Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How To Start Your Own Sweet Potatoes

The subject of sprouting your own sweet potato slips came up on a discussion and I realized I’ve never posted pictures of the method I use. Sweet potato vines are a beautiful ornamental even if you don’t grow them for the tubers. Right about now is when sweet potatoes from the previous year, whether from the supermarket or your home garden, will start attempting to sprout. I have always used purchased sweet potatoes from the supermarket and farmer’s market, and various yams from the Asian market to start my own. I’ve never had the slightest trouble getting them to sprout. It takes approximately 3-4 weeks to produce rooted slips and then you either plant them in pots for a couple more weeks to encourage more roots, or set them directly into the garden.  Unlike regular potatoes they cannot handle the slightest bit of cold, so count back 4-6 weeks from the time you’d normally plant things like okra and black-eyed peas and start them then.

To begin with, cut the crown off the tuber, then split it lengthwise down the middle. If it’s an especially large tuber, you may want to cut it into more pieces so they are not so thick and fat. Thicker pieces tend to rot faster than thinner ones.  If there is a row of “eyes” down the length of the potato, try NOT to cut directly thru it, as this is where the sprouts form. In this picture, you can see the sprouts already forming on the crown piece.

Now, cut a single sheet of newspaper to fit into a garden flat. Sprinkle a thin layer of potting mix over the paper, then lay your tuber pieces in, cut side down. You can completely fill the flat with slices of sweet potatoes, like this:

Now, put more potting mix over the pieces, burying them completely. Water the flat and keep it in a warm place. On warm, sunny days, move the flat outdoors.  (This is when you’ll appreciate not having the pieces in heavy, individual pots!) In 3-4 weeks, this is what you’ll have:

The crown pieces will always sprout first, followed by the eyes along the length of the potato. At this point, you can start breaking off slips and planting in pots or directly into the garden. Once an eye is “spent” that eye will not produce another sprout, but other eyes elsewhere on the tuber may sprout later, so bury them back in the potting mix after you remove the sprouts. Here is what the slips look like after the soil is rinsed away:

Gently snap each rootlet from the tuber to plant. When potting or planting the slips, spread out the roots, cover the whole thing with soil or potting mix, then gently pull up on the plant to the desired height.

In a few weeks, these slips will have a well-developed root structure and will thrive easily in the garden or in flower beds as a beautiful ornamental. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Early Spring Pickles

Brined Pickled Eggs

Lately I notice people are fermenting fools! And by that, I mean that there’s a huge movement towards lacto-fermented food of all kinds – sauerkraut, beets, kimchi, kombucha – plus a number of other things people have been eating for time immemorial.  Along with a number of things they haven’t… like fermented mayonnaise and lacto-fermented eggs (at least not by the latest recipes I’ve been finding!). I was having a discussion on a group the other day about the fermented mayo, and basically, I’ve come to the conclusion that such a thing doesn’t exist and no matter what you tell people, they don’t believe you. Merely adding some whey or kraut juice to regular homemade mayo does not mean you have made “fermented mayonnaise”.  Fermented foods rely on the natural sugars in dairy and vegetables in order to achieve fermentation. An emulsion of eggs and oil does not contain the sugars necessary for fermentation to take place.

Thinking that perhaps there might be something to the 300,000+ hits you get when Googling “fermented mayo” I have tried making it several times. To no avail. I have used both whey and kraut juice, plus added sugar to the mix, and it just doesn’t happen. It tastes EXACTLY like the homemade mayo I’ve been making for the last 20 years, and has the same shelf-life, since vinegar or lemon juice have always (yes, always – at least for the last 100 years!) been used for tang and preservation.  I think the confusion lies in the fact that people didn’t make homemade mayo until they heard about it being fermented, and therefore, healthy. They simply don’t realize they made plain mayo but added a little something to it. But really, there’s no harm done beyond completely ignoring science and people are good at doing that anyway. The result is still safe and quite edible.

But I did become genuinely disturbed after finding a recipe for lacto-fermented “pickled” eggs.  I am the last person in the world to be overly concerned about food safety, but the recipes I have found ARE NOT SAFE! The first recipe I found used ONE teaspoon of salt per 2 cups of water, with some whey added for fermentation. She claimed they were “brined, pickled eggs”.  Folks, that is not a brine, and they are not pickled -- that is botulism in a pickle jar!

I was interested however, in the idea of a brined, pickled egg, so I kept searching. The next recipe led me to a higher concentration of salt and the addition of a substantial amount of kraut juice – 1 ½  tablespoons of salt plus ½ cup kraut juice in 1 ½ cups water. I didn’t fool myself into thinking the eggs would be “lacto-fermented” but I thought they might at least have a nice flavor within 72 hours. At the end of the fourth day, they had a nice salty flavor but also a pronounced odor and flavor that wasn’t quite right. We didn’t get sick from them, but I immediately dumped the liquid out and pickled them properly – in a 2.5% vinegar solution. We are still eating them, in spite of that not-quite-right flavor.

The eggs in the picture above are my latest attempt. And they are wonderful! I would also like to point out that EVERYTHING in that jar is seasonal.  That’s the other thing I’m seeing that doesn’t seem quite right – just because you CAN toss a bunch of grocery store junk in a jar and get it to ferment, doesn’t mean you SHOULD! There is a season for all foods and our health can only benefit when we choose (or grow!) the freshest, most-locally-grown produce we can find.

We are having to buy some of our produce this year, but that is unusual for me. A winter garden/root cellar in the south produces fresh dill, spring onions, plus garlic, shallots and horseradish that were put back in the fall. There are winter radishes (daikons), beets and carrots still in the garden, which would be delicious added to that jar. And of course, right around Valentine’s Day, we suddenly get slammed with fresh eggs. Lots and lots of eggs…. If Mother Nature didn’t want us to have them, they wouldn’t be so abundant!

Brined Pickled Eggs
Hard-boil the desired number of eggs. Place the peeled eggs into a crock or jar and completely immerse them in the following brine solution. Continue mixing brine until all the eggs are covered:

*3 cups water
*1/2 cup sea salt
*1/2 cup white vinegar
(rice vinegar or white wine vinegar may also be used)

Let the eggs stand in the brine for 72 hours at room temperature. (A little longer won’t hurt in a cool house.) Pour off the brine and repack the eggs, along with desired vegetables, herbs and spices in a solution of half white vinegar and half water. Refrigerate or keep in a very cool place. They will be ready to eat in just a few days. They may also be water-bath canned, but they are really better fresh. Some good additions to the jar might be:

*Fresh or dried dill weed, plus dill seeds
*horseradish slices or wasabi powder (will turn the water cloudy)
*mustard seeds, prepared mustard (will turn the water cloudy)
*onion slices, garlic, shallots, pearl onions
*hot pepper flakes
*daikon, radish or turnip slices
*carrot slices or tiny baby carrots
*coriander and/or cumin seeds

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Power of the Persimmon

First Bread from New Sourdough Culture

What a wonderful year this has been at the Sonnenhof! Things are really starting to come together here.  A few weeks ago, we picked up the newest members of our family – four American Guinea Hogs – a gilt and three piglets.  Then just a few days ago, we put down a deposit on two Nubian dairy doelings. They will not be weaned until June so we have a little more time to get ready for them, but we’re certainly looking forward to fresh milk and cheese next year. The incubator is loaded, we’re getting plenty of fresh eggs, and there’s an order of 25 black broilers coming next week. We’ve located rabbits for the fall. The pigs are digging up new garden beds and we’re planting strawberries, rhubarb, radishes, lettuce and onions this weekend.

Meanwhile, this has been the coldest winter I’ve seen in probably forty years! Which has given me ample time to develop some new interests, like a return to the artisan breads I’ve always wanted to make and charcuterie.  I pulled out my sourdough starter last week and attempted to revive it, but it just wasn’t meant to be. .. So I added some bread flour to some of our good well water, then went in search of something with yeast on it. I’ve learned over the years there’s ALWAYS something like that lying around on a farm, and if not, of course wild yeast will develop on its own in a culture, given enough time. That’s when I remembered the persimmons!

We have at least 5 wild persimmon trees on this property, maybe more. And we had a bumper crop last fall. Picture this, times five!

Here is a basket of the fruit. Just look at all the wild yeast on the skins.

The sheer abundance caught me by surprise, else I would’ve at least made wine out of some of them. As it was, I put about 40 pounds in the freezer. We’ve enjoyed cheesecake a couple of times and I still plan on making pudding soon. This is a grain-free cheesecake – the crust is made with pecans, sugar and butter. The topping is from sour cream.

And here is a jar of brandied persimmons. I packed them into jars, dissolved a little sugar (maybe ¼ cup per quart jar, I don’t really remember) into some brandy, then poured it over the persimmons. I capped them loosely and put them in a dark cool place for several months. They can be eaten this way or used over ice cream and other desserts, and of course, the brandy is still good to drink.

Anyway, wild persimmons don’t have much in common with cultivated persimmons. The cultivated varieties are large and have a very high water content. If you try to use them in the same recipes as the wild persimmons, you’ll end up with a very watery product.

Wild persimmons don’t keep well and start fermenting the day you pull them off the stems. BUT, if you leave them on the tree, the high sugar content makes them very sticky and they dehydrate right on the stems. Even strong winds don’t blow all of them off, which makes for a nice winter feast for the wildlife – woodpeckers and opossums are especially fond of them. Here is what they look like in February, after hanging on the trees all fall and winter.

And so, I plopped 4 of the wrinkly little things into the sourdough culture. I’ve made sourdough culture several times in my life and I know these things take time to develop. My last took the full two weeks as recommended in “Breads from the La Brea Bakery” by Nancy Silverton. This one, however, started bubbling within 24 hours. By 72 hours, this is what it looked like.

Of course, it’s still considered a “culture” not a “starter” at this point, but I decided to test its leavening power on a slow-rise sourdough. I started at the 72 hour mark and mixed a Poolish (sort of) with 1 cup culture, 1 cup water and 1 cup bread flour. Then I let it sit overnight. The next morning, I added another ½ cup of water, 4 teaspoons of sea salt and a scant 4 cups bread flour. It was a fairly wet and sticky dough, but I let it rise for several hours. Not much happened at that point. It may have doubled in size, but just barely. I gave it another gentle kneading (being careful not to break all the bubbles inside) and left it alone for several more hours. I got busy doing something else and when I came back, it was pushing the lid off the bowl!

So I gently folded it a few more times, then set it upside down in a bowl lined with a flour sack towel (dusted heavily in flour). I preheated the oven and a cast iron Dutch oven (with lid) to 500 and within about 45 minutes, the bread was ready to go in. I turned it right side up directly into the Dutch oven, made a few slashes, then put the lid on and closed the oven door. Twenty minutes at 500 degrees, then 30 minutes at 425-450 degrees after removing the lid, and the bread pictured above was the result. The crumb is beautiful, the crust is chewy, and it’s just perfect, though the flavor will get a little more sour with care and feeding of the starter. And I'd like the crust a little darker, but I couldn’t be happier with the overall result.

I’m already in the habit of baking bread several times a week, and this morning we fed the old yeast-leavened bread to the pigs. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to eat such a thing again after such a great sourdough! Oh and, guess who else loves persimmons?..... 
Severus, Hermione, Ginny and Albus