Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kefir-Making 101

I decided to drink raw milk. Raw. It was fresh, from an impeccably clean source, and kept cold from the moment it left the cow... but still. Raw. At the point I put that first 1/2 gallon into the fridge, I had done so much research that my logical mind knew for a fact that this milk had less potential to make me sick than my local restaurant. I knew this for a fact. But my emotional side - the side that we all cultivate from years of media hysteria over the latest public health crises -was screaming in my head... no, don't do it... you can't drink that bottle filled with dangerous bacteria waiting to kill you. Step. away. from the unpasteurized milk. But I did drink it, and I loved it. And, no, I haven't gotten sick.

Then I decided I was going to make kefir. It's a fabulous fermented drink full of healthy probiotics and immune-boosting enzymes. It takes the health benefits of raw milk to a whole new level. When I found out about it, I thought, Cool. I could make that since I have a source for fantastic raw milk . So I ordered kefir starter grains from the farm where I get my milk. They sent the grains, along with instructions. I start to read the instructions. Kefir starter grains. Check. Raw milk. Check. Ceramic container. Check. Cover it only with a dish cloth?....Leave it on the counter for 24 hours?... What?? Milk? On the counter? Raw? Raw milk on the counter for 24 hours? Umm... I've seen, and much worse, smelled the results when milk is left for an extended period of time out of the fridge. Lumpy, clumpy, oozy, knock-you-over-dead smelly. Gag. But that's what the directions said. So I pressed on. May I present, Kefir-Making 101, with pictures!

Step 1. Obtain kefir starter grains. They aren't really grains, they are... well, I'm not sure what they are, just like I don't know what in the world is really in that gross friendship bread starter that you almost have to treat like a pet to keep it alive. I'm just kidding... I've looked it up. From Kefir.org:

"Kefir is a unique fermented milk drink, more correctly healthy food, used for generations in Asia and revered for its health promoting properties. Real kefir can be produced only by traditional methods at home and only from original grains. These original grains, slightly yellowish "cauliflower" like things, are cca 5000 years old bacterial culture originating either from the Caucasian Mountains or monasteries in Tibet. These real kefir grains are complex symbiotic colony containing more than 35 probiotic bacteria proven highly beneficial to humans."

Note: the kefir you can buy in the store is NOT the same as homemade kefir.


Step 2. Get your milk. Buy the best quality milk you can possibly find. It should be raw, from a trusted source. Can you make kefir with pasteurized milk? Sure. There's lots of people on the internet that say you can (so it must be true, right). But pasteurized milk is a dead food. There are no enzymes or good bacteria to work in harmony with the starter culture. Keep feeding your starter culture dead milk and they will die. If you don't have a source for raw milk, I'll pray for you. In the meantime, if you really want to make kefir at home, and you must use pasteurized milk, for the sake of yourself and everyone else that will be drinking your kefir, make sure it is rBGH-free. Preferably organic.

I am blessed to have access to raw milk produced by pastured cows on an organic farm - The Family Cow in Chambersburg, PA.

Step 3. Put Kefir grains in the bottom of a 1.5 quart or larger ceramic crock. Add 1 quart of fresh milk. Mix gently with a wooden spoon.


Step 4. Cover with a dish rag and set on the counter out of direct sunlight. Leave it alone. A good fermenting time is 24 hours. I have to admit that I went every few hours to lift the rag and see what was going on in there. Admittedly there wasn't much to look at for many hours. But what really stood out was that there were no obvious smells either. I found that if I put my nose so close it was almost in the kefir, it smelled faintly like yeast. I've since learned that raw milk doesn't really spoil like pasteurized milk. The presence of enzymes and good bacteria will change the form of the milk (ie, buttermilk, sour cream, cottage cheese, etc.) but it will take awhile before raw milk actually starts to smell putrid.

Step 5. At about 12 hours, you can check the progress of your kefir. Stir again with a wooden spoon.


Step 6. After fermentation, stir again. place a strainer over a container and pour the kefir through, straining out the grains. You can gently move the grains around, scraping the bottom of the strainer, to allow the thick kefir to go through. At 24 hours, when I declared mine finished, there was still no discernible odor unless I sniffed really close.

Step 7.
Either return the kefir grains to the crock and start the process over, or store them in the fridge for later use. For best results, if you store them in the fridge, let them come to room temperature before starting your next batch. I placed mine in a small plastic container, covered them with fresh milk, then covered the container with a paper towel held secure with a rubber band.

Store your finished kefir in an air tight container in your fridge. It will keep for a couple of weeks. Note: During that time, the kefir will continue to ferment very slowly. This continued fermentation will increase the tanginess of your kefir the longer it sits.

















You can, if you are weird and like the taste of plain yogurt and other really tangy things, drink the kefir as-is. Since I'm not weird (ok, that's debatable), what I do is make fruit smoothies. Combine kefir, frozen fruit, and honey to your liking. This is an amazing drink which has the ability to, literally, cause euphoria in the drinker. I have no idea why, but it seriously makes me giddy thinking about it!


So that's it! It's really simple. Since getting my kefir, my grains have multiplied to about 3x what I had to begin with. I shared some with my sister and still have more than I need. So, if you want to try your hand at making kefir, let me know!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Appalachian Trail On My Mind



I have a dream. I'm standing with my husband on the apex of Mount Katahdin in Maine: Baxter Peak, elevation 5,258 feet. It's taken 9 hours of brutal hiking to get here and the view is awe-inspiring. I look out over an incredible panorama of mountains and valleys, breathe in the crisp, thinning air...I can't believe I made it. It's not just that I made it to Baxter Peak that's amazing. It's not even that I did it in my late 40s. What hiking to the highest point on the highest mountain in Maine means to me is the end of a 5 month, 2,150+ mile hike that started at the top of Springer Mountain (elevation 3,782 ft) in Georgia and ended here.

The Appalachian Trail.

I've walked somewhere around 5 million footsteps, taking me to elevations as high as 6,625 ft (Clingmans Dome in Tennessee), to a low of 124 ft (near Bear Mountain in New York). My emotions and physical stamina have seen as many ups and downs as the trail itself, but I have spent time with Russ, God, and nature in the experience of a lifetime that, it feels in my dream, has left me forever changed.

****

It started with a movie called Southbounders, in which a young woman takes some time off before heading to medical school to hike the AT from Maine to Georgia, by herself. It's an Indie film, contemplative and beautiful. A lot of the draw of the movie is what is not said, the sheer magnitude of the quiet, the unmatchable ever-changing landscape, the abrupt contrast when hikers leave the trail to head into a nearby town for supplies, good food, a shower, and a night in a motel. As a person wanting to commune with God in nature, I couldn't help but feel that I would certainly run into Him out there. For me, the idea of 5 months of literally living in the green cathedral, with only periodic necessary interruptions back into civilization, coupled with the opportunity to spend that much time with my husband without the distractions of modern life, is intensely appealing.

After watching Southbounders, I started reading A Walk In The Woods, by Bill Bryson. He set off to hike the AT almost on a whim, although he did take the time to properly plan and outfit for his trip. Irreverent and funny, Bryson does not sugar-coat the AT experience: "Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with new boots and come stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from an armless sleeve and whispering in a hoarse voice, "Bear!" before lapsing into unconsciousness." Bryson and his friend logged a little over 1/3 of the total miles, doing a section here and there, before deciding in the middle of Maine's "100 mile wilderness," that they were done. Interestingly, despite Bryson's record of every difficulty they had, and tale of every tragedy that could happen and has happened along the AT, A Walk In The Woods stoked the fires of my growing interest in actually hiking it.

There are many eccentric and amusing hikers portrayed in the movie Southbounders, and talked about in A Walk In The Woods. I have since confirmed that even the most bizarre stories about "weird" hikers are likely true, through a book written by Winton Porter, purveyor at Mountain Crossings store and hostel on the AT in Georgia. His book, Just Passin' Thru, is a delightful true story of: A Vintage Store, The Appalachian Trail, and A Cast of Colorful Characters. Even if you would never even consider hiking the AT, I recommend you read this book. It will either make you change your mind and plan the trip, or reinforce what you already thought - people who do that must be crazy. In either case, it's laugh-out-loud entertainment!

A thru-hiker is a person who completes (or is in the process of completing) the entire Appalachian Trail in one year. Eleven people have completed a thru-hike over the age of 70. The record-holder is a man named Lee Barry - trail name Easy One - who, in 2004 reached Katahdin at the age of 81. A woman in her early sixties - trail name Lorac - hiked the AT with terminal ovarian cancer, a pharmacy stuffed in her backpack. Will I actually hike the whole AT, and join the esteemed "2,000-milers club?" Maybe... I don't really know what God has planned for me. If I ever get to give it a try, and then make it all the way to Katahdin, it will be because God has chosen to heal me of all my physical ails. Or, like Easy One, Lorac and numerous others, I have been granted the gift of being able to press on through and despite them.

I'm holding on to this dream for now... because it makes me smile at the thought of a different me - a person that is, by God's grace, beyond being limited by a battered and uncooperative body.