Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Busy day at the fermentation station

Two quarts of fine yogurt cooking away inside a cooler used as an incubation station. It works pretty well, but now that I have a really good instant-read thermometer, I'm discovering that the water is only around 107 rather than the desired 110. However, I remind myself that yogurt has been produced for centuries without thermometers of any kind, and the stuff is setting up, so I'm not going to worry about it.

These two quarts will last a little over a week, as I use a cup of it in my smoothie daily. Now that it's affordable, that is. When I had to pay $4 and up for a good quality local yogurt I used it far more sparingly and supplemented with protein powder. Now, I buy a good quality local milk for about $1.25 per quart -- around $2.50 per week as opposed to $8+ per week (depending upon where I bought it) for the local product. That's a savings I can get into!

Since I was on a roll, and since I had the kitchen to myself with plenty of time, I opted to move the sauerkraut out of the crock it's been fermenting in for these last two weeks, and into a mason jar to finish up.

It's a good thing I did, I think. The cabbage was packed so tight that when I fluffed it up in the crock to transfer, I noticed areas where the cabbage was still white, so apparently the brine was not even reaching them. Something to remember for next time.

I tasted it during the transfer -- actually had a little too much to fit this jar so ate a little of the leftover. It's starting to taste like good kraut! I'll give it another week or more to keep fermenting, then store it in the refrigerator. I still have some of the purchased kraut to eat in the meantime.

The new thermometer really makes the yogurt process much easier, I have to say. It's accurate, and really 'instant'.  What will really make the whole thing easier is when I have a kitchen of my own, where I can leave things on the counter to ferment or culture, rather than moving them up and down the stairs. I really look forward to that day!  In the meantime, it gets done here, and the stairs are good for me.  She says.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Say Cheese, please

Another beautiful webcam shot from Mt. Rainier National Park. Now, most of the time these views are fairly mundane. Sometimes, they are spectacular.

Clearly, no shortage of snow up there this year, and here in Oregon, Crater Lake also has lots of snow. After a few drought years, this is very welcome.

Is it snowing where you are this Christmas Eve? This morning's weather page actually showed some snow here today, but it won't be much if it actually happens. It'll be interesting to see how much, if any, we get up here on this hill above the city. I don't think I'll like being snowed in up here if that should happen.

It's going to be a long weekend for me, with my roommate here all four days, sleeping most of the days and up most of the nights. I always feel constricted at these times, not wanting to make noise during the day when she's sleeping, oddly uncomfortable with her being up during the night. Those are my issues, of course, not hers, but constricting nevertheless. I have a feeling I'm going to want to get away from here by Saturday, so I hope not to see a white Christmas. I have no idea where I'll go, I just know I'll want to be away from here for awhile.

My sauerkraut seems to be coming along quite nicely. Beginning to smell more like sauerkraut, but still tasting like cabbage. It's only been a week -- give it time! The good news is that there are no signs of mold or a film on the surface of the brine. A local community center run by the city had some urban homesteading classes last fall and I wanted to go to the one on fermenting foods, making kraut, but didn't have the $18 for the fee. Last night, I checked their website and found that they're doing it again this winter and again in spring, so I'm going to try to get into some of them. May not need the kraut class -- just had my own, right here! -- but there is one on sourdough bread making (I've done this before, but not always successfully, so a class might be useful), and one I really want to take on cheeses. That's something I really want to tackle, and while I have plenty of good directions available, this is something that I think would be better with hands-on demonstration and somebody to answer questions. I'll probably take this one in mid-February, let the others slide until spring, if at all.

So that's my Christmas Eve, and it won't get more exciting but I'm really good with that. This is not my holiday, so I have no urge to celebrate it. My thoughts are with family and friends in the path of the tornadoes in the south. I am SO glad I moved out of tornado country! I'll take rain any day.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Salt and temperature -- too much, or too little?

My great fermented sauerkraut experiment is still in the experimental stage. Today is day 4, and according to the recipe that I used, which included whey that accelerates the fermentation, it should be ready to eat in 3 days. That's assuming perfect conditions, I suppose, which I certainly don't have.

But, I did taste it yesterday, rather cautiously. The cabbage tasted like crunchy cabbage, and the brine was super salty, but I don't get the feeling that much fermentation has taken place. There are a few bubbles, but no tangy fermented taste. So naturally, I began to question everything again. Is it too salty? Is it too cold in that cabinet? Should I toss it and start over?  All that. Lots of reading later, I'm going with the second option -- it's too cold in the cabinet. That floor of the house gets little or no heat, so yes, it is cold up there, and cold will slow fermentation because (logically) the good lactobacillus bacteria grow better in warmer conditions. Cooler fermentation is better, they say, for taste, but I don't have forever for this experiment, people! I want to use the crock for some kimchi, and soon.

So, this morning the apparatus made the return trip here to my room, which is always warmer than the top floor -- even at night when the heat is off in here. Remember, I moved it upstairs because I thought maybe it was too warm in here! My instant-read thermometer is old and I've felt for some time that it wasn't reading correctly. For fermenting food, especially including culturing yogurt, temperature needs to be accurate, so yesterday I did some research and ordered a new one, which should arrive early in the week. My first batch of  yogurt was over-cultured, as I was using the thermometer to determine milk temp and oven/culture medium temp, both of which were clearly warmer than indicated. The yogurt is good, but since the culture environment was warmer than I thought, it ended up being in there for too long and that resulted in the whey separating from the solids. I could have stirred in back in, but I opted to pour it off and use it for fermenting veggies. So, I really need that temp to be right.

But I digress. The kraut still looks the same and this time I placed the crock in the other end of this room, near the outside wall and window, which is noticeably cooler but still warmer than the cabinet upstairs, so that seems like a good compromise.  I'd add some water to try and thin the saltiness of the brine a bit, but it needs to be unchlorinated water so the chlorine doesn't kill the good bugs along with the bad ones, and I don't yet have any of that. So we go with what we have. Hopefully, it's not salty enough to keep the good guys from growing at all. I did use Sally Fallon's recipe and instructions, so presumably the salt level is fine. Time will tell, and as I work through this batch I'm learning plenty.

I know you are all sitting on pins and needles, so I'll keep you informed as things progress.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A crock -- of sauerkraut, that is

This process of fermenting veggies is, for me anyway, fraught with uncertainties.  Mostly about screwing it up and being poisoned. But, after reading salient parts of a couple of books I picked up at the library the other day, this seems almost (perhaps totally) impossible to do. The two authors are considered experts on the subject: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, and the Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon. Each tells tales of removing thick layers of mold and even maggots (!) from the top of the container, and finding delicious kraut underneath. No big deal. Same for strong odor, pink colors, and all kinds of other oddments that might arise during the process.

Over a year ago, before I moved into this house, I experimented with making some kraut using some directions found online and a mason jar. It should have worked, and probably did work just fine. But I didn't manage to get all the cabbage submerged as directed, so I worried. Spotting what might have been a tiny speck of mold at one edge during the process, I panicked and eventually tossed the whole batch. Perhaps I should have done a little more research first. But, that issue of the liquid not covering the veggies is a real one, as that is what is likeliest to prevent mold in the first place. I believe that even the first directions I followed made mention of this, suggested putting a plate on top of the cabbage and a weight on top of the plate, to hold the veggies down below the liquid. In a mason jar? Really? There were also other details omitted from those directions, all of which might have been nice to know.

But, this time around I did a lot more research online, all of which made the same suggestion about the use of weight. "Put something over it, weight it down with rocks, or a small jar filled with rocks." All kinds of ways to weight down cabbage as it ferments in a mason jar. None of them sounding particularly convenient.

All of this takes me to my little shopping expedition the other day, from which I returned home the proud owner of a stoneware crock about 1 gallon in size, and a set of two semi-circular stoneware weights that fit perfectly inside. That's more my style. Easy. Clean. The kraut can be put into jars later for storage.

Yesterday, armed with a big cabbage, my new tools and a pounder (aka potato masher), I set to work. In the end I discovered that sometimes, things just need to be learned from experience as much as from instructions. The liquid used in fermentation comes solely from salt and cabbage being pounded together so that the liquid in the veggie is released. I kept on pounding, pounding (great workout, by the way), trying to get the liquid to rise to at least the surface. It may end up being mashed cabbage kraut, but that's OK. Live and learn. One step I remembered after all that pounding was simply to press down on the cabbage (after pounding some unspecified amount but surely less that I did) to force the liquid to rise. So, instead of continuing to pound, I just  pressed it down into a compact mass. Sure enough, liquid soon covered the mass of cabbage. Success! At that point I put my fancy weights in and carried the entire (heavy!) thing downstairs so it could ferment away at its leisure.

Naturally, I can't leave things alone, so this morning I removed the dish towel and plate that were serving as a lid. Less than 24 hours had elapsed and the crock was emitting a strong odor. Was that good or bad? I told myself all kinds of things. Is that yellow/green color normal? Is the temperature in this room too warm? On to more testing and research.

The strong odor is totally normal. In this case, the color is also normal (at least, that's what I'm telling myself). Katz and Fallon differ in one thing: Fallon adds fermented whey to her crocks to speed fermentation via inoculation. Katz is a total believer that wild fermentation is all that's needed. Since I made some yogurt the other day and had some whey separated from that, I used some whey in this batch and the whey is naturally this color. So it makes sense. As to room temp, a little experimentation with my instant-read cooking thermometer in this room as well as in the pantry this morning where it had been living, it seems that while the temp here is fine (about 68f now, lower at night), the temp in the pantry (59f, consistent day and night) is actually more ideal. So, for now it's been carted back upstairs to continue its work in the pantry.

And I, hopefully, will relax about the process, keep an eye for mold and simply remove any that appears. And maybe even bring myself to taste it one of these days. I love the idea, just not so much the practice. But after awhile that will change as I grow more confident in the process.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Urban homesteading -- sort of

My goodness, such a lot going through my mind today! Nothing of great import to anyone other than myself, but lots of it nevertheless.

One thing is this constant battle with losing fat off this old body. It's been awhile since it began -- mid-March -- and while I've lost a good bit, there is still more to go before I'm going to be a happy camper. Not before I'll be svelte and skinny again, because that's never going to happen. Just until more of the belly fat has departed, and we all know that's the hardest and most stubborn fat on the body.

Lately it's been really hard for me to stick with it -- I do well most of the time, but admit to eating many more calories than the diet allows, too much of the time. Then I began to realize that the fall/winter months have historically been the time when I've gained weight every year, so the fact that I'm holding my own right now could be seen as encouraging. Not losing, but not gaining, either. For now, guess I'll be content with that. I'm not sure what happens in the fall, but it probably has something to do with colder weather. I love to bake more, eat more in general, this time of year. There's probably also some deep-seated psychological reason why I feel compelled to eat more during the period from Thanksgiving through Christmas, even though I don't really celebrate or pay much attention to either. But I'm not going to look into that, because in the end, it really doesn't matter.

Another big realization is that all this boredom that's been such a big part of my world in the last year or so isn't a permanent condition. Once I get my own apartment, I'll automatically have more to do, and feel more freedom to do it. I'll have my little garden plot to tend, among other things. And, I think I've found something that's really going to take up some time, happily so, and be beneficial both to my body and my pocketbook at the same time. I've always felt that whatever I found to keep me occupied would need to be food-oriented, because cooking and food prep is just what I love to do most.

In the last few weeks I've become totally enamored of and addicted to real, old-fashioned, lacto-fermented sauerkraut and dill pickles. In fact, my body can't seem to get enough of either. Unfortunately, they don't come cheap. These aren't the typical shelf variety found in the grocery store. These are found only in refrigerated cases because they are unpasteurized, and they have a myriad of health benefits from all the natural probiotics they contain. One thing led to another and as usual I did a lot of research and reading on the subject before deciding that this is something I can easily do at home, safely and deliciously. It'll require a little investment in supplies, but those are easily available in Eugene and I'm going to do a little investigation today, see what I might need and how much it'll cost. Not just for pickles and kraut, but for other home-produced food items. We have a great store for these things, called Down to Earth. So, that's my destination for this morning.

I won't be able to do a lot until I move, because of storage space both in the cabinets and refrigerator, but I can do some. And no pickles yet, unless I find an unlikely supplier of pickling cukes in the dead of winter! But -- kraut, yes. Yogurt, yes (I've made lots of yogurt in the past so I know this is a no-brainer for me). And I'll see what else is out there, too. It'll be fun, healthy, and it'll keep me busy and entertained and having fun.

All of that brings me back to the diet issue.  It ain't easy to provide top nutrition to the body when one is limited to 1220 calories per day and has limited finances! It's a constant struggle to keep all that balanced, and while I rarely meet the goal of meeting all the needs 100% of the time, I do fairly well most of the time. Hopefully, learning to produce more foods at home will help all three. And perhaps most importantly, it'll give a real psychological boost at a time when I really need it.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

It's that time of year....

One of my favorite places ever, although this photo was stolen from a webcam. That seems to happen a lot lately. Maybe because I'm not going anywhere to take pics of my own? Nor would I be there on an early morning like this, before the snow plows had their way with the parking lot.

Been a quiet week. Not much more to say, but you know the old saying, no news is good news!