August 28, 2020

Putting the Pantry Back Together

Slowly, I've been able to start putting my pantry back together.

We finished with the walls, trim, and ceiling painting a while ago, but with my days filled with blueberries, figs, applesauce, and cheese making, there hasn't been much time to set up my pantry again.

You can see that I decided not to replace the old linoleum flooring. I just gave it a good scrub and tossed down a couple of throw rugs.

Below is the corner where the old refrigerator used to be. I added another set of shelves. Dan offered to make me some shelves, but - time and money. I already have these and there is so much else to do this time of year. Shelf building didn't seem a priority right now.

In the corner where the freezer used to be (below), I put our old kitchen table. I wanted someplace to keep my gallon-size crocks besides the shelves, and to let my cheeses air dry. There's room underneath for canning jar boxes, and Dan added two simple racks on the wall for hanging things I want to keep handy.

I've been wrestling with empty jars and jar boxes forever. I've tried a number of systems, but none seem to work well. I'm hoping this will help. How do you all organize your empty jars?

Of course, it's not just jars and canned goods that are stored in the pantry, it's herbs, stock-up items, kitchen tools, and cooking utensils I only use occasionally (like the roasting pan for the Thanksgiving turkey), also cheese making and preservation supplies and equipment.

It's slow going because the setup is different and I want to organize as I put things back. Can't guarantee it will stay that way, but at least it will start out that way!

August 25, 2020

Solar Cooking: Brown Rice

I haven't done a solar cooking post in a long time, but then, we haven't had consistent sun this summer. Most days have been sunny in the morning, with clouds rolling in during the afternoon. That's helped with the heat, it also means I haven't been able to use my solar oven. The other day, I took a chance and made some brown rice.

1 cup brown rice & 1 pint bone broth + enough water to make 2 cups liquid.
My 1-quart pyrex casserole dish is perfect for 2 cups of solar cooked rice.

You can't see it, but the broth is bubbling away. Oven temp is about 325°F (163°C).
Solar cooking does require checking the angle of the sun and adjusting the oven.

Timing with solar cooking is less precise than on a stove. We had a
few passing clouds, so total cooking was about an hour and a half.

Perfect brown rice using no electricity, and I kept cooking
heat out of the house. It doesn't get any better than that!

If you're interested in experimenting with solar cooking, you can find ideas and DIY plans here and here.

Solar Cooking: Brown Rice © August 2020

August 21, 2020

Around the Homestead

Lots of little odds and ends and tons of photos to catch up on. Here are my updates plus some random tidbits. Where shall I begin?

Garden. Like so many others, my garden has struggled this year. Nothing has died from our hot, dry weather, but it's all hunkered down into survival mode. That means slim pickings. Most of what I pick we eat fresh, which means I won't be breaking any preservation records this year. What has done well, has been my African keyhole garden.

Sweet basil and borage on the left, calendula (yellow flowers) & sweet potatoes.

Something that helped, was this...

Dan sank a perforated pipe into the center of the keyhole's compost bin for pouring water into. It delivers the water deep into the bed, whereas before, some of it was running off the surface of the compost instead of giving it a deep soaking. Compare the sweet potato vines in the above two photos to the sweet potatoes in the garden.

Slow growing sweet potatoes in the garden: Nancy Halls and Vardamans.

Granted, my sweet potato bed in not one of my hugelkultur swale beds, so it dries out more quickly. You can also see my inverted water bottles, which haven't been as helpful here as I'd hoped. 

Ollas. Everything planted with an olla has done well! These are my Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato plants (in need of being tied up again).

Lid to the olla is at the base of the tomato vine.

It's loaded with little green tomatoes, but they haven't ripened yet, I think because it doesn't get sun until afternoon. The ones in the garden are ripening well, however, which we've been eating in salads.

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomatoes in the garden. Little mini-toms loaded with flavor!

Rain catchment. Next to my front porch tomato trellis there is now another rain tank. We've used so much rain water for the garden this summer that he wanted to add more.

It will be used for filling ollas and inverted water bottles, plus anything else in the front yard that needs watering.

Jam & Jelly Making. Although the veggies have struggled, we've done pretty well in the fruit department. At least we'll have plenty of jam, jelly, and applesauce this winter!

Measuring pectin.

Blueberry jam in the making.

Wheat processing is almost done. Dan continues to work on it in between his projects while I try to keep up with canning and dehydrating. Now, we'll have something to put our jam and jelly on!

Wheat berries for us.

Of the several years we've grown wheat, this crop is making the most delicious bread! I should have a final weight soon. The straw is being used for mulch and I feed the chaff to the goats.

Wheat chaff for the goats.

They love it!

Eggs. Our egg production is down to about one egg per day. We thought it might pick up again after Dan found a black snake coiled cozily in one of the nest boxes, but it hasn't. Our chickens are five years old, and have averaged four eggs per day until mid-summer. But they've never gone broody to replace themselves. We planned to replace them last spring, but then coronavirus. We're looking to replace the flock in the near future.

Milk. I'm currently getting close to half-a-gallon of milk every day. I make my cheeses by order of "importance." Mozzarella first, until I've frozen several dozen bags of shreds. Then feta; I like to have two or three gallon crocks of it stored in olive oil. Currently, it's halloumi.

Slab of halloumi after cooking in whey for half an hour. 

At first, I followed the traditional method of rubbing the slabs with herbs and folding in half. Now I skip all that and just pop them into the brine for three days. Like the mozzarella, I freeze these after they've brined. We like them either grilled over a hickory fire, or pan fried. They hold their shape very well and are mighty tasty.

Elderberries. Remember the net bags I used in hopes of saving some elderberries from the birds? They're working!

Usually I make jelly, but this year I may try elderberry syrup or tincture.

Silvopasture. I don't know if you remember we added silvopasture to our most recent master plan. The last time we had a forecast for rain, Dan seeded an area in hopes we could get something to grow there.

For years, this area has shown nothing but dirt! Lovely to see some grasses growing there.

Hornets. While working in the front pasture, Dan was attacked by hornets. They made a nest in the Leyland cypresses and began attacking the goats too. Drastic steps to eliminate the problem were required

It was either them or us!

5 Acres & A Dream The Sequel is in the print proof stage; the last step before hitting the "publish button!"

Checking the cover in the print previewer to make sure critical elements
won't be cut off when the books are printed. The final check is a print copy.

I'm getting close to having it done.

Ricotta pastry dough. I liked my dehydrated gnocchi squares so well, that I wondered if the dough could be used for pastry crust. So I experimented. I made a batch of gnocchi dough and rolled it out to make tarts.

The soup mug cut the perfect size crusts for my muffin pan.

Blueberry tarts. I used leftover pie filling from a canning project.

Dan liked them but I was hoping for a crispier crust. I think next time I'll cook the tart shells in a very slow oven to dry and crisp them more than bake them. I'm always up for an experiment.

Rare photo of two archenemies.

Meowy and Katie

These two absolutely refuse to get along! One of them is forever stalking and ambushing the other, and it's always claws-out serious, never play. I couldn't believe it when I saw them relaxing so close together. I thought I'd better get a picture to document the occasion!

That's my busy life these days! Tell me about yours!

Around the Homestead © Aug 2020 by Leigh

August 17, 2020

An Experiment: Dehydrated Gnocchi

Adjustments. Some are easier to make than others! I knew I'd have to make adjustments in my food preservation routine when we replaced the upright fridge in my pantry with a chest fridge on the back porch. Even though there wasn't a lot of freezer space in that little upright, I packed it full nonetheless! No longer having it means my freezer space is more precious than ever. 

One problem that's led to an adjustment is that I can no longer save some of my canning for winter. I used to store summer pickings of fruit and tomatoes in the freezer and save the jam, jelly, and sauce making for winter, when the heat from the canning process was welcome. I can't do that anymore because I don't have the freezer space.

This has led to is more dehydrating; instead of freezing small amounts of some foods, I've been drying them. Also, I've been thinking about other things I can dry as well. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs are pretty routine to dehydrate, but as I was working on our winter supply of gnocchi, I started to wonder if I couldn't dehydrate it too, like pasta.

Gnocchi (Italian dumplings) can either be made with potatoes or ricotta cheese. I make mine with ricotta (recipe toward the bottom of this post) of which I have a lot when milk is plentiful and I'm in cheesemaking mode. Gnocchi freezes well and is a delicious side dish or addition to soup. But storing several gallons of it in the freezer takes up a lot of room. A dehydration experiment seemed worth a try!

Gnocchi dough is traditionally rolled into ropes and cut into bite-size
 pieces. Fresh, it's boiled and served with sauce, but it also freezes well.

I freeze it as fat little mini-dumplings, but to make sure it dried evenly in the dehydrator, I rolled out the dough to less than a quarter-inch and cut it into small pieces.

For dehydrating, I rolled it thin so it would dry all the way through.

I dried it at the "meat" setting on my dehydrator (145°F/68°C) until it was crispy. I have to say it quite tasty as "crackers!" Then I vacuum packed it in half-gallon jars.

Dehydrated gnocchi. Look like crackers, doesn't it?

I doubt I'll be able to rehydrate it to anywhere near fresh standing, but hopefully, it'll retain its shape and substance. I'll probably try it first as an addition to our daily winter soup pot (for which I'm still saving freezer real estate for my soup jars of frozen leftovers). Dehydrated additions are a nice touch when the soup goes into the pot. I'm looking forward to giving it a try, come winter!

Anyone else trying something new in the food preservation department?

August 13, 2020

My New Shopping Normal

I'm done with Walmart. My shopping "experience" there is no longer conducive to even entering the building. Sure, we live in unusual times which call for unusual measures. And yes, I'm willing to comply with reasonable measures, but Walmart's list of "musts" has gotten too long and too overreaching.
  • You must social distance.
  • You must enter aisles from one direction only.
  • You must be surveilled while you shop.
  • You must be video taped while you check out. 
  • You must wear a mask.
  • You must enter the store single file and be inspected for compliance before entry.
  • You must pay with a debit, credit, or Walmart gift card.
  • You must stack your groceries just so on the check-out conveyor belt. 

Now please, DO NOT rush to the comments to try to convince me how necessary these rules are. Or how stupid, selfish, and unpatriotic I'm being because I question the sanity of what's going on. No, I'm not in "denial;" yes, I get that people don't want to get sick. But I also get that we, the public, are being played. Especially, now that the data (the real data, not the stuff they report on the "news") doesn't support what's being pushed on us. I'm more than willing to take reasonable measures, but we're really pushing the envelope lately. It's almost like those in power are playing a game—"Ha, ha, what can we get them to do next?"

However, that's not the purpose of this post, and I'm not interested in discussing any of that in the comments. The purpose of this post is to examine something I've said in the past: that so much of what I do is out of habit, rather than reason. My Walmart experience is simply a vehicle to push me away from habit and toward my own new normal.

When it comes to shopping, I have a routine. I have a route. That routine has become so automatic, that I almost don't need a grocery list. I know what I buy, and where, and I don't really need to think about it. Changing the routine, however, requires changing my habits. It requires that I think about it. I had to ask myself, what do I get at Walmart that I can't get anywhere else? Nothing really, and I actually buy very little there. I got into the Walmart habit because they supposedly have a good selection and the best prices. But do they really?

Selection everywhere has dropped off. I'm not talking about shortages from panic buying, I'm just talking about choices in general. Part of that has been the switch to more online ordering with free pickup. Stores like it because they don't have to put out as much inventory. Now, with so many people having been forced out of work that manufacturing is understandably down. All those things add up to a smaller selection for the buying public.

Best prices? I don't know about you, but I've been noticing for quite awhile now that Walmart does not have the best prices. Like other frugal shoppers, I know the prices for the things I buy, and there is actually very little that Walmart has the best price for. Prescriptions? People seem to accept it as "common knowledge" that Walmart has the best prescription prices. Something I've always done, however, has been to shop around before getting any prescription filled. I call local pharmacies and ask for the price on what I need. You know who always has the best price? Walgreens. This has been consistently true over two decades and three states. I suggest you do the same because there can be a huge variance in prescription prices depending on where you buy.

As I rethink my new shopping normal, I have to ask myself if we really need everything we buy. One of my long stated goals is to become less dependent on the consumer system. Ideally, that would mean producing for ourselves what we don't want to buy. Realistically, it means learning to live a simpler, less materialistic lifestyle. It means rethinking our needs versus our wants. It means learning how to live without. Whether or not we can be successful at that depends on how content we can learn to be.

My alternative could be to use Walmart's online ordering and drive-up pickup service. But to be honest, I really don't want to support what they've become. I'd rather support smaller local businesses who may be struggling to keep going. I'd rather support people than a corporation. For me, I think that will be a better new shopping normal.

My New Shopping Normal © August 2020

August 9, 2020

Canning Figs

Our figs are starting to ripen. Just a few at first, but they need to be picked daily. By the end of next week we should be picking bucketsful. For now, it's too many to eat fresh but not enough for a full canner load. Figs don't keep, so I freeze, dehydrate, or do small batch canning.

Preparation is simple. After washing, I cut off the stems. These are fed to the goats.

Figs must be hot packed, so I make an extra light syrup, and bring it
to a boil. Then I add the figs, & return to a simmer for 5 minutes.

Extra light canning syrup: 1¼ cups sugar to 5½ cups water.

I estimated only 4 or 5 pints, so I used one of my tall stainless steel pots
instead of my water bath canner. This saves on water and heating time. 

Utensils laid out. Not pictured, tongs for the scalded lids.

Filling the jar with hot figs.

One tablespoon lemon juice is added to each pint jar.
If I have cinnamon sticks, I add a piece of that too.

Hot syrup is ladled into the jar leaving ½-inch headspace.

Rims are wiped clean.

I use Tattler reusable canning lids. They are two piece and have
been scalded in a small saucepan. The rubber gasket is first.

The white lid is next.

The canning rings are not screwed down tightly. They are
tightened after the jars are removed from the boiling water.

Filled jars are placed in the hot water bath, which is brought to a boil.

Processing time starts at full boil; for pints it's 45 minutes.

My yield was 4 pints plus about a cup extra to eat for breakfast. 

With Tattlers, I test the seals after the jars are completely cool. I remove the rings and pick up the jar by the lid. If it holds, the seal is good! If I can pull it off, no seal. Then I pop the jar into the fridge and we eat the contents within a couple of days.

So I've made a start. By the time the figs are done, I hope to have several dozen pints put by. As pickings taper off at the end, I'll switch to dehydrating them.

Of fruit, I'm still picking blueberries, and the apples and pears are about ready. No time to be bored when harvest is in full gear.

Canning Figs © August 2020 by Leigh

August 5, 2020

A Nifty Gadget for Lacto-Fermenting

Has anyone else had trouble finding canning supplies? I had been looking for low-sugar pectin for weeks, and noticed canning jars and lids always seem to be sold out, especially wide mouths. Canning salt seems to be sold out regularly too. I did find this, however.

I couldn't resist buying it. If you've ever lacto-fermented anything (like sauerkraut), then you know that the challenge is keeping all the chopped or shredded veggies submerged in the brine. The bits tend to float, and if they have contact with the air, they will get moldy. The package was less than $10 and I thought worth a try.

The box contained two stainless steel springs made to fit wide mouth canning jars and two fermentation lids.

In the above photo, you can see that the lids have a little check valve that lets the carbon dioxide escape but keeps oxygen out.

I was anxious to try this gadget, but we still had a half-full gallon crock of sauerkraut in the fridge, so I wasn't ready to make a new batch. Instead, I transferred my sauerkraut to a wide-mouth half-gallon canning jar to give the gadget a try.

The spring pushes the veggie contents down to keep them in the brine.

The lid holds the spring down and keeps the jar airtight. Unlike a sinking weight, the spring is easy to remove to get to the contents.

I finally ordered my pectin in bulk from Pacific Pectin, but I can't tell you where to buy the Ball fermentation kit. I found it at Walmart, but online, it's currently unavailable or double the price I paid for it. You may have to check out your own favorite local places that sell canning supplies, if you're interested.

August 1, 2020

Pantry Cooling Project: What's Next?

Our objective with the pantry project is to improve food storage conditions. About a year ago, we started giving this a good think because after we quit air conditioning, the pantry became the warmest room in the house. Doing something about that has meant a feasibility study, analysis, researching alternatives, and formulating a plan:
  1. Moving the freezer and auxiliary fridge out of the pantry.
  2. Replacing the old upright auxiliary fridge with a chest fridge.
  3. Putting the freezer and chest fridge on solar energy. 
  4. Replacing old pantry windows with energy-efficient windows.
  5. Add insulation to the pantry walls.
  6. ➡ Cooling the air in the pantry without air conditioning.
Steps #1-5 of our plan checklist are completed (they're linked to take you to their respective blog posts). Already, they have made a difference! The pantry is no longer the warmest room in the house, but even stays a couple of degrees cooler than the kitchen, with the bonus that it isn't as humid!

Now, we're contemplating #6. As a baseline, I've been keeping track of temperature highs and lows in three places: our shaded outside back porch, the kitchen, and the pantry.

Baseline of daily highs and lows. O = outside, K = kitchen, P = pantry
Morning low on the left, afternoon high on the right. All in Fahrenheit.

The pattern is that the outdoor high is about 8 degrees or so higher than the kitchen, and the kitchen  is about 2 degrees higher than the pantry. So there is typically a ten degree difference between outdoors and the pantry. The question is, can we do better? Can we bring the pantry air temp down a little more? I listed quite a few ideas in this post, with some being more realistic for us than others. Dan has been researching and collecting more ideas, and he's ready to experiment with some of them. If something works, I'll let you know!