October 19th, 2005

I can’t seem to remember what I did two days ago, a sure sign of being busy. In the evenings I’ve been trying hard to work on food processing. Many, many pounds of fresh tomatoes go on the dehydrator in order to emerge as crispy little frisbees. Dehydrating allows us to store something like 8 huge beefsteak tomatoes in a gallon ziploc bag. We’re using the new dehydrator and expansion set that I found on eBay. The seller was right–this thing sucks the water out like an Arizona summer. In less than a day a tomato is reduced to dry slices. This is chestnut time, too. Last night I was up until 11pm shelling out about 3 pounds of nuts. Admittedly this was rather too much to try at once, but I have improved drastically at the job. For anyone who hasn’t experienced a chestnut, I’ll describe. The nut on the tree is encased in an outer husk that nature modelled after an angry porcupine. Usually the nuts drop out of the split husk, and are picked up daily off the ground. If not, a hammer or a well-booted heel is used to mash off the husk. It is not possible to handle the husk in any way without the spines going right through fingers. Gloves don’t help, the spines are like hypodermic needles. The shiny, lustrous nut now needs to be stored cold and at high humidity. To process further, the shell and pellicle must be removed. Each nut must be slit up the side. This requires a lot of concentration, since the nut can slip with poor consequences for fingers. A special chestnut knife exists that I will be purchasing soon! In the meantime a medium-large pot of water is brought to boil. All the slit nuts are dropped in to boil for 10 minutes. About a pound and a half is all that can be done at one time. After the boiling, a slotted spoon is used to retrieve each nut, one at a time. While piping hot, each nut is torn open with a dish towel buffering fingers from the heat. The shell is peeled/torn off. Next the pellicle needs to come off. As long as the nut is still hot and moist, a few well-aimed flicks of a knifepoint will do this. The pellicle’s reluctance to come off is why each nut has to stay in the hot water until the moment of peeling–let them dry or cool down and fuggeddaboutit. With any luck, a nut can be done every minute or so. Three hours of mostly uninterrupted work yields a full medium-large bowl of chestnuts. I want to learn to make the best approximation I can of marron glaces (candied chestnuts), which are an expensive European delicacy. It takes  My first batch was a partial success. Some of the pieces turned out so that I understand the translucent, melt-in-your-mouth chestnut sugar bomb they should be. But I’m a long way from consistently turning out perfectly candied whole nuts. I am also going to make sweet chestnut puree. This is the first year the trees have had any significant yield and it’s really great to be trying these recipes at last, after five years of waiting!

The Delaware chicks have grown like weeds. They need transplanting, and soon. The next few days will see them moved into the lighthouse for two weeks, at which time they should be big enough to let loose into their new chicken yard. It’s important to make sure they are big enough to not walk through the fence, since it’s a shame to raise them for 6 weeks and then make a snack for the hawks.

The maples are changing color, very pretty flaming red and orange. We’ve been mowing back some of the weedy areas now that the small mower works again. The big mower still needs fixing, and we are going to pick up the parts in Willows this weekend. I trimmed some in the outer orchard last weekend, it’s beginning to look "kept" again. I want to go out with my propane torch and ignite the dry star thistles, but best to wait until it’s not so dry for that particular fun. Ken tilled a garden for winter where the potatoes grew this spring. We put in a TON of composted horse manure in this area. I laid down used plastic from our evaporation ponds at Burning Man, and straw, so that only a thin strip of growing area per row is exposed. I have lost too many winter gardens to weeds, and this should help a lot. We are watering the ground now, and by the weekend it should be ready for seed planting. I have had very mixed success with winter gardens. What always seems to happen is that one crop will have wild success, and all the others miserable failure. Some years the peas go well, or the lettuce, but seemingly never the same one from year to year. We’ll see….right now I’m just happy we are actually planting a winter garden. It’s the first year since 2002 we’ve been organized enough to even try. Sow those seeds…….

October 6, 2005

During spare moments today I tried to research two produce items–the African Horned Cucumber and the Fatali pepper. I learned that they originate in southern and central Africa, respectively, and that both have turned out to be other than I thought at first. The cucumbers, I just realized today, are those things I have seen off and on in the exotic section of the grocery store for years. They are also called Kiwano, although that is the designation given them after farmers in New Zealand began raising them in the 1900’s. The Fatali peppers are very striking. I have one mature plant from one remaining seed–this plant didn’t want to exist on our farm, but persistence paid off. I have many ripening peppers and will of course be stocking up on the seeds for next year. I knew they were hot, but I let my mind slip on just how hot. Last night I tried to remove the seed from one, and was rewarded by hours of burning skin from all the different places I had managed to spread the oil.  At least this time I kept it out of my eyes, I hate it when that happens. These peppers are habanero-like, but with a strong citrus overtone. I have the goal of turning the entire batch into a small amount of custom hot sauce for a good friend of mine that appreciates such things.

This last weekend I dug up many of my smaller hot peppers, and overhauled the bathroom in general. I have a large bathtub and window seat that is pretty much an indoor plant display. It gets messy in there. All plants went out for repotting or sprucing up, the whole thing was well cleaned, and re-arranged for winter. I will bring in more of the hot peppers before the frost, especially the Fish peppers. They are also from Africa, and quite possibly one of the most attractive vegetables I’ve ever raised.

I broke down and took our cat Sirrus to the vet. He has a plasma pododermatitis, which means in English that the large pads on all four of his feet have turned to custard and are ulcerating and bleeding. It is a not-understood autoimmune disorder, called "pillow foot". It occurs very rarely in otherwise healthy cats. He had to have some minor surgery, with drugs to follow to hopefully get the inflammation under control. With four bandaged legs and a plastic collar, he is thoroughly miserable at the moment.

This weekend will be the first weekend fully devotable to working on the property in a very long time. Many jobs large and small await, and the weather should be perfect.

October 1, 2005

Today marked the first nut party of the fall season. The quince and almond tart was baked this morning, and ohhhh it tasted good. Then again, any recipe that uses an entire pound of butter can’t taste too bad.  I bought some nice cheeses–Scottish Arran Truckle, Lemon Stilton, Irish Sharp Cheddar and Cambozola. Those little slices of imported heaven….if you ever want to try something wonderful, go pay the $8 for the wedge of lemon Stilton. I’ve never tasted anything like it, it doesn’t even taste like cheese. It has lemon rind in it and the impression is of lemony crumble melting in my mouth. Highly recommended!!  This nut party was odd. Good friends from work came, we harvested 2 trees. It was windy and that helped take a lot of the misery out of the job. We shelled some nuts but then we mostly went on a pick-a-thon. People went home with big baskets of huge heriloom tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, peppers and cut flowers. I am going to have to make salsa tomorrow, there are gallons of tomatoes staring at me.

The dehydrator from eBay came yesterday, and last night I won the auction for my 1930’s food mill. $3.49, woohoo! I am afraid I am eBaying and I can’t stop….  by way of excuses, though, I am saving a lot of $$ not driving around to antique shops and garage sales hoping to find this stuff. I am on the lookout for vintage food processing items. I have my sights set on a nineteenth century fruit press and will win one eventually.  These are 8 quart, cast-iron monsters that could squeeze a pumpkin for juice if you wanted it to. I lost the auction on the last one I bid for, it sold for $475. Pricey, but not compared to the $750 one we were planning to purchase eventually. I’ll cross my fingers that I get lucky on one at some point. I have also been scoping out iron cauldrons (15 gallon size). This is the sort of thing that can make slaughtering birds a lot easier–ever try to stuff a dead turkey into a 16 quart pot that you had to drag off the stove while full of boiling water? I rest my case. Someday I want to have an outdoor kitchen area, basically a fire ring with a permanent heavy duty metal tripod, for those big food jobs.