Category Archives: homestead how-to

Summer In The Hedgerow

Hi there! Long time, no blog! It’s been a busy summer around here — school tours at the Farm, cooking demos at the State Fair, some exciting news coming soon for the Homestead Radio Hour, and now the getting-ready for farmer’s market season — not to mention all the sundry regular business of farming…. so, in celebration of all that is Summer, I thought a visit to our new hedgerow would be a nice way to ease back into the Blogworld!

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Clockwise from top left: Pomegranate, Myosotis, Perennial Sunflower, Buddleia

So, what’s a “hedgerow,” anyway? The world conjures up bucolic English country lanes, lined with damsons and sloes, the kinds of thorny shrubbery whose obscure fruits inevitably end up in jellies, wines, or gin. All fine and well, but what’s it got to do with a sunny California fruit ranch?

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Borage, an all-time favourite with the bees, of both the honey and bumble sort!

First, let’s start with a bit of background. Simply and broadly put, a hedgerow is a planting of shrubs, trees, and/or herbaceous plants, for a reason. They’re typically dense, hence the “hedge,” in a linear layout, the “row,” and serve a purpose other than decoration or simple food production. In fact, hedgerows of any description play multiple roles: sure, they’re attractive, and can include plantings of edible and useful shrubs and plants, but their utility goes beyond mere ornamentation.

The earliest known hedgerows date from the Neolithic Age, and were used to enclose fields for growing cereal crops. A hedge would have served as a living fence, marking field boundaries, keeping animals and livestock in or out, even providing defense against attack. On top of that, hedgerows would also provide wood, food, and shelter for for game and wildlife. Their utility kept them in regular use through the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the industrial era, and up to the present day; although barbed wire and modern livestock fencing offer easier and more convenient ways to fence fields, hedgerows are still in use in Great Britain and much of the world. Though many historic hedges in the UK were neglected or destroyed to make way for modern field systems and food production, the hedgerow is making a comeback worldwide as  an important element in sustainable agriculture — which brings us to the B H Ranch! Continue reading

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Filed under around the farm, homestead how-to, orchard, organic, summer

Chili Power!

With the weather cooling and rain threatening, we’ve been in a frenzy of preserving lately! The peppers did especially well this year, thanks at least in part to the sun-shades we made by attaching empty chicken-feed sacks to the wire cages with clothespins. We usually lose half the fruits to sun scald, so it’s especially satisfying to have found a solution. Of course, the flip side is that we have twice as many peppers and chilies to deal with!

Last year I made some scrumptious pickled roasted peppers, and we put up pints and pints of pickled jalapeños, but with so much to do before the weather turns, we’re turning to speedy, simple methods this year to preserve everything in sight. I thought I should crawl out from under my heap of peppers for a few minutes to share some of my favourites!

Roasted Peppers for the Freezer

So simple, so good. You can do this with any amount of peppers, from just a few to a bushel full, and with just about any variety as well. Heat a gas grill to high, toss on your peppers, and grill, turning occasionally, until all sides are blackened and blistered. They’ll look dreadfully burnt; this is what you want! (If you don’t have a gas grill, you can do this in the oven as well — spread the peppers on a foil-lined sheet pan and pop them under the broiler.)

When the peppers are blackened on all sides, transfer them to a bowl and cover with a plate or some foil. Allow to sit for at least half an hour — the peppers will “sweat” in their own steam, loosening their skins. You can use them fresh, or freeze them to enjoy all winter long…

To freeze, spread peppers on foil-lined baking pans and place in the freezer. When they are completely frozen, transfer to zip-top freezer bags or containers. (This keeps the peppers from freezing into a solid block, as the tend to if you just toss them straight into the freezer bags without individually-freezing first.) Label everything right away — pepper varieties may look totally different fresh, but its often near-impossible to tell the anchos from the pimientos when they’re all black frozen blobs! To use, thaw the peppers, peel off the skin (running them under warm water makes this a snap), and remove the seeds.

Pimientos are divine when roasted — their firm flesh is ideal — but poblanos and even jalapeños are also excellent. We made smoked roasted jalapeños by wrapping apple twigs loosely in foil and placing on the grill directly over the flame — when the twigs start to smoke, add your jalapeños and close the lid. Check and turn them often, though, as small peppers can burn quickly. This method gives them just a hint of extra smokiness, and they make fantastic salsa, especially when combined with tomatoes roasted the same way! Just peel the chilies and tomatoes, add a bit of chopped onion and a pinch of salt, and whiz in a food processor until blended.

Thai Chili Paste

Thai chilies are one of my favourites to grow — they’re scorchingly hot, but once you get past that, they have a wonderfully fruity character. And one little plant will grow more chilies than you know what to do with! Fortunately, they lend themselves to preserving in several simple ways…

For chili paste, you’ll want either all red or all green chilies. Remove the stems and put them in a food processor. Add some sea salt: for every cup of chilies (packed), we use about a tablespoon of salt. That sounds like a lot, but trust me, you’re not going to eat this stuff by the spoonful! Process until you have a smooth paste, adding a few drops of water at a time if necessary. (Confession: I actually have one of those little “As Seen On TV” Magic Bullet machines — long story — but it is dynamite for making chili paste!)

Transfer the paste to glass jars and store in the refrigerator or freezer. And here’s the cool thing: refrigeration actually tames the heat of the paste, allowing the flavours to “bloom” and to stand out over the searing heat of the fresh chilies. The paste keeps up to a year refrigerated, longer frozen; try a spoonful in curries, chili, you name it!

You can go all-out and turn this into Thai-style curry paste, too: add ginger, garlic, shallot, lemongrass, cilantro, a dash of oil, and cut the salt back a bit as well. Scoop balls of paste onto waxed paper, freeze, and transfer to freezer bags or containers. (Don’t forget to label, or you’ll be racking your brain trying to figure out what these weird blobs are — cookies? — when you find them in the back of the freezer a year later….)

Oh, and of course there are always

Dried Chilies!

The easiest of all, especially if you have a dehydrator or a sunny day outside! Thai chilies and other small, thin-walled peppers are best for this. (Avoid whole thick-walled peppers like Bell, Pimiento, or Jalapeño peppers; they can spoil before they dry completely.) Anchos are another great drying pepper — pick ripe, glossy-red fruits, and make a slit down one side if you want them to dry a little faster. You can also string chilies with a needle and thread (through the stems) and hang them by the fire or in another warm spot.

Well, that’s enough to keep me busy for a few days — and enough chilies in their many forms to keep us warm all winter long!

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Filed under around the farm, autumn, homestead how-to, making things, preserving, recipes

Celebrating Our “Freedom Of the Fork”

Today we bring you two episodes of The Homestead Radio Hour, our monthly radio program on KVMR FM Nevada City. Over the past few years we’ve been honoured to talk with and interview a wide variety of guests, from farmers and beekeepers to local-food advocates and educators; but no matter what the topic, we always seem to come back to the importance of knowing where your food comes from, knowing the people who grew or raised it, knowing how it was made, and knowing how to do a little more in your own backyard.

The two episodes below are especially appropriate, I think, for Independence Day. How do we define “independence” when it comes to consumption? Are we really free if we have to rely on a mysterious, all-powerful system of corporations to decide what goes on our dinner tables? And what happens if, one day, that machinery breaks?

The first episode here — “Independence From The Food Machine” — features local author and real-food advocate Joanne Neft. She started the first Foothill Farmer’s Market in Auburn twenty-two years ago, she has written two beautiful books on how to cook with seasonal, local meats and produce, she has been a tireless advocate for our local farmers and food economy, and that’s just the beginning! Joanne is one of the most inspiring people I know in the world of food and farming, and it was such a treat to sit down with her at the historic Newcastle fruit-packing sheds and talk about the importance, and the joys, of real food. In this episode, we also visit the farmer’s market to talk to shoppers, chefs, and farmers about why they love fresh, local, and seasonal food.

The second episode here is one that I still can’t quite believe happened. We were totally knocked out to get to interview Joel Salatin and Michael Ableman, world-renowned farmer-author-activists, on the Homestead Radio Hour back in January. The whole thing came as a complete surprise — we were planning to talk about the Nevada County Farm Conference, where they were going to be featured speakers, but the last thing we expected when we arrived at the studio was to find Messrs. Salatin and Ableman waiting for us! We frantically scribbled down some notes and questions in the few minutes before the show started, but our semi-panicked frenzy was completely unnecessary; they were so down-to-earth and easy to talk with, and it was a delight just hearing the two of them take the conversation in ways we hadn’t even planned.

I hope you enjoy these two episodes at your leisure on a lovely summer afternoon, preferably with a tall glass of lemonade or a bowl of icy watermelon — the old-fashioned kind, with seeds. They’re so much sweeter that way!

The Homestead Radio Hour, Thursday July, 8th, 2010: Independence from the Food Machine

With hosts Phyllis and Julia Boorinakis-Harper

Learn how you can achieve Independence From The Food Machine! This episode features local farmers, consumers, and chefs, as well as local food advocate and Placer County Real Food Cookbook author Joanne Neft. We talk about the benefits of eating fresh, local, in-season foods and give tips on how to do it without breaking the bank. Celebrate the national treasure of small farmers and CSAs, as well your own backyard, and claim your rights to freedom of the fork!

(Or listen here on the KVMR Podcast Page)

The Placer County Real Food Cookbook : Recipes, photographs, resources and more from Joanne Neft and Laura Kenny

Nevada County Grown : Locally Produced Food and Products

The Foothill Farmer’s Market Association : Local Farmer’s Markets from Roseville to Tahoe and everywhere in between…

The Homestead Radio Hour, January 2012: Joel Salatin and Michael Ableman

With hosts Phyllis and Julia Boorinakis-Harper

Joel Salatin and Michael Ableman visit the Homestead Radio Hour to talk about sustainable agriculture, “integrity food,” and the future of farming.

Joel Salatin is a full-time farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. A third generation alternative farmer, he returned to the farm full-time in 1982 and continued refining and adding to his parents’ ideas. His speaking and writing reflect dirt-under-the-fingernails experience punctuated with mischievous humor. He passionately defends small farms, local food systems, and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm. He is the author of nine books, including The Sheer Ecstasy of Being A Lunatic Farmer and Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World.

Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, and photographer and a recognized practitioner of sustainable agriculture and proponent of regional food systems. He has written several books and numerous essays and articles, and lectures extensively on food, culture, and sustainability worldwide. Michael is currently farming at the Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, home of The Center for Arts, Ecology & Agriculture.

(Or listen here on the KVMR Podcast Page)

www.polyfacefarms.com : Joel Salatin – Polyface Farms

www.fieldsofplenty.com : Michael Ableman – farmer, author, photographer

Find more Homestead Radio Hour episodes here on the KVMR Podcast Archive!

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Filed under farmer's market, homestead how-to, Homestead Radio Hour, summer

Compost Happens!

My goodness, I can’t believe I missed writing something for International Compost Awareness Week! (Yes, it most certainly is a real thing!)

When I took the UC Master Gardener training last year, we spent quite a lot of time on compost for the “Master Composter” element of certification. (After the first day, I couldn’t wait to get home and start turning my rather neglected compost heap — it was seriously that inspiring.)

As Master Composters, we’re honour-bound to talk up the joys of decomposition and organic nutrients at every available opportunity… and so, of course, it was only a matter of time for me to do so here! (Oh, and don’t miss our Homestead Radio Hour interview with Kevin “The Worm Whisperer” Marini, UC Extension expert, at the end of this post… talk about inspiring! His contagious enthusiasm will have you marching out to the yard, pitchfork in hand.)

If you don’t already have a compost pile, by all means, let’s do something about that right away! It really is very simple: all you need is a bit of outdoor space. If that isn’t an option, you can even compost indoors with a worm bin (see below). No excuses, right? Compost piles and bins take many forms, from the very basic heap to elaborately-engineered multiple bins and rotating tumblers; don’t be intimidated by all the fancy and expensive equipment proffered by garden catalogues and home-improvement stores. Start with something simple — if you outgrow it, or you find that composting is really your “thing,” you can always upgrade later.

Glamour shot of my beloved compost pile:


So, let’s begin at the beginning…

What do you need to make compost?

There are four key ingredients:
Organic matter – we need a balance of Carbon and Nitrogen to make really great nutrient-rich compost
Air / Oxygen – necessary for decomposition. If the pile goes anaerobic — without air — you’ll end up with a slimy, stinky mess. Good aeration makes for a happy, odor-free compost pile.
Water / Moisture – for much of the year, adding kitchen scraps and yard waste regularly will contribute enough moisture to your pile. In summer, however, you may need to water it occasionally. If you dig around and the pile looks dry or dusty, add water slowly so that it can soak in.
Micro- and macro-organisms – you can buy all kinds of magical compost-starting elixirs, but there is no need — these friendly critters will move in on their own! Earthworms, fungi, bacteria, and other decomposers are key to a healthy compost pile.

If all these factors are present then compost will “happen” all by itself, but for the best (and neatest) results, you will need a compost bin or designated “pile” area with adequate ventilation and, ideally, a size of 27 to 125 cubic feet (3x3x3 feet to 5x5x5 feet). You will need to gather green (nitrogenous) and brown (carbonaceous) organic material, mix them in your bin or pile, and moisten the mixture if necessary. Mix and turn the pile each week, checking for moisture and adding water if it is too dry.

A couple of tried-and-true designs for backyard composting:

Movable compost pen


Advantages: simple and inexpensive to make; requires few tools and materials; can be moved easily to a different location or disassembled when the compost is finished to allow for easy spreading in the garden; you can build it to whatever size you like.
Disadvantages: Not as sturdy as permanent bins; in order to turn the compost you will need to “dump” the bin and then refill it; if you are cutting wire fencing to height, it’s a good idea to cover or file down the pointy ends of the wires, especially if children or pets will be playing around the bin.

We use these moveable “pens” out in the orchard to compost leaves and larger volumes of garden/yard waste. They’re perfect if you have a large quantity of material at once (think raking the lawn in autumn) and aren’t in a hurry to make compost. Turning your pile speeds up the decomposition process, but this is a good lazy, low-maintenance way to get the job done, and the fence ring keeps everything nice and neat (no windstorms/dogs/chickens spreading your leaf pile all over the yard!) If you set up the pen where you want the compost to eventually end up — i.e. in your vegetable garden — you can simply remove the ring and spread the finished compost when it’s done.


Multi-bin system


Advantages: Allows for fast composting, easy turning, and you can keep adding new, fresh material to the first bin without contaminating the “cooking” or finished compost in the other bin(s). Sturdy and high-capacity. Easy to add a lid to if pests or nosy neighbours are a problem.
Disadvantages: more complicated and expensive to build than simpler bins; more tools and materials needed for construction; takes up more yard space.

We have a two-bin composting system that we adapted from a salvaged bin of uncertain provenance. (It used to have an astro-turf “roof” on top — go figure.) Multi-bin systems can be built out of pallets, scrap lumber, shipping crates, etc, or purchased ready-made. Our two-bin setup works nicely; fresh material goes in the left-side bin. When that fills up, I transfer it to the right-side bin to finish composting, and we start filling up the left bin again. Both sides get turned regularly. Really serious composters often use three-bin systems, in which the “rough” compost goes into a middle bin before moving on to the final “finished” bin. The triple-bin would be more necessary if you’re processing a large volume of material, or if you want to store your finished compost for a while.

Some Common Composting Questions

 “I tried composting, but my pile always smelled bad and attracted flies.”
Flies can actually be beneficial to the composting process, but you can help keep them from becoming a nuisance by turning your compost pile more frequently to make sure that all parts of the pile “cook” evenly. This will reduce the larvae population, as well as keep odor problems at bay. Food scraps are attractive to flies, especially fatty foods or meat scraps, which should not be put in the pile. Plant-based food scraps, eggshells, etc, should be buried or covered with straw or leaves to deter flies; this will also reduce odors. To keep pests and odors to a minimum, make sure your compost pile is in the recommended size range (from 3x3x3 for a bin to 5x5x5 feet for a heap) so that it generates enough heat to compost quickly and efficiently.

“Why should I compost when I can send my green waste away to be composted elsewhere?”
Why pay to have your green waste taken away, and then spend more money on fertilizer, soil, and amendments for your garden, when you can make your own for free? Composting lets you recycle your kitchen scraps and yard waste into a valuable soil amendment and conditioner that you can then use in your own garden, yard, or potted plants. And unlike purchased soil additives and fertilizers, you know exactly what went into your compost — no toxic gunk or weird chemicals to worry about. From an ecological point of view, composting your own green waste instead of having it hauled away conserves fossil fuels, energy, and money; instead of huge trucks and tractors, all you need is a simple backyard bin, a shovel or pitchfork, and a bit of your time. It’s easy, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly, and nothing beats the satisfaction of turning your scraps and yard waste into something you can use in your own backyard!

“What’s the difference between mulch and compost?
Mulch is applied as a top dressing around plants to conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds, keep the soil temperature cooler in hot weather, and reduce soil erosion and compaction. Mulch usually consists of non-composted, undecayed material — wood chips, bark, grass clippings and leaves can be used, although compost may be used as a top dressing as well.

Compost is organic matter that has been decayed and decomposed with the help of bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms, as well as macro-organisms such as worms, nematodes, and insects. It generally contains a variety of basic nutrients and is used as a soil conditioner to improve soil quality. When mixed into soil, compost improves soil structure, holds nutrients in the soil and makes them more readily available to plants, improves drainage and aeration, and encourages beneficial organism populations.

“What about worm composting? Aren’t worms kind of gross?”
Worm composting is ideal for when a small-scale indoor (yes, indoor!) composting system is needed, i.e. for apartment dwellers or those with small yards or limited mobility. It can also be a fun way to observe the composting process up close! You don’t need a high volume of organic material to stock a worm bin, it is tidy and odorless, and worm castings are a fantastic high-quality soil amendment.

For the worm-squeamish folks… first of all, to allay a common fear, worms don’t have teeth. They’re totally harmless, and not slimy at all. Really, though —  you don’t need to handle the worms; they are generally content to stay hidden in their shredded-paper bedding. They are easy to take care of, too: the worms are not at all “stinky” or “yucky,” and you can feed them on your schedule — once a day to once a week.

Eisenia foetida, the worm-composting worm, is different from your backyard-variety earthworm: they’re leaf-litter-dwellers, so they need a layer of shredded newspaper or the like to live in. They also need a dark bin with good aeration and just enough moisture. Store-bought worm bins can be pricey, but you can easily make your own from a plastic storage bin; check out instructions here. Just make sure that the bin is large enough, not too deep, and — most importantly — that it is opaque plastic, not clear. Worms will be much happier in a dark environment.

For more information on composting, be sure to visit the excellent Placer County Master Gardeners Composting Information page. You’ll find plenty of links to various bin plans, methods, and some fascinating info on all the critters living in your compost!

The Homestead Radio Hour

Composting with Kevin Marini, September 2011
With hosts Phyllis and Julia Boorinakis-Harper

Have more leaves in your backyard than you know what to do with? Maybe you’ve tried making a compost pile, but found it too stinky or too slow? Then you’ve come to the right place! On this episode of the HRH: UC Extension expert Kevin Marini, “The Worm Whisperer,” discusses the hows and whys of traditional composting, vermicomposting, and more. Get the dirt on putting your kitchen scraps and yard waste to work, making your own homegrown, nutrient-rich soil amendments. From choosing a composting method to building a bin and maintaining your pile, Kevin explains how to make composting an integral part of your homestead (and maybe even your life!)

Click the “play” arrow below to listen, or visit the KVMR Podcasts page here.

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The Homestead Radio Hour: April is All About Chickens!

I think we’re just gonna go ahead and declare April as Chicken Appreciation Month, or maybe Time To Get Yourself Some Darn Chickens Month! We — Phyllis and Julia, the Homestead Radio gals — are excited to be presenting the talk “Country Chicks, City Chicks – Raising Chickens in Your Backyard” at The Union’s annual Spring Home & Garden Show. The home show and talk are free. Come on by this Saturday, April 28, 3:30 to 4:30, at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley, Northern Mines Building, and bring your poultry-related questions!

And, if you missed this month’s episode of The Homestead Radio Hour, you can listen to our feature on Backyard Chicken-Keeping right here — we had so many listeners call in with some great chicken questions and tales. Too much fun! Just click on the player below, or follow this link to the KVMR podcast page.

We’ll also be out at the Auburn Old Town Foothill Farmer’s Market this Saturday morning, 10am to noon, at the KVMR radio table — come on by and say hi!

(and if you need one more reason to think about getting chickens…..
all together now: awwwww!)

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Springtime Mushroom Hunt (and Wild Mushroom Fritatta)

Springtime may be all about wildflowers and clover and, well, see that last post — but one of the things I look forward to the most when the weather warms is a bit less greeting-card-perfect and a little more… strange: the Spring mushroom season! Unlike the showy blossoms and greenery, mushrooms are subtle and secretive; they won’t jump out at you with a riot of skyward-reaching stalks and stems, with Technicolor hues on a grand scale. You have to look for them.They’re tiny, experts at camouflage. You could walk in the woods every day without the faintest inkling of the tremendous variety of fungi surrounding you.

I’ve been hunting for mushrooms for only a couple years, and I’m continually amazed by the diversity of species we see even right here on our little farm. Even more fascinating is the way a mushroom can look totally unremarkable at a glance, but then be so intricate and beautiful if you take the time to study it up close. I have to thank my friend Thea, mycology-expert and forest-sprite extraordinaire, for introducing me to the mushroom world, and to David Arora’s fantastic field guides (a must if you want to know just what it is you’re looking at). Here are a few of the many fungi that show up in our area — see if you can spot them next time you’re out wandering!

Left: A member of the Lactarius family is easily identified by the “milk” that exudes from its flesh when scratched or broken. (Which particular Lactarius it is, however, is a little more challenging to discern!)

Right: One of my favorite little mushrooms, Hygrophorus chrysodon. The name chrysodon comes from the Greek for “golden-tooth” — a wonderfully poetic description for the bright-yellow flecks that dust its cap and stalk.

The wonderful thing about mushroom-hunting is that you’ll be taking a perfectly civilised walk in the woods, and then next thing you know, you’re lying on the ground in the mud, not entirely sure of how you got there, nose-to-nose with this:

Such is the weirdly charismatic nature of fungi. This little guy is absolutely electric! I suspect it’s some kind of Hygrocybe, but I couldn’t bring myself to pluck it for a more detailed inspection. That parrot-green hue, by the way, is quite true to life!

Left: The convoluted, velvet-black cap of Helvella lacunosa, the Fluted Black Elfin Saddle. They’re quite common around here in springtime. Spotting them among the leaves is good practice for finding their delectable relative the Morel!

Right: another common one in our area, Laccaria laccata, known as the Lackluster Laccaria, which I suppose it is when compared to its violet cousin L. amethystina. Both have long, tough stalks, jaunty domed caps, and white spores.

Some mushrooms are wildly flamboyant, like these turkey tails; others are nondescript little dots in the leaves…

I love this particular copse of manzanitas. The bees are crazy about them, too — you can stand under the arching branches and listen to the most incredible buzzzzzzzzz overhead. When we open the hives this time of year, there is often a distinct manzanita-blossom fragrance that drifts out — nectar from the blossoms the bees have been so busily visiting.

Another devotee of the manzanita grove: the cheekily-named Cowboy’s Handkerchief! The moniker is an apt description of their slimy, snow-white caps. Hygrophorus eburnius is a more respectable name for these guys, but not quite as, ah, colourful…

My mushroom-hunting route follows a deer trail through a particularly damp, shady north slope of the woods: a perfect environment for fungi, as well as for lush mosses and lichens. Ferns, too. Oh, to have a good guidebook for each — but then I’d be lost in the woods all day, identifying everything in sight….

But, as much fun as it is to spot and study all these fascinating denizens of the forest floor, the best mushroom hunts are the ones that end with a basket of edibles! What a delight to stumble across this trove of blewits: Clitocybe nuda, a fabulously-hued and absolutely delicious wild mushroom that grows like a weed in the woods around here. I wasn’t expecting to find many this late in the season, so for once I didn’t bring a basket — maybe the Russian saying is true: Carry a large basket with you, and the mushrooms will see it and hide!

There are a few other purple wild mushrooms around here that could be mistaken for a blewit, but none have the distinct orange-juice aroma that these do. It’s funny — after a a while, you start to smell mushrooms in the woods. Or you develop a mysterious mushroom radar, telling you to look over there. And then, following your feet and nose and instinct, you’ll find a beautiful Amanita, or a prized Matsutake, or a whole basketful of these beauties…

And one of the mushrooms went immediately into this frittata for lunch!

Phyllis’s Wild Mushroom and Potato Frittata

Peel a large potato, cut in half lenghthwise, and slice into thin half-moons. Fry potato slices in 2 Tb olive oil in a 9-inch frying pan, gently turning the potatoes until they are just tender.

Add one sliced green onion, some chopped parsley, and about 1 cup sliced wild mushrooms (one large blewit mushroom). Sautee until everything is tender; season with salt and pepper.

In a bowl, beat 7 eggs with 1 Tb water, a dash of hot sauce or sriracha, and some salt and pepper.

Add eggs to pan; lift the potato-mushroom mixture around the edges with a spatula to allow the eggs to run underneath. Stir everything around a bit (being careful not to break up the potatoes) and smooth out the top.

When the eggs start to set, turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for about 5 minutes. Then uncover the pan and slide it in the oven under the broiler — watch carefully and cook just until the top is set and lightly browned.

Slide the frittata onto a plate, grate some good cheese over the top, and serve!

If you’re interested in hunting for edible mushrooms, find someone with knowledge and experience to go with you — don’t try it alone at first, even with a field guide in hand, as mushrooms are subtle things and their defining characteristics can be deceptive to the untrained eye. As mentioned above, there are other purple mushrooms that could be confused with the blewit; make sure you know exactly what you are looking for and how to tell it apart from look-alikes! That being said, blewits are a great “first mushroom” to collect because they are so distinctive, and absolutely delicious as well…. happy hunting!

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Making Things: Lacto-Fermented Ginger Ale

Lacto-fermentation: it’s what puts the sauer in sauerkraut, the zing in kimchee, and the bubbles in… ginger ale?

Ok, so highly-fragrant cabbage-based condiments may not be the first thing one associates with soda, but, weirdly enough, you can harness the power of this seemingly-magical natural reaction to brew up some delicious (and non-alcoholic) bubbly. And the best part? It’s actually good for you!

Wait a minute, you say — soft drinks? Good for you? Well, sure, there’s sugar in this recipe, but the resulting soda is a far cry from the the kind of artificially-flavored, corn-syrup-laden stuff we usually think of. So, before we launch into a debate about the perils of sugary beverages, let’s talk a bit about what’s going on here…

Lacto-Fermentation

We’re going to utilize heterolactic acid fermentation to turn sucrose-water into a healthy probiotic drink! Doesn’t that sound like fun?? Nah, we’re making soda pop!

It’s pretty cool what’s happening here, though — because this soda is actually alive. We’ve all heard about the benefits of probiotic foods, the “living” foods containing friendly microorganisms that aid our digestion, boost immunity, and help keep our internal ecosystems in balance. Yogurt, sauerkraut, and other lacto-fermented foods all contain what our friends (the fermentation-whizzes) Joe and Wendy call “your own personal probiotic army” — and the same goes for this ginger ale! Natural (and harmless) bacteria in ginger root will start the fermentation, munching up the sucrose we’ll feed them and transforming sugar-sweetness to tangy, fragrant, complex flavours that you simply don’t get in store-bought soft drinks. You’ll also find that this soda isn’t nearly as tooth-tinglingly sweet or aggressively carbonated as the stuff in a can, and you’ll know exactly what goes in it — no corn syrup, no weird chemicals, no artificial anything. Oh, and did we mention that ginger is really good for you?

And, in keeping with the slow-food philosophy, lacto-fermented ginger ale takes a while to happen, although very little of that time involves actual doing on our part — the bacteria take care of all the hard work! It’s a process with plenty of room for experimentation, variation, and all that stuff that makes it so much fun to, well, make stuff. So, let’s get started with…

Step 1: The Starter

The measurements here aren’t exactly exact; some of it is a matter of taste, and after you make your first batch, you’ll have a better sense of how sweet/spicy/fizzy you like your ginger ale to be. I start with a good-sized hunk of fresh ginger, a five or six inch segment of root, and I look for fresh, domestically-grown organic ginger, as you will put the whole thing, skin and all, into your brew.

In addition to the ginger, you will need:

• Fresh, filtered and/or non-chlorinated water
• Cane sugar
• A clean glass quart jar with lid

Start by grating up a couple tablespoons of ginger. Put it into a clean quart mason jar, fill about three-quarters of the way with water, and stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Put the lid on loosely, so air can escape, and set it in a comfortably warm place. I keep my starter on the kitchen counter, as it’s usually a little warmer there than the rest of the house, about 70°. If it feels comfortable to you, it’s probably just fine for your ginger starter too.

The next day, add another spoonful of sugar and stir. I don’t really measure it, but it’s probably a couple teaspoons. You can taste a bit of the liquid (don’t put a used spoon back in the jar) — it should taste lightly sweet. If you can’t taste the sugar, add a little more. Keep doing this every day; it’s kind of like having a strange little pet… and, like a pet, if you neglect it, it will starve to death. Of course, we’re talking bacteria here, so no major guilt necessary if something goes wrong — just start over again!

After a couple days, you should be seeing signs of fermentation. Look closely at the surface of the liquid — are there little bubbles around the edges? Does it smell pleasantly zingy? It can be hard at first to see if the starter is bubbling or not — shine a bright flashlight into the jar and you should see little bubbles rising up from the bottom, especially if you stir or shake the jar a bit.

Left: The starter — see the little bubbles at the surface?
Right: the next step — ginger ale in a gallon jug with airlock.

The starter usually takes five or six days to get good and fizzy. Let it go too long, though, and it will become too acidic for those little bacteria to live — you want to use it before it starts slowing down! And of course, if you notice any mold or “off” smells, dump it out and start over. It should have a pleasant, gingery, almost “fizzy” smell and a nice bright ginger taste.

When your starter is ready, it’s time for…

Step 2: The brew

You’ll need:

• Your ginger starter
• Ginger root
• 1 1/2 cups cane sugar
• Fresh, non-chlorinated water
• The juice of a small lemon or lime*
• A pinch of sea salt
• A clean one-gallon glass jug
• An air lock **
• A fine strainer or coffee filter ***
• A large funnel

* You can also use grapefruit juice, mandarin juice, strawberry juice… just be careful not to make it too acidic, or it won’t ferment. More on variations and troubleshooting in a future post!

** An air lock is a bottle stopper that allows air out, but not in. This keeps oxygen and airborne nasties away from your brew. You’ll need to assemble a few parts and fill it with water before using it. You can improvise in a pinch by poking a pinhole in an uninflated balloon and stretching it over the mouth of the jug, but it’s worth buying an airlock for this — find one for a couple bucks at any homebrew shop.

*** I like to use a reusable metal-mesh coffee filter basket — it’s sturdy enough to stand up to plenty of squeezing and is easier to handle than paper coffee filters. Sometimes they’re called “gold” or “permanent” coffee filters. They are inexpensive and last just about forever; you can find them at kitchen stores or online.

Put the sugar into a small saucepan and add about twice as much water. Add a pinch of salt. Set over low heat to dissolve sugar. When sugar is completely dissolved, remove from heat to cool a bit.

Meanwhile, grate up some ginger. The amount you use depends on how spicy you want your ginger ale; start with a couple ounces, or a couple inches of ginger root. (You can always taste the brew after you mix it up and add a little extra if you like.) Mix the ginger with a bit of water to make a nice soupy mixture. Or, if you have a blender handy, just chop up the root and whiz it to a fine puree with a cup or two of water.

Set your strainer or filter in the funnel, and set the funnel in the mouth of the jug. Pour the fresh-ginger slush into the strainer and press to expel as much of the liquid as you can. Pour a little more water over the ginger and repeat — you want to squeeze out as much of the flavourful juice as you can.

Scrape out the ginger pulp and discard. Pour your ginger starter into the strainer and press it out just as you did with the fresh ginger. Do the same with the lemon or lime juice.

Left: my funnel-filter setup. Right: making Bearss-lime-ginger ale.

Fill the jug about halfway with water, and pour in the sugar-water mixture. (Don’t pour boiling-hot water directly into your starter, or you might kill it!) Fill the jug almost to the top with water and stir or shake to mix. Now is the time to taste a bit of your brew to see if it needs anything — more ginger, lemon, etc. If it tastes too sweet for your liking, don’t worry; the sweetness will decrease as the fermentation does its work.

Top off the jug with water to the base of the neck, and add your assembled airlock. Now, let the fermentation begin! Set the jug in a warm spot, just like you did for the starter. This secondary fermentation will take a little longer; after a few days you’ll see tiny bubbles making their way up the neck of the bottle, and the airlock will start its happy occasional burbling. It will usually ferment vigorously for the first few days, then slow down a bit. You can set the jug on a heat pad or in a very warm spot to speed it up; just don’t exceed 90 degrees or so. At ambient room temperature, my ginger ale usually takes a week or two for its  secondary fermentation.

When the bubbling slows down to almost nothing, taste the brew. It should be lightly sweet, not too sugary. If it tastes about how you like it, it’s time to bottle. You’ll need clean, empty beer bottles, something that can hold a bit of pressure — not thin glass bottles, as they may explode! Bottles with a flip-top stopper are easiest, such as Grolsch bottles, but you can also use empty Champagne bottles or heavy glass beer bottles with crown caps and a capping device. And start looking for good bottles to save — I’m always collecting interesting ones for brew projects!

I won’t go into the finer points of bottling here, but if you’re new to home-brewing, you can check with your local brew shop for all the details. (Here’s ours.) Simply put, you’ll siphon off the soda into the bottles, leaving the cloudy dregs that have settled to the bottom of your gallon jug.

There’s one important step, though: Before I fill them, I add about a half-teaspoon of sugar to each bottle (a teaspoon for the larger fifths, quart, or litre bottles, like the clear ones in the photo above). You can skip this step if your soda is still pretty sweet; it’s more necessary if your brew has fermented until it’s fairly dry. The “bonus” sugar gives the fermenting bacteria a bit more to work with inside the bottle, which produces more fizz. Incidentally, this is how Champagne gets its bubbles (although ours is a much-simplified version of that process)!

Set the bottles out somewhere warmish for a few days to ferment a bit more, and then park them in a very cool basement or in the refrigerator to halt the fermentation. I like to leave mine for a couple weeks to a month to develop a nice fizz. The soda will keep for months beyond that, getting gradually drier (less sweet) and fizzier as it rests. When you’re ready to try it, open a bottle carefully and taste-test; if you want it bubblier and less sweet, leave  the rest of the bottles for another week or two before opening.

Cheers!

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