August 22, 2011

Pickling (Zucchini), Pitting (Cherries) and Picking (Guitars)

This time of year brings a funny feeling to the farm. The cooler nights and morning give everything a little hush -- a hint of the slowing down fall is about to bring.

But there is also a palpable anticipation in the air. You can almost hear the tomatoes turning, the wheat ripening, the zucchini multiplying and multiplying ... and multiplying again.

And so, the frantic plant, harvest, weed schedule has turned to a bit calmer one of  harvest, water and preserve.

One of my biggest tasks this time of year is figuring out what to do with all the goodness coming out of our ground.

I don't can, for a few reasons. I would like to, but every fall, it just seems too daunting. The hot water, the pressure, the skinning, the peeling, the whole botulism thing.  It's all too much.

A few years ago, I spent three days on 16 quarts of tomatoes -- tomatoes I wasn't sure wouldn't kill me in January when I opened them -- and decided to go a different route.

So the next year, we invested in a freezer -- a big one. I blanched and froze and blanched and froze and then just started freezing whole (freeze whole tomatoes, seriously. It's so easy.) If you have the freezer space, this is really the way to go.

And I learned to pickle. And pickle. And pickle.

There is no limit on what you can pickle and it's such a tasty way to preserve vegetables. I do some canning of pickles, but that can make things a little soggy and you're still dealing with the hot and the pressure and whatnot. So last year, I went strictly fridge pickles. Crispy, quick and easy to do in small batches when I have just a handful of cucumbers or zucchini or peppers to use, but not enough to justify a huge batch of canned pickles.

So, the Pickling part of the headline goes like this...

Here's the standard recipe I've been using for refrigerator pickles. (Meaning, pickles stored in the fridge. This is not a canning recipe. If you're wanting to can some dill pickles, try this recipe.)

1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp peppercorns
1 ½ tsp. dill seed
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp red chili flakes
Fresh dill head or two and the weed as well
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, whatever you're pulling at the moment
1 ½ cups white vinegar
1 ½ cups water

Combine the water and vinegar in a pot and bring to a boil. While you're waiting for that to happen, put the salt, peppercorns, dill and garlic on the bottom of a jar or two. Then, load in your cukes or veggies.

Pour the boiling brine over the veggies, cover and cool. Then move to the fridge. The pickles should be about ready in one week.

This makes about one large jar. If you have more than that to pickle just use equal parts water and vinegar for the brine and use the spice mixture above as a guide for how much of what to put in each jar.

(This is adapted from this great recipe from this great site.)

Next up: Pitting.

Because I love in January having a little piece of summer in my house somewhere, I'm a sucker for preserving not only what comes off our farm, but also what is fresh and local from friends and neighbors.

Last year, I bought a case of peaches the day I went into labor. I knew, when I bought them, with plans to go home and freeze them, that somehow, I was jinxing myself. I was right. They sat there for two or three days on the counter by the time my friend Steph found them when she came in one day to check on things. She took them home and froze all of them, then brought them back to my freezer.

Now every time Willa and I munch on those peaches, I am reminded about how important community is, and in particular, how important community is in how we feed ourselves and each other.

That's a big message for a few frozen peaches, I know, but they carry it well.

So, back to this year's fruit preserving. When my friend at the Orchard at Flathead Lake said she was sending some organic cherries across the divide, I snapped up a 20lb box.

Whoa boy. That's a lot of cherries.

I gave a few pounds to friends and then one night, when my baby was finally asleep, I set out to pit the entire remainder of the box and get them frozen.

But, I had no cherry pitter. So, I improvised, thanks to some wisdom I found in an online cooking forum somewhere. A beer bottle and a chopstick.

The top of this beer bottle is just perfect for pitting. Plus, I had to first drink the tasty brew to make room for all the pits. You just place the cherry on top, find the bottom center of the cherry and push the pit through. Voila.

Then, once you have them all pitted, arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze for a few hours (at least 2) before packing them into freezer bags.

Oh, cherries, you are just gorgeous my friends.

My other super handy trick, thanks to the interwebs, is vacuum sealing without a FoodSaver or the like. Take a regular freezer bag and a straw and insert the straw in the very corner of the ziploc. Suck all the air out via the straw and zip! a pretty-close-to-airtight container.

And, now the Picking.

I'm glad to say that by "picking" I mean playing music, not picking vegetables or worse -- weeds.

One of the things we've really been struggling with these last few years on farm is how to balance work and the other pursuits that are important to us -- things like music and reading and hiking and writing, running and yoga-ing and creating.

Both Jacob need these things to recharge, to feel whole, but we're also the type of people who do, do, do, and work, work, work before we allow ourselves any space or time to do any of that recharging. And, because there is no end to the doing and working, we seldom find time for any of this. At the end of the day, we're both so exhausted, nobody has any energy for anything. (I'm guessing we're not unique in this predicament.)

I'm pretty sure I learned this from my parents and I'm certain growing up on a farm contributed. You can imagine I do not want Willa to inherit this and so we're trying to be better models for her.

The last two years were pretty much a bust in that department, but I'm happy to say this year, we're doing much better.

We've been camping twice this summer, hiking at least once. We've been to the pool three -- three -- times and we've been better at making time for friends and family. And, every once in awhile, we even play a little music. Here's a photo (the sweetest of the summer in my mind) to prove it:

August 13, 2011

A Mighty Wind

A few days ago, we were sitting outside having dinner. It was a perfect, quickly cooling late summer evening but I was a little scrambled.

Our outside table sits just under a tree I hardly ever notice, actually.

It has been a ridiculously busy few weeks with guests and festivals and harvesting and work. All while trying to maintain a semi-regular home existence for us and the bean.

Sunday, we'd just gotten back from a wonderful, but busy, weekend at the cabin and I was focused on getting the baby fed, bathed and in bed while I unpacked, cleaned and readied for another farm trip (We're now selling bulk heritage and ancient grains at the Tuesday market in Whitefish, about 3 1/2 hours across the mountains.)

During dinner Willa was distracted, looking up and squealing, instead of eating.

"Focus Willa," I said, a little flustered. "Here, have some more rice."

 A gust of wind kicked up and her attention turned skyward again.

Ugh. Kid. Just eat.

Then, I looked up. The silver leaves quaking in the wind framed by a blue, blue sky. Another gust blew through, ruffling Willa's hair and replacing the hot summer air around us with an almost-fall coolness.


Willa and I met gazes, chins still pointed to the tree and she looked at me as if to say, "See Mama!? That's what I was trying to show you."

Oh, how beautiful the world can be if you let yourself see it through younger eyes.

Like the wonder you can find in a cold mountain stream. Or heck, how just a rock from that stream can be the most fun thing you've ever held in your hand.

Or, the simple pleasure of a discovering a sprinkler on a hot summer day.

And then hanging out in the spray for a few minutes to cool off.

August 3, 2011

Red Ants Pants, Festivals, Camping and a Tomato! A Red, Ripe Tomato!

This last weekend at the Red Ants Pants Festival in White Sulphur Springs, selling Jacob's whole wheat artisan Farmer Bread, signing people up for our Grain and Seed CSA and showing Willa how to camp.

Auntie Hannah came with a big-ass tent for all us of to sleep in (or, more accurately, toss and turn in while a campground full of excited festival goers partied outside.) She also brought important things like cookies and chips and *gasp* Bud Light with Clamato, which is apparently called a "Chelada?" (How have I missed out on that deliciousness for so long? I might just abandon the microbrews for that stuff. Don't tell anyone.) Auntie Hannah can pack a picnic, let me tell you.

Sarah Calhoun, who owns Red Ants Pants (great, great, workwear for women who need some heavy duty pants like me, or my pal Claire Boyles -- see her post about pants-wearing here), is nothing short of incredible for putting this whole thing on. And to make it even better, the profits are going to benefit the Red Ants Pants Foundation, which is in its infancy, but will support family farms and ranches and women in business. I feel lucky to call Sarah a friend and even luckier to have the opportunity to watch her in action. Talk about inspiration.

We got pretty dusty and dirty and didn't shower for three days, but what's new for the Cowgills, really? The only big change was all the yummy things on the festival grounds for Willa to put in her mouth. Things like rocks and bugs and cow patties. Yum.

This weekend (hopefully) will mark our second camping outing. We're really hoping to head up to "the cabin." "The Cabin" is one of the reasons I agreed to move back to Central Montana -- to be closer to it. It's my sacred place, a sanctuary, the keeper of all my best childhood memories. You can read up about what happened a few years ago when we almost lost it to a wildfire here.

Our first year of farming, we got up there once. Last year, not at all. So, now that things seem to have calmed a little on the farm (knocking on wood), we're going to try to cram a few weekends in before the snow flies.

Also in farm news this week, a red ripe tomato.

And, my column on working my off-farm job is up on the Daily Yonder this week. I'm back in the once-a-month column rotation again.


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