September 2009


Photo by Alecsandro Andrade de Melo

Photo by Alecsandro Andrade de Melo

Best if used by.   Use before.    Good until.

These little stamps on your dairy containers may feel like rigid expirations, but knowing how dairy changes over time will allow you to extend the use of it past the due date.

Sour cream: Sour cream sweetens when it ages. It actually transforms into regular ol’ cream cheese. At my store, sour cream is half the price of cream cheese, so I end up planning ahead and refrigerating the sour cream past expiration. It’s not so great for spur-of-the-moment cheesecake, but if you are a regular baker or just like your morning bagel, it’s a great way to have sour cream for stroganoff and cream cheese for later.

Yogurt: We’ve all opened an old yogurt container and found the top covered with a light yellow liquid. A lot of people assume the yogurt is expired. Mais non! As yogurt ages, the live cultures continue to multiply. These cultures make yogurt more sour, and the liquid that rises is actually whey that separates as the yogurt settles. Draining whey out of fresh yogurt is how companies make the thick European yogurt, often called “Greek yogurt.”

Pour off the liquid (or feed it to your chickens/hog in their feed), and use it for waffles or baking; the sour is an acid that will react with baking soda to make your batter rise. Sour cream coffee cake has a great flavor when sharp yogurt is substituted for the sour cream — which you’ll be aging for your bagels, right?

Milk: Ah, sour milk. Great to replace buttermilk in most recipes, and used in quick breads to react with the baking soda and make everything rise. There are recipes online for a multitude of foods that use sour milk, from pancakes to breaded chicken to cookies. Cook anything that has added sour milk.

Be sure to know the difference between sour and spoiled. Taste it to learn the flavor, as unpleasant as that may be.

In general, milk starts to sour within 6 days of the Use By date. However, this is not conclusive; there are many reasons milk can sour earlier. Use all dairy products before they thicken, curdle, and become discolored. Unless you have introduced special bacteria (cultures) to make cheese, the curdled dairy is not considered safe for human consumption.

As always, keep your dairy products refrigerated in the safety zone (lower than 43 degrees Fahrenheit) until ready to use, and never use anything that smells rancid or has discoloration. It is okay to warm the dairy in the microwave or on the stove just before adding it to breads.

If you have any favorite recipes for sour milk or yogurt, please share them in the comments below!

As you may know, I am a proponent of free and cheap gardening, a hobby and for anyone who wants to grow decoration and food.

Not too long ago, I came home to a beaming fella, who unveiled a new garden bed that he built at the front of our house. Hooray! It’s a bit rough right now, but it will be a nice landscaping point that we can continue to improve upon over time.

Items used:

  • Box boards, nails, stakes: Recycled from a rotten deck that we ripped apart in May.
  • Lining/weedblock: Extra-thick cardboard reused from appliance packaging.
  • Soil: Tagro, free from the city to anyone willing to shovel and drive it home.

Plants:

  • Nasturtiums: Gifted transplants
  • Gladiolas (hiding in the back): Gifted bulblets
  • Columbine: Split transplant
  • Lavender: Rescued from community garden compost pile

It adds a bit of color and fun to the front of our house. You can’t have enough fun.

photo by Phil Beard

photo by Phil Beard

According to Ron Phipps’ latest market report of the American Honey Producers Association, the greater demand for honey in the marketplace, matched with the declining bee population and harsh weather conditions, is fostering the concern that demand for quality honey is growing beyond the supply available. With the poor economy, the high price of honey, and “honey-laundering” (the illegal import of substandard honey watered down with HF corn syrup or containing harmful chemicals),  more people are turning to backyard beekeeping, and selling or buying excess honey at farmers’ markets and various local small businesses.

Many consumers (and even some beekeepers) believe that the grades for honey are unregulated. After all, no one can follow each bee to determine the type of flower where she is harvesting nectar. For all we know, she could be the one buzzing inside a littered coke can. But it is fairly simple to determine quality honey if you know what to look for.

Yes, all honey is not of the same quality, and in 1985, the US Department of Agriculture released the US Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey. Quality is determined with a points system. Points are awarded for the percent of solids, the absence of defects, and the flavor, aroma and clarity in the final product.

Honey ranges in color from water white to dark amber, depending on the age and the type of plants used for nectar. Honey can be darkened over time or with the application of heat. Lighter honey has a more delicate flavor; darker honey has a more pronounced flavor. Depending on the way that the honey is harvested and processed, it can be clear or muddy (with crystals, air, or other inclusions). You can also find honey that contains honeycomb in the jar, like the opening picture above.

All honey types have best uses. Lighter honey is great for adding sweetness in cooking, or to replace sugar. Darker honey is great for syrups and spreads that need a deeper flavor. Honey that is labeled “creamed” is actually muddy with air bubbles, and is great for spreads or candies.

Raw honey is the most common honey available from backyard beekeepers. It is simply strained and bottled, and contains the antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins, and other benefits that are lost when the honey is heated. Some people believe that it has a better flavor, and that small quantities of local raw honey will help reduce allergies. Raw honey does crystallize faster, but the crystals will not affect flavor, and will melt back into honey under a low heat.

The process for gaining a US standard honey grade costs a lot of money, and must be updated per batch, making the process prohibitive to small or hobby beekeepers that sell in the farmers’ markets and local businesses. Most small producers do not get their honey graded, but it does not mean that the honey is substandard. Often, it is even more flavorful because it is handled in small batches. In these instances, you can use the US grading guidelines to help you buy the best honey.

All honey should follow the following conditions:

  1. No defects affect the appearance of or edibility of honey.
  2. Flavor is at least reasonably free from smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other additions.
  3. The appearance is not seriously affected by air bubbles, pollen, grains, or other particles (this condition is not applicable for strained or raw honey).

Grade A honey is practically free of defects, with a good flavor and high clarity.

Grade B honey is reasonable free of defects, with a reasonable good flavor and clarity.

Grade C honey is fairly free of defects, with a fairly good flavor and clarity.

Honey that has failed Grade C requirements is given a Substandard grade.

The next time you see a honey booth giving out samples, take a moment to try a bit, look at a jar through the sun, and ask the beekeeper about their bees and how they filter or strain their product. Beekeepers are fun and passionate about their bees, and tasting different honeys will help you learn more about the quality.

In general, if it looks good and tastes good, then it’s a good buy. You don’t need a government grade to tell you what tastes good.

Resources:

Seattle PI on honey laundering
Washington State Beekeepers Association
American Honey Producers
US Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey
Federal regulations governing inspection and certification:

In order to avoid building a garden bed during the heat of the day, fella and I visited Foxberry Farm in Puyallup. Tomatoes are in full swing there, oceans of red on the vine. We were given a couple 5-gallon buckets and told to go to town.

Foxberry farm is absolutely beautiful, lush and artistically laid out. Driving down the way to the farm is like entering a dreamy new land. The fence around the home is composed of trellised grape vines, which have been partially cut back to allow purple concord grapes the chance to ripen fully in the sun. Pears hang from a perfect tree in a perfectly-tended lawn that surrounded a white gazebo. A plum tree sits back behind the berry grove, and tomatoes and squash are planted simply, the tomatoes in rows with plenty of walking space between them.

Cindi Fox welcomed us and checked in as we picked early girl tomatoes, happily chatting and telling us why her and her husband choose various types of plants and how everything is tended. When I saw a honey filter, I asked if they kept bees. We were led to the back, where they kept their hives. They harvested honey, but they also keep bees to ensure heavy pollination.

Interestingly enough, the bees shared the chicken run, happily buzzing about while the handful of chickens came to the fence to see who we were and, most importantly, if we had grain.

The small farm is delightful, but here I was amazed. In backyard chicken keeping, chicken tractors are enthusiastically supported, because then you can move them about before the chickens tear up the landscape. I’ve always thought that a caged bird is a caged bird, never mind if the cage can roll to a new location. The chickens never seem happy in a trailer.

The chickens at Foxberry Farm have a small, wheeled shelter, and they have a run with a small tree. Yes, some paths and dust-bath areas were free of grass, but a large area was green and taller than the poultry. There was no smell, and the chickens were lively, pecking at weeds and making a little noise.

As we were driving away, I turned to fella and breathed, “That’s what I want.” The farm was well-tended, clean, and organized, displaying the bounty of nature in a well thought-out design.

Foxberry Farm is a tidy U-Pick farm with a harvest season from June through October, but since seasons are weird, call them at 253-926-8407 to see what’s ready. They offer:

* Honey
* Berries (raspberries and thornless blackberries)
* Plums (regular and Italian)
* Beans
* Squash
* Cucumbers
* Dahlias
* Tomatoes (canning)
* Peppers
* Potato
* Rhubarb
* Corn
* Pumpkins
* Pears
* Grapes (will juice on-site for raw juice and wine-making)