Sunday, June 30, 2013

Instant Pickles

Last year, when the cucumbers seemed as long and round and more numerous than the days, we got accustomed to taking them with us for lunch.  Instead of sandwiches and apples, we had sandwiches and cucumbers. (Why would anyone want to base their lunch on something other than a peanut butter sandwich?)  Anyway, we started thinking of ways to take cucumbers for lunch without having to scarf down a whole raw one while our coworkers looked on in disbelief.  Plus, some of the cukes were big enough to give two days' worth of lunch fruit.  So we started slicing them up like pickles and eating them fresh.  We carried them in pint-size canning jars.

Then we started seasoning them with a little salt and pepper.  The salt and pepper turned out to be gateway seasonings, and before long, we had a full-fledged spice party in our cuke jars, with a splash of vinegar, dill, garlic powder, basil, and others to flavorful to mention.  It was getting out of hand.  Well, not really.  It was actually pretty good, but we couldn't pretend we were just taking cucumber slices for lunch anymore.  We had to admit that what we really had was some kind of cucumber-pickle hybrid monster thing.  It tasted mostly pickled, but still had some fresh cucumber flavor, and definitely a fresh cucumber texture.  But we needed a better name than 'cucumber-pickle hybrid monster thing,' so we started calling them 'instant pickles.'

Even though we don't have any cukes in our garden this year (since we're moving soon), it just so happens that Katie came home from the local market this week with a small bag of cucumbers.  Looks like it's instant pickle season again!

We've got four cukes and four canning jars.  It's going to turn out that we need more canning jars.
We started by trimming the ends of the cukes and cutting them into eighths, like so.  The pieces should be shorter than the inside of the jar.  Evidently, pieces of cucumber in this shape are called 'spears.'  It's hard to imagine impaling anything with them, though.
If you anticipated that putting the cukes in the jars would be the next step, give yourself a pat on the back.  They should be loosely packed in the jars so there's plenty of space for vinegar and spices to slosh around and flavor the cukes.
Spice party!  To each jar, we added about a tablespoon of vinegar, a quarter teaspoon salt, and a few sprinkles to a half teaspoon of whatever else we thought might go well together.  Some of them even have some cayenne pepper, just to keep Katie guessing.  Actually, to keep both of us guessing, since we didn't keep track of which jar was which.  We want to point out that this method uses less vinegar than regular canned pickles or refrigerator pickles.  In fact, the volume of vinegar and seasonings is about right for brave souls to shoot like whiskey and head off any afternoon lulls.  Then there's also no leftover pickle juice to worry about.  Hooray for zero waste!
This gives an idea of the approximate amounts we added.  For most of the spices, it was probably between a quarter and half a teaspoon, but some of the really strong ones were less.  We estimate the amount per jar after the pictures below.
Once the vinegar and all the spices are in the jars, we sealed 'em up and shook 'em like they were cucumber-flavored maracas that didn't rattle very much.  That wasn't a very good analogy.  Anyway, the vinegar should splash all around the jar and disperse the seasonings around the cucumbers (and probably some on the sides of the jar).  If we remember, we'll probably shake them again once or twice before we eat them.  Normally we'd make these in the morning and eat them for lunch, but it works to leave them longer, too.  The cukes slowly turn more and more pickly (is that a word?), but are still good after at least a few days.  Ours have never escaped ingestion longer than that.

Recommended amounts of certain spices per jar:

a pinch: cayenne pepper, cloves, allspice

quarter teaspoon: salt, onion powder, green onion powder, dry mustard, dill weed, celery seed, caraway seed, bay leaves

half teaspoon: black pepper, garlic powder, basil, thyme, oregano

one tablespoon: vinegar

Mix and match to find a combination you like!  One of our favorites is salt, black pepper, dill weed, and garlic powder.  Just about any combination of pickling spices works well.

How do you make use of surplus cucumbers?  Do you have a favorite (instant) pickle recipe?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Powdered Raw Sugar

Our wonderful hand-crank grain mill advertises on the side of the box that it can be used for wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye, peppercorns, spices...and more!  We've been focusing mostly on the 'and more' part because, well, what's the fun of an experiment if we know it's going to work?  Anyway, the other day, we found ourselves asking the question, 'what's the fastest way to counteract the enjoyment of eating a dessert dusted with powdered sugar?'  The answer, of course, is accidentally inhaling just before taking a bite and having the powdered sugar lift off the surface of the treat and fly directly into our sinuses or lungs.

'Why does powdered sugar have to be so fine, anyway?' we asked ourselves.  We understand that for some things, like frosting, the particle size affects the texture of the product, and some folks don't like even a hint of graininess on their confections.  (They are confection perfectionists.)  Then we thought, 'wait a minute, we don't mind a little graininess (maybe we won't even be able to tell!), and we have a tool to fix this!'  Since we can change how finely ground things come out of the grain mill, we can make powdered sugar that isn't quite so finely powdered!  Then Katie can make some lemon bars and we can sprinkle our not-quite-so-powdery sugar on them and see if we still accidentally snort the stuff.  (Katie's lemon bars alone would be worth the experiment.)

Additionally, one of the drawbacks of using raw sugar, which is like a strange combination of brown sugar and white sugar with large, brown transparent crystals that take forever to dissolve in anything, is that the crystals are too darn large.  We could probably cut the crystals in half and make them into a much more usable form.  So, let's see what the grain mill can do!

We're going to try to grind a half cup of the raw sugar into powdered sugar, and half cup into the same size as standard granulated white sugar.  First up, the powdered sugar!
Off to a good start!  It looks like powdered sugar, but not quite as fine.
The problem with the very fine grind is that it takes forever.  So we loosened up the mill a little bit.  Now it still makes a pretty fine powder, but it goes faster.  You can see that it's not quite as fine as the first stuff, since it's a little more brown-colored (and the particles look larger).
One of the reasons it takes a long time is because of a phenomenon called 'bridging.'  As some of the particles fall into the mill, the ones above readjust, and hopefully fall in, too.  But sometimes the particles on top can form a structure that won't fall in on it's own (think like a stone archway on a fireplace).  So it's necessary to keep stirring the hopper to keep things moving.  Since we were only rotating the grinder with one hand, this left the other hand to stir with a wooden spoon.  Clearly, some of the grinding happened even without going through the grinding wheel.  The other reason this is taking a long time is that the grooves in the grinding wheel are getting packed up with the fines (the very small particles).
We opened up the mill a little more, and were still able to get a fine enough powder (the right-hand half), but it went a lot faster.  The first half cup of raw sugar took about an hour to grind into powdered sugar, but more than half of that time was spent trying to find the right setting on the mill.  With more practice, that part will go much faster.
The second half cup of raw sugar we wanted to turn into grains the size of standard white sugar, and it went a lot faster.  The whole half-cup took about 15 minutes.  Clearly, some of the particles are still smaller than the target size, but the main goal of slightly decreasing the particle size was still met.
Here are our four grades of raw sugar.  Regular raw sugar on the far left, most coarsely ground next (approximately white table sugar-sized), and the two finely powdered sugars, which are both still a little coarser than the confectioners sugar you get at the store.
One of the issues with any grinding operation like this is that the product has a certain particle size distribution.  The bowl on the right in the previous picture has all grains that are small enough for what we want to do. The bowl on the left, however, has the unground raw sugar and the coarsely ground stuff, which itself has a range of particle sizes.  So, we can sieve them to separate out the sizes we want.  For now, we're just going to use a set of colanders with different screen sizes.  The biggest one looks like it won't let the raw sugar through but will let the rest pass.
It worked!
The next finest one looks like it will let the powdered stuff pass, but hold back the table sugar-sized stuff that was our second goal.
It worked, too!  The stuff that made it through the second colander still has quite a range of sizes, but we're out of screen sizes to use. (Plus, we've proven the concept and the mix is fine for our own use.)  The four bowls in front are the grades from the grinding (the far left is unground).  The two bowls in the back are the standard white sugar and commercial powdered (confectioners) sugar.  They're in order of grain size, decreasing from left to right.  If you want to know more about the actual standard grain sizes of sugars, check page 42 of this book.
It's easier to see the range in grain sizes on something else, like strawberries!  The far right is the commercial powdered sugar, and the third from the left is the standard white sugar.  Let's make some lemon bars!

One lemon bar down, intentionally inhaled just before biting, and no sugar in lungs or nostrils...that means it worked!  Good job, Katie.  Better eat a second one just to make sure it wasn't a fluke.

We could've probably made the powdered sugar a lot faster with a food processor or blender, but it's good to know that the grain mill will work if we need it to, and that the colanders will work to sieve out the larger particles, which would still be there with the other methods.  In the future, maybe we'll work on a solar-, wind-, or human-powered ball mill to do this kind of work.  Stay tuned for updates on that!

Have you ever accidentally snorted powdered sugar off a lemon bar?  Do you have a different way to make powdered sugar?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Italian Medallions (and chops)

We've been completely spoiled this week, cuisine-wise anyway.  As it turns out, we needed to trim bushwhack our aquaponic basil at the same time as the local farm market is starting to have the first local tomatoes of the season.  So, we decided to give in and use up the last of our venison reserves, which was one section of a loin (or backstrap, as we call it).  It was the perfect opportunity to make our favorite venison recipe, which comes from The Complete Hunter's Venison Cookery.  It's not often we take a recipe straight from a cookbook, but this particular one is pretty close.  As a side note, Venison Cookery is one of the best big game cookbooks we've seen, so if you're just getting into eating deer and antelope and stuff, have no qualms about getting a copy.

A good collection of recipes.  Not much on processing game, but has lots of good ideas for cooking it!
The recipe says to start with prepared pesto.  So it looks like we need to prepare some pesto, then.  Here's some of our basil.  We're going to pick the leaves off the stems and hopefully end up with about four packed cups.
We just pulled some garlic, too, so that's definitely going into the pesto, stalk and all.  Ok, we'll clean the dirt off and trim the roots, but the the bowl!
We like to chop the basil and garlic first, then add about a quarter cup olive oil and have at it with the stick blender.  If we go right to the stick blender, it seems to come out stringy.
Then we season it. For this batch, we added about a half cup Parmesan cheese, a couple tablespoons chopped roasted, salted sunflower meats, half teaspoon salt, and one tablespoon black pepper.  We also added another tablespoon of garlic powder since it wasn't quite garlicky enough, and a couple more tablespoons of olive oil.  For this particular batch, our basil was a little mature (as in, holy smokes it's packed itself into the grow lights and is making flowers along the light bulb!), so it was also a little bitter.  We added about a teaspoon of honey to balance it out.
Now it's time to get the venison going.  We started cutting the loin into medallions like we normally do (little steaks about a half inch thick and 2-3 inches in diameter), but then realized they would make very small medallions, since it was a small deer.  So the rest we did as butterfly chops.  There were also a few random pieces from the ends (at the upper left of the photo), which work fine for this, too!  To make the butterfly chops, start a half inch from the end of the loin and cut 3/4 of the way through, then move another half inch from the end and cut all the way through.  Then open the piece along the first cut, and you have a butterfly chop!  The remaining section beneath the first cut is the thorax.  Put the chops thorax-up on the pan (we did it upside down here) and put it in the oven with the broiler on until they're evenly brown on the outside (probably 5-7 minutes) then flip them over and broil another 3-5 minutes.
In the meantime, slice up a tomato and some cheese.  Almost any hard cheese will work, but we especially like mozzerella, colby, or longhorn.
When the chops come out of the oven the second time, spread a thick layer of pesto on top and put them back under the broiler.  We like to add the pesto to the non-thorax side of the chops so it's a nice even layer, even if it means the chops sit slightly less stable on the pan.  They're not really going to fly away or anything.
Broil until the top of the pesto starts to turn brown.
Add a slice of tomato and cheese on top of the pesto, and return to the broiler again, just until the cheese starts to melt.
It should look something like this when done.  We do our best not to drool, but it usually doesn't work.  Seeing (and smelling) these things is just like Pavlov ringing a bell for us.
Serve them with a salad and some fresh bread drizzled with olive oil, garlic powder, Parmesan cheese, and leftover tomato.  Wash it down with a glass of cheap red wine.  They're also good on a bed of wild rice.  Make sure to ask Katie if she really wants both of hers.  She probably does, but it doesn't hurt to check.

The recipe:

4 cups packed basil leaves
1 bulb garlic, with or without greens
Extra garlic powder to taste, if desired
2 T chopped roasted salted sunflower meats
0.5 t salt
1 T black pepper
0.25 cup olive oil
0.5 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1-2 lb loin (backstrap) cut into medallions or butterfly chops
1 large tomato, sliced
0.25 lb cheese, sliced thick

Chop basil and garlic, then add olive oil and blend.  Blend in seeds, salt, pepper, and Parmesan cheese, adding extra olive oil if necessary.  (Pesto should be thick but spreadable.)  Arrange medallions/chops on cookie sheet, set in oven under broiler until browned, then flip and broil again for 3-5 min.  Spread pesto on medallions/chops, return to broiler until pesto starts to brown.  Top each piece with a slice of tomato and cheese, return to broiler until cheese looks deliciously melty.  Serve hot, but not too hot.

What's your favorite pesto and/or venison recipe?  Let us know in the comments section below?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ants on a Nog

As you are no doubt aware, we are currently smack dab in the middle of Carpenter Ant Awareness Week, a week dedicated to educating folks about carpenter ants and the damage they can cause.  It always happens during the third week of June, and is typically 'celebrated' primarily by pest control companies as a kind of publicity event.  But we can get behind most things educational, and we can definitely get behind insect educational events.  So in the traditional sense, here's what you need to know about identifying, preventing, and controlling carpenter ants.  Please be responsible and read it.

We also wanted to do our part to spread the word in the nontraditional (i.e., more fun) sense, but Katie said she doesn't have enough time to make a giant ant costume on the sewing machine or make pamphlets to hand out to strangers on the sidewalk.  So, instead we decided to raise our glasses for a toast to carpenter ant education.  What's in our glasses?  Carpenter ant-themed eggnog. 

Start out as before, taking six egg yolks and beating them until thick and bright yellow, then mixing in 1.5 cups milk and heating to 160 °F.  While hot, add a third of a cup of sugar and mix to dissolve. We found out this time that if you heat the mix higher than 160 °F and the eggs start to set up, it's possible to make it uniform and not chunky again by hitting it hard with the stick blender.  The hand-crank egg beater would probably work, too, if it's functioning properly.
Add a couple tablespoons or so of peanut butter and mix well.  Then add the other 1.5 cups milk.
Add a half cup of finely chopped raisins, or add a half cup of raisins and finely chop them in situ with the stick blender, as long as it's already out.  Just like you would probably want to do to the carpenter ants, if they were busy eating your walls.
For the final touch, take a pinch of celery seed and grind it up with the ol' mortar and pestle.
The chopped raisins will probably sink to the bottom of the bowl, so make sure to stir well before serving.
Chill before serving, and garnish with a small hill of cinnamon and cloves.

Now, just like our earth 'nog may cause some readers to wrinkle their noses at the thought of chocolate eggnog, we realize that this recipe might raise a few eyebrows.  But, just like earth nog was the illegitimate offspring of a glass of chocolate milk and a bowl of custard, consider that this ant-themed recipe is sort of the goofy stepchild of your favorite preschool snack and a bowl of custard.  Katie has almost finished her entire glass already!  (Really!)

The recipe:
6 egg yolks
1.5 cups milk
another 1.5 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
2-3 Tablespoons peanut butter
1/2 cup raisins, chopped
pinch ground celery seed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves

Beat egg yolks until thick and bright yellow, add 1.5 cups milk and mix until uniform.  Heat mixture to 160 °F, stirring often.  Add sugar and peanut butter, stir until uniform, then add rest of milk raisins, and celery seed.  Garnish with cinnamon and cloves.  Chill and drink. Explain to any guests that this is to raise awareness of carpenter ants and how to deal with them.

How are you celebrating carpenter ant awareness week?  How do you deal with carpenter ants?  Have you made this eggnog with real ants instead of raisins?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Adapting an Adapter

This has been a very slow-developing post (over a year in the making), so instead of writing some long, clever introduction about power adapters, directed evolution, and survival of the fittest, we'll just give you a set of instructions for how we came to fix Katie's Macbook power adapter, starting from the very beginning.  If you already have a broken adapter or two, you can skip to step eight.

1. Visit someone with a new puppy.  Make sure the puppy's teeth are very sharp.
2. Play with puppy for a while, then sit down on a chair and get out an Apple laptop.  Make sure to keep an eye on the puppy.
3. Blink.
4. When you open your eyes, notice that puppy is chewing on something small.
5. Ask puppy what it has in it's mouth.
6. The puppy will probably respond with something like, "Nom nom nom. Nothing. Nom."
7. Don't believe puppy.  Pry puppy's mouth open with one hand and remove very end of power adapter cord from beneath puppy's tongue.  It should be the magnetic end that attaches to the computer, and not have any extra cord with it.
8. Realize that adapter cannot be satisfactorily repaired and search for replacement online with remaining battery.
9. Become angry and defiant that a replacement adapter costs $80.  Look for better deals.
10.  Find one that's a better deal and order it.  Don't worry too much that it doesn't have the little Apple logo on the white box part.  But keep the old adapter, just in case.
11. Use replacement adapter for about a year, until the plastic on the white box starts to melt enough that it looks like it might self destruct.

Now you have one adapter with a good box and no end, and one adapter with a good end and a dangerous-looking box.  Now we can take the good end and the good box and make a good adapter!
First cut the wire off the bad box and cut the casing off the end 1-2 inches of the inner and 5-6 inches of the outer cables.  As a side note, with this approach, it's possible to gain a few extra feet of cable length on the adapter.
On the original adapter, the cable strands have a silver-colored coating, which evidently needs to be removed for this repair to work.  You can use a knife or other hard object to scrape the silver part off, but the job is much quicker and cleaner with sandpaper.
Also get some heat-shrink tubing from RadioShack or Home Depot.  We got a little assortment box with multiple sizes and colors.  Make sure the pieces are long enough to cover the exposed wires, and put them on one of the cables like so.  The extra piece of cable at the lower left is part of the discarded cable housing trying to sneak into the picture and get his 15 minutes of fame.  It's not the end of the cable being repaired--that should have the magnetic fitting that attaches to the computer on it!
Twist the strands from the two inner wires together like so.  Ignore the fact that the heat shrink tubing is on the other wire and shorter in this picture than the last, because it just means that the first time we did it, we forgot to put the bigger section of heat shrink tubing on.
Solder the two halves together.  Watching the capillary action of the melted solder go into the stranded wire and then solidify is totally awesome.  It's like something from a Terminator movie.  Two side notes here: if you don't have a soldering iron but do have a wood-burning tool, you can still do this step.  Also, be careful not to shrink the heat-shrink tubing while you're soldering, or you'll have to start over.  At least then you'll have another chance to remember to put the bigger piece of heat shrink tubing on before you connect the wires.
Slide the smaller piece of heat shrink tubing across the junction you just soldered and shrink it with Katie's special heat gun she keeps in the bathroom for purposes just like this.
Solder the outside wires together in the same way.
Slide the larger piece of heat shrink tubing across the connection and shrink it.
Step back and admire your work before testing it.  Hey, that looks pretty good!
Feel slightly nervous for the moment of truth.  Plug the adapter in and wait a few seconds to see if the little spot lights up.  Hey, it works!
Wrap it up and pretend like nothing ever happened.  After all, it wasn't like Katie would have had no way to charge her computer if this didn't work or anything.

Have you repaired any of your own power adapters?  How did it turn out?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Alternative Livestock Ideas

WARNING: We normally strive for a ratio of about 50% silliness and 50% useful stuff in our posts, but this post is closer to 90% silliness.  If you are a first time reader, make sure to check out some of our other posts before writing us off as kooks.  After reading the other posts, you will probably still think we're kooks, but at least you'll have a better sample on which to judge us.  To the rest of you: take off your thinking caps.  It's about to get stupid.


As we were reading through Joel Salatin's You Can Farm, we started thinking about what other livestock could be raised in a niche market for a profitable farming enterprise. We recalled a story about some folks who have a herd of goats with which they travel around and offer brush-clearing services.  This seems like a great system because a large fraction of the feed comes from land the farmer doesn't have to own, or even rent!  What other types of animals could this model be applied to?  We came up with a few examples:

Beavers: A traveling colony of trained beavers could be used for ecologically sound timber felling and dam building.  The beavers would probably even clean up the brush from the fallen trees and leave a small pile of mulch near the trunk.  Illegal to modify those wetlands on your property?  Not if the beavers do it! (okay, maybe it would be if hired beavers do it, but it's probably a gray area, legally speaking.)

Woodchucks: Need to install a culvert under that sidewalk?  Running an electrical line to an outbuilding?  Hire out a herd of well-trained whistle pigs to get the excavation job done lickety-split.  Alternatively, if you need party entertainment, have a giggle as a herd of woodchucks wiggle through your yard, randomly snacking on stuff.  They're also good at staring contests.  It's a scientific fact that woodchuck videos are at least as funny as cat videos, although greatly underrated. A woodchuck and a cat in the same video?  How does this not have more views than Gangnam Style??  (Katie says, "Ok, Jake.  We understand that you think groundhogs are inherently funny.  Get over it.")  Another big bonus is that they hibernate in winter, which would dramatically reduce feed costs.

Anteaters/aardvarks: Pest control with insectivorous mammals must be a hugely untapped market.  Every spring when colonies of pavement ants swarm on sidewalks or come looking for food in kitchens, there must be a seasonal outcry for an environmentally-friendly solution that doesn't require poisons or vacuum cleaners.  People would probably love to rent out a herd of anteaters for a few days until the problem is solved!

Uh-oh, Katie.  Call the anteater guy--they're coming in through the window!  What do you mean there's no anteater guy?  I wish there were!

Honey badgers: For problem species that anteaters won't eat, honey badgers can probably take care of the rest--bees, snakes, rodents, honey badgers love them all.  They're also good diggers, so if the woodchucks get out of control, honey badgers can probably solve the problem.  What could possibly go wrong with this one?

Clams/mussels: Want to filter your greywater as a final step before reusing it on the garden or houseplants while simultaneously raising tasty and healthy seafood?  Install a raft of freshwater clams in your greywater effluent system and watch the water become crystal clear while the clams become huge and delicious.  Actually, this is pretty much just aquaponics, so the business model is already proven. 

Cats: Would definitely be useful for rodent control and as a source of hair for spinning yarn, but mostly we wanted to post a link to our favorite commercial of all time.  We can never remember what the product is, but the production is brilliant!

Hummingbirds: Some flowers store their nectar too deep for honeybee tongues, so other species are required to pollinate them.  Are there enough of these flowers to sustain a business?  Maybe not, but how awesome would it be to command a flock of hummingbirds!

Monkeys: What's the hardest part of picking apples, pears, and peaches from trees larger than 'dwarf' size?  The ones you can't reach!  Wouldn't you like to get them before they fall on the ground?  Maybe you could with a tribe of trained Capuchin monkeys.  They'd be super smart and probably work all day bringing in the high-hanging fruit and nuts without damage (mostly).

This little guy, with proper training, could pick the highest apples and pears on your tree and bring them down to your basket with nary a bruise or blemish.  Photo credit: ADW.

Otters: Have your aquaponic/greywater clams gotten out of control, or are they doing so well you don't have time to pick them yourself?  A trained bevy of otters would enthusiastically pick them for you.  One could also offer harvesting services for oyster or sea urchin infestations.

Squirrels: Planning to start a pecan or walnut orchard?  Need to plant ten acres of oak trees on your new hunting land?  Bet it would be great if you didn't have to plant each acorn yourself.  For a small fee, a herd of squirrels could do the job in a couple days, given enough seed stock.  One could offer trained squirrels that plant trees in rows for easier harvesting, or untrained squirrels for a more natural look.  Additionally, squirrel meat is very lean and tasty when properly prepared, and squirrel hides tanned hair-on are pleasantly soft and durable.

Fox squirrel about to plant or eat an acorn.  With a little training, he could provide the labor for your entire reforestation project, or at least plant your walnut orchard for you.  Photo credit: Wikipedia.

These alternative farming proposals would also stimulate a market for talented animal trainers. So, if you have squirrel- or honey badger-training skills, feel free to jump on the bandwagon now, before this concept really takes off.

Do you have experience with alternative livestock?  What are some other potential enterprises that could be stacked on these here?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!