Thursday, February 27, 2014

Making Borsch

    I've had a desire to make borsch for the last week or so.  It is one of my favorite soups. I'm not a big fan of either cooked beets or cooked cabbage. I generally prefer my beets pickled and my cabbage in cole slaw or made into sauerkraut.   For some reason I love them when they are combined into borsch. I first tried borsch at a class picnic when I was studying Russian at the Presidio of Monterey in 1975.  Our instructors, all native born Russians, made borsch and piroshkys, certainly not your normal American picnic fare.  It was love at first taste.  I've been a borsch fan ever since.

     Many years later, after the fall of communism, I made two trips to Russia as an FBI Special Agent. The purpose of the trips was to conduct training for the Russian state police, known as the MVD. Those initials stand for Ministry of Internal Affairs, but that is not very descriptive for most Americans.  The MVD is actually the equivalent of all of the local, state, and federal police agencies rolled into one mammoth bureaucracy.  One trip was to Krasnodar, located in the southern portion of Russian near the Black Sea.  The second trip was to Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad.  Both trips involved entering and leaving Russia through Moscow, checking in with the U.S. Embassy, then flying on a Russian airline to our ultimate destination.  Those trips gave me a great opportunity to experience a much broader sampling of Russian cuisine.  I enjoyed the food so much that I made a point of visiting a bookstore in Moscow to purchase a few cookbooks. I even found one written in English.

    I looked through my Russian cookbook, cleverly named "Russian Cooking", to see what it had to offer in the way of borsch recipes. It had two options, Simple Borsch and Summer Borsch with Beet Tops.  Since I didn't have beet tops available (It is officially winter after all) I chose the Simple Borsch recipe.  I didn't follow the recipe exactly (I often don't follow recipes closely). First of all, I didn't want to make a second trip to the grocery store to pick up the additional ingredients. Secondly, Russians don't always make their borsch exactly the same. It tends to vary somewhat depending on the availability of different ingredients.  Beets and cabbage are probably the only ingredients necessary to qualify the soup as borsch and the recipe offers sauerkraut as an acceptable substitute for fresh cabbage. The recipe I used is as follows:

         Simple Borsch

2-3 beets
9 ounces of shredded white cabbage or sauerkraut ( I used red cabbage)
1 parsley root (I omitted this)
1 onion
1 Tbsp of tomato puree or three tomatoes
2 carrots (I omitted this)
2 Tbsp lard (I omitted this)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp vinegar
1 Tbsp sugar
2 cloves garlic
parsley, dill, and salt to taste ( I only used the salt but I did use some pepper as well)
2 liters of meat stock ( I just used some chicken bouillon cubes)
1 Tbsp wheat flour and
1 Tbsp butter for a roux ( I omitted both the wheat and the butter)

     Chop the cabbage and add it to the stock previously strained and brought to a boil. Saute the beets and cut them into thin strips, along with the rest of the vegetables. Add the sautéed vegetables, along with the tomato puree, sugar, and vinegar to the stock and simmer until cooked. Mix the garlic with the large and add to the stock 5-7 minutes before the end. When the borsch is nearly done, thicken the stock with the roux.  Serve with sour cream and herbs.
I love the color of borsch

Borsch is usually served with a big dollop of sour cream

   In spite of all of my omissions my borsch turned out very well. Like many soups, the recipe is very forgiving. I love the color. Borsch is actually quite pretty as soup go. I thought it tasted as good as any borsch I had eaten in Russia or in a restaurant in the U.S.  It didn't seem to miss the lard, the parsley root, carrots, or the thickening roux. It even passed the ultimate test. Linda liked it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sour Dough Nirvana

    A few years back I read a book entitled 52 Loaves. Its the story of the author's voyage of discovery to learn how to make good sour dough bread.  I found the book to be a pretty good read, especially for a "How To" book. The most important thing I took from the book was the author's instruction on how to capture a wild yeast culture to make a home grown sour dough starter. I successfully did that using two apples from our little orchard. I made a few attempts to make sour dough bread which were less than fully successful. My first efforts didn't turn out terrible, but it was obvious that I had some skills I still needed to learn. That wasn't really the author's fault as I got busy with other things and wasn't able to devote the time to learning all the skills that the task required.  I have kept my sour dough starter alive over the past two years. I've mainly used it to make sour dough pancakes and waffles, which in my opinion is a pretty good use for a sour dough starter..

     I never lost the desire to learn to make good sour dough bread. That continued to percolate under the surface of my busy life.  It bubbled back to the surface recently when I checked out another bread book from the library.  The book in question, Artisan Breads Every Day by Peter Reinhart, uses the concept of refrigerating the dough to allow better gluten development. The propagation of the yeast is slowed by refrigeration while the gluten keeps on developing.  I tried this out this past weekend and was amazed at the results. My first effort resulted in a satisfactory product.  I don't mean to damn with faint praise by using the term satisfactory. I was not merely satisfied. I was very happy with the results.

    I prepared the dough on Friday, let it rise, and then put it in the fridge.  I divided the dough into two loaves on Saturday afternoon after I got home from teaching an all day beginning beekeeping class. Preparing the loaves and proofing the loaves in preparation for baking was a four hour process. Not that it required four hours of work on my part. It just took a certain amount of time for the dough to warm up so I could shape it into loaves, then some more time before the loaves were ready for the oven. I did two loaves because I was anxious to bake one loaf in our fireplace insert and one in the oven so I would be able to compare the results.

    As the time was approaching to bake the loaves, I preheated the oven to 550 degrees and started a fire in the fireplace insert.  I have a little temperature gauge that sits on top of our insert. In the past I've gotten it up as high as 750 degrees. This particular time I ran into problems. I was using poplar wood instead of maple and the highest I could get the insert was 420 degrees. That just wasn't hot enough to bake the bread so I ended up baking both loaves in our oven.  I didn't bake them both at the same time as I was trying to get the insert hot enough and it just wasn't working. It was pretty satisfying to produce a wonderful product. It smelled like sour dough, tasted like sour dough, and it had a wonderful texture.  It rose better than I expected and the original yeast culture was captured in our orchard about 100 feet away from the oven where the bread was baked.  Now if I can only manage to grow my own wheat...
Authentic Snohomish Sour Dough Bread


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fun with Beeswax

    We are very busy this time of year at the Beez Neez rendering out cappings wax so we will have a sufficient supply of beeswax for the coming season.  My personal production of beeswax would not constitute a drop in the bucket of our need for rendered beeswax. Fortunately I have a friend, a local Ukranian, who is a small scale commercial beekeeper.  He has about 600 hives and has neither the inclination or equipment to render out his cappings wax.  We are in the process of rendering out about 4 fifty gallon barrels of his cappings wax.  We will end up with about 450 pounds of beeswax by the time we are done.  My employee, Quentin, who is quite particular about a good many things, has worked out a good system for rendering the wax with our Walter Kelly Cappings Melter. We sell a lot of the unfiltered wax to beekeepers who melt it and paint it on to plastic foundation.  We also use a lot of it to make candles in the fall and winter months when things are a bit slower at the bee store.

Our Walter Kelly Cappings Melter

A portion of this years beeswax production

    The other day we had a minor accident with the cappings melter. We underestimated the amount of wax we had put into the cappings melter for the second melt and the five gallon bucket overflowed onto the concrete floor of the shop.  That is really no big deal as we can simply scrape the wax off the floor and melt it again. What was cool was this long thin blade of beeswax that formed as the wax ran over the side of the bucket.  I once saw a similar ribbon formation in the Sonora Caverns in Texas.  The cave formation took a very long time to develop while this happened in a matter of 20 minutes.
A wide ribbon of beeswax that formed from an overflow

The photo doesn't do this justice.

    I have to admit that I really do enjoy playing with the beeswax.  I like making candles and pouring the beeswax into molds.   That is one of the main reasons I do the candle classes. They really don't add much revenue to the store but I enjoy teaching the classes.  Its hard to beat beeswax candles and honey as Christmas gifts.  To plagiarize Jonathan Swift, it is the gift of "sweetness and light".  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Meet the New Ducks

     We lost our three India Runner ducks this past fall.  One of the primary reasons we keep ducks is for them to control the local population of slugs and snails.  In order for them to fulfill that purpose they need to roam free at times in order to hunt said slugs and snails. The plan is that these are somewhat supervised outings where either Linda or I are working outside. It is also intended that their slug hunts are of limited duration.   Sometime this past fall I forgot to put the ducks back into the pen.  The following morning we had no ducks. I'm assuming they were probably eaten by coyotes. So goes the sad fate of Popeye, Olive Oyle, and Sweet Pea.

    I was planning to buy replacement ducks sometime in the spring. However, a good bee store friend who was moving to Idaho and asked me if I knew anyone who might want some ducks.  I jumped on that like the proverbial "duck on a june bug" and we are now the proud owners of a trio of magpie ducks.   Although the new ducks already had names we are giving them new ones. One of the hens shared a name with one of our grand daughters. We have a strict rule against naming anything we might want to eat after one of the grand children.  I named the drake Jean Luc Canard (duck in French) and the hens Mon Cheri Canard and Sidonie Canard.

The drake, Jean Luc Canard, is on the right with the orange feet.

    The India Runner ducks were excellent layers and easily outproduced our Americauna and Dominique hens. However, they had a very nervous temperament that made it hard for them to successfully hatch out ducklings. They are possibly the inspiration behind the Beatrix Potter story about Jemima Puddleduck. Also Popeye, our previous drake, was somewhat of a slacker. I tried to hatch out duck eggs in an incubator last summer and they all turned out to be infertile.  These Magpie ducks seem to be much calmer. I was assured that Magpie hens are quite capable of setting on eggs. They seem more inclined to lay their eggs in a proper nest than the previous ducks.  Maybe we will have some baby ducks this spring or summer.

      I stopped by Cash and Carry the other day to buy rolled oats for me and sugar for the bees. My 12 beehives go through a lot of sugar syrup in the spring so it is much more convenient and cheaper to buy sugar in larger containers.  A fifty pound bags of sugar costs just $19.50 at Cash and Carry.  While I was there I thought I'd pick up one of the larger containers of cinnamon. Spices are generally so much cheaper when purchased in larger containers. I found what I was looking for, our usual 18.3 ounce container of cinnamon priced at $7.97.  In the grocery store they sell 3 or 4 ounce containers of cinnamon for about $3.00.  Then I spotted an even larger container of cinnamon on the bottom shelf. A 70 ounce container which sold for $12.97. I felt like Pippen at the Prancing Pony in the movie "Fellowship of the Ring" when he first learned they served ale in pints. I managed to restrain myself and didn't cry out, "It comes in 70 ounce containers?"   The price comparison is as follows:  It costs about $1.00 per ounce to buy cinnamon in small containers at the grocery store. It costs about 44 cents per ounce to buy cinnamon in the 18.3 ounce containers they sell at Walmart, Costco, and Cash and Carry. It costs about 18.5 cents per ounce to buy cinnamon in the 70 ounce container at Cash and Carry. We may not have a year supply of everything we eat but we certainly have a year supply of cinnamon.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Snow Day!

    Church was cancelled this morning because of the snow.  I'm a little embarrassed to report this to those who live in locations more snowy than Western Washington. We didn't have much more than an inch of snow.  However, people here aren't all that expert at driving on snowy or icy roads. Their expertise lies more with driving in the rain. A good part of our ward (congregation) members live out in the country where the roads won't be plowed or sanded. Bishop Nielson didn't want any of his flock ending up in a ditch on their way to church. Usually I spend close to eight hours at church on Sunday.  Between a three hour block of normal meetings, 2-3 hours worth of leadership meetings, one hour for choir practice, and an hour to count tithing, I'm at church a good part of the day. I plan to spend most of today quietly working on my genealogy and indexing, right after I finish this blog post.

View from the front window

View of the back yard

    Linda has been gone for the past 5 days on a trip to Salt Lake City to attend Rootstech, a genealogy conference sponsored by the LDS church. She went with our daughter, Sarah, and two grand daughters, Autumn and Chloe.  Whenever Linda is gone her cat, Little Miss Buzz Saw, becomes very needy of human attention and starts to follow me around whenever I am home.  Just recently she has taken to napping behind my computer monitor while I am working on the computer.  This is actually a big improvement from her wanting to sit on my lap when I am at the computer or playing with the spinning wheel while I am trying to spin.  When Linda is home the cat seems to get adequate "people time" lolling on the bed while Linda sits next to her and works on the laptop.

Miss Buzz Saw's new favorite nap site

    A few weeks ago I attended the Country Living Expo in Stanwood, Washington.  I have taught  mason bee classes at this annual event for the past six or seven years.  My compensation for instructing consists of a free prime rib lunch and free enrollment in other classes during my free time.  This year I attended classes in natural dying, using a green house, and making lefse, a sort of scandinavian "pancake" that is a cross between a tortilla and a crepe. The lefse class was my favorite because we got to eat all of the demonstration lefse sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.  Lefse is made from a mashed potato and flour dough which is rolled out thin, then cooked like a tortilla.  The Norwegians roll it up around all sorts of strange things like pickled herring or lutefisk. I thought the cinnamon and sugar sounded much more appealing. There are a fair amount of specialized tools used to make lefse. These include rather heavy and peculiar looking rolling pins, cloth sleeves that fit over the rolling pin, a special cloth covered pastry board on which to roll the lefse, two separate long thin paddles, one of which is used to remove the lefse from the pastry board and one of which is used to handle the lefse when cooking, a lefse drying rack, and a special lefse cooker.  In the old days, the Norwegians simply cooked their lefse on the top of the wood stove.  Our fireplace insert has a cooking surface on the top, but it is a bit small for lefse. I would be forced to make mini-lefse, which actually might be a lot easier.

An enthusiastic Norwegian demonstrates proper lefse cooking technique