Thursday, November 13, 2014

More Fun With Crab Apples 2: The Sauce

A couple weeks ago we wrote about our plans for processing as many of our crab apples as we could before the deep freeze hit, and we've been busy experimenting ever since.  We had twelve ideas for what to do with the crab apples, which we wanted to break up into blog posts for 'fresh,' 'liquid,' and 'sauce.'  (Two other ideas--put the raffinate in the compost and feed it to the chickens--are pretty self-explanatory and don't really need their own post.)  We didn't manage to get them all picked before freeze damage hit, so the 'fresh' category will have to wait until next year.

But in the 'liquid' and 'solid' categories we've had some success (by our standards, at least), and so we wanted to post our results here as a baseline for other researchers to reproduce in their own labs and develop further.  First up: the solid portion! This is the sauce obtained after boiling the apples to soften, straining out the water, and passing them through a crank-style food strainer (we call it a berry grinder).

Idea #1: Applesauce.  Easy as that--eat it straight up.  It's pretty good, but tart.  We kind of settled on a ratio of 1 cup sugar to 6 cups sauce as the optimal balance of sweet and tart.  If we're feeling really sassy, we'll add some cinnamon.

Idea #2: Crab apple butter.  We took four quarts of the sauce, added 2.5 cups sugar, and cooked it down to two quarts in the crock pot.  We also added some cinnamon and allspice (about two teaspoons each), and nutmeg (about 0.5 teaspoon).  It's thick, but easily spreads out onto lots of things. this toast that just became 1000 times tastier!

Idea #3: Crab apple jam.  Kind of like our rhubarb-crab apple jam from a few weeks ago, but using only crab apples this time.  We used the liquid pectin that came from the same crab apples (of course!).  Eight cups crab apple sauce plus two cups liquid pectin equals ten cups total, which needs ten cups sugar (we used eight cups white plus two cups brown).

Looks pretty good, and it set right up! We've got a lot of peanut butter sandwiches to eat before next summer.

Idea #4: Fruit leather (our favorite).  Cookie sheet, silicone baking mat, and a 1/8" thick layer of crab apple sauce (still mixed with sugar in a 6:1 volume ratio).  We set the oven to its lowest temperature (150 °F for us), and it took 9-10 hours to get to the right consistency.

And when it did, it was awesome.  Best fruit leather we've ever made (although that's admittedly a small sample size).  We tore off the left side like two hungry velociraptors fighting over a roast pheasant. (Don't laugh, we've seen it happen.)  We picked a whole 'nother bucket of crab apples just to make more fruit leather.

Hey, look! It's a crab apple fruit roll up!  We're not professionals, but that silicone baking mat is.  We also made a batch in the dehydrator, but it took longer to dry and stuck to the tray.  It was so beat up by the time we got it free that we had to eat it immediately, just to put it out of its misery.

Idea #5 (bonus!): We also happened to find out that a pretty mean crisp can be made with the sauce (plus 6/1 sugar).  It doesn't have large apple pieces, but it does have all the other essentials of an apple crisp: tangy apple flavor in a fruity fruit layer, crispy crisp topping on top, and an irresistible attraction to vanilla ice cream.  For the topping, use a ratio of one cup each whole rolled oats and brown sugar, 0.75 cups flour, and 0.5 cup butter, almost melted.  (That amount will be good for a thin layer on a 9" x 13" pan.)  Sauce goes in the pan first, topping patted down on top, and whole shebang baked at 350 °F until crispy and delicious.  Can't go wrong!

Stay tuned for some experiments with the liquid!  In the meantime, what do you do with your crab apples?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

End of Tomato Season Deliciousness

At the end of the gardening season (in places with seasons, anyway), a gardener always has to make a decision on when to call it quits.  At some point, the summer veggies slow way down and have to be babied to keep them from getting frostbite, providing an annual test of a gardener's patience.  What is the cutoff?  We'd like to say we have some fancy algorithm figured out, where we take the derivative of the day length multiplied by the angle of the sun's trajectory which is divided by the number consecutive nights with frost forecast for the coming week or something, but we don't.  It usually works out that if we've had to cover things at night for more than about a week, the next available weekend day is slated for putting most of the garden to sleep for the winter.

On said weekend day, we usually find ourselves with a large pile of tomatoes in varying stages of ripeness.  From the nearly ripe and softball-sized beefsteaks all the way down to completely green cherry tomatoes that are probably only a few atoms in diameter, we do our best to rescue them all from direct sacrifice to the compost pile. (We also save some whole plants to let ripen on the vine in the garage, but mostly we pick the tomatoes straight away.)  What's our protocol for dealing with the sudden influx of tomato refugees? Read on and we'll reveal the methods to our madness. (Or at least, convince you of our madness.)

First, we sort everything into three categories: "Use now, has spots/cracks/etc," (Slytherin, top), "Use now, perfectly ripe," (Gryffindor, lower right), and "Let ripen on counter," (Hufflepuff, lower left). Peppers also have their names thrown into the sorting hat.

Among the Slytherins, we trim any bad spots off the greenest ones, and start converting them into one of a few end products.  Our current favorite is a green salsa-type sauce.  Other options we've considered are green pasta sauce, and any of these.

For our salsa-sauce, we boil the green tomatoes in a little bit of water until they start to soften, blend 'em up with the stick blender, and season with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, dried chives, and garlic.  A guess at how much we added to around 3 lbs tomatoes (also a guess) is 1 tablespoon each of salt, pepper, oregano, and chives, 3 tablespoons garlic powder, and 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper.  Katie says that's too much cayenne.  Jake says it's about right for a salsa in the 'hot' category.

The key is to keep adding spices until it tastes right.  Lots of testing and empirical recipe development make for a fun and filling night!

When the sauce finally tastes right, it goes in jars in the fridge, to be used on chips, nachos, eggs, potatoes, pork, and other things.  It might also go into containers in the freezer, if we have any handy at the time.  The red and partly-red tomatoes in the Slytherin basket get a similar treatment, but the sauce might be more of a pasta sauce, depending on our mood when we're dumping in the spices.  Any spotty peppers also end up in one of the two sauces.

For the Gryffindor basket, we're likely to turn the tomatoes into a pasta sauce straight away.  The good peppers go in here, too, along with an onion, and they get boiled up as for the Slytherins.

Blended up, too.

But for a thicker sauce, we like to save some time and energy with the old t-shirt-inside-a-colander-inside-a-bowl trick.  This way we don't have to boil off all that water.

We keep scraping the t-shirt with a wooden spoon to keep the water going through, and before long the sauce is nice and thick.

The filtrate is a nice tomato-ey juice (or a V-3 juice in our case, since we added peppers and onions), and can be drank directly, or mixed with Mary seasonings to provide refreshment during the next death match breakfast.  For what it's worth, if we have an electric stove (at 65% thermal efficiency) and pay $0.10/kWh for electricity, we're saving more than $0.09 per quart of tomato juice recovered.*  Booyah!

The filter cake goes back in the pot with some seasonings (salt, pepper, oregano, and lots of garlic, to taste).

Mix in some browned up hamburger meat, slap it on some spaghetti noodles, top it with a little parmesan, and we've got something tasty to go along with some roasted potatoes!  (Don't forget to top the taters with sour cream and some of that green sauce from up above.  Ketchup is for heathens.)  The Hufflepuffs we can wait patiently for as they ripen on the counter.

*Calculation assumes vaporizing water at its boiling point (2260 kJ/kg), 8.34 lb/gal of water, and standard conversions of 2.204 lb/kg, 3600 kJ/kWh, and 4 quarts/gal.

What do you do with your end-of-season tomato influx?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

French Toast Death Match

Now that our hens are laying eggs at a pretty good clip, one thing we've been eating more (in an effort to keep up with the eggs) is french toast.  We've been making regular french toast, stuffed french toast strata, and now, baked french toast (which is kind of a hybrid between the other two).  This morning, we had two of those recipes square off: it was a death match between the incumbent standard french toast and the newcomer baked french toast.  It was a good fight, but we both ended up preferring the baked version.  For the blow-by-blow recap, keep reading.

In one corner: the incumbent!  With a snazzy stove-top sizzle, lightning-fast cook time, and years spent perfecting the recipe, it's Standard French Toast! [applause and cheering.]

And in the other corner: the challenger!  An upstart that boasts a slow-roasting, house-filling aroma and hands-free preparation with no standing over a hot stove or flipping individual slices, it's Baked French Toast! [smattering of polite applause.]

They'll face of here! The hallowed venue of The Homestead Laboratory's Dining Room Table! They've got the best accoutrements available, with homemade Marys (bloody or virgin), freshly-made, vanilla yogurt-glazed fruit salad, piping hot tea and real maple syrup!  Who will win? It's bound to be an epic battle!

In the end, we both thought that the baked french toast, even with its unoptimized recipe, was the better of the two.  The main thing was that the extra soaking time in the batter made the end product more custardy, which we liked.  Plus, while it was baking, we could make a fruit salad, steep some tea, and set the table without risking a burnt slice.  The process for making the baked version was just to dip the bread in the batter and lay it in a baking pan as shown in the picture above (we added some extra cinnamon, should remember to grease the pan first, and will do it in a bigger pan next time!). Same batter as the regular version.  Bake at 375 °F for 20-25 min covered, then 15-20 min uncovered.  We got the idea from Martha, but decided not to be as fancy.

And, just in case you're wondering, our standard batter recipe is approximately the following, all beaten together:
6 eggs
0.25 c. milk
2 Tablespoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon

It's usually enough to batter 8-10 slices of bread.

What's your favorite french toast recipe?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

More Fun With Crab Apples

As it turns out, we have a very prolific crab apple tree in our front yard.  It has approximately one bazillion crab apples on it.  That creates a challenging situation for folks like us who are busy with other homesteady things, but who hate to see any produce go to waste.  So we did the only thing we could think of: we made a plan to use all bazillion crab apples.  Most of them are still out on the tree, but at least we've got a plan.  Plus, we've already filled the fridge with sauce and juice, and Katie says we have to clear that out before we pick any more. 

We've laid out our plan below, in case anyone else reading this is in a similar situation and just needs a creative nudge.  Hopefully we'll be able to report back over the next several weeks about successful experiments, so stay tuned!

The source.  Loaded and really hard to mow under.

The first five gallons worth.  This didn't even get one branch out of the way for mowing.  Yikes!  It turns out they're just like regular apples, except crabbier.

The sauce-making apparatus (aka, berry grinder), in case the strange-looking device in the next graphic is hard to decipher.

...And here she is: the master plan.  Twelve ideas for what to do with all those crab apples.  We posted about jam, pie filling, and liquid pectin earlier, but we're now revisiting some of those recipes with a 100% crab apple version.  Also, preliminary tests suggest chickens like crab apples at any state of processing--from completely raw all the way to the screened-out leftovers.

What do you do with your crab apples?  Let us know in the comments below!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Stuffed French Toast Strata

A question: what is the best part of coming home to one's parents' house after being away for a while? An answer: mom's cooking!  Another question: what is an extra special treat during such visits, even among mom's cooking? Another answer: stuffed french toast! 

Stuffed french toast is pretty easy to make, just like regular french toast.  We've normally had it with french bread sliced double-thick and sliced halfway through in the middle of each double-thick slice (see here for an example)--but it works with regular bread, too, and we've even made the sausage-and-swiss style from the link above as just a french toast-grilled-cheese sandwich.  But then we thought, "wouldn't it also be great in a strata?" And we're happy to report that it is, indeed, great in a strata.

Start by browning up some ground meat to make some breakfast sausage.  For 1 lb ground venison, we seasoned it with about a half-teaspoon each of salt, and pepper, and one teaspoon each of garlic powder, caraway seeds, and ground sage.

When the meat is cooked through and tastes like the type of breakfast sausage you want, make layers like the picture shows, in a 9 x 13" pan.  A couple of differences between this strata and our other recipes: this one doesn't have vegetables in it, so you'll have to get them in a side dish.  (Don't skip them!  Remember, this is mom's meal plan we're emulating.)  Or maybe make an omelet to go with it or something.  Also, we're not normally picky about what kind of cheese we use in the strata, but this one's gotta have Swiss cheese.

Add a second set of bread-meat-cheese layers, then pour a mixture of six eggs, three cups milk, and one teaspoon each of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning (beaten together) over it.  The seasonings in the egg mixture could also be more traditional french toast spices, like vanilla and cinnamon, but we decided to match the sausage flavor instead.  Doesn't matter, we'll still eat it with syrup like Buddy the Elf.

Set it in the fridge to chill out for a while.

Then bake at 350 °F for 50-55 min until it looks something like this.

Look at those layers! Time for the syrup! Good stuff, Maynard.  House rules: when an entree is topped with real maple syrup, the plate must be licked clean.  No exceptions!

What do you stuff your french toast with?  Let us know in the comments section below!

The recipe:
~1 lb ground venison
 0.5 teaspoon each of salt and pepper
1 teaspoon each of garlic powder, caraway seed, and ground sage

10 slices of bread (at least)
1 lb shredded Swiss cheese

6 eggs
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon each of garlic powder, and Italian seasoning, salt and pepper

Brown the ground venison in a frying pan over medium heat, seasoning with garlic powder, caraway, sage, salt and pepper to taste (suggestions above).  The amount of ground meat can be adjusted, too--1 lb gives a two scant layers in the strata, two lbs. makes a very meaty strata.  Layer the bread, browned meat, and cheese in a 9" x 13" pan, starting with bread and ending with cheese, aiming for two layers each. Beat together eggs, milk, and remaining seasonings. Pour over layers and set in fridge for several hours or overnight. Bake at 350 °F for 50-55 min. Allow to cool and smother with real maple syrup.  Remember to lick the plate afterward.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Chicken Coop Feng Shui

At our homestead, we have three places for chickens to hang out, depending on the circumstances.  We have the row cover chicken tractor, which fits neatly over our garden beds, but doesn't have enough predator proofing to keep the chooks safe overnight.  Then we have the A-frame chicken tractor, which is pretty predator proof, but doesn't have much room for nest boxes (which we need now that they've started laying).  Lastly, we have part of a shed that shares a wall with the garage.  It doesn't give the chickens free access to the grass (yet), but it gives them the most space to move around, the best predator protection, and, we'll admit it, it's easiest on us.  (We still herd them out to the yard every time we have a few hours.)

A couple weeks ago, our Easter Egger caught us off-guard by starting to lay at 19 weeks old, followed shortly by the Rhode Island Red.  How did they know what to do?  We didn't even have our nesting boxes ready!  We clearly had to get the boxes built ASAP, and we took the opportunity to rearrange the shed coop and get the positive energy flowing more smoothly.

This is what the coop looks like from the outside, after rearranging.  We don't have a picture from before we reorganized it because it's probably bad karma to publish such things.

On the innermost corner, we built a platform, supported between two studs and on some pruned buckthorn trunks.

Then we built a nest box or three to go on the platform out of old fence wood...

...set it on the platform, and filled it with some of the straw-like tall grass from the yard.  This setup must be ok, the first egg was laid in it 20 minutes after the chickens first saw it.

Then we added a roost above the nest boxes.  As it's shown in the picture, the poles are too close together.  We're going to fix that soon.  But it's better than the 2 x 4s we had hanging from the ceiling before this renovation!  We also built a 'droppings box' out of an old 1 x 12 and some fence pickets, which helps keep the top of the nest boxes clean (shown in picture below).

The chickens can all fly up to the platform, but we have a pallet ladder to make it easier for them.  Some of them also seem to like the challenge of climbing the ladder and shuffling across the other stick to get to the platform.  We haven't heard them cluck the Mission: Impossible theme yet, but they're getting there.  Also notice the chicken feeder full of grit hanging underneath the platform, and the oyster shell dispenser behind that.  How 'bout that use of vertical space?

Good job, ladies.  Mission accomplished.

How do you make the best use of your coop space?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A-Frame Chicken Tractor

There are lots of ways to raise chickens in one's backyard: free ranging, rotational pasturing, tractoring, etc.  Meat breeds tend to eat a lot of feed and gain weight quickly, and those traits have come at the expense of foraging behavior (cornish cross, we're looking at you).  One way to get those meat birds out in the fresh air a bit while forcing the little butterballs to eat some greenery (and poop around the yard instead of two feet from the feeder) is to put them on a bit of a diet and move them around in a chicken tractor.

So it was with our spring batch of chickens this year, and, as is our modus operandi, we wanted to put together a functional chicken tractor for the lowest cost possible.  We got all the wood for free from Craigslist, which saved us the majority of the price of constructing a tractor from all new materials (woo hoo!) We managed to construct a pretty robust mobile chicken fortress, although it is somewhat more of a workout to move around the yard than we were hoping for.  But here are our design details, judge and improve upon them as you see fit. (And leave suggestions in the comments section!)

Here's the general framing.  The base is made from 2 x 6s cut halfway through where the perpendicular pieces come across, leaving a 12" overhang to support a 'weasel skirt,' described below.  (Kind of like Lincoln Logs.) The base boards are 10' and 7' for the long and short sides, respectively, giving an internal dimension of 8' x'5', or 40 ft2.  The A-frame part is 2 x 4s, cut at about a 60° angle.  We tried to design it such that we'd be able to lift it ergonomically (i.e., by shrugging our shoulders), for which we calculated that at a height of 27.5", the handles, which would be situated at the outside of the triangle frame, would be 28" apart (similar to a wheel barrow).  For this application, 28" was probably 4" too wide, but we ended up needing more than a shoulder-shrug worth of height anyway (see below).

A close-up of the top edge.  The hardware cloth is one big piece from side-to-peak-to-side and a triangle piece across the end, with a few of the trimmings from the triangle used to fill in the gaps at the bottom of the triangle.

The handles went on the back, cut into the A-frame boards.  See five pictures down for a peek at how they're secured on the inside side.  The roof part and the back wall are cedar fence pickets.  The hardware cloth around the base (the weasel skirt) keeps digging predators out.  Neighborhood dogs and foxes, good luck!  May your claws be ground down to useless nubs before you eat our chickens.

On the front end is a go-kart (or dunebarrow) tire, with the wood supported by a piece of angle iron.  Cutting the bottom corner off the board makes it a lot easier to move around, although we could have helped ourselves out even more by putting the axle lower than we did.

The weasel skirt is held in place by some more old fence pickets.  Otherwise the inside edges tend to catch on the grass and get ripped off the boards.  The downside to supporting them this way is that the tires on the front end are now elevated, which means the back end needs to be raised even higher for the tractor to roll (like, at least two feet).  Lifting it too high lets the birds wander out as the tractor is being moved, but for cornish cross, that's ok.  They're not hard to catch.

On one side is a kind of Dutch door...

...that opens to allow access to birds or food and water buckets.  Opening the door panels also reveals exquisitely-calculated brace pieces!

Birds-eye-view (heh) through the top door.  A couple extra 2 x 4s provide a place to hang food and water buckets.  It works well for meat birds that don't really roost, but for lighter breeds, they'll roost on the center board and poop on the bucket lids.

Here's the view from the front...

...and other side for completeness.

Lastly, a word on wasting feed. The cornish cross are motivated by one thing: hunger.  In this picture, the general outline of the 'feeder end' of the tractor can be seen, with a big pile of wasted feed in the lower right corner.  The birds should be moved every day, even if there's good food available on the ground (the rest of the outline is their mess!). But they'll waste a lot if given free choice food all day long.  Yes, it will break down and end up feeding the pasture, but that's some expensive fertilizer!

In contrast, giving them a little less than they want will make for a lot less wastage.  You'll have to figure out where the magic amount of daily ration is for your flock.  For us, about 4 lbs per day for 10 birds was about right.  There's definitely still some visible in this picture, but if they're hungry, they'll spend their time eating the stuff off the ground instead of sitting around pooping on themselves.  (They'll probably still do that, too, but to a lesser extent.)  We even saw one eat a dandelion leaf once!

What does your chicken tractor look like?  How do you keep it light enough to move around the yard easily?  Let us know in the comments section below!