Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Temperatures Dropping, Cider Bottled

Snow storms have been coming through off and on for the last few days. Aries works, so I'm the one out shoveling paths to the chickens, woodpile, cellar, and mailbox. It's supposed to clear up, finally, tonight, but that means it's gonna get COLD! Eleven at night and it's 18F - it could go below zero before morning.

But inside, we're nice and cozy. Between the wood stove and the oven, this house is warm enough for a t-shirt right now. By morning, it will probably drop to the high 50's inside, but that just makes for a nice sleeping temperature. The only possible problem when it gets this cold outside is sometimes the bathtub drain freezes. Bothersome, but not unbearable. But also not something I want to happen with weekend company arriving tomorrow. So Aries poured a quarter-cup of windshield wiper fluid into that drain tonight. It's mostly alcohol, and such a little bit, and done so rarely - messing up the septic system or the chance of anything harmful getting into the leach field is something we do have to keep in mind.

Speaking of alcohol (like that segue-way?), Aries bottled the hard cider this evening while I was out doing some last minute Thanksgiving grocery shopping. Playing with the hydrometer says this batch, made with apples only, no added sugar, is about 7% alcohol (most beers are 4-6, wines around 12). Since it's not as strong as the last stuff we made, he bottled it in pint bottles. When we go to drink it, that should be a nice size for the two of us to split a bottle. The cider yeast didn't settle out like the champagne yeast did previously. That earlier batch is now a very dry, clear bubbly (almost like champagne - duh). This batch looks like mud. It tastes pretty good though, even now. Letting the apples set for a few weeks, to soften and sweeten before grinding, worked well.

As before, Aries mixed in a bit of corn sugar before bottling. I asked why it has to be corn sugar, and he said because it's an inert form of sugar - more easily broken down by fermentation, and the one least likely to affect the taste. Ok. I already knew that this priming sugar, as it ferments in the bottle, forms carbon dioxide; makes bubbles in the cider. So now, the bottles are in our bedroom for a week or two, so the sugar can do its thing in a warmer temperature. Then, we'll move them down into the cellar to mellow (and maybe settle out a bit).

Monday, November 22, 2010

I Miss the Ping!

Canning jars used to seal with a clear, ringing, PING! It was almost bell-like, and loud. I could hear it throughout the entire house. I'd take a load of jars out of the canner, and could count them off as each sealed, no matter what room I was in.

I still use the narrow-mouth, two-part lids-with-a sealing ring I always have, the same jars, the same headspace. But now, whether due to probably a cost-cutting change to the metal or the shape of the sealing "dimple", there is no more "ping". Jars now seal with an almost inaudible "tap" or small "thunk" sound. I sometimes miss it even when I'm right there in the kitchen. I'll look over at the jars, and the dimple is pulled down, but I never even heard half of them. I miss that PING! It was one of my favorite sounds.

I canned a last batch of tomato sauce today. I harvested all my green tomatoes last month, just before a killing freeze, and laid them out on a table across the guest room bed to ripen. Usually, my final tomato canning is done by mid-October. But this year, the last harvest was quite late, with our mellow autumn, and the house is much cooler this time of year. Thus, the last canner load now, in late November. I'm just glad to get anything at all, with as poor a gardening year as the past one was.

With company arriving later this week, it was time to get that room switched over to guest room status. I held out a couple of nice, big red tomatoes for fresh eating this week. Those still green or orange I loaded onto a tray to put down in the cellar. Those I'll bring up, a couple at a time, to ripen in the warmer kitchen throughout the winter. The taste certainly can't compare to vine-ripened summer tomatoes, but is better than the ones I refuse to buy in the grocery store. The rest of the tomatoes warmed up the house as they cooked down into sauce today - nine pints in the canner, plus two more in the freezer.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Microwave Broccoli Cheese Soup

Why open a can, when you can have homemade soup, with fresh ingredients, in less than 20 minutes? This is a good way to use up a little bit of leftover meat, and these veggies are at their best right now. Add a slice of rustic garlic bread, toasted and buttered, and we have a favorite autumn dinner. Tonight, I added a glass of Chardonnay; Aries had a glass of home-brewed dark beer. Hot food, warm tummies.

Microwave Broccoli Cheese Soup (serves 2)

1 cup thinly sliced carrot
1 cup chopped fresh broccoli (or a 10-oz pkg frozen broccoli; or substitute fresh or frozen cauliflower)
1 teaspoon instant chicken bouillon granules (optional)
1 cup milk
½ cup shredded cheese (I like cheddar or swiss)
½ cup finely chopped cooked meat (I like chicken, ham, or turkey ham)
2 tablespoons flour

In a 1-quart glass casserole dish, stir together the carrots and broccoli with ½ cup water and chicken granules if using (instead of the little bouillon jars in the soup section of my market, I buy the bigger, cheaper jars from the Mexican food section; if you happen to have some stock in the fridge, instead of the water, even better!). Microwave, covered, 5-7 minutes or until the veggies are tender, stirring once. Stir in the milk, cheese, and meat. Mix the flour into ½ cup cold water until smooth, and stir that in also. Season with a bit of black pepper. Microwave, uncovered, 5-6 minutes, stirring every minute or so, until thickened and bubbly. It's soup!

I just had to post a sunrise photo Aries took this morning, too.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tie One On - Pillowcase Apron Tutorial

Once you start getting into the simple lifestyle, sooner or later you're going to want an apron. I have my favorite bib-style H-back one that I usually wear. But I like having a couple extra aprons around too - guest aprons, you might say. My sister and her family usually visit for Thanksgiving. She loves it when I offer her an apron to wear too. It just makes her feel more "in the spirit", she says.

Once you have one for yourself, and maybe one or two for your guests, consider making an extra apron or two for Tie One On Day. Started by EllynAnne Geisel, it's a way to put the "give" back in Thanksgiving: "Participation is simple: on the day before Thanksgiving, November 24th this year, pause in the preparation of your own meal, wrap a loaf of bread or other baked good (maybe my One-Hour French Bread?) in an apron, tuck a prayer or note of encouragement in the pocket, and deliver the wrapped bundle to someone without your bounty - a neighbor, friend, or family member in need of physical or spiritual sustenance, a bit of recognition, or just a kind word."

Half-aprons make a good project for even beginning sewers. A quick and easy way to make a cute half-apron is to start with a pillowcase. Nice ones can usually be found at your local thrift store for $1 or less. I look for ones with some kind of different print or decoration around the opening end. That end makes the skirt of your apron - cut it between 16 and 20 inches long for a nice length (to make nice straight cuts, I measure and make a small mark on the edge where I want each cut. I fold the material over at the mark, align the sides and smooth everything flat, and then slip my scissors inside the fold to cut.) The middle cross-cuts make the waistband and ties. Cut two equally sized strips about 3" wide (I'm using a King case here, so I had enough material to cut three. I used one as a center piece and then trimmed half off the other two. Using all three would make ties long enough to wrap around and tie in front, for a different look) . Cut the sewn side seam off the skirt and band pieces. The closed end will make the two pockets, so don't cut the pillowcase seams on that piece.

Fold the raw side edges of the skirt, where you just cut the pillowcase seam away, over twice to the wrong side, press, and sew down.

Make the pockets by cutting the top corner parts of the case into two equal squares (discard the center piece). Turn the corner inside-out, flatten, and stitch down the remaining two open sides of the square, leaving an inch or two left unstitched to be able to turn right-side out. Turn (you can clip the tips of the corners, then use a crochet hook to push the corners out to a nice point) and press flat, tucking the unsewn part evenly to the inside. Repeat on the other pocket.

Lay the skirt out flat and position the pockets an inch or two on either side of the center. Try different positions until you have something you like best - maybe with the pattern running perpendicular to the skirt's or putting the pockets on an angle. Just make sure that the unstitched part of the pocket edge isn't part of the top edge (top-stitch it to close it up if you just have to have it on the top part). Pin in place, then sew down three sides close to the edge of the pocket, leaving the top open. I like to spin the pocket around and run a second line of stitching just inside the first. You might like the look of using a contrasting color of thread too.

Join the ends of the waistband/ties. Press the seam edges open, and then fold over and press one long side. Find the center of the long piece, then lay the long piece right-side UP on your work surface with the folded side farther away from you (flip the piece over long-ways from the way it is in the above photo).

Lay the skirt, also right-side UP, on top of the long piece, matching centers of both pieces, the raw edges closest to you, and put a pin in the center. You can just pin the pieces together flat, but I like to gather or pleat the skirt a bit. If you want to gather yours, measure out equal distances either side of your center pin on the band piece, and pin the outside edges of the skirt there. Then pin in your pleats or gathers, matching what you do to one side on the other side. Sew skirt to band (I find it easiest to have the skirt part on top when sewing too, so that I can do any final adjustments to my pleats or gathers).

Fold the bottom edge of the waist ties up and press. Fold the top edge down, matching the folded edges together on the ties, and covering the line of stitching on the front of the skirt, and pin. Tuck the raw ends of the ties to the inside and pin them too, making a nice corner.

Top stitch the end of a tie, along the folded edges, across the top front of the skirt, along the folded edge of the other tie and across the end. A final quick pressing and you're done!

Monday, November 15, 2010

More Autumnal Chores

The cupboards and pantry are filling up with jars containing this year's harvest. One of the pints of yesterday's tomatillo salsa didn't seal, so it went into the refrigerator, joining the jar that wasn't quite full. There was room in a top corner cupboard for the rest.

That top cupboard shelf also holds my apple cider vinegar jar. It had been almost 2 months since I'd fed it, and as long as I had the step-stool right there, I figured I might as well take care of that too. The five gallons of this year's cider are still burbling away, in the fermentation bucket on the counter. It could be a couple more weeks before it's finished. So I went down to the cellar (skimmed the scum off the pickle crock while I was down there) to fetch a bottle of last year's hard cider.

There was a thin fresh layer of mother on top of the vinegar in the jar, plus quite a few layers of dead mother piling up in the bottom. So with well-washed hands, I pulled out the fresh mother plus one more thin one, putting them into a clean bowl, then reached in and pulled out the rest of the dead layers to throw out. I diluted the bottle of hard cider with half again as much water, poured that into the jar, and dropped in the thin pieces of fresh mother. Topped with its cheesecloth lid, the jar went back into the dark cupboard to continue its magical process of turning alcohol into tasty vinegar.

Aries went with me for the drive this morning, up to Tahoe to get the mole-removal stitches out of my arm. Doc said everything looks good and the lab reports say benign, so I'm good.

This afternoon, Aries was once again busy over at the compost bin. He'd cleaned out the chicken coop earlier this fall, and most afternoons has been out there raking leaves as they fall. He still had one last wheelbarrow load of finished compost for me, so this afternoon I dug that into part of next year's "early" bed, and raked it out smooth and level. I set out garlic and shallot cloves, from this summer's harvest, and winnowed, then sowed, spinach and arugula seeds from the dry plants I had hanging in the shed. Everything tamped down and laid over with wire to deter hungry birds, they now wait for winter's snows to water them in.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Canning Tomatillo Salsa

I've been trying to get the last of the garden harvest out of the guest room before family get here for Thanksgiving. I can't believe it's only a little over a week away! I still have tomatoes covering one table - most of them are finally getting red enough to process, so a big batch of tomato sauce is on the agenda for sometime this week. I went through what onions I was able to harvest, separating out the ones that didn't bulb up and the ones with thick necks (because they won't last in storage), and am using those up first.

The project for today was processing the last of the tomatillos, along with homegrown onions, garlic, and chiles (processed and frozen earlier this season), into green salsa. Over time, and through experimentation, I've learned what things will hold without refrigeration or processing until I can get around to doing something with them for longer storage. Tomatillos are one of the best for that - picked when fruit is full-sized and the husks still green, and just piled in a bowl, they'll easily hold for a couple of months on the counter or in the pantry.

I'd already canned 9 pints, a full canner load, of plain tomatillos earlier this summer. And a long, mellow fall allowed me to get a second flush of chiles. My tomatoes didn't do very well this year, so what ones I have are destined for tomato sauce and jars of whole tomatoes; no tomato salsa this year. I still have two jars of roasted tomato salsa from last year, a few more of peach salsa, plus some of last year's hot sauces, but we really like salsa for everything from chip dip to tacos to spicing up everyday meals. So I started looking for a tomatillo salsa recipe.

I thought I'd try this one, from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, one of my go-to reference sites for canning info. Since I now use my own blog as recipe storage (after losing some online recipes, I just had bookmarked, when the sites disappeared), I'm re-posting a quick version here. Go to the original site if you're new to canning and you need more instructions.

Tomatillo Salsa (about 5 pints)

5 cups chopped tomatillos
4 cups chopped onions
1½ cups chopped chiles - roasted, peeled and seeded
½ cup minced jalapenos - seeds and ribs removed
1 cup lemon or lime juice
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
3 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon canning salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Simmer 20 minutes; ½" headspace; 20 minutes boiling water bath (for my 5,000 ft altitude)

I had enough tomatillos to make a double batch, ending up with 8½ pints. Since I don't have a food processor, I just hand-chopped everything. I'm thinking maybe next time, I'll try running the tomatillos and onions though my old food grinder instead.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

To all our veterans: we remember, and we thank you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

First Snow

The herbed potato chunks and chicken in the oven were almost done. I needed a quick vegetable dish. Darkness had already fallen (so early now, with the switch back to Standard Time), but there was enough light from the back porch light to let me grab a handful of Tuscan kale out of the garden. It only took a few minutes to saute some garlic and chopped mushrooms, clean the kale, and dump the still-damp leaves into the skillet. Putting the lid on to let it steam-fry 'til done, I went about the house closing up the blinds and shades for the night.

And was genuinely surprised to see that during that little bit of time from when I'd just been out in the garden, our first snow flurry of the year was now coming down fast and furious. Ah well, it is the middle of November, after all.

Speaking of the garden, I love the Tuscan kale. This is the third year I've grown it, but the first time I've been able to eat any. The past two years Aries had pulled up the plants when he was gathering up spent plants to shred for the compost - his defense, "they didn't look like food." The first time, I figured it was an honest mistake. But twice!? I chewed him out last year, but the damage had been done. So this year, I made sure to set down the rules before he even set foot in the garden. "I don't care that you don't eat salads - don't you DARE touch these kales or those chards! I want them for fresh eating until it finally gets cold enough to kill them." He got the message. And I'm still eating fresh greens, despite temps in the low 20's :-)

I'm happy too, because I scored a sweet deal today. A friend gave me two cases of empty Grolsch beer bottles - the reusable kind that seal with a porcelain top, gasket, and metal bail. Aries had used up all we had when he made a batch of beer a couple of weeks ago, leaving me NONE for my kombucha. We do have the smaller tall-neck reusable beer bottles, but I don't like having to go out to the shed and get the equipment necessary to hand-crimp metal caps onto those (we'll use them for the hard cider when it's ready - 12-ounce bottles are the perfect size for cider). Plus, there were also four glass gallon jugs in the boxes she gave me. They need new stoppers, but will be nice to have for smaller experiments in home brewing and vinegar-making. Besides, I think things just taste better stored in glass.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

It's Cider Time Again

The weather is finally feeling more like November. Last night's lows were in the low 20's, and today, all day, was cold, gray, and breezy - not really a good day to be outside much. So I spent the morning on the computer, creating certificates to give to our Soroptimist Girls of the Month and scholarship recipients tomorrow.

We've had the potted fig trees in the big wagon for the last six weeks, so we could move them into the garage when it was really cold, and then back outside when the nights have been more moderate. The trees can take temps down to the mid-20's, but not an entire winter outside. Today, with most of their leaves finally gone, we pulled the last few off and moved the now dormant trees down into the cellar to spend the winter.

Then, this afternoon, it was cider time. We got no fruit at all from our trees this year - what little bit survived the late Spring freezes, Bambi ate. But a month ago, before the first freeze, we gleaned four bushels of apples from a big old heirloom tree on the west side of Carson City. The ones without bird pecks or worm holes I tucked away in the cellar for fresh eating through the winter. I canned enough applesauce for the year, have been baking a batch of apple muffins every week, and we're eating fresh apples every day. Time to get the rest of the apples out of my living room, where they've been ripening, sweetening, and softening so they'll make more juice.

While I set up the grinder and other equipment in the kitchen, Aries got our cider press cleaned up and ready to go outside on the deck (more about our setup and the entire process here). It took us about 3 hours to quarter, grind, and press almost three bushels of apples into six gallons of cider. Five gallons are now in the fermentation bucket on the kitchen counter, the sixth in a gallon jug in the refrigerator to drink fresh.

A couple of years ago, we tried an online hard cider recipe, calling for added tannic and other acids. We ended up with something that tasted more like hard lemonade. It was ok, but not what we were going for. Last year, we tried brown sugar and champagne yeast. That batch tastes like a dry champagne - not bad, but the added sugar increased the alcohol content quite a bit. It's too strong for my taste, so when we split a 12-ounce bottle, I have to mix my half with club soda. This year, we're trying a cider yeast, with the juice alone. And we have a new toy to play with - a hydrometer. We floated it in the fresh juice, and came up with an 8% reading (sugar content, I think - the little measurements are labeled "potential alcohol content"). We're supposed to take another reading after fermentation has finished, subtract the first reading (or is it the other way around?), and that should tell us the alcohol content. Should be interesting.

When I was washing out the gallon jug, prior to filling it with apple juice, I used a neat little trick I learned when I used to work construction. One of my tasks on one job site was filling up the big water coolers strapped to the work trucks using five-gallon water bottles. To quickly and easily get liquid out of a narrow-mouthed bottle without any glugging or splashing, put your hand over the mouth and give the upside down bottle a quick horizontal swirl, to get the water swirling around inside. Take your hand away, and the liquid quickly and smoothly spews out in a circular motion as the air enters through the middle of the spiral. Try it with any round bottle, and see for yourself.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Email to Mom

I've been busy with lots of stuff lately, and keep thinking "I really need to write about that" but then I get distracted and another day goes by without a post here. To try and get back in the posting mode, I decided to just paste in an email I wrote to my mom earlier today [with a few explanatory edits added]:

Hi Mom,
I canned 16 half-pints of applesauce the other day. I picked through all the apples [she helped me pick when she was visiting a couple of weeks ago, from an antique tree in the old part of town; that's her feeding my chickens below], and put 4 trays of really nice ones into the cellar for fresh eating this winter. I still have almost 3 basketfuls in my living room. [Aries] wants to grind and juice most of them (maybe leave out enough for another pie, or two) for a batch of cider to ferment, as soon as the five gallons of beer he made last week is finished fermenting so we can use that bucket.

He went back to work today, after his last week of vacation. I went up to Tahoe this morning, to the [casino's] Clinic, and had some moles removed. I now have 9 stitches on my arm where a cluster of them were, and just a small bandage on my thigh. I asked about a shingles vaccine [Aries and my mom both have gotten shingles, and both said it's the worst pain they've ever been in - I'm not a big fan of pain, especially if it can be avoided] and I'll get that when I go in to get the stitches removed in about 10 days.

I have a job interview tomorrow, as a favor to a friend, with a CPA in Gardnerville that wants someone for maybe 10 hours/week now, and full-time February to April. I'm going to can a five-pint batch of tomatillo green salsa with the last of my tomatillo and chile harvests. I picked all my green tomatoes, and have them spread out on the table in the guest room to ripen. The garden *finally* froze last week, so [Aries] pulled out the dead plants and shredded them for the compost pile, and now I have to get out there and clean up the rest. I still have to plant my garlic and shallots sometime soon. I also want to transplant some stuff as soon as it goes dormant, but before the snow starts and the ground freezes solid.

I found a guy in Reno that does accordion repair, and took my old white one in to get the strap bracket replaced (it broke on one side, and would swing open - I was afraid the straps would slip through and I'd drop it). He had to open it up and take it apart inside to get to the broken part, so he also blew 60 years worth of dust out of it, tightened everything up, and fixed the one key that sometimes wouldn't sound. He says it's in great shape (and that it's a really good instrument: the old ones are the best, if properly cared for and stored - the new ones now are mostly made in China, even the ones from German companies, and are really cheaply made) [my folks bought me that accordion, second-hand, when I was 8 years old]. He guarantees his work so said just bring it back if I notice any more problems. I played it for a while yesterday when I got it home. I'm a bit rusty but the fingering on some songs came back quite quickly. I'm thinking I'll practice this winter, memorize some songs, and maybe try busking downtown next summer - might even earn myself some traveling money. Later! Love ya!