Sunday, January 15, 2017

Training Mulberry To Weeping Form

I have never seen a mulberry tree before, and so I was not prepared for how vigorously it started to grow this past summer.  I could see it was going to pretty much instantly out-grow the space I allotted for it.  Uh oh!

I double-checked the plant info and sure enough Illinois Everbearing mulberries can grow to over 35 feet tall!  Fruit is produced on new growth, so I didn't want to just lop off overly long new branches to keep its height in check.

The strategy I decided to try was training it to a 'weeping' form.  I took plastic bags and added a handful of gravel to each bag, and then attached the bag to the end of a branch with plant clips.

A newly sprouted branch is still green and flexible, and as it ages over a season firms up to a more woody state.

Here you can see the form after the first year of weighting down the branches - it definitely has a weeping instead of vertical form!

Hopefully this will make the fruit much easier to harvest.

I plan to thin out older branches to encourage new fruit-bearing shoots each year.  The idea is to start a cycle of fruit harvest from last year's growth, training the current year's growth to a weeping form, and then in the winter pruning out the previous season's branches.  This should ensure a heavy crop each year.

Before seeing how fast a mulberry grows this would probably strike me as unrealistically ambitious.  Now I think this will just keep up with it's amazing growth rate!

I can't wait to see what the crop will be like this coming year.  We got 2 berries last year.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Variations on No-Knead Bread

I love bread, and with the popular no-knead bread recipe it's easy and cheap to have good quality bread without weird ingredients.

Over time I've added several flavor variations to my no-knead bread rotation.

Hopefully you'll enjoy these as much as my family does!


Classic No-Knead Bread, Baked In Loaf Pan

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 2/3 cups water

In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 2/3 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. The dough needs to rest at least 12 hours at warm room temperature, so I mix up the dough after dinner and it's ready in the morning.

The original recipe calls for baking the dough into a free-form loaf in a covered pot.  We prefer having more regular slices of bread for sandwiches, so now I bake mine in a loaf pan.  The process is slightly easier, too!

In the morning (or after the bread has rested 12-ish hours) scrape it into a well oiled loaf pan.  Let it rise in the loaf pan another 2 hours.

At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Bake 30 minutes.  Remove bread from loaf pan as soon as it comes out of the oven to keep the crust crisp, and let it cool on a rack.

Oatmeal No-Knead Bread

The oatmeal gives this bread a delicious toasty, nutty flavor!  This bread makes the best toast!  The oats also give this bread a boost in the fiber and nutrition department, too.

1 cup rolled oats
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 2/3 cups water

Pumpernickel No-Knead Bread

My family often had hearty pumpernickel bread when I was growing up and I just love it.  It's kind of like really rich, dark rye bread.  It pairs perfectly with hearty smoked meats and cheese.  When I make German meals like goulash stew or sauerkraut and bratwurst, I'll often serve a loaf of pumpernickel bread on the side.

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups rye flour
1 tablespoon caraway seeds, ground
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 tablespoon molasses
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 2/3 cups coffee OR 1 2/3 cups water and 1 packet of instant coffee

Whole Wheat No-Knead Bread

I've found this ratio works well for my family without it changing the texture of the bread too far.  You get that nutty complex flavor of the whole wheat but you still get the lovely light and chewy texture of the original recipe.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 2/3 cups water

Do you have any variations on the no-knead bread to share?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mulching Fig To Prevent Winter Kill

I planted an Italian Honey Fig a few years ago, and it's about 3 feet tall at this point.  I've heard that green figs can take longer to start producing fruit than other fig varieties, and it might be 4 to 5 years after planting before we eat our first fig.

During really cold winters figs can get winter killed down to the ground, but in the spring new growth will come back from the roots.  The thing is, if that happens the clock on getting fruit starts ALL OVER AGAIN.

Obviously I don't want to loose the progress we've made, so I looked into ways people protect figs in the winter to try and prevent them from a hard freeze.

Weirdly, considering how popular figs are, I couldn't find much information on this.  Growing information usually just recommends planting figs near on the south side of a wall for some cold protection, and leaves it at that.

So this winter I'm experimenting, and went the straightforward and simple route.

I just bought a bale of straw and piled up a mound about 2 feet deep around the fig branches once it lost it's leaves in late fall.  I made sure to shake straw down around the branches.  In spring I'll remove the straw pile.

I'll let you know how the fig fares over winter!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Winter Seed Order


The year the house was built, in 2015, I put together 4 raised beds and purchased dirt to fill them.  I was pregnant and had a 1 year old to take care of, so I just bought a few tomato plants from the hardware store and figured to let them tough it out.

Instead, the poor seedlings just sat there without changing or growing at all for the entire summer.  Not even weeds sprouted.  It turns out the dirt I bought was terrible.

So last year I planted cover crops and forgot about the raised beds.  Late summer a neighbor dumped a load of good compost on top of each raised bed.

I'm hoping that between the cover crops, last year's load of compost, and adding a new layer of compost this spring, the raised beds will be able to grow something in 2017.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

For this year I'm easing back into the garden since I'm not totally sure how much time I'll have for it with a 2 and 1 year old.  Next year I think I'll be able to do a major garden again, but I couldn't stand to not try this year.

So I just sent in my seed order for this year, and I managed to keep the selection down to a reasonable level, and I tried to stick with crops that don't depend on rich soil to give me better odds of something growing.

Here's what I'm going to try this year:

Purple Teepee Bean,

These are supposed to be super productive, and the purple beans are held above the leaves which makes them a lot easier to see and pick that regular green beans. Cooking them should turn them green which is a plus in my book.  Easier to pick, but regular green beans when served!



Formanova Beet,

I love ordering seeds from Baker Creek, and just can't resist the tidbits of history they include in their seed descriptions.  For this beet they say "... a wonderful heirloom from Denmark, this one is famous for slicing with its long, cylindrical roots. This tender and sweet variety is also known as “Butter Slicer” because of its wonderful texture."  They had me at 'butter'.  Yum!




Arugula,

Need I say more?  A classic.  I hope it grows!





Baby Oakleaf Lettuce,

This is supposed to be a more compact version of regular oakleaf lettuce with dense leaves that do well in warm weather, critical when you live in the South.  They say it "performs brilliantly under cut-and-come-again management", so I'm giving it a try!



Little Gem Lettuce,

This is supposed to be a mini romaine lettuce that performs really well in hot weather.  I mostly use romaine lettuce for my salads since it holds so well in the fridge.  I love the idea of having a salad drawer full of crisp mini heads of lettuce, just right for a lunch salad!




Golden Jenny Melon,

I tried to stay away from crops that need rich soil, but I couldn't resist melons.  I just had to try for some, and this one is supposed to have shorter vines that won't take over an entire bed and produce smaller 2 lb melons.  The online reviewers also loved it's flavor, one person saying it was "amazingly sweet".  Mmmm.... I drooled over the catalog just imagining it.




Early Prolific Straightneck Squash,

Another classic.  Since this is a new garden I hope I'll have a few years before the squash beetles find me!




Mexican Sunflower - Goldfinger,

We saw this plant at a local museum and each time we were there it was always COVERED with butterflies!  My kids loved it, and would stand there and watch for a long time.  Through the power of Google I think this is the plant we were seeing, so I'm going to try planting some of my own this year.



Illumination Zinnia,

One more flower to draw beneficial insects and also provide cut flowers for the house and/or the kids to play with.  Beautiful!





Have you put in your seed order yet?  What are you going to grow this year?


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Preparing for Winter: Firewood


Last winter I think we had maybe 1 or 2 fires in our wood stove.  We were super excited about finally having our own wood stove when we built the house, but we were worried about babies and toddlers touching a hot stove and we were too busy to worry about stocking up on the supplies needed for a fire, like firewood, tinder, and kindling.

This winter will be different!  Yes, we still have a toddler (soon to be 2 toddlers) but they're old enough now that we aren't staying up late to bottle feed the baby anymore.  Now they both go to bed at the same time, so we could simply use the wood stove once they're in bed without having to constantly police curious children.

The idea of snuggling up on the couch with a mug of Irish coffee, a fluffy blanket, a good book, and a crackling fire still sounds like the perfect way to spend a winter evening and this year I'll be ready!

We have some firewood from when we had some trees cleared - the company who did the clearing were willing to cut the trees into firewood and stacked the logs along both sides of our driveway out in the open.

I set up a shelving unit on our porch to give us a place to stack some firewood out of the elements so it'll be handy to grab a few, and also so the logs will be nice and dry (or 'seasoned') so they'll burn well.  Green wood that hasn't dried will be hard to light on fire and if it does catch on fire will be very smoky - not fun!

In addition to firewood, you also need tinder and kindling.

Tinder is material that very easily catches on fire but also burns up very quickly.  This will help start a fire going, but only for a little while.  Tinder can be dried grass, dried leaves, pinecones, newspaper, dryer lint, etc.

Kindling is basically anything bigger than tinder but smaller than firewood.  It's a middle ground that will somewhat easily catch fire from the tinder, but burn longer so that it can catch the actual firewood on fire.

Kindling on the left (sticks) and tinder on the right (weeds)

I don't get a newspaper delivered at the moment, and I'd like to use free materials for the fire.  So I chopped tall weeds with thick canes into small 8" to 10" lengths and left the leaves attached.  Once these dry out, they should catch fire very easily.

I also cut down some small saplings with wood no bigger than about the thickness of my thumb and cut them into short lengths, too.

I want to give both the time to thoroughly dry out before winter gets here.

I have no idea how much firewood, tinder, and kindling I need to prepare since I've never had regular access to a wood stove before.  I'm not going to worry about preparing too much this year since I know I'll probably make the occasional fire at this point.

Now I can relax and look forward to a cozy fire this winter!





Monday, August 29, 2016

Easy & Cheap Homemade Sweetened Condensed Milk

3 jars of homemade sweetened condensed milk!
Whew!  It's been a while since my last post - 2 kids until 2 years old keeps you busy, I guess!

Lately I've been using a LOT more sweetened condensed milk than I used to.  I've been using a can or two every week once I found the magical 2-ingredient no-churn ice cream recipe where you whip cream and stir in a can of sweetened condensed milk to make the seriously best homemade ice cream I've ever had, AND fell down the homemade popsicle hole.

Apparently a generous spoonful of sweetened condensed milk is the key to creamy-not-icy popsicles.  Check out this super easy and addictive recipe for Key Lime Pie popsicles and you too will find yourself with a freezer full of delicious homemade popsicles before you know it.

I've been buying the rBST free (but not organic) sweetened condensed milk from Whole Foods which is $2.79 for a 14 oz can.  If you buy a can once or twice a year, no problem.  But I started to wonder, could I find a cheaper way to do this?

As it turns out sweetened condensed milk is STUPID EASY to make yourself.

All you do is pour milk and sugar into your crock pot and cook it down until it's thick.  That's all!

I found multiple milk-to-sugar ratios and went with the lower sugar range and it tastes the same sweetness as the store bought sample we compared it to.  My homemade version had a more caramel taste, I think because I used natural sugar instead of white granulated sugar.  Mine was a little darker in color for the same reason.

COST

Store bought rBST free can is $2.79 / 14 oz, or 0.19 per oz.

Homemade $1.74 milk (7 cups of a $1.99 half gallon) and 0.44 sugar (2 cups from a $1.99 9-cup bag) = $2.18 for a yield of 3 cups (24 oz), or 0.09 per oz.

In short the homemade version cost HALF the price of the store bought kind, and I just have to grab a jar out of my freezer when I need it!

Homemade Sweetened Condensed Milk

7 cups whole milk
2 cups sugar

Pour 3 cups of water in your crock pot and mark that depth using a straw or chop stick (I used a reusable straw that has one of those rubber rings that keeps it from falling out of your insulated cup).  Combine milk and sugar in your crock pot and set on high.  Whisk once the mixture warms up to make sure the sugar is dissolved.  Crack the lid so that the mixture can evaporate down.

Stir every once in a while, but don't scrap off the cooked milk from the sides since you want a smooth texture.  Once it's evaporated enough so you have just 3 cups of liquid left you're done!

You can keep this in the fridge for 2 weeks or the freezer for 3 months.




Monday, November 2, 2015

The Easiest (And Tastiest) Homemade Biscuits!

Every once in a while what I really crave for breakfast is a fresh, hot-from-the-oven biscuit.  I almost exclusively make biscuits on Sunday morning since they're a little bit of a pain to make.  Pulsing the butter into pea-sized pieces, being careful to not over-mix, rolling and cutting the biscuit rounds...  I mean, it's all worth it for a good biscuit, but still not something I feel up to doing on, say, a weekday morning just because.

THAT HAS ALL CHANGED.

This weekend I ran across a recipe from the Smitten Kitchen blog for Cream Biscuits.  Basically you whisk together your dry ingredients and instead of messing around with butter, you just use heavy cream instead.

The benefits of using what is basically cold liquid butter are awesome - you don't have to pull out your food processor or cut in the butter by hand, you can easily mix up the biscuit dough in one bowl, and you don't have to worry about your butter starting to melt in a warm kitchen.

Next up I used a suggestion from a Cook's Illustrated biscuit recipe and instead of pulling out a juice glass ('cause I'm classy) and cutting the biscuits into rounds and then re-rolling the scraps and cutting a second set of biscuits that are always a little tougher than the first ones, I just patted the biscuit dough into a rough rectangle and cut the biscuits into squares.

No re-rolling the dough!  No wasted dough!

Combining these 2 biscuit techniques meant I mixed up super tender and delicious homemade biscuits in one bowl and in just a few minutes.

In fact.... it was SO easy now I'm a little worried that I'll end up eating way more biscuits than can possibly be good for me.  ;-)

Cream Biscuits
From Smitten Kitchen

3 tablespoons (45 grams) melted butter
2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the surface
1 tablespoon (15 grams) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon (15 grams) sugar (optional)
1 1/2 cups (355 ml) heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Melt butter in a small pot or microwave dish, and set aside. Whisk together two cups flour, the baking powder, salt and (if using) sugar into a large bowl. Fold in 1 1/4 cups cream. If the dough is not soft or easily handled, fold in the remaining 1/4 cup cream, little by little. (I ended up using all 1 1/2 cups.)

Turn dough onto a floured surface, and pat it into a rectangle that is roughly the thickness of about 1 inch. Cut into 8 - 10 squares. Dip the top of each biscuit in melted butter and arrange on the baking sheet. Bake until golden, 12 to 15 minutes.