Archive for the ‘home food production’ Category

Fermentation V: Water Kefir

I am experimenting  with kombucha and its culinary uses, but for daily drinking I prefer water kefir. It’s a fermented drink with a mildly yeasty tangy flavor and none of the vinegary overtones of kombucha. It can be flavored in a lot of ways, and it’s quick and fun to make.

It’s produced by a SCOBY, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, but rather than form a solid mat the kefir SCOBY forms rounded globules called “grains.” I had trouble getting started because I kept buying dehydrated grains that never came to life. Finally I bought fresh grains from Florida Sun Kefir and they got off to a flying start. The substrate is water with 1/4 cup of sugar per quart of water dissolved in it. I use a mixture of white and coconut sugar, and brew about two quarts at a time. Pour the water mixture over the grains, screw the lid on loosely or cover with a dish towel tied on tightly, and let it sit at room temperature for 36-48 hours. The grains are in motion during fermentation, rising through the fluid, discharging their cargo of carbon dioxide into the air, and sinking slowly back to the bottom of the jar. They will slow down as the sugar is exhausted. I tell when it’s ready by tasting. When the sugar is fermented totally and none is detectable to taste, it’s done.  I pour off most of the fluid in the jar through a mesh strainer and refrigerate until I want to drink it. If you want yours a bit sweet, stop sooner, but I prefer to sweeten artificially before drinking. Leave the grains in enough finished kefir to cover them, add more sugar water, and the grains are off and running again.  I then add flavoring and some artificial sweetener, carbonate in my nifty Drinkmate, and enjoy. My favorite flavorings are vanilla or a little good root beer extract or a bit of grated ginger juice. There are all sorts of possibilities including adding fruit juice.`

I find the Drinkmate to be the easiest and most exact method of carbonation. I have found the “natural” method to produce erratic and undependable results, but if you want to try it, try out these directions: http://www.resetyourweightbasics.com/healthy-kefir-soda/.

I can’t explain this, but water kefir really does seem to decrease appetite. I don’t vouch for this effect because I do not find any scientific literature on it except the one animal-model reference below,  but try it for yourself and see what you think.

Your grains will multiply steadily and always need food. If you want to store them for awhile, put the jar in the refrigerator immediately after adding fresh sugar water and they will keep about two weeks. For longer storage, drain them every two weeks and add fresh sugar water. You’ll soon have plenty of grains to give to friends.  Internet sources tell you to add dried fruit and eggshells for minerals, but I have never done that and my grains multiply  just fine. It might be that the coconut sugar I use provides the grains with any minerals that they need. My grains are tan rather than white after several generations in coconut sugar.

In the picture below, what looks like a film on the surface is actually a haze of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide bursting.

One caveat: I can’t find reliable data on this but judging from its effect on me I think that my homebrew kefir has substantially more alcohol that most SCOBY-brewed products, maybe as much as 2-3%. This might not sound like much, but you don’t want to work or drive on the amount of alcohol in a standard 12oz glass. I keep this for evening enjoyment. But I may be incorrect about this,or brewing conditions may affect the ethanol content. Here’s a marvelously nerdy article analyzing the components of water kefir: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3993195/pdf/zam2564.pdf

I can’t stop talking about the marvelous Noma Guide to Fermentation. It doesn’t address water kefir specifically, but I’m curious about the possibilities of cooked-down kefir essence used in the way that the Noma people use kombucha essence. It might also be possible to grow out water kefir grains in other fluids such as juices. After making a few batches of standard water kefir, you will have plenty of grains with which to experiment.

Many internet sources that discuss water kefir give references for its health benefits. However, I spent a cold gray afternoon indoors looking up those references and found that, as I had suspected, nearly all of them actually refer to milk kefir. I don’t find a lot of data on whether water kefir contains the same microorganisms as the milk product, and certainly its nutrient content is different. Here are a few references on water kefir specifically.

Inhibition of metastasis of breast cancer cells in vitro and in vivo in a mouse model:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27230756

Isolation of a novel bifidabacterium strain with probiotic potential from water kefir:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26739269

Analysis of organisms from water kefir, showing that its biotic complexity is higher than previously realized: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23289707

Evaluation of Lactobacilli strains found in water kefir for probiotic potential:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30319846

Anti-obesity effects in an animal model of water-soluble polysaccharides found in the matrix of kefir grains:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29084388

This last one is particularly interesting because the mice given kefir matrix exopolysaccharides showed anti-obesity effects on an excessive diet and also showed higher levels of Akkermansia bacteria in their feces. Other data (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3670398/ ) indicates that the presence of Akkermansia species in both rats and humans inversely correlates with obesity, probably via interactions with the gut epithelium. Please don’t try to make too much of this: the science of the biome is in its infancy and we know very little about how to impact it for specific effects. So I can only say that water kefir won’t hurt you and may have some beneficial effect.

 

 

Fermentation III: Vinegar

 
I first wrote about red wine vinegar in 2009, and while I have made and consumed it steadily since then, there didn’t seem to be much more to say about it. My husband gifted me with a marvelously cool 2 gallon oak barrel to keep it in, but the vinegar was the same. But then came The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and I’m left wondering why I was so unimaginative. Their chapter on vinegars has lots of interesting ideas but the ones that excite me the most are elderberry “balsamic” and black garlic “balsamic.” I suspect that I will end up combining the two, since I have some elderberry wine fermenting and the port-like notes should be a perfect complement to the deep umami of black garlic, and for even more depth I’ll use red wine vinegar to start the acetic fermentation. Basically, if you have a good strong vinegar mother, you can ferment anything mildly alcoholic into vinegar. The acetobacter bacillus converts ethanol to acetic acid in the presence of oxygen, so if you want to use your own fruit you need to ferment it into wine first, but that’s easy enough. Once you have wine or mead or hard cider to ferment into vinegar, you can do it in quart mason jars, with a dish towel tied tightly over the top to allow oxygen in and prevent winged visitors, and make several kinds of vinegar in a square foot of counter space. Or if you have a lot of ideas and a tolerant spouse, you can occupy all available surfaces. Just make sure you have a plan for what to do with it.  You can cook with it as detailed in my 2009 post, and if you still have too much it makes a fair non-alcoholic drink stirred into sparkling water. Stir a shot into a tall glass of chilled sparkling water, with some natural or artificial sweetener. I like a shake of cinnamon on top. This isn’t a kid’s drink, and only the adults are likely to enjoy it, and not all of them by any means. Some will dislike the sharp edge, and a dash of fruit juice or a little honey may take the curse off for them. But those of us who drank the old cider-vinegar-and-honey drink growing up generally came to enjoy the sweet-sour flavor and like this use of vinegar.

This is already known to everyone, but it bears occasional repeating: you can also infuse vinegar with nearly anything that suits your fancy. Tarragon is a classic, but I prefer thyme infused in red wine vinegar, using about one big bunch of thyme per pint of vinegar. Flavorful fruits are also a possibility. Be aware that Acetobacter does one thing superbly well, and that is converting ethanol to acetic acid. If you add any source of unfermented sugar directly to your ferment, it will remain as sugar. You can use this effect deliberately to make fascinating semi-sweet or agrodolce vinegars. One that I particularly enjoyed was made by dehydrating Concord grapes from my vine until they were somewhat shriveled and approaching the raisin stage, covering them with red wine vinegar, blending with a stick blender until the grapes were roughly chopped, and then infusing the mixture for a couple of weeks. The grape bits were then strained out, and the vinegar was richly flavored, barely sweet, and carried some of the unique tang of the Concord grape. I’m looking forward to making pomegranate vinegar in the near future. Blackberry vinegar would probably be wonderful.

It may be that live vinegar contributes to your biome and general health, and definitely it contains the antioxidants of the original wine with little or none of the alcohol.

If you get interested in culinary uses for your vinegar, you will enjoy Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. The section on acid in cooking is invaluable and will lead you to analyze food that lies a bit too heavy on the tongue and realize that a bit of acid could have sparked it to deliciousness. Canal House makes and uses a lot of vinegar in their cooking, and you can find some recipes and a good article on making vinegar here.

The vinegar “mother” is a great example of a SCOBY or pellicle, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that create a matrix and keep reproducing as long as they have a food supply. They busily make vinegar, kombucha,water or milk kefir, or other things depending on the particular microorganisms. You can see the vinegar mother well in this borrowed shot:

Your mother is very versatile and can make vinegar of anything alcoholic as long as the proof isn’t too high. Be aware that a mother formed in red wine will carry red pigment for quite a while, and if you put it in white wine or hard cider you will have rose’ vinegar. The mothers look a bit like placentas:

If you have a healthy one, the question always arises of what to do with the “pups” or new layers of mother that are continually forming. Some people eat them, but then some people eat their own placentas. No judgement implied, but I wouldn’t eat either one. If your friends don’t want one, put it in the compost or bury it in the garden or whatever makes you feel okay about letting go of it.

 

The Turn of the Wheel

 

This summer, more than usual, I ran a bit adrift when it came to blog-writing. There were many reasons, but the main reason was that it was so damned hot that I couldn’t bear to work in the garden and nothing would grow. July and August are always warm in New Mexico, but this year those months were beastly. A lot of my plants died because it was so hot that I couldn’t supply enough water to keep them alive. Or maybe I could have, but with the freezer already full to bursting it didn’t seem practical. I concentrated my efforts on watering the things that I like for fresh use.

But last week piles of pumpkins and squash started to show up outside the local grocery stores, and everything started to change. The wheel of the year has turned. Days are breezy and nights verge on chilly. The glorious scent of chiles  roasting can be picked up near every grocer and market stand. The plants that survived the heat got a new lease on life. Cottonwoods started to turn gold.

 

Some of my mushroom bags, desiccated over the summer, imbibed water and started to fruit. They took me by surprise and I didn’t notice the new mushrooms until they were cracking at the outer edges. But they’re just fine for kitchen use. Sautéed or grilled or roasted, oyster mushrooms are pretty much the perfect all-around mushroom, mild and meaty and appealing to nearly everyone.

The tough stem bases that were trimmed off for cooking can be thoroughly dehydrated and ground into oyster flour. It’s perfect for thickening mushroom soup or sauces.

This year I made a mixed mushroom flavoring paste and froze it in ice cube trays to use for sauces and soups. I can’t give you an exact recipe  but can convey the general idea, and no doubt you can improve on it. I  used an assortment of five wild mushroom species from a foraging trip as well as the oysters, but you can use cultivated mushrooms. The last time I was in Whole Foods I saw seven varieties of cultivated mushrooms, and dried mushrooms are also available commercially, so anybody can get  enough to try. My favorite source for bulk dried mushrooms is Oregon Mushrooms.

This formula can be endlessly adapted to any kind and any amount of edible mushrooms, although I don’t recommend lobster mushrooms because they don’t have much flavor to contribute.

Start with about three pounds of clean fresh mushrooms, at least a few different kinds, or about a pound of assorted dried mushrooms. I used oysters, hawkswing, agaricus, hen of the woods, lion’s mane, and cultivated shiitakes.  If dried, soak them for an hour in enough hot water to cover them. Drain, strain any dirt out of the liquid with a fine strainer, and save the water. Pick over the mushrooms for any debris, then chop. This can be done in a food processor if you’re careful not to chop them to mush. Chop one large or two small onions and five cloves of garlic. Sauté the onions and garlic slowly in butter or good olive oil. When translucent and cooked but not browned, add the chopped mushrooms and sauté over medium heat until the mushrooms are somewhat cooked and exuding liquid.

Now add the mushroom soaking liquid if you used dried mushrooms, half a bottle of good red wine, a quarter cup of soy sauce or coconut aminos, six anchovy fillets,  three or four good-sized sprigs of thyme,  and any dried mushroom powder that you wish to add. I used some oyster powder and porcini powder,  and also added about a cup of broken pieces of dried morels from a bag that I had finished up.

Cook the mixture over medium heat.  Let it boil, because you want to concentrate down the fluid. When the fluid only just covers the mushrooms,  remove the thyme stems and purée  the mixture in the blender or food processor or right in the sauce pan with a stick blender.

Now you have a thick gloppy mixture looking something like this:

Cook over low heat until it gets really thick, stirring frequently to prevent burning.  Add a quarter cup of best quality red wine vinegar and keep cooking.  When the paste is dark and thick, taste it and add salt if needed. It should taste pretty intense. After all, it is a seasoning, not a food. When it is done to your satisfaction, smooth the paste into ice cube trays, cover, and freeze.

It will then lurk in your freezer, ready to add a deep taste of the forest to nearly anything where a mushroom flavor would be appropriate. After pan-grilling beef or game, toss a cube into the pan with some wine or broth and deglaze, boiling furiously, add a pat of butter, and boil a little more until it comes together as a pan gravy. Melt a cube into mushroom soup to enhance its flavor. Add a cube and some heavy cream  to sautéed mushrooms that seem a little bland.  Melt a cube, mix into an equal amount of soft butter, and use it as a finishing butter for meat or almost any kind of vegetable, or toss with hot pasta and some good Parmesan. Spread on hot buttered toast or stir into scrambled eggs.

Every time you use it, you’ll be reminded of the fascinating fifth kingdom that helps keep our planet alive.

 

Broccoli Heaven

This year I made a real effort to have broccoli, my favorite vegetable, available in larger quantities than I could eat at once.  Every year I hope to have some to freeze, and every year I gobble it all up as soon as it is ready.  But this year I did succeed, by putting in 12 plants in late May that would mature after my earliest planting, and mature more or less all at the same time  so that I couldn’t just hog it all at once in one giant broccoli orgy.

Broccoli is a very heavy feeder, and when it is a bit established I pile a heavy mulch of alfalfa and a little chicken manure all around the base, a few inches back from the stem. This conserves moisture and provides nutrients in a steady fashion throughout the growing season, allowing my broccoli heads to get as big as 12” across.

The result is that my refrigerator is crammed with broccoli right now, with more sitting around or out in the garden waiting to be brought in. This is my idea of a really wonderful problem to have.

As far as what to do with broccoli, there is no question that roasting is my favorite technique.  Here is an excellent basic recipe, which is very similar to the way I do it, and there are endless variations that you can dream up on your own. This is, in my opinion, too good to be a side dish and deserves to be the very center of the table, but certainly it goes well alongside a steak, roasted chicken, or just about anything else you could name.  If you aren’t sure what else to do with broccoli, the wonderful food 52 site has great recipes and is worth a browse.

https://food52.com/recipes/21828-parmesan-crusted-broccoli

As far as health questions go, I think that green vegetables are vitally important to a long and healthy life. There is now a small dietary movement favoring pure carnivory, and the wacko fringe elements of that group believe that eating green vegetables will probably kill you.  It is my view that this completely ignores the demographic data that all the healthiest and longest lived populations in the world eat plenty of green vegetables.  So make your own decisions, but don’t ignore the data. Here’s one study:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29739681

And one specifically on ovarian cancer:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29693426

I won’t make extravagant claims for cruciferous vegetables, but it is at least clear from the data that they certainly won’t kill you.

 

The Hen That Laid the Golden Egg


In an earlier post, A Little Hen Science, I linked to a study showing the health difference to the eater between a well-produced egg and a poorly produced one.   Today I am going to throw out some brief notes about what is possible when you feed your own chickens. First, my chickens are not pastured. My area has a lively band of coyotes, and the hens have to be in a fenced run with a roof over it to be safe. So I gather the pasture and bring it to the hens. Every day they get a huge pile of leafy weeds, green garden veggies that I’m not going to use in time, windfall fruit, and veggie scraps from the table. When the goat is in milk, they get whey and any discard milk, all greens-fed of course.  They get grain and flaxseed free-choice.  I have looked into the possibility of growing black soldier fly larvae to provide them with extra protein, but that notion dropped dead when I saw a video of the inside of a “bug pod“ designed to produce them. I have a strong stomach generally, but it does not extend to masses of writhing larvae.  So I throw the ladies any squash bugs, cabbage loopers, snails, etc. that show up, and cook any eggs that get too old for human or canine use into “chicken cake“ to give them some extra protein.  You can also buy freeze dried meal worms for the same purpose, although they are pretty expensive.  I keep a bag of organic turmeric around, and throw a tablespoon or two in every time I cook up a chicken cake, and also throw in a handful of Thorvin kelp meal to make sure that they are getting all their minerals.

The result can be seen above. On the left of the photo is the yolk of the best pastured eggs that I am able to buy in my local co-op. On the right is a yolk from one of my hens.  That’s a pretty good illustration of how many carotenoids  you can fit into one egg yolk. This is even more impressive given that the chicken who produced this egg is the only leghorn in my flock, and the leghorn is a breed often scorned by people with a home flock because the egg shells are white.  As you can see, they are industrious foragers and will practically eat their own weight in greens,  and they are also prolific layers.  There’s nothing not to like about them, and when some of my old ladies succumb to old age, I will get a few more leghorns. But any hen will lay better eggs if her nutrition is top-notch, and if her nutrition is top-notch, yours will be too.

Food Independence Day

Gardening is a pleasure and a labor of love, and it’s also part of a bigger picture of resilience. I think about resilience a lot these days, on every level from national and international to personal. Much of the time there is little or, arguably, nothing that I can do for those larger systems, but on any average day I can attend to my own household system. I can make reasonable plans for the future and remain as flexible as possible about things that can’t be predicted.

One thing that can be predicted is aging. We can do a lot toward aging well, but *spoiler alert* we will still age. I realized this when I had a few years of orthopedic issues that made it painful to walk and impossible to dig. It made me start shifting toward a permanent mulch system in part of my yard, so that as long as I can kneel to plant and can spread some straw around, I can harvest food. I started the mulched beds by heaping animal manure and bedding a foot thick over the whole area, but this was a one-time job and the labor involved can be hired.  Straw bales can be delivered and set where you need them for a small extra fee, and spreading them is light work. Let the whole setup mellow for several months if the manure was fresh, and start planting the following spring. Straw breaks down quickly and has to be replenished a few times a year, which is great because it builds the soil and creates an incredibly active layer of worms and tiny critters of all sorts. It also holds water tenaciously, which is critically important in my desert area.

Some perennial weeds come up through thick mulch, so there is some pulling to do. In my area, silver nightshade is the chief invader. I have started letting it flower before I pull it, because bumblebees love the flowers.

Other perennial weeds are far more delightful. Common milkweed was my favorite perennial wild edible when I lived in the Northeast, and I’m creating a few patches of it here to feed us if there are years that I can’t plant annual vegetables. As the seedpods mature I’m moving them to new parts of the yard. This spring I noticed that some seedlings struggled up through thick mulch, saving me the usual labor of weeding around the tiny plants for a couple of years while they get established, so this fall I will try just “planting” seed pods here and there under mulch to see if I can start new clumps that way. Once well established a clump of milkweed takes care of itself, and it’s pretty hard for other weeds to get a foothold. The delicious shoots emerge late in the spring, so be careful not to dig them up by mistake  when the early-spring digging fervor hits you.

Nettles are a perennial vegetable that I have yapped on and on about until there’s little left to say. So all I will add here is: site them where you can control them and not get stung, cook them in spring when young and tender, whack the plants back aggressively to keep them in place, and harvest more shoots later on. I freeze the young leaves in large quantities to eat all year.

I’m always experimenting with things that may save work later on. I don’t eat potatoes very often but do like a few treats of new potatoes in season. I’m trying out the Chinese yam or cinnamon vine, a robust perennial vine that has sprays of cinnamon-scented flowers and then, on established vines, a large crop of tiny bulbils borne from the leaf joints that are said to taste like new potatoes. My vine is three years old and hasn’t formed any bulbils yet but I am hopeful that next year will be the year. The vine also forms a huge underground tuber that I can dig up and eat if I ever get that hungry. I understand that it tastes good, but digging is no longer my favorite thing.

Old established hops vines produce huge quantities of edible and delicious shoots in spring. They are much less work than asparagus, which tends to need a lot of weeding, but they are big heavy vines that want to romp away 20’ high if they get a chance, and require a really sturdy fence. I don’t brew beer anymore because we no longer drink much of it, but if you brew, there’s another clear advantage to growing them.

A deep permanent mulch creates a living and lively ecosystem and you can watch its capacities change over the years. I’ve tried for years to grow blackberries, but in my very alkaline clay in broiling sun they were a no-go. Now, in mulch with some shade, they are thriving.

European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, are another desired plant that I was never able to grow until the mulch provided a more hospitable habitat.

My fruit trees appreciate the even moisture under a deep mulch. In our hottest summer so far, after our driest winter in memory, my apricot tree was loaded. I had to fight my local squirrel family for them but I don’t mind a little healthy competition. I made Indian pickles out of some of the unripe fruit, rather like the ones made from green mangoes, and they were good enough that I wish I had made more. I also roasted a lot of apricots for use in savory dishes. They are very delicious in this form, and freeze pretty well. Below, they harmonize with roast chicken in saffron cream sauce.

My old friend lambs-quarters is still everywhere. There is no leafy green that’s any better or any easier to grow or any more nutritious. I wish that some ambitious breeder would get to work on it and create a form that held longer without shooting to seed, but it’s just fine as it is. It can be seen somewhere in nearly every photo taken on my place, and is my living daily assurance that I’ll never starve. If I can’t grow anything else, I’ll rake the mulch off a patch of earth, add some water, and reap the resulting harvest.

Perennial onions are another food that will never desert me. In fact, I’m having to weed some out to make room for other things. Besides the usual ways to use scallions, they are awfully good sliced finely, stewed in butter with some salt until they sweeten, and eaten as a vegetable.

Animals can add greatly to your resilience and they help “close the loop” in keeping nutrients on your property. It’s amazing how much garden waste and food scraps they will eat and relish, and their manure passes on the left-overs to your plants in a form that they can use. If legal in your area, a rooster increases resilience by making it possible for you to grow your own chicks if you ever really have to, or want to.

I am no survivalist and don’t want anything to happen to society. We need each other. But if our current overly lavish food supply should be threatened, the ability to grow something to eat might once again become a necessary skill. And even with every grocery store crammed with food, growing your own is satisfying on a far deeper level than shopping.

A happy and healthy Independence Day to all.

 

 

 

Another Quickie


Yesterday I wrote about a quick light snack/meal made mostly from stored staples and fresh greens, and today it happened again that we weren’t terribly hungry at lunchtime but wanted something healthy and good. It was the work of ten minutes to chop up some lambs-quarters tops and a clove of garlic and sauté them with some salt while I peeled a few hard-boiled eggs out of the refrigerator. If you don’t have any already hard boiled, you can cook the number you want and chill them in ice water and eat them still velvety-warm in the center, which is delicious.

The finishing touch for the dish is a good glop of Mayonaisse. I make my own with the glorious deep orange yolks of greens-fed chickens and a mixture of olive oil and avocado oil. With a little salt and lemon juice and seasoning of your choice, its creamy unctuousness is quite superb and elevates a commonplace snack into something special. This particular batch was seasoned with some puréed canned chipotles in adobo, and finished with a sprinkle of ground chipotles.

Green leaves are the most active and extraordinary solar collectors in the world, and ideally they nourish you directly and nourish any animals that you eat. If you don’t want to garden or don’t have space, there is probably some foragable lambsquarters not too far away. You will invariably eat more greens if you make it convenient for yourself to eat them. Washing and cleaning them before they go in the refrigerator helps a lot, and sautéing them lightly before they hit the fridge can be even better. Better to compost some that you don’t use in time than to not eat them because they aren’t ready and waiting for you.