Thursday, July 26, 2012

Day 226: Do-it-yourself Huckleberry Rake

July 26, 2012

I’m still excited about my huckleberry adventure and the halibut and huckleberry dinner that followed. Two crystal canning jars of garnet jelly wait on the countertop and tempt everyone passing. Jaden asked me three times in two days if he can open a jar. The answer is always the same, “We are saving it for Thanksgiving, or for when I kill something that tastes like chicken.”

Making jelly isn’t the only way to preserve the berries, but it might be the tastiest. I shy away from freezing too many items based on shelf-space. I’m hoping to fill the freezer with a deer or an elk this year. Or maybe I'll copy my hero, Michael Pollan, and kill a wild hog. I saw a booth for Texas wild hog hunts at the Sportsman show this year. It’s probably wishful thinking, but I’m staying positive and keeping a few shelves reserved just in case. Eating in season is always best, but there is only so many huckleberries we can eat in such a short production span. I like to experiment with different methods of keeping food for later enjoyment.

Northwest tribal folk dried huckleberries in large cakes and stacked the cakes until ready to use. I picture great purple wheels, like towers of cheese, stacked to the ceiling in corners of longhouses. When berries where needed, a chunk of a wheel was broken off and reconstituted in water. I’ve also seen recommendations for mashing the berries and spreading them out across a screen to dry in the sun. When the mash is dry, it can be crumbled and sealed in storage containers.  I’ll try this option, as I don’t have a free corner to stack cakes of berries. My least favorite preservation discovery is to store the berries in bacon grease or used cooking oil. Yuck! Now that just sounds nasty, but not when considering the huckleberry’s traditional use as fish bait. I never really thought of the huckleberry as fish bait, but it makes perfect sense. It's the exact right bite for a #8 trout hook. I’ve purchased little red eggs packed in small jars to bait my hook, but never caught a single fish with the store bought bait. Maybe it’s time to try something a bit more natural (and free).

Of course I wanted one of those fancy huckleberry picking rakes. I found one on for about $25 with shipping. Amazon has everything. Now $25 won’t break the bank, but I’m skeptical about the purchase in general. I mean, do I really want to fork out cash for an item I will use a couple times this year, put away and then not find or forget about next year? Probably not.

I decided to make my own, or at least try. The first prototype started out as a tall, rectangular container that once held those yummy peanut-butter pretzel pillows you buy at Costco. I save containers like this one, tucking them in back of the pantry for who-knows-what or carting them out to my pottery studio to use for glaze mixing. I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to plastics.

I used a box-cutting knife with razor to cut the bottom out, but only until I almost sank the blade into my thigh, then I resigned to sharp scissors. Scissors work best, providing much more control. I cut one edge of the box lower than the other, and then cut “fringe” or fork tines on the longer edge. The idea was to use the container as a scoop and scoop up a clump of bushes and comb the berries through the tines. It worked kind of okay. I quickly noted to design flaws. 1) My tines were too far apart and I could only collect the largest of the berries. 2) The plastic tines were a little too flexy and sometime the berries would not come off easily and bent back the tines.

I created a second huckleberry rake using a large grape juice bottle. The plastic walls of the bottle were thicker than the pretzel container. I also left very little space between tines. For the test-drive I combed the bushes and gathered about 2 cups of berries in less than 10 minutes. I can pick enough for a pie in about thirty minutes. That’s half the time it took me to pick the last 6 cups (that turned into 4 cups because of Jasper and the boys).

The bottle-rake worked much better than the pretzel-rake. I’m not going to rate it five-stars or anything, but I’d give a 2+, maybe a 3. My rake is certainly not as pretty as the bright red commercial rake from I admit to having a bit of rake-envy, but I’ll get over it. The bottle rake cost nothing to make. It’s light and easy to use. Best of all, I don’t have to store it in the already crowded garage until next season, and I don’t have to remember where I stored the thing. It’s basically a disposable tool. So all in all, I’m happy with my rake, but I do have my eye on a nearly empty, blue jug of laundry detergent. That ought to make a real nice rake...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Day 225: Seeking Plus-Size Surrogate for Threesome – Age & Race Unimportant

July 25, 2012

The love affair of Gerry and Lucy bloomed. The handsome couple seems inseparable. The pair enjoys a spacious coop and yard built for a dozen birds. The coop structure has been fortified and no animal attacks, not even invading ground squirrels, have threatened. Food and water are plentiful and not a day goes by that the birds are not treated to fresh bolts of succulent lettuce or scratch corn.

I’m sure Gerry and Lucy are very happy. But I am not. I expected the pitter-patter of tiny feet and the chirp-chirping of bitty beaks. Lucy is laying fertilized eggs. I can see the fertilized dot, the start of an embryo, when I crack an egg into the pan. The dot is smaller than an eraser head and a shade or two lighter than the yolk. Its existence has no effect on the flavor or quality of the egg. I know there are some folks that argue for the nutritional superiority of fertilized eggs, but I have my doubts. Really, it’s just the tiniest dot. How much nutrition could be packed in to an eraser head?  

Chicken sex is happening. But Lucy is refusing to sit on her eggs. In barnyard terms, she is not a broody hen. Going broody is the term given when a laying hen decides to sit on her eggs to hatch them. The hen gathers a clutch of eggs (sometimes from other hens) and stops laying until her clutch hatches and her babies no longer need her. In production egg farms, and even hobby farms like mine, broody is not usually a favorable thing.

A broody hen will stay in a nest and often peck a hand reaching into gather an egg. The hen eats her fair share but fails to produce. Broodiness is an instinct that is often unwanted and hens with too much mothering instinct often find their way into the stewpot. And this is where the whole natural selection phenomenon just blows me away…

The mothering instinct that makes a hen go broody has been bred-out of common commercial varieties and many popular backyard varieties. Lucy is a black Australorp, a bird often selected by hobbyist for her gentle nature, excellent egg production, heartiness, and beauty. Basically, Lucy is a perfect layer and pet. Selective cultivation of her breed developed a reliable bird that is easy on the eyes, fills the fridge, and doesn’t peck fingers.

After extensive research, I’m faced with the reality that no matter how much sex Gerry throws down, Lucy is not going to settle in and hatch her eggs. I need a surrogate, a bird with her broodiness instinct still intact, maybe a breed not prized for egg production,  or one that folks fancy because its super cute, or quirky, or rare. A bantam would be the obvious answer. Bantams are small and lay tiny eggs. "Henny," the little bantam lost to the raccoon attack was only a quarter the size of a standard chicken. But that leads me to another problem: I don’t want a little hen getting the crap knocked out of her by Lucy. This can happen when introducing a new hen to an already established pecking order. And I certainly don’t want big ole Gerry getting frisky and jumping all over a bitty gal either. That is just gross!

So I guess it’s time to write a personal ad on Craigslist and see if I can find the girl I’m looking for. She needs to be rather sedentary, happy just sitting around all day. She should do her best to respect her coop-mates. She must be a good mother. And obviously, she’s got to be up for a threesome. Tall order, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Day 224: Foraging Wild Red Huckleberries

July 24, 2012

The Red Huckleberry, or Vaccinium parvifolium, with its sweet-tart taste was a part of my Oregon childhood. I sampled them green in the spring, even though Mother warned of tummy aches. And I ate handfuls of bright red berries in the summer, even though Mother warned of tummy aches. Several bushes grow wild on my Seabeck property, and I eat them regularly as I garden or do yard work. The berries never caused tummy aches while I was growing up, and they still do not. The abundance of fruit-laden bushes along my roadway is great. I’m guessing tummy-ache phobia leaves red huckleberries for the birds. My neighbors have no idea what they are missing.

The red huckleberry, like most berries, is loaded with vitamin C. But honestly, they don’t taste all that great in the natural state. I mean, they are okay, kind of fun to eat, but not really all that sweet and yummy like a blackberry or a wild strawberry. I eat them because the berries exist and like a bird, I’m attracted to the bright red hue. I do not eat them for taste or hunger satiation. I’ve never been that desperate.

Since starting my killing spree, I see food in nature differently. Red huckleberries have only been an amusement, not a food source. But now I realize how silly it is to let a fiber-loaded, vitamin and iron rich antioxidant go to waste. So I picked.

Huckleberries are tiny, like little red currents, and hard to pick, like plucking precious pearl earrings snagged in shag carpeting. It took me an hour to gather six cups. Later I learned that real huckleberry pickers use rakes and comb the bushes rather than finger each tiny morsel.

I gathered enough for a pie and decided to try my hand at a wild dessert for tonight’s supper. Unfortunately, Jasper – my awesome helper dog, ate approximately a cup of berries from my container while I wasn’t looking. Jade and Garret, unaware of dog slobber, polished off another cup. I was picked-out for the day, so I had to come up with another idea.

I Google searched for wild huckleberry recipes and ran across fellow forager, Langdon Cook’s blogspot. I met Langdon at a mushroom society meeting several months ago. I bought his book, Fat of the Land. He gave me an autograph, and that was that. So, it was kind of fun to virtually cross paths as I read his suggestion for broiled halibut with red huckleberries.

Langdon recommended making a chutney-like substance out of the huckleberries and using it to sauce the fish. This sounds great to me and I just happen to have some lovely halibut I caught during my May visit to Alaska. Langdon recommended the following recipe for the chutney:
1 1/2 cups red huckleberries
1/4 cup port
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp balsamic
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1 tbsp lemon juice

Well, as it turns out, I’m fresh out of port. Actually, I’ve never purchased port before. I’ve enjoyed it only a time or two. Perhaps I need to change my port habits. Anyway, I’m also not one for following directions, especially when said directions are issued from a man. It’s a personality flaw that I’m not really doing much to remedy at the present time. However, I did use Langdon’s recipe as guide to create my own killer sauce. The genius ingredient that I find most inspiring is the balsamic. I think this is what saves the sauce from being a preserve better intended for biscuits.  

I decided to go balls-out and make enough to glaze tonight’s fish and enough to put away just in case I ever kill a pheasant or quail or duck or squab (I don’t yet know what a squab is) or something turkey-like. Maybe I’ll save a jar for Thanksgiving.

Christine’s Recipe: Killer Red Huckleberry Sauce (makes about 2 ½ cups)
4 cups of wild, red huckleberries (dog slobber and leaves removed).
½ cup cabernet
½ organic grape juice
1 ½ cups raw sugar
1 tsp Saigon cinnamon
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
Coarsely grated peel of whole orange
3 tbsp Fig balsamic

1.    Bring everything but the fig balsamic to boil in heavy saucepan. Reduce until natural pectin starts to jell. Stir in the balsamic and cook over low heat until the mixture looks thick enough to spread.

2.    (I pulled 1/2 cup to glaze my fish and then canned the rest). Ladle into 2 sterile half-pint jars, seal with sterile 2-piece lids, and process in hot water bath. Canning is so much easier than you might think, but a little research is always a good idea. Try this website:
There is much to learn about wild huckleberries and much more I’d like to share with you. But I had to get the fish on the grill and feed these hungry boys of mine. I smoked the halibut low and slow, basting it with my huckleberry glaze. So damn fabulous...

I have a feeling that huckleberries, red and purple, will become a staple in my pantry. I also know I'll be looking into the purchase of a huckleberry rake. Proper tools always make a task more enjoyable.

I may even hit a few festivals and meet huckleberry aficionados and newbie fanciers, like me. Maybe I'll see you there.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Day 226: The War on Tomato Blight

July 23, 2012
purple Jasper

I’m a little more than tomato crazy. It’s kind of an addiction. I attempt cultivation of over 15 heirloom varieties from unusual seeds collected around the world. I grow white, cream, orange, pink, purple, neon green, yellow, black, and even a few red tomatoes of varying sizes and shapes. A hobby gone wild is a bit of an understatement.
16oz Sweetheart

I’m always looking for better methods to grow heirloom tomatoes. In my geographical location, the beautiful and rainy Pacific Northwest, growing tomatoes can be somewhat of a challenge. Apart from our not-so-sunny skies, overwatering, under-watering, and tomato blight pose problems.
blight on stem

My first crop of tomatoes was obliterated by a powdery black mildew that started on a few leaves and spread in a matter of days. Grass-green tomatoes were left to decompose on rotting vines. I ate a ton of fried green tomatoes and canned tubs of green tomato relish that year.

After my first tomato-flop, I researched blight causes and remedies. I learned the fungus responsible for tomato blight exists in the soil. It is recommended that infected soil, like the dump-truck full of very expensive organic stuff I purchased from a well-respected dealer and carted by the wheelbarrow full down a huge hill and into my garden beds, be replaced yearly. For me, that’s not an economical or labor-friendly solution. It took me weeks to move a truck-load of soil down a steep hill. No to mention, I spent $500 for the stuff. Starting my garden organically was important to me. Unfortunately, organic did not mean sterile. And there is nothing inorganic about naturally occurring fungus flourishing in our wet conditions.
blighted vines

Several natural gardening sites recommended adding soil amendments, like copper. But in the end, most concede there isn’t much to be done to repair infected soil.  I added copper the second year and blight held off a bit longer, but by mid-August, I noticed a few black mildew spots. A week later my crop was gone and the fried green tomato eating commenced.
blight spots

After hours of research, it seems the most economical way to battle blight is through careful watering. Overwatered and under-watered tomatoes are susceptible to diseases, pest infestations, and blights. The interesting thing about tomato blight is that it doesn’t seem to grow or spread on dry leaves and it cannot infect the leaves unless the fungus-infested soil splashes on the plant during watering.

So the trick is to water the tomato without getting it wet and to keep the infected soil from touching the plant. Sounds almost impossible, but I’ve figured out a way. My first impulse was to purchase several commercial containers with automatic watering systems to keep my plants dry. But the investment of $30 per tomato planter was too great. I needed a do-it-yourself option.

I made almost-free self-watering planters using buckets. The construction of each planter requires two 5-gallon buckets, a pint container with plenty of punched holes, and a 4ft length of 1” PVC pipe.  I scavenged and purchased 100 bucket, and I already had dozens of square, plastic flower pots leftover from purchasing flowers and seedlings. Large yogurt containers with holes punched along the walls also work great.

The idea is to stack the buckets and use the space created between the stack to hold a reservoir of water. The inner bucket holds the soil plant, while the outer bucket acts as the water reservoir. I drilled a few holes in the inner bucket and cut out a square space to insert the pint-sized flower pot. The flower pot extends into the reservoir and allows the soil and roots to act as a wick and move the water up through the plant. I also cut a 1” hole with a hole-saw bit. The length of PVC pipe stuffed through the hole serves not only as a way to deliver water into the reservoir, but also works great as a plant stake to provide support to the growing plant.
potted tomatoes

Once the buckets were constructed and filled with dirt, I transplanted tomato seedlings and packed cedar shavings around each seedling. The cedar created a barrier between blight-infected soil and my precious heirlooms. The shavings also prevent cut worms and other nasty pests from breeding in the soil.

So far, I see no signs of the powdery, black mildew. It’s only mid-July and a little too early to tell if my battle with the blight will be victorious.  The individual plants consume the perfect amount of water every day. There is no risk of overwatering. Reservoirs need replenished every 3 days. The task saves time and is as easy as sticking the garden hose down into the PVC pipe and allowing the space between the buckets to fill.

The greenhouse is packed with 50 healthy plants, most of them towering over me. The plants are loaded with yellow blossoms and what seems like zillions of green tomatoes. A lack of warm weather and sunshine set my garden back a couple of weeks, so I’m not counting on fresh tomatoes for another week or two. Although delayed, the crop looks promising. I’ll eat fresh tomatoes throughout the summer until the first frost in November forces a clean pick of remaining fruit. If all goes well, there will be lots of sauce making to keep me busy and to get me through until next spring, when I start the whole process over again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mountain Woman Red Ale

July 10, 2012

I bottled my beer a few days before taking off to Florida for a fortnight. A two week wait for bottled beer to mature is more than I can handle. That’s why it’s best to leave the country or at least the state during the final phase. Premature top popping is frowned upon, even for newbies like me.

I am an impatient woman. I was the kid who opened Christmas packages early and re-taped so Mom and Dad wouldn’t catch me. Now I’m the adult who peeks in cupboards and bureau drawers for birthday gifts. I try to convince myself I like surprises, but the anticipation of waiting drives me mad. Beer making is aggravating therapy for those of us who want it NOW.

For me, brewing is becoming a longsuffering sport, a challenge to my very nature. After the initial brewing process, the beer fermented in the first carboy for one week. After a week, I siphoned it off into a clean jug and continued fermenting for another week. The importance of using the second carboy is debated amongst beer makers. Some argue it is only necessary when fermenting beer for longer periods of time. Others claim it is important only when using certain types of yeast. I do not know enough about the art and science of brewing to form an intelligent opinion yet. I read that beer tastes cleaner when separated from the initial dead yeast cells forming the sediment on the bottom of the first jug. It made sense to me. Clean is good. At least for now, the second carboy is part of my practice.

After the beer spent a week in the second carboy, it was time to bottle. I siphoned the beer into a sterile five-gallon bucket and added a little corn sugar boiled in water. The corn sugar serves as food and reenergizes the yeast in the bottling process. Without sugar, the finished product would have little to no head. I’m into the frothy pour of Guinness, so I go a wee bit heavy on the sugar to ensure good head. Yes, I know there is a joke here. But what can I say?

Last night while stuck in at the Tampa airport for four hours, I was thinking about beer. Stuck in Denver for another three hours on my trek back to Seattle, I was still thinking about beer. Even on the drive home from Seattle to Seabeck, I thought of beer. I walked through the front door, dropped my suitcase and backpack next to the sofa, went to the closet under the stairwell, pulled out a couple bottles and stuck them in the fridge next to the gallon of milk. I planned a few hours of sleep followed by a cold beer for lunch. It was a good plan.

I’m blogging 20 ounces in the Red and feeling little pain. Please pardon the grammar. It’s all part of the experience.

Mountain Woman Red is all I hoped she would be. There are no unpleasant surprises or aftertastes. As hoped, the aroma of Mount Hood hops shines through. Floral hints of tropical fruit combine with the warm sweetness of freshly mowed hay. The beer is deep amber in color and has a toasty base with mango and ripe banana overtones.

And then there is the head – thick & creamy, the kind that leaves a foamy moustache on the upper lip. Its exactly how I like it. I may have another before the day is done.

Mountain Woman Red & my brewing hat

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ruminating Mother Earth

June 20 2012

It’s been a few weeks since I attended the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, WA. I’m still mulling over all the new/old ideas of today’s homesteading practices, those spaces where technology and timeworn wisdom merge. Common sense living excites me, and it should. We live, shop, and work in a world that sometimes seems illogical to me.

The highlight of my fair was listening to key note speaker, Joel Salatin, owner and operator of Polyface Farm. I first learned of Joel through Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan brings Salatin’s character to life. I felt star-struck meeting the farmer in person, like I was inches from touching a favorite movie star or 80s rock god. I wasn’t alone. I looked around the audience of fans occupying only the front half of their seats.

Too late to find a proper chair or space in the bleachers, I scooted to the very front and sat on the cool concrete at the base of the stage. Sometimes it pays to be a late bloomer. I was close enough to reach out and tug on the seam of his Wranglers. And just in case you’re wondering, I resisted. I sat with ears, heart, and mind wide open, ready to catch any bit of wisdom he dropped my way. It’s true. I have an infatuation, maybe even a bit of a farm girl crush on the man.

Joel is a more mature man, and by that I mean way more mature than me. He must be close to my father’s age. He dressed in denim on denim. I don’t think he knows or cares that the decade for denim shirts with blue jeans is long gone. There is nothing fashionable about Joel, and he doesn’t have that tall-dark-and-handsome look that usually holds my attention. It doesn’t matter. He’s got my attention. Charisma and intelligence ooze from the moment he grabs the mike to the moment he waves that farmer-in-the-field goodbye. I’m enraptured.  

He spins a yarn, telling the story of grain from field to thrashing to fermentation to mill to table. He visits the labor intensive methods of historical grain production, a time when grain was far too valuable to feed to animals, when grain was used to feed people and herbivore ate grasses and chickens cleaned up scraps.

Joel Salatin thinks in systems or logic loops. He discussed actions and reactions of moving away from common sense farming. It doesn’t take long and I’m making my own connections and formulating loops in my own head to improve my own homesteading practice.

I experimented with one of his systems-approach ideas six months ago by wintering my chickens inside my greenhouse instead of the coop. The added light extended their egg laying. Chickens fed on kitchen compost, breaking it down at rocket speed for added soil enhancement. Grubs and slugs and spiders and all things crawly cut my feed bill in half while producing some of the best flavored eggs ever. Perhaps the greatest benefits materialized this spring with hundreds of vibrant tomatoes and tomatillos springing up, volunteering to be this year’s bumper crop. These same tomatillos are taller than me now. Indoor beds took little turning to prepare for the seasonal plantings. Cutworm, aphids, and white fly are at an all-time low. Nitrogen rich soil, naturally fortified with chicken poop produced the earliest cilantro and basil.  

So, now I’m thinking bigger, thinking of expanding the system to include aquaculture, adding trout or catfish or even freshwater prawn to the creatures and plants that rely on one another for my family's dining pleasures.