Pickling!

Two summers ago I went to a fermentation workshop at Blooming Glen Farm in Bucks County, PA with Amanda O’Brien of Phickle.com. I really enjoyed the workshop and learned a ton. I left feeling inspired and determined to eat only fermented veg from then on. But I ended up killing everything I tried! My cabbage kraut got dry and moldy and my whey-pickled carrots were just gross. I enjoyed the pickled beets we made during the workshop, but since I had been keeping them in the microwave {uncovered}, the jar ended up overflowing and pink pickle juice was everywhere. I started to think pickling wasn’t right for me.

But this summer I was determined to try again. I attended another fermentation workshop in February, this time hosted by the local chapter of the National Ladies Homestead Gathering, and something about hearing some simple recipes and tricks from women just like me made it seem 100 times more doable.

Bormioli Rocco Fido Hermetic Jars

The most important thing I learned that night was to use the swing-top, Fido brand jars for everything. The rubber gasket allows built-up CO2 to escape, and that positive pressure means no air {or mold} can enter the crock. This summer I have made at least 8 batches of pickles in my Fido jars with zero mold. I did a test batch in a regular mouth mason jar with an airlock {like this} with the same results.

Cabbage Kraut JuiceThe second most important thing I learned: If you’re mashing up some cabbage, and you don’t have quite enough water squeezing out to cover the cabbage {even after you’ve added a weight}, you can add more salted water and still have positive results. It seems pretty obvious to me now, but my very first attempt at sauerkraut, way back in 2012, was such a dry, dismal disaster I threw it out and swore I was done with homemade sauerkraut. That’s three summers of no fresh kraut. But my kids decided they love sauerkraut, so I had to give it another try. For my first batch of the season I had such an old head of cabbage, I didn’t think any amount of mashing would yield enough liquid. So after mashing and squeezing as much as I could, I just topped it off with salty water everything turned out just fine.

IMG_5164I’ve been using the Sour Pickles recipe from Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. He calls for “2 to 3 heads garlic, peeled,” but even with my “epic” garlic harvest this year {approximately 60 heads}, I don’t have enough to do that, so I usually end up doing 5-6 cloves, and 3 Tbsp. dill seeds, plus a “handful” of oak leaves {supposed to keep ’em crunchy}. I fill a half gallon mason jar with water and 6 Tbsp. of salt and shake to dissolve. Once my crocks are packed with veggies I pour the salty brine over everything. Sometimes I need to mix up a little more, but if I have extra I just save it until the next batch. I’ve used the same recipe for pickling cucumbers, beets {peeled and sliced}, and green beans {raw} all with delicious results. {Read here about why a cloudy brine is OK.}

Overall, I’ve been really excited to get pickling this summer and encourage you to give it a try!

{OvO}

What Does Homesteading Mean to You?

For me, homesteading began with food. After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, all I wanted to do was find, grow and eat local food. I was convinced the only way for my family to eat a grassfed turkey for Thanksgiving was to grow it myself. That’s the moment I became a farmer.

Unfortunately, I was still living smack-dab in the middle of suburbia, so raising livestock just wasn’t an option. While I waited for my farm dreams to come true, I focused my energy on things I could do immediately to feed my family more healthfully, while saving money, so that we could one day be able to live on a farm.

At that time, my oldest child was only a few months old, and we were drinking organic milk and eating organic vegetables, but we were still fully engaged in the industrial food system. I made it my goal to visit the Farmer’s Market every week that summer, and found a wide variety of foods I had never heard of. And boy, was it expensive! I realized immediately that if we were going to be purchasing real food, from real farmers, we were going to have to spend less in other areas of our life to make up the difference. And it was something I was committed to.

That summer was the first time I ever cooked a whole chicken, and after three years I can finally say I feel comfortable with that. We started out roasting the whole bird every time, but I felt we were wasting a lot of meat {not to mention the carcass} so last year I started cutting the bird before cooking it. Now we eat the breasts and tenders one night, the legs another night, and save the carcass for making stock.

The challenge of cooking a real, whole chicken was just the beginning of my journey to homesteading. In the kitchen, we started baking our own bread, making our own jam and apple butter, and eating fresh, local vegetables nearly every night of the week. One way we save money for fresh veggies is pretty simple: we purchase less meat, and instead rely on other non-meat forms of protein, like beans. I now have hundreds of delicious vegetarian recipes that allow my family to enjoy our meals together – and feel satisfied –without eating chicken breasts every night. Those three meals we get out of our Farmer’s Market chicken? They last us three weeks. We limit our dinners out, and buy almost no prepared foods, opting instead to make our own popcorn, rice crispy treats, fruit bars, and more. Making our own food means I know exactly what goes into everything, and allows me to eliminate sugar almost entirely. We don’t buy “instant” oatmeal, and rarely do we buy cereal. Instead we make our own oatmeal, granola, muffins, and scones and spend those dollars we save on pasture-raised chicken eggs which we enjoy almost every other day.

Rather than purchasing canned beans, we buy dry beans in bulk. They’re ridiculously affordable, and really not that hard to prepare, so I feel good knowing my kids are eating organic beans, organic rice, organic barley, and organic oats. We buy bushels of fruit when they’re in season, meaning we pay much less for “low-spray” fruit that was grown right around the corner – which is good for us, and good for the farmer who grew it.

But homesteading means more than just where you shop for groceries. To me, it’s a lifestyle. And what’s interesting is that a lot of our frugal family choices are ecologically-friendly too. We chose cloth diapers for our children because we couldn’t stand to send bags and bags of paper diapers to the landfills where they would never decompose, so we reduced our environmental impact while also saving thousands of dollars in disposable diapers. We use cloth napkins, towels and washcloths in the kitchen. The kids and I use cloth wipes at home, meaning we buy about ¼ the toilet paper we did two years ago. We shop at thrift stores and consignment stores for nearly everything for the kids and myself {My husband works a “real job” so he shops the big sales for his work clothes, or uses Christmas money to purchase new items}. Clothes, shoes, toys, books, canning jars, bookcases – whatever you need, you can probably find it used and for a lot less than what you would pay at a retail store. I still use Amazon for hard-to-find books, but purchase them used whenever possible. We utilize Craigslist for big-ticket items like our {1996 Ford F150} farm truck, our {1974 Massey Ferguson 135} tractor, and the trailer we’re using for our eggmobile. Every purchase is made with re-useability and longevity in mind. I absolutely abhor re-buying things, so I sometimes spend a little more now {say, $30 on a set of enamelware picnic plates} instead of spending more over time for something that will be thrown away.

We try to save money and do-it-ourselves in other ways too. We believe children deserve a better education than what is being offered in public schools today, but the cost of private school is insane, so instead, we plan to homeschool our two children. We will have the opportunity to spend countless hours of quality time with them, not just rushing them to and from the bus every day. We get to take extended vacations – any time of year, like during the “off-season” when attractions are easily half as expensive. We can really get to know them, and they us, as we grow and learn as a family.

We eliminate unnecessary expenses wherever we can and utilize free programs and events in town like story time at the library, music in the park, parades, festivals, etc. And though I can’t seem to get my husband to give up the television, we only pay for basic, basic subscription now. Don’t get me wrong, we both have iPhones {good luck trying to get mine away from me}. We choose to spend a little extra on our cell phones and instead gave up having a landline.

And now that we have moved to a place with a little more space – we’re doing more “real” homesteading. We built a garden and have planted mostly beans, some tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash and a few other things, with the hope that we can dry and can the excess to use over winter. This is our first real attempt at stocking a larder, so my expectations are very low. Saving seeds will allow us to spend less next year when it comes time to replant the garden. And eggs? The biggest expense in switching to a whole food, grassfed diet, is animal protein, and eggs are no exception. We were paying $4.00 per dozen in Georgia, $5.00 over the winter, and found a farmer at our local Farmer’s Market here in Pennsylvania that will sell them for $6.00/doz. For a family that now eats about 2 dozen eggs per week, it was easy to see what our second farm enterprise would be. Growing, feeding and caring for 12 laying hens will not be very cost-effective this year {we don’t expect to get eggs until late fall}, but with plans to feed our birds entirely on grass and then hatch out our own chicks next year, we hope to reduce our off-farm inputs dramatically in the future.

I have grand plans for our little farm {like, maybe someday it won’t be so little}, but in the mean time I’m doing everything I can to make living closer to home more comfortable and enjoyable. I experiment with everything in our CSA box; learning to cook once-foreign vegetables has become somewhat of a delight for me. I read books. All the time. I’m getting a thorough and enjoyable “free” education in composting, organic gardening, raising grassfed meat, raising chickens, living more sustainably, homeschooling, sewing, knitting, and more. I attend free seminars, did a few months worth of an un-paid internship last year, and have joined every club and Facebook Group I can find involved in the local food/local anything community where I now live. And I write this blog, where I can share my experience with you, and hope that you will share yours too.Image

While acres and acres of farmable land lie fallow..

Many of you know we moved to Pennsylvania for Tripp’s job. We chose Bucks County because it is in the middle of the two offices at which he will be working over the course of the next few years. As anyone who as been here will tell you, Bucks County, PA is beautiful. Rolling hills, 150+ year old farmhouses on literally every road, and I don’t know how many miles of the Delaware river. However, due to its proximity to Philadelphia (45 mins) and New York City (less than 2 hours) it is expensive! We were lucky to find a home to rent because even just a few acres in the area will cost you over a million dollars. That’s right. Even though the place is plum covered up with historic and not-so-historic farms, estates, and homes on any number of acres, if you don’t want to live in a cookie-cutter subdivision, you’re gonna have to spend some serious dough. (Don’t misunderstand me, typical suburban homes are expensive too).

New Hope, PA
photo credit: tripadvisor.com

I say all this in an attempt to illustrate how completely and totally out of place I feel here (as a wanna-be farmer). I love the quaint villages sprinkled across the countryside, and the Pennsylvania Dutch barns are certainly lovely, but to see all this land just sitting here… “Lawns should be turned into food production places…all that land going to waste…around rural residential estates just to provide a place for people to drive lawn more tractors around.” (Joel Salatin, You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise) I was very used to seeing lawn maintenance trucks and “lawn mower men” in my old neighborhood in Athens, but I saw one today, on a quiet country road, miles and miles from town. Why did they move out the country if they’re not even going to mow their own lawn??! Then it dawned on me – Bucks County may be rural, but it is by no means country. I keep thinking I’m going to see chicken houses in every backyard, but I’ve only found a handful so far. The vast majority of folks in this area are not living here to live off the land; they’re living on the land.

One of the amazing things about the book I reviewed yesterday, The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, was how Essex Farm got started. Mark and Kristin had a dream to create a full-diet CSA and for 9 months they searched for farmable land. A friend of a friend heard they were looking and offered them 500 acres in Essex, NY. The owner had been holding on to the land for years, hoping to use it recreationally, but his busy job as an attorney in NYC made it impossible for him to spend any time there. So, he called them up and said they could farm it, however they wanted to, for free. Yes, for free. A few years later they were able to purchase 80 acres and now reside there permanently. What a great deal, right? Joel Salatin mentions a similar scenario in his book as well; a former intern of his at Polyface did exactly the same thing. There are programs out there to link wanna-be farmers with landowners or farmers that want to retire but have no children or whose children do not want to become farmers. Check with your county extension agent, too, s/he is sure to have an idea of who is looking to sell/lease/lend their land.

While I am pretty sure Bucks County, PA is out of reach for my family’s long-term farm dreams, I am still hopeful that we will find what we’re looking for someday – we just have to know where to look, and let people know we’re looking!