Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mid-Atlantic Shout-Outs

If you've been following this blog for long, you may have noticed that we've mostly kept a strict Thursday/Sunday posting schedule, with occasional delays when we're super busy.  However, it's now been two Thursdays and a Sunday since our last post, with nary an explanation.  (Maybe you're grateful that we haven't been cluttering your inbox or absorbing your time that could be spent reading something more useful!)  Well, here is our explanation: we're in the process of moving across the country!  (ok, two-thirds of the way across the country).  We're excited about picking up some new digs, but we're going to miss all the nice folks we've met out on the east coast.  As an expression of gratitude to our favorite local businesses in the Maryland-Delaware-Pennsylvania, we wanted to raise an electronic toast to the places we frequented for our essentials. (Mainly food and car repairs--the rest of our income went to gas stations and school loan-holding banks, neither of which are we particularly fond of!)  So here are our favorite locales, in no particular order:

Cherry Knoll Greenhouse/Farm - Run by some great folks, the greenhouse has an amazing selection of cacti and other succulents throughout the year, and many garden vegetables during the spring planting season.  We got our milk and eggs from the farm, with the milk fresh from the cows.  The people are always cheerful and friendly, and very accommodating.

Pleasant Valley Country Store - A bulk food store run by some more great folks, this was the place to get staples like flour, sugar, and maple syrup, as well as cheese and butter when we didn't make our own.  They also had amazing prices on apples in season (and for most of the winter), and this was the only place we found that carried hog casings for making sausage.  They also gave us a lot of boxes in which to move our stuff.

Jim's Market - A nice little produce market open from April through December with good variety of veggies; locally-grown in season.  Best prices on mushrooms that we could find!  They've usually got quarter-bushel baskets of 'spotted' produce for $1.00 each, of which we often took advantage.  More often than not these baskets required only minimal trimming, and we enjoyed many hearty and delicious 'spotted' dishes.  Plus, anything we trimmed off immediately became fodder for our herd of worms.  They seemed to enjoy the variety.

Newark Farmer's Market - This Hispanic food-themed market was a little more out of our way, but had the largest variety of peppers we've ever seen.  Also, the best variety of other less-common vegetables, like cactus and odd-looking pear-type things.  Lots of seafood, too.  They also have a non-food section, and we were thrilled to find a cast iron tortilla press and related items there.  This place is neither particularly local nor particularly organic, but if we needed something obscure, we could usually find it here. 

Godfrey's Farm - Best prices by far on pick-your-own (PYO) strawberries, blueberries, and peaches.  It was a bit of a drive for us, but definitely worth it.  We liked that they didn't put a premium on PYO fruits, which some of the more local farms did.  They also sold 25 lb. boxes of their canning tomatoes for probably not enough.  The people are also cheerful and friendly, which is nice.

A to Z Auto Repair - Reddy was our go-to guy for repairs on our aging cars.  Because our cars were old, we saw Reddy more than we would have liked, but his crew always did a great job for a fair price, and only fixed what was needed.  If you're in the area for a while, get to know Reddy--he's a great guy.  Hopefully we'll find someone just as honest and reliable in our new stomping grounds!

View Mid-Atlantic Shout-Outs in a larger map

So, here's to you, fair and friendly small businesses of the MD-PA-DE tri-state area!  Thanks for keeping us moving and keep up the good work!  We'll miss you!

Did we forget any good local businesses in our former neck of the woods?  Do you have any recommendations for our new neck of the woods (Denver)?  Want to give a shout-out to a similar business in your area?  Let us know in the comments section below!

EDIT: We did forget one!  We got our bike stuff taken care of at Wooden Wheels in Newark.  Friendly and helpful folks, good prices, just like the rest of the places we frequented.   Check 'em out if you're in town!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Aquaponics Design

When Matt and Elise introduced us to aquaponic farming, we thought, 'How cool!  We like to eat salads and fish, too!'  and we knew we were going to have to try it.  The trick was, we didn't have the space for a big greenhouse and grow beds.  To make matters worse, we didn't even live on the first floor of our building, which meant we were fairly restricted in how large a system we could build.  A third strike was that at least 50% of our household (population: 2) didn't want some cobbled-together monstrosity in the guest bedroom.  It had to look nice.  But with a little old-fashioned creativity and some elbow grease, almost anything is possible.

In the interest of full disclosure, we didn't have the foresight to take a lot of photos while we were building the system.  But now that we have a blog to post this kind of stuff to, we take pictures of just about everything.  Since we're packing up to move soon, that means temporarily deconstructing the aquaponic system...and a second chance to record the construction process, albeit in reverse.  The bonus for you, faithful readers, is that we can reflect on the system's form and function over the last year or so, and you can avoid any mistakes we made the first time around (there might have been one or two).  The deconstruction is currently underway, but of course, it needs to be essentially complete to start the story at the beginning.  So for today, we just wanted to give a quick overview of our design and what went into our thought process in figuring out the size, location, and orientation of the system.  And to make some fun pictures in powerpoint.

This is a schematic of the system.  It's not quite to scale.  You can tell because we had more than one fish, and they were all much smaller than the one shown in the tank.  Also, the plants were much bigger.
One of our primary concerns in setting up the system was the weight.  We've got the weight of the water, the grow bed, and the wood frame as the major factors (and, in our imaginations, the weight of the fish).  We read that tanks up to 55 gallons can go just about anywhere.  But what about a 50 gallon tank attached to a 50 gallon grow bed?  We might be pushing the limits a little bit there.  In order to spread the weight out as much as possible, we decided to go with an L-shape, with the grow bed overlapping the tank.  In our particular situation, the floor joists are perpendicular to the long side of the grow bed (we think), so at its heaviest (grow bed full of water), the load is distributed across more joists.  Along the same lines, we went with Hydroton as the growth medium since it is considerably lighter per volume than gravel or sand.  (The tradeoff is that it's relatively expensive, but we were lucky enough to find a local place that was selling it for almost half off the cheapest online source we could find!)

We found a fish tank on Craiglist without much trouble, but the grow bed took a little more thought.  We had settled on a wood frame, but we needed to line it with something waterproof.  We considered a variety of totes and other containers, but in the end we decided on an EPDM rubber pond liner for its durability and fish safeness.  We searched a number of places online, but the best value seemed to be Just Liners. (It must be one of those ironic names, since they clearly sell more than pond liners.  Or maybe their liners are socially responsible.  We may never know for sure.)  We were happy with the purchase, and haven't had any leaks.

Part of the reason the liner has held up well might be because we were careful not to let any sharp corners or edges rub against it.  Before we set the liner in place, we padded the inside of the wood frame with wood shavings (we had a lot because we got the frame lumber rough-sawn and planed it in our living room with a little 10" power planer that we also found on Craigslist.  (That's a good reminder--we probably owe our neighbors another plate of cookies.)  The wood shavings also gave us a chance to form the bottom so that the lowest part was the area by the siphon, and minimize the amount of water that stayed in the grow bed when the draining stopped.

One advantage of having the orientation set up this way is that the only breaks in the grow bed liner were directly over the fish tank, where we had to punch through to install the siphon and overflow pipes.  Thus, any leaks were likely to cause minimal damage.  The tradeoff is that the back half of the fish tank is not very accessible.  (Guess where the fish preferred to hang out?)  It was difficult to check in on the fish, and sometimes even find them, because the grow bed blocked both view and access.  In the next system we build, we will try to create less of an overlap.  As a side note, minimizing overlap was one of the design principles Sylvia Bernstein recommended in her Aquaponic Gardening book (which we ignored, and now wish we hadn't).

This is one of the few photos of the young system.  It shows the general location of the system (with which we tried to maximize the natural light contribution), and the grow bed before it was completely full of Hydroton and had its pond liner was trimmed.  It also shows the lighting setup, which we'll cover in more detail in a future post.

For the plumbing between the pump and the grow bed, we used clear vinyl tubing.  It has worked well, with a few catches.  Having clear tubing is disadvantageous because algae will grow on the inside of the tubing.  It's inevitable.  At first, the algae would build up to the point where they started to block flow, and the siphon wouldn't trip to drain the grow bed.  Then we had to try to clean out the tube, which worked best if we threaded a piece of fishing line through it, wrapped a small piece of cloth around one end, and pulled it through the tube like a miniature cylindrical squeegee.  The first time, it took almost an hour to thread the fishing line through the tube (with the help of several skinny, heavy objects), but then we left the fishing line in there, with enough out one end to pull our little squeegee through and not reach the end of the line.  That saved us a lot of time for the second pass.  Still better was when we got smart and buried the tubing in the Hydroton except for the very end.  Then the algae didn't build up at all!  Additionally, the flexibility of the tubing is nice to have, especially for water changes.  It's much easier to alter the configuration than it would be with the rigid PVC piping normally recommended.

Finally, having the storage space underneath the grow bed has been really nice.  It has allowed us to keep all the aquaponics equipment in one place, and out of sight.  Spare pumps, leftover pond liner, the carbon filter for chlorine removal from the water, and fish food all stay there.

In sum, we have been happy with most of the features of this design, except the overlap of the grow bed and fish tank.  It looks nice enough to keep Katie happy, and produces enough basil to keep Jake happy.  Check back on Thursday for more details!

Have you tried your hand at aquaponics design?  Have you had to consider weight restrictions in locating a fish tank?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Look what Katie made!

Sometimes Katie likes to organize stuff.  The other day she made an organizer thingy for the wall.  It looks pretty neat.

She started out with a picture frame and took away everything but the frame.  Then she cut a piece of hardware cloth (0.25"), a piece of cork board, and a ribbon to fit in the frame.  She uses it like a big fly swatter--see all the big shiny bugs she caught?  Just kidding--those are tiny reflectors that she uses to attract crows and raccoons.
She fit the ribbon and the corkboard in where it was supposed to go, then she stapled the hardware cloth into place.
Then she took the cardboard backing that came with the frame and cut it to be the same size as the hardware cloth.  She didn't like the look of the cardboard, so she glued fancy paper on one side and poked two little holes on one end.
The holes are for little wires that fix the cardboard piece to the hardware cloth.  She made the wires longer at first so it would be easy to get through the holes, then trimmed them off so it looks better.  In case you couldn't tell, the cardboard from the previous picture is black on the back side.
Once everything was in place, she folded down the little tabs on the frame to hold everything in place.
Then she hung it on the wall!  She uses it to organize her fishing lures and other stuff.  She says the hardware cloth part is good for ones with long hooks, and the cork part is good for pokey ones without long hooks.

What do you use to organize stuff on your walls? How else have you combined hardware cloth and picture frames?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Banana Bread French Toast

A couple weeks ago, as we were road-tripping across the country to a wedding, Katie got the best gift a guy could ask for--a big bunch of $0.39/lb bananas from KwikTrip.  (Ok, it would have been better back when they were still $0.29/lb, but it's still pretty good.)  As it happened, the bunch was so big, we couldn't finish it by the time we got home.  But there was no way we were going to let those still-good bananas go to waste!  We peeled, mashed, and froze 'em for future use.  Then, this last week, we were experimenting with different leavening agents for the homestead (stay tuned for a future post with those results), and we ended up with a surplus of banana bread.  We could have also frozen that for future use, but we were still feeling all experimental-ey, so we decided to try something else.  After making our Independence Nog earlier this week, we had a half-dozen egg whites to use up, also.  This sounds like the perfect opportunity to find out what banana bread would taste like if it were french toastified.  (Or freedom toastified, if you prefer.)

Here's the surplus banana bread, sliced up and ready for action.  It's thirteen slices, if you're counting.
Next we melted a tablespoon or so of butter in a frying pan.  Little known fact: butter melting in a frying pan is the universal symbol for 'about-to-be-delicious.'
We dredged the banana bread slices through a beat-up mixture of the six leftover egg whites and about 2 tablespoons of milk.  This piece isn't getting soggy, it's soaking up extra flavor.
Then we fried them on the first side. (Ok, we realize that probably all you needed to figure out how to make this recipe was the title, but we like taking pictures of our supper.  It's like being an documentary journalist, but just in our own kitchen.  Also, we wouldn't have had a chance to make as many lame jokes if we just posted the recipe.)
Then we admired the perfect golden brown-ness of the first side while the second side was cooking.
All thirteen delicious pieces, ready for 'post-processing.'  What are you going to eat, Katie?
Just kidding, Katie can have some.  What to eat with it?  How about some sauteed aquaponic swiss chard and some homemade applesauce!  ♫We like to eat, eat, eat our ayples and banaynays...♫  It tastes a little like banana pancakes, except...toastier.  Katie says it tastes a little like banana bread with syrup.  Jake and Buddy the Elf don't think that's a bad thing.

The Recipe:
13 slices banana bread
6 egg whites (or 6 eggs)
2 tablespoons milk
1+ tablespoons butter

Melt butter in frying pan.  While butter is melting, beat together egg whites and milk.  Dredge bread slices through egg mixture and fry in frying pan until golden brown, turning once.  Refresh butter in frying pan between batches as necessary.

How have you made use of surplus bananas or banana bread?  What other kinds of breads have you french toastified?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Nog

Picture this: you return home from a long summer road trip, the weather outside is so hot that your shoes are sticking to the pavement (but at least the dew point is only 82 °F!), and your car's air conditioner puttered out 50 miles from home.  You're now sweating buckets, and you can't wait to get into your humble but cool abode, which you left at a comfortable yet energy-conscious 75 °F.  Now imagine that you swing open your front door only to be greeted by a blast of warm, steamy air even hotter than the outside...your house's air conditioner also puttered out, and your roof has been acting like a solar collector oven since early this morning.  You flop down into your thankfully-not-leather couch and wonder, "how can I possibly find some relief from this heat?" 

Obviously, your next move should be to fire up your computer and log on to The Homestead Laboratory to see if those guys have any ideas.  Imagine your delight when you find out that they have the perfect concoction to liberate you from your heat-induced misery while simultaneously celebrating the liberation of the good ol' USA from those silly-hat-wearing redcoats!  (...and also freedom from only being allowed to drink eggnog on Christmas and Easter.)  That's right!  We like to celebrate independence of all kinds with a tall (chilled) glass of eggnog, or in this case, independence nog.

The recipe starts out just like before--separate out six egg yolks and beat them until they're thick and light yellow.  Add 1.5 c milk and heat them up to 160 °F to kill any salmonella that might be lurking, then add 0.25-0.5 c sugar depending on your inclinations, and another 1.5 c milk.  This is where it gets interesting:

Where we're from, independence is celebrated with red, white, and blue.  We've got some red and blue berries, so we'll add those.  Also, you can see that we went a little overboard with our pasteurization again and a few pieces of the egg set up like a firm  custard.  Don't worry--the stick blender will take care of that!
After blenderizing everything with the stick blender, the red, blue, and yellow became this lovely purple color.  That's ok.  We'll add more red and blue later.
But first let's add some white!  Vanilla ice cream!  Yeah!  (It floats, therefore we conclude that ice cream is less dense than eggnog bubbles.)
There we, white, and blue.  With a purple background. We, um...needed the purple to make the white stand out.  (Right?)  The nice thing is, if the berries are cold, they help cool down the eggnog so it's drinkable right away.  Good stuff, Maynard!

The recipe:
6 egg yolks
1.5 cups milk
another 1.5 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup each red and blue berries (e.g., strawberries and blueberries)
another few berries for garnish
1 scoop per cup vanilla ice cream

Beat egg yolks and 1.5 cups milk until uniform.  Heat mixture to 160 °F, stirring often.  Add sugar and stir until dissolved, then add rest of milk and 1/2 cup each fruit.  Homogenize with stick blender.  Chill, garnish with vanilla ice cream and more berries, and drink.  Appreciate sovereignity.

What do you drink on the 4th of July?  What kinds of red and blue things would you add to your independence nog?  Tell us in the comments section below!