Friday, May 29, 2015

The Science and Engineering of S'mores

We realize this post is a few days too late for the first major camping weekend of the summer, but the truth is, we needed a tune-up on our s'mores theory and practice ourselves.  So now, while the extensive refresher training we completed over the last few days is still at the front of our minds, we wanted to put out a short treatise on the intricacies and nuances of marshmallow roasting and s'more eating.

The first step in creating a s'more is to initiate the thermal oxidation of some woody biomass.  To avoid marshmallow ignition, we want radiant heat from the coals rather than heat from the gas-phase oxidation occurring in flames. That requires full primary combustion of the wood, which takes a considerable amount of time.

The second step is to select a marshmallow roasting device from a nearby tree or shrub, taking care to avoid the species Toxicodendron vernix.  The geometric outlay of the device is to some degree a matter of personal preference, but we've found that a half inch diameter at the base tapering to approximately a quarter inch at the business end, and 2.5-3 feet long, to be optimal for most common campfire heat intensities and standard-size marshmallows.

Similarly, the optimal linearity of the device is a subjective matter.  Some prefer a higher degree of linearity to facilitate a uniform axial rotation during roasting. Others prefer some curviness to allow the roaster to reach preferred roasting locales within the campfire from any position around the fire ring, including those toward which the smoke is not traveling, and independent of other s'more engineers who may be occupying prime roasting real estate.

Nearly all experts agree, however, on the advantage of a barbed tip to prevent marshmallow disengagement from the device during the later stages of roasting, when the rigidity of the melty marshmallow core has deceased significantly.  Similarly, there is nearly universal agreement that removal of the bark from the tip of the device prevents inadvertent transfer of bark particles to the marshmallow.

In theory, pure radiative heat from glowing embers produces the most satisfactory roasting experience.  However, in practice, maintaining sufficient heat flow from a bed of embers over the course of tens of minutes that comprise a typical roasting session is challenging (as is having the patience to wait for the wood to finish burning down to coals).  Thus, the optimal sustained roasting environment often requires a combination of actively burning wood and pockets of glowing embers.

With the marshmallow applied to the roasting device, and roasting commenced over an appropriate heat source, the sugars in the outer shell of the marshmallow will begin to caramelize.  The primary chemical challenge during roasting is to uniformly caramelize the entire shell without charring or igniting any part of it.  The preferred technique among experts is a slow, rotisserie-style rotation at 4-6" from the embers, though few possess the patience to functionally sustain such an activity for the duration of the roasting operation. Another challenge is roasting the surface closest to the base end of the roasting device.  There may be some advantage to loading the marshmallow onto the device axially to minimize the surface area facing the base end (since the flat side of the marshmallow is smaller than the curved section), and then lightly smooshing the marshmallow to convert some of the base-facing surface into side-facing surface.

When the marshmallow is satisfactorily caramelized, it can be assembled into a s'more, with graham crackers and chocolate as co-ingredients.  In some circles, a preferred embodiment of the s'more is one which can be eaten cleanly (i.e., without loss of melted marshmallow to the eater's face or hand, or to the ground).  In such an embodiment, the chocolate and graham must be of the correct pliability, such that biting into the s'more results in neither excessive compression of the marshmallow nor shattering of the graham cracker components.  The desired pliability can be achieved by mild heating of the graham and chocolate for 4-5 minutes while roasting the marshmallow (resulting in a final temperature of 100 - 105 °F).  More intensive heating melts the chocolate and toasts the graham, effectively exacerbating the problem.

A proper grip on the s'more can also help keep the s'more intact while biting.  As this hand model is demonstrating, a firm grip in one quadrant of the graham, using the end section of the first two fingers and the thumb, is optimal for minimizing transfer of marshmallow to the hand while maximizing the exposed area on which to apply the bite.  Large bites, up to the size of the entire s'more, also minimize brittle fracture of the graham into the hand.

After roasting one- or two dozen marshmallows, the roasting device can be saved for future use, but a bit of maintenance and cleaning will help preserve its integrity and avoid attracting ants.  A first step in cleaning is commonly to remove as much marshmallow residue as possible by mouth.

Particularly recalcitrant residue can be removed by charring the tip, followed by wiping with an appropriate material, such as a t-shirt or nearby grass.  The health benefits of any residual char that may be transferred to future marshmallows are unclear, but related products are highly valued in some types of cuisine (an explanation of the scientific function of biochar in the digestive tract can be found near minute 19 in the video accompanying the previous link, although the entire episode provides a much more compelling narrative if one is amused by the non-sequitor nature of Japanese cartoons).  The roasting device can be stored somewhere relatively clean and out of the fire pit until needed again.

In conclusion, many factors must be considered to produce an optimally roasted marshmallow and a satisfactorily engineered s'more.  We hope this primer has helped elucidate some of those factors, but we welcome additions and suggestions to incorporate into the second edition of this text.

What is your preferred marshmallow-roasting protocol?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Homestead Happiness May Week 3

We skipped a couple weeks of our HAP posts, in part because we were busy with non-homesteading-related stuff, and in part because we've been doing a bit of twiddling our thumbs waiting for the dirt to dry out enough to plant the garden.  But there's still plenty to be happy about!

First off, the wild greens in the yard are loving all the rain.  We haven't planted any greens in the garden yet, but we sure haven't had to leave the yard for our vegetables!  You may have guessed from the last couple posts that we've been eating a lot of dandelion greens and sorrel (and you'd be correct), but the mallow (in the picture) has also been a valuable addition to our plates.

The hops plant came back!  And it's already as big as it got last year!  Hopefully it will help the bees battle varroa, although we don't have too strong of hopes that the bees will self-treat.

One leaf on our rhubarb was almost completely eaten by slugs (we think), and the stalk had come partially disconnected.  So we picked it the rest of the way, making this little 4" morsel is the first rhubarb we've harvested from the plant.  It made one bowl of oatmeal very awesome.

Judging by the number of volunteer potatoes that came up this spring, we need to do a better job harvesting next year (although volunteer veggies that made it through the winter are always kind of fun) .  They got knocked back a bit by a Mothers Day snowstorm, but they're pushing on now.  We pulled out a couple that were in this year's garden beds, but the ones that came up in what are now aisles will get to do what they want for the summer.  For the ones we had to move, we dug the best specimens into the compost bin to see what they'd do, since last year we had a regular old russet potato from the store sprout in the compost and survive the summer to actually produce a pound or two of potatoes.  That was a nice surprise!

One nice thing about all this rain is that it's made it really easy to pull weeds.  The strawberries needed it bad, and we happily removed all the quack grass in there.

We did take the risk of turning over a couple beds to get the onions and sweet potatoes planted since they really needed to get in the ground.  Hope they do ok!

Some of the first wildflowers (not including dandelions) are also starting to bloom.  These guys are in with some roses that are looking a little deficient in iron or nitrogen.  We haven't seen any bees on these blooms yet...

...but they are working on the chives that got ahead of us!  This little gal was so into it, she started probing the next flower while she was still standing on the first one!  Good work, ladies.

What made you happy this week?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Freezing Dandelions

As we were out in the yard this weekend, seeking some kind of gardening activity that didn't require digging in the still-too-wet-for-planting dirt, we decided it was time to weed under the chicken tractor row cover that was protecting our overwintered swiss chard and garlic.  The row cover is slightly wider than the garden bed, which meant that immediately inside the walls was a tall, lush layer of grass and dandelions.

Some of the dandelion flower stalks were a full two feet long, and the leaves were approaching a size that would make romaine lettuce jealous.  Those huge dandelion leaves, which grew much faster than their counterparts outside of the mini greenhouse, were naturally less bitter because the plant focuses more on biomass production than defense systems (in our minds, anyway).  Which is all another way of saying that, even though they were more than we'd need for this week's meals, they'd be a real shame to waste!  Why don't we try freezing some to save for later?

A quick search of the internets reveals that, of course, we're not the first folks to formulate such a plan.  It turns out that blanching the greens just like spinach, chard, collards, or other things normal people eat, works just as well with dandy greens (although maybe we don't even need to blanch them before freezing).  Here's a brief rundown of our new protocol for preserving one of the most exciting parts of spring.

We rinsed all the dirt (of which there wasn't much) and dandelion seeds (of which there were a lot) off the greens, then coarsely chopped them and set them soaking in a bowl of water.  (Even though the plants had already gone to seed, chopping and soaking the leaves takes the bitterness down to an acceptable level.)  We usually soak twice with a change of water in between, and usually for half an hour per soak, although the second soak went overnight on this particular batch.

Then we drained off the water and transferred the greens into one of these-type pots, with a big pasta insert.  The outer pot has a couple inches of boiling water in it, and we steam blanched the dandy greens in two batches of about a half pound each, for three minutes each.

Steam away, little dandies! (We took off the cover to take the picture.)

Then we quenched in cold water for a minute or two...

...and transferred the chilled greens to a salad spinner to get most of the residual water out.  Just sitting in the strainer basket does a pretty good job, but actually spinning them really gets 'er done.

We put them in freezer baggies, and now they're ready to hibernate!  What's the easiest way to get the residual air out of the bags?  We seal them most of the way across, push most of the air out by hand, then press the unsealed inch or so to our lips and suck the rest out like reverse CPR.  While still applying suction, we seal the bag the rest of the way across.  Don't tell the NCHFP

Even though we froze the whole batch, we still wanted some for this week.  So almost as soon as they were frozen, we took one bag out and made a quiche, which also incorporated some overwintered green onions, dried tomatoes from last summer, and some frozen sorrel from last weekend

As a point of reference, the green stuff in the lower left part of the slice is some of the dandy greens (mostly leaf stems), and the top and right pieces of green are the sorrel. The texture of both types of greens were pretty good, so in addition to the blanched and tasty frozen dandies, it looks like just sticking the sorrel in the freezer works pretty well.

How do you preserve your dandelion greens?

Monday, May 11, 2015

An Ode to Sorrel

If you ask a homestead-minded person what their favorite spring greens to forage are, you'll probably get responses like dandelions, lambs quarters, mallow, maybe even stinging nettles.  But one that's rarely mentioned is sorrel (or the related dock).  It's the Rodney Dangerfield of spring greens. (It don't get no respect!)  That's a real shame, because Rumex species are delicious, nutritious, and high-yielding.  We recently had the chance to gather up a mess of sorrel growing in our back yard and cook it up into a couple of dishes that are likely to become mainstays in our culinary rotation. That is, they were tasty, pretty easy to cook, and the main ingredient (sorrel) is easy to gather a lot of over a long season.  Read on, and hopefully be inspired to forage some sorrel yourself!

Here is the sorrel in it's natural environment.  What's that you say? It's hard to discern it from all the burdock, buckthorn, and other weeds?  That's just our first line of defense against sorrel poachers.  We're pretty sure this cultivar is common sheep sorrel, Rumex acetosella.

Here is a comparison for how much sorrel we were able to harvest (right) in roughly the same amount of time as it took to pick the swiss chard (left).  That is, although we didn't calculate it, the Berry Modulus is probably higher for our sorrel than our chard.  We rinsed the sorrel, sent the leaves into a couple varieties of sorrel pesto, and the sent the stems into a soup. (The chard went into a quiche.)

For pesto, we used this recipe as a starting point, then improvised from there. We only had ground almonds for the nutty part, but they worked.  We used garlic powder instead of raw garlic cloves for one batch; that also worked.  We also added black pepper.  Lastly, we committed pesto heresy and replaced the parmesan cheese with a regular old monterrey jack in one batch, and that worked, too.  If that means we can't call it pesto any more, so be it. It's a seasoned, cheesy, sorrel-based green-colored spread dip thing.  Call it what you like.

Meanwhile, we also had the crock pot full of chopped carrots, potatoes, green onions, celery, sorrel stems, and a lamb leg roast.  Other meats that would be good in this application include, but are not limited to, chicken, venison/beef, and pork.

When the meat was done, we trimmed and sliced it up, and set it on top of some pesto-smeared toast.  By toast, we mean bread rendered brown and crispy by hot butter in a frying pan.

Taking the roast out of the crock pot left a bunch of veggies, which we made into a creamy soup by adding some heavy whipping cream and plain yogurt.  Good stuff, Maynard!

As a side note, sorrel changes color from a bright, cheerful green to a drab army/olive color and falls apart when cooked.  So if you're going to cook it, make sure to hide it in a casserole or something.  It seems to hold it's color ok when frozen (provided you don't blanch it first), but we haven't tried making anything out of the frozen stuff yet.  We'll report back later on how that goes.

How do you eat sorrel?  What other greens are you foraging this time of year?  Let us know in the comments section below!

The Recipe
2 lb roast (lamb, pork, venison, or chicken)
1 lb carrots, sliced
1 lb potatoes, cubed
1 lb celery, sliced
0.25 lbs green onions, sliced
Stems from 1.5 lb sorrel
1 cup water
1 Tablespoon each garlic powder, oregano, black pepper
1.5 teaspoons each salt and red pepper
0.5 cup heavy whipping cream
0.5 cup plain yogurt
2 Tablespoons flour

Leaves from 1.5 lb sorrel
3 garlic cloves or 1 teaspoon garlic powder
0.5-0.75 cup pine nuts or sunflower seeds, or 0.25-0.5 cup ground almonds
0.5 teaspoon salt
0.25-0.5 cup olive oil
0.5 cup grated cheese

3 Tablespoon butter
6 slices bread

Cook roast, carrots, potatoes, celery, green onions, and sorrel stems in the water in a crock pot until meat is cooked through and tender, seasoning with garlic powder, oregano, black and red pepper, and salt to taste.  Remove meat, trim and slice.  Add whipping cream, yogurt, and flour to remaining soup, cook until slightly thickened.  While roast is cooking, make pesto from sorrel leaves, garlic, nuts, salt, olive oil and cheese. (Put everything in a food processor and process until creamy and spreadable.  Coarsely chop sorrel leaves before adding to processor to avoid bridging.)  Melt butter in frying pan, brown one side of bread, flip, and brown other side.  While the second side is browning, top bread with pesto and sliced roast.  Serve with soup and smiles.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Rooting Pear Cuttings

We were back home in Wisconsin for the week before Easter visiting family.  That meant we had a chance to steal some cuttings off Jake's parents' awesome red d'Anjou pear tree.  It's the only non-cherry tree in their orchard that produces generally blemish-free fruit without babying.  'No babying of plants' is an important house rule for us.  With cuttings in hand, we had to decide how to try to propagate this magnificent specimen.  Our two primary options are to graft the cuttings onto another rootstock or to root the cuttings and grow them from there.  Of the two, rooting the cuttings is slightly less expensive, and slightly more risky adventurous, in terms of whether the cutting will take.  Guess which one we're going with!

There are at least three ways to root the cuttings.  There's the standard method of dipping the cuttings in commercial rooting hormone, the less conventional method of dipping the cuttings in a homemade rooting hormone, and finally, dipping the cuttings in honey, which isn't a hormone, but is antifungal, which can allow the cuttings to start making their own roots before infection takes over and kills the cutting.  The internets seem to contain more tales of folks who have had success with the first two, so given that Jake's mom also had an old jar of rooting hormone and that we know where to find some willows, we're going to do a side-by-side comparison of those two.  Some sources (also here and here) say to root the cuttings in peat, compost, and/or perlite, but others (admittedly not pear-specific) suggest that roots should start to form in water containing the rooting hormone.  The best time of year to propagate pears by this method is evidently when they're dormant, with some sources recommending late fall, and others having success in early spring.  Happily, that schedule works well for us.

First we needed to collect some willow branches for the natural rooting hormone.

Then we lopped them up into small pieces and made some willow sun tea.  We thought it would only take a couple days, but it was over a week before the water was dark-colored like in this video.

We put the cuttings in the hormone-containing water and set them in a place out of direct sunlight and somewhere they wouldn't be in our way (i.e., in front of the TV).  They need to stay there, at ~65 °F, for 3-4 weeks to allow the cuttings to take up the hormone solution, then get transferred to a suitable growing medium (which we interpreted as 'compost-rich dirt.')

While we were waiting, we started to wonder, 'what sort of chemistry is going on here?'  Apparently, the rooting hormone (1-naphthaleneacetamide in the case of RooTone and indole-3-butyric acid in the case of the willow extract) signals plant cells at the growth nodes in our cuttings to turn into roots instead of leaves.  The RooTone also contains Thiram as an antifungal agent to prevent wood-eating fungi from killing our cuttings; the willow tea contains salicylic acid, which does the same thing.)

Here are the cuttings after a few weeks, rooting hormone batch on the left, willow tea on the right.  When we put them in the pots, we poured the rest of the hormone solutions in after as their first watering.  A few are starting to leaf out.  A few showed some semblance of root buds on the bottom.  Only time will tell if the cuttings will be successful, but apparently d'Anjou pears specifically are quite difficult to propagate this way, even for experts (which we discovered after deciding not to spring for grafting rootstock).  But even though the cuttings' chances of success are low, we'll be rooting for them!

UPDATE 11/8/2015: As it turned out, our cuttings put up an unblemished record of 0-for-15, and examining the cutting ends post mortem didn't reveal any roots starting.  So, unfortunately, this experiment proved to be inconclusive.  Hopefully next time we'll have better luck!

Have you propagated pear trees?  How did it work out?  Let us know in the comments section below!