May 2011


I wanted to add a picture of our grape arbor. We had purchased the end piece several years ago. When we decided to add grapes, Bruce built the additions to match. It’s worked out really well. The grapes seem happy and I should get a good harvest. I use the fruit of course but I also use the leaves in pickles to help keep them crisp. The greenhouse picture is the first of many. It isn’t a big greenhouse but it keeps us in salad greens for a good part of the winter. It gives us space to keep seedlings and provides a lovely place to sit in the warmth in the dead of winter. I added the backyard picture because I love it. This place was not much of a much when we bought it. We’ve spent years of labor and all the money we could have dropped on new cars and vacations for the upgrades and we don’t believe we were too frugal.

My friend the dairy farmer found herself with 3 gallons of milk she had to use up. I traded granola and jelly and now have a big block of cheese draining in the kitchen. I think this cheese making could get to be an obsession.

The garden is in and we’re hoping for rain in the morning. It’s been like August around here, hot and dry and sticky. Loathsome and uncomfortable weather but better than the cold and wet we complained about a week ago. We’ve been buried in asparagus and tomorrow may be a pickling day. I’m not a fan of frozen asparagus and I already have a lot dried so this seems like a plan.

What are you all up to. I love reading the blogs and getting inspired to try new things so share, PLEASE!

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I’m so excited to be able to add photos, courtesy of my DIL, Maggie. Figuring out how to post a caption is, of course, another matter all together.

This may be one of my most important posts ever.

In the coming hard times, I think a lot of us wil be stepping out of our comfort zones. We will be doing things we never thought we would have to do, learning skills and passing them along to others. When I started making hard cheese, I read all the books, watched a few videos and even took a short class on the subject. Then I got the actual milk and had to begin. I could pass on the steps I took but honestly, you can look up that information as easily as I can. Here’s what the books will not often mention. People have been making cheese for thousands of years. They made it without store bought cultures and without any equipment except what they could cobble together from what was on hand. As I was working on my cheddar I found myself agitating over every step, getting upset when the temperature strayed outside of the perscribed parameters or when the humidity was higher than expected. There was a pungeant smell I hadn’t heard about. it was so hot and humid that the cheese was not drying a quickly as I hopped. After getting a bit frazzled, I took a deep breath and calmed myself. I got creative. I turned my dehydrator on to its lowest setting, maybe 80 degrees, and let the cheese dry in there. I’ll wax it tomorrow. I posted a question about rodent control and was told to set the wheel on top of a 1/2 gallon mason jar. The mice can’t reach it. There was a slight mold forming but it wiped right off with some vinegar. The cheese looks funny. I didn’t have a disk that was the right size so the top is lumpy. I didn’t pack it in tight enough and there are a few divits in it. It won’t win a prize in any contest worth its salt. I very nearly didn’t post the pictures because I was a little embarrased but then I got real. We won’t be perfect. We may not even be very good, at least right away. But we’ll be good enough.

I hope you enjoy the slide show. It displays my lumpy cheese, the gorgeous dandelion jelly, my cheese press and a picture of us putting in a fence to keep the woodchucks out of the lower garden. It doesn’t show the satifaction of a job well done. It can’t show the pride I feel when I learn, at almost 59, to hang a fence or create a jar of fabulous jelly, one that people pay actual money for. My cheddar may look odd, but I can’t wait to serve it to my friends and family. Don’t let yourself get so intimidated by the process that you never take the plunge. There is much to learn. Messing up is part of the deal.

My cheese press was delivered Wednesday night (thanks Sheri). It came along with a huge hunk of cheese wax so I’m good to go for making hard cheese. I do want to share my experience with getting it set up.

First, I must say that the instructions were fine. The problem was me. I was in such a hurry to play with it that I didn’t take the time to read carefully. As the saying goes, “Measure twice”. Fortunately, there were no saws involved.

I assembled my tools and looked over the directions. Okay.” Looked over” might be a bit strong. Glance at might better describe it. In went the screws but it just didn’t look right. I couldn’t see how the cheese basket (not included-I just happened to have one) was going to accept the plunger without some major modification to the design. Of course, what needed modifying was my angle. I realized my mistake, took it apart and reassembled it properly. Only after it was all screwed together did I see that the plunger had to be inserted prior to assembly. I took it apart again, breaking one of the screws and stripping others and then discovering that the opening wasn’t large enough to hold the drill and that I wasn’t strong enough to screw it together by hand. Bruce took a 10 second look, unscrewed and removed one piece so the drill would fit, got it screwed together right and replaced the first piece in one minute flat. A job that should have taken about 15 minutes ate up a good hour or so and caused me to say some very bad words. (under my breath and out of earshot of my wee one who can’t tolerate cussing).

Now it was cheese time. Again, reading the directions for me is optional. Only after the milk was heating and the whole thing set up did I do the math on the timing. Because I didn’t do the timing part first I would have to turn the cheese at 3:00AM. I thought about setting the alarm but decided that an extra two hours in the press was unlikely to hurt anything and just got up and turned the cheese at 5:00.

Stupid thing number three. There was a lot of whey. Gallons actually. A bright person would have frozen it. I decided to make a whey ricotta. The last thing I needed was a huge mess and this made a huge mess right when I was concentrating on weights and timing and such. It was such an unnecessary distraction and I just ended up frustrated and overwhelmed. The volume of ricotta never lives up to expectations in my experience.

So there you have it. The cheese looks good. It comes out of the press this evening, sits for a few days to develope a rind, then gets waxed and goes to the root cellar to ripen. I won’t ever be a cheese company but at least I know that I can preserve milk during the summer glut and get to enjoy it during the hungry winter months.

There is a lesson here, at least for me. I’m mighty glad I went through this process while the lights were on and I had the benefit of an electric screwdriver. I’m glad that I wasn’t trying to figure out the basics when I was cold or hungry or otherwise stressed. I had the luxury of time to mess up, figure it out and move on. I’m afraid that an awful lot of people have things stored “just in case”, things they have never used or tried out. This includes, not just tools and equipment but also food and even relationships. I’m as guilty as the next person of believing that I’ll figure it out if I need to. I have the directions for making soap and builing a cob oven but I’ve never actually done either. (kits don’t count). How do I know I can make a barter system work if I don’t barter now. Am I really sure how that cheese powder will work if it remains in it’s mylar bag? The electric bike looks good but will I really be able to get my groceries home while riding it?

I’ll be posting some picture later (all right. Maggie will be posting pictures later) of my green house and my grape arbor. Both are really productive but took years to get figured out and become productive. The time to do is now.

Every now and again the news on many fronts will get so bad that I am inclined to go shopping; not for chocolate or alcohol as might seem wise but for tangibles. This week was a big one, shopping wise. I got a bottle corker and a big bag of corks and I should have my cheese press and cheese wax delivered tonight. With all the great milk available, the cheese press seemed like a wise investment. I had chees wax but my DH used it to cover the mushroom plugs he put in last week. I doubled this order. It’s reusable if used on cheese but what’s used on logs is not recoverable.

I finally got some quality time in the garden as it stopped raining for a bit. I found we have about 50 little grape bunches. That’s really good production for only about 10-12 feet of three-year-old vine. We don’t have time to put any more in this year but more will be on the list for next year. Bruce built the arbor himself and it’s a bit time consuming.

We had some disappointing news about the third greenhouse. We went to pick it up yesterday and found it was not one with rigid sides but rather with a thick poly sheeting. That won’t work here. The wind would have it in shreds in one season so we had to pass on it. That’s probably just as well as time is getting short and whe have a lot of other huge projects looming. I will throw out a word of warning. The greenhouse would have been a bargain had it been rigid panels but the woman who bought it from Craigslist got taken. She belived the original price listed and it was a lie. If you’re buying something you know nothing about do some research or take along an expert. There is no protection when buying second hand. Caveat emporum. We may all be doing more second hand shopping in the future. Ask a lot of question and don’t be afraid to do a good inspection.

The sun is shinning this morning. it’s so beautiful. I had forgotton what a lift it gives to wake up to something besides drizzle. The garde will need to dry out a bit before I can get in to plant anything.

I have not had a chance to go through all of the comments. I haven’t neglected them but I’m preparing for teaching another adoption/foster care class and that takes up a lot of time. I’ll get to them later today.

Great and busy. I hit my first tag sales of the year and got a couple of things I was pretty happy with. I found a beautiful, brand-new wooden train with multi-colored shaped blocks on each car, a heavy metal wine rack, a 50′s pyrex baking pan with a glass lid and a bunch of really nice glass jars with metal bales. I plan to fill the jars with dried fruit or tea mixtures and give them out as Christmas gifts. The train will be a gift for my grandson. I got a couple of other little things; a gorgeous fruit bowl for $.50 and some books and DVDs. While I was out, I also picked up a corker for my wine making and a bag of 80 corks.

One of my best finds was a copy of Into The Forest. I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have long wanted to read this book. It’s not your typical doomer porn. There are no MZB’s, no hero who knows how to do everything, no amazing find of a room full of food and preps. There is not even a big event or any real resolution. The reader never even really knows what happened. Still, it’s an amazing read.

I spent the rest of the weekend planting potatoes (nothing like a good doomer novel to put one in the mood to grow potatoes), setting out tomatoes and broccoli and getting a good start on my herb bed. I harvested a big bunch of rhurbarb too. The thing is that I’m not a big fan of the stuff. I still have a few quarts left from last year. I also had about a gallon of frozen raspberries to use up before the new crops is ready. I decided to cut up the rhurbarb and simmer it with the raspberries and a couple of jars of last year’s applesauce and some sugar. After putting the whole mess through a strainer, I boiled it down some more and now it’s in the Excalibur. By morning, I’ll have a nice fruit leather.

Anybody stopping by would be forgiven for wondering just what I have in the jar on my counter. I save all of the chicken eggs, bake them, then crush them into a powder. I add all of my leftover vege water and use the rather disgusting mess to water my plants. I hate to waste anything.

This is a bit of a misnomer. I have an herb garden but it’s for both medicinals and culinary herbs. Someday, I’ll probably separate them but for now, one is enough. I made a huge mistake last year and stuck some strawberries in my herb garden. Those little buggers spread like crazy and I spent a week digging them up and giving a way and transplanting hundreds of plants. I still have to pull up the occasional hanger-on but I have, for the most part a clean slate again. I have already gotten a lot of starts in the greenhouse but I need to do a run to the Hadley Garden Center. They have a good herbal section. I plan to go with my trusty guide (I’m bring Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal) as I’m no expert at this stuff. I should probably just bring my friend, Sara, who is. She’s been helping me figure out what I need right along.

The asparagus is doing great. We have been spreading seed on the empty end of this bed for a few years and it’s finally filled in. I’m not harvesting those plants. I’m hoping that leaving these long, skinny stalks alone will send the nourishment to the roots and give me heathy, edible stalks in a couple of years. The rest of the bed is giving me a harvest every day or two. We’ve been eating fresh but I want to preserve some too. I have tried freezing it with so-so results. I steam blanched some and froze it in food saver vacuum bags and got edible results but the bags are not reusable so I have decided to dehydrate all of my excess. I did a batch yesterday. I cut off the heads, then chopped the stalks into rounds, steamed blenched them and dehydrated at 125 degrees. In this wet it took 10 hours to get them crispy. I then powdered the stems and vacuum sealed the the whole thing. A big mess of asparagus dried down to a about 1/4 a cup. I popped this in a jelly jar and vacuum sealed it. I will rehydrate the asparagus in hot chicken broth and simmer with some cream added at the last minute. This will taste mighty good in January.

Nettle is next on the list to dry. I love nettle soup. Bruce just brought me home a new pair of garden gloves. I’m planning to put together a little sack with my snippers and gloves and digging trowel and hanging it by the door so I can do a grab and go when the mood strikes.

I have no illusions that the greens and gathered food will feed me during a time when the supermarkets are closed but I do believe that the healing herbs and the tasty, gathered greens can add variety and nutrition to an otherwise bland diet. You can live on rice and beans and canned peas but why would you when there are such great, free and abundant options out there.

I just read that another dancing star has headed home. I’m serious. This is on my aol home page and passes for news. The floods, the fires, the relentless march of the Asian Long-horned beetle, the rain that is threatening this year’s fruit crop, all take a back seat to the REAL NEWS. Charlie Sheen, the love child of yet another hypocritical politician; I just get weary sometimes. Our planet will never get her own reality TV show but, trust me, she’s the star in this particular, not-made-for-TV movie.

Let’s talk clothing. I’m on the hunt for clothes. Ben and Maggie are transitioning from Western college students to Northeastern farmers and they need clothes. I’m on the lookout for boots, outerwear, Carharts and flannel shirts as well as work jeans and gloves. My first stop is always the thrift shop, followed by tag sales and the 3rd and final markdown racks. I’ve noticed that the kind of clothing we most want is almost never on sale. That’s because it’s timeless and has actual value. Every once in a while, a store will go out of business and you might come up with a great deal but not often enough to matter.

None of what I want can be easily home-made, at least not by me. It makes sence to lay in a supply. Who knows what prices and availability will look next year. I know there are some mail order places that offer some good prices. So let’s throw out that question. Who has sources for good quality outer and work wear?

Here’s a list of things I want:

Muck boots. I love muck boots. They come in three heights. I can live without the mid-calf but I consider the other two must-haves. I get mine at Florence Hardwear. As I need 6 pair, I’m wondering if I can get them in bulk.
Wool caps. I can sometimes find these at Acme Surplus. I need actual wool, not synthetic. The Army/Navy surplus store is a good bet but the one I frequented closed and I need to find another.
Leather Gloves: You can’t have too many.
Rain poncho. I put those cheap, packages rain ponchos in the same category as a tube tent. They are a complete waste of time. They have the durability of paper napkin. Get a good poncho or slicker.
Flannel shirts. Layers are our friend. Avoid the Wal-mart weight garbage that passes for flannel and get a 6.0 if you can find it. I have gotten a couple from the LLBean overstock catalog. The color was hideous but the quality was good.
Canvas pants. The Carhart brand cost a bundle but Bruce has never worn out a pair and that’s saying something.
Long underwear. Cotton does not wick. It gets wet and stays wet. A sporting goods store will have the wonder fabrics that are light weight. Don’t put them in the dryer. They will last longer and hold their shape better if you hand wash and dry.
Socks. You need wool and you need quality. You also need a darning egg and needle and wool thread. I darn socks. If done right, they remain comfortable and you can get enough use out of them to justify the price. If your feet aren’t comfortable, it’s miserable to walk or work.
sneakers. I like the 3 pair system. One good pair for going out in public without people handing you quarters, one pair that still has life for banging around in and a pair that can get splattered with paint. As each pair gets more worn, it is moved to the next catagory down and a new pair for public wear is purchased. I don’t buy sneakers often but when I do, I spend the money to get good ones and I make sure they fit.
Coats. I often have good luck getting decent ski coats at tag sales as they have a fashion and people who ski want to look good. As I could care less about looking current, they’re silliness is my great coat. I like the system coats with layers that zip together. You get three coats for the price of one.
Vests. I wear a lot of vests. Get a good down and layer it with long underwear and a wool, chamois or flannel shirt and you’re good to go for much of the year. I have pattern for a vest that is really simple.
Jeans. Hit the thrift shop first. People get rid of perfectly good, nicely broken in jeans all the time. I rarely pay more than a couple of bucks for jeans. Or you could pay $100.00 for pre-ripped designer jeans. You could also stab yourself with a pen but really, what’s the point.
While you’re looking over your wardrobe, make sure you have a couple of packages of sewing needles, lots of heavy duty thread, good scissors and patching material so you can make repairs.

I’m going out on a limb here. In answer to the question about canning chocolate sauce: I’m thinking that the addition of so much sugar renders this much like jam and it could be treated as such. I will add that I have not canned it, have not seen a recipe for canning it but have also never heard that it’s dangerous to can it. How’s that for covering my bases???

My post is late today as I got up to find I had a small window between rain drops. A quick trip to the orchard, the green house, the chicken coop and the bees produced enough spinich, mushrooms, leeks, asparagus and eggs for a stellar fritta.

I have pictures! They will have to do today. I have a keynote address to present tonight and I have yet to write it.

I am not a mushroom expert. There are only a few species that I know and like well enough to harvest and consume. Morels are at the top of the list. Like a lot of edibles, they have a season and now is it. I have been thinking about taking a walk in some of the habitat I know they like to see if I could find enough for a meal but I’ve been pretty busy and my foaraging partner is out of town. Well, last night Bruce came up from the bee enclose with one in his hand and asked if it was a morel They are very disticntive, looking like deformed brains on a stick (bet that discription makes you want to run right out a get a few for dinner). I scooted down to bee enclure to find a FABULOUS patch, right in my own backyard. There are plenty for dinner for 5. I plan to make a butter/wine/cream sauce for them and serve them over some fresh pasta. Add aspargus and it’s a meal fit for royalty.

The morels would have been plenty for one day but I had one other nice surprise. It’s dandelion season and, as my foraging partner is also my winemaking partner, I wanted to find something else to do with them. I have had the blossoms as a fritter but I leave fritter making to an expert. I decided to come up with a jelly recipe. A little searching uncovered several. I did some mixing and matching and the result is the best jelly I ever had. It’s a beautiful, clear, true yellow. I had a bit on a spoon with some peanut butter and it elevates the most simple of foods to the sublime. I want to try some with chocolate cake. I can also imagine it with some pepper flakes and cream cheese. The best use might just be slathered with melted butter on a scone.

There was nothing to it. The hardes part was pulling off enough petals to fill a one quart measure. Maggie and I did that together and the conversation made for a pleasant 1/2 hour. I then boiled the petals in 2 quarts of water for about 10 minutes. I strained the mixture twice through a layer of cheese clost and let it cool for a bit before adding the juice of a lemon. I added a box of pectin (way out of date I might add but it worked just fine), brought three cups of dandelion broth to a boil, added 5 cups of sugar and boiled that for another minute and a half, skimmed it, ladled it into 1/2 pint jars and water bathed it for 10 minutes. I may not have needed to do the water bath but I will be selling some of this and I need to be sure the seals will hold. I had 2 cups of dandelion broth left over so I added a cup of orange juice to make three cups and made a second batch of jelly. Next time I might add some dried pepper to the jelly to make a pepper jelly to serve with cheese.

My fruit trees are in blossom. It’s early and I’m just hoping that we don’t get hit by a late frost. It looks like we might get an actual fruit harvest if the weather holds but it’s New England and a late frost is always a possiblity.

This has been a good spring in many ways. We have been spared the ferocious heat of last spring and we’ve had some sun and some rain. I am likely to be fooled into planting too early and getting caught by a late frost so I made a decision and bought several packages of Wall O’Waters. These are enclosures that you fill with water and set in the spot where tender plants will go. The sun heats the water and creates a small, free-standing greenhouse. It stays in place all summer and is removed and stored, then reused the following year. With a good patch kit I expect to get many years of good use out of them. That said, I kind of wish I had just stored milk jugs. The benefit of the WOW is that it can stay on the plant for the whole season and will protect much larger plants than the lowly milk jug. The downside is the cost; $3.00 a piece versus free from friends and neighbors. We get our milk in Mason jars so no jugs here. Climate instability is going to challenge us all in figuring out how to cope with too much and too little, either in terms of heat or rain or wind. Maybe I’m taking it too personally. Farmers have always had to contend with fickle weather but it does feel good to have something concrete to blame.

I was reading a piece about the fall in the price of housing. There was much discussion about the billions in lost equity for home owners. I have a problem with this line of thinking as it is only concerned with paper profits. I could sell my house today and triple the price I paid for it. That’s a paper profit. But my house also gives me the space for growing food, a sewing room and a workshop for Bruce. It shelters my children and is keeping them taking on debt to fund a place to live. The kitchen is not just beautiful but functional. I can cook and preserve and store bulk food for a rainy day. My home is a lot more than a paper investment. Yesterday, I had one friend stop by to pick up strawberries and arrange to have Bruce drive her to the train station so she could go home for her dad’s funeral. Another friend stopped by with a bucket of parsnips. She left with some fiddlehead plants. She lives off-grid and I had copied a recipe for Mozzarella cheese that doesn’t use a microwave. Maggie stacked the wood that the Philbrick men had helped us split. Bruce and I worked in the garden and napped on the deck. It was my turn to cook. I made up mashed potatoes from the root cellar and carmelized the parsnips according Sal’s recipe. Maggie played the guitar and sang for us. Ben ran up to a neighbor’s farm to help repair some fence lines. Phoebe ran over to play with the little girls next door. Bruce walked over to Tom’s to pay for some grain he had picked up. There was nothing special about the day but everything wonderful. Our cultural problems can find their roots in putting a monetary value on everything and turning our lives into consumer defined spreadsheets of profit and loss. I hope the great change coming will change that first.

Potatoes are going in today. I am so anxious for new potatoes. One of life’s profound pleasures is the first potato of the summer. It’s right up there with the first asparagus and the first tomato sandwich.

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