The Half-Assed Homesteader

why it’s worth it August 7, 2011

Filed under: Cooking — halfasshomesteader @ 4:19 am
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Yesterday I processed sixteen pounds of peaches.  It really doesn’t sound like that much.  When I weighed out, I was disappointed.  I was hoping I’d picked twenty pounds or more.  In retrospect, if I had had twenty five pounds of peaches to deal with yesterday, I might have had a mental breakdown, so it would appear that I lucked out.  As I limped out of the house on the way to pick up my kid from school, I thought to myself, Who am I kidding with this stuff?  Why can I not just be a normal human being who buys the overpriced jam with mysterious ingredients and doesn’t think, I could make this better for cheaper?

Is all this even worth it?

Then last night as I uploaded pictures of the peach fiasco, I came upon this picture that I had taken just yesterday morning.  This is what we had for breakfast:

Fresh eggs from the chickens.  Homemade bread.  Homemade jam with strawberries we picked together.  And blueberries from the back yard.

Before you go getting all worried that I might not be as half-assed as I claim to be, I’ll just clarify.  When I gathered those eggs, there were nine in the laying basket because I hadn’t had time to bring eggs in for three days.  The bread was stale and could probably knock a person out cold if used as a weapon.  The jam is not really jam.  I like to call it “preserves” because it didn’t gel and is instead kind of a chunky strawberry syrup.  And half the blueberries are from the yard, but the other half are from the farmer’s market because usually berries don’t actually make it the hundred feet from the bush to the kitchen.

Despite all those caveats, I still feel pretty good that this is what I gave my kid for breakfast, and that she takes it for granted that this is the food we eat.  Also, it was delicious.  I think that sticky arms, a slight limp, and a kitchen that looks like a bomb went off in it are small prices to pay for the privilege of eating so well. So, once my peach leather has dehydrated, we’ll find out what a person can do with sixteen pounds of peaches, four hours, too much ambition and too little common sense.  In the meantime, as I try to complete the seven other things that were on my to-do list yesterday that didn’t get done, I will probably find myself asking myself at least once if it’s really worth it, and I will picture this:  a three year old with sleepy eyes and tousled hair, hands sticky with jam, face smeared with blueberries, shouting “Mama I love breakfast!” Yes, it is definitely worth it.

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pickling, my way August 1, 2011

Filed under: pickling,Preserving — halfasshomesteader @ 5:49 am
Tags: , ,

 

Asparagus season is long gone.  But about two, maybe even three weeks ago, the farmer’s market still had the last few asparaguses (asparagi?) and I decided it would be worth it to try to pickle a few and have them for the winter.  We try pretty hard to eat seasonally appropriate produce anyway, but asparagus is one thing that I just refuse to eat out of season.  I am not paying $5 a pound for some woody green grossness from Mexico.  And canned asparagus?  Frozen asparagus?  Those are abominations.  But I will eat just about anything pickled.

So, this pickling event was an exercise in how many ways I could possibly be half-assed.  Or you could call it an adventure, depends on how you look at it.  I am looking at it as an adventure until I poison my family.

I was going off this recipe from a local farmer’s market.  I liked it because it was only supposed to make a few jars and I didn’t want to spend fifty dollars on asparagus, and realistically?  How many jars of pickled asparagus can one family eat?

First off, as I said, this asparagus was at least two weeks old when I finally got around to doing this.  Probably half of it was floppy, and there was even some mold.  Moldy asparagus went into the compost, floppy but not yummy looking went to the chickens.  Depressing.  I hate that I wasted asparagus.  Also, I can’t help but fear that some of the mold from the asparagus got into the ones I canned and is now breeding there, waiting to poison and kill us all.

I followed the directions, salted the asparagus and waited, and this is when things really started to get half-assed.  White vinegar?  Had less than half a cup left from making surface cleaner, so out I ran to get some new vinegar.  Returned to discover that I was also completely out of apple cider vinegar.  Dammit.  I am a vinegar loving girl, so we had multiple varieties.  I remembered that to pickle it needed to be over 5%.  Balsamic seemed too heavy, red wine and sherry were 4%, leaving malt and white wine as my options.  White wine sounded better, so I went with that. Moving on…salt, check. Sugar, check. Mustard seed, check…..oh wait.  Is Indian brown mustard seed the same thing as mustard seed?  No.  Weeellll, I’ll use it anyway.  Dill seed?  Apparently, not available anywhere, so I just skipped it completely, hoping that the fresh dill springs I was adding would make it dilly enough.  Onion?  Okay, the white onion in the fridge that’s been sprouting a giant green stalk for who knows how long – rotten in the inside, of course.  So I guess I’ll use the half red onion in the crisper drawer.  (Thus turning everything a lovely shade of pink.)

This is my life.

So when the jars were sterilized, the asparagus had brined for a couple hours and I had boiled the vinegar mix for one minute exactly, it was time to fill the jars.  I reached into the fridge and pulled out the dill, which was, of course, as old as the asparagus but had not held up as well.  It was crispy.  I decided, hey, that’s what water is for.  It will rehydrate.  It’s the same as using dried dill.

I carefully packed the asparagus, tips up, into the first jar until there was no more room. Then I went to ladle the hot vinegar in.  But the recipe doesn’t say anything about whether the onions are actually supposed to go into the jars, or whether it was just in there to flavor the vinegar?  Since the jar was pretty full and the onions didn’t seem to want to go through the funnel, I decided to just put the vinegar liquid in.  Filled it up, screwed on the lid, and into the canner it went.  Perfect.

Of course, until I did the second jar.  I could tell immediately that there was not nearly enough vinegar to fill the jar up.  I ladled it all in and it came, maybe, to a third of the way up.  I decided to just put all all the onions in then to take up some space, but the jar was so full of asparagus that I spent a good long while shoving the onions in with a chopstick.  I finally got them in and the vinegar had risen by maybe an inch.  Once again, dammit.  I screwed the lid on and realized I’d just have to eat these sooner rather than later, but put then in the canner anyway.  Why?  I don’t know.  It’s not like they’d process properly, but this is the way my brain works.  I put the jar in there and it actually bobbed tragically about, mocking me.

Processed the jars and took them out.  I have to admit, one of my favorite things about canning is actually my pretty canning labels and getting to write in my best cursive in my grey sharpie on them.  As I applied the label to the unfortunate second jar, I noticed the fluid inside now appeared to be halfway up…definitely more than there had been.  Under closer inspection I realized that, as a final show of how truly half-assed I am, I hadn’t even screwed the damn ring on properly and water had leaked in.  I truly am a failure.

On the upside, the asparagus is actually really, really delicious.  Obviously I can’t keep the half full one because we’d all die, so I’m going to use it in a recipe later this week.  I think as long as it hasn’t been infected by mold the other one will keep and I’ll open it mid-winter when a little bit of spring will be much needed. And I will continue to pickle and can and jam and otherwise preserve and try hard to laugh at myself rather than getting discouraged.

 

Me versus the weeds… July 7, 2011

…and the bugs. And the fungus. And the sun. And maybe a little bit of laziness too.

I’ve worked hard on my garden this year, harder than I’ve ever worked on a garden in my life.  It might not show to the outside world, because there is a long way to go still, but I have to admit that I feel the best I’ve ever felt about this particular garden. That is why it is a particularly cruel twist of fate that I am having more problems with it than I’ve ever had.  Perhaps benign neglect truly is the best method after all.

First off, I have aphids.  I have never in my life as a home gardener had aphids.  As a professional horticulturist back in the day, I saw plenty of the teeny green bastards, but they have never invaded my home life until now, and I am pissed.  I first saw them on my Shasta daisies.  Yes, I know Shastas are a magnet for them, but they are also my favorite flower.  (Of course, I’d never grown them before and while I still love them, I have to admit that they are not worth all their unruly, floppy trouble.) I also saw some ladybugs, so I hoped that they would do their job and I left it alone.  Days later, I noticed that they’d moved over to my hellebores. I started to get a little more concerned, but because they were still only hitting ornamentals, and my vegetables are way in the back yard, I did what any good organic gardener would do, and hit them with a powerful stream of water and hoped for the best.  And then today, oh my goodness today, the saddest day.  The bastards found my broccoli and my cabbage.

I know what you’re saying, because I’m saying it too.  How did it get so out of control??? I don’t know.  I’m ashamed.  Today was the first day I’ve really put some quality time in out in the veg patch, and I was mostly happy with what I found, but this was a total shock.  This is my cabbage.  One of the poor things was so overcome it just flopped down and died.  I thought it wilted due to my 3 year olds ineffective watering, but it was the aphids, sucking out all its sweet cabbage bloods.

Another depressing discovery?

This beautiful, apparently perfectly formed head of broccoli.  My incredible child was so excited about this that she immediately started shoving florets into her mouth, barefoot in the midst of the garden.  At which point I thought…oh God the aphids.  Who knows how many she ate?  Ugh.  Barely on the leaves, they were concentrated deep in the florets, where you could barely see them, and where they are proving nearly impossible to remove. After several passes of individual florets under my kitchen sink sprayer, they are currently soaking in a bowl of cold water, but I have little hope.  Honestly, if I can’t get all the aphids out I’m going to eat the damn things myself, because I grew this broccoli and I refuse to give it the chickens.

…and the fungus.  My very, very poorly espaliered apple trees (more on these someday, I am sure) have finally *FINALLY* put fruit on.  I was ebullient when I discovered the petite little apples growing on one of the trees.  At the beginning of the year, I had said, If they don’t give me some dang apples this year I am ripping them out of the ground.  But I didn’t really want to.  So, of course, bitter fate again, along with their tiny apples they’ve also developed powdery mildew. Thus far I’ve taken the extremely effective tactic of ignoring it, but it’s getting worse, so soon I’m going to have to pick off all the infected material and chuck it and see what happens.  Obviously, I should have already done that, but that would not be my style.  Again, lazy.  I almost kind of sort of don’t want it to work though, because I’ve read that cow’s milk can treat it, and I think that would be kind of fun to experiment with.

…and the sun.  After a very long, wet, cold, dreary, downright interminable spring, it would appear that summer has finally decided to show up in Portland. I still have one foot in dreary and the sudden increase in watering needs has resulted in the death of my lovely hanging basket, my cheerful back porch Gerber daisies, two of the lettuces in my little mesclun pot, and the crippling of my nasturtium basket.  You will be missed, friends.

…but…the weeds!  I actually have a handle on the weeds, somewhat, this year, for the first time ever.  Which is part of why I’m feeling that weird pride feeling that I don’t often experience.  And this entire long-winded post has really been kind of a way for me to tell you about some things that I’ve been using that have kind of been rocking my world.  My weed treatment strategy kind of sounds like the recipe for a tasty snack, which I think is a good sign: salt, boiling water, vinegar, corn gluten.  (And a circle hoe too, but that sounds less delicious.)

*My driveway, the driveway from hell, is covered in a thin layer of gravel over dirt.  Thus, it is constantly besieged by weeds, too many weeds to handweed, and too annoying to hoe. Sometimes, honestly?  I mow it. I have dreams of this lovely permeable driveway interplanted with fleur de lawn, but that’s a major project that I am not sure will ever happen.  In the meantime, this year I decided to demolish the weeds with horticultural vinegar, and it worked, pretty well at least.  I did it when the weeds were tall and I wasn’t able to get the roots of everything, but over the couple of weeks since I did it the driveway has started looking browner and browner.  I mowed it last week and I am going to re-vinegar it, and I think I may finally tasty sweet tangy pickley success.

*I also put down corn gluten after the vinegar, and I’m not seeing any new seedlings yet.  That may be the corn gluten, or it may be that I’ve completely demolished the soil.  More corn gluten experiments to come.

*Salt and boiling water are my new best friends.  A week ago, I ran some little trials out in my front walkway on the dandelions that love to push up through the cracks.  1/4 of the plants got no treatment.  1/4 got just boiling water.  1/4 got just salt.  1/4 got both. Obviously the control just sat there happy as larks. The plain salt did nothing at first, but a week later they are pretty much withered away.  The boiling water immediately shrank and looked terrified, and were out the door about two days later.  But the salt/boiling water combo, wow!  It was like time-lapse how quickly they wilted, shrank, withered, turned brown and basically disappeared.  It was unbelievable.  I did some more tonight on the patio and here are the results:

And then, the magic happens:

Okay, so it hadn’t actually turned brown or crispy yet, but this was literally seconds after I scalded it, and I am willing to bet that by tomorrow it will be a crumbly delight.

Finally, just because, my beautiful first ripe strawberry – saved so that Hazel could discover, pick and eat it herself.  Pure 3 year old joy.

 

So Fresh and So Clean, Clean July 5, 2011

Filed under: Cleaning,Household — halfasshomesteader @ 10:48 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

One habit that really disturbs me, but I can’t seem to break, is store-bought household supplies.  Probably my biggest problem is the plastic packaging that tends to accompany them.  I know I could go to our awesome local grocery New Seasons and buy pretty much all these things in bulk, but frankly, the whole “Tare” thing intimidates me.  This is something I am trying to get around. But I also like the idea of the simplicity of ingredients in homemade supplies, and of course, it’s cheaper.  So I am going to endeavor to make my own for awhile. I won’t promise to do it forever, but I do want to see what is quick, easy, or cheap versus what is totally not worth it.

I am starting with homemade laundry soap, and so far I am really happy with it!  A quick Google came up with this link, and many others with the same basic recipe, so I went for it: http://www.thefamilyhomestead.com/laundrysoap.htm

I already had Borax at home from my experiments with Flubber and from making ant traps, so all I had to get was the washing soda and the Fels Naptha.  They were both easy to find, and all in all I probably spent five bucks, plus buying a bucket that will be useful in other scenarios and a cheese grater.

I started by grating the Fels Naptha, which smelled really fresh and yummy. I bought a new cheese grater for this purpose because I thought it might be difficult to get the soapy taste out of our normal grater, and I’m glad I did – more on this to come.

Added the water ’til it melted, then added the borax and washing soda until they dissolved.  At this point my house started to smell really clean, which is not a bad thing.  Hot water, bucket, more water, and that was it!

I forgot to time it, but based on the fact that I was halfway through Radiolab I’m guessing the whole process took half an hour, and really was ridiculously easy.  I let it set overnight, and then checked on it.  Weirdly, all the websites I used for reference were very clear in stating that it would not be a solid gel, yet mine was.  I’ve done several loads of laundry in it so far though and they have all been clean and fresh smelling, so I am pleased!  I am kind of interested in adding some sort of essential oil to my next batch for fragrance, but I’m stuck trying to figure out what would be a nice gender-neutral, subtle smell.

My one caveat is that I used a stockpot for the soap boiling part, and although we tried mightily, we just can’t get the soapy smell out of it.  So, one of our stockpots has now been designated the “home ec” stockpot.  It’s not a bad sacrifice, though as it was kind of a redundant pot, having been overshadowed by our beautiful and more functional dutch oven.

Probably the best thing about this experience is that, for some reason, Hazel has developed a great sense of pride about the laundry soap.  She wasn’t home when I made it, but I let her stir it later, and ever since then she has been super interested in it.  Guests come over and she wants to show them.  Skype with the grandparents and she says “I wish I could show you our laundry soap.”  She heads back there to give it a stir at least five times a day.  I don’t totally get it, but I love it.

I’m going to attempt to steadily replace all our store-bought household supplies with homemade ones over the next month or so.  Unfortunately, I was going to move on to dish soap next, but I was unable to find a recipe that seemed worthwhile.  I guess I appreciate the increase in purity of the” recipes” that I found, but I just don’t really see how diluting Dr. Bronner’s constitutes a recipe, so until something more interesting catches my eye I will at least commit to asking the New Seasons staff how I go about refilling my plastic bottle with the bulk dish soap.  It’s a step forward.

 

The End of the Strawberry Onslaught July 2, 2011

Filed under: Preserving — halfasshomesteader @ 5:25 am
Tags: , , ,

With many jars of jam put up, popsicles in the freezer, and tubs of strawberries offered and ignored on a group camping trip, it was time to put the little sweeties to good use, lest I feel guilty for wasting such a beautiful (and not free) bounty.  I didn’t want to make more jam because that seemed redundant, and I didn’t want to simply freeze them because, honestly, frozen things languish in my freezer for years while I stare at them with increasing hatred in my eyes, knowing that one day they’ll be chucked in the trash and I’ll feel like a failure.

So…what to do with pounds of strawberries before they turn into an unrecognizable mush?  Fruit leather!  A quick Google turned up a variety of similar recipes, and as usual, I kind of sloshed them all together according to whimsy and proximity to ingredients.  I love me the flavor combo of strawberries and basil, so I decided to go for broke and put some herb in there, despite the concern that crazy Hazel would notice and refuse to eat it.

First up, glorious, gorgeous fresh strawberries.  How many of these went straight into my mouth rather into the bowl, we will never know:

I mean, really…could you resist this?  None of that starchy white core here.  I don’t care what anyone else says, Hoods are the most delectable strawberry of all time.

Next up I cooked the strawberries up with a random amount of water because some recipes didn’t tell how much to use, and some did as a proportion to the amount of strawberries, but I forgot to measure the berries.  Very typical.  Got the camera nice and steamy, hiding my shoddy photography skills.

And into the blender it goes.  Careful not to let it explode sugary goo all over me. Note realistic drip of strawberry juice down the blender.  Cooking is never clean in my kitchen.  At least not when it’s done by me.

Add the basil last so it doesn’t get totally dismembered in there and give it a whirl in the blender and a good stir.

Into a 170 degree oven it goes, looking not unlike a pizza.

And, voila! Some amount of hours later, it comes out as fruit leather!  Magic!

I’d like to be able to tell you how long this transformation took but the truth is, I’m not really sure.  I put it in at about…2 pm, maybe?  And it was in there all day.  But our stove is kind of unnerving, and we didn’t want to die in our sleep, so we turned it off when we went to bed at about 11.  By that point it was actually looking pretty good already, and by the next day it was basically done.  One little part was a little sticky so I cut off the done parts and put the other bits back in and it was done in about 2 hours. So somewhere between 9 and 11 hours, roughly.

Overall, this was a total success.  I luuuuurve it.  I can definitely identify the basil flavor in it, it tastes way more pure and real than store-bought fruit leathers, and it has a great crunchy texture going for it.  I thought it’d be kind of a fruit roll-up, but it’s really more a fruit jerky, which makes sense. And best of all, crazy picky weirdo kid loves it too.  I have no idea if I actually saved any money over the store-bought stuff, but it was easy enough, and I know exactly what it is made out of, as opposed to the innocent sounding but potentially misleading “organic natural strawberry flavor” that is in the one we normally buy.

Next up: who wants to stay inside and made homemade laundry soap on the first beautiful sunny day in weeks? I do, I do!

 

Popsicles: I’m not always a failure June 27, 2011

Filed under: Cooking — halfasshomesteader @ 10:09 pm
Tags: , , , ,

While I frequently achieve less-than-successful results with my projects, I do also succeed with some regularity.  Good thing too, otherwise I would probably get depressed and give up completely.  One of my favorite projects is popsicle making, because it is pretty much foolproof.  It’s almost always delicious, is a great way to use up leftover things from other cooking projects, and my 3 year old loves the results.

I have two sets of popsicle molds, both wedding gifts from years ago, but often both of the sets are fully in use.  When that happens, I use a method I found in a Highlights magazine that works really well and also uses up some random stuff I have around the house.  I have a giant box of tiny paper Dixie cups (for making baking soda volcanoes, obviously) that I use, and while Highlights suggests that you use actual craft/popsicle sticks, I find that we almost always have multiple packages of cheap wooden chopsticks from takeout Chinese or sushi, so I just snap those in half.  Pour popsicle liquid (juice, etc – more on that to come) into the paper cup, put it in the freezer for an hour, then stick your chopstick half into the somewhat solidified popsicle and leave it until you are ready for it. When it’s popsicle time, you just peel the paper away and voila – homemade popsicle.

I really like doing this because I can experiment with flavors that you don’t see in stores, each popsicle can be customized, and I don’t use any extra sugar (usually) so it’s pretty dang pure.

A few weeks ago I had almost an entire can of coconut milk left over from a curry that only used a teeny bit, and I know from experience that though I might have the best of intentions, that leftover coconut milk will almost certainly sit in my fridge until it is unusable.  So, I busted out my Dixie cups.  In one I mixed the coconut milk with some lime juice and zest from a random lime I happened to have in the fridge. In the other I mixed it with some canned pineapple juice that Leo uses in cocktails sometimes.  We debated trying to make some fruity cocktail popsicle, perhaps with a rum float.  The decision at the time was no, but I’ve actually been regretting that ever since, and I think boozy popsicles are going to happen in this household pretty soon.

Then I made my failed strawberry jam.  The recipe called for eight cups of strawberries, to be crushed down to five cups, but I wasn’t paying attention and enthusiastically crushed waaaaaay too many strawberries, so I decided to make some super chunky popsicles with the leftovers.  It ended up enough to make several popsicles – one each of strawberry with: lavender, balsamic, chocolate, heavy cream swirled through, thyme, basil, and vanilla.  They were absolutely beautiful and smelled like summer.

On a lovely, warm summer evening after dinner on the patio, we decided it was popsicle time.  Hazel chose strawberry thyme, and chose for Leo coconut lime.  In the end we all ended up sharing, and I was pleased that Hazel actually preferred the coconut one – it’s always satisfying to see her palate expanding, and I didn’t think there was a thing in the world she would choose over strawberries.

Both popsicles were total successes, although I might blend up the strawberries if I do it again instead of just crushing them…not a complaint, just an improvement.

And I still have huge tubs of strawberries from our picking adventure.  Next up – strawberry basil fruit leather!

 

Balsamic Strawberry Jam Fail – Half-Ass Indeed June 23, 2011

Filed under: Preserving — halfasshomesteader @ 4:16 am
Tags: , ,

I suppose it’s only fitting that for my inaugural post about being a half-assed urban homesteader I should write about a failure.

On Sunday, my girl and my guy and I went strawberry pickin’.  I suppose that’s yet another indication of my failings as a homesteader.  I have a grand total of about six strawberry plants, which were given to me by a kind neighbor after I allowed the pernicious creeping buttercup to totally invade my old strawberry patch.  But let’s be honest…even at my potential zenith of strawberry production there is basically no chance I’ll ever have enough to do something like make jam.  At any rate.

We picked some strawberries.  Quite a fair amount in fact.  I learned some valuable strawberry pickin’ lessons too.  (Pick under-ripe rather than over-ripe, because a night out on the stove ripened those suckers right up.) The goal was strawberry balsamic jam, an idea inspired largely by various meals I’ve had over the years but made possible by a recipe in my Ball book of preserving or whatever it’s called.

I’ve made jam once previously and it turned out, if I do say so myself, pretty stellar.  And I felt that this jam was going to go well also.  For once, instead of frantically trying to cram many hours worth of work into a very brief time period, I allowed myself a full afternoon.  I assembled my mise en place, if you will, with all the equipment I thought I needed at hand.  I turned on Radiolab.

I followed the instructions to a tee, TO A TEE I TELL YOU.  Even though I thought I might use 4 full tablespoons of balsamic instead of the 3 to 1 of lemon the recipe called for, I thought better of it, checked the fridge, and lo and behold there was even a fresh lemon for my one tablespoon.  I tasted the protojam.  It tasted absolutely delicious.

Oh…I am just now remembering the one thing I didn’t do…I didn’t skim the foam off.  Does that matter?

Well, whatever…the thing seemed perfect, so I was surprised, and frankly, a little disappointed when I opened the first jar this morning and discovered that what I put up was more of a…strawberry sauce with chunks in it than a jam.  It’s totally delicious, so I’m not devastated.  But it’s too much of a failure to give as gifts, and also my strangely picky girl told me, “I don’t like strawberry jam” when she saw it.  Which is an outright lie!  It looks as though I will be making some 3 year old friendly jam soon and eating weird strawberry sauce on my own (store-bought, because I am half-assed like that) bread for the next few years of my life.

*Pictures of failed jam to come.  For now, revel in the beauty of fresh strawberries, all dressed up and ready for disappointment.