Monday, December 31, 2007

Seed Saving, Part 2


Now that the holidays are mostly over, we're getting into that long stretch of winter. I was the happy recipient of some old peanut butter yesterday. We cleaned out the cupboards at my grandmother's house and got old nuts, fruit, seeds, and some lard, so I think I have all the stuff I need to make suet cakes again. As if I didn't have enough things to feed already, yesterday I took the deer block my mom gave me for Christmas down into the field below the house. It weighed 25 pounds, and I should have put it in my packback, because today my arms are sore from carrying it. I'll need to go and peek in a few days to see if anything has found it. I saw a wild turkey the other day, and I know there are still deer down there.

On Christmas morning, we saw about an eight or nine point buck the size of a cow just a couple miles from the house, and there are lots of tracks out back. Those hunters are slacking! I like the new combined deer season because the hunting season gets over and done with sooner and I don't worry so much about going out in the woods, but it seems like fewer people are hunting and fewer people are getting deer. I know a lot of people think hunting is cruel, but I'd much rather see a deer on someone's table than have to wrestle the dogs off deer carcass all winter long if when one dies out back. And I really, really am in favor of anything that get people up and out of their houses doing something active and real. Espcially if it involves making people appreciate the outdoors and also participate in getting their own food.

People always think it's a little funny that the first day of deer season in Pennsylvania is like a holiday. There is no school, and I made the mistake this year of thinking the farm co-op would be open on the first day of deer! I also remember that in sixth grade, as part of science class everyone at my elementary school took the hunters' safety course. If you think about it, it was a good idea because to hunt at that age, you needed the course, and, also a little firearms safety never hurt anyone. It wasn't like they actually did in class demonstrations.

For me, this is a really exciting time of year. The seed catalogs are coming! I lived in an apartment for the first ten years of my adult life, and some times it seemed like I would never get out. I kept a few houseplants and a little herb planter on the porch, but I always loved gardens. When I was a kid and we lived in a house with a big yard, my mom always grew flowers, and we had a lots of different gardens. Shade gardens, annuals, perennials, bulbs. We usually didn't bother with vegetable gardens. Though we did have a really nice old fashioned berry patch with gooseberries, currants, and rhubarb. The college where I went had a lot of amazing gardens which were tended by a retired English professor who showed up in lots of different classes to talk about the art of garden design. I was always very interested, as I had grown up in a gardening family, but I never had the opportunity to do any gardening for a long, long time after I was out of school.

When we moved to our place out of town, it was in the middle of summer and too late to plant anything. There were a lot of established herb patches, asparagus, some raspberries and currants, and a blackberry patch that bore really well. I was able to make a lot of blackberry jam that year, but that was about it. It took a lot of work just to "reclaim" some of the gardens that year, and the following spring, which is unbelievably three years ago this coming spring, I started a new strawberry patch, and planted a vegetable garden for the first time in the established garden up near the house.

This year, at the end of the season, I kind of dived head first into saving seeds from my heirloom varieties. I've been reading a little about it since I actually collected my seeds, and I'm kind of worried about cross pollination.

In the first place, the book that I was using as a guide just said, don't allow it, and didn't say why and also just had a section of cross pollination and didn't really mention it again except in a chart that said what would cross pollinate. If anyone is interested, the book is Seed Sowing and Saving by Carole B. Turner, and it's a really good book. It has a lot of information about how to handle seeds like cold treatment and how to test for germination and things like that. It even says how to make your own hybrids by hand pollination and has a great list of open pollinated seeds and sources.

To find out more about cross pollination and whether or not I should worry about the seeds I collected at the end of the season, I turned to a different book: Heirloom Country Gardens by Sarah Wolfgang Heffner. Now, Sarah explains cross pollination a little better, and also includes in a section on each type of vegetable how to avoid it. This is very useful, as there are really big differences between how different plants need to be treated if you are trying to save a particular variety for seed. Different varieties of tomatoes for instance, need to be kept only about twenty feet apart, and they probably will be safe from cross pollination. Peas need to be kept only five to ten feet apart. There are four varieties of squash, and within those varieties, they will cross pollinate, but not without. Unfortunately, just about every kind of pumpkin or squash or gourd that is common is Curcurbita pepo, meaning seemingly very different things like pumpkins, summer squash, and gourds will all cross pollinate, and the seeds are no longer pure. Sarah Wolfgang Heffner, who is not dramatic about other things, suggests that if you are growing squash specifically to propagate a particular seed variety, plant only one a year to ensure the seed remains pure.

There are some kind of fun facts in the Heirloom Country Gardens book, too. Carrots and onions are biennial seeders, meaning they will only bloom and make seed the second year. They need to be dug up in fall and replanted in spring, and if you are saving onions for seed, you can only plant one kind or they will definitely cross polllinate. And the onion has to be a mile away from other varieties to absolutely ensure seed purity! Also, though peppers really only need about five feet apart between varieties, if a bell pepper does cross pollinate with a hot pepper, the hot taste is dominant, so you can end up with hot bell peppers.

Now, I was not careful last year about keeping my bean plants away from each other, but even Mrs.-Super-Cautious Carole B. Turner says bean plants only need limited isolation. I saved Kentucky Wonder bush bean seeds and green and yellow French beans. The Kentucky Wonders are first year, but the French beans were grown from seeds I saved two summers ago. I might have some concerns for my tomatoes, which were planted even more freely than I usually do things, and my bell peppers were definitely planted really close to my salsa peppers. And I'm still looking for a good answer on my watermelons. I have a lot of seed from sun, moon, and stars watermelons which I planted mixed in with some funny French melons which were not even in the same species or genus. Most books just say "melon", so I don't know what is going to grow, if anything, if I throw those melon seeds in the ground.

In the middle of rounding up my million and a half seed catalogs -- I'm a heavy user, all the seed companies want me! -- I've been getting ready to test the seeds I did save to see what I need to order and what I can try and grow from saved seed. Seed testing is kind of fun, because it is almost like that wonderful time just thirteen short weeks from now. That would be eight weeks before the predicted last frost when seed starting starts!

Testing seeds is a pretty simple process, and like anything to do with gardening, labeling and documentation makes things even easier. First, pick out the seed and count out a good number of them. I usually go between fifteen and twenty, but I'm testing ground cherry seeds this week, and they are tiny and slow germinators so I picked out fifty of those. I use tin foil cookie sheets as a work surface, but real cookie sheets, cake pans or even a plate or a dish will do, but it should be waterproof. Get a paper napkin or paper towel and lay the seeds out neatly. You can draw grids on the towel and count the grids and just put one seed per space if you don't want to count seeds, but I like counting seeds. Make sure you label what it is you are testing and you should really put the date on, also. Cover the seeds with another layer of paper towel and mist with water from a squirt bottle. Cover the seeds with a sheet of plastic wrap and place them in a warm, light area. I live in Northwestern PA, and there is no warm, light area, at least not until the middle of May or so, so I use a shoplight with a grow lamp that I just clamp into place wherever, a few feet above the trays of seeds I'm testing.

Keep up with this set up fir about three weeks and note the number of seeds that germinate. At the end of the period, you need to do a little math, but it's okay! Devide the number of seeds that actually did something by the number of seeds that were tested. This will give you a percentage. If fifty per cent or more grew, you are in good shape. If anywhere from fifty to twenty five per cent germinated, you might want to sow a little thicker than you normally would to make up for the number of seeds that will not germinate. If fewer than twenty five per cent of the seeds germinated, you should probably toss those out and start over with purchased seed.

Some seeds need special treatment before they will germinate. Most of the time, that means they need to be exposed to cold for a period of time. Generally, these are flower or herb seeds that if they were growing in the wild, they would just get dropped on the ground. If the seeds germinated directly, they would be used up before winter. Since I like to touch on "useful" as opposed to "pretty" plants, I'll just mention that bee balm and echinecea both need to be chilled before they will germinate. To do this, you can package up the seeds and actually bury them in a trench for the winter, or refrigerate them for a few weeks. You can cold treat (also called "stratification") right when you plant by getting the seeds into flats and getting the planting medium nice and damp. Cover this with plastic and refrigerate the whole thing. In the interests of not filling the entire refrigerator with seeds flats, a basement window or stairway blocked off from the heat will do the trick, and I stratified polygonum on a shelf in the garage for a month or so in the spring, and that worked very well.

I saved quite a few alpine strawberry seeds which need to be kept in the freezer for about four to six weeks before they will grow. The Polygonum -- also called "Prince's Feather" or "Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate" -- is just a tall, strange flower that looks neat planted next to the snake rail fence in a little area which is starting to become the tall, strange plant garden, apparently. I mention it here because it needs both scarfied and stratified. That means, the seed coating needs to be sanded (with sandpaper) before it gets planted and chilled. Think of the seed getting eaten by a bird in the fall, passing through the bird, and sitting somewhere chilly all winter.

Right now, I have two trays of seeds getting tested. One variety of beans, three tomatoes, the watermelons, ground cherry, bell peppers, and broom corn. I'm also making plans to use my lower garden patch at the growing space for things I want to save for seed. Between seed saving and regular crop rotation and my congenital inability to measure anything in a straight line, my garden planning this year is looking pretty complicated. Luckily, I expanded my lower garden patch this year and really tried to work the soil a lot with compost and green manure before I even tried to grow anything in the new areas. Luckily, all I need to do for more space is grab my shovel and get working!

And one more thing! All these fancy and expensive books that I leaf through a grab one or two pieces of information out of and never really have to look at again? I'm getting them out of the public library. I just read a great news report that young adults ages 18 through 30 are the heaviest libary users. For gardeners, there is no better resource, since there are usually incredible tons of garden books in every public library. Lots of people give memorial donations to libraries, and they tend to ask for books that the people they are commemorating would like. At my local libary, there is an amazing collection of books on weaving and fiber all in memory of one person. There are the garden books, of course. The library where I used to work was like a fantastic repository for all things fish, to the point where if I had another request for a memorial book about fishing, I had a hard time finding one the library didn't have already. I had to laugh, because when I went to the library I use all the time now to pick up books on fish over the summer, I didn't find very many, and I had just kind of grown to think that all libraries had a whole shelf of books dedicated to fishing.

I digress! The point being, the public library is a fantastic resource. Even just the website for the public library is a great source or really good information. And you get free access to a lot of things that you would never expect. I'm currently using Rosetta Stone to learn Chinese. For free! At home on my own computer! There are also databases on periodicals, geneology, marketing, car repair, full texts of books from novels to really cruchy scholarly things. Even downloadable audiobooks. And if your local library doesn't have it, they will get it for you! They are remarkable people with limitless resources! Get your library card and go and learn something, already!

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Visit to an Amish Dry Goods Store


Well, the holidays are almost over. I don't really do New Year's, but last year I babysat for my niece and nephew. It was very stormy, with rain and thunder and lightning. I remember the weather very well, because my nephew, the little jokester, locked us out of the house when we stepped out on the porch to watch some fireworks. He would have thought it was really funny if I hadn't been able to pop a lock off a different door and we'd gotten stuck counting down the new year in the garage with the stray cats.

Right now, we're in the middle of kind of a thaw. It's still pretty snowy, but the roads are melting off every few days, and it's making it really easy to get around. We were able to make a lot of visits to my grandmother's house and to my sister's house between the weekend and the holiday and, apart from a little freezing rain on Christmas Eve and Chrstmas morning, the roads were good everywhere we went. We didn't need to change any plans because of weather. I even took a break from all the visiting and treated myself to a birthday trip to the movies to see Sweeney Todd. Eek! Is it bad that my three favorite new movies from this year were Eastern Promises, No Country for Old Men, and Sweeney Todd? Cronenberg, the Coens, and Tim Burton are my favorite, favorite, favorite directors, and I got so spoiled this year. I also ended up at the movies alone, since no one in my family wants to go and see all those creepy movies about people killing each other.

This week, at different houses, we had two birthday parties plus Christmas dinner (plus brunch at my sister's), so the family got together down at my grandmother's on the day after Christmas and did a family gift exchange and ate a big meal of leftovers from the whole week. We do one of those things where you draw a number and can either steal someone's present or open a new one. The hot presents this year were a fancy hoe with a light fiberglass handle and a bird feeder. I got some barbeque tools, which I needed. Most of my cooking things are either presents or beg borrow or steal, and my grill is definitely a beg from when my dad got a new and better grill, and until now, I didn't even have a grill brush for it!

Today, I decided to take advantage of the good weather and make a trip to the dry goods store. The only thing I was really low on was spelt flour, but I can always find some good things down there. Ideally, I should get a picture of some of the store shelves and things like that, but they aren't keen on pictures. My sister and I are both convinced that the cover of People magazine that they had after the happening down in Lancaster last year of two women walking through a field were just actresses in Amish dresses. On the news, a month or so ago, they did an interview with an Amish man, and they just filmed his shadow on the grass and had his voice. Instead, I took a picture of what I bought today after I got it back to the house.

There are actually quite a few Amish stores in our area, and I do mean Amish. They are owned by Amish people, and a really interesting mix of people, mostly Amish, shop there. It's very, very common to hear people speaking "dutch" which is acutally kind of a funny sing-songy Swiss German dialect. It is an amazing experience every time. There is always some ingredient you can find that might be the next great food adventure. Or you can just get a really yummy snack while picking up the basics for bread and cookies.

The store is located off the main road down a dirt road that is a little hilly, which is why the weather is always a consideration when heading that way. On the way, you pass a mix of "anglish" and Amish farms and the usual kinds of businesses you get in this area. There's a car repair place (not Amish) plus a sawmill and a construction and roofing company. The store itself is warm little place, not much bigger than a good sized shed, maybe twenty by thirty feet or so, but they make good use of space. There is no packaging other than plastic bags, and the shelves are loaded all the way up to the ceiling. In the winter, there is a kerosene heater, and on dark days a kerosene lantern. Your purchases are rung up on a battery operated adding machine.

I usually hit the flour aisle first where they have all kinds of whole grain flours and white flour and also all kinds of mixes for breads, pancakes, biscuits, doughnuts, funnelcakes, and anything else. There is everything you could ever want to make cookies with and decorate them. Every kind of dried fruit, flavored chip, flavoring, sugar, sprinkle, filling, leavening, spice, shortening: they have it. And I mean every kind. There are those food service bags of different jelly fillings for doughnuts in about five flavors. The Amish store had the non-hydrogenated palm oil shortening for months before the regular grocery stores added it to their health food sections. And every time I hear about a "new" healthier alternative sugar, they already have had it there for a while, too.

They have lots of non-wheat flour and lots of gluten free mixes and also snacks and sweets for diabetics, too. The candy aisle is equally fantastic with all the stuff you'd expect like brandname candy plus all kinds of old fashioned stuff and just everything you might ever want. There is bulk cereal and jello and pudding mix and dip mixes and rice and soup mixes. There is also a freezer and a fridge for meats and dairy, and a different times produce boxes with things that don't really need refridgerated like onions, garlic and bananas. The last time I paid less than a dollar for a lemon was at the Amish store, and they were three for a dollar there.

Lots of stuff is organic, and everything is a few pennies per pound less than things cost at the grocery store or the co-op. A lot of the things simply aren't available anywhere else, too, so the fact that the prices are good makes it even cooler. Some things like odd candies, coffee, and really common grocery store items are more like convenience store prices, but the "real" food is all affordable.

At the back and the sides of the store, there are lots of nonfood things. There are schoolbooks and lots of cookbooks and toys and games songbooks and books in German. Also things for drawing and stamping. Greeting cards, notepapers, windchimes, knicknacks, household things like clocks that don't take electricity. There is any kind of cooking utensil you can think of including these amazing hand crank egg beaters that are made in Ohio and are like an heirloom item they are so nice. There are shoes and boots, in black only, of course. One row has bolts of cloth and quilting and sewing things. Most of the cloth is dress cloth or denim or white muslin for bonnets and household things. There aren't a lot of prints or anything like that. There are a few pre-made dresses and bonnets, but it seems more usual to make those things, though, there is a basket of pre-made bonnet strings to attatch to what people sew for themselves. You can also get Lye for soapmaking, though that is one craft I haven't tried yet.

Overhead, there are all sorts of larger items. Giant metal mixing bowls, lamps and oil stoves and pots and pans. You can also get plates and cups and glasses. Most aisles you need to kind of duck though, there are so many things hanging. Then, there are all herbs and vitamins and supplements. Plus, medicinal teas and natural soaps and toothpaste. I haven't even mentioned snacks, pretzels, trailmixes, crackers, and cookies. There are all kinds of pectins and picking things for jelly and canning, too.

A good portion of the books and stamps and toys are religious-based which makes the store a really popular destination for homeschoolers and Sunday school teachers. Also, a lot of "special diet" people shop there. And older people who are getting the things they grew up eating at better prices than at the grocery store. I usually go for candy and flour, but I get socks there pretty often and shoes and snacks, and today I bought a bag of that brown salt that comes from Utah and my favorite toothpaste: Tom's of Maine Fennel, no flouride, no baking soda. My other purchases included graham crackers, organic oatmeal -- Wednesdays are Oatmeal for Breakfast Day -- and popcorn, plus a new pair of socks, a huge splurge for me, but really useful, as I can wear my black plain knee socks when I work, and it looks like I'm wearing tights or nylons!

I'm actually pretty excited about buying in bulk right now, since my dad got me a vacuum sealer as a combination birthday and Christmas present. It's a great present since, my basement storage area gets a little damp and moldy in the summer when I also tend to have a lot of sugar on hand for jelly making and I don't run through flour as quickly. He got me the canister set and also this really cool attatchment that will put a vacuum seal on a standard sized mason jar with a regular old lid. I know I have a quart jar from honey around here somewhere that takes a regular lid. I'm going to go and find it and seal up some of that oatmeal for storage right now!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

For the Birds!


Another ice storm! But the birds are still at the bird feeder today. Yesterday, I was going over my kitchen stuff. Everything is running low, but I had a bad can of shortening. The first part was okay, but as I went down through the gan, it got grainy and too stiff to use in cookie dough. Unfortunately I had to throw out two batches of dough before I surrendered and opened a new can of fat.

Under normal circumstances, I would write a nice letter of complaint to the company who made the shortening. This is a really good thing to do, if you suspect you have a defective food product. Most companies willingly provide some sort of refund or replacement. Last year, I had come Hershey's baking chocolate that made everything I used it in turn into a hard lump. Frosting ripped cakes to pieces. Flour wouldn't go into cookies. It was a nightmare and also inconvenient, because usually I was baking for an "occasion" where I couldn't just decide not to bring cake for someone's birthday because I didn't like the icing. To make a long story longer, I wrote a letter to the company and received Hershey's coupons.

I was about to do the same thing for the shortening when I looked out the window and realised we were going to run out of suet cakes. Again! I have a lot of spoiled birds that I even fed through the summer. Right now, they are not fans of the food I bought for them. It has too much cracked corn. I went to the farm co-op and got some other seed, and it also had a lot of cracked corn. when I have money again, I'm going to have to get something with more millet and mix the two seed batches of seed together.

Most of the birds just show up for the suet, anyway. So, I decided I would take my can of shortening and give suet cake making a try. I went to the internet first for some ideas. There are a lot of recipes. You can put fruits and nuts and grains and just about anything into suet cakes. Some of the recipes even called for white flour which I think is a mean trick to play on birds. Just like for people. White flour has a pleasing texture and will fill you up, but there is nothing in it. And a lot of the recipes called for cornmeal, too. I use my cornmeal for people, same as I use my sugar for baking and jelly. I don't feed hummingbirds my sugar, and I'm not going to take my cornmeal and feed it to the birds who are complaining right now because their food has too much cracked corn in it.

The one thing I found that just about every suet recipe had in common was a one to one ratio of fat to peanut butter, no matter whether you were using animal or vegetable fat. I usually keep a good supply of on sale store brand peanut butter for cookies and for people who don't like the good, natural stuff. That I was willing to give up for the birds.

I raided the cupboards and found some old currants, some wheat germ (which I have not been using in bread because of the blood type diet I have been trying to keep my mother on) an old, old bag of semolina flour and some quick oats. I also went out the garage and got the bucket with the offensive, too corny bird seed in it.

First, I measured out equal amounts of shortening and peanut butter: about two and a half cups apiece. I melted them in a large stock pot. When it was good and runny, I took it off the heat and I put in about three quarters of a cup of the oatmeal and about a cup and a half of the wheat bran and about two cups of the semolina flour and then threw in the currants. After that was nice and stirred in, I just started adding bird seed until I got like a big, play doughy lump.

The mixture cools and solidified pretty quickly. I had two big rectangular cake pans out. I threw a sheet of waxed paper in the bottom and slapped in a layer of the mix about two inches deep. Then, I covered it with plastic wrap (more waxed paper would work, too) and really packed it in. I did the same for the sedonc cake pan.

Then, I set them out on the porch and let them cool and harden up for a while. When that happened, I cut them into squares with a knife. I put two of the squares into the suet holders on the side of my bird feeder. The rest, I packed in stacks in a plastic bag with the waxed paper and plastic wrap from the pans to separate the layers. I put the whole thing into a sealed storage container. I get those big plastic things they package kitty litter in now from like three different people, and they make great water proof, mouse proof storage. I put the unused cakes out in the garage because I'm not sure how they'll hold up at room temperature.

My birds who had been shunning the feeder all day were back within a couple of hours of the arrival of the new suet cakes. I saw the usual suspects: juncos, sparrows, chickadees, tufted titmouse. We also get quite a few nuthatches, both the regular kind and the smaller rose breasted. The real treat at the birdfeeder is the number of woodpeckers. We probably have so many because of all the evergreen trees. Within an hour or so of hanging the new suet cakes, I was watching downy, hairy, and red throated woodpeckers hopping around on the tree and then taking their turns getting suet.

This surely is a wonderful place to watch birds. There are both hardwood and evergreen stands and hayfields all around the house, so we get an impressive cast of characters from three distinct habitats. On top of that, the pond draws a great variety of really interesting waterfowl. In the summer, I see great blue herons hunting fish around the edge of the pond. A green heron visits sometimes, and a miserable flock of migrating snipes holed up here for a few weeks during the bad cold weather last spring. As for ducks, just in the last month, I've seen wood ducks, mallards, a hooded merganser, and a golden eye on the pond before it iced over.

Just a quick note about suet. I usually don't advocate buying anything! But for suet feeding, really, just go out and buy a wire suet cake holder. Something cobbled up at home or one of those new plastic onion bags are just dangerous for the birds. And hang that suet as high as you can! Bears and critters will be very intersted in it, of course, but the worst problem I ever had with animals and suet was when my bad dogs got the feeder by climbing up and bush and bouncing off a tree trunk to drag the feeder down. They ate the suet and broke up the feeder to the point I had to throw it out. Wild animals might happen by the feeder by accident, but a determined hungry, dog who knows just where it is can do a lot of damage!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Cookies!


We seem to be suffering from a localized ice storm. There are a couple of school delays this morning, but our trees are coated with ice, the packed snow road turned into slick of ice road with about an inch of water on top. I have been consistently horrified by the really bad road maintenance in Erie County. We were in Warren County yesterday and both Davey Hill Road and Tidioute Creek Road were nice and clear, and these are just little one lane paved roads that only go to Tidioute. Over here, even Route 89 stays mostly unplowed. Concord Road, which I think is busier and more populated than Davey is a total wreck and will stay that way until it just melts on its own. We live on a little dirt farm road, and I never expect much more than to have the drifts knocked off a couple of times a week, but on a day like today, when there are school buses and Head Start buses coming over the hill and not even a delay of school, it would be nice if there were a little of that nice cinder and dirt they throw down on the road. I had to call off a half day's work today because I really don't think I could have made it back up the hill if I went down.

Anyway, I'm back to my usual winter day activity: baking!

I'm running low on bread, so I need to get that started. I've been doing yeast instead of sourdough which means I can just decide on the day to bake. Sourdough is a magical world of discovery where the activites of a whole week can be influenced by what needs to be done with the bread. When I build my outdoor oven and start making more sourdough, I'm going to be in heaven, and people will be driven just wild with wonderful bread.

But, I'm also making cookies today. At my mother's office, they set out cookies on Wednesdays, and I'm sending down a couple batches.

There is kind of a backlash right now again homemade baking. At schools and daycare centers, they are starting to have rules like: no cupcakes! No unwrapped baked goods! No cookies! They say it is because of fat content and the possibility of nut contamination, but is anyone else freaked by that idea? My sister was driven to distraction when she had to take snacks in for her kids' school. She bakes a few times a week, and she mostly started because her kids like those mini muffins that come in little plastic bags, and they were getting bigger and mini muffining her out of house and home. I bought her a mini muffin tin, and she gets enough mini muffins out of one little bag of mix that usually costs about a dollar for a whole week. She always sent in cupcakes and things like that, too. Now, the kids get things like a graham cracker wrapped in plastic for a snack. And if you read those allergy warnings, every single thing says it was packed in a factory that also processes nuts. How many people really have lots of nuts just floating around their kitchens? I know I don't! Everything is packed away until I need it, not pulverized by machinery and getting spread randomly around.

The talk that I went to over the fall with Dr. Shiva actually addressed this. She said the vegetable and food sellers in India are being outlawed because they don't have proper health precautions. Basically, the laws are all being written so that only industry and big corporate grocery stores are able to comply with them, and all home made food is being outlawed everywhere. Think about it. It's really awful that in schools in America, kids are being taught, essentially, that anything that doesn't come out of a box or a wrapper is not safe and is not healthy and shouldn't be eaten.

There is a little backlash to all this. I read somehwere that there was a "Cupcake Protection Act" in Texas that made it illegal to ban home baked goods in schools. I know things are not great for kids in Texas and they should have a health care act or a good schools act or something, but at least someone is standing up for the cupcake.

There can be more resistance, however, and it can start with every single person who has to bring a snack or a cookie tray to a church event or a school event or a party. Don't swing by the grocery store and just grab some dry, bland cookies made with artificial flavoring and cheap chocolate and cheap flour. Take a couple short hours away from the television set, the computer or the phone and make some cookies. Even a mix where you add your own oil and eggs is better than those things that are pumped out in some crummy old factory, wrapped in plastic and stored for months before you get the chance to eat them.

In our family, meaning my whole extended family, too, there are a few basic cookies that just put the icing on the cake for the holidays. Roll out sugar cookies, of course. Those will have to wait until next weekend, because I'm low on nice sprinkles, and I need to go the dry goods store for the really pretty ones. My grandmother makes these things that everyone just calls "those horn things. You know the ones with the cream cheese." I believe they also involve chopped dates. I would add pizelles, but I haven't had a good iron for years and I usually only get them at Christmas pageants. Also, I love the anise ones, and the other people in my family don't care for them, so pizelles have unfortunately fallen by the wayside.

The number one, only at Christmas, we-expect-these-or-there-will-be-trouble cookies are pressed spritz Christmas trees and pressed molasses camels. Obviously, they require a cookie press, but other than that and maybe a few spices, there isn't anything really exotic about them.

I currently have a Wilton Cookie press, and you can get these absolutely anywhere. Usually in the cake and candy making section at any big craft strore. Also, they carry them at kitchen shops, but I'm really spoiled because I live near an incredible kitchen shop that has almost every pan, gadget, and tool you can imagine. And if you're at a loss as to what you can buy at the tenth Pampered Chef party you have been to this year, check for the cookie press. But I remember passing up on that one because it was mostly plastic, and I didn't think it would hold up to my kitchen of destruction. Also, dig through the cupboards of older relatives' houses and borrow theirs!

I used an electric press all through the eighties, of course! I started out with a Wear-Ever before that, I do believe, with a hand crank at the top. This is where the camel shaped press thingy came from. My most recent Wear-Ever really sucked and I threw it out dough and all a few years ago, which is why my sister bought me the Wilton, which is nice (but doesn't have a camel) a few years ago as an early "birthday present" but mostly because she wanted cookies. She used to have a sweet little French cookie press which went by the wayside during one of her moves which may have been my favorite cookie press ever, but that may have been all in my head because it was French and I am a hick. A real, French cookie press, ma! It's a distinct possibility.

A cookie press, which I should have mentioned earlier, is bascially a tube that shoots out shaped pieces of dough. You need special recipe dough. There is usually a book that comes with the press to give you the right dough consistancy, but both the recipes I use are the old ones that I've had since I was a kid. You fill the press and pick a round disk with a shape punched in it to fit at the bottom of the press. Then, you hold the press straight up and flat to the surface of the cookie sheet, pull the trigger (or twist or whatever) pause a second, and lift the press straight up. If all goes well, you have a little, shaped cookie waiting for you.

Cookie pressing takes a little practice. If the dough is not right or isn't mixed well, it can be a disaster. But there is a little bit of practice and knack to it, also. You have to know how much dough you really need, even if the press has clicks or sizes or gradations marked on it. You need to get the feel for how much dough to shoot out. If you get a malformed cookie or two, just peel the dough up, toss it in with the unused dough, and when you go to reload your press, pop the rejects back in with the unused dough. Your first try with the cookie press should not be on an evening when you are expected to bring five dozen cookies to a party in an hour and a half, and you still haven't fixed your hair! But that should be no problem with the second batch! It's that easy and that much fun to make these little, attractive and yummy cookies.

The recipes:

Press Spritz

This is the recipe I use for the little Christmas trees. I like to decorate them with a "star" on top. Either those little sugar flowers you can get just about everywhere or the silver or gold balls that I get in bulk at the Amish store. Finish with any kind of sprinkle you choose. Decorate before baking.)

Heat oven to 375 Degrees. You do not need to grease the cookie sheets. The fat content in most cookies is high enough they won't stick!


2 1/4 Cups Flour
3/4 C. White Sugar
1/4 teaspoon Baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt (I always leave out the salt)

Cut in with pastry blender (or fork, knives or mash in with fingers):

1 cup Shortening (or half shortening and half butter or all butter)


Crack an egg into a 1/4 cup measuring cup. Add water to the 1/4 cup line. Add to mixture.
1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

You'll also want to add food coloring at this stage.

Mix, mash, squish and knead until consistant. Don't chill!

Load the press. Shape cookies. Decoration is optional.
Back 10-12 minutes until edges are just barely tan.

Press Molasses Spice

These are my Christmas camel cookies. I also have a dog shaped plate for the press, and I've made spice dogs at other times of the year. In high school, a friend of my sister's was baffled by Christmas camels, so I guess, outside of my family, they might not be traditional. I also don't decorate them at all.

A note on ingredients:

These cookies call for just a little bit of a lot of different spices. While nutmeg can be substituted for mace, I recommend trying to use the ingredients in the recipe. My dad says that these cookies taste exactly like ones he remembers his grandmother making. Is that not worth the extra effort? Instead of breaking the bank buying big bottles of wierd spices that you might never use again, try to find a health food store or co-op with bulk spices and just get a little scoop of the ones you need.

Now the recipe:

Preheat oven to 375. You still don't need to grease the sheets.

Cream together:
1/2 Cup Shortening
1/2 Cup Sugar

1 Egg
1/4 Cup Molasses

Now sift in and work by hand:

1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
1/4 Teasp. salt (I always leave this out)
1/4 Teasp. ginger
1/2 Teasp. cinnamon
1/4 Teasp. allspice
1/4 Teasp. cloves
1/4 Teasp. mace

Mix, squish, knead, until consistant. Press and Bake 10-12 minutes

There are some fun recipies. I love these cookies, and a lot of people I know do, too. Now, I'm going to go and actually do some things instead of sitting at the computer writing about doing things, and you should, too!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Getting Ready for Winter


Winter has officially set in. It started snowing in earnest Saturday night and hasn't really stopped since then. Last night was our coldest night of the year. The temperature was into the single digits.

Luckily, I got some important things done before the snow hit. I finally got the last of the carrots out of the garden, but I unfortunately did not get a cover for my in ground storage areas made up. Next week looks like a bit of a thaw, so I plan to get a bunch of the carrots out and clean and cut them up. I've discovered the biggest problem with actually using food grown in the garden is the amount of time it takes to prepare it. We're all really used to just opening a bag and maybe boiling or microwaving food -- but usually not. This is not a new thing. My sister and I used to just eat frozen vegetables right out of the bag when we were kids, and at her house, she snacks on frozen french fries.

I really like those precut baby carrots, but I also really like the really good taste of my garden carrots. They are quite a bit of work, however, and if I didn't compost, I would feel really guilty about all the waste that I would be chucking out from tops and ends and ugly spots. An older couple I know were on a juice diet for a couple of years, and when they were in town for the summer, they would give me pounds and pounds of carrot ends and pulp and tops. My mother and I would go a couple times a week up to the house of our friend who at the time was keeping our goats and feed the carrot leavings to the horses and goats and chickens. I have gotten to the point where I get an absurd amount of carrots and cut them up and put them in like gallon plastic bags so I can pretend I have precut carrots.

Speaking of the goats, they finally have hay. This has been an incredible struggle the past couple of years. Last year, was really wet, and people didn't have a lot of hay. I finally found some around the end of November by actually just asking at the farm co-op who might have some. Luckily, the gentleman delivered, and he also offers a baling service which might come in handy if I ever get the back acreage cleared. It would be nice to have our own hay.

Of course, there were issues. Because that's what happens. I was so happy to have hay, it just didn't occur to me that there are really big differences in size between some bales and other bales. I initially thought fifty bales would be good, but then I listened to people's advice and just got forty instead!

Do you know the old saying? February Second, Groundhog Day. Half your wood and half your hay.

Wood was okay-ish, but hay was short. So I was getting a bale here and there from the feed mill for the last couple months of winter and spring. Don't get me wrong, it was really good hay. Third cut with lots of alfalfa, and the goats loved it. It was really good, big bales, too that lasted about a week, but it was still five dollars a bale.

If you are not familiar with hay, there are a couple of considerations (other than bale size). One is content, meaning the kinds of grasses that grew in the field where the hay was cut. You don't want hay that has weeds and briars and junky plants in it. Timothy is good hay. Timothy grass looks like little green mini cattails when it gets long. And it's really sweet, too. Timothy stems are almost as sweet as sugar at the tender base, and stereotypical farmers don't have wheat stalks hanging out of their mouths, but rather, timothy. The alfalfa that the goats like so much both as summer browse and in hay is a legume like peas or clover. It gets pretty yellow flowers on the end and has little leaves instead of blades. I'm a little leery of hay with a lot of clover, though. I once heard from an old horse trader that clover hay will ruin a horse's wind, but you know old horse traders.

People also classify hay as first, second or third cut, meaning the same field was mowed and hayed repeatedly over the season. First cut is usually preferable, I would suppose because of nutrient content. The grass grew from spring and has all the tops and seeds on it, where later cuttings would not have such a long time growing or the nice long blades.

This year, the warm fall let people make lots and lots of cuttings of hay. My neighbors who have a huge veal and dairy operation just green chop the fields around the house here, and they must have done it five times this year, including once just a few weeks ago. The weather was really good, after the initial droughty period, and we had enough dry spells that people could actually bale. I've even seen huge wagons stacked with hay that won't fit in the barn. The problem this year was money. We put in a new chimney and a new wood furnace in October, and cash has been very short. Hay has been on my list of things to get since August, but I needed to start teaching a little, and once I did, we had wood to buy and also just about every cent was tied up in regular bills and the stove thing. It snowed a few times, but there wasn't any hay for the goats, so I just took them out a few times a day and told them to find what they could find to eat. I still had grain, so it wasn't that bad.

Last week, finally, we didn't have too many other extra expenses, and I tracked down an older gentleman who had really nice big bales of hay. I had them save me forty --I know that wasn't enough last year, but these were really big bales about three feet long by two feet wide -- we borrowed my uncle's truck, got really lost on the way there and loaded all forty bales on the truck. It was kind of fun. The farmer's daughter was a genius of hay. She tossed the bales from the ground up to the top of the pile, and they would just jump into place. I got to crawl to the top of the pile on the truck and pack the hay and tie down the load. We made it home just when it was starting to spit snow.

We also got the Christmas tree for my grandmother's house put up. Our place used to be a Christmas tree farm, and there are lots and lots of evergreens in all the popular varieties. I like blue spruce, even though they are prickly little buggers. We sawed one down and dragged it up out of the woods last week. The bottom of the tree and all the trimmed branches kept the goats happy for some of our hayless days. We hauled the tree over to my grandmother's house on the roof of our station wagon. Very funny.

Next weekend, my aunt and uncle are bringing one of my cousins over to cut a couple trees for their houses. One of the best things about living out on the hill is getting to do things for the kids in the family. They can come over and fish and jump on the trampoline in the summer and this will be the third year in a row we've been able to give Christmas trees to anyone in the family who wants them.

The most important thing that we got done this fall was getting the new wood furnace and chimney. Our old wood furnace was really holey and rusted out. We kept it in the basement, and it sucked a lot of wood up and didn't really do all that much good at keeping us warm. We kind of got tired of hearing everyone we knew complain about how bad the stove was, so we had a gentleman from a local wood stove dealership come over and asked him to give us advice as to what kind of stove would work for our house. He told us our chimney liner was cracked and the actual cincerblocks around the liner were cracked, too, and there was no use hooking a new stove to an old, cracked chimey, as the new stove would burn out, too. A chimney fire had cracked the old chimney.

With help from the stove man, we were able to submit a claim to the insurance company which picked up a good part of the costs to fix the chimney, as it was a fire hazard that could take the whole house down. It was really kind of involved, but basically, the stove and chimney guy put a high temerature stainless steel pipe down the old chimney and surrounded it with cement. Because the insurance picked up so much of the cost of the chimney, we were able to consider also getting a new wood furnace. We got a Hitzer, practically the same thing as the old furnace we took out of the basement, and it has been amazing. We use less wood, and the fire stays lit all night and can be left for as long as eight hours at a time and still has enough coals to keep thehouse warm and restart the fire quickly.

Speaking of the wood fire, I definitely need to go and check it, as I like to skimp during the day so I can build it up in the evening when I'm just sitting and knitting. Wood is like bread. It needs a whole book to really even scratch the surface. So, that's where I'm stopping today.