Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's snowing

It's snowing. I was expecting a "dusting" because the weather man noted it on the 10:00 news last night. But this is a little more than a dusting. We probably already have an inch or so and it's POURING. (Being from Texas, I'm still uncertain if "pouring" is the right word for "the-snow-is-coming-down-stinking-hard-and-stinking-fast".) It's not even really that cold......just below freezing. A couple of days ago it was raining at this same temperature. I guess it depends on what's going on in the atmosphere above us. (When I was a flight nurse, the helicopter pilots used to describe this kind of weird weather by saying: "there's a disturbance aloft" meaning "I don't know what the heck the weather is doing. There must be a disturbance aloft".)

As I trudged out to the the mail boxes to get the paper this morning, the red puppy was running and jumping and rolling in the wet stuff as if she'd never seen snow before today. She was smiling as only happy dogs can smile. I feel kind of like that too.

I think I'm supposed to be snorting my frustration about the snow. I should be kicking the wet, little drifts and shaking my fist at the sky. It is, after all, the very last day of March. But I like change and the excitement of unexpected weather. I like the fact that I have an excuse to stay in the house today to frantically try and complete all my half-baked projects: Easter dresses that need hemming, cheese that needs salting, dishes that need washing, toilets that need.....well, you get the idea. I like that I might have to scramble for candles if the electricity fails, or that I might have to take a cold shower if the heat goes out. I really like the fact that there are things in the world that we, as humans, still don't have control over; that sometimes I'm put in my place as just another creation. I am not the "lord and master of all". I'm not sure how long it will take living in NW Montana to remember that I am not in control of anything really. I'm sure the weather will remind me from time to time.

The snow is beginning to lighten up and I've got chores to do. The hens and rabbits don't care that it's snowing. They're just wondering why their breakfasts are late. I can hear the roosters voicing their displeasure at my tardiness. I guess I'd better get my non-lord-and-master fanny up and out.

Monday, March 29, 2010

There's a cold front blowing in. The wind is whipping from the south and the western mountains are obscured from view with low clouds. I don't think it will snow. It's pretty warm. But I've been fooled before. (Two years ago the kids and I were hosing off 2 inches of new, wet snow from our precious tomato plants in JUNE!)

In anticipation of a big blow, I got to the evening chores a little early. The wind was whistling around the little, red, shed we use as a chicken and rabbit house. The animals must have felt the change coming because the coop was in a flurry. The chickens were stomping around, picking little fights with each other and making all sorts of loud, obnoxious noises. The rabbits were thumping their big, hind feet bouncing from end to end in their cages in resentment to the wind. Every one was ruffled. Even after being fed and watered they didn't settle down. The little shed is tight and warm so standing there amongst the eating animals is usually peaceful. It was almost pleasant inside the shed this past winter, so I'm sure it's the wind that's got them riled. I don't blame them. I feel a little unsettled this evening, too. I put out handfuls of fresh wood chips for the hens to nestle into and offered a few more winter stored carrots to the rabbits to help them ignore the wind. I'm going to run back into the house and begin fixing dinner. We're home for the night so I might even have a glass of dark, red wine.

It's pouring straight down, now. I could smell it before I even looked out the window. It's getting dark and I can see the storm moving over the mountains, over the chicken coop.......over our home. The wind has died so I'm sure if I peeked into the little chicken house, every one would be settled into their sleep spots, dozing. Meanwhile, the kids and I are going to settle down too; to share marinated pork steaks, mashed potatoes and home canned green beans while watching Donovan's Reef together. I can't think of a better way to spend a rainy night than eating great food with the people I love, watching "the Duke".

Good Night.

Well, almost

I almost made my goals from yesterday. Well, not even almost. I cut out my daughter's Easter dress and got one tub of honey melted down and transfered to three mason jars. (That honey melting project took a looooong time. 5 hours.) So I got half of my projects completed. OK, not even half. But I did start a batch of cheese unexpectldly. That's got to count for something. Right? Well, maybe if I had actually finished the cheese.

A friend gave me 1/2 gallon of raw milk and since we are getting our own gallon today, I thought I'd try making some cheese with the free milk. (I haven't made cheese for a long time so it won't hurt my feelings if I mess up and have to give the chickens the free, almost cheese, mess.) Since it's been a while, I decided to make a soft cheese. I completed the heating and the mixing of the renet and even acheived the clean break (see my finger mark in the surface of the cheese). Now it'a hanging to allow all the whey to drip out. Tomorrow, it'll be ready for adding herbs and salt....and eating! Yeay!
In the mean time, I think I'll be able to actually sew the elusive Easter of them anyway.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Today is Sunday. We have a few obligations with several hours at home in between. So there will be no real time to start a long project. But there is a lot to do. Simple plans for a fairly busy day:

-cut out the pattern for my sweet daughter's Easter dress. It's a simple sheath with a pretty cotton design that she picked out. Cutting out the pattern will take longer than sewing the dress itself.

-cut out the pattern for my Easter dress. Same as above but the fabric is a solid background with a larger print (hides fat better).

-melt down the 34 pounds of Montana grown honey and disperse into more manageable mason jars. This is going to take a little while but it's not hard. The trick is to warm the honey just enough to make it pourable but not hot enough to kill the good micro organisms in the raw honey. So, one at a time, the large tubs of honey will be placed in an even larger pot of water then slowly heated until the honey starts to liquefy. Then you just watch it until it's all liquid, adjusting the heat up or down. I'll probably start the heating process before I begin cutting the fabric for either dress. Then I can vacillate back and forth between the two projects, hopefully completing both!

Other than the usual meal fixing, chicken/ rabbit tending, clothes folding, kid wrangling, that's it for the day. I'll take stock tonight to see if I was able to complete everything. It makes me feel good to be able to complete a few projects that otherwise I might have paid for (IE making a dress, making yogurt or butter). There is definitely something wonderfully satisfying about doing it your self.....anything your self. Growing our own food, taking care of our own animals, taking care of the land all gives present happiness and propels us toward future happiness. It is grand.
Have a good, productive day!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mornings....just another hazard of country living

I am not a morning person by nature. No matter how little sleep I've gotten the night before, I tend to really wake up around 9 pm. I used to joke that I'd rather stay up all night to make an early morning appointment than get up early. But living in the country is slowly changing that, much to my chagrin.

Today is the first day of the children's' spring break. We all made a pact to sleep in. No one was to wake the other needlessly. But, the red puppy thought differently and promptly at 6:30 am, she made her needs known. So, I got out of my warm bed, shrugged into my down coat and boots (still in my pj's) and we made our way into the blue haze that is morning. You don't hear birds too often in the winter. They are smart and go away when it snows. But this morning it was fairly warm (33 degrees) and the birds were NOISY little things! Another sign of spring. After our walk, I peeked into the chicken coop. It was still not really light so I knew the domestic birds were still sleeping all tightly tucked next to each other in the rafters of the coop. I snuck into the small building to check on their water supply and was rewarded for my efforts with a large chicken poop on the shoulder. I wasn't offended. They supply me with all the eggs their bodies can produce. And later, they will provide our family with meat. So a little bird poo on my shoulder is a small price. Besides, I should know better than to wander under the bottoms of sleeping birds. (They were probably aiming for me anyway.)

With wet bird excrement on my coat, the puppy and I strolled back to the house where my own little birds were still sleeping. I spilled out enough breakfast for the dog to make her happy and poured my self a cup of coffee to make me happy. I guess mornings aren't so bad. It's going to be a good day.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"A jaunt in the forest" or "Tell me again, why did we come this way?"

My mountain boy husband and I took an uncharacteristic hike in the mountains Tuesday. (Actually, he invites me to go with him every chance he gets, I just can't always go with him: clothes to fold, meals to make, books to write, symphonies to compose, War and Peace to get the idea.) Anyhoo, I had no more excuses.......I mean it sounded fun to take a little hike on a beautiful spring day. So away we went.

The day started like any other school day. Hectic. It usually begins with a cup of coffee and gains frantic momentum in the ensuing 2 hours until I screech to a screaming stop into the school parking lot; kids and dog hanging out of each suburban window.

But this day, after dropping the kids off, my ever adventurous spouse and I ventured off into the wild. After a 1 1/2 hour drive, we stepped out of the SUV into a place that doesn't see humanity very often. It's wonderful and a little eerie to listen to the buzz of silence after the long drone of the truck motor. (I like calling the suburban a truck. It makes me feel kind of tough.)
We pulled our YakTrax over our hiking boots and slopped up the trail, working our way toward what we thought might be a nice view of the western slopes of Glacier National Park. The snow was mostly melted where we were walking, but every now and then, I'd let my guard down and the ice would surprise me with a slip and I'd give an awkward jerk to right myself before falling on my pride. (I read a farming article one time where the author called those feet-up-in-the-air falls "Charlie Chaplin's". Perfect visual description of most of my falls.)

Now, before I go further, I have to explain a little about my spouse. My mountain boy husband never stops or backs down from a goal...... or hike.... until he has accomplished his mission. He has dragged, I mean, lead me, on some great adventures. Sometimes, during the midst of the quest, I have found myself grumbling and snorting about our direction. But I have always, I mean always been glad we made the journey. One time, before we were married, he took me for a "walk" that encompassed forging a small but raging river, the river bank itself and a steep, impressive, little hill in Oklahoma. I should have known then that I was in for big ride. But I was in love; am in love, and that's what you do when you are in love: forge the waters. And sometimes grumble and snort.

Back to Tuesday. We found that the trail did indeed bring us to this amazing precipice that jutted over the wide expanse of the Flathead River and gave us snowy views into Glacier National Park. I could hear the river broiling below and the breezes tickling the leaves of the trees above us. It was magical. Until, my husband says "why don't we go down to the river to explore?" I just stood still with my eyes closed, my hands in my pockets, smelling the woods and feeling the gusts blowing up the valley; pretending I didn't just hear what I thought I'd heard. He nudged me with his elbow and asked again, "wanna go down and check out the river?" This time I opened my eyes and looked incredulously in the direction he was indicating. I actually had to squint to see where he was pointing. It was a long way. He thought we could save some time by going right over the edge and carefully picking our way down the mountain to the river. I closed my eyes again so he wouldn't see them bulging. (Maybe if I ignore him, this mean man will go away.) I offered to back track around over the trail we'd just come and meet him at the rivers edge but only because I didn't want to slow him down. I was trying to be thoughtful. No. We'd only brought one canister of bear spray and it had been really warm and maybe the bears and other carnivores were moving around the forest and we'd probably better stay together. Dang it.
So down the cliff we ventured.

My mountain boy went first to pick out the best way to skid down the trail with all our parts intact. We slid over icy soil camouflaged as safe steps. There were rocks that I thought might act as stairs but instead betrayed me by catapulting my body several feet before I could catch myself. Small pine saplings bent under my death grip as I lowered myself down the mountain. I encouraged my husband to go way down further ahead of me in case I lost my grip and took us both out in a great tumble. He thought I was being funny, having a good time, laughing in the delight of the adventure. I was, in reality, being very afraid, joking in the face of terror, giggling in almost hysteria. I made the trip mostly on my fanny. My big, fat, wet fanny.

After days of slipping and falling we made it to the forest floor. Compared to the trip down the mountain, post-holing over the field through the snow to the water was nothing. My legs were trembling with fatigue by the time we got to the rivers edge. But the view was breathtaking. This time we were looking up at the snowy peaks with the wild, north fork of the Flathead licking at our boots. I sucked in my breath with the beauty. How could I deny this great adventure? He was right again. It was worth every step.

After we'd had our fill of marvelling at the western slopes, and my watch was reminding me we had responsibilities shaped like kids waiting for us after school, my mountain boy took pity on me and lead me up the other trail out; the long, wide, gently sloping, road back to the truck. We contently walked hand in hand up the road most travelled, contemplating our day out loud to each other ........ until I slipped on the ice and did a "Charlie Chaplin" ......almost took him down, too. Tell me again, why did we go this way?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Time to go again.

It was time to tell my mountain boy husband goodbye again today. He travels to the North Slope of Alaska to work two weeks of every month. He, and the other great PA's, run one of the many clinics at Prudhoe Bay, caring for the oil workers, citizens of AK and anyone else who walks through the doors asking for help.
Like many dads and husbands right now, he has been forced to search for work outside our town. We miss him a lot when he's gone. But since our family has been doing this for a couple of years now, we kind of fall into a "when Dad's gone" routine. It's not always pretty but it works for the most part.

He asked me lately if I was secretly glad that he was off to work again. He said that he'd heard field workers mumble that their spouses sometimes were glad to see them go back when the two week hitch home was over. He wondered if I was ready for him to go back, too.

I told him that I was never ready to be without him. And that I try to do things that filled the holes of time left in my life while he was gone. Big, holes of time. I didn't think he believed me at first. So I smothered him with kisses. He seems to believe me now but pretends not to so he can get more kisses before he leaves. His pretending is pretty convincing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring....its a love/ hate relationship

Spring. We have a love/ hate relationship.

I hate that it looks BEAUTIFUL outside......sunny, warm, inviting. But in fact it's really still stinking cold out there. As you can see by this picture, the clothes look as though they are just hanging on the line. But if you look closely, you notice that they are FROZEN STIFF! (Just pretend that you don't notice the snow on the ground.) It's March and the breeze feels warmish in the afternoons. And the roosters are acting all frisky. The March wind should dry my clothes, dang it! Not freeze them into clothes-sickles! Love/ Hate.

I hate the yellow, stark oppressed fields just fresh from the melt. My backyard landscape where my clothes- sickles hang is still flattened from snow. And dry, brittle branches of the bushes sound like hollow sticks in the wind.

But new buds are beginning to swell on the tips of small tree branches. And if you look quickly, you can glimpse a returning robin darting in and out looking for a mate.

I think spring is mud and ice covered puddles.
I hate spring because it makes me grab at my flapping jacket with red, chapped fingers against cutting south winds while feeding chickens and rabbits who are dependant on me.

But spring is also contented chickens murmuring quietly as they fluff feathers over newly laid eggs. Spring is female rabbits pulling at incredibly, soft, tummy fur to line their nests in preparation for new babies. Spring is a very slight carpet of the smallest sprouting tomato seedlings in my basement.

Spring is a conflict. I hate it. I love it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Afraid to Look Poor

I was going through my boy’s closet/ drawers this morning trying to help them find something suitable for church. Most of their clothes are play clothes and therefore have that play clothes “look” (IE holes in the knees, frayed cuffs, ground in stains). Usually I don’t care what the boys look like when we are just home. But recently while picking up animal feed, we made a side trip to the grocery store and ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a really long time. I squirmed during our quick conversation realizing how we must have looked to her: dirty faced kids with ripped up jeans and tennis shoes stained with something questionably undesirable. I ended our talking and purchased our milk in record time so as not to accidentally run into anyone else. Why did what we looked like to my friend bother me? I knew that we had just come from the farm. What was I trying to prove?

MSN Money had an article on its website recently that spotlighted the question of what it means to “look poor”. The author notes that for some people wanting to appear rich is a matter of two thought patterns: the first is “racing to keep ahead of the Joneses”; the other is the “fear of seeming to be broke”. The latter has some big bad feelings of embarrassment, apprehension and acts of self dishonesty attached. Trying not to look poor can lead us to spend money that we don’t have just so we don’t give the impression of being what we dread most: a frazzled, anxiety-laden financial disaster.

“Well, that’s not me”, I said to myself. But how many times have I paid for high dollar sports pictures of my kids in their team uniform when I could just have easily taken the same picture in my back yard. Was it because I didn’t want the other parents to notice that I wasn’t having pictures taken? When was the last time I bought a pair of shoes because everyone else was wearing them and could see me wearing them, too (Clogs)? How does hanging the laundry outside to dry look to my neighbors? Do my clothes flapping in the wind look like the dryer is broken and we can’t afford to get it repaired or that we don’t even own a dryer? Does having less somehow make me feel like less of a person? Could the fear of what others think of me cause me to act in ways that might be financially irresponsible? Where does this fear come from? Somewhere my lifestyle fantasy had changed from the “yearning to be rich” to the “fear of looking poor”.

MP Dunleavy, the author of the MSN Money article “Are You Afraid to Look Poor”, quotes Miriam Tatzel, a social psychologist at Empire State College in New York as stating that there is a deep anxiety of being stigmatized for being poor. To quell the imposing anxieties of appearing poor could cause me to fall into a terrible cycle of overspending. Dr. Tatzel offers a couple of ways to combat the fear of looking poor.

The first is an obvious behavior that I have preached from my own mouth when counseling my children. I need to spend time with people who share my same values. If I spend time with people who pity me because I choose not to buy a 16 oz double-caramel-latte-with-soy-milk-hold-the-whipped-cream, then I need to change my associations. (Maybe I should pity them because I have $5 more dollars in my pocket than they do!) Instead perhaps I should initiate a brown bag group where we share recipes and frugal tips during our lunch break. As Dr. Tatzel describes, I need to “change the pressures that you expose yourself to.”

The second recommendation is to not listen to those small voices that tell me people are really going to think less of me if my car is not a luxury car or if my clothes are not designer clothes. Those are attitudes coming from inside me that I need to push away from my thinking. Instead, I need to congratulate myself on the fact that I drive 10-year old SUV that has a rip in the seat and the interior lights don’t always work but fits my family of 6 and keeps us safe in our Montana winters. And most importantly, it’s paid for. I should look at my bank account instead of my clothes closet filled with thrift store items that fit great for mere dollars.
Yes, I might look poor. But so does the millionaire next door.

In the mean time, though, I think I'll drop by the thrift store tomorrow to see what they have in boys sizes 12 and 14 just so the kids have something to wear to church that doesn't look like we just wrestled a pig into the shed. We can be farmers without looking (or smelling) like farmers.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

More fun food production....Yogurt!

I love yogurt and eat it every chance I get. My kids really enjoy yogurt too and I like the fact that it has some nutritional value. But it's become too expensive to eat everyday if you buy it from the store. So, in my never ending quest to supply all things good and healthy for my family, I began a search to find a full proof recipe for home made yogurt. I searched for several months off and on with limited success. I finally put a few recipes together and after lot of trial and error found a consistent, easy system for making yogurt. I posted a "how-to" for home made yogurt on the Associated Content website several years ago. This is the updated version.

First you need a yogurt "start": a small amount of yogurt that has the acidophilus bacteria. Most of the store bought yogurt has this bacteria you just have to look at the ingredients on the side of the carton. So I usually purchase the largest container for the lowest price of store brand, plain yogurt with acidophilus. I divide the whole container up into ice cube trays and freeze them when home. After freezing, I can pop them out into a large plastic baggie and store them in the freezer until I want to make yogurt. It just so happens that each ice cube is about one tablespoon. This is your "start" but let it thaw before adding to the recipe if you are going to use a frozen yogurt cube.

Second, place a quart of milk into a sauce pan, mix in 1/3 cup of powdered milk and slowly heat. I usually fill a quart Mason jar of skimmed milk then use the same jar later to store the yogurt in the 'fridge. Be Careful, the slow heating is important because milk scorches pretty easily. You need thermometer that will register low temperatures so a candy or dairy thermometer is perfect. These are easy to find. Just look for one at the super market when you are buying the yogurt.

Third, heat the milk to a temperature of 180˚. Then turn off the heat and allow the milk to cool to 115˚. Once the milk has cooled to 115˚ add the tablespoon of yogurt. Remember, if you have a frozen cube of yogurt, you must let it thaw before using. Pour the milk mixture into your quart jar and screw on the lid. Place the full jar onto a heating pad set on the lowest temperature. I then usually cover the jar with a large pot. Don't disturb the jar. After 8 hours you have yogurt. The consistency is a little thinner than the store bought kind. But I don't care and neither do my kids. The best part is that you can add whatever combinations you want: fruit, vanilla, sugar....

A gallon of skim milk costs about $2.25 at a large box store in my area. Therefore a quart of milk costs about $.56. Wow! A whole quart of yogurt for 56 cents! Pretty good. We can eat yogurt everyday now if we want.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The starving time

Awhile back I read a compilation of stories about pioneer families who moved from their East coast homes to wild, untamed places west. They were moving because they were going broke or felt crowded out by others or a host of other situations. They were looking to begin a new life some place where they could start over. They packed all they needed (not wanted) into a very small area. Then endured the walk to their new home. I use the word "endure" here because I cannot even image packing everything I would need into a place as small as the back of my suburban. Then to walk to my final destination? WALK? Could I "endure" walking like that? I am a total weenie!
One of the characters was quoted to have said that she was afraid of just two things out west: Indians and ..........a toothache. A toothache? I have never had to be afraid of a toothache. It has never occurred to me to be afraid of a toothache. I am spoiled.

One of the most impressive part of the stories, for me, came later in the book when the author was describing the spring. Nowadays, we think of springtime as warmth and of great growth and relief that the snow is gone. But the pioneers thought of spring with dread. They called spring "the starving time" or "season of starvation". Even if a family went into winter with an ample meat accumulation and a nice harvest from the summer garden, spring usually found them with an exhausted food supply. People were left to forage green edibles from the forests and the beginnings of small, meager gardens. Here in Northwest Montana, spring is still frosty. This morning it was 18 degrees on my front porch. Even May days are unpredictable. The pickens' would have been slim for months.

With that in mind, last night I took survey of what we have left from our summer garden food stocks. Here it is. One pumpkin, a handful of spouting beets, 5-7 pounds of white potatoes, 5 onions, 2 heads of cabbage, 7 stalks of dried out Brussels sprouts, some leeks, and 4 wrinkled Pink Lady storage apples. This wouldn't have fed us for a week.

I was pretty proud that I had anything left to show for our garden. But now I am humbled. And a little embarrassed. I could never begin to care of my family without the support of grocery stores. I am a spoiled weenie who couldn't survive without the diligence of others. Because of my weakness, I am reminded that that I live here, without too much toil or threat of sickness or injury, warm and toasty in my big house-- solely on the backs of the hardy pioneers who came before me.

So, in honor of my ancestors, (and just in case something catastrophic happens and I can't be a weenie anymore) I think I'll go down to my basement and plant a few more cabbage seeds, and maybe more Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower. Or maybe I'll order more carrots seeds.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chard in my front yard

My mountain boy husband has an aversion to vegetables growing in the front flower bed. Maybe he thinks it smacks of desperation. I, on the other hand, have a difficult time wasting perfectly good soil on plants that won’t have a place at our supper table. It’s probably just my tightwad nature (I prefer to call my nature “prudent”) but I don’t mind when visitors notice blooming, yellow squash nestled next to red geraniums or twining, Kentucky Blue pole beans crawling the banister as they walk up to our house. I often favor a full stomach over beauty. That’s why I mixed just a couple of small Swiss chard seeds among the marigolds last spring. I thought that the loveliness of the deep green, crinkley leaves, offset by multicolored stems, would be perfect (and non distinguishable for what they really were) in the front flower bed. The front bed had soil that my oldest son had recently baptized with lots of fresh leavings from the meat rabbits. (Thank goodness fresh bunny poo has very little odor or my mountain boy might have had a melt down. He’s funny about manure smells at the front door.) Since it was early April and the mornings still somewhat frosty, I had a HUGE hunger for everything green and fresh from the garden. Swiss chard seemed the best option.

Botanically, chard is in the beet family though it has an undeveloped root. It has edible dark green leaves packed with vitamins especially Folic Acid which research has shown prevents birth defects. It is very easy to grow; much easier than spinach, in my opinion. Chard is hardy against spring or early summer frosts and does not “bolt” in the summer heat. The leaves can be harvested at several inches tall, eaten raw on sandwiches or in salads like spinach. I have also waited until the plant has matured and harvested both the leaves and stalk using the stalk in recipes like celery. The stalks tend to be “earthy” in taste after about 8-10 inches tall and I’ll have to admit that my kids would prefer not to eat peanut butter and raisins on long, Swiss chard stalks. But every other recipe that includes spinach can be modified to use Swiss chard as a substitute. My family loves the tender young leaves boiled in water then mixed into mashed potatoes. Chard can also be boiled and frozen into little, green globs that can then be thawed and used throughout the winter in soups or other cooked-spinach type recipes.

About forty-five days after I planted the vegetable seeds with the flowers, pretty little orange and yellow marigolds were being eclipsed by the shiny, green leaves of the chard. The bunny manure had done its job well and the chard was beautiful. I admired the display every time I walked by the front door flower bed. Though we had eaten heavily from the leaves, the plant dutifully replaced what we had eaten. In an effort to keep the plant smallish, we had been eating chard in everything: Swiss chard in eggs, chard in fried potatoes, chard and onion dip, chard and carrots, chard in salads, chard muffins, and chard pancakes. The kids were chard-ed out. But the plant had grown to twice its normal size.......... as if eating the leaves encouraged an even greater growth. The plant was positively robust! We couldn’t keep up with it! I was worried because, as yet, its existence had gone unnoticed by my husband. Not that I was keeping its location a secret. I couldn’t. It was too big! Even one of our neighbors questioned the plant, "what is that plant? Rhubarb? I've never seen such a plant in anyone's front flower beds."

Finally, the day came when I heard the inevitable, mountain boy mumble from behind the morning newspaper, “Is that Swiss chard in the front flower bed? I thought we agreed we weren’t going to grow vegetables in the front?” I was actually relieved. With its discovery, the kids and I could stop eating chard like crazy people.

Three weeks later I carefully dug the plant up (it was a BIG daddy of a plant) and entered it in our local county fair. It won the grand prize for Swiss chard! I was very proud. So I guess the front flower bed was the best place for growing a grand champion Swiss chard plant after all. And all that bunny poo didn't hurt either. But I’ll grow chard in the back garden from now on to appease my spouse. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to sneak a small pile of lettuce seeds in with the front flower bed marigolds the next time. Hmmmmm. What’s that smell……..the faint odor of bunny poo coming from the front yard?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Making lard into.......lard.

I have about 10-15 pounds of lard in my freezer from our last butchered pig that needs to be rendered. Since I'm going to be in the kitchen for several hours this afternoon, I decided to take care of this chore today. I rendered lard in two cast iron kettles last year in my oven . But I usually bake for the week on Sundays so I don't really want the oven dominated by melting fat. So I decided to render the lard in my crock pot. (I was going to try the crock pot last time but I had dinner already slow-cooking.)

After reminding myself of the how-tos and the many directions of rendering lard from my plethora of old cooking books, I began by placing several pieces of frozen fat in the bottom of my crock pot with a little bit of water so the lard wouldn't stick before it began to melt.

After the small amount of fat began to soften, I loaded the pot with the rest of the lard.

Some of the directions I read suggest letting the fat melt with the lid off. I prefer the lid on. It seems to reduce the pork smell that permeates the house. At first the smell is nice.....kind of like simmering, smoked, pork ribs. But after 12-18 hours.....ribs get kind of old.

Anywhoo, after what seems like 2 days of melting fat the lard looks like amber colored juice with stuff floating on the bottom. The amber juice is the mild wonderful fat that you want. Strain the liquid lard through a piece of cheese cloth. Then pour into a clean canning quart jar. Do not
despair if the liquid looks different than what you'd expect. It will cool to a beautiful, creamy white. Just after I pour the liquid fat into the canning jars I put them into the refrigerator. (If you look, you can see that the lard is already beginning to cool and become white at the bottom of the jars where some of the liquid fat escaped and ran down the outside of the jar to pool on the counter.) Sometimes I put the jars into the freezer for a couple of hours for a quick cooling.

Now, here's the rub. The next step usually includes the yellow, puffy fat that sinks to the bottom of the pot and has not melted into liquid. These small pieces are considered the cracklings. As they are heated during the rendering, supposedly they puff up and become crispy. All my Southern life I have heard that the best part of rendering fat is the cracklings. But I have never had that luck. I think it's because the lard I have been given is not necessarily the "best" fat. Supposedly the "best" fat comes from the belly or back or around the organs.

But what I have makes great lard! Just no cracklings.

The final product of rendered lard can be used for baking. Just think, pie crusts so flaky that your grandmother will ask your baking secrets. Biscuits so light and wonderful that your children's friends will beg your kids to bring the biscuits to school so they can trade for them. It will be lard nirvana!

OK, maybe not. But it will be a natural alternative to: fully hydrogenated palm oils, partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oils, mono and diglycerides and TBHQ (what ever that is) which is........Crisco.

Happy rendering and if you are lucky enough to get cracklings, don't tell me. I don't want to cry in front of strangers.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March madness

We spent all day pursuing our spring ritual.......looking for that perfect house. Our forever home. Every spring (and fall and summer and winter) we look fervently for that elusive forever house. This year there's a certain urgency because the owner of the home we are renting has decided to place it back on the market. It's a great house (7 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms on 10 acres) but the asking price is about $150,000 more than our budget can stretch. So out we go. Driving to and fro, following houses listed online, in the newspaper, friend's tips, for sale signs that we might pass in the pursuit, anything that looks promising. It's exciting and frustrating. I sometimes think we are being too picky and that we should just choose a house that fits our criteria and not worry about the rest. But we've been waiting and looking for a long time. And this might be the last house we buy. So I really would like it to be as perfect a match as possible: a little land, several bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms. Of course it would be nice to not have it cost arms and legs, too.

Today we did not find our dream house. Maybe tomorrow. I'm not going to worry about what lies ahead out there. For now the search has been suspended due to darkness. I'm just going to snuggle up next to my husband on the couch and sip white wine and forget about the fact that we might have to move within 30 days (if someone buys this house we have 30 days to move. I know I shouldn't be so worried but it's happened to us 3 times already in 2 different it could happen!). What did Scarlett say in Gone With the Wind? "I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."

(Note the bottle half empty, the couch in the background and the TV tuned to "Inglorious B-----"....Mountain Boy's choice.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

This day is done

I know there are 1000's of moms/ dads out there who are much busier than me. I know that most of what I'm going to complain about is self induced and self serving . But I'm going to sit in my corner and suck my thumb and complain.

This was my schedule today:

5 am- red puppy barking and whining. (Translation: I forgot to allow her to go out last night before I went to bed and now her eyeballs are floating.)
5:30 am- wet, red puppy and I are now inside fix'n (I KNOW "fix'n" is not a real word!) coffee.
5:40 am- transferring wet school uniforms from washer to dryer.
5:45 am- severely reprimanding red puppy for JUMPING onto the kitchen counter and stealing and ripping and otherwise mutilating daughter's homework which she spent hours on the night before
6 am- starting lunches for 4 wild kids.
6:05 am- fielding phone call from mountain boy husband who is on his way home from Alaska where he works (Translation: smoochy, smooch, kissy, kiss.... I can't wait for him to come home!)
6:15 am- Out for quick morning chores (Translation: gathering eggs, feeding and watering rabbits, chickens, thanking Jesus we weren't able to get a milk cow this year after all...too much to do, not enough time.)
6:30 am- Make breakfast for all (Translation: fried potatoes and onions stored from our summer garden, biscuits and honey, apple slices, milk)
6:45 am- Kids up and completing am chores like making beds, combing hair and dressing in school uniforms, gathering last minute books/ school work in preparation for the day (Translation: boys yelling at each other through a locked door to get out of the bathroom before there's an accident on the floor; daughter in deep distress over her stolen, ripped and otherwise mutilated homework; red puppy whining because she hears all her kids up and she's banished to her kennel cave; boys rifling through clean clothes in dryer searching for socks/ underwear. Socks and underwear found in drawer ("how did they get in there?")
7:15- Oldest son stumbles out of room stating some thing about alarm not going off..... again. All eating breakfast.
7:35- Take a quick shower
7:50- All kids and moms out the door in orderly fashion for leisurely drive to school (Translation: all kids pushing/ shoving out the garage door at 8:00 to try and beat each other to the front seat, some running back in for lunches, books, belts, coats.......Blow out the drive way like a bat)
8:19- 8:30- Drop 3 kids out at grade school. One kid out at high school.
9:00- mom to work.
9- 2:45pm- Work, work, work.
2:45 pm- 4pm- Pick up oldest son at high school for orthopedic surgeon follow up appointment for right knee injury/ surgery sustained in January
4- 4:30pm- pick up all other kids from after school study hall; drop off sweet daughter at volleyball practice; drive wild boys home; offer wild boys dinner; evening chores (see above am chores- repeat); remind wild boys they need to be ready for scouts by the time I come home from picking up sweet daughter from volleyball (translation: threaten the boys that if they are not ready to go to scouts by the time I get home, they might NOT be able to go to their favorite scout activity----swim school).
4:45- 6:25 Pick up daughter; bring home; offer her dinner; gather up boys, pick up other boy scouts on the way to scout swim school.
7:15 pm Drive HOME!
8:30- 9:00 pm- Pick up all my boys and 2 more boys and drop all off at houses on the way home (we have to pass by their homes on the way to our home so it's really no problem).
9:00 - 10:30- Help middle son pack for scout camp out, help youngest son with last 2 math problems, love on sweet daughter because she cleaned up the kitchen without me asking or reminding her. All kids in bed at 9:20 or so. Fielding phone call from beloved mountain boy husband who is on the second to the last leg of his journey home from Alaska where he works (Translation: smoochy, get the idea). Take red puppy out one more time (so we don't repeat the crack of dawn eyeball floating whining at 5 am tomorrow).

What a day. I am a bonafide grouch.
I am tired and I want to go home. OK. I forgot, I am home.

So now I'm going pull on my down coat, pop open a refreshing malted beverage and go sit out on the front porch. I'm going to sit in the dark and listen to the quiet. I'm going to hear the quiet and slurp my beer. I'm going to hear the owls talking to each other and the chilly breezes blowing through the tall, dead, field grass. I'm going to breathe the cool, fresh air and close my eyes and thank God that I have a great place to live, and wonderful, healthy kids and an amazing husband who doesn't mind leaving us every month to work so we can have all we have. I'm just going to sit and regenerate.......and get cold.

Then I'm going to take my tired grouchiness to bed.
Amen. Good night.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rainy-- snowy night

Tonight is one of my favorite kind of nights. It's early but the evening chores are completed and the animals are full, contented in their toasty, little, red barn all nestled down into the straw. The kids are home, tucked into the back of the house doing their individual kid things; homework, listening to music (my middle son loves Louis Armstrong), doing push ups, reading. Supper's finished and the dishes are already cleaned up. I'm in the kitchen preparing tomorrows lunches and gleaning inspiration for tomorrow night's supper from favorite cook books, listening to the quiet sounds of evening NPR programs. The window over the kitchen sink is cracked open just enough so I can hear the rain falling. I think later tonight, when we are asleep, the rain might turn back to heavy, wet snow. It's been snowing off and on all day. Winter is trying to scare us into doubt but even she knows that the time for cold blustery days and icy nights has almost come to an end. I think the rain has a kind of hypnotic effect on our family. Even though I don't think they can hear the rain, I think they can feel the rain. The busy world that we've been running with all day has fallen away. All that exists on a night like tonight is peacefulness and rest. It feels so good to rest. I think the kids feel it too. Tonight is one of my favorite kinds of nights.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A gallon of milk- 1/2 pound of butter

Today I drove out to the farm to receive my week's worth of raw milk. I just love those farmers who take care of the share of cow that is mine (and I am so glad I went to that there big college to learn how to talk and write good).

Our share is just one gallon a week and last Monday, we were able to pick up the first gallon of milk. The kids and I discussed ahead of time how we only had one gallon of raw milk. We talked about how drinking the whole gallon at one meal, like we did with store boughten milk (boughten--to buy at the store as in Little House on the Prairie boughten) , was not the best use of this gallon. We would limit our selves to drinking only a portion of the milk. We would skim off the cream and use that in coffee or make butter or whipped cream. We would use the one gallon of milk for the greater good: yogurt, kefir, maybe even cheese!

But.....the was like a drug to my kids. After one taste, I would catch them in the refrigerator at every turn. They would sneak sips of the delicious frothy white stuff every pass by the kitchen. They couldn't help it. The temptation was too great. My middle son would say "but mom, it's sooooo good" as he wiped the white moustache from his upper lip. They were hooked. And by the end of the second day, the milk was gone. Of course, no one was responsible. It just disappeared.

So this time I had to work quickly. Covertly, I hid the milk in the back of the suburban under a pile of misplaced winter stuff: mismatched gloves, a pair of ripped snow pants, the wool emergency blanket......until we got home. I smuggled the jugs into the house and skimmed off the cream and put it in a quart jar (those Jersey girls are hard workers! We got almost a whole quart of cream from one gallon of milk!) After what seemed like an hour of "gentle churning" in the lidded jar (the books say 10 minutes but it was really about 30 minutes of sloshing) I came up with this:

Real butter!
What's left in the jar will be the start of my real buttermilk. Well, actually it already is buttermilk. But I'm going to allow it to clabber and thicken over the next couple of days then use it for buttermilk pancakes, waffles, home made dressings......

And tomorrow, in the early morning light, we'll have biscuits (made with store boughten buttermilk). There's nothing better than the look on your child's face as she bites into a soft, fluffy, buttermilk biscuit oozing with melted butter. I might even break out the pure Montana honey. Warm biscuits with melting butter and golden honey washed down with a great big glass of fresh milk........well, maybe next week we won't drink all the milk on the second day. We'll make yogurt and kefir and cheese. Just maybe.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In a continuation of our family shift toward self reliance, I'm starting tomato seedlings in the basement tonight. I planted about 7 varieties last year with varying results. This year I'm going to plant the types that had the best results. This includes several Heirlooms like Brandywine, Amish paste, and a European variety called Moskvich that did very well last year. I sometimes, well often, well always, go over board with the tomatoes. But not this year. I will exhibit restraint and only grow a limited amount of plants; say 30 or so.

This year, too, I am FOR SURE going to save some seeds. It's not hard. It's just that when the garden is winding down and I have the large, mature fruit I need for seed saving, school is usually beginning and I'm slammed busy. But not this year. The price of seed is ever going up, especially for heirloom or open pollinated plants. And I really don't want to save anything but the seeds from the best quality food. I try, like most moms, to give my children the best food I can afford. I make all our baked goods from scratch, we grow a big garden and this year we are raising chicken for eggs and meat. We have successfully raised meat rabbits for several years as well.

(Disclaimer: What follows is a small maternal rant on food safety. Just a mild warning for those not prepared.)

I'm no June Cleaver, (I do have a beautiful string of pearls that my mountain boy husband gave me several years ago), but if I can prepare most of our food at home, instead of buying food prepared and packaged at the store, the food should have greater nutritional value. And I'll know exactly what my children are eating. I thought that if I could prepare all, if not, most of our food at home, I would know that my children were eating safe preservatives, no MSG, no excessive salt. Right? Well, maybe not. What if the wheat that is ground into the flour I use to make the bread at home is contaminated at the cellular level? It's scary to think that I might slowly be poisoning my children and that I might not even have a choice. The FDA has never regulated the use or insisted on the labeling of GMO's in our food. That means that the basic flour I buy at the grocery store to make bread at home, might have been ground from wheat that has been genetically modified. That means that the sugar I buy to make the chocolate chip cookies my kids eat, might be derived from sugar beets that have been changed at the cellular level to withstand the onslaught of chemical weed killer. My children trust me to protect them, to supply them with their most basic needs: clean food and water. When I look at these sweet baby faces, fat cheeks, ear-to-ear grins, all of them looking just like their daddy----

.....How can I give them anything that might hurt them? So I start tomatoes in the basement. And this year will be the year I save seeds!

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Well, it looks like all the chickens to survive the dog attack last week will make it. We did loose one hen completely and the other chewed hen is still kind of shell shocked. She spends a lot of time in the rafters of the chicken coop, just pacing back and forth. I don't want to traumatize her anymore by pushing her off the rafters and down onto the floor. I'm sure she is eating and drinking (maybe in the mornings before I open the coop door?) because she's still alive. But she's very fearful. The big red rooster is back to his kingly place in the flock. He is not as majestic looking (IE no real tail feathers to speak of) but the hens don't seem to notice. If I walk up behind him and gently move the few tail feathers he still has, I can see the bite marks across his tail area and back.

They all seem to be healing with no signs of infection. The owners of the marauding dogs have not contacted me since they came to pick the beasts up the day of the attack. I guess the lives of a few neighbor's chickens aren't important enough to address even if they said they'd make restitution. Hmmmmmm. This is not over.

The one gallon of raw milk was awesome. But it stayed milk and didn't become butter or yogurt. It was just too good and we drank it. I did try and use the cream for whipped cream but it didn't whip up. It did make a nice pie (see post on Peanut Butter Pie), but didn't ever thicken up and become light and fluffy. I have to do some more research on fresh milk and by-products. But there's more milk to be had. Come Monday I'll have another gallon to experiment with! In the mean time, I took some small video footage of the chickens moving around the yard.
I love chickens. They are very peaceful. Between the quietness of our five meat rabbits, a single buck and his harem, and our small flock of laying hens and their husbands, we have the beginnings of our dream farm. The beginnings of clean, quality food production. It's wonderful.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Happy Birthday Baby Boy!

My baby was 11 years old yesterday!
And, as it goes in most larger families, I don't have many (alright, I don't have any) pictures of him by himself. (Look at all those cheeks! Don't you just want to smother them in kisses?)

Bear with me while I recall the day that he was born (no rolling of eyes, please).......actually, I have a way cooler story. It really started with the birth of my third child, also a boy.

It was the end of February in Texas and I was lounging in the hospital bed with my sweet, newest, baby, boy in my arms when my beloved mountain boy husband sauntered into the room. He was holding a small pot of flowers as a "thank-you-my-great-wife-for-birthing-this-boy-child-of-my-loins" gift. Tulips! My favorite! How did he know! Anyway, I was sitting there admiring the little pot of flowers when he announced that the reason he had chosen that particular pot was that red was my favorite color. And there were three little, red blooms.....and we had three sweet, little babies in our family. As he was speaking, I peered down into the pot and, low and behold, saw a fourth little red bloom just barely peaking out of the soil! A fourth bloom...... It was a was a sign that we were CRAZY because almost a year to the day our youngest was that same place.

(When I went in for my first visit with the fourth pregnancy, the doctor wrote on my prenatal chart "non compliant patient".....That's doctor talk for "she didn't do what I told her to do--as a matter of fact she did EXACTLY what I told her not to do" because most doctors like new moms to wait at least 2 years between pregnancies. We waited, um, 30 minutes or so.)

Anywhoo, one year and two weeks after I discovered the fourth little tulip bloom, Daniel was born. And guess what? My mountain boy husband didn't bring me any flowers that's a sign. And that's a true story.

We started his big day off with his breakfast request: chocolate chip pancakes and fried potatoes with onions. We ended the day with a dinner request from me (he didn't argue. He's sweet like that): marinated pork steaks from the broiler and baby greens with home made pesto dressing and peanut butter pie......yum.

Here's a picture of the birthday dinner (blurry and over exposed, of course):

Here's a picture of the peanut butter pie. This pie is a favorite of my children's for special occasions. In years past I have made all sorts of theme related birthday cakes; cakes in the shape of boots, dinosaurs, lots of dinosaurs, lady bugs, baseball hats, baseballs, basketballs, footballs. But, as they've grown, the children have become more sophisticated in their I think they are tired of the butter cream icing that graced each and every past cake staining their mouths weird shades of blue, red, purple and green. So now we are having pie.


After (note the tongue print where some unidentified child licked the bottom of the plate, kinda gross, huh):

Happy birthday, baby boy......

I'll love you forever.

I'll like you for always,

As long as I'm living,

My baby you'll be.

(Stolen from a great literary work of art, Love You Forever by Robert Munsch)

Just in case you're salavating over these great pictures, here's the recipe for Peanut Butter Pie. It's an old Pampered Chef recipe that I've tweeked here and there:

Heavenly Peanut Butter Pie
1 package (8 oz) cream cheese, softened
1 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky)
1 cup powdered sugar
1 container (8 oz) frozen whipped topping, thawed (I use the real stuff. Once you try real whipping cream, you'll never go back)
1 prepared graham cracker pie crust (I make my own instead of the store bought stuff. A girl just can't run out to the store every time she needs a pie crust when she lives in the woods! The recipe is on almost every box of graham crackers known to man. What? There is no recipe on the side of your box? Ok, ok. I'll include that one next!)

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese until fluffy. Beat in peanut butter and sugar. Fold in whipped cream topping, spoon into crust. Refrigerate until chilled at least 5 hours. (5 hours, my eye ball. I would be good to make it 1 hour.)

Graham Cracker Crust

(from my trusty red and white checked Better Homes and Garden Cook Book, cira 1989)

In a small saucepan melt 6 tablespoons of butter.
Place about 24 graham crackers in a plastic bag. Roll with a rolling pin until finely crushed. This may be done in small batches.
Measure 1 1/2 cups of graham cracker crumbs into a medium bowl.
Add 1/4 cup of sugar to the graham crackers.
Add the melted butter.
Stir or blend together with your hands.
Press into the pie plate or other pan.
To pre-bake the pie crust, bake for 8 to 10 minutes in a preheated 350 degree F. oven.

Eat and be merry!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Not tonight.......

I have a bad cold.
I'm not sure how it happened. But I have a rip-roaring, nose dripping, sneezing, coughing, yucky cold as evidence by the plethora of damp, mucous-y tissues laying around every surface of my house. I have to go to bed earlier than usual so no clothes folding or bread baking or cookie dough eating (oops, strike that) cookie dough making......
I'll be better in the morning.
Good night.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tiny powers of life

Just thought I'd take a small peek at the seedling babies I planted Saturday. This is what I saw:

The open zip lock bag incubator..........getting closer:

...the open bag opening (that was a poetic phrase).......closer......

Do you see the tiniest little babies just beginning to show their heads above the moist soil? No? Get closer.......

Now do you see the smallest basil babies? No? Well.....

How 'bout if my freakazoid camera does something weird and flashes even though I didn't push the automatic flash button? Now do you see the little plants? No? Squint your use your imagination.....they are there. Tiny and green, just 3 days old, the basil babies are already pushing their heads to the light while stretching their feet into the soil. I am quietly amazed at the persistence of life. Persistent and miraculous.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Got me some milk!

I got me some milk today! Real milk. I drove over the river and through the woods to find the sweetest Jersey girls.....six of them to be exact with 3 more little girls hanging out in the barn out of sight. I took their pictures (blurry, of course) but I couldn't get very close. This area of Montana is already in the midst of break up or break out or whatever you call the time of year that is totally muddy from all the melting snow. And the pasture/ yard that they were lounging was REALLY muddy. This picture doesn't do justice to the knee deep mud. (Don't ask me how I know it was knee deep. Just know that I tried to get close enough to pet the cows but something wet and brown got in my way, and on my pants, and almost came up and over the top of my shoes. Like the smart Texan that I am, I just took the dang picture and got out of there before something other than mud squished into my shoe between my toes and socks.)

Anywhoo, here's a picture of the girls. I don't know their names yet. So I will assign names until I know different.




Jeri is laying down, hiding really, because she's a little conscientious of her unsightly coat. But what's a girl laying in the field to do? It's OK, Jeri. I have bad hair days most often, too. And I don't live in a barn so I don't have an excuse!

And this is a picture of the great stuff that emanates from them (I don't think "emantes" is the right word, here.) When my youngest son saw the jars of milk sitting in the car, he cried out in an astonished voice: "Wow! Look at those jugs!" I don't think he realized the significance of what he was saying. But kind of poignant just the same.

The plan is to skim the cream off the top for sweet butter. Then I'll make yogurt from the rest of the gallon. I know we could just drink it, but the whole gallon could disappear in a meals time. To make several dairy edibles instead of imbibing the whole thing in one sitting seems like a better use of the one gallon of raw milk that I possess this week. Oh, and I did skim a little cream off the top for use in my coffee tomorrow morning. So, if anyone notices that the cheeks......of my face......seem to becoming more rounded, it'll be a testimony of the goodness of the cream. Maybe I'll go skim a little more. I'm not sure one morning's worth of cream will be enough.