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Featuring Fermentation: A Sauerkraut Primer September 26, 2013

Filed under: Cuisine,Fermentation,German,Homesteading — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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It started with a copy of “Urban Farm” magazine.  Or more precisely, with an offer for “Urban Farm”.  I wouldn’t have considered myself incurably in love with the publication, but every now and then, when I saw it on a news stand, I’d pick up a copy.  Since this happened a couple times each year and the advertisement I had just received offered a full year’s subscription for the price of those two issues, I figured it was worth the investment.

The first issue arrived and it didn’t take me long to recognize that “fermentation” was the running theme.  To be honest, I’d never considered just how many of the foods I enjoyed started with this particular form of decomposition.  And when I read instructions for making my own sauerkraut, I thought I’d give it a try.

I started with the rudimentary instructions provided and forgoing the investment of a fermentation crock, picked up a small crockpot instead.  The ceramic dish would hold a small amount of cabbage and would (according to my best estimations) make enough kraut for a single meal.  After grating a head of cabbage, I layered it into the dish – interspersing each layer with a generous helping of kosher sea salt.  Packing the contents as tightly as I could, I set the dish aside on the counter to let the salt work its magic.  Within several hours, a brine had formed and the fermentation had begun.

Over the next several days, I watched the dish carefully.  Not panicking when pink mold appeared on top, I removed the effected cabbage and continued with my experiment.  About a week in, it was evident that all was not well.  The pink mold had spread from the top and the entire project had to be abandoned.

Not to be deterred, I fell back upon the old adage that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.  And, in this case, doing it right involved some shopping.  Popping online to www.Amazon.com, I selected a TSM 20 Liter Stone Weight and a 55 liter TSM Fermentation Pot.  (My family consumes a great deal of sauerkraut, but it wasn’t until the pot arrived that I realized just how big a 55 liter pot actually is!)

The day came when the pot appeared on my porch and I was delighted to discover that the online pictures did not do justice to the work of art that sat before me in my living room.  Handmade in Poland, the crock looked elegant enough to sit in the same room with honored guests… and thanks to a water reservoir at the top (a feature missing from my tiny crock pot), could do so without the offensive aroma produced by the latter.

After taking a day or two to admire my new acquisition, I purchased a handful of cabbages (8, to be precise), chunked them up and, once more interspersed them with salt.  This proved more of a challenge than I had anticipated, since 8 heads of cabbage neatly fill a 55 liter pot to the brim and it took a little effort to fit my stone weight inside the container!  I then left the ingredients to do their work.

A day later, a brine had formed and, seeing that it was insufficient to cover the top of the cabbage, I topped it off with some cool tap water (enough to completely cover the cabbage).  I filled the reservoir with water and it wasn’t long before the pot was burping away, venting the excess gas created by the fermentation process.

I waited a few weeks until the contents of the pot had settled down (now filling the crock just half way) and snuck a forkful.  The kraut which greeted me was smooth and buttery, lacking in the stringy texture or vinegary bite of the store-bought stuff.  We gave it a first try in a quick pressure cooker dish which I have enjoyed since childhood and the entire family agreed that the experiment was a victory.  Now, my only problem is finding a way to use 2 gallons of sauerkraut in a hurry!


Helpful Fitness Apps September 19, 2013

Filed under: Apps,Fitness — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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Except for a brief stint in High School when I wanted to get into the Air Force Academy, there has never been a time in my life when anyone could have confused me with a fitness fanatic.  Sure, I’ve had bouts of health-consciousness.  I’ve signed up for trial gym memberships and purchased fitness DVD’s.  I’ve tried my hand at swimming and kick boxing.  And religiously, twice a year, prove my control over my caffeine addiction by giving up soda.  (Actually, my addiction isn’t really to caffeine so much as it is to the bubbles.  I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for carbonation!)

Aside from these brief forays into the world of the health gurus, however, I rarely saw any wholesale improvement in my habits.  A few weeks of trying and I’d give up, sliding right back into the same old rut: a soda pop and candy bar each day for a snack and a few very valid excuses for sitting on my rear rather than going for a walk.  Enter: my iPod.

I admit that when I first received this nifty device (a gift from my parents) I saw it primarily as a cool toy with a couple of useful features.  What I didn’t expect was that it would soon become my constant companion and an avenue to any number of helpful life-improvements… including a new and workable fitness regime.

It all started with my introduction to SlimKicker.  An app designed to help users develop a healthier lifestyle, this program works more like  a game than a fitness regime.  Participants receive points for logging their meals, their workouts, and even the time they spend relaxing or exploring new hobbies. The more you log, the faster you level up, making it a great program for anyone blessed with a competitive spirit.  Join challenges and compete with friends and strangers for a wide range of prizes and rewards or check out the social feed where you can encourage and be encouraged by others who are pursuing a healthier lifestyle.  Bonus points are awarded for making healthy choices, so if you aren’t sure what “healthy” looks like when you start, you soon will.  A great app, it left me feeling like fitness could be fun.  And fun is easy to stick with.

It wasn’t long before I was exploring other apps and found myself enamored of a program entitled My Fitness Pal.  While this program doesn’t have the fun “play time” features of SlimKicker, it does provide users with a more advanced way to log calories and provides a nice breakdown of the nutritional elements which compose the food we eat.  Thanks to this app, I came to realize that the soda I loved so dearly was providing me with far more sugar than the human body wants or needs… and that I wasn’t getting enough fiber or protein in my diet.  The app allows you to adjust your daily values based upon your personal dietary needs (flexibility that doesn’t exist within the SlimKicker program) and even adds calories back into your daily allowance when you exercise.  More importantly, it helps you track your long-term progress towards your fitness goals.

Counting calories doesn’t necessarily equal a healthy lifestyle, so I began to look for some good exercise apps as well.  The problem?  I don’t always have the same amount of time available to work out each day… and I tend to get bored repeating the same routines.  I found the solution in Daily Workout, a family of apps that allow you to select either a full-body workout or to target specific areas like your arms or abs.  Set the timer for a 10, 15, 25, or 30 minute regime and you’ll be presented with a randomized set of video segments which walk users through easy-to-perform movements which improve strength, balance, and muscle tone.  Unlike other workouts, the focus here isn’t on the number of reps you do, but on the time frame in which you do them… so you needn’t worry that you can’t lift as much with your right arm as with your left!  Choose from workouts with weights, exercise ball, kettle, or no apparatus at all.  There’s even a stretching only app to loosen you up before a workout or at the end of a long day.  The best bonus feature?  This app allows you to listen to music or podcasts while in use!

The last of my favorite apps is one that’s well known by cyclists: Strava.  Utilizing the GPS in your phone or iPod, this app doesn’t require an internet connection in order to map your morning run or your afternoon ride.  Turn it on when you leave the house to go for a walk or to participate in a snowboarding adventure and it will track your path around the block or down a mountain… along with how fast you move and how many calories you burn.  Use it to connect with other athletes in your area and compete for the best times on marked routes.  It also makes a great repository for all of those stats you need if you’re going to feel like a real fitness guru!

While I’m still not a fitness fanatic, I can say that these apps (and their automatic “reminder” features) have made a huge difference in how I approach my health.  I don’t drink much soda anymore and I work out on average 3-5 times a week.  At least that’s a step forward!


A Bit More About Bees September 12, 2013

I peered inside the emergence box.  They were still there, four fuzzy white cocoons about 1/4 inch around and 1/3 inch long… still waiting for the severe warm weather which would awaken the tiny insects resting inside.  It was late summer and I had to think back to the previous year to determine whether my bees were late in emerging.

When I first spotted the cottony substance at the end of the bee tubes last summer, I thought my precious pollinators had been afflicted by a fungus.  I was distressed that it didn’t look like any of the threats listed in the books I’d read on the subject and no amount of research seemed capable of revealing what it was.  Since it wasn’t spreading, I decided not to worry.  I still had plenty of tubes filled with healthy bees waiting for the coming spring and it seemed best to just let nature take its course.

It wasn’t until after the first freeze when I went to remove the cocoons that I realized the fuzzy wool wasn’t a fungus after all! I had attracted something else.  Swathed in a substance not unlike quilt batting, I found five, paper-thin cocoons in each 6 inch tube.  Since they didn’t fit the description of any of the native bees I was trying to attract, I was at a loss.  I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and, laying aside the Nikon 3100 I had been using to document the cocoon harvest, picked up my iPod touch.  A few snapshots later, I was ready to send off an inquiry to Dave Hunter of www.crownbees.com.

I first became acquainted with Dave while working as a buyer for a local garden store.  I hadn’t yet convinced our owner that selling native bee habitats was a profitable business when, due to a reorganization of the company, my job abruptly came to an end.  Still, I continued to follow Dave and his bees on Twitter and Facebook and looked forward to his regular “bee-mail” messages.  I had been treated to a wealth of information on pollinator conservation and was certain that if anyone could identify my unusual guests, it would be Dave.

I was right.  Within a few hours, we were chatting on the phone, as I described my find.  “It sounds like you have wool carder bees,” he said, sounding a touch surprised.  Anthidium manicatum or the European Wool Carder is, as it name suggests, a foreign import used to somewhat warmer climates than we usually experience in my part of the world.  Unlike the the Megachilidae which had filled in most of the nesting tubes in my artificial habitat, these bees forgo waxy foliage in favor of the fuzzy “wool” produced by plants like the Dandylion. While a touch territorial (more so with other bees than with anything of the mammalian persuasion), they are excellent pollinators and Dave suggested that I harvest the cocoons and store them in my vegetable crisper until spring.

Acting on his advice, I sorted through the 15 cocoons (only those in one of the three tubes had been unaffected by an unidentified ailment which resulted in thin, squishy, slime-covered cocoons) and placed the good ones inside the ventilated petrie dish which would serve as their winter home.

Spring came and I removed my fuzzy soon-to-be friends to the emergence house, pinned them to the trellis beneath my bee-house, and began to keep watch.  As of today, the cocoons are resting nicely, awaiting the end of the leaf-cutter bees’ season when (if things progress as they did last year), I expect them to emerge, mate, and set about making a home for next year’s pollinators.  I intend to carefully the document the entire process, if only for my personal enjoyment.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t considered “managing” some of the wonderful pollinators in your own area, why not take a moment to stop by Dave’s site at www.crownbee.com.  You’ll find a wealth of useful information and a hand to help in time of need!


Emergency Grafting: An Introduction September 5, 2013

Filed under: Gardening,Grafting — acgheen @ 12:00 am

“It’s an eight foot branch!” Panic filled my mother’s voice.  I could empathize with her devastation.

The maple had been in the yard for nearly a decade and, as if in defiance of the natural laws of the community, had grown to a healthy, sprawling, twenty feet – enough to shade the bedroom window and cast an enveloping shadow across the yard.  Unfortunately, the Fall day’s heavy snows had threatened to change all of that.  Despite regular trips into the yard to knock the deposits from the branches, the weight had grown too much for the mature limbs to bear and one of the chief branches had snapped, tearing a sizeable gash through to the heartwood.

“Don’t panic yet,” I replied.  “I may be able to save it with a bridge graft.  I’m on my way home right now.”

Due to the near blizzard conditions, the drive home was a slow one and, as I gazed through the thick curtain of white, I was forced to wonder just what I had gotten myself into.  While a bridge graft could (in theory) save the top third of the tree, I was acquainted with the practice only in theory.  I had never actually performed the procedure and this seemed a rather dramatic way to begin.

Upon arriving at home, I grabbed my pruners and grafting knife, quickly reviewed the process as aptly illustrated in both my Master Gardener’s Handbook and a local nursery flier, and headed into the yard.  A quick look at the wound was sufficient to let me know that the tree probably wouldn’t recover if something was not done quickly.  The collapsing eight foot limb had torn through an inch of healthy cambium tissue, leaving a wound that was a good eight inches long and another four inches wide.  Despite the frigid conditions and the snow that was soaking my clothes, I set to work.

My initial job was to trim away the bits of bark which had once covered the healthy tissue of the missing limb and dry the wounded area.  With the heavy, wet snow falling like a late summer downpour, this was a challenge.  It was important, however, to remove the moisture from the injured tissue in order to prevent rot or the introduction of infectious disease to the limb.  After soaking through several hand towels, I finally managed to get the area dry enough to begin my surgery. I proceeded with the towel clamped firmly in place by one of my over-sized gloved hands. (Because the process of bridge grafting involves making fresh cuts just outside the perimeter of the wound, were I to do this again, I would take a moment to coat the dried tissue in a layer of pruning paint or wax to keep the tree’s natural moisture in and additional moisture out.)

The downed branch had not yet outlived its usefulness and I carefully selected an handful of fresh, supple, pencil-width branches which would serve as scions.  Trimming them several inches longer than the gap which they would bridge (two to four inches is standard depending upon the size of the wound), I then made an angular slice in both ends of each twig.

It is important that these cuts expose a sizeable portion of the scion’s cambium layer (the white tissue which lies beneath the bark), generally an inch or more.  This is the layer through which sap flows and it must be in firm contact with the tree’s cambium layer in order for the graft to take, so take care to ensure that the cut is smooth and level.  It is also important that the cuts be made on the same side of the scion if they are to bridge the wound.  You will know if you have done the process correctly if you can bend the scion into a bridge shape with both of the cuts forming the “base”.  It is important that these cuts not be allowed to dry out before or during the grafting process.  In warm, dry weather, the scions may be temporarily wrapped in a damp paper towel.

According to the directions I had read, the next step was to make fresh cuts in the trunk just beyond the top and bottom edges of the wound, allowing the scion to restore the flow of sap to the top of the tree.  These cuts need to be deep enough to separate the bark from the tree’s cambium layer, but no deeper.  (A deeper cut will not harm the tree or reduce the chances that the graft will take, but it does require extra labor to make such a cut and, with no advantage to doing so, it is not advised.)  The bark, itself, should be left attached to the tree, since it will help to hold the scions in place.

The first scion was then inserted with the bridge’s “base” facing inward towards the tree and fastened in place at either end with a brad.  I chose to use a brad gun, though a staple gun might do just as well.  (Though some literature suggests hammering the brads in by hand, I found this to be a tedious process which was made even lengthier by the tendency of the scion to slip out of place with each blow.)

I repeated this process several times until the entire wound area had been bridged, then dried the wound once more and sealed the work with grafting paint.  (Grafting wax is a better choice, if you happen to have some on hand.  If not, the wax from a toilet ring makes an excellent substitute and is available quite cheaply at most hardware stores.)  I then wrapped the entire project in a light, cotton tree wrap, further securing the scions in place.

To my delight, spring finally arrived and, glancing out the window one morning, I noted that the maple was in full bud.  Throughout the season, the limbs saved by the graft continued to flourish, putting on new growth and looking (to my great delight) as though they had never suffered a moment of trauma in their lives.

Bridge grafting is a labor-intensive process, but may be easily performed by most backyard gardeners.  I recommend that you keep the tools for this simple “emergency surgery” (pruners, grafting knife, pruning paint or wax, and brads) on hand at all times.  It can be a genuine “life-saver” for a tree which has been damaged by weather or wildlife, preserving the beauty of your yard for years to come!

(The University of Minnesota has a wonderful webpage on budding and grafting.  You’ll find detailed instructions on performing a bridge graft, along with illustrations at the bottom of the page!   http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/components/dg0532c.html)


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