Garden and Greenhouse

Progress Report

Isn’t it amazing how much a plant can grow in a week? Potting up helps that process along, of course, giving the plant’s roots more room to grow.

Today I set out the eggplants in the planter box in the greenhouse. I had to cut and pull quite a lot of spinach and lettuce (which should have been thinned more, I know) to make room for the eggplants, but that’s okay. The spinach and lettuce are starting to show signs of imminent bolt, so it’s time to use them and let one or two go to seed for next year. For now, they actually provide the eggplants with a little warmth when the temps dip at night, so I’ll cut and pull the spinach and lettuce gradually over the next week or so.

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I also set out the bell peppers in the greenhouse planter box. I put them on the side of the greenhouse that gets good morning sun. Not much spinach came up over on that side, so I have room to place one tin of seedling tomatoes between the bell peppers, where they will get good light.

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I reuse everything, so the tags you see in the photos are almost always not what’s growing in the containers.  I write on the back sides of the tags (and sometimes the front sides as well) with waterproof marker.  I always write the name of the plant and the seeding date or transplant date, so I can track progress as the plants grow.

Some other transplants will have to sit down by the heater at night for a few more nights and be moved up onto the potting bench and into the sun in the morning. It’s still getting quite cool at night here (in the low to mid-30s), although we should be warming up soon.

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Some of you might be a bit shocked that a mostly-greenie (that’s how I think of myself) would use styrofoam cups as pots.  Let me tell you, they work wonderfully, and I reuse them from year to year.  This is the third year of use for these cups, and they show no signs of breaking down.  I use a sharp knife to cut slits around the bottom edge and in the bottoms of the cups for drainage.  I label them with the plant’s name and transplant date, using a permanent marker or just an ink pen.  When it’s time to set the plants out, they slide out of the cups far more easily than they come out of plastic containers (which I also reuse).

Tomorrow, I’ll plant the melons and winter squash. I held off a week because of the cool nights. I’ll have to move my peppers out of the heated sand box to make room for the melons and squash, and I wanted to give the peppers a little extra time before they have to leave their cozy place.

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All the greenhouse seedlings (even the mixed up tomatoes that were upended on the greenhouse floor) are making good progress and are right on track for planting out when it’s time.

I’ll close with a series of photos from my herb beds, just because the plants are so pretty right now:  oregano, lemon balm, lady’s mantle (a.k.a. dew cup), clary sage, garden sage, and blooming rhubarb.

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May your fingers be dirty and your thumbs be green.  Mine are.

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Garden and Greenhouse

Transplant

I came home after six days away on a camping trip with my grandchildren to find everything in the garden and greenhouse in good shape, thanks to Emily Jones and Tori French. It’s transplanting time!

I transplant my tomatoes as soon as they have four true leaves. Tomato seedlings can get a little leggy, even in a greenhouse, especially mine, shrouded as it is part of the day by pines and oaks, so I always plant them a little deeper in the larger container than they grew when they sprouted in the 6-packs. This takes advantage of the remarkable ability of tomatoes to root from their stems.

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These seedlings will likely be transplanted at least once more before they go out into the garden, and each time, I will plant them deeper into larger pots or the garden box beds. By the time they are set out in the garden, they will have stocky stems and well-developed, healthy root systems.  It’s hard to believe, looking at them now, that some of them will grow to be over six feet tall.

I set my tomatoes out in the garden, under protection, sometime in May. I have set out tomatoes under Walls of Water as early as April, but when I get over-eager, they tend to get leggy and outgrow the protection before the danger of frost is past.  I’ve learned it’s best to wait, hard as it is for me to be patient!

We can get killing frosts here into June, so I want sturdy plants, well-leafed out plants, but I don’t want them to be blooming when I set them out. Transplanting at the wrong time, when the plant is already blooming and trying to set fruit, can retard the timing of the harvest and lessen the number of tomatoes you’ll get. I want my plants to be about 7-8 inches tall when I set them out, and I don’t want any blossoms. Potting up deeper early on can help control the tomato’s urge to bloom in the warm conditions in the greenhouse; the plant puts its energy into growing roots from that newly-buried portion of the stem rather than into blossoms.

The bell peppers will stay inside the greenhouse, growing in the planter box, and that’s where I’m transplanting them instead of potting them up. That’s the only way I’ll ever harvest a pepper here. They take so long to grow and set and bear and ripen fruit, and my garden gets enough shade to make them a very iffy crop outside.

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My one lone habanero (only one seed of three sprouted) will stay in the greenhouse as well. It is so small that I will not transplant it for at least several more weeks, and these peppers grow so slowly, I may not get any fruit from it at all. I didn’t get any ripe fruit from my two habaneros last year, but I am nothing if not dogged in my pursuit of homegrown hot peppers for hot sauce.

The jalapeno and serrano peppers, my salsa peppers, will go outside. Their fruit is small enough and they bear quickly enough, I can grow them in the garden. But they really hate cool nights, so they will be potted up until it is safe to move them outside, probably around the first of June, and even then, I will give them some protection at night for a few weeks.

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Eggplants are a relatively new crop for me. I grew them last year for the first time, and I got my seed so late, and they grew so slowly, I decided to leave them in the greenhouse. It was a wise decision; otherwise, I’d have harvested far fewer eggplants when the first frost hit outside. As it was, I still had fruit maturing in the greenhouse where it stayed warmer for several weeks in November last year. This year, I have five seedling plants ready for transplanting much earlier than last year, so three of them will go in the greenhouse planter box, and I’ll put two outside eventually and see how they do in the garden.

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Just before we left for the camping trip, Dennis brought home ten tomato plants for me from town. Six are Early Girls, which is my reliable, “old faithful” tomato which always does well in my garden, has great sweet flavor, makes a good crop, and is good eaten fresh, canned, chopped for salsa, dried, or sauced.  I have not yet grown Early Girls or Sun Golds from purchased seed because I haven’t found a reputable source for the seed which is guaranteed to be non-GMO.  Of course, there’s no telling whether the plants Dennis bought are non-GMO, but I’m unwilling to directly support a seed company that won’t guarantee non-GMO seeds.  The other four plants are Sun Gold, those delectable little golden-orange cherry-type tomatoes that are plant candy. I love them. I let some seed volunteer a couple of times, and the first year I got what were recognizably Sun Gold, but the second year, the parent genes of a small sweet red cherry surfaced, and half the plants bore red cherries. That was okay, too. This year, I have no volunteers, so when Dennis called from town and said Ace had Early Girls and Sun Golds, and they weren’t root-bound in 4 inch pots, and were only 88 cents each, I said, “Get some!” I transplanted them about 10 days ago into half-gallon pots, burying them deeply, and they have already doubled in size. They might have to be transplanted into the garden early, partly because one of the Sun Golds is already blooming, despite being potted up. Maybe I didn’t bury that stem quite deep enough!  The other reason I might have to move them into the garden in a week or so is that they are sitting where an eggplant or bell pepper needs to grow!

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This week, I’ll start the other tender crops that have to be babied until they can be set out: melons and squashes. The only melon I’ve been successful with here is Minnesota Midget. I can’t get a standard-sized cantaloupe to ripen, and watermelons don’t do well either, but the Minnesota Midgets are perfect, sweet, cantaloupey balls of goodness. The flavor is outstanding, and if you haven’t tried these little gems, I highly recommend them.  I had to buy fresh seed this year and made sure I got them from a seed company that does not deal with GMO seeds.

I don’t get enough sun on the garden for long enough to ripen the big melons, but pumpkins and winter squash, and zucchini and yellow straightnecks do well for me. They can’t be set out until the soil warms up and the nights aren’t so cool, so usually, I put them out in May, under protection, and hope. And pray. They grow quickly and need to be set out before their roots grow through the peat pots, so the last week of April is the right time to get them started. They will take the place of the peppers and eggplants in the heated sandbox.

I have so much lettuce in the greenhouse, I don’t know if we can eat it all, even if we eat a big salad every day, but it is so good, I could easily eat a salad of it every day.

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When it first came up, I thought it was romaine, because I thought I’d let the romaine volunteer in the greenhouse like I do outside. (I haven’t planted regular romaine in years because it keeps volunteering.) But as the lettuce developed, I could see it wasn’t romaine, and I remembered that I’d planted some salad bowl mix in the fall of 2012, and only one plant survived into the spring of 2013. I think it was oak leaf, and I let it go to seed in the greenhouse last summer. Those seedlings have flourished, along with the spinach I let go to seed and volunteer, so every few days, I have to go in and thin out the greens, making room for the eggplants, peppers, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes (the only tomatoes I’ll have in the greenhouse this year) in the planter box. What a hardship.  If you compare these pictures with the ones I took last week, you can see how much the plants have grown in just a week.  I cut and thinned a bunch of it for a salad for Easter, too.

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I love transplanting. I love getting my fork (just an old table fork) under those little root balls and prying them up, then giving them a new, bigger home in a larger pot. I love watching them respond to my care, growing up into sturdy, strong-stemmed, healthy-leaved plants that will produce food for my family over the summer and long after, when properly preserved. I wonder if a heart surgeon derives more pleasure from replacing a human heart than I get from transplanting my seedlings? The surgeon is saving a life; I’m feeding several. She can’t grow the heart she’s transplanting (at least, not yet). These babies are here because I planted the seeds. That’s a feeling only gardeners (and parents) know.

There’s a lot of transplanting work to be done over this coming week.  I can hardly wait to show you next week’s pictures and progress report.

I’ll leave you with a photo of apple blossoms, which have nothing to do with transplanting, but have everything to do with spring.  And if you are not fortunate enough to have an apple tree in your vicinity, at least you can have a picture of them.

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Garden and Greenhouse

Grow

I’m a homebody. I love my home, love these three acres of pine and oak woods, and I definitely love my garden. Every spring, summer, and fall, I’m dragged away from my garden for camping trips which might last from five days to two weeks. It’s a lot of work to get ready to go, especially when it’s planting season, and I have seedlings in both the greenhouse and the garden, or when it’s harvest time. People ask me, “What are you going to do about your garden? How can you leave it for so long?” In harvest time, if I can’t be there to pick, I have friends who will harvest for me. More problematic is leaving during the spring planting season. As in now. As in I’m going to be away all next week. Oh, dear.

Obviously, I have to find somebody to take care of the seedlings—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants.  Despite being dumped upside down on the greenhouse gravel last week (I bawled over that one on Facebook), the tomato seedlings that survived my hasty replanting are doing well.  I have no idea now what’s what, for the most part, because the tags got scrambled in the upset, but the main thing is, they are alive.

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This year, it’s a young friend of the family, Emily, who’ll come over and open up the greenhouse in the morning and water the seedlings, and my daughter-in-law, Tori, who’ll close it up at night. It’s already getting up to 100 degrees inside by 10 a.m., and my greenhouse is only semi-automated. That is, I have the drip for the planting beds on a timer, and the fans are also on timers, but the doors and vents have to be opened manually.

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And at nighttime, we’re still getting temps in the 30s. Not freezing, but cold enough to make it advisable to close up the greenhouse at night. So I am definitely depending on these girls to take good care of my babies while I am gone.

By the time I get home, if all goes well, I’ll be able to transplant my tomato seedlings into larger containers, and they won’t need the grow light any more. Also, the peppers and eggplants should be ready to set into the planter box in the greenhouse, so I can shut off the heat to the sandbox that keeps them warm at night while they are small and the nights chilly. They pout when it gets cold. A pouting pepper is a sad, droopy thing.

As for the garden itself, we use battery-powered timers with lots of Y-gates to turn on the hoses, sprinklers, drip and soaker hoses, and if I have set it up right, all the areas of the garden that have been planted—beets, carrots, turnips, lettuces, kale, spinach, garlic, cabbage, potatoes—as well as those more permanent plantings–blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, loganberries, and blackberries, rhubarb, horseradish, asparagus–and all the herbs (lavender, hyssop, oregano, lemon balm, sage, clary sage, tarragon, lady’s mantle, chives, dill, parsley, and winter onions) will be watered while I’m away.

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I know I’ll come home to miraculously-large weeds and some yard-high asparagus. I hope I also come home to see carrots and beets, which seem to be taking their own sweet time this year to emerge. And maybe the tops of the red potatoes the grandkids and I planted will be sticking out of the straw they are blanketed in. And surely some apple blossoms will have unfurled—I saw buds blushing today.  Oh, I hate missing that first burst of pink!

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Will I worry about the garden while I’m gone? Of course, I will. I’m the worrying sort about things I love. But the garden actually gets on pretty well without me; I miss it more than it misses me when I go away. The plants just go on doing what they do. Grow.

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Recipes, Side dishes

Spring Greens

We had our first taste of spring greens from the garden this week. Well, really, most of them were from the greenhouse. I let some spinach and romaine volunteer in there; thus, we have greens ready to pick when the lettuce I planted outside in the garden is still so tiny you can barely see it. I did have some fall spinach overwinter in the garden, but the leaves are tough and small compared to the tender young greens from the greenhouse.

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It’s sacrilege to cook these greens, so I prepared a salad with them. But what sort of dressing to use? In my husband’s mind, there is no salad dressing but ranch. However, I knew ranch dressing would smother these delicate greens. I needed something light and spring-like to honor spring greens. And then it came to me. I had raspberry-infused apple-scrap vinegar in the fridge which I had yet to use in anything. How about some version of a raspberry vinaigrette? It was so good, I have to share the combination and the dressing with you.

I used both baby spinach and baby romaine for my greens; you can use any mix you like, but if you’re buying packaged salad greens, I’d go for the spring mix. Toss them with this delicious raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing, and then arrange the greens on salad plates. To the greens, add thinly-sliced red bell peppers and peeled, thinly-sliced cucumbers. Drizzle a bit more dressing over the top, then sprinkle each plate with toasted, sliced almonds and grated cheese. I used a very low-fat Cabot white cheddar, which was delicious. Freshly grated parmesan or Romano, in big shreds, would also be delicious.

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I made the salad dressing with some raspberry-infused apple scrap vinegar I made last fall. Follow the link for instructions for making the infused vinegar. (Store-bought apple cider vinegar can be used to make raspberry- or blackberry-infused vinegar.) There are alternative ingredients (aren’t there always?) if you don’t happen to want to take the time or haven’t the ingredients to make an infused vinegar. (I can tell you, I’ll certainly be making more infused vinegar this fall if the robins leave me any raspberries.) The slightly-sweet and acidic raspberry vinaigrette was the perfect dressing to complement those tender, tangy new greens. I used chia seeds instead of the poppy seeds which are traditional in this kind of recipe, and they were wonderful.

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Raspberry Vinaigrette with Chia Seeds

(makes about ¾ cup)

2 tablespoons of minced onion

¼ cup raspberry-infused vinegar

2 tablespoons of honey

½ teaspoon dry mustard or prepared Dijon mustard

½ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons chia seeds

 

Mix all ingredients in blender or food processor (if using food processor, you can mince the onions with it) or with a whisk in a bowl. The mustard will help to emulsify the dressing, but it will separate slightly, so it should be shaken well before using. If you like a sweeter dressing, add more honey a teaspoon at a time until the sweetness level is right for your taste buds.

Now, if you don’t have any raspberry-infused vinegar, and don’t want to make it, for whatever reason, you can make this dressing without it. Simply substitute white wine vinegar or even rice vinegar for the raspberry-infused vinegar, and for the honey, substitute raspberry jam or preserves. Again, taste your dressing to see if you’d like it sweeter. My version isn’t very sweet, as I don’t happen to care for sweet salad dressings.

Why chia seeds instead of poppy seeds? Why, for the increased Omega 3 content, of course! They add the same slight crunch, and virtually no flavor, so feel free to leave them out, if you wish.

This antioxidant-rich salad dressing complimented the fresh spring greens beautifully. I can’t wait to pick more so that I can use the rest of the dressing.  And then, I’ve got some blackberry-infused vinegar to play with!

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Dairy, Fermenting

Homemade Yogurt

This is another installment in the “Fun with Dairy” series.  I’ve made yogurt at home for years.   Homemade yogurt is so much better than its store-bought counterpart, it’s astonishing. You can find any number of directions on the internet for making yogurt at home, and because of that, I’ve resisted blogging about making yogurt. But because so many people ask me how I do it, and because not all methods of making homemade yogurt are good ones, and because I’ve found a method that works without fail for me, I’ve decided to share it.

First, here’s what you need to make homemade yogurt:

Two pots, one large enough to hold the other, and the top one, the one you’ll cook the milk in, should be non-reactive (stainless steel, glass, enamel or porcelain-coated)

A candy thermometer (not strictly necessary but helpful)

A stainless steel spoon (don’t use wooden or silver spoons)

1-2 quarts of milk

1-2 tablespoons of plain, active-culture yogurt

Making yogurt isn’t difficult, but there are some important things to know. I’ve only had one failure in years of making it at home, and that one time was because my stove hood was dirty; the steam from the water jacket condensed on it, and a drop of dirty water fell into the milk.  That batch never thickened, and that little lesson taught me just how fragile lacto bacilli actually are. They do not like competition from other bacteria! (It also taught me to clean my stove hood before a yogurt-making session.) I’ve read about making yogurt in a crock pot.  I cook meat in my crock pot—and remember, lacto bacilli do not like competition from other bacteria.  It would be difficult and much more time consuming to sterilize the crock pot vessel than to use two separate pots.   I once tried making it on the stove without the water jacket, and the milk had a tendency to scorch before it got hot enough unless it was stirred constantly. So here’s the water jacket method I use, and it’s actually pretty easy. You can walk away from it and do other things while the milk is heating, and it will never scorch.

I fill my 13 quart stockpot 3/4 full with hot water, and start it heating on high. I invert my 6 quart stainless steel soup pot over that, stick my stainless steel spoon and candy thermometer into the boiling water, and let it boil for 10 minutes to sterilize the inverted pan and utensils.

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Then I turn the top pan, draining the condensed steam out of it, and put it into the bottom pan, so I have a big double boiler. The thermometer and spoon go in the top pan along with 1 or 2 quarts of milk, depending on how big a batch of yogurt you want to make.  Milk of any fat content can be used, although more fat produces a thicker, creamier yogurt. I usually use 1% milk.

Then, with the large pot underneath boiling, the milk heats in the top pan. Stir and skim off the milk skin occasionally, until the milk reaches a temperature of 170-185 degrees. I live at altitude, so the best I can ever do is 180 in a water jacket set-up. This heating kills off any bacteria left in the milk that would interfere with the lactobacillus reproduction. I think this is less important with store-bought pasteurized milk, but I always do it anyway. (If you don’t have a candy thermometer, and have no plans to buy one, you want to heat the milk until it is very frothy.)

Then, the milk has to cool down to 110 degrees. It’s very important that the milk be cool enough when the yogurt culture is added, or the l. bacilli will die. It is also important that the milk be warm enough to wake up the yogurt culture. It’s kind of like Baby Bear’s porridge: it has to be just right. You can place the pan containing the milk into a bowl of cold water to hasten the cooling process if you’re in a hurry, but keep monitoring it, or it will cool too much and have to be reheated. I put mine on the cold marble slab in my kitchen and keep scooting the pan around on the slab to find another cool spot after 5 minutes or so. (Usually, I’m loading or unloading the dishwasher while I’m waiting for the milk to cool, so no time wasted there.) I’ve made yogurt without a thermometer, and I learned that the right temperature is just a little warmer than blood heat. If you’ve ever seen or heard of testing a baby’s bottled milk on your wrist to see if it’s the right temperature, this is the same thing. Just dribble a little of the milk on your wrist. For babies, the milk should feel neither cold or hot—that’s blood heat, about 98 degrees. For yogurt, the milk should feel warm, but not hot on your wrist. That should be about 110 degrees.

For the starter, use only plain, active-culture yogurt. It can’t have sugar or pectin or anything in it except milk or cream, and active l.bacillus cultures, but again, any level or percentage of fat in the starter yogurt is fine. I often use non-fat yogurt as my starter when I need a new culture.   Use 1 tablespoon yogurt as starter to each quart of milk.

Gently stir the yogurt into the heated and cooled milk, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and put the pan in a warm, cozy place to culture for 8-24 hours. Don’t move it or stir it while it is culturing. 8 hours will create a yogurt that firms up when cooled in the fridge, but a 24 hr. culturing period eliminates virtually all of the lactose in the milk because those beneficial critters eat it all up.

Some attention to the various ways to keep yogurt warm enough while it is culturing is in order here. A temperature of about 80 degrees is ideal. Some people put their yogurt in a warmed oven which is then turned off, but the light is left on.  Some folks with gas ovens say the pilot keeps the oven warm enough.  Others use heating pads (you have to have an old-fashioned one that doesn’t have an auto shut-off for this to work, and let’s face it, they’re a fire hazard), and still others are able to use the top of the fridge, which is usually warm. If the house is warm enough, the yogurt may be fine on the countertop.

My house tends to be cool, so I’ve worked out a couple of different methods that work for me at different times of the year. In the winter, when the heating stove is on, I park the pan, covered with its tight-fitting lid, on the slate hearth. In the summer, when the cooler is running, I put the pan in my laundry room (which doesn’t get any cool air from the swamp cooler) and stash it on top of or next to the big freezer, which pumps out a lot of heat. In the spring and fall when the laundry room is too cold or the heating stove is not yet in use, I use a drinks cooler. This is an easy method that can be used all year round. A portable cooler will keep heat or cold in, as required. In this case, we want to keep in heat. I fill the empty milk carton with the hot water from the big pan (the water jacket), stash it in the cooler next to the covered pan of yogurt and close the lid.  24 hours later: yogurt. No muss, no fuss.

When the yogurt has finished culturing  (it should be fairly solid, other than a bit of whey on top, when you tilt the pan), whisk the finished yogurt to smooth it out, then pour or dip it into clean containers, and chill in the fridge. Don’t worry if the yogurt seems thin after whisking. It thickens again as it cools. For Greek-style yogurt, you can drain it right away through a cheesecloth-lined colander if you wish, or cool it and drain it later. If you drain it long enough, you’ll end up with a yogurt cheese, a soft, spreadable cheese reminiscent of goat cheese, which can be served on crackers plain or flavored with herbs and other additions.

As the yogurt sits in the containers, whey rises to the top. This should just be stirred back into the yogurt unless the whey is desired for a different fermenting project. Always save a couple of tablespoons of yogurt for the next batch. The yogurt shouldn’t be more than a month old before it’s used for a new batch, or the lacto bacilli might die. If a batch of yogurt is too thin after chilling, it’s time to buy a new container of plain, active-culture yogurt at the store for a new starter. I do this about every 3-6 months. I guess the critters just get tired.

I am never without homemade yogurt in my fridge. We’re hearing a lot about probiotics these days and the health benefits of a strong immune system that’s boosted by probiotics. Homemade yogurt is probiotic, but more than that, it’s delicious.

I eat a small bowl of homemade yogurt every night. I usually mix a spoonful of one of my low-sugar jams (raspberry, peach, apricot, strawberry, nectarine, and various other combinations) into my yogurt, but my favorite thing to mix into it is homemade lemon curd. Tart, slightly sweet, creamy, lemony goodness. It’s dessert that’s good for you.

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But I also do a lot of other things with my homemade yogurt. I use it in my coleslaw dressing, in my sourdough starter, as a replacement for sour cream if I’m out, in clafoutis (a wonderful French country dessert), in dips or as a spreadable cheese, and in many other dishes. At some point, I’ll pass along those recipes, but for now, I hope this post has given you the impetus to try making something really good for you at home. And just so you know, if the yogurt fails to culture for some reason, you can still make ricotta out of the milk, so nothing is wasted.

 

 

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