Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Catching My Breath

It's been one busy blur from late summer to Thanksgiving around here.  A lot has been going on that I haven't had time to write about; projects big and small, major working weekends with WWOOF volunteers, and hosting Thanksgiving for relatives coming in from out of state.  In mid-November it finally felt as though the garden was winding down, though what was ripe/mature and needed eating still pretty much set our diet right up to Thanksgiving.  I pushed myself a bit to keep up with the outdoor work well into fall, and have been rewarded with a mostly clear conscience and lack of niggling thoughts about things left undone.  So as I catch my breath, I'll catch up on some topics I wanted to post about.

I painted the front room, a combination living and dining room, late this summer.  It was an attempt to make the room a little less stark and more welcoming.  We close off that room each winter because it's one of the coldest in the house.  But even in summer time, when that coolness is welcome, we hadn't been using it much.  It was a fair bit of work to get the painting job done, but the room feels very different with the change from stark white to some color.  We also got some decent blinds.  That part of the house dates from the 1870s, when houses were built with a lot of windows, probably because they valued the light in un-electrified times.  The ugly curtains the house came with were so prominent in the room that it was hard to see much else.  The unobtrusive new blinds take the ugly down several notches, insulate a very significant part of the total area of the walls, and also block out a lot of the street noise.  Again, homes built in this area during that time period were built right along the road, so the street noise also kept us away from this room.  Soon we'll close it off again for the winter, but I feel good about having made that room a part of the house we like to spend time in.

This year I made a big effort to be a more responsible gardener and put the garden to bed in a somewhat decent fashion.  Not in a nightcap or anything, but I'm not sending it into winter covered in weeds.  So garden work continued right through this month, and I'm hoping that this will lead to a less stressful spring workload.  It looks pretty decent out there.  Not perfect, but better than it ever has before in November.

I borrowed Tamar and Kevin's ingenious mini-greenhouse idea for my in-ground rosemary plant.  It's made with two plastic window well covers, available at hardware stores.  Mine is a taller version of what Tamar and Kevin built, with a smaller, rectangular footprint compared to their lower and wider version with a circular footprint, 'cause rosemary plants need the headroom.  Here in zone 6 our winters are just a smidgen too cold for rosemary to overwinter.  This is an experiment to see whether a little windchill protection, and perhaps less completely frozen soil, will allow the rosemary to survive.  So far the rosemary has come through some pretty respectable frosts (26F/-3C) just fine.  If it doesn't survive this year in the garden, I'm trying again next year in a more sheltered position.  Rosemary is an herb I most want for cooking winter dishes and for baking breads.  In fact, I practically ignore it during summer.  So I'm determined to find a way to provide myself with a source during bread baking season.

We pressed our apples earlier this month, blessed with an unseasonably warm Sunday and the help of an awesome WWOOF volunteer crew.  Having so many pairs of hands made the job go very fast, and it was delightful to not be freezing our buns off during cider pressing.  The yield was, as usual, depressingly small given the apple tally.  I pitched in earlier this fall to help a small scale local orchardist press her apples into cider at a commercial press.  Her yield in cider was amazing compared to ours, and it's pretty obvious that the advantage comes from the combination of very fine grinding of the apples, and the sheer force of a hydraulic press.  We can't replicate the strength of the press, but with some DIY tinkering we could improve a great deal on the extremely coarse grind we get from a hand-cranked vintage apple grinder.  I've been meaning for a few years now to find the time to convert an in-sink garbage disposal unit to a superior apple grinder.  The finer the grind we produce from our apples, the higher our cider yields should be.  So reluctantly I'm going to add this project to my list of formal goals for next year.

Because our chest freezer was very nearly full before we even pressed our cider, I encouraged my husband to use a good portion of it for hard cider.  He's got four different batches going at the moment in the cellar.  We'll see how they turn out.  Gonna have to work on eating through that chest freezer this winter...

While the WWOOF volunteers were here we made further progress on the lawn eradication front, and set ourselves up well for digging big holes to transplant our hazelbert bushes in about 18 months.  We lasagna mulched a fairly large area in our side yard for the bushes.  This is a narrow and significantly shaded part of the property, situated close to the neighbor's house, and fully visible from the street.  None of the doors of the house open on to that side, so we don't go over there very often, except for my most hated task: mowing the grass.  The lawn eradication was satisfying, as it means that much less time spent on the dreaded chore.  Planting two hazels which will eventually grow into a substantial screen for that area will be equally satisfying.  The lasagna mulching will kill the sod there and, we hope, make the digging of deep holes much easier, while also improving the soil for the plants. So it's nice to look out the window and see the spot prepared so far in advance.

We just hosted Thanksgiving for my extended family, and several family members declared it the best Thanksgiving meal they'd ever had.  My family are mostly quite serious eaters, and none of us blow sunshine up each other's skirts.  Ever.  So this was a serious claim.  Not that I take credit for the success of the meal, because everyone contributed.  But I will say this - the pastured turkey we bought from my farming friend was grilled to absolute perfection by my husband, as the first snowfall of the season came down.  We've been grilling our Thanksgiving birds for quite a few years now.  It's a once a year endeavor, so it's not like he gets a lot of practice.  I had brined the bird for just 24 hours, then aired it out in the fridge for 36, pulled it out of the fridge two hours before cooking began, and iced the breast for the second of those hours.  The ice trick slows down the cooking of the breast so that it doesn't get dried out while the legs finish cooking.  Fresh rosemary sprigs and our apple wood chips were repeatedly laid on the mesquite coals while the bird cooked.  It's easy to overdo this flavoring technique and end up with a resinous, over-smoked bird.  But my husband dialed it in this year.  The bird was moist and beautifully flavored.  The leftovers are like the smoked turkey deli meat of your dreams.  I can only hope our New Year's turkey turns out so well.  The stock I made from the carcass also has a gorgeous hint of apple wood smoke.  It's probably the most delicious stock I've ever made.  And not incidentally, the side dishes were pretty awesome this year too.  I picked leeks and savoy cabbage from the garden on Thanksgiving morning, and cooked them very simply.  Family members brought other vegetable dishes and desserts that were equally good.  A few pints of our elderflower cordial made over the summer graced the table too.  It was a righteous feast.  Then followed the making of turkey pot pies and other attempts at letting nothing go to waste.  Pie of several sorts has featured at breakfast recently.

Image taken from the Remington website
We took advantage of my uncle's presence during the holiday weekend to do some gun shopping with him.  We had only intended to browse and avail ourselves of his vast experience with guns of all types.  He is a competition marksman, certified gun safety instructor, and his part-time retirement job is in a gun store in another state.  He hunted for many years to put food on the table as well.  So he knows his way around firearms.  As often happens, we stumbled into a good sale on the shotgun we were fairly sure we wanted before we even got to the shop.  The family-owned and -operated nature of this local business and its service guarantee impressed us too, so we walked out with a 12 gauge Remington 870, a shotgun my uncle praised for its reliability and versatility of purpose.  Our Christmas shopping for each other is done.  Now we need to find a place and time to practice shooting on a regular basis.  Who knows?  Maybe this time next year we'll go hunting.

There are a whole bunch of crafts and projects and recipes I've been putting off, and putting off while the garden was in session.  Felting a pair of mittens from an old wool sweater.  Duck confit.  A classic English pork pie.  A mosaic decoration on a stepping stone or two for the garden.  Making a variety of filled dumplings.  Hosting a cookie baking get-together.  And a handful of minor DIY projects, which the garage workspace is now usually chilly enough to deter me from even beginning.  I'm hoping that December and January will be slow enough, and my industriousness steady enough to get at least some of the indoorsy things done.


Paula said...

Sounds like a super-busy autumn. Good luck with the hazelbirts. If you want nuts off of them, you'll need to cage them. Otherwise, the squirrels don't even wait for them to ripen before they strip the tree!

We have a lot of squirrels and native filberts both here in the PNW.

teekaroo said...

I'm jealous that your garden kept going so far. I've been done there for quite some time, but I'm still not getting all my inside projects done. I have a page full of things that I wrote during the busy months of things I need/want to get done.

Michael Greenberg said...

I'm an (aspiring) new hunter also living in the shotgun-hunting territory around Philly, and the 870 has caught my eye, too. Did your uncle say why he preferred the 12 gauge over the 20 gauge? And, more saliently, what do you plan to hunt?

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Just when I was beginning to feel good about myself for getting a few things done, you go and post your list. Thanks. Thanks a lot. I'm left to find comfort in the fact that you used one of my ideas, and that was really Kevin's.

I have acute cider envy. I would love to grow some apples or pears here, but everyone says it's hard. Given that I struggle with the easy stuff, that's enough to put me off it. But if I could have thought of making an apple grinder out of a garbage disposal, it would have been all worth it. Now THAT is an idea after my own heart.

I hope I don't trespass on your authorial turf if I talk to fellow commenter Michael Greenberg. I, too, am a new hunter, with a Remington 870 20 gauge. I got it, rather than the 12, because it was a bit lighter, and there's nothing I was planning to hunt that a 20 gauge wouldn't suffice for. (Until I get invited to Colorado to hunt elk, in which case I'll be sorry.) The 20 gauge works for birds of all kinds, and I have the combo, which comes with a rifled barrel for deer.

I'm not nearly experienced enough to vouch for it, but every hunter I've met says the 870 is an absolutely reliable gun.

meemsnyc said...

I like your mini-greenhouse for the rosemary plant. I love rosemary, I'm looking forward to seeing if it grows through the winter? Yum, grilled turkey sounds awesome. I've never tried grilling turkey before but I bet it's delicious.

Sandy said...

You know, we really do need to meet, Kate. We live so close together and have so many common interests.

City Sister said...

When we first moved here we thought it funny that schools get "hunting monday" off...hope you're enjoying this first snow!

Dmarie said...

oh, I really needed a reminder to care for my outdoors rosemary plant. thanks

Kate said...

Paula, so I've heard about squirrels and hazels. Though I am wondering whether we could simply overwhelm the squirrels with sheer numbers of hazels planted in our hoped for hedgerow, such that they leave some for us. We'll see...

teekaroo, I was surprised but pleased the garden kept going that long. It was a fairly mild fall. Good while it lasted, but now I'm appreciating some latitude in our dietary choices. The garden can be a despot.

Micheal, if he did, I didn't catch it. I'm not even knowledgeable enough about guns to ask the stupid questions. But next time I speak with him, I'll ask him. For choice I'd hunt deer, since there's nothing remotely comparable to wild venison available from local farms. Besides, I'd want the biggest potential payoff for my time and money, and that's the biggest game in this area, so far as I know.

Tamar, these are the accomplishments of several months, posted in one go. I'm sure you could do the same if you chose, so cut yourself a break. And I don't claim to have thought of the garbage disposal apple grinder myself. I'm an idea scavenger; came across it somewhere on the intertubes. I'm surprised though to hear that apples are difficult in your area. They grow up in Maine. Is it maritime exposure that's the issue? Oh, and thanks for the greenhouse idea, by the way!

meemsnyc, grilled turkey most certainly is delicious. I commend it, and the greenhouse to your experimentation.

Sandy, agreed. Left you a comment on your blog this morning.

City Sister, the snow you got arrived here as rain, and lots of it. I'd prefer snow, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I would have.

Dmarie, anytime!

Peter said...

I live in zone 5 and I just dig up the rosemary (and a bunch of other herbs) and bring them into the house in pots. They decorate the dining room, and I have fresh herbs all winter. Then they go back in the ground in spring. It works pretty well; this rosemary bush is 3 years old now.

Unknown said...

we love rosemary in our house! our favorite meal is a homegrown chicken roasted with potatoes (best if homegrown too) and rosemary from the garden. Its my signature dish and everyone loves it. This will be our first winter trying to keep the rosemary alive in the ground. I cant wait to try out your trick. Thanks!

Kate said...

Jessica, I love rosemary with chicken and potatoes too. Such classic combinations. Of course, I *have* to add garlic as well, just can't stop myself. I hope this trick works for you and your rosemary.

B.B. said...

Your comment about the hydrolic apple press made me think... you can buy hydralic jacks for cars quite cheap -- maybe you could figure out a way to use the force of a car jack as a cider press??

I know when I was growing up people had barrel presses basically made with a giant bolt: the giant bolt ran trough the center of a wooden wine-style barrel that had gaps between the slats, a pipe 'tap' or holes drilled around the base; the apples are put into the barrel and a round lid of wood placed on top of them, the bolt runs through a hole in the lid, which is cut just smaller than the barrel. The nut is then put on the bolt and progressively tightened down, squishing the juice from the apples. A tub is placed under the barrel to catch the juice. The presses of this style were very old, so I imagine you could build one.
You probably already know all this, but I thought I'd throw it out there just ina case! :D

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