Good Ideas for the Home Farm

 

 

The snow has melted off the garden in the last two-to-three days. I got out there this afternoon and spread clear plastic over this year’s tomato bed, holding it down well with so it won’t blow off the garden, and I let it hang over the edges onto the adjacent pathways. The heat of the sun will be amplified through the plastic and do two great things for me. First, it will heat up my tomato bed. Second, it will kill off any weeds or grass starting in my garden paths.

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We still actually have snow. In the top left of the photo, you can see the raspberry beds, with snow still covering about 1/3 of them! I didn’t waste any time getting out and getting started warming my soil!

This far north our first frost-free planting days for heat-loving crops aren’t until early June. That can really put a crimp in my style in terms of tomato harvest. Well, okay, really it crimps my style — period — when it comes to heat-loving crops. But by warming the soil early, and starting my tomatoes a couple weeks earlier than I otherwise would, I can put them in the ground that much earlier. Aaaand that meeeeans … (say it with me) … I can harvest a couple weeks earlier, right? True story! I’m all about getting a few extra weeks of tomato harvest.

So how do I harvest a little early? First I warm the soil. Then, when it’s time to put the tomatoes in, I secure brown plastic mulch (brown plastic sheeting) in my raised bed from one side to the other, tucking it down in the sides to keep it in place. Now I can cut slits in the plastic and plant my tomatoes directly into the pre-warmed soil. The brown plastic mulch continues to warm the soil (which tomatoes *love*) throughout the season. But I’m not going to end there. The second step is an additional layer over the tomato plants — a low-tunnel, like this one they sell at burpee.com:

It’s important not to just plant-it-and-forget-it, though. If you want early tomatoes, you kinda have to be willing to work for it. Careful temperature regulation is important. On warm days, the low-tunnel has to be open, or even taken completely off the tomatoes if it’s really warm. It’s too easy to accidentally cook your tomato plants before you can say “oops!”. Think about how hot it gets inside your car on a sunny day, even when it’s cool outside. The sun goes in through the windows and heats up everything inside your car. The low-tunnel will do the same thing to your tomatoes. This is great on cooler days and overnight when the temperature drops. On nights where the temperature is going to drop really low, a layer of sheets or old quilts or blankets is still a great idea to keep them from freezing, or suffering a set-back due to shock.  Once frost-free days hit after the first two-to-three weeks, the low-tunnel comes off for the rest of the season.

Some of my girls are hoping I brought some kitchen scraps out to them! L-R: New Hampshire Red, Black Star, Black Australorp, Black Star.

Some of my girls are hoping I brought some kitchen scraps out to them! L-R: New Hampshire Red, Black Star, Black Australorp, Black Star.

Here’s another great idea. My inventor-kid Danny came up with this. He’s really a good problem-solver. He’s been thinking about how to create a magnetic generator that will take minimal input and produce a good source of backup power for years. The kid’s only 13. He recently bought himself an oxy-acetylene tank for welding so he can invent things. Granted, he doesn’t know how to use it. (I’m exercising my bragging rights, okay? LOL!) But this idea has nothing to do with backup power or welding. It has to do with minimizing chicken feed waste. I don’t know if you have this problem or if you’ve figured out a way to keep waste to a minimum, but I absolutely hate buying 50 lbs. of non-GMO chicken feed (read: expensive!) knowing that almost half of it is going to end up on the ground, scratched into the chicken litter in the bottom of the coop. All that wasted feed is not only costly, but it invites rodents into the henhouse and makes a pretty yucky mucky mess on the floor, too.

You’ll kick yourself when you see this. It’s so simple. But I hadn’t thought of it in the seven years we’ve been raising chickens. Here she goes:

Don't judge me for having a big pile of chicken dookie in the corner of the coop. I'm a procrastinator just like you! LOL!

Don’t judge me for having a big pile of chicken dookie in the corner of the coop under the roosts. I’m a procrastinator just like you! LOL!

Danny suggested putting the feeder inside a short container of some sort to catch the feed that the hens bill out while they’re eating. Genius! Seriously! They stand outside the black pan, which is about 18″x30″ (roughly), instead of in it (chicken poop in the food – yuck!), and reach across to eat out of the feeder. They still bill it out, but 95% of what they bill out ends up in the pan. When feed gets low, they’re happy to eat the billed-out feed right out of the black pan. If it gets yucky or wet, you’d have to throw it away, but I haven’t had that problem yet and I’ve been using this since the fall! I’m spending half the money I used to spend on chicken feed. That makes me happy! 🙂

Do you have any good ideas for around the farm to share with me or other Small Home Farm fans?

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Spring is Coming to Aspendale Farm!

My friend Linda of Turkey Hill Farm has some of the loveliest gardens I’ve ever seen!

Hello, friends! It’s been a quiet winter at Aspendale Farm. I’ve been taking the slow winter months to recuperate and build up a healthy reservoir of energy and enthusiasm for the upcoming growing season!

And I am getting enthused! I started three varieties of tomatoes … I’ve decided to give Burpee’s “SuperSauce” paste tomato a try as one of them. I’ll be interested to see if they really do get as huge as the company touts, and whether they have enough taste to make a decent pot of chili! I will not start peppers this year, but a friend has promised to save me her extras, and I can buy anything else I need from the Amish greenhouse around the corner. I do think I’ll root some geraniums, though. I’ve decided to hang baskets all along the front porch this year, instead of just hanging two on either side of the step up to the porch. It will save me a few dollars to root them myself.

In our neck of the woods, the ground is covered with snow from October or November (depending on the year) through the end of the first week of April. If you’d told me last week that we’d be seeing a lot of bare ground by the end of this week (as was to expected going by the previous years’ melts), I’d have doubted you. Last week’s temps were in the single digits and it snowed several times. But a warmer wind has been blowing this week. The snow has turned to rain, and there are, indeed, patches of bare ground growing larger every day. For the first time this year our little two-track gravel road is showing, where there has been packed snow and ice all winter.

Yesterday morning I went out to the henhouse where the girls were making a fierce racket. Usually they’ll do that if they need more water or food, and I figured it was probably a low-water scenario. But no, all the hens were outside, making a big ruckus. The first thing I saw on entering the coop was our good friend, Tookhees (two-keys), our Partridge Rock family pet, lying stretched out on the ground underneath the roost. She had gone to the Great Dust Bath Beyond not long before I arrived on the scene. She hasn’t laid eggs for several years, but she was a family favorite from our very first batch of chicks in 2007 when we still lived at Hawthorne Hill in Ohio. We brought her with us to Aspendale Farm in the Northwoods of Michigan. She has always been a character, and very sweet. Usually we think nothing of trading off the old hens and getting a new batch of chicks, but Tookhees and Violet (our Black-Tail Buff Japanese Banty-hen) have been special pets and we’ ve kept them on in spite of their non-productive status. So we gave her a proper burial in our pet graveyard behind the barn and sang “Shall We Gather at the River” which may or may not have been theologically correct. But thanking God for the pleasure she has given us these seven years seemed appropriate.

In less than two weeks our newest batch of chicks will arrive. Every year I have gone with a lovely assortment of heritage breeds and occasionally popular breeds. We’ve had Buff Brahmas, Black Australorps, as assortment of Rocks and Reds, banties, Columbian Wyandottes, and even ISA Browns, which laid well enough but had poor personalities and loved to bully the other hens. I do love having an assortment, and some of my favorites are the Australorps and Columbian Wyandottes. For personality, the Partridge Rock and Buff Brahma are the winners. But last year a friend gave me four Black Stars (also known as Black Sex-Links) and I have to say, they are docile and friendly, do not go broody, and have an excellent feed-conversion ratio. I get six eggs a week from each hen. Hard to beat that. So this year I will raise eight new Black Stars and see how they do for me again. They begin to lay a month earlier than the non-hybrids as well. But I must admit I am extremely partial to the heritage breeds and will likely go back to getting a good mix in spring of 2015. But I will probably include at least a few Black Stars again!

The house is still for sale, and now that it’s warming up, we expect to see activity resume, with the dreaded bouts of housecleaning-for-perfection (you know, to show it to prospective buyers), instead of the normal everyday housecleaning. But we are considering switching realtors or going FSBO again, as our current realtor renegged on her promise to keep our house listed on zillow and trulia. It lapsed on those sites just before Christmas, and in spite of my bugging her about it, she hasn’t relisted them. There are FSBO packages where you can list on realtor.com, trulia, and a bunch of other sites, and I’d listed our home on zillow, craigslist, and horseclicks myself anyway. But no, I really don’t want to move. LOL! If our house never sells I’ll be alright with that. But I do want a realtor who does what he or she has promised. After all 7% commission is huge!

Still, I love living here. I love the pace of life our Amish neighbors have. It rubs off on me, and I do need that. And I love their faith, trust, honesty, and humility. I’m sorry to say that you don’t find a great deal of Englishers with the same values. It is only found here and there, in small places — not infused in the very fabric of your community. There is too much hurry, rush, worry, and lack of deference out there — particularly downstate where we would probably end up if/when our place does sell. I like living where folks wave at each other as you drive by, rather than flipping each other off and laying on the horn. And we are a short jaunt from the river, with State Forest all around us, two hiking trails within minutes that follow the AuSable river as it winds its way toward Lake Huron. Well, there are many things to love about where we live now, and they make it hard to sell and move on.

I’ve gotten used to having my oldest gone to college. It was a terrible adjustment. But after a couple weeks of crying daily and a couple more weeks of just getting used to the new situation, I’m okay with it. (Yes, I’m a woman, I cry. Get over it.) To be honest, although I do adore many things about him, it’s been significantly easier to keep the house clean and well … it’s been quieter and noticeably less chaotic. Except the kitchen. Cecily is one of those of the “eat small meals six times a day instead of three large meals” persuasion. While it may be healthy for her, it drives me bonkers to have the kitchen in a state of chaos all throughout the day. ‘Cause she’s not just eating an apple and calling it a day, she’s cooking something. Chopping board, pots and pans, and all. But the rest of the house stays much tidier, and it only takes a few minutes to put things to right when they get out of sorts. Sorry JJ, truth hurts! LOL! And since he is an adult, I’ve been able to let go of worrying constantly about guiding and helping him. It’s a lot easier to offer suggestions when he’s willing, and let it go. Let him decide what to do. And I’m okay with that. His Dad? Not so much! LOL!

Other than that, the kids and I have amused ourselves by feeding the birds this late winter. The cat is quite amused by it as well. She likes to sit in the window and make little chirpy-mews that I assume, means she is telling us all about this interesting development out there. But if any one of them flies in too close to the ground under the window, Miss Sweetness-and-Light becomes Dagger-Eyes. Those little birdies are sometimes amusing, sometimes lunch. LOL!  Good thing there is a picture window in between Maple and the birds.

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Early Winter Aspendale Farm Update

Our front yard Christmas morning. What a way to wake up!

Well, I’ve been a bit absent for awhile, I admit. It’s been a whopper of an autumn in many ways, and extremely uneventful in others. I’d love to tell you all about the new, interesting things we’re doing here — unfortunately there is nothing new.  A lot has been happening, but nothing worthy of excited sharing, I don’t think. Still I’ve had emails, Facebook questions and person-to-person inquiries about what we’re up to.

Of course my oldest son moved on to college Labor Day Weekend. While I’m extremely proud of him and super-excited for him, it’s been a hard adjustment for me. After all, I’ve been the Mama around here for eighteen-plus years. That’s been my main drive and occupation, all other responsibilities and interests aside. I’ve enjoyed having him around. He and I have a good, fun relationship. So it was quite a difficult adjustment for me when he packed up all of his belongings (save for one box of grungy clothes that still live in his closet) and moved out. Not only have I grieved the loss of him as part of our everyday family life, but I found myself wandering around in this disconcerting haze of “what am I going to do with the next stage of my life?” My other kids are well on their way to independence. Cecily just dual-enrolled for classes at the local community college and next fall my third child will be in high school and learning independently of any need for me. So there it is, bearing down on me like a freight train. A huge adjustment for which I have been ill-prepared.

As you know, too, I sent my Saxton to a new home. He and his new family are loving it. His new owner adores him and has so much fun riding him. It was definitely the right move, albeit a painful one.

And the weekend before Thanksgiving I was struck with another blow that I had hoped to push off for a year or even several years. At least for some breathing room from the other losses. But no, down at the barn we found my beloved Lacy on the ground, unable to get up. She was old after all. We’d taken thorough and tender care of her while we had her, but we knew she couldn’t live forever. And we were forced to make the agonizing decision to put her down. It still hurts, as does losing anyone you love deeply. I’m grateful to her for the sweetness and balm she was while she was with us. She restored my faith in horses and has given me good memories.

A bit of a bummer, eh? Can you see why I’ve been a bit on the quiet side? We go through seasons, and some of them are hard to bear. This has been a hard one for me.

On the brighter side of things, when JJ left, my health deteriorated noticeably, which actually led to some surprising overall health improvements. It is a fact that trauma of any kind — physical illness, injury, high stress, emotional shock — can lower one’s defenses and knock you out of balance so things don’t work as well anymore. I can only surmise that the grief I went through at the ending of our family life as we’d known it was about the last straw for my Type-A personality.

I’d been working with a homeopath to solve my mystery hip issue, but the rest of my health started going downhill and I began to gain weight even while actively dieting. I was overtly fatigued and noticing a marked lack of enthusiasm for, well, anything, really. Through a serendipitous chance, we found out I was now hypothyroid. Who knew?  Stress is a big factor in hypothyroidism. And some of the “mystery” ailments I’d been putting up with for a couple years, edema, a hip that just wouldn’t let me run without it going out, a couple of episodes of severe back spasms… seem all to be related. I’m not one to jump on the allopathic medicine bandwagon if there’s any way to heal the body instead of relying on a chemical. After much of my own research, and working with a naturopath and my chiropractor, I’ve headed up the campaign to restore full body health, and I am seeing gratifying improvements. I’m doing close to a dozen things to support thyroid health, including natural supplements, chiropractic adjustments, homeopathics and Bach flower remedies, self-acupressure, a careful diet composition (lots of veggies, a fair amount of fruits and healthy proteins, and just a small, small portion of carbs – preferably whole grains like oats), I <<ack!>> gave up coffee (too stimulating), and have switched my work-outs so I’m now doing metabolism-boosting, body-healing circuit training (heavy weights or R&R workouts) between sets of sprint intervals instead of steady-state cardio which can actually depress your metabolism (who knew!), and Qi Gong to keep stress levels low.

I’m also doing a lot of restorative walking. Walking, while some people consider it exercise, really has the effect of lowering stress-hormone levels, particularly when done leisurely, in a nature environment. I’ve been out in the woods or down by the river every day I have a chance – and I love it! Except when someone accompanies me who happens to be stressed out or overly talkative. LOL! That doesn’t really lower my cortisol! LOL! I’ve also jealously guarded my sleep, and reduced my committments. It’s been a whole lifestyle change in a way. But I realize the need to work hard to restore myself to full health now, before I have something much more serious like cancer or diabetes or heart disease. So I’m taking it seriously. And honestly? I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying feeling good. I’m enjoying running without worrying about my hip putting me out of commission for days. I’m enjoying eating a lot of foods that I know are nourishing me. I’m enjoying having enough energy after dinner to take part in whatever’s going on. I’m enjoying having more balance

I still don’t know what the future holds. But I’m not really worried about it. There are many things I’m interested in. We’re still in a state of flux with our house on the market — not sure where we’ll end up or how long we’ll remain here.  I love it here and don’t want to move. Where else could we live where we are surrounded by so much beauty and snow and a mild climate? But for now it seems the right choice.

Fall is over. Thank goodness this time. And I’m relieved that the winter has gotten off to a great start. I am noticing that I feel a little better each week and have hope now of complete recovery. I’m shedding the extra few pounds that crept on after JJ left, without doing any silly diets. I’m just eating. We have a good 20-inches of snow out there and I’ve been cross-country skiing, walking out on the frozen river past all the ice-fishing shanties, I’ve taken the kids sledding, enjoyed many a wood-fire in our cozy new family room, got to have some fun garage-band jam sessions with some good friends and our instruments … it’s a nice change from the turmoil of earlier in the autumn.

Farm-wise, the hens took a two-month break from laying, and have finally begun to lay again. It’s disappointing to buy eggs from the grocery and feed for the chickens at the same time! That’s the kicker with keeping birds past their first year of laying, but it is what it is. We’re down to just three horses now. The orchard is asleep, shoveling and snow-blowing are a regular part of life here now, as is loading the wood-furnace and hauling split wood for the fireplace. The seed catalogs are arriving in the mail, and after the first of the year I know I will spend a few lovely, lazy hours poring over the pages, choosing what we will put in this next year.

And I pray that you and yours have a lovely, prosperous, healthy new year. May your times of sorrow and pain ultimately bear good things, as mine have. And may you live and love the beauty of the moments that make up your days in the next twelve months.

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Deliciously Depraved Brownies ~ (Wheat-Free)

You may already know that I have a love-hate relationship with wheat. I love it. It hates me. True story.

I’ve been working with a homeopath for about six weeks, trying to clear up a weird little hip/health issue that’s been plaguing me for a couple of years, and has been keeping me from running off and on. We’re making some progress., but now I get to spend the next month wheat-free while we give my body a rest and see if we can just get over it already so that when next race season comes around I can enjoy running again!

I’m not one to let a little dietary restriction hamper my creativity in the kitchen, and while there are some weird, and not very satisfying recipes out there for all kinds of wheat-free “treats” for people who are allergic or gluten-intolerant, there aren’t a whole lot of genuinely good, “I-just-don’t-miss-what-I-can’t-have” kinds of recipes. In fact, I hesitated to even put “wheat-free” in the title, because I was pretty sure that would make people give this recipe a miss before they ever gave it a chance.  It may be the mistake you’ll regret if you do! 😉

During my mission for a genuinely great, wheat-free chocolate dessert, I scoured the low-carb and gluten-free sites where many of those often-lacking recipes float around, then I played around in the kitchen to come up with some darn good brownies for Treat Night!  These aren’t sugar free, but I did lower the sugar content some without harming the taste any, IMO. Without mucking around any more about it, here goes:

Deliciously Depraved Wheat-Free Brownies

1 1/8 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips

3 oz. baking chocolate squares

1/2 c. plus 2 Tbs. butter

1/2 c. unsweetened baking cocoa powder

4 eggs

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1 c. sugar or 1 c. sugar/stevia blend like Domino Light

Chill bowl you’ll be whipping the eggs in and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt chocolate chips and baking squares in the microwave or over a double-boiler. Roughly chop the butter and stir it into the completely melted chocolate, heating an additional 20-30 seconds if needed to completely incorporate the butter into the chocolate. Stir in cocoa powder until well blended.

Whip eggs about a minute with a mixer, then add in the vanilla and sugar/sweetener. Whip an additional couple of minutes until mixture is light, but still liquid.

Make sure chocolate mixture is no longer hot (warm is okay, hot enough to scramble the eggs is not), and fold the egg mixture gently into the chocolate** until it is well incorporated. This takes me longer than it takes to fold into a souffle´, but I’m not sure why. It probably takes a good four or five minutes of folding before it was well-incorporated.

Spray an 8×8″ pan with baking spray, or rub well with butter, oil, or shortening.  Gently spread mixture into pan and bake in the 350-degree oven 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on it toward the end to make sure it’s as gooey or as firm as you like it.  Remove from oven and cool.

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting (with or without Maple Flavor)

1 c. butter

3/4 c. bakers cocoa powder

1 tsp. vanilla

1 tsp. maple extract (optional)

4 c. powdered sugar

3-4 Tbs. milk

2-3 Tb. corn syrup or thick maple syrup

Cream butter, cocoa, and vanilla/maple flavoring together. Gradually add milk and powdered sugar , 1 cup at a time, alternating between powdered sugar and a little milk.  Next, add corn syrup or maple syrup, and mix in well.  Spread on cooled brownies (if you can wait that long), and serve.

If you need to hold onto your frosting in the bowl for a little while, be sure to stick it in the refrigerator so it doesn’t start to melt or get too soft at the temperature in your kitchen.  When ready to spread, whip it up again and use.

*Note: This makes a pretty big batch of frosting, and you may do very well with a half batch if you aren’t inclined to spread a mongo-thick slab of frosting on yours.

**If you want to add nuts to your brownies (I really like mine with walnuts, but the rest of the family isn’t so crazy about it…) you can fold them in with the egg mixture, or simply sprinkle on top of the frosting.

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Acorn Flour ~ “Poor Man’s Flour”

If you want to try your hand at some food foraging, here’s a fun fall project to try! You can make flour from acorns, just as early settlers and pioneers did. We use almond flour (ground almonds) frequently in our baking, and this is only a little different. Almonds can be ground raw or roasted, but acorns are too bitter to use without first making them palatable by extracting the tannic acid in them.

Gather a bowl of acorns. This is one of those activities that I find extremely compelling. My family gets a little exasperated with me on our hikes as I stoop and fill my pockets with acorns every three feet or so. Kinda like how you can eat just one Lay’s potato chip, right?

Remove the caps from the acorns, then crack their shells and remove the meat just as you would to use any other in-shell nut. Put the hulled acorns in a pot and cover them with boiling water. Boil them for a couple of hours, then pour off the water and cover again with fresh, already boiling water. Continue to boil them for another couple hours, changing the water again when the water darkens. After they have boiled a second time, taste an acorn and see if it still has any bitterness left. If so, after you’ve rinsed off the old water, add another batch of fresh, boiling water and boil them a third couple of hours. Taste again. When they are no longer bitter, they’re ready to roast.

Boiling them leaches the tannic acid out of the nuts and into the water.  Tannic acid, remember, is what is in tea.  If you leave your tea bag or tea leaves to steep in your cup or pot of water too long, the tea becomes bitter.

When you are ready to roast them, pour the water off of them and pour the nuts out on a towel and pat the excess water off of them.  Place them on a baking sheet and roast in a 300-degree oven for about an hour.  At this point you can remove them, cool them, and eat them as is (you may want to salt them if you plan to eat them whole and roasted—try them with and without to see how you like them), or you can grind them into flour.  Any kind of mill or food processor should work.  You may have to grind them twice to get a fine enough grind to use as flour.

My personal recommendation is to replace part of the flour in a recipe you like (i.e. cookies, muffins, pancakes, etc…) with the acorn flour, and use part regular flour of whatever sort your recipe calls for.  But feel free to experiment!

Have fun—and happy home farming!

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Aspendale Farm & Small Home Farm Radio Update

Some of you have been wondering when I’m going to do another show, and hey, what’s up, anyway?  So here’s our latest update.

I’ve shared a couple of things already with my blog followers, and later I’ll mention some things I haven’t yet talked about. First, my producer, JJ, who is also my oldest boy, has gone away to college to pursue his degree in Advertising & Public Relations at Spring Arbor University.  That’s three hours away from home.  Like any typical college kid trying to enjoy college, pay for school, and maintain a decent Grade Point Average to keep his scholarship and do well in his classes, he’s really busy.  Neither he nor I have received any pay for doing Small Home Farm Radio at any time during the run of the show.  It’s been a labor of love – especially on his part.  He gets virtually no recognition from anyone but me.  And how far do a Mom’s hugs and pats on the back go for the hours of work he’s put into it?  LOL!  So I am not asking him to try to squeeze one more obligation into his overcrowded and underfed schedule.

I also shared that I’ve taken on more editing work recently. As of April this year I made the switch from doing occasional freelance editing to having a permanent staff position editing and proofreading.  I don’t get to choose my assignments any more.  They just send ’em down the pike and – voila!  There they are!  I have also taken on additional freelance clients.

In light of the increased hours my job requires, I’ve had to let some things go.  The three things I picked?  Well, first, putting out regular Small Home Farm Radio shows for now, anyway.  If I were to make it a paid job instead of a hobby it might be an option, but that’s not the way it’s working out right now.  Second, if you’ve followed my blog recently, you know that I no longer have my horse, Saxton.  I opted to shift the bulk of the responsibilities and time spent on horse-related jobs, training, and riding to the kids who still have horses.  It’s freed up some time and some mental capacity for me, and I feel really good about the guy that became Saxton’s new partner.  It will be a good relationship.  And third, I chose not to do any major canning this fall.  My Mom came up to visit and we made some basil jelly (which I hope to do a post about in the near future), some pear marmalade, and some pistachio butter just for fun.  In addition to some raspberry jam I’d made earlier in the season, that’s pretty much it.  I’m eating all my tomatoes fresh – just chopping them up and throwing them into chili, omelets, pasta…  and any abundance I’ll just freeze.  It was a light year for tomatoes, though, so I don’t expect to freeze much.

My biggest obligation, the one that is most important, is of course, educating my kids.  My leadership/business success-nerd husband who reads books on leadership for fun, takes a half day or more every three months to come up with three goals for that quarter.  Not three goals in each area (physical, work, family, etc.) — no, just three goals — period.  Research shows (so he tells me) that if you set one goal, you will achieve that one goal.  If you set one to three goals, you will achieve one to three goals.  If you set four or more goals, you will achieve no goals.  He’s actually very successful, so I feel confident following his lead. So I opted for the set one goal track, knowing I’d increased my odds by just choosing one. I chose that this quarter I will work hard to make sure that we get school on a really good, comfortable routine, where we are enjoying our work and having high accountability for the quality of schoolwork.  It’s easy to let “missing papers” and things slide, and we were heading down that road last year.  This year the offending kid (not naming any names <coughDanny>) is actually having to finish and account for last year’s missing work.  That’ll teach him!  And me, too, incidentally.

So, not that you care terribly much about my personal goals.  But notice there was actually nothing in that goal about canning, horses, the podcast, or even about getting laundry done and meals prepared.  If we eat PB&J for the entire quarter, so be it!  (Thankfully that’s not happening.)  I’m determined to meet my one goal.

The next big change – a very big change – that is on the horizon:  Aspendale Farm is up for sale.  We listed with a realtor a couple of months ago. Now we just sit tight until someone shows up who needs a 10-acre small home farm in the middle of the woods on the edge of Amish Country, ninety miles north of everywhere.  The average home sits on the market for about three years in our county.  So we’re not really expecting to pack up and hustle off for awhile yet.  The reasons for selling are varied.  Some are practical.  My husband travels regularly on business, and really wants to be closer to an airport.  As it is we are three hours from the nearest hub.  But there’s not even a little one close by where he can catch a connecting flight.  And a lot of his clients and team members are in southwest Michigan/northwest Ohio, which means an overnight stay instead of a day-trip when he has meetings.

As JJ has gotten closer and closer to finally leaving for college, we realized that if we want to have the opportunity to live anywhere near our kids and, eventually, grandkids, we’d need to be close to a larger population center. For our kids to be able to get jobs, the likelihood of needing to be near a population center is pretty high.  Yes, they may move off to Timbuktu, (Miss World-Traveler Cecily in particular), but at least it will be of their choice, and not of necessity. And the kids seem to be leaning toward wanting to live near extended family in NW Ohio, at any rate.

We also have family issues to consider – not being a regular part of my nieces’ lives has been a downer.  My parents are getting older, too.  And on and on.  The typical things one thinks of in regard to family.

I used to really, really miss Starbucks.  I know – shallow and crazy.  I swear they put cocaine in their coffee.  I still really enjoy getting a Starbucks when we travel.  But I’ve learned to make my own hazelnut latte at home.  My recipe is excellent and it takes the place of a Starbucks latte very satisfactorily.  So although that used to be a fantasy … moving closer to a town with a Starbucks — or at least *any* coffee shop — it isn’t any more.  Just a perk if/when we do end up moving.

We don’t have a destination in mind.  Likely SW Michigan.  But I adore, adore, adore Traverse City and can’t imagine not being there.  Still, the idea of being even further from family, and not near a hub airport (although, if I remember correctly, Cherry Capital Airport has connecting flights to Minneapolis, Detroit, and Chicago) makes that a tough place to end up.

The thing that finally turned the tide for me, though, has been –oddly enough– my friends here.  I have had four close friends that have made me really feel at home up here and given me heart-ties to this place.  In summer 2012 my good friend Michelle and her family moved when her husband was transferred to a pastorate in a different part of the state.  In early fall, my dear confidante and mentor, Rachel B, moved when her husband was offered a pastorate in Missouri.  Those were both very sad occasions.  But I felt pretty secure here, anyhow.

You see, my best friend Wendy has lived on her farm here for some 12 or 15 years.  (Obviously I don’t remember exactly.)  And she and her family were reasonably certain they’d live here forever.  Several years ago a mutual friend asked if our family would stay here or if we would move.  I jokingly replied, “I’ll move when Wendy moves.”  (Can you see where this is going?) This past spring, Wendy’s husband moved them into the parsonage at the church where he is pastor.  And how do I have all pastor’s wives for friends?  An odd circumstance to be sure!  Apparently, I’m a pastor’s wife magnet!  LOL!  Wendy and I had been seeing each other less and less frequently, though.  She has become increasingly busy.  I’ve mourned the lightening of that relationship terribly.  Wendy and I are two peas in a pod and I have loved her like I never imagined I could love a friend.  That has left me with one last girl friend close by.  Just a good friend – a fellow home-schooler.  Not a pastor’s wife.  LOL!  But this spring they decided that they were called to the mission field and are now on their way to being full-time missionaries in Europe.  <Sigh>  I have other friends and friendly acquaintances here, but the beating-over-the-head with losing all my best friends and severing ties to the area hasn’t been lost on me!  I’m not *that* oblivious.  So I agreed to be willing to go if and when the house sells.

Losing an orchard newly coming into production, a prolific raspberry bed, blueberries that are just now starting to bear a decent crop, that will be painful.  I’ve worked hard on getting my vegetable garden just right; building up the soil, building raised beds, mulching the paths, building a fence around it, putting up trellising… you know all that takes time, work, and money.  We spent three years building our barn and it was another year before we finally had really good arena fencing in.  I love my barn.  It’s as close to perfect as I could hope for.  These changes will be difficult.  But every move we have made has brought good things, and I trust that this one will, too.  So now we wait.  And we will see what the next chapter brings.

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Recipe: Perfect Grill Burgers and Fries (Part II – French Fries)

Photo from everystockphoto.com taken by Richard Elzey

Many of my really fond memories of my Dad revolve around food growing up.  Mostly it was snacks and treats I remember, since he didn’t have a huge repertoire when it came to cooking.  But when he did cook – oh my!  He made wonderful homemade french fries!  I’ve been making them “Dad’s way” since I first learned to cook.  But as delicious as his homemade fries are, they aren’t restaurant fries, and now I know why!

There’s a local named Mike, here in town, who owns a burger and ice cream shop.  It’s one of those walk-up window kind of places. Mike makes his own fries, doesn’t buy frozen.  (Ironic, huh?  We must start with frozen burger patties, but fresh spuds to cut into fries?  I know, right!)  Mike’s the one who first introduced me to cooking “restaurant fries.”  He says he cuts the potatoes into strips for french fries, then soaks them in a bucket of water with sugar in it — for two days.  Now, Mike’s fries are very good.  But I’m not likely to start making my fries two days ahead of time.  And I’ve found it’s not necessary in order to get really good fries.

You’ll need some good potatoes – one pound of potatoes is adequate for 2-3 people.  If you cut up some potatoes and it doesn’t look like enough, do another potato or two until it looks like enough servings for the number of people you are serving.  Scrub and rinse your potatoes to get the dirt off of them, and if you want them peeled, peel them.  If not, leave the skins on.  I can go either way, but I’ll peel them if I can spare the ten minutes to do the job.  I like to rinse them quickly, then, to get any residual dirt off of them.

Next, cut each potato in quarters, then cut the quarters into slices/strips (the long way) a la the french fries you know and love as shown in the photo above.  Here’s where we differ from Dad, who would then plunge his potato strips into hot oil, fry the heck out of them, then try to eat them while they’re still covered with boiling oil.

Instead, we’re going to get a large bowl – maybe five quarts, depending on how many fries you are making.  Fill the bowl with water and add about 1 1/2-2 tablespoons of sugar to the water, stirring until it dissolves.  Put the cut potato strips into the bowl of sugar water and let sit for an hour.  You can let them sit for several hours – or overnight – or for two days like Mike does.  But they should sit a minimum of one hour.  This allows the starch to begin to leach out of them and it flavors them lightly, (These are not sweet fries – they’ll taste a lot like what you get when you order your grill burger!  I promise!)

When you are about ready to cook the fries, pour your oil (peanut oil is a great choice) into a pan with deep sides, or into an electric deep-fryer.  That is one appliance I refuse to own!  I’d use it too often!  As it is, homemade fries are a 2-3 times a year treat.  My waistline and my arteries don’t need to be exposed to that on a regular basis!  Not to mention donuts, deep-fried chicken strips, fried pickles and mozzarella sticks – I don’t know. I’m sure I could find other things to deep-fry if it weren’t a bit of trouble to get everything out and put it back away.

I digress.  Put your oil in a pan with deep sides so it won’t overflow and cause a grease fire.  Seriously.  Not a thing to take lightly.  We had a grease fire in the kitchen and it was terrifying.  Don’t go there.  You’ll also need a candy thermometer and a slotted metal utensil or metal basket of some sort.  You could use a slotted metal spoon, a fry basket, or a slotted/wire skimmer.

Heat your oil to 300-degrees a la The Pioneer Woman’s recipe (she has good photos of how to do this), and keep the temperature steady.  You’ll probably want the heat between medium and medium-high for this.  Adjust lightly as needed but keep the oil around 300-degrees.  If you’re not talented at that, go ahead and buy or borrow a deep-fryer with automatic temperature control.  While the oil is heating, remove the cut potatoes from their sugar-water bath, and pat them dry with a clean towel.  The oil will spit if there’s water left on them and it will probably spit on you.  And on the floor.  And everywhere around.  And you’ll be slipping in drops of grease on your floor while you nurse your ouchie-boo-boos from the splatters.  You will probably also want to lay out some newspapers with a couple layers of paper towels on top of them to put your finished, hot french fries on to absorb the grease and have them plenty spread out right away to be able to salt them.  If you dump them in a bowl it will be harder to salt them uniformly.

Photo by: Me! (Erin Lahey) These were some pretty awesome fries if I do say so!

Once the oil is heated to 300-degrees, cook the potato strips a batch at a time.  Don’t crowd them too much, and make sure the strips aren’t stuck together anywhere.  Fry them for just about 5 minutes until they are just starting to cook, really.  You don’t want them to get brown yet, just softening up.

Remove from oil and lay on paper towels/newspaper to drain.  Don’t salt yet.  Continue cooking in batches until all your fries are done with the first stage.  When they’re drained and no longer dripping grease, put them into a bowl or something else and remove the paper towels, replacing them with fresh paper towels.  I find I can re-use the newspapers underneath just fine, though.  Next, turn up the heat a notch or two and let the oil heat to 400-degrees.  Once it’s hot enough, add back the fries a batch at a time and fry them until they are as brown as you like them.  It only takes about 2 minutes to get them to the way I like them.  As you remove the finished fries, spread them out well on the paper towels and salt them right away, before even pulling the next spoonful out of the oil.  When they still have oil on them, they will hold onto that salt better.  If you wait to salt them, the oil soaks in/dries off/disappears – I don’t know exactly – and the salt doesn’t stick to the fries so well.

Photo from everystockphoto.com taken by TheLawleys

That’s it!  When all of your batches of fries are browned, drained, and salted, serve with your Grill burgers.  And you just saved yourself a ton of money!  The secret to great restaurant-quality fries?  Soaking them in the sugar-water for at least an hour.  Double-frying them adds a nice touch and isn’t much trouble, but it crisps them up pretty nicely.  Enjoy!

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