Als ich wisse das Morgen der Erde enden wuerde, immernoch wurd ich mein Apfelbaum pflanzen.

Even if I knew the world would perish tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree. - Martin Luther

"Factory work's easier on the back, and I don't mind it, understand, but a man becomes what he does. Got to watch that. That's why I keep at farmin' although the crops haven't ever throve. It's the doin' that's important." Madison Wheeler in Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon

Sunday, March 24, 2013

My Kids are Cheap Dates

Our family has a financial motto:  Be miserly in some things so that you can be extravagant with experiences. 
We save money by carpooling, buying a minimal amount of clothes and shoes (usually on sale or at the thrift shop), baking our bread, growing a large portion of our own food, canning, freezing and drying, buying in bulk, eating very little meat, doing a very limited amount of interior decorating and remodeling, eating in season, limited eating out, giving simple or homemade gifts and generally living a simple life.
But, when it comes to experiences, we're often very extravagant.  We ski frequently in the winter which can be very expensive, but the time spent with the kids where we talk and laugh is worth it.  We travel much of the summer (although we save a lot by camping and cooking our own food). We go to museums and plays.  We travel frequently to see family and friends and don't worry about the gas. 
Although we splurge on our entertainment for trips, and cultural experiences, the rest of the time we try to keep our entertainment costs fairly low.    Usually, we get movies from the library, pop the popcorn we raised and play games.  However, this night was different. 
The Woodsman is training to run a marathon this spring, so right after school on Friday he headed out for a long run.  He planned to be gone for several hours.  I had a blistering headache and no idea what I was making for dinner. 
My grocery buying is still at a minimum -  there's still plenty of bulk items and lots of food left in the freezer.  So, I went shopping in the pantry.  At the bottom of the bulk bin I found a bag of semolina flour.  I also remembered the pasta making machine my Dad gave me for Christmas several years ago. 
I called Soccer Boy (my new sous chef) and told him that we were going to make home made pasta for dinner.  He's usually pretty enthusiastic about kitchen projects - and this time was no exception. 
Before I knew it Reading Girl was in the kitchen and they had pretty much taken over the process.  We made four different kinds of pasta (shells, tagliatelle, spaghetti and fusilli).  We spent about an hour, and the whole experience was simple and highly entertaining.  As an added side bonus the pasta was also really, really delicious. 
We had spaghetti and fusilli with tomato sauce for dinner.  I put the shells in the fridge for Monday's Pumpkin Pasta, and the tagliatelle in the freezer to wait for an Alfredo sauce sometime in the future. 
I'm so glad that my kids are so easily (and cheaply) entertained.  Who knew that flour + eggs + kids + pasta machine would equal so much fun?
Cutting off the spaghetti.


Fusilli - cooked with sauce

Finished pasta

Cats Can't Fly

Right after Christmas we got a kitten.  He's fun and funny, cuddly and cute and everything you would expect in a kitten.  We all adore him.  But, he also makes us nervous.  You know the expression "curiosity killed the cat"?  Well...  I hope it doesn't apply to him one day. 
Recently, Chester learned that he could follow the birds up the tree and ONTO THE ROOF!  The first and second time the Woodsman got the ladder out and rescued him.  (Have you ever tried to carry a cat down a ladder?  Not easy.)  After that we decided that he was on his own.  We stand near the tree and call him down.  He meows and complains the whole time, but eventually works his way down to the bottom. 
Today, he climbed onto the roof, found a stick up there and was busy batting it around.  I really hope he has a good sense of balance.  Someone needs to tell him that cats don't really have nine lives.

Watching the birds at the feeder.

Getting ready to pounce.


Almanac March 23, 2013

According to the astronomical calendar it's spring.  According to the weather forecast (6-8 inches of snow tonight; lows in the 30s) it's still winter.  Here's what's going on around here...


I heard the spring peepers two weeks ago.  They've been singing any night that's above freezing since then. The robins, phoebes and woodpeckers are back. The chickens are laying more eggs.


Sorrel is growing in the garden.  The Asian greens planted last fall have left dormancy and are starting to grow.  I think we'll be able to pick in about two weeks.  The onions and garlic planted in the fall are all up about 4 inches.  The first daffodil bloomed today - brave thing.
Sorrel - looking forward to turning this into soup soon.
Tatsoi growing under double row covers - as soon as it grows a bit bigger it's going into a stir fry.
Garlic and Onions - planted last fall.  Can you see them?  They're small, but growing nicely.
The only bit of color on the property.


I'm using the last of the sweet potatoes today.  I used the last of the cabbage last week.  So, now we're down to the contents of the freezer.  There's still an abundance of pureed winter squash, peaches, berries, green beans, Swiss Chard and a little bit of cauliflower.  I still have quite a good stash of zucchini bread, and quite a few made ahead meals.  Soccer Boy is happy though because we've eaten all the soup. 
The pantry is still stocked.  I'm not even close to running out of anything.  Huzzah!
Here's a recipe I've been making a lot lately. It has all the flavors of spring, and yet uses ingredients I already have.  The kids really love these.  They work great for breakfast, snacks and lunch boxes.

Vegan Lemon Berry Muffins

Adapted from Vegan Holiday Kitchen by Nava Atlas

2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 c. sugar
1 c. applesauce
2 t. oil
2 t. vanilla
1/3 c. lemon juice
Mix together the dry, and then add the wet.  Bake at 350 for 20 - 25 min.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Field Trip with Pap

I've been thinking a lot lately about my grandfather.  Tomorrow would have been his 100th birthday.  It's still hard to know that I can't talk to him.  I think there are some people that you never really get used to being without. Pap is one of them.  

Two springs ago, just a few months after his 98th birthday, Pap, my Dad and I spent the day on a driving tour of our family heritage sites.  I'm so very, very glad we took the time to do this together. 

First stop on our family tour was the old family cemetery.  This cemetery is on the original land my family farmed - 700 acres in Western Pennsylvania.  This is the farm where my grandpa was born and where he lived until he was a teenager.  Pap spent a lot of time telling me about the people who are buried here.  Most of the stories were ones that I had already heard, but listening to them again while standing at their final resting place made for some very special, and memorable moments.

After we left the cemetery we headed to my great-grandpa's farm, where Pap worked as a teenager.  This farm hangs on the edge of several hollows.  It was a very steep and rocky farm.  Most of Pap's stories were about helping run the cider press and the lumber mill.  The world he described is so different from the world we live in today.  It's hard to comprehend all of the changes he saw in his life.  Most of the stories that I love come from his time at this farm.

Pap had been having a great day, but Dad and I were conscious of not making him be over tired.  We were ready to be finished and head for lunch, but Pap had one more stop for us.

He guided us to a cemetery where more ancestors were buried, including the first Amish bishop in Pennsylvania.  He hadn't been to this cemetery for years, and he was very motivated to go see it.  The cometary is at the top of a steep (and at that time very muddy) hill.  Keep in mind that this was a 98 year old man who used a walker to get around.  He was absolutely determined to go up that hill.  So, with much trepidation Dad and I helped him walk up the steep incline. 

When he reached the top he spent a long time resting and thinking.  The day was hushed and overcast.  It was a good place to be introspective.  I wonder what thoughts were going through his head.  Joy at being able to visit again?  Gratitude for the day we had?  Deeper thoughts about when his time would come?

I know that I was filled with thankfulness for the day we had spent, and with a new sense of understanding of our family's heritage.  I already knew a lot about my family's history and had spent time about once a month sitting and listening to my Grandpa's tales.  I'm such a tactile and visual learner though, so this day really brought all of those stories to life.  I could picture where the barn was when Pap almost killed his grandpa's new bull, and I could see the route he took to walk to school.  I gave me an entirely new perspective.

I spent a lot of time listening to, and recording, my Pap's stories.  I don't listen to those stories very often, but because I took the time, his voice is very present in my head and his love is in my heart.  I learned so much from him.  So much of who I am, and who my Dad is seems to be tied directly to our Swiss German farming heritage.  I know that he loved the land.  I don't think he was ever happier than when he was farming.  I get it Pap.  Growing things and raising animals is in our blood - isn't it?
I've been working on writing this post for several months.  I keep coming back to it, and remembering and then getting teary.  As I was making the final edits, my oldest came in and gave me sweet hugs.  I told her that I was OK, but that it was hard because I missed him.  Her response - It's OK.  Everyone misses him Mommy.  It's true.  We all miss you Pap.
I love you - forever, and I'll see you again one day. Until then you'll be with me every time I work the ground, or walk the land. Thank you for the model of a life well lived, and for the love you gave to me.

Snow? Again? Here? In March? Awesome!!!

Having grown up in the North, where we have real winter, I am a snow sceptic.  So, when the forecast called for several inches of snow, but only grass was showing when I went to bed I did not believe.
When I woke up this morning in the pre-dawn I discovered that several inches had fallen, and it was still coming down fast.  I knew that this meant no school!  I relished in the quiet.  Got some work done and had some time to exercise and have a cup of coffee without interuption.  I made plans for what how our menu would change for the day, and then wondered what the kids might choose to do with the day. 
I'd hoped to get in one more ski day, but, since we've had such a small amount of snow on the ground this winter, the kids chose to stay home and play in the snow with friends.  Fresh powder, and real snow are rare around here.  I definitely would have chosen to be on the slopes.  I'm working more though on trying to be content in the moment, so after going outside to take pictures I came in to bask in the warmth of a good wood fire, and to enjoy this free day with my family.  I can't really find it in myself to complain about an unexpected winter gift in March.
Snowed in - the fort in winter.

Boarding in the back yard

Snow buddies

Yikes!  Watch out for the wood pile.

Snow ball fight!

On the Menu Today:  Peaches and Cream Muffins and Bean Soup

Peaches and Cream Muffins - Adapted from Taste of Home, 2000

1 egg
1 mashed banana
1 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. vegetable oil
3 c. flour
1 c. sugar
4 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
2 c. chopped frozen peaches

Mix together the wet ingredients.  Sift the dry ingredients together and then add to the wet.  Fold in the peaches.  Bake at 400 for 20 - 25 min.  Makes about 18 muffins. 

I used to make these in the summer with fresh peaches and freeze them already made, but they don't actually freeze very well.  They get a bit dried out.  These are much better made with frozen peaches and then served hot out of the oven with a little butter. 

You can substitute another egg for the banana.  You can also use yogurt or regular milk instead of the buttermilk.  The buttermilk gives it a nice tangy flavor that we like.

Bean Soup

This is a simple soup.  It takes a bit of time because you're starting with dried beans, but really it's just simmer time.

I used a bag of soup beans with a flavoring packet, but you could substitute regular beans and bullion or a ham bone.

Soak or parboil 2 c. of beans.  Then add 8 c. of water and seasoning packet, or 8 c. broth.  Add a few chopped carrots, a chopped onion, some garlic, some pepper and a few pieces of chopped celery.  Cook for about an hour.  Then taste for salt and season accordingly.  You may need to cook it for another 1/2 hour. 

Sweet Reward

Finally, the home stretch.  Finishing off the syrup. 
Once the sugar water is concentrated, it's moved to a large pan over a propane burner.  There's it's cooked over a slow heat until the hydrometer floats.  This shows that there is a consistent amount of sugar.  You can just guess at this stage, but the hydrometer ensures that the syrup is the same thickness and sweetness every time.
Finishing off over the propane
Measuring with the hydrometer.  The glass valve floats when it's the right sugar level.

Relaxing in front of the fire.

My sister made this sign for my Pap sometime in the 80s - it's still there.

When it's ready, the syrup is filtered through a wool and cloth filter and then poured into jugs to seal. 

Pouring the finished syrup into the jug.

Finally, we eat!  I'm always amazed that for a little bit of effort (and a lot of time) we're able to take what nature gives and turn it into something sweet to enjoy all year.  It's one of the world's little miracles. 

The syrup is sweet, but all of the time spent with family, and sharing this tradition with my children and my father is the sweetest reward of all.  I hope that we continue to make syrup at the farm for a long, long, long time to come.  It's too sweet of a tradition to ever stop.

Banana Berry Nutmeg Pancakes

2 c. flour
2 c. milk or water
1 T baking powder
2 T sugar
1 t. salt
1 mashed banana
1 egg
1 t. nutmeg
blackberries or blueberries

Mix and cook as usual.
Banana Berry Nutmeg Pancakes with sausage biscuits and gravy  - Yum!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Tappin' Time - Part III

Once you bring all the sugar water back to the sugar house it's time to boil it down. Dad pumps the sugar water out of the tank on the tractor, and into the holding tank in the sugar camp. 
The amount of water is measured in the tank to approximate the number of gallons collected.  On this day we collected 90 gallons of sugar water.
Priming the Pump

Then the sugar water gets pumped into the evaporator pans. It's important to make sure that the temperature in the evaporating pans doesn't drop below 200, and that the water level doesn't drop below two inches in the pan.
Evaporator Pan

As the water boils down it gets sweeter and sweeter.  One of the best parts of sugaring season is drinking the sweet sugar water right from the evaporating pan.  It's hard to wait for the sugar water to be cool enough to drink.

It's hard to see in this picture, but this sugar water is already getting a nice caramel color.

Getting ready to sugar starts well before you bore the first tap.  All of the wood that's too hard to split, or too punky goes on the sugar camp pile.  It takes a lot of wood to cook down the sugar water into syrup.  It takes 40 - 50 gallons of sugar water to make 1 gallon of syrup.  That's a lot of wood.

Stoking the fire is a great reward after being out in the cold and being all wet and muddy.

Farmer Dan with his fourth generation sugarers in training

Tappin' Time - Part II

After we tapped trees, it was time to collect the sugar water from the trees that had been tapped by Dad previously.  It's funny... when my sister and I were the same ages as the kids we had to trudge out to the trees with the buckets - now my dad brings the buckets to them so they can fill their little buckets and dump it into the tank.  It's great to see my dad spoil them in this little way.
The kids have a great time riding behind the tractor, and there's a lot of laughing and giggling, and also a lot (I mean a lot) of mud.

The sheet filters out any bugs or dirt that might have fallen in the buckets. 

These were the origional trees my Dad tapped and they're still going strong.

On the last stop she carried a big bucket up to the trees and back by herself.

The hill was very muddy, so they worked to bring it down together.