Friday, October 31, 2008

Miss Abstinence 2008

These rumours about my condition are completely unfounded! I've just, um, put on a little weight, that's all. I would never tarnish the reputation of the Miss Abstinence title which I so proudly wear. I certainly will NOT step down! I will continue to wear my crown and hold my head up high as an abstinent role model for young women. Because I truly, truly believe in abstinence as birth control. Obviously.

Happy Halloween, everyone! :)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Birds & Deer

More sure signs of fall - the chicadees have nearly cleaned out the sunflower seeds:

And the deer are moving through our area again. These three are all "Don't mind us, we're just here to eat the grass" but I'm not fooled - I've seen the hoofprints in the garden! Not that there's anything much left to worry about, the only things still alive are the carrots, chard & kale that I plan to overwinter. Somehow the deer never seem to get too excited about those things.

Friday, October 24, 2008

They said yes!

The water association meeting with our neighbors last night went very well, we've been approved to add a second connection to the main water line so that we can irrigate our orchard. We had a nice discussion over pie and coffee, and agreed (wholeheartedly) to sign something to the effect that this connection can't be used in the future to supply a whole additional house. Current county zoning laws forbid a second house on our parcel, but zoning laws change, and even though we'd never try to push through a lot division or anything, if we ever sold the property who knows what could happen. So now we can start buying & planting fruit trees! We won't actually put in the connection until spring, but knowing that we have the permission we could go ahead and start planting now - no irrigation will be needed over the winter months, that's for sure!

In fact, some of you might be wondering why I'm so concerned about irrigation at all, given that we live in soggy whatcom county. True, it's wet most of the year, but sometimes we have long, dry summers (like last year) and especially in the first few years trees need to be watered regularly so they can get established. Grapes and berries, with their shallower root systems, will need water in dry years even after they are established. We won't need a lot of water, but when we do need some it will be crucial to have it available.

It was nice to see all our neighbors and visit a little about what everyone's been up to. We always wave when we pass on the driveway, but it's not really the same as a visit. Of course, everyone is excited about Conan's upcoming arrival. Our neighbor Florence really stole the show by giving us this beautiful baby sweater she knit for him. It's simply gorgeous:
I can hardly wait to see him wearing it!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Fall is definitely here. The days are shorter, the mornings are frosty, and the leaves are falling. Somehow it doesn't seem like it should be here yet, but on the other hand October is almost over... how did that happen? It seemed like just the other day that my due date was a long way off, and now it's just around the corner. Aiigghhh!

Pregnancy continues to be a lot more tiring than I ever expected. On my midwife's orders I've cut back my work week to only 4 days now, which feels a lot better, but is still exhausting. In November I'll probably cut my work hours down even more. Everything just takes so much more energy with this big belly - getting up out of a chair, climbing stairs, getting in & out of the car, getting dressed - things I always just took for granted would be easy, aren't. And baby's still got 7 weeks to grow!

In other news, tomorrow we're having the neighborhood water association over for a meeting to discuss getting a second hookup to the main water line so we can irrigate our (future) orchard. I'm a little nervous, but I'm hopefull we can convince everyone to grant us this favor. There's 7 parcels in our association, and each has 1 connection currently, leaving 2 "extra" connections. So in theory at least, there should be no problem in granting us one of the extras. Of course, if we get an extra one then there will only be 1 left, not enough to go around... but also the way the properties are layed out, ours is the only one which is divided by a stream in such a way that it would be really difficult to run water to all parts of it from just one connection point. So, fingers crossed. I'm planning on serving fresh-baked apple pie still warm from the oven, that can't hurt!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Jam & Jelly Step by Step

I make a lot of jams & jellies in the summer, and you often see the results pictured here on the blog. I've realized recently that a lot of folks a) don't know what the difference is between "jam" and "jelly", and b) think making either is a mysterious and complicated process. So at the risk of destroying my image as some kind of domesitic canning goddess, I thought I'd show you all the process this time, instead of just the results. Here goes!

The Mapes' are traveling, so we picked their delicious green grapes. Anyone lucky enough to have access to home-grown grapes, they make the most delicious jelly. Any kind or color of grape will do.

After rinsing the grapes, pull the berries off the stems and drop them into a big pot. Sort out any brown or damaged ones as you go. It's OK to leave the small stems on each grape, just get the big woody stems out. Add a little water, cover and put the pot on medium heat.

In about 20 minutes the grapes should be cooked. You want them to burst and let their juice out. A little mashing with a potato masher might help too. Turn off the heat, uncover, and let them cool somewhat, you don't want to get a steam burn at the next step.

Once the grape mash has cooled, you'll need to rig up a juice strainer. I use a clean pillowcase (I have two which are designated for jam), a length of foam-covered wire which is sold for tying up garden plants, a big bowl, and the knob of a cupboard. You can also use cheesecloth in a colander, a store-bought "jelly bag", or whatever works for you. It just needs to be something the juice can get out of while keeping the solid bits - skin, stems, seeds - contained. And then you let it sit and do it's work, until all the juice is drained out.
Incidentally, THIS is what makes Jelly different from Jam. Jelly is made from the strained juice of the fruit, whereas Jam is made from the unstrained pulp, including seeds. The choice of which to make depends on two main factors: how hard is it to prep the fruit for Jam (removing all those little grape stems would have been a real tedious process), and would the Jam be too seedy or have other textural problems if the fruit wasn't strained. If there's no issue with texture or prepping the whole fruit for jam, usually jam is what gets made. It's a slightly easier process, because you don't have to wait for the juice to drain. In fact, while I wait for the juice on a batch of jelly, I often put up a batch of jam...

These are Organic Dapple Dandy Pluots from Goosetail Farms, and they are amazingly delicous. (One of the perks of working for an organic produce company!) Pluots are a cross between apricots and plums, and when they are this ripe they are very soft and juicy. To prep them for jam, I halved, pitted, and peeled them. One quart of fruit is all you need, usually, for a batch of jam.

The fruit goes into a large saucepan and is heated to just boiling. I did a little mashing to break up the pulp. Once the fruit reaches boiling, add the pectin and sweetener (I used honey) according to the directions on the pectin package. My favorite pectin is Pomona's, but the co-op is out of stock and says they wont have more until January! So I'm trying out Ball's sugar-optional pectin.
Once the pectin & sweetener are added, bring the jam back to a boil for a minute or two to cook it, then remove it from the heat. Let it cool for a couple minutes while you get the rest of the stuff you'll need ready - clean, hot jars (I just run them throught the dishwasher right before using, or you can soak them in hot water in the sink), a small bowl & spoon, funnel, ladel, tongs, jar-lifter, lids & rings.

Once the jam has cooled a little, you'll see a frothy foam form on the surface. Use the spoon to skim this off and put it into the little bowl. It seems fussy, but this stuff will not go away, it will form a wierd-looking layer with a strange texture in your jam jars which will detract from enjoying the jam later. It's pretty easy to skim off at this point, so just do it.
Once the jam is skimmed, use the funnel & the ladel to fill each jar to within 1/4 inch of the top, about halfway up the threads.
I use all different shapes and sizes of jars. It doesn't matter if all your jars are the same size & brand or if you have a mis-match like these. They're still beautiful when they are all filled with jam! After they are filled, wipe the rims of the jars clean with a clean cloth moistened with hot water.
I boil the lids in a small saucepan and then keep them in the hot water until ready to use. The tongs are for getting them out of the water without burning your fingers. Once the lids are on, screw on the rings. Note that the lids must be new out of the box, but the rings can be reused over and over.
The final step is to process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. That's 10 minutes counting from when the water comes to a full boil. Once the 10 minutes is up, turn off the heat and leave the jars in the hot water for 5 minutes before removing them to cool on a towel. As the jars cool, the seals will set and go "ping"! Don't mess with the jars while they are cooling, or you might mess up the seal. I usually wait overnight before labeling the jars or checking the set of the jam for this reason. Then you can remove the bands and check the seals (the center of the lid should go down and the lid should be stuck on really tight) before you put the jars away for storage. Any jars that didn't seal (rarely happens) just need to go straight into the fridge and get used up, treat them like any other jar you just opened.
By the time you've finished processing the Jam, the jelly juice should be pretty well drained from the pillow case, it should no longer be actively dripping. I've alwasy been told not to squeeze the bag (supposedly it makes the jelly cloudy) but it's pretty hard to resist. You can also pour a little hot water over the bag to flush the last little bit of juice out. In any case, once you are satisfied that you have all the juice you are going to get, take down the bag (set it aside to clean later) and measure the juice. 1 quart is generally a batch. With these grapes I got just a smidge under 2 quarts of juice, so I added just enough water to bring it up to a full two quarts in order to make a double batch of jelly.
Bring the juice to a boil in a big pot. I always find that jelly foams up more than jam does, so make sure there's a lot of extra room in your pot - when jelly boils over onto the stovetop it makes an unholy sticky mess. Once you've got a boil going, add your pectin and sweetener, according to the directions. If you're making a double batch, remember to double the pectin (it sucks when you forget, trust me).
See what I mean about foaming up? Compare the rivet in the pot between this picture and the last one. Pectin directions usually say something like "cook until the jelly reaches a rolling boil which cannot be stirred down" - well, that's what this is. Turn off the heat and get ready to fill your jars!
Filling the jars is the same for Jelly as for Jam, although skimming off the foam is even more important with jelly. In fact, you may find that you need to skim the foam a second time after the jars have been filled.
Wipe the rims, apply the lids & bands, and the jars are ready to process in the boiling water bath. The timing and procedure is the same for Jelly as for Jam, in both the water bath and for cooling and setting the seal afterwards.
One more note - the only specialized canning tool you need (well, besides the jars & lids) is the jar lifter. This handy little gizmo (pictured above) makes it possible to securely raise and lower jars into and out of hot water without burning your hands. I think it cost about $4. Every other peice of equipment I use is just regular kitchen stuff that you probably already have. Anybody can make Jam or Jelly! All you need is fruit, pectin, and a little time in the kitchen. Give it a try... who knows, maybe next time I see you we'll be able to swap a few jars. :)

Sunday, October 05, 2008


With much help from Dave and some from Gabe as well, we now have a woodshed! We still need to get a few more boards to finish the siding slats on the remaining narrow end, but that won't be too much trouble. The cats love it... they've been going in and out underneath the floor all week, checking it out. Today we moved all the wood from the porch into the woodshed. It sure feels great to have all this firewood! Slightly over half of it is green new wood from this summer (mostly from the cemetary, you'd really be surprised how much wood you can fit in the back of an '84 rabbit), but we have a nice supply of seasoned wood left from last year as well. It sure seems strange not to have all that firewood on the front porch, it'd been stacked there ever since we moved in. It's so... open... now. But I'll get used to it. :)