Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pride goeth before a fall.

So, we've had a hydraulic leak on our tractor for awhile now.  DH has been busy traveling alot with work, and didn't have time to get to it.  A couple weeks ago, he decreed that no one should use the tractor anymore because the leak had gotten so large.

This past weekend, he finally had time to take off the hydraulic line--a rigid metal one, unfortunately, instead of a nice flexible one.  He said it was a bear to get off and that it obviously was one of the first parts put on during the original tractor assembly:  several other important lines and wires crossed and covered it in various places, and one end fastened under the steel frame that the seat attaches to.

On Monday afternoon, I took the line in to our local farm repair shop to be welded. (Love, love, love the farm repair shop!  They are awesome at welding just about anything under the sun, and creating things with metal.  So glad it hasn't yet become obsolete in my neck of the woods).  They welded it up and I retrieved it on Tuesday.

Then it was up to DH to put the line back on the tractor.  Since I have much skinnier hands and fingers than he does, I was drafted into being his assistant for this particular surgery.  Which took 3.5 hours!!!  To get one stinkin' line fished back over, under, and through all those other pieces, then lined up at exactly the correct angle to be bolted down into place.  It was not a fun 3.5 hours, let me tell you.  I was envisioning divorce papers with "broken tractor" written in the line "Reason For Divorce".

But when it was finally finished, I was so proud to have been a part of the tractor repair.  We'd done it ourselves instead of paying big bucks to have the tractor dealer fix it for us.  Woo hoo!  Add another skill to my resume!

I should know better than to go getting a puffed up head.  Because yesterday my Suburban developed a huge leak in the gas line. And DH has important stuff going on at work today, he can't go in late or take off early.  And he needs the Suburban tomorrow morning for a trip. Pride goeth before a fall.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Little Bit of Mischief

I was recently telling this story to someone and they found it so amusing that I decided even thought it happened over a year ago, I would post it here for your entertainment also.

Early last spring, I was going out to the chicken house mid-day to replace their frozen waterer with fresh, warm water.  It was pretty cold still, and there were snowbanks around the chicken house.  Going in the 'people' door of the coop, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a small black-and-white figure about 8 feet away on the other side of the snowbank.  Luckily, it didn't see me, because I probably wouldn't have smelled very good much longer if it had.

Now, I'd been having trouble recently with critters killing my chickens.  So, I hustled off to the house and retrieved the trusty .22 that is kept ready for critter dispatching.  Returning to the chicken area, I carefully neared the coop, trying to see over the snowbank on the backside of it to see if there was still a striped walking stink bomb in the vicinity. 

There was.  Stepping up into the doorway of the coop for more height and a better angle, I drew a bead on my enemy of the moment.  A squeeze of the trigger and he didn't know what had hit him.  He quickly left this world.

Feeling pretty proud of my marksmanship, glad to have dispatched a potential chicken-killer, and totally amazed that I still smelled good--he hadn't even sprayed when shot--I walked over to examine my vanquished foe.  He still looked to be in perfect shape, even if no longer among the living.  I decided then that with his help, I could have a little fun.

You see, to get into the house from where we park, you have to walk around the backside of the garage (because the garage is full of lumber and various other useful things we don't have room to park the car or truck inside of it).  From there, you can enter the garage and via the garage, the mudroom of the house.  Now, next to the door to get into the garage there, a mound of snow had accumulated from shoveling the sidewalk.

My mischievous mind realized that a dead skunk and a snowbank near the garage door equaled the potential to pull a prank on my husband.  So I propped up Mr. Skunk near the door, on the edge of the snowbank to make it look like he was on his feet exploring the back of the garage.  And I waited for my hubby to come home from work.

Several hours passed, and then a phone call from my DH.
DH:  "I'm home, but I can't come in."
Me:  "Why not?"
DH: "Look out the window."

Going to the window in the dining room that looks out toward the back of the garage, I see my DH, cell phone in hand, with a nervous look on his face, peering around the far corner of the garage.  His body is out of view, just his head and hand in range of my new little buddy.

Me: "Why can't you come in?"
DH:  "Don't you see the skunk?!?"
Me (trying very hard not to laugh): "Oh, he won't hurt you."
DH:  "How do you know?"
Me, totally laughing now: "Because I shot him!"

I wanted to find a taxidermist to properly preserve Mr. Skunk for years of fun (can you imagine taking my little buddy camping with unsuspecting relatives!), but DH vetoed me on that.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Frugal Food #1: Tour de Freezer

Frugal food is a topic of interest to many these days.  How do you feed a family affordably without sacrificing quality?  Well, of course first you need to cook rather than purchasing your meals ready to eat!  And then, once you find that cooking isn't all that mysterious and difficult, comes cooking from scratch.  But today, my post is not going to focus on cooking.  It's going to focus on the frugal food tool known as a deep freeze.

I'm not talking about the small freezer compartment that comes attached to your refrigerator.  No, I'm talking about a separate, free-standing freezer.  Be it upright or chest style (I have both :) ), to really be able to take advantage of food at the lowest possible cost (in season, or on sale), you need a deep freeze.

Mine is huge.  It's about the biggest non-commercial one they make.  You can fit bodies in there.  And we do: cow, pig, deer, chicken and turkey bodies, all neatly wrapped into meal-sized packages  And lots of veggies and fruit too.

Now, don't go rush out and buy a freezer as big as mine.  We had four young children at home when we bought this, anticipating the day when they'd be teenagers with humongous appetites.  Assess the size and food needs of your family.  Maybe you are single and a very small chest freezer will do the trick.  Maybe you are the average size family, get a medium to large freezer.  Maybe your family is 6+ and still growing.  You might need two of these monsters!

Remember, we're talking frugal here.  No impulse freezer buying.  Take time to do your research and find the best price before you invest in a freezer.  Because it is an investment, a tool you will have and use for many years to come.  That being said, our first freezer was an avocado green upright bought at an estate sale in 1991 for $20.  Definitely not the most efficient model for the time, but the price was right, and 20 years later it still works great.  It has become our 'overflow' freezer: whatever doesn't fit in the chest freezer in the fall--our peak freezer filling time--goes into the upright until there is sufficient room in the chest freezer, at which time the upright is emptied and unplugged.

Keep an eye out at garage, moving and estate sales.  Keep an ear out for coworkers who are looking to off-load their unused appliances (we got a nice second fridge that way).  Look on craigslist.  Ask appliance stores if they ever get scratch-and-dent freezers (our huge one was scratch-and-dent--we figured cosmetic damages were no big deal because with four kids it wasn't going to look pristine for long anyway).

Once you have a freezer, then you can take advantage of sales to stock up on meats and other foodstuffs that take well to extended storage in frigid temperatures.  Or, you can expand into raising some of your own food.  Lots of vegetables freeze well, as do many fruits.

Let's take a Tour de Freezer and see what's currently in mine:
  • beef: everything from soup bones and burger to roasts and porterhouse steaks (raised by my mil)
  • pork: sausage and bacon through spare ribs and smoked hams (raised by my mil)
  • chicken raised and processed by your truly
  • turkey, same as the chicken
  • venison: burger, steaks, stew meat, jerky strips and whole loins, harvest from our woods last fall
  • lard, from mil's pig, rendered by myself--no preservatives!
  • chicken, beef, and turkey soup stocks, homemade
  • whole wheat flour bought on sale
  • rye flour bought the same way
  • blueberries bought in season at the farmers market last summer
  • cherries from my mother's cherry tree
  • broccoli, peas, squash, pumpkin and zucchini from the garden last summer
  • cheese bought in 5 pound blocks, then shredded and packaged into common recipe sizes
  • hops from last summer's hops harvest
To purchase all that, one meal at a time as needed at current grocery store prices would cost upwards to 5 times what it actually cost me to raise it or buy it in season/on sale.  And we eat well.  You can too.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A walk about the place.

Now that spring is here, the snow melted, the frost pretty much out of the ground, you can walk without getting your boots sucked off in the mud.  Hubby and I took an evening stroll around the property the other evening.

We do this on a fairly regular basis in the spring and summer.  It's both a time for us to be together without the kids, and a time of assessment and planning for this little place.  We took the dog with us, and the two barn cats ended up tagging along.

So, our little parade walked, from the yard, across the short edge of the field, to the fence line.   We walked east on the fence line, toward the woods.  Our path was blocked about halfway there by a flooded out spot on the edge of what we call The Marsh, which is a scrubby area that's almost perpetually wet.  It floods every spring and fall, and someday we will dig a pond there.

The dog went boldly splashing in as hubby and I stood on the edge of the water, contemplating our route.  The cats, too, analyzed a better way to the woods, one that wouldn't involve them getting wet.  It appeared the water was fairly deep, a foot to a foot-and-a-half, so we went around, skirting The Marsh and it's flooding.  Along the way, we kicked up a group of assorted ducks, and startled a dozen deer who ran off with flagged tails.

We checked on some small fir trees we'd planted on the backside of The Marsh last year.  They all looked like they'd survived the winter well.  Continuing on, we entered the woods proper.  Part of the road through the woods had water on it, but not too deep.  DH commented on how he's been trying to build the road up the last few years, and might have to install a culvert in that spot.

When we bought our property in 2002, it was just vacant: 30 acres of farm field, and 10 of woods.  We've been slowly building and making improvements, one of which is the 'road' through the woods.  By clearing a tractor-width path around the perimeter, we are more able to utilize the woods: cutting and hauling out firewood to heat the house, for deer hunting, for picking the blackberries that grow in various small clearings, for tapping the maple trees on the north end, and picking the wild apples growing throughout.

We discussed the future location of the culvert, and where we might procure one for the best cost (best cost = free), then continued on.  Shortly before the back corner of the woods, I noticed a rusty piece of metal sticking up through the leaf litter near a smallish tree.  Curious, I grabbed the free end of the metal, and pulled.  Since the ground was soft, it came up easily, revealing that it was an old saw blade.

"Look!"  I told my husband, "Someone's saw!"

I thought it was a handsaw perhaps dropped and lost by a previous owner of our land.

The more I pulled, the more I revealed.  It wasn't a handsaw at all, but most of the blade of a two-man saw.  Treasure!  What a cool find!  It set my mind to imagining how it could have possibly been used by loggers long ago--there is evidence our land was timbered off at least a generation earlier.  Possibly the saw had broken during the logging process and been set aside, left behind to be buried by season after season of leaves and woodland debris.

We decided to take it back to the house.  With the mud washed off, we might hang it on the wall somewhere as a decoration.

Continuing through the woods, we noted where things were starting to green up, which small plants were growing, where the wild blackberries and roses need to be pruned back so as to not overgrow the road.  The weather had turned very cold the day before, so sap was not running.  The spiles in the trees we checked were completely dry for the first time since I'd tapped nearly three weeks earlier.

Having traversed a U-shaped path through the woods, we emerged into the field once more.  Walking west on the northern edge of the field, then the horse pasture, we discussed where we wanted to clean the fence line some more this year, which trees in a clump to thin out, which to keep.  Several trees were nearly choked with poison ivy vines and we talked about getting the ivy cut off them soon, before it sprouts for the year and is more difficult to work with.

As we walked, we checked on more little fir trees planted in 2010.  Some were bent and buried under dead grasses and weeds, so we cleared around them to give them light and the opportunity to grow straight.  The dog and two cats meanwhile searched in the debris of the fence line for field mice.

Getting to the end of the fir trees, we had traversed another long U-shape, which brought us to the edge of the garden.  The ground is still too soft for me to start hauling in my annual addition of composted horse manure, but soon it will be ready.  Meanwhile, I can clean off the strawberry and asparagus beds and begin to look for the first hop shoots in the hops beds.  Hops are very invasive, so we want to be on the lookout for any shoots that are straying out of their designated area.

The sun was setting when we finished our circuit, roughly a mile by the route we'd taken.  The barn cats went back to the barn, I shut the chickens into the coop for the night, and DH stoked the wood boiler before we went into the house.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The baking of the bread.

In my last post, I mentioned needing to bake our weekly supply of bread.  For this one, I thought I'd show some pics of that and talk a little bit about it.  I don't remember how many years I've been baking our bread now.  At least seven, possibly more like nine.  At first, it was intimidating, now I can almost do it in my sleep.  I say almost, because there have been a few times when my mind was occupied elsewhere and I forgot to put the yeast in, and inadvertently made what my family has come to call 'flat bread'. Which is not true flatbread, but my oops and attempt to salvage the dough rather than toss it out and start again.

So, if you've ever thought about trying your hand at making bread,  but thought it was something for expert cooks, don't be afraid!  Just give it a shot and it will most likely be edible (at least for the dog or chickens if not the humans, lol!) even if it doesn't turn out quite right.

Here's my basic recipe, which makes two loaves:
2.5 cups whole wheat flour
2.5-3.5 cups all purpose flour (unbleached if I can find it on sale, cheapest bleached brand if not)
2 tbsp ground flaxseed
3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp shortening
1 tbsp salt
4 tsp yeast
2 1/4 cups very warm water (110-115 degrees or so)

Mix whole wheat flour, 1 cup all purpose flour, flaxseed, sugar, shortening, salt and yeast in a large bowl.  Add the water, stirring until all dry ingredients are moistened.  Then stir in remaining all purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time until dough seems to stop taking up the new flour.

On a lightly floured surface, knead dough 5 minutes (approx. 300 times). if the dough gets sticky during kneading, just sprinkle some more flour down and knead in.  Sometimes mine takes up to another 1/2 cup of flour during kneading. Place into a greased (I used butter) bowl and cover with a cloth.  Let rise in a warm place approximately 1 hour, or until doubled in size.  Punch down dough, divide in half, roll out each half into an 8" x 15" rectangle, then shape each into a loaf by rolling the dough tightly onto itself from one 8" end to the other.  Place each loaf into a greased (again, butter) bread pan, cover with cloth and rise again until doubled, approx. 45 min to an hour.

Heat oven to 425 degrees.  When the oven is hot, place bread pans onto bottom rack of oven (remove the cloth cover first!) and bake 25 minutes.  When done, remove each loaf from it's pan and place on a wire rack on the counter to cool. Rub some butter on top of each loaf while hot.

the dough after it's first kneading, ready to rise (the brown flecks are the flaxseed)

after first rise (although it could have gone a little longer, the house was chilly, but I was in a time crunch)

punched, rolled into loaves, and ready for the second rise

the finished product, hot from the oven, with butter smeared on top (it soaks in after a few minutes)

I make two batches of bread, or four loaves, every week.  One loaf goes in the pantry to be eaten, the other three into the freezer to be taken out and thawed one loaf at a time to replace the one in the pantry.

I started baking bread because one of my children has allergies to things like preservatives and artificial sweeteners.  Buying enough wholesome loaves of bread without those common things to feed our four growing children was not in the weekly budget.  And I couldn't very well justify buying special bread just for the sensitive/allergic child, yet feed the 'bad bread' to the rest of us, could  I?  NO!  So I started baking.  As you can see from my recipe, the ingredients are all pretty basic.  Nothing artificial there, except maybe the shortening, depending on where you stand on that issue.  I did try substituting lard  (home rendered, of course, not the shelf stable stuff with preservatives in it from the store) once for the shortening, but the family didn't like the difference in taste.  So shortening it is.

A batch of bread takes me about 3 hours, start to finish.  Sounds like too much of a commitment just to save a few dollars a loaf?  Well, most of that 3 hours is rising time and baking, during which I do other stuff.  The mixing and kneading and rolling and shaping into loaves takes oh, about 30 minutes total.  So, during the three hours I was baking bread the other day, I was also:
  • boiling sap for syrup (a future post on this, I promise :) )
  • doing 2 loads of laundry
  • making white chocolate macadamia nut cookies for my Farmer's Market meeting yesterday evening (another future post on my farmer's market stuff)
  • visiting a few of my favorite websites
  • talking to my DH on the phone (he was calling to see what I was up to and check what was on the calendar for that evening)
Even if you work, if you spend 3 hours of the evening after work watching TV or surfing the Internet, you can squeeze in making some bread. Give up the first 20-30 minutes of your normal evening routine to get the dough going (first time will take longer, the more you do it the faster you'll get--I spend about 20 min to mix and knead two batches).  Watch TV the next hour while it rises.  Punch down and shape into loaves on a commercial break.  More TV for the second rise.  Turn on the oven during a commerical.  Watch more TV.  When the oven is hot, pop the loaves into the oven during a commercial.  Go watch TV again.  See, you've got time!  Go ahead, don't be afraid, give it a try!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Don't pick on the new kid!

That would be me.  Totally new to this thing called blogging.  Like most things I've done in life, I'm jumping in with both feet, praying for a positive outcome, and figuring it out as I go :) .  Life truly is a choose-your-own-adventure!

Today seemed like a good day to get started.  Stalls are cleaned, kids are at school, hubby is working, sap is collected for the day, and the current batch is on to boil down into syrup.  The weather has turned cloudy and chilly, hinting at sleet to come, so I'm sticking indoors as much as possible. I really should be getting our week's worth of bread going, but, well, starting a blog sounded a little more interesting.  Bread can be made a little later this afternoon.

Most of what we eat here is made from scratch, hence the need to not procrastinate too long about the breadmaking.  We're down to our last loaf.  With three teens living here, that won't last past lunch time tomorrow.

Alot of what I'll probably be posting about will seem I'm following in the currently popular eat local trend.  While I do eat pretty local (can't get much more local than off my own land!), I've been doing it longer than has been popular and I don't do it for political or social reasons.  I do it for my own reasons, most of which take too long to explain, lol.  It pretty much boils down to I do it because I want to,  not because anyone said I should.  In fact, I rather tend toward mulishness when it comes to doing things the way other people want me to: plant my feet firmly where I am and refuse to budge until I decide to do it.

Now it is sleeting, and I see three deer bolting across the wheatfield to the cover of the woods.  There are alot of deer out here where I live; it is a small farming community in lower Michigan.  We are lucky enough to be able to walk out the backdoor in the fall and be at 'hunting camp'.  Venison is the red meat in this house.  Perhaps in the future I will post some of our favorite venison recipes.

Tonight, though, we are having what is known as 'egg pie' at my house.  Because real men don't eat quiche you know.  So, in defernce to the masculinity of my hubby and strapping sons, I serve egg pie, never quiche.  My chickens have gone into hyperdrive lately and I am getting overloaded with eggs.  Time to start serving them with dinner!

Broccoli Cheese Egg Pie
1 9" pie crust
4-6 eggs depending on size
2/3 cup milk
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
2 cups broccoli pieces, steamed

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Line 9" pie pan with the pie crust.
Mix remaining ingredients and pour into crust.
Bake 25-30 minutes until set.
Serves 4, or up to 6 with salad on the side.