Monday, January 31, 2011

Kefir Delight

I love yogurt. I think it is delicious. I drink it, spoon it, spread it, and cook with it. While Jason was purchasing his homebrewing supplies (I hope to get him on here to write about THAT) I browsed the back half of the Corvallis Brewing Supply looking at wine making supplies, bulk brewing containers, and books. I happened to peek into the fridge with the yeast and saw that besides beer and wine supplies, they offered cultures and the like to make cheese, yogurt, and kefir.

Now I had no idea what kefir was. I had seen it in the dairy cases of my grocery stores, but kind of wrote it off as some kind of hippie health food (yep - laugh at the fact that it was ME thinking that). What I will say is that I really really really really really wanted to learn how to make cheese. When I investigated one of the cheesemaking books on the shelves I learned of a graduated process toward the chemistry of cheese that allowed one to learn just a couple of skills at a time.

And it started by making kefir.

First I had to learn what kefir was. What I have learned is that kefir comes from Turkey and is a means of fermenting milk. The end result is a sour, thick mixture that is similar in taste to yogurt, but contains different nutrients. Once I learned this I became intrigued and decided to give it a try.

The only thing I had to do to make my kefir was to bring my milk (I used 1% organic milk, but you can do it with most kinds including coconut and soy) to a certain temperature and add the kefir culture. I then poured the milk into jars, covered them with a cloth, and set them on the kitchen counter to ferment. If i wanted it to take longer I could put it in the fridge, but I wanted my kefir ASAP.

The end result of my first batch was a thick milky substance similar to pourable yogurt. It was sour enough to make me want a BIT of added sweetness - fruit for example - but had a pleasant tang like eating plain yogurt. I took two jars, added to them some canned apricots I brought from Moab, and began eating it every morning with fruit and Kashi. The rest I left in a larger jar in the back of the fridge to keep fermenting - albeit more slowly.

The one thing that confused me about the kefir was that all reports I got on it included the fact that I needed to strain out the "kefir grains," or the culture I put into the milk to get fermentation started. However, when I did strain the kefir I saw nothing that looked like these grains. I looked up pictures online to see if I was just looking for the wrong thing, but nothing has matched up.

I am currently trying an experiment with the kefir from the big jar, putting half into a strainer with a clean cloth in it to see how thick I can get it.

All in all the kefir experiment has been a success. I ended up with a gallon of kefir for $5 and 24 hours. It looks like what I made will last me almost a month.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tare About the Environment

Each week we plan out our meals from Monday until Saturday (we eat out Sundays - Chinese this week!) and go to the store to do all of our purchases. We find that it saves us time, money, and wasted food. Now that we are settled into our new place we have unpacked all of our mason jars...I LOVE mason jars. I use them to drink out of, to store leftovers in, to measure out food, and most importantly - for food storage.

I don't just use them to store food in the form of canning. I also use them to measure, transport, and store bulk dry goods from my local Co-Op.

I will say that I also LOVE bulk foods.

One of my favorite parts about bulk foods is the reduction of waste (not to mention lower prices and quantities that you choose for yourself). In order to maximize this waste reduction I bring my own containers with me. This way I get to store my food in materials I like (I much prefer glass to plastic) and I get to take as much or as little as I like (this is GREAT for trying things out like shampoo (if it is offered in bulk) because you can get just a tester rather than a whole bottle).

If your grocery store or Co-Op offers bulk foods and you care about waste reduction ask if they will allow you to bring in your own containers. Some places (often bigger chain-type stores) do not. In that case you can just get your foods in bags, label said bags, and reuse them each time you go...BUT if they do you can start picking and choosing containers for your various bulk items.

Lining up containers for our grocery run.

If this is the case you will want a tare weight for your containers. The tare weight is how much the container weighs when it is empty. This should be subtracted from the full weight of the container to calculate the weight of the food inside. Some places want you to bring your containers to them so they can weigh them (keeps people from cheating the system) and others let you do your own tare and rely on an honors system. At my Co-Op here in Corvallis they allow us to weigh our own containers. They also provide a number of sterilized recycled containers on the premises, often pre-taring them for you.

So when I go to the Co-Op I determine what I want to buy, what I can get in bulk, what containers are best for what foods, and then collect them all together to take with me when I go.

If you mark your tare on tape you can pull it off to use the jar for something else.

Some hints for bringing your own containers:
- Try to bring containers that most closely match how much you are purchasing. I usually determine what I am going to use the food item for as I am choosing a container.
- It works best to pick containers that used to hold the item you are purchasing in bulk. I find this most helpful when getting items like laundry soap and shampoo.
- Make sure your containers are clean and dry. This keeps food from sticking to the insides of your containers as well as slows the opportunity for spoilage.
- When marking your tare weights, be sure not to write them on the lids of containers. This is important if you are like me and use containers with interchangeable lids. Today I used a lid with a tare on it from a half gallon jar, but the new jar it was connected to was eight ounces. The cashier was confused.
- If the containers you are using have bar codes on them, take a magic marker and draw a line through the code. This will avoid accidental scanning of the item as what it was previously.
- If you have any doubt that you will mix up two items in the containers be sure to label them with contents at the store. It would be unfortunate if you grabbed the salt jar for your morning coffee.
- Think about appropriateness of where the containers will be used. Don't put shampoo in a glass might regret it later when it slips out of your hand in the shower.

Happy bulk shopping!

Sustainable Sunday: House Alive!

So one goal I have set for this blog is to shine a spotlight on businesses that promote recycling, sustainability, permaculture, and homesteading. These will mostly be local or regional to Jason and I in Corvallis unless we are traveling. There are plenty to choose from here!

Last summer Jason decided he was going to take a natural building workshop. We'd returned from New Zealand having spent a week learning from people through the WWOOF program and he wanted more. He spent some time online looking for programs and found House Alive!

Situated in the wooded hills outside of Jacksonville, OR, House Alive! is a program run by Coenraad Rogmans. Jason chose to attend a course there because it not only covered building with cob, but other natural building techniques as well as use of greywater systems, photovoltaic electricity and passive solar. He opted to take the "Incredible Cob: The Complete Shelter" - an 8-day workshop.

Jason's time at House Alive! was vibrant and exciting. He felt it was a great balance between hands on work and theory. He learned a lot while camping in a scenic area and eating wholesome and delicious vegetarian fare. Upon returning home I heard tales of beautiful buildings, innovative ways to build sustainable homes, and kindness from Coenraad and his family.

Beyond hosting workshops on his property, Coenraad also takes his show on the road, doing workshops and internship opportunities in places like Mexico and South Dakota. Thus far, the 2011 schedule includes an 8-day workshop and an internship at Full Bloom Farms in Jacksonville.

Jason and I went down to Jacksonville this weekend to visit Coenraad and his family. We stayed in this lovely cabin.

The property is beautiful and covered in cob and hybrid buildings as well as a man-made pond, cob oven, and plenty of garden space. Coenraad and his family were wonderfully hospitable, fed us well, and shared with us some great ideas and philosophies. Here is a pic from the House Alive! website of their living room.

Jason and I were invited to tour the property. We saw the sauna, worksheds, greenhouses, and the inside of this cabin. I LOVE the desk pictured here!

I will say finally that not only is Coenraad an excellent teacher, but he truly lives the principals he shares with others. I want to thank him and his family for a great time!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Homemade Chai

Before moving to Oregon I stayed with Jason in his place in Moab while he finished up some earth building projects. His roommate made up chai from scratch and it was AMAZING!!! Here is his recipe and my thoughts as I sit here and enjoy a cup of my first batch.

4 qt saucepan full of water
2-3 T cardamom pods
3-4 T fresh chopped ginger
1 t black pepper corns
1 nutmeg seed (grind in coffee grinder with black pepper corns)
1/2 to 1 t cloves (the more you put in the more your tongue goes numb)
4 small cinnamon sticks

Boil that down slowly til about 2/3rd water left in pot, then add milk of your choice to fill the pot back up again, and lightly boil down about 1/2 inch or so. Steep in roiboos or tea of your choice, strain into cup, add honey to taste, and serve (if you use black tea then steep in each individual cup as it will turn bitter in the pot).

If you like spice this chai is amazing. It has a great bite due to the ginger and black peppercorns. I would halve the peppercorns and double the clove if you like a sweeter tone. I used soymilk in my brew, but it will work with any kind of milk. I also did not have a nutmeg seed and had to go with pre-ground nutmeg which worked just fine. If you think your chai is not strong enough you can always cook it down more or store it with the spices in. When you heat it up each time it will steep further.

I got all of my ingredients in bulk from the First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op here in Corvallis which keeps the cost of the spices much lower than if you were purchasing them in containers. In order to keep my chai spices organized I put all of the baggies into a large mason jar and taped the recipe to the outside.

You can also save the spices from one pot and make another batch. Just freshen it up with a a few bits of each ingredient and make a slightly smaller amount.

Monday, January 24, 2011


We are starting plans for our backyard garden...raised beds and containers to combat the fact that it becomes a puddle back there when it rains (and you know it NEVER rains in Oregon).

Beyond a wishlist of all of the things we want to grow, we started checking out info on building raised beds and are trying to determine the best way to procure materials. I spent some time looking online at pictures to get inspiration...


Rockin' the pavers

I love that these people can sit and eat their produce while looking at their garden growing

This one is in Brooklyn and really does an amazing job of utilizing space

This one is my favorite - I want lettuce sprouting off the walls of my house!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Urban Farm Magazine

Found this while perusing the mag stand at the Co-Op and LOVE IT!!! From the people who write Hobby Farm.

Screwing the Bucha

Alas my kombucha must be tossed.

Came home from Portland today to find small fuzzy white dots of mold growing on the top of my newly-formed scoby. It was a pretty big disappointment considering even if I restart today I have lost a week. Le sigh...

That said, I will share with you what I believe went wrong for me in hopes we can all learn from my mistakes (why else would I share this kind of thing anyhow???). Here is what I have learned about mold and kombucha.

- If the spots are black, green, grey, or white, it is mold and you should throw the batch away.
- If the spots are brown it is not mold - it is spent yeast and completely normal.
- When starting your culture you should make sure that at least 10% of the solution is kombucha.
- If you live in an area of high humidity (like Oregon...learning to adapt from life in the desert still) you are more prone to mold, and can lightly spray the scoby with vinegar while it is forming to ward off molds.

So I am off to the Co-Op to get myself a new bottle of starter. My plan is to get it rolling and instead of making a full batch, I am going to make a half this time. Perhaps that will help!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tis the Season

Next up...seasonal foods.

Spent a bit of time putting lists of what is seasonal onto our kitchen calendar. The rules are as such...

1) if it's growing in our space we can eat it whenever
2) if it's proven to be local we can eat it whenever
3) if it's not local it needs to be in season
4) if it's not in season there needs to be a damn good reason to get it

Unfortunately I found today that February and March are the most barren of all of the months for seasonal foods - even here in the Northwest. We have such great timing when it comes to these things. That said, I am looking forward to getting into new recipes and new ingredients. I take it more as a challenge and a game than going without, though I WILL miss eating peppers all the time.

Foods that are ALWAYS in season (or keep long enough for them to be available all year round) - potatoes, garlic, fennel (have to learn what to do with that) and apples.

Found this chart on the Guardian website...made me feel a bit nostalgic for my London days. Glad though that the chart for the PNW is even more extensive.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bread and Circus

This weekend Jason and I started a series of projects that mark a threshold from dipping our toes in the homesteading arts to more of a serious wade. Jason's parents were kind enough to give him a beer brewing kit for Christmas. This new equipment at hand he set out to start his first batch of homebrew - hopefully soon to be the subject of another post - while I began my own 'first'...baking yeast-rising bread.

I will say that I have made attempts at baking bread in the past, so this was not a FIRST in the way of baking bread, but of coming out at the end with something I had mixed, kneaded, risen, proofed and baked without mishap. Well...without mishap was a bit off, but I did end up with some tasty loaves.

The day started with a trip to the First Alternative Natural Food Co-Op for flour. I must say that I LOVE the bulk foods section there because a) they have all kinds of things I did not expect as bulk foods like tortilla chips, shredded cheese, and frozen berries, and b) you can grind your own flour!!! It was a lot of fun to watch the grains slipping down from the bin and come out into my mason jar as coarsely ground goodness. I picked up my yeast and then headed home to get my bake on.

I should preface the rest of this article by saying that I am in NO way a baker. I love love love to cook, but when it comes to flour and sugar and measuring spoons I generally steer clear. Cooking to me is improv jazz - I know the key, feel the beat, and play what makes the most sense to me at the time. Recipes are guidelines to me...something I reference but in no way take seriously. Baking however is more akin to science. It's actually important to follow the recipe. In the past I've tried to apply my libertarian (don't put your measurements and 'calls for' laws on me!) approach to baking and it ends up in cookies that look like pancakes, cakes that look like doughnuts, and pie crusts that require a machete to dent. A great example of my baking prowess is that the last time I tried to bake bread (I will not tell you how many times I have tried, but suffice to say that its more than two and less than ten) I killed the yeast with water that was too hot. This might have been due to the fact that I did not want to have to buy a thermometer and decided I could feel 115 degrees with my pinkie finger.

So...if you are new to baking let my story help you feel less inadequate, and if you are an accomplished baker please feel free to treat this as a baking comedy.

I decided to use the Whole Wheat Bread recipe from The Joy of Cooking, which, as I learned just now, was recently corrected to say that it makes two loaves, not three (no wonder I thought my three loaves looked pathetically small). I really enjoy this book - it's a total classic. What I like best about it is that the recipes are clear, concise, and generally very simple. When I use it for cooking it serves more as a foundation for inspiration rather than a guide, but for baking I like it because I am the kind of person who hates to read the instructions before playing with a new toy.

I did get a thermometer for the project.

I mixed the wet and dry ingredients in advance of activating the yeast, and got my water to the proper temperature thanks to my new candy thermometer. Once all of the ingredients were incorporated I went a bit off script (though in fairness I found this idea in the recipe for bread right after the one I was doing so it seemed safe enough) and divided the dough up into three pieces to flavor each one differently. I decided to keep one plain, add dill and cumin to one, and put sunflower, flax, and sesame seeds in the third. I kneaded them just enough to get all the ingredients mixed in and set each in its own bowl to rise.

And yeah, nothing happened.

Now I have led you to believe that my big mistake was that I added things to the dough. Actually that was fine, and would have worked well had I not bumbled other things up. Once I waited an hour in excited anticipation (I was SURE this was going to work this time) the lumps of dough were still pathetically small.

So...I started looking into bread issues.

I found a great website called that cued me in to two of the things I screwed up. The first was that I got to see a picture of what activated yeast actually looks like. I KNOW I got the right temperature with my yeast since I took pains to stare my thermometer down until it hit my temp zone. However, I did not let the yeast sit long enough to get going properly. I also learned that adding a bit of honey or sugar to the yeast right when you put it into the water is helpful. I also learned that salt kills yeast. This is where Joy of Cooking failed me! It called for me to put the salt into the wet ingredients not the dry, and then add the yeast to the liquids before putting in the flour. Why I don't know, and apparently this has not stopped people from making this bread for 75 years. I guess the irony for me is that the girl who never follows directions followed them too well.

I also learned that kneading is kind of important. Not just to get the bread mixed well, but to create the gluten needed to hold up the dough while it rises, and to add in air to the dough to help the yeast do its thing. How did I miss this crucial bit you ask?

Yeah...I might have skipped reading all of the directions about bread making that the recipe suggested.

I was very very upset. I had three bricks of wheaty uselessness and no bread to bake. Fortunately for me I also suck at writing down ingredients when I go to the store. While there I could not remember if I needed one yeast packet or two. So here is where improv cooking girl decided to toss caution to the wind and ignore all the threaded online posts indicating that unrisen bread should be tossed or turned into pizza dough.

I activated the yeast using the directions I'd found, added honey to the mix and viola! The yeast fizzed and came to life. Very cool. I let it get good and active while I took my three fun little loaves and kneaded them into one. I felt sad that I was not going to get three unique flavors, but at this point I decided I was just going to be happy to get myself some damn bread. I added the yeast, kneaded, proofed, and set the dough out to rise.

And it did!

At least some - not nearly to double in size...but beggars can't be choosers.

In the end I baked three round peasant-bread style loaves that were dense but springy with a thick, crispy crust and a nice nutty flavor. I immediately transported one of them to my friend Josh's place to cut up with a myriad of spreads and cheeses for a wine tasting and scrabble party.

So now that I know what to do I will certainly be making more bread in the future. In the end even having to use the second yeast packet, we figured that the bread comes out to be $1.75/loaf, meets our culinary needs for two weeks, and is WAY WAY tastier than what we usually get at the store. If you are interested in what else is on this platter, or in learning more about the wine in the picture, please check out this post on The Oregon Wine Blog.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kombucha Culture from the Bottle

Whenever I get settled in to a new place I start up a new batch of kombucha. If you don't know what kombucha is, the short answer is that it is a fermented tea that is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The long answer includes that it came from Russia, includes many beneficial probiotics and acids, is meant to be very healthy for the digestive system, and is outlined in way too many words on wikipedia.

I usually find someone I know who has a scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) so that I can get myself started. That usually requires I spend some time meeting people and finding someone who actually brews kombucha, OR putting up some kind of cute ad at the local food co-op. Now I love getting to know health-conscious hippie types as much as the next granola foodie, but I really wanted to get my culture rolling lest it take me months to get the show on the road.

So instead of hunting down my own viscous little colony I am trying something suggested by my friend - starting my kombucha from a commercially bottled brand. It will take longer to get going, but should produce the same results as using a scoby.

I chose to use High Country Kombucha Original because it is one of my favorites. It is also one of the few commercially bottled kombucha brands that I can find without juices added. I spoke with a friend who has started her culture from this brand, and she suggested the following recipe:

1 bottle of Original High Country Kombucha (or another plain variety)
3-4 liters of water
2-3 tablespoons of organic black tea
1 cup of raw sugar

Set out the bottle of kombucha to reach room temperature. Boil the water and pour into a sterilized stainless steel or glass (no plastic!) container. Steep the tea in the water until the desired strength and then remove. Pour in the sugar and let it dissolve. Let the sweetened tea sit out until it reaches room temperature, then pour in the bottled kombucha. Cover your container with a clean cloth and place somewhere warm where there is no direct sunlight. The kombucha should start to culture as soon as you
put it in, but be patient with the results as this method can take up to a month.

There are many ways you can drink kombucha. Some people start a new batch when it gets to their desired level of fermentation, and put the finished product in the fridge. Others will engage in a more continuous fermentation, adding more ingredients and pulling out kombucha as needed. Some people drink it straight at room temperature, others like to chill it. You can also add it to juice or sweeten it with a little sugar (but do so just before you are going to drink it, if you put sugar in it and put it away you will restart fermentation).

When Jason and I were in New Zealand we stayed with a couple who were homesteading and teaching wwoofers to build cob houses. Every morning we met in the kitchen and stood around the wood-fired cookstove with wine glasses filled with kombucha, hot water, and blackcurrant syrup. We toasted the start of each day before settling in for a delicious breakfast of pog.

Beyond the health benefits of kombucha I definitely cling to this bit of nostalgia when I partake in kombucha today. I drink kombucha for health, for comfort, for taste, and for fun. I have no intention of telling you that you SHOULD drink it, but I recommend it if you like sour flavors and believe in the benefit of consuming fermented foods.

I will let you know how my commercially-bottled culture turns out!