Sunday, January 29, 2012

300



This is my 300th post. How did that happen?

I started blogging in October 2009, about 8 months after Kim and I moved here to Mucky Boots, and about 3 months after we quit our teaching jobs. I began writing for my family, to share with them my excitement about this adventure. But somehow, somewhere along the way, other people began to find their way here and I became part of a bigger community. We are gardeners, and chefs, and teachers. We are artists and musicians. Some of us are activists on a small or large stage, some of us work to make safe and loving homes for our families. We grow tomatoes and flowers, knit sweaters and mittens, build garden beds and communities. We come from many places and lead different kinds of lives, but we are linked by our shared excitement over the ritual of starting seeds in the spring, and our satisfaction in finding a way to use scrap lumber to build a functional gate, and our pride at the taste of food raised or grown by our own hands. By our awe at the beauty of the world around us, and the rhythms and gifts of nature.

So, dear readers, to celebrate 300 posts and to thank you for sharing this adventure with me, I want to imagine a garden party here at Mucky Boots, with friends and family come from far and wide to visit - dressed in their favourite pair of boots.

Post a comment telling me about the boots you would wear to the celebration. These could be real or imagined: the red cowboy boots you had as a child, the hip waders you've always dreamed of, the steel-toed boots you use for work, or maybe the rubber boots that see you safely through the muckier parts of your life. In exchange, I'll draw two names from all the comments, and the winners will receive a selection of Mucky Boots All-Vegetable Handmade Soaps.

Whether or not you leave a comment, I want you to know how grateful I am that you take the time to visit. You not only share your kindness and wisdom and experience with me through your comments and your own blogs, you give me a reason to think more deeply about my days. My heartfelt thanks to you all.

Photo from here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Soap



I have been waiting to write this post since August, when the whole project got started. The problem was, these were Christmas presents I was making, and my family and friends read this blog. So I had to wait, and now, finally, all the Christmas presents have been delivered and received - all except the package for my friends Jean and Jim, who are just going to have to act surprised when I finally see them on Saturday.

Soap, I'm talking soap! Yes, I now can grow vegetables, bake a loaf of bread and make soap.

I knew I wanted to make all-vegetable soap - there's something not so appealing to me about washing my body with animal fat. So I started with instructions from the Down to Earth blog and made my first batch with olive oil, organic coconut oil, rice bran oil and lye - simple, basic soap. And it was easy! So easy and so satisfying that more batches followed quickly, one with just olive and coconut oils, and then one where I started experimenting with adding essential oils. Soon the dining room table was covered with curing bars of soap and my sweetheart was starting to politely wonder about a possible new addiction.

She may have had a point, because even after all the Christmas presents were distributed, we're still left with what is probably a lifetime supply. But I'm not complaining. And I'm already itching for an excuse to start up all over again.

The basic procedure for cold processed soap is to mix lye and water, which then becomes very hot and gives off fumes. While you're waiting for it to cool down you gently heat the oils you want to use on the stove. When the cooling lye reaches the temperature of the heating oils (about 100 degrees) they are combined, then mixed until they reach "trace", which means it's about the consistency of pudding. Then any botanical ingredients or essential oils are added, the soap is poured into a mold, swaddled in towels and left to cool for 24 hours. Then it's removed from the mold, cut into bars and left to cure on a rack for about 6 weeks.

I think I made about ten batches in all, which hardly makes me an expert. But here are a few tips for you, in case you'd like to give it a try yourself.

Tip #1: Don't fool yourself that you're only going to make one batch. Take the time to source out bulk supplies, otherwise you'll end up spending more money than you need to.

Tip #2: Be sensible but don't be afraid. Some soap-making instructions I read would have had me dress up in hazmat gear because the lye is so caustic. I took reasonable precautions, like mixing the water and lye outside because of the fumes, covering countertops with old towels and making sure the animals were not underfoot, and I had no problems.

Tip #3: You don't need separate equipment for soap-making. Again, some instructions I read directed me to have pots, bowls, spoons and mixers devoted solely to soap making. I don't think this is necessary, provided you wash everything thoroughly when you're done. My only exception was the candy thermometer I used, which was constructed in such a way that I couldn't clean out the nicks and crannies as well as I would have liked. So it won't get used for regular cooking anymore.

Tip #4: Invest in a hand blender. It can take a lot of painful mixing to reach trace, if you're doing it by hand. With a hand blender the whole process is not only easier, it's much quicker. I used an old plastic hand blender that had been deformed by being immersed in hot soups. Otherwise, I would have looked for a used one at a thrift store or garage sale.

Tip #5: Don't spend money on molds unless you're thinking of going into commercial production. I spent some time on soap making supply websites, and it would have been really easy to rack up a big bill buying molds. But things you have around the house will work just as well. I used empty milk cartons for a few batches, silicon muffin tins for another, and then I picked up some 2-inch high drawer organizer trays at the dollar store that I used for the rest. Whatever you use has to be stiff enough to keep its shape when you pour in the soap, leak proof, and able to withstand fairly high temperatures.

Tip #6: Whatever you use for a mold, grease it well! Enough said.

Tip #7: If you start looking on the internet for recipes using essential oils to add a scent to your soap, you won't believe how much you're supposed to use, but it's true. I think it must be because the high heat that is generated by the saponification process breaks down the essential oil so it becomes far less potent.

Tip #8: Cover the exposed surface of freshly made soap with plastic. I learned this when my first batch developed a thin layer of white powder on the exposed surface. It's called "ash" and it doesn't affect the performance of the soap, just the look. You can shave it off with a vegetable peeler, or try to prevent it by using plastic.

Tip #9: Get started early. Soap needs at least 6 weeks of curing time, during which the saponification process continues and the soap hardens. If you try to use your soap too early it will not only not last as long, it could still be caustic.

Tip #10: Save the scrap ends and bits and pieces. I have a baggie full, and plan to use the grated soap in this hand scrub, to keep me looking presentable through the gardening season.


I'm trying really hard not to get too carried away, but now I'm really curious about making my own lye from wood ash, instead of buying it in pellets at the hardware store. After all, that's what Laura would do...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Winter



We have been having a strange winter (although I hesitate to use that word since none of the winters we have had here at Mucky Boots have fit the usual pattern): more sun than usual, and colder than usual. And almost no snow, which I attributed to the fact Kim and I finally got snow tires for our car.

And then, this week - snow!


It came in a few acts: four inches of soft, beautiful powder one day (unlike our usual sodden, heavy, wet snow) another eight or so two days later, then a brief flirtation with freezing rain that laid down a slick coating on top of it all. And now it's dissolving in a steady rain that is making a muddy, sloppy mess out of everything.

The best part of the week was the lifting from my shoulders of the huge weight of worry (and before you worry, please remember that worrying about anything and everything is a specialty of mine) when I realized what an enormous difference our new snow tires make. That horrible hill we need to drive up in order to get to the main road that has been the scene of more than one slow-motion icy ballet as we struggled up only to slide back down again? Hah! No problem: I drove straight up easy as pie. The drifts in the driveway that would have had us digging and pushing and swearing and pushing again? No problem: I just drove right through them.

And then there was the joy of watching Frankie in the snow. This may be his twelfth winter, but any sign of senior doggy dignity gets lost the instant his paws touch snow. It almost makes me wish for more snow.

Almost.

video

Friday, January 13, 2012

Fourth year blues



Last week should have been a happy week, sort of like Christmas come again. Last week the catalogues from three seed companies arrived in the mail. This should have launched an orgy of reading and planning next year's garden, the equivalent of my seven-year-old self poring over the Sears Christmas catalogue, reading every description of every toy, wondering how I would ever choose only one or two. But it didn't.

I flipped through the catalogues, I put sticky notes on a few pages, I made a note or two in my garden book, but my heart wasn't in it. Onions? Oh, I'll just stick with the usual Red Wing and Copra varieties. Tomatoes? I'll just plant what I planted last year. Peas? Same old, same old.

This will be the fourth time I plan a vegetable garden. I should get weeks of planning pleasure out of those catalogues. But what I got instead was The Fourth Year Blues. What was wrong with me? How could I still have been so excited last year, and this year be in the doldrums?

Last year I planned my garden just after reading Carol Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener, and was excited about winter squash, and getting protein from the garden, and improving potato yields. I was going to try growing broccoli, Brussels sprouts, quinoa and garbanzo beans for the first time. My garden was going to be my laboratory, full of interesting experiments. This year? Not so much.

Maybe it's just that the whole business of growing food, something that was so new and exciting, so life changing, has simply become more routine, more regular, more a part of the daily background. Maybe it's that my wish to tighten our gardening budget has left me feeling too constrained. Or maybe my natural tendency to organize and routinize has left no room for play.

In any case, I decided what I needed was an injection of whimsy. Something whose appeal has nothing to do with food values, or self-sufficiency, or anything practical at all. Yes, I would continue to grow the reliable standbys that have seen me through the first three years. But I would flip once more through the catalogues looking for something that would inspire me with its quirkiness, its beauty, its impracticality.

And here's what I found: pink popcorn and brilliant red corn poppies. One is for play, for a silly pink colour and a bowlful of fluffy kernels. And one is for beauty of a natural and random sort, the kind that springs up when seeds are simply scattered, rather than being planted one by one at a prescribed depth in rows of orderly pots in a temperature-controlled greenhouse according to a predetermined timeline.

That's what I'm going to grow this year: play and random beauty. I'm looking forward to the harvest.

Image from here.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Big



I have come across a lot of blog posts about big eggs. The simple fact that chickens lay eggs is miraculous enough, but when a hen lays a really big one, it's post-worthy for even an experienced chicken farmer.

I did it myself, back in the early days. But lately I've considered myself a bit too worldly, a tad too experienced, a smidge too cosmopolitan and sophisticated to get all excited about a big egg.

Until today. Until this really, really, really big egg.

Large eggs should weigh at least 56 grams, extra-large at least 64, and jumbo at least 70. This egg weighed 96 grams.

Here's the proof.


Holy smokes, that's a big egg.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Leftover



I feel a little silly about this post, because I know many of you are experts at making good use of the food that comes into your home. But this isn't something I've been especially good at. Things changed a bit when we moved to Mucky Boots and started growing our own vegetables: my mindset started to shift from "What's the recipe, go buy the ingredients" to "What's ready in the garden and how can I make use of it." But the fridge was still a place where leftovers found their own way to the back corners and died a slow, smelly death.

I am determined that this year, that's going to change. Part of it is trying to make better use of every food dollar. But the bigger part is out of respect for the food itself and the people who produced it, and out of recognition for how lucky we are to have it when so many in the world don't have enough. No, I'm not about to start packaging up my unwanted kale to send to the starving children in Africa. But I think I can do better with what we have.

Please forgive me if this all sounds like Leftovers 101 - but that's where I am: at the beginning. And the first challenge of the year was what to do with all the remains of our Christmas dinner. There were a lot of them, since Kim and I were on our own this year. Some things were obvious: we did a couple of days of reheated encore dinners, I made a batch of stock with the carcass of the turkey, and then a great turkey and vegetable soup. But there was still an awful lot of turkey, potatoes, gravy, squash and cranberry sauce left when New Year's rolled around.

Let me try to contain my glee as I tell you what I did.


Inspiration #1: Turkey croquettes. I took the last 4 cups of turkey meat, the last 2 cups of mashed potatoes and the last cup or so of gravy and whizzed them in the food processor until I got a pretty smooth mix. I added some green onions and a bit more seasoning, then formed it into croquettes and did a rice flour/beaten egg/smashed cornflake coating. 30 minutes or so in the oven and they were done, and didn't they go nicely with the leftover cranberry sauce! The best part is that I now have about 2 dozen of them in the freezer, for quick and easy dinners in the future.

Inspiration #2: Squash muffins. I have a killer gluten-free pumpkin muffin recipe that I make regularly, in a double batch so half can go in the freezer. So it occurred to me to replace the pumpkin puree with the leftover acorn squash, mashed into oblivion. I was worried about the seasonings: the maple syrup and cinnamon I had flavoured the squash with for Christmas dinner would go nicely in muffins, but I wasn't so sure about the thyme. But I tried it anyway, added a bit of streusel topping to compensate, and they were fabulous. More distinguishable from the pumpkin version than I had anticipated - a bit denser, sweeter, more squashy. Yum.

Like I said, Leftovers 101. But with the exception of about half-a-cup of cranberry sauce still lurking in the fridge, every bit of our Christmas dinner has been used.

Just call me Suzy Homemaker.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Back to normal



Our heartfelt thanks for your comments and emails about William. Most of you have never met us, or William, or been to Mucky Boots - it is an amazing thing to me that such caring and support can come across the ether.

We are feeling more peaceful about William's death, with just the occasional stumble to make us pause: vacuuming up the last of Williams' hair from the carpet, washing and putting away his water bowl, opening the back door and not realizing we were expecting to see him until we are surprised when he's not there. Petunia was out of sorts for a few days, but she knows how to demand a snuggle when she needs one. Mostly she, like us, is spending the bulk of these rainy, cold days in front of the wood stove. We are finding our way back to normal.
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