Wednesday, December 24, 2014


We're smack dab in the middle of holidays, but thankfully we're in the home stretch.  Hanukkah was wonderful as usual with music, song and latkes, and now it's Christmas Eve and we're happily here at home, waiting for tomorrow when we'll have some Prime Rib and all the usual sides you have with a traditional English Christmas dinner.

This is my favorite time of year, and I hope you and those around you are enjoying the season.

On the 26th, there will be chicken coops to clean, seeds to plant, orchards to fertilize and vines to prune, but for right now sitting in the glow of the pretty lights with family is perfect. Hope you are doing the same.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2014


So here are two of my favorite scratch recipes, which I talked about in my "Food Wars" post a couple of days ago.

The first is George Washington's Colonial EggNog.  The only thing President Washington left out was how many eggs to use; I use a dozen in this recipe but often cut the whole thing in half too, meaning only six eggs and half of everything else. I also add more sugar than he did; my advice is to taste it as you go along and and see how much works of you. I like my eggnog sweeter than old George did I guess, or maybe sugar was at a premium and was therefore used sparingly back in the Colonial times.

The second is for my absolute favorite mac and cheese of all time.  Rich, creamy, tangy, and so good. It is heaven.  High calorie heaven, but once in awhile it's worth it and this is one of those times.

George Washington's Colonial Egg Nog (probably Martha's recipe)

"One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently."

Hot Flash Homestead's Favorite Mac and Cheese
4 Cups cooked small conchiglie (shell-shaped) Macaroni
16 ounces (2 cups) shredded sharp cheddar
8 ounces (one cup) grated parmesan
3/4 cup cream cheese
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup milk
One stick of butter, melted
salt and pepper to taste
Fresh, sliced tomatoes or bread crumbs (optional)
Preheat oven to 350.  Combine cooked noodles and butter, then add hard cheeses first (while noodles are still hot) cream cheese and sour cream, plus heavy cream.  Stir, taste and then season with salt and pepper to your liking. Add sliced tomatoes or bread crumbs as toppings if you wish.
I'll be honest here; I usually eat it at the point, sans toppings, but my traditionalist family prefers having it cook in the oven for approximately 30 minutes before eating it. Which works too. Try it both ways and see which you prefer!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tis The Season (for Food Wars)

Living the life we do means that most of the time we eat very natural foods, almost always made from scratch.  My egg nog recipe has real raw eggs, cream, and lots of liquor in it.  I have similar scratch recipes for other foods which became popular in their commercially-processed states -- stuff like Sloppy Joes, Egg-McMuffin type sandwiches and sodas.  

When you commit to living the simple life, the former convenience foods you loved are suddenly no longer convenient since you're making them from their most basic ingredients, and leaving out all the stabilizers, artificial colors, and preservatives. And sometimes they are worth it. And, yet, to be honest, they often do not taste quite the same. 

Real eggnog
Both Big Ag and myself grew up eating at least some  of what the 1960's and 1970's offered in terms of convenience foods, so adjusting to some of those taste changes when we've "gone natural" has taken time.  But after awhile you get used to it, and then when you pick it up again in its processed form, you actually notice certain flavors are missing -- the ones you first reacted to when you made it naturally.

I remember the first time I bit into a chocolate-chip cookie made with whole wheat flour instead of white and the wheat had a much stronger, nutty flavor than I was used to. I felt vaguely cheated, like my previously delightful sin had somehow been made more respectable and therefore less tasty and fun.  But now, I love the stronger flavor whole wheat has, and much prefer it to white flour in almost everything.

The taste change also happens if you switch from chocolate to, say, carob and if you change from white sugar to honey or agave nectar. I've heard nightmare stories from people who switched from coffee to chikory, although most got used to it after time.

Real mac and cheese
And some foods you cannot reasonably replicate.  The carob-for-chocolate swap is one shining example. It just never tastes the same, and is never as good. Another one happened here this afternoon, when I made my homemade egg nog.  I think it's awesome, but I know that tomorrow or the next day, Big Ag will stop by the supermarket and come home with a carton of that awful, artificially-flavored egg nog from the market because it's what he grew up with and therefore what he prefers.  And my oldest son, who I call TrainMan, will be staying with us after he has some dental work done after the holidays and has already asked that I stock up on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese -- that's right, the bright orange boxed stuff.  Sigh.
Un-real mac and cheese

The fact that I make a killer gourmet mac and cheese with three different kinds of cheeses does not matter, because no matter how hard I try I will never achieve the orangey, tangy, velveeta-textured goo that TrainMan feels is a mandatory part of the Mac and Cheese Experience.  And since its him who will have the sore mouth, who am I to turn a blind eye to his wishes?  (For the record, I never made Kraft Mac and Cheese at our house, but evidently it was on the menu at friends' houses enough that he developed a taste for it.  I guess I should just be thankful they weren't serving meth.) 

So tomorrow I will go to the store and buy some stupid, boxed Kraft Mac and Cheese, grimacing as I pull it off the shelf and throw it into my cart.  And I will also grit my teeth when the artificially flavored-and-colored "egg nog" shows up in the fridge next to my fabulously-natural Colonial Egg Nog (made from a recipe penned by George Washington himself!) as I just know its going to. It's a holiday tradition, just like bad sweaters and Christmas songs by The Chipmunks.  These are all things that must be endured as we plow through the season.  

Un-real eggnog

One thing that makes me feel better is remembering a story natural food guru Michael Pollan told once, about walking through the grocery store with a box of Fruity Pebbles cereal in his cart (for his daughter, who insisted on it) and someone noticing and saying something to him about it.  His response was that, although natural is better, if we have spouses or children we also have to acknowledge that sometimes we're going to have to compromise, and to pick our battles.

Which I guess means that although Kraft, Knudson, and Kellogs may win a round or two here and there, we natural cooks are still committed, long-term, to winning the food war. And so next week I will temporarily surrender on the Mac and Cheese front, open that packet of orange powder and make something that makes my son happy.  

But I have not given up the war. I'm just surrendering, temporarily, on one front.  A gooey, artificially orangey one.

Battleground Lost.

Monday, December 15, 2014

...and NOT going into town

Weather on its way in.
We're finally getting some decent rainfall here on the Central Coast, which is wonderful since any amount we get puts a dent in the colossal drought we are currently undergoing. We're not out of the woods yet, not by any stretch of the imagination, but at least we have green hills again and the fire danger has dropped.

But this rainy day also reminded me of the other side of my town/country double life, which is the days I do NOT go into town, for weather-related reasons.  No, we don't get huge Polar-Vortex storms or below-zero temperatures here, but California is flood and mudslide-prone, so we're not completely safe from weather-related problems when it rains a good amount.

Not everyone has the sense to come in from the rain.

It doesn't even bother me that I can't use my solar oven or my clothesline right now due to the weather.  Hanging wash in front of the fire is a practical solution and, to me, a fire is no less cheerful than a sunny day. We get enough sunshine to last a lifetime in one year out here, so believe me when I say I don't miss it on the days it's absent.

Indoor Task #1: Laundry detergent making.

On days like this, it's honestly just safer to stay home because of my fellow man as well. For some reason, we have some of the worst drivers in the country living here (too hard to explain why right now, but maybe in a future post) so when the streets get wet, it's good to not be out there if it's not absolutely necessary. 

There are always plenty of accidents and crazy behavior happening on our highways and roads on days like these, and avoiding all that is one of the joys of living in a place with dirt roads that tend to wash-out in a good storm.  It's a great excuse to stay home. We have a lot of spontaneous creeks which spring up in very inconvenient places along the roads as well, along with minor mudslides, so driving around these grapevine-covered hills on the way into town can be a definite challenge -- even if you are a good driver.

I am actually one of those people who plans their week around the weather; if a storm looks significant, I will be on the internet  checking to see when it will arrive, and make a serious attempt to be back home, inside, with chores done by the time it starts. Our view also gives us a great view of the squall lines of approaching storms, meaning you can time your retreat back to the Great Indoors with perfect timing on most stormy days.

Today's Deep House Day has been about making a huge batch of homemade laundry detergent (enough to last until next summer, I believe, but we will see), some pumpkin bread with some of October's pumpkins, and later on, (I hope) reading some of the library books I picked up in town last week. Oh, and wrapping presents as well.  All good things.

Indoor task #2: Pumpkin bread.

Tomorrow I'm sure the sun will be back out, like a predictable old boyfriend who just keeps coming back around despite the fact that we take him for granted.

  But today is all about the dark skies, the thrumming of rain on the roof, and All Things Indoors.  Fine by me.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Goin' Into Town

Most days I write about the simplistic and very romantic perfection that wine country life can be. But there is a price to be paid for all this open space and bucolic pleasure, and that is that in order to have it, you can't live too close to town. 

We actually live 20 miles away from the nearest small town, 60 miles away from the nearest medium-sized one, and 120 miles away from a metropolis large enough to have things like big furniture stores or a Macy's.

The actual reality of the weekly trip into the small town and the twice-yearly trip to the metropolis is one of the things I wish someone had told me about before I moved to the country; while it would not have changed my mind, I certainly would have been less romantic about it. 

For some reason, I saw my in-town days as vignettes, with me strolling the streets of the boutique-y parts of our lovely downtown, stopping at gourmet food stores while maybe sipping a latte and enjoying all the pretty things in the store windows. 

Only that's not really how it is. Going into town for the day really consists of driving to many different large stores on the other end of town, pulling in and out of parking spaces, facing traffic stress and lugging bags of stuff into the car. And it pretty much takes an entire day, if I want to save gas and make it a weekly trip.

And that's the dirty little the secret about rural life:  When you live out of town, your days in town are spent dashing from one place to the next, in order to make the most of your time and gas money. No leisurely strolling here, folks. It's a Supply Replenishment run.

Not my home, but you get the point.  Country here, city way over there.

All this driving does make me appreciate the efforts many urban planners are putting forth to create pedestrian and bike-friendly cities, where residents can actually get the things they need without having to own a car.  But to live in an urban environment as it is now, you have to be willing to give up the biggest pleasures of being out of town: seeing the Milky Way at night, having a property large enough to keep livestock, grow food and have an orchard, and last but not least, being able to be outdoors without the constant drone of lawn mowers, police helicopters, traffic and noisy neighbors.  

That's a huge sacrifice, and not one I'm willing to make right now.

And so, at least at this point, we will continue living out here in the country and just hitch up that old wagon (aka the car) and do a 10-stop Errand Day once a week or so. 

And on those days when I need to head into town, I leave early yet still seem to always get back home later than I'd like.  A much better writer than I am, Robert Frost, once wrote about kind of journey, saying in part:

 "I have errands to run and promises to keep.  And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep."

Sometimes, on the days when I'd rather be here on my quiet hilltop than fighting for parking spaces in town, I would definitely agree with those sentiments.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cleaning up

Tomato beds are cleaned out and awaiting compost.

I waited to clear the tomato plants this year until December, with the idea that having some late tomatoes would be a good idea. Unfortunately, this is another one of those DIY lessons; even though our days are warm and sunny, our nighttime temperatures dip into the low 40s and even upper 30s.  So while the tomatoes look beautiful and freshly vine-ripened, they taste like tomatoes that have been in the refrigerator for a few days....just kind of bland and mushy.  Oh well.  It was a noble experiment. It was nice to be able to put them into the salads at Thanksgiving, but honestly, they were no better than crappy store-bought tomatoes, gassed with ethylene or greenhouse grown -- okay, but definitely not like a delicious summer tomato. Everything really does have a season I guess.

For fall 2015, I'm thinking it will be better to just add some fresh onions and carrots to next year's salads and call it a day.  The tomato thing did not work.

So now they are gone (there's one last pile you can see in the right of the pic).  So it's time for making some rich, lovely soil by compost-adding, ryegrass planting (for green manure) and fallow time.  Perfect, since inclement weather is expected and being out in the elements is no fun. I can just sit inside with a glass of wine and watch my spring soil being made from the warmth and comfort of the house.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Join The Club

So this last weekend I detailed my encounter I had with the lady at the cash register at Target, who spent a huge amount of energy attempting to sign me up for her store's debit card (bad), credit card (worse), or just get me on their email list so they could send me notifications anytime they wanted (let's not even talk about it). 

Oh, she also wanted me to download the smartphone app as well, so I could spend my happy hours in her store walking around scanning those square app codes into my phone for additional deals as well.

Because obviously I have no other life, right?

This encounter represents a huge trend in retail marketing today, which is to offer customers some kind of "Club" card.  Once you give them your most personal information -- email, phone number, possibly even bank account information, you receive coupons, specials and other discounts not available to the general public. It's all, supposedly, for the greater good of saving you money when you come into the store.

But here's the thing:  It's not designed to save you money.  it's designed to give these companies access to your life, and give them a way to encourage you to spend even more time shopping there. They know that the time-honored way to get you to give them more money than before (above and beyond their "savings") is to:

 1) force your loyalty by giving you a Club card that makes you feel like you should shop there in order to get the best deal.

2) get you, the consumer, to give said corporation enough access to your life, via your personal email, your phone number, smartphone texts and apps, that they can bombard you with advertising, specials and other goodies all designed to bring you in to shop even more than you are now.

The corporation is not doing you a favor -- they are doing themselves one.  Think about it ... they are not in the business of weakening their bottom line, so obviously there's a profit motive in all this "club" membership.  The fact is, having "club" members makes money for them, above and beyond what they'd normally make.  And it comes from YOU, the Club member. It's as simple as that.

Of course in my mind, there's also the "Homestead Law," which states that the more time you spend at home making and growing your own goods, the less time (and inclination) you will have to be out shopping and buying all the things you are quite capable of making/growing yourself. That will save you more in a year than a whole truckload of purchases on your "club card," believe me.

You also have to ask yourself if you are comfortable giving a corporation like Target permission to track your sales purchases, to have access to your bank account (their new debit card ties directly into your own bank account) access to your email, and access to your phone.  Would you give that information to anyone else you do not know?  Do you want them to have that kind of personal information about you on file?

Back in our old town, the chain supermarket where I shopped did this:  After I paid with my debit card, the register would spit out a bunch of coupons, specifically aimed at me.  Some things were for items I used, but most were things that I had not yet purchased, but an algorithm in a computer somewhere back at the Home Office indicated I might buy them, if encouraged to do so.

I found this interesting, but what was even more interesting was that after I began paying with cash only, the coupons for non-purchased items stopped.  There was no way for the company to track my sales history if I did not use a card to pay for things, and so the advertising in the form of coupons just stopped.  

I found that I liked the anonymity of shopping just as Customer X, with no purchase tracking and no history for them to collect on me.  And so I will continue to be Customer X at most stores, with nary a Club card to be found in my purse.

 If I ever do carry a club, it will be a billy club -- the kind I can use to smack people over the head with who badger me to join their Savings Club.   Yes, I am Customer X and I am free. Welcome to MY club.  Whack!

Saturday, December 6, 2014


So the lady at the checkout counter at Target yesterday gave me a huge lecture/sales pitch about how getting a Target Debit Card, a Target Smartphone app and using scanning codes to generate coupons could save me a huge amount of money.  I then lectured her about how growing your own food, making your own soap and other household goods and not buying into consumer culture could save you even more, thereby eliminating the need to have a Target Debit card and Smartphone app.  


Thursday, December 4, 2014

A few days away

Tenaya Lodge

Big Ag and I took advantage of the slow season to head up to the mountains for a few days of rest and relaxation.  We stayed at a lodge close to Yosemite National Park, thinking we'd go down to the valley floor and see the sights for a day or so.  But Mother Nature had other plans and we were rained out.  Which meant we were forced to spend the two days at the lodge huddled up by the giant fireside reading books, in the basement playing pool, sitting in the hot tub, eating great food and then working it off at the gym while the rain poured down outside. 

I know.  First World Problems, right?

Yosemite Park is ready for the holidays.

All in all it was not a bad way to spend a vacation.  We've been to Yosemite many times already, and unless the ancient rock formations have changed, I'm thinking we probably didn't miss much down in the park.  But sitting around at the lodge was a lovely way to kick off the holiday season, and although we love where we live, the brief change of scenery from provencal-style vineyards to Alpine pine forest was great.