Saturday, October 27, 2012

Halloumi - the real story

I think it's time I tell the real story of how the halloumi in my last blog post was made.

Step one - I woke up about half an hour later than usual, on my day off, planning to make cheese. "Should take about three hours start to finish". Did morning barn chores and made sure I had all the ingredients.

Made the kid breakfast. Started to make a cup of coffee. Good thing I didn't get far.

Phone alarm - oh, yeah, fasting blood test day. Starting with a cholesterol test seems like a bad omen for cheese making but what the heck. I hurry off to the lab.

Severe caffeine withdrawal. Fasting blood tests always do this to me. One hour coffee break.

Phone alarm goes off - oh, yeah, I was going to help recharter the scout pack today. Two hour meeting. Meet three great dogs, a parrot and the fabulous woman who cares for them and who wants to do a lot of paperwork to help scouts! Bless her heart. Rechartering is well in hand.

I return home and eat the last of the homemade crusty bread. You are not supposed to start bread and make cheese on the same day but I sometimes do anyway. This is a day when I do. The kitchen is warm, and I open the back door.

Meggie, the goat, who is normally very calm, is all of a sudden very loud. I go back to check. She's in heat! She's looking around for a male goat, and freaking out because there aren't any. She is so needy. Lightning is not in heat, but she's needy too.
Meggie and Lightening hoping for some attention

I tear myself away from the needy goats and go inside. Start to warm up milk. It is now 11:30. Check facebook. Oh, everyone is all worked up about some election thing. Get involved. Milk is over-warm. Add a little cool milk and hope that's an OK strategy.

Add calcium chloride and rennet. Eat lunch while the cheese sets. Cut curd right after lunch. Stir. Phone call from work. There are just one or two things I have to do today - they just won't wait till two days from now when I'm back in the office.

Meggie won't stop crying. I go out and check on her. She's fine.

Oh, my the ducks are cute.

Pikachu, the new drake, is such a sweety.

Their water is filthy. Gross. I throw it out and clean all the bowls. Actually, every one's food dish is overdue for a scrub. I gather them all and bring them inside.

The curds have sat at least fifteen minutes too long. I hope this is OK. It's actually going to be closer to thirty minutes too long because I need to clean up after being out in the duck mess.

It is close to two. The kid gets home from school; Fridays are early release day. He is making a costume for Halloween. He says he won't need any help.

I put the curds in a bag to press. Get a weight and - the phone rings, and the name that flashes up is my uncle. He never calls. OMG, maybe someone died!!! No - it's a planning call for a family event. In the long gaps between phone calls, I always forget what a kind gentleman my uncle is. So considerate and mannered. Always fun to chat with. Meanwhile, the curd is sitting there. This is probably not a problem.

Actually, my kid does need help with his costume. He accidentally glued the wrong side of everything. We become a gluey mess. Luckily, I know how to get glue off my hands. You rub them in dirt and it peels right off. Then of course you wash.

I return and put weight on the curd. I decide (randomly) to season all my cast iron, since I happen to be in the kitchen anyway. Heat up all my iron pans. The weight falls off the cheese, about half the whey is spilled on the counter and floor.

Kid needs help with his costume. This time he wants to paint the body and needs help turning the basement into a painting studio.

I clean up the floor. Take out iron pan to oil. Burn hand. I shape the bread loaves, since the oven's already hot.

It is now five o'clock. I check the recipe. I had somehow thought the cheese took a total of 45 minutes press time. Wrong. 6 hours. I realize I will be up till midnight at best.

There is a Halloween party at the school in one hour. The costume is not ready. Briefly we debate whether it can be painted and dry - which is patently ridiculous, but in light of my inability to self-schedule, I am cutting my kid a lot of slack in his own plan-making. We mutually decide not to paint it. It is too late to bake the bread. I turn off the oven and we run out the door.

I preemptively decide the cheese can press for two hours before the event and four hours after we come home, instead of three and three.

It's a great party. I was signed up to run the bouncy house from 6:15 to 7:30 but when I got there, they switched me to 7:30 - 8:30. I lose my voice. We have fun. A guy who lives in the neighborhood has his driveway blocked in by an inconsiderate parent. While we wait for them to move their car, we chat and i get to know another member of my community. A plane flies low over the dark, misty parking lot as we head home. It's later than I expected.
I need to learn how to take nigh time pictures! This was pretty cool in real life.

We come home and I flip cheese, replace weight and go take care of the animals. Eat dinner. It is now a bit after ten. Put kid to bed. Reshape the forgotten bread dough and heat the oven. Sometimes bread is OK when you do this. Ask me how I know.

I can't decide whether to nap or stay up while the cheese poaches for an hour and then cools for 45 minutes before being brined. But if I nap, I will forget to take the bread out and that will definitely ruin it.

I decide to stay up and write blog where I totally fake this ideal cheese making experience. It isn't totally fake because I have made halloumi before and had it go as smoothly as all that. Seriously, there have been times. But today was not one of them. And as I was writing, David said something about a very famous athlete who lied about steroid use, and I heard myself say "Well, there had to be a moment when he knew he had used steroids, and he knew he was lying. And that's wrong".

Then I knew I had to sit down and write a retraction of the "oh, I'm such a perfect urban farmer, here's this epic cheese making day I just had in my perfectly coordinated home" story. I did have a great day, and in a very fragmented way, I accomplished quite a bit. But it was not idyllic, it was real. And, to spare you any undue distress, let me add that the halloumi actually turned out great. That is the real reason it's my favorite cheese. It is very forgiving. It seems to know about days that get out of hand.

Shared on : cheesepalooza, Simple Lives Thursday


As promised, a follow up to making stuffed grape leaves, is making halloumi cheese.

Halloumi is a specialty of hot weather climates. It is relatively quick to make, and spectacular to eat. Making it requires few specialty items, and it stores well. It is mild, salty, squeaky and most notably, it fries in a pan, creating a crispy gold crust and a soft, slightly melty interior that doesn't ooze out into a gooey mess.

2 day's worth of milk
I made this cheese as part of the Cheesepalooza challenge, using the recipe from Mary Karlin's Artisan Cheese Making at Home. I modified it slightly by not using a mold, because so many friends have asked for a cheese they can make without buying any new equipment. I don't give her verbatim recipe, but rather walk you through the steps as I took them.

You will need three slightly unusual items - rennet, calcium chloride, and cheesecloth or a strainer bag - for this recipe. The first two can be purchased at home beer making shops or online at cheese making sites. Or if you are nearby, I'll give you some rennet to play with. I want more cheese makers!

Cheesecloth is available at grocery stores, usually in the kitchen utensils area. I used a mesh bag designed for produce, available at many grocery stores. Note on salt - use uniodized or it will turn weird colors.

Milk, rennet, and water to dilute

My  Halloumi recipe instructs to mold the cheese in a special press, but I used a bag instead. The shape was less perfect, but I want to make a cheese you can set out and do with minimal equipment, right now.

You really should use a dairy thermometer, too. But I include general temperatures in case you don't have one. After successfully making this cheese, treat yourself to a thermometer so you can try more challenging recipes.


1 gallons milk
1/2 t calcium chloride (optional)
1/2 t liquid rennet
1/2 c cool, filtered or aged water, divided (you can leave tap water out overnight and use that)

Scrub your hands and all the equipment.

Heat the milk to 30C/86F. I do this by putting glass jars of milk in a sink full of warm water. When it is nearly warm enough, I pour it into a large, stainless pot, which I keep in the water bath. If you don't have a thermometer, place a drop of the milk on your wrist. It should feel neither warm nor cold, but perhaps slightly cool. Cow's milk would be heated to 90 F, but goat's milk requires slightly lower temperatures.

Add the calcium chloride mixed into 1/4 cup of the water, and mix for 1 minute

Add the rennet to the water and swirl to mix. Then begin stirring the milk, and as you stir, add the rennet mixture. Stir as above -  1 minute, then stop. Cover the pot and leave it.

In 30 minutes, check your milk. It should have turned to curd - shiny, firm solids that, when you put a knife into them, break apart with clearish whey rising up. If it is still somewhat liquid, check again every 10 minutes until it gives a "clean break" as above. My whey is never the clear yellow color of cow's milk whey.

With a long knife or metal spatula, pointed straight down into the curd, cut the curd all the way through to the bottom, into a series of long strips 3/4" wide. Then rotate the pot and cut the strips into squares. Then angle the knife at 45 degrees and slide it through the squares, cutting all of them one layer at a time into diamonds. Rotate the pot 1/4 and do it again, repeating 3 times until you have cut all the curd in the pot.
Cutting curd into cubes with a long serrated knife
Wait 5 minutes. Then gently start heating the curds. Stir them gently, always lifting the ones at the bottom so they are evenly exposed to the heat. Stir and change the cooling water for hot, as the temperature gradually goes up to 104F/39C. This will feel warm on your wrist, but still not hot.

The curd pieces will shrink as you do this. They are losing whey, but keeping solids. They should all shrink at about the same speed. If not, stir carefully to bring the bigger, looser looking ones into more contact with the warmer parts of the pot.

Let the curds rest 10 minutes.

A bag of curds
Folded up and weirdly brain-like
Carefully drain the whey into a second pot, until it reaches the level of the curds. Then scoop the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth, or into your mesh bag.

If you have a mold, transfer the curds after 15 minutes, and press under 8 # for 3 hours, then flip and press again at 8 # for another 3 hours.

Or do like I did and use either a mesh bag, or a bag made by tying up the corners of cheesecloth.

Let it drain for 10 minutes, then open the ball and retie it, doing your best to minimize wrinkles in the cloth. Place the bag in the colander, and cover it with a small plate and place the pot of whey on top of it as a weight.

After 3 hours remove the pot of whey from on top of the curds, unwrap them, and re wrap to smooth out any creases. Place the curd mass back under the weight for 3 more hours.

After a total of 6 hours heating time, unwrap the curds. Place the whey in a pot and heat to  87C/190F. If you don't have a thermometer, heat it until simmer bubbles begin to form. Lower the heat to maintain the temperature without boiling over.

Now flatter and cut into quarters
Unwrap  the curd ball and cut it into quarters. Gently lower the quarters into the hot whey. Trust an experienced lady here, you do not want to splash! Maintain the temperature in the pot for 30 minutes. At the start of this time, the curd will sink. By the end it should float.

Plunge curd into hot whey
Remove the cheese (let's stop calling it curd now) and let it cool in the colander for 45 minutes.

Then place it in brine, made by mixing 1 gallon water with 26 ounces salt - conveniently, most salt you buy comes in just that size. let the cheese soak for at least 5 days to get good and salty. An hour before use, you may soak it in plain water to remove the excess salt.

To prepare for eating

Slice the cheese into 1/2" thick slices
Pat them dry and place on towels to get even drier for 10 or 15 minutes
Dust with flour on both sides
Heat skillet to medium high, and brush lightly with oil
Place cheese slices on skillet
Cook until you see the golden crust forming, then flip and cook an additional minute or two

Serve on top of a salad of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and arugula, as a starter to a meal of small dishes - stuffed grape leaves, lentil soup, crusty bread, and figs with honey for dessert.

Appearance: very white, dense, solid, slightly translucent, smooth, glossy
Nose (aroma): faint, milky, slightly cooked
Overall Taste:  mild - this cheese is more about texture than taste. A bit of goatiness though
Sweet to Salty: definitely salty
Mild (mellow) to Robust : mellow
Mouth Feel: squeaky, bouncy, jumpy, pert, lively. When cooked, crisp on the outside. 

Shared on: cheesepaloozafrugal days, sustainable ways, Gastronomical sovereignty

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Excuses not to weed or deadhead

At Several Gardens Farm we care for the animals and the orchard, grow some veggies, try to keep the neighbors happy and the kid too busy to play computer games. Deadheading doesn't even make it onto the list. Weeding the perenial beds ison an as needed basis for safety or to clear space for my plants to survive. Only when I'm caught up on everything do the two get done to completion.

Most people understand this at once, but occasionally I see people giving our weeds some quizzical glances. They say things like "I wish I weren't wearing white pants - I'd help you weed" or "I love how you let your garden naturalize. I always pull those things out." Like I have time for that.

So - if you are like me, and let things go a bit, you may need a few excuses. Here's my list. I'd love you to add to it.

My chickens eat the seed heads. 

Great for old sunflowers, gone-to-seed pig weed, grain crops of all kinds.  Hint - goats and rabbits eat things too! And wildlife of all kinds.

I'm using the roots to prevent back pain. 

 I save my back by not pulling those babies out! This excuse works with anything big, stubborn, or numerous.
So many weeds - so little interest in pulling them.

There are some cool  mushrooms that grow in the mulch. I think they may be symbiotic with the plant life.

These Stropharia ambigua aren't edible, just too pretty to risk crushing while I weed.

I think they are gorgeous after they go to seed. 

Artichokes in particular are worth growing for the bloom if you forget to eat them!

Thank you Heidi for teaching me to see these in all their beauty!

You can get lost in that color

It's a honey plant. 

This is especially good with a spring "crop" of lawn dandelions, those overgrown borage plants or for pearly everlasting. If the guest asks for a sample of the honey, you reply that it's so valuable to the bees that you leave it in the hive and never collect the honey for human use.
Don't pull the weeds or we'll sting!
More nectar

If you don't keep bees,  say "this is an important plant for native pollinators".

That works better than my old line "thatch ants metabolize the lipids in the seed capsules."


I was too busy preserving the harvest. 

That one's a little smug, but in fact, harvesting, canning, drying, pickling - it takes time!

 I leave them here to reduce evaporation from the soil 

works for nasturtiums, borage, claytonia, etc - the pretty weeds. Plant cover really does benefit the soil, and if I have volunteer plants, I often let them be my cover crops.

Seriously, this plant is holding down the soil. I can't pull it.

Oh - I didn't notice that! 

Use this for huge, unseemly, sprawling weeds or old, nearly dead garden plants. Use a sweet, self effacing tone, don't lay on the sarcasm.

Fireweed, hawkweed, volunteer hazel sprouts and gone-to-seed Shasta daisy

I keep planning to do it, but it just isn't happening this year. 

That's the good old honest truth. We had fun this year, and difficult times too. We nursed sickness, we dealt with problems, some serious, some silly. We danced and met new babies. We lived. We kept meaning to weed, but other things got in the way...

Note - certain invasive weeds have no place in a garden - Himalayan blackberry, perennial morning glory, butterfly weed, etc. I do my best to fight these, though they return again and again. The things I'm not afraid to slack on are the more run of the mill weeds.

Shared on Simple Lives Thursday, Frugally sustainable


Friday, October 5, 2012

Grapenuts: Lembas and Manna

First a disclaimer. It may not shine through in every post, but we are no mere farmers. At Several Gardens Farm, we are low level geeks and scholars as well. We love us some Tolkien, and we love reading or retelling some of the more family appropriate portions of Scripture.

Any time this can be accomplished using home made breakfast cereals, I see it as a bonus.

Last night, I made a batch of grape nuts.

First, I baked a wholemeal "cake", then crumbled it and roasted the crumbs until  golden, perfectly dry, and faintly caramelized.

I couldn't resist serving part of the cake, uncrumbled, for dessert.

An austere dessert it was - lightly sweet, faintly flavored of honey, with a firm, nourishing texture.

However you dress it up, it's never going to be poundcake.

Nasty Elvish food! It burns us. 

David commented that it reminded him of Lembas, the Elvish way bread from Lord of the Rings. Coincidentally, I had been thinking the same thing.

Lembas was described as unexpectedly good but not awesome tasting, supremely nourishing, and easy to preserve.

The elves made if for long journeys, wrapped it in leaves from the Mallorn tree (I had to look that up), and gave it to valiant hobbits.

The longer you have nothing else to eat, the better Lembas becomes at keeping you alive - and the more you like it, although eventually the hobbits started to miss home cooking.

I experimented with wrapping our version in leaves and stuffing it in a backpack. If one took this recipe when one simply walked into Mordor, one's Lembas would crumble.

And speaking of crumble...

Grapenuts. Sort of reminds me of the surface of Mars
The majority of the lembas did not get eaten, but was pulsed to crumbles and toasted into grapenuts.

When I served them the next day at breakfast, Noah said this was how he had imagined the Manna given to the Israelites. I had been thinking that, too!

Manna is portrayed as a sustaining, palatable, nice, but not exciting food. Manna is small and white, looks "like coriander seeds", and tastes like cakes made with honey and oil. Manna, with a weekly bonus of quails, kept the twelve tribes alive for forty years as they became ready to be a free and autonomous people. By the end of their time in the dessert, they were thoroughly bored with the food.

We started a lively discussion about why, with all the foods in the universe, it was necessary to subsist on one substance for so long. We had some great ideas, and I'd love to hear yours.

And now, the recipes:

Lembas (AKA healthy cake)

Lacking a Mallorn tree, I used sunflower leaves

6 Cups whole grain flour (we used spelt)
3 Cups buttermilk
1 Cup sugar
1/2 Cup honey, molasses or maple syrup
1 TBSP baking soda
1 1/2 tsp salt
Optional: Vanilla , Pumpkin pie spices, Gingerbread spices or other flavorings to taste

Preheat oven to 325

Line 2 cookie sheets with waxed paper

Mix dry ingredients till thoroughly combined. Mix together honey and buttermilk, and stir in to dry ingredients. Mix until well blended and no lumps remain.

Pour out the batter onto the sheets and bake for 30 - 40 minutes until the center springs up when touched.

Cool, and remove waxed paper.  Process into grapenuts or serve with whipped cream, fruit, frosting, toasted with butter, or dipped in milk or tea. Wrap in unsprayed, non-toxic leaves for travel purposes:)

 Manna (AKA Grape nuts)

Epic with milk and honey
1 Recipe Lembas

Preheat oven to 200

Break the Lembas into chunks about 2" square. Drop them by batches into a food processor and pulse several times to process into uniform crumbs.

Turn the crumbs out onto the cookie sheets. Bake for 2 hours or until completely dry but not burnt.

Cool completely and double check that it is completely dry. Damp grapenuts are a disaster. Store in an airtight container.

Serve as a breakfast cereal.

As stated, we are not high level geeks, and I am aware of at least some innacuracies in this story. Lembas and manna are both light colored; ours, using whole grains and honey, turned out more golden/tan. Lembas is purpose made for long treks, and appears to keep indefinitely.  Manna goes bad rapidly if you horde it - the Israelites were being taught to trust in their Provider. Our cake and grapenuts are reversed in their keeping ability. Oh well.

Also, David says the epic "walk into Mordor" quote is not even in the book!

Make your own MondaysMix it up Mondays, healthy2dayFrugal days,sustainable waysSimple Lives Thursday

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The phantom pea hen

October moon over Several Gardens Farm
Children swear our neighborhood in Burien is haunted.

Eerie cries echo down the streets. A dark form lopes through the hedges, always on the run. You catch a glimpse, but it's gone when you turn.

A flock of birds wheels in the darkening sky, startled by something you can't quite see.

The peahen is on the prowl. 

Here is the legend, as we have heard from others. All we have are her stories.

Somewhere a few streets from Several Gardens Farm, a family kept peacocks. The birds thrived and multiplied. When the family left, a pair escaped  stayed behind, going feral in the overgrown ravine and the wide, unfinished alleys.

A male and female were seen ranging the block and beyond. Families tried to capture them, and failing that, a tradition began of feeding them.

In those days, we saw them often.

Amid a flock of crows, two shiny blue forms stood out, tall and regal. They ate at bird feeders and roosted on deck rails.

Then we stopped seeing the male. David and Noah walked the block, trying to find out where he went. Some folks say it was a dog.

Others mutter more darkly, that some teenagers killed him.

All we know is, he met a violent end, and his mate probably saw it happen. 
Now she is a bird apart. Her colors grow muted. She looks more like a giant pheasant than  the 
embroideries of Persian art.

The street she lives on has become a tribute to her stubborn will to live. Brightly colored decorations grace many yards, and statues of birds and beasts have sprung up, as if in her honor.

Night deepens.The hens are sleeping up on their roosts. The ducks are locked up, safe from the raccoons and coyotes that roam our neighborhood.

Our fowl are free range but not feral. They return home out of natural habit. They recognize the bounds of our property by some method I don't understand.

Instincts tell them when to wake up; they forage at least half their food, sometimes ignoring the feed we offer. They form bonds and enmities among themselves, and seek privacy to lay their eggs. Their lives are not as secure as a hen in a completely confined setting, and I am sure they produce fewer eggs. But animals have instincts as deep as the need to eat or sleep, and birds raised in close confinement often have those instincts thwarted.

Compared to the peahen, our birds are coddled. She is truly untamed. She sleeps the night in trees. She doesn't tolerate chickens. She's killed hens that got too close to her. Pedestrians and bicyclists prowl the streets for a glimpse of her - but what could you do if you saw her? You want to take her home and make her safe, but safety is not in her DNA. She has seen too much.

If you call her, she replies, in the harsh, wildcat cry of a peacock, but she won't come to you. She is what would happen to Bonny if she had outlived Clyde.

A haunted, widowed, solitary, self sufficient, chicken-killing harridan of a bird, finding shelter through snowy winters, dodging the massive excavation that tore her street to shreds and then filled it with hot asphalt and road machinery. She is a survivor, the last of her line, uncatchable, held in the trap of all she has done and experienced.

But however I think about her, the peahen will never fit my cubbies - the feminist free-bird, the suffering widow, the victimized feral livestock. She is herself, living her own story. In my own way, I hope I've helped her tell it.

In every live being there is drama playing out. Instincts are fulfilled or denied. Challenges are met and overcome, or they are succumbed to. We have put ourselves in the thick of stories not our own.  I choose to listen to the stories, and live with the knowledge that every story is rich, tragic, and triumphant as hers.

Shared on: homestead revival, frugallysustainable,Simple lives Thursdays