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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Sunstone Goes to New Mexico!

Yes, it’s true. We’ve moved to the Land of Enchantment. Not to worry, we’ll continue doing our same Sunstone goodness here in a sunnier clime. We saved seeds and harvested overtime during the summer to keep us in stock while we design and plant our new gardens. For those of you with fond memories of our home and gardens, I’m happy to report that the homestead has loving new owners.

Can herbs grow in New Mexico? I’ve been asked. Yes! And they grow beautifully here. It’s only about 10 degrees warmer here than in New York. The difference is that it is almost always sunny here, and arid. The aridity makes drying herbs here much easier, without needing any supplemental heat. There will likely be a few herbs that we will not be able to grow here. But on the plus side there are many herbs that we will be able to grow for the first time or grow more easily, like pomegranates (ok, that’s a fruit), passionflower and vitex. And Rosemary grows outside all year round here, as do some varieties of fig! We will continue to grow and harvest the herbs for our products with joy and gratitude.

Why New Mexico? We came out to visit friends early in the year and fell in love with the big sunny blue skies, the friendly people and dry weather. We came back and said, hey, why not have an adventure! Jen is from the west coast originally and is glad to be closer to her family. Tree is having her first big adventure away from the east coast.

We are still getting settled, but are making friends and enjoying the community here. All the animals love their new home and sunny weather. Yes! We brought the goats and the chickens and dogs and cats. How could we leave cute Betty, Desi the princess and Tosca the queen?

Jen is taking a Permaculture Design Certificate course with Scott Pittman of the Permaculture Drylands Institute to jumpstart that learning curve of growing in the southwest. Jen and Tree have also become active in Sanchez Farm, a not for profit community farm project of La Plazita Institute, a wonderful organization in the South Valley. More on that in another blog.

We will miss all of our friends and community in New York but instead of feeling like we are losing friends or community, we feel like we’re bringing all those connections with us to New Mexico, to join our ever-increasing web of friends committed to living lightly on the earth. Thanks to so many of you for your well wishes. We look forward to seeing you out here in the magical southwest.

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About Us

In the Fall of 2007 Jen, the herbalist behind sunstoneherbs.com, and Tree, goat-herder and field hand relocated from our 21-acre farmstead in New York to the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico. We raise goats and chickens, sell eggs, herbal products, some vegetables, and other sundries, as well as offer herbal consultations and organize educational workshops… all part of our effort to foster sustainable relationships with the earth. We are excited about our chance to design new herb gardens in this beautiful sunny state.

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