Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dehydrating and powdering Sweet Potatoes~ Careful! these babies are sharp!

My most recent item to dehydrate is a sweet potato we received as part of our CSA share from Brads Produce.  This, I actually did not research ahead of time like I typically do simply because I was in a hurry to "git'r done" so I am writing about it to simply remind myself later "uhh how did I do this one?".
First, I baked it along with some other items in the oven just until it was starting to get soft. I like to wrap my sweet potatoes in tinfoil because they make a horrible mess in the oven otherwise.
Next, I sliced them up and placed them in our 5 tray Excalibur dehydrator for about a day and a half.
I checked several times to see if they were "crunchy" yet.  Each time, even today these remain pliable and soft with crunchy parts around the edges.  Hhhmm, frustrating.
A friend had remarked how this can be difficult to dehydrate these.  I can see why.
Okay, so today I did a test .  I tried cutting up the now mostly dehydrated sweet potato pieces and then tried grinding them in my Family Grain Mill. No good.  What came out when something did come out was gooey parts.  Since I value my grain mill too much I threw in the towel and resigned myself to having "sweet potato chunks" rather than "sweet potato flakes".
I figure later I can rehydrate with some water and then mix with my immersion blender to make the mixture all smooth. Then add a bit of butter and maybe some nutmeg and "voila!" mashed sweet potatoes for dinner.
Now the only negative to all of this?  My hands are seriously cut up from this experiment.  Please, if you try to do what I did and break up or cut up your sweet potato, do it in the beginning. Maybe make small slices rather than big slices like what I did.  Or make a sweet potato puree and then dehydrate.  Whatever you do, don't try to cut it up or grind it. It seems there is too much sugar in sweet potatoes for this to work.
I have one massive cut on my pointer finger here, another on my ring finger, and then one on my pointer finger on my right hand. OUCH!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Brewing your own Kombucha tea

I started making my own Kombucha tea over three years ago when I read about all the health benefits and I have to admit, only now I thought maybe I should write a bit more about it!
Kombucha is simply green, white or other varieties of tea that are fermented, and after a few weeks turns into an effervescent healthy beverage.  It is fermented simply with a bacterial and yeast culture that sooner or later, in the right environment creates a SCOBY.  Scoby stands for Symbiotic Colony of Bacterial Yeasts.  The Scoby is not actually the main part of the kombucha tea, it is just a by product of the bacteria and yeasts at work.
First, a bit of the history behind Kombucha tea.  Kombucha originated in Northeast China or Manchuria and later spread to Russia and from there to the rest of the world.  It was thought that this showed up in China as early as 206 BCE.  It became the norm over time to always share your extra kombucha tea and SCOBY mamas as this allows others to enjoy this healthful beverage.  Kind of a "pay it forward" type of idea.

Basic Recipe
1 quart water, boiled
3/4 cup white granulated sugar
4 T organic green tea

 2 quarts cold filtered water
½ cup kombucha from previous culture
1 kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) along with 2 very young baby scobys1 gallon wide-mouthed jar
Tea towel to cover the jar during fermentation (even an old t-shirt will work)
Rubber band that fits over the mouth of your jar
2 quart stainless steel pot
spoon (I have a very strong fiberglass spoon that I prefer for this)
funnel (for bottling)

 swing-top/grolsch style bottles (preferably green or brown tinted glass)

Bring 1 quart of water to a boil in your stainless steel pot. The goal is for your water to hit a temperature of 180 degrees.  This kills off any harmful bacteria that might be present in the water or the pot. Turn off heat and allow water to stop boiling. Add tea and steep for 15-20 minutes.  Dissolve the sugar in the warm water. Add remaining 2 quarts of cold water (or water mixed with potable ice made from filtered water) to the brewed tea.
Add at least ½ cup of the kombucha from the previous culture (or, if this is the first time you’re brewing, add any liquid that came with your scoby). Stir to combine.
Once liquid has come to room temperature, place tea into your one-gallon container. Place SCOBY on top (shiny side up).Place the cotton cloth over the jar and secure with rubber band. Store in a safe place at room temperature.
Approximately one week later, give or take, you will need to get yourself a small cup just to get a taste. See if it is to your liking.  Is it still too sweet for you?  Is it too sour? Too tart?  If it is still too sweet then you'll need to let it ferment for a while longer.  Once it has reached the flavor you prefer, remove the newly fermented tea out of the jar and decide if you want to do a second ferment or use it as is.
  Best way to do a second ferment is to simply use a grolsch style bottle.  Amazon sells these for a very reasonable price.
If you do go ahead with a second ferment then I have to advise some caution later here.  Fill first with your fruit of choice.  I've found I really liked a strawberry mint combination and since during the spring months both mint and strawberries were easy for me to get it made it easy. You can do almost any kind of fruit combination but remember, the more sugar the fruit has in it the more effervescent your finished product will be. The yeasts and bacteria are simply feeding off of whatever sugar is present in the kombucha.
Now the cautionary note.  Please remember to pop your bottles during the second ferment at least every few days.  The bottles will explode because of the pressure that builds up inside. The same thing that creates true champagne is at work in your newly fermented kombucha.  When you put this in a glass bottle with a stopper on top in room temperature areas, it will grow more effervescent but it can explode.

A few tips I have learned on my own for the three years I have been doing this.

  • This is NOT an exact science.  This is an art.  It is like brewing your own beer, making your own wine or baking your own bread.  It takes time to get it to just the right taste for you and your family.  Actually time and practice. 
  • Next tip, when handling your scobys, emptying your kombucha into another vessel or anything else that will bring your hand/s in contact with the cultures, always make sure to rinse your hands with VINEGAR. Plain white vinegar.  Vinegar is an awesome thing to have in your house. It actually does the best job out of any item out there for cleaning your house simply because bad bacteria (the bacteria that can do us harm) cannot survive when plain white vinegar is used on it. So, yes, it will possibly sting your hands LIKE CRAZY if you have cuts on your hands but just simply rinse your hands with a bit of vinegar and it will remove any of the bacteria that could do your beneficial bacteria harm.  
  • Always store your kombucha in Glass. Plastic has so many unnatural ingredients used to make it and Kombucha will leach those chemicals into your finished product.  You don't want that in your healthy beverage.  I usually kept my kombucha that was currently fermenting in large glass jars which were then covered with a thin cloth nappy (yes it was washed and clean. Ewww), and then made sure to seal it so fruit flies could not get in with just a rubber band around the top of the jar. 
  • Fruit flies.  You will not like fruit flies come summer.  If you eat fresh fruit from just about anywhere you will find the few fruit flies that might have come in with your fruit will find your kombucha.  They will be drawn to it like a moth to a flame and you have to really make sure your fermenting tea is protected from these little buggers. They will ruin whatever teas they get into. I can vouch for it, it's very gross. 
  • Adding chia seeds actually can make your kombucha even MORE explosive!  It's awesome because it makes your finished kombucha as sparkly as a glass of New Years champagne but it also adds a bit of danger to your kitchen (or wherever you allow your bottles to do their second ferment).  So back to my cautionary note.  POP YOUR BOTTLES.  Secondary ferments can be slightly dangerous because if you do forget to pop them, then BOOM! Glass and kombucha all over the place.  
  • Store your fermenting kombucha AWAY from odors like what you find from your kitchen. Kombucha will absorb those and possibly give your finished product an odd taste.  Its best to store it somewhere out of the way, where it will not be bumped, will not have anything spilled on it and will be somewhat removed from the odors in the house.  I can promise you, as its fermenting you will start noticing the odor that the kombucha is producing!  Its very apple cider vinegar like.  
  • The bacteria and yeasts that are at work in Kombucha love it when they are kept at a temperature of about 70-73 degrees.  We have found the best way to encourage this is to simply get a heat mat and a thermostat for your heat mat and set the temperature on it to about 72 degrees. Amazon also sells both of these.  I have included a link and picture to both of them here.  It works like a charm.  
  •   The bacteria and yeast in the kombucha will still grow and ferment your tea but, first your tea might take a bit longer, especially with winter right around the corner as I write this, and it will not be as bubbly as some of the store bought varieties.
  • Each time you start your tea, you can use tap water but remember, most tap water is chlorinated.  Chlorine kills bacteria.  Sometimes this is good when it's a bacteria such as E-coli or Salmonella is present but not in the case of Kombucha.  Kombucha has wonderfully helpful bacteria such as the Gluconacetobacter xylinus.  We found for the health of our kombucha scobys and the fermented tea it was best to filter our water using a Brita Water filter and then just let the water sit overnight to allow the chlorine to escape, thereby making our water okay for the kombucha making process. Amazon also sells Brita Water Filters along with the pitchers.  Since we live on a military post we religiously use ours to keep our water just a bit safer for drinking.  
My last bit of advice, is to simply, RELAX.  Enjoy this.  Like I said, it is like an art.  If it doesn't come out just the way you like in the beginning then just do it again but tweak things here and there.  I can give all this advice simply because that is what my husband and I have done, over and over. 
If at first you don't succeed, try try again. 
Enjoy. Oh and remember to "pay it forward"

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Yet another step made to prepare our backyard for our move from Aberdeen, Maryland to Fairbanks, Alaska.  This past weekend our goal was to dig up as many Jerusalem Sunchokes as possible and since the weather was dry and sunny we figured it was time.
First a bit of history, after all, you know if you've kept up with me in the past I love reading the histories of each plant we grow.
The plant commonly called a "sunchoke" is actually called a Jerusalem Artichoke. No, it is not from Jerusalem and no, it is not to be confused with a typical artichoke.  Supposedly Italian Settlers in North America named the sunchoke girasole which is the Italian word for Sunflower.  It is believed that English settlers corrupted the name girasole artichoke to Jerusalem Artichoke.  It is indigenous to North America and was cultivated for its valuable roots.  It is a perennial (meaning it grows back on its own every year) and is actually part of the sunflower genus; Helianthus.
Growing it, I can say it looks very much LIKE a sunflower which appeals to me personally as I love plants that look nice but are useful.  A whole "more than meets the eye"sort of bit. Most visitors who came to my backyard, even if they were possibly people with gardening experience would have NO CLUE that beneath the soil, treasure awaits.
Nutritionally, these are not too bad either as they have 650 mg potassium per one cup serving and are also high in iron, and contain 10-12% of the US RDA of fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper.  One item to take note of, Sunchokes are very high in the carbohydrate Inulin.  This can cause in some issues with gas and bloating.  Luckily for the three of us, we were gas and bloating free after eating some of our harvest for dinner.
Ease of growth?  Okay, well from everything I've read, you leave even just a bit of root or tuber in the ground and the very next year you will have more plants pop up which equals about one word. Invasive.  Now that could be a good thing.  After all, if you have a part of your yard you don't really care about that gets plenty of sun, well you could always plant a few tubers in the spring, dig up the buried treasure come Autumn but leave some roots and tubers behind and your garden already has a head start.
These also grow supposedly in very poor soil, with just less produced in lower quality soil.
Now as for this, I can say, our backyard soil is much better than what we had when we first moved in however what we lack is sunlight.  As you can tell in the photo to the left, the sunchokes here are in the shade. The plants we grew received during the height of summer about 4 hours of sun a day. Not much.
Still all told, our amount harvested was astounding because since that area does not get much sun we typically don't expect much from it. My husband,  Edward had already stored half of the Sunchokes so I couldn't weigh the entire amount from the backyard but what I did get to measure came up to 8.78 pounds.  If I were to guesstimate the total amount from the back yard I would say we harvested almost 20 pounds of Jerusalem Artichokes.  That is a LOT of tubers!  And that is only from the backyard where the soil quality is better.
This past spring we decided to plant a few in the front yard, just to see how well this plant held up to the very poor soil quality present here.  This is what we got.
Not much.  Almost a pound total.  These unlike the ones grown in the backyard are much more condensed and sweeter where the ones grown in the backyard were bigger and more nutty in flavor.  
So all told? About 21 or so pounds of Sunchoke tubers harvested.  Now the trick with sunchokes for long term food storage? You can't store these like you commonly do with potatoes. Sunchokes rapidly degrade in quality even in the fridge due to their thin skins. The best way to store these first is to just leave them in the soil until you are ready to eat them.  That is great but that doesn't work for us.  Remember, we're about to move!  
So next best way to store these for longer term food storage (at least that I've read, remember this is the first year I'm actually storing this things!) is to take a bucket, fill it with some soil, then place some of the sunchokes in the bucket, top with more soil, more sunchokes in a "lasagna" sort of manner. Finish with a layer of soil and then just put a top on the bucket.  I'll be able to give more feedback on this later on come January or February and hopefully, a few of these will survive long enough to go into our next garden in Alaska.   

Onto the next interesting bit.  Cooking with these.  I have found the few times I have cooked this so far the best way is to simply chop a clove or two of garlic, saute in some olive oil, add sliced sunchokes (I usually go about 1/4 inch thick slices) saute until the garlic is slightly browned.  Then put into oven that has been preheated to 350 degrees. Bake them until slightly soft.  You can also serve these raw but I am not overly thrilled with the taste when they are raw.  Maybe in a salad they would please my palate a bit more.  I still have to try that.  I have all winter after all to experiment with these.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

One Last Seed Giveaway

Due to the limited amounts of seeds we have on hand, this seed giveaway will be, well limited.  Not like our past few.
This will include five of each of the following seeds:

  • Bhut Jolokia
  • Mild Jalapeno
  • Sweet Banana Pepper
And as a bonus, a mixed variety of winter squash (because you know how much I love winter squash!)

a Rafflecopter giveaway This raffle will only last for 7 days and there will only be one winner so get your entries in now!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Today is the day..

Three of these hot little babies are ready!
At one point this plant was an unknown.  We knew we planted seeds for a Bhut Jolokia plant but were uncertain if this was one.  That is until it started producing peppers, late into the season.  Now lo and behold, here it is. I harvested three of the fruits and just cutting them off the plant made my throat burn as if I was slicing up jalapenos.
At this point, I'm kind of afraid to cut them up but I know we want to dry them so it will have to be done sooner or later.

FYI, the spicy peach tomato salsa I made recently was made using UNripe Bhut Jolokia peppers. We used two of those and we got a pretty spicy batch of salsa.  I can't wait to see what these do now that they are fully ripe!

Oh and heads up, be looking out for a giveaway soon.  Bhut Jolokia Seeds & maybe a few sunchoke tubers.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Stage 2...Tomatoes & Squash exit stage right

This past weekend the three of us tackled more of the garden.  It had become apparent that the tomatoes, grapes and winter squash were done for the season. No surprise there since we are on the second week of October.  Of course, the weather seems to be attempting to contradict that fact as Wunderground is reporting it is a balmy 86 degrees outside as I write this.  Our preliminary housing inspection is coming up this week so we decided we might as well take the raised beds apart, throw them out to the street to be picked up with the trash.
My son and I went armed with garden shears and chopped, chopped, chopped.
 All but four tomato plants are now gone.  Almost all the winter squash plants are gone.  The grapevines were cut down to almost the ground as we fear the housing office would require their removal.  I would love to see the new occupants of this unit when they realize next summer that they have grapes.

The eggplants have suddenly woken up and are all producing so any plant that was bearing fruit was left alone.  At last count, we have about 6 fist sized or larger eggplants here and there throughout the garden.  I have a feeling I'm going to be tired of eating eggplant soon.
The cucumbers are also gone, not that they seemed to do much this season. I got one single pint of my highly desired cornichons.  I'm kind of disappointed at that.  We left the acorn squash vine alone as well.  It has one baseball sized squash on it and I want to see if it will grow a bit more.

My son and I had a bit of a sad moment when we uncovered the dead catnip that we planted last spring for our cat, Mittens. Mittens too is as gone as the catnip.  A year ago she passed away after a long life of 18 years.  We still miss her.  All these plants will be gone within two weeks, the only evidence of their existence will be the soil that amazingly enough will grow flowers or vegetables easily for some future occupant.  We wonder if they will even notice.
Harvest October 05, 2013
The last bit to be harvested, and we have a sneaking suspicion it will be a large one will be the sunchokes.  The MASSIVE sized, 15 foot tall at least, sunchokes.  This is where I think we will hit paydirt this year.
As we lightly raked the soil anywhere even close to these monsters, we came up with sunchoke tubers. These preliminary harvests will be cooked up for tonight's dinner along with Rabbit Braised in Red Wine sauce and roasted beets and orange slices.  
Many of the tubers will be given away as gifts to our family as we travel from Northern Maryland to our new(old) home, Fairbanks, Alaska. 

Soon this chapter of our life ends, we all are growing anxious as we know moving day is approaching. At this point, I almost just wish for the ability to speed up time and get it over and done with.  

A taste of Autumn

This is what happens when you have too many fresh apples on hand and you cannot store them by canning and you've already got more than enough dried as chips. Unusual fruit leather combinations.
Today's experiment?
Vanilla Chai (decaf) with molasses and apples.
This idea came to me simply because we're running low on apple cider which I use in the crockpot as the apples are cooking down.  We add a bit of liquid here and there to make sure the apples or mixed fruit don't burn or stick too much.
Suddenly the thought hit me.  How would a chai flavor mix with apples?  The way I figured it was if it didn't turn out delicious, well then Edward and I would probably be eating the finished product or we'd just throw it away.  It doesn't take too many apples to make a basic fruit leather so its not an absolute waste.
The real positive to this is it uses very little ingredients.

  • Apples
  • Stash Vanilla Chai (decaf)
  • Molasses

I used two bags of the Stash tea in about two cups of water. After the tea had steeped for about an hour I added a little at a time to the apples cooking down in the crock pot.  I always make sure to add warmer liquids to the hot crock pot so I can avoid breaking it.
As for the molasses, I always do this to taste.  Our family is used to not as much sugar in our foods so we use honey, molasses or maple syrup conservatively.  The apples are usually pretty sweet by themselves anyways.
Also keep in mind what I've said previously, take care when adding sweeteners to your apples when they're cooking down.  The flavors will intensify later when its in the dehydrator.
Once the mixture cooks down to almost a baby food like consistency I use my immersion blender to make it all smooth.
Then it goes on a Paraflexx sheet in our Excalibur dehydrator for about 24 hours, give or take.
What comes out is your not so average fruit roll up, albeit a healthier version.

As of right this moment, the apple chai fruit leather is in the dehydrator.  The preliminary taste tests are....well...amazing really.

Apples and chai seem like they are very well suited for one another.  The flavors mixing together remind me of crisp leaves falling to the ground, hot apple cider and geese calling out overhead as they prepare for their trip down south.  Autumn incarnate.
finished product

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