Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Different Kind of Weed Brownie

Last April, we said that it wasn't really spring until we had had our dandelion fix, which is an assertion we still stand by.  But what happens when we haven't fully scratched our itch, but Katie is tired of eating dandelion pancakes (or possibly just pancakes in general), and the dandelions are still blooming?  We've got to figure out other foods to put dandelions in.

We've been intrigued (and impressed) by desserts that feature vegetables: carrot cake (obviously), red velvet cake with beets, frosting colored with spinach or beets, and Katie even makes a pretty mean zucchini brownie.

So we thought, "Hey!  It seems like we can take a recipe for some kind of cake-type thing, add a bunch of shredded veggies (which would also be a good name for a band), and have a dessert for which it's easier to justify eating four or five pieces at once!"  Also, it was April 20 last week here in Colorado, which seemed to carry some sort of significance that we can't quite put our finger on...and so the concept of the dandelion brownie was born.

We started with about 3.5 cups of dandelion flowers, which gave us about 3 cups of petals

Then we started making a regular brownie recipe.

We added the dandelion petals at the same time as the flour and chocolate chips, but the batter was really dry so we also added a half cup of milk.

The milk brought the batter back to the right consistency, despite all the extra nutrition (also here) we packed in.

We spread the batter out into a greased pan...

And baked it!
Since the petals are so mildly-flavored, they hardly affect the rich chocolatey taste at all. The brownies taste just like brownies, but the petals are visible as little yellow streaks.  They're like little pieces of confetti for celebrating healthy desserts!

The recipe (based off brownies from Glorious Treats):
4 eggs
1.25 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup butter
2.25 cups sugar
1.5 cups all purpose flour
1.5 cups (one 12-oz bag) semisweet chocolate chips
3 cups dandelion petals
0.5 cup milk

Beat together eggs and cocoa.  Melt butter, mix in salt, sugar, vanilla, and baking powder, then mix together with eggs and cocoa mix.  Add flour, chocolate chips, dandelion petals, and milk, mix well.  Smooth batter out into a 10" x 16" cookie sheet, and bake at 350 °F for 25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

What types of vegetables do you put into your desserts?  What other dishes do you put dandelions in?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Original Easter Ham Strata!

Holy smokes, it's Easter time! (or at least, it was last weekend.)  That means that it's time to celebrate with that age-old treasure of the Waldo, WI Methodists: ham strata.  We eat seasonal stratas (what's the plural of strata?) at different times of the year, and are currently embarking on a journey to perfect one strata recipe per month.  But the month of April was easy, because it is the month in which the original strata (as far as we know) originated, and it's already perfected.  What follows below is the proper way to prepare the original Easter ham strata.

Start with a layer of bread in a 9" x 13" pan, then a layer of ham, and a layer (or two) of cheese. If Katie's not watching, you don't have to tear the bread into little pieces, and you can increase the cheese and ham as you see fit.  (The amounts given in the recipe are minimums.)  We used cheddar and swiss, but if you're feeling rebellious, other kinds of cheese work, too, as long as they can melt.  American cheese doesn't count because it's not really cheese.

Repeat the layers as necessary to fill the pan, ending with a layer of cheese(s) on top.

Then beat together 6 eggs and 3 cups milk, along with 0.5 teaspoon onion powder, 0.5 teaspoon garlic powder, 0.25 teaspoon salt, 0.5 teaspoon pepper, and 1 teaspoon mustard.  Pour it over the cheese/bread/ham mix, and let it soak/marinate/blossom overnight, or at least several hours.  Traditionally this is done Saturday afternoon or evening by a crew of hyperactive middle schoolers, but it can also be done satisfactorily by grown-ups.

While the strata is soaking, attend an Easter Sunday sunrise service.  Traditionally, the service is in Waldo, WI, but the Red Rocks amphitheater in Colorado is an acceptable substitute.

Well, lookey here!  It's a mule deer!  How would you like to be featured in our next strata, mule deer?

After the service, lightly crunch 3 cups corn flakes and mix them with 4 Tablespoons melted butter.

Apply the buttered corn flakes to the top of the strata...

...and bake at 375 °F for 50-60 minutes until it looks like this.
Cut into large pieces and move to a plate while still steaming hot and melted cheesey.  Look!  Layers!  (Just like an ogre!)

The recipe:
10 slices of bread (at least)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
2 cups shredded swiss cheese
3 cups ham, shredded
6 eggs
3 cups milk
0.5 teaspoon each of onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper
0.25 teaspoon salt
3 cups corn flakes, lightly crushed
4 Tablespoons butter, melted

Layer the bread, ham, and cheese in a 9" x 13" pan, starting with bread and ending with cheese.  Beat together eggs, milk, onion powder, garlic powder, pepper, and salt.  Pour over mixture and set in fridge for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight.  Attend Easter sunrise service.  Mix together melted butter and corn flakes, spread over top of bread-ham-cheese layers.  Bake at 375 °F for 50-60 min, until corn flakes are more golden brown than they started.

How do you celebrate Easter?  How much ham strata does it involve?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Books Review: $50 and up Underground House Book, Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book by Mike Oehler

First, a confession: we're huge fans of underground/earth-sheltered structures.  Cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, virtually immune to tornadoes, nearly invisible to alien invaders...the list of perks goes on and on.  We're also cheap. (Pronounced frew-gull.)  As it turns out, Mike Oehler probably has similar tastes. 

Covers of the relevant books.  The drawing on the cover of the $50 and up book is one of the less spectacular designs in the book, but shows how underground structures can be built even on relatively flat ground.  The drawing on the cover of the greenhouse book shows many of the features of Oehler's design, namely a lower section for standing room, trapping cold air, and potentially sheltering rabbits; a back wall with thermal storage devices, and a roof with venting capability.  We found a copy of the $50 and up book here, and the greenhouse book here.

In the foreword to the greenhouse book, Rob Roy (another underground house expert with his own series of books) says,
"I've always prided myself on sharing information on low-cost green building techniques in my books, but Mike out-flanks me every which way from a Mexican Sunday: the guy builds cheap, dirt cheap, and I say this with begrudging admiration." [Mexican Sunday is another of Oehler's books.]
The books are an entertaining and immensely useful guide to earth-sheltered buildings. Oehler brilliantly mixes personal experiences of building underground structures on the cheap with curmudgeonly (to use Oehler's own words) but endearing political commentary. (How many other books have an entire chapter devoted to circumventing building codes and fooling building inspectors?)

While most other sources on underground buildings advocate the copious use of concrete and insulation materials, Oehler explains how to design and build stable, structurally sound earth-sheltered buildings (provided building codes are not viewed as gospel truth) with materials scrounged, sourced from the homestead, or readily available at the local hardware store: mainly wood and plastic sheeting.

The steps and principles of construction are simple:

  1. Dig a hole, optimally on a ridge if a view of the surrounding area is desired, but optionally on a hillside or even on flat ground.
  2. Construct a post-and-beam frame in the hole, making sure to place a layer of polyethylene between wood and dirt, e.g., in the holes for the posts.  Also make sure the frame is braced against itself to keep the force of the dirt that will be added outside the walls and on the roof from buckling the frame.  In the greenhouse book, Oehler also mentions that he now chars the bottom end of the posts in a campfire to further preserve the wood.
  3. Add shoring on the outside of the frame in the form of lumber mill ends, scrounged boards, etc., again making sure that there is always plastic sheeting between the wood and the dirt.
  4. Backfill around and on the structure with dirt, making sure to allow for proper drainage.

Naturally, there are numerous details to each of those steps that Oehler outlines in the books, gleaned through his considerable experimentation with underground structures and experience in the construction industry.

Oehler walks readers through his methodology, which is arguably based on a series of questions:
  1. What do I want out of the underground building?  
  2. What is the simplest (and cheapest) way I can build a structure that gives me what I want out of the building?
  3. What are the problems with the simplest structure, and what can I do solve them?
  4. What are the problems with the improved form, and what can I do to further improve the building?
  5. ...and so on
Not only is this approach an incredible time-saver for folks like us, who tend to follow the same protocol, but the fact that Oehler has resolved these problems to a sufficient degree to live in his self-built underground houses for decades and to harvest vegetables year-round from his underground greenhouse near the Idaho-Canada border speaks to the soundness of his approach.

Criticism of these books is hard for us to muster.  Oehler calls it like he sees it, which is mostly endearing.  For example, as implied above, we learn straight away that he has a strong disdain for authority in general and especially government involvement in the everyday matters of rural life.  However, one doesn't have to read very far between the lines to guess that Oehler might be a little bit vindictive, even if the vindication comes in the form of somewhat petty remarks in the figure captions of his books.  But the cumulative effect of these comments does very little to detract from overall excellent works.

In sum, we are very happy to have Oehler's experience to draw from when we have a need for some outbuildings on our own homestead and will very likely use some of his techniques.  We highly recommend these books!