"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Making Mole (Happy Birthday)

Tomorrow is Homero's birthday, and we are having a party. Nothing as huge as last year's - no Mariachis, no rented canopies - just a few families coming over to eat some goat barbacoa and drink beers around a fire. Homero will butcher Bambi, our smallest goat, tomorrow and give it to our friend Carlos' wife to cook.

I was surprised and a little hurt when he told me he was having somebody else cook the goat.  I had been poring over my cookbooks looking for some good recipes. However, I consoled myself that I would have plenty of cooking to do with beans, rice, three different salsas, aguas frescas, etc. I guess can I can get over the disappointment of not having to watch a giant stewpot full of goat meat all day long.

Then Homero began to fret that there wouldn't be enough food. I seriously doubt that - Bambi weighs about 85 pounds on the hoof and ought to provide a good twenty to twenty five pounds of muscle meat. Shred that up and it will make a lot of tacos. Homero, though, lives in terror that the food will run out, or that even if it doesn't, it might look like it could possibly run out and he will be nervous. He, like my mom, prefers that when a party is ended there is approximately 80% as much food on the table as there was at the beginning. So I suggested that I could cook a turkey (there's one in the freezer) and make mole.

Homero raised his eyebrow at me. He said "You want to make mole? You've never made mole before."

"I know that," I said, "but I think I can do it."

"Okay," he said skeptically, "but when my mom and sister make mole it takes two days."

"So I'll start today. If it doesn't work out, there will be plenty of time to go buy some."

Just in case anybody doesn't know what mole is, I'll do my best to explain. Mole means "sauce" and so it is.... there are many, many moles, and they vary wildly, but all of them have in common that they are a thick, smooth sauce made from a mixture of chiles, nuts, spices, and fruits. Probably there closest analog of mole in the American culinary lexicon is barbecue sauce - it's complex, savory and highly flavored, and everybody has their own secret recipe. Mole can be yellow, red, black, or even green. But what most people think of when they think of mole is Mole Poblano, the famous dark brown glossy version that contains chocolate.

I looked through my cookbooks. I looked up recipes online. I must have read through a half dozen recipes for mole poblano, and no two of them alike. Some contained tomatoes, others not. Some called for plantain; some for prunes, some for apple or raisins. All called for some kind of nut but in some cases it was peanuts, in others pecans. Other constants were sesame and chocolate, but in differing amounts. I decided I could simply use what I had and add one more variation to the theme.

Here is my recipe - although I will probably never make it exactly the same way twice!

15 guajillo chiles, 10 ancho chiles, and 2 chilpotle chiles. Break open and shake out seeds, reserving seeds. 

Toast chiles on a dry cast iron skillet about 3 minutes, turning. Do not let scorch! Put in a blender and cover with boiling chicken stock. Let soak 1 hour. 

Meanwhile: on same skillet, toast 4 roma tomatoes, one yellow onion (quartered) and 4 cloves garlic until blackened in spots. Get some good char on them. Set aside. Also toast 10 allspice berries, 10 cloves, and a teaspoon cumin seed and set aside. Toast the reserved chile seeds separately, until quite dark, and add to the other spices. 

In another skillet, heat 1/2 c. of lard. Okay, you CAN use vegetable oil, but I don't recommend it. Fry 1/2 c. of raisins, a cut up apple, and a quarter cup apiece of peanuts and pecans. Add three torn-up corn tortillas and a slice of bread. Yes, that's what I said. In the last minute, after everything else is fragrant and fried, add 2 tablespoons sesame seeds and fry another minute. Remove from heat.

When chiles are soft, blend well and then dump the blender into a really big bowl, and add ALL the other ingredients. Also add 3 oz chopped Mexican chocolate (or semi-sweet baking chocolate if you can't find Mexican chocolate) and 1 tsp. cinnamon, 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp black pepper. Mix well. What a mess. 

Working in batches, puree this big mess in the blender. This will work best if you have a heavy duty blender like a vitamin, but if not just keep blending. I blend each batch for a full minute on "ice-crush" and then dump it back in the same big bowl, stir, and scoop up the next batch. That way each batch keeps blending and re-blending some of the same stuff and it gets smoother. 

You will probably have to add a little liquid - use chicken stock. The final texture will be thicker than ketchup but not as thick as peanut butter. 

Now you can store the mole in a jar in the fridge for practically ever. When you want to use some, heat a little oil in a saucepan, add a cup of mole, and thin with hot stock to the consistency of heavy cream. Serve as a sauce for chicken or turkey, or cheese taquitos. VERY rich.

We had enmolados for dinner last night - just heat some corn tortillas and when they are soft, grab with tongs and dip in the mole. Fold onto a plate, and top with crumbled queso fresco. Makes a very satisfying vegetarian (almost) dinner. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Baby Birds (Wild and Tame)

My property is apparently the perfect habitat for killdeer.  I love these handsome, graceful birds, with their piercing calls and their swift, low flights across the fields in the twilight. They show up every year in February, and begin a months-long process of finding a mate and rearing young. They like to nest in flat, open, gravelly areas. For two years running, a pair of killdeer has chosen to nest in my sacrifice area, where I keep the horses. It has been delightful to watch the devoted pair incubating eggs - both male and female sit on eggs, and take turns guarding the nest - and especially delightful to see the tiny babies hatch. 

Killdeer babies are identical to the adults, but smaller, about the size of a golf ball. As soon as they hatch, they begin to run about, with that peculiar killdeer habit of running in short, straight lines and stopping abruptly, as though by a traffic light. The parents stand nearby, watching and, if anyone comes too close, pretending to be injured, dragging themselves athletically about and screaming, to distract a potential predator from their young. 

The nest in the horse pasture hatched out about three weeks ago, and the babies are already half the size of the parents. There were four eggs, but only three juveniles. However, there is another nest now. A pair got started late, I guess. This new mama found herself a supremely unsuitable nest site - right smack dab in the middle of my driveway (see above). When one of my broody hens nests in a poorly chosen site, I wait for dark and then move her, eggs and all, to a site of my choosing. Obviously I can't do that with a wild bird. The girls set up barricades made of pallets, instead. Luckily, killdeer are not much frightened by bustle and hubbub. Even when we (carefully and slowly) drive right by the nest, the parent bird only moves away a few feet, and then returns immediately.  I am looking forward to observing this new family. 

This year, we ordered 8 turkey poults. Turkeys are one of the more profitable animals on the farm - if I can keep them alive until Thanksgiving, and grow them out to a respectable weight, I can sell them for $4/lb, which means each bird is worth somewhere between $50 and $75. These poults, broad breasted bronzes, cost $6.50 apiece. 

Because I belong to the Gleaner's Pantry , I can feed them very cheaply indeed. I always start them off on expensive Game Bird food, but soon enough they can eat scraps, bread, and get out on pasture to forage. Last year, we lost two full grown birds to coyotes, which was a blow, but even so, the entire turkey operation turned a profit, and provided us with our own bird for the holiday. This year, we will have to repair the fences and make an effort to keep the predators away. On each bird that I raise to full weight, I can expect to make a minimum $40 profit. 

That's better than I can expect on a goat kid! 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Spring Swaps

Spring is a good season for trading. I have eggs, milk, and cheese, and am on the prowl for anything to make gardening easier, as I get stiffer and lazier every year. Here are a few recent trades that made me happy:

- A pound and a half of assorted cheese for a dozen big, vigorous raspberry canes. I am slowly turning my garden patch into a raspberry patch. 

- A couple pounds of assorted cheese for credit towards future pruning for my fruit trees. The orchard is growing - that part of it not mutilated by tent caterpillars, anyway - and will need to be pruned this coming fall/winter. This fellow is happy rot accept cheese all season long and keep track of what he owes. It's a bit of a gamble, since I haven't ever traded with him before and don't know for certain he won't just stop returning my calls as soon as I run out of cheese. However, I have so much cheese I can't possibly eat it all and so what am I really losing, here? I know I'm making somebody really happy, so that's a gamble I'm willing to take. 

- Disbudding baby goats for various sundries. Since I acquired my own iron and started disbudding my own baby goats, other nearby goat-folks have been asking me to help them. I can't charge for the service - that would be "impersonating a veterinarian" - but I am not averse to accepting a small gift in exchange for my time. First, of course, I give a long spiel about how I am NOT a vet; that disbudding is an inherently dangerous job; that there is always some risk, of infection or brain damage; and by the way, did I say I am NOT a vet?

After I am convinced that the owner is aware of and willing to assume the risks, I am happy to help. It only takes a minute and so far, I haven't injured or killed any goats. And as far as I know, none of them have grown scurs, either; I tell everybody that if they do, I will repeat the procedure, but nobody has complained yet of an incomplete disbudding. 

One lady traded me a few cuts of grass fed beef and two jars of home-canned venison for the job. Another, my friend M., traded me several pounds of shelled, organic pecans from her uncle's farm in Texas. I made curry with the venison and pecan pie with some of the pecans.

I have a long list of people waiting for cheese. I have suggested, in trade, such things as canning jars, vegetable starts, jams and jellies, or meat. People have offered me other things - some interesting, some not so much. I have no use, for example, for evergreen tree starts. But sewing lessons? Yes, I think I might just enjoy that. 

I love trading with my neighbors. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Homero's New Toy (the Craigslist Chronicles)

A few weeks ago, Homero made a spectacular find on Craigslist - a Case loader for under a thousand dollars, more or less in running condition. He has wanted a tractor for ages - he has major tractor envy of our neighbor, who has a small, spanking new Kubota with a loader and a backhoe. But the truth is that five acres does not a tractor justify, not unless you have some sort of intensive revenue-positive business on your five acres that requires a tractor. An occasional need to move barn-litter or patch potholes in the gravel driveway does not count.

Our neighbor, by the way, also has five acres. When he bought his Kubota, complete with field mower and rototiller attachments, he spent week after week going over his land, converting it fairly quickly into dust, which blew away in the wind or ran down into the ditches with the rain. We shook our heads, but what can a neighbor do? What is a friendly warning about erosion, compared to the seductive smell of diesel exhaust? 

Homero sensibly sold me on the idea of buying the Case by explaining how he would make a few minor repairs and then sell it for triple the purchase price. Maybe that will happen. Who am I to say? What do I know about the value of small farm machinery? Not a whole lot.  Meanwhile, Homero has been enjoying playing with the loader.

My brother in law brought a load of chips recently, which had stayed in a pile in front of the barn for lack of a way to spread them. Done - a neat, four inch thick carpet is laid over the muddy area. The barn litter, which I had simply forked out through the window into the old pig yard has now been moved over to the compost area. And best of all - the old compost pile has been turned and turned and turned again. 

Some of the compost goes back five years. I guess it can fairly be called topsoil now. Grass had grown thick over the top of the oldest mound. I certainly wasn't going to try to turn it by hand, with my creaky shoulders and my obstreperous lumbar region. There it sat, a four foot high mound, fifteen feet across, inviolate, until today. 

Homero spent the last hour of daylight this afternoon practicing with the loader, going over and over the compost, turning it and turning it again. When he was done there was a pile of beautiful loose dirt - black as a devil's food cake; moist, crumbly, squeezable, and absolutely heady with the smell of freshly turned earth. I cannot doubt that it will work magic in the garden. Somebody's garden, anyway - I plan to offer it for sale on Craigslist. Turnabout's fair play. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Three Easy Cheeses (From One and a Half Goats)

Polly and Iris

This year I have one-and-a-half does in milk. Sounds weird, but it's about right. Polly (black and white, above) had twin babies born early during a snowstorm that didn't make it. She is a good milker and is now giving me about 3/4 gallon of milk a day. This isn't as much as last year - she ought to be at peak production about now and I expected closer to a gallon a day based on last year. However, with the addition of the cow, the pasture is not as abundant as it once was; maybe I am not making up the difference with quality supplemental hay. It doesn't matter much to me - she has good body condition and I don't need to squeeze every last drop of milk from her.

Flopsy had a single buckling a month later, a spectacular spotted boy. It's nice that Flopsy had a single this year, because she is more usually given to throwing triplets, and as a "half a doe" she can't raise triplets. Years and years ago, Flopsy had a serious case of mastitis and lost most of the production on one side of her udder. If this were a commercial operation, we would have had to cull her. Luckily, this is a homestead and I can make decisions that aren't ruthlessly practical. I decided that since Flopsy is fertile, healthy, a good mother and a good kidder, and still capable of raising twins on one teat, she's worth keeping. Indeed, Flopsy brought in the only cash income of the year, with the sale of her flashy buckling. Flopsy adds about three pints a day to the milk total.

Iris didn't get pregnant at all last year - a first. She is the best milker I have and also usually throws triplets. I don't know if it's her age - nine - or the fact that she clearly didn't like last year's buck. She ran away from him and wouldn't let him mount, even though she was in full, raging heat. It's okay though -together, the in-milk does are providing me a little over a gallon of milk a day, which is a lot.

I have to make cheese about three times a week to keep up. This year I have been pretty busy with a new job and so I have settled into a routine of making easy cheese that I am already very familiar with rather than trying to experiment with tricky recipes. Here are my three go-to cheeses, in ascending order of difficulty:

1) queso fresco. Just heat a gallon of milk to 180 degrees fahrenheit, add 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar, and when the curds separate, strain through a clean cotton cloth. When drained, you can place cheese in a bowl, cut or crumble into small pieces, salt, and then wrap and press (in a press or under a stack of books) for several hours until firm. If you like, add chopped herbs or red pepper flakes when you add the salt. Good for quesadillas.

2) chèvre. Heat a gallon of milk just to blood temperature, no higher. Add mesophilic starter, 1/8 teaspoon and gently stir. Cover and let sit several hours. I like to add two to three drops rennet for a slightly firmer cheese, but if you like it very soft and spreadable, omit this step. Continue to let sit undisturbed for a full 24 hours at room temperature. Then drain through a clean cotton pillowcase. I like to hang my pillowcase up on the clothesline to drip. It will take several hours or overnight to drain sufficiently. Remove cheese and salt, mixing well. Takes about 1 level tablespoon salt per gallon of milk, less if you have drained the cheese until it is very thick and dry.

3) "cheddar." This is probably not really cheddar; it's my simplified recipe that I have developed over the years. For a gallon or up to two gallons of milk. Heat to blood temperature and add 1/8 tsp mesophilic starter. Cover and let sit undisturbed about 2 hours. Add five drops rennet and gently stir. Wait until curds separate into a cake with whey floating on top - about two more hours. Check for a clean cut with a thin-bladed knife. Make three or four cuts and then wiggle the pan - the cheese should separate cleanly with sharp lines. If not, wait longer, up to 8 hours if room is cool.

When you have a clean cut, use your knife to cut curd into small cubes - about 1/2". Heat gently to about 105 - warm bath temperature but not hot. Stir. Curds will firm up and whey will get clearer. Stir continually for as long as you have available - up to 45 minutes. Curds will become rounded, shiny, and firmer. Drain through a clean cotton cloth. Salt well, using hands to turn and knead for a few minutes. Then wrap in the cloth and press under firm pressure - about 50 pounds. You will need a press for this - a 50 pound stack of books is very wobbly.

Press overnight. Turn cheese and press under even firmer pressure - 75?- for another 10 to 12 hours. Remove cheese from press and let air dry (under cheesecloth to protect from flies) for about 2 days, turning once. Then cheese may be waxed and stored at cellar temperature. My oldest "cheddar" is now about 10 weeks old, but I haven't broached it yet so I can't tell you how it turned out.

It goes without saying that all of your equipment ought to be not just clean but sterile - use only stainless steel or tempered glass, something that can withstand being washed with boiling water. I keep a small pot of water simmering on the stove for my spoons, thermometers, etc. Only the cotton cloth cannot actually be sterile - but after each time I unwrap cheese, I wash it and wring it out in very hot water and then hang it up to dry outside in the breeze. I wash it again in hot water just before use.

Two of the above recipes use unpasteurized milk - that is up to your discretion. The recipes will work equally well with pasteurized milk. Just heat milk to 160 degrees. Boom, it's pasteurized. If anyone who might eat the cheese is pregnant or has an immune deficiency disease the milk MUST be pasteurized. Not to do so is to court Listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli, and other dangerous diseases. Even healthy, well-cared-for animals harbor these bacteria in their gut. I wash my hands!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Canning in April (Gleaner's Pantry)

My kitchen table was a housewarming gift from my mom. It is absolutely beautiful - twelve feet of knotty pine, seats eight comfortably or ten in a pinch. Here it is covered with produce from the Gleaner's Pantry today. Aside from the boxes and bags you see here, there are also three or four boxes full of animal food in the van - trimmings and waste, wilted lettuce and yellow greens and apples with bad spots and rock-hard bagels.

Everything in the photo above is human-quality food. It just needs a little love. The grapes, for example, might have a couple of shriveled specimens hanging on that need to be plucked off and thrown away. A bell pepper might have a crack in it, or an onion could be sprouting a bit. In a five pound bag of mandarin oranges, a lone moldy orb renders the whole bag unfit for sale. For the most part, I can't even tell why the food was deemed unacceptable for the grocery store - it all looks good to me.

Today I brought home a lot of food. The flat of tomatoes on the left is, as we speak, being turned into salsa ranchera and I will can it as soon as I finish this post. Canning tomatoes in April: imagine. Several loaves of fancy crusty organic sourdough bread are slowly becoming croutons in the oven right now, bathed in olive oil, herbs, and garlic. A massive bag of chopped organic kale is in the oven, too, and will soon become crunchy kale chips, a favorite after school snack.

Three heads of Napa cabbage will be kim chee. I'm going to chop it and macerate with salt, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes. Nobody likes kim chee but me; but I like it a lot. Fermented food is good for the gut.

Dinner tonight is cream of celery-root soup. There were two gigantic celery roots on offer and I have leftover chicken from last night with which to make stock. Celery root makes the most wonderful silky smooth soup, you hardly even need cream. I will be enriching mine with chèvre, of which I also have an abundance this time of year.

After everyone had taken as much food as they wanted and could carry, there was still so much food leftover! A few people who raise pigs took crates of produce and leftover baked goods. But even after that, there is still good, edible food going to the landfill, simply for lack of people to take it home and eat it. It's amazing what goes to waste because of the difficulties of logistics and our "just-in-time" food system.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Best Friend Goodbye

"My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today." - Watership Down.

Today I have a heavy heart. Our dog Ivory, who has been with us for almost fourteen years, since before my children were born, died last night. Ivory has always been a healthy dog, she has hardly been sick a day in her life. Even this year, people who met her would remark on what a beautiful dog she was, and when I said she was thirteen, they would be amazed and say how good she looked for her age.

Just two days ago, she was still dancing at the door when I went out to feed the animals, eager to accompany me and do her job as she saw it. However, we had noticed just lately that she seemed without her usual energy, and that sometimes she panted without having exercised. She had a normal appetite and certainly hadn't lost weight or anything like that. We said "maybe we ought to get her in for a checkup soon." 

But then yesterday morning when we woke up we could see instantly that something was very wrong.  For the first time ever, she didn't want to come out for morning chores. She wasn't interested in food or water. She sat up on her sternum and her flanks went in and out as she labored to breathe. The vet said to bring her in right away. 

I had to work, so Homero took her in. When I called on my first break and asked what the deal was, I could hear the sorrow in his voice as he said "amor, it isn't good." 

The vet took an X-ray, and it showed that one of her lungs was entirely filled with fluid and her heart was radically displaced. They aspirated the fluid, and it was blood. But not normal blood; it didn't clot. Given that, and her age and her breed, the vet said it was almost certain that she had advanced angiosarcoma - a common cancer of the blood vessels that causes disseminated bleeding in the thoracic cavity. 

I said "How can that be? She was fine until this week." But she said that it is actually quite common - normal, in fact - for a dog to show virtually no symptoms until the end is near. "They go along, compensating quite well, until all of a sudden the bleeding is too much and they can't compensate any more." Ivory, the vet told us, had at most two or three days to live. Her lungs were filling up with blood and she would soon drown. 

We talked briefly about further testing and options, but the vet told us that frankly she doubted if Ivory even had enough time for bloodwork to come back. There was clearly no option but for us to help her end her suffering as soon as possible. If we did nothing, her death would be very uncomfortable - in the words of the veterinarian "not gentle." Our friend and veterinarian Anne-Marie  helped us and provided the service of ending her life in a private and gentle manner.


We buried her last night beneath the dogwood tree. This tree is my favorite on the property - slim, graceful, and elegant, beautiful and delicate, it reminds me very much of Ivory. She used to lie beneath this tree in the shade on hot summer days and watch Hope and Paloma jumping on the trampoline. It comforts me to think that in the years to come, Ivory may actually become a part of this tree, and we may sit in her shade and remember her. 

Believe it or not, I have reached the age of forty-three without ever having lost someone I greatly loved. I suppose that is a blessing, although right now I think I would have benefitted from some practice grieving. I guess Ivory is my practice grieving; and long may it be before I have to put it to use. We are going to miss Ivory for a long time, I know. We will never ever forget her. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Smoked Salmon Variations

Homero has some wonderful clients. One of them works for a local commercial fishery, and has gifted us with salmon more than once. A few months ago, this fellow gave us a side of king salmon, a gigantic side of salmon, about two feet long. It was vacuum packed, frozen, and we stored it in our chest freezer. I had been saving it for a special occasion - we would certainly need guests to help us eat that magnificent filet - but no occasion was forthcoming and there wasn't much else in the freezer, so I thawed it out the day before yesterday.

The salmon dwarfed my 9 x 13" baking dish. Not quite sure what to do, I cut it in half, crosswise, and then cut one of the pieces in half. I put those two pieces in the baking dish and rubbed them with oil and lemon juice and baked them at 325. The other piece I cut into four equal pieces and poached, thinking that I would flake it and freeze it again for use in making salmon cakes somewhere down the line.

As the salmon cooked, however, it very soon became clear that this was smoked salmon, not raw salmon. I personally have never come across an entire side of smoked king salmon, which may be why I wasn't expecting it. I didn't know such a thing was possible; I don't know anyone with a smoker capable of such a feat. The salmon was lightly smoked, still soft, rather like lox. As it baked, it turned into something more like the hard-smoked salmon I make at home. It was quite delicious, but there was a ridiculous amount of it!

It is not possible to eat smoked salmon as though it were regular baked salmon. As much as you think you love smoked salmon - as much as I love smoked salmon - it is just flat out impossible to eat more than a couple of ounces at a time. I know this because I served the salmon to my family in regular-sized portions, along with a nice quinoa-and-spinach salad. At the end of dinner, we had approximately 7/8ths as much salmon as we did when we started.

Now that the salmon had been frozen, defrosted, and cooked, I could not very well freeze it again. I'd have to figure out ways of using it up over the next week and half or so. First things first - I called up a friend who lives nearby and offered her some salmon. She took a pound or so off my hands, so that left only about four pounds of smoked salmon to deal with.

Today I made a smoked salmon dip to bring to church tomorrow - that used up a pound or so. Tonight I may make pasta in smoked-salmon cream sauce. The poached pieces lost a little salt and smoke in the process, and may be mild enough to use in salmon patties later this week. And somebody on facebook suggested smoked-salmon chowder, which is a great idea.

Smoked Salmon Dip 

8-12 oz smoked salmon, flaked
1 pound homemade chèvre (cream cheese is an acceptable substitute)
1/3 c. kalamata olives
1 tablespoon capers
1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped chives (green onions are okay)
two or three pepperocini, finely chopped, with vinegar
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
spoonful mayonnaise
spoonful whole grain mustard
fresh ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Serve with bland crackers, such as water-crackers. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday Post from the Past

So I found a to-do list from about this time of year 2010. It's really funny how similar it is to the list I posted yesterday.

SUNDAY, MARCH 28, 2010

To-Do List: 3/10

In order of immediacy, more or less:

- Take a sample of Iris the goat's diarrhea in to the vet for microscopic analysis. She's had serious scours for four or five days now, and she's only eight days out from giving birth to triplets. This is the goat who had a hard time keeping the weight on while she was pregnant - I fed her and fed her but by the end of her pregnancy she was skin and bones nonetheless. She is a star milker - she produces well over a gallon of milk a day and in order to do that, she needs to be in prime condition. If she's losing tons of nutrients and losing hydration due to chronic diarrhea, well, that's just not a sustainable situation. I could concievably lose four goats - Iris and all three triplets. None of the other goats have scours, so I don't know what's going on.

- Fix the washing machine. It's broke again. I swear, I will never again buy a high tech, fancy-schmancy appliance if I can help it. I'm looking for appliances from the seventies - or better yet, the fifties - back when they made things to last. Go ask your grandma how long she's had her blender. If it's less than forty years I'll eat my hat. Even I, who am still under forty years old, had the same washer, dryer, and refrigerator for all fifteen years I lived in my old house in the city. I move up here, decide to buy all new appliances, and they've all broken down - some of them twice. Planned obsolescence. Please, industrial engineers, give it at least five years on a big appliance like a washing machine before it goes kaput. Less than that, and you just erode product loyalty.

- Fences. Oh my god, fences. Fencing is neverending. Never. Ending. The main culprit now is Poppy pony - she has completely mashed down the field fencing between her paddock and the main paddock. The fence is now about two feet high. I don't even know if it's salvageable, or if we just need to cut it out and replace with new fencing. And if we replace it, with what? What I would theoretically like is fences like my sister and brother-in-law have: split rail wooden fences reinforced with field fencing so it works for both horses and goats. However, they have a paddock about fifty by fifty feet: I have over two thousand linear feet of fencing. Homero could do it - in ten years. We could hire it done - for twenty grand. Solution eludes me right now.

- Buy more hay. The grass is growing now, but I don't want my animals to eat it to a nub before it really gets started. One more pick-up load of hay - say, twenty five bales. That ought to bring us into prime grass season. The last hay we bought was total crap. I sent Homero to pick it up, and he knows nothing about how to evaluate hay. It's not his fault. But if I had gone myself, I wouldn't have bought it. It's mostly timothy, stemmy, dry, and not a hint of green in it. We are basically using it for bedding. The hay we bought before that was fabulous hay - alfalfa and orchard grass mix, third cutting, green as grass. The goats tore into it like it was chocolate laced with crack cocaine. I want more of that.

- Garden work. Homero plowed up a gigantic garden and has basically ignored it ever since (a big "I told you so" is choking me right now. Gakh - Hack - Haaawwk- ok I'm fine now). Now we have a thousand square feet of garden space which is rapidly growing grass, clover, burdock, thistles, and blackberries. I have hand-cultivated and planted a few rows here and there - spinach and swiss chard, forty row feet of potatoes, some italian parsley - but the great majority of it is going to waste unless it is either planted or mulched, fast.

Oh there's most likely a lot more, but just writing this much has worn me out.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Work Pile

There is so much work piled up around the farm that I figured I had better make a list. Not that I'm likely to forget what needs doing, since it's mostly all of the variety that you SEE when you LOOK AROUND, but even so. Lists are helpful. Helpful in putting off the actual work.

Since the weather turned about two weeks ago, we seem to have regressed back into late winter. After a sunny, dry February, we have been not-so-much enjoying a cold, wet March. It's back to mud boots and puddles, and I am feeling smugly superior to all those people who gave into temptation and planted their garden a month ago, only to watch it all rot in the ground. I can afford to feel superior, because I have been those people, every year except this one.

Mud boots and slickers; gloves and hats are once again required gear for venturing out. So, most of the outdoor work has to wait for a dry spell, but here we go, in no particular order:

1. muck out the barn. The animals don't like the rain, so they spend all day in the barn, which means it quickly gets disgusting. I ran out of straw a week ago (subheading

                 a) get more straw

    and so the barn floor is a thick compressed four inches of poop and old straw. It will soon be too                 compacted for me to move, so either I do it soon, or add it to Homero's list of chores, which is far longer than my own.

2.  Repair chicken coop. This is actually a fairly small job, although difficult for me as it involves climbing onto a roof. We just need to pick up the shattered remains of the plastic corrugated roofing (blew apart in a windstorm) and replace with corrugated tin roofing - already bought and stored right in the coop itself. Without a roof, the coop is just a swamp and the chickens have been roosting in the hayloft. Which means I have to convince a child to climb the ladder into the loft to gather eggs about once a week. I no longer climb into the loft. Not until we get a better ladder, anyway.

3. Dump run of historic proportions.  Homero recently cleaned out his shop. In a big way. In addition to removing the enormous stack of wood and building materials that are all that is left of our cute little cabin (story for another day), he also removed approximately 7,000 hefty bags worth of trash and assorted refuse, much of which is stuff we stored in the shop when we lived in Mexico a couple years ago (NewtoMexicanLife.blogspot.com) and never brought back into the house. Mostly books and clothes, but more than likely a few valuable items like photos and journals are also now mouldering in the rain alongside the fence, which is where the 7,000 hefty bags are resting, awaiting their final transport to that great refuse heap in the sky. Or, you know, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 
4. Strawberry Patch - as mentioned above, I have done almost nothing in the garden this year so far. I have some starts going in the greenhouse, but no work has been done outside. A few days ago, a good friend gave me a trash-bag full of strawberry starts, and I would like to get them into the ground soon.  My garden space is slowly undergoing a transformation from a regular mostly-annuals kitchen garden into a perennial garden, full of raspberry canes, rhubarb, artichokes, asparagus beds (soon), and strawberries. Hopefully the rain will let up soon and we can get the strawberries into the ground.

5. Hoof trimming. Seems like it's always hoof-trimming time.

6. House projects - this is really Homero's purview, but my part of this work is to keep a running tab on what needs to be done; to budget for it; to gently remonstrate with Homero, and to prioritize. I'm not even going to go into that list here (plumbing projects, rot-repair, weatherstripping repair, etc) but just say that this list takes a psychic toll on me because I usually eventually have to threaten to call professionals and try to balance the relative importance of marital harmony against, oh, say, a working shower.

7. Fencing. I still have most of the cattle panels I bought last fall when we had some cash. We did the cheap and dirty thing by just using some of them to patch droopy spots in the field fencing. One of the larger projects that awaits drier days in actually removing and re-positioning all the cattle panels so as to make a real, continuous fenceline.

That's enough for now. Right at the moment, my regular daily work awaits - I need to move the ponies, milk the goat, and make dinner.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Nettle Season (Copycat Cheese)

Today was a beautiful unseasonably warm day for March. I think it was 60 degrees. We took the kids down to the beach, where it was warm enough for them to roil up their pant-sleeves and squish around in the cool mud, turning over rocks and looking for crabs and limpets.

It was more than warm enough for me to move some dirt around and plant some things in the garden - radishes, arugula, peas, even potatoes - but I have been sinfully lazy. In fact a large part of the reason we went to the beach is so I wouldn't have to feel guilty for not working in the garden.

Much easier than shovel-work is scissors-work: in the afternoon, after we got home from the bay, I took a pair of kitchen gloves, a pair of scissors, and a big brown paper bag and went out to the field to harvest nettles. In the past, I have usually used the nettles to make Avgolemono Soup, but this year I decided to make nettle cheese.

On the way to the bay, there is a wonderful local cheese maker, Samish Bay cheese.  They sell their beautiful cow's milk cheese at local farmer's markets,. and they are justly locally famous for their Ladysmith Cheese, Gouda flavored with Caraway, and Jalapeño Queso Fresco. They also have a seasonable fresh cheese, available for just a few months each year, flavored with nettles.

I adore stinging nettles. Well, let me amend that statement just a little - I love eating stinging nettles; I do not love accidentally wading into a patch of them in capri-pants. Stinging nettles are a wild child's nemesis - lying in wait along roadside ditches and fence-lines to attack the unwary. The merest brush of the dusty green leaves against bare skin causes a sting that lasts hours - not for nothing is this plant's name is Spanish "Mala Mujer."

However, the sting is easily removed by drying or by blanching for even a few seconds in boiling water. I put a full kettle on to boil, place the nettles in a colander in the sink, and trickle the boiling water over the nettles. Let sit for five minutes, then rinse with cold water and squeeze to remove excess water. Then they are ready to be used as food or medicine. Many herbalists consider the nettle to be a near- panacea (see, for example http://www.herballegacy.com/Vance_Medicinal.html) and I certainly can't quibble. But there is no doubt as to nettle's nutritional qualities.

Plus, they are just plain delicious. They taste like a blend of spinach and asparagus. They have a full, soft texture and a wonderful mouth-feel. They are one of those foods that you can feel make you stronger and healthier as you eat them.

Tonight, I am going to try making my own version of Samish Bay's nettle cheese. I am making my basic cheddar recipe, but in the second pressing I will add the finely chopped nettles along with the salt. Of course, I am working with goat milk instead of cow's milk, and also my cheese is made from raw milk whereas their's is pasteurized. I expect it to be delicious. I'll let you know.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

State of the Farm, Early Spring 2015

This has been, nearly, a year without a winter. We had a hard freeze and a few inches of snow way back in November, and several frosts over the months, but generally speaking it has been one of the warmest winters in recent memory. The local snowpack is at historic lows: about 30% of normal in the north cascades and less than 12% of normal in the Olympics and Vancouver Island. Everyone is expecting a protracted drought this summer and water restrictions.

Once again I have failed to make use of my several 275 gallon totes, which were originally purchased to store the spring rains for the dry season, for use in the garden. I still have not (after five years) set up a system to collect rainwater from the roof. Here's what I do have: a gigantic plastic cone, purchased from the vet for my long-gone standard collie. I'm thinking I can still set it into the opening on top of a tote and use it as a kind of enormous funnel. At the moment, the totes (those that have not been appropriated by my husband for his biodiesel manufacturing or for waste-oil storage) are sitting uselessly about, cluttering up the landscape.


This is just about the earliest spring anyone can remember. A wasp was blundering about inside the greenhouse shortly after New Years. I saw a honeybee in the first half of February. The first Killdeer's piercing cry was heard on January 31st (I made a note of it), and the choir frogs, known locally as Peepers, began to sing weeks ago.

Walking  around downtown some ten days ago, I saw crocuses and daffodils. One house, for an unknown reason advanced in springtime beyond its neighbors, even had a rhododendron in full bloom. 

Rhodedendrons are strange plants - I have a whole hedge of them, some fifteen completely mature bushes, and they are individually glorious, but I've never understood why their bloom times are so widely staggered. The first two, with delicate deep purple flowers, are blooming now, albeit mostly still in bud. The others - scarlet, white, mauve, and coral - bloom at odd intervals anytime between now and early June. It's nice to have an unending procession of flowers, but quite mystifying as well. Personally I would never have planted Rhodies - they are very poisonous to livestock - but I'm certainly not going to tear out a whole bunch of forty-year old, spectacular bushes. 

I was almost too late to prune the fruit trees. The buds were already swollen. You can actually prune at any time, it's only a courtesy to the trees to do it while they are dormant. Since I only lop off a few little suckers here and there (I am a very timid pruner) I figured I might as well wait until the juicy buds would provide a snack for the goats. After a long winter on a pure hay diet they appreciate the woody browse.  The buds on my orchard have not yet opened, but the ornamental cherries in town are a snowy mass of blossom. 

It is time to exert myself in there garden, if I plan to have a garden this year, which is something I have not yet decided. On the one hand, I have had some sort of garden every year since I was seventeen and I would hardly know who I was if I didn't poke a few seeds into the ground. On the other hand, I barely have time to wipe my nose after I sneeze these days, what with my new job (medical interpreter) and my volunteer duties. The Gleaner's Pantry  provides us with as much fresh produce as we can possibly eat. If it isn't as fresh as it would be from my own garden, well, neither does it require as much backbreaking work with a shovel. Right now on my stove there simmers a stew made with chickpeas from my pantry and kale, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and bell peppers from the Gleaner's. It is hard to justify the work and time to put in vegetables when I can have as many as I want for basically free. 

Actually, I have already started a tiny little garden. Two weeks ago, during the warm spell, Paloma had a friend over and she brought her little sisters. I amused the girls by bringing a half a dozen egg cartons out to the greenhouse and letting them fill them with sifted compost and plant a packet of sugar snap peas. They are just emerging now. In another week or so I will tear the carton into its component compartments and plant them directly into the dirt. I also filled up a couple of wooden planters and sowed them with arugula, which is already knuckle-high. Who am I kidding? There will be a garden here as usual. 

Let's see, other spring news.... I walked the pasture perimeter yesterday and saw that if I want to harvest nettles this year now's the time. Nettles are delicious - they make the most wonderful soup ((Stinging Nettle Soup (Wild Spring)) and I've heard they also make great pesto and tea, though I couldn't testify to that. 

With only one doe milking, I am not making a lot of cheese, but what there is is good. On the porch outside the kitchen I have a few planters full of herbs, and the clump of chives is up and green. To me there are few tastes as evocative of spring as green, oniony chives. I snipped a handful and chopped them fine and added them to some freshly made chèvre, and then I sat down and ate an unholy quantity spread on plain crackers, with red grapes. 

I love Springtime. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Worst Job on the Farm (Disbudding)

Meet the littlest baby goat. Flopsy gave birth just a week or so after Polly, who lost both babies
Sad Day (Breeding Gone Awry)) because we didn't know she had got pregnant so early and also because she can apparently hide twins in her belly and still look like a caprine supermodel. After that sad day, of course I kept a sharp eye on the other goats, and so we had plenty of time to lock up Flopsy in the warm, dry mama barn when she began to show signs of impending labor.

Surprisingly, she only gave birth to one baby, this fine spotted buckling you see above. Flopsy has thrown triplets more often than anything else, although her first baby was a single buckling as well, the inimitable Storm Cloud. It seems that whenever a goat throws a single, it is always a big buckling.  Iris once  had a single buckling, Clove, who was so big and vigorous he was trying to stand up before he was all the way out.

It may be that this little guy is our only baby goat this year. If Iris is pregnant it will be quite a while yet - she is thin and shows no udder development at all. At nine years old, her fertility may be declining, which is fine by me. Iris has given us many beautiful babies over the years and produced an awful lot of milk. She has earned her retirement. I don't mind if we don't get more babies - the market for goats has been poor for years now, and we often end up eating them instead of selling them. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it wouldn't bother me to take a year off from butchering.

I'm going to try to sell this little fellow as an intact buck. He has a fair chance, I think, because of his lovely spots. If I knew for certain he were destined to be a meat animal, I wouldn't bother with disbudding him, but there is absolutely zero chance anyone will buy a buck with horns. Nor should they; a full grown horned buck would a dangerous animal during rut season. So, today we disbudded him.

Disbudding baby goats is a terrifying procedure carried out with a red-hot iron (or actually, copper, as seen on the model above). I used to pay the veterinarian to do it under anesthesia, but that became prohibitively expensive as the price I could get for baby goats declined. Also, the vet killed one of my babies by accident ( This One Really Hurts (Bad Year for Baby Goats)) and I figured if anybody is going to kill one of my babies, it might as well be me.

Homero built me a kid-containment box out of an old bookshelf and I bought a disbudding iron off the internet. Last year I borrowed a friend's iron just to see if I could handle the procedure, and it turns out I can. It's horrible, but I can do it. Last year I disbudded three babies and they all turned out fine - no brain damage - and as far as I know they never grew any scurs, either. This year's baby buckling is now disbudded and back with his mama, seemingly none the worse for the experience. I'll watch him carefully and check him early in the morning for any signs of brain injury, but I think I have successfully added disbudding to my list of farm tasks that I can competently do, unpleasant as it is.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Seed Catalogue Season (Plant Porn)

My daughter Rowan started a garden a few years ago; a big garden, with the idea that she would have a booth at the local farmer's market. She got a business license and called it "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest." Yes, I know that name is already taken. I told her that - I have the cookbook - but she didn't care. And it doesn't matter, because her business has never actually advanced as far as selling anything. Pretty much all the success has been on the supply side, so far, not so much on the demand side.

One of the consequences of having an actual gardening business, even if it has yet to make a penny, is that you get dozens of seed catalogues in the mail. January is prime seed catalogue season; so far I think we have received somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen or twenty. Rowan and I both love seed catalogues - really, what gardener does not? Such a wealth of possibility, so much fun imagining the ultimate garden that this year - this year! - will be a reality. I'm sure some people get the same satisfaction leafing through Architectural Digest imagining their dream home, or Vogue, imagining their impossible wardrobe. I could care less about clothes or decor - give me plant porn.

While we were in Mexico, Rowan used my garden space and greenhouse, and when we came back she moved her garden to a friend's house. This year, we've decided to both use the garden space and greenhouse here at the house. Lord knows, I don't make full use of it. I'm sure there's enough room for both of us. We have a 10 x 12 greenhouse with shelves and a fenced garden area of about 800 square feet, or enough room for ten or twelve long beds. Last year I used four of the beds. Maybe together we can put the whole space to use.

Rowan and I have differing ideals, as well as differing abilities, when it comes to gardening. I have the time and the money; she has the muscle and the energy. She wants to grow a wide variety of interesting and beautiful, unusual edibles, such as purple pole beans and cheddar-cheese cauliflower. She looks for weird and rare varieties of garden staples, such as the beautiful Peacock Broccoli or the wonderfully named Frizzy Headed Drunken Woman Lettuce. Her main priorities in choosing a plant are beauty, oddness, and "wow factor." I have different ideas.

Seattle recently launched a very cool and innovative vision - the Food Forest . If you haven't heard of it, the idea is to grow a whole bunch of trees and shrubs, bushes and other hardy perennials that can provide food for local gatherers and foragers free of cost. I think this idea may have been a natural one in an area that so amply provides the wonderful hardy (if invasive) perennial the Himalayan Blackberry. Most Seattleites are accustomed to harvesting berries from roadsides and parking lots every August, and some of them (like me when I lived there) are not averse to seeking out neglected apple or plum trees and helping ourselves. I love the idea of the Food Forest and I hope it flourishes.

On my own five acres, I'd like to eventually have something similar. I want to create a habitat for as many edible perennials as I possibly can. Mainly because once established, a perennial garden is WAY less work than an annual garden. So far, I have a pretty good orchard, two healthy rhubarb plants, a nice little strawberry patch, and a thriving if small raspberry patch. And of course there are the wild perennials - blackberries, mushrooms, dandelion, nettle, dock, thistle, and clover. All harvestable edibles which we take advantage of to one degree or another. Here are a few perennials I'm still missing which I'd like to establish:

- an asparagus bed. In one of those catalogues above there is a special deal - 15 asparagus crowns for only $7.00. I have not planted asparagus yet because I don't want to wait three years to start harvesting it - but by that logic I never will. So this is the year. I will give over one of the garden beds to asparagus permanently.

- grapes. I've tried grapes here twice before and they have died each time, but that's because a certain male person who shall remain unnamed repeatedly mowed the vines down with the weedeater. I'm going to try one more time - I'll use a locally adapted variant of the Concord called the Lyn-Blue. It's an eating and juice grape, but I don't much care about the eating quality because my main interest is in the leaves.

- hazelnuts. I have one thriving and beautiful hazelnut bush which flowers abundantly every year but which never produces any nuts. Obviously it needs a pollinator, but that is hard to come by as I don't know what variety my bush is. I'll have to buy two or three separate varieties of hazel and plant them all; that will assure that one of them at least will fertilize my well-grown bush. I hope.

- plums. Similar issue with a lovely Greengage Plum I planted years ago and which flowers every year but which has never set a single plum. I need top look up what the pollinator is and plant one.

I also have a yen for a few non-edibles this year. Looking through the catalogues, there are some great deals on trees - trees which do not produce food but which are still beautiful. We have a severe lack of trees on the property and personally I think it is the civic duty of everyone who has room to plant a few trees for posterity. I'm gong to try a couple of big old fashioned weeping willows and a couple of paper-white birches. And, of course, this year's Christmas Tree.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sad Day (Breeding Gone Awry)

A likely looking buckling: Storm Cloud
To keep a buck or not to keep a buck is one of the major questions I struggle with. There are advantages and disadvantages to keeping your own buck  (see, for example,The King Must Die (Goat Breeding and Divine Kingship)) but the main advantage is not having to frantically search for a buck to rent every year, which can be a major hassle ( New To Farm Life: Unwelcome Drama in the Goat Breeding ...).  Accordingly, I have usually kept a buck around.

The next question is whether or not to let your buck run with the herd. Most goat folks will say not to do this, and after the story I am about to tell you, I have to agree. I have changed my mind. I always let my bucks run with the herd, truthfully because my fences have not been up to the task of keeping them separate. A buck who wants to get at does in heat is a very difficult animal to contain. Some people say a buck will harass the does until they are thin and sick; or that he will keep breeding a pregnant doe until she aborts. I haven't noticed that to be the case with my bucks. What any buck WILL do, however, is breed a doe at the earliest possible chance.

Nubians are generally seasonal breeders, meaning that they will not go into heat until the days begin to get shorter and the nights to get cooler, usually in early September around these parts. But if a doe goes in to heat early for some reason, no buck is going to stand around metaphorically twiddling his thumbs. He's going to blubber and pee on himself and strike ridiculous poses and breed that doe the second she'll stand still for it. And apparently, Polly went into heat in July this past summer.

The reason that you don't want your does pregnant in July - if you live in a place with wet, cold winters - is that you don't want baby goats born in January. They have a distressing tendency to die. Especially if the weather has been very wet and chilly. And most especially if you weren't expecting them, and therefore were not able to pen the mama goat up in the dry barn, and instead she gave birth in the middle of the night in the cold wet pasture. Then what will happen, 9 times out of 10, is that when you go outside to do the chores, you will find a couple of dead kids and a mama goat with a drum-tight udder.

Which is what happened here last friday. Homero found them. Twins; a buck and a doe, beautifully spotted and perfect, but cold, flat, and dead. I'm certain the poor little things were born live and just never stood up to nurse. If I had been there, they would almost certainly both be alive. I felt just awful - this is my fault for being lazy and slack about fencing, and not keeping good notes about when my does were bred, and not keeping close tabs on the mama goats regarding signs of pregnancy. Although to be fair to myself, it is often very difficult to tell when these large bodied Nubians are pregnant until the udders fill up a day before kidding.

It also so happened that when Homero came inside to tell me about the babies, I was just finishing up packing for a long-weekend vacation we were taking to Victoria. For the first time in years, we were all going together, all five of us. I had arranged for friends to take the dogs and we were simply going to leave the large animals with extra hay and water. There would be nobody at home at all to care for Polly.

Polly was fine - the birth didn't seem to be hard on her at all - but she would lose her milk if no-one milked her. Of course we didn't want her to lose her milk for OUR sake - that would make this breeding season a dead loss - but I was also worried about just leaving her to dry up on her own, without supervision. The vet said, when I called, that most times they will dry up just fine on their own, but they should always be watched for signs of mastitis. We were supposed to leave to go catch the boat in just a few hours, and the tickets were non-refundable (of course).

Desperate, I put the word out on the Facebook Farmer's group. I said I know it was an insane request, but I had to try - could anybody take my goat for a few days and keep her in milk for me? To my surprise and relief, no fewer than three other goat owners offered within minutes. My neighbor M., who was already caring for my elderly dog, was one of them. So we bundled the goat, the stanchion, and a bag of alfalfa pellets into the van and brought them all over, gave her a crash-course in milking, and thanked her profusely. Then we went to Victoria and had a perfectly lovely time.

I bitch a lot about technology but it really is wonderful to be part of this Facebook group of local farmers and neighbors. Ten years ago I would have been shit out of luck, and would have stayed home milking my goat while my husband and kids went to the Royal B.C. museum and the bug zoo without me. Being part of this community is a privilege and a responsibility - surely it is my turn next to help in any goat-related emergencies.