Friday, November 1, 2013

A Week "OFF" and Self Inflicted Tea

Today marks the beginning of my week of "staycation". I am taking a week off of teaching (though I'll still be riding the two client horses I have in training) to try to relax and unwind a bit, as well as to hopefully figure something out about the fabulous health issues I've been battling (atypical ovarian cysts, or something quite like them).

So. Anyone who really knows me knows that I am prone to some serious bouts of mania.

I rarely sit still, and when I do I find myself either planning the next 8 things I'm about to do or feeling guilty for not getting anything done. I'm convinced that this is a genetically transferred affliction... just ask my brother and/or father. :)

Anyway, this week I plan to perfect the art of sitting still. Hahaha. Yeah right.

Okay, not really, but I got an idea while talking to a good friend of mine the other night. She was talking about her mother and how she regularly, daily, finds time for tea. Tea for her includes a somewhat meticulous ritual of paper-reading, tea making and possibly even some post-tea crafting. We all took turns marveling aloud at the fact that someone could find time for an activity like that...

It wasn't until later that it struck me... People are always asking me how I find time to do things like fix fences, feed horses, shear sheep, plant gardens, build projects... most of my daily activities. The answer to that is that I don't exactly Find Time; I Make Time. Those things are my daily life and because they are part of the things I have labeled as necessary, I do them.

So, isn't my friend's mom's tea like that, for her?

My life is so full of activities that require physical exertion that often times by nine PM I am half in tears from exhaustion. It's a great way to live life, and I love it immensely, but I am also learning to recognize that it isn't necessarily a healthy life as far as the stresses it puts on my body. Everything in life should be in moderation - food, sleep, work and rest.


That's the sound of my brain going "huh, no wonder I feel more and more tired each day until my day off when I sit around exhausted and beating myself up for not working more..."

So this week I intend to take tea. I have cleared a table on the front porch (which is heavily windowed and currently covered in insulating plastic for winter) and each day this week I intend to make myself a cup of tea and sit down with a book for at least thirty minutes. I'm thinking eleven AM sounds like a good time for this, as when I am working that tends to be right around when I am between morning chores/training and afternoon chores/teaching, but of course as soon as I start giving myself a time-associated schedule I find myself struck down with anxiety.

I've mentioned my aversion to time in the past, and this is just another case of that. I have a hard time keeping time and often find myself arm-deep in something precisely when I am supposed to be starting something else (often more important - like teaching...) Alarms make me doubly anxious, as I'm always dreading that alarm (or the first of many that I set since I am scatterbrained and I often turn them off without thinking). This is probably connected to my unwillingness to grow-the-hell-up and my current state of self employment, in which I design my own schedule.

So really what I'm thinking is ... I will make and drink tea and be still each day between morning and afternoon obligations. Even if this entails slurping down a piping hot cup while sitting, antsy as I prepare to run out the door, I really think I need something like this to become part of my daily activities.

Ideally I would like this to be a chance to read and be untethered to technology. My phone will go on "Do Not Disturb", my computer will be switched off, and the television will sit and stare blankly... Stillness is certainly an art, I just never realized how vital it was until I noticed its absence in my life.

Do you ever struggle with stillness?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Daydreaming of Medlars

I have never eaten a Medlar, but I really want to! I stumbled across this graphic while looking up medlar scionwood online and couldn't help but be intrigued. I planted a medlar tree this past spring in my container garden and it is thriving, so who knows... in a couple of years I may be enjoying my very own bletted medlars! 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fun Fall Activities

Today we'll be driving across the state to pick up our ram from our friends' farm in Olivet. He's be staying there because we didn't breed last year (due to the England trip) and we didn't want any accidents. In fact, the day they came to pick him up for us I watched him jump a four-foot tall fence (granted it wasn't tensioned well) to escape being caught! Rams are... special.

Anyway, he'll be spending some time down in the brambly new pasture I just finished fencing and then in December he (as well as one other possible loaner ram) will get to finally spend some time with the ladies. I'm sure he'll be relieved. I'm hoping the ample grass and raspberry leaves will keep him occupied for now, so that he restrains himself from hopping any fences. At least if he gets out, I know where he'll go! The ewes haven't seen a boy in almost a year so I'm sure they'll be torturing him fairly regularly until it's his time. Poor lad.

Before that, however, I plan to make the last two batches of apple cider from the apples that I gleaned from my student's house. Their apples have been spectacular so far, and I can't wait to surprise them with a big jar of home-pressed apple cider next time I see them!

My cider press is an antique press made in Lansing, Michigan. It has a pressed-tin label on it, but thus far I haven't been able to find any information on the company that made it. Ah well. I made a new platform to sit atop the old one since the old one was pretty grungy. I know presses are supposed to have a certain amount of grunge to them, but this one sat unused for several years and I just don't know what kind of moldspore it's been exposed to. Anyway, you can see my awesomely lame carpentry skills in the photo. I have all sorts of improvements planned for next year's press, but I at least wanted to use it this season before getting into all of that.

So far I've pressed nearly eight gallons of apple cider, and an additional three of pear. The pear cider turned out amazingly, thanks to the bitter/sour wild pears I found a week or so back.

These "perry" pears added tannin and tart flavor to the pear cider to keep it from becoming too syrupy sweet. The pears I was using were awfully soft, as well, so I got to experiment with using hard fruits and soft fruits together to create "channels" between bits of pomace to allow for cider to flow. All in all, I got a nice dry cheese at the end and the cider was/is delicious!

I've been canning it to keep it for the winter. I can't wait to crack it open in the winter doldrums for some nice hot, spiced cider! YUM!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Apple Mania!

So with the launching of my new project, "The Accidental Orchardist" I have gone full out fruit-crazy. It's like everywhere I drive, I'm watching the silhouettes of trees and I have learned to recognize a fruit tree simply by the shape of it's growth or the degree to which it has shed it's fall leaves. No joke, people. I've lost it.

The thing is, there are thousands of pounds of apples and pears sitting underneath these trees and in most cases, nobody even notices! The wildlife can't even keep up, and while the rotting fruit does offer nutrients back into the ground, it also carries fungal spore, larval pests and viruses/bacteria that will further deteriorate the health of the trees.

The tree above was pretty much half-choked, entire sections tethered to the ground by grape vines. It's also so densely branched and plagued by powdery mildew that I mistook the powder for dust from the road I was on... and then realized the road I was on doesn't get dusty, and the leaves on the far side of the tree were as evenly coated.  

So, back to my obsession... Yesterday, alone, I spotted six different trees; some were in yards and some feral on the side of the road. Of course I had to stop and grab a few fruits from each of the feral trees, just in case they're really something special.

Is this fruit stalking?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Being an Accidental Orchardist

When we moved to this house (four years ago?) I had no idea how involved I would get with the property. Sure, I saw there was potential for farming. I saw the run-down barn and the creepy gnarled apple tree silhouettes "way out" in the old orchard.

Now I feel as though I am not only living in this beautiful little stone cottage; I am living on the land as well. From the sheep, ducks and chickens ranging, to the haphazard rotational grazing of the horses... from the miserably crowded melons in the glasshouse, to the rare strawberry breeds fighting for existence in their beds... I am part of the little bit of land that surrounds this place. I've set down some serious roots. (and doing so in a rented home is kind of nervewracking if you let yourself think about it too much!)

This home has come with lots of responsibilities and lots of work to keep up on, and it wasn't until last year that I really realized the potential for the land surrounding our cottage. Of course, last year was a miserable year for apples, and we didn't get a single one (though I did manage to get one single lonely pear, which might have cried while eating.) This year has been intensely bountiful for the apple trees and I am finally able to see just how stressed a beautiful orchard can get.

On windy days you can hear cracks coming from the orchards where branches are breaking free, tumbling dramatically to the ground and scattering apples in their wake. In this area of Michigan, apple trees are experiencing a bumper crop this year. Even the orchards with trees that have been well tended and have had fruit thinned have had to be drastically pruned to be saved.

The trees in our antique orchard are old and diseased, though not so horribly as to make their fruit inedible. This fall has really showed me that I need to step it up with these trees to keep them healthy. In fact, I need to step it up with the entire orchard. It's no coincidence that the trees where the sheep have grazed for the past few years are the healthiest in the orchard.

So I have spent the past few weeks reading and researching antique orchard restoration. This winter our trees will get severely pruned and I hope to attend a grafting class (or two) so that in the spring I can start replacing some of the dead trees. I know my new, young trees will have to grow up in an orchard with established disease and pests, but this is where I live and I intend to nurse them carefully into adolescence.

I didn't intend to become an orchardist when I moved in here, but now I think that I can't go back to seeing trees in need, seeing trees heavy with unharvested bounty... and not doing anything about it.

This is where my Accidental Orchardist idea started to emerge from my imagination (I think of my imagination as being a sort of disorganized, overstuffed filing cabinet... this idea definitely came from the "harebrained" folder).

Want to read more about my adventures as an Accidental Orchardist? Check this out here!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Apple-gleaning on an Autumn Evening

Some people are just so incredibly generous it's enough to make a gal smile from ear to ear. Yesterday, armed with bushel baskets, a pole harvester, my brother and my friend Andi, I drove out to a local farm where one of my students lives with her parents, dogs and three gorgeous grey horses (Trust me, I see a lot of horses... these three are exceptional!) Their place is set back from the road a bit and it's a beautiful home horse farm, just far enough off the road to feel secluded and peaceful, and not so far from town as to be a hassle. On part of the front acre of their property lies an old orchard, planted by the original owner in the 1970's, with eight remaining apple trees, three pear trees and a very gnarly (mildly unhappy looking) apricot tree. 

The trees are perfectly spaced, and while they are incredibly overgrown, they are unsprayed and they produce apples with minimal sooty blotch, scab and pests. Every organically grown apple is bound to have some spots, and these wear their spots beautifully and with pride! 

My student and her mother had offered to let me pick their apples (and I made sure to repeatedly say "Are you sure you don't mind if I pick LOTS of apples?") since they don't do a whole lot with them and have to rake them up at the end of the year to keep the pasture healthy for the horses' rotational grazing.

So we started the afternoon off with some lively irish jigs and reels played on someone's iPhone and skillfully amplified by placing said phone in a galvanized bucket (it works, guys!) and picking was easy. 

This year's bumper crop of apples has provided people with such an overabundance of apples that it would be impossible to keep up with even the smallest of home orchards. I'm not even sure we made a dent in the trees' ample boughs. 

The sun was shining and the air was breezy and everyone was smiling for hours as we picked from the trees. Of course I had envisioned it a lot like this, with everyone happy and singing songs, but I never expected it to turn out like that! Generally it starts out like that and after an hour everyone is bored and looking for other things to do. 

Except for a quick game of apple-baseball (played to the tunes of the Andrews Sisters and the Glenn Miller Orchestra), we worked diligently for over three hours, finishing with a bit of an exhausted flop back into the gator (which my student's father graciously offered to let us use to transport apples from the orchard). 

Our haul? Over five bushels of a variety of different mystery apples (which I am currently working on identifying). They range from large, juicy and sweet dessert apples to cider apples, and some are definitely winter storage apples, similar to Winesap! 

My favorite was definitely the yellow russeted variety that I suspect is a cider apple. It has incredibly complex flavor and there were so many of them we couldn't help but pick almost a bushel and a half of them, alone!

Did I mention we got a little slap happy toward the end? What a great day!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

From the Kitchen: Pan-fried Duck Fat Fries for wusses like me who are afraid of deep frying

I don't think there is much on earth that is as simply tasteful as duck fat fries, except perhaps when you sprinkle a bit of truffle-infused salt on said fries. 

There is a crispness to them that doesn't come from pan frying in vegetable-based oils, or even from frying in other animal fats. It's divine. Imagine the way a pie crust made with shortening compares to one made with lard. That, my friends, is the amount of better-ness you'll find in duck fat fries. (Yes, better-ness is a made up word. Is there a word for made up words? There should be. Someone should make one up!)

So, when I was wandering around the Ann Arbor farmers market this past Wednesday it suddenly hit me. I needed to make my own duck fat fries! I snatched up some nameless potatoes that ended up being a bit buttery in texture and headed home, determined to make it work. 

Now, when I looked for recipes for these babies I found lots of different ones. Some said to deep fry them, but I have yet to cross that (scary, scary) bridge so I was looking for a pan-fried version. I found several that suggested various techniques but every one had time consuming steps and I wanted them omgASAP so eventually I decided to just experiment. (This would later work to my advantage because I could munch on my failed experiments while I attempted new, less-faily methods - again, a made up word.)

For my first batch, I just sliced fries and tossed them in the pan with some fat and crossed my fingers. They took forever to cook (ah, duh...) and ended up very dark and oily. 

The second batch, however, was perfect (if I do say so myself)! I precut the fries, tossed them in a bowl and microwaved them for 60-120 seconds on high. This kind of pre-cooked the potatoes. I assumed this was going to make them super fragile, but they weren't too hard to manage. 

I turned the stove to medium-high heat and then tossed these into the pan with the hot, melted duck fat (you can get duck fat at some specialty grocers and butcher shops, did I mention? Or render your own - I'll post about this in a couple weeks when I take a few of the mature farm ducks to freezer camp) and let the fries sit for a few minutes before disturbing. As they develop a light brown crust, move them around the pan.


When they're finished, simply pull them out and place them on something to absorb the excess oil. As they drain, sprinkle them with your favorite salt. The flavor imparted by the duck fat is deep and earthy (an almost terroir effect) but it remains neutral enough to showcase a special salt if you have one. I am a huge fan of truffle salt, and the deep musky mushroom flavor compliments the existing flavor seamlessly. 

You can then pour off the excess fat into a heat-resistant container to use again! Or, if you've used an iron pan, you can leave a bit of oil in there to sit if you plan to use your pan again soon. I have yet to have duck fat go rancid on me, and it should be relatively stable as long as there isn't a bunch of potato crud in your pan. I'll be making eggs in that mess for breakfast!

Anyway, these fries ended up just as delicious and crispy as the fries we've had at restaurants that have been deep fried in fat, but this method is quick and easy for a deep-fry-fearer like myself!

Do you have a favorite animal fat to use in cooking?

Friday, September 27, 2013

In the Orchard: Apple-hunting and apple-saucing

In case you didn't know, my DH and I live in a cottage on an old estate that also has a wild and unruly antique orchard on it. The trees are scattered across roughly an acre and they twist and gnarl with at least 50 years of untended growth. In Michigan, our apples are producing a bumper crop state-wide and so my poor old trees are heavy with fruit and feeling some serious stress. Every time we get a strong wind you can hear the branches creaking and cracking under the weight of this massive crop, and these trees are primarily late autumn storing apples, so they will continue to hold onto their apples at least until we get a hard freeze!

This is the first year I've seriously picked the apples in our orchard. In the past for some reason I believed they were too buggy for human consumption, but upon closer inspection this year I've found that many of them are flawless, and even those that aren't won't kill me to consume.

So yesterday I set out to pick a few bushels of apples for various projects. The picking was great! I have no idea what these trees are, though I suspect they are a few different varieties. I have a book that helps identify apples, but I'll have to do some serious investigation to figure these guys out. All I know is, they're delicious! The tree that I picked most of my haul from has small apples that have a bit of spice, a lot of tannin, a sweet start and a tart finish, and a crisp white flesh, streaked with pink. The high tannin content (that puckery tchk-tchk taste - try to pronounce that, you'll get what I mean) makes me think these would be amazing for a hard cider. I have a bushel of them sitting out front right now mellowing in the sun so that I can attempt to press them later this week.

In the meantime, I decided to make some applesauce from some of the apples from a different tree. This tree produced incredibly sweet apples with a much thinner skin. They were much more suited to fresh eating, and the wasps thought so too! I only got stung once yesterday, which was a minor miracle, but it still hurt! I'm just glad it was one of those yellow jackets and not the bald faced hornets I saw buzzing around!

I finally had a chance to use my antique apple slicer (the blades are cast into the base - what a neat find!) and whipped up my first ever batch of applesauce. It was still slightly tart, so I used a dollop of local honey in it to sweeten it. If you've never made applesauce before, I highly recommend it. 

You simply slice and core your apples, toss them in a pot (skin and all) with an inch of water on the bottom, cover and let steam/boil for 20-30 minutes and when you're finished you run them through a food processor or food mill. (I tossed a pinch of cinnamon into mine at this point.) I then canned a few jars of mine, which entailed sterilizing jars and filling them to 1/4" of the top, then sealing and hot-water-bathing them for 30 minutes. 

The finished result was a gorgeous, bright pink apple sauce that had a nice balance of sweetness and tartness. Apples all vary, though, so make sure you taste test yours before adding sweeteners or canning.


What is your favorite way to use a bumper crop of apples?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

From the Kitchen: Sweet Masa Harina Griddle Cakes

So when I bake or cook I rarely write things down. Often times I don't even use a recipe anymore unless I'm trying something completely new. I've just started baking by texture and using the ratios I somehow manage to store in my brain (yes, I keep ratios in my head, though I cannot tell you the current location of my purse, keys, TV remote or phone... Wait, I'm posting using my phone!) 

So this becomes a problem when I decide I want to share something with you all, but I will try my best here... It's a sort of abstract recipe anyway. 

First toss a cup and a half of masa harina with about 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder and top it off with a sprinkle of course fleur de sel and a pinch each of cinnamon and smoked chipotle powder (you could use cayenne or skip this all together). 

Then add two drizzly tablespoons of honey and a fresh egg, and proceed to add whole milk and stir until you get a gummy texture that crumbles ever so slightly as you pressed it between your fingers. 

Heat a teaspoon or two of rendered bacon fat in an iron skillet and while you waited for it to heat, roll your harina mix into 1" balls and press them flat. 

So there may be other ways to test the fat, but I always just sprinkle water in the pan and when it starts to spatter I know the fat is at least 212° and ready to use. I should note that you can use any fats for this. I prefer animal fats for the crisp texture and deep flavor they impart, but you can use anything you want. (Next time I'll be using duck fat... Mmm

Once the oil is heated, carefully place your griddle cakes into the oil watching for oil spatters. This stuff gets hot!

When both sides are browned and crisped they are ready to eat! I drizzled a bit of honey on mine, and set to devouring them with a side of iberico bacon, a recent discovery. 

This paired extremely well with a sweet, organic cider (made from golden delicious and cortland apples)...

Delicious and very full of fall tastes and gluten free to boot! This would be a great way to showcase a special honey, too. Buckwheat or even black locust would be my choice. 

I've been on a real griddle cake kick lately. What is your favorite griddle cake?

Friday, September 20, 2013

A soggy slither

Took a quiet (and mildly grumpy in an "I'm-never-going-to-finish-this-project way) break to watch two slugs climbing the outside of my window. I've been cleaning the porch of our house for hours and I feel like I'm going in circles! 

Still, when I get this finished I will have a new place for my handmedown elliptical and my morning yoga. A room full of windows is the perfect place for morning exercise!