Monday, November 30, 2009


In case you're wondering what to do with all that leftover turkey, here's my suggestion:


Simmer the carcass (bones, whatever meat you couldn't get off the thing, skin, etc.) for as long as you can stand the smell in your house - I'd go for overnight.

Ladle off the broth and yummy meat bits into ziplock bags (seriously -it's the easiest storage option for the freezer. It won't burst on you and if you forget to get it out to thaw in the morning (which I always do), you'll be able to get the frozen stock out of the bag easily). Then stack them in the freezer and voila!

Now, when you're sick, you have something quick that doesn't come in a can.


Hard Cider - the recipe


Fresh-pressed, sweet cider. check that there's no preservatives, because that stuff works, and you're trying to rot your cider, not keep it fresh.

The easy way:
A jug
a rubberband (to hold the cheeseloth over the mouth of the jug)

The fancy way: (you can get it all from a home-brew place)
A brewing bucket/carboy
campden tablets
yeast nutrient
a gravity-measuring device (for knowing how strong yer drink is!)
wine yeast
siphon (if you're going really fancy)
bottles and associated accouterments

The easy way (taken from the one, the only, Sandor Ellix Katz who brought you the definitive Wild Fermentation*:

Put your cider in a jug/jar/whatever. Cover the mouth of the jug with cheesecloth so nothing but wild yeasties get in, and wait. taste from day to day. Sandor says that in one week you should have a good, alcoholic, bubbly hard cider. But be careful - if you wait too long you'll have no choice but to let it become vinegar because it'll be well on its way. When it's done to your liking (tastes alcoholic but not sour) put a lid on it and put it in the fridge! Share with friends, who will love you a little more after a few cup fulls.

The fancy way (supposedly this comes out better and harder - also, it's more easy to manipulate and keep clean. this is the method I'm using):

A note up-front - know your ingredients. If your campden tablets say one thing, and I'm saying something else, use the information on your tablets. If you're not sure, ask someone who knows. There's bound to be a home brewing store somewhere around you. Ask around and you'll find it. If not, ask a farm stand that has sweet cider. they might home brew their own hard cider and be able to give you pointers.

Measure your gravity. (do this be reading the instructions on your gravity-measuring device (I'm sure it has a name, but I've forgotten it)). Record it in your homebrew journal, or wherever you keep numbers you'll need to know in two weeks. basically, you're figuring out the sugar-to-water ratio in your cider which will tell you just how alcoholic your brew can get, since yeast converts sugar to alcohol. The more sugar, the more alcohol. Or, if you like bitch drinks, the sweeter and less alcoholic.

Prepare a yeast starter (like you would for bread, but with sugar and no flour). 1 cup warm water, 2 tablespoons sugar, the yeast, and my recipe (from the homebrew store in town) called for citric acid. I had no citric acid, so I used a squeeze of lemon, and it seems to be working fine. Also, I'm skeptical of how much this bit of acid is actually necessary (but don't exclude it just because of my speculations - let me know if you've heard something on this topic). Cover and set aside for 24 hours.

Empty your cider into your brew bucket/carboy. Wherever you're starting your brewing (probably the bucket). Now throw in some yeast nutrient (about 1 teaspoon per gallon of cider) and Campden tablets (crushed). 3 pills for 5 gallons were my instructions. Also, if you're going to add more sugar, now would be the time to do it. Cover and set aside for 24 hours.

...wait 24 hours (remember: a watched pot never boils)...

You're through waiting! Now stir the hell out of your cider until it's frothy on top to get any sulfites that might be hanging around out of it. once it's really stirred up, throw in your yeast nutrient (common-sense yeast etiquette: your liquid should be room-temp - yeast doesn't like the cold), cover your bucket, put on the airlock (don't forget to fill it with water like I did!), and put it somewhere safe and with steady temperatures.

If you don't have steady temperatures (like me), put your brew up on a stool (off the cold floor) and wrap it in a blanket. This will at least moderate the swings in temperatures.

...wait 2 weeks, or until the bubbles stop in your airlock...

Now either rack into bottles and fridge it, or siphon into a carboy for clarification and continuing fermentation. I haven't gotten to this part yet, so I can't tell you how to do it. I'll update you when I get there.

Painless, no? And you thought home brewing was hard!

*I truly believe that this book will become a must-have classic. Get your limited first editions now! In neon green and hot pink, this ugly little book will be a sure-fire crowd pleaser in twenty or thirty years when they're in multiple editions and have chosen a more attractive cover. the coveted, ugly first edition will be a marvel to behold. That and it's a damn good book - what's stopping you?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finding the Reasons

I hope you, my faithful readers, whether you are in New York City or on a farm somewhere, don't fool yourself thinking it's easy or romantic to get home after 8 hours of mind-numbing (but reasonably purposeful) work only to load up firewood into a cold, black, sooty furnace that makes the house smell of slightly rotten baked beans, with a pile of dishes accumulated after 2 days of home-cooked, from-scratch meals, in a kitchen stacked high with vegetables calling me to freeze, brine, or bury them in sawdust. All I want to do when i get home is load up the wood into the stove and sit next to it on the floor with the cat in my lap, in the little halo of its sunspot, drifting in and out of thoughts as the cat and I wait for the warmth to seep in. Sometimes, in the rare moment when I let myself sit like this by the stove - when the thoughts of long to-do lists don't drive me into the kitchen or the shed (after dark), and when loneliness doesn't rouse me to show up unannounced at a friend's door - It all does seem very wonderful and peaceful.

On days when I come home happy and motivated, doing the tasks I love to do, alone, with the hum of the radio in the background, is the simple joy of my life. It is my bread and butter. It doesn't matter that the sun is down and that I've spent 8 hours on someone else's dream.

But on nights like last night, I come home exhausted, incapable of comprehending how, after 8 hours of work, anyone can do anything other than sit with a friend, talk, sigh, and otherwise escape the incessant barrage of thoughts. On these nights the little things I love doing become huge tasks. I don't think we were meant to be solitary creatures. I know i wasn't. I love the time to myself when my thoughts are happy and calm - the decadence of calm and joy when my thoughts haven't been run to exhaustion by the endless project of daily tedium. As much as I love those nights, there are countless nights on which i would happily give it all up for a large-screen TV and enough money to consume my thoughts into submission.

But this project of mine - it's about something inherently different than consumption that drowns out the constant buzzing of my thoughts, the endless self-exploration of my life. As I listen to the steady hum of NPR, I find myself almost believing that the goal of the recession is to get back to the riches and gluttony from which we fumbled into this recession to begin with. Even as environmental groups say that the decrease of consumption is better to our precariously balanced world than rampant wealth. But we're not happy in this recession - even if less is the answer. Less of everything - less wealth, less money, less shopping, less opportunity to still our constantly-fretting minds. We've learned to still our minds with means outside of ourselves - with things we can purchase. Of course we need to still our minds. 8, 10, 15 hours a day of working on someone else's riches can't teach us to enjoy our own company. it's too exhausting, to daunting a task to come home from work, cook, clean, and then put up with our fretting about tomorrow, or next year, or heaven forbid, the tragedy that our lovely world is in. After a day like that - with all of the world to worry about, how do we just sit by the fire and enjoy the calm? We don't know how to anymore. It is too quiets. our thoughts feast on the demons of solitude and silence.

This project of mine, the small, self-contained and self-sustained life of homesteading - as unromantic as it is to admit - is basically a project of finding joy and peace in something other than financial wealth and consumption. To be completely blunt - it is a project of joyful, successful poverty. because what I love so much is doing the small things - and though it's not popular to admit it, I don't love homesteading tasks because they're green, or because they're philosophically fulfilling, but simply because they're what I love doing. Just as people make a career of what they love, I want to find a way to make my life focus around what I love. The only way to do all the things I love doing is to work less - and since the kind of things I do replace work, by providing directly for my needs in lieu of money, that's do-able - if I'm willing to admit to myself the very real trade-off: since I'm no trust-fund baby, working less means being paid less and consuming less. it means spending more time with people and with my thoughts and less time with new things, tv, fashion, magazines, tomatoes in winter, traveling, and stores. The project in this is to find the joy in it. The possibility of success in investing in my own idea of what it means to be happy. And to find a way, somehow, to be at peace in the tedium of daily tasks and work - to be at peace in my own thoughts in the silence of these tasks which occupy hands and hearts, but leave the brain to its humming.

Most of all, I have to learn to be comfortable with not having to apologize for choosing a lifestyle that is either difficult to understand or comes across as moralizing. I don't want my lifestyle to be moralizing. Or make people uncomfortable. I just want it to be how I live. And I hope that someone else enjoys it too, learns from it, and maybe takes part in making this world a bit saner, a bit greener, and more joyful.

(apple cider recipe will be the next blog post - I left it at home by mistake)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Apple Cider

Sunday was a beautifully warm day (in the 50's), sunny and still. it was a perfect day for the task at hand - pressing cider! My landlords have a beautiful apple press complete with a big ol' grinder. If you've never pressed cider, I really recommend it. We pressed 2 bushels, which gave us 3 1/2 gallons of cider.

I bought a bushel and a half of apple seconds (less-than perfect apples) from my favorite farmstand, and my friends brought over another half bushel. I paid $12 for my apples - a good price in exchange for complete devotion for the past 4 seasons. They're pretty far from me now, but I'm devoted to my farmstand, because they're good to me, because I've come to know them, and because they have wonderful fruit and are lovely people.

The press is in the icehouse (above my sleeping winter vegetables), out of the wind. The three of us women stayed in, quartering the apples, while our one male fellow-presser went out to clean the cider press. There's very little I love more than women gathering over a traditional task. It's easy to talk, hands are occupied, the sun streams in, and it's hard to imagine something more peaceful than performing the basic tasks of sustenance with friends.

When we were done we loaded the apples (in trash bags) into a wheel barrow, brought it to the icehouse, and ran them through the grinder, then moved the bucket over and pressed the juice out of the milled apples. We got the hang of it the second time around. 4 people was the perfect number - one to monitor the flow and keep things steady, one to turn the mechanism, then two to turn once it gets hard (with a much larger stick for leverage) and one person to keep the press steady, since it's not bolted down. With switching and plenty of tasting and standing around it was wonderful. Remember towels (it's messy and wet and hands will get cold!) and gloves for the workers (to ward off blisters, or for heat - make sure they're work gloves. they'll get dirty).

When we were done and the dry apples were in the compost I said goodbye to my friends and took apart the press and washed it in the stream, since I don't know where the hose is, and it was a readily available source of water. It's very easy to wash wood in the deep, dammed up stream, since the water is still and the wood floats, so it's just a matter of dunking and running a rag over everything. The water was terribly cold, but with the sun starting to set (at 4!!) over the catskills and a good day of work and friends to think over, it was a lovely way to put to rest the first part of my day.

I strained the cider through cheesecloth and hung the pulp to drip over the cider so as not to waste anything. The I poured 2 1/2 gallons into a home brewing bucket for hard cider, and reserved a gallon of sweet cider to bring to the family for thanksgiving.

Hard Cider Recipe on the way.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Winter, Again

The veggies are packed in their boxes, moist, cold, and ready to go into the cellar. they've been ready for two days now. I found out that the other agway nearby is open until 6, so that solved my problem (in case you're wondering - some small woodlots might carry wood shavings, but most sell them now, which is why I buy the stuff rather than sourcing it for free). The veggies going into the cellar tonight with the help of a friend who doesn't know he's going to help me with this task. It's not that I can't carry the boxes. It's that I can't get the cellar door open myself. it's too heavy for me - though I clearly remember opening it once before myself. For future reference - it's actually a bad idea to leave veggies out in the mild temperatures without high humidity for this long - but I had no choice, so I hope they'll be forgiving. In my experience, so long as you don't really mess up, it'll be fine.

When storing veggies, you should expect a 5 - 10% loss of veggies over the course of the winter due to rot or other problems. Check the vegetable regular and cull out bad ones because mold spreads! As for the balance of eating the stuff that's spoiling or eating the fresh stuff - it depends on the mood of the day. sometimes I get sick of eating only the worst veggies, so I let a few go bad and eat the nice ones. Sometimes I'm more sensible and eat the molding ones..

Winter, Again - and poetry:

Excluding me, there's only one other person I can think of off the top of my head whose favorite season is winter. I can understand what's not to like - it's cold, dark, and (most would say, and I would argue it's not so) you're stuck indoors. Driving is difficult.

But to me winter is when the air is the clearest. Winter is bright stars and a clear view of the mountains. It's a dramatically beautiful and changing landscape. Winter is walking through the forest in bright orange without being stopped by underbrush. It is stews, cuddling under heavy blankets, and long nights talking with friends. Winter is incredibly cozy. It's the season to read, bake, and dream. Everyone told me I'd get over winter once I started driving. That kind of sensibility has yet to kick in. Or, rather, that it seems silly to me to hate a season for such an arbitrary and small reason. Plus, getting stuck is an adventure. it's something new.

For me, winter is the season of writing. (Please realize how hard it is for me to just put the poem down without disclaimers - but no disclaimers (except this one)! They don't help!)

Winter, Again

It is winter
The trees have given way to
mountainsides - soft waves -
hips, shoulder blades - pale
beneath the naked trees.

It is impossible not
to lose myself in last
winter. Ice in floes
on the lake, the same smell
of the stove.

When you loved
winter too.
The way you spoke
of you -
subtle silences of breath hanging
in the air.

It is impossible now
to remember what spring was -
how her flowers dried in the
strange heat, when the mountains

dressed themselves, hid
their secret stones beneath young
leaves uncurling, forgetting
that we both loved

winter -
subtle silence
the waves in the hills.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Winter Color

As fall gives way to winter and the gray gets grayer and the dark gets darker, I start craving color in my life. Short of buying fresh bouquets every week, there is a very easy way to forage up some winter color, and it's a great, covert way to store food.

Foraged winter bouquets:

1 - sumac and goldenrod

My favorite bouquet by far is the one I made of sumac and goldenrod. Find yourself some Staghorn Sumac, which you will find on tree-like shrubs pretty much anywhere on the edge of a forest and a field, including roadsides. You'll know it by the burgundy cluster of tiny, tightly-packed, fuzzy fruit forming an upright point (we call them 'red points' sometimes). Get some pruning sheers and cut the stems with the fruit at the end as long as you can get them (they'll be about 3 feet tall). Then go get some goldenrod which should be taking over an old field or the space right at the edge of a cultivated area. Goldenrod is yellow in late summer, and this time of year it's puffy smoke-color. Cut it to the same length as the sumac.

Bring it inside and arrange! I stood up my bouquet of about 5 branches of sumac (some Y-shaped, some not) and 7-8 goldenrod stems in the corner of my dining nook (it's not really a room) in an extra stand for fireplace tools I had lying around. Don't add water - this is a dry bouquet. Now you have dark red in your life!

Sumac makes a delicious lemonade-like drink if squeezed in water and mixed with sugar. You can also steep it as a tea. I intend to mix some sumac juice into my cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving. And now I have some conveniently lying around, though the bouquet is so pretty I think I'm not going to use that sumac, but harvest some more instead.

2 - rosehips

this one is really easy. Go out into the woods and find a wild rose (aka multiflora). They're EVERYWHERE. cut off some stems with the fattest, redest rosehips (be careful of the thorns). If you want, cut off the thorns for easier handling, and then put as many as you can get in a vase and you're done! Again, no water.

Rosehips are an excellent source of vitamin C. I crack them open into my tea. You can also make a painstakingly annoying jam or jelly out of it, if you're so inclined.

Both bouquets should stand fine through the winter. You can also add color with bright red chili peppers braided in the kitchen, wreaths, and dried flowers.

pictures and the continuation of the root cellar saga soon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


In case you're wondering where you can buy sawdust to store your veggies in (the kind of sawdust you would find in a hamster cage), the answer is - nowhere that's open after 5. Agway definitely carries it, but they close at 5. Both stores.

I tried the hardware store 30 minutes south that's actually open until 7 - no luck. I tried the large grocery store that has a whole aisle of pet products - ditto. So no vegetable storing tonight. With temperatures going into the upper 20's, I can't figure what to do with the box of parsnips and carrots in my shed. Wrapped in blankets, they were okay last night. Parsnips and carrots both do fine in the garden through the winter, but would they be fine in a box? Having never discovered an accidental frozen carrot, I really have no idea. And I don't even know how to begin googling the question (and none of my books have the information).

So it's cleaning for me. And maybe, just maybe, after all that driving I'll actually get to making pickles. It'll probably just be a short night of knitting though.

Daily Life as Art

I got home yesterday around 10 PM completely exhausted. But in an unlikely turn of events, I didn't want to go to sleep right away. Instead I stayed up, surveying the mess my projects have left all over the living room and kitchen floor. Hardware cloth and wire lay waiting to be put away in the living room. Two full compost buckets stood awaiting a trip to the garden compost pile. I full bucket of ashes called to be spread over the winter rye growing fast and furious in otherwise sleeping vegetable beds (ashes help to neutralize acidic soil, like lime). When I get home at 5:15, it's already dark out. These things take convincing to do once the sun is down, and there simply isn't enough time - there's a reason why we buy things ready-made!

Instead of cleaning, which I was too tired to convince myself to do, I oiled the kitchen island I made this summer. It's easily the most beautiful thing I own, and I glow with pride when I look at it, or chop veggies on its attached butcher block. I marvel at how it's perfectly built for my height.

In the process of working through the small daily aspects of life, building instead of buying, growing and making from scratch instead of buying, cooking instead of eating out, I am coming to appreciate the artistry of daily life. Cooking has come into vogue over the course of the past few years. The utilitarian, fully mundane act of feeding oneself has become art. Art in the sense that it is practiced simply for the joy of creation and beauty for its own sake.

In the day-to-day tasks of life I am finding that living itself is art. Life is not simply the act of doing tasks to get them done. Life's daily tasks, in their simplicity and necessity, can be done simply for the love of creation and beauty. Why make an island beautiful if it takes more time and energy? Why oil it to bring out the glow of the wood? I do it for the sake of that illusive project of art - the goal of an impossible perfection and the need to create. And so, too, I create the little things that I would otherwise buy - jam, a shelf in the kitchen cabinet, dried apples, cider, a garden bed, boxes of vegetables and sawdust. I do these things out of the desire to live a beautiful life of my own creation.

Is it too silly to think that my calling in life is life itself? Not anything more complicated or grander than the act of feeding myself, my family, and my friends, building, etc.? That I'd rather spend all evening building a dehydrator or putting food by or starting the stove and carrying wood than buying jam and using the extra time to chat with friends online or find the perfect outfit or one of the other million little things we fill our live with?

Today, as I push through 9-5 (which I do not treat as art - I'm not a Buddhist. I practice attachment and I have favorite activities), I can't help but dream about this evening's "chores." I'll get home, start the fire, take out the compost and the ashes, put the veggies in their sawdust (I'll do this outside - it's too messy for the indoors), I'll set things up in the root cellar, make a thick veggie stew from the less-than-perfect carrots and parsnips that won't make it through the winter in the cellar, and then, if there's time, I can go one of two roads - build a dehydrator for over the stove made of window screens, or set the sunchokes and some carrots and parsnips in brine to ferment in the cellar, slowly, surely, and for a long time. I will also clean (I promise!).

Monday, November 16, 2009

Root Cellaring

I love root cellaring. I kept my first root cellar the winter before I dug my first garden This will be my fourth winter root cellaring, and my first in a real, dug-out-of-the-dirt root cellar. My landlords have a lovely ice house right next to my little house, the musty top floor of which holds a ping pong table, my cold frame, their apple press (I'll be pressing apples this weekend!), and assorted odds and ends. The dug out floor under the storage area is a beautiful, large root cellar originally intended for the storing of ice in sawdust, cut from the stream by the house or, more likely, from the Hudson. Cut in huge chunks, insulated by sawdust, and kept in the chilly, humid cellar, huge blocks of ice (now most commonly seen as converted vodka luges in a frat house near you) would stay solid through summer for ice cream making, lemonade, and the like.

In case you haven't picked up Mike and Nancy Bubel's definitive book Root Cellaring (yes - root cellaring has a definitive book - go buy it now if you ever want to use/find/build a root cellar!), I'll let you in on this secret - the ice house is a PERFECT root cellar. It has all of the key components - it is underground (which stays at the perfect temperature and humidity - just above 32 degrees Fahrenheit and around 90% humidity) and it has good air circulation. The draw back - it's packed earthen floor and general shabby state, makes it a haven for mice and other hungry little critters who couldn't be happier to see you walking down with bushels of carrots, parsnips, and apples for a winter full of meals.


My Thursday night project included cutting hardware cloth (which, if you haven't tried it, is a giant pain - wear gloves!) and wrapping it around all of the boxes I intend to store my veggies in as well as my 50 pound bag of potatoes. each box has a lid that opens for easy access (for me - not the mice!)

In case you're wondering why I go to these lengths to store vegetables and fruits, I'll let you in on the secret.

First, it's the only way to have local produce year round - and local produce, even four months into storage, is better than store-bought stuff. Plus, it's good for the world and your local economy! Second, it's cheap - buying vegetables in bulk and in season is cost effective if you can front the money, plus you don't have to store things in your fridge, which doesn't actually save you money or electricity because you're already running the fridge, but it's pretty exciting. Third - in my past life, I was obviously a squirrel, because I can't get over how much fun it is to put a ton of food into a basement and then dig it out (literally - root veggies are stored in sawdust, sand, or peat moss) as I need it throughout the winter.

The Method

Root veggies, cabbage, and apples all get stored in cold, humid conditions. A cold basement is probably perfect. If you have a little nook under a porch that extends underground, you could probably insulate that and make it work. Or you could do the genius thing my landlords did - dig a hole in the ground, put a chest freezer or other insulated, rodent-proof box in - or just a support system - insulate the top 12 or so inches between the top of your makeshift veggie box and soil level (the top of the box should be below the frost line) - and figure out how you'll get this contraption open and closed in the winter (my landlords rigged a make-shift, sloped cellar-like door over theirs and have straw between this roof/door and the freezer). Too many apples in too small a space will make your root veggies sprout - but one or two bushels in a large enough, ventilated space should fine.

Store root veggies (except potatoes, which can be left out on a shelf or in a bag) in moist sawdust, sand, or peat. My method is: layer of sawdust, layer of veggies (carefully placed so as not to touch - veggies that touch spread mold to each other and rot faster), layer of sawdust, a thorough misting of water, repeat until the top. Then I mist my veggies every 2 weeks or so to keep them fresh. If you have more than one box of anything, label the boxes 1, 2, 3. You don't want to have to guess which boxes are empty in February. Come spring, this sawdust makes for good carbon for your compost pile or good roosting material for your laying hens.

You might be wondering - what about squashes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes (I know they're a root but they're the exception), onions and garlic? These winter storage veggies like less humid, cool (not as cold - 40 - 50 degrees for garlic and onion, 60 degrees for squash - I find a happy medium because it's too much work to set up 3 storage areas). To store these wonders of the winter kitchen, you'll need an old, drafty house (check!) and somewhere that's unheated (check!) Places that might work: an unheated room in your house, the opposite end of a basement with a heater (the heater dries out the air - thus making the opposite, cool corner ideal for non-humid, warmer storage), the attic (if you'll remember to go up there).

I built a shelf into the corner, bottom cabinet in my kitchen which is the farthest place from the wood stove in my little house and in the Northeast corner of the house - right in the coldest spot, closet in against the warmer kitchen by soon-to-be-insulated cabinet walls. You might point out that kitchens get warm and humid. My kitchen, however, doesn't get hot or humid, and when it does (RARELY - cooking for myself is a fast and somewhat boring activity), the heat rises up above the cupboard in question.


On an unrelated note:

I don't have internet at home (I know: WHAT!? HOW DO YOU LIVE?? ARE YOU IN THE STONE AGE?? YOU MUST GET IT FROM A NEIGHBOR! (answer: no, none of that sort is available), WHAT DO YOU DO WITH YOURSELF!?!?). At first it was simply that I wasn't getting around to it, then that I couldn't really afford it, and now it's because I love it. The thing about internet (and cell phones) is that waking time is constantly about being in contact with other people. So much so, that I forget how to just be alone for hours at a time without thinking about who to talk to next. I've come to really appreciate that silence. So I do my personal internet business (including this blog) at work during my lunch break, at the library, or at local cafes with wifi.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Jumping in - a note on purpose

When I was a child traveling with my family, we would drive past little homestead farms in Costa Rica or Botswana or Italy and I would think, "This makes sense. It's beautiful." And I would think that this simpler life - working for food rather than working for money that buys food - was perhaps better than our own. From inside the air-conditioned van I'd stare out the window, reasoning with myself in that strangely astute and unselfaware manner of childhood, that this simpler life was not to be had in America. That it was not allowed here. America was where we came to escape poverty and sadness and the demons of the past, and since the past was an infinite beast that blurs and won't sit still long enough to let us see its true nature - where one leg ends and the torso begins - our escape required us to also escape homesteading.

For years I have sworn that I really want to homestead. Every step I took that brought me closer to a simpler way of life has made me happy. But I've never taken more than two or three steps together. I've root cellared, gardened, canned, kept chickens, and dried. I've saved seed and sewed. But the truth is - when everyone tells you that there's a reason people live in cities and suburbs and it really is better and that I'm just being ungrateful - it's hard not to second-guess myself.


When my ex and I moved into this house, we were excited because it was the kind of house that's a constant project. Its beauty lies in its imperfection and how it calls you to work on it. Its success in being a home lay in the work that it required, a work that would come out of love and build love. When he moved out, the house became daunting. He was the one who knew how to use a wood stove. He was the one who could use the circular saw. I'm terrified of circular saws. I staunchly and exclusively use a hand saw, and while I'll use a power chop-saw, I have an old, manual one that I prefer even though it needs a new blade.

So now I'm here, in this house, on this incredibly beautiful farm land, and the only thing keeping me from jumping in is a bit of fear and nagging doubts. So I'm jumping in. Head-first.

I promised myself when I was a child that I would try to live a simpler, soil-based life (I also once pinkie swore myself that I would never work 9-5, but look where that's gotten me), so I'm trying. Because if i don't jump in now, I might never get the chance to do it again. Because somehow I've managed to forget that I can do the things in life that matter - food, friendship, heat, laughter, joy - on my own, in my own house, with only myself for company. And I need to remember that.
The fruit leather update:

It worked! I transferred the quince leather onto a drying rack and let it sit on the stove and come morning it was tough, chewy, and delicious. more than 24 hours of drying - but it worked. Next time I'll definitely use red wine and I'll remember to turn the fruit leather over onto a drying rack, NOT back onto the cookie sheet!

I'm going to freeze part of the leftover quince butter to use like jam and use the other part for a quince cake (the kind with the fruit spread between two layers of dough and baked in a bunt pan. Yum!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Quinces

Imagine a misshapen apple that's as hard as a rock. Now keep in mind that this has been a horrible year for farmers in the Northeast. Quince farmers, peddling that rare fruit now only found in the stalwart homesteader's kitchen and in NYC farmers' markets where it probably sells for a fortune selling to people who don't know better, were no exception. Rain washed off any and all spray, so the whole crop was worm infested.

My landlords ended up with three bushels in their kitchen, which smelled divinely of quinces stewing away for what must have been the past few days. A note about my landlords - I have found my landlord-soulmates. If it weren't for them I would be on Craigslist right now scouring the rentals section. They have the most beautiful kitchen and garden I've ever seen - the two most important places in the world. So here I am, walking into the kitchen piled with quinces to get the recipe for the delicious, beautiful, ruby-colored quince leathers their oldest daughter (9) delivered to me as I pulled in after work. Here's what my landlady tells me after piling me with 10 or so worm-infested quinces.

Quince Leather (the ideal)

Cut out the seeds and cut into small pieces. Leave the skins on.

Add to a large pot with a bit of red wine (1/4 cup for 6-8 quinces), cinnamon, whatever spices you'd like, and some water

Simmer until you're sure it can't get any thicker without burning. At some point into this process, when it feels safe, add some sugar. Not a whole lot, perhaps a 1/2 cup.

Use a hand-blender to get it nice and smooth.

Spread about 1/4 inch (the thicker, the gummier and more delicious it is) onto a wax-papered cookie sheet and set on two bricks over the wood stove until it's hard on top. Then flip it over (this is the messy part) and let it dry all the way through.

Quince leather (in real life)

First off - the suckers are HARD!!! cutting them into pieces and coring them could only be done with a chef's knife. So I had to cut each quince in quarters, then cut the quarters in half cross-wise, then cut out the seeds (no easy task with my dull knife) and then hack out the worm-eaten parts as best I could. an hour and a half later, I had a pot full of quinces, cinnamon, a dash of fresh-grated nutmeg and a few cloves, only to discover I had no red wine! The nearest liquor store being ten miles away and certainly closed, I decided to suck it up and use the white wine that's been sitting in the back of my fridge for 3 weeks. Which brings us to

Number two - the red wine is for the color. White wine adds a pleasant taste, but as the quinces cook down (SLOWLY) they turn into an entirely unappetizing green color. It didn't help that when I tasted it before adding sugar, the whole mushy mess tasted a bit like bile. So I added sugar.

Third - "not a whole lot of sugar" is a blatant lie. I added at least 1 1/2 cups. Which I guess isn't a lot - but is significantly more than 1/2 a cup. They're sour little devils.

Fourth - I watched Wall-E and had an hour-long phone conversation before the quince butter, puke-green as it was, was anywhere near the consistency of a thick apple-butter. Finally, FINALLY at midnight (I like to go to sleep at 10:00 when nothing is stopping me, and usually nothing is stopping me) I mashed the goop with a potato masher which was no easy going (I don't have an immersion blender and my Cuisinart (1970's model that my parents got before they were married) is on loan to friends, where I keep forgetting to pick it up) and spread half of the quince butter onto the cookie sheet. It tasted good, but color means a lot and puke-green is not appetizing. By this point, the stove had to be restocked, so I threw a couple of logs in, closed the contraption up, put the cookie sheet on top, and went to sleep.

This morning, the stove was still hot and going and the quince leather was still green, but the top was hard and dry (YAY!)!! However, since I was already dressed in my work clothes and pre-caffeinated, the thing was unflipable - or so it seemed to me at the time. So I did the unthinkable when the high is in the mid-50's, I'm going to work all day and don't need a warm house, and I only have 2 chords of wood for the winter - I restocked the oven.

Update on the fruit leathers to come after 5.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Two hours north of New York City in beautiful Columbia County, I find myself suddenly single and living alone with my cat. I'm in a guesthouse on a farm amid rolling cornfields and farm stands that dot the landscape like Starbucks in NYC.

The only heat source - a wood stove. It's warm inside, but it's still November.

The view - Catskill mountains, a stream just under my kitchen window, and lots of corn.

The soundtrack - nonstop NPR competing with the kettle.

The smell - quince butter cooking in a touch of wine ready to be transferred onto wax-papered cookie sheets stacked on bricks over the wood stove for drying into fruit leather.

This is the chronicle of what a woman who grew up in the center of suburban New Jersey (recently dubbed the Olive Garden State on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me) does to keep herself occupied in rural New York - a woman who loves making jam, gardening, knitting, cooking stews for hours, and who has never used a wood stove before.

Recipes, patterns, hunting stories, root cellar adventures, homesteading lore, gardening mishaps, and much, much, more to follow.