Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Simple Farmers Cheese Recipe for the Gardener

I will write more about my goat-cheese making experience, but wanted to share an EASY quick cheese recipe. Yesterday we tasted two variations of it, one with curry in the cheese and the goat-cheese laying on top on a bed of pepper jelly. The variation we made had garlic and chives incorporated into it - It was FABULOUS!!!

So here is Kim's Quick Queso Cheese (AKA Queso Blanco or Farmers Cheese)... We used1 gallon of goats milk, however this same recipe could be adapted (per our host Kim) to use cows milk.

1) Heat milk in a stainless steel pot to 198-degrees. It is important to stir it constantly to avoid scorching, and you must stir it with a stainless steel implement or other non-reactive utensil.

2) Once the milk has come to 198-degrees, remove it from the heat.

3) Pour in approximately 1/2 cup white vinegar into the hot milk. You must use white vinegar, not cider vinegar or red wine vinegar as they don't have enough acidity!

4) Let the vinegar incorporate into the hot milk and sit for 10 minutes.

5) Pour the curdled milk through a fine weave cheesecloth. Kim used Butter Muslin she bought from the New England Cheese Making Supply Company. Although any fine weave cheesecloth would work!

6) Add salt and any herbs to your personal taste!

7) Let the cheesecloth drain away any whey - Yes this IS where Miss Muffit's Curds and Whey came from!!!

Yesterday when we made this cheese we tasted it hot without seasoning and it tasted and felt like a mild ricotta cheese, we tasted it hot, salted and herbed (SO YUMMY) and then tasted it after it had set up more and cooled (it was still wonderful). If you are a person who enjoys the outdoors and gardening during the summer months, you are sure to enjoy this fabulous Farmers Cheese as well!!!

My chives are JUST starting to emerge from the winter ground and you can BET I will be making some simple cheese VERY SOON incorporating the springs early garden harvest! Maybe I'll even garnish my cheese with beautiful chive blossoms...

Mostly the whey can be thrown away, but this is where all the protein is, so think of unique uses for that as well - In breads, in protein shakes or smoothies, etc...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Urban Farming: Keeping Backyard Chickens

It's funny how things happen - I've been "thinking" of getting a backyard chicken for it's eggs - But I haven't gotten much past the "thinking" part. My reality is, today when my mom and I took a goat cheese making class, we saw the cutest little balls of fluff - Less than week old baby chicks! So as any GOOD Nana would do, my mom purchased 4 of the little buggers (hopefully they end up being hens otherwise back to the farm they go!) as "Easter gifts" for my kids.

My township has an ordinance where a family CAN keep backyard hens for their eggs, so it should be all fine and dandy - My husband was not amused and I received the "I-can't-believe-you-did-that" or "What-did-you-just-get-us-into" stare. But we're now the proud owners of the lil' peepers! (Note: while I got the stare, when the light we had wouldn't work, HE ran right out and got a new light to keep our little ones warm!)

I should mention that giving pets as gifts is never a good idea, however it WAS already something I was considering, and IF for some reason we can not keep them - allergies, illness, etc. They can go back to the person who sold them to us or possibly elsewhere. There are plenty of people looking for "free" chickens on Craigslist in this area...

So now I'll research what type they are (I know two of them lay the blue colored eggs) and specifics on raising chickens in small places, while we enjoy the gentle peeping noises coming from them. The kids will really get a kick out of watching them grow and change too...

Thursday, March 26, 2009


The tapping is closed off, the cooking is now complete...

Yesterday I finally pulled the plug on all remaining Maple tree's at my friend's property. I had only gotten a few gallons in the past 4 days and trees were starting to bud, so I simply ended things - To keep getting a trickle, then wait to have enough to boil was absurd!

I pulled all of 1 1/2 gallons yesterday and as you can imagine I used a much smaller pot today to boil it down. It took no time at all, and in fact I got distracted long enough that the temperature in the pot actually zoomed right past the point of making Maple Syrup and now I have Maple Candy! I could have reincorporated some water into the mixture and re-boiled it, but thought what the heck.

What REALLY amazes me is that the settlers to our country used Maple Syrup, Maple Candy and Maple Sugar to sweeten almost everything as sugar was hard to come by (I remember much of that from The Little House stories Mom read me as a kid!) - I CAN NOT imagine making THAT MUCH! Even the 5 quarts/9+ pints I processed - Plus the handful of Maple Candy - amounts to nearly nothing. I can't imagine getting through an entire year on that if I used it to the extent the settlers did...

If you care to learn more about the history behind making Maple Syrup in the US, there are many REALLY good websites out there - Check them out, or better yet, next year try making Maple Syrup on your own... The process is rewarding, fun and pretty easy!

History of Making Maple Syrup in Michigan
Michigan Maple Syrup Association
Maple Syrup Story

Monday, March 23, 2009

Gardening Products I LOVE!

My husband says I'm a gadget-guru. OK I admit it, I LOVE to have the latest and greatest, especially when it comes to my hobbies!!! So as I begin to think about my garden and planting it this year, I began thinking about some of the products I have that I LOVE. So I thought to take a moment to talk about two products from the Gardener's Supply Company that I have used for the past two summers...

Most people do not think about planting potatoes when they think of planting their garden. I however think otherwise... When I was a kid we planted potatoes for several years and enjoyed pulling the plants at the end of the summer to see "our huge harvest". So it came as no surprise to my mom that I mentioned planting them two years ago for my kids!

I talked to several people about the best methods for planting potatoes - in a mound or in the ground I plant them all around... Sorry I began channeling Dr. Suess here... But I ran across the Potato Bin and thought that it might be a GREAT alternative to planting in our our clay-laden soil. I have raised beds but didn't feel like sacrificing space, so plating in the Potato Bin worked well. Both summers I planted 4 seed potatoes and ended up with a substantial harvest - I even shared some of my seed potatoes with two friends and neither of them had as good of a result from their planting! So check it out - it's a space saving method to a kid-friendly, easy-to-grow crop!

The second product I love is the Multi-Purpose Garden Knife. It's a trowel, a knife, a slicer, a dicer, and a small shovel all in one and MAN is it SHARP - Gotta watch the kids around this one! I use it all the time for breaking into our rather tough soil and even cutting plants, plant ties and slim plant stakes if I need to. This is a nifty tool that REALLY gets the work done and I love the "built in ruler" and especially LOVE the weed notch. We try to go green as much as possible and find ourselves digging up weeds throughout much of the summer months. This little tool though really gets the job done!

I'm sure I would find alternatives for any of my projects, I am a resourceful gal, however I really can not imagine my garden without these two items!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Compostable Grass Clippings

I spent some time in the yard today ~ clipping old plants back, pulling dead weeds and pulling grass from my raised garden beds. In pulling out the grass from my raised beds, I began to think about grass in general, and how it makes an excellent compost material (if applied properly).

It's best to leave the grass clippings right on the lawn after cutting - When the grass breaks down it becomes a nitrogen rich fertilizer. If you do not want to use it on the lawn however, say if you waited too long between cuttings, the grass clippings become an excellent mulch or soil additive - So long as you do not add weed killers to your lawn! My husband and I add our grass clippings, about an inch thick, throughout my raised beds. The clippings add nutrients, help seal in moisture and help to prevent weeds.

While pulling the grass from my beds though, I was reminded - Add these grass clippings to your garden beds before your grass has gone to seed...

I need to get back to pulling grass clumps... *sigh*

Friday, March 20, 2009

Happy Spring!!!

It's been really easy this week to believe spring has arrived. For Michigan, 50-60 degree days in March is a HUGE bonus. This week I have begun seeing buds in our trees, Robins on lawns and most important I have heard the chorus of frogs singing each night. So listen closely to what Mother Nature is saying, it's a great way to enjoy the evening and brighten our days as the weather warms!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Update On Aeroponics Experiment

I can't say I am totally pleased with my experiment in growing herbs in the AeroGrow 3. Then again WHAT DID I expect? I know the video on the AeroGrow website shows the wonderful growing experience I SHOULD expect, but as my husband said " That's under optimal growing conditions."

I can say though, that when I had an upset stomach the other day (and when nothing else worked) I pinched off a bit of FRESH parsley from the unit and ate that ~ it DID settle my stomach and the parsley WAS yummy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Running Low On Steam

I may have to face the fact that my 2009 Maple Syrup making is coming to a close. I started pulling taps the other day ~ Amazingly enough the two oldest trees produced the least amount of sap this year (and they didn't produce for very long) so I pulled those taps the other day!

The smaller Black Maple trees I tapped this year are still producing some, though today when I went to collect sap I ONLY got 3 gallons. I notice some budding throughout the yard too. *SIGH* I will likely pull the remaining taps this weekend if I don't do it before then...

On the brighter side, the budding means SPRING is on it's way!!! Time for new gardening projects to begin.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Maple Syrup Facts - FAQ's

I can't believe the number of questions I have been asked now that I have posted my maple Syrup making to friends on my Facebook page. I found a GREAT resource online at the Michigan Maple Syrup Associations website, but here are some answers to my frequently asked questions...

  • Maple sap is slightly sweet and colorless - My kids enjoyed "sipping" the sap directly from the tree!!!

  • It takes approximately 40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. *sheesh*

  • A maple tree needs to be about 40 years old and have a diameter of 10 inches before tapping is recommended.

  • Pure Michigan maple syrup has 50 calories per tablespoon and is fat-free. It has no additives, no added coloring and no preservatives. It is classified as one of nature's most healthful foods. It certainly isn't Mrs. Butterworth's!

  • Michigan law requires that Maple Syrup processors be licensed - I guess that would be me IF I were selling my product - And NO I am NOT selling what I have made. Are you kidding, you couldn't PAY me enough to sell what I have collected. (I HAVE been asked this question too.)

  • The maple season in Michigan typically starts in February in the southern Michigan and runs into April in the U.P. Looks like this year I may get two weeks of processing time...

  • The trees produce the most sap when the days are warm and sunny (in the 40's) and the nights are below freezing...

  • Once the trees begin budding it's time to "pull the plug" on your Maple Syrup making adventure.

  • In an average year, each tap-hole will produce about 10 gallons of maple sap, enough for about a quart of pure Michigan maple syrup. So far this year I have processed 4 quarts and 8 pints - Plus we probably ate another pint!

  • Maple sap becomes maple syrup when boiled to 219 degrees Fahrenheit, or 7 degrees above the boiling point of water.

There are many GREAT resources on the web. If you are interested in making your own Maple Syrup I urge you to take a class and read more on the process, it's fun and a GREAT family activity!!! As always though - Safety first.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Maple Tree Tapping Video

Our host Steve wanted to take a quick video of us tapping his trees - I think he's getting a kick out of the kids and I making the Maple Syrup! Take a look at the unedited footage of our experience...

How To Make Maple Syrup

I have had MANY friends the past few days ask me, "Just how DO you make Maple Syrup?" It's REALLY not that difficult really, so here is my 5-second lesson on making maple syrup.

Tools: A drill driver with appropriate sized drill bit, a tap for the hole, a hammer, a container to collect the sap in (milk jug), plastic tubing, wire to secure the container to the spout and something to cut the wire/tubing with. You probably have most of this laying around the house!

Types of trees to tap: The best tree to tap is of course a Sugar Maple Tree however Black, Red and Silver Maple trees also work - I tapped Sugar maple trees and Black maple Trees!

Steps to Making Maple Syrup:

1) Drill a small hole approx 4' up the trunk above a root or below a tree limb. I used a 3/8" bit or a 1/2" drill bit.

2) Insert a tap.

3) Attach a hose and container to collect the sap!

The hardest part of making maple Syrup is the processing - in general it takes 40 gallons to boil down to 1 gallon of syrup. No wonder REAL Maple Syrup is so expensive.

The sap will be mostly clear as you can see in the photo of it in the measuring cup. Once you have a bunch collected it's time to cook it.

It's best to boil down the sap every day to avoid spoilage. This year I boiled it on the stove using a low-sided larger container (in my case I used my roasting pan!). You need to keep boiling and boiling until most of the water is boiled out - Then once water is boiled out you'll need to bring the temperature of the syrup is 219-degrees. It will become a sticky amber colored liquid that will be a bit thinner than Mrs. Butterworth's!

I double strain the Maple Syrup while it's hot and put it into canning jars - It needs to be HOT to can otherwise you can put it into the fridge once it's cooled to use in relatively short order! Use the best food safety precautions when canning your syrup.

We'll store it until we ate it!!!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Paper or Plastic?

... More appropriately it should read plastic or brass?

As I mentioned earlier, we bought our commercially available Maple Tree taps locally. they were made of plastic, which is a little difficult to easily hammer into the tree. I also felt the tap was a little narrow so I went to my local hardware store to see what I could find as a better option.

At first I thought about cutting PVC pipes into an appropriate length, however while browsing I ran across these in the plumbing area. They are 1/2" brass plumbing fittings that just happen to have ribs in them so I can easily secure my plastic jugs to the tree. Pretty cool huh?

The best thing is I was able to purchase 5 of them for what it cost me to buy 1 real Maple Tree tap! I was assured too that they would not harm the trees I am tapping!!!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble

Boiling down Maple Sap to make Maple Syrup IS a lot of work, if you considering watching liquid boil difficult! Our syrup this year is light amber and very "buttery tasting". It is smooth and sticky though, and makes a GREAT ice cream and pancake topping!

We ate our first batch tonight - YUM-O!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dripping Liquid Gold!

We only got a little Maple sap the past few days - Enough to make Maple Syrup for our family, however I am thinking about giving out Maple Syrup to our families and friends as gifts too... My friends and family mostly think I am nuts for making the syrup, however I think they will greatly appreciate the fruits of our labor!

We tapped 5 more trees for a total of 14 taps. You can make maple Syrup from several varieties of maple trees and most of the smaller trees were not Sugar Maple trees, but the sap sure was running. It was running so much that I had to get the buckets tied up quickly!!! Again the kids thought it was cool to drink from the trees - Before we even left the property, some of the buckets had over an inch of sap! (NOTE - It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup!)

We'll be excited to see how much sap we get now!!! I could go along the back of Steve's property to tap more trees, I think though this year I'll wait it out. I am boiling the sap off in my kitchen out of my roasting pan, so it'll take time. If this is something the kids REALLY enjoy and we want to do in future years I'll tap more trees and get a few more shallow pans to boil the sap down in.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tap, Tap, Tap...

The kids and I tapped two 70-or-so year old Sugar maple trees today - They were large enough to get three taps into each tree. The taps I bought from Downtown Home and Garden were made of plastic however and they were not the easiest things to work with. As soon as I drilled into the bark however the trees began dripping. That's a good sign!

Steve (our Maple tree host) thought it was pretty funny that I had my two little guys running around on his property. Mostly though he laughed when the kids drank the Maple tree sap directly from the tubing! I wasn't sure if that was a "cool" thing or slightly disturbing!!!

Steve has MANY more Maple trees along the back of his property line and some more in the yard, so I'll likely come back in the next few days to tap a few more trees. I simply don't know how much sap to expect from the "Monster trees" in the front yard!!! It takes forever to boil down the sap to make syrup so we'll see...