Friday, July 24, 2009

Independence Days, week... uh... somethin'

I'm kind of losing track of my posting schedule for this. I'm also forgetting some things, as usual.

1. Plant something
- One really tough comfrey plant that was forgotten for several months.

2. Harvest something - Two apples! I picked them early because the birds were already pecking them. They were a bit tart and mealy, but pretty good considering. Sadly, we're getting at most one more apple this year. Out of four apple trees. But it's a start...

Other things harvested: Eggs, a few berries, the tiniest carrot you've ever seen, some peas, a few green beans, and one jalapeƱo. I wish I had planted more cool season stuff, since it's been such a cool summer.

3. Preserve something - I don't even want to talk about this one. My two quarts of local raspberries got moldy before I did anything with them (well, besides a little snacking). I forgot how fast they go fuzzy.

4. Waste Not - Bought a washable, reusable furnace filter. Tried to fill the cows' water trough from the rain barrel, but the elevation is apparently wrong. The water stubbornly refuses to defy gravity. I'll try moving to a lower spot at some point. I'm not too worried about making this work, since my rain barrel capacity would only last the cattle about two days, so I still need the other hose too. Took more stuff to the recycling center, and the thrift store. Ate every scrap of leftovers I could, including the remnants on my son's plate after dinner. I don't think we threw out any leftovers this week.

5. Want Not (Preparation and Storage) - Bought the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. I guess this was several weeks ago, but I forgot about it.

6. Build Community Food Systems - Sold eggs at work. Bought local nectarines and cherries. WOW. Tried to rig up something to keep the skunks from getting the chicken eggs. Not sure if it's working yet though. I'm pondering the idea of planting a big row of greens to sell at work. I think a few of my Indian co-workers would buy all the spinach I could grow and then some.

7. Eat the Food - Eggs, cherries, nectarines, Free Soup, strawberry jam, cranberry sauce, pasta, and a yummy roasted chicken from a nearby farm. Probably other stuff too.



Thursday, July 23, 2009

Recipe for Free Soup

First, buy a whole chicken.

I know, I said it was free, but as any physicist can tell you, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Free always has a price, even if it's sometimes hidden.

Anyway, soup.

So buy a whole chicken. If you buy it from a nearby small farmer, you will be helping your local economy, your local ecology, your health, your taste buds, and your soul.

Oven roast the chicken, and serve it for dinner with your choice of sides. If you don't have a good recipe, see if your local library has a cookbook called "Best Recipe" or one of its kin. Be amazed at how good a home cooked meal can be.

I know, soup. We're getting there.

Put away the leftovers. Pick the remnants of good meat off the carcass. Set them aside. You can leave plenty on the bones - fat, gristle, meat that's tough to remove, etc.

If possible, cut the bones in half, either with kitchen shears or a large knife. It's not absolutely necessary, but it will release marrow, which will really give some life to your soup.

Put the remnants of the carcass in a big stock pot, and add a bunch of water. At least a gallon, maybe more if your stock pot is big. Add some salt -- maybe tablespoon or so, and another tablespoon of vinegar. (Don't worry if your soup smells like vinegar for a while. It'll go away. The vinegar is supposed to help draw out some extra nutrients.) You can throw in a bay leaf if you have it. Turn on the heat. You want to keep it just shy of boiling - A few bubbles every now and then, but not a full boil.

Now, get out a stalk of celery, a carrot or two, a couple cloves of garlic, an onion, and a potato. Substitute other veggies as you see fit. In mine, I left our celery because we didn't have any. I included a little corn, because we had some left from the roasted chicken dinner. Soup is great for using up leftovers.

Peel the papery skin off the onion and put the skin in the pot. (This will give some color to your broth.) Wash and peel the carrot(s) and potato and put their skins in the pot too. Pull off some celery leaves and put them in the pot.

Cut up all the vegetables and mince the garlic. Heat some oil in a large pan. Wait for it to shimmer. Then add the garlic and all the veg to the pan, along with a good healthy sprinkling of thyme and some salt and black pepper. You can add other seasonings if you like.

When everything in the pan starts getting tender, take it off the heat. Put it in a bowl with the meat you set aside earlier. You want your broth to cook for a good hour before you go any further, so you may want to put these veggies and meat in the fridge for a bit, depending on how your timing is going to work out.

Once the stock pot with the bones, peelings, etc. has been heating for an hour or more (more is fine), get out a big bowl and a strainer or colander. Pour the broth through the strainer into the bowl. Skim off the top of the bowl if necessary, to catch any bits that came through the strainer. Discard the bones and scraps.

Put the broth back in the stock pot, along with your sauteed vegetables and meat bits. Simmer for another 30 minutes or so. Toss in a couple handfuls of egg noodles. Then toss in another handful, because it's hard to have too many noodles in your soup, as far as I'm concerned. Cook until the noodles are appropriately soft. Add salt or seasonings to taste, but taste it first. Depending on how you roasted that chicken back at the beginning of this process, it may be plenty salty. Or it may need a good bit of salt.

Congratulations - you just made some excellent soup. And it didn't cost you anything. Let's look at the ingredients: Chicken bones and meat scraps - You were going to throw them out, right? Vegetables - You had them in your kitchen already. You just used the ones that would have gone bad waiting to be used. Herbs and/or spices - That much less going stale in the bottom of the jars. Tap water. Noodles.

So maybe not COMPLETELY free, but pretty effin' close. For a few pennies worth of ingredients, and stuff that most people would throw away, you have the equivalent of about a dozen cans of some damn fine soup.

Besides, "Free Soup" does sound a lot better than "Chicken Carcass Soup."


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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Favorites, Part 6: Muck Boots.

I recently had the opportunity to try out a pair of Muck Boots, courtesy of Muck Boots Online.

Now, I've become very picky about footwear. I'm willing to spend extra for a good fit that will last. I don't like buying shoes, breaking them in, and having them fall to pieces on me. Also, my feet are, um, unconventional. Okay, they're mutant. (I know many people have a second toe longer than their big toe, but how many have a middle toe longer than their big toe too? And with that troubling visual, let's just move on.) I'm also hard on footwear. Anything that lasts longer than a year on my feet is doing pretty well.

Even so, I feel like a bit of a ringer on this review, because I already have a pair of Muck Boots. And I'll tell you right now, I love them. After almost four years around the homestead though, they are showing their age a little. Oh, they're still perfectly functional, but after a lot of climbing over fences, walking through brush, catching livestock, and climbing into a rusty gravity wagon full of moldy corn to clean it out, they are getting slightly ragged. The exterior layers are torn in places, and they tend to flop over rather than stand up (which just makes it a little harder to slip your feet in if your hands are full).

The new boots are different from the old boots in two ways: First, they are a slightly lower cut. My old chore boots come well up on my calf, where the new ones are cut more like snow boots. Second, the old boots have the tougher rubber covering only up to the ankle, with the lighter wetsuit-like material higher up. The new boots have a rubber outer shell most of the way up.

My hope was that the lower cut with more tough outer rubber would be more durable, and easier to get on and off. Now this is kind of asking a lot, because the old boots are easier to get on and off than just about any other footwear I have. That's one of the things I love about Muck Boots. They're like putting on very tall slippers. There are no laces or anything, and the inside material is fairly slippery, so they pull on with little effort. But if you're wearing jeans with taller boots, there's more to tuck in. I also figured the rubber would not snag on cattle panels or thorny shrubs as much.

And both of these things seem to be true. The only disadvantage of the new boots is that the tougher exterior makes them a little less flexible and a little less breathable. The breathability is not a huge deal, since they are shorter. And the reduced flexibility only matters when I put them on with shorts. (I know. I'm a fashion trendsetter.) Instead of bending with my legs, the more rigid boots slide back and forth across my calf, causing a little friction discomfort after a short while.

So now I wear the softer, taller boots with shorts (watch for this look in Milan next spring), and the shorter, tougher boots with jeans. This actually works out pretty well, because if I'm doing anything that might involved getting scrached, scraped, or nicked, I'm probably wearing jeans anyway. If I just want to mess around in the garden, or not have to worry about stepping in a menagerie of manure, mud, and muck while checking on the animals, the taller boots work better anyway.

I'm only going into this level of nitpicking so you get the whole picture and can fit the boots to your needs if you consider buying some. For my needs, if I had to pick only one pair, I'd probably go with the new pair of mid-height Muckmasters, mostly because I think they'll hold up longer.

There are several things I love about Muck Boots in general. One I already mentioned - they slip on "like buttah." I can almost always put them on hands-free, just by stepping into them, which is great if I've got my hands full or gloves on already, or whatever. I can take them off hands-free too. But through some deign magic, they don't ever think about coming off when I'm walking around.

Second is that they are waterproof. With no laces or seams, there's no place for the water to sneak in. (They're also bouyant. Ask me how I know...). I'd be happy to wear them walking through water, mud, snow, manure, or any other questionable small farm ooze.

Third is they are surprisingly breathable. I expected them to be more like old rubber Duck Boots, but they seem to do a good job of wicking away sweat, or moisture sneaking in around the top.

And finally, they're just comfortable. Much better than work boots for me.

As for Muck Boots Online, their customer service was great. I ordered a pair of size 11's, but after I got them I thought 10's might have been better. (Muck Boots don't come in half-sizes.) So they sent me another pair to try, along with a return shipping label. I ended up keeping the first pair, as I decided that slightly loose is much better than slightly tight. Quick and appropriate response is all I could ask for from a customer service standpoint.

I'll just end by saying that I hope I always have a pair of Muck Boots sitting by the door.



Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rainbow Unbent

I probably wouldn't have noticed it if I had looked straight at it. Or if my six-year-old son hadn't told me these things exist. Kids see things the rest of us don't. He'd talked about seeing rainbows on the ground a couple times. Not in oil slicks, but in our front pasture. I glanced over my shoulder while driving, saw the scattered weeds of an overgrown field, and gave him one of those dismissive, "oh yeah" comments that we parents get so good at.

But then on my weekly long commute, I actually saw one.

If it were a painting, I would call it contrived. And it would be.

It wasn't the kind of day-glo rainbow that comes shooting out of a unicorn's ass as it flies over a mystical ocean. No, this was almost invisible. The backdrop bleeding through, the mostly scattered hues were more implication than color. Without peripheral vision, and the motion blur of highway driving, the effect would probably be lost. I imagine few, if any, of the other thousands of drivers and passengers barreling down the interstate even noticed it.

But there it was: A band of pale blueish-purple chicory flowers, in their favorite spot, basking at the edge of the road. Ragged green grass behind, giving way to the taller grasses that grew beyond the purview of the mowing crews. The taller grass was starting to set seed and dry to a tawny gold. Still taller weeds just beyond that - millet maybe? - showing rusty brown seedheads in the back row. And covering the wire fencing that separates the highway from the farm fields, a smattering of red trumpet vine flowers.

An off-duty rainbow, hidden in plain sight. Roy G. Biv, basking in the sun, watching the world go by. And I almost missed it.



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Independence Days, weeks 11 & 12

Man, it's been a weird summer. Nothing is really thriving. The corn and potatoes appear to be hanging in there, but everything else is just kind of sitting there.

I should start writing this stuff down as the week progresses, because by the time I write this. I forget half the stuff we do.

1. Plant something
- Nothing this time.

2. Harvest something - Eggs, a few beans and peas, a few berries.

3. Preserve something - I made some bread & butter pickles. A bit vinegar-y now, but they probably need more time.

4. Reduce waste - Rigged up a suction-cup shade cloth arrangement for our west-facing sliding door. It's holding up, but still needs a little fine tuning. Steady progress on cloth diapers. Other than sending Amelia to school, we're pretty much at 100% cloth for her, and for Owen. Pulled a couple hay bales' worth of weeds out of the garden and fed them directly to the cows. They were happy. Well, except Meadow. She's above eating weeds, and walked away in a huff. Moved their water trough to a more convenient spot, since they drink it dry every single day. I use the hose filling the trough as a weeding timer now. I turn on the hose, and weed until the trough is full. The cows gather 'round for water & weeds. The boys run around "helping" and hand-feeding weeds to the cows.

5. Preparation and Storage - I can't think of anything for this one.

6. Build Community Food Systems - Sold eggs at work. Bought more black raspberries and sweet corn from local vendors.

7. Eat the Food - Sweet corn, blackberries, eggs, rice, beans. Nothing exciting.



Sunday, July 05, 2009

Independence Days week 10

Late, late, late again. Too much going on...

1. Plant something
- Not this week.

2. Harvest something - A handful of blueberries. And eggs. I think that was it.

3. Preserve something - Froze some blueberries. Just about to start on raspberry jam and pickles.

4. Reduce waste - Took a ton of stuff over to the thrift store. Made a long-overdue trip to the local recycling center and gave them a pickup load of cardboard, plus a some plastic and aluminum. Lori's been working hard on the cloth diapering for Amelia, to the point that she's considering putting together a web page for cloth diapers for special needs and older kids. She's been knitting more wool diaper covers.

5. Preparation and Storage - Tried to figure out a way to make the pedal-powered grain mill work. No luck so far, but I feel like I'm getting close. Talked to my next-door neighbor about solar kits, wind, hand pumps for water, and all kinds of other self-sufficiency stuff.

6. Build Community Food Systems - Sold eggs at work. Bought red & black raspberries, blueberries, and pickling cucumbers from the farm market. Finally got somebody to bring a bull to breed our cow, so that someday we can have milk again - and maybe beef too. He also brought three of his cows and their calves to graze on our pasture. This helps him get his cows bred by the same bull, keeps me from having to mow nearly as much, adds some nice fertilizer to our soil, and supports a local small-scale beef producer. I also talked to him about getting some beef from him for our own use.

7. Eat the Food - We struggled a bit this week. We've been busy with a lot of different things. Ate a lot of salad from garden greens. Ate some eggs and some jam, and various berries. Tried a couple new recipes, but I don't know if any were keepers.