Saturday, April 18, 2015

Spring is in the air

Signs of spring are everywhere here at the Whittled Down house. 

 The cat is enjoying more time outdoors, surveying her territory from her special rock. 

My ramp patch, now in its third year, is looking bigger and better than ever. 

The garlic we planted in October is already six inches high, and very appreciative of the serving of compost it received. 

Our new vegetable garden, which we began to make in the fall by sheet mulching, is coming along. Some of the beds are finished and planted. We are still laying paths and finishing the beds in about 25% of the garden. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Aquaponics Update: Strawberries and a fish emergency

First, the good news. We grew strawberries in our indoor aquaponics system! Three strawberries, to be precise. In deep February, with over 70" of snowfall this month, words cannot describe how incredible it feels to bite into a perfectly ripe strawberry. To grow them, I transplanted a strawberry plant from last summer's outdoor planter, and hand pollinated the flowers.

The rest of our grow bed has been transformed into a kitchen herb garden for the winter months. We're growing scallions (I just planted the roots from a bunch I bought at the grocery store), dill, cilantro, and garlic greens. All of these are great for a little sprig of fresh green garnish for our hearty winter meals.

Now for the bad news.

Our miniature aquaponics system has been chugging along since last summer with no problems. A few weeks ago, we moved it into the kitchen so that we would have more access to the plants and so we could keep a closer eye on the fish.

A few weeks after that, the fish seemed sluggish. I looked closer, and to my horror I found scary looking red spots around its gills, vent, on its tail--everywhere. Having killed (accidentally!) many goldfish as a child, I felt this must be a signal of the fish's impending demise.

Now, this fish is a survivor. We call it our "rescue fish". It came to live with us after its pond was filled in. I found it flopping around in the muck after I finished bailing all the water. I figured it was a long shot, but I ran home and got a pitcher of water to transfer the fish to. Despite being thrown into different temperature and pH chlorinated water, the fish pulled through. Later, when its tank shattered in my hands during a move, the fish survived the resulting counter-flopping (I ended up with a nice slice in my hand). Could it be that our rescue fish's luck had finally run out?

I did what any DIYer would do--I searched the fish's symptoms online. It didn't look good; the Internet recommended broad spectrum antibiotics, or maybe even injections. Who knew you could give shots to a fish? Like dummies, we called our local fish store to see if they had antibiotics. The wise, stern voice on the other end of the line said, "You don't need antibiotics. You can probably cure it with a salt bath. Bring a water sample on by."

At the fish store we learned that our water had high levels of nitrites, and the fish expert was certain the tank had experienced a spike in ammonia several weeks earlier that burned the fish, leaving it vulnerable to infection. What caused the system to get out of balance? We think it was a combination of factors. First, the fish has been growing, but its tank has not; at nearly 7 inches, we should have had it in a 20 gallon tank, not a 10 gallon tank. Second, I think when we moved the fish tank to its new spot, we started inadvertently feeding the fish more often, since it was in a high traffic location. More food = more poop, and that means more ammonia in the system.

Mr. Fish Expert assured us that therapeutic levels of salt (4%, or 1 teaspoon per gallon) would kill the bacteria and help the fish heal, and scolded us for our over-reliance on Internet research. It seems counter-intuitive to put a freshwater fish in salt water, to say the least, but it seemed worth a try. Now, as you might have guessed, salt is not a good thing to have in an aquaponics system; even a small amount will kill your plants. So, we moved the fish to a "hospital tank," otherwise known as a lobster pot, and administered the treatment. Sure enough, within 48 hours the fish had more energy; within a week, the spots had vanished.

Now our system seems back in balance. We've upgraded the tank size, adopted a strict feeding regimen, and we test the water for ammonia frequently. Our rescue fish seems to have pulled through once again.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Before and After: "Dining Room"

When we bought our house, there was a room on the first floor (probably the original dining room) that particularly offended us. The entire room was covered with white and powder blue faux wood grain paneling. You can't see it in this picture, but the paneling went right over the window casings, leaving the sad vinyl windows with no defenses. 

Our first hour in the house, we started to rip out this paneling. What was underneath it? Pink wallpaper, and then 9 other layers of wallpaper. It turned into quite the project. We removed the wallpaper with the help of several friends and former housemates. A friend's dad, a plasterer, came and helped us skim coat the raw plaster we found underneath. 
Skim coating in progress.

The room stayed like this, painted yellow with badly alligatored white trim, for another year and a half or so. When we decided to rent the room out again, we thought it would be a good opportunity to finish up this room for good. So, we scraped the trim. The original intention was to repaint it, because it's pine and was not originally stained and varnished. But after all that work, I couldn't bring myself to cover up the wood again. So, there was more work as we stripped all of the remaining soaked in paint off the trim. 


Here's the wood stained, before we painted the room. 

Our incoming housemate picked the new room color. It's not something I would have ever picked myself, but I think it looks fabulous. 

I'm not sure I've mentioned this on the blog before, but someone painted over all of the oil-painted trim in our house with latex, causing all of the trim paint to fail. It feels SO good to have fixed the trim here. One room down, many more to go.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sauerkraut: Tasty, healthy, and a great first ferment

Sauerkraut is great winter food. It turns the humble cabbage, a cheap late fall veggie, into a magical, tangy vitamin C-rich party. Eat it with sausage! Put it in pierogies! But most importantly, save tons of money and learn about lacto-fermentation by making it yourself.

Sauerkraut is the first lacto-fermentation a lot of people make. It's pretty reliable, because the bacteria needed for the fermentation are naturally present on cabbage leaves. You don't need any special equipment to make sauerkraut.

"Sauerkraut SMASH!"

Ingredients and materials:

  • Cabbage! One 4 lb head makes about one half gallon of kraut. 
  • Sea salt. 2.5 tablespoons for 4 lbs of cabbage. If you don't have sea salt, use whatever you've got.
  • A ceramic crock or large jars. Half-gallon mason jars are perfect.
  • Something to mash with. A wooden spoon, or if you want to get fancy, a sauerkraut masher.
Oh, and a knife for shredding the cabbage. That's it! Easy!

To make sauerkraut: 

  1. Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage
  2. Slice it thinly (1/4" or so)
  3. Put a layer about 2-3" loosely packed in your jar. 
  4. Sprinkle with salt
  5. Mash with your wooden spoon. Mash it real good. 
  6. Repeat until you've gone through all the cabbage. It should all fit in one half-gallon jar.
  7. Put a weight on top of the kraut to encourage the liquid to cover everything. A smaller mason jar filled with water works great. 
  8. Cover the whole thing with something that will allow gas to escape. A mason jar lid flipped upside down and only loosely tightened works well. 
  9. Check it the next day to make sure enough juice has come out of the cabbage to cover everything. If it doesn't have enough liquid, make a salt water solution and top it off.
Taste it every day after the first 3 days or so. When it tastes krauty enough for your liking, remove the weight, put a normal lid on, and stick it in the fridge. Done!


Tips and tricks:

  • When in doubt, mash harder. You really want to break the cabbage down a bit so the salt can penetrate and draw the juices out. You also don't want lots of air gaps in the jar because it can provide habitat for nasties. 
  • Keep floaters to a minimum. Again, air exposure = opportunities for mold and rot. If there are little pieces floating on top, take them out. 
  • Don't be afraid to let it sit for a week or more. Fermentation can take time, especially in the colder months. If you taste it every day, you'll know when it's ready. 
  • If you are getting serious about fermentation, a ceramic crock can be a great tool. A warning, though: do not use old ceramic crocks, as the glaze may contain lead. You can buy new, lead-free ones here

Weigh it down

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mid-week Tweets: DIY Duck House and more

Monday, December 1, 2014

Homemade marshmallows for perfect holiday hot chocolate

Marshmallows. Those crusty, stale sugar puffs that come in a plastic bag. They seem like the epitome of industrialized "food". It turns out that's not true--marshmallows started out as medicine to treat sore throats, and were originally made with the root of the marshmallow plant. Marshmallows date back to ancient Egypt, though certainly the confection we call marshmallow is a more modern concoction, dating to 19th-century France. The more you know.

In my circle of friends, bags of marshmallows tend to get passed from one bonfire host to the next, indefinitely. No one wants them, no one eats them.

That is, until it's finally hot chocolate season. There's something about marshmallows melting in hot chocolate that is so happy-making. So when the snow started to fall last week, the fluffy white flakes brought out my fluffy white marshmallow cravings. I decided to try to reclaim the marshmallow from the jet-puffed jaws of Kraft by making my own.

For a recipe, I turned to a fun little book called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch--Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods, by Jennifer Reese. Reese has done a fun little comparison of the costs (both money and labor) of making versus buying various foods. Marshmallows, she concludes, should definitely be made. She writes about them with particular passion. "Homemade marshmallows are fairy food," she says, "pillowy, quivering, and soft."

Recipe: Homemade Marshmallows

Adapted from Make the Bread, Buy the Butter

3 packets unflavored gelatin
1.5 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup (yup, not the best ingredient)
2 egg whites
2 tsp vanilla extract

A 50/50 mix of confectioners' sugar and cornstarch, for coating.

  1. Dissolve the gelatin in just under 1/2 cup water over low heat. Turn off heat and set aside. 
  2. Combine sugar, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup water over medium heat and stir until dissolved, then continue to heat until temperature reaches 265 degrees. 
  3. When the temperature is getting close to 265, beat your 2 egg whites until stiff with an electric mixer (you will not want to do the rest of this by hand). 
  4. Slowly drizzle the hot sugar mixture into the egg whites, beating continuously.
  5. Add the gelatin, still beating, and continue beating until the mixture cools and begins to stiffen (it actually started to gum up the motor of my mixer). 
  6. Add the vanilla

From here, you're going to lay a thick bed of the confectioner's/corn starch mixture on a tray, and pour the marshmallow on top of it. The book says to smooth it until flat, but I wasn't able to get it to do that, so I just let gravity flatten it out. I put the mixture in the fridge for 4-5 hours, then dusted the top with the starch mixture and used a cookie cutter to cut circular marshmallows that would fit nicely atop a mug of hot chocolate. You could also use a pizza cutter or a pastry knife if you wanted squares. I rolled the cut edges in starch, and voila! Marshmallows!

I agree with Reese; homemade marshmallows are truly excellent. And aside from sugar dust, they are not hard or time-consuming to make.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Using IFTTT on the Backyard Farm

The phrase Whittled Down Life implies an ever-increasing simplicity, as though somehow by cutting out enough excess, life will become magically uncomplicated. In reality, the more we simplify our lives in some senses (relying less on processed food, driving less, buying less stuff), the more there is to keep track of. When you grow your own food, you've got garden planning and maintenance, food preservation, and all that good stuff. When you drive less, you've got to plan your trips more carefully and pay closer attention to the weather. You get the idea.

Luckily, we live in the digital age, and there are tools out there that can make life easier for even the most disorganized punk domestic. Let's talk about one of those tools:

IFTTT (If This Then That) is an online service that lets you create recipes of conditional triggers for all kinds of things. Basically, it allows you to link different services together in an automated way. Everything from text messaging to Craigslist is included in their list of services you can use to make recipes.

With the right devices, you can use IFTTT to automate everything from remembering to open the cold frames to regulating the temperature of your tomato starts. Though IFTTT can't do everything, it is a valuable addition to the  digital homesteader's tool belt. As more and more tools become a part of the internet of things, the possibilities will only expand.

Here are some recipes we've found useful around our garden farm and home:

Text message a warning when it's getting too warm out for the coldframes to be closed.

IFTTT Recipe: Open the cold frames! connects weather to sms

All of your plants can get fried in a matter of minutes if a cold frame is left closed on a warm day. Cold frames act like solar ovens to keep plants above freezing in cold months. In those times of the year where temperatures fluctuate, like fall and spring, it can be hard to keep a constant eye on the outside temperature. This IFTTT will text you a warning when the tempurature climbs above 50 degrees. You can also set up your own to trigger a notification on your smart phone.

Email a warning when it looks like it's going to frost tomorrow

IFTTT Recipe: Frost Alert connects weather to email

If you're like me, and have trouble keeping up with the news, you might miss one of those ever so important frost warnings. This IFTTT will email you a warning the day before the predicted frost. This should give you enough time to muster the sheets and tarps, or do some last ditch harvesting before it's too late.

Need free woodchips? Looking for pullets for sale? Notify me about Craigslist posts!

IFTTT Recipe: Free Wood Chips! connects craigslist to sms

The possibilities are endless with the Craigslist IF. You can set up a search for any posts in the free section mentioning "wood chips", or find yourself a cheap piece of furniture, or equipment for around the home stead. It might take a month before you find the right deal, but IFTTT is doing all the work for you, so it pays to play the long game if you've got time on your side. I published the above IFTTT as example, but you'll have to make your own for it to be useful. That is, unless you live in Western Massachusetts, in which case hands-off my free wood chips!

These recipes just scratch the surface.  Has IFTTT made a whittled down life more possible for you? Share your thoughts, and show us your recipes.