A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Grow Your Own 'Blue Corn'

Jim husks blue corn.
Part of becoming more self-sufficient has been to grow our own corn-meal. We chose an heirloom-variety of blue corn called Hooker's Blue because it's easy to grow, has high yields and makes delicious corn-meal that can be used as hot cereal, and in baked goods such as corn bread and pancake mix.

Our first corn crop was in the summer of 2015. We'd been given a small, shriveled ear at a seed-swap. The corn was already two years old and, since corn seed degrades faster than most, we weren't sure how viable it would be. In this case we pre-sprouted it and only planted seeds that germinated. Our young friend Serenity patiently and diligently planted the corn in cultivated soil -- 5" apart and 1" down, gently covering the seeds with soil as she went.

This is the cob-size we used to start our first crop of Hooker's Blue corn, which we grew out and re-planted as seed. Just two years later, our harvest is enough to feed Chris and I for a year with  enough surplus to share with the garden-families who help us (at least 10-gallons of shucked corn! This was from four, sixty-foot rows.)
We have a lot of blue-jays in our neighborhood, and some crows - both who love corn! One year we planted corn, saw the new seedlings sprout above-ground in the afternoon -- a whole long, row of them, came back the next morning and discovered that each and every one had been dug up and eaten! So, to prevent this happening again we covered our newly planted corn with 'floating row cover' (brand-name: "Reemay") a synthetic, white cloth that lets rain and sunlight reach the plants but protects them from light frosts and hungry garden-creatures! Reemay must be pinned in place, or held down with bricks or stones. It can be left on till seedlings start pushing at it from below at which point it's unlikely that birds/animals will dig up and eat your plants.

Covered row cloth protects young crops from mild frosts and animals that might eat the tender, new plants. Remove once plants are pushing up on bottom of cloth. (Pic credit)
The soil we planted in was fairly poor and newly tilled so once the seedlings were a few inches above-ground, we gave them a thorough soaking with compost-tea.

Compost tea is steeped in large batches and then poured generously on crops to fertilize them.
That first year, our harvest was moderate but plenty for a large seed-crop to plant in our second year. Since we had plenty of fresh seed, we used a different method for planting. We prepared the ground by spreading a light sprinkling of wood-ash LINK. Chris tilled this into the soil as deep as the tiller would go. He then scattered a combination of corn seed and kidney bean seeds (a 'bush' variety that we dried and shelled for use in soups and chili). He then set the tiller to a very shallow setting - about 2", and tilled both varieties of seed into the ground. We then marked the row with string so no-one would walk on it and waited for the seedlings to emerge.

The orange string (around bed to left of hose) is used to mark newly planted soil so no one walks on it by accident.
Corn is typically a heavy-feeder (it needs rich, fertile soil). If your soil is depleted, your corn-crop will benefit from additional feeding as it grows. This past year, about mid-season, after a thorough weeding, we added a thick layer of partially composted leaves and grass-clippings around the base of the corn and bean plants. Then, whenever we watered, the plants were fed.

Shucking corn and shelling beans are a favorite autumn activity at the Sharing Gardens.
Corn is pollinated primarily by wind so it is best if you plant either multiple rows, near to each other, or wide-beds (the width of the tiller - as we did). If you are growing a small crop, planting it in a solid square, or block works well too. Since the beans and corn are both left till dry on the plant, you do not need access to the plants in the center of the patch during the growing season. (Note: Hooker's Blue corn is also quite tasty as a sweet-corn if you harvest it once kernels are fully formed but still soft and yellow. Cook as you would regular sweet-corn).

Hooker's Blue corn, though not very tall at full height (typically 4 to 4 and 1/2 feet) yields large harvests -- one to two 4"-6" ears per stalk. Here, students are mulching an adjacent bed with wheat straw.

In this picture, corn has finished ripening, and partially drying on the stalk. Christie harvests the ears to be husked and further dried in our greenhouse.
Because we use the corn to make corn-meal, we leave it on the plants, in the field, till it is quite hard and has turned dark purple (almost black). We check it every few days by pressing a fingernail into the kernels of corn. It's done when you can no longer dent it with your nail. Ears of corn are then harvested, husked and left to dry on racks in our greenhouses. The dryer it is, the easier it is to remove the kernels from the cob (shucking). If Fall weather starts getting too damp for the corn to dry properly, we bring it inside and put it on shelves above our wood stove to finish the process.

Christie and Chelsea remove husks and lay cobs onto a drying table to continue to dry. Corn is easiest to remove from the cobs if it is dried well.
Shucking can be done simply by twisting the cobs in your hands to break loose the kernels (you might want to wear gloves!). If you have a lot of shucking to do, here's a simple tool Chris made that really speeds up the process!

Home-made corn-shucker. The cob is twisted against protruding screws.
Close-up of corn-shucker. Long screws are driven in from four sides leaving an interior hole ~ one-inch in diameter so cob fits but corn is rubbed off; wood is added at ends to prevent splitting and the handle makes it easier to use.
A tub of dried corn-kernels.
Lastly, be sure to store your corn in a cool place, in air-tight containers. Because of corn's high oil content it can go rancid; this ruins the flavor and makes it unhealthy to eat. Be sure to set aside enough seed for next year's crop. To ensure best viability, we freeze our corn-seed in air-tight containers.

Grinding corn: Obviously, if you're growing your own corn for grinding, you're going to need a grain-mill! After carefully comparing reviews of different brands and models, we chose to invest in a top-of-the line Diamant grain-mill. This is considered an 'heirloom' appliance in that, with proper care it will last for generations. Ours came with a handle for hand-grinding, can be hooked up to a bicycle for larger, human-powered batches or hooked up to a small motor (which is what we did) so we can grind large batches with ease. If the price-tag is prohibitive, consider purchasing one with your neighbors and setting it up in a central location for all to share.

Mill hooked up to motor for faster grinding. It comes with a handle, for hand-grinding and we also have seen instructions for hooking it up to a stationary bicycle.
Close-up view of Diamant grain-mill. The 'can' on top has an open bottom and allows us to pour more grain in at a time. The knob at left adjusts the fineness of the grind.
Close-up of mounted engine.
Variety we like: Hooker's Blue corn
Obtained from Native Americans in the Pacific NW (Washington state, USA) in the 1950's. It is an Heirloom, non-hybrid variety that will "grow-true" year-after-year so you can save your own seed.
Description: 75-80 days - to maturity. The 4-4 1/2 foot stalks produce 5-7 inch ears of some of the finest tasting corn. Ears typically have 10-12 rows of kernels that dry blue-black upon maturing - 1 or 2 ears per plant LINK - Reviews of Growers.
Why we like it: Does well in a cooler, damper climate. Because of its short-stalk, it won't 'lodge' (fall over) as taller varieties sometimes do. Grinds into the sweetest cornmeal! Can be as much as 30% higher in protein than regular 'sweet-corn' LINK-nutritional facts.

Favorite recipes: Hooker's Blue corn is deliciously sweet and nutty-flavored. Here are some ideas for using it in recipes.

Hot cereal: Stir ground corn into lightly salted water in a 2:1 ratio (twice as much water as corn). Gently heat the corn  and water together, stirring occasionally and simmer on low heat, in a covered pan for ~20 min.

Crumb-Free Whole Grain Corn Bread: We make a large batch of the dry-mix ahead of time so it's easy to just add milk, eggs and oil for a quick batch of corn bread or pancakes. Yum! LINK-Recipe

Whole Grain No-Knead Bread: We've adapted Jim Lahey's delicious no-knead bread-recipe to incorporate whole wheat flour and blue-corn meal. So tasty and nourishing! LINK-Recipe


Scarlet Runner Beans: Here is a post about "Growing Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans" - LINK. Beans and corn together give you all the essential amino-acids needed in one meal (a complete protein) and it's delicious too!

Beautiful scarlet runner bean blossoms!
Leave us your tips for growing, and links to recipes in the comments below! (But please don't include ad-links to our 100% ad-free site - thanks!)


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Whole Grain No-Knead Bread - Recipe

Several years ago, a New York City baker named Jim Lahey developed and published a recipe for "No-Knead Bread". It is a very popular recipe and one that Chris and I used for several months while refining our skills at producing consistent results.

Original recipe of No-Knead Bread using pure, white bread flour and no whole grains.
Once we mastered the original recipe we experimented in adding whole grains, nuts and dried fruit. Here is our recipe in which we use blue corn meal we grew ourselves LINK-How to Grow Blue Corn Meal.

2 cups bread flour *
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup blue corn meal-finely ground**
1 and 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dry yeast ***

1 7/8 cups mildly warm water

Mix all dry ingredients together thoroughly with your hands. It is important that the yeast and salt be evenly distributed both for flavor and effectiveness of the 'rise'. If you prefer, you can use a fork, but with your hands you can feel if all lumps of flour have been broken-apart and it just feels good to get your hands in the flour!

Mixing by hand insures that all ingredients are thoroughly mixed, with no clumping of any single ingredient.
Water should be about room-temperature. Too cold and it takes awhile for the yeast to awaken; too warm and it encourages a rapid-rise which can then collapse before you bake it. Use a large spatula to mix the dough. Add most of the water, stir well and add more as needed. It will be fairly wet - a little stiffer than hot porridge. This is important because the corn-meal and bran will absorb quite a bit of the water during the long, first rise. This whole-grain recipe uses a full 1/4 cup more water than the recipe using all 'white' flour.

Keep scraping any dry flour off the sides and bottom of the bowl and, using the flat side of the spatula, press down and lengthen the gluten strands that are already forming within the dough. Don't chop the dough at any stage of mixing as this breaks up the gluten-strands. Just keep folding and spreading the dough till all ingredients are thoroughly mixed and the dough has a spongy, springy feeling.

Cover bowl with plastic-wrap or a towel, and allow to rise in a mildly warm place without drafts. Ideal temperature for rising the dough is about 70 F (21 C). In the summer (when temps are naturally warm enough) and winter (when your house is heated) you won't need to add any heat but in autumn and winter, when night time temps might be too cool, put a few inches of warm water in a pan, put your bowl with rising dough in it and wrap the pan and bowl in a towel to keep heat in.

First rise: 12 to 15 hours - I usually start my bread at around 6:00 in the evening. It's usually ready for its 2nd rise about 9:00 the next morning.

Heavily dust a pan or tray with flour. Sprinkle flour around edges of dough so that as you use the spatula to scoop out the dough that it doesn't stick to sides of bowl (see picture below). The original recipe suggests you let the dough 'rest' for 10-15 min before working it but I haven't noticed much difference in results if I leave this step out. If I have the time, I do it. Also, if the air-temp is cool when I do this stage, sometimes I warm the pan/tray by running warm water on it (and then thoroughly drying before I pour out the dough). I think of the dough as a living entity (or community of entities - after all the yeast is alive!) and try to bring a sense of nurturing and caring for this community to bring about best results.

If you've made bread before, you might be used to a fairly vigorous process of kneading the dough for best results. This recipe requires a very light touch. As I read different bread-books I learned that you want to stretch the gluten strands but be careful not to tear them. Begin by sprinkling more flour on your lump of dough and pressing the dough out flat and long, gently pulling it longer. Fold the ends into the middle; press;, stretch. Fold sides into middle; press, stretch. Press out air-bubbles as you go or you could end up with a loaf that has air-pockets just under the crust (doesn't cut as easily...). Whenever it gets sticky, sprinkle a bit more flour. Gradually, in a few minutes, you'll have a piece of dough that is smooth and not sticky to touch.

Floured pan on left, to pour dough into. Note flour around edges of dough in bowl; this makes dough slide out of the bowl without sticking.
Grease a standard-sized bread pan and place dough in it. Allow it to rise in a warm, draft-free place for 2-4 more hours. When dough reaches the top of the pan, or crowns a little above it, it has risen enough.

Bake in 375 degree pre-heated oven for 35-37 min.

Allow to cool on a rack for at least 20-min. before eating (I know, it's so hard to resist cutting it open right away! But it will continue to bake slightly as it cools and it will be far easier to cut if you wait a bit!).

Here I am with a recent loaf. Whole grain breads don't typically rise as high as all-white loaves but, if you follow the recipe you'll be happy with how spongy and chewy your results will be!
If I'm making two loaves I mix two sets of ingredients in two separate bowls but you could experiment with doing the mixing, and first rising in one bowl. It would probably work fine.

Variations: Add dried fruit/raisins and/or seeds/nuts. If you add these heavier ingredients, add a tiny bit more yeast (1/8 teaspoon) and be sure they're distributed evenly in the dry-mix before adding water.

* - Look for flour with the highest protein-content possible; this will produce a higher gluten content and more stretchiness and 'rise' to your bread. All-purpose flour will work but you may not have as good of a result.
** - Fine-ground cornmeal: If you buy it and it's too course, use an electric coffee-grinder to further grind it. We have a coffee-grinder that we devote exclusively to grains, seeds and nuts so no strong flavors are mixed in. 
*** - Yeast: Add slightly more if you add dry fruit or nuts - but don't be tempted to go overboard. If you add too much yeast, your dough will rise too fast and then collapse before you bake it.

Everybody loves bread!