Monday, March 30, 2009


Noodles and Grandnoodles

Every month or so I make up a batch of homemade egg noodles. I started doing this when we first got chickens, and I had to find new ways of using up the dozens of eggs building up in my fridge. It's pretty easy, especially if you have a pasta machine -- one of those things that will roll the dough flat and slice it into even strips. It'd be a lot harder without one of those.

The boys like to help. They like feeding the wedges of dough into the machine and turning the hand crank. They like laying the sheets of flat rolled dough onto the table to dry, and then re-feeding them into the machine to be cut. They like tossing the cut noodles with flour and then packing them into freezer bags. They especially like eating the noodles at dinner-time with a little butter and grated cheese.

My husband has memories of making homemade noodles with his grandmother in Zumbrota, Minnesota. Hearing him talk makes me wish I had more memories like that of my grandparents. It also makes me all the more fervent in creating memories with my sons. And when I have grandkids, I'll make noodles with them.

Am I thinking too far ahead? Maybe. But I hear grandkids are all the fun of kids without all the work. I like that idea. When my boys get married they're getting monthly mailings of Vitamin C supplements. I will have grandchildren.

Next time I make noodles I think I'll bring out the dehydrator and see if I can dry them instead of freeze them. When you put the noodles in the freezer they tend to lump together, and you end up with a mixture of noodles and gnocchi. Besides, freezer space is at a premium these days with our pork, beef and bread. And veges, and ice cream, and chicken ...

I've been told that my version of 'easy' and other people's version of 'easy' are very different from one another. Yeah, okay, that may be true. But what's also true is I am one of the laziest people on the planet, and if I can do it, anyone can do it. And having three little noodley boys to help makes it all the 'easier.' Besides, you're not just making noodles, you're making memories.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hey -- I just thought of something.

I just realized it's been a year since I started this blog thing. Boy, what a difference a year can make, aye? Last year at this time I was pretty miserable (not reflected in most of my posts), having just gone through a bad time with family sicknesses, stress and winter blahs. I started the blog in part to find a release for some of all that, a kind of creative therapy.

This winter hasn't been nearly so miserable. Maybe the therapy worked. Or maybe reading everyone's comments, a way of keeping in touch with friends and family members hundreds of miles away, has helped. Whatever the case, I feel better and life is generally pretty darn good these days. Especially considering what lots of other people are having to go through, with job losses, loved ones overseas, flooding, etc. We have a home, we have an income, we have good health, and we have each other.

So I am grateful, thankful, and joyful. I close my eyes and breathe deep, smiling to the heavens above. Spring is almost here, and life is good.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

21 days and counting

My lovely niece let me borrow her incubator this year. Three days ago I plugged it in and got the temperature ready. Two days ago I put in seven eggs, and yesterday I added another six. Today I'll add some more, and again tomorrow. And hopefully, by the middle of April, we should start seeing a few little fuzzballs hatching out.

This is the first time I've used an incubator. I'm not sure what to expect. Some people have great luck, some people only get a 20% hatch rate. If I had the electric fan and automatic turner attachments, I think I'd get a better hatch. But I don't, so I'm planning for the lower rate. Which is why I'm putting so many eggs in there to begin with.

I have to turn the eggs twice a day. One side of each egg has an X, the other an O. Before work and before bed I open the lid of the incubator and gently turn the eggs. If the water level looks low, I add some. Then I quickly put the lid back down before the temp drops too much.

I also ordered some chicks from McMurray this morning. I guess the chick-selling business is going gang-busters this year. Which is good, in terms of people wanting to raise more of their own food. But it is also bad, because the earliest I could get my chicks mailed to me was June 8th. They're sold out of everything before then.

In a week or two I'll set up the brooder pen in the basement. I use a kiddie pool filled with wood shavings surrounded by chicken wire. Add a brooding lamp, waterer, feeder and you're ready to go.

Twenty-one days and counting...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sweet rewards

Well, it's started. This morning I built a fire in the outdoor stove, set the pans over top and poured a bunch of sap into the pans. It took about an hour for the sap to start boiling, but it's going now. Every half hour I go out to stoke the fire and check on the sap level.

In the picture above the middle pan has started to boil, while the outer pans are still just steaming. This is going to take a long time to boil down. More experienced folk have told me it's okay to boil two days -- to let the sap/syrup sit overnight in a cool spot, to start boiling again the next day. That's probably what I'll end up doing.

I began tapping trees a week ago, when the temps were warm during the day but still freezing overnight. I ordered some supplies online, and also scavanged some buckets from local bakeries. I have both the traditional tapping setup and a more modern (plastic) setup. Both seem to be working great.

I tapped boxelder trees, and also an amur maple. Twenty-four trees total. I've collected about forty gallons of sap so far. With the boxelder sap to syrup ratio of about fifty to one, that means just under one gallon of finished syrup. My friend Kathy came out on Friday and took some sap home to boil down on her stove. She let it simmer overnight and says it tastes fantastic. Check out her blog (Resettling Big Stone County) from the 'Links I Like' margin on the left.

Today a group of girl scouts are coming out to check out the operation. Half the fun is doing a project like this to show yourself you can do it: the other fun half is sharing the project with others to show them that THEY can do it. And the rewards are, literally, so very sweet.

A good use for our local newspaper

I was in a library in Mankato the other day for a meeting. Over lunch break I broused through the periodicals section, found a magazine on organic gardening, and had a quick read. I found an article on seed tapes -- strips of paper with seeds attached that make planting a garden a little bit easier. I decided to try it out.

I cut strips of newspaper, made a thick flour & water paste, and then dabbed blobs of paste three inches apart along the paper. Graham and Benjamin helped put one bean seed on each blob. Let the strips dry overnight, and wala! Come spring I just have to rake away the top inch of soil in my garden bed, lay these tapes out, and cover them up with dirt.

I tried these tapes with pea seeds too. The peas didn't stick very well. I think the flour & water paste tapes work best with smooth-sided seeds.

I also made some carrot and rutabaga strips, using a different method. Lay out a strip of toilet paper, dampen it with a spray or two of water, and then carefully place the tiny seeds evenly spaced along the paper. Fold the paper over the seeds and spray again to make the paper stick together. Roll the tape up around a rolling pin and slide it off onto a rack to dry.

I'll let you know how the planting, and growing goes with these tapes. Anything that makes garden work easier is a winner in my book.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Looking for a few good loaves

I have a love-hate relationship with homemade bread. I love the idea of making it --fresh, tasty bread made with organic, local ingredients at a fraction of the cost of storebought. What's not to love about that? What I hate is the fact I can't make a good loaf to save my life. Or, rather, to save $3 per loaf at the store.

When I first started baking bread a few years ago, I had no idea how difficult it was to make good bread. There's so few ingredients, how hard could it be? Just mix some flour, sugar, yeast and water together in the right amounts, knead it a bit, bake it and voila - bread. Right? Wrong.

My first attempts were with a bread machine. The machine cost $40, and I figured that if I made at least twenty loaves of bread with it, I'd come out ahead of buying bread at the store. Of course, it broke after just eight loaves. I returned that machine to the store and got another one. That one broke after four loaves. I returned that one and gave up on machines altogether.

Several months passed. Then I borrowed my brother's Williams & Sonoma bread book and tried their wheat bread recipe. The picture in the book made it look sooo good. I'm a sucker for a cookbook with good pictures. The bread I baked looked good and had a nice flavor, but it was too dry. It crumbled when you squished it together in a sandwich. It made fantastic french toast, though. But since my family eats about 500 times more sandwiches than french toast in any given year, it wasn't going to work. Back to storebought.

But now I have found new hope. A friend brought a loaf of his homemade bread to a meeting I attended. It was amazingly soft and moocho good. A few days later I got the recipe, and made up a batch. Six loaves at a time, two weeks' worth of bread in one baking. Simon helped with the stirring, and the monkeys helped with the kneading and shaping. Here are our results:

Before the final rise.

After the final rise, just before baking.

Fresh from the oven.

I forgot to rotate the loaves during cooking, so some got more brown than others. But they still look great, if I do say so myself. It's hard to wait til they're done cooling before pulling out a knife and cutting off a slice. Butter melts so nicely spread over a warm slice of bread.

The bread tastes great. And so far it has passed the sandwich test - peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch this afternoon. The final test will be a roast beef sandwich for my husband. I really hope it passes. There's nothing that can match the smell of fresh baked bread drifting throughout the house. I want to turn this love-hate into all love.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pancakes for a lifetime

Tomorrow the high is forecast at 31 degrees. Saturday, 41 degrees. And by Monday we'll be in the 50's. Unless mother nature is cruel (which she can be), this might be the last of the deep snow for the season. And maybe the last of the sub-zero temperatures. Winter might be finally losing its grip over the land. I'm hesitant to even say the 'S' word, for fear of drawing the attention of the weather gods. But I'm thinking it.

And I'm thinking that on Sunday afternoon, in the midst of the thawing ice and snow, I will be walking around the park dragging a sled carrying a hand drill, a bunch of spiles and some metal buckets. I've never tapped trees before, and I've never actually watched it being done, but you can learn a lot from the internet and by talking to a few knowledgeable folks. I'll be tapping boxelder trees, otherwise known as ash-leaf maples.

This first syruping season will be a test drive. I've got all the supplies I need, and have even built the outdoor boiling stove (see below). I'm still not sure if it should be two or three blocks high. We'll see what works on the first boiling day. The grill surface (aka old livestock panel - thanks Liz!) is leaning up against the garage. All that's left to do is haul a bunch of firewood and start collecting sap.

My cousin tells me the sweetest sound of early spring is the ping-ping-ping she hears when the first sap starts dripping into the empty metal buckets. I'm looking forward to the experience. If things go really well, we might end up with a gallon or two of pure maple syrup. But I'll be happy with a lot less.

Give a woman a cup of syrup and she eats pancakes for a day; teach a woman to tap trees and boil her own syrup, and she eats pancakes for a lifetime.


Tuesday we had another blizzard. Another one of those sounds-looks-feels-tastes-like a blizzard but only brings six inches of snow. Yet with the ferocious winds that came with it, those six inches turned into drifts nearly three feet high. Thankfully our homestead comes complete with a living windbreak, likely planted when the house was built in 1912. Homesteaders back then knew the value of a good windbreak. And as windbreaks go, our grove is superb. Only, the wind breaks a sharp right and dumps everything at the end of the drive.

One of our neighbors drove by while we were shoveling and took pity. Just after hubby had come inside and begun to peel off snow-crusted layers, we hear a loud rumbling from outside. Our neighbor has brought over his tractor and is making quick work of the high drifts to either side of the drive. My husband goes out to greet and thank him. "You should have called your neighbors," Mr. Melcher says. "That's what they're for." He's right, of course. Old urban habits die hard. Tomorrow I must remember to stop by his house with some eggs and homemade jam.

Our neighbor took time to proudly explain how his snow-blower tractor attachment was built. Mr. Melcher bought it from an old machinist by the name of Hanson working in Graceville, Minnesota. The blowing unit came from an old combine, the part of the combine that blows the chaff out the back. The turning power comes from a rear driveshaft from an old Ford truck. The two augers were hand made, and the whole thing was welded and bolted together. And - get this - it was built in 1973. That's 36 years ago. And it's still running like a charm. Ingenuity and skill like that just boggles my brain.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Candid camera

I decided to download the photos from our digital camera today. That's when I found out someone had gotten a hold of the camera yesterday. Whenever Benjimouse has grabbed something he knows he shouldn't have (like candy or video games), he runs under the table and tries to hide. So now I have a lot of pictures of what the world looks like from under the kitchen table.

I think I have a burgeoning artist on my hands.