02 January 2010

Hippie Homesteading

Beth and I recently made the decision to stay here in Asheville, instead of possibly moving to New York as we had previously considered. Since deciding to stay here, we've been more and more enthusiastic about really throwing ourselves into the life that we're trying (and succeeding) to make here. We're planning to give extra energy to our pottery and other artistic pursuits (in Beth's case, this includes sewing) as well as working on making and growing all sorts of delicious foods and beverages. Basically, we figure that we can do a better job making healthy and amazing foods than most companies can do...and we can do so more cheaply as well.

This summer and fall we had a huge garden, and did some very basic canning and pickling to preserve some of the overflow of vegetables. We were, however, quite limited in our canning possibilities by our lack of a pressure cooker. Luckily, Christmas-time remedied this problem, so we've now got a pressure cooker. Basically, when canning (jarring, really, but the term used in canning) foods to preserve them, one must above all be worried about botulism. This is because botulism kills you. Unfortunately, botulism is not killed at 212 degrees (the temperature at which water boils), so the most basic methods of canning (basically putting jars of food in boiling water) will only work for high acid foods (because the botulism toxin cannot live in high acid environments). So, tomatoes can be done, as can pickled foods, since they're hanging out in the high acid vingegar world that makes them so delicious. In a pressure cooker, however, one can reach much higher temperatures, making it possible to kill the botulism toxin. As such, one can can (nice) all sorts of foods, including meats, soups, etc. So, we're excited by that new addition to our kitchen repetoire.

Recently I've been working on making Kombucha, which is a drink that Wikipedia defines like this:

Kombucha is a fermented tea that is imbibed for medicinal purposes. Although there is limited specific scientific information supporting any purported benefits due to a lack of studies being conducted, there does exist much anecdotal information purporting its historical medicinal value.[1]. Kombucha is available commercially, but can be made at home by fermenting tea using a visible solid mass of microorganisms called a kombucha culture or mushroom.

The tea is sort of a "love it or hate it" type of thing. Many people (my wife Beth included) hate it and it makes them gag. Other people (like me) find it absolutely delicious and wonderful to drink. There are also many people that speak to the enormous health benefits of the drink (as it says above), and though I can't really say anything about that, I do feel really great when I drink the tea...So I tend to believe that something good is going on.

Making Kombucha is a relatively easy process -- I won't go into it all here, since there's quite a bit to say and many have already said it. Basically, one procures a live culture (known as a SCOBY) from a friend or another source. This weird strand-like thing is then placed with some pre-made kombucha into a batch of room temperature sweet tea and essentially left to sit. The culture grows and becomes crazy looking (see below). The tea goes through some sort of fermenatation process and becomes delicious. The final product is lightly fermented, slightly vinegary and has a (very) low alcohol content, somewhere around 0.5% or less. Check out some photos below. The last one is of a batch that is nearly finished. Basically, when the kombucha is good, you bottle it, often with some fruit or fruit juice (I did it today with blended strawberry and peach), cap it up, and let it ferment a few days more before refrigerating it, thereby stoppiing the fermentation process.

Beth has been getting into a lot of bread baking lately, so we've had the chance to sample all sorts of delicious loaves. Most recently she's been working with a 100 year old sourdough culture to make some really nice sourdough loaves. Tonight, she's making some homemade semolina ravioli.

Tonight, we started on a new project that we've been excited to do for a while -- cheese making. We've made yogurt cheese before (very easy, very delicious) but have never ventured into the use of actual milk to make cheese. We've started with a very simple paneer cheese, which is a soft Indian cheese, often eaten with spinach (saag paneer). In the photos below, you can see us boiling the milk (lots of stirring), straining out the whey (only the curds remain...the whey is a sort of nasty liquid, so I don't know what the hell Miss Muffett was thinking), and then pressing the cheese. I'll let you know how it turns out.


Finally, we'll be working very soon now (any day) on our very first batch of beer, which we're very excited about. My good friend Jason Weinstein was kind enough to get us a beer brewing kit for Christmas, and we've had some brewing equipment kicking around for a while as well, so that should be very interesting. I'll keep you posted on that too.

That's all for now. More soon.