Groceries by the Pallet

We buy groceries by the pallet-load, but we don’t eat them.

Our goal when starting our homestead was to produce more of our own food.  Initially we had eggs and the occasional chicken meat.  We’ve since added animals (for turkey, duck, lamb and goat meat), established the veggie garden, and added dairy animals.  We were also fortunate that the previous residents planted an apple tree that has produced an abundant crop of apples all but one of the years we’ve been here.

Consequently our spend at the local Kroger has reduced tremendously over time.  In September I spent $38.20 at the grocery store, on items like bread, cereal, spices and condiments that we cannot produce here.  It wasn’t an unusual month.

I wish I could truly say that is all we spend on “groceries”.  The reality is, instead of buying human groceries, we now buy animal groceries by the pickup load because, in order to provide us with good quality food, they need to eat good quality food themselves.  In summer, the cows, sheep and goats are able to graze almost 100% of their nutrition (they get a small amount of grain as a treat for standing nicely while being milked).  But, in winter, when they are heavily pregnant or nursing babies, and at the same time the grass is dormant so they have to eat hay instead, they consume more purchased calories.

We tried an experiment this year with the poultry.  Commercial pelleted feed is a relatively new invention; old-timers didn’t feed their chickens – they got by foraging/scavenging everything they ate.  So, this year we reduced their feed substantially, to encourage them to get out and find more bugs and greens of their own.  I expected egg production to reduce, but if it did, I couldn’t tell.  I had just as many broody hens trying to hatch and raise chicks as ever, and was still inundated with eggs at the peak of the season.  Meanwhile, the hens look healthy and our property has very few bugs.  I call that a win-win-win.

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However we are approaching the time of year when our grocery bill will increase again.  Maybe not for the people – the freezers and canning jars are full and will take us through the winter easily – but expenditure on groceries for the animals will increase.  Nevertheless, I’d say we are where we hoped one day to be and it is satisfying.

Wheyst Not, Want Not

Well, you knew I had to do it eventually, right?

The best part about having our own fresh, raw milk – as far as I’m concerned – is learning to make cheese.  I approached this with some trepidation, believing it to be complicated and time-consuming and have been pleasantly surprised to discover it is neither.  The ingredients that go into it are simple and the possible varieties of cheese, seemingly endless.  I’ve now made about a dozen batches of raw milk cheddar and we are thoroughly enjoying them – more and more as I get better at it.

But – as you are probably aware – the by-product of cheese-making is whey.  Lots and lots of whey.  Because it turns out, a gallon of milk yields a small chunk of cheese and a correspondingly large pot of whey.

As I always do when faced with “what do I do?” I turned to the internet, asking the question about how best to use the whey.  There are many, many answers out there.  “Feed it to the chickens”.  “Feed it to the pigs”.  “Feed it to the dogs”.  “Feed it to your tomatoes”.

I’m certain every one of these is a great option.  But my first thought was that if all of these animals like whey so much, why isn’t it fit for human consumption?  So, being the human guinea pigs that we are, HWA and I poured ourselves a glass each and tried it.  And guess what?  It is delicious!

HWA likes his straight.  Good man.  I like mine with a dash of ACV (Apple Cider Vinegar) added to it.  Sometimes I also add a teaspoon of raw honey.  Ahhhhhh.  So good!  The ACV makes it a light and refreshing summer drink and I’ve become so addicted to it that when we run out, I truly miss it.

Recently I returned to google to answer another question: “What is the nutritional value of whey?”  I liked the answer – it is rich in many essential nutrients.  In fact, it is so good for us that I feel practically virtuous drinking it.

So screw the chickens, dogs and tomatoes (we don’t raise pigs).  We’re keeping our whey for ourselves.

Don’t wheyt. Try it and whey for yourself wheyther tart, salty whey isn’t whey nourishing and refreshing on a hot summer day.  Finally, we’d love to hear what you think about this cheese by-product and/or puns.  Please whey in with your comments!

                                            Curds and Whey

Curds and Whey

Making Butter

I think I was most excited about being able to make my own butter, when the reality of producing our own milk set in.  We use butter on toast, sandwiches and in baking, so go through quite a bit of it.  Falling back on everything I knew about butter-making (which was very little), I decided I would need a butter churn and immediately started to research the various models available to decide which would work best for me.  They range from manual to powered and from about $15 for a small, manually operated device, to several hundred dollars for a larger, electrically powered machine.  I wound up feeling more confused than ever as I read user reviews of the various types.

Eventually I turned to YouTube, needing to see these machines in action so I’d understand better what would work.  And while reviewing videos on YouTube, I ran across one using an ordinary blender – standard in most kitchens.  Intrigued, I watched and decided before buying another gadget, I would try making butter in my VitaMix blender.

I skimmed off the cream and once I had a mason jar full, poured it into the blender and turned it on low. For a couple of minutes not much seemed to be happening.  Having whipped cream on numerous occasions, I knew the cream was thickening, although the blender moves so fast even on low that I couldn’t see the change occurring.  Soon the cream was so thick that it was no longer moving at all.  But, as I watched, it started to move again, and over the next 20 seconds appeared to turn back into liquid.  I turned the blender off and peered inside to find that the liquid was the buttermilk and floating in it were some beautiful chunks of butter.

I poured off the buttermilk (which I kept), then added cold water to the blender, and whizzed it again for a few seconds.  I repeated the cold water wash twice more, until the water ran mostly clean, then strained it all until only the butter was left.  After shaping it into a log wrapped in parchment paper, I set it in the fridge until it was firm.  The result?  Truly wonderful butter that we have since used with great enjoyment.

Yogurt

Our family eats a lot of yogurt so milk will never go to waste around here as any excess is so easy to whip up to a batch of yogurt.  Yogurt has to be one of the simplest products to make, uses large quantities of milk, and is enjoyed even by many people who don’t like drinking straight milk.  In fact, yogurt is one of the most widely eaten foods world-wide.

All that is really needed is culture and a way to keep the milk at a constant temperature of about 110F for an extended period of time.  Although not essential, I did break down and get a yogurt maker since it is thermostatically designed to do just that.  I bought this model along with an extra set of jars to go in it so that I can make a new batch even while one batch is waiting in the fridge to be eaten.  Culture is even easier: any plain yogurt made with live cultures will work.

To make yogurt, heat a quantity of milk (either full cream or skimmed) to boiling point, cool to 110F, add culture and any flavoring desired (e.g. a few spoonfuls of jam), place in the jars and put the jars in the yogurt maker.  Set the timer, turn it on and that’s about it.  Different lengths of time will produce a thinner or thicker consistency so there is no right or wrong – just experimentation and personal preference.

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Freezing eggs

The problem with producing eggs is that the hens don’t produce consistently throughout the year.  In spring I am overwhelmed, getting far more than we can use, sell or give away – but by winter they dwindle to practically nothing.  Last year I tried an experiment that I am pleased to be able to report now, was a success.  I froze the eggs.

To start, I took a dozen eggs and cracked them into the bowl of my food processor.  I turned it on low and let it run about a minute, to thoroughly mix the eggs.

Next I poured them into a muffin or cupcake tray.

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Twelve eggs went into the food processor and conveniently there are twelve spots in the cupcake tray, so it was simply a matter of dividing the mix evenly between them.

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I placed the tray in the freezer, being sure to keep it level, and 24 hours later when they were frozen solid, I removed the eggs from the tray, placed them in a Ziploc bag and returned them to the freezer.

I will say that using a silicone muffin pan made the job WAY easier than anything else.  The silicone allowed me to press on each egg from the bottom, sometimes almost fully inverting it, in order to remove the egg.  Had I used a metal pan I don’t know how easily they would have come out.

This winter, with eggs once again in short supply, I have been pleased to have eggs available for use, in the freezer.  At first I used them only in cooking or baking, since those things require that an egg be beaten in the recipe anyway.  However more recently I’ve been using them to make scrambled eggs and I can report that I cannot tell a difference in taste or texture between these and eggs freshly beaten and scrambled.

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The new egg shape

 

Last year I only froze 4 dozen eggs since I wasn’t sure if the experiment would work.  This year I will be freezing many more than that and will enjoy eating eggs with abandon throughout the next eggless winter.

Separating the Cream from the Milk

Now that we have cows, we have to learn how to use dairy products – a whole new learning curve for our little homestead that until now has produced only eggs, meat, veggies and fruit.  The array of products available to us with the addition of dairy is amazing.

The milk is of course neither pasteurized nor homogenized.  This means that the cream rises to the top and can be skimmed off to make butter or ice-cream, leaving the skimmed milk behind.  There are many different cream separators available on the market, that will efficiently skim off all the cream, leaving only skim milk behind.  However I’d like to avoid buying too many new gadgets if I can avoid it.  So I hand skim the cream from the top of the milk using a small ladle.  Hand-skimming is not as precise as a cream separator so some cream is left in the milk but that’s okay.  We are using the skimmed milk to make yogurt and we don’t mind if the yogurt is a little creamier as a result of some residual cream left in the milk.

Another way to separate cream is to use a glass iced tea container.  Since the tap is at the bottom of the container, once the cream has risen to the top, the milk can be poured out of the tap at the bottom leaving only the cream in the container.  If we have enough volume one day, I might try that method but for the amounts we currently have, it isn’t worth it to me due to the cleaning necessary to be sure all the milk is thoroughly cleaned out of the tap mechanism.

From the cream we can make butter and ice-cream.  From the skimmed milk we can make yogurt and some types of cheese.  We are enjoying experimenting with all of these things and in posts to come will talk specifically about some of them.

A jar of cream that has been skimmed from a much larger container of milk

A jar of cream that has been skimmed from a much larger container of milk

Home-Made “Canned” Pumpkin

Where I grew up we ate pumpkin as the “other” orange vegetable.  Roasted, boiled, mashed, steamed or sautéed, it was served with our main meal alongside potatoes, beans, peas and corn.  But then I moved to the US and found that pumpkin here is eaten only as a dessert.  Pumpkin pie, pumpkin cake, pumpkin pancakes, even pumpkin ice-cream – always with “pumpkin pie spice” and sugar added.  I missed being able to buy pumpkin in the produce department of the grocery store; instead it is found only in cans in the baking aisle.

So when I visited a Farmer’s Market recently and found a vendor selling pumpkins, I grew unaccountably excited.  I selected a beautiful pumpkin – the vendor called it a “Cheese Wheel Squash” – and brought it home to cook.  This beauty was $5.

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First we cut it in half.  This is the most difficult part of working with pumpkins because they are large, heavy and tough.  HWA started to cut with the largest knife we had available, but added a small hammer to help knock the blade through the pumpkin.  In no time it was in half.  Scooping the seeds out was easy.  I saved them and plan to try to grow my own next year.  What we don’t use will be fed to the poultry.  Pumpkin seeds are (I’m told) a natural dewormer for birds, but are also a welcome treat for them.

Next we placed it on a cookie sheet, cut half side down, poured water in to a level of about ¼” and put the tray into the 350-degree oven.  An hour later a knife sliced easily through the flesh and we removed it from the oven to cool.  After cooling only a short time, we scooped the flesh out of its skin and ended up with a large bowl of cooked pumpkin.

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The skin that is left will not go to waste.  The chickens will happily peck off any remaining pumpkin and in doing so will devour the entire skin as well – the beta-carotene rich pumpkin will help keep the egg yolks the beautiful orange color we prefer.  If I didn’t have the chickens the pumpkin skin would go into the compost.

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Once all the flesh was removed from the skin, I mashed it with a fork, drained off the pooled liquid (the dogs will think the pumpkin “juice” poured over their kibble is a wonderful treat) and put 1-cup portions into ziploc bags to be frozen.  This pumpkin yielded 12 portions – each equivalent to about half a can of commercial pumpkin, for a fraction of the cost of canned pumpkin at the store.

THIS pumpkin will be eaten as a dessert – but the seeds saved from it will – we hope – produce many more next year and I look forward to steaming, mashing, boiling, roasting and sautéing them.