Sunday, November 22, 2009

Broken dormancy

A few days ago I went down into the root cellar and saw tiny spikes of carrot stem sticking up out of the damp sand. This November has been so mild my cellar hasn't been able to maintain the near-freezing temps needed to keep carrots in dormancy. So, I had a choice: do nothing and risk having most of my carrots turn to mush before I could use them, or process them to keep them from spoiling. I decided to process them.

Then, I had another choice: canning or freezing. Since my family prefers the taste of canned carrots, and since freezer space is definitely at a premium these days, I chose to can. Hubby spent a good chunk of the day Friday cleaning and chopping carrots while I was at work. Saturday morning the canning began in earnest. A visiting brother-in-law (thanks Nate!) was even roped in to help.

The canning continued off and on during the day, interspersed with a trip to town, playing with monkeys, a hot hotseat Civilization III game on the computer, and meal preparation. I finally put the pressure canner to rest at 2 am. I was determined to get it all done, and I did.

So, now we have 22 quarts and ten pints of canned carrots. And I now have the wisdom to keep my carrots in the ground until late fall, when the temperature in my root cellar is cold enough to stop carrot stems from growing up through the sand. Another lesson learned.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Running with scissors

Number Two Son found a scissors the other day. I should have known something was up when he was quiet for longer than fifteen minutes upstairs. He came downstairs, smiling a mile wide, with his hands over his forehead.

My brother and sister-in-law, who were visiting, saw his new 'do and burst out laughing. Half of his bangs were missing. He kept smiling until his Dad and I told him we were going to have to shave the rest of his hair off his head. Then he wasn't so sure.

Half an hour later I found him crying upstairs. He didn't want his head shaved. I said we had to, so it wouldn't look silly when he went to school. I told him his hair would grow out again, eventually. When? he said. By Christmas, I said. He said he didn't want to go to school until Christmas.

We took him to the barber, and he got a haircut. Not shaved, but definitely shorter. He's fine with it, and is okay with going to school on Monday.

He says he will never cut his hair again. We'll see about that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dead chicken walking

Chicken butchering day is quickly approaching. If I have time to do it this weekend, I'll do it. Otherwise, it may have to wait until after Thanksgiving.

Before the dog attack this summer, we were planning to butcher about twenty chickens. After the attack, that number was reduced significantly. Right now I have seven roosters and eleven hens. If I want to hatch my own eggs next spring, I'll need to keep two roosters. Three, to be on the safe side. So that means four roosters have got to go.

I've made my choices. On the poultry equivalent of death row are:

My buff orpington rooster.

My three newer Ameracauna (Easter egger) roosters.

Those roosters spared from the chopping block are:

My old broken-toe Ameracauna rooster. He's over three years old now, and his meat would probably be too tough to eat. Besides, he's proven himself a survivor, he and the two remaining older hens. And he's not aggressive at all toward people, as some roosters become.

My brown leghorn rooster. Being a leghorn, there wouldn't be much meat on him anyway. And I think he's purdy.

Lastly, my salmon faverolle roo. He wins a spot on the living list because after the dog attack, when my injured hen (also a salmon faverolle) was hiding in the coop recovering from her injuries, he stayed with her and kept her company. Yeah, I'm a big softy. Not a softy enough to let all the chickens live, of course.

I'm a little nervous about the whole butchering experience. I've done it on another person's farm, with other people's help, but never here by myself. Hubby will be helping, of course. Hubby will do the actual deed, and I'll do the hot water dunk. Hubby will pull off the feathers, and I'll do the gutting. It's all very straight forward. I've got everything planned. I've done it before, and I know I can do it this time.

But I'm still nervous.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

All things apple

Over the past few weeks, 90% of my food preservation efforts have revolved around apples. I'm not complaining, mind you. I am very happy to have more apples than I know what to do with. We've canned sliced apples, dried apple rings, made apple cider and baked apple pie. Last night hubby helped me core and quarter another peck of apples in order to make apple jelly.

I cooked the apple quarters until they were soft, and then mashed and strained them through several layers of cheesecloth. Number three son helped smoosh the apple bits around in the strainer.

The juice was cooked, and then sugar was added.

The juice and sugar mixture was brought to a boil, then simmered for twenty minutes. I added a bit of cinnamon to give it an apple pie flavor, then poured the jelly into jars. Five minutes in a hot water bath, and I had eight half-pints of apple jelly.

I also made applesauce several days ago. Virtually the same process, only you don't use cheesecloth when you strain it. Just use a regular colander. Some recipes say to put the apple mush through a food mill. To me, that seems like a lot of extra work, especially since I really don't like using food mills. Just strain it through a large-holed colander, which will catch most of the bits of skin.

Cook the applesauce on the stove until you reach the consistency you desire. Add honey or sugar if you want a sweetened sauce.

One large stockpot full of apples made six quarts of sauce. These quarts will be added to the large supply of applesauce I made, and we haven't finished up yet, from last fall. We have applesauce with meals sometimes, but mostly I use the sauce in little tupperware cups for my kids' school lunches.

Even after all of these apple endeavors, I still have a couple of sacks of apples still in my root cellar. They have some blemishes, so my kids will look askance if I hand them one to eat fresh. I will have to be more creative, I think, in order to use them up. Maybe some apple chutney? Frozen apple cake? Apple cider vinegar?

Any suggestions from you folks out there? Just make sure it doesn't involve the use of a food mill ...

I don't like poetry

For the most part, this is true. To me most poems are, well, too uppity. Too full of themselves. Too elitist. Give me a good paragraph, short story, novel anytime over a poem.

I think I got off on the wrong foot with poetry. I blame Penny Swanum's eleventh grade creative writing class. I took it because I loved to write stories. It didn't occur to me that she would make us write poetry too.

She did. All the other kids wrote poems about serious, meaningful stuff. Stuff about their teenage angst-filled lives.

I wrote poems about how much I hated poetry.

To give Ms. Swanum credit, she didn't frown on my writings. In fact, she critiqued my poems just like she critiqued everyone elses. Which, in some ways, made me even more disgruntled.

Anyway. As I said before, I think I got off on the wrong foot with poetry. I find myself, every once in awhile, more frequently as the years go by, reading a poem I like. Maybe all this time, all this time I've been disliking poetry, I just haven't been reading the right stuff. Somehow, I've been missing out on all the really good poetry.

Like a poem my blogging/cow forum friend Liz shared recently. It goes like this.


She Dreamed of Cows
by Norah Pollard

I knew a woman who washed her hair and bathed
her body and put on the nightgown she'd worn
as a bride and lay down with a .38 in her right hand.
Before she did the thing, she went over her life.
She started at the beginning and recalled everything—
all the shame, sorrow, regret and loss.
This took her a long time into the night
and a long time crying out in rage and grief and disbelief—
until sleep captured her and bore her down.

She dreamed of a green pasture and a green oak tree.
She dreamed of cows. She dreamed she stood
under the tree and the brown and white cows
came slowly up from the pond and stood near her.
Some butted her gently and they licked her bare arms
with their great coarse drooling tongues. Their eyes, wet as
shining water, regarded her. They came closer and began to
press their warm flanks against her, and as they pressed
an almost unendurable joy came over her and
lifted her like a warm wind and she could fly.
She flew over the tree and she flew over the field and
she flew with the cows.

When the woman woke, she rose and went to the mirror.
She looked a long time at her living self.
Then she went down to the kitchen which the sun had made all
yellow, and she made tea. She drank it at the table, slowly,
all the while touching her arms where the cows had licked.

"She Dreamed of Cows" by Norah Pollard, from Death & Rapture in the Animal Kingdom. © Antrim House, 2009.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Capsule of life

I dig seeds. Not only my own garden seeds, but seeds from wild, uncultivated plants. I am entranced by them. Each little seed is a tiny capsule of life waiting to grow. It can lay dormant for months, years, decades even. Then one day, given the right amount of warmth and water, it suddenly becomes alive. To me, that is truly amazing.

On one of my recent walks through the park, I looked for seeds. At this time of year, they are easy to spot.

Some plants use animals to spread their seed to new areas. Of these, some grow fruit that animals eat (and then poop). I did manage to see a few hardy fruit on my walk -- rosehips still red on the stem, and tiny hard grapes wrinkled on the vine.

Other plants grow burrs that will stick into an animal's fur. Plants like burdock, cocklebur and foxtail grass all do this. Burdock grows abundantly in my yard, especially near the chicken coop. Woe betide the person who wears a knitted sweater while visiting my chickens.

Many plants have adapted their seeds to be spread by wind. It seems many prairie plants have this characteristic, which makes sense given how windy it is on the prairie.

The seeds of the maple tree, with their insect wings that catch the wind.

Seeds from the ash tree, which 'helicopter' when they fall.

A fuzzy mass of cattail seeds.

Milkweed seeds, each one attached to thin strands of silk that float away in the breeze.

Well, that's my park naturalist program for the day. Hope you enjoyed it!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sippin' cider

Today was a good day. Late in the morning we gathered the troops and piled into the car, heading south along the lake road to my friend's house to pick more apples. We picked about three bushels worth of dimpled, less-than-perfect fruit and then headed back north along the lake road to Big Stone Apple Ranch, the sole remaining apple orchard in operation along Big Stone Lake.

When we moved here eleven years ago, there were three orchards on the lake. One orchard became neglected over time and eventually closed a few years ago. Another orchard owner decided to mow down all his beautiful apple trees and turn his land into an RV resort. So, now there's just one orchard left. And the owner is a wonderful lady who gave two hours of her time this afternoon (and two free bushels of apples) to help us press cider.

Here's Bette, the orchard owner, showing us the ins and outs of the cider press. My boys are staring at the lovely cider coming out of the spout below.

I am holding a electrical drill-like turner-thing (official lingo) that is hooked up to the apple chopper-upper (more lingo). The boys are feeding apples into the chopper, which spits the pieces into a wooden bucket below. The bucket is lined with a heavy-duty mesh cloth bag.

Here is the chopper-upper thing. It makes quick work of whole apples.

After the wooden bucket gets full, the lid is put over top and the screw press gets turned. The boys all wanted to help turn the press.

Graham couldn't quite turn the crank all the way around.

Look at the beautiful cider pouring out. My youngest said at one point, 'it's peeing apple juice.' Undetered by the imagery, we all dipped in a cup to get a taste of freshly pressed cider, right from the press. The scent alone was heavenly. The taste was beyond heavenly.

From five bushels of apples we got about twelve gallons of cider. We poured most of it into jugs and bags and put it into the freezer. We put a pitcher of cider in our fridge, but it's being drunk so quickly I doubt it will last til morning. Even as I write, I am sitting at the computer desk with a mug of cider at my side.

Actually, it is empty. I'd better stop writing and go get myself some more.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Two thumbs up

Two nights ago I had the opportunity to see a screening of the movie Fresh. The Land Stewardship Project of Minnesota sponsored the showing. We were treated to locally made apple cider (just pressed that afternoon from Big Stone Apple Ranch) and locally grown popcorn. If you think there are too many 'locally grown's in that last sentence, I say to you -- there can never be too many 'locally grown's in any sentence about food!

Okay, me watching 'Fresh' is like the Pope watching a movie about how great Catholicism is. Preaching to the choir, as they say. But I still enjoyed it tremendously. I'm not great at putting thoughts into words, and when people ask me why local food is important, I usually blabber a lot about 'sustainability' and 'carbon footprint' and 'industrial agriculture.' Those terms may mean things to some people, but not to everybody.

But you can't watch this movie and not understand. This movie shows you why our food system is so screwed up right now. It doesn't go into the gritty grisly details like Food Inc. does (another good movie that I've yet to see). It is more hopeful, and more motivational. It will leave you feeling empowered to try to do something, to go out and find ways to feed yourself and your family in a more healthy (for you, for the environment, and for society) way.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lost thyme

Foolish me. I thought that I could bring in a few of my potted outside plants and set them next to a window for the winter. I have two pots of rosemary, one hollyhock awaiting a nice fall day for transplant, and one pot of thyme.

Our cats have decided that the pot of thyme is a most excellent place to curl up and view the outside world. I suppose the flanking rosemary plants make it seem even more inviting. I must admit the cats are very cute while curled up in the pot; however, my thyme is taking a beating. Although, I'm not sure I could keep the cats out even if I tried. They are most insistent. Hmm.

I've got it -- caltrops. I'll have to find some caltrops to put in the pot. Either that, or plant some cacti in with the herbs.