Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Homestead Happiness, June Week 4

Lots of developments on fruits, vegetables, and wildflowers this week made us happy.

The creeping bellflower, which is kindly filling in our less-maintained areas with purple June/July flowers, is in full bloom.

It's an invasive species, but other than being an aggressive spreader and difficult to eradicate, it's not as bad as some invasives.  For example, this patch s a hotspot for bee activity.

The squirrels won round two also, picking 90% of our strawberries while they were still green, even with the quick and dirty strawberry cage in place.  So either the woven wire fencing has too large of holes, or we're battling mice instead of squirrels.  (Or we're battling jedi squirrels that can pick the strawberries using The Force...we know they exist.)  We made our quick and dirty strawberry cage slightly less quick but even more dirty by covering it with 1/2" hardware cloth.

We've got an especially delicious-looking strawberry that no squirrel could possibly resist as a test probe.  If it gets picked, our problem is definitely mice.

It looks like we might actually get some raspberries in year two.  Only a handful, but hey!  You gotta start somewhere.

We were thinking we would get skunked on apples, plums, and sour cherries this year since there were only a few flowers on the plums (none on the apples and cherries) and we couldn't find fruit on anything.  But behold!  There are a few plums we had missed.  We're going to have four of them come September.  Quadruplets would normally be very exciting, but it's a good thing we made so much jam last year!

Similarly, the Nanking cherries seem to have survived the winter ok and will be ripening soon.  Our likely-bird-planted versions compete with other shrubs and weeds in the shady areas of our yard, so we don't usually get enough of these to do anything with but make a light snack.  But they're really good, so maybe we should do some plant propagation experiments to give them a chance to reach their full permaculture potential.

Finally, the corn is definitely going to be "knee high by the fourth of July" since it's already thigh-high now!  We're currently devising squirrel-deterring plans for when the ears start to ripen.

What made your homestead happy this week?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Wild Greens Nutrition Comparison

You might be getting tired of all our posts this spring extolling the virtues of wild greens, but we wanted to do one more before giving it a rest for a while.  In particular, we were curious to see how the nutrition of the greens we forage stacked up against the greens we grow, so we made a spreadsheet (of course) to compare.  And as long as we were answering our own questions, we figured we might as well write it up into a blog post!

It's a bit of a challenge to get an apples-to-apples comparison because not all "weeds" have nutrition info readily available, and of the ones we were able to find, not all of the same metrics were available for each (for example, some were missing vitamin K or some of the B vitamins).  On top of that, some of the benefits of eating wild greens are attributed to factors that aren't quantified in normal nutritional analyses, such as content of phenolics, flavonoids, and mucilaginous substances. But, for what it's worth, we can make a few legitimate comparisons.

And fortunately, there's enough data to make some charts and graphs!

First up, Vitamin A.  Actually, first we should say that the reported serving sizes vary widely across our source materials (linked at the end of the post), so we had to do some normalization.  Everything here is based on 100 g of fresh leaves, rather than a one-cup serving.  But back to vitamin A: just about all of these greens will give you a good dose of it, but if you're foraging and feeling deficient, aim for dandelion, lambsquarter, and stinging nettle greens.  These three, along with kale, are well over the 100% RDV.  Interestingly, several sources claim that mallow is a good source of vitamin A, and although 28 RDV% is nothing to sneeze at, it hardly measures up to most of the other greens.

However, those same sources claim mallow is rich in vitamin C, and the only quantitative measure we could find put it at about 1% RDV. (Although the flowers have a lot more than the leaves.)  But it looks like we'll have to shoot for dandelion, sorrel, or lambsquarter greens if we catch the scurvy and there's no kale around.

Protein is where the wild greens really start to shine, and finally find a metric where they can beat kale, at least for lambsquarter and stinging nettle.

Similarly, for calcium, the wild greens do well compared to typical cultivated greens.  Stinging nettle blows everything else out of the water, but lambsquarter and dandelion are also higher than anything normal gardeners grow intentionally.  Even the lowly mallow is right up there with kale.

Most of the rest of the items that show up on a nutritional label didn't have data across all eleven species, but if you want to take a look at the spreadsheet, you can find it here.  Also, recommended daily values (RDVs) were based on a 2000 calorie diet.  The RDVs we based our calculations on can be found here.

It would be a shame to spend all this time talking about greens and nutrition and leave you hanging with no evidence of them actually prepared!  So we leave you with this: the dandelion-sorrel quiche we made a few weeks ago should be an excellent source of vitamins A and C!

Did we miss your favorite wild or cultivated leafy green?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Now, the sources of the numbers, in case anyone is interested:

Dandelion, lambsquarter, purslane, and all the cultivated greens came from the self.com nutrition facts database.  In the spreadsheet, when figures were available for cooked greens, we used the 'no salt' option.

Sorrel came from the USDA national nutrient database.

Mallow came from this paper and this paper, using the moisture content to back calculate nutrient content in the fresh leaves.  For the second paper, the moisture content was listed as only 2.8%, which is not typical of fresh green biomass!  So the moisture content from the first paper was used in back calculations of the mineral contents.  Also, vitamin A proper was not given, so the total carotenoid content, which provides an upper limit on the possible vitamin A content, was used.  Also, some interconversion between mg and IU was required for vitamins A and E, which we got from here and here.  Finally, note that the two papers analyze different species of mallow (Malva sylvestris in the first and Malva neglecta Wallroth in the second), so there is some uncertainty in the numbers reported here.  This paper also appears to have the data we're after, but only for a price.

Stinging nettle came from this paper, using the spring data because in the fall, there are so many other things to eat.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Homestead Happiness, June Week 1

Summer is really kickin' into gear around here, and although the spring was a struggle for garden prep and pollinators, there's some good news from the Lab on both fronts this week.

Our wildflowers (Erysimum, Wallflowers) from a few weeks ago were joined in bloom by some feral roses this week.

We haven't seen many bees on either of those, but the wallflowers are being worked by some hover flies.  We think this specimen is Eristalis arbustorum.

Meanwhile, the hawthorn a few feet away has its own ecosystem of insects pollinating it.  Another hover fly (probably a Drone fly), a blue bottle fly, some small feral bee (or small feral bee-imitating hover fly) we couldn't identify, and the honey bees we were hoping to see there.  There were at least two other species that we couldn't get good photos of.  But, in trying to identify these bugs, we learned that the larval stage of many hover flies (although not of these two) eat aphids, and some eat scale and other garden pests.  So, stick around, hover flies, we'll need you soon! (...and feel free to check out the scale on our Meyer lemon tree; we set it by the driveway for you.)

In the garden, our squash have sprouted!

The kale is also up, although it would have been nice to get this in the ground several weeks ago.

Meanwhile, our tomato plants seem to have largely survived (so far) the bi-daily hail storms we've been getting.  We did have to replace a couple pepper plants in what we're referring to as a 'jalapeno emergency.'

Strawberry season is so close we can taste it.

We also got a double-yolked egg from our Red Star hen that broke the 4-oz barrier.  We think there should be an additional category for eggs this large.

What made you happy this week?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Makeshift Tripod for the Fire Pit

Having newly constructed a fire pit in the yard for a marshmallow roasting workshop, we were confronted not long afterward with an unopened package of brats in the freezer.  Much preferring a brat grilled over an in-ground hardwood fire to even a charcoal-grilled one, we concluded that an open-fire grilling apparatus was needed immediately. "'Immediately," in this case, meant, "in less time than it would take to drive to the store and buy a tripod."  Fortunately, with a little whatchagotamology, we were able to piece something together in less time than it even took the fire to burn down to 'cooking stage.'

The main features are three sticks with fork-like features at the top, three short chains, a long chain, and a grate stolen from a regular grill.

The long chain is attached to the three short chains (which were extra parts from the fluorescent light fixtures we used in the aquaponics setup) by a bent nail we pulled from some piece of free Craigslist wood.  The long chain runs up through the top of the forked sticks, and can move up or down to adjust the height of the grate above the fire.

The three short chains are attached to the grate in a similar manner, spaced evenly to make the grill level.  Also, putting the grate upside down helps keep brats and hotdogs from rolling off.  Or at least, you can tell people that if you accidentally put it on upside down.

A screw in one of the legs can be used to fix the location of the chain if, like us, you were in too big a hurry to find sticks with a suitable branch.

Brats cooking safely, lovely company, summer initiated.  Crisis averted.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Science and Engineering of S'mores

We realize this post is a few days too late for the first major camping weekend of the summer, but the truth is, we needed a tune-up on our s'mores theory and practice ourselves.  So now, while the extensive refresher training we completed over the last few days is still at the front of our minds, we wanted to put out a short treatise on the intricacies and nuances of marshmallow roasting and s'more eating.

The first step in creating a s'more is to initiate the thermal oxidation of some woody biomass.  To avoid marshmallow ignition, we want radiant heat from the coals rather than heat from the gas-phase oxidation occurring in flames. That requires full primary combustion of the wood, which takes a considerable amount of time.

The second step is to select a marshmallow roasting device from a nearby tree or shrub, taking care to avoid the species Toxicodendron vernix.  The geometric outlay of the device is to some degree a matter of personal preference, but we've found that a half inch diameter at the base tapering to approximately a quarter inch at the business end, and 2.5-3 feet long, to be optimal for most common campfire heat intensities and standard-size marshmallows.

Similarly, the optimal linearity of the device is a subjective matter.  Some prefer a higher degree of linearity to facilitate a uniform axial rotation during roasting. Others prefer some curviness to allow the roaster to reach preferred roasting locales within the campfire from any position around the fire ring, including those toward which the smoke is not traveling, and independent of other s'more engineers who may be occupying prime roasting real estate.

Nearly all experts agree, however, on the advantage of a barbed tip to prevent marshmallow disengagement from the device during the later stages of roasting, when the rigidity of the melty marshmallow core has deceased significantly.  Similarly, there is nearly universal agreement that removal of the bark from the tip of the device prevents inadvertent transfer of bark particles to the marshmallow.

In theory, pure radiative heat from glowing embers produces the most satisfactory roasting experience.  However, in practice, maintaining sufficient heat flow from a bed of embers over the course of tens of minutes that comprise a typical roasting session is challenging (as is having the patience to wait for the wood to finish burning down to coals).  Thus, the optimal sustained roasting environment often requires a combination of actively burning wood and pockets of glowing embers.

With the marshmallow applied to the roasting device, and roasting commenced over an appropriate heat source, the sugars in the outer shell of the marshmallow will begin to caramelize.  The primary chemical challenge during roasting is to uniformly caramelize the entire shell without charring or igniting any part of it.  The preferred technique among experts is a slow, rotisserie-style rotation at 4-6" from the embers, though few possess the patience to functionally sustain such an activity for the duration of the roasting operation. Another challenge is roasting the surface closest to the base end of the roasting device.  There may be some advantage to loading the marshmallow onto the device axially to minimize the surface area facing the base end (since the flat side of the marshmallow is smaller than the curved section), and then lightly smooshing the marshmallow to convert some of the base-facing surface into side-facing surface.

When the marshmallow is satisfactorily caramelized, it can be assembled into a s'more, with graham crackers and chocolate as co-ingredients.  In some circles, a preferred embodiment of the s'more is one which can be eaten cleanly (i.e., without loss of melted marshmallow to the eater's face or hand, or to the ground).  In such an embodiment, the chocolate and graham must be of the correct pliability, such that biting into the s'more results in neither excessive compression of the marshmallow nor shattering of the graham cracker components.  The desired pliability can be achieved by mild heating of the graham and chocolate for 4-5 minutes while roasting the marshmallow (resulting in a final temperature of 100 - 105 °F).  More intensive heating melts the chocolate and toasts the graham, effectively exacerbating the problem.

A proper grip on the s'more can also help keep the s'more intact while biting.  As this hand model is demonstrating, a firm grip in one quadrant of the graham, using the end section of the first two fingers and the thumb, is optimal for minimizing transfer of marshmallow to the hand while maximizing the exposed area on which to apply the bite.  Large bites, up to the size of the entire s'more, also minimize brittle fracture of the graham into the hand.

After roasting one- or two dozen marshmallows, the roasting device can be saved for future use, but a bit of maintenance and cleaning will help preserve its integrity and avoid attracting ants.  A first step in cleaning is commonly to remove as much marshmallow residue as possible by mouth.

Particularly recalcitrant residue can be removed by charring the tip, followed by wiping with an appropriate material, such as a t-shirt or nearby grass.  The health benefits of any residual char that may be transferred to future marshmallows are unclear, but related products are highly valued in some types of cuisine (an explanation of the scientific function of biochar in the digestive tract can be found near minute 19 in the video accompanying the previous link, although the entire episode provides a much more compelling narrative if one is amused by the non-sequitor nature of Japanese cartoons).  The roasting device can be stored somewhere relatively clean and out of the fire pit until needed again.

In conclusion, many factors must be considered to produce an optimally roasted marshmallow and a satisfactorily engineered s'more.  We hope this primer has helped elucidate some of those factors, but we welcome additions and suggestions to incorporate into the second edition of this text.

What is your preferred marshmallow-roasting protocol?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Homestead Happiness May Week 3

We skipped a couple weeks of our HAP posts, in part because we were busy with non-homesteading-related stuff, and in part because we've been doing a bit of twiddling our thumbs waiting for the dirt to dry out enough to plant the garden.  But there's still plenty to be happy about!

First off, the wild greens in the yard are loving all the rain.  We haven't planted any greens in the garden yet, but we sure haven't had to leave the yard for our vegetables!  You may have guessed from the last couple posts that we've been eating a lot of dandelion greens and sorrel (and you'd be correct), but the mallow (in the picture) has also been a valuable addition to our plates.

The hops plant came back!  And it's already as big as it got last year!  Hopefully it will help the bees battle varroa, although we don't have too strong of hopes that the bees will self-treat.

One leaf on our rhubarb was almost completely eaten by slugs (we think), and the stalk had come partially disconnected.  So we picked it the rest of the way, making this little 4" morsel is the first rhubarb we've harvested from the plant.  It made one bowl of oatmeal very awesome.

Judging by the number of volunteer potatoes that came up this spring, we need to do a better job harvesting next year (although volunteer veggies that made it through the winter are always kind of fun) .  They got knocked back a bit by a Mothers Day snowstorm, but they're pushing on now.  We pulled out a couple that were in this year's garden beds, but the ones that came up in what are now aisles will get to do what they want for the summer.  For the ones we had to move, we dug the best specimens into the compost bin to see what they'd do, since last year we had a regular old russet potato from the store sprout in the compost and survive the summer to actually produce a pound or two of potatoes.  That was a nice surprise!

One nice thing about all this rain is that it's made it really easy to pull weeds.  The strawberries needed it bad, and we happily removed all the quack grass in there.

We did take the risk of turning over a couple beds to get the onions and sweet potatoes planted since they really needed to get in the ground.  Hope they do ok!

Some of the first wildflowers (not including dandelions) are also starting to bloom.  These guys are in with some roses that are looking a little deficient in iron or nitrogen.  We haven't seen any bees on these blooms yet...

...but they are working on the chives that got ahead of us!  This little gal was so into it, she started probing the next flower while she was still standing on the first one!  Good work, ladies.

What made you happy this week?