Thursday, May 26, 2011

My New Excalibur

My incredible, supportive husband went above and beyond last week and purchased an Excalibur dehydrator for me!  I can't tell you how excited I am.  It arrived on Friday and within the first week I've dehydrated sage, oregano, bread for crumbs, orange peel, rhubarb, and yogurt is incubating in it as I type (watch for an upcoming post on yogurt!).  The possibilities are staggering!

Food storage becomes much more reasonable.  The water is removed at low temperatures (below 118) to maintain the vitamins, minerals, and digestive enzymes.  It also shrinks the size significantly.  Four cups of thawed rhubarb from the freezer became 1/2 cup of dehydrated rhubarb.  The next time I harvest, I'll try dehydrating fresh rhubarb and see if I get the same results.  So the food is healthier and smaller than canned food!

I'm also excited about the yogurt making possibilities.  I could make much larger batches in serving-size containers.  That would simplify my breakfast prep significantly. 

Our new "pets"

Last Friday, my Mom sent us home with some new "pets." She had purchased a praying mantis cocoon at Watson's Greenhouse, and the previous weekend it had hatched with hundreds of little guys filling the plastic tub she had it in.  There were so many, that she decided to share and sent several (12-15) of the little guys home with us. 

The theory behind the project is to have a natural form of pest control for the garden.  The praying mantids eat all the "bad bugs" like aphids and they are rather pleasant to have around.  They do not bite or sting and they offer endless opportunities for photography practice as they sit very still.  While they are in confinement in their containers, we have to bring in food and a little water for them, but once outside they should require no maintenance at all, except for being careful not to drop them into the compost pile when we do weeding and trimming.

My youngest is fascinated.  He loves anything little, and bugs are a big hit with him.  The first day we went to feed them we hunted outside for anything smaller than they were.  We found a few leaves with aphids and some tiny ants on them.  Evidently these ants were "farming" the aphids.  We tossed them in the praying mantis container, and a few hours later when we went to check on them we were met with carnage.  There were dead mantids all over - and happy little ants gathering them into piles and feeding them to the aphids.  We quickly removed the ants for the containers, but our numbers were down to about 9 or 10 mantids. 

The next issue we ran into was on the lid.  A piece of mesh window screen was attached to the top with gorilla tape for ventilation.  Unfortunately, the tape was so sticky that the little mantids legs were getting stuck and they were unable to free themselves.  Now we were down 3-4 more.  We've leveled off at about 6-7 (maybe 5) and it has held for a few days. 

I told my youngest, "Now remember, these are little buggies and sometimes they die so don't get too attached."

He replied, "I know, I won't."  Then turning to the praying mantis box said, "Hello little guys!  I love you!"

Boy I hope they make it!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Growing Organic

My middle son decided, on his own, that he wanted to learn botany this year, and so I knew long before the spring that we would be more involved in the garden this year.  What I didn't know was how much that would play into the road God would have us on this spring.  I've never been more excited about the garden, or enjoyed working in it as much as I have this year!  Even the really hard, physical stuff - like building beds and moving dirt - left me with such a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.  But nothing compares to the joy and amazement at seeing new life.  We can plan, plant, and water, but then all that's left to us is to wait.  It is God that makes it all grow.  What a blessing to see this miracle time and time again already this spring.  Just when I'm sure I've blown it all and messed up my son's hard work, God steps in and makes it beautiful.  As I walked around watering, weeding, transplanting, and harvesting this morning (don't worry, I don't do this every day :)) I was filled with wonder. I've been through many seasons of depression in my life, but this spring is a season of joy.  Thank You, God, for showing us the true bounty of Your provision and Your amazing plan for our health.

How it All Began

It has been so amazing learning about the food we eat and where it comes from.  I used to think it was so simple.  Beef and dairy products came from cows.  Fruits and vegetables came from farms.  Eggs and chicken came from, well, chickens.  How much more do you need to know? 
God has had me on an interesting road lately.  It started with a blog post entitled "Traditional Womanly Arts for Austere Times" my mom sent me back in March.  I read it and thought, "I'd love to do all of that if only I had the time."  And then proceeded to put a hold on all the books listed in the post that they had at the library. 
My Mom asked if there were any in particular I was interested in, and I mentioned the Better Basics for the Home, party because it was the only one they didn't have at the library.  Wouldn't you know, it showed up at my door a few days later :).  I dove into it and, while it was a little more on the "green" side than I tend to be, I was fascinated by the idea that pretty much anything household product(cleaning products, toiletries, etc.) could be made at home, cheaply and simply without any chemicals.  This got me to thinking more about what we put into our bodies.  Are we really eating food the way God intended it?  Are we really eating food? 
Another author that intrigued me from the post was Joel Salatin.  As I looked him up at the library, I noticed his name associated with Food Inc.  This movie had been on my radar, but I had avoided watching it because I liked going to McDonald's.  Well, I guess it was time.  I sat down and watched it one night and I was shocked.  I knew bits and pieces of the information they shared, and I took most of it with a grain of salt realizing that the shock value was probably more than the average reality, but this really opened my eyes to what we were eating.
I started learning all I could about Real food.  Bread, milk, eggs, vegetables and fruits, meat, the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew.  I shared what I had been learning with my husband, and while he may have thought I was going a little overboard, he was supportive of my efforts to feed our family healthy food. 
We decided that it would be best to ease into things, not trying to replace everything at once, but rather, one thing at a time.  We would eat through what was in the house, and when we ran out of something, we would replace it with a healthier option.  So, when the milk ran out, I took my first trip to Meadowwood Organic Dairy.  When the eggs ran out, I started to pick up pastured, organic eggs from the dairy, or Terry's Berries, where I had started purchasing our fresh produce.  I learned about Azure Standard, and when I shared about it with others I found a huge interest in family and friends, so I set up a drop point at my house.  We got our first drop yesterday, and I couldn't have been more pleased.  I cooked up the last of our "old" meat last night, so we're looking into local, grass-fed, organic beef and chicken next.
At times I am overwhelmed by how much in our lives needs to be changed, and then I run into times like yesterday afternoon when we were sitting at the lunch table eating chicken sandwiches on homemade bread from organic whole wheat with raw organic sharp cheddar on them and organic carrots on the side while drinking raw organic milk and I thought, "Wow, we really have come a long ways in a short time." 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Making Homemade Vanilla: Or, What to do with a gallon of vodka

I was so inspired by this post over a the Heavenly Homemaker's blog that, after I stopped rolling on the floor laughing, I ran out and bought a gallon of vodka!  Oh, and a bunch of vanilla beans.  I had never considered how the extracts we use every day were made, and I was amazed at how simple it was.
After cleaning the gallon jar I just received in my Azure Standard drop this morning, I took the vanilla beans I purchase at Olive Nation and cut them down the middle almost to the end and tossed them in the jar.  When I was finished with the beans, I just filled the jar up to the top with vodka, and after taking a picture, tucked it into a dark corner of my pantry.  According to the Heavenly Homemaker, all I have to do from this point is shake it up every once in a while, and just before Christmas I'll have enough vanilla to share :).  If it comes out as well as I hope, I will wash the jar out and fill it back up!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Baby Stepping

Following up on my commitment at the end of the last post, I've been looking for a good way to "Baby Step" into a real foods habit.  I've been praying about it and trying to swallow my pride and listen to my husband when he tells me I'm moving too fast and taking on too much.  I get so excited about things and I want to try it all today!  The downside is that I can't keep it all up and before too long I've burnt out and dropped it all. 

So what am I doing to keep myself from rushing in?  My current strategy is a combination of frank honesty here and signing up for an e-course membership at GNOWFGLINS.  I'm starting with their fundamentals e-course that walks you a step at a time into implementing real foods strategies into your lifestyle.  I'm pretty sure I won't be using all the things I learn (I'm still a little squeamish on lacto-fermenting) but I'm really intrigued by most of it and looking forward to new experiences.  They recommend only doing a lesson a week, and for once I am going to try to follow through with that.  I usually just go through the whole thing as quickly as possible because I'm so excited and leave with my head spinning.  But if I try just adding one new thing per week, maybe even less on weeks where I'm adding a big thing, this might just work out.

As a side note, I threw together a pot of chili in an effort to continue using up our old food stock and made some of the Heavenly Homemaker's Whole Wheat cornbread muffins to go with it on Thursday.  I added in the cracklings from our Mother's Day lard rendering, which was a fun thing to try.  Michael says he'd like to try them in a salad next time.  In retrospect, I think they were a little too greasy for the muffins and Michael likes his cornbread sweet, not savory :).  Here's a picture of how they came out!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Fools Rush In: How to create a debacle with yogurt

I was awfully tempted not to write this post, but a recent bible study on humility along with the hope that my fumble could save someone else the trouble prompted me to plunge ahead.  So, remember the Mother's Day yogurt tasting party?  Well, don't tell anyone who ate it, but by the next day most of the yogurt was pretty nasty.  I went to reculture it with raw milk, and the smell 'bout knocked me over.  The best way to describe it was "very yeasty."  Yogurt has a rather distinctive odor, that I've come to enjoy over the years.  This was not it.  Walking the fine line between bravery and stupidity, I took a small taste of the viili, and it reminded me alot of Fun Dip.  This was not at all the smooth taste of the day before, what had gone wrong?

The first misstep I took was veering off my normal path of researching something to death before embarking upon it.  I saw a post with some information about yogurt, jumped to the website it mentioned, and bought the pack with the most variety.  What was I thinking!  Then, as I found out when I was attempting to diagnose my yogurt issue, I found out that this particular website had very poor customer service.  The next day, I came across the Cultures for Heath website which was positively chock full of helpful information and suggestions.  I will definitely be purchasing here next time!  They even had videos, which seem to be my best learning tool.

After much research, I found that ALL the cultures I had were pretty much destroyed and I had wasted quite a bit of precious Raw milk.  My kids are now on short rations (much to their dismay as they have become avid milk drinkers since we switched to Raw) to get us through until our next cowshare pickup. 

How did I end up in this place?  A lack of research and a whole lot of hurry.  I wanted to get them all cultured because they would spoil if I waited.  I wanted to have it done in time for Sunday.  I tried to do too much at once. 

What am I going to do differently?  Baby steps!  Baby steps to the dairy...  Baby steps to my first reusable yogurt culture...  Baby steps to buttermilk culture...  Maybe even baby steps to kefir or kombucha! (don't you just love "What About Bob?")

Here's to accountability!
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm publishing my first pictures on this blog.  Sorry they're not very appetizing :(.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Most Unusual Mother’s Day

Never in my wildest dreams would I have pictured the way I got to spend this Mother’s Day!
I woke to the kisses and good wishes of my family beckoning me to the table for a special breakfast prepared by my amazing husband who had not been in the country for even 24 hours.  They blessed me with gifts and then we got ready and headed out to church.  We visited my Mom’s church, Discovery, and had a great time worshipping and learning.  Then we were off to Chevy’s for a Fresh Mex dinner.
My Mom and Brother came back to the house with us where Mom and I jumped right into trying something new, one of our favorite things to do.  First on the list was rendering lard.  Yep, you read that right!  I’ve been learning a lot lately about how lard, when taken from the leaf lard of pasture-raised pork, is a very healthy form of fat.  It’s highly recommended for pie crusts and frying chicken.  I had spent some time researching it on the internet, and I was anxious to try it out.  Earlier this week, I had purchase some leaf lard from our dairy, Meadowwood Organics, and had it thawing in our fridge.  All we did was cut it into small cubes (about 1” each) and place it in a cast-iron dutch oven with about 1/2 cup of water.  I cooked it outside on my new camp stove because I had been warned about the overwhelming odor.  Everything proceeded according to the instructions I had read.  When the cracklings began floating on top, I began ladling the liquid out and straining it through coffee filters into pint jars.  By the time I finished with the first batch, the cracklings began to sink, indicating that the lard was changing into a more savory form purported to be excellent for frying foods like chicken.  The first skimming is supposed to be best for pastry.  I cooked up the cracklings a little more and brought them in to cool.  My brother didn’t appreciate their smell, so I bagged them and put them in the fridge to use for cornbread later this week. 
Why waiting for the lard to cook, Mom and I began picking the VM (vegetative matter) out of a fleece generously donated by some friends of ours for us to use in an upcoming homeschool co-op class.  We’ll be teaching Fiber Arts to Dye For in the fall, so the wool was a timely gift.  I learned a lot about the first steps in preparing wool for use.  We picked through the fleece one chunk at a time removing bits of straw, seeds and other, um, biological matter.  We fluffed it a little as we went and ended up with a bag that seemed just as full as the one we started with despite all the stuff we discarded.  Mom had assisted the judges at the Shepherd’s Extravaganza at the Spring Fair this year, so she shared with me some of the knowledge she had gleaned about types of fleece and the different qualities people look for. 
Once the fleece was finished, we joined the rest of the family inside for a yogurt tasting!  I had cultured four different types of yogurt the day before, as well as a fifth type I had prepared earlier in the week.  We put samples of them in small, labeled cups and let everyone decide which type they liked best for flavor and texture.  The five samples were:  a sweet yogurt culture I purchased at the dairy, Bulgarian, Fil Mjolk, Viili, and Piima.  The last four were purchased online from Nick’s Natural Nook.  The instructions were straight forward and went off without a hitch, which was amazing considering all the trouble and frustration I’d had when I first learned how to make my own yogurt.  The last three were counter cultures (ones that culture at room temp) and the Bulgarian was a hot culture. 
Turns out you were either going to love or hate the Viili.  It was the strangest textured yogurt I had ever eaten.  It was so smooth and creamy looking, but it was very viscous.  The nearest thing I can compare it to in texture is Elmer’s glue, but it had a gently tangy taste that I enjoyed very much.  I’m not fond of grainy or watery yogurt, so this was my favorite.  My oldest liked it too, but everyone else was creeped out by the texture.  The other top contenders were the sweet yogurt and the Fil Mjolk.  The Piima was very water and had almost not flavor.  The Bulgarian was so acidic that it ate through the paper cups we were using for sampling.  It had ultimate pucker power, but a rather grainy texture.  I’m going to try the Fil Mjolk and Viili again with raw milk this week and see if they come out the same.  I’d also like to try culturing the sweet yogurt at a lower temperature.
In the evening, we joined the in-laws to view the final episodes of this season’s Amazing Race.  All-in-all it was an enjoyable, and productive, Mother’s Day!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sharing the experience...

So in thinking about the best reason for blogging, I figured that it's a good outlet for the random, insane passions that overtake me from time to time.  People get awfully tired of listening to me, so here's one way they can listen only as much as they'd like :).  As many know, my latest intrest is in "going natural".  I'm trying to bring our family back to using products and eating food that are as close as possible to the way God intended them to be.  We've switched to organic, whole foods; raw milk; natural cleaning products made at home to control ingredients; etc.  I'd like, in future notes, to include a little bit of in-depth info on each of these as the fancy takes me.