Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Late summer in photos

 The lettuce and carrots for fall are coming along nicely. They have a white fabric cover ready to go so they can be shaded at a moment's notice and stay nice and cool on the hotter days.  We're supposed to be 100 degrees on Saturday, if you can believe it.

 Our two Granny Smith apple trees bore their first decent fruit this year!  I'll bet we got about 20 apples in all, not bad considering we planted in 2012.

 But we have also had failure.  I have no idea why this Ollalieberry bush suddenly died on us. This will need to be replaced this fall.

 The west-facing wall of Big Ag's shop has been painted sky blue, to provide heat neutrality. The barn quilt will go on this wall, along with a couple of trellised plants on either side to further keep things cool, temperature-wise.

And we're still getting an abundance of summer goods, including plenty of tomatoes and eggplant (plus a few fall apples thrown in for good measure).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Seed Day

(L) Pink Lady, (R) Mortgage Lifter, both about the size of a human fist.  Beautiful producers, meaty with very little pulp.

As of today, all my summer and fall canning is done.  As promised, I put up a couple more quarts of relish and put them in the pantry, although I felt a certain "Groundhog Day" reluctance to start that water bath canner yet again.  

In the rest of the garden, the end-of-season eggplants are being made into babganoush, the pumpkins sit on the patio in readiness for whatever I need them for, and I'm bloody well sick of seeing tomatoes ripen on the vine, although not quite enough to rip out the plants just yet.  (You never know when pico de gallo or some other dish requiring fresh tomatoes will beckon, although at this point it's hard to even look at tomatoes without seeing Mason jars in my head.)

But what I did today is part of my typical fall ritual...I chose several beautiful specimens of my tomatoes and saved the seeds.  

Saving tomato seeds is easy, if you know how to do it.  Just fill a small bowl with warm water, halve the tomato and squirt the seeds into the water.  Set it in a warm place (the top of the fridge usually works best for me), cover loosely with cling wrap, and let it sit for a couple of days, stirring once a day.

Once a slight film has formed on the surface and 48 hours have passed, sieve the seeds out, put them on a paper towel and let them dry.  Once they are bone dry, they can be stored in a plastic bag with a small package of silica gel dessicant (usually found in shoeboxes or in other such products) until next spring.

It's hard to imagine, but the hundreds of pounds of tomatoes I've processed this last season all originated from just two tomatoes from last year -- one Pink Lady Brandywine, and one Mortgage Lifter.  If I processed every tomato I grew for seeds only, it's easy to imagine I could populate the entire country with these tomatoes the following year.  There is truly a gross overabundance in their attempt to reproduce.  But that is nature's way, and God's way ... making sure one tomato can feed your neighborhood next year, and one acre could probably feed the world if necessary.

So we seed savers are saving the world, one tomato at a time. And one tomato is pretty much all you'd need to do it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Paper Plate Conundrum

It's been all over the local news this week that the town of Cambria -- a seaside village nestled next to one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world -- is going to run out of water sometime next month. Their well water has dropped to historically low levels during our drought, and they are getting down to the dregs of their little aquifer as we speak.

About two hours east of Cambria, in the Sierra Foothills, the town of Porterville is also at least partly dry.  Approximately 20 percent of the households in the town of 55,000 now lacks running water, due to declining water levels underground and, again, dry wells.

So far here at the homestead, we are OK on water, our taps still flow and we're still able to irrigate our crops and water our livestock.  But the neighbors across the street have had their well run dry, and are having to truck water in. How much longer can our good fortune last?  I don't know.

 But I've started to wonder if we should, like our Cambrian neighbors to the west of us, begin to take more drastic measures to cut down on water usage.

You see, since this water crisis, everyone in Cambria has switched to using paper plates and plastic utensils for dining.  But eating off paper plates is an environmental conundrum. On the one hand, there is no question that by the Cambria locals doing this in their homes, they are saving a precious local resource, which is water.  On the other hand, it takes energy (including water, but not local water) to manufacture anything like a paper plate, it takes gasoline and oil to ship a package of paper plates to the store, and it takes even more gasoline and oil to have the trash man come and pick up all those paper plates every Wednesday, once they're used and discarded, and ship it all to the dump.  Plus of course, it will take several years to break down in a landfill.

I used to hate paper plates and what they represented, until a last summer, when we were forced to use them for a couple of months whilst remodeling our kitchen. We broke them out once we had no running water in the kitchen and used them instead of regular dishes when we dined in.  

I hated it and felt very guilty, but when the electricity bill came in, I was shocked. It turned out we used a lot less electricity when we did not run our dishwasher, and used less propane when we were not using as much hot water to wash dishes in. Which meant conservation, but at the cost described above. We saved gasoline, oil and other western resources in using less electricity, but, then again, more of those same resources from probably other regions by using paper plates.

I think as climate change progresses, you are going to see similar conundrums, where people have to choose between what works locally for them and what we've traditionally seen as conservation strategies. Paper plates are probably the bane of the tree-saving crowd, but the messiah of the water-saving crowd. Growing local food to eat is great until local water becomes scarce, and then buying produce from the market actually saves your own water for other lifesaving purposes, like drinking.  

It's a very sad tale of hard choices, and if this drought persists here in the west and climate change alters living habits elsewhere, there may be a lot more of them to come.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The FInal Tally

Here's how the canning tally looks this season, not counting store-bought goods.

Fall 2014

31.5 quarts of diced tomatoes

10 jars Marmalade

12 jars sliced pickles

14 jars relish

6 jar whole pickles

5 jars icebox pickles

10 jars strawberry jam

11 jars olallieberry jam

5 quarts peaches

8 quarts apple pie filling

7 quarts spaghetti sauce

9 quarts salsa

1 jar Apricot Jam (for basting ham)

(I may get off the stick and do a few more jars of relish, it goes pretty quickly around here. Everything else is right on track for how much we use in a year, except diced tomatoes, which I always can in excess just in case next year's crop is a bust.)

Oh, and in case I forget, L'Shana Tova everyone!  Happy New Year!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

First Day of Fall

The first day of fall in these parts always, and I do mean always, feels like summer.  Yesterday was no exception, it was about 90 degrees and sunny.  Fall creeps in steadily here, like smoke under the door, gentle, quiet and, at first, unnoticeable. She will first be providing us with colder evenings (low 50s and down into the 40s by next month), and then will mercifully keep shortening the length of the day by a minute or two until the heat can no longer make a stand during the afternoons. That's how it happens here.  The trees will not change color until November, and it will probably still feel like fall until just a couple of weeks before Christmas.  Then winter will set in for good and we will kiss our all-to-brief fall goodbye.

It is safe to say that I am weary of summer, yet I still count my blessings in regards to the many foggy, cold mornings we had in July and August, along with pleasant 80-degree days.  This summer was not a bad one at all, as far as temperatures go, but I am still ready for a change in seasons.

So now the wait for rainfall begins, especially at the end of this extremely dry year -- a record breaker out here in the west.  But before then we have a roof to repair and pellet stove to do the annual service on, so hopefully we can get all that done before the (hopefully) wet season sets in.

Fingers crossed on all accounts, especially for timely, heavy rain. 

In the meantime, we in the west wait earnestly for that first fallen leaf of autumn.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How many years do Mason Jars last?

These need preserving!
Today is Canapalooza at The Hot Flash Homestead. The bulk tomatoes are long finished and put up for winter, but with a still-ongoing harvest, I also decided to put up another 60 pounds of fresh, new tomatoes in salsa and spaghetti sauce.  This last weekend I sent Big Ag out to buy some new mason jars, because I don't use mine for canning if they've seen three canning seasons, maximum.

The answer to the question of "why not?" is that horrible, sinking, panicked feeling you get when a full mason jar breaks in the canner and a quart of tomatoes goes floating around in the water you are trying to can in. Or when you lift a jar out and the bottom cracks open, splattering hot goods all over yourself.

The fact is, mason jars are one thing where the phrase, "they don't make them like they used to," is a valid one.  My really old mason jars, which are over 20 years old, are just fine and will probably last forever.  But the newer ones, the ones between 4 and 10 years of age, are unpredictable and have a shorter shelf life than I would have thought.

For a long time, I blamed myself as the culprit in any jar-breaking accidents, since I am the usual first suspect when things go south in the kitchen (that assumption is usually correct, too). I figured that maybe I'd put the jars into the canner too cold, or with over-tightened lids -- you name it.  But as I became more and more careful and it still happened, I was forced to admit the jars I'd bought just three years ago had become structurally unstable, somehow.

Some of the problem may have been that I had been using my jars in between when they had canned goods in them.  I would fill them and stick them in the microwave when I wanted to heat water. I drank from them.  I stored leftovers in the refrigerator using them.  In short, once they've been used a couple of times, I tend to heat, dishwash, refrigerate, and even freeze those old glasses a lot, to a point where I think sometimes they just can't handle one more super-heating like the canner provides.
Best friend and occasional foe.

So every couple of years, I have now resorted to buying some new ones, since new jars have never broken in the canner -- one once.  I try and vary my stock so I know what year they are from (narrow mouths one year, tinted for a different year, wide mouth for yet another), in order to identify which ones should be put aside for one or two more canning seasons, and which ones need to become drinking glasses. 

How has your experience with mason jars been?  Have you ever broken one in the canner? 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

How long could you survive on your stored food?

A very (unintentionally) funny blogger whose name I will not mention apparently caused quite a kerfuffle last week when she stated she was going to spend a week eating from her food storage and larder on a week-long "staycation," and the following day declared herself short on supplies, hit the road and went into town for some good old-fashioned grocery shopping and a store-bought ham sandwich for lunch.  

I only heard about this second hand, so I'm not sure how true it is. But I did like the idea of exploring just how prepared we are here at the homestead to live off our stored food as well as what's in our garden in the case of emergency.

Could we do it?  Would it be painful?  If I'm brutally honest the answer to those questions is 1) yes, and 2) quite possibly. 

We absolutely have enough food to last us at least a couple of months, assuming the grid was still up, our freezer was working and our garden had something in it.  Without refrigeration, I would guess we'd be OK for a month or six weeks. But it would be painful, mainly for the same reason the aforementioned blogger ended up fleeing her home in search of a professionally made ham sandwich: We "first world" types like things the way we like them, and that's nowhere more apparent than when it comes to the food we consume.

The basics of any long-term non-refrigerated food storage plan should ideally have an abundance of two items which will sit in the back of the pantry almost indefinitely, and feed an army when needed.  Those two things are rice and beans (with an emphasis on beans, which in addition to providing necessary carbs, are also high in protein). Some flour couldn't hurt either, but unfortunately flour does not have the same shelf-life as the other two dry goods and turns rancid within a few months unless stored frozen.

Of course, in a normal week we don't eat rice or beans more than once or twice -- at most -- as a side dish, and in some kind of emergency those might be staples, seen on the menu daily (or worse, several times daily).

The drudgery of this might be mitigated slightly based on what else we have put up in our pantry, which at this time of year is quite a lot -- things like tomatoes, canned tuna, preserved pie-fillings, jams, pickles and other goodies could definitely increase the variety in our meals.  Spices can also make a huge difference in making a boring menu seem fresh and different, and those can be kept in abundance, year-round.

But there's no question, even with all those other ingredients, it would probably not be all deliciousness and fun after the novelty of the first few days wore off, and the very modern urge to skip into town for some sushi took over -- even if an earthquake had already  taken out out most of the town and the sushi place along with it. The heart wants what the heart wants, you know? Beans and rice are no substitute for fresh sashimi and California Roll. We westerners are pretty much accustomed to getting our cravings met, but a natural or un-natural disaster could change all that in the blink of an eye.

One thing I do know is that sometimes, it's a good idea to challenge yourself to make dinner based only on what's available in your pantry -- sometimes for several days in a row. It's not only a way to rotate your stores by eating older food, but it also forces you to try out new recipes and new food combinations.

Since moving to the country, I have done this fairly regularly, since I don't like to make an hour's round-trip drive to the grocery store in search of just one or two missing ingredients for something I am jonesing for.  Instead, I make something I'm not craving, and live with it. We should all do that more, if just for the practice of doing it as well as a nod to the realization that much of the world lives like that all the time.

I also like to think it's good preparation for a time, perhaps post-natural disaster, when we'll be on our own for several days to weeks and will have to make do with what we have.  Because when that happens, there will be no getting fed up and heading into town in search of someone to make you a sammie or some ahi.  It's going to be up to you to provide for yourself, based on what you've put by. 

It will be you and your pantry against the fates, and if there's a ham sandwich you've got your heart set on, you'd better already have all the ingredients on hand, including the recently butchered hog. 

Because things like your town and your local store may not be available, at least for awhile. How about some canned tomatoes with rice and beans? Anyone? Anyone?