Monday, October 22, 2012

Honey Harvest

I started keeping bees for my first time in April. I know just enough to know what amazing little creatures they are and that there is still so much to learn. I did everything I knew of this year to keep them happy- good hive placement, feeding them sugar water, keeping a water dish filled, checking the hive regularly but not too often, adding new frames/boxes at the proper time, and planting flowers that they love in my yard. But even for super experienced and knowledgeable beekeepers, there is a good chance that your colony will die or swarm. I had a few moments of fear over the past few months, wondering if the hive was okay...

I haven't seen the queen in months! I saw the queen easily in the spring, when the hive was at about 10,000 bees. But later in the summer, the populations gets up to about 50,000, so she's harder to spot during a hive inspection. I saw signs that she was alive and well, such as larvae and young bees, so I had to just trust that.

There is comb being built below the frames! And when I removed the frame it ripped open the larval cells! Turns out that just happens sometimes.

The comb in the brood chamber (bottom box) used to be white, but now it's dark brown! Weird right? Nah, that's fine too. That comb is the oldest, so the bees have used it more and been walking on it. It just gets stained from wear and tear.

I saw my first swarm this summer while driving down Phinney Avenue. There was a dark cloud over the road about 20 feet in the air and I was like, "What IS that?" It wasn't until I was right underneath that I realized it was bees. "Oh my gosh, what if they are MY bees?!" I knew it was unlikely, but that didn't stop me from running into the backyard as soon as I got home just to make sure I saw activity at the entrance of the hive.

Thankfully, my bees never swarmed, and they are still alive and well in the hive. They made a solid amount of honey, though nothing in the fourth (top) box. The top box is traditionally the "super", or excess, or what you could safely harvest. Even in my novice calculations, I didn't think there was enough for me to safely harvest much honey this year. It is more important to err on the side of caution and leave plenty for the little ladies to get through the winter. Yes, we are already thinking about winterizing in bee world, as the nectar flow has vitually stopped with no flowers blooming, and bees don't leave the hive when it's below 55 degrees F. So as soon as our cold, wet fall weather hit, the bees started hunkering down and focusing on keeping the queen warm.

I did a hive inspection before this happened, to removed the top box and add a heavy sugar water to the inside of the hive. I also wanted to at least sample the honey, so I removed one frame that was only partially capped. (Bees build the comb, then make the honey in it, then when it's the perfect moisture content at 18%, they cap the comb cell so you know it's finished honey). Here you can clearly see the difference between the capped and open cells.

(Photos by Matt Freedman)

I also wanted to practice processing the honey since I've never done it before. I used a tool conveniently called a "capping scratcher" to scrape the caps off the comb. Then I let the honey drain out into a glass pan for a couple days. That left me with pure, raw honey with bits of wax in it, so I let that run through cheesecloth for another couple days. Now I have my first tiny jar of my own backyard honey!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mount Saint Helens

Mount Saint Helens was the fifth highest peak in Washington state before it erupted in May of 1980. An earthquake triggered the eruption, which shot ash over 14 miles into the sky, collapsed the northern flank of the mountain, and created a debris avalanche that is said to the be the largest in recorded history. The Wikipedia article calls the eruption the "deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States." (Photo from Wikipedia, by Austin Post from USGS)
The massiveness of the eruption, combined with the fact that it happened two years before I was born, has always made the event somewhat mystical in my mind. I wish that I had been alive to see it. My dad tells me that he was working with my grandpa that day (my mom's dad), following his white carpenter van. They were driving down Wallingford Avenue in Seattle, around 40th, going downhill where you have a direct view toward Lake Union and Mount Rainier (on a clear day). My grandpa pulled over to the side of the road so my dad did the same. "What is it, Ed?" my dad asked, who hadn't yet seen the column of ash and smoke to the south.

I think part of what makes this natural disaster so striking is that it is still so visible today. When there are earthquakes or floods or hurricanes, they do damage, but then we clean it up and rebuild. But at Mount Saint Helens, the whole north side is still gone, it is still 1,300 feet lower, the mountain is still covered with ashy rubble scree, lahars flank both sides, forests are gone, and pumice is scattered throughout the area. 

I've always wanted to see these remnants, and peer into the smoking crater. From May through October, the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument limits climbers to 100 per day. Back in June, all the permits were already gone for every weekend until mid-September. Weekdays were full a few weeks ahead of time. The summer flew by and it made more sense to try to go after Burning Man, on a weekday in early October. Matt and I didn't want to get permits too far in advance because we didn't want to climb in the rain or if there wouldn't be a view. Luckily, the clear, dry weather was holding and we were able to get permits a couple days ahead of time. 

We had a pretty good idea what to expect from the trail description, the only advice different from other hikes being to bring gloves to protect your hands from the sharp rocks you have to climb over. We got a fairly early start, driving to the trailhead just after sunrise.
The climbing route is from the south side of the mountain, bringing you to the rim of the crater in five miles and 4,500 feet of elevation gain. The first two miles of the trail are on an easy, forested hiking trail. Then once you get above the tree line, the trail becomes wooden markers in the rubble. Sometimes it's a path, but mostly it's picking your own best route over rocks.
Other parts of the trail were gigantic boulders that you had to climb over. It was a constant puzzle figuring out the best route, and not climbing up a boulder that was going to be too steep to get down on the other side. Once that portion ended, it was an open ash-sand, which presented its own difficulties. Think about walking in sand, but on a steep slope. It was slow-going. Also, it was incredibly windy, possibly the windiest weather I've ever been out in. There were gusts at times of probably 40-50 mph. It made walking very hard, plus was painful to have the sandy particles pelted on your face. I had a face gaiter and Matt used a bandana. Luckily I had wrap sunglasses, but Matt had his prescription sunglasses so dust kept getting in his eyes. We both wished we had desert goggles, it was seriously that bad. We passed quite a few climbers who weren't prepared for such extreme weather and had turned around before the summit. Mostly they were too cold. Even those of us making it to the top would look at each other and say, "This is crazy!"

I've done longer and steeper hikes, but this was one of the hardest I've ever done. Partly due to the wind, and partly the fact that walking on volcanic scree is slow and mentally challenging. This hike would have been 10 times easier in the snow, and I would highly recommend doing it in the spring or summer before the snow has melted out. Not only is it less to navigate as you go up, but would obviously be a lot faster coming down to glissade, ski, or snowboard. Also, it turns out that hiking on ash is, well, ashy. Our clothes and backpacks were covered in the dust, and it makes you feel parched and dirty.

But all that aside, it was an incredibly beautiful early fall day to be out. There was a haze from the forest fires, but we could see Mount Hood on the way up, with Mount Jefferson just visible beyond it.
We finally made it to the top, and here you can see Mount Adams to the east poking out above the thick layer of smoke.
Here is the inside of the crater, looking directly north to Spirit Lake and Mount Rainier. In the picture you can't really see the smoke coming out of the crater or the glacier inside, but there was quite a bit going on in there. 
You could also see straight over to the Johnston Ridge Observatory which is the main interpretive center for the mountain. Since it is way on the north side we didn't have time to go there, but I definitely plan on going back to experience Mount Saint Helens from the other side.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Feasts of Fall

I was so busy this summer between working, going hiking on weekends, and getting ready for Burning Man, that I didn't get to do as much cooking and preserving as I would have liked. But now that fall is officially here, and harvests can't be put off any longer, I'm making up for lost time.

For example, I went from "Boy it would be nice to get my hands on some plums" to "OH MY GOSH I can't handle any more plums!" thanks to generous friends and parents sharing the bounty of their trees. Turns out a few grocery bags of plums go a long way. I pitted and froze a bunch, and did a couple rounds of canning plum chutney and sauce. I also made some plum desserts, mostly a tart recipe from my friend Maria which includes dried cherries and Grand Marnier.

I pulled out all the potatoes from the garden, and those will mostly just hang out in the basement until they get roasted, sauteed, or mashed. I did however grate a couple bags to freeze for quick hashbrowns, which I've never done before but seems like a good idea.
Hey, pop quiz! When is Mexican Independence Day? You might want to say Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) but think it can't be that obvious. If you've traveled much in Mexico, you probably noticed at some point that every city has a street named El Dieciseis de Septiembre (September 16th). That's because September 16th is Independence Day! Any idea what the traditional Independence Day food is? It's Chiles en Nogada, which is a dish of poblano chiles filled with shredded meat and spices and topped with a creamy walnut sauce and then pomegranates. I ate it years ago in Mexico and really liked it, and since then have always wanted to try to make it myself.

Unfortunately, in the years since I ate that dish, I've developed an allergy to tree nuts.

The second most common dish associated with Independence Day is mole, which I also love. Saying "mole" is sort of like saying "curry"- it's a sauce of many different ingredients, with a million different recipes and regional variations. During the multiple times I traveled in Mexico in 2005-2009, I ate as much mole as I reasonably could, from the dark brown Mole Poblano of Puebla, to the yellow and green Oaxacan moles. 

When I was studying abroad in college in Morelia, Michoacan, my friend Catherine's host mom asked me what my favorite Mexican food was. When I told her it was mole, she offered to make it for me and have me over for comida, the large afternoon meal of the day. I remember sitting around their table eating the delicious mole, thanking the host mom for making it. She repeatedly told me how much work it was: "He estado cocinando todo el dia! Mas que cuatro horas en la cocina!" (I've been cooking all day! More than four hours in the kitchen!) She wasn't put out or trying to make me feel guilty- just simply being matter-of-fact.

This year for Mexican Independence Day, I decided to finally try my hand at a version of mole. I found this recipe which I thought fit the bill, as it was 1) for Mole Poblano which is my favorite, 2) in Saveur which is reputable, and 3) by Rick Bayless, whose take on Mexican cooking for Americans I have long admired as authentic while still accessible. I hit up a local Mexican grocery store for the chiles, pepitas, tomatillo, tortillas, and chocolate. Then I began the long process of stemming and seeding the chiles, flash frying them in oil, soaking them in water, and toasting and grinding the spices by hand. Then I blended the chiles, soaking water, and chicken stock and strained it... and that was just the first day. 

On day two you fry a bunch of ingredients in the chile-infused oil: tortillas, peanuts (I left out the almonds), pumpkin seeds, and raisins. Then there is the whole process of sautéing the onions and garlic, adding spices, cooking the tomatillo and tomatoes, blending this batch, straining...
There was even more work after that, including an hour and a half of reducing and stirring, pan frying the turkey, AND THEN baking it all for another hour. I hadn't known exactly what I was in for when I started cooking, but the whole time I just kept remembering Catherine's host mom with new waves of appreciation.

Luckily, I was really happy with how the mole turned out. It tasted legit! I subbed chicken for turkey and it came out perfectly moist and so flavorful. Other Spanish-speaking friends came over for Independence Day dinner, which was really just an excuse to eat Latin-inspired food. Not only were they appreciative of the mole, but they brought delicious dishes of their own- fried plantains, beans with fresh queso blanco cheese, Spanish tortilla, goat cheese-stuffed dates, and hand-made tortillas. There is much more cooking to come this fall, though I think I'll wait awhile before taking on a recipe that involved.