Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Baking Basic Bread


If you are interested in living a more self sufficient lifestyle, then you are no doubt working on building up your set of skills and knowledge.  It's good to learn more and more about gardening techniques, various animal husbandry practices, and how to preserve the food that you are able to harvest each year. We have been exploring a wide range of topics in these areas over the past few years, but a very specific skill we have been really exploring here the past few weeks is how to make bread from scratch. Learning how to make anything from scratch is no doubt a useful skill, and I can tell you now after over a dozen loaves of fresh baked bread, it will save you money (flour is cheap) and result in an amazing treat that rivals anything you can buy at the store. 

I want to start this discussion right off the bat by saying that I have long been afraid of baking bread. For some reason, as a child I remember thinking that it took some magical skill in the kitchen to not screw it up. I am here to tell you that not only is there no magic involved, it is actually one of the easiest things I have ever made. And it tastes freaking amazing! 

That being said, the style of bread we will be discussing does require a very specific tool, and that is a cast iron pot with a lid.  The lid is of specific importance in that the beginning baking process requires that the dough be placed into a preheated pot with a lid.  I use a Lodge cast iron pot and also have an old Calphalon cast iron pot (similar to this) that is slightly smaller and works just as well.  I did read a post about someone using a crock pot liner, so I would imagine a ceramic baking dish would work just as well. It must have a lid though, so keep that in mind. 

So, let's get into the basic process.  The steps will go something like this...

  • Mix the ingredients and let the dough start to rise. We use a Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer with a dough hook for this, and mix 3 cups of flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 2 teaspoons of dry yeast, and 1 1/2 cups of warm water. Mix and scrape until the dough comes together and forms a nice mass around the dough hook usually.  We have been using Himalayan pink salt, but any salt will work. 

  • Transfer to a bowl and let the dough rise.  Now this is where I disagree with posts that I have read.  I have used both rapid rise yeast, and regular yeast, and I have let it rise for anywhere from 2-3 hours all the way to over 24 hours.  I am going to tell you that your best bet is to just keep an eye on the dough because there are so many variables in how long it takes.  Temperature of your house, temperature of the water you added at the beginning, shape of the bowl you're rising it in, etc. I started an 18-24 hour batch the other night only to pop it in the oven 3-4 hours later because the dough was already pushing the limits of the container it was in.  And I had at least one batch come pouring out of the bowl after rising too long.  So just watch it closely. 

  • Heat the oven and the pot you're cooking the bread in to 450 degrees when you're ready to bake the bread. It will take 45 minutes in the oven, probably 20-30 minutes to bring your oven up to temp and a solid 15 minutes to let the bread rest and cool slightly, so your gonna want a good hour at least. 

  • While the oven is heating up, scrape the risen dough out onto a well floured surface. You don't want it to stick to your counter but don't go too crazy here.  Then I get a small hand full of flour and over the pile of dough I rub my hands together, letting the flour fall onto the outside of the dough ball.  The idea here is to prevent your hands from sticking to the dough as you shape it into a nice round mass.  Don't knead anything.  I literally just cup my hands and tap the outside edges to form a round shape.  At this point, I carefully pick it up and plop it down on a piece of parchment paper (we use this kind) and reshape the loaf once more into a nice round mass of dough. Then I cover it with the same piece of oiled plastic wrap that covered its bowl while it was rising.  Leave this to rest and get a slight second rise while the pot and oven reach the desired 450 degree temperature. (20-30 minutes or so)

  • Once things are heated up nicely, remove the pot from the oven and set the lid aside.  Using the parchment paper as handles, place the entire mass of dough into the pot and cover it with the lid.  Toss the whole thing in the oven for 30 minutes.

  • After 30 minutes, remove the lid and let the bread bake uncovered for another 15 minutes. If you are making multiple loaves, this is when I scrape out the next batch of dough and shape it up so it can begin rising on the parchment paper.  

  • After 15 minutes uncovered, your bread is finished baking.  Remove the pot from the oven and place the bread on a wire rack to begin cooling.  It will be ready to cut and eat after about 15-20 minutes of cooling.  If you are baking multiple loaves, I use this same time to reheat the lid on the pot while the second loaf finishes its second rise on the parchment paper.
That is literally all it takes!  Six steps to fresh baked bread perfection! 

If you are interested in the technicalities of this style of bread, this is typically referred to as no knead bread.  I guess because you don't ever knead it.... but trust me.... you NEED this bread in your life.  It is amazing!  

Seriously though it's so, so easy to make. Especially with a stand mixer, which if you haven't figured it out yet, is not even necessary, you could totally just mix it all together with a wooden spoon and get a good result as well. This bread is also referred to by some as artisan bread.  The resulting loaf is beautifully crispy on the outside with a satisfying crunch to it when its fresh.  The inside is incredibly moist with a slight chewiness to it.  This I believe is from the intense initial heat of the preheated pot.  It cooks the outside very quickly, trapping all the moisture from the dough inside while holding any moisture that escapes inside the lidded pot during the initial bake. Removing that lid allows the outside crust to color up and develop that nice crunchy texture. Oh... I am getting hungry writing this!  

If you want to get creative, of course you can play around with different flours.  We have done 2 cups of regular flour and 1 cup of whole wheat with decent results.  I've also added some powdered garlic and Italian herbs to the mix and it wasn't too bad. I'd love to experiment with some oat flour and maybe sprinkle some rolled oats onto the loaf before shaping it.  So many fun ideas to try. But honestly, its hard to beat just good old fashion plain, white flour for this loaf.  So, so delicious. 

I personally think of this style of bread as peasant bread as it reminds me of stories of days gone by when poor farmers would huddle around a pot of stew after a hard days work, lapping up the broth with the crust of the bread. It just seems like something that could be easily thrown together on a daily basis each morning, then baked up that night.  It would pair perfectly with beef stew, or a pot of homemade ham and bean soup.  Pasta or other Italian dishes could work, as would a hearty bowl of curry or nice spicy chili.  It really is a versatile loaf and if we ever have one survive its first night, I would love to try making french toast out of it the next morning.  I bet it would be amazing.  

I will close by offering my encouragement that anyone can make bread like this.  There really is nothing to it once you get the hang of it, and I believe, that learning and practicing these types of skills will only enhance your ability to survive and thrive this crazy journey we call life.  Give it a shot.  I can almost promise that you will be glad you did..... unless you burn it.  That probably wouldn't be very good.  Smoke alarms going off.... yeah don't burn it.  That's probably a key point for success.  Don't burn it. 


Sunday, November 29, 2020

Ten Uses for Your Homemade Jam

Okay, full disclosure….. I went a little nuts on the jams and jelly making this year.  We can blame it on the events of 2020, or the fact that we were home more, or just the fact that I was worried about food security in general, especially after the whole toilet paper scare this spring….. So as fruit came on, we canned!  We bought produce by the case, grew what we could, visited local you pick orchards, and even gleaned what we could from family and friends.  We canned cherries whole, because we love them that way, dried every fruit we could get in the dehydrator, and made a ton of jam!  

Now when I say a ton of jam, well let’s just say we have a wide variety.  There was the strawberry jam, followed by the cherry jam and then the peaches came on, so we made peach jam.  We did jalapeno jams, and plum jam, and while we didn’t get any apricots, we did get ahold of some pluots so there is some of that too.  Blackberry jam, check.  Raspberry didn’t go quite as planned, but it was okay because we also experimented with a zucchini jam flavored with jello…. Actually not too bad, and a good use for overgrown zucchini.  

Insert happy jam dance of joy here.  Yeah, it's totally a thing. 

But after the dancing stops, and you're staring at an entire cupboard full of jam, you eventually settle on the real pressing question.  What in the heck are we gonna do with all this jam!?  I mean, I like PBnJ as much as the next person, but seriously.  There is a lot of jam!  

So, to that end, I did some researching and some soul searching to see if I could figure a way out of this jam.  See what I did there.  You know you laughed a little on the inside. 

And to that end, I present my top 10 ways to use your preserved jams throughout the year.  There is so much more in store for those luscious preserves than just a standard Peanut Butter Sandwich. 

#10  Sandwiches/Bread 

Ok, yes I took the easy route for number one here a bit, but it's hard not to.  From as far back as people have been preserving fruit, jam and jelly on rolls, toast, bread, bagels, english muffins, and the lot has been a staple. Who hasn’t slathered some sweet spread on a warm roll with butter, or added some to cream cheese and whipped it together before smearing it on a bagel.  Jam on bread is just…. Well it's just good.  So let's not overlook the most obvious use and be sure to plan on some of that jam being used the old fashioned way. 

#9 Cake Fillings

This one is almost as iconic as the bread mentioned above.  Who hasn’t had a piece of cake with some strawberry or raspberry jam sandwiched between the layers.  It’s such a nice addition to a really beautiful cake as the fruity sweetness really rounds out the flavor profile.  But while doing research, I discovered that there is such a thing as jam cake….. Which takes the whole jam and cake thing to a whole different level.  We’re talking like the opposite of a traditional cake where the frosting is on the outside and the jam is a surprise in the middle.  Yeah with jam cakes the frosting is the light, creamy surprise in the middle while the cake is dripping with jam from top to bottom.  It looks amazing in the photos I saw!  

#8  Appetizers/Cream Cheese 

Jam as an appetizer is such an easy option for your next casual get together.  Cream cheese block on a plate, covered with jam, served with crackers.  Perhaps at its best with a good, chunky jalapeno jam for that nice touch of heat.  I love this with traditional pepper jam, but don’t be afraid of making fruit jams with added jalapeno.  I had this dish served with a raspberry jalapeno jam and it was delicious!  

Beyond this, you can add jam to your charcuterie boards, dabble some over regular cheese and crackers, or spoon it over melted brie cheese before serving. The combination of sweet from the jam, and savory from the cheeses can be so amazing. 

#7 Sweet and Savory Sauces 

Using jam as an ingredient in your homemade sauces is a great way to sweeten up savory sauces.  There are many fruit based glazes for pork, chicken and fish that can be prepared simply by mixing varying amounts of soy sauce, garlic and onion powder, pepper and other spices, sarach or other hot pepper sauces, and/or chicken or veggie broth. There are many recipes that call for simply mixing jams with barbecue sauce to sweeten things up a bit. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it hopefully serves the point to get you thinking about how easy it could be to kick your jam up a notch and turn it into something even more useful in your home cooking. 

#6  Dipping Sauces (Asian Inspired) 

If you have ever eaten an egg roll, you may already be getting an idea of where this one is going.  There are a wide range of fruit flavors used in asian style cooking.  Thai sweet chili sauce and plum sauce for example are used with lots of stir frying and other recipes.  So, if you find yourself at home in need of these ingredients, why not start with some homemade jam as a base.  With the right complementary ingredients, you could create dipping sauces for egg rolls, glazes for fried chicken dishes like orange chicken, or a sweet and spicy sauce for rice or noodles. 

#5  Dairy

To say that fruit and dairy go well together should be no surprise to anyone.  Who hasn’t had a soft serve sundae covered in strawberry sauce, or a fruit flavored ice cream or cup of yogurt.  Why not make some of those things yourself using your own jams.  Drop some jam in the bottom of a small dish before adding plain yogurt.  Stir before eating and it's no different than some of those fancy ready to eat yogurts sold in the store.  Drizzle jam over vanilla ice cream to create our own homemade sunday.  Stir some into yogurt before freezing into your own yogurt pops.  The list really goes on and on here as there are so many possibilities. 

#4  Meat Treats

The internet is crawling with variations of meat and jam playing wonderfully together.  We’ve already talked about mixing jams into sauces, such as BBQ sauce, or using it as a base to glaze something like a pork loin or ribs while it's cooking.  I have been known to make homemade jerky that is heavily glazed during drying, resulting in a sweet, sticky, peppery meat treat. This works well with all sorts of meat, and I’ve even had some pretty epic smoked catfish that was glazed this way and it was delicious!  

Beyond that, this section wouldn’t be complete without mention of sausage and meatballs.  These two frozen meat staples can be easily thrown into a crock pot with some jam and BBQ sauce and the resulting treat is just amazing!  Often served as an appetizer, these dishes could also be served over rice for an easy family meal.  

#3  Cookies

I knew when I started researching this topic that I would find the iconic thumbprint cookies. I had made some in the past and just loved them as a simple, delicious cookie. The combination of short bread and jam opens a wide range of options if for no reason other than the wide variety of jams you may have stockpiled in your pantry.  I must admit however, that I was amazed by how many different versions of this specific cookie I found.  There is also a wide range of cookie dough, some with nuts, some with cream cheese, some rolled in sugar while others aren’t.  Some of the cookies were glazed after baking, others were dusted in powdered sugar, yet most left plain.  Still others were rolled and cut out and then layered with jam in the middle, while others had been cut into squares with opposite corners pulled up in the center. Like seriously amazing how many “different” cookies you could make from this one, basic concept of simple dough, filled with jam. 

#2  Pastries  

If cookies aren’t your thing… First of all, what's wrong with you?  Secondly, there is a pile of other delectable dessert options that embrace the luscious sweetness you so lovingly put into your jars this season.  The first one that caught my attention was the adorable looking jam hand pies.  They remind me of the glazed fruit pies we used to get at the bread store as kids.  Then there were the jam tarts, like tiny little open faced pies!  From there, things started to get interesting.  Jam cheesecake muffins, jam filled doughnuts, mini jam cakes, classic italian crostata, jam filled crescent rolls, puff pastry pinwheels, peanut butter and jelly bars, and I can’t wait to try jam filled oatmeal cookie bars.  It makes sense that something as sweet and delicious as jam would be featured in so many great dessert treats, but what an amazing variety.

#1 Cheesecakes 

For me, the number one use for jam is in cheesecake. The reason has nothing to do with anything other than a sense of nostalgia.  When we were first dating, my wife would make these amazing cheesecake cupcake things that were swirled with jam.  As time went by, she started learning how to make her own from scratch cheesecakes, and some of these, she would swirl with jam just like those cupcake things. I love my wife’s cheesecakes, and I love that I make most of this jam we have with my daughters a lot of the time.  So when those two things come together, it's like a sweet taste of everything that I love most in each and every bite.  

There you have it, ten different concepts for using all that jam you made this season.  Which is good to know because if you don’t empty those jars, you're gonna have a hard time filling them again next season! 

What is your favorite way to use jam?

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Winter Weather Check List Part 2

Winter Sunset

 Are you Personally Ready for Winter Weather??

For part two of this winter weather check list, we are going to be looking at the more personal centered elements of getting ready for homestead maintenance.  There are more than a few things you might need to address as the colder weather approaches. 

Clothing and Outerwear

The shorts drawer now holds 
gloves, base layers, and heavy 
winter socks

If you are like me, summer means that you have been out in the garden in flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt most of the time.  Maybe you had to grab a hoodie on an especially cool morning, but in general terms, you're embracing the warm weather and your clothing reflects that. Around here, we embrace it so much that I box up my winter weather gear in storage totes, swapping out the summer gear that was stored in those totes all winter.  So for me, an important late fall task is swapping those totes again so I have access to cold weather gear, rain gear, long underwear, and the like all in my closet for easy access.  

Winter boots ready for use
after a good oiling and cleaning

This will also mark the reemergence of cold weather outerwear as gloves, stocking hats, winter coats, etc. all take on an important role in completing the daily chores when weather gets a bit more nasty.  Slippers, Muck boots, or other water proof boots, and winter boots like my Sorels or good Danner Pronghorns will need to be checked and possibly oiled to make them winter ready. 

Nice, warm work gloves for 
the pending winter chores
If you enjoy a bit of hunting or other outdoor adventuring during the fall and winter season, your might also need to address some changes to your adventure box as well.  I like to keep a tote ready all the time for outdoor adventures.  In the summer, this tote includes mostly hiking and camping gear as that it what we generally do.  Now, I will look through it again and add elements that might be useful during these colder months.  Extra Layers, Cold weather outerwear, socks, and the like will find their way into that box. Things that might make unexpected stays a bit more bearable should the need arise. Better safe than sorry right?

Establish a Winter Chore Routine

This probably goes without saying, but you should be making your personal preparations with the tasks at hand in mind.  What exactly will you need to keep doing on a consistent basis?  Not every homestead is the same.  Around here, our main outdoor tasks revolve around taking care of the animals, keeping the fire going and managing any heavy snow fall. 

Our animal situation involves simply the dogs and cats, and the chickens and rabbits.  The mealworms and the worm farms slow down significantly during colder weather and require very minimal maintenance. The biggest tasks to address to keep all our critters going are food and water. We keep all of our food stock in sheds where they are protected from the weather.  Some of these sheds receive supplemental heat during the coldest part of the winter, which makes taking care of them all a bit more bearable. 

These electric heated waterers are about 
ready to be put back into service

Water is the hardest to deal with during cold weather as it will freeze up on you.  We like to use electric heated waterers that keep the water from freezing, but be mindful that it will evaporate into the cold dry air and you need to have a plan for keeping them filled.  This might mean hauling water from inside the house.  Do you have a plan for that?  Buckets that fit in the sink?  I honestly use small buckets and garden watering cans with the rain spout removed.  They fit easily in my sink and offer good control of the water distribution.  This system works well for our dogs, cats, and chickens, but for the rabbits, we use a different strategy. 

Another technique that we have used in the past is a rotation system.  We do this with the rabbits especially since heated water systems for them are very expensive.  So, we have two waterers for each rabbit.  While one is freezing, the other is defrosting and a quick daily switch gives them access to at least an hour or two of available water each day.  We also utilize small cat food dishes and put fresh water in these.  If it freezes, the ice puck is easily removed and fresh water can be added. 

Our house is heated mainly via a pellet stove, so an important winter readiness task for us is stocking up on bags of pellets.  We have an area set aside for storage and try to have plenty of pellets on hand.  Depending upon your living situation, heating your home may involve gathering and storing wood, or maybe filling up gas or oil tanks. Do you have storm windows that need to be added?  How is access to your stored fuel?  Will you need to clear paths in the snow?  Do you have any axes and/or other tools needed in the woodshed for easy access?  Does your heat system need cleaning out?  Our stove needs routine ash removal, so we keep the necessary tools (shop vac) easily accessible all winter long. Keeping the fire going will be a consistent task so plan accordingly. 

And then there is the snow management task.  Do you have a plan for dealing with it?  Snow shovels, plow blades on ATVs, Snow Blowers, salt for ice build up, sand for traction.  Are these things running correctly and/or easily accessible?  Do you have battery chargers for an ATV that may have been sitting too long and enough fuel on hand to keep any of your gas powered tools running?  Have you thought about where snow will be stationed following your clearing efforts?  What effect will snow have on your animals and their living situation?  Do they have good access to sheltered spaces?  

In general terms, here we focus on clearing paths to the animals and fuel storage areas, and we keep the driveway open as best as we can.  Our driveway is long, but not so long that it can't be handled with a snow shovel.  This year I was gifted an old snow blower from my Uncle, so we will be trying that out as well.  We simply pile everything along the edges of the driveway, which keeps management easy as it never has to be moved very far, just to one side or the other. The important thing is to have ready access to these resources when you need them. 

Vehicles Winter Ready 

The final element of our personal winter weather check list is making certain that your vehicles are ready for winter driving conditions.  Check your tires and if you live in a cold enough area, swap out summer tires for winter traction tires with snow studs.  At a minimum carry some tire chains if you don't plan on using studded snow tires. Other traction enhancements included added weight in the bed of pickup trucks.  Things like sand bags or salt bags stationed over the rear axels will help push rear tires down into soft or slushy snow and increase traction.  

The sometimes overlooked element of vehicle prep for winter conditions is a winter car survival kit.  You can find loads of information about this online, but at its most basic, it contains things like blankets, water, and food to help you stay in your car should the need arise.  The concept that I play out in my brain is a white out storm so bad that you cannot see where you're going, or roads so dangerous that you cannot drive on them safely, or you are stuck after sliding off the road and cannot get your vehicle moving again.  Any of these scenarios is within the realm of possibility.  Each of them would potentially require you to stop and hunker down in or around your vehicle until it is again safe to move, or someone comes along to help you. Is there enough resources in your car to keep you warm, hydrated, and some food in your belly should something unexpected happen?  Could you start a fire if there was fuel available? Do you have a portable heat source that would be safe to use inside a car?  

I hope that this list helps you think about some of the things to consider as we approach colder weather.  If you begin with the end in mind, and think of the resources you will need to complete the tasks that you know already will need to be completed, you can enter the changing weather season ready and prepared to keep your homestead and family thriving. Stay safe and enjoy the winter weather and all the fun that this time of year brings. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

My Fall Garden Check List (Part 1)

As the days begin to shorten, and the air begins to cool, we find the need begin preparing for the cold to the bone effects that accompany the pending winter weather. Here in Zone 5a, we have a very seasonal pattern, which means, winters are cold, there is often snow, and our outdoor activities take a bit of a turn.  If you haven't already, it is time to get ready.  

Here on our homestead this means a whole pile of changes.  I am going to break them into two main categories and do my best to briefly detail what we do in our general winter weather preps. 

The first main category we will tackle is the yard and garden.  Everything that we use during summer needs to find its winter home and those items that we will continue to use for various chores need to find a consistent place to be so they are easily accessed all winter long. Beds need cleaned up, etc.  Let's look at the list. 

Deal with the Water Issues:  

When the weather turns, one of my first considerations is usually water.  We have under ground sprinklers, so we shut the system down and blow out the lines to prevent frozen pipes from cracking.  We usually have hoses strung all over the yard from the growing season, and I like to get those rolled up and placed in a shed for safe keeping.  I also like to take stock of the location of our watering cans, buckets, pails, etc. so I have access to what I need for watering the animals, and any other water related tasks that might come up. 

Let's Build Soil: 

If you have spent any time looking through this blog, then you will know that we are big on building soil around here.  Fall is the prefect time to gather up the years worth of garden waste and get it into compost piles.  We throw away virtually nothing from our yard, so every squash vine, leaf, blade of grass, tomato plant, unripe squash, you name it, they all go into one of our compost systems in one form or another. We want to continually recycle those nutrients throughout our system.  Sometimes we use mechanical helpers, such as leaf shredders and/or chippers, but if we don't have time we just pile it up and let nature begin the process for us. It is also good practice to use some of this material to cover your beds with a nice winter blanket.  We use leaves and grass clippings along with hay and straw if we can find it to try and cover all the exposed soil that we can for the winter. Throughout the winter, worms and other soil creatures will feed on this debris and further improve our soil texture for the following season. 

Get Some Pruning Done: 

Another tasks that goes along with the garden clean up, is our annual pruning of the flower beds and cleaning out of the pots.  We don't cut everything back, but some things that we know will need it anyway get a nice chop to end the summer growing season.  We generally prune back our elderberry plants pretty heavily in the fall as they are very vigorous growers and seem to need it by then.  Likewise with the grape vines which makes harvesting the grapes much easier. Our planter pots are usually full of warm season plants, like sweet potato vine, so they all get pulled and cleaned out for a nice clean look all winter. As you can imagine, all of this gets added to compost piles after a quick run through the chipper.  

I don't prune any of our fruit trees this late in the season.  I prefer to prune all of them during the dormant period of late winter if I can get around to it.  This affords me an opportunity to more easily see the shape of the trees so I can make adjustments as necessary to their shape and structure. This is part of the reason we prune other things now, so we can focus on other pruning tasks in the late winter and early spring. 

Get the Animals Set and Ready: 

I have spoken to some degree already on this blog about our animal system, but for a concise version, let's explore this.  Winter marks the transition into winter housing.  All summer long, our hens and rabbits have been in their summer quarters with ample access to fresh air, fresh produce, fresh weeds, sunshine and shade.  But those structures are far more exposed than I want to be when I take care of them, so every year when the cold weather begins to creep in, we move them into winter housing.  For us, winter housing is an old greenhouse that was here when we bought the place.  Over the years it has evolved and now includes a number of rabbit cages, some nest boxes for the hens, and a very deep open floor.  We fill this opening with straw, paper shreds, leaves and grass clippings, old hay, etc. when fall hits and move the chickens and rabbits into this space for the winter.  Food, and water will both be available in here as well as outside in their small winter run, but when it gets really cold and snowy, they basically stay inside.  They love digging through all this deep bedding all winter long.  It is well ventilated and this system has worked very well over the years.  I can feed and care for them in a sheltered position.  There are lights which makes my work easier when necessary.  There is power to run their heated watering pans.  It is just so much easier than leaving them outside would be.  And, as an added bonus, since it is a greenhouse, they are nice and warm on sunny winter days, taking advantage of some thermal gain. 

I also like to try and stock up to some extent on animal feed to keep the animals going through the winter.  You never know when winter weather is going to take an unexpected turn for the worse, and I hate having to run to town for food and supplies in the middle of a snow storm.  So we'll be sure to have some extra feed stuff stocked and stored.

As an added bonus, this system has proven to result in piles and piles of useful composting material at the end of the season when I am ready to start building my summer compost piles.  The chickens have spent months pooping and scratching through this massive pile of goods, and I keep adding more and more to it throughout the season.  This material, along with the now aged material in their summer run, is an excellent accelerator to the active summer compost piles we will build as soon as the weather breaks next spring.  Within 30-60 days, we will turn this material into some epic, active compost to add to our growing systems! 

Start Planning for Next Year: 

While things are fresh in my mind, I like to start thinking about what went well and what didn't this growing season.  Every year it seems we are trying new experiments with plants, different varieties, different beds and systems.  That's part of the fun right?  So, I like to take a quick moment to think about what I might want to do next season.  Are we going to add any new beds?  If so, where and how are we going to go about it?  What projects didn't we get to that need to be at the top of the planning lists for next season?  This year I didn't get the new greenhouse buttoned up like I wanted, so now that has to wait until next spring.  I also didn't get the fence boards planed off and put back up, so there is another project that needs tackling.  

Raised bed soil tends to settle.  How much have the beds settled and do we need to be making plans to add more soil to the beds?  Might be able to find some great deals on high quality soil at the end of the season sales. Or, it might be worth making some compost runs this fall and pile it up somewhere so it's ready for next season.  Also might be a good idea to cover the soil with shredded leaves so soil life can start converting some of it into soil over the winter.  

As you can see, just getting the yard transitioned over into winter weather mode can be a significant chore.  In part two, we will look at getting the people living systems ready for the cold winter weather coming our way.  Are you ready for the winter weather yet?  What do your plans include as you prep for winter weather?

Friday, August 7, 2020

Fried Rice: Most Universal Meal Ever??

A bowl of fried rice covered with a rich, cilantro peanut butter sauce
Fried Rice with Cilantro Peanut Sauce

If you are like me, then for the past few months you have been spending perhaps a lot more time at home and eating out a whole lot less than you used to. While these have been trying times, they have also provided moments of inspiration, and once the produce began really flowing out of the garden, I have to admit that inspiration often was found in the kitchen when I tried to figure out what to do with all this great, fresh produce.  

Which brings us to the topic to today's post and I want to offer up an opinion.  I think fried rice might be the most universal meal ever invented.  

Now, before the comment thread blows up with counter proposals (I can't wait to hear your thoughts actually) I want to make my case for the humble bowl of friend rice, especially for those of us who are homesteading, gardening, and looking to live a slightly more sustainable lifestyle. 

When I make fried rice, I generally follow a very simple approach. 

Fat, Fluff, and Rice with sauce  

Allow me to elaborate.  


I start every batch of fried rice with some version of fat.  Without fat, I don't know that you can really call anything fried, but I digress.  Now for me fat comes from generally one of two sources.  Either I start with some kind of oil, such as olive, canola, or coconut oil, or some sort of fatty meat like bacon or sausage. The point is you want a slightly oily base.  If I use a meat source that is lean, like chicken breast or lean pork, I will start by cooking it in oil.  It's that simple.  And before we move on, I usually season this starting point with my desired seasonings.  The sky is the limit here.  Cajun, Brazilian, Asian, garden herb, curry, it really doesn't matter as long as you are blending flavors that will play well together. 


Okay, this maybe isn't the best name ever for this category, but bear with me.  When I say fluff what I mean is all the stuff that isn't meat, if your even using it, and isn't rice.  There is really no limit to the creativity you can have here.  Zucchini, Egg Plant, Onions, Peppers, Green beans, Garlic, Sweet Potatoes, Pineapple, Celery, Peas, Corn, Carrots, and so many more ideas can add be added to the flavorful oily base you have created.  And it doesn't matter if they are fresh, frozen, or even drained out of a can.  Your goal here is to add some bulk to the dish and its a great way to utilize those light harvest when you only have one or two of this or that from the garden and it isn't enough to make a full dish in its own right. 

Once the fluff mixture is nice and cooked through, I may or may not add in some delicate fluff.  These are things that don't take nearly as long to cook, but can really help the dish pop.  I commonly use fresh herbs here towards the end, maybe a beaten egg, or a really delicate fruit that doesn't need too much time to cook.  

Are you getting the idea here?  It's fluff.  There are no wrong answers as long as it tastes good when it all comes together. 

Rice with sauce:  

Finally, we are ready to add the rice.  My most common approach here is to cook the rice in the rice cooker a day or two before hand and then hold it in the fridge until I am ready to make fried rice.  What you should read there is this is a great way to use left over rice.  White rice, brown rice, wild rice, even other rice like grains such as quinoa are all fair game.  You can also make rice and use it fresh if you want.  Refrigerated rice is dryer to some extent, and seems to come together nicer than fresh, still sticky rice might, but I am not sure as I have only done it with cold rice. I add it to the hot, oily mixture and stir it all around to coat it evenly. 

Now we are ready for the last piece of this four part puzzle, and that is some sort of sauce.  Traditional fried rice is finished with soy sauce, but I find that we all really enjoy it when we use Memii noodle soup base.  Once again though, the sky is the limit here.  You are imparting flavor as well as giving the dish a good steam bath since this liquid will quickly evaporate while you stir the dish to coat it evenly.  I haven't yet, but I am debating how shots of other soup broth would shake things up.  It doesn't take much so go easy.  You can always add more, but it's hard to take it out if you get too much in there.  

Fried Rice with Spam, Squash, Peas and Carrots

There you go.  I think I have done my best to make the case for the extremely adaptable and versatile dish that is fried rice.  I recommend that you try a batch next time you have some left over rice.  Its such an amazingly easy way to bring together a small amount of varied ingredients into a delicious one pot meal with an infinitely variable flavor profile. Can you think of another dish that offers the same level of versatility and adaptability. 

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Three Garden Growing Methods

How Does Your Garden Grow? 

In this post we're going to look a three different methods for growing a garden that we have in practice here.  The first has been in place for quite a while now, and it just gets better year after year.  The second and third are both systems that we had familiarity with, but had yet to put into practice until this growing season.  Let's explore the three methods and I will share some short video that we posted over on our YouTube Channel detailing each of them.  

Deep Mulch Method: 

The first method is a deep mulch system.  We started our first garden here in the southwest corner of our property.  It was kind of a tucked away little corner bordered by the road, driveway, neighbor's property, and an old metal shed.  It just felt detached from everything and ended up being a decent space to start and grow a garden.  It was however, essentially a rock filled driveway for all intents and purposes, so we began what is now years worth of piling material into an ever evolving growing system.  Leaves, grass clippings, old hay, wood chips, pine needles, straw, and loads and loads of compost, along with manure have been added in various forms over the years.  Today it is a lush growing area that supports a wide range of perenial plants and is slowly evolving into my version of a food forest. It is one of the easiest ways to start gardening, since there is no digging involved....but it does take years to reach its full potential. 

Raised Bed Method: 

The second method is a raised bed system.  You will find many versions of how best to do this, but for us it was simple wooden boxes filled with yard scraps, old logs, and rough compost before adding a layer of finished compost that we purchased from the local landfill. The results in these beds have been amazing and we are very pleased with our results this season so far.  I would say that while being an expensive way to start, this method yields very quick results as you can literally start gardening the second you finish filling the beds with soil.  If you add in a simple irrigation system, this method gets even easier.  I personally find that the rigid corners and defined bed space increase my ability to evenly space plants which results in a much more tidy garden space.  I absolutely love this method and it is by far my most favorite. 

In Ground Growing: 

The third and final method for growing is perhaps the most traditional method for growing a garden, and that is growing your garden in the ground.  For me, this has always been an exercise (literally....lots of digging and physical labor involved) in adding soil amendments to help improve the soil before planting.  I usually add in compost, silage top, manure, old hay, grass clippings, dry chicken manure, worm castings, rabbit droppings, or any other organic matter I can find to help improve the soil structure and fertility.  This is all usually tilled and dug into the existing soil before adding a top dressing of finished compost.  The resulting beds will be heavily mulched once planted to help conserve moisture and limit the inevitable weeding tasks that will be associated with in ground growing.  After one season, I will move to a no dig approach for bed maintenance by simply adding compost every year for the remainder of the beds life.  

Over the years I have found success with all these methods and I am looking forward to an active growing season this year.  How do you garden?  Which method is your favorite?  Share your thoughts down in the comments and check back throughout the growing season for updates on our garden progress this season.  

Get outside and get growing, because life is better, when its live Outdoorz! 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Using Plastic Mulch

Using Black Plastic Mulch for Soil Prep

Over the past year or so, I have been experimenting with a method for soil prep using plastic mulch.  The quick version is that when you cover the ground with plastic mulch, the weeds can't grow, and worms and other soil life can thrive under the protective layer of plastic and do amazing things to the soil.  I now believe this to be very true. 

In the short video below, you will see what we found when we moved our plastic after leaving it sit for I think over a year.  It did a great job keeping the massive amounts of morning glory in the space from making a huge mess, and we were very happy with the results.  We have big plans for this space, and I am excited to get this next garden adventure started. 

Simple Chick Starting Method

Starting Chicks the Easy Way

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has explored this blog that we have chickens.  Most people raise chickens for their eggs and maybe the meat you can get once an older bird has finished her most productive years.  Around here, I believe the biggest role my chickens have played is that of soil generator.  If you manage them correctly and learn how to compost, you can end up with an amazing amount of high quality growing material.  

But, in order for this to happen, you have to have chickens, and for most people, that. means starting with some chicks.  In the short video below I detail the system that we used most recently here in the spring of 2020.  There are certainly more elaborate methods, and I will likely have to piece together something on a bit larger scale for them here soon, but in general, this short video details just how simple it can be to get some chicks started.