Thursday, April 29, 2010

Larder: Building The Big Smoke

Paul: I think a quantity of nice smoked bacon is worth its weight in gold.

Jacob: Agreed. And legitimately smoked cheese - not that liquid smoked junk - is a real treat. Even many boutique dairies and cheesemakers have trouble finding the resources to smoke their own product.

Paul: It was with this spirit that we started our most wing-nut project yet.

Jacob: We were five or six home-brews in, and reminiscing about Norm's Smokehouse, in Haliburton.  We've taken day-trips to his old-school smokeshack whenever we're at the lake.

Paul: You had also done a few smokes last year.

Jacob: Yeah, last year, we did a few bacons, some duck breast, and whole whack of ribs using a rickety gas barbecue on our three square foot balcony. But smoking meat on a barbecue isn't really all that practical.

Paul: With all of our dist-stink-tive projects, we've become pretty used to strange odors floating around the apartment.

Jacob: Yeah, but perhaps smoking meat on a 'balconette' directly connected to our living room was not the best idea.

Paul: But the results were tasty.

Jacob: So, with succulent pork product in mind, and alcohol in blood, we began our foray into the world of smoking.

Paul: After a solid 10 minutes of poor internet research, we decided that we were experts on all things smoke, and started acquiring building materials the next day.

Jacob: You mean, you "borrowed" bricks from a demolished house the next day.

Paul: Yes. Actually, it was pretty funny - Dave and I were walking up and down the street, with batches of bricks across 2x4 planks on our shoulders. One construction guy said, "What, the pharaoh's got you building that damn pyramid again?"

Jacob: Dave's penchant for, "winging it", and "rigging up"  meant that we proceeded without any plans. Not exactly an expedient process...

Paul: Dave's constant assurance of, "it'll all come together" was not always re-assuring.

Jacob: But, it did. And despite our total lack of bricklaying experience and terrible roofing skills, we soon had most of a smoker assembled, ready to lift onto the brick foundation. The thing was about five and a half feet tall, sitting on the deck.

Paul: It looked like a reasonable size, and seemed light enough to pick up.

Jacob: At first. By the time the last shingle was attached, it required four skinny men (and a full case of beer) to move onto it's moorings. And once it was assembled...

Paul: ...It was HUGE. The thing is eight feet tall. We did not anticipate that.

Jacob: Damn right. We started to get a bit nervous - we had told our landlord that we would be assembling a, "small barbecue structure", not a mammoth-sized outhouse. That being said, actually having something material to look at, dreamed up by us, and actually followed-through to completion: very cool.

Paul: Well, that's not to say that it was a complete success. Our first smoke was... touch and go?

Jacob: More go than touch. Perhaps bringing a wooden structure up to 350 degrees fahrenheit was not the best idea?

Paul: That thing was hot. And leaky! Smoke pouring out everywhere. And despite our "expertise", more extensive research would have shown...

Jacob: And by "extensive research," you mean Jenny looking at a Reader's Digest for five minutes?

Paul: Exactly... would have shown that we needed a baffle, a grease catch, and a much smaller source of ignition.

Jacob: In our enthusiasm, we had decided that a 65,000 BTU burner would be sufficient.

Paul: Sufficient for NASA.

Jacob: Right. Anyway - Brick; Wood; Fire. Smoker: Done.

Paul: Well, not really. We still need to fill the holes, deal with the indirect fire-box...

Jacob: DONE.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Vegetable: Poaching Perennials

The response received since starting this blog has been overwhelming. Not only from the people interested in following and reading the blog, but more so from the enthusiasm people have to become involved in the farm, and offer their own gardening tips,and experiences. What's been even more surprising are the number of people who have contacted me to offer plants to be put in our garden. Particularly since my mention of lacking perennials.

The first offer came from someone very close to me, my Grandma, who having just moved out of her house and into assisted living had many plants on offer from her former garden in Scarborough. The plant I was most enthusiastic to get my hands on is the main ingredient in her incredible soup, Sorrel. I was sure to transplant a portion of this amazing perennial before the house was sold so that I can continue to enjoy this soup with my Grandma.

While the gift of sorrel from my Grandma was a given, with or without the blog, the rest of the plant donations have come from people who may not have known this project existed had the blog not been made. One very exciting new perennial is a Gold Hop plant from a friend named Alex Jarvis Squire, lead singer of the Whole Entire Universe. Alex is a horticulturalist by day and has an amazing garden. Fortunately for me he felt the Hops plant was taking up to much space. When he offered the plant to me I jumped at the opportunity to grow my own Hops to be used for flavouring my home-brew. Having just undergone a transplant the shrub is looking a little bit sad, but hopefully, with some tender loving care, will spring back to life.

One of my favourite perennials are sunchokes. Franka provided me with some really good advice about growing sunchokes through a horror story of hers. Franka suggested that when planting sunchokes I create some sort of barrier around them to prevent them from spreading throughout the garden. She learned this the hard way when the root system of a sunchoke plant spread under the grass of her lawn, only to be torn up by squirrels in search of the tasty tuber. Franka was particularly adamant that I take this advice because of the proximity of our sunchokes to her garden. To create this barrier I used the old recycling bins with the bottom cut out. Franka was pleased with my ingenuity and rewarded me with a couple of chive plants to accompany the one that I had left from last year.

Another plant that we hope to be giving a home to is a raspberry bush from a friend who lives up the street from us named Krista. For this plant I am having considerable difficulty finding space. As much as I love raspberries, sunchokes and loads of other perennials I do find them challenging to incorporate into the garden because of how large they get. WIth a garden as small as ours it becomes difficult to incorporate these plants without having them take over the entire plot. One good option for the urban gardener to enjoy things like raspberries and blueberries is to forage them wild, which I hope to do this summer.

Hopefully getting these plants in the ground and taking care of them will stave off my desire to get an early jump on vegetable planting before the recommended May 24 weekend. Also, soon there is going to be enough sorrel for a delicious sorrel soup.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Vegetable: Preparing For an Early Crop

Regrettably I didn't grow many perennials last year. Being a renter, and not a home-owner, means you don't necessarily know what your living situation will be every year. Not knowing where I will be from year to year prompted me to resist planting perennials, and particularly plants that you have to wait several seasons before a nice crop appears. So this spring I will look on with envy as farmers arrive at the markets with asparagus and strawberry and other delicious seasonal treats.

Without these first signs of the growing season in our garden, I have been increasingly eager to get something sprouting that we can enjoy fresh from the yard. The beautifully deceiving weather that we have had recently has increased my impatience to start working in the garden. The only thing that has been holding me back are Franka's warnings that these deceptively warm days are followed by cool nights, that often bring a frost. Franka tells me that if I were to plant my seedlings now they would rot and die. She stresses that I need to maintain my patience, and wait until the Victoria Day long weekend to transplant the seedlings into the ground.

Feeling dejected I had come to the conclusion that I would have to be satisfied with the seedlings in the living room, until I received an email. The Stop Community Food Centre sends out a "Gardening Tip of the Month" in its monthly newsletter. For the month of April the tip is to plant crops that are resistant to frost, and will actual grow best in cool temperatures. These are crops such as spinach, arugula and radishes. Having received this tip we wasted no time in getting outside and double digging the soil in the front yard. The front yard faces the morning sun and so will provide the best environment for early crops to grow. Unable to wait for nice weather, Chris and I flipped the soil in the rain and cold. While digging we received several warnings from neighborhood Nonna's that we should go inside unless we want to catch a cold. Despite the warnings we dug on and were able to plant seeds once the rain passed, and now have spinach, lettuces and radishes beginning to sprout in the front yard.

The backyard is much bigger and required a few more hands, a case of beer and some nice weather.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Curd: 'Wheying' in on Curd

I love cheese. I have always loved cheese.  As a kid, I loved things that resemble cheese, but no longer consider cheese. I used to eat American cheese slices out of the little plastic wrapped packages as an after school snack. Yes, I am ashamed. In interim years, I have discovered such wondrous creations as French Munster, Italian Tallegio, and Spanish Valdeon. More recently, the delicious local cheeses of Monforte Dairy, and numerous other local and small-scale producers, have made me think that maybe this is something that I could do myself.

I finally decided to make cheese at home after watching the process on the BBC's the Victorian Farm, a great documentary series that recaptures daily activities of our recent ancestors. Seeing the simple, relatively inexact conditions under which the researchers worked, inspired me to try my hand at cheesemaking. My first attempt was a pressed ‘farmhouse’ cheese from Gramma's copy of Joy of Cooking (see Paul’s earlier post). We used buttermilk as a starter, dried rennet tablets, and a very questionable pressing method. The result was not great.

I have since received some help from the fine people at Glenngarry Cheese. They are located in Lancaster Ontario, where I recently visited.  I was expecting to purchase some quality bacterial starter, liquid calf's rennet (that’s the good stuff) and a cheese mold. When I arrived, they greeted me with such inspiring enthusiasm, and a whirlwind of information and encouragement. They were thrilled to hear that I had decided to join the ranks of the cheesemaker.  We talked for over an hour about the major do’s and don’ts that a first timer should watch out for. They also had all of the key ingredients that I could not find elsewhere. Thank you Glenngarry Cheese.

With the completion of the cheese press, and all the proper ingredients we decided to make one of my favourites, Traditional Cheddar. We won’t know how it tastes for another nine months (it's meant to be aged), but it definitely looks like cheese, and has a an aroma that I can confidently say, smells like cheese. I’ll keep you updated.