Monday, February 23, 2009

The Golden Girls

I like having a flock of chickens that looks like a handful of trail mix. The Black Sex Links are the raisins; the Rhode Island Reds are spanish peanuts. The black and white speckles of the Barred Rocks can be toasted coconut, and the the varied browns of the Brown Leghorn/Amerucana crosses and our Golden Wyandotte are the chocolates, seeds, and oats. We've got Coach, the little bantam Buff Cochin rooster, as a little golden raisin, but I've been thinking we needed some more golden girls.

Running errands today, we stopped in at the Feed Store for bags of scratch and laying crumbles. Guess what - it's chick time already! They had three stock tanks full of cheeping little babies. The white leghorns were already fully feathered out - almost big enough to be outside. Only the tiny, little balls-of-fluff bantams were straight-run (meaning who knows how many roosters you'll get). All the rest were hens. So I picked out two Buff Orpingtons and two Red Sex Links, then spent the afternoon setting up chick-central in the dog crate in the spare room.

They are the quietest bunch I've ever had! They've already got their wing feathers, and I think they'll be warm enough without a light. Right now, they're snuggled together in a little chickpile, and not making a peep. What sweet, mellow little girls!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Not For Amateurs

Aries grew up in a home heated with wood, up at Lake Tahoe. When he was eight, he was considered old enough to go out with his dad and grandfather cutting wood. When he was twelve, he was big enough to hold a chainsaw to cut downed trees into sections, his grandfather helping pick the saw up each time afterwards. By sixteen, they let him start felling trees. He knows what he's doing, and he likes it when he gets the chance to play with a chainsaw.

Last month, he had the chance to help out a couple friends of mine. We live just above the valley floor. Our native vegetation is desert chaparral - sagebrush and other shrubby plants. But the hills rise steeply just west of us, and the change in altitude is just enough that tall conifers thrive. My friends live just a couple of miles away, up a canyon, but it's enough to be a completely different environment.

One friend had some pines infected with some kind of root fungus. In order to save the surrounding trees, the infected ones were marked to be cut down. She doesn't burn wood, but her next door neighbor, another friend, has a wood stove and she needs the wood. So we headed up to do a bit of woodcutting (well, ok, Aries does the cutting - I'm there in case of emergency and as laborer after the tree is down).

He cut two then, and left one dead, broken, leaning one as too unsafe to cut - that one will have to be chained up and pulled with a tractor enough to drop. When we went back later to cut the last two, I remembered to bring my camera. For the first tree that day, the only place to drop it was right down the driveway towards the house. In the top photo (click on any photo to see better), I've got my back to the house, standing right about where the top of the tree should land. Next photo, you can see the tree bounced a bit left when it hit, but overall it pretty much went where it should. Of course, we then had to get it out of her driveway - Aries cutting, I dragging limbs away to slash piles, rolling cut sections over to another pile.

Then on to the last tree - probably the tallest one Aries had ever cut (Aries is 6'4" for scale). For this photo, I'm standing between the house and garage, a low wall in front of me - the tree would more than reach to where I'm standing. Aries wants the tree to fall to the left, and is just starting the throat cut on that side. There's no wind, the tree is growing straight on level ground, it's symmetrically shaped - it should be no problem, and then we're done for the day. Wrong!

The throat cut lined up perfectly, Aries moves over to the other side. I usually watch for the top of the tree start to sway. But this time I'm zoomed in, watching him through the camera lens, thinking I'll snap an action photo when it starts to fall. Suddenly, he raises his right arm out straight, pointing the opposite direction, signalling to me this tree is breaking backwards. I lower the camera, watching him back away with the saw, still pointing, and start backing up. Open-mouthed, I watch as the tree spins more than 180º on its stump, and then falls away to the right. Amazingly, it landed completely in the clear - just not at all where it was supposed to.

Aires said he felt the saw suddenly go dull in the last couple seconds of cutting. Upon examination, he found wire inside the tree on the side where it spun instead of breaking. It turns out the previous owner, decades ago, had run an electric fence by just nailing the insulators to the trees. This tree, growing quickly next to the leach field, had engulfed the wire so he'd just cut the wire, leaving nail, insulator, and wire hidden inside. We were so lucky the tree didn't fall towards the house, didn't hang up in any of the surrounding trees, and Aries wasn't hurt.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The February Cellar

I went shopping in my cellar again yesterday evening. The temperature is stabilized nicely about 43F (6C). There were still a few tomatoes but they're either really soft or hard and completely tasteless so I tossed all of what was left to the chickens. We'll eat canned or dried tomatoes now until probably July. I won't buy tomatoes in the store - talk about tasteless!

I brought up more apples. Some are getting softer and the peels getting tougher, but since they were free for the gleaning last fall I really can't complain. They're certainly not to the make-applesauce stage yet.

That's the last of the cabbage. Quite a bit of the outer wrappers had gone mushy, but two still had a small edible head inside. I'm still looking for a variety specifically for storage that will grow to size in our short, hot summer. No matter, I've still got sauerkraut - crunchy-good since it's never been canned - some in the refrigerator, some still keeping nicely in a crock in the cellar.

Plenty of potatoes - I grow both Yukon Gold for boiling/frying and Russet for baking/roasting in chunks. The yellow Copra onions are still looking good - I'm hoping I'll have enough down there to last me until the walking onions are up in the garden (and I do still have plenty of shallots in the pantry).

"Bring me up some beer, honey!" Aries called out as I was heading down the steps. So I grabbed a couple of small bottles of Nut Brown Ale and a big bottle of Belgian Red for sweet husband (he was out there filling up the wood box for me, after all). Then, he was on his own for dinner. A friend was hosting a Girls Night Out at her house - potluck and games. I took my Salmon Dip - always a crowd-pleaser - and my ancient Trivial Pursuit game. We had a great time!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

First Crocus Blooms

Look what was outside my window, after last night's snow had melted away - Spring's first crocus, cheerily opening up protected from marauding chickens by the wire laid down over the herb bed. After things had dried out a bit more this afternoon, the dog and I got out for a walk in the sun.

Thursday, February 19, was also my scheduled day to write for the Simple Green Frugal Co-op blog, so I spent the morning getting that together and online. I say it "was" my day, because the blog was originally set up in Australia and this morning was already tomorrow there. I found it frustrating at first, trying to time my postings correctly, until I found this colorful little real-time website. The Sun Clock option is pretty cool too. Anyway, after thinking about the recent wildfires in Australia I thought I'd write about preparing to evacuate in an emergency wildfire situation. We've gotten that dreaded knock on our door twice, had to leave once, and watched a few more times as flames covered our hillsides. So I do know a bit about the numb brainlock that can strike at such a time, and why it's best to have things written out and prepared ahead of time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Building Community

We went to a little neighborhood gathering this evening, from an interesting source. Ours is a little group of only about 20 homes, hemmed in by highways on two sides, steep hills rising up to government land on a third, and mostly undeveloped space over a ridge to the Indian Colony on the fourth side. It's a semi-rural area of small homes spread out on large lots, zoned for horses and other small farm use.

Urban sprawl has sent commercial development creeping along the highway frontage over time. As the older neighbors die or move away, developers have started eying the large lots up for sale with designs on multiplying their investment by breaking up the lots into smaller sections. The lack of infrastructure has been a stopping point for some - there is no sewer system here, and it was only in the last two years that city water lines have been laid.

Of course, we all noticed when a new house started going up on an empty parcel just down the street. Then, a couple of weeks ago we received notice that the builders of that house are now petitioning the Planning Commission for permission to cluster seven more homes there - concentrating them in a much higher density than the norm because so much of the property is too steep to build on. So they invited the neighbors to an Open House tonight - a chance to show us what they want to do, let us ask questions, and to address any of our concerns.

I really appreciated the gesture. It was a marked contrast to the outrageously high-density project across the street from us. In that case, the developers snuck around the neighborhood, asking who wanted to sell out and telling all to keep their talks a secret. Of course, that only worked for the first one to sell - once everyone else started comparing stories we all agreed those developers weren't to be trusted. Our distrust was well-founded. We had a lot of unresolved issues with that project, voiced them to the Planning Commission, and the zoning change was denied. But those developers made some backroom deals with the City, went over the heads of the Planning Commissioners and got their plans approved, ignoring the concerns of everyone else in the neighborhood.

That was two years ago. But then, the housing market tanked, they have yet to break ground, and their permit expires later this year. I really hope they've gone bust, the lying snakes. And this past election, one of the incumbent City Council members that approved the project got ousted. Instant Karma - don't you just love it! I have a couple of issues with these latest plans, so will be at the Planning Meeting next week. But I do think it was a nice thing for these developers to do, and it made for a nice chance to visit with the neighbors too.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Just Do Something, Anything

It's been cold, cloudy, wet, and windy for more than a week now. We really need the moisture, I know, but I miss the sun. It's been cold in the house when I get up in the morning, and even though I get a fire going right away it still takes quite a while to warm the house up without the sun shining in the east window. Even the dog shivers curled up on his pillow - maybe I'll cut up an old sweatshirt to make him a sweater.

I've been filling the bird feeders daily. The finches and sparrows sway in the wind on the hanging feeders, the quail cluster underneath (and the occasional guinea too). There's been just enough snow nightly and then melting each day that the streets can be slick without looking like they are. We call it black ice - it can really get your heartrate up when you hit a patch of it driving, and makes walking a challenge on our hilly streets. But we've got lots of sand and sagebrush in our neighborhood, where traction is better and falling less likely. During a break between snow showers, I bundled up and got out for a walk with the dog. I've got my own little incentive system - stickers for my kitchen calendar - so that earned me a gold star.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stop Procrastinating

I keep meaning to write, and then life happens and I get busy doing something else. By the time I get back to the computer, I end up (obsessively) checking email or reading others' blogs or many of the other ways I can just waste time online. The February blahs have struck - it's so cold and windy I don't want to go outside. Lethargy is such a vicious circle. It seems I'm only doing things to meet deadlines, and none of the things that bring me joy.

So just to get myself back on track, I'm posting these little tips to myself. I've got to stop this ennui, before it slides into depression.

Stop trying to be perfect Fear of failure, or even of success, can be one of my biggest paralyzers.

Don't get overwhelmed I'm really good at seeing the big picture. Problem is, sometimes my vision is so big that I need to stop and focus on just one little bite-size piece to get myself started.

Resist temptation I love the Internet and the connectivity with others it brings. But all too often I'll end up checking email or surfing blogs as a procrastination technique. I've got to fight that tendency, even if it means turning off the computer.

Reward yourself I frustrate myself, resisting joy because I haven't finished the things I keep telling myself need to get done first. Now that's just plain crazy!

Ok. That whole rant was just for me. Do something, do anything! At least it's a start.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Making Fruit Leathers

After reading my post about making Pumpkin Pie Leather, Annette asked if I had any more leather recipes. I usually just blend raw fruit, cored or pitted, into a puree. Even mushy, over-ripe fruit makes good leather, as long as any bruised parts are removed. I peel apples and pears, but leave peels on the stone fruits. You can also make leather out of cooked fruit puree, such as applesauce, adding other fruit purees to change the flavor.

For leathers, 1½ cups puree makes one 9" x 13" leather. You want a texture thin enough to pour out and spread out evenly ⅛ - ¼ inch thick. Too thin, and it tends to stick to the drying surface. Too thick and it might spoil before drying. Uneven spreading, such as thin corners and thick in the middle leads to brittle corners and a center that might be too moist to store. Add a bit of juice or water to thin too-thick purees; you might have to cook a too-thin one down a bit, or add a bit of a thicker type of fruit.

I like the sweet-tart flavor of plain fruit leathers, but a couple teaspoons of lemon juice to 1½ cups puree can brighten up both color and flavor, or an added bit of honey will make it sweeter. Use a light hand (say, ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon:1½ cup puree) if adding any spices, as the drying process concentrates and heightens flavors. If using a rimmed cookie sheet, coating the surface with a very thin film of oil or non-stick spray can make it easier to remove the finished leather. If using plastic wrap, tape the corners down so they don't blow onto the drying puree (leathers stick to waxed paper and foil, so don't use them. Edit added later: I now have a couple of silicone non-stick mats cut to fit my dehydrator screens - even better as they're reusable). Leathers dried until sticky to the touch, but that can be peeled off the surface, are ready to eat, but will only store for a few months. Leathers flipped over and dried until no longer sticky store indefinitely in a cool, dark place, when packaged to exclude moisture and pests.

I use a combination of drying and refrigerated oil-storage to make tomato paste, and have played around with dehydrating salsa to reconstitute when camping. For those looking for something a bit more exotic, here are a few leather recipes from "Food Drying at Home the Natural Way" by Bee Beyer. Written in 1976, it has almost 200 pages of tips and recipes for making and using all kinds of dehydrated foods. The book is no longer in print, but I see has used copies listed for shipping costs plus a penny, so you might want to check into adding it to your home library. For the following recipes, puree ingredients together in a blender in order given, spread out and dry. Makes leathers approximately 9" x 13".

Banana-Peanut Butter Leather (1 leather)
2 large bananas
¼ cup crunchy peanut butter
(the fat in the peanut butter means this leather will only store for a few weeks in a cupboard; six months to a year if frozen)

Cranberry Orange Leather (1 leather)
¾ cup fresh cranberries
1 orange, peeled and white fibers removed
1 very ripe banana
honey, to taste (optional)

Strawberry Rhubarb Leather (2 leathers)
1¼ cups fresh strawberry puree
1¼ cups fresh raw rhubarb puree
honey to taste

Watermelon-Fruit Leather (2 leathers)
1 cup diced seeded watermelon
1 cup diced banana
1 cup diced fresh pineapple (or canned drained unsweetened pineapple)
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Tropical Combo (2 leathers)
1 cup diced strawberries
1 cup diced banana
1 cup diced pineapple
2 tablespoons lemon juice
honey to taste
Optional: sprinkle cinnamon, nutmeg, or shredded unsweetened coconut over puree on trays before drying

Hot Tomato Leather (1 leather)
1¼ cups tomato puree
up to 1 teaspoon chopped fresh hot pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh onion
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon chopped bell pepper over puree on tray before drying.
If dried to pliable, bendable stage, this can be eaten as a leather; if dried to brittle, breakable stage it can be powered and used as a flavoring.

I like eating leathers "as-is", for snacking around the house or to carry with me hiking. If made on plastic wrap, they can be stored rolled up, wrap and all. If then cut into 1" rounds, kids will eat them up just like the fruit roll-ups from the store, but you control the amount of sugar (adding ripe bananas to any leather is an easy way to increase sweetness without sugar). You can dissolve pieces of leather in water and use over ice cream or stir into yoghurt. These recipes are just a start. Get creative and invent your own!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pumpkin Pie Leather

This time of year, my home-grown fresh-food options are things that store well. Apples, potatoes, beets, winter radishes, and carrots are in the cellar. Garlic, onions, and shallots hang in the pantry. Leeks and kale are still out in the garden. Seeds store well. Last year I let a few Daikon radishes and cole plants go to seed - sprouted, they add a tasty zing to winter meals. But we have one more fresh foods storage spot here at Firesign Farm.

Winter squash, cured in the fall out in the dark garage, spend the winter in crates in the corner of our bedroom. The cellar is too cold for squash, the pantry too warm. But with our only heat the wood stove in the living room, this far corner of the bedroom is perfect. I grow a few different types of winter squash. The difference in sizes and tastes allows for variety in our winter meals. The smaller butternuts are nice microwaved and mashed like sweet potatoes. The acorn types are good baked and stuffed. But then there are the bigger squash. They store the best, lasting until May or June, so there's no hurry to use them. They're so big that once I cook one, we're eating it for days. I try to cook one big squash every week or two. The bumpy Hopi are new - I'm still playing with them. I usually use the pink banana squash for any recipe calling for pumpkin, but last summer a friend gave me a couple of pumpkin plants so this year I have pumpkins to play with too.

To cook a big squash, I split it in half and remove the seeds - saving some to plant, the rest to soak in salt water and then roast. Some have peels so hard I have to beat an old knife through with a hammer. I put the pieces, cavity-side down, in a roasting pan with an inch of water added and bake at 375º for an hour or until the skin can be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Once cool enough to handle, I scrape out the flesh and mash to use in a number of different recipes. The pumpkins aren't cooking pumpkins - they're the jack-o-lantern type - so once cooked, are more watery than the Hopi or banana squash. So I glop the mashed pumpkin into a colander set into a bowl and put that in the refrigerator to drain. Harry Potter and the Hogwarts kids are right - pumpkin juice really is quite tasty! It also adds a nice layer of flavor to beef stew.

Pie, custard, muffins, pasta, soup - there are lots of winter dishes I cook with mashed squash, and if I have to I can always freeze it too. But since I just wrote about dehydrating fruits and vegetables for my turn posting at the Simple Green Frugal Co-op I thought I'd share one of my favorite treats to make now, easy to store for later (pumpkin pie leather in the big jar, peach unrolled on the left, plum on the right).

Pumpkin Pie Leather (makes 4 9"x13" leathers)

2 eggs
4 cups cooked, mashed squash or pumpkin (or 1 one-pound can)
⅓ cup honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 can evaporated milk (or 1 c dry milk + 1½ c water)

Put into blender in order given, blend well. Spray rimmed cookie sheets with a thin film of non-stick spray, or line dehydrator trays with plastic wrap or parchment paper (edit added later: or even better, a silicone non-stick mat cut to fit -nice because it's reusuable) held down with a bit of tape on the corners. Spread mixture uniformly ⅛ to ¼ inch thick on prepared trays. Dry 8-10 hours at 115º, or until leather will pull away from the tray. Roll up and store in a cool, dark, dry place. Will keep indefinitely.