Monday, January 9, 2017

Maitake Mushrooms: "Hen of the Woods"

Every year, for almost 5 years, I had walked by the same clump of mushrooms underneath the same big ol' oak tree without ever knowing I was walking by GOLD!

Who knew I would be impatiently waiting for their return every year after that.
I was first introduced to eating them at a local farm where I was working, when the owner had given me the stems all ground up and asked me to toss them under every large oak tree I could find to spread the spores.
Thus began my adventure in researching this amazing little (or should I say GIANT) mushroom.
I had know idea that they were not only a delicious wild edible, but it was also prized for its highly medicinal purposes.
Although most of the studies on this shroom are still in the early stages, they show a LOT of promise.
Promise in controlling or even curing Cancers.  Especially breast, liver, and lung cancers.
Promise in helping to control diabetes.
Promise in controlling high cholesterol and high blood pressure 

Complex carbohydrates in these mushrooms known as polysaccharides (specifically beta-D-glucans) help to boost the immune system.

There are countless ways that this mushroom can be eaten, but I have to say, my personal favorite is to just throw some fronds in a pan with a nice glob of butter and sautee them. So delicious, so simple!
We also add it to stir fry, seared veggies, soups, and burgers. 
But again, limitless here!

When I first get them home, I make sure to slice off the lower parts of the stem and clean any debris that is visible. Then, piecing apart these shrooms is as easy as peeling apart a block of string cheese.
You can grab the fronds individually and tear them downwards towards the stem. (See picture above)
They are so much cleaner than morels.
They texture is similar to if you were tearing apart a whole chicken that has cooled, after slow cooking all day in a crock pot.

The fronds can be frozen without any other preparation, other than cleaning.
or they can be dried/dehydrated.
When dehydrating, the mushrooms are done drying, when they snap like a cracker. They should not be "bendy" at all.
If they are not completely dried, they will turn black and rot. (I know.....mushrooms....rotting, Haha)

You know, I'm actually a pretty FUN - GI!!!!
Stay with me here.

So where Do I find this Mushroom?

Ok, so, you know how finding morels can sometimes be really frustrating?
Ya,   FIFTY times more frustrating.
So far I have only found them under a few old oak trees which are half dead already. And I have covered a LOT of ground searching for them.
Although oak is the typical location of these giants, they have also been found under other types of trees as well.
They average anywhere from 10-15 pounds, with 30-40 pound shrooms not uncommon.  
There have even been mushrooms in the 80-100 pound range, although much more rare.

Around my area, these mushrooms sell for almost $20.00/pound, so finding a 30-40 pound haul can net quite a bit of cash if you can resist the temptation of devouring them.
The Lot of Maitake in the cover photo was almost 40 pounds and they were all found under 1 tree.
That's almost $800.00 worth of fungus folks.
Even at the lower end price of $10/pound, It would have netted almost $400, had we not decided to eat most of it. 

They are nicely camouflaged tight to the ground. Also referred to as "Hen of the Woods", they can appear to look like a hen chicken all fluffed out on a nest of little chicks.
They are greyish or yellowish in color.

If you are lucky to find any, Note the tree where you found it. As this is a parasitic mushroom, which feeds off of the tree itself, slowly killing it, you can bet you will find them again the next year, and the next, and the next.....
They are typically found in the northeastern U.S. and Canada in the fall. (I find them typically ready to harvest in mid to late Oct.)
They are also found in Japan, China and Europe

Unlike morels which pop up overnight and seem to become inedible within a few days, Maitake might take a few weeks of walking past them before they are ready to harvest. so keep a close eye on them and watch the haul grow bigger and bigger each day.

Maitake Mushroom:  (grifola frondosa)  "the dancing mushroom"

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Fun Way to Give Cash as a present

 Everyone is always wanting to find new ways to give people cash as a gift, aside from just placing it in a card and sealing it.

We have:
- put cash inside of balloons and had the kids pop them (a few filled with confetti of course)

-wrapped it in a giant ball of saran wrap

-inside of boxes, inside of boxes, inside of boxes, (which was inside of a box)

-in candy boxes

-Scavenger hunt

etc. etc.

We have done almost everything short of a Hunger Games style "Winner takes All"  Free for all
 So I thought of a creative way this year that I haven't seen yet.

 The mouse trap will NOT ACTUALLY SNAP. It's the initial thought that counts. The idea of having to retrieve some dough without getting your hand popped is "the prank" of this project.
 Start with a brand new mouse trap. Because  a used one  would kinda be......well,.......unsanitary?
 The most important part of this entire project is to get the spring off of the bar to remove the pressure from the trap and prevent any mishaps from occurring. 
Unless of course you enjoy watching your intended target run around in circles screaming in pain.

Take a pair of pliers and lift the spring from the bar as shown in the picture above.
 Next, move the bar over to the catch side of the trap as if you were setting it. (There is no pressure, so it will just rest there naturally)
 Hold the catch in place under the pan with one hand, while hot gluing the pan to the catch.
For added support and ease of the next steps, place a small bead of glue under the pan too. When it dries, it will prevent the pan from dropping down.

Hold for a short time until it is dry.

 Then turn the trap around and gently pull up on the bar from both sides of the trap to hold it in a "set" position.

 Place a small amount of glue as shown to prevent the bar and catch from moving freely and falling back down. 
Hold until dry!
 DONE! (with the trap.)
Then just tape the money in the bottom of a box, and glue the trap with the pan over the money.

This box can be turned upside down, sideways, or which ever way you want, without disturbing the trap or money.

Thanks for checking us out.

Our Little Backyard Farm

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why Deer Hunting is Important to Us!

Why is deer hunting important to my family?  
Well, there are MANY reasons. Now I'm fairly certain that there will be a great number of people who, regardless of the validity of my reasons, will still view hunting as nothing but an excuse to murder.  And honestly, it doesn't really bother me. I am content with my path in life.

First off, I want to clarify a term which I hear used very often when anti-hunters, vegetarians/vegans, and animal lovers make arguments about the ethics of hunting.
The term I am referring to is "Trophy Hunting"
Most of the time, that term is typically viewed as:   a hunter going out specifically to kill the largest animal he/she can find with the purpose of only removing the antlers or horns, etc. so that they can decorate their wall with "the trophy"
While that  may be the case sometimes, I can assure you that the vast majority of those hunters, not only keep all of the meat as well, but the amount of meat they are gathering is greater than that they might have gotten if they had settled for the first animal which they happened across.

Furthermore, I personally do not know a single hunter (and I know MANY) who can afford to "just walk into a small pen and shoot a giant buck that they paid for only a few minutes before."
Are there some rich people who might be willing to fork over 10-20 grand or more to do this?  SURE. But I sure as hell am not even close to that tax bracket. And no one I know IS.
Fair chase!   This is what I'm talking about here.
SO save the poaching and Trophy hunting comments for someone who it pertains to.

#1- Cost:
 In a typical year, I can fill up the freezer with 2-3 deer. This is half of our red meat. The other being our pasture raised pork.  On average my hunting season yields anywhere from 80-100 pounds of boneless cuts.
Resident Illinois Archery permits currently consist of two tags, which cost $26.00 each. I buy two sets of tags for a total of 4 deer available to me.
I still use the same bow I have had for almost 16 years, therefore I only spend money on arrows and Broadheads.  Averaging about $15/year. 
If I dont fill my freezer prior to the shotgun and muzzleloader seasons, I can purchase those permits over the counter and try again during those seasons.

All in All, my average season costs me about 65-90 bucks. Maybe $100 at max.
I butcher my own deer, so essentially I get all of the cuts for about a buck a pound. And I had nothing invested monetarily to raise this WILD animal.
$1.00 / pound!!!!!!!!

#2 Quality of the meat:
These are 100% wild animals I am hunting, not pen raised livestock. Now granted, they are feeding heavily on the corn and soybean crops in my specific location, but much of the year, they are foraging completely on natural vegetation. You cant get more sustainable than that.
These deer are hormone free, and lean as can be.

#3 Nutrition: 
Comparing Venison to Beef
When taking health into account, the word FAT is what scares most people away from certain foods. But even more scary is SATURATED FATS. 
The average 8 ounce beef flank steak contains about 18 grams of fat (8 of which are saturated)
While the same 8 ounce cut of venison contains 6 grams total (only 2 of which are saturated)

What about Cholesterol?
Good question, as I have had one heart attack already, it is very well known to me that Cholesterol is something I need to be very conscious of.
Beef has an average of 3 TIMES the amount of cholesterol than the same cut of venison.

8 ounces.............Beef 620 calories
same cut............Venison 250 calories

Venison is also higher in Iron.

#4 Conservation:
In the 1930's, the whitetail deer population in the U.S. was estimated at around 300,000 deer. 
Today, that estimate is around 30 MILLION.

What has caused the population to EXPLODE?

A)Lack of Predators-  Bears, wolves, cougars, etc have all been pushed out of areas where human populations exist. They typically steer clear of people if they can. Deer, essentially will gather where they feel safer and there is less predatory presence. 

B)Deforestation-  Huh?  Isn't mowing down our forests what's KILLING them?  Not quite, in fact, it's quite the opposite. Deer LOVE edge habitats, such as tree lines, large grassy areas, small woodlots, even manicured lawns. Why?  because they don't like predators, and this way, they can see them coming a mile away. So when hundreds of acres of woods are whittled away to make room for yet another cornfield, this in turn is "creating" a much more suitable habitat for the deer. In fact, they usually get a few months of really effortless meals out of the deal. 

C) Evolution-  Or lack thereof.  Many animal species reach a stable equilibrium when overcrowding begins to take place. Some species will kill off weak babies (even the mothers will do this) to ensure only the strong survive. Pandas only receive enough nourishment from their bamboo diets to support raising ONE baby, so the mother will choose the stronger one and allow the other to die.
Deer do not adapt at all. They will consistently have an average of two fawns per year and raise both of them as quickly as possible. 
I remember reading somewhere that the number of fawns birthed annually is DOUBLE that of how many deer are legally harvested by hunters. 
So conservation is our RESPONSIBILITY, as we have created the pristine conditions to which these populations have reached such high numbers in such a short period of time.

Lastly, I have personal reasons for hunting which many of my readers will be able to understand and recognize as some of their own.
I love nature. I love being outdoors, and sometimes, sitting in a deer stand for hours on end, have given me a connection to the earth which most can only dream about.
Memories abound in my head and heart while I consistently reminisce about specific hunts, follies, and people whom which I have shared those times with.
The walk to and from my tree stand allow my body to exercise. And sometimes, I will get down from my stand, or exit my ground blind and just walk patiently, trying to spot my game before it spots me. 

But most importantly, I have taught my children to love and respect the earth, and what it has to provide us with. To not take more than it is willing to give us and stay healthy. 
I have seen a love of nature in my children which most adults that I know could not fathom to possess. One which has helped them to grow into what I can only "hope" is a better person than me.

This is us.
This is what we do.
This is OUR PATH.

Thank you for reading.
Our Little Backyard Farm.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Making Homemade Concord Grape Wine

Yes, yes, I am well aware that the tags on the bottles say "Apple wine" But this post is about making CONCORD GRAPE wine. 
Although many of the steps in the process are the same for all wines, there are also differences which are very important to each variety.  This is the process we used turn our grapes into              "Mommas' Happy Juice"
The measurements used in this post are for 1 GALLON of wine. (the pictures are of a 5 gallon batch)

First we had to make the juice. Making the wine with the fruits in the mixture is certainly an option, but we wanted to make it easier and use the juice alone. This would make the racking process easier later on in the process.
We crush the grapes in a few cups of water and boil for about 15 minutes. Then we use a mesh juice bag (cheesecloth works great) to strain the solids from the juice.

Make sure you make enough juice to measure out exactly into the size of the batch you are trying to make. If it is less than you need, you can add a little bit of water to finish the measurement. The juice should be put into the Primary Fermentation bucket and should be at room temperature before starting the process. The bucket, as well as ANY tool you will be using to make the wine should be washed in a sterilizing solution. We use B-Brite.
If you do not sterilize everything with extreme intent, it is possible for bacteria to ruin the entire batch. 1 tiny bacterium can multiply exponentially (like yeast) and will turn the wine into vinegar instead. 

First, with the juice in the bucket, mix in 1 tsp of yeast nutrient.

Then stir in 4 1/2 cups of sugar.
If you have a hydrometer (which you should get), the specific gravity of the solution should be close to 1.085 S.G.

Next, add 1 campden tablet into the mixture. This will help prevent the harmful bacteria. It is best to take the tablet and dissolve it in about 1/4 cup of warm water before stirring it in. 

Don't forget to check the reading on the hydrometer. (1.085 S.G.)

Now is the hard part.  WAIT.  I know, I know. We need to wait for about 24 hrs before continuing. 

After the 24 hrs. we stir in 1/2 tsp of Pectic Enzyme and then allow the mixture to settle to a complete stop.  We tend to wait to move on for about 20 minutes to make sure that there will be no movement when we add the yeast.

When the mixture is motionless, lightly sprinkle the yeast on top of it.

We typically sprinkle half of the packet in right away, and then save the other half for the next morning. Not sure if this really matters, but I have found that it creates a more even layer of foaming from start to finish.
Now it's time to WAIT again. This is the PRIMARY FERMENTATION PROCESS. This usually takes anywhere from a few days to a week on average.

Within 12-24 hours, you will see the mixture begin to foam violently. 
Every other day, give the mixture a slow stir to make sure that the yeast is activating throughout the bucket.
The foaming is created as the yeast multiplies and feeds on the sugars.

Eventually the violent foaming will subside and it is time to rack the mixture for SECONDARY FERMENTATION.

Place the Secondary fermentation carboy on a lower level than the Primary fermentation bucket for siphoning purposes. Make sure that the Mixture is well settled before beginning the siphon.

Siphon the mixture into the carboy slowly. Having a hose which is long enough to reach the bottom of the container will help prevent too much movement and air being introduced into the mix. (Air is our enemy because it can introduce bacteria. It is also helpful to add another campden tablet to the carboy before siphoning.

Leave a little bit of room for some small foaming in the carboy and then place an air lock on it. The air lock should not allow for air to go into the container, but should allow a lot of gasses to be released.

As the smaller foaming comes to a halt, you can top off the secondary carboy with either water, or some of the primary mixture which you have thoughtfully placed in an airtight container in the fridge just for this purpose.
By the way, you can taste the wine at any stage. Although sediment may be floating in it, this sediment is "yeast". Yeast can be safely consumed, therefore you may drink the happy juice.

The secondary fermentation may take anywhere from a month to a few years, but it can be bottled as early as you would like, as long as there are no gases escaping from the air lock.
If you bottle it to early, the pressure inside of the bottle can cause it to explode.

You may choose to rack the wine another time for clarity purposes. We did it once more before bottling.
But by all means, wine will always benefit from aging in bulk. So leaving it in the carboy longer is always better. 

TIP: if using cork stoppers when bottling, or if you receive a bottle with a cork in it instead of plastic, store the bottles on their sides to prevent the cork from drying out and letting air inside.

Also, Homemade Wine is typically more potent than that of your store bought wines. (Ours is around 20% alcohol) 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Winter Carrot Crop

Here in zone 5b, we just finished planting our "over winter" garden.  I know a lot of people who grow veggies all year long in their heated greenhouse, or window sills, but we have a slightly different method for some of the more cold tolerant varieties. 
It is the end of October here in central Illinois and we cannot WAIT for January/February.  Why? because that is when we will be pushing the snow aside so that we can begin digging up the most delicious carrots EVER.

So we start by tilling the ground up into a nice soft, fine, texture.  Then we hill it up in a row about 6 inches deep (Deeper if you are planting larger carrots, but we are doing fingerlings right now.) Pound a couple of T-posts, or whatever you have on hand, at each end of the row. If the row is more than 10-15 feet long, you may want to add a support in between as well.

Make some trenches for planting seeds and plant as you would in spring. By utilizing raised beds, Our Little Backyard Farm has chosen a style of gardening that is somewhat in between traditional row farming and square foot gardening. Never-the-less, it should not matter much how you space your seeds providing you remember to thin to your liking before extreme cold sets in.

Cover the seeds and run a tight rope or wire between the posts above the bed.  Make SURE this is tight. It is going to be whats prevents the snow from collapsing on the greens.

Water the bed thoroughly, making sure to get every square inch of visible dirt. Shoot for about 3/4 of an inch of water on the bed.

After watering the bed, drape a sheet of poly (as thick as you can get from a local hardware store) over the rope and begin weighting down the edges to create a poly tunnel.  Don't forget to overlap the ends across each other to prevent drafts from getting in. 

Prior to the extreme days of winter, just after planting the carrots, keep this in mind.....The average temperature under the poly will be 15-20 degrees warmer than outside temp, on a cold day.  So if Any late fall days rise back into the high 70's or 80's,  It might be wise to open a side of the poly to allow heat to escape. This might also give you a chance to check the moisture.  
This crop of carrots, if left covered, should only require the initial watering, and maybe 1 or two more waterings after about a month, month and a half.  The poly tunnel helps to prevent the moisture from escaping, allowing it to be "forgotten" for awhile.

In January, when you feel like having the sweetest, most succulent carrots (This is because the cold temperatures force most of the sugars to be stored in the root itself instead of the greens), Just brush the snow aside, lift the weights and poly off of the row and harvest like you would every other carrot.   You will probably notice that the greens are pretty small as well. Again, this is due to the carrot putting all it's energy into the root instead of the greens.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Raising Pastured Poultry : Self Sufficiency

Every year, we try to move closer and closer to a self sufficient lifestyle. Although we have eaten a few of our chickens in the past, this year was the first year we decided to raise and process ALL of our own chicken. 
The first thing we needed to decide was which breed we would get. EVERYONE gets Cornish cross (CornishX). This is what breed most commercial facilities grow. However we wanted to get a breed which still packed the pounds on fast, but didn't have as many leg problems as the X's.  You see, X's grow so fast that their bones don't grow as quickly as their muscle. This causes pain when the birds stand, walk, or even move. So most of their time is spent sitting right next to the food and water sources. The breasts get bruised, the legs and wings break easily. (Have you noticed how every other wing or drumstick is severely bruised or broken?)  Chickens never used to be this way. 
It's simple, this breed is designed for super fast turn around, plain and simple. 

After some research, we decided on Cornish roasters, instead of X's. The nice thing is that at the time of our first batch, I was working at a larger operation where they raised pastured X's for a local restaurant. And since I was in charge of caring for the birds at both locations, this allowed me to see the exact differences between each of the varieties.
Cornish crosses are supposed to get to processing size at 8-9 weeks, while the roasters are supposed to reach the same weight at 12 weeks. 

So began the daily comparisons of the two farms.

The tractors I made for pasturing our birds cost me a little under $250.00 for both. I could have easily made them cheaper using recycled materials, but i chose to purchase treated lumber and make them to last as long as possible so that we could run many batches of birds through them to recover the costs. (Yes I know this will take a few years.)
The tractors are 3'9" by 7'9"
I designed the tractors to fit perfectly inside of my 4x8 utility trailer just in case I ever needed to transport these (or other) birds to a new location.  They make one hellavu transport cage. I even used one of them to pickup three feeder hogs that we raised throughout the spring and summer as well.

Once the chicks were feathered enough to come out of the brooder, I moved them to the tractors. With cool nights still looming, I chose to run a cord out and hang a heat lamp just in case. It didnt really take a lot of time, and reassuring that the chicks wouldn't freeze to death was well worth it.

Withing another week (week 5-6) the birds were moved to better pasture where they would have fresh grass under their feet every day.  The birds still need feed and water, but they supplement their diet by eating grass and bugs. They are allowed to scratch and claw at the dirt as they please which helps prevent them from pecking each other to death.

The tractors are moved daily to ensure fresh grass and also to provide a clean spot for the birds to lay. This also means that each time you move the tractor, the birds will be fertilizing a new spot.
If you look closely at the photo above, you can see the track marks of the cage on the left from having been moved each day. Within a week or so, the flat grass and chicken waste behind the tractors will have become overgrown, lush, and green.

This is just one of our birds which we processed at week 11.  (5.5 lbs)

So what was the difference between the two farms?
1) Our birds did take about 2-3 weeks longer to feed out that the X's, which meant a little more cost in feed. (I would say an additional 20% in feed
2) Our birds had very little bone breakage and minimal bruising
3) I noticed a huge difference in the activity of the two varieties. Our birds seemed to stand and walk around much more than the X's, which i'm sure had an impact on the lack of bruising, while the X's basically lay on their breasts all day long.  When walking, the X's seem to wattle back and forth a lot more because of the unstable nature of their structures.

To Our Little Backyard Farm, the additional cost of the feed was easily justified by our choice of breed. 
Having said that,  I do not discourage anyone from buying X's.  They grow fast and furious, and raising your OWN meat birds is a much healthier option than that store bought crap!