Monday, January 30, 2012

Cheese Please!

Look what arrived in the mail last week!! My cheese making kit from Glengarry Cheese Supplies.

And that jar of milk is local and unpasturized and there's about 5 inches of cream floating on top.....

So it seems making your own dairy products is the hot trend this year and looks I am no exception. I've often made my own yogurt and I made cheese once a few years ago on a field trip to Iowa (long story) but I found it difficult to locate the supplies to do it at home. I've known of Glengarry Cheese for a long time; they're located in eastern Ontario and a regular pit stop on trips to Quebec- fresh curds, yum..... But trying figure out which supplies and equipment I'd need always seemed daunting and expensive.

Lately I've been reading about many people's adventures in home made cheese and I decided it can't be that challenging. So I checked out the cheesemaking supplies page, spoke to a live person at the shop by phone to make sure I understood everything (thanks Ann Marie), and took the plunge!

The kit I ordered is for making soft cheese- quark, feta, ricotta, and sour cream and included 4 baskets,a muslin curd draining bag, cheese netting, and a thermometer as well as the rennet and mesophillic culture needed. I also added a second thermophillic culture to make mozzarella. Including shipping it came to just under C$100. It a large outlay but the hardware will be used over and over and the cultures are enough to do many batches of cheese. When I feel competent I will likely splurge for the hard cheese kit since it comes with moulds as well!

The recipe book that came with the kit has clear instruction on how to prep your supplies and workspace- cross contamination is a big issue for cheesemaking. It also includes instructions on how to make a mesophillic culture using the powdered culture as a starter- the method is almost identical to making yogurt and creates a mother that can be used to inoculate continuous batches! It would be very useful if you plan to make a lot of cheese and don't wish to be purchasing large quantities of starter all the time. A similar method is available for the thermophillic culture as well.

I decided to make feta for my first attempt- it's one of the easier recipes and doesn't need a large quantity of milk. Since it was my first experience with raw milk as well I only purchased two litres. There are so many great resources online with full instructions that I'm not going to write step by step instructions here but I have included a number of photos - I had to document my first solo attempt!

Heating the milk to 30 ° C before adding the rennet.

I has curds!

Stacked in baskets.

I ended up with two disc of lovely cheese and in the recipe it mentions two ways of curing feta. One is the the traditional, floating in brine, which can be eaten immediately and the other is a dry salted version which is left to age for up to 30 days in the fridge and makes a less crumbly cheese. I decided to try both methods and I'll let you know which we prefer.

Now I have to go order more milk!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Out With the Old...

The overhauling continues! One thing I really hope to accomplish this year is to replace all my old, plastic, or otherwise malfunctioning kitchen equipment with less toxic, more environmentally friendly options. I'm a regular collector of loyalty points whenever possible so I plan on making use of points I've accumulated to help with the costs of all this replacing. We shop at Zellers frequently since it's so close to home (and it's not Walmart which I refuse to shop at) so I was able to redeem some HBC points for gift cards and went shopping! Out went the pot with the peeling no-stick lining, the can opener that doesn't, the plastic measuring cups (dry and wet measure) and spoons (which I've had since I got married in 1986!)and the plastic colander is going as well.

In their place I now have lovely stainless steel versions, including an 8 quart stock pot. I still would like to find a larger version- 10 or 12 quart; most of the cheese recipes I've been perusing are for large quantities of milk and my canning pot is too flimsy andthe pressure canner is made of aluminium.

It's so lovely to have shiny new things!

Yesterday I did the annual clean-out-the-filing-cabinet and decided to rearrange some of the shelves in my home office. End result, I now have a dedicated shelf for gardening/homesteading books, seeds, and reference materials. I cleared a second one for my genealogy stuff as well as created several files folders for various branches of the family. It's so much easier now with all my frequently referenced materials right at hand.

I'm keeping up with my budget so far and although my bank turned me down for a consolidation loan (idiots) I've located a private source (thank god for family)who is going to help me liberate myself from 3 of those stupid credit card in the next few weeks. Our arrangement will allow me to repay the loan in a year, interest free!

I'm so organized right now I'm scaring myself.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dark Days Week 9- Cold and Flu Edition

I finally figured out which week we're on for the Dark Days challenge but I'm still playing catch-up. This week was pretty much a write off since I was felled by a miserable cold/flu that forced me to spend much of the week in bed. I have had the worst cold season I can recall, battling one variation or another since Oct but this one really hit me hard and all the members of this house were in varying degrees of illness or recent recovery, so groceries were few and cooking attempts were pretty feeble, at least on my part. Thankfully we had lots of homemade soups in the freezer and home canned juice and stock on the shelves.

My first line of defence when ill is the traditional, rest and fluids. Lots of juice, tea and soup to flush the system is usually a pretty reliable remedy. Last fall at the Royal Winter Fair I picked up these fantastic teas made by Boreal Forest Teas from Thunder Bay, ON. Now even tho it's in Ontario, Thunder Bay is not exactly local for me; in fact it's five Great Lakes and about 1300 km (850 miles) from Toronto. But their teas are organic, wild harvested and hand crafted and they have the coolest names! How could I resist teas named Northern Lights, Loon Song and 40 Below?

Visually appealing as well, each blend is a mix of dried locals herbs and berries and come packaged loose so you can mix and match. Which is exactly what I did and I added additional things like more rosehips (vitamin C) and dried lemon grass ( good for respiratory troubles).

On the worst day, when I was in pain from totally blocked sinuses, the Chef roommate took pity on me and created a version of Hot and Sour soup that you will never find in any recipe book. Using what we had on hand he came up with a reasonable facsimile, with all the tang and spiciness that helped open up all the congestion in my head. I cannot tell you everything that went into it since I was otherwise occupied (in bed, watching Victorian Farm on Youtube) but I do know that it incorporated my hand dried rosehips, chili peppers and lemon grass, as well as garlic, dried mushrooms from Forbes Wild Foods, and fresh local udon noodles. The broth was a mixture of the ham stock I canned earlier, some of the home made cider vinegar and this wonderful organic brown rice miso made by Traditon Miso just east of Toronto in Claremont- check out the photos of their 'factory'. The soup was delicious and medicinal but not exactly photogenic, even if I had had the energy to pick up my camera at the time. I settled for a picture of some of the ingredients.

I'm on the road to recovery finally and my appetite is back which means my next Dark Day post will likely be about something a bit more substantial. That means a shopping trip to the Sorauren Market is in order tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Under Pressure

As mentioned in my previous post I had yet to make use of the lovely pressure canner that I bought just before Christmas. I was too busy to even look at it over the holidays and then I was back to work the first week of January and somehow it's been sitting there for 6 weeks now! And truthfully it made me a bit nervous. I read through the manual the day it arrived and there were steps to do before using in, and very thorough instructions how to use it and it was all a bit intimidating. In the meantime I've been stewing up pots of various meat stock that were not helping with the lack of fridge space and it reached critical mass this weekend when I brought home a large hambone from my friend's wedding. They actually offered me an entire ham and you have no idea how difficult it was to say no but it was a 20 lb ham and I just didn't have room even with the recent fridge clean out!

The hambone was still very meaty so I carved off all the excess to have another meal, and put the bone in the slow cooker to simmer. It had been heavy marinated in bourbon, mustard and cloves among other things so I kept the seasoning minimal, using just some onion and bay leaf. It made a huge pot of wonderfully fragrant ham stock!

I also had a pot of beef stock from a bag of rib bones and fat I rescued from the kitchen at work (I also made beef tallow for later use) and a pot of turkey stock from last week's bird.

So yesterday I finally bit the bullet and set up the pressure canner for the first time; it was actually much easier than I imagined! I cleaned and prepped the canner as directed and then ran it through a test run which went perfectly. So I filled up my jars with hot stock, sealed them and fired it up! I had a moment of confusion when I added the water since my manual says add 3 quarts of boiling water and then indicates a line in the inside where the level should be. Maybe it was because I was only canning four L jars and one 500ml but it took a lot more than 3 quarts to bring it up to the line. The level at that point reached just to the shoulder of the L jars. Can any of you pressure canning experts clarify for me whether that is the correct amount of water?

In any case it seems to have worked like a charm! I was also a little nervous about maintaining a proper pressure since many sources report that using just the pressure gauge can be tricky and many people suggest using weights. Well I don't know if it was beginners luck but I got it up to 11 psi as directed in the manual and there it sat for the entire 25 minutes.

Only in the last 5 minutes did the pressure start to creep up so I turned the heat off entirely at that point (gas stoves rock!) and let it slowly cool down. It was still over 11 for more than the time remaining and it took about an hour to cool down enough for the pressure to release. When the lid finally came off all the jars were intact and still boiling furiously, a good indicator that a vacuum had been achieved. It took quite a while for the contents to cool down, much longer than hot waterbath canning, but eventually I heard a series of lovely pops and today all my jars are nicely sealed.

My first batch of pressure canning was a success!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Time for an Overhaul

Even I don't believe in New Year's resolutions per say, a new year always suggests the opportunity to reset, and start afresh. Or maybe it's just that January can be so mind numblingly boring at times that even rearranging the spice drawer seem exciting. Whatever the reason, I've been seized with the urge to get my house in order and in between bouts of lethargy, I been having bursts of obsessive reorganization and along with that, some thoughts of things I like to improve on this year.

First up was the fridge- from the above photo you can see I have slight jar problem. (there are also the piles of empty jars taking up space elsewhere but that's a whole other issue). Now we already have the smallest of apartment sized fridges- it's ridiculously tiny. Then there are four adults currently living this house and we don't all eat or shop together so we end up with a lot of duplicates (6 jars of mustards-seriously guys?). So there really isn't room for all these jars but somehow their number seems to increase much faster than it decreases. Pickles and hot sauces have a high turnover but sweet preserves seem to take up residence for far too long. I have a difficult time throwing out food of any sort but when I decided to clean the fridge recently I got ruthless. Besides disposing of the obviously-past-their-prime stuff I also got rid of about half a dozen jars of half eaten jam. There was nothing really wrong with most of it but the truth is we don't eat jam! I know that sound almost like blasphemy from someone who is canning obsessed but when it comes to fridge real estate it's about time I admit the truth and deal with it. I really don't like jam. It's too sweet and unless I'm having fresh bakes scones, I have no use for it. No one else eats it either and we don't cook with it enough to make jam a must have ingredient. So after reclaiming all those jam jars (oh yay, more jars to figure out where to store) I've decided that is the year I stop making jam unless it's to sell or give away. There will be a few exceptions - red onion jam is a staple now, but for the most part I'm going to have to figure out something to do with fruit other than jam it.

Second up is my finances. Now I am extremely frugal and pretty good at living within my means for the most part. But occasionally even I fall off the rails and some how over the years I have managed to acquire 5 credit cards, which is about 4 too many. And on all 5 of those cards I carry a balance. None of them are a very large balance but added together they make up an amount higher than I am comfortable with, and of course they carry interest; in some cases an extremely high rate of interest. Now I know how I got myself in this situation and I know how to get out of it but my history of working mostly contract and piecemeal never gave me the opportunity to do much more than maintain my credit rating without actually addressing the principle. In other words I'm paying off the interest month after month but barely denting the debt. This is basically the equivilent of throwing money away every month and it adds up. I can think of so many things I'd rather be doing with that money and now that I have a job that pays me at regular intervals I can finally do something about it. To that end I sat down and made my first ever budget.( My dad will be so proud!). It's not a fancy budget; I just searched online for a basic template and tweaked it a bit to suit my needs. It allows me to see what regular expenses I have and where I can best use my money to get rid of these debts . First up HBC: this card carries only a $500 limit and should have been paid off long ago- I haven't even used it in over two years! But at almost 30%, pretty much 100% of every payment I make goes towards covering the interest. Right now the balance is at just over $300- if I can stick to my budget of $100/month I should rid myself of this albatross by spring! Then it will be onto my PC Mastercard which I got thinking I'd get points towards groceries. Well in the 5 years I've had this I haven't earned enough points for a carton of milk but at 24.9 % interest, I've paid for a years worth of milk in interest, every year. With any luck I should have the balance paid off on it before the end of this year and then that card too will be cut in many small pieces. I wish I could say I'll have rid myself of all of my cards by next year but I believe in setting realistic goals and even paying off two of them will save me about $70/ month which I can then apply to the remaining 3. So if nothing else I should be able to reduce the principle on the others. Fingers crossed that I stick to my plan!

The other things on my reorganization list are my library (which much as it pains me to say, needs culling, if only to make room for more books!), my seed boxes and the aforementioned jar collection. While I'm offering up confessions, here's another one: I didn't buy a single new canning seal last year, except for the box of Kilner seals which I have yet to open. Every jar I canned last year was done with a reused seal and I didn't have a single seal failure. Frugal yes but it also means I have a lot of seals that are definitely past their prime and I need to sort out the potential bad ones and dispose of them before canning season begins again. I really need a better organized storage system for canning supplies but I have yet to come up with one. I also need to find somewhere to store the new pressure canner which is still shiny and new because it's yet to be used. Can you guess what my next project will be?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sharing the Love!

Here's a funny thing: usually I do a year end wrap up and include a list of my favourite blogs for the year. This year time got away on me and I only recently wrote a small post on some the year's highlights but skipped the bloglist. So I am ever so grateful to FarmGal for awarding me a Liebster Award, not only for the pleasure of being one of her favourites but for giving me the opportunity to honour a few blogs that I enjoyed over the last 12 months.

There some guidelines that go with this my first ever blogging award. Liebster is a German word that means 'beloved' so that is the criteria I used when choosing the blogs I am passing the award to. It's a shame you can only choose five tho.

Here are the rules:

1- Choose FIVE up and coming blogs to award the Liebster to. Blogs must have less than 200 followers.
2- Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
3- Post the award on your blog. List the bloggers you gave the award to with links to their sites.

Here are my five, with a strong Canadian slant:

Harvest Kitchen Sisters: Two sisters, one blog. One lives in the country and the other in the same city that I do. Full of practical advice and great recipes. Oh and lots of pictures of babies!

Backward Leonard: A self described city girl gone country, Liz and her family live near Peterborough and get up to all kinds of antics. Funny blog name, even funnier writing!

Wet My Plants: Best blog name ever! Ellie is a fellow city dweller and as her blog title suggests she's a hardcore plant lady and she delights in all things unusual. We swapped stuff last year and I grew a beautiful moonflower vine thanks to her. I have serious envy of her green thumb!

Twig and Tree Farm: Linda has a small "organic" (italics hers) farm in the Niagara region where she grows hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties, among other things. If there's such a thing as tomato porn, this blog is it. I'm going to make it to one of her open door events this year even if I have to walk there!

Your Place or Mine: Elsie posts about multiple topics and not so frequently but her sense of style is fabulous! She is my dear friend but she left me to live and work in UK. Now I am lost without my personal fashion guide so it's all her fault if I appear frumpy.

So that is my five but I wish I could award it to so many more. Share the Liebster love!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Dark Days Updates

As usual the holidays were a blur and trying to eat SOLE and find time to blog about it proved to be an impossible dream. So I lost a few weeks and don't know what week I'm on any more. Since I did manage to cook a few things recently that encompassed the spirit if not the letter of the Dark Days Challenge I thought I'd do a quick update.

Post holiday eating is always a bit of a challenge. We've been oversaturated with rich food and haven't had time to shop for much in the way of fresh produce. And on top of that, the Sorauren market was on hiatus over the holidays so I've been missing my most ready available source of local ingredients. So I've been dependant on whatever we have in the freezer or pantry. Luckily both were fairly well stocked.

I made this dish based on something my mom used to make us when I was a child. I don't think it actually has a name but I jokingly refer to it as her fusion style because it has a base of her frugal Scots heritage mixed with elements of her French Canadian roots. In this case I used local smoked bacon and duck fat(I rendered myself) which we didn't have growing up but I'm sure Mom would approve.
1 leek, white and light green part, chopped
3 cups coursely chopped cabbage
1 med cooking onion chopped
1/2 cup of bacon cut in small pieces
1-2 tbsp duck or bacon fat
1/3 c maple syrup or to taste

Melt fat in a cast iron or similar frying pan. Add bacon pieces and saute for about one minute on med heat(longer if you like your bacon crispy- I don't). Add all veggies and saute until soft,about 5-7 minutes. Add maple syrup, stir to coat evenly. Turn off heat and allow to rest so flavours mingle but sugars don't burn. Serve as a side or a meal on it's own (feeds 2).

I mentioned in my first Dark Days post that I have issues with maple syrup made in Ontario and I promised to expand. My mom's family is from Quebec, near Montreal and maple syrup is a way of life- my grandfather was known to eat it on everything from eggs to coffee. Sugaring off time is a big community celebration and the most treasured syrup is the first run. I've grown up with this as the ideal syrup and although I am born and raised in Ontario, when it comes to syrup, Quebec will always be my gold standard. Ontario syrup has two things against it for my tastes; darker syrup (which I think tastes like molasses) is far more popular here, and it's common here to tap species of maples other than sugar maples. It's for the latter reason that my grandmother always referred to Ontario syrup as "fencepost syrup"; in her mind they'd tap anything in Ontario!

I've found I'm not the only one with very stong opinions when it comes to maple syrup. I've even been accused of liking 'flatlander' syrup by a native Vermonter, which I found funny since my ideal syrup is produced high in the Laurentian mountains. Apparently the light grades in Vermont are sold only to tourists.
There are different standards, as well as grading scales for maple syrup in Canada and the US (Vermont has it's own). "In Canada, syrups must be at least 66 percent sugar and be made exclusively from maple sap to qualify as maple syrup. In the United States, a syrup must be made almost entirely from maple sap to be labelled as "maple"." (from Wikipedia).

In Canada, maple syrup comes in 3 grades and each grade has colour classes. Canada #1 is broken down into Extra Light (sometimes known as AA), Light (A), and Medium (B); Grade #2 is Amber (C); and Grade #3 is always Dark (D). In Ontario, Canada #2 Amber may be labelled "Ontario Amber" when produced and sold in that province only.

The United States only uses two major grades: Grade A and Grade B. Grade A is further divided into three subgrades: Light Amber (sometimes known as Fancy), Medium Amber, and Dark Amber.

The lightest syrup to me is the best because it has the appropriate sugar content without the strong mineral content that many people believe is the 'maple' taste. The darker syrups are produced later in the run and because the sugar content is lower they must be boiled longer to concentrate the sugars to the correct density. The last syrup produced in a season is sometimes jokingly referred to as the 'frog run' since it may be far enough into spring that you can here frogs croaking. A good syrup producer will stop tapping long before that; the sugar concentrations in sap are extremely low by the time the first buds begin to open. Anything darker than Light in my books isn't true syrup so I wait until I can receive my annual share from Quebec and then hoard it like liquid gold. The syrup pictured above it is the last bit left from last year's run and has darkened over time in the fridge but it still retains it's delicate flavour.

So call me a maple syrup snob if you will- I can live with it. Just don't try to serve me 'fencepost syrup'.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Surviving January

It's probably a bit early to be posting about the winter blahs since here in Toronto we've barely even had any winter yet. In fact it was balmy 7 degrees C yesterday and today is looking to be even warmer- yes that's laundry on the line! But it's been mostly grey and bleak for what feels like months already and even sunny days seem too short. It's so easy to slip into a funk when all I feel like doing is reading or watching movies, and even getting dressed seems like too much effort. In my defence I did receive a lot of great books for Christmas, including these beautiful clothbound editions of classic novels that the Russian gave me!

In the video dept I have my dear friend Kate to blame for my latest addiction- Downton Abbey is a beautiful period piece set in England in the early 1900's and I've been devouring the first season which I was able to download entirely along with a Christmas special. I was also delighted to discover that Season 2 begins airing on PBS this Sunday at 9pm!

I never did get around to doing a year end wrap up post so I thought I'd post a few moments in pictures. The highlight of the year was of course my trip to England: my aunt and I had a fabulous time and I hope very much to make another trip there soon.

My search there for both Kilner history and Kilner jars was a success and then my friend Leigh trumped the list with this beauty she recently brought back to Canada with her. It's a vintage 3lb jar that is going to look great on the wall of jars.

The gardens on the other hand have had better years. In fact the less said about them the better. The best thing about a new year is the ability to forget all the heartbreaks of last year's garden because it's a clean slate again. I'm already dreaming of what I want to grow this year!

The one sad note of 2011 was losing my beloved Casey in Sept. I still occasionally forget she's gone and then miss her all over again- 20 years of habit I guess.

I'm grateful to still have my other two Farmcats even now that it's winter and they are as stir crazy as we are. They get restless being inside so much and need regular amusement lest they find some on their own (hide the toilet paper and lock up the yarn!)Our favourite method of entertaining them in the winter is the mini disco balls we have strung in the sunporch. At this time of year when the sun does shine, it streams in the windows; sunbeams reflect off the mirror balls and bounce all over the place. The cats think it's a marvelous game. Best cat toy ever!

And of course I am full of joy that the Russian is still here in Canada. Although it's been a year since he was granted permission to stay, he's still awaiting the documents that make him a permanent resident and until he has those in his hand he won't believe it 100%. Government bodies move slowly and at times it's still frustrating-the longer it takes the more he doubts it will really come to be no matter how much I try to reassure him. Having those papers will mean we can make more plans, as well as allow him to travel outside of Canada again and he hopes to be able to see his daughter who he hasn't seen in 4 long years. Hopefully he won't have too much longer to wait.

Despite my earlier grumbling, 2012 looks to be a promising year. Colette and I have decided to emulate our Can Jam experience by attempting to can one recipe a month again and we have our eyes on Meyer lemons for January. And speaking of canning I finally splurged on a pressure canner just before Christmas but I've yet to try it out so I'll be sure to record my first attempt!

We've also got some other great plans for this winter, including building window farms and of course tapping maple trees again- mmmm, syrup!
At work we're putting together a number of interesting projects as well. I'm still amazed that I'm getting paid to come up with gardening plans and related projects and I can't wait to get going. There's even a rumour that I might be working with bees and possibly even chickens!!

Maybe I should enjoy the quiet time while I can!