Food and Drink

Edirne Eggplant

I never ate eggplant growing up. It was just not a vegetable we used. But when I lived in Turkey for a few years, I was surrounded by eggplants. I learned to appreciate these versatile vegetables… technically a fruit, and even more accurately, eggplants are berries! Actually, I really fell in love with eggplants. They are delicious!

Most people are familiar with the common “Black Beauty” or “Black Bell” varieties. These are very good eggplants, which is why they are so common, but there are so many other varieties from around the world. They range in shape from small and round, to long and thin, to large and bell shaped. They come in shades of white, green, orange, red, purple; striped and solid.

We lived just off Edirne street when we lived in Turkey, and so I thought I’d love to try this Turkish variety in our garden. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds describes the Edirne Eggplant this way:

Originally collected in Edirne (Adrianople), Turkey, in 1948, and stored by the USDA ever since, until we grew it out in 2008! Gorgeous 6-8 inch fruits are richly striped in purple and off-white. May be even superior to Listada de Gandia in appearance due to its deeper luster, and actually preferred over it in our trials! Vigorous plants, very productive.

I made a version of Turkish fried eggplant (Patlıcan Kızartması) yesterday. Just slice the eggplant, fry in oil, and serve with a garlic-yogurt sauce… very heavy on the garlic! Simple and sublime!

I’ve made variations of this dish in the past with the common Black Beauty Eggplant, and this version was way better. I can’t say that it was entirely due to the Edirne Eggplant versus the Black Beauty, as it may have been the freshness of my eggplant. But for now, I think it may be my new favorite!

 

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Our First Goji Berry Harvest!

We planted four young Goji Berry plants this Spring on the farm. I intend to plant a lot more, but I wanted to test them out first. All four plants lived, but one of our Goji Berries was attacked by a Tomato Hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata). I thought this was odd, because I thought Tomato Hornworms only eat tomatoes and peppers.

A few weeks later, the plants started to produce fruit. I was excited to finally eat a fresh berry. I had only ever eaten dried fruits. Well… it tastes kind of like a green pepper. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was not sweet at all. Our farm intern and I were talking about the flavor and then recollecting the Tomato Hornworm attack. I did a quick search, and sure enough, Goji Berries are related to tomatoes and peppers.

Goji Berry, also known as Wolfberry, are one of two closely related plants, Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense. These plants are in the Nightshade family (Solanaceae); I think I knew this fact at one time, but I entirely forgot it. But it was very interesting that with the caterpillar attack and the flavor of the fresh berry, we were able to place this plant into its botanical family.

I gave the fruit some more time to mature, and they did get a bit sweeter, but not much. I can see why no one sells the fresh berries. It’s not that they are not edible, but they are not that enjoyable. If I was very hungry, I could easily eat a few handfuls of fresh Goji Berries. But I wouldn’t seek them out.

There are a few named varieties of Goji Berry that have been developed, and they are reported to have a sweeter flavor when fresh. I will have to do some more research!

However, drying the fruit intensifies the sweetness. It changed the rather boring fresh fruit into a much sweeter, almost nutty, raisin flavor. They are quite good dried, and this is what I have done with all our Goji Berries this year.

Okay, so this is not a huge harvest, but it’s a start!

 

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American Mountain-Ash Berries

A few weeks ago we traveled to northeastern Vermont to visit family. This was an incredibly relaxing vacation for us. And I had the opportunity to finally try a fruit that I had only previously read about… berries from the American Mountain-Ash (Sorbus americana). This small tree is related to the European Mountain-Ash, and these trees are also commonly known as Rowan. I’ve written more about this genus in a previous article.

We happened to be in Vermont in the middle of September, and this appeared to be the peak time for Mountain-Ash berries this year. As we drove the small country roads and boated on the lake, I could see the clumps of bright red, almost glowing, berries growing on these small trees. I grabbed a bucket and some kitchen shears before we got on the boat one morning, and we found an overhanging tree covered in fruit.

Note that Mountain-Ash berries are not eaten fresh. They are very bitter and high in tanin, and they honestly do not taste very good. But birds love them fresh, and they serve as a great cold-season food for birds as the berries hang on the tree long into the Winter. I have found some reports that the fresh berries contain a substance (parasorbic acid) that is potentially nephrotoxic (toxic to the kidneys); however, this substance quickly breaks down into a harmless substance (sorbic acid) when the fruit is cooked or dried. The fruit was used by natives of North America as a medicine and food. Meat was dried and ground into a powder along with the dried berries and often mixed with other ingredients for a Winter or travelling food source that was high in protein and Vitamin C.

Excited to find some Mountain-Ash!

We had to harvest from the boat. The kids were excited to help… but quickly lost interest when they noticed the fish!

Mountain-Ash berries grow in large clumps which make harvesting pretty easy. I just clipped the clumps with some kitchen shears and tossed them into a bucket.

In about ten to fifteen minutes, we had a five-gallon bucket almost two-thirds full of loosely packed clumps of berries. Harvesting was significantly easier than cleaning. But cleaning was easy if not tedious. I spent a few hours sitting on the back deck pulling the stems off berries, tossing bad berries, and flicking off the variety of insects that make their home on the American Mountain-Ash. This was relaxing work, and my oldest son enjoyed helping out… volunteered on his own to help, even when I took some breaks!

My oldest son volunteered to help me sort and clean the berries.

Not a bad haul for 10-15 minutes of harvesting!

Mountain-Ash Berries!

There may be an easier way to really clean the berries, and I’ll share it if I find it. The berries had a lot of dust and debris on them even after the initial cleaning. I washed them all in the sink, draining them in a colander. I then took one cup at a time and tossed them in a bowl of clean water. Many of the bad berries and leaves and dried flowers floated to the top and could be easily picked out. This final cleaning took about another hour. I then spread all the berries in a thin layer on some kitchen towels on the counter to dry. The next morning, I packed all the berries into quart ziplock bags and ended up with about a gallon of berries. I packed these bags into my carry-on bag for the flight back home to East Tennessee. The TSA employees were just a little curious about what were in the the little ziplock bags!

We ended up with 4 quarts of berries.

Back in Tennessee, I decided to experiment with the berries in a variety of ways: mead, cordial, jam, and tincture. I’ll briefly describe the purpose and methods I used for each.

American Mountain-Ash Mead: Mead is a fermented honey drink also known as honey wine. When mixed with fruit, a mead is technically called a melomel. I used 3 pounds of a local honey (1 quart) for this 1-gallon batch of mead. This will give a nice medium-bodied mead. Less honey will be lighter and less sweet. More honey will be heavier, thicker, and more sweet. The Mountain-Ash berries are very high in tannin, and this adds a dryness to the wine, similar to a dry red wine such as a cabernet sauvignon. The fruit will also give additional and unique flavor to the mead. I boiled a half-gallon of water then stirred in the honey until it was all dissolved. I put the clean berries into a previously sterilized, 1-gallon glass jug, and I poured in the almost boiling honey water. I then filled the jug the rest of the way with just boiled water. I capped the jug with a rubber stopper (as seen in the photo below) and let the jug rest until the water cooled to about room temperature. I then pitched (poured in) the dried brewer’s yeast that I had in my garage. Ideally, I would have used a champagne yeast, but I didn’t have it on hand. I replaced the rubber stopper with a plastic airlock that allows the fermenting mead to release gas without allowing outside air, and contaminants, into the mead. The mead is bubbling away as I write this, and it will probably will do so for a few weeks before I transfer it to another jug to age.

Mountain-Ash Syrup: A syrup is basically any concentrated liquid (tea, juice, etc.) that is sweetened with sugar, honey, or any other sweetener. The purpose of a syrup can be for flavoring or medicinal. Often used as a way to make herbal teas or decoctions more palatable. There are number of medicinal uses for Mountain-Ash berries. Because they have a high Vitamin C content, they were traditionally used to prevent scurvy, especially considering that the berries stay on the tree long into the Winter. Mountain-Ash berries are very astringent (drying… due in large part to their high tannin content), and were also used for anything that involved swelling or irritation (upper respiratory infections and sore throats, diarrhea, boils, etc.). Additionally, it was commonly used as a “digestive” to aid or stimulate digestion. From a medical perspective, I believe that this probably helps increase gastrointestinal motility, but I have no evidence for this yet. However, because Mountain-Ash berries have also been used as a mild laxative, I believe this makes sense, at least theoretically. This syrup was pretty easy to make. I added about 1/2 cup of water to a quart of berries and simmered them until the berries were very soft, about 20-30 minutes. I used a potato masher and smashed all the berries. I poured this mashed fruit into a fine colander and let the juice drip out. I could have left it drain overnight in the refrigerator for a very clear juice, but I didn’t want to wait so I pressed the mashed fruit to quickly express as much juice as possible. This resulted in a cloudy juice. I heated this in a small, clean saucepan, and I added honey to this to make it quite sweet, but not overly so. I store this in the refrigerator, so I am not too concerned about spoilage. I will likely use this syrup as a flavored sweetener to a hot cup of tea this coming Winter. It has a very bitter flavor, but there is a nice, aromatic fruity flavor behind it. I enjoy a nice bitter drinks like a strong IPA beer or coffee, bitter greens like endive and radicchio, and semi-sweet foods like grapefruit and dark chocolate, so the bitterness in Mountain-Ash is rather nice, if not rather strong.

Mountain-Ash & Apple Jam: I have read that Mountain-Ash/Rowan berries pair well with sweet and tart fruits like apples and cranberries. Well, I didn’t have any cranberries on hand, so I used apples. This was a simple jam recipe. I used about 1 cup of table sugar, 1.5 quarts of Mountain-Ash berries, and 3 apples (I think… it may have been 4. They were Honey Crisp if I remember). I added all these together and simmered them for about 30-40 minutes. I let it cool just a bit, then I put the mixture into a blender and pureed it. Some people will use more sugar, but I didn’t want to mask the flavor of the berries. It has a similar but sweeter flavor to the syrup above, but be warned… it is very tart and bitter! Since I made just a small amount, I decided to store the jars in the refrigerator instead of doing a hot water bath.

Mountain-Ash Tincture: Tinctures are a medicinal product created by soaking a plant, mushroom, or animal product in alcohol. These are simple to make. I poured about a pint of berries into an old port bottle I found when I was living in Portugal. I topped the bottle off with Vodka. I will let this set for weeks to months. I have tested it after about a week, and it is strong stuff! Not just the Vodka… a lot of the tannins come through, at least so far. They may mellow a bit. One thing people may do to make tinctures more palatable is to add honey to the tincture. This would then be called an elixir. If the flavor doesn’t mellow, then I will probably be doing this.

 

From left to right: Mountain-Ash Mead, Mountain-Ash Syrup, Mountain-Ash and Apple Jam (three jars), and Mountain-Ash Tincture

 

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My Breakfast for Today

This is just another reason I love our farm/homestead… this is what I ate for breakfast this morning:

  • Swiss Chard (Verde Da Taglio)
  • Mustard Greens (Southern Giant Curled)
  • Kale (Forage Kale Proteor)
  • Kale (Nero Di Toscana)
  • Thai Red Roselle Leaves (Roselle is a species of Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) and Thai Red is the variety)
  • Pea Shoots
  • Rosemary
  • Free-Range, Organic-Fed Chicken Eggs

The variety of healthful foods we regularly eat here on our farm/homestead just blows away any grocery store I’ve ever visited. These greens were harvested FIVE minutes before they were eaten!

I don’t share this to gloat, but hopefully to inspire others. Eating fresh, high-quality food is possible without a lot of work; it just takes being intentional.

So get out there and grow your own breakfast!

 

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Planting Ramps in our Forest

There is something about the Spring forest that brings me a deep sense of joy and contentment. The days are growing longer. The air is warming. The trees are waking from their slumber. The songbirds are returning.

After the Winter, walking in the Spring woods seems to rejuvenate me as well.

It is in this temperate climate Spring forest that Ramps will grow.

These wild onions with strong garlic and leek undertones are true Spring ephemerals. They only shoot up in the early Spring forest, and they quickly depart as the trees’ canopy fills back in with new leaves to cover the forest floor in shadow.

I have previously written about Ramps in one of my plant articles.

Ramps are now growing on our farm in Tennessee!

When we moved to our farm in East Tennessee, Ramps were one of the plants I was hoping to find. Unfortunately, I have yet to come across a wild patch of them on our property.

I had been contemplating how to bring Ramps to our farm when an opportunity crossed my path.

My family and I recently had to travel to northern Indiana. We try to use our camper as much as possible, and we used it for this trip staying at a few different campgrounds. I spent many early mornings walking through the forests in and near the parks where we were staying, often with one of the kids who woke up early enough to join me.

The ephemeral Spring woodland where the ramps were growing.

There was a small forest bordering the property of one of the campgrounds. I recognized it as a special place as soon as I entered. Overhead were mature maple and beech trees with their young leaves just forming. There was an understory of flowering dogwood and pawpaw trees. Blanketing the moist ground were at least three different Trillium species all in flower, Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum), Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), Wild Ginger (Asarum), multiple ferns, and… Ramps! Literally thousands of Ramps covered the floor of this Spring forest! Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of the areas with dense Ramp plants, but I did get the photo above where there were a lot more of the other Spring ephemerals.

Fresh Ramps!

I spoke with the owner of the campground, and he told me he owned this forest as well. He was unaware of the plants he had growing there, but he seemed very interested to learn what I had found. He also told me that I could harvest a few Ramps for myself. I did so, but very carefully. Trilliums are sensitive to disturbance, and they will usually die if any part of the plant is picked or damaged. Since many Trilliums are endangered, I chose to harvest Ramps that were not growing near the Trilliums. I carefully dug up the Ramps preserving as much of the roots as possible. I then pushed the soil back in place and replaced the forest detritus.

I decided to eat a few Ramps with breakfast, sauteed in butter with our free-range chicken eggs… amazing! I saved the rest to transplant.

I planted the Ramps (3)  near Mayapples (2) and Pawpaw saplings (1).

We returned to Tennessee a few days later, and I knew exactly where to plant the Ramps. One small valley on our property has relatively moist soil. This is where our largest Pawpaw patch resides nestled under the overstory of hickory and oak. There are Mayapples, False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), and ferns growing underneath. This environment best matched the location where I harvested the Ramps.

I won’t know until next Spring if the Ramps took to their new home. But I am excited and hopeful. If they do survive the transplant, it will probably be 3-5 years before I will feel comfortable with their establishment before I will harvest any.

Regenerative agriculture is a long game.

It takes patience.

But the rewards are well-worth the wait.

And sometimes they are delicious, too!

Woodland Edge Plant Identification

A few days ago, I was walking through our pastures getting things ready to move our ewes to a new paddock. We have a clump of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) trees on the edge of this paddock, and I noticed a swath of bright green growing under the trees and spilling over into the pasture. I went over to investigate and noticed a number of plants that I could not identify. I took a few photos and did my best to identify them, but was only partially successful. So I posted them on Facebook and had an almost immediate response from a number of online friends. Within a few hours I was able to confirm all the species in the photos. This is when I love social media!

Here was my initial post:

Plant Identification Photo 1

Plant Identification Photo 2

Plant Identification Photo 3

Looking for some plant identification help.

These plants are all growing on the edge of one of my pastures, on the western border of a clump of Eastern Red Cedar trees. They are in a low point, so they have plenty of moisture, but not sitting water.

1. Pretty positive this is Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum).
2. ? The wispy plant with tiny white flowers
3. Pretty sure this is a type of burdock
4. ?
5. ?
6. ? These plants have gotten quite tall in a few spots in the pasture… maybe up to 6 feet?

Anyone know these plants?
Thanks!

 

As I said, I was quickly able to identify all the plants. And as I was confirming the plant identification, I was able to learn some useful information about these species. I’ll show the photos again with the species and information:

Purple Dead Nettle

The characteristic “square stem” of Purple Dead Nettle

1. Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) – Native to Europe but introduced to North America. Considered a weed. Does not sting like its relative Stinging Nettle. It is considered edible and nutritious, but most people blend them into smoothies (I am guessing to mask the flavor?)

 

Hairy Bittercrest

2. Hairy Bittercrest (Cardamine hirsuta) – Native to Eurasia but introduced to North America. Considered a weed. In the Cabbage and Mustard family. The leaves and tiny flowers are edible and have a spicy-hot cress flavor which can be used in small amounts in salads or cooked as a potherb.

 

Burdock

The “burrs” of Burdock. Note the small hooks on the ends of the tips.

3. Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa) – Native to Eurasia. Considered a weed in North America. Used a root vegetable and is reportedly very good (has a neutral flavor that picks up the flavor of whatever is cooked with it)… I’m going to have to try some! Also used in folk and traditional medicine for many purposes.

 

Chickweed

Chickweed

Chickweed’s diagnostic single row of hairs on one edge of the stem.

Chickweed for breakfast! Sauté with butter in a cast iron skillet with over easy duck eggs… delicious!

4. Chickweed (Stellaria media) – Native to Europe but introduced to North America. Often considered a weed. Highly nutritious wild edible; some say when cooked they taste just like spinach. I tried some just this morning for breakfast, and it was excellent. I really mean that. Often time, “wild” foods are bland or very strongly flavored, and you have to force yourself to eat it. But not so with Chickweed. I will be harvesting this for food on a regular basis!

 

Cleavers

5. Cleavers (Galium aparine) – Probably native to North America. Often considered a weed. Tender young shoots, leaves, and stem are edible (before fruits appear). Geese like to eat it (also known as Goosegrass) – I have geese! In the same family as coffee; the fruit can be dried, roasted, ground, and used like coffee!

 

 

Giant Cane/River Cane

6. Giant Cane/River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea) – This is one of our native North American bamboo species in the genus Arundinaria. We only have three native species of bamboo in North America: Giant Cane (Arundinaria gigantea), Hill Cane (Arundinaria appalachiana), and Switch Cane (Arundinaria tecta). Base on the size of the plants on our property, this is Giant Cane (Arundinaria gigantea), also known as River Cane. It has grown well over 6 feet on our property, but can reach heights of over 33 feet (10 meters)!. It has all the uses of other bamboos around the world. I am especially interested in the shoots for cooking! Giant Cane is also an “important habitat for the Swainson’s, hooded, and Kentucky warblers, as well as the white-eyed vireo. The disappearance of the canebrake ecosystem may have contributed to the rarity and possible extinction of the Bachman’s warbler, which was dependent upon it for nesting sites.” (quote from Wikipedia)

 

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Spring Forest Plants!

Spring may be my favorite season.

I love walking in our woods and seeing the Earth wake up from its Winter slumber.

Here are some photos I took this morning…

Cercis canadensis, the Eastern Redbud, is much more pink and magenta than red.
Redbuds are “nitrogen fixers”… that means they pull nitrogen from the air to be used for its growth. It also provides some excess nitrogen to surrounding plants.
The flowers are also edible!

 

Asimina triloba is the Common Paw Paw, the largest native North American fruit!

 

Another photo of Asimina triloba, the Common Paw Paw.
Its scientific species name, “triloba” refers to the flower’s three-lobed calices and doubly three-lobed corollas.

 

Silene virginica is known as Fire Pink.
It attracts and is pollinated by the Ruby Throated Hummingbird.

 

Prunus americana is the American Wild Plum.
Their fruits are edible, and while sweet they are also very tart.

 

Carya ovata, the Shagbark Hickory.
Bud in the foreground and trunk in the background. The trunk is what gives this tree its name!

 

Carya ovata, the Shagbark Hickory.
Now with the bud in focus.

 

Viola sororia, the Common Blue Violet… but considering its purple color, I prefer its other name, the Common Meadow Violet.
Edible flowers and leaves!

 

Oxalis violacea is the Violet Wood-Sorrel.
The flowers, leaves, stems, and bulb are all edible and taste sour (in a good way), similar to a lemon.
Also known as the “Wild Shamrock”.

 

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First Autumn Hard Freeze and Making Sauerkraut

Technically, a “hard freeze” is when there are at least 4 consecutive hours of temperatures below 25°F (-4°C). This is important to gardeners, because a hard freeze will kill most annual plants.

Autumn temperatures here in East Tennessee are not very predictable. We had a few mild frosts over the past couple of weeks, but no hard freezes. Then we had a forecast for temperatures dropping to 19°F (-7°C). I noticed this with only about 1 hour left of daylight.

So our current WOOFER (Jacob) and I went out to the garden with baskets and scissors and knives to harvest what we could before the cold could destroy it.

Garden_Harvest_07

Sunset and the hard freeze was fast approaching, and I just didn’t think about taking any photos of the garden before we started harvesting. In fact, this is the only photo I took while outside.

We have been at our farm for about 18 months, and we finally put in our first annual vegetable garden late this Summer. I say “we” very loosely, because although it was done with my guidance, almost all the work was done by one of our other WOOFERS, Marianne.

Garden_Harvest_06

We piled the harvest on the kitchen table.

 

Garden_Harvest_05

We had numerous varieties of cabbages we were testing.

Our hope is that this annual garden will be in place for many decades, maybe longer depending on how many generations use it. It was a project we wanted to get done last year, but so many things got us distracted. As with many things on a homestead and farm, late is better than never.

We finally got the garden in place, but it was just a bit later in the season than we were initially planning. The kale and Swiss chard did just fine, but our broccoli and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts did not have enough time to mature before our cold weather started slowing their growth. Our cabbages didn’t have enough time to develop a full head, but that’s okay… even a partially formed head of cabbage is still edible. It may not be great for long term storage, but it is plenty good enough to make sauerkraut!

Garden_Harvest_03

None of our broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts had a chance to mature due to late planting, but all the other plants did really well.

 

Garden_Harvest_02

We had some loss due to caterpillars, specifically the cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni), but this was pretty minimal.

 

Garden_Harvest_01

We also had a couple of varieties of kale and Swiss chard. We blanched and froze most of the chard and the Nero Di Toscana Cabbage (aka Tuscan/Lacinato/Dinosaur Kale). Here is my mom about to be buried in greens!

I’ve written about making sauerkraut in the past:
My First Attempt at Making Sauerkraut and My New Sauerkraut

Since these first attempts, I have made many batches of sauerkraut. Here is how I make it…

2016_Kraut_01

We started with the entire plant. We separated the cabbage leaves from the main stem. We did not have any tight heads of cabbage. This was due to planting too late before cold weather set in. We removed the central vein from the large leaves (like the one pictured in the bottom right).

 

2016_Kraut_02

We grew Tronchuda or Portuguese Kale (Couve Tonchuda). This kale was mixed with the outer, thicker leaves of the cabbage to make one batch of sauerkraut.

 

2016_Kraut_03

We used a food processor with the slicer attachment to speed up the slicing! Here is a photo of another batch of sauerkraut using the inner cabbage leaves (what would have been the heads of cabbage).

 

2016_Kraut_04

I used to measure my salt based on the amount of cabbage I used; however, now I just sprinkle a small amount of salt on the sliced cabbage as I go and adjust based on taste.

 

2016_Kraut_05

After I sprinkle the salt, I then mix and squeeze the sliced cabbage until the juice is literally squeezed out of it. This is a third batch of sauerkraut made from only Hilton Chinese Cabbage, a Napa-type cabbage that grew great for us this year.

 

2016_Kraut_06

The sliced, salted, and smashed cabbage is added to a crock. This sauerkraut is made with Aubervilliers Cabbage, Charleston Wakefield Cabbage, Glory of Enkhuizen Cabbage, and Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage.

 

2016_Kraut_07

The cabbage is pushed down level and then covered with some whole cabbage leaves… remember to save these at the beginning!

 

2016_Kraut_08

Cover the whole cabbage leaves with a plate or lid or, if you have it, a specifically made crock weight. This allows for even distribution of weight to push down/compress the sauerkraut.

 

2016_Kraut_09

I use a gallon bag of water to weigh down the lid and sauerkraut. This weight pushes down the sauerkraut forcing the cabbage below the brine.

 

2016_Kraut_10

The crocks of sauerkraut fermenting! I usually check the next morning to make sure the fluid has some bubbles in it… showing signs of fermentation. Then I let it rest for about 5 days before I start taste-testing it. Once it is as tangy as I like, then I will transfer the sauerkraut into mason jars and put them in the refrigerator. 

 

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Making Head Cheese

“Once you knock an animal on the head it is only polite to eat the whole animal.”
— Fergus Henderson

Yes, head cheese is made from the head of an animal. This may sound unappealing to our modern minds, but once upon a time, people valued their livestock in a way most people do not today. After raising animals at our farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner, for the last 18 months, I have a whole new respect for our ancestors desire to utilize every possible part of an animal.

This was part frugality and part respect.

Frugality… for our great-great-grandparents couldn’t just run down to the supercenter grocery store and stock up on whatever they wanted. They needed to be mindful of which animal they culled from their stock. They needed to be mindful of how much food that animal would provide for their family. There would be good times and bad times ahead, and they didn’t know which would be coming next. They couldn’t afford to be wasteful.

Respect… for our great-great-grandparents knew where their food came from. The animal may have had a name. It may have had a personality that our great-great-grandparents interacted with daily. They may have felt a pang of sadness when it was slaughtering day, but they knew that this animal’s life would provide life to their family for the winter. There was intentional and unavoidable knowledge of the animals life. There was intimacy in the animal’s death. When one experiences this, it is a matter of course to make use of everything you can from the animal. It would be disrespectful to wasteful.

So what exactly is head cheese, and how did it get its name?

From Wikipedia:
Head cheese or brawn is a cold cut that originated in Europe. Head cheese is not a dairy cheese, but a terrine or meat jelly made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig, or less commonly a sheep or cow, and often set in aspic. The parts of the head used vary, but the brain, eyes, and ears are usually removed. The tongue, and sometimes the feet and heart, may be included. It can also be made from quality trimmings from pork and veal.

Head cheese may be flavored with onion, black pepper, allspice, bay leaf, salt, and vinegar. It is usually eaten cold or at room temperature.

The “cheese” term likely comes from the old usage of the word meaning “formed” or “molded” like in a pan or mold form (not mold, as in the fungus). So a modern American meatloaf, could conceivably be called a “meat cheese” if we followed the same naming conventions.

“I don’t actually know what it is, but it just sounds gross.” This is the most common response when I ask people about head cheese. Well, this is the most common response from people who say they’ve never tried it, but they state that they refuse to eat it.

In contrast, I’ve recently heard from a number of people who love it. They remember eating it with their parents or grandparents when they were younger. It brings about good memories of family and good food.

But what does it taste like?

In short… fantastic. It tastes like a mix of a good cold-cut type meat and a thick paté, but not with an organ meat overtone. Remember, it is composed of succulent meat. It does have a flavorful, thickened, gelatin-rich broth surrounding the whole thing. When head cheese is served with a thick, crusty bread, horseradish or mustard, and accompanied with a quality beer or wine… amazing!

Some people use veggies in their head cheese, some do not. Some people like to add vinegar, and this is then called a “souse”. Some people like to have more gelatin-rich broth with meat set in it… more like an aspic. Others, myself included, prefer more meat than broth. Like many foods, there are many variations of how head cheese can be made, and no two are truly alike, especially when home made.

Here are some links to other articles with recipes:

 

Here is how I made my first head cheese…

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Start with one cleaned pig’s head. This is one of our own pigs that was slaughtered within the last week.

 

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Put the pig’s head in a large container for brining.

 

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The head should be brined for at least 24 hours, but 2-3 days is better.

 

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The brined head is rinsed well and put into a large pot for cooking.

 

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Add roughly chopped stock vegetables and spices. I used carrots, celery, onion, rosemary, parsley, and bay leaves. Other ingredients could include…

 

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Fill the pot with water until it just covers the head.

 

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I also added some crushed black pepper corns and juniper berries (in a tea strainer) and a cup of red wine. White wine is traditionally used, but I didn’t have any on hand.

 

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I also added a couple of cleaned trotters (pig’s feet). This will greatly increase the gelatin content of the stock.

 

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Simmer until the meat is falling off the bone. This took us about 6 hours. Strain the stock and then return it to the cleaned pot. Return to a boil until the volume is reduced to about one fourth (or less) of its original volume.

 

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The meat needs to be separated from the bones. There is a lot of meat on a pig’s head, and it takes a little bit of time to find it all. If using the tongue, which is very tender meat, then separate the outer membrane from the tongue and chop this into large pieces.

 

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There are many techniques on what to do with the meat until the stock is reduced. I let the meat soak in some of the brine overnight. Then I strained it and mixed in some fresh, finely chopped herbs… parsley, thyme, and sage. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. I added some additional salt and ground pepper.

 

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Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap and place the seasoned meat into the pan.

 

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Pour the reduced stock into the pan. Use a spoon to make sure the stock is evenly distributed throughout and around the meat. Cover the whole thing with a layer of plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours so the gelatin-rich stock can set.

 

Once set, the head cheese can be sliced and then allowed to warm to room temperature before serving. Served with bread, pickles, cheese, mustard, and some quality beer or wine… amazing!

 

 

Please ask if you would like to use one of my photos!

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Rendering Duck Fat

I wrote in my previous article on Bone Broth about how I save the fat that rises to the top of the cooled broth. I scoop this out and put it into a dutch oven on the stove. The fat is rendered down and put into jars, and I use it for cooking. Duck fat is considered one of the most prized cooking fats by chefs and foodies for its flavor and cooking qualities, and is becoming more popular of late because it is high in monounsaturated fat, the “good” fat.

All the cooking fat we render on our farm comes from our pasture-raised, grass and organic-fed chickens, ducks, geese, and sheep. We use it mostly for roasting, sauteing, or pan-frying vegetables, and it is delicious.

I have also prepared this fat by rendering the skins of the ducks we have processed. I’ll be honest. I have processed our ducks and geese many times, and trying to get all the feathers off is almost impossible for me. I have tried every combination of dry and wet plucking, by hand and with an automatic plucker, with single and multiple dips into wax, and I have yet to come up with a system that is effective and efficient. I can get all the feathers, but it takes so long, that it is almost not worth it. I end up doing the best I can, which is pretty good but not good enough for sales, and then I skin the bird. But I save the skin. There is so much great fat in the skin that I just can’t waste it.

Duck skin cracklings

Duck skin cracklings

Rendering fat from the skins is easy. Just add all the skins to a cooking pot; I prefer a dutch oven. I add a little bit of water to prevent the skins from burning at first. Then I put the pot on to simmer. As the skins heat up, they release the golden fat. Eventually, the water all boils off and we are left with the rendered fat and the cooked skins known as cracklings. We eat the cracklings if the skin is cleaned well, and they taste great sprinkled with a little salt.

The image at the top of this article is the duck fat I most recently rendered from the skins… beautiful, liquid gold! There are a number of ways to get this great cooking fat, and if you have the ability to produce or procure it, I highly recommend it.

 

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