Sunday, October 11, 2009

Transitioning to Fall

This week the weather has been so gorgeous: mild, cool, (60-70 degree) and crisp nights (50ish). I'm trying to enjoy it the best that I can, autumn is a very short season in SoCal, its likely to jump back to 90 degree temps to get cold and drizzly and rather depressing on natures whim. I've heard and read that autumn in SoCal is the equivalent of spring back east; we're finally wandering outside again after the brutal summer sun and heat, and the ground is warm enough for seeds and plants to take off but not too warm as to need to water every hour and hope the plants make it.

I harvested 12 nice sized tomatoes from the 'Bush Champion' plant on the balcony. I haven't called the plant "done" yet because its still producing new flowers on the top, hoping to get a few more tomatoes from it. I finally had to cut down and toss the other 2 'Patio' tomato plants because they were over run with spider mites, and being determinants were looking rather lackluster and not flowering or setting more fruit. I cut down the 'Jaune Flamme' tomatoes after their last batch a few weeks ago because whatever disease the plants had just took over completely. Pole beans look nice, they have stretched all the way to the top of the trellis netting I installed and are flowering like crazy, I even spotted 1 lone bean pod this morning, prob the first flower the vine made was pollinated right away! I also planted some pea plants I got from our community garden fundraising booth. I lightly tied them to the netting with some tomato tape, I hope this cool ( 60-70 degree) ish weather stays for awhile longer to give the plants time to settle in and take off, praying for no more crazy heat waves like the one last year that decimated everyone's cool season gardens.

My pole beans have some sort of issue where the older leaves are turning yellow, dying, and falling off. My first guess would have been nitrogen deficiency since its starting with the oldest leaves and leaving the veins green at first- but this is a legume here, aren't they supposed to MAKE nitrogen? I didn't inoculate the beans first tho, so that may be a reason.

With my limited growing space I have to rotate plants sometimes if it seems some things aren't getting enough sun, or last week when the spider mites were really bad I tried to space things in a certain way so when I blasted the plants with plain water with a tank sprayer I wouldn't get mites onto uninfected plants- turns out they got on everything anyway. I'm pretty sure the constant breeze didn't help me there. It was pretty hot and dusty last month- which spider mites love- so I kept trying to mist them daily with water to try and keep the mite population down. When that didn't work I tried garlic & oil, soap and water, even water and cayenne pepper. Nada, they just kept breeding like rabbits and as fast as I could knock them off with water they rebounded and spun millions of tiny webs all over my plants. This week after seeing how badly they were damaging my new planting of tomatoes I finally gave in and applied a neem oil solution to all my plants. At least its an organic miticide but I still hate spraying something that can harm beneficials as well, so I sprayed it at 11pm at night so for sure no stray bees or hummingbirds would be out and about. Today when I checked on the plants I saw very few live mites, so I hope a few more doses at neem to get whatever hatches out again should help knock the population back down a few notches.

I ran out of potting soil, I need to get some more compost to mix with the vermiculite and coco peat I have in the garage, or I may be lazy and just get some Dr.Earth or Ednas best or something all ready to use. For fall I still want to plant some Swiss chard, baby beets, dwarf bok choy, nasturtiums, lettuce, and of course mesclun. I'm craving some sweet fresh salads again.

Ok, gotta go, I need to finish up that pomegranate jelly :) My dad's tree is packed with fruit this year, so he gave me 2 buldging bags worth ( barely dented whats on the tree) and Chris helped me remove the seeds. Then I ran them thru the blender quickly to puree ( without liquefying the seeds as much as possible), then strained in a colander lined with a clean cotton cloth. I squeezed as much liquid as I could from the 'pulp', then poured the juice into clean quart jars to let any solids settle out. After a couple of hours I have jars full of translucent dark red pomegranate juice with a layer of white seed particles settled at the bottom. I hope by carefully decanting the liquid I can get nice clear juice and some beautiful clear pomegranate jelly! More photos on that to follow shortly.

In the meantime, enjoy my little slide show of how my garden has been faring over the last month or so.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

video of my Toddler's antics in the kitchen

This is why I can't take my eyes off my son for even 5 minutes, espcially when I leave an open bag of flour out on my freshly scrubbed down counters before starting a new batch of dough.

What you can't see in the video was the flour all over the floor as well as the counter, plus as he scooted around on his butt his underwear was like a powder puff, just coated in the stuff. His shrugging shoulders and avoidance of eye contact are Tristan's classic "Uh oh I am in trouble and I know it" routine. My favorite moment in this video is his answer to "Are you going to touch mommy's flour again?"

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wagons East! ( We're looking to leave California)

Yup, the inevitable has come at least: My husband has been laid off.

I can't say it was a surprise- actually it was a relief after nearly a year of being yo-yoed by his former employer, the bank that owned our house, family members, and the economy- I can finally say we're free.

We don't own a house, we don't have a job, our bankruptcy is almost done with, and we have unemployment benefits, savings ( that we've squirreled away since this hell started a year ago), a full chest freezer and 4 3f by 5 ft pantries crammed to the brimming with canned book and dry staple goods I have been hoarding like an OCD hamster. So overall, I can say we will be OK for right now.

The only things we really buy from the store in a regular basis were eggs, milk, chocolate, sugar, canning jars, and odds n ends, and thankfully the kids qualify for WIC so theres the milk and eggs. Starting next month CA WIC finally changes over to the new healthier program, so they will nwo offer whole grains such as brown rice or whole wheat tortillas, vouchers for fruits and vegetables ( even organic!) and more options for dried or canned beans/lentils instead of peanut butter. Hooray! I get a little bit of money here and there for speaking gigs, friends buying the Jam I make and hopefulyl soon a few odd jobs some friends have offered to my husband. I've gotten quite good at Pinching a penny till Abe Lincoln cries ( thanks for that quote Kathe!). Our grocery bill for a family of 4 is around 300 a month, I think lately its been a little more with buying produce and canning jars in the summer. In California thats quite an achievement to be proud of.

Chris and I have been talking in earnest about possibly moving out of state where its cheaper, quieter, and life is less hectic, but we didnt have a clue where- being we've been in California our entire lives. This summer when we were in Missouri for a wedding we both kinda fell in love with the areas we drove thru: its was green, had trees, land prices were way cheaper, and somehow our blood pressure was considerably lower there even with the drama of a family wedding, our 2 small kids and knowing the clock on Chris job was running. So this week when I kinda just sat down, looked outside at the hot dry brown landscape that is SoCal in the summer and said "Man, why can't we just move somewhere else in the country" Chris actually agreed with me. He's really over California and is curious to live elsewhere and have a different lifestyle.

What a huge weight off my shoulders! I wasnt just a crazy wife wanting to drag my husband away, he seriously looked like he's also had enough of our states stupid budget, the politicians, the celebrities, lack of rainfall, crazy electric prices, even crazyer home prices, and the starbucks on ever frigging corner...the list goes on and on. I love the beautiful view of the San Gabriel mountains from our windows- but now that view is oftentimes obscurred with smog and the blob of urban sprawl keeps climbing up the foothills. Gone are the citrus groves, the vineyards, the windbreaks of eucalytus trees, wandering sheep herds, blooming yucca plants like giant candles in the moonlight. This area no longer feels unique- you can find almost exact copies of the housing tracts and shopping malls all over SoCal.

I tried to look and see how much renting a small home with a little bit of land ( an acre or less) around it was, and even a piece of crap house in a terrible area with an acre of land is renting for 2,000-2,200 a month. No thanks.

We've lost so much in the last year, but in return we've gained something precious: freedom. As weird as it may sound, the world is our oyster for a moment, if we can find a job somewhere else thats stable and meets the cost of living in the area, we're good. Problem is in this economy having a college degree and years of experience isnt the golden ticket to a happy middle class lifestyle like it used to be. So all we can do right now is plan, research, and look for work across the country.

I know some people would think I'm nutts for wanting to leave, I mean this place has everything, a baseball stadium down the street, a NASCAR racetrack in Fontana, a bunch of colleges nearby, 3 malls within a 30 minute drive, 40 minutes to the closest ski area, an hour from the beach, 90 minutes to wine country, an hour to downtown LA and that street scene- but we don't really care! LOL

What do we both want at this point in our lives?

* Peace and quiet. NO big rigs honking, sirens constantly from the freeway and streets, people and their pimped out cars with a subwoofer blaring the base for a mile around them. Car alarms, helicopters, drunk idiots walking home, airport traffic, I'm sick of never having silence not even in the middle of the night.

*Less Traffic- it shouldnt take 2 hours to do 20 miles, but at 5pm on a Friday, thats the minimum drive time. If you need to take the 91 or the 101, double that time. Even to cross the city of Rancho Cucamonga, which is like, 7 miles? Takes me an average of 25 minutes up one street. Yes I've been timing it. With nearly 250,000 people living in a 10 mile radius, theres almost always some traffic, and its worse with all the street expansions and new contruction going on.

*S-P-A-C-E: I hate seeing these new homes so close together you sneeze and your next door neighbor hears you from inside their house. I don't want to hear them arguing, watching TV, or having sex either when all I want is the windows open for some air.

*Privacy: goes hand in hand with space. I want to be able to walk outside, tend a garden, sit and read a book on a porch, or have a BBQ without 20 people being able to see me or hear me outside. I've heard strong fences make good neighbors, but an acre of distance would sure help it as well.

*Seasons: so far here we get wind, fires, floods, and 100+ heat. At any time of the year, and sometimes in the same week. I've had pool parties on my birthday (Jan 3) because it was 95 degrees. I've never watched the leaves turn to shades of red and gold, seen frost make lace on the windows, or looked for the first snowdrops of the spring. Thins other states take for granted. The days blend into each other and don't change much and somehow my body just feels tired and confused. Yes the sunshine is nice, but the sound of rain falling as I sleep is the sweetest therapy ever. As much as I hate cold, I would put up with snow so a hearty hot soup or stew is that much better, and so I'd appreciate spring more. Yes theres blizzards and tornados, but here we get earthquakes and santa ana winds. Its give and take, no place is perfect.

*Land: I don't want a landscaped front lawn, or a backyard or a cul de sac lot, I want land. At least an acre or 2. Room for a well planed intensively planted fruit orchard, a sustainable tree area for firewood, a large compost area, a vegetable garden, a berry patch, Bees, space for a couple of egg laying chickens or ducks and agoat or 2 for milk someday down the road round out my American dream nicely.

to be continued.......

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lesson learned: do not add cold jars to a hot canner...

I had chicken stock simmering all night, and today needed to get it strained, chilled (to remove the fat) and canned. My mind must have been somewhere else entirely, I had turned the stove on to heat up the water in the pressure canner while I filled jars with cold stock...then when I added the first jar in- CRACK!

I freaked out and checked to see what cracked before it hit me that the water was hot, the glass jar was cold, bad combo. I've never had a jar crack on me. So I carefully lifted it out with the jar lifter and ot my surprise the whole bottom of the jar fell off in one piece! LOL

So I ended up with a bottomless jar and a canner of stock-y hot water. Kinda cool actually. The edge where the glass cracked isnt even sharp surpriseingly enough. I'm saving the jar to use as a cloche in springtime. Now I'm curious to replicate cracking just the bottom off of big clear wine jugs and such to make my own glass cloches for plants.

Later while waiting for one batch of stock to cool and the next batch to warm up so I could put them in the canner I noticed how much the color changes after being in the pressure canner. I hope I'm not "burning" the stock in the process, I'll have to wait till I open one to taste and compare to some fresh stuff that I have frozen into cubes.

Canning / JAMboree 2009 (part 1)

What I started with: 50 pounds of 'O Henry' peaches and 56 pounds of 'Friar Plums'

Heres just some of what I've made so far: (In this photo) 9 1/2 pints of plum jam, 3 quarts of brandied peaches, 4 pints of peaches in light syrup, 9 quarts of plums in cinnimon syrup

I played around with raw packing some and hot packing some, didnt notice too much of a difference in how much they float, so to sva etime I may just raw pack them all from now on.

simple plum jam with sugar, lemon juice, and low sugar pectin. My mom will be happy, plum is her favorite jam.

Was playing around with plums and noticed something cool, when I put the first batch of plum halves to 'poach' on the syrup the skins slipped off showing off this beautiful yellow flesh, but as I did more batches of plums the syrup got darker and darker from the plum skins (going left to right in this photo) , to the point that the fruit was taking on the red color from the syrup even before the skins slipped off. In the end I just raw packed some plums skins and all in the dark red syrup, resulting on the really dark jars on the far right.

Last night I made 10 1/2 pints of Peach Melba Jam ( peach/raspberry) and 10 1/2 pints of a plum sauce flavored with orange juice and cardamon. Its sweet, but with a good tang from the orange and the hint of spice, good as a soft fruit spread, a pancake syrup or if I add some more spice and ginger possibly a good asian plum sauce. I also took some of my frozen raspberries form our picking trip to Riley's farm and have them soaking in a quart of Brandy- a little experiment in preserving fruit with alcohol. I forgot to take photos of those.

Even after all of that canning and jamming, giving fruit to the kids as snacks, and gifting some to my mom and dad, I still have a 25 pound box each of fruit. And I'm almost out of jars...I'm down to 1 dozen each of 1/2 pints and pint jars. I guess next I'll have to try my hand at freezing fruit pies in plastic lined pie tins to have pies ready to go later on this year. After that if I still have ziplocks I may resort to sugarpacking/freezing whatever fruit is left before it goes bad. Its ripe but still firm thankfully, I dont want to have mushy fruit left to freeze.

Friday, August 28, 2009

In my Garden : new beneficials, and of course new pests

My summer Balcony Garden ( and eager 2 year old looking for ripe tomatoes)

Yum, nothing beats a sun warmed ripe tomato fresh from outside with a bit of salt and pepper. I didnt even bother with basil this time, I was too eager to eat it.

The humingbirds love these scarlet runner bean vines, but they are too fast for me to get a photo of them (yet). Originally I had hoped to harvest these beans for green beans, but the pods swell so fast I gave up and will just let the pods mature to save seeds for next year. I planted some bush beans and real edible pole beans for an early autumn harvest, they have taken off wonderfully well in this heat.

When we first moved here I didnt see any bees, zip, nada- so I planted marigolds in a planter box hanging off the balcont railing, hoping the bright colors would catch the eye of a wandering honeybee. It seemed to work, and we have a few that show up daily to the tomatoes, basil flower and these oregano flowers I took the photos of. None ever land on the marigolds tho oddly enough.

This week has been so very very hot, its 108 outside right now and supossed to stay that way or hotter thru the weekend. I know I shouldnt be complaining, thats the norm for around here, but its been an unseasonably cool summer, all of June pretty cloudy and cool, only getting into the low 90s most days of July & August. I had actually been seriously considering starting my fall seedings this week ( carrots, beets, lettuce, cabbage etc) worried that we'd have a very harsh cold winter if summer was so cool, but again mother nature likes to surprise us.

Fall frost dates are weird around here, for San Bernardino ( the closest city I have weather data for) the 50% date for frost is around Dec 25, and the last Spring frost date is Jan 21, so not a whole lot of risk of a frost or freeze most years. Plus being on the 2nd story surrounded by concrete I'd guess the reflected heat, covered overhang and reflected light from the carport would all keep my balcony above freezing even in a cold snap. So for fall crops I'm looking at planting around Late September/into October. But with this heat I'm not so sure, we had record setting heat last October in the 90s. Weird.

Anyhow, my balcony garden has proven to be fairly successful, lots of herbs and 'Flamme' cherry tomatoes, and the 'Patio' and 'Bush Champion' plants are packed with blossoms and smell green tomatoes, they really kicked into high gear when the sun finally came out in July. The 'Flamme' tomato had been going strong since it was planted last March, so it made sense it was the first to fall victim to some bugs and some sort of disease.

First off I noticed some leaves randomly dying, drying up and falling off, then it was side branches wilting and dying, and now I'm seeing it in more and more places on the plants. I tried to take detailed photos and spent a few hours pouring over my notes from our disease management class and the Master Gardener Handbook. I think its some sort of wilt, just not sure which type-grrrr. I tried to cut off the damaged areas and sterilized the slippers after each cut and its still popping up all over the 2 plants. *sad sigh*

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


While driving back from Palmdale this weekend I passed alot of orchards around Littlerock and along pearblossom when I passed a fruit stand that had fruit for $9 a box I made a crazy quasi-illegal u-turn ( 138 doesnt have many turnout areas) and went back to check them out. I got 2 28 pound boxes of Friar plums for $9 each, and they had O'Henry peaches for $9 a box as well, but on the way to pay I spied boxes of smaller peaches for $6 (They were just a bit smaller then the regular/med peaches that were selling for more), SCORE! grabbed 2 of those instead.
Actually I didnt grab them, I tried to carry them to Chris' truck 1 box at a time, but do you have any idea just how heavy a 28 pound box of plums is? I thought I was going to drop them. One of the workers must have seen the vein in my neck almost pop out and smiling came out to help me carry the rest of my precious cargo and cram it into the cab of the truck.

I'm quite pleased with myself, I've been stalking the farmers market all summer drooling for peaches but even now at the peak of the season they were $2.99-4.99 a pound. Boo.

A local supermarket finally had them on sale for $0.99 a pound....then a 1 day sale for $0.39 a pound, which I missed because I lost track of which day of the week it was. *facepalm*. It seemed it was going to be a peachless summer for me. I think $0.24 a pound for what the owner said was picked fresh that morning seemed fair.

So now theres nearly 100 pounds of fruit sitting in boxes on my kitchen table. Even tho they are "tree ripe" they were hard as baseballs when I got them, but after 48 hours in our 70 degree apartment most have softened up a little and taste much sweeter. Perfect for hands on attempts in canning them. Right now I have 3 quarts of Brandied peach halves in a combo of light syrup and brandy. I have a batch of lavender syrup on the stove ready for another batch of peaches in lavendar syrup later, and I have a pot of water heating for helping get the peach skins off ( dunk in boiling water, dunk in ice water, skin slips off). Also on my list of recipes to try: Peach Chutney, Peach Melba Jam and Peach salsa.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The art of kefir making

I have been meaning to post about how I make kefir from the grains I got from my freedomgardens pal Theresa. Its only taken 6 months to pull this post out of my draft folder and finally finish it! Kefir grains are interesting in that they cannot be made in a lab persay as a culture, the only way to get more kefir grains is to keep some happy until they grow (propogate) and you have so many grains you end up having to give half of them away unless you're making huge qualities of kefir daily. My grains came from Theresa, who got them from a friend, who got them from a friend in Missouri, and at some point those came from New York, and thats as far back as I personally know....theres something very cool having a culture with a lineage. :)

In the interest of time I'll spare you the details of what kefir is, its history, and the science behind it. To find out more then you ever wanted to know about kefir, check out Doms Kefir In-site, he seriosly answers any question you could ever think of and then some. I learned by reading and rereading Doms site, and he updates it regularly with more info, recipes, and methods for using kefir grains for fermenting other drinks. I still check it out every week because theres so much still to learn, and he has a ton of info on his sites.

Why do I bother making it? To summarize, I drink it because its like yogurt but tastier, its fizzy, and because I think its really cool how these little cauliflower like 'grains' turn milk into something different.

Because I am working with a dairy product, I make sure everything that touches the milk or kefir is very clean, not sterilized, but just washed with hot water and soap and rinsed very well. Remember we are activly trying to give the milk a good environment for the kefir to ferment as it would, and if any other 'bad bugs' get into the party it can cause issues.

Cindys Step by Step kefir culture methods ( if you want more photos to double check your work, see Doms instructions)

My basic kefir making supplies are:
1 glass quart canning jar (washed in hot soapy water, rinsed very well, and air dried) and its 2 piece lid
1 glass quart jar of fresh milk/kefir grains thats cultured as long as I've intended (more on this later)
jug of fresh milk, fresh from your animal or from the fridge.

*** if you have never made kefir before and have just gotten your grains, you should have a small bowl of your kefir grains soaking in a bit of cool, filtered and very importantly unchlorinated water (chlorine kills things, dont kill your grains) and 1 jar of fresh milk ready to go

1 small strainer that fits in the opening of your quart jar (some people avoid metal, I never had a problem with my particular little strainer)
1 small bowl/dish for collecting the kefir grains as they get strained out
1 long handled spoon, for stirring

First of all, observe your grains. Take a whiff of them, either the jar of cultured milk with the grains floating in it, or your shipped container of grains in their liquid. Its normal for them to smell slightly yeasty, or kinda sour like a good yogurt ( the longer its cultured the more 'tangy' it smells), but not bad like rotten milk or heaven forbid rotten eggs, that means some other bacteria got into your culture or the milk and contaminated your liquid. Do not drink the liquid, but do not throw away your kefir grains, they can be rinsed and reused, but more on that later. The more you get used to making kefir, the more you get a sense ( and smell) of whats normal and whats bad.

I start and end my kefir culturing in the fridge, so when I am about to stain my kefir the grains have either sunk to the bottom, or more often risen to the top and are trapped in this thick mass of what looks like curds or foam on the surface, depending on how long it was culturing, if it was culturing at a lower temp in the fridge vs at room temp, and how often I disturbed the kefir by shaking the jar or stirring. I break it up with a spoon to make straining the grains out of the liquid easier.


stirring results in something like this, kindof a creamy cottage cheese stuff, which is your kefir grains and the coagulated kefir ( a mixture of milk and a substance called kefiren) that sticks to them and protects them.

place your strainer over your clean quart jar, and slowly pour in the cultured kefir, its thick so give it a few seconds to strain thru, its easy for it to get a little backed up if its very thick or theres a big clump of grains. Gently stir the kefir in the strainer if needed with a clean spoon to gently break up any large lumps and free up that thick kefir from the grains to fall into the collecting jar below ( thats the most concentrated stuff right there, whats on the grains themselves). I find that gently tapping the strainer on top of the jar shaked the kefir thru faster and knocks off a good amount of the very probiotic 'curds' thru the strainer and into the kefir below.

As our strainer fills with grains tip them into a little clean bowl and voila, you have a glass jar full of ready to drink kefir and clean ready to resuse kefir grains for your next batch. Depending on the batch its perfectly normal for the grains to sometimes have more or less 'curds' sticking to them. I tap the strainer until most of the creamy stuff have been knocked off.

If you are just starting off with new grains from the internet or a friend, strain the kefir grain/water mixture thru the strainer, discard the water and now you are on the same page: a batch of happy little kefir grains ready to go back to work. I know its tempting to touch the grains , they have a firm, rubbery and slimy feel to them, but try to only do this once in a great while with very, very, VERY clean hands so you don't get germs on your grains- not to mention they are very slippery and easy to drop down the kitchen sink. (don't ask how I know this)

You should now have your clean jar full of freshly strained, ready to use kefir, your little bowl of kefire grains and 1 dirty jar that was the culture jar.

Don't wash the jar.

No, I'm not kidding. We're taking advantage of a little thing called continuous fermentation, that is, that kefir clinging to the sides of that jar when mixed with the kefir grains and fresh milk will help jumpstart the next batch. But before you dump in the grains and milk, get a papertowl moist with hot water and wipe off the inside rim as well as the thread on the outside rim, since if any icky bugs were lurking from exposure to air thats where they'd most likely be. If the idea of reusing your culture jar freaks you out, go ahead and wash it out with hot soapy water ( double checking the rim and screw thread on the jar), triple rinse it, and make sure the jar is cool before jumping your kefir grains into it. Adding a spoonfull of the just strained kefir to your fresh milk will do the same thing. Or don't knock any of the creamy curds off the grains the way I do. Or all of the above.

Everyone has their own way that works best for them. Some people always add up to 1/4 c of the strained kefir back into the 'new' culture jar to help ensure the 'good' culture is thriving in the milk and quickly lowering the pH, which lessens the chance of a 'bag' bacteria interfering. I usually only add kefir to fresh milk when the grains have been 'resting' in the cold fridge for more then 2 weeks or its a new batch of grains that may not be up to full power yet after the stress of being shipped.

The fresh strained kefir should taste kinda like yogurt with its own slightly yeasty tart tang to it, the longer its been culturing or the amount of grains in the milk will affect how strong or sour (acidic) the kefir is. No 2 batches taste the same, at least not for me. I've had people come to me and ask why their new kefir grains produce kefir that doesnt taste or smell quite right, not bad, just not what they expected. I say give it a bit of time. It could be the grains adjusting to a new routine, new brand of milk, switching from goats milk to cows milk, a different dairy, or the temperature changes in your kitchen over the year. Depending on how well the grains were treated in their past certain cultures may have died off or taken over- kefir grains are made up of multiple organisms from some 4 different genus groups. Some people swear by organic milk because they fear antibiotics excreted in non-organic milk can affect your kefir. Sounds totally plausable to me but so far I have had great luck using non-organic, but non-rbst milk from my local store ( and local cows) cold right out of the fridge with no issues.

The usual ratio of kefir grains of milk is anywhere from 1-3 tablespoons of grains to a quart of milk. More grains means the milk cultures faster and is usually thicker. I like that. Every couple of weeks my kefir grains will have doubled in volume as they continue to grow. This is when I split my kefir grains into 2 batches of about 2 T each. I keep my extra grains in the fridge in a jar of milk "resting" while I culture the other half or I give them away.

So now you have your culturing jar with your kefir grains and milk, ready to go- you reach for your canning lid/ring combo to put it on- WAIT. Don't put that top on until you have made sure the underside of the lid, the ring, the thread on the jar and the inside rim of the jar are clean. Use a new paper towl moitened with hot water to wipe it well. Especially if you're using the culture jar without rinsing it, make darn sure you clean the rim and thread!

Ok, so NOW you can set your lid and ring on, or if you're reusing some other type of jar, the screw on lid. Do not tighten the lid, you don't want an airtight seal here, which is why I like 2 piece lids better, I can leave it just a bit loose so as the kefir cultures and makes CO2 you dont get pressure building which could blow up the jar.

Store your fresh strained kefir in the fridge with a clean lid a bit loose as well, or if you'd like fizzy bubbly kefir only fill the jar 3/4 full then put the lid on tight ( so the Co2 gets trapped into the liquid like soda, its really good).

Take the culturing jar of grains and milk and set them in a dark, warm place. It cultures faster the warmer it is, so I usually leave it overnight at room temp on my counter. The next morning I 'burp' the jar by unscrewing the lid all the way to let out any trapped gas, tighten well, shake gently, then loosen the lid up again. I then put my cultured kefir in the fridge for another day or two to then let it slowly culture at cooler temps for a thicker, less sour kefir.

I've noticed theres a slight color change to the milk as it cultures. In this photo from left to right: kefir grains +fresh milk, 8 hours culture time, 12 hours culture time

If I just left the jars of culturing kefir or the strained kefir out at room temp alone undisturbed for 24 hours ( or less if its warm or theres alot of grains for the volume of milk) I get this:

The kefir basically cultured quickly, lowering the pH so the kefir literally seperated into curds and whey, like in cheesemaking. The whey can be clear, whitish or even slightly tinted yellow. Its still perfectly drinkable, just stir it with a spoon and it easily breaks up into a thick creamy consistency, but very tart. If you leave strained kefir out at room temp to this stage you can carefully pour out the whey and straining the solid curds in cheesecloth or butter muslin to make a soft kefir cheese! Just like making yogurt cheese, its very tasty with herbs on toast or crackers and keeps in the fridge for up to 2 weeks tightly covered.

If you really hate the tartness of kefir you can culture it entirely in the fridge, it will take anywhere from 4-7 days at that temperature but it seems to favor certain strains of yeast and bacteria in the grains that don't leave the kefir as strong and tart. Then after straining mix in a glass with honey or some other fruit syrup, or in a smoothie and you have a very healthy pro-biotic drink. :)


I've been very lucky in the 10 or so months that I've been making kefir on a bi-weekly basis to have only once had an issue where a batch that had been 'resting' in a jar of milk in the back of the fridge for 3 weeks went "off" and smelled terrible, like sour rotten milk, and the whew had a slightly green tinge to it. I had been gone on vacation for 2 weeks and when I came back had forgotten to change the milk- so either the kefir got too acidic and somethign went wrong or a tiny bit of unwanted bacteria that would normally be kept in check by all the good yeasts and bacteria in the kefir grains got a foothold and had a long enough timespan to develop.

What I did was strain the kefir like usual, throw out the undrinkable kefir, and using very clean hands in a bowl of cool, filtered and unchlorinated water I gently washed and rubbed the grains to get all the milk off of them, they were still kinda slippery to the touch which is a good sign. I changed the water about 5 times until the water was clear and I couldnt rub anymore milk or little whitish curds off, leaving the light yellow kefir grains totally clean looking.

I then let the kefir grains sit in a jar of room temp, filtered unchlorinated water overnight ( this is called purging or fasting the kefir grains, try not to do this unless you have to, it can damage the balance of organisms in the kefir grains and it takes them a bit to recover and be at full culture strength again). The next morning I strained off the water and placed them in a clean jar with about 2 tablespoons of fresh yogurt with active cultures and 1T of fresh milk. I got that tip online since the cultures in the yogurt will help reinnoculate the kefir grains with the lactobacillus cultures we want and kill off any unwanted bacteria. I don't know the science behind this and havent experimented, but it sounded like a decent idea at the time. If you have multiple jars of kefir in your home you can also use 1/4 cup of fresh strained active good kefir to soak the grains in. After letting this mixture sit in the fridge for a day or so I strained the grains out like usual, added them to a jar of fresh milk and havent had a problem with them since (2months).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

adventures in bread baking

I have a great appreciation now for people who really can blog something insightful and interesting every single day. I have big dreams ( and great posts) in my head I always mean to type up when I get home- but in the midst of a toddler and a newly initiated kindergardener (she started this week) my brain is kinda like a etch a sketch with Mona Lisa on it...after its been dropped down a few flights of stairs. Kinda blank and spotty at the same time. Its been a busy summer, we've gone to the beach, visited the Orange County Fair, I got even more involved with the formation of the local community garden and I've been spending alot of time in the kitchen making more jams and pouring over my prized vintage cookbooks for something inspirational to tackle. Blame it on being a double Capricorn, but I'm not really ever content unless I'm pushing myself to learn something new and inprove on it.

While on my blogging sabbiatical of sorts I've gone into the realm of making bread. Yes bread, staple of millions, and for me a $3.79 multigrain loaf is always on my shopping list, to toast alongside my beloved homegrown fresh eggs (from chicken blessed pals) sunny side up over easy. Then it kinda dawned on me that it wouldn't cost me almost $4 to make a decent loaf of bread that wasnt just "white crap", and after all my birthmother did get me a kitchenaid artisan mixer ( Luv ya MoMo!). Yes the powers that be made it known to me by my inability to cut carbs that if I was really delving into the mental state of a country woman I needed (I typed kneaded at first, LOL) to make a decent, healthy, preferably multigrain bread. French bread would be awesome too, what was once a $.89 loaf for garlic bread was up to $1.29 now. I hate relying on the supermarket for something as basic as bread. I've been reading books, vintage cookbooks/magazines, websites, and blogs learning all sorts of interesting trivia, history, and factoids about the different types of flours, milling processes and different breads and baking styles. I am such a food nerd. King Arthur Flour's website and Bobs Red Mill have aot of awesome information for novice bakers. So far my attempts have been rather successful if I do say so myself.

Heres the bread I had been making for the last 5 years, a gluten-free bread for my husband that was quick to assemble and bake in my bread machine. Works great for toast, garlic bread, stuffing, bread crumbs- its dense but not dry, which is the usual issue with GF bread.

For my first attempt at making "real" bread I wanted a recipe I could easily use my kitchenaid mixer to knead for me. Yes I know that isnt really 'traditional' but in my household counterspace for kneading dough is hard to find and my kitchentable too corwded with other stuff to use. So the mixer was a good first step for me. Eventually I totally want to learn how to knead the bread myself and literally get a feel for it in my hands, but baby steps here.
My first attempt was an ode to my favorite bread in the world, the sweet Molasses Oat bread from Black Angis steakhouse. Boy every time I go there I polish off 2 loaves of the stuff with their butter before my food ever comes out. You'd think I'd learn by now but nope. Its just that good. So when I did a google search for "Kitchenaid Oat Bread" I found a very good recipe on recipezarr for a Honey Oatmeal Bread, I knew I had found an awesome recipe. It rose and baked beautifully, as my proud photos can attest to. Later on I tweaked the recipe a bit, using 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses and 1/4 honey, and the flavor was subtle. I wanted more so then I tried 1/2 blackstrap molasses and 1/4 c honey. You could def taste the molasses, but it wasnt as sweet. So finally I used a 1/2 c molasses, 1/4 c honey AND 1 T of white sugar disolved in the warm water mixture. Bingo! Nice and sweet, but not too much, with a wonderful taste of molasses in it. Yesterday I played around with it a bit more substituting half of the rolled oats with some milled 10 grain cereal to try and get it closer to store bought multigrain bread. It turned out well, I totally forgot I was supossed to soak the grains in hot water first, but maybe because it was pretty fine gound and I used a bit extra water it worked just fine, but took closer to 3 hours to double and rise instead of 1 hour. Next time I make it I may add some cracked sunflower seeds and flax seeds in as well.

This week I also tried my hand at making French Bread. For some reason I had it in my mind that it was really complicated with milk and eggs and dry milk and who knows what- probably because when I watch chefs on TV make brioche I feel overwhelmed...but this French Bread recipe Kitchenaid publishes in their mixer manuals is really awesome, and with only water, flour, yeast, butter, and salt. ( don't use a peel so I skipped the cornmeal, and forgot about the eggwash and it still turned out great). I hope to buy a baking stone someday for artisanal breads and pizza, but for right now my non-stick cookie sheet seems to be working. Alton Brown says you can use a plain unglazed $2 quarry tile from Home Depot, so I'll go check that out sometime as well. I tried to be fancy and braided one loaf like my mom described in how she used to make Challah, and I was so overjoyed to see how pretty it turned out.

In the future I want to try making rolls out of it, or adding fresh chopped rosemary to imitate my other favorite restaurant bread, Maccaroni Grill's Rosemary bread. My mom suggested added shredded cheddar cheese or dried herbs to it, I hope this dough is as flexable as I'm praying it is. I love the idea of getting a few dough recipes down pat and then just changing it up a bit to add more variations.

Looks like I might not be able to rely on my mixer to do all the kneading for me- when I made the french bread I substituted bread flour for all purpose since I had hoped it would make it better, but boy did my mixer have to work at it. The top part wobbled so much the hinge pin that holds the motor part to the base of the mixer worked its way out almost all the way- not good. I had to go google a solution because of course that day kitchenaid customer service was closed because of department meeting. I ended up taping the pin very gently into place with a hammer then tightening the screw underneath thats supossed ot hold it in place. Later on I looked up why that had happened-found the answer on the official Kitchenaid Forums- I guess artisan mixers can only handle up to 9 cups of all purpose flour at a time or 6 cups of specialty flour ( whole grain, bread, or high gluten ) per load. I guess having 7 cups
of bread flour was making the motor a bit grumpy. I may have to cut some recipes in half to avoid burning out the motor on my hardworking buddy. I had no idea there were different mixers for such things, I could never figure why if a mixer is supossed to do so many basic functions and last for years why people own 3 or 4 of them... or why some are more expensive or whatever, I guess the stronger the motor the more dough it can handle at once and can handle denser flours. Interesting. Now I know!
But I think no matter how much I try and justify this to my husband he ain't going to go for it.

At only $900 at Williams-Sonoma this 575 watt, 6qt, real copper coated thing of beauty is going to stay on its shelf along with all the rest of the really beautiful and expensive stuff there I'll always drool over but never buy. Well, maybe for our 10 year anniversary or something, kitchenaid outlet sells reburbished ones for only $450 on ebay.

Only $450. yeah. only. ha.

My new addiction to bread baking is supossed to be SAVING me money! (right?)

Monday, July 27, 2009

computer issues, please stand by

Hooray for getting computer to boot up in safe mode with networking!

Our computer has been having some major driver issues (IRQL driver not less than or equal) leading to blue screen of death every few minutes and constant reboots....My husband the computer whiz tried EVERYTHING from uninstalling/re-installing drivers to virus scans, defragging, system restore, BIOS settings, and finally did a clean erase and re-install of windows- nada, still having massive errors, so its probably the motherboard thats fried. We can't load windos at all normally, it just freezes up or blue screens again. After a week of aggrivating sessions of trying to post/email/browse/look up randomness and having it crash on me I just had to walk away for a bit and do other real life stuff like laundry, cooking, and learning how to make real bread from scratch (using the kitchenaid mixer ot knead it for me, works great). I just wanted to leave a little note on here so people know yes I am alive, and yes I have a ton of blog ideas going and in various states of drafting on notebook and in my drafts, but its slow going when i have to hit SAVE every 60 seconds in case my computer suddenly crashes again. Hoping in the next few weeks ( after next paycheck) to order a dirt cheap refurbished laptop for simple internet/word processing needs, then I can live the dream of going out to starbucks and blogging in peace and coffee induced euphoria without my kids whining/screaming/fighting in the background.

Gardening related stuff:
-finally shook off the flu and could walk outside and breathe real air again. Too bad it was ickly humid and about 104 out.
-harvesting 'Jaune Flamme' tomatos, tasty but I think think the high temps and my keeping the water reserve in the SWC full for fear of wilt is blowing them up into tomato water balloons with a much diluted flavor then the first batch harvested when it was cooler.
-made my first batch of pesto and frozen basil cubes, cut down all basil to 6 inches and now its grown out nice and bushy again, almost time for another trim
-my former fruit trees are thriving at my dad's house and even tho I trimmed them severly before the move some of the blossoms bore fruit so I got to taste an apple, peach, and apricot from them. Happy they survived the move. The huge container o tomatos is also doing well, I brought home about 5 pounds of tomatos today alone. I love the large 'Big Mama' hybrds, huge dense fruits the size of my palm. Planning on mixing those, my little flammes and a few carmellos from the container tomato into some fresh basily tomato sauce and canning it.
-my dad's brown fig tree is having a bumper crop, brought a box home tonight and am debating between different fig jam/fig preserve recipes or just canning them whole in syrup.
-The Kadota fig we transplanted form my old house has also rebounding nicely and is PACKED with fruit, should be ready in a few more weeks.
-learned how to make lemon curd, got some fresh homegrown eggs and homegrown lemons from fellow freedom gardeners I need to use this week and can as well.

Its going to be a busy week of canning/prepping and freezing. And I am so thankful and excited for it!

Friday, July 10, 2009


Been sick with the flu for over 2 weeks now, neither me or Chris seem to have been able to shake the damn thing off. This is be my 3rd weekend in a row of feeling sick now. After yet another long night of coughing up phlem and hardly able to swallow, my throat hurt so bad, I went to the doctor this morning desperate for some relief. Turns out my tonsils are infected ( looks like I have two strawberries glued to the back of my mouth) and it may be starting in my ears...except one eardrum is buldging out and the other is sucked inward a bit, so the pressure in them is off, no wonder my ears hurt and won't "pop". So hopefully a round of antibiotics will help. I usually shun the meds and just try to let my body fight it off, but with so much stress and lack of sleep I think my body is just out of reserves to fight anything off. So I've caved and given in to the "help" this overworked urgen care doc was willing to dole out in a Rx.

This flu overlapped with the very stressful/scary last week- our daughter was still running some high fevers off and on at night for the last month since we got back from our trip ( her doc said it was just fifth disease and the intermittant fevers were normal) but then last week she started throwing up and had fevers all day and all night too, high ones, like 104-105 constantly even with motrin and tylynol. No other real symptoms, was trying to wait out the weekend to see her doc when she had a febrile seizure on sat, went to the ER, her fever was 105.6 - they ran some tests but nothing came up conclusive other then a very high white blood cell count.
Ended up coming back on Sunday because her temp suddenly crashed down to 97 and she went pale as a ghost with bluish lips and scared the crap out of us, this time tests showed a teeny weensy bit of bacteria in her urine. Since the docs couldnt find anything else amiss, they gave her some antibiotics as well, even tho it seemed more of a viral thing, they were worried she was developing a secondary bacterial infection somewhere from her immune system being overwhelmed. After a week of those antibiotics she is finally doing so much better, no more fevers and her energy is back to normal.

So yup, I am so over being sick/caring for sick kids/caring for sick spouses/eating soup. I just want a few decent ( 4-6 hour) nights of sleep and no one sick so we can actually get out of the house, I am going stir crazy here.

Hope everyone elses health is great!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Building a Community Garden from the ground up

The article posted below is a brief summary of the project I am now involved in. When I first saw mention in the paper that RC was starting a community garden I started crying. From joy. Seriously. I also thanks every deity I could name off the top of my head.

I don't know if people get just how badly I miss having a little spot of dirt to call 'my own' in the sense of having my own plants to care for and harvest....of course I researched getting a local community garden plot but alas, there arent many community gardens in the region, and all the ones I called had waiting lists, priorities for their own city residents or simply too far from me to be able to tend my plants as often as I would have liked.

The timing is serendipity at its best- since we moved back to the I.E. I am no longer a Los Angeles county resident and therefore no longer eligible to be a LA County Master Gardener. Its a mixed blessing, I was very homesick for the I.E. yet sad I wouldnt be involved in such an awesome program anymore, nto to know SB county's master gardeners, but their focus is much borader, where as LA is focused on improving the health of low income residents via school gardens, community gardens and of course educating them to grow their own as much as reasonable possible.

Anyway, so I find myself back in the I.E, after classes that involved visiting a couple of school and community gardens and hearing speakers talk about the work involved with geeting them started- then BAM- this opportunity basically fell into my lap. And the SB county master gardeners are helping with this project. Talk about perfect timing for me to move back! So now I literally get to watch and listen as some very motivated community members put their effort and ideas into making the largest community garden west of the Mississippi- 15 acres to be exact.

It was very exciting going to the committee meetings, 4 hours worth one day, 2 hours the next, but so many things to think about, research, and share with the others. I really hope I can make a difference and help this project get growing, literally! Everyone in the room just has their vision of the garden shining in their eyes- so now we have to work together and make it the best place for our community as we possibly can. Theres also plans for donating fresh produce to local food banks either via member donations from their plots or volunteer maintained "Gift of Giving Gardens". We also want a good educational opportunity for local schools to have their own school gardens here, or somehow have a children's garden that can function for multiple lesson plans. Theres also plans for a on-site farmers market to sell "cash crops" such as strawberries, pumpkins and grapes. I am just so amazed and humbled by these great folks who brought forth the idea to the city council and the property owners and are patently listening to all our crazy garden ideas! LOL

Rancho Cucamonga effort targets creating community garden -

Rancho Cucamonga effort targets creating community garden -

Shared via AddThis

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Show your support for local farms and gardens with bumper stickers

I thought this was kinda cool. A bumper sticker to show you know where food comes from :) And its for free from the American Farmland Trust.

Plus is selling these really cute bumper stickers for only $6, proceeds go towards their "Change for CHANGE" fundraising event. At times like this putting your money ( literally) where your food is speaks louder then anything else.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Homemade Butter from my apartment

I had gotten the idea from Matron of Husbandry's wonderful post on the step by step of churning butter at home. Then Freija did a post on making ghee. I saved the posts to my favorites list, and filed them off in my head as one of those little adventures I'd get around to trying-someday. I have a great respect for handmade butter. Besides reading about it in the Little House books, I have a fond memory of making it in class when I was in first grade or so. We simply all took turns shaking a mason jar half full until we felt our arms were falling off, eventually we had this little blob of butter the teacher rinsed in a bowl in the classroom sink, added some salt, and we all had a slice of storebaked french bread with fresh butter. I remember it tasting very good.

Then this week there was an article in Mother Earth News on butter making and the history of cultured vs sweet butter, and then last but not least the book "Self Sufficient Life and how to live it" I have from the library had a great writup on how to make it as well.

Being that the sun has hardly peeked out in about a month now, (this is the coldest, gloomiest "June Gloom" I have ever seen) I have been massivly bored and out of sorts. I needed to mix it up, so domething new, something interesting, something indulgent! Thats when it hit me. Butter! I have been using quite a bit of it latly trying to perfect my old fashoned butter pound cake skills, but thats another post in and of itself.

Ok, so I set out to make butter. Being that I have no pasture, no happy jersey cows and no butter churn I had to improvise in my urban setting:

Trader Joes Heavy whipping cream. This stuff claim to awesomeness is that its not ultrapasterized- that is, its fat molecules arent zapped to kingdom come. At only $2.50 for 16oz, it was more affordable then $16 for 16 oz of organic raw cream from the organic pastures dairy which is the only raw dairy thats to be found anywhere around here.

Kitchen Aid Artisan Mixer: my choices for churning the butter were the blender, the food processor, the mixer, or good old arm power with a jar. Being that I'm dealing with 2 small kids I dont have 2 hours to shake a jar, plus then my arms would be hurting so much I wouldnt have the strength to work the butter afterwards. The mixer was a Christmas present, and I am somewhat obsessed at the moment with figuring more uses for it then just the million attatchments.

Ok, so I skipped the culturing part since I forgot to buy cultured buttermilk to 'ripen' the cream. Next time I'm out I'll get some to experiment with my other pint of cream, for right now I just wanted to see how the process worked. I was also impatient and didnt let the cream warm to room temp or anything. I just pulled it out of the fridge, poured it in, and turned the mixer on as if to make whipped cream.

So here we start with that looks like standard, fluffy whipped cream. I let it go for about 5 minutes more...

Now we have a very stiff cream that looks almost like whipped butter. The flavor has also changed from being very bland cream (usuall I add sugar when making whipped cream) to a slightly "buttery" taste. a couple of minutes more, and it is actually starting to look grainy and theres a bit of liquid starting to seperate...

Another min or so and Suddenly its like the whole thing collapses, blink and you'd miss it, now you have little butter clumps and liquid buttermilk

Pour off this liquid and save it, voila, real (uncultured) fresh buttermilk. I'm planning on making bread with it tonight.

Cool thing with using the mixer is it made pouring the buttermilk off fairly easy, most of the butter was trapped in the whip. I used a plastic paddle from my rice cooker to mold the rest of the butter in the bowl into a ball.

At this point I tried to add clean water and let the mixer do the work of 'washing' the buttermilk, oh boy, bad idea, water sloshed everywhere, not even the bowl shield thing helped. Luckily the butter stayed in the bowl. So now its hand/paddle action time. Add cool water, press and fold butter over, twist a bit, repeat. See the buttermilk washing out into the water?

Pour water off, add fresh water, repeat. It only took me 3 times before the water looked fairly clear. Then just in case I did one more time.

Pour this off and now I'm using the paddle to try and press water out of it. I also added some salt to it. I'm not sure if I overworked the butter or something, but it got "greasy" (to quote matronofhusbandry). Mother earth news article mentioned something about not spreading the butter too much against the bowl or the butter can get "oily". Ok, I guess I did that. It was like soft margerine. Pour water off.

Then I pressed it all into a small blue glass creme brulee bowl and smoothed the top. Pretty! Then licked the paddle, mmmmmm buttery!

16 ounces of cream yielded oh, 3/4 of a cup of butter? and 6 oz of buttermilk

It was a fun experiment. I like the taste of this sweet, yet lightly salted butter. Covered in plastic wrap ( so it doesnt absorb any weird flavors) and set it in the fridge to harden.