The New Home Economics


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A banner berry year

Apparently, it’s not just me: 2015 is a banner year for all berries in Minnesota! We’ve had bumper crops of strawberries and currants, and the raspberries are just getting started. We even got a handful of cherries from our tiny new cherry tree.

GrapesWe have quite a few grapes on our vine–I am not sure what variety these are but they make a nice jelly and aren’t bad to eat fresh either (they turn purple when ripe). We only get grapes on this thing every 2 years or so, due to multiple factors including rabbits frequently mowing the vine all the way back to the ground some winters.

I was thinking that we’d escaped any grapevine beetle action this year, but then I saw one through the window today! I raced outside with a container of soapy water and sure enough, found six of them, apparently engaging in a grapevine beetle orgy on just a couple of leaves. They didn’t even see me coming.

I don’t get too uptight about grapevine beetles; they don’t cause fatal damage to the plant. But six of them could defoliate the whole thing and that could hurt my grape harvest for this year–plus I want to control them as much as possible since I have two baby grape vines in the back yard that I’m keen to protect. So, to control them: just knock them into a container of soapy water. They’re very easy to catch.

I also saw a Japanese beetle on my hops today, so apparently pest season has begun. I use the same method of control for them, though they are slightly more wary than the grapevine beetles so you have to sneak up on them. Japanese beetles are significantly more worrisome than grapevine beetles because they feed on a whole bunch of different plants.

Currants

I’ve never had a red currant year like this one. We had to resort to making triple batches of Amy Thielen’s red currant compote this week. It’s delicious! We now have 12 half-pint jars of it in the freezer. We also made Adam’s favorite red currant pie.

Pickling gooseberries

Our gooseberries are nearly ready, and the bush is so laden with fruit that a couple branches broke off. We’ve been watching Mind of a Chef season 3 and I also recently read Fäviken (the book), so there’s been all kind of Magnus Nilsson-inspired cooking and preserving going on. Above, we salted green gooseberries, fermented them on the counter for two days, then put them into our pickle/beer fridge. We’ve also tried his herb salt recipe (here’s an adaption of it) and plan to make *a lot* more before the summer’s out.

ChamomileAnother garden success this year has been my herb spiral! I’m getting significantly more chamomile (shown above) than usual. I’m hoping to dry a greater variety of tea herbs, including a few new ones (to me) this year: stevia, lemon verbena, and feverfew. The stevia and lemon verbena have been instant hits, both fresh and dried. I’ve gotten a ridiculous amount of feverfew–perhaps three plants was a bit much?  I tried it the other night in a cup of hot tea and it tasted complex and interesting, but medicinal. I think I’ll need to blend it with some other herbs. And next year one plant will be plenty.

Haricot Verts

Things are coming along fine in the main garden, too. My carrots did not sprout nearly as well as I hoped, and my peppers are disappointingly small AGAIN this year, but everything else looks good, including this fourth picking of Maxibel haricot verts beans. I can’t recommend them enough, both in terms of productivity and taste.

FishingOne of our non-garden-related goals for this summer was to get out fishing more! The delightful result has been some gorgeous days at various MN lakes and several nights of fish tacos.

Monarch taking flightWe’ve released 7 monarch butterflies so far this year, with more caterpillars munching away in the critter cage as we speak. This one, which we released two weeks ago, sat on a coneflower for the longest time, and then as I leaned in as close as possible to take a photo, it suddenly flew away.

It’s not difficult to spot female monarchs laying eggs on milkweed plants. We watch for them, and then bring leaves (the eggs are always stuck on the underside of a leaf) in before the tiny caterpillars even hatch. This way we can ensure a very high survival rate–no worries about predators or bad weather.

I keep hearing from other people who have planted milkweed and not seen any monarchs yet in their yard, but I say: don’t lose hope. I think the reason why we started seeing them within two days of the first time we ever planted milkweed (no kidding) is because we live in close proximity to Lakes Nokomis and Hiawatha, both of which have large shoreline restoration projects with monarch habitat. So they’re in our neighborhood anyway. But if people keep planting milkweed as enthusiastically as they seem to be this year, we have reason to hope.

Anyway, that’s my update! You can always follow me on Twitter for ridiculous numbers of garden photos and updates on a day-to-day basis.

 

 


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Book review: The Art of Fermentation

Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix KatzThe Art of Fermentation
An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World
By Sandor Ellix Katz

I met Sandor Katz a few years ago, shortly after I purchased his first book, Wild Fermentation. I feel fortunate that I took a class from him when he was still relatively unknown; the likelihood that he’ll be teaching inexpensive classes at local co-ops again in the near future seems pretty low.

Wild Fermentation is a true recipe book; in it you will find recipes for things like sauerkraut, kimchee, mead, and a whole host of other fermented foods. But one of my main issues with it was that I wanted to know the WHYs of every recipe. Why is it OK to eat brined pickles that are a bit moldy on the surface? Why did my brined pickles fail? Actually, how do I know whether they failed? Why is lacto-fermentation as safe (or safer) than canning? Does lacto- mean it involves lactose?

I had a lot of questions, clearly. Some of them were answered slowly, over time, as fermentation became mainstream. When I made my first batch of yogurt four years ago, google searches turned up almost no answers. Now, there’s even an heirloom vs. modern yogurt debate. I retired my yogurt maker and switched to the oven method a year ago.

Actually, the reason I read Wild Fermentation was in search of answers to MANY questions that I had after reading Nourishing Traditions. If you’ve ever read either one of those books, or had mixed success with some of the recipes, The Art of Fermentation is an invaluable resource. It covers everything the WAPF-ers are passionate about, from proper preparation of grains to culturing dairy products to the value of live-fermented foods, but the difference is Katz includes the science and logic to back up every single claim. Wild Fermentation and Art of Fermentation are truly complements to each other.

Here were some of my favorite bits from Art of Fermentation:

Botulism
If you’re confused about the now generations-old association between canning and botulism, Katz puts this question to rest once and for all. For starters: fermenting is completely different than canning, even though it may use the same jars. The acidic environment present in any and all fermented foods prevents botulism spores from ever gaining a foothold, as they can in warm, sterilized canned food environments. Katz includes an anecdote about Native Alaskan peoples’ techniques for preserving/fermenting fish, which involve burying them in a pit in the ground. Recently, people interested in reviving the tradition have tried fermenting fish in plastic bags and buckets instead of pits, and the results have been questionable enough that the US Centers for Disease Control conducted a test. To me, this was one of the most powerful passages in the book:

Two batches were prepared the proper traditional way, and two were prepared…using plastic bags or buckets. One of each batch we inoculated with botulism; the other was left natural. After the fermentation process was complete, we tested them. To our surprise, those batches of foods prepared the traditional way had no trace of the botulism toxin, not even in the foods that were inoculated with botulism spores. On the other hand, both batch of foods prepared in plastic tested positive for botulism. The advice that came out of that experiment was—”keep on fermenting your food, but never use plastic bags or buckets, and be certain that you do it the traditional native way without any short cuts or changes.”

Do you really need whey, or what?
I found the Nourishing Traditions fermented vegetable recipes confusing. The book made it sound (to me anyway) like if you do not use liquid whey (and I was unclear whether the whey should be from raw or pasteurized dairy), that your fermented foods will not turn out. My own anecdotal evidence plus this book has now settled this issue for me. Whey: not necessary at all. There’s no harm in using liquid whey; adding it is sort of like adding a “starter”–think sourdough. In vegetable ferments, it can help fermentation get started quicker, but it’s not necessary.

Yogurt
I’ve already documented a couple different yogurt-making methods that have worked for me, and Katz says his method has evolved as well. For one thing, he uses only 1 T. of starter per quart of milk and only cultures it for about 4 hours. Also, Katz clarifies the differences between using store-bought yogurt and heirloom cultures. But this is one of the great things about him: he doesn’t fuss about contentious issues like raw vs. pasteurized milk. He wants people to ferment foods which they have access to, whatever those may be.

Butter
I’ve always been confused about what is the difference between sweet cream and cultured butter. The difference is this: sweet cream butter is made from agitating fresh cream until the butter and the buttermilk separate. Cultured butter is made from cream that has first been “soured”–on it’s way to becoming creme fraiche. To make creme fraiche, simply add 1 T. of yogurt or buttermilk to 1 c. cream and leave it out for 24 hours. Refrigerate until set for creme fraiche, or shake it up for cultured butter. Now it all makes sense!

Water
I now understand why several of my brine ferments have failed in the last few years: up until 2012, I always used tap water. Katz recommends against using city water because it has chlorine in it, which upsets the natural balance of bacteria. I had a feeling about this, so I used spring water for my pickles in 2012, and not one jar went bad. I don’t like buying bottled water, but for this one thing, it’s worth it. There are ways to de-chlorinate city water, but most simple filtration systems don’t remove enough of it. Yes, of course, I’d love to get a super expensive filtration system, but… maybe someday.

Other topics
Just to give you an idea, Art of Fermentation also covers all of the following: kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, wine, beer, sake, hominy, coffee, cheese, salami, cod liver oil, brined mushrooms, kimchee, cider, fermented urine as garden fertilizer, sourdough breads, koji, and 100 year eggs. That’s only a sampling.  There are only a few recipes, in the traditional sense of the word; this is a book of methodology and inspiration. If you decide to make one of the more complicated ferments, such as salami, Katz urges you to read more on the subject and gives you ideas of where to start. On the other hand, with simpler vegetable and cultured milk ferments, there are SO many right ways to do them that knowing the basic methodology (and science behind why it works) is really all you need.

Fermentation, wow, who knew I would become so obsessed!? I love it!


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Recipe: fermented dill pickle relish

“I don’t care if I never eat a dill pickle again,” said Adam, a few weeks ago.

It might be overload—I’ve gone crazy with the lacto-fermented dill pickles in the recent past. Also: many of my 2011 jars went bad. My best guess is that I was skimping on the salt; nearly every jar I opened over the fall and winter was full of mushy, bad-smelling, heartbreaking, compost-bin-bound pickles.

The experience put me off a bit on my former go-to recipe. This year I vowed to try some new things with cucumbers. One has been this recipe for lacto-fermented bread and butter pickles. I’ve made several batches this year and the kids and I both love them (pro tip: don’t skimp on the honey).

I also wanted to try a nice savory, dilly, garlicky relish. My first batch involved a bit too much salt and ended up taking almost a month to get properly fermented. Second batch, I used a bit less salt, and so far so good.

Fermented dill pickle relish
Several large cucumbers (the ones you let go too long)
8 large garlic cloves, crushed
Dill and/or fennel flowers
2 generous tablespoons sea salt
3 tablespoons liquid whey

Grate the cucumbers until you have about 6 c. grated cucumber. Add other ingredients. The cucumbers will start to reduce as soon as the salt hits. Let sit for a few minutes, then pour off some of the excess liquid. Stuff into a quart-size wide mouth canning jar, making sure there is still enough liquid to cover the mixture as you pack it down.

Next, find something to hold the relish down under the surface of the liquid for a few days while it ferments. I like these plastic bulk-section bottles from the co-op, filled with water. On the right is a brand new, bright green batch, and on the left is the batch that is done fermenting. When not being photographed, they rest under a flour sack towel to keep out dust, dog hair, etc.

The cucumbers will continue to reduce down as they ferment, to the point where I actually transferred the finished batch into a pint jar when it was finally ready.

How do you know when it’s ready? Taste it every other day or so. When it stops tasting salty and starts tasting complex and dilly and garlicky and wonderful, it’s done. Put a regular canning lid on it and store it in the refrigerator. It should keep for a good 4-6 months, but let your nose and your taste buds be your guide on that.

I had some atop a Ukrainian sausage from Seward Co-op today and it was heavenly.


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August so far

fishing off the dock

We finished off July with a weekend “up north,” where the kids caught some impressive sunnies right off the dock. They are such good little Minnesotans.

Not bad, eh?

When we got back from the lake, our cucumbers had gotten out of control. I shredded up the biggest ones for some relish. It’s still fermenting, but as soon as it’s done I’ll post a recipe.

The few apples that our tree produced are starting to ripen. Squirrels are taking most of them; I doubt we’ll get more than a few.

I canned 20 lbs of raw tomatoes with Tattler lids. Yay for BPA-free canned tomatoes! Gardens of Eagan has 20 pound boxes of canning tomatoes for $16—naturally I bought two. My garden’s not quite big enough for canning quantities.

The next day, Adam and I were too tired to do it all over again, so the kids helped with the second box of tomatoes. They were great at peeling and de-seeding.

Why roast a mere 5 lbs of tomatoes when you can roast 20 lbs?

The most beautiful caprese salad I’ve ever put together. Not that it’s super hard. But I had doubts as to whether my neighbors deserved a salad of this caliber for National Night Out.

Herbs from a neglected community garden. If I take on any more charity projects my own garden is going to be swallowed up in weeds and giant cucumbers. Also: I now have enough sage for ten Thanksgivings.

Coming this weekend: finally, putting in the last plants so that I can call my back yard landscape project complete! (More details to come.)


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The New Normal

Various economists are referring to this extremely slow “recovery” as The New Normal.  Economy aside, I can’t think of a better phrase to describe our crazy summer of working, volunteering, gardening, and now a frenetic preserving and preparing for our next new normal.  We have exactly one week left before Adam goes back to work full-time, for the first time since the kids were born.  Starting August 30, we will have two full-time working adults and two full-time-in-daycare kids.  To say I’m nervous is an understatement.  I’ve been channeling some of that into preparing for winter as if we are about to be snowed in for 9 full months.  (I wish!)

This weekend, we canned 50 lbs of tomatoes.  After squirreling the kids away at Grandma’s on Friday afternoon, Adam came home and prepared a fortifying dinner for us:

Homemade liver & barley sausage, great-Grandpa Miller’s Great-Grandma Elwell’s secret recipe, with homemade ketchup, kraut, and new potatoes.  And Surly Furious.  Doesn’t get much more local or delicious than that.  Next, we set up:

Lots of boiling water is involved in this canning business.  Good thing it was 90 degrees and really humid.

When the steam cleared a little after 5 p.m. on Saturday, we counted our results:

32 pints of tomatoes
6 pints of spaghetti/pizza sauce
4 pints of ketchup

I didn’t spend that entire 24 hours canning, don’t worry: I took 8 hours off for sleeping.  And I was on my own all day Saturday which slowed down the process a bit.  Adam got the trim painted on the house while I canned.

Let’s move on to a garden update.  I’ve not been taking the best care of this blog or the garden, so it’s changed quite a bit since I last took pictures of each plant grouping in June:

Here are the parsnips (and garlic) in mid-June.  Here they are now:

Every year, parsnips look so shabby and pathetic for so long, that I always wonder if they will ever take off.  We took the garlic out in late July and that seemed to really kick-start the parsnips, and the green tops are now absolutely huge.  We’ll see how the actual parsnips look; we have at least a month to wait (I hope).  Parsnip harvest begins with the first freeze.

My banana peppers in mid-June:

They didn’t look all that impressive.  I also had two cauliflowers in there, neither of which turned out very well.  I think the weather got too hot for them.  Here’s the banana pepper jungle today:

(Also, notice the encroaching cucumbers on the fence.)  Each banana pepper plant has turned into a huge, sprawling bush, so laden with fruit that their branches end up dragging on the ground when we don’t keep up with the picking.  Seriously.  I never thought that 11 pepper plants would be too many.  But there, I said it.

Here are my cabbages in mid-June:

(And my thumb, apparently?!)  I thinned these out two times after this picture was taken, and also harvested 4 cabbages.  This patch was supposed to be cabbage and celeriac, but the celeriac never sprouted as far as I can tell.  You can see the tiny cucumber seedlings in the bottom left corner.  Here’s how the same patch looks today:

(Again, encroaching cukes)  The tiny cucumber cage is directly to the left of this frame.  I planted about 7-8 plants, and have been training them up onto the rabbit-proof fence fortress that surrounds the garden.

Finally, the green beans, which shot up astoundingly fast in June:

And the green beans today, which are just about done:

What kind of yield am I getting from my wee urban farm?  I never thought you’d ask.  We organized our basement freezer today, and here’s what we found:

11 quarts raspberries: we’ve already used 3, and ate a LOT fresh.  This is about double what we got last year.
8 quarts green beans (also ate many fresh)
5 batches of pesto

So that’s the frozen stuff, and the canned tomatoes were listed at the top.  What about the fermented stuff?  Behold, I present to you… another personal failure:

We planned on building a root cellar this year.  It makes SO much sense.  It’s a huge walk-in refrigerator that requires no electricity.  Two weeks ago when our main kitchen refrigerator was overflowing with fermented foods, we finally realized it just wasn’t going to happen.  We found a small secondhand refrigerator, which we installed in the basement.  New ferments added daily.  The final tally is going to be so ridiculous that I can’t venture a guess right now.  Here’s a clue: we’ve ditched quart-size jars in favor of half-gallons.  And we keep buying more half-gallon jars.  Today we started a gallon each of banana peppers, pickles and sauerkraut:

A root cellar has been downgraded to the “someday” list.  We just have bigger priorities right now.  Here’s one:

There’s my little guy, making his very first batch of kraut.


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Recipe: pickled cucumbers or banana peppers

Here it is, our Nourishing Traditions-inspired pickle recipe (by request from several people).

This isn’t a recipe so much as a method — because really it could be varied quite a bit and it would still turn out great.  I like to use smallish whole, unsliced cucumbers for pickles — they stay crisper that way.  These are dill pickles, but with a more nuanced, subtle flavor than store-bought dills — imagine a dill pickle without that strong vinegar taste.

Here are your ingredients, per quart:

6-8 smallish cucumbers or banana peppers (seed and slice the peppers)
1 T. mustard seeds
1 T. whole peppercorns
1 T. whole cloves
3-4 sprigs fresh dill (the more the merrier)
2-4 cloves garlic, sliced or roughly chopped
Approx. 2 c. brine (2 T. sea salt + 2 c. water)
2-3 T. whey (optional, but highly recommended)

Sprinkle some mustard seeds, garlic, dill, and cloves at the bottom of a quart-size jar.  Fill the jar half full with cucumbers or sliced peppers.  Layer in more of the spices, dill, garlic.  Fill the jar the rest of the way with the cukes or peppers, leaving about 2 inches room at the top.  Throw in whatever’s left of spices.  Pour in the whey then top off the jar with brine until the pickles/peppers are covered.  Cover tightly and leave on the counter for 2-3 days.  Taste a pickle or pepper.  Does it taste really great?  It’s done.  Is it a bit salty?  Leave it for another day then try it again.  When they’re done, transfer to the fridge.  They will keep several months, at least.

How to easily obtain some whey

Variation: when you hit the height of pickle season, and you’ve made a few batches of these already, you will have a half-full jar or two in your refrigerator.  Instead of messing around with making more whey every time, we use a good cup or so of the liquid from the half-eaten pickle jar as an “innoculant” to get the new batch started.  Sorta like a sourdough mother, except with pickles.

Lazy woman’s variation: OK, to be perfectly honest, I leave out a lot of the spices when I make these.  And they still turn out great.  For banana peppers in particular, I like to keep it very simple and just add garlic and peppercorns to the mix.

Adam made some pints of the peppers, as well, because we have several requests for samples.


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Kimchi time

I made a completely different version of kimchi this week.  Reader Christopher posted a link to this awesome authentic Korean food blog in the comments of my original kimchi recipe that I posted.  This more authentic version wins, hands down.

My friend CJ and I salted 4 heads of napa cabbage and 2 cubed green daikon radishes.  We looked at United Noodles for Korean radishes, but we couldn’t find them and figured daikons were close enough.

After making the paste, you’re supposed to spread a handful (wear gloves!) between each leaf of cabbage in each head.  Then you smooth it all down and shape it into a ball and ferment 1-2 days in a covered container.  However, I really wanted to use quart-size mason jars, and the cabbages did not fit.  So I pulled them all apart and we just layered cabbage leaves and paste in the jars.  It worked just fine.

We ended up with quite a bit of kimchi.  We actually ran out of paste at the end and had to whip up a little extra for the radish kimchi (kaktugi).  I could not find fresh or frozen oysters (note that I did not look terribly hard), but we used a little oyster sauce in addition to the fish sauce.  I also did not have the guts to add SIX ENTIRE CUPS of hot pepper powder/flakes; I think I used 2 heaping cups.

So here’s the recipe.  I definitely recommend watching the video before you try it.  Makes it very easy.