Welcome to Growbox Hill

Welcome to Growbox Hill
Welcome to Growbox HIll!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Canning tomatoes

Tis the season for some more canning.. Fa la la la, for winter cooking...

Picked up 10 pounds of tomatoes the other day- had to let them sit a couple days to ensure they were all perfectly ripe. Now they are 7 pint and a half jars, and 5 half pint jars of canned tomatoes. I could have probably done a 6th half pint, but I didn't throw the extra jar in for sanitizing, oops.

10 pounds ripe tomatoes
Bottle of lemon juice
Salt- optional
Jars- 7 pint and a half, 6 half pint. 
Biggest stockpot for big jars
Smaller stockpot for cooking tomatoes and to can the half pint jars
Smallest stockpot for blanching- wash out and reuse for keeping heat on tomatoes for second round
1 large bowl for icebath
1 large bowl to hold the tomatoes after shocking
1 small pot for heating lids in water
cutting board and knife
jar lifter, cap magnet, something to disturb air bubbles out
damp towel, to wipe your jars with
large dishtowel, to lay like a tablecloth on your counter to work on- there's lots of water splashing about.
White vinegar- helps keep mineral deposits from sticking to the jars if you have hard water, this goes into the bathwater.


Prepare your tomatoes. Get boiling water going in the smallest stockpot, and set up a big bowl with icewater. Have the second large bowl empty and ready too. Have your canner prepped with the big jars at well, but don't put it on the stove yet, it will just get in your way.
Score the bottoms of your tomatoes with a sharp knife in an X- this helps slip the skins.
Plunge the tomatoes a few at a time into the pot, and let sit for 30-60 seconds, just until the skins start to crack. Then plunge into the icewater to let them chill out for a moment.
As you are rotating in your tomatoes and icebathing them- pull the cooled ones out of the icebath and into that empty bowl. Once you are done, dump the icewater- you will be using this bowl again.
After you have blanched and shocked all your tomatoes, time to prep them for canning.
First, slip off all the skins- toss the tomatoes into the bowl that held the icewater. Trust me on this, it's way easier to slip the skins and get them all off before you start chopping into the tomatoes than it is to do it while chopping.
Second, after you have slipped all the skins, proceed to knifework. Core, quarter, and cross quarter the tomatoes. If there are any icky spots, now is the time to cut them out. As you chop them up, toss them into smaller stockpot- it will get filled! After several tomatoes, you can turn the heat on to medium low to get the tomatoes started, and mash them a bit with a potato masher. Keep chopping a few and mashing in a little till all the tomatoes are cut up. Remove the pot from the handy front burner spot to the back burner, and keep the tomatoes steaming but not quite burbling, stirring with the masher.
Now put your canner onto the stove and hit it with high heat. It will take a while for it to really get going and sanitize the jars, and the tomatoes take a while too to start softening and breaking down.
When your pot with the jars hits boiling, turn up the heat a bit under the tomatoes to really get them burbling good and hot for canning up. 
Once your jars are sanitized, remove them from the water and allow to air dry for the couple moments it takes. Then place 2 Tablespoons lemon juice into each jar. Add 1 teaspoon salt, optional.
Now fill, debubble, wipe, and lid jars in standard canning fashion.
Once they are all filled, drop them into your big pot, and set the timer for 45 minutes. This is the time given to quarts.
On to half pints...
Scoop out all the rest of the tomatoes into your smallest stockpot to keep it on heat till you are ready to use. Scrub out your smaller stockpot right quick and set up your half pint jars in it, and sanitize.
Pull your jars, let air dry.. Then 2 teaspoons of lemon juice into each. 1/2 teaspoon salt, optional.
Fill just like the big jars.
Place into the pot, and set the timer for 40 minutes. This is the time for pint jars.

Doing jars in the pots in rotation means you can keep going, and don't have to wait around for the big pot to be free.

Don't forget- when using off sized jars, or smaller jars than suggested- Use the next step up in time. For example, use pint time for half pint jars, quart time for pint and a half jars. DO NOT step up jars and add time for this. Better to over time with this than guess and be under time.

Lemon juice is a critical ingredient here. Tomatoes are one of the higher acid foods, yep. But not quite high enough on it's own to be completely safe without the addition of lemon juice. Botulism kills folks. If the tomatoes are too acidic when being used, add a bit of sweetener when cooking up- I generally use either plain white sugar or molasses depending on what I'm cooking.

This is what 10 pounds of tomatoes looks like all canned up and cooling. The box in the background is the box I picked up the tomatoes in. This was taken while still hot, I've taken off the rings for them to cool overnight. In the morning, they will get wiped down, labeled, and the rings loosely screwed back on for the pantry shelf. Why am I putting the rings back on this time? Because on the bottom shelf they are more likely to get banged, and the rings will protect from damage or accidental seal popping that way. Loosely screwed so that if the seal does break, the ring does not hold in a possible re-seal. And if a jar gets knocked over and unseals, less chance of total dumping in the pantry, lol.

As a side note, I now have enough pint and a half jars on the bottom shelf that I have found it necessary to use the boxes the jars came in for storage. And I now have empty boxes that need filling.

Other diddlydo's today...
Last night I put the last two zucchini shredded up onto the dehydrator. It only took up 2 trays, so I chopped up the tail end of the celery before it went ick, and yep, trying once again the celery growing thing- I forgot to water the last one and it died, lol. I also sliced up three big onions while they were still good and filled the last three trays with them. So a bit more for the pantry instead of the compost pile, yay!
I cleaned out the crunchy corner of the pantry today- We had a handful of boxes crackers- a little bit in each, and all stale. None of them bad, but kind of past fresh cracker eating action. So I spread them all out over a couple lipped cookie sheets, toasted them in a 350 oven for 15 minutes or so to toast and unstale them, swapping them out halfway through, then ground them up in my mini-processor to crumbs. The result smells wonderful! I used a recycled coffee can to store them in the pantry.

What will I use these for, and why didn't I just toss them for the birds? Reading up a lot lately has led me to knowing processed starch bits humans consume in general isn't very good for wildlife. A nice little junk food sometimes. And I figured stale bread makes good bread crumbs, so why not cracker crumbs? Yep, it's a little chunky- if I want the grind finer later I can always grind some more. And cracker crumbs can be used for most other crumb applications in cooking.

As a total aside in yard stuff.. I dumped out and cleaned out the counter bucket for the compost pile recently. When I dug in a hole in the newly dumped pile of horse poo in the compost area.. I noticed heat and steam coming out of the pile!
And I seriously need to weed down that area- the new infusion of plant food has really driven the plants crazy. I will have a mound of holy shit come springtime. And now I'm really getting a decent feel for what we do in kitchen scraps for feeding worms. And sheesh, now I know I do need insulation on the worm boxes to proceed.
I need to do a bunch of cleanup in the yard actually. To the firepit and the compost heap. Now that the goodly neighbor has offered up a fixed tractor wagon for me to use, I think some cleanup will go faster. We still need to save up and get one ourselves, but this makes some yard stuff much easier. Several barrows is great exercise, but still..

Saturday, July 27, 2013

And summer marches on

Last night was lovely. I had a hankering for chinese, so we got carry out from Moo's and ate out on the picnic table. The weather was perfect. I so love it out here, I never want to leave. There is something incredibly peaceful and satisfying just from the simple activity of eating outside here. 

Got the rest of the yard mowed today. While wandering around picking up and fallen tree bits that might interfere with mowing, I noticed both of the new suet cages were gone off the pine tree. I was only able to find one of them under the tree, I have no idea what happened to the other one. I'm guessing some really hungry critter hauled it off somewhere?
The neighbor came by while I was mowing out the keyhole in the sanctuary. He offered to mow the whole sanctuary, but I had to tell him no, I was leaving it wild on purpose for the critters. But we got to talking about yardwork, and he offered to let me use one of their little wagons to hitch onto the back of my lawnmower to make hauling stuff around the yard easier. Woot! Not that I don't love using my wheelbarrows and it's good exercise.. But sometimes I get wiped out, and can't quite do all the hauling that needs to be done. 
I should have been a good kid and gotten more yardwork done today- hauled the rest of the trimmed cedar down to the pit, start on some other trimming that needs to be done.. and a billion other things. But I said fuck it, I want to do some more berry picking. Took the 2 gallon bucket with me this time. I only got around half full when it started sprinkling- figured it was Mama N's way of telling me it was time to quit. I picked 5 pounds of wild blackberries, yay! The juice this time is going to be used to make syrup. I used 2 cups of water to start with- to help keep the berries from icking out on the bottom before they started breaking down. I tried a different method this time- just using a strainer to get out the main pulp stuff. Puree in the blender first. Thought I might save my hands some staining.. But yeah, that lasted 2 rounds. Left too much juice behind, and I'm going to have to strain the result anyway. So back to no puree and just straining through cheesecloth in the first place again.
I was loving hanging out back there today. There were lots of bumble bees and honey bees out on the the little weedy thistle looking flowers that are all in bloom among the blackberries. Of course I was careful around them and lost several moments just watching them do their business. There were lots of little moths and some butterflies that were floating all around. Stunningly beautiful all in all.
And EEEPPPP!! When I got back in from picking, there was a big ole box on my desk with a happy birthday and smiley face on it- Inside was a really nice 15 inch handled baking stone! Woot! My husband is the most awesome husband ever!! He had ordered it a while back, and it came in. It frigging rocks!

Happy Saturday :)
I made wild blackberry syrup this morning. I yielded 7 cups of juice yesterday- probably would have been a full 8 had I been smart and just gone with the squeezing in the cheesecloth in the first place. But oh well. Most of the syrup recipes out there call for more sugar than juice- I wasn't too keen on that, so I decided to use a 1:1 ratio of juice to sugar. The resulting syrup is a little thin, but that's ok- I can use it in drinks or as a breakfast syrup anyway. I ended up with 9 12oz jars by the time I was done. I have one more small round of picking to go- I want to freeze some up for later use in berry preserves. I might still be able to get back out to Krohne's for late season strawberries, I should probably call them and find out what they got- I might be making up a batch of berry preserves sooner rather than later!
Had to chase into town for cat supplies. While I was at Meijer, I picked up two boxes of pint canning jars- I know darn well apple and pears are almost ripe, and I'm running low on 12 oz jars. Still have plenty of the big jars, but hell, I ain't trying to can up jelly in those things. Though I will use a handful of them to make applesauce. And I think perhaps apple juice too. I got the jars for it, and heaven knows I'll have the apples for it!
Drove around looking for the farmers stands- for all that I saw several of them this spring before season, do ya think I could find any today? Nope. I must have taken a different route this spring than I did today- only hit the couple of them that are big places. Picked up 10 pounds of tomatoes- those are going to get canned up in a couple big jars for winter chili use. I will probably end up picking up a couple more cartons before the season is over since all my tomatoes pretty much entirely puked out.  I was also able to pick up a bunch of zucchini super cheap. I shredded up what would fit into the dehydrator and now they are drying up for the pantry. Still got a couple left over that will go into the next batch. 

But it's time to go make some dinner- I picked up some pork chops out of the clearance case, and some lovely pittypans to saute.. Some mashed potatoes and we are all set, yum!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Blackberries coming in...

So I was gone over the weekend, paid a visit back to my hometown. Got to see friends and family, eat lots of great food, got a whole handful of really nice birthday presents. Got a fantastic hand crafted garlic roaster- it can handle 3-5 heads depending on the size of the heads. Heh, when I saw it in the shop, the shopkeeper pointed out they had actual roasters- that could handle one head. What I was looking at was really supposed to be for nuking up omelets or steaming veggies. So maybe I will end up using my garlic roaster for those applications too. Roasted up a couple heads of garlic yesterday, and ended up eating up a whole head of garlic on crackers last night- devine!
Driving back in late Monday evening, I noticed the yard seriously needs mowing again. The grass isn't all that tall, it's all the weeds sending up their pretty yellow blossoms that makes mowing a requirement. Yesterday was just a rest day- My feet were killing me from being on them all weekend and I had some serious blisters. And restless sleep and all the activity socializing really took it right out of me. Took a three hour nap in the afternoon, and still was fast asleep before midnight and slept in rather late this morning.

So it was time to go check out the garden. And damn it, the containers are irking the hell out of me. Without the drainage holes, too much water. With the drainage holes, never enough water, WTF. So I think I'm going to try some fall planting and see how it goes, but after the season is over, I'm going to dump out the buckets entirely so I can mix the compost with either soil or peat moss to help get the right balance of water retention. At this time I think the only crop I will really get is the green and yellow beans- bummer. But I did pick another three pounds of beans today, yay! Those are now cut up and in the freezer :)
The raspberries are pretty much done- I picked a whole dozen of them, lol. The mulberries are slowing down too, enough so that I don't think it will be worth it to keep picking them for the dozen or so maybe that I will get each time.
The apples are pears are looking good as hell- I think I may have my hands full with making fruit sauce, jelly, and drying soon enough. I'd like to think perhaps we will start pressing cider this fall, but let's face it, it's pretty damn unlikely that we will have a press or the carboys required for fermenting by that time. But a lot of the fruit is looking really good for other processing.
And since the raspberries and mulberries were almost puked out for the season, and a week had gone by since the last time I checked- I went out to the back 40 to check blackberries. And yeppers they are coming into season seriously. I picked three pounds today, and only stopped because I ran out of room in the container I brought! I'll go back out in a few days and just bring one of the two gallon buckets with me. That way I can pick as much as I want and still have room to soak them when I get back to the house. And so cool- something landed on my hand, and I shook it- it landed on my berry container- and it turned out to be a big ole brown grasshopper! He hung out on my container for most of my berry picking before hopping off again. Three pounds of berries equaled 12 cups of berries. I added 2 cups of water to the pot and mashed the berries real well. Brought the mess up to a simmer for about 15 minutes total, let it cool, then strained it through a cheesecloth to get just the juice, which yielded out to 5 cups. Heh, my hands were rather pink for a while.
Had to make up a fresh batch of hummingbird nectar- got home and the stuff that was out there was looking cloudy- not surprising considering the temps we had into the weekend.

And it was another glorious morning here at Growbox Hill!
Made the wild blackberry jelly this morning.... This is the recipe I used, it yielded 4 1/2 12 oz jelly jars.
3 3/4 cups blackberry juice
4 1/2 cups sugar
1 box pectin- I use the pink box sure-jell

Bring the juice up to heat, and stir in pectin.
Bring up to a boil while stirring.
Add in your sugar, and keep stirring till it comes to a full boil.
Let boil for 1 minute while still stirring.
After 1 minute, take off the heat and allow to sit for a minute or so to let it settle down.
Skim off the foam- I threw it into a little container and tossed it into the fridge, yum.
Ladle up into your jars. Use a funnel, and leave 1/2 inch headspace
Wipe the jar lip well with a damp towel
Put on your cap, and screw on your ring- but not too tightly.
Process in a boiling water bath for 8 minutes. An 8 oz jar calls for 5 minutes, I added on 3 minutes because I was using 12 oz jars.

I decided to use my large stock kettle this time for processing. My canner is kind of huge to do just a few jars, and I found that my smaller stock kettle wasn't quite deep enough to prevent some boil spillage during processing. Since we have hard water, I add a goodly splash of white vinegar to the water bath- that helps prevent the minerals from sticking to the jars. Ya still need to wipe down the jars before putting them onto the shelf though, that's just good sanitary practice. I started out with sterilizing 7 jars- better to have too many ready than to get to the filling jar stage and find out you are one short. All the jars have pinged, and by the looks of the half full jar, the jelly is well set :) From the foam jelly I tasted, the stuff is pretty damn good for my first attempt at this kind of jelly. Sweet but not too sweet- the wild blackberries have some natural tartness to them that balances out all the sugar. And it tastes fully berry, not just like colored sugar goo like what you often get in the store. So long as the jars set up well- and we will see if that holds true over the next couple weeks- I will consider this particular recipe a success.
In a few days I will go a picking again, and the next batch of berries will be made into syrup. And if there's enough of them, probably another batch of jelly too- stock up on some christmas gifts :) And of course, a quart or so for the freezer for the next time I make berry preserves.

After that, it was time to get out into the yard and get some mowing done. Got the front half of the yard mowed. At this point, I've decided to just go around the apple trees. I started out going around some of the low hanging branches, but then got too close, and one of the trees tried to eat me! Knocked my hat and earmuffs all askew, and disengaged the mower arm. So yeah, the trees have gone full blown Wizard of Oz and I will just be mowing around them till the season is over. But on the happy side, it means the trees are well and heavily laden with fruit, hooray!
Then I decided to start tackling the pine trees in front- I wanted to trim them up the trunk a bit. It will make mowing around them a bit easier and less of me being eaten by trees, and in the spring I want to start planting lavender under the cedar at least. Lavender is supposed to help repel ticks. I only got the cedar trimmed up, but that's ok. I was able to cut out the vining other tree stuff that was growing there too. Only got one wheelbarrow full of the cuttings down to the firepit before my foot was protesting enough that I decided to be smart and get off of it for the afternoon. Still got a couple more wheelbarrow loads to haul down to the firepit tomorrow before I can do any more trimming.
It was time to clean up then, and whew my arms had sap and scratches all over, lol.
Once I was feeling clean again, I decided it was time for a berry run. I wanted to pick up a pint of blueberries while they were still in good season to toss into the freezer for later preserve making. So I went down to the Extraordinary Berry, a local grower stand. They are the nicest folks, and always have excellent produce. Picked up a pint of blueberries, yep. Also ended up getting an overflowing pint basket of super sweet tiny red plums- I love plums. And I suckered up for a pint of red raspberries for the freezer as well- those will go well into the berry blend :) They said they should have sugarplums ripe in a couple weeks, so I might have to get back over there so I can make up some plum jam, yum. On the way back, I decided to hit the little blueberry roadside stand and pick up a second pint, give them a try. Their pints were a buck less, but had the warning to wash the fruit before eating. Hrmmm. I got a pint to try anyway, but I probably won't be going back there again, I'm guessing that the wash first might mean they spray their bushes with something I might not be too happy about. But now I have three more pints of berries for the freezer. Sheesh, by the time I get a quart of blackberries in there, I will be kind of overstocked on berries! I will have to keep my eye out for the next time fresh strawberries are on sale so I can make up another batch of berry preserves.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Heat wave...

It's been warming up around here. It was balmy yesterday, then we got in an evening rain shower- it was refreshing. And kind of nice since I knew I wouldn't have to water the plants this morning, lol.

But it looks like we are entering into a heat wave. I was upstairs in the workshop sweating my butt off dealing with garb for faire this year- had to make myself a new bodice, just sick to death of what I got. So a couple hours of sweating and now I got a new bodice, yay!

Came back downstairs... just had to, it was just too darn hot upstairs.. And it was hot down here too. Figured it was time to cool down. So I went out to the solarium to grab the boards for the basement door, and was struck by how holy shit hot it was out there- did the math, and it's a heat index of 116- I opened a couple of windows to help cool it off a bit, and the 90 degrees outside felt like AC coming in, whew.

We don't have working central air- there's a unit there, but it's trashed. So we set up a box fan on the basement door and draw that chill air right on up. 10 minutes after having the fan running, and it is already noticeably cooler around here.

Warm showers are the thing in this weather- no one wants a hot shower, and a cold shower sounds great- till you get out of the shower and are smacked by the heat again. Those packaged face cloths are pretty nice for a mid-afternoon wipe down too- sometimes ya just can't take a half dozen showers a day, and these are lovely to do a quick smarm removal. Dry skin and hair can be a problem- wouldn't think so in all the humidity, but we got hardwater, and using it a lot can dry ya out. So hair oils and moisturizers are a must.

Pasta salads, and more pasta salads.. When it's too warm, eating kind of sounds gross, but a nice chilled pasta salad out of the fridge always hits the spot. Chilled veggies and cold sandwiches are ideal too. Some salty foods to help with water, and pickled foods to help keep up electrolytes too, yum!
Right now in the fridge is my tuna salad...
1 lb box pasta- I prefer elbow macaroni for tuna salad
4 small cans water packed tuna, drained
4-5 ribs celery- about 2 cupsish
1 large onion, chopped
1 can of small peas, drained
1 cup or so of mayo or miracle whip- more to taste if needed
1 tablespoon dill
1/2 tablespoon each salt and black pepper

Liquids- must have plenty of liquids. We have an icemaker in the freezer, so that helps keep up the cold water. We usually have a pitcher or three of stuff on the top shelf of the fridge too. Iced tea- I tend to do sun tea most often- I often do up a pitcher for the fridge, but when the heat is coming on, I sometimes use my 5 gallon glass bee skep server. Kool aide- yeppers, we adults drink the stuff. It normally calls for 1 cup sugar per packet and 2 quarts water- grossly sweet. I make it 1 cup sugar to 2 packets in a gallon pitcher, much better. And of course, lemonaide is a staple, I make it by the gallon. 1 cup sugar, 1 cup lemon juice, and more often than not I slice up a lemon and a lime or two to toss in there, occasionally a sliced up grapefruit- the fruit adds a something that's yummy.

So it's another hot day- the morning wasn't too bad, but boy it heated up by noon!

More beans are picked- something tells me with the way all the rest of the plants look, beans might be the only thing that comes out of the garden this summer. Next month I'm going to try planting in some stuff for fall harvest- hopefully that will work out. The tomatoes are puking out- one is sort of drowning, the other ones have end rot, probably from uneven watering. The squashes are not doing so well either. But the luffas are taking off in this weather, hooray!
Picked another pint of raspberries and some mulberries- if I get one more picking like this, I will have two quarts in the freezer for jam making, yay!
Had a couple fuuul bags of beans- I didn't want to pickle them, I wanted them for regular eating. Since I don't have a pressure canner, a must have for canning beans, the freezer was the option. Since it's so stinky butt hot, I didn't want to steam up the kitchen blanching and shocking, and guess what? You don't have to. I now have 2 1/2 pounds of beans bagged up and in the freezer. The big trick is that you have to suck all the air out of the bags before freezing.

Took a hike out to the back 40 to check the wild blackberries- I was hopeful, and my hopes were dashed. They are not ripe yet. But there are shittons of them back there, I'll likely be able to pick a couple gallons of the things in a week or two. I want to make up a batch of blackberry jelly and perhaps a batch of blackberry syrup. Also want at least a pint or two in the freezer for next time I make berry preserves. I kind of re-ganked my foot- it wasn't quite healed up anyway, and tromping around like that for sure hurt it again. Would have been worth it if I could have comeback with berries, lol.

And my love is the sweetest man on the planet- he got in the new printer. He surprised me this morning with a heart bigger than my fist that's made of gears. It's very cool!

It's another hot day. We had the windows open last night to let the cool in, and turned off the basement fan- no sense wasting that cool air. We shut up the windows first thing when we woke up this morning- even before making coffee!- and turned the basement fan on. So it's another sit around and not do much kind of day.
I finished off the tuna salad yesterday, so it was time to make another pasta salad for the fridge today. I was kind of bored with what I usually make, and so I decided to experiment, hehehe.
Started out by making a sour cream base this time. I took about a half cup of dried cucumbers and powdered them up, some black pepper and salt, garlic powder, dill, and parsley, and stirred it all into about a cup of sour cream. Let that chill in the fridge for a while.
Took about a third of a cup each of dried slaw mix and peas and rehydrated them. Just cover with a lot of water, nuke for a couple minutes to heat the water, then let the stuff sit till hydrated.
While that was going on, I defrosted a chicken breast. I usually poach from frozen for pasta salad, but that seemed boring today. So instead I sprinkled it well with kefta seasoning, seared it in garlic grapeseed oil, then let it simmer on low till it was done- using some of the water from rehydrating the slaw and peas. Then I diced it up
Diced a medium onion fairly fine
Halved a can of medium sized olives
Drained and rinsed a can of Roman beans
Finely sliced about a half cup of celery
Decided to go with fusilli for the pasta this time, a half pound- half a box.
The sour cream mix was too stiff, so I thinned it out a bit of ranch dressing.

And it's the last sweltering day of the heat wave.  Made mushroom quesedillias yesterday- just a matter of burbling up some dried mushrooms with some fajita seasoning and some yummy cheese. The pasta salad I made turned out good as hell, we had it for lunch today, and there's enough there for at least part of the weekend.
Went upstairs and got my garb together for Sunday- by the time I was done, I was drippy with sweat. Since today was the peak day, and my love had tried to tough it out, but too much heat is bad for electronics- he finally gave in and set up the portable ac unit in the great room. You bet your booties I spent some time there chilling out during the hottest part of the day.
Had to figure out a way to hang the awesome gearwork heart my love printed out for me- good thing I had a tiny screw eye sitting around, and yay for dremmel- I plan on using it for a fan fob on Sunday. It's steampunk weekend out at faire, and I figure hey, should have a little something like that going on :) He printed me out a cool spring bracelet this morning, so I will be wearing that as well.

Well, the temp has already dropped two degrees- woot! Guess it's time for me to get some dinner together.. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Feeding the birds

I see that a lot of people feed the birds. I find myself giving advice about stuff, so I figured I should note down what all I do in my yard, heh.

When we moved in, there was already a pair of large box feeders on posts in the yard outside my window- adorable in the shape of cabins. Didn't take me long to not use them. The squirrels got inside them via the cute chimneys, and the naughty birds could scatter out the whole things in a matter of hours, leaving a ton of waste seed on the ground. Eventually we will replace them with something else I guess.

So then I moved on to tube feeders. Started out with a nyjer seed feeder, and hung it in the tree outside my window- the finches liked it. Then I picked up a couple large port tube feeders- the one I hung in the tree outside my window, another in the pines on the hill. The one outside my window survived, the one in the pines got trashed- dunno if it was squirrels or coons, but I stopped trying to rehang the stupid thing there.
Picked up a hummingbird feeder- looks like a big strawberry. I haven't bothered bringing it in in the winter, and this is my third year using it. Last year I also hung a platform feeder on the pine at the bottom of the hill in hopes of keeping squirrels off the tree outside my window.
This year I got a second nyjer seed feeder, a mesh bag style one- finches seem to like it even better than the tube feeder. I also made jelly feeders for the orioles, and hung suet feeders in the pine off the dining room window.
And of course fruit spikes my love printed out for me since I spotted my first Boston Oriole- those hold apples and oranges- birds love those too, but alas, I really only keep them filled when the fruit is on sale and cheap enough that I can justify picking it up for bird food.

Soooo... First a general rule about feeders- keep them clean. This means letting them empty out between fillings. Birds can hang for a day or so between fillings. This general rule is important- stuff can build up and make feeders icky. Pouring more on top of icky is a bad idea. Bird feeders are food dishes- how much would you want to eat off one plate between washings? Birds are more tolerant, but you get the idea. This can range from having a tube brush or even a stick to poke out anything sticking behind in a feeder to washing a nectar or jelly feeder in your sink with hot soapy water. Even mesh bag feeders benefit from a washing sometimes.

Tube feeders- great for general wild bird seed, or other large seed. Attracts a variety of birds. Beware- naughty birds like grackles, doves, and blackbirds have a tendency to scatter seed a bit.
Cleaning- I use an arrow without it's head for basic cleaning- the shaft can poke stuff, the synthetic feathers as a brush. I pop off the bottoms and scrub them good with the garden hose and a bottle brush then let them bake dry in the sun to give them a good cleaning a few times a year- depending on the season and how gunky the feeder is. 

Nyjer seed feeders- sparrows and finches love these, red wing blackbirds seem to as well. I use a slotted tube feeder and a single bag fabric mesh feeder. Beware- nyjer seed is an oil seed, which means it will go rancid. And it can very quickly, a matter of several weeks to a few months of storage depending on conditions. If you fill your feeder and the birds shun it, likely your seed has turned. Be cautious where you hang your mesh feeders- they can tear if they swing and snag on a branch. The are pretty easy to sew shut again.
Note- thistle seed and nyjer seed are the same thing- and nope, not related at all to the wild thistles that grow spikey and have purple blooms- though birds tend to like thistle seed too. Almost all commercially offered thistle seed is nyjer seed. 
Cleaning- tube feeders are just like above. I find I have to seriously clean them a bit more often than regular tube feeders- nyjer seed tends to ick out more than wildbird feed. Mesh bag feeders usually just benefit by hanging empty for a while on a nice day while looking dingy- but if they start looking dirty, wash them in hot soapy water, rinse really extra well, and allow to dry fully, in the sun to bake if possible, before filling again. Do this via handwashing with dishsoap- this is a food container, not your laundry here. 

Jelly feeders- super easy to make. Just take a small jar like a sample size one, and a bamboo skewer for a perch, and wind thread or string around to attach the skewer to the jar and make a handing loop. Lots of people swear by grape jelly. I wouldn't know since we don't normally have it on hand. But I can vouch for apricot jam, lemon curd, raspberry jam, and lingonberry jam. Orioles and other sweet loving birds like these. Beware- these attract ants, and can get mucked up pretty quickly.
Cleaning- handwashing with hot dish soap and rinsing well and allowing to dry completely before use.

Fruit feeders- Several birds love these, orioles notably so. I have my love print these out, they look like little spikes with two loops on the bottom to make them easy to attach to a branch, and I use a big fake flower petal to help me find them on the tree. But the are easy to make out of a heavy gauge wire like a coathanger too. Beware- birds can eat the shit out of these, so be prepared to use fruit if you are going to start using them.
Cleaning- I find that I don't really have to- usually birds pick fruit clean leaving nothing but rind behind, and that's easy to pull off and plop the new fruit on. 

Suet feeders- suet is rendered fat, mixed with birdseed, nuts, berries... Birds love the stuff, especially in winter when high protien/fat food can be minimal. You can buy suet bricks, or make your own if you have a local butcher you can get fat scraps from to render. Beware- squirrels love it too. In the summer the suet can go rancid really fast, and when it's super hot, start melting out of the feeder. Always hang these in a shady spot to help a smidge with that.
Cleaning- usually don't really have to clean these, birds tend to pick these clean too. But sometimes they will get melty icky, or turn rancid and you gotta clean them. Into the garbage goes any clingy bits, and then handwash with hot dishsoap.

Platform feeders- these come hanging or ground style, and can attract different birds depending on their height. Good for putting out occasional baked goods (occasional only, baked goods are junk food for birds, and not very good for them), corn, peanuts, and other large foods, and can be nice for putting out bird grit. Sand is amazingly often used by birds, as are ground up eggshells, and eggshells are good in spring for calcium boosting for their own eggs. Platform feeders are also good for putting out occasional treat foods- I will cover that below in the Do Not Feed list. Beware- other critters can get into these, and hanging ones can swing about spilling food.
Cleaning- usually just a scrub with a brush or poking out with a stick. Hosing it off once in a while does not hurt either. 

Nectar feeders- hummingbirds of course love them, orioles too. Don't waste money buying nectar, make your own. Hummingbirds are a 4:1 ratio of water to sugar, orioles are a 6:1 ratio. Heat water, add sugar, dissolve, and cool. Make sure you completely cool your nectar before using. You can refrigerate the stuff too and store it for a week or so. Beware- sugarwater can mold, and ferment. And this can happen quickly in the summer. It's better to use several small feeders that need refilling often rather than a big one that can spoil. And hummingbirds are territorial, so multiple feeders usually leads to more happy birds. Ants and bees love sugarwater. Try to hang your feeders in the shade- direct sun just makes the water turn faster. Feeder emptying too fast without spillage? You might need to put up more feeders you have more hummers than you thought. Coons also LOOOVE it, and tend to feed during the night- if you are losing overnight, consider if where you hung it is coon-proof or not.
And when you get your new feeder- fill it up with water completely- then measure out that water. Take a sharpie and write on the feeder in an inconspicuous spot how many OUNCES it takes to fill. That way, you always know how much final product you need to fill the feeder. And if you have multiple feeders, it's easier to make one big batch at a time. Using ounces also makes your ratio math easier than using cups.
Cleaning- always handwash in hot dishsoap between every filling. Nectar is the most spoilable food and needs it every time.

General rules about feeding in general, lol....

Don't put out a type of food/feeder and expect only the kind of birds you are hoping for to show up. There are always other birds that join the party. For birds you want to show up, there will be birds you would rather do without.
If you are going to feed birds, be prepared to do it year round. And know what birds are seasonal birds.
Watch out for other critters- from bugs to bears, coons to chippies. And insects.
Keep your feed areas clean. Shells and scattered seed, spilled nectar and dropped fruits... in feeders is good, on the ground becomes ick.

Note through all of this I haven't spoken of natural feed, as in gardening for birds. Well, that's because I haven't done it yet successfully. I got the sanctuary going on, but as of yet, haven't grown anything specifically for them. That can be a whole nother post.
I haven't mentioned watering them either, that's because I don't. We have a large pond here, and multiple other water in the immediate area. I've had bits of water out, and they don't seem to really use them.

And let's move on to a DO NOT FEED list...

In general, do not feed birds baked goods. It's bad for them, just like junk food is bad for us. And often have a lot of stuff that's bad for birds in them. An occasional treat is fine though- I put out dried tail ends of bread or the odd bun that didn't get eaten sometimes on the platform feeder. When I do, I make sure it's dry bread- as in crispy dry- and I break it up quite a bit. And never bread gone bad- if you would not eat it, nor should you feed it to birds.
Chocolate is death to birds, much like many other animals.
Salt can be deadly for birds too.  Keep in mind that sodium is good for most animals, but there are many different kinds of sodium in food, and birds get what they need from other sources than salt. If you are thinking about putting out something with salt in it, think twice.
Onions and mushrooms are also very bad for birds. So much for thinking you might put out that onion bagel as a treat, or mushroom whatever. Avocados are bad too, so don't fruit spike those as a "green veggie alternative" to suet.
Alcohol is deadly too- No, I don't mean putting out beer for birds.. But rather, where do you think all alcohol comes from? Fermented sugars, quite often fruits and grains too. And what is pretty much all bird feed? Stuff that can ferment. If you want a non-meat alternative, try peanut butter.
NEVER put out something with meat or meat product in it. Spoils fast.. and the only birds attracted to it might be carrion birds- anything else that goes near it will likely be a different critter you don't want around.
NEVER put out dehydrated pasta or rice. This is popular to throw for celebration, but the birds eat it and waaaay not good. Because we humans have processed it to it's state is the reason for this. Birds can safely eat dried rice and grains that have dried naturally on the plant, but that be the birds choice. Cooked rice and pasta- plain without any salt in the cooking water or anything on it- can occasionally be put out in small amounts as a treat without harm.
Which begs the question... Why is there so much cracked corn in birdfeed then if dried grain stuff like rice and pasta is bad? Cracked corn is often a filler in bird food, just sayin. It's raw field corn dried and ground up. But dried rice and pasta is processed differently than cracked corn it- and that makes a difference.
POPCORN is iffy- if you have leftover air popped with nothing added to it popcorn, go ahead. If you use any salty or fat additives to it- salt is bad and fats go rancid quick. Any form of microwave popcorn is right out. Theater popcorn is iffy- though lots of birds love it for an extremely rare treat.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Yay compost!

So the back neighbor got the front loader out today.. Asked me if I still wanted horse poo on my compost pile, and I said yeppers.

I mowed the front yard, and while doing so, they brought over a few loads. Cool. After putting the mower away I took a shovel to the pile and started spreading it around the whole compost area. At least till my foot was screaming at me to stop for the day.

Grabbed some lunch, and went out to pick the next bunch of green beans that needed picking- I might need to do up a couple cans of them, I got quite a bunch now. Then I was tinkering around with a few things in the house. Sewed up the torn nyjer seed bag and filled it up again- the finches are pleased about that.
While doing this, more loads kept coming over... I just went to go see just how much horse poo there was and gulp! The pile is almost as tall as me and as big around as I am tall. That's a lot of horse crap! Wonderful horse crap, lol. Now I need to start busting ass again and start layering in green matter to go with all that poo.

It is rather nice- they needed to clean out the corral before spreading fresh sand, and instead of having to haul it out to their back 40, they were willing to haul it to me instead. And now I got a nice heap of brown gold to work with in future gardening efforts! It's a total win-win situation.

So now it's the next day, heh. The rest of the horse poo got dropped off, and wow it's a major heap of poo! Little happy dance for me! Even if I don't touch it, I now have more than enough for planting next year!
Got the back half of the yard mowed, and the sanctuary keyhole. I noticed when mowing the edges of the easement drive a couple of large posts dropped off- I think perhaps they are the beginning of the fence that will eventually go up between us and the neighbors. A very good thing!
Picked a half pint of raspberries and a half pint of mullberries- those are now in the freezer. They will get used the next time I make up a batch of berry preserves, yum!
The green beans needed picking again- and we had way more than a dinners worth sitting there- so I decided to make some dilly beans. I used pint and a half jars and filled four of them up. Now they are cooling on the counter, yay!
We have already cracked open a jar each of the pickled asparagus and lemony cauliflower, yum. Cashed out the jar of cauliflower already too. My love does not really like pickled veggies, but he is developing a taste for the ones I make. Maybe because I don't really make him eat them plain, but I like to include them in dishes, and he likes them that way. 

And it's that time of year for pasta salads. I like to make them from scratch, but a while back Hardings had the kits on sale for super cheap so I picked up a couple of them. The other day I made up a box of the bacon ranch- and of course I added in more bacon, along with a can of peas and a can of chick peas. Today I'm trying the creamy Italian, I'm adding in a poached chicken breast, fresh onion and tomato, some pickled asparagus, and a can each of peas and cannellini beans.

Hardings had frozen veggies on super sale a wee bit back, now the dehydrator is loaded up with corn and mixed veggies. I'm dead out of dried mixed veggies, and almost out of the corn, so I'm happy to restock those. I can hardly wait till I see sweet potatoes on sale, I'm out of that too.

So pretty much big fat zippo got done around here today. I filled the birdfeeders and jelly feeders, ran out to the store for a few things.. The biggest chore was fixing the front closet- we apparently had too many coats on it and the whole rack collapsed, oops. So I sorted out the coats, a huge heap of them are going upstairs for occasional use storage. Fixed the rack and hung the regular coats back up. That can take up a surprising amount of time when one is shooing very curious kitties away every two seconds, lol. Read a lot of news and gossip. Got some laundry done.
Had a hankering for tacos. Normally I wouldn't give in to the craving when it's just the two of us, but today I'm doing so. After all, even if we end up with a heap of leftovers, I can make up a batch of taco soup for the freezer. My biggest trick with taco meat is pre-seasoning. A goodly coating of garlic and a handful of oregano right when you start browning.. Then after browning add your seasoning mix and water and simmer to au sec. The extra hit of garlic and oregano is a wonderful taste difference! And I always get the vegetarian refried beans and add my own bacon grease to it to give it yum factor- ya don't always know what's in other refried beans, and this is a good way to make sure I put in what I want for flavor.
The dilly beans set up right fine, so I wiped them down, wrote the contents and dates on the lids, took the rings back off and set them aside.. And now the jars are sitting pretty in my pantry. 
On the frugal front... 
My foaming dish soap dispenser was empty, so I refilled it. I don't buy the watered down soap, I use regular dish soap and add water to it- the watered down stuff is expensive! I pour about an inch of soap into the dispenser, about 2 oz- I marked off a line with a sharpie to make it easy- and then fill about halfway with water. Give it a goodly stir with a chopstick, then fill it up to the fill line marked on the bottle with water and stir again. I can refill that dispenser 19 times with one 38 oz bottle of soap. And I picked up that bottle of soap on sale. Hey, instant foamer soap that didn't cost an arm and a leg! And I can keep reusing the foamer bottle instead of throwing one away every time it's empty. This same tactic works perfectly well for foamer hand soap bottles too.
I also made a fresh bottle of febreeze- again the frugal way. One small cap of fabric softener which I think is around an 1/8 of a cup in a 28 oz bottle, and fill with water. Instant refill on fabreeze that's way super cheaper than buying a new bottle every time, and again, one less bottle to go to the landfill. From one bottle of fabric softener, I can make 40 bottles of fabreeze. And this time it's free- the bottle of softener was free with the purchase of a bottle of laundry soap, which was on sale and I had a coupon for :)

Guess it's time to post.. been a couple days and this entry is probably beyond long enough to boredom, lol. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Time for food...

So, not much going on here at Growbox Hill... I severely ganked my foot, and that kept me from doing pretty much anything for several days. I'm almost walking normally now so long as I'm not on my feet for too long. Started picking lots of herbs and getting them dried up...
We have gotten a lot of rain, so much so my love had to drill drainage holes in the containers before all my poor plants drowned- the layer of broken ceramics in the bottoms just was not up to the task. It was a skinky job of poo-water leaking out.
We have started picking and eating fresh green beans, yum! But the peas, cukes, and melons have totally puked, boo. The tomatoes haven't been doing much, and the squashes aren't ready yet for picking. The mullberries have been up, and been picking.. First raspberries this weekend past. Cherry trees were picked clean by the critters cept for some fresh off the tree picking by us. The apples and pear are ripening beautifully. Lawn needs mowing again, along with a lot of other neglected yardwork because of my foot. And now is the time that all this stuff is best done.

But since I haven't posted in a while, and not much is going on, figured it was time to talk about some food. A lot of my friends are wonderful cooks and kick major ass with food... Some of them are trying to do better, but aren't sure how to go about it. But everyone always likes to talk food. It's fairly easy to stock a larder, but not always so easy to creatively cook up the larder. We eat a lot of different things around here.

Seasonings are important!! A lot of folks are hooked on salt and sugar. We don't use much of either. I use lots of different herbs, and am unafraid to use lots of them. Garlic and onions are flavor staples too. One whole level of shelving in our pantry is just seasonings, from herbs and spice mixes to oils and liquid agents like soy, worcestershire, liquid smoke, and vinegars. Don't be afraid to leave out that sugar and salt, and bump up the other flavors instead- it tastes great and allows the true flavors of food to come out. Though I must say, always always salt your pasta water when cooking.

Discover the wonders of non-meat protein. Dairy products, eggs, and dried beans are your protein friends. Whole grains and other plants have protein in them too. We eat a lot of meatless or low meat dishes around here- meat is expensive, and a lot of people tend to over-consume it. That's not to say we don't have meat in the house- the freezer is always stocked with sausages, bacon, usually hamburger and chicken, sometimes other cuts in pork. Other than hamburger, beef is a rarity, mostly due to it's expense. Fish and seafood is another rarity due to cost, though we always have a couple tins of tuna in the pantry.

Make your own stock, and use it. There is always a stock or few in our freezer. Instead of making that rice with just water, try using stock.. Or instead of opening a can of veggie soup, heat up some stock and toss in fresh veggies for an outstanding (and total ingredient control) homemade soup. It's super easy to make stock. Corn stock is the easiest, just toss the cobs in water and simmer, veggie stock can be made up of all your tail end veggie scraps- just keep them piling up in a bag in your freezer till theres enough to make a batch. Poultry stocks use up the leftover carcass from that roasted turkey or chicken- you can get all that meaty goodness all over again instead of just chucking the carcass. Pork stock is a wonderous thing- ya just need some pork bones. I prefer hocks the most, though neck bones are good too. I also prefer using smoked bones, I think using unsmoked leaves you with a stock lacking depth. Beef bones should always be roasted before making stock.

Don't be afraid of veggies. Don't take it for granted that those sucktacular crappy gross things you often ate as a kid have to be that icky. Lot's of people cook veggies to shit, no wonder why so many adults don't like them. If you think you hate sweet potatoes because of those nasty candied yams that were always on the holiday table- try sweet potato fries, or mashed sweet potatoes. If you hated that slimy lump of spinach on your plate, try sauteing fresh spinach. It might just be you hated the style you were served, but there are hundreds of ways to prepare veggies. Don't be afraid to use veggies in ways not the norm. Sure, lettuce makes a great salad, but it is also an incredible ingredient cooked up into taco soup or sauteed into a veggie base for a egg dish. And don't forget, veggies have a lot of fiber, and fiber is important for your health.

Use fats, real fats. Gasp, I know, fat is soooo bad for you. But it really isn't, fats are crucial for your body. Just that some fats are better or worse than others. I use oils, olive and veggie, sesame seed and grape seed.. Oils are very easy to flavor too, like hot pepper or garlic, all the herbs that are out there and citrus. Real butter kicks ass all over processed stuff- and it's the processing of the stuff that turns those fats from ok fats into bad for you fats. Use unsalted butter- you can always add salt if you want, but you can't take it back out. When you cook up bacon, save your bacon grease- makes a wonderful porky, smokey fat to fry eggs, saute spinach.. just good eats. Why waste that wonderful cooking ingredient when it can be used and you get all your money's worth out of that bacon, savoring every last bit of it.

Carbs. Man, there is so much carb goodness available, I don't know why a lot of people stick to the all white action. White bread, white potatoes, white rice. Explore a little, discover the nutty, flavorful goodness of wheat and grain breads. Try those brown and wild rices, odd grains like oats, quinoa, rye, and barley.. You will be glad you did. Don't just reach for russets every time, try yellow potatoes, and if you can, try blue and red ones too.

Learn about wild eating. You probably have some growing in your yard right now, and you have been trying to kill it off. Dandelions, plantain, chicory, kudzu... There's tons of plants to be used as potherbs and salad goodness. If you have an ethnic produce seller around you, take a look at what they are selling- quite often you will be shocked to find purselane or lambs quarters selling for a pretty penny, and here you have been weeding it out all season. Of course, there are mushrooms too all over, but I would strongly suggest you don't even think about it unless you are well trained or with a well trained mushroom hunter.

If you have the freezer space.. Cook today to eat tomorrow. I freeze up a lot of soups. Or cook up a bunch of chicken breasts or burgers then wrap them up individually for the freezer. A lasagne recipe is usually too much for two people- try splitting it up into a couple smaller pans and freeze one up for later eating, same trick applies to meatloaf.  Or roast a whole turkey, and you can package up and eat a few meals off that, plus the carcass for stock.
Don't be afraid of cooking something big for two and having leftovers. Like make a roast, eat dinner.. then have yummy meat eats for casseroles, sandwiches, and so on.

Learn how to cook. I don't mean get all fancy about it. I mean learn how to do the basics, how not to be afraid of food, how to make things from scratch and how to add things into processed stuff to make it better. Learn what foods go well with each other- and what really does not. Learn what makes for good produce and meats, and what means you are wasting your money and your time. It sounds like a rather large task, I know. A bajillion cookbooks out there, and not much coverage on the basics, just recipes. Heh, maybe I should write a cookbook on just that.. How to cook.

And finally, learn how to eat. Seriously, a lot of people don't seem to know how to do that anymore than the do cooking. Learn what portion sizes are, like how much protein is a serving? An egg or two, or a slice or two of cheese, a quarter pound of burger or the half pound? Makes a difference. Or raw vs cooked portions. How much dry pasta cooks into an eating portion of pasta, a quarter pound of raw meat vs cooked shrinkage. And what is correct, the raw or cooked measurement?
How many portions of what you should eat in a day... What within those portions you need too- like you know you need produce, but you can't eat all spinach or carrots, you need different produce to give you what you need.
Learn what your tongue is like. Identify flavors.. Salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami. Note,  the receptors are all over the tongue register all flavors, just different receptors have different levels of what they register.
Textures.. creamy, fiberous, crunchy, mealy, grainy, and so on- a lot of people have identifiers with this- usually in the don't like it way. Like the spongy squish of a mushroom, the mealiness of dried beans, the grease coating slime squish of cheap bologna. "Mouth feel" is a common term for this.
Temperatures- I don't mean ice headache or scald your tongue. Like cheese- some are better at room temp, some straight from the fridge.. white wine and beer chilled, red wine and whiskey at room temp, vodka and gin from the freezer. Quiche is good right from the oven, but even better when it's cooled down to warm above room temp.
Aromas- Over half of your eating experience is scent. Use it. Figure out what you love (like frying bacon, or garlic in butter).. And what you hate (like pincee veal bones).. And use those scents.

Anywho.. I'm reading over this whole post about food, and I'm feeling distinctly preachy about the topic.. So I guess it's time to post :)