Monday, December 30, 2013

Respect for Fred's barbecue

One of my Christmas presents this year:
This is the house brand from our local BBQ enthusiast.  He is a very hard-working and passionate entrepreneur that specializes in everything and anything that can be grilled and, of course, musical instruments!  If you are ever in the Reading area, you have to check this store out.  It is one of our proudest institutions.  Check it out at

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Vegan Mac and cheese, dairy-free soy-free nut-free, made with pumpkin!

Ok so you'll now think I'm a huge tree-hugger, but I assure you I'm not. I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian, but I will eat and enjoy just about anything.  This recipe is several years in the making, and arose out of my need to use home-grown produce and my wife's and children's allergen needs.  I assure you it is delicious if not just like the real thing, much better for you and a great use for that frozen squash.  If you don't have nutritional yeast, it's still good, but the yeast gives it a nice cheesy flavor.  If you do stock a full line of vegan dairy foods like we do, I recommend adding some vegan provolone, cream cheese, cheddar, or other creamy substitutes.  If you are not strictly vegetarian or vegan, you might add a chicken bullion cube for even better flavor. Here you go:

2 Tablespoons olive oil or Earth Balance spread
2 Tablespoons flour
1-2 cups squash or pumpkin puree (I use neck, fairytale, cushaw, but any will do)
1 cup milk (rice, coconut, soy or regular depending on your needs)
2 Tablespoons nutritional yeast or brewers yeast
1 clove garlic (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 small onion minced (or 1 Tablespoon dried)
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground chile powder (I use ancho or guajillo)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil over medium heat.  If using fresh onion/garlic, saute briefly then add flour.  Stir for a few minutes to form a roux, then slowly add pumpkin and milk, stirring constantly until incorporated and thick.  Bring to a boil, then stir in remaining ingredients and reduce heat.  Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  For the creamiest texture, pour into a blender and puree for a minute or two.  Pour over your favorite pasta and enjoy, and don't feel guilty about eating a pound of mac n cheese!

Another option:  Add 1 cup or so of cooked cauliflower into the mixture before pureeing.  Then you can skip the roux because the cauliflower will make it very thick.  It will change the flavor considerably and will add a ton of nutrition to your mac!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A yeast starter is very easy! Here are the simple steps:

I always avoided a yeast starter because it sounded complicated.  It's not.  Here is yeast starting for dummies.

Make your starter about a day before brewing.  Anywhere from 12 to 36 hours should be good.

Water to DME ratio is 1 gallon to 1 pound.  A typical 5 gallon batch would use 1/2 pound dry extract and 1/2 gallon water.  Any dry malt extract will do.

1. Boil water with malt extract for 15 minutes.
2. Cool in a bath of ice water to appropriate yeast-pitching temp.
3. Pitch yeast.
4. Pour mixture into a flask or growler and attach air lock.
5. Store at room temperature for approx. 24 hours or until you are ready to brew.


Supplies needed:

Glass container (flask or growler work great)
Rubber stopper that fits the glass container
1/2 lb dme (makes a 5-gallon batch of beer)
your choice of yeast (a small packet will work since you are growing it in the starter)

Are you ready to try an all-grain lager?

Here is a recipe I just came up with.  It came out crisp and clean, with a beautiful amber color and that classic corn flavor that the big guys have.  I was trying to clone my favorite large brewery, our local Yuengling lager.  It came pretty darn close.

American Lager (12 gallon all-grain)
14 lb Briess 6-row
6lb corn grits (I used cannisters of Quaker grits from the supermarket)
2lb Weyerman Caramunich
1 lb Weyerman Cararoma
2 lb dextrose
2oz cascade 60 minute
1oz cascade 15 min
1oz cascade 5 min
Wyeast 2035 American lager
1 gal. Yeast starter, split into two 1/2 gal growlers with air locks.


Step mash:  30 minutes at 122, 45 minutes at 156.

Cook your grits in a large pot for a minimum of 30 minutes.  Add a little extra water than what the recipe on the grits container calls for, but not too much.  My mash tun cooler is a 40 qt, so a recipe this size maxes it out.  I have to be very careful with how much water I add or I can easily overflow it when I am making temp corrections.

Getting the temperature right with a big pot of hot cereal is tricky.  I would say cool your grits to 130 before adding to the mash tun.  If you don't cool the grits ( I never feel like waiting), add them to your mash tun, then begin adding cool water until it cools to about 130, then stir in the 6-row and add water at 130 (sparingly) until the grist is wet and you have a temp of 122. Do not add too much water during this step! You will need to add more soon. Also be careful not to exceed 150 degrees at any stage. Let rest for 30 min.

At the end of the protein rest, add 200 degree water until a temp of 156 is reached.  Your total water used (including water used to make grits) should be a minimum of 5 gallons in order to ensure good sugar conversion. I like to add 6 gallons so that it stirs more easily.  Mash for 45 min or until litmus comes out clean. 

Sparge using preferred method with 170 degree water until a total of 14-15 gallons is reached in your boil pot.  Boil wort, adding hops as scheduled above, then cool to 70 and strain into fermenter(s).  Primary yeild should be around 13 gallons. Pitch yeast and ferment for 10 days in cool (50 deg) temps.  Syphon to secondary and lager in cold (35-40 deg) temps for 1 month.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Conclusions on greenhouse growing after 1 full season

Remember that these conclusions are based on plant performance in 100% mushroom soil with late additions of compost and topsoil.

Squash - grew well vertically on lines but became a breeding ground for stink bugs.
Peppers, green and chile - Outstanding performance, constant harvest from June to present.
Tomatoes - Early harvest (June 12) but very thin plants and just a few small fruit.  I suspect      undernourishment.  Perhaps a variety more suited for greenhouse production.
Malabar Spinach - Out of control!  With just a small bed of mushroom media and minimal daily watering,  loved the heat and grew right through the roof.
Sweet potatoes - Like the malabar spinach, I had to be careful to train the vines away from the plastic  glazing and soft membrane material, otherwise it would push right through.  Vines trained vertically, 2-3 lb potatoes produced.
Bonsai, tropicals and evergreens - The humidity of the greenhouse kept the soil moist with less watering.  Excellent growth.
Melons - The best I've had so far, also trained vertically, but I suspect more water and compost would grow  them huge!
Garlic - planted last fall, grew slowly all winter and had full-sized bulbs very early in Spring.
Lettuce - Did not like mushroom media. Better outside.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Update on root cellar lagering cave

As outside temps continue to drop, the root cellar seems to be doing well.  It is staying right in the middle of the difference between indoor temp and outdoor temp.  For example, my basement is 63 and yesterday's average temp was 46.  The root cellar sat around 53.  Hopefully, as I continue to insulate and as winter approaches, I can achieve some respectable lagering temperatures.

A note on brewing with fresh hops: caution!

A few posts back, I reported on adding fresh-picked green hops from my vines to a porter or black ipa.  I had read that you need to use a lot of fresh hops to achieve desired bitterness so I added a gallon of fresh hops to my 13 gallon batch of beer.  This proved to be WAY too bitter!  I don't really know how to measure IBU's but compared to other known brews it came out at a 70 or 80.  It was nearly undrinkable, but luckily I'm not too picky with my beer!  It just goes to show that a lot of the "expert" info on the web is just theory (which made sense at the time) but not true in my experience.

Next year, I will be adding 1/2 gallon for 60 minutes, then a cup or two during the last five minutes for flavor and aroma.

You may ask why I am not weighing my hops, especially since all recipes call for certain measured weights of hops in ounces.  These suggested weights are for dried hops pellets or whole flowers, and does not account for the water weight of the "wet" fresh hops that I am using.

Greenhouse sweet potatoes harvested

I looked back at my previous posts, and these potatoes were growing in the greenhouse beds for just over 5 months. During the first few months they were competing for light with many other plants, but after I cleared them out they were free to run up the strings.
 A single bed produced about 10 pounds of sweet potatoes.  The skins have no pitting and are flawless.  The mushroom media has proven to be good for growing sweets.  Some of them are very impressive in size, about as big as a kids nerf football.  If they taste the same as the others I have already picked and eaten, they will require very little sugar or butter.

I still have 1 bed growing, and I will let them go until the leaves all die off.

Strawberries planted

I decided to dedicate a garden bed to strawberries.  It was a tough decision to install a perennial because indoor growing space is prime real estate, but I figured that since they shoot out so much I can always move them if I want to.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The growing power of a greenhouse in summer

Many people seem to have the opinion that greenhouses are for starting plants in the spring but not much else.  I watch farmers in my county as they let acres of greenhouse and hoop house space go to waste as soon as summer hits.  In a place where people claim to get the most out of every inch of farmland, I can't help but think that I could produce so much more if I had one of those farms.

Even the Rodale Institute lets its greenhouses go fallow in the summer.  Just silly

My greenhouse doesn't just extend the growing season early in Spring, it is great for growing heat-loving plants that wouldn't ordinarily last so long in my climate.  Here it is October and all the hot-weather plants are still thriving.

  • Melons grow faster and heavier without the use of black plastic mulch.
  • Malabar spinach is, of course, taking over.
  • Bonsai and tropicals love the humidity and don't dry out so fast.
  • Sweet potatoes are out of control and are perfectly suited for 90+ degrees of greenhouse.
  • I just started round 2 of tomatoes.  They are 18" high and flowering.

Peppers benefit from the warm soil and heat of summer. They start producing earlier and continue to grow into little trees.  My single remaining bell pepper has been producing since June.  When it was about 3 feet tall, I chopped it down to a few small twigs to allow more light in, and they grew back.  This one plant currently has 15 bell peppers dangling from it.  As, an experiment, I allowed a Fish pepper plant to grow uninhibited except a few guide strings.  It is now a 3x3 bush and has produced about 3 gallons of pods in a single season!
This is 2 gallons of pods from a single pepper plant!

Sweet potato vines being trained up the lines.

A single bell pepper plant continues to produce without taking up much space. 

Malabar spinach loves this environment!  It's proving to be quite invasive, growing up through the inner layer of plastic and out the vents to the outside! 

The two reapers have produced about  a gallon of pods and show little sign of stopping soon!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sweet potatoes!

These are not from the greenhouse, they came from the outside garden

Ok, so I couldn't stand it any longer and I just had to dig them up, even though the sources I read said to wait until as close to frost as possible.  I got a four gallon bucket full.  Many are quite small, but a good number are respectable to large in size.  They are delicious.  I read that you should cure them for several days in 85 degree temps and 85% humidity before cold storage.  I have them spread out on my increasingly versatile compost screen in the greenhouse that is creating the perfect environment.

You can sort of see that this variety has a pinkish color to the skin.  The inside is a deep orange and the flesh has a firmer texture when fresh-picked then cooked.

The only negative is that the skins are deeply pitted on nearly all of them.  I suspect this is from the very firm and rocky soil that they were growing in.  I have read that sweets do well in sand (like many root vegetables) and that's why they are popular in the South Atlantic region.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The hops are dry

I weighed them today and determined that my total harvest for this year is a whopping 10 oz. of dried hops.  Not bad considering the past 5 years have yielded zero ounces.  I expect my vines to be twice the volume next year so I'll get a pound if I'm lucky.  They took about three hours to pick and clean out the leaves.  I don't have any plans to be a hops farmer, but it is nice saying I am making beer with my own home-grown hops.

Next is to grow 25 pounds of barley and malt it!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Drying home-grown hops

So my first-year vines produced pretty well this year.  It was a pretty great summer with all the rain and cool temps.  I had 3 vines and got nearly 5 gallons, including what I used in my brew today.

Here's what I have left:

I am using my compost screen to dry them.  The limited info I found said to stir them a couple times over 2-3 days, depending on conditions. We should have some nice dry weather for a while, and not too hot, so hopefully they will dry out nicely without falling apart or getting moldy.  Fingers crossed! 

I did some wet-hopping today

Fresh-picked hops, straight from the vine and into the wort!  I added about a gallon (didn't weigh it and it can't really compare to dried weight anyway) at the beginning of the boil for bittering.
I didn't think they would do much to the wort, but I tasted it afterward and it might be TOO bitter!  I hope I didn't ruin 13 gallons of IPA.  Only time will tell...

Saturday, September 7, 2013

I am now building a basement root cellar and lagering cave

I needed to repair this leaky window and I have the space, so I figured I would get started on some cold storage.  I know I will probably  soon need more, but a 4x4 footprint fits my budget.  When all is done, I figure that it should cost me around $150.

Here is the old basement window that I plan to use for air exchange.

 I pulled out the old cover and added this plywood with 2 four-inch holes.

I am planning to use the back wall as part of the structure. You can see that I will need to work around the sewer pipe. 

1st wall. 

 You can see that I have to also work around some low-hanging radiant pipes.

Two galvanized stove pipes fitted with some 1/2" screen. 

I probably should have left a bit more overhang so I could connect the tubes more easily.  Oh well, it will work.
 The door frame will sit up off the floor about 18" for better insulation.

Here are all the shelves I plan to have.

Rather than fit a roof with plywood, I decided to just use rigid insulation.

Here is my simple design for an air exchange system.

Just a sliding piece of plywood...

That controls the size of the exchange holes pretty nicely.

And here it is installed.  The idea is to allow cold air in the right side, into the tube and fill the bottom of the cellar.  The left side will allow the warmer air on top to escape.  

And here is the door installed.

I added a few stops to add pressure for a tighter seal.

The only thing it still needs is another can of spray foam and some thermometers.  Fingers crossed!

Peppers are filling my house!

I get a bucket like this every couple of days.  What a great year for peppers!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Some Carolina Reaper photos

I have removed the squash from the greenhouse.

The Tatume squash performed great, producing early and consistently throughout the summer, but they were a breeding ground for stinkbugs.  I got them out of there as soon as I noticed the infestation. Now all that remains hanging on the trellising system is one watermelon. The greenhouse is a lot brighter with the squash gone. Now the sweet potatoes have plenty of room to spread out.

Smoker update

So I gave it a proper test today with a 7 pound pork shoulder.  I started using full-sized cordwood that I purchased locally from a nice guy who separated the hickory out from the other hardwoods.

I started with charcoal to get a nice bed of coals right from the beginning, then started throwing on logs.  The firebox works well, choking the fire just enough for a nice long burn and good smoke.

And boy does it smoke!

This is a birthday present from my darling wife.  Not pictured is a remote receiver that I keep in my pocket. The remote has alarms that can be set when the smoker gets too hot or too cold and for when the meat is done.  This thing is a must-have in my opinion for a "primitive" system like mine.

Here are the two probes.  One clips to the grill and the other goes into the meat.  Its nice because you just leave it in the whole time and you don't have to keep poking holes in the meat.

Another addition is my "mop" solution in the spray bottle. Just some cider vinegar, water, sugar and salt. I also keep a pitcher of water to replenish the water pan.

 Conclusions:  After a full 7 hours at 225 the internal temp had reached 165.  I was going for 190, but dinnertime was fast approaching, so I pulled the water from the pan to raise the BBQ temp to 275 for the final hour and managed to get the meat to 170.  I still need to find a happy medium to keep the smokebox at at around 250.  I don't know if you can see it in the picture, but there is a nice thick smoke ring and some beautiful spicy bark.  Most of the fat cap had melted off, leaving some fairly lean cuts which pulled apart  with little trouble.  

By the way, Koestritzer Schwartzbier is the best I've ever tasted.  They call it the black beer with the blonde soul!
Pulled pork sandwiches tonight, and carnitas tomorrow.  Maybe I'll finish it off with some ancho peppers stuffed with pork and rice!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The goldfish are eating my water lilies! Please help

So I grabbed some lily pads from a friend's pond to see how they would do in my greenhouse pond.  They seem to be OK except that the new shoots and leaves are being annihilated by my goldfish.  Can anybody explain this?

You can see in the center is a young reddish leaf, or rather what is left of one.

 And here is an older leaves (bottom) with bite marks.  They have also killed all but the largest hyacinth by devouring all the roots.

A great summer salad recipe for malabar spinach

My malabar is climbing out of control!  I have been hanging empty baskets from the ceiling to give it something to hold onto. The one in the back is nearly covered.  Maybe next year I will develop a better trellis so that I can see its fullest potential!

Here is a great way to celebrate the beginning of the harvest season!

Grilled peach and malabar spinach salad:
1 peach, sliced and grilled lightly on each side
fresh sweet red pepper, sliced
1 bunch whole malabar spinach leaves, 2-3 inches in size
1/2 cup cottage cheese, feta, or parmesan (or all three!)
balsamic vinaigrette 

Cleaning out the greenhouse for fall planting!

You can see to the right that I have cleaned out two of the raised beds.  They were tomatoes and cantaloupes. After removing the old plants I started shoveling in some fresh new compost.

With the most of the vines cleared out of the beds in the south southwest side, the new seedlings should be shaded with indirect light in the morning but should get some good light in the afternoon.

Looking at the front bed, there is a good 5 inches of compost on top.  The mushroom compost shrank and compacted considerably over the season.  

Hot Sauce! A good recipe for you:

Another use for the smoker:
First I split the peppers then placed them face down on the rack.  I think I left them smoking for 2 hours.
 Sorry for the blur in the the picture.  That's caused by the smoke.

For this batch I used a blend of cayenne, corne de chevre, fish, hinklehatz, and hungarian black.

Here is my base recipe that I use for all my hot sauces:

3 cups peppers, halved, stemmed and seeded
1 cup water
1tsp salt
   Cook for 30 minutes over medium heat, then place in blender and puree.  Return to saucepan, pressing          mixture through a fine strainer and add
1/2 cup white vinegar
1tsp salt
  Cook on medium-low until desired thickness is reached.

Another way of processing tomatoes with FLAVOR

Here they are in the smoker.  I stacked them on top of each other so they would fit.  It doesn't take long for the skins to peel back, but I left them in for hours to see what would happen.  They held together until I touched them then they collapsed.  I had just enough time to drop them into a big pot, so I was able to save all the juice.  In fact, that's all I got.  They were so broken down that I just squeezed them over a strainer and froze the juice.  What you see here produced about a gallon.  What a smokey flavor though!