Friday, January 23, 2015

We've got ourselves a cool kid!

We'll see if I can crank out a quick blog post before we sit down to roasted chicken with potatoes and shallots, roasted squash, and two of Kali's recently created recipes (chili polenta and lima salsa chili).  It might be wishful thinking as the smaller of our two gals is showing signs of the potential for a hunger-melt-down.  But I'll give it a try!

So we have ourselves two cool kids, but one of them has been particularly delightful to be around of late.  I know stages come and go and the best approach is just to savor each one (or in some cases bear them knowing they will likely come to an end).

Both girls can often be found perusing cookbooks. Kali will often find a recipe or two that she thinks would be fun to make together.  This week she was looking through a cookbook with the things we have in excess in mind (helping us stick to our "no grocery shopping" attempts - last time we bought groceries at the store was December 4th).  So this week we enjoyed Tennessee Cornpone thanks to her inspiration.  But after looking through a good number of books she was not finding recipes that interested her so she decided to make some up.

Before the end of the evening, five new recipes had been created.  She was going back and forth between our pantry and root cellar, asking me from time to time if certain things were things we wanted to use up.  It was great!!  And she has a pretty good sense for good food combos.  So far we have downed her Red Lentil and Tomato soup in one sitting.  We'll try two more tonight and we have the last two on the calendar for the coming days.

A few other quick updates:

The third brood of chicks has hatched. It was another great hatch with 9 of 10 hatching. Unfortunately one little chick met its fate when it got stuck under a stick in the nest. We hate that!  The others, from the brief peek I got at them today, look fuzzy and quite perky.  It seems like all the adult chickens in the composting coop are pretty much taking all these new inhabitants in stride.  The only ones that seem to be struggling are the mama hens.  While we were in the coop today the one mama hen who had free reign of the place was attempting to fight with the mama hens in enclosures with their chicks.  Hopefully the oldest chicks will head out to range before too long.  There is one more brood set to hatch in a few weeks.

Progress continues on the bathroom project and in little snippets of time on other homestead tasks.  This week Jason and Jonathan started work on path and bed creation in the herb garden. Our old bathtub is now in position with stinging nettle starts.  The bathroom framing is done and today Jason started installing cement board and drywall is next. Little by little!

Friday, January 16, 2015

There's a lot going on around here...

...and it's only January!

I was very glad to crawl into bed last night knowing that I did not have to go anywhere today!  With it being the beginning of a new semester, I've been putting in some long days at work (I have a carpool option that has me leaving Fruit Farm Lane at 4:50 in the morning; those first 3 hours at work are quite productive with no one else bothering me!).  When we all returned home after an evening event, it was clear that Jason and the girls had had to leave in a rush for their afternoon errand.  It was one of those days where the "Alida-tornado" had been at work, along with a little friend who was over to play.  I couldn't muster the energy to do anything about it, knowing my "morning burst" would have it done in short order.  As I was drifting off to sleep, I heard noises in the front room which sounded like someone putting things away. I knew Jason was busy at the computer following up on a possible chicken breeding connection (exciting!) and Alida was drifting off beside me.  When I got up this morning the living room was spotless other than the farming game which the girls enjoy playing for days in a row. Kali took it upon herself to clean it all up before bed (knowing full well, she had not generated much, if any, of the mess). What is this world coming to?!

I really should not have been that surprised - she has been so consistently pleasant and helpful!  I try not to make unhelpful comparisons of our girls, mostly just enjoying how unique and special they both are.  In this particular area they are clearly at very different developmental stages, while also being quite different in personality.  Our family meeting the other night highlighted those differences!  We made it through, but just barely.  When Alida is not interested in doing something, she not only just doesn't participate, she attempts to make it hard for anyone else to participate.  She definitely comments on various agenda items but about 75% of the time her responses really make little to no sense. One of the items we discussed in the meeting was what things each of us wishes to make time and space for each week.  Jason and I named things like carving out reflective spaces, doing a mindfulness meditation, and reading together.  I believe Alida wanted to have Curious George read to her.  Kali wanted to make a meal once a week.  She did her first lunch this week and while it was a very late lunch, or so I was told, all those present enjoyed it.  She is steadily improving for her first meal a few years back where we had toast and sickeningly sweet fruit smoothie!

I did some fun food experimenting today.  We are nearing the end of Alida's pink sauerkraut and have no more cabbage to make more.  We are still avoiding grocery stores - I was actually in the co-op the other day picking up some snacks for a work event and was proud of myself for leaving without succumbing to temptation (I will admit to calling Jason on my way there to bolster my resolve!).  I also intend to stop taking probiotics (in pill form) when my current bottle runs out. That means I need to ferment some things!  We are making half of our milk share into yogurt, which is great, but I want some fermented veggies too.  What do we have a lot of?  Winter squash!  So onto google I hopped to see what people do to ferment winter squash, if they do it at all. They do!  And now I have!  I sure hope we like it as we now over a gallon of trombone squash fermenting - some plain, some with fresh sage, and some with cloves, cinnamon and ginger.  If we like it, that is likely to be the future of the other large trombone squashes.  To be reported on later...

The longer we go without grocery shopping the more things we are running out of, obviously!  And the more creative I'm needing to get in planning ahead for our week and making sure there are good options for hungry bellies.  I decided to make a double batch of polenta today so that we can slice off and fry polenta to go with eggs for breakfast, to eat with pasta sauce as a main dish or have as a side with soup at lunch or dinner.  Little did I know that I would end up hardly doing anything in the process of making it.  Alida got interested in grinding the corn and grind she did.  I couldn't believe she stuck with it as long as she did. At one point I told her how surprised I was how much corn she was grinding all by herself.  She corrected me, telling me that she wasn't grinding it by herself but that her "friends" were helping her.  I had just missed them (since they are imaginary), but clearly they provided her with some additional strength for grinding.

It cracks me up sometimes the things our kids argue about.  After lunch there was a little more to do and Kali wanted to help.  Alida wasn't too keen on this and had a fit about it.  In the end they happily took turns stirring the polenta and now we have one plain loaf setting up and one with romano cheese.  Yum!  I thought a short video of Alida grinding was worth sharing, since pictures don't capture the background noise we got to "enjoy" today.

Today is Jason's first day back on the bathroom job following a day on chicken coop rehabs and a day filling our woodshed with Jonathan for next winter.  He's been wrestling with the electricity today.  When we sat down to steaming bowls of chicken, pinto bean, butternut, kale soup for lunch, he was distracted and rather annoyed at the state of things.  I think the soup and our company helped to perk him up a bit - at least it was soon after lunch that he had a break through on the main source of the morning's frustration.  He has now wrestled his way through the worst of it and is currently working on the last outlet.  I believe framing comes next, which is always fun because of the quick and visible progress.

I've been trying, when I'm able, to do little tasks for Jason that might free up a few extra moments for him to continue on the bathroom project.  To date, I've not saved him any time since my one attempt the other week ending up creating much more work for him (and I could have burned down the composting chicken coop - let's just say that I wasn't very impressed with myself for adding our ashes to the chickens' dust bath when they were still too warm.  That could be a blog post in and of itself but I'm still getting over that one!).  The one task I'm very ready to do for him these days is let the chickens out to roam about.  Not only do I love watching them make their rounds, I love to go into the coop and see the progress of all the new little families getting started.  The second round of chicks has now hatched and they are just as cute as the first.  All 9 in the first brood are looking as healthy as ever and 8 out of 10 hatched in the second brood (we never have this high hatch rates when using an incubator). We've got a third brood less than a week from hatch and another hen has gone broody and Jason will set eggs under her tonight.  So the coop is full of peeping as I approach it.  The mamas weren't so sure of me with my camera today and were calling the chicks to them.  The older chicks love sitting on top of her, which I think is about the cutest thing ever.

So it feels like it should be warmer outside with chicks hatching, but the cold reminds us that it is still winter.  It is fun to see the onions growing on the shelf in the common room.  Since we are now completely out of onions from last year and making fast progress through our shallots, I'm getting eager for the upcoming growing season.  Until then, I want to soak up the evenings together by the woodstove.  In order to enjoy the one upon us, I better get moving folding the 3 large loads of laundry I just hauled inside!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A lovely sabbath day!

Today was glorious!  The sun was shining and the temperatures soared above freezing, making it just right for working together outside.  With Jason's focus going primarily to the bathroom project, we have not had a lot of time working in the same area together.  So what a treat to have him stationed at the picnic table doing some much needed chicken coop rehabs, while the girls and I loosened stacks of frozen leaves to put on new garden beds.  I think they were about as happy as I was to be working out in the cool air and warm sunshine.  It was fun to hear Alida's giggles as we pushed her over into the big leaf pile and to see Kali now able to give Alida wheelbarrow rides.  I also let the chickens out early to range so they could be traipsing around us.  We all had plenty of energy after a delicious brunch of fresh kale (see photo below for our picking conditions) and pork sausage, both thanks to generous neighbors, and some coconut flour waffles (still trying to make something that isn't dry with coconut flour - that stuff is incredible!).

It's been nice to have a bit of a breather from the bathroom project while the concrete cures.  I took the opportunity to "reclaim" our floors yesterday, thereby enjoying a full day of walking around without grit under my feet.  I know it will be a mess again soon enough, but I've relished this short stint of cleanliness.  Below you will find a smattering of photos from recent days.  The second round of chicks is due to hatch early this week.  I'm quite impressed by the first mama hen that has kept all 9 chicks warm under her feathers, even with our 2 degree night this week.  They are getting their little feathers and Jason has seen them undertaking flying practice!

I'm wrapping this post up so we can turn our attention to a family meeting.  Three out of the four of us want to have one, but the littlest in the house is not into sitting still to do much of anything right now so we'll see how it goes!  Kali is still finishing up her dinner, and I'm still wrapping my head around the fact that she just consumed an entire spaghetti squash with lots of red sauce over it for dinner (the quantity of food is impressive, but even more so is her much more adventurous palate).  It's coming at a great time as I'm getting more adventurous as our standard and easy go to's are gone and we are digging deeper into our reserves (which is exactly what we should be doing in January).  Seeing our little onions sprouting, reminds me that spring is not so far off!
The only jack hammering casualty: what I came upon when coming back from upstairs where I had stationed the girls with a library movie to get them away from the noise and whole house vibrations.
Jack-hammering progress!
So grateful for Jason's brother, Ethan's, help on the plumbing (both the thinking and doing parts)!
And the Myers-Benner gals were all happy to have Kathy's company while the men worked - this puzzle has been put together at least 10 times in the last few weeks.
Alida and I went next door to glean the last of the kale before our 2 degree night.  Let's just say it was crunchy as I picked it, but Alida was munching on it - snow and all!
Filling the cavity, as much of it as possible, that was under the tub.  Unfortunately, we discovered that the cavity goes partway across our bathroom and kitchen floors.
Future shower location!
From today: Alida's favorite game was trying to steal the leaves we were trying to load into the wheelbarrow until we would push her back into the leaves.
Chicks showing off their new little wing feathers!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy birthday dear 2015...

It is my (Jason's) fond wish for you that you had as much fun ringing in the new year as we did.  We got together with some good friends for a "pie" themed supper (two kinds of shepherd's pie and a potato crusted, then while the young kids busied themselves in the play kitchen the adults played a few jocular rounds of Bananagrams all together before the men headed to the garage for a marathon ping-pong session and the women played more games with the kids and talked.  At quarter of midnight we were summoned for a grape juice toast.

I hope 2015 looks a lot like 2014 did except that we're all a little older, a little wiser maybe, a little better at what we do.  But as the calendar turns over, we've had some things to accomplish, some things to reflect on, some things to relish, some things to celebrate, and some things to initiate on this New Year's day:

To accomplish:

We've dived into the bathroom renovation.  As it turns out, our inference that the musty odor that develops in our house while we're away is coming from the bathroom could not have been more accurate, or so it would seem at this stage.  As I dug into the demolition aspect of the project, I found nothing too remarkable with a view to mold issues until I got to taking apart the old water heater closet.  The closer I got to the business end of the bathtub, the grungier things felt, looked, and smelled.  I had known from earlier remodeling projects that there was an opening in the concrete under the tub drain, but I'd never been able to access it before and get a good look at it.

I'll cut to the chase:  Sometime between 1981 (the year the house was built) and now the tub drain had become disconnected from the P-trap assembly that joins it to the main drain line.  In English this means that some large percentage of every bath and every shower that we and the former residents of this home ever took ended up not in the septic tank and drainfield (its intended destination) but into the ground under the concrete slab.  Structurally this is mostly not a big deal.  In terms of air quality it is, to be frank, a big deal, since the inevitably mold-saturated air in that soggy pit would have been contiguous with the general room air of the bathroom, and from there the whole house.  Also, the excessive moisture that would have entered our home that way might go a long way to explaining our difficulty in controlling humidity, even in winter.  Ever since making that discovery, I have been basking in the feeling of deep gratitude that we might now be able to rectify this.  I am so glad we decided to tackle this project in 2015.

And tackle was certainly the word for it today as I used a neighbor's fabulously effective electric jackhammer (Is there something unseemly about using a room's ordinary wall outlet to fuel the obliteration of its own floor?  There might be a warning in Deuteronomy about that.) to rattle a hole in the floor under where our bathroom sink used to be so that my brother (thanks, dude) and I can re-configure the drain pipes this weekend to suit the needs of the shower stall I will build in that location.  Also if I can re-pour that section of floor I can make the shower floor recessed in comparison to the rest of the room, obviating the need for a threshold, which renders it more usable by a person in a wheelchair.  Am I smart, or what?  Well, I guarantee I doubted my smarts pretty seriously as I donned safety glasses, dust mask, and earmuffs, stood the remarkably heavy apparatus on its point, took a deep breath and pulled the my bathroom, no less...and turned an otherwise perfectly good, cold January day into a hot mess.  It will be worth it!

To reflect on:

Most specifically, our financial situation.  It's been over a decade since we have felt the need to keep close track of our expenditures for informational or planning purposes.  We've thought of ourselves as mostly pretty naturally thrifty people who don't spend a lot on frivolity, so it has never seemed like analyzing our spending would generate much information that we could actually act on in any significant way.  But this fall and winter we've begun to realize that Janelle's lingering intuition that we are not quite living within our means is, in a word, true.  Over that past half year or so we've recognized a significant shortfall, complicated by several expected and unexpected large expenditures.  It will need correcting.  So we're taking advantage of a free online budgeting program this year to help us gain a more precise awareness of the flow of money in our home economy such that we can make adjustments to whichever end of the balance sheet we may in order to bring our financial situation up to the same standards of sustainability that we expect from our gardens.

At first blush, the solution could be pretty simple:  Janelle could potentially increase her work to full time or I could try to pick up part time work of some kind.  Neither of us likes either of these options too well...trying to fit our homestead activities around work time away from home is going the wrong direction as far as our philosophy of work and home is concerned.  But philosophy that is not doable is not good philosophy (so I say, anyway), and we're willing to consider making this kind of change if we find that the need for it is unavoidable.  We're not willing to go into debt for ordinary consumer expenses.  But before we concede the point, we're going to take a hard look at where our money is actually going and how we can make a difference on the needs and wants end of the equation.  We're also going to be looking for ways we can gain more economic benefit (financial or non-financial) from the projects we already have going.  For example, we're putting serious time into plant and animal breeding, the benefits of which work might extend far beyond our home and family...might there be a way those efforts could be rewarded by the community?  The same could go for the skills maintenance and process innovation for home food and energy systems we think we have come to embody to some extent...might there be a way for folks who would like to pick up some of the skills to help make it possible for us to continue concentrating on these things?  We don't yet know how to go about answering these questions, but we aim to work on them a bit.

To relish:

Fresh lettuce and spinach, from the garden, on January 1.  Talk about a "first!"  Never was there a sweeter spinach than that which grows in slow motion (even slower than usual, I mean) through the dim light of a mild December.  And I mean "sweeter" literally.  Maybe it's our low-sugar food choices having their effects on perception, but I've never eaten spinach that tastes this sugary, especially the leaf stems (petioles).  I'll bet you never have, either.

The spinach is Winter Bloomsdale that I've selected for hardiness, vigor, productivity, and winter survival for several years.  Last winter (remember the polar vortex?) it made it through pretty well without mulch.  This year I can't yet notice any winter damage at all.  The lettuce is growing--yes, growing!--under spun polyester row cover.  It's an aesthetic compromise in the garden, and it's a petroleum product, but the rewards in the kitchen and the belly are pretty hard to ignore.  I'd like to breed a lettuce that could shirk the cold like the spinach does...stay tuned!

To celebrate:

In the final days of December, the chickens gave us nine self-opening Christmas presents: Chicks!  Actually it was ten but one was a dud.  It's the wrong time of year to hatch laying hens (it supposedly matters what light regime predominates at which stage of maturity), but when one of my hens started going broody at the beginning of the month, I decided the timing was good for raising a few extra birds for a spring butchering.  I had wanted, anyway, to see if I could get a broody hen to raise chicks amongst the older flock in the composting coop.  If it works, I'll be pretty pleased with that system, I think.  I was so tickled with the idea that when a second broody turned up I put ten more eggs under her.  Then we left for PA for Christmas and while we were gone a third started setting.  I'm afraid I'm a sucker for not wasting a good round of broodiness...I put eggs under her this evening, too.  And I think a fourth hen has started in.  Why, pray tell, are my hens going broody in winter?  I surely can't answer for it, but, hey, we're going to roll with it.

To initiate:

I suppose setting eggs under a hen fits this category, but also we're getting a jump on the gardening: Our onion plants are never big enough at onion planting time.  Last year I started them at the beginning of February.  Better than the beginning of March, but still not good enough.  This year we decided to try January 1, so as soon as I'm done typing this I intend to sneak that sowing in (I'll sow ten or so seeds per cell in mini-cell packs in a simple covered flat (tabletop greenhouse) and set them on a rack hung in a south-facing window) before calling it a night.

Better get to it!  Happy New Year.