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!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cheeseburger Strata

Ok, kids, gather 'round.  We've got a pretty good strata recipe for you this month.  It's partly inspired by end-of-summer hamburger cravings and partly by a staple dish at Katie's family's Thanksgiving-time celebration called, appropriately, 'beef and pickles.'  We don't have much beef around here, but we do have some ground venison and a big jar of pickles, so let's get to it!

We'll pick up this story near the end of the first set of layers, where we've got bread on the bottom, then a layer of about 2/3 lb. browned ground venny, then half a sliced onion and some pickle slices.  We're ashamed to admit they're not our own pickles, but our cukes this year petered out before peter piper could pick and pickle them.  So we got a 32 oz. jar of the bread and butter pickles from the grocery store; dills would probably work, too.  It worked out nicely to have half a jar per layer, with a few leftover for snacking.  Don't forget!  A layer of cheese goes on top of the pickles.

Repeat the bread-meat-onions-pickles-cheese layers, then pour on a mix of six eggs, three cups milk, a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, a tablespoon each of onion and garlic powders and rosemary, and five or six squirts of Worcestershire sauce, if you enjoy that sort of thing on a hamburger.

Set it in the fridge for a few hours...

Then bake at 350 °F for 50-55 min until the onion rings make tiny delicious crop circles on the upper cheese layer.

That would probably taste pretty good with some fruit salad and a glass of crab apple-ade!  The strata can be topped with the desired hamburger toppings: ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, sour cream, bacon, more cheese, etc.  Katie says, "pretty tasty!"

What are your favorite hamburger seasonings, toppings, and side dishes?  Let us know in the comments section below!

The recipe:
~1.5 lbs. ground venison
1 large onion, sliced
32 oz. jar of sliced pickles
1 tablespoon each garlic powder, onion powder,
1 teaspoon each salt, pepper,
10 slices of bread (at least)
1 lb shredded cheese (we used colby-jack and cheddar)

6 eggs
3 cups milk
1 tablespoon each of garlic powder, onion powder, and dried rosemary
1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper
5-6 squirts of Worcestershire sauce

Brown the ground venison in a frying pan over medium heat, seasoning with garlic powder, onion powder, 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, onion slices, pickles (drained), 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, until senses of sight and smell register 'awesome.' Allow to cool and top with favorite hamburger accoutrements.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fall Rhubarb and Crabapple Pectin

Rhubarb is one of the first plants up in the spring, with it's beefy red stalks ready to eat by the time the first strawberries are coming in.  One of the hallmarks of late spring-early summer for us has always been making rhubarb jam, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb cake, and so on.  But does it have to be just a spring treat?  Established plants can produce good 'barb all summer long, and if it's picked at the end of the summer, or even (gasp!) in the early fall (thanks, Mom!), delectable new combination jams and pies can be had for the effort.  One such jam we were keen to try, which may have been related to our present bounty of crab apples, was a rhubarb-crab apple jam.  Plus, we wanted to try our hand at making some pectin from the crab apples, and another batch of jam seemed like a good excuse.

First things first...let's make some pectin!  Start by putting about 12 cups of crab apples in a pot and just covering them with water.  No need to core or de-stem them, just check for bugs if they make you queasy.  Boil the heck out of them (make holy apples?), until they're real soft.  It took about an hour on our stove.

Then we hit 'em hard with the stick blender to make a crab apple sauce, which we filtered with the ol' t-shirt inside a strainer inside a bowl trick.  They say not to squeeze the filter because it can make the pectin solution cloudy, which can make the resulting jelly cloudy.  But we always make jam, which is cloudy anyway.  Guess who's getting a bear hug!

The resulting liquid is pink (and a little cloudy), and kind of sweet-tart, like a crab apple-flavored lemonade.

We tested it's strength by putting a teaspoon of it in a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol, as described here.  The pectin isn't soluble in alcohols, so it precipitates out to make a gel that can be picked up with a fork if the pectin is concentrated enough (like in the picture).  Don't eat it!

Timeout for some food chemistry!  (See here for more info.)  The pectin we're making will be high-methoxyl pectin (as is pretty much all pectin when it's first made, regardless of whether it comes from apples or citrus peels).  The pectin structure is a long chain of galactose molecules (G), which each have a carboxylic acid group (C) off to one side (galactouronic acid).  Most of those acid groups are actually in the methyl ester form, which some food scientist back in the day decided to call methoxyls (M). (Never mind that a methoxyl is a different kind of functional group to every other type of chemist.)  The chains of galactose molecules (and the "C" groups, to some extent) can form a three-dimensional hydrogen bonding (H-bond) network, provided there's not too much water (W) around.  That's what makes the 'gel' part of jelly.  Water interferes with that H-bond network, so a ton of sugar (S) is added as sort of a 'pectin body guard.'  The sugar also interacts with the pectin and the water, but keeps the water from interfering too much with pectin's H-bonding.  The gelling reaction is also pH-dependent, because below a certain pH, the "C" groups become protonated and don't repel each other.  But if the pH is too low, the G-units start to fall apart.  Talk about a finicky reaction!

If high-methoxyl pectin is treated with acid under specific conditions, some of those methoxyl groups are converted to carboxylic acid groups, which have quite an affinity for cations like calcium (Ca2+).  With enough calcium around, the pectin chains agglomerate mainly because of calcium's ability to attract two chains apiece.  Pomona's pectin is low-methoxyl, which is why you can get away with lower and multiple types of sugars, and also why it comes with a packet of CaCl2.  Taking high-methoxy pectin to low-methoxy pectin could probably be done at home, but it's a tricky process because the same acid that can break off the methoxyls can break apart the bonds holding the galactose molecules together.

Now, on to the jam!  We had a little less than 4 cups rhubarb pulp (shown in the pot), which we combined with enough crab apple sauce (from another set of crab apples that we removed the seeds and stems from!) to total 5 cups of fruit pulp.  This site says to generally use 4-6 tablespoons pectin per 1 cup fruit juice, then combine those volumes and use that volume of sugar.  So 5 cups fruit pulp times 4 tablespoons equals 20 Tablespoons = 1.25 cups pectin solution, which means 5 + 1.25 = 6.25 cups sugar.  Remember: low-sugar pectin, this is not.  Then we made the jam just like with a package of sure-jell: combine the fruit pulp and pectin, bring to full rolling boil.  Add sugar, return to full rolling boil.  Boil one minute, pour into jars...

...and pour any extra into a bowl for sampling as soon as it's cool enough to not burn your tongue.  Hey, look!  It kind of worked!  It's a little runnier than it looks in the picture because a skin formed on the top, but it's plenty thick enough for our purposes. 

The rest of the pectin goes in jars in the fridge for another batch of jam or just as a crab apple-ade drink.  Or maybe a pink Metamucil.  Not bad on it's own, especially considering all the health benefits of pectin, which a form of soluble dietary fiber.  We're going to be *so* regular!  The chickens are currently enjoying the filtered pulp, and hopefully getting some health benefits, too.

Do you eat rhubarb in the fall, too?  Have you ever made your own pectin?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Good Bugs in the Fall Garden

Last Thursday we had the first frost warning of the year, and at slightly higher elevations, there was snow!  In September!  Fortunately, we escaped such a dreary fate, and actually didn't even get frost.  That was nice, because it gave us time to notice a few things while we were out in the yard this weekend (other than the jungle of tomatoes racing to produce some red color before the next cold snap comes).

The first is that the bees were more active than they have been for a while, in part due to the warmer weather, no doubt.  But we've also got a second bloom of dandelions going on, and they're busy collecting the pollen and nectar.  Also, a lot of our broccoli was kind of doomed from the start because we didn't get it in the ground before it got leggy.  As a result, it made a bunch of loose heads, parts of which started blooming before the other parts were even there.  But a silver lining is that the bees seem to love the flowers.  Brassicas have highly nutritious pollen for bees (and here), so we don't mind sacrificing some of our crop for their sake!  It's good to see them out foraging in droves again since August was kind of a lean month.

We also went ladybug hunting to get some pictures for the Lost Ladybug Project.  The populations of ladybugs have been undergoing dramatic changes lately, with some native species on a steep decline.  The picture on the left is a seven-spot lady bug, which is relatively common and is a European import.  It was guarding the potatoes and tomatoes.  The one on the right is a two-spot ladybug, a rare native!  It was hiding in the crab apple tree.  Man, how lucky are we! (Follow the link above to submit your photos of ladybugs, too, whether they seem lost or not!)

Finally, a little bird told us that the sunflower seeds are getting ripe.  If we wanted to feed any to the chickens, we better act quick!

What's going on in your garden this time of year?  Let us know in the comments section below!