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Old-School Homesteading: Fermenting Your Own Probiotics

We are the fermentation experts in our little neighborhood. We ferment wine, of course, but that’s done with yeast. I’m talking about allowing beneficial bacteria to do their bacteria thang with a variety of foods. Yep, bacteria and food can be an incredibly healthy combination, if done correctly.

I’ve even fermented meat to make salami, and my whole family and all my friends ate it and we’re still kicking. I’ll blog about making salami later in the year, though.

Today we made sauerkraut, a mainstay fermented food that is an absolute must in any healthy person’s diet. It is so easy to make these foods, too, so I encourage you to try your hand at it if you’ve never ventured into this type of culinary joy.

No, homemade sauerkraut does NOT taste like the storebought stuff you might have tried. Not even close.

Here’s how to make this delicacy:

Start with a blessing of four little cabbages. Cut out the tough cores and piece into quarters.

 

cabbage

Then, spend 10 minutes looking for the little plastic thingie that makes the shredder blade in your food processor work. You can’t use the regular blade that’s good for everything else; it has to be the shredder. When you can’t find the plastic thingie, get out your least favorite kitchen device, the mandoline (spelled with an e at the end, unlike the musical instrument). (If you’re really old school and don’t have a finger-shredder, use your favorite kitchen knife and slice very, very thinly.) Start shredding cabbage like this:

 

mandolin

And pretty soon you end up with a bowl of goodness that looks like this:

 

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Please pause for a moment and admire the contrasting colors of the cabbage, like the most gorgeous, juicy confetti imaginable. This is real food. This is you creating something healthy. This is you taking care of yourself and your world, preserving the plant so it can sustain you for months to come. Isn’t it beautiful?

Now it’s time to smash the cabbage with salt. Old-timers had a special smasher, shaped sort of like a stubby baseball bat, and beautiful five-gallon and ten-gallon ceramic crocks they passed down from generation to generation to make sauerkraut. There is a crock in my husband’s family, descended from Grandma Sylvia, but alas, it lives at someone else’s house.

So we make do with a meat mallet (which my husband made in shop class back in high school) and a large glass jar. Throw in four big handfuls of shreds, sprinkle with salt.

How much salt?

There’s a legend that the smallest child in the family would hold her hand open and the mother or grandmother would fill the child’s palm with salt to get the right measurement. Use your imagination to guess how much that might be, if you happen to not have a small child nearby.

By the way, please don’t use salt that has stuff added to it, like aluminum. Aluminum and other heavy metals have been linked to increased risk for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and while there are several essential oil protocols/supplements that help to remove heavy metals, isn’t it just better to avoid them if you can?

Yes, you could use sea salt or pink Himalayan salt, if you have some lying around, but plain pickling or kosher salt will do fine.

Smash and smash and smash until the juice starts coming out, then smash some more:

 

smashingcabbage

Continue layering four handfuls of shreds with your guesstimate of salt and keep smashing until you have used all four cabbages. You will smash until the shreds are submerged in their own juices. DO NOT under ANY circumstances add water!!! If you get tired, rest for a few minutes or ask for help. Then smash some more.

Or get in there with your real-life hands and squeeze it around:

 

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At last, you will see something like this:

 

cabbagesmashed

Finish up this part of sauerkraut-making by topping it off with a few whole cabbage leaves and placing a quart freezer bag filled with water on top to keep it all submerged. Cover the jar or crock with a towel and the lid, and tuck away in the pantry. Please leave it alone and don’t stir, don’t take the lid off to check, etc. You want to keep oxygen out of the process.

You have not actually made sauerkraut yet. Right now, it’s cabbage with a lot of salt. The real fun begins when the good bacteria wake up and start perking away, which usually takes between three and seven days. The kraut will “work” for another five to six weeks (yes, weeks), and try to keep it between 60 and 70 degrees. It bubbles and pops and generally has a 24-hour party until everything settles down and it is finished transforming into the food of the gods.

By the way, you may start to worry at certain points during the fermentation if you’ve never made sauerkraut before. White scum will form on the surface, and those are happy yeasts that provide even more probiotic joy. If it grows a funky black and purple mold with long mold threads running down into the sauerkraut, that means you used too much salt, had too much oxygen in the jar, and/or your fermentation space was too warm. Throw it out and start over. If the kraut turns pink, you used too much salt, so throw it out and start over.

There will be a crusty and somewhat soft layer on the top when it’s finished working, so when you go to store the sauerkraut in the refrigerator scrape that off. Good kraut should squeak when you bite into it.

At this point, you’ve made the best source of probiotics that can be made in a home kitchen with no special equipment. If you choose to can the sauerkraut, you will kill the good bacteria and a lot of the health benefits. If you freeze it, same thing. We simply move the finished product into quart mason jars and store in the refrigerator, preserving all the love that nature can offer and making our guts very, very happy for months to come.

We also made kimchee, but that deserves its own blog post because it’s a somewhat specialty probiotic product. I’ll crosslink the two articles together later so you can read them both.

Enjoy!

 

Homesteading 101: Growing Your Own Food

One of the first things sustainable-living folks do is start growing their own food, right? As much as possible in the space available, from a tomato pot on the balcony of a one-bedroom apartment to an acre of shared garden at a friend’s house, we’ve got our hands in whatever dirt is around. And we LIKE it.

So, we have quite a lot of trees around our house, so not much sun shines on our wee gardens here at home. Oh, we don’t let that stop us. We grow mushrooms.

Shiitake mushrooms, to be exact, though we’ve dabbled in other kinds.

Here’s a quick run-down of how to grow shiitakes: Cut white or red oak down in the spring just after maple syrup season, piece the trees out into four-foot lengths, buy a bag or two of spore from the internet, get your brother-in-law to kindly drill seemingly thousands of holes in the logs, shoot some spore into each hole and cap with wax. Then wait.

Two years later, you can expect something gorgeous like this to appear:

 

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Well, it doesn’t exactly “appear,” because you have other work to do after waiting.

When the weather warms in the spring so it’s consistently 50 degrees at night, you need to soak the logs to force the mushroom flush.

First, put the logs into a fairly large stock tank and fill it to the brim with water. The logs float, so you need to weigh them down with concrete blocks. Soak the logs for 24 hours, remove from the tank and prop against sawhorses. Each one weighs between 20 and 40 pounds when they’re dry (depending on diameter) and soaking adds at least 10 pounds, so you’re getting a decent workout when you’re moving 40 logs twice. You do the math; I’m tired just thinking about it.

Then you wait again. For a few days this time. If you’ve got good logs and perfect weather (less than 80 degrees for high temps), you’ll see something like this:

 

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And they pop out all around the logs, because of the part where you got your brother-in-law to drill all those holes:

 

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When the caps are flared out, we cut them off the logs and sell them fresh or dried. Our most recent harvest on Monday yielded 22-3/4 pounds. Yes, pounds. Here’s what that looks like:

 

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That’s our dining room table, which comfortably seats 8 people. The harvest is spread from end to end of that table. And now you know what 22-3/4 pounds of fresh shiitake mushrooms looks like!

 

mushroom4

 

Aren’t they pretty? And healthy, and worth some money for folks who buy them by the pound from our lovely cousin. We’ll be drying a number of these and selling them over the winter, too. And eating and eating and eating and loving life.

Well worth the waiting and working, my friends. I recommend that if you have a shady yard, you grow yourself some shiitake mushrooms.

 

mushroom1

 

If you want me to share some recipes in a future post, leave a comment below and I’ll let you know my favorite ways to cook these spectacular shrooms!

 

Must-Have Homesteading Skill: Basket Weaving

We’re always trying to learn new things to fill our “life skills bank account.” We’re pretty rich in skills around here… And we try to live the best life possible in the simplest and most sustainable way. And we have amazing fun and happiness, which makes us rich beyond belief.

So our weekend skill-building course was learning how to weave baskets. My husband’s aunt has been bugging us for a year to let her teach us, so we settled in for a relaxing afternoon in her cozy Busy Room, surrounded by coils and coils of weaving reed, a sewing machine and ironing board, shelf after shelf of crafting materials, baskets filled with little tools, baskets filled with notions and potions, baskets filled with pens.

Wonderful, tiny photos of baby grandkids and dogs that have passed taped up on shelves and walls. Home and family everywhere.

It’s the room of a woman who does stuff with her spare time. A woman who lives life with creativity and love and patience and wisdom. And my husband and I got to spend four absorbing hours creating with her.

But I wax poetic. Here’s how to weave a basket:

Begin by filling a large-ish tub with hot tap water. Gather up the proper sized reeds (we used a pattern and pre-made reed to learn the craft). Cut the future basket’s spokes (the wider pieces that get woven around) and soak them until they’re pliable. Then weave the bottom of the basket. Mine looked like this:

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Then, after carefully adjusting each spoke so it satisfies someone with a small touch of OCD (that would be me), complete this stage of the project with twining. Here’s Auntie demonstrating twining:

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Basically, you weave two lengths of small-diameter round reed to lock the bottom of the basket in place. First reed over under, over under, with the second reed under over, under over, and watch that you don’t get your reeds cross-ways at the corners. It’s all more complex than it sounds, because while your hands are doing one thing your brains are doing another, and if you stop for a sip of coffee or to laugh, everything can get confused.

Then comes the really dangerous part about basket weaving: Bending the spokes upward to become stakes (the sides of the basket). I say this is dangerous because if you crack a spoke-stake too much in the 90 degree bend, you have to undo the whole thing and start over. Thankfully, none of us had to weep. Here’s what Jake’s looked like at this point:

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And mine:

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Then you begin to weave in earnest. Auntie told us to use smoked reed to make our baskets more interesting. It’s a nice mocha color, and I’m excited to make and smoke reed from scratch someday. Repeat the over under/under over pattern around each spoke, carefully tightening and pulling and adjusting as you go so the weave doesn’t affect the final shape of the basket. The key to making a basket with strong sides is to overlap the reed ends by four spokes–they won’t pull apart even if you put a bowling ball in the finished basket.

It’s tricky to make sharp corners. It’s tricky to pay enough attention to the over under/under over while multitasking conversation about the recent rains, the small patch of blue sky, reports on basket guild, promises to attend weaving classes next winter, discussions about lunch, and small intrusive thoughts about work.

This whole thing is trickier than you might think!

Here’s what an almost-finished basket looks like:

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This is the critical stage where you can completely mess up the strength of your basket or make it a useful work of art that can be passed to the next generation. How you bend and weave and integrate the loose ends at the top makes all the difference in the world.

First, half of the stake ends are cut off and half folded over to lock the top weave together. It feels like a moment of no return to snip, snip, snip.

Then, we cut two pieces of flat oval reed (rounded on one side, flat on the other), one to fit the outside diameter and one to fit the inside diameter of the basket. These got planed on the ends so they would fit together more smoothly. (I happen to be extremely familiar with how to use a plane from making my own butcher-block counter.) These are roughly placed along with a length of braided sea grass and all the bits are clipped with clothes pins to keep it under control:

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Then begins the lashing. That might sound like the most dangerous part, but it’s not. Lashing simply means sewing the top together as tightly as possible, without any of the bits getting cross-ways, or breaking the lashing reed.

Here’s what it looks like, in the best of all possible worlds:

photo 1

Yes, I broke the lashing on my basket (twice), and had to try a couple of alternatives before settling on the leather shoelace. Who knew that a found object would become useful in a craft project?

In addition, I wanted to know how a handle would be incorporated into a basket. The handle seemed like a great mystery to me, until I actually put a handle into my project:

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It’s as easy as feeding the ends into the weaving and locking it in. I guess people have thought about how to do this, and have created pre-made helpers, and the simple folks who have never woven a basket can incorporate these items to make a spectacular finished product. Modern life is good for some things, anyway.

As we rounded out our afternoon, my sweetheart’s basket looked like this:

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Nice square corners, straightforward coloring, strongly masculine. A beautiful object of art and love. Jake would like to put his most-used essential oils in the basket to corral them. Purposeful and meaningful.

And here we are, posing awkwardly with our finished products, pleased with the results and still trying to process the learning:

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Aren’t we completely beautiful? I adore my sweetheart husband, who is always willing to pose for a photo. I, on the other hand, am attempting to show the final product in its best light while dealing with dehydration brought on by extremely hard work and talking, talking. And struggling like Jacob with the angel to get my rim lashed. But you know what? The final products were exactly what they should be. Filled with emptiness. Filled with knowledge. Filled with family.

Go out this minute and find someone who can teach you how to weave a basket. Listen deeply to that person, hear the HOW of spokes and twining and stakes and weavers and lashing. Allow the materials to speak to you, and allow the end result to be gorgeous. And be quiet for a few moments after you create your first project, and be in the WHY of what you just accomplished.

Home and family. Priorities, all in the right place. Wish you could have been there with us!

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Have you done basket weaving in your life? It seems like a lost art to me, one of the many skills that have fallen by the wayside in the face of technology. If you have ever woven a basket, please leave a comment here to tell everyone about the HOW and the WHY of your creation.

Some Fun Homesteading Projects

 

The woods of northern Minnesota provide us with food for body and soul, creating a seamless life that honors seasons and cycles. On the spiritual side, we’re blessed with a peacefulness that can become timeless as the days gently roll along; we’re grounded and in touch and find joy everywhere. It’s a beautiful life.

On the physical side, we grow a lot of food in the non-snow months. We also hunt for wild foods and try to learn more and more about what nature gives freely according to her own schedule. Yes, we have grocery stores in town; no, we don’t live like a pack of coyotes; yes, we get haircuts when we need them; no, we don’t bathe in the river. We’re modern American humans with satellite TV and hot running water who happen to take every opportunity to homestead, and then we share our projects on Facebook.

I do see the irony in that, and am as amused as you are.

Maple syrup time has ended for the year, so I’ll blog about that when next April rolls past. Fiddlehead fern time only lasts for a few days, so you’ll hear about those adventures next May. Spruce tip time ended yesterday, and we’re in the high throes of dandelion season, so those are the two harvests I’ll share with you right now.

Here’s a nice pile of white spruce tips:

sprucetips

Is your mouth watering yet? It should be, even if you’re not familiar with these bursts of pine and citrus and vitamins. When you first bite into one, it comes as a surprise… but keep chewing and you’ll start to get it.

These morsels are the new growth on the ends of spruce branches, and you can pick them like berries. They begin life when the snow starts to melt, nestled into a brown papery covering, and as spring accelerates they leap forth and become a little too piny for pleasant eating. You must catch them at the right moment.

Recipes scattered across the internet say they make a great substitute for dill as a flavoring; spruce tip tea is an ancient standby for spring coughs and colds; fried in garlic and butter, they are heavenly; they keep fresh in the refrigerator for many weeks; and I, being the person I am, made pickled spruce tips, spruce tip-infused vinegar, and spruce tip salt.

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Spruce Tip Pickles

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Spruce Tip Infused Vinegar

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Spruce Tip Salt Before Grinding

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Spruce Tip Salt After Grinding

We will use these culinary lovelies to make the rest of the year taste better, and each bite will remind us of what awaits in the woods if we only pay attention.

Now, the much-maligned dandelion gets a bad rap with city folks. We, on the other hand, eagerly seek them out and eat them by the bushel basket. I prefer the greens raw in salad; other folks in our community like to cook them and enjoy with ham and mashed potatoes. There are plenty of recipes for dandelion greens, hearts, crowns, roots and so on, so explore your search engine to learn more.

My absolute favorite use of dandelions is making wine from the flowers. Last year’s batch of dandelion wine is like drinking heaven, so I’m making twice as much this year. Here’s where I get my recipe, from Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons:

dandelionrecipe

And here are the flowers, waiting in the fermentation bucket for step one:

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Isn’t that pretty?

If you leave a comment below, I’ll share any of the recipes with you.

Do you do any fun homesteading projects? Gather any wild foods and enjoy the bounty of nature, on nature’s terms? Let’s have a conversation!