25 April 2013

Making Kefir

A few years ago, in order to get more kinds of probiotic in our diet, I learned to make kefir, (pronounced kuh-feer). Now that I am eating a vegan diet, I do not use any dairy, but my husband does, so I continue to make the kefir for him. I was pretty intimidated when I first started working with the kefir grains, since I knew little to nothing about how they should behave. But after a misstep or two, I got the process down to a science and discovered that kefir is very flexible and much more tolerant to neglect that I thought it would be.

I could extol the virtues of kefir here, but instead I will give you a play by play on how to start your kefir and a recipe for my husband's favorite Mango Lassi. But if you are interested in knowing more about the health benefits of kefir, here is a website where you can find more than you really want to know about kefir,  Dom's Kefir website....
I believe there is a fair amount of latitude in how you treat the grains and still get an acceptable end product. I have heard many different ways of managing your kefir grains, some people say you must culture every day, others say culture in the fridge to slow down the process, but that you can't store the grains in the fridge for long if you aren't using it much, some say only use pasteurized milk, others say it is best to use raw milk... So I am just going to tell you what has worked for me and suggest that you read what several people have to say on the subject and then decide how you will proceed. Speaking from my own experience, I have found that the grains will tolerate a lot of different environments and schedules, after all kefir grains have been around for centuries, without pasturized milk or other coddling. There are a few things however, that must be done right in order to keep your kefir grains healthy and happy.  First of all the grains are a living entity, a collection of yeasts and bacteria that need a clean environment to live in and the proper kind of food to feed on in order to thrive and reproduce. By clean environment I mean a very clean glass container, but no plastic, since plastic has microscopic pores that will be impossible to clean well enough to prevent contamination. I run the glass container through the dishwasher with the heated dry option on to make sure there are no stray yeasts or bacteria hanging around. All implements that you use with the kefir grains need to be non-metallic, so use a plastic or nylon strainer, and plastic utensils, but no metal, it could damage the viability of the grains. If you handle the grains with your hands, make sure they are very clean first, I wear latex gloves if I am handling them to make sure that I don't contaminate the grains. Kefir grains need quality food to be healthy, just like we do, so if at all possible use organic milk or fresh raw milk to culture your kefir. If organic milk or raw isn't an option, then at least make sure that you use very fresh milk, don't use milk that has been sitting in the fridge for a week, since pasteurized milk doesn't go sour like raw milk does, it just goes bad and the bacteria that is growing in it is not of the beneficial variety.

What you will need to begin making Kefir:
Kefir grains, at least 1 tablespoon, (they can be found at Amazon.com from several sources, just read the feedback before purchasing to make sure other have been satisfied with the grains they received. I would say to be on the safe side look for a seller that is selling fresh live grains that can be delivered to you in a couple of days.)
A clean glass jar and lid. When starting with new grains that need to be grown, use a pint jar and plastic lid or two part regular lid with plastic wrap between the lid and the kefir grains in the jar.
Very fresh milk. Organic or raw is best, but fresh at the very least. Reconstituted powdered milk can also be used .
A plastic or nylon strainer
A plastic spoon or spatula
A plastic funnel, optional but I like it since I don't want any of the grains to miss the jar when transferring and hit the counter.

My Story...
 When I got my grains in the mail, inside the bubble pack envelope, I found a sandwich sized ziploc bag with less than 1/4 inch of goo in the bottom of the bag. I had no idea what kefir grains looked like, so I just followed the directions and waited to see what would happen, but I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I had just wasted my money... I waited 24 hours and the milk smelled vaguely of yogurt, but was thin and there was no whey, so I left it another 8 hours. By this time there was a little more activity, so I strained the liquid off and found a bunch of little white things that looked like cottage cheese left in the strainer. I rinsed them with water trying to find the goo that I had originally put in the milk but all that I found was these tiny pieces of what I took to be clabbored milk. At this point I was pretty sure something was wrong and that my grains had just dissolved in the milk. I decided to just put the white ricotta cheese looking pieces in fresh milk with about half of the milk I had strained off to start with. Thinking that maybe the "grains" were like yogurt and you just used some of what you had from your last batch to start your next one... Wrong... the little pieces of clabbored milk were the kefir grains. They had just started to revive and take on their true shape. So after a day or two more of being fed fresh milk the grains were making nice thick kefir and yes, I had gotten my money's worth. The point of this story is to say, be patient, follow the directions, once your grains have made their home in the jar on your counter, they will start producing tasty healthful kefir for you.
Mature Kefir grains look like cauliflower florets

 When you order the grains you will be shipped about a tablespoon in quantity. They won't look like much. You will probably wonder if you got the right thing... Once you receive your grains, put them in milk immediately. For this quantity of grains add 1 cup milk to the grains in a pint sized canning jar and leave at room temperature in a place out of direct sunlight, (direct sunlight could damage your grains) and leave for 24 hours. The first batch you make from newly arrived grains will probably be thin and smell and taste a little off... I would just strain the grains out of the milk the first time or two and put the liquid in the compost or if you have a septic system flush it down the toilet, (it is great for promoting microbial growth in the septic tank! I use extra kefir in place of the very expensive name brand product called Rid-X that serves the same purpose). After the first day or two the kefir will begin to thicken and the taste will be similar to that of plain yogurt and will have pockets of yellowish liquid throughout, (the liquid that you see is whey, it will blend back into the milk when you use the kefir).
The grains will float to the top of the jar and pockets of yellowish whey will form in the milk when the kefir is ready.

Now you can pour the kefir through a plastic strainer, reserve the strained kefir liquid and put the grains back in your culturing jar with a spoon or spatula and cover the grains with a cup of milk.

Of course this is much more than a cup or two of milk, but I have been growing my kefir grains so that I will have enough to share at a class I am giving. The grains are what is left in the strainer in this photo.
 At this point your milk is colonized  and you can either store the strained kefir in the fridge in a glass jar for use in smoothies and other goodies, or go for a fermentation of the kefir, which will give you a full flavored, slightly effervescent kefir that has a more developed family of helpful yeasts and bacteria.  I found that the one day culture of kefir was pretty weak in flavor, and there is very little sparkle or effervescence, but if I left it to culture another day, the flavor was much improved and the sparkle far more pronounced. I almost always ferment the kefir liquid for a day before I put it in the fridge. So I have one jar culturing with the grains, and one jar without the grains fermenting for a day or two, (depending on the inside temperature).

According to those who are in the know, kefir should be cultured every day in order to keep it healthy. I will agree that they produce great kefir when cultured every day, but since my husband is the only one consuming it, He can't keep up with the supply. What I do is culture the kefir every day until I have enough to last my husband for a few days, then I put the grains in the fridge covered in milk and leave them for up to two weeks. Since most of the kefir that is consumed at my house is made into lassi and smoothies, and goes straight from the jar to the blender, I make sure to label the jar containing the grains with bold letters stating that these are the Kefir grains DO NOT USE. I would hate for my happy little colony of kefir grains to end up blended into a smoothie!! If in two weeks I haven't used the grains, then I drain off the kefir liquid, add fresh milk and leave it on the counter, after 24 hours, I pour that off , add new milk and place in the fridge. Any of the milk poured off of the grains is usable of course, but I usually pour the storage kefir into the toilet to boost the health of our septic system.

As the amount of grains in your jar grows you will need to increase the quantity of milk that you add to the grains for culturing. If you are getting thick, whey filled kefir in 8-12 hours then increase the size of the jar and double the amount of milk you add to your grains. It should take a full 24 hours to develop your kefir, so if it is taking less time you need to change the environment some, either increase the volume of milk being cultured or reduce the temperature of the culturing environment to slow the process., And I would say yes, you can culture in the fridge from time to time, just not every time you culture so that the grains have the opportunity to grow and maintain their colony health).

Healthy grains will grow and multiply fairly quickly so if you are having trouble staying ahead of what is being produced and you have gone up in container size and have added increasing quantities of milk, to the point where you can't use it all, then it is time to divide your grains. If you need less kefir, then decrease the quantity by removing 1/4 of the grains, (more if you are really not keeping up). You will need to reduce the amount of milk you are using to culture the kefir when you divide the grains. It should take about 24 hours to culture, if it is taking longer than that, the volume of milk in is too much for the grains to handle, so reduce the quantity until you are getting cultured kefir in about 24 hours.  What do you do with the extra grains? The grains can be eaten, or if you have a friend who loved the lassi when you serve her once, you can share some of the grains with her! You can also rinse the grains thoroughly in water and dehydrate them in a dehydrator with only air, no heat, (like most yeasts heat will kill kefir yeasts), until they are completely dry. Then store them in a small quantity of dry nonfat dried milk in a freezer bag. Label and store in a cool dark place, (dehydrated grains have a 2 year shelf life if dehydrated without heat and stored properly).

Now that you have Kefir, what do you do with it? Well, if you like the taste of plain yogurt, then you will probably like the taste of plain kefir, but if you are like my husband, plain is kind of... meh... He prefers to have his kefir in a lassi or smoothie. You can also use the kefir to make other lacto-fermented foods like sauerkraut, when you want to avoid salt. It makes a killer ranch dressing as well as other salad dressings, or it can be used like buttermilk in pancakes or other soda leavened foods, but heat kills the healthful properties of the kefir, so if you are looking for the health benefits then stick to uncooked preparations.

Here is my husband's favorite:

Mango Lassi 
Makes one serving but may be doubled or tripled without overfilling the blender.
One heaping cup frozen mango pieces, (for details see: Mangos)
One cup kefir
One healthy tsp. honey (if your mango is very, very ripe and sweet, or you like a tangy lassi, the honey is optional)

Place frozen mango and kefir in blender then add honey (which keeps honey from sinking to the bottom under the blades where it might not mix in). Blend until smooth. Serve immediately.

I also like to make these into popsicles  for a refreshing snack for hubby while he is working in the garden. Kids love them, they taste similar to a cremesicle without the sugar and preservatives! What a way to feed them their probiotics!

If you are looking for healthful  ways to add good flora to your digestive tract, or want a more digestible way to consume milk, then I would recommend Kefir. Yogurt is good, but as far as healthy yeasts and bacteria for you gut, Kefir beats yogurt hands down. Here is a couple of quotes from Kefir.net "...Yogurt contains transient beneficial bacteria that keep the digestive system clean and provide food for the friendly bacteria that reside there. But kefir can actually colonize the intestinal tract, a feat that yogurt cannot match.”
Yogurt has two basic forms of helpful bacteria,  where Kefir has 13. "...Kefir contains several major strains of friendly bacteria not commonly found in yogurt, Lactobacillus Caucasus, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter species, and Streptococcus species.
It also contains beneficial yeasts, such as Saccharomyces kefir and Torula kefir, which dominate, control and eliminate destructive pathogenic yeasts in the body. They do so by penetrating the mucosal lining where unhealthy yeast and bacteria reside, forming a virtual SWAT team that housecleans and strengthens the intestines. Hence, the body becomes more efficient in resisting such pathogens as E. coli and intestinal parasites. So the bottom line is, Yogurt is beneficial, but Kefir is superior in its benefits to intestinal health.

Blog Hops this post is linked to:
Tasty Tuesday#4
Farm Girl Blog Fest #29
Farm Girl Friday #105
Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways #69
Farm Girl Blog Fest #30
Clever Chicks Blog Hop #32

Healthy Frugal Snacking

Since becoming vegan/ mostly raw, I find that I am often hungry between meals. It has been hard for me to break the habit of not eating between meals, since for most my life that is one of the ways that I controlled my weight. But now that most every thing I eat is raw and all of it is plant based, I find the need to eat far more frequently. Actually, I eat all day long...

Today I started out with my early morning green drink, (which is 1 1/2- 2 frozen bananas, 1 heaping tsp. barley green, 1 level tsp. Erin's Super Green Drink powder and 8 oz. of water blended in a personal sized bullet blender), then a small mountain of fruit: apples, clementines, bananas, kiwi, mango,  and pineapple. After that I had my Beet the Blues Detox drink and went on about my morning. After watering all the seedlings and transplants, and doing the household chores I found myself peckish again around 10 a.m. Snacking can be expensive if it is a full time job, so I am always trying to find healthful, frugal snacks to eat between meals.

Since I was out in the garden when hunger struck, I picked a bunch of greens, including Blue Curly Kale, Wild Kale Mix, and Bright Lights Swiss Chard. The kale is trying to go to seed, but I am encouraging it to last a week or two longer by cutting off the flower stalks as soon as they appear, (BTW the kale flower stalks taste just like broccoli). Once inside I rummaged around in the freezer and found some berries from last year's harvest that I had frozen. I decided to make a green smoothie with the kale and the blueberries.
Here is the recipe:

Kale Berry Smoothie
2 frozen bananas
2 cups of mixed blueberries and blackberries frozen or fresh
1 bunch kale or other deep green leafy 
1 healthy handful of fresh lemon balm, (spearmint will also do, but I really like the citrus-y taste of the lemon balm) or the juice of 1/2 a lemon and a tsp. agave.
Water to aid in blending, and to obtain desired consistency, about 2 cups ( you can also use organic 100% fruit juice if you like).

Put 1 cup of water and the greens in the blender and blend. Then add the frozen bananas, the blueberries, and the lemon balm, (or its alternative), and blend. Add more water, (or juice) to make the drink to the thickness of your liking.

The smoothie is thick, cold and refreshing, but will have a slightly different texture than many smoothies, since it has fresh greens in it. It is delicious, and will probably hold me for another couple of hours, until I can make myself some lunch. The total cost of my mid morning snack was about 40 cents, since the blueberries, greens and lemon balm all came out of the garden, the only thing I included that had a cost was two organic bananas, which cost about 20 cents a piece.

I am always looking for a way to cut grocery costs, especially if we are paying the premium price of organic food. Growing a garden is one way that I can afford to eat the way I need to and not break the bank. The other part of that is to find ways to use what we grow in as many meals and snacks as possible. For every head of lettuce I pick from the garden, every batch of fruit I freeze, I am saving money. If I think about what we have growing when I plan my meals; I can use what is coming out of the garden first and then add other things that have to be purchased to round out the meals.

I know that there are many people who do not have the luxury of land to grow in, and for those people I am going to be writing a series of blog posts on how to grow your own food when you have no space for a garden. I also will be giving tips and thoughts on the most inexpensive and practical ways to buy the foods that you can't grow. So please check back and find out how you can be frugal and eat well at the same time.

Until next time! Elle

Blog Hops this post is linked to:
Frugal Days Sustainable Ways #69
Farm Girl Fest #30

A Stroll Around the Garden

I have been a bit under the weather. I normally don't suffer much with spring allergies any more, but we had some very strong winds blowing recently and the amount of the pollen in the air is enough to choke a horse, so my head is aching and my throat is sore. I have been doctoring the sore throat with a souped up version of my Beat the Blues Detox Drink. I took the basic tonic ingredients and I added double the cayenne, double the honey, and double the lemons, I also added 2 large cloves of garlic. I put it in the blender and gave it a good whirl with a couple of cubes of ice. I will nurse this all day. This will knock out any bacteria that is lurking around in the aggravated throat tissues, and give me a good detox to boot! I am also taking the "Four Thieves" combination of essential oils, clove, lemon, cinnamon,  eucalyptus radiata, and  rosemary, to fight bacterial infection, and my echinacea tincture to boost my immune response. I was feeling crummy all day yesterday, and woke up rocky this morning, but I think my body is getting a head of steam with all the "help" it has had in the last 24 hours, so I know I will be feel like myself soon!

Since I am still feeling sub par, today will not be as busy a day as I had planned, but I will take you on a tour around and show you what is going on in the garden.

Tomato seedlings are out for the day to harden off . The other flats are just getting started, but the weather is finally warm enough to start them outside.

 Romaine lettuce is ready for cutting. Since the weather is beginning to get warm, most of the early lettuce has gone bitter and started to bolt, but some of the lettuce, like the romaine is a little more heat resistant.

Oak Leaf lettuce is sending up flower stalks. I will be pulling them up in the next few days to make room for beets and turnips.

 A honey bee is pollinating the Giant Red Mustard flowers.

 Turnip seed pods are beginning to ripen. I am hoping that they are going to be ready to be pulled up by the time I need the bed for warm weather crops.

 The mature Bright Lights Swiss Chard is going to bolt soon, and the succession crop of chard is planted between the rows. For now I am cutting the flower stalks off  to encourage new growth in order to stretch out the harvest and shorten the "hungry gap" between spring and summer crops.

 The trellised blackberries are covered with blossoms and bees.  Unfortunately, a good portion of our blueberries were burned in an deep chill late in the season, but it looks like the blackberries will make up for the losses!

It has been many years since we had any quantity of honeybees visiting our garden. For the most part we see bumble bees, little tiny bees and wasps, so it is sure nice to see the honeybees again!

I have been harvesting the onions a few at a time and using them to season our salads, and putting slices of the onions with cucumbers in the vinegar left from one of the empty jars of pickled daikon . They make flavorful compliments to simple meals.

The strawberries we replanted last year look like they are going to be fruitful this year...I can't wait!

This is a busy time of year for us, starting seeds, preparing beds, managing the winter crops trying to eek out a couple more week of food, and putting plans in place for more beds to expand our growing area. I also have been spending time enjoying the warmth of the sun, the birds, bees and butterflies and soaking up as much of the pretty spring weather as I can, before it gets too hot. Our spring here is short but sweet and then we have unrelenting heat and no rain to speak of for the whole summer. We have designed our gardens to weather the heat and the drought, by heavy composting and deep mulches to keep the moisture in. I just wish that there was something that I could do that would make me more heat tolerant!

I hope you enjoyed the stroll around the garden with me and that you will come back for a visit soon!
Blog Hops that this post is linked to:
Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways #69
Clever Chicks Blog Hop#33

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