can – can

I suddenly got the urge to start canning while spending the summer in the country. The most food preserving I’d ever done was to freeze some herbs. We live in a metropolis where you can buy produce from all over the world anytime you want. Its not in the culture to think about “putting things by” to get you through the winter. But living in such close proximity to farms and eating their bounty all summer has put me in another frame of mind. It’s a different story when you slice a zucchini and it is so fresh that you can see it sweat little beads of plant juice and down the road you see beef cattle eating grass in sunny pastures. Oona said “Mom, think about how much better your tomato sauce would be if you made it with farm tomatoes and basil from your garden”. I thought about cooking comfort foods in the deep winter. I thought about opening a mason jar of August tomatoes and how its essence would return me to this summer and how the smell of hay and rainstorms and the sound of goat bells would come back to me on a cold dark night.

I thought about Frank’s penchant for eating slimy canned peaches as a midnight snack and that made me think about canning some more. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead he spooned out fragrant slices of summer peaches packed by my hand when he was sitting at his computer late at night? It would be love in a dish.

Our dear friends Beth and her daughter Nipu invited me and Oona to go peach picking at Fix Brothers Farm in Hudson, New York. The peach orchard was at the top of a mountain with spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the day was hot and sunny. It smelled good and I didn’t want to leave. The danger in those “you pick ems” scenarios is that it is so much fun and you pick so fast that you pick too much and you get sticker shock when they weigh your bag (this happens when you are picking with kids and you don’t want to spoil their fun). Unlike the time we went apple picking when the girls were younger, this time we paced ourselves. We picked only what we could reasonably pay for and preserve and enjoyed the day on peach mountain. We set our peaches on the kitchen table to fully ripen and the trailer was redolent of peaches for days.

Fix Brothers Orchard in Hudson, NY

Fix Brothers Orchard in Hudson, NY

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I bought a canning kit by Ball that had the canner and all of the handy accessories I would need. I found a book on canning at the library but the author wrote so extensively about the dangers of bacteria and food poisioning that I returned the book and instead bought the Ball book on canning. It was in a magazine format and more optimistic and user friendly for the beginning canner. A chef I know told me that many people are put off by canning because they fear killing their families. I think of course the warnings must be made, but probably a lot of that is lawyers talking. I canned in a small kitchen in our off-grid trailer with no running water and my friend Martha who is a canning fiend, proclaimed my vacuum seals as good to go.

Here are full instructions on how to can food

I processed the peaches according to the instructions in the Ball Book. The peaches were packed raw and instead of a plain simple sugar syrup or water, I canned them in a basil syrup. Here is the recipe with the adaptation of the basil syrup.

2 to 3 pound peaches per quart
lemon juice (or powdered citric acid which is vitamin C)
Basil infused simple syrup

Make the basil simple syrup by boiling 5 1/2 cups of water and adding a fistful of fresh basil leaves. Turn off the water and steep the leaves for about 20 minutes. Remove the basil leaves, re-heat the water and dissolve 2 1/2 cups of sugar in the basil water and keep it hot. This was enough syrup for 10 quarts of peaches.

Peel the peaches and toss the slices in lemon juice (or something that has a lot of vitamin C) to prevent their discoloration.Pack peaches into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Ladle hot basil syrup over the peaches leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust two piece caps. Process quarts for 30 minutes in a boiling water canner.

I also made a plum jam from plums harvested by Paulina and Nico, local farmers who sell produce at their roadside stand.

The plum jam was easy and filled the kitchen with a marvelous scent. You do not have to peel the plums, only chop them up. I used the recipe for Dawson Plum Jam from the Ball Book. I don’t know what kind of plums we had, all I know is that they were dark red inside and beautiful. I added lavender from my herb garden to this. I do not normally like flowery food, but this combination was a good idea. Here is my adaptation of the plum jam recipe to include the lavender.

5 cups coarsely chopped plums (about 2 pounds)
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
a few springs of fresh lavender

Combine the plums, sugar, lavender sprigs and water in a large pot. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. I removed the lavender sprigs after about 15 minutes of boiling. Cook rapidly and stir constantly as the water will cook down and the plums will thicken. You don’t want the plums to stick and burn. Once it is thick and jammy, remove from heat. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Adjust two-piece caps. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.

There will be scones with lavender plum jam for brunch this winter.

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a country flea market

I love yard sales and country flea markets. The possibility of finding treasure and a good deal is irresistible. In the northern Catskills, yard sales seem to be an art form. Towns even hold community-wide yard sales that are like rural block parties with live music and the volunteer firemen barbecuing chickens on Main Street.

Every Sunday there is a Flea Market in the Town of Broome in Schoharie County. I am spoiled by this flea market. I don’t ever bother to go to any of the flea markets in New York City because I consider them to be overpriced and yuppified. The country flea market has a great mix of stuff. Real antiques and tools, handmade garden ornaments and old lace, garlic and tomatoes from someone’s garden. I find good stuff here.

Some of my favorite treasures found here are:

- A bright yellow garden hose for the day we have running water
– A garden tool that is shaped like a hoe but has spikes that is perfect for mixing compost into flower beds
– Old cast iron skillets that are smooth as glass inside so that you can fry an egg in it without sticking.
– Hand embroidered cotton pillowcases and linen dishtowels from the 50’s.
– A hand forged meat cleaver

schoharieCountyFleaMarketWS

BlackSmithSignFleaMarket

FrillyGlasswareFleaMarketRollingStoneAlbumFleaMarket

OldtoolsFleaMarket

PiesFleaMarket

rsz_butterickpatternfleamarket copy

MatchboxCaseFleaMarket

heather ridge farm – good food, good friends

I met Carol in April of 2011. It was the start of the college search for Oona in the spring of her junior year of High School. We had scheduled time for an interview for a summer internship at Heather Ridge Farm where animals are lovingly raised on pastures and they operate the Bees Knees Cafe which serves “fiercely local” and delicious food. A tall woman with beautiful curly hair cut in a pert bob and a wide smile welcomed us at the door of the old farmhouse that serves as the café and farm store. All the while smiling, she sat Oona down at one of the tables in the Bees Knees Café for her interview while I made myself scarce in the farm store. After the interview Carol invited us to visit the barn where the spring lambing season was underway. Farmer John (why are there so many farmers named John?) showed us around the maternity ward where we saw a newly born lamb still wet from birth.

Heather Ridge Farm and the Bee's Knee's Cafe

Heather Ridge Farm and the Bee’s Knee’s Cafe

Carol and John feed us with both the food they grow and their friendship. They give us advice about things that city folk don’t know about such as goat fencing. When Hurricane Irene devastated the area in August of 2011 and the roads off the mountain were washed away and the town was flooded, we ate their beef and chicken. They serve seasonal food, everything has its time and place. The following spring, again in April, I stopped by after driving up from the city on a Saturday afternoon for lunch. It was a week after the funeral of my only brother and I’d driven up to the trailer by myself just to get away and dig in the dirt. Carol served me up a bowl of Nettle soup. I’d never seen anything like it. It was an intense green and creamy, thick and very hot. On a small plate was a slice of homemade Irish bread smeared with the yellowest butter I’d ever seen. It was a grey day and I looked out of the farmhouse window to the view of the mountains shrouded in mist. The green soup warmed me to my toes. Its warmth was as soothing as a mother’s fingertips on your brow. The green soup was spring itself.

Morning farm chores, feeding the pigs

Morning farm chores, farm intern feeding the pigs

farm solar power

farm solar power

Devon beef cattle

Devon beef cattle

The Bees Knees Cafe's Chef Rob with his file cabinet smoker

The Bees Knees Cafe’s Chef Rob with his file cabinet smoker

the county fair

County fairs and summer go together. Lemonade and funnel cakes. Cotton candy and roller coasters. Here are some photos of our visit to the Sunshine Fair in Schoharie County in New York.

Sunshine Fair

Sunshine Fair

In the show ring - the dairy goats

In the show ring – the dairy goats

SunshineFairSchoharieCounty2

An old grain thrasher from the late 1800's on display

An old grain thrasher from the late 1800’s on display

The cow beauty parlor

The cow beauty parlor

New York State's Agriculture Commissioner, Schoharie County's own Richard Ball

New York State’s Agriculture Commissioner, Schoharie County’s own Richard Ball

A pretty Brown Swiss cow

A pretty Brown Swiss cow

the trailer

A 1976 Marlette mobile home, compact and apartment like, it sits on 20 acres of piney woods and meadow.

photo shot with the Hipstamatic app - Yuri 61 lens and Rasputin film

photos shot with the Hipstamatic app – Yuri 61 lens and Rasputin film

The previous owners brought the trailer in and used it as a hunting cabin. They tinkered with it and added things like the front porch, which is built of pieces of scrap wood, metal and cinderblock. The porch is wide enough to feel like a New York City stoop. All similarity ends there because the porch is draped with leafy Sweet Autumn Clematis vines and we have a visiting porcupine that likes to gnaw on the steps. The beds of Hosta that ring the trailer are in bloom now and buzzing with bees and hummingbirds. The tiny hummingbirds stick their heads inside the lilac colored flowers so deep that half their bodies disappear.

marletteTailer2

We have no running water so we pump from a well that is outfitted with an old-fashioned hand pump. The water bucket system flushes the toilet that is connected to a primitive septic system. The sinks and bathtub are connected to a grey water system where the water is flushed out to the back meadow. Only biodegradable soaps are used. Pumping water for the buckets is really good for your core and your triceps.

Bucket power

Bucket power

I’ve become really good at dishwashing without running water. Everyone, even guests are trained to remember which is their water glass and to be conservative about creating dishwashing volume. We grill a lot and make one-skillet meals. I use sturdy Bagasse dinner plates that are made from sugarcane waste and go straight into the compost bin. Marinating meats takes place inside zip lock bags.

The back meadow has a nice view of the woods. In June I like to sit on a lipstick red Adirondack chair and watch the light show that is fireflies. In August, we are lulled to sleep by the song of black crickets. Moss grows like a carpet in the shady parts of the back meadow and red squirrels chitter like monkeys in the pine trees.

adirondackChairs

We have been here for six weeks. This is the first time we are spending all summer here. I’m getting spoiled by the smell of the mountain air and the feel of grass under my feet. The dogs run free without collars on and chew meaty bones on the grass, their heads greasy with marrow. For the first time, I have seen the cornfields growing up from little green tufts in rows of dirt to what I see now where the stalks are over my head and topped with a cornflower.

cornfield

off the grid connections

We bought the piece of land nine years ago as refuge from our urban lives. A green and wild world in the Catskill Mountains of New York. We got it for a good price because we are off the grid. No electrical poles for a half-mile in either direction. We have a mobile home the size of an average New York City apartment so we feel comfortable within its confines.

no poles, no wires

no poles, no wires

We installed a solar system last summer and then we yearned for more connections. Namely, phone and internet. We don’t get a strong enough signal to use our cellphones. Year by year, the signal inched tantalizingly closer to us. The first year, we could sometimes make a call if we stood next to a chicken coop about a half mile up the road. It depended on the weather. Now the signal is just a quarter of a mile away. Our next door neighbor has two bars on an elevated spot on her land so we tried climbing ladders in different spots in our meadow and even went into the forest and climbed to the top an abandoned deer stand. Nada.

We are friends with a couple who live nearby and are also off the grid. They are fully connected with a landline and DSL. They became our advisors. They’d asked the phone company to put a box on the nearest pole and ran cable for a half mile to their solar powered cabin. And it worked.

In our town the phone company is independent and has been in existence since the late 1800’s. They understand rural folk, unorthodox situations and the desire for connectivity. The planner came and walked with me to the closest pole. That pole is on the land of our neighbor to the north about a quarter of a mile away from our mobile home. “Yes, we can put the box here”, he said, “but the cable is your responsibility in every way”. Our neighbor said “Yes, we will help you and you can connect using our pole, but we don’t want to see the cable, make sure you tap it down through the forest”. It is important to be neighborly in the backwoods. One hand washes the other. And people like to help.

Our neighbors Martha and Richard, the architects of this thing gave us their left over cable along with instructions about how to connect the pieces. The cable was like a ball of yarn to be unraveled along the road and then we had to splice the pieces together and house the connections in a waterproof casing. We were instructed to go to the electrical store in the next biggest town to find the waterproof housing. It was just me and Oona since our resident male (Frank) was out of town. Electrical store + do it yourselfers + females = Offensive Macho Bullshit. I started by being polite and humble – more flies with honey and all that. Oona, from her experience with male shopkeepers in feed stores, said “Ma, they don’t respect humble, you have to be assertive”. So I countered with “I’m the customer and I’m explaining to you what I need”. It worked. The grumpy guy went to the back and emerged with the pieces of plastic that would serve as the waterproof enclosures for our spliced cables.

cable1rev

On a brilliantly sunny afternoon we began the work of unspooling the roll of cable along the roadside so that we could connect the pieces and run it through the woods from our mobile home to our neighbor’s telephone pole. David and Lily, our upstairs neighbors in the Loisaida homestead and our 15 minutes away neighbor in upstate New York, stopped by and volunteered to help. Thankfully David took some photos because I was yelled at twice for stopping work to take photos for the blog.

cable photos - david schmidlapp

cable photos – david schmidlapp

I was nervous. I’d been working from home at the town library for the wireless. I had the schedule of hours of the libraries in three neighboring towns and had a folding lawn chair in the trunk after sitting for half a morning working on the stone steps of a closed library with my laptop using the wireless leaking from the building’s interior. It was stressful to duplicate the connectivity that one has in an office in New York City while being off the gird in the backwoods of New York State.

oona was in charge of the splicing

oona was in charge of the splicing

this houses the connected splice

this houses the connected splice

insulating foam for waterproofing

insulating foam for waterproofing

The nice guy from the independent phone company that is over one hundred years old arrived promptly to hook us up. I kept waiting for him to tell me what we were doing was not possible. But he waded calmly with me through waist high blackberry brambles to reach my neighbor’s telephone pole on a bright morning after a night of violent thunderstorms. When we reached our mobile home and he asked me where I would like the phone jack, my heart soared. I watched as he expertly drilled and connected and pulled a modem out of a box. I handed him the plain black phone I’d bought that requires no electricity. And then it rang.

internet tv via roku

internet tv via roku

 

work from home – home from work

Let’s reinvent the office. I don’t like going there. I’ve always preferred to work from home and have seized every opportunity to do so such as uncomfortable late pregnancies and when my children were babies. I don’t like the office with its distracting chatter and politics, fattening snacks and energy draining structure. When I’m at the office tethered to my desk from nine to six (because it is no longer nine to five), I procrastinate whenever time permits. I surf the net. I read Gawker and the Huffington Post. I play around on Pinterest during conference calls. I ache to be gone from there. My focus flits from one thing to the next with each comment or question from an office mate shouted from across the bullpen that is the open plan room.

Sitting at a desk is as bad for you as smoking

Sitting at a desk is as bad for you as smoking

When I work from home I am at peace with my work and I enjoy it. I wake at seven and instead of spending an hour and a half getting ready and getting to work, I am at work by 7:30 propped up in my comfortable bed with my laptop and a nice cup of coffee on the nightstand. I have a full hour and a half to concentrate without having to respond to incoming emails, IM’s or the phone. When I work from home, my breaks brighten my home life, my real life. I might get up from the desk, stretch and go to the kitchen to stir a pot of beans. I take a break by putting in a load of laundry or taking the dogs down to pee. On lunch break at the office I stand on line with strangers to pick up food and wait for the elevator with other strangers so that I can return to my desk and eat. At home, I can ride my bike to the market or walk over to the bank and run into a friend on the way and enjoy a nice chat or hear some neighborhood gossip.

This is my friend's swimming pond and I can work from there.

This is my friend’s swimming pond and I can work from there.

I’ve been given the opportunity to work from home this summer. Which means a hiatus from Loisaida NYC and a retreat to an off the grid mobile home in the Catskill Mountains, my rural homestead. We come here on weekends and for vacation in August. The locals call us “seasonal folk”. Frank installed a solar system last summer for our electricity, but there is no running water and our refrigerator is a cooler. I will be here for a solid two months working from home. Yes, I am home from work.