"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Big Piece of the Puzzle (The Advantage of Family)

There are a few advantages to having six houseguests for several weeks over the Holidays. For one thing, my husband and I have been able to go out on a couple of date-nights without needing to worry about finding a babysitter. Abuelita (Grandma) has been available on an as-needed basis.

Of course, as I have documented, it has been great to have my sister-in-law Temy here to teach me how to use my sewing machine. One day, I hope I will be able to actually save us some money by making a few of our own clothes, curtains, and pillowcases. Rowan, my teenage daughter, has aspirations to be a theatre costume designer, and Temy has set her on the path. Rowan has actually begun to design clothing and make some pretty impressive pieces.

And now that my brother-in-law Fransisco has arrived, I am really beginning to derive some serious material benefit. Last fall, I gathered materials to make a greenhouse on the foundation that used to support our falling down shed we called The Parthenon. (Nasty Weather and Unfinished Business) Given my experience with my husband's efforts as carpenter (A Handy Man is Good to Find...?) I think I can be excused for not wanting Homero to build the greenhouse alone. The foundation languished for some eight months, until the other day when Fransisco said he'd be happy to build me a greenhouse.

To be honest, Fransisco doesn't have very good estimating skills, or else he wasn't honest when he said it would take one eight hour day to knock it together. We are now on day three and less than half done, but even so I am thrilled to the marrow. I can see I am going to have - eventually - a terrific, good looking greenhouse. I will be able to grow food for ten months out of the year instead of the six months that our natural short season allows.

Every year, I start to get excited about the garden in mid-February. In the past, I had to contain that excitement for another month and a half. Now, I can actually start planting when I want to, as soon as the days get long enough. Come on, spinach! Yay, radishes, arugula, onions, and chives! Woo-hoo, snow peas and broccoli! Thank you, family!

A few weeks of high grocery bills, water and electricity bills, and a few extra trips to the dump is really nothing compared to the lasting value of a solidly built greenhouse... not to mention the incalculable worth of my children's closer relationship with my husband's side of the family - their Grandma, Auntie, and cousins. And of course, their understanding of their Mexican heritage. Really, the benefits of this situation FAR outweigh the deficits. It is just occasionally hard to appreciate that fact when you want to, oh, say, make love to your husband and there are fourteen relatives less than six feet away.

But there will be plenty of time for marital relations when the family leaves in a week or two (or three... or four... I have no way of knowing). IOn the meantime, I must simply keep reminding myself of the myriad benefits of having the extended family around. And keep ignoring the drawbacks.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Accepting Responsibility (Farm Economics)

Last week, when I went out to feed the animals, I came upon a hen dangling from the cast-iron hay feeder by one leg. She had roosted on the rim for the night and had somehow slipped and wedged her leg into the V formed by two iron bars. I have no idea how long she had been hanging, but when I freed her and set her down, she could not support her weight and flopped around most miserably.

Perhaps I should have dispatched her on the spot. She is one of the older hens - at least three years old - and there is no way she is an economically viable animal. Most probably, she didn't earn her keep even before she was hurt, but I don't really keep track of who is laying well and who isn't, and as long as all chickens can fend for themselves and the flock as a whole is maintaining an average age of under 36 months, I'm happy. However, as anyone familiar with chickens knows, they are ruthless animals and will heartlessly attack any individual among them incapable of defending herself. When I set this hen down on the ground, she was instantly attacked by three or four others.

Being unwilling - or, ok, unable - to wring her neck immediately, I closed her in the Mama Barn and gave her food and water apart. She hid herself down among the bales of hay and disappeared for a week or so. Day before yesterday, she reappeared and started asserting herself, apparently wanting to get outside. So I grabbed her and put her outside, but the same thing happened. She still can't walk and the other hens attacked her mercilessly. At this point, I was ready to turn her over to Homero to be killed. She was no good as food - her injury and confinement had left her skinny as a rail fence, and she is old and tough as a boot. She'd be a total waste; the only reason to kill her would be to put her out of her pain.

But then my sister-in-law, Temy, asked to see her. Temy is a doctor. She isn't a vet. But nonetheless, she is perfectly competent to examine the animal and say - as she did - that the leg isn't broken and that she should heal, given time.

Dammit. What to do now? I really wanted to say "Oh what the hell. She'll never be the same; she'll always be lame and weak, probably the other chickens will always pester and torment her, and she's old and hasn't got many eggs left in her. Just kill her already, and throw her to the dogs." But of course I didn't. I took her and put her in the rabbit hutch near the house. I am feeding her specially and separately every day. I am bringing her clean straw and changing her water. I am doing this, I fully admit, only in order not to seem like a monster to my Mexican relatives. That's really weird, because in most respects, they are far less sentimental and far more practical than we Americans when it comes to animals.

Here's what I wrote about that a while ago: Mexicans don't have farm animals as pets. In fact, they barely have pets at all. Seriously. I know there are a few here and there, but I feel totally confident in saying that in general, dogs are guard animals; cats are rat-catchers; burros are pack animals; and everything else is food. ( Question for People Who Kill Their Own Meat)

Now all of a sudden I find myself on the other side of that equation: I'm the soulless bad guy who has dollar signs in her eyes, and they are the ones arguing for compassion and mercy. Okay, that's projection. I know if I had actually said "I just don't think there's any point in keeping this hen alive" they would have said "Sure, you're right" and no-one would have given it a second thought. It's all me. It's I who have to get used to the idea that I have taken on responsibility for the life and death of some thirty other beings - chickens, goats, horses, dogs and cats. I'm still wrestling with this, apparently, after four years.

It's not about money. It's not about food. It's not about necessity - not yet, anyway. It's about this - me being the deciding force for the lives of my animals. If I'm hungry, they die. If I decide they aren't "worth it" they die. If I want what they have - meat, skin, feathers, milk, eggs, offspring - I take it and they lose. I am the power. I am the MAN. I take and they give.

Yeah yeah yeah, I also give and they also take. I give shelter, food, medicine, protection from predators, et cetera. In fact they wouldn't even exist if I hadn't decided they be born. Blah blah blah. That all smacks of rationalization. Here's the fact: I am a peak predator and I reap where I choose. I like meat, and I like milk and I like eggs.

Given that fact (given: wow, that's a big given, isn't it? Let's just sweep right over that) where is my responsibility? What do I actually owe this hen? Life or death? What is the more moral course; to kill her when she begins to suffer and salvage what I can from her existence (she would feed the dogs, after all), or to expend a modicum of extra energy keeping her alive, albeit in a cage, at a reduced level of existence? What for, if she can't integrate back into the flock? I'm making an assumption here that a chicken can even tell the difference between a "natural" life as a member of a flock and as a solitary being in a cage. I do assume that a chicken CAN tell the difference and that she "prefers" a more natural, free range life. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I just want an excuse to kill a chicken that causes me trouble and time.

I don't think so though. I'm pretty sure a chicken does experience some sort of reduced existence separated from the flock and confined to a cage. I see chickens interacting with each other every day. Okay, it's getting late and I'm getting tired and I haven't come to any conclusions. Part of me says why are you even wasting so much time trying to be fair to a chicken? Do what makes your life easier, as long as it doesn't involve increased cruelty. Damn, what is the BFD here?

Part of me says puzzle it out, make sure that whatever you decide to do you are doing because you feel it is right, not because it is easy. At the end of the day, that's what matters, right? What matters is not the life of an individual chicken, but that I have lived according to my principles. Goddamn it, that strikes me as a problematic statement. I don't like the way that statement feels. But I think I'm going to have to leave it for another day.

Right now, friends and neighbors, I am leaving questions of morality and ethics behind, in favor of another beer and a little time with my husband before I fall asleep. Let that stand as my final expression of my personal ethics.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Quack Quack Christmas (Shout Out to Zion)

As I have written before, I have really, really good neighbors (Hay Hay Hay (Good Neighbors)!).

Honestly, the best decision I've made since I moved here was to join my neighborhood church - Zion Lutheran - and get to know some of the amazing people in the congregation; not to mention our wonderful pastor, Lydia. My life has been enriched in many ways by encountering Zion, and not the least has been in coming to know my neighbors, many of whom are old time farmers whose families have been in the area for several decades. These folks are without exception welcoming, friendly, knowledgeable, and generous. I consider it a compliment and a privilege to be accepted into the neighborhood by them, and I look forward to a long and rewarding association.

Yesterday - Christmas Eve - one gentleman among them who happens to be a hunter dropped by with a whole bunch of ducks. He did the same thing last year - showed up around 8 A.M. with a brace of mallards and showed me how to extract the breasts - which is all he uses, usually. Last Christmas Day, in fact, we ate duck breast. This year, he came by around the same time (duck hunters get up early, it seems) and dropped off a sack full of FIVE still warm ducks.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I have a lot of family here. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, several nieces, and most recently a brother-in-law and his guest have all been staying in my house lo these past eight weeks. There are eleven mouths to feed, instead of the usual five. My neighbor knows this, and I assume that is part of why he chose to donate his kill to my family. Well, if this blog post chances to get back around to you, neighbor, please know that it helps! We have been dropping a lot of coin at Costco lately, and it does get difficult after a month or two. The ducks you gave us have provided several meals, and we all enjoyed them very much.

I have very little experience with wild game, and duck in particular is a meat that requires careful treatment; but as my family seems to have enjoyed this meat very much indeed, I humbly offer a recipe for how I prepared it. I make absolutely no pretense that this is the best (or even a good) way to treat wild ducks. It is only how I, in my ignorance, did it.

Oriental Spiced Braised Duck

Take five recently dispatched Mallards. Pluck (easier to pluck than chickens- most feathers can be pulled with bare hands without need of hot water. Singe off remaining feathers over a small paper fire). Gut, reserving livers for another purpose if desired. I recommend it; duck livers are delicious.

Place carcasses in a large pot full of hot, heavily salted water to which you have added several tablespoons of vinegar. Leave to soak for a couple of hours.

Four hours before the meal, remove carcasses and place in a large baking dish (or two). In a blender, blend two inches of ginger root, three or four cloves of garlic, a tablespoon or so of sesame oil and the same of neutral oil (such as canola), a tablespoon or so of soy sauce, the juice of one lime and one orange, a quarter cup of honey, and a little water. Blend well. Pour over duck carcasses and bake at 350. Turn pieces and baste every half hour.

I noticed, after a while, that the marinade was liquidy and the duck was getting dry. So I removed the duck, used a cleaver to chop each carcass into four or six pieces, and removed them to a couple of covered casseroles. I poured over the marinade and added several chopped carrots and a couple of roughly chopped onions. The casseroles were full, otherwise I would have added celery and maybe some beets (that's what I had in the house).

In approximately three hours total, the duck was as tender as it was going to get (this is wild waterfowl, people, let's not have unrealistic expectations) and giving off a fairly heavenly aroma. I had baked, along with the duck, a bunch of yams, and also cooked a pot full of wild rice. The casseroles were full of a lovely, dark, wild, bloody broth, which was beautiful spooned over a baked, split yam and a pile of wild rice.

Really, I couldn't have asked for a nicer Christmas dinner. Thank you, hunter-neighbor! Merry Christmas to all of you, and best wishes for a prosperous New Year!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Top O' the World, Ma!

Yesterday, Homero had a major triumph. The Shop Visible From Space is officially finished; the county building inspector came out and inspected it, and then signed the certificate of occupancy. Homero now has a big ass legal shop. It isn't, however, actually finished. He still has to build the doors, and he still had to tighten all the 10,000 or so screws which hold it all together.

Tightening the screws involved crawling all over the skin of the shop, which is an arched tunnel some 40 feet high and 65 feet long. I had no idea how he was going to do such a thing until I saw his truly genius solution. He made a rope ladder which consists of many, many wooden steps connected by a double strand of rope knotted between each step. Then the entire ladder is thrown over the building and anchored down on either side. One person climbs the ladder and tightens the screws from the outside, while another person tightens them from the inside, which involves standing on a wooden scaffolding built onto the bed of a pickup truck. Both the rope ladder and the scaffolding can be moved along the length of the shop as needed. Alas, I don't have a photo of the scaffolding, but it is truly impressive. It's about thirty feet tall, all mobile on the bed of his chevy pickup. He calls it the "Caballo de Troya," or the Trojan Horse. I promise to get a picture before it is dismantled!

This morning, the day dawned bright and clear, one of those crystalline winter mornings where the entire world seems to be made out of icicles and light. The mountains were painfully brilliant, shining and white against a cold blue sky. Homero went out to work, but shortly came back in and said to me, "Amor, you have to come out and climb up on top of the shop. The view is so beautiful from up there. Please come."

I was torn between terror and longing, but longing won out. Nothing, I decided, would stop me from standing up on the rounded peak of my husband's shop with him and looking out over the magnificent peaks with my arms around his shoulders. I crawled up the ladder and pulled myself up like a worm on my belly, slowly and painfully, until I could extend Homero my hand and stand up. My knees were trembling and my teeth were chattering, but it was wholly worth it. Very few moments in my life match today's: holding on to my man's strong arms, standing high above my own land and home, face in the wind, looking out on one of God's great vistas.

My photography is entirely inadequate to the task of showing you what I saw. I don't know why it is that the mountains that crowd the horizon shoulder to shoulder, looming like frozen giants to the naked eye appear so timid and midget in the camera lens. It is surely my fault. Please magnify the mountains about 10 times in your mind's eye.

I'm dead certain that no other mechanic on Earth enjoys the view that my husband does. What a beautiful part of the world we are privileged to live in! I'm so happy I climbed up, even though my thigh muscles hurt and I was deeply ashamed to learn how timid and weak I've become in the last twenty years! I did not make a pretty picture hauling myself slowly and painfully up the rope ladder, nor letting myself down inch by wobbly inch. As you notice, there are no photos of me making my ascent or descent. Whatever. I don't care. Weak and wobbly as I am, today I stood on top of the world.

And it was good. It was very good.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Other Blog - Link to My Inner Mind

For a couple of years now, I have been keeping a kind of online diary in the form of a blog. This other blog deals with my personal fears and plans relating to the future; climate change, peak oil, political upheavals, financial collapse - basically all the horsemen of the apocalypse that I see cresting the horizon.

Mostly, this blog is simply a place for me to store useful articles and information relating to homesteading and self-sufficiency; to document changes to our society as I see them happening; and to record personal musings and cogitations.

Up until now, I have kept this private, but at this point it occurs to me that I have amassed quite an interesting store of useful information, and so I am going public. I realize that I may come off as a sort of a crackpot, but I'm willing to take that risk in order to disseminate the message.

Happy reading!


P.S. - okay, having a hard time creating a link. Here's the URL, but you'll have to copy and paste.



I love discovering something cool in the blogosphere! Today I followed a few links from my blogroll, and ended up at a cool blog called Sustainable Eats. It's a pretty neat site in itself, but they also do something cool there called Linky-Thursday. Anyone who blogs on topics related to sustainability (homesteading, self-sufficiency, food preservation, gardening, etc) is welcome to use their linky-tool to post a link with a thumbnail to their own blog, and it will show up on four different sites who all participate. The only rule is you must post a link to one of those four sites, so here it is:

Sustainable Eats

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Homemade Christmas, Take 12

Every year, I have delusions of producing the perfect Christmas. I'm not alone, I know - Christmas has become the 400 pound gorilla of holidays - the holiday which must be appeased. For months, starting in October, messages assault us (mothers, mostly) from every direction, shrilly insisting that we buy this, that, and the other to make our family happy. I read that the average family spends nearly $800 on Christmas every year, and most of us charge it on the credit card.

Well, we all know that's not sustainable. Not only is a buying spree at the mall expensive, but it is also stressful and leaves many of us with a feeling of soul-lessness and disappointment. The children shriek with glee for one-point-seven seconds as they rip open every lovingly wrapped package, and then have a sugar-induced meltdown and throw a temper fit that they didn't get (insert name of this year's hottest toy here). And has there been any mention of peace on earth or of goodwill towards one fellow man? Has anyone felt the "Spirit of Christmas?" Well, maybe you watched the Peanuts Christmas Special. It's a good show, and as close as most of us get.

I know I'm not alone in wanting to opt out of the whole American Big Business Christmas. Also, most of us would like to avoid paying 18% interest on an average of $800. So what is a mother of young children to do? There are various ways to opt out, I suppose: one could convert to another religion and celebrate Hanukkah or Yule instead. But Christmas would happen around you like the tide breaking on a rock and the children would not be fooled. You could ban gifts altogether and do something like volunteer as a family at the local soup kitchen instead. Now, I'm not suggesting for a minute that volunteerism is a bad thing, but that solution feels drastic and kind of Grinch-ish to me. I can't endorse any solution that completely bypasses gift-giving. Gifts are good, gifts make both the giver and the givee happy. Giving with a capitol "G" is in fact the root of the meaning of this holiday, is it not?

So, like many of you, I look for less expensive and slightly more meaningful ways to give gifts. Some people (like my mother, bless her heart) choose to make donations to causes that they know are close to the heart of the person they wish to give to. Last year my mother gave to the Heifer Project in my name. Last year, I myself chose to do an all-secondhand Christmas (Christmas 2009, Thrift Store Edition). That was less than wholly successful, but it was not a failure either.

This year, I am going for the gold: a wholly homemade Christmas. Well, okay, a mostly homemade Christmas. I will still stuff stockings with candy and small presents, but the gifts under the tree and those that I send to family and friends will be homemade. As it happens, I have recently been learning to sew, so if you are a part of my circle you should expect cloth-based presents. And yes, I freely admit, I am a novice seamstress, so my gifts may not be up to professional standards. But neither are they produced in overseas sweatshops; nor do they cause me to go into debt; and every last one was made with the recipient in mind, individually. And humble as they are, they are expressions of my love and care for each one of you, and gifts of my heart and hands.

So go ahead and laugh, but keep it to yourself!

Rowan spinning yarn for her homemade gifts

Paloma modeling a child's apron (not saying who it is for)

Me, actually using a sewing machine all by myself.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Kayaks!

This is exactly what it looks like at my house, except for the fact that the statue of Liberty isn't in my backyard. It's been raining for a week, pretty steadily, and pretty hard. There is no dry land anywhere on the farm - it's all either ankle-deep puddles, knee-deep mud, or shallow rivers.

I meant to get chips ordered two weeks ago, during the snow. I knew then that when the cold snap was over, mud season would begin in earnest. But between Thanksgiving, in-laws staying indefinitely, preparations for Christmas, and oh yeah, six different kinds of home-improvement going on, I didn't get around to it.

Poor animals. The horses have been moved to the winter sacrifice area, and all they have for shelter is a three-walled field shelter. They are pretty miserable looking and I think they need blankets. The goats have the big barn to themselves and so they are pretty happy. Chickens can go wherever they want, of course, but there's just nothing on Earth shabbier and sadder-looking than a wet chicken.

The dogs don't even want to go outside to poop. We have to shoo them out into the driving rain and they immediately scratch to get back in. Then we won't let them in because they are so muddy, so they live in the playroom. The playroom is getting pretty gross, too.

Ahhh well, what can you do? This is life in this part of the world. Six months of mud. It's the price we pay for not having to deal with either extreme heat or extreme cold practically ever. Just keep thinking about our beautiful, comfortable summers. And keep a pot of soup on the stove at all times.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Small Farm Tidbits

Not much news on the farm - it's the quiet season.

Storm Cloud is probably going out to service a couple of does this week. His stud fee is a kid back.

My sister gave me six chickens. She had a spectacular survival rate on her chicks this year and ended up with more chickens than she really wants. I think she gave us four hens and two roosters. They are super cute, white and spangled. They are tiny, bantams that hatched out of blue eggs, so maybe I will have some blue eggs again in the spring. Right now they are separated in the coop (mine are all free-range) to et them acclimate and learn where they live before I let them into the general population. Chickens pick on each other, and I don't want them to get beat up.

We repaired a length of fence between our house and the neighbor's, so Lancelot the big dumb collie dog can't keep going over there are destroying our neighborly relations by digging up gardens, chasing cats, and relieving himself on the lawn.

Homero's family is still here. They will be at least through Christmas and possibly the New Year. I have spent more time in the grocery store lately! Nine people go through a large amount of food every day.

We are halfway through the construction of a shamefully shabby gingerbread house. It looks like it was built by stoned trolls. Pictures upon completetion.

Happy Holidays all.

Friday, December 3, 2010

O (Live) Christmas Tree, O (Live) Christmas Tree...

When I was a child, we always had a live tree. Every year since us kids were born, at least one tree was planted per year, in every yard of every house my parents ever owned. It's not likely these days, but should we drive past an old house, we could still point at the old Christmas trees and say "look! There it is! Christmas tree 1981!" or whatever.

For all the years I lived on a small city lot (fifteen of them), I did not have a Christmas tree. I had used up all my available space planting fruit trees and I refused on principle to buy a cut tree. My daughter complained, but I didn't give in. Either we made a tree out of paper (kind of cool, actually - paint a big tree on butcher paper, put it up on the wall, and decorate with real ornaments and tinsel) or I made a gingerbread house instead. I'm not good at gingerbread houses.
This, for example, is not one of my gingerbread houses. This is an image downloaded off the web. I can, however, turn out a more or less respectable cube-shaped gingerbread house with a couple of stained glass windows and a roof paved with Necco wafers. A gingerbread house can sit on the mantel for a full month and still be edible come Christmas morning. More or less.

Once we moved out here, I insisted on a live tree. Partly, this was to relieve me of the strain of making a gingerbread house. Partly it was because everyone in my family likes trees and thinks gingerbread houses are stupid, unless they are the kind that could be featured on the Food Channel. Also, I think everyone should plant at least one tree a year and Christmas is as good a time as any. This property has a severe lack of trees and room for many, many Christmas trees before it begins to feel crowded.

It's that time of year again, and this year I am going to have a real tree AND make a gingerbread house, for the first time ever. Why? Well, I miss making gingerbread houses, actually. My younger children have never made one with me, and I think they would like it. Especially all the candy. My relatives in from Mexico have certainly never done the gingerbread thing. And Rowan might be old enough to find it nostalgic, though I kind of doubt it. I find it nostalgic, though, and I'm sure I will even when I'm tearing my hair out because the royal icing won't set up.

Wish me luck! We are going down to the Fairhaven Train Station today to see the gingerbread house competition - there are always about fifty houses of varying intricacy and competence. Some of stunning in their beauty and complexity - others are stunning in that whoever made them didn't throw them away but instead allowed them to be displayed publicly. It's a great way to spend an hour or two with the kids on a winter saturday.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Floor Photos

I have a nasty chest cold and will be spending the next couple of days in bed. Meanwhile here are a few pictures of the new floors! In these pictures we hadn't yet put the furniture back where it belongs, so the room looks weird, but the floors look great! And you can see how long my hall is... just right for playing "dogsled."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Slightly Diminished Chaos

The floors are done. Finally I am quit of the Carpet of Shame and instead am basking in the mellow glow of solid oak. The children are enjoying the floors too: they have invented a game they call "dogsled" in which one of them sits on a sheet and the others pull them down my immensely long hallway as fast as they can. They played Dogsled for about two hours straight last night. I am so happy - I literally cannot WAIT for somebody to come over here and see how much better it looks and feels.

The roof is another matter - the evil racist roofers (Joostens Roofing, Skagit and Whatcom counties) are not coming back and will not be providing any compensation unless and until a judge orders them to, so I have gone ahead and contracted another company to fix it. They will begin next week - but at least the rest of the work on the house will be done outside. No more will 9 people have to try to live a normal life with major renovations being done all around them. Installing hardwood floors is LOUD, what with the air compressor, the nail gun, the table saw...

Life with double the number of people in the house is stressful, no doubt, but it's just a matter of space and numbers, not personality or culture clashes (not yet, anyway.). Feeding nine people every day uses a lot of pots and pans, a lot of dishes, and a lot of food. There's twice as much shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and noise. But I am actually doing a little bit less work than usual because my mother and sister in law are both WAY better housekeepers than I am and pitch right in and get to work. A little too much, actually - they spent their first week here cleaning almost non-stop and uncovered enough embarrassing stuff that I really wish they hadn't. Like a mummified mouse under one of the kid's beds. A bit of cat poop where no cat poop should be - stuff like that.

I guess I can live with a slight sense of space invasion and a little bit of shame in exchange for the good company, the very happy husband, and all the new skills I am learning - like tamale-making and working a sewing machine. And the girls are so happy with their cousins. They are speaking better Spanish already and the four girls have the best time laughing and giggling together.

Really, life is pretty good, chaos and all.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How to Make Real Tamales

Part of yesterday and all of today (so far) was given over to making tamales. From actual scratch. It's something I've always wanted to learn to do, and now my mother-in-law has taught me. Here is how we did it, step by step, start to finish. This pictorial recipe is as detailed as I can make it - I do believe that if you want to make tamales from scratch, this post will show you how. It's not easy, but it is fun if you have lots of help and the tamales are incredibly delicious. This is for real!

I can break the recipe up into three parts: the masa, the filling, and the process. Here we go.

1) The Masa

Buy three kilos of dried Mexican corn - available at Mexican groceries. Hopefully. We had to use "posole" corn, which Senora Maura said wasn't right, but which worked in the absence of the right corn. Also buy at least 1 cup of "cal." Cal is lime, and is a white powder. It looks like baking soda. Be careful with it, as it is actually a mild form of sodium hydroxide and will burn you if you aren't careful. Mix the cal with a quart or so of water. Use a spoon to blend and make a slurry. Set aside. Put 2 gallons of water to boil in a large kettle. When water is hot, add corn. Now take the bowl of cal-slurry and start pouring it slowly into the kettle of corn. Most of the cal will have settled to the bottom - this is good. Pour only the water off the top, do not add the semi-solid slurry from the bottom. That is too strong.

Now comes the first part that calls for judgment - judgment that you will not have if, like me, you have never done this before. Nevermind - resolve to go boldly where you have not been before. Taste the water from the kettle. It should "bite." That means, to my mind, that it is bitter and you can taste the cal, but it should NOT burn. Bring the kettle to a boil and simmer for about one hour. The hulls of the corn will turn yellow and they will rub off with your finger.

Let the kettle sit overnight. In the morning, test the corn. It should be soft enough to pierce with a fingernail, but still very much "al dente." The outside should be butter yellow and the inside chalky white. Rinse some and taste it - now you should barely be able to taste the cal - if it tastes strong, rinse the corn and let sit in fresh water for a while. Rinse and rub off the corn skins. They are very delicate and sometimes barely visible. Don't worry about getting every little bit.

Run the corn through your grinder. I used a meat grinder with the finest disk.
After the first grinding, the masa was still too textured for mama, so we added the other ingredients and ran it through again.

The other ingredients are a) a liter more or less of melted lard - in this case from our own pig. I'm afraid that if you don't have access to lard from a pasture raised pig, your tamales will suffer. The lard you can buy in the store is snow white and almost entirely flavorless. Good lard is golden yellow to light brown and has a rich, porky, unctuous flavor. Add your lard to the ground corn in a large kettle. Also add a biggish pint or so of strong pork broth (this comes from boiling the pork for the filling - see next section), and about 2 tablespoons of salt. Use your clean hands to mix and mash everything together. Run through the grinder again. More judgment is called for here - the masa should be thick and should easily hold it's shape when squeezed. It should not be dry or crumbly. It should be spreadable, like peanut butter. It will feel slightly gritty but not chunky. If you have a very fine disk or a different kind of grinder, you may be able to skip the second grinding.

While the corn is boiling, or whenever it makes sense, make the filling (2) thusly:

put 5-7 pounds pork roast (shoulder, butt, whatever you have that isn't too fatty or boney) into a large pot. Cover with water. Add an onion, roughly chopped, a pinch of cumin, and a few cloves of garlic. Boil at a fast simmer until very tender, about two and a half to three hours. Remove meat from broth. Broth will be used in making the masa. Meat, when cooled, should be shredded more or less finely. Set aside.

Make salsas. We made green and red salsa. Green salsa is made by:
simmering together 1 kilo husked, rinsed tomatillos, 5-10 whole serrano chiles, 2 cloves garlic, and a pinch salt. When tomatillos are quite soft, strain and put everything into a blender. Blend until smooth. Remove to refrigerator until ready to use.

Red salsa: Heat a few quarts water in a large pot. When hot, add 25-40 guajillo chiles and a small handful chiles de arbol (these are dried red chiles, available in most groceries and in Mexican stores. If you don't want it too spicy, omit the chile de arbol). Add two cloves garlic and a pinch salt. Keep hot but not boiling until chiles are soft - about one hour. Remove chiles to blender and blend on high until as smooth as possible. Pour result into a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and use a spoon to force as much paste as possible through the sieve.

Bring red sauce to a simmer and heat until somewhat reduced. It should coat a spoon. Meanwhile, put a few packages of dried corn husks to soften in warm water. When soft, and when all the components are ready (masa, salsas, and meat), bring everything to the table and call all your friends to help out forming the tamales.

The process (3):

You should have laid out in front of you a big crock of masa, a bowl of each kind of salsa, and a plate of shredded pork. You really ought to have, at a minimum, two people. The first person takes one of the corn husks and turns it smooth side up (it will curl upwards like a boat). Use a spoon to put a blob of masa on the husk - the size of the blob depends on the size of the husk. Use the edge of the spoon to spread the masa out in a thin layer, leaving a space at the thin end.

Now put a blob of salsa on the husk, and a little bit of shredded meat. Fold the husk in thirds - each side over the middle and the tip folded up. Place the folded tamal in a kettle fitted with a steamer basket. Put it in standing up with the folded side down and facing out toward the edge of the kettle (this is so that as you go along you don't accidentally start putting tamales inside of each other and opening up the husks.). When all the tamales are in the basket, remove the basket and put three or four quarts of water in the kettle. Bring to a boil. Then replace the steamer basket and cover tightly. Steam tamales for about two hours.

After a couple of hours, open up a tamale and check it (well, okay, a couple of times during the steaming you should make sure you aren't running out of water and add a little if needed.). The masa should be firm and kind of "sproingy" to the touch. It should not stick to your fingers.
Call everyone to the table and open a whole bunch of cold beers. Eat until you feel just the tiniest bit sick and wholly satisfied. Turn on a movie and relax on the couch with another beer.

My notes

The table after assembling the tamales. I put down a sheet to protect everything from salsa and hot lard. Good plan.

Thanksgiving Tamales

My mother-in-law and I have been spending the last several hours making tamales from SCRATCH. Meaning, making nixtamal from dried Mexican corn and cal (lime, I think?) and then making the masa by running the slaked corn three times through my meat grinder (it still isn't smooth enough for her, but it's the best we can do) and mixing the ground corn with lard from my own pig.

The filling is more pork from my pig, boiled and shredded (the broth goes into the masa) and then mixed with two separate salsas - red and green. I mean, some of it is mixed with red salsa and some of it with green. Right now we are taking a small break while we let the corn husks soak, and then we will all sit around the table filling and folding and tying tamales. Then they have to steam for about two hours.

Then we can eat.

This process actually started last night (or last year, if you count raising the pig) when we put the corn to soak in the lime-water. I've wanted to learn how to make masa for years and years, and now I finally am learning. And learning what a hell of a lot of work it is. I really feel for those poor Mexican ladies in the days of yore who spent their lives bent over a metate (stone grinder).

I am taking careful notes and lots of pictures and I promise to put up a real recipe in a day or two. Meanwhile, I am giving thanks for having my family here and for everything I am learning from them in addition to making masa (like how to thread my sewing machine).

We are also enjoying the beautiful snowfall. My nieces have never seen snow and they have been having a wonderful time playing and making snowmen. Hope your holiday is as happy as ours!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Can't Let This Rest

For anyone who lives in Skagit or Whatcom counties: Please do not hire Joostens roofing. Not only did they do a shoddy unprofessional job, but when my husband asked them to come back out and inspect the damage, they told him "take me to court" and hung up on us.

Given that response, I wrote a letter to the better business bureau, and I forwarded a copy to Joostens roofing. Their response to that was to call my husband on his cell phone, start yelling racial slurs at him, tell him to "go back to Mexico" and threaten to "sic immigration" on him.

Yeah, I know! We were both just totally aghast. I have never personally witnessed such vicious, blatant racism. Oh, I know that much worse happens every day, to all kinds of people - I just hadn't actually heard anyone SAY such things out loud. When I myself spoke to Mr. Joosten, he started talking about how I must be a liberal and he was a conservative and that was "the difference." I reminded him that racial discrimination is illegal for conservatives as well.

I was so angry at that point that I couldn't keep speaking to him. I wrote this letter instead:

Mr. Joosten
> this letter is inform you that we have filed a complaint with the
> Whatcom Sheriff regarding the threats you made to my husband on the
> phone yesterday. You are on record. Frankly we are both shocked by
> your bigoted, offensive, and bullying behavior. The idea that you
> would "sic immigration" on a client whom you believe to be
> vulnerable and without recourse rather than address that person's
> complaints speaks volumes both to your business integrity and to
> your personal character. I invite you to reflect on your actions.
> I still willing to talk with you about how we can come to an
> agreement regarding the damage done by your poor work. Please feel
> free to call me directly at 206-xxx-xxxx (I doubt my husband is
> interested in speaking with you). However, don't call if you want to
> shout at me or insult me or otherwise harass me: only to calmly
> discuss resolving the professional issue.
> If you do not choose to resolve this privately in a very short time
> frame, we will relunctantly be forced to contact our attorney. Be
> aware that if we do so, your racially charged language will become
> part of a racial discrimination suit. If that is the case, we will
> also be contacting all relevant offices that regulate fair business
> practices in Washington, such as the department of licensing and the
> Attorney General's office.
> Sincerely,
> E.D.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Gettin' Crafty Wit It (Or Something Like That)

Some four years ago, I came across this sewing machine at a garage sale. Actually, it was the garage sale that the previous owners of the house my sister bought held when they moved out. As you can see by the tape across the top, it was a steal - $15. I had no idea how to sew, but I plugged it in and stepped on the pedal and the needle went up and down and I knew that was good. The lady of the house told me it was in perfect working order and she had the original owner's manual. I have always wanted to learn to sew, at least a little bit. I have no ambitions of becoming a costume designer or anything like that, but it would be nice to be able to knock out a few pillowcases or some curtains for the kitchen now and then. I bought the machine and took it to my new house and set it on the counter in the laundry room and there it remained for the next 48 months.

I may have mentioned (ahem) that Homero brought his mother, sister, and nieces home with him from Mexico last week. Temy, my sister-in-law and comadre, is an accomplished seamstress - at least by my standards. She once worked in a shirt factory in Philadelphia (actually from her stories about it it sounds like a sweatshop), and to this day she makes a lot of her own clothing and her children's clothing. She can turn out a dress you'd send your child to school in in less than two hours. It occurred to me that she might show me how to use my machine.

Of course she was delighted to. As I have said before, my Mexican relatives are the very best kind of relatives to have - I think the way I put it before was that they would "gnaw their own arms off and sell them on the black market just to be able to buy a chicken to cook for you when you show up unannounced at their house." Makes me feel like kind of a shitty hostess by way of comparison, but that's a post for another day.

Turns out, Temy is a very good teacher. I finally learned how to thread my machine, wind the bobbin, sew a straight seam, and untangle a snarl. Within just a few days, I have made several things - close relatives don't look unless you want to see your Christmas presents. That's called "fair warning."

On the left we have lavender-scented eye-pillows. In the middle a slightly misshapen neck-pillow. And on the right, several unfinished Christmas ornaments. I still have to sew on the ribbons to hang them by and attach jingle-bells. I was pretty proud of myself, having finally made some strides towards a long-held goal. Then Rowan asked Temy to show her how to sew. They sat down together for forty-five minutes. The next day Rowan had made herself an entire DRESS - I mean a real, wearable-outside-the-house DRESS. Cute as all get out, in fact. I am trying like hell not to be a total ass, but seriously, I have to admit, I'm pretty jealous. Could she have given me 48 hours to be the one who knew how to sew before she upstaged me?

Well. The benefits of having sewing as a new hobby go far beyond eye-pillows. Homero likes to spend an hour or two in the evenings on the computer, and it will be very nice to be doing something in the same room. Something that allows for conversation from both sides.

"What are you reading?"

"What are you making?"

It's a great winter hobby, I think. In the past, I have not often had the mental stamina to get really good at something complex like sewing or, say, playing the piano. Maybe "getting good" is not the right kind of goal ton have, anyway. Maybe the goal is, pass the time with my husband and do something creative and fun and a little challenging. I'm enjoying it so far.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Busier Than a One Legged Man in an Ass Kicking Contest

.... as my mom used to say. Alternatively, busier than a one-armed paperhanger. Yes, it is odd that her analogies all included amputees. No, I don't know why.

Anyway...things have gotten crazy around here. Real crazy, real fast. I have four unexpected houseguests (my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and her two children) through christmas. I have my floors being replaced. I have contractors of all descriptions crawling all over the house. Every time they look at anything they discover new levels of horror and destruction.

Frankly, I just don't have the strength at the moment, but now I am looking at replacing all the rafters on the north side of the house because the roofers who gave us a new roof four years ago didn't tell about serious rot problems and just covered it all up with new sheeting. The gutter-guys found it all when they started their job.

Now my husband is home, which is good in some ways, because he needs to be in decisions of this magnitude. He would never ever believe me if I were just telling him about it all: but of course he believes the contractors. Let's hope he believes them when they tell him how much damage he did with his stupid foam. It's bad in other ways because he wants to stop all the work until he gets things straightened out with the roofers.

He thinks (and to e fair, the gutter guys also think) that the roofing company should be paying for the rafter repair. But I doubt they will volunteer to; we may even need to go to court I'd really rather not, chalk it up to bad luck, and badmouth them all over town. But Homero insists on at least trying. So now the job is stretching out for weeks.

Wish me luck, y'all, and think long and hard before you buy that cute old farmhouse.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


My husband called from the road yesterday. He will be home late tonight, or possibly tomorrow early. He has a surprise for me! My mother-in-law and my sister-in-law, along with her two children, are all coming with him and staying through Christmas.

Whatever else you can say about Homero, being married to him is sure not boring!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Taking a Break from Home Improvement (Farmer's Market)

Unable to do anything more immediately on the house, and really really tired of thinking and writing about it, the kids and I took a personal day yesterday. We went to the YMCA and went swimming. We perused downtown thrift shops for christmas tins and craft supplies (yup, just about that time of year!). And we went to the Bellingham Saturday Farmer's Market, which goes on through December.

Probably due to the mild temperatures we've been enjoying, there is still plenty of produce. Summer goods like the tomatoes above are gone, of course, but there are still all kinds of lovely greens, carrots and root vegetables, garlic, hard squash in all it's crazy variety, apples and nuts, and of course, mushrooms.

Again due to the long mild fall with a steady supply of rain, it's been a great year for mushrooms. There were chanterelles and lobster mushrooms everywhere. In the case of mushrooms and other foraged goods, it really pays to look around. Inside the market proper at the booths chanterelles were going for $10 or $12 a pound. On the sidewalk outside I got them for $6. A couple of years ago I remember I was able to trade for chanterelles - bacon and eggs, if I recall. This year I just forked over some cash. Oh well, there's always next year.

I decided to make mushroom gravy and serve it over baked potatoes for dinner. Mushroom gravy is great even if you don't have wild mushrooms to work with - and any excess can be stored in the fridge and used as the base for mushroom soup.

Mushroom Gravy

1 pound fresh wild mushrooms - or whatcha got - chopped
1/2 stick butter
1/4 cup flour
1 small onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
little bit rosemary
white wine
salt and pepper

melt butter and add mushrooms and vegetables over medium heat. Stir with a wooden spoon occasionally. Mushrooms will throw off a lot of liquid which must be evaporated before you can add the flour, but you don't want to burn the butter. So keep the heat moderate and just wait. When pan is fairly dry, sprinkle flour over in small amount, stirring until incorporated. This will make a weird, unappetizing paste. Don't worry. Keep stirring and when pan begins to look quite dry, add the wine (about a cup). Stir well. At this point you need to stir pretty much constantly. Any time the mixture starts to look dry, add milk by the half-cup. All in all I imagine you will add something less than a quart of milk. Let simmer slowly over medium low heat for a few minutes. Salt and pepper to taste (I like a lot of pepper). Pour over toast or baked potatoes or noodles and shower with minced parsley.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mold Monster Update

Yesterday I found a carpenter who was willing to come out first thing this morning. Rowan and I spent an hour cleaning out the closet in preparation, and we found that the mold situation was worse than originally thought. I guess that's often the case with mold. It.... grows. Here is a picture of the closet after we got everything out of it. I couldn't even get all the mold into one shot... it continues up onto the ceiling and off to the right. This is, keep in mind, a very large walk-in closet, about six by twelve feet or so. I know, it's hideous. I am deeply, deeply ashamed.

The carpenter, when he arrived, said "you need to get this out of here now!"

I said, "you think?"

Luckily, he was able to begin right away. He said we couldn't know what the true situation was until we pulled out the rotten drywall and took a look at the wood underneath. Then, hopefully, we would be able to see where the water was coming from and how extensive the damage was. The good news (there is some good news!) is that the wood underneath is not rotted. It is still intact. That means this hasn't been going on that long.

But that's also the bad news: the water is coming in because the gutters are non-functional and water is backing up behind them and just sitting there. The gutters are non-functional because Homero "fixed" them.

Okay, it's another long story, and I just don't have the energy right now. It's not really Homero's fault, of course, it's the fault of the stupid cheap ass previous owners who did everything the weaselly cop-out way. None of this is going to make sense without blueprints or a far more in-depth explanation than I am up to, but basically what happened is that Homero tried to correct a problem created by the previous owners and accidentally made it worse instead.

The long and the short of it is we need new gutters. Right now, what we have is actually worse than no gutters at all. So now I am faced with a dilemma. I have the motive, means, and opportunity to go ahead and get it all done before Homero gets home. But should I?

If I wait, I will have to try to convince him of all this all over again. He will insist on doing it all himself. But he DOESN'T KNOW HOW to do it right. Nor is he willing to spend the money to buy the right materials or hire help. I now have, alas, ample evidence that my dear, beloved husband is a really really crappy carpenter (He's a fantastic mechanic, by the way. One of the best. Really. He's a 100% ASE certified master mechanic. I guess it just doesn't translate). He used the wrong materials, he ran things the wrong way, he basically made everything worse in a way that could potentially result in lifelong lung disease for all of us.

If I go ahead and get it done in his absence, I am courting divorce. He really takes this sort of thing extremely personally. Doing it before he gets here is a vote of no-confidence. I realize that. But... really, do I have to get COPD in order to keep my husband happy? Is that one of the marriage vows?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When the Cat's Away (the Mice Will Get Some Work Done)

Okay, bear with me, y'all: there's a lot of back-story here.

I am running the home place all by myself for a week or two. Yesterday evening, Homero flew off to Oaxaca to pick up our car from his mother's house and drive it home - a journey of some 4,000 miles. Our car is in Oaxaca because last summer, he drove the car down, left it at his mother's house, and flew home. He felt that we needed a car of our own on our two week vacation, and that this would be a wise action to take. Renting a car was apparently not an option. Don't ask. Symmetry. This trip is the mirror image of that trip, and hopefully once it is over we will once again have our lovely TDI Jetta and will never again have to argue bitterly about cars and Mexico. Which is something we have done a lot.

Those of you who know us personally are already all too familiar with the ongoing saga of Mexico and cars, and those who aren't - believe me, you don't want to know. All you need to know is that my husband left me for an undetermined amount of time - not less than seven days - with absolutely no notice ("Amor, I bought the plane ticket. I gotta go in three hours." Not kidding.). Oh also, you should know that these twin trips have cost a collective total of three thousand dollars (not counting lost wages); money which I felt was wholly wasted for no good reason at all. To be fair, Homero felt the money was spent in a good cause. He just couldn't articulate that cause to me in a way that made any sense.

Another long-running theme in our marriage (which you need to know about in order to understand my soon-to-be-related actions) is the issue of my husband's handiness - or lack thereof. A good synopsis can be found here: A Handy Man is Good to Find...? It's also pretty funny ... in hindsight. As a matter of fact, Homero IS unusually handy. He has a wide spectrum of skills and over the years, those skills have saved us a great deal of money. Yes, I'm sure the amount of money his skills have saved us is greater than the three thousand dollars wasted on his weird obsession with driving cars to Mexico. That's not the point. The point is - Homero is handy enough that he feels that any and all home repairs should be done by himself and himself alone. There seems to be an element of machismo here - apparently the idea of another man working in his home is about as welcome as the idea of another man ... well, you get the idea.

I wouldn't mind Homero insisting on performing all of his own handy-work IF

1) he were a little more realistic about what he can and can't do; and
2) there were actually enough hours in the day or days in the year or years in his lifetime for him to do what needs doing.

As a matter of fact, strike rule number 1. I wouldn't mind his trying to do things he has never attempted before - in essence, experimenting on our home - if he would just attempt them in a timely manner. In reality, he is one busy hardworking son-of-a-gun and does not actually have time to do diddley-squat. He doesn't have time to snake the bathtub drain, which got plugged up when my daughter used the tub to wash alpaca fleece. He sure doesn't have time for the kind of projects that I have in mind.

Just for example - and so you don't think I'm being trivial - there is a large patch of ugly black mold growing in a back closet. I mean a big ole patch. This patch of mold is at least five by ten feet square and three dimensional. It looks like it's ready to raise a flag and go off in search of new lands to conquer. Lands like, oh, say, our children's bedroom. In short, this is not a problem which can be ignored. Yet, Homero has been successfully ignoring it for several months now. I showed him the mold. I told him that mold can be toxic. I said that I considered this to be one hell of a big deal problem. Three months went by. The mold grew fangs and began mumbling audibly. I think I may have heard my name.

Okay, so now he's out of town. All of six hours have gone by since he left. Ring, ring... Hello, contractor? Can you come out here and give me an estimate today? Why the rush? Well, let me see if I can explain.....

Then there's the carpet situation. Oh my God. I do not think I can adequately express to anyone who has not been in my house just exactly how disgusting the carpets are. Maybe if you also live on a farm in a part of the world that experiences 60+ inches of rainfall a year, AND if your husband is also a car mechanic, AND you have several large extremely hairy dogs AND an incontinent cat... no, even then, you just can't imagine. Sorry. My carpets are a biohazard. And also probably a large part of the reason I haven't made any good friends here yet. People come over once and then never again. I hope to God it's the carpets, because I don't want to think about what it could be if it's not. Ahem. Curtain of denial falling in three... two.... one...

So anyway. My feminine logic dictated that I have three thousand dollars owed to me to spend as I see fit. Regarding the car thing, my husband simply said to me "I know you don't understand or agree, but I'm going to do it anyway." I realized you can't die on every hill and said "do what you need to do, baby."

But here's what I need to do: solid oak hardwood. Yeah, that's what I said. Remove the "carpet of shame" and replace with gorgeous gleaming pre-finished oak planks. Floors which can be swept and mopped instead of vacuumed. Did I mention we have gone through three vacuum cleaners in the four years we have lived here? The vacuum has not been invented which can stand up to our lifestyle. Vacuums last about six months around here, and then they lay down and give up the ghost, Homero's small-motor repair skills notwithstanding.

I went out of town last weekend. I was gone for three days - a great girls-only birthday trip for my best friend. We had a wonderful time. I can't go into detail due to a non-disclosure clause we all signed at the weekend's start, but that's not relevant anyway. The salient fact here is that when I came home, I walked into my house and immediately broke out into an allergic rash. Within five minutes I was red, bumpy, sneezy, and itchy. That's like, four of the seven dwarves right there.

There are health related reasons for both the carpet-removal and the closet situation, and I will invoke them if necessary. Then there are the basic maintenance arguments - we have to try to maintain the resale value of the house. But to be perfectly honest, neither of those arguments are the flat-out truth. The truth is, I want hardwood floors. More than that, even, I want the basic authority to identify problems and implement solutions. I am a grownup, and I have my own money. I have certain desires, and those desires are both practical and ethical. I am not doing anything arbitrary, contrary to my family's well-being, or wasteful. On the contrary, I believe I am making a sound investment and a decision which is well within my rights to make.

So why do I have to wait until my husband is out of town to spend my own money to make home improvements which will benefit us all? Damn.

Any questions?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Holy Pork Chops, Batman! (the Backstory on Pigs)

My camera is eternally on the fritz, out of batteries, or both, so I can't take a picture of the lovely ham in the oven, alas. I will, however, give you a recipe, since the smell permeating my entire house is so luscious that I believe it would actually be a sin not to. Meanwhile, here is my favorite pork-related photo - I call it The Princess and the Pig.

The ham in the oven is not a part of the above pig. That pig was consumed last year. This year, I decided to buy pork instead of a piglet. We have raised three pigs in the past, and all of them have provided us with delicious meat. But pigs, as I believe I may have mentioned, can be seriously obnoxious (Everybody Hates Pigs, and Confessions of Laziness), and also seriously destructive to my limited amount of pasture. We will almost certainly raise another pig in the future, but I'm taking a year off.

The ham in the oven was part of a half hog that I bought from the same farmer from whom we have always acquired our piglets. That's an interesting story, and paging back in the archives, I can't see that I've ever related it, so here you go:

My addiction to Craigslist is long-standing: it was firmly in place before we had acquired any animals at all or done the preliminary work (fencing, barn-construction) to do so. I just liked to peruse the farm and garden section - it was part of my fantasy life. You know, the fantasy in which I am a competent farmer and head-of-household; the fantasy in which I provide for my family's every need out of my own hard work and knowledge. The fantasy in which I have laid out the plans for a fully self-sufficient homestead. You know - utterly bogus dreamland.

Anyway. I'm perusing craigslist and I see a "wanted" ad for a cattle chute. As it so happens, there is a big old metal construction out in the back field which I think is a cattle chute - meaning, if somebody put a gun to my head and said "name this piece of equipment" cattle chute is what I would guess. So I write to the person who placed the ad and I say "I think I have a cattle chute. Don't know for sure and have no idea if it is complete, but it's yours if you want it." They came up here from Sedro-Woolley (40 miles) and decided yes indeed, it was a cattle chute and they did want it.

"What do you want for it?" they asked.

"Oh nothing," I said. "I'm not going to use it."

They briefly conferred in whispers and then asked me "well what about a piglet? We raise pigs."

"Umm," I said, thinking there's nothing I want less than a piglet, "I'll have to talk to my husband. For now, why don't you just take it?"

That was a big mistake. My husband fondly remembered his family raising pigs in Mexico and the delicious, nostalgic taste of farmstead pork. He insisted that we did, indeed, want a pig. He was so sold on the idea of a pig that he actually built a pigpen and a pig-house, so how could I say no? A pig we got.

When that pig was transformed into meat (death of a pig) I learned a lesson about the superiority of pasture raised pork, and decided I would never again eat supermarket pork ( a lesson that was reinforced by subsequent reading on the subject of factory farming). Two other pigs followed. But this year, I just didn't want to cope with the fact of a pig: the squealing, the mud, the wallows in the pasture. When I saw (on Craigslist, of course) that the same farmer from whom I buy my piglets was selling a hog by halves, I jumped on it.

The price is about the same - it's marginally cheaper to raise your own pork, but really not by much. The quality is the same, and I have seen their operation and know that their pigs are happy and healthy with room to exercise and freedom to root and breed. Frankly, I'm delighted to have avoided the bother of raising an organic, free-range pig while still enjoying the pleasure of eating one.

Spicy Raspberry Ham

One half-ham (I used butt end)

2 canned chilpotle peppers, with adobe sauce (about 2 tablespoons)
1/4 cup raspberry jam
2 tbspns honey
1 tbspn vinegar
1/2 tsp rosemary
3 cloves garlic
1 cup white wine

2 yellow onions, quartered
2 garnet yams, sliced into fat rounds

Place ham (thawed if frozen) into a large cast iron skillet.
Score deeply with a paring knife. Place next seven ingredients in blender and blend until smooth. Pour over ham and use hands to work into cuts. Turn ham several times. Around ham, place onion and yams. Bake at 325 about 2 hours, or until well done, basting frequently. Serve with rice and braised greens.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

All Quiet on the Homefront (Stuff That Did and Didn't Get Done)

Milking season is over. No more race to keep up with the goat-ladies making cheese and yogurt every day.

Garden is put to bed. Planted garlic a few weeks ago, threw a few cartloads of compost on top of the beds, and called it a season. See you in April, garden!

Preserving season is over. We are beginning to eat the pickles, pears and chutneys that I put up in the summer. There is still kim chee in the fridge. I didn't get around to sauerkraut.

Hay for the winter is put up (I hope we won't need more than what we have). Fences are recently mended. Animals are wormed, feet are trimmed, and everybody's pregnant who should be pregnant, and no-one is who shouldn't be (touch wood).

Homero has made two big batches of biodiesel, so we won't have to fill up the bug for quite some time.

Don't get me wrong - we can't sit back. There's always more to do. There's stuff we need to do to get ready for winter. We didn't get the small pasture fenced for a winter sacrifice area, so everyone will be out in the big pasture like usual. The beehives are not yet insulated and wrapped. The propane tank is only a quarter full. I have to get more mittens and socks for the children. There's something wrong with the gutters on one part of the house and there's a patch of mold growing on the walls and ceiling of the storage closet that is underneath that area. We never did set up the rain-catchment system; it's still just a bunch of big plastic cubes on the porch. I meant to get our diesel generator wired into the house so that when the power goes out we will have emergency power. The cars all need new tires - the van's tires are as smooth as a baby's bottom.

Some of the stuff that didn't get done didn't get done for lack of time. A lot of it didn't get done for lack of money. Sometimes it was a lack of guts: I just didn't want to open the hives again. And sometimes I just forgot about things. Money is going to be short for some time, most likely, so big projects will not get done soon. That mold? I'm thinking bleach and a fan, for now, and don't store anything important in that closet.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gimpy Goat and No More Milk

This is Django. She is one of the original three goats we bought when we moved here, and now she is the only La Mancha I have (La Manchas are the earless goats. Nobody cut off her ears: it's just her breed.). Django has always been a good goat - good mother, good milker, about as easy-going as a goat gets. She did get terribly ill a couple of years ago after getting into the grain, but she recovered and has been pretty healthy ever since. She had triplets this past year.

Yesterday when I went out to do the chores, I saw something awful. Django appears to have a dislocated shoulder. One of her shoulder blades is depressed downwards and if I lay my palm on the place where it ought to be I can feel the bone socket. Her elbow is rather radically displaced - down and to the side. Nonetheless, she is getting around okay. I called the vet, of course, and as I was trying to explain exactly where the dislocation was, Django kept running away from me. As James Herriot said in his wonderful book All Creatures Great and Small, if you can't catch your patient you've probably got little to worry about. She was browsing normally and later on chewing her cud. She didn't cry when I manipulated the joint.

The vet said that he's seen this before, and never had any luck trying to manually replace the bone. He said an operation would be the only option. Well, I said, it's not an option for us... do you think she'll recover on her own? Is this a very painful condition? He said that it was unlikely the joint would "pop back in" on it's own, but that over the next few months she would develop a false joint and be more or less normal. She would look funny and probably never quite keep up with the herd, but once the joint stabilized she would get around fine. It's hard to tell how much pain a goat is in, they are very stoic animals, but it's a good sign that she's chewing her cud. He said it's a good thing it's the foreleg; hind leg displacements are more problematic and could interfere with kidding.

So we aren't going to do anything. This morning she jumped on and off the milking stand just like usual. She is interacting with the other goats and seems pretty normal, except for that weird elbow thing. I'll just keep an eye on her and watch for worsening mobility or signs of pain. If she does get worse, we'll have to make a decision then.

Also, all the goats are more or less dry. I got about a cup of milk from each one, and that's just not worth it. Most likely they are all pregnant and so I'll just stop milking until next spring.
Cheese season is over at last!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Great Goat (Manly Food)!

Yesterday, I made goat for dinner.

Obviously, we have eaten some of our goats before. We have butchered kids two years in a row now, and every time we have eaten some of the meat. But this past butchering was the first time we actually put a whole goat in the freezer. Before that, we sold the kids to people who butchered them on site and then took the meat away for a big party (to which we were invited). See Goat Butchering Party.

Although I cooked a leg of goat on the day of slaughter for the men who were butchering, I had not removed any of the meat from the freezer to cook until last night. I was a little reluctant. It's funny - every time I have eaten goat, I liked it. "Hey, that's not too bad," was my reaction, and sometimes "man, that's really good!" Yet, I never got over the faint distaste I felt when I raised it to my lips and opened my mouth. The thought of eating goat was what I disliked - I'm not sure if it had more to do with the fact of being present for the butchering or with having known the individual animals, or with goat being a "non-food animal" for Americans.

Whatever the problem was, it's all over now. The leg of goat I made last night was probably the single best-tasting piece of meat I've ever eaten in my life. There is one steak from a steakhouse in St. Louis that I remember as being a serious contender, but actually, I think this goat was better.

Goat needs long, slow cooking, I've decided, at least, our goat does. Here's what I did last night:

Braised Goat, Yucateco Style

1 3-4 pound piece of goat (the piece I used was labeled "loin" but I think that was wrong. I think it was actually a substantial section of hind leg.)

Thaw meat if frozen and place in a big ziploc.

In a big mortar and pestle or in the blender, blend together 4 cloves garlic, several allspice berries, several whole cloves, 3/4 tsp cumin seed, ditto peppercorns, 1 tsp salt, pinch red pepper flakes, big pinch thyme, tablespoon olive oil, tablespoon achiote paste, 1.5 cups orange juice, juice of one lime, a half can or so beer (lager) and a tablespoon of cider vinegar. Add a branch of rosemary to the bag (do not blend rosemary in blender). Put marinade in the bag with the meat and let rest 3-4 hours, turning as needed.

No later than 3 in the afternoon, put goat with all the marinade into a large baking dish. Quarter three yellow onions and add to dish. Bake, uncovered, at 325 for 2 hours. Baste occasionally, and turn the meat over once (if the shape of the roast allows this). If marinade thickens too much, loosen with orange juice.

At about 2 hours, test the meat with two forks to see if it pulls away from bone easily. It should be starting to shred. At this point, add to dish (all veggies diced into 1/2" dice) 1 large carrot, one large stick celery, and 1 large potato. Make sure veggies are all coated with juices and leave to bake approximately 1 hour more.

By 6 pm, the meat should be falling apart, the veggies tender, and everyone salivating from the incredible aroma. Serve meat with white rice and lots of fresh hot corn tortillas. This was just out-of-this-world mind blowingly good.

I think I'll try goat ribs next.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cheap Delicious Dinner (Girly Food)

In a recent post (There's Nothing to Eat (Pantry Management)!) I was casting about randomly for combinations of proteins and starches for dinner, and one of the duos I came up with was quinoa and tofu. As a matter of fact, although I have cooked each of these separately, I hadn't ever combined them into one meal before. Tonight, as 7:oo rolled around and everyone was still whining for dinner, I seized upon this combo as a quick fix.

It wouldn't have worked, by the way, if my husband were expected for dinner. He doesn't mind the occasional vegetarian meal, as long as it is based on traditional Latin staples such as rice, beans, and corn. But quinoa and tofu do NOT fit his idea of a satisfying meal. He would have rather eaten some Top Ramen. That's traditional Mexican all right - traditional wetback solo male post- 12-hour shift physical labor cuisine. Along with 3 for $10 frozen pizzas and maybe hot dogs cooked over the gas burner on a fork.

Anyway. Here's what I did tonight, and it all three of my kids ate it up with relish:

1.5 cups quinoa, placed in a stockpot with 3 cups water. Bring to a boil, turn down to low, cover, and simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes.

Meanwhile: Heat 2 tablespoons (or so) neutral oil in a large skillet over medium high heat

dice 1 package extra-firm tofu into 1/2" cubes, and fry, turning occasionally while you:

chop one stick celery, one carrot, 1/4 small head red cabbage, 2-3 cloves garlic, 2 jalapenos: add veggies to skillet and keep turning

add: 1 tsp (give or take) mashed fresh ginger, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon fermented red pepper paste (yeah, sorry, don't know where to get it. I got mine at Uwajimaya like 10 years ago. If you ever find it, know it will keep literally forever in your fridge), a teaspoon vinegar and a teaspoon sugar. If you have any cilantro, chop and toss with the rest.

Turn off veggies. Uncover and fluff quinoa with a fork. Serve everybody about 1/2 cup quinoa topped with generous scoop tofu and veggies. Umma-numma-numma.

I worked out the finances, and this extremely nutritious meal costs about $0.75 per serving. Maybe $1 max. Enjoy.