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The End of Dirt Days

Today’s guest post comes from Summer who blogs at Finding Summer.

Autumn is nearly here. Part of me is rejoicing in the fact that the smothering heat of summer is nearly gone. To finally be able to go outside during the day and not begin melting into the sidewalk. I cannot wait.

And yet, part of me still wishes it would hold off. I know what autumn means in the long run. Kids go back to school, the days grow shorter and cool breezes make way to freezing snow. Suddenly the never ending summer, ends. I cannot help but be a little sad about that.

My kids have made a point every day this summer to get dirty. They have built forts from left over pieces of wood and the old tractor tires in the side lot. They have roamed through the tall grass of the empty field behind us, gathering wildflowers and grasshoppers along the way. They’ve tracked off down the dusty road that leads to the cows near our house, coming home covered in dust and full of excitement. The summer has been a parade of dirt days that they have rejoiced in having.

So the end of summer is somewhat bittersweet. Soon enough I won’t be mopping muddy footprints off the kitchen floor, which is good. But that means the kids won’t be making mud bricks in the backyard, which is bad. Before I know it, we will be trapped inside, hiding from the snow, and dreaming of next spring when the grass begins to grow again.

Knowing that our days are limited means we are making an effort to enjoy it as much as possible now. Staying out late to chase fireflies, eating as many strawberries and watermelon as we can, and following that old dusty road as far as it will take us. We are trying to get minutes to creep out into hours so we can savor every moment.

It is nearly the end of the dirt days around here. I never thought I would be sad to see the summer go.

Summer is a mother of three and freelance writer taking it slow and easy in the red dirt of Oklahoma. She writes about life at her personal blog FindingSummer.  

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Homemade Cheddar Cheese

Today’s guest post comes from Marci of Down on the Farm.

Cheddar Cheese

Equipment: Cheese pot with a lid to hold the milk (it is good to make this a dedicated cheese only pot), a larger stock pot or water bath canner, dairy thermometer, mesophilic starter culture, rennet, stainless steel whisk or long knife, cheese ladle, stainless steel colander, french fry mill/cutter, salt without iodine (you can use a coarse cheese salt, pickling salt, or I use Real Salt).

First of all fill your cheese pot with water. Put all your utensils that you will use in it and bring to a boil. This will sanitize all of your equipment and not cause problems with the cheese. Pour the boiling water into a larger stock pot or water bath canner. This will be used to heat the cheese and keep the temperature.

Pour 2 gallons of milk (this recipe can be doubled) into your cheese pot. Set the pot down into the larger stock pot or water bath canner. Place a thermometer down in the milk making sure it is easy to read. Let it heat up to 86° F.

The hot water in the bottom of the double boiler set up, was going to make the milk a bit too hot. I had to sit it out for a bit.

Once it reaches the right temperature put in your culture. Use 1 packet (1 packet works for up to 2 gallons of milk) of mesophilic starter culture. Sprinkle it over the top of the milk and stir in to the milk with a stainless steel whisk or cheese ladle. Cover and let sit for about 30 mins. to ripen.

If you are going to use calcium chloride, it would go in next. I did not use it, but it is good to use if the milk is homogenized or pasteurized. If you are going to use it, then take 1/2 tsp. and mix it in with about 1/4 cup of cold water. Pour the water over the surface of the milk and then stir it in.

Next, we will add our rennet. You will use the same amount of rennet in cheese as you use calcium chloride. So, add 1/2 tsp. of liquid rennet to about 1/4 cup of cool water. After mixing in then pour over the surface of the milk and mix it in. Cover and let the milk sit for 30 to 50 mins. I leave my thermometer sticking out the side of the lid so I can make sure I keep a constant temperature.

It is time to test the curd. The last place to set up will be the center. I take a thick candy thermometer (you could use something else) and poke it down gently into the center of the curd and then sort of lift up at an angle. It the curd breaks in a clean straight line it is ready. In the picture below you can see the break, but the camera took the picture a split second too late (I know… operator error) so it is hard to see the totally clean line. However, you can see that it is solid curd.

Video – Testing the Curds 

Use the large stainless steel whisk to cut the curds. You can use a long knife, but it is SO much easier with a whisk. Cut across one way and then cut across the opposite way while turning the whisk a bit to make cubes.

Video – Cutting the Curds 

In this picture you can see where I have cut with the whisk and where I still need to. The curds tend to rotate in the pot, so I never get perfectly even lines.

If you use a knife, after you cut both ways across, then you need to use a flat cheese ladle to cut the layers from top to bottom. Or insert the knife at angles to try and cut them. The whisk made all the difference in the world for me. I actually ordered some large 16″ ones to put in the store for other to be able to get them.

 

Once you cut the curds you are going to allow them to rest for 2 to 5 mins. They will sink down into the whey.

Leaving the pot of milk in the double boiler set up, turn a low heat on under the pot. You are going to raise the temperature of the milk from 86° F to 100° F. You are going to do this very slowly over a 40 to 45 mins. period of time.

You will need to stir the curds gently and often. I stirred with the whisk. Once the temperature hits 90° F and above, then the curds will try to mat together. You will need to be diligent in your stirring from that point on. Once you reach 100° F turn off the heat and watch that it does not get any hotter. If it does, remove it from the double boiler and set on the counter. It is good if you can keep them in the pot though because it helps keep the temperature constant. You are going to let the curds sit for 30 mins. undisturbed. They will sink to the bottom and mat together.

 

It is time to test and see if the curds are ready to be drained. Pull some up from the bottom in the flat cheese ladle. Take a small handful and gently squeeze. If they hold together then they are ready. They should also easily separate back out.
Drain them into a colander over a bucket or large pan catching the whey.

Put about 3 quarts of your whey back in the cheese pot and put the colander over that pot. Pack the curds down in the colander making a nice slab. Turn on a VERY low heat under this. The curds should not be in the whey, but they will be over the nice moist air. Put a lid over them and let them cheddar (that is what this process is called) for about 45 mins. to an hour. I turned the slab over pressing down again about every 15 mins.

When you are done, you will have a nice big flat smooth slab of cheese.

 

Put the slab on a cutting board and cut into fairly large chunks.

There are 2 ways to do this next step. You can use a knife or you can use a french fry mill/cutter. Put the curds through the mill or cut into strips about that size.

 

Put them back into the pan or into a bowl and add 2 1/2 tsp. of salt. Mix it in well with your hands. At this point, you can eat these as fresh cheese curds (they are really good) or you can press them into a wheel.

Lay a folded piece of cheese cloth on the bottom of your cheese press and then put the hoop on top of it. Fill the hoop with the curds. Place another folded piece of cheesecloth over the top of the curds and then add your follower (wooden round that fits just inside your hoop). Assemble the rest of your press and apply pressure to the curds. You do not want to push down as hard as you can at this point. Push down until the whey starts to come out the bottom. Depending on your press you will either want to set the press down into a pan to catch the whey or have a bowl to catch it. Leave it this way for an hour. Check it periodically to see if you need to apply a bit more pressure.

After the hour is up, take your cheese out and you will dress it. Take a piece of cheesecloth and wrap the cheese, covering all surfaces. Place it back into the hoop and add the follower. Now tighten your press to the maximum pressure. You will leave the cheese in the press for 24 hours.

About Marci: My husband and I have been married 31 years.  Neither one of us grew up on a farm. By God’s grace, we learned how to raise and grow most of our own food.  We have one son (Joshua Daniel) who is married and lives nearby.  We feel very blessed to live the life we do.  Marci blogs at Down on the Farm.

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Nature’s Rules

Today’s guest post comes from ITFarmer.

I started this blog post like any other. I got my camera, and headed out to take some pictures, but I wanted these pictures to be unique. I decided to climb up to the top of the greenhouse, and take some shots of the garden from the peak window. The plan seemed simple enough, but I had this nagging fealing to be careful. I wrote it off figuring that no matter how far I fell off or out of the greenhouse it wouldn’t cause that serious of an injury.

 

I moved forward with care, and made it a point to hold on tight, with two hands when possible. This mindset seemed to ease my worry a bit. When I got to the top, and peared out, I made an interesting decision. I noted that I could fit completely out of the window, and decided to be a bit more daring than most days. So I pulled myself out of the window, and managed to stand up, with my feet at the base. I then grabbed hold of the ridge piece which caps the entire structure. I was quite proud of my climbing skills as I turned my camera on.

These would be some great shots ! I clicked off a photo of the difference between my 62 and 75 days corn, Early Sunglow and Butter and Suger respectively. I’ve grown corn in the garden before, but this corn was doing quite well. In my pride, I surveyed the rest of the garden, wondering how I would angle the pictures. That’s when I heard a noise, a buzzing it seemed. It was just my luck that a bee would find me in this vulnerable state. I swatted at the buzz, only to hear more noises. When I looked down to note the placement of my feet and options for evasion, I noticed the real problem, and began to feel what felt like dozens of painfull stings. There were wasps swarming all around my uncovered belly, arms and head. Here I am 15 feet above the ground, barely hanging onto the roof ridge wondering what to do, and thinking to myself “You don’t have time for a good idea, you just need to act fast”. I threw myself off of the structure, as I’ve jumped from many a tree as a child. I landed as I’ve learned to in the past, and hit the ground running. After clearing the grape trellis, I decided to check my self out and see how many holes I had in my skin. To my suprise, I could only find three wounds, albeit they carried a very sharp pain, and swelled to the size of a rolex before subsiding.

 

After dealing with the stings, I decided to take a photo of the creatures that defended their home, and chased me away. Here is a close up of one of these defensize creatures. I haven’t yet decided how to move forward with the knowledge of their existance. They may have helped pollinate the garden, so I’m torn with how to deal with a creature that has helped as well as hurt me. For now, I will leave them be.

ITFarmer is a self professed “computer guy”, working in the publishing industry for about ten years now.  In 2007, after reading repeatedly bad news about the economy, he decided it was time to learn how to grow food “Just In Case”.  Farming for survival was the intention, but it led to a new respect for nature, and became a much enjoyed hobby. These days The farmer spends little time reading about wall street, but a great deal of time spreading manure, and writing about his trial and error way of learning how to grow foodCheck out his blog!

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Homemade Vanilla Extract

Today’s guest post comes from Sarah of Frugal by Choice, Cheap by Necessity.

*warning, without giving anything away, if you normally receive a Christmas present from me, don’t attempt this at home…cause then you are a Grinch and will ruin Christmas for me.

Saturday Jack and I made homemade vanilla extract. It was extremely easy (start to finish it took 10 minutes), and I’m looking forward to testing the results when it’s ready in 8-12 weeks!

The process is foolproof…so says the person who doesn’t know what it taste like yet.

Ingredients:

-vanilla beans. Don’t get the old crummy expensive ones from the store. These are lovely, had free shipping, and were shipped extremely quickly. And they made my mailbox smell heavenly.
-vodka or bourbon. Note if you don’t drink, visiting a liquor store is like a foreign experience. I told a Jewish friend of mine that it would be like if she visited the bacon store.

Step 1 – assemble your beans and kitchen shears, or a sharp knife (paring knife would be great):

 Step 2 – cut vanilla bean in half, leaving about 1/2-1 inch at the top intact. They’re easier to cut than it looks like. The consistency is similar to that of a pepperoni stick:

Step 3 – find a glass jar with a secure lid. I used a quart sized canning jar. Fold the beans in to the jar:

 Step 4 – pour 2 cups (for every 6 vanilla beans) of your choice of liquor in to jar:

Step 5 – put lid on jar, and shake a few times.

Store in a cool, dry place for 8-12 weeks. The longer you let it sit, the stronger the vanilla flavor will be. Shake the jars every few days to speed the process.

When ready to give as gifts (hypothetically speaking of course), pour in to individual bottles. I found a great deal on this site. As you use the extract, replace with a little bourbon or vodka, and the beans should last for a few years.

And now you have a lovely gift, that is frugal to give, and isn’t full of additives and high fructose corn syrup.

Step 6 – ask your personal assistant to upload photos on to your blog:

About Sarah: I’m mom to the craziest and cutest 16-month-old boy this side of the Mississippi.  And my husband is pretty darn cute, too.  I work in Higher Ed, and we try to raise my son as naturally as we can afford on our very limited budget.  He was exclusively breastfed for the first 12 months of his life which often led me to pumping in creepy closets and bathrooms while traveling for work.   We cloth diaper, and overall just try to do our best with not screwing him up! My blog is a hodge podge of tips about living frugually, doing “from scratch” things to save money, and of course photos of my adorable kid.

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Tomato Canning Tutorial

Today’s guest post comes from Laura of A Pug in the Kitchen.  I’ve known Laura for the longest of all my bloggy friends and she graciously agreed to do this tutorial after “canning tomato sauce” won my poll and I realized I probably wouldn’t be able to do it!

I come from a long line of tomato sauce makers.  As far back as when I was still standing on a kitchen chair to help my mom, I remember stories of her grandmother’s sauce and how she always carried a sprig of basil in the front pocket of her apron.  If you ask my grandmother’s neighbors what they remember most about her, they will typically answer that the whole street smelled like home when she made her pasta sauce.  My own mother planted 2 dozen tomato plants every year and made vat after vat of sauce.  After she died, I got her tomato sauce vat and I proudly use it yearly.  However, when it came time to make my own sauce, I wanted to can mine, and not use up valuable freezer space.  For this, I took lessons from my husband’s sister’s mother-in-law.  It was a long day, full of tomatoes, but the skills I learned then I use often and hope you will find helpful throughout this brief lesson on canning tomato sauce.

 

Before you begin, you must first make sure you have canning jars, lids, rings and something to use as a water bath canner.  I have a home canning kit that was given to me as a wedding present, but I have also found that as long as you are able to cover your jars completely with water, you can use any pan you’d like.  When I make sauce, I prefer to use the Roma tomato variety because they are meatier tomatoes and the sauce thickens up better.  Any tomato will do, it’s simply my preference. 

 

My mother washed, cored and quartered the tomatoes before taking them for a spin in her blender.  While this method is a piece of cake and requires no blanching and peeling, I am rather partial to the Kitchen Aid attachment for straining fruits and vegetables.  It is literally the same 3 steps as with a blender, but the Kitchen Aid attachment is designed to reject the seeds and skin, so all you have a pure tomato pulp.  (Also effective and a much cheaper option is a simple food grinder.  It’s great for quick jobs, homemade baby foods and if you don’t have a Kitchen Aid!) Once your tomatoes are mashed, put them into a stockpot and begin to heat them.  The point of heating the tomatoes is to sanitize them and then cook them to the thickness you desire.  I like mine as thick as I can get it, so I often add in an 8 oz can of tomato paste per 6-7 pounds of tomatoes while the sauce is cooking to ensure it gets to the consistency I want.    You can add in your choice of spices while the sauce is cooking or leave it plain and add them in before you serve. 

 

While your sauce is cooking, this is the time to get your jars, lids and rings in order.  I try to do the bulk of my sauce in quart-sized jars, but after I have at least 20, I am willing to do pints of sauce.  You will need to sanitize your jars and one of the quickest ways of doing this is to put them in your dishwasher on the sanitize cycle.  If you don’t have this option, fill your canner with water and boil the jars for 2 minutes.  The lids and the rings should go in a separate pan to simmer until you are ready to use them.

 

Once the jars have been sanitized, the water in your canner is boiling and your sauce is the thickness you desire, you are ready!  Carefully ladle the sauce into your jars, leaving 1/4th inch headspace.  Then add in 2 Tbsp. lemon juice for quart jars (1 Tbsp for pints), so keep the tomatoes fresh tasting and to reduce any odds of spoilage.  Then wipe the rims with a towel, retrieve your lids and fasten them tightly.  Set your jars down in the boiling water bath and make sure the tops are covered with at least an inch of water.  Process them for 40 minutes for quarts and 35 minutes for pints.  Once the jars are done, remove them from the water using tongs and set them aside to cool.  When they are cool, you can check to make sure they have all sealed by pushing down on the tops of the lids and making sure they don’t spring back.  Don’t do this while the jars are still hot because you can seriously burn yourself and you really shouldn’t mess with the jars until they are cool as it can hinder them from sealing completely.  As the jars do seal, you should hear them “ping” shut.  If you’ve never heard it before, you’ll love it and if you’re a pro, I think you’ll agree with me that that sound is even more rewarding than the sauce itself after a long day of tomato canning!

 Quick tips:

*For thin sauce – An average of 35 pounds of tomatoes is needed per 7 quarts of sauce; an average of 21 pounds of tomatoes is needed per 9 pints of sauce. A bushel weighs 53 pounds and yields 10 to 12 quarts of sauce-an average of 5 pounds per quart.

*For thick sauce – An average of 46 pounds of tomatoes is needed per 7 quarts of sauce; an average of 28 pounds of tomatoes is needed per 9 pints of sauce. A bushel weighs 53 pounds and yields 7 to 9 quarts of sauce-an average of 6½ pounds per quart.

*I don’t recommend putting fresh garlic into your sauce before you can it.  For some reason, the flavor always seems a little off to me.  I like to simmer my sauce for a little before actually using it, so I add the garlic in then.

Laura is an advocate of things green, natural and even a little crunchy after leaving her career as a Toxicology researcher when it became evident to her what was really going on behind all the pretty labels.  Today, she can be found in the garden, in the kitchen, playing with her 1 year old son, crafting or stealing a few moments to read.  Feeding people real, local and simple food that isn’t deceptively healthy is her passion.  Check out Laura’s blog A Pug in the Kitchen or follow her on twitter @Beansprouthair.  

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