Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Sunchoke

When we first arrived at the farm, we were determined to grow some Jerusalem Artichokes. We knew them as a delicacy which was rather hard to find in the city, but that was about it. Never did we realize that this was a native plant.

In fact, the Jerusalem Artichoke is also known as the Sunchoke and basically has nothing to do with the Middle East. It is a poor translation of the Italian "Girasole Articiocco" which translates to Sunflower Artichoke.

At first, we tried to get roots of this pant via the Internet. For some reason every site promoting this plant seemed to be out of stock. As a result, we were quite pleased to get some last Fall from a local patron. After learning how well they grow here and doing some research, we ended up seeing this native plant just about everywhere in Niagara. It grows wild on the side roads throughout the country side.

Our first batch of Sunchokes ready for planting
We decided to let Chef have his try with some of the roots and he produced a wonderful cream soup. We then decided to dedicate a raised bed to this amazing plant. The problem is come Spring time, we completely forgot which bed we used and could not find the roots.

Luckily, we also discovered this plant in the back of the old manor. As we were preparing to landscape this year, we decided to take those roots and appoint a special raised bed just for them.

It did not take long for us to find the "lost" roots we had planted the previous Fall. The bed was planted with Squash and the Sunchokes completely and effectively took over the entire space, destroying our Squash vines in the process. So we now have two beds filled to the rims.

The Sunchoke is a species of Sunflower and a beautiful one at that. It will grow well over 6 feet and will carry beautiful yellow daisy-like flowers into the Fall. The stems are thick and very strong.

Blooming Sunchokes
Since some of these plants have already gone to seed and since it is now time to clean some of our raised beds for next year's planting, we decided to tackle the harvesting of some Sunchokes as well as prepare them for the late Fall and Winter months. In fact, with the strong winds coming over the ridge some of these very tall plants are starting to fall over. Their root structure is not very deep.

Sunchokes going to seed
The edible delicacy of the Suchoke is in those roots or tubers of the plant. In fact, they are prolific "multipliers". One tuber will easily generate another dozen in one growing season.

One tuber generates a significant amount of food in a growing season
Although a great and healthy food which was used by both aboriginal and settlers alike, there are a couple of issues associated with the Sunchoke. One of these is its short shelf life.

Once taken out of the ground, the roots will not last long and need to be kept in a cold and very humid environment. They tend to blacken and turn limp.

The best way to store the Sunchoke is basically to keep it in the ground. Since we intend to use this as a source of food this Fall and during the Winter, we prepared our beds by cutting the Sunchokes down to about 12 inches. This will prevent the plants from falling over in the wind, while we will always be able to find them even in the snow.

A Sunchoke bed ready for the Winter
 The Sunchoke root resembles the size and shape of Ginger. Its taste however is mildly sweet and very similar to its namesake the Artichoke. It can be processed very much in the same way as you would potatoes. However, it can also be eaten raw in salads where it has a flavour and consistency similar to that of Water Chestnuts. Because the skin of the Sunchoke tuber is rather thin, it does not necessarily need to be peeled to be enjoyed.

Our first roots we simply processed as we would roasted Potatoes. We brushed clean the Sunchoke roots, cut them into bite size pieces and roasted them with olive oil, Garlic and fresh Thyme.

Sunchokes ready for roasting
One note of caution, you do not want to overcook the roots. They do tend to become "mushy" when overdone.

This brings us to the second problem of the Sunchoke. They contain a lot of inulin.

Inulin is found in many plants and is a zero calorie polysaccharide. Inulin is used by the plant to store energy. It is zero calories simply because our bodies cannot digest it. The result is that it can cause flatulence.

Our bodies can adapt to inulin, but the best way to overcome this problem is to wait a little later in the year to harvest the roots. As the Fall progresses, the plant will be stressed by frost. The more frost it is subjected to, the more the plant will transform this inulin into sugars.

Earlier, we indicated that the best way to store the Sunchoke is in the ground. There is however the possibility to pickle and can Sunchokes. We decided to give this a try as well.

Our recipe is simple. We cut the roots into small (less than 1/2 inch) bite size pieces. We place these overnight in a brine consisting of lemon juice, water and salt. The ratios were 250 ml of lemon juice for 2 litres of water and 1/2 cup of Kosher salt. This prevents the roots from browning.

We then prepared a vinegar solution consisting of 6 cups of cider vinegar, 1 1/2 cup of white wine vinegar, and 1 cup of sugar. To this, we added 3 Tsp of mustard seeds, 2 Tsp of Turmeric, 2 Tsp of Chili fakes and 2 tsps of dry powdered mustard. We also added 3 large Bay leaves and 3 cloves. The whole thing was boiled and brought back down to room temperature.

We then simply canned our Sunchokes with this mixture.

Canned Sunchokes
The result is a great crunchy pickle which seems to be perfect as an accompaniment to Middle Eastern or North African dishes. It can also be used simply as a "munchy" with beer.

For us, the Sunchoke turns out to be a great compliment to our garden. It is a beautiful flowering plant; it is easy to grow and prolific (also requires no weeding); it is a healthy food (a good source of fibre and vitamins while being a great replacement to other high calorie starches); it is delicious and versatile.

We'll end this week with a couple of photos which summarize the progress in our growing dome. We're now able to harvest our first bell peppers and heirloom tomatoes!

Bell Peppers from the Growing Dome
Gorgeous Marizol Gold heirloom tomato

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's already Thanksgiving for us in Canada and we wish all our Canadian readers a wonderful weekend with family and friends.

This week has provided us with beautiful sunny Fall weather and crisp cold nights, turning the foliage into a gorgeous spectacle of colours. However nothing says Thanksgiving like the corn, squashes and pumpkins coming from the local fields.

The local markets are loaded with the colourful harvests of Fall.

One of the best corn available in Pelham comes from Bry-Anne Farms. We may be a bit biased here since Bryan grows some of his corn on our property. However, it has to be the sweetest around and Bryan's philosophy is always to serve his corn as freshly picked as possible so that the sugars have had no opportunity to turn to starch.

Nothing like freshly picked corn!
So for us this week, it was an opportunity to start processing some corn for the upcoming Winter. For the most part we have been freezing it. we cut the kernels from the cobs, blanch them and store them in freezer bags.

This was also a chance to make our first corn relish. To do this we used 8 cups of corn kernels, 8 cups of diced red bell peppers and 4 cups of diced red onions. We simply browned the onions and peppers with 2 Tsp of Kosher salt and then added the corn to cook for another 3-4 minutes.

We added 3 cups of cider vinegar and 2 cups of sugar. We then brought everything to a boil. Spicing is up to taste, however we like to use Turmeric for this relish.

The relish can be thickened with corn starch to get just the right consistency.

Our first corn relish
Making corn relish and packing corn for the freezers generated a lot of cobs. By chance, we stumbled on another recipe  from a time when nothing was wasted: Corn Cob Jelly! We had to try this.

We boiled some of our corn cobs for 1/2 hour and simmered the strained water. For every amount of this water, we added a similar volume of sugar. For 2 qts of water, we also added 12 Tsp of lemon juice.

To set the jell, we added 4 Tsp of Apple Pectin.

The result is pleasantly surprising. The jelly is a beautiful translucent pale yellow and at first has the taste of sweet corn however, the finish on the palate is exactly like honey!

Corn Cob Jelly: quite a discovery!
Of course, it would not be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. This has been a big seller at the Tea Room and Chef has outdone herself this week by using the most beautiful pumpkins available to make the traditional pie, as well as a pumpkin maple pie, a pumpkin pecan pie and even a gluten-free pumpkin pie.

It's Pumpkin Pie season at the Tea Room.
 We'll end this week with an update on the manor's landscaping. It is all now coming into place and our home is looking less and less like a construction site now that some sod has been laid.

A stone bench on the ridge was created using some finds from the original barn flooring
The canine members of the family are also thrilled now that the courtyard in back of the house is finally completed. We now need to furnish this space but it will definitely be welcomed next Spring.

The courtyard is finally complete.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kiwis by the Bushel

It's Kiwi season in Pelham!

Our Kiwis are ready to pick and the trellised Kiwis have done very well for us. We have been calling our variety "Arctic Kiwis", however to be frank we're not exactly certain which variety we have. Our vines were planted years before our acquisition of the farm and it seems years before Kiwis were actually considered a viable crop for Niagara.

The "Kiwi" is actually a marketing name for what used to be called the Chinese Gooseberry and there are over a hundred varieties, from small to large, red to orange to green fruits.

Our type of Kiwi is small and blushes red when mature. They have a smooth skin and do not need to be peeled when eaten. We have seen similar Kiwis marketed as "Hardy Kiwis" or "Kiwi Berries".

Ripe and juicy "Arctic Kiwi"

Whatever variety we have on hand, our attempts at pruning and trellising have worked out well and we will now have to work on a dozen rows which have become "feral". They have self-propagated and entangled themselves in wild Grape vines, wild Rose bushes and the occasional Mulberry tree.

When properly trellised and pruned, the Kiwis are easy to harvest and form what we like to call "Kiwi coves". It's a rather beautiful site when walking under the trellised vines.

Trellised Kiwis ready to be picked
In fact some of our Kiwis have grown rather large.

A sample of large "Arctic Kiwis" or "Kiwi berries"
The major problem with these fruits is that they do not ripen at the same time. Also, the fruits that have had little exposure to the sun do not turn red. As a result, the only way to test for ripeness is to feel just how soft they are. The softer the better. Since this cannot be efficiently done when harvesting, we have been picking all Kiwis including unripened "hard" Kiwis. These we store in the barn until they soften for sale or further processing.

Harvesting Kiwis has proven to be one of our favourite Fall tasks
What we like to make with our Kiwis is a Kiwi jam which is sold at the Tea Room market.

Our first Kiwi jam of the season
We also like to use the overly ripe fruits (those that would correspond to a late harvest grape) to make what we call Kiwi raisins. These we use in our Tea Room baked goods and we also sell at our market. It is difficult to describe the taste of a Kiwi raisin but they tend to resemble a cross between a conventional raisin and a fig, with a floral and exotic fruit aftertaste.

Kiwi raisins ready for baking
Our favourite use however is still our home made wine. Our Kiwi wine has the taste of a late harvest Chardonnay with an exotic fruit bouquet. This will definitely be our next project for the Autumn season.

On the foraging front, we have been harvesting Staghorn Sumac drupes. It is amazing to see how many people consider this a poisonous plant (confusing it with the Poison Sumac). The two plants are significantly different and cannot be mistaken. The Poison Sumac is not as common in Canada as it is in the South of the United States. It also has a whitish grey berry, nothing like the red and furry drupes of the Staghorn Sumac.

The Staghorn Sumac and its drupe
Since our arrival at the farm, we have been indulging in Sumac tea or what the settlers called "Indian Lemonade". The process for this is perhaps the simplest of recipes you can come up with.

We tend to pick our drupes in late Summer or early Fall (never after a rainfall since it tends to wash away the flavours). These we simply put in a pot, add cold water and let sit over night. The next step is to simply filter out the drupes. The result is a delicious golden red tea, ready to consume.

The simplest of recipes: steeping Sumac drupes in cold water

Depending on one's taste, the resulting tea can be made more concentrated by waiting longer or  by using smaller drupes (which provide more surface area for water to come into contacts with the small furry berries).

This plant was considered a medicinal plant by some aboriginal tribes. In fact it was sometimes dried and smoked with tobacco. Not only is the tea delicious, but it is also associated with a lot of health benefits, including a high concentration of antioxidants. Note that people highly allergic to poison ivy could be allergic to Staghorn Sumac as well.

This year, we decided to go a bit further and we've actually transformed a concentrated tea into a jelly. This jelly retains many of the properties of the Sumac tea and has a mild wood spice aftertaste.

Finally, another fruit to look out for this time of year is the Quince.

Today few people can recognize a Quince or know what to do with this odd pear-like fruit. In the area many "feral" trees can be found and the fruits are definitely worth harvesting.

Every year one of our neighbours tends to surprise us with a new find and this year he did not let us down by bringing in a bag of large and beautiful fruits (thank you John!).

Quinces ready to be turned into jelly.

Since we've not reported on the Ward Manor for quite a while, we'll close this week with a quick update. We're now nearing the end of the landscaping phase, The "hardscape" is almost done and for the first time we can now take a full picture of the old Victorian home.

The old manor in all its splendor
With the internal portion of the house completely refinished, the glass gallery has also hosted a few hundred  visitors this tourist season.

The gallery is open to the public by invitation or appointment
For our Tea Room open house (November 6-8), we will be working on a fundraiser for the Welland/Pelham Museum. Tickets will be sold to view the gallery as part of a tour of three heritage buildings. The tours, to be held on November 8th, will include a briefing on art glass from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, a detailed briefing on the history of the property, as well as a presentation of the various "secrets" of the manor.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

An Attempt at Lactofermentation

With harvest season upon us, the fields are generating a variety of fruits and vegetables. It is now time to seriously begin preserving this food for the Winter.

Over the past few months, we have been making jams and preserves of all sorts. One common denominator to this work is an attempt to bring the acidity of our produce to high enough a level to achieve shelf stability. With most fruits this is readily achieved since they are for the most parts high in Citric Acid. If not, we tend to add Lemon juice to the mix to both achieve the right Ph and ensure jelling with our Apple pectin. With most vegetables this is achieved by making a brine with a sufficient amount of vinegar.

There is another natural manner to achieve acidity and that is Lacto-fermentation. This process uses a naturally occurring bacteria on the surface of most vegetables to ferment and achieve an acidic brine. The most common vegetables used would be for example pickling cucumbers or cabbage (ie. Sauerkraut). Since we had a good harvest of small cabbages from our raised beds, we decided to attempt our first Sauerkraut.

Beautiful little cabbages ready for Lacto-fermnetation
The first step is to simply shred the Cabbage. This can be done with a Mandoline, but another easy way is to simply quarter the cabbage and core it. All it takes then is to thinly slice the Cabbage quarters.

Shredding Cabbage is not all that difficult nor time consuming
The next step is to blend the shredded Cabbage with salt. For about 25 lbs of Cabbage, one cup of salt should do. The salt is used to extract the juices from the Cabbage and you will be surprised as to how much juice they contain.

To obtain this juice, you typically need a little bit of resourcefulness. In the old days, crocks were specifically designed for this purpose. Today, these crocks are hard to come by. The idea is to place your cabbage in a container and press it until the juice is released.

In our case, we decided to make a Ukrainian style Sauerkraut, combining the Cabbage with one third by weight shredded Carrots. We jerry-rigged our Sauerkraut crock using a plastic food container, a lid to press the shredded vegetables, and a pot full of water to weigh down on the lid.

Within a day, the vegetable juices overcome the shredded mixture
It is important to use sanitized instruments for this process. You do not want to grow any other type of bacteria but the Lactobacillus. A cloth cover is also important. This mixture will readily attract fruit flies.

Over time, the juices will show signs of fermentation. They will bubble and begin to create a foam which can be regularly skimmed off the top.

Within 3-5 weeks, the process is completed and the Sauerkraut should be ready. It can be placed as is in a cold cellar for storage and used as needed, or it can be packed.

We canned ours in mason jars for storage and added a vinegar brine to ensure shelf stability (although not necessary if the right level of acidity is already achieved). We took the opportunity to add a few spices.

Sauerkraut for the Winter months
Elsewhere on the farm. we were quite surprised to see that our wax beans are doing extremely well in the Growing Dome's hydroponic tables. We are just about ready to make our first harvest.

Given up for dead, the wax beans have come back with a vengeance

Also ready to pick were our Polish hot peppers.

Growing Dome hot peppers ready to pick
This was all the impetus we needed to process our first Hot Pepper jelly. The resulting fiery red jelly goes really well with cheese and crackers.

Red Hot Pepper jelly ready for our Tea Room gift baskets
We are always looking to identify the flora and fauna of the farm, so this week will end with a caterpillar which we spotted on our Raspberry plants.

The Tiger Moth Caterpillar or "Woolly Bear" Caterpillar
Folklore dictates that the more black on a "Woolly Bear" caterpillar, the harsher the Winter. Let's hope this is the sign of an easy Winter!

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Grape Season in Niagara

Now that Fall has officially arrived, our latest foraging trip resulted in an amazing find of wild Grapes. These small fruits with a rather large seed are now fully ripe and can be found covering the odd tree and bush throughout the farm. It was obviously time to pick them.

Wild Grapes atop a Mulberry tree
This Grape is easy to steam juice. The result is a very dark, tart and sweet drink. For us, it makes one of the best jellies.

Dark and delicious wild Grape juice
Having collected as much wild Grape as we can process this time of year, it reminded us of our row of old Concords.

We found these Grapes just over a year ago. We cleared the rows but have not yet been able to re-trellis them.

This Spring we crudely pruned them in the hope of generating more fruit. Since then, we have pretty much forgotten about them. We eventually let the weeds take over.

Going back to the Concords this week, we noticed quite a few were well developed and ripe as well. So it was now time to weed and see what we could harvest.

Time to pick the Concords
The results were surprising. Within the fast growing weeds, primarily Golden Rod, we found a "ton" of Grapes. It seems our pruning really awakened these plants. Although most were ripe, there was still a good amount of green unripened fruit, particularly where the Grapes were not exposed to the Sun.
Hidden from the Sun, some Grapes are still green
The Concords make a great juice and jelly. But the amount of green Grapes works out perfectly well for us since we have more than a couple of uses for this great fruit.

Last year, we experimented with the making of verjus (literally French for "green juice"). The juice of unripened Grapes is very tart with a hint of Grape flavour. It is actually ideal for use wherever you would normally use Lemon juice.

Selected unripened Grapes ready to make verjus
Since last year's verjus lasted no more than a month, we decided to make a lot more.

Unlike the steam juicing process we use for all our Grapes, in this case we need to be a bit more forceful to fully extract the juice. As a result, we crush them (using a food processor) and we press them through a cheese cloth. We then filter the resulting "sludge" to get a clear liquid.

Our process is still not ideal; we are aiming to eventually get a clear liquid. For the time being however this will do the trick.

A glass of this year's verjus...a little tart for drinking but perfect to use instead of Lemon juice

This may be dreaming, but we think that eventually we might actually be able to replace all Lemon juice in our Tea Room and canning activities with verjus. This would be a great way to keep our work local and perhaps more sustainable.

We'll close this week with a picture of the next crop: Kiwis. The trellised Kiwis have done surprisingly well this year. The berries are large and growing in beautiful clusters.

The Kiwis are looking promising
Interestingly, the plants that are now trellised seem further ahead of their counterparts which are growing amid the wild Grapes, wild Roses and the odd Mulberry tree that cover most of our untamed land. Even their leaves are now turning yellow and beginning to fall. It seems that the invasive plants provide a certain amount of cover and protection for the Kiwis. Regrettably these same Kiwis however are much harder to pick and have less fruit and less developed definitely not a permaculture solution.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Another Dome Tragedy

This week's cold, grey and wet weather kept us indoors for a bit (and by that we also mean inside our Growing Dome). It has felt more like mid-Autumn rather than the end of Summer...thank God we did not have a freak snow storm like Calgary. As a result, we'll spend this blog entry on our Growing Dome progress.

For just over a month now, it seems we had everything under some level of control.

The Tomato plants in what we now call our "Kratky buckets" have exceeded all expectations. They seem years ahead of their raised bed counterparts. They are now well over 5 feet tall. They have been blooming for some time and quite a few heirloom Tomatoes are developing quite well.

The roots of the Tomato plant now occupy half of the bucket and the water has been topped up twice in some cases. For this, we use our fish tank water and we fill the buckets back up to 2/3 of their volume.

Healthy Growing Dome Tomato plants
Even the Tomatoes on the Aquaponic beds are doing well. So well in fact, that we did not really think how we would manage the growth of Tomato pants at such a height while they are mounted on a Styrofoam board. The root mass is so significant that we cannot remove the plants without breaking the board. Furthermore the plants have grown like typical vines, laterally with blooming branches extended upward. These would now prove difficult to cage so we decided to see what will happen as they extend their "territory".

One of our many dome tomatoes now ripening
The peppers on the Aquaponic tables are also proving very fruitful. Our hot Polish purple peppers (sounds like a tongue twister) are now taking colour.

Hot Peppers are ripening
Even our bell peppers are prolific.

A bounty of bell peppers
Even the struggling wax beans are back in shape. They are flowering and producing some beans.

Originally presumed dead, the yellow beans are back in shape.

So much has now gone right that we were really due for a nasty surprise. It came this week, courtesy of our fish...once again.

It seems that plants are a lot more forgiving than animals.

One morning we arrived to feed the fish and found very little interest in our food pellets. By the end of the day, half our fish were floating on the surface of the water. By the next morning, it looked like the other half had succumbed as well.

Another tragedy...a dead Rock Bass (one of many)
At this point we were quite bewildered as to why this might have happened.

The acidity of the water looked fine (the PH has not changed and is similar to our ponds).

Once again we were forced to consider aeration. This time, we have been keeping to a schedule of hydroponic pumping in the morning and aeration pumping in the afternoon. This is done manually since  we hooked up both pumps to the same storage battery (which is itself recharged from a 100 Watt solar panel).

Doing this manually while we maintain our other work schedule around the farm has proven difficult to maintain. We have to admit that we were not always consistent in our timing.

It turns out that after a few hot days last week, the water temperature had climbed to above 26 degrees C. At this point not only will water be difficult to aerate, but Bass will become highly stressed. Adding a delinquent aeration cycle to the mix and the result is a lot of dead fish.

Since the new solar panel and battery system are working out really well, it is definitely time to consider rigging up an automated controller.

In the hope of keeping our plant/fish ecosystem balanced, we decided to go back to our fishing pond to catch a few more fish. To our dismay, we were faced with a Comorant. These birds are not only big fish eaters (upwards of 1 pound a day), but their feces are also deadly to trees and brush.

A Double Crested Cormorant dashed all hopes of catching more fish for the Dome.

This species of Cormorant is the Double Crested Cormorant. In the past, this is not something you would normally see in the Great Lakes region, however it has now become quite a regular site in the area.

For us, it was an indication that we would not do well in our fishing exploits. We were right. Since sighting that bird, we do not even get a single bite on our lines.

We do have a tinge of hope however. Since the recent death of some 22 fish, we noticed that our Dome's Duckweed was still under control (normally it would double in coverage every 36 hours or so).

What we discovered is that there are at least two reasonably sized fish in our tank. We had stopped throwing feed in the tank and they had resorted to eating the Duckweed. Not only that, but we have now seen tiny fish at the surface of the water (could they have multiplied?).

When stocking a tank with schools of fish, it is not easy to count them. With the dark waters of our tank (caused by the Humic Acid), we cannot really see what is left in there. However, somehow, we definitely have created some sort of aquatic ecosystem over which it seems we have little control.

We do not know how the water temperatures will change in the Winter, however having no control over temperature is presenting a real challenge in defining the species of fish we use. In the long run, we are still considering the Catfish...perhaps the hardiest of all edible species.

We'll close this week's entry with foraging. It was time to go back to our Carolinian forest and look for one of our favourite foods: the Hickory nut. They have started to fall and we were determined to get our fair share from the squirrels and chipmunks.

A nice basket of Hickory nuts
The Hickory nut is small and hard to crack open, but it is worth every effort. Our aim is to turn these nuts into a seasonal Hickory nut pie.