Gadget Love: The Johnson Temperature Controller

A friend of mine gave me a chest freezer recently and I augmented it with a handy gizmo, a Johnson temperature controller. The temperature controller allows me to run the freezer at any temperature between 30 and 80ºF. It works by cycling on and off the power to the freezer as needed. You just stick the copper probe in the freezer and adjust the dial to the desired temperature. So far I’ve thought of the following uses:

  • Proof bread overnight at 54ºF. I used to proof my dough in my refrigerator, but the chest freezer, running at this higher temperature thanks to the temperature controller, results in a more active proofing.
  • Make lagers (which ferment at low temperatures).
  • Make ales in hot weather. The house gets too hot to make beer in the summertime. Now I can make a batch or two without having to worry about the weather. 
  • Use the chest freezer as a backup when I need to repair the gasket on our Scandinavian refrigerator YET AGAIN!

Not wanting to be a profligate energy user I only use the chest freezer periodically.

Now if only I could lower the temperature of the whole house which, thanks to the first heatwave of the summer, is now warm enough to make yogurt!  

    Tomato Report II: Franchi Red Pear

    Franchi’s Red Pear tomato is a beefsteak variety we’ve grown for several years. It tastes phenomenal either fresh or cooked. From the Seeds from Italy website:

    This is an old North Italian variety specially selected by Franchi Sementi. It is an indeterminate red, pear-shaped beefsteak. An outstanding producer of huge (as in 8-18 ounce) very tasty fruit. Great fresh eating. Early for such a large plant (70-75 days).  This is not the small pear shaped tomato called red pear by US Seed companies. Pear shaped with vertical ribs . . . Really meaty containing few seeds. Indeterminate.

    One problem I’ve had with it is that it’s not super productive, at least in my vegetable beds.  I also think I may have over-watered it this summer and, consequently, it’s not quite as flavorful as last year’s more “meaty” crop.

    So what beefsteak varieties do you like? I’m looking for suggestions for next year–hybrids or heirlooms.

    ETA:  Just thought of something that would be helpful–if you rec. a tomato, tell us where you live. It will really help others searching for a good tomato that works well in their climate.

    Tomato Report: Franchi Red Cherry

    I don’t have much to say about this variety from Franchi named, somewhat generically, “Red Cherry”. It grew well and is very productive considering the compact size of the vine. The taste, however, was acceptable but not exciting. This could be because of over-watering on my part.

    I could find very little information about this tomato on the interwebs other than that it is an indeterminate, early variety that grows well in pots (though I grew mine in the ground).

    In the interest of a sweeter cherry tomato I think next year I’m going to plant the reliable Sungold.

    What’s your favorite cherry tomato? Leave a comment . . .

    ETA:  Just thought of something that would be helpful–if you rec. a tomato, tell us where you live. It will really help others searching for a good tomato that works well in their climate. You know how it is: location, location, location…  And if any of you who have already rec’d one see this, feel free to pipe up again regarding your location.

    Philosophical EDC: Seneca

    The most important part of my “everyday carry” is not my pocket knife. It’s my slim and easy to tote copy of Seneca’s Moral Essays, Volume II. Why? Passages like this:

    But it does no good to have got rid of the causes of individual sorrow; for one is sometimes seized by hatred of the whole human race. When you reflect how rare is simplicity, how unknown is innocence, and how good faith scarcely exists, except when it is profitable, and when you think of all the throng of successful crimes and of the gains and losses of lust, both equally hateful, and of ambition that, so far from restraining itself within its own bounds, now gets glory from baseness — when we remember these things, the mind is plunged into night, and as though the virtues, which it is now neither possible to expect nor profitable to possess, had been overthrown, there comes overwhelming gloom.

    We ought, therefore, to bring ourselves to believe that all the vices of the crowd are, not hateful, but ridiculous, and to imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. For the latter, whenever he went forth into public, used to weep, the former to laugh; to the one all human doings seemed to be miseries, to the other follies. And so we ought to adopt a lighter view of things, and put up with them in an indulgent spirit; it is more human to laugh at life than to lament over it. Add, too, that he deserves better of the human race also who laughs at it than he who bemoans it; for the one allows it some measure of good hope, while the other foolishly weeps over things that he despairs of seeing corrected.

    From De Tranquillitate Animi – On Tranquillity of Mind

    Guerrilla Gardening: Over and Out

    Seed Bombs at Whole Foods! Photo by Jimmy Chertkow

    Proof that all counter-cultural movements eventually get subsumed into the mainstream: a Whole Foods seed bomb display sent to me by Root Simple tipster James Chertkow, who pointed out the anthropomorphized orange with a Mohawk. Maybe it’s time to retire the whole guerrilla gardening/punk rock thing and just, well, plant some flowers and not make a big deal out of it.

    Bolloso Napoletano Basil

    Another winner from Franchi, Italy’s oldest seed company: Bolloso Napoletano basil. It has been slow to go to flower, pest resistant, prodigious and flavorful. The huge leaves are the size of iPhones but make much better pesto (iPesto?).

    As usual, I can’t find much information on this variety in English. Someone correct me if I’m wrong but I believe the name translates roughly as “blistered Neapolitan” a reference, most likely, to the wrinkled leaves. Bolloso Napoletano will be the official Root Simple compound basil from now on out.

    Roundin’ up the Summer Urban Homesteading Disasters

    Everyday loaf on the left, “charity” loaf on the right.

    As we’ve noted in our books, part of the deal with this lifestyle is persevering through the inevitable disasters. Which means it’s time for a regular blog feature, the disaster roundup.  

    Loafing Around
    I agreed to bake a few baguettes for a charity function this evening. Problem #1 is that I can’t do baguettes in my small oven so I decided to do a shorter batard. Problem #2: for some reason, despite the fact that I measure my ingredients carefully with a digital scale, my dough turned out extra moist. Anticipating that the batards would stick to the peel as I put them in the oven, I decided to make round loaves in proofing baskets instead. Problem #3: the dough stuck to the proofing baskets and I ended up with edible, but aesthetically unappealing, loaves.

    Moral: the more important the event the more likely disaster will strike.

    I’ve blogged about it before, but my attempt to grow winter squash (Marina di Chioggia) ended in disaster. The squash vines took up the majority of one of my few vegetable beds. I got only two squash, one that was consumed by racoons and the other that never fully matured before the vine crapped out. The immature squash was still edible, but bland.

    Moral: winter squash just ain’t space efficient. Next year I’ll tuck it around other plants and trees rather than have it hog up space in my intensively planted veggie beds.

    Luscious compost tomatoes.

    Unintentional Gardening
    I built a cold frame this spring so that I could get a head start on propagating my tomato seedlings. So guess which tomatoes did better: the ones I carefully propagated from seed and transplanted to richly amended vegetable beds, or the ones that sprouted randomly in compacted soil? You guessed it, the ones that grew on their own.

    Moral: nature knows best when to start seeds and where to plant them than us homo sapiens. Maybe there is something to that permaculture thing . . . 

    Our Hameau de la Reine
    This summer the garden generally looked like hell. It thrives during our mild winter and spring then gets baked by the merciless Southern California sun at just about the time I start slacking off on my planting duties. Then the New York Times shows up and wants to do a photo spread about a month after stuff has quit blooming. This is when I usually come running in the house to complain to Mrs. Homegrown that the garden, “does not look like Versailles.”

    Moral: take a class from someone who knows what they are doing, which is exactly what I’m up to starting next month. I vow that the garden will look like Marie Antoinette’s fake peasant village (the Hameau de la Reine) by next year. Then again, I say that every summer.

    Garden Follies
    Thinking the garden needed some ornamentation and not wanting to go the garden gnome route, I thought it would be a good idea to cast some Platonic solids in concrete–don’t ask me why–these things, “just come to me.” Mrs. Homegrown (using her Master of Fine Art superpowers) viewed this project with considerable skepticism. I successfully cast a tetrahedron and dodecahedron and stained them with iron sulfate and proudly placed them in the garden. They kinda worked but I have to agree with Mrs. Homegrown’s assessment that the scale is off–they look like the miniature Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.

    Moral: trust the MFA in your household even if that MFA was in conceptual art. 

    I could go on, but I’ve failed to document all of the disasters. Next, we’ll review what worked.

    A Raw Deal

    Photo from Aajonus Vonderplanitz’s website of eggs at Healthy Family Farms in Hohberg Poultry Ranch boxes.

    Many of you by now may have heard about a raid conducted by federal, state and local law enforcement on a raw milk buying club called Rawsome, and a simultaneous raid on Healthy Family Farms, which was one of Rawsome’s suppliers. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has filed a 13 count complaint against Rawsome with nine of those counts against Healthy Family Farms. The D.A.’s office alleges that Healthy Family Farms has operated “without any type of license or permit for milk production since 2007″ and that Rawsome “has never had any type of business permit or license.”

    While I support the right of everyone to be able to buy raw milk and dairy products, the people behind Rawsome and Healthy Valley Farms may not be the folks to rally around. I’ve heard now from two sources about some serious allegations involving both Rawsome and Healthy Family Farms. Paleo diet activist Aajonus Vonderplanitz paid a private investigator to look into Healthy Family Farms proprietor Sharon Palmer. You can read that report here. The report alleges that Palmer has a long rap sheet, including a felony conviction for elder fraud, grand theft and loan fraud. The website maintained by Vonderplanitz also includes photographs taken at Palmer’s farm showing what seems to be meat and eggs purchased from non-organic wholesale sources in the process of being repackaged as Healthy Valley Farms products. There are also photos of non-organic poultry feed and antibiotics.

    This type of fraud, repackaging cheap wholesale food products and passing them off as organic/raw etc. is, I believe, widespread.

    That list of reasons to grow your own food, if you can, keeps getting longer . . .