Perfect Christmas

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Who would have thought we’d be missing snow after last Winter? But alas, it is Christmas Eve and raining pretty steady. I tell the kids, if it were just a bit colder, it would be snow…
But I don’t mind. Christmas is in the heart, not contingent on any “just right” setting. Snow is nice, perfect decorations are fun to look at, a beautifully set table a joy to behold, but none if it necessary. We forget, our Holiday traditions are an amalgamation of countless Christmases past, not something that happened at any one place at any one time!
So relax: If you don’t get all the lights up this year, or the figgy pudding goes flat, or you never did quite get all 7 varieties of cookies baked, it’s ok. Something to aim for next year. Who wants a Holiday celebration to be identical every year?
Keep the focus on family, on Love, and Hope. Laugh at yourself, and enjoy others. Take pictures of the mishaps, as well as the “perfect” moments. You may find, in the coming years, that you enjoy those memories more, memories filed with laughter rather than stress.
If you find yourself thinking you “can’t wait for it to be over,” then you are living someone else’s Holiday. Take back ahold of it and make it yours. What do you want to be doing? Do it. Better to feel the Spirit and have fun!
Love and Blessings to all, and many Hopes for the New Year! ūüôā

The Warmth of Winter

Spectacular Winter sunrise

Spectacular Winter sunrise

This Winter seems relentless.  With the frigid temperatures and endless snowstorms, it can become challenging to keep everyone in good spirits.  I have found that pulling out some old-fashioned tricks has helped tremendously.

First of all, don’t forget to stop and look around.¬† Winter is beautiful, especially with lots of snow.¬† Some of the most amazing sunrises can be seen now, and grumpy tired children are instantly warmed and wakened with a view of the colors.¬† The heavy snows transform the landscape, rounding and hunching the evergreens and creating vast palettes with which the wind can toss and brush, revealing amazing patterns and textures on the surface of the snow.¬† wpid-IMG_20140206_104959_756_wm.jpg

When the weekend comes and boredom threatens to set in, bundle the kids up and go for a stroll outside.¬† One needn’t venture far, sometimes the most amazing things can be spotted right off the house or garage.

Icicles dancing

Icicles dancing

Cool icicles and frost patterns on windows are fascinating, and kids of all ages love to pluck down an icicle for themselves, as big a treat as a lollipop!

A small oak leaf left from Autumn, trimmed with frost

A small oak leaf left from Autumn, trimmed with frost

It is very helpful to connect with Nature to find the beauty and inner joy of this time of year.  Like the nighttime of every day, Winter is a time to rest and rejuvenate, to heal, to reflect in quiet time, to dream up hopes and aspirations anew for the coming Spring and Summer.  Take the time to notice the low and distant angle of the sunlight unique only to this time of year, to appreciate the crisp colors of the cold daylight sky, and the extra vividness of the starry  night sky.  Savor the absolute brilliance of the Full Moon illuminating a snow-covered landscape, as bright as daylight itself.  Stop and listen to the soft stillness of Winter, every sound muted by the soft blanket of snow surrounding us.  All this beauty is more than worth braving the cold to witness.

Our creek completely iced-over, a rare sight

Our creek completely iced-over, a rare sight

Common-place things become extraordinary in the winter landscape.  We live on the East Branch of Nanticoke Creek, a year-round stream.  Only in extremely cold winters such as this does it ice-over.  This year there is even a collection of 6-inch thick cakes of ice on the banks, jammed and piled together creating a mini arctic landscape.

Common things become extraordinary in the winter landscape.

Common things become extraordinary in the winter landscape.

The snow tells tale of an animal crossing, amazing that life continues even in the bitter cold

The snow tells tale of an animal crossing, amazing that life continues even in the bitter cold

It’s fun to spot and identify the different animal tracks in the snow.¬† It’s amazing that so many little creatures are able to endure the bitter cold temperatures, and we can appreciate our ability to seek shelter in the warmth of our homes.

When you do get back inside, you’ll find otherwise restless children calmed, refreshed, ready to enjoy the warmth of the home.¬† Now is definitely the time to break into the stash of all the goodies that have been put up for Winter use!¬† Canned salsas, chutneys and relished can come out with crackers to chips to create a quick snack, apples from the root cellar can be made into sauce or canned applesauce is warmed and enjoyed with cinnamon.

Finished sauce ready to eat

Finished sauce ready to eat

Frozen berries are made into syrup to jazz up pancakes or waffles, or baked into muffins and quick breads.  Extra milk from the cow?  Time for hot cocoa and homemade pudding!

Pancakes with blueberry syrup

Pancakes with blueberry syrup

These comforting activities in the kitchen add warmth and spirit to these cold days, as well as creating priceless memories for the children to pass on to the next generation.

Winter is cold, but it is also beautiful.  Without these colder days we might forget to appreciate the warmer days ahead.  Rather than feeling gloomy during these days, remember to find the fun parts of a snowy landscape, whether inside or out.

What are some of your favorite Wintertime activities?

Egg Season Repost

If you shop for your foods locally, you may have already noticed that eggs, like many other items, have a season, a time of greatest abundance.  And like other seasonal items, one is challenged to find ways to preserve the abundance for the times of scarcity.  This has been an age-old question, with some interesting solutions.

For our farm, eggs are abundant at this time of the year, early spring and summer.  Often the heat of August can cause the chickens to stop laying their eggs and go through the molting process, when they naturally drop all their feathers and grow a new set.  Obviously, the warmest weather is the best time for this, so that is when they do it.  But again, this means no eggs! (But hours of amusement watching naked chicken butts running around!)

So the trick is to somehow stash the eggs up while they are plentiful.  Storing eggs has limits, because a whole egg does not freeze well.  A thawed egg is still edible, one can no longer distinguish between the white and yolk, and they no longer froth if needed.  If you enjoy your eggs scrambled, they can be beaten and frozen raw, or cooked scrambled and then frozen.

Eggs can be hard-boiled and pickled, if you enjoy the unique taste.  Simply save the brine from store-bought or homemade pickles and drop in your own eggs.  Let them sit in the brine at least two weeks for best flavor.  Pickled eggs should be stored in a very cool, dark place, such as the refrigerator or proper pantry (below 40 degrees, F).

One of our favorite ways to store up extra eggs is to make homemade pasta.  European-style pasta is traditionally made from eggs, flour and salt.  Pasta can be thus dried or frozen and will keep for a while.  Make lots of batches of pasta while the eggs are abundant, and enjoy throughout the year.

      My pasta recipe is simply:

8 cups of flour

6 eggs

2 tsp salt

water, if needed to moisten

We mix ours with the dough hook, but a paddle will work fine.  It needs at least a couple of minutes of mixing to get the gluten strands going.  The dough should not be sticky when finished.  It can be rolled out by hand or put through a pasta roller.  Keep layers of pasta separated with floured wax or parchment paper, or they will re-combine.

Issac loves to cook and has his own pasta maker.

Fettuccine ready for the pot.

Homemade fresh pasta is boiled for a shorter time than dried.  Fresh pasta is done in under 5 minutes.  When it is finished it will float.  It is such a treat, much more filling than the pasta from the store.

Another old-time method for storing whole eggs is to bathe them in a substance called “water-glass”.¬† This is sodium silicate, and is used 1/3 cup¬†to 1 qt of boiled, cooled water.¬† Eggs must be unwashed (but wiped clean) and un-fertile.¬† Eggs can be stored immersed in the water-glass solution for up to three months under 40 degrees F.¬†¬† I have personally never done this, but have heard my elders talk of doing it with good results.

And of course, the best way to keep fresh abundant eggs from going to waste is to indulge is rich dishes and deserts that use many of them, such as mousse, sabayon, bread pudding, homemade pudding, Quiche, Carbonara, etc!

Please share your favorite recipes and methods of keeping extra eggs.  I would love to hear them.

A couple of good books with information about storing eggs and other foods:

Putting Food By, by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan and Janet Greene

The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest, by Carol Costenbader

As American As Applesauce

At Summer’s end, one of my favorite activities to do to welcome in the next season is collect apples from the trees around the farm and make applesauce.¬† This is a warm, memory-making tradition for children.

Apple trees dot the Upstate New York landscape

Apple trees dot the Upstate New York landscape

Here in New York, many of the country hillsides are covered with apple trees of various old-fashioned varieties, some whose names have been forgotten.  There are an array of colors and sizes, blending in with the Autumn leaves themselves.

"Wild" Apple trees

“Wild” Apple trees

Many of these apples seem undesirable for eating out of hand, planted long ago by farmers intending to make many of them into hard cider and vinegar to store for the winter.¬† (As a child I was told they were “crab apples”.¬† I know now this name belongs only to the cherry-sized ornamental apple trees from which one can also, by the way, make sauce).¬† But a number of the apples are sweet and delicious to eat, even if a little smaller in size than we are used to.¬†¬† Either way, they can be used to make country-fresh applesauce.

Autumn Bounty

Autumn Bounty

During a good apple year such as this, a great bounty can be collected driving about in search of abandoned trees along country roads, or if you have access to some land and folks happy to let you pick.¬† It is good to have a truck of some sort, for apples quickly add up in weight and volume.¬† It’s a great outdoor activity to take children out to pick apples, for they are agile to climb trees to reach the best fruits, and they are fearless in tasting and selecting the best varieties.

Amazing finds!

Amazing finds!

Once you’ve got a nice load of apples collected, or even if you grab some at your local market, you can make applesauce to enjoy now and preserve for use all winter.

Beautiful Fall colors

Beautiful Fall colors

Applesauce is easy to make using your crockpot.  If you have a food mill or grinder to remove skins, no need to peel the apples before cooking.  If you do not, and will mash them by hand or in a food processor, peel the apples first then cook.  Cut the apples free from their cores, either by using an apple-corer, paring into slices and removing the seeds, or just cutting most of the flesh free from the middle.  Fill the crockpot full of apple wedges, add about an inch of water in the bottom, and cover, cooking on low until they are totally soft, about 6hrs.

When the apples are soft, mash them with a grinder or food mill to remove the skins, and sweeten to desired taste.¬† How much sugar is needed will depend upon how sweet the apples were to start and which sweetener is used, whether sugar, honey or syrup.¬† It seems better to add the sugar after the apples have cooked, rather than adding it to the raw apples.¬† The cooking time and temperature of the crockpot will caramelize the sugar, adding a darker color and muting somewhat the sweetening effect.¬† If using honey or maple syrup, this over-cooking can bring out some of the more “earthy” aspects, which is not always a pleasant experience.¬† :/

Using my tomato press to grind and separate the skins

Using my tomato press to grind and separate the skins

After mashing to a smooth consistency, return to low heat on the stove to add the sweetener.¬† Add cinnamon, if desired.¬† You can also add raisins, nuts, other dried fruit, brandy, whatever the occasion calls for.¬† This is wonderful enjoyed warm or chilled to enjoy cold.¬† It’s a great snack for the lunchbox and after school.¬† Don’t forget this applesauce can be used to bake your favorite breads and muffins, too.

Finished sauce ready to eat

Finished sauce ready to eat

Fresh applesauce can be stored in the fridge for up to a week, or it can be canned to use all Winter.  I hot pack the sweetened sauce in quarts and process in a water-bath canner for 10 mins.  Or can some pints for gifts or a healthy addition to the lunchbox..

Remember, anyone can do this, even if apples are gathered at a u-pick, at farmers market or from the grocery.  It is so easy, delicious, and comforting, it is a great way to create family memories for children while begining to build excitement for the newly-arrived Fall season.

Why I Need Winter

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Pigs nestled in their bed of hay

It finally looks like Winter out.  On March 1st.  Better late than never!

There has been much lively discussion on the Media and in Real Life about the weather this Winter, or lack thereof.  Winter sports enthusiasts have been quite disappointed, folks with an eye on their heating bills have not.  Mud season has been in a sort of suspended animation, and the kids have learned that near-frozen mud can be just as slick as ice.  It has been a Winter unlike any I can remember.

The farmer in me wants to be alarmed, for Winter not found within its normal confines means it’s on the loose and can be found lurking about at any time, hindering growing plans. ¬†But the impartial observer in me says all the seasons fluctuate in duration and intensity, why not Winter for once? ¬†It’s natural for all elements of our environment to vary.

So why am I missing those blustery, frozen days?  The Internal Clock, I suppose.  My body, brain and being are all used to taking a break during those dark, cold months.  My metabolism is used to a respite.  My landscape is used to a respite.  My summer wardrobe is used to a respite. The load of paperwork in my office is used to me taking a respite from the field to catch up on it.

My kids are used to a season of confinement and constraint, of focus on school studies and building up dreams of what to do with next Summer’s freedom. ¬†They are used to those sledding forays from which they invariably return frozen, no matter how much clothing and accessories I pile on. ¬†There has been markedly less hot cocoa this season.

This is where we live. ¬†In the Northeast. ¬†Where there’s Winters. ¬†And snow. ¬†And cold. ¬†We need these things to better appreciate the sun, heat and activity of Summer. ¬†Our bodies are accustomed to ¬†the down-time, and just like the plants and flowers who subsist on photosynthesis, we find that it is not only the light, but the periods of dark that are necessary for proper¬†metabolism.

It is in the Darkness we find beauty in the Light.  It is in the darkest of Winter when we learn the true meaning of Faith, to hold fast to the knowledge that no matter how cold and dark, Spring must surely come.

We will again by Summer’s end take the warmth and light for granted, and be ready for another break in the hard work of farming. ¬†We wonder then how we will ever go through a growing season again, the hours so long and the list of jobs endless. ¬†We will be ready¬†once more for a purging of cold, of stillness, of waiting. It is in this crucial time we are recharged, and motivated anew to take on another season of the triumph and tragedy that is farming.

I would not have it any other way.

Christmas is almost here…

Yes, it its that time of year, despite best intentions it is but a couple days before Christmas.  Ready or not.

I know, because I have been reading and hearing a steady stream of complaints in person and on-line. ¬†Surprizingly, many people “hate” wrapping resents. ¬†Or shopping for gifts. ¬†Or baking cookies. ¬†Or decorating the tree. ¬†Bah, humbug!

I never cease to wonder at these folks.  How could they have come to hate the work of Christmas?  Maybe a few have a legitimate reason:  bad childhood memories, or loved-ones lost too near Christmas day.  But the overwhelming few are just complaining.  About being Merry.  And sharing. And celebrating.  Or is this not what they are doing?  Perhaps this is the issue.

I will certainly admit, battling other crazed and hostile shoppers in a store is not alot of fun. ¬†But I am always so grateful that I have the money to spend of gifts for people that are very important to me. ¬†When gift-giving, I remain focused on the recipient, I try to get them something that they will delight in, and something they can use often and think fondly of me. ¬†I find that viewing it through this¬†lens, rather than that of what’s on sale, or does everybody else have to have¬†makes¬†it a much more meaningful and enjoyable experience.

As a child, I delighted in wrapping presents.  My kids do now, and I am so glad.  Wrapping gifts means you have gifts to give, and that you are soon to delight someone.  The very colors and textures of the papers, ribbons and bows are enough to get one in the Christmas Spirit!  I recall sitting for hours when I was young, mesmerized by the reflection of the blinking lights on the tree off the dazzling packages below.

Christmas is so special because of the foods.  Cookies and pastries that do not appear until this time are always a welcoming site.  Warm drinks in beautiful glasses, with special treats like marshmallows or whipped cream are so comforting.  These foods  prepare us to desire for the cooler temperatures about to settle in, so as to properly enjoy these gifts of the Season.  Taking the time to prepare these mementos is yet another gift to give to loved-ones, special treats that cannot be gotten at the store.

¬† ¬† ¬†And the tree! It’s arrival always announces the new Christmas season. ¬†It is the place to display family memories, with ornaments made by children (or the parents as children), or of travels, and of special¬†occasions¬†gone by. ¬†We always get a real tree, as nothing beats its aroma and texture, the task of finding the “hole” to place against the wall, and the annual tradition of finding just the right one together, as a family.

Long ago, when so many of these cultural Holiday traditions were created and sustained, life was different, indeed.  Daily life was a little more hands-on work, transportation was sparser and much slower-paced, so often folks lived in relative isolation from each other in the countryside.  And life in cities was very removed from nature, trees and growing things much harder to come by.  The Holidays meant a break from all this:  When folks in rural areas traveled to come together,  candles lighting the way and welcoming guests from far off.  People in towns surrounded themselves with greenery, spices, flowers, all sorts of living things they missed in their daily lives away from the farm.

And the signing! ¬†Caroling was not only a way to spread Christmas cheer and tell the Story of the Season, but also a way to build Community. ¬†Children strained their little ears, practicing in secret and trying so hard to learn the songs. ¬†Older children helped their younger siblings. ¬†Finally mastered them was a sort of coming-of-age, a¬†tangible¬†part of taking one’s place in the group, feeling ¬†fulfilled and accepted. ¬†Something children are missing out on today.

Our new American culture of living everyday like it’a a party has tapped out the true Spirit of the Holiday Season. ¬†We are ¬†bombarded with “special” everyday. ¬†And many of our Christmas “treats” ¬†appear to be able to be bought at the store. ¬†Many take for granted the¬†original¬†work and meaning behind what have become mundane things.

Maybe it is because, as a Farmer, I live closer to the land and to the natural rhythms of the Year.  We really do live all Winter on what we were able to produce all Summer.  Christmas time does mean for us a break in the work, the first chance in many months to see and connect with friends.  And yes, we have set aside our best cuts of meats, favorite items from the garden and begin baking special treats.

But, gee, I don’t know…. ¬†I think Christmas does still live in the Heart, and than anyone can find their own reason to keep this time special. ¬†Gratitude and Appreciation are the only ingredients needed to remind us why we celebrate at this time of year, and to remind us to hope and look forward to the next.

I love Christmas!  And I wish Peace and Love to all of you.

Merry Christmas!

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