Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Look what I made (with a little help from my little brother)

I've been making butter (and buttermilk and sour cream; that's what those jars in the back are) from my raw milk's cream for a long time, and I've always wished that I could make homemade butter in the convenient 8 tablespoon size sticks like "regular" butter.

So, I found a wooden tea box that looked about the same size (amazingly, it turned out to be EXACTLY the same size, just double-deep, so I cut it in half). I tried it out (using a wrapper from store-bought butter to line the homemade mold) and it worked perfectly! Now, if I could only be sure the wood was food-safe so I could dispense with the plastic-coated wrapper . . .

So I called upon my little brother (aka The Enabler, husband of The Instigator) and asked if he could cut a little cutting board I had to the exact size of the prototype cut-in-half tea box I'd made. Never one to turn down a homesteading challenge (and since he had the right tools anyway) he got right to it, and before my afternoon visit was over he handed me my prize (pictured above, covered with butter)

I am so spoiled!

"Thank You For Your Support!" Part 1

I finally found a use for those cheap wire tomato cages (which of course are no use for growing tomatoes! Every year I try to use them (I did pay for them, after all, and it would be a shame to just leave them lying there . . .) and every year they end up lying sideways, overburdened with a too-heavy tomato plant and blown over by the wind we get up here on our hill).

Not only do I have a dozen or so bent-up cages of my own, but my dear sister-in-law (The Instigator) just got fed up with hers and gave those to me, too! So now I have a couple dozen more to find a use for.

So, what was my big idea? I'm using them for peas! Peas aren't nearly as heavy as tomatoes, and they'll grow on anything (including, unfortunately, their neighboring plants - which I learned when I grew them next to tomatoes a couple years ago!) I'd been growing my peas on regular garden fencing, but now I want to use that for something else, so voila! Easy, efficient, already-owned replacement!

I also have a few square tomato cages, which also are too flimsy for tomatoes, but which worked great for growing cucumbers (I tried this for the first time last year, with excellent results!)

Now, if anyone out there knows a good way to actually support tomatoes, please let me know!!! For now I'm using these "Ultomato" plastic tomato cages which are a bit more heavy-duty, but also more expensive!

(You can read part 2 here and see what I ended up using for my tomato plants this year)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Real Food Substitute for Graham Cracker Crust

So, I have all of these wonderful family dessert recipes that call for a graham cracker crust, but now that I'm trying to eat REAL food, there's no way I'm feeding those sugar-laden, rancid-flour, soybean oil nasty things to my family. But I've discovered a home-made substitute! I modified this from a recipe I found in Joy of Cooking. The texture isn't exactly the same (it's more like a cookie) but it's been yummy in all of the recipes I've tried so far (cheesecake, poppy seed torte, etc.)

Shortbread Crust
1 1/4 cups flour (sprouted whole wheat, if you have it)
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/3 cup honey (may be omitted if your filling is already sweet)
1/2 cup butter
1 egg yolk
Mix all together and press into 9x13 pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Fill as desired.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


May 2008:
I harvested my first ever rhubarb today! I am so excited! For those of you who haven’t heard my sad rhubarb story, I have been trying to grow rhubarb for about 5 years, and this is the first year I’ve ever gotten any. The first two plantings died, and we moved before I could see the outcome of the third. Those were all root stock I bought through mail-order nurseries. Last year I finally just gave in and bought a started plant from Walmart – and that’s the one that survived! I had always thought that rhubarb was one of those plants that you just couldn’t kill – I must have a gift!

April 2011:
Three years later, I am happy to report that I've had such good success with rhubarb that I was able to divide that same rhubarb plant I bought at Walmart into four separate plants. I was a little nervous, given my history, but I did my research and found that you can basically just cut up the root with a spade (trying to get at least one sprout per cutting) and replant in well-fertilized soil (hooray for clucker muck!) So I hacked away, accidentally even pulling up a 2-foot-long, 4-inch-diameter section of root (which I buried in a new location, just to see if it would do anything). Most of my cuttings were about 9 inches around (yes, it was a big plant!), and I pretty much just dumped them in their new hole and packed the dirt in around them. I spaced them generously - about four feet apart, which is about how big around this plant was last year.

Within days it was obvious that the new plants were doing just fine - the little sprouts were even starting to leaf out, with no sign of stress:
Even with the frosts and snowfall we've had the last few weeks, they're still coming up strong. I can't wait until the first harvest, so I can make some rhubarb crisp!

Rhubarb Crisp
(or apple, or peach, or raspberry, or even zucchini!)
1 cup flour
¾ cup oatmeal
½ cup butter, melted
1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
Mix until crumbly, press half into 9-inch square pan. Top with 4 cups rhubarb, washed and cut into 1-inch pieces (If you use zucchini, just cut it into 1-inch cubes. Apples or peaches should be peeled and sliced.)

1 cup honey
2 Tbsp arrowroot powder
1 cup water
Mix these together in a small saucepan and heat until thick and bubbly. Add 1 tsp vanilla and pour over fruit. Sprinkle with remaining oatmeal mixture.
Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.

In case you didn't know, you can harvest rhubarb all summer long, not just in the spring (I did this last year, even into September, and I'm still alive to tell about it!) This particular rhubarb was showing stress from overcrowding and from all the rain we got last summer (poor air circulation at the base of the stalks), so I went in and thinned it out periodically (we ate a lot of rhubarb crisp last year - we may be eating a lot of it this year, too, with four times as many plants!)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


On Saturday I took a beekeeping class at Hunt Hill Nature Center. I've been reading up on beekeeping for months (I highly recommend Storey's Guide to Keeping Honey Bees), so when I saw this advertised I jumped at the chance. It was a very good class - the teachers were very friendly, and they had both been keeping bees for over a decade, so they knew what they were talking about! They were also very knowledgable about "natural" beekeeping - limiting chemical controls, knowing what plants blossomed when and what flavor of honey they produce, etc. They also answered many of the questions I'd wondered about from my reading. Definitely well worth it!

But I was despairing because I thought I'd waited too long to order bees - most suppliers run out before March. I didn't really want to order bees that early, because, although they don't send them until April, you still end up feeding them sugar syrup (which I DON'T want to do - the sugar can end up in the honey you harvest, which kind of defeats the purpose I think!) because there aren't many flowers blooming around here yet. They also usually ship their bees in the mail (which can stress them) from warmer places like Texas or California. I'd prefer bees from somewhere colder, so they would be more used to my climate.

But, once again, The Instigator came to my rescue! The day after I took the class, my sister-in-law sent me a link to "her" honey producer in Minnesota's Craigslist ad, stating that he would be dividing his hives in May and would have some for sale at that time. *(Insert whoops of joy here!)*

So, now I have the know-how, and I've ordered my bees - guess it's time to order my hive and supplies!


I almost forgot to mention - in preparation for getting my bees next month, (and to keep the males of the household bee-friendly) I decided to make a "bee yard". Using some old scrap lumber from the deck we'd torn off last fall, I built a 6'x12' frame, lined it with old plastic chicken feed bags (I have plenty of those!) and then filled it up with river rock (which we're slowly but surely removing from the front garden bed). The plan is to put a patio paver or two (which we also have in abundance from another take-down project) on top of the rocks, and put the hive up on that. I made this for three reasons:
1) So my poor husband and/or son could mow near the hives without getting stung (hopefully).
2) To make things easier on the bees. I read somewhere that bees prefer not to have to fly through tall weeds to get "home". 
3) Plus, of course, not having tall weeds around the hive should also cut down on the ticks I'll pick up when I go to harvest honey.
(and of course I should mention the "I'm so excited I want to DO something but my bees won't be here for another month" factor!)

Mostly About Onions

I have long believed that to grow onions in northern Wisconsin (zone 3, pushing 4) you need to start from sets. Seeds will just take too long. So, like a good little agrarian, I buy onion sets at Walmart each spring.

Last year, I decided to let some of my onions go to seed in the front garden so I would have some clean seed for growing sprouts for wintertime salads. This is a trade-off - if you let your onions put up seeds, they won't make big bulbs, so you're giving up that year's production. Of course, I planted my main crop in the regular veggie garden, so all was not lost.

They sent up lovely white puffball flowers, and I was hopeful for a good seed harvest.

Unfortunately, I didn't plan on an adorable three-year-old boy deciding it was fun to grab them by the stem (which were just his height!) and pick all of those lovely flowers.


So I gave up on those, since the bulbs were too small to eat.

Fast forward six months to this spring, and what do I find in my front garden bed but thick, healthy onion leaves coming up where those decapitated onion flowers stood last fall?

(the leaves are brown at the tips from an earlier frost)

So, the moral of the story appears to be that onions overwinter just fine, even way up here. Which leads to my new plan - start next year's onions from seed this year, leave them in the ground over winter, and let them grow to full size the following year (basically growing my own sets instead of buying them). I think I'll try again (in a different bed) to raise some seed (hopefully four year olds have more self-control than they did at age three!)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Making Homemade Yogurt in a Cooler

I make this recipe about once a week. We have a cooler that holds 6 wide-mouth quart jars, and we use about a jar a day, so that works out well. I like this recipe because it's so flexible - you're only limited by the size of your cooler.

Homemade Yogurt in a Cooler
6 quarts milk (or however much you have room for in your cooler)
2 cups plain yogurt (I like Dannon Naturals) – or you can use homemade from a previous batch

In a double boiler (I use my stock pot inside my smaller canning kettle - they fit together without too much extra space. Use whatever works best for you) warm the milk to 180 degrees (to kill any possible pathogens - if you're using raw milk that you're confident is safe, and you want your yogurt to retain those valuable enzymes, you can skip this step and just warm the milk to 110 degrees). Once you’ve reached this temperature, turn off the heat and cool to 110 degrees (use a candy thermometer to be sure (and, as I found out after multiple failed batches, make sure your candy thermometer is accurate!)
Meanwhile, warm your starter by scooping about 1/3 cup into each quart size jar (or whatever containers you're using) cover (I like these covers, but regular screw-band type lids work fine; you can reuse washed old lids, since they don't have to seal), and place these into your cooler. Pour warm tap water into the bottom of your cooler (not too much, or your jars will float! You want the water to be about 110-120 degrees; it feels pretty warm when you put your hand in, but not too hot to hold it there. This is the temperature my water comes straight from the tap on its hottest setting; different water heaters may be set at different temperatures. Many families set their water heater to 120 degrees so it can't scald small children straight from the tap.)

When both the milk and the starter are at 110 degrees, ladle the milk into your jars over the yogurt and put the covers back on. Place them in your cooler and cover with more warm water (just below the rim of the jars). Put the cover on the cooler and let sit for 4 or more hours (overnight is fine; it will get more tart the longer it incubates). When you're done, take it straight from the cooler to the refrigerator. Homemade yogurt will be runnier than store-bought, but it will thicken some when refrigerated (My yogurt is only slightly thinner than store-bought. I don't add powdered milk or gelatin, but I use whole milk, so that might make a difference). Add sweeteners or fruit after yogurt has set (we generally mix in blueberries and strawberries right before we eat it).

I like this method better than the crock pot method because you don't disturb the yogurt after it's set, which I think can make it runnier. Plus my crock pot is generally being used for other things! ;)

If you, like me, prefer to print out a short-and-simple recipe without all the extra jabber, here you go:

Homemade Yogurt in a Cooler
6 quarts milk
2 cups plain yogurt
Heat milk to 180 degrees, then cool to 110. Warm 1/3 cup starter in each quart jar by placing jar in warm water in cooler. When milk is at 110 degrees, mix with warm starter. Add warm water to cooler just up to jar covers. Cover cooler and incubate at least 4 hours. Store in refrigerator after incubation period.

If you're using raw milk and aren't heating it above 110 degrees, you can mix in your starter with your milk straight out of the fridge, warm it up, and ladle it into your jars without heating the starter separately. So my routine is now simply taking the milk and about 1 cup of starter out of the fridge, stirring it together in my double boiler pot, and warming it to 110 degrees F. Then I ladle it out into jars and incubate it in the cooler full of warm water for 6 hours or so (before breakfast to after supper - I'm not too strict on the timing). So simple! Just be careful not to heat it over 110, or you'll kill your starter.

 This post is a part of Real Food Wednesdays.

Friday, April 1, 2011

100% Sprouted Whole Wheat Flour Light and Fluffy Sandwich Bread

Although it doesn't work to use sprouted whole wheat flour in sourdough bread, it works great for regular yeast breads. I've been making this bread with sprouted wheat flour (sometimes mixed with up to 1/4 sprouted rye flour) for about a year now, with excellent results. I pretty much always make it in the bread machine (this is the one I have, in case you were wondering), but I would assume it would work to make it by hand, too.

100% Sprouted Whole Wheat Flour Light and Fluffy Sandwich Bread
2 pound loaf
1 1/4 cups water
1/4 cup olive oil (or melted butter, or lard, or coconut oil)
1/4 cup honey
2 tsp sea salt
4 cups sprouted whole wheat flour (or regular whole wheat flour works fine, too)
4 tsp yeast
Bake in the breadmaker on "Whole Wheat" setting.

1 1/2 pound loaf
1 cup water
3 Tbsp olive oil (or melted butter, or lard, or coconut oil)
3Tbsp honey
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
3 cups sprouted whole wheat flour (or regular whole wheat flour works fine, too)
2 1/4 tsp yeast (one packet)

1 pound loaf
3/4 cup water
2 Tbsp olive oil (or melted butter, or lard, or coconut oil)
2Tbsp honey
1 tsp sea salt
2 1/4 cups sprouted whole wheat flour (or regular whole wheat flour works fine, too)
1 1/2 tsp yeast

This post is part of Fight Back Friday on Food Renegade.