Growing Beets in Alaska

Beets are a versatile, tasty and nutritious root vegetable. Apparently, like cilantro, some people have a strong aversion to beets. You can eat both the root and greens of the beet. Beets are delicious steamed, roasted, pickled or fermented, and they also store well in a root cellar.

Heidi Rader shows off beets from the variety trials in Fairbanks. Photo by Glenna Gannon

Heidi Rader shows off beets from the variety trials in Fairbanks. Photo by Glenna Gannon.

In 2018 vegetable variety trials in Fairbanks, in descending order, Zeppo, Boro, Subeto, Pablo, Red Ace, Detroit Dark Red, Robin and Merlin yields were significantly higher than Falcon, Early Blood Turnip and Lutz Green Leaf. Zeppo was the highest-yielding variety at an average of 2.1 pounds/row feet. The higher-yielding varieties also had correspondingly high ratings in other areas, including plant vigor, bolting sensitivity and uniformity. The average size of Boro, Subeto and Zeppo beets (all hybrids) were over 5 ounces in 2018! Continue reading

Homemade Yogurt Offers Better Taste and Ample Savings

I like yogurt a lot. Not just any yogurt but yogurt that I have cultured. At any given time, I’ve had as many as four yogurt cultures going, plus kefir. They’re all plain and made with whole milk.

Yogurt sales in the U.S. approach nearly $10 billion a year. An aura of health surrounds yogurt, but to attract customers, yogurt companies are continually coming up with enticing new flavors like “coco loco”, “cinnamon roll” or “cookies and cream” that are loaded with sugar and artificial flavors and, in spite of yogurt’s healthy image, are actually closer to ice cream in terms of the sugar load.

Bowl of homemade blueberry yogurt.

This is tasty blueberry yogurt I made

The best-kept secret is how easy it is to make your own yogurt. It does take time to make but not a lot of hands-on time. Instead of adding sugar and artificial flavors, simply varying the inoculation culture, fermentation time, and type of milk or cream produces yogurt with noticeably different tastes and textures. For example, I usually ferment my yogurt for 24 hours. Store-bought yogurt might be fermented for as little as eight hours. The extra fermentation time results in extra sour yogurt, which I love. Those who usually avoid lactose might find that yogurt fermented longer is more easily digested

Another reason to make your own yogurt? To save money. Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations I made comparing the cost savings of yogurt made at home compared with buying it at the store.

Size of Yogurt Container Yogurt made at home with 1 gallon of $3 milk Yogurt made at home with 1 gallon of $6 organic milk Less expensive store-bought yogurt More expensive store-bought yogurt
6 oz. single serve 14 cents 28 cents 70 cents $2
Quart sized 75 cents $1.50 $3.60 $5

I should note that when you make unstrained yogurt, not much volume is lost, but making Greek yogurt, which requires that you strain the yogurt from the whey, does result in loss of volume, and that would influence these numbers. In addition to the cost benefits, making your own yogurt generates less plastic waste especially compared with single-serve yogurt.

So how do you actually make yogurt?

First, you need to understand a little bit about yogurt cultures. Heirloom cultures can be used repeatedly simply by saving a little yogurt from one batch and using it to make a new batch. This must be done fairly regularly to maintain the culture. But some cultures are sold for single-use. These cultures can’t be reused because they’re less diverse and stable. Commercially made yogurt is usually made with single-use cultures because they are more predictable. I only use heirloom cultures.  You can buy these online or at health food stores.

Another difference between yogurt cultures is the temperature at which they must be cultured – thermophilic cultures must be fermented at about 110-115 degrees F while mesophilic cultures can be fermented at room temperature. My favorite culture is Bulgarian and is thermophilic. I also use several mesophilic cultures that can simply be cultured at room temperature. These include Filmjölk, Viili, and Matsoni.

To make yogurt with a thermophilic culture, you could use a yogurt maker, an instant pot or simply a pre-heated cooler. If you use a cooler warmed with hot water, monitor it with a digital thermometer. Here’s how to make it (all temperatures are in Fahrenheit):

  1. Heat the milk to 180 degrees
  2. Cool the milk down to 110-115 degrees. Once cooled, mix in 1 tablespoon of culture per quart of milk.
  3. Keep the milk at  110-115 degrees for at least eight hours and up to 24 hours.

Mesophilic yogurt is much easier to make. Simply save about one or two tablespoons of the previous batch of yogurt and add it to more cream, milk or a combination of the two. Ferment at room temperature and in about a day or so it will be finished. One of the things I use the mesophilic cultures for is making crème fraîche. This works well because it wouldn’t make sense for me to make a whole gallon of  crème fraîche,  which is the capacity of my instant pot and it would take a lot more effort to use a thermophilic culture for a small amount of crème fraîche. Instead, I make small batches in pint jars.  

A pint-sized jar of homemade cream friach next to a quart-sized jar of yougurt.

I usually make smaller batches of creme fraiche, a naturally thickened cream that provides a tart, buttery flavor.

Kefir is also fermented at room temperatures, but kefir grains are added to inoculate the yogurt instead of simply a couple of tablespoons of kefir. Add one tablespoon of kefir grains to one quart of milk and let ferment until thickened. This usually takes at least 24 hours for my kefir. The grains are colonies of bacteria and yeast that continue to grow and multiply when you make kefir. If you let kefir ferment too long, your kefir might become a little bit alcoholic and fizzy because of the yeast. Single-use cultures are sold for making kefir, so, if you can, find the kefir grains if you want to make multiple batches of kefir.

Colony of fresh kefir up close.

Kefir is thinner than yogurt but has a similar creamy-but-tart taste. It is fermented at room temperature.

If you want to make thick, nonfat yogurt, try making Greek yogurt or add a thickener like powdered milk, gelatin, pectin or tapioca starch. Be aware that thickeners may limit your ability to reuse your culture. Heavy whipping cream can also be used to thicken yogurt.

Making your own yogurt is easy, tasty, healthy and will save you money so give it a try!

For additional instructions, check out UAF Extension’s publication on making yogurt at home.

Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner October 27, 2019.

 

Cook More at Home–You Won’t Regret it

Want to save money, lose weight and build closer relationships with your family this year? Resolve to cook more at home. In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,Charles Duhigg talks about the power of keystone habits to influence many areas of our lives. In other words, starting one good habit can lead to more good habits (or breaking bad ones). Cooking at home is a good example of a keystone habit.

A fillet of red salmon cooking on the barbecue covered in fresh herbs.

Barbecuing Alaskan salmon with fresh herbs is a simple way to make a delicious meal.

If you want to save money this year, cooking at home instead of going out to eat is a great way to do that. Even when compared with fast food, you can still save money by cooking at home. Leanne Brown created an excellent and free online cookbook called Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/day. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education is an excellent source for information if you want to cook healthy on a tight budget. Of course, you can always find loads of Alaska-centric recipes on the UAF Cooperative Extension Service website.

One of the greatest benefits of cooking at home is that you’re more aware of what you’re eating. If you make spaghetti sauce, you choose whether or not to dump sugar in the sauce. If you buy a can of ready-made sauce, you get the sugar whether or not you want it. Even if you scrutinize the nutrition label, it takes work to translate it into the serving size that you’re actually going to eat. There are all sorts of hidden ingredients in ready-to-eat or processed foods that may or may not be healthy for us. Go one step further and start a garden, and you’ll know even more about what’s in your food. Continue reading

Before you Toss Your Fish Carcasses Back Into the River, Consider Making Bone Broth or Composting Them

For many Alaskans, it’s time for fishing! But before you toss your fish carcasses back into the river, consider two options to eke out every last bit of goodness from them. One is to make soup and one is to compost them. Better yet, do both and make broth or soup first, then compost the carcasses or make some soup and some compost. Fish broth is nutritious and tasty for you, and fish compost is nutritious and tasty for your plants.

This recipe incorporates salmon heads, and I would not hesitate to add the tails and bones, too. I would also recommend Brazilian fish stew.

A large compost pile is heating up to 160 degreed Fand steam is riding off of it.

You want to make sure your pile does not heat up over 160 degrees F. You can see the steam coming off this pile. You can monitor your pile with a long-stemmed thermometer.

Methods and materials for composting fish abound. Traditionally, fish was just buried in the garden with decent results. In Alaska, you do risk attracting dogs, bears, flies and other pests to your garden if you practice this method. Steve Kahn wrote in the Anchorage Daily News that one year in the fall, even though there were plenty of other fish washed up on the shore of Lake Clark, bears churned up his garden to get at the ones he and his wife had buried.

If you plan to compost the carcasses, you’ll want to make sure that you have a large bin or pile and that it is fenced in – perhaps with an electric fence if bears or dogs are problematic where you live.

Fish heads are being layered in with fireweed in this compost pile.

Fish heads are being layered in with fireweed in this pile.

Much of these same principles apply to composting in general as with any composting, but there are some additional considerations. Fish composting has the potential to turn into a positively rank operation so you need to have a large enough bin or pile to manage those odors. In general, for a compost pile to heat up, it needs to be at least a cubic yard in size. But when composting fish, bigger is better. Continue reading

The Benefits of Minimizing Food Waste Abound

If you care about the environment and mitigating climate change, reducing your food waste could help put a dent in 8% of greenhouse gas emissions that are from producing food that is lost or wasted, according to the World Resources Institute.

If you care about your pocketbook, cutting your food waste could save you up to $1,500 per year, the average cost of the food that American households throw out every year. According to a recent report from the institute, Reducing Food Loss and Waste, North America and Oceania (Australia and Pacific Islands) waste more food at home or in restaurants than any other region in the world.

More research and studies are needed to better quantify food loss and how to address it, but it’s an important issue that warrants our attention and action. Here are some strategies you can use to reduce your own food waste.

I’ve noted this before, but growing a garden is a worthwhile way to combat food waste. It saves you trips to the grocery store, and because you can harvest when you’re ready to eat it, it gives you quite a bit more flexibility than when you go to the grocery store and have to plan for an entire week. This, of course, is only a useful tool for part of the year in Alaska, but that part is getting longer and longer as our season grows. Continue reading

The Princess Garden—Beautiful, Productive and Sustainable

One day when I was biking around town photographing flowers and gardens (yes, I love my job!), I was surprised and delighted to discover a gem of a garden, farm even, behind the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge. Both the size and appearance of the garden impressed me. I’ve seen tiny hotel or restaurant gardens with oversized claims of sustainability and farm-to-table practices. But the Princess garden is different.

Vibrant display of nasturtium flowers at the Fairbanks Princess Lodge garden.

Vibrant display of nasturtium flowers at the Fairbanks Princess Lodge garden.

Not surprisingly, I found Gretchen Kerndt busily tending the garden. Gretchen has operated Basically Basil for more than 20 years in Fairbanks, with an emphasis on herbs and, well, basil. I interviewed Gretchen and Mark Winans, the food and beverage manager at the hotel, to learn more about why and how they created the so-called Chef’s Garden.

The hotel has always purchased locally grown food from local farmers, including Gretchen, but in the past few years, it’s gotten harder to fill their orders.

Mark explained, “We had the space out there. It was a no-brainer. We had the perfect opportunity. The tourists love it.’ Continue reading

Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls Surpass Canned or Yeasted Rolls by Far

Active dry yeast and I have never had a great relationship. Maybe the yeast I used was too old. Maybe the water I used to activate it was too cold or too hot. Maybe I didn’t wait long enough for the yeast to grow. Or maybe I used too much whole wheat or rye flour, producing what my family vividly (fondly?) refers to as “rye rocks.” Whatever the reason, I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded when baking with yeast.

Sourdough and I are a different story. Sourdough is more reliable and amenable to my baking style. Alaska “Sourdoughs” (early miners or old-timers in Alaska) also considered sourdough more reliable than yeast cakes even though it sometimes could not stand up to the extremes it was exposed to. They carried small pouches of sourdough on their persons to keep it from freezing. While the early miners likely baked without cookbooks, a renowned San Francisco baker named Chad Robertson took 27 pages in “Tartine Bread” to divulge his basic bread recipe. Here’s a pared-down version of the recipe.

A pan of freshly baked sourdough cinnamon rolls.

A pan of freshly baked sourdough cinnamon rolls.

The fact that Alaska sourdoughs and hip bakers in San Francisco can both successfully bake using sourdough is a testament to its flexibility. My methods fall somewhere in the middle between Robertson’s and the early miners’, assuming they were similar to the recipe described in Alaska Magazine’s Cabin Cookbook. I’ve developed a couple of my own tricks to minimize the mess and streamline the process. For instance, I simply make the sponge (leaven) in the same quart jar I keep the starter. Also, I let the dough do all of its rising in the same large glass bowl that I do the mixing. Continue reading