Got Milk?

cowAs a cheese maker, a mom, a consumer and a 2015 Illinois Farm Family City Mom, I was delighted to be invited to tour the Dean Foods and one of their suppliers, Lindale Holesteins’, a local, family owned Dairy Farm.

The Lindale Farm is located about an hour and a half from my home outside Chicago.  It is amazing how quickly city life and strip malls are replaced by rolling fields and livestock.  The farm is beautiful and looks just like you wish all farms would look.  There is no sign of factory farming here.  The animals are in open air pens with plenty of room to move around and bedding deep enough to lose little boy blue.  The animals are let out to pasture twice a day, and they looked pretty content cozying up to each other.  Children and dogs are running around and most of the family is involved in the operation.  There is also a veterinarian on staff that manages the feed and health of the animals.

The actual milking takes place twice a day and it takes 3 1/2 hours each time.  That is 7 hours a day, 365 days a year.  What a responsibility!  Although they have state of the art milking equipment, it is still a hands on operation.  The cows are led into the milking parlour.  Their udders are cleaned by hand and they are then hooked up to the pump.  Once the flow subsides, the pump automatically disconnects from the udders and the cows are sent back out of the parlour. The milk is stored in tanks and never touches human hands or the air.  Once it gets to Dean’s, it will be pasteurized.

This visit to a family owned dairy farm was wonderful.  The animals are treated well and the family takes pride in providing our community clean, safe milk.

Soil Testing…Why Bother?

soil testI have been an avid backyard gardener for the last 7 years or so.  For the first 5 years or more, I had no idea what I was doing.  It was all a big science experiment.  My yard and my veggies were my subjects.  Some years it worked out and some years it didn’t.  The blueberries did well (I had advice from my uncle who has grown blueberries for 40+ years).  The carrots were hit and miss. Some years they did great, but  other years they did not grow at all or the roots were small (that is when I learn about thinning seedlings).  For years I planted garlic in the Spring.  I finally found out that it needs to be planted in the Fall in the climate where we live outside Chicago.  All of my gardening knowledge was obtained via books, Google, talking to other gardeners and trial and error.

Lately, however, I have been learning more about my edible gardening passion as I study to become a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.  Through these classes and volunteer opportunities  I have realized that I have been doing a lot of things correctly, but even more things incorrectly.  The biggest mistake I believe I have made is never getting a soil test.  I was well aware of the possibilities of lead laden soil around my almost 100 year old home, so I built raised beds.  Yet, beyond lead, I never thought of having my soil tested.  For years I happily added compost, leaves, manure, mushroom compost and occasionally handfuls of organic fertilizers with abandon.  It was a rite of Spring and sometimes for good measure, a rite of Fall, too.   I never considered if my beds actually needed the amendments or what nutrients the soil and ultimately, my plants, required.

Fast forward to last week.  After spending a morning at the Cook County Farm Bureau  and hearing about their fantastic services, I decided it was time to get my soil tested.  The Farm Bureau has an arrangement with the University of Illinois Extension so if you sign a consent, your results will be shared with the Master Gardener volunteers that run the plant clinic . Then, as a free service, the Master Gardeners  will be available to help you interpret your results.  It is a great service and it is likely that you will need help with the interpretation (at least I did).  As part of my training, I am learning to interpret these results, so if you happen to get me on the phone when you call for help, I apologize in advance.

This is how it works:

  1. Obtain a soil testing kit.  There are a few labs across the country that do soil testing but many university extension offices will help you get your samples to their preferred lab.  Here in Illinois, the U of I Extension office has a list of labs that they will provide for you to contact.  I found it easier to go through the Cook County Farm Bureau instead of contacting a lab directly because they provide you with a package all put together with everything you need.  They gave me an educational packet of information,  a pre-paid label with a box, proper collection bags and the paperwork that needs to go with your sample.  They are also very friendly.  I had to pay the sample fee when I picked up the packet (they also mail them to you, but I happen to be there) so be sure to figure out how many samples you plan to take before you call.  Each sample cost me $20 because I am a CCFB member.  I believe it is $30/sample for non members.   Lead testing is a different fee.
  2. Fill out the forms with basic information like Name/address, etc.  Then, answer a few questions such as  “What will you be growing here?”,  ” Have you applied fertilizer?  If so, When? ” ,”Have you added organic matter?”, etc.    There are about 6 or 7 questions on the form and you need to fill one out for each area of your yard/garden that you are sampling.
  3. Take your samples.  There is a diagram that explains how to take the samples.  If you have a veggie bed, you can take multiple cores from that bed and included it as one sample.  In my case, I took 3 samples.  One from each of my two veggie beds and one from my blueberry patch.  In retrospect, I probably could have taken cores from each raised veggie bed and mixed those into one sample.
  4. Put your samples in the box they give you with the prepaid UPS label and call UPS for a pickup as soon as possible (or drop it off at a UPS location).  The sample should not sit around or it will dry out and alter the results.
  5. I received my results in PDF form in about a week via email. It was that simple!

What the results show you:

There is a lot of information on the documents they send you back, but the most important items for home gardeners are the pH of your soil, the % of organic matter, and levels of nutrients such as Phosphorus (P1), Potassium (K), Magnesium (Mg) and Calcium (Ca) and some fertilizing recommendations.  It also give you a measurement of your soil’s Calculated Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC).  You can view a slide show explaining CEC here, but CEC basically deals with the availability of nutrients in your soil.  All of this information can be helpful in determining which plants will do well in your soil and how to amend your soil to support the plants you wish to grow .  Keep in mind that changes to soil can take time so it is best to get a soil test the year before you are going to plant.  Of course, most of us do not plan that far in advance.  I am, in fact, 7 years too late to do that. So, I will leave you with one word of caution…

It is always better to plant  things that will grow well in your soil and in your environmental conditions than to try to drastically alter your soil!  If your soil cannot easily support what you want to grow, consider using raised beds or pots.

I hope to post some details about what my report actually showed for my garden and the actions I took.  What do you think?  Will you get a soil test this year?

We built a bunch of garden beds

GardenbedsWe built some garden beds at our school today.  We have had a great little veggie garden the last few years, but it had a bit too much shade and bit too little access to water.  A very dedicated teacher spent the summers watering it without much help and without a spigot nearby.  So, our very generous PTO agreed to fund a new garden using some wood taken down during the construction of our new playground.  The new garden beds will have more sun and are very close to water.  My husband designed the beds and went to buy all the supplies last night with my oldest daughter (while I took a bath and the little kids watched a movie!).  Then, a great group of volunteers spent about 4 hours today building 7 beds that are approximately 4ft. X 8ft.  We lined the beds to keep the existing soil and contaminants from the wood out and will be getting a delivery of a high quality soil/compost mix in the next week or so.  I think they turned out great.  I cannot wait to start planting.  I just hope the kids enjoy it.  The best part of this project is that we hope to have families in our school community sign up to care for the garden for one week over the Summer.  They will be responsible for weeding, watering and harvesting (for themselves or others) for their assigned week.  If we do well, we hope to take some extra produce over to the Food Pantry.  Does your school have a vegetable garden?

Sowing Winter Seeds

My favorite kale to winter sow is Lacinato Kale

My favorite kale to winter sow is Lacinato Kale

It is still pretty cold here in our little corner of Chicago.  In fact, my kids had to line up for school inside today rather than on the playground due to the wind chill.  But, it is bright and sunny and it is making me anxious to get out and start planting.  Even though the tulips, garlic and crocuses are poking up, the ground still feels frozen to me.  Some may call me obsessive, but I cannot wait to get out there.  Since, I can’t plant directly in my veggie beds, I am going to do the next best thing…winter sow in containers.I first learned about winter sowing  in containers in a gardening class I took through a local Park District.  I am now ADDICTED. It feeds my values of gardening early, growing food, and reusing old containers.  Here is what you need:

  1. Any transparent or semi-transparent plastic container with a wide lid or a plastic milk jug that can be easily cut.  You will be amazed how many containers you will find that were headed for the recycling or trash.   I use milk jugs, clear clamshell containers from berries, clear plastic bottles from juice, and pint sized containers with lids from our local Chinese restaurant.
  2. A good quality seed starting mix.  I use store bought to make it easier, but you could make your own.  Do not use garden soil as it will be too heavy and dense and might have diseases.
  3. Cold season vegetable seeds.  Think lettuces, broccoli, kale, arugula, peas or spinach;  Not, tomatoes, melons or peppers.
  4. Scissors and/or something to puncture holes in the plastic.  A drill works nicely on harder plastics (like my containers that held $10 worth of chocolate covered almonds that I had to have from Costco)
  5. Clear, wide packing tape.

Once you have collected your materials, you are read to begin!

  1. Puncture air and drainage holes in the bottom of the container and around the top of the container or in the lid (if it is a wide mouthed container).
  2. For narrow mouthed containers (like milk jugs), you need to cut around the midline of the container to allow access to the plants once they grow.  I like to cut almost all the way around leaving a few inches still attached.  This allows me to use the handle of the milk jug to pull back the lid I have just created without the top and bottom being completely detached.
    milkjug   milkjug2
  3. Add soil and seeds.
  4. Water gently (a clean spray bottle works nicely)
  5. Close the lid on  wide mouth containers and/or tape over the line you just cut on the narrow mouthed containers to help keep the moisture in and to keep the seedlings protected from the wind.
  6. Set  the containers outside in the sunniest spot of your yard even if it is still cold.  I have mine up and down my back stairs.   I have found that seeds sown this way tend to be stronger and healthier plants than those I grow under lights in my basement because they are protected, but are not completely sheltered.  The seeds basically have the best of two worlds:  their own mini greenhouse and gradual exposure to their future growing conditions.
  7. When the seeds sprout, you can remove the lid  or pull back the lid to allow the seeds more room to grow and direct access to the sunlight.
  8. When the seedlings are ready and the weather is cooperating, transplant them into your garden.

Enjoy!  Please post and let us know how your seedlings are doing!

Gratitude journal

P1210653My husband asked me to start a gratitude journal with him and write in it every night together at bedtime.  My husband is a writer, an artist, a songwriter, a musician and an all around artsy guy.  I guess that comes with making a living as an architect.  I have my crafty moments (like when I make snack bags for the kids and when I decorate cakes or when I knit), but I am not really good at introspection and journaling.  I am way more into taking family photos to document our lives.  So, I kind of blew off his suggestion.  This blog  and Facebook is the closest I get to writing about anything.

I have already written about my husband’s extensive journaling of our family’s life.  He likes to write about and sketch most things that go on in our lives.  He has pages of drawings of home modifications that will never happen, ideas for songs, quick sketches of our kids doing everyday things, ideas for businesses, and a variety of lists…books to read, movies he loves, movies he hates, music he wants to buy…the list of the lists could go on and on.  Someday, my kids will fight over all the sketch books and journals lying around our house with their father’s notes, drawings, songs and dreams.

When my kids were babies he started a little notebook for each one of them.  Whenever we visit family, we have our relatives write notes to our children in their respective books. My 8 year old is on to her second book.  Of course, the younger kids do not have as many entries (because they are younger and because by the time you get to three kids you forget to bring the notebooks to many family events).  It is so much fun to go through them now and see notes from grandmas, grandpas, great grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles about our babies learning to crawl, learning to walk, mispronouncing funny words, going to school for the first time, having holidays together and riding bikes.  I look at these books as “baby books” for lazy parents.  I have somehow convinced my extended family to keep track of all my kids’ milestones so I will not have to.  Not bad, huh? I do try to jot down a few lines when the kids do something noteworthy or we have a particularly good day, but I do not do it often enough.

So, in an attempt to contribute to our family’s history and herstory I am going to take my hubby up on his offer and give this gratitude journal a try.  What do you think?

Play us a song you’re the piano girl…

P1210613Today, my 8 year old had her first piano recital at the Merit School of Music.  It wasn’t exactly a recital, though.  It was kind of a competition.  She had to play in front of two judges who took notes and graded her.  Then, they will let her teacher know how she is doing.  There was also an audience that we were not expecting.   I thought that might throw her for a loop.   It didn’t.  She was confident and happy even though I was pretty sure she had not really memorized her second piece.  My daughter is hardly a virtuoso (many of the other kids at this recital definitely were).  She doesn’t really take her lessons or practicing very seriously.  She sometimes crys that she does not want to play anymore.  But, then hours later, I catch her at the piano playing for fun.   She is not particularly motivated by her teacher’s approval or her disapproval.  She just kind of plays when she wants and doesn’t when she doesn’t want (which I think is just fine for an 8 year old).  She was actually supposed to play one of her pieces last year at the same event, but never bothered to memorize it so her teacher pulled it and her from the competition. But, today, her teacher and she thought she was ready.  And she was.

She was definitely not the best.  She made mistakes and I was right that she still had not completely memorized her second song.  Yet, she was cheerful and excited and confident.  She marched right up to the front of the room without hesitation when they called her name.  She smiled at the judges and the crowd.  They asked her if she wanted to warm up with some scales.  She was the only kid who said “no” (I am not even sure if she knows what a scale is).  She played her best and was not fazed by her mistakes.  At the end of her two songs rather than taking a bow like some of the more polished kids did, she stretched both arms up in the air and yawned right in front of the judges. Was it relief?  Nerves?  Stress?  Probably not.  She was just up late last night (to hang out with me playing guitar) and up early this morning (for a fantastic Purim Carnival) and she saw no real reason to hide the fact that she was tired.  Then, she skipped back to sit with me and watch the other kids.

I am so proud of my daughter.  She will most likely never be a fabulous musician. I doubt she will get a piano scholarship to a prestigious university.  She may not even continue to play piano in the future (I quit when I was about 12).  But, today showed me that she will try almost anything and has no fear.  She does not get down on herself when she makes mistakes.  She just takes it in stride. She does not see limitations.  She sees opportunities.  She will try anything even if she is not the best.   In some ways she is a lot like me, but in most ways she is a lot better.

You can’t be allergic to Penicillin

My darling little 8 year old had a severe allergic reaction to penicillin this week.  Most parents would have been terrified (I was, deep inside); Most parents would have rushed to grab the Benedryl (I did, eventually); Most parents would have comforted their kid (I did, after I grabbed the camera).  I am not most parents.  I am a wannabe cheesemaker.  So the only thing that popped into my twisted head was “I wonder if she can still eat Blue Cheese?”.

Bad Mommy.

This got me thinking about food allergies and how difficult it must be for parents with kids who have them.  Peanuts?  Wheat? Corn? Soy?  The list is endless and the dangers are real. I have kids with chronic health issues but I am not sure I could successfully manage food allergies. Kudos to those of you doing it!

It’s Like Budd-er

Bread and Homemade Butter

Bread and Homemade Butter

The kids were a little stir crazy after two half days at school this week.  One was sick so we couldn’t really leave the house and their making forts out of my furniture was starting to get on my nerves.  So, I decided to come up with a kitchen project for the 3 of us to do while the little one gorged on Pedialyte popsicles and watched TV in the guestroom all day.  I always have stacks of recipes, notes and cookbooks lying around.  The note about making butter had been waiting for me for weeks, but I never had time to do it.  Today, we had nothing but time and since I have been prepping all week to teach a cheese making class, I just happened to have 2 pints of heavy cream.So, the kids rallied and washed their hands.  We poured the cream into my KitchenAid and measured the salt.   Unfortunately, I started the mixer a little too high and suddenly everyone in a four County radius ended up splattered with cream.  The kids thought that was hilarious.  I kind of did, too.

Kneading the Butter
Kneading the Butter

After about 5 minutes of mixing, I lost my sous chefs.  They went back to ransacking  my house while I waited for my cream to stop looking like whipped cream.  Had it not been for the salt, I might have stopped the mixer and grabbed a spoon.  I love whipped cream.  But, I was committed to this little project even if my helpers were not. After about 10 more minutes the cream broke and suddenly I had beautiful yellow butter sloshing around in buttermilk.  My 8 year old decided she had to see that I actually made butter so she came back and helped me knead the butter to release the rest of the liquid.  We cannot wait to make buttermilk pancakes tomorrow.

Epic Failure: My Attempt to Make Squeaky Cheese Curds

Cooking the curds

It started innocently enough.  A friend asked about making cheese curds on Facebook and I jumped at the opportunity to try it.  For those of you who are not familiar with cheese curds check out this description from New England Cheesemaking Supply.  Of course, I have gotten squeaky curds when I was attempting to get another cheese, but I have never tried to make them from scratch.  So, I set out to try a recipe I found online.  Heat the milk, add calcium chloride, add cultures, add rennet.  Wait.  So far so good.

I knew I had a problem when it was time to cut the curd and start draining them.  It just didn’t look right to me.  It seemed too dry and the curd mat was not sticking together even with weight.  I am sure more experienced cheesemaker would have been able to salvage the curds, but it is possible they would have had the same problem.  So, I set out to do what I always do when I have a cheese failure.  I made ricotta!  The best part about cheesemaking is that it is an adventure and you never know what you might get.  Sometimes, even the mistakes are DELICIOUS!


Draining the curds

My fresh ricotta over pasta

My fresh ricotta over pasta

Have Your Cake and Eat it, too

8th Birthday Sushi Cake

8th Birthday Sushi Cake

When I was little, my mom always made me a homemade birthday cake.  I never had a store bought cake and therefore decided in my own mind that they were somehow inferior.  Now, that I have my own kids, it has always been an unspoken rule that I would make all of their birthday cakes. I take great pride in planning, baking, decorating and serving my homemade cakes (sometimes I cheat and use mixes, but I always decorate them myself).  They never look professional and they always have little finger marks in them,  but they are my creations and they always reflect the theme of the party.  Although I am sure the kids remember the jumpy houses and the ponies and dancing the limbo, the cakes have become some of the fondest memories of my kids’ birthdays for me.

cupcakes       2nd Birthday Cupcakes

Train Cake

Train Cake

I clearly remember sobbing at 10 pm the night before my son’s 2nd birthday because I could not get his train cake out of the pan.  I baked that one 3 times before I actually got one that didn’t break.    I remember the first time I worked with fondant, the tons of decorated cupcakes that outnumbered the guests at my littlest daughter’s 2nd birthday and the replica of Wrigley Field that required my husband’s help (what is an outfield?).  I remember the bird cookies that had to accompany the bird cake and decorating them to look realistic because my 7 year old would know the difference.   I remember begging my husband to help me squish pink and white gumdrops together to mold small shrimp for the top of my daughter’s “Sushi” cake.

So, tonight I am staying up late trying to figure out what kind of cake to make for my soon to be 5 year old.  She is having a gymnastics party and I have lots of ideas, but very little time.  Maybe this year will be the year I finally buy a store bought cake.  Yeah, probabably not.

  P1210651  P1210653

P1140031  7th bdayP1170676