.
At this point, I began to wonder where this all was going, when Mr. Fritillary handed me an egg carton, and asked how it made me feel, and what it made me think. Now I could appreciate the direction this was going. I was immediately confused, in a subtle way: was this food? Doubt: Where did these eggs come from? How were they produced? How fresh are they? How far have they traveled? And then there was driving to town, supermarkets, prices, organic or omega-3, fat and cholesterol. These feelings hit me like a brick in my stomach. How long would this carton last? How many meals could I get out of it? When would I be able to get to town again? (We do not have the option around here of buying eggs from a local small farm.) Scarcity and anxiety tugged at me on one end, and on the other end over-production and waste from our own past market egg production: How big is our local market? How much do we charge? Are we covering the cost of producing the eggs? What do we do with the surplus? Are we providing the best, highest quality product, or do we have to cut corners in order to cover the costs because quality food is not valued in the local food-culture? Food is expected to be cheap, and we could not contend with the ethical compromises of producing cheap food. And worse yet, if we did compromise, producing and selling cheap food would only perpetuate the cycle because we could only afford to buy cheap food on those wages. There are quite a few stories in that egg carton. Among them, the story of our becoming primarily subsistence farmers, on a self-reliant scale, each year trying to keep our interaction with the market economy contained and under our control, so that it does not contaminate our entire lives in the way that this single egg carton demonstrated.
Batter: 3 eggs lightly beaten, 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup whole milk or light cream. The batter will be runny. You can pour this batter plain, into a greased muffin pan, filling each cup half way. Or you can add a tablespoon of sugar and fruit (dried or fresh). Or for Toad in a Hole, add half a teaspoon salt, your favorite herbs, and one small onion, diced and sauteed until beginning to brown, mix into batter. For the Toad part, make marble sized meatballs (a la breakfast sausage patties) and brown them in a frying pan, or use slices of dried or cooked sausage. Drop your choice of meat in the bottom of each greased muffin cup, and pour batter over, just to cover or half-full. Bake in moderately hot oven (375F), until fluffy and browned, about 15 minutes. Best enjoyed steaming hot!
I never was a fan of meringue pies, at least not the store bought kind. But I'm digging up all kinds of egg recipes, and gave it a try. The recipe was for a basic vanilla pudding, and press-in crumb crust. I used oat flour in place of 3/4 of the whole wheat flour, making a soft textured pie crust. And I added some dried blueberries and chopped dried apples, along with a dash of cardamom and nutmeg to the pudding (in place of the vanilla). The pie didn't last long, but my favorite part was the pudding, and I am quite happy with this oat pie crust, it held together very well. It went something like this: 1 cup oat flour, 1/4 cup whole wheat flour, 1 tablespoon lard (or softened butter), mix, then add spoon fulls of water (I tried milk too, but it made the crust too crumbly) until the mixture holds together and is slightly sticky. Press into lightly greased pan and bake 10 minutes at 350. Pour pudding (using your preference of thickener, flour, cornstarch or arrowroot) into baked pie crust. Beat egg whites, adding a teaspoon of sugar, a sprinkle at a time, until frothy. Spread evenly on pudding, bake 5 minutes at 350 until browned. Cool to room temperature before cutting.
08 April 2009
Our water garden... under a foot of water by the time the sun poked out in the afternoon yesterday. I could see my stinging nettles in the perennial herb bed just loving the flood, and I'm anxious to see how the kale, chard, leeks and of course garlic, have overwintered under the heavy mulch. Hopefully the kale and chard will produce some early greens before going to seed, and I'm also hoping for some seed from the wintered leeks.
Water was gathering in the fields and around the house and barns like we have never seen it, running in streams, searching for the lowest point. Our manure piles along the garden became dikes, and for a few hours, we had a pond at the front door. Don't fret, no basement to flood, and we are safely on blocks 3 feet above ground.
The barn became an island by evening, our first year we realized that we needed to dig a mote around the front of the barn, we had not expected spring melts like this. So now there is a channel for the water to run around behind the barns and out into the low spot in our Northern pasture.
It was great to finally see the sun after so many days of mist and rain.
By morning, most of the moisture had been soaked up by the thawing ground, except our usual spring ponds. This one in the north pasture and grain fields is a favorite of Canada Geese and American Black Ducks. A pair of geese flew in this morning, 12 days earlier than last spring, gleaning the remains of last year's rye and wheat fields. We had up to nine geese and five ducks last year, the pond sticks around through April, into mid-May even. Looking forward to seeing who shows up this year.
06 April 2009
As omnivores, our diets are incredibly flexible, the most stubborn part of our foodculture is the culture. We become accustomed to certain foods, tastes and textures, but we can also acclimate our taste buds to a new custom. Temporal diets don't work because food is culture, and we cannot easily stick to an imposed foodculture for a period of time, any more than we can pretend to be from a different ethnic culture for a short time. But we can adopt a new culture over time. My three years of homesteading has gradually acculturated me to a very different relationship to food than I ever had, an inherently intimate relationship to food and it's proportions.
A frugal diet makes sense, not only in the kitchen, but in the garden and barnyard as well. We have been shifting our diet to the types of foods we can easily grow ourselves, even if we are not growing them yet. Meats, fat, eggs and diary are the most resource intense foods to raise, so we use them frugally and seasonally. Grains, storage vegetables and fruits make up the bulk of our diet. Fresh greens are abundant in season, but we are working on keeping a small supply of greens coming most of the year. When fresh greens are not available, we rely on a good dose of herbal tea, including dried alfalfa, stinging nettle and mullein, to provide us with a spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Even common culinary herbs and spices provide the body with various vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Food is life, it is the best preventative medicine.
So here's some of the frugal cooking techniques I have been practicing in the kitchen. First it helps to buy in bulk, and ration your usage. I don't mean to the point of deprivation, just have an idea of how much you use in a month, watch your use throughout the month, and stick to it. Experiment with cutting expensive ingredients or substituting ingredients that are difficult or impossible to grow locally.
In deserts, I cut the sugar and fat in half, sometimes only using 1/4 of the amount. I usually use one egg in a desert recipe, substituting for the rest with applesauce, pumpkin puree, or milk. I often substitute oats for part of the flour, oats are generally less expensive than flour, they add sweetness to the desert as well as texture and bran. Dried fruits, applesauce, pumpkin puree, milk and oats have a certain amount of natural sweetness, and replace some of the sugar I cut out of the recipe. Even chocolate cake tastes great with oats, by pouring boiling water over a cup of rolled oats, and mixing in a tablespoon of butter, fat or oil, you can replace a couple of eggs in a cake recipe, and maintain the moist texture. You can even cut the amount of cocoa to 3/4 or 1/2, and add up to a tablespoon of cinnamon (depending on the recipe), along with your favorite spices like ground clove, cardamom or even coriander (one of my favorite desert spices), or if you love spice, a dash of cayenne goes great with chocolate. The spices add complexity to the desert, and you wont miss the reduction in cocoa. Fiddling with desert recipes takes some experimentation, but even if they are not the perfect cookies the first time, you can't go too wrong with flour, oats, sugar, fat, egg, milk and dried fruit, no matter the proportions. If you cut the sugar too far, spread with jam. If you make something with a truly inedible texture, break it up and toss with cubed bread and make a bread pudding out of it.
Meat: We can our meat, which I find to be a surprisingly versatile way to preserve meat. It is also easy to ration. If you are keeping meat in the freezer, either wrap it in small portions, or keep a strict practice of only serving your pre-determined ration once the meat is cooked, reserving the rest for leftovers and subsequent meals. We keep our meat consumption to 10 lbs a month, excepting a few feasts at butchering time. This comes to 1/3 lb a day, between the two of us. Meat is never the main course on our plates (except those few exceptions which can be planned for holidays or family celebrations). I often make a meat sauce or gravy to accompany grains and vegetables. Use a small amount of meat with a good meat stock in a soup, the flavor is rich and intense, as well as nourishing. I make meatballs with the canned meat, flaked like tuna, and mixed with rolled oats, sauteed onion, a bit of flour and milk and/or egg, and spices/herbs. Try some vegetarian meatloaf recipes, with a bit of meat in addition. Pastry or shepherds pies are another frugal use of meat. Frugal meatballs on a bed of Faux Carrot Kraut.
Grains: The least expensive grains (at least in our area) are barley, oats and peas and we incorporate a lot of these three grains in our diet, they are also easy for us to grow and do not require a lot of fertility. Next comes wheat and beans, followed by lentils, millet, rice and quinoa. We are growing more and more of our grains at home each year, but we still purchase what we don't grow in bulk. When poor populations go hungry, it is usually due to grain prices being too high, the manipulation of grain prices in the commodities market is a criminal action. Purchasing your grains locally, from small farms or mills who buy from local farmers is the next best thing to growing them yourself. If you have the space for a large potato patch, you probably have room to grow some of your grains, they require less fertility than potatoes, and in my experience, one pound of cooked grains replaces 3 pounds of potatoes, and provides higher protein and nutrition. For a few reasons, one being that we cannot grow rice, another being the strong impression that last summer's food riots made on us over the doubling of rice prices, we decided to stop buying rice, and have found two substitutes, both at half the cost. Whole oat groats cook up to a similar consistency of rice, and goes nicely with stir-fries. Barley makes a great pilaf substitute. A great way to prepare it is to toast one pound of pot barley in oil, fat or butter until beginning to brown, then covering with water as you would rice, boil until water is absorbed and grain is tender. At this point you can add herbs, spices, onion, garlic, and even vegetables (diced or grated carrot, green beans, etc.), and your frugal portion of meat. Mix all the ingredients, cover and put into a hot oven to finish cooking, this way the barley does not burn on the bottom, and the whole dish has a chance to steam together. It is delicious, can be eaten with a tomato sauce and bread, or you can keep the vegetables for a side dish. Millet can also be prepared like this. Peas, beans and lentils are of course high in protein, and can substitute meat for the day. Toasted pot barley and green beans.
Toasted millet and green peas.
Fruits and Vegetables: Frugal is homegrown and preserved. If you have a foodculture that does not match your climate in this department, than perhaps your most frugal option would be to adjust your diet to the types of vegetables and fruit that you can grow yourself, and then start planning the garden to fulfill those needs.
Dairy, eggs, fats and oils: Use sparingly and seasonally. Be creative.
The trick is to find a balance, being frugal and sticking to your food budget, but also leaving room for creativity and celebrations. Plan celebrations at certain times of year. I always keep a treat for us during the months of March, April and May especially, after living out of the pantry for 4-6 months and before the garden is even planted. We have a few great feasts, celebrating our harvests in the fall. We splurge on each food when it is in season, getting our fill of fresh blueberries in July and broccoli in September, then bidding our time for the next season, nibbling on dried blueberries to remind us of summer's flavor.
For inspiration, here's a few of our spring meals, inspired by Mr Fritillary. He comes into the kitchen when I get into a rut, and spices things up (not because he's not willing the rest of the time, but because I keep the key to the kitchen and pantry, it's MY space! If you've ever lived in 300 sq ft with another human being through 5 months of lock-down winter, you'll appreciate our little islands of space).
Organic Tater-tots: 5 medium potatoes grated fine (Yukon Gold is especially nice), mix with 1/4 cup yellow pea flour (or substitute with whole wheat flour, but the pea flour adds a great flavor, as well as protein), salt and curry spice (or spice to your liking). Form into small patties and fry in 1/4 inch of high-temperature oil or fat in a cast iron skillet until browned on both sides. Could be baked, but these were intended as a treat, comfort food.
Samosa and spicy apple mint sauce.