Category Archives: fermentation

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!