Sunday, November 30, 2014

Surprise late harvest!

I was down in the pasture yesterday spreading around some chicken manure in approach of a coming rainstorm when I found these late harvest red grapes, in perfect condition and ready for picking, two months after harvest officially ended.  They are super-sweet, and a perfect end to the 2014 growing season.  I have no idea when these appeared but am very glad I found them before the freeze sets in.

Sometimes nature gives us a bad surprise -- gophers, disease, or other damage. And sometimes, she gives us a sweet treat long after we thought the season was over and done with.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014 -- Warm sand and crappy pie dough

Even though I prepared most of our Thanksgiving feast on Tuesday and Wednesday, somehow Thursday felt as chaotic as ever, except for the morning, when we headed to the beach to throw the Frisbee around for an hour or so.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day and I was loathe to leave and return to the kitchen. It felt good to get some exercise too, ahead of the food-fest that was to come, and so we may have found a new Thanksgiving tradition.

Safe to say that this new tradition was discovered in part because the temperature was 20 degrees higher than normal; we were in the low 80s by lunchtime.  All day long the sun shone, we kept the windows open, and we donned summer clothes for the afternoon, as we stood around the barbecue as the turkey was smoked and cooked.

Here's an interesting note on the heat, however ... for the first time I had a tremendously difficult time getting my pie dough to perform properly.  I just couldn't make a cohesive dough, and making my pumpkin and ollalieberry pies was extremely frustrating.  It turns out that if your kitchen is too warm, the gluten in the dough does not bind properly. (Hence the instructions in the recipes about chilled ice water and cold shortening -- there is a reason why they all ask for this.  So add to your notes that a cool kitchen goes a long ways towards helping the pie crust-making process, too.)

So with one homemade and one last-minute, store-bought pie crust (oh the shame), things still worked out and everyone was happy and extremely well-fed.

If the weather is like this next year, I am making one thing for Thanksgiving -- reservations at a nice restaurant in town, with outdoor seating and cool drinks.  That will give me more beach time to throw the Frisbee in the morning, and I will save myself the frustration of pie dough that shrinks and falls apart, not to mention the hot kitchen. The whole holiday of Thanksgiving is not designed for summer weather, I must say.  So next year if it's like this, I'm taking the hint and opting out of the cook-fest.

Hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It's starting

How do your Thanksgiving preparations generally begin?  Mine usually starts with an emptying of stored food from our garage freezer...stuff we harvested or made just a few months ago, much of which was stored specifically with Thanksgiving 2014 in mind.  

I will be honest with you; the months of August through November are not pretty ones for my freezer.  It seems like every day during summer I try and fit more and more of my harvest into it, and it's not pretty; we've had arguments erupt over freezer space. For instance, last week Big Ag brought home two extremely large bags of enchiladas from the cook at the ranch, and finding space for them was a huge issue. Big Ag wanted to save them for the kids (who are coming from college this week) and I wanted to eat them now -- just to save freezer space, of course. Of course.

Anyway, today began with taking out a couple of big bags of last summer's ollalieberries, most of the spinach and a quart of broth, among other things, which took my freezer from the "overflowing" category back to just "pretty damn full." 

I'm going to begin fixing things today and putting them in the fridge so I can just pop them in the oven on Thursday and heat them back up.  This will include my spinach casserole, maple pecan yams, cheesy potatoes, pies, cranberry sauce and stuffing. That will leave just the turkey and Yorkshire puddings to fix on Thanksgiving day.  This is a strategy which will hopefully leave plenty of time for games of Cards Against Humanity, Scrabble, a long walk on the beach and maybe even a nap on the back patio, in the sunshine.

And I have already made my usual pronouncement that I am not helping with dishes.  Three days of cooking is enough work for this "holiday," although even with all the work, I must confess that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Greens, reds and rainbows

One thing I'm fond of doing (as I'm sure most of you are as well if you have any kind of edible plants growing on your property) is snacking as you walk through the garden.  Right now the pineapple guavas are ripened and falling off the bushes -- what wonderful treasure to find under the trees!  I am sure I get a good part of my body's micronutrients from these and the pomegranates that are also ripe this time of year.

Sometimes I lament when it's too late in the day to get outside and pick some lettuce for an evening's salad, but with some of these fruits sitting in a bowl on the counter, there's no reason I can't boost my "fruit and vegetable" servings just a bit by snacking on them in the evening after work, instead of something more processed and unhealthy.

And while those short days do make me feel like I don't always get enough time out in the garden, the winery has its own set of pleasures, like this late-afternoon rainbow we saw over the vineyard a few days ago.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Is being alone always a good thing?

Is solitude over-rated?

This morning I am wrapping up chores so I can go to the winery a little later on for my afternoon shift.  I love my job, but there is no question that on cold, cloudy mornings like this my first instincts are to hunker down in the quiet comforts of pasture, fireside and kitchen instead of heading away from the homestead for the sometimes crazy, lively bustle of life behind the wine bar.

There are even times when I think I should go ahead and retire, or at least find a job where I can work from home; standing behind the bar all day and sometimes lifting cases of wine is difficult physical labor, especially if you're over 50. It's especially hard on the feet, legs, and back.  But like exercising and cooking dinner, I can honestly say that my job at the winery is something I enjoy once I'm there.  

And usually, once I'm in the midst of pouring Rousanne and discussing the finer elements of Rhone varietals or telling out of town visitors about the great restaurants in town, the thought of being at home becomes a distant memory -- something I know is there for tomorrow, or the next day, but which can wait.

The bottom line is that I intend to keep working, the same way I intend to keep exercising, and for the exact same reason:  Social skills are like muscles, and once you stop using them, they atrophy -- they shrink, they weaken, and it's much harder to get them moving again, when you need to. 

I'm thinking of several women I know who have moved to the country in search of new, more rural lives, who are not the better -- at all -- for all that tranquility and time alone.  For some, I have seen an actual break with reality -- the desire-turned-into-wish-turned-into-belief they are living the fictional-type life of a movie or book character, or that they are living in a certain era, with an exclusion, suspicion, or outright derision of all that lies outside of that restrictive boundary.  

A couple of others I know decided there was no longer any good reason to bathe regularly or wear clean clothes.  And sometimes, the prolonged isolation just shows up through a distinct lack of social skills, which can sometimes get rusty as the person spends more and more time with only their own company to keep and only their own opinions, thoughts and voice to listen to.

I'm not knocking time alone -- I am, by nature, an introvert, and after any social gathering I tend to find myself physically craving several hours of peaceful time alone to balance the scales.  But like any balance, the scale can also tip the other way at times, and sitting atop my hill, performing tasks alone and only seeing my husband for companionship become things I realize I need to break away from, in order to keep my "social muscles" flexed and strong so they are toned and ready to put to use when I need them.

  My rural life might be different and less isolated if I had several kids of school age running through the house, as we did years ago, but as I've grown into an almost-empty nester, I've realized more than ever that I don't want to give in to the eccentricities and quirks that come from rarely interacting with another human. And it's easier to do than you'd imagine, when you live in a place where you can avoid actual human interaction for days or even weeks.

And so, it's into the car, down the hill, and then behind the wine bar I go in order to chat, schmooze, joke around, and generally pretend I'm an extrovert for a few afternoons a week.  It's the equivalent of a gym membership for my social skills, and they're muscles that usually feel good to flex, once I put myself out there and do it.  

It's use it or lose it, whether you're talking about your biceps or your ability to shoot the breeze.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

At Home

I'm telling you, this is absolutely my favorite time of year.  There is a deeper blue to the sky which only happens when the sun is sitting farther to the south, plus we get more clouds than we do in summer. I just feel my soul sing when I look up and see it. 

This afternoon it's been brisk and breezy here at the homestead, and I've happily been cleaning out the chicken mansion and adding fresh bedding.  In the outside run I've added about five inches of straw, just to give the girls something to scratch through and to break down and make some good compost, along with their own waste products. Changing out all the bedding has been moderately good exercise, and something I can easily do without needing the heavy-lifting capabilities of either Big Ag or Groceries, both of whom are occupied with putting rain gutters on the new barn as we speak.

So I've been happily trundling back and forth from the chicken coop to the fallow vegetables beds with a wheelbarrow filled with old bedding, just feeling the cold wind on my face and smelling the deep, comforting smell of burning oakwood from one of the neighboring farm's fireplaces.

This is the life I have chosen, and I can't imagine being happy in any other kind of life.  Dirt, manure, blue skies, white clouds, woodsmoke and flannel.  It's beautiful.

When you homestead, it's easy to take for granted the things that once thrilled your soul, and its important not to let that happen. Like religion, love, or anything we discover and pursue with passion, we can easily lose the fire, so to speak, once we've arrived. 

So it's at the moment we arrive (as well as all the moments afterward) that we need to begin a quest for continual revival in our souls -- a deliberate and conscious stirring up of the passion for those things we brought into our lives because, once upon a time, we couldn't imagine living without them. 

The fire can't be permanently renewed from new toys, new animals, new hobbies, or new projects.  For the long term, you have to be able to renew that fire just from what you have right now.  If it requires a constant influx of  the new or the different, you are destined to be a wandering, hungry ghost in this world, no matter where you live.

 This week I made soap, made some homemade Bailey's Irish Cream (recipe to follow next week) and did a lot of cooking from our canned goods and stored veggies from summer.  It's easy to just consider this the daily grind of country life, but I think its important to stop and think about each task, remembering the thrill I had the very first time I did each of them. Because for me, the country life is not the life I started out with.

This morning while I was inside, I was listening to a station called "Mellow Miles" (Davis) on Songza while I did my chores, and the soft and low tones of the saxophone reminded me of another life -- a life of late evenings spent in low-lit restaurants high above the city, watching the reflection of rain on the streets below, changing through liquid golds, greens and reds as they caught the lights of the traffic signals and streetlights. That was a beautiful life too, just not the one I ultimately chose. But the honeyed tones of a low saxophone playing a slow song can bring it all back, and I still see the beauty in it I saw way back then.

There is beauty to be found in many places, at different times in your life, and as long as you can look out your window and see something that makes your soul do a little flip-flop of happiness, or you can step outside and catch a whiff of fresh air and it smells like comfort and peace to you, then you are where you need to be in the here and now. 

If you are in the right place, that's all it will take to renew your passion and purpose in your life...whether its the deep blue of a country sky on a November afternoon or the reflection of a city traffic light on wet pavement at 2 a.m., set to a soundtrack of Miles Davis.  That's all it will take.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Season of Green

Green is slowly returning

November typically marks the return of green to our area, after what always seems to be an endlessly long and brown summer.  We've had an inch and a half of rain over the last couple of weeks -- not enough to end our drought, but definitely enough to replenish the dry ground to a point where the green grasses and other native brush are just starting to emerge again.

Not just grass, but roses too!

When people come into the winery at the end of the summer and I tell them that in November all those brown hills will emerge in a kind of green haze which will grow and become more colorful until we positively look like Ireland by springtime, they always look at me like I'm slightly daft. After all, the vineyard grapes are turning various shades of brown, orange and yellow by then, which is what most folks typically equate with fall. But for us, November not only marks the end of the grape-growing season, but also green season for everything else -- everything native -- and this will last until about June.

And even the backyard vegetable gardens start to spring forth with new life again, as winter gardening is not only possible, but quite popular here. Truly, fall, winter and spring in this area are the seasons of life. Summer is for surviving. 

I know some folks love fall for the beautiful turning trees and the coming of snow, but for me, I'm always excited to see the return of green after many long, brown months.

Pretty red pomegranates, ripe for the picking.  

Onions, scallions and lettuces are coming up, too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Soap-making and other catch-up chores

I've known for awhile now that our soap supplies were winding down, but wanted to wait for a cool day before voluntarily standing at the stove melting the solid oils that are part of my soap recipe (which changes, depending on my mood and what I have on hand, but there is always at least one solid oil and one liquid one). 

Depending on the oils you use, sometimes it can take awhile and besides, there are so many summer activities that beckon during the warmer months... there are tomatoes to can, greens to harvest, tomatoes to can, beaches to walk on, and oh, did I mention tomatoes to can?  

Ya, but that's all over now. Soapmaking is a great fall/winter activity.

I generally make enough soap to last for about a year, which means that I can choose the day I make our year's supply of soap.  I generally wait until I have about three bars from the last batch left, as soap takes several weeks to cure, so a little time to sit in the cupboard will only result in a more gentle and mild soap -- a good thing for those of us with sensitive skin.

 Soapmaking is not difficult at all, but does require fairly careful calculations in order to assure your soap will be of a firm consistency and not too strong -- after all, lye is a caustic and if you're going to be using it to make something which will come in direct contact with your skin, you just can't be too careful. And it does require a close adherence to the directions, or the results can range from disgusting to downright dangerous.

But if you are willing to follow directions and observe a reasonable amount of comment sense, soapmaking is easy and fun.

The most amazing thing about making soap is that you can take a caustic substance and a bunch of oils and through a miracle called "saponification,"which happens when you mix the oils, the lye and the water together in a specific way, it renders the oils totally non-oily and renders the lye gentle enough to clean your skin without irritation. In short, it makes an entirely new substance.

This time around, I decided to make a deliciously fragrant soap out of cocoa butter, shea butter, olive oil, and vegetable oil.  The house smells wonderful right now, and soon I will have lovely bars of soap curing in their molds.

If you have any interest in soapmaking, there is a great website which can take you through each step, and which also has a great lye calculator so you know how much lye and liquid to add to your oils, as well as how to safely do it.

It's here:

Later this afternoon I am harvesting some pomegranates for fresh juice (always a pleasure to have at this time of year) and planting some more onions.  It's nice to have an entire day devoted only to the homestead.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

It's all about the judges, baby.

If it moves you, baby.

This is the time of year when newspaper reporters, bloggers and Facebook posters all send out this popular message:  You need to vote!  Exercise your American rights at the ballot box!

From the admittedly cynical point where this 50-something lady now stands, there is only one reason to vote, but that reason is not the commonly held idea, which is to elect the politician who have made the most appealing promises or smeared their opponent the best, or the proposition which you think is a necessary and good thing (although that last one can be important in many cases, if it's a legally sound idea).

Oddly enough, the people you vote for that have the greatest impact on your community and your state are -- by far -- the judges up for election or re-election (who almost nobody pays much attention to), and, also, the people who have the power to appoint judges, at the state or national level.  That is, in my opinion, the most powerful reason to get out there and vote.

Judges have more power in this nation than anyone else, mainly because at the appeals level they can affirm or strike down convictions, rulings and even majority-voted-in laws which might or might not end up being constitutional, depending on the judges' viewpoint.  

Look at the recent striking-down of gay marriage bans, the upholding or defeat of anti-abortion laws, or any search and seizure or privacy rights case that's gone to the state or supreme court level to see what I mean.  Look at locally-passed laws which make their way up through the court system as they are appealed. These are the decisions which can affect your county, state or nation, as well as you as an individual.  Sure, we may vote for this law or that one, this proposition or that one.  But ultimately, our decisions can be swept away or affirmed in a heartbeat by one judge's or appeals court's ruling.

If you decide to vote tomorrow, which is totally up to you, don't forget the judges and those who appointment them.  Those are the folks who absolutely will be making final decisions on things which will affect your life and the place you live in over the next several years, possibly longer.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Slow Time

"Cozy Cabin," by Judy Gibson

The clocks went back an hour yesterday, meaning that we're once again on Slow Time.  Many years ago, some folks in the midwest began calling Daylight Savings Time "Fast Time" and Standard Time "Slow Time," which I think is a marvelous and incredibly accurate description of both.

All day today I've felt like the day has been longer, and that I've accomplished more than I had in the rush of activities that comprised my days for the last several months.  When the time changes over to Daylight Savings Time (Fast Time), for instance, I can often be heard muttering, "Holy s#it, I can't believe it's this late already," as I dash out the back door to bring in the wash from the clothesline at 7 p.m.

But all that's over now... at least for a few sweet months.

As a fitting crescendo of Fast Time craziness, the last few weeks have been a blur of activities for Big Ag and myself.  We had a busy harvest season at the winery.  We hosted two parties here, one a sit-down dinner for 14 and another a pot-luck for 40.  And a charity I work part-time for had a big event I managed.  

I also had three minor events happen to me in the last week -- small things, really -- which lowered my spirits and made me long for a few days to lick my wounds, deep house.  First, I almost got my car towed on Halloween, through a mistake that truly was not my fault.  Second, a weird friend started acting even weirder than usual.  And lastly, my boss corrected a mistake I'd made at work in a way that stung, even though it was admittedly my own fault.  

But when it's Fast Time, it can feel at times like there's no time to heal from the minor bumps and bruises of life, something which is best done away from everyone and the crazy social agendas we sometimes foist on ourselves (or have foisted on us). And for the record, it's not the major tragedies which I think account for the sadness and malaise modern living often inflicts upon us. It's the little things, over and over, which eventually just add up to feeling sad, frustrated, and feeling like you just can't catch a break (although not getting my car towed was a huge break, I realize). 

I'm sure the Roman Empire did not end through one catastrophic tragedy, but rather through a slow erosion of fortunate circumstances. And so it is with our moods sometimes.

And so today, on this first day of Slow Time, I've found myself incredibly happy to be at home, deep in the comfort of the familiar, with no one to entertain, to make lively conversation with, or to answer to. Big Ag is napping in his chair, and the pellet stove is keeping us warm with its familiar clinking sound as the pellets fall into the hopper, giving us a cheery fire. The ground outside is wet from a good, soaking rain, and the so-called "civilized" world (generally not known for being particularly civil) feels far away. 

Slow Time is good for listening to quiet music, good for reading, making casseroles, and good for getting home at 4 p.m., in order to feel tucked into warmth and comfort by the time the sun sets. There's nothing wrong with long nights spent in a comfortable chair with a good book or your Kindle, in my opinion.  It's hugely under-rated activity by most folks, but not here at the homestead. 

Even though there are still tomatoes and eggplant on the vines and more onions, lettuce and scallions to plant, that's OK.  There's more than enough time to do these things in Slow Time and not feel rushed. The newly-ripe pomegranates will also get harvested in due time and there will be sweet, tart  juice to brighten up the cooler days. There will be more rain, more darkness, and more time by the fire. And wine, of course.

It's Slow Time, once again.  Hallelujah.