Wild Gourd Farm

Organic Gardening in St. Louis City

Frugal Friday: Grape Jam

The Jewish holiday of Passover begins tonight at sundown, meaning no leavened bread- or any grains used to make leavened bread- for 8 days. We don’t buy much processed food, but it’s still difficult to avoid corn products- high fructose corn syrup in particular- that turns up in the most unlikely places. So when I saw we had some extra grapes in the fridge this  morning, I decided to make some fresh, corn-syrup-free jam for Passover.

The process is surprisingly easy, and you don’t need to buy pectin or any other gelling substance. Sugar can be used to preserve fruit, so you just need equal amounts (in weight, not volume) of grapes and sugar (we’ve also done cherries this way). Or you can make grape jelly by using grape juice instead of whole grapes. Lots of people use concord grapes that are easy to take the skin off of. I don’t even know what kind of grapes we had, but they weren’t easy to peel so I just left the skins on.

I threw the grapes in a big pot over high heat and mashed them up a little to get some juices flowing. No need to add water, since more liquid gets released as the grapes cook. Once everything was nice and soft, I pureed the mixture to get a more even consistency, then added the sugar and returned to the heat.

Since this process doesn’t use pectin, the thickening is achieved by continuing to boil the mixture to cook off the liquid. It took about 20 minutes to get to a good consistency. To test, take a cold plate (I put it in the freezer) and drop a spoonful of jam on it, then return to the freezer for a minute. This will give you a good idea of the consistency your jam will be once cooled, and you know it’s done when it holds its form and wrinkles when you push on it.

If you’re making a lot of jam, you’ll want to use a water bath to can it all. We made a small batch this time: two-and-a-half pounds of grapes and two-and-a-half pounds of sugar made exactly one quart of jam. We poured it into a mason jar and will keep it in the fridge.

Now all we need is a great peanut harvest this season- PB&Js from scratch!

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The Onion Experiment: Germination

The day after we planted our tray of onion seeds, we sowed more onion seeds in a shallow pot. To maintain moisture and promote a greenhouse effect, we covered it with a plastic bag that wouldn’t touch the surface of the soil and placed it over a vent to keep it warm. Just in case our tray experiment failed, we wanted to have a back-up. Plus every good experiment needs a control group!

The seeds in both the tray and the pot germinated about a week later, but the seeds in the pot germinated at a higher rate than those in the tray.

The tray has been uncovered, taken off the warming mat, and put under a grow light in the bathroom. We’re planning to strengthen the seedlings by simulating wind using a small fan.

We put the pot in a south-facing window. The seedlings grow toward the sun so we’ve been rotating the pot, or we might put a reflective surface behind it. We expect the tray to fare better, but we’ll see!

Winter Leek Harvest

leeks

We’re still harvesting leeks that we planted last summer. It’s supposed to snow tomorrow so we pulled these up. We’ll keep warm with some hearty potato leek soup!

Edit: Figured we’d share the end result!

leeks

We wanted to incorporate some broccoli shoots from the garden, so we decided to try this recipe. It came out thin, but kept it that way instead of thickening it.  Overall a very earthy and delicious soup, perfect for a snow day.

broccoli potato leek soup

Frugal Friday: Homemade Seitan, a Versatile Meat Substitute

Seitan is a high-protein, vegetarian meat substitute that has, along with tempeh, allowed us to minimize our consumption of processed tofu, which is best eaten in moderation, as there are several studies debating its health effects. Seitan is wheat gluten that has been separated from the starch, leaving a protein-rich, elastic material.

You can buy seitan already formed and flavored (expensive), make your own using vital wheat gluten flour (still somewhat expensive), or make your own from flour (cheap!). We had been following this recipe to make a tasty seitan log from vital wheat gluten until yesterday, when we finally made our own from flour. It was incredibly easy. Here’s how we did it:

dough ballWe followed the process from this how-to on Forkable, though we changed it up a bit. We mixed 12 cups of unbleached flour and 6 cups of water to form a ball of dough, and kneaded it for a few minutes. We put the dough in a large bowl and covered it entirely with water and let it soak for about half an hour. The water turned milky white as the starch started to leach out of the dough. We put the bowl in the sink and kneaded the dough in the water until it started to feel rubbery.

making seitanAfter the underwater massage, we dumped the dough into a colander in the sink and began a half-hour long rinsing and kneading session.

As you knead and rinse to remove the starch, the dough starts to get denser and more elastic. You can control the texture of your seitan by kneading more or less. For our purposes, we wanted a chewier result so we aimed for a texture like the smaller ball at the top right, while the the bigger mass in the middle still needed some kneading.

Most seitan recipes at this point will instruct you to form the gluten into a ball and boil it in broth. Then you can pack it into containers with the broth and refrigerate or freeze it. We had a different plan.

not the most appetizingWe wanted to try an approach more like the above-mentioned seitan log recipe. So once the gluten was formed, we worked in a marinade of tomato paste, olive oil, soy sauce, and seasonings, then oven baked it in a loaf pan at 325°F for about an hour and a half. We had it wrapped in foil like the log recipe but saw the seitan wouldn’t hold its form and the foil began to stick, so we dumped it in the loaf pan, added more marinade, and covered it with foil. Every twenty minutes or so, we stirred and turned the seitan to keep it from sticking to the pan. We also split some of the bigger pieces into smaller chunks to cook more evenly.

seitanWe ended up with about 4 cups of chewy seitan chunks from the original 12 cups of flour. Overall, the process took about 3 1/2 hours, most of which was cooking and waiting time. Next time we’ll try incorporating the marinade and seasonings before the gluten is completely formed so the seitan will be more infused with flavor and maybe achieve the log texture.  To be extra frugal, we’ll also re-use some of the starchy water from the rinsing stages to thicken soup stocks and sauces, instead of letting it all go down the drain.

We love to make protein-rich wraps with sauteed seitan chunks, quinoa, cucumbers, red onion, avocado, hummus, and parsley and salad greens from the garden.

You can use seitan to substitute any sort of meat, or tofu for that matter. Throw it in a stir fry instead of cubed tofu, crumble it in pasta sauce or add it to chili like the commercial soy crumbles, bread it and fry it for a chicken nugget type snack, we might even slice it in strips and put it on a barbecue pizza! With bulk flour from our co-op, we may never have to buy meat alternatives ever again.

Winter Reading: Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

Similar to Possum Living, this book outlines a process by which one can become self-sufficient; however, the context is radically different. Instead of choosing a stress-free life outside of the “money economy” like Dolly Freed, Wendy Brown labels herself a “thrivalist,” a term which she uses to describe “survivalists” who plan to thrive in a post-apocalyptic, petroleum-free world, otherwise referred to as “the end of the world as we know it” (abbreviated to TEOTWAWKI).

Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs presents a perhaps-not-so-hypothetical situation: there are 21 days before the apocalypse, and we must prepare for a future without electricity, grocery stores, and other modern conveniences. The book is divided into 21 chapters, one chapter for each day of “prepping”- starting with the basics of shelter, water, and food, and progressing to more complicated issues like healthcare, education, and waste disposal. Wendy does make the assumption that the reader lives in the suburbs, which renders some of her points, like storing human waste in a septic tank, moot for some readers.

Overall, the book goes into more detail than Possum Living and is every bit as easy and interesting to read. The tips on gardening, herbal remedies, laundry, and staying entertained were especially enlightening. You can preview several chapters of the book on Google here.  Wendy also has a blog about her thrivalist activities and thoughts, which is worth a look.

The Onion Experiment 2012

We planted 200 onion seeds today. We’ve direct seeded our onions before, but the seedlings had difficulty competing with springtime weeds. We’ve also planted onion sets, which are individual bulbs you can buy, and slips, which are younger pre-grown onions ready to transplant.  This year we decided to start the seeds indoors, and hopefully they’ll be ready to transplant soon. Onions are fairly cold hardy and some can be planted well before the last frost- some can even overwinter. We probably should’ve started the seeds a little earlier…

First things first: we mixed our own potting soil using an organic soil mix, worm castings, and sand. We could use our own compost and worm castings, but we’d have to sterilize everything in the oven before using it for potting.

Traditionally, onion seeds are sown together in bunches, then separated when transplanted. We found this tray stashed away in our gardening supplies and thought we’d try sowing individual onion seeds in each hole. Just to be safe, we’ll be planting seeds in bunches in larger pots in case we have any issues with the tray.

We filled all the holes about 3/4 full of our pre-moistened potting mix and dropped in one onion seed per hole.

We then spread more potting soil on top and gently watered it in. The tray will sit, covered, in our basement on a heated mat until the seeds sprout, then we’ll keep them under a grow light or in a sunny window until ready to transplant. We heard it helps to cut the sprouts back when they flop over to keep them strong, and the young clippings can be eaten like chives.

We’re hoping this experiment works out and we’ll have 200 onion seedlings ready to transplant into the garden soon. We’ll document the progress of the onion experiment through the year.

Frugal Friday: Oven-Dried Tomatoes

We picked our last harvest of yellow cherry and pear tomatoes in mid-December. Many of them were still green, so they sat in a paper bag and kind of ripened on their own with their natural release of ethylene (adding apples or bananas is supposed to help). To preserve our tomato harvest, we popped some of the ripened ones in our oven at the lowest temperature (170°F) to make oven-dried tomatoes.

yellow cherry and pear tomatoes

We cut them in half and put them on wire racks over baking pans to allow heat to circulate underneath.

After several hours…

oven-dried tomatoes

We checked the tomatoes regularly and removed them individually when done- smaller tomatoes dried more quickly.

This can also be done in an electric dehydrator, or, even better, a solar dehydrator like the one Maya Creek has. We’re storing the dried tomatoes in a small jar of olive oil in the fridge. They’re wonderful tossed in our pastas or topping our homemade pizzas, and so much cheaper than store bought sun-dried tomatoes!

oven dried tomatoes

Winter Reading: Possum Living

This winter- thanks to our unemployment- we’ve had the time to tackle projects we’d been putting off and plan new projects for the spring. We’re also reading and researching as much as we can to prepare us for the future.

Becca's favorite book so far

Possum Living was published in 1978 by eighteen-year-old Dolly Freed. She had dropped out of school in 7th grade and detailed the life she and her unemployed father lived outside of the “money economy.” They already owned a house and land outside of Philadelphia, and spent money only on essentials and taxes. Without jobs, they happily spent their days gardening, fishing, raising chickens and rabbits, bird watching, running, cooking and preserving, and doing other jobs around the homestead (including making wine and distilling their own whiskey). In the book Dolly provides helpful step-by-step instructions and recipes that are still relevant to homesteaders and survivalists today.

The new edition of the book includes an afterward from Dolly over 30 years later.  She joined the “money economy”– to become an aerospace engineer at NASA. No kidding! Soon after the original book was published, she earned her GED, studied for and aced the SATs, put herself through college, and ultimately was awarded her dream job at NASA. (It turned out not to be her dream job, and she now works as an environmental educator at a nature center.) Though her true homesteading lifestyle lasted only about 5 years, she still incorporates a lot of it into her life.

For more info, check out PossumLiving.net or this thorough review. There’s also a delightful 3-part documentary made after the book’s publication, which can be found on YouTube here.

Chickens’ First Winter

As we’d recently mentioned, winter weather in St. Louis had been wonderfully mild. We took advantage of it, and so did the chickens.

Chickens eating a pumpking

They even got to peck at a pumpkin we rescued from the trash- quite an autumn-like treat!

The weather was particularly kind to the ladies who molted, who didn’t have to face freezing temperatures without a full coat. We stopped getting eggs when they molted and as the hours of daylight diminished. A few days ago, Eric had a dream about finding an egg in the ladies’ nesting boxes. Unbelievably, after more than a month with no eggs, there was an egg waiting for us!

winter egg

And we got another egg the next day, too.

Yesterday, winter hit suddenly. We got our first snow, and the daytime temperature plummeted from the balmy 50°F  we’d enjoyed the day before to a frigid high around 20°.

huddling for warmth

The ladies huddled together for warmth and protection from the wind.

Some chicken owners provide a heat lamp in the coop for their birds, to keep them comfortable and encourage egg production. Our coop is too small to safely provide a heat lamp, and even so the ladies would still have to go outside of the coop to access food and water, which would be a shock to their system. We decided that it’s best to let the ladies acclimate to the weather, even if it means no eggs. However, we have taken measures to help keep them comfortable in the new winter weather.

heated chicken waterer

We had already set up an electric chicken waterer to keep thawed water available at all times.

wind stop

In the snowstorm yesterday, we quickly hung a tarp around one of the corners of the pen to act as a wind stop.

An Assortment of Native Artifacts

The weather’s been so beautiful in St. Louis this winter, we’ve been able to enjoy the outdoors more than we expected. We found a new creek in the area and discovered the above arrowheads and native stone tools in one afternoon. We’re looking forward to exploring the creek system further and hope to find more artifacts.  When winter finally hits, we’ll have time to research and learn more about our archaeological  findings.