Ferment Friday no. 3: Kombucha

I have converted my family into a tribe of kombucha-lovers.

Well, all of them except the tallest one. He claims to be wary of the scoby. I can’t imagine why, it’s not creepy at all — I only get warm fuzzies when looking at it.

But, wait. Did I lose you at scoby?

The word, or the photo?

Ok, so let’s just pretend you didn’t see that, and back up a bit.

Kombucha is a cultured tea beverage. A culture, or SCoBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria & Yeast) is used to ferment sweetened black tea (green tea and yerba mate can also be used, but caffeine and sugar are both necessary to feed the yeast). The culture forms a “mat,” or in the words of my kids, “that ewwww! creepy thing that OH MY GOSH YOU’RE TOUCHING IT eeewww!! sits in the tea.”

The drink has been around for thousands of years (via China and Russia), and is known for its detoxing properties and probiotic benefits. It’s slightly fizzy, and has a pleasant sweet-tart flavor (most sugar is converted during culturing, and from what I’ve read the caffeine is also greatly reduced in the finished tea). You can buy commercially-produced kombucha for about $3-$4 per 16-oz bottle — or, you can make it at home for about $1/gallon.

…..aaaaaaannd in case you don’t want to do the quick math on that: that’s about TWENTY-EIGHT DOLLARS versus ONE DOLLAR. My kind of savings.

What do you need to make kombucha at home? You need organic tea, organic sugar, filtered water, a gallon jar, and a scoby.

I bought a scoby online a couple years ago from a very reputable source. I then set out to make my kombucha in the dead of winter. This plan? Bad. Idea. Jeans.

Kombucha likes warmth. In fact, this winter, I might invest in a little electric warming mat for my kombucha jar (thought about trying to rig this thing to do it, it’s cheaper than the official ones). So, lesson #1: if you’re buying a scoby online, I recommend starting it before the cold of winter sets in.

The very best way to get a scoby is to find a friend who’s making kombucha. The scoby’s multiply, or add new layers, as they culture. You can just separate the layers and give them to a friend to start a new batch. The scoby I have now was given to me by a friend in my culture club — and it makes the best kombucha I’ve ever tasted.

If you’re concerned about home-brewing safety, as I am — simply invest in pH strips or a pH meter. Kombucha is safe to drink at a pH of 3-4 (3 is ideal), which is the right acidity to prevent extra bacterial growth but not so acidic to hurt our tummies.

In case I’ve not sung the praises of kombucha enough:  this is, by far, the lowest-maintenance cultured product that I make at home. It only requires making a gallon of sweet tea every 1-2 weeks (depending on how fast your tea is culturing) and bottling the finished tea.

Still unsure? Go by the health food store and buy a few jars of GT’s plain kombucha (only drink about 1/3 of a jar per day). You’ll be hooked in a week, back here, desperate for information on how to make your own.

Mark. My. Words.

(This, from the woman who still hasn’t gotten her unbelievably stubborn husband to drink it. My next plan includes resorting to incessant mockery, for his “fear” of “icky things.”)

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Grocery Budgeting 101

The first time I had a grocery budget was during the summer of 1992. I was in summer school, living solo in a dreary on-campus dormitory. I had a mini-fridge, a microwave, and a set amount of cash in my bank account that had to last all summer. I would go to the grocery store on Sunday night, and buy my food for the week: my budget was $20. I remember apples, tuna fish, and bagels as regular items on a list that rarely changed due to its budgeting and belly-filling dependability.

A decade later, I had graduated to a full-sized refrigerator and started a family. It was a few years after I’d been managing the cooking, grocery-shopping, and most household budgeting that I realized one day: a college degree in home economics really does sound useful.

(I should admit to not previously having much respect for that line of study. I never even took Home Ec in school — to me, it was a semester of brownie-making and apron-sewing. And those things were so… simple. Who needed a class to learn how to make brownies when you can just follow instructions on the back of a box? said my 14-year old know-it-all self.)

But trying to keep a family fed with nourishing food that’s as high-quality and local as possible on a limited budget is really bleeping hard. It take time, knowledge, organizational skills, flexibility, and resourcefulness.

Anyone who says it is easy is lying through their teeth.

I did a little blurb at a cooking class last week, taught by my friends Alex & Sonja at A Couple Cooks. My assignment was to talk a bit about budgeting and feeding a family. Only a few of the almost 20 students actually had children — but many of the budgeting tips I offered could be helpful to anyone, not just those feeding larger households. This is a subject that comes up often in conversations with friends — how do we stay in our grocery budget and still eat well?

To have that conversation, we should start with a question: what’s a good amount to spend on groceries? In conversations with a random assortment of friends, I’ve discovered that families in what I would consider to be similar economic lifestyles have a vast range of grocery budgets. On the low end, a married mother of two has a budget of $450/month (that’s about $28/person a week, a good 20 years after my poor-college-student-summer budget of $20/week). And I have plenty of friends who spend $800/month or more for families of five.

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, points out that, in 1960, Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food. Today, we spend just 9.9% (you can see the whole quote in this post, where I first publicly sighed over the ubiquitous grocery budget). As a culture, we expect to spend less and less on food, any yet we are also less and less healthy. The stats beg some questions, both culturally and individually: what should be our goal when it comes to providing food for our family? What should we sacrifice in order to eat well? In what battles do we stand firm and hold our ground (because we can’t win them all)?

Fully realizing that this is not a one-size-fits-all topic: over the next couple of months I plan to share a few of the practices we’ve put in place to get the most for our food money. But I would love for this to be a conversation that carries over to comments and Facebook — so think about your own grocery-buying habits, your budget if you have one, and your priorities when it comes to feeding yourself and those in your care. The more tricks we have up our sleeves, the better job we can all do when it comes to bringing home the (literal) bacon.

So today, I ask: what is your priority when it comes to setting your current food budget?
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Ready to tackle the basic steps that will help keep you in-budget? The next post in this series covers them!

The Indiana State Fair, 2012 Edition

I was standing in line for the ferris wheel with Emily and Shireen, looking out over a sea of fair-goers at dusk, and casually mentioned that the scene reminded me of middle school, at the (Mississippi) state fair on a Friday night, looking for cute boys. I kinda thought everybody had this memory, like learning to ride a bike or going on your first date. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that not everyone grew up in such close proximity to a midway.

So we climbed onto the wheel, the “Tallest Mobile Ferris Wheel in the Country,” and shared our pod with a tiny little high school couple in love. Emily and I giggled nervously, our hands gripping the edges a little too tightly, and my heart fluttered every time Shireen leaned her camera out of the pod in order to get a better shot of the crowd below — I kept seeing the camera slip from her hands and fall prey to the asphalt.

Earlier that day, I watched Tim sit with my 8-year old in one of those swings on long chains that spins around and centrifugally flies passengers through the air at a 45° angle — except this ride, called Vertigo, lifted the swings to a height of 60 or so feet. That was where the nervous giggle made its first appearance. Thirty-five or so years after my first fair, I am amazed and slightly dubious of the physics and mechanics involved in fair rides.

The day before, I’d taken the kids through the animal barns and pseudo-farming village, thanks to a fun morning for bloggers sponsored by the Indiana Family of Farmers. I saw many things that my 40-year old eyes had never seen.

(apparently, they must shave the udders, and…)

(…these sweet children, ones who have show animals, pretty much live at the fair for 2 weeks. They sleep with the cows — slept right through our group of 40 or so people traipsing past.)

We were provided with both breakfast and lunch — and while for obvious reasons I didn’t much partake, I snapped this shot to prove to the masses that I am totally laid-back when it comes to feeding my kids:

Though I couldn’t help but laugh at the (irony of the) messages on the tablecloth beneath:

And while my current state of dietary restriction kept me from my own edible temptations, I did take a bite of Shireen’s funnel cake. After much retrospection, I do not think it was an exaggeration at all when, after embarrassing noises passed from my mouth as I chewed, I said, “That was the best single bite of food I’ve had in a year.”

Dirty, noisy, smelly, heart-attack-warning. State Fair, how I love thee.

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* I received entrance tickets to the fair & meal tickets for breakfast & lunch in exchange for having a great time with my kids.
Nighttime shot, from Ferris Wheel, courtesy Emily.

 

Tip Tuesday, no. 4

Green smoothies are all the rage, right? All over pinterest, in the to-go mugs of lululemon moms everywhere. They’ve been one of my favorite breakfasts since I went grain-free and my standby granola went by the wayside.

Most smoothie recipes call for grabbing a bunch of fresh leafy greens and grinding them to liquid with some other yummier items (bananas or other fruits). This is what I did most of last summer, pulling straight from our garden, where our little patch of kale was prolific for many months.

But then I kept reading things about raw greens* containing chemicals that can worsen the effects of hypothyroidism. My thyroid has lately tended to be slightly weak — so while I loved getting my greens in my morning smoothie, I thought it best not to eat them raw every day.

Solution: cook a batch of kale, puree it down in a blender or food processor, and freeze it in ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop out and store in a zipper bag. When it comes smoothie time, just grab a cube and stick it in the blender with the rest of your ingredients. You get your serving of dark greens, but they’re cooked to inhibit those goitrogens.

If you drink green smoothies every day, you might consider keeping these kale cubes in your freezer to alternate with raw green smoothies (of course you could do this with any green, I just prefer kale). Perfect for those days you’re clean out of fresh greens — the flavor is still mild, usually overcome by fruits, and you start the morning with a serving of veggies.

* Goitrogens are not present in lettuce greens — so eating all the salad you want doesn’t effect thyroid function. It’s the sturdier greens, including spinach, along with cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.

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Looking for a great way to add immunity-supporting probiotics to your smoothie? Check this Kid’s Probiotic Smoothie — it’s for grownups too (delicious with kale cubes added)!

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This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday.

Do not taunt Happy Pressure Canner

It’s been baby steps, really.

It all started with an innocent batch of freezer jam. Jars, purchased for their cuteness, held runny strawberry jam, my first-ever batch, frozen until ready to consume.

Then came water-bath canning. I sneaked sideways into that venture — using an old stockpot as a canner, jars of crock-pot apple butter sitting directly on the bottom, I was officially canning before I could think too hard about what I was doing.

And then I started getting gadget-happy. I graduated to stainless utensils, and invested in a good, on-sale enameled water-bath canner. It was still fun and games until I bought my first case of tomatoes, and let’s just call those a gateway drug to pressure canning. Because it starts to get tricky with tomatoes — what with their new-variety acidity levels, etc. — and worlds of possibility would truly open up, if only you had a pressure canner.

But isn’t a pressure canner the equivalent of a stick of dynamite, handed to a toddler with a lit match between his teeth, standing in your kitchen? Isn’t it just so easy to blow you, your house, and perhaps your entire city to smithereens with one wrong move with a pressure canner? I mean, so-and-so’s grandmother lost her finger in a pressure-canning accident, right?

Is any amount of home-canned tomato sauce worth that risk?

Well, I was just dying to know. So I did something very characteristic of myself: I waited until I acquired a pressure-canner for free to find out. My mother-in-law had a Presto dial-gauge canner (similar to this new one) that had rarely been used. She decided there was a much better chance that I’d use it than she would, so she passed it on. And then, I refused to do anything with it* until a friend who’s taken the Master Preserving Class could come to my house and show me how to use it.

Because I’m just so daring that way.

And so I spent Tuesday in the company of uber-gracious Suzanne, who traded her vast pressure-canning knowledge,** her time, and her kind listening ears (I sort-of had a morning of emotional vomiting — she totally didn’t sign up for that) for a smoothie, a few dilly beans, and a spoonful of cashew butter. Seems fair, don’t you think?

Wanna know what I learned yesterday? I learned that pressure canning just isn’t that scary. That — while you should follow directions carefully and pay attention to what you’re doing, it’s not rocket science. A pressure canner is basically a big pot with a lid that has a good seal on it. When it gets really hot, it builds pressure inside. The dial (on my version) tells you what pressure you’re at, and if it gets too high, you just turn off the heat (not ideal, because you have to start over, but explosion-free). I learned that pressure-canning is often much quicker than water-bath canning, and causes less heat in the kitchen. That the biggest risk you run is not losing a digit, but losing a canner-load of food. Which would totally suck. But still — not dismemberment.

I also learned, when my husband phoned mid-process from Portland, that there’s no shortage of euphemisms when it comes to pressure canning. My canner has a petcock, for crying out loud.

Long story short: with the exception of one hiccup that caused 2 jars not to seal, I now have 4 quarts of pasta sauce and 4 quarts of tomato juice, ready for storage (those jars of juice accomplished solo!). I’m no master, but I’m no longer afraid. I have dominion over the pressure canner — it is not a weapon of mass destruction. Might I go so far as to say — the pressure canner is my friend.

I’ve come a long way, baby.

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* I did do one thing with it, solo: I took it to my local county Extension office to get the gauge calibrated — something you’re supposed to do each year, to make sure your canner is operating at the right pressure.

** The Master-Preserving Class is FORTY HOURS of classes. I think that’s the equivalent of a PhD in canning.

 

No way. Whey.

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of mention here, in these parts, about whey.

No, it’s not the protein powder. It’s the stuff of Little Miss Muffet.

You remember her — she sat on her tuffet (questionable action), eating her curds and whey.

Now, I’ll stop here, and admit that the first time I made mozzarella cheese (no eye-rolling — it’s remarkably easy, I’ll tell you all about it sometime), and realized that I was actually stirring a pot of of two ingredients that completely flummoxed me during my formative Mother Goose years, I was delighted. But that delight quickly fell way to further confusion, because the whole point of cheese-making is that you remove the curds from the whey — you don’t eat a bowl of them together.

Now that I’m thinking about this again, I’ll probably lose sleep tonight.

Anywhey.

See? There’s no end to this.

So what is this mysterious liquid of Miss Muffet and her curious arachnid? Whey is the liquid that separates from milk solids when making yogurt or cheese or other cultured dairy products. When making cheese, this separation occurs in dramatic fashion when acid is added to the milk. With yogurt, it requires a little more time, and often requires straining (though sometimes yogurt separates on its own in the container — that liquid in your yogurt cup? yep — it’s whey). It’s full of enzymes, beneficial bacteria, and lactic acid — and is good for digestion and nutrient absorption.

Whey is used in all sorts of lacto-fermentation. Many folks put it in their cultured vegetables — I use mine in bread-making, overnight-soaking of grains and legumes, fermentation of fruits and homemade mayonnaise, and lately in making beet kvass (a fermented beet beverage, my new favorite). I always have whey in my refrigerator — which is pretty easy to do, since it lasts in a jar for about 6 weeks.

One of the greatest things about whey-making day is the byproduct of this method: yogurt cheese. It’s the consistency of cream cheese, though more tart — and with a little honey, vanilla, and cinnamon added, it makes a fantastic probiotic dip for fruits and crackers. I have at least two children who gobble this stuff up — and the third gets mocked by the whole family when she doesn’t. It’s fun times.

Oh, and greek yogurt? It’s nothing more than strained yogurt — just like what we do here in this process (you’d just stop after the first straining step, when the yogurt is very thick but still creamy).

So get off your tuffet and give this a try. Helpful hints: my favorite cheesecloth is this brand — and I’ve been using and washing the same cut-off 18″ square now for about 6 months, so it’s worth the tiny extra investment. Also, if you’re not into sweet dips, then by all means just use some chopped garlic, fresh herbs, and sea salt for a lovely savory dip. I’m sure Miss Muffet and her voyeuristic spider would approve.

 

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Kids’ power smoothie

Sometimes, it feels as though 90% of my energy on any given day is spent figuring out how to get as many nourishing foods into my kids’ bodies as possible, given their standard-fare pickiness, a limited budget, and their battle-weary mom.

Another 5% is spent doing the laundry.

I don’t know if you’re keeping up with the math, but that leaves 5% of my energy for doing things like brushing my teeth, showering on occasion, keeping up with social media, and watching my library-loaned copies of Lark Rise to Candleford (a BBC period-dramedy chosen specifically for its solid escapism capabilities).

I’m not (always) bitter, just constantly surprised by how much energy it takes to feed kids well. And looking for better solutions.

Thankfully, last spring I landed on an easy, sure-fire way to get loads of good probiotics into the bellies of my kids: the smoothie. We’ve been enjoying them all summer, but school starts Monday (!) — and my goal is to pack them full of friendly gut-flora, daily, year-round, to give their immune systems that much-needed school-year boost.

The great thing about smoothies? You can sneak things into them. Things like greens, kombucha (a how-to-make-your-own post is coming soon!) beet kvass (a lacto-fermented beverage made from beets — great for the liver, not-so-tasty for the kids), or brain-boosting fish oil (tastes like lemon!). I like using probiotics from multiple sources — yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and a powdered kids’ probiotic supplement — to get as much variety as possible in beneficial bacteria.

If you want a protein boost, you can add a spoonful of nut butter (almond and cashew butters are more neutral in flavor than peanut butter). For constipated kids, grind some flaxseed and throw it in (1 tsp should do). And my personal favorite for getting some extra brain-boosting fats? A quarter of an avocado makes the smoothie thick and creamy, and you can’t taste it at all.

The best part of all? No complaining. At afternoon snack time, when my kids hear the blender running, it’s like a Pavlovian reaction — they come to the table, ready to drink. It keeps them satiated until dinner, and gets those good bugs into their adorable little bellies.

Leaving me just enough time to switch out the laundry, check twitter, and change out of my pjs before dinner.*

* Of course I’m kidding. I’m totally done with laundry by dinner.

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