Sunday, December 9, 2012

Pop goes the soda

I have to confess. I like pop (or soda for our friends south of the border). I grew up with Coke as my Uncle Al was a GM at Coke in Saskatchewan. To this day an ice cold Coke in a glass bottle reminds me of that sweet giant of a man who left us far too early.

One of the things I love about the way we live is the inventiveness of it. When looking at what we eat and drink to figure out if we can be more DIY with it, we often find people who have boldly gone there before.

Commercial soda pop is made with sugar, water, flavouring and carbon dioxide gas in water (carbonated water) . Once thought to be a healthy practice, the drinking of carbonated water now mainly occurs through commercial soda pops -- highly laced with sugar and other sweeteners and mostly artificial flavours.

So when reading through Rachel Kaplan and Ruby Blume's book "Urban Homesteading" (highly recommended!!) I was thrilled to find a way to make our own soda. This lacto-fermented treat is right up my alley (and literally the pop started is sitting on my counter next to the milk Kefir and the Kimchi -- both lacto-fermentations of different food types.) So I thought -- why not!?!

The recipe begins, as all fermentations do, with a starter culture. This starter consists fermenting ginger root and sugar in water. Starting with a tablespoon of finely grated ginger and two teaspoons of water, you then 3/4 fill a mason jar (1 gallon) with un-chlorinated water (actually I used a two-gallon mason jar and doubled the recipe). Put a lid on it, but not too tight. Over the course of the next seven days, continue to add two teaspoons of grated ginger and two teaspoons of sugar to the liquid. You will notice it will get quite active.

Once you have a nice lively starter, you simply mix 2 c of the starter (saving two cups to begin a new starter) with fruit juice, water, a1/2 tsp of salt, and 1 c of sweetener (honey, agave, or maple syrup). I put this into a 2 gallon jug with a fermentation lock. You want enough liquid in the jug to fill it to the neck. Once everything is mixed and you put the fermentation lock on, sit the jug in a warm spot for 3-4 days to get bubbly.

Once it is bubbly, you put the liquid into pressure bottles. I got some at the supermarket with some other drink inside and we used  a few that were beer bottles. Once bottled, store it in the fridge (or outside if it is winter) but make sure you relieve some of the pressure on the bottles every couple days. Lacto-fermented foods can pack quite a punch if allowed to build up too much.

The first batch I made I used the recipe in "Urban Homesteading" for Lemon-Grapefruit soda. I also put a bit more grated ginger into the jug for the final fermentation. It made it a bit too strong in the ginger department for me so I have omitted it in my next batch of apple, orange and mango soda.

Really the options are endless for experimentation with fruit juices. This method might also be nice using some vegetable juices that need a bit of a "lift' out of their often thick stodginess.

The result isn't even close to the cloyingly sweet concoctions you buy called soda and the ginger base may take a little getting used to, but this is a very refreshing and light drink. I am going to try it with the juice of some frozen blackberries that I have and maybe even some of the blueberries will find their way into a fruit syrup for this drink. 

If you give this a try, let me know how it goes for you. Would love to hear about your combinations.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ruminations on a Fall Day

I took advantage of a beautiful break in the weather to put the bees to bed. As it was such a long dry fall with little nectar available, we decided in September to give them some feed so they had enough stores to last through winter.

Our feed consists of 2:1 sugar water that is poured into top feeders where the bees can access it as they desire.Three hives took everything we gave them and two left quite a bit.

Today putting them to bed meant I removed the last of the top feeders and took a quick look at the girls. I didn't open the hive as it was a cool day and I didn't want to let too much heat out.We shall see in the spring if they all had enough to survive the cold.

Neat Fact: Bees will maintain an internal hive temperature of 34 degrees Celsius (that's 94 degrees Farenheit!) no matter if it is 40 above or 40 below). Needless to say, keeping the hive that warm in winter requires a lot of caloric burn.

It was a truly glorious fall day and while I was removing the feeders a few bees flew around me checking me out. They quickly circled my head then went back inside. Too cold out to stay long. Bees really only like coming out of the hive if it is above about 12-15 degrees Celsius so at 11 degrees they were pushing it. The picture above is from earlier in the year and the dark orange "leg warmers" the bees seem to be wearing is plant pollen that has stuck to the bees while they were gorging on nectar.

Getting back home, I was also cooled by the northern push of the air. Perfect kind of day for a long slow roasting meal so I decided on braised lamb shanks

Improvising with what I had, here is the recipe I used (the amounts are guesstimates so use your good judgement):

2 Lamb shanks
1/4c flour
2 tsp paprika powder (grown and dried by my good friend Marilyn -- from whom I also got the lamb!!)
freshly ground pepper
1 onion sliced
2tbsp minced garlic (about 2-3 toes -- I like garlic!)
1tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
tbsp italian seasoning
splash or two of Maggi
1/2c good red wine (I used a 2006 Manoustakis Nostos from Greece that my son, who works for a wine merchant, gave us-- I figured the Greeks have masterful lamb cuisine so greek wine should help me )
1c dried mushrooms (mine were a combination of white button and chanterelle that I had previously dried -- but you can also use fresh)
1c boiling water (poured over the mushrooms and saved)

Mix the flour, pepper, paprika in a dish. Coat the lamb shank with the flour mix. Using a heavy enamel-coated dutch oven, heat the olive oil and then brown the shanks in it. I did mine one at a time to make sure I got them each nice and brown. Remove the shanks and add the butter to the dutch oven. Add onions and stir til translucent then add garlic. This mixture should pick up all the brown bits created by lamb shanks.

Put lamb shanks back into pot. Pour in red wine, mushrooms and the water used to soak them, spice, Maggi and the salt. Another nice addition to this dish would have been tomato sauce -- which I had fully intended on putting in but forgot.

With the heavy lid on, put the dutch oven into a 300degree oven and leave for 2.5-3 hours. Serve with barley risotto, or rice, or boiled potatoes -- whatever strikes your fancy and some roasted root vegetables.  Will warm you up on any Fall day.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

The crust's the thing.....

It is a Thanksgiving tradition in my family as in many many others.....the homemade pumpkin pie. And as much as the rich, pudding quality of the spicy pumpkin mash is the star, the best supporting actor is the crust.

But it seems that crust can be an intimidating creation. It is crust that sends new cooks scurrying for the supermarket freezer aisle. It is crust that debates shortening or lard. And the camps don't seem in a hurry to declare a truce.

Shortening gained favour during the "all fat is bad for you" era and lard, being the rendered fat of pigs, was so declasse. However, shortening has its shortcomings. It melts quickly. And it is fussy. Work it too much and you get a tough, nearly inedible sheet of cardboard. Growing up, this trouble with shortening even made the small screen. I remember a commercial with a woman with a strong accent (French, I believe) saying when you use shortening, you get a "short" crust, which I believe means a crust that is finicky, demands as little working as necessary to get it combined. Crust made with shortening is a diva.

Now my Auntie Doreen could not abide a diva crust. She was more of a wham, bam cook and if the ingredients couldn't take it, she fired them to bring in the understudy. So in our family, we used lard.  Lard is generous, forgiving even. This pie crust recipe, handed down to me from Doreen through my mom, can stand a good mixing, either in the KitchenAid or by hand. It is a true supporting cast member, always letting the star shine while quietly holding up the scene. It sits happily in the refrigerator (sometimes as long as a couple months) just waiting to fill in in a moment of need.

It is neither sweet nor savory in itself so dessert or dinner pies are equally embraced. Once warmed a bit from its stasis in the fridge, it rolls out easily and allows even the thinnest of sheets to be used.

So to thank my Aunt, who was a force of nature in herself, I am sharing her crust recipe. Don't fret about the lard. It is a natural, earthy ingredient that requires very little in the way of processing to get it to a useable state. You can do it at home -- and if  you look through my blogs, you will see how easy and cheap it is. I doubt that shortening can say any of that. 


5 c flour                       2 tbsp white vinegar
1tsp salt                       2/3 c water
3 tbsp br. sugar            1 egg
1 lb. lard

Mix flour, salt, brown sugar and lard. Add vinegar to the water then beat in the egg. Add liquid mix to the dry mix and combine until it forms a ball. Wrap the ball in plastic wrap (cling film) and refrigerate at least overnight before use. Should last 2 weeks in fridge but I have had it there over a month.

Makes six double crust pies or countless tarts.

Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Of Bees and Beekeepers

This being our second year of beekeeping, we approached managing the bees with firm conviction in our philosophy of "Healthy Bees". Deciding over the course of the long months of last winter that what we really wanted to manage for was healthy bees (honey and other bee "crops" being a happy side effect of our mantra). Our approach to the ominous and ever-present varroa mite was of the mildest and closest to natural product we could find -- thymol (oil of thyme) and a firm conviction that we would not take off every last tablespoon of honey but instead leave much behind for the bees.

We embraced the spring with all four hives surviving and an optimism that, like all farming optimism, would be challenged during the year.

We lost one hive to a drone-laying queen. This is when, basically, a queen runs out of sperm with which to fertilize eggs leaving only her  DNA to create drones.  This condition means that there are no worker bees to create honeycomb, tend brood, bring in nectar, pollen and propolis. Drones' only function in life is to mate and thus they are a terrible drain on the colony. We fumbeled our way through dealing with this finally dumping all the bees out quite a distance away from the hive and requeening it with a strong queen and some bees from another. It survived quite nicely.

One of the hardest things we have to do as beekeepers is not OVER-manage our hives. Especially as new beeks, we definitely were too invasive last year. Even so, watching for signs that the bees may swarm does require some in-the-hive interventions. But we still had two swarm--one almost to the point of the death of the hive. Again learning another valuable lesson about bees -- they have an agenda.

So even with one drone-layer colony and two swarmed colonies, we had one hive that just blossomed (love the pun). The queen was strong, the colony expanded and, wow, could the workers ever bring in nectar. From this hive alone we got 97 pounds (approx. 44kg) of honey.

So we got busy extracting. Now this is really STICKY work! Supers of honey (the wooden boxes that are put on top of the hives) are filled with frames and on these frames, worker bees build comb. Now in the bottom boxes a lot of this comb is used to raise brood -- thus it is called brood comb -- and is very dark compared to honey comb.

In the upper most boxes the workers build honeycomb (although the blighters can get filled with brood if you have an agile queen). This comb tends to be white or light yellow wax, which is also highly prized for candle making.

Worker bees out foraging collect nectar in their honey stomachs and pollen on their legs and backs. All this comes back to the hive for storage in comb. While in the honey stomach, an enzyme called invertase is added to the nectar and converts the the sucrose (type of sugar in nectar) to fructose and glucose. Basically, the bee pre-digests the nectar.

Once back at the hive the nectar is regurgitated (yep honey starts out as bee vomit!) and packed into the comb. Then the process of reducing the moisture content through fanning begins. Once the moisture content is decreased to 17% the bees cap the comb with wax and--VOILA--honey storage!!

This capped comb is how a beekeeper knows the honey is ready. If taken before that at a higher moisture content the nectar will attract yeast and ferment -- but not in a good way like when making mead. The result is a bitter and will rapidly spoil. 

On the other hand, honey at the right moisture level is nearly impermeable to yeast and bacteria so last nearly forever -- as made apparent by findings of edible honey in Egyptian tombs.

With capped honey comes the Beekeeper's greatest day -- extracting day.

More about this in the next blog.......


Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Mighty Pickle

This year I found myself inundated with ripe cucumbers. Too energetic a gardening plan and a suddenly overburdened schedule meant that the garden was more neglected that tended this  year.  So according to my philosophy of life....make lemonade. Or in this case ripe cucumber pickles.

Now there isn't much difference between the green cucs you tend to find in stores and the ripe ones except their peel colour and potentially a bit of softening. There are three types of cucumber: picking, slicing and burpless (English). My ripe crop is of the slicing cuc variety ripened to a colour that just screams summer.

Thanks to my pickling guru, Leonard Levinson (I have spoken before about his fantastic book,  The Complete Book of Pickles and Relishes) I found a lovely recipe called "Sun Glow Spears" to take up what would otherwise be a lost crop.

While this is a recipe that takes place over two days, it definitely ISN'T two days work so don't let that keep you from trying this!

12 large ripe cucumbers                                    2c sugar
6 large onions                                                    2 tbsp white mustard seed
1 cup salt (I use pickling)                                  2 tsps celery seed
4 quarts water                                                     2 tsps turmeric
3 cups vingear
1 cup water

Day 1: Pare (and I peeled) cucumbers, slice in quarters lengthwise, cut off seeds. Soak cucumbers and sliced onions overnight in brine made of the 4 quarts water and 1 cup salt. I weigh mine down with the lid of one of my crocks for a while until the liquid comes easily up over everything. (HINT: Make sure you put the bowl of soaking pickle somewhere where a little spillage isn't going to ruin your day. Mine sat out on our back deck overnight as the nights are cool enough here and there was a small stream evident in the morning.) The salt's job is to bring out a lot of the liquid of the cucumber and onion so an already full bowl overflows quite quickly and this salting is what makes a pickle a pickle.

Day 2: Drain the cucumbers and onions well. Combine remaining ingredients in large pot and cook for 5 minutes. Add cucumbers and onions; heat to boiling. Place into hot, sterilized quart jars and fill with liquid. Seal.

Makes 6 quarts.

These are incredibly tasty and of such a bright yellow that they pay homage to the hot dry summers that cucumbers love so well.  In the middle of a dreary winter night they are bright and pungent.

 Serve cold with ANYTHING!

I am especially proud of these little babies as they also include the first crop of celery seed from my garden. I can't believe I have never grown celery before...there are SO many uses for the plant and seed....But more about that in a later blog.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Melancholy of Fall

Always, even as a kid, I loved the Fall. The back to school shopping, the hectic warm days and cool nights, helping my mom can whatever bounty came from the garden and going out fishing with my dad.

As a young mom  I canned most everything I could find and specialized in "free fruit" -- that fruit that grows abandoned beside the road, in vacant lots, or drops to the ground unused in your neighbours yard.  When the kids were small, it was what sustained us through lean winters while I was a student and early on in my career. I still love that about Fall -- all its promise of comforting nights to come, its self-satisfaction from hard work done and shining on the kitchen counter, its promise that your own efforts will sustain you. 

But as I get older, as the kids have moved on to start their own lives, I find that my Fall work leads me more and more to a melancholy place. My mother died in the Fall. Good friends seem to have passed away in remarkable numbers in the Fall. The smells of Fall so evocative of the final ripening of the earth now more than hint at the slowing down and ceasing of life. In a poem I wrote about my mom's end of life journey I called it a "slow-down winding" and that term seems as apt now as it was two years ago.....but now I see it in relation to everything.

Maudlin maybe, but Fall now, for me, is as much about remembering that life is short as it is a time to prepare for long, cold nights. It is a time of great gratitude and moments of intense sadness. Life is so good right now that it seems strange that it is tinged with this melancholy but maybe that is what sharpens my focus, my determination, my (hopefully) humble joy at the way things turned out.

Our bees have taught me a lot about the melancholy of Fall. A typical hive expands to 60,000+ members during the hectic and frenetic flows of summer only to begin dropping in number with the cooling of the nights and the shortening of the daylight. They overwinter with significantly less population and the die off is noticeable. Any remaining drones are kicked out of the hive and die due to cold or wasps or starvation. It is something to watch the younger workers carry off the bodies of those who died in the hive, to be deposited safely away from the entrance to discourage the ever-hungry meat-eating wasps. Bees know it is about preparing to survive the changing conditions and instinctively do what is necessary to prepare the colony. They are thinking about Spring.

New beginnings always come from endings. And it is in the ending of things that we learn our best and most precious lessons.  I hope I have learned them well.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Smoking the Ham: Pig-a-poolooza continues....

Pig-a-poolooza 2012 started a month ago when we took possession of half a farm-raised pig from Betsy and Peter. Determined to try to do everything possible ourselves, we took charge of the majority of the porker in a freshly butchered state. I had really wanted to try making our own ham, after the success we had with bacon. On doing some research, we determined that we weren't sure if we had the right conditions to do a dry cure (although Gerry has since bought a temperature and humidity probe and is now charting our cellar conditions) and opted instead for a wet cure.

Now a leg of pork is a fairly hefty item to immerse in we improvised and sacrificed our wine fermenting bucket to the cause. Creating enough brine of salt, pink salt, and water we weighted down the leg of pork, along with a hock and part of a loin, with the lid of one of my pickling crocks then stowed the entire porky-soup out in the garage (sometimes it is good to live in a cold winter this would NOT have fit in the fridge). Three weeks in, we retrieved the hock and the loin and smoked it with the pork belly that had been curing in the downstairs fridge. Bacon heaven!

Yesterday, we retrieved the leg, hoping that the huge joint of meat would fit into our Big Chief Smoker. Miracle of miracles, it fit perfectly.

Now, never having attempted smoking something so dense, we started up the smoker at 1pm in the afternoon with chips that had soaked overnight in water. We filled once during the day and then again before we went to bed, hopeful that the aroma of smoking meat would entice any neighbourhood borrowers. In the morning we refilled the chips and went about our day. Two more fillings and by 7 pm the ham seemed done enough.

It now sits, resting comfortably on the counter while we talk about the size of dinner party we are going to have to really show the appreciation necessary to the fantastic cut of meat. I am thinking of taking it back to the butcher who did the pig for us and having him shrink wrap the entire joint so that it doesn't lose any of its presentation splendour. That way we can freeze it to last longer. Before that, however, we are going to research dry storage to see if we can avoid freezing and how long the leg may last.

With the delicious smokiness of this ham, I think a strong glaze of shallots, homemade apricot jam, garlic, and honey should just send it out of this world...hmmmm maybe the annual beekeepers picnic would be the just the place to highlight this gorgeous porker!

 Next stop, sausages.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Knowing the fat -- Rendering Lard

I know that mainstream nutritional media has us thinking that saturated fats are bad for you. Saturated fats are those fats that at room temperature are solids. We should all, apparently, be eating a balance of mono and unsaturated fats: fats which at room temperature remain liquid.

In the rush to provide this to a hungry (sorry) market, Big Food convinced us of the nutritional blessedness of margarine. I can remember buying 5lb plastic tubs of the stuff and recently had one woman tell me a story from her childhood about squishing bags of white margarine between her little hands to burst the packet of yellow food colouring within it.

Then came the transfatty acid scandal. It seems that in order to take canola oil (or other naturally liquid oils) and make them solid (like butter)-- hydrogenezation-- a chemical process occurred that created a new form of fat that our bodies have no idea what to do with.

The question then is, what about the traditional fats. My grandparents (none of which were farmers by the way -- all townies with townie type non-exercise jobs) ate butter and lard. My grandmothers  lived into their 90s. It was only in their later years that my grandmothers really experienced deterioration -- and these were age not nutrition related. My two grandfathers can't really be used as a case in point as one died of emphysema from his coal mining days and one died of an allergic reaction to medication while in hospital. So apparently a life of natural fats wasn't the death trap they are made out to be.

If you really want to understand how we got where we are check out the recent NPR story on Lard at Fascinating look at how politics creates what our food understandings are. For a really good understanding of the place that fats (of all natural kinds) play in our own cellular biology read a book called Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon -- I really had no idea about the interaction of it all and the necessity of fat in the strong functioning of our brains.

So here we are -- we had half a pig that needed to be taken care of. Pigs are wonderful sources of clear white fat that, once rendered down, becomes the best lard you can imagine.

The kidney fat of a pig is where the whitest of lard comes from but I rendered all the fat (had to ask the butcher to bag it and not throw it away) by cutting it up in strips (cubes would have been quicker) and putting on a cookie sheet. Heating the oven to 300 degrees to start I watched as the fat slowly melted and left the "cracklins" behind. As the melting progressed I slowly turned up the heat in the oven to 375. After a couple of hours, all the fat was liquid and I poured the contents of the sheet through a triple layer of cheescloth into a large measuring cup.

The cracklins are left in the cheesecloth and get transferred back to the cookie sheet for final crisping (if you have ever eaten pork cracklins in the states, this is where they come from). They need to be fully cooked (not soft AT ALL) otherwise they just taste like soggy pig fat. Crispy they are a delicacy -- my mother-in-law Renny said as kids she and her siblings used to fight over cracklins and ate them on pumpernickel bread.

The lard, thus strained and beautifully clear, then gets poured into glass sealer jars. One goes to the refrigerator for immediate use in our cooking and baking while the rest are put into the freezer. Once frozen this lard should last for over a year.

The taste of homemade lard is much superior to the commercially produced lard you get in a supermarket and comes with the added pleasure of knowing that the life the pig gave up was respected by  complete and thoughtful use of all its parts.

Try may never go back to store bought again!


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dealing with a PIG!

Well you may ask, who am I calling a "pig".....and no, the honeymoon isn't over. The pig in question is a lovely little porker (well half of a lovely little porker) that we picked up from butcher Mark Cardin this morning. Raised by Betsey and Pete on a farm near here, this half a little piggie is destined to become several prize dishes that I will write about in the next couple of blogs.

First off, we asked Mark to do as little butchering as possible....pork belly whole and unsmoked, ham left intact with a very long leg bone, our half of the head, organ meat, fat, several roasts, the ribs, boned loin, a big bag of stew chunks, hocks and feet...quite a nice haul. The roasts, ribs, and hocks went into the freezer for fresh cooking later.

Our plan consists of bacon from the pork belly, a wet cured ham from (which is really the leg), liverwurst from the liver and some pork shoulder, Canadian bacon from one of the boneless loins, sausages from the miscellaneous chunks and some of the fat (maybe with a little venison thrown in for good measure) and headcheese (fromage a tete or suezle if you prefer the more romantic languages) from the head and one of the trotters.

Getting things prepared doesn't take long. We have brining containers, crocks, stock pots, etc. from other things we do so that is a big CHECK. We make sure to sterilize things meticulously as we have battled with bacteria in the past and, just let me say, it isn't winnable. So everything cleaned,....CHECK.

Now for the first of the dishes. BACON. So yea, who doesn't like bacon. I have blogged on our bacon-making before and we haven't bought bacon since our first attempt. It just isn't the same. 

Our smoker just finished three pieces of store-bought belly on Friday so today our farm-raised piggy belly got its harsh rubbing with salt, pink salt, and then, when lodged into a ziploc bag, a good dousing with maple syrup. 11 1/2 lbs of pork belly now cures in the downstairs fridge for two weeks. We flip every few days to make sure the cure gets to all sides of the meat (the rind is still on so that side is harder to penetrate).

Then we will cold smoke for 8-10 hours. Slicing it is the only hard labour left, and as you can see, we have that figured out.  This pic is of the bacon that just came from the smoker yesterday. After chilling for 24 hours in the fridge it is firm enough to slice...and of course to fry!

All this effort really is worth it....for what turns into an hour's worth of labour and two weeks of tending, we have enough bacon to last til mid summer or early fall. Not bad at all in my books.

Next blog -- Rendering Lard, Or "How to make good fat in your oven"