"Commentary from the Countryside"
Thoughts on current events,
history, homesteading, preparedness, real food, and anything else I find interesting, from a cranky, middle-aged woman's common-sense perspective.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Busy, busy, busy!

Making vanilla extract
It's been a busy time here on the homestead.  Baking, cleaning and what-not takes an amazing amount of time.  But it's fun, too, with Christmas music going and the Daughter home from school. 

I've been working on packaging some of my home-made items as gifts, with the thought of getting feedback from folks and developing the best items to possibly sell at the farmer's market next year.  (And of course I'm hoping the recipients will enjoy and make use of the gifts!)  Aside from the jams, peaches and applesauce I put up over the summer, I am bottling some of my home-made vanilla extract for my friends who like to bake.  I started it last May and it has matured into a wonderfully aromatic, golden brew.  Digging through my stash of stuff I discovered a few more of the big brown glass bottles so I started another batch yesterday.  It's easy to do; I order madagascar vanilla beans online, cut the beans length-wise 3/4 of the way, put them in the bottle, fill the bottle with vodka or rum, and cap it tightly.  It
takes  about six weeks to get a useable extract, depending on number and quality of beans, but I like to let it perk along in the back of the pantry for several months.  I prefer the vodka results to the rum.

I found the hardest part about making the extract is buying the alcohol.  I'd never bought liquor before, so I was at the party store counter asking the clerk the prices on the different brands of vodka and finally purchased two large jugs of the stuff, only to turn around and find several local fellows lined up behind me.  I got more propositions in the time it took to walk from the counter to the door than I have in the last twenty years!  My ears were burning and my cheeks were red by the time I made it back to my truck.

I'm working on several other projects, including creating a hand scrub, and recipe jars. My favorite so far is the potato soup.

Potato Soup in a Jar
Potato Soup Mix in a Jar
1 3/4 cups instant mashed potatoes
1 1/2 cups dried milk
2 tablespoons instant chicken bouillon
2 teaspoons dried minced onion
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons seasoning salt
Combine all ingredients in a bowl; mix well. Put ingredients in a 1-quart jar. On gift tag write: Place 1/2 cup mix in soup bowl; add 1 cup of boiling water; stir until smooth.

So the gifts are all wrapped; the tree is up and decorated.  The house....well, I can always do more cleaning tomorrow morning, right? 

From our homestead to yours, Merry Christmas!  And Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Paws of Joy

A few days ago we were out of town visiting a family member when I suddenly realized that I couldn't remember putting the dawg back in the house before we left.  Talk about panic!  I was worried sick until we were able to contact a neighbor who was kind enough to run over and check. Thankfully, Mattie was safe and sound inside.  Just how do certain animals get such a hold on our hearts?

Some years ago Daughter wanted to get a puppy.  We already had a couple of cats, and the cats were fun, but she wanted a dog.  She even took the initiative to learn how to use the computer to do an internet search and found a website for a local animal shelter.  One particular picture caught her eye, and before I knew it I had agreed to bring home a big, hairy animal with an enormous fluffy tail.  Half black lab, half husky, and all lovey, it didn't take long for her to become a member of the family.  This dawg, and yes, she is a think-of-Goofy's-voice-aw-shucks-down-home-dawg, wants nothing more than to be hugged and petted and loved.  A full seventy pounds, she firmly believes she is a lap dog and that movie night means everyone sits on the sofa and eats popcorn.

Mattie is the most gentle soul I've ever known.  She never says a word unless asked if she'd like to go for a walk, and then there's jumping and whining and singing and impatience until we're finally out the door.  She's the perfect fit for us.  No recreational barking, no drooling all over, and no pestering when she's told to lay down, but let a stranger approach the door and she acts and sounds like the most fearsome of watch dogs.  Brings just that little extra feeling of security to know she can scare bad guys, or at any rate the propane guy that delivers such frightfully expensive gas, and it's great to see the reactions of census takers, salesmen or other front porch pests when she goes into guard dog mode. Watching her run always brings a smile to my face - ears flopping, tongue hanging out, a huge grin on her face, she stretches each paw out as far as possible, reaching, pulling, flexing; flinging herself across the yard, bits of grass flying behind as she thunders along.  "Joy" in the dictionary should be defined by a picture of my dawg running. 

We started with an outdoor kennel for her to stay in while we're away.  She has a good six inches of hair above an undercoat so thick her skin has never been wet, but I built a doghouse anyways, lined it with styrofoam and installed a heat lamp.  She proceeded to eat the styrofoam so I covered it with scrap paneling.  We all thought an insulated, heated, paneled doghouse was pretty awesome, until the fateful day she encountered a skunk in the back yard.  Somehow she thought it was a good idea to chase the skunk.  The skunk thought that house looked like a great place to hide until the dawg came flying through the door.  Needless to say Mattie got a bath and the house was torn down.  Then came a winter of bitter cold and frozen water dishes and, well, we now have an inside dawg.

We've had so much fun with this animal over the years.  It was quite a sight to see our tiny, three pound calico cat completely terrorize her.  If the cat sat in front of the food bowls, the dawg would go hungry.  If the cat laid in the hallway Mattie stayed in the kitchen.  The worst one was when the cat would sit at the top of the kitchen stairs. We would all come rushing in from outside, only to pile up one on another - bangbangbang - because Mattie would see the cat and stop dead, halfway up the steps.  That silly cat would sit there with her tail wrapped neatly around her paws and smirk at the chaos while we tried to get back on our feet.  Mattie would keep looking sideways or down, refusing to make eye contact like a toddler who figures if he covers his eyes, you can't see him.  Our kitty is gone now, but I think Mattie remembers the humiliation she endured.  A couple of adorable plucky kittens showed up in the yard this fall, but every effort to adopt them failed as Mattie showed an uncharacteristic aggression toward the little tykes.

This old dawg has been a lot of company for me these past weeks, as I'm home so much more and find myself adjusting to a different schedule, and working through the times of anger and depression that come with the loss of a job.  She doesn't say much, but as I sit here at the computer she'll come up and plant a big ol' paw on my knee, shoving a wet nose under my hand and I can feel the stress ease off as we settle in for an ear scratching session.  They do say that people with dogs live longer. I think God gave us dogs to help us through the bad times, and I'm thankful every day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Little Philosophy

Christmas-time activities and some wet, rainy weather have put most of the "homesteading" style projects on a temporary hold, so I've been doing a little more thinking and reading.  A couple of folks have wondered how my little bit of land can be considered a homestead, or asked why I put time and energy in growing food and canning it, when it is so readily available and convenient at the store.

Truth is, sometimes I wonder myself.  I buy seeds, plant them, spend the summer watering, weeding, and caring for the plants, then do all the work of harvesting and processing, just to put some jars of vegetables in the pantry.  Think how easy it would be to walk into the store on a "10 for $10" day and walk out with dozens of cans of veggies twenty minutes later.  I suppose a quick answer would be that I come of very stubborn German/Dutch people not known for doing things the easy way.  But the real answer is much more complex.

My "homesteading" mentality has long been a part of me; growing up on a farm taught me a lot about the value of hard work and resourcefulness and my love of American history filled my head with stories of the brave pioneers who were willing to face tremendous odds to be independent, self-sufficient, and establish a home where they could provide for themselves and their families.  So the basis was there, though mostly dormant during my young adulthood years of college and living in more urban settings.  Then it seems a lot of factors, such as parenthood, home-ownership, and experience gradually came together to bring me to where I am today. 

Or perhaps I've simply gotten cranky as I've gotten older, who knows.  But I look around and see a corrupt, liberal government driving us deeper into debt and further into socialism.  I see people woefully unprepared for even a minor setback, such as an ice storm disrupting the grocery supply chain for a while.  I see churches losing their identity and succumbing to popular culture. I see illegal aliens living off government programs while demanding that American culture become subservient to theirs.  I see crops in the fields that have been genetically modified to the extent that growing them is ruining the soil.  I see people being mindlessly sucked in to tv shows where faith and morals are ridiculed. I see meat in the store that has had colorants and salt water added so it looks good....I could go on, but no one wants to read a rant.  Simply put, I don't like what I see. 

So I am willing to put my time, energy and effort into changing what I see, wherever I can, and like most changes, it starts at home.  My little homestead is where I make my stand and start the process.  I hope that by sharing the journey through this blog that others will find some ideas and inspiration to make changes to what they see, perhaps just starting with the small steps of growing and canning fresh, healthy food.  I promise I'll try not to get too cranky.

He doesn't like the rain either.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Some of my reading lately has been looking at the many perspectives people have on "homesteading", "simple living" and "self-sufficiency".  There are many different ideas ranging from an off-grid cabin in the Alaskan bush to a home in the city with a tomato plant on the balcony, but almost always with the notion of being "away" from people.

I've thought that way for many years, being fairly content with my own company, and while I still cherish family and friends, I do prefer being home in my personal space with plenty of room to breathe and think. And even though some who know me personally may jokingly say I'm anti-social I know these connections with others are important,  and as I get older I begin to see just how needful those connections are.  And that even momentary connections can make a difference.

Earlier today a group of people from my church went Christmas caroling at a couple of local nursing homes.  It's an annual event I hadn't joined before, but since I found a nice basket with handles for carrying a tune I tagged along this year.  It felt a little awkward at first but as the age-old songs filled the halls I could see the people respond and saw cloudy eyes and palsied limbs forgotten as wrinkled faces beamed with joy.  At one point I heard a beautiful clear voice join in, and turned to see a tiny woman in a wheelchair, her face alight as that wonderful voice poured out in songs of praise and joy for the birth of Christ. I never learned her name, but I definitely felt a connection with her.  I so enjoyed singing with her I stopped worrying about how my voice sounded and simply had fun being a small part of bringing joy to shut-in folks.  Some of them may not have friends or family close by or may have out-lived their loved ones but for this brief moment of song they were reconnected to other people.

Even for somewhat anti-social, self-sufficient characters like myself, it's important to remember and celebrate our connections and look beyond ourselves.

Friday, December 9, 2011

December Moon

We're close to the winter solstice now and it seems like I no sooner get started on my chores than it gets dark.  I still need to cut and stack more firewood and clean up the remains of the garden fencing.  Aside from that frustration, I actually enjoy this darkest time of the year.  Instead of being busy outside until late in the evening, I have time for an early supper, connecting with family, a fire in the fireplace, and a good book. There's an incredible beauty to the nights this time of year, too.  I went out with the dawg a little while ago, and the full moon was perfectly centered in the bare branches of the trees, winking and grinning as it cast a gentle silver light over the yard.

I've always loved the beauty of a winter night. Sometimes I'll wrap up in a big ol' wool blanket and sit out in my patio swing watching the moon striking diamonds in the snow, creating a luminous landscape of silvers and blues. Orion hovers above the eastern horizon, his bow ever at the ready while over my shoulder Venus glows with a steady white light, putting me in mind of the Bethlehem Star. The air is still and crystalline, thin and pure, making each breath a treasure.  The stars come closer in the icy cold sky, and it seems if I just sit quietly enough I'll be able to hear them singing.  Truly the heavens declare the glory of God!  Finally the cold works through the blanket and I retreat to my warm living room, refreshed, calm and at peace, thankful to live out in the countryside where nothing blocks my views or interferes with the peacefulness.

Peace and beauty, stillness and rest.  May the blessings of a December night be yours.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Oh, the Noise, Noise, Noise!

One of the highlights of unemployment has to be the opportunity for a leisurely breakfast.  I still get up at the usual time (ok, not every day!) and do some laundry, redd up the kitchen, and so on, and then settle with my breakfast, some hot tea and the laptop to do some thinking, reading, and job hunting.

Well today I happened to turn on the tv before I sat down.  That may have been a mistake.  The morning news program was on, with self-appointed experts telling us what to think and what to do.  Did you know there's very little actual news reported on these shows?  When did we become such a shallow society, wasting time on trivia?  The last thirty minutes have covered the cost of a dress someone wore to an award show, how to gently reason with your children when they want more "stuff", (what happened to just say no?) the divorce of another famous couple, and an actor that was tossed off a plane for not turning off his phone.  Is any of that truly "news"?  Is any of it actually important, thought-provoking, useful for my day, or worthy of discussion?  I suppose I should be grateful for the passing mention of the Pearl Harbor attack, seventy years ago today.  We seem to have morphed from a nation united and devoted to our ideals to a lazy people addicted to noisy entertainments.  Time to turn the tv off! 

Another good thing about unemployment is being free to get to afternoon Advent services.  Taking an hour out of the day to pause and remember that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Savior, to sing the wonderful old Advent hymns is refreshing and comforting - and so much more meaningful than the television!

"And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus."

Trial and Error Under Pressure

The Creature
Putting away the canning equipment, including that puzzling, exasperating and inspiring pressure canner, until after Christmas.  Finished up the turkey project last night by canning stock for turkey soup.  It sure has been a wild ride learning how to use this creature. I was reading my Ball Complete Book of Canning, checking the National Center for Home Food Preservation web, and following the advice of my online friends.  After a while it felt like canning by committee, especially when the advice becomes contradictory.  So often folks seem to write about pressure canning as though it were no more difficult than tying your shoes.  Perhaps I should trade in my bootlaces for velcro, because I have found the process most challenging.  Following directions for prepping the food is easy enough, but actually using the canner is an uncertain venture.  Is it vented properly?  "The weight should slowly rock."  What does this mean?  Even getting the jars out is a puzzle.  The canner's manual says not to rush the cooling and not to lift the weight to hasten the reduction of pressure.  The Ball book has a very short and simple paragraph about letting the canner cool to zero pressure, and pulling out the jars. It's not really so simple.  Questions come up, like how long to wait?  How do I know when it is at zero pressure?  I took the earlier batch of chicken broth out too early, and the jars pinged multiple times while the broth boiled like crazy, threatening eruption.  The jars of sausage stayed in too long and were cool to touch when I removed them from the canner. I have been told that leaving jars in the canner that long can cause the food to spoil.

After much trial and error I've come to a rough timetable of waiting thirty or forty minutes and then checking the weight on the canner.  If it is relatively cool to the touch, I lift it partway and if the steam just goes "psst" and stops, I consider that as reduced to zero.  If the steam hisses out hard and fast when I move the weight, I leave it in place and try again later.  Once the pressure is zeroed, I remove the lid and then wait ten minutes before taking out the jars.  The most disconcerting thing is that I'm not hearing the jars "ping".  All these years of doing water-bath canning, my favorite part is always hearing the jar lids "ping" and seal as they cool.  I have checked the lids carefully and they seem to be sealed; I'm assuming that they're sealing in the canner as it cools and I can't hear the "pings".

Turkey Stock
Turkey Meat
Regardless, I now have canned meat for my pantry.  I got eight pints of meat and six quarts of stock from just the one turkey, and I'm looking forward to more pressure canning in the future!

Monday, December 5, 2011


Saturday was filled with outside chores - which isn't a bad thing, except much of it was re-doing tasks I had already checked off my list, including re-tarping our little backyard pool and re-taping the plastic film I used to winterize the first floor windows.  I'm not surprised that the high winds tore the tarp off the pool, but I am very disappointed that the window film kits aren't holding on.  I've used the same brand for five years and this is the first year I've had this issue.  Probably yet another product that is now made in China. We did finally get the mower deck off the lawn tractor, the tire chains on, and the rack on the front porch filled with firewood.

Not-so-attractive pork sausage
Today was another busy day, makes me wonder how I had time to work when I had a job!  Had to take Daughter in for a dental appointment, pick up all the mail at the post office, and do some computer work.  Then, being a stubborn sort, (which I come by naturally) I started yet another pressure canning project.  My attempts so far have been less than successful, including the pork sausage.  Turns out I was supposed to cover the sausage with boiling water or broth before I closed the jars and put them in the canner.  My homesteading web friends tell me it's safe to eat, but just won't be as appetizing or last as long due to not being covered by a broth.

This time I tackled the twelve pound turkey I got at the after-Thanksgiving sale.  I decided to use the raw pack method, so I basically hacked the turkey up into bite-sized chunks, removing the skin and as much fat as possible.  The meat went into pint jars and into the canner.  The guidelines said not to add liquid, so I didn't!  It will be interesting to see how it turns out.  The bones and leftover bits went in to the big kettle to simmer and cook down.  You can be sure I'm watching that process very carefully! 

All of our snow melted during the weekend rains and I'm hoping to finish some more outdoor chores before we get more.  The last fenceposts and plastic mulch need to be removed from the garden, the downspout drain connection has to be replaced, and  I need to rebuild the front porch steps before I have any Christmas visitors.  I doubt even full-strength eggnog would make up for someone falling through the rotted steps.

Time to see if the canner is cool enough to open.  Here's hoping I actually have useable, nicely done canned turkey!

Take care, my friends.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cooped Up!

Ever have one of those days when you hurry and work and still seem to not get ahead?  Today was like that.  Beautiful sunshine starting the melt the snow outside, but I had no time to get out and enjoy it.

Most of the day was spent in the kitchen, scrubbing the remnants of the grease and soot from the stove and microwave, doing dishes (how do just two people make so many dirty dishes?) and continuing the organizing and cleaning.  It's amazing how one change creates an avalanche of other changes that need to be made.  A family member bought a new stove, so I inherited the old one.  It's a switch for me from an electric to a propane model, which of course means I no longer have the big drawer on the bottom for all the pots and pans.  Moving the pots and pans means clearing out shelves and cupboards, which means reorganizing everything, which leads to a major sorting, winnowing and date-mark checking sort of day.

I gave up on my broth I was making; even though I had put it in the fridge, when I heated it up again it just didn't seem right so I didn't can it.  A lot of  effort (and risk!) for no reward.   :-(

I also tried another experiment, this one of canning up some bulk pork sausage.  I did a lot of recipe reading and advice asking, and still managed to have another problem!  This time I was following thee directions for browning the sausage prior to putting it in the jars, and managed to burn it.  Sigh.  Not too bad, but there I was, fishing ball after ball of sausage out of the frying pan, and cutting off the burned sections.  The rest of the process seemed to go alright, and I canned up eight pints of funny looking, lopsided sausage balls.  All the jars seemed to seal, I'll check them thoroughly in the morning. 

Lakota Squash

It's an heirloom - I saved those seeds!

The big canning pots are washed and stored; the dehydrator and it's trays have been scrubbed and put away; and I got one of my Lakota squashes baked and into the freezer.  So perhaps the day wasn't a total loss after all...but I sure would have liked to have gotten out in the sunshine!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sparrows Are Liberal Democrats

I have several bird feeders just outside my window, and it's amusing to watch the mannerisms of the different types of birds.  The goldfinches are sedate, four or more sharing the feeder at the same time with a minimum of flapping and complaining.  They delicately pull one seed out of time out of the feeder mesh, and finish it before grabbing another.  The cardinals are noisy and bossy, making strafing runs at the feeder to chase everyone else away.  Only then will they stop to eat.  It's fascinating to watch them pick up a sunflower seed, crack it open, eat the nut, and spit out the shell all in one movement.  It doesn't seem that a beak should be that dexterous.  The woodpeckers are fairly anti-social, ignoring everyone else, including each other, to dig into the suet cake.  One in particular is very industrious, constantly swooping to and fro as he places nuggets of suet in the rough bark of his favorite tree. Every now and again an oriole will come by, perch on top of the hook, and sing a sweet song in payment for his supper of berry suet.

But then there's the sparrows.  A noisy, garrulous lot, running in flocks that are cheeping, chirping, squawking and complaining from sun up to sun down.  They descend on the feeders like a swarm of locusts, chasing all others away, erratically darting about and even running into the windows.  Then they stick their beaks into the feed and swipe their heads from side to side, searching for that one particular biggest, tastiest seed, flinging what they don't want over the edge.  They also jump in and scratch like chickens, throwing seed in all directions, making a mess and wasting much more than they ever actually eat.  Sometimes they're so bad the sound of the feed hitting the windows and siding is like a mini hailstorm.  Yelling at them and rapping on the window frame doesn't faze them in the least, they simply give back an impudent stare out of a black, beady eye.  It seems they're raising their young to be freeloaders, too.  I've seen a fledgling who could obviously fly and make his own way perched on the top of the suet feeder, while the adult sparrow dug through the seed, picked up a mouthful, and then hopped over and fed it to the youngster.  The young one sat there, beak open, as though entitled to whatever the other bird could pick up, and let out loud, raucous cheeps if his handout wasn't getting there fast enough.

All this behavior puts me in mind of the worst of the liberals.  So until a way is found to disenfranchise the sparrows, without simply removing the feeders and denying all the birds their dinner, we'll amuse ourselves by naming them.  (At least until we can no longer afford to fill the feeders, which with how much they waste, will happen soon!)  The skinny, bossy one is Obama, the short, ruffled looking one that wastes so much is Pelosi, the slow one with spectacle markings is Levin, the one that flies into the window all the time is Wiener, the one that falls off the feeder is Biden......this could take a while!

View from the deer blind
In the meantime, there's plenty of chores to do, trying to make a few bucks by listing a ton of stuff on ebay, scrubbing the kitchen, cutting firewood, getting out the Christmas decorations, and doing some painting.  Not to mention trying to find a few hours to get back out in search of venison for the freezer.  At least there aren't any sparrows near the deer blind!