Posts Tagged ‘learning’

“Adventures in Baking” by Cindy

I am so lucky – I live in a house full of people who love to cook. Until last night, I hadn’t cooked dinner in months. I usually get home the latest, so by the time I get here, there is already a team busily chopping, mixing, spicing, and sometimes dancing. I get to come home to a warm cooking smell most nights, and I like it.

I used to make up for my cooking slackerness by washing lots of dishes, but Joan is a mad dishwasher, so my kitchen duties have been greatly reduced. I’m not complaining, that’s for sure, but sometimes I do feel a little guilty about enjoying all this delicious food that I did not participate in making. Thus, when I can muster up some extra energy, I bake.

Normally, baking is something I enjoy – especially as the laws of quality control mean I get to eat as many of the treats as I want (I am confident that the waistband laws are negated when you do the baking yourself). Lately, however, my forays into the oven have been complicated by some dietary needs. Specifically, I have had to start baking both vegan and gluten-free. At the same time. Now, either of these diets can be dealt with quite easily in regular baking, but putting them together complicates the process a great deal. I can make some pretty decent gluten-free brownies and cookies because the eggs hold them together and are delicious. On the vegan side – wacky cake is always a crowd pleaser, but the wheat makes it good.

Why this sudden need for super expensive flours? John is on a three-month, egg-free, dairy-free and wheat-free diet because he tested highly-reactive to these foods, and the naturopath believes that this may be affecting his breathing. We are hoping the diet will either “reset” his system or eliminate diet as the reason for his breathing difficulties.

Anyway, a hungry John is an unhappy John, so I set about trying to find ways to make some treats to appease his grumbly belly and hopefully make this whole diet thing less of a hardship. Thank goodness sugar is still allowed! It’s also nice to be able to make some treats that Joan can eat, as she’s allergic to gluten. Aside from the interesting “Soil Block Brownies” experiment of last year, I hadn’t done much work with gluten-free flours. In that recipe, I used coconut flour, which created an interesting moist texture, and worked well with the brownies, but I was allowed to use eggs for that one.

As a side note – John attempted to do a one-for-one substitution of coconut flour for wheat flour in his cornmeal muffin recipe, and the result was… interesting. Coconut flour should not be substituted one-for-one. Some websites even suggest going as low as 1/4 cup of coconut flour for 1 cup of wheat flour. Everyone else liked the coconutty cornmeal muffins, but I thought they tasted undercooked. We’ll call that Experiment 2.

Experiment 3 involved oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. I had researched some flour mixes online (great information at these sites: gluten free girl, gluten free mommy , gluten free goddess. From one of these sites (I think the Mommy one), I made a list of the flours I would need to make palatable treats. John picked them up when he was in Victoria, and a hundred dollars later, I was ready to go (brown rice flour, sorghum flour, tapioca flour, sweet rice flour, xanthum gum, and egg replacer). I had learned from my research that the most commonly available gluten-free flour mix (Bob’s) is very beany, which does not give a great flavour or texture to most baking (poor Yan did not learn this before he attempted his gluten-free pizza crust – so we’ll call that Experiment 4), so I opted to try having all the recommended flours on hand and mixing them as required for various recipes.

So, oatmeal choco chip cookies were on their way. I found a simple recipe that only called for two eggs (I decided that it would be terrible folly to try and use egg replacer for more than two eggs – also based on some highly technical internet research), and decided to use gluten-free goddess’ Blend 1 (because who can argue with a goddess – even a self-identified one?). Her blend is:
1 cup sorghum flour
1/2 cup millet, almond or buckwheat flour
1 cup tapioca, potato starch or corn starch (not potato flour!)
1 teaspoon xanthan gum

Of course, I didn’t have millet, almond or buckwheat flour, so I just went ahead and used brown rice flour instead. The resulting cookies were quite good. I thought they had a bit of an aftertaste, and John thought that they somehow tasted a bit too healthy for cookies (next time, more margarine!), but they were edible. We also learned that while oats themselves are gluten-free, they are usually processed on the same equipment as wheat, so you have to buy oats that are labeled gluten-free. Otherwise, your poor unsuspecting roommate might have a reaction to the gluten from the oatmeal, and you will feel so bad you’ll feel compelled to make her a whole batch of truly gluten-free chocolate chip cookies to make it up to her.

We’ll call that Experiment 3.5 because I used butter and eggs for that one and the same flour mix. It turns out that gluten-free flour mixes really behave differently from your regular wheat mixes. This means that the cookies pretty much melted into one big cookie blanket. I cut them apart, and they were floppy and delicious, but I would consider reducing the amount of butter in that one and adding in a heartier flour to the mix. I just followed a regular choco chip cookie recipe from the Joy of Cooking.

Experiment 5 involved making biscuits to go along with the soup I was making for dinner last night. Both the soup recipe and the biscuit recipe came from “ExtraVEGANza”, a cookbook that Yan and Jess got us for Wedding Part 1, and that has become a favourite around here. The soup was potato parsnip, and quite good. The biscuit recipe was not gluten-free, but feeling emboldened by my previous successes, such as they were, I just went ahead and threw together a mix out of the leftover Bob’s blend, the leftover mix from the cookie baking, and some added brown rice flour.

I had read somewhere that gluten-free batters tend to behave like doughs and doughs like flours, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at my inability to stir the mix into a rollable dough. Even Yan’s power-stirring wouldn’t bind the mix together. I finally remembered that I probably needed to add some xanthum gum to compensate for the added brown rice flour, and that helped a little, but in the end I gave up and dropped the batter-like dough onto the cookie sheet like cookies. The resulting biscuits looked a little funny, like budding sea anenomes, and were a bit heavy for biscuits, but they tasted pretty good. Joan still found them a bit beany from the Bob’s mix, but I didn’t mind it so much in this context.

You may be wondering why I have been choosing to try and adapt regular recipes instead of finding ones that have already been adapted from any of the above-mentioned sites. In my searching, I found their recipes didn’t really match my palate (I’m not making any disgusting pumpkin treats, no matter how much John might like them – I can’t quality control what I won’t eat!), or they called for too many eggs. There was also the problem of John’s aversion to bananas. It’s a bit sad because bananas are great in baking, but if a banana has so much as been waved in the general direction of a baked good, John won’t eat it. Then, when I searched for gluten-free vegan, most of the recipes also strove to be sugar-free, and I’m not really interested in that at the moment. I still want dessert to taste like dessert.

Anyway, the cookies are almost gone, and we are going to a potluck tomorrow, so it looks like the next experiment will be back to brownies. They are usually pretty safe because you can mask weird tastes with extra chocolate. Yay for chocolate!


“A boring post” by John

I mowed today. I don’t write this because it’s interesting, but because I’m feeling the need to keep notes. I feel like I just mowed a few days ago, but the grass was at least as long, if not longer, than when I did it last time. I guess time flies?
I am learning how to use the riding mower which is nice. It’s almost smooth going now. I’m still learning how to manage being a farmer, a husband, a not-for-profit worker, a wedding planner and everythingelse. Not quite as smooth.
But I get by with a little help from my friends (and Cindy)

“Chicken Love” by John

For those keeping score at home, I picked up my first flock of broilers-to-be today. They are about 4 weeks old and in another 5 weeks will be happy, healthy, pasture raised chickens ready for … processing? harvest? slaughter? … the freezer.
All in all it’s taken me about four hours to get the chickens up and running. This weekend I picked up nine bales of straw for bedding and 10 bags of feed. The straw was like a blast from the past – remembering time spent in the barn at my grandparents’ farm, and the itchy eyes and runny nose that went along with it. But the smells and the feeling both brought back happy memories. Today I went with E to pick up the birds and bring them to their new home. Now it should just be a matter of checking on feed and water, letting them out of and into the barn each day, and taking them to their final reckoning at the end of their time with me.
So far I am much happier with my little birds this time than last time. I remember them as quite dirty, but they seem relatively clean, and squawky, but this time they were almost cooing. It may be the fact that by the time we got them home it was mostly dark and they were mostly asleep but I don’t care – they were cuter by far.
So here we go with some hands-on learning and, hopefully some good food and decent profit. We’ll see how it goes!

“Preserve me” by John

Wow, busy weekend. It was a long one (3 days!) so I actually feel like it was a bit of a break, but I probably did more work this weekend than I sometimes do in a week of “real” work.

Today was berry picking – raspberries, the beginnings of the second flush of strawberries and, for the first time, blueberries! Not many of those, and some are still a bit sour, but at least we beat the robins to them!! Raspberries are all sold to folks in Victoria, strawberries should hopefully have been picked up by now, and blueberries are sitting happily in our freezer – yum.

Speaking of robins (actually, I’m not sure that robins are actually at fault, but people seem to blame them) they’re also getting into the layer’s coop and eating all (and I mean ALL) of the feed. I’ve had to put two full bags in since G left and that’s a bit ridiculous for a few old ladies. Going to have to put up netting to block the eaves and also netting in the windows of the broiler-barn as otherwise all their feed will be gone too! I actually feel kinda good about this one because I spotted the issue, figured out the problem, and came up with the solution (and then had it confirmed by G, but that’s what a teacher is for!)

Which reminds me, a week from today my very first solo broilers arrive – yikes!

After farm work we did some preserving. Dill pickles (with dill from the grow-op, garlic from Maple Groove and cucumbers from our plot) and, randomly, pickled beans since we have a surplus of beans right now and ended up with extra pickling liquid. All but two of the lids have popped so we’re in good shape. Also started fermenting some kimchi today which should be ready in a week or so, and I’ll start some saurkraut tomorrow. Not sure how to keep that stuff, other than in the fridge, so advice is more than welcome.

Now I’m waiting for some stuff to dry so I can play with the beer I started a while ago. I think it’s a lost cause but I’ll try one more thing and see what happens.

All in all – hope is high, energy is in flux, excitement is up there and nerves are a little raw … but more of that later.

“Processing Chicken Processing” by John

This is the third time I’ve started this post.  I was going to riff on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” but decided that was too much.  Then I was going to write in a more artistic style, but I decided that was a bit silly.  So I’ll do it straight.

Last week it was time to “harvest” the chickens.  I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

We did it in two trips.  I got to the farm at 5:30 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and met in the barn.  We herded chickens in to a corral made of the cages and started packing them in – 9 to a cage if memory serves.  After the job was done, we loaded the crates into the back of the truck and drove to Farmhouse Poultry to unload, label the cages, and leave.  That was it really.  Later the same day the chickens were graded, slaughtered, cleaned and packaged 6 to a box with weights and labels attached.  Aside from a bit of manure on my gloves and shoes (and not much of that because they get no feed for a while beforehand) it was a fairly clean job.  Easy peasy really.

So what’s the problem?  I’m not sure.  I think I was expecting to develop a relationship and a respect for the birds while they were in my care so that when the time came to catch them I would feel like I was connected to them, that I was honouring their sacrifice, and that I was communicating my respect for them as living beings.  I have always dismissed the “animals are people too so we shouldn’t kill them” argument and I was expecting this experience to back that up.

What I found on the first day is that I was … scared of the chickens.  Their obvious desire not to be caught translated in my mind into a desire not to be killed and I was nervous to just catch and move them, to the result that at times I think I freaked them out more and maybe even hurt them a bit.  In reflecting on it later Tuesday morning I realized that by the time I had finished I had dehumanized them to the point where I was annoyed at their stupidity, noise, dirt etc and almost wanted to just shove them around and damn the consequences.  A very far cry from the connection and bond I was hoping to build with what would someday be my food.

Thursday was much much better.  I was much more smooth in the process of catching and caging (even finished first!) and found that I was, in fact, feeling connected.  I felt that the birds were upset not because they knew what was coming but because this was something new in their lives and they weren’t sure what was going on.  They were just as disturbed when they were brought from the dark, dank hatching barn into the light of day and the pastured life.  And they were just as disturbed each time they were fed.  So, really, my job was to try to make things as calm and quick as possible so they could adapt to their new situation – that of being in cages.

I’m not communicating my feelings here well.  Partially because it’s been a week since I felt them, and partially because I still haven’t fully come to grips.  There’s an opportunity to get more birds in early August.  I’ll be mostly on my own with this batch so I think I’m going to try it again when it’s my deal and see how that feels.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

“Strawberry Picking” by John

Mark it in your calendars.  On Wednesday, June 23rd at approximately 9:07 am I officially became a farmer.

Well, maybe a farm worker is a better term, though I didn’t get paid (still not sure how we’re going to settle things at the end of our “apprenticeship” maybe money, maybe food, maybe just knowledge, but whatever will be good) so maybe a farm volunteer is a better term, in which case maybe Growing Opportunities was when I went official.  Though come to think of it I once WWOOFed at Plan B Farm, so maybe that was official.  Then again my grandparents had a farm just outside of Teeswater, ON when I was quite young and I remember riding the tractor and feeding the animals there so …

Anyway, suffice it to say that last Wednesday was my first experience picking strawberries at our soon-to-be-home and it made me feel like things were a bit more official and real than they had felt before.

It was a beautiful sunny day and I had my new hat on (thanks Cindy!) so I didn’t get burnt and I picked 3 or 4 boxes of berries in the 2.5 hours we were there, which probably equals just over two flats.  So, definitely not the fastest picker out there, but not too shabby for my first time out I think, especially considering that I stopped to go visit the chickens, tour the farm with the Canada World Youth leader who might come to stay with us for a bit, and put together and pack flats as I went.  I also got to deliver two flats to the Community Farm Store with an invoice and one to a private customer so making the sales made it feel more official too.

How was it?  Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that.  I was told it would be painful on my back and legs but I didn’t feel like it was too hard.  Odd muscle use for sure, but I think all of the cycling, plus the chiro and massage for my back helped to make it not too terrible.  I can still feel it in my legs a bit now if I try to hold myself in a strange position, but it hasn’t slowed me down at all.  I loved being out in the sun and the fresh air so that was great, and going back to work for the afternoon was definitely hard.  So, physically, all was and is well.  Mentally though I found I was a bit stressed out by it all.  I know, how stressful can it be to sit in a field and pick berries right?  I think my issue was the same that I have with so many other things – I just wasn’t sure I was doing it “right”.  Searching through the foliage with my hands trying to pierce the darkness under the leaves with tired eyes to identify the bright deep red that indicated a perfectly ripe berry.  Trying to leave behind all those with just a tinge or white, or that are perhaps a slightly less deep shade and need a few more days to fully ripen.  Worrying what the customers in the store or at the box distribution will think when they see my berries in the harsh light of florescent tubes.  Will there be too many small ones?  Too many that aren’t perfectly ripe?  Will they want my berries?  Did I pick the right ones?

And through it all I felt this need for speed.  The necessity to pick the berries right now before … what?  Before they went rotten, before the birds got them, before the frosts came?  Or, harkening back to my childhood, before it was time to leave the U-pick, not to return for another year.

Cindy and I were talking about it afterwards and I realized that the same patch of berries was picked two days before I got there and will be picked two days after and again and again and again till the plants are done producing.  So really, there was no need to pick berries like there was no tomorrow because, well, there is (or at least a day after tomorrow).  With that in mind it really makes sense to pick only the best of the best and leave anything that needs another day because then it will be the best of the best next time you pick.

So, there you go, John overanalyzing things again (like that comes as a surprise to those of you who know me).  I think it’s the type of thing that, with practice, will become less stressful.  It was pleasantly meditative working my way down the road, feeling growing things under my hands, moving from plant to box and back to plant.  If I can become confidant in my ability to make a good end product then I think I’ll really enjoy it.  And the other pickers and eventually Graham saw the overall haul and no one told me it was terrible so I guess even if I was bad, at least it was hidden by the hard work of others.

In purely happy news, a young couple and child came to look at our apartment today and appear to be just as in love with it as we are so we shouldn’t have to worry about getting out of our lease.  Yay!

And now (after Cindy reads my post … please, be gentle) we go to pick-up beer bottling supplies.  Sweet!  Soon I’ll actually have to brew some beer … soon.

“Diving In” by Cindy

Well, I’ve just placed our very first seed order.  It was so exciting that it prompted John to remind me (rather vociferously) that we really should be blogging our new adventure – so here we go.

I’m not sure why we think we will be good farmers – considering that neither one of us likes having dirty hands – but we both love food and fresh vegetables so much that we just have to give it a go.  Plus, the opportunities just keep coming up, so we’ll take that as a positive sign.

Anyway, our growing adventure started with the idea that we should grow veggies in our backyard.  We are renting an apartment over the garage of this lovely house, and there is a huge backyard where the landlord said we could certainly put in some raised beds if we wanted.  Fortunately, we asked the critical question – are there deer?  He laughed and said he was surprised we hadn’t seen them yet as they will practically come to the back porch and ask for apples.  We decided that we couldn’t afford to invest in deer fencing in a place where we weren’t sure how long we would stay.

So we got on the waiting list for a community garden plot.  While waiting, we heard about a community farming cooperative called “Growing Opportunities” (whenever we speak of the Grow Op – THIS is what we mean).  It sounded too good to be true, but we decided to check it out – and it is too good to be true – except that it is.  This couple decided that they liked growing vegetables so much that they thought everyone should have an opportunity to try growing on a larger-than-garden-size scale.  So they got a group together and leased an acre at a local therapeutic farm, and they began farming it.  Anyone interested in joining just has to join.  You put in as much work as you can, and you take what you need from the produce.  Surplus produce is sold to cover the costs of the farm (e.g., leasing the land, paying for tractor time and other supplies).  It’s pretty amazing and so satisfying to work the land with such good people.

Then, because I was enjoying a mid-career retirement (so to speak), a local farmer called me up and asked if I wanted to work for a week. It was the perfect opportunity to see if I could hack a full day in the field – and I could.  In fact – it was pretty darn enjoyable being outside in the sun feeling sorry for poor John stuck in the office all day.  Even the most monotonous tasks were fun because they had a definite purpose and a visible result, and the people were great to work with.  So after a week of paid work, I worked out an informal apprenticeship with the farm and continued to work at a much reduced rate.  I learned so much so quickly, but I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of the knowledge needed to run a farm.  Plus, the farmers (Brock and Heather) are great people and fun to work with.  Their place, Makaria Farm (, is winning awards for innovation, and they really care about the quality of their produce.

After a few weeks of getting dirty and developing some interesting tan lines, the real windfall happened.  A local farmer heard that John was interested in getting into farming and suggested we consider renting his berry farm when he moves out of the province in the fall.  Well, we looked at the numbers and decided that even if we only break even, we can consider the adventure a year or two of intense agricultural college.  No webpage for that one – we’ll be working on that soon!

So that is how we ended up where we are now – planning our winter garden.  I now have an actual job working at a non-profit organization twenty hours a week, I “intern” two mornings a week at the farm we are going to rent, I occasionally head out to Makaria, we continue to work at Growing Opportunities, and we have our little garden plot (which is really not getting much of our attention, we must admit – I think it’s going to be an experiment in neglectful gardening, really).

But wait, you say!  Let’s get to the interesting part – what seeds did we order?  Well, we already have some brussel sprouts started because I went to a winter gardening workshop last week, but here’s what we should get in the mail later this week:

shallots  (can never have enough onions)

kale  (yummy healthy greens)



turnips (yes – I love turnips)


beets (love love love beets)

cabbage (three different kinds to satisfy John’s sauerkraut and kimchi experiments)


In our little garden plot we currently have some onions, spinach, cucumbers, brown beans, black beans, edamame soy beans, and one little tomato plant.  I also have some pepper plants and basil growing in various pots in the apartment. The berry farm is all about strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and of all things – garlic.  John is also working on some meat chickens (which I am not so excited about, being a vegetarian and all, but good for him).   The Grow Op is just chock full of plants.  We have everything from wheat to kale, strawberries, tomatoes, cilantro, lettuce, cucumbers, squash, carrots, and potatoes planted – just to mention a few.

And so that is how we went from being interested in farming to diving right in.  At the very least, it will be a learning experience as we grow together. (heh heh)