Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Cherry Pitter Hack for Nanking Cherries

It's generally accepted among scientists that Nanking cherries evolved to be smaller than regular cherries so that standard-size cherry pitters wouldn't work on them, which would cause humans to be less likely to collect them, and as a result, Nanking cherry seeds would be spread further and wider by birds and squirrels. (Don't bother looking that up, that conclusion was extrapolated from a poll of household scientists.) 

Fortunately, humans are crafty devils, and have now provably adapted to allow efficient predation on Nanking cherries.  Evidence: a primitive modified cherry pitter tool.  Fortunately for future archeologists, the development of the tool was captured in some equally-primitive images.

Glass with Nanking cherries
We picked nearly a cup of these tasty-dactyls last week.

Nanking cherry in cherry pitter
But they're too small for our cherry pitter!

Washer in cherry pitter
Rummaging around in the garage, we found a washer that fits inside the cherry pitter, with a small enough inner diameter to hold the Nanking cherries but still let the plunger through.

Pitted Nanking cherries
There were no survivors.

Nanking cherries on ice cream
We shall honor their passing with great reverence...and plenty of ice cream.  (We also scattered the pits through the chicken pasture so the Nanking cherries, as a species, don't get too mad at us.)

How do you process Nanking (or other small) cherries?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Homestead Happiness, June Week 1-ish

This post is actually a couple weeks late, but it's still a relevant tour of our June yard.  Nature is at peak biomass production this time of year both for weeds (boo...) and garden plants (yay!)  Fortunately, we've been more on top of the garden this year than last and most of the tree fruit survived the late snow storms, so things are looking good!

June garden
We got the garden in and mulched, and the drip irrigation set up.  It's crazy how much the tomatoes (left) and potatoes (right) have already grown since this photo was taken.

Healthy rhubarb
After two years of struggling, it looks like our rhubarb has finally turned the corner!  The likely culprit for its struggles: a quack grass root right through the center of the crown.  If you have a rhubarb plant that's inexplicably struggling, make sure it's not being assaulted by quack grass.

New rhubarb
Some new neighbors put up a fence, and in the fervor of their construction, ended up tossing part of a rhubarb plant into our yard.  What else to do but plant it?  The leaves it already had died right away, but it was sprouting new leaves from the root within a week.  Jake's mom has another story about a piece of rhubarb root left out in a garden shed over the winter, and rediscovered in the spring, frozen and dried out.  She put it in the ground and it's growing now!  Respect.  May we all be as resilient as rhubarb!

Unripe fruit on trees
We have our largest variety yet of pre-fruit this year--the black raspberries are finally bearing (they were fall-planted in 2013), while the peach tree bloomed for the first time and a few of the fruits survived the late snow storms.  The apples and crab apples survived, too!  We could have also added wild plums and sour cherries to this picture.  It's going to be a busy August/September around here!

Nanking cherries
On the other hand, the Nanking cherries are just about ripe.  More on that soon!

Volunteer chard and potato
We've been mulching with aged chicken bedding, and it's sprouted almost as many volunteer garden plants as weeds because of all the kitchen and garden scraps we gave the chooks.  You can see Swiss chard and a potato plant in the photo, and just outside the photo is some borage.  We had an empty space where we relocated some strawberries to hedge our bets against marauding squirrels, so it's a nice surprise to see it fill in with edibles!

Chives and volunteer catnip
Speaking of volunteers, we were disappointed when the catnip plant we planted last year died.  But one of its offspring has taken its place!  Nature seems to be granting all our plant-related wishes this year.

What made your homestead happy this week?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pollinator Party

They say that once you have honeybees, you look at flowers differently.  You wonder if a flower is a good source of nectar, of pollen, or both.  You wonder if the pollen is good nutrition for the bees, or junk food like pine pollen.  You might wonder if a flower has been sprayed with a pesticide of some sort.  At the very least, you become more aware of what's blooming at any given time of year and wonder if your bees are hitting it up to make you some honey. 

If you also happen to be a huge bug nerd amateur entomologist, you might notice that some times of the year there is only one kind of flower blooming in a given area.  And as a result, that patch of flowers becomes a veritable smorgasbord of pollinators.  We noticed it last summer on our hawthorn tree.  A few weeks ago, we also noticed it on a blackberry patch while visiting family in Wisconsin. (For what it's worth, blackberries make junk food-like pollen, but may be a good source of nectar.)  

Shrugging off the puzzled and slightly concerned glances of our relatives, we grabbed the camera and started snapping photos...let's see what we found!

Blowfly on blackberry blossom, Syrphus ribesii
There were plenty of hover flies hanging out (including this Syrphus ribesii), but they weren't very cooperative as far as landing on flowers with good lighting.

Mason bee on blackberry flower, Osmia lignaria
A fancy blue metallic bee was slightly more accommodating.  We're pretty sure it's a blue mason bee (Osmia lignaria), but the midsection looks kind of thin and the abdomen looks not very hairy compared to other photos online.

Paper wasp on blackberry flower, Polistes carolina or Polistes rubiginosus
This paper wasp was our best customer, as it was willing to be in focus and was visiting only the most attractive flowers.  We think it's a Polistes rubiginosus, or Polistes carolina but it's hard to be sure.  They're very similar, and neither one is normally found as far north as Wisconsin.

Bumble bee on blackberry flower, Bombus griseocollis or Bombus impatiens
An aptly-named bumble bee was also buzzing drunkenly from flower to flower.   Looks like it's probably a Brown-belted Bumble Bee,  Bombus griseocollis., but possibly a Common Eastern Bumble Bee, Bombus impatiens.

Butterfly on blackberry flower, Boloria selene
Even a butterfly (we think it's a Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary, Boloria selene) was getting in on the action!

There were probably half a dozen other species that wouldn't hold still long enough to get their picture taken, but we'll have to check out this blackberry patch again next year!  Not sure if we'll be back in time this year to enjoy the fruits of these pollinators' labor, but hopefully our relatives will remember this post and have a greater appreciation for these fine fellows while they're munching on delicious blackberries later this summer.

Where are the pollinator parties in your neck of the woods?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Reminder: Marshmallow Roasting Contest!

This is just a quick reminder that if you're going camping this weekend, don't forget your marshmallows and camera! Those are two of the most necessary things to enter the marshmallow roasting world championships contest on our Facebook page.

To whet your appetite, here's another one of Katie's masterpieces, from a couple weekends ago.  The evening was just too nice to head back inside after the turbo-braised chicken was done!

Marshmallow roasting on rocket silo campfire
Katie's getting pretty good at this!
Looking forward to all your entries--happy roasting!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Turbo-Braised Campfire Chicken

Back in November, we noted the serendipitous discovery that the bottom grate of a smokey joe grill fits perfectly in the bottom of our 8-quart cast iron dutch oven.

Grill grate in dutch oven
The stones are a low-thermal-conductivity support to keep the grate off the bottom of the pan and hopefully prevent roasting chickens from burning.  Also, they allow you to call your food products stone soup!

We further speculated that the setup shown above would be ideal for cooking a chicken.  This weekend, we tested that hypothesis, and we're happy to report that our hypothesis was supported.

Frozen chicken in dutch oven
We decided to do more of a braising than a pure roasting, but we started with a frozen-solid chicken, set it on the grate, and added a couple inches of water to the bottom.  Then we seasoned lightly (depending on your definition of 'lightly') with salt, pepper, garlic powder, green onion powder, cayenne pepper, and something called 'pizza seasoning.'

Dutch oven on fire
We used the top grate of the grill on our sap-boiling-configured rocket silo, and set the dutch oven over a relatively high heat.

Cooked chicken in dutch oven
Within a couple hours, the chicken is cooked all the way through, tender, and moist. We were happy to see that the high heat didn't burn the chicken at all.

This is the generally the same technique we use in the crock pot, but there it takes five or six hours to finish cooking.  So, the dutch oven is about about three times faster than the crock pot.  We don't have a comparison for braising a chicken on the stove or in the oven inside, but taking a whole chicken frozen to finished in less than two hours seems like it would be hard to beat.  We suspect that the weight of the lid turns the dutch oven into almost a bit of a pressure cooker, which would definitely speed things up.  The campfire-dutch oven method also gets us outside on a nice day, uses a renewable heat source (wood), and creates a valuable byproduct in the wood ashes (that we can use for baking or soap making).

Chicken broccoli carrot cheese soup in dutch oven
With all the time saved, we might just be motivated to take out the grate and stones (leaving the broth), toss in about three cups milk, four grated carrots, and four chopped broccoli heads and stalks, cook them until tender, pull the chicken meat off the bones while the veggies are cooking and return it to the pot, then thicken the stew with a half cup of flour, remove the pot from the heat, and stir in a pound of grated cheese to make a big pot of broccoli-chicken-carrot-cheese soup!

What's your favorite way to cook a whole chicken outside?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Foil-less Hobos for Eight

With several weekend nights suitable for outdoor cookery already in the books this year, we've been practicing some of our favorite camp recipes.  One of our all-time favorites is what we've always known as "foil packets" or "hobos."  Evidently named after those migrant workers who moonlighted as professional campers and camp chefs, hobos (the food) are hard to beat for simplicity and flavor.  The dish is just a delicious pile of root veggies, seasonings, butter, and ground meat (if you got it), sealed up (generally in a folded sheet of aluminum foil) and cooked slow over a campfire.

The only thing we find disagreeable about hobos the food is the soiled foil that must be disposed of after the meal.  The foil is hard to reuse because it tears easily, and it's hard to recycle because there's often times caramelized bits of food stuck to it.  Fortunately, we can do better if we hypothesize that our hobo friends (the people) could have come into some cast iron cookware in which to prepare their food.

Dutch oven hobo fire configuration
Our foil replacement in this case will be a big dutch oven.  It turns out that brick spacing required for sap boiling pans is also about right for a full-sized grill grate.  Sorry we didn't get a picture before cooking commenced--we just tossed in cubed potatoes, carrots, and green onions, a stick of butter, a pound of ground venison, and seasoned liberally with salt, pepper, red pepper, garlic powder, oregano, and basil.  The green onions (Egyptian onions--thanks Anna!) were something we hadn't tried before, but they worked great!

Hobo cooking in dutch oven
The lid of the dutch oven makes enough of a seal to bathe the ingredients in steam during cooking. The steam is released like a flock of doves when the lid is opened.

Caramelized veggies
Ideally, there is a thin layer of caramelized veggies along the bottom and sides, and a bit of excess butter to keep things from really cooking onto the surface.

Hobo with cheese and toast
If we also hypothesize that our hobo friends (the people) may have some cheese (and a cheese grater) on hand, our hobos (the food) become a food fit for kings.  Finally, if we hypothesize that our hobo friends (the people) have some bread, we can make some toast on the fire, the crumbs of which are suitable for politicians.  (Also, it's a scientific fact that bread toasted over a campfire is at least ten times better than bread toasted in any other way.)

What's your favorite way to make hobos?

This particular iteration used the following recipe:
11 medium potatoes, cubed
10 medium carrots, cubed
0.25 lb green onions
1 Tablespoon salt
2 Tablespoons each pepper, garlic powder, oregano, and basil
0.5 Tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 stick butter
1 lb ground venison

Toss everything into a 12-quart dutch oven, crumbling the venison on top of the other ingredients.  Set over a hot campfire for 30-40 min, depending on how hot. (Setting the pot directly on the coals will probably cook the bottom too quickly.)  When it starts to smell done, check on the meat and veggies near the top of the pot.  If they are close to done, put the lid back on and let it go another 10-15 minutes.  If they are not close to done, stir the pot such that those pieces will be close to the bottom.  Check frequently to ensure that an appropriate amount of caramelization happens on the bottom.  When done, scoop into bowls and top with cheese (or ketchup, if you must).  Best eaten outside with a glass of homemade wine while watching the sun set over the garden.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Righteous Anger About Wood Screws

We've been stewing over something for a long time, and it came to the surface again this last week while building our picnic table benches.  So, we're going to do something we don't normally do in public: passionately rant about mundane objects.  After all, it's time someone just got it out there: Phillips-head wood screws are stupid.  They're not as stupid as the flat-head screws they were designed to replace, but they are not much better.

Types of screw heads
Sometimes, preschoolers have the most appropriate terminology.

What's the problem, you ask?  Let's play a game.  Raise your hand if you've ever tried driving a Phillips-head screw longer than about three inches into a piece of wood without a pilot hole.  Keep it raised if you were able to drive that screw all the way in without the bit slipping out of the head.  Any hands still up?  Ok, keep it raised if you were able to do ten in a row without destroying any screws or any driver bits.  No hands up yet?  Good!  We knew we weren't alone.  And thank you for being honest.

So, why are they so hard to drive consistently?  There are at least three reasons.  First, consider that the job is a lot easier if you drill a pilot hole because the screw itself has to push a lot less wood out of the way (i.e., a lot less torque is required to keep the screw moving into the wood).  Now, consider that the diameter of the screw shank is normally pretty thin, and the drill bits that match are normally pretty short.  The correct-diameter bits in our set, for example, will only make a hole about 2" deep.  That is to say, a four-inch long Phillips-head screw with a 1/8" shank diameter has no place in a civilized society.  Philips screws shorter than 2.5" are slightly more functional, but if you're building a deck or a picnic table (and not doing fine woodworking), do you really want to drill pilot holes for every dang screw?  Ain't nobody got time for that.

Phillips head and pilot bit
Here, let me drill a woefully inadequate pilot hole for you.

The second reason is that electrically-powered screwdrivers (e.g., drills) are very common these days, so if you don't have sufficient force or just the right angle, you can strip out the head or destroy your driver bit  (depending on which is made from harder metal) really fast.  You can do the same thing with a hand-powered screwdriver, but it takes a lot longer. (Side note: we can't believe this is a real thing. Possibly the least-elegant solution ever offered by a real company. That alone suggests Phillips heads should be allowed to go extinct.)

The third, most nefarious reason is that, depending on who you ask, Phillips-head drivers are either designed to slip out of the screw head (ostensibly to avoid overtightening), or that just happens to be a feature that someone along the line decided was marketable.  Either way, Phillips put it in a patent, so they have to own it now.  That means it's not an accident that your Phillips driver bit has only four tiny triangles through which to apply force to the screw.  (Some may say that a limited amount of sympathy is due for the relatively primitive screw manufacturing technology of the time, but the Robertson square bit was patented earlier and is a much better design.)  In any case, an inherent driver-disengage feature might make sense in fragile applications, but not for regular homestead-style outdoor construction.  According to this fascinating and surprisingly-well-referenced Wikipedia article, Philips has come up with some variations to try to improve matters, but they can't get around the fact that they're tied to a design that sucks.

Comparison of Torx and Phillips force application
We've always been bigger fans of quadrilaterals than triangles, even before we studied physics.

Now, we're not hardware experts around here, but we have done quite a bit of...um...we've driven quite a few screws in our day, and we plan to drive many more.  The Torx (star) screws have become common enough that the prices are comparable to Phillips screws, especially when factoring in all the destroyed Phillips screws and driver bits, extra time, and tears of frustration.  So, we've taken a vote, Mr. Phillips, and you are off the island.

That is all.

Torx and Phillips screws
Here's a tip as a reward for reading this rant all the way to the end: the Torx screws are so much better that if you've already got a supply of really long Phillips screws,  you can use a Torx screw of similar length to make a decent pilot hole for the Philips screw.  That way you don't have to throw anything out or make an unethical business choice to sell the Phillips screws at a garage sale.