Jan 11, 2013

Learn to Make Cheese: Why & How

For a couple of years now, I've wanted to learn to make cheese. This year, I'm actually going to do it - so you can expect to see more posts on cheese making.

Why would you want to make your own cheese?

* To save money
* To serve your family more wholesome, healthy food
* To just know how

To Save Money
Dairy is expensive! And prices just seem to go up and up and up. It's true cheese making requires a few store bought supplies (like rennet - an important ingredient, and one most people can't or won't make at home). You will even need to buy milk, unless you are lucky enough to have a goat or cow for fresh milk. But from what I've read over the past few years, even after buying these supplies, you will save money. (I'll examine how much money I've saved as I make various cheese and dairy products, being sure to share my findings here.)

To Serve Healthier Food
Have you looked at the ingredient list of the average cheese or dairy product? Here's the ingredient list from some cottage cheese I just bought:

I guarantee you home made cottage cheese contains only milk, calcium, a starter, and rennet. No carbon dioxide, no guar, locust bean, or xanthan gum, no potassium sorbate preservative, no polysorbate 80...

To Just Know How
Let's face it; it's just plain smart to know how to make foods the old fashioned way. It doesn't mean you have to make it from scratch all the time, but it opens up your options when grocery store food gets too expensive.

Cheese Making: Where to Start
Mozzarella, from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.
The first step toward becoming a cheesemaker is to find a really good book on the topic. I've read a lot of these books and believe Ricki Carroll's Home Cheese Making is by far the best. It's in it's third edition (originally published in 1982), is written clearly, and is organized well. In it, you'll learn not only how to make soft and hard cheeses, but other dairy products, including yogurt (which is so easy to make!), butter, and buttermilk.

For beginners, mozzerella is generally considered the easiest cheese to make. Carroll also recommends other soft cheeses like ricotta, Frommage Blanc, and Queso Blanco before moving on to hard cheeses like Cheddar.

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised how easy it is to get the supplies you need. You will probably have to order most of them from a cheesemaking supply site like New England Cheesemaking (owned by Carroll) or The Grape and Grainery. To get what I needed for my first simple projects of mozzerella and cottage cheese, I am spending about $50 - and remember, these supplies will last many projects.

Assuming you're making mozzerella, for example, you'd need:

Citric acid
Lipase powder
Cheese salt (optional)
Dairy themometer 
Butter muslin

A curd scoop and curd knife are handy, but not absolutely essential.

Home Cheese Making explains exactly what these ingredients are and how to use them. I highly recommend you get your hands on the book before you purchase any supplies, or you may end up purchasing something you don't need.

Finally, I should note you'll probably run across cheese making kits that have "everything needed" to make a certain kind of cheese. For example, New England Cheesemaking's Mozzarella and Ricotta Kit says it will make 30 batches of mozzarella; the kit is under $25. This is a savings of about $2.30 over purchasing the items in the kit separately. The kit also contains an instruction booklet.

What kind of cheese or dairy product would you like to learn to make?

Jan 9, 2013

Teaching Children Fantasy vs. Reality

Maria Montessori, creator of the now-famous Montessori teaching method, believed children should only be exposed to nonfiction books. She felt reading fiction only confused children - and taught them not to trust adults. While I would never prevent my children from listening to or reading fiction (since it's often a fun and effective way to teach facts and morals), I understand where Montessori was coming from.

As Christian parents, we need to be mindful to help our child wade through the mix of real and unreal they encounter every day: The Easter Bunny is pretend, Jesus is not. It's confusing stuff! 

Here's how I tackle this difficulty in our home:

1. From the moment I started telling or reading stories to my children, I labeled the story pretend or real. For example, whenever I pick up a storybook Bible to read to my kids, I say something like, "Now we're going to read some true stories about Jesus."

When children are quite young, it doesn't matter if they don't know the difference between "true" and "pretend." Now and then, I explain this to them briefly, but never expect them to fully comprehend. Instead, I just focus on labeling the story appropriately.

When we're done with the story, I also sometimes label it again: "Wasn't that a neat story about Jesus? And it's all true!"

2. I'm not afraid to have conversations about what's real and what's pretend. I'm always honest. If my child asks if the Tooth Fairy is real, I smile and say gently, "The Tooth Fairy is pretend. But it's fun to pretend, isn't it? Who do you think really puts coins under your pillow? What do you think the Tooth Fairy does with all that money?"

3. I taught my children, right from the start, about common childhood fantasy characters. For example, both my children knew from the time they were babies that Santa Clause is pretend. We read books about the man who inspired the myth of Santa (St. Nicholas) and we always said, "Santa is just for fun. He's pretend." This is NO WAY reduced the wonder and joy of Christmas for my children! Both my kids sit on Santa's lap. Both of them talk about how he leaves gifts in their stockings. Neither child finds this confusing - although my 4 year old sometimes forgets Santa is pretend. And that's okay! Young children have impressive powers of fantasy; God made them that way for a reason. But the Bible teaches that lying is sinful - so I simply won't lie to my kids. When my son is a bit older, he will know the fact that Santa is pretend - and will be able to combine it with a mature understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality.

By the time your child is around 7 years of age, he or she will usually have a good grasp on what is real and what is not. This not only is an important life skill, but it deepens your child's spiritual life. I can talk to my kids about angels - or God - never fearing they believe either are pretend.

I know many modern parents fear they are somehow robbing their kids of childhood by being honest about these things - but I repeat: My children's world is packed full of wonder, including fun things like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Kids, you see, have much stronger powers of pretend than their parents. Just the way God intended.

Jan 7, 2013

The Vegetable Garden: Location, Location, Location

Vegetable gardens don't need to be huge.
With the surge of interest in victory gardens, ripping up lawns, homesteading, and self sufficiency, you'll find plenty of Internet ideas for creative vegetable garden spaces. But are they practical? Often, the answer is "no." Before you go to all the work to prepare a garden bed, it makes sense to think through what a vegetable bed needs and whether or not certain locations are practical for your family.

What a Vegetable Bed Needs:

1. Lots of sun. At least 6 hours a day is required if you want a productive garden.

2. Decent soil. If your soil isn't ideal, however, there are ways to get around that. (Read this post for more information.)

3. Water. The garden will need easy access to a faucet or other water source. Even if you get a considerable amount of rain during the summer, raised beds and container gardens will probably need more water than what they get naturally. And if there's a drought, a faucet will save your garden.

Possible Locations:

The Backyard
Front yard gardens don't work for everyone.
Backyards are the traditional spot for family vegetable gardens - and for good reason. If the garden gets messy, you needn't worry about how your home looks or whether you are displeasing your neighbors. However, not everyone has sun in their back yard.

If you have children, you'll also want to carefully consider their outdoor play area. If your front yard is fenced and large enough for the children to run around, then there's no reason not to take up part (or all) of the backyard. But don't use up your yard space, expecting to rely on the park as a place for children to run free; children who can play in their own yards get more outdoor time than those who must wait to go to the park. And remember: Children in the midst of play are often forgetful. No one wants their kids trampling freshly-planted seedlings while they play kick-ball, for example.

Other things to consider:

 * Getting rid of little used play equipment can free up a lot of space.

* It may be tempting set aside shady areas for kid-play, while using up sunny spots for gardening. Do consider that your children will long to play in the sun, too.

If your children are quite young, consider some sort of barrier to protect the back yard garden. This could be a fence - although it’s important to remember a fence will cast shade onto the garden. Or it could be a bit of decorative metal lawn edging, there only to remind the kids where the barrier is.

Espalier fruit trees grow flat against walls or fences.
The Front Yard
It's very common to see homesteading blogs, books, and videos touting the benefits of front yard veggie beds. Lawns use too much water and are useless, they say. But before you use a sunny front yard for your vegetable garden, consider two things:

1. Is there plenty of open (ideally, grassy) space for the children to play elsewhere?
2. Will your front yard garden be subject to theft?

If you can entirely fence in your front yard, then you won't have too worry too much about theft, but in many urban and suburban locations, tall fences are not allowed in front yards.

In my experience, front yard gardens (especially those close to the sidewalk) invite stealing - and few of us want to work hard on a garden only to have someone steal the fruits of our labor.

The Side Yard
If you have a side yard that gets plenty of sun, count yourself fortunate. Often, side yards are wasted space, so putting a sunny side yard to use for growing food is an excellent improvement!

Attach planters to walls, fences, or railings.
Fences and Walls 
If you have sunny fences or walls anywhere in your yard, consider them prime planting areas, no matter how narrow the space may be. Espalier fruit trees (which are carefully pruned so they grow flat against a wall or fence) are the traditional way to use up this space, but vines are also a good choice. You can even make or buy planters that hang flat against the fence or wall (or attach to the railings of a deck or balcony); these are most appropriate for plants with shallow roots, like herbs.

A Mixture
For many families, use of the back, side, and front yard is the best option. For example, we have our main vegetable bed in the backyard. It's not huge; there is still plenty of space for children to play - and for chickens to scratch. Our side yards are both too shady to grow food, but I do maintain a lovely dandelion crop there. (Don't laugh! We eat dandelion greens in the spring and I harvest some of the roots year round for use as medicine.)

We have a front lawn because we know from past experiences (and our neighbor's experiences) that if we plant a veggie bed there, most of our food will be stolen. However, I do have some less obvious edibles in the front yard - mostly right near the house where it would take some guts to come and steal them.
Green roofs are neat looking, but not necessarily practical.

A Note on Rooftop Gardens
Urban homesteading blogs and magazines frequently endorse rooftop gardens, but such an undertaking requires a considerable amount of planning and money. Before you take any other steps toward creating a rooftop garden, check with your city and county to make sure they are legal in your vicinity. Because a poorly done green roof can cause major damage to buildings (possibly even causing the roof to collapse), many local governments that do allow them have very strict rules on their construction.

You'll also need a licensed contractor to inspect your building to ensure it can physically support a rooftop garden. A contractor or landscaper with experience working on rooftop gardens is a real boon, because he or she can also suggest what sort of materials would work best with your current building. For example, you might need windbreaks, even if you wouldn't need them for a garden in the ground. In all cases, a contractor will want to add as little weight to the roof as possible; for example, he or she might suggest using foam instead of pebbles.

Plans or kit for this green roof hen house are available at greenroofchickencoop.com.
Another important consideration is how quickly the rooftop garden will dry out and whether it will be easy to water. Gardens on roofs may get more sun than those on the ground and usually dry out more quickly because the soil layer is so thin. A good contractor or landscaper should suggest a practical and easy way to water the garden. 

Finally, remember that rooftop gardens only work for plants with shallow root systems. When it comes to edibles, good choices include most herbs and lettuces.

NOTE: A more viable option for most people is a backyard hen house with a green roof. Most online tutorials for this sort of thing seem questionable to me; I think they will lead to early rot of the hen house roof. That said, a living hen house roof is do-able. Just remember that if the hens can get up to the roof, the plants you grow there are not suitable for human consumption and should be reserved for chicken food.