Category Archives: Putting Up

I am the Supreme High Goddess of the Temple of Meat.

Urban homesteading is, in part, about independence—learning skills that will decrease your reliance on systems and entities you abhor. But sometimes it’s about interdependence. And lucky for me, I have an amazing bunch of friends. Friends with superpowers, in fact. Beer-making, meat-curing, bread-baking, food-pickling superpowers.

A few weeks ago, my good friend Shannan (who is definitely invited to live at my house during the Zombie Apocalypse, because she makes bacon jam and can build useful, pretty things with wood and tools) formed a new obsession—meat curing. She read and researched and imagined and fantasized, and she posted her meat musings on Facebook. Pretty soon, there was a long thread amongst three of four friends about the hows and whys and wherefores of charcuterie, and the only thing holding them back was the where. While a closet will do in a pinch, what you really need, it turns out, is a basement, kind of humid, dark, good air circulation.

That’s when I chimed in. Since my Sweet Feller set up his brewery in the basement kitchen, things have gotten much more clean and organized down there. In fact, there’s a shower down there that isn’t hooked up to plumbing at the moment. It’s the perfect space to cure meat.

So Shannan, who is fiercely organized and determined once she sets her mind to something, set up a Doodle calendar so we could find a date for  meat hanging. She happened to mention, just in passing, that she had made some bacon jam recently, and would we like to taste it? (Of course we would!) I had visions of eating bacon jam by an open fire, so I suggested we start a blaze in the fire bowl in the backyard. Which brought about the suggestion of marshmallows. Then s’mores. Then s’mores with bacon jam. With John’s homebrew. (Like I said, superpowers.)

I had recently placed an order for blue dove oyster mushroom grain spawn and thought I might start the spawn that same afternoon with my friend Connie (maker of homemade tempeh — yep, superpower), who split the grain spawn order with me. The spawn didn’t arrive in time, however, but I told Connie she should come on over, anyway, since there was bacon jam and charcuterie. As it happens, she had recently come into a wild boar ham, so she was interested in attaining curing skills, too.

So here we all were—Shannan, Jen, Connie, Rachel, John, and me. Shannan had salted and seasoned a hunk of pork belly with salt and pepper, rosemary, and a bunch of other stuff and let it sit in her fridge for a week until it was firm to the touch. She wrapped and tied it in cheese cloth.

Today she brought it to my house. I had put a suspension rod over the top of the old shower stall for her use, and there it hangs. We discussed air circulation (she judged it to be adequate), temperature (just right), humidity (also good), and light (it’s quite dark in there once the light is out). She will check in on it every few days over the next several weeks to monitor its drying. Once it has lost 30 percent of its weight, it’s pancetta. All of this was just fine with me, on one condition–that she address me as the Supreme High Goddess of the Temple of Meat. When she had agreed to that, I gave her a key to my basement.

Then we moved outside into the backyard, where John had the fire going. We passed around the Charcuterie Bible and talked recipes, superpowers, and other possible things we could learn from and teach one another. Connie had brought a beautiful loaf of homemade bread, and Rachel walked in with two jars of her pickles. We opened the bread-and-butter pickles and ate them on top of slices of bread with bacon jam. Then we washed them down with John’s IPA and honey porter. A.Maze.Ing.

Bacon jam s’more. Photo by Shannan Palma

(Also amazing, it turns out, are s’mores with giant super-sized marshmallows, dark chocolate, and more bacon jam. Shannan burned her hand with a melted bit of marshmallow, but she finished her s’more before treating the burn. That’s how good they were.)

Jen’s happy meat clap

While I am secure in my status as Goddess of the Temple of Meat, Jen really is the Meat Goddess. Over the weekend, she bought a wine refrigerator on Craig’s List brand-new for practically nothing.

Duck prosciutto curing in wine fridge. Photo by Jennifer Kuzara

It’s perfect, she says, as a meat-curing chamber. She also owns a 19th-century cast-iron sausage press, and she has been using this baby for years to make savory goodness. It took no time at all for her duck prosciutto to go right in to its new chamber. When Jen talks about these things, she gets a rapturous look on her face and does a happy meat clap.

These are the people you want to know anytime, because they are so cool, but in an apocalypse, you really want their skills and knowledge. That is why we are calling today Session 1 of the Apocalypse Academy. Today we covered meat curing. And next time, we grow mushrooms. When it’s the End of the World As We Know It, we’ll feel fine.

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A More Cordial Relationship

About a year ago I reported on a number of significant flops in my urban homesteading efforts—one of which came to be known as the “blackberry rude,” because my attempt at a blackberry cordial was such a spectacular failure.

I am pleased to report that the half-liter of blackberry rude that has been languishing on a shelf in my basement has been restored to cordial status. This happened last weekend at a reception I attended. The caterer, the marvelous Star Provisions under the leadership of the fabulous Anne Quatrano, served a blackberry cordial. Of course, I had to try it.

I watched the server pour a splash of black-blue liquid into the bottom of a short glass over a handful of ice and top it off with seltzer. He then added two fat, juicy blackberries speared on a toothpick. He handed it to me and I sipped–cool, sweet but not too sweet, refreshing. Also, yummy vodka-soaked blackberries. Let me tell you, this is not Marilla Cuthbert’s cordial.

I told the server my tale of woe, and he explained that their cordial was merely a blackberry-vodka-sugar concoction. I thought my mistake had been adding the cloves, which had resulted in the cough-syrup flavor (although the Sweetie has said all along that he likes the flavor).

But then. What if I gave my blackberry rude the seltzer treatment, along with a squeeze of lime juice? And maybe a sprig of mint? Or lovely purplish Thai basil?

The next day I gave it a try. And guess what? Not only is it not cough syrup, but it is downright delicious! I served it up to the sweetie and a visiting friend.

Then I remembered what I had done earlier this summer with my blackberry hoard, and I opened a jar of a blackberry-bourbon-maple syrup and gave it the same treatment. Even more delicious, because it’s bourbon! This is especially exciting because iI also preserved whole blackberries in this concoction, thinking they would be great on ice cream and cheesecake or really any ole cake. But now I think I will also add a couple of boozed-up berries to the drinks.

I don’t know if this is actually true, but I feel like I have invented a cocktail. It needs a name, however. Suggestions?

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The Meantime

We are in the meantime, it seems. The beets are gone, I’ve pulled my next-to-last carrot, and the kale bolted two weeks ago. The summer garden hasn’t quite gotten to the point of explosion quite yet. I am awaiting the day the tomatoes and figs ripen, the cucumbers reach pickle size, and the green beans start to pile up in my refrigerator.

In the meantime, here is what happens. The Georgia peaches are early and plentiful and delicious this year, so I bought about ten pounds of “dent and scratch” fruit at the Decatur farmer’s market a few weeks ago and made peach rosemary jam. I just made regular ol’ peach jam and simmered a few sprigs of rosemary with it, then took out the sprigs before filling the jars. It goes on the shelf next to the strawberry basil jam I made last month.

With the mild spring and early summer weather, I have switched to knitting cotton–easier on the hands and lap. I found some organic cotton on sale and bought a bunch of it, and my first project was this pair of vests for some friends who had twins a few months ago.

My Sweetie had a birthday recently, and with shameless self-interest at heart, I got him a beer-making kit. I’m hoping this will become a long-term skill and passion. Today he started his first batch of IPA. We have talked about setting up a little brewery area in the basement (which is already equipped with sink and stove), so this will become a weekend project after this first batch is finished.

Here in the meantime, whilst we await the garden bounty and the brew, my meager flower garden has been generous. Here is what is on my kitchen table today: Coneflowers, zinnias, butterfly bush, hydrangeas, gardenias, marigolds. Glorious eye candy.

In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but weed, water, and wait. Fortunately, there is an inflatable pool here that makes waiting just about my favorite thing to do . . .

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Southern Urban Homestead FAIL

Typically I am pretty good about owning up to my disasters. It’s a whole nuther thing, however, to own up to them on a public blog. But I’ve decided, as a character-building exercise and to show that perfection is not the goal in this ongoing quest of mine for balance and bounty in the city, to fess up to some of my most spectacular flops. I hope you enjoy them and won’t think less of my skillz.

Blackberry Rude (as opposed to “Cordial”)

Last year I went crazy with the blackberry picking. I made jams and cobblers and stuck some in the freezer for fruity desserts at the holidays. And I still had about a half gallon of berries left, so I decide to steep them in some vodka and sugar with a few spices. I had visions of Anne of Green Gables and the delicious raspberry cordial she mistakenly served to her bosom friend, Diana, in a chapter titled “Diana is Invited to Tea with Tragic Results.”

Tragic results indeed. Eight weeks later I strained the blackberries out of the liquid and bottled it all up. It was so pretty–dark reddish purple and clear in the jars. I was imagining creative cocktails, ice cream concoctions, and just some tasty sipping. What I got, however, was cough syrup. Ew. I think I just overdid it with the cloves. They overpower the flavor. I can’t bring myself to dump it all out (that was good, expensive vodka), so let me know if you have a cold. I have a  home remedy to share.

The Soap with Ugly Dead Things In It

I really should stay out of Michael’s stores. I accidentally come home with all sorts of little fake crafty things that are unnatural and useless, such as the glycerin soap making kits, complete with blocks of glycerin and cute little plastic molds in the shapes of hearts and stars. It was supposed to be easy: melt the glycerin and pour it into the molds. But no. I had to make it a little more complicated by adding some herbs and essential oils.

Maybe my mistake was using fresh herbs. Because guess what? Glycerin soap does not preserve lavender, eucalyptus, and rosemary as fresh green, succulent leaves. No, the sprigs of lovely shrivel and turn brown, emanating dark, gooey halos suspended in the hardened soap. Best to leave the soapmaking to those who know what they are doing.

Persimmon Poo

When I gathered the persimmons from a nearby tree last fall, I had a vague idea in my head about persimmon butter. Finding nothing helpful in my home canning and preserving books, I googled around and learned, first off, that persimmons don’t have enough acid to be canned without growing yourself a healthy crop of botulism. So I settled on freezer butter. And here is why googling can be bad for your health: I took a recipe here and a recipe there, made some substitutions, added some spices, took a few calculated risks and short cuts. Cooked it down, put it in jars, processed it, stuck it in the freezer.

The day I concocted this mess, my parents were visiting. I showed my father one of my jars of persimmon butter. My dad is typically a poker face, but when he peered into the jar, well, let’s just say his look betrayed his skepticism. “That looks interesting,” he said. A few weeks later I opened the freezer and pulled out a jar of “persimmon butter.” Rather than the brilliant autumnal gold I was expecting, it had turned sort of brown–a bad sign I chose to ignore. I thawed the jar and opened it. The substance within had shrunk away from the sides of the jar and thawed into a dry, solid chunk of you-guessed-it.

  

  

Do Not Neglect The Cucumbers

Generally I am a successful cucumber grower. I make nice, fluffy, generous hills and enrich them with buckets of compost. I mulch deeply and water often. I make lots and lots of pickles. This year, I got cocky. My cucumbers, I told myself, would know what to do. So I made a few hills, stuck the seeds in, and proceeded to neglect them.

What I got was an infestation of squash bugs that chewed everything I had planted to a withered crisp. I saw the first few appear and instead of picking them off and dusting with diatomaceous earth, I decided my historically vigorous cukes would fight the good fight and win . . . simply by virtue of being my cukes. But no, the squash bugs won, and I got no cukes this year. Here is what they looked like. Try not to cry.

A few careless mistakes, a few risks gone bad, a few lessons learned. But there are no morals to be drawn here. Just laugh, please, and if you happen to figure out persimmon butter, please share your recipe.

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Jam Fusion

Every year about this time, fruit ripens all around me. I’m a longtime jam and butter maker: strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, fig, apple, pear, among others. It’s a basic concoction of fruit and sugar and sometimes a splash of lemon juice.

It’s always delicious, but it’s pretty much fruit and sweet. Last summer, though, a friend gave me a jar of raspberry-balsamic jam. I loved the piquant tang behind the fruit, and I realized the creative possibilities that I had not even begun to explore. So when the pears came in with the fall, instead of straight-up pear jam, I added some fresh grated ginger to the bubbling fruit, and voilá! Pear-ginger jam.

My friend Beth from New England came to visit that October. Beth has one of the most adventurous palates of anyone I have ever known (and one of these days I’m going to get her to write a guest blog post on some of her ice cream creations, which are amazing), and she is a discerning cheese lover. So I requested that she bring some cheese from her beloved cheese shop, and for several days she and I wolfed down cheese with giant dollops of the pear-ginger jam, the perfect complement. I sent her home with a big jar, which, she reported, didn’t last long.

With that success in mind, when the strawberries came in in May, I did some research and came up with a recipe for strawberry lavender jam. Fusing these flavors take a little longer because you actually have to allow the strawberries and lavender to macerate together in sugar for hours—24, in my case. You layer the lavender on top of the strawberries and pour sugar on top, then chill. They look like they’ve been sitting in snow—really quite lovely. Then you add some more lavender to the pot when you boil the fruit and sugar, and remove all the stems before processing in jars in a hot water bath. My kitchen was incredibly fragrant, and the resulting jam is nuanced and delicious.

Now the blackberries are coming in, and I got  brave and made up a flavor combination on my own. A fan of cardamom paired with other fruits, I added a teaspoon of this unique Indian space to nine cups of blackberries and six cups of sugar. It’s a delicate, complex fragrance at the moment, while it’s boiling away on the stove, and I can’t wait to sample the result.

I’m interested to know what other interesting fusions have successfully wound up in jams, jellies, and preserves. Readers, please share your experiments and recipes!

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“Sauce and Butter, that’s my plan . . .”

A blog entry in song and pictures

I got a peck of apples from the Georgia hills,
I made a pie and I ate my fill –
So ripe and sweet, it’s a shame to toss ‘em;
Guess it’s time to applesauce ‘em.
Sauce and butter, that’s my plan;
Why? Because I can.

– “Because I Can,” from Redbud Winter (2007)

 

Addendum: Looky what Southern Fried Curry did with her applesauce!

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Honeyslingers

I love the idea of beekeeping — of a happy, humming hive right there in my backyard, providing honey, beeswax, and busy pollinators not just for my garden but for my neighbors’ gardens, as well. But the natural processes of bees and honey production, I admit, have always been daunting and mysterious to me.

The hazmat-suited gnome examines a frame from a super

Until, that is, this autumn when my friend Patrick, a lifelong beekeeper who lives up in my native Rabun County, Georgia, invited my family (primarily my six-year-old niece and me) to help him extract honey from his hives. Avril has been apprenticing with Pat since last year. All suited up and looking like a gnome in hazmat, last fall she helped him smoke the hives in order to open them up and examine honey production levels for the year. Patrick made sure she understood exactly what she was doing, too. He gave her a beautifully illustrated book that explained the architecture and social order of the hive, the role each different type of bee plays, how a queen is made, how they make honey, and how we come along and harvest it.  At the age of five, Avril knew more than I did about honeybees.

By the time we arrived at Pat’s house for the extraction party in late September, I had done a little bit of remedial work to catch up with Avril (Pat and I recently had spent several hours together on a driving trip, and he very patiently explained things to me and answered my questions). Pat had prepared us: wear old clothes, an apron, and a bandanna over your hair; bring some old shoes you can easily slip on and off; prepare to get sticky! He had already “robbed” the hives and brought the supers — those are the boxes that look like drawers — into his basement, the floor of which was covered with heavy plastic. Each one had a dozen frames full of honeycomb, and each cell of the comb was full of honey.

Patrick shows me how to use the hot knife to remove the honeycomb caps

My task was to take a hot knife (sizzling hot! The electrically heated knife burned the wax and honey and filled the room with smoke if I moved too slowly) and slice the caps off each side of the honeycomb cell. Then I would help Avril load the frame of open, oozing comb into the extractor.

The extractor is a giant drum that contains a basket that holds the frames vertically within, so that they sit radially from the center point. A motor turns the basket inside the drum, and the idea is to use centrifugal force to sling the honey out of the comb. Pat told us that old-timers call this device (which used to be hand-cranked!) a “honeyslinger.”

Avril loads open frames into the extractor

Avril’s job was to run the extractor. Once we had loaded it full of frames, she’d start the motor turning slowly, then gradually crank it up until the drum was shaking with speed. I opened a tap at the bottom of the drum to allow the extracted honey to drain into a bucket.

The just-extracted honey was full of bee-parts, leaves, and other bits of nature that has found itself fixed in the gluey gold. So as it drained out of the extractor, Pat sent it through several layers of filters to catch the non-honey stuff.

Another tap on the bucket allowed Pat to fill the one-pound jars. Avril capped each one, and I wiped off any residual stickiness before placing the jars into a case. All told, Pat harvested honey from nine full hives this year.

Then we removed our sticky shoes (honeyslinging is a messy job!), washed our gooey hands, and sat down to label each jar. That’s when Patrick surprised us. He’d had a special label made up just for Avril, with her name. Because she had seen the process through from the very beginning last year, he said, this was her honey. Avril and I each left with a case of honey of our own — hers with her own special label!

Blossoms on a sourwood tree

A word about Pat’s honey: his bees gather the nectar of the sourwood tree, which only grows in sufficient quantities to produce honey in the southern Appalachians. The smooth flavor of sourwood honey is as prized as the famous Tupelo honey, and like Tupelo, sourwood does not crystallize. Avril and I (and indeed, my whole family) have been completely spoiled by the flavor of sourwood. I use it daily in my coffee; have mixed it in ice cream, salad dressings, and marinades; drizzled it on a big hunk of fresh homemade bread. Most other honeys simply are inferior.

And sourwood honey is part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, meaning that it is considered a “heritage” food—unique in flavor, sustainably produced by methods handed down over many generations, in danger of disappearing. The ranks of sourwood honey producers are dwindling, and Pat is keeping an important tradition alive. I remember as a child visiting Mr. Neville, a beekeeper in Rabun County, to buy his sourwood honey. After Mr. Neville died, I found out during our extraction party, Pat acquired much of his equipment.

Now that I, too, am an apiary apprentice of Patrick’s, I have plans to install a couple of hives in my own backyard in the next few years (I’m still learning first!). But in Decatur, I will never be able to achieve the flavor of the sourwood I so treasure.

I brought home an extra case or two of Mr. Pat’s sourwood honey and am selling it for him for $6 (plus shipping, if needed) a pound. Contact me if you are interested in purchasing some. And in case you need more persuading, here is a little video testimonial Avril and I filmed.

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