Archive for April, 2012

I am a huge fan of butter.

Well, I am a huge fan of cream and its products in general. It started with the discovery that I could make super thick and delicious whipped cream of my very own (perhaps more on that subject later). When I was little, I loved the kind I could spray out of a can and into big dollops. Now I learned that what I make myself is much more enjoyable in flavor, doesn’t go flat upon sitting, and doesn’t have any unnecessary additives, either – it’s just the cream, perhaps with a small amount of sugar or flavoring of my choice.

I was raised on margarine, but upon going out and living on my own, I shifted away from this product, and now I can barely stand it in comparison to butter. Even so, I had always simply bought my butter from the store, or from the area’s Amish on occasion that I passed by. My cream purchases usually got turned into whipped cream or put into my baking. After I obtained a pint of grass-fed, organic cream from the Jersey cows at Evans Farmhouse Creamery, though, I decided I was going to do something different this time. I had enough whipped cream. It was time to try making butter… and I succeeded. The result was glorious, with a creamier, stronger ‘butter flavor’ than I had ever had before. Wanting more, I picked up some quarts of a larger local brand and got busy.

A lot of the time, making your own stuff at home saves you money. I am not going to even pretend it’s the case here, as it’s certainly not always cheaper to do it this way. Pre-made, store-bought butter is relatively inexpensive for what goes into it, especially for conventional brands (non-specialty/non-organic/etc.) or generics/store brands. If you buy specialty butter, though, or you have a source of cream that’s inexpensive or from your own animals, you may be able to break even or make it cost slightly less.

You have to look at the other benefits too, though. You get very fresh butter that hasn’t picked up any off flavors or sat on a shelf for weeks. You get to learn a new skill. You choose whatever cream you want, and you can add whatever flavors, herbs, or spices you like, in whatever quantity you like – or add none at all. You control the process. Best of all, it’s really easy. It just takes a bit of time.

You start with about a pint of heavy cream. If you have a bigger container of it, just pour out roughly a pint. It doesn’t have to be exact. I only do this much at a time because it puffs itself up and flings itself around a lot, and more than this amount is hard to contain! Plus, a pint will give you just slightly shy of 8oz. of butter when you’re done, assuming yours is anything like mine. You can whip this cream using something as complex as a stand mixer, or you can do something as simple as constantly shaking a container with a tight lid. The process is essentially the same. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to describe how I did it, using a small electric hand mixer.

Use a fairly large bowl – the cream should fill it less than halfway. Then stick in your mixer, turn it on high speed, and mix for a few minutes. For those familiar with making whipped cream, you whip it until it swells up to that stage…

… but you keep going after… and going, and going… until it starts to clump up and stop looking so pretty and white. It begins to take on a yellowish tinge at this time. This is an indicator that you’re getting close! Keep going!

After a few more moments, the yellow really starts to stand out. The cream separates fully, and little particles of butter start flinging themselves around the bowl as they’re tossed by the mixer. If you stop to check it, you’ll see a pool of buttermilk rapidly flow out and puddle underneath. The butter has appeared! This is where you can stop (although if you’re unsure if it’s done, you can keep mixing for a bit longer – you won’t hurt it now).

Take a strainer, cloth, or anything else suitable and spoon the butter mixture into it. The buttermilk will start to drain out. You can get rid of it if you really want to, but it’s good to drink, or you can use it for baking (although it is not the same as the cultured buttermilk you buy in stores).

After it drips for a bit, take the butter in the strainer and dump it into a different bowl. You can use the bowl you originally mixed the cream in – just rinse it lightly first. Run cold water over the butter in the bowl. You’ll see this water turn cloudy as buttermilk comes out. Knead the butter with your hands, folding it over on itself and pressing more buttermilk out, gathering the little bits of butter together. Dump the water out, and put new cold water on, repeating the kneading until the water is relatively clear. It’s important to get the buttermilk out (or most of it anyway), because it goes rancid rather quickly and greatly reduces your butter’s storage length. You can also rinse the butter under cold running water to help in this.

After you get the buttermilk out, you’re left with some handfuls of pure sweet cream butter like in the picture above. You can use it just like this, or you can add salt, herbs, or spices. I like to add just a small amount of salt, or mix in a spoonful of honey and some cinnamon for a great cinnamon-honey butter. Don’t worry about adding too little. You can sample it as you go, and you can always add more, so it’s far more important not to add too much from the start! Knead the ingredients in, in the same way you got the buttermilk out. If the butter gets too soft in your hands, cool it and your hands with cold water and continue. When everything seems well-incorporated, you can stop.

So, from a pint of cream, you get a few ounces of buttermilk and a nice log of butter. You also get to say that you made butter, and you can do it any time you get the urge! The buttermilk should be refrigerated if not immediately consumed. You can press the butter into a mold, cup, or anything else of your choice, but I just lay mine out on wax paper and wrap it well. I then refrigerate it until it’s used up, or for longer storage, I place the wrapped butter chunk inside a freezer bag and freeze. It keeps well for a couple of weeks in the fridge, or for months in the freezer… if you let it last that long!

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– “Is this new meat any good? Is it worth the extra?”
– “I don’t know. Honestly, I’ve never had the meat here. I don’t really buy meat from the store.”
– “What do you eat then? … Veggies?”
– “No, I just buy from local farmers.”
– “Farmers?” *scoffs* “I’m not going to buy from farmers.”

The above is an actual dialogue I had at a very large grocer and retail store. I think it helps to show the disconnect that some people have from their food. Meat comes from the store, and fruits and veggies come from trucks. Its presence on the shelf is considered a given. Bones and skin and blood are often sanitized out of the picture as ‘yucky’ parts that should not be dealt with. However, having clean hands doesn’t mean your hands are clean. I have been a strong supporter for local farms for a while now. Many things in the dominant ‘system’ seem broken to me, and I also believe that an animal’s sacrifice should be acknowledged and respected.

My parents made use of the land to help feed my sisters and I. My father hunted, and grew corn and many vegetables, and my mother would freeze and cook these. Other times, after our own animals were sold off years ago, they would get a quarter steer from a nearby farm, or split a half steer with someone else. Years later, after eating plenty of garbage through my teen years, I remembered this and decided to do it again. Eventually, after I work toward building this place back into a farm, I will probably have all of my own animals, but until then, this does quite nicely.

I realize that not everyone has space to grow their own food like I do. However, many areas do have farmers’ markets or direct farm sales. Sites like LocalHarvest, Pick Your Own, and EatWild offer good starts to see listings. However, the place I ultimately used most to find my meat was Craigslist. Sometimes you’ll see ads in the Farm + Garden section. I had best results by posting a Wanted ad.

Main benefits of buying local meat (in my experience):

  • – Helps support your local farmer(s), economy, and food system(s)
  • – Meat is of superior quality and stronger, better flavor
  • – Meat is often fresher, and it isn’t shipped across the country
  • – Cost is often lower, per pound, than buying at a store (main exception is with chicken – chicken is just way too cheap and raised in too huge of numbers to undercut, but you’d still be getting the other benefits).
  • – Have the choice to know exactly where your food is coming from
  • – You can choose exactly how the meat is cut. You can request soup bones, offal, or ‘odd bits’ that often get thrown out. You can specify thickness, prioritize steaks or roasts, or even have it all ground up if you want
  • – May offer fewer trips to the store, and may simplify budgeting

Chops and steaks, ready to bake!

There are other possible benefits as well, but not all farmers have/follow/offer them, so you’d have to pick and choose. Absolutely ask questions. Examples include things like the use and preservation of heritage breeds, leaner meat (for the health-concerned), more space/humane treatment for animals, and less of or lack of the use of antibiotics or other drugs and chemicals. If you have questions about these matters, farmers worth dealing with are happy to answer them or address any concerns.

Some drawbacks:

  • – Some people are used to/prefer the flavor of store-bought
  • – You generally order in bulk based on whole animals, halves, or quarters. This means you must drop a lump of cash at once. Many farmers don’t offer single cuts, and those who do might charge significantly more than a store would for them
  • – You might end up with some cuts you’re not sure how to use, or a lot of some things and less of others you might prefer
  • – Big orders take up lots of space. An above-fridge freezer won’t cut it at all for something like a side of beef
  • – You must do ‘work’ for the food and it isn’t as convenient – you have to seek out the farmer, you might need to find someone to split part of an animal with, and many times you must go and pick up your order
  • – You are limited by seasonality. Animals are not available at all times so you have to plan a little to keep a supply (if you’re someone who uses a lot)

You have to weigh your needs and see what works best for you, but I believe that the quality of the local meat I’ve had outweighs any drawbacks.

The extra freezers I use are two manual defrosting uprights. Manual defrost will build up layers of frost/ice inside, needing attention to remove it every few years or so, but they keep frozen products in better condition because they don’t continually raise and lower the temperature on their own. Mine are 25-35 years old and still going strong. I’ve locally bought a whole pig, 2 whole lambs, multiple 25-lb. boxes of pork, a 50-lb. box of beef, and some individual cuts of goat in the past 4 years or so. This is in supplement to the few animals I hunt. The lamb was my ‘gateway’ animal. I developed a love for generic store-bought, especially in chili or in tacos, but such lamb is expensive and often comes shipped from as far away as Australia or New Zealand. Even a ‘cheap’ lamb cut, such as a whole leg or ground lamb, often costs between 6 and 9 dollars a pound. Other cuts can be 2-3 times higher. Now, from the farmer I get my lamb from, I can get a whole animal all done up however I like for what amounts to between 3 and 4 dollars a pound.

My above-fridge freezer, topped off with lots of local pork. It's on the top and bottom there, and shoved to the back, but this is only 1/3 or so of what I got.

Processors also vary a little. Most farmers have a preference and will have one they want to use, but some will bring an animal to a different one if you have a favorite. I’ve had product that’s been done by several different processors. It seems that most of them use a butcher paper wrap for most whole cuts, and then plastic sleeves for loose sausage or ground meat. Some will package ground meat in little deli trays and then butcher wrap. Another uses plastic sleeves for ground meat, but seals all whole cuts in plastic vacuum bags. I like the vacuum sealed the best, because it lets you see right through the packaging and keeps the meat the longest, but it is also prone to damage and loss of the seal if you ever drop it while handling it. Butcher paper wraps are much less subject to this. No matter what processor my things have been done by, though, the product I have had is always great, and everything has been packaged and labeled well.

Example of butcher-paper wrapped local meat, along with stamped labeling.

For those who can afford the outright cost and are willing to seek out a source, local meat certainly offers a flavorful eating experience. I always enjoy picking up the big boxes or bags, stuffed to the brim with my purchase. I also like being able to meet and shake hands with the guy who raised the animal that gave its life for my dinner. The possible side benefits to these points are just extra incentive for me.

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Kale is a rather humble plant. It is a brassica, a form of cabbage that is of the same species that includes broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. It’s also considered to be closer to wild cabbage than the other domestic forms. Because of this, some varieties are in fact gigantic, ugly-looking, coarse, or indigestible.

However, there are cultivated varieties that are more compact and are tender, with good eating quality. In my opinion, kale has a  ‘buttery’ texture and flavor when properly cooked (it doesn’t need long cooking). Other kales have been bred to have showy interior leaves and are referred to as ‘flowering’ kales (though these are not flowers – kale flowers are small, stalky, and mustard-like). These kales are also just as edible as any other, though they can be trimmed and displayed as if they were a flower as well.

Kale is on the right, helping the beans eat this 5 gallon bucket.

Growing kale is fairly easy. It requires no fertilizer or maintenance to speak of other than weeding if your plot gets choked with them. It needs a reasonably broken up/cultivated soil (I have had no trouble with it even in my very rocky or clay soil areas), and its seeds shallowly buried about a half inch deep in the dirt. You can try spacing the seeds or thinning the young plants out for better appearance, but I have never actively done this and I still get amazing yields. My kale plants have never been bothered by any significant insect pest or disease, and deer browsing was quickly recovered from. However, I advise ground planting – kale grows in containers, but has not done nearly as well for me. If you try one, I would suggest keeping it well watered and in cooler areas or shade if grown in the height of summer. It greatly prefers cool temperatures.

Kale leaves, after surviving a long winter and several days of hard spring freezes as well.

I have grown three varieties – Early Curled Siberian, Red Russian, and Blue Curled Scotch/Vates. All are a medium sized plant, slightly wider than they are tall,  growing to about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 feet in height. The Siberian kale has moderate ruffling/curliness to its leaves, while the Scotch has very curly leaves. Both have a bluish tinge, or their green color may seem muted with white. Red Russian has a different type of shape to the leaf entirely, almost appearing cut and tattered on the edges, or ragged. It has an attractive purplish or maroon color to its stems and veins, and the color deepens and spreads to leaf surfaces during cold weather.

Showing some of the color of Red Russian kale. This also survived over winter. The brownish leaves in the photo were frozen, but you can also see plenty of succulent new ones!

Cool weather… speaking of that, kale thrives in it. Frosts and freezes do not kill it, and in fact, kale tastes sweeter after it has been exposed to frost. In all the years I have planted it so far, at least some of the plants have survived the entire winter without protection. This includes winters with up to 3 feet of snow at a time, and occasional temperatures down into the double-digit negatives. I am sure that if it was protected in some way, it would have a good survival rate even in these conditions. This past winter, mild as it was, ensured that my entire row survived, even though a few nights had temperatures in the single digits. These plants are still producing edible leaves. If left alone this season, they will bolt, or go to seed. Sometimes I let them do this and collect the seed, but this year they will likely be tilled under and replanted before they get the chance to finish.

Kale is very high in nutrient content. A simple search can give you all the info you’d ever need to know about this fact. It is low in calories, with only 30-40 in a cup, but is rich in vitamins K, A, C, and E. It also has a reasonable level of calcium, iron, Omega-3s, and several others from copper to potassium. It also provides plenty of fiber and antioxidants, and contains compounds suspected to be anti-cancer, such as sulforaphane.

Young kale can be eaten raw or in salads. More mature leaves can also be stir-fried, chopped and added to soups or stews, or steamed, braised, or boiled as a cooked vegetable. It freezes nicely, and can be stored very well that way after a quick blanch in boiling water.

Another use that is rising in popularity is kale chips. This involves tossing the trimmed leaves with a little oil and the seasonings you desire, and then placing in a dehydrator for a few hours or until crisp. The temperature I use is between 115 and 135 – it isn’t too sensitive, and lower temps just take a bit longer. The finished product is then stored in an airtight container. The oil adds a bit of fat, but the natural goodness of kale and the ability to control the seasoning makes these snacks a healthy alternative to potato chips. They can also theoretically be done in the oven at a normal oven temperature of around 350F, but I’ve never tried it so I cannot speak for the result. The procedure is basically the same, but baking takes only 10-15 minutes.

My favorite method?

Simply steaming and serving with butter.

Kale also sells well for me at my farm stand. Its popularity is returning as word of its food value spreads. People love seeing that a stuffed plastic grocery bag is offered for only $2, and even after multiple bags were picked out of it, my kale was none the worse for wear, quickly growing new leaves to replace those lost.

… and, my young chickens go nuts for it, meaning kale is a source of entertainment as well.

What more could one ask for?

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Whether a novice or an experienced gardener with a lot of land, plants such as mint need to be kept in check. That’s why container gardening is great! They are easy to start, maintain and are wonderful for those with little time or space. There is little to no weeding, no tilling, and allows plants that aren’t winter hardy to be grown.

Any container will serve well in a garden, but be mindful of size ratio in comparison to how large the plant will grow. Growth can be stunted or need water more frequently in a container that is too small. Putting a layer of rocks in the bottom also helps to keep the pot upright as the wind may blow over a top heavy plant. Searching for broken plants and pots three stories below may not smiled upon by a neighbor’s dog.

Raised Garden Beds

Raised beds have recently gained a lot of popularity due to a book called All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. In the garden center, I regularly get customers inquiring or raving about this technique. While raised beds are nothing new, they do offer a unique, space-saving garden. To simplify, it involves a raised wooden bed filled with an extraordinarily nutrient rich soil and compost mixture. These beds can be modified and customized to suit the gardener’s needs. They utilize all available space, allowing the gardener to grow a lot in a small area.

Trellised cucumbers

Growing Up

When faced with a small amount of space for a large, trailing plant then the best way to grow is up. While falling into this category, tomatoes are typically grown on a trellis; however there are other plants that also grow well this way. Cucumbers are an excellent choice for this as they readily take to trellising. Peas, squash, beans, and melons can also be effectively trellised. Be aware that any plant with a large fruit will not grow as large due to the extra weight that must be supported. Once big enough, be sure to train any trellised plant to climb onto the trellis.

Layering – The Waterfall Effect

See how stunted the sage is?

Layering can save a great deal of space. Placing tall plants behind short plants is one version of this, but a more effective version is raised containers behind shorter containers. This way plants of the same height can all get the right amount of sun. For example, last year I grew some herbs in a long planter, but the basil quickly grew so tall that the sage’s growth was stunted due to sunlight being blocked out. If these were layered, the sage would have still been able to get enough sun to grow well.

Thrifty Containers

Where to find cheap pots and containers:

  • Garage sales
  • Flea markets
  • Thrift stores
  • End of season clearance
  • Freecycle
  • Craigslist
  • Friends, family, and neighbors

Holes can be drilled in any container to create a successful addition to any garden.

Thrifty Container ideas:

  • 5 gallon food grade buckets are perfect for tomatoes

    Burlap sack for potatoes

  • An old tire
  • Pots
  • Food grade plastic buckets: 5 gallon frosting buckets from a bakery.
  • Raised wooden gardening beds
  • Metal cans
  • Any plastic containers

Some plants that grow exceptionally well in containers:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Many flowers
  • Strawberries
  • Herbs
  • Lettuce

Look for patio versions of plants as these are selected for their exceptional growth in limited space or try a dwarf fruit tree. Get ready to experiment with a variety of containers and plants. Container gardening offers something for every gardener: the decorative, creative, thrifty, or trendy.

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