Think You’re Eating Farm Fresh Eggs? Think Again.

With the recent salmonella egg scare, it’s more important than ever to know where your food comes from. A photo of a happy chicken on your egg carton does not mean much more than you have a pretty egg carton.

Cuckoo Marans Chickens

Cuckoo Marans Momma Hen and Her Just Hatched Chicks: “Oh My Stars!”

If you can’t raise your own flock, try to purchase your eggs from another backyard grower, or read this article from Mother Jones to find out who NOT to buy eggs from. And the Cornucopia Institute has a very helpful scorecard rating local to national egg brands (including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods).

And, by the way, the term “free range” doesn’t mean those chickens have access to fresh air, sunshine, grass, and bugs. Unless your eggs are from a small backyard or family farm or the carton says the hens are pastured, the eggs are more than likely coming from hens that are, yes, cage-free, but crammed into hoop-house like structures where they don’t have access to all the things that make chickens really happy. Fresh air, sunshine, bugs.

Buff Orpington Hen Cuddling with her Cuckoo Marans Chick

We keep a flock of chickens for eggs, meat, pest patrol, their manure, and for the life they add to our farm. We know our eggs are safe and healthy.

Oh, and chickens aren’t vegetarians.

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Last Workshops at Sunstone for the Year this Week!

Our workshop series is rapidly coming to a close for the year. It’s been a fun season meeting so many people! Here are details for the last workshops I will be teaching in 2010.

This Wednesday, October 13, I will be teaching a FREE workshop on Gardening and Eating through a New Mexico Winter at the Agricultural Collaborative monthly meeting at the MRCOG offices. 9am-10:30. I’ll offer my favorite tips for extending the growing season, growing during the winter and preserving your harvest, tips on lacto-fermentation included!

This Sunday, October 17, is Artisanal Bread Baking,  the last Urban Homesteading workshop here at Sunstone for the year. If you’ve heard the rave reviews about my bread, come and see how it’s done. This is a fun hands-on workshop, and there will be plenty to taste! 10am. $15 day of, $12 advanced registration.

I hope you can join us before our long winter’s rest!

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Beneficials in the Garden: Yellow Garden Spiders

I was just asking Tree if she had noticed any of my favorite black and yellow garden spiders in the garden this year. I hadn’t noticed any Argiope guaranties (even their name is gorgeous) and missed seeing their big sturdy webs spun between stands of Echinacea.

The very next day I went to turn the water on and saw a beautiful specimen right by the water faucet. Delighted, I welcomed her (only the females have the striking black and yellow coloring) and went to get the camera. She was nonstop busy catching huge grasshoppers that made the mistake of getting entangled in her web.

You can still see the grasshopper’s face underneath the spider’s silk.

These spiders are so amazing. They can take prey up to 200% of their own size and will eat a variety of insects night and day from aphids to flies to grasshoppers (which is what I usually see in their nests). They’re not considered dangerous and are unlikely to bite unless harassed. Unfortunately, they can also be predated on by birds, lizards and dauber wasps.

I welcome all spiders -they are amazing insectivores, but if you lean towards the arachnophobic, try to give these beneficials space in your garden, you might be surprised at what good garden companions they are.

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Goat Milk Soap Now Available at Sunstone

Goat Milk Soap

We handcraft our goat milk soap in small batches using raw goat milk from our trio of sassy Alpine dairy goats: Tosca, Desdemona and Betty!

Luscious goat milk soap made with fresh milk from our goats and honey from our bees is now available for sale at sunstoneherbs.com.

We hand cut each bar and package them in a simple compostable brown paper bag. We aim for minimal packaging to reduce our environmental footprint. Due to the handcrafted nature, each bar will be uniquely shaped.

We use no fragrance oils or perfume oils in our soap. Fragrance oils are often synthetic, and we like to keep our soap as pure and environmentally friendly as possible. The only scent comes from the honey and the goat milk. Many people with sensitive skin tell us that they love our gentle soap. Try it and see for yourself!

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How to Make Goat Milk Yogurt

I’m lucky enough to own three dairy goats. I have a constant supply of delicious raw goat milk, and, no, it’s not goaty tasting. It’s sweet and creamy. I make lots of cheese, ice cream, and yogurt. I love yogurt, and with the store bought good stuff costing $5 a quart, I save a lot of money.

Yogurt is very easy to make, but there are a few tips to making good goat milk yogurt since goat milk has different qualities than cow milk. I think our homemade yogurt is the most delicious yogurt I’ve ever tasted. I encourage you to try making your own yogurt whether you have access to raw goat milk or if you’re using store bought cow milk (I wouldn’t use store bought pasteurized goat milk). You’ll be surprised at how easy it is! I’ll give the basic instructions first, then go into detail about, well, the details.

Goat Milk Yogurt

Delicious Goat milk yogurt with strawberries, blueberries and a drizzle of maple syrup. My favorite summer breakfast. Yum!

Ingredients and Equipment for Two Quarts of Yogurt:

2 quarts of raw goat milk (or raw or pasteurized cow milk)
2 tablespoons high-quality yogurt or two frozen cubes of yogurt in a glass measuring cup or jar
2-quart saucepan
thermometer (optional)
Yogotherm or small cooler with 2 mason jars and lids

1. Heat milk to 180. Remove from heat and let cool to 115.
2. When milk has cooled, pour a little milk into the jar containing the starter yogurt and stir well.
3. Add the starter back to the cooled milk, stir well and immediately pour into the yogotherm container or into two-quart mason jars. Seal.
4. Put the yogotherm contain into the insulator and let sit for 8 hours. If using a cooler, put the jars in the cooler and fill with warm (not boiling hot) water to insulate the jars. Let sit for 8 hours. Then refrigerate. The yogurt will continue to solidify slightly overnight.

DETAILS:

Starter Culture
You can purchase a starter culture. That works great. Bulgarian yogurt is my favorite starter, producing the thickest yogurt. However, it gets expensive, so I just purchase plain whole milk yogurt and freeze it in an ice cube tray and use one yogurt cube per quart of milk as a starter. I don’t bother defrosting the frozen yogurt before using. When the milk has cooled to about 120, I pour some milk over the cube to melt it. My favorite store bought starter yogurt is Dannon. I’ve tried all the organic, greek and Bulgarian yogurts as starters over the years, but here in Albuquerque, Dannon has proved to be the most lively starter. When I lived in New York, I would use Seven Stars Farm or Hawthorne Valley yogurt as a starter. Don’t use low/non-fat or flavored yogurts. There must be live cultures in the yogurt. Old yogurt with not so lively cultures will not produce good yogurt. It will make yogurt, but the flavor may be very tart or runny.

Incubation/Insulation

You need to keep your yogurt at a steady warm temperature (not over 115 degrees). Some people do this with towels and pilot lights. That’s too much for me. For a long time, I used a small Igloo cooler, pre-heating it with hot water, but I recently purchased a Yogotherm non-electric yogurt “maker,” and I love it. It just makes the process so much easier for me. My yogurt is much more consistent, and I’m more inclined to make it regularly with the Yogotherm. They cost around $30. And since I go through a few quarts of yogurt a week, it’s already more than paid for itself.

Temperatures
You don’t have to bring the milk to 180 if you want a “raw” yogurt. But your yogurt will be thin because the yogurt cultures have to compete with the naturally occurring bacteria in the milk. Bringing the milk to 180 doesn’t really pasteurize the milk, but it kills off enough of the natural bacteria so that the yogurt bacteria can culture the milk without competition. This is important if you want additive-free thicker yogurt.

Cooling the Milk

I fill a sink with cold water and frozen plastic water/soda bottles in order to cool the milk quickly. This saves me time and produces a sweeter yogurt in my experience. To let the milk cool from 180 to 115 would take hours in my hot kitchen. You don’t want the milk to cool down much below 110 (yes, you can make a thin, yogurt beverage by simply adding the culture to just warmed milk, but 110 to 115 is ideal).

Thick vs. Thin Yogurt

Goat milk yogurt is naturally more delicate and thinner than cow milk yogurt. If you are used to store-bought yogurt, especially cow yogurt, you should know that it is usually so thick because of additives, usually pectin, carrageenan or non-fat milk powder. This yogurt, even the organic stuff, is gross to me. Why would I go to the trouble to make a healthy homemade cultured dairy product and then put something like dry milk powder into it? I don’t get it. But I do get that some people are so used to the sludge-like thick store yogurt that they think goat milk yogurt is too thin or delicate. (Think Yoplait, what used to be gourmet yogurt!). To get the thickest goat milk yogurt you need to heat the milk to 180 so that the yogurt culture doesn’t have to compete with the milk bacteria. The competition weakens the yogurt culture so that it is not able to fully act on the milk. So, heat your milk if you want thicker yogurt. Also, you must have an active culture. In my experience, dry Bulgarian culture (you can buy them online) and Dannon plain whole milk yogurt produce the thickest yogurt.

You also need to consider how long you let the yogurt incubate. Sometimes I leave my Yogotherm out for 24 hours. It’s still yogurt, but it’s usually thinner and more tart. If you refrigerate (to stop the culturing process) too soon, then the bacteria doesn’t have enough time to work their magic on the milk. The result is thinner yogurt. It’s still yogurt, just thinner. For me, 8-10 hours work the best. Once you get the hang of the process, experiment with different times to see what works best with your milk and climate and taste.

Have fun and enjoy! – Jen

Yogotherm yogurt insulator/incubator and a quart of homemade goat milk yogurt.

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Starting Sweet Potato Slips, Part 2

Back in February, I wrote about how to start your own sweet potato slips for planting. You put your sweet potatoes in water. Et voila! They grow roots and shoots. Now what?

This little sweet potato has two shoots, this little potato has one, and the middle potato has none!

The next step is to gently break off the shoots with the roots from the sweet potato. Put the shoots in water and let them grow until you’re ready to plant.  You can pot up the shoots and have a gorgeous sweet potato vine plant, or plant them in your garden when the soil is warm. If you have a long enough growing season you will get many sweet potatoes from each slip you plant.

Because I didn’t have a very bright or warm place to let my potatoes sprout, it took two months for them to start growing vines (this photo was taken back in April). Now even the sad potato on the toothpick is sporting sprouts. You can still start your own slips, you just may not get any or many sweet potatoes from the vines. If harvesting sweet potatoes is the goal, then at this late date you should purchase started slips from many online vendors.

Sweet potatoes like sandy soil and warm temperatures. Since we have sandy, sandy soil and hot summers, I’m looking forward to a good harvest come fall. Happy gardening!

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Follow us on Facebook

If you’re on Facebook, you can now become a fan of Sunstone Herb Farm. We created a page on Facebook so that we can quickly share daily goings on here at the farm and easily post videos and photos. Enjoy!

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Urban Homesteading at Sunstone

John takes spent hay from goat pen for sheet mulching new garden beds.

Friends, it’s time to give you an update on what we’re doing here at Sunstone since moving to New Mexico last fall.

Our intention was to live rural with larger acreage as we did in New York, but after much thought, we decided to explore the urban homesteading model, settling just 11 miles outside of the city of Albuquerque in the historically agrarian South Valley.

Instead of a 100 or 20 or 5 acres, we landed on 1.5 acres in the fertile Rio Grande Valley. This is a far cry from the greenbelt we once called home, but already our smallholding has the same peaceful feel of our farmstead in the Catskills.

The urban homesteading model is one that we are excited about exploring and encourage others to experiment and learn with us. With 98% of the US population living off-farm, one of the ways to really increase local farms, local foods and local economies is for people to start their own urban jungle of fruit trees, vegetables, and healing herbs. We can’t all go “back to the land,” but we can each do our part to create greenbelts of our cities.

Some of the projects we will blog about after our period of “long and thoughtful observation” are sheet-mulching, planning an urban farmstead, harvesting rainwater and creating micro-pastures and edible fences for our goats.

To see what one enterprising family is doing with their urban homestead, check out the inspiring Path to Freedom website. Si se puede! – Jen

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Basil, Garlic and Walnut Goat Cheese

One of my favorite recipes for herbed goat cheese I learned from a friend I knew in San Francisco. He was a chef and explained the recipe is those vague chefs like terms, just add a bit of this and a bit of that. At the time, I still needed recipes to follow, though now I’ve graduated to the bit of this, bit of that cooking school.

Basil, Garlic & Walnut Goat Cheese

1. Toast approximately 1/2 cup walnuts (I generally toast a lot more and then add extra nuts to cheese or save for snacking). When cool, chop. Set aside.

2. If using store-bought chevre, let cheese come to room temperature. Blend 8oz of cheese in a small bowl till smooth and soft. Add handful basil, finely chopped. Add one or two minced or crushed cloves of garlic, depending on how garlicky you like your food. If you’re not a fan of garlic, mince the garlic and use a small clove. Add the walnuts to the cheese. Adjust seasonings to taste. Sometimes I sprinkly finely chopped walnuts over the top of the cheese before serving.

This cheese is always a big hit. Caveat: I never measure amounts, and I usually make 2 pounds at a time with this cheese (this is based on the amount of milk my goatie girls produce on a daily basis) so take the recipe amounts with a grain of salt. -Jen

Thanks, Desi!

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Making Goat Cheese

Making your own goat cheese at home is simple. Chevre, queso fresco, Neufchatel, farmer’s cheese are all varieties of the same type of fresh soft cheese (though Neufchatel is traditionally made with cow milk). If you can’t get fresh raw goat milk, then I suggest using cow milk, as store-bought goat milk has been pasteurized and is usually “goaty.” Fresh raw goat milk has a clean sweet taste like cow milk (only better). A fresh soft cheese made from cow milk will be much more bland than goat milk but you can dress it up with herbs.

I usually make cheese with 1 1/2 gallons to 2 gallons of milk because that is what I get from a day’s milking right now. You can make smaller amounts with say half gallon, just adjust the amount of culture and rennet you use. For reference, a gallon of milk will make approximately 1.5 to 2 pounds of fresh cheese, depending on the animals stage in lactation (has to do with milk solids vs. water in the milk).

Step 1. Gather your milk. Only use clean fresh milk. I don’t like drinking pasteurized or homogenized milk, but you can use this kind of milk. Just make sure it is as fresh as possible.

Step 2. Sterilize your cheese pot. Using large stainless steel or enameled pot (no aluminum please), place about a half inch of water in the pot. Bring to a boil, covered. Let boil/simmer for about 5 minutes. The steam will sterilize the pot. I pour the boiled water over my whisk to “sterilize” it, then place the clean whisk in a glass jar so it doesn’t get recontaminated.

Heating Goat Milk

Step 3. Pour the milk in the pot. If you’re using fresh milk straight from the goat or cow, you will not need to heat the milk; it should be at about 68 degrees. Milk comes out of the goat at about 90 degrees, so by the time you’ve strained the milk, and gotten around to cheese making, it should have cooled down a bit. If you’re using milk that has been refrigerated, then heat the milk gently until it is about 68 degrees. I don’t get real specific with this. Just warm it slightly. I don’t pasteurize milk for making soft cheese, though many recipes will have you scald the milk.

Step 4. Once the milk is warmed, whisk in 1/4 cup buttermilk. You can also use mail-order chevre cultures at this stage. I never do this because buttermilk works just fine. The purchased cultures are costly over time, but they make give you a sharper “chevre” flavor, where this recipe will produce a milder soft cheese.

Step 5. Add the rennet. You have two choices here:

1) Use the inexpensive sort of easy to find Junket Rennet tablets. Junket rennet won’t actually be that easy to find in an urban grocery store, but ask the store manager, they’ll probably order it for you. Stores in rural settings will be more likely to carry junket rennet tablets. You can also order them online. Some cheesemakers are very particular about not using junket rennet, but really, it works just fine for a simple cheese, is inexpensive and lasts for years. If you’re using junket, use a half tablet dissolved in lukewarm water. Stir into the milk (don’t overstir).

2) Use vegetable or animal-based rennet (traditional cheese making used animal rennet which was a piece of a sheep or calf stomach lining -the enzymes found here are essential for making the curd. Although you can make vinegar cheeses or cheeses using other substances to curd the milk besides rennet). You will need to buy rennet from a cheese making supply or you may be lucky to find some at your local co-op. I ordered some vegetable rennet years ago from our local co-op, but haven’t seen it lately. If using liquid vegetable rennet add two to three drops to the milk and give a quick brief stir. If using animal-based rennet, then add two drops to a quarter cup water, then use two tablespoons of the water -briefly stir into the cultured milk.

Step 6. Cover the renneted and cultured milk and let sit for approximately 24 hours. Cooler temperatures may require longer time to set. Higher temperatures will make the curd set faster. For example, if you leave the milk on your stove, and bake something in the oven, the milk will likely overheat, set curd too fast and become drier in texture. Better to leave the milk to curd on a counter.

When the milk has set, a fine layer of whey will appear over the curd. The longer you let the curd set, the more whey will appear, till your curd is half the size usually floating at the bottom or top of the whey. Don’t let this happen. Try to cut it when there is just a quarter inch to half inch of whey on top.

To cut the curd, take a straight spatula or knife and cut straight down from the top of the curd to the bottom (hitting the bottom of the pot). Cut parallel lines from one side to the other, about 1/2 inch apart. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Then rotate the pot, and make the same cuts perpendicular to the first, from one side of the pot to the other. Then take a stainless steel strainer spoon and scoop out cubes of curd, about a 1/2 inch layer at a time.

Straining Cheese Through Cloth

Set colander in the sink (over your pot if you want to collect the whey). Put a flour sack cloth/dish towel in the colander. You can use real cheese cloth (not the webby stuff you buy in the craft store), or an old pillow case, or even an old clean t-shirt. Scoop the curds into the cheesecloth/colander. When finished, I usually let it drain for a half hour or so to make the bulk of curd easier to handle, but you can tie up the curd right away.

Tie two edges of the towel together. Using a wooden spoon or other strong straight implement (not a chopstick), tie the other ends over the stick and knot them. You will be able to rest the stick between two cabinet knobs or find some other method in your kitchen or fridge to hang the cheese.

Hanging Cheese to Drain

I hang the cheese usually overnight. If it is very hot out, I will put it in the fridge after 6 hours or so. The curd is ready when the whey stops dripping. I usually let the cheese age and further drip whey out in the fridge for a day or so. This makes a firmer cheese that I prefer. At this stage, I remove the cheese from the cloth and blend with salt, about a teaspoon or two per pound of cheese according to your taste. I generally put less salt and more herbs. The resulting cheese will keep, covered in a glass container or packed in olive oil, for about a month in the refrigerator. You can also rewrap the cheese to further drain whey and make an even firmer cheese. Enjoy!

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