Saturday, March 22, 2008

I have been remiss again. Some updates:

Yesterday I found a whole foods store in Geneva, 45 minutes away which sells bulk items-dried beans, granola, dried fruits, teas, spices, etc. I stocked up while I was there, and will now make a point to shop there whenever visiting my friend who lives in Syracuse. I have to drive right by the store anyways to get there, so it will not even be out of the way. They have paper bags to put the food in, and pack in paper. I will bring my own bags next time-I didn't expect to find it so I was unprepared.

We bought a smoker to do the hams and bacon. The hams turned out awesome, we have not tried the bacon yet. The smoker also will do dehydrating, so we can do jerky, dried fruit, tomatoes, etc. Yum yum! I am having a hard time finding non-plastic wrapping material. The butcher paper I bought is plastic coated and cannot be reused. I am wondering if buying plastic bags and reusing them would be better. I will have to do some research. Since the goal is to exclude air and moisture, I wonder if waxed muslin would work? I could use honey bee wax. People have been keeping meat for thousands of years before plastic, there has to be a way.

I tried mozzarella again. It came out more like mozzarella than the last attempt, but still did not stretch. Turns out the milk I am using must be ultra-pasteurized, so I have a line on a farm which sells raw organic milk. I will pick some up next week and try again. I did make lasagna out of the ricotta I made last time, the mozzarella I made this time, sauce from my tomatoes last summer and eggs from my own chickens. It was so good we ate almost the whole pan in one sitting! My husband complained jokingly that I did not make the noodles from scratch-next time I said. Funny, he laughs at me wanting to make everything from scratch but sure likes the results.

I started onion seeds this week. Next week I will start the Solenaceae-peppers and tomatoes. Working in the college greenhouse has helped me be more patient with my own starts. Usually by now I would have all my plants started and they would be leggy and pale. I am very excited about the garden this year. I know much more than I did last year due to my time in the greenhouse and school, including ways to minimize my work load!

I have a new kitten rescue, named Sam. I found him walking down the side of the road with a can of salmon on his head, like nothing was wrong (Sam is for Salmon Head). He was a wild little thing at first, but now adores being handled. He is a deep sable/black color with green eyes, and about 3 white hairs on his chest. Gorgeous cat. If we didn't already have 3 cats......

And last, my Bull Terror is laying on a black carpet in the full sun, panting like a steam engine. She could move into the shadow, but I am sure it feels so good to lay in the sun after this long, long winter and she can't resist. Looks like a good idea, so I think I will join her.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cheese making adventure

Since I cannot find any cheese not wrapped in plastic, I thought I would try my hand at making cheese. Countryside and Small Stock Journal had an article about cheese making complete with recipes, so I ordered the supplies on-line.

I was a little disappointed when I received the package 2 days later. While it came very quickly, which was great, everything came in non-reusable or recyclable plastic. The rennet, which is a liquid, came in a completely non-recyclable bottle, and the citric acid came in one of those home sealed plastic sheets. I think I may search out a local cheese maker to buy rennet from in the future, but that will be a while as the bottle I bought should make a thousand pounds of cheese. So I suppose given how long it lasts, one reusable if not recyclable plastic bottle isn't horrible.

I thought I would try mozzarella first, since that is supposed to be the easiest. I heated 2 gallons of milk to 90 degrees, added 1/4 tsp thermophilic culture, diluted 1/4 tsp rennet into 1/2 c cool water, and added it to the milk. I was to stir it for 15 seconds then let it sit for 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes to curd. Well, it thickened, then decided to stop. I left it for hours and it would not curd. I heated it up in the sink to 110, trying another idea from on-line, and it would not curd. So I finally decided to just strain it and see what came out. I put muslin in a strainer and poured in the liquid to drain, putting another pan underneath to catch the whey. After a while, I found what looked and smelled suspiciously like ricotta cheese! So I strained it all out and ended up with 2 pints of fresh ricotta cheese. Half way through I switched to straining through a screen, so more solids got though into the whey, but it went faster. I refrigerated the whey and went to bed.

Next day I thought I would make ricotta out of the remaining product, since there seemed to be so many solids in the bottom of the pan. I put it back on the stove, heated it to 190 degrees, and added 1/4 cider vinegar. I stirred for 15 minutes, but did not see any curds forming that were not already there, and the ones there were pinprick sized. I put more muslin in the strainer, and poured the liquid in, figuring I may get another 1/2 cup ricotta, but not hoping for much. As it strained, I could see the ricotta forming against the muslin, so pulled up a corner and scraped the cheese sticking to the fabric with a spoon to collect it. This allowed the rest to drain more quickly. I got another pint of ricotta this way. By then there was a small enough amount of liquid that I could gather all the edges of the muslin and make a bag, which I could then squeeze to get more liquid out. I squeezed out probably another 1/8 cup, then opened it back up. On the upper edges where it was the driest, the cheese looked and smelled suspiciously like cream cheese. So I continued to scrape and drain until I had about 1 cup of cream cheese, which was the consistency of cold whipped cream cheese.

I had bread already started, so I took one of the unbaked loaves and made bagels by shaping into balls, poking my finger through the middle for the hole, boiling each for 1 minute each side, brushing with egg, then baking for 30 minutes.

So my mozzarella turned into ricotta, my ricotta turned into cream cheese, and my bread turned into bagels. All said, I am pretty happy with the results! Today I will try the mozzarella again, and hopefully will get mozzarella, so we can make lasagna for dinner.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Thrips and aphids and mites, oh my

One of my responsibilities as Greenhouse Manager at school is IPM, or integrated pest management. Used to be when you brought in soil it was completely sterilized, all the greenhouse was sterilized, then if you saw an insect it was sprayed with a chemical which instantly killed it. Nowadays, when certified organic, we use IPM. This is a combination of biological, physical and chemical controls, the main point being to create balance and long term pest management.

That said, we have a huge thrip and aphid problem, and since there are spidermites in an adjoining room, we will likely soon have those as well. I had purchased Aphideletes, a parasitic fly which lays its eggs in the aphids, but these are long term controls not short term crisis management, and we are now in crisis mode. Today I ordered lady bugs and Atheta; the Atheta will predate on the larval thrips in the soil, and will remain in the soil indefinately once colonized. The lady bugs just eat aphids, lots and lots of aphids....this is a good thing.

I also have been using trap crops. I have garlic oil, which came in a plastic jug, but has a 99/1 water/oil dilution rate, so in my mind that one jug is worth it. The oil is a repellant, so I fill a small spray bottle with the diluted oil and spray it on the leaves that I would like to keep pest free. I then leave a trap crop without the oil, for the pests to go to. I can replace this trap crop periodically and destroy the soil and plants to get rid of the eggs and larvae on the trap crops. It is not 100% effective, but it works to keep the pests from destroying the plants.

I also have been manually checking the crops and squishing the aphids and thrips by hand. While this is not something which could be done large scale, it is helping with the small amount of plants I have going right now.

Organic IPM is a measure of patience and compromise. You will not achieve a 100% kill rate right away. It takes time to work, and it will never work "perfectly". The point is, we can live without perfection. It is better for our health and the environment to have a few leaves with thrip scrape marks than to have perfect leaves full of insecticides.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Climbing back on the wagon

Even though we have our friends here I have been trying to get back on track. I did not buy any bread, but just made white bread for the boys, which everyone has enjoyed. We did buy mac and cheese, but it actually does not contain plastic.

I am finding that my homesteading efforts and the low plastic trend go hand in hand. The more I grow and raise here at home, the less plastic I use. Homesteading also allows you more visceral, direct contact with your food and products. Just as shopping with plastic in mind causes you to be a more conscious consumer, homesteading makes you aware of every step in the process of bringing the food to the table. Add in eliminating fuel consumption and chemicals which comes from mass production and shipping of storebought food, and your impact on the environment shrinks even more.

I bought my years seeds from High Mowing Seeds and they came in today. I poured over seed packs of red and yellow pear tomatoes, white, purple and orange carrots, rainbow chard, burgundy and green beans, snap and snow peas, and lots of others. I still have lots of chili pepper seeds from last year so will try cayenne, habanero, jalepeno, and others. The red and blue potatoes will be in next month. Rainbows of fresh vegetables waiting to be grown. Today we had a thaw, it was practically balmy at 44 degrees, the snow started melting and the sun was out. Made me want to start digging in the garden, but the ground is too wet. The chickens were thrilled with all the grass uncovered this morning. Another few weeks to go for outside peas and spinach, and I will start the indoor transplants in another few weeks.

I usually use plastic bags to put up frozen veggies all year, but I could also use jars. Last fall I used jars to freeze applesauce, and it worked really well. I think this year I may use glass jars to freeze beans, peas, corn, carrots, peppers, etc. I could freeze them in mixes for 'pre-made' dishes such as soups, stirfries, and pot pies. I also will get my dehydrator fixed (the Bull Terror ate the plug off years ago and I never got around to fixing it) and will dry tomatoes, apples, and strawberries. I am looking forward to making my own sun dried tomatoes, packed with fresh garlic and basil.

Last weekend we butchered a 550 lb pig with a friend of ours. I skinned and gutted it with our friend, but then overnight got a cold so stayed home while DH butchered and made sausage. He saved me all the fat so over the week we made lard to use for soap, suet and candles (and pie crusts!) The lard was really neat to make, you take the fat, cut it into chunks, then slowly melt it in a pot. Once you strain it out and pour it into a pan to cool, it turns bright white. A by-product of making lard are cracklins, which are basically deep fried pork fat. Yum yum, you can feel your arteries hardening just thinking about it.

We brined the bacon and hams, they will have to sit in the brine for 3 weeks then will be ready to package. We are using our Uncle Bill's recipe, so the bacon should be so strong it makes you pucker when you eat it, but in a good way. Apparently you can brine a turkey, so we will have to try that with one of the turkeys I raise this summer. The hams were 30 lbs each, so we cut them into huge chunks since they would not have fit into my oven. We wrapped all the meat and lard in butcher paper, so avoid the Styrofoam and plastic from the store. I have the skin, organs, and the head in the garage, (frozen due to the cold) and plan on making pork rinds, treats and ears for the dogs.

The cool thing is how you can use just about every part of the pig for something. The dogs had two ham bones, they crunched them right down for dinner. Kept them occupied, especially Jack, the one on crate rest-had him busy for a whole day. I used the other ham bones to make broth, with which I then made potato-leek soup. We wasted a lot this time simply because we did not know how much time it would take to do everything. Next time we will glean even more. We are also buying a steer for the summer and will butcher it in the fall. Our friend will keep it with his, and we can butcher it at his house since he had the set up for it.

I finally came up with a potential answer to the cheese dilemma. I purchased cheese making ingredients today; rennet, cultures and wax. I shall endeavor to make my own cheese, starting with mozerella, which is supposed to be a fairly straight forward cheese to make. I have recipes for cottage cheese, ricotta, feta, cheddar and farm cheese, but will try them one at a time. I have a friend who has dairy goats, so I can get goat milk for the feta.

I just keep in mind when looking at all this work I have planned: a tired puppy is a happy puppy!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Falling off the wagon

I have to admit, I have fallen off the wagon. It started after the NOFA conference, when my 10 year old dog Jack, the one I have traveled all over the country with competing and performing in sports and shows, woke up one morning unable to walk. I rushed him to the vet, where it turned out he had a disc problem and needed meds, which they gave me in a plastic bottle in a plastic bag. I numbly took the bag and went my way. I stopped at the store to get hot dogs to feed the pills in, and bough plastic wrapped hot dogs which they packed in a plastic bag, and I took it and went home. These meds did not work, so a few days later I went back and got 3 more types of meds, all in plastic bottles all in a plastic bag. Again I did not argue.

My big canvas bag was peed on by a dog when I was teaching freestyle, and that waits to be washed, but there is a sick chicken on the washing machine so I have not been doing much laundry. SO every trip to the store has meant a new plastic bag.

Our friend's kids are coming over today to stay for a week, which meant a trip to the store to buy fake, plastic food like Kraft Mac and Cheese, processed peanut butter in plastic, and white bread.

The good news is that even though I have been less careful, I only went up to one grocery store bag of garbage last week. The bad news is that with my friend's boys coming, we will likely be up tp a large bag this coming week. I still love that they are coming, but it will be a real challenge to keep it down.

It has been so hard when this busy to stay organized enough to do this. I will have company all weekend, and I have a large assignment for school, so I do not know if I will have time this weekend to sit down and organize myself. I have been so good about organizing schoolwork this semester, which is a huge undertaking, but myself and the household is another thing altogether.

Friday, January 25, 2008

NOFA NY conference

I am at the NOFA NY conference in Saratoga Springs; well, actually in my hotel after day one of the conference. This is a meeting of organic growers, producers and tradesmen with classes and round table discussions about sustainability in agriculture. I am sad to say even in this group of greenies many just do not get the plastic thing.

There is a Chinese raffle, and most of the items are wrapped in plastic or have plastic bottles.

At the tea and coffee station there were Styrofoam cups, with the ceramic ones way in the back.

One grower of organic nuts and chocolates had everything in plastic containers.

All the dairies had cheese, yogurt and milk samples in plastic wrappers, tubs and bottles.

Many of the companies selling organic soil amendments had them in plastic bags or bottles.

I see a real need here for plastic education. I would not have thought this would be a group which needed it. Plastic is so ubiquitous that even environmentally sound people do not question its use.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Yet another critter

This is not about plastic. I just thought it was funny.

My husband is a bleeding heart. The man swerves the car to miss frogs and butterflies, I kid you not. When I caught the $&*^&^% mink which had been killing my chickens, he made me release it rather than drown it. He is a big softie, which is an endearing quality.

We had a squirrel in the walls of our house, and we could hear him chewing away in the evening and afternoons.

So we set up a live trap and tonight caught ourselves a red squirrel.

Well, "we can't take him anywhere and release him, he would starve". I have no idea what he was thinking he would do if he caught it when he set the trap up in the first place.


We now have a temporary new pet. We put him in the old rat cage, with a nest box and lots of food, which is funny because only last week we moved the rats to their new condo. Tomorrow I have to go buy him (or her) a water bottle. Come spring we can release him far away from our house. In the mean least he is in the house in a contained way rather than chewing his way through the walls.

And here I was trying to reduce the number of critters around here!