The Milkweed Diaries

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bachlelorette's Liqueur

Christopher is out of town, and in addition to having a "lost weekend" with my sister Mary and going out for mixed drinks with my ladyfriends, I am taking advantage of having the house to myself by engaging in a number of complicated, messy kitchen projects (for instance, learning to make mayonnaise).

My parents, who are also out of town (separately), dropped off a big basket of peaches just before they hit the road for two weeks. Their peach tree has started producing like crazy in the past couple of years, and my world is a better place because of it.

The confluence of these two events has led me to experiment with peach preservation. However it is hot as holy hell here right now, as it is pretty much everywhere else in the United States, and I cannot bring myself to endure canning. The other day I heard someone say, "Satan called, he wants his weather back." That pretty much sums up how it's been feeling here, and I am not about to fire up the stove and stand over steaming pots in the middle of the worst heat wave anyone can remember.

So I turned to this book, which I raved about in more detail last year, for assistance.

I found a great heat-free recipe for "Officer's 'Jam' or Bachelor's Liqueur" which is basically what is known in the South as Brandied Peaches, but without the canning.

Here it is. Since I'm bachin' it this week, I changed the name.

Bachelorette's Liqueur, or Brandied Peaches Sans Heat


Good Brandy
Sugar (roughly the same quantity as the fruit or less)

  1. Cut fruit into pieces and remove pits. Layer it into a stoneware pot or a crock with a lid. After each layer, add sugar (I used far less sugar than fruit). Do not stir.
  2. After all the layers are in the crock, pour in enough brandy to submerge everything. I topped this off with a plate that fit down inside the crock to prevent any air exposure for the fruit.
  3. You can keep adding fruit as it ripens throughout the season, just keep topping with sugar and adding brandy. Again, do not stir.
  4. Mrs. Defacqz of Switzerland who submitted the recipe to Terre Vivante says that the mixture should be allowed to sit for at least 6 months, and is really best after a year.

I'm letting it sit in my 2-gallon crock, alongside the apple cider vinegar in the next crock over.

I'm guessing it's going to be ridiculous over some vanilla ice cream. I'm not sure if I can wait six months.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Making Mayonnaise

The source of all mayonnaise

Our household consumes a huge quantity of mayonnaise. This is mostly because of Christopher, who believes that mayonnaise makes everything better, and often serves himself such a large portion of mayo that it appears more like a side dish than a condiment. Naturally, with plenty of fresh eggs from the chickens and a great local source of cheap organic extra virgin olive oil, I decided it was time we start making our own mayonnaise.

Years ago, I made some aioli to serve with fresh asparagus and it was a triumphant kitchen moment. I had a vague memory that it involved whipping for a long time, and pouring in the oil very, very slowly. My friend Kathryn makes mayonnaise sometimes, and I remembered her saying she used a blender. I did a little googling and found this excellent recipe for "Homemade Mayonnaise Without Tears" which recommended using a mixer with whisk attachments.

I don't have whisk attachments, but I figured that couldn't be that big of a deal, so I grabbed some eggs and got started.

A couple of hours and four appliances later...I had achieved mayonnaise. But it was not easy, let me tell you. I share this story in the hopes that it may spare some future mayonnaise maker from the frustrations of mayonnaise failure.

I started out with my grandmother's Sunbeam Mixmaster. It seemed like a reasonable choice given the "No Tears" recipe, plus it is glamourous and I always like getting it out for kitchen projects.

I do not recommend a mixer like this for mayonnaise-making. The beaters only hit the center of the bowl, leaving the edges unwhipped/unblended, and the whole Sunbeam operation was a colossal failure. I ended up with an oily, un-emulsified, very un-mayonnaise-looking mixture. It looked like raw egg yolks and oil blended together. Which is what it was.

Next I switched to the hand blender (aka immersion blender). This is a tool that I love and that a number of people in the googleverse recommend for mayonnaise making. I almost burned up the motor, and created a foamy yellow oily substance. I kept whipping, waiting waiting for that magic moment of emulsification, but it never happened.

At this point, fortunately I found several references saying that failed mayonnaise could be substituted for oil to make a new batch, so I saved the failed batch and moved on to appliance number three, the hand mixer. This seemed like it would solve the problem of not reaching the edges that I had encountered with the Sunbeam, and incorporate much more air than the hand blender/immersion blender.

Wrong. No magic mayonnaise moment.

Finally I switched to the trusty Osterizer.

Why did I not use the blender to start with?

I followed the directions in this recipe precisely (with one small exception, see #2 below) including beating the eggs for one full minute in the blender before beginning to add the oil (in my case oil/egg failure mixture) and adding it at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Finally. Mayonnaise success. The magic moment of emulsification.

Here are a few tips for my fellow novice mayonnaise makers to spare yourself time and struggle:

  1. Use a blender. Don't bother experimenting with mixers of any sort. They don't work.
  2. Use the whites of the eggs too. Most of the recipes I looked at called for separating the eggs and using only the yolks. In the end I used whole eggs, including whites. Correlation is not causation, so it's possible that using whites too had nothing to do with my success, but when I used the whole eggs, it worked. I think keeping the whites made the mayonnaise a more familiar and thereby more appetizing color, too.
  3. Whip the eggs on high for at least one full minute before adding any oil.
  4. Add the oil with excruciating, ponderous, agonizing slowness. Drips to very slow, thin drizzles only.
In closing, I would like to say: how did people EVER do this before electricity?!? At some point in between appliances, in my search for ways to salvage the failed mayonnaise, I found this lovely post about how French vendors just whip up little batches of mayonnaise by hand using only a whisk and a bowl, just right there on the spot on the street to accompany orders of french fries. It was totally demoralizing to read this as I struggled with my four appliances and runny yellow oil and egg substance.

The ridiculous number of appliances employed, dirty dishes produced, and electricity expended probably don't justify just over a pint of mayonnaise. I can report, however, that it was immensely satisfying to finally see that creamy, thick, delicious substance appear like magic out of nothing but eggs, salt, and oil.

All the dishes, appliances, electricity - that's tuition, as my dad would say. Now I know, and there will be no stopping me in the pursuit of mayonnaise.

Ridiculous number of dirty dishes produced in The Mayonnaise Lesson.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Adventures and Misadventures in Fermentation

Experimenting with fermentation over the years, I've learned that you win some and you lose some. And then there are the ones that you really, really lose.

When something that has just been fermenting for a few days or weeks goes awry, it's no big deal. But when it's been a lengthy, elaborate, labor-intensive process involving a months and months of fermentation...then I turn for comfort to pop-psychology clichés about learning to let go and tired yet soothing bromides such as "life is a journey, not a destination."

Last fall we borrowed a cider press, our farm interns Ali and Dau gleaned a whole bunch of apples from a neglected nearby orchard, and six of us spent an afternoon making fresh apple cider.

First the apples had to be chopped into a mash.

Then came the pressing. Lots and lots of pressing.

What was left of the apples after the pressing

Then came the straining.

Fortunately, at that point we drank quite a bit of fresh cider on the spot and bottled up a bunch for drinking fresh in the week to come. It was ridiculously good.

The last three gallons of cider we set aside for fermentation into hard cider. Two gallons were poured into glass gallon jugs with a plastic bag/rubber band lid for a controlled fermentation and the last gallon we fermented in a cloth-covered crock for a "spontaneous" hard cider a-la Wild Fermentation.

The spontaneous cider was awful. We still have a dozen or so bottles of it around because I hold on to the notion that aging in the bottle might improve it and I can't bear to let it go. The glass jugs first fermented like crazy for a while and then once they were done "working," we switched out the plastic bag/rubber band combo for an airlock.

11 months later, I tasted it. The first gallon was tolerable. The second gallon was downright ¡guácala! as they say in Español.

Because I haven't learned that aforementioned "letting go" lesson, I bottled up the first gallon and decided to convert the second into apple cider vinegar. The vinegar-making is a nice diversion - I've convinced myself it's a great use for the end product of all of that work (something about lemons and lemonade comes to mind).

We use tons of apple cider vinegar for pickling, preserving, and everyday consumption, and it seems like a staple while hard cider seems like a luxury item.

The best apple cider vinegar is apparently made from hard apple cider and here is how it's done:

  1. Pour the hard cider into a ceramic crock or wide-mouthed glass jar
  2. Add a bit of live-culture apple cider vinegar (not pasteurized - with "the mother")
  3. Cover with a cloth to keep bugs out and ferment for 4-8 weeks at 70-85 degrees.
The fermentation adventures continue. Here's hoping that my trusty 1-gallon crock will come through with its magical powers of transformation and we will have a gallon of delicious apple cider vinegar in 4-8 weeks. One year, lots of effort, and lots of microbial activity later . . . . lemons / lemonade, journey / destination, etc, etc, etc.

UPDATE (September 1, 2011): The end result was the best apple cider vinegar I've ever tasted. Since we actually use a much larger volume of apple cider vinegar than hard cider, I consider myself fully satisfied with this fermentation project.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Seminal Work

It's hard to believe I've never read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring before now. I've been meaning to read it for years, and I'm so glad I've finally gotten around to it.

It really is an incredible, revolutionary, prescient, and brilliant book. So much of what Rachel Carson wrote is so relevant for those of us engaged in growing food now, and really for anyone who cares about the health of the planet and our own health.

I always thought that Silent Spring was just about DDT. It is so much broader and deeper than that--it's really an indictment of the whole way of thinking that sets humans apart from the rest of the natural world.

Silent Spring has a lot to say about how we grow food. Carson's comments on agriculture are still relevant and cutting-edge, even 50 years later. She advocates polyculture/interplanting and explains the problem with monoculture (although I don't think the word had been coined yet), explains the concept of broad-spectrum insecticides--which she says should really be called "biocides," discusses the affect of pesticides on honeybees, explains the way that invasive species of plants and insects can disrupt ecosystems, and exposes the history and origins of synthetic pesticides. She explains that the first synthetic pesticides were developed during WWII, and were chemical agents developed by the military for use in chemical warfare, intended to be lethal to humans. Insects were used to test the poisons, and it was inadvertently discovered that they were also lethal to insects.

Reading Silent Spring has made me bump Linda Lear's biography of Rachel Carson to the next-up spot on my reading list - I'm just staggered by the breadth of this woman's knowledge and analysis, and moved by her beautiful writing. She apparently wrote Silent Spring while suffering from rapidly-metastasizing breast cancer, racing against the disease to finish her life's work. In the 18 months that she lived after the book was published, she was viciously attacked by the chemical industry, which branded her a "hysterical spinster."

I honor the "hysterical spinsters" of days gone by as my feminist foremothers, and am so grateful for Rachel Carson's courage, vision, and brilliance in defense of systems of life on the planet.

Here are some quotes from what I've read so far:

  • "Under primitive agricultural conditions the farmer had few insect problems. These arose with the intensification of agriculture--the devotion of immense acreages to a single crop. Such a system set the stage for explosive increases in specific insect populations. Single-crop farming does not take advantage of the principles by which nature works; it is agriculture as an engineer might conceive it to be. Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds. One important natural check is a limit on the amount of suitable habitat for each species. Obviously then, an insect that lives of wheat can build up its populatio nto much higher levels on a farm devoted to wheat than on one in which wheat is intermingled with other crops to which the insect is not adapted."
  • "The most alarming of all man's assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world--the very nature of its life."
  • "Future historians will be amazed at our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?"
  • "It seems reasonable to believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction."

seminal (ˈsɛmɪnəl)

— adj
1. highly original, influential, and important
2. (botany) of or relating to seed

[origin: from Late Latin sēminālis belonging to seed, from Latin sēmen seed]

Friday, July 8, 2011

Easy, Creamy, Dreamy: Raw Goat Milk Yogurt

So I have discovered that there is almost no work at all involved in making yogurt from raw goat milk. The goats and the microbes do all the work for you! Put some milk in a jar with a little bit of yogurt and viola: creamy, thick, sour-delicious yogurt.

Raw milk yogurt is so easy to make it's hard to even use the word "recipe" here, but here's the recipe:

Goat Milk Yogurt
  1. Fill a clean quart jar almost to the top with raw goat milk
  2. Add a spoonful or two of live culture yogurt
  3. Screw on the lid and let sit for 18 hours or so in a warm place.
  4. Enjoy. Save a couple of spoonfuls for the next batch.
Yum. After the past few years of perpetual move-busting, it's nice to do something that is easy.

I would like to thank the fabulous Ms. Foxy Brown for providing the milk for this adventure in cultured dairy.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On the Unexpected Rewards of Falling Behind

Volunteer potato

For the past few months, I've been bitterly lamenting the fact that our garden has been neglected to the point of chaos because of goats, plant sales, and off-farm work. Last fall, my life was consumed by managing a political campaign. Then our amazing interns finished their summer garden commitment, decreasing the garden labor available substantially. And it's only gotten worse since then.

In the Spring, our business selling heirloom plant starts exploded, and we grew and sold thousands of seedlings to gardeners in Asheville, Hendersonville, and Black Mountain. Plus our goat herd expanded (and will continue to, as pregnant goat bellies swell). All of this farm business was wonderful, but was only possible at the expense of our own garden.

By the first of June, the garden was totally out of control. Weeds were as tall as me in some places, and thick. We had a dense cover crop of ragweed and poke. We were planting annual vegetables at least a month later than usual--in some cases two months later than we had intended. As two Virgo first child overacheivers, and as a household that relies on the garden for all of our fresh produce and much of our food year round, we were getting pretty depressed about the whole situation.

The last of last year's mixed heirloom dry beans

I kept reminding myself of something that a friend said to me in the past few years along the lines of "Everyone's always in such a hurry to get their plants in the ground in the Spring, but it's really no rush - we have such a long growing season here, and there's plenty of time."

Dry beans and winter squash that need 100 days to maturity still have plenty of time before first frosts here, even being planted in early July. Which is a good thing since I just planted the last beans and squash today. Of course the pests get worse and worse the later in the summer it gets, but c'est la vie.

So now to the part about unexpected rewards. Last fall during campaign season, which was also goat barn-building season, we did a thing that we tell the students in our gardening classes never to do. We left almost all of our permanent raised beds exposed - no cover crops, no mulch, nothing but whatever was left of the straw mulch from last season. The only exceptions were the beds we planted with fava beans and garlic in the fall for spring harvest.

I was cursing our negligence as I pulled 5-foot tall Queen Anne's lace and dock from the beds to clear them for my ultra-late bean and squash planting. Until I realized this: we had a whole unexpected crop of volunteer potatoes. Pulling weeds was like hitting the potato jackpot in those ten or so beds. Each 40-foot bed that we weeded yielded about 15 pounds of potatoes. (yesterday's haul from weeding two beds pictured above).

And: there is nothing like volunteer potatoes to aerate a raised bed. The soil was so loose and ready for planting by the time the potatoes were all dug out that we were able to skip the broadforking that's usually part of our no-till bed prep regimen. All and all, it worked out pretty well.

I'm not saying that I ever want to do it again (fight an epic battle with weeds and still be planting beans in July) but I am saying that it's a really good lesson for me that sometimes there are unexpected rewards for not doing things according to plan. Last night we dined on potatoes au gratin made with new potatoes from yesterday's harvest and fresh raw goat milk. Even when things don't work out as planned, sometimes they really work out.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Taking Care of Babies

2011 is The Year of the Animal on Red Wing Farm.

First there were our girls -- three young Nubian does (Zuzu, Jojo, and Foxy Brown) and a Sannen doe named Rosie. And Buckley, a handsome Nubian buck. These goats came to us from Three Graces Dairy up in Madison County and piled out of the truck into the newly-built barn and made themselves right at home.

Then came more two more goats from Three Graces, a dog, and a brief duck experiment. 13 chickens and one deranged pea hen have been bustling around in the background through it all.

We have been taking care of babies all Spring. It started in February with the spontaneous adoption of Mona, a wonderful mama Nubian, and her 9-day old doeling Moonpie (pictured a few days after their arrival, above).

Then came little Merlin, a 4-month old buckling given to us by our friend Val at Double G Ranch, a "buck trade" on the promise of a future buckling of ours to go to Double G.

On June 1st, our Nubian first freshener Foxy Brown gave birth to the first baby born on the farm, little Felix. Motherhood did not come naturally to Ms. Foxy--she looked at Felix first with confusion and then with fear. She rejected him completely, refusing to let him get anywhere near her to nurse. We had to hold her and force her to let him nurse at three hour intervals for the first four days of his fragile little goat life, and then, miraculously, she figured it out.

The same week Felix was born, we found a listing for a full-blooded Border Collie surrendered by a breeder to an animal shelter in eastern Tennessee. We had been looking for quite some time for a rescued Border Collie to train as a goat herder, and we had to act fast. So I drove to Chuckie, TN and collected Maisey, a sweet and smart 3-month old pup who everyone has fallen in love with.

In the midst of this animal explosion, we tended and sent to new homes somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 annual and perennial seedlings. The plant babies were demanding in their own way, requiring daily attention from February through the end of May.

Three more goats are pregnant, so the babies are going to keep on coming through the fall, and we will very likely have a small flock of Khaki Campbell laying ducks established down by the pond by the end of the year.

It has been an exhausting, gratifying, and humbling experience caring for and connecting with all of the new nonhuman members of our farm family.

I've fallen off the blog wagon as animal and plant chores have eclipsed everything else. But I wouldn't have it any other way - our fridge is full of goat milk, goat sour cream and yogurt are culturing on the counter, Maisey's crashing into things on the porch chasing her tail, and baby Felix is frolicking up a storm. And The Year of the Animal continues!

Christopher and Moonpie at 4 months

Newborn Felix

Little Felix at about two weeks old with Mama Foxy