Monday, March 31, 2008

Springtime Update and More Food Issues

Spring is here, even though it doesn’t look like it! We still have piles of snow, and the weather is still chilly. But there are a few hopeful signs. Tulips and daffodils are starting to peek up through the mud. The robins have been back for a couple weeks. The killdeer came back last week, and I expect to hear peep frogs down in the frog pond any moment. I have started my earliest seeds, and some of them are actually growing, and we had our first party of the year: a combined birthday party for my brother and my niece. So, my picture is of my nieces and my sister feeding stale crackers we liberated post-holidays from my grandmother’s cupboard to the goats Matt and Don who very badly need sheared at our first party of the year!

The weather for the party was sunny but very chilly, and the yard is wet, wet wet! We refer to the “back 40” which is more like the back eight by a few different names. We have the Little Pine Forest and the Big Pine Forest which are both overgrown stands of Christmas trees, and then there is a little field at the bottom of the hill and an old fenced field that I would like to be able the call “the Pasture” someday, but right now, we can’t be romantic, and it is “the Swamp”. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice back there with tall grass and elderberries and man places to explore, but it is just swampy. Right now, the whole yard could be included in the Swamp, however.

Speaking of elderberries and outdoor things in general, I have a few new pieces of information that I was just pleased as punch to know about! Elderberries first: I read recently how you could read the vegetation of an area to discover the state of the water table. I need to find the book again and take better notes, but what I can remember off the top of my head is that elderberries indicate that there is water within ten feet of the surface. I bet that’s true, since we have a spring fed pond and a really clean, productive well and also a lot of elderberries.

As spring was rolling around, I also was looking for when I should “unmulch” my strawberries and my lavender and other plants that I had covered up last fall. I really go by a nice book I’ve had for a few years called The Complete Book of Garden Magic by Roy E. Biles. It originally came out in the 1930’s which is enough to win me over right there, because I am a fiend for all things Depression Era from clothes to cookbooks to history to art and architecture and music. Judging by the state of the economy and all, I may not have a bad “hobby” of learning how they did things in the Depression.

Anyway, Mr. Biles give much good advice about every sort of thing from houseplants to flowers to greenhouses and vegetable gardens. Except for the pesticides, I think this is my very favorite book for gardening. There is a great month by month guide in the back. According to this guide, in March, mulch should be loosened to allow it to begin to dry out and to start to allow air to circulate among new leaves and shoots but should be left in place as there can still be rapid temperature changes that might damage the plants.

Ideally, I should have done my grape vines in February, but there was a lot of snow in February, and there was a lot of snow in March. Luckily, there were a few warm days, and still had to do a lot of tromping around in the snow, but at least I didn’t have to be all the way bundled up! I needed to repair a fallen wire on my grape vine trellis, and to lift the wire back up, I needed to be a lot more aggressive with my grape vines than I have been in the past. I wish I had taken a before and after picture of what the vines looked like, because I took a pile of vines about four feet high by five of six feet across off the vines this year.

Trimming grape vines: This should be done in late winter. It also is something that you just figure out after you do it a few times. You are supposed to take off about eighty per cent of the new fruiting wood, and I have seen all kinds of diagrams with pictures of nodes and vines and what is what. Basically, the new fruiting wood is the wavy stuff and the very end of the vines. If your vines have been neglected, you need to be meaner than that, however. This year, because I had to also lift the wire, I needed to unwind the vines, and I chopped a lot of the things that were too unwieldy. Also, last summer, lot of the fruit was located on the insides of the vines. Those bunches didn’t ripen well, and I made a decision to cut out a lot of the insides of the vines. We live very near a huge grape growing area along Lake Erie, and I have had the opportunity to see how the commercial vines are shaped. I still haven’t pared mine down that far, but they are getting there.

The thing to remember is that there is very little you can do to kill grape vines just by trimming them back. It’s possible you might get a thin year, but the following year after a really aggressive trimming, the whole harvest will be better. If trimming and pinching and everything seems like a waste, like throwing away potential grapes, it’s really not. Grapes that are not cared for will overproduce, and the plant will get stressed. Last year, I pruned and trimmed and pinched like a madwoman, and I still had more grapes than I knew what to do with! And nothing is more wasteful than seeing the grapes just shower down off the bunches still unripe because they plant can’t support them.

Speaking of not knowing what to do with excess produce, boy do I wish I had put away more tomatoes last year! I ran out of my sauce about a month ago, and while the storebought wasn’t expensive, it took me only one year of using home grown canned sauce to get spoiled. Luckily, I saved seed from my paste tomatoes and plan to try many more varieties this year. My grandmother whose father was a baker during the Depression and basically always had money (so that is the sum total of her Depression-era advice -- get work as a baker) wanted brandywine tomatoes, and I was able to find some seeds for her. If they come up good, she’ll send some plants my way, I’m sure. I shared seeds with her a few weeks ago, and that was fun.

I was reading in an article just today about how much food inflation there has been over the past few years. Things have basically gone up by a third, and people are cooking at home instead of eating out. It’s a shame that it took making food more expensive to do that, but I also could have been able to tell anyone who asked that was what was going to happen. I don’t like to brag, especially not about misfortune, but I really think that my food trends are a little ahead of the average, and I have been cutting back on everything for a couple of years now. I have basically gotten rid of ice cream, most frozen foods including those fancy baby veggie mixes and those pre-cheesed broccolies and cauliflowers that I used to just live off of. I buy bulk ingredients and also troll the expired food section at the local market for usable produce and also for bread for French toast and things like that.

Luckily, I make all my own bread, and only get it from the store if it's something REALLY cheap. My grandmother has another funny story about when she was a little girl, and a big family sized loaf of bread cost ten cents and it came with a lollipop. She always says: "Now, you can't even get the lollipop for ten cents!" According to the Associated Press, a loaf of bread costs on average $1.37. I usually make this giant batch of multi grain bread, but if I was going to generalize, I could say that out of a regular bag of good flour, costing around $2.50-3.00 a bag -- which is expensive, but bread takes good flour -- at twenty cups of flour to a bag, my favorite white bread recipe uses a hair over five cups of flour to make two loaves. If yeast is bought in bulk, the cost is neglegable same for salt, sugar, and fat. I put buttermlik in which is the most expensive thing, so count about sixty cents per batch, or thirty cents a loaf for non flour stuff, and you can make a good loaf of bread yourself for about seventy cents a loaf with less than ten dollars spent for bowls, pans, etc. that you then used again and again. And this is proper bread, too. When I eat store bread, I feel like I need four or five pieces to get full when two of mine do the trick and last longer in the tummy, as well.

I also buy as many things as I can directly from the producer. I get eggs for a dollar fifty a dozen, up from a dollar and a quarter in the past few months at an egg farm down the road. They sell the same eggs from the same farm in the grocery store for over two dollars a dozen. I get milk from a local dairy. I’m pretty sure that it is more expensive than store milk, but the store milk is gaining fast, and this is good milk from a small herd and no junk and chemicals. If I’m on the ball and put a call in to the farm store, I can also get raw milk which is legal in PA as long as the cows are tested for the right things and licensed. It used to be that you could get raw milk as long as it was in your own jug. Some states are really strict about this. There is a website called that goes into the whole raw milk debate and also how to get milk from small dairies. But be warned, it gets a little zany out there! I just get raw milk because I grew up shaking the bottle and can’t stop and don’t want to let my efforts go for naught. Actually, I figure, if they’re going to offer it, I might as well go for it. That and the bottle shaking thing.

The small dairy thing might be a good idea considering that one of the constantly cited reasons that milk goes up is the cost of feed and the cost of transport. The small dairies around here all grow their own corn and make their own hay. I know that you need to get actual grain feed with vitamins and trace minerals and everything from a feed mill, but almost everything else is “in house.” And I’m not sure what the average person knows about the way modern dairy farms work, but the milk truck comes to the farm twice a day to get the milk, it goes to a processing plant and gets mixed with milk from a lot of other farms and they do what they do to it, pasteurizing and homogenizing and adding vitamins and all that, they package it and send it off to warehouses and the warehouses send it off to stores, and by the time the milk gets to you, it’s actually up to three weeks old. The milk I get goes from the barn to the farm store, about twentyfive feet. They put it in glass bottles you pay a deposit on. Then people come and get it. They take some out to local stores, too, but not grocery stores which have their own suppliers which I why I sometimes end up in hardware stores buying milk.

Speaking of milk, and then I’ll be done! It just became legal in PA to label milk as not containing recombinant bovine growth hormone. This is some nasty stuff, despite what you may have heard. Cows given rGBH give more milk, but they also suffer from chronic udder infections (painful for cows, yucky for consumers) and it is possible that the growth hormone in milk is freaking out kids’ endocrine systems and that is why so many really, really young girls are physically mature so early. That is just a theory, but because of labeling laws pushed through by Monsanto (a company spat from the bowels of hell if there ever was) farmers were not allowed to put on their milk if they were using hormones or not. But just last week, I saw non rBGH labeled milk at my sister’s house, which is cool, because her kids drink milk by the gallon, and she won’t pay for expensive organic milk from the store (which I won’t either, because storebought organic milk is a scam) and yet, she still doesn’t deserve to have her children’s glands poisoned by Monsanto so they can make money!

A recipe so you can use up everything and still have a good time!

We’ve been “dipping” loaves of bread in olive oil and spices at family meals lately, and I’ve been breaking out my favorite French toast to use up day old bread. This is also great if you find outdated loaves at the grocery store for cheap. Our local egg farm also offers cracked eggs at half price a dozen. If you are feeding an army and you’re going to use up the eggs very soon, there is no reason not to use cracked eggs.

The French Toast:

For about 3/4 loaf of bread.
Take three eggs and crack them in a bowl. Add about a half cup of milk, two teaspoons of cinnamon, and a teaspoon of vanilla. These are the secret ingredients: Put in a pinch of cardamom and about a quarter cup of orange juice, bascially that last swig in the carton that no one ever drinks anyway.

Beat up. Make a hot butter pan. Give the old bread a quick dip on each side. Don’t soak! Fry each side very quickly. The butter should almost burn. The pan should be that hot. Add more butter and keep frying.

If you don’t have pancake syrup, make some!

The fake Maple Syrup:

2 cups Brown Sugar
1 Cup Water
1 tsp. maple extract

Boil together Sugar and water until the sugar dissolves. Simmer and stir another five minutes or so. Let cool. Add the maple flavor. Put it on when it’s warm. Store in the fridge.

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