The "Jersey" Girls From Deerfield Farms

The "Jersey" Girls From Deerfield Farms
Snookie is in the background!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Simple Walk With The Dog Turns Into An Inspiring Spring Soup

I am a big fan of all things free...especially food. So I've always been a bit of a forager to keep some sort of hobby outside the kitchen. When I first went to cooking school, I was thoroughly inspired by all of the instructors that would instill in us the benefits and pleasures of eating locally. We would shop at farmers markets as class field trips and look at all of the seasonal produce that was around. These beliefs lead my mind to come to a major question: What could be even better than eating locally from farmers who care? My conclusion was looking for and finding the bounty that nature offers herself. From that point on I've always made it a point to research plants and fungi that was in my area and seek it out. With much determination and some luck, I have had some real success finding food stuffs. I've always been very cautious about making sure I've identified things properly before I consumed them and never ind into indulge int too many difficult to identify or similar looking things. It's simply not worth the risk, especially with mushrooms!
So, today I really wasn't on a mission for wild edibles, although I do always keep an eye out. Especially in the Spring when new things are coming up all the time. I was just getting out to give my dog a walk. I take to our local town "open space", where it's simply just that, open space and lots of shrubbery and growth happening. Plus, my dog loves it with all the new smells and things to stimulate a lab that aren't in our back yard. As I was following a path that was slightly carved out by a recent lawn mowing I looked down at a plant that looked vaguely familiar. I thought for a while and then I decided to take a closer look. I stooped down and examined it and thought it might be a type of mint. Then I noticed the fine little hairs all over it. I found nettles! Stinging nettles to be more precise. When I got back up to my feet I looked around to see a few large patches of them in the area. Then I got quite excited. I knew I was gonna cook something with these things come hell or high water! I went back to the car with Annie (my dog) and I went back home to get the stuff I needed to harvest these little babies. I needed to get some rubber gloves, a little knife and a couple of bags to put them in. I rushed back to go pick them and quickly filled my bag. I had to wear the rubber gloves because of the "STING" from the stinging nettles. They have fine hairs on the leaves but also larger little hairs on the stem that stick you and inject you with a kind of formic acid. Kinda like being stung from a fire ant. The sting lasts about 20 minutes or so (for me anyways) and is itchy and a little sore. When I got home I knew exactly where I would find a recipe for nettles. My favorite homesteading-chef-personality of all...Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall. The River Cottage Cookbook is one of my favorites of all-time but I particularly like it for his "hedgerow" foraging and recipes. I found a great nettles recipe for soup which I quickly gathered the ingredients for. I got a new pair of gloves on and cleaned all of the nettles I had and started preparing the soup. In about 25 minutes I had soup! It was quite delicious and was made with some really basic ingredients. I definitely put this up there as a new Springtime ingredient to look out for next year as well. I probably have only a couple of weeks to go before these die off and I'll have to wait for next year to do this again. That is one of the beauties of eating seasonally. You have something to look forward to next year and plenty of time to ponder how you could prepare it better the next time. Here's to the nettles of April! Cheers!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My First All-Grain Homebrew

Did you ever have something that you wanted to do for a long time but you kept putting it off. Then once you did finally do it, you were happy you did it, and wondered why you waited so long! Maybe you had a real reason or maybe were just simply too lazy to get started? What ever it was figure it out because its stopping you from getting things done!! Well I postponed making homebrew for quite some time for various reasons. I thought it might be too complicated to figure, I didn't have the proper equipment and I didn't know anyone who was making any all-grain beers already. So I decided to "get 'er done"!
Once I did the research on all the equipment I needed I knew it could take a lot of money to get all I needed to brew. I looked high and low for discounted items as well as put a few "wanted" ads on Craiglist to piece it all together. At the end of the day I still had to pay a fair amount of money just to get my first batch of beer. I did wonder if was worth all this time and effort since I don't drink beer everyday. But, I did the math on all things considered and figured if I make enough beer to supply myself, to drink on special occasions and bring to friends as gifts (if it's good) then the equipment will pay for itself and I'll be ahead financially.
So, with regards to anyone reading, I am just beginning this process of brewing without much help besides some hobby forums on the Internet and a recipe or two, so I won't be providing much advice on how to do it best, just an explanation of how I did it. Also the pictures I've taken will provide a visual guide to some of the steps involved.
Making beer involves four ingredients: barley, hops, yeast and water and that's it. The majority of home-brewers make beer from what's called a malt extract, which is a heavy syrup (of fermentable sugars) made from (malted)barley. It's made by extracting the fermentable sugars from the barley, in solution, and then reducing them to a thick syrup. With homebrewing an all-grain batch of beer you must do that step yourself (except you're not reducing it to a syrup). There is a tricky point to dealing with the barley, though. The majority of the starches in the barley have to be converted to fermentable sugars. The natural enzymes in the barley are capable of doing that, but you have to know what to do to make it happen. To explain it simply, you steep your cracked barley(grains)in 152F water until the enzymes work and convert the remaining starches into sugars. There is a test to see if this happens. Iodine purchased at the pharmacy is an indicator of the presence of starch. It is used by sampling a little of your mash (barley and water mixture) and mixing a few drop into it. If the iodine turns purple then further conversion needs to happen. Which is simply more time at the 152F. Keep testing your mash and once the iodine doesn't react with the starches then they have all converted to fermentable sugars. Next, you strain you liquid off of your barley, which could be a little tricky as well. You have a mixture a barley and water that looks a lots like oatmeal. It's very thick and dense with grains. You have to do what's called sparging, which is a fancy word for washing all the good sugary liquid off of the barley. It's kind of like squeezing your tea bag out to get all of the tea flavor out, except we don't have a bag, so we have to wash them over with hot water until all the flavor (sugar) is out. As you are draining off the liquid from the bottom of the grains, you are pouring the hot water over top and pushing all of the heavier liquid to the bottom. When the liquid is too diluted to be effective you are done. At this point the rest of the work is quite easy. You have to boil the liquid to reduce it a bit closer to the size of the batch of beer and to concentrate the sugars more. Once you have your wort (barley liquid) to the proper amount then you add your hops. They are added in at two different times. Bittering hops are added in the beginning and the aroma hops are added at the end. After the hops are cooked to the correct time intervals then you need to cool your wort down to the correct temperature to add your yeast. I used my bath tub filled with cold water. Cool the wort down to about 80F and then aerate it (by whisking or simply pour it high into your fermentor) and add the yeast. Pour your wort into your fermentor, which is typically a glass carboy with a tight neck) and cap it off with an airlock. This will keep air out while letting out the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast. I really am over simplifying things a bit right now because I don't have too much explanations to offer. : Here is one of the most informative websites I've seen about homebrewing yet. If you are interested to know a lot more of the science then check it out.
I am currently waiting for this batch of beer to turn out. After it's ready I'll report back to let you know what it turned out like. I hope it's good but I know as my first one it may very well turn out terrible with off flavors. But, again, the learning is the fun part and without that it's just not really worth doing so much work.