Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Grape Harvest and Homemade Raisins

Washington State has had one of the hottest summers on record. So little rain that lawns have gone brown, many trees have lost their leaves and homeowners are paying record high water bills. Even with the use of seven rain barrels holding 455 gallons of water and the use of soaker hoses on my mini orchard and lavender garden, my bill still was extremely high. But, the rain has finally come via a storm boasting 50 mile wind gusts! Every last small farm around hurried to get ripe fruits off the vine or tree before the storm hit. That meant grape harvest for me (and a few figs).

Even chick-chick helped with the harvest!

With the dry weather the berries were quite small but in the last two weeks had turned translucent and sweet. Chick-Chick had gorged on the lower hanging fruit by hopping up, wings flapping until she had eaten every berry within four feet of the ground! Other birds had taken their toll too but there were still enough clusters to fill a basket - more than we could possibly eat within a week when their freshness would start to wane. So, what to do? Make raisins!

Drying fruit is quite simple especially if you have a convection oven like mine or a fruit dryer. You can use a conventional oven but you'll need to prop the door open for better air circulation. 

To make raisins first you'll need to blanch the fruit in boiling water for 30 seconds and then drop into an ice water bath. This will split the skins to aid in faster drying. Just drop the entire cluster into the boiling water. Remove the stems after the ice bath. Place the berries onto a parchment lined baking sheet and place in a 180° oven for up to 24 hours. Take note that smaller berries will take less time. I left mine for 12 hours and that was just a touch too long and some were crispy - whoops!

Sunday morning usually means steel cut oatmeal around our house and this week that meant fresh homemade raisins to go with it. I roasted honey-drenched peaches and some figs to top it off!

Drizzle with honey and roast sliced fresh peaches at 375°
You may need to broil figs to speed browning

Homegrown and healthy foods. Garden to Table, an epicurean's delight!

What have you been cooking lately?


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pest Perils

There are farm pests but then there are down right farm nuisances. I can deal with rodents, scavengers, and an occasion raid from a raccoon. What I can't deal with is a precise predator stalking it's prey and picking them off one by one...and now, months later, it's in broad daylight - even when I am working in the yard! 

UrbanTerra is only one-third of an acre including the house footprint. I have split the gently sloping area up into "rooms" used for different purposes by planting screens of bushes, trees and erecting arbors. Large patches of salal grow within the chicken run for cover and berry treats for the hens in summer. All of this greenery is now aiding my stealthy feline foe.

When we found a missing hen under the salal with only a small wound in it's side we presumed it was a house cat. When the second one went missing and was not found we installed a game camera. To our utter amazement this image of a bobcat dropped our jaws! It hops a 6 foot fence to access the coop and run and I swear I hear it taunting me "Winner, winner, chicken dinner" with every bound. 

We kept the remaining birds in the coop for two weeks then let them out in late morning and made sure they were safely tucked in at night. We then introduced two silver laced Wyandotte pullets bring the flock to four hens again.

Life went on. The new birds grew and soon one Wyandotte started laying. If you follow my UrbanTerra Facebook page you'll remember the post celebrating her first tiny egg. We thought we had the problem solved. Then one morning after opening the small coop door to the run a little earlier than normal, I set about my daily tasks. 

As my chores took me back into the backyard I noticed only two hens coming to great me. I approached the vegetable garden which lies near the coop when I saw it, beautiful rust-brown feathers littering the coop floor and even up into the roost. That bobcat had gotten through two tiny (8"x8") doors! One into the coop and one into the roost. Still I only counted two hens, there should be three. One Americauna and two Wyandotte. I figured the other Wyandotte was hiding so I went on a search. All I found was paw marks, and a tell-tell black and white feather on the top of the fence. I was devastated and pretty much sick to my stomach, not to mention furious! Two hens at once? Then a few days ago I found the last Wyandotte, half eaten, under a weeping Japanese Maple. I had been working in the yard and the bobcat must have been snacking under that tree when I scared it off.

Game on! I called the authorities about wild animal nuisances. They were very helpful and supplied me with all of the details/laws surrounding trapping and removing the bobcat. Apparently there is a plethora of bobcats in our area but because of their elusive habits are rarely seen, although years ago our neighbors had two coming to their backyard that lounged around and napped together.

So, with one hen left I soldier on protecting the little girl. No more hens until we can make a safer place for them. I never imagined having to fight this battle here in my little urban farm. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Superfoods From the Hive

I am fascinated with the honey bee. The more I work with these incredible creatures and learn about their world the more amazed and enamored I become. There are so many parallels between our universe and theirs. One of those is processing food. Do you know that bees ferment and dry food for storage?

A drawn comb of capped honey and bee bread

Honey bees process flower nectar into honey. The worker bee gathers nectar from the flower source by sucking the liquid through its proboscis into it's honey stomach where it is partially broken down by enzymes into two by-products, gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. When the worker bee gets back to the hive it transfers the contents of it's honey stomach by regurgitation to a hive worker bee who regurgitates it into a cell. It is an enzymatically-activated, partially fermented food. The nectar is 80% water. If left in that state it would ferment into alcohol so other worker bees fan the face of the honey comb to aid in dehydrating the nectar to 14% - 18% water. At this level the bees seal in the honey with a capping of wax. (I'm wondering if we got the idea of sealing canned jam with wax by observing honey bees?).  By processing the nectar in this way honey provides a much higher energy source per pound than nectar alone and it becomes storable.  Honey will never spoil because of it's high pH level. Bacteria cannot survive within it. Honey has been discovered in tombs of the Pharaohs perfectly preserved and is recorded being used medicinally on Sumerian clay tablets.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic depicting honey bee farming

Honey bees process pollen into bee bread. A lacto-fermented, enzymatically-activated food which is the honey bee's staple protein source. The worker bee forages flowers collecting pollen, mixes it with a little bee saliva to hold it together and packs it into a hair sack on each back leg. She then flies it back to the hive and transfers it to a hive worker that mixes it with 30% honey and packs it into a cell. The fermentation process that takes place breaks down the pollen walls and cellulose layer which are hitherto indigestible to bees (and humans). The fermentation allows the bees to digest the pollen. Bee bread is high in vitamins, amino acids, vitamin K, antioxidants, zinc, magnesium and silica. Bee bread is used by humans as a superfood. It is important to recognize that one teaspoon of pollen takes one bee working eight hours a day for one month to gather. Each bee pollen pellet from the hair sack contains over two million flower pollen grains making one teaspoon containing over 2.5 billion grains of flower pollen! The bee bread will store for about a year.

Each layer is a pellet gathered by one bee and brought back to the hive in it's hair sacks

Honey bees process tree resins into propolis. The worker bee collects resins from tree bark and sticky buds, mixes it with salivary secretions and beeswax. It is then used to seal and sterilize the hive against infections. Once processed this mixture is called propolis or bee glue. Containing 55% resinous compounds, 30% beeswax, 10% aromatic essential oils and 5% pollen, propolis neutralized bacteria, fungi or viruses that may come into the hive. It is one of the most potent antibiotics found in nature and bacteria cannot build a tolerance to it. When analyzed by scientists, propolis was found to be rich in amino acids and trace elements, high in vitamins and contains at least 38 bioflavonoids which gives it a high antioxidant value. It is used to treat injuries and burns. It has been made into a gum and mouthwash for dental health. Propolis can only be dissolved in high proof alcohol.

When warm propolis is pliable, when cold it hardens and becomes brittle.

Amazing, right? Such useful products from an industrious insect that you can access from your own backyard or local farmer's market. My hope is that you've been "stung" with curiosity and you'll bee propelled to learn more about the honey bee.

Happy Learning!