Monday, January 30, 2012

Bubbles and Fizz

A few years ago, as we started becoming "food nerds", we got introduced to fermented foods. Turns out there's more to "fermented" than wine and beer. As I recall, it started with a milk culture we began feeding our son. Called "piima", it is pretty much "milk snot" -- a stringy, gelatinous substance you get by mixing a starter with milk and leaving it on the counter overnight. Turns out it, or something very like it, is also pretty popular around here. We mixed it with various other substances to make a magic potion for the kid, and he loved it.

Our next step was lacto-fermentation, where the idea is that you preserve various foods by convincing some sort of bacterium to make lactic acid, which in turn preserves the food. That's where we get sauerkraut, but also chutney, mustard, ketchup, fish sauce, kvass, and about a billion other things. Modern variants of these foods typically aren't lacto-fermented (it's not one of Heinz's 57 flavors), but they all descend from fermented ancestors.

Homemade sauerkraut was, for us, a gateway drug. Far superior in both taste and nutritional value to the vinegar-soaked mash available in stores, when done well homemade sauerkraut aids digestion, increases the vitamin content of its ingredients, and will quickly teach you to refuse anything but the best. The recipe is simple: chop high-quality, firm cabbage in to small pieces, mix with about two tablespoons of salt per head, pound the bejeebers out of it with something hard, like a wooden spoon, so that it releases its juices, and pack it into quart jars. Add water if necessary to keep the cabbage below the level of the liquid, screw the lids down tight and leave them on the counter to bubble and hiss for a week as the fermentation gets going. When the hissing dies down, pack it away in the basement for a month or six -- it's harder to leave the second batch down very long, because you remember how good the first batch tasted -- and then dig in. No need to boil the bottles and seal everything, no need to keep it frozen or particularly cold; some folks I've heard of made some in a big bucket and left it in a relatively clean part of the garage for a year, after which they found it was still excellent. Purists wanting a larger batch without a crass plastic bucket can use a sauerkraut crock, a large ceramic pot where the cabbage is kept under the liquid with a plate weighed down with a brick, or some such. Somewhere I have a recipe I'm determined to try one day; it calls for a barrel and 55 heads of cabbage.

Similar techniques have worked very well for us to preserve string beans and jalapeno peppers, and quite a few other vegetables are certainly good candidates but we haven't tried them yet. When testing out a new idea, it's helpful to employ a decent sense of smell and healthy skepticism; if the sauerkraut juices are stringy and ropy, or the cabbage is particularly dark in color, or there's fuzz growing on it, I'd recommend tossing that particular batch. We tried salsa once but determined it had become alcoholic, most likely a function of how much juicier and softer tomatoes are compared to the other veggies we've tried. Use some caution until you've vetted a new recipe.

If you happen to have whey on hand, you can cut back on the salt. Whey of course comes from cheese making, but you can also get some by dumping yogurt (make sure it has live cultures, because you need those cultures in the whey) into cheesecloth and letting it drip for a while. The stuff that drips out is the whey, the stuff still in the cloth makes excellent cream cheese. For a quart of sauerkraut, replace a tablespoon of the salt with a tablespoon or two of whey. This will jump-start the fermentation. Grated carrots with a little fresh ginger is extremely tasty fermented this way. but won't last as long as sauerkraut, and should be refrigerated once opened.

In some future post, if I get around to it,

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The baby just turned one, and for the last six months or more has had problems sleeping. Problems like, "If you hold me and rock me and carry me around, I might finally fall asleep after an hour, but if you happen to wake me up laying me in the crib, you've gotta do it all again." Or, "I might choose to sleep through most of the night, but it will involve waking up every hour or so for food." For various intervals during this time, this behavior has been attributable to teething, or brief illness, but in general it has passed beyond the point of "just a phase". Which makes it all the more irritating to get advice like this: "Oh, yeah, my kid did that too. I'd forgotten about that. Gee, that was rough, but I guess we just waited it out. Did I tell you about his last letter from college?"

We've resolved to try, once again, the "just let her cry it out" method. We've done this before, but her ability to keep crying surprised us in each instance (and lest we be described as simple pansies that couldn't withstand the heart-rending wails of a distressed and helpless baby, let me remind you, gentle reader, that the dear child's parents both come from the older end of large families, and have already taught three other children to sleep decently, so there's no small experience behind this effort). Well last night, it seems to have worked. We didn't get to bed early, but baby slept longer at one stretch than she has in ages, and after she did wake up and get fed, she cried herself to sleep again.

Perhaps if this works for her, she could teach her father how to fall asleep.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


I'd like to take a brief side-road from the usual rural idyll to talk about the internet. I like to say something witty, educational, and entertaining here. I'd like to include links to others' witty, educational, and entertaining ideas. I'd like to do all these things, but it's too dangerous. Someone might claim I was using their idea without sufficient permission from them, it was their idea first, and was copyrighted. And if recently proposed and startlingly successful legislation becomes law, I could lose all access to this blog as a result. Thanks to our own dear technologically illiterate Senator Hatch and similarly misguided legislators, something called the Protect IP Act, or PIPA, is making its way through the U.S. Senate. It instructs U.S. law enforcement to disable websites which host, link to, promote, or otherwise misuse copyrighted information, based only on complaints from the supposed copyright holder. Apparently that bit in the Constitution (amendment 14) about not depriving citizens of property without due process of law doesn't apply here.

This legislation comes from the always innovative hallowed halls of Hollywood, where apparently the internet is considered, as Cory Doctorow cleverly put it, merely "glorified cable TV". Misguided Dept. of Justice button pushers could, on the strength of a complaint alone, disable my access to websites I use to get my job done. Or prevent access to digital information used for research, industry, or anything else. All to stop me from getting a bootlegged copy of whatever new movie I'm supposed to get excited for. The legislation would even prohibit the use of something called DNSSec, which is really the only tool ever created which could prevent many of the high profile business hacks that keep making news. If you've ever gotten the call that your credit card information was stolen by hackers, you might want to pay attention here.

To justify this heavy-handed power grab, promoters say similar controls already exist and work well in such bastions of democracy and human rights as Syria and China. I know that makes me more comfortable. Although the U.S. House version of the bill is essentially dead, at least for now, the Senate version is still going strong, and recently discovered information shows the U.S. has been trying to pressure Spain, and presumably other governments, to adopt similar measures.

I'll stop now before some Iron Felix wanna-be at Thought Police Central Command sees this and gets excited. Please contact your elected officials.

Update: KSL reports Senator Hatch, in a fit of clear and rational thought, has taken his name off of the list of PIPA's co-sponsors and decided to oppose the bill. Apparently Utah's other senator, Mike Lee, also opposes the bill; other reports I'd seen a few days ago suggested the contrary. This is welcome news.

Update the Second:We won. After several major websites (Wikipedia, among others) protested SOPA and PIPA by blacking themselves out all day January 18th, support for the legislation plummeted, as shown here:

Shortly thereafter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he'd "postpone" a vote on PIPA, and later Rep. Lamar Smith, author of SOPA, pulled his bill in order to find a solution more people agree on. Because of the presidential election, and federal inability to focus on any single topic for more than a week straight, it will likely be some time before PIPA sees daylight again. Meantime, the entertainment industry claims there are some problems (like copyright violation) whose solutions "have no business being decided politically." Unfortunately for the MPAA, this is still (nominally) a democracy, where government derives power from the people, and the people have the right to decide, through the political process, whatever they want to decide. Whether the MPAA likes it or not. Former senator Chris Dodd, now president of the MPAA, made it clear that his organization won't continue to buy politicians if those politicians won't remain faithful lapdogs: "Candidly, those who count on 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chimney tweaks

It's interesting how, in winter, in a big house, one's thoughts turn to heat, and more particularly where it's all going. We've burned through an awful lot of wood this winter -- wood we've had to cut, split, stack, carry, and so on. We were fortunate that along with the house, we bought a large pile of potential firewood out in the field, so this year we haven't had to go out in the hills and cut our own trees. I'm holding hope that the pile will last us to the end of winter, but that's looking less and less likely. Firewood is supposed to be left out to season for a while before use, but this has been left long enough that it's half rotted, and spongy old wood burns extremely fast.

We've also, on occasion, burned some of the coal we have in little piles here and there in the yard. The thought of burning coal may cause some to cast scornful glances our way, but as I see it, heating with coal directly is more efficient than having the power plant burn coal, lose some energy turning the heat to electricity, lose more energy transmitting the electricity to me, and let me lose still more turning it back into heat. Provided we don't burn too much of it, such that it would damage the stove, burning coal works fairly well.

The problem, though, is the chimney. It leads from the fireplace straight out the wall, and takes most of the heat with it. The lousy diagram at the top of the post shows the current setup. It doesn't take too much staring at the heat coming out of the chimney to decide there might be something better. So I want to change the chimney some.

This second lousy diagram describes what I have in mind. The room with the fireplace has a high, sloping ceiling; the chimney will lead up to the ceiling, follow its slant up for several feet, and finally pop out the roof. Hopefully that will let it radiate more heat into the room, and less into the trees outside. Anyone have some chimney pipe they don't need anymore?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tips for beginners

  1. The chainsaw works better when you clean the air filter occasionally. YouTube will tell you how to do it.

  2. A shotgun is a nice thing to have.

  3. It helps to determine in advance which you like better: the dog, or the chickens it occasionally preys on.

  4. Heating with wood is nice. Having a stock of wood makes this easier.

  5. Sleep is important.

  6. Winter makes things colder.

  7. A big list of projects doesn't get smaller by dreaming up more projects.