dividing comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility is to grow comfrey. Comfrey is a perennial herb, related to borage, also known as knit-bone or boneset…also known as a terrible weed. Amazing how terrible weeds like dandelion, nettle, comfrey, are actually so terribly good at taking care of our needs. Comfrey’s taproot plumbs the depths of the earth, bringing up more minerals and well-balanced goodness than a hen can poop. Certainly more than chemist could mix.

When I have plenty of comfrey, I shall plant it around my fruit trees to pull up nutrition from deep in the soil; then cut back the leaves from time to time (say, when they’re a couple of feet tall) to mulch the tree. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you.

I’d feed it to my chickens, and the goats too.

I’d make a comfrey tea to feed to other plants, as you would with nettle – simply cover with water, or not, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Smelly yet effective.

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice.

Now, I’d like to have plenty of comfrey plants, but one must tread the line carefully. Common comfrey will self-seed until there’s nothing in your garden but its offspring, and once established, that root is determined to stay. On the other hand, Bocking 14 doesn’t self-seed very well, so it stays put – then if you want more comfrey, there’s nothing to do but dig it up and divide it.

Luckily, that’s easy. Have a look.

dividing-comfrey

To propagate comfrey, dig up a healthy plant over a year old. Pull apart and even cut your root pieces, plant them just below the surface of the soil, and keep them watered. At the lakehouse, some creature regarded this as a root vegetable buffet, so it may be worth laying an old screen on top for a bit if you’ve got voracious squirrels or other root thieves lurking.

Then let everyone thrive on your useful weeds.

feta cheese

Some friends came round for a day of cheesemaking. Feta! We followed the recipe from Mary Karlin’s excellent Artisan Cheesemaking at Home, reprinted below with kind permission. Little by little I’m becoming accustomed to the basic steps in cheesemaking, and if you’re so inclined, I so encourage you to try it.

Cleaning and laying out tools. Raising the milk to temperature, adding the starter, whisking it up and down. Covering for a certain time to ripen until whey and curds separate and show a clean break. Cutting the curds to a certain size, depending on how much whey to release.

Stirring them, letting them rest. Lining a colander with damp butter muslin, filling it with curds, tying it up and hanging it to drain. These natural waiting times are just right for sitting down with the children to knit, preparing a meal, or going outside to play.

We were excited to go a step further than other cheeses we’ve tried at home, and move the sack to a mold, and flip it after an hour. Though a press isn’t required, the cheese acquires a very pleasing shape. A square mould would’ve been traditional, but do use what you have. There’s something wonderful that happens when you see it – a cheese! This familiar object! The children were as amazed as I.

They helped with it all. I love for them to know how this is done, that this is possible, even easy. This comfort with old skills is often absent from our lives, and I feel good when it is restored.

How gratifying it is to submerge the cheese in a light cold brine. Three weeks wait makes tasting the cheese all the more exciting. Ah. This feta is very pleasing, and we can’t help peeking into the fridge with pleasure, to gaze on our homemade cheese. We’ll make it again come summer with milk from the goats on the farm, to pair with our homegrown tomatoes, basil, peppers.

Here’s the recipe:

Recipes attributed to Mary Karlin (c), reprinted by permission from Artisan Cheese Making at Home, Ten Speed Press; artisancheesemakingathome.com and Mastering Fermentation, Ten Speed Press; masteringfermentation.com

Feta

Makes: 1 pound
Milk: Pasteurised or raw goat’s milk, or alternatively cow’s or sheep’s milk
Start to Finish: 4 to 26 days: 2 ½ hours to make the cheese; 4 hours to drain; 5 days to cure dry salted; 21 days to cure in brine (optional)

1 gallon goat’s milk
¼ teaspoon mild lipase powder diluted in ¼ cup cool non-cholorinated water 20 minutes before using (optional)
¼ teaspoon Aroma B powdered mesophilic starter culture
¼ teaspoon liquid calcium carbonate diluted in ¼ cup cool non-chlorinated water (omit of using raw milk)
½ teaspoon liquid rennet diluted in ¼ cup cool non-chlorinated water
2 to 4 tablespoons flake sea salt or kosher salt
Kosher salt or cheese salt for brining (optional)

1.Read through the recipe and review any terms and techniques you aren’t familiar with. Assemble your equipment, supplies and ingredients, including a dairy or kitchen thermometer; clean and sterilize your equipment as needed and lay it out on clean kitchen towels.

2.In a nonreactive, heavy 6-quart stockpot, combine the milk and the diluted lipase, if using, gently whisking the lipase into the milk using an up-and-down motion for 20 strokes. Place over low heat and slowly heat the milk to 86F. This should take 18 to 20 minutes. Turn off the heat.

3.When the milk is at temperature, sprinkle the starter over the milk and let rehydrate for 2 minutes. Whisk the starter into the milk to incorporate, using an up-and-sown motion for 20 strokes. Cover and, maintaining the temperature at 86F, let the milk ripen for 2 hour. (Refer to page 17 for tips on maintaining curds or milk at a steady temperature for a period of time.)

4.Add the diluted calcium chloride to the ripened milk and gently stir with a whisk using and up-and-down motion for 1 minute. Add the diluted rennet and incorporated in the same way Cover and maintain at 86F for 1 hour, or until the curds form a solid mass with light yellow whey floating on top and show a clean break (see page 18). If there is no clean break after 1 hour, test again in 15 minutes.

5.Cut the curds into ½-inch pieces (see page 19) Still maintaining a temperature of 86F, allow them to sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, gently stir the curds for 20 minutes to release more whey and keep the curds from matting. The curds will look more pillow-like at the end of this process. If you want a firmer curd, raise the temperature to 90F for this step. let the curds rest for 5 minutes, undisturbed, still at temperature. The curds will settle to the bottom of the pot.

6.Line a colander with clean damp cheesecloth or butter muslin and, using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the colander. Tie the corners of the cloth together to create a draining sack (see page 20) then let drain for 2 hours, or until the whey has stopped dripping. The curds should form a solid ass and feel firm; if not, let them dry for another hour. If you desire a more uniform shape, after ½ hour of draining in the colander, transfer the sack to a square cheese mold or plastic mesh tomato basket set over a draining rack. Line the mold with the sack curds, press the cheese out into the corners of the mold and finish draining. Remove the cheese from the cloth and flip it over every hour in this draining process to help even out the texture and firm up the cheese.

7.When it is drained, transfer the cheese to a bowl. Cut it into 1-inch-thick slices and then into 1-inch cubes. Sprinkle the chunks with flake sea salt, making sure all the surface are covered. Loosely cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap and allow to age in the salt for 5 days in the refrigerator. Check daily and pour off and expelled whey. The feta can be used at this point or stored in a brine. Or for a saltier flavor, dry salt and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours then transfer to alight brine (see page 24) to finish for another 21 days. If the finished cheese is too salty for your taste, soak the cheese in nonchlorinated water for 1 hour, then let drain before using. Feta can be stored for a few months in a brine.

Thanks ever so much, Mary. We adore your books.

ricotta cheese 

While it is true that one can extract a bit of ricotta cheese by cooking acidified whey leftover from yogurt or other dairying, I like to produce this simple cheese from a gallon of goat’s milk (from the goats we are tending now! That’s a story for another day.) Quite a lot of cheese is produced using this method, and it is the easiest and the quickest cheese I know. Let me show you how it’s done.

You’ll need a pot that easily holds a gallon of milk,
an acid like lemon, vinegar, or citric acid,
sea salt,
a thermometer,
a whisk,
some cheesecloth or butter muslin,
a colander,
a fine mesh strainer,
a slotted spoon,
and a bit of string just in case.

Make sure all of your tools are very clean. Cheesemaking books say to sterilise them – I use straight vinegar, well rinsed away, after hot, soapy water, and I scald my cheesecloth.

First, acidify the milk with lemon, vinegar, or citric acid – I use 1.5 teaspoons of the latter in our goat’s milk. In cow’s milk, use less.

Add a teaspoon of sea salt. Using a whisk and making up-and-down motions is a good habit to get into when cheesemaking.

ricotta

Raise the temperature very slowly, over a good ½ hour, to between 184 – 190F, stirring now and then to prevent burning on the bottom.

When you see the milk separate into curds and whey (chartreuse liquid), you’re done – take off the heat and cover the pot, let it sit for ten minutes.

Scoop out the whey into a clean cloth – I use butter muslin – over a strainer, first using a slotted spoon, and at the end, a fine mesh strainer.

IMG_0774.JPG

Gather the corners of the cloth and tie them securely, and then string this up to suspend the ricotta to drain for a quarter of an hour. Sometimes I put two tall milk bottles on either side of the bowl with a long wooden spoon holding the tie. The longer you drain it, the dryer. After that you could put a plate on top, and a weight of some kind over it, and you’d have paneer!

You’ll have a lot of whey left. If I cannot use it up in a couple of days, I freeze it or use it in my fermented chicken feed. However, you can add it to soup, to sourdough starter, in place of water in any baking recipe, in milk shakes. It’s really high protein.

Keep the ricotta in the fridge for up to a week – ours never lasts a day. Glorious in lasagne, desserts, on homemade crackers with some herbs.

gingerbread village

Having spotted a charming image of flat gingerbread houses carved in low relief and filled with powdered sugar, we just had to try it for ourselves.

A whole wintry afternoon was spent in great joyful making. We altered our gingerbread recipe with 1/2 light rye and 1/2 whole spelt, maple syrup and birch sugar. Not a problem. Before we baked the cookies, we used any implement we could find – metal straws, toothpicks, ornate silverware, fine knives – to carve and draw into the house-shapes.

We thoroughly enjoyed researching old buildings and borrowing their architectural details. When we lived in Europe we were particularly fond of shops at the street level and apartments above, along Dutch canals, along Parisian streets. My youngest made her own patisserie, complete with striped gabled awnings, and baked goods in the windows!

We set a cup of birch sugar zinging in the blender for a few minutes til it was thoroughly powdered. When rubbed into the grooves in the baked, cooled cookies it had a better result than bought icing sugar (and a little less sweetness for our holiday diet, too).

This way of decorating feels like printmaking, like rubbing ink into an etched plate. Such fun.

‘Tis a lovely thing to do with family and friends on a chilly winter’s day.

sauerkraut

There are useful things that I like to make purely for the pleasure of it, to have just what we want at a higher quality than one can buy, and enjoy the thing knowing it’s homemade. Sauerkraut goes a step further, being so strikingly economical. As a health food, it succeeds in making me feel better immediately upon eating it. I love that it will balance stomach acid, whether you’ve too little or too much, but mostly I just love to eat it. I figure that fermenting sauerkraut is worthy of becoming a habit for life. Here’s how I’ve been making it.

Begin with a cabbage, sea salt, and a very clean, very strong glass kilner jar, (we like Le Parfait or Fido), with a fresh rubber seal. A small clean glass jar is useful later, too.

All set? Weigh the cabbage. Ours was conveniently a full kilogram.

Calculate how much 5% of the cabbage’s weight would be, then measure that amount in sea salt. (In our case, 50 grams.)

Reserving a nice big leaf, chop the cabbage as you like it (or grate it on a traditional kraut grater if you’re lucky!) and throw it in a clean, sturdy bowl.

Now bash it. We found this old muddler at a favourite antique shop, how easy would it be to turn one on a pole lathe! It works brilliantly – but the flat end of a handle-less rolling pin or whatever you find around would function.

We like making kraut with friends, taking turns having a bash. The goal is to see a good deal of liquid emerge from the cabbage.

When you put the cut, bashed cabbage in a clean, strong kilner jar, you want to see enough liquid to submerge the cabbage. Don’t worry, you can add more water later if necessary, though I’ve never needed to.

Tuck the cabbage leaf that you saved all round the top of the chopped stuff, putting it to bed so nothing is floating, nothing exposed to air. Place a small clean jar or glass with some water in it inside the large jar, to weigh down the big leaf, and close the large jar up tight.

A dark, cool cupboard will be an ideal place for the sauerkraut to live while it ferments.

In a while – my friend waited only a week while I waited three – open it, pull back the cabbage bedding, and sample your wares. When you figure it has fermented to your liking, eat it up. I move it to the fridge -some folks say there’s more probiotic action before refrigeration, and some folks are a little nervous of things like this and trust the fridge- and use it up within six weeks. This time I shall set a reminder to make some more before we run out!

We were very much impressed with the flavour. The texture was a shade crunchy for the smaller folk, so the verdict is to try a different cabbage. Savoy, preferably. And experiment with how thinly to cut the veg. Not bad for a first try. No mold, no burping the jar, no airlock required, no special crock, nothing to do but be patient.

We like Sandor Katz for great writing on fermentation, and tremendous ideas on what else to ferment.

Ah yes, you’ve caught us. Now we’re eyeing other people’s prize cabbages, and plotting to grow our own.