Tool Guy was called away on business for two weeks. All three of the Hobbits and I looked at each other and wondered what we would do with ourselves while he was gone. Still lots of tomatoes to can and, to their everlasting joy, we have begun our homeschooling year. Needless to say, I could have suggested instead that we watch paint dry--and in this very damp summer, a task that wouldn't happen with any rapidity--and they would have responded with something like alacrity. Party Planner and I conferenced and decided that we needed to plan some fun things to do during the interminable Absence.
The play date was lots of fun. PP brought her Grandson over to play. He's also an age mate in Princess and Bug's group in our homeschooling co-op. All of the Hobbits were orbital over having him over for fun. It's funny. There's a three years' age spread between each of the Hobbits, but each of them considers this little lad to be their own particular friend. Each of them planned what they wanted to do while he was visiting. Mostly, they wandered Christopher Robin fashion through The Bog and The Woods, poking around and releasing a captured frog back into the wild. PP and I sat on the back deck and relaxed with cups of cinnamon tea.
The next grand plan was an outing to a relatively nearby wild animal park...an entrepreneur's version of a zoo. PP and Grandson are old veterans to this place and, from their descriptions, the Hobbits were beside themselves to go. Unfortunately for everyone in general and PP in particular, she suffered a toe injury that seemed to present as broken. Walking was out. Though they were crest-fallen, the Hobbits rallied well and we promised that the next week would bring the expedition, the toe turning out only to be strained. Dog organized his compass, binoculars, notebook and pencil. He takes this Stanley Livingstone thing rather seriously. Bug was jazzed about the idea of using his new Buzz Lightyear back pack. Princess was dreaming of all of the animals. As an aside, Princess loves animals. In theory, that is. In real life she's too afraid to touch them...it's an interesting ambivalence to watch.
On the appointed day...it rained. Amid the sounds of much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the foray was postponed again, crossing our fingers that the following day would be improved. Nothing could solace them but a trip to the library that netted two bags of books and a whole series of Marvel Comic graphic novels. Whew. For a minute there, I thought I was gonna have to break out some candy. Luckily for me, they're easy.
The following day was mizzly and chilly, but we decided "Sydney or the Bush" and pressed on. Private animal preserves can be either brilliantly choreographed or depressingly seedy and neglected. Fortunately, this concern was the former. For a small place, the collection was quite varied, well-tended, and comfortable. The schedule of events was spaced so as to be able to comfortably roam the park between the punctuations of programming. The first activity we plunged into was the Lorry Parakeet feeding. I hesitated a moment because replacement food for animals can be problematic food for some people. That would be us. When I observed that the workers passed out apples to the crowd, we joined the line into the habitat where everyone spread their arms out, apples in hand, to lure a bird to come feed. I've never seen any zoo that was so relaxed. Each of the Hobbits had an opportunity to feed one and I even had a couple crawling on my head to reach the apple I held. Princess was fascinated to watch but declined the honors.
We raced around, avoiding puddles and the occasional stroller, and didn't leave until we'd seen and done all of the enclosures and the activities, consulting an exotic animal fact notebook the whole time. (Well, I did have to veto the petting farm...all of the feed was a corn and gluten landmine.) All the Hobbits love a zoo. Princess was a bit disenchanted with the smell, though, Animal Planet having the obvious advantage of being odorless. The rest of the Hobbits were game for holding up carrots for the sticky embrace of a giraffe's prehensile tongue. The only thing that could have topped this for them was actually getting to pet the gibbon that entertained us for a long while with her calls and gymnastics. Bug felt a burning wish to be able to be a gibbon. Dog plans on perfecting his brachiation technique. I expect to see lots of workout on the playscape when the weather clears...
Packable foods can be somewhat of a challenge when most things that we consider convenience foods are off the menu. Being the special occasion this was, I'd planned way ahead of time and splurged, using up my store of beef in the freezer that I'd been saving for just such a purpose....beef jerky. Back when soy was off the menu (and it is currently enjoying only a probationary return) I felt frustrated by the fact that almost all jerky recipes called for soy sauce or tamari sauce. While twiddling with a recipe that called for a wine-based sauce--and not being able to get reliable confirmation that any wines are actually corn-free--I rolled the dice and used kombucha tea as the base instead and it yielded a dish that was a delight. This inspired me to use k-tea to make jerky.
Kombucha Tea is a fermented tea, aged with the assistance of an inoculation of some "starter" tea and a rubbery pancake of a fungal organism called a SCOBY. Tool Guy, of course, has his more graphic descriptors. The flavor of this beverage ranges from tangy to sour, depending on the amount of aging. There are lots of sources for this on the internet beginning with free-for-shipping sharing all the way up to some very pricey "kits." One suggestion that I've never tried myself is to buy some commercial raw k-tea bottled for drinking, open bottle and pour into glass jar, allowing brew to continue aging. Some people have reported that in continuing to age, raw tea will develop a new SCOBY, all of which can then be used in making more tea per the tea-making directions.
The base of this tea is simple green or black tea--and amazingly there have been flame wars over to caf or to decaf--sugar, and water. The rule of thumb I use is four tea bags and one cup of sugar, the type of which is also subject to flame wars (I use white, but I have used honey...eew), per gallon of water. Boil water, add tea bags and sugar, and leave to brew until completely cool. Never add hot tea to starter and SCOBY or risk killing the whole thing. Brew needs to be room temperature. Using approximately 1/3 starter to tea ratios, pour aged tea starter saved from previous batch of k-tea to fresh tea and plop SCOBY into gallon glass* jar. I use one SCOBY per gallon jar. Cover jar mouth with coffee filter or cheese cloth and rubber band, place in cool location away from airborne dust and oils (ie, the kitchen isn't the optimal location) and allow to age 7-14 days. The brew grows more sour as it ages, so keep personal preferences in mind when planning this. When decanting, simply remove filter, fish out SCOBY (a new layer of "baby" SCOBY will have formed on the surface) and pour out. Save a couple of cups of tea as starter for the next batch.
*never use plastic or metal, as the acidity in the tea leaches constituent properties out of non-glass containers
Kombucha Tea Jerky
2-3 whole roasts of beef/buffalo/venison, sliced into strips
2 gallons of k-tea, aged two weeks
2-4 whole onions
2-4 T minced garlic
2-4 knobs raw ginger
2-4 T Real Salt
1-2 sheets dried kombu
1-2 t red pepper
When purchasing the beef, I generally buy roasts and section them into proportions that, when frozen, will make convenient sized strips. Thick cut steaks will do just as well. After freezing the meat, I allow it to thaw just enough to push through the single slicing blade of a mandolin...especially using a carpenter glove for this. Muscling semi-frozen meat through a slicer takes a bit of force and protection is a Good Thing.
Peeling and sectioning the onions, I toss them and all of the spices/seasonings into a food processor and reduce to a slurry. Using the same glass jars I used for making the tea, I leave 1/2 gallon of tea in each, pour in the half of the seasoning, and add meat strips until the jar is full, keeping enough tea added for the meat to have contact with liquid on all sides. Repeat with second jar. Allow this to marinade overnight. It can be stored in the refrigerator or in cooler weather, I have left it out. The acidic nature of the tea is a great inhibitor for bacterial growth.
The next day, I dump the jars into a colander, draining off the tea. I don't take particular care to remove seasoning bits...if they dry on the meat, so much the better. Carefully separating the strips, I lay them out singly on drying racks and stack in the oven, having lined the bottom with foil for easy clean up of drips. My dehydrating sources encourage 170* for safe meat handling practices. Meat this thin generally dries at this temperature in 6-8 hours, possibly more, depending on stacking and air circulation. If racks are stacked vertically, there may need to be some rotation of the trays to allow for even drying.
Though this treat generally doesn't survive beyond the first day--Hobbits can disappear an amazing amount of meat this way--I store any left overs in the fridge or freezer. Since there are no nitrites or preservatives added, I find that the flavors tend to go stale and flat if left out.
Home from the zoo, the Hobbits are each enjoying the fruits of their trip to the gift shop. Dog is target practicing with his toy bow and arrow set, Bug unearthed the pteradactyl from his Dinosaur Dig egg, and Princess is repeatedly going through labor and delivery, birthing her new plush puppy. It's quite...um...interesting to listen to. Bug is her birthing partner.
Even though it is misty and damp, it is still summer and the great outdoors call. Pack up the jerky and head out. Sydney or the Bush!