The Half-Assed Homesteader

Overambitious underachiever June 14, 2012

Filed under: pickling,Preserving,Uncategorized — halfasshomesteader @ 6:02 am
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I did it!  I officially finished my first year of grad school.  Monday, my first day off, was full-on relaxation day: had lunch at the food carts downtown, sat in the sun reading a trashy magazine for an hour, saw a movie, went to happy hour.  Tuesday, I ran approximately twelve thousand errands, did as much laundry as I possibly could, and that was basically it.  So by today, Wednesday, I was already beginning to feel this sensation of panic – “It’s been two days and I haven’t done anything in the yard or kitchen OH MY GOD SUMMER IS ALMOST OVER AND I AM WASTING IT”.  So, as is totally typical of me, I decided to do a week’s worth of projects in one day.  Project goals for the seven hours between dropping family off and picking them up:

  • Pickled asparagus
  • strawberry freezer jam
  • first attempt at homemade yogurt
  • first attempt at homemade white wine vinegar
  • first attempt at rhubarb drinking vinegar

Amazingly, I actually accomplished almost all this, plus I did some unexpected things, and nothing was an abysmal failure!  Although I would not be me if I had done everything according to plan…

I started with the asparagus pickling.  Part of the reason nothing every really works quite right for me is that I never do the same thing twice.  I really liked the pickled asparagus I made last summer, even though the recipe kind of bewildered me, so I decided I’d try it again and try not to screw it up this time.

Again, as last year, I bought the asparagus weeks ago, but at least this time there was no mold, it was actually really sturdy and pretty.  I felt sad salting it.

One of the reasons I don’t can or pickle as much as I’d like is that my canner is HUGE and just waiting for the water to boil takes more time than I usually want to devote.  I’m hoping to experiment this summer with some different equipment.  I saw this post about small batch canning the other day, and now I really want an asparagus pot, but for today I just ended up using a stockpot, which is really only slightly smaller than my canner. I definitely think it cut down on the timesuck though.

Of course, my canning rack didn’t fit in there, so I stole this awesome idea from Northwest Edible Life, and because my stockpot was pretty skinny I only needed to use a couple of random rings I had laying around.  Ingenuity!

So, of course, as the jars were sterilizing I started to put together the pickling liquid, and had nothing I was supposed to have, apart from the vinegar and sugar.  I used the same black mustard seed as last year instead of regular mustard seed, because it turned out fine.  Frustratingly, I could never find dill seed to use last year, found the unopened jar a week later, and then couldn’t find it again this year.  And totally forgot to buy an onion for it.  So…I ended up using the black mustard seed and then randomly throwing in some white peppercorns and juniper berries?  Because…they were the size and shape of what I wanted?  That truly was the extent of my reasoning.

I had counted out thirty asparagus and chopped them so they’d fit into the jar, and that was what I salted.  I packed them all in to the jar, poured the pickling liquid in, and was feeling all pleased…until I remembered that I had a whole other jar that was supposed to be full of asparagus.  So, in true half-assed fashion, I just snapped off the very ends of the chopped parts and dumped them into the jar, which actually filled it up.  So maybe…I just don’t know.  Is it supposed to be each asparagus cut in half or something?  I still find it bewildering.  And, I poured in the liquid and it came up only half way.  Again. Just like last year.  So, I processed it, and now I have one beautiful asparagus pickle jar, and one half full of weird choppy bits jar.  I will use them in salads I think.

I’ll leave my other adventures for tomorrow, but I have to say that I feel really happy and proud to be failing in my kitchen again.  My goal for the summer is to work on being more realistic about what I can do during the schoolyear, and to practice skills.  I want to get more into small-batch processing, and I’m working a lot from this book Make the Butter, Buy the Bread which I wish I’d written, about what is easy and worth it to make at home and what you should just admit is easier to pick up at the New Seasons.  I may have made several discoveries about that today…which I will share with you soon!

 

This is what it looks like. June 1, 2012

Filed under: baking,fruit,Growing,Uncategorized,vegetables — halfasshomesteader @ 5:38 am
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Nine months ago I wrote here that I would keep you all informed about what it looks like to be a grad student, mom of a 4 year old, good friend, wife, half-assed homesteader and blogger.  Well apparently what it looks like is nine months of silence.  The truth is that for the last nine months I have not made all my own bread.  I have not made any bread.  I didn’t run out to my garden and pick fresh kale for a salad from under a cover of snow.  I did not once make toothpaste.

What did I do instead?  I taught kids where their food comes and how to grow their own.

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I taught my daughter how to write her name.  I went on dates with my husband, and went out dancing until really late at night with friends.

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I spent Christmas in Arkansas with my grandmother and Spring Break in Palm Springs, laying in the sun drinking mojitos.

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I got a tattoo of a hazelnut.  I wrote a thesis proposal.  Obviously, I got an iPhone and got addicted to Hipstamatic.

What else did I do?  I ate that failed strawberry balsamic jam on toast every other day or so, and a couple of months ago I started eating eggs in the morning from my chicken friends.  I watched with pride and wonder as my apple trees bloomed profusely for the first time since I planted them four years ago, and as those beautiful flowers swelled into the delicate tiny green apples out there now, just tinged with rose. I also watched as the peach tree I planted last year withered and nearly died, and as my quince tree developed a rust that will almost certainly pass over to the apple trees that I am so proud of.  A month ago I planted an entire vegetable garden in one day, a week ago I freed my strawberry plants from the clutches of those evil creeping buttercups again (just like last year), and just today I looked outside and noticed the teeniest hints of green all in a row – the carrots that my daughter helped me sow are coming up, finally.

What didn’t I do?  I didn’t write about it. Mainly, because I was writing a thesis proposal and extra writing suddenly seemed a lot less fun than it normally does.  I suppose I am the half-assed blogger as well, which I was well-prepared for.  But I love that today is the day that I finally decided to devote a few minutes to writing.  Today, I used my first harvest of this spring – rhubarb.  A rhubarb crumble is cooling on the stove right now, of course with  one quarter rhubarb from my garden and three quarters from the market.  Who would I be if I grew enough of any one thing to do anything with it?  The crumble is to be shared tomorrow at a potluck, with all the friends and colleagues I’ve developed relationships with during the last year – a celebration of having come so far together.  And a celebration of it being over!  I have one more week of classes, a final, and then I’m done with my first year of grad school.  Three weeks later, I start the second part of my program.  Not much of a break.

I am absolutely certain that over the summer, and over the next year, my half-assed homesteading will continue.  Soon I’ll be harvesting snap peas and strawberries, then will come the inevitable deluge of zucchini, and with any luck in a few months I’ll have more apples than I’ll know what to do with.  I’m sure I’ll make some cheese here and there, and I have been thinking I really miss sewing lately and I’d love to try to make a dress for my daughter.  My fingers are crossed that I’ll have the time and the inclination to share those adventures here, but if the airwaves go silent for awhile again, it’s probably because I’m too busy sitting outside in the sun with my friends and family, trying to figure out how to use up all that zucchini.

 

The Half-Assed Harvest October 16, 2011

Filed under: Cooking,Growing,Preserving,vegetables — halfasshomesteader @ 8:55 pm

My goal, for some far off point in my future life, is to be one of those super productive gardeners who has something going all year, and can trudge out through the snow to pick something fresh for dinner.  Unfortunately, that’s not yet a reality.  So a couple of weeks ago, with the start of my first term of grad school looming terrifyingly ahead, I realized it was time to assess just how pathetic my garden was this year, and to try to salvage and preserve the last dregs of produce out there.

Tomatoes:  I have had the same tomato strategy for the last ten years or so, and it always works out very well throughout the season, but at the end of the year I always have tons of tomatoes left over that I never get around to using or putting up, and I was determined this year not to let that happen.  I grow five plants: an early variety, a delicious heirloom I’ve never tried, a plum, a Green Zebra because I love it, and Sungold because it is amazing.  This year I used most of my remaining Early Girls to make a tomato sauce that I froze.  I grew something that was yellow and super sweet and tasty, I don’t remember what it was called, and those I blanched and skinned, then froze whole along with the Green Zebras. The Sungolds I am eating off the vine still. And then there are the plums.

I thought I would oven dry them.  It’s becoming apparent to me that I need a dehydrator because all my dried stuff is just turning out super janky.  I halved them, and put them in the oven for a few hours, then it was time for dinner so I had to take them out. I repeated that process, slooooooooowly drying them out over a period of maybe a week?  Just leaving them in the oven and turning it on to dry them some more whenever I remembered to.  Until yesterday, when I turned the oven to 350 to preheat for a carrot cake (from a box) and about fifteen minutes later my husband came in and said, “Why does it smell like burning tomatoes?”.  Dammit. So, I’m not sure if they are usable or not.  They are kind of black in some parts, but they seem dried out?  Typical half-assedness.

Eggplants:  Even more half-assedness!  I grew two eggplants, one had a bunch of really pretty little streaky purple and white guys and the other grew one big regular dark purple eggplant.  Yep.  One eggplant.  I decided I would do this thing where you preserve eggplant in olive oil with some of them and make baba ganoush to freeze with the rest.  I didn’t have all the ingredients for the baba ganoush, so I put the ones for that on the counter with the plan of purchasing the ingredients the next day and making it then.  The eggplants are still sitting on the counter.  The ones I was going to preserve in oil were sliced and salted and sat in a colander over a bowl on the stove to drain their excess liquid.  The next afternoon, I found that my awesome husband had, without asking, dumped them into the compost.  So, basically my entire eggplant harvest was a bust.

Carrots:  I know real gardeners grow some carrots and then harvest them and then grow some more all summer. I sowed two lines of carrots, ignored them all summer, and then dug them up the other day.  But what a bunch of carrots!  How can your heart not be warmed by these little straggly knobby guys who were out there fighting for their lives in my unamended, rocky soil?  There were like, eight carrots, so I’m just eating them.  Sadly, they’re not even all that sweet because they are ancient at this point, and also they are so knobbly that it is impossible to wash them really well so there is a definite grit factor, but I don’t care because I love them.

Peppers:  I grew a red bell, a little hot thing, and anaheims.  I have never had success with bells.  I grow them every year, and every year they suck.  This year was no exception.  They grow all distorted, and different parts of the pepper ripen at different rates, and they are just generally pointless.  Of course, the little super hot looking guys grew great, because I don’t even like them, I just grow them for my husband.  Harvest day I decided I’d oven dry them, but I didn’t want to do it with my kid in the house because I was afraid they’d exude a toxic gas that would kill us all.  I was going to buy gloves the next day too, because hot peppers make my hands hurt for days. I forgot to buy gloves, and all those lovely peppers are still sitting on the plant.  The anaheims also grew way better than expected, but they never developed any heat at all.  So we basically used them as green peppers throughout the season, and then I did a quick pickle with the end of season harvest.

Zucchini:  Ugh.  We know all about zucchini.  Let’s not even talk about it anymore.

Acorn squash:  My first time growing winter squash and it did really well!  I am harvesting it for actual use right now and really happy about it.

Broccoli:  Most people grow broccoli only in spring and fall, but I grow it straight through and just hack pieces off periodically when it looks like it’s about to bolt.  It’s a really weird, nontraditional way of doing it, but it works for me.  I did hack a bunch off that day and it’s sitting in the fridge right now waiting for my husband to make this awesome Nigel Slater (my boyfriend) lamb and broccoli stir-fry (scroll down).  Suck it aphids, I had a productive broccoli season anyway.

Kale:  Why in the hell do I even grow this stuff?  And why does it mock me by growing better than anything else?  It’s out there, right now, the stuff I planted in March.  It’s full and lush and dark green, calling to me about how nutritious it is.  And I just hate it.  I tried this kale and ricotta salata salad recipe, thinking, If I just smother it in cheese I will like it.  But I still didn’t.  The stuff is nearly as tall as I am right now, never bolted, and looks like it will grow into a tree by the end of winter.

Cabbage:  Wow.  I really dropped the ball on this one.  I had four beautiful cabbages out there and I just ignored them completely until they got all weird and cracked and eventually stuff started growing out of the middle of them?   I don’t even know what that is?  And I like cabbage, a lot.  It makes me sad to think of all the okonomiyakis we could have made if I hadn’t flaked.

Radishes:  Look at this thing!  What the hell is this?  I’ve never really grown radishes before, and I know they are quick and should be sown and harvested multiple times, but I thought I’d try my carrot strategy out on them.  Yeah.  It doesn’t work.  I went out to harvest them and realized that the poor things had gotten so big that they’d heaved themselves out of the ground.  I think they were trying to walk away.  Inedible.  Next year I’ll know.

Cucumbers:  So, I planted these cucumber seeds and forgot about them and then one day I was like, Holy crap!  Look, there’s cucumbers over there!  We harvested a couple, but I could never really wrap my brain around the variety.  The internet said they were supposed to get like 8″ long, but whenever they got more than 4″ or so they’d start cracking and turn yellow and get all weird.  So we just kept harvesting these teeny ones, but eventually we sort of forgot they were back there.  I was hoping there’d be at least a couple I could pickle on harvest day but there weren’t.

Raspberries:  This is the saddest.  I have an absolutely enormous patch of Autumn Gold raspberries, and they produce twice.  We really made the most of our first raspberry time, my little lady would run out and pick them every day and come inside with raspberry smeared all over her face and I felt like a good mom.  The second time, I knew they were coming on, but I kind of forgot about them and the other day I looked and they had all just shriveled into nothing and I felt like a total failure.

So, this is where I am.  The garden is basically dead to me right now, until I get news that a frost is coming at which I point I will run out and salvage everything one last time.  I found an amazing recipe for pasta with a green tomato sauce that I’ll make.  I’d link to it but this is the one case in which the internet is failing me, but if you are interested let me know and I’ll put it up.

I’m somewhat satisfied with what I accomplished as the half-assed homesteader over the summer.  If I look at it as a lifelong process of building skills and knowledge, I feel like I took some good steps.  And now it’s fall, and I’m in school an insane amount, and I have to look at this as a good thing, a challenge.  It’s easy (?) to run a cool productive household during the summer when you don’t have a job.  Now we get to see how it works when you have 21 credits of grad school, a 3 year old to raise, a family to feed well, friends to see, and volunteer work.  Oh, and a blog!  I’ll keep you posted, or at least I’ll try.

 

When the garden gives too much zucchini… September 15, 2011

Filed under: baking,Cooking,Preserving — halfasshomesteader @ 5:19 pm

…you make zucchini bread.  And attempt and fail (twice) to make zucchini chips.  And make the zucchini ricotta spread until all your friends are sick of it.  AND YET THERE IS MORE ZUCCHINI.

I’ve grown zucchini every year I’ve ever had a garden.  That’s the majority of the last thirteen years or something like that.  So you’d think I’d know by now how many plants will produce too much zucchini for my family to eat.  Do you know how many plants that is?  It’s one.  One plant will just about do us.  Maybe two if we want zucchini coming out of our ears.  So how many zucchini plants do you think I planted this year?

Five.  Yes, that’s right.  Five zucchini plants.

See, I have a tiny gardener who likes to help me.  She especially likes to sow seeds.  And even though I have never had a zucchini seed fail to sprout, I still have this method instilled in me, from my days of professional propagation, of oversowing.  No good propagator would ever sow less than three seeds. And I feel like I have to pass this down to my daughter.  This is valuable gardening information!  This is the sort of information that gets passed from generation to generation in a gardening family!  So, we planted two or three seeds in each spot, I’m not sure how many, but eventually we ended up with five absolutely enormous zucchini plants, and I just didn’t have the heart to thin them.  I know that goes against all professionalism, thus making my earlier insistance on oversowing seem ridiculous, but…that’s me.  Half-assed overachiever.  Even I don’t understand my own brain.

So that’s how I ended up harvesting thirteen pounds of zucchini in one day a few weeks ago.  They sat on my counter and I stared at them until one day I decided it was zucchini day.  First up, I read this post about zucchini chips, and I thought that sounded fantastic.  But I don’t have a dehydrator.  That’s okay, I thought.  I’ll just slice them up with a mandolin and put them on various flat surfaces into the oven and the lowest temp and see what happens.  These beautiful zucchinis went in looking like this:

Unfortunately, they came out looking like this:

We had to use the oven later that night and I thought I’d just take them out for a few hours then put them back in, but when I took them out it was obvious immediately that they were an abysmal failure.  I didn’t use anything to prevent them from sticking, and so….they stuck.  I mean, really really stuck.  On the upside, they immediately disintegrated when immersed in hot water so they did not turn into a cleaning debacle.

I actually tried the zucchini chips again a week later, and once again they were totally unsuccessful.  I actually put them on aluminum foil, but they still stuck.  Interestingly, I didn’t use a mandolin this time, and I used two different size.  The larger slices, which were also mostly thinner, just shrank down and died.  But the smaller and thicker slices actually kind of started to work, but there were so few of them that I just ate them out of the oven.  They were delightful and I still think I might give this a third try if I am feeling ambitious someday soon, since my garden is still producing an abundance of zucchini.

But anyway.  Back to the zucchini bread.  I thought I’d make six loaves at once and freeze five of them in my completely awesome chest freezer.  (You may remember some of this debacle from Facebook.)  I dropped my kid off at school and stopped at the store on the way home to get some dish soap, and while I was there I picked up ingredients, and was feeling all smug that for once I remembered to do something like that in advance.  I got home, was actually knee deep in ingredient assembling when I realized that I did not have a smidge of brown sugar.  So out I ran to the store, with my table covered in half-assembled zucchini bread ingredients.  I came back home, turned on Radiolab, my eternal homemaking partner, and set up this wonderful streamlined system of zucchini bread production.  After the third one I kind of thought…Hm.  Did I leave something out of that one? But I had no idea what it would have been, so I continued.  At the end I was astonished and proud to have six lovely zucchini breads to put into the oven.  An hour later I pulled out this:

But also this:

For comparison:

One of these things is not like the other.

I obviously left out either the baking soda or baking powder of the sad one.  But that’s okay!  Five out of six is not bad, for me, frankly. One of them collapsed coming out of the loaf pan too, but it still tasted delicious.  The other ones all went into the freezer so that I will have ready to bring summery desserts for mid-winter dinners.  Overall, this was a successful project!  I mean, I know making zucchini bread is not a particularly demanding venture, but I grew something, I made something with it, and I saved it for later, and I think that is cool.

I’m still planning on making a zucchini quiche to freeze for the winter also, and I might do some zucchini pickles too.  I mean, this zucchini just keeps going!  And then, of course, I somehow planted four acorn squash plants too, so will I be failing at making acorn squash chips in a couple months?  We’ll see…

*and in case you missed it on Facebook, after I made a colossal mess making the zucchini bread, I realized I had forgotten to buy dish soap the first two times I’d gone to the store and I had to go to the store AGAIN for dish soap.

 

ain’t no party like a half-ass party September 4, 2011

Filed under: baking,Cooking — halfasshomesteader @ 4:27 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I have found, much to my satisfaction, that as I’ve gotten older I have become a much happier hostess.  As my poor husband and best friends can attest, entertaining at my house used to be a very sad, stressful affair, where I anguished over every detail of the planning and would basically curl up into the fetal position about ten minutes before the event, terrified that either nobody would come or everybody would come. There was much cleaning and cooking and scurrying about the house muttering to myself about place settings.  These days, I’ve (pretty much) learned to actually take the advice that moms throughout the ages have given to their daughters: if people are judging you on something stupid like how dirty your floor is, they aren’t your friends anyway.  Especially now that entertaining involves hordes of small children coming over, I really don’t even bother cleaning or planning that much.  I just want to hang out with my friends, not lie to them about what day to day life is like.  Having said all that, I am still the weirdest half-assed overachiever ever, so a typical get together for me is as follows.

Yesterday I had a “happy hour playdate”, in which I provided some drinks and snacks and over the course of a few hours some lovely moms brought their hooligans over and we let them wrassle around in the backyard while we drank wine in the sun.  It was pretty glorious, if I do say so myself. When I hatched this scheme I envisioned myself having basically all the preparation done by the middle of the week, because I knew that I’d have my little lady with me all day Thursday and Friday and I wanted to actually hang out with her rather than deposit her in front of the TV while I frantically finished up the food.  Of course, that’s never how my life happens.  I did manage to keep my stuff on the fairly simple side for once, instead of hollowing out grapes and filling them with blue cheese or something equally ridiculous (sorry to the person who had to help me with that in 2005.)  I was planning to make a zucchini ricotta spread, to get rid of zucchini.  Bake some no-knead bread to go with it.  A big plate of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.  And deviled eggs.

I have a cheese making set that my ever-supportive husband got me for Christmas and only used once and I have been really wanting to use again, so I thought I’d make the mozzarella and the ricotta, but in a rare show of common sense I decided to only make one and chose ricotta because last time I made mozz and it was not especially successful.  I thought I’d have a relaxing Wednesday and make the cheese, but somehow it didn’t happen that way and I found myself at 9 pm on Wednesday night realizing that it was now or never.  So, glass of wine in hand, I dumped a gallon of milk into my dutch oven and hoped for the best.

The directions made it seem like it would be pretty quick, the milk just had to come to 180 to 185 degrees and as soon as the curds separated from the why, I was to take it off the heat.  I was supposed to make sure there was no “milky whey”. Curds started forming pretty quickly, but after the first few the whole process seemed to sort of stagnate.  I was kind of hoping that at 180 it was just going to suddenly clump up and the endpoint would be obvious, but at 185 it looked…basically the same as it did at 85.

At this point it was probably 10 pm, and I was beginning to hate the cheese and my life. My husband had long since gone to bed and it was just me, my wine, some semi-clumpy milk and Facebook.  (I did think to make the dough for my no-knead bread during this time, feeling all smug about my late-night tipsy multitasking.)  I noted that the directions said to make sure not to let it scorch so I started stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan a little more vigorously, but still the clumps were starting to get a little brown.  And still, the whey still appeared milky to me.  I just thought there would be a clear distinction – clear liquid vs. clumps, but no.  Eventually, knowing that it still had to sit for 15 to 30 minutes after I took it off the heat, I just gave up and dumped it into my cheesecloth.  About 15 minutes later, it looked like this:

And it tasted like…solid, chewy milk.  It had the right texture and everything, but it was just basically flavorless.  I put it into the fridge and went to bed.

I had planned to make the zucchini spread the next day, and also to bake the bread.  Neither of those things happened because it was the best day ever and it was NONSTOP FUN ALL DAY.

Friday morning we had plans, so at noon I had three hours to bake the bread, make the zucchini spread, the tomato salad, and the deviled eggs, plus try to make my house somewhat presentable.

The no-knead bread is supposed to sit for eighteen hours, then get punched and sit for another two.  Eighteen hours after I made the dough, I was sitting under the stars at a farm with grilled corn, a beer, and some sweet friends.  I eventually punched it roundabout 40 hours after I started it.  I tasted it and it had a slightly tangy flavor, but other than that it seemed okay so I decided to go for it.  I didn’t have time to let it sit for two hours and then bake for 45 minutes so it sat for an hour instead.  This is why I love no-knead bread: the end result was just a kind of sourdough version of the regular bread with a more open crumb.  Genius! Homemade bread = success!

The ricotta came out of the fridge to go into the zucchini spread and had a really weird gummy texture, but I zipped the whole thing up in the food processor and it was delicious!  Homegrown zucchini + homemade ricotta = spread = success again!

Oh right, and somewhere in here during the week, I hardboiled a dozen eggs.  I literally don’t even remember when.  It was sometime during the day, and I didn’t have time to ice them down, so I just stuck them in a bowl of cold water into the fridge for, I don’t know at least three days?  Where they were still waiting for me Friday afternoon.   When I got chickens I had this great idea that deviled eggs was going to be my Signature Dish.  I was going to collect deviled egg dishes and everything.  Then I realized that hardboiling super fresh eggs actually kind of sucks.  I still do it, but I’m a little less enthusiastic about it.  I remember peeling Easter eggs when I was a kid and how it was really satisfying to see if you could get the whole shell off in just a couple pieces.  Fresh hardboiled egg shells come off in thousands of pieces. It is so time-consuming and tedious, and the eggs always look like a fifteen year old’s acne-scarred face.  They are not pretty.  I thought I’d make them more appealing by at least piping the filling out of a pastry bag, but I didn’t mash the yolks enough and a big yolk clod clogged up the bag and I ended up with a yolk volcano out of the top of the bag and all over my hands.  The first one was all twisty and lovely, but the rest were dumped in with a teaspoon as usual. But, hey they were delicious so whatev.  And!  This time I fancied ‘em all up with some edible flowers.  Backyard eggs + homegrown edible flowers = success!

Finally, there is pretty much no way you can screw up a giant plate of backyard tomatoes with mozzarella and basil.  I mean…I ran out of the olive oil I was going to drizzle over it, but it still was pretty much heavenly.  And purdy too!  4 variety tomato platter = total success!

So, overall, even a half-assed party can be a success.  I invited some people I liked, made some food I was proud of, and allowed myself to relax once they got here.  I never did get to pick up the house at all though, so there were literally peas and Joe’s O’s all over the floor, and one 4 year old was overhead exclaiming, “There are a lot of dead plants in the front yard.”  True.  So true.  But the food was good, right?

 

millions of peaches August 17, 2011

Filed under: Preserving — halfasshomesteader @ 5:14 am
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Finally, finally, the time has come to discuss the peach fiasco.  Things got a little crazy there for awhile.  I had to spend really an unfortunate amount of time studying for finals and the GRE.  It’s real life, you know? Sometimes you have the time and energy to do cool stuff, and sometimes all you can do is try desperately to remember the formula for the circumference of a circle.

So, a couple months ago I was getting my haircut and this lady walked in and gave my stylist this giant jar of peaches.  I was instantly transported to my youth and eating those little slices of peaches in tin cans and I thought, Heeeeyyyy.  I could do that.  Then two weeks ago a U-Pick farm I “like” on Facebook mentioned that they had Early Red Haven peaches opening the next day.  I actually had two free days in a row, one on which to pick, one on which to process, and it seemed perfect, so I headed out to Sauvie Island Farms, armed with a giant red tub, a camera, sunscreen, and about 1 oz of water, which I later regretted immensely.

I actually picked seven pounds of green beans first, thinking I’d freeze them in our brand new (to us) chest freezer, huzzah!  The picking was so easy and fast and satisfying, I was totally feeling smug, which should always be a sign of imminent danger.

The lady had warned me of two things: first, that these peaches, although technically freestone, were actually pretty clingy and were better for eating than for canning.  I am a stubborn woman, and I find it very difficult once I am excited about something to switch directions, so I plowed on ahead.  Second, the peaches had already been pretty well picked out on the north side, so keep to the south, but there should be plenty.

Because I am a giant freak who ignores all advice, I hit the north side first. As I approached, the aroma of peaches was heavy in the air, and the trees all appeared to have tons of fruit on them. But as I got closer, I realized that it was, literally, all rotten.  The trees were loaded down with juicy ripe fruit…that was all covered in mold.  I meandered down toward the south side after all, smashing spoiled fruit under my feet the whole way.  Finally, at the very last row, there were trees that still had a small amount of decent fruit on them, and I picked it all.  I actually was going to jokingly post on Facebook the next day, “Hey don’t go out to Sauvie to pick peaches, I got it all, ha ha ha” and then Sauvie posted that they were out of peaches, and I actually felt kind of guilty.

As I mentioned I was surprised and disappointed to find that I’d only picked sixteen pounds of peaches.  I’ve had this idea of putting up everything while it’s fresh and not buying any non-local produce throughout the winter, and sixteen pounds of peaches was not going to help that much.  But my god, I am glad now I did not have twenty-five pounds of peaches.

The next day I put together this absolutely, in hindsight, ridiculous list of eleven things I wanted to do with the green beans and peaches and a schedule of how I might overlap projects so that I could get them all done in four hours.  I have no idea what I was thinking.

The very first step in the entire process was to dismember the peaches.  All my reference materials said that I should blanch them first and the skin would just slip right off.  The lady at the farm had said the skin was easy to peel, so as you might expect, I ignored the advice and just sat down and started peeling.  About ten minutes and two peaches out of sixty in, I realized that I was being a jackass and started blanching them.  Peach tip #1: blanch them.

Once they were skinned it was time to get the pit out.  This lady was not lying when she said they would not split cleanly in half.  I mean, the peach itself did, but then trying to get the pit out was just impossible.  I thought I’d try sliding it out with a spoon, a la avocado, but it just resulted in a smashed peach.  I couldn’t think of any other way to pit them, so I just started slicing off chunks all around and putting them into one vat of acidulated water, and then leaving a bunch of flesh on the pit and dumping that thing into another vat of acidulated water.  This entire process of breaking down the peaches probably took me 2 1/2 of the 4 hours I had to do stuff in.  Time management is not one of my skills.

Early Red Haven: not a freestone peach

I had, cleverly I thought, had all the canning supplies going on the stove for the entire time, so when I was done, it was go time.  I had to make the simple syrup, which took only a few seconds, but other than that I was ready.  I chose to use an ultra-light syrup and raw pack, because I just really hate the idea of taking these perfect fruits and then cooking them and drowning them in table sugar. Peaches in jars, syrup over the peaches, lids and bands on, and into the canner they went.  It was miraculously smooth.  Now it was time to work on the jam.

It seemed that the only way to get the remaining flesh of the pits was just to basically smush it off.  I really, really hate wasting food, so I wanted to put every teeny last bit to use.  I set my station up again.  Pit bowl, mush bowl, and a bowl for juice, and spent the next half hour squishing peaches over the juice bowl so that even the juice could be used.  Once I finally had extracted every single possible bit of usable material from those peaches, I set about making this peach rosemary jam.

Okay.  Jam mix is bubbling away on the stove, using the best bits of the mush.  Now to use the true dregs of the pulp to make fruit leather.  (Seriously?  Why did I think I was capable of doing all this in one day???) According to my book, it needs to be cooked on the stove first, then strained so that it will…I don’t know.  Make a better fruit leather.  So, now I have a giant canner on the stove with the peaches in it.  A saucepan with jam mix in it next to it.  And a dutch oven full of proto fruit leather behind that.  Everything in my house is sticky.  There are dishes piled upon dishes upon dishes.  Every time I take a step I slide on slimy peach skin.  I am miserable and totally unable to comprehend how I will ever make sense of this chaos.

The jam recipe says that it should thicken in 7 – 15 minutes.  45 minutes later, I am staring at it in mild panic, as it appears to be getting, if anything, more watery.  I need to leave the house to pick up my child pretty much now.  My husband is going to hate me when he gets home and sees the mess.

Shit.  I forgot to feed the chickens.  That’s why they are screaming at me.  Shit, shit, shit.

So out the door I jog, fill up the feeder with food, and I notice, Oh my God they are out of water too and it’s like, eighty degrees outside.  It’s bad enough to half-ass jam, but these are living creatures, and I am a bad human being.  So I fill up their water bucket, and as I walk back the house, the timer goes off and I break into a run.

And I fall over.  This, truly, is the pinnacle of my entire experience.  The timer is still going off, and I am laying on the ground, winded, with dirt on my face where I literally slid face first across the lawn.  I just curled up in the fetal position and stayed there, for three minutes.  I heard the timer go off three times.

Finally I hobble inside and finish up everything.  Peaches are canned.  They float, just like everyone said they would.  I really do not care.  Jam is still watery so I just can it anyway and hope for the best.  The fruit leather mix is done cooking but there is no way I have time to strain it, so I just leave it on the stove, where I will find it the next day, having turned a truly horrible shade of brown.  I leave the piles of dishes and the peach skins on the floor and I just walk away.

I did manage to make some tasty fruit leather the next day, and I have no idea really how the peaches or the jam turned out because I won’t open them until later, but I think they’ll be fine.  Also, I had simple syrup left over and some pretty rosemary, so I just put the rosemary into it and I think it will be fun for making cocktails or something. But oh my god, I have to admit this whole debacle was pretty draining.  I ended up with four jars of peaches, two of jam, and two of simple syrup, plus a sheet of fruit leather, and some very happy chickens when they were given all the pits.  The peach juice is in the fridge still, two weeks later, and I am really hoping for popsicles, but I keep forgetting.  Overall, I’m just not sure that was totally worth dirtying every dish in my house and making my husband clean them all, four hours of my life that could have been spent drinking mimosas on a patio, and sustaining an injury.

I suppose the lesson learned, which I learn ALL THE DAMN TIME, is not to be so ambitious.  And also, use walking feet, and perhaps, clean as you go.

 

you win some, you lose some August 11, 2011

Filed under: baking — halfasshomesteader @ 5:35 am
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That’s really what this whole endeavor is about for me, actually.  My successes keep me from being too disheartened from my failures.  And amazingly, one of my consistent successes lately has been bread. Until today.

I have always been intrigued by this idea of baking all of one’s own bread.  I’m not sure why but there is a whole lot of emotion tied up in homemade bread for me.  It just seems so rustic, and lovely, and…unattainable.  Only fancy people bake bread at all, I thought.  And only REALLY fancy people bake all their own bread, every week.  The concept seemed truly laughable.

People:  I now bake all my own bread.

I know that I am late to the table on this whole No-Knead phenomenon.  Everyone’s been doing it for ages.  Well, I haven’t.  I’ve been doing it for a month and I am ecstatic.  I, in all my half-assedness, am capable of baking bread for my family every week.  And, oooohhh, this bread.  Not only is it easy, even fun, to make, but it truly rivals a five dollar loaf from a fancy bakery.  I won’t give you the directions, because it’s not my recipe, but I advise you, if you have any bread-making aspirations at all to follow the link and give it a go.

For me, I tend to mix up the dough on a Sunday night.  It literally takes all of two minutes, and you get this nice shaggy dough.  Everyone says shaggy…the recipe says shaggy, blogs all say shaggy.  You know why?  Because the dough is shaggy.  I just can’t think how else to describe it.

I leave it overnight, go off to school in the morning, come home for lunch and do the rest.  This is where I’m probably losing some of you, because you have full time jobs and are not home all afternoon on a Monday.  Do it on Saturday night, then.  In three weeks I’ll be back to my regular life and that’s what I’ll be doing and it will be fine.  I promise.

When I get home for lunch, my dough looks like this:

Yes.  These are two different bowls.  They are two different batches.

Dump the sticky mess out, move it around, let it rest, move it around some more, let it rest for two hours, preheat your oven and dutch oven, dump it in.  That’s it.  It actually even sounds more complicated that it is.  I would say it’s a total active time of maybe five minutes.  And here is the glorious part…it emerges looking like this:

The crust shatters as you bite into it. The crumb is perfect, with big airy holes just right for butter to ooze into.  And I have never, not once, screwed this up.  It must be foolproof.

I made a batch today.  When it was done, I made pita bread.  It did not go as well.  Not a surprise.

It’s yet another victim of my “I can make that better for cheaper” problem.  To be fair, we really do not have access to good pita around here.  So it was worth a go.  The only problem is that…they didn’t rise.  The recipe I was going off of included pictures of giant ballooning pitas in the oven.  I thought it would be really fun for my kid to watch them swell up in a matter of minutes, but as we stood there, staring into a 400 degree oven and sweating, she started asking, “What are they supposed to be doing?” Because, they were basically doing nothing.  Out of the eight I made, two had pathetic tiny bubbles off to the side, but certainly none of them expanded to the extent that I was expecting.

Those are some flaccid pita breads.

Happily, although they were limp, they were also fluffy and moist and flavorful,  words I would never apply to the stale, dry cardboard we get from the store.  So ultimately, it was worth it, if not a total success.  And I’m not disheartened because tomorrow morning we’ll have that beautiful loaf of fresh bread and I will remember that I am capable of magic sometimes.  The magic didn’t happen right away this time, but it doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

 

 
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