Showing posts from March, 2014

Game Called on Account of Rain

Although it is much warmer this weekend that it has been — dare I suggest that winter has finally loosened its grip? — we weren't able to make much headway out in the garden. It just would be too much to hope for to jump right into a sunny, 60 degree stretch of days, right? We're squarely in the midst of some cold, soaking rain.

Not that I'm complaining. After all, it's not snow. The rain has washed away almost all of our last bits of the white stuff, and I imagine the rest will be gone by Monday. Things are starting to thaw, and the soaking rains will definitely help bring things back to life as we ring in April.

We did manage to get our week's worth of sap boiled and also opened up the cold frames to catch some of that free water falling from the sky (before closing them up again to protect delicate seedling and as-yet unsprouted seeds from the downpours we're meant to get over night and tomorrow).

Still, we had to give up on our planned planting of peas and…

Mason Jars for Maple Syrup

Since we're not planning to sell our maple syrup, we are perfectly content to keep it in mason jars until we need it. It's very easy to "can" maple syrup:
1. Dry sterilize the jars. We do this by putting them in a square cake pan in the oven as it heats to 220. Then we turn off the oven but keep them in it so they stay warm until we need them. (The pan just makes it easy to get them in and out of the oven.)
2. When the maple syrup is done boiling and off the heat, funnel it directly into the hot jars. Because the syrup is so hot, you can use it to sterilize the lid. Put the lid in place and screw on the ring very tightly, then (with oven mitts!) tip the jar upside down before placing it on a towel to cool on a countertop.
3. The syrup is so hot that you don't need to worry about a water bath to seal them, either. The vacuum action will happen to seal the jars up, and then you can keep them on the shelf instead of in the fridge.
The one drawback to using a mason …

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Excise Tax

I didn't have to work too hard for this one — it came in the mail:

Is it a bill? Yes. But it's significantly smaller than last year, so I've saved almost a hundred bucks — without lifting a finger! You just have to

Earmark tax savings each year so they don't disappear into thin air.

Allow me to explain. Here in Massachusetts, we pay an excise tax on our cars. It's an annual tax based on the value of the vehicle.

The key thing about it for our purposes here is that, as your vehicle's value goes down every year, so does the amount of the tax, until it bottoms out at $30 when your car is an old jalopy.

Since we've mostly driven old, used cars since we've lived here, we never really noticed fluctuations in our excise tax — it was always just $60 for both crappy cars.

But then I got a nice, new car — and got whacked with a big, fat excise tax bill. Still, it's going down, and the thing is to scoop up those savings and put them toward paying off that car …

Maple Sugaring, Part 4: Granulated Maple Sugar

"When the sap has boiled down just enough, he fills the buckets with the syrup. After that, he boils the sap until it grains when he cools it in a saucer. The instant the sap is graining, Grandpa jumps to the fire and rakes it all out from beneath the kettle. Then as fast as he can, he ladles the thick syrup into the milk pans that are standing ready. In the pans the syrup turns to cakes of hard, brown, maple sugar."
"So that's why it's a sugar snow, because Grandpa is making sugar?" Laura asked.
"No," Pa said. "It's called a sugar snow, because a snow this time of year means that men can make more sugar. You see, this little cold spell and the snow will hold back the leafing of the trees, and that makes a longer run of sap. When there's a long run of sap, it means that Grandpa can make enough maple sugar to last all the year, for common every day. When he takes his furs to town, he will not need to trade for much store sugar. He will g…

Celebrating Spring With Maple Flan

Winter is finally (technically) over! I know that tonight it will probably snow again before all's said and done, and it will still be cold and windy for some time yet, but still. By this time tomorrow we will at least be reveling in the knowledge that the daylight has finally overcome the darkness, and will increase each day. The cold can't hold out much longer against those odds.

Ahhh. Time to start thing about some seasonal eats. We have just eaten our last parsnips, and are down to our last couple leeks and squashes. I think we have a handful or two of potatoes, and a decent amount of garlic, plus some frozen beans.

That's not a whole lot to get us through until the greens come up in the garden in force, considering that we were only able to sow the first round of them this past weekend. Spring has been so long in coming that we won't be having salads any time soon, thanks to the well-below average temperatures this month.

So what kind of seasonal goodies can we h…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Hobby Barter

I only write about gardening (and house projects and food and maybe travel) on this blog, but we have some other hobbies, too. Unlike growing your own food, most hobbies cost money, and some can get downright pricey.

One of our semi-expensive hobbies is theatre. Everyone in the family acts in at least one (and often two or three) plays each year, and some of these require a cash outlay — especially the production fees for plays that are part of an educational theatre program.

Luckily for us, we have some actual skills in this area that we can use to

Barter skills for reduced fees in our extracurricular activities.

For us, this means putting in some sweat equity in exchange for waiving the kids' theatre fees. For you, maybe this could mean turing a volunteering stint int sweat equity in your kids' various activities — can you coach? Sew costumes? Or teach someone else a skill you're good at?

As far as skills go, Kirk has an actual degree in "Integrative Arts," whi…

Last Weekend of Winter

It's the last weekend of winter! Next weekend we'll be beyond the equinox, and the days will be ever-so-slightly longer than the nights. 
We still have snow on the ground, lots of wind, and temperatures in the 30s, but we plowed ahead with our almost-spring garden chores anyway. Here's what we did this weekend:
1. Got the chickens out on the raised bed where to prep the soil for planting greens:

2. Poked around the greenhouse tunnels to harvest the last veggies: parsnips and a couple leeks, plus a few leftover fall cabbages for the chickens (which they were very excited about). We do still have some spinach, mache and kale left as well, but not much.
3. Improved the maple sugaring set-up by building a bigger firebox:

Kirk used leftover bricks we had lying around to make a floor (so as not to ruin the bricks on our patio), then got nine cinderblocks to make the three walls of the firebox (solid side toward the fire). He also picked up some steel angle irons to make a grate…

Maple Sugaring, Part 3: Boiling Down to Syrup

Now that the maples are tapped and we've been collecting sap for several days, it's time to turn that sap into syrup! 
We decided to do this the old-fashioned way, over a fire:

First we had to dig out a hole in the snow on our patio to make a place to set our fire bowl. You could also do this on your grill in a pinch, but our fire bowl is bigger. It's not an ideal set-up, but we're too poor for a fancy evaporator, and we don't have any cinder blocks on hand to build a temporary fire pit. The drawback with using the fire bowl is that you have to remove the grate and pans of boiling syrup to re-stoke the fire every so often. That's not hard, but it does slow things down because the pans have to get back up to temperature after they've cooled a little. If we built a cinder block contraption to contain the fire but give us access to add wood on the side, that would be more efficient. Maybe next time!
Anyway, here is our actual fire getting started:

We bought t…

Maple Sugaring, Part 2: Gathering the Sap

Now that our trees are tapped, we need to check the buckets every day. Otherwise, they'll be overflowing on warm afternoons when the sap is really flowing fast. It's easy to do.
First, slide the pin out to remove the lid: 

Of course, you can lift the lid to take a peek first. This bucket is getting full, so we need to empty it into our storage containers:

This photo was from the weekend, when it was cold enough over night for some of the sap to freeze (you can see the ice on the surface above). When this happens, you just throw the ice away. Here's a big chunk I picked out of another bucket:

It may seem wasteful, but if it is frozen, that part doesn't have much sugar in it anyway. Think of it this way: Have you ever tried to freeze fruit juice for a toothpick popsicle, only to be disappointed in how soft it was? That's because sugar lowers the freezing point of water. Therefore you can be pretty sure that the frozen part is just water, and that the sugar has settl…

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Cell Phone

Get ready. This is a big one.

And that's because cell phone plans are ri-goddamn-diculously expensive — even after you've canceled your landline.

For example, the adults in our household each own an (aging but perfectly functional) iPhone 4s on a plan with Verizon. That plan costs about $175 a month, which is the price of the contract we were still using, even though we were no longer locked into it.

Add to this a sixth grader with a pay-as-you-go flip phone and a new-found texting habit. That plan was excellent for emergencies, but at a dime for each text, this was averaging another $55 per month.

That's $230 a month for the phones.

$2760 a year.

Whoa. It's definitely time to …

Find a cheaper cell phone plan.

I'm not gonna lie, this took forever. I did a ton of research, and learned a lot more about cell phones and how the networks work than I really wanted to know.

To sum it up, the big carriers that you've heard of (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and TMobile) se…

Maple Sugaring, Part 1: Tapping the Trees

I don't want to jinx it, but I think our time in the Polar Vortex might be coming to a close. As far as the eye can see on the weather forecast (okay, so about 10 days), the daytime temperatures will be above freezing. 
Woo hoo!
This is exciting not just because it's warm enough to be outside without freezing your face off — it's also maple sugaring season! That means it's above freezing during the day (probably around 40 degrees) and below freezing at night (probably back in the 20s). We're finally having a stretch of weather like that, and this year we got the tools we needed to give it a try. Here's what you need and how to do it:
First, you need a maple tree. We have two: a great big one in the front yard, and a much smaller one in the back. You can tap any old maple you like, but a sugar maple is best (obviously — the name doesn't come outta nowhere!) 
I'm fairly confident that the tree we have in the front is, in fact, a sugar maple. I dug a few …