November 23, 2013

Sweet Success

Sweet potatoes are one of my go-to crops. They are low maintenance, mostly insect pest free, one-time harvest and good winter keepers with no labor or energy intensive preservation methods. Their vegetation is like crack to deer, however, but since we have a fenced garden, that's not an issue. Unfortunately, their tubers are like crack to voles, which can easily get through garden fences and tunnel in to munch away on the sweet potato smorgasboard. They mostly prefer to eat the bottom two-thirds of the biggest sweet potatoes. This makes for a lot of disappoinment when harvesting as you first uncover the tops of what looks to be a nice, large sweet potato, only to pull it from the ground and find it mostly gnawed away. Argh!

But, I digress. This is not a post about sweet potato disappointment. This is a post about sweet potato success. Yes, the voles devoured ninety percent of the twenty five percent of my overall sweet potato crop that was decent sized (is that math making your head spin?). What I was left with was about three 5-gallon buckets worth of long, skinny sweet potatoes. It was hard to decide where to draw the line between a thick root and a thin sweet potato. This photo doesn't really help much without something for comparison, but most of these potatoes are as thick as my thumb and as long as my hand. The largest ones in the photo are about half the size of my wrist, and if you know me, you know I have tiny wrists!

So, how to utilize this harvest, that is the question. Joe's favorite way to eat sweet potatoes is baked whole, in their skins. That works beautifully with large sweet potatoes, but it turns these guys into little sticks of dried out sweet potato dust in a charcoaled skin. Peeling them would require enough "Elmo's World" episodes to rot Eden's brain. (Eden watches one "Elmo's World" or two "Blue's Clues" episodes each afternoon and all food prep and dish clean-up must be completed in that time span, approximately 45 mins. I consider the trade-off between mind-numbing brain food and body nourishing homemade, homegrown dinner to be more than worth it.) The key to cooking these potatoes is the solar oven. I must watch the weather and choose a good sunny day, but after scrubbing them down and chopping them into chunks, the sun cooks them to perfection, never dried out or burnt, and all in their own juices.

Next, I run them through the ricer (aka food mill) to separate out the skins. This sounds easy, but it's a lot more of a workout then making applesauce. But, still much faster and easier than peeling them before cooking.

The result is smooth, thick sweet potato puree, perfect for sweet potato pies! I was going to take a picture of the pies, but I was too busy eating them. I'm not much of a recipe follower, but our general concoction goes something like this:

Sweet potato puree
One can of coconut milk
One block of silken tofu
Some molasses
A smidgen of some other sweetener (honey, stevia, succanant)

Blend all ingredients together until smooth, spoon the thick mixture into two (or three) homemade pie crusts and bake until the crusts are cooked and the filling is browned. The filling will be "set" once completely cooled. We usually dig in as soon as they come out of the oven, so our first slice is more like sweet potato pudding on crust. We also make them only mildly sweet and eat them for dessert, breakfast, snack, whenever!

The tofu makes a perfect egg replacer for this kind of pie. Sweet potato pie season is also chickens not laying much of anything season. I (mostly) refuse to buy eggs from the grocery store, so I prefer to save our few precious winter eggs for eating with breakfast or a frittata rather than hidden in baked goods. It also, depending on how you make the pie crusts, makes a perfect vegan treat to share with your mother-in-law, if she's lucky!

November 14, 2013

10 Things, v2

Despite my best evasive efforts, I was "tagged" on Facebook to present 10 interesting things about myself. I have already written a previous post with 10 interesting things about myself, which can be viewed here, and I'm intending to provide 10 different points of interest in this post. So, that gives you the option of learning 20 things about me should you so choose. Here goes:

1) I was home schooled for all of grades k-12 (and pre-K too I guess). I attended New River Community College for three semesters and then transferred to Virginia Tech, from which I graduated Summa Cum Laude in 2004 with a BS in Wildlife Sciences. Thank you Mama for the stellar education!! I intend to continue the tradition with Eden.

2) I am the middle of five children, all of whom I shared a room with from the time I was 10 years old until I left for college (VT) at the age of 21. Actually, since my little brother was born when I was 12, I guess I only shared a room with 3 siblings for the first two years I mentioned.

3) I was bitten by the travel bug while in college and hopped my first ever commercial airplane flight (My uncle is a pilot and had taken me for a flight in a Piper Saratoga) to South Africa for a semester-long exchange program at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Emboldened by this experience, I later traveled to India for a friend's wedding and sailed around the Caribbean for two months with Joe and his uncle on a 100-ft sailboat. The travel bug is currently in remission, but I feel it will flare-up again in the future.

4) I married the second person I ever dated and the only guy I ever called my boyfriend. The first guy I dated refused to ever "define the relationship" and seemed allergic to the term "boyfriend", a situation that just wasn't workin' for me.

5) I've worked the same quirky but ideal job as a personal farmer/girl Friday for 9 1/2 years now, starting immediately after graduating college. At what point does a job become a career?

6) I've hiked into and out of the Grand Canyon twice, courtesy of my quirky, ideal boss of 9 1/2 years.

The above six points are all what Joe called "historical facts". Without telling him what it was for, I asked him to name some interesting things about me. Here are the four things he threw out there, in his own words.

7) "You have serious beading skills."

8) "You have a level of integrity far above the standard in our culture."*

9) "You pee in a bucket."**

10) "Your weed-eating is interesting."***

*Awww! I can definitely say the same about him. One particular example of my integrity that he still recounts with amazement is that once we were at a major, big-box home improvement store purchasing a large amount of building supplies. When they rang us up and announced the total, I pointed out they'd undercharged us by $500.00 on some plywood, which they corrected and we paid. Therefore, it is with a red-face that I admit I said nothing when a woman at a yard-sale miscalculated what I owed her by $1.00, in my favor. Obviously my integrity can be inconsistent and has poor money-management skills.

**I'm not running to the outhouse in the middle of a cold, dark night just to pee!

***This was on his mind because I had just finished weed-eating the garden, and what he meant to say was that I am a good weed-eater, which is true. I take pride in my weed-eating skills.

November 11, 2013

Trash to Treasure

I love it when the random stuff that accumulates around our place actually turns out to be useful! Case in point, a dumpster salvaged barbecue grill and a plastic concrete mixing tub. The concrete tub was actually a premeditated acquisition that served as Eden's bathtub all summer long. We'd throw a couple gallons of water in there in the morning, put a piece of plexiglass on top, and by afternoon the sun would have warmed it up to perfect outdoor bath temperature. The grill from the barbecue has been sitting in the outdoor kitchen for years, unused until now.

The project I had in mind was to sift through a finished compost pile. Turns out the metal grill has handles on it that perfectly fit the sides of the concrete tub, mostly keeping it in place. I'd shovel some compost on the grill, work it around with my hands, and any large chunks would stay behind. You never realize how many peaches and avocados you eat until you go through your compost pile! Peach pits, avocado pits and skins and butternut squash stems were the three most common un-composted ingredients. This compost pile was constructed during a year where we bought and canned several bushels of peaches, so there were A LOT of peach pits! All together I put about one five-gallon-bucket's worth of material into the current compost pile. The rest was BEAUTIFUL dark, crumbly compost that all went onto one garden bed. It was enough to cover a 4' x 12' bed with a layer of compost about an inch thick. So very satisfying.

Of course, that was the results of almost a year's worth of kitchen scraps, garden weeds and an old square hay bale for layering. At this rate, it would take us over a decade of home composting to enrich each of our garden beds with a one-inch layer of compost. This is why we cheated this spring and bought a whole dumptruck load of compost from a local large-scale compost operation, primarily in hopes of improving the overall structure of our heavy clay soil. This small, homemade compost pile didn't feel like cheating, though. It felt like we'd struck oil in the back yard.

November 07, 2013

"Bog"ged down?

Four years ago, after much research and agonizing, I bought my first pair of Bogs boots. It was a tough decision because I pretty much clothe myself head to toe from the thrift store. It kills me to think of paying full price for clothes. Thrift stores are great for the occasional awesome find, but its hard to shop for anything super specific, especially when you need a particular item within a specific time frame. Winter was coming, and I needed snow boots! Luckily, my Bogs were worth every penny and far exceeded my expectations. They were super comfortable right out of the box, warm, great in the snow, and cool looking to boot (no pun intended)! They were so comfortable and easy to slip on and off that I ended up wearing them for everything. I basically have my year divided into Chacos season and Bogs season (both of which were full price footwear purchases that I've never regretted). But, as you can see (on the left) in the above photo, it's been a tough four years for them. With another winter fast approaching, and the neoprene on my original Bogs torn and coming apart, it was time for an upgrade. I was lucky enough to find a discounted pair of a previous season's design/color scheme in my size on for about half price. As you can see, they're gorgeous! I can hardly bring myself to wear them because I don't ever want them to lose their bright, brand new glow. They'll be my "dress" pair of snow boots.

 Which brings me to a problem we have around here. We never get rid of old shoes! There's always a use for the previous pair. My old Bogs are still super comfortable; there's nothing wrong with the foot part, and since they're already scuffed and torn, they're perfect for dirty work. Shoes can always be downgraded, so when the day comes that you have to wade through raw sewage, you've got the shoe for that! Even the one pair of work boots I downgraded completely out of footwear status ended up being recycled into pansy planters, so they're still sitting around on the porch. Hence the problem, we've got way too many shoes sitting around on the porch, and in the house. I haven't figured out a solution yet, I'm just complaining.

It doesn't help that when I bought my new Bogs snow boots just recently, I purchased a second pair of Bogs as well. Like I said, as soon as the weather turns too cold for Chacos sandals, I switch to the Bogs because I want a waterproof, easy slip on, sturdy pair of shoes to do everything in, snow or not. All the gardening, hiking, etc. that I did in my Bogs probably shortened the life of the neoprene quite a bit. So, this new pair is to be used for all non-snow, non-downpour situations. And I'm loving them! They are comfortable, easy to slip on, sturdy…and something else to trip over on the way in or out of the house.

New Bogs, "Rue", photo courtesy of the internet

 Who'd a thought that I would ever end up one of those women with a "shoe problem"! (In my defense, Joe and Eden's shoes are equal parts of the problem.) At least I've got my farm footwear needs all sorted out. Don't get me started on what the heck kind of shoes I'm supposed to wear with a skirt or dress in the winter time!

P.S. Maybe this is what I need to do with some of the bottom-of-the-totem-pole shoes around here.  I mean really, what are the chances we'll have to wade through raw sewage anytime soon.

P.P.S. This post is dedicated to Eden. Shoes (or shooies as she pronounces it) is one of her new favorite words, both spoken and signed.

November 02, 2013

Although I've haven't posted anything on here in ages, I've had a blog theme running through the back of my mind for quite a while now. I call it "The Vegetarian Homestead". We are lucky to live in a community where many people have an interest in connecting with where their food comes from. For some people this means frequenting the local farmer's markets, but for many it means producing as much of their food as they can themselves. Joe and I definitely fall into that category, although grad school and parenthood have diverted a lot of our time and energy at the moment. Although we share common goals and interests with so many people around us, I find our vegetarian lifestyle puts us in a category mostly our own. Hobby farms and homesteads abound, but most of them include raising animals for meat as part of their food production strategy (or acquire meat from another local source).

I was feeling a bit lonely in my niche a while back and decided to search the internet for a homesteading kindred spirit. My geographical community may be small, but you can find anything on the World Wide Web, right? I typed "vegetarian homesteading" into Google to see what I would find and lo and behold, up popped a blog with the very promising name "The Vegetarian Homesteader"! How serendipitous! You can imagine my confusion when the first few posts that I read all seemed to be about raising animals for meat. Turns out the "vegetarian homesteader" is a woman who is indeed a vegetarian and raises a variety of heritage livestock on her farm…and her husband and children kill and eat the 'surplus' of her hobby. Hmm, not exactly what I was looking for. The pickin's were pretty slim throughout the rest of the WWW as well.

This disappointing research got me thinking about what I'd been looking for and the specific challenges of my own vegetarian homesteading experiments. We have some good friends who are vegetarians from way back and are basically my homesteading heroes. Although they don't produce all of their own food, their root cellars and storerooms are laden with homegrown and home preserved garden bounty that lasts year round. It's truly a thing of beauty. However, they don't have any domestic animals on their compound, neither livestock nor pets, which still puts me on my own to work out the kinks in my particular vegetarian homestead vision. Simply stated, how can one incorporate animals in a compassionate and sustainable fashion into a vegetarian homesteading paradigm without relying on someone else to "eat the surplus"?

Well, that might not have been very simply stated, but I'm already amazed that Eden has stayed asleep long enough for me to get this far. Spending time on editing might be a luxury I don't have if I want to get any blogging done at all. And I do want to do some blogging. In fact, I want to "be the blog you want to see in the world". (Is that how the saying goes?) In some of my future posts, I hope to focus specifically on my dreams for and experiments in attaining my vegetarian homestead vision, and maybe someday someone with similar goals will not find the World Wide Web quite as barren a terrain as I did. (I'm currently imaginging the mice from "An American Tail" singing "Somewhere Out There".)
Mountaintop magic! :)

June 28, 2013

Whew! It's been ages, but I'm gonna break the silent streak here. Blogging, I have found, takes a combination of time, energy and motivating material. I seem to have been having trouble getting all three of these ingredients at once lately. One thing often holding me back is the lack of enthusiasm for typing my posts out with my thumbs on the iPhone. But, now that Joe also has entered the smartphone world, we can use our phones as "mobile hotspots" to connect the laptop to the internet, albeit over a slow and spotty cellphone signal, which lets me use all ten fingers to type this post at warp speed!!

A recent family photo from a wedding Joe officiated

Joe is crazy busy with three summer classes and his job. His official job title is "Behavior Specialist", but the best I can describe what I know of his job (confidentiality and all that) is it seems like he is kind of a professional "Big Brother" to boys who are not having the smoothest of childhoods. He hangs out with them, goes hiking/bowling/throws the football around and hopefully manages to sneak some "counseling" in there at the same time, without them really noticing and therefore resisting. He is certainly getting a heartbreaking and overwhelming look at the crazy lives some kids lead. But, besides often coming home feeling very emotionally drained, he seems to be really enjoying the job and is great at it, I'm sure.

Eden, luckily, does not have to lead a crazy heartbreaking life; although to hear the fuss she puts up at having to get her face wiped after a meal or be put, all alone, into her safe play area for 30 seconds so I can (insert any short but essential task requiring two hands here), you'd think otherwise. Mostly it's all fun and games around here. Eden has passed the monumental one-year mark and everyday I see the "baby" slipping away and a "little girl" boldly taking her place. Although she can walk, crawling is still her go-to method of transportation. She continues to add signs to her ASL repertoire, but now she is also trying to say the words. I've noticed the only words she is speaking are ones she already knows signs for.

I'm pretty much Eden's full time entourage and lady's maid, a job I'm happy to do. However, during father/daughter moments or playdates at YaYa's house, I become a frenzied work machine. Much of that time is spent on regular daily chores, such as dishes, cooking, etc. But occasionally I do slip in some "extra" work. I haven't managed to keep a manicured lawn, but I have kept the grassy areas surrounding the house and outbuildings from reverting to full-blown pasture. I've also planted a full garden, which has so far kept us supplied with as much kale and swiss chard as we can dream of eating. It remains to be seen how productive the tomatoes, peppers, green beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes and black eyed peas will be. I've promised myself that I will not get upset at the inevitable invasion of potato and bean beetles and will be happy for whatever crop we can salvage amidst their destruction, a promise I am having to remind myself of daily. Thankfully, so far we have had plentiful rains that have eliminated any need for garden watering.

I'm also raising my first ever batch of mail-order chicks here at our place to beef up our paltry poultry flock. My initial order of 15 birds is down to 13 after a couple of random deaths to unknown causes, and they all seem to be doing well. After keeping them in a dog kennel in the yurt for the first two weeks, they're now outside in the secure goat-house chicken coop. I ordered them this late in the year so that we wouldn't have to worry too much with providing supplemental heat, and so far that seems to be working out. I kept them warm with half-gallon jars full of boiling water, insulated with old socks and covered the kennel with a blanket at night to help hold the heat and eliminate drafts. Now the weather has warmed enough and they've feathered out and grown quite a bit, so they're braving the outdoors with no heat and seem to be doing fine.

That's it for now. I've been listening to several barred owls conversing in the nearby woods as I wrote this. Very cool.

April 06, 2013

Two days ago we got four inches of snow. Today was sunny and in the 60's! Jango did still find a little patch of snow to munch on in the shade of the car. Eden and I are loving being able to spend msg of the time outdoors. She is supplementing her diet with lots of dirt, leaves, bark, etc. Joe's mom asked that we please not let her eat dirt as she might get parasites. While I think that sounds like a perfectly reasonable request on paper, in reality it is like asking water not to flow downhill! A friend td me the other day that having parasites is good for you, prevents allergies. I'm gonna go with that theory.

It has been way too cold and unpredictable a spring to do much garden work, but I have managed to plant onions and start some plants in the greenhouse. My kale, broccoli, chard and lettuce starts have been up for weeks, but they're growing rather slowly. It hasn't helped that many nights their soil blocks have been ice cubes. We're really testing the limits of "cold tolerance" here !

The weather report looks to be spring-like for the next week or more, so I planted some tomatoes in the greenhouse today. My "garden of Eden" may be more Eden than garden this year, so I'm planning on crops that are as low maintenance as possible. Pretty much every year our tomato crop suffers from BAD blossom end rot. No amount of calcium supplements or strict watering regimens seems to help. This year I'm planting only tomato varieties resistant to BER. I'm refusing to be wooed by gorgeous catalog photos and mouthwatering descriptions. The best tomato ever is the one that actually makes it to my plate and doesn't fall off the plant half ripe and half rotten. I have a couple of varieties that always do well, namely Sungold (best cherry tomato ever!), Eva Purple Ball and Principe Borghese. These are all smallish tomatoes. The big dinner plate kinds and any "saucing" variety are doomed. I'm trying one new variety, Earl of Edgecombe" that's supposed to be BER resistant. I'll give you my review at the end of the summer.