September 24, 2006

first frost

The last few days have kept me in the warm kitchen, amidst the sweet and spicy smells of Autumn. We had our first frost in the wee morning hours of the 19th of September. We knew it was coming, from the still chill of the air and cool colors in the sky AND the weather report, so the garden's bounty was picked (or covered) to save it from icy death. Most of the garden in town was surrendered to the frost. I picked all the tomatoes and now have a countertop covered in green ones, slowly ripening [stems down is apparently the proper way]. I also cut most of the rhubarb and mom pulled up the green bean plants, to pick inside where it was warm. I wasn't ready to lose my little caprese bed, so I covered it with blankets the night before.

The next morning was chill and sparkling. The spots of grass where the sun had yet to reach were crunchy underfoot, our steps leaving green footprints on a field of frosting. I love these kind of mornings. As all the green turns to brown over the next few months, the white frosted mornings will become even more special, turning the dull brown world into a bright and shimmering (temporary) fairyland.Luckily, I'd picked apples a few days before, or we'd never had gotten everything picked in time. I harvested apples on a warm, windy afternoon - a perfectly Fall activity that was extremely satisfying. The apple trees in town were just LOADED this year and despite numerous batches of applesauce and chutney, I've barely made a dent in their abundance.

My grandma taught me to make applesauce her way (the right way) in this kitchen, on this same old stove that love. She never cooked the apples so long that they became complete mush - and heaven forbid that nonsense about using a food processor to puree the sauce. I detest store-bought applesauce with it's perfectly even consistency - yuck. So I cooked up a few batches of applesauce, using the apples soon to spoil (partially worm or bird eaten), and canned most of it to enjoy later.

Grandma Blondie's applesauce 'recipe':
1. Peel (at least partially), quarter, core, and chop apples into large cook pot. [Note: if you use a fancy apple-peeler - which is a simply fabulous invention - the slices are fairly thin, so don't chop them up too much. maybe only halve or quarter them.]
2. Add 'just enough' water to the apples. Adding water until you can just just barely see it through the apples is a fairly good rule of thumb. Fresher apples require less water, in general.
3. Place on medium heat and cover the top with sugar. I suppose a reasonable ratio of sugar to apples would be 1:5. But remember, you can always taste it later on and add more, so definitely err on the side of too little.
4. Cook apples at a simmer (or a boil if you're impatient like me) until they reach the desired consistency. This could be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. My preference is to put on a pot full of apples and then once they have reduced by about a quarter or so, I add as many more freshly chopped apples as I can. This way, though the majority of apples may get good and mushy, there will at least be a few that are left more or less whole and comparatively firm. In my opinion, you should cook the apples at least until they become somewhat transparent.
5. Grandma seasoned her applesauce with only cinnamon and sugar. I could imagine that orange rind or allspice might also be nice. Perhaps you have other ideas for inclusions.
6. To can the applesauce, pour the still-hot sauce into sterile jars, [top with a teaspoon of lemon juice, to prevent browning], wipe the rims, place the seal, screw on the cap, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
7. If you can't bear to let anything go to waste (or you're just a food preservation over-achiever) you can save your apple peelings, boil them in a minimal amount of water for several hours, strain out the solids with a cheesecloth, and save the liquid to thicken other jams and jellies with natural pectin (a thickening agent). When you add this pectin to blackberries or huckleberries or whatsoever you wish, you won't have to use as much sugar to make a nice thick jam. [The 'Joy of Cooking' informed me that most of an apple's pectin resides nearest the peel, so this seemed like a nice way to Use Every Last Bit.]
The other hurry-and-harvest item was the grapes in Mom and Dad's yard. We had hopes of making ice wine with them by crushing frozen grapes, extracting only the intensely-flavored sugary parts of the grape and leaving behind the watery frozen parts. It takes a tremendous amount of pressure to accomplish this type of crush, and ice-wine presses being restrictively expensive, we finally decided to just make wine (the regular way). After de-stemming and crushing them all by hand (only about 10 gallons, but still!), I decided that a crusher/de-stemmer would be at the top of our 'Necessary Equipment' list for next year. Since we picked them so late, the Brix (sugar content) is pretty high and they are not as acidic as you'd like. Next year I plan to test the sugar and acidity of each variety continually as they ripen, so that eventually we'll be able to pick each variety at the moment when these two factors are most optimized. I bet there are old-timers who can 'test' for these factors simply by tasting the grapes. I guess that would be the way to turn this 'science' into more of an 'art'.

So far, the Autumn harvest has stocked my pantry with: 11 pints applesauce, 3 pints rhubarb, 1 quart strawberry-rhubarb pie filling, 7 pints apple chutney, 4 pints tomatoes, 1 pint frozen pesto, and 10 gallons of soon-to-be wine
Being in this house this time of year is flooding my everyday moments with memories from my childhood. I guess that I'd never really spent much time in the house during the warmer months, so most of my memories in this house are of the Fall and Winter. Sitting in front of the heater when it clangs to life, turning rotisserie-style to get all warmed up. Planning meals to utilize the oven as much as possible, in order to keep the kitchen nice and warm (I'm discovering a new respect and delight for casseroles...go figure). Sudden enthusiasm for indoor projects like sewing and cleaning. Though I've been living here for four months now, I think this weather will coax me to finally MOVE IN to this house.

September 10, 2006

Most noteable change in the last two weeks:

Before I left, we were still having 100-degree days and Fall was just a whisper under the wind. Now the wave of Autumn is breaking all around - it was 40 degrees yesterday, cool and misty. I even had to get out my boots, as my trusty Chacos were just too chilly for my toes. And a sweater and a coat, for walking outside. I am ready for the fall, but regret to have missed the moment of tipping from one season to another. I'm sure we'll still have a few summery days yet, though.


Max gained about 4 pounds while I was gone.

I harvested a mountain of basil yesterday and made a giant batch of pesto (sans parmesan) to freeze.

The good (not crab) apples have disappeared without a trace - probably the deer ate them while I was away.

The crab apples are ready for jelly-making.

Wild plums are deliciously ripe now and I think I'll start some wild plum wine tomorrow.

cement work

Before my recent trip, one of my projects was to frame out a new sidewalk and steps from the garage to the back step. It was important to get a sidewalk in before winter, so that we'll be able to scoop the snow off and keep it from getting slippery and sludgy. Cement framing doesn't need to look pretty, in general, but it is important to pay attention to the slope so that rain and snow melt will run off the surface, instead of pooling precariously in spots. The hardest part was driving stakes into the hard ground to attach the runners to.

The cement truck came while I was in California. I stepped back onto this:

Now I'd like to mortar some bricks onto the edges of the steps, to make them more noticeable (and pretty).

September 09, 2006

here is something fun

Check out Mike's September 8, 2006 blog entry.

long time

I am in Omaha. Today I will drive back to the ranch. I have been out in California for the last two weeks, for K & B's wedding. I miss Max and Gus and am worrisome about my basilico and tomatoes. Also there were a few new arrivals just before I left:

Their mama kept putting them in inconvenient places, so I had to keep moving them around. She seemed pretty settled in the bunkhouse until the day before I left, when she moved them to some new mystery location. When I last saw them, they didn't even have their eyes open yet. I am anxious to find where mama has them now. It would be nice if I could get them comfy with humans while they are still just small.

Also Gus and Max found this little guy the night before I left:

If I hadn't been leaving, I probably would have tried to save him. Instead I had to just take him out back in the trees, likely to be eaten.

The intersection of 'nature' and 'civilization' is sometimes so tragic. I am learning the hard way not to meddle too much with the natural course of know, like the Food Chain and the Survival Of The Fittest. I am gradually giving way to certain aspects of the wild - spiders in my bathtub (ok, fine), snakes on my front step, mice in the kitchen cupboards (alright, that's where i draw the line) - but it requires a certain detachment from the fate of the creatures in my neighborhood. It is a different sort of detachment than I experienced living in an apartment building in the city and not even knowing my neighbor's names. It is a respectful distancing, recognizing where an injured, abandoned baby rabbit fits into the scheme of this community - and respecting his role as someone's breakfast enough to keep from meddling.