June 21, 2008

Savor Culture Has Moved!

"Come on, Bessie, let's go to the new Savor Culture site!"

Savor Culture can now be found at

Please update bookmarks and links.

June 5, 2008

Respecting Ricotta

Last week, an article in The New York Times praised the simplicity and versatility of fresh ricotta.  Several chefs declare that fresh ricotta can be profoundly delicious when served with a few intensely-flavored ingredients.  I had never considered ricotta to be a destination cheese, rather a quick stop on the journey of making lasagna, but I'd also never made my own.  My copy of Home Cheese Making in hand, I decided to follow the chefs' advice to make a batch of ricotta.

Traditionally made from the leftover liquid of cheesemaking, true ricotta is a whey cheese.  The butterfat and casein (curd-producing protein) of the milk have gone into the first cheese, leaving albuminous proteins and a bit of lactose floating around in a lot of water.  Whey ricotta (ri cotta, "to cook again") is produced by convincing those albuminous proteins that they want to be cheese, too.  This is rather tricky to do, and whey ricotta is a very low yield cheese: even the experts expect to produce only a cup or two of ricotta from two gallons of whey.  I have had very limited success producing ricotta from my mozzarella whey; however, the few curds I did manage to round up were quite tasty.  

The chefs in the NYT article either had whey ricotta flown in from Italy, or they made whole-milk ricotta in their kitchens.  Whole-milk ricotta eliminates the need for fresh whey (and a day of cheesemaking), and it offers a yield of up to two pounds of cheese per gallon of milk.  Raw milk may be used, because the high temperatures required to curdle albuminous protein also pasteurize the milk.  

The cheesemaking process is simple, the only special ingredient being citric acid, which I didn't have.  I squeezed some fresh lemon juice into the milk, then heated it until it curdled around 180°F.  The curds formed more gradually than I expected, likely due to the lemon juice substitution, but they tasted fresh and sweet.  I will look for citric acid to try in future batches of ricotta; I've heard it can be found at the pharmacy.  I've also seen recipes that call for fresh buttermilk.

I drained the ricotta for only a few minutes, keeping its texture a little loose like cottage cheese.  We were surprised by the sweetness of the ricotta, which isn't notable in the cheese from supermarket tubs.  Its sweetness foiled our appetizer of ricotta on garlic toast; however, I imagine that ricotta and tomato would make a toothsome bruschetta topping.  

Though my savory applications of fresh ricotta need a little fine-tuning, the next morning's breakfast combination was dead-on.  A dollop of ricotta on cinnamon-raisin Ezekiel bread with a drizzle of honey and scattering of walnuts... mmm, divine.

May 29, 2008

Tips from Charles on Building a Compost Pen

Our site for mining "black gold"

Let's take a closer look at the features of the compost pen that Charles designed and built.  It's a simple structure, but its features improve the flow of collecting, turning, and harvesting compost.  Charles also minimized the cost of building the pen by using salvaged and free materials.

1. Drain tile is set into a foundation of compacted dirt, which slopes toward a drainage trench at the rear of the pen. The trench is filled with cobblestones, which were collected from the yard.

2. Charles had intended to fill the bottom of the pen with gravel, but changed his mind when a neighbor offered a supply of wood chips.  Wood chips are appropriate for this application because they absorb moisture and encourage compost-benefical insects.  Wood chips are also preferable to gravel because some of the base layer will inevitably be integrated into the compost during turning.  A layer of wood chips in front of the pen provides an area to stand while adding to and turning the compost.

3. The wood used in the frame was left over from the house construction several years ago.   By saving wood and other materials, the homeowners have a collection of usable materials for many projects, and avoided contributing to the huge amount of waste accumulated by residential construction.  According to the National Association of Homebuilders' Research Center, construction of the average 2000 sq. ft. home generates 8000 lb. (50 cubic yards) of material waste, 3000 lb. (11 cubic yards) of which is wood.

4. Charles's original plan called for 1 cm square-grid "hardware cloth" to line the pen.  However, lighter-gauge chicken wire was a quarter of the price of the hardware cloth. Doubling the chicken wire created a 1.5 cm grid at half the cost.

As you can see, Charles's building techniques include using salvaged materials, working with materials provided by the site, and designing creatively.  Whether you live in a rural or urban environment, opportunities exist to reduce the cost and resources used for your project.

May 26, 2008

Introducing The Nest

It's been several weeks (months?) since the last update on our summer garden.  I'm happy to report that we have sturdy seedlings in the rows marked zucchinibutterpearadish, and every kind of lettuce.  They look so beautiful that we wanted to create a suitable environment for them.  Wonderful Husband Charles suggested a raised bed with wicker walls.  We built it over several days using yard waste.  As you can see, the finished garden looks cozy and inviting!

Behind its fair facade, the garden holds functional elements, too.  We filled the 4' by 6' space with dirt from an old pig pen, vegetable scraps, and a thriving vermicultural  community.  That's right, we transferred most of the red wrigglers from the vermicompost bucket to our new garden.  We topped them off with soil and mulch, and seeded a cover crop of alfalfa.

We were both delighted by the garden's resemblance to the nests found around the yard: those of sparrows, robins, even woodpeckers.  We painted a whimsical sign to introduce our garden to the world. 

A nearby structure is as practical as the garden is fanciful.  Charles spent the weekend building a compost pen.  It's a 4' by 8' pen, three sides of which are lined with chicken wire.  He laid lengths of drain tile inside and stabilized them with a layer of woodchips.  A trench filled with cobblestones surrounds the pen.

The compost heap will be rotated from the right side of the pen to the left as it breaks down.  Charles formed the heap into a volcano shape, so that kitchen waste can be easily integrated into the compost.  Of course, he couldn't resist adding some worms to work on the heap at a macro level.  The final step was to sprinkle dirt over the heap and top it with two conical lids.  Now, we have a compost system that should avoid problems from moisture and pests, and is accessible for turning and harvesting the compost.  (See?  I told you he was wonderful!)

What next?  Before we leave town this weekend, we'll need to transplant our seedlings and sow the remaining seeds into other garden plots.  

Happy gardening!

May 22, 2008

Post Migration

Coming soon: a new look for Savor Culture!

You may have noticed that the Toma post included a link to my new domain.  Soon, the blog will be there, too-- stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!

May 9, 2008

Making Toma

Toma is a semi-firm, natural rind, cow's milk cheese.

Having tackled Camembert and Cheddar, the intrepid beginner cheesemakers set their sights on a semi-firm variety: Toma.  The family of Toma has members in every village of northern Italy; their ages and textures vary, but they're all from the same thermophilic stock.  Our instructor, Jim Wallace, calls this version Vacha Toscano, because it's made with cow's milk in the Tuscan style. 

Toma is a highly customizable cheese because its optimal aging time is determined by the moisture content of its curd.  If you want to eat the cheese in three months, shoot for a quarter-inch curd size and stir it for twenty minutes before draining the whey.  If you can wait a year for the cheese to age, cut the curd smaller and stir it longer.  

By the way, you can throw in some dried herbs or peppercorns when molding the cheese.  Jim recommends whole peppercorns and smoked jalapenos.  We sampled a year-aged wheel studded with white peppercorns in the traditional pepato style.  

Now, if I could just get my hands on some ewe's milk, I could make pecorino Toscano!

May 4, 2008

Making Camembert: A Slideshow

This young Camembert will soon be covered by a thin layer of 
white mold, which the French poetically call, "croûte fleurie."

On the first day of the cheesemaking workshop, we made Camembert while the Cheddar was being pressed.  As you will see in the slideshow, the process for making this soft-ripened cheese does not include several of the steps that Cheddar requires, such as scalding and milling the curd, and pressing the cheese under weights.  

Camembert is an unpressed cheese, its curd drained exclusively by gravity.  A Camembert mold is 4.5 inches tall, and the curd initially fills it to the brim.  After several hours of draining, during which time the cheese is flipped in the mold, the curd settles to about one-third of the height of the mold.   

Jim explained that the drying process of the molded cheese is important in its rind development: blue mold may develop if the Camembert is not dried thoroughly, but the white mold will not form at all if it is too dry.  The rind is actually a product of three distinct microbe populations: yeast, geotricum, and P. candidum.  Full development of the rind takes about two weeks, and the interior of the Camembert will ripen over the following one to two weeks.  Of course, that's a matter of personal preference.  

May 2, 2008

Important Announcement

Godzilla, meet Mozzarella.

We interrupt this post series to bring you the following message: I have successfully made soft, creamy, even pillowy mozzarella.  My own fiore di latte.   I used a water bath in the sink to control the temperature, reduced the amount of culture and rennet, and shortened the setting time.  Knowledge is power, my friends.

We now return to your regularly-scheduled posting.

April 30, 2008

Making Cheddar: A Slideshow

Cheddar likes to work under pressure.

Cheddar was the first cheese that we tackled in Jim Wallace's Advanced Cheesemaking workshop.    

For a detailed synopsis of cheddar making, view my slideshow.  Display the descriptive captions by selecting "Options" in the lower-right corner.

April 28, 2008

Cheesemaking Workshop with Jim Wallace

A batch of cow's milk ripens in Jim Wallace's cheese room 
in preparation for our cheesemaking workshop.

Who here has read Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?  Those of you with your hands raised will recognize the name Ricki Carroll.  Ms. Carroll runs New England Cheesemaking Supply, and she has taught thousands of people to make cheese through her book and workshops.

Anyone who wants to take their cheesemaking efforts to the next level should learn the name Jim Wallace.  Of course, it may already be known to you: perhaps you've read his advice on NECS's website, where Jim is the resident "tech guy;" maybe you know him by his brewing efforts (ribbons from beer competitions line a corner of his basement brewery); you may have browsed through the art gallery that he and his wife, Robin, own in Shelburne Falls, MA.

Many folks in the world of artisan cheese know Jim as a friend and consultant.  And I do mean the world: Jim is on a first-name basis with many artisan cheesemakers in the US, and has traveled extensively in Europe to learn the "old ways" from producers of classic cheeses like Parmigiana-Reggiano, Reblochon, and farmhouse Cheddar.  Jim shares his knowledge with aspiring artisans in workshops held in his home, which is where I met him this past weekend.

The workshop attendees ranged in experience and goals: beginners (including yours truly) who obtain milk from local sources; hobbyists who own small goat herds; dairy operators who will produce cheese commercially.  One woman, upon her return to Tibet, will make cheese from dro (yak) milk for students of her primary school.  

We were a diverse crowd, united in our pursuit of cheese edibility... er, excellence.  Jim guided us through the production of three aged, cow's milk cheeses: traditional Cheddar, Camembert, and vacha Toscano.  The final cheeses would display different textures, flavors, and appearances based on our choices in culture, temperature, and timing.  We learned about the importance of acid development, techniques for controlling the moisture of the curd, molding and pressing, and affinage of the cheeses. 

Of course, one can learn about acidity testing and floculation from books; Jim recommended several titles for delving deeper into the technical aspects of cheesemaking.  However, in his basement-cum-cheese-room-sometimes-brewery, we got a sense of the intuitive side of the process.  Jim explained how the outcome of cheesemaking can direct changes to improve the next batch.  We discussed how lifestyle-- that of say, a Norman farm wife, or an Alpine shepherd-- contributed to the characteristics of some of the world's great cheeses.  While this perspective is helpful to us in emulating classic cheeses, it also provides the freedom to create a new generation of unique, American artisan cheeses.

By popular request, Jim also shared his secrets for creating cloudlike mozzarella, fluffy whey ricotta, and smooth yogurt.  While I won't reveal those, I will share photos and summaries of the making of Cheddar, Camembert, and toma in forthcoming posts.

April 13, 2008

Out-of-Town Adventures

Bonding with Herman the Hound at my parents' home in Tennessee.

I've been enjoying a sneak peek of spring this week, visiting my family (parents, little sister, six dogs, two cats) and friends in Middle Tennessee. There's enough of a chill to keep the pellet stove in use in my family's log home; however, the area's hills are cloaked in soft, lush shades of green.

I did my best to get the household members excited about cultured butter, promising to churn a batch using fresh cream from Hatcher Family Dairy in nearby College Grove, TN. Conveniently, the dairy was represented at Saturday's farmer's market at The Factory, a group of 1929 brick buildings converted to retail space in Franklin, TN. A trip to The Factory was already scheduled: Saturday is Adoption Day at Happy Tales Humane, a "no-kill" animal shelter where my mom volunteers. Two rat terrier pups, the last of a litter that she'd rescued from county animal control, found new families that morning. Congratulations, Cricket and Peanut!

If only the butter had been so successful. I set out three pints of the Hatchers' cream to ripen for several hours. In the meantime, my best friend came over, made us all laugh until our sides ached, and gave me a new hairstyle (v. successful, in my opinion: bobbed and red!). We set about whipping the cream with a hand mixer, visions of buttermilk pancakes dancing in our heads. After half an hour, and attempting to shake the butter in Mason jars, we realized that the endeavor was fruitless-- the cream was frothy, but it hadn't even formed peaks. I retrieved an empty bottle and finally realized that the product was "Whole Cream--Rises to the Top!" Aha. Not heavy cream. Not going to make butter.

Luckily, the fam owns an ice cream machine that exists, as many of its kind, in nearly-permanent hibernation. I adapted Alton Brown's eggless ice cream recipe to make Balsamic Strawberry Ice Cream for a dinner party tonight. I'll also be bringing a wheel of Cowgirl Creamery's St. Pat, an organic, soft ripened cow's milk cheese wrapped in nettle leaves. I found it, among a bustling brunch crowd, at Marche Artisan Foods, a new spot in East Nashville. I liked the cheese for its consistency and herbal flavor, and was glad to have found the seasonal cheese. However, I would have chosen Mt. Tam in retrospect: a triple-cream is a crowd-pleaser, and Mt. Tam is all gentle richness. I'm still on the look-out for Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk, a popular washed-rind cheese... probably the most-requested domestic cheese that I didn't sell in my cheesemonger days.

This trip also yielded a regional cheese discovery: Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese produces raw-milk, semi-firm and blue cheeses in Barren County, Kentucky. The Mattingly family was inspired by the cheese production of family farms in Europe, and embraced the concept of farmstead cheesemaking. Their cheeses are produced with milk from their 120-cow herd, and are made with vegetarian rennet. Kenny's Smoked Gouda was the perfect topping for our fajitas over the weekend. We found Kenny's Cheese at Dennison's Roadside Market in Horse Cave, KY, but there are many retailers listed on the company's website.

Tomorrow, I return to Massachusetts. Maybe springtime will be there to greet me.

April 6, 2008

Crème Fraîche + Churning = Love

Serving suggestion: Spread cultured butter thickly on bread. Or muffins. Or crackers.
Thanks to Wonderful Husband Charles for white ceramic butter bell.

We've talked a bit about butter here at Savor Culture, even discussed the pleasures of churning (and eating) your own beurre maison.  Well, hold on to your whisk, because butter just got even better.  Cultured butter is more flavorful than sweet cream butter, making it the ideal partner for your carb of choice: potatoes, sliced bread, warm rolls, plain rice, saltines, cornbread.  Or, for the well-behaved, apply it lovingly to spring vegetables like green peas, asparagus, radishes, and artichokes.
Cultured butter is basically churned crème fraîche: starter culture is added to heavy cream, which is ripened for twelve hours or so before churning.  The result is a butter with complexity and a hint of acidity, one that begs for a pinch of salt and a permanent place at the dinner table.  I guarantee that if you serve cultured butter with the bread basket at your next dinner party, your guests will notice.  There are likely several brands of cultured butter at your grocery store; I recommend one with some salt, like the version from Vermont Butter & Cheese Co.  

Making your own cultured butter is simple, but the quality of its few ingredients is paramount.  You will need heavy cream, of course; organic or local cream is preferable, but be sure that it isn't ultra-pasteurized (a sell-by date more than three weeks away is your clue).  Ultra-pasteurized dairy products have been subjected to such high temperatures that their flavor and protein structure are damaged.  

Ripening the cream requires a mesophilic starter culture, which is active at low temperatures.  You may purchase crème fraîche, buttermilk, or fresh starter for this purpose; alternatively, use all-natural (no stabilizers or preservatives) buttermilk or crème fraîche to provide the bacterial cultures.  I used mesophilic culture, which I also used to make mozzarella; the butter has a hint of cheesy flavor.  I believe that buttermilk or crème fraîche culture will produce a milder flavor.

Then, it's a matter of time: allow the cream to ripen overnight at room temperature.  After twelve hours, the cream should appear thickened and have a slightly sour scent, like yogurt or sour cream.  Note: The presence of bubbles indicates undesirable bacteria, and the cream should be discarded.  Using fresh dairy products and clean utensils will prevent this-- I've never had a problem.

Next, the churning, and there's some good news here: butter formation occurs much more quickly with cultured cream than with sweet cream.  In fact, the butter formed so quickly in my stand mixer that buttermilk was splashing on the counter within three minutes!  I haven't used a manual method, such as hand-churning or shaking the butter in a jar, but cultured cream makes it seem doable.  Let the bacteria do the work for you!  The culturing process also produces thicker, richer buttermilk than results from sweet cream butter.  This article contains photos and a detailed account of making cultured butter with a hand churn.

Cultured Butter Recipe
yields 24-26 oz butter and 1-2 pints of buttermilk; can be halved

4 pints heavy cream
1 packet mesophilic starter or 1/3 cup buttermilk or crème fraîche
Good quality salt, such as kosher flake or sea salt, to taste

Allow cream to come to room temperature in a clean, sterilized non-reactive bowl.  Add culturing ingredient and stir well with a clean, sterilized spoon.  Cover loosely and allow to sit at room temperature for twelve hours.

Beat the cultured cream at low speed in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Use plastic wrap to tightly cover the mixing bowl as completely as possible.  First it will resemble whipped cream, then it will appear grainy, and suddenly, granules of butter will separate from the buttermilk.  Drain buttermilk into a clean bowl and refrigerate. 

Rinse the butter with cool water.  Knead with your hands and a clean spoon or spatula, and rinse frequently until the water runs clear (about six rinses).  Knead in a teaspoon or so of salt, to taste.  Divide the butter into four- to six- ounce pieces.  Wrap pieces individually in parchment or wax paper and plastic wrap.  Freeze butter for up to three months.

Since rising food prices are currently a hot topic, let's spend a moment comparing the costs of homemade and store-bought butter.  A pound of my everyday butter, Plugra, costs about the same as a pint of local cream.  Thus, I buy Plugra for baking and cooking.  However, when I ordered a half-gallon of heavy cream from my local dairy, I saved about 40%!  The culture I used was about $1.50, the cost for sea salt was negligible.  Churning and kneading the butter took about ten minutes, clean-up and storage, another ten.  An 8-ounce log of VBCC cultured butter costs around $5, but I compare my cultured butter with their premium Sea Salt variety, a 6-oz pat that sells for $6-8 (admittedly, with fancy packaging).  So, not counting 20 minutes of foregone blogging, my cultured butter costs less than $7 a pound, and I get several cups of delicious buttermilk to boot.  A comparable butter costs $10 to over $20 a pound.  Victory is mine!

Need more inspiration?  Check out the March 2008 issue of Saveur magazine to learn about butter in cuisines from around the world.  I liked learning about smee, fermented butter used in Morrocan cooking.

March 31, 2008

My First Batch of Mozzarella

Mozzarella is a pasta filata cheese, meaning that its curd is stretched or pulled.

This spring, I am beginning to make fresh cheeses at home.  This category of cheese, including such favorites as cream cheese, cottage cheese, and fromage blanc, are among the simplest dairy products to make, along with butter and yogurt.  While hard cheeses require aging in proper conditions (high humidity and constant temperature around 55 degrees), fresh cheeses are ready for consumption or refrigeration right away.

My goal in these first weeks of cheesemaking, apart from its edible rewards, is to understand the process of milk becoming cheese.  On one hand, the mechanics are so simple that they take care of themselves: microbes in fresh, raw milk convert lactose into lactic acid, increasing the acidity of the milk and causing the separation of curd and whey.  It is the cheesemaker's task to control the conditions of this process-- ingredients, temperature, timing, and sanitation-- to produce the desired outcome of edible cheese instead of spoiled milk.  

On this day, I was intent on crafting fresh mozzarella, using the method described in Ricki Carroll's popular book, Home Cheese Making, and materials purchased from her business, New England Cheesemaking Supply.  I used unpasteurized milk from Cook Farm, which is licensed by the state to sell it at their farm store.*  

You may view my slideshow of photos with captions describing the process of making mozzarella.

The process to make this mozzarella called for two gallons of milk, and took over five hours.  During this time, I monitored the temperature and acidity of the milk almost constantly.  I used pH test strips to test the acidity of the milk periodically.  Though it was difficult to get a precise reading, I could determine that the pH was decreasing, as it was meant to do.  The large pot containing the milk was set in a hot water bath over a low, gas flame.  It was difficult to maintain the 90 degree temperature the recipe called for-- the temperature kept creeping up to 100 degrees.  Curd formation happened quickly, so I felt reassured that I was on the right track in spite of these snags.  

Overall, my first batch of mozzarella was successful: its flavor was fresh, it melts beautifully, and no one who ate it suffered gastric distress.  However, its texture was tough, even rubbery.  This unfortunate feature revealed itself in the curd-cutting stage, when I had to secure the slippery curd mass with a spatula so that I could pull the knife through it.  I could tell when stretching the cheese that it wasn't going to have cloud-like consistency.  

Jim Wallace, the technical advisor at NECS, informed me that farm-fresh milk may require less rennet and lower temperature to set.  It seems that my raw milk is really eager to become cheese.  For the next batch of mozzarella, I won't use a double boiler at all, but will warm the milk in a sinkful of warm water.  I'll use less rennet to promote a softer curd.  

I kept several pieces of brined mozzarella in the refrigerator for eating over the following few days, and froze the rest in individual baggies of brine.  We'll use them to top homemade pizza over the next few weeks.  

If this account has prompted a craving for fresh mozzarella, there are quicker options for making it in your own kitchen.  NECS sells kits to make 30 Minute Mozzarella using your microwave.  Other companies sell fresh mozzarella curd, ready to be submerged in hot water, stretched, and shaped.  

Stay tuned for more cheesemaking adventures!

*The decision to consume raw milk products is a personal one.  I have a healthy immune system and trust the farm that supplies my raw milk.  Women who are pregnant or nursing, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are advised to avoid raw milk.  In the U.S., it is illegal to sell a raw milk cheese that has been aged less than 60 days.  An Internet search will provide information from both sides of the raw milk debate.

March 29, 2008

Celebrate Cheese: Two Goat's Milk Varieties

Coach Farm Triple Cream Wheel is a special, elegant goat's milk cheese from New York.

Raw Goat's Milk Cheddar from Ozark Hill Farm is a cheese that will please a wide audience.

Loulou, an ex-pat blogger in southern France, invited her readers to celebrate cheese for the eighth annual Journée Nationale du Fromage, the National Day of Cheese, on March 28.  I had an idea to try a soft-ripened, French goat's milk cheese; after all, it was a French holiday.  However, the cheese that beckoned from the assortment at Whole Foods was a tall, snow-white wheel from Coach Farm in New York.  The Triple Cream Wheel is mold-ripened, with a two-toned paste that offers subtle differences in texture and flavor.  I was also struck by its price tag: at $36.99/lb, it's on the upper-end of the bulk cheese market.  I attribute this to the extra goat's milk that must be used to enhance the butterfat content of the cheese.  A sample  assured me that it was a good investment.

Triple Cream Wheel has a silky mouthfeel, with mellow herbal notes and lingering minerality.  I thought that it had just the right amount of salt: if over-salted, triple-cream cheese just tastes like butter to me.  The distinctive tanginess of goat's milk is balanced by the creaminess of this award-winning cheese.  It's perfect for serving to company after a springtime lunch or after dinner.  To accompany it, I would choose a white wine with good minerality and medium acidity, like a dry Chenin Blanc. It would also be fun to pair a fruit wine or fruit-based cocktail (e.g. kir royale) with this cheese.  I suggest eating Triple Cream Wheel with a fork and knife, but if you must have crackers, choose a wheat or oat biscuit with a hint of sweetness.

To give the fête its proper respect, I also picked up a raw goat's milk Cheddar at the Brattleboro Co-op's cheese counter.  It's a flavorful, versatile cheese that I would offer to goat's milk skeptics.  The satisfying texture of Cheddar and a lingering sweetness make this an approachable cheese.  Enjoy it with a light red wine, cider, or brown ale.  This Cheddar is produced by Ozark Hill Farm in Missouri; if you cannot find it in your area, then look for Fromagerie Tournevent's version, Le Chevre Noir.

Both of these cheeses are tasty and mild, and offer delicious alternatives to the usual cow's milk varieties.  Try something new, and celebrate your own cheese discoveries!

March 27, 2008

Update on Vermont producer of Buffalo's Milk Products

You may recall a recent post, in which I recommended yogurt produced by Woodstock Water Buffalo Company under the Spoondance Creamery label.  On a shopping trip a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Whole Foods was nearly sold out of the yogurt.  "Wow," I thought,"a ton of people in western Massachusetts read my blog and rushed out to find buffalo's milk yogurt!  Eat your heart out, Clotilde Dusoulier!"

Unfortunately, I learned that the shortage was not caused by a sudden explosion of Savor Culture fanaticism.  Days after I published the post, Woodstock Water Buffalo closed its doors.  It seems that the company had been sold by its founder, David Muller, to a private investment group in 2006.  In February, those investors declined to provide the capital needed for national distribution of WWB's products.  Production ceased, and the company was put up for sale.  

The new owner is an Italian-born businessman currently residing in Toronto, Canada.  According to the Burlington Free Press, he is committed to keeping the company in Vermont, and he plans to expand the product line to include grass-fed buffalo meat and aged cheese, in addition to yogurt and mozzarella.  In a telephone conversation, an employee of the company told me that aged cheeses will be developed with several Vermont small-scale cheesemakers: Plymouth Cheese, Crowley Cheese Company, and Jasper Hill Farm.

The company is now known as Vermont Water Buffalo Inc, and its products are expected to be available beginning in April, though distribution will be limited to Vermont for some time.  The name "Spoondance Creamery" will not be used for at least six months, as a condition of the business deal.

I was relieved to learn that this unique operation, with its herd of 680 water buffalo, is back in business.  By all accounts, the new owner seems to have the passion (and the deep pockets) needed to make this project successful again.  I'm looking forward to trying the new products from Vermont Water Buffalo, and will provide updates about product distribution.

March 19, 2008

Vermicomposting Bucket

Photos of the vermicomposting bucket (made by Wonderful Husband Charles) just didn't do it justice.  In fact, a photo of the inside of the bucket after an application of worm feed (aka "worm salsa") looked downright unappetizing. 

Here's an illustration of the vermicomposting system that we use.  Its parts include:
  1. Loose-fitting lid that allows air circulation
  2. Opaque, five-gallon bucket
  3. Smaller bucket, punched all over with small holes to allow fresh air to reach the soil
  4. Metal mesh cylinder running through the center of the soil; empty, to promote aeration
  5. Layer of soil to prevent odors from escaping and to provide darkness and moisture for the food layer
  6. Layer of "worm salsa," the worm feed that we prepare using vegetable scraps
  7. Soil and castings created by our worms, red wigglers and night crawlers
WH Charles created this system using materials we had on hand (well, except for the worms themselves).  You may purchase a vermicomposting system from many sources online.  The "upward migration" style allows you to harvest castings without losing your worms.  We will release our worms when we apply the compost to our garden this spring.

Read the original post on vermicomposting here.

March 18, 2008

Try, Try Again (The Growing Challenge)

My planting medium is composed of vermiculite, perlite, and peat moss.

Our seeds from Baker Creek arrived in today's mail.  Unfortunately, they were out of bok choy, but I'll try to find those seeds at the local garden center.

The wonderful husband and I started a batch of herb seeds under a fluorescent light a couple of weeks ago.  Sadly, they succumbed to "damping off," which means that a variety of fungi in the planting medium attacked the young stems just below the soil line, and they toppled over.  We had started them early as an experiment, and have more of the same seeds to start again.  This time, I have a plan.

I've done my homework by consulting some of my favorite gardening blogs: Elements in Time, Tiny Farm Blog, and Seeded.  Based on advice gleaned from their posts, comments, and forums, here are some steps that I'll take to ensure seeding success:

  1. Sterilize seed trays using Melinda's method: wash with soap and water, rinse in a solution of three parts hydrogen peroxide to one part water, rinse with water, and dry.
  2. Plant seeds in a soilless medium composed of equal parts by volume of peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite.  This mixture holds moisture and is light and fluffy, to promote good aeration.  It also creates a sterilized environment for the seeds to germinate.
  3. Moisten the medium with cooled, weak chamomile tea to prevent damping off of the seedlings.  Apparently, chamomile discourages the growth of fungi that cause seedlings to fall over.  Mike recommends a solution of one bag of chamomile tea brewed in one quart of boiling water.
  4. Keep medium moist by bottom watering: place trays in a tub of water for about 15 minutes to allow medium to rehydrate from the bottom.
  5. Place a heating mat under seed trays and hang a fluorescent light several inches above the seed trays.  The light will be kept on at least 12 hours a day after the seeds germinate, and will be raised as the seedlings grow.
  6. Turn on an oscillating fan to "breeze" the seedlings for an hour or so every day.  This promotes stout growth of the seedlings, and prepares them for transplanting outdoors.
  7. Sow appropriate seeds directly into the garden soil.  Beans, squash, beets, and radishes are among Melinda's suggestions for in situ planting.

I should mention that Wonderful Husband Charles thinks that some of the steps above are "hooey."  Implementation of my plan may involve "His" and "Hers" seed trays.  We'll see who eats the first lima beans and tomatoes.  Ha!

We're in no hurry to start our next batch of seeds.  Since our garden is going to be a hobby, and since we don't expect it to be our principal source of nutrition this year, we're content to wait until a little more snow melts.  When we race to the farmer's market in May, it will be as patrons, not as vendors.

The rare seeds that we ordered didn't have any instructions written on their packets.  I liked the seed planting spreadsheet at You Grow Girl.  I found the most specific information on frost dates here.  

If you ran out of toilet paper rolls to make the seed cups in my previous post, check out the instructions on Seeded for making seed cups out of newspaper.  

March 12, 2008

Seedy and Crafty (The Growing Challenge)

A few snips on a cardboard roll produce biodegradable seedling cups!

Recovering from the flu has allowed me ample time to choose seeds for our garden.  We have plenty of herb seeds (at least 20 varieties) remaining from last year's order from Heirloom Seeds.  I also have mache, French mache, and something called "Salad Burnet," but I'm going to order several additional leafy types because I love fresh lettuce.  Plucked from the garden and rinsed, it's a totally different animal, so to speak, from greens that have spent any length of time in a bag.

This year, most of our seeds will come from Baker Creek, which produces an attractive catalog and has user-friendly, online ordering, as well.  I really like the story of this company-- Jere Gettle started selling heirloom seeds at age 17, collecting rare varieties from around the world and promoting seed-saving by his customers.  Now, he and his wife run a multi-faceted business in Missouri, including publishing a quarterly magazine and operating Bakersville, a pioneer-themed village with monthly events.  Whew!

Though Baker Creek's selection meets all of our needs, I'm also going to order from the Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seed Initiative catalog that I picked up at the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store.  Turtle Tree offers open-pollinated seeds from a network of biodynamic growers across the country.   Information in the catalog, such as source codes for each seed variety, is reassuring to anyone who is concerned about genetically modified organisms in our food supply.  

Baker Creek seeds:
Dixie speckled butterpea, Mexican sour gherkin cucumber, Ching Chang bok choy, Tainong Emperor heading mustard (for kim chi), Chinese Red Meat (or "watermelon") radish, Pantano Romanesco tomato, Riesenstraube grape tomato, Orangeglo watermelon, Red Wonder wild strawberry

Turtle Tree Seeds:
Golden beets, Charentais cantaloupe, arugula, "Frilly Oaks" lettuce mix, King of the North pepper, Anaheim hot pepper, Ronde de Nice zucchini, Rainbow Swiss chard, Principe Borghese tomato, Harold's Special Mix cosmos, alfalfa cover crop, burgundy amaranth cover crop

The lists represent about one-third of my original selections.   I crossed off my list those vegetables that are expected to be in plentiful supply at local farmer's markets: squash and zucchini, root vegetables, and several varieties of cucumbers (we love cucumbers).  I kept unusual varieties, such as the Mexican sour gherkin cukes and the "watermelon" radish, and varieties that I have great plans for, such as heading mustard for kim chi and Principe Borghese tomatoes for drying.  Wonderful Husband Charles is excited about cover crops (really, who isn't?).

And finally, to explain that wacky photo I took: biodegradable seedling cups can be made from empty, cardboard toilet paper rolls.  Use scissors to make an angled cut at one end of the roll.  Rotate the roll to create four to six parallel cuts.  Gently overlap the flaps, like closing a box top, and press until you have closed one end of the roll.  That creates the bottom of the seedling cup.  Fill the cup with growing medium, plant your seeds and keep them warm and moist, and you can transplant the seedling in its cup!  Happy planting!

March 10, 2008

Little Buggies, Good and Bad

It got me again.

The flu, that is, some New England strain that my Southern immune system is powerless to resist.  I spent the weekend in various reclining positions, in my bed and on the couch, watching such classic films as "The Princess Bride," "The Big Chill," and "Joe Vs. The Volcano."  Wonderful Husband Charles assures me that "A Few Good Men" is the ultimate get-well-soon movie, so maybe I'll give that one a try this evening.

Before I lost the use of my nose, I jotted down some notes about something tasty, and today I feel well enough to write about it.  The wonderful stuff in question is maple-vanilla yogurt from Hawthorne Valley Farm, a biodynamic and organic operation in the Hudson River Valley of New York.

The farm comprises a market garden and community-supported agriculture program; a dairy with a closed, sixty-cow herd; a bakery; a processing facility for lacto-fermenting vegetables; and a farm store, the highlight of which is a comprehensive organic dairy section, including the farm's own raw milk.  Did I mention that their products are organic*?  Everything grown on the farm, including dairy and meat products, are also biodynamic.  Biodynamic farming is a holistic approach to agriculture that focuses on improving the health of the soil.  There are specific practices involved in biodynamic farming, such as using homeopathic fertilizers and planting by celestial signs, that may cause skepticism amongst consumers.  However, I figure that farmers are busy folks, and that they wouldn't invest time and energy a methodology unless it produced desirable results.  Besides, given a choice between eating food that's been sprinkled with compost tea, or that's been sprayed with pesticides, I choose the former.

The fabulous yogurt produced by Hawthorne Valley Farm also suggests that they're doing something right.  Because the unhomogenized whole milk is used to make it, you might scoop up a few globules of cream in your serving.  The yogurt contains no stabilizers, so it has a loose texture, like lightly-whipped cream.  Unfortunately, this makes it all the more tempting to take a second helping, and a third... my appetite grows by feeding on this yogurt!

It has a delicate, well-balanced flavor: neither the tanginess nor the sweetness comes across as aggressive.  Sometimes, I find the flavor of maple syrup to be overwhelming, but this flavor proves that, in moderation, it can be a very mellow sweetener.  The yogurt itself must be mild, as one cup is sweetened with only 24 grams of sugar.  Further investigation: I was surprised that other organic yogurts contained 29 grams of sugar per cup in lowfat and 33 grams in nonfat versions.  I expected them to contain drastically more sugar than HVF whole-milk yogurt; the explanation for HVF's superior flavor must not be that simple!

HVF products are sold at two NYC Green Markets, at the farm store, and through the CSA.  Plain and maple-vanilla yogurts can be found at Whole Foods and various grocery co-ops in New England.  Some products, such as cheese and lacto-fermented vegetables, can be ordered through the website.

*Due to high demand, HVF purchases some ingredients for its lacto-fermented vegetables from neighboring farms.  Though all of the vegetables are grown organically, some may not be certified organic.

March 2, 2008

Savor Vermiculture (The Growing Challenge)

I'm a planner: I like to have an itinerary when I go on vacation, I can spend hours researching where to go to dinner, and I've been making the rounds on the gardening blogroll for pointers in planning our garden.  Wonderful Husband Charles is bold and likes to experiment: last spring, he started an unconventional container garden, composed of (in order of greatest to least success) small hot peppers, basil, mache, onions, and sweet corn.   I, however, become sheepish after the seed selection process is complete and it's time to mate seed and soil; what if something goes wrong?

I've come to terms with the possibility that the seeds might get started too early or too late; that the garden plot may not be ideally sited for every variety I want to grow; that the critters whose tracks I now see in the snow may ultimately eat more of our salad greens than we will.  But the timing of the planting still feels a little early to me.  Let me tell you instead about something foundational, the preparation of which can never be premature: the soil.

Along with our housemates, we deposit food scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and spent tea into a gallon bucket near the sink.  Once full, its contents are conveyed to one of two large, black cylinders in the back yard, usually by WH Charles on one of his infamous, barefoot compost runs.  I wonder if that practice will lose its allure when the snow melts.  

Fortunately, maintenance of our other compost system offers no such opportunity for pneumonia-inducing activities.  The worms are housed warmly in the basement-level mechanical room.  WH Charles made their home by nestling a large, plastic pail in an opaque, five-gallon bucket.  The inner pail is pierced with many quarter-inch drill holes, and has a hollow core of metal mesh to promote air circulation.  WH Charles filled the doughnut-shaped space with alternating, quarter-inch layers of soil and a concoction we refer to as "worm salsa," vegetable scraps blended with water in the food processor.  He feeds our squirmy friends every couple of weeks, sprinkling a layer of soil on top of the food to prevent any odor from escaping.  He also keeps the lid loosely on the outer bucket, as worms prefer dark, moist environs.

Our worm community is composed of earthworms and night crawlers.  We're on the lookout for red wrigglers to add to the population, as well.  WH Charles developed our system after reading a couple of articles on vermicomposting.  If you want dig into the subject, as it were, there are many informative resources online.  I found a good overview on this website.  Happy composting!

February 28, 2008

Verdant and Victorious

My maternal grandparents grew up in a rural community in northeastern Mississippi.  My grandmother, along with her nine siblings, composed the labor force on their parents' small farm.  As a child, I loved hearing her stories about picking cotton, swimming in the cow pond, and swiping eggs from the henhouse to exchange for a Baby Ruth at the general store (run by her grandfather).  Her after-school snack, she told me many times, was a turnip or onion pulled from the garden on her way in the door.

While my choice of snack was different (butter-and-sugar sandwich, anyone?), the meals I ate at Maw-Maw's house included the foods that she'd prepared her whole life: butter beans, grown on Paw-Paw's farm in Liberty, Mississippi, and canned in their kitchen; boiled red potatoes with white sauce; ripe tomatoes from the garden; turnip greens, which my mom liked to eat with pepper vinegar; and a cast iron skillet of cornbread, which never contained wheat flour or sugar.  Paw-Paw enjoyed leftover cornbread with milk for his breakfast, while I chose Maw-Maw's biscuits with homemade peach and huckleberry preserves.  

A theme of Maw-Maw's stories was growing up poor during the Great Depression.  However, her family's hard work on their farm meant that they never went hungry like so many others did.  Growing food was something that she had always done, and was common in rural communities at that time.  During WWII, the Victory Garden movement expanded small-scale food production to urban areas, as well, in support of the war effort.

If its popularity on the blogsphere is any indication, the Victory Garden concept is experiencing a renaissance.  Its relevance extends beyond our status as a nation at war: we are also a nation facing rising food costs, unease over food security, and backlash against industrial agriculture.  Backyard gardening offers a hobby that helps us feed ourselves.  

As a garden neophyte living in Zone 5, I'm relieved to find a plentiful supply of garden blogs and even support networks online.  I've signed up for the Growing Challenge, organized by Melinda at Elements in Time.  Participants commit to growing one more fruit or vegetable crop than they did last year, and to publishing weekly posts about their gardening activity.  I'm also joining the Victory Garden Drive led by Pattie at Foodshed Planet, whose goal is to inspire two million new organic gardens this year.  Pattie also encourages experienced gardeners to mentor those of us whose thumb color is yet undetermined.  To find a companion gardener, or to "Take Five" new gardeners under your wing, check this post.

In addition to my gardening posts, I'll also provide a blogroll of gardening resources that I come across.  Reader contributions are also welcome, particularly if you garden in Zone 5!