Monday, November 3, 2014

Gardening in Alaska~Winter Returns

Life in Alaska moves infinitely slower than it does where we came from on the East coast but our gardening season is much much faster.  So much so that it stunned me how quickly it ended.  By the middle of September we were getting close to the type of temperatures that would kill the cold loving brassicas so we knew, the time has come to harvest what was left.
Gardening here is so much more different than it was in Maryland.  I knew what it was like to grow tomatoes here, I knew that aphids here are tough little monsters when compared to their Maryland cousins, I knew some of the troubles with growing cucumbers and herbs and yet, I learned it again through this year.


  • Tomatoes: This summer was a super wet and cool one which frustrated many of the gardeners and farmers I spoke with.  Locally grown tomatoes were scarcer than hen's teeth and what were found locally grown were ridiculously expensive.  Our plants (9 of them) provided beautiful foliage, they grew tall, but they had a horribly tough time in producing fruits that would ripen.  As a result we canned 10 pints of green tomato salsa.  Unfortunately, at season end we only managed 3 pints of spaghetti sauce and no regular salsa, nor any diced tomatoes.  It kills me that we have to purchase diced tomatoes at the grocery store.
  • Eggplants: Bad, bad, bad.  No good there at all. Wasted space for something that needs a lot more heat.  Next year we will not have eggplants in our garden.
  • Zucchini:  Amazing successes there in a plant that I've always, typically had bad luck with.  I had a few occurences of blossom end rot, but not really enough to make a big dent in our overall production.
  • Corn: This year was simply an experiment.  In the end we got about 6 mostly unfinished ears of corn with little tiny kernels.  They were frozen and then thriftily used in corn cob jelly.  The stalks were used in our Halloween decorations this year on our front door.  Waste not, want not.
  • Strawberries: very limited success with these.  Could be the cooler summer, could be the fact that the tomatoes shaded the strawberries so the strawberries simply did not get enough light.  Better luck next year.
  • Salsify: No luck.  They all grew almost pencil sized roots but whether it was because, once again not enough sunlight, or not a long enough growing season.  I don't know.  I will probably try it one more time next year since I have the seeds but I won't invest a whole of time in this endeavor.
  • Rutabaga: We got one single slightly finished root.  The greens by the way of the rutabagas are edible but they are more bitter than some of the other brassica greens.  We actually mixed them with kale at one point when sauteing them.  The failure to produce good, strong tubers could simply be the problem we had all summer. Our snow peas took over and more or less hogged the sunlight thereby blocking a good portion of our smaller plants.  
  • Snow peas: OH MY GOODNESS, what amazing output. Next year, PLANT LESS SNOW PEAS!  They took over.  Next year the plan is to plant snow peas only over next to the fence. No planting peas in the middle of beds, no planting peas next to anything else.  
  • Beets: No success.  I think the snow peas shaded a good portion of those so the most that developed was some leaves. 
  • Turnips: Mediocre successes there.  We had a few that were victims of our dreaded root maggots.  Those are a big issue here. I still got enough to make two small jars of pickled turnips.  I plan to open those soon to serve on salads.  
  • Radishes: No luck. They produced foliage, no roots.  Lack of sunlight thanks to the over eager snow peas and the over eagerness of plant the snow peas in bad areas.
  • Carrots: Mediocre success.  Snow peas drowned out the light.  We got some that were anywhere between a thumb size to a pinky size.  I don't think we'll put as much into carrots next year.
  • Quinoa: The plants themselves did great but they never seemed to actually produce the seeds that are used as a grain. More experience is needed with working with this plant.  By the time the plant was producing, I THINK, the seeds I was knee deep involved in canning and freezing greens. 
  • Amaranth: No luck.  Too cold, too wet, not enough heat. I don't think I will try it next year. 
  • Nasturtiums: Planted way too many.  They took over parts of the yard.  While I loved eating their spicy, edible flowers, they became monsters after a while.
  • Calendula: Did well, harvested a lot of seeds so I won't have to buy seeds next year.  Just remember, calendula are just like their cousins, marigolds.  You can cut off the dead flower and put it to the side for later.  My family and I just went through our seeds (we had about 6 bowls of different types of seeds) and separated them and then placed them into containers for next year.  Calendula lowers are awesome for dry, irritated skin and does great in salves and soaps.
  • Brussels Sprouts: Very good luck here. I think if they were not quite so shaded by some of the other brassicas they were sharing their bed with we would have had even greater success.  We ate just about every part of each of the plants other than the stem.  The Brussels sprouts were exceedingly sweet, more than any I've ever gotten at the grocery store.  A must do again.
  • Romenesco Broccoli: Three lovely heads of broccoli harvested there.  Only negative to broccoli? They take up a LOT of space and only produce (for us anyways) one harvest of broccoli.  We did also make use of all of each plant. The leaves were chopped up and either sauteed in bacon grease and garlic or just added to soups to boost the nutritional value of the soup.
  • Kale: PLANTED TOO MUCH.  It took over and shaded many of the other less aggressive plants out.
  • Lettuce/European Mesclun/Arugala: PLANTED TOO MUCH.  Between the CSA that we signed up with that was producing lettuce and then our garden, we could not keep up with the salads that needed to be eaten.  
    Every week was a race to use up both the CSA lettuce and ours.  We were green by the end of the summer season and only now look normal, instead of like green martians from Mars.  I just bought some lettuce this past weekend and now, I'm finally back to enjoying salads as a nice fresh treat rather than knowing I'm stuck eating salad for breakfast, salad for lunch and salad for dinner. 
  • Swiss Chard: Not so great success, thanks to the aggressive nature of the kale/broccoli/Brussels sprouts.  They drowned out nearly all the light.  Plant more aggressively next year and possibly start it from seed inside and then transplant. 
  • Broccoli Rabe: WONDERFUL SUCCESS! We loved it! It was so delicious, so tasty, fresh, crunchy.  Next year plant more than what we did!
  • Mustard Greens: Very good success.  We will plant around the same amount as we planted this past year. 
  • Winter Squash: One tiny little winter squash produced. I think there were a bunch of errors surrounding these plants. First, too cold and wet of a summer. Winter squash love the sun and heat.  They need it to push them into producing.  We just didn't get that.  We also purchased these from the greenhouse near our own house too late into the season.  If we were still living in Maryland they would have produced some but since it was so late, (I believe it was mid July) they were just not going to do anything other than maybe produce flowers for the bees and spiky foliage. Next year start seedlings inside in pots early.  
  • Cucumbers: Too cold, too wet to do much. We got one tiny cucumber in August. I was really hoping to make cornichons so I was pretty disappointed. 
  • Potatoes: Did very well!  I don't think we have ever had such a successful planting of potatoes.
  •  Herbs: I'm going to lump all the herbs into one category and just say most of them did well, except for my fennel which still did not produce the nice bulb near its root.  I have never successfully grown a fennel plant that produces the nice celery like bulb. Our dill went nuts, we planted too much borage, parsley did well, Basil did poorly due to too much shading around it from the zucchini, corsican mint was a nice treat.  I wish I could have harvested more of that type of mint but only at the end of summer was it big enough to take from.  Cumin did poorly, aphids destroyed it.  Cilantro/Coriander: PLANTED WAY TOO MUCH. I dried some to be used later but otherwise a lot just went to waste.  Chamomile: Did very well! PLANT MORE NEXT YEAR.  My son, Nick, likes helping me harvest it as he knows he likes chamomile tea and honey.  Rosemary did well, and is still alive in our house. Thyme bit the bullet about the day ago inside the house.  I couldn't find them but I swear the way the plant started dying looks like a spider mite infestation there. My sage plant is bearing the brunt of a aphid and white fly attack. I will be cutting off any leaves I can, washing them well so the leaves can be dried for later use and then throw the pot outdoors to let them freeze in sub zero temperatures. Die you bloody creatures, die. 
  • We have also added around our yard raspberry bushes which do very well in our Alaskan climate, along with cranberry bushes and rose bushes.  Some of the raspberry bushes I managed to get super cheap.  Always great to get something for a good bargain!
  • Garlic: two small beds have been planted.  I am curious to see how they do.
That was our growing season, readers digest version.  We have started discussing what will be planned next year.  From the sound of it, less tomatoes, more pole beans or soup beans, snow peas will be moved far away from the plants that need more sunlight, and of course the biggest challenge next year. Planning our garden along with the possible move from our current home to somewhere, outside of town, with a bit more space.  Who knows what we might have then.  We still want bees. We still want chickens. Goats have been talked about.
In the meanwhile, we now have snow on the ground, our days grow shorter, the sun hangs closer to the horizon.  It'll be at least another six months before we see the ground with no snow.
This is the time of year I love though.  For a little bit, there is not the manic race to can as quickly as possible, there is time to relax, to read good books that have been collecting dust, to put together challenging puzzles, to work on our bread making or soap making, and I have a huge bag of wool to spin.  Our evenings are full of spending quality time as a family, drinking hot cocoa and tea, playing games, and hibernating, much like the bears do this time of year.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Rendering Beef Suet to Tallow

I'm always looking for something new to learn, whether it be spinning my own yarn, canning a new recipe, or making soap so when I came across a really good deal at my local grocery store I just couldn't help it.  I had to try something that I had only read about previously.  Rendering animal fats into solids.
If I were to render pig fat the end result would be lard; while if I render beef suet (fat) the end result is tallow.  While shopping at our local grocery store I inquired in the meat department if they sold beef fat.  The butcher excitedly jumped up and said "Sure Ma'am, how much would you like! We've got lots!"  Not knowing how much it would take to create how much I just stammered to the gentleman working the butcher shop area "Uhhh, 2 or 3 pounds, I guess?".  He jumped away to fulfill my order, he almost seemed excited to give away these scraps that sooner or later I would turn into something wonderful.
As I waited another store patron asked me with a look of some disgust "what are you going to do with it?".  I answered nonchalantly "cook with it, make soap with it, make candles with it".
Even the cashier seemed to look at me oddly when she rang up this $1 purchase of 3 lbs of strips of beef fat.

Upon arriving home I put away my groceries and threw my newly acquired beef suet into the freezer where it would harden, thereby making the next job just a tad easier.
After waiting for a good 30 minutes, I took out the suet and begun the hardest part of this task. Chopping up all the slices into smaller slices, and trimming off any parts that had meat attached.  I've learned after following many different sources that its important to remove any meat as that can make your finished product (tallow) go rancid faster.
I learned much, much later on in the project that I should have just grabbed out my food processor to make faster work of this.  For two reasons. First trying to chop up all the suet I acquired into the necessary small pieces took a really long time and then, I didn't really get the pieces as small as I should have which slowed down the whole rendering process. A LOT.
The goal is to get to a nice crumbly texture before even putting it in the pot. Unfortunately, as I proceeded through the beginning part of this I did not take pictures so I can't share much there. (next time I render more I will add photos here.)
Next step is to decide which route you want to take in rendering.  Wet or dry.  I decided to go the wet route so to the now mostly chopped up suet I added about a half a cup of water to the pot and turned the stove onto low.  At this point it turned into a waiting game.  I first put a lid on the pot to help the pot heat up but then after the first 10 minutes I moved the lid to crack it a bit and let the moisture escape.  The first 30 or so minutes I grew worried as I didn't see any melting going on.  I wondered if maybe I had gotten the wrong type of fat as I have read the best fat to purchase is actually called "leaf lard".  This fat comes from the area around the kidneys and is the best, health wise.
If the leaf lard comes from grass/pasture raised cattle the tallow has significant health benefits which include:

  1. Excellent source of Omega 3 fat.  Omega 3's are anti inflammatory and helps to reduce the risk of type II diabetes, thyroid disorders, obesity, heart disease, and some cancers.
  2. Its a good source of beta-carotene, Vitamin A & E, Vitamin D
  3. Its a great source of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which helps protect you against heart disease and some kinds of cancer.  
I know for a fact that the suet I purchased was not from grass fed cows but I hope that maybe this tallow that I would be creating would have even half the health benefits.

I really had no reason to worry that I had purchased the wrong product at the store as within the next hour the suet begun to go through a metamorphosis from a solid to a liquid as all the pieces began to break down and turn to oil.  I did make sure to check on it about every 30 minutes or so, give it a good stir, then leave it alone to allow it to break down further.  It definitely took a LOT longer than I originally expected as I started it around 1p and it was not complete until about 7pm.  Once it seemed as if there was very little left other than the "beef cracklins"
These are really addictive! I added just a bit of salt so its a wonderful combination of salt and fat, both of which are pretty addictive!  We will use these from time to time on top of beans and rice, soups or even salads.  For now we store them in our freezer and then heat the small amount up when we need them. 
I started the next stage.  Straining. I first ran the hot oil through a metal sieve as the oil was still pretty hot and I did not want it to melt one of my plastic ones.  Next was to strain it through a cheese cloth.  The goal here was to remove as much of any little brown crispy pieces of meat or sinew as possible and make the finished tallow as pure as possible.  Looking inside the jars I could still see little brown pieces of meat floating around (they were really really small but the perfectionist in me could not stand them there) so I strained it one last time, this time just using the same metal sieve but with a paper towel thrown over it.  
By this time, the oil was cooling very quickly so I had to work fast.  Last night, as I put the lids on my jars they looked like this.  


But by this morning, this is what they look like! The finished product is beautiful!  Finished tallow.  Pure, white ivory. 
 Smells somewhat like, believe it or not, FRENCH FRIES!
Maybe this is because I remember in the 70's and early 80's when fries were made at fast food restaurants with tallow.  I'm looking forward to seeing how this does with soap.  (aka, does it impart a "BEEF" smell which is not exactly what I want to shower with)
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