Thursday, August 30, 2012

Homemade Yogurt

Homemade Yogurt with Blueberries and Honey
I promised my sister-in-law some time ago that I would write a post on how to make yogurt, and now that that we're between gardening seasons, I finally have a few moments to do that. This post is for you, Melissa!

Why do it?
The rest of you may be asking, "Why on earth would you want to make your own yogurt? Wouldn't that be going to a lot of trouble to get something that you can easily buy at most any grocery store?" I'm glad you asked! After all, there are many good reasons to make your own yogurt (unless you hate the stuff--in which case, you're probably not reading this post anyway). First is cost. A 32-oz container of yogurt at our local grocery store costs between $3.00 and $4.00.  I can make double that amount for around $2.50. The difference is a bit less dramatic when I compare homemade and store-bought organic yogurt--largely because finding organic milk that is not ultra-pasteurized is is very difficult in our community. Of course, we are hoping that by this time next summer, the cost of our own yogurt will be next to nothing, as our goats will (knock on wood) be giving us plenty of milk to work with by then!

A second reason for making your own yogurt is that if you do, you know exactly what is in it--and you can put into it only ingredients that are good for you and your family. Here are just a few of the ingredients I found printed on the back of a container of "all-natural" strawberry yogurt sitting in the dairy section of our store the other day:
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (And lots of it: one 6-ounce serving has 26 grams of sugar--nearly twice as much as a serving of Oreo cookies!)
  • Modified Corn Starch (Modified? How?)
  • Pectin
  • Gelatin
  • Malic Acid
  • Disodium Phosphate
  • Tricalcium Phosphate.
Yikes! I can't remember enough college chemistry to even get started analyzing such a concoction. But I know exactly what is in the strawberry yogurt I give my girls at snack time: milk, strawberries, and honey or cane sugar.

Third: yogurt is really good for you, especially the kind without the chem-lab ingredients and gobs of sweeteners. Among yogurt's most widely hailed benefits are:
  • It promotes good digestion.
  • It strengthens the immune system.
  • It lowers LDL cholesterol.
  • It can aid in weight loss.
  • It builds strong bones.
  • It is not only more easily digestible than milk, but may also help to strengthen lactose tolerance.
It can even treat sunburns, prevent yeast infections and freshen breath! (For more information on each of these benefits, see this article at Natural Home and Garden's website.)

The final reason I'll give for making your own yogurt is that it is incredibly easy. Have you ever done something for the first time and thought to yourself: "Why on earth didn't I start doing this years ago?" That's exactly what I thought once I learned how to make yogurt. I have to admit that at first, I was a little intimidated at the prospect, especially after the first bit of research I did. The long, complicated instructions I found--many of them involving electrical incubators, specific temperatures, and precise times--didn't help. I was almost ready to quit before I'd started, when suddenly dawned on me: Wait a minute. Women in rural areas of India, Iran, Nepal, and Russia have been making yogurt for millennia [historians have confirmed that it was being made at least as far back as 500 BCE, and probably long before then]. Most of those cooks wouldn't have had ovens or refrigerators, much less fancy-dancy incubators or precision timers or thermometers. So in I jumped . . . 

It took me a while to work out a simple, flexible, consistently successful system, but now that I have, yogurt making has become both one of the easiest and one of the most rewarding things I do in the kitchen. And you can do it, too! Here's how . . . 

What you'll need:
This "hillbilly incubator" will work
perfectly fine.
  • A half-gallon jug of milk* (you can use a gallon but will need bigger pots and a bit more starter)
  • A large (8 qt.) stock pot and a small (4 qt.) stock pot with a lid
  • 2-3 tablespoons plain yogurt with live and active cultures (or a yogurt starter such as Yogourmet)
  • 1/2 cup dry powdered milk (optional)
  • 1 large metal whisk or spoon
  • A dairy or candy thermometer and a timer (neither is essential but both are helpful)
  • A cooler, a few towels, and either a hot water bottle or a heating pad.
*If you have a local source for raw milk, by all means use that. If not, use pasteurized milk. But try to stay away from using ultra-pasteurized milk: the yogurt it produces won't be as tasty or as healthy. Whole, reduced-fat, low-fat, or skim all work fine. I generally use reduced-fat (2%) milk.

What to do:
  1. Set out the starter you'll be using to bring it to room temperature.
  2. Use the large stock pot to set up a double boiler for the smaller stock pot. Pour your milk into the smaller stock pot and place it in the bigger, water-filled pot. (If you don't have a smaller pot that fits nicely into a bigger one, you can heat the pot with the milk directly on the stove top, but you'll need to stir the milk more often and keep a close eye on it.)
  3. At this point, you can briskly stir in 1/2 cup powdered milk if you like. This helps to produce thicker yogurt without the use of gelatin, pectin, corn starch, or other thickeners. 
  4. Stirring occasionally, heat the milk in the double boiler over medium-high heat, monitoring the temperature with the dairy or candy thermometer, until it reaches 185°F. (If you don't have a thermometer, it's okay. Just wait until the milk begins to steam and "froth.") (If you will be using a hot water bottle, go ahead and start heating the water for it at this point as well.)
  5. Another measure you can take to increase the thickness of the final product is holding the temperature of the milk around 185° for 20-30 minutes, but this is not an essential step.
  6. While the milk is still on the stove, fill the bottom 2-3 inches of your sink with cold water. When you are ready, immerse the pot with the milk into the water. This will significantly speed up the next step.
  7. Let the temperature of the milk drop to right around 110° (just above lukewarm for those of you without thermometers), then whisk in the starter. 
  8. Set your cooler in a spot where it will not be disturbed for the next several hours. Lay a towel in the bottom of the cooler; set the pot with the milk onto the towel; cover the pot with another towel; and place beside the covered pot either your filled hot water bottle or a heating pad set on low heat. This is what I call my "hillbilly incubator." 
  9. Close the lid of the cooler (you'll have to leave it slightly cracked for the cord of the heating pad, if that is the heat source you've chose) and walk away. You're almost finished!
  10. Set your timer or glance at your clock and plan to return in around 6 hours.
  11. If the yogurt is set when you return, take it out, stir it vigorously, and transfer it to jars or glass/plastic containers (whatever you want to store it in). Immediately set it in the refrigerator. It should keep well for at least a couple of weeks. (Be sure to save a little to use as the starter for your next batch!)
  12. If the yogurt you made is not thick or tangy enough for you, leave it for 7 or 8 hours next time (some people like it to work while they're sleeping). If it is too tangy for you, take it out at 5 hours. In other words, experiment a bit and figure out how to best satisfy your own tastes and preferences. 
  13. You can also play around with adding fruit, sweeteners, and other flavorings: blueberries, peaches, jams, honey, sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon--the options are endless! I like to add these things after the yogurt has finished incubating, but some people add them before (you can find tips for doing this online).
  14. And by all means, don't get worried if you don't do something just right. I've sometimes heated the milk a bit too long, dropped the temp a bit too much, and even forgotten the stuff for well over eight hours, and it's been fine (though slightly different) every time. See it as a culinary adventure and have fun!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Death in the Garden

As I've noted in previous posts, our first summer garden here at Little Bent Creek Farm has been surprisingly productive overall. We've reaped heaping piles of cucumbers; baskets full of green beans; volcanic eruptions of hot peppers; mountains of lettuce; enough basil for a 2-year supply of pesto; and more tomatoes than I've known what to do with. Of course, some of our plantings failed miserably and others did just fair. I had wondered whether I'd be able to grow celery here, and evidently I'm not (at least not yet). The spinach also flopped (I think I got it in the ground too late.) The corn and okra we got were delicious but the stalks grew way too high and produced much less than we would have liked (probably because of a lack of full sun in the area of the yard where the garden sits). The sugar snap peas did well at first but died off really quickly (damaged by an unknown garden pest), so we only enjoyed those for a couple of weeks. And the cabbage was fairly devastated by slugs.

All-in-all, though, our summer cup ranneth over.  Perhaps that is why I found myself a little surprised--and strangely sad--the other day when I walked out to the garden, looked at the cucumber bed (pictured above), and realized, "Oh my, the garden is dying." Why this took me aback I don't know. I've dug, planted, weeded, or harvested nearly every other day this summer--and some weeks, every day. I've witnessed up close the myriad changes the plants and the ground have gone through. But it hadn't fully struck me until that moment that this garden's days were nearing an end.

In some ways, it's almost a relief--no more rushing around to find new canning recipes, or freezing and drying guidelines. No more itchy arms from reaching inside the fronds of zucchini plants. No more wracking my brain to devise a chemical-free way to get the Japanese beetles away from the green beans. Well, at least not for a few weeks.

Dead vines composting into
nourishment for future plants

Goats and chickens feasting on
spent garden plants

In central North Carolina, gardeners are fortunate enough to be able grow vegetables, herbs and flowers the whole year round. So within a couple of days of hearing the garden death bell toll, I was busy tearing out plants and adding new compost to the spent beds, prepping them for late-summer and fall plantings. (The goats and the chickens have been loving this chore--gobbling up all the leaves, pods, fruit, and stalks I toss at them.) And already back in several of the beds where last week vines were shriveling are newly seeded beans, several different kinds of lettuce, collards, dill, brussels sprouts and broccoli. I hope to get around to planting a few more cool-weather crops this weekend.

Bed waiting for new seeds
So my grief over the death of my lovingly nurtured plants won't last long. And neither will my respite. Hopefully I'll soon be scrambling for recipes again and surfing the internet looking for new organic pest control ideas. In the meantime, I have acquired a new respect for the role that death plays in nurturing life. And--a harder lesson to absorb--a new appreciation for the fleeting nature of existence. For in broad historical perspective, how much difference is there between our own life spans than that of the cucumber plant? Remarkably little.

The Farmer, Speaking of Monuments
--Wendell Berry

Always, on their generation's breaking wave,
men think to be immortal in the world,
as though to leap from water and stand
in air were simple for a man. But the farmer
knows no work or act of his can keep him
here. He remains in what he serves
by vanishing in it, becoming what he never was.
He will not be immortal in words.
All his sentences serve an art of the commonplace,
to open the body of a woman or a field
to take him in. His words all turn
to leaves, answering the sun with mute
quick reflections. Leaving their seed, his hands
have had a million graves, from which wonders 
rose, bearing him no likeness. At summer's 
height he is surrounded by green, his 
doing, standing for him, awake and orderly.
In autumn, all his monuments fall. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

School Year Prep: Revisiting the Whys and What-Fors

"We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate." 
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  

Is it really time already to start gearing up for the school year??? All around the country, kids and their parents are scratching their heads, wondering how the summer has managed to pass so quickly. Wasn't it just a few days ago that we were all celebrating that first week of unstructured fun and sun? Undoubtedly, some parents are breathing a sigh of relief, anxiously anticipating the return to a quieter, more scheduled home life. Others will be trying to make the most of the few weekdays they have left to hang out at the pool, visit the zoo, have picnics in the park, or just laze around the house.

While most homeschoolers are not hitting the stores for new backpacks and lunch boxes, or perusing the mall for "back-to-school clothes," many of us are also in the midst of gearing up for the year ahead. In our own household, it is time for me to put together the lesson schedule for the coming fall and spring semesters; to purchase the books and supplies we'll need; and to thoroughly clean and reorganize our "Discovery Room."

It is also the time when I revisit the list I started several years ago of the objectives that G-P and I hope will guide our girls' education. This is the "big picture" list of the qualities we hope to encourage through educating our kids at home. I thought I would share them here as food for thought and as an invitation for insights from other parents and educators. As you'll quickly see, none of our objectives is unique to our family or even particular to homeschoolers. But revisiting and revising this list each year has been a helpful exercise for me--perhaps more helpful than any of the other myriad preparations I might be making for the months ahead. When I am wrapped up in the day-to-day tasks of studying and working together with the girls, it is all too easy to lose sight of why we are here, doing what we are doing.

Under each of the qualities that make up the list, I have briefly described one or more of the specific ways we try to encourage it.


What qualities do we wish to encourage through homeschooling?

  •  A genuine love of learning
  • Studying Density and Buoyancy 
    • Kids love to learn. They especially love to learn when they are pursuing knowledge of topics in which they are sincerely interested, and in ways that feel comfortable to them. We hope our girls will always love learning, and that learning will be a central delight in their lives well beyond "the school years." To try to ensure that our own school is encouraging their innate love of learning, I hold a meeting with the girls before, after, and halfway through each school year. I ask them to share with me what they think worked well and what didn't work so well during the previous weeks and months. I ask for their suggestions on both the content of what we will study next and the activities we will engage in. I write down their responses on a white board or large flip chart so that they can see I am taking them seriously, and then I take these notes and use them in planning upcoming curricula. They get a kick out of knowing that they helped to formulate our lessons, and I get to relish how pleasurable it is to teach when students are excited about learning. 
  • A recognition that learning is an everywhere-, anytime-, lifelong task
  • Learning Math While
    Plotting Out the Garden
    • Both G-P and I have also tried to demonstrate to the girls that learning is not something that is done solely--or even primarily--in the context of schooling, but that it can happen wherever we are, at any time. That is why we named our school "Whole World Homeschool": we aim to see the whole world as our classroom, our resource center, and our subject of study. Starting up this farm together has given us a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate to the girls the importance of learning for adults as well as children. They have watched us repeatedly seek out new knowledge and acquire new skills, and then enjoy applying that learning to taking better care of our animals, our little piece of land, and ourselves. 
  • Active curiosity 
    • Kids love to learn because they are incredibly curious. If you've ever watched a little girl stand mesmerized over a pile of dirt, trying to work out the comings and goings of a colony of ants, or watched a little boy's eyes light up as he finally sees the difference in a dragonfly and a damselfly, then you know what I'm talking about. Too often today, education involves taming and inhibiting children's curiosity in favor of instituting order and guaranteeing test results. It is a tragedy, and probably one of the main motivators of many homeschooling parents. One of the ways I try to nurture active curiosity in my own girls is being curious right alongside them--rushing off to the meadow to try to identify the bone Simi found there, or stopping everything to look up the meaning of a word Segi came upon in the chapter book she's reading, and then the playing around with some of the many ways we can use it. I've found that getting to learn fascinating things alongside my kids is one of the most delightful perks of homeschooling. In fact, on most days I am not so much a "teacher" as a facilitator of our collective learning. 
  • A sense of wonder and awe
  • Celebrating the Wonders of
    Our Creek
    • We go on nature walks at least once a week, very often through the an ecological preserve on our way to visit the our local library. Despite my adultish tendency to prod the girls to keep moving (Why do we do that to our little ones so much?), we stop often to examine and exclaim over some of the many small wonders that populate our route--the particularly beautiful rock, the newly blooming flower, the bird's nest high in a tree. More often than not, we also spot signs of fairies, and sometimes even glimpses of unicorns, on these walks. More than any biology text, more than any religious scripture, it is my daughters who have taught me that the world is truly a wonder-ful, awe-some place. I hope their education will nourish and expand this perspective in them, not temper or civilize it.
  • An ability and willingness to listen well to others and to carefully observe the world around them
    • Investigating Soil
    • This is--perhaps as much as the love of learning--an indispensable key to becoming an effective learner. It involves being able to quieten one' mind, to see beyond one's assumptions, and to open oneself to new realities. One of the ways I've tried to teach this is by occasionally sending the girls out into our yard, or the woods that surround it, to sit for a certain period of time in location of their choosing. While there, they are to do nothing but sit and listen (or, on another day, to look or touch). After the time period is over, they come back and share what they noticed about this place that they have been to so many times before, and then we discuss the importance and rewards of attentiveness.
  • A global perspective (knowledge of and respect for other cultures, ethnicities, classes, religions, races, and lifestyles)
  • Making an Australian Fruit Salad
    • As an anthropology professor, I spent a great deal of time teaching global awareness to college students--a more formidable task than I had thought it would be. Many of them had graduated from high school (often with honors) with without learning much at all about the world beyond our nation's boundaries--or even beyond their own state, or subculture, race or class. We want our girls to grow up to be global citizens--to understand that there are many different ways to be human, and to know that they can learn a great deal from people who live very different lives than they do. To this end, during the past school year, we studied a different country each month. During that month, the girls read books about the country, watched educational videos about it, wrote mini-essays about it, learned about the everyday life of a child growing up there, prepared and ate typical dishes, made one or more traditional crafts, and listened to some of the country's music. 
  • An awareness of who they are, where they come from, and where they fit in the larger world
    • We have also studied Nigeria, Tennessee, and Appalachia--the "homelands" of our girls (that is, where their parents and most of their ancestors were raised). Later on, we will do more in-depth study of the state of North Carolina and the history, geography, and cultures of the United States. 
  • A commitment to being good citizens: of their community, their state, their country and their world
    • Collecting Trash Along Local
      Roadways on Earth Day
    • The girls and I have integrated into our studies a variety of service projects, including being farmer's helpers at an educational farm in Ohio, delivering meals for Meals on Wheels, participating in environmental clean-up projects, purchasing and packing up school supplies for kids in our town, and writing letters to government officials and CEOs. I hope we will be able to do more of this kind of work together as the girls grow older. (Few volunteer programs allow young children to participate, so that has been a real limiting factor for us so far.)
  • An appreciation for "worthwhile work well done," and a recognition that the work they do is important 
  • Cleaning Out a Barn Stall
    • After our girls wake up each morning, dress themselves and make up their beds, they go out to the barn to start their farm chores. Simi (the 6-year-old) is in charge of cleaning out the goat stall and Segi (the 7-year-old) is in charge of the chicken coop. I assist them as needed, and we work together to feed all the animals, evaluate their health, check their waterers, and haul the heavy buckets of muck we've collected into the woods to the compost pile. On a typical day, they will carry out a variety of other chores as well. G-P and I have tried to make it clear that the contributions they make to the workings of the farm--as well as to the workings of our household more generally--are critical, and that we value and appreciate what they do. To see them learn the satisfaction that comes from completing a tough physical task has been just as rewarding for us as watching them successfully complete writing and math assignments. In fact, as Laura Grace Weldon points out in this article, research has shown that children who regularly do chores are more likely to succeed both academically and in adulthood.
  • A love for the natural world and an understanding of the importance of caring for that world
    • A great deal of our science studies so far have involved investigating the plants, animals, water systems, and habitats right around us. We not only discover fascinating facts about these things, but we also learn how human behavior impacts them. We continually talk about what it means to share the world with other creatures and to care for the earth that supports us all. For the girls, as for most children, all this makes perfect sense. They have not--as we adults have--learned to see themselves as separate from and superior to non-human beings. We hope they will continue to consider themselves citizens of the natural world who are both beholden to and responsible for the well-being of the earth.
  • Empathy, kindness, respect, helpfulness, and politeness
  • Contemplative Practice
    • One of our favorite activities during the 2011-2012 school year was Angel Bear Yoga. It is a yoga program written especially for kids. The girls and I practiced it at least a couple of times a week, and sometimes more. Each of our yoga sessions would focus on fostering an important character trait such as thoughtfulness, truthfulness, or compassion. We discussed the traits together, sharing how we understood them and thinking about ways we could practice them in our everyday lives. Then we did yoga poses that resembled the forms of animals and plants whose characteristics reflect those traits. 
  • An understanding of the importance and power of cooperation
    • Pulling Together
    • Learning in our school is not a competitive task. The girls are encouraged to work together to learn, and they seem to enjoy doing so. In fact, they often cheer one another on during a particularly challenging task. Of course, I cannot prevent siblings from sometimes feeling competitive with one another, and it does happen. But it helps a great deal that I do not give grades or dole out rewards for individual work. I hope the girls will come to agree that gaining knowledge and improving one's skills (i.e., learning) are their own rewards. And much more satisfying in the long run than grades, stickers, or candy!  
  • An ability to communicate effectively and express themselves creatively
  • The Playwrights Acting
    • When the girls are practicing their writing skills, more often than not, they are writing about a topic, or writing with a purpose, that they themselves have chosen. The "assignment" may be a mini-essay about their favorite dessert animal, or a letter to a relative or a friend--whatever the case, they are genuinely trying to communicate something. This not only increases their motivation to do their work well (they certainly do better on such assignments than on filling in the blanks of worksheets); it also gives us a chance to discuss their interests and ideas.
    • I encourage the girls to express themselves and communicate their thoughts and feelings in many other ways as well: through painting, coloring, and drawing; through dancing, music-making, and drama; through crafting; through building (with clay, with stones, or with wood, hammers, and nails); through poetry composition; and so forth.
  • Patience and perseverance
  • Learning Patience (and Mechanics!)
     from a Neighbor
    • Since patience and perseverance are central both to effective learning and to contented living, teaching them to my girls are part of what I try to do every day. I thus encourage--and generally require--them to finish the tasks they start, even the most difficult and frustrating ones. Of course, like so many of the other traits listed here, these two are perhaps best taught by example. Unfortunately, as my girls know all too well, patience is not my greatest strength. (Actually, I never realized what an impatient person I was until having children!) Thus, central to my attempts to nurture patience in them is struggling to model patience myself. This has been one of my biggest challenges as a homeschooling parent.
  • Self-acceptance
    • Our girls look different than most of the kids around them. And they often act differently, too. We hope that the education they get at home will encourage them to love and accept themselves for who they are, no matter where they end up on the scale of normal to eccentric. We hope our studies of human diversity will help us here.
  • Courage
    • We also hope their education will foster in them the courage to follow their hearts, and to do what is right when they are faced with life's challenges and dilemmas, matter how difficult or unpopular their actions might be. To that end, we regularly read about the lives of courageous women and men: Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ang San Suu Kyi, Wilma Mankiller, Mahatma Gandhi, Wangari Maathai, and others. We have also read together many fictional books featuring courageous girls and boys: The Railway Children, Caddie Woodlawn, The Little Princess, The Conch Bearer, The Birchbark House series, and The White Giraffe series.

As you may have noticed, there is not anything in the above paragraphs about learning to recite the multiplication tables or memorizing the names of all the U.S. Presidents or state capitals. Yes, we will work on many specific skills and facts in the course of our studies together, but G-P and I believe that that sort of learning is not nearly as important as acquiring the characteristics I have listed above. As Einstein pointed out, and my Grandpa so loved to paraphrase, "An education is what you've got left after you forget everything you learned." We don't mind much if our girls can't recall at some point that 8 x 8 = 64, or that they can't remember the name of the twenty-first President. What is important, we believe, is to help them acquire the tools they'll need to live well and responsibly in our world, and to effectively pursue the dreams of their hearts. If we can do that for them, then their schooling will have been a success.

Now where are those lesson plans I'd started? . . .