Friday, July 29, 2011

Holy Swarms!

Or maybe a more appropriate title would be "Why You Should Maintain Your Hives So That You Don't Scare the Crap Out of Your Neighbors".

It was a morning like any other morning. I was milking the goat while the hustle and bustle on Mission street droned in the background. I had forgotten my strip cup inside the house and ran upstairs to retrieve it. When I returned to my milking duties, there was something off. The air felt different. Crowded. Almost electric.

I looked out across the yard and noticed a lot of  winged creatures zipping madly about. They seemed to be multiplying with my every breath until I suddenly realized that the sky above me was buzzing. Loudly. Great balls of bees, this was a swarm!

It looked like a goddamned plague. I noticed my neighbors were gazing out their windows in horror. Or awe. It was difficult to tell. Why no one was at work this morning can only be a testament to my shit luck around these sorts of things.

I whipped my phone out of my pocket like a gun from a holster and dialed my friend Esperanza. I held the phone up into the cloud of bees. The buzzing roar was so loud that she could hear it on the other end. "Don't worry," she assured me, "they'll land somewhere in a big clump in less than an hour. Hopefully on your property so you can capture them."

Meanwhile, my neighbors continued with their faces pressed to the glass in bewilderment. I sidled up to the window to perform some damage control. In atrocious broken Spanish I explained, "No preoccupada. En un hora, calma. Las abejas necesitan una nueva casa. Pero mira, no pica." I ran to the center of the swarm to demonstrate that the bees wouldn't attack. The muchachos at the window were either impressed or concerned that I was insane.

Gradually, the bees found a spot on the loquat tree to regroup. I watched as the ball grew and grew, and breathed a sigh of relief that the airborne chaos was subsiding. To stand amidst a swarm, the air vibrating with activity, is as exhilarating as it is unsettling. I welcomed the temporary calm.

Esperanza warned me that time was of the essence. The bees might hang on the tree for a couple hours or a couple days. This was a bee emergency. I didn't want to lose half my hive, but of course I didn't have any extra housing on hand. I needed a bee house stat. But where was I going to get a new deep and frames? Immediately?

One of my interns, Niki, had just told me the day before that Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper had reopened in the Mission, a mere two miles from my house. I jumped in the car and tore off to shop. They were just opening when I arrived. I met the shopkeepr, Brian, a calm and relaxed fellow who looked as though he didn't quite know what to do with a woman who had worked herself up into such a dither about a routine bee swarm . But how incredibly helpful was he? He advised me to capture the swarm in a cardboard box and then move them to their more permanent location. He also apprised me of many other beekeeping bits and bobs that I should keep in mind while maintaining hives in a city. I left the shop promising that I would join the local beekeepers association, since clearly I needed to get a grip on some of the basics.

I raced home, fearing that my ladies may have abandoned my property for greener pastures. But they were still there, in the same spot where I left them.

Now came the tricky part: getting the swarm in the box. I called my friend Kitty. She had been capturing swarms all summer. She'd have some good advice as to how to maneuver this delicate operation. The instructions were simple: bang the branch really hard so that the entire clump falls into the box in one go. Let them settle. Then move them to their new hive by turning the box upside down and whacking the bottom of it forcefully with a stick.

The seemingly simple somehow always turns into a major something when I'm around. I suited up with my veil, gloves, and long sleeves and set up a ladder under the branch. I grabbed a sturdy stick and held my breath as I swung. Plop. Shit, only a quarter of the bees hit the box. I whacked again. OK, I got another quarter of the ball, but now the bees were agitated. I struck the branch again, this time cracking it. Finally, I just ripped the branch off and shook it really hard until most of the bees appeared to be safely ensconced in the cardboard. With the flurry of activity, I had unwittingly created a mini swarm. A really pissed off one at that. I escaped with only a couple shrieks from a sting and a couple stragglers finding their way inside my veil.

But I wasn't done yet. The husband who had heard my yelps stood by the back door to brush me off with a rainbow colored duster. The angry bees trying to sting me through my veil and gloves needed to join the rest of their cadre. It felt good to have someone on my side in this precarious situation.

The next step was to assemble the deep and allow the bees to re-coalesce. I needed a break too. But only a short one as I was anxious to finish this job.

I returned to the humming box after I had set up the hive in it's permanent spot. This part should go smoothly, right? I brought the box over to the deep, turned it upside down, and gave it a good thumping. I was told that I didn't necessarily need to have the bottom board in place to do this. Bad idea. After the whacking, the bees dropped straight through the hive, landed on the ground, and then swirled back up into the air. Great. Another swarm. This time I wasn't as lucky, getting a sting on the inside of my upper thigh. Not quite THERE, but a little too close for comfort.

Half of the bees eventually settled on the frames inside the hive, while the other half clung to the cinder block holding up the deep. I feared that the queen was in the clump on the cinder block. But the ladies were livid at this point so I decided to leave them alone for a day before installing the bottom board. Messing with angry bees is about as smart as picking up a hissing cat. A cooling off period seemed in order.

The next day I returned with bottom board in hand to complete the job. But how was I going to do that without crushing all those bees on the cinder block? What ensued was a chaotic operation in my amateur hands. Smashing occurred. Bees died.Clumps of bees who refused to leave their cinder block for the nice new frames in the hive were prodded with the rainbow duster creating yet more swarming. I felt like a clumsy, inept oaf wearing a ridiculous hat.

In the end, everything turned out fine. All of the bees found the entrance to the hive and settled in nicely. Though I wish that I would have gotten some video footage of it. Because damn, I was one bad ass motherfucker wrangling those bees.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Grew This

In San Francisco. In one of the windiest neighborhoods in the city. Cucumbers are notorious for despising the wind. This is nothing short of miraculous.

My secret? That kick ass hoop house I built. San Franciscans and all you other folks enduring cold, windy summers, you gotta get one.

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Stone Fruit Hotchpotch

What did I do with all of those plums? A lot. There were a lot of plums.

I raw packed a few of the good ones.

And then whipped up a double batch of just plain plum jam using a 2 pounds of fruit to 3 cups of sugar ratio. It turned out pretty good, but I overcooked it a bit and now have a very firm jam. This is clearly a problem for me.

I moved on to some plum sauces. I did an Asian plum sauce based on this recipe from Oregon State University. I swapped the canned chiles for a fresh jalapeno and pasilla chile. The result was a standard plum sauce flavor that I am pleased with and am sure will go nicely with some pork or chicken.

I also decided to test out this chipotle plum sauce recipe. Oh good god is it good! I didn't use the chipotle seasoning that was called for, but instead substituted a freshly grated dried chipotle as that's what I had lying around. I also used regular garlic powder rather than roasted. The overall product is divine with just enough kick to make it interesting. I'm not a huge fan of super spicy so this suited me perfectly. I think I will be enjoying it on a cracker with some cream cheese.

Even after all that, I still had plums leftover. I also had some other stone fruits that were quickly becoming borderline edible. So I whipped up a jam with the mishmash of leftover fruits.

I cut up several apricots, peaches, and nectarines that had seen better days.

I then added a bunch of plum sauce. I don't pit my plums individually, but rather cook them down first, pull out the pits, and run them through a food mill to get rid of the skins. Works for me.

I know this picture looks ugly. The plum puree had oxidized a bit, but the brown color wouldn't affect the finished product with so many fruits.

Next came the cherries. That looks somewhat better.

I weighed out my fruit and then added 3/4 of that weight in sugar. Though many recipes recommend a 1 to 1 ratio, I find that really sweet fruit doesn't need that much sugar.

Next I cooked it down until it reached the jelling point. Again, I carmelized the sugars a bit and the jam turned out more firm than I would care for, but the taste is wonderful. Much like the mixed fruit jams you can buy at the store, but like way way better 'cause I made it myself with more flavorful fruits.

Winging it in jam making can be intimidating when you are first starting out. The key is getting the right ratio of fruit to sugar. So far with my one pound of fruit to 3/4 pound of sugar has served me well. Keep this in mind the next time you want to go out on a limb and experiment with a wacky fruit combo.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eating Meat and Harvesting Hens

During my 10 year stint as a vegetarian, I believed that one shouldn't eat meat unless they could kill it themselves. Being a sensitive kind of gal, I thought that by avoiding flesh I had neatly solved the "eating sentient creatures" dilemma. That is until I found out what happens to unwanted male offspring of dairy animals and hens that don't lay eggs anymore. Without even meaning to and even as a non-meat eater, I was participating in the death of our feathered and furry friends.

So why didn't I become a vegan? Well that would mean giving up cheese. Maybe when hell freezes over that would happen as I come from a long line of Swiss dairy farmers and Dutch cheese eaters. We are cheese people, having subsisted off the stuff for centuries. My body is genetically conditioned to thrive on dairy products.

But aside from my heritage, veganism never appealed to me. It seemed too extreme and more than a little unnatural (sorry vegan friends). Humans and our Australopithecus ancestors have been omnivores for at least a couple million years. Our place in the food chain, though it has evolved from prey to predator over millions of years, has secured who we are today in the order of things. Scientists all agree that Homo Sapiens evolved into the cranium gigantors that we are today because of meat eating.

As we have moved away from slaughtering our own food in the last century, we as a culture have removed ourselves from facing the inescapable fate of all living creatures. Everything dies. It's not evil or bad. It just is. Death, by its very nature, is final and can be very violent. We need to own this instead of chasing our tails trying to avoid the inevitable. In the bigger picture, we should all just be glad that we don't live in the world of microorganisms because that is some fucked up, war zone type shit that is going on there.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against veganism. In a society of endless choices, veganism is one of our many options as to how we can eat in this world. Yay for diversity, I say. My problem is with vegangelicals (I just heard this word today and had to use it); those who are intolerant of any other diet other than a vegan one. I'm sorry, but that's just nuts. Who made you, vegangelical, the decider? Why do you have to be like a power-inebriated George W. waving your "I know what's best for the world" guns in the air?

Seriously, what's wrong with conscious meat eating? I'm against factory farming as much as the next vegan. I'm just not against meat per se. Vegans like to claim that meat eating is environmentally unsound and I won't argue with part of that premiss. Americans eat waaaaaay too much factory farmed, plastic wrapped, monoculture-subsidized everything. But my pastured, locally raised beef  where the entire animal is consumed is probably of less environmental consequence than your Creamy Sheese imported from Scotland. Just sayin'.

But I don't really want to enter into an argument about whose lifestyle is "better". I'd rather be an advocate for thoughtful meat consumption because I'm going to continue to choose to eat meat regardless of vegangelical proselytizing. My hope is that by raising our own animal products here at Itty Bitty that we can encourage other meat eaters to think more about where their meat comes from, how it was raised, what it was fed, how it was killed, etc. and come to make better choices based on this knowledge.

On that note, I'd like to share my experience from this past weekend of facing the realities of meat eating (WARNING: graphic photos to follow). The awesome folks over at Dog Island invited me to learn the ins and outs of chicken harvesting. Considering the botched job I did with my first kill, I felt the need to get a grip on how to do this with as little suffering as possible.

Folks have a lot of different ways to take out a chicken. Some take the hens by the head and whip them around like a lasso, breaking the neck. Others just twist and pull. Some sever the head, while others hang the bird upside down in a killing cone and cut the jugular. The French snip the vein under the tongue, which I hear makes the bird pass out immediately. We used two methods: the chopping block and the cone. I think I preferred the chopping block as it seemed more instantaneous. The cutting of the jugular left the animal a little too alert for a little too long for my taste. We used a noose around the neck with one person holding the string and the other person doing the deed. Here's a vague picture of the setup.

After the hen was dispatched, we dunked her into a pot of boiling water for 45 seconds. This helps with the removal of the feathers by loosening them. If you leave the bird in too long though, the skin will tear.

Next came the plucking. The bird was hung upside down over a trash bin to make the job clean and easy.

Even with the scalding, it's still hard to get all the feathers. Also chickens have hairs under their feathers. We took care of those with a blow torch.

Next we severed the feet from the rest of the leg at the joint.

Then it was time to deal with the insides. The tricky part is slicing the skin near the cloaca without cutting into the intestines. I highly recommend having a pro illustrate the proper way to do this as it is something difficult to convey in words and pictures.

After a large enough incision is made, you have to stick your hand up into the body cavity and pull everything out in one go. This can be difficult if you have a big hand. If you are one of the more well endowed in this area, you might want to consider finding a small handed friend. I have slender, but long hands for a lady and even I bruised my knuckles against the rib cage. That big thing in the upper right corner is the gizzard.

With the innards out, you still need to scrape out the lungs and get the heart. The lungs are a trippy fluorescent pink and difficult to pull out.

Once you get the back end cleared, you need to address the crop and trachea, which can only be taken out through the top of the bird. The crop is squishy and easy to puncture. Peeling it out rather than pulling gets the job done with less trouble. The trachea looks like a snorkel tube.

After the evisceration, we put the bodies in ice water where they would rest for a day before being stored in the freezer. This lets the body go through rigor mortis until it eventually relaxes within 24-48 hours.

This process certainly wasn't easy, but it has given me greater appreciation for the food I eat and has furthered me along my path of more conscientious meat consumption.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Friend in Cheese Is a Friend Indeed

This is my husband's rockin' childhood friend, Tabitha.

She is a master chef. Chef friends are the best 'cause they have impeccable taste in food and they know how to cook it. I get all my best kitchen tips from them.

Tabitha runs a jam company, Friend in Cheeses. She also makes cheese. Her business tag line reads "Dare to pair 'cause it pays to play." Hell yeah, it does, baby! With ambrosial flavors like Forbidden Fruit Marmalade, Lavender Plum Jelly, and Patzo (a strawberry, balsamic, and black pepper preserve given the Italian name (pazzo) for "insane"), a heaping spoonful of any of her creations on top of a chevre smothered cracker is divine, indeed.

Deep in the heart of the Santa Cruz mountains, Tabitha lives on a small vineyard

where she raises veggies and a flock of hens with names like Aunt Sponge, Aunt Spiker, and Oprah.

The chickens live in a converted plastic playhouse.

Tabitha has loads of cool stuff laying around. I'm super jealous of this collection of pots for the succulents.

Gotta love the juxtaposition of these objets d'art.

Tabitha even has a dinner bell.

I want a dinner bell!

Last week, Tabitha invited me to go gleaning with her. That's how she gets most of the fruit for her jams. I love how her product is made from stuff that would otherwise be wasted and left to rot. What a great business plan: get free goods that no one wants and make something delish out of it. 

Well last week we hit the mother load. A friend of a friend connected Tabitha to a woman whose golden plum tree had a major freak out this season. Honestly, I don't believe I've ever seen anything like it.

The limbs of the poor plumb were cracking under the immense weight. The fruit was gorgeous,

 dripping like grapes.

Photo courtesy of Tabitha
 Pure plum porn.

Photo courtesy of Tabitha
Between the two of us, we probably harvested around 100 pounds of fruit. And that was gathering only about a quarter to a third of the pickings.

This tree was so enorm that it had 9 foot suckers growing off of a tap root. I snagged one.

Photo courtesy of Tabitha
Then there was that figuring out how to get it home thing... in a convertible. This is when I found out Tabitha is as much of a MacGyver as I am. How could she not be? She scores free fruit! Tabitha suggested wrapping my baby in saran wrap. Voila!

We were ready to roll.

Then it was off to lunch at Tabitha's friends restaurant, Smoqe BBQ. If you find yourself in the area, you gotta go, if only for the beef brisket fries: sweet potato or regular fries coated in mac and cheese sauce and topped with barbecued beef brisket. Holy crap, that shit is good. We also had oysters.

And a bubbling tray of farm cheese. So good.

Told you. Chefs know where to find the best eats.

As a side note, I'm not sure if that sucker will survive. I don't think it is a grafted tree, which means the sucker will produce like the mother (on grafted trees, suckers don't taste like the host). In fact it was already bearing fruit when I ripped it from the ground. Right now it is marinating in a bucket of water seasoned with chicken crap and rooting hormone. Keeping my fingers crossed on this one 'cause them was some tasty plums.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Funky Skin Update

One of the girls that comes every week to learn farm stuff, Erika, helped me a couple weeks ago wrangle Ethel so that I could take care of the funky skin thing. With a toothbrush, I massaged in a concoction of coconut oil with lavender and tee tree essential oils. All three have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Worked like a mother fuckin' charm, I tell ya. Her skin is back to normal. No crust of any sort hanging about now. Take that, goat cradle crap!

'Cause I'm convinced that's what it was. Looked exactly like the stuff that my daughter had from infancy well into early childhood. I loved to pick at it too, much to my daughter's chagrin. Usually I'd wait until she fell asleep so that I could have a pick-fest, though she usually roused and brushed away my hands. Sometimes she would talk in her sleep and tell me to "cut it out".

No such luck for dear Ethel. We had her hog tied and on her back for a good 30 minutes. Some of it was real stubborn and I had to get it off with my fingernails. So gross! I also took out the cheesy stuff under her tail, which I think is related to the crusties. Now that was REALLY gross as there were gobs of smegma up in there. Ew, ew, ew!

Well she is all cleaned up now so I'm back to fretting about whether or not she is pregnant. She's about 7 weeks away from her due date and not growing. By this time, she should be fat. And her chichis aren't getting any puffier. I will be devastated if I don't have goat babies by the beginning of September.

Monday, July 11, 2011

How to Salvage a Botched Batch of Bread

I've been attempting to make no-knead sourdough bread with minimal to no success. For some reason, my dough is not rising properly. The mixture gets nice and bubbly, smells sour, but turns to soup by the end of the 18 hour rising time. After investing a couple pounds of flour and two days of oversight (it takes a day to get the sourdough starter active), I refused to let the whole batch go to waste.  I turned that gloppy mess into a passable loaf and thought I would share my mad MacGyver skills with you all.

I started off with this recipe, which instructed me not to mess with any of the procedures. So I didn't, though that aided me in no tangible way. When I got to the part where you fold the dough over itself three times, I couldn't see the point as the gluten strands were obviously in liquid form now. How would I ever get the flubber back into the bowl for the second rise if all I had was a runny glue on my hands?

I could already tell that if I baked the dough as is, I would most assuredly produce the flattest ciabatta known to man. I quick grabbed whatever flour I had available, whole wheat bread flour, and started adding it along with about a teaspoon of commercial baker's yeast. I mixed in the flour until I had a soft smooth dough that wasn't sticky and yet wasn't too firm. The dough sat for a couple hours on top of the oven and developed somewhat of a rise. It didn't quite double, but definitely poofed up. I'll probably add more yeast if this happens again. I dumped the dough into a preheated Dutch oven according to the original instructions, baked it covered for 30 minutes, and then uncovered for another 15.

The final product was on the flat side, but had a great crispy crust and moist, holey crumb. Tasted great too, even if it was a tad heavy and dense. So never fear if you fuck up your bread. As I have found out, there is always a second chance for redemption.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Itty Bitty Beets

I have had many gardening failures. Usually I can figure out what has gone wrong: poor placement, planted too early or too late, not enough water, too much water, soil issues, etc. I learn from my mistakes and go on to produce the crop successfully, adjusting whatever needs to be adjusted. Occasionally, I will give up on a particularly problematic crop, especially if it is not well suited to our cool Bay Area climate. However, I am stumped by my lack of success with beets.

For some reason, my beets do not want to produce nice large bulbs. The seedlings languish in the ground for months, producing a few leaves but no round root. Eventually, the roots will begin to bulb up, but by that time, they are woody and still small. Btw, woody beets are nasty.

I've read that beets like consistent watering. Check. I've got my drip system in place and this year produced an amazing spring crop of carrots, whom also love consistent water, grown right next to the the Goldens, Chioggas, and Ruby Queens.

Beets don't like the heat. Um, yeah... that's certainly not a problem around here.

Beets like acidic soil, around 6.5-7 pH. I'm not sure what the acidity of my soil is so this may be the culprit. However, beets are said to be "easy to grow" so I'm doubting that they are that picky.

I know I'm the one that is usually dispensing advice on this blog, but today I am putting the question out to you, dear readers. What do you think is going wrong with my beet crops? Do any of you have some fool-proof tips for the beetroot challenged? I'm trying to get a handle on this before I put in my fall crops this next week. (Thanks to Rachel over at Dog Island for reminding me that it's time. I don't know what I would do without you!)

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

I'm Back

You didn't even know I was gone, huh? Thought I was ignoring you?. No, mes amies, I was off on far flung adventures helping my sister move her brood of three children from Chicago to Dallas. I was hoping to catch you all up on some farm tours that I went on last month, but the road trip, which included my cousin's wedding in Austin, went by faster than a Texas highway patrol car in hot pursuit.

I wish I could tell of you about all the fabulous urban farms that I visited and the amazing local foods that I found on my journey through Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas; but unfortunately, I didn't even have time to visit Graceland! I did, however, get to partake in a teensy weensy bit of Austin's hipster food scene. That town is like a giant trailer park of awesome food trucks! And an oasis in my otherwise food desert of a trip.

Oh, the crap that people eat in this country. It's unbelievable. My greatest disappointment was in Little Rock when I attempted to buy some locally produced jams only to notice right before purchasing that they contained high fructose corn syrup, dyes, and preservatives. I put those right back on the shelf, yes I did. Though I wish I could have seen the  downtown farmers' market as it looked like it might be a happening spot on a Saturday morning.

But Austin, oh glorious Austin with your food trucks littering every corner of 1st and Congress. Finding a decent, cheap meal was as easy as catching fish in a stocked pond. My favorite spot was Torchy's Tacos, where I became acquainted with the fried avocado taco. De-fucking-licious, I tell you!

The rest of my trip was sprinkled with sub-par Mexican food joints and average sandwich shops like Schlotzky's, which I think gave me the schlitzkys, if you know what I'm saying. I can't tell you how grateful I was to arrive at SFO's Terminal 2 with its focus on sustainable foods and energy conservation, if only to remind myself why I adore living in the Bay Area food Garden of Eden. If you live in San Francisco or plan on visiting, try to fly out of or into Terminal 2 (Virgin and American use T2). It must be the only airport where entire restaurants and shops are dedicated to organic and locally produced food. God, it's good to be Home.

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