Archive for food

Coffee!

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , , , , , , on January 6, 2015 by KarenElizabeth

I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging a bit more regularly, so in that interest, here’s a more lighthearted post than I am sometimes wont to share:  Coffee!  A bit about the history, science, and serving of one of my favourite beverages.

coffeebeans2

The History

According to the International Coffee Organization, coffee trees first originated in the Ethiopian region of Kaffa, where the “coffee cherries” (as the beans were called) were eaten by slaves.  The name “Kaffa” means “drink made from berries”, so it’s obvious that coffee was an important regional drink.  Once the beverage started to become known & spread through the Arab world (originally as a part of religious ceremonies, then later entering secular culture), their traders tried to gain a monopoly by imposing strict bans on the trading of fertile beans, but this couldn’t last forever:  in the early 17th century the Dutch brought live plants to India and Java for cultivation (although an alternate story has an Arabic holy man strapping fertile beans to his chest and smuggling them to India, which I must admit is a more romantic tale), and the coffee plant began to spread worldwide.  One particularly interesting story is that of how coffee came to the island of Martinique:

In 1720 a French naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, while on leave in Paris from his post in Martinique, acquired a coffee tree with the intention of taking it with him on the return voyage. With the plant secured in a glass case on deck to keep it warm and prevent damage from salt water, the journey proved eventful. As recorded in de Clieu’s own journal, the ship was threatened by Tunisian pirates. There was a violent storm, during which the plant had to be tied down. A jealous fellow officer tried to sabotage the plant, resulting in a branch being torn off. When the ship was becalmed and drinking water rationed, De Clieu ensured the plant’s survival by giving it most of his precious water. Finally, the ship arrived in Martinique and the coffee tree was re-planted at Preebear. It grew, and multiplied, and by 1726 the first harvest was ready. It is recorded that, by 1777, there were between 18 and 19 million coffee trees on Martinique, and the model for a new cash crop that could be grown in the New World was in place.
– International Coffee Organization

In Europe during the 17th century, coffee was widely believed to have medicinal properties (not entirely untrue, since coffee has been shown in various studies to prevent Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and liver diseases, as well as decreasing the risk of depression), and it quickly became a part of the mainstream.  Coffee houses soon became a place for political groups to gather & discuss their plans (most famously, the Boston Tea Party was planned in a coffee house in 1773), and many coffee houses evolved into major financial institutions (including Lloyds of London, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Bank of New York).

In 1884, an important innovation in coffee technology came along:  Angelo Moriondo’s steam-driven instantaneous coffee-making machine (patent no. 33/256).  In 1902, Luigi Bezzera patented his improvements to the device, and then in 1905, the patent was purchased by Desiderio Pavoni, who began to produce the world’s first commercially available espresso machines.  The espresso machine was further refined in 1932 by Achille Gaggia, whose higher-pressure models produced what we would recognize as espresso today:  thick, syrupy coffee topped with a golden foam that Gaggia dubbed “caffe crema”.  The first Faema machine, introduced in the 60s, replaced the manual power required to pull a shot from the Gaggia machines with a motorized pump, but otherwise espresso has remained largely unchanged since WWII.

 

Types of Coffee Makers

The way your coffee tastes depends largely on the way it is made, and to that end there are a variety of different coffee brewing methods available.  Each method has its benefits and downsides, and of course each camp has its vehement defenders.

choose-coffee-makerProbably the most familiar (to a North American, anyway) is the inexpensive drip coffee maker.  There are a few variations available — basket vs. cone filters, glass vs. thermal carafes, and of course there are all the added features like clocks, timers, radios, automatic shut-off, etc.  Most of us grew up with one of these in our kitchens, and the gurgle-sputter noise as the last drips finish brewing is a friendly, homey, nostalgic sort of sound.

Drip coffee is unquestionably the simplest to make.  No worries about timing, or even careful measuring — just scoop out a few heaping tablespoons of ground coffee into the filter, pour in water, and turn on.  A few minutes later, you’ll have fresh coffee — no fuss, no muss.  And most machines will turn off all by themselves, so you don’t need to worry about whether you forgot to hit the button — some even turn on by themselves, only needing to have the timer set the night before so that you can wake up to pre-made coffee before your early morning shift.  Drip coffee is also the most convenient for serving a crowd — easily make enough for the whole family all at once, without having to stand there monitoring it.  Unfortunately, drip coffee is also the least flavourful method — the water in these machines doesn’t get as hot as when brewing by other methods, and thus less flavour is pulled out of the beans.  You can improve the flavour you get by purchasing better quality whole beans & grinding them fresh each day, but this does somewhat defeat the “easy & no fuss” factor that makes drip machines appealing in the first place.

espresso machineEspresso machines (mentioned earlier in the “history” section) are at the opposite end of the spectrum, in many regards.  Expensive — a good one can easily set you back a thousand dollars — and fussy — the temperature and pressure need to be adjusted to account for humidity and barometric pressure on a regular basis in order to maintain quality — espresso drinks are something that many people leave to the professional baristas at their favourite coffee shop.  But all of that fuss means a lot more control over your final cup of coffee, and in a house with coffee drinkers who have widely varying tastes, this can be a big plus, because each person can prepare their individual coffee to their individual liking.  Espresso machines are also useful when you have just one or two coffee drinkers, and don’t want to make & waste full pots.

Just like with drip coffee, you can use absolutely any beans in an espresso machine, but lower quality beans will show more starkly:  espresso machines, with their high pressures, actually emulsify the oils in the coffee beans, so older or cheaper beans will result in very bitter espresso.  Most espresso machines come with a “steam wand” attachment so that you can easily prepare beverages such as lattes and cappuccinos by steaming the milk, which greatly expands the usefulness of this counter-space hog.

Aluminium_Espresso_Coffee_MakerThe stovetop espresso pot, or “Moka Pot” as they are commonly known, brews an espresso-like coffee under less pressure (usually about 2 bars), thus emulsifying less of the oils and producing less “crema”.  It is not actually a “true” espresso, which is defined by the 9 bars of pressure used in standard machines, but it tastes similarly & can be used for making a delicious latte, americano, or cafe-au-lait.  Moka Pots are actually one of my personal favourite home-brewing methods, as they are great for making coffee for only one or two people (although you can get larger pots designed for making up to 6 cups at a time), and result in a stronger, richer flavour than you get with a drip coffee maker, without the sediment problems of French press coffee (see below).  It tastes very similarly to coffee made in a percolator, without the risk of over-extracting the beans by recirculating the coffee through them.  Moka Pots are often confused with percolators by people who are not familiar with them.

Coffee_Percolator_Cutaway_Diagram.svgPercolators are distinct from stovetop pots because there is not a separate chamber for the coffee after brewing — it simply drips back down into the main body, where water was poured in at first.  Percolators have gone out of fashion since the advent of the drip coffee maker, but were once the worldwide standard for brewing — and they are fairly simple, as long as you keep an eye on the time.  They do tend to make better tasting coffee than drip coffee makers as long as you don’t over-extract the beans by leaving it on the heat for too long (which results in bitterness), because the water can get to a higher temperature, allowing for more flavour extraction.  Unfortunately, their drop in popularity has meant that finding filters for them is almost impossible — percolator purists tend to have to buy online (although there are some “permanent filters” available these days, which can mitigate that problem).  People who enjoy camping often swear by perk coffee (and incidentally, the percolator is where the phrase “the coffee is perking” comes from), because it’s easily prepared over an open fire or on a camp stove.

french-press-basic-mThe French Press has seen a surge in popularity recently, especially among singles and apartment-dwellers (like the Moka Pot, it takes up very little in the way of counter space, and doesn’t require a devoted outlet).  Devotees of the French Press declare that the slower brewing method produces a fuller flavour, but I personally tend to find it bitter.  There is also a distinct likelihood that French Press coffee will have large chunks of coffee grounds still floating in it after filtering, which is what really turned me away from the method — I don’t like grit in my teeth after drinking.

The French Press is an old-fashioned and simple method of brewing, and highly portable, so its popularity makes sense.  Like with percolators, you do need to keep an eye on the time — the longer you brew, the more likely those bitter flavours will come out, so you have to find the right balancing point for your taste buds.  High quality, freshly ground beans will also mitigate the bitter-factor.

best-coffee-maker-k-cup-from-keuringA new innovation in home coffee brewing technology is the single-cup brewer, popularized by brands like Keurig and Tassimo.  Also popular among the singles-and-apartment-dwellers crowd, these machines are quite versatile, but also represent the most expensive method of getting your daily caffeine-fix short of actually going to a coffee shop and paying someone else to do it.  Many of the brand-specific “k-cups” and “pods” can run well over a dollar apiece, and then there’s also the start-up cost (usually several hundred dollars) to be considered.  Most of the “pods” available are low-quality coffee brands, too, so you’re not getting the best tasting coffee, even if it’s costing you the most money.  They’re ridiculously simple, though:  just pop in a pod and whatever drink you wanted magically appears in your cup, just for you.  And with the advent of refillable, reusable “pods” that you can fill with whatever type of coffee you like, the cost can be brought down with a little effort.  I’ll admit to having enjoyed the novelty of them when staying at hotels or working in buildings where there was a single-cup brewer available for use.  And some of the smaller ones are quite portable — a woman I work with brings her little Tassimo brewer to work with her, even when we’re on set, so that she can always have fresh coffee.  But to be honest, if I was going to spend that kind of money on home-brewed coffee, I’d get a proper espresso machine and skip all the single-cup nonsense.

cold_brew_coffee_06While there are dozens of other little “niche” methods of making coffee (one of the coffee shops that I regularly frequent has a whole mad-science laboratory full of contraptions for roasting, grinding & brewing), the only other one that I think is necessary to mention here is cold-brewing (follow the link for more detail).  Perfect for making iced coffee beverages in the summer (or, let’s face it, any time of year at all, because iced coffee is delicious), cold-brewing produces an incredibly smooth-flavoured coffee with very little bitterness or acid.  You can get whole fancy contraptions for doing it (the “Toddy” system is very popular & works well; we used it at a coffee shop where I used to work), but all that’s really needed is 2 mason jars, a large funnel, and a filter (just buy a box of the cone-filters designed for drip coffee makers, or use cheesecloth).  In one mason jar, put coarse-ground coffee beans & cold water.  Leave it in the fridge for 12 hours, then pour through the funnel (using the filter to strain out the grounds) into the second mason jar.  Pop the lid on and you’ve got cold-brewed coffee to last you for the whole week.  Getting the exact amount of coffee beans, the grind, and the amount of time correct can take a bit of trial-and-error, but it’s an experiment worth doing if you enjoy iced coffee drinks.  Never again will you just pour hot coffee over ice, watering it down & resulting in high-acid bitterness.

 

Cappuccino, Latte, Cafe-au-Lait?  Whaa?

When I had a part-time job as a barista, this was one of the questions that got asked literally every day, so I’ll go through a few of the most common coffee and espresso beverages that you’ll see on the menus at various cafes.  There might be a few on here you’ve never heard of — feel free to try to stump your local barista with an offbeat one, but remember to tip well for the inconvenience.

Cafe Americano (or just “americano” to many) is a shot of espresso, topped up with hot water to “lengthen” it.  The story goes that American soldiers in Italy during WWII found that they couldn’t find the perk coffee they were accustomed to, because espresso machines had exploded on to the scene.  They didn’t enjoy the thick, strong, tiny drinks that were so popular, and would dilute them with water to closer approximate the coffee they knew and loved.  Americano coffee has a different flavour from your standard drip or perk coffee, due to the different extraction method, and many people prefer it for that reason.

A Long Black is virtually identical to an americano, but instead of adding the water to the espresso, you add the espresso to the water.  Purists claim that this maintains more of the espresso’s natural “crema”, and there is a slight visual difference, but I can’t say that it alters the flavour (to my tastes, anyway).

The Red Eye (also known as the “shot in the dark”) is a single shot of espresso added to a cup of dark roast coffee — the point being to increase the boldness, flavour, and caffeine content of the drip coffee.  If you want to add 2 shots instead of just one, it’s called a Black Eye, and 3 shots is a Green Eye.

Cappuccino is a shot of espresso topped with hot steamed milk & foam.  Traditionally, you want about equal amounts of milk & foam (the ideal cappuccino is 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk, 1/3 foam), but you can ask for your cappuccino “wet” (more milk) or “dry” (more foam) to adjust the flavour, or have extra shots of espresso added for boldness.  The foam on any espresso drink should be made up of very tiny bubbles (commonly called “microfoam”), visually resembling the medium-density upholstery foam you might find in a couch cushion.  Big bubbles are a sign of an inexperienced or lazy barista.

Latte is very similar to cappuccino, but uses almost all hot milk, with just a little bit of foam at the very top.  Because there is more milk, lattes are less strong in flavour than a cappuccino — and they’re also ideal for adding extra flavours to (ie. vanilla, hazelnut, pumpkin spice, etc).  A mocha latte (or just “mocha”) is a latte made with chocolate.  Lattes are often scoffed at by coffee purists as a drink for people who lack taste, but hey, sometimes we all just want something sweet & simple.

Chai lattes or tea lattes are not made with espresso, but rather with very strong tea (or in some cases, a boxed tea concentrate — most mainstream chains like Starbucks will use something from a box or bottle in order to maintain consistent flavour from shop to shop).  These boxed concentrates are often pre-sweetened, so be aware when ordering that you should taste it before adding sugar.  Matcha lattes are made with a powdered form of green tea, and the milk will actually turn a fairly bright green (it looks kinda disgusting, but tastes delicious).

Cafe-au-lait is sometimes used to mean the same as “latte”, but actually refers to a strong dark-roast coffee (not espresso) mixed 1:1 with hot milk & no foam.  Check with the barista before ordering to make sure you know what you’re getting.

Macchiato is my personal favourite espresso drink.  Resembling a small cappuccino, it consists of a shot of espresso either poured into or topped with approximately an equal amount of foam.  Espresso shots for macchiato are usually pulled “long” (a bit more hot water added to the shot), but the method of preparation can vary from place to place.  When I make them for myself, I just pull a single shot & top with foam, no extra fuss.  It should be noted that the Starbucks “caramel macchiato” drink in no way resembles what an actual macchiato is; it’s just an example of corporate marketing people taking a random Italian-sounding word and slapping it on a drink.

A flat white is 1:1 espresso and steamed milk, no foam (that’s what the “flat” refers to).  They are usually served in glass cups with wire handles, for no particular reason other than “it’s traditional”.  The flat white has become a very competitive art, and people who drink them regularly are often very devoted to their particular way of having it.

Caffe Leche is espresso served with sweetened condensed milk.  It’s basically like drinking a coffee-caramel.

Viennese coffee (or “cafe Vienna”) is espresso topped with whipped cream (and often sprinkles or chocolate shavings).

Turkish coffee is not espresso at all, but rather coffee served in a very primitive/traditional fashion.  Coffee grounds, pounded completely to dust, and sugar are put directly into water & the water is boiled to extract the coffee.  The pot has to be removed from the heat as soon as it starts to boil, or the coffee will taste “burnt”, so this is a method that requires some patience and attention.  There is a flair to pouring, too, so that the foam from the coffee is divided evenly between the cups.  Drinking coffee with the grounds in it is a bit of an acquired taste, and can leave you with an unpleasant “gritty” feeling on your tongue if the coffee was not pounded fine enough.

A frappe is also not actually an espresso drink; it’s made with instant coffee, water, and condensed milk, and shaken until very foamy.

Espresso Cubano (or just “Cubano”) is a shot of espresso pulled directly over demarara or raw brown sugar.  Put the sugar into the cup before pulling the espresso on top of it, so that the two will meld while the espresso pours.

Espresso Romano (or just “Romano”) is a shot of espresso served with a slice of fresh lemon — and it is drunk by running the lemon over the rim of the cup before you sip.

Doppio usually refers to a simple double-shot of espresso, but the name is actually derived from the double-spouted filter head used on most commercial espresso machines.  In barista competitions, the doppio is the “standard” measure of espresso used in a drink.

Ristretto refers to a shot that is “restricted” — pulled for a shorter amount of time.  This truncated pull results in a shot that is sweeter and has more crema than a standard single-shot or doppio.

Affogato is espresso served over a dessert — often an ice cream or pudding, but occasionally a cake.  Some dessert menus at Italian restaurants will offer the option to have your dessert “affogato style”.

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Feeding Your Reptiles: Frozen/Thawed Rats and Mice

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

One of the first questions that comes up whenever I tell people that I have pet snakes is inevitably, “what do you feed them?”  People are incredibly curious about how snakes eat, what they eat, and where you get such things.  And many people reveal during these conversations that the only reason they’d never looked seriously into getting a snake as a pet was because of a fear of (or simple distaste for) the idea of feeding live prey.

Most people are a bit surprised when I tell them that I simply buy frozen mice or rats, usually in bulk (packages of 12 or 24) so that I don’t need to worry about going to the pet store every single week.  I can then thaw the prey items out, one at a time, much like you’d thaw out a chicken breast before cooking it.  It’s fast, easy, and convenient.  And my snakes get a good meal whenever they need it, without me having to trek across town to the pet store, or worry about keeping live rodents in my apartment.

nom nom nom

 

So Why Frozen/Thawed Instead of Live Prey?

There are people who make the argument that live prey is more “natural”, because a snake in the wild has to stalk and kill its prey.  I find such arguments to be patently ridiculous, because there’s really nothing “natural” about keeping a snake in a glass enclosure in your home.  Most snakes in the pet trade were captive-bred — they’ve spent their lives living in “unnatural” conditions — and many were selectively bred for traits that would get them killed in the wild (ie, albinism).  Snakes in the wild rarely live for more than a few years, while in captivity they can live for decades.  Perhaps a frozen/thawed mouse is a bit unnatural, but it’s certainly no more unnatural than feeding kibbles or canned food to your cat or dog.

Many shops that carry reptile products do offer live prey items as an option, but any argument that a live mouse is somehow “healthier” or contains “more nutritional value” than a frozen one is purely specious — if anything, the frozen prey will be healthier, because pet stores often don’t have very good housing conditions for their prey items, don’t properly feed them, and don’t monitor for health problems the way that a dedicated rodent production facility has to do.  Live prey items might also carry parasites picked up at the store (or elsewhere), which freezing will kill off — live prey items are a potential source of mite infestations, for example, or may contain parasites in their guts.

The biggest risk with live prey, of course, is that it might fight back.  Rodents have long, sharp teeth that can seriously injure your beloved snake-friend.  A snake that misses on the first strike, or gets a bad grip on its prey, can be severely bitten (even killed) by a cornered, fighting-for-its-life rodent.  Vet bills for reptiles get expensive quickly — since they’re an “exotic” pet, even walking in to the vet’s office or emergency clinic with them can be a $100 appointment fee, before any tests/surgeries/medicines/etc even enter the picture.  And many vets are untrained in reptile care, and will be able to do little to help your injured friend — especially if you’re going to an emergency clinic or the like.  Herpetological specialists are rare, and their offices may have limited hours.

 

What If My Snake Doesn’t Like Already-Dead Food?

There are instances where a snake doesn’t immediately take to eating things that have been pre-killed for it.  Wild-caught individuals (which you should never buy — animals taken from their natural habitats are usually illegal and have to be smuggled across borders, are typically less healthy, and you may be destroying natural ecosystems by participating in their sale), or animals who were raised on live prey in captivity (there are still some major breeders out there who feed live, despite the risks), may not immediately recognize a frozen/thawed rodent as a food item.

There’s the odd animal who will simply never take to eating frozen/thawed, especially if this type of prey was not introduced to them until they were an adult.  But in 99% of cases, a bit of care and attention will get your animal eating f/t prey.  A few tricks to try, if you’ve got a fussy eater on your hands — I’ll arrange them from least to most macabre:

  • Warm the prey item to approximately body temperature by immersing it in hot water until it feels warm to the touch.
  • Wiggle the prey item around in front of the snake’s face (you may want to use tongs or forceps, rather than just holding the prey item in your hand — it’s not unheard of for a snake to mistake a human hand for a yummy rat, especially if you’ve got rat-smell all over your fingers).
  • Cut the prey item open a little bit, to get a stronger “blood” smell for attracting the snake.  Anecdotally, puncturing or crushing the skull is the best way to do this (apparently brains smell delicious), but if you’re squeamish it may be better to go for a less-gruesome tactic.
  • Try purchasing a live prey item, but killing it just before feeding it to your snake.  I’ve seen various YouTube demonstrations of how to use vinegar & baking soda to make a CO2 chamber at home, or how to use CO2 cartridges for the same purpose, but such DIY creations tend to be unreliable — often the prey simply falls asleep, and doesn’t actually die.  And there’s an argument to be made that suffocation may not be particularly kind, even if it looks (from an outside perspective) like just falling asleep.  If you’re not terribly squeamish, snapping the spine is one of the most humane & painless ways to euthanize a rodent.  If you feel confident in your ability to do so, snapping the neck manually is the most precise and “gentle” method.  Many people teach to simply whack the rodent (hard) off a table or other hard surface, which is less precise and may only stun the prey item, not actually kill it … plus it just looks & feels fairly brutal.  My chosen method (because I hate feeling bones snapping in my hand) is to place a hard, thin object like a screwdriver over the rodent’s neck, hold the tail in my off hand and the screwdriver in my dominant hand, and push (sharply) down and forwards.  It’s fast and precise, and the prey item feels little-to-no fear or pain, because it all happens in less than a second.  I don’t like doing it, but I’m pragmatic enough to understand that this is still far less traumatic to the animal than being dropped into a tank with a live snake, and then bitten & squeezed to death, would be.  Always wear gloves when handling live rodents; they have big teeth and can deliver mean bites.

If absolutely none of the above suggestions work, and your snake has gone a long time without eating, you may have to resort to live prey.  If that’s the case, feeding smaller prey items with greater frequency is usually the way to go.  A snake that could eat a medium-sized rat twice a month, for example, might do better if fed rat pups, every single week.  Younger/smaller prey items are less likely to be able to fight back or inflict serious injuries on your snake.  Never feed live prey without supervising the feeding process (have a set of good, thick gloves on so that you can pick up a struggling rat or snake should things go badly), and be aware of risks like parasites — check incoming live prey thoroughly to be sure it’s not carrying mites or the like, and always check your snake out visually following a feeding to look for bite or scratch injuries.

 

Are There Any Risks With Frozen/Thawed?

Now that I’ve outlined how f/t is the safer and more humane way to go, I’ll go over the couple of risks that may come along with feeding frozen prey items.

Most important is making sure that the prey item is thoroughly defrosted.  Snakes are cold-blooded.  A prey item that feels warm to the touch, but still has a big chunk of frozen meat inside of it?  That could cause your snake’s internal temperature to drop enough to cause serious problems, or even death from organ failure.  The same is true if the prey becomes too warm (which is why you should NEVER use a microwave to defrost frozen prey — the internal organs of the prey item will heat much faster than the outside, and can get hot enough to cause burns).  The microwave also risks actually cooking the meat, and snakes don’t have the same biology that we do — their bodies aren’t designed to digest cooked meat.  Defrosting a frozen prey item is best done by immersing it in hot water and leaving it to sit until it’s thoroughly thawed out (the larger the prey item, the longer it needs).  Give the prey item a squeeze, to make sure there’s no big frozen parts inside.  If it still feels cold to the touch, it’s not ready yet.

The other risk (which isn’t really limited to f/t items, but is more of a concern because they’re probably being stored in your freezer alongside your own food) is transmission of any rodent-borne dirt/bacteria to your own food & utensils.  Keeping separate “snake utensils” is recommended — a set of tongs & a “defrosting bowl” that are for snake-related uses only.  Frozen rodents are unlikely to have any parasites or diseases still living on them, since most bacteria and viruses and the like can’t live at freezer temperatures, but double-bagging frozen rats/mice & being sure to wash your hands after handling is a useful “just in case” measure.  Double-bagging also helps to prevent freezer burn, and may help to disguise the bag of frozen rats from any friends/family who happen to open your freezer and peek inside (I’ve definitely had friends scream and drop glassware upon going into my freezer to grab the bottle of vodka I keep in the freezer door, because the other shelf in the freezer door is the “rat shelf” … several broken glasses later, I’ve learned to warn people of this in advance).

 

Costs and Additional Notes

Snakes are extremely low-maintenance pets.  Being cold-blooded, they only need to eat a fraction of the amount that a warm-blooded mammal or bird would — and (generally) the larger the prey they eat, the less often you need to feed them.

Here in Southern Ontario, small “pinky” or “fuzzy” mice cost about $1-$1.50 apiece, while adult mice may be $2-3.  Medium-Large rats may be more in the $5 to $8 range.  If you’ve got an especially large animal, you may need to be feeding a larger prey item like rabbits, which can cost $15-20 depending on availability in your area … but on the plus side, such larger animals often only need to eat once a month or so.  Buying in bulk can get you discounts, but you need to have freezer space for storing 24 or 50 or 100 prey items in order to make such discounts a viable option — and remember that like with all food, there’s a limited amount of time that something can be kept in the freezer before freezer burn starts to set in & nutritional value is lost.  Airtight storage bags & a clean freezer without frost on the walls will help with longevity in storage.

If you’re getting a new snake, ask the breeder/store/rescue where you’re acquiring it if it’s already eating frozen/thawed prey.  If not, be prepared that you might have to spend some time teaching your new pet to take f/t, and be ready to potentially buy some live rodents & kill them yourself, to get things started.  If that doesn’t seem like something you’re prepared for, ask for another animal that’s already taking f/t, or ask if they’d be willing to “test” the animal on f/t food for you, before you commit to buying/adopting.

And if you really love the idea of having a pet snake, but really *can’t* stomach the idea of handling dead mice/rats, there are a few species out there that eat other foods — like eggs or fish.  Dasypeltis, an African breed, is a commonly known egg-eating colubrid snake which you may be able to get your hands on (although they’re much less common than other colubrid species in the pet trade, and finding a captive-bred specimen may be challenging) — they are usually fed quail eggs in captivity.  Many species of garter snake prefer to eat fish (although live feeder-fish carry high risk of parasites; do your research before deciding on a fish-eating snake as a pet, and you may want to go frozen/thawed with fishy feeders, too, to kill off any parasites).  Other colubrid snakes may eat eggs, fish, or earthworms — but they may require vitamin or calcium supplements added to their diet, as these foods are not as nutritionally valuable as mammal prey.  Thorough research is necessary before acquiring any pet — don’t simply trust what “some guy at the pet store” said.  There are myths out there about snakes eating insectivorous diets and the like — these are MYTHS, and a snake won’t get proper nutrition eating only bugs.  But if you’ve done your research well, a non-rodent-eating snake may be a very beautiful and rewarding pet choice.

Pesto; Pistou; Pasta

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

One of the greatest challenges of living alone is the simple fact that it’s often hard to motivate oneself to prepare delicious meals when there is no one else to impress.  The rewards of gourmet cooking are decidedly reduced when there’s no one ooh-ing and ahh-ing over your hard-wrought creations … and of course, cooking from scratch takes a lot more work and produces a lot more dishes than just simply throwing a frozen pizza into the oven.

Another trouble with cooking for one is that most things simply aren’t sold in single-sized portions.  Buying just one nice chicken breast, pound for pound, is two or three times the cost of purchasing an entire chicken.  And a lot of vegetables simply don’t come in smaller sizes — a bunch of celery is a bunch of celery is a bunch of celery, and damn that’s a lot of celery for just one person to eat before it goes limp.

Now, there are a lot of different solutions to these problems.  Cooking larger meals and then freezing the leftovers, buying frozen vegetable mixes to introduce more variety without having to buy a dozen different things, and making use of odds and ends in simple one-pot meals are all options that many of us single-types employ.  But one solution that I’ve found particularly useful, and somehow it doesn’t seem to be on most people’s lists of shortcuts, is the magic of sauces and spreads.

Making a large batch of, say, pasta sauce, is an easy way to use up vegetables before they go bad, and it also provides you with easily stored leftovers that can be re-heated and served very quickly.  In the 10-15 minutes it takes to boil water and prepare pasta, you can take a serving of sauce from the freezer, to a pan, and have it nice and warm by the time the pasta reaches al dente.  And there’s no need to get bored of eating the same thing all week long, because in the freezer the sauce will keep well for a month or two, allowing you to spread out your meals.  The same goes for many different sauces and spreads — even things that can’t be frozen can often be stored in the fridge or preserved in canning jars, in order to last much longer than the raw ingredients would on their own.

One of the fruit & vegetable shops near my house sells large bunches of fresh herbs for really excellent prices, but generally an entire bunch is much more than I could possibly use in a week.  I have a particular love, though, for fresh basil, and this week I just couldn’t resist picking up a bundle.  Enter: the magic of sauces and spreads.

Image by Paul Goyette, used under Creative Commons license

One of the ways in which most people are introduced to basil is through pesto, a popular spread with its roots in Genoa, northern Italy.  Pesto’s popularity is a testament to its deliciousness, and you might be surprised to find out just how easy it is to make:  a traditional pesto contains only 5 ingredients.  Fresh basil is ground up with pine nuts, garlic, a little bit of coarse salt, and some Parmesan cheese.  Sometimes olive oil is added to improve the consistency.  The ratios of various ingredients may change (the Internet is full of “secret recipes” for the “perfect” pesto), but the basic method remains the same.  Put it all together in a food processor, blend until smooth, and serve over noodles or spread on fresh bread (or add it to other dishes).

I’m not actually a particular fan of pine nuts, and so I tend to make the less-well-known French version: pistou.  Pistou is even simpler to prepare, being prepared only with basil, garlic, salt, and olive oil.  Sometimes cheese is added, but I prefer to leave it out — I’ll generally add cheese to the dish later, if I want it.  Pistou goes extremely well with goat cheese, feta, Swiss cheese, or just a simple Canadian cheddar.

The ratio that I use in preparing my pistou is:

  • 2 cups roughly chopped fresh basil
  • 8 to 10 cloves fresh garlic
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp coarse sea salt (you can leave the salt out if you’re looking to monitor the sodium in your diet, but remember to add a touch of salt in later if you’re going to be using it on its own or in a dish that doesn’t already contain salt, as this does enhance and round out the flavour).

Start with a smaller amount of olive oil, and add more as things are blending if you find that the food processor is having trouble integrating it all into a paste.  I find that the amount of oil used can vary quite a bit, depending on factors like the moisture content of the basil and the humidity of the air.  The final result should be about 1 to 1-1/4 cups of fragrant, delicious pistou, ready to be used as-is (it’s delicious spread on fresh bread), or combined into other things.  Store your pistou in an airtight container, and it should keep in the fridge for a month, or freeze it in an ice-cube tray and then keep frozen (in a ziplock bag, to prevent freezer burn) for up to three months.

Ideas for using your pistou include:

  • Add a tablespoon of pistou and some grated cheese to warm pasta for a delicious, quick lunch or dinner.
  • Alternatively, make a pasta salad by adding pistou and fresh lemon juice to cold cooked noodles.
  • Add a tablespoon or two worth of pistou to cream or cheese sauces for extra zing
  • Put a teaspoon of pistou inside a stuffed chicken breast with bacon, asparagus and asiago cheese for something fancy and delicious — this is a meal I use when I really want to impress somebody, as most people get really excited about food-stuffed-inside-other-food.
  • Add a bit of pistou to a creamy risotto dish for extra flavour.
  • A scoop of pistou in a vegetable or chicken soup adds a nice hit of flavour and some pretty green flecks (this is a very traditional way of using pistou in Provence; pistou soup is usually prepared with summer vegetables and spaghetti noodles)
  • A tablespoon of pistou, a tablespoon of whole-grain mustard, a splash of lemon juice, and a cup of olive oil (well-shaken) makes an easy and delicious salad dressing.
  • Add a generous amount of pistou to some sour cream, cream cheese, or greek yogurt  to make a yummy dip.
  • Add pistou to a hummus spread for a non-traditional flavour.

All in One Pot: Pasta with From-Scratch Cream Sauce

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

My most hated of all household chores isn’t cleaning the bathroom.  It’s not scrubbing the floors.  It’s not washing the ceilings, or doing the laundry, or any of the other things which many people will state when they complain about housework.

No, my least favourite household chore is the dishes.

For someone who cooks almost every single meal from scratch, this can quickly grow to become a problem.  Without the disposable containers of take-out and pre-packaged meals, it’s hard to make anything that doesn’t create at least a small pile of dishes to be done.  A pot for this, a pan for that, a bowl and a set of tongs and a spatula … and if, like me, you’re prone to letting the dishes go for a couple of days before rolling up your sleeves and getting to it, it can become a pretty daunting task.

It’s at times like this when I am thankful for meals that can be made using only one pot, one spoon, a cutting board, and the dish you serve it in (if you’re feeling especially lazy, you can even eat it right out of the pot and save yourself one more dish).  But, contrary to popular belief, one-pot meals need not consist of foods like ramen noodles, condensed soups, and Kraft Dinner.  You can make something classy enough that you’d serve it to company (probably *not* right out of the pot, though), and still keep your dishes to a bare minimum.

Tonight’s dinner is a creamy pasta with chicken, carrots, onions and mushrooms, and I’m making enough for 2 servings (mmm, leftovers for lunch tomorrow!).  You can increase the amounts you’re using to make more — none of the measurements are particularly exact.

I began by cooking up a bone-in chicken breast (you can use boneless if you prefer, but bone-in is less expensive to buy).  I put a couple inches of water in the bottom of my pot (about 2 cups worth), added the chicken breast, put the lid on, and simmered until the chicken was thoroughly cooked.  When cooking in water you don’t need to worry about overcooking, because the meat’s not going to dry out on you.  Just keep an eye to make sure the water doesn’t all evaporate away, because you don’t want your meat getting stuck to the bottom of the pot and burnt.

Once the meat is thoroughly cooked, remove it from the pot and set it aside to cool down enough that you can handle it.  While you’re waiting, begin working on the sauce.  Add about a quarter cup of cornstarch to the water still in the pot, and whisk until it’s dissolved.  This will help to absorb any fat from the chicken and keep your sauce from separating, and will also help the sauce to thicken up and become creamy.  Add another cup or so of water, and about a half-cup of half-and-half cream.  Your sauce will be quite thin at this point, but that’s okay — it’s going to simmer down during the cooking, and some will be absorbed by the pasta later.

You can also add some spices at this point — a bay leaf or two, some poultry seasoning, garlic powder, rosemary, black pepper, whatever catches your fancy.  Get creative if you wish; an Indian masala spice blend makes a really nice sauce, or you can use some paprika and chili powder to make a spicy, more colourful dish.  Be a little bit conservative when adding spices here — the sauce will thicken up and the flavours will concentrate during cooking, and you don’t want to accidentally over-spice.  It’s easy to add more later, but can be difficult to compensate for having put in too much.  Definitely don’t add any salt until the end, as it’s very easy to over-salt a dish at this point.

Chop up half of a cooking onion, two small (or one large) carrots, a handful of mushrooms, and your chicken breast (remove the bones and discard them).  Use other vegetables if you would like to, but these things make a nice, balanced mix.  Put it all into the pot, return it to a simmer, and let it cook until the veggies have all softened up.

Once everything is thoroughly cooked, you can add your pasta noodles, as well as any soft items (green onions, kale, etc) that only need a few minutes to cook.  Watch the pot and stir things around occasionally to stop the noodles from sticking to the bottom.  Once the noodles are soft, give the sauce a taste to see if it’s spiced well enough for you.  If it all tastes good, it’s ready to eat!

 

Make it Gluten-Free!

This same technique works well for cooking rice (or rice noodles), and so is excellent for people who are trying to go gluten-free.  Using gluten-free pasta or rice in place of the normal pasta noodles makes an easy dish, with none of the gluten or wheat products often found in commercially prepared sauces.

 

Some Other Ideas, and Troubleshooting

You can also do other types of sauce in this same way — try making a tomato sauce by adding half a small can of tomato paste instead of the cream, or try an Asian-inspired sauce with sake or white wine and a tablespoonful of soy sauce — this is especially nice with rice.  You can use other meats in place of the chicken (lean sausage or ground beef works excellently), just avoid fatty cuts as they will make the sauce a bit greasy.

If you find that your sauce is a bit too thin, simmer it a bit longer and/or add a bit more corn starch.  If it’s too thick, just stir in a little more water.

And that’s all there is to it!  A delicious homemade meal, without the big pile of dishes.

Pizza Power! Cheaper than Take-Out in Just About 30 Minutes

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Like my favourite reptilian ninjas (sorry Reptile from Mortal Kombat), I’m a pretty big fan of pizza.  But ordering take-out gets expensive, especially when you want to get experimental with your topping combinations.  And I’ve yet to find a take-out place with crust as good as my dad’s thick crust with cheese baked right into it.  Fortunately, making pizza yourself is almost as easy as calling out for it — and delivery is always guaranteed to be on time.

The real trick to getting amazing homemade pizza every time is finding a crust recipe that you love.  My dad altered a simple french bread recipe to come up with his basic dough, and is always tweaking it in small ways to find new and wonderful flavours.  The recipe I use is a slight variation on his:  mine only makes enough for one pizza, while his makes 3 at a time (which was useful when all us kids were still living at home, and all of us wanted different toppings).  This is a thick-crust pizza dough; to make a thin-crust, it’s better to go with something resembling a pita bread recipe

Making the Dough

Combine 1/3 cup warm water, a teaspoon of sugar, and a packet (2 and a quarter teaspoons) of active dry yeast.  Let this sit for a few minutes while you collect and combine the other ingredients.

In a bowl, mix together 2 cups flour (all-purpose, or half all-purpose and half whole wheat if you want wheat crust), a teaspoon of salt, and any other herbs, spices, etc that you’d like to add for extra flavour.  My standby is just simple Italian herbs, but you can go wild with whatever flavours you like, or even add finely shredded cheese to get that cheese-baked-in-the-crust awesomeness.  Sprinkle your dry mixture with about 2 tbsp of olive oil or vegetable oil, and then add your yeast mixture.  Add more water (or another liquid if you prefer — beer makes an even puffier crust, while milk adds some extra nutrition) until there is no dry flour left.  Knead the dough briefly, then cover and set aside for a few minutes while you chop up your toppings.  This is a good time to get your oven pre-heating; set it to about 425 -450 degrees Fahrenheit.  High temperatures are important for getting a nice, crusty bottom and keeping your pizza from being saggy.

Toppings

For today’s pizza I used some leftover sausage (already cooked; never use raw meat because it’s hard to make sure it cooks all the way through), roasted garlic, fresh tomatoes, green olives, and three kinds of cheese (cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan).  For the sauce I used a simple tomato sauce flavoured with Italian herbs and garlic powder, but you can choose other sauces instead — barbeque sauce is a favourite of mine.  Chop your toppings up into bite-sized pieces and shred your cheese while you wait for the dough to rise; this makes the actual topping application go quite fast.

Once your dough has sat for 5-10 minutes, roll it out to fit your pan.  The dough will be somewhat stretchy, so it will likely spring back a bit: just keep stretching it out until it’s the right size.  Add your toppings, and then into the oven for about 15 minutes, until the crust begins to turn golden.

Let your pizza sit for about 5 minutes before cutting into it.  This allows the cheese to set up a bit, and prevents too much topping-slide.  It also gives you a chance to appreciate the beauty of your creation before you inhale it.

Okay, enough appreciating.  NOM, PIZZA!

Apartment Gardening

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

I’m very much a fan of food gardening.  It’s simple, rewarding, and makes me feel like if the zombie apocalypse were to come tomorrow and I had to flee to the remotest part of the world I could find, I’d still be able to get food.  Flowers are nice (I do have a few mixed in there), but food gardening has something special to it, because you get to use the products of your labours in delicious meals.

This year I don’t actually have a patch of earth to call my own (plus I’m moving at the end of this month, so my garden needs to be somewhat portable).  So I’ve gone the route of potted plants, and so far all is going very well.

I’ve got climbing beans (both yellow and green varieties), cherry tomatoes, hot chili peppers, swiss chard, and mixed greens.  I’ve also got a couple of pots devoted just to herbs: parsley, sage, oregano, chives, basil and thyme.

I’ve had some help from the weather in getting things started:  lots of rain, and mild temperatures.  I also started with a great soil mix:  half organic compost, half black earth, and a little bit of organic fertilizer and bone meal mixed in for good measure.  So everything’s taking root and sprouting up nice and tall.  Some of the flowers seem less happy with the wet and the lack of direct sunlight, but I’m not too concerned — if any of them decide to die on me, I’ll just put a few more in to replace them once the weather gets sunny again.

Gardening in small spaces (or as I’m doing, in pots) can be a bit of a guessing game at first.  You’ll notice at the garden center that most plants have written on the tag a suggested distance for planting them apart from each other — but those are big space requirements.  Tomatoes, for example, are supposed to have 2 feet on every side, and many of the larger herbs (Italian sage and parsley, for example) don’t ask for much less.  Some plants, like beans, are ideally suited to potted life (they only ask for 3 inches on each side), but you have to be careful in which ones you select, because some grow up to 2 meters tall.  Bush beans are a nice option if you can’t get a trellis set up, but they need a bit more space on each side.

Looking at those big space requirements, the question becomes “which of these are hard-and-fast rules, and which can I fudge a little?”  The answer is that most of those space requirements can be reduced by a third to a half with no ill effects, provided that the soil you’re using is of high quality and the plants will be able to get all the food they need out of the smaller patch (the one exception I’ve found being large trailing plants, like squash and zucchini — they’ll just take as much space as they please, and might destroy some other plants in the process if you’ve planted them too near).  My cherry tomato plant is in a 14″ pot, and is happily thriving on much less than the recommended 2 foot distance.  Same goes for my herbs, which I planted together in large pots — the final plants will come out slightly smaller than they would under ideal conditions, but by giving each one about a foot of space I’m ensuring that the competition for resources won’t kill off any of them, and I should still wind up with a good crop of fresh herbs to use in all my cooking this year.

The other big question that comes up with small-space gardening is “what should I leave out?”.  Unless you’ve got a massive backyard to work with, it’s hard to plant everything you’d like to harvest that year.  I’ve given up on zucchini entirely after discovering just how much space it takes up, and the same goes for rhubarb, raspberries, and cucumbers.  You can manage to get those sorts of things in there, if you really desire to have them, but it may mean giving up half your available space in order to do it.  This year I’ve also limited myself to just cherry tomatoes, no full-sized ones (the little ones are my favourites), and I’ve left out the carrots and radishes as well (they don’t take much space width-wise, but they’d need deep pots to thrive).  The herbs are the more important part to me, and so I did make sure I’d have space for all my most-loved ones.  And the hot chili peppers will be great fresh, but can also be dried and stored for use all winter.  The beans and swiss chard will be delicious not only for me, but also for Ziggy, who should enjoy the greater variety of greens that summer brings to his food dish.

Feeding Your Reptiles: Mealworms

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , on March 10, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

One of the main reasons why many people resist the idea of keeping reptiles as pets is the food requirements.  With a cat or dog you can just buy your food at the store or the vet’s office (or if you’re really fussy, cook a special diet for them out of foods that you would probably eat yourself).  With reptiles, though, there are insects and even mice and rats to consider as food items.  These “creepy-crawlies” can definitely be a turn-off to some people, and while there are some vegetarian reptiles out there (Mali Uromastyx are becoming very popular these days), they’re not as easy to find as the more common geckos and beardies — and choosing a pet based on diet really does limit your options.

When things really get difficult is when you start getting more than just one or two reptiles in the house.  With just one baby, it’s easy to hit the pet store once or twice a week to pick up a dozen crickets, and then feed the bugs to your lizard right away so that you don’t need to ever keep them around the house.  When you get more animals, though, those trips can become expensive — and with growing juveniles, gravid females, or other more ravenous critters in the house, you’d need to be going every single day.  And, of course, if you live in a small town or rural area you might not have a convenient pet store to make regular trips to.  So keeping your own colonies of bugs quickly becomes a good option if you’re getting serious about your herps.

Maintaining a good diet for your reptile pets is a bit more work than just operating a can opener — but if you get yourself set up right, it doesn’t have to be difficult.  I’m going to write a few posts about some basic insect setups that are easy to get going and even easier to maintain.

One really common choice (and probably the easiest thing in the world to keep going) is mealworms:  the larval form of the darkling beetle.  They’re high in protein, and for many lizards these are a great staple food — some of the longevity records for leopard geckos have been set by leos fed on a diet of primarily mealworms.  Many types of geckos (including leos and cresties), bearded dragons, chameleons, water dragons, and many other lizards will happily chow down on these little buggies.  Mealworms also make good food for some amphibians, birds, and tarantulas.  They’re even safe for human consumption (I’m told they’re delicious if fried, but have yet to try the experiment myself).  Look up your pet’s specific needs to see whether mealworms are an appropriate food or not — as always, do your research, people!

So Just What Are Mealworms?

As mentioned above, the mealworm is the larval form of the darkling beetle.  Like most beetles, there are several stages in the darkling beetle’s life cycle.  They begin as eggs, which hatch into teeny, tiny little mealworms after about 7-10 days.  The teeny, tiny little mealworms eat and eat until they outgrow their exoskeletons, which they then shed in order to become slightly bigger mealworms.  Whenever a mealworm moults, it will be a creamy white color for a day or two before the new exoskeleton hardens up and becomes the usual brown.  Some people like to select only these white, freshly-moulted mealworms as food for their lizardy-babies, as they’re less crunchy and more easily digested at this point — but it’s definitely not necessary to be so picky.  This process of moulting happens about 10-20 times, until the mealworm is about 2cm (just under an inch) long.  At this point the mealworm will enter its “pupal” stage, a form halfway between a worm and a beetle.  When in the pupal phase, the young darkling beetle is at its most vulnerable.  Like a caterpillar in its cocoon, it won’t move or eat for several days (up to a few weeks, depending on temperature and seasonal conditions).  If prodded it may twitch, but mostly it will just lie there.  After the inner transformation is complete, one final moult will occur, and a new darkling beetle will emerge, ready to eat and mate and create a new generation of lizard food.

Pictured below are several different phases of mealworm development:

Preparing a Mealworm Colony

The most difficult part of setting up your mealworm colony is simply getting your hands on several hundred mealworms to begin with.  Smaller pet stores may not be prepared to sell you 500 or 1000 mealworms on the spot — but they’ll likely be very happy to order them in for you.  Be sure to ask about discounts on bulk purchases like this.  There are also websites where insects can be purchased, such as canadianfeeders.ca — but do be sure to do some careful research before ordering anything online.  Some suppliers feed hormones to their mealworms to prevent them from ever pupating , as a way of ensuring that customers won’t just set up their own colonies.  It’s an underhanded trick, and I myself am definitely uncomfortable with the idea of feeding hormone-doctored bugs to my lizardy babies.

Once you have your starting population, all you need is a container (or preferably two or three) that are large enough for the mealworms to live comfortably.  If they’re living all jammed together there’s a greater likelihood of cannibalism, and waste will build up more quickly.  Your container needs to have a flat bottom and straight sides so that the mealworms can’t climb out, and some ventilation so that they don’t suffocate.  I use a simple plastic drawer unit (pictured below) with two drawers measuring about 16 x 24 x 6cm.  Plastic shoebox or tupperware containers (with air holes drilled in the sides or lid) also work well, but I like the easy access of the drawers.

In addition to a place to live, your mealworms need some food to eat.  Cereal grains (like uncooked oatmeal or bran flakes) are a great option, and they also give the mealworms something to burrow in.  I put a thin layer (less than a cm) of bran flakes on the bottom of each drawer.  There also needs to be a source of water provided, but mealworms can’t drink from a water dish — they’ll drown.  Slices of fruits or vegetables will do the trick, and feeding a variety of healthy vegetable matter to your mealworms has the added benefit of making them a more nutritious meal for your lizards.  If you’re a person like me who cooks with a lot of fresh produce, you can supply most of your mealworms’ needs by simply giving them the cut-off ends of carrots and other veggies that would normally just end up in the compost.

Maintaining Your Mealworms

Like pretty much all living things, mealworms produce waste.  And when they’re living in an enclosed space, that waste builds up over time.  Keep your mealworm colony clean and healthy by removing any dried-out bits of vegetables and fruits (or if something starts to go mouldy, take it out right away).  Also try to remove any dead mealworms or beetles.  And every month or two you’ll want to do a full clean-out of the container, to get rid of as much worm poop and other debris as possible (this is where having two separate drawers comes in handy).  How I handle the big cleaning operation is to move everything into a single drawer.  I then wash and dry the empty drawer.  Then I pick out any live beetles and mealworms, and move them to the fresh drawer.  Because the eggs can’t be seen, you can’t just throw out the rest:  sift it through a fine mesh strainer.  Keep whatever goes through the strainer in the second drawer (separate from the more grown-up beetles and worms), and throw out the bits of vegetable matter and cast-off exoskeletons that get caught up in the mesh.  Toss in some new grains and fresh veggie slices for the buggies to nom on, and you’re good to go again.

Occasionally it may be necessary to buy some new mealworms to “top up” your colony, if the population gets too low.  Keep an eye on things and if you see that your lizards are consuming mealworms faster than the colony is producing them, try to increase your population.  You can also start another colony if this seems to be happening far too often for your liking:  maintaining several colonies at once means that you can harvest from one and leave the other one alone to replenish itself for a time, and then switch over when the first colony starts to get a bit depleted.

Watch for some other insects that may decide to infest your mealworm colony, such as grain moths and grain mites.  Grain moths aren’t a huge concern (except that they’re a bit of a pest to have around the house, because they’ll get into your cereal and pasta and rice if it’s not kept in air-tight containers).  Grain mites are more of a problem, as they’ll multiply rapidly and make a mess of your colony.  If you notice that you’re getting non-mealworm bugs in your colony, give things a good cleaning out and consider putting a screen top on the containers to protect the colonies from further infestation.

Feeding the Lizards

Mealworms should be dusted with mineral and vitamin supplements (according to your lizard’s specific needs) before feeding.  In most cases, a calcium supplement is the most important.  Phosphorous and vitamin D3 are also commonly important ones.  Do your research and determine what is necessary for your specific animals, because mealworms alone are not an ideal diet.

You can also mix mealworms with other feeders, such as crickets, waxworms, butterworms, roaches, silkworms, superworms, hornworms, etc.  It’s not totally necessary (as long as you are supplementing properly), but a varied diet makes it easier to be sure that your reptiles are getting exactly what they need.

Potential Hazards and Concerns

While mealworms are generally a good feeder and don’t really pose many problems, there are a couple of concerns when using them as a major feeder for your reptiles.  One is the hard exoskeletons, which may cause a risk of impaction if your lizard is eating a lot of them.  It’s extremely rare that this will happen, but impaction (which can happen for a variety of reasons) is a leading cause of death in captive lizards.  For this reason you should always be aware of how often your lizard is eating and pooping, and watch for any abnormal behaviours.  If your lizard stops eating, stops pooping, or starts behaving strangely, you may have an impacted animal.  Check for dark or swollen places on the belly, and if you’re not sure, see a qualified reptile vet.

To avoid any risk of impaction, you can try to feed mostly freshly moulted mealworms (the white squishy ones).  As I said above, though, it’s a very small risk.

Another concern with mealworms is that with lizards who don’t chew their food before swallowing (sometimes an issue with bearded dragons, for example), the mealworms may bite on the way down, causing internal injuries.  There’s some debate as to how much of a threat this really is (some highly respected reptile specialists scoff at the idea), but if you are noticing that your reptile tends to swallow its mealworms whole and this is a concern to you, you can either a) switch to feeding larger prey items that will require chewing, or b) kill the mealworms before feeding them to your pet.  Be aware that some animals won’t take to eating pre-killed foods, so the first option is sometimes the only one.  Larger prey items may include crickets, silkworms, superworms, hornworms or roaches.