Thursday, August 25, 2011

Watermelon Sorbet

On a whim we picked up a watermelon plant while buying herbs from an Amish farm this spring.  It has taken up a large part of the garden and honestly makes a wonderful ground cover.

The first melon weighed in at an even 40 lbs! There's another beast of similar size still on the vine.

Gardener being serious about watermelon
So what do you do when there is not enough space in the fridge for a fruit that weighs more than our toddler? You make amazingly delicious watermelon sorbet and eat it, that's what you do.

We don't usually have watermelon around and I can't easily remember the last time we ate any.  I think that might change when it comes time for planning next year's garden.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Productive Project

The other weekend I finally got around to starting a new project.  I've been spending my spare time reading up on woodworking and I really wanted to try out making a few things around the house.  First on the list was a cooking spoon.  The catch is that I'm trying to do this only with hand tools.

I've picked up a modest assortment of starter tools but there was one missing piece. It's very hard to shape a block of wood without a good way to hold the blank steady.  The answer is a device called a shave horse.

I went into the garage where a stack of odd 2x4s and 2x6s have accumulated, and with the addition of a metal rod and a hinge, I created my first homemade tool.

I've been working with apple wood that fell from our oft mentioned apple tree. You can see that the finished product is rather rough and ugly but has been used and works perfectly.

The next one will be a bit prettier if I get around to picking up a much needed gooseneck scraper.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Late Summer Homestead Tour

As August 1st is considered a special time to celebrate the summer harvests in some traditions, we thought it would be fun to participate in Northwest Edible Life's nosy neighbor homestead tour today.

Our gardens and landscape are definitely going into the jungle-like state that they start to take on here in southeastern Pennsylvania in late summer. In fact, the past couple weeks have been pretty consistently in the high 90s to 100s with extreme humidity and almost no rain. Which means that very little weeding has been done, and I've been putting off planting fall-crop seeds. But that certainly doesn't mean that nothing is going on in the garden. Let's take a peek around!

Lettuce plants which are flowering and going to seed.

Swiss chard from this spring, which have come back and are ready to harvest again after being feasted on by deer.

Watermelon vines are taking over the entire bed and threatening to strangle everything in their path.

The one and only watermelon growing on all that vine.

Baby eggplant. Remind me to post my awesome Moroccan Eggplant Salad recipe sometime!

Pumpkins showing evidence of another night of munching deer. We planted five varieties of pumpkins this year, so I'm really hoping we manage to get at least a few for jack-o-lanterns and pies. We're already thinking about Halloween!

Tomatoes just starting to ripen. The kitchen will be overrun soon!


Jalapenos. Looks like we have some salsa in our near future.

In one of our perennial patches we have a few blackberries ripening on the canes we planted last summer.

And the mint is getting well established. These flowers are attracting all kinds of buzzing creatures. Can you spot the dragonfly?

Out back the corn patch is looking good.

The ladies are hoping we'll be sharing some of that corn with them.

My new herb patch has been handy in the kitchen. I'm not used to having access to so many fresh herbs, so this has been a real treat!

Hops just about ready to harvest. Next spring they're going to need to be divided, so our homebrewing buddies should be planning their hops patches now!

This spring's new additions: Niagara and Concord grape vines, and a bluebird house (which has already had its first nest of baby bluebirds hatch and take wing!)

Apple trees planted last fall, looking pretty happy, and outgrowing their protective cages.

Apples on our huge old apple tree starting to ripen. These guys are destined for cider.

The two peach trees up front were planted this spring, and have leafed out nicely. I enjoy imagining what our little orchard will look like in a few years' time.

Our recently improved rain barrel system.

Here's a view of the "pasture." We let the back half-acre go wild to let the grasses go to seed and fill in, in anticipation of future ruminants. We now need to invest in a scythe...

And here is a peaceful view of our acre of woods, where we get most of our firewood, a little maple syrup and a few nuts.

Now it's time to go back inside to finish making pickles with the last of the cucumber harvest and daydream about the cooler autumn days ahead! Thanks for joining us on our tour!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Our Pantry

Now that spring is here and fresh veggies are starting to show up, it's nice to be able to get away from the winter pantry a bit. We did, however, take some time recently to make a few upgrades. We used to keep everything on two small bookshelves, but now we've moved it all together onto some sturdy permanent shelving with a sheet to block our jarred goods from the little sunlight in our basement.

There are probably enough beans here to last us about 7 months if we ate them everyday. Beans are great because they're really nutritious, versatile, good for storage, and very cheap even when you buy organic. We've started buying bulk dried goods like these from Amazon because of their new "subscribe and save" feature that makes them even cheaper than buying from the local grocery store, plus they have organic products we just can't find around here.

We also keep sunflower and sesame seeds, olive oil, sardines, canned milk and tomatoes, salt, sugar, coffee, peanuts and peanut butter, vinegar, pickles, jams, water, juice, and some convenience items in our pantry. Along with the frozen meats, seafood, and produce in the freezer, the eggs from our hens, the fresh veggies from our garden, and our well-stocked spice cabinet, I really only have to buy dairy on a weekly basis and I never have to worry about being able to pull together a meal!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bread and Yogurt

I recently used a King Arthur Flour gift certificate to purchase a few splurges, including the yogurt maker and 6 quart dough bucket pictured below. Bread and yogurt are two staples around here, so I figured it would be worthwhile to make both a little easier.

Sprout was a bit late to the solid foods game, but yogurt was one of the first things he decided he liked and it's still one of his favorites. Making yogurt is pretty simple - all you really need to do is use some store-bought yogurt as a starter which you mix with heated milk and then this little machine holds it at a temperature of about 110 degrees for around 8 hours. Once you make the first batch, you just have to make sure that you save some as a starter for the next one. Those little YoBaby 4-packs were putting a pretty good dent in the grocery budget, so now I can make Sprout his favorite apple-cinnamon flavored breakfast with homemade apple butter for about 1/4 of the cost.

We've also recently realized that it's been more than a year since we last bought a loaf of bread from the store. Using the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day system works really well for me. What you see on the right in the picture above is a big batch of bread dough which I just mix together real quick, leave on the counter for two hours to rise and then I put it in the fridge until I'm ready to make a loaf. On baking day I pull out a 2 pound hunk which I shape into a loaf and then put it in a pan to rise again for about 2 hours before baking at 450 degrees for 45 minutes.

Here's a whole grain rye loaf, fresh from the oven. Peasant food can feel pretty luxurious sometimes!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mother's Day

I know it's a little bit late, but Happy Mother's Day to all of you wonderful mothers out there!  The Gardeness, Sprout and I celebrated by going into the city yesterday.  We walked the 5k Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Philadelphia.

Go Team Leigh!
We were proud to be there with my big sister, who walked this year as a survivor of breast cancer.  Joined by my mother, cousins and friends, it was a great way to spend time with the mothers in my life.  I was truly amazed to see all of the support given by the city, businesses and community members.

We walked with more than 40,000 people
Just to throw in a homesteading related note, we recently picked up a few bags of Purina's Pink 50 chicken feed.  It's all for such an important cause!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bock'n Out!

Today we had the chance to partake in a great and novel experience. The 2011 Sly Fox Bock Fest was held today at the Sly Fox Brewhouse in Phoenixville, PA.  Not only was this event a celebration of excellent local bock beers, it was also the 11th annual goat race!

Nearly 50 goats ran, trotted and bleated their way across the finish line.  We had a blast drinking good beer, listening to traditional German music and petting all the horned little speed demons.

The best part was when a three legged goat named Peggy beat out all of the competition. Word on the street is that Sly Fox will be naming this year's maibock in her honor.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sustainable in the Suburbs?

When we were kids, the area where we live would have fit pretty squarely into the category of rural. Twenty-some-odd years later, we're undeniably suburban. The population in our community (counting the eight nearest municipalities) went from 23,148 in 1980 to 45,771 today. Some of Chester County's biggest challenges these days are trying to plan for smart growth while preserving our agricultural heritage and open space.

So why do we choose to stay here? Well, for one, the Gardener's family has been in this end of the county since at least the early 1700s, and the house we bought was actually built by his uncle in the late 1960s. Most of the members of our family still live within a half-hour drive, and we like being able to stay close. Mostly, we feel like it's important to stay where we were raised and try to make a difference in the future of our community.

That being said, we recognize that trying to "homestead" in the suburbs comes with its share of challenges. For one, prices are high here. Another big one is the fact that it's basically impossible to live without at least one car. And perhaps the biggest one is the fact that we just don't fit in. We're sure our neighbors must wonder what the heck we're doing when we're plowing up big sections of our previously manicured lawn, hanging our undies out to dry, and picking dandelions. They're probably also worrying about what we're doing to their property values. Maybe one day they'll ask us for tips on starting their own vegetable gardens, but in the meantime we're always trying to maintain a level of orderliness that will keep the peace.

But there's a lot of good to be found here as well. I feel lucky that within about a 10 mile radius we have producers of local organic dairy and meat products, mushrooms, honey, flour and livestock feed, not to mention at least four CSAs, five farmers' markets, and three wineries! Within 50 miles we have the big city of Philadelphia, numerous universities, and great restaurants and breweries. We have access to culture and forward thinking, as well as hundred year old farms and small town community spirit.

The suburbs are constantly getting a bad rap as a comatose land of consumerism and conformity, but I don't think it has to be that way. I'd like to hear about some of your experiences in trying to live self-sufficiently on the outskirts, or tell us why you think "sustainability" and "suburbia" are simply irreconcilable!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mulch Madness

We finally broke down and bought a load of much needed mulch. This mulch mountain is what 8 cubic yards looks like, after having probably 20 wheelbarrow-loads already toted away.

Our mulching projects went in order of urgency - first, the apple and hazelnut trees we planted in the fall, then the much-neglected blueberry bushes we planted two falls ago, and then our perennial beds containing our hops vines, chicory, blackberries, mint, rhubarb, and our newly-planted strawberry crowns. Here you can see the hops bed, with some daffodil bulbs strewn in, and with plenty of room for the chives, lavender, sage, rosemary, and thyme I'll be planting soon.

With Sprout being born right at the time when this work should have been done last year, it just didn't get done, which meant that later in the season the weeds got pretty unmanageable. This year, all the heavy lifting should pay off with healthier plants (and happier neighbors too, I'm sure). Our next project is to put down a layer of cardboard and then mulch the walkways between our vegetable beds to cut down on mowing and trimming, and to get us a step closer to the colonial-kitchen-garden inspired and more suburban-friendly design we have in mind.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Out on the Line

It's now been about five months since our electric dryer quit working and we decided not to fix it. During the winter, our "Study", the room with the wood stove, was where you could find our temporary clothes line, tied to and strung between two extra dining room chairs which were weighed down with boxes of encyclopedias. Now that spring is here, I'm so glad to be able to take the laundry outside to hang in the breezes and sunshine!

We decided to relocate the line from halfway across the back lawn to just a few steps from the deck. Inspired by a post on one of our favorite blogs, we designed our upgraded new poles to resemble telephone poles, complete with blue glass insulators, and we have plans to add clothes-pin-holding "transformers" and bird silhouettes just for kitsch. I see no reason why chores have to be boring, or why utility can't also be artistic!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Bunny Egg Day

We dyed a dozen of our hens' eggs this weekend.  I'm pretty sure it's the first time we've ever dyed brown eggs, but they came out brilliant.

They made for a tasty breakfast.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cold Frame Progress

It's been about a month since I planted some kale under the glass and its looking pretty good.

I absolutely love this kale! We collected the seeds from our biennial kale in its second season.  It grows a thick almost shrub like trunk at the base and sprouts new leaves late into the fall. The flavor is less bitter than most store bought kale and it self seeds like crazy.

In the center you can see some baby cabbages.  It may look really crowded in there but the cabbage is an early maturing miniature cabbage.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Early Season Experiment

This past holiday season the Gardness' family gave me a copy of The Winter Harvest Handbook. It's quite an amazing book that details the steps employed by Eliot Coleman to not only extend the growing season in Maine but to actually grow greens all year round.  We didn't manage to test out the deep winter growing techniques but we were inspired to build our first cold frame.

Motivated to keep it as cheap as possible, I dug around the basement and found two matching picture frames. The sides are made from a 2x6 with a bit of 2x4 that I ran through the table saw to angle the glass. It's small but the hope is to make several others, possibly using plexiglass poster frames. On a sunny day when the air temperature was around 55° we saw it as high as 95° under the glass.

This past weekend I planted a few kale seeds in the frame so we'll be watching and waiting for any sprouts.

Flowers of Spring

The perennials planted by my late aunt have started their annual bloom around the homestead.  Spring is indeed upon us!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tree Taping Time

I think we are all starting to come out of our hibernation a little lately.  Even though there is a bit of snow on the ground the trees are starting to wake up.  This week, depending on the weather, we will be tapping a few of our maple trees.  We're waiting for the temperature changes to be just right.  Maple sap flows when daily highs are above freezing and nightly lows are below freezing consistently.

Last year we were able to freeze a bit of sap that we recently boiled down into syrup.  It took nearly 3 gallons of sap and about 5 hours to make 3/4 of a bottle of syrup.  

It was really an easy process. We simply filled a large pot with sap, put it on the stove, set up a fan to blow the moisture away from the cabinetry and let it boil.

The syrup is a little cloudy because we didn't bother to filter it.  It has a very rich and creamy maple flavor a bit like maple fudge with a slight chocolaty flavor in there somewhere. The results are wonderful and far better than I had expected.

More Meat

I always find it hard to post about hunting related topics.  There's so much stigma and political/cultural bias associated with it that I find myself picking my words carefully but here we go.

Last year we stocked the freezer with a bit of venison that comfortably held us through the end of summer.  Over the past year we've hardly bought more than a pound of beef for cooking at home, though we did buy poultry.

I took a doe early this season that was roughly the same size as last year's doe. I usually take my deer to a local butcher (Hershey's Farm Market) to prepare and package the meat and they do a great job.

I love supporting the few traditional businesses in our area. However, one of the big missing pieces in my experience has been butchering.  We've all seen the chart in the grocery store with the names used for different cuts of meat but there's a lot more to it than knowing the dotted lines on a picture.

An opportunity to learn presented itself during a day of hunting with my dad and my brother.  After three days, sunrise to sunset in the snow, my brother took a small buck.  A very small buck.  It's important to note that butcher shops usually charge a flat rate for their services. This means depending on the size of the deer the cost could be from $1.00/pound to $8.00/pound.  This deer was looking to be on the $8.00/pound side.

My brother offered us a deal, we could keep the meat if we butchered the deer and gave him the tenderloin. A few youtube videos and an email with Hank Shaw later we were sharpening our knives and rolling out the butcher paper.

We ended up with an additional 12 lbs of steaks and ground in the freezer. Did I mention the deer was really small?

The process wasn't nearly as tricky or as gross as you might think.  My hope is to follow this education into the various forms of charcuterie but I've got a long way to go.