How to Make Black Garlic in a Crockpot

Black garlic is all the rage. It’s often called “fermented” but the process isn’t actually fermenting. Instead, it’s simply a matter of low slow cooking over a long time. At least 2 weeks, actually. If you like garlic, you owe it to yourself to try this at least once.

Does it taste like roasted garlic, but just take longer? No, no it does not. It almost doesn’t taste like garlic at all, honestly. It’s actually pretty hard to describe. The word “umami” gets thrown around a lot when people talk about black garlic.

Time needed: 14 days and 30 minutes.

How to Make Black Garlic

  1. Get some heads of garlic

    You can use garlic from the grocery store or cooler varieties from farmer’s markets or home-grown. Leave the heads intact. For my large crockpot, I was able to comfortably arrange 9 foil-wrapped heads of garlic in a single layer. You can do multiple layers but it becomes a fussier rotation process if you do.

  2. Wrap each head loosely in foil

    Not so loosely that all the moisture will escape, but not skin-tight either.

  3. Add a slightly crumpled layer of foil to the bottom of the crockpot

    This is just to give the garlic some space so it’s not right against the heat.

  4. Turn the crockpot on to the “Keep Warm” setting

    Turn on the crockpot, and put the lid on.

  5. Wait

    Wait at least 2 weeks. To check the progress without cutting open a head of garlic, you could unwrap one and press gently on the side. If it’s soft and springy, then I would say cut it open and check. Or, wait another few days for good measure.

That’s all there is to it. Once your garlic is pitch-black, you can store the heads of garlic in a paper bag somewhere relatively cool and dry. They last up to 6 months, from what I’ve read. And now that you have this fine dining ingredient, here are some ways to use black garlic in your cooking.

You might read that the process of making black garlic will make your house smell strongly of garlic the whole two weeks, but that was not my experience. The first couple days, the smell was notable, but as time went on, it lessened significantly. If you’re worrying about smelling up your house with garlic, a) don’t and b) maybe you don’t love garlic enough to be worthy of undertaking this procedure!

Ultimately I made a mistake (aka an experiment) with my supply of black garlic, attempting to make garlic powder out of it. I chopped it up and dehydrated it for days. When it was as dry as it was going to get, I threw it in a spice grinder to create my very own black garlic cement. The maillard reaction that produces that deep color and mellow flavor also adds a stickiness, and that makes it difficult to properly powder by itself. Kind of like when a bag of brown sugar gets hardened.

I’ve bought black garlic salt from a local farmer’s market that’s less clumpy, so I may be able to salvage my bricks of black garlic powder by cutting it with salt and regrinding. I just don’t know if I feel like putting in the effort. I think I’d rather try turning some of my excess seed garlic into black garlic and see what the stronger flavors of those varieties do under these conditions.

Things I learned about gardening during COVID

I’ve had a sort-of garden in our yard for years. Some years I try to use it, and some years I don’t. I haven’t caught COVID this year, but like so many people, I caught an aggressive case of the gardening bug. And this time, gardening worked out for me. I watered enough, I managed pests, and I reaped some harvest. Nothing crazy, but it was enough to catapult me into the obsession zone. Once I’m in that mode, there’s no turning back. So here are some things I learned about gardening when the garden became not just a side chore but a significant focus.

Gardening is Easy

Gardening isn’t rocket science. You water the right amount, plant at the right time in a location where the plant will get enough sun, and it generally works out. In years past, I didn’t water regularly. Or weed. Or watch out for the beginnings of infestations.

Sometimes, though, the neglected plants thrive without our “help”. The fact that so many people find tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, or squash growing on their compost pile should tell you all you need to know about how good plants are at taking care of themselves.

That said…

Gardening is Hard

You can water too much. You can water too little. Same with fertilizing.

I grow in zone 5b, and this year we had a frost in June, followed by a heatwave. There are hail storms, droughts, and early frosts in the fall. You can strive mightily with shade cloth and hoop rows with plastic coverings, and triumph over some of that, but it’s a lot of work.

Pests arrive to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Maybe you’ll stop them, maybe you won’t. Maybe a groundhog will come in the night and chew up all your greens. A squirrel or skunk may decide your tomatoes are their tomatoes. You can do everything right and still watch your zucchini slowly succumb to powdery mildew.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, things won’t work out. And despite that…

Gardening is Therapy

This was especially true during lockdown, but having something to do that got me outside regularly was such an important part of getting through this year with my emotions intact. This is one reason I don’t care that gardening, especially your first year setting up raised beds and bringing in soil, can be expensive. As an introvert suddenly faced with an always home family, that quiet time outside was a life-saver.

Any hobby worth its salt also offers some level of zen. Something to take your mind off whatever else is going on at the time. One way gardening accomplishes this is by being such a remarkably deep discipline. There is SO MUCH to learn, because…

Gardening is Educational

Gardening will teach you about taking care of plants, yes. Even just that is a lifetime of learning. But it also taught me about insects in my area. About soil health and the environment. I learned that fall leaves contain trace minerals from deep in the soil, and that we should think twice about bagging them up and sending them to the dump.

A lot of what I learned is general ecological information, but I also got to know my specific micro-biome. I learned what grows well in my yard, and what doesn’t. What we grow well and use, as well as what we may grow successfully, but nobody in the house really wants to eat. I learned about the compass orientation of my yard, and saw what a big difference adding a birdbath made to the local wildlife.

And then to preserve the harvest, I experimented with three ways to ferment and pickle green beans. I made watermelon jelly, and watermelon fruit leather. I learned how to make black garlic. And that there are a million different types of garlic, and they all taste incredibly different than the one kind you find at every grocery store.

I started to explore the world of super-hot peppers, and fermented hot sauces. And seed saving.

Despite everything I learned this year…

If we have to feed our family off my garden, we’re screwed

My garden was about 100 square feet total. It sounds big, but it’s not. I had 6 tomato plants that were more successful than any tomatoes I’ve ever grown, but it really doesn’t produce all that much. Green beans did really well, as did our watermelon, but canning and freezing those doesn’t amount to even a week of sustenance. The mentality that you’re going to feed yourself off an urban garden is, in my opinion, only going to make you feel unsuccessful.

Anything you grow is good. Anything you grow is healthier and fresher than what you can buy at the grocery store. It comes with a sense of accomplishment and ownership. It helps with the food miles problem. All those reasons are reason enough to grow as much of your own food as you can.

Granted, next year’s garden will be bigger. I’ve learned a lot and will almost certainly see a bigger haul. But I’m not going to think of it as something I could rely on. And hopefully I’ll never have to. Hopefully we continue to have the luxury of getting to garden, and not having to garden.

Know Your Enemy: Garden Insects

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

– Sun Tsu, The Art of War

Back in 2017 when I was a less serious and more neglectful gardener, I experienced an infestation of squash bugs. I didn’t know what they were, and I wasn’t visiting my garden daily, so by the time I saw them, they were EVERYWHERE. I was completely grossed out and pulled up the whole garden. I was done for the year. Gave up. Threw in the trowel.

Things changed with the arrival of the 2020 pandemic gardening season. Because we were in lockdown, I was out there at least 5 minutes every day. I also got on a learning kick, and studied at the feet of YouTube gardening channels, Facebook groups, podcasts, and a good half dozen new books. It was on one of the groups that someone mentioned the Insect ID app.

I was about to start knowing the face of my enemy. And my friends as well; only about 3% of insects are pests in the garden. The rest are either harmless or downright beneficial. Insect ID has an annual cost, but it’s been worth it. Not only has it helped me identify when a bad actor is in my garden, it’s got a Pokemon “catch ’em all” element to it that makes it fun to identify new bugs.

For example, during one garden inspection, I came upon two little yellow beetles on my cucumber. I was immediately suspicious, and took a mug shot. With beetles in the garden, it’s totally guilty until proven innocent. And sure enough, they were anything BUT innocent. Striped cucumber beetles. Knowing this allowed me to research my enemy and fight them. I went out every day with a little bowl of water to which I’d added a drop of dish soap. Chopstick in hand, I’d creep up on my prey and knock them into the water. Along the way, I discovered a couple spotted cucumber beetles. All told, I killed more than 90 cucumber beetles this way. If I hadn’t known what they were and how to attack them, I would have had a repeat of 2017 for sure.

Not THIS time, squash bug!

I soon learned that almost every beetle you see in the garden is an issue. But not ALL of them. Obviously ladybugs are allies, but I also found predatory beetles and harmless ones like a stag beetle, that I was able to confidently leave in peace. Everybody wins.

Through paying greater attention to the insects in the garden, I noticed multiple species of bees, a very cool 4-toothed mason wasp who stopped by the birdbath for a drink, and some really weird slugs with their own convertible tops.

Four-toothed mason wasp

And of course… I learned to recognize the squash vine borer moth. It wouldn’t end up mattering that I knew this creature, and all the research and treatment measures I put into place couldn’t save the multiple squash, zucchini, and pumpkin plants that fell to the spawn of this deceptively beautiful insect.

Her wicked highness, the squash vine borer moth

This is a prime example of needing to know both your enemy and yourself. Next year, I’ll be taking all the preventative measures but have also ordered varieties of squash that are known to be more resistant to borers. The way a borer destroys a squash is to bore into those hollow stems and just start eating in relative safety. I gotta hand it to them, that’s a great strategy. Consequently, squash varieties with thicker or non-hollow stems give the borer more trouble. These include Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, Cucuzzi Squash, Waltham Butternut, and Striped Zucchini.

Mantidfly, most definitely an ally!

The app doesn’t always identify the insect correctly, and it can be frustrating when it doesn’t. Like in the case of the mantidfly, I had to take that picture to another forum to find out what it was. But it gets most of them right, and really adds an element of study to my gardening effort. It’s relatively expensive in a world of 99 cent apps, but for me it was money well spent.

Black swallowtail caterpillar on dill. Not great news for the dill, but exciting to see in the garden!

2020 Garden Recap

I’m going to do a quick recap of 2020’s garden season and be done with it, because there are other apocalyptic homestead topics to be discussed.

Our first planting date is May 4 or so. I actually didn’t plant anything then, but started thinking about things.

It was Memorial Day weekend when things really happened. BOOM, baby! Since I was a few weeks late, I planted a lot of seedlings from local greenhouses.

In addition to resurrecting the old 4×12 bed, I added another 4×8 bed. I used a composite raised bed system that was pretty expensive. I’d decided to go that route because the former raised beds had become ugly and rotted. I figured if I was going to WANT to be in the garden all the time, it would need to look really good.

That 4×8 end bed is magical for peppers, eggplants, and as it turned out, a watermelon that went nuts, cascaded down the landscaped slope, and wound up producing over 120 pounds of watermelon. I got more sweet peppers than I could handle, and a bunch of eggplants. Sadly, I didn’t plant any hot peppers this year, but I sure know where to plant them next time!

Then in June we had a frost, followed by a heat wave, and the peas were all set with that. The green beans did great though. And the 6 tomato plants I put in did, too! That was a surprise; normally I have no luck with tomatoes. I wasn’t even going to try, but one of my husband’s coworkers expressed incredulity that we weren’t growing tomatoes. So I caved and did it, and I’m glad I did! For whatever reason, I had no disease or pest issues with them at all. Except for one tomato hornworm, and I don’t really count him, since he only ate one tomato leaf before being apprehended.

In late August I planted a fall garden consisting of another crop of green beans and radishes. I tried cucumbers in both the spring and fall, and didn’t have much luck with them. Certainly not the rumored piles and piles of cucumbers one’s supposed to have!

The other thing I planted for the fall garden was more square footage. I lengthened the main bed to 4×16, and created a new 2×12 bed along the back porch. The 2×12 will be mainly tomatoes next year, and edamame.

And then fall frosts started to happen. I was ready for gardening to be over for the year. I amended the beds with compost and mulched them heavily. I added biochar, too. Fancy! Oh, and planted a LOT of fall garlic.

The biggest harvests were zucchini (before the borers and the powdery mildew got the plant), green beans, which we ate raw, steamed as a side dish at dinner, and pickled.

And the watermelon. The problem with watermelon is that it mostly ripens all at once, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to preserve it. I canned a lot of watermelon jam and watermelon jelly, and experimented with watermelon fruit leather (never again). You can bring half of a 46 pound watermelon over to a friend’s house as a “gift” once, but you can’t really do it three times.

By the time we were dealing with the last of it, we were all super sick of watermelon, and feeling grateful that some small rodent had tunneled into one of the 4 melons, ruining it. Thank you, little guy.

So bottom line, 2020 was by far my most successful garden ever, and we’ll be enjoying canned salsa, jam, and pickles into the winter. I started pretty late in the season, and by all accounts this was a very weird year weather-wise. We had watering restrictions that started in August and we’re actually still under. Late frosts, early heatwaves.

One of multiple batches of watermelon jelly

I’m really looking forward to 2021. I’ll have more garden space, and like I said, I’ve amended the beds. That’s a step I never took before. I also never planted garlic before. Next year I’ll be keeping a closer account of what the garden produces, and I expect it to produce a lot more.

Plus, our apple tree never bloomed this year. It’s a self-pollinating Dwarf McIntosh, and it has given us an apple before, so I think that was probably due to my traumatizing it early in the season by dropping another tree on it and breaking a main branch. 🙁 It seemed to focus on growth this year, as it got significantly larger. So hopefully it’s looking forward to next year, too. Because there are a MILLION things you can do with apples!

Baker Man… is Baking Bread

Bread has been the next skill to tackle on my list for about a month. I was originally scheduled to meet up with a couple friends so the three of us could all learn to make bread together. Unfortunately, that fell through. But I’d waited too long, and I was determined to get going on this. I always feel like, with doing anything, the first time is always the hardest.

So I got to work. I first watched a video from the Back 2 Basics Living Summit about bread-making. Then I looked it up in my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. Just to have a couple approaches in mind.

I had to Google to find out how much “a packet” of yeast is, since it seems like half the recipes on the internet assume you’re going to have one of those individual packets of yeast. Even though the same company sells jars of the stuff. The equivalency is about 2 ¼ teaspoons of yeast per packet, but don’t go looking on the side of the jar for that information, because it’s not there.

I wasn’t long into the kneading process before I realized I was not going to have enough flour. So, picture this sticky ball of dough sitting there by itself as I bolted out the door to the market for more. We live pretty close to the grocery store, but I was still gone a good 20 – 30 minutes. However while I was there, I grabbed a box of ground flax, thinking it’d be good to add to the mix.

I immediately put the ground flax into a recycled glass jar. When you’re a homesteader… it’s what you do.

When I got back, the bread had definitely risen, but I just crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t ruin the final product too much by kneading it again at this point, and got to work. I added in about ¼ cup of ground flax, and more flour. Then I let it rise in peace for a while.

After it had had time to grow again, I split the dough into 2 loaves, plopped them into their pans, and threw them in the oven.

They came out very nicely! I figure probably the unexpected interruption in the process led to a denser bread, but it was still lovely, and looked on par with many artisan breads I’ve purchased before. And it tasted delicious. Also, made the kitchen smell great.

I’m not entirely sure how long a freshly-baked loaf of bread is supposed to last, but mine was still doing fine about a week later. Now that the initial stepping through the process is done, I’m looking forward to round 2.

Garden Dreaming

At the time I’m writing this, it’s one of the coldest days of the year, kicking off at -8. I like winter more than summer, but at this point, even I am growing weary of shoveling snow and being cold. My truck’s battery died on New Years Eve; even the cars are tired of it.

This is the time of year when the seed catalogs start arriving. Expert marketing by seed companies, I have to say. Everything’s buried in snow and freezing cold, and these colorful catalogs show up promising life and spring and fruitfulness. Never mind that I know I’m not a great gardener, to the point that I’ve decided to officially support the local farms instead of trying to grow my own tomatoes.

I could be growing things in the window… but maybe not, because it’s SO cold out right now, I don’t even like to stand near the windows. You can feel the cold just washing in. So maybe I leave that for February.

I’m learning that winter in general is hard when you’re obsessed with homesteading. It’s chilly in the house, so the SCOBY’s being sluggish, and the second ferment kombuchas aren’t carbonating the way they were in the summer. I don’t feel like pickling anything because all the green beans at the grocery store look like ass. Really the only thing I HAVE managed to do is turn 7 pounds of meat into beef jerky. At least I still have that.

It’s worse this year because we’re looking to move by summer, and I have no idea what that’s going to look like. It’s not like I can plan out a garden, which is probably what I’d be doing right now most years. I can’t bring myself to throw the catalogs away, but for now I’m sort of just ignoring them.

On top of it all, the real estate market also grinds to a halt in the wintertime, so there isn’t even anything to look at. I had this fantasy in my head last fall that in December, when everyone else had stopped looking, the perfect property would pop up on the market and we’d swoop in to score it because WE… we were ready! Yeah, no. Nobody around here wound up in trouble with the mafia and needing to sell immediately so they could skip town.

All these factors have sort of taken the wind out of my sails, hence the reduced blogging frequency. I don’t know what other modern homesteaders do during the off season, but I guess for me right now, looking forward has to be the plan. If we pull off this house acquisition, things will start to get real busy. So probably by then I’ll look back fondly at this lull.

Although, I did make my own bread for the first time… and used my own jams to make thumbprint cookies for a holiday party. Also we had chili for dinner last night that I’d put up weeks ago from a double batch. Everybody loved it, and it was really nice to benefit twice from that work. It prompted me to order a new Freezer Recipes book off Amazon. So yeah, there have been successes when I stop and think about it.

I’ve also been enjoying my latest playtime with 7 Days to Die. For the first time in 5 years playing, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m making bullets (normally I just stick with the bow as my weapon of choice). Watch out, zombies, I’m building a motorbike next!

Homesteading for Survival Gamers

Survival games are a subgenre of action video games set in a hostile, open-world environment, where players generally begin with minimal equipment and are required to collect resources, craft tools, weapons, and shelter, and survive as long as possible.” (Wikipedia)

Survival gamers have the potential to be great homesteaders. Clearly, they’re interested in all the right elements. They’ve already been paying for introductory classes online, $60 at a time.  

The ephemeral stone axe

I first fell in love with survival games in 2013, and I fell HARD. DayZ, Don’t Starve, Rust, and 7 Days to Die were the most prominent games of the time, and I logged hundreds of hours on them. And though I grew with a passion for survival scenarios, it wasn’t until 2017 that I put the two things together and it spelled “homestead”. I’ve skipped straight over LARPing and gone for living it.

If it’s in me to make that leap, it’s probably in you, too. But where to begin?

Homesteading evokes images of country farms and living like the Amish. No phone, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury… living in closer harmony with the land, a kitchen functioning as a true heart of the house, alive with baking and canning. Fresh food, without any chemicals you didn’t add yourself. A simpler, more economic life. And if the apocalypse comes? We’ll be just fine out here. We are the Wilderness Family.

Skyrim Food

Realistically, we can’t all do that. But we don’t need to. If we limit interest in homesteading to those who have successfully obtained some acreage and are raising livestock, it limits the usefulness of the concept. If 100,000 people move to the countryside and start farming (which would be AMAZING), that has less of a positive impact on the environment than if every citizen living in New York were to turn off unused lights. Not off-grid; just less-grid.

So urban homesteading, taking bits and pieces from full frontal homesteading and bringing them into a smaller space, but not limited to people living in the city. I was listening to a great podcast along these lines today, The Modern Homesteading Podcast by Harold Thornbro. As he put it, “I’m here sitting in front of a computer.” Modern homesteading feels like it might sum up what I’m thinking of, sort of the sister to the maker movement. Don’t give up electricity, or Netflix, or computers and consoles. Keep all those things, but start learning a few things about taking care of yourself.

Like what kind of things? Here are just a few of the skill trees available in homesteading:

Food Production

  • Home brewing. It may or may not be cheaper than stopping by the corner liquor store, but brewing your own beers, ciders, wines, and meads is a fun skill to train up.
  • Canning. Even if it’s just a matter of making a big batch of homemade salsa, canning offers a long term solution to large food quantities from a fall harvest… or just a big sale at the grocery store.
  • Fermenting. Making your own pickles and kombucha is SO EASY. You pay top dollar for probiotics, and yet they are some of the simplest things to produce.
  • Dehydrating. Home dehydrators come in all sizes. I got mine on Craigslist for a fraction of retail price. I’ve made dried bananas, pineapples, apples, pears, peaches, and beef jerky so far.
  • Gardening. The form this takes depends on the space available, but even if you just have a sunny apartment window, you could grow some herbs. Have you seen how expensive fresh herbs are at the market? I’ve grown big beautiful fennel plants in a living room window, and gardening is NOT my strongest skill.

That’s beef jerky, man. A LOT of beef jerky.

Frugality

  • Meal planning. Planning a week or a few days in advance makes it possible to buy larger quantities for better deals. Food is one of our biggest monthly expenses, whether it’s eating out, or just willy-nilly runs through the grocery store at the end of a long work day. Trust me, that’s better than take-out, but it’s expensive. A little planning, even if you don’t do it every week, saves a big chunk of change. Food you cook yourself is almost always healthier than take-out, too. I’ve gone overboard and tried to plan every single meal, and especially at first, you shouldn’t do that. But if you can make a double batch of spaghetti sauce and freeze half of it, you’re on your way.
  • Budgeting. If your dream is to own your own home, or if you just want to retire as soon as you can, budgeting is a huge aspect of homesteading, and a skill that will make your life easier in so many ways. I wish Dave Ramsey kept the religion out of his program for us atheists, but his advice is good, and if you want to make this stuff a habit, you need to basically brainwash yourself a bit (in a good way). Read budgeting books, and listen to budgeting podcasts. It makes it easier to say no to a shopping spree at the mall.
  • Buying used. I could buy dozens of homesteading books on Amazon for a relatively reasonable price. I could borrow dozens of homesteading books at the local library for free. Buying used clothes and equipment at yard sales, on Craigslist, or at thrift stores is just smart. Shake the attitude that you’re too good for Goodwill. 

 

Conservation

  • Solar power. This doesn’t have to mean huge solar panels on your roof. I have a solar charger for my iPhone. There are lots of small solar options. As a poor college student in my first studio apartment, I laid black garbage bags on the floor where the sun shone in strongly and skipped paying for heat.
  • Upcycling. Reducing trash volume by finding new ways to use old things is not only good for the environment, it’s also potentially lucrative. Upcycling is SO HOT RIGHT NOW.
  • Recycling. Most towns have a recycling program. We do, though we don’t use it as much as we should. That’s one of our New Years Resolutions, by the way. If you want some motivation for upping your recycling game, check out the graphic novel my husband’s been reading, Trashed. It’s a sobering look at a fact that most of us would like to ignore.

 

The skills and activities that make up homesteading are good for you, good for your wallet, and good for the planet. Here are just a few of the many features homesteading offers:

  • Explore! Get back to nature and restore your connection to the world around you.
  • Craft! Ferment your own pickles and brew your own spirits. Leave the throw-away economy behind and fix things that are broken. Give hand-crafted jams and jellies at Christmas time.
  • Build! Create your own structures, from solar water heaters to chicken coops to raised garden beds and permaculture.
  • Cooperate! Barter with local NPCs members of the homesteading community. A full and vibrant trade system that evolves with your skill levels.
  • Improve! Level up your knowledge and sense of well-being by taking your fate into your own hands – literally.

You don’t have to let go of modern conveniences to enjoy the mental and physical benefits of a little self-sufficiency. And you don’t have to do it all at once. As you can see if you follow this blog, I dove in head-first, in a whirlwind of trying everything at once, and within a few months it practically burned me out. Since then, I’ve slowed down, but I know this is going to be a permanent and important part of my life.

Side story: I was in the grocery store grabbing a few things the other day, and got to chatting with a couple of the people in line.  We remarked on how packed the place was, and they said it was because a big snowstorm was coming. Now, I was in the express lane, with just a few things for baking cookies. I laughed and said, “Maybe I outta be stocking up a bit more than this!”

But then I thought about it. I had 2 batches of Bolognese sauce in the freezer, as well as a Guinness beef stew, a sausage kale soup, and several servings of mashed potatoes. I had jugs of water on hand for my pickle and kombucha-making efforts, so I didn’t really need water (nobody every actually does, but every snowstorm, the water disappears from the stores like clockwork).

And that was the first time I felt it. I’m sure homesteaders will know exactly what I’m talking about, but as a gamer and a newbie to the scene, this was my first time. I felt self-sufficient. It was a tangible moment, and I’ll never forget it.  People need to get back to feeling like that, instead of helpless about our society and where it’s headed. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but I would love for you to feel that same moment I did, because it was wonderful.

This is Skooma. I just had to substitute honey for moon sugar.

Punctuated Equilibrium

Back in school, I learned about the concept of punctuated equilibrium in evolution. Evolution doesn’t happen in a smooth, metered progression. There’s a status quo for a long time, and then when things change, it’s a sudden and pronounced change.

This Thanksgiving weekend I’ve been feeling unexpectedly frustrated. The idea of spending money with black Friday abandon makes me feel nauseous. I just sent in the semi-annual property tax bill for our home, and because of that I won’t able to put away more money toward our homestead property search this month. But what does it matter? There’s suddenly nothing on the market to consider anyway.

It wasn’t until I vented about all of these things in a conversation with my husband that I realized why I’m feeling the way I am right now. It’s because my forward progress has been halted. No gardening or foraging either, of course, since we’re well into frosty nights. What all does a homesteader DO in the winter?

Today, I did the one homesteading thing I could still do; I cooked. Oh, boy did I cook. It started out as plans to make a huge batch of meatballs and freeze them. Then I figured, why not make mashed potatoes too? Those freeze well and the meatballs would be in the oven, so why not use the stove top, too? And then I started browsing around a bit on the internet for big batch freezer meals. That led me to an Alton Brown recipe for Christmas soup which was basically the sausage kale soup I used to make all the time. That, and a Guinness beef stew recipe completed my shopping list.

Meatballs on deck waiting for their turn in the oven as potatoes get skinned.

I think that was around 10am. I cooked non-stop clear to 5pm. I’m beat. My feet hurt, but at the same time, I feel GREAT. Doing something broke me out of the funk I was in. Not only that, all those meals in the freezer make me feel more at ease, more prepared. The end results were:

  • 4 meatball dinners
  • 4 family servings of mashed potatoes
  • 2 Guinness beef stew
  • 2 Sausage kale soup

So for less than $100, 8 dinners plus mashed potatoes that could be a side for the chicken I already have in the freezer, or used to make a shepherd’s pie. Not bad. I didn’t even go out of my way to save money, or go to Costco, and that was a LOT of meat.

Chuck roast and Guinness ready to become an amazing stew. So what if Guinness DOES come in 4-packs. What are you insinuating?

At the end of the day (literally), all this reminded me of that idea of punctuated equilibrium, and how forward progress isn’t necessarily a constant thing. Sometimes there will be no progress. Sometimes there may even be setbacks on the path to the homesteading dream. And that’s OK.

Homesteading is a Learning Process

It’s been a while since I gave you an update on my progress. It’s had its ups and downs, I gotta say. I made some more jam of my own, and also went over to a friend’s house to make a batch together. She had a recipe that used just a little agave syrup, and chia seeds to thicken it up, and that actually worked surprisingly well. So that was cool. And I bottled up my first batch of honey mead, and it’s delicious!

honey mead finished

But then I almost killed my SCOBY. Jury’s still out on that one, really; I won’t know for another week or so if it’s OK. You’ve probably picked up on how I was just hurtling headlong at all these various homesteading and food preservation things. I guess you could say it caught up with me.

 “To prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other” – MacBeth

Since about July, I feel like I’ve been enjoying successes and learning something new almost every week. The kombucha’s been going awesome, and I even seem to have gotten the hang of lacto-fermenting, a skill that has long eluded me. I used Alton Brown’s directive of 5.5 ounces of pickling salt to 1 gallon of water, which left me a good amount of extra salt water in case I wanted to do up a batch of pickled green beans or something.

And I kept that in the “fermentation station” where my big continuous brew jar was. We’ve been less enthusiastic about drinking the stuff lately, I think we’ll have to be careful not to burn out on it. But I’d still been doing half a dozen second ferment jars every week or so.

On this particular evening, I popped open a jar of peach kombucha, took a big swig, and immediately spit it out into the sink. You experienced homesteaders know where this is going, I’m sure. Yeah. I’d used the salt water to refill the kombucha jar. I was drinking peach-flavored saltwater.

I went to one of the kombucha groups and asked if this was it for my SCOBY. I know they’re sensitive, and figured this couldn’t be good. They said to try taking the SCOBY out, making a new batch with some new starter, and seeing how it went. Thank GOODNESS I had one jar in the fridge that was not fruited, because I do know you can’t use second ferment as starter, and I’d completely ruined the only jug I had.

Two lessons learned here:

  1. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket; I should have had another brew jar, at least a hotel where I could have a backup supply of SCOBY and starter.
  2. LABEL water jugs if any of them are salt water!

I really hope I don’t have to start all over, although I know I can get another SCOBY from the community if I need to. Stay tuned, film at 11.

“It’s only homicide if the SCOBY kicks the bucket…”

And then of course there’s the fall garden. I learned some things from that, too:

  1. Starting a fall garden in zone 5 on the last possible day the seed catalog recommends it is ill advised.
  2. The sun is lower at this time of year, so the area where I was trying to grow peas is mostly shaded now instead of fully sunny as it was in the summer. So the peas grew a lot slower.

There were a couple mild frosts about a week ago, and that didn’t seem to bother the peas. But I woke up to a much harder frost this morning, and the peas were goners. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained I guess. Learning that bit about the hedge next to the garden casting too much shade on it in the fall was a good bit of knowledge at least. And now I can just focus on mulching the garden in preparation for its long winter’s nap, and next spring.

Maybe the season has something to do with it, but my mad dash to learn everything has slowed down a bit. I do still have plans to make bread, and I’m on my second batch of honey mead right now. I’m looking forward to doing a bunch of homemade Christmas gifts of jam, cookies, and so forth, too. In a way it’s nice to not have to sit here feeling like I should be doing more than that. Time to slow down a bit and catch my breath!

That’s my JAM!

Making Jam for the First Time

The next area of homesteading that had my attention was canning. I watched several canning videos several times, and figured hot water bath canning was within the realm of possibility for a budding homesteadsman like myself.

So I ordered jars, canning equipment, and the Ball book of canning. Cue husband’s sidelong glances of trepidation. But I told him these were all one-time purchases, and that seemed to satisfy him. Just don’t tell him how much pressure canners cost, because that’s probably in our future. 😉

Anyway, I spent a few nights flipping through the various recipes in the Ball book. I chose my first time out the canning gate to be a low-sugar raspberry lemonade jam. Pro tip: if you ever are canning jam for the first time, don’t choose a low-sugar recipe. As appalling as 5 cups of sugar in a single recipe sounds, sugar is your FRIEND when it comes to jam. But hey, as one of my favorite college professors always used to say, “hindsight is 20/20.”

I used frozen raspberries, for the record, but I don’t think that mattered. At least as far as consistency. It mattered for my wallet, though. We’re talking about $25 in raspberries (3 1/2 pounds). And for sure a few bucks in honey.

That first attempt went the way most first attempts do in the kitchen. It took longer than it probably will down the road. It made a mess, splattering molten raspberry magma all over the stove. And sadly, though I was using the frozen plate test, the jam was too runny when I checked a jar the next day. I managed to spread it on some toast, but it was also very tart. Six gorgeous little jars of failure.

I considered throwing them out. Luckily, before that happened, I read somewhere that if jam is too runny, just call it sauce. I felt like that was a cop-out, BUT… when I drizzled it over vanilla ice cream along with some chocolate sauce, it was amazing. So there you have it; raspberry lemonade sauce, the perfect companion for ice cream, yogurt, and oatmeal.

Still, that wasn’t a satisfying result, really.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

It just so happened, though, we’d been apple picking a few days before. I love supporting our local farm, as my own gardening skills leave much to be desired. (So that’s the rationalization: “yeah, I’m skipping the garden in favor of supporting local farmers. That’s the ticket!”) Besides, fall in New England is well worth paying for.

We are all good apple eaters, but we had a BIG bag of them, which is what you get when you go apple picking. And there was this Apple Pie Jam recipe in the book. This one had plenty of sugar, and given apples are naturally high in pectin…

I found myself jamming again the very next day. When it came time to add the pectin to the recipe, well… you might say I was on the rebound, you know? I added at least a teaspoon more than the recipe called for, for good measure. It’s kind of an ironic term, “for good measure”. It means doing a little more than is called for. Is that REALLY good measure?

I had a lot of trouble getting this one up to the requisite 220 degree temperature, and had to cook it for quite a while. But it was definitely not runny. So that was a good thing. I spooned it into the jam jars, and though I was pretty wiped out, I felt like I was learning the process, and that this batch would be much better.

The next day, I popped open a jar to try it out. It was JELLED. I mean, I’ve bought jelly from the store that was as solid, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. It wasn’t easy to spread on toast at ALL. I managed to squash it down without tearing the toast to bits, and while it tasted great, once again, it just wasn’t right.

I feel like Goldilocks here. The first one was too soft. The second one was too hard. Will the third try be “just right”? Also, while you can call a runny jam “sauce” and get away with it, what can you do with a jam that’s too set?