Monday, November 19, 2012

As Simple as Socks

This is one of my very favorite times of year. Woolie season. It’s normally the time of year that I break out my heavy sweater and wool socks. Of course, I’ve noticed that it’s a whole lot colder up here, and if the truth is to be told, I never put my woolies away this summer. It just seemed that there were enough cool nights that I wanted my toes toasty. So we as a family have discovered a problem - we simply do not own enough wool socks. The other problem is of course that because I love to knit, I have a whole house full of spoiled sock snobs. Even the four year old. Every year I make socks for Christmas and birthdays, because it’s Tuesday, and just because, but if you think kids grow out of shoes fast, you should see how depressingly fast they can grow out of a pair of socks that took me four days to knit.

Why knit socks for my kids, you might ask? Why put all that effort into something that they’re only going to outgrow? Why not just buy them? Well, I could go into all the practical reasons, like it costs me less than $5 a pair to knit them, and considerably more to buy them. They last a lot longer - I’ve JUST worn a hole in my oldest pair, and I’ve been wearing them for more than a decade now. They are warmer and softer, and fit better. I KNOW that they aren’t made with slave labor. They’re machine washable and dryable. But the truth is, though I appreciate all of those advantages, they aren’t the real reason behind my labor. Why do I do it? Love. I mean, come on, four days for a pair of socks, it has to be love, right? I love my husband and children, and it gives me a real sense of satisfaction to see them warm and happy through my labor. Plus, you just can’t buy wool socks in these colors. Really, I’ve looked. And seriously, how cool is it that kids at 8 and 4 years old are excited about getting clothes on Christmas morning? Jason shows them off to total strangers. “My mommy made these for me, and they’re ORANGE.”

So, here I sit, and I knit, and knit. I have several pounds of yarn to go through this winter, and books of patterns to try. And though this labor is seen by many as sheer drudgery, with every stitch my heart is filled with love.

Friday, November 16, 2012

{this moment}

{this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.

If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Weathering Storms

Today I am thinking about storms, and how we weather them. Scrabbling preparations lead to hours of sitting, reading books, playing board games, and knitting. We wait, and watch Mother Nature have her way outside of these huge windows. We rest. It always amazes me how small I feel, and how grateful I am for my snug house with its warm fire.

Before Sandy we picked up everything in the yard lighter than a good sized rock, putting most of it in the shed (poor Shawn, we had just cleaned and organized it for the winter), and covered the scrap wood pile with a tarp, anchoring it to the ground with rebar driven through the grommets. We bought batteries, unpacked the candles, and stood in line at the gas station to fill cans and cars, just like everyone else. I took the outside screens out of the windows and filled 5 gallon buckets and the bathtub with water, while Shawn set up the generator and filled it with oil and gas. We found the extension cords. We made a big pot of soup. I busily did all of the things I learned in a childhood filled with extended power outages. Then the day came. I locked down all the windows, gathered the cats inside, eyed the rotten tree overhanging the chicken house nervously, filled their feeder and waterer… and waited.

In the end, we were lucky. We didn’t even lose power, though it did flicker off and on for a few days. We lost some trees, as expected, the screens in the back doors (which were not removable), and at one point a gust of wind picked up the wooden swing set and blew it across the yard. Luckily it didn’t go far, but it was pretty unnerving. Still, we were safe, warm, and fed, and nothing fell on the house or the chicken house. Which is more than most people in its path could say. Did I mention how grateful I am? We took a deep breath, and started cleaning up.

That would have been the end of it, and I wouldn’t be writing about it now, except that it got cold here the night before last. The local weather station recorded a temperature of 16.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Yesterday it eeaked above freezing in the afternoon, so I decided to let the chickens out to enjoy what was passing for warm sunshine. I didn’t think it had gotten as cold as it apparently had, because I had a heck of a shock. Three of the roosters had badly frostbitten combs, the water in the waterer had big chunks of ice in it, and the eggs the ducks had laid were frozen SOLID. I felt, and still do feel, terrible.

Shawn was away on a business trip to upstate NY, so I gave him a call to see what could be done, as the forecast for last night was supposed to be just as cold. We rejected notions of heating stones or water, as we feared it just wouldn’t produce enough thermal mass, and frankly, we were worried that the silly birds would burn themselves on them. They really aren’t that bright, let me tell you. Also, there was no way NO WAY I would be able to get the generator all the way down there by myself. Long story short, he decided to come home and finish wiring up the chicken house, at least enough so that we could plug in a couple of heat lamps. I immediately decided that it was ridiculous that he should have to come home in the middle of a business trip because I did not know how to run electrical.  I decided to rectify this problem by learning how as we did the chicken house together. And I did.

Things I learned? Stripping wire in the dark at 20 degrees? Not. Fun. Stripping 6 gage direct burial cable (which apparently means it’s coated with something designed to survive a major apocalypse) without wire strippers under the same conditions? Even less fun. Also, apparently chickens are just as cranky about being kept awake by hammering and lights as I am. And my husband, though amazing in every way, the best dad I know, and a truly brilliant man, really really needs to learn how to use a check list and a project specific parts bin. But we got it done. We staggered up the basement stairs and made pasta with cheese; fat and carbs both sorely needed after our adventure. Then exhausted, and still cold, we dropped into bed.

This morning, I awoke, and had no hot water, the water heater having mysteriously switched itself into vacation mode. So I finished the remains of my cold shower, bundled myself into my woolies, and drank my morning tea. All the while, contemplating the fact that my housekeeping schedule has been disrupted by having the breaker for my dryer cannibalized to keep my chickens alive last night (parts bin… all I’m saying), the impending arrival of friends this weekend, and my to do list, which is up above 70 items again. I swear it breeds in the dark. Oh, and the momentary arrival of this season’s first real snowstorm.

That’s right. Like most New Englanders this week, I’m looking at the weatherman and saying, “Really? This is a joke, right?” But alas, the snow is here. Thankfully not much, and I don’t think it will stay. But still, all this has me thinking about storms, how we weather them, and how it’s beginning to feel like I go from one crisis to the next as the season takes its final icy turn. You see, I’m tired. Really tired. The last 12 months have been a bit of a marathon for me, what with buying and repairing the house, and relocating my whole life. And we’ve been doing more entertaining than we ever have before. Truly I don’t think I’ve quite got the hang of it yet, but I’m getting there. I’m learning all kinds of new skills, and meeting all kinds of new people. Really, I couldn’t be happier, but I’m just… tired.

I am feeling the pull of winter. I am feeling my body and mind slow start to slip into its natural lull. I am looking forward to rest. And as I draw nearer to hosting my very first Thanksgiving, I am realizing what a perfect and natural end to the year it is. I am so looking forward to sharing bounty and thankfulness with some of my extended family. And what better way to end the highly active part of the year than with a big bash? After that, rest, quiet… knitting, board games, and reading books. Shawn is thinking about spending some time with his forge. With the cold and snow coming, I am also coming to the end of my stamina, and as so often happens since I moved here, I find that the rhythms of my heart and body follow those of the world outside my door. I read things written by other farmers I know, and they say similar things; that for them this is the time of year of slowing, of quiet, of turning inward. And as I sit here watching the first flakes falling, I’m marveling at how even wiring heat lamps can drive me closer to living in harmony with the natural world.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Today I am a Farmer

Today I am a farmer. We have started slaughtering the chickens. Not that you can’t be a farmer without killing animals (as plenty of farmers don’t), but we’ve grown crops before. For me keeping a garden is not the same thing as being a farmer. I deeply believe that a proper farm system involves animals to replenish the soil, and if you have animals on a farm you have to deal with killing. I know some people think you can have animals humanely, but the truth is that the killing is happening one way or another, even if you yourself are not doing it yourself. Chickens are born 50-50 roosters and hens, and they cannot exist in a flock that way peacefully and productively. If you buy only hens from the hatchery, the male chicks are often thrown out like garbage, or sent as living packing material to folks like us, who kill and eat them. And you can’t have dairy without babies (be they goats, cows, or sheep), and a farm simply cannot sustain a whole new crop of babies every year, if only for the same reason – they are born 50-50 male and female, but don’t form peaceful adult groups that way. I know that living most of this lifestyle comes pretty easily to me. It feels good, and natural, but killing an animal was the “Big Scary Thing” I wasn’t sure I could handle. So why do my own killing? Because I believe that I do not have the right to eat meat if I am unwilling or unable to take a life. I’ve always been an animal lover, and though I have been a mom for too many years to be overly concerned with poop, and blood has never bothered me, guts aren’t exactly my favorite thing. Neither are germs. But I did it, and so did Shawn.

We put three chickens in cat carriers the night before, before feeding time, so that when it came down to cleaning them out their guts would be empty, and thus less likely to cause problems. Then this morning Shawn taught me how to sharpen a knife, and boy did I ever. A good friend had warned me after her first experience, having thought her knives were plenty sharp… and learning otherwise. So, wanting to make this as painless as possible for the chickens (not to mention safe and easy for yours truly), I sharpened my knife until I could shave my arm with it. Bloody sharp, not to be overly macabre, and I warn you, I’m unlikely to resist the impulse.

So we hung up the kill cone on the shed door, got a bucket to catch the blood, and trekked down to the chicken house to fetch our erstwhile contestants for “Who Goes Into The Freezer First?”… only to find out that one of them had pulled a Houdini, and earned himself a stay of execution. I have to wonder if it was one of the same two roosters who went missing earlier in the season, only to show up inside the chicken house a week later at feeding time. If I knew for sure, I might keep him just on principle. In any case, the other two were hauled up to the shed, and I spread a few cups of grain around on the other side of the house, so as to distract the rest of the flock. Frankly, they don’t need to see that.

I won’t go into the gritty details of it, but I will say that it both seemed to take longer than I anticipated (even though each bird was completely dead in a matter of about 30 seconds, and I would guess unconscious in under 10), and be less violent and less messy than I feared. It was surprisingly simple and easy, and neither animal seemed to be in any pain at all, though we took some care to hang them upside down for a while beforehand, so they were pretty groggy. The most surprising thing? Though it is definitely a solemn affair to take a life, it felt… honest. This, taking the life of my food under an open sky, and saying thank you? It is a feeling of connection I can’t really describe, and though I try to make a practice of being mindful and grateful about my food and the lives that end so that mine can continue, it has never felt so effortless before. I am grateful. I am thankful. To put it plainly, this is not like picking tomatoes or making pickles, it’s a whole other level of connection with my food. And not to sound trite, but it was a pretty sacred experience. That, by the way, is why there are no pictures. I really wanted to be fully present.

We let them hang for a while, as the longer they hang, the less blood is in the finished carcass, and the better the taste. Also, I wanted to be very, very, sure that they were dead before they went into the scalder. We brought a pot of hot (but not boiling) water out onto the porch and scalded them to loosen the feathers. My research led me to understand that 145 degrees was pretty much ideal, and that was indeed my experience. After just a couple of minutes the leg skin could be easily pinched off, and so the birds were removed and the birds were easily plucked on the porch. And by easily I don’t mean quickly. Holy cow. It probably took about 15 minutes to do each bird. When the birds were all plucked, we brought them into the kitchen.

Up until this point, we hadn’t involved the kids, though they knew what we were doing. I really didn’t know how I was going to react, and I didn’t think it would be a terribly good introduction to this aspect of farming to watch mommy throw up all over the ground. Luckily I didn’t. But in came the naked birds, and Susan and Jason snapped to attention. “What’s that Mom… are those the chickens?” asked Susan, quite concerned. Jason ran over, “Lemmesee-lemmesee!! OH COOL!” They looked and looked, fascinated. I was a little concerned about Susan, who’s pretty sensitive, and not all that sure about eating meat in the first place. It’s a hard decision for anyone to make, and I want her to understand the reality of her choice, one way or the other. So I held the bird up, and she got a good look at the whole shebang, bloody sliced open neck and all. She surprised the heck out of me, to be honest, and decided that she wanted to eat it with the rest of the family. Though she did say that the heads freaked her out a little bit, because the eyes were partly open. I can’t really blame her on that one.

So, I washed them in the sink, and pulled out the last feathers. Then they went onto the cutting board, and out again came the knife. I processed them according to instructions in The Small Scale Poultry Flock, which was very helpful, as there were step by step photos as well as written instructions. If you want details as to how to slaughter you chickens, or how I did mine, I suggest you look there, as I am proud to say it went entirely according to plan. The first one took a little time, but the second went quickly enough, and I’m delighted to say that both birds were finished without rupturing their digestive tracts. Jason really loved watching me pull out the guts.

The necks (from the skull to below the shoulders), the feet, hearts, and livers we saved for the stock pot. The heads, neck skin (which also contained the esophagus, crop, and windpipe), and the rest of the guts, including the testicles and lungs, along with the feathers and blood went into a deep hole in the vegetable garden. Nothing left the farm. They may not have been born here, but they lived here, it was their home, and certainly not a bit of them will be wasted or unappreciated. They will be baked, picked clean, eaten as sandwiches, made into everything from chicken salad to chicken pie, then their bones and what’s left will be boiled for stock, and their fat will be rendered for cooking. When they have boiled for two days their bones will be so soft the will be crumbly, and then that too will be buried in the garden. We even eat the skin.

These animals, like all animals, had lives of their own, and because they gave their lives to us so that we can live, it is our duty to waste nothing. I can think of no greater disrespect than throwing ANYTHING in the trash. I have said this for years, but I’ll tell you, nothing in my experience has given me a greater respect for life… than taking it.

The Last View of Summer

For one reason or another, not all of the photographs I finish make it out into the public purview. These are some photographs taken over the summer that never got a look in, but deserve one anyway.

Friday, October 19, 2012

{this moment}

{this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.

If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

First Eggs!

When Shawn let the birds out this morning there they were. Two perfect, if tiny, duck eggs. Thick shelled, pointy, and beautifully juuust off white. This morning we have reaped our very first harvest, and I could not be more proud if I had laid them myself. They are only the size of medium chicken eggs, but I know that as time goes on, they will get larger and larger.

His comment as he brought them in this morning, pride and pleasure shining in his face, was, "Well, I guess I'm going to have to lay off the free-loader comments." The feeling of producing food on our own land is not something I can easily describe. I feel grateful, and self-sufficient, and all kinds of other grandiose things far outside the rational impact of the two eggs sitting on my counter. But then the practical aspects kick in. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around I will be making pies and breakfasts with my own eggs. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Creation of a Sandwich

Pulled pork sandwiches. I don't know if there is much more comforting in the way of food. I also haven't had it in years. The problem is, of course, sugar cane. My children and I are allergic, making it very difficult to eat commercially made BBQ sauce. So I decided to improvise.

We bought a pork shoulder roast roast at our local farmer's market. There is nothing better than grass fed meat, especially when you know that the animal was treated kindly. So into the crock pot the pork shoulder went, with unsweetened cranberry juice, maple syrup, and some powdered ginger.

While that was cooking, I decided to put my sourdough starter to work. After all, a sandwich must have bread!

Sourdough Bread

600 grams of Sourdough Starter
120 grams of Water
12 grams of Agave Syrup
300 grams of Bread Flour Mix
6 grams of Sea Salt
4 grams of Xanthan Gum

Usually this recipe makes one standard-sized loaf of bread, or a good sized boule. Because I knew I was making sloppy sandwiches, and was likely to make hamburgers later in the week, I decided to make two loaves of flatter bread. The crust, I have found, is far better at keeping juicy contents on the inside of the sandwich - especially in little hands.
With that in mind, I buttered two loaf pans instead of the usual one.
Next, stir the starter. It naturally separates, and must be recombined lump-free before it is used.

Combine the starter, water, and agave syrup in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the bread flour mix, sea salt, and xanthan gum.
With the mixer set on low, slowly add the dry mixture to the starter mixture, and continue mixing until the dough is free of lumps.
The dough should be wet, but hold together. Add more bread flour mix or water until the desired consistency is achieved.
Turn the dough out onto a clean surface, understanding that the less flour you use in dusting the better the bread will taste.
Kneed lightly, form into a ball, and cut into two equal pieces.
put each half into a buttered loaf pan, cover with a clean dish towel, and set in a warm place to rise for an hour, or until doubled in size.

About 20 minutes before the end of the rise, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
When dough has risen, place it in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove from the oven, thoroughly butter (in my case vegan soy free butter) the top, turn, and put back in the oven and bake it until the loaf makes a hollow sound when tapped – about 30 minutes.
Turn out of pan onto a cooling rack. The loaf can be cut immediately, but leftovers should cool completely before being stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Spicy Citrus Pulled Pork

Cooked Pork Shoulder
15 oz tomato sauce
½ cup Orange Juice
½ medium onion, diced
2 tbsp minced garlic
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp paprika
½ tsp black pepper
1 tsp Ancho Chile powder
Pinch salt
Pinch curry powder
~ 2 Tbsp Olive oil

Cook the pork until it comes apart easily in your hands.
Drain the juice. I like to keep it and cook rice in it - yum.
Put the olive oil, garlic and onion in a medium frying pan, and sauté until the garlic is caramelized

Pour in tomato sauce and orange juice, and add spices.
Cook on low, being careful not to let the tomatoes scald, until the sauce darkens and thickens.
While the sauce is cooking, shred the entire shoulder. Do not discard the fat, but feel free to leave out the tendons.
Put the shredded meat and fat back into the crock pot.
Once the sauce is done, pour it over the pork and cook on low until everything is heated through, and there is only enough sauce to coat the meat.

Cut somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the loaf of sourdough bread off, and slice it in half, horizontally. Pile the pork, and whatever else you like on half the bread, and top with the other half. I like bread and butter pickles and goat gouda. Enjoy!