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!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Chard Tea

For the most part, the garden we planted this summer (keep in mind it's our first full summer here) has produced just enough to feed the squirrels, with one exception: the swiss chard.  We've eaten some fresh, and some sauteed, but there's been as much as we wanted all summer long.  But with the threat of frost last Thursday, we wanted to make sure we didn't lose the rest of the crop. (Frost can be even more destructive than squirrels, on a short time scale.)  So we decided to freeze it.  Most freezing instructions call for a quick blanching period, and then to put it in freezer bags and, well, freeze it.  But what about the leftover blanching water?  Certainly it's packed with vitamins and minerals and other good stuff.  Sort of like a chard-flavored herbal tea.

Blanched and frozen chard.  We did it in five batches: one for each of the bags of greens, and one for the chopped stems (which are the top two bags).

Blanching that much chard makes some dark green-colored water, almost a gallon in total. That there, Clark? That's a chard tea.

Seasoned up with a little salt and lemon juice and heated to a balmy 120 °F, it makes a fine beverage.  Sort of like a green virgin Mary (although you could add booze if you wanted).  "Now wait a minute!" we can hear you exclaiming.  "Swiss chard has a high oxalate content, that's why it's recommended (by some) to blanch it even if you're not freezing it!  Those oxalates are definitely in the blanching water, and will decrease your ability to absorb calcium, and probably lead to kidney stones!"  ...To which we respond, "Yes, there are oxalates in the blanching water.  But there are also a lot of water-soluble nutrients, minus the most heat-sensitive ones.  And, if you're not already sensitive to oxalate-related disorders, there's probably no need to restrict dietary intake of oxalate-rich vegetables, since dietary intake only accounts for 10-15% of oxalates in the body."  That is, the benefits you definitely gain from consuming the leached nutrients likely outweigh the potential detriment from consuming the leached oxalate.

Or, to put it in a numerical perspective, we can find some data, make some simplifications, and do some math!  The oxalate content of swiss chard is around 645 mg/100 g chard.  Blanching greens removes about 65% of the oxalate, which subsequently ends up in the blanching water.  We blanched about 2.2 kg of chard, which contains about 14.3 grams oxalate.  That means our blanching water contains about 9.4 g oxalate.  We used about a gallon of water (about 3780 grams), meaning that our chard tea contains 250 mg oxalate per 100 g of tea, or about 590 mg oxalate in an 8-oz cup of tea.  That is, drinking one cup of this tea works out to a slightly lower oxalate intake than one 100-gram serving of chard.  Nothing to be afraid of!  (That being said, we're not medical doctors or dieticians, so use your own judgement, or that of your doctor.  In any case, don't try to sue us if you drink some chard tea and get a kidney stone.  We promise you, there's not much to win from us!)

 What do you do with your blanching water?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fruit "Ice Cream" with ≤ 2 ingredients

A few weeks back, Katie found a recipe for two-ingredient peanut butter-banana ice cream, with which we are currently infatuated (although there's no sign of this being 'just a phase').  This recipe is itself an adaption of the one-ingredient banana ice cream, which apparently has been known among strict herbivores for many years. (Can you guess what the one ingredient is?)  While both of these recipes would more appropriately be labeled 'sorbet' (although they don't quite fit that label, either), they produce a frozen dessert that really does have the consistency and mouthfeel of ice cream.  So, what is it about bananas that makes them so special?  And more importantly, can we do something similar with the last of the incoming apples and plums from the yard, now that our jam coffers are full for the year?

The general recipe calls for cutting bananas of the appropriate ripeness into small pieces, freezing them, then mashing them (e.g., in a food processor or blender).  When the mash warms up a little, the 'grains' coalesce, producing the 'ice cream.'  How does it work?  The 'one-ingredient' recipe linked above mentions that bananas work well because they are high in pectin.  But many other fruits are also high in pectin--would it work just as easily with them?  This article explains that it's a little more nuanced than that--it's not just pectin, but pectin, fiber, and sugar that work together to give the creamy texture. (From a physical chemistry perspective, the smaller the ice crystals in the product, the creamier it will feel.  The sugar and polysaccharides decrease water's ability to form and grow ice crystals by messing with water's hydrogen-bonding network.)

So, fruits that are high in pectin, fiber, and simple sugars should be able to make a nice creamy sorbet/ice cream (sorbeam?), too.  Time to compare some data!

Fruits with a lot of sugars, fiber, and pectin give a creamier texture in one-ingredient 'sorbeams.'  Data sources are here, here, and the paper linked here.  A qualitative list of pectin levels in fruit can be found here (and many other places online).  Bananas are unique in their high content of available sugars, nearly twice as high as the other kinds of fruit for which we could find numbers.  So, in theory, it should work a lot better with bananas than almost any other fruit.  But hey, we're experimentalists!  Why don't we try it with our apples and plums anyway, and see if we like it!  (After all, if if it's not all that good, Jake will eat it anyway.)

At first, the frozen fruit (apples, here) makes sort of isolated granules.

As it starts to warm up, the granules start to stick together, but it stays kind of icy.  It's vaguely reminiscent frozen applesauce--not bad, but not what we're shooting for.

But add bananas, and bam!  Creamy ice-cream-like texture.

Same thing for the plum as for the apple. (If you leave the peels on, they stay in the sorbeam as fun confetti sprinkles!)

You can scoop it into bowls and top it with dried apple slices and cinnamon, or whatever normal people put on ice cream.

The sorbeams made from either just apples or just plums were good, but not quite as creamy as we've grown accustomed to with the bananas.  So we wondered, what if we mixed these with banana sorbeam to improve the texture?  And it worked!  The table shows Katie's response to each experiment.  Moreover, since the banana is a fairly subtle flavor, especially if the bananas aren't overly ripe, the mixtures really tastes more like apple or plum with just a hint of banana. Also, mixing in some sugar with the solo apple sorbeam made it taste less like frozen applesauce and a little more creamy, consistent with our hypothesis that it's the relatively low sugar content preventing the just-apple sorbet from being awesome. (We didn't try adding sugar to the plum.)

The amount of banana flavor depends on the ripeness of the bananas. (The creaminess of the texture, to some extent, too.)  While visiting family in July, we were introduced to a new term for bananas with brown spots: giraffey (adj.: having the appearance of giraffe).  We've expanded the concept to develop an entire animal-themed scale of banana ripeness.  Further to the right gives more banana-ey flavor; too far to the left makes the sorbeam taste starchy and astringent.  We like somewhere between giraffe and black bear; those less fond of banana flavor could edge toward puffer fish, but definitely don't go all the way to hummingbird.  Photo credits for hummingbird, puffer fish, giraffe, black bear: Wikipedia.  Other sources for the green, yellow, spotty, and black bananas.

How do you prepare frozen fruit desserts?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Outdoor Jam Session

This spring season was our first spring at the new homestead, and we were ecstatic to see the yard filled with blooming fruit trees.  There are three full-size apples, planted 50-60 years ago by some foresightful soul, one sour cherry tree that is sending forth its offspring like small alien cherry bush satellites around the mother ship, and a perimeter of wild plums, probably originally started by accident when a plum-eating squirrel got nabbed by a hawk and dropped his fruit (squirrels are only useful when they die, some would say).  There are also a number of crab apples in the neighborhood, the harvest of which the neighbors are more than happy to donate to anyone willing to spend the time picking the darn things.

Fast forward to August, and we've got piles of apples, crab apples, and plums practically begging to be put into jams, crisps, and the like.  And we were only too happy to oblige.  The only problem is that Colorado Augusts are typically high-temperature affairs, rendering indoor canning an enjoyable event only for sadistic, nonparticipating observers.  Thus, we built some infrastructure to move the operation outdoors, where steam can escape, the kitchen can spread out, and we're surrounded by the sweet melodies of avian soloists (including our own rooster, who has been perfecting his crowing technique all day long for several weeks now).  And, with the help of our garden kitchen and Dakota rocket silo, we're happy to report that these jam sessions were a resounding success!

Look at all those plums!  Tasty little buggers, too.

Conjoined plums.  These two are kind of like trophy bucks with locked antlers.  Fortunately, we were able to come along and rescue them both.

One more example of the bounty--plums and a few of the neighbors' crab apples.  Katie says, "Yay! we finally found a use for those awkward baskets, and they even made the blog!"

Here's a panorama of all our essentials for the outdoor jam session: garden kitchen, Dakota rocket silo, wheelbarrow full of wood, pile full of the same wood split into sticks, and lawn chairs in the shade.  This kitchen is approximately 500 times larger than our indoor one.  Note that the chimney is now four cinder blocks tall instead of the original two.  We added on to give a better draft and more comfortable working height.

With outdoor jamming, it's especially important to make like the French and 'mise en place.'  That is, make sure all the jars, lemon juice, pectin, sweetener, jar lids, magic magnetic wand for the jar lids, jar bands, and extra-clean jar wiping rag are in place before you start.  Otherwise you'll be running gassers back and forth to the house.  For more tips, check out this post.  She pretty much nails it.

Once everything is in place and the fire is roaring, our first step is to simmer the canning jar lids in a pot of water.

Then we switch to the fruit.  Our order of operations is to clean and pit/core the fruit inside, then bring outside and cook until soft, then bring inside and puree with the stick blender, then bring back out and turn into jam.  It sounds like a lot of running, but it wasn't too bad.  Better than having a hot, steamy house!  We could have saved some running with a long extension cord (so we could do the pureeing outside).  Also, don't forget to smear the pot with dish soap so the soot comes off!

One thing worth noting is that the fire needs frequent stoking.  Either that, or Katie is trying to open a portal to the underworld.  Also, don't forget to make cave drawings on your chimney with some of the charcoal you produce.  Here we have a caveman on a horse, chasing a chicken.  If the longest-lasting outcome of this project is a confused anthropologist 500 years from now, it will still be a success!

Later in the day we switched from plums to apples.  Even later, we mixed them.  We found out that any ratio of plums and apples turns out pretty good.

A successful batch of apple-plum jam (or plumple, if you will).  The jars will get flipped back over in a few minutes.  Make sure to count out the right number of lids!

Have you done any outdoor canning?    What was your setup?  What did you can?  Let us know in the comments section below! 

NOTE: It's now easier to leave comments on the blog--for some reason we had a setting checked that only allowed folks with Google IDs to leave a comment.  Why the default setting is so elitist we have no idea, but rest assured it should be fixed now.

A Recipe (using Pomona pectin): Spiced Plumple Jam

4 cups apple and/or plum puree in any ratio.  Multiple types of apples gives a more varied apple flavor.
2 teaspoons calcium water
0.25 cups lemon juice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
0.5 teaspoon each allspice, cloves, and nutmeg
2 teaspoons pectin powder
1 cup sugar

Cook cored/pitted apples and/or plums until soft, then puree.  Measure out 4 cups of puree and add calcium water, lemon juice, and spices.  (Lemon juice and spices are optional--the jam is great without them, too.)  Bring to boil, stirring frequently. (Frequent stirring is especially important on the Dakota rocket silo.)  Meanwhile, mix the pectin powder and sugar and stir well.  When the puree mixture comes to a boil that does not stop when slowly stirred, add sugar-pectin mix and stir vigorously to dissolve.  Return to boil and remove from heat.  Pour into hot jars, wipe rim with clean damp cloth, and seal.  Process by hot water bath according to directions for your elevation.  (We usually go with the inversion method because we've had good luck with it and it's easier.  Food safety experts will tell you it's not as reliable as the water bath method.  So do what you like, but be warned: your mileage may vary.  If you find a jar in the pantry that has come unsealed, don't eat it, even if Katie's not around.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Garden Kitchen

We'd wager that in our social circles, the phrase 'kitchen garden' would evoke romantic images of a small patch of vegetables and herbs situated just outside a kitchen window, lush and green, and frequented by friendly honeybees and hummingbirds.  The produce should be picked fresh, then brought inside, cleaned in the sink, and incorporated into a supper entree or side dish not more than two hours from harvest.  But we've found that in the heat of summer, such images leave out the important consideration of the temperature inside the kitchen, which, in the presence of a hot oven or stove, quickly rises to levels that are all but romantic.  To remedy the situation, we constructed a second piece of infrastructure (along with the Dakota rocket silo) to move some of our hottest cooking operations outdoors.  That is, in addition to our kitchen garden, we now have a garden kitchen.

We were fortunate enough to have been bequeathed the cabinet and sink by the previous occupants of The Lab, who left them in the shed where we wanted to put a chicken coop.  However, similar items can frequently be found on Craigslist (at least in our area), free for the hauling.

Opening the doors reveals two things: there is a larger amount of storage space than we'll probably ever use (partially due to the bumpy ride between the garden where we use it and the garage where it is stored), and that we built the chassis such that the cabinet doors open over top of the tires.  The second part took more than one iteration.  A couple of other notes: the chassis itself is just a simple box of screwed-together scrap 2 x 4s, with inside supports at either end and one in the middle to hold the cabinets up.  Also, our mechanism of attaching the tires is not quite satisfactory, since the axles are only long enough to pass through the outer board, held in place by a nut on the other side.  That configuration makes the wheels toe out (more visible in the last photo below), which increases the effort required to push the cart around the yard.  A better design would have the axles running all the way from one side to the other.

The connection for the sink line to the garden hose was at Home Depot.  The ferrule on the sink line side is facing the wrong way, but it doesn't leak under our ~60 psi water pressure.  The sink currently just drains into a bucket, but an enterprising fellow could easily run a drain line out the back if he preferred.

On one of the skinny sides, we put a handle to help steer (as in, 'lift this end and rotate the whole thing like a garden cart'). We also screwed the cabinets into the chassis to keep them from tipping up when we push the cart.  The cart currently lives in our garage, but we've considered building a temporary structure with a roof to keep it out in the yard.  So far it hasn't been too much work to push it out in the morning and back in the evening.  It also has worked really well for the first few batches of jam we made, providing enough flat space to fill and seal the jars, and running water to wash things up.

Do you process your produce outside in the fresh air?  What type of setup do you use?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An Emergency Apple Picker

We realized earlier this summer that the apple tree by our garage was growing apples in places that were going to be hard for us to reach while standing on a solid surface and using only our hands.  The tree was (is) of such a disposition that climbing to the very limits of its human weight support system (or setting up a ladder in the most clever way we could conceive) would not improve our harvest by much.  What we needed was an apple-picking device attached to the end of a long pole.

In typical fashion for us, we allowed this deficiency to persist until the last possible moment, when the apples were ripe and starting to pick themselves (with some help from the local squirrels and raccoons, who charge a fee of several bites per apple picked).  So, we needed an apple-picking device immediately.  The tool we needed is available from the local DIY centers, but for a hefty fee.  The tool can be found online for considerably less, but the urgency of our predicament would have required that we shell out for expedited shipping, again at an exorbitant sum.  And then, why pay anything at all when we could build one at home for free (save for a half hour of our time) from the leftover scraps of our other projects?  Thus, last Saturday saw the birth of our homemade emergency apple picker, and the collection of every last apple daring to dangle from our tree.

An example of the challenge with which we were tasked and the bounty that awaiteth.

The tool itself is pretty simple: a handle of leftover electrical conduit from the row cover chicken tractor and a section of woven wire fencing trimmed from the strawberry cage, held together with a section of scrap 2 x 4 and a 2" stove bolt. 

The connections of the wood to the pole and fencing.  We added some glue to the wire-holding holes for extra support.

Add a couple of old socks to pad the fall, and it's ready to go!

The reach can be extended significantly with some duct tape and a section of broken pole vaulting pole. (Who doesn't have one of those laying around?)

A small fraction of the harvest: delicious and pristine Macintosh apples, destined for apple jam, apple sauce, apple pies, apple crisps, and the like.

What do you use to pick your high-up apples?  What other tools for fruit picking have you devised?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, August 24, 2014


One of our favorite things about this time of year is the abundance of fresh vegetables coming in from the garden (or farmer's market, depending on the circumstances).  And one of our favorite things to do with those vegetables (because it's easy and delicious) is roast them into a ratatouille.  Chop 'em up, slather 'em with olive oil and some seasonings, throw 'em on a cookie sheet, and bake until they're done.  (We took a break from our theme of outdoor cooking for this recipe).  Makes the house smell tasty. Probably makes the inside of our stomachs smell tasty, too, which we're sure our gut microbes appreciate. 

Then we had a thought: all those vegetables would probably also be awesome in a strata.  Hence was born the concept of the ratatouille strata, or the stratatouille, as this month's strata incarnation.

We'll pick this story up at the point where the ratatouille is already made, since Katie made it before the camera was ready.  (A visual approximation of Katie making ratatouille is the cartoon tasmanian devil in tornado phase, moving around the kitchen chopping veggies.  Watch out!  She has a sharp knife!)  To make the ratatouille, we used 2.5 zucchinis, 2 summer squashes, 2 eggplants, 2 green peppers, 1 large onion, and 5 roma tomatoes.  The zucchinis, squashes and tomatoes made about 3 cups each when chopped, the eggplants were around 4 cups, the green peppers and onion around one cup each.  Mixed with olive oil, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and rosemary.  We also added some fresh chives, oregano, and basil.  The meat in this incarnation is about 2 cups of shredded chicken, seasoned to taste with garlic powder, salt, pepper, and Italian seasoninng. (1 teaspoon each for the garlic powder and Italian seasoning, and half a teaspoon each for the salt and pepper).  The cheese is a 50/50 mix of colby jack and monterrey jack.   The bread is whatever was available.  Layer them as shown in the picture: bread-vegetables-meat-cheese.  Make sure to only use half of each in the first set of layers...

...then lather, rinse, repeat.

Time for the egg mixture!  3 cups milk, 6 eggs, 2 teaspoons each garlic powder, rosemary, and thyme; half teaspoon each salt and pepper; 5 or 6 squirts of hot sauce. Pour it over the egg mixture, making absolutely sure not to spill any into a dryer with a clean load of clothes or into the nether regions of the dryer.

Into the fridge it goes to let all those wild flavors settle for a few hours.  Works best if set between apples and yogurt.

Then bake at 360 °F for 50-60 minutes until golden brown and whole house smells delicious.

Cut into big pieces to save the inconvenience of having to go for seconds.  That's a lot of veggies!  This is one of our favorite strata recipes so far.

 What do you do with all your incoming vegetables this time of year?  Have you ever put them into a casserole like this?  Let us know in the comments section below!

 The recipe:

3 cups each chopped zucchini, chopped summer squash, and chopped tomatoes
4 cups chopped eggplant
1 cup each chopped green pepper and onion
0.25 cups olive oil
1 teaspoon each garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and dried rosemary
2 tablespoons each fresh oregano, basil, and chives

10 slices of bread (at least)
1 lb shredded cheese (we used colby-jack and monterrey jack)

2 cups cooked, shredded chicken, seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning

6 eggs
3 cups milk
2 teaspoons each of garlic powder, thyme, and rosemary
0.5 teaspoon each of salt and pepper
5-6 squirts of your favorite hot sauce

Mix the chopped vegetables with the olive oil and first set of seasonings to coat, roast at 350 °F until the vegetables are soft, but not mushy.  Layer the bread, roasted veggies, chicken, 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 45-55 min, until senses of sight and smell register 'awesome.' Allow to cool and cut into serving sizes proportionate to 'firsts' and 'seconds' combined.