Mini Pig

John from Outragehisss Pets really wowed us this weekend at our annual winter animal program. Hamlet the mini pig was especially cute.

mini-pig

Ed’s Corner

A Miracle Once More

When we think of a miracle, we usually think of something that happens once. In fact, that may be one reason we consider ‘it’ to be a miracle, because it is so rare. The miracle I am thinking about happens yearly, just about now, as nights are still cold but daytime temperatures inch upward into the upper thirties and forties. The indigenous people knew about this miracle well before the arrival of the first colonists.

Throughout history, people have set out on pilgrimages that would lead them to a miracle. The Nature Place will lead you on a sort of pilgrimage on Saturday, March 4th, when we offer our Maple Sugaring program. It is our most popular program throughout the year. Perhaps everyone is anxious to see the miracle.

We all gather around the sugar maple tree, making sure the little ones are in front, with adults standing behind. Everyone seems to be quietly excited, almost holding their breath.

Drilling the Hole

I put drill to tree and begin to turn it. The first wood shavings to come out of the tree are very dark. Then, as the drill goes deeper, the shavings become lighter in color. These shaving are from the sapwood. We might then see the bark directly below the drill-hole begin to get wet. A slight cheer erupts from the crowd. I take the drill out, gently hammer in a metal spout (technically a “spile”) and we see the first drop of sap run down the spout, hesitate at the edge, and then fall to the ground. A big cheer erupts from the crowd! This is the miracle we have come to see: a drop of clear, cold, slightly sweet ‘water’ coming out of a tree that from all outward appearances looks dead.

How does this clear drop that looks like pure water get inside a tree and then come out when your drill makes an outlet for it? Isn’t it dirty coming from inside a tree? Why does it taste a little sweet? Is it OK to taste it right from the spout? Definitely!

Sweet, clear water from a tree. It always feels like a miracle to me. One that I can depend on seeing once a year.

Tasting Sap 1

Tasting Sap 2

In the last “Dirt” I suggested to take a Fake Break, to get away from the oftentimes overwhelming news that seems to bombard us every day. To go out into close-by nature to take in and be part of what is real, what is grounding. Tapping your own maple tree, boiling the sap into syrup and learning so much more by coming to our March 4th sugaring program, will take you to places that are very real and will help you reforge connections with the natural world – a world we have come from and are part of, although at times we may feel disconnected and disenchanted.

I hope to see you at our Sugaring program. Be part of this miracle with us.

 

Click here for more information our March 4th Sugaring Program!

 

Ice Fishing

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts an invigorating ice fishing experience.

The thing about ice fishing is you only do it when its block-hard cold. My dad, Walt, used to say ice needed to be six inches thick for good fishing. Six inches or more was the thickness of a block of ice the community used to cut out of the ice ponds to store in their ice houses, for use later in the warm season. Six inches was solid enough to hold any number of fishermen who chopped holes into the ice for fishing through. Some fellows chopped with a little ice hatchet. Others had a long-handled auger that they worked like a big hand drill. But Walt had my grandfather’s ice chopper. This was a three foot long iron handle with a straight forged blade, about five inches wide. The ice chopper was made by my grandfather at the Ramapo Iron Works years ago. The old man attached a solid blade to a switch machine handle. Sometimes the ice chopper needed some extra persuasion, so Walt would whack it with the back end of his hatchet and chisel his way down into the block-hard ice. Mostly Ricky and I stood and watched him chopping holes into the ice.

Once he cut a half dozen holes or more, spread out over a hundred-foot section of lake ice, we went about setting our tip-ups into the holes. These were little cross sticks of narrow wood that were rigged with a small reel of coarse line. The line was weighted with a lead sinker and hook and baited with worm or corn. You dropped the line into the hole and set the tip-up across the hole, such that if a fish took the bait and pulled, a little flag sprung into the air and a small sleigh bell jingled. Usually the fish caught itself, but then you had to pull it up through the chopped hole and get it off the hook. This was all a very cold way to fish. You were always having to pull off your gloves to grab the fish and de-hook it, or to re-set the bait and rig the tip-up. We also had little fishing poles to try and catch fish through the ice holes.

Ice Fishing

Walt took us ice fishing after he came home from work, so we usually didn’t get it all set up until early evening. Our tip-ups were out in a wide circle around us and we three sat on up-turned buckets around three small holes with our short fishing rods. Between us, Walt set up a wood camp fire on an open bucket that stood up off the ice on three short metal legs set on wooden pads. We were always amazed at how we could have a fire out there on the ice and how it didn’t melt its way through into the lake. And we were very grateful for the fire for, as I said, ice fishing was only done when it was block-hard cold.

This one evening, after we had caught a mess of perch and sunnies, me and Ricky were getting antsy with the drop in temperature. Walt added some more fire wood, but this only helped to warm up our front sides and then we had to turn around to warm up our back sides, only to find our front sides were chilling up again. Walt re-lit his pipe and started to tell us about the monster catfish in this lake. He spoke with the pipe clenched in his teeth. Each word sent out a little puff of white smoke.

“Some old-timers say there’s monster catfish in this lake. They call them granddaddy bullheads. These big old white bellied catfish seldom come to the surface but for late at night. In the winter, when the lake is froze over like it is tonight, they rest down deep sucking air out of the water. They don’t bother to take our bait, they just watch to see some other regular size fish steal our bait and then the big old bullhead cat fish rise up and swallow that regular size fish whole.”

Ricky rubbed his hands together and said, “So why don’t we take one of them regular size perch and bait our hook with that and maybe that granddaddy monster catfish will go for it!”

Walt said, “Well, that could be a good idea…and it might even work, but the problem is we’d never be able to pull one of them granddaddy bullhead catfish through our little fishing hole.”

Ricky said, “They is that big, Walt?”

Walt said, “Oh Ricky, they is fierce bigger than our fishing holes in the ice.”

We got up to check our fishing holes, as they sometimes froze over and the new ice needed to be cleared out. Just as we stood, one of the tip-ups started to jingle furiously. Rick and I ran over to it and together just managed to catch the tip-up as it was starting to break apart from the strike beneath the ice. We pulled, but the little reel broke apart, so Rick wound the line around his wrist. Then a great splash of water and ice thrust up through the little fishing hole and for a moment we saw the flash of a massive white belly slam against the hole and roll over such that we saw its black dorsal fine. Then the line went slack and we both fell over. Walt came over and picked up what was left of the mangled fish hook. It looked like it had been chewed. We looked up at Walt and he said, “Well sir, that was one of them granddaddy bullhead monster catfish!”

Early Signs of Spring

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes how to spot one of nature’s first signs of spring (not an edible sign!)

Last Wednesday, we had almost spring-like weather (before the big blizzard hit and turned the world into Narnia). We knew the snow was coming and so took the opportunity to take a walk in the woods. Since it’s February, we were pretty sure that we’d find the early flowers of the skunk cabbage, popping up through the marshy ground. We weren’t disappointed.

It is a funny thing about skunk cabbage flowers: at first they are hard to spot, but then once you’ve found one, others begin to appear, until you see them coming up everywhere. Each bloom is unique, ranging in color from deep maroon to combinations of red, yellow, and green.

Skunk Cabbage 1

At the moment, the flowers are resting under the snow. However, these plants are thermogenic, and are capable of raising their temperatures considerably, melting the snow that surrounds them. They will soon be peeking out of the holes they make. At that point, they are really easy to spot.

Anyone coming across these strange, exotic creatures for the first time may wonder whether they landed here from another planet. However, after a few weeks, the flowers fade away and the bouquets of green cabbage-like leaves appear. Don’t be fooled by their luscious appearance. They are not edible.  Seconds after putting a piece of the plant into your mouth, it is like having a mouthful of hot needles. Rather, enjoy them for the beautiful things they are – a feast for the eyes and for the soul.

Skunk Cabbage 2

The Rise and Fall of the Sourdough

Eva Szigeti gives a peek into the living world of Sourdough culture and its many culinary uses.

Before there was commercial yeast, humanity had sourdough. All yeasted breads were made with a starter culture of some kind: sourdough culture, mother starter, levain, whole wheat starter, white flour starter, spelt starter, etc. Regardless of the name, it has always been a mixture of flour and water (or other liquid), colonized by strains of wild yeast and lactobacilli.

How does a sourdough culture cause the bread to rise? Certain proteins in wheat, called glutenin and gliadin, are activated when flour is mixed with water. Together they form gluten. As wild yeast eats away the sugars in the flour, it produces carbon dioxide. Thanks to gluten (meaning glue in Latin) and its elasticity, the dough stretches, making room for the little bubbles of gas and at the same time trapping them in the dough. The acidity of lactobacilli acts as a preservative – the acidic environment works with the yeast, but it’s inhospitable to other organisms. The collaboration between yeast and gluten leads to a fluffy bread with a pleasantly chewy texture, while lactic acid adds the tangy flavor.

Although sourdough bread is usually considered superior to breads made with commercial yeast, we mostly gave up on sourdough baking for the sake of convenience (commercial yeast offering a faster, more straightforward process), and for more reliable and consistent results (less fuss, more predictable dough).

We home bakers may feel intimidated by the task of baking with sourdough culture, but as soon as we learn about the process, we will be more at ease. If we look for instructions, we will find recipes for sourdough starters made with beer, grape juice, wine, or potato water, but these are not necessary or even desirable.  All it takes is some high-quality flour (ideally rye), good water, and time. Lactobacilli and wild yeast (a strain of yeast naturally occurring in flour and the environment) will make themselves at home in the mixture and do the rest of the work. Perhaps you have heard stories about sourdough starters that are generations old, but your sourdough starter doesn’t have to be old (only mature) to work well. It will be unique no matter when and how the culture was started. It will adapt to the environment of your kitchen. It will be affected by the temperature, humidity, altitude, type of flour used, and your care. As you learn to “feel” your starter, you will be able to control its acidity, slowing down or speeding up its rise.

Sourdough starter culture

Sourdough starter culture

It is also worth remembering that the use of the starter doesn’t have to be restricted to bread and rolls. Sourdough culture can be used to make pizza dough, pancakes, waffles, muffins, brownies or even a chocolate cake.

Although making your own sourdough starter is not complicated, it does require some time and attention. Before I started baking with sourdough, I had done some research on the subject. Along the way, I was confronted with vocabulary that seemed slightly unusual in the context of culinary activities. I encountered words about the rising and falling sourdough (and that it is ok for it to fall.)  I learned that a sourdough culture could get exhausted (after consuming all available sugars) and need feeding (more flour). Some sentences suggested even more drama: If neglected, the culture may dry out. It can be saved by resuscitation (meaning by adding more flour, water and a good stir). Luckily, a revived sourdough will bounce back. Then, if fed properly, it will mature and increase in strength and flavor. Everyday feeding is required in the beginning. Once a week feeding is sufficient for a more mature culture.

Had I not known that the sourdough starter is actually a living thing, the vocabulary of fellow bakers/writers would have no doubt given me a clue. It is clear that sourdough culture requires care. We parents certainly have an advantage here. The job is to nourish the starter, to feed it, keep it warm, and to intervene at the right moment. It is important to keep things in balance (right ratio of flour and liquid is important, and timing of the feeding matters). We also need to be able to let go, because part of our nourished sourdough culture will need to be occasionally discarded or given away in order to keep the starter healthy.

Since we are already experienced in all of this, now might be a good a time as any to mix up some flour with water and wait for it to come to life. It could be a beginning of a story told years, perhaps decades from now, by our kids: a tale of a sourdough culture handed down by a mother or father weirdly obsessed with baking the old-fashioned way.

 

(Sourdough) Chocolate-Walnut Squares

The word sourdough is in parenthesis because there will be nothing “sourdoughish” about the taste of your dessert. The acids will be consumed in reaction with the baking soda. The texture and taste will say “cake” not “bread”. You can use or omit the word sourdough in the name, based on your audience. Use it, if you think the potential consumers will appreciate the unusual ingredient. Don’t call it sourdough if you are baking for not-very-adventurous eaters–they will never know…

Sourdough Chocolate Walnut Square

Sourdough Chocolate Walnut Square

 

You will need a mature sourdough starter for this project. Recipes are available online.

 

For the sourdough:

¼ cup sourdough starter
¾ cups all-purpose flour
Water

The sourdough should be of a consistency of pancake batter
Mix the sourdough culture with flour and water the night before baking. Cover it loosely and keep at room temperature overnight.

 

For the Chocolate-Walnut Squares

¾ cups sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
2 eggs
1/3 canola, safflower or coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup sourdough from the previous night
½ cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Combine sugar, eggs, oil, vanilla, and melted chocolate. Sift dry ingredients together and add to the wet mixture. Gently stir in the sourdough. Put into a greased and floured 8” x 6” baking pan. Sprinkle with walnuts and sugar. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Cool and cut into squares.