April 26, 2010

Making Yogurt

Well, here it is: the long overdue yogurt post. I've been meaning to write about making yogurt for at least three years now, and you can see from the abundance of photos that I've been preparing for it for a long time.

As I mentioned in my post about making butter, organic dairy products can be had for a lot less money by making them yourself using organic milk and cream, which usually cost much less than the equivalent amount of organic yogurt or butter (this is also true when using conventional milk and cream).

Before we get started, here's a basic ingredient list:
  • 1 liter (quart) of milk or cream (I like to make it with at least 2% milk, not low fat).
  • 1/2 cup of powdered milk (optional, but will help make the yogurt nice and thick; this is less necessary with higher fat milk).
  • 2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup of plain yogurt as a starter. This can either be store bought (make sure it says it's made with "live" or "active" bacterial culture), or saved from your previous batch.
  • heavy bottomed pot, whisk, thermometer, and jars or glass/ceramic container.
Before doing anything else, heat your oven up to 225 degrees. This is to sterilize the container(s) that will house your yogurt.  I bought a lovely pottery crock for this purpose years ago, but while it was packed during our move, I started using Bonne Maman jam jars that I originally got off of Freecycle to use as storage jars in my pantry. Put the container(s) into the oven and leave them in there for about 20 minutes. To save time, start this process right before heating the milk. When they're done, take them out and leave the door open to let the oven cool down.

The first step in making yogurt is to scald the milk (make sure you mix the powdered milk in while it's still cold, or it might go lumpy). Heat the milk in a heavy bottomed pot or bain marie, which can be made by putting a bowl over a pot of water, until it reaches 185 degrees F. If using a bain marie, you can pay less attention to it, but when using a pot, be sure to stir it almost constantly to avoid scorching the milk. Scalding will kill any bacteria in the milk. I broke my candy thermometer years ago, so I just go by sight. The milk is hot enough when it's steaming and frothy, but not boiling.

When the correct temperature has been reached, remove the milk from the heat and let it cool to below 120 degrees, but not lower than 90 degrees. Using my "built in" thermometer, I usually wait until it's just slightly warmer than body temperature. You can speed this process up by immersing the pot in a sink filled part way with cold water (usually about 10 minutes), or just let it sit on the stove (about 30 minutes). While the milk is cooling, take out your starter and let it come up to room temperature. 

When the milk has cooled, stir a couple of tablespoons or so into a small bowl with the starter. Whisk until smooth, and then stir back into the pot. Pour the milk into your containers.

Check the temperature of your oven. You want it to be as close to 100 degrees as possible; any warmer, and you risk killing the bacteria in the starter. If it has cooled too much, turn it back on low for a few minutes to warm it up. I incubate my yogurt in the oven with the light left on.

It's a good idea to lay a towel or something over the oven controls during incubation to remind yourself not to turn it on. The one time I got lazy and didn't bother, the yogurt was boiling in its jars before I remembered it was in there (it ended up being nice and thick and tasted fine, but was no longer suitable as starter).

If all goes well, after 6 - 8 hours, your milk will have turned into delicious yogurt. The longer it incubates, the thicker and tangier it will be. When it has reached the desired consistency, put your yogurt into the fridge to chill. It will continue to thicken slightly in the fridge. If you find the resulting yogurt to be thicker than you like, stirring will break up the structure of the milk solids and loosen it up (likewise, if you like a thicker yogurt, avoid stirring it as much as possible). Yogurt will keep up to two weeks in the fridge, but use it sooner if planning to use it as starter.

While you can use lower fat milk to make yogurt, lately I've been making it using half and half (10% MF). This might sound ridiculously rich and decadent (which it is!), but it results in a yogurt that's unbelievably thick, mild and delicious, like a very good Greek yogurt.

I honestly believe that the decadent nature of a higher fat yogurt doesn't actually contribute any more calories to one's diet than low fat, since you're usually satisfied by a much smaller portion (and just for the record, I recently had a physical and my cholesterol levels are excellent!).

This yogurt is a fabulous addition to things like muesli or pancakes with fruit, and it's great for making parfaits with granola. I often to eat mine with a drizzle of syrup.

If you prefer the flavored variety, it's really easy to make fruit sauces that can be stirred into your delicious homemade yogurt. Just stew the fruits of your choice with powdered sugar to taste (powdered sugar contains cornstarch which will help thicken the sauce). You can also use granular sugar and a bit of cornstarch. This is a great way to use up all of that frozen fruit at the bottom of your freezer.

Even if making your own yogurt didn't save you any money, it would still be worth doing. The active bacterial cultures in homemade yogurt are very good for you, and the taste is beyond anything you can buy in the store.

While it may sound like there are a lot of ways that making yogurt can go wrong, it's actually a very forgiving process.  If it's not already part of your repertoire, I hope you'll give it a try!

April 23, 2010

First Asparagus!

While I was out planting sunflowers this afternoon, I stopped to check the recently planted asparagus patch to see if there was anything growing yet, and there was!

It'll be a couple of years before we can start harvesting spears to eat, but asparagus has always been one of my favorite vegetables, and I'm just happy to finally have the space to grow it.

Have a great weekend!

April 21, 2010

Kinder Gardens Kick-Off

Today I'll be starting a series of posts focusing on gardening with children as part of the Kinder Gardens project organized by Kim over at The Inadvertent Farmer.

Our kids have always been involved in caring for our various gardens over the years, so of course I thought they'd be as excited as I was about taking part in this project, and I quickly began thinking up all kinds of cool things for us to do in the garden together this summer. But when I asked them what they thought about participating, I was met with shoulder shrugs and a resounding "meh".

Watering our community garden plot, 2004.

My daughter turned 14 a week ago, and while she's not at all the kind of teenager who sighs at everything her dad and I say, she does tend to react to anything we suggest with a mixture of resistance and caution (this is not a new thing, she did it as much at 4 as she does at 14).  Okay, so she likes what she likes, I can respect that, but it makes brainstorming for ideas a little difficult.  The upside is, she's a total foodie and loves to cook, so we'll be planting lots of the pattypan squash that she loves so much, in addition to our usual garden favorites. My son, however, might be a bit of a harder sell.

For us, gardening and food have always had very close ties to the literature we enjoy. Books like Brambly Hedge, and the Redwall series (they even have a fantastic seasonal cookbook), which go into great detail describing the growing, harvesting, cooking, preserving, and sharing of food, are among our all time favorite stories.  The kids have always loved to pretend to be characters from the books while they were out digging potatoes, pulling carrots, and picking berries, and all three of us have pined on more than one occasion for Mrs. Crustybread's kitchen, or for a larder similar to the store stump.

So after talking about it with them for a while, it's looking like literature might work its way into our garden once again, this time in a slightly different way.  I'll save most of the details for next week's post, but let's just say that there's a lot to be learned about herbal medicine from the Warrior Cats and the professors at Hogwarts.  

Now I just have to figure out a way to work Hobbits and a few Star Wars characters in there.

April 19, 2010


Look what I discovered when I went into the coop this afternoon:

This has got to be the smallest egg I've ever seen, even smaller than the quail eggs we used to buy!  Its small stature is even more evident when you compare it to one of our regular sized eggs:

Since we're on the topic of strange eggs, I might as well share a few more of the odd ones we've gotten. This one was so large that the only thing I could think when I saw it was "ouch".

What made this egg truly bizarre was the thick, malformed shell.  It looked like it had been molded out of clay.

Of course this bad boy had to be a double yolker:

We've also gotten quite a few shell-less eggs:

These aren't new to anyone who's ever raised chickens, but it definitely freaked me out the first time I reached into the nest box and felt an egg "give" in my hand.

You certainly don't get this kind of variety in a carton of store-bought eggs.  I can't wait to fry up my tiny egg.

Perhaps some tiny bacon would be in order?

April 15, 2010

Potato Patch

The potatoes are in, and the gardening season has officially begun! We finally had enough of a break in the rain that the soil dried out somewhat, allowing me to dig without everything getting caked in mud.

I dug two trenches down either side of a four foot bed, allowing for about two feet between the rows.  I then sprinkled a layer of "bunny fertilizer" in the trenches, and dropped the potatoes into place.

I alternated the potatoes by colour, thinking that it would be easier to identify which variety I was digging up if the ones growing right beside them didn't look exactly the same. To help me better keep track of what was planted where, I also made markers using stones and a UV stable felt pen.

I planted the seed potatoes a few inches down into the trenches, and I will earth the soil up whenever I see a nice green shoot poking out of the soil. Hopefully, if all goes according to plan, by mid summer I will have lovely, potato-filled hills in place of the trenches.

If nothing else, a spring garden is filled with promise!

April 11, 2010

Garden Prep

We spent the weekend getting the garden ready for planting, finishing the fence to keep the deer out, and marking and shoveling the soil into raised beds.

The fence, awaiting a gate and a cable along the top.

You can see that we finally managed to get the tilling done in spite of all of the rain/snow we've been getting.  The garden is no longer a safe haven for grass and weeds!

While doing some tidying around the compost bins, I noticed that my watering can has been doing double duty as a mouse trap, similar to the one that Kim's been using over at The Inadvertent Farmer (have you seen this post? Freakishly cool, but definitely not for the faint of heart!).  Note to self: store the watering can upside down so it doesn't collect water.

We used string and stakes to mark out our pathways, and then shoveled the soil from the paths onto the beds, creating raised beds.  While we were working, we decided it would be fun to let the chickens into the garden now that it's fenced.  I used my video camera to capture the moment thinking that I could share it with you here, but the rooster was so moved by the girls' excitement, that he promptly jumped onto one of the hens, turning it into an entirely different kind of movie.

They spent the afternoon happily following us around, dealing with any residual grass, and snatching up the occasional bug or worm unearthed by our shovels. Since it's early enough that I don't really have anything growing yet, I didn't think there was much for them to get into and destroy, but it turns out they have a taste for garlic greens. Hopefully our eggs won't taste funny tomorrow.

This gorgeous weather is supposed to hold for a few more days, so tomorrow I'll be taking the opportunity to get my potatoes into the ground. Maybe, if they promise to be good, I'll invite my friends to join me.

Whole Wheat Apricot Scones

When it comes to food (well, it kind of applies to everything in my life actually), I tend to be a creature of habit. When I find a recipe that I like, I will make it over and over again until either the novelty has worn off, or I discover a new favorite.  I don't just toss the recipe aside at that point, however - it will simply become a standby instead of an obsession.

That's where I'm at with the Whole Wheat Apricot Scone recipe that I discovered over at Orangette recently.  I've made them for breakfast every Saturday since she posted the recipe, and I think we may have even had them two days in row.  That's in addition to the occasional tea time batch.

The dried apricots are delicious, but I have made them with dried cranberries (I'd used up all of my apricots feeding my addiction), and those were also delicious. The recipe calls for butter, but I always use non-hydrogenated margarine, and I like to dress mine up with a dusting of coarse sugar on top.

Quick, someone distract me, I feel a batch coming on...

April 10, 2010

The Bee House Has a New Home

Waking up to a dusting of snow yesterday just about drove me around the bend, but the weather today more than made up for it - I even put my seedlings outside so they could sunbathe for a while this afternoon.

We spent most of the day building a new fence around the garden (more on that another time), but I did take the time to put the mason bee house in its new spot on the chicken coop.

I don't know why it's taken me so long to get it set up again.  I think that by the time I finally thought about it last year, all of the bees were sold out in the local garden shops (I didn't have any cocoons from our last house because a mouse discovered the container they were in in the garage and ate them all). Luckily I was more on the ball this year, and have had bees snoozing in my fridge for the past month or so. I'm not going to put them out until the nighttime temperatures quit going down below zero (isn't it supposed to be April?), which will hopefully be within the next week or two.  That will also ensure that a few more things have started blooming before the bees are ready to get down to work.

In the meantime, I'll be crossing my fingers in the hope that this sunshine sticks around for a while.

April 09, 2010

Chicken First Aid

I had no idea when we first got our chickens how much veterinary work would be involved with caring for them.  I've had pets my whole life, and it's only on the very rare occasion that I've ever had to do any kind of doctoring. So far with my hens, I've had to deal with injuries ranging from sprains, to slashed wattles (run-in with the rooster?), and a broken beak (no idea how that happened, but it bled worse than any other injury I've seen) - that's in addition to the normal, everyday cuts and scrapes and incidents of picking.

Any vet worth her salt would have a tool kit at the ready for dealing with problems as they arise, and this is mine:

So far, these four items have been all I've needed to nurse my babies back to health when they're hurting. A couple of things will come as no surprise, but I expect that at least one of them might leave you scratching your head.

The peroxide is great for disinfecting cuts and scrapes, and the antibiotic ointment is self-explanatory, but can you guess what I use the pepper for (and no, it's not seasoning for the ones who don't make it)?  Black pepper works like magic for stopping bleeding, and it's an indispensable part of my first aid kit for my people as well as my birds.  Just grind it up (a fine grind is best - store bought ground pepper works too), and apply it to the wound.  It doesn't sting at all, and it is even said to reduce scarring (the one with the ghastly gash across her wattles looks fine now, if that's any indication).  The pepper has the added benefit of deterring any hen who tries to pick at the wound (including the patient), as they don't like the smell or the flavor.  I can only wonder what my neighbors think when they see me heading out to the chicken coop with the pepper grinder under my arm.  (Kidding! I usually grind some into a tissue and take it out in its own little packet).

The Tiger Balm (which we use to ease my son's growing pains, as well as sore adult muscles) is great for preventing picking.  After stopping the bleeding (if necessary) with some pepper, I smear the tiger balm on the feathers surrounding the area that's being targeted (try to keep it on the feathers, not the skin).  The strong scent of the camphor, menthol, clove and cinnamon oils will make any chicken think twice about going in for a nip, as will the flavor, should they decide to take a taste in spite of the eye-watering smell.

Depending on the injury, I might use only one of these things, or all of them at one time.  If necessary, I'll isolate the bird in a cage for a few days (with her own food and water), close to her friends so that she isn't lonely or scared. This also helps them to remember her, ensuring that she won't have to go through the trouble of re-establishing her place in the pecking order when she's reintroduced.

It amazes me how rugged and resilient these creatures are, even though they seem to have no regard for personal safety, and will happily injure themselves (or each other) at will. Our neighbor even managed to nurse one of her hens back to health after its abdominal cavity was torn open.  So far I've been lucky and have only had to deal with basic injuries, and not with things like bumblefoot or egg binding (knock on wood), but time will tell.

April 07, 2010

And now for something completely different...

I spent far too much time updating my blog template today, so there's no time for a real post.  Instead, I'll share two silly photos that I just downloaded off of my phone.  Both were taken by me while in Vancouver recently. 

The first one we see on the way to my mom's place, and I've been meaning to take a photo of it for ages:
And I spotted this one in a public bathroom yesterday:

Who comes up with this stuff?

April 06, 2010

Faux Flagstones

It's a little embarassing to admit that we've been living here for almost two years and still have a mostly gravel front yard. We have grass growing over most of the back yard and the septic field, but the front is what suffered the most during constrution, and we've never really had a clear idea of what we wanted to do here, so we did the obvious - nothing.

We always thought we'd do a cottage style garden in the front, but where to start?  Sometimes all it takes is one thing to set the ball rolling.  My mom and stepdad decided recently that it was time to replace the aging concrete walk at the base of their entry stairs. I've read many articles over the years about people reusing broken concrete in their gardens to create the look of flagstones, and since we needed a path and lacked the funds required for real flagstones (and since we're always happy to rescue something otherwise headed for the dump), we jumped at the chance to breathe new life into their old sidewalk.

We spent an afternoon working in a torrential downpour, placing the "stones", until we had something that we liked the look of (top photo).  At first it required a bit of imagination to visualize how the pieces would look without their rough edges exposed, but after my husband spent days digging them in, I think they look surpisingly like the real thing.

We're creating garden beds alongside the stones and under the kitchen window which will echo the lines of the path.  For about five feet on either side of the stones (as well as between them), we're going to sow the same low maintenance grass seed that we planted over our septic field. 

This grass took a little while to get established in our very rocky soil, but now it looks great.  The resulting lawn is drought tolerant and requires little to no mowing. I for one am looking forward to seeing some green in this area, and to having less dust flying around when the weather turns dry.

The lesson here?  Sometimes avoiding a project pays off, giving opportunity (and inspiration) a chance to knock when it's good and ready.

I love it when a plan comes together.

April 04, 2010

Facebook Me

Just thought I'd let anyone who's on Facebook know that I've finally gotten around to setting my blog up over there. You can get to my page by following the link in the sidebar, or by clicking here.
In addition to my blog, my page will have short status updates, as well as extra photos and other tidbits that don't always find their way into blog posts. These will show up in your news feed as I add them.
Hope to see you there!

April 01, 2010

Spud Order

Maybe it's the little bit of Irish blood that I've got running through my veins, or maybe it's my tendency toward carbohydrate addiction, but potatoes have always been one of my favorite things to eat.  As far as I'm concerned, they are a food group in and of themselves.  We often make a meal out of a baked potato (a quick and easy lunch if you own a microwave), or go slightly fancier by adding lemon, capers, and olive oil to boiled new potatoes.

Since they're well suited to growing in cooler climates, potatoes are the perfect crop for northern gardens. They tolerate a variety of soil types, and produce reliably with little effort. My grandfather tells stories of spending his childhood tending the family potato field during the great depression. They grew an acre in nothing but potatoes, and the resulting harvest saw them through a entire year until the next crop went in.  You'd think that after spending years eating potatoes every day, he'd never want to look at them again, but they're still a staple in his diet. Maybe I come by my love of spuds honestly.

Nowadays, there are so many interesting varieties that it can be difficult to know what to grow.  I knew that I would definitely be planting my favorite Yukon Golds and Red Chieftans again (which I'm sprouting and planting this year from potatoes that I originally bought for cooking), but I also wanted to try something new.  That's when I discovered Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes. Their website is packed with a bevy of gorgeous potato varieties, and I spent days drooling over the selection before settling on a final order (which ended up being much larger than originally planned).  The beauty of their site is that you can order small amounts of many different kinds of potatoes, making it easy to experiment.

"Chitting" seed potatoes.

These are the varieties that I finally settled on (all "foursomes"):

     -French Fingerling
     -German Butterball
     -All Red (2 packages, because I'm intrigued by the idea of pink mashed potatoes)
     -Green Mountain
     -Purple Viking
     -Alaska Sweetheart
     -Russet Burbank

The garden is now completely grass-free and ready to go, but we've got a stretch of rainy weather to get through before planting these babies outside.  I can't wait to see if this bunch will produce a new family favorite.

Is there a potato variety that your garden would be incomplete without?


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