Archive for the ‘Wild Foods’ Category

Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by emphelan

I realize this won’t make it into the blog until after Thanksgiving, but this will be the first Thanksgiving that I am officially in charge of cooking the turkey… and I have no idea how. I would love to hear favorite turkey recipes or any information about cooking one.

Well Maria, you’re in luck. I am running with your question before Thanksgiving. Now boys and girls, this is good for all of us. I am not choosing favorites here.
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With all cooking you want to choose your main ingredient well. If you are in charge of picking out the turkey, a good rule of thumb is to purchase 1 pound of meat per person. However, if you want left overs, than go nuts! A frozen turkey will take 24 hours for every 6 pounds of bird to thaw. If you thaw at room temperature, it is 1 hour per pound. For those of you butchering your own turkey, you can read about my first experience at it, over on A Homesteading Neophyte: Butchering your own Turkey. A warning, it is graphic. And those of you that are hunting Wild Turkey, the bird, not the liqueur, Wild Turkey, is another article I have written.

Ok, now we are past the picking and choosing part of the program. Now comes what to do with that thing. There are many different ways to go with the flavoring. The above articles have a recipe or two. But my favorite way to deal with a turkey, is brining him in apple cider and ice for 24 hours , put him into the oven, breast down, at 4 am at 400F for 1 hour, then reduced the temp to 250F. After 4 hours I stuffed him with chopped apples, onions, celery, roasted pecans, celery, carrots, brown sugar and white wine, after flipping him breast side up. From there he slowly baked for 4 more hours before I returned the temp to 400F for the last hour. Ok so this recipe takes 10 hours, but my goodness is it well worth it. Also the turkey I am speaking of was 38 pounds. You can reduce the cooking time. For a turkey cooked straight through at 325F, here’s a chart;

8 to 12 pounds 2-3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3-3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4-1/2 to 5 hours

You can also go the route of those turkey bags as well.

When it comes to flavoring your turkey, there really isn’t too much in variations that aren’t acceptable. Personally I choose to use fall ready fruits and veggies to flavor. The type of bread stuffing you choose can be a good clue to the way you should prepare the turkey. For your store bought turkey stuffing, a simple butter, salt, ground black pepper and sage will be the best way to go. All to taste of course. If you are making your own stuffing, look at your main fruits or veggies as well as the seasoning. Pears, apples, apricots, raisins, celery, leeks, cranberries, pumpkin, and winter squashes go best with any turkey. I would stay away from broccoli flavored turkey, anything from the cabbage family just doesn’t taste right with your bird.

Oh, and don’t forget to pull the giblets and neck out of the cavity. Some stores stuff there turkeys with other goodies as well. Make sure everything is removed, and wash the inside and outside of your bird before cooking, pat dry.

Any Questions?
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Howling Hill wishes for me to add;
Thanksgiving can be a trying time for vegetarians and for the family of vegetarians. No longer do I eliminate meat from my diet though I did for over a decade. It caused quite a bit of anxiety at Thanksgiving for me and the chef’s. Here’s my advice on how to keep everyone happy.

First, call your vegetarian(s) and ask them what for recipes or what foods they like about a month before Thanksgiving. This gives you and the vegetarian enough time to find recipes, ingredients, and the time to prepare the food. It also takes the anxiety away from the non-meat-eater because s/he knows there will be something for her/him to eat. Many times I ate before I left home because I knew there would be little to nothing for me to eat at dinner time. This made me sad that I had to pre-eat and certainly led to my weight gain.

Second, Don’t isolate your vegetarian by providing on one meal for them. That is, just because someone asked for a rice and bean meal doesn’t mean the rolls, vegetables, and stuffing aren’t desirable to the vegetarian. Anything with a meat ingredient can be made without meat and still be edible. For instance, stuffing made in a separate pan without turkey or turkey broth. Beans without pork fat, rolls without beef fat. If you make a few extra and put them aside for the vegetarian(s) nothing will make them feel more at home. For example before I went vegetarian I made a Thanksgiving dinner with my ex. It turned into the misfit Thanksgiving because many of our friends, both vegetarian and non, came over. One woman, Window, said to me at the end of the meal “that’s the first time I could eat everything on the table instead of just bread.” It really made me happy that I could feed her, something her mother couldn’t seem to manage.

Be careful with hidden meat ingredients. Many times chicken, beef, or turkey broth will be used in can goods even if they say “vegetarian.” Check labels. Also, vegetarians can be really sensitive to how their food is prepared. Putting vegetable kabobs on the grill isn’t a good idea because the veggies will be coated in meat.

It’s the same with pots and pans. If you use the same pots and pans to cook the vegetarian meal/components make sure you wash thoroughly. Also, have separate utensils to dish the food out. While I wasn’t as neurotic about this as my ex, his belief was if there was meat on the spoon it was “contaminated” and wouldn’t eat anything which had been touched with it after it touched meat. Thus, for the pork beans and the vegetarian beans, have separate spoons.

That’s about all I can think of. If you have any questions feel free to contact me!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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There are some tried and true recipes in an article called A Vegan Thanksgiving Guest. Shameless plug.

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Indian Acorn

Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina

  Leaching the tannin out of acorns

When I was a child, I used to play beneath a giant red oak in our backyard. I loved this tree. I would climb up in it’s branches, build horse stables for my Barbies around it’s trunk and I would gather the acorns and pretend I was of another era, foraging for my tribe. I loved that old tree: it seemed stong and wise.

Some interesting things about oak trees is that they can be found on nearly all earthly continents, especially America. We, as Euell Gibbons* proclaimed, are extremely blessed with several species of Quercus. Speaking of Native Americans, the early American cultures also knew the true value of the oak tree and especially it’s nutritious nut, but then so did Europeans and Asians as well. In fact, it has been said, overall, humans the world over have ate more pounds of acorns than grains.

Somehow, through the hourglass of time, Americans have lost the affinity for acorns. Koreans, on the other hand, still enjoy several dishes made from acorns. We have, in recent history, traded in this high-protien, high-mineral food source for GMO corn and soybeans!

Nutrition Facts-Acorns
Serving Size: (100 grams)

Amount Per Serving
Calories: 387

% Daily Value*

Total Fat 24g 36%
   Saturated Fat 3g 15%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 0mg 0%
Total Carboydrates 41g 13%
   Dietary Fiber 0g ~
   Sugars 0g ~
Protein 6g 12%

Vitamin A 0%   Vitamin C 0%
Iron 4%   Calcium 4%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs

Acorns are quite varied in taste. If you live on the western side of the Mississippi, you may be so lucky to find Post or Live Oaks. Some say you can eat this nut raw (and some even find it tasty!;)) Oaks are ubiquitous in every Continental state in the US.  They can be divided into three broad categories: the black, red and white oaks. All have tannin, a bitter chemical, but the black and red oaks have just a minute amount more than the white (chestnut and live both fall under white), enough to render it completely unpalatable in its raw stage. I can eat a raw white oak acorn, but I even prefer to process the tannin out of them as well. Another major difference between the black/red oaks and the white oaks are the time span for bearing their fruits. Black/red oaks take two years to bear a ripe crop, whereas white bear every fall. For the most part, it takes an oak 20 years to bear its first batch of nuts.

I am going to veer off topic just for a second, if you are truly interested in tree foraging, I want to make a suggestion to help you learn to identify the trees in your area. Remember those leaf collections we had to put together in…was it 6th or 9th grade? Make a new one. Go out and gather leaves, press them, and mount them complete with notes on scientific and common names, habitat, life history and it’s usefulness. This way, if you study it or take it in the field with you, you have a real specimen to match up against a real tree.

OK, back to oaks. The white oak is easy to identify from the red or black. Look at a leaf and notice if the edges are rounded on the lobes or if their edges are pointy with bristly “hairs”, if the latter then you have a red or black oak. Just to throw you completely off, if you find an oak without bristles on the ends and yet the lobes are barely defined, you probably have a chestnut oak. You will find much variation depending on where you reside (i.e. East or West of the Mississippi).

Here are some examples:

Red or Black oak leaf

White oak leaf

Chestnutoak (or chiquapin-has good acorn)

A good local tree book should help you find your area’s unique oak trees.

How to process acorns

1. Determine type you have cached. Remember to check leaves when gathering, however, if you are picking up nuts in a mixed species area you may have both. Separate them by size (white oaks typically have smaller nuts). I always have leaves mixed in with my acorns because I either sweep them up (if on the patio) or rake them up and put them in a basket. You’ll have to pick through and pick out the nuts, but it is easier than just picking up nuts off the ground.

2. The shells are soft and easy to crack (and they often crack upon impact with the ground). Now, if you are really serious about this homesteading/self-sufficiency stuff, you just have to get over insect larva squeamishness. You are going to find acorns full of the white larva of the acorn weevil or moth (and just so you know this bug girl isn’t invincible, as I was preparing the acorns for this post, I opened one and out tumbled two of the little guys and, let’s just say, the acorn was flung across the kitchen!) Place all the good ones in a separate dish. Some may have discolored flesh, but they are still OK. You want to purge any moldy ones and ones that are dried out (it will look like sawdust when you open it).

3. Now, depending on your type, you are going to boil them. Some people grind the raw nuts up first (and I would recommend this if you are dealing with red or black oak acorns). Thankfully, I was able to gather a bunch of white oak acorns at the in-laws and so I left mine in the halves. Cover the nuts with water and start them to boil. Keep a tea kettle of water going as well and it will decrease the time spent between water changes. I generally taste a raw nut first (just a nibble!) to see how bitter it is. The ones I found were really not that bad, but still needed a bit of processing. In the first picture, you can see the water turning a brownish color. This is the tannins leaching from the acorns. As I said, red or black oak acorns are going to take a long time to leach (I tried a big batch of red oak acorns last year and it was a very long ordeal). This is why I prefer the white oak acorns better. Unfortunately, the white are also a favorite of the squirrel, deer, chipmunks, mice, moths, weevils…)

3. Boil and change water a couple of times and then start to taste the nuts. If the water is still really dark or the nut tastes bitter, keep boiling, changing water, boiling…eventually, the color of the water starts to lighten up some. When the taste is somewhat palatable (it will get better after roasting, I promise!), rinse your nuts under cold running water until water runs clear (the white oak acorns only took a minute). I, then, drain them well.

 Acorns after leaching process

4. After acorns are drained, spread them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Put this into oven (I had these at 350, but you could roast them at a lower temperature as well). Periodically, stir them with a wooden spoon. They will start to turn a lovely shade of chocolate and the smell will begin to resemble carob (to me anyway). You have to watch them because ovens vary. Just taste one now and again-you’ll know when you like the taste. As they roast, the nut will harden.

 Roasted acorns-they look a lot like coffee beans, don’t they?

5. Once they are roasted, the fun begins! There are so many ways to use acorns. They can be used as a coffee/chai substitute (just grind and brew) or made into flour (this is what I did). They can be chopped and used as any chopped nut would be in muffins, cookies or bread. Euell Gibbons makes a candied acorn (sort of like a praline). if you haven’t explore Prodigal Gardens website, now is the time. She has so many great things to make out of acorns and other wild foods (thanks to Tansy for turning me onto this site years ago).

 This time around, I used my coffee grinder to make my flour and plan to use a small amount to supplement some bread this weekend. I could have also used my hand grinder (or you can use a flat surface and pounding tool like our fore-bearers). Acorns (as well as the bark of the tree) have medicinal properties as well, but that’s a whole other post.

It does take some time to process the acorn into something you might want to eat, but it is well worth it. if you are lucky enough to live in areas with some of the more palatable raw acorn trees, please don’t rub it in! 🙂



*Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons

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Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina

Almost every October since we met, my husband and I spend a few days camping and salmon fishing in the wilds of Northwest Michigan (lower peninsula). Most years, we don’t bring a lot home, but the few days and nights spent in the fresh air, with no schedule or concrete plans, does our souls (and sometimes our relationship) wonders.

This year was an unusual exception. Because of the abnormal warm temperatures and lack of rain, the salmon run was a few weeks late (we are usually there right at the tail end of the up river migration). Nearly every cast resulted in a catch (although bringing them in is a whole skill in and of itself). We ended up landing about 20 fish, but, for legal (and ethical) reasons,* we only brought home four big specimen, which is plenty for us. We cut two into steaks and the other two we smoked.

Now, let me get the disclaimers out of the way before I go on. One, I am not a huge fish fan. I don’t like the smell and I am not fond of the taste. I do like “fleshy” fish (so salmon counts here) the best, but I still wouldn’t rank them in my top ten favorite food items. Second, many fish are over fished and our oceans, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water are quickly being depleted according to some (and I believe this). Wild salmon are particularly vulnerable to over fishing and water pollution. I am not suggesting by this post that you run out and fish. Salmon are not native to the Great Lakes and are carefully monitored by Michigan and Indiana DNR. However, there are still a multitude of problems with sport fishing and I have touched on one particular issue that gets to me on my personal blog. Here I just want to talk about the benefits if you happen upon one of these fish. Third, there is that whole mercury level thing (sadly) to consider, so if you are pregnant, female, a child, a human, canine etc. be aware of the claims.

Now that I have that off my chest, I am going to tell you about one of the ways we prepare fresh caught salmon. And, for this picky fish eater, I love it! Second, because these beautiful creatures gave us their lives for nutrition, I don’t want to waste their nutritious carcass (or lives for that matter), so let’s make fish stock while we are at it. I’ll let you know what you can substitute for salmon if you aren’t in a salmon area of the country (maybe you can find something more local from the list). If you live by an ocean, you are really in luck!

Senior’s Fried Rice with Smoked Salmon (he actually made this one up!)

Smoked salmon (or other fleshy fish, list to follow. It also doesn’t have to be smoked, but it‘s really good!)
4 eggs
Celery, Carrots, Peas, Onions, Peppers
Asian vegetables
Whatever veggie you like really
Sea salt
Mustard seed
Cumin (or curry, Asian spices, or whatever you like)
Soy sauce
Long grain rice

Basically prepare your rice and set aside. Scramble your eggs and set aside. Sauté your vegetables in olive oil (or fish oil) until heated thoroughly, but still crisp. Add spices and soy sauce. Add rice and eggs and stir and heat.

Easy, easy recipe! And, even if you don’t like fish well, this dish is quite delicious and nutritious. Even my kids gobbled it up.

Now, I had husband keep all the bones and juice when he was deboning the smoked meat. I then took all the scraps from the vegetables in the dish, the bones and a bit of smoked skin, some herbs (rosemary, thyme and bay leaf), and water to cover and simmered the mixture for about 40 minutes. I did not notice any sort of “fishy” smell and, in fact, the smell reminded me of a Thai food restaurant (one of my favorite “ethnic” foods). Fish stock (which is actually a broth) is chock full of minerals and vitamins and will be a wonderful addition to winter foods. I let it sit for 15 minutes (to let solids settle), strain and then I freeze it in small quantities (I use jelly jars and leave space for expansion). It should, ideally, be used up in six months.

So what if you don’t live up here where salmon fishing is easy? What can you use instead? Some people say not to use “fatty” fish like salmon anyway (although I am a firm believer some fats are good for you and some are especially good for children). One thing you can do is ask your butcher/fish market for the heads and bones of fish he filets for sale. He should know to cut off the gills (and the guts too, but you never know!) Out of one head and a few bones you can make quite a bit of stock (to me, a little goes a long way). Or you can purchase (or fish for) whole fish and filet them yourself (another post!) saving the heads and bones for the stock. Just like chicken broth, you can use any scraps of vegetables you have around. In fact, it is one of those ‘anything goes” kind of things!

Salmon substitutes: any lighter flesh colored fish such as Pollock, tilapia, grouper, halibut, trout, red snapper, sole will make a milder tasting stock. Otherwise, feel free to substitute any fish (bass, perch, bluegill) but the darker the flesh the more “fishy” tasting the broth will be. I would also avoid catfish, but that is because I am not sure about that one. In fact, I probably left out a bunch of species. Salmon is the only fish I actually fish myself and I rarely purchase fish.

Fish stock can be added to stews, chowders, soups, sauces and stir fry. It can be made into dressings for greens and salads. It can be added to anything a chicken broth might be added with similar results (but different taste) Me? I am imagining using my salmon stock this winter in some great Thai dishes!

*If the fish is not hooked in the mouth, it is considered a “snag”. We release all non-mouth catches as well as fish that have any snag marks or hooks in other parts of their bodies (we removed line and hooks before release). Sadly, “snagging” fish is an action that others participate in and it is not only illegal, but greedy, in my opinion).

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Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina




According to Slow Food USA, Shagbark Hickory Nuts are endangered enough to be listed in their Ark of Taste catalog. This means that the nuts were once deemed a valuable food resource here in the U.S., but have since fallen out of favor in more recent times.


Mature hickories are very easy to identify. They have a huge Eastern North American range (Eastern Canada; Maine to Eastern Texas); however Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan have the highest population density of shagbark hickories. The bark is “shaggy” (hence the name!) and grayish in color. They are deciduous (seasonal leaf loss) and can reach heights of over 80 feet. Their leaves are pinnate with 5-7 leaflets. I tend to find them in forests than contain oak, walnut and other “old growth” species.


Historically, the Native Americans foraged for shagbark hickory trees not only for the delicious rich flavored nuts, but also for the wood which has a high heat density and smoky flavor. My husband and I gather shed shagbark limbs and bark in the fall and use it to smoke meats on the smoker through the winter. Turkey and ham are both excellent smoked with hickory wood and bark. Additionally, syrup can be made from the extract of hickory bark. Unlike maple sugar syrup, hickory syrup is made from cane sugar and a flavoring in the shagbark hickory’s bark (although old literature mentions that sap was sometimes used). Stay tuned for the run down on making this type of syrup (end of post).


When should you gather hickory nuts and bark? Right now! When the nuts mature, they are released from their thick skinned outer cover and the creamy white nuts are easy to spot in the grass under a shagbark hickory stand. For the past week I have been picking up buckets of the delicious nuts. I gather what I can, put them in the freezer if I don’t have time to crack them (to kill pests), and shell them for cookies and other desserts over the winter. Other animals, like squirrels and deer love them too, so you have to be quick. They are also susceptible to insect infestation and for every few nuts you find meat, you will also find wormy duds. The nuts are really hard to shell. If you have a nut cracker, you are half way there. Some sort of nut pick will make life easier as well.


Ok, so do you want to know how to make Hickory Syrup? The recipe dates back to colonel times (or possibly even further back in the NA indigenous cultures). It requires patience and a bit of shagbark bark. The fortunate thing is the shagbark naturally sheds its bark and grows new bark, so taking the bark (in the falling off stage) won’t harm the tree. The syrup is a different sort of syrup than maple. It tastes similar to the taste of hickory smoked meats: slightly sweet, kind of savory with a ‘green’ undertone. It’s good on pork, pancakes or can be made into a unique soda pop (or beer)!


Shagbark Hickory Syrup


1.  Make a decoction extract: break up several pieces of the bark and submerge under water (in saucepan). Boil 20-25 minutes. Strain out bark pieces and return the amber colored water to a boil. Reduce to medium heat. This is the most popular technique, but I am going to offer another way. I use my camp stove percolator coffeepot. I break up the wood pieces small enough to fit in the grinds holder and let it percolate for 10-20 minutes. Then, I put the liquid in a pan and proceed.


2.  Gradually add regular sugar (either brown or cane), stirring between additions until sugar dissolves. Keep adding the sugar until desired consistency is reached.


3.  I’ve heard you can use the nutshells to flavor the syrup as well, but haven’t tried using them.


4.  If you don’t live in the Shagbark region, you can get some of the syrup at Hickory Works located in Brown County, Indiana. They are the only commercial manufacturer of hickory syrup. 


*Disclaimer: I have no personal affiliation with the company and I have not tried their syrup!

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I hated that song when I was teenager.  Growing up in a rural area, where we spent a part of each week patrolling for trespassers, I resented the people who trespassed on our land.  The 70’s was a time of rebellion against the establishment, and our lifestyle smacked of establishment.  But, it didn’t start then, I was just beginning to be painfully aware of how differently people think, and that definitions of stealing differed, depending on how bad you wanted something.   Each decade of my life here on this farm, (5 and counting) trespassers have stolen something different from our land.  When I was a child, fir cone pickers that were “wildcrafting” would steal fir cones from our land.  The timber companies offered $3.00 a bag for a gunny sack full of cones.  This was for seed, since they hadn’t really started growing super trees yet.  The other thing that commonly was “wildcrafted,” was Chittam bark, Cascara sagrada, this was for pharmaceutical companies.  Our stripped trees still remain as a constant reminder.  They are everywhere, my Dad would consficate the bark or fir cones, if he found the people doing it, but it was a small reward when you would rather just have the live trees, or the fir cones to regenerate your own land, and feed your squirrels and birds.

Chittam tree that was killed by bark stripping in the late 60’s.  You have to be pretty bold to climb through someone’s fence, and cross a 20 acre field just to kill a tree for a few dollars.

These days, wildcrafters strip the woods of old growth moss for florists, edible mushrooms for buyers and restaurants, and medicinal native herbs for the herbal trade.  There are several companies around here that say their wildcrafters are easy on the land, but it is not true.  A good friend of mine who is a well known herbalist, says it is a crap shoot to take any kind of over-the-counter herbal remedy.  Plant identification is woefully inadequate, and sometimes for instance, in the case of digitalis being picked instead of comfrey, could cause severe reactions. 

Five years ago, we discovered someone had spent some considerable time digging up a 1/4 acre patch of Devil’s Club.  They left their garbage and they destroyed the patch.  The worst thing, they harvested at the wrong time of year, rendering the product useless medicinally.  So senseless.  I’m sure if you’re buying some Devil’s Club tincture (poor man’s sang) you want it to work, but if it is gathered at the wrong time, you’ve been duped.

I don’t know the answer, should people stop buying items that have been wildcrafted?  I fear the land around us private,//i33.tinypic.com/6r6e8j.jpg" target="_blank">View Raw Image</a>or government owned is being wildcrafted to death.  I know on our land, I expect to be able to pick from my Chanterelle patch to give us mushrooms through the year.  If we take 1/2, and leave 1/2 for regeneration, then somebody doesn’t heed our NO TRESPASSING sign, and climbs through our fence, this person make take half, and leave half, which is leaves 1/4 for the next trespasser.  That really is me being a dreamer, they usually take all of the the mushrooms, and we get none.  And, they do damage to the forest floor too, because IT’S NOT THEIR LAND, AND THEY DON’T CARE!!! 

I guess to wildcrafters I may seem a little crabby about this subject, but it is a practically a full time job, asking people to leave our property.  I believe part of the problem may be the layout of our farm, with a county road dissecting our land.  But, really our property is all fenced and we bear the liability of people getting hurt on our land, even if they trespass.  Last week, someone got burned in a hot springs not too far from here.  The people trespassed on private land to reach these hot springs and now they are hospitalized.  So who is at fault?  Does everything have to be idiot proof?  I’m not very popular when I say, that if you don’t have your own mushrooms, moss, beef, fruit, etc., grow it yourself.  But, really, why isn’t it stealing to poach one of our steers or pick all our mushrooms.  I probably do seem unreasonable when I find someone in our field eating blackberries, but if you’re the third person that day that has inconvenienced me, why shouldn’t I be a little testy.  Or, if you decide I couldn’t possibly use all those apples, how does anyone know how many apples I need, or if I need to leave those for the deer so they stay out of my garden.  If I go to town, I can’t help myself at the store, or at someone’s kitchen garden.  I can’t have a picnic on someones lawn, or take a crap by their mailbox.  I guess I could, but I’m sure I would be in the clink.  So why would anyone think it is OK to do that to me?  If I could ask one thing, it would be that people respect the the land and other people’s property.

//i38.tinypic.com/30x76zt.jpg" target="_blank">View Raw Image</a>
Oh thanks for tearing down my sign, I guess that makes it OK to hunt…

I DO want to keep Mother Nature in – does that really make me a sinner?

Matron of Husbandry farms, gardens, packs heat, and stays on her side of the line at her family’s original, 1881 homestead in the Pacific Northwest.  You can keep abreast of what’s happening at the farm on the blog, Throwback at Trapper Creek.

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The Noble Grape

Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina

The homestead we recently purchased came with an established grape vine. It was one of the major attractants when I first looked at the property. This summer we were blessed with our first large grape harvest. I have made several half-pints of jelly, preserved quarts of juice, baked two concord grape pies (recipe coming soon!), and there are still pounds to be picked. My next project is wine.

One of the things I am learning is how to care for an established grape vine. Over the years and at two other properties, I’ve planted grapes. All grew well and I actually harvested a small amount off one of the planted vines this year. In fact, it was a vine I had given up on. However, I have never had such a mature vine and I have never had to prune one back in the winter.

Reasons I have planted grapes

1. Shade on chicken yard
2. Permaculture landscaping
3. Food resource (berries and leaves)
4. Wildlife attractant
5. Easy to grow & tend
6. Nostalgia (my father grew Concord grapes on the suburban property I grew up on)
7. Wine
8. Natural decoration (the trimmed vines)
9. Medicinal properties
10. High (for domestic fruit) pest resistance

Grapes are easy to grow and care for with only a small amount of gardening knowledge. In fact, I think they are one of the easiest and fastest growing fruit sources to plant on either an urban, suburban or rural homestead. The main thing to keep in mind is to pick a variety suited for your geographical location. Here in the Eastern half of the U.S., Concord rules, but it also does pretty good everywhere else too. Those of you residing out in the Rockies and beyond westward will like the vinifera varieties. Knowing the type you are planting will help you provide ideal conditions and the proper training. I won’t go into great detail about variety types here (because that would be a post in itself), but I’ll give you a few examples.

Pinot Noir
Ok, you’ve probably guessed these are the traditional wine grapes


I’m partial to the American types because I love the strong “wild grape” smell. I have no experience with growing the viniferous types (as they do better in a warmer climate), but I do know they need to be started low and trained to grow upwards along a trellis. The Concord-types, on the other hand, grow in a more droopy fashion and need to be allowed to grow in this pattern. Concords are distantly related to the wild grapes you can forage around this time of year (here in the Midwest anyway), also called ‘fox grapes”. The wild types look, smell and taste like the typical purple-skinned Concord (only stronger tasting and smaller berries). In fact, Vitis labrusca (the common Eastern North American wild grape) gave us the Concord and Niagara.

One common misconception is that you cannot eat wine grapes and you can’t make wine from table grapes. This stems from the fact that table grapes will develop a different sugar and acid content when ripe than the wine grapes. However, many homemade wines were made from table grapes and plenty of people eat wine grapes. However, that being said, wine grapes tend to be seedy and table grapes don’t make a superb wine. This is something to consider when choosing a preferred variety to plant.

When grapes start to turn color (called verasion), many people begin harvesting them right away. Sometimes this is a mistake. Generally the color develops before the sugar content reaches its maximum. This is one of the reasons people can become disappointed in their grape products.

Grapes offer more than just a food source for the self-sufficient wannabes. They are high in antioxidants and flavonoids which are used for anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergic effects. The skins and seeds are used to make an extract with multiple health benefits. Historically, the leaves of the red skinned grapes were used to treat heavy menstruation, diarrhea, and uterine hemorrhaging. Current research is showing the positive benefits of grapes in treating cancer and heart disease. Phytochemicals in the grapes have shown to have both anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties.  

In future posts, I will go into more detail about pruning, fertilizing and general care. We can learn together! I just wanted to introduce the topic and encourage a discussion on growing grapes on the homestead. Meanwhile, I encourage you to do a little grape research this winter and consider planting a vine or two somewhere in your landscape this spring. They are inexpensive depending on your source (in fact, you can take cuttings from someone else’s vines). Before you know it, you’ll be making too many half-pints of jam, quarts of juice and the sweet & sour grape pies.

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When I started my own personal blog, Smallmeadowfarm, one of my first posts was about soda pop and the challenge I had given myself to try and stop drinking it. My purpose was to try and eliminate most gmo supplied high fructose corn syrup from my diet of which soda accounted for quite a lot. Unfortunately for me, “kicking my habit” wasn’t as easy as I hoped and I soon found myself standing at the soda pop door begging to be let back in. Even then, when I was writing my blog post, I realized it really wasn’t the sweet sugary part of the beverage I liked so much though, but the carbonated fizzy poppy “crisp” part . I mean…I absolutely won’t drink the beverage if the fizz is even half way reduced. Yik! It just isn’t the same. Double Yik! Also, sometimes you just want a bit more flavor than “plain ole water” and how much easier is it to reach for a soda—I mean they are every where!

Since then my struggle has taken a different road. One of searching for a beverage that I like. Mostly carbonated since that is what I prefer but also sometimes just flavorful and/or low calorie (no fake diet anything for me please). Needless to say there are a few out there that are HFC syrup free and use real sugar but most are still just junk food in a bottle and don’t do much for you other than sparkle on your taste buds. However there is one drink that fits my bill to a T. It’s fizzy (some say with a bit of tart), can be fruity and flavored and is low calorie but with reverting to the use of chemical sugar. This drink is known as….Kombucha. (KOM -boo -CHA) Better even is that Kombucha actually has health benefits. Of course…don’t make any and bottle it with that particular claim because the FDA will come and shut you down. The most they will say is that Kombucha won’t harm you—if properly made.

So, what is Kombucha? Well, for those of you that have never heard of or seen it, it is a fermented beverage made from plain old tea. Black, green with or without herbal (your choice), and a bit of sugar to feed it. It is very similar to yogurts, natural non pasteurized vinegars, and the fermented veggies of Asian origination called kimchi. Sometimes sweeter than other times, some brands can have a tad of vinegar type taste to the first sip—which can be noticeable or completely absent. That particular “trait” is a length of brewing time issue that is correctable—if you don’t like it— and not unpleasant even when it is there. Though Kombucha may not be what I will substitute for my Dr.Pepper on burrito and taco night—most people actually find Kombucha very pleasing to the palate.

One of the biggest pros of Kombucha is that it is something you can make at home AND it’s good, very very good, for your digestive system because of the many beneficial bacterias/yeasts in it. Supposedly drinking some each day can help with allergies, digestive issues, headaches etc. —but don’t tell the FDA I said that.

It can also, with the addition of a bit of sugar or fruit juice at the end of fermentation be bottled and turned into a fizzy, carbonated style drink. Though it’s not quite the same as Dr Pepper or Coke— as I mentioned above—it is “crisp” none the less. Done properly you can “blow the top” off your bottle upon re-opening. Now THAT’s the kind of crispy fizzy I am talking about!

As we all know a healthy digestive tract is a plus. Of course I always thought that meant not having smelly gas all the time or diarrhea. But more and more often we now hear that about 80% of our immune system actually starts and resides in our gastrointestinal tract and fighting things like colds and flu is dependent upon it functioning correctly. This really came home to us when we began to raise sheep and cows. The beneficial bacteria in their system is in a fine balance. Upset that bacterial ratio with incorrect feeds (as in too much corn for CAFO fed cattle) and they can become sick…over and over again. Sick as in requiring antibiotics all the time. Worse even is that antibiotics then kill off most of the bacteria in the digestive tract thus creating a potential for a vicious cycle. Our complete and total health (and the ruminants mentioned above) starts in our gut and relies upon us feeding our good bacteria and flushing or starving our bad bacteria. Hows that for encouraging you to eat right?

Now that I have started you down the path to why you should drink Kombucha….I am going to switch topics of a sorts. Kombucha, along with yogurt, kimchi and apple cider vinegar (vinegar with culture only—-not that pasteurized crap at the regular chain grocery store) and a few other foods are considered probiotic. Probiotics of course feed the health of our system—they are the good bacteria of which I have been speaking. We’ve all heard that a lot in the past years— but did you know there are also PREbiotic foods that you should eat? Prebiotic foods are those foods we’ve been told to eat for many many years now and our grandparents took for granted: whole grains, high fiber foods and more fruits and veggies with their skins on. These foods, using oat fiber as an example, are somewhat indigestible and create bulk which pushes along the digestive tract some of the bad bacteria, so it can be eliminated, while “feeding” the good bacteria. Yes, this is a bit simplistic of an explanation….but I need to keep my posts down to a reasonable size . Prebiotics, or basically a good diet, is just one thing that influences our health. Stress, age and genetics are some of the other key factors. However, I personally like to think most poor health is more of a by product of incorrect eating than any thing else but I am sure there are exceptions to that.

Anyway, if you would like to try and make Kombucha it is really not that hard. It just requires getting a culture from a friend or purchasing one on-line and a large enough glass jar. The actual brewing of Kombucha is so well documented that I am really not going to tell you how to do it here—though I did add a few pics of a mother culture and my container with it brewing away in. I have listed some links at the bottom of this article for you to explore for yourself. Also, to answer Gina’s question from last week—yes we do use filtered water (not distilled) and never regular tap water. Why? Well, one reason is that we have a Big Berkey counter top water filter that we love love love. I mean it– is awesome and no longer do I get the occasional stomach ache when I drink a glass of water (Google stomaches and chloramine if you want to know more about that subject!). Also, for those of you that don’t know about fermenting products and mother cultures: mother cultures are made up of yeasts and bacterias—two things city water is meant to kill with it’s chlorine or chloramine and lots of other supposedly good for us “junk”. Since you just never know what your city water will do to your culture (supposedly well water is in the category too), it is always better to use filtered or distilled water. Both are considered more reliable for the long term health of your mother culture. She can get sickly and weak too and well…you wouldn’t want to negatively affect the growing mother of your future Kombucha and possibly kill it.

So, even if you aren’t ready to take the leap into making Kombucha yet…..look for it at your health food store next time and try it out. You might be surprised at how well you like it. Brands do vary a bit and I personally favor those with fruit juice in them as they have a tendency to be a bit “sweeter” (leaning more towards my style of drink) however my husband, a life long un-sweet tea drinker all his life, also likes the plain. To each his own right?

http://www.happyherbalist.com/kombucha_brewing_guide.htm –basic brewing instructions

http://www.happyherbalist.com/continuous_brewing.htm – continuous brewing instructions if you aren’t interested in bottling

http://www.happyherbalist.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWPROD&ProdID=210 – second stage fermentation for getting more fizz.

http://kombuchatea.tribe.net/thread/e04c5d5f-f994-48b2-891a-15cee65e1a44 — also about secondary fermentation but specifically includes adding a teaspoon of sugar and/or fruit juice for the process to create a sweeter fizzier beverage.

* as a note….I listed mostly the happy herbalist as a reference because their site is well organized and has lots of details. There are many others though and since I acquired my culture from a friend I can not say which mail order place I recommend. I did not, in my search, come across any references that any particular one was a bad place to shop though.

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