In the Living Kitchen

Musings, memories, meals in the making.


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Ouch…Again

Holy smokes, my life it out of wack!  I keep saying out loud “everything that can go wrong is going wrong.”  Seriously.  And I think I just might even be jinxing myself even further by stating this new saying over and over again.  I won’t go into all the gritty details (hint: its mostly farm related) but I will say that I have injured my knee, my left thumb and and left wrist.  Then yesterday I stabbed a toe on my right foot, through my shoes, with a pitch fork.  Seriously, I think there is something wrong with me, I am not quite sure if it is emotional, karmic, dietary or what.  Someone said to me today, “This is a sign that you need to slow down…but you can’t right now.”  Nope, certainly not, but this new found clumsiness just might do me in if I don’t reign it in fast.

Which reminds me, I am beginning to wonder if I just might start my own health care co-op.  Probably not, but it sure would be nice.  A group plan run collectively by like minded individuals.  What the heart of health care should be…I would really like my very own specialist, you know, liberal-hippie-farmer-style–someone who can use their expertise in healing herbs, remedies and food to guide me a bit when I am feeling out of wack.  And if there were ever something really wrong, well, they could help guide me through that too.  So, who is this specialist and when I am forced to purchase a health care plan, will they be on the list?  Just some considerations I have been having quite a bit.

In good news, spring is here.  When I look out at the gorgeous views around here my heart fills with warmth and gladness.  I am making a spring greens ferment–a sort of wild kimchi–and I will certainly report when it’s done.   This year I discovered garlic mustard, a petite wild brassica that has garlic notes to start followed by a strong, bitter flavor.  It will be the main ingredient.

The fermenting season has definitely begun.  It’s time for kombucha drinking, which means mad kombucha brewing (beware the teeny fruit fly infestations…).  I am starting to make yogurt again, and with the warm weather comes the desire to use the outdoor oven at the farm, which means I have got to keep my sourdough starter fresh and fed every week.  With all this weekly fermenting,  am actually going to make a fermenting schedule.  I have decided that fermented foods are important enough to my well-being that they deserve top priority.  Last summer, I often put off my fermenting projects at the end of the day, only to regret it later. Perhaps for all the readers out there who might not understand this love of mine for fermented foods, I will make an effort to expound upon the benefits of these foods when I get around to writing about them.

On the writing topic, I started another blog a couple of months ago for the CSA.  It’s funny, having the new blog has made me feel more open in this one.  Come June, the CSA blog will start filling up with recipes and interesting farm news.


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Watercress and Quinoa Salad

It has been hot, and I mean hot.  Last summer it was 85 degrees out for like, a week.  This spring, we’ve already had two 85 degree days and counting.  Plus, I have newly damaged, red skin and a true farmer’s tan.  My body is positively flummoxed.  I should be picking arugula and radishes and cucumbers and fresh herbs (and I won’t mention the one veggie I am hoping has a stellar year this year) and eating them at 85 degrees, no?  No.  I’ve got a ton of itty seedlings, seeds, and last year’s potatoes.  (After all, our frost-free date isn’t until May 15!)  My body is in shock.  To top it off, this in-need-of-vegetable-body-shock caused me to commit the sin of all my sins, supermarket produce.  Yes, that’s right, I bought fossil fuel produce, shipped from who knows where.   I hate to break it to everyone out there, but it certainly is not as wonderful as home-grown produce by a million miles.  Seriously, buy local, in season produce this summer or grow your own.  Do it for selfish reasons first, think about the wholesome ones later.  You won’t regret it.

I was riding home for my lunch break the other day, actually dreading making lunch for all the reasons above, when I remembered the watercress patch in the stream beside our apartment.  So excited was I that I leaped off my bike, ran down the steep mucky slope, submerged my sneaker clad feet in water and rushed to the patch.  Lo and behold, the enormous patch had a wonderful salad sized handful of just big enough watercress for my greedy little hands to pick.  I’ve been eating some everyday since.  It’s amazing what one vegetable can do.

I have no pictures to share, but maybe will post some soon, just in case some readers out there have unidentified watercress patches of their own to discover and enjoy.

Watercress and Quinoa Salad

I made this for Sam and myself the other day and couldn’t even focus on our non-food conversation.  It’s that good.

Serves 2

2 cups cooked quinoa

2-4 generous handfuls watercress, roughly stemmed

2 TBS salt-brine capers

1/2 ripe avocado

sprinkling of chopped scallions, green onions, or chives (also all in season!!!)

Mustard Vinaigrette (recipe to follow)

Mix the first 3 ingredients together with Mustard Vinaigrette.  Divide between two plates, serve with diced avocado and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.

Mustard Vinaigrette

1-2 tsp agave nectar, maple syrup or honey

1 TBS fine Dijon mustard

juice of 1 lemon

splash of white wine vinegar

3-4 TBS extra virgin olive oil

pinch or two dill, dried or fresh (We have our own home-dried dill, which is great, but I hear that store bought dried dill usually lacks flavor.)

fresh milled pepper

You can just mix it all up, but if you want to be fancy, you can easily emulsify it: mix the agave nectar, oil and mustard together first until well blended, then add the lemon, vinegar and dill.  (All dressing made with a liquid sweetener, oil and acid can be made this way and they will not separate.)


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Beginner’s Bread

I am currently on day 5 of a 21 day detox.  Can you guess one of the foods I have chosen not to eat for three+ weeks?  Bread, lovely bread.  (I haven’t given up carbohydrates though!  Make no mistake about that!)  So, while I am in the midst of detoxing my entire life, I thought I could unload this post, which I started weeks ago after I got my hands on a much much appreciated sourdough starter from a friend.

I love reading cookbooks, so I know that sourdough bread is not seen in the real world as the easiest bread ever.  There are actual, conflicting schools of thought on the subject of making the “perfect loaf” of sourdough bread.  Not to mention the insanely precise bread baking books, that insist everyone weigh every ingredient and follow their instructions TO THE LETTER.

Well, let me just say that the first wild yeast bread was probably an accident, so how hard can it be?  Besides, precision is meaningless to the inexperienced baker who has never felt a good dough in their hands, or seen what nicely risen dough looks like.  Just so you know, all those inexperienced bakers out there, sourdough bread is much easier to make than commercial yeast bread.  Yes I said it!  Much easier, and much tastier.

Sourdough cultures are natural yeast and bacterial colonies that thrive in a wet flour mixture.  As long as they are treated right these colonies can live hundreds of years.  Every starter has its own unique characteristics that show themselves in the flavor, texture and crumb of the bread.

So why doesn’t everyone make sourdough bread?   Despite the ease of making bread with a sourdough culture, the time factor is a major issue.  For example, when I make sourdough bread, I schedule my life around the dough’s needs for three days.  It’s like tending to children, pets, or any other living organism.  Bad things could happen if the dough is left unattended.  Well, one bad thing, over-proofing.

I have a very simple method for making a very splendid bread.  This method is not scientific, it’s not really detailed, and it doesn’t even explain all the know-how that I actually do know-how.  (Because in reality, I think that there is real value in precision.  Weighing ingredients in bread making is actually extremely important, but we all have to start somewhere, right?)

I use a liquid starter.  A liquid starter has a pretty much equal ratio of flour to water.  Some people prefer a stiff starter, which is more like bread dough in consistency.

Here is my beginner’s method for sourdough bread.  This is my version of pecan raisin bread.  There’s nothing in it but flour, water, salt, starter, pecans and raisins.  The water that is used to soak the raisins is also used as the water in the dough.  This gives the bread a wonderful tan color and also adds a sweet tang that compliments the sourdough flavor.

It has taken me a while to truly appreciate simple recipes, but this one makes it easy.  A truly decadent, simple bread.

Tools:

A standing mixer (always optional when making bread); baking stone; baking sheet; parchment paper; spray bottle; cloth, or banneton or colander lined with a floured cloth

Ingredients:

1 scant cup “proofed” liquid starter (see below)

3 1/2 cups flour (2 1/2 cups bread flour, 1 cup whole wheat)

1-1 1/3 cups water

2 tsp sea salt

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped, toasted pecans

Begin “proofing” the starter 6-8 hour before mixing the dough:

Start with the sourdough culture.  Take it from the refrigerator, or where ever it is, and “proof” it.  Mix 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water into about 1 cup of starter.  When the starter has risen and is bubbly and foamy on top, about 6-8 hours later, it is ready to be mixed into the dough.  Remove one cup for the dough and set aside.  Place the remainder in a clean container and refrigerate.  This is the starter for future use.

6-8 hour prior to mixing the dough soak the raisins in hot water.  The soaking water will be used as the liquid in the dough as well.

Mix the dough:

Drain the raisins, reserving the liquid.  Place the liquid in a measuring cup.  If it measures less than 1 cup, add a sufficient amount of water to equal 1 cup.

In the bowl of a standing mixer (or a food processor fitted with a dough blade) measure the flour.  Add the salt, starter and most of the 1 cup of water.  Stir with a wooden spoon.  If it is dry or has lots of flour that cannot mix in, gradually add more water, 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time until the dough is hydrated.  Turn the mixer on low for about 1 minute, then increase the speed to medium for five to ten minutes.  The dough should come together, be wet but not too sticky, and mix quite easily.  It should stick to the sides of the bowl a bit at first, yet hold together and come off the sides of the bowl as the mixer turns. (Side note: You can see the strands of gluten forming too.  They are visible as the dough is moving through the mixer, as it sticks and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.)

When the dough has been adequately mixed, it should be soft and smooth and not too sticky.  You should be able to handle it easily with a light dusting of flour.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface.  Form it into a rectangle.  Sprinkle the raisins and pecans on top.

Fold the edges on one side to a point and fold the dough over onto itself, taking care not to lose many raisins or pecans.  Continue to work the dough until it begins to stick to itself.  (The moist raisins will make keep the dough from sticking to itself, just work with it and it will come together.)  Once the dough has come together, shape it into a ball and place it into an oiled bowl to rise.  Cover with a damp cloth and set in a warm spot.

Let the dough rise for 6-8 hours, until doubled.

Shape the dough and let it rise. Once the dough has doubled, turn it onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into two loaves.  Split the dough in half.  Working with one piece at a time, form the dough into a rectangle, fold the corners like an envelope, and roll the dough tightly on itself, sealing the seam at the bottom with your fingertips.  Place the shaped loaves in a place to rise* for 3-5 hours.

*Okay, there are some pretty great things you can buy to let your shaped dough rise in. I highly recommend most of them, but don't own any of them (yet). So I improvise with a seriously well floured, heavy cotton cloth, with objects at the ends to allow the dough to hold its nice shape.

Towards the end of the rising period, about one-hour before baking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a baking stone situated on the bottom rack.

Once the it has almost doubled, slash the dough with a sharp knife or razor blade down the center.  Transfer the loaves to a baking sheet lined with a mat or a piece of parchment paper.  Place in the oven, spritz water into the oven several times, and close the door.  Bake at 450 for 5 minutes, then turn the heat down to 400.  Bake for about 25 more minutes, spraying with water one or two times if you feel like it.

When the loaves are brown, crusty and dark all over, they are most likely done.  You can also tap the bottom of the dough (Pick it up with an oven mitt!), if it sounds hollow, it is done.

Now for the hardest part.  Let the bread cool completely before slicing.

Some notes:

The biggest problem area is over-proofing the dough.  That’s when the dough rises for too long or has been placed in a spot that is too warm and thus makes the yeast go crazy.  When dough has over-proofed, it not only has too much air in it but is also very difficult to handle. It will absolutely deflate when placed in the oven, which is not a desirable effect to say the least.  I always just reshape the dough and see if it has enough umph to rise again.

The other issue is getting the dough into the oven.  Even if the dough has not over-proofed, it can still deflate, so take care when placing the finished dough into the oven and wait for my next bread post that will address some of the issues with a more structured approach.


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Heating Things Up

The hot, fresh compost in one of the walls of the greenhouse. Notice the bed in the center of the greenhouse on the right. Up till now, it has had kale, swiss chard and other greens growing all winter long, without any heat except that from the sun.

A couple of weeks ago, we moved piping hot compost into the greenhouse.  The greenhouse at the Four Winds Farm is not heated with electricity or fossil fuels.  In February of each year, two dump truck loads of unfinished compost are moved into one of the brick walls of the greenhouse.  The brick walls are covered with wooden palates and become the benches that the seedlings live on until they are transferred outside in May.  The micro-organisms present in the composting mass produce heat as they digest organic matter.  In the Spring, as the greenhouse fills with temperature sensitive seedlings, the composting process produces enough heat the keep the greenhouse at ideal seed starting and seedling growing temperatures.  In addition, the compost moved in from the previous year is screened into a fine soil and used for all our potting needs, from vegetable starts to seedlings for the annual Four Winds Farm Seedling Sale.

A bin of screened, finished compost.  The screen (leaning, on right) fits on top of the portable bin.  The finished compost is piled on top of the screen, then, by hand, is pushed through by simply rubbing the compost back and forth over the screen.

A bin of screened, finished compost. The compost is screened by hand with the screen (leaning against the wall) when it is fitted on top of the portable bin.

The raw materials for the compost are a mixture of organic matter and animal manure.  The bulk of the compost comes from a nearby horse farm.  Horse farms regularly clean out the stalls for the horses, leaving them with a mass of bedding filled with manure and urine.  The piles of horse bedding are considered a water pollutant, and therefore the the horse farms are required to remove them from the premises.  Instead of shipping them off to a landfill, many farms in our area pick up loads of this waste material and turn it into a valuable resource.  After a year of composting, the horse bedding turns into a rich source of nutrients for plants.  Animal manure lets off ammonia during the compost process, which is actually toxic to plants in an enclosed area.  This issue is easily remedied in the greenhouse by adding a thick layer of year old, finished compost to the surface, which acts as a filter for the sensitive seedlings.

Of course, forgoing fossil fuels to heat the greenhouse takes a lot of man power.  We moved the compost into the greenhouse with pitchforks and wheelbarrows.  For me, this work is like the annual rite of passage into the growing season.  We all put our winter selves into a day of tough work, which inspires us for the work load ahead.


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The Onions Have Sprouted

Glorious sprouted onion seeds.  I think I actually put too many seeds in each row.  Oh well, live and learn.

Here are the tiny celeriac seeds.  So tiny!  2,500 seeds in less than a tablespoon!

We finally moved the manure into the greenhouse, so its time start the temperature sensitive seeds.  More on that later.  For now, here is some more seed starting porn.

They look bare, but there's a lot of life going on in there.

Of course, no greenhouse experience would be complete without some instant gratification.  Soon-to-be-pea-shoots (above) and radish sprouts (below) for fresh eating.


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All About the Kombucha

The Masked Fermenter

This is for all the kombucha lovers out there.  The recipe is at the end of the post.

The scenery out the window is a solid white block.  After months of a relatively mild, sunny winter, February is bringing in the snow.  I might be in the minority here (big surprise) but I am thankful to have snow.  I feel in my gut that something is awry when it doesn’t snow in the winter, or when it is rains all summer log and never gets above 80 degrees.  Even though I feel trapped in my own home today due to the snow, am scared to drive due to the snow, and will likely take a nap and eat too much homemade bread with homemade jam due to the snow, I feel at ease.

What better task to give myself on a snow day than making kombucha?  Actually, making kombucha is not a time consuming project, however, it is the most interesting thing I will do today.  Kombucha is, for some, an acquired taste.  As for me, I have always liked it.  I did drink vinegar as a child, so I suppose it is no surprise.  (I have always enjoyed acidic foods, much to the chagrin of my tongue.)  I finally received a kombucha mother last month after the one I had was forgotten in the refrigerator.  Instead of buying ridiculously expensive kombucha from the store, I can now make my own at a fraction of the cost.

Kombucha is a fermented food.  Sugars are digested by a yeast and bacterial colony known as the kombucha mother.  When I first got my hands on a mother, I wanted to make the delicious fruity drinks that I bought at the store, so my kombucha was always quite experimental.  I would make lightly sweetened fruit beverages and put the mother in them.  I have heard that flavors can inhibit the mother and they actually prefer a much more consistent environment.  This time around, I am actually making kombucha “by the book” by adding all flavoring after the kombucha has finished the fermentation process.

Internet searches bring up the controversy surrounding the consumption of kombucha.  The one issue I take seriously is the lead poisoning issue caused by making kombucha in old earthen ware crocks.  Many old crocks contain lead in the glaze and acidic kombucha corrodes the glaze, allowing the lead to leach into the drink.  As for the health benefits, well, I have no idea what are true as far as cancer, weight loss and so forth.  Kombucha contains B vitamins, live yeast and bacteria and other acids that supposedly boost the immune system and help out the digestive system.  Many people drink kombucha as an energy drink because it is full of vitamins and minerals, and caffeine from the tea.  I drink more kombucha in the summer, when it ferments faster.  This is also the time when I eat lots of raw, fresh vegetables, am constantly working outside, do yoga three times a week and am pretty darn happy.  Therefore, I am thinner, more alert, have lots of energy, and so forth.  I am a bit hesitant to attribute all the benefits I feel in the summer to kombucha alone.  But I do love it on a hot summer day during my lunch break.

I make kombucha from sugar and tea.  For a while I was making it from honey, because I can purchase responsibly and locally produced honey.  However, having read that the kombucha mother needs consistency in order to thrive, and actually thrives better in a sugar sweetened tea over a honey sweetened tea, I will attempt to ween one of my mothers on honey slowly, by using an ever-increasing ratio on honey to sugar, and see how tastes along the way.

I make the strong tea in a one quart ball jar, add the sugar to the hot tea and dilute it with 3 quarts of water. The tea is then the perfect temperature for the kombucha mother.

Since the kombucha will produce a new, fresh colony with each fermentation, kombucha brewers are usually pretty generous with their extra mothers.  Every kombucha mother I have acquired has been given to me by an acquaintance.

The "old mother" on the left, the bright, "new mother" on the right. I compost the old mother and use the new mother, if I have no one to give one to.

Kombucha

This method makes one quart of strong sweet tea diluted with 3 quarts of cold water.  This ensures that the temperature of the tea is cool enough for the kombucha mother.  Do not place the kombucha mother into hot water.  The ideal temperature for kombucha is 75-80 degrees.  Excessive heat will kill the colony.

Makes about 1 gallon.

You will need:

1-2 gallon capacity glass container with a large opening or lead free crock (do not use metal)

1 strainer

bottles with air-tight lids (for the finished kombucha)

2 TBS loose tea, I use 1 TBS Assam black tea, 1 TBS Sencha green tea

1 cup (fair-trade, organic, vegan) sugar

1 kombucha mother plus 1/2 cup finished kombucha

Optional: juice, I enjoy juiced ginger

Directions:

Brew loose tea in one quart of boiling hot water for 5-10 minutes.  Strain.  Add sugar and stir into the hot tea until dissolved.  Place sweet tea into the brew container and add 3-4 quarts of water.  Place the kombucha mother in the sweet tea and cover tightly with several layers of cheesecloth or a towel.  Let it ferment for several days before tasting it.  The ideal fermenting temperature is 75-80 degrees.  In this temperature range, the kombucha will take 10-14 days to ferment the sugars in the tea.  In the winter, since it is cooler, the kombucha takes much longer, about 3 weeks.  Taste the kombucha.  if it is still very sweet, it is not done.  When the kombucha is at the end of the process, it will taste acidic and slightly sweet.  If you enjoy carbonated kombucha, you may strain the kombucha and place it in a jars fitted with air-tight lids, along with juice, if using.  Leave the jars at room temperature for a few more days and then place them in the refrigerator until ready to drink.  Once the jar is opened, the kombucha will start to lose its carbonation.

To keep the mother: The kombucha mother needs to have access to unfermented sugars at all times.  Either store it in some of the slightly sweet kombucha in the refrigerator until the next batch, or start the next batch immediately.


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A New Season Begins

A bin of screened finished compost. The screen is leaning against the side of the greenhouse.

Wednesday marked the first official day of farm work for the Second Wind CSA in 2010.  We have long passed the half-way point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.  This means the days are rapidly getting longer (4 extra minutes of daylight yesterday!).  These conditions signify the season of starting seeds.

The first seeds to start in the farming season are always onions.  “Starting seeds” refers to the process of putting the seeds in to a growing medium, watering them, and placing them into a heated area where the seeds will germinate.  At the Four Winds Farm, we use homemade potting soil, which consists of screened compost, peat moss and soil amendments.  (The compost is actually screened from the greenhouse itself.  The greenhouse at the Four Winds Farm is heated during March and April from the heat produced by the composting process, but more on that next week when we actually move a hot, composting mass into the greenhouse.)  The potting soil is placed into “flats” and the seeds are placed in thin rows and covered with the soil.  The seeds are watered, left to drain and then placed in the refridga-germinater (see below) to germinate.  Once the seeds start to sprout, we place the flats in the unheated greenhouse.  The onions will grow in the flats until April, when it is time to transplant them outside.

The refriga-germinater filled with flats of onions seeds. The refriga-germinater is simply an old refrigerator with a light that is controlled by a thermostat. The light produces enough heat to keep the closed space at the perfect temperature for germinating seeds.

Onions  are the first vegetable seeds we start because they require very particular temperatures and day lengths in order to grow good size bulbs.  In the north, we grow long day onions because we have much longer days in the summer than in the warm south.  Long-day onions put on green growth, or grow tops, in the beginning of the season (April and May) when the weather is mild.  They start to increase bulb size when the day lengths are very long, between 14-16 hours.  A July harvest is ideal.  The onions will stop putting on mass as the days start to shorten.  A July harvest also means we have plenty of time to plant a different fall crop where the onions once were.

Other seeds are started based on the last frost date for our region.  Our frost date is usually around May 15, which means we can expect the last Spring frost around that day.