May 2011


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.

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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.

By now, you have probably guessed that I’m a bit of a non-electric gadget girl. One of my favorite things is my steam juicer. Mine is a Mehu Liisa. I have been following a thread about it over at Sustainable Country (check it out if you don’t already belong there). The only drawback is the size. This is a seriously big pot. One of the things that I wish I had done differently when I rebuilt this kitchen was to put in a wall cabinet just for the big stuff like the grain grinder, the two juicers, the dehydrator and the canners. As it is now, I have to cart these monstrosities up and down the cellar stairs every time I want to use them. It’s really inconvenient. In the Apocalypse, I will be mighty happy to toss out the vacuum cleaner and convert the broom closet to more storage space. I’d actually be happy to toss it now but the notion of beating the beating the living room carper really doesn’t appeal to me.

The juicer has three parts; a food container that is like a big strainer, a solid center pan that collects the juice and a smaller bottom pot that holds the water. There’s a spigot in the bottom pot that allows you drain the juice without taking the whole thing apart.

You can do so much with this thing. You can juice any fruit or vegetable. The steam goes up and the juice comes down. I have juiced apples, grapes, berries, and carrots. It’s great for elderberries. You don’t have to peel or stem or anything. It does work better to chop large things like apples into smaller chunks. I drain the juice right into a hot, sterile mason jar and put a lit on it. It keeps for months with no other processing. The juice will also make a fine jelly or wine base. What’s left is a pulp that can be tossed to the chickens or into the compost in some cases. In other cases the pulp is just as useful. With apples, I run the pulp through the food mill, add a bit of apple juice back into it and can it up for delicious apple sauce. With tomatoes, I do the same thing. You get a very thick sauce that doesn’t need to be boiled further. I do process the sauce in a boiling water bath. You can even add the onions and peppers to the steamer. The juice comes out like a pale, pink water. I can this too and use it for stock. It make a very nice soup base.

The steamer can also be used for cooking chicken. You get fall-off-the-bone tender meat and lot of broth. Add the broth and some salt to the meat and pressure can it. You will still have several cans of broth to can as well. This is how I plan to do up the 20 chickens I have coming from the farm up the road. I love anything that uses no electricity and leaves no waste.

I wanted to give a quick family update. We have a system of one night on for cooking and clean-up and one night off. it’s really working out well although I will admit to having some trouble adjusting to just getting up from the table and doing nothing beyond putting my own plate in the dishwasher. Ben is working on splitting the wood and Maggie and I are planning a trip to the LDS cannery in Worcester. Ben and Maggie are Mormon and are totally on-board with growing, storing and preserving food. While our religious traditions are different, we share similar values. Each of us respects the others.

I had a very nice experience last night. My husband has not been feeling well. A little bird must have spread the word because, I looked out the window to see that my son had been joined at the woodpile by our dear friends, Frank and Stephen Philbrick. They split up a huge pile of wood. Frank and Stephen are the authors of The Backyard Lumberjack. If you want a glimpse into life in Cummington, read this book. It’s a wonderful resource for anybody who heats with wood but it also contains beautifully written anecdotes about the people and places I hold so dear. Frank and my son, Nathan have been best friends since they were toddlers and Charlie, Frank’s younger brother, is my son, Ben’s, best friend. Stephen is our pastor as well as dear friend and his wife, Connie Talbot, is an extraordinary potter and a dear friend as well. In the words of Alice from the Creamery: Life is good and blessings are abundant.

I have received many wishes for a Happy Mother’s Day and I had one. I heard from all of my kids and several visited. I also went to church and heard an inspiring sermon on the origins of the day. It turns out the holiday was not created to enrich the coffers of Hallmark but rather to support the cause of peace after the Civil War. It was started by a woman so devastated by the loss of her son that she banded with other mothers to pursue peace. Peace is still illusive but I have asked that this be the last year I receive purchased cards or gifts. I am asking that my kids either make me something, grow something or donate to a charity that promotes peace. I still want a recognition of the day, just not one that involves a monetary outlay.

I spent the yesterday building a new compost pile. I am determined to do it right this time. I know the fundamentals but I never seem to do it right. The pile keeps shrinking and I keep adding to it, never removing any finished compost. I want this compost to sit and cook for the summer and hope to actually use it next spring. I have put an old kitchen garbage can on the back porch. As the inside compost bucket fills up I bring it out there. When that’s filled, I will haul it out to be another layer for the pile. I started the pile with a layer of downed and dried sticks and branches, then added a layer of the sod we pulled from the lawn when we put the blueberries in. Next I added layers of rotting hay and the kitchen compostables. and covered it all with a layer of last year’s leaves. I have an old tarp to cover it with. I have very little kitchen waste as the chickens get most of the food scraps.

We got the blackberries pulled up. They were deadly, with huge thorns. I had put them way too close to the neighbor’s clothesline. We’re growing a hedge of elderberries to separate the two properties. We may head out to the nursery to pick up a few more. We also need to replace two trees that didn’t mae it through the winter. Bruce is determined to have peach trees but I think it’s a mistake. We’re a bit too close to the river and often get a late frost. I think it makes more sense to swap with my neighbor for peaches and to concentrate on what grows well, predictably and with little effort.

I got a third greenhouse! A friend had gotten one on Craig’s List a couple of years ago and has decided that it was an ill-advised purchase. I’m getting it for a song, still in the box. I’m not sure It will get up this year but I don’t mind storing it until I have the time to put it up or until Ben and Maggie need it. It sure is nice having the extra help with some of our heavier chores. Ben dug up a blueberry bush and got it moved so the summer kitchen and greenhouse can go in. Maggie and I are going to organize all of my canning supplies before the coming glut of food.

I may regret this but I am really wanting to take some courses. UMass is offering a 12 credit Sustainable Food Program. It can be taken entirely on-line or in a combination of on-line and campus based classes. I actually love classes. I even love writing papers but I also know myself. Perhaps I should say that I know my life. I don’t want to commit to this and then find myself resenting the time away from the real work of raising and preserving food and teaching others to do the same. Still, this feels like a last hurrah time. If I don’t do it now, then when? I’m not getting any younger and the time is coming when knowing this stuff may spell the difference between comfort and want for my family and community. I get a little wistful when I realize just much others know and how much time I wasted learning drivel. Trigonometry for instance. I spent a year of my life suffering through those classes and emerged with nothing but a bruised ego for my life energy. Never understood it. Don’t care. Wish I had taken the woodworking classes that were not offered to girls or college preps students in those days.

The sun is shining. I know I should write a motivating and enlightening post here but the garden is waiting for me. I need to get out and survey the damage to the asparagus spears. We had a frost last night and I didn’t cover them up. I hope they aren’t all wilted and pitiful looking. I have to go to work today. I don’t often mention that I work one day a week for DCF, coordinating the program that provides to foster parents providing care to children with special needs. It gives me a chance to dress in something other than jeans and T-shirts, to talk about things other than gardens and doom, and to have a window into what people not consumed with these things are talking and worrying about. It pretty interesting. I really like my job but I would way rather go when it’s raining out. We have so little sun; I hate waste it inside.

I must start by telling you that Bruce went to a house auction this week. He had some hope of picking up a true wreck of an old house for song, then doing the rehab and letting our son have it. It would have been a good opportunity to teach Ben some useful skills and might have been a good investment for us all. However, we lost the bid to the bank. We did walk out with a much better insight into how the housing crisis unfolded as the auction made it possible to see just how many lenders had a piece of what was a very small pie. It was just about impossible to figure out who owed what to whom. Now the house will be placed in the hands of an agent and sold on the open market. My guess is that it will sit empty for a very long time.

I had my first milk pick-up from my raw milk co-op. Think mozzarella, ricotta and cream; we had pizza last night and tonight it’s stuffed pasta. Maggie made a fabulous pizza crust, my least favorite part of pizza making. Sharing the cooking is going to be lovely. It’s so much less intense with two of us working.

The ramps are past but the asparagus has just emerged and I found my first peas too. The greens are nearly ready to harvest. In fact, I think I may have enough to add to the stuffed mannicotti. I found a good stand of fiddleheads and nettles. These little finds may not seem like a big deal but I get so much pleasure, not just from the find but from knowing about these things, what they are and how they’re useful.

Maxine asked a very good question about protecting my berries from winged thieves. We built raised beds for all of the berry patches. Bruce will build frames so that we can attach Remay and have a bird proof enclosure. I use Remay on the strawberries too but I hold it down with metal u-spikes. The look rather like big hair pins. We don’t used netting as it is too easy for small birds to get tangled in and then they die a horrible death. I would rather lose the berries than have that happen. We have tried just draping covers but the wind blows them around and away. This is one of those places where more work up front in building frames pays off in a more efficient system. We will build the frames so they can be disassembled for storage. If we’re careful, we should get several years out of them. Just be sure that you don’t cover your berries before the bees get at them for pollination.

Tonight is our sustainability meeting. My good friend, Sara, is giving a talk on medicinal herbs and I going to take Maggie with me. I see the coltsfoot is blooming and the first dandelions are up. I want to know so much more about these useful plants. I never see dandelions as a weed. Like so many plants, they are gifts from Gaia if we take the time to learn the secrets

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