Monday, August 31, 2015

The Gift of a Kohlrabi

A week or so ago while visiting some family friends, I had a wonderful opportunity to hone my vegetable recognition skills.

I think it's safe to say that the Clan is pretty vegetable-savvy. Many kids don't know the names of any vegetables beyond the common ones, such as carrots, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and potatoes. Clan kids, on the other hand, can tell you—loudly and emphatically, most likely—that tomatoes aren’t even a vegetable. Becca knows a brussel sprout when she sees one, and we know about swiss chard and kale as well. We can recognize and identify some of those vegetables that aren't generic: rutabaga, artichoke, etc.

We do have a weakness when it comes to squashes, though. As far as I’m concerned, a squash is pretty much a squash. Butternut, summer squash, patty-pan—they all blend together.

But besides that, you could say I'm pretty confident in my ability to identify vegetables. While we were visiting, I happened see a couple lumpy, light green vegetables on the counter. They were cabbage-colored, but looked like a taproot kind of vegetable, similar to a beet. I guessed that they were kohlrabi's, but wasn't really sure until I asked about them later (super casually, of course).

As it turned out, I was right. They were kohlrabi's, and our hosts were generous enough to give me one to try. All they asked in return was a post on my free vegetable, which is the kind of deal I'm totally game for. So here goes!

Initially, I planned to cook the kohlrabi up within two or three days of bringing it home. One thing led to another, and I actually never got around to it until two weeks later, so my poor vegetable was looking a little shriveled. Other than being extra wrinkly, though, it was still in good shape.
I feel those of you who are expecting a cooking/recipe post at this point deserve a bit of forewarning. You’ve obviously come to the wrong place. I am not the world’s most mediocre cook, but I’m pretty close. As long as I have a recipe I’m safe, but cooking from scratch is not one of my skills. So rather than coming up with some super fancy, labor intensive, but likely tasty way to cook my free kohlrabi, I went for the super easy, minimal effort method and fried it in a pan with butter.
I'm not food blogging, in other words.

And it tasted fine. I was reminded of rutabaga and cabbage, actually. Fried kohlrabi certainly wasn't the most exciting breakfast I've ever had, but it wasn't that bad either. And it was free, so it was definitely worth giving a try. Whether I'll ever have it again is uncertain, but I won't make any promises either way, just to be safe.
In hindsight, they could have used some black pepper.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Warré hives and varroa mites

Dad's second beehive experiment was with Warré, or People's, hives. There are constructed pretty much the same as a standard hive, with boxes full of frames stacked on top of each other.
One of Dad's homemade People's hives
People's hives in use
We start our beekeepers at a young age.
There are a few, small structural differences between People's hives and standards hives. I'm not going to explain them because for one thing, it's way too complicated. And secondly, because I don't really know what the differences are. But the main distinction between People's hives and standard hives (as far as this non-expert knows) is in the philosophy behind the hive. A standard hive can be opened as frequently as the beekeeper desires. Dad usually opens his hives up to inspect them every week or so. But in a People's hive, you're supposed to just put the boxes on and leave the hive alone. Unfortunately, it's really hard to keep track of how your bees are doing this way. 

When Dad used People's hives, he had problems with keeping his varroa mite population under control. Varroa mites are a parasite that prey on honeybees, and because no one has figured out how to get rid of them yet, every beehive has to deal with varroa mites. Beekeepers have access to several different methods of controlling the varroa mite population in their hives, but in order for them to be really effective, you have to inspect the hive regularly to monitor how much the varroa population is growing. In a People's hive, you aren't really supposed to do that. The two or three years Dad used People's hives, he had several colonies die out because the varroa mites got out of control, and so he's gone back to standard hives and top-bars.

To see my previous beehive posts:

Those are the beehives we've tried. Mostly we've learned that the standard hive is the standard hive for a reason. It's pretty versatile and utilitarian, and at the end of the day, it's what most beekeepers are looking for. But don't get the idea that we've tried all the beehives out there, because we absolutely have not. Dad just hasn't decided to invest in experimenting with another type yet.
Cob licking nectar off his gloves
We frequently stand around open beehives without protective gear on. It's actually not that dangerous.
M posing in her bee suit.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Clan camping food: Abbi bars

On a Clan camping trip, the single most important thing we bring along is the food.

Okay, probably tents before food, but it’s a very close thing. You know how kids are. When we get hungry, we get grumpy.

Of the food we bring camping, there are two distinct types. Food we eat at camp, for supper or breakfast before we head out, and trail food. Most of that food we prepare ourselves beforehand, like the dried bananas we dehydrate throughout the year. Of the trail foods we make, the most unusual one is the Abbi bar.

Abbi bars are the Clan replacement for Lära bars, a kind of snack bar. Lära bars are made from pretty much the bare minimum of ingredients—no added chemicals and other such garbage. But we like to really know what we’re eating, so Mom prefers to make our own version of Lära bars rather than buy them for our camping trips. She originally got the recipe for the Lära bar adaption from a gal called Abbi (hence the name) and we have since adapted the recipe to suit us. In fact, back in the day when my Mom was giving this blogging scheme a go, she wrote a how-to post for Abbi bars. Mine is different, since I’m not the one actually in charge of preparing Abbi bars around here. But I know how it goes.

Abbi bars are made from two simple ingredients: dried fruit and nuts. The fruit/nut combo we use in most of our Abbi bars are dates and almonds, but we flavor the bars with things like dried cranberries, cocoa, cinnamon, or even dried pineapple to make them more interesting. Mom blends up the fruit and nuts in her food processor until they have the consistency of a very thick, very coarse dough.
There are still chunks of nut and date that haven't been
blended together here. Gives a little texture to the bars.
Into this she kneads whatever she’s adding to the bars—there was the one time we had chocolate chips, but more often she adds cocoa or granola. Then she weighs out two-ounce portions, wraps them in plastic, and flattens them into easy-to-store logs.
For one camping trip lasting three nights we bring two bags of twenty-four Abbi bars. That lasts us, along with whatever other trail food we packed.

Abbi bars have been one of our trail foods for almost four years, and in that time we’ve figured some things out. Like anything we try, we’ve had to adapt from the original to come up with something that really works in our family. Drawing from my 3+ years of experience with Abbi bars, here’s what I have to say about them.

Abbi bars make excellent trail food. When we’re out hiking, the food we eat is important, and especially so because we have little kids on the trail with us. As one of the bigger kids, I know that having to carry a little sibling on a trail is not fun, so we try to keep them from being hungry and getting worn out. For that reason, candy bars are not a good choice. A candy bar gives you a bit of energy for a while, but once the sugar wears off, you’re more tired than before. Abbi bars, on the other hand, are packed with good stuff. We say they stick to your ribs, and with some of the skinny little boys I have in my family, that’s a necessity. When they get hungry, they slow down. Abbi bars are filling, and they last.

But that, unfortunately, is one of the less wonderful aspects of Abbi bars. They do last. And they are filling. Really filling.

Because of all the dried fruit and nuts in them, Abbi bars have a very rich taste and a very heavy, dense texture. If you’re not actively hungry, that can be hard to get down. When I’m hot and tired, an Abbi bar is difficult to stomach because it’s so solid. And there’s only so many ways Abbi bars can be made interesting. Mom has tried a lot of different fruit/nut combos, and some of them we have really liked. Papaya/almond was definitely interesting, and cranberries or prunes were a nice change from dates for a while. But in the end, an Abbi bar is just an Abbi bar. If that’s all you have to eat, they quickly get boring, even if you are hungry.

When Mom first started making Abbi bars, we brought a lot of them on our camping trips, enough that we could have all have a couple every day. On those trips, we had a lot of leftovers, and many unfinished bars. We got tired of having them so often. Now we mix it up a little. We don’t bring as many bars, and we supplement them with trail mixes and dried fruit. Don’t get me wrong. Abbi bars have been a good option for us. But speaking as one of the kids, we’re really glad they’re not the only option we have.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Top-Bar Hive (bees have awesome space-management skills)

After Dad got the hang of using the standard beehives he started with, he started experimenting with some of the other types out there. His first choice was a variety called top-bar hives. Top-bar hives are horizontal hives, rather than vertical ones. Instead of being a tall stack, they're a long, low box. Frames are removed one at a time, instead of a box at a time, so the hive is never open as much as it is with a standard hive.
Besides this major structural difference, the really fun way top-bar hives are different is the way the bees build honeycomb inside them. In a standard hive, the frames are a rectangle hanging inside the box. The bees build honeycomb inside the rectangle, making it easy to extract the honey later.
Standard frame
Top-bar hives work differently. In these hives, the bees just build honeycomb down from a single bar across the top. The result is much more interesting and much more like what you'd see in a wild colony.
Top-bar frame with honeycomb
Dad likes to inspect these hives because they're so interesting to look at. Given the chance, bees will organize the way they place their honey, pollen, and brood within the hive so that everything is within easy reach. In a standard hive, the beekeeper can do a variety of things to keep things separate, but top-bar hives let bees build comb with much more freedom. If you look at the picture above, you can see a thin band of capped honey cells near the top (almost completely covered up by bees), with other cells containing pollen just below them. The rest of the honeycomb is full of brood cells, some capped and some not. In this way, the bees can get at everything they might need without running all over the hive to get it. 

They're way more organized than I am.

Dad's been doing top-bar hives since 2008. He doesn't use them exclusively, since they're not as easy to harvest honey from, but he likes to start a top-bar colony every year if he can just because he enjoys having them around.
Hives wrapped for the winter - the one on the left is a top bar.

See below for my other honeybee-related posts