Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Gauntlet Strikes Back

This has been a strange winter. In the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in the area, and after Dude’s entire life here, we can’t remember a year that has been this difficult. Yes, we’ve always had sub-zero temps. Yes, we’ve always had heavy snowfall. Yes, we’ve had horrible, icy wind chills. But we’ve never had all three for this long. Blame it on the Arctic Blast, but we’re all begging for warmer weather and bright, blue skies.

Well, we got the skies finally. Today was beautiful! Clear skies, no fog, sparkling snow. So different from the last six weeks of grey and dark and fog and blowing snow. It started before Thanksgiving. Temps began dipping, and never quite going away. It was cold and miserable, and I was worried for the barn kitten who’d lost its mother and still hadn’t found the water and food at the front porch. I prayed every night, all night, that God would protect her until it warmed up a bit.

God protected her (she now lives closer to the house and is almost tame), but the cold didn’t go away. It lingered. It hung around. It dragged on. And on. And on. Pretty soon we were nearing Christmas. The first snow came the day we butchered the big pig; wouldn’t have been so bad, but for the icy wind that had us sipping peppermint schnapps in big mugs of cocoa while skinning the beast. But it was okay – it’d be gone in a few days max, and we’d be able to butcher the others without losing fingers from frostbite.

Nope. The second big snow happened a few days later. Dude and I went to Mega-City for groceries and appointments. Munchkin had the 4-wheel-drive at school, so we took the little pickup. Before we had completed all our stops, people were sliding all over the road and my blood pressure was going through the roof with fear of landing in a ditch or worse. It took four hours to crawl home (which normally takes an hour and a half). We saw major crashes, minor slips off the road, and huge lines of impatient drivers behind us as we crept slowly up the major grades (we later discovered we knew some of these people). Idiot drivers hugged our bumpers on slick roads, and one numbskull pressed his fat SUV nose between us and one of the idiots, while going 30mph through town. Crazy! We tried taking a side valley to bypass another big hill that we weren’t sure we could get up and back down safely, but couldn’t get traction and had to turn around. We went back to a nearby tiny town and followed a highway up past a lake – the kind where the highway is barely a foot from the surface of the freezing waters. Crossing a bridge, we found white-out conditions as the winds blew the snow off the lake and directly into our faces. I didn’t think I’d ever been so happy to be home that night!

Bones and Curmudgeon were home over the hill, but weren’t real happy about it. Their hunting cabin had frozen water, frozen septic, and lack of heat in general. They began visiting our place daily just to engage in necessary behaviors, like showering, filling water tanks, doing laundry and just using our facilities. And there didn’t seem to be any end to the cold in sight. We all began praying it would warm up to just freezing so the pipes would thaw. Much like the water troughs…

And then it happened. Just before New Year’s, we had a week of thirties to low forties. One day even teased us with low fifties. The pipes thawed. The horse and animal troughs thawed. The animals began wandering the property again instead of huddling together behind windbreaks. There was joy and celebrating and songs of praise for God’s salvation of our cold carcasses. Systems were upgraded, projects got done.

And then the cold hit again two days ago. We now had a good eight inches of snow, without enough warming to solidify it into encrusted mounds. The horrible winds started yesterday, driving the wind chill to maybe -15 degrees and blowing all the loose white fluff into the streets. Which, if you remember, is why we call the Gauntlet, the Gauntlet.

Ice dunes
Today was the first day of school of the new year. We borrowed Bones’ rig, since the brown truck is incapable of handling this kind of precip and no one seems to be selling a good 4-wheel-drive truck this time of year. Dude headed off to work in the jeep-ish thing, but finished early, turning back onto our road by 10:30am. Munchkin ‘s school called a 2-hour delay, effectively leaving her with only 2 ½ hours of one class and yet 2 hours of round-trip travel time; she was headed out about 10:30 as well. It was a blessing in disguise because a huge series of drifts had covered the cattle guard on the hill and the poor girl had gotten herself and the SUV stuck in the2-foot berm. Dude and Munchkin traded keys, and she raced off to school, only arriving five minutes late and to the amazement of her classmates and school administration.

Dude was still stuck and called Curmudgeon for help. The county road crew was out evaluating roads because they couldn’t get any of the trucks down to our area (were they plowing elsewhere? Were they stuck in drifts too?), despite assuring us they wouldn’t get to us for some time. They pulled Dude out and left. Dude turned around, called Curmudgeon back to cancel the help, headed back through the berm, and promptly got stuck again. He called Curmudgeon to re-request help. Curmudgeon drove up with his truck, backed up to the SUV to pull it out, and promptly got stuck himself. Understand that these drifts spread for 20 feet down the road.

 Berm vs Backhoe
So counting us 0 for 3, the guys managed to get the truck out and came back to get me and the backhoe, leaving the SUV in the middle of the cattleguard, blocking all traffic. The backhoe wouldn’t start, it being unhappy weather out there, and had to be put on the trickle charger for a while; this gave the guys some warm-up time, at least, and me some time to change out of jammies and into snow gear. The charge didn’t take. So Curmudgeon jumped the backhoe with his truck, and we let it run for a bit. Dude donned ski goggles and headed up the hill, Curmudgeon and I following behind.

Dude dug out the SUV as best as he could, with a blade that can’t turn sideways. All in a row, I moved the truck backwards, Dude moved the backhoe backwards, and Curmudgeon moved the SUV forward until we were all clear of the snow mountains. Dude stayed, continuing to plow out the cattleguard, Curmudgeon stayed to make sure Dude didn’t get into any more trouble, and I headed home to pick up Bones from the animal pens where she had been doing chores and get her into the house for heat and something warm to drink.

She wasn’t there. She was making snow angels at the top of the hill overlooking the long road in. I got her text saying this as I was peeling off gear, so I put it back on and drove out to fetch her, finding her just below the house at that point. Turn around, don’t get stuck, park again. Pretty soon, the guys were back and warming up too. It took quite a while to get the timeline of the day’s events all sorted, such was the chaos of it all.

The chaos made me forget that the horse trough is frozen over again, as well as many other chores like eating lunch. And with another week and a half of snow and cold, it looks like there’s no end in sight. Two more drivers must tackle the Gauntlet again in the early hours of tomorrow. Please, Lord – we’re ready for spring.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 Canning List: Twenty Percent Increase

giant red potatoes

I couldn’t have dreamed it, but this year I put away more food, tried more recipes, and wore myself out more than last year. In a way, I can’t believe it. In another, my poor body knows it. Either way, I need a self-help book for addicted food preservationists.

I started this spring with a new greenhouse gifted to me, and began to see visions of sugar pumpkins dancing in my dreams. Unfortunately the evil mouse king had other plans, and not much came of the garden production (that’s entirely another post). Fortunately, I had accepted an offer to help manage the county/regional gleaner’s program, and we had a great year! Going backwards through my text log: walnuts, onions (whites and yellows), grapes (Concords, Thompsons, and another purple kind), potatoes (Russetts and Reds), pears (Bartletts, Bosc and others), tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, apples (Galas, many others), peaches, bananas (store donation), carrots, cucumbers (lemons, pickling, slicing), squash (green zucchini, yellow zucchini, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, pumpkins), watermelons, apricots, plums, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, beets, blueberries (for a cost), cherries, and asparagus (for a cost). What a delight!
heart-shaped tater

What a chore. Minus a few of those items, I had a constant supply of work (as if the garden, animals, and farm and house remodeling didn’t give me enough to do). I had lists on every whiteboard in the house of what I had, what needed to be made, and what I wanted to make. The actual canning list for this year was four hand-written pages; you’ll see the typed version at the end of this post. It was hot work, and we ran the AC constantly. My feet would have been tired if I could still feel them; my ankles made sure I knew what the feet wanted to say. I did get burned a couple of times, but we have great burn spray so I don’t see any long-term consequences.

Munchkin was a great help this year, even canning for me when I had to go on another glean or teach Bible study. She still questions her memory of what needs to be done, and that really frightens her when it comes to the pressure canner, but I trust her. She’s more experienced at actual canning (not just helping) than I was at her age. Cranberry sauce is her specialty, but she helped with many jams, some fruit and a veggie or two, including some really good bread and butter sweet pickles – and I don’t generally like those! She’s also an expert at dehydrating, and I’m grateful she could take that off my hands in those crunch times.

cherry delights
Dude helped a bit too, usually at prep work. He was usually busy either working (imagine that…) or working outside (helping our helpers, building fences, putting in the irrigation, pulling weeds, etc). He helped by letting me focus on the food, and I’m grateful there too.

There’s still much to do. I failed in my first two gallons of apple cider vinegar, but my two little quarts are about ready to be filtered and bottled. The pork lard is still stored out in a frozen car, but we’ll have to get to it before it warms up. We’ve been told by the old-timers that you can store pork patties or links in it for up to a year – sounds like a new experiment. The peach, cherry, apricot and plum seeds are taking up unbelievable freezer space, waiting for their date with the extracting process – almond extract is my goal. There are still two trays of fruit leather I can’t remove from the trays; don’t know whether to keep trying or just drop the project. I think there’s also some apple peeling waiting in the freezer for apple jelly. And there’s mint and basil and parsley and rosemary and other herbs ready to be dried and bottled. I even have grape seeds set aside for extract, and dried crushed eggshells for my chickens’ calcium supplement.

Hot tallow
Always more to do in the canning kitchen, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Except maybe stretched over a longer period of time, with more drink breaks!

As always, there were lessons to learn:
Cooking the asparagus (blanching) makes for soggy asparagus. Next time, we’ll just pour the hot water over them in the jar.
30 pounds of blueberries seem like nothing when dried or frozen. Need to learn to ration them.
Ginger can be grown here, but isn’t as big. Preserving the store stuff is best for volume.
Banana oil is one of the best degreasers and cleaners on the planet. I seriously considered laying skins all over this old floor for a few days.
We need more practice at making beef jerky. It’s always so dry.
Cooled tallow
Beef tallow makes very hard soap.
There is definitely a limit on how long green beans are good in the jar.
Canned bacon can’t be used for typical breakfast strips. It’s only good for frying in another dish.
Fruit leather can really stick to the dehydrator leather trays. Must resolve this for the health of my trays.
Old canned jams make really good homemade BBQ sauce ingredients.
CURD IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS ON THE PLANET!!! It’s so sexy! (You tactile people will understand.)
I’m going to have to learn to make vodka if I want to keep making fruit bounce. Same goes for brandy and whiskey for those lovely canned drinks.
Honey must be processed to the consistency of candy in order to set right.
Dried Asian pears are still the best candy.
Last of the blueberry lemon curd
Watermelon chips are a close second.
Mini jars of apple cider work well for my diabetic emergency stash.
Watermelon pickles and Christmas pickles should be eaten – and canned – in small doses.
I’m not a fan of hot cinnamon, but Christmas pickles are yummy.
Storing onions in stocking (so they can’t touch each other) is a better tactic than braiding them. And you must have many nails and hanging places to store a significant number of them.
We’re going to need to eat a jar of jam a day in order to use all this up. Or give some away… maybe with the zucchini.
Raisins aren’t worth the effort.
Currants, though, are worth the pleasant outdoor experience.
Currants and wild onion
Carrot tops do not make good pesto, no matter what Pinterest says.
Chutney is the perfect rice topper for gluten-free visitors. The zucchini noodles may need more work, or a Spiralizer.
Cheesecloth isn’t solid enough to keep fruit flies out of fermenting vinegar. Coffee filters are a better choice.
Yellow tomato soup made from yellow crushed tomatoes is a fabulous surprise for dinner guests.
There are so many more things to be canned than Ball and Kerr will ever tell you.
Grape juice has a beautiful silky color that just brings joy to your soul. So does cranberry sauce.
Heinz ketchup can’t compare with what you can make in the kitchen from smoked tomatoes.
Grape juice
Canning French onion soup is a thing. A delicious, heart-warming thing.
Butchering in your kitchen is messy and tedious, but the full freezer is wonderful. Oh, and no pork product is worth the effort of growing it. Stick with beef and venison and bird.
Ginger might be my favorite condiment right now.
I honestly don’t know what I’ll do with so much apricot puree. It’s there just in case, ‘cause I never use it.
Having fresh herbs in the greenhouse makes herby fruit jams easy.
Making pectin is tedious and can ruin your stock pot. But it’s cool.
Dried cucumber chips don’t need as much salt as you think.
Forgetting the sugar in the plum honey makes for some really tart honey.
The annual canning of the peaches with the bestie is easier and more fun when both parties are healthy. Oh, and having the oven die mid-process counteracts that fun.
Chef, Dude and Parson cutting beef
Using pH strips makes testing for proper acid content easy, making experimental recipes safer.
Using everything (cherry pits, animal fats, tomato skins, peach skins, etc) requires freezer space and remembering to do something with it come winter.
Banana peels, dried and powdered, makes good fertilizer.
White potatoes store longer than reds.
Full shelves in the canning room is its own reward.

Mrs. Dude grinding beef
Here’s the list. Enjoy, and please use it for inspiration!

2016 Canning List
Jams, Jellies and Fruit Sauces
13 – ½ pints cranberry-pear jam
10 – ½ pints, 2 – 12oz monkey butter
9 – ½ pints, 1 pint banana jam
5 – ½ pints rum island jam
Munchkin trimming beef
6 – ½ pints rum island compote
6 – ½ pints Jamaican banana butter
13 – ½ pints carrot cake jam
4 pints, 13 – ½ pints grape jelly
10 – ½ pints, 16 – ¼ pints peach honey
9 – ½ pints red watermelon jam
9 – ½ pints orange watermelon jam
10 – ½ pints yellow watermelon jam
Parson, Curmudgeon (Waldorf & Statler) packaging beef
4 – ½ pints dark ginger syrup
9 – ½ pints caramelized pear butter
4 – ¼ pints blueberry lemon ginger jam
15 – ½ pints cherry apricot jam
3 pints, 35 – ½ pints, 6 – ¼ pints apricot pineapple jam

10 - ½ pints apricot curd
5 pints, 8 – ½ pints cranberry sauce
Dude and Curmudgeon cutting pork

5 pints, 12 – ¼ pints apricot raspberry ginger jam
4 pints, 12 – ¼ pints apricot blackberry rosemary jam
5 pints, 4 – ½ pints, 1 – 12oz cranberry sauce with honey
5 pints, 3 – ½ pints, 7 – 12oz cranberry orange sauce
25 quarts, 4 – 6-pint jars, 1 pint, 1 – ½ pint applesauce
4 pints pear sauce
12 – ½ pints, 5 – ¼ pints peach mint jam
5 – ½ pints peach vanilla curd
Dude grinding pork
13 – ½ pints peach orange marmalade
8 – ½ pints cucumber mint jam
8 – ½ pints plum orange vanilla rum marmalade
1 – ¼ pint plum honey
7 – ½ pints cherry lemon jam
5 – ½ pints cherry amaretto jam
14 – ½ pints blueberry syrup
5 – ½ pints blueberry lemon curd
15 – ½ pints blueberry cherry jelly
3 – ½ pints cherry-lime curd
2 pints apricot jam
2 pints cherry marmalade
9 – ½ pints plum jelly
7 – ½ pints spiced cherry jam
1 pint spiced peach butter
Curmudgeon, Mrs. Dude packaging pork
1 – ½ pint blood orange curd
3 – ½ pints grapefruit curd

Chutneys, Salsas and Other Condiment Sauces
3 pints golden gossip chutney (carrots)
3 pints banana chutney
16 – ½ pints bruschetta topping
6 pints peach tomato salsa
apricot bounce
15 – ½ pints anti-pasto sauce
14 pints, 1 – ½ pint pizza sauce
9 pints, 5 – ½ pints smoky ketchup
5 pints peach ginger salsa
4 pints cherry balsamic BBQ sauce

1 gallon, 1 quart dried bananas
2 pieces strawberry leather
3 quarts frozen cherries
1 gallon, 1 pint, 1 – ½ pint frozen blueberries
7 quarts, 7 pints cherries
1 quart dried blueberries
1 gallon, 3 quarts dried apricots
making apple pectin
1 quart dried cherries
18 pints apricot puree
36 quarts apricots
½ gallon dried plums
32 quarts peaches
24 pieces cherry leather
16 pieces blueberry leather
24 pieces apricot leather
2 quarts dried apples
crushed eggshells
1 quart dried Asian pears
3 gallons cinnamon-sugar apple slices
1 quart orange watermelon chips
4 quarts ginger pears
1 quart yellow watermelon chips
1 cup black raisins
1 cup yellow raisins
2 gallons frozen bananas
4 pieces applesauce leather
1 quart frozen currants

19 quarts, 1 pint, 2 – ½ pints red crushed tomatoes
7 quarts, 1 – ½ pint yellow crushed tomatoes
hmm... not labeled yet... bruschetta?
2 quart, 1 pint dried cherry tomatoes
1 gallon, 1 – ½ gallon dried butternut squash
1 gallon dried cushaw squash
1 gallon dried pumpkin
1 gallon dried asparagus
2 gallon, 1 pint frozen zucchini shred
½ gallon, 1 quart dried lemon cucumbers
1 gallon, 1 – ½ gallon dried zucchini shred
3 quarts dill lemon cucumber chips
½ gallon gluten-free zucchini noodles
2 quarts, 2 – ½ pints beets
20 quarts, 2 pints, 1 – ½ pints carrot rounds
7 quarts carrots

1 cup teriyaki beef jerky
24 pints canned pork sausage
31 pints canned bacon
60 lbs frozen ground pork
800 lbs frozen beef, mostly ground

Juices and drinks
8 quarts grape juice
5 pints plum bounce
3 quarts, 3 pints, 21 – ¼ pints apple cider
2 gallons apricot bounce
9 – ½ pints blueberry bounce with whipped cream vodka
4 – ½ pints cherry bounce with whipped cream vodka

14 quarts French onion soup
2 pints concentrated turkey stock

9 quarts, 1 pint, 16 – 12oz pickled asparagus
13 – ½ pints sweet zucchini relish
12 quarts sandwich-sliced pickles
14 pints dill pickle rounds
10 pints bread and butter sweet pickles
7 pints Christmas pickles
3 quarts, 24 pints lemon cucumber dill pickles
24 – ¼ pints, 2 – ½ pints watermelon pickles (Christmas seasoning)
8 pints sweet pickle syrup (Christmas seasoning)

1 cup dried ginger
3 pieces dried blueberry ginger
Approx. 10 gallons tallow
2 – ½ pints, 9 – ¼ pints apple pectin
1 gallon dried carrot tops
1 quart dried mint
Scant quart dried tomato powder
3 Tbsp dried lime zest
1 pint dried dill weed

Cellared Produce
A few hundred pounds of potatoes
2 pumpkins
1 butternut squash
Ten zucchinis crossed with winter squash
140 yellow and white onions, braided or in stockings

Friday, December 2, 2016

State of the Ranch 2016

A new greenhouse
Putting up the deer fence

So here we are at the end of year four and the beginning of year five. Much has changed and yet, I still feel there's so much we haven't accomplished -- there's still "this much to do."

First of the new flock
an overflowing greenhouse

Early this spring, I still had hope. We had new neighbors and we were convinced we were close to moving them in. We had a mutual group of friends who were willing to come out and work for all our good. We had plans and dreams and expectations.

our little goat herd
Five little piggies

We were given a greenhouse. It quickly became my quiet place -- a place to pray, to tinker, to watch life develop, all in warmth and surrounded by the songs of all the wild birds. I added an insulating layer of plastic, and filled in the foundation with rock. I sorted all the pots and then filled them. We all carted water from the trough out front of the house, knowing we'd soon have some sort of flowing water source available to the new structure.

The new puppy
new babies #1

Nearby in the garden, we began planting peas, carrots and radishes, and then trying to protect them from the deer. We built a six-foot chicken wire fence, topped with a twine line adorned with ribbon -- and it worked! But it wasn't completed until summer had already begun. We began building the gravity-feed irrigation system that I'd drawn last winter and posted on the hallway wall. The drawings didn't keep up with the changes, but we managed to get five of 16 lines built. We moved out two IBC-tote water tanks from the previous location of the two-seater outhouse to the top of the cliff above the cave, greatly increasing the water pressure. The solar pump worked well, and the ancient well never dried out.

new babies #2
new babies #3

The garden produced lots of leaves, lots of volunteer pumpkins and squash, a massive supply of fresh radish seed, some lovely little carrots, and lots of Egyptian walking onions. We'll try again on the potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, Walla Walla onions, and other forms of squash and viney things. There just wasn't enough time or money to complete the plans, and get all those seedlings out in the dirt. The old fruit trees were happy this year, though, producing enough wormy apples and pears to make some lovely batches of pectin. The plums were lovely, as always. The grapes survived being stripped before the deer fence was up, but didn't produce fruit, and neither did the transplanted black currant. We'll see what next year holds.

Thankfully -- and sometimes not so thankfully -- we also had a good gleaning year in our region. As one of the co-organizers, I was able to get enough produce to fill my canning shelves, store plenty of raw produce for the winter, and feed all the new animals. But I was worn out driving back and forth to Big Town and beyond at least weekly.

We have a creek?
new babies #4

We added five pigs (soon to be butchered), five goats (and two friends for a time), a second dog, numerous wild and tame kitties, 60-some chickens, two turkeys, and a horse and a half (one resident, one soon-to-be resident). All of this meant pasture and housing changes, new feed schedules, new work schedules, and lots of chaos. In fact, at the moment, the goats are sleeping in the lower yard with my precious blueberries, instead of being locked in their pen.

Elsewhere on the ranch, we discovered healthy red currant stands, a creek we didn't know about, and some very healthy fields of not only the wild rye that fed Hillbilly's cattle herds, but even more ancient wheat, full and nutritious-looking. Curmudgeon and Bones moved into their hunting cabin just over the hill. The Parson and his crew made great strides on getting infrastructure up, but still haven't been able to get housing in place. Squirrel and Jameson and their munchkins (Thing One and Thing Two) joined our little band, and have fixed both equipment and horses in ways we never imagined.

The Butt's soulmate
First prom

Munchkin opted to attend the regional skills school, her first venture into the world of public school. She took a two-week venture into automotive mechanics in June, working on her grandfather's old truck. Then for fall, she chose full courses in computer coding and welding, and is excelling at both. But she's now off-ranch for eight hours a day, five days a week, leaving me alone here with our huge to-do list. She attended her first two proms, and had her braces removed. Not such a Munchkin anymore...

Dude's employers literally cut his paycheck in half under some new crazy incentive scheme, making us completely uncomfortable financially. We'd love to have him home full-time or working a little closer to home, but we just aren't ready for that. But God has provided for us, and we're still afloat. Sometimes it's selling a few books we didn't expect, others it's a paid speaking gig or unexpected refund. Other than being perpetually exhausted and trying to make ends meet, he's had a decent year.
garden harvest

Hillbilly's old truck

I, on the other hand, have had a difficult one. Not only was I stressed about the busy garden, the unbelievable level of canning, trying to corral all the "cats" doing projects on the ranch, and watching my girl grow up before my eyes, but I had a car accident, a window accident, lots of illness, several minor injuries, and too much stress. As I said a few days ago, I'm burnt out. I don't think I've ever looked forward to winter so much -- not for the cold itself, but for the time off. And yet, I still can't sit... the canning room isn't quite done being organized and inventoried. I still don't have a functioning closet. The animal fences just aren't ready for winter, and neither are the water systems, frankly. I still have plenty of canning and preserving to do. And there's so much I'm incapable of doing myself because of the toll this year has taken on my body.

general ranch hilarity
Dude giving a presentation

So here's to year five! A year of successes, and not frustrations, of joy and not irritation, of forward movement and not spinning our wheels. Of working on that to-do list that always seems to tell us there's "this much to do."

Friday, November 25, 2016


If you know anything about the rural lifestyle, you’ve probably guessed by now that it’s been a busy year at the Ranch. If you know anything about me, you know I’ve thrived in that intense level of activity… for a time. At some point, I hit a wall. So here I am after Thanksgiving, just now beginning to think about writing again, and just now recovering my senses of humor and wit.

I’ll save the annual Ranch update for another week or so, and the annual canning list for another month. For now I’ll just let you know we’re not dead, we haven’t abandoned the project, and we haven’t given up on the blog… yet.

Never! Hang in there for posts from 2016...