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Archive for June, 2011

(Or, What I Did With My Pressure Canner Today)

 

Ages ago, there was a great sale on cryovac meat at the local grocery store.  Something completely ridiculous like a dollar a pound, for beef.  I bought a lot of it at the time, and when I say a lot, I mean thirty or forty pounds.  I figured, for a buck a pound, cut half-and-half with porridge oats (about ten cents a pound) and vegetable scraps from people food preparation (free), we could feed the dogs a whole pile cheaper than the premium dog food that they normally get.  My dogs get this sort of stuff (though usually freezer-burnt) as a semi-regular treat anyways, and they love it.

 

Now, my dogs are big, but not that big.  They are also better fed than a lot of people.  They could probably have polished those great hunks of meat in a week, but I doled it out, a couple pounds at a time.  The big chunks went in the freezer, to await their turn as doggy supper, and a couple of packages promptly made their way into the rift in the time-space continuum that resides somewhere in the bottom of that stupid appliance.

 

Hubby and I were cleaning and inventorying the freezer last week, in anticipation of new additions from the farmer’s market and garden, and came across about fifteen pounds of meat in the bottom.  I thought:  “Hey, what a great excuse to try out the pressure canner!”

 

I got the pressure canner ages ago, last fall, with the intent of canning up a whole bunch of produce, and I sure it would have worked really well, had it fit on our stove.  Note to self:  when building a house, watch how low you put the exhaust fan over the stove.  Fortunately, they apparently did not have over-the-stove exhaust fans in Saskatchewan in 1959…or, at least, not in this house.  Bad for indoor air quality, but great for canning.  I’ve got about five feet of clearance between the stove top and the ceiling.  Which is good, because the pressure canner is about four feet tall.

 

I am exaggerating, of course, but that monster really is huge.  It claims to fit nineteen pint jars, or fourteen quarts, in two layers.  It is about the size of a five-gallon bucket.  Unfortunately, Canadian canning jars appear to be a different shape than American, as I was not able to fit two layers of quart (1L) jars, but I can do lots and lots of pints (500 mL jars) at once.

 

My Mother In Law, who was raised on a farm in Alberta, wondered aloud why I would need to spend all that money on a pressure canner.  I told her it was for canning meat, mostly.   She replied that her mom had always just water-bath canned meat, boiling it for an hour and a half.  I know that was common practice, and my grandma probably did that, too, but a water bath cannot get hotter than 100 degrees, Celsius, and botulism spores can survive that.  It doesn’t happen often, hardly ever at all, but I have no interest whatsoever in checking out what botulism poisoning feels like.   Hubby, of course, has eaten venison that was water-bath canned by one of his Uncles, but I am just waaayy too chicken to try.

 

Anyways, I took a hunk ‘o’ beef out of the freezer on Friday, thinking it would take a couple of days to thaw.  The forecast for Sunday was cold and raining.  Of course, that was the forecast for Monday through Saturday, too, but I digress.   I cubed up the meat, and was quite surprised to find it only filled six pints, plus the bellies of two dogs.  There was quite a pile of trimmings, but luckily they did not go to waste…with these dogs in the house, I don’t need pigs to feed the kitchen scraps to!

 

I followed all of the instructions in the manual, which I read twice.  I checked all the gauges, fiddled with the lid, took a deep breath, and turned on the stove.  I have heard horror stories about exploding pressure cookers, including one from Granny that included beet juice on the ceiling and a bad scalding.  Hubby and the critters have apparently heard those same stories, as everyone was creeping around the kitchen on tiptoes, as though there was a live rattlesnake on the stove, that would bite them if they walked too close, or made too much noise.   I have an All American canner, which regulates pressure by way of a weight over a valve, and the jiggling and hissing of steam escaping drove the cats nuts.  Well, actually, it is a slightly annoying noise, and it drove me a little nuts, too, but unfortunately, I couldn’t retreat to a hidey-hole under the bed, as I had to supervise the process.   I wondered a bit about the stream escaping from around the lid seal, but apparently that is fairly normal for the first few uses.   It looked kind of terrifying, though.

 

Seventy five rather tense minutes later, I turned the monster off to cool.  Half an hour after that, I very carefully opened the lid, and retrieved six pint of well-cooked and still-boiling cubed beef.  It actually looks pretty tasty.

 

I know people do this every day, but I, for one, am pretty proud of myself…

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There are a bunch of thoughts I have been saving up, nothing big enough for its own post, but ideas I wanted to share.

 

 

Barn Pants:

The barn is…smelly.  In a good way – we clean it pretty regularly, but goats and chickens and cats have…aromas.  Aromas I do not necessarily want to be wearing to work.  Furthermore, chores involve a variety of filth – every morning and evening, we scoop the chicken crap out of the waterers, dole out several kinds of food to the various critters, pet and groom said critters, and milk – my aim is improving, but I still don’t always hit the bucket.  If I were to wear a fresh pair of jeans every day, we would be doing a lot of laundry…and I am pretty sure I’ve made it clear on this blog how we feel about laundry around here.  Therefore, Hubby and I have designated Barn Clothes, that hang in the entryway, ranging from somewhat soiled to totally filthy, and only get washed when it rains and the water is free.  For winter, we will be getting some coveralls, but for summertime, the designated clothing system seems to be working.  Just one more small way to conserve water…

 

 

Emergency Soup:

We have had a lot of storms here, lately, causing several power outages.  No power here means no water (cistern pump is electric) no sewer (ditto the septic pump-out), no lights (for obvious reasons), and no stove (until I get a wood stove, that is).   We have back-up plans for dealing with these things – we keep a couple of jugs of water on hand, for instance, and I have my trusty kerosene lamps.  Back up plans or no, though, these power outages are getting darn inconvenient.   The other night, we came in from chores just in time for a huge crash of lightning and thunder to kill the electricity…again.  We were cold, wet, tired, and hungry.   I had planned to make a quick meal of pasta and white sauce, and a cup of tea.   We waited around for half an hour to see if the power would come back on, but it did not.   We wound up snacking on cheese and crackers, but I was quite put out about it.  I really wanted a hot meal, but I could not justify wasting the time and fuel to dig out the camping stove and put a two- or three- pot meal together, and I was too cold and tired to think up anything easier.

 

Last summer, Hubby and I planned to do a long (week – plus) kayaking trip.  We taste-tested a bunch of freeze-dried / dehydrated camping food, but found most of it over-priced and / or inferior.  So, we bought a bunch of freeze dried and dehydrated ingredients, with the intent of creating our own meals for the trip.   I remembered those ingredients the next day (after the power had come back on, of course), and put together a couple of meals in quart jars – freeze dried green beans and celery, dehydrated carrots and onions, parsley, pepper, and minute rice – all we have to do is add some no-MSG bullion (I can’t tolerate MSG), and some boiling water – voila, instant vegetable soup!  I taste-tested a batch, and it was quite nice.  The next time I want a hot meal during a power outage, all I have to be able to do is boil a pot of water – just one pot, and no thinking necessary.  At the rate the power has been flickering here, though, I may need to come up with a couple more recipes, just for variety.  We are at the end of the road, and not a priority for repairs, I suspect, and it has been a bad year for thunderstorms already…

 

 

The Wayward Cat:

Earlier this week, we opened up all of the barn doors, and finally let the three new cats roam free.  We had been putting it off, due to inclement weather, plus various construction projects we were still completing – Stevie is a bit…tightly wound…and we were afraid the pounding and sawing would scare him off.  Sure enough, even without the pounding and sawing, Stevie immediately disappeared, and did not turn up for supper.  Bobby did not want to come back into the barn to be locked up for the night, but at least she put in an appearance.  We really want to keep everyone in the barn at night, as there are so many predators here – owls, foxes, coyotes, and apparently even bears and wolves, though we’ve never seen either here.   Today was about day four with no sign of Stevie, and we were beginning to give up hope.  We were feeling pretty bad about it, as he was a nice cat, even if he was a little sketchy.  Lo and behold, though, at supper chores tonight, who turned up but Stevie, hungry and a little ragged-looking, but otherwise unharmed.  Sighs of relief all around!

 

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Tonight, for supper, we had a crock-pot meal of potatoes, wax beans, green peas, a white sauce, and some spices.  For dessert, we had smoothies.  Nothing all that special, right?  Well, sort of.  The casserole was made from peas and beans we had picked at a U-Pick operation and frozen, and the milk for the white sauce and smoothies came from our goat.  The flour came from wheat grown by a farmer near Ponoka, Alberta.   The potatoes, we bought from the store, and the sweet cherries in the smoothie had been purchased from a fruit stand and pitted and frozen.  We had a hand in preparing more than 50% of the ingredients in that meal, and I could take you to the places where those things grew, or tell you the name of the farmer who owned the land they grew on.

 

Okay, so why does that matter?

 

Most of the stuff you can buy at a grocery store is pretty disconnected from your day-to-day life.  I can go to the store here, in Saskatchewan in June, and buy mangoes from India, mandarin oranges grown in Peru, spinach from California, and squash from Mexico.   I have no way to check if the fruit labelled ‘organic’ was really grown without pesticides, or of knowing what kinds of conditions my broiler chickens were raised in.  Fruits and vegetables no longer really have seasons, if you are willing to accept that those giant red-on-the-outside strawberries that were  grown in California in January using tons of fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation are more-or-less the same as strawberries grown in rain and organic manure and picked that morning.  There is really no comparison, but a lot of people don’t know that, because their Safeway won’t carry local produce – the local farmers just can’t guarantee to produce enough to meet the demands of the store, or the produce purchasing is centralized in Ontario, or whatever.  One way or another, it is rare to see local produce in the big grocery chains around here.  I suspect a lot of folks just don’t know what a strawberry really tastes like.

 

Besides basic issues like flavor and quality, there is the hubris and waste of using fuel to provide irrigation in the desert (California), and drenching the produce in petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, then using more fuel to truck the produce thousands of miles in refrigerated trailers across a country and a half in order for me to have an inferior fruit, out of season.  There are also issues of environmental degradation and worker justice.  Was the aquifer that provided your strawberry’s irrigation over-pumped?  Did the pesticides used on the field run off into a stream and kill local fish?  Just who, exactly, picked your strawberry, and what were they paid?  Did he have medical coverage?  Was he an illegal immigrant in a perilous working environment?  You simply have no way to know.

 

It seems irresponsible and unhealthy to eat this way, and with gasoline hovering around $1.25 per litre as I write this, I don’t believe it is sustainable, either.

 

Conversely, I have strawberries in my freezer that were grown without chemicals in Central Alberta.  I know this because I went to the farm and spoke with the farmer about it, and he explained that it was too expensive to get the certification as being organic, but he preferred to use organic practices.  I observed him hand-picking weeds and insect pests.  I saw that he used fabric netting and recorded hawk calls to keep the hungry birds off the strawberry harvest.  I crawled around on my hands and knees in the black dirt and sunshine, for nothing-per-hour (but with excellent medical coverage) in order to bring those strawberries to my plate.  I picked them in June, the actual season for strawberries, and they taste sweet and juicy, just like a strawberry should.  I also know they are not toxic, and that the people and environment were not exploited in order for me to be able to eat them.

 

The Hundred Mile Diet is based on the idea of all of a person’s food coming from within 100 miles (about 160 kilometres) of where they live.  The idea started with a couple from Vancouver who decided to eat that way, and who wrote a book about it, called, surprisingly, The 100-Mile Diet.  The authors decided, for reasons much like I just described, to source all of their food in-person, from within an arbitrary distance from their home.  They had some real challenges, and learned a whole new way of eating.   It’s a good book, and I recommend it.  It’s also a good idea, and one we are trying to follow here.

 

Now, we are not going to give up coffee, which is grown well outside our 100 miles, nor sweet cherries, or cinnamon, or oranges.  We might even buy California strawberries from the store during a weak moment in January.  We do, however, try to stay conscious of how our long-distance food was produced, and pay a bit extra to get organic or fair-trade when we can afford to.  We compensate by producing a significant amount of our own food, a kind of Zero-Mile Diet.  Back in Alberta, this was difficult, as we did not have a garden.  Over the years, though, I found several U-Pick operations and market gardens, as well as local free range eggs and grass-fed beef producers, and we obtained a lot of our meat, fruit, and vegetables locally and in season, then preserved it by various methods (canning, freezing, root cellaring) for eating later.

 

Now, we do (finally!) have a garden, as well as ten acres to forage on, a provincial forest nearby, and farmers all around us.   We have the goats, and the chickens.  We’ve planted fruit, nut, and berry bushes.  We have a huge pantry and a root cellar.   We will see how the gardening goes, but hopefully we will spend quite a lot of our winter meals enjoying produce from our own garden, chemical-free, with no worries about slave labor, toxins, environmental degradation, or wastefulness.  It will take us awhile to source the fruit and berries, as our own trees will not be bearing for several years, but I see a lot of chokecherries in our forest, and rose hips and wild raspberries, so we can make do for some of our fruit, as well.

 

This does take a lot of effort.  There is the mental effort of searching for local food, and the physical effort of picking, washing, processing, and storing your food.  It also takes some planning to figure out how much corn you use in a year, for instance, and where the heck to keep it all.   I traditionally spend a lot of time every summer and fall, blanching, chopping, packaging, freezing, canning, dehydrating, and pickling food to eat for the rest of the year.  There is also the effort of learning to eat seasonally – strawberries in June, and potatoes and pickles and squash in January.  We think it is worth it, though, to sit down to a meal of things we grew, or at least be able to know the names and political / environmental policies of the farmers who grew it for us.  It feels more productive than watching TV, and we find the time now, in order to save time, later, when all we have to do is open a package or three from the freezer in order to have beans, peas, and corn in our soup in mid-winter.   There is no way to explain the satisfaction of sitting down to a meal, and knowing exactly where the ingredients came from.

 

You can do this, too.  Even if you live in a big city, there are U-Pick operations and local market gardeners in the most surprising places.  Even if you just go to a farmer’s market and buy some fruit to make jam, that’s ten jars of jam in your pantry that are guilt free, better for you, and supporting the local economy.   Try it – it is easier than you think!

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We started planting back before the May Long Weekend (May 23rd), and had started seeds much earlier than that, but our garden did not get off to an auspicious start.  While the May Long boasted gorgeous weather, the following week, and two weeks after, brought killing frosts, and temperatures several degrees below freezing.  Some areas got quite a bit of snow in mid-June, be we had no moisture at all, and only the onion sets and potatoes came up for the longest time.

 

Then it started to rain.  And rain.  And rain.  We began to wonder if we should build an Ark.  The barn sprang a leak right over the Chicken Mahal, and we could not keep up with emptying the buckets.  It rained some more.  The barn cats would not come out of the barn.  It became a challenge to get to work, as sloughs started filling up and threatening to spill over the roads.  The frogs loved it, at least.

 

There have been a couple of sunny days, but not enough to actually dry anything out – just enough to encourage the mosquito population to dramatic new highs.  The sunny days have been hot and muggy, punctuated by thunderstorms that roll in and knock the power out for an hour or two, terrify the dogs, and move on after dumping a couple more inches of rain.   I thought Saskatchewan was supposed to be an arid province, but I digress.

 

Today, after a couple of back-to-back days of sun, we finally got out into the garden to take a look around.  I’m sure it’s been almost two weeks since we were last able to even walk in there.

 

The potatoes are knee high, and the onions are up and looking great.  There are slightly-crooked rows of beans, beets, carrots, radishes, and turnips, all with their baby leaves pushed up through the dirt.  The peas have several leaves each, though the plants are a little smaller than I somehow think they ought to be.  The squash, melon, pepper, and tomato transplants look unhappy with all the mud, but seem to be hanging in there.  No asparagus, though, not one single plant out of fifty, and one of the rhubarb plants is definitely dead.  The corn is not up yet, and I wonder if the seed has rotted.   Hubby may have to re-plant, and hope we still have enough time for it to set any ears.   The sunflowers are…completely overgrown with thistles, lamb’s quarters, and canola.

 

In fact, the most impressive growth of anything in the garden at all, is the weeds.   We have a very lush field of them, 85 by 95 feet, plus another 15 or 20 feet around the edges of the garden where our very kind farmer neighbours were especially careful to not spray the garden with Roundup, or whatever herbicide they are using on the canola they have planted all around our acreage.  We’re going to have to take a lawnmower through there, just to find the garden!

 

Hubby has his work cut out for him, and there’s more rain forecast for tomorrow…

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The new fence:

A barn cat (Bobby):

…and some goats:

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Udderly Exhausted

Well, the goats arrived on Saturday.  The names alone suggested that the seller was a cowboy of the Brokeback Mountain variety, but he was a real sweetie about helping us settle them in and getting us going with the milking.  We have no luck with the names we inherit with our critters, though – first, a big tough guard dog named Cherry, and now goats with names like Silhouette and Mysterious.  ReallyGoats?  Yes, really.  Goats.

 

Saffron, the milker, is quite a patient goat.  I have milked a goat, before…twenty years ago, as a teenager, at a camp.  Twice.  For about two minutes each time.  I did not recall it being all that difficult, but then again, it’s not like I milked that one from start to finish, either.  Our first round of chores after the seller left took about three hours. Poor Saffron did not like our milking stand, for starters.  It is high, so I can stand while I milk, and she found the ramp slippery.  She would put one dainty little hoof on it, then change her mind when she put some weight on it.  After half an hour of this, Hubby and I finally got frustrated, and helped her along, with me pulling from the front, and Hubby pushing from the back.  Both making all sorts of threats and promises.  It was quite a production.

 

Once we had her up on the stand, the real fun began.  Milking took about half a lifetime, and in the nineteen hours I was yanking on that udder, I managed to get about six squirts worth of milk in the actual pail.  I had milk up the wall, down the stand, all over Hubby and myself, on the tail of a barn cat who got a little too curious, and, at one point, up the nose of the poor goat, who was giving me one of those ‘aren’t you done yet?’ sorts of looks.  In all, once we got the milk back in the house and filtered, we got about a quart, which we filtered and put in the fridge for putting in our coffee and over our cereal in the morning.

 

Or, rather, I put in my coffee and in my cereal in the morning.  Hubby is still getting over the gag factor of having seen his breakfast squirting out of a couple of big, hairy nipples, on the business end of a big, hairy goat.  I forget just how little exposure Hubby has had to livestock, and sometimes have…unrealistic expectations…of him.   On the second day, I sent him to go get the milker while I readied the feed and cleaned the milking stand.

 

“Which one’s the milker?”  he hollered from the big girls’ stall at the back of the barn.

“The one with the biggest udder,” I replied.

“Neither of them have udders” he called back.

What?  I thought we only got one boy!

 

I went back to the stall, confused.  There was Hubby, feeling around on the goats’ chests.   Right where he would expect the nipples to be, I suppose.

 

“Um, honey, the udder is at the other end…”

 

It was like living in a Monty Python movie for a while, there.

 

We’re up to about a quart and a half of milk per milking, now, mostly because I am getting better at hitting the bucket.  Hubby now knows where to find a goat udder.  We’ve fixed up the ramp so that the goat will go up and down it with minimal fuss, and I can milk her out in about ten minutes, now.  Chores now take just a bit over an hour…thank goodness, since I still have to go to work in the morning, and this business of going to bed at 11 after three hours in the barn, only to get up at 4:30 to do it all over again was really getting to me.  I’ve been udderly exhausted…

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Yay for Hay!

I was expecting the goats sometime in late June.  On Monday, I contacted the fellow we are buying them from, just to firm up a delivery date, and he informed me that he is coming this Saturday, and oh, so sorry, he thought he had let me know about that.  !!!  While we have been working hard on the barn, and almost have things finished there, and the fence can be finished in a day’s hard worth of hustling, I had been pretty lax on the ‘what to feed them’ front.

 

You would not think that getting hay is a complicated business in a province that produces so much.  I thought the same thing when I wanted to buy a single bushel of wheat in Alberta.  Sure enough, hay is easy to find…in round bales.  You know, those 5-foot diameter monsters that weigh about 1500 pounds each, and can only been transported by semi.  The ones that you need special equipment to load and unload, or to move around your farmyard.  That would not fit through our barn door, and would have to sit outside, despite the fact that they need to be kept out of the rain.  Apparently progress has gone along without me, and nobody bales the little 50-pound squares any more.

 

I had actually been looking for hay since the day after we ordered the goats, back in April.  I had not been too worried about it, though, since I did have something of a back-up plan.  The back up plan being a small round bale, delivered in the back of a truck, from a colleague at work who raises cattle and draft horses.  Unfortunately, she is away on training for two weeks, and I had not spoken to her about it recently, as I had thought the goats were still a couple of weeks away.

 

Since Monday, I have been panicking.  I have posted urgent ads in several venues, asked around at work, and bugged friends and family.  No luck.  Yesterday, I was whining about the whole catastrophe to my physiotherapist, and she said:

 

“Wait a minute.  You need horse hay?  In square bales?”

 

Yes, please.

 

She left me half-naked, laying facedown on a treatment table, rushing off to catch one of the other physiotherapists who was just getting off shift.  I did not mind one bit, since she came back with a name and phone number for the only man in the area who still bales small squares.

 

The hay – 60 bales – will beat the goats here by about three hours.  I did not dicker on the price or the timeframes – this man is now our newest bestest friend.  We’re paying extra for our lack of planning, but at least the goats will have something to eat…

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