Showing posts from August, 2014

Late Summer Lessons

I took my last summertime tour of the garden today, pulling weeds, harvesting veggies, and surveying what we accomplished this year. It is the end of August, and while we of course have many fine days ahead of us, the nightime chill is already a reminder that our beautiful New England summers are also fleeting.

There's a lot to be proud of, but no matter how long we've been at this gardening thing, there's still a lot to be learned. This year, there are three planting lessons that are obvious to us only now, a good four months after the mistakes were made.

Gardening is a long game.

Lesson #1: Don't plant pumpkins near roses.

It never occurred to me that this could be a problem, but it has been. The last half of August has been quite dry, and powdery mildew has overtaken our pumpkin vines (ditto for the squash, zucchini, and cucumbers). Having the pumpkin vining around the rose bushes has also led to their infection with powdery mildew in recent days, as you can see in…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Car Taxes

As I mentioned last week, we are in the process of becoming, once again, a one-car family. There are lots of savings to be wrung from this one simple (albeit somewhat demanding) act, including

Cutting out one car's worth of annual taxes and fees.

In Massachusetts, we are charged an excise tax on each car. It's based on the value of the car, and bottoms out a $30 a year once your car is old and not worth much any more (which has been the case with the Focus for as long as I can remember). Get rid of the car, and you don't have to pay the excise tax anymore.

The other fee we incur with each car is the resident parking sticker for the Newburyport lots. It's not much at all — at just $10 every two years, it's a actually a great deal. Still, one less car means one less parking sticker, so there you go.

The annual total of car taxes and fees that we now can skip is $35, which is just under $3 of savings per month. I'm going to round up, as usual. It's not a lot, …

Achiote and Anona

While sorting through some photos from Costa Rica, I realized I never shared the last interesting tidbits from our trip to the Bribrí cacao farm on the Caribbean coast. Before we got into the nitty-gritty of making chocolate, we toured the farm to check out some of the other useful plants that grow there. 
First, our guide Priscilla picked a ripe achiote and broke it open to show us the seeds inside:

In English this is known as annatto. When the achiote skin is leathery and brown, it means that the seeds inside are ready to use. The bright red seeds can be dried and crushed to make a reddish-orange spice that is used in many Mexican and Central America recipes. Priscilla explained that the Bribrí people also used it for painting their skin bright red, for keeping cuts clean, and for soothing a sunburn. Tiegan was happy to give that last use a try, as she had just the day before gotten the worst sunburn of her life:

I bought some ground achiote at the shop afterwards, and am planning …

Kids' Corner: Spiced Peaches

Every summer Miss Katherine would pick bushels of peaches and preserve them in jars with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and other spices which she kept secret. The jarred peaches would last all winter. They probably would have lasted a lot longer than that, but they were always eaten by the end of winter. ~from Holes, by Louis Sachar
It's been a long time since our last Kids' Corner, because it turns out our kids are pretty busy with playing piano and baseball and school and theater and karate and friends. But here we are with today's featured author, Jonas Trach:

Jonas is a ten-year-old boy who will be starting fifth grade in September. He likes to show off his karate skills, sometimes in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Below is his account of making spiced peaches, which were inspired by Miss Katherine's prize-winning spiced peaches in the book Holes, by Louis Sachar. 
(He asked us about making these months ago, and now that the peaches are in, we could finally give it a …

Cherry Bounce, Part 2

Yesterday I started making Cherry Bounce by soaking our foraged chokecherries in water overnight. Now that they are done soaking, it's time to finish mixing up our ingredients for this colonial-era cordial. We're ready to move on.

Step three: Drain the chokecherries, reserving 1 cup of the soaking liquid:

As you can see, what was plain water yesterday is now a lovely cherry red color. It doesn't taste like much of anything yet, but it sure is pretty.
Step four: Add the reserved liquid plus 2 cups of sugar to the chokecherries:

Because we are in the height of pickling season, I didn't have an available container large enough for a quart of chokecherries plus a quart of rum and all that sugar. Instead, I used four wide-mouth, quart-sized mason jars, which meant I had to further divide down the recipe to have tiny proportions of the ingredients. This is a really easy way to do it, though, and is perfect if you only have a small amount of fruit or just want to give it a tr…

Cherry Bounce, Part 1

Do you have one of these in or near your yard? If you have lots of little purple berries getting squished underfoot on your sidewalk or driveway, or are hearing lots of birds squabbling in the early morning, look up. You might notice some of these: 

This is a chokecherry tree, a native cherry tree with small, tart fruit. (Tart is probably an understatement,  or at least is only accurate when they are very ripe, as the ones in the picture are. ) Some people call them pin cherries or bird cherries. 
These trees are kind of weedy, and we have several. One is a bushy monster near the fire hydrant out front, and the several more are taller and more obviously tree-like, but are technically on the neighbor's property along the line our driveways share.
But lots of the long, willowy branches hang over the fence onto our side of the driveway, and that's good news for us, since you can use these guys to make a traditional colonial cordial called Cherry Bounce.
If you do any internet re…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Car Registration

Big news! By the end of September, our trusty Ford Focus will no longer be with us.

Once upon a time, we got a great deal on this car (used) when we were in a pinch (thanks, Rockingham Toyota!). That was back when it was only five or six years old, and when it was shiny and had just 17,000 miles on it. 
Fast forward to today: The car is now a somewhat ornery adolescent about to reach its fifteenth birthday, and it has just over 140,000 miles on it. It's running well and looks pretty good (if you don't look at the children's crumb-filled back seat), but that's thanks to us keeping up with the maintenance. 
Getting rid of this car allows us to, among other things,
Eliminate the registration renewal fee for the second car.

This car's registration expires at the end of September, and we will not be renewing it. We will also not be replacing the car, thanks to Kirk's new job in town. Instead of driving a half hour to Lawrence every day for work, he will now merely n…

At Long Last: Corn!

If you've been following this blog through several growing seasons, you are already well-acquainted with our difficulties raising sweet corn. It's not an easy crop to grow in small patches because it's pollinated by the wind. This means that you need a lot of it to make sure that enough of it gets pollinated to be worthwhile — usually the ones around the edges are a loss. But if your ratio of edge to interior is too high, you're not going to get much corn. We dealt with a severe failure to pollinate back in 2012, and I think last year's crop, though improved, suffered from this as well. 
And let's not forget our friends the squirrels. They are the worst
So, given all these troubles, we agreed that this year would be the last chance for corn. If we couldn't get a decent crop, we wouldn't bother saving any space for it in next year's garden plan. We got a new variety — "Mystique" from Johnny's Seeds — and planted just one 4' x 8&#…

Welcome Back, Gardener

Going to Central America and leaving the garden behind for a month in high summer is a bit like living out one of those traveling at the speed of light theoretical paradox deals. You know, like the astronaut who gets sent to Saturn and it feels to her like it only took a couple hours to get there and back, but when she returns, her grandkids are her own age or something.

Well, it's kind of like that.
When I left, I was coaxing some fall seedlings along. Cilantro, radishes, carrots, kale, and beets were newborns. The zinnias were only just beginning to bloom, and everything was tucked into neatly into its assigned, geometrically ordered quadrangular patch. 
And here's what it looks like now:

The fall babies are stout and strong, and need thinning.

The zinnias are in full bloom, and now stand about eye-high in the cutting border.
As for our obedient and orderly July garden, let's take an aerial view tour for old time's sake:

The swing set quadrant. I could go ahead and …

How to Make Chocolate, Part 2

The last time we talked about chocolate, we saw how it grows, and how the Bribrí people of Costa Rica ferment and dry the beans in the traditional way. The next step is the roasting of the cocoa beans:

This, according to our host, Priscilla, is done in very small batches — only three kilos at a time. The beans are placed into a pot over open flame and stirred while they roast to make sure that they are evenly heated and none end up burnt. They start out a reddish brown color, but they are dark brown by the time they are finished:

At this point, they smell just like what we are used to — good and chocolatey. Once the beans are cool, they are placed in a burlap sack and crushed with a heavy pole. When poured out of the sack and back into a bowl, the chaffy bits encasing the bean blow away, leaving behind whole and crushed cocoa beans:

The crushed beans are then run through a mill, which removes any remaining chaff and grinds them into a paste:

The paste can be used for cooking as-is, bu…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Loan Payoff

Big, exciting news! Throughout the Trim the Fat Tuesday project, I've been applying all the savings to making extra-large payments on our car loan. Well, the August payment is the very last one we'll make.

It's paid off!

And that means that we can

Save the monthly car payment and put it in the bank instead!

This is huge. First, it's proof positive that all of these little budget cuts have been worth the effort. No one can tell me that a few dollars here and there doesn't add up — it definitely does! We paid off this loan three years early, and that's saving us a ton of money.
$346 per month, to be exact. With this big bump to our monthly savings, we'll be tackling the next big loan payoff: the mortgage. We won't be paying that off in three years or anything, but I'm hoping to keep adding lots of little budget cuts to it and eventually get it done in the next 10 years. 
Because when that's paid, I can stop working.
Let's do this!
Savings per m…

How to Make Chocolate, Part 1

While staying in the small town of Cahuita on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, I visited a small cacao farm just to the southwest of Puerto Viejo. This farm is called the Jungles of Talamanca, and it's owned and operated by a Bribrí family who offers tours and tastings of the chocolate they make by hand. Blink and you could miss the sign:

The Bribrí is an indigenous group of people who have lived along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica since pre-Columbian times. They live on reservation lands, although many also have inter-married into the local community. Their language is now taught in all schools within the reservation's limits, along with Spanish and English. According to our host, Priscilla, one reason that the Bribrí culture has remained largely intact is that when Spanish missionaries arrived to convert them, the missionaries decided that many Bribrí purification rituals were similar to those in the Old Testament. Although the missionaries stressed that purification …