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Archive for November, 2014

Makin’ suds

There seems to be a never ending supply of projects that capture my attention and obsession for various lengths of time. Some of them are necessary for the house and garden to operate without falling apart- fence dog out of garden, protect chickens from raccoons, plant garlic before ground freezes- and others seem to stem from necessity- how do we use up all this lard from our pig??- and then turn into the somewhat frivolous, put-a-whole-lot-of-extra-work-and-money-in, giant mess-making, kitchen- and basement-consuming tasks. This past weekend’s was making soap. Like, real soap. Like, with pig lard and lye and safety goggles!!

bars sliced and curing

bars sliced and curing

By chance I recently stumbled upon a couple articles in this blog about ditching commercial shampoo and soap and making your own. (Not really by chance- I read homesteading and DIY blogs). The author makes an aside about how she hopes to one day raise and render her own lard to use in her homemade soap– upon reading this I jumped out of my chair- Holy Crap!! That’s what we can do with all that lard in our freezer! Why didn’t I think of this before?! We’ve been attempting to use up the rendered lard from our pig frying eggs and potatoes and making stovetop popcorn- we’ve barely made a dent in a year and a half. (The story of our pig Knorr is a long blog post that I’m still gathering the courage and gentle words to write.)

So, forget all other projects on the docket and off to the store for coconut oil, avocado oil, lye, cinnamon and lavender and orange essential oils… Poor David- he tolerates so much. So much.

I used a few recipes online (here, here, and the one above) to settle on a lard percentage of 35%, with coconut (25%), olive (20%), avocado (15%), and castor oil (5%) supplying some better lathering and cleaning properties. Apparently you can make soap out of pure lard, water and lye, and you can also make soap out of pure vegetable oils, but a mixture seems to be what most soap makers online recommend. I found that lard was somewhat controversial, but its best inexpensive replacement in veggie soaps is Palm oil, which is not very sustainable/socially conscious. (Apparently most commercial, non-hippie-greenie soap contains beef tallow from factory farms/rendering plants, which I did not realize!) Without lard or palm oil, soaps can take a very long time to cure into a nice hard bar that won’t melt when wet- sometimes a year or more- compared to 3-6 weeks for soap with.

We decided on three varieties- David wanted cardamom paired with orange, and I went with lavender and rosemary oat, and pumpkin pie spice (inspiration). I won’t bore you with all the details- the links above describe the process very thoroughly- but suffice it to say that it was both easier and harder than I expected. The whole process was quite scientific- which I loved!- tweaking my recipe, calculating the exact amount of lye needed online, measuring out the lye and fat to the gram… Working with lye wasn’t too scary, but getting the melted fat and lye+water mixture to thicken took forever. I failed to realize that most people use a stick blender, which shortens mixing time by an incredible amount. Also, sometimes the combination of essential oils, and in this case pumpkin purée, can cause the mix to separate. So the orange cardamom and rosemary oat loaves set up well overnight, but the pumpkin began to ooze dark red cinnamon oil. It looked evil. Fortunately, the interwebs told me I could just melt down the failed loaf, oozing oil and all, mix it up really well, and pour it back into the mold. While doing this, I added some powdered milk to cut the now-fireball level of cinnamon fragrance coming outta that thing. Whew. Really hoping that mellows out!

I cut each loaf into bars after it sat overnight in its mold (tupperware and a loaf baking tin), and now they are all sitting on parchment paper in the basement, waiting to cure. I’ve gone down to marvel and sniff them at least three times a day so far, and I’ll turn them every week for 4-6 weeks until they’re done!

Now I am hooked and looking into making a vegetarian bar for my brother-in-law with shea or cocoa butter… they say soaping is a disease that takes over your life… and all available flat surfaces in your house for curing bars of soap.

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The first few years we grew tomatoes in Seattle, we went to great lengths to ripen the loads and loads of green fruit still on the vines when the season was over. Come the October rains, the tomatoes begin to split and rot, the vines fall apart, and it’s impossible to find an unspoilt, red tomato still in the garden.

We tried harvesting all of them in their various states of ripeness and setting them out in the basement to ripen over the winter. We tried covering the vines with plastic cloche to protect them from the rain. We tried pulling up entire vines with green tomatoes still dangling, and hanging them upside down in the garage. Very few made it with any of these methods. Perhaps the most successful was stripping each vine of it’s flowers and leaves late in the summer- forcing them to pour all they had into their fruit (like Leslie Knope’s “going out of business sale”), but that still required foresight and willingness to admit the summer was nearly over.

Then, two years ago- and I can’t remember why- we used our green tomatoes green instead of struggling to ripen them. We made pickled green tomatoes (based on a combo of the basic pickle and garlic dill pickle recipes here), and they were the best thing ever. I loved them. David loved them. We barely had enough to give away over the holidays, and friends and family immediately demanded more. Thus we entered a new era and solved two problems: no more stressing out over un-ripe tomatoes, and no more need to to grow cucumbers (another thing we’d not had much success with, but after seeing Beth and Aaron’s huge, sweet cukes this summer I’m willing to try again!!).

Then, of course, we made things more complicated, and experienced near-total failure of all things green tomato over the next couple years.

The very next year, we actually selected a specific variety to leave green- a big, long roma type that could be sliced into spears like cucumbers. The first problem was that lots of them ripened before I could pick them green- they need to be totally green lest they get soft in the pickle jar. So I couldn’t keep up. Why not use them ripe? Because I was, at that point in time, opposed to saucing- something felt wrong about processing ripe tomatoes, even though these romas were pretty terrible slicing tomatoes. (I remember bringing my boss a quart of cherry and slicing tomatoes a few summers ago and being horrified the next day when he mentioned he and his wife had cooked them (GAH!) to have with pasta.) This year I discovered the glory that is homemade fresh tomato bloody Marys, so I can deal with ripe romas now.

The second problem is that, in our ever-tightening spiral toward Portlandia, we feel a need to live-ferment everything. In giant batches. Our first live-fermented green tomato batch went well- it produced delightfully savory pickles, the last few jars of which have managed to stay crisp and tasty in the fridge for a year now. The second batch turned out terribly, with white mold and a rotten taste that could not be washed off. This year I went back to vinegar pickling cherry tomatoes, but somehow they got squishy when processed in the water bath, perhaps because I used fruit from the volunteer plants. Very disappointing.

We’ve also attempted green tomato chutney two years in a row, both failures. The first batch was ruined by using brown instead of golden raisins, and my unwillingness to use as much sugar as called for. We canned it anyway, and it sits in our cupboard. The second batch, this year, I ruined by putting in lots of half-ripe tomatoes. It ended up tasting like ass-ketchup and didn’t even make it into jars.

This year in our new garden, I picked 5 huge mixing bowls of green tomatoes at the end of the season, stashed them in the basement, and was super excited to make all sorts of things. And then…. life and laziness happened…. and much to my surprise, half the tomatoes had started to get ripe in the basement. Shoot!! I managed to make just 3 jars of fridge pickles out of the remaining green fruit, and the half-ripe fruit gets eaten when ripe or thrown out if it rots first. Sigh.

Lessons learned:
1) Triage tomatoes into ripe saucing (freezer), ripe slicing (eat), and totally green (pickle immediately). Do not, under any circumstances, negotiate with half-ripe tomatoes.
2) Be prepared for massive failures, which could possibly be reduced in scale by not growing so many damn tomatoes in the first place.
3) If we do happen upon a good batch of pickles/chutney/anything, brag about it but don’t give so much of it away.

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I’ve not attempted to grow carrots many times, but this year we grew amazing carrots. Here’s how, as best I can tell:

1. In the spring, tear up lawn, add compost and sand, rototill, rake soil into foot-high beds. (Now that we have established beds, this step will just become: add compost, fork into soil.)
2. Leave bed all spring and most of summer because you are busy doing other gardening. Weed occasionally, but mostly just neglect the bed. (I actually think this is very important, unintentional as it sounds, for reestablishing good soil structure after such thorough digging and raking of the bed. Carol Deppe, who writes The Resilient Gardener, claims that a good soaking after tilling the soil really helps rebuild soil structure by settling the soil particles together, but time and worms do the same thing. Planting a cover crop would also do the same thing, long as you pull it out by hand before you plant.)
3. In mid-late summer, weed the bed and very lightly fork-separate it. What does that mean? Take your digging fork, shove it into the ground every foot or half foot and lift up the chuck of soil that rests on it. Don’t bust up all the clods or rake the bed into a fine fluff. This seems counter-intuitive for growing nice big, straight carrots, but it worked.
4. Make inch-deep furrows in the soil, line with fluffy seed-start mix, and sow your seeds.
5. Mulch around the rows with straw, and try your best to keep the seed bed and young seedlings watered in the dry summer.
6. Thin early and often, then forget about your carrots (except to water fairly often) until “Holy crap these are effing huge!!!!”

My grandpa sent us the seeds for the purple carrots- they turned out incredibly well. Quite pretty and tasty. We roasted some last night with lemon juice and garlic and the color ran like beet juice.

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