Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Risotto: Raising the Bar for Rice

One of our favorite ways to fancy up rice is to make a risotto. It feels a lot fancier than just plain rice, and barely costs more, since we have 15-20 quarts of stock in our freezer at any given time, and the rest of the ingredients can be changed to fit what we have on hand.
Creamy, delicious risotto or boring old rice... it's no contest!

Serious chefs say that you need a short-grain rice such as arborio rice to really make this work. Pish posh, I say. Granted, there is some science behind it, but arborio rice costs a lot more than plain ol' white rice. To me, this is more about the technique and flavor than about having the “perfect” creamy risotto.

That said, all of these pictures are with arborio rice because I was feeling splurge-y and bought some. Consistent I am not.

The main thing that risotto requires is time. It calls for adding stock to the rice slowly – a cup or so at a time – and stirring a lot. I have read several recipes that say you can add all the liquid at once and skip the stirring if you have a wide enough pot. I split the difference and add the stock slowly but rarely stir it. It lets me feel like I'm doing it the “real” way, but without all that effort. Whichever method you're using, it WILL take at least 30 minutes, so plan accordingly.

Make extra of this because it's impossible to resist snacking on
Start by deciding what extras you want in your risotto. This is one of the reasons I like it so much: it's versatile and customizable. My standard additions are mushrooms, onion, and garlic. However, you can put in pretty much anything you like. I've had success with spinach, broccoli, red bell peppers, and peas. Cook your additions to the level you like and then remove them from the pan. This will prevent them from being cooked to death while the rice cooks.

Unfortunately, this will also make the house smell good and your family insist on dinner NOW. It's a double-edged sword, really. 

Leftover bits of garlic will flavor the rice nicely
When your additives are done sauteing, add a little olive oil to the pan and add your rice. Stir it around for a couple of minutes to get it all nice and warmed up and a little golden. Tell everyone that no, dinner isn't almost ready.  Trust me, they'll ask. 

If you have some white wine, start off by adding about ½ cup of wine. When that has absorbed – or if you are a) out of wine or b) don't want to share your wine with the rice – start adding the stock, 1-2 cups at a time. Stir as often as you feel necessary, adding more broth as each addition is absorbed.

The rice will start to look poofy and soft after about the third addition. Sadly, it's not done yet. If you don't believe me, try a piece. Tricksy little rices.  About now, I usually have to make the choice - do I negotiate with the Toddler Terrorist and give her some sort of small snack to tide her over, knowing the demands will only increase?  Or do I try to pretend the tantrum explosion isn't happening?  Either way, I'm screwed, so if there's wine open, I have a glass and power on.

At this point, you'll want to check the rice between each addition of stock. The risotto will start to thicken and look creamier (especially if you use arborio rice). A batch that starts with 1 ½ cups of rice will take 6-8 cups of stock or, as I measure, two bags from the freezer.

I always think it's about done at this point.  It's not.  Boo.
When the rice has finished cooking, add in any extras you have, along with a good handful of Parmesan cheese. I use the powdered stuff because I'm broke and WinCo has it in bulk. We go through a fair amount of it. A couple tablespoons of cream cheese can also up the creamy factor, as can, well, cream. This time, I added a couple ounces of mozzarella, since I had it out for the chicken I was cooking. Really, whatever you want goes, although I highly suggest Parmesan in there somewhere.

After, and only after, you have tasted it, season it as you wish. Since the Parmesan is salty, it's important to taste it before you add any additional salt. I usually add a little salt, some pepper and some turmeric. Stir it all around really well and let it sit off the heat for a couple of minutes to thicken up/spread the flavor, then dig in!

I always make a giant batch, because it saves well and that means the following night's dinner is going to be low-effort, and there will be some left for lunches, too.  I'm a big fan of leftovers for lunch - it means I just have to grab the Tupperware out of the fridge and go - no thought, no effort.

1 cup sliced mushrooms*
½ cup finely diced onions
2 T minced garlic
1 ½ cups rice
2 T olive oil
½ cup wine (optional)
6-8 cups stock
1/3 cup powdered Parmesan (½ cup fresh shredded)

2 oz grated mozzarella
½ tsp turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste

*Can be replaced with broccoli, spinach, asparagus, or whatever else sounds good at the time

Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil over med-high heat.
Add the mushrooms, onions, and garlic and cook until the mushrooms have shrunk and onions are translucent (5-10 minutes)
Remove the mushroom mixture from the pan and set aside
Return the pan to the stove and reduce the heat to medium low
Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil
Add the rice and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently
Add wine, if using, and stir constantly until all wine is absorbed
Add 1-2 cups of stock, stirring frequently until all the stock is absorbed. Repeat until rice is al dente (if you run out of stock, just use water)
When the rice is al dente and nearly all the stock is absorbed, add mushroom mixture, Parmesan and mozzarella.
Stir to combine, and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add turmeric, salt and pepper
Remove from heat and let sit for five minutes to thicken up.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Turkey Trifecta

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Any day that centers around ridiculous amounts of good food is tops in my book! I also love that it's the season of cheap meat. In the next couple of weeks, turkeys will go on sale and stay that way until the new year. Depending on where you shop, you can get a 20 pound turkey for around $5. Last year, Randy and I found fresh, never-frozen turkey for 50 cents per pound. For some reason, we didn't buy twelve of them. We won't make the same mistake this year.

I forgot to take a shot of the turkey, so here's Parker instead
One of the best things about Thanksgiving is the leftovers – it's universally acknowledged. Nothing beats the next day's turkey sandwiches. Also universally acknowledged, though, is how tired most people get of their leftover turkey before it's gone. This keeps most people from cooking more than one or two turkeys a year, which I see as a tragic missed opportunity.

I love turkey and eat it in some form or another year-round. Mostly because it's cheap, but also because it's so versatile. WinCo usually has turkeys for around $1/lb, which is as cheap as you can expect meat to be without a special sale. The problem is, you have to buy at least 12 pounds of it. Without a large family gathering, 12 pounds of any meat is excessive – and most turkeys are closer to 20 pounds.

We've developed a method to get the most out of a turkey without having to eat our way through an entire bird in one fell swoop. The first step is to discard the notion of cooking the entire bird at once. That seems easiest, but it results in way too much turkey, which is why I rarely cook a whole turkey. Well, that and the fact that I have trouble cooking whole birds – it's not nearly as easy as it seems. Something always goes wrong. Always.

In order to manage the bird, we divide it into three basic sections.

Section One: Wings and Drumsticks:
The wings and drumsticks have a good amount of meat, but are a pain to de-bone. I never realized how many tendons are in a drumstick (eleventy billion) until I tried to separate the raw meat from them once. I never tried again – it's that much of a pain. Since they are so annoying to deal with raw, I bake them, then strip the meat off – it's a lot easier to separate the meat from the bones/tendons when it's cooked. This meat gets packaged up and frozen for later use in tacos or turkey sandwiches.
I use the broiler pan so I don't have to fish the meat out of the fat

Section Two: Breasts and Thighs
This really covers anything that's left that is relatively easy to remove; although mostly it's breast and thigh meat, there's meat from the back involved also. We aren't particularly meticulous at this stage; our knives aren't that sharp and Randy's fingers are half-frozen (I'm not allowed to use knives in this situation because I'm too prone to cutting parts of myself off). This is about getting the most useful amounts of meat on, not getting every last bit. The scraps that are left behind have a purpose.

The bread we used in lieu of buns for our turkey burgers!
The meat Randy removes at this stage gets ground. At this point, we can use it for a variety of different purposes: turkey burgers, bratwursts, or breakfast sausage. If we plan to use the ground meat to make brats or sausage, we add the skin to the pile of meat to grind; without the extra fat the skin provides, the sausage comes out a bit too dry. This is the biggest cost-saver, since ground turkey can cost up to $3.99/lb and turkey shaped into burgers or seasoned as sausage is even more expensive.

When making burgers, we tend to go very basic – just ground turkey formed into patties. Every once in a while, we add a binder such as eggs or bread crumbs, but not often. Turkey burgers freeze very well either raw or frozen – just put a piece of parchment paper or wax paper between patties. Foil works also, but tends to get stuck to the patties a bit more readily.

Step Three: Scraps and Bones
Pepper ends, kale stems, and veggie bits
What's left is a mangled, hacked-apart carcass, a neck, and the packet of organs – a pile of extras that is perfect for making stock. I love making stock because it's basically free food. The only ingredients you need are things you would have otherwise thrown out, and the result is a good base for any number of recipes. I keep a big bag of veggie scraps in my freezer to use in stock – things like the ends of onions and carrots, stalks from salad greens, tops of radishes and peppers, and pretty much anything else that gets cut off when I use vegetables. I put all the turkey scraps and bones in the crock pot, add a couple handfuls of veggies, cover it all with water, turn it on low and go to bed.

It looks good even uncooked!
When the stock is done, I separate out the bones and veggies and throw them out. I also strain out the meat scraps. Usually, this is about two pounds of meat. At this point, I can go in a couple different directions with the stock. I can cool it then pour it into quart-sized Ziplocs to freeze - this is the most versatile option, as I can later use the stock in any number of recipes (although I mostly use it for soups and risottos).  If I go this route, I freeze the meat separately to use later in a soup or casserole.  Alternatively - and more efficiently as far as most meals created at one shot - I can add the meat back in and make soup or chili. Either way, I end up bagging and freezing a crock pot full of goodness.

The End Result:
We just broke down a 17-lb turkey and got the following:
21 turkey burgers (6 ½ lbs of meat)
1 lb of cooked turkey from the legs/wings – enough for two taco dinners or one hot turkey sandwich dinner.
1 lb of turkey sausage
3 one-gallon Ziplocs of turkey soup (about half-full each)

Bonus picture of Zoey in a pot
By dividing the meat up this way, we get a variety of meals out of every turkey and never have to worry about getting burned out on turkey. I'm not thinking that I'm eating pound after pound of turkey leftovers – I'm having a burger or chili or biscuits and gravy. An even better benefit is that in the time it takes to make a turkey dinner, you end up with several mostly prepared meals, which is always nice for a low-energy night, and a lot cheaper and healthier than either fast food or a TV dinner. After a couple of turkeys get broken down, there's even a good variety of meals to choose from, so you don't get burned out on any one thing.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Not-So-Gluten-Free Chips

I wrote 90% of this post almost three months ago.  Then Parker interrupted me, and I somehow never returned. Inertia being what it is, I never posted it, and never returned, despite good intentions.  Part of it was the school year starting up again, but mostly, I just got out of the habit.  I hope to change that now that I've adapted a bit to the trick of balancing the school year, a toddler, and an infant. (The trick is to get things done in the 45 minutes span of time after the kids go to sleep and before I hit the wall).  I have at least three other posts partially done, so the next couple of weeks should be painless enough to get me back in the habit.  Hooray!  Also, this is a bit picture-shy as I managed to lose the final-product pictures somehow.  Shame on me.

In my quest to explore gluten-free foods, I scoured the bulk section of Winco for any unusual flour. I didn't do much research other than looking up a few recipes and noticing they all called for either a pre-mixed “gluten-free blend” or a wide variety of flours. I figured if I went through and bought all the unusual flours I could, I'd be set up.

In a way, I was right. I had a variety to work with and was able to make a few delicious treats. I made one glaring error, though. Spelt. Sneaky, devious, delicious spelt flour. As it turns out, spelt is a cousin of wheat. It's far enough removed that people with wheat allergies can still eat it...but closely related in that it contains gluten. Which explains a lot about the reaction my sister-in-law had to the supposedly safe meal I fed her. I feel bad about that.
It even LOOKS like wheat flour

That means that the spelt tortilla chips I made, while delicious, are not gluten-free like I had thought. This bums me out a bit, since after my failure with crackers, I thought I had redeemed myself with a crispy gluten-free snack option. Foiled again.

Making these chips starts with making the tortillas themselves, and the process is very similar to making a flour tortilla. I used this recipe. I meant to replace the oil with lard, as I do with flour tortillas, but forgot. I was hungry, and not thinking straight; please forgive me.

The tortillas, like most of the gluten-free recipes I tried, were a little on the sticky side (therefore reinforcing my misconceptions about spelt). They cooked up quickly and just slightly denser than a flour tortilla, similar to the difference between white and whole-wheat bread. Which, in retrospect, makes a lot of sense.

They cook up nicely - more on the order of corn torts
I couldn't just leave these as tortillas, though, because the entire endeavor began with a craving for nachos. Not only was the pantry devoid of tortilla chips, my sister-in-law can't eat corn. Therefore, we had to make our own chips. Making chips from tortillas is pretty simple, and (as with most things made at home) healthier than the processed option.

I cut the tortillas into chip-sized wedges and then baked them. I wanted them to be lightly salted but not overly so and I didn't want too much oil involved. To solve this, I sprayed the baking sheet lightly with cooking spray and then sprinkled salt on it before laying down the tortilla wedges. I lightly sprayed and salted the tops, then threw them in the oven for a few minutes on each side. They came out with a crispy exterior and just a hint of chewiness in the middle.

Chips!  Wonderful chips!  You'll have to imagine them as nachos, because that picture is lost.
I couldn't let it end there - nachos, remember? I topped them with chopped chicken (left over from the night before), pico de gallo, and grated pepperjack and cheddar cheese, then tossed the whole mess under the broiler to melt it into a pile of amazing goodness.

The flavor was great – somewhat like wheat (gee, wonder why?) and just barely salty. I will definitely make these again. I just won't feed them to Megan.

2 cups spelt flour
½ tsp salt
¼ c oil
2/3 c warm water
*Pre-heat oven to 415
*Heat a cast-iron griddle over high heat, then turn down to 7-8 on the dial OR use an electric griddle set to 375.Add water to flour until you have a dough that is soft but not sticky. If the dough is too sticky, just add a little flour.
*Working with 1.5 ounce pieces (ping-pong ball size), either roll or press into 6-inch tortillas.
*Cook for 1-2 minutes on each side, until dark spots begin to form.
*Put on a plate and cover with a damp towel until all tortillas are cooked.
*Stack the tortillas 2-3 high and cut into 8 wedges
*Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray and sprinkle lightly with salt.
*Lay out wedges in a single layer (you may need to do this in two batches).
*Lightly sprat the top of the wedges with cooking spray and sprinkle with salt.
*Bake for 6-8 minutes on each side.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Gluten-free Goodies

I have one word to describe gluten-free baking: sticky. I'm used to bread dough that is cohesive, kneadable, and shapable. Gluten-free dough is none of those things. It varied from batter to a thick, tacky dough.

I didn't take a lot of notes or pictures along the way, because I was too busy visiting and just plain forgot. Other than the bread I made, I only have one picture, and that only because Randy asked if I took pictures of the process. Whoops. I'll make up for it by posting about everything all together.

My GF flour stock: rice, spelt, soy, flax, and tapioca
First, the bread. When I was researching recipes, I looked for recipes that a) called for ingredients I had on hand and b) were simple. This was a bit frustrating, since most recipes call for “gluten-free flour mix” or something similar. That's just dandy if you want to go out and buy some pre-mixed combination. I did not. I had several types of gluten-free flour, and had to find a good mix or a recipe that specified flour types. To compound it, I also had to make recipes corn-free (the one mix I had all the ingredients for called for masa).

I settled on this recipe. I liked it because it was simple...and I had a lot of brown rice flour.
It looks neat, but not like bread dough!

As I watched the batter (I can't call it dough) mix, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that it would rise and turn into anything resembling sandwich bread. The consistency was more like banana bread than any other bread I've ever made. I poured it into the loaf pan, for crying out loud!
Ready to rise

It did rise well, however – both times (more on that in a minute). I was surprised with how much volume it gained, since the batter was so loose – I wouldn't anticipate it being able to hold the gasses in like most yeast breads, or at least without something like a lot of beaten egg whites like angel food cake. Shows what I know!

The top does have a neat texture, though
The difference shows up when it's baked, as the loaf doesn't get the nice domed top that normal bread does. It stays pretty flat, and the final product is reminiscent of a sponge in appearance (thankfully, it tastes much better!) and has a light texture. Randy described it as “floofy”. I didn't try it, for some strange reason, but Randy and Megan both approved.
This is my first attempt - the top fell in a bit
Another difference from the bread I'm used to is my ability to gauge doneness. Usually I've got a pretty good eye, but not in this case. The recipe called for using a thermometer to measure the internal temperature. “Bah!” I said. “I'll be able to tell when it's done” I said. Then I cut into my loaf after it cooled and said “Blargh! That's not anywhere near done enough.” I started over, and used a thermometer. The results were much better. Weird how that works out...

One downfall – the recipe says to not store it in the fridge, or it will get soggy, and the shelf life is only three or four days. I know that part of that is the lack of preservatives and high sodium content of store breads, but part is also that I'm used to sourdough which naturally has a longer shelf life.

PART DEUX: Bread sticks
A little later into Megan's visit, I made bread sticks. Ok, I meant to make bread sticks, and made mini-baguettes instead. Impatience mixed with the stickiest dough ever seen on Earth got the best of me.
They're as tasty and healthy as they look

This was a bit more complicated recipe; not only did it call for multiple flours, the dough is much more difficult to work with. I have no pictures because I didn't think to take any, and if I had, I'd have had to wash my hands even more than I did to destickify.

The recipe is multi-purpose – make two baguettes, nine mini-baguettes, or 18 bread sticks. I ended up with 10 mini-baguettes, even though I was aiming for bread sticks. It's completely my fault, too. The recipe called for putting the dough in a gallon Ziploc bag, then cutting the corner to squeeze the bread sticks out (again – bread dough you squeeze like pastry? Weird...)

Again, these are more textured than I'm used to; the flax meal helped.
The problem was that I got frustrated putting the dough in the quart-sized Ziploc and decided that rather than go through the process twice, I'd just force it all to fit. That didn't work out well – I should have just done two batches. The frustration that resulted from my efforts to force the dough to submit led me to cut too large of a hole in the corner of the bag. Since I was committed and NOT going to start over, I just rolled with the giant bread stick idea.

I really should have paid attention to the recipe when it told me to grease any dough I was going to handle, since it wouldn't work otherwise. They weren't lying. This stuff is sticky and uncooperative. It's also delicious. I started with this recipe but made some changes based on the flours I had on hand.

As far as I can tell, gluten-free flours can be interchanged with no difference in consistency, just flavor. I've only successfully made four gluten-free recipes, though, so I could be completely wrong.

And now, the recipes! Hooray!

1 ¾ cups warm water
1 packet (2 ¼ t) yeast\2 ½ cups brown rice flour*
2/3 cup corn starch
2/3 cup dry milk powder
1 T xantham gum
1 t salt
2 T vegetable oil
2 eggs

Combine water and yeast in a small bowl to proof
Whisk the dry ingredients together
Add remaining ingredients
Using an electric mixer, mix dough on med-high for five minutes (use paddle attachment of stand mixer)
Lightly grease a 9”x5” loaf pan and pour the batter in, spreading evenly.
Cover the dough lightly with greased foil or plastic wrap and let rise for one hour or until dough is just over the top of the loaf pan.
Preheat oven to 350
Bake for 55 minutes or until internal temperature is between 208-211 degrees
Cool on a wire rack.

*Every gluten-free blog, recipe, and advice column I read stressed that when measuring GF ingredients, you have to use a spoon to fill the measuring cup, then level it with a straight edge (back of a butter knife). Apparently, scooping the flours directly with the measuring cup can compact them too much and mess up the recipe.

1½ Cups Cornstarch
½ Cup Spelt Flour
2¼ Cups White Rice Flour
¼ Cup Soy Flour
¼ Cup Flaxseed Meal
1½ Tablespoons Xanthan Gum
2 Teaspoons Salt
1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Package Active Dry Yeast
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Honey
1/3 Olive Oil
2 Eggs
1 Egg White
1¾ Cups Warm Water (110-115°F)
  (9) mini baguettes (½ Cup of dough each), or
  (2) baguettes (half of dough per baguette), or
  (18) bread sticks (¼ Cup dough each)
Place cornstarch, flours, flaxseed meal, Xanthan gum, salt, garlic powder and yeast in mixing bowl; mix. Add, vinegar, sugar, honey, oil, eggs, egg white and lastly the warm water; mix (slowly). Increase speed to high and beat for 4 minutes.

Coat two cookie sheets with cooking spray.

Work with the amount of dough necessary to form a single baguette, mini-baguette, or bread stick - whichever you prefer (half the dough, ½ cup dough, or ¼ cup dough) - at once.

Place dough on cookie sheet (allow room for the baguettes or bread sticks to expand as they rise).
Spray all exposed batter generously with cooking spray (this will help you form the baguettes - without cooking spray, dough will be sticky and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to work with).

With hands, form dough into long thin ropes, with thickness of shape depending on which variation you are making. Repeat as necessary making enough loaves to use all your dough. For mini baguettes and bread sticks, putting the dough in a gallon bag and snipping the corner can help ensure consistency in size.

Sprinkle tops of baguettes with salt and add any other desired topping (poppy seeds, sesame seeds, etc). Allow to sit in a warm, dry location (free of drafts) covered loosely with plastic wrap for 40 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375° and bake (middle rack of oven):  
  35 minutes for baguettes, or
  25 minutes for mini baguettes, or
  20 minutes for bread sticks.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I Am the Lorax, I Speak For the Trees

I wish you would believe I drew this, but you won't and I didn't.

Randy's sister is in town for the week – hi, Megan! - so I neglected to write the regular Monday post, but that doesn't mean I've been slacking. Next week will be a gluten-free bonanza – bread, muffins, and bread sticks. Maybe even drinks served in hollowed-out pineapples. It's been a good week.
I made gluten-free bread - quite the different experience
Then these GF blueberry muffins, which were delicious!
Then we had pineapple drinks, and I coincidentally forgot to take pictures of the GF bread sticks. 

I did want to make sure I didn't totally skip all posts this week, so here's the regular Thursday garden update.

Baby bean!
It's a week for small successes. Our beans are finally starting to show up. We had tons of blossoms, but no beans showed up. I was getting discouraged, but then a few tiny little beanlettes showed up. These things are everywhere; I'm looking forward to eating them. I'm even more excited because we'll probably have enough to make pickled green beans, which I love.

The pumpkins are still winning the production race – there are now well over a dozen pumpkins started...on just one plant. We have three. Time to start looking up pumpkin recipes!

Itty-bitty pumpkins!
Future pickle!
The cucumber plant has decided to join the party, and has several small cucumbers on it, with more blooms coming out every day.

Similarly, the squash has eight or so small squashes growing.

[insert witty caption here]
Even the poor broccoli and cauliflower plants – the plants that Zoey helpfully weeded a week ago – are still alive. Six of the original eight, anyway. Most of them are a bit beat-up and rough around the edges, but alive is alive! 
The photographer should learn not to cast shadows like that...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's growing, growing, growing!

Our garden is in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment. The peas are done, except those we are keeping for seeds, but nothing else is producing. Boo!

Next year's plants are in there...
We decided to leave quite a few peas on the vine – more than we are planning to save seeds from. The wisdom of that immediately became clear, since Zoey picks a handful of peas every time she goes outside. I'm not going to complain about her eating too many veggies! Some of the peas are clearly getting beyond their prime, which is good; our research said to leave them on the vine until they were all shrivelled up. More waiting!

While the peas haven't shrivelled up, some of our bean leaves have. I'm not sure what's up with that. It goes beyond mere wilting – they're dark green and dehydrated-looking, almost like they had a mid-life change-of-career and became shrinky-dinks. I keep tearing off those leaves and throwing them away, but I don't know if it matters. Aside from the occasional shrunken leaf, the beans look healthy and are flowering like mad. Still no actual beans, though. Waiting sucks.
Not sure what causes this.  Alien ray guns?

Pumpkin in the making
I'm also waiting on something to grow on...well, pretty much all of the other plants. The pumpkin stopped just producing leaves and made a flower! That means that we will get at least one mini-pumpkin off that giant plant. There are maybe a dozen more buds that look like they might produce...but they might be more leaves in disguise. Grrr. Our other squash plants are just leaves, leaves, and more leaves at this point. 

Lots of leaves...hopefully it will lead to lots of squash!

It's a flower, I promise
Our poor little cucumber, for all its lack of impressive size, has three flowers on it. Take that, pumpkin! I don't know if it will ever grow to any sort of normal cucumber plant size or not. It might be a bit of a sad year for everything but peas and beans.

The cucumber does, however, have an easier road than our poor broccoli and cauliflower plants. Last week, Zoey helped me weed by carrying the pulled weeds to the bucket. The next day, she took it upon herself to weed some more. With not much to choose from, she designate all of the broccoli and cauliflower plants as weeds and executed them. We replanted them, but odds are still out on whether or not they'll make it. If they do, they earned it!

Come on, lil guy!  You can make it!

Likewise, our strawberries – which we didn't expect to live – have made a remarkable comeback. Not only did they flourish enough to produce two whole berries, they managed to survive the cat using them as a bed. Now, they're putting out runner after runner, and in the past week or so, the total number of rooted plants has more than doubled. I'm liking this trend for next year!
Go forth and multiply!

That's a year's worth
Also promising for next year is our compost. We compost everything except meat and dairy (because those supposedly attract rats). This is partly to have nice compost to spread in our gardens, to compliment the main filler of composted horse manure (thanks for the poop, Mom!) and partly to save space and stink in the trash. Since we rent, we didn't want to build anything large for our compost, and we wanted it contained, so we used a couple of large Rubbermaid bins, and drilled holes in them to allow for some air flow.

Up close - looks good except for the moisture!
Unfortunately, we forgot to drill holes in the bottom of the bins, so the compost is very wet. We are also not as diligent about turning it as we should be. We took the lids off so the compost can dry out a bit while the weather is nice, and when it's a bit dryer (and therefore lighter) we will flip the bins over and drill holes in the bottom so this doesn't stay a problem. The compost is looking decently decomposed, and there are quite a few worms living in it, so I'm going to say it's healthy. We'll work that into the gardens when we pull out the current crop of stuff and before we plant any sort of winter stock. If, that is, we get around to trying any fall or winter planting. Time will tell!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Beer Me!

Bottles ready for beeeeeeeeeeeeeer!
Here it is – the post you've all really been waiting for. The post about beer. After all, it's summer – the season of beer!

Making your own beer is actually very simple. The problem is you have to wait nearly a month between starting the process and drinking the beer. If you already have some on hand, that's not a problem. For the person who wants a beer and doesn't have one, it can be irritating.

Loosening up the mix
The easiest way is to start with an extract kit. You can buy these at most home brew stores. You probably have a home brew store near you and didn't even know it. Centralia has one. So does Chehalis. And Olympia. The kit is a can of hop malt extract; it's a liquid with the consistency of molasses. Depending on the kit, it will make five or six gallons of beer. The only additional ingredient you will need is corn sugar.

You need very little in the way of equipment. A large stock pot, a fermenter (food-grade five-gallon bucket), an air lock, hydrometer, and a bottle capper. None of these are terribly expensive. Oh, and bottles. You need about 60 empty beer bottles (pop-top, not twist-off). Start working on those now!  We like the Kirkland brand bottles because they are smooth, so if we're giving beer as gifts, we can put on our own labels easily.  We also enjoy emptying the bottles.

You want to make sure all of your equipment is sterilized; they sell sterilizer (iodine) for cheap and it lasts for a long time. You don't want to have anything funking up your beer.

Mmm.  Malt.
To begin, put the extract can in a sink of hot water to loosen up the liquid. Boil the amount of water designated on the can – some call for as little as one gallon, others call for all the water to be boiled. Pour the extract and the boiling water into the fermenter and stir until everything is evenly combined.

All mixed together
Next, you want to activate your yeast. The kit will come with a packet of yeast designed for the type of beer you're brewing. There are a surprising number of yeasts out there! Put the yeast in a bowl with around a cup of warm water (110 F or so) and a tablespoon of corn sugar.

While the yeast wakes up, add cold water until you reach the total volume (five or six gallons, depending). With the kit we just made – Munton's Connoisseurs Wheat Beer – we boiled one gallon of water and added five gallons of cold tap water.

Once the temperature of the mixture is 100F or cooler, you can add the yeast. If you add it while the mixture is too hot, you will kill the yeast. At this point, you also want to add the corn sugar. This will come out to a little over two pounds. Again, stir it all up quite well, so everything is interacting with each other nicely.

Use a hydrometer to measure the gravity of the beer. There's a lot of science involved that I'm not super solid on; if you are really interested, here's the wiki!. Basically, it's a good way to track if your beer is mixed correctly or not, and when it's done. The kit will tell you an original gravity (OG) number and a final gravity number (FG). Any kit – canned extract or not – should tell you these numbers. The bigger the difference between the OG and the FG, the higher the alcohol content.

Cap it off with an air lock, and set the fermenter somewhere warm with a relatively stable temperature – big temperature swings can impact the process. We use our kitchen counter, but the garage would work as well. Then you let it sit. And stare at the air lock, waiting for it to bubble. The bubbles mean the yeast is doing its thing and the beer is fermenting. When it's at it's peak, it will bubble every three seconds or so.

Transferring to secondary fermenter.
Leave the beer in the fermenter for a week or so, until the bubbling stops and the hydrometer tells you you have reached the FG. Once your brew measures at the FG, you should leave it in the fermenter for another 24 hours and re-measure the FG to make sure there's no more action happening. We are usually too impatient to wait, and it hasn't been a problem for us.

See the funk?  That's why.

At this point, you need to transfer your beer to a secondary fermenter. If you only have one, you can transfer it to any large, sterilized container(s). You don't want to skip this step, because it leaves all of the residues and funkiness behind in the original fermenter. If you only have one fermenter, clean it out, sterilize it, then return the beer to it.

Put your bottles through the rinse cycle of your dishwasher to sterilize them, and put your bottle caps in a pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil, then turn off. Again, you want everything sterile to avoid funking up your beer! Doing this step here also allows the beer to settle and any remaining residue to sink to the bottom.

When your bottles are sterilized, add sugar to each bottle – around ½ teaspoon per bottle. Then pour beer into the bottle. Fill the bottle until about the base of the neck. You'll know you've gone too far if beer spurts out of the top.

Uncrimped cap.
Using the capper to seal it up
Cap the bottles and then let them sit for a couple of weeks in a warm-ish place. When you think they are ready, put a few in the fridge to cool off, then pour a glass. If it tastes good and is carbonated, they're ready! If it either tastes bad or is not carbonated, let it sit longer. Never give up on beer – if it doesn't taste good, just let it sit a while longer. Some batches take longer than others to finish. We have had beers that tasted like swill after the recommended bottling time that tasted phenomenal a month or so later. Likewise, some beers taste great at the two-week mark!

This is the most basic level of home brew – you can buy kits that include dried malt extract and hops and grains you add in and customize. We generally stick to the cans because they're easy and cheap. They cost $20-$30 and yield around 60 beers. Also, our experience has been that the more complicated kits take longer to mature. I'm not patient at the best of times, and waiting months for beer to mature is maddening!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eat Your Greens!

Great googly moogly, our garden has exploded!

We picked peas last weekend, and a crapton more appeared. Yes, crapton is the technical term. You weren't aware of that? Against our initial judgement, we let Zoey know about picking peas. Because, really, what's the worst that happens? She eats vegetables?

She was a big fan of every part of the process: picking them off the plant, putting them in the basket, and eating them. Well, eating part of them. She took a big bite out of the middle of each pea, then put it in the basket and picked another one.

Really, the only downside came when we finished and took the basket away. She was Not Happy with us.

Since then, she's been picking a few peas every time she goes outside, which is fine. There are plenty left (and even some new flowers!) and it keeps her happy.

Zoey was too busy eating peas to pose for me.  Luckily Parker helped out.
As far as the rest of the garden, it's loving our weather.
After they finish building their wall, they'll put in an irrigation system.

The beans have grown past the top of their fencing and decided to create their own latticework of tangled vines. They're just starting to flower; I have high hopes for a big crop, since green beans are just below peas on my list of favorite fresh veggies.

Bean blossoms
The mini-pumpkins are trying to take over the world. I'm looking forward to painting some with Zoey for Halloween, and trying a bunch of recipe ideas with the rest. A pumpkin shell with soup inside? Miniature cheesecakes in a pumpkin shell? Stuffed with wild rice? There are zillions of recipes – both sweet and savory – for these little gems, which is good, because I have a feeling we'll have a lot!

Pumpkins with Zoey for scale purposes
Bonus Zoey picture because I couldn't decide which I liked best
Even the plants that initially struggled are thriving now. Our sole surviving cucumber (out of the several we planted) is finally getting some height to it.
Still not that impressive

The leaves look neat - hope the squash does, too
A couple of different squash plants have started to really put out lots of leaves. It's probably too late for them to catch up to the pumpkin, but I have a feeling they're going to try! I hope we get enough that we struggle to find ways to eat them all. Somehow, I doubt we will, since only two plants are any size at all, and I have no idea how many squash we'll get off one plant. I also don't know what kind they are, since the seeds were in an envelope helpfully labeled 'squash'. I know think they're some sort of summer squash, but beyond that? No clue.

Despite our best efforts to kill them via late transplanting, the broccoli and cauliflower plants we got from my mom are even starting to look like they'll produce something. We even planted them too close and re-transplanted them in an effort to test their hardiness. Those plants are survivors! No idea which is which any more. It's going to be like Christmas when we find out what all of our plants are. Good thing we like surprises, especially when they're almost guaranteed to be pleasant.
Brocciflower?  Caulolli?  Delicious!

This one lived!
The one disappointment so far is our garlic. We got several kinds from my sister, and they initially looked like they were going to thrive. However, the cat decided the garlic bed was just the right size for him to sleep in (1'x7') and killed most of the plants. We only have a few sad survivors left. Next year will be different; we put several large rocks on top of the bed to reduce the comfort factor.

They're putting out runners like champs!
Our strawberries also received the 'cat compactor' treatment, but have come back nicely. I'm hoping they will put out lots of runners and produce more than two berries next year!