Kombucha? Youbetcha!

Kombucha tea is quite hip these days, and for something faddish, it’s quite ancient. It’s basically fermented green tea. And as fermentation often has alcohol as it’s byproduct, there’s been some recent fuss at  Whole Foods and other organic/health foods retailers about the scant alcohol in these bottled-to-go-teas, and they’ve been pulled from the shelves until some new labeling regulations go into effect.

As usual, when it comes to the more esoteric trends in popular culture, I’m ahead of the curve and started brewing my own kombucha at home several weeks ago: I won’t be affected by any retail shortages.

I got my first kombucha “mushroom” from my cousin Therese when I was visiting Washington D.C. earlier this month; she gave me one, and I managed to get it home in my carry-on bag. This is what it looks like:

Yes, I know. It looks like a slab of uncooked pork. Or some other raw meat. Definitely something you wouldn’t want to eat. But, it’s really just a big saucer-shaped SCOBY, which is an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts.

There are lots of kombucha recipes online. The basic recipe calls for bringing 2 litres of water to a boil, and then adding green tea and/or some flavored green tea (such as pomegranate) and 1 1/2 cups of sugar (organic, preferably). The tea and sugar mixture is put in a large glass bowl or jar, all tea bags or tea leaves removed, and the kombucha culture is placed on top:

Then the bowl is covered w/cheesecloth, and secured with elastic to keep the cheesecloth in place; the bowl then sits undisturbed in a quiet corner of the kitchen for 7–10 days, during which time the culture grows another duplicate SCOBY. That culture can be stored away, given away (as Therese did with her extra culture) or used to make more kombucha.

The amount of sugar in the recipe may seem high, but, it’s enough to prevent the fermentation from going bad. There is quite a bit of alarmist noise online about how kombucha can make you sick or kill you, but as with just about anything, making  kombucha involves common sense, as well as some basic awareness of what a healthy fermented food product looks and tastes like.

I’m brewing my second batch now; my first batch turned out really good! It’s strong, and I add one part kombucha tea to about 3–4 parts water for a yummy, refreshing drink.

Last of the Landscaping!

Six months after starting my yard renovation I am pretty much done. I am so relieved. Things look really tidy all the way around, thanks to a final total of 23 tons of decomposed granite!

The last 12 tons of decomposed granite was delivered to my home last Thursday. A very competent and small landscape business here in Tucson–Green Thumb Landscaping–shoveled the first 6 tons, and did some major improvements to my front yard; believe me, I needed the help, my huge backyard has been enough work for me!  I highly recommend their work.

The last 6 tons was shoveled today by my mom and my new friend Mike, whom Bearbear and I met at the wildcat dogpark last year. Mike generously offered his time this morning and helped out: thanks to both to my mom and Mike!I had yummy apricot muffins and fresh coffee to get things going, and we wrapped up well before it hit 100+ degrees.

Here’s my mom and Mike hacking away at the last ton of rock; my back was a bit screwed up this weekend due to a  sacro-illiac joint sprain (just one of many in the past 10 years, I’m sad so say), so I was just so thankful for the help:

Here’s just a small snapshot of one part of my yard after all the work today: it’s great to finally having everything looking great! No mean feat, given it’s the driest, hottest time of year.

Today’s Bee View

I will admit that opening up a hive of bees is a bit nerve-wracking, even if it is a user-friendly Top Bar Hive that exposes you to fewer bees. Since I got my bees in May, I’ve been working on my amateur “technique”; with some practice, I’ve gotten better at moving slowly and calmly when I open up the hive, and as a result, there are hardly any bee fatalities. Squashing bees is a risk. And a squashed bee emits a pheromone that other bees smell and, appropriately, find alarming.And that just makes for a more escalated and less pleasant experience, for both bee and human.

Today when I looked at my bees I brought my camera. Last time I looked, 2 weeks ago, I found some greenish worm-looking things about 3/4 of an inch long, which I assumed were wax moth larvae: YUCK.  Most of them were in the unused portion of my hive. At that time, I noticed that I’d neglected to seal a few parts of the hive. Which would make it easy for a moth to get inside. So I sealed up those cracks, and today saw no evidence of anything that shouldn’t be there. Thankfully. I hope I’m not wrong and that my bees will be strong enough to put the kibosh on any wax moth intrusions.

Then, I didn’t bring my camera because I didn’t think I could feel comfortable taking photos as I worked; but, as it turns out, it’s not that hard.

This is the inside of the hive, as it looked this morning:

All the bars to the left of the opening are full of comb, except for a few empty bars I put in to help expand the hive further to the right. You can see on the very first bar to the left that the bees are starting to build a new row of comb; it’s the small white shape, and soon it will be built all the way down to the bottom of the hive.

But, to my dismay I noticed that this was new comb being built to….replace the honey-saturated comb that fell to the bottom of the hive!!

Looking more closely above, you can see the thin strip of beeswax along the bar, indicating the place from where comb once was suspended.

And, above, you can see all the comb on the bottom. Here’s a close-up of that fallen comb, with the properly suspended comb on the left:

I carefully removed the fallen comb and brushed the bees (with a soft paint brush) back into the hive. I think there are a few small bits of comb left in there, but this is most of it:

Maybe it fell because it’s so hot; supposedly new comb doesn’t have time to “mature” and is more likely to fall when full of the weight of honey and/or brood. I dunno. I’m going to look into it, though, and get some answers! Hopefully there’s something I can do to keep this from happening in the future.

Washington D.C. Weekend

I went to Washington D.C. last Wednesday and came home yesterday (Sunday); it was a very quick trip, but when you work in the private sector (like I do) and get little time off (like I do), short vacations are the only vacations, which in the end they are better than no vacations.

I’m surprised, though, what you can get done in a short period of time.

My first stop was a visit to the retirement community where my very lovely and gracious Aunt Helen lives; she’s one of my dad’s older sisters, and here she is on a cruise we took up the Potomac:

Helen, hard to believe you’re 85! You look fantastic!

Helen drove us both to Alexandria, where the cruise started; and I might add that Helen is a very steady driver who also knows that a yellow light means….hurry up!!  From Alexandria we traveled north by boat and had a great view of so many of the famous Washington D.C. sights. Plus we had a nice meal, too.

The next day we met my paternal first cousin, Therese, at Mount Vernon and had lunch at the restaurant there; for a touristy spot with servers in period costume, I was expecting the food to be mediocre and expensive, and instead it was excellent and reasonably priced. Therese is slightly older than me (though of course she doesn’t look it); we met for the first time last year, in Boston, though it seems we’ve known each other longer than that. Yum! Here we all are, messy plates and all:

After lunch, we went to Arlington National Cemetary, where Helen’s husband Ed is buried; Helen has a cemetary pass, which made entrance a breeze: to say there are thousands of tourists there is an understatement.

Regardless of whether you’re a hawk or a dove, Republican warmonger or Berrigan Brothers Fan Club member, Arlington functions on a lot of different, complex and nuanced levels when it comes to addressing war and loss, both personal and collective.

I’m very lucky in that Therese and her husband, Mike, are practically D.C natives and know all the ins-and-outs and how to get around. We spent the next (hot and humid) day walking around the National Mall; we passed through all of the many national monuments, such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial, places that have prominent roles in the national imagination and in popular culture, but places I’ve never experienced first-hand.

Mike took some great photos of us; here’s me and Therese at the Lincoln Memorial.

Mike took another super shot of us with a view of the Capitol:

But my favorite photo Mike took is of me in front of the U.S.S. Enterprise at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum:

Mike said he’s been going to the National Air and Space Museum since 1976 and I believe it:  he knows the location and design specifications of every exhibit. Next time there’s a national search to fill some executive position at that place they should pick him.  I can’t wait to go back and have Mike show me around some more. It was just a brief stop at the museum; but like I said at the beginning, with the right people and the right planning, it’s amazing what great experiences you can have in a very finite span of time.

Looking forward to my next visit….if I can save up the vacation time!

BP Oil Catastrophe

It’s just one insult after another to Mother Earth; I wonder when as a species we’ll just go one step too far, if we haven’t already and don’t know it yet.

I can only regard the BP Oil Disaster with stunned disbelief and incredible sadness. Like the size of the universe we live in, our tiny mammal-brains really can’t grasp large numbers…unless those numbers come in the shape and size of a large-multiple Big Gulp convenience store soft drink. Suffice it to say, it’s a huge catastro-bleep involving such huge amounts of destruction it’s hard to grasp.

I heard Jerry Moran talk on the Thom Hartman program the other day; he was saying that BP actually had control over the air space over the site of the Deep Water Horizon, preventing anyone from flying nearby to take photos. Jerry’s website has sobering, moving photos of the Louisiana coastline; check it out here.

And of course for my de rigueur laugh for the day, it was Jon Stewart’s coverage of the oil disaster on tonight’s Daily Show; I’m pleased he takes on the president and any lack of clear response independent of Big Oil. It’s the June 8th episode; the link to the broadcast isn’t up yet.

I’m off to D.C. for 5 days tomorrow. I’ll be back Sunday and I’ll post the link then. As I have a hard enough time updating this blog from my sedate home in Tucson, I guess it’s obvious that I won’t be updating anything while I’m on the road. See you soon, next time w/photos of our nation’s capitol. I’m sure I’ll look very damp in all the humidity back there.

Garden View During Heat Advisory Today

When I got up early to watch the French Open today, I could see through my kitchen window that my night blooming cereus was blooming: it’s the first bloom of the summer, and in the photo above you can see a little purplish bud in the lower right-hand corner promising more giant white flowers soon.

I took a few photos during the commercial break. Here are my cukes; beans and canatalope, compost and my beehive in the background, along with too many bales of straw–the soaker hose irrigation seems to be working just fine:

Things look kind of lush for Tucson, given we had a high heat advisory today (now, that is always remarkable around here in June; that means it really is hot). I think it was 107 Fahrenheit today.

Here are my sunflowers, hollyhocks mixed in with more standard desert/xeriscape perrenials like verbena, penstemmon, russian sage, desert milkweed and of course my very big blooming agave:

Hot, hot, hot. I’ve managed to create a bit of a “micro-climate” in my yard, though.

Aunt Mary’s Biscuit Recipe (from Newfoundland

When I came home from Boston last April, my insufferably long and cramped flight (and I had an aisle seat!) was made infinitely more bearable because I had half a dozen of my Aunt Mary’s super-fresh biscuits in a Ziploc bag.

Recently I tried making these biscuits. Now, I’m a competent cook, but a good biscuit is not easy to make and I think I’ll need some more practice after this.

The recipe is: 2 cups white flour, 2 cups whole-wheat flour, 2 Tbsp (yes) baking powder, 2 sticks butter, and about 1 3/4 cups milk (exactly how much milk will depend on the type and grind of flour) and 3 Tbsp sugar. Mary said the recipe calls for some salt, but she never adds it. There’s probably enough sodium in the leavening.

Here’s how you start: flour, sugar and leavening a bowl with the butter cut in:

I used my pastry cutter and my fingers to get the butter/flour mixture to have the consistency of coarse crumbs, then made a small “well” in the middle, where the milk went:

The secret to biscuits, scones or pie pastry is simple: hardly mix the dry ingredients with the wet ones, just barely toss dry and wet together to combine, and handle the dough as little as possible. In this case, I poured the milk in the well, and just “folded” the ingredients together (this is my aunt’s word); I then turned the (sticky) dough out on the lightly floured counter top and kneaded just 8 times (this exact number is per my aunt); after that, I rolled out the dough; you can see the pale bits of butter in the dough, evidence of the dough being handled minimally:

I rolled it too thin, though; I guess I was instinctively thinking I was making pie crust. Anyway, I cut biscuit-shapes with a mason jar lid, and slid them onto a greased cookie sheet, not realizing the biscuits were too thin until they were done:

The biscuits bake for 12 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 425; though my 1978 model electric oven runs hot and I set my oven to 375 and baked for 12 minutes. Every oven is different, so…..Know thine oven!

My biscuits tasted good, but since I rolled out the dough too thin, I wound up with a shape more reminiscent of Eucharist than biscuit; flat, but tastier than any religious wafer (thankfully!).  Next time I’ll make my biscuits twice as thick and resist the urge to roll out the dough much. One day I’ll have this recipe down!