Thursday, January 30, 2014

Journey Towards Keeping Bees

Over the past few weeks I (Christian) have become intrigued with the idea of beekeeping. I think what got me started on this new kick was an article in the "Mother Earth News Guide to Self-Reliance and Country Skill" about an alternative to the popular Langstroth method of beekeeping (the big white boxes you see all the time). Don't get me wrong, the Lang hives are wonderful things and especially if you plan on commercializing your honey operation, but they can also be expensive and require more specialized tools. For my purposes it was certainly the cost that kept me away from the traditional hive structure. Enter the "Top bar hive" that I read about in the aforementioned article.

From what I have read and heard the top bar hive method really grew out of a need for a low cost, easy to build and maintain hive in the east African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. In fact, you may find top bar hives referred to as "Kenyan Top Bar Hive" (KTBH) or "Tanzanian Top Bar Hive" (TTBH). For probably thousands of years the people there have been keeping bees and collecting honey from log hives which only yield about 1/3 the amount of honey as a top bar hive. Therefore, by using easily attainable materials a beekeeper can effectively triple their production. I was watching a lecture on top bar hives by McCartney Taylor and he said that the average income from honey in Tanzania (I think) was about $200 per year using a log hive. That means that when a beekeeper switches to the top bar hive they are now bringing in $600 per year which significantly increases their ability to provide for needs of their family!

For me the motivation for wanting to keep bees has less to do with profit and more to do with the enjoyments of it and the notion that I might be able to harvest my own honey and wax, and have the added benefit of the bees for pollination of the garden. I mean really, how cool would it be to pull out a jar of honey that was created in your own backyard? Thus I have set out on a mission to learn as much as I can about top bar beekeeping and have even constructed a hive.

There are loads of resources on the internet for this subject and plenty of plans for the actual construction of the hive. There are even a few companies that sell complete hives and/or plans if you want to build your own. Again, part of the appeal to me was the idea that you could make your hive out of materials you salvage or purchase at a home improvement store. So, last week I began my search for suitable materials at the in-law's farm. Thankfully, in the old barn I struck solid, beehive building gold and was able to find all that I needed to build my hive.

The Build

There are plenty of variations on the top bar hive but for mine I chose to make it 36" long and about 15" wide at the top. The basic idea is to have two 12"x1" boards fastened to flat end pieces at about a 120 degree angle creating a "V" shaped trough with an opening at the bottom and an open top that is covered by the top bars. Some designs use a closed bottom but I opted for an open bottom covered with a screen to allow hive debris to fall out while keeping predators and pests out.

Once the side panels were in place I added four legs made out of 2x4s, drilled three entry holes in the side, and fashioned the follower board. This design element seems to be another optional piece. Its role is to constrict the size of the hive when the bees first begin to construct comb. The reason I decided to make one was because I wanted to have a place to put a feeder inside the body of the hive. The follower is simply a piece of plywood that is cut to fit inside the trough that can be moved to increase or decrease the available space inside the actual hive.

Here you can see some of the top bars removed and the entrance holes in the side. The gap at the far end is where the follower board is and the feeder location.

Next it was time to build the top bars. This is the one place where dimensions seem to be really critical. Apparently bees construct comb at a specific width and you want to make sure your bars are close to that width so that the comb doesn't end up spanning several bars. From what I read 1 3/8" was about ideal for top bars so I took some  1" thick boards and ripped them down to 1 3/8" wide strips. I ended up with enough top bars to cover the entire top of the hive except the last few inches where the feeder will sit. This means that I can fill the feeder without disturbing the hive.

The final part of the build was the roof. Again, this is an optional design element and climate and aesthetics will be the determining factors on whether or not a roof is desired. Living in the southeast we do receive considerable rain throughout the year and I thought it would be nice to keep as much rain as possible out of the hive. Alternatively, you can just place a piece of plywood, tin or plastic over the top to keep water out.

Here is the finished product with the roof in place. It simply lifts off.

The Plan

Now that I have a hive the next obvious question is, "Where are you going to get bees?" There are several option here; 1) purchase bees, 2) capture a swarm from another beekeeper, 3) capture a feral swarm, 4) lure in a feral swarm. When I found out that option #4 was possible that was what put me over the top on deciding to keep bees. What I learned was that during the spring and summer when colonies are expanding and "swarming" they send out scouts to find a new home for part of the colony. During this time of year it is possible to lure a wild swarm to your beehive. There are some products on the market that include the pheromones that act as the "come hither" scent put off from bees. You can buy these and "bait" your hive in the hopes of attracting a swarm. You can also use lemongrass oil which is a similar scent along with some beeswax or old comb. My plan is to try to lure a swarm into the hive and have free bees! I really don't know if it will work or what my chances of success truly are but I want to start there. If it doesn't work I can always search for a swarm or purchase some bees from a local beekeeper, but if I am successful I will have free bees and a free hive and that would be wonderful!

As the spring and summer approach I will keep you updated on how the luring is going and hopefully have plenty of material for more posts on beekeeping.


Monday, January 13, 2014

DIY Men's Pomade

One of my favorite movies has to be "O Brother Where Art Thou?" starring George Clooney as Everett McGill, the fast talking con-man who constantly worries about the state of his coif. Nevermind that the barn is on fire and the posse is after you, "My hair!" is his primary concern. For Everett no ordinary hair jelly will suffice. He doesn't want Fop, he wants Dapper Dan because he's a Dapper Dan man because it not only keeps his coif in order but it also has a pleasing aroma...which is half the point. In this matter I find myself strangely empathetic towards Everett's quandary of finding the perfect hair product. I have used, for many years, gels and have even explored the more traditional options of pomade and waxes. Gels work just fine but they also cost an arm and a leg unless you want to subject those around you to a snowy shower of dried gel flakes as the day wears on. Shedding gel after the lunch hour is not something that his would-be gentleman wants to do. Some of the newer pomades offer wonderful styling properties early on but seem to just disappear throughout the day. Waxes offer unparalleled hold but also take drain cleaner to get out of the hair. What is a man to do?

That was my question and thus I set out on a journey to find a suitable, homemade pomade (you like that rhyme don't you...homemade pomade). What I instantly discovered on my journey was that pomade is easy to make and uses the same base ingredients as a salve I have been making. The recipe that I landed on and ended up modifying can be found here:

The Hippy Homemaker

Briefly, it is simply equal parts beeswax, coconut oil and some kind of carrier oil. For my pomade I used vegetable glycerin as the carrier oil and added a few drops of Bay Rum essential oil. After melting everything together in the double boiler I added the Bay Rum and then poured it into a small glass bowl. At this point I whipped the concoction into submission with a whisk as it cooled. This introduced some air into the pomade making it a little bit more "fluffy" than a salve. Then I simply poured it into a 4 oz. metal tin and allowed it to finish cooling.

The results:

After my shower and shave I was eager to try out the new hair treatment so I applied a small amount to my fingers and massaged it for a few moments. Then I just ran my fingers through my hair just as I would with gel. The coverage for such a small amount was wonderful and it styled just like a commercial pomade, perhaps even a little better. The added blessing that comes with this pomade is the wonderful scent. I told my friend Scott that it smelled like I was a walking tropical, adult beverage. The beeswax and coconut oil make a delightful aroma all on their own but the addition of the Bay Rum oil puts it over the top. Thus far I am at hour #4 and it is still holding just like the moment I applied it. The second test will be to see how difficult it is to get out of my hair. I suspect, due to the lightness of the product, that it will come out rather easily with just shampoo (no need for drain cleaner). I haven't figured up how much the 4 oz. tin cost my but I'm sure it will be pennies compared to commercial hair products. So, gents (or ladies), if you're in the market for a good, easy pomade for your coif...make your own!

God bless,

UPDATE: After the first day of using the DIY pomade I'm very satisfied. It lasted all day long and when I took my shower this morning it came right out with regular shampoo.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Wonders of Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm - Melissa officinalis

A few years ago we planted a small patch of lemon balm in our flower bed behind the house. This proved to be a huge mistake that we only later saw as a blessing. You see lemon balm, when given the appropriate kind of soil conditions...goes bananas! Granted our soil was a mixture of regular dirt and composted chicken litter from Andrea's parent's farm. Before we knew it the lemon balm was taking over like a pretty plague that smelled good. We tried to kill it, we tried to dig it up...nothing. Like the Energizer bunny it just kept on going. Then we discovered that, while it was an epidemic in the flower bed, there were some mighty good things about lemon balm.

According to Earl Mindell in his Herb Bible lemon balm originated in Asia and has sense propagated all over the globe, to include our flower bed in North Carolina. Like many other medicinal herbs lemon balm has a long list of benefits. These include helping with upset stomachs, insomnia, gas and colic. It is also a mild diaphoretic which means that it helps induce sweating when taken warm. This can help break fevers when one is ill. Some studies have even claimed that lemon balm cream helps to treat the version of herpes that causes cold sores around the mouth.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this hardy little herb is the taste. As the name implies it does have a scent and taste that is akin to lemon which makes it perfect for teas. I have used our lemon balm in a warm, evening tea in concert with chamomile. 1 teaspoon of chamomile and a few leaves of lemon balm steeped for 10-15 minutes in hot water has become my favorite "night cap." When it is growing I'll use fresh leaves crushed in my hands but now that it is winter I've had equal success using dried leaves. This tea is so good it requires no additional sweeteners like honey.

Another use that I've been exploring for lemon balm is an infused oil. For this I crushed about 1 cup of dried lemon balm leaves into a jar and covered them with olive oil. I let this sit in a sunny window for about 3-4 weeks then strained it out into the jar you see below. My intention is to use this in salves but recently I have witnessed and new, and unexpected use...salad dressing. My mother is on a special diet that does not allow her to eat vinegar (along with a laundry list of other things) so she only puts olive oil on her salads. She and my step-father were over for supper one night and she was about to use regular olive oil for her salad. "Hey I've got some lemon balm oil. You could use that if you want," said I. "Oh boy! I'll try it," said she. As it turns out the light flavor of lemon balm in the oil made a pretty good salad dressing. Who knew?

As for growing and maintaining lemon balm it is pretty simply. Like most other varieties of mint it is nearly impossible to kill and the best thing to do is put it in a place where you don't care if it takes over. What we started with at our former home was just a chunk of it that we dug up from the farm and transplanted. We've done the same thing for our new house though we haven't put it in the ground yet. It does enjoy the sun so I wonder if putting it in a shadier area would help stunt the growth.

In the end, lemon balm is a prolific and useful herb for medicinal and culinary use. It is easy to grow and maintain and it makes and absolutely wonderful and calming tea. So, if you have some space in your garden give it a shot and enjoy the bountiful harvest!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Texas Venison" is a Homerun!

There really is something to be said for harvesting your own wild game and processing it yourself from the time you take it until the time you eat it. I know, I know, "but you killed Bambi," you say with a tear in your eye and your bottom lip pooched out in abject sadness. Yes, I killed a deer. Yes, Bambi was a deer. No, my deer was not named Bambi. Furthermore, the deer that I "brutally slaughtered" was no more innocent than the cow from which that delicious cheeseburger or rib-eye steak came from that you enjoyed so thoroughly last night. Now that that's out of the way and we have established that I, Christian Herring, have no heart let's move on to the subject at hand, Texas Venison!

First let me say that this was not an original recipe, it was one that I found on and I am very glad for it. If you know anything about venison you understand that sometimes it can be, how shall we say this, less than tender. Not so with Texas Venison. Putting it in the pressure cooker is just what the doctor ordered and this venison comes out so tender that it just falls apart with an ever so slight urging from your fork. So, how did we get this amazing, tender, mouthwatering venison? I'm about to tell you.

Before I get into the cooking and, more importantly, the eating of let me give you a link to the recipe.

To begin with you will notice that the recipe calls for two pounds of "venison steaks." I'm sure any cut would do just fine but I'm convinced that part of our success lies in that fact that we used tenderloin (backstrap) meat both times we've made this dish. Thus, that would be my recommendation.

Look at the deep, rich color of that meat! Emmmm.

Let me also say that this recipe is NOT complicated or difficult in any way. Perhaps the most difficult thing was browning the meat and sauteing the onions. After those two steps are complete you just put everything in the pressure cooker and let it rip for about 15 minutes. One thing I will note is that venison is a VERY lean meat and after browning it I needed to add a small amount of vegetable oil to the pot to saute the onions in. There simply weren't any "drippins' from the meat.

Browning the meat in the pressure cooker with some oil.

Sauteing the onions with the cumin.

Post pressurization.
Finished product

We served this dish with rice as the base for the stew along with some homegrown green peas and cornbread. You could certainly use mashed potatoes for the base and add any number of other side dishes to round out the meal to your taste. As I already mentioned the meat is super tender and the use of a knife would be for formality only. The use of cumin gives the sauce a very rich taste and the addition of the cayenne peppers adds a nice kick to the flavor profile.

The first time we made Texas venison we had some friends over to the house who brought their two young boys and we acted like we were eating "stew beef." This turned out to be a pointless ruse because they weren't phased by eating deer. However, one of their statements acts as a telling review:

Aaron: "This is the best beef stew I've ever had. You should sell it and make a bunch of money."

So, if you're looking for an alternative venison recipe to the traditional deer roast give this a shot. It is easy, quick and it melts in your mouth.

Rating: That's good chow!

French Onion Soup is Tres Bon!

In Mastering the Art of French Cooking Julia Child proves at least two very important things. 1) Paula Deen did not pioneer the use of butter in food and, more importantly 2) simple ingredients, properly cooked can make the most magnificent dishes. In regards to number one, I have nothing more to say. However, the rest of this post will be proof of number two.

It may have been a year or more ago when Andrea and I first decided to tackle "real" french onion soup a la Julia Child. What we discovered was shocking to say the least. Given only a handful of ingredients and about two hours of preparation we created one of the most enjoyable soups either of us had ever tasted. "This," Andrea proclaimed after our most recent batch, "has become one of my favorite comfort foods."

I'll be the first to admit that usually the recipes in MTAFC are somewhat complicated. One only has to look as far as the highly acclaimed boeuf bourguignon to understand the truth of that. However, with this dish it is almost laughably simple. So what is the secret to mouth watering french onion soup? Time. That, my dear friends is the secret ingredient.

Lets turn to some of the nitty gritty of the cooking. First, you must embark on the unenviable task of peeling and slicing 4 cups of yellow onions (As a side note, the onions I sliced last night had been in our garage which was only slightly warmer than the fridge and this seems to have cut down on the tears). I like to think that the amounts detailed in the recipe, like the pirate code, are more like guidelines than hard and fast rules. We like onions, ergo there was slightly more than 4 cups in our soup.

Next you put the onions into your soup pot (we used our enameled cast iron pot) with 3 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon of oil. Cook, covered for 15 minutes. Then you simply add a few tablespoons of salt and a dash of sugar and let those bad boys cook for 30 to 40 minutes. Note: the hard part is done. This is where the real magic happens. Those onions cook down to a deep caramel colored mass of savory goodness (Note: When the instruction say to "stir frequently" they mean it. My lack of stirring almost had disastrous consequences last night). With the addition of a little bit of flour that you allow to brown you are almost home free. After this period of cooking you simply add 2 quarts of boiling beef stock, 1/4 cup of white wine and let it simmer away until your heart is content.

We all know that french onion soup would be incomplete without the appropriate bread in the bowl with it. Again Julia comes through with an easy solution. Make some thick slices of your favorite french bread, bake until they become slightly crispy, then rub them down with a garlic clove, sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese and broil for another couple of minutes. Once you put that bread in the bowl and spoon on some of the soup the result is pure, continental bliss. The only real downside to making this soup is that french onion soup anywhere else will definitely be a letdown.

Rating: That's good chow!