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?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Barn Quilt Pattern

Found this barn quilt template free online.  I like it, but no decisions yet. I may end up designing something on my own, completely different from anything else out there.  But with the right colors I think this could be pretty.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Barn Quilt

A barn quilt in North Carolina

So Big Ag's shop/small barn is finally finished, and we've ended up with one large wall facing the raised vegetable beds, which begs for something creative to be done with it. (In my book, anyway.  I'm sure Big Ag would be just as happy to paint it and forget about it.) 

This west wall has always been something of a bone of contention, ever since Big Ag decided to put the barn in. After all the presence of a building, as well as the color it's painted, will affect the temperature of the garden itself -- which means it will have a direct impact on the success we have growing our food, no small thing.  

A light color on that wall could potentially reflect heat (keeping the building interior cooler but possibly reflecting both light and heat into the garden) while a darker color would probably absorb the heat (making both the interior of the barn and the area around the wall hotter). Luckily most of our winds come from the west in summer, straight in from the Pacific, so we'll still have air movement.

So the whole thing was a mixed bag for me.  While I love the idea of Big Ag having a place to put all his tools, I didn't want the microclimate of our garden potentially changed for the worse, even by a few degrees.

There didn't seem to be any good solution until I remembered the idea of a barn quilt.  Barn quilts are colorful painted patterns, hung on large sheets of wood on the exterior walls of barns or painted directly on them.  The quilt can be anything you design, with colors or patterns with special meaning to you. 

I suddenly had my solution to the wall facing my garden. With so many different colors in the quilt, I think any heat-accumulating tendencies will be neutralized. 

This is a cool weather project which is going to be designed and painted in the workspace of our garage this coming winter, where I can open all the doors, watch the rain and paint my giant 5' x 5' quilt as it chills and blows outside. We'll hang it whenever it's done, but I'm hoping it will be in early 2015.

 I can't wait to begin designing it and picking the colors and shapes that best represent our homestead.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Life Goes On

Hmm ... eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini -- and herbs too.  Such delicious possibilities!  Ratatouille?  Farmer's Market sandwiches? Veggie lasagna?

It all sounds good. Now is the time when we pick up the pieces, dry our tears and go on.  Hard to feel bereft with so much edible bounty surrounding us, and so much of creation's beauty at our fingertips.

I did not make my friend's Celebration of Life service, which was several hours away by plane, but while working yesterday I did get a visit from this beautiful creature, who flitted and danced around me (not my image, but the same kind of butterfly).  

She reminded me that we are all just caterpillars, waiting to become eternal butterflies. And in the meantime....life goes on.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Peeking up

I find happiness peeking up from the most simple places on the homestead these days.  There is happiness in the near-ripe tomatoes I find on the tomato plants that seem to have taken forever to grow and produce.  Happiness in the strong, green new stalks on the olallieberry vines.  Happiness in the feel of the wind and sunshine on my bare arms as I hang the wash out to dry on the morning's breeze.

My friend in the coma finally passed, one day before her 55th birthday.  I think she lingered in the coma for a week to give her family and everyone else who loved her time to come to terms with her passing.

A couple of years ago, she and I had a frank talk about her upcoming death.  She told me (she was a registered nurse and therefore had some medical-level knowledge about her condition) that it would be "an event" that led to her passing, not the slow lingering of a hospice death.  In a way, she was correct. She fell into a coma rapidly, just an hour or so after feeling fine, fixing herself a meal and settling into her apartment for a night of quiet TV watching. And one week later, she was gone.

When I think about what she valued, it was the simple things, and it's what allowed her to be happy despite living with essentially a death sentence.  She loved nature, she loved people, and she loved God.  Although her life was relatively short and far from perfect, she always seemed to be able to find joy in the simple things of life.  Not the drama, debauchery, or angst this world is so known for. She was about as far from those things as anyone could get.

In honoring her memory, I am trying to do the same, and to live more mindfully. Too often around here the chores can just be chores, instead of opportunities to mindfully appreciate all that's been placed here for our enjoyment. Too many times, I complain about the heat instead of being thankful for the small breeze.  Or I focus on one unpleasant customer at the winery instead of rejoicing in the hundreds who come in and enrich our day with their lively stories, interesting ideas, or funny jokes.

Today, and for as many days after this as I can manage it, I'm going to try and be more conscious of the simple happiness that surrounds almost all of us, if we only have the eyes to see them.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Doctors and Tomatoes

So my childhood friend is still in a coma, still lingering on that mezzanine between life and death, but life on the homestead has to go on, and so it has, although I've felt off-kilter all week.  The first tomatoes have finally ripened and I was able to can five quarts of them, roughly one-third of what I need for winter.

I've also planted lettuce and carrot seeds, which sprouted unbelievably quickly (hmm, maybe there is something to that Farmer's Almanac Good Planting Days thing after all!), and we are still harvesting eggplant, cukes and zukes in diminishing amounts as the summer wanes.

I can't help but notice that the nights are now longer and cooler than they were a month ago, which is quite lovely. We have an automatic door closer on our chicken coop, and I recently had to reset both its opening time in morning (later) and its closing time (earlier).  The days are noticeably shorter, and it's safe to say the world seems ready for fall.

In the vineyard, harvest is going full swing at most wineries, which means a lot of extra people around, a general sense of busyness, and an increased number of flies!

I had my complete medical at the concierge doc too, the most complete physical I've ever had.  What a gift, and in my opinion it was totally worth the money, even if it was just for this one huge battery of tests and the two visits I had to discuss the results (and actually, it is much more than that, because I get free office visits for the next 12 months).  I don't think I've spent this much time with my doctor since I was a child.  These visits were truly old fashioned office visits, lasting an hour or more, which gives you lots of time to discuss anything you're wondering about, health-wise.

Oh, I am also current on my vaccinations now, which means I can be kenneled if necessary and can go play at the dog park without impunity, right? 

No, seriously, I am grateful to have good health, especially in light of my friend's plight.  Health is something that is easy to take for granted, especially when you do a lot of basic physical labor around your property. Maybe celebrating that I'm able to pick tomatoes, lift a canner full of water, and work all day without becoming overly tired is appropriate and good, for I know this will probably not always be the case.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Hour of Separation

As I write this, my friend Lori is laying in a hospice in Nashville, TN, dying from invasive ovarian cancer, unresponsive and asleep to the world around her.  Her life will probably come to an end sometime in the next few days.  

When I got the news of her sudden decline (she'd been battling cancer for the last 20 years, with many ups and downs, but was in the midst of a long "up" spell for the last few years) my first impulse was to cry.  After all, Lori and I have been friends for 48 years, ever since my family moved in next to hers back in 1966.  Crying is what you do when you are faced with the loss of someone who has been a fixture in your life for such a long time.  We'd gone through bicycles, boyfriends, beaus and babies together.  The calm and normalcy of her grandparents' house (where she lived with her brother) stood in stark contrast to how I saw mine.  Lori and her life were a refuge and a role model for my future adult life.

And, to me, Lori always seemed to have led a charmed life, up until the point where, at 35 years of age, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. That, of course led to chemotherapy, radiation, multiple surgeries, and all the assorted troubles that come with those things.  

While the length of her bout with cancer was truly unfair, I can't honestly say that cancer is a bad way to make your exit from this life, however.  On a Facebook page remembering former students from our high school who have died over the years, far too many seem to have been taken young, and suddenly:  The automobile accidents.  The gang shootings.  The car wrecks.  The overdoses.

What I've come to realize is what cancer provides is the gift of time -- for the victim as well as their friends and family. There is, usually, time to do some of the things you still have on your "bucket list" that are important to you. Lori saw a grandchild born, traveled frequently with friends and family, and saw her youngest graduate from college just a couple of years ago.

Cancer also lets you know, approximately, how much time you probably have left in the world, which can also be a gift. You can say the things you need to, forgive those who need or want your forgiveness, and do what you feel you need to before moving on. Almost no one will be too busy for you if you're dying of terminal cancer, as they know they'd better see you now, because "later" is not a guarantee. Lori spent true quality time with many friends (including me).  She lived long enough that her first grandchild will remember her, and saw her own children off into their own secure adulthoods, with jobs and happy relationships.

The last gift cancer gives is not to the one suffering, but to those around them.  To know that each "I love you" could be the last, that every Christmas might be the last one you share, makes the true importance of those things apparent.  In "The Prophet," Kahil Gibran says, "Love knows not its depth until the hour of separation," and he is right.  But having that hour of separation stretch for a few years, with all parties aware and living in mindfulness of that fact, is in fact a gift that many who have passed suddenly would probably wish for, if they could. God knows their families would probably want it.

Lori and I said our goodbyes the last time she came to visit.  We knew we would probably never see each other again, and all the good that could be said was said. I will be grateful for that until it's time for me to leave this world.

So as Lori prepares to make her greatest journey yet, I am thankful to her cancer -- not for the suffering she had to endure, but for the fact that because of it, Lori knew her time here was a finite thing, and she made the most of it, which made all of us aware that our lives are also not infinite in their scope and breadth. Her life was truly an inspiration and a reminder that few of us know just how much time as have left on the clock.  Lori did, and she made it count for something.

There is not much of this life left for Lori to live now, but I hope it's filled with comfort, peace and perhaps even satisfaction, in that slow, winding-down sleep she's in now.  I hope in what she knew was a limited time, she said what she needed to say and did what she wanted to do. I think she did.

Safe travels to that which comes next, my old, dear, and very loved friend. 


Monday, September 1, 2014

In Any Large City


Sometimes, when I was a little girl, the conversation around the dinner table would shift towards talk about the Los Angeles Dodgers and how they were doing that season. My grandmother, who knew nothing about sports whatsoever, pulled me aside one day when this was going on and whispered conspiratorially to me, "Schatzi, just remember this: In any large city, you're going to find troublemakers." (Apparently she thought The Dodgers were some kind of violent street gang.)

But her adage is true.  In any gathering of individuals, you are going to find those who just want to cause trouble. In my hen house, this position goes to Floyd, the pigeon.

I found Floyd on the steps of our dry cleaners several years ago. He was barely two days old and freezing to death. It was the week before Thanksgiving, and I'd just stopped in to pick up Big Ag's dry cleaning.

"Hey, how long has that baby pigeon been sitting in the entry way?" I asked.

"I don't know, a couple of days I guess," replied the guy behind the counter.

"Has the mother been dropping down to feed it?"

"Uh, no, I don't think so," the guy (who really couldn't have cared less) replied.

I picked the pigeon up and took him home with me.

Since I'd done some avian rehab and release, I took care of the pigeon, who we named Floyd, until he was ready to be released.  The only problem was, he was much too tame to be released by the time he was ready. He absolutely loved people, and would land on the shoulder of anyone who happened to walk in through the door. Any friend of ours was a friend of his. Or strangers, for that matter.  Floyd was clearly a people pigeon.

And so Floyd stayed.


We built him a big flight cage and doted on him, and he grew into a magnificent pigeon. People who stop by to see us rarely even realize Floyd is a common domestic pigeon. He's extremely clean, smells nice, and his feathers positively gleam.

Floyd is also one of the troublemakers my bubbe tried to warn me about.  Floyd loves me, but is bossy with everyone else.  What Floyd really needs is a small, South American nation to run, where tyrants and demagogues are the norm.

Instead, I let Floyd run the chicken coop.  Or so be believes.  

Floyd wanders around the chickens all day now, cooing and puffing up his feathers and looking quite important.  But when the chickens have had enough, they let Floyd know with a warning peck or two, and he flies up to the top of the coop, where we've built a railing for him to strut his stuff on.

The objects of Floyd's true affection are the silver food container and the red chicken waterer, who he puts on quite a mating display for.  So far he has only tried to mount one of the hens and the waterer a couple of times, and as you can imagine neither partner really worked out for him, biologically speaking.

But I see him as kind of the Donald Trump of the henhouse, an assessment I think Floyd would be proud to take ownership in. Being so beautifully feathered, he doesn't even need the toupée.

Workin' it.

Yes, Floyd is both troublemaker and seeker of strange pleasures in the world of the Hot Flash Henhouse, a solitary gray general amidst an army of indifferent hens and stoic food and water dispensers.