From Skeptic to Student – Why I Tried Making Kombucha

Kombucha pin

Let me be the first to admit it; I never thought I’d make kombucha.

It was the SCOBY, mostly, that kept me away. The SCOBY, a whimsical acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, is an ominous looking beast. It’s whitish, with a rubbery, gelatinous texture, and it grows of its own accord every time a new batch of tea and sugar is introduced into its environment. I thought the SCOBY was a mushroom (or some sort of brain) but turns out I was wrong. SCOBY is made of acidophilic yeast, acetic acid bacteria, and microbial cellulose.

 

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For the record, the SCOBY’s home jar should be covered with a breathable towel. I just took mine off so you could see the SCOBY in all it’s…uh…glory.

 

Sounds delicious, right? I mean, where do I sign. Tea mixed with bacteria and yeast. YUM.

But hang on. How do you feel about yogurt? Because yogurt is made by mixing dairy or nut milk with bacteria to produce lactic acid. How about beer? That’s the product of barley, water, hops, and yeast. And cheese? That’s milk mixed with a variety of bacteria which aids in creating texture and flavor.

The ingredients sound sketchy until you consider the science. Microbes are amazing creatures. They transform everyday ingredients into new and different flavor sensations, aid in food preservation, and give us a healthy way to maintain our body’s necessary bacterial levels. Kombucha, a centuries-old effervescent tea beverage, is a simple way to enjoy all three of those benefits.

My other concern (aside from having a floating brain-like organism in my kitchen) was the potential for contamination. Working with live bacteria means there’s always a chance for things to go wrong. Luckily, it seems maintaining a safe, healthy SCOBY culture isn’t all that difficult. First off, kombucha is full of tea polyphenols and acetic acid, both of which naturally ward off harmful bacteria. Second, using properly washed hands and equipment aids in keeping the tea clean. Third, using the right containers (always glass, never ceramic) keeps away potential problems with leeching lead.

Once I got over my SCOBY and contamination fear, here’s why kombucha interested me:

  1. Decreasing sugar intake. In trying to be mindful of my sugar habit, I don’t buy juice, soda, flavored coffee, or any other beverage that has a huge amount of hidden sugar lurking behind the label. (That doesn’t mean I don’t eat cookies. It’s just a fine balance.) Kombucha, with its minimal amount of sugar, is a bottled beverage that still feels like a treat.
  2. Using garden produce. The kombucha I like most is a two-step process: the initial ferment (using tea, sugar, and the SCOBY), and the secondary ferment, which is the process of adding flavor, sweetness, and effervescence to the tea. This summer, most of our flavor mixes have come straight from the farm: apples, plums, kale, carrots, tomatoes, and mint. The juice is mixed directly with the tea, sealed in an airtight glass jar, and left to fizz. Juicing for kombucha is a useful way to incorporate garden vitamins into daily life.
  3. Immune system benefits. With four children and a husband in and out of school, pre-school, the gym, the library, church, and the great outdoors, we encounter a lot of germs. According to the Mayo Clinic, “kombucha tea may offer benefits similar to probiotic supplements, including promoting a healthy immune system and preventing constipation.” While there are plenty of other proposed health benefits/risks to kombucha, the beneficial probiotics are the one thing that most doctors agree on.
  4. Getting the family involved. My kids have taken an interest in helping juice, bottle, and mix kombucha. This naturally led to them wanting to try it. So far, the two biggest flavor hits have been apple and mango, although carrots were, according to my girls, the most entertaining items to juice. My friend who gave me half of her SCOBY to get started noticed the same trend – her boys now love helping with the process. Kombucha is a new way to get the family playing together in the kitchen.
  5. Growing taste buds. The more I cook, the more I understand about the four elements of good cooking: salt, fat, acid, and heat. For a short but totally engrossing podcast on the topic, click here. Salt, fat, and heat I understood, but acid… let’s just say it took me a while to start noticing when the acid was present vs. absent, and how that impacted the flavor. Kombucha, with its tart, vinegary notes, has an unmatched flavor profile that I’ve learned to appreciate. Additionally, I’ve found that drinking kombucha helps curb my appetite and clear my palate when I’m craving something sweet.

From skeptic to student, understanding the basic science around kombucha has been a fascinating journey. I’ll post more once I have a solid repertoire of flavor combinations and ratios. Until then, pick up a bottle at the store sometime, or come hang out and let me pour you a glass. Leave me a comment below – let’s hear what you think!

 

Want to read more? Here are a couple of balanced and helpful links:

  1. Kombucha – the infographic version (Huffpost)
  2. Kombucha – the overview (Livescience)
  3. Kombucha – according to Mayo (Mayo Clinic)
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Amateur Farm Hour: Girl vs. Wild Game

Every year, I lose my husband for a couple of weekends to a remote hunting shack surrounded by tamaracks. It’s strictly man camp – bunks, a generator, wood heat, outhouse. Yeah. An outhouse. Those things actually exist beyond the realms of state parks and campgrounds. He goes up alternately with family and friends, and on occasion, if the hunting is good, he comes home with grouse (or partridge, depending on where you’re from.)

IMG_20150929_164922181 (720x1280)A couple of nights after he came back, the sun slanted low through my west windows, reminding me it was dinner time. I opened the fridge and there it was. Middle shelf. Plastic bag. A speckled wing attached to a nice sized grouse breast. It had been sitting there for two days already. I knew where it came from, when and who shot it, and how thoroughly it had already been cleaned. And I didn’t want it to spoil, but you guys…

The wing. 

The wing was attached. (This is Minnesota DNR regulation for transporting game, lest you think my husband was just being mean.) And I was going to have to saw through the bone to get it off.

*Gulp*

I’m an avid home cook, a farm girl, and a member of two families that hunt pheasant, turkey, grouse, and deer. I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve seen plenty. (Anyone else do puppet shows with dead pheasants? Cousin Angie, that may have just been us. Hm.)

It took me a while before I finally worked up the nerve to move the dead bird in the ziplock bag from the fridge to the cutting board. I stood there, knife in hand, unsure of what to do next.

I have the feeling I wouldn’t be alone in this. We like to talk organic and locally sourced. There’s something rustic and gratifying about farmers markets and roadside stands, and the way we feel when we pull out our reusable canvas bags and pass actual cash between hands.

But when push comes to shove, we want our vegetables symmetrical, our meat devoid of anything that makes it look like an animal, and our apples buffed to a bright red shine.

That’s not reality though, is it? In real life, those pink oval-shaped chicken breasts resided in a living, breathing chicken with feathers and a beak. Vegetables come from soil, sun, and crap (I’m sorry – I mean compost.) Real apples often carry marks of blight and beetles.

Somehow, we’ve divorced the ugly side of food.

We prefer the Stepford version of polish and wax and mechanical separation. So when I came face to face with a bird wing in my fridge, I wanted to shove it to the back and forget about it. Let four days pass, and then toss it on grounds of raw meat bacteria growth.

Whoops. Sorry honey.

Organic imperfection is inescapable. And somehow, we’re a little afraid of it. But we don’t have to be, if we can stop seeing marks of difference as imperfect. If we could trust that sometimes, imperfection is something God wants us to see, because it brings us past the thing itself and into the reasons behind it.

After all. Perfection is beautiful, but rarely does it teach us anything.

Meanwhile, I still had a dead bird on my cutting board, and the girls were getting curious about it. Feathers, mama? Birdie?

Yes sweetie. Feathers on a birdie. Birdie for supper. 

It was time to get to work.

In reality, the dirty work took no more effort than slicing off the wing with a knife, which felt like cutting a toothpick. Suddenly, the grouse looked like a very small chicken. I took the rest of the meat off the rib cage, and put it in a gently simmering pan of chicken broth and garlic.

IMG_20150929_171810822 (870x1280)It took all of five minutes to cook, low and slow.

However, there wasn’t a lot of it. So I cut up some broccoli, chives, garlic, and parsley, and added that to the pan. I also added half a can of *wait for it* cream of chicken soup. We’re all about classy here. (Hey, after I posted a picture of my intended supper plans, a friend reminded me grouse can be dry.) I had bread dough in the fridge, so I rolled it out and cut the edges. Then I gently poured the meat mixture into the center of the dough, and overlapped the bread edges so that it looked like a braid.

Bada bing, bada boom. I cooked wild game.

Thirty minutes later, my tastebuds confirmed what my nose had been smelling. It was GOOD. It was REALLY good. The girls ate every last bite without complaint, and my husband got the satisfaction of seeing something he’d hunted provide food for his family.

And me? I conquered the wing.

Grouse and Broccoli Braid

Ingredients

2 grouse breasts (chicken would work too)

1 cup chicken broth

2 cloves garlic, pressed

1 cup broccoli

1/4 cup chopped parsley and chives

Half a can of cream of chicken soup

Bread dough (homemade, store-bought, or crescent rolls. Pick your jam. Just adjust your baking accordingly.)

1 egg yolk, 1 tbsp milk, 1/4 tsp salt for the egg wash (if using bread dough)


Method

  1. Simmer breasts whole in the chicken broth and garlic just till cooked through.
  2. Remove from pan, dice into half inch cubes.
  3. Chop broccoli into bite sized pieces.
  4. Return meat to the pan. Add broccoli, herbs, and cream of chicken soup. Heat on low and mix to coat. Salt and pepper as needed. Remove from heat once coated. (Don’t overcook – the oven will finish it.)
  5. Roll out your bread dough into a long rectangle. Cut three to four inches into the edges, an inch or so apart, making a fringe of the dough. (Watch the pictures – they’ll make the most sense.)
  6. Pour the meat and sauce mix into the center of the rectangle, and wrap the fringe edges one over the other, bottom to top.
  7. Brush egg wash mixture over the bread dough. (no need if you’re using crescent roll dough.)
  8. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, or until nicely golden on top.

Or if you learn better by pictures…

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1. Cook breasts whole, then chop, return to pan, and add veggies, herbs, and soup.

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2. Roll out your dough, then cut the edges 3 to 4 inches on both sides. It looks a little like a skeleton. Pour meat mix into the center.

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3. Here’s the fun part. Braid the bread. Just lay one piece over the other, diagonally working up. Tuck the bottom pieces under when you get to the top.

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4. Finished braid. From here, brush with egg wash if you’re using real dough. No wash necessary if using crescent roll dough. Bake at 400 (or according to your bread package instructions) for 30 minutes or until golden.

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5. Baked braid. Yes, it tastes as good as it looks.

Layered Chicken Enchiladas

I put together dinner in ten minute windows these days. Anything beyond that results in full chorus whining. So I’m attempting to make a quick and dirty list of methods that I can prep and finish in ten minutes or less.

It’s a tall order.

Enter: Layered Chicken Enchiladas

Skip stuffing and rolling. This method, which I first read about in a great memoir called Bread and Wine, is genius. Layers. Think lasagna, but in the form of tortillas and chicken and salsa verde. It’s adaptable to what you have on hand, and can be done gluten-free (use corn tortillas) or vegetarian (use beans instead of chicken) if you’re so inclined.

A quick word about method recipes.TRUST YOURSELF. You don’t need exact measurements, the perfect tools, or all the listed ingredients. Understand the method, and then take your meal in whatever direction you want. In this case, layers of flavor are laid on top of one another and baked. Fast, simple, and really, really good. 

Ready?

Layered Chicken Enchiladas – by Method

Leftover blitz - mix and match!

Leftover blitz – mix and match!

Here’s what I had on hand:

  • leftover rice
  • leftover rotisserie chicken
  • salsa verde
  • flour tortillas
  • queso fresco
  • sour cream
  • cherry tomatoes
  • fresh oregano
  • chives
  • dried cumin
  1. In an 8×8 square pan, spread a layer of salsa verde. Top it with tortillas, sour cream, more salsa, chicken, rice, tomatoes, cheese, oregano, and chives. Sprinkle with cumin.
  2. Put down another layer of tortillas. Repeat.

    Layer #1

    Layers are waaaaay better than rolls.

  3. Put down one more layer of tortillas. Top with sour cream and salsa verde.
  4. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
  5. Pull out and garnish (oh yeah, fancy town) with more queso fresco and oregano (I used cilantro here because it needed to be used.)
  6. Eat. Eat. Eat.

First review of raised bed gardening

IMG_4104 (800x518)June 13. We planted the garden about three weeks ago. And mystery of all mysteries, life has sprouted.

I don’t know why that always strikes me. There’s something about seeds and water and dirt. It all seems so improbable.  Then suddenly, green stems. Buds. Flowers. Vegetables.

If you’ve never planted a seed and watched it unfurl, you’re probably laughing. But if you have, you might know what I’m talking about it. Nature is magic when you let yourself get caught up in it.

Early risers in the garden include a mesclun lettuce, a baby butter lettuce, easter egg radishes, and all the squash plants. I think the green beans and sugar snap peas are doing well too. The plants still in question include rainbow swiss chard, spinach, and carrots. Oh, and potatoes. Mainly because I haven’t put them in the ground yet.

IMG_4110 (800x533)Tomatoes are rocking – we did 6 plants: heirloom yellow bells, two romas, heirloom brandywine, a supersweet 100 cherry, and one classic variety that I can’t remember the name of. I’m probably getting myself into some sort of salsa canning operation later.

Now if you remember, the goal was to be weeding less in this raised bed situation. So far, that’s fairly accurate. Having the fabric between the beds keeps big weeds to a minimum, but we do still find plenty of little volunteer starters in the vegetable rows. Luckily they are easy to pluck out, so I haven’t been frustrated too much by them. But just in case you’re thinking this is a weed free operation, it’s not.

Aesthetically, we are still working on the final plan for the garden. This week I finished doing the landscape fabric in the walkways. Most of this effort was accompanied by Ellis sticking her own landscape staples in the ground at various intervals. I’m sure that compromises the effectiveness of fabric, but that’s fine. Toddlers are ever curious, and ever copy cats.

Next step – pea gravel. If anyone has a good pea gravel hook up around the Twin Cities metro area, let me know.

Sigh. I just asked for a pea gravel hook up.

 

The Story of a Pie

The story of a pie

 Once upon a time, there was a sale on strawberries.

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The Almelund Mercantile had fresh, local rhubarb in the cooler.

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And I had a memory of the best spring pie in the world – Strawberry Rhubarb

But alas. None of my cookbooks had the recipe. I couldn’t find my phone. And the internet was slow to go. So I figured it couldn’t be that hard. I’d wing it.

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Ellis was all over helping. It meant she had easy access to the pie dough.

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America’s Test Kitchen’s Basic Pie Crust served us well. We sampled it plentifully to make sure.

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The leftover dough became snail balls. Think mini pie crust cinnamon rolls. Drool a little. It’s okay.

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Here’s where it went a little off track. I remembered the pie having a crumble topping. You know. Like apple crisp. Except that my crumble topping was too wet. And then someone started crying. And I changed a few diapers. Fixed a pony tail. Got thoroughly distracted. Never added more flour.

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It looked fine uncooked. It tasted fine uncooked. (No shame. I taste test everything.) I had high hopes that Martha was going to come banging down my door for the glory that was sure to be this pie.

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I peeked in the oven half way, and then realized my mistake. Not enough flour in the crumble.

SIGH.

No picture perfect pie. No Martha.

But that won’t stop us from eating every last inch of this gloriously messy, mixed up pie.

Every mistake has salvage potential.

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The End.

PS – I took advantage of an extended nap time and did a redesign on the blog. What do you think? Cleaner? Easier to navigate? I hope so. I’m digging it. But I’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you have a kick butt recipe for strawberry rhubarb pie, I’d love to hear that too.

Raised Bed Gardening

I’ve always been a lazy gardener. Ask my husband. The lawnmower made a weekly pilgrimage through my old garden because I never kept the edges under control. Weeding is not my forte. Watering is an afterthought.

But eating? Eating is something I’m really good at. Hence, we keep a garden.

We’ve looked at raised bed and square foot gardens for a few years now. The magazines promise easy, carefree produce. The people we talk to raved about the easy organization and lack of weeding. And our master gardener friend who lives down the road was still asking us if we wanted carrots in NOVEMBER.

IMG_3725 (800x507)So. This year is the year of raised bed gardens at our farm. We’re doing it. Okay, Jason’s doing it. He built the beds, shoveled the compost and manure, hauled the giant bags of vermiculite, and planned the whole thing out. I, uh, helped carry the boxes.

Here are the basics:

  • Soil isn’t really soil. The stuff in the garden boxes is 1/3 compost, 1/3 animal organic matter (manure), and 1/3 vermiculite. Aside from being fun to say, this is basically just the stuff that helps the mixture retain moisture.
  • The raised beds are 2 x 4’s (I think) that Jason measured, cut, and hammered into place. Pretty simple. You can buy cute ornaments to decorate and hold the corners square, but we’re going Swedish utilitarian this year.
  • The benefits are less weeding, organization, better moisture retention, and bigger veggies. (So I’m told. Like I said – this is our first year.)

IMG_3814 (800x533)The pre-babies me would have started seeds a long time ago, but the realistic me knew that dirt in cups not kept under lock and key would be fodder for toddler temptation. So we’ll be starting from seeds and scratch…except for tomatoes. I like to buy tomato plants. (Honestly, because in the beginning nothing-is-growing stage, it keeps me from despairing that I’ve killed the plants before they even had a chance to grow.)

I’ll check back in with a few progress reports when something’s happening.

(Hopefully something happens and we didn’t just shovel a bunch of cow poop in our garden for $%#ts and giggles.)

 

 

 

 

That first garden [at Addiezierman.com today]

Hey! I’m guest posting over at my great friend Addie Zierman’s blog as part of her One Small Change series. Addie is a STELLAR writer, thinker (with a new book out!) and member of my writing group, and this series has been a huge source of encouragement to me. Each post has taught me how to incorporate better stewardship of the world I live in into my life. Head over and check it out, and be sure to read some of the other great posts. Oh, and buy her book. Really. Do it. 

Here’s the beginning to get you started.

——

first-gardenI grew up surrounded by food.

My grandparents were dairy and crop farmers. My dad likewise raised crops, feeder pigs, and beef cattle. I spent my formative summers eating fresh corn on the cob, mulberries, green beans. Peppers. Zucchini. Spinach and asparagus, homemade bread.

Come July and August, my mother became a produce machine. Corn was cut and frozen. Tomatoes were canned for salsa and sauce. Mulberries were boiled with sugar and lemon and canned as sauce to pour over vanilla ice cream. And when the freezer was getting low, my dad sent a pig or a cow to the butcher, and came home with boxes and boxes of white paper packages carefully labeled in blue meat locker ink.

But when I stepped out from under my parent’s roof, food took on a different shape for me. A new, costlier shape. It was no longer just, well, available. What was worse, I started seeing it in terms of dollar bills that, as a college student, I never had enough of.

—Keep reading