Under cover

Before our last cold snap, we took advantage of three mild days.

One of those evenings felt as warm as summer. Earlier in the day, we seeded peas, and transplanted rhubarb, broccoli, and kale. With temperatures expected to dip into the 20s in the coming nights, we put the broccoli and kale under row cover.

Row cover is a breathable fabric that helps protect plants from frost, and some pests, while letting in sunlight and rain.

Unrolling a 100-foot long strip of fresh row cover is a pleasant task for a few reasons. It offers peace of mind that you’ve done the best you could do to care for your plants, and, when there’s a gentle spring breeze, the cloth billows in a soothing manner. On a sunny evening, it catches the light and looks like a big, shiny ribbon.

On the next day, we experienced another form of billowing material.

The weather turned out to be much nicer than forecasted, so we decided to get the plastic on our two high tunnels.

Although past experience taught us that the plastic goes up and over the tall hoops much easier with the help of a third person, we convinced ourselves this time might be different.

Naturally, the wind kicked up just as we unfolded the giant plastic.

Wind or no wind, it’s a workout to get that much plastic over the metal hoops. I moved along the ground, feeding the plastic up. It felt and smelled like the bottom of a dirty fish tank. Jason jumped up and pulled the plastic over. (Ladders, you say? Pshaw!)

As we were about to start strapping the plastic down with a cord, dark clouds rolled in and a strong wind weaseled its way under the tunnel.

’Twas hubris that led us here.

For what felt like an eternity, we clung to the plastic as it flapped above our heads. It wasn’t as fun as the parachute in elementary school.

After a week of cold nights, the plants did fine under the row cover. The forecast finally looks favorable for growing. And that’s good because flats of seeds are stacked four high in our basement, and our seedlings are desperate for sun.

While our plants will be thriving outside soon, we’ve got bacteria multiplying in the house, under lids and flour cloth. 

There’s much to love about fermented foods, from taste to health benefits, but the cost and garbage waste adds up when you buy them at the store. So, this year, we’ve got several weird looking and smelling things growing in our kitchen.

Fermentation is intimidating. There’s usually a lot of steps over a period of time, and lots of rules and suggestions. It multiplies living creatures on your countertop. Basically, you’ve invited The Blob into your kitchen.

Right now, I have three fermented balls in the air: yogurt, kombucha, and sourdough bread.

To start the yogurt, I used plain yogurt from the store. For the milk, Hartzler Family Dairy, which you can find in returnable glass bottles at the Meadville Market House.

Yogurt must be one of the simplest ways to start fermenting. Different instructions give you a range of temperatures, so it’s not an exact science. I heat the milk to 180 degrees, and then let it cool to 120. (A candy thermometer is a must.)

The only challenge is keeping the yogurt at a steady temperature until it firms up. Invest in a high-quality cooler, if you’re going that route. Our cooler was not well insulated, and it was a pain to keep the water warm enough. This meant my yogurt stayed in the cooler for hours longer than it should, and took on an overly tart taste.

We eat a lot of yogurt, so constant monitoring of the cooler’s temperature wasn’t practical. My mother-in-law dug out a yogurt maker she had somewhere, still in the box. It’s basically a warming plate for your yogurt. Works like a charm in less than half the time. If you’re a serious yogurt eater, I’d recommend a yogurt maker.

Thank you, trusty yogurt maker. 

Thank you, trusty yogurt maker. 

Now, on to my private humiliation. Kombucha.

I took a kombucha class, and was given starter tea and a scoby by the patient and kind Laura Frost.

She has a terrific, easy recipe.

So easy, that only a damn fool would end up accidentally throwing out an entire batch because she mistakenly thought it was moldy, then make another batch and actually have it get moldy. Then, make a third batch, and grow mold once more.

Laura kindly brought me a new scoby after the first mistake, and offered to provide more. She correctly diagnosed that I wasn’t adding enough starter tea. (It’s clearly written in her directions, but I have a real problem with following even the simplest, clearest instructions.)

However, the tiny patch of mold that floated in my last batch was so inexplicable that I decided to test fate. I scooped it off, and watched this new batch for a few days. No new mold. The scoby appeared to be growing bigger and squishier. And the brew smelled delicious.

So, I tried it.

It tasted like kombucha, and I didn’t die. Victory! (For the record, I DO NOT endorse ever consuming moldy kombucha. A life of danger isn’t for everyone.)

Kombucha taking over our cupboard.

Kombucha taking over our cupboard.

This small batch of successful tea will be my “scoby hotel,” as they call it, to keep my scoby healthy and reproducing for future batches of kombucha.

From this new starter tea, I started a brand new full batch. No mold yet, and the scoby is growing.

Emboldened by my kombucha triumph, I felt ready to tackle sourdough bread. Ashley Cowles, of The Small Town Foodie blog, kindly provided me with sourdough starter and guidance.

Reading about sourdough is overwhelming. Everyone seems to have a different technique and set of rules.

I ended up bouncing between a recipe online, and Mark Bittman’s more straight forward directions in my favorite kitchen tome, “How to Cook Everything.” Due to a certain degree of ineptitude when it comes to baking, and, as I mentioned earlier, a lifelong inability to thoroughly read directions, I ended up kind of winging it.

To my surprise, each phase of the process kept magically working out.

Ready to rise again before going in the oven!

Ready to rise again before going in the oven!

On the morning I put the dough in the oven, Silas woke up just as the crust turned golden and crispy.

A few minutes later, he sat at the island, chewing his sourdough and honey breakfast. He smiled at me, and said, “I think you did it, mommy. I real proud of you.”

The finished loaves. Chewy and delicious inside, with a crispy crust. 

The finished loaves. Chewy and delicious inside, with a crispy crust.