"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We're Having Authenticity For Dinner (Tepache)

tepache in the garage

We are having a pretty simple supper tonight: pan fried trout, baked potatoes, and braised red cabbage. It smells wonderful in my kitchen right now (even though I haven't fried the trout yet) and I thought I'd put up the recipe for the red cabbage. But when I started to compose it in my mind, I realized that this recipe - and those for the other components of dinner -is actually very involved, and interesting, if I describe it correctly.

It's apple season. I love apples, and I love apple season, but we still, after seven years here, do not have our own apples. I have a beautiful old cider press and every year I go in search of apples to feed it. Two weeks ago, a lovely older couple from church told me they would be happy - nay, grateful - if I would go to their house and pick apples from their six trees. Every year the apples fall all over the yard and they are getting rather elderly and stiff to be picking them all up. My sister and I went together and picked something like three bushels of apples, and spent a few minutes picking up windfalls as a thank-you.

Then I pressed cider with a neighbor, who also brought a few bushels of apples. Fresh cider is wonderful, and we drank as much as we could as fast as we could, but even so, there was a three gallon carboy leftover that fermented gently in the garage. A week after the pressing, the cider in the carboy was fizzy and delicious, lightly alcoholic (probably one-and-a-half percent, so weak that I let the children drink it), and beautiful over ice on a warm September afternoon. Now, two weeks after that, it is edging into apple cider vinegar territory.

It isn't quite vinegar yet. But neither is it cider anymore; what I have now is a couple gallons of tepache. Unless you are Mexican, and a rural Mexican at that, you probably don't know what tepache is. Tepache, along with pulque, is a quintessential rural Mexican beverage served at festivals and rodeos and birthday parties back in the hill country, and out of clay jugs on market days in small towns. It can be made from apples, or peaches, or plums, or various Mexican fruits that don't grow around here, such as ciruelas and tunas. Basically, it is a weak fruit beer. It's impossible to get drunk on tepache, but if you quaff enough of it on a hot Mexican day while watching a parade, you can get a small but pleasant buzz. The tepache in my garage is fairly far over onto the vinegar side of the spectrum. It's still tasty, but I wouldn't want to drink a pint of it. There is still a gallon and half of it, however, and I have to do something with it, fairly quickly.

Today was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm. The garden has been neglected lately, and it was past time to get out there and pick what was left to pick, dig the potatoes (which was a chore, since the plants died back ages ago and the weeds grew over), and do general cleanup. There's not a whole lot left, but I picked a quart of cherry tomatoes and dug a few pounds of potatoes. There are six red cabbage and I picked two, leaving the other four in the ground for later. I ate the last of the overbearing golden raspberries as I worked. The hubbard squashes, which did not do well, have died back already and I brought in the two small blue squash. My chiles dried on the plants ion the greenhouse and I picked them all as well. I am by no means done putting the garden to bed, but at least I made some progress.

Carrying in my potatoes and cabbage, the outlines of dinner came to me. Several weeks ago, my daughter Hope's best friend came over to spend the night, bearing a dozen beautiful little trout she had caught with her grandfather, already cleaned and frozen. I took the trout out to defrost and sliced the potatoes to roast in a shallow pan with olive oil and salt.  I wanted to give the cabbage a German/Eastern European treatment, braised with bacon and spices. I looked up a few recipes, and all of them called for apple cider vinegar. Well, of course I have some apple cider vinegar in the house, but I thought tepache would serve beautifully.

Except for the spices, everything we are eating tonight came from either our own garden or a neighbor. Everything is local to within a few miles. Everything was procured with our own labor and knowledge, or our friend's labor and knowledge, and grown in our own dirt.

Once, years ago, when I wrote a post about the importance of being able to produce my own food, my brother told me he didn't see the difference between producing your own food with your own labor, or using your labor to make money and buy your food. It was kind of an "if you have to ask, you'll never know" moment, but I just thought of an analogy he might get. What's the difference between writing a piano concerto yourself and playing it on a piano yourself, or paying somebody to write and preform a concerto for you?

Braised Red Cabbage

1 medium or two small heads red cabbage, from your garden. 
1 large red onion, ditto
1/2 pound bacon, preferably from your own pig
1 pint homemade tepache
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
6 allspice berries
1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
1/2 tsp salt

In a medium saucepan, fry chopped bacon over medium heat to render fat. Saute sliced onion and sliced red cabbage. When vegetables are beginning to soften, add spices and fry for a few minutes more. Add tepache and bring to a fast simmer. Cover and cook until cabbage is very tender, about 30 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Right On Time (Rain and Decisions)

Today is the Equinox. As I sit here, writing this, the day is fading. It is almost six o'clock; since school started, I wake up at six o'clock, and the sun is just rising. The heavens have balanced themselves for another turn of the earth.

Cool weather arrived last week and yesterday it began to rain. A soft, gentle rain that you can walk around in for a while without really getting wet. Good, northwest rain, at the expected time. After the summer we had, which was dry and surprisingly hot week after week, the ordinariness of late September rain feels like sweet relief. A week and a half ago, I took the kids to the lake to go swimming, and exchanged the same words with half a dozen people:

"Can you believe this, swimming this late in the fall?"

"It's amazing. I love it."

Sunburns in September. But today it is reassuringly grey. The sky has assumed it's customary autumn wet-rag appearance, and the blackberries, although still plump and glossy to the eye, lose all cohesion if you try to pick them. There are mushrooms on the lawn. I saw several leopard slugs in the playroom. I picked the last of the garden tomatoes. Any late-ripeners will just have to fall off and send up volunteers next spring. The final plums have fallen, and the second crop of pears is just about ripe.

We still have a few weeks before the first frost, probably, and I need to take advantage of them. We have been remiss in the hay department, and there are only about thirty-five bales in the barn. That is not nearly enough hay to get us through the winter - we usually go through double that number, and in past years we didn't have a cow. We will have to get another load of hay, but in the meantime, I can supplement the supply by taking the goats out to browse every day. As long the frost holds off, the front yard provides plenty of roughage in the form of blackberries, alder and beech leaves, and thistles. After the frost, the greenery loses most of its nutrient value and hay becomes the staple fodder.

Most of the work that has to get done before winter is done - the hole Poppy kicked in the barn is repaired. The freezer is full of beef and salmon, cider and berries. The goats still need to be bred, but I have a plan in place for that. The propane tank needs to be filled, but that's just a phone call. I feel fairly well prepared and provisioned.

This takes no account, of course, of the major work that needs to be done in the crawlspace. We have not yet decided if we are going to try to get it done this fall, before the worst of winter, or if we will wait until next dry season. If we do it as soon as possible, there will certainly be a few weeks of cold weather during which we cannot use the furnace. We'll have to buy a couple of space heaters and crowd in one bedroom together. If we wait until next year, we can save more money towards the job (inshallah) and theoretically the damage done by one more winter is strictly incremental....

Every time I try to think about the crawlspace my brain rebels and starts to hum old show tunes instead. Chim-chimeree, chim-chimeree, chim-chim cheree...... my luck has run out I've a cracked chim-en-ney....  never mind.  I will think about it tomorrow, for tomorrow is another day.

Crawlspaces are easy places to ignore; they are underground and nobody ever goes there. They are the shadow side, the subconscious of a home. As the world turns its back on the sun and slides darkness on like a hood, it seems perfectly natural to do the same; just close my eyes and let it all hibernate the winter through. The crawlspace and its nasty issues will all still be there come spring, when hopefully my strength will rise with the sap and I will have new energy to tackle major projects.

That's not really my style, though. However tempting it may be to will it away for another year, in truth I am the kind of person who, once a problem has been identified, can't leave it alone until a course of action is decided upon and underway. So I have another phone call to make. A very expensive phone call.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Canning Party (Recipes)

lemon curd

mixing up Ukrainian refrigerator pickles

making dilly beans

Yesterday I invited a couple of girlfriends over to do some communal canning. It was a beautiful fall day and I enjoyed showing my friends around the homestead. After a few drinks and some snacks, we got down to business.

One of my friends was a total canning novice, and she chose dilly beans as a good place to start. I think that's a good choice - easy vinegar based pickle, delicious, pretty. I made lemon curd because I had a serious surplus of organic lemons from the Gleaner's Pantry. Lemon curd is not just yummy, but also very attractive and I'm thinking it will make a good addition to any Christmas packages I send out this year, should I get my shit together and send any.

My other friend is Ukrainian, and was making two of her mother's recipes. I was very excited about this; my mother's family also comes from Ukraine, but a few generations back, and as far as I know no family recipes have survived from that time. The three of us had a great time in the kitchen, and we decided to make it an annual event - the September canning get-together.

Nastia's Refrigerator Pickles

4 kg pickling cucumbers sliced in fourths lengthwise, and halved if long
4 Tbsn minced garlic
1 C. salad oil
1 C. sugar
2 Tbsn mustard powder
2 Tbsn yellow mustard seeds
2 tspn ground black pepper
1 C. 9% white vinegar (available in Russian grocery stores; or 2 C. regular white vinegar

Mix all ingredients in a large non-reactive kettle; let stand 3 hours at room temp. Then pack into large glass jars and refrigerate up to 2 months. 

These pickles are so delicious we couldn't stop eating them immediately, but now, a day later, I can say they are much better than they were even 24 hours ago. Unbelievable. I will be making these every year. 

Nastsia's Eggplant Preserve

3 Kg ripe eggplants (about 8), chopped in large (2") dice
1 Liter tomato juice
1 Tbsn salt
1 C. sugar
1 C. salad oil
1/2 C. 9% vinegar (available in Russian groceries; or 1 C. regular white vinegar)

Salt the eggplant well and leave to sit 1/2 hour in a colander; then rinse well and combine with all the other ingredients. Boil 20 minutes, then ladle into sterilized wide-mouth pint jars and process in a water bath 30 minutes. Cool and make sure jars have sealed. 
NOTE: this is Nastia's mother's recipe. The Blue Book Canning Guide states that eggplant, as a low acid vegetable, MUST be pressure canned. Some sources say that acidizing the eggplant with vinegar makes it safe; other sources DISAGREE. To be totally safe, process in a pressure canner.

Lemon Curd

Juice of 8 large or 12 small lemons; about 1 full cup
6 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
2 C. sugar or more to taste
3 sticks (3/4 lb) butter

in a large sauce pan, mix first three ingredients. Whisk until well blended. Over medium heat, whisk in butter in small pieces until incorporated; keep whisking occasionally until thickened; about 6 or 7 minutes. Ladle into sterilized 1 C. quilted jelly jars and place on sterilized lids. Process in a water bath just to seal; about 5 minutes. The high acid of this conserve makes it safe as long as the jar seals well. Will keep for many months. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

It Never Rains But it Pours (When is Enough Enough?)

We've had a streak of bad luck lately. An expensive streak. In the past two weeks:

- I broke a tooth. A particularly exciting trade had come my way - it's crab season in these parts and apparently it's been a very good year. A friend of mine traded me a couple pounds of goat cheese for three or four big fat dungeoness crabs, already cleaned and cooked. Since in my estimation, dungeoness crab gives king salmon a run for its money as the most delectable native seafood of the Salish Sea, I was understandably excited about this trade. I sat down at the kitchen table with a pair of crackers to extract the meat and have a few nibbles along the way. I spent a very happy hour or so cracking crab legs, partly with the pincers and partly with my teeth, sweet sea-flavored juice dribbling down my shirt front. But when all the crab was gone and I came out of my yummy-food-induced trance, I poked around in my mouth with my tongue and found that one of my molars was missing a big ass chunk.

The good part was that it didn't hurt. The bad part was that my brain instantly began to freak out and insist that my tongue check out the hole every 0.6 seconds for the next eighteen hours. I don't have dental insurance - I have health insurance thanks to the ACA, but not dental - and so I had to wait until the local Interfaith dental clinic opened up on monday morning and wait my turn with all the other poor snaggletooth schlubs. The dentist there told me they could fill it, but that that was only a temporary solution and I really needed a crown. Crowns, I was told by every local dentist I called, run about fifteen hundred dollars.

My husband said, when I told him, that if we didn't spend money on our teeth, what the hell were we saving it for? So I made the appointment and went in, on wednesday I think. A crown is a two appointment procedure, and this first one was the hard one. For two and a half hours I suffered in silence, and then I paid them $750 dollars and drove home with a numb, swollen jaw. When I got there I found that

- Poppy Pony had had an accident. Homero had tried to text me and tell me, but I was head down in a dentist's chair with my mouth full of cotton gauze and pain. It seems he had staked her out to eat the green grass in the front yard. The pasture is pretty brown and bald at the end of this long, dry summer. Poppy had tried to reach some greener grass nearby and had pulled the stake, a T-post, right out of the ground. It hit her in the hocks; she panicked and went charging around the property at top speed with a six foot steel bar thumping and whacking along behind her. Trying to get back into her own enclosure, she went over the top of a cattle panel and crashed into the side of the barn, actually knocking a big hole in it.

"We hath to caw the wet," I said.

When he got there, the vet gave her a sedative, a shot of antibiotics, and an injection of pain medicine. He cleaned up the numerous cuts on all four of her legs. No stitches were needed, but he had to trim off a couple of flaps of skin with scissors. She was limping, but he thought that was just bruising. He gave me anti inflammatory gel to administer for the next ten days and said no riding for three weeks. He also showed me a hideous photo on his cell phone of a horse who had gone over a barbed wire fence that same day. A big sheet of skin and muscle was hanging down off the animal's neck. He said Poppy was very lucky; she could easily have broken a leg or suffered a trauma like the one in the picture. Then he charged me three hundred dollars and drove away.

Later in the week, a man came out to inspect the crawlspace. A couple of years ago, while we were in Mexico, the sump-pump failed and the crawlspace flooded (Bad News from Home). We have only just had the money to address the issue. OR SO I THOUGHT. The man who came out, owner of a very highly regarded company that specializes in crawlspaces and nothing but, went under the house in a haz-mat suit and took about two hundred pictures. When he came back up he said "the sump pump is the least of your problems." Then he showed us the pictures.

I really don't have the heart to go into it. For the first time, I am seriously questioning whether we made the right decision in buying this house. I love this property with all my heart and I firmly believe that by moving here, we have given our children the great gift of a childhood that includes wildness and the possibility of losing themselves in nature. Over the years, I have come to love this house as well - this very 1940's owner-built ranch house, with all its eccentricities and quirks. The many issues we have addressed - the roof, the plumbing, the rot - have been expensive, but I thought we were finally getting on top of it, and even felt pride in slowly restoring an aging but unique farmhouse.

We were not getting on top of it. Underneath it all, there is a hideous story of rot, sinking cement footings, and poorly shimmed pillars. There is unstable earth. There are rats. There is a sixty year legacy of poor workmanship, deception and fraud, and amateurism. Underneath it all, at the very bottom, there is a poorly drained slope to the northeast undermining the foundation.

All of these issues can be addressed, mitigated, though not fully corrected. Even were money no object - which is certainly is - the very best that can be done cannot completely heal the house. To the contractor, after his presentation of misery, I said "for fifty years people have been slapping one cheap fix on top of another to this house. I want that to stop here, with me. I want to leave this house to my children." He nodded, but he didn't say that was a realistic plan.

The truth is, he might be the best contractor in the world, but he can't stop time. I might spend all the money at my disposal, but I can't stop the rain from beating down or the beetles from boring. I had a dream the other night, before all this. A nightmare. I dreamed I was walking with a group of people I didn't know through an office building, a skyscraper. We were all going downstairs at a deliberate pace. Each time we reached a new floor, I lost some power of movement. Suddenly I couldn't move my arms anymore. On the next floor down, I couldn't turn my head. Then I found that I couldn't stop walking, either. I wasn't unduly alarmed; it seemed pretty normal.

I am trying not to be unduly alarmed. We can only do what we can do; we cannot be immortal, nor can we safeguard our homes and properties for eternity. We will do what we can - I plan to hire the contractor and ask him to do everything within my budget to stabilize the house unto the third generation. My hope is that someday in the far future, Homero and I will be able to retire to sunny Oaxaca in good conscience, that I will leave my children a real home, not a pile of rotting wood. I will not stint, and I hope that they will not have cause to reproach me for negligence, penny-pinching, or sloth.

But maybe they will reproach me for wasting their inheritance propping up a lost cause.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Demon Cheese (Homero the Hero)

Our house is old. Most of the essential features - the roof, the septic system - have been upgraded over the years (this sweeping statement covers a whole host of terrifying and - in retrospect - amusing stories, some of which can be found in these posts Mold Monster UpdateA Handy Man is Good to Find...?The Demon of Bad Smell (the Plumber as Hero)) but others have not. One such system is the plumbing, which was, like the rest of the house, originally owner installed and has some - shall we say - quirks.

Some of the issues with the plumbing, however, are entirely my own fault. Over the last several months, the kitchen sink has been chronically slow to drain, and when I do laundry the washing machine water backs up into the utility sink in the laundry room. Such is life with old pipes, we thought, and simply used the heavy-duty plunger to unclog things temporarily. A couple days ago, however, the sink was completely stopped up and plunging did no good. Homero took apart the U bend underneath and it was clear, so the problem was further along, somewhere under the house. Our thirty foot snake couldn't clear the problem, either.

At this point, I was all for calling the roto-rooter man. That's what he's for, right? Unclogging pipes. Homero, on the other hand, will not call in a professional unless he has previously tried and failed at least six times to fix the problem, and sometimes not even then. I'm relatively certain he would rather live with, say, a non-working refrigerator forever than pay somebody else to fix it. As you might imagine, this has been a source of considerable stress for me, but a few years ago I decided I would rather live with a non-working refrigerator than with Homero's injured pride. These days, I make one gentle suggestion that it might be time to call in the pros, and after that I go take a hot bath. Assuming it isn't the hot water heater that is broken, of course.

So Homero went under the house. We have a very tight crawlspace. Two years ago the sump-pump bit the dust and the crawlspace flooded. We have yet to make repairs, so the insulation hangs down in damp curtain-like swaths, and the vapor barrier doesn't adhere tightly to the floor or walls. It's a dank, musty, scary, claustrophobic place. Oh, and the wiring went kablooey so the only light is a flashlight. I wouldn't go down there for all the tea in China. In truth, I probably wouldn't fit.

Homero asked me to stay by the trapdoor in case he needed anything. I lay on the concrete floor of the garage and peered into the dark, listening to Homero grunting softly as he wormed his way over to the space underneath the kitchen sink. He began banging softly on the pipes with a wrench to find the clog. A little later, I heard the sound of his power saw. He was cutting open the pipe. He yelled something back to me that sounds like "cheese."


"They're full of cheese!"



Homero came crawling back with a three foot section of pipe. Sure enough, it was clogged solid with a substance that bore some hellish resemblance to cheese. White, soft, crumbly, and squishy, and unbelievably revolting.

"How did that happen?" I gagged.

"It's from all the whey you pour down the drain," he said. "And the whole pipe is full of it all the way to the sewer line. I'm going to have to replace it all. Help me out of here, I'm going to Home Depot."

For the last four or five years, as long as I've been making cheese, I've been letting the cheese drain in the sink. The whey that drains off varies, but is usually clear or nearly clear, and I didn't think there was any harm in letting it go down the drain. I know that whey is actually useful for all sorts of things and if I were thriftier and less lazy, I would have caught it and used it to water my plants, or polish the silverware, or cure warts or something. Whenever we had a pig during cheese season, the pig would get the whey, but most years we didn't. I felt awful, and not just from the smell.

"I'm so sorry," I said. "I didn't know. What can I do?"

He didn't even dignify that with an answer. He just washed his face and drove away.

Later that afternoon,  Homero returned with a lot of black PVC piping and some clamps and other stuff that I didn't look at too closely and couldn't identify if I did. He asked Hope to come under the house with him and hold the flashlight for him. I was a little alarmed at that - Hope is ten - but I didn't say anything. Hope was totally game. She's a brave girl. I hovered by the hole, trying to see and occasionally yelling "everything okay down there?"

About an hour later Homero sent Hope up.

"He said he doesn't need me anymore," she said.

Homero kept working for another hour or so, and finally came back up through the trapdoor, looking grim and dirty.

"All done?"

"All done," he said. "I'm taking a shower."

"Wouldn't it be nice if somebody paid you $900 to do that?" I asked with a smile, attempting levity.

He shook his head. "I wouldn't do it."

Later, after dinner and after the kids were in bed, Homero told me that he had sent Hope up because he had come upon a nest of pink baby rats. He has a horror of rats, a real phobia - of course, anyone would be afraid of rats in that situation, under the house in the dark, where you can't see them and you can't escape! But he didn't lose his cool, he just told Hope "Okay, that's all, thanks, you've been a big help," and then he squished the baby rats with the handle of his power saw and kept working.

I just can't come up with a response to that kind of bravery and determination. Nothing I could do or say feels like enough. I told him I was so proud of him, and I thanked him over and over again, and I told him he can have whatever he wants for a whole week, no holds barred. I promised to never ever make cheese in the sink again. But really, I'm just speechless. A small part of me would rather he had called a plumber and let somebody else freak out under the house, but most of me is incredibly grateful and admiring. Homero is really something else, he really is. He's macho in the very best sense of the word. No, there's a better word, from my Eastern European Yiddish speaking ancestors: he's a mensch. My husband is 100% mensch.