Sunday, November 23, 2014

Post-Frost Harvest

After a week in which we were struggling to acclimate ourselves to the blustery cold, today we were granted a sunny, almost-warm day. It was actually pleasant to be outside again, so we wasted no time picking up the last of the leaves and cleaning up the last bits of herbs that finally died in the freezing temperatures of the past week.

We also were able to bring in a surprisingly ample post-frost harvest. There's still plenty of food out there under the cover of glass, plastic, or straw, so we should be eating well for the next few months. It may well be the last nice day, but it's not the last harvest. Here's what we brought in today:

This kale bouquet is just a small bit of what we have. A lot of the Russian kale got nipped back by the cold since we left it unprotected, but we fixed that today, and there are still a whole lot of leafy greens left for the winter.

Our last three cabbages were unaffected by the freezing weather, but won't last forever outside. The small one will be gone this week on tacos, but the other two should keep for quite a while, until we figure out something to do with them or turn them into sauerkraut, whichever comes first.

Since we've had a frost, the horseradish is ready to go. Cold brings out its flavor, and I will try to find some goggles so I don't cry grating this all up tonight.

The broccoli is still going. Some of the stems have fallen limp, but there are still plenty of florets near the centers of the plants that are in fine shape, and quite sweet after the frost.

The fall lettuces and arugula didn't grow very big this year, but because they are so close to the ground, they are still in great shape, even after the freezing weather. I pulled this whole bed, which leaves just one last row of lettuce under a tunnel for the winter.

Those greens, plus some dill, parsley, and beet greens made it into the salad spinner, and eventually onto our dinner plates.

Speaking of beets, I pulled the rest of the fall crop. They aren't huge, but we do have a bunch. As I speak, they are roasting in the oven, and then we'll freeze them to use throughout the winter.

I also brought in a big bunch of carrots. We still have a lot outside, but these were all in a row right along the wooden edge of one of the raised beds, a spot that freezes pretty quickly. Now that it's cold, it's better to get them inside before the ground freezes them in place for the winter.

Oh, winter. It felt far away today out in the sunshine, but by mid-week it will be cold again, and if the wind blows the right way, we could end up with snow on Thanksgiving. Glad we got all of our side dishes harvested and under cover today!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Tissues

It's that time of year again: the sniffles are upon us. Wintertime colds and (fingers crossed, not this year) flu mean an investment in several boxes of tissues, and that go us thinking about trying to skim a little off the price of those. From here on out, we plan to

Replace name-brand Kleenex with store brand tissues.

This isn't one of the biggest money-savers in the world, but it is a really easy one. It turns out the Market Basket tissues aren't too bad--a little thinner, but not terribly scratchy or rough. And since our typically wasteful children appear to use just a tiny corner of a tissue tissue before throwing it away, they probably won't notice at all. The boxes are uglier, but whatever.

The math on this involves some estimating, as I can't honestly claim to know exactly how many tissues we go through in a month. Let's say we average two boxes per month for the family (less in the summer, more in the winter).

The box of 160 Kleenex tissues are $2 each at Market Basket, while store brand tissues are 99 cents for a box of 144.

It's a total pain that these aren't easily comparable boxes, so now I need to figure out how much an individual tissue costs as well as how many we go through each month. Good thing I like math.

Each box holds 160 tissues, so that's 160 tissues x 2 boxes, or 320 tissues a month.

At $2 per 160 tissues, the Kleenex cost 1.25 cents apiece. Multiply that by 320 tissues, and the cost per month to not be gross is $4.

At 99 cents per 144 tissues, the Market Basket tissues cost just .6875 cent apiece. Multiply that by 320 tissues, and the price per month is $2.20.

Quick subtraction shows us that the difference per month is $1.80. Not amazing, but nothing to sneeze at.

Ba dum DUM.

As always, I'm rounding up.

Savings per month: $2

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Spring Chickens

As I mentioned earlier this month, our chickens are done laying for season, and we will be out of eggs until they stop molting and we can turn the light on in the coop to trick them into thinking it's spring.

Last year they all laid so well throughout the summer that I was able to freeze enough eggs to use throughout the winter molt, and we never had to buy any from the grocery store.

This past summer? Not so much. Dolley is no longer laying at all, and the other girls have slowed a bit with age. (Dolley is a Red-Star hen, and it turns out that this hybrid breed is a rock star daily layer for about 18 glorious months, but then it's over for good, which was not advertised. Luckily for her, she's the smartest, best-trained bird we have, or we might have considered her for soup.) Without her efforts, we still had plenty of eggs to eat fresh in the summer, but not enough to put up for winter. We're back to buying them at the store until we get them laying again (I'm hoping by January, but we'll see how the feathering goes).

All this means that it's time to add to our flock. If we had known that Dolley was going to shut off production this summer, we would have ordered new chicks back in April, and they probably could have kept us in eggs throughout the fall. As it is, today I ordered three day-old chicks to arrive over April vacation (just five wintery months away!).

We always narrow our search by laying ability and cold hardiness, and then we read up about their personalities to make sure they aren't bitches. This time around, we chose a Rhode Island Red, a Welsummer, and a Golden Laced Wyandotte.

File:Rhode Island Red.jpg
Public domain photo

We wanted a Rhode Island Red the last time we ordered chicks, but the hatchery ended up not having enough and sent Dolley as a substitution. A Rhode Island Red is the classic red hen of storybooks, and its perfect for our region, as its name suggests. They're also supposed to be among the best layers, which is what we're looking for.

Photo by A Chicken a Day

Welsummers lay dark reddish-brown, sometimes speckled eggs and are popular in England. The roosters are like the one on the Corn Flakes box, so it's a pretty classic chicken that's been around forever. 

Photo by Ariel188

The Golden Laced Wyandotte is really pretty. I wanted one the first time around, but they were sold out by the time we ordered our chicks--this one is the reason why I got chick-shopping done five months in advance this time. 

Unless we end up with substitutions again, these new birds will be arriving April 21, 2015. Stay tuned for another round of adorable baby chick photos when spring finally comes back around!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Herbal Apothecary: Valerian Tincture

About six weeks I ago I harvested some valerian root from the garden and set it out to dry:

I had been warned by many sources that valerian smells terrible and only gets worse as it dries. I also heard that it attracts cats, but neither of these things have turned out to be true. Fletch has never even given it a sniff, despite it being at nose height for a couple of weeks.

As for the smell, it does have an odor--I just don't happen to hate it. It's very hard to describe. It reminds everyone of something, but no one can seem to place it. There's definitely a camphor scent to it--kind of turpentine-y or Mentholatum-y--that lingers in the back of your sinuses. There's also an earthy, root-y smell to it, like a medicinal version of sarsaparilla. And, sometimes, there's a whiff of stinky socks involved, but that's not ever foremost in the bouquet for me, though apparently other people find it unbearable.

Since I had two trays of roots, I decided to try two different methods of preservation. I left the plate above to continue drying, which is a long process as roots are much thicker than leaves and flower petals

For the other tray, I decided to try making a tincture. A tincture is basically the essential oils and compounds of a root or herb preserved in alcohol. It lasts pretty much forever, and is easy to mix with other ingredients. It's also really easy to make.

1. Gather the tools:

For this I used a wide-mouth pint jar, a standard reusable lid, and a large reusable lid. 

2. Fill the jar about half way with clean, dry valerian root:

I really packed them in to reduce the amount of airspace left in the jar. 

3. Get your hands on some 100 proof vodka: 

This turns out to be a bigger challenge than I anticipated, as most stuff at the liquor store was only 80 proof. Since we're working to preserve plant matter, the alcohol content is important, so I was glad to finally find some in the way back of the store.

4. Fill the mason jar to the bottom of the threads with vodka:

Now's a good time to use the handle of a wooden spoon to press out any air bubbles that might be lingering within all those roots.

5. To create a good seal that keeps the root under the liquid (and not exposed to air, which can cause it to spoil), I turn the standard size mason jar lid upside down and press it into the alcohol, wedging it into the jar:

You know you have a seal when a little of the alcohol runs over the lid and fills it just a bit.

6. Screw the wide-mouth lid onto the jar:

Now you just keep it somewhere good and dark, like the basement. Shake it once in a while, and cheek it in six weeks.

7. In six weeks, it looks like this:

It's about the color of root beer, which it kinda sorta is. Except now it smells like a verrrrry strong alcoholic version of that smell I couldn't describe earlier. Not gonna lie, the scent filled up the whole house as I worked on the next steps.

8. Strain the tincture:

Just pour the alcohol through a cheesecloth-lined funnel and into a clean glass. Be sure to squeeze the liquid out of the roots as well. Then rinse the mason jar, and strain it again, this time from the glass back into the jar.

When it's done, put the lid back on:

So, what's the point of all this? Well, valerian has been used for centuries as a muscle relaxer and sleep aid, and was also suggested for menstrual cramps. It has been called Poor Man's Valium, and was prescribed during the Blitz to help Londoners keep calm and carry on. 

(It should be obvious to all that I am not a doctor, and make no recommendations about this for you.)

I can't report about its effectiveness yet, although I did taste a spoonful before closing the lid. It tastes like it smells: like a weird root beer medicine with a shit-ton of alcohol in it. I have no doubt that a tablespoon of this will help me sleep the way the alcohol in Nyquil does that same trick. 

But right now I am enjoying good health and am sleeping well at night unaided, so it may be a while before I am able to report back with any results.