Old-Fashioned Cooking: Leavening


(OK, so apparently this is not my week for technology – first the power was out, then the internet went down for 10 days and now my camera won’t load pictures. At least I got the post up…)
In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
There’s a reason that bread started out as a thin pancake or tortilla. Once the Ugg family came out of the caves and became real farmers, growing grain was a big deal. It was portable, versatile (think hot cereal, soups, stews and pilafs) and stored well. Eventually, Mrs Ugg figured out that if you ground the stuff between a couple of stones, it made flour, which was even more versatile. The only real problem was that the kinds of bread she could make were flat. Breads like chapatis, tortillas and the original naan bread were the standard. Mrs. Ugg wanted more.
While the history books (which tended to be written by men with time on their hands – the Mrs. Uggs having to give birth, nurse the babies, keep the cave clean, chase the kids, raise and cook the food, etc., etc., etc.) would have you believe that men came up with solutions, I suspect that the mothers were the real inventors here. They had more need and more opportunity to observe what happened when a small child (probably also female) mixed some ashes with flour and water to cook just like Mommy. An alkalinizing agent, wood ash adds lift. Looking at her daughter’s results, odds are Mrs. Ugg immediately recognized the potential of leavening and started tinkering.
As of this writing, we have five kinds of leavening agents: air, steam, yeast, baking soda and baking powder.
Air and Steam
Heated air expands. This is the principle behind beating eggs or batters until light and promptly popping them into a very hot oven. Voila – beaten biscuits, sponge cake and such. Water will also expand and turn to steam – think popovers. In most cases, cooks combined these two principles, using eggs and gluten-containing flour to beat in air and liquid as well as providing structure to the dough.
Yeast has been around at least as long as humans. I’m willing to bet that one day Mrs. Ugg was making some good old flatbread and got interrupted by husband, offspring or a wandering sabertooth tiger. The dough sat for a day or two. Imagine the surprise when she came back; she had risen bread dough. Being a thrifty sort, she decided to try cooking it anyway.
Potash (Baking Soda)
While Mrs Ugg and many primitive cultures probably added some wood ash to dishes like piki, or Hopi blue corn pancakes, eventually somebody figured out how to process wood ash into potash. OK, this somebody probably was male. Baking soda was first created in the mid-1800s and was commercially available by the time of the Civil War. Originally known as saleratus, it took a while before it became widely accepted because it didn’t always produce a tasty product.
Baking Powder
Adding cream of tartar to baking soda produced what we know know as baking powder – a much better-balanced chemical that doesn’t require an acid like vinegar or soured milk. In fact, you can make your own (which assures you won’t have any aluminum in it and may help you keep more of your brain cells as you age).
Homemade Baking Powder
This recipe comes from Amy Dacyzyn’s book, “The Tightwad Gazette.” You can make as much as you want, but be warned that this stuff will eventually get stale and not work very well. It also has no anti-caking agents, so be sure it’s stored in a nice tight container well away from moisture. Mix baking soda and cream of tartar in proportions of 2:1. In other words, two teaspoons of baking soda to one teaspoon of cream of tartar. Mix very well. Use the following amounts:
? tsp – 3/8 tsp mixture
1 tsp – ? tsp mixture
2 tsp – 1 ? tsp mixture
1 tablespoon – 2 ? tsp mixture

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Horse Vs. ATV


The horse.

The ATV.

Someone recently bought a large cattle ranch in our area. “Large” as in several thousand acres. The new owner (about whom I know absolutely nothing with the exception of what I’m writing here) has publicly stated that he does not want horses on the place. He apparently feels ATVs/4-wheelers/quads are better than horses. I don’t know how the ranch hands feel about it and I don’t know why he would hold this opinion. However, I think it’s short-sighted, for several reasons.
For those of you who don’t know much about ranching, let me give you a thumbnail sketch. A typical cattle ranch has cows, calves and bulls. Around here, calves are primarily born in late winter and very early spring. While some ranchers keep them close in smaller pastures during calving season, many run their cows on winter pastures that are hundreds if not thousands of acres. Older calves must be gathered and brought to corrals to be branded or tattooed and vaccinated. Ranch hands place ear tags to promote easy identification and castrate bull calves. In the fall, most of these calves are gathered and shipped to market. The rancher may keep some replacement heifers to raise succeeding generations. In some cases, ranchers will also ship their animals to the high mountain pastures for summer grazing. Ranch hands spend a fair amount of time checking on, doctoring, midwifing, gathering and moving cattle of various ages.

Smart girls – a good stock dog is worth its weight in gold.

Historically, all of these activities involved the use of horses. Many ranchers also use cattle dogs. With the advent of the ATV, it has become common for ranch hands to tool around on these small 4-wheel drive vehicles. An ATV has some advantages over a horse:

  • You go out and fire it up immediately – no need to groom, saddle, etc. Same thing when you get home – just park it.
  • Almost anyone can learn to ride an ATV in two or three lessons. Becoming a competent equestrian takes a minimum of a year.
  • An ATV doesn’t have to be trained. Horses require proper training, which also takes a minimum of a year.
  • As long as you keep it fueled, an ATV will keep right on going without getting tired. Horses, like people, become exhausted.
  • You can carry more supplies and tools on an ATV than a horse.
  • An ATV is more useful for daily feeding chores when hauling hay bales.

    Horses need quite a bit of gear.

    However, horses have some significant advantages over an ATV:

  • First and most important, you don’t have to drive a horse. A well-trained stock horse will respond to slight shifts in weight and knee pressure. This allows you to keep your eyes on the cows and surroundings. It also allows you to use stock dogs more effectively because you can watch them as well. And in an area with predators such as cougars or wolves, the horse can alert you to their presence.
  • Second, an experienced cow horse knows at least as much as you do about how to separate cattle. A good horse can slip into a herd and bring out that cow who needs doctoring with minimal cues from the rider.
  • Third, it’s impossible to rope a cow from an ATV.
  • Fourth, horses can go places an ATV can’t. Horses will watch their footing. An ATV will take you right over a cliff or into a ditch if you don’t pay attention.
  • Fifth, horses can reproduce themselves.
  • Sixth, you can raise the animals’ food on the ranch. As fossil fuels become more expensive and more scarce, this is an important consideration.
  • Seventh, a good stock horse gets better as it gets older – ATVs break down instead.
  • You can raise your own.

    In the long run, I think the best answer is to use both. If I’m irrigating, running down on an ATV is quick and easy. I can pop the shovel on the front and get around easily in the pasture. But for gathering cattle, especially in large areas full of rocks, gullies, dense brush and steep climbs, horses win hooves down.

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    Power Outage


    The big spring – 300 gallons a minute year round.

    Unless you’ve been living in a closet the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard about the widespread power outage “issues” in California. To say folks are a upset is rather like saying the biblical Great Flood got things a bit damp. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is a curse word these days. Of the 10 most destructive fires in California in the last four years, PG&E was responsible for half – not to mention a lot of smaller fires as well (17 of 21, according to a New York Times article).To say that they were criminally negligent seems to be an understatement – equipment as much as 25 years past its replacement point, lack of maintenance, inadequate vegetation clearance and so on. It looks as though their equipment may have also been responsible for the Kincaide fire.
    Having lived out in the country for over 50 years, I’ve long since developed survival strategies for a power outage. It’s nice when you have advance notice, which we did with this latest round. However, being without power is very hard on many people who don’t have the resources to buy a generator (and boy, has there been a run on them!). There are an awful lot of people out there who depend on medical equipment that requires electricity. And I suspect plenty of small businesses are going to go under if the power keeps going down.

    Power’s out? We can still make butter.

    For us country dwellers, the big issues are water and food storage. When this country was settled, access to water was one of the determining factors in where people built their homes – and it’s no coincidence that many early settlements were near a river, spring or creek. We are lucky enough to have a house spring that is only about 65 feet deep. Even in the five years of drought just past, we had sufficient water. We did have to be careful, as the recharge rate of the spring could be outstripped if we watered too heavily. I’m saving for a hand pump (preferably one I can convert for bicycle operation) and a big storage tank. The big spring solves the problem of pasture irrigation and water for the stock, but it’s almost a mile away – a bit far to get water for the house.
    We use freezers primarily for meat storage. The generator we have is big enough to run all of our freezers and the well pump as well as incidentals like lights. If we’re going to keep having power outages (and all the indications are that we will) I’ll probably be doing more canning and dehydrating in the future. I also shoot to have fresh food from the garden as close to year-round as possible. One of the few benefits of climate change is that my growing season is a good month longer these days.

    Summer squash is now fall squash with climate change.

    Battery-powered lights and old-fashioned oil lamps keep us illuminated (and we never let the supply of batteries or lamp oil drop too low). Our families cook with propane or the wood stove and we have a camp stove as well. And of course, the pantry is always stocked (not to mention a three-month supply of toilet paper!).
    So a power outage is not big deal for us in most cases except for one thing – communication. Power outages tend to happen in conditions of bad weather or high fire danger. Our internet and phones all went out for periods lasting from hours to weeks in the last three power outages. Cell phones don’t work in our community – the towers are too far away. As people in the Carr, Camp and Kincaide fires discovered, having reliable communication can be a lifesaver. I’m writing this blog post with the knowledge that it may be several days before I can actually post it. We do have some battery-operated radios; they’re probably going to be getting a lot more use so we can communicate with our daughter and son-in-law when they’re at the store.
    Unfortunately, I suspect this may be the new norm, and we’re going to have to develop new strategies to deal with a power outage that may last for days and be repeated on a regular basis.

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