Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Potato mystery #2

How the heck are you supposed to cook hash brown potatoes?  

I've made some progress but I'm still not satisfied with the results.  I think I figured out the secret of having them not stick to the pan.  You need to preheat the pan on medium-low with a little oil in it.  After you add the potatoes, don't try to stir them right away.  Let them brown on the bottom for a minute then you can flip them over.

But so far, even when I can get the outside the right golden-brown color, my hash browns are coming out kind of dense, soggy, and gray on the inside, not light and fluffy like at the cafe.  What am I missing?  Do I have to peel them before I grate them?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Potato mystery #1

Today's food mystery is:  Why can't you home-can anything with dairy in it?  

Mom and I tried adapting a crock-pot recipe for Smashed Potato Soup to home pressure canning.  The crock-pot recipe basically has you cook the potatoes in stock for a long time, mash them slightly, and then add cream, sour cream, and cheese right at the end just before serving.

The pressure-canning instructions for potatoes were to cut them up, put them in the jars under salt water, and cook at 10 psi for 45 minutes.  There were recipes for chowder in the canning book but they leave out the dairy and have you make, for example, clam chowder "base", to which you add fresh dairy when it's to be eaten.  

The crock pot instructions have a general advice not to use fresh milk but only precooked milk such as powdered, condensed or evaporated.  In the potato soup recipe they do use fresh dairy but do not let it cook for long.  

We left out the dairy when we pressure-canned the potato soup, because we weren't sure if it was allowed.  These books don't explain what the problem would be with pressure-canning fresh dairy.  Does anyone know?  Is it possible to do this or to make evaporated milk at home?  It would be nice to be able to do so.  The Skipper told me that potatoes plus dairy (the Irish diet) is pretty complete nutritionally.

We followed the crock-pot recipe for the soup but only cooked it for about ten minutes before putting it in the pressure canner.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The viral marketing department found a prospective customer for my potatoes, even though I didn't ask them to.  So I had to come up with a price.  The Natural Farms online catalog had organic potatoes for $0.80 to $1.30 a pound, delivered, so I set the higher price for the hand-sorted ones and the lower price for the "use me first" seconds.

The total amount of time I spent on potatoes over the season was probably about 120 hours for which I got 600 pounds.  That is 0.2 hours per pound.  If I could charge Natural Farms delivered prices at my garden gate, I would thus be working for $4.00 to $6.50 an hour.  Doesn't sound so great but I think not bad for a first try and considering I did almost everything by hand.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It worked

There was a deer foraging in my deer forage plot this morning.  Guess what's for lunch? You're correct - potatoes it is.
Lamentably, the deer also already munched one of my unfenced bur oaks - the one closest to the house.  So, the hypothesis that a half-acre of tasty turnips would distract them from a couple of yukky bur oak seedlings, is scientifically disproved.  My new hypothesis is that they're mind readers bent on destroying every plant precious to humans.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Incredible progress on all fronts

The East Bur Oak Nucleus is mulched.

The West Bur Oak Nucleus is mulched and fenced.

Cobbing of the window and door frames has commenced, by the hands of Fancy.  I asked permission to photograph the work.  She said only if you help.  I meekly complied.  As we flang mud she explained the science.  The straw bales need to be coated with something breathable.  When the tiny clay particles get wet they expand and overlap, providing some sealing action.  When they dry, pores open up so that moisture can evaporate out.

The total potato haul was 600 pounds even.

I have a 3-point potato storage strategy:

1) Root cellaring in Flora's basement.
2) Root cellaring in Big Foamy out behind the cottage.
3) Home canned potato soup (Mom & I are working up a recipe.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mixing up Cob

In other exciting news, Redbeard and Fancy got a batch of cob hyomped up, for to reseal around the cottage windows on the outside.

The mixer is a custom unit of local manufacture.
It's basically a hopper with a big tapered screw auger in it.
The design was inspired by this Patz V360 large agricultural feed mixer.

Here's a closeup of the finished product.  Mmmm natural.

Potato harvest interim progress report

The September 9 freeze mostly killed my potato plants so I'm harvesting.  I'm digging by hand and keeping everything bigger than a nickel.  Here's what I've got so far.  That's 376 pounds.  Took me about two days and it's a little hard on the spine.  It will be a job sorting them out.  Supposedly you can root-cellar only whole perfect ones, any holes or cuts and they will rot.  So I will have to cook some right away.  You can't freeze raw ones either but I believe you can if they are partially cooked (as evidenced by the Ore-Ida section of your grocer's freezer.)

Here is the productivity data row by row.  I've dug 4 of the 5 rows in the west patch, average productivity 1.3 pounds per linear foot.  (Row 5 starts with Kennebecs (I don't remember if it's all Kennebecs (I think I alternated white and red (but I digress.))))  If the trend were to hold up in the east patch I would project 700 pounds total which would be close to my 750 pound goal.  Remember that was 1000 calories a day for 200 days.  But the east patch was more heavily munched by deer and bugs, so we'll see.

There was one Baby Jesus potato (so far.)

The little ones are good pan-fried in oil and onion and sprinkled with rib rub.

People keep telling about oh/yah you can go to the big potato farm in Park Rapids and they'll let you glean potatoes for free after the picker goes through.  Sure and I could dumpster-dive with the freegans but how resilient and sustainable is that?  

Thursday, September 11, 2008


On the day of the September 11 terror attacks, I was in Kiel in the north of Germany, at the Heidelberg Druckmaschinen printing press plant, with two other Kodak engineers sent to work on the image disruption crisis of 2001.  Ingo Dreher told us the news, saying "the Trade tower is knocked down."  I thought he must be mistranslating, but no.

In the shadow of those events I reconsidered my life and career, as did many others.  Some changed course right away.  It took me another five years.  First I worked on getting out of debt; I had just bought furniture and a new car.  Finally in 2006 I sold my house and joined Americorps.

Your correspondent has observed that the one favorite political flavor takes the threat of Islamic radicalism very seriously, while pooh-poohing the threats of global warming and peak oil, while the other favorite political flavor does the opposite.  Sigh.

I take all of these threats seriously and am not the first to notice the connections between them.  Renewable energy, conservation, efficiency, and local food production are national security fronts.  While I have chosen to work on these fronts, I honor those who have chosen to work the sharp end of the stick.

For those of you who may be less concerned about the energy/food and global warming issues, I urge you to read the peak oil primer at energybulletin.net, and any of their other articles as well.  There are a few other primers on this topic listed at www.theoildrum.com.  On their scale of alarmism, the energybulletin view rates as Defcon 4.

For those of you who may be less concerned about Islamic radicalism, I would urge you to read these two articles, which are the most level-headed discussions I have found:  The Philosopher of Islamic Terror - Paul Berman, NY Times, and How to Manage Savagery - Bret Stevens, Wall Street Journal.  (These are longish articles by online standards but worth your time.)  Towards the end of Berman's piece he writes 
President George W. Bush, in his speech to Congress a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, announced that he was going to wage a war of ideas. He has done no such thing. He is not the man for that. Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own.
One religious leader who has taken up that cause is Coptic priest Zakaria Botros.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bur oaks planted

It froze last night. That's a little early. I think the 50% 1st frost date here is Sept. 23d. It's been about a week since I stopped setting the windows open at night for cooling, and today was the first day I set the greenhouse doors to warm the house during the day.

Also today I planted the five potted Bur oaks which I've been dutifully watering all summer. They are not mulched or fenced yet. I'm basically following the instructions in Dave Jacke's Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2. (Hole 2x the diameter of the pot, domed bottom hole, no amendments in the hole other than mycorhizal inoculant.)  I'm going to omit the cardboard layer as there are not that many weeds growing out here to suppress.

I hope I didn't kill them to death. For container plants he says to spread out the roots and roughen up the outside of the root ball before planting, but when I did that huge chunks of the dirtball tended to fall off, which he says is a bad thing.

Domed-bottom hole.

Made my own inoculant out of a couple of shovelfuls of forest soil mixed with wood-chip based mulch.

Double handful of inoculant in hole.

Rootball out of pot.

Plant partially backfilled & puddled in.

Backfilled and with tamped-earth watering ring just outside edge of hole.

Monday, September 8, 2008

New charcoal retort, insulated

I wrapped the mineral wool insulation onto the new charcoal retort and did a test burn.  Inside fuel was about a 50/50 mix by volume of flax straw and wood chunks, packed in alternating layers.  Wood comprised both lumber scraps and snagwood.  Outboard fuel was lumber scraps all the way up the sides with flax straw kindling on top.

The burn went better than the uninsulated ones preceding, in that I didn't have to refuel it.  But it still took an hour to get going and burned only on one side for awhile, as before.

Here's a pretty good shot of the smoke escaping from around the bottom of the inner vessel and being burned.

With insulation the outer barrel got orange-hot all the way around and the inner barrel got red hot.

It burned quite hot and clean for about fifteen minutes, here you can see almost the whole outer barrel is orange-hot.  The burn finished clean (odorless.)

Again however, low yield of ashy charcoal (overcooked or overoxygenated) and there were still a couple of embers inside the next morning.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New charcoal retort

I made a new charcoal retort, as the first one burned up after a dozen batches. This one is closer in design to what Folke Gunther describes, in that the outer barrel has a bottom and the inner barrel sits upside down in it. (In the first one my outer barrel was open top and bottom, and the inner barrel had a lid.) Also per Gunther, the outer barrel has triangular notches in the side near the bottom to let in combustion air, and it is not insulated.

The new inner barrel is ten times the weight of the previous one (35 vs. 3.5 kg.) It's the inner pressure vessel from a carbon dioxide tank. My idea was that it would last longer, and might do a better job of cooking the charcoal to completion by retaining heat longer. Unfortunately it's slightly larger and taller than the old trashcan and there is at most a two inch gap between the inner and outer barrel.

So far this thing is a disappointment. I've done three trials and had to refuel it during the burn each time. It tends to start burning only on one side. I suspect the narrow gap is to blame and possibly the lack of insulation. It did cook to completion but the yielded a low volume of ashy charcoal, indicating overcooking or afterburning of the completed charcoal. In one case, the inner vessel was still hot after sitting overnight, and had live coals inside. The heavy inner tank is retaining heat but this appears to be a mixed blessing, and it is slower to heat up at the beginning. Also I may have cut too many or too large notches in the edge of the inner tank to let the gases escape, this may be allowing air to get into the inner tank and feed combustion of the charcoal.

I realize now that I made three changes which tend to slow the thing down: there is less area at the bottom for combustion air to enter, the inner tank is much heavier, and more heat can radiate out the sides with no insulation. Also there is less room for fuel outside. Probably the next thing to do is insulate the outer barrel again.