Category Archives: fermentation

On the feast day of summer’s end* (Halloween)

I think I found it, Mama

We tried to find something scary to show you in the garden.  As is common throughout history, when a new culture bangs in to an existing one, the conquered people’s holidays or rites are usually the most ripe for transformation by the new guys. Christianity supplanted a pagan festival with its own, All Saints, on 1 November,  and Halloween is merely the day before (the eve of All Hallows).  The old Celtic holiday, *Samhain, or summer’s end, was a day spent in reflection and stocking up at the end of autumn/beginning of winter.  It also was a period of time for the real world to touch the unreal, so you’re to keep your eye out for the supernatural.  I guess I am glad we kept that part of it; the kid does like to dress up and scare people.

But we like these harvest-based holidays around our house; they seem much more real than something arbitrary.  And personally, I like parties, especially when they reward all my hard gardening work.


Voila!  “You know, I think that thing is bigger than you were when you were born,” I told her.  She paused, and stared.  “You have GOT to be kidding me,” she said, looking over her glasses.

So behold!  The 7 lb, 5 oz cylindra beet.  This nearly filled a two gallon crock once shredded.  Fermented beets are super delicious…and it’s a fair way to stock up for winter.  Every year we get at least one or two monsters, but this year’s model has set the bar pretty high, eh?

I do like the sense of community on this holiday…even if we don’t have threshing or haying festivals any longer, or we don’t gather around the big kettle to process apple butter, I will think of all these joint events as I chase my daughter down the dark streets in town as she goes begging for sweets.  Why not.  It’s the new culture, after all.

On(ward) autumn

stomp stomp stomp

It is fully fall.  I cannot quite tell, though, whether this will be a stellar leaf-color year or not.  Surely the traditional heralds, the low sumac and high tree-climbing Virginia creeper and poison ivy, say this year will be gorgeous, but they’re always untrustworthy in their carnival colors.  You’d think, though, that with a bizarre weather year like this one, they’d flame out in riotous color.  So I keep watching.

Watching, and harvesting.  Apparently I am not the only one to do so:  the voles (field mice) have had family reunion-sized feasts in my sweet potato and winter squash patches.  Now, I don’t normally mind sharing a bite or two with the local beasts.  When they get half the butternut squash, though, I guess I get a little tetchy.  My loss, their gain.  But partially I blame myself for being so busy, for not watching the crops’ turning.

And yes, they turned for me in the vineyard.  Though a productive year, the grapes never reached a high level of sugars…and I kept waiting, thinking this last weekend would be the peak.  And I missed it, being blessed instead with vines full of raisins.

Not all raisins, though:  I am able to fill a 5-gallon carboy with what I hope turns out to be great homemade wine, complete with child labor!

Twelve gallon crock, 45 pound child, 7 gallons grapes

On summer pickles

Pickle Pot covered with one of the World’s Ugliest Tea Towels

Okay, so I lied a teensy bit in my last post:  I *have* been pickling nearly everything in sight, putting away for tomorrow (well, or at least next month) that which grows abundantly today.

It’s lacto-fermentation, though, that I have been relying upon to pickle my veg, not vinegar.  As far as methods go, this is as Old School as it gets.  I’ve basically been throwing grape leaves, unripe grapes, peppercorns and mustard seeds, garlic, fennel and parsley flower heads, and any nice fleshy unripe vegetable that I can get my hands on into a crock with salted water.  Cover them up (weighted down with my lovely weights and a quart jar of water) and in a week, voila, pickles!  The salt in the water interacting with the lactobaccili on the surface of the vegetables is what makes this happen.  (I could goose the process by adding whey…but then things end up tasting like goat.  No thanks.  It works fine on its own.)

Frankly, I can’t wait for all my cukes to get to adequate pickling size, even though I am growing a lot of them this year.  And–as ever–I am way behind with my dill plantings.  No matter; I look to see what’s blossoming and indeed fennel, cilantro, celery and parsley are all bearers of significant umbrelled flowers…lovely, all, for seasoning.  Italian flat-podded green beans, radish seed pods, young peppers (hot and not), eggplant, okra, thin green paste tomatoes, leek pearls, young onions, scallions, shallots, purslane:  these are all fair game to add to the limping-along cucumber stash. Even Brett’s milkweed buds and pods get harvested and thrown in the crock.

Sandor Ellix-Katz is my guru in all of this.   Perhaps he should be yours too.  Please pick up (even at the library) a copy of his Wild Fermentation.

My veggies’ weekly trips (more or less depending on the weather) in the crock yield about 7 pints of veggies:  one for each of my CSA people and one for us.   These aren’t canned, then; they’re eaten fresh from the fridge, preferably within a month or so…it’s basically slow(er) food.  And if you do eat it all, don’t worry, more is coming soon!

More information in the comments.

More lies:  here’s the first batch of paste tomatoes en route to the masonry oven.  Sundays are Oven Days so…why not hold off on picking tomatoes for the whole week and then having a steamer pan or two of cleaned, halved paste tomatoes go in for gentle cooking overnight?  When I took the bread and the chicken out of it, the Loven was about 300*.  It holds its heat overnight, but…I go check it before bed, and if it’s reduced “enough” then I will take the pans out, put their contents in half-gallon jars for the fridge, and then tomorrow after a trip through the food mill they’ll be canned.  It’s a great way to get paste.

On new compost

The compost heaps are also where the best volunteer veg spring up:  note the squash above.

Upon trucking the umpteenth wheelbarrow full of fresh compost around the new beds this weekend, I reflected on how much the big pile of stuff means to me and the gardens.  I’ve waxed philosophical on the subject many times over the years, and my ardor for the “garden gold” has only grown with time.

That said, I still have never let it cook down to being completely finished. Nope. Call me impatient, or greedy, or both.

It’s an interesting math problem, actually.  With the addition of dairy goats two years ago, the actual volume of compostables (in the form of their bedding) has quadrupled.  My gardens, however, have not.  It was only this weekend that the garden got expanded…it’s been the same size since 2008, thus, technically, I should be sitting on a surplus.  A surplus, or at least a big enough reserve so it actually cooks down!  There never is a surplus, though:  like the government’s budget, new sources for the goods are always readily found, and those resources get sucked up.  And lo, it’s never quite “done” yet.

So during that schlep of compost it also occurred to me that, as a gardener, my job is actually within the vast field of waste management.  You know, winkwink, nudgenudge, what Tony Soprano would claim as his profession (with a perfectly straight face, mind you) to anyone who asked.  Heh.

Yep.  Behold, the power of poo.

On pottery

About two years ago, I signed up for my first ceramics class.  I had stifled a yearning to play with clay for years, and finally embraced it.  So I have taken continuous classes at the local museum, taking the summers off, but otherwise making lots of useful things.

I still suck at it, frankly.  It’s a good feeling, this lack of control.  I suppose I am getting “better,” but just barely.  Frankly, I like my wobbly cups and bowls.

However, the pièce de résistance has been my new pickle crock.  It does not suck.

so deep!

At 12.5″ high, 11″ wide at the top, it holds a bit more than three gallons.  It’s coiled, not thrown.  Cone 6.  And:  it’s currently making its first batch of wonderful fermented magic (a mixed veg greenhouse clean-out:  cabbage, chard stems, escarole, carrots, kohlrabi, green onions and herbs…and from basement storage, onions and garlic).

I also made a couple of sets of weights to fit inside and weigh down the stuff.  This set fits my other crock…but they work fine in this one, too.

Anyway, it’s fun!  Learn from my experience:  Even if you’re afraid of producing things not up to your own personal high standards of craft and capital-A Art, you should go out and try, whatever it is.  You might just surprise yourself, producing usable things beyond any price.  And that, my friends, is beauty.

On winter’s bread

The start to a great breakfast:  four day old and still delicious bread, hot coffee, and lots and lots of fresh eggs

Wisdom is acquired by experience, not just by age, said my most recent fortune cookie.  Granted, I do understand this truism has a lot of gosh-that’s-so-true-ism when it comes to bread-making.  It is, alas, a skill.   You have to spank a lot of dough to understand the stretch and rise of what makes it what it is.  It honestly is not hard, though.  And I truly think that if anyone has an earnest desire to make his or her own bread, then one should start with the no-knead methods and variations.  One will realize how wonderful yet…unimproved that method is, mainly because the bread doesn’t keep long and has no real taste.  Eventually, using a sourdough starter or levain is the way to go.  And making one’s own levain isn’t as hard or as wasteful as it sounds.

I tend to keep on top of cooking-slash-cookbook trends.  I am not saying I am a purchasing consumer of said books so much as I like to learn the culinary lingua franca…it’s me eating up the culture of cooking, as it were.  And it’s another year, another batch of books of bread cookery that came ’round and were duly inspected by yours truly. And again, over and over, bread-bakers and cookbook-writers claim that the only way to make a sourdough starter at home is to throw away two-thirds of the volume of flour to do it.

Do you honestly think that your average baker threw away two-thirds of anything to make bread a hundred years ago?  Two hundred?  Two thousand years ago?  And the history of bread is five thousand years old  (give or take) so…I am just sayin’.  I think, have always thought, this oft-repeated instruction is profligate, another example of our throw-away culture, this time with us literally throwing away our cultures.    It doesn’t have to be that way to make or even maintain your own levain.

One of the least scary descriptions of home-grown yeast and its needs comes from a recent cookbook:  Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking (which is excellent, by the way).  “Actually, there’s no need to be scared of yeast, it’s pretty good humored and, like many of us, it has a sweet tooth and likes to be warm, so be nice to it.  The average warmth of a kitchen provides a suitable environment in which yeast can grow….”  The average warmth of the kitchen provides a suitable environment for children and husbands to grow, too.  Even know-it-all wives get schooled in a warm kitchen.

Granted, I have a starter (its name is La Mama) that I have had running for years now.  I did start it by throwing half or more of it away and it galled me.  But if I don’t get to baking twice a week I don’t think La Mama is dead and just start over.  Nope; ever the tightwad, I use what I have, making something hurriedly with part of it (English muffins, pancakes, crepes) while I add more flour to the majority of it to revive it.  If it is not really actively bubbling, it takes a couple of days to make two loaves of bread this way, but…I don’t feel guilty about wasting even a cup of the stuff.

Hey:  it’s winter in the Northern hemisphere, and we gardeners still have a yen to get our hands dirty, so, why not get out the flour?  Probably the best compromise of all is a no-knead loaf with some of your own bubbling sourdough starter.  Please see the recipe in the comments.  And…get baking!

On fermenting the harvest

In my corner of the world, farmer’s markets and fruit markets (yes, we have a lot of the latter:  either they’re the market for a large fruit farm or a collaborative of a few smaller farms) are winding down.  This means I should get bags and boxes ready, and go shopping!

Even *I* cannot resist the pull of these markets on their last weekend, their last day.  I tell myself I can find the need for such slash-priced fruits and veg…why not?  (“Why not” might be because I have plenty of my own stuff already…plus, I didn’t need to pay for my harvest.)  Considering nearly nothing I purchased could be stored for long, I spent Saturday morning  in what only could be called a Ferment-A-Thon.

The last batch of sauerkraut took only 10 days thanks to a few warm fall afternoons so the pickle crock was fortuitously empty.  My routine had been kraut then kimchi then kraut with the pickle crock, so my mind was on putting together the next batch of hot/spicy kimchi.  (Kimchi also only takes about a week, sometimes less time if it’s kept in a warm room.  Sauerkraut can take a week or a month, both depending on how much you have as well as ambient temperature.)  Besides the makings of  kimchi, though, there were those large beets I picked up at the market…time for more pickled beets with roasted, crushed caraway seeds.

There’s no real magic involved with simple veggie ferments.  (If you want great step by step instructions, go see Sandor Ellix Katz’ website.)  It’s a three part process, really.  The chopped veg are salted and left for a time to release their internal water.  The veg are then are fermented in brine, and, after a time, eaten!  (Kimchi has one more middle step in there, where more veg, a spicy pepper mix, and a watery brine is added to cover.)  The only difference I impart to my own ferments from what I read in books and online recipes is that I stir. the. ferment. every. single. day.  I also taste it to see how it’s doing…therefore I rely on my tastebuds and not some recipe to tell me what’s going on in the crock.

Day One contents for the kimchi crock:  leafy cabbages and crisp carrots, radishes and kohlrabi.  Perhaps not completely kosher (i.e., more than just nappa cabbage, no daikon radishes, no fish paste, and who ever heard of kohlrabi in kimchi?) it points to the fact that most anything goes…especially when the garden needs pre-snow tidying.

It is helpful to weigh the chopped contents to best gauge the salt that will be needed.  Rule of thumb is 3 tablespoons salt per 5 pounds produce, in 1/2 gallon of water.  Submerge contents to sit overnight and soften:  you can use a plate, but a bowl is the nearest thing I have that works.  Glass/ceramic is best.  Drain, reserving water, and taste veg for saltiness:  if obnoxious, then you won’t be adding all the salted water back in.

Day Two:  add a mash of hot fresh peppers/garlic/grated gingerroot; add more veggies as you choose (I added green peppers and the last of the fall peas, and a fist-sized bundle of chopped scallion, and a leek for kicks.).  Toss well, then add liquid to cover it just enough when submerged.  Cover crock with a clean cloth, stir and taste daily, adjusting seasoning as required.  Kimchi is ready in 5-8 days.  My five pounds of veg makes about 3 quarts.

Sour beets leaching their water:  Same salt/water rule applies (3 tablespoons salt per five pounds veg, submerged, etc.) but here I added roasted, ground caraway seeds to the freshly shredded beets, and am letting it pickle in between two nested glass bowls.  I added a bit of whey (2T) to speed up the process of lactic fermentation.  Step One is I let the shredded beets osmose for 12 hours before adding the water/whey mixture; Step Two is adding the liquid and letting it do its thing.   Because beets are so sweet, I don’t want this to turn alcoholic on me…so I will only give it up to 4 days before it goes in the fridge.  Sour beets in borscht, yumza!

Next up in the pickle crock will be a green drumhead cabbage sauerkraut with shredded apples and onions added on Day 5.

Read what you can about the fermentation process, and have fun with it all.  And, as ever, trust your instincts.  If it smells/tastes truly horrid, well, something has gone awry.  Kimchi, in my humble opinion, smells fabulous when it’s cooking, though!

On eating live foods

Bangbang:  making her spice mix for the table.  That knife looks closer than it is…her hand is about 4″ above it, have no fear

I have never been particularly trendy, or guru-worshiping.   It goes without saying then that I’ve never been one to follow a fad, except architectural ones.  Perhaps this is my inner (eek!) conservatism speaking, but doing something because a bunch of other people are doing it generally trips my bullsh*t-o-meter.  I’m also not particularly preachy or prone to the picking of nits.

All the above?  I mean In person:  the blog is something else entirely!  So, here, let me spew forth on the idea that you (you!) need to eat a lot more live foods!  Be trendy, and go raw, and go cultured!

Nothing like the funky ferment of freshly decanted kimchi out of the pickle crock first thing in the morning!  Five days in the crock, then into the fridge for the CSA folks.

Ahem.  For the last twenty years or so, I have been stuck in the loop of research/practice/direct observation of two things:  the growing of food and the making of food.

I have always believed in compost.  It makes sense that the addition of live microflora and fungi and microbes into your soil will nourish the soil that in turn nourishes the plants that nourish you.  And in my studies of peasant cuisine, there is one constant that can be found in societies as geographically and culturally different as the Laplands are from Micronesia, the desert Southwest from the Czech republic, and that is that all peoples nourish themselves with cultured, live foods, daily, and usually with most meals.

American people?  Not so much.  Our grocery stores guarantee that everything we buy is either dead or has never been living.  And the few “live” foods they do sell are suspect (e. coli in salads, sprouts; salmonella in eggs; pesticides on apples) and even the “active culture” yogurt is made from very dead milk that’s been inoculated, after the fact.  Our American fear of what we cannot see is so extreme, it’s like we’re more successful at the war on microbes than the war on terror…witness the proliferation of hand sanitizers and antimicrobial everything if you think I exaggerate.  Likewise, the “convenience” aspect of all food preparation has generated whole industries to ensure that the bother of, say, cutting up a head of broccoli (that most time-consuming of tasks) need not be done, as you can easily pick up a package of microwave-ready florets.  And then the experts wonder why we won’t eat our vegetables, and why we’re so fat.

Osmosis in action:  a mix of four types of cabbage for the pickle crock, tossed with salt first to bring out its moisture.  In two weeks or so this will be sauerkraut.

Why do I natter on so about “live” foods?  I guess it doesn’t take a genius to see that what we eat has radically shifted lo these last 75 years, and one of the first things to go has been cultured or microbially-active food.  Whole, unadulterated, unprocessed foods went next.  Out with the milkman, in with the ultrapasteurized milk carton that can sit on your pantry shelf forever.  In with the boxes and cans of food or microwave-ready comestibles, out with the idea that one needs to actually MAKE dinner, or breakfast, or even lunch (as you can now find in your grocer’s freezer section crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for your kid).  And don’t get me started on getting food through your car window, okay?

Sprouting wheat berries for bread

Me?  I like life in my food.  I have a lifelong aversion to leftovers and old food, so…this seems a contradictory stance.  Bear with me though.  Our recent food tradition has been such that, if we cook at all, we cook to death just about everything (hey, our milk is even cooked) and eschew that which is uncooked, mainly to worship the god of Convenience.  This is a new development, one in which our bodies (it is my belief) have not evolved to completely tolerate.  I will admit that I too cook nearly everything:  even my bread is well-baked even if its starter was alive.  But I do try, in every meal, to feed my family something un-dead.

The un-dead:  Camembert and peach jam on sourdough toast

Un-dead!  Zombie food, really?  Not really.  It’s more like this:  breakfast is sourdough toast with homemade raw-milk cheese (camembert, chevre, etc.) topped with fruit jam, or maybe a bowl of cultured oatmeal.  Lunch might mean a small bowl of kimchi, a handful of almonds, and a bowl of yogurt with some fruit and local raw honey.  After-school snack is a glass of chilled kombucha tea with a few homemade herbed crackers, or some cubes of feta, or a fruit/kefir smoothie.  Dinner includes cooked foods (mostly vegetables) paired with a huge salad topped with buttermilk dressing and walnuts, dessert is a couple raw apples.  Nothing terribly radical here…except that it’s me and not the food industry doing the making.

Listen.  I have seen what the introduction of compost did to the nearly-dead soil on my farm.  I can only wonder about the pleasing interaction between fungal hyphae and the root nodules of my own broccoli…what this unseen magic does for the plant.  Likewise, one’s own gut flora is a near imponderable to me!  Who knows how many unseen things I am host to, those little untold billions that sustain this corpus?  I believe it can’t hurt to have them nourished by live foods to help them do their job.  I expect to be around for a long time…and can only believe that feeding every little bit of me, well, will help me live long and happily.  And:  it’s a tasty way to be.

I figured out this weekend that the masonry oven can handle 15 loaves at a time.  All hail the Loven!

You can, too.  Just think about what it is you eat, and why.

On the informal economy

Our governor signed a cottage industry farm bill last week!  No longer are small food vendors required to be licensed and have commercial kitchens installed in order to produce and sell their home-baked wares:  anything that can sit on a counter, basically, like pies, breads, granola, jam, jellies, pickles, etc. can now be legally made in Michigan.  I foresee an explosion of home-baked goodness available then for those who can’t or don’t home-bake.  The restrictions are simple.  Label what’s in it, label where it came from (your home’s name and address), and sell less than $15,000 a year in goods.

Things like dried herbs, teas, and tinctures are likewise covered in this bill.  A second bill regarding honey and maple syrup are soon to be passed and signed.

These bills (and now law) make me happy.  Granted, I always have been skirting a bit shy of the law in that what baked goods I have sold I sold before this law took effect.  Likewise, I illegally sell my milk products to friends.  I have made it quite clear to my friends that we’re running afoul of the law, but… the sheer quantity and (frankly) tastiness of the cheeses and kefir and yogurt have been their own kind of advertisement.  You have it at my house, you want it, end of story.  With hope, Michigan will come around and write a law stating that raw milk products can be sold (outside a herd share agreement, that is).

Money only seems to work with those with nothing to trade

I have been quite paranoid too about this influx of cash.  Pin money, egg money, funny money…  Yes it sits in a jar.  Yes my accountant knows about it.  I withdraw cash for things like new animals or delivery of hay or straw…and I leave a tally of what is taken out.  In general the goat has paid for herself and (at this point) 75% of her care.  Give me another two months and she’s a free animal.  The cheese/cultured milk products have paid for the capital outlay of the cheese making equipment and the cultures.  And the products of purchasing a pregnant goat: I’ve made a very even trade of three wethers (neutered baby boy goats) for one doeling…our new girl, Cricket.

Standing partially still for a change

This is a more typical picture

The egg chickens, by comparison, have never paid for themselves.  (The meat birds are not sold; we consume all of them ourselves…this is far cheaper than purchasing meat chickens of similar quality.)  I would expect the turkey I am raising for a friend to pay for himself.  And like the bunnies, the 14 surviving turkey poults were all sold or traded.

So I am now into farm barter.  I got into a heated discussion recently with the whole idea of barter with a friend of mine.  Aren’t you cheating the government?  he contended.  The sale of, say, a goat is not taxed or frankly worried about by the state of Michigan, I replied; it’s the same as if I sold an ATV or a lawn tractor that I had.  I suppose it is considered on-farm income, but then, I don’t list “farm” anywhere on my taxes.  But goodness if you think about what we’ve sunk into the living-on-a-farm project…we’re in no way being compensated by any government for living the life that we do.  I told him it’s a false way of thinking of things.  Indeed, I told him, I don’t give my architectural services away for free:  if I do volunteer, I actually fill out a form saying so.  So farming is not a professional goal of mine.  That money has entered into the equation is…not something that makes me entirely comfortable.  It helps the bottom line, surely, and helps my husband come along for the ride but…it was not a goal.

It’s odd.  I get requests from friends asking, basically, how much more work would it really be for you to bust up another half acre and supply them with vegetables year-round too?  It appears the one CSA that supplies our town friends with victuals has come waaaay down in quantity/quality (and I have seen it and agree).  They like what we do here and buy my $5/gal. bags of salad.  If I look at things THAT way, the greenhouses have paid for themselves many times over.

I am in no way saying we’re a model for a way to earn a living.  But in this post I am saying that with some little effort greater than what you already produce, you might be able to produce for other households too.   I think that without even the monetary reward you can feel good enough to grow and to make things for others:  talk about appreciation!  And even if money doesn’t change hands (it often does not with mine), you may be able to be recompensed with services.  I traded four turkeys for horseback riding lessons for the girl.  That’s so much more enjoyable than money in a quart jar.

Bell and Cricket out doing what they do as the resident Poison Ivy and Bramble Eradication Crew.  Cricket was born toward the end of April, and Bell is on the big side for an American Alpine.  Bell’s coloring is called sundgau and Cricket’s chamoisee.

On milk season

Cheese:  Milk’s leap toward immortality  –Clifton Fadiman

Post-milking, pre-gardening, wake-up-and-take-the-edge-off early breakfast:  coffee and camembert on a toasted oatmeal/flaxseed sourdough ciabatta

I have detected a pattern with every new project I take on:  I go through a period of anticipatory excitement, then of intense freak-out, then I relax somewhat, and then I wonder what I did before said project entered my life.

The most obvious project in my life that follows this pattern–and one that would be familiar to many of you–is parenthood.  Owning a milking animal is neither as hard nor as long-term, but indeed, I went through these exact same steps.  I’m happy to let you know I am in the “what did I do (with all my time, mainly) before I had a goat?”  Freak-out moments aside, it’s been a fun endeavor.

It’s true what they say about dairy folk.  We are early to bed and early to rise…the first time in my life that I have ever been so inclined.  And I get up excited and fresh and ready to start the day!  Highly annoying, it’s true; luckily, I wake up a good two hours before anyone else does so I don’t have anyone to offend.  But a part of every one of my days is devoted to milk and its management.

Lovely fluff in the strainer: our dog is the lucky recipient of the foam

Making cheese has been a huge part of the “fun” of this new project.  I make cheese about three days* a week.  I devote one day of  these three to take on one new aged and/or procedurally difficult cheese.  The other two days’ cheesemaking are usually devoted to making feta (our daughter is a Feta Fool) or to the easy-peasy kinds like a chevre, an unaged pressed cheese, or ricotta or paneer/queso fresco. Ricotta and paneer and queso fresco aren’t technically cheeses** (did you know that?) but still, that’s what I make. And I make a weekly rotation of buttermilk and yogurt and sour cream…the first two can also be used as cultures for the above cheeses and the last one is because I selfishly love sour cream. And what with all the eggs around here, ice cream, custards, puddings are happening.  Let’s just say I am not getting thinner with my new hobby.

Haloumi atop salt at left and feta at right:  time these things well, and you’ll have a new cheese per week

Most cheeses excepting the fresh kinds require a long aging process. In other words, for many of them, it will be months (months!!) before one can even taste them. Talk about slow food! Some are much slower than others. Parmesan will take a year. Blue cheese, up to a year. Cheddar, brick, and colby, six months plus. Brie and Camembert, six weeks. Feta, a month. This is not a hobby for those bent on instant gratification.  Gratification, though, why yes.

Our goat, however:  Having triplets and then producing all this wonderful white stuff has taken quite a lot out of her.  I do remember this with my own breast-feeding days:  I could eat for three, and often did, yet the pounds kept coming off…let’s just say that’s not a good thing if you’re a skinny goat.  So I am slowly stepping back the milking to once a day.  This is a win-win:  she’s not stressed and can put the weight back on, I am not stressed and I’ve got more time to weed those gardens.  The milk quantity should reduce further too.  At the top, I was getting almost two gallons a day.  I would be quite happy with 3/4 of a gallon.  Considering that she potentially can be milked for a year and a half or longer, that’s still a lot of milk.  Lucky us.

*Not all day obviously.  The process starts with the morning’s milk and usually ends around dinnertime, say, for a chevre.  They’re pressed or hung to dry.  Some are heated somewhere in there; some are inoculated with other molds and good beasties, some require lots more of your time and some require nearly none.  It’s a big world, cheese.

**Cheese snobs tend to categorize according to technique. It’s a cheese if the milk has been subjected to an enzymatic action and/or lactic acid fermentation; it’s not if it’s made by simply acidifying (via vinegar or lemon juice) the milk as these three are. The most common enzymatic action used to make cheese is by using rennet, a derivative found in one of the four stomachs of nursing ruminants (calves, kids or lambs) which contains the enzyme protease that helps a nursling break down and digest milk solids.  There are other non-stomach rennets out there, some derived from plants or molds with coagulant properties.  There’s even a genetically engineered rennet available.  Me, I use both vegetative and stomach-based rennets, both work, but there’s a taste difference in some cheesses.  And lactic acid fermentation:  quickly, this is the aging process all milk and milk products and even pickles and kimchi and sauerkraut undergo with time.

Blue cheese, molding up nicely

On a quick, cheesy opportunity

Pizza with goat cheese, green garlic coins, herbs and asparagus

Today’s Friday, one of my work-at-the-office days, but we’ll still manage to eat dinner at the usual time.  How do I do this?  While making toast this morning, my daughter and I mixed up pizza dough to rise all day is how.  In other words, “forethought.”

I made two batches of pressed cheese this week. What the heck is that?  It’s like chevre with more rennet and all the liquid squeezed out.  Think “cheese curd squeak” with a mild, firm, unaged cheese, and you’re almost there.  The first batch was herb-laden (chives, garlic, marjoram, thyme) and the second plain (just salt).  Half of this latter batch went to school with my daughter for her to share with her class in the look-what-we-can-do category of school eats…it was mostly a hit.  It’s goat’s milk cheese, after all, and thus it’s different than the bovine variety; I don’t expect children raised on the commercial kind to leap quickly into the homemade camp.  But the bowl came home empty, so what do I know.

The other half melts well on the home-made pizza!  I shredded it on my daughter’s pizza and left it chunky on mine.  Asparagus, green garlic, some pepper…what could be better.  (Oh yeah:  outdoor masonry-oven pizza would be better.   (Soon.))

Feta’s next!

On hard cheeses

Just because I am brave, I decided to make a pressed, aged cheese for my third attempt at home cheese making.

I had help with the selection, though.  When asked, my daughter said “Either feta or cheddah,” laughing.  I told her the cheddar had “delayed gratification” written all over it, as it should age at least 4 weeks before cutting into it.  And I chose to make cheddar because, unlike feta, I had all necessary ingredients.

A pressed cheese requires a press, of course.  I have a somewhat thrown-together setup made mostly with things found around the house, including weights from Tom’s fitness area and some pans from the kitchen.  The mold itself is entirely easy to make at home except for the small fact that PVC pipe (which is what mine is made from) is sold in 10′ lengths and there is no way I would ever need that much.  Of course you can use anything else, too:  an empty BPA-free can, say, with both ends cut out.  The follower is simply a piece of maple 1x wood cut to fit inside the pipe.  (I purchased both this press and a larger one from Caprine Supply as even I am known to throw the rare dollar at convenience.)  And I punched a pie tin (downward, no sharp ends inside) to drain the resultant whey.  There’s another pie tin below it that holds the punched tin aloft by four mason jar rings.

I told you it looks thrown together:  the drainage system, left, and the final pressing, right, w/ 30 lbs. in the pot.  That’s another mason jar acting as a plunger.  The white thing is the mold, and you can’t see the follower, and yes, those are washcloths soaking up the resultant whey.

You won’t need the jar rings after the first pressing.  Towels will do.  And:  anything you can do to stabilize the weights is helpful.  I did the first pressings on the floor in case the darned thing wanted to tip over (and it did) but…now that we’re on the last pressing the weights are safe in their pot atop the counter.

This cheese did take a good part of my day to make, but it was more busy work (checking temperatures, etc.) than active work.  It gets pressed under different weights for a total of 28 hours, then it gets to dry (covering the outside with salt), then waxed, then aged in the cellar.  Sounds like a lot of work but…good things take time.

On first cheeses

Well, my first cheesemaking experiment with home-grown milk was successful.

I started simple.  At my first tasting of it (a chevre, which is a fresh “farmhouse” style cheese) I was so very surprised how normal it tasted.  Hey, this tastes like goat cheese!  I guess I can say I was surprised at my reaction, as, well, it was a goat I got the milk from and everything.  But home gardeners know well this shift in expectation that I was anticipating:  the homegrown is so much different than the stuff you buy at the store, shipped from who knows where.  Vive la difference! I anticipated this cheese to taste wildly different, too.

Granted, my benchmark wasn’t the carageenan-thickened grocery store gunk but a local cheese purveyor’s chevre:  her stuff is awesome.  When the timing is right, she tops her cheese with fennel pollen and some lavender buds, ya-yum.

chevre with finely minced chives, marjoram, parsley and thyme; I also made straight ricotta from the whey and my cider vinegar

But of course the engineer in me wants to fiddle with the process.  Okay, cheesemakers out there:  let’s come up with edible cheesecloth.  My goodness how much of that good cheese gets stuck to the cloth!  I used butter muslin and then a synthetic muslin on the ricotta, both stuck after dripping dry for nearly 24 hours.  Sigh.  Any takers?

On home-grown hooch

Yard weeds?  I say “revenge.”

My husband is the kind of neat freak who, when not otherwise occupied, loves to do things like change the furniture arrangements.  (Can you tell I hate having furniture moved.)  He’s also one to neaten cabinets and go through closets and tidy books on their shelves.  Hey: I am all for clean, but please leave my pantry and kitchen alone!  And mostly he listens, but sometimes he can’t help himself.  He tidied my pantry this week and I am truly going mad trying to find things.

(Please, someone send him a commission soon so he gets out of my hair.)

So it’s with a little hidden mirth that I know I am driving him bonkers by having two types of cheese starter and one batch of cheese doing their microbial thing on the kitchen counter.  And next to the cheese stuff is a bowl of a new sourdough starter.  Oh, and there’s the yogurt brewing in its cooler on the floor, and the kombucha perched on the butcher block:  say “SCOBY” and just watch him squirm!

But my own version of marital spat?  Stinky dandelions steeping in the pantry!  It’s for my first batch of dandelion wine.  muahhahah!

The pots are out! Is it canning season already?

Actually, no.  What’s begun?  Cheesemaking Season!

bubble hiss bubble hiss

But what Cheesemaking Season requires of me first is a whole bunch of culture-making.  Thus, Monday night saw many pots on the boil, some to make buttermilk, some to make fresh starter, some to make thermophilic starter*. Oh, and one held the milk for the week’s yogurt, too.  I wonder how I thought those two gallons of milk would be all for me?  They’re not!  It’s all for The Greater Cheesemaking Cause.

I am really glad the girl decided that tonight, of all nights, she’d go to bed early.  I love having her around but multitasking isn’t something I do well if I am attempting something new.  And new-to-me things like a whole mess of cheese prep means I am all tense between the shoulderblades, fussing around, clucking like a mother hen as to is this right?  did I do this right? when my normal modus operandi is a lot more…chill.  I hate that tight feeling!  Luckily, the gods of yeast clued our ancestors in to create a cure:  it’s called a glass of wine.  I honor their creation by taking a sip and I think, well, centuries of cheesemakers’ kitchens weren’t as clean as mine, what’s my worry?

With luck this process will go more smoothly than my fussing around tonight.

I do have a lot of dairy goodness ahead of me, though.  Getting used to the new routine will be interesting.  And then there’s goat’s milk soap, kefir, etc. etc. to make…

*why bother with all the starters?  Well, it bugs me to no end, the idea that I have to be beholden to some company or another to supply me the goods to actually make something.  Can’t I d.i.y.?  And what would Ma Ingalls do?  Indeed.  It just takes planning and prep work, like tonight.  And buying someone’s starters, then multiplying them for future use.  Considering this is all a grand experiment, I would rather go through the process and THEN tell you how successful it all is.  That’s only fair; no sense your repeating my mistakes, no?

On the hidden costs of cheesemaking

Last week’s (top) and this week’s yogurt made from our milk share

Over the years my husband and I have had a bit of a tussle over finances.  This of course is the typical marital story.  Defining our particular story is my yen to DIY, and almost every little project I undertake, financially, has a big start-up cost.  It has a start-up cost (mainly in materials) that almost always requires no huge outlay of later cash…no bubble, as it were; only maintenance money.  So I have been able to persuade him that my *needs* are, well, inexpensive if you amortize!  At this point he trusts me.

The things I am thinking of are the chicken coop, the chicken tractor, the greenhouses, the goat(s), the (so far unfinished) masonry oven.  Smaller things likewise can be considered:  the pressure canner, the grain mill, the chest freezers, the tiller.  The orchard.  Raised beds for the gardens.  All of them have paid for themselves or will do so within the first year or so of owning them.  And any of my kookier ideas also have an out, financially:  2010, to name one example, will be the first year I don’t have to order chicks because we have roosters and a tom turkey, thus, self-sufficiency in egg and meat birds.

But cheesemaking.  I mentioned a while back how I found life as a single vegetarian to be much less expensive than omnivory…mainly because I almost never bought cheese!  I adore cheese, but it was rare that I would shell out for it, despite my love of the stuff…good butter being the one exception.  NOW there’s a goat in the shed, and she’s bagging up quite nicely, and within about a month I will don the bonnet of Resident Milkmaid.  And fresh milk means cheese.  And homemade cheese means…damn, another start-up cost!

A few years back when the homemade cheese bug bit me, I purchased a starter kit from Hoegger Goat Supply.  It’s served me nicely and I haven’t gone back to that well, but then again, I didn’t try to make hard cheeses or aged cheeses.  Now, though, now I have printed out little plans for my husband to build me a cheese press (he likes to feel handy) and now I have finally purchased and read Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making.  And I am discovering that that woman is a pusher.  Seriously:  is she any different than the guy on the corner who’s giving you a little taste for free so you can keep coming back to feed your habit?  I read the recipes and I think:  hmmm, thermophilic culture, I need that; how about a bag of penicillium candidum, and might as well get a bag of p. roquefortii while I am at it.  And then, well, use it up and keep coming back for more.  Yogurt sure doesn’t have this problem:  make it once, always have it (like sourdough).

Man!  What would Ma Ingalls do?  She’d culture her own.  Something else to figure out, I guess…stay tuned.