Search This Blog


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

If anyone was ever to ask me how I know my husband loves me, it wouldn't be because he puts up with me.  Let's face it; there's a fair amount of that going on in both directions.

It wouldn't be because he's never teased me about my weight, and always refers to me as his 'cute little Paula', even though I weighed nearly a hundred and sixty pounds at one time (I'm five two).

It wouldn't be because he doesn't hound me about finishing the dining nook, even though I started it three years ago (I'm so close!).

No- it would be because he finally bought me a truck.  A very nice truck.

It's a 2013 Ford F150 4X4 and has eight cylinders, which means that once we sell our car (because we're a committed one-car family), there will be a lot more walking to the store instead of driving, and fewer trips all around.  Someday after we move to the country I'd like to convert it to wood gas, but that is a pipe dream for way down the road. In the interim, I need to learn how to drive like a grandma. Which is easy right now for me because this thing is huge!  I grew up with trucks, and I'm very comfortable driving them, but I have to get used to the difference in size between the two vehicles so I'm taking it easy.

At any rate, we made a rational, conscious decision to do this, and now we can start looking for an acreage somewhere.

You know what else?

It has room for a dog or two!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


I think my new bees are doomed.  I'd so wanted everything to go well this time in order to have something happy to post about, but their installation did not go well at all.  

What's not leaves there are dead bees
I signed up to be in the second wave at Ruhl because the fence wouldn't be ready by then and my spot for them was to be right by the fence (see below). I picked them up late in the day on the twenty-second of April and installed them that evening, like half an hour later. The queen went in okay, and a good portion of the workers got dumped in after her, but the ones remaining did not climb out and make their way to the hive entrance.  When I came out the next day, the majority of what was left in the bee cage was dead.  I estimate that I lost half my bees with the installation.

It was so awful that I quickly ran inside to look up a patron saint of bees. Curiously, there are several patron saints of beekeepers, including Saint Valentine, but only one patron saint of beekeepers and bees, and that's Saint Gobnait. Gobnait is the Irish version of both Abigail and Deborah, both of which names are hugely better than Gobnait, which almost sounds like it should have a 'hob' in front of it, as in 'hobgobnait'. What a truly horrid name.  Sorry all you Gobnaits out there; it is what it is.  But I said a prayer to Saint Gobnait anyway. I think she knows my feelings about her name, because the number of bees leaving and entering the hive entrance is dwindling, and I think my colony is dying. I'd like to open up the hive and check on the bees, but it hasn't been warm enough lately, and if there are brood in there I don't want to risk chilling them.  So I'm waiting for a warmer day.  This past Sunday would have been a good day, it was eighty-one, but we were doing something else and I couldn't stop.  And honestly?  I can look at them all I want but I can't do anything to help them.

Unless Saint Gobnait wants to pull a miracle out of her wimple, it looks like I'll be studying up on swarm trapping for next year.

Which will be Bees, version 4.0....can you believe it?

I am zero for three.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Fencing Lessons

This was supposed to be the summer of rainwater harvesting system installation, which I was hopeng to get done this spring so I could capture some water, but I spent the money on a new fence instead.

Although we needed (badly needed) a new fence, it's not what I'd wanted to spend money on. Darn it! I wanted my cisterns.  Especially this year because I think California's drought will move north and involve Oregon.  But, as luck would have it, a mighty wind blew down part of the fence, and since it was the second section in six months to come down, we decided to bite the bullet and get the fence replaced. It is a swell fence.

Or should I say, it's a swell's fence?  Even though I managed to talk the fence company out of $640, it still cost a bundle to get this done. More than I expected.  However, now it's in and I can concentrate on saving up for the cisterns all over again.

Lucky me.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Makin' Bacon and Burying Treasure

Since time and tide wait for no man, yesterday I got hot on the charcuterie trail.  I had the belly from my half hog, the jowl, and the sirloin all to get salted down before they turned.

I researched many sources, from watching Benton Country Ham and Bacon videos with Allan Benton to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Steve Lamb at River Cottage to our Charcuterie book by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (which for some reason we refer to as 'the Ruhlman'), and settled on Ruhlman's cure, River Cottage's seasoning, and Benton's timing.

Why would I go to all this trouble?  I can't eat sugar, honey, or maple syrup (or corn syrup or sweeteners, etc.) and you can't find bacon made without them.  It turns out that sugar is added only to displace some of the salt so that your bacon doesn't get too salty.  But since I'm also hypertensive, I can't leave out the sugar altogether because super salty bacon would not be the right answer, either. So what to do? Date sugar, coconut sugar, and palm sugar are all on the 'maybe' list (as opposed to the out and out 'no' list), so I elected to build my cure with coconut sugar, as it's the most like brown sugar in flavor, and let's face- also because I couldn't find the palm sugar.

Ruhlman advises a pound of kosher salt, eight ounces of granulated sugar, and two ounces of pink salt, the latter of which we happened to have still from when Steve pickled the beef tongue a couple of years ago - which was delicious, by the way- it tasted just like an excellent pastrami- so that's what I used for the cure.

Mixed bacon
Fearnley-Whittingstall (who was once nicknamed Fearlessly-Eatsitall for cooking up and eating road kill) and Lamb both advised juniper berries and bay leaf as flavoring for bacon, and since I had both and wanted to try it, I did, on only one of the four pieces of belly in my possession.  I also flavored one with mace and marjoram, and one with crushed allspice (also on the 'maybe' list), and I left the largest one plain.  Everybody got rubbed in cure, dropped into a labeled Ziploc bag, and refrigerated after flavorings were added.  All, except the plain one, which was too large for a gallon Ziploc- that one had to be wrapped up in cling wrap.

Most of the instructions for curing that I found have you leaving the belly in the cure for five to seven days, but since Allan Benton makes the best bacon in the country, I'll leave it to cure for ten days like he does.  Then it needs to be rinsed and patted dry, and hung to dry and age for several days.  Only then can I think about smoking it.  More on that later.

Buried treasure
River Cottage also has a Food Tube video on Youtube for making a prosciutto-style ham out of a little british cut called a 'chump joint', which sits between the leg and the loin.  I wanted to try this, so Dennis at Mt Angel Meat Company boned a sirloin for me, which is in roughly the same location on the hog and is the best he could do for not being familiar with the chump joint.  The sirloin was packed, or rather, buried in straight kosher salt.

Cure timing on the container
According to Lamb (whose name is hilariously ironic, if you think about it), the Golden Rule is three days in salt per kilo of meat and fat, so since my sirloin weighed 1.648 kilos, I need to leave it in the salt for 4.944 days, or five days.  Then it comes out of the salt, the salt gets wiped off (but not rinsed) and the meat gets hung to dry for three months.  I will have to risk picking up fridge flavors by putting it into the fridge to dry because I can't keep it cool enough for three months.  I may start out with hanging it in the garage every night or leaving it there and monitoring the temperature. Not sure, but I'll keep you posted on that.

Then finally, the guanciale.  The jowl's curing and drying into a guanciale is kind of a cross between the two previous treatments; the cure is mixed from salt, sugar (coconut sugar, in my case), garlic, black peppercorns and thyme, and the jowl rests in it for four to six days. Then it's rinsed, dried, punctured, and hung up to dry for one to three weeks.  In the world of charcuterie, it's as close to instant gratification as you can get.

In any case, getting them all salted down and into the fridge means that all my hog pieces have been dealt with in one way or the other and I can relax about them.

Which also means that I can now turn my attention back to the garden...

Friday, April 24, 2015

Half Hog, 2.0

A couple of years ago when Steve and I bought our first half hog, we had a less than desirable experience with it.  First- I'd been told the hogs would be ready in October, and when I spoke with the owner, I asked her about feed prices going up and how that would affect her.  She expressed surprise that I would know about that.  So you can understand why I was surprised when she called me in August to tell me that my hog was done and to call the butcher for cutting instructions.  This was a full two months earlier than I had been told, and since I'd already paid for the whole thing, it meant I was getting far less pork for my money.  I think I worked it out to being a little over $8.00 a pound, which did not make me happy.  Then when we got down to 4 Star Meats in Eugene, they could not find our order, and we waited forty minutes for them to find it.  Plus, we had to pay them $65.00 for cutting on top of the pork and they did a really crappy job; the meat was not trimmed well at all.  This half hog purchase was all around not a good experience.  Needless to say, I would not use either of these outfits ever again.

This time, though, was a terrific experience.  The first good thing was the pork itself; Stroupe Family Farm in Aurora rears their hogs on grass, and supplements with fruits and vegetables- no animal products, and no commercial feed.  The second thing was that I got ten percent off my order because I'd been given a coupon by the S and H Logging driver when he delivered my mulch order; I didn't know the folks that own S and H Logging also have a family farm, so that was a bit of a revelation and I took advantage of the information.  The third awesome thing was the price, which was $2.95 a pound, based on hanging weight; this translated to $4.10 a pound by the time we were all done, and I'm not counting the extras I brought home, like the leaf and body fat, skin and bones, all of which I will use.  

The beef locker at Mt. Angel
The fourth awesome thing was the butcher, Mt. Angel Meat Company in Mt. Angel, Oregon, which by the way, I did not have to pay for because the butchering was included as part of the deal that Stroupe has with them.  The owner, Eric, was great and I was delighted when he was so agreeable to my coming in to watch my hog get cut up.  I asked if I could, and I really expected him to say no, so when he told me that he liked to think he had an open door business and sure, I could watch, I was probably a little over excited.  I got to go do that yesterday.

The owner, Eric
Eric had his butchering supervisor Dennis cut my hog and Dennis did just a great job.  He was really good about explaining what he was doing, and since I'd studied up ahead of time on pork cuts before going down there, we had a good conversation, and I know even more about the cuts of pork than I did before. 

Dennis cutting my chops
Dennis was also really good about making suggestions as we went, so I really think I got the most (and best) out of this half hog.  My hanging weight was 141 pounds, and I brought home 121 pounds. I did not bring home the trotters, the kidney, and the tail, and I'm going to guess the balance of waste was the small skin oddments, and perhaps the head, which was gone by the time I got there.

Just for kicks, here is what I had him cut:

2 bone-in shoulder roasts 
1 bone-in picnic
1 boneless sirloin (for a small [meaning fast] prosciutto-style ham)
1 spare ribs
1 baby back ribs
many boneless loin chops, some for schnitzel
4 leg cutlets (which he put through the tenderizer for schnitzel- this is the cut he likes to use for his own schnitzel)
1 tenderloin (and he left the fat on for me at my request)
2 fresh hocks (for a German dish Steve LOVES)
1 jowl (for guanciale)
1 belly (in 4 pieces) for bacon, which I'll cure and smoke
2 small, odd belly pieces Dennis said to cure because they're too good to waste
21 pounds of sausage 

Plus the leaf fat, the fat (which I'll render with the shoulder roasts) the larger pieces of skin (which Dennis said is good for wrapping other, leaner things or making pork rinds) and the bones.  I did not have him bone the shoulder and picnic but he did bone the sirloin for me.  I also did not go for a whole ham this time because I'd want to do it as a prosciutto and it's just not the right time of year for it. Prosciutto has to hang for several months and it's going to get too hot for that; ideally, prosciutto should be made in the autumn. 

Bryce vacuum packing belly
Additionally, Bryce did a great job of vacuum packaging the meat for me- he took the time to  lay out all my chops so that they made pretty packages, which I appreciated.  All in all, a really great experience and I was struck by the good attitudes everyone I dealt with had, in spite of what they do for a living.  
Lexy labeling and boxing my order
Or maybe because of what they do for a living. Maybe it's just working for Eric.  I don't know, but I am so doing this again.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bee Season and Updates

What is that?

Is that honey?

No, it's just a beeswax/avocado oil mix for sealing my new bee hive (and all this time you thought I've been resting on my laurels).  I've been busy!

I built myself a Warre hive, which was easier to do than the bee boat, as Steve calls it.*  Today I sealed it, for next week (Wednesday, to be precise) the bees will be here!

I have a busy week next week.  On Monday, I go pay for the half hog I ordered.  On Tuesday and Wednesday the fence guys will be here building me two new fences.  They are going to finish (they had better**) just in time for me to set up the hive and run over to Ruhl Bee in Gladstone to go get the bees.  The fence company is really squeaking it in, because the spot I'd earmarked for the hive before the fence blew down was right by the fence. If the fence timing was a canal, and the bees' arrival was a boat, you would hear a lot of screeching as it scraped by, that's how close we are.

Then Thursday I drive down to Mt Angel Meat Co., in Mt. Angel, Oregon to watch my hog half get cut up.  I am unusually excited about this partly because I'm going to learn how it's done, and partly because I am getting fresh pork belly which I will salt cure and smoke for my own bacon.  Finding sugar free bacon has been something of a holy grail, so I'll add it to the list of pork products I have to produce for myself. Actually, it's a pretty short list: sugar and seed free sausage and now sugar and seed free bacon.  Probably the best thing about this pork is that it was reared on a 400 acre farm on grass with the occasional vegetable and fruit thrown in.  It had a happy life with only one bad day, which is what we've been looking for.

This past Monday I was lucky enough to go morel hunting with my friend Rae and her husband. I've decided that R-A-E stands for Really Accurate Eyesight, because just a little while after telling me the story of how last year she spotted the first morel from the car going twenty miles an hour down the hill, she did it again.  You wouldn't know what a hell of a trick this is unless you've spent all your mushroom hunting time walking slowly with your eyes down, scanning, scanning, scanning and still coming up with nothing.  She's amazing. We (that's an editorial we- I didn't find anything) only got five, so it would seem we were a little early.  As I said, I didn't find any myself, but at least now I know what I'm looking for and where to look, so I learned something.  We also found an old King bolete, so know I know what they look like too, but wrong season for them.  Plus, it was a lovely day to tromp in the woods. And then Rae's hubby spotted a grouse and pointed it out, which I had never seen before; now I also know what a grouse looks like.  I can see why they call it a prairie chicken.

The garden has been agonizingly slow going this spring; I think I was too early and it's been too cold.  All the more argument for a hoop house or green house.  The weather is heating up to the seventies and low eighties this weekend, so maybe stuff will take off now. It's been really frustrating, though.  I have herbs and cucurbits starting to come up; they should be ready to put in the ground (probably under cover) next month.  I also have sweet potato pips started on the island in the kitchen.  Those are going in the wire baskets which we've moved to the deck.  That should be a good and hot environment for them.

Maybe I should try okra on the deck...hmmm...

*In reality, it's called a Kenya top bar hive.
** They told me it would take one and a half days.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Free Online Homegrown Food Summit Next Week

I just found out there will be a free online homegrown food summit next week- I've already signed up for it and you can too right here.

Some of the presenters will be (and these are just the folks I've heard of before- there are a lot more that I haven't to whom I'm looking forward to hearing): Toby Hemenway, Paul Wheaton, Sally Fallon, Joel Salatin and John Jeavons.

Topics include (but aren't limited to): permaculture guilds, gardening without irrigation, straw bale gardening, picking the right chickens for the backyard, rainwater harvesting, beginners guide to deer hunting, rabbits, aquaponics, and lots more.

It runs from April 6 through April 12 and they'll post five presentations a day starting at 6:00 AM eastern time on Monday, and the five presentations will be available for twenty-four hours.

So if you couldn't get to the Mother Earth News Fair, here's a chance to learn useful things for free.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Fighting The Good Fight

I would rate the protection of our seed heritage right up there with breathing. Well, certainly right up there with eating, which is almost as important.  The way the exchange puts it, "with the growth of hybrid seeds in the last century, much of the world’s connection to saving seeds from their own garden has crumbled. This results in a separation between our food, our gardens, and the seeds from which they spring."

As homesteaders and householders we absolutely have to be able to access open pollinated and heirloom seed so that at anytime necessary or practicable we can save our own seed, and it's not only important for the sake of thrift but also in terms of developing our own landraces. Tomatoes come to mind as the most adaptable seed you can stick in your garden- once you find something you like, tomato plants from seed saved from year to year only become more acclimatized to your garden and do better every year.

I'll be honest- I have only made small forays into seed saving, but I still grow only heirloom and open pollinated seed on the off chance that someday I'll actually need to save my seed.  But in the meantime, I've been a member of the Seed Savers Exchange for several years now, mostly because I think what they do is incredibly important, to everyone.  So important that I would still be a member even if I didn't grow a garden.  In fact, it's been a couple of seasons since I last ordered seed from them, but continue my membership I will.  The other cool thing about membership is that if you're looking for something obscure, chances are somebody somewhere is growing it and you can find it in the Yearbook.  That's how I found my German Queen tomato a few years ago; I obtained them from a gardener in Wisconsin.  He kindly threw in a few seeds from another strain of tomato as a gift.

April is membership month for the Seed Savers Exchange, and memberships start at $40 a year- $30 if you're a senior or student.  If you're in the fight to grow your own food, you owe it to yourself and everyone who comes behind you to help the Seed Savers Exchange with their work.

Memberships can be obtained here.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Please Help Me Fight The Monsanto Profit Protection Act

I don't usually get political, especially here, but something is going on in congress that has me pretty riled up.  I don't know about you, but I really, really want to see our food labeled whether or not it's GMO.  Some folks don't believe that genetically engineered foods are harmful and I can't say for a fact that they are; I just don't think they've been around long enough for us to know  the long term effects and I would like to be able to choose not to eat them because I quite frankly don't want to take the risk.  I don't want to ban them altogether; I just want to be able to make an informed choice.

Yesterday, Monsanto’s favorite congressman, Mike Pompeo of Kansas, introduced H.R. 1599 a.k.a. the DARK Act, a bill that would outlaw any federal or state law to require labels on genetically engineered food. Even states that have already passed labeling laws would be prohibited from enforcing them.

With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and anti-labeling lobbying expenditures at an all-time high, the threat to the GMO labeling movement has never been more serious.

We need phones on Capitol Hill to be ringing off the hook with the message that Americans OPPOSE the DARK Act (H.R. 1599) and SUPPORT the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act (H.R. 913).

HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO: Grab your phone right now and dial 1-877-796-1949. You’ll hear more information about the DARK Act, and then you’ll be automatically connected to your Representative’s office.

This bill may as well be called the Monsanto Profit Protection Act, because it was written for one reason: To protect the corporate profits of big pesticide and junk food companies at the expense of our right to know what’s in our food.

If H.R. 1599 is passed, it could set the GMO labeling movement back decades. There has never been a more important time to stand up to Monsanto and their allies with a call your representative right now:

Dial 1-877-796-1949 right now and you’ll be automatically connected with your Representative in Washington.

Please spread this information to as many people as you think will participate.  

And pray.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Still Learning The Hard Way

Not wasting daylight is one thing, but managing your time so that it's maxed out does not leave wiggle room for when something goes horribly wrong.

Everything I've been planning since January is all coming to a head at the same time, which would be bad enough, but to make matters a little more urgent, last weekend part of our fence blew down, so we are having the fences on the sides of our backyard replaced because they are overdue for it.  The tough part is that while I'm still getting bids (get this- the first one was $7600!), the fence area is right where I was going to put the bee hive!  It will be an interesting and nail-biting race to see what shows up first: the bees or the fence crew.  I really don't have another place to put them which is why I chose that spot. Nuts!

In January I broke down and ordered said bee package, which is due to arrive sometime in April, which means I had to have the new hive finished by the end of March. I got that done and I also built one for my SIL, and have parts cuts for a second of my own in case the girls swarm this summer, but I'm getting ahead of myself.  I still need to make sure they don't swarm immediately and take off three days after installation like the last time.

Also in January I started researching perma-culture, kind of by accident. When I first started the garden I had the opportunity to plan it with permaculture in mind but I didn't because I was impatient to get the garden started.  So now I'm planning around established trees and boxed beds, and it is not easy.  In this drawing, which you can see better if you click on it, the established trees are represented by dashed or dotted lines, and the plants I'm going to put in are represented by solid lines. (I'll write a separate post on what I'm planting and why when I get to them.)

This is a detail of the food forest that I'll be creating from the stone fruits orchard.  It will be pretty crowded in there, but the swales (represented by the blue lines)  and access path (represented by by the solid orange line) will allow decent access into it. Most of the plants going in will be either nitrogen-fixing or biomass-generating, which means they'll be support plants for the trees that are there.  This, by the way, is known as guild planting, but more on that later as well.

I am by no means doing this in the right order; permaculture is all about the planning and designing, because the idea is to mimic nature's systems.  For instance, I haven't completely finished the plan because I still need to size the cistern tanks, which are getting put off again because I have to buy fences this spring. Nuts!)  Thus, the area in front of the pergola hasn't been finalized, however, I do know that the clothesline will be there (because it already is and has been for a couple of years), and I'll also install a keyhole bed for the herbs there as well, rather than the standard permaculture herb spiral, which I do not like.  I don't like herb spirals because they require too much soil to build and way too much bending over to get at the herbs in the middle.  So because the rain catchment system isn't in, I don't have the irrigation planned, which really should go in before the plants.  The plants, by the way, are cooling their jets in the garage in buckets of damp pine shavings because I already ordered them, and I already ordered them because I need to get them in as bare roots.  And I can't get them in until we finish.....

...digging swales. Swales, nitrogen fixing plants, and chop and drop biomass plants are the three keys to permaculture success.  Swales slow the progress of rain draining across your property by collecting it and allowing the water to infiltrate the soil.  They allow trees to water themselves by raising the water table. I am hoping that they will water the trees this summer so that I won't have to, because I'll be concentrating on the new plants.  Swales are dug 'on contour', which means that you pick an elevation and draw a line all along the same elevation, which ensures that your water gathers and infiltrates evenly.  On large properties, swales can culminate in a dammed pond, and if positioned above your crops, well, then you have a gravity-fed irrigation system.   We'll fill our swales with hemlock bark, at which point they'll also become access paths.  The swales themselves are eighteen inches wide and a foot deep, and the hemlock bark will hold a lot of water.  Before the hemlock goes in though, I have to spread agricultural gypsum in them to help open the clay so that the water will move through.   We have two more swales to dig, and then I can order the hemlock, which will also be used to cover the established paths.

Chop and drop biomass plants create soil as they decay where they've been dropped, sometimes where there was no soil before, as in the permaculture experiments in Jordan - search 'greening the desert' and look for Geoff Lawton- his work is amazing. Nitrogen fixing plants fertilize that soil and make nitrogen available to adjacent plants.  If you have really sandy, permeable soil, permaculture is a good way to fix it.

Permaculture is becoming more popular and that's a good thing, because after seeing some of the incredible things it's done, I'm convinced that permaculture is the way to correct hydrocycles across the globe and survive and even thrive during climate change.  It doesn't happen over night, though, so start planning now if you've a mind to try it.

And plan for it to get started in the autumn like sane people do so you're not running around trying to do everything at once.