Friday, February 22, 2013

Making Miso

Miso making supplies

 Quite Simply, I love Miso!

Anyone who knows me will eventually have to endure my obsession with miso.

I eat a simple version of miso soup for breakfast - miso stirred into nearly boiling water. I fancy it up with vegetables, rice, tofu, sea veggies, eggs, or anything else around. I make gravy out of it, or mix it with tomato juice for a refreshing but weird beverage.

It was only a matter of time before some strange mental compulsion led me to make my own. I reasoned, falsely, that it would save money. Or that it would be healthier than the miso I can buy. At least I can buy soy beans that say they are GMO free.

Since I had never made miso before, I didn't have very high expectations. In my experience, it takes a little practice to learn new fermentation projects, even if you think you're doing everything right. In this case, round one was a clear failure.

Miso Fail

My first miso attempt. I began it in March 2012, opened it Feb 2013.

The surface of the aged miso was coated with white, powdery looking mold, which was easily skimmed off. All the books mentioned mold like it was no big deal, so I didn't let that scare me.

I had opted for 'chunky'.Ugh. The very word should have warned me.I found the texture of cold, salty, fermented whole soy beans repulsive.  In future I will thoroughly mash the beans.

Far worse, the miso was rendered inedible by a strong aroma and taste of nail polish. This means it fermented wrong and produced acetone. It fermented badly. It can't be fixed.

I used precisely the proportion of ingredients specified, so it must have been my production methods that led to failure. I think I either let in too much oxygen or didn't press the solids down firmly enough.

Miso's byproduct is tamari (as in soy sauce) which is supposed to float to the surface.In my batch, it didn't, instead remaining mixed in with the miso. I think it was the failure of the tamari to separate that killed the miso, diluting its saltiness and causing a bad fermentation.

Plus, I have to be honest, it tasted like cheap soy sauce you might buy once and make a mental note not to get it next time.

But it's all mine! I was excited to have produced some kind of useful product from this whole fiasco.

Starting Over

When I made the first batch, I used a food grade white plastic bucket. This time I have an actual fermenting crock, which should make a more airtight seal, as well as allowing me to weigh down the miso better.
Hallelujah. I love this fermenting crock!

I was understandably shy of my second try at miso. Before I started, I wanted a quick success, so I made a batch of Amazaki.This is a sweet, mildly fermented rice beverage that turns out to be drop dead easy.I cooked some rice, cooled it to the warm end of lukewarm, mixed in the Koji starter that is also used in miso, and put it in a warm oven overnight. By morning it was so sweet, my husband thought I'd added honey. It will be good mixed 1:4 with our oatmeal instead of honey or sugar. I might see if I can make oat Amazaki, which would be delicious.

With a clear win under my belt, it was time to make some miso. The Koji came with instructions, which I am following. I recommend reading through The Book of Miso by Shurtleff and Aoyagi, for much more in depth information.But in some ways they gave so much information a first time user can get paralysed by it, so a one sheet recipe was helpful.

I increased the recipe because you are supposed to make multiple batches and combine them.I cooked and mixed them all at once, in my giant pressure cooker. Hopefully this won't be a problem.

Unsoaked soy beans are almost spherical
Soaked beans, look like any other bean
First I soaked 8 cups of soy beans overnight.

I discarded the soaking water and the huge quantity of hulls that floated off the beans.

I cooked the beans in a pressure cooker for 20 minutes. I assembled the cooker wrong so it did not raise its pressure. After 20 minutes of trying I gave up and simply cooked the beans the old fashioned way, boiling them for 4 hours until they could be, in the fine words to the Book, "crushed easily between the tips of the thumb and the ring finger".

A small sampling of my gigantic hull collection
Once I the beans were done and slightly cooled, I removed yet more hulls. The hulls were endless.Whenever I thought I was done - presto - more!

I then cooled the beans to 110 degrees, pulverized them and mixed them with 6 cups of their cooking liquid,  koji, and salt. 2 1/2 cups of salt. I made the mistake of tasting the mixture last time and it was salty enough to give me an upset tummy and cause a temporary weight gain. At the time I described the recipe as using enough salt to "kill an elephant". To each 2 cups of beans, I also added 1 1/2 T of "seed" miso.

I then salted the inside of my crock, packed it with the miso-ingredients, covered it with more salt, and sealed it under a sheet of plastic wrap. On top of that were the weights and then the lid with its water seal. No air could get through all those layers, I hoped.


Is it worth trying again?

Salt - the not so secret miso ingredient

The time and resources invested were pretty minimal. Prep time was a couple of hours. The aging time was long (I left it for nine months) but aside from checking on it, there was no work involved in that part. Both salt and soybeans, even certified GMO free, are cheap. The bucket was free. The new crock was expensive but I will use it in other projects too.

If this second batch is a success I will continue making miso. If it fails, I admit I will be discouraged. We'll know next spring.

I find I don't particularly mind initial failure. Failure can help me assess how important something is to me. If I want to succeed, I don't begrudge the time, thought and energy to do a postmortem, recheck my equipment and try again. If I feel like quitting, it's likely this wasn't that important to begin with.

I'm not thrilled with trying to dispose of half a gallon of stinky miso, either into the waste bin or into myself, but if I can learn to make a good product in a couple of tries I'll have a lifetime of useful miso in exchange for a few questionable batches. My only real reservation is there's no way to make a small "test" batch, so whatever results I get, I'll have a lot of them.

Oh well. As the old riddle goes:

Q: Which is better, good food, or bad food?

Answer: Bad food. Because bad food is still better than nothing. And nothing is better than good food.

Inspiring, isn't it?

Although in this case, the round one miso may be worse than nothing.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Putting the duck in reproduction

Baby runner ducks

Warning: this blog post contains graphic information about the duck reproductive cycle, which is somewhat brutal. Read with caution.

Also, FYI, I don't want to mention body parts by name because I think weird searches would start coming by my blog. So I'm trying to be prudent, not prudish.

Our first two ducks were female runners, Celia and Rosalind.

They looked identical until this year when Rosalind grew a cape of white around her shoulders. 

Now we can tell them apart, but they still spend most of their time as a pair.


Then we added Daisy. Daisy was up for trade at a barter event. We were sure someone else would want her, but at the end of the evening she was still there. The family offered her to us in exchange for a jar of honey. They just wanted her to have a home.
Daisy in her element

Daisy, getting ready to initiate
Despite a stressful evening in a cage at a party, then in a car, Daisy fit in immediately. The next morning, Celia and Rosalind were following her around and accepting her as their leader.      

Daisy has much stronger drives than the other two hens. She is louder, eats more, and can be frankly quite randy.

She would entice the other girls into the pond, climb on top of them and have her way with them.

Everyone seemed fine with this arrangement but Daisy was clearly the initiator.

When Pikachu joined them, he was stressed. His mate had been killed by a raccoon. His owners were moving and he had to go. He didn't seem to want to mingle with the other ducks.

But Daisy promptly staked him out as her mate. Ducks pair bond in the fall and winter, then mate with their partner in the spring, so they spend a fair amount of time courting.

She followed him around, head bobbing, steering him away from the other girls. He appeared more frightened than attracted by this, but over time he relaxed, got to know all the ducks, and became part of the group.

As duck mating season begins, Daisy and Pikachu appear to be a pair, and Rosalind and Celia are another.

Daisy and Pikachu spend a fair amount of time head bobbing and mating, mostly in the water. They are both heavy ducks and water is probably the most comfortable place for them. Daisy likes to know where Pikachu is all the time.

The two girls don't head bob or mate, but they escort each other around and like to be together to lay eggs.

But I also see Pikachu following each of the other girls around in the yard, usually while Daisy is swimming or laying an egg. Then when she gets back out into the yard, Daisy will come running at them, break it up, and the whole flock will go scuttling around at top speed for a few minutes before settling down to other activities.
Two pairs of ducks, with drama

I would sometimes see Daisy and Pikachu getting together but always in the water. But today he successfully caught up with one of the other ducks on land, and I saw and was flabbergasted.

The drake has a very long, very strange male part - in some species though possibly not mallards 40cm long - and twisty. Imagine a round yellow shoe lace twisted until it starts to form kinks, suddenly bursting out of the lower part of an otherwise tidy looking duck. I did not get a picture of it but you can probably figure out how  to google such an image. I also didn't try or even think of measuring and I don't apologize and won't go back and do it!

When Pikachu and Daisy were mating I didn't know this. I had seen other birds mate. Chickens, crows, etc. often join together at Several Garden's Farm and sometimes I happen to be there. Most male birds lack an external organ and join their vent to the vent of the female during fertilization. So I was doubly unprepared for what I saw.

It was pretty hard to miss this long, trailing yellow thing slashing out of his underside, snaking around the hen duck and into her vent. In a matter of seconds, the act was done. It then took a half minute or so to go back inside of him. Meanwhile he was waddling around, dragging it on the ground. The whole process - well  - it was disturbing.

In the wild, there are more male than female ducks, as females are much more likely to be on land where they are easy targets for predators. When the males outnumber the females too much, their behavior becomes quite aggressive. Groups of males that didn't find mates will chase down and forcibly copulate with females, often injuring and occasionally drowning them. Female ducks try to stay near their mates and avoid unfamiliar males.

What Pikachu was doing with the duck seemed to be somewhere between the consensual pair mating he does with Daisy and the forced copulation of unpaired wild mallard males.

The hen duck neither tried to prevent him, nor did she do any of the joyous courtship Daisy does.

It was like this: "Oh, there's Pikachu. I wonder if he's ..." And by that time it was all over and both parties are running to the pond to wash off.

If two females ducks are a pair, they guard each other, nest, and raise eggs together. But they need to go outside the pair to get the eggs fertilized. Pikachu should be happy to do this.

It gives him more ducks raising his babies. The hen ducks seem less enthusiastic. They would probably prefer a choice of males, and they need to go through a courtship to be in any way interested.

Being pair bonded appears to be a prerequisite for a female duck to respond favorably to a male. Studies have show that a female duck can deflect the fertilization process if she is unwillingly mated by a drake. She has a long, crooked reproductive tract that can contract and prevent fertilization. So all the head bobbing courtship benefits the male by priming his mate to accept his offering.

What can we learn from the ducks about how to conduct human affairs? Um - nothing.

I don't think we can look to ducks for role models. They are animals following instinct and maximizing their odds of a successful outcome.

I sometimes hear people pointing to one aspect of an animal's behavior: "Ducks form monogamous male/female pair bonds" and acting as though this means - "people should model themselves on ducks". This is not a great idea. First, because as we see, ducks really have much more room for behaviors than that.

Second, because you can find almost any behavior in the animal kingdom, so using animal models will lead you into some contradictory behaviors. And third because unlike ducks, we have deep cultural and ethical elements superimposed on our instincts.

Well - perhaps we can learn from ducks that a lot of impulses exist. We have to comb through and decide when to embrace nature and when not to, but it's hard to say that something is not natural if ducks do it.

We need to ask people-questions:

Is someone getting hurt? Is someone being exploited? Is everyone participating freely?

So, do we model ducks in:

  • opposite sex pair bond (why  not? every one's happy) 
  • same sex pair bond (why not? every one's happy) 
  • stepping outside the bond to mate (in this case some one's unhappy - iffy in human relations) 
  • mating rampantly for a few weeks and then taking the rest of the year off (clearly not every one's thing but not my business) 
  • male coercion of females (bad bad bad). 

duck print in the mud

Are ducks a great role model?


Sorry, we'll have to keep thinking for ourselves.

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