Sunday, December 27, 2015

Freezing Rain and Tomato Decisions

Two days after Christmas and we are having our first big winter storm of the season.  We are sitting right on the freezing line in the state with the temperature hovering around 32 degrees.  To the west of us, they are having high winds, blizzard conditions and icy roads.  To the east of us, it is mostly just rain.  We are in the middle, where rain is mixed with sleet creating a slushy mixture on the ground.  If the temperature sinks into the 20s (as they are bound to do this evening), then everything will be covered with ice.  It is at times like this that I am so thankful that we have a warm house with electricity and running water in which to wait out the storm.  Here's the top of our greenhouse.

Days like today are good days to dig out the seed catalogs we have been getting in the mail for the last few weeks.

Today, Tom is trying to decide what varieties of tomatoes to grow next year.  Here's his list so far.

Well, he doesn't have the best handwriting, but as long as he can read it.....that's what counts!  Ha!

There are several favorites he picks every year, such as Bush Early Girl, Cherokee Purple and Sprite.  We lean heavily toward the heirloom tomatoes, though.

A short lesson on hybrid versus heirloom tomatoes.  Hybrids are a cross between two varieties of tomatoes and require human intervention to produce the seed.  If you save the seed of hybrids, whether it is tomatoes, peppers, beans or whatever, and plant them the next year, you will not get a plant that is like the hybrid plant.  This is because the seeds "segregate" out into plants that resemble the original two plants from which the cross was made.  Heirloom varieties, however, are not the result of crossing two other varieties.  They are pure lines that have been passed down for years and whose seed will produce plants exactly like the parent plants.  

Unfortunately, because our society has graduated away from the farm and most folks do not have home gardens from which to save seed, hundreds of these old heirloom tomatoes have been lost.  Even home gardeners tend to buy hybrid seed because they have been bred to produce better and to be resistant to common disease problems. Seed catalogs have to offer the seeds that their customers want, so they drop heirloom varieties and these are eventually lost to history.  

But, I digress, so back to my original train of thought.  It is very difficult to decide on which tomato varieties to grow because there are literally hundreds of them to choose from.  For example, in addition to your regular red tomatoes, there are white ones.

And there are black ones.

And bi-colored ones.

And orange ones.

See what I mean!  We even have a book on heirloom tomatoes.

Tom likes to try something new every year.  This year he is looking at this tomato.

I can't help but wonder how this tomato got its name.  Someone named Kellogg developed it and because Kellogg is a breakfast cereal brand, they decided to call it this?  Or is it because tomatoes are excellent accompaniments to eggs for breakfast?

Whatever the reason, writing this entry today has really made me hungry and it is almost lunch time.  So, I'm off to find something to eat.....preferably something containing tomatoes.  Chili sounds really good on this cold day and I have all those packages of tomatoes I froze last summer for use in soup and chili.  Yum!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

December Picture Tour

Only two more days until the first day of winter.  So far this fall the weather has been relatively mild and most days have been warm enough to allow for going outside with just a light jacket.  Today is overcast and it looks cold.  But, in reality, it is not that bad and I decided to head outside for a walk around the farm.

I walked past the hoophouse.  Tom put new plastic on it this year and has piled bags of leaves along the sides to keep wind from blowing in along the bottom and for a little extra insulation.  He has all kinds of nice cool-season greens growing inside.  By the way, we did not rake all these leaves ourselves, but have recycled them from curbside.  It's a win-win.  Keeps them out of the landfill while giving us material for our compost making and valuable mulch material.

We still have a bit of garden cleanup to do.  Below is the pepper patch.  We grew several kinds of bell peppers this year, along with pimento, jalapeno, cayenne and poblano peppers.

There are a few green and growing plants in the garden, though.  These are turnips.  They don't mind the cold weather.  Both the leaves and roots of turnips are edible and they are quite nutritious.

Tom always plants cover crops during the winter to help renew the soil and keep it from blowing away in the wind.  Here is a blog I wrote about cover crops a few years ago, Cover Crops, and below is a picture of one of the fields with Austrian winter peas planted as a cover crop.

The peach trees are dormant now.  But, they produced some really good peaches this year.  Peaches are my favorite fruit and I am already looking forward to peach season next year.  But, for now the trees need to rest and renew their strength.  We humans could take a lesson from them.

Sally Dog went with me on my walk.  She enjoyed checking out the compost pile.  Not sure what she found so interesting, but here she is.

There was no activity around the bee hives.  Our beekeeper says the bees will venture out on warm sunny days during the winter, but today they were snug inside their hives.

On that note, I'm getting a little chilled and think I will head on back to my hive and get warmed up!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

From Years Past

I'm sorry to announce that I have a case of writer's block and am having trouble finding something to share.  I think the primary reason for this is that I've just been so darn busy for the past month.  Plus, the weather has turned colder and it has rained several times, so it is wet and soggy outside.  Just not very conducive to spending time outside which is where I get most of my ideas for this blog.  Sigh.

To get some inspiration, I spent some time looking back at my entries from years past and decided just to share some of the articles from Decembers of previous years.

Last year, I wrote and article about Sumac Spice.  This is a lemony tasting spice made from the outer coating of sumac berries.  Sumac is a shrub that grows wild in Oklahoma.  I used the sumac spice in some sugar cookies I made.  They were delicious!

In December of 2013, we had snow.  It was not very deep, but the temperatures were very cold for several days.  I got cabin fever and finally bundled up in warm clothing and ventured out.  I wrote a blog about my walk in the snow that day:  Walk in the Snow

In 2012, Tom brought in a bouquet of flowers he picked in the garden for me.  What kind of flowers grow in December?  Read this to find out what they were:  Winter Bouquet

There were several articles in December of 2011 that I enjoyed reading again and it was hard to pick just one.  But, I ended up selecting one that showed pictures of an all-out war between deer and raccoon captured on our wildlife camera.  There must have been a raccoon family living living nearby and it appears in these pictures that they were in competition with the deer for the corn we put out.  In fact, in many cases the raccoon seem to be winning the battle.  Raccoon Wars

Finally, 2010 was the first year for this blog.  I started it in January of that year.  It is hard to believe I've been doing this for 6 years!  That year I wrote only 3 articles in December.  (If I don't get off my duff and get busy, this may be the only one for December this year!)  Anyway, I selected an article about the thornless cacti that we grow and sell.  The original plant was given to us by one of our sons who lives in Texas.  These are easy to propagate and have beautiful yellow flowers.  Thornless Cacti

So, that's it for now.  We are finished with most of our grandparent duties (attending dance recitals, band concerts, Christmas programs, etc.) for the month and things will slow down for a few days prior to Christmas.  Hopefully, I will have time to get inspired for another couple of articles this month.   Wish me luck!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Preparing the Cold Frames for Winter

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a story about our attempts to keep our free-ranging chickens out of our raised beds where we have lettuce planted.  

We had laid fencing panels over the beds thinking that would keep them out, but they just hopped on top, reached their cunning little heads down through the openings and nibbled away on the lettuce.  So, I covered them with bird netting that put a stop to their thievery.   We now have some nice lettuce that has not been chicken-nibbled.

Our cold frames were originally covered with storm doors we bought at a Habitat ReStore.   The doors were attached to the frames with hinges and could be raised or lowered, depending on the weather.  This fall, Tom had to rebuild some of the frames and removed the storm doors altogether.   He planned to put them back on before winter.

However, when I was covering the fence panels with bird netting to keep the chickens out, it occurred to me if we just covered the cattle panels with heavy plastic, then we could use them to replace the heavy storm doors.  So, we decided to try it.

First, they had to be secured to the frames.  We attached the panels to the cold frames with U-shaped brackets, like this.  This made a handy hinge so they could be raised and lowered just like the doors.

Then, we simply clipped the plastic to the panels with cheap clips that can be bought at any office supply store.

Here's how they turned out. The fence panels are much lighter and easier to handle than the storm doors and also safer.  Although we never had the glass break in one of the doors, there is always the possibility that could happen.  So, not having the glass doors is just one less thing to worry about.   

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Fall on the Farm

Here we are in mid-November and we've had a couple of good frosts that have killed what was left of the heat-loving summer plants.  Here's how the basil patch looks.  Pretty grim.

Other garden plants can take light frosts with ease. The asparagus is turning yellow and gold, but still has a lot of green.  I love the fern-like foliage.  It's just a pretty plant to have in the garden, in addition to the yummy spears we get to eat every spring.

This little patch of volunteer cilantro came up from seed dropped by last spring's crop. 

It will not survive the winter unprotected, though, so I covered it with a light row-cover that will protect it from the cold, yet will allow enough light through to keep it alive.

The taller plant in the corner, not covered by the row-cover, is an herb called Tansy.  It is a non-culinary herb that has beautiful yellow flowers in the spring.  Several years ago I wrote a blog article about it.  It is an ancient herb that has an interesting history:    Tansy

The spearmint is still green and smells so good.  Like most of the perennial herbs, it will go dormant once really cold weather arrives. 

I also have a small patch of Horseradish that is green and ready to dig.  

Horseradish is one of those things that is hard to get rid of once it is planted in a spot.  I learned this the hard way.  Several years ago, I purchased a horseradish root at the grocery store, used a little of it and decided to plant the rest of the root.  As is my usual custom, I just picked a random spot and buried it.  It grew into a big plant and produced a nice harvest of horseradish in the fall.  However, what I did not realize was that you have to get EVERY piece of the roots when you dig it, or it will grow back.  As a result, this plant comes back year after year.  Fortunately, it is in a somewhat out-of-the-way place and doesn't get in my way too much, although, I do wish I had been more thoughtful of where I planted it.

Finally, my fennel plant is still green and happy.

Fennel is another herb that I grow mostly for the pretty foliage and flowers.  This is not the kind of fennel that makes the edible bulb used in cooking.  That kind is difficult to grow in Oklahoma with our hot summers.  This variety is a non-bulbing type that produces lovely feathery foliage with sweet flavor.  The leaves are a nice addition to salads, cole slaw, and dressings. The seeds can be used in baking and can also be used in teas and tinctures as a digestive aid.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Probiotics and My Experiment Making Kimchi

In recent years, there has been much interest in probiotics. By definition, these are live microorganisms that, when taken in adequate amounts, are good for your health, especially your digestive system. Normally, we think of bacteria as something that causes disease, but our bodies are full of bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are often called "good" or "helpful" bacteria. These bacteria are, many times, the product of fermentation. Unfortunately, the amount of probiotics available in the average diet has declined sharply over the last few decades, mostly because of our industrialized food supply. For example, pasteurized milk has replaced raw, pasteurized yogurt has replaced homemade, vinegar-based pickles and sauerkraut have replaced traditional lacto-fermented version, etc.

Several years ago, I became interested in the benefits of fermented foods and purchased the book The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. It is an amazing book that is full of information, history and examples of fermented foods from all over the world.  Thus began my journey into making my own probiotics through fermentation.  I've written several blog articles about various foods I've made via fermentation, for example  Peach Country WineSauerkraut and Yogurt.

Most recently, I tried my hand at making Kimchi.  In my opinion, this is just a jazzed up version of sauerkraut, but I really like the finished product.  The recipes I found all used basically the same ingredients: cabbage, radishes, green onions and red pepper flakes.  Traditionally, Napa cabbage and diakon radishes are used, but I wanted to use what I had on hand.  So, I used regular cabbage and French breakfast radishes, and these worked just fine.  Other vegetables were included in some of the recipes as well.  In the end, I used one main recipe and threw in some carrots, garlic and ginger.  Here's the veggies I ended up using.

The first step was to chop the head of cabbage, put it in a bowl and sprinkle it with a tablespoon of kosher or sea salt (not iodized), after which I used my hands to squeeze and massage it until it began to soften and make its own juice.  Then, I covered it with water, put a small plate on top and  set a glass of water on it to keep the cabbage under the water. It then had to sit at room temperature for a couple of hours.

After soaking, the salty water was drained off and it was rinsed with clear water a couple of times to remove most of the salt.  

I let it drain in a colander while I prepared the rest of the vegetables.
  • 2 grated carrots, 
  • 4 radishes cut into match sticks, 
  • 1 bunch of green onions sliced into 1 inch pieces, 
  • 1 teaspoon of grated ginger, and 
  • 6 cloves of garlic, diced

Next, a paste was made with the diced garlic, grated ginger, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, and 1 tablespoon of pepper flakes.  I smashed all these together with a mortar and pestle.

Finally, the drained cabbage, radishes, grated carrot and paste were mixed together in a large bowl.  

This was tightly packed into a quart jar until a thin layer of juice covered the surface.  Then, I sealed it with a fermentation lid.

The fermenting lid is not necessary if you have a small, non-reactive weight that can be used to weight the vegetables down so they stay under the liquid.  Oxygen is the enemy of fermentation and will cause the vegetables to spoil if they come in contact with air.   Plus, gnats will be attracted to the jar and it should be covered with cheese cloth to keep them out and allow the gasses produced by the fermentation process to escape.  This fermentation lid allows gasses to escape, but does not allow air to enter the jar, thus serving both functions.

The fermentation lid was in a kit I purchased online several weeks ago and I was eager to try it out.  So that is what I used.

The jar sat on my kitchen counter for a week before I venture a taste.  It is delicious!  The tablespoon of red pepper flakes gave it just the right amount of heat for my taste.  The recipe said you could use up to 5 tablespoons.  I'm sure I would not have been able to eat it had I used that many.  I tend to like things a "little" spicy, but not too spicy.

Now that I've gotten some experience with fermentation, I may venture out and try my hand at making wine out of some of our blackberries and peaches next year.  


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Acorn Workshop

For a couple of years I have been interested in the various wild plants that can be used for food and/or other purposes.  Last year, I wrote an article about wild oyster mushrooms, as well as one on using soapberries as a substitute for laundry detergent.

To learn more about finding and using wild foods, I recently attended an Acorn Workshop hosted by Oklahoma Wildcrafting.  They have a Facebook group with members from all over the state who share information on foraging and using wild plants.  The workshop was well attended.  The first activity was to go on a short field-trip to learn about the different kinds of acorns.   Here we are gathering acorns.

The best acorns to use are those that are low in a substance called "tannin".  Below is a picture of acorns from a Burr Oak (on the left) and a Sawtooth Oak.  These are large acorns and generally lower in tannin.

After gathering acorns, we went back to the classroom and learned about how to prepare them.  Before using them for cooking, they must be peeled.

Then, they must be leached to remove the tannin.  This can be done by soaking them in water for several days, changing the water several times a day.  

They turn brown during the leaching process, but this is nothing to worry about.

Once the water stays mostly clear for a day, you are ready to use them for cooking.  In the workshop, we used the wet acorns to make an acorn hummus that was excellent.  Basically, the acorns were used in place of garbanzo beans in a normal hummus recipe.  We also used them to make black bean burgers by replacing some of the beans with acorns that had  been put through a food processor.

I took my acorns home and made flour from them.  After leaching, I put them on a baking sheet to dry overnight.


They were still a little damp at this point and I processed them in the food processor in batches in order to break them into smaller pieces and speed up the drying process.


Next, I spread these on a baking sheet and put them in the oven at the lowest setting, making sure to stir them every 15 minutes for about 2 hours.  They should not be heated above 150 degrees.  Drying can also be done in a food dehydrator set for several hours.  Afterward they finished drying, they looked like this.

At this point, the acorns can be ground into flour.  This should be done using a grain mill or a coffee grinder.  Because I only had a few acorns, I used a coffee mill and ground them in small batches.

Afterwards, I sifted the powder to remove the larger pieces.

As you can see, there were still some larger pieces left.  I put these through the coffee grinder again and re-sifted.  However, in the end, I ended up with some that was about the texture of cornmeal (on the left below) and a very fine flour shown on the right.

I've found quite a few recipes on the internet for using acorn flour, but have not decided what to make yet.  That may be the subject of another blog article.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Marauding Chickens

We have started our fall garden and have some nice leaf lettuce. Here's some of it.  It is almost ready to harvest.

We put cattle panels over the beds to keep the chickens out and also as a support for plastic we will cover them with to protect the lettuce from frost later in the year.

We also have some in the cold frames. 

However, the panels have not served as a deterrent to keep the chickens out.  Notice the bunch of Swiss chard closest to the camera.  It has been stripped of most of the leaves by marauding chickens.

And, here's how they were doing it.  They were obviously smarter than we gave them credit for! 

One of the smaller hens could even fit through the openings in the panels and was discovered down in the bed helping herself to the luscious greens.  Therefore, they were confined to their pen until we could beef up the defenses.

I really like to let them out of their pen to free-range.  So, here's my solution.  I cut bird netting to fit over the cattle panels.

Once they were all covered with net, I let the detainees out of jail.

The first thing they did was head over to the lettuce patch, but at least, for now, they have not figured out a way to get past the netting.  Not that they have not tried.  You can almost see the wheels turning in Bossy's head trying to figure out a way to get around it.