Thursday, November 28, 2013

One Thing for Which We're Thankful: Squash Butter

We don't panic often here at the Lab, but last week we had an event that nearly warranted such behavior.  Reaching into the pantry for a new jar of jam, we realized that we were only two jars away from being completely out of homemade jam!  Such an event has not occurred since, well, ever, as far as we can remember.  A lack of homemade jam is a serious situation around here, because it means that Jake, being a strict PBJ-ivore for lunch, would be down to two meals a day until it's fixed.

Fortuantely, we stocked up on various flavors of squash and pumpkins earlier this fall.  That fact alone kept us from launching into full-blown panic.  Calm and collectedly, the following conversation ensued:

Jake: We should make pumpkin butter!

Katie: But we've only got two pumpkins, and I was going to stuff those for supper some night soon.  If you make pumpkin butter, we won't be able to eat them for supper!

Jake: But! But! But this is serious!  We're almost out of jam! (contemplative look, followed by light bulb appearing over head) Hey!  I wonder if we could make squash butter instead!

Katie: Yeah!  We have lots of squashes! Let's try that!

(lots of googling)

Jake: Yes!  Let's do that!  Let's start baking the squashes! (opens oven) You're making biscotti again?

Katie: Yeah, since you ate all of the last batch already.

Jake: Fair enough.  I guess we'll have to get creative!

20 minutes of research turned up four recipes we liked (specifically here, here, here, and here), so we took our favorite elements from each and, well, squashed them together.

Here's all the ingredients we used: two butternut squashes, 2-3 lbs each, about a teaspoon each of cinnamon, ginger, and ground cloves, a half-teaspoon each of ground allspice, and nutmeg, 1 cup brown sugar, half cup maple syrup, butter and fruit.  Various recipes call for adding apple juice or citrus juice to increase the acidity; we didn't have the juice on-hand, but we had the real fruit!  Also, we didn't use the whole stick of butter--just two tablespoons.
We started by slicing the squashes in half and cleaning out the seeds.  Don't throw those seeds in the compost!  Put 'em in a bowl or something for the time being.  Man, those squashes are orange.  They must have been free-range.
Since the oven is occupied and we're short on time, we peeled the squash raw.  First we cut it into pieces along the contours to make the skinning easier--like a watermelon!
Everything goes into the crock pot, along with half a cup of water.  (Peel the orange and core the apples first.)  We'll mash it down in a minute (once we set the camera down), then let it cook on high for about 12 hours, or whenever we get to it tomorrow.
Time to roast the seeds!  The best way we've found of cleaning them off is to put them in a screened colander thing under a stream of running water, like so.  With our other hand, as long as it's not holding a camera, we swish the seeds around and rub them along the sides, which dislodges the most of the squash boogers from the seeds (you can call them something else if you like).  The smaller bits of squash rinse through, and the bigger ones we just pick out (heh).
Then we put them on a cookie sheet (or some other kind of flat plate thing if Katie has filled all the cookie sheets with biscotti), sprinkle with salt, and bake at 300 °F for 20-30 min.  We used to do it at 400 °F, but a lot of the seeds would explode like popcorn.  That doesn't seem to happen as much at 300 °F.
When the squash and everything else got tender, we hit it with a stick blender and puree everything.  We also added a tablespoon or so of vanilla extract.  If necessary, we'd adjust the seasonings and add water to get the desired consistency, then pour into hot sterilized jars, wipe the rim, and seal with a lid per the manufacturer's instructions.  When we've canned pumpkin butter in the past, we've used the inversion method, which evidently is not recommended these days. (A boiling water bath is preferred instead).  So, given that we won't be able to heat it up to the botulism-killing temperature anyway (see next paragraph), a boiling water bath for 16 minutes it is!

 Home canning of pumpkin/squash butter is actually not recommended at all because the high viscosity (which in this case accompanies a low heat transfer coefficient) makes it very difficult to get the center of the jars up to the 240 °F needed to kill botulism spores. At normal canning temperatures/pressures, the process is limited by heat transfer through the pumpkin.  Any engineer will tell you that if you keep the pressure canner, which completely surrounds the jars, above 240 °F long enough, the whole jar will eventually get to the required temp.  But it might take a really long time.  Keeping the canner at a higher temperature can speed things up, but the consistency and flavor of the pumpkin/squash butter might change as the stuff closer to the outside of the jar reaches a higher temperature and starts to break down. We don't know for sure how much things would change (we've never tried it), but hey, maybe we'll do an experiment sometime.  In any case, to keep botulism from growing (if it's present), the jar's contents must be below 38 °F (i.e., in a cold fridge or freezer), above 122 °F (i.e., hotter than we'd ever want to store it) or below pH 4.6*.  The acid in the apple and citrus juice in many recipes helps with regards to the pH, but apparently the natural acidity of squash/pumpkins varies too much for the authorities to be able to make a solid recommendation on how much acid to add to a batch.
We optimistically sterilized twelve half-pint jars...
...only to find out that our recipe only makes seven.  Oh well. That should keep us in the sandwiches for at least three months, at which point...well...we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.  Just like Congress!
The finished squash butter.  Sure looks good!
Now if only we had a way to test the pH of a representative sample...yikes! The pH is 5.4!  Looks like we'll be storing this batch in the fridge. (The pH might actually be lower than that since we had to dilute the leftover squash butter with water (at pH > 6) to fill the jar, but first!)
The final test: does it make a good sandwich with peanut butter?  Happily, yes.  We were a full three bites in before we remembered to take a picture.  Coincidentally, it's also good on biscotti.  Fun fact: if you don't wait for the squash butter to fully cool before making a sandwich with it, it will melt the peanut butter and ooze out onto the plate.  In any case, squash butter passes the sandwich test with flying colors.  Crisis averted.

*Note that even if the bulk pH is in the correct range, any bacteria, mold, or yeast that may have survived our sterilization procedure (cleaning with soap and water, then boiling in the canner) can alter a small part of the pumpkin/squash butter right around them (i.e., their microenvironment) in a way that increases the pH to a level that botulism can grow.  To be completely safe, store the stuff in the fridge or freezer.  For us, if this batch would have been below pH 4.6, we'd be taking a calculated risk by storing it in the pantry at room temp.  Good sanitation + low pH + low risk of botulism to begin with = very very low risk of getting botulism.  However, if it happens sometime in the future, we'll have our next-of-kin update this post.

Also, Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

EDIT: Can't believe we forgot to put the recipe at the bottom!  Here it is...

Two butternut squashes, 2-3 lbs each
1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, ginger, and ground cloves
0.5 teaspoons ground allspice, and nutmeg
1 cup brown sugar
0.5 cup maple syrup
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Granny smith apples
1 medium orange

Skin the squashes, peel the oranges, and core the apple.  Save the squash seeds for later.  Add the good parts, along with everything else, to a 4-quart or larger crock pot, put the lid on, and cook on high for 12 h or so, until the squash is very soft.  Blend with stick blender, regular blender, or if ambitions and energy are running high, an old-fashioned egg beater.  Can in a boiling water bath for 11 minutes, plus 1 min for every 1000 feet of altitude above sea level.  Don't count on the canning process guaranteeing the squash butter's safety (see the note in the post above)--store the jars below 38 °F to be completely safe.

Clean the seeds and spread them out on a cookie sheet, pie plate, or some other oven-safe dish.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and bake at 300 °F for 20-30 min until lightly browned.

Have you made pumpkin or squash butter before?  What's your favorite recipe?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Dunebarrow

Growing up, we were (Jake was) very spoiled, as least in terms of wheelbarrows.  We had one with fully steel construction, 25 gallon body at least 12 gauge thick, and one continuous piece of 1.5" diameter pipe that formed both handles and a rounded bumper in front of the wheel.  The tire is pneumatic, but we've never seen it flat, and the shock absorbance it provides allows one to roll over gopher holes and stray pieces of firewood without spilling so much as a single wood chip.  [Please picture Tim Allen grunting on Home Improvement here.]  The rounded bumper is key because it allows the operator to completely empty the wheelbarrow by tipping it vertical and rotating the whole thing left and right on the bumper, which provides an effective pivot point.  It was only after moving away and searching for a wheelbarrow of our own that we realized just how rare a specimen that old wheelbarrow was.  Fortunately, we were able to find something somewhat similar on Craigslist, but it needed a little work.  Here's how we modified it.

This is the pinnacle wheelbarrow technology, the model to which we strive in this exercise.  Photo credit: Mom.
Here's our starting point.  The bearings in the tire are completely shot and there's no real pivot point other than the tire itself.  It's very difficult to completely empty it, other than picking the whole thing up and shaking it like an angry caveman.
Our initial inclination was to replace the tire with one of those 'no-flat' all rubber wheelbarrow tires and a piece of all-thread rod from Home Depot since the parts were readily available, but then the handles were only knee-high, and we secretly knew that an all-thread axle wasn't really the right way to do it.  Besides, this isn't an episode of 'Pimp My Wheelbarrow.'
We got an actual 8" axle bolt and a golf cart tire.  Having a one-sided tire required that we get a spacer for the other side, which we got from the same place as the axle.  We should have gotten the nuts there, too, because it turns out 5/8" ID fine-thread nuts are somewhat hard to come by.  Home Depot and Lowe's don't carry them, and they're four times as expensive at Ace Hardware (as in like $1.40!) as they were online from OMB.  Also, the original axle was a 1/2" bolt, while we could only find tires to fit 5/8" axles, so we had to drill out the supports.  Apologies to any antique collectors who would have preferred us to keep it original.  Oh yeah, it also snowed while we were waiting for the parts to come.

We made the bumper from a piece of electrical conduit leftover from our row cover project.  The biggest challenge of the project was figuring out how to bend it since the standard 3/4" conduit bender tool has too large a radius of curvature.  We tried to approximate the tool by taking a log with a little larger radius than we needed and cutting a groove into it to bend the conduit around.  It kind of worked, but there's obviously still some kinking.  But, good enough!
The 5/8" axle would be hard to fit through a 3/4" section of tubing, so we attached it to the body of the wheelbarrow and the front support brackets.
The finished product, a.k.a., the Dunebarrow.
Now it dumps wood chips like a boss.  Just in time to clean out the chicken bedding!

How have you modified your wheelbarrow?  Do you know where to find wheelbarrows like the kind we had growing up?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Chickens: Final Stats

On Sunday, we put our fall batch of chickens in the freezer, and now that we've had a chance to crunch the numbers and see how we came out in terms of yields and costs, we wanted to get the data out there for peer review.  First, a few general comments.  It was definitely worth it, for the meat, the experience, and the fertilizer that will go on the garden next year.  We raised almost 90 lbs of chicken in ten weeks, 60 of which went in the chicken tote Sunday morning.  That means Katie is even stronger than we thought!  The red ranger broilers had a 100% survival rate (at our elevation of 5600 feet), other than an incident with the new neighbor dog last Tuesday.*  We might try a batch of Cornish crosses in the spring, side by side with the red rangers for a direct comparison.  Wood chips worked well as a bedding, which, considering we can get them for free, and shavings are $6.99/bag, is good to know.  The chips are dustier, don't look quite as clean as the shavings, and won't break down in the compost as fast, but in our opinion, still come out ahead (chickens are inherently dusty anyway).  We just have to watch out for chips that might have cedar in them, since cedar can cause respiratory problems for the chickens.  Katie says she doesn't like that they're also harder to spread than the shavings.

We had the eight-week weigh in a couple weeks back, which was a good comparison for how we were doing at the ten-week mark.  Next time, we'll track their weights through the whole cycle.

Comparison of each chicken's weight at eight weeks, ten weeks, and dressed.
The graph shows a lot of interesting (to us, at least) info.  The first is that the chickens gained 15-20% of their final weight in the last two weeks.  The gimpy one, at the far left, gained almost 30%.  That is to say, it did much better once we were able to put it back with the rest of the flock.  If we could have let them go another week or maybe two weeks, they might have done even better.  For meat breeds other than Cornish crosses, a ten week butcher is pretty early.  Still, a number of the roosters were over the 6-lb mark, and the dressed weight came out to 66% of the final live weight, which is a pretty good yield ratio.  All of the birds made it into the traditional chicken weight classes, with the gray one and the gimpy one in the 'squab broiler' class, the rest of the hens as fryers, and the roosters as roasters.  And, we can say from our initial impressions of the roasted meat and rendered stock, the flavor is awesome.

We had about a quarter bag left of our seventh 40-lb bag of feed, which means these 17 chickens consumed about 270 lbs of feed in total.  That works out to a feed conversion ratio of 3.09 for feed-to-final-live-weight and 4.67 for feed-to-dressed-weight.  Not Cornish cross-type numbers, but decent. 

The price per pound worked out to $7.05. (!!)  Kind of spendy compared to commercial-scale organic whole chickens, but again, these aren't Cornish crosses.  Plus, we get complimentary garden fertilizer in the deal.  The pie chart below shows that by far the biggest expense is the (organic) feed, which at $34 per 40 lb bag adds up quickly.  Heck, that's almost as expensive as the organic oats we eat for breakfast, and that's people food!  Next round we'll experiment with buying feed in bulk or mixing, maybe even growing, our own grains.  In any case, if you want to know why organic meat is so expensive, there you have it!

Expenses associated with raising our fall chickens.  Electricity is from the heat lamp we ran while the chicks were very young and on cold nights.
Fresh in the cooler!
Ooh, that looks good.   Katie says, "No drooling on the camera!"

*We discovered the hard way that the fence around our yard was not completely dog-proof, and lost six chickens in the melee, including the little gray one.  Since the chickens were so close to butcher, we decided to see how badly damaged the meat was, and we were pleased to see that it was no more mangled than the meat we bring home on hunting trips.  So, we decided to put the birds in the freezer.  The warnings against eating the dog-killed meat are generally that 1. The dog's mouth might have bacteria or dirt or something that would contaminate the meat and 2. The chickens weren't properly killed and bled out, so the meat won't be as high-quality as it would have been.  However, our take is that we'll be cleaning the carcass well and cooking it to well-done anyway, so bacteria and dirt don't worry us too much.  Also, to return to the hunting analogy, game animals are rarely killed in the way that chickens are butchered (but rather much more like the dog-killed chickens, with puncture wounds and laying in the dirt), and we consider game meat to be of sufficiently high quality to earn freezer space.  Plus, we met the dog and it seems healthy, other than an obsession with killing feathered things.  So, we're comfortable putting those birds in the freezer and not wasting 35% of our chickens.  If we were selling them, it would be a different story.

Have you raised red rangers before?  How did your numbers compare to ours?  How did you cut down on feed costs?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Quick and Dirty Rustic Chicken Tote

Today is the last day for our fall crop of meater chickens.  We were originally planning to do all the processing in-house, but found out that our local ordinances explicitly forbid livestock butchering because...well, we're not really sure why.  Probably some city official is worried about raccoons and dogs finding the offal and dragging it around the neighborhood.  Anyway, we looked for other options, and found a (fairly) local farm that will do it for $3.00/bird if we stay and help.  Not too bad, and very nice folks.  Now we just need a way to transport the chickens there and keep them calm and contained while they're waiting for their turn at the cone!

Fortunately, we've collected a bunch of pallets for a project just like this.  Here we start with one like this, but if we were luckier, we could have found one with the board closer together.
But we weren't luckier, so now we have to fill in the gaps with boards from a different pallet.  If we were lucky at all, we'd have at least found pallets that were the same width!  Oh well.  At least they were free!  We're only going to use half of the pallet for this project anyway, so having a few boards that don't go all the way across isn't a big deal.
We screwed the new boards in place and cut down the the far side of the middle runner.  Notice that there's a bit of the runners sticking out toward the top of the picture.  That's because we wanted to make it the same length along the sides as the pallet boards we're going to use for the walls, which in this case is 40".
We cut the runners to the right length and used more pallet boards to make corners.  We made the boards 24" long so that the height from floor to the top would be about 20".
Here it is with more pallet boards as the walls.  No cutting required for the long sides!  Note that the 'quick' part of the title only applies if there are a lot of already-deconstructed pallets around.  Also note that the boards aren't stacked super tight.   That lets the chickens get some air, and it lets us use up some of the crummy wood that split while we were deconstructing the pallets.
Fit test #1: Pass!  Plus there's enough room for the cooler alongside!  With the seat down in the Saturn, the front is higher than the back, so we added a hunk of 4x4" to level it.
Fit test #2: Also pass!  All eleven fit in there comfortably.  We could actually fit four or five more, but it would be a bit tighter.  We could have probably made it a bit shorter also.  Fit test #3 is that we can lift it with all the chickens inside.  The tote itself probably weights 30 lbs., and the chickens are probably another 40 lbs. (We'll know in a bit!)  Fortunately, Katie is strong like whiskey!
To keep it dark (which calms the chickens), we could make a wooden top with a hinge, but it also works fine to just use a blanket.
Check back on Thursday for the final stats on our fall batch of chickens!  We'll have all the numbers crunched and post our weights, costs, and average conversion ratio.

How do you transport your chickens?  What do you do to keep them calm while they're awaiting processing?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Updating the Integral Urban House: Chapter 1

The Integral Urban House, published in 1979, is one of the truly seminal books in urban homesteading.  The book records the experiments of the house's residents as they remodeled the house and site to minimize waste generation and resource consumption while maximizing on-site production of food and energy.  The book gives an outline for a very methodical and calculated optimization of those goals, and lays out expectations for limits on the degree of self reliance one can expect from a city lot.  Although it was published almost 35 years ago, The Integral Urban House is still one of the most comprehensive and detailed guides for becoming as self-reliant as one's circumstances allow.  The methods developed by the authors are quite keen on conserving space, but the main concepts are applicable regardless of one's available geological surface area.  However, although the philosophies and motivations have stood strong since the book's original publishing, one big catch is that, since 35 years ago, the technology and resources available to aspiring homesteaders (urban or otherwise), have changed dramatically.

The book's original cover.  A reprint in the 1990s had a green-colored version

We thought, therefore, that it would be a worthwhile endeavor, although immense, to work our way through the book and rehash the authors' research with insights from the modern era.  We also wanted to add perspective from a colder climate since the book (and even many modern urban homesteading books) are somewhat centric to areas with mild winters.  (The Integral Urban House was in Berkeley, CA).

The real meat of the book starts in part two, with chapter four covering energy conservation.  The first three chapters mainly describe the motivation and approach, which don't need much updating.  In the interest of completeness, we'll cover those as well, but with a more descriptive take.  On the docket for today: Chapter 1: Beginnings.

The chapter starts by pointing out that the book is more about the ideas of transitioning from linear to cyclic systems than the authors implementation of the ideas on their specific space in Berkeley.  The authors mention several other similar projects throughout the country, including the Ouroboros house in Minnesota, the East Eleventh Street Project in New York (mentioned here), the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Washington, DC, and (not mentioned but pertinent) the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts.

From there, the authors get into the motivation for the book from the (now standard) angles of 'peak oil is coming' (the book was published in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo), 'what would you do if society implodes?,' and 'modern technology has flooded our bodies with carcinogenic chemicals while allowing us to eat unhealthy food and be lazy.'  Those angles are nowadays a dead horse still being beaten, but they were quite fresh in the late 1970s.  Regardless of one's position on the availability and consequences of fossil fuels, the point was (is) that the 'urban lifestyle' as typically manifested, was (is) shortsighted, polluted, and unsustainable.  Since the authors also feel that few urbanites could, should, or have a desire to 'de-urbanize,' it might be tempting to interpret the theme of the book to be something like 'how to make the best of a bad situation.'  But it's not really that.  Other huge driving forces for the authors were the psychological and economic liberation that accompany self reliance, especially if the self reliance comes in a setting with limited natural resources.  As architects, engineers, and scientists, the authors also embraced the challenge of developing a house that was both a 'habitat and life-support system.'  The authors further acknowledged that the urban environment provided a high concentration of like-minded folks to help their community-scale projects, such as waste recycling, gain momentum.  And above all, the authors wanted to provide a model that others could work from in their own houses and communities.

The authors recognized that their ultimate goals for the house would require lifestyle and behavior changes, and identified nine factors that they observed to influence their ability to make such a change:

  1. Cultural/personal taboos, e.g., working with human wastes
  2. Urgency of making the change, e.g., reducing water consumption during a drought
  3. Sustained awareness, e.g., frequently seeing dead plants during a drought
  4. Family/community support, e.g., having a community recycling infrastructure when starting to recycle
  5. Stress induced by not making the change, e.g., overflowing garbage cans because recyclables not sorted
  6. Information availability on options for change
  7. Immediacy of rewards for making the change
  8. Self image
  9. Concrete models available
Clearly, the internet has changed the game for many of these factors since abundant information and models around the world are now available with the click of a few buttons.  The internet can also provide a sort of community support and make the end result of both making and not making a change more visualizable, which can in turn influence one's self image, one's opinion of the rewards, and the stress one experiences from not making the change.

The authors also adopted a process for taking a desired change from conception to practice, which included perception of a problem, articulating the solution, visualizing different approaches to solving the problem, selecting and affirming the best approach, and finally implementing the change.  The internet has also changed that:

Differences between the approach to solving a homesteading-related problem as practiced at the Integral Urban House in 1979, and what  (some) modern homesteaders do in 2013.
Have you read the Integral Urban House?  What did you think of their approach?  Do you know of other 'integral' houses?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Using a Compass to Find Treasure

Back in February, we said one of the things we wanted to get better at was navigating by compass.  A common exercise for aspiring orienteers is practicing in a familiar area such as one's backyard.  As it just so happens, a treasure map showed up in our mailbox this week.  It even has a north arrow and scale bar!  What a considerate cartographer!  Let's follow it and see what we find!

It looks like a map of our yard, amateurishly constructed in PowerPoint! Somewhat disconcerting, but it seems to suggest we need to start at the mailbox, get a shovel from the garage, detour to the biggest tree in the yard, and then head toward the second-biggest tree at the northwest corner of the property.  The treasure is just southeast of that tree.  What's the best way to follow the dashed line?  Since we're trying to get compass practice, let's use a compass.
Assume that we don't know right where on the map we are to start with.  As it happens here, we can see two landmarks, which means we can triangulate our position.  If we hold the compass in front of us and face the northeast corner of the house, we see that we are standing along the 330° bearing line.  If we face the southeast corner of the house (actually the carport), the compass tells us we're on a bearing of 250°.  Where those two lines intersect is where we are.  If we wanted to, and also had a ruler, pencil, and calculator with trigonometric functions (or sine/cosine/tangent tables) handy, we could draw those lines on the map.  Or, we could approximate with grid lines on the map or by holding the compass by the map.  In any case, it looks like we're standing at the mailbox.  Thank goodness!  If things go badly, we can probably find our way home from here.
In the current scenario, we can see through the carport to the southwest corner of the house, which is where the black dashed line on the map almost intersects the house.  If we use the compass to get a bearing between our current position and the southwest corner of the house, we should be able to walk along that line to the point where we can peek around the corner and see the garage.  It's trivial here, but if that corner was half a mile away and we had to go through dense woods or fog on the way and lose sight of the landmark, the compass would be a lot more helpful.  Sorry the numbers on our little compass are hard to see--but the red North direction is visible, and the other large lines correspond to 90° increments.  The small lines (if you can see them) are 10° increments, and every 30° increment is labeled with text.
Garage ho!  Shovel ho!  [Insert music for video game character finding useful tool here.]
Now we need to head due west to the edge of the shed, at which point we can turn and head toward the big tree along the dashed black line.
Compass says the first tree is on a bearing of 330° from the southwest corner of the shed.  What a magnificent tree.  It must be a tree from heaven.  Actually, it is a tree of heaven, an invasive species imported from China.  Fun fact: the bruised leaves smell vaguely like peanut butter.  Don't eat them.  Katie says, "We can also see the tree next to the 'X' on the map.  Why don't we just walk there?"  Because the map says we have to go by the big tree, Katie!  Who knows?  There might be bandits or crocodiles along the direct route.
It's sometimes a good idea to get high up in the air and survey one's surroundings to find landmarks and regain one's bearings.  Katie says, "The landmark you're looking for is 20 yards away and you can probably see it better from down here where there aren't any branches to block your view."  Compass says we need a bearing of 275° to find the next tree.
There's the X!  It's not red like the map shows, but this must be it.  Time to start digging!
A hastily-constructed wooden trunk buried in a shallow hole!  How mysterious!  Whoever buried this treasure must have been worried about getting caught.
Hey!  The treasure is Katie's cell phone!  It must have been there for hundreds of years.  Katie says, "I can't believe you went to the trouble of making a wooden trunk out of pallet wood, hiding my phone in it, and burying it in the yard just to get some practice with your compass."

If this practice exercise didn't make sense, check out a real orienteerer's guide with a different kind of compass.  For more advanced exploring, there are other things to think about, like the difference between true north and magnetic north and the inherent uncertainty in getting and following a bearing (especially with a little compass like ours!), but for now, we at least know how to find buried phones in the backyard.

What kind of buried treasure have you found in your yard?  What was a situation where you really needed your compass?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Maple BCA Nog

Let's say that, hypothetically, even though you just celebrated National Pumpkin Cheesecake Day and National Mole Day a couple weeks ago, your chickens are in overdrive for some reason and gifting you with more eggs than you can reasonably use.  More than you can reasonably use, that is, until you realize that November 7 is National Bittersweet Chocolate and Almond Day and that November is Native American Heritage Month.  What is one traditional sweetener of many Native American tribes?  Maple syrup, of course!  (Buddy the Elf loves celebrating Native American heritage.)  Fun fact: if the water in maple sap is evaporated under vacuum at low temperature instead of boiled, nearly pure sucrose syrup is the product.  The heat from boiling the sap results in some dehydration and Maillard reactions of the sucrose molecules (and the less-concentrated glucose, fructose, and impurities), which give the characteristic maple flavor and color.

When we first considered the amalgamation of chocolate, maple, and almond, we were somewhat skeptical that such bold flavors could be favorably combined, but we were encouraged by rave reviews of other similarly-seasoned dishes.  Fortunately, our courageousness paid off.  However, we wish we had a more clever name for this flavor of eggnog, but we couldn't come up with anything good.  If you have a better idea, let us know!

As usual, start with six egg yolks and beat until thick and light yellow.  Trick question: can you find the sixth yolk in the shot on the left?
Mix in 1.5 c milk and heat to 160 °F to pasteurize.
Mix in 1 c. bittersweet chocolate chips, melted down to about 0.5 cups, then 0.5 cups maple syrup, 1-2 teaspoons almond extract, and 1.5 cups milk, in that order.  The reason is that the chocolate and syrup disperse in the nog much better when it's still warm, and the milk cools it down a lot. In reality, one could also use cocoa powder, milk chocolate, semisweet chocolate, or melted Halloween candy and achieve similar results, but bittersweet chocolate is recommended for the spirit of the day.
Enjoy the nog while admiring silly edible artwork.  As an aside, making this recipe is a good way to drown your sorrows when your favorite football team plays poorly, especially on a Monday night when the star quarterback gets injured.
The Recipe:
6 egg yolks
3 c. milk
1 c. bittersweet chocolate chips, melted
0.5 c. maple syrup
1-2 t. almond extract

Beat the egg yolks until thick and yellow, add half the milk, mix well, and heat to 160 °F.  Add melted chocolate, then syrup, then almond extract and remaining milk, mix well.  Cool to room temperature or below if will power permits.

Have you thought of a better name for this flavor of eggnog yet?  How do you celebrate Native American Heritage month? (Other than with a glass of eggnog, of course.)  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Chickens Update: 8-Week Weigh-in

We've got some good news to report on our chickens.  The gimpy one has regained its balance enough to rejoin the rest of the flock, which means our little bumper bowling-type chicken run worked!  (Or at least, it kept the chick upright enough that it could eat and drink while it got over whatever was causing its balance problems.)  Also, our fall batch of red ranger chickens will be eight weeks old on Monday, so we wanted to check in with their actual weights and see how they were doing in their goal of becoming heavy enough to put in the freezer by ten weeks.

On Halloween, some of the chickens turned into scary monsters and rampaged through the brooder box.  Fortunately, they only preyed on the feed in the trough, which probably means they weren't all that scary.  But just to make sure we weren't skewing the weigh-in results, we waited until Saturday to weigh them so any residual monsterly effects would have time to wear off.
We had our kitchen scale, but the little boat it came with wouldn't hold a chicken.  So we improvised with a cylindrical metal device that doubled as a prop for some poetic foreshadowing.
Other than the outliers, the chickens ranged from 3.5 to 5.5 lbs.  (The bar on the far left is the gimpy one, which was sometimes stuck upside down when it should have been eating, and the bar on the far right is the 'rare breed,' which we think might be an Araucana.  We're starting to think twice about butchering that one with the rest of them since it's so small.  What a difference between the meat and non-meat breeds!)  The roosters were generally heavier than the hens, as expected, although there were a couple of hefty girls that were bigger than the scrawniest rooster.  For the most part, it looks like we're still on track for a butcher date in a couple weeks.  Hooray!

We're about a quarter of the way into the fifth bag of feed. That means we're at a feed conversion ratio of about 3.2, which is considerably better than what we estimated a couple weeks ago.  For the next batch, we'll probably keep a record like this every week so we can more easily track their progress and feed conversion ratio. 

Have you raised a batch of red rangers?  What were your numbers for growth rate and feed conversion ratios?  Let us know in the comments section below!