Thursday, February 28, 2013

More Apples and Kale

Encouraged by the success of our previous forays with apples and kale, we decided to try another spin on it the other night.  We were in the mood for pizza, had some kale and brie cheese to use up, and didn't have regular pizza sauce.  But we did have applesauce!  So, how about a brie and kale pizza with applesauce...sauce?  Katie made a nice crust and pre-baked it for about 10 minutes while I got the other stuff ready.

Kale, applesauce, and brie cheese.  The kale started out at about 4 cups and cooked down to about 2 in the microwave.  The brie came out of the fridge and grated up nice.  You can eat the white part on the outside!
When Katie said it was OK, we put the applesauce on the crust like it was pizza sauce, cheese on top of that, and kale on top of that.  The grated brie sticks together if you don't put it back in the fridge.  We didn't run out of cheese and kale here, we just wanted to show the nice layering effect (and approximation of the Italian flag)!
Season to taste with dried basil, black pepper, garlic powder, and ginger.  Bake for 15 min. at 400 °F.  Mmmmm.
We would rate this as doagainable.  Here's the recipe:

1.5 c whole wheat flour
1.5 c bread flour
1 t salt
1 T sugar
1 T oil
1.5 t yeast
1 c warm (95 °F) water
2 t Italian herb seasoning

Mix water, yeast and sugar, let stand 5 minutes.  Add oil, flour, salt, and herbs.  Mix and knead for 10 minutes.  Let rise for 1 hour if you have time.  Otherwise, it will still work.  Roll out onto your preferred pizza-baking vessel, greased if necessary.  Bake for 10 minutes at 400 °F.  (When Katie's not around, the pre-bake is liable to get skipped).  Meanwhile, gather:

1 wheel (8 oz) Brie cheese
2 c applesauce
4 c kale, cooked down to 2 c (in microwave, vegetable steamer, or sauteed)
1 t dried basil
1 t ground black pepper
1 t garlic powder
0.5 t ground ginger

When pizza crust comes out of pre-bake, spread applesauce, cheese, and then kale on top, season to taste with dried basil, pepper, garlic powder, and ginger.  Bake for 15 minutes at 400 °F, or until kale is slightly crispy.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: Worms Eat My Garbage - Mary Appelhof

One of the easiest ways to responsibly process food waste if you have limited real estate (e.g., an apartment), is with vermiculture, or growing composting worms.  We've been culturing de vermi's for about six years, and from the beginning we've been referring to Mary Appelhof's Worms Eat My Garbage -- a great resource for rookie wormkeepers.  We got an old paperback edition online, and found it to be a quick and enjoyable read.  Although it's only about 150 pages long, Appelhof covers really everything you need to know to get started with a vermicompost system (or 'worm bin' if you're talking to people who aren't grossed out by Annelida species).

Apelhof makes the first page a checklist for everything you need to do to grow worms and reap the benefits of their hard work--a twelve-step program leading to minimal food waste, worm castings for your garden, and worms you can sell, trade, or put in your aquaponic system.  The chapters are written essentially as a set of answers to the fourteen most frequently asked questions by beginning vermiculturalists.  Those questions are (with how we answered those questions in our own case in parentheses),

  • What should I call it? (worm bin.)
  • Where should I put it? (in the living room.)
  • What container should I use? (plastic totes, for now.)
  • What are worm beddings? (shredded newspaper.)
  • What kind of worms should I use? (Eisenia fetida, or red wigglers)
  • What is the sex life of a worm? (none of our business!--although "breeders" are the ones with the raised band)
  • How many worms do I need? (probably about 1 lb. to start with)
  • How do I set up my worm bin? (shred newspaper, add water, add worms, add food)
  • What kind of garbage, and what do I do with it? (fruit, vegetables, bad cheese, and meat trimmings, and spoiled leftovers.)
  • How do I take care of my worms? (don't let them freeze, drown, or starve--we want castings and worms! definitely don't overlook the drainage aspects.)
  • What are the most commonly asked questions about worms? (for us, this list)
  • What are some of the other critters in my worm bin? (springtails, mites, and occasionally fruit flies and fungus gnats)
  • How do plants benefit from a worm bin? (worm castings!)
  • How can I treat (food) waste as a resource? (by feeding it to worms to turn into worm castings!)

Additional sub-questions for us were, "How big should it be?," "What ratio of water-to-bedding should I use?," and "How can I get rid of fruit flies when they show up?"  Appelhof addresses each of these in sufficient detail, but we would recommend planning for a bigger worm bin than you would normally need, if you have space for it.  That way, you have a better chance at being able to keep up with all the trimmings during canning season.

With minimal effort, simple and inexpensive vermicompost systems can be maintained without odors.  These bins reside in our living room (in the Worm Trunk sneaking into the upper right of the picture), and are generally well-behaved.  Appelhof says that for a given volume, a larger surface area is better because the worms will process the waste faster.  These two bins have handled nearly all of our food waste for more than a year (with periodic harvesting of castings).

 Appelhof details a few designs for making wooden bins and points out a few commercially available designs that were around when the book was published (we have the second edition, from 1997).  While the discussion of bin construction is good, the internet is a far more valuable source of inspiration for worm bin designs, in our opinion.  There are numerous examples of DIY "fed-batch" bin and flow-through setups, and a greater variety of commercially available systems than the book indicates.  Color photos and videos are also a big plus for the internet.  We've learned a few other things about worm bin design that will be easier to share when we cover our setup in the 'Projects' section.

However, in general, Worms Eat My Garbage is a classic book with timeless advice for beginning vermiculturalists.  Although some parts of the book are starting to become dated, Appelhof's process for getting a worm bin up and running will always work.  This book truly should be required reading for anyone considering Annelid-based agriculture or food waste disposal. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Grinding Eggshells

"We should do something with all those eggshells," we'd been saying to each other in reference to the four dozen light brown hemispheres 'drying' around the kitchen sink.  'Drying' is a bit of a euphemism because most of them had already been dry for over a week.  But...the problem of what to do with all the eggshells is a tricky one for us.  We don't have a full-size compost pile to toss them on.  They take forever to break down in the worm bin, and if we don't crush them up beforehand, each half-shell spontaneously turns into a snake pit, except the pit is very small and the snakes are actually worms.

But it turns out that eggshells, which are almost entirely calcium carbonate (CaCO3), have a plethora of uses around the homestead, provided we can grind them up small enough.  For example, in addition to being fine for the worm bin when ground up, eggshells can:

The trick is how to get the shells ground fine enough, since some of these applications need very small particles.  Crushing them with our bare hands doesn't do it, and the mortar and pestle even makes a pretty hard time of it. Our electric food processor doesn't do too much better than the mortar and pestle, although many other people seem to have better luck with similar electronic gadgets like coffee grinders and blenders.  But, we also like non-electric methods if we can help it!  We're still working on our technique, but we came up with a process the other day that can handle our modest egg shell supply without too much trouble.

Also, it's probably a good idea to sterilize the shells before ingesting them as supplements or toothpaste.  That can be done in an oven above 250 °F or so, using leftover heat from baking something else, before or after the grinding.  See also the comment below the pictutorial.

Here they are to start.  27 eggs in total, or 54 half shells.

Put one or two shells in a mortar and grind it up with the pestle to about 1/16" pieces.  With only one or two shells, it should take 5-10 seconds. Larger loads take a lot longer.
Here's the 1/16" pieces.  If you leave them bigger, the next step doesn't work as well because the pieces make bridges and don't fall into the mill blades nicely.
Add the eggshells to a grain mill and start grinding on a fairly coarse setting.
The output should look kind of like flour.  It can help to keep the hopper fairly full, and tap it frequently to shake down the pieces.
Here it is, all done.  The 27 eggshells took about an hour to process from start to finish (not including the drying).  A little longer than we would like, but it makes a nice even product.
We got a little under a cup of ground egg shell from the 27 eggs, and we also got a good arm workout in.  The powder can be used straight away in any of the applications mentioned above, but make sure to add the right amounts!

Note that if you want to get relatively pure calcium carbonate from the eggshells, without the protein and other stuff from the membranes, you should be able to use your self-cleaning oven.  The 'clean' setting heats up to around 900 °F (500 °C), which should be enough to burn off all the carbonaceous stuff in your oven (i.e., food gunk), leaving the minerals (ash) behind.  But since eggshells are mostly mineral to begin with, the 'clean' cycle will just burn off the minor components.  We've used this same technique to clean smoke residue off pots and pans that we took camping--but don't use it on anything with wood, plastic, or nonstick components!  There's also a risk that you could burn off the seasoning from your cast iron or stoneware items, so it's best to use stainless steel vessels if you can.

What do you use egg shells for around your house?  Have you found a good way to grind them up with minimal effort? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

EDIT: The clean cycle on some ovens might not get hot enough to turn crushed eggshells into a nice white powder, so you'll have to experiment with yours if you really want the calcium carbonate.  Also, we've found it preferable to use a sheet of aluminum foil instead of a steel pot, since the clean cycle can be a little harsh on some pots and pans.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Garden Planning Spreadsheet

It is that exciting time of year again, in between the end of hunting season and the start of fishing season, when the seed catalogs have mostly arrived in the mail and we get to start planning out our garden for the next summer!  Many people have started using computer spreadsheets to keep track of what they are growing, when, where, and how much.  Some of the nice examples we've seen are from Anna over at The Walden Effect and from Fritz over at The Homestead Fritz. (Actually, to give full credit, Anna's post was how we found Fritz's blog, which is how we discovered the 13 Skills Challenge we had inadvertently approximated in our blog plans).  We noticed in the Jung Seed catalog that they are offering a free trial of their garden planning software, which adds quite a bit of functionality and an intuitive graphical interface to the standard spreadsheet approach.

However, we realized that we could actually get a bit of additional utility out of standard spreadsheet software, and in fact even the mapping that Fritz and Anna do outside the spreadsheet could be incorporated in an approximation of the Jung program.  We can't begin to approach the complexity of the Jung software (in part because we don't want to incorporate any macros in our spreadsheet), but by resizing cells to make a to-scale map and using formulas integrated between worksheets, we thought we could put together a fairly serviceable compromise.

This is the current version (file hosted at OpenDrive)--we'll continue to develop it as we gain experience with more types and varieties of veggies, but feel free to take it and modify for your own circumstances.  Let us know if you make any improvements on it--we're eager to see it upgraded!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Iron Palm Almond Chopping

On Sunday we posted that one of the skills we're trying to develop this year is the ancient martial arts technique known as Iron Palm (or something similar--the Wikipedia page gives a good general overview).  We mentioned that one of the things we could use our iron palms for is chopping nuts.  Since this is one application that doesn't require super strong hands, we wanted to post a demonstration video to show what we were talking about. (We actually started chopping nuts this way before we started iron palm training, but the motions are similar.)

We've used this technique most commonly to chop almonds for making granola.  It doesn't produce perfect pieces or slices, but it does make nicely-sized bits that work fine for most of our purposes.  We can chop a cup of almonds in about 2.5 minutes with nothing other than a flat-sided knife and our hands (and something to pad the countertop).  No electricity or fancy chopping devices needed.

With a little practice, this technique can significantly speed up the food chopping chores compared to using just the sharp side of the knife (we do pretty much the same thing to chop garlic cloves).  Have you come up with a simple and fast method to chop your food?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

*DISCLAIMER: Talk to an expert practitioner before you start iron palm training.  There are many risks and important details associated with the training itself that you need to know about before you begin.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Back in January when we were thinking of potential blog post topics, we came up with the idea to do a sort of "Skill-of-the-Month" series where we try to master (or at least get started learning) one new skill per month that will be useful on the homestead.  It turns out we were a little behind the ball compared to the folks over at The Survival Podcast (and one-thirteenth less ambitious), who already had their 13 Skills for 2013 Challenge up and running.  But, even though we haven't posted anything in relation to this topic just yet, we are already underway working on expanding our repertoire of proficiency here at the HL.  These are the twelve focus areas in which we're trying to become more adept this year:

  1. Google Sketchup.  Sketchup is a handy 3D drafting tool that can be very useful in planning out projects and convincing Katie that they might actually look OK when finished.  We probably won't have posts on this goal explicitly, but you will hopefully see our progress in future posts.
  2. Inner tube patching.  For those who commute by bike, flat tires are a tremendous inconvenience (especially on the way to an important meeting), and the price of replacing inner tubes (currently $5 a pop) adds up quickly.  We've got a pretty good collection of holey inner tubes, and have been meaning to figure out how to properly patch them up.  Taking the time to learn how will save us a good chunk of moolah in the future and keeps us from having to dispose of them (right away).
  3. Blade sharpening.  A sharp blade makes any cutting task way, way easier.  Almost every household has kitchen knives and scissors, but axes, shovels, saws, chisels, block planes, etc. also work much better if kept sharp.  We've always been able to get a decent edge on a blade with a grinding wheel, whetstone, or one of those handheld knife sharpeners, but we've had trouble achieving the golden standard of sharpness: sharp enough to shave with.
  4. Straight-blade shaving.  One part of the modern world that has become an unfortunate necessity for even moderately hirsute humans is the disposable razor.  Whether it's just the head or the whole thing that needs to be replaced, disposable razors are not consistent our ultimate goals of self-sufficiency and zero-waste.
  5. Orienteering.  Not in the competitive sense, but learning to navigate unfamiliar terrain without GPS (instead using a compass and a map) has many applications in homesteading, including finding property boundaries and laying out fields and pastures.
  6. Knot tying.  There are hundreds of different kinds of knots that have been developed for specific applications, but we don't know (much) more than how to tie our shoes.  Hopefully we'll be able to at least do a little better with the trellises for our square foot gardens this summer.
  7. Renewable energy design.  We've been learning about different kinds of renewable energy for several years, but we'd like to start implementing them in some our projects.  The Midwest Renewable Energy Association offers some reasonably-priced primer courses to get us started; we'll see where it goes from there!
  8. Composting.  We grew up with the "minimal-effort" approach to composting, without paying attention to things like carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, aeration, or moisture.  More recently, we've been vermicomposting, but sometimes (like during canning season) the worms can't keep up.  For times like those, we want to know how to make compost efficiently without adding macroorganisms like worms or black soldier flies.
  9. Glass marking/etching.  We've got some gallon glass jugs we'd really like to make graduated (like a measuring cup).  Permanent marker turns out to be not-all-that permanent when we wash the jugs.  We're going to figure out how to etch or mark the jugs (and other jars) with a more durable method.
  10. First Aid/Emergency Medical Treatment.  It's good to know how to respond to a medical emergency regardless of location.  Knowing how serious an injury is could be the difference between life and death, or at least knowing if an expensive ambulance ride to the hospital is necessary.
  11. Meat curing.  Making sausage is a skill from the traditional homesteads of a century or two ago.  We've done it a few times, but would like to expand our repertoire.  We're especially interested in creating something comparable to commercial lunch meat, but without all the fillers (and packaging).  It turns out eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch seven days a week is not the key to a happy wife.
  12. Iron Palm training.  The art of making your hands strong enough to break bricks, boards, etc. could have numerous potential applications around the homestead, like resizing certain kinds of bricks or rocks, self defense from crazies (people or animals), or even chopping nuts.
Check back in the 'Skills' tag to the left of this post to see how we're doing.  What types of skills are you planning to learn this year?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book Review: Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein

Since one of our ultimate goals is to be able to produce all of our own food, we've been slowly accumulating reference materials to help us be more victually autonomous.  Aquaponic Gardening has become a very important part of our collection in that regard.  It is an excellent beginner book for those interested in simultaneously growing fish and plants, and for handy folks may be one of the only resources needed to get started.  It's an easy read, and Bernstein's expertise comes through in a this-is-what-helped-me-when-I-was-in-your-shoes sort of way.  She doesn't skip steps and gloss over important entry-level details as many experts are prone to do.

Sylvia Bernstein's Aquaponic Gardening.  We got our copy here.  It doesn't come with a bookmark on the 'cycling' guidelines page--we had to add that ourselves.

Bernstein starts off in the first chapter by making sure everyone is on the same page, with definitions and discussions of hydroponics, aquaculture, and their brilliant offspring, aquaponics.  If you're reading this blog, chapters 2 and 3 are probably optional reading.  They talk about why we should all care about growing our own healthy food, and why aquaponics is the perfect setup for growing lean meat and organic veggies year round.  You probably already know most of that stuff. :-)

The real value starts in chapters 4-6. Bernstein emphasizes that the design of your system will depend on your particular geographic situation and your own personal inclinations, but gives several examples of what has worked for people in the past--not having to invent a system from scratch saves a lot of time.  There are a few pages of pictures of different systems in the middle of the book, which is helpful.  If anything, the book could use some more of these.  The 'formal aquaponics' picture was probably what convinced Katie to OK the plan for setting up an aquaponic system in our guest bedroom, so that picture alone was worth the price of the book!

After describing several common system layouts and the pros and cons of each, Bernstein gets into the permanent components of your system, such as the fish tank, grow beds, pumps, pipes, water and growth medium.  We were glad that she mentioned weight considerations, but would have liked to see a few more resources and guidelines for sizing your system appropriately.  For example, if you live in an apartment above the first floor, you are actually fairly limited in the size of aquaponic system you can build.  In fact, Bernstein notes in multiple places the challenges of maintaining a stable system below 50 gallons, which is generally the upper limit of what apartment dwellers can install (in wood-framed apartments, anyway).  We had to do a little searching on the internets to figure out the maximum size we could get away with, but this page was one that we found particularly helpful. (*Note: since we put together a small system in our guest bedroom, we'll try to add insights about what we had to learn outside the book.  We've only got a 50 gal tank, but it's been running quite stable for several months on end.  We only have three small fish, which probably helps.  Wish they'd grow faster!)

Next, Bernstein gets into choosing fish and plants to put in your system.  It turns out just about any kind of plant will work, as long as they don't need extreme pH levels.  She talks about many different kinds of fish, including pacu, catfish, trout, bass, tilapia (probably the most common), and a bit about koi and goldfish.  We knew we wanted something fast-growing and edible, so we got tilapia.  Knowing what we know now, the choice might not have been so obvious, but we found tilapia locally before we found catfish or pacu, so that's what we went with in our system.  For smaller setups, the trick is finding a source that will sell you only five or six fish.  Mail order fish are expensive, so we found the best resource to be local fish and pet stores.  The price per fish was quite a bit higher, but we didn't have to get 25 of them and pay $80 for overnight shipping.  If you've already decided on a certain species of fish, the book doesn't go into a lot of details about the different strains that might be available for that species.  A lot of times you just have to go with what's available, but if you're interested in the different options, you'll have to do the research yourself.  (We did some of that for tilapia, which we'll talk about in a later post.)

A close-up of our take on 'formal aquaponics.'  (Formal part not shown.)  We've had good luck with basil (front), swiss chard (left and back left), dandelion greens (back right), and even a green onion (back middle).  Sylvia was right--just about any kind of plant will grow well.  If you look close, there's a worm toward the bottom middle-left.  He was hiding under the duckweed bowl, which we moved for the picture since it's not growing much duckweed.

Probably the second most valuable part of the book for us was chapters 13 and 14, which talk about the roles of bacteria, worms, and how to cycle the system.  We weren't that familiar with the intricacies of establishing stable aquarium biochemistry before we got interested in aquaponics, so we found these chapters full of juicy information, especially on cycling the system.  This was probably the chapter we referenced the most when getting our system running. We also enjoyed being able to release a handful of our composting worms into our grow bed and just letting them go to live among the Hydroton.  We check in on them every now and then (like when collecting pieces of Hydroton for the blog header), and they seem to be doing fine.

What time is it? Basil thyme!  From our aquaponic system--these herbs transmogrified into a delicious pesto just after this picture was taken.  Thanks for the inspiration, Sylvia!

In summary, this book is an excellent resource for those just starting in aquaponics.  If you don't have the limitations of living in an apartment, it probably has everything you need to know to set up a very functional system.  We didn't follow all of Bernstein's suggestions, but less than a year in, we can see in each of those cases what she was talking about. She really knows her stuff, so we have no problem recommending this book to anyone interested in aquaponics.  A+!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

'Hog Nog

Yesterday was February 2, which means, of course, that it was also Groundhog Day.  It's important to celebrate Groundhog Day properly since we don't have very many holidays dedicated to large rodents, or more specifically, holidays where a marmot is asked to bridge the fields of meteorology and climate science.  (Apparently, spring is coming early this year.)  We propose that the proper way to celebrate February 2 is with a big glass of homemade eggnog.  It might seem counterintuitive at first, but bear with us...

For starters, eggnog is far too delicious to be consumed only during Christmas time (and more recently, around Easter).  In fact, we think (Jake thinks) there should be an excuse to consume eggnog at least once a month. Folks who raise chickens sometimes have an overabundance of eggs that doesn't always fall conveniently in December or April.  Those noble farmers should feel free to whip up a batch of frothy egg drink any time of year they have an egg windfall.  Thus, February needs an eggnog-affiliated holiday and, given the frequency with which our weather people (and sometimes even our beloved marmots) need to revise their predictions (i.e., have egg on their faces), Groundhog Day is the perfect candidate.  So, here we go, with the first installment of a series called, "Holidays That Should Be Celebrated With Eggnog."  These are our step-by-step instructions for preparing eggnog for Groundhog Day or, if you will, 'Hog Nog. (Based on a recipe from Katie's sister-in-law, Julia.  Thanks, Julia!)

12 eggs
1 c sugar
6 c milk
Whipped cream
Nutmeg, ginger, cloves to taste

Take the eggs and separate the yolks into a large bowl and the whites into a separate container. (A one-pint canning jar is about the right size for the whites.)  Save the whites for something else
Whip the yolks until thick and bright yellow.  With an old-fashioned egg beater, it took about 5 minutes.

Add 1 cup sugar and mix well.  We used raw sugar, like a groundhog might find in the wild.
Add 6 cups of milk and mix well.  Using of milk instead of cream makes it quite a bit thinner (and dare we say, healthier) than the eggnog you normally find in the grocery store.
When it's all done it should look something like this.
Some say to let chill overnight or for several hours.  We've never made it more than about 15 minutes.  Pour it into your favorite mug, add a dollop of whipped cream and a few sprinkles of nutmeg, ginger, and/or cloves to taste.  These spices give it a earthy flavor, which groundhogs love.  Refrigerate the leftovers (if any).

Sometimes people of sufficient vintage enjoy seasoning their eggnog with aqueous ethanol solutions.  For 'Hog Nog, the natural choice would probably be something like this.

Disclaimer: This recipe uses raw eggs, which might contain harmful bacteria--consume at your own risk and don't sue us if you get sick!