Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Apple Butter - or - Overcoming the Fear of Canning

On Sunday, feeling domestic and a bit brave, I decided to get out our new freecycled canning pot and make some homemade apple butter from the apples I had bought on a whim the previous day. Now, I've been interested in canning for quite some time, but I've always been a bit hesitant. Knowing the principles of homebrewing, I'm not sure why I continued to fear the process of preserving food, but now having the tools to do so, including the Ball Blue Book, I no longer had any excuse not to just go for it. I peeled and sliced four pounds of apples, and simmered them in a little water until they were nice and soft, then put them in a food processor. To that I added sugar and spices, and let it gently bubble for about four hours until it was just the right consistency. By that point the jars were done sterilizing in the dishwasher and were keeping warm, the lids were simmering in a small pot of water, and the canning pot was starting to reach a boil. The apple butter filled six half-pint jars, which went into the boiling water for ten minutes. When I pulled them out, I heard the reassuring pop pop pop of the lids and I knew everything would be ok :-) The Gardener and I sampled some of what was left in the pot, and it was delicious! One jar we will keep for ourselves and the rest will make some nice Christmas gifts, but five jars is not nearly enough to go around, so I'll be keeping my eye out for another fun recipe to make. Hopefully next year we will have enough of a harvest from our garden that we'll be canning some of our own vegetables. I'm thinking salsa!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Garlic on an Autumn Morning

Now that it's November, and the risk of scaring off any Halloween vampires has passed, I took advantage of my extra hour (given the fact that I forgot to change the clocks until after I woke up this morning) to finally plant our garlic. If all goes well, we should get about 70 heads of garlic come sometime around July. We ordered two varieties of organically grown garlic - Transylvanian and Romanian Red - however the Transylvanian was back ordered and then replaced with Russian Red Toch. Romanian Red is an heirloom hardneck porcelain variety, which should have large cloves and a strong flavor, and should store very well. Russian Red Toch is a softneck artichoke variety which should have small to medium cloves, a flavor mild enough to enjoy raw, be ready to harvest early, and be able to be stored for 5 to 6 months. My big hope now is that the squirrels don't dig up all the cloves before the ground freezes. You wouldn't think they'd be interested, but they've been eating everything from pumpkins to jalapenos, so I wouldn't put it past them. I've never planted anything this late in the year before, but I have to say that I really enjoyed having one last chance to get outside and put my hands in the cool dirt before winter. Soon enough there will be snow on the ground and we'll be knee deep in seed catalogs planning for next year!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

King Potiron

Pumpkin pie for all! All hail the Pumpkin King!

You may have noticed a distinct lack in progress and news here lately but it was it was not without worthy cause. Two big adventures were under way, the first was a twelve day trip to South Dakota and Wyoming, the second was our 6th Annual Halloween Gala. Both were amazing and a grand time was had by all.

As part of our preparations for Halloween, I picked up this behemoth of a pumpkin at an Amish farm on my way to work. When I say "picked up" I mean lifted with a bit of back strain and the assistance of a particularly tough Amish lady. If Liddy (pictured there) weighs 65 lbs I couldn't guess the weight of that beast. At least a few pies are on the list of things to do before Thanksgiving.

No Farms No Food

The New York Times recently published an article by Michael Pollan, entitled An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief. In it he gives our future leader a heads-up regarding the current situation in which "the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close." He charges that now is the time to not only address food prices but to reform America's entire food system, and the good news is that the combination of the food and energy crises will actually create a political environment where reform will be possible for the first time in a long time. The three pillars of his vision include resolarizing the American farm, reregionalizing the food system, and rebuilding America's food culture. The best part is that by following his straightforward suggestions we would be able to contribute greatly to solving our problems of energy dependence, climate change, food security, and health care. I urge everyone to read this article, as it is also a good summary of most of his recent publications.

Speaking of reregionalizing our food system, we were recently impressed to notice that one of our neighbors was sporting a new "No Farms, No Food" bumper sticker. You can get yours from the American Farmland Trust. And while you're keeping it local, don't forget to check out Local Harvest to find a farm near you and reserve your heritage turkey for Thanksgiving!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tiddly Beer Beer Beer

A long time ago, way back in history or more like last weekend, we had a little get together to brew for a friend's birthday. I hastily put together a recipe for a black lager (aka schwarzbier) using a few grains we had laying around. We're still lacking a few pieces of equipment needed to pull off an all-grain recipe so we had to pick up a can of malt extract.

I dub this beer September Black Lager.

2 lbs. American Vienna
2 lbs. American 2-row
1 lb. Roasted Barley

3.5 lbs. Liquid Amber (Muntons)

1 oz. Liberty (60 minute boil)
1 oz. Spaltz (15 minute boil)

Oktoberfest/Märzen Lager Yeast

The main difference between lager and ale is the temperature at which it ferments. While ales ferment at room temperature, the lager yeast we used ferments most comfortably in the 52 to 58 degree range. To keep the lager cool we're using a converted freezer that can maintain higher temperatures (and uses far less electricity) than a standard unit. The bitterness for this recipe may be a little low for the style but we had to substitute Liberty and Spaltz hops for what originally should have been Tettnanger and Hallertau. The shop we get supplies from stocks imported hops and apparently Germany had a bad crop this year. Yet another reason we are making room for hops in our garden this spring.

Check out that bubbling caramel goodness. Only five more weeks until it's ready to bottle!

Learning Valuable Masonry Skills

We finally started the enormous task of repairing the neglected brick barbecue in the back yard. Our neighbor tells us that one of her family members that lived in our house built it long ago. Since we moved in this brick fireplace has been sort of an ancient ruin hinting at the mid 20th century glory days of our house. It sat somber in the weeds evoking memories of 1960's and 1970's style summer cookouts and outdoor parties with cold beer, charbroiled burgers and hotdogs.

You can see the Gardeness hard at work exercising her background in historic preservation. The plan is to add a cast iron griddle to give us more options as to what can be cooked on the grill. It's not quite finished yet but close enough we can almost taste the burgers.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Spicy Dill Spears

Last week we found time to make a batch of refrigerator pickles from a few of our cucumbers. It has been a week and they are now fully flavorized. We threw together four pints of deliciousness from cucumbers and fresh dill out of our garden. Along with store bought dried spices, the recipe called for dried hot peppers to give them some bite. We also added some Amish garlic to ward off the evil spirits in these parts.

Now that we have a cucumber plant we've gone through more vinegar in the past two months than the three years we've lived in this house. It's wonderful learning how to prepare simple foods that we take for granted as coming from a jar or can. We hope to step up to an actual canning process for our next batch of cucumbers (not just refrigerator pickles).

Monday, August 4, 2008

The First Harvest

This past Friday marked the Gaelic/pagan holiday of Lughnasadh. In times past this was a celebration of the beginning of the harvest season. Typically this was a time for bonfires and handfasting weddings. Though nowadays few people celebrate (or are even aware of) the holiday outside of Ireland, we found it pretty fitting to what's happening in our garden.

Our first harvest of the year includes these cucumbers, crook-neck squash and green beans. We're quite pleased with our first attempt at providing for ourselves and look forward to celebrating the continuing harvest season.

Barrels of Monkeys! Oh wait...

The delivery man loves us. He has to, otherwise why would he leave such wonderful things on our doorstep? Maybe it's because I pay him to, but anyway, this past week he brought us two 50 gallon rain barrels! While not quite as fun as a barrel monkeys, they are infinitely more useful.

These used olive shipping containers have replaced our spray painted 55 gallon plastic corn syrup barrel from ebay. Now, for those of you thinking "Why would anyone want to ship used olives?" unfortunately I can't help you, but for the rest of you asking "What was wrong with the old one?" here's the deal. A few months ago we almost ran it dry between rains, then when the rain did come the barrel quickly filled and gobs of water just poured onto the yard. I then went back to ebay and if you can believe this, there were no corn syrup barrels of the same design to be found. So we broke down and started collecting water in a plastic tote. Let me tell you, a plastic tote full of swampy water and a spray painted plastic drum just don't spiffy up the look of a backyard.

After a bit of research I fell in love with the 1127-B from the lovely people at Eagle Peak Containers. They may not be as eye catching as oak wine barrels but for the price they make a world of difference and they're saving us bundles in water bills.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Chickadee dee dee

Just picture in your head a little Chickadee flitting about a garden. Cheeping at you every now and then. So lighthearted, so carefree, imagine it drinking from the bird bath. Aww, such a sweet image...

Now let me tell you about the real critters; the angry, violent, highly skilled birds of prey known as the Chickadee. These natural born assassins are an insect's worst nightmare. Black-capped Chickadees can devour up to 1,000 insects a day each, their songs contain a highly sophisticated communication system and they can be hand-tamed (if you don't mind losing a few fingers in the process... I kid).

So naturally when I saw Japanese Beetles chowing down on our sad little strawberry plant I immediately thought "If only I had some hungry little birdies around." Considering neither of us know the song for "Please come eat these evil bugs" in Chickadee, we resorted to another option.

This is where I offer many thanks to the wonderful Shaw Creek Bird Supply site. Using their brilliant plans for building a Black-capped Chickadee Nest Box, we were able to quickly assemble a home fit for royalty (of the Chickadee kind). Somehow we happened to have a 4' section of 1" x 6" laying in the garage and using our handy-dandy saw, brad nailer, drill and Rotozip we produced this:

Oddly enough later the same afternoon we had two black-capped cuties eating at our bird feeder. I don't expect they'll move in right away but a cozy home awaits them. By the way, if you would like to hear more about the cute, innocent, sheltered, narrow view of Chickadees have a listen to this ditty.

Wild Pumpkins!

After Halloween last year, we threw all of the leftover whole pumpkins into a compost heap that is now the pumpkin patch. We planted a few baking pumpkins this summer, just to be sure we'll have a few pies this fall. Of the five or six pumpkins we threw in last year only two seeds made it, but they came alive with a wicked vengeance.

Not only are they out-doing our other pumpkin plants in every way, but frankly we're having a hard time keeping them contained. I can't wait to hack into the first of these monsters to grab seeds for next year.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Summer of Sustainability

We're reaching the height of summer in our garden, and most of our crops are starting to produce signs that we'll at least get some small harvest this year. After having to replant the corn so many times, I'm not sure if we will get anything out of them, especially the sweet corn, but perhaps the field corn will work out since it can stay on the stalk longer. Our green beans are budding, and the squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins, tomatoes, and peppers are blooming. We have one small green tomato, our blueberry bushes have berries that are beginning to turn blue, and the strawberry plants are sporadically putting out one berry at a time. We have some lettuce and spinach coming up, and we just planted some peas. The basil and other herbs are also doing very well. Unfortunately, it appears that the apple tree has a case of powdery mildew, so we are going in search of an organic cure this weekend.

All in all, I think our first foray into vegetable gardening is going pretty well. Next year we'll get an earlier start and hopefully we'll have lots of good compost to amend the soil with. We're planning on growing some winter barley after the crops are done this fall. Once we start harvesting, we'll keep track of how much we get, so that next year we can have a better estimate of how many plants we need to be able to eat plenty of fresh veggies in the summer and also put some by for the winter. We are also in the planning stages of getting a couple of Buff Plymouth Rock chickens in the spring.

To supplement our homegrown veggies and fruits, we're getting all of our produce from the local Amish farms. We're also purchasing organic milk and butter from grass-fed cows from a local company called Natural by Nature, pasture raised angus burger from Dr. Elkins' farm, and free range chickens from Rumbleway Farm. We're weeding out most of the processed foods from our pantry, and doing our best to buy local as much as possible. Our efforts to help support sustainable agriculture may be small, but we are certainly enjoying them!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Heirloom Gardening Tool

This weekend we were presented with an amazing gift from my uncle; a home-built weeding tool based on one he uses in his flower garden.

It can be used similar to a hoe for uprooting pesky roots but on the edges the blade is sharp as a knife and makes quick work of cutting down sprouting weeds. Not only is the tool extremely functional but it is also made of family history. The handle and blade were made of farming equipment from the Bartels family dairy farm. It's made the rounds in our yard and already sky-rocketed to the top of our must have gardening equipment. Thanks Uncle David!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Massacre in the Corn Patch

As I turned the corner around the house to take a peek at the garden yesterday evening, I couldn't help but gasp as I saw what had happened to all of the corn sprouts.

Some evil bird had discovered that if he pulled the plant out of the ground he could feast on the yummy corn kernels that the leaves were growing out of, and he proceeded to pull out every last one. Little baby corns lay strewn across the ground, dead, like in some kind of garden horror film. Now we must plant a new patch, but this time we will be prepared to fight back!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Secret Agent Toad

All alone and trapped by the enemy. No sweat... his ninja like reflexes will save him.

Introducing a our backyard's latest action hero... Golden Eye!

This is the first toad that we've found this year. He was fighting his way out of a tarp we had laying in the yard. We named him Golden Eye for obvious reasons. I think he might be blind in his golden eye but he seems like a feisty little bugger. We'll probably be seeing more of him this summer.


We may have gotten a late start to our vegetable gardening this Spring, but the warm days and rainy weather have made our little sprouts happy and they are growing fast.

Our first attempt at a garden is all vegetables and herbs that we hope are simple to grow. At the moment we have planted:
  • Bartels Family Corn
  • Provider Snap Beans
  • Blue Something Snap Beans
  • Yellow Crookneck Squash
  • Cucumbers
  • Dill
  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Nasturtiums
  • Cosmos
The heirloom corn was the first to come up, followed by the cucumbers, yellow crookneck squash, and lastly came the snap beans. The row of Provider snap beans that we planted doesn't look too good at the moment, but not knowing how they're supposed to look, I guess we'll wait and see if they get a second set of leaves before we try replanting them.

Two of the nasturtiums have sprouted at this point, as well as the dill and the cosmos. It's hard to tell what's a crop and what's a weed, since we're such newbies at this point. Next comes the difficult task of choosing which of the little ones must be sacrificed for the good of the group.

We still need to get a second bed ready for planting lettuce, spinach, carrots, and turnips. And of course we thought of some more things we wanted to plant, so we have sweet corn and lima bean seeds coming in the mail, along with some tomato plants. Better late than never, hopefully!


Let's start this off with a bang, shall we?

Last night, a peaceful laundry folding session was rudely interrupted as the sound of an explosion tore through the house. Well this isn't the kind of noise you expect to hear coming from the next room at 11:00 PM on a Tuesday night... maybe some people would? Maybe we should? Anyways, we bravely crept out into the dining room to see what had broken what.

To our pleasant surprise, we were welcomed to a late night soiree! The loud bang that had us tip-toeing around the corner was to our delight the joyous sound of a cork popping from a delicious bottle of mead that had been sitting on the dinner table. Yes indeed, our homemade Yule mead is now an outgoing sparkling mead, spreading laughter and mini-parties wherever it goes. We of course broke out the glasses and filled them up with frothy goodness. Look closely, it's bubbling!

I'm excited to find out how it matures into the fall and see if it gives up its wild youth for a more refined old age.

Garden news on the way...