Friday, March 26, 2010

Baking Day

I spent Thursday baking.  I'm trying to use up the last of a 50-pound bag of flour that includes the germ of the wheat before spring temperatures help it go rancid.  So I baked up a storm - of flour, that is.  Baking day is messy.  And long.  And exhausting.  It was lights out for me before 9pm last night.  But at least I have plenty of bread to show for it (Acme Bread's fabulous rosemary herb slabs, courtesy of the Artisan Baking cookbook).  There's nothing - nothing - in the world like freshly baked bread.  As another super-special treat that I posted about over at The Simple Green Frugal Co-op, I also made lardy cakes.

Yes, I know, you can't resist the name any more than I could.  Click the picture to see my post over there, which includes the recipe.

In other news, the arrival of our bee packages has been delayed by a week (or possibly two).  This means I can turn my attention to other things for a few days at least.  Such as doing something about the annual garden.  And maybe planting a few seeds.  We're going to go borrow a rototiller from gardening friends tonight or tomorrow.  I swear this is the last year I till that bed!  Also, I pick up three fig trees next Thursday.  So it's time to get their self-watering containers built.  More on that soon.

Happy weekend!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Further Preparations for Honey Bees

It seems like half the bloggers I read regularly are starting bees this year. So I figure there are even more people out there interested in the process of getting ready for the first arrival of our bees. With less than a week to go until our packages arrive, we're hurrying to finish up our preparations.

This weekend we painted cinder blocks with used motor oil. This is almost as gross as it sounds, but there are - allegedly - a couple of good reasons for doing so. We're going to set our beehives on top of these blocks. The oil coating will apparently help minimize the wicking of moisture from the ground up to the wooden boxes of the hive. Also, it's supposed to deter ants from climbing up to the hive in search of honey to rob. A full colony of ants can overwhelm a honey bee colony, and that's one of the many things I'd like to prevent. The other tip I heard about keeping ants and other ground insects out of the hives is to use a water moat around whatever the hive stands on. But that would have to be either a pretty big moat, or four smaller moats for each hive. And besides, I just know that I'd forget to fill it, or a branch would fall in and create a safe passage. So we're trying this. I don't know if it will work for the insects, but it at least seemed plausible for reducing the transfer of ground water. I'll report later on whether it seemed to work.

Also in the interest of preventing rot, I put a couple coats of primer on the bottom of the bottom boards, which will be resting against the cinder block stands. We're using screened bottom boards for improved ventilation, and as a non-toxic partial control for varroa mites. (Any mites that fall off bees in the hive will theoretically fall through the screen and out of the hive, never to return. Apparently they neither fly nor crawl very well.) The other advantage of the screened bottom board is that it gives us a little more leeway in getting the hives level. A solid bottom board catches rain and condensation, which requires the hive to be tilted ever so slightly towards the opening in the bottom board. We don't need to worry about that with a screened bottom board. We'll just do the best we can to make the hive level and leave it at that. Having the frames fairly plumb is important as the bees will do their best to draw perfectly vertical comb, and I'd sure like that comb to be more or less neatly inside the frames.

Yes, we got a little whimsical with the painting. Just wait till you see all the boxes stacked up together.

We also laid a very large sheet of synthetic felt on the ground where the hives will be placed. This was part of the packaging that our passive solar heating system shipped in; so a good instance of re-purposing. The idea is that it's heavy enough and densely matted enough to prevent anything growing up through it. (Of course, old carpeting or new carpet remnants would work just as well.) That means that I don't have to mow or weed in the immediate area of the hives. Less maintenance, and I can keep a respectful distance with the lawn mower, not to mention, a little more lawn eradication. Bees really, really don't like any knocks or direct vibration applied to their hives, so keeping a decent margin that needs no yardwork is a good idea. We situated this in an area where the grass wasn't growing all that well anyway due to being shaded for much of the day. The hives will get early morning sun and very late afternoon sun, but be shaded during the hottest part of the day.

By the way, we had to choose between conflicting recommendations for situating and orienting the hives. Our first instructor recommended morning sun and shade for much of the rest of the day. Summers in our area are usually quite hot. Wax can actually melt in the hive if the temperature gets too high. Plus, bees will expend energy trying to keep the hive cool if it gets too warm. So the hive boxes need to be painted in light colors and all day sun is a risk. But morning warmth gets the bees going early, which can give them a competitive edge with other nectar- and pollen-collecting insects. On the other hand, our last instructor mentioned that colonies situated in full sun seem to have some advantage in fighting off varroa mites. In the end, we found the logic of the first instructor more compelling than yet another factor in the varroa war. But if you're in a cooler climate, it might make sense to put your hives where they'll get sun all day long. As for orientation, everyone seems to agree that the entrance of the hive should face southeast. On the other hand there's also the theory that bees will first follow a path straight out of the hive entrance in search of food. Since I know my property hasn't been treated with any nasty chemicals, I'd like the primary flight path to be over our land. That direction would be almost due west. So that's a decision we're going to have to make pronto.

I spent a few hours carefully nailing the side bars of 120 frames to the top bars of said frames. If you're a beekeeper, you know what the equipment looks like. If not, don't worry about it. Basically, it's just insurance to keep the frames from being ripped apart by me during hive inspection. Bees sometimes glue things together in a hive with propolis, their house-made glue. It's a very strong glue, more than capable of keeping the majority of a frame in the hive while the top bar is pried off. The work was a little tedious, but not as difficult as I had feared.

We still need a little preventative protection from the one honey bee predator common to this area. Skunks will approach bee hives at night, scratch the hive body, and wait for guard bees to emerge to investigate. Then the skunks eat the bees, leaving few if any indications of their visit. Obviously, this drains the lifeblood of the colony. There are a number of options open to the beekeeper to protect the colony from skunks. One is to raise the base of the hive more than 18" above the ground, placing it out of reach of the predator. Top bar hives accomplish this as an element of their design. Another is to use no bottom board on the hive at all, which allows the bees to emerge en masse and confront the skunk in strength. This is feasible for a strong, well established colony. A weak or new colony of bees cannot adequately defend so large an opening in the hive from other insects that would rob out the honey. The last option is to place a nail bed in front of the hive, creating a decidedly unwelcome mat for any nighttime marauder. This is the one we've decided on. It just needs to get done.

We're also still short an entrance reducer for one of the hives. We'll make do by stuffing a piece of cloth in the opening until a wooden one arrives. Entrance reducers are used to narrow the hive opening for small colonies, until their numbers increase so that they can adequately defend their honey stores. Of course, early on, my colonies won't have much to defend so this shouldn't be all that critical.

Last minute preparations will include mixing up a feeding solution for my packages. I'll get this done either the night before they arrive, or first thing in the morning before I go pick them up.

I've got to say that getting ready for the honey bees has been a lot more work than I had anticipated. Partly this is due to the type of hive I chose, the Langstroth. This is by far the most common type of hive in use in the US. A topbar hive might have saved me a good deal of this work. But then, there may be other drawbacks to that style that I'm unaware of. In any case, I'm way, way behind on getting my seeds started this spring. Frankly I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed. I'm playing catch up as best I can, but I'm probably going to succumb and opt to buy some seedlings as well.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dispatches from the Curing Front

I spent yesterday in a kitchen with three farmers and several hundred pounds of pork and beef. We worked on curing pork bellies, fatback, and preparing sausages in real casings. We also regularly sampled finished specimens of lomo (Spanish, cured pork tenderloin), pepperoni, basturma (Lebanese, cured beef), bresaola (Italian, loin cured with red wine), and several other delicacies. As I had no meat of my own to contribute, I brought along a dish of pork organ paprikash, and some of my homegrown potatoes for lunch.

It was hard work, but it was also fun. I personally prepared about 45 pounds of bacon, 30 pounds of tesa, and about 15 pounds of salo, Ukrainian cured fatback. (The picture above shows a bus tub with three of the whole pork bellies I prepared. The liquid in the tub isn't blood; it's maple syrup.) The simple repetition of the steps gives me a reassuring sense of familiarity with the process. I came home with six pork jowls from pasture-raised hogs to cure at home. I'm very glad of this as I really miss having home-cured guanciale on hand in my larder. I will either pay for the jowls or give some of them back to the farmer for payment. These jowls are much, much leaner and meatier than the two I previously cured, but I look forward to seeing how they turn out. I plan to start them curing today.

The batch of lardo I started at home has taken a detour. As soon as I took them out of the cure and hung them up in our root cellar to dry down, we had a heavy, multi-day rainstorm. The humidity in the root cellar got as high as 90%, and the pieces of lardo were all wet to the touch. I panicked and decided to get them out of the damp and add a little more preservation to the mix. I smoked all of them. Smoke is itself a preservative, and has the nice side benefit of adding a flavor I love. So that batch of fatback is no longer really lardo; I have no idea what to call it. It's drying down now in the refrigerator, though I could just as well put it back in the root cellar. I've used bits of it for cooking so far, and it gives a really lovely flavor to dishes. I may start over with another batch of lardo.

I also learned yesterday that I probably could have just let the lardo go in the high humidity brought on by the storm. As long as the temperature stayed cool, the temporarily excessive humidity probably wouldn't have been a problem. I should be able to use the root cellar for drying cured meats year-round so long as the temperature stays below 60 F (15 C). Since the root cellar is on the northwest corner of our home and mostly below grade, I think there's a fair chance it will remain cool enough all through the summer. Humidity of 70-75% is considered ideal for hanging cured meats, but higher levels are not problematic unless they persist for a long time or are accompanied by high temperatures. In the case of dried sausages, even higher humidity is desirable during hanging, since low humidity results in case hardening, a condition in which the outer surface of the sausage dries so quickly and thoroughly that it becomes an impermeable barrier to the moisture in the center of the sausage. In that case the center stays very soft. Contrasted with the hard outer surface, this results in a sausage that is ruined so far as texture is concerned.

Most of all, what I took away from both yesterday's cure-fest and my own fumbling experiments with home-curing is that this is really a very easy method of food preservation. Cavemen did it; there's just very little that can go awry with a salt cure. It makes no sense that curing meat is regarded as such a dangerous and arcane practice. This is a revelation to me; I was as much under the impression that meat needs to be handled with a level of caution approaching paranoia as anyone else in American society. But I now think that if you're beginning with meat that has been cleanly raised, slaughtered, and butchered, (in other words, no industrial meat) you'd be hard pressed to go wrong. It's ridiculously easy and there's hardly anything to it, beyond a measure of hygiene and common sense.

If you live where humidity is reasonably high and temperatures reasonably low for at least part of the year (or if you can arrange those conditions), and if you can get locally produced meat that hasn't gone through an industrial meat processing plant, you could safely cure meats at home. Very little equipment is needed for a beginner who just wants to cure whole cuts of meat, especially if you're working with small quantities. A scale is helpful, but not absolutely necessary. If you want to make sausage, the equipment needs go up, as does the need for stricter sanitary controls. With whole cuts of meat, there are far fewer opportunities for contamination. All you need is a supply of salt, perhaps some sugar, spices or herbs, a container for the curing, and a suitable place for hanging the meat to dry. You can easily improvise equipment for the hanging, either skewers, or butcher's twine, or a saved net bag that onions are sold in. It certainly helped my confidence to begin curing during the winter months when outside air temperatures pretty well precluded spoilage. But so long as you have an area that remains cool enough, you can do it anytime of year.

If you want to learn about home-curing through reading, there are many books out there. I got a few recommendations yesterday which I'll be requesting through my local library. The few books I have personally read and can recommend are:

The River Cottage Meat Book
Cooking by Hand
Home Sausage Making

As I have the chance to read more titles on charcuterie, I may update this list of recommended titles. In the meantime, explore and experiment! There's a whole world of home-cured deliciousness out there!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tiny Tip: Chitting Seed Potatoes

Just for the record, few of the tiny tips I share on this blog are of my own invention, and even those have probably been figured out before by many others. I discovered this one in The River Cottage Cookbook, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who I believe has become a hero of mine in the last month or so. Hugh has done just about everything I am doing, everything I would like to do, and much more besides, in pursuit of food sovereignty. And he did it all at least a few years ago.

One of his little tricks is to take seed potatoes and set them up in empty egg cartons for the chitting (or pre-sprouting) before planting. This makes a lot of sense. The stability provided by the egg carton will allow all the sprouts to grow straight up, giving each potential plant a head start. Sprouts are fragile and liable to break off if the potatoes are allowed to do their chitting in a bag. Not only do seed potatoes in a bag get jostled on the way to the garden, but retrieving each piece from the bag presents difficulties with long sprouts, as I know from past experience. Having them stabilized and out in the open simplifies things considerably.

Hugh goes so far as to remove all but two of the sprouts so as to concentrate the vigor of each plant. I probably won't be quite so meticulous. Each potato can be cut into several seed pieces, so long as each one has a sprout on it. If you want to chit your potatoes (not everyone does), they like plenty of air, a moderate amount of light and moderate indoor temperatures.

I've got two and a half pounds each of four different potato varieties to plant this year. I'm abandoning the fingerling La Ratte which we grew the past two years, even though the flavor is superb. We simply don't enjoy scrubbing so many tiny potatoes to prepare our meal. I'm also giving up the ever reliable Kennebec, though probably only for this year. In their places I'm giving space to the Carola, which rumor says will produce additional clusters of tubers higher along the main stem if the plant is well hilled during growth. And we're going back to the All Blue potato we grew two years ago. It was an easy to harvest spud, and we found we missed its cheery purple color over the winter months. We'll continue on for a third year of growing the silken, creamy-textured Sangre, and our 2009 new trial, the German Butterball, which became an instant favorite with my husband.

I'll post about this year's potato bucket experiment just before planting time in my area. Stay tuned.

Are you planting potatoes this year? What varieties? Any special techniques?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tiny Tip: Painting Beehives Efficiently

Here's a tip I picked up at a beginner beekeeping seminar. It came in handy for me, and so I pass it on to any of you who are starting bees in Langstroth hives, and desirous of saving a little money by painting them yourselves.

Rig up a couple pieces of lumber between a pair of sawhorses.* "Thread" the hive boxes onto the lumber, and you can easily prime and paint all four sides the boxes. Just rotate the boxes around the wooden support as you cover each side. Good air circulation helps the drying too, so that you can work as quickly as possible. I got two coats of primer and two coats of paint done in an afternoon using this method. Most of the painting is now done, though I'm waiting on replacement for some boxes that were damaged in shipping.

Next up on my list of beekeeping tasks is putting starter strips on each frame, then painting them in place with wax, which I hope will make the suggestion to the ladies: "draw your comb here, please." Once again, the Backwards Beekeepers have a tutorial. It explains both the how and why.

When the starter strips are done I need to think about where the hives will be situated, get that area ready, and figure out what the hives will rest on. I will probably need to build stands for them. Will keep you posted.

* I made those saw horses with scrap wood pulled from dumpsters on home construction sites.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Minor Miracles

Spring is the season of quotidian miracles. It is always a wonder to me that tiny little seeds, tucked into dirt with a little daily watering, will grow into living green things. Later comes a second miracle. Those plants feed me, and really, really well.

But I'm getting ahead of the seasons already.

The first miracle of the moment is that an entire month of snow cover is almost completely melted away in a luscious March thaw - and it hasn't produced the spring mud. We've had a week of dry days, with temperatures getting into the low 50's F (~11 C) each day. Little by little, the snow has retreated to the shady sides of buildings and the ground has absorbed it all. There isn't even any water standing in the basement. We may yet get our mud season from the proverbial April showers. But at the moment, things look gorgeous.

I did a garden inspection as soon as the snow melted away and found the earth springy and fluffed up from the action of the frost heave. It almost breaks my heart to walk on it. This is how nature repairs the damage of compacted soils, at least in my part of the world. Another miracle. My intention for this year is to get the garden laid out into permanent beds, with permanent pathways between them, so that I never again have to walk where I intend to plant. And so that compost can be concentrated where it is most useful, while the less valuable mulch and straw is used to just keep down weeds in the pathways.

Today I'll use the warm, dry weather to start priming and painting my beehives.

How are things looking in your part of the world?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Favors & Rewards, Or, Why It's Good to Know Your Food Network

Free salmon

So farming friend called me up Wednesday night and inquired about the state of my chest freezer. Was there, perhaps, room in there for 50 pounds of salmon filets? See, she runs a monthly on-farm market during the winter season when the local farmer's markets don't operate. She invites a few choice vendors to show up and sell their goods, but also will sell the products of a few other local vendors. One of those products is wild caught Alaskan sockeye salmon. The couple that sells this delectable treat maintains a fishing license and a fishing boat in Alaska, and that's how they spend their summers. The quality is outstanding, and as carbon footprints go for fish, this is pretty light on the earth.

So farming friend needed another couple cases of the filets to be ready for her on-farm market this weekend. But she has a day job, and no one was going to be at her farm yesterday to take delivery. So she asked me and the salmon lady if it could be dropped by our place in the course of her delivery rounds. No problem for me: I was around and having dinner with farming friend that night, so my freezer space wouldn't be tied up long. No problem for salmon lady as we live closer to the day's other stops than farming friend does.

I spent between 5 and 10 minutes chatting with salmon lady and helping her pack 50 pounds of salmon into our freezer and then some into a cooler with ice packs. That evening I put the fish back in the boxes and took it with me when I went to dinner at farming friend's house. It was nothing. But salmon lady was so appreciative - as if I were doing her a big favor - that she offered me a free fillet. Now, I'm already on record as never saying no to handouts. You can believe I didn't turning down ethically fished wild Alaskan salmon that sells for $12.75 per pound. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

Just for Ali, a bonus picture of the cats with free mushroom bags

But the bounty didn't end there. When I got to farming friend's house for dinner, the first topic of conversation after getting the salmon in her freezer was all the mushroom bags she'd gotten from local mushroom producers. Like battery egg facilities that kill "retirement age" laying hens, (who are still capable of years of egg-laying) because their production is no longer optimal, mushroom farmers keep mushroom substrate only through the first few and most abundant flushes of mushroom production. Of course, there's no cruelty involved in either packing bags of inoculated sawdust as close together as possible, nor in getting rid of them as soon as they pass a peak of production. Nonetheless, farming friend had been given several large bags of sawdust inoculated with oyster mushroom spores. And she wanted to know if I wanted a couple of them. What did I say? (Altogether now; say it with me:) "Sure! Thank you!"

I don't want to create the impression that people chuck free food at me on a daily basis, but similar things have happened more than a few times since I've gotten to know my local farmers and producers on a personal basis. Free eggs, free bones to make stock, free pork jowls, the loan of useful and expensive tools, and now enough free salmon for four modest portions and a decent chance at a small crop of oyster mushrooms. Obviously, I also just like to know where my food comes from, even when I pay a fair price for it. But there really are multiple advantages to getting to know your farmers.

Of course, I try to be open handed too. I've arranged to loan our beater pickup truck this weekend to a young Agricultural Extension agent who needs to haul some horse manure for her own garden. And our broadfork will be loaned out this spring too. Farming friend got her vermicomposting system going with some red wiggler worms from our bins, and I plan to take containers of worms to the last meeting of my soils class next week to get some fellow students started on vermicomposting as well. It seems to me that farmers and other sustainability minded folks are far more open to bartering, and interested in making just a little more effort to share resources, and ensuring that nothing goes to waste. That's a good group of people to know and be a part of.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bits of News

Once again, I have snippets of news to share, but no one item meriting a post of its own.

I'm attending a three-session class on soils given by the Extension Office in my area. Last night was the second class meeting. I'm learning some interesting things. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the county I live in has 183 different soil types as defined by the US Soil Survey, a higher number than any other county in Pennsylvania. That's a lot of diversity! I also learned that visiting the website of the Soil Survey will give you a fairly detailed report of the attributes of soils in nearly any part of the US, for free. (Even though it's got a "shopping cart" - it's really free.) You can look up parcels by address or by navigating to them by a map. I also learned about Sudax, a cover crop I'd never even heard of. It's some sort of cross between varieties of Sudan grass, and it loves heat. The idea is to mow it several times during the season, so that it sloughs off parts of its extensive root system into the soil, adding organic matter each time. If it's not mowed, it gets tall and almost woody, like corn (maize). We get a free soil test with the class enrollment. Just as soon as the snow cover melts away from the garden, I'll get in there for some samples.

I've started some seedlings indoors. Let me tell you, this is a challenging endeavor with two young cats in the house. I've already chucked a couple of cell packs of tatsoi in the cold frame, figuring they had even odds on surviving the cold nights versus the depredations of two rampaging young felines.

It's that tantalizing time of year when the air is full of promises of spring. Birdsong has returned, the bulb flowers are pushing up leaves, and the dawn is coming earlier each day. As much work as spring is, it's stunningly beautiful, and well worth the wait, in my part of the world.

I've begun my second experiment with home curing. Really, I think I've caught some sort of cured pork bug - the ease and the success of the guanciale drives me to do more. I bought ten pounds of fat back from a grass-based farmer in my area, and I started a batch of lardo last Friday. That's pretty much what it sounds like: cured pork fat. Though in some circles, the euphemism "white prosciutto" is used. Lardo is not rendered fat, despite the similarity with the English word "lard." Lardo di Colonnata is a centuries old traditional product, which was eaten like a lunch meat by quarry workers at the source of Italy's finest marble. In fact, lardo di Colonnata is traditionally salted down in rough hewn marble troughs. Sadly, all our rough hewn marble troughs were spoken for. My lardo is progressing nicely in a ceramic crock pot. I went heavy on the seasonings, with fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, sliced garlic, black pepper, and dried bay leaves. It smells really good. In a few more days I'll remove it from the curing mix and find somewhere to hang it to dry down. I plan to use it in place of cooking oil for certain dishes, especially pastas. As a cooking medium, it will have the benefit of adding a great deal of flavor. It'll probably also grace the occasional homemade pizza. If the lardo works out well, I may try salo next, which is a more simply spiced Ukrainian/Hungarian version of lardo. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cold Frame Near the End of Winter

Our garden beds were under snow for all of February, and still are. I harvested nothing but eggs the entire month. I know there are parsnips out there that I could dig for, but with the snow cover I have only a vague sense of where I would look for them. However, the cold frame has been ramping up over the last few weeks.

Yesterday I was able to harvest a fair bit of spinach, which has come through the winter beautifully. Although 3.7 ounces doesn't sound like a lot, it was more than enough for two omelets. I also removed the most damaged looking leaves and tossed them to the hens, still in their winter quarters, and starving for green things. Defying the 10-hours-of-daylight rule, the spinach grew straight through the winter except right around the solstice. Granted, it was very slow growth in early January, but we didn't get our 10 hours back here until February 2nd. It "shouldn't" have been growing at all with less than 10 hours, but it did.

The Napoli carrots I planted in there last fall have all long since been harvested and eaten. Along with the spinach, they did the best. That's the variety (sadly, a hybrid) that Eliot Coleman refers to as his "candy carrots." The parsley and beets didn't work out so well. The winter density lettuce held on alright until it got really cold. It looks to me as though one rouge d'hiver lettuce plant is going to come back strongly, while the others succumbed. I should probably let that one go to seed and save it. The scallions I planted did so-so. Most of the oniony stuff in there now is a generous contribution from a seed swap.

In early February I casually tossed in arugula seed where the carrots had come out (top center). If you look closely you can see that it has germinated and is beginning to grow. Temperatures have been above freezing during the day for the last week or so. I expect we'll be able to eat that arugula within a few weeks. None too soon as far as I'm concerned. I want green.

Knowing what I now do about what works well in a cold frame in my area, I would concentrate on carrots and spinach if I had only this one cold frame to carry me through the winter. If things go as planned though, we'll have at least a couple more cold frames for next winter.

How's your winter garden holding up? How's your spring garden shaping up?