A bit about us...

We are a modern family of three, living on less than two acres with a 3,000 square foot garden that meets our produce needs and allows us to share with friends and neighbors. Our laying flock of chickens seems to expand each year as we raise chicks each Spring to replace older hens. This blog is more of a journal, if you will, for us to chronicle and share our experiences in the yard, garden and kitchen. It is our hope that along the way a few folks might learn something, be entertained, or simply enjoy sharing in our stories and the lessons we learn on a daily basis. I named the blog after the times when I am the happiest, when I am elbow deep in earth.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Waste Not, Want Not: Part 2

"Waste Not, Want Not," was the motto of a very smart and practical generation (not my generation, unfortunately, and certainly not today's kids).  I am doing my part to adhere to this way of life, in small steps.  As I am learning to preserve my harvest, I am also looking for ways to make it go further yet, as I did with the cherry stones I wrote about last time.  One of the other by products of my jam/jelly spree was vanilla bean pods.  When I made the Rhubarb Cherry Vanilla Jam (hands down, my best jam ever - a very special thank you to www.sbcanning.com for such a treasure trove of outstanding recipes!), I used an actual vanilla bean, split down the middle.  The recipe calls for half a bean, but since I doubled the batch, I had a whole bean, cut in half, then split lengthwise and scooped out (for its delicious vanilla insides).  I could not bear to throw away the pod, so I filled a pint jar with sugar and slid the pod halves into it.  The result, a fragrant and flavorful jar of sugar.  When I am satisfied with this jar's intensity, I will likely put the pods into another jar until there is no more use for the pod. I might then feel compelled to slip the sugar coated, spent vanilla pod directly into my steaming coffee some morning, just in case there is any flavor left to be had!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Waste not, Want not: Part 1

I just can't bear to throw some things away, especially if it seems as though there is a perfectly good use for it.  My grandparents were aces at not wasting. They saved everything and made the most of it.  I aspire to their ingenuity in that regard. The difference is, I don't want to save everything, just what I can really use.  They had accumulated a lot of stuff that was apparently useless.  Here are a few examples of my more practical frugality in action.

When Mom was finished pitting the sweet cherries, there was a bounty of beautiful pits with bits of cherry flesh clinging to them. The bowl of pits smelled so delicious, with a solid note of almond.  I was inspired, thinking to myself that there must be a lot of flavor in those bits of fruit and pits.  What could I do with them?

Well, I have read that pits and seeds often contain a lot of pectin and that cherries canned with the pits take on a nutty flavor, so it seemed logical that I could boil the bits and pits to create a flavorful juice infusion for making jelly!  I looked online for a cherry stone/pit jelly recipe and was without luck. So, I made one up myself.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gooseberries and black currants

Oops.  I went back to Wasem's.  The temptation was too much for me. It was my day off, it was supposed to rain most of the day and the orchard posted something on Facebook about opening new rows for U-Pick Currants and Gooseberries.  If I could just get out there between rain storms, it would be a good day to work in the kitchen with my loot when I got home!  It was hot, so I figured a little light rain would feel good anyway while I picked.  I just couldn't resist checking them out.  I looked at the radar and waited for what I perceived to be the right time between rain and...      I was off!

When I arrived at Wasem's, the woman pointed me in the direction of the new rows and gave me instructions on what to look for to get the best quality fruit.  I picked, it rained a while, it quit, it rained harder, I picked longer, this time under an umbrella I found in the car.  I don't recall the weight of the berries I picked, but it seemed like a nice amount to do something delicious with.  So, what to do with the spoils of my efforts?  I turned to the  magic of the internet for my answers.  Black currants are not as favored in the United States as red currants are, so I found the recipes significantly more limited.  The general consensus seemed that I either needed to make some type of scone-thing with them, or produce a sweet liquor.  Hmmmm.... We have a WINNER! :)  Liquor it is!

A day in the country for a couple of city folks

Last weekend we had the pleasure of hosting some friends, Z and N,  in our home for the better part of a day.  They are both from the city.  Originally from London and Los Angeles, let's just say they are not super familiar with a country lifestyle. :-) The thing I looked forward to the most was cooking for them.  We had gone to visit with them in the last couple months and they treated us to a traditional English Lamb Roast and accompanying delights such as Yorkshire pudding.  The meal was amazing!

It was very important to me, when they came to see us, to share with them a simple country meal to show them our "traditions."  Our intended menu included grilled chicken, beans and carrots fresh from the garden (also grilled), and maybe a cherry pie made with the tart cherries we just picked.  We also thought about fried zucchini cakes with feta cheese and maybe some potatoes.  An early morning trip to the farmer's market finalized the menu and we were off to a great start.  The four of us drove around the area, along the way sharing with them fields of wheat just being combined, others being baled.  The soy beans are struggling in many fields this year, but we introduced our friends to those as well as field corn (and what it looks like when it has been terribly dry).  Our drive passed by farms of varying sizes and functions (grain, cattle, etc.)  When we returned home we, of course, showed them the garden (weeds and all) :) and the laying flock.

While we were out on our tour of the area, Z mentioned that he would like to try venison some time.  PLAN CHANGE! :-)  As soon as we arrived home, I got started on dinner, thawing some venison backstrap to fry up for sampling.  It was such a hit, we decided to cook up rest of the backstrap and have it as a main course instead.    While it was thawing, we had a lovely chat and the guys started talking about the lawn.  Z had never ridden a lawnmower, so Shane, with his new found mastery of the mower, took Z out to the back yard to teach him how.  It was FANTASTIC!  He looked as delighted as Shane was the first time he rode it.

Our country meal came together nicely, consisting of venison, rosemary roasted potatoes, mixed fresh veggies from the garden, zucchini cakes and cherry cobbler.  I had hoped to have time to make a pie, but the cobbler was simpler and tasted amazing.  After dinner we taught them to play euchre (a card game most commonly played in the Midwest) and we thoroughly enjoyed a couple games.  It was an absolute pleasure to share our slower lifestyle with some city folks.  It was obvious that the way we live is very different from the pace and style of their city lives.  Whenever we have the opportunity to share our life and learn about the lives of others, we jump at the chance.  In this case, we were especially grateful to have the opportunity since these dear friends will soon be moving out of state with the ARMY and will not have the opportunity to visit often.  I must say, we are blessed to have such awesome friends.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Preserving the cherries and currants

Okay, so maybe it wasn't my NEXT entry, but here it is...

With close to 30 pounds of fruit ripe and ready to preserve, I needed to act quickly. As I said before, I immediately began freezing cherries as Mom pitted them.  I am not one to rely solely on freezing for preservation for several reasons.  First, if we lose electricity for an extended period, I will have a tremendous amount of food to eat very quickly, or I will lose it, if my harvest is primarily frozen.  Second, the life of frozen food is significantly shorter and less predictable than that of canned goods.  Third, frozen food continues to cost me money to keep it frozen.  Last, one only has a finite amount of freezer space and I try to reserve it for the food I HAVE to freeze such as surplus meat or produce I can not preserve in other ways, or  fast enough (like tomatoes when they ALL ripen at the same time).

I decided to try canning the cherries that were left after a large portion were frozen.  They look just beautiful in the jars, and I am hopeful they will be tasty when we need them. I used a light syrup (sugar water mixture) and canned them in quart jars.  They floated a little, which is to be expected since I raw packed them.  This means that I did not heat them before adding them to the jars, which would have released some air from them before canning.  Nevertheless, I am very happy with the results.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


I have picked my fair share of berries this season already, some might say.  Others would know it has just been the beginning.  I picked strawberries as they ripened in the yard, tart cherries, sweet cherries, red currants, black currants and gooseberries from the orchard, and tonight, I picked a nice mess of teaserberries.  I even have the scratches and "war wounds" from the canes to prove it.

These are, perhaps, my favorite berries of the whole summer.  Their season is short, opportunity is slim, and there are only a handful available when they ripen.  On top of that, they are most often hidden in the centers and at the bottoms of their thorny canes, making them a dangerous challenge to get to.  Are they worth it?  Good grief, YES! They are so sweet and delicious.  This season, they are even more plump and rosey than normal.  My hope is that the rest of the berries this season are as nice.

Now to decide what to do with them.  I could make teaserberry jam or jelly, but I think I have plenty of those made and in the works.  Teaserberry cobbler might be good, but I am not sure I have enough....  I suppose I will just pop them in the fridge and take them to work tomorrow to eat fresh and share with my coworkers.  I wonder if any of them has ever taken the time to pick teaserberries themselves.  I bet some of them have, they just call them by another name, the first raspberries of the season!  :-)

These are the early berries that ripen on the youngest canes.  The regular crop on mature canes will be ready in a month or so....  Until then, I will hunt and risk injury in search of the few, sweet, ripe teaserberries that lurk about beneath the already towering canes.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tart (sour) cherries are in Season!

After sweet cherries, the next to be ready in the orchards are tart cherries.  Kapnick Orchards doesn't offer u-pick tart cherries, but thankfully, our more local favorite, Wasem's does!  We go to Wasem's every year for apple picking and I always think I will come back earlier in the season for their other treasures, but I never seem to make the time.  Not this year.  Tart cherries, gooseberries and currants all come into season quite close to one another, so it was time to make a visit. I had to work on the day picking opened, so I headed out with Mom to see what we could come up with on the second day.  We gathered up containers to pick into and arrived just after lunch.  At Wasem's, they have pre-weighed containers (buckets of all sizes) for picking, so we left ours in the car.  We selected two large buckets to collect our haul in, and two smaller buckets that would be easier for picking. (They also seemed logically sized for picking currants and gooseberries after the cherries.)

The first trees we came to were taller and more mature than the ones further into the orchard.  We guessed that the best production would be on the older trees, so I climbed a provided orchard ladder and set to work.  I was immediately disappointed at the over ripeness and poor condition of the cherries.  It was  going to take forever to pick at this rate!  A kind gentleman stopped his minivan long enough to let us know we were really picking in the wrong spot.  He approached us, saying something in his native language, presumably one of some Slavic decent.  When I responded, "Pardon me?" he laughed at himself for speaking in his native tongue and repeated himself in English, telling us that there were loads of trees just further down the lane with much better and easier picking to be had.  We didn't have to be told twice!  I climbed off the ladder and we headed for the other trees.  He wasn't joking!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My mission, gladly accepted

As it is with most folks, money is tight in our house this year.  I have made it my mission to preserve as much of the harvest as possible so that we may eat "fresh" year 'round.  This means I am canning and freezing more this year than ever before.  I will also be dehydrating what I am able and getting creative with what I keep and put up.  I made the decision to take full advantage of the local orchards and u-pick places in addition to our own growing capabilities.  There simply is nothing like have peaches in the middle of winter that taste fresh off the tree because they were canned at the peak of ripeness at home.  Our strawberries did not produce like they have in the past because we relocated them.  They gave a nice crop just sufficient enough for fresh eating, but none extra for storage.  SO, I turned my attention to the next crop available for picking and preserving, CHERRIES! The first to come into season were the Sweet Cherries.  We went to a local favorite, Kapnick Orchards, to pick them ourselves.

Once we learned when the opening day was, we decided to get ahead of the crowd and pick then.  When we arrived, there was no one else in the orchard.  The clerk weighed our containers and we set to work.  With us, we took our little step ladder from the house, thinking that should be sufficient to reach the trees.  On the contrary, most of the cherries were high up in the trees that were easily near twenty feet in the air.  Oops.  Consequently, it took us longer than we hoped to pick our share.  We moved the ladder a lot and worked for our 16+ pounds of black sweet cherry goodness.  It was worth it! They were absolutely divine eating out of hand and we have put up a fair amount in various forms as well.  

Mom pitted the vast majority of the haul, with Shane finishing them off at the end.  A word to the wise, be very careful where you pit your cherries, the juice leaves the area looking like a crime scene!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Motivation, Elusive

The weather this spring has been difficult and frustrating, at best. Summer began officially a couple weeks ago and it just has not felt like it.  We have had huge swings in temperatures and long periods of rain followed by dry times.  There has been no balance and no proper seasonal transition.  The consequences for the garden have been grave.  Much of what I managed to get into the ground rotted before it came up as a result of a wet spell.  Some of what I intended to plant has yet to make it into the ground due to a lack of good weather days when I am not working.  The weeds and grass have virtually consumed large portions of the garden and my young seedlings.  I have replanted some things, such as beans, hoping they will try again, only to be foiled by another wet spell.  Nothing is growing and thriving like it should be at this point in the season.  In fact, many of the local farmers will likely be filing claims on their crop insurance as they have also been unable to work their fields.  It is often said to me that I tend to focus too much on what is not working, not done or what is left to do, rather than focusing on accomplishments and successes attained.  This is true.  I am wallowing in self pity for the lack of garden so far this year.  I find it very hard to spend time in the garden, even on sunny days, given that  much of what I have done has been for naught and the things I continue to do may well also be.  It is simply too late to plant some of my desired fare and I have used all the seeds/plants I had trying the first time or two already this season.  So, rather than continue to ponder what is making me so unmotivated, I will share with you the successes we are seeing, and try to focus on and celebrate the good.
I am conducting an experiment in the garden this year.  Well, truthfully, there are several, but the one to which I am referring is my potatoes in straw.  I have read about potato boxes, growing them in tires stacked and full of soil, and growing them in piles of straw.

The theory is that when the potatoes are ready, you rake away the straw and clean potatoes just fall all over for harvest.  We shall see.  The plants have gotten quite tall and seem to be doing well in their straw home, so time will tell how they produce.  I remain optimistic thus far.