Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Four year anniversary!

Four years ago today, we moved into our partially completed house. It's still not done, but that's a post for another day. You see, we built this house ourselves. We only hired three contractors: the basement guy (because he had a backhoe and forms to make concrete walls), the insulation guy (because he had this cool pulverized newspaper to blow into the walls), and the concrete people who poured the light-weight concrete over our in-floor heating tubes. Mike did 95% of everything else, and the kids and I helped out when he needed a few more hands. No, he's not a professional carpenter; he's an electronics engineering professor. My main contribution was keeping him well-fed with four meals a day as he worked 18-hour days all summer. Our big joke was that he lost 20 pounds eating my cheesecake and creme brulee pie daily.

"Everyone" told us not to move in until the house was finished, but when someone walks up and asks to buy the mobile home where you're living, it is hard to say no. We only seriously regretted that decision for about six months. When we first moved in, we were all sleeping in one bedroom, and we only had one bathroom operating. To get the occupancy permit, we only needed to have a working bathroom and a working kitchen. That's about all we had.

Even though I've been getting up to go the bathroom every night since the first time I got pregnant, I foolishly suggested that the first working bathroom should be on the main floor, since that's where we'd be spending our days. Ha! In addition to having to traipse downstairs in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I was hoofing it up and down the stairs all day too, because guess which room I wanted to get finished first? My bedroom!

How far have we come in four years? Well, when we first moved in, we had no floor coverings, which means that we were walking on this light-weight concrete, which created a LOT of dust. You had to wash your dishes before you used them, even if they'd just been washed a few hours earlier. It was disgusting. Rooms were not painted. Most didn't even have drywall. There was no trim on any doors. In fact, there were very few doors -- there wasn't even a door on the bathroom. We had a sheet hanging over the opening for privacy. For more details on the construction, you can visit our website.

Where are we today? We still need a lot of baseboards, crown molding, some door trim, and all the window trim. We need to finish the stairwell, and Mike is working on the bookcases for the library over the Christmas break. We thought we would be able to finish the library completely, but the power outage really messed up those plans.

Here are a couple of tidbits we have only recently learned -- but wish we'd have known sooner. Windows that slide (double hung) are not very airtight. The best ones are casement or awning style windows. That's what they're using in all the most energy-efficient homes now. As much as I love our in-floor heating, there is an issue with the house being too air-tight. Yes, I know I just said the double-hung windows are not very air-tight, but they're air-tight enough that we have a problem with mold growth in the winter. [sigh] I'm not sure we can do much about that now.

Plans for the future: I want to add on a dining room, so when our kids are married and coming home for the holidays, we'll have a big dining room for those holiday dinners. I also want to add a master suite for the first floor, because I'm not sure that my knees will last a lifetime. (More on that in a couple days.) And we really need a garage! During the summer, I actually enjoy having the cars in the driveway because they get washed when it rains. In the winter, however, the doors have frozen shut on more than one occasion. Usually, a door on the south side will melt, and I can get in there and crawl over to the driver side. A couple weeks ago, however, a friend broke off her car door handle trying to open a frozen door. So, a garage is definitely at the top of the list of upcoming building projects. I'm not sure if we'll be able to afford it in 2009 though.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Am I smart, trendy, or nuts?

When people meet me and learn that we live on 32 acres and grow a good portion of our food, their reaction tends to fall into one of two categories: we must be really smart or nuts. Although they are not quite so blunt, it is obvious how they feel. If they think we're really smart, they get excited and start asking all sorts of questions. If they think we're nuts, they just raise their eyebrows, nod, and say something like, "Oh."

But lately I've been getting a third reaction, and I've been reading about it too. It is now the "in" thing to be sustainable and a locavore and to have a vegetable garden. Just Google "sustainability" and discover that everyone -- fishermen, cities, schools, even Coca-Cola talk about moving towards sustainability. I don't think I even used the word "sustainable" seven years ago. The word, "locavore," had not been coined yet when we moved out here in 2002. I just wanted organic food and was sick of trying to navigate corporate America's definitions in the grocery store -- what's the difference between regular eggs, cage-free, and organic? And how much time does an organic cow really spend outside? The sustainable movement was well on its way a year ago when "locavore" was declared the word of 2007, then the bottom fell out of the economy, and now growing your own is the thing to do to save money. Or, as Business Week put it,
The message seems to be: If you buy organic, you care about your own body; if you buy local, you care about your body and the environment.
Although we do care about our body and the environment, when we first decided to move out here, it was because we didn't trust big business to be honest with us about what they were doing. We'd been eating organic since the late 1980s, but as organic became trendy, BigAg got involved and started splitting hairs. The ink wasn't even dry on the organic food legislation when businesses starting looking for exemptions -- can we call our product organic if we want to use organic grain, but none is available for 100 miles?

I don't think I'm particularly smart or nuts, and I am definitely not trendy, since I chose to live and eat naturally more than 20 years ago. So, what's my point? I don't think you have to be smart or nuts or trendy to eat healthier, have a vegetable garden, and shop at a farmer's market or join a CSA. As humans, we are teachable. We can learn new habits and skills. When we hear that our diet is not good for our bodies or our planet, we don't have to wring out hands and declare, "Woe is us! We are doomed!" Without any sort of extraordinary intelligence or rabid enthusiasm, we can:
  • shop at a farmer's market
  • find local farmers through Local Harvest and join a CSA
  • start a garden
  • grow a tomato plant on the patio
  • grow herbs on the window sill above the kitchen sink
  • grow alfalfa sprouts on your kitchen counter
  • or grow tulips in your living room (see photo)
When I say, "Anyone can do this," I'm not being preachy, I'm being humble. I seriously mean that if I can do this, anyone can do this. I know ladies 10 or 20 years older than me who live a similar lifestyle. When I first moved out here, I couldn't lift a 50-pound bag of grain, and I would only fill water buckets half full, because they were too heavy for me full.

As for brains . . . well, no one is born knowing how to grow tomatoes, incubate chicken eggs, milk a goat, or birth a lamb. I've read lots of books and found mentors over the Internet. Without the mentors, I'd have made a lot more mistakes than I did, and that's why I'm always willing to help new people.

So, if you find yourself saying, "I wish I could do that," stop wishing and start doing something. Just because you don't have sheep for wool to make an afghan doesn't mean that you can't start with something as small as a pot of herbs. Figure out exactly what you want to do and decide how you can start to make it a reality. If you only have a small apartment, you can start growing alfalfa sprouts, herbs, and tomatoes. If you have a yard, you can start planning a small garden for 2009. And if you have more land, start looking into what it would take for you to have a small flock of chickens or a couple of goats for milk. It's really not that hard -- really.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A gift of Joy

In the midst of our hotel stay, I mentioned getting a new dog, but life has been so hectic around here, I haven't had a chance to tell you about her until now. After Addy my standard poodle died in March, I didn't think I'd ever want another dog. Losing her to bone cancer was just too painful. But after a couple of months, I started to look at poodles and bichons and wish I had one again. But then I had to decide which one I wanted.

Addy had been my dream dog. I'd wanted a standard poodle forever, because I'd admired their regal beauty from the first time I laid eyes on one. Before my six years with Addy, I had a bichon named Nicky, who was also lost to cancer. Nicky was a saint, much too sweet for his own good. We got him when Katherine was a toddler, and she would hold his ears as if they were a leash and walk him around the living room. I once caught her sticking a cotton swab in his nose, and he just laid there, not doing anything to stop her.

After thinking about it for several months, I finally decided I wanted another bichon, mostly because I wanted a lap dog. Then the search began. I'd check Petfinder at least weekly, sometimes more often, searching for bichons near me. After a few weeks of searching, I was briefly excited to see that a shelter only 25 miles from me had a female bichon, but then I saw the little heart next to her name, meaning she had special needs, and I noticed she was 11 years old. Too bad, I thought, and kept scrolling down the list. I contacted several rescues with young adults and realized that healthy, young bichons are in demand and quickly find homes, so I might have to be willing to drive to another state to adopt one.

But search results on Petfinder are listed starting with the dog closest to your zip code, so this little old dog named BJ was always at the top of the list. I read her description a couple of times and learned that she was in the early stages of kidney failure. It's too bad she's so old and sick, I always thought when I saw her picture. Who would ever want to adopt a dog like that? Then one day when I was searching, I read an essay written by a woman who provided a foster home for a dog that was blind. She talked about what a great dog he was and how he wound up spending the rest of his life with her because no one wanted a dog that was blind. I started thinking about that little old bichon again and decided to call the shelter to ask them about her.

"We were just talking about her," the woman said. "We were wondering which dogs would still be here by Christmas." After asking her a number of questions about the dog and then Googling "canine kidney failure," I decided that I'd rather give a home to a dog that no one wanted, than to stand in line for a young, healthy dog that would find a home even if I weren't around.

The woman at the shelter told me that BJ belonged to an old lady who died. She had no relatives, and her caregivers called the shelter because they liked the dog and didn't want to see her euthanized. After going into rescue on November 1, she was spayed and had two mammary tumors removed. Her blood work showed that her kidneys were not working at 100% anymore, so she is on a prescription diet that is easy on kidneys. She also had fleas, which is why she doesn't have much hair on her back.

After getting her home, I realized that she had no training at all. She didn't understand "come," and she didn't even come when you called her name. I don't normally change a dog's name, but BJ just did not fit her at all. She was this little feminine lady that made us all smile every time we saw her, which didn't seem like a BJ to me. After she had been here for a couple of days, and we had all fallen in love with her, it clicked -- Joy! She makes all of us so happy when we look at her or when she sits on our laps. When I announced to the family that I was naming her Joy, Mike asked if it was because I got her at Christmas. No, I said, but it sounded like another good reason to name her Joy.

If they hadn't told me that she was 11 years old, I would not have guessed it. She's a bouncy little thing and has really come out of her shell since moving here. She is the perfect lap dog and has been sitting in my lap since I sat down at the computer this morning. When I take her outside though, she practically drags me around the yard, and I will get out of breath if I try to keep up with her!

Although I started searching for a dog that would be my Christmas gift to myself, I wound up with so much more. She makes everyone in the family smile and laugh, and she gets bouncier and less shy by the day. I've given her the gift of a real home for Christmas, and I gave the shelter the space to take in another dog that needs a home.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

No use crying over flooded pastures

Although we didn't get everything done, yesterday was a productive day. We started with a very messy barn . . .

and we wound up with three pens that will hopefully make 2009 kidding easier than ever. The small pen on the left is the kidding pen. The pen in the middle is about 16 X 16 feet, and that's where the moms and babies will be staying once the babies are a couple days old. The pen on the right is where the pregnant does will stay during the last month before kidding. They need their own separate area because we start feeding grain in the last month of pregnancy. The advantage of the new pens is that they are in a barn that has a heated office with windows that look out into the area with the pens. In the top picture, you can see the office window on the left behind the wire crate.

When I first started writing this post, I said yesterday was a "good" day but quickly changed that to "productive" because it was really a pretty lousy day, although we got some good work done. The temperature jumped into the 60s, which means all the snow melted and had nowhere to go, since the ground has been frozen for several weeks already. That means the creek flooded. As if that were not bad enough, we had rain almost all day, so it was really disgusting around here. Since the creek had already frozen, the rushing flood waters lifted some rather large pieces of ice and moved them onto land. What can I say other than, it looks interesting?

Storm refugee
Katherine discovered this little guy huddling in a tree above a flooded pasture.

Suggestions, anyone?
While I have your attention, perhaps you could suggest a solution to this problem. This is the view from our front door after we have rain. We built our house behind a mobile home, which was sitting on a concrete pad. Now that the mobile is gone, the concrete pad fills up with water every time it rains. The concrete blocks are our bridge to civilization, and after a really hard rain, the water is at the top of those blocks! Ripping up the concrete would be expensive and/or difficult. Putting dirt on top of it wouldn't help much unless we put in drain tiles; otherwise, the dirt wouldn't be able to drain, and we'd have a muddy front yard. Any thoughts on what we can do with our moat?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Homesteader's work is never done

This is probably why so many of our ancestors viewed farm life as a second-class existence. It's tough to take a vacation of a few days, and you can forget about the idea of taking off a week or two. You're working 365 days a year, although the work can be streamlined on some days. But it never goes away. It is there, waiting for you the next day.

A lot has been piling up the past few weeks as the temperatures have been below freezing, and we've been dealing with storms of all sorts, from thunderstorms, ice storms, wind storms, and snow storms. Yesterday had its own nasty weather, although of a different sort, so I was hopeful about catching up on things outside. The forecast was for temperatures in the low 50s, so I was hoping we could work on cleaning out the barns and starting to work on those new kidding pens in the smaller barn. It didn't happen.

I woke up with muscle spasms in my back, which lasted all day, in spite of my attempts at getting them to subside. I used my TENS unit, then heat, then stretching. After sweeping and mopping the first floor and having lunch, I went back to the heating pads and more stretching. By then, Mike needed to head into town to run errands. And then the sun went down.

Forecast for today is rain and temperatures in the 60s. There are lots of things to complain about -- like the inevitable flooding that will occur, but aside from that and the obvious drawback of getting wet between the house and barn, this is a great day for working on goat stuff. Kids start arriving around January 11, so we need to get moving!

Here's my list of work to be done today:
  • Pen open does (unbred) with bucks, which will require three different pens or stalls. This requires cleaning stalls, catching goats (not hard, just stinky with the bucks), finding water buckets and hay feeders for each stall, etc.
  • Give copper boluses to goats that look like they need it.
  • Create new kidding pens in smaller barn, which means cleaning up a lot of "stuff" and putting together pens using sections of stalls that were taken out of my sister-in-law's barn. (No, she doesn't have animals, which is why she gave us the disassembled stalls.)
The first two things on the list should not take more than an hour, but the final thing could easily take all day. In fact, it's really optimistic to think that we'll finish in one day, but the temperature will be falling back down to freezing again after tomorrow, so it's an opportunity that we can't miss. I'll be putting a pot of soup on the stove to cook for lunch (along with bread in the breadmaker) and a casserole to put in the oven for dinner, so that I won't be interrupted with cooking chores after I get started out there.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Homespun Christmas

We made a lot of our gifts this year. We gave people homemade soap and garments that we made ourselves by knitting and crocheting. Margaret made tea cozies for her aunt (my sister-in-law) and me. The mostly white one is for me, and the mostly purple one is for the sister-in-law. If you're not a tea drinker, a tea cozy is placed over the pot to keep it warm. She is also crocheting a table runner for me that will match my china, but it's not done quite yet.

Margaret knitted mittens and a hat for Mike, I knitted a scarf for another relative, and we're making 100% cotton washcloths for other family members to go along with their homemade goat milk soap.

Christmas dinner consisted of our homegrown turkey and green beans. Ingredients for everything else was store bought and side dishes were made from scratch. If you've been reading for a while, you can see that as we move into winter, we are using up our stored food fairly quickly. Next year, we definitely need to grow winter squash, since they last for many months with no special storage. Squash bugs are the reason we rarely have winter squash. We are also hoping to get a greenhouse built and operational in 2009, which will extend the harvest.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Home for Christmas!

The electricity was restored on Tuesday, just in time for another winter storm, so the kids and I stayed in our hotel, rather than attempting a possibly dangerous drive. Yesterday, the weather was completely opposite the ice-snow-wind that was being forecast, so we hurried home before it had a chance to get nasty again. After arriving at home, we saw just how cold it was in the house. That's frozen condensation on the inside of the windows.

Losing electricity was quite a learning experience, and although there are some things I like about life in the 19th century, the lack of electricity would not be one of those things. My favorite part of the whole ordeal was how we spent the evening after 24 hours without our modern appliances. Since we had no television or computer to keep us occupied after dinner, we played cards and Monopoly. We should do that more often. In fact, tonight, we're talking about playing dominoes after dinner.

Lesson #2: When my oldest (now 21) was six years old, I canceled cable television. After spending two days in a hotel with a television, I can still say that it was an excellent decision. It only took about three hours of viewing for me to ask, how do people spend hours every day watching this? We do own a television, and we have a Netflix subscription, and every Friday we have movie night with homemade pizza (using our homemade mozarella), so I don't completely eschew television, but I don't understand how people can blindly flip through channels looking for something to entertain them hour after hour, day after day.

Lesson #3: Plumbing was the greatest invention of modern society. If I had to choose between living without electricity and living without plumbing, I'd give up the electricity. Since our well pump is electric, we lose both when we lose electricity. As much as I missed lights, I really missed being able to wash my hands, shower, and flush the toilet. Mike, who wound up carrying buckets of water from the creek to the animals, really missed having a working well and faucets.

Lesson #4: Having a wood stove is a great supplemental source of heat. I'm glad Mike was so insistent about the in-floor heating when we built the house. Being in a hotel for two days with forced air has made me remember how much I dislike it and how unevenly it heats a room. The in-floor heating and the wood stove work very well together, along with our passive solar design. Having a wood stove as your sole source of heat is time-consuming, stressful and difficult. Someone had to add wood every hour and a half, even overnight. Of course, some stoves are made to last longer, so if your goal is total wood heat, you definitely need to buy a wood furnace, rather than a stove. A possible problem with that, however, is if you have an electric blower, you would lose it when you lose electricity.

Lesson #5: We still have a long way to go to be completely self-sufficient. We're doing great with food, but we have work to do in the energy department. We now own a generator, so we will be able to handle future power outages much better; however, it would be great if we were off the grid entirely. That's been a goal from the beginning, but when something like this happens, it makes you start working towards that goal a little more seriously and with more dedication.

And the final lesson . . . as Dorothy learned in The Wizard of Oz, "There's no place like home." As much as I enjoyed the whirlpool, the exercise room, the maid service, and not having to cook, I really missed home.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wimping out

The kids and I are at a hotel taking showers, watching The Crocodile Hunter, and using the free Wi-Fi. It got down to 55 last night in our bedroom! I did not get much sleep, in spite of the long underwear and pajamas, plus two comforters, and being sandwiched between my husband and my new dog, which I haven't even had time to tell everyone about!

Mike is back home keeping the wood stove fired up so our pipes don't freeze. We know the pipe coming out of the well is frozen though, because it's in the shed, and without a fan in the pump room, the temp at ground level is freezing, even though the gas heater is keeping the room in the 50s.

Livestock water has been the biggest challenge. Yesterday we drained the water heater in the barn, which provided enough water for everyone. Today, however, the water won't come out, so we think it might be frozen. I recalled that the last time I saw the creek, there was a break in the ice at the ford, so Mike is going down there and bringing it back a bucket at a time.

Hopefully, we'll get power back soon, and I'll have time to write all about it. More nasty weather is on the way.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Roughing it

This post is brought to you by our pick-up truck. Yes, the pick-up truck is providing the power for me to blog today on my laptop, which was fully charged at the moment we lost electricity last night at 9:15. The electric company has no estimate for when it will be restored. Since some people have been without power for two days and are just now being told they can expect to get power back by 5:00 this afternoon, we're thinking it might be a couple days for us also. The original outage was caused by an ice storm, and then last night the wind kicked up and caused our current power outage.

The wood stove is keeping the house at 63 degrees, which is amazing since it is hovering around 0 degrees F today. All the water buckets were frozen, so we brought those inside to melt. Margaret went to town to get water for us, since our well pump is electric. We'll also have to give water to the animals. With all the ice around here, we'd need to use a pick ax to break it up and thaw it for water. The weather has been terrible with snow, followed by above-freezing temps, and then the ice storm on Thursday night.

Mike is cycling the frig and the freezers on the power from the pick-up, and I found some half-gallon bottles of frozen water outside that I also put in the frig to help keep everything cold in there between times that we're running the pick-up. The deep freezer is actually doing quite well. Everything in there is still frozen hard.

I am really wishing we had our own solar panels and wind turbine! At a minimum, we really should have a generator. Time to sign off for now. I'll write again once we have power restored and let you know all the fun details!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Homemade hash brown casserole

A couple days ago, out of the blue, I was craving a hash brown casserole. Like many of you, I searched online for a recipe. I checked eight recipes and all of them, unfortunately, included Campbell's cream of chicken soup. Have American cooks become incapable of cooking without Campbell's soup? It's in our green bean casseroles, broccoli casseroles, zucchini casseroles, and our hash brown casseroles! Since we don't eat commercially-grown meat, using a cream of chicken soup was out of the question, so here's what I came up with:

Antiquity Oaks Hash Brown Casserole

2 pounds of hash browns (frozen)
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup goat milk (can substitute whole cow's milk)
8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
1 T. dried minced onion
1 t. garlic powder (omit if you are not a garlic fan)
1 t. garlic salt
1/8 t. pepper

Mix together all of the ingredients in a large bowl and pour into a 2 quart casserole that has been liberally buttered to avoid sticking. Bake at 400 degrees F for 30 minutes or until bubbling and browned. If you use freshly shredded potatoes, it takes a lot longer to cook, so use 350 degrees F for an hour, and keep the casserole covered for the first 40 minutes. Sprinkle with bacon bits (or veggie bacon bits) before serving, if desired.

Friday, December 19, 2008

How many goats does a homesteader need?

Every time I think about our children leaving home, I assume I need to sell the vast majority of my goat herd. After all, I've said many times over the past six years, I only wanted a couple of goats for cheese, and it was my daughters who dragged us into showing and increased our herd to as many as 30 or more goats. So, I've been assuming that I would just have six does, and freshen two every four months, so that we could have a year-round supply of milk.

But that "couple of goats for cheese" plan was made by a woman who was a clueless city slicker six years ago. I didn't even know I could make anything other than chevre with goat milk. Today, we buy very little dairy. We make all of our own mozzarella, chevre, buttermilk, and yogurt. We haven't bought milk in three or four years. We also make ice cream, and after succeeding with parmesan, we'll be making that again. I have made gouda a couple of times, although it wasn't the greatest. I really should try again. And when I tried to make cheddar, it was completely consumed by mold during aging, but I should try that one again too. I think I'm going to need more than six does.

How much cheese do we use in one year?
  • 50 batches of mozzarella (one per week for homemade pizza, eggplant parmesan, and lasagna) = 50 gallons of milk
  • 10 batches of ricotta (for lasagna and manicotti) = 10 gallons
  • 6 batches of parmesan (for Italian foods) = 12 gallons
  • 10 batches of chevre (for snacking with crackers, making cheesecake, quiche, & cheese blintzes for breakfast) = 10 gallons
  • cheddar?
  • gouda?
What about cream soups?
A pot of cream soup takes a quart of milk, so having cream of broccoli, asparagus, or mushroom soup once a week adds up to 13 gallons of milk a year.

What about other cooking and baking and our morning coffee?
Add another 26 gallons a year (1/2 gallon a week).

And what about goat milk soap?
That takes 26 ounces per batch, which is six batches per gallon, so . . .

Have I ever told you that I really don't like math? Perhaps I should go about this differently. From spring to autumn, we've been milking about 10 goats, and that number falls as we head into winter, but we're always milking at least one or two goats. Remember, we have Nigerian dwarves, so they don't produce as much as the big goats, although their high butterfat is perfect for the home dairy. There are currently five adults living here, and we're consuming all these dairy products, plus the butter and cheddar that we buy at the store. If there are only two or three adults here, we might need to cut in half the number that we're milking. But if we want to start making our own butter and cheddar, maybe not!

So, after six months of worrying about having too many goats, I've just realized that we might have exactly what we need.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The best muffins ever

It's a shame most Americans demand food out of season. They have no idea what jewels of culinary delight they are missing! We have discovered many delicious foods when we have been forced to think outside our cultural food box. Because our chickens are no longer laying, we are rationing eggs, which means I am looking for eggless recipes. I was in the mood for chocolate chip muffins today and recalled having seen such a recipe in a food-magazine ad last month. I found the ad and examined the recipe. First of all, it called for two disgusting non-natural products, which are not even in my kitchen. Second, it called for two sticks of margarine, which no self-respecting cook would use in baked goods. Third, I gasped at the thought of a whole cup of pure fat. Was the recipe author in cahoots with a cardiologist group? So, it needed some work. Here is my resulting recipe:

Antiquity Oaks Chocolate Chip Muffins

  • 3 cups unbleached flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 T. baking powder
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 1/2 cups goat milk
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

Mix together the flour, sugar, and baking powder. Using unbleached flour is healthier (no bleaching residue) and gives muffins a more golden glow after baking. Cut in a stick of butter, using a pastry blender, which is that thingie in the upper left corner of the photo. Add the milk and stir. For those of you without a goat, you can use whole cow milk. The dough will look a little looser than cookie dough, but definitely won't look like your typical muffin batter.

Don't overmix it, because you still need to add the chocolate chips, which will, of course, mean that you have to stir a little more to get the chips properly distributed. If you are lacking one or more of the different types of chocolate chips, don't worry. Just make sure the total amount of chips equals 1 1/2 cups. You probably noticed there is not a lot of sugar in this recipe, so you need the chocolate chips for sweetness.

Put the batter into your muffin pan. It will be heaping, which is totally unlike most muffin recipes where you fill the cups 1/2 to 2/3 full. With so much flour and no egg, these muffins are heavy duty, so don't expect them to melt and spread out.

Bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes. These muffins are absolutely the most delicious thing created since the invention of the oven! Okay, that's just my humble opinion. On a scale of 1 to 10, Jonathan apologetically gave them a 7.5, and Katherine gave them an 8.5. Why? Jonathan didn't think the batter was sweet enough. It is true that the batter is not sweet, which is why there is such a ridiculous amount of chocolate chips. If there were any more sugar in the muffins, they'd make most mere mortals puke. (He's a teenage boy, which puts him in a completely different class of eater.) Katherine actually missed the eggy taste of traditional muffins. I, on the other hand, loved the missing eggs and lower sugar. It really highlights the buttery flavor. The muffin tops are also crispy-crunchy, which added another level of sensory deliciousness to the whole experience.

So, this is my holiday gift to you, regardless of which winter holidays you celebrate! Food plays a big part in all the winter holidays, no doubt because the rest of the world is so dreary. (Hmm, at least in the northern hemisphere.) So, whether you're tromping through the snow or lounging on the beaches down under, Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A day in the life of a lonely homesteader

Somebody is making me think really hard about what I want to be when my kids grow up. I was home alone again on Tuesday. It started snowing around 11 a.m., and for more than an hour, I waffled about whether to take a shower or go outside and do chores. We don't normally do chores around noon, but it was supposed to snow all day, and I knew the goats would not leave their little three-sided shelter to paw at the snow and find grass. That's what the sheep do, but then they have 3-inch thick wool coats. Still, fresh air is better for goats than being cooped up in a barn.

What finally got me off my tush and outside was seeing Star and Lil heading for the barn. You see, Lil is short for Lil Dipper. She's Star's baby, the one who was born very small and with a sucking disorder. Although she did learn to nurse properly, she has stayed tiny, and it is for this reason that she is still here. Once I realized she wasn't growing normally, I honestly did not know what to do with her. She is still the size of a chihuahua and can walk right through any kind of fence, so I worry that she'd escape from her new home. She is also so small, that unless she has a miracle growth spurt at some point (not likely to happen after six months), she should not be bred. So, when I saw Lil following her mom through the snow to the barn, I figured I should get out there and let everyone into the barn.

I tried to ignore the odor coming from my underarms as I pulled on my camisole, turtleneck, and hooded sweater. The goats wouldn't care, right? Just as I got my boots pulled on over the wool socks that Margaret made for me, I realized that I needed to throw a couple more logs on the fire so it wouldn't go out while I was outside. No one was ever meant to be alone on a farm, I thought. A century ago, people had big families, and the kids stayed nearby even after starting their own families. A hundred years ago, I would not be looking at an empty nest, ever. My youngest would not be 15. I would not have stopped reproducing at age 30. I'd probably have a 12 year old, a 9 year old, and at least a 6 year old, if not also a 3 year old. And yeah, they would be well spaced. I've been into this natural stuff for a long time, and by merely breastfeeding, my babies were nicely spaced almost three years apart. But I digress . . .

After throwing a couple more logs on the fire, I headed for the barn. I nearly slipped on the powdery, snow-covered ice a few times. I filled all the hay feeders with hay and dumped the buckets that could be dumped and refilled them with fresh water. Those with solid blocks of ice were left in the storeroom with a heat lamp so they could melt. As for the goats, all I had to do was open the door, and they came running.

As I was fixing lunch around 1:00, I looked out the window and saw the horses running through the snow. The silly things have decided they do not like their shelter, but I thought that if I took some hay out there, they'd follow me to it. So, I put my casserole in the oven and bundled up again. As they were following me down a hill, I started to think that it might be easier if I just plopped on my butt and slid, but common sense ruled, and I continued taking baby steps. As I headed up the next hill, the horses galloped past me, and I worried that they might slip and land on top of me, which would mean that I would die. Although we don't have big hills around here, they are very steep. I briefly considered crossing the creek here, instead of going up and down another hill, but if the creek wasn't frozen, it would be too deep to cross.

As I headed down the next hill, the horses balked. I kept going, thinking they'd eventually follow, but they refused. I got to the creek and saw that the water was still running. Even though it is not very deep, I wondered if that was their reason for refusing to go to their shelter. So, I admitted defeat and headed back up the hill to the chicken house, where I dropped the hay. At least the chicken house provides a wind break for them, and they were close enough to the barn that I could come back later and bring them in. I went inside to have my lunch, and as I was finishing up, I saw them around the pond back where our adventure had begun. [cue primal scream]

By now it was 3:15 and time for afternoon chores. I stood by the chicken house and called to the horses. I recalled my father telling me about having a horse that would come when he called it, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to try. Right? My father was a genuine Texas cowboy. His first job as a teenager was breaking horses on a ranch, but by the time they adopted me, he had given up his wild ways and settled for more normal blue-collar jobs. Midknight looked at me when I called his name. I hollered again, as if I were calling a big dog. He stared at me hard, then finally turned and headed down behind the pond's berm. Merlot started after him, and I continued to call as I waited faithfully, not seeing any sign of progress. Finally, I saw Midknight come galloping around the berm and up the hill to the chicken house.

I led both horses into the barn, which is no small feat for me. I am not into horses. They are here as a compromise for Katherine. Rather than buying her an expensive horse, we allow people to leave their horses here for free. Merlot has been here for about five years, and I think his owner has now officially deserted him. He is 17 and has EPM and severe arthritis in one leg, so he can't be ridden. He's just one beautiful pasture ornament. Midknight has been here for a year and a half, and he's younger and completely healthy. His owners don't want to sell him, but they can't afford to board him anywhere. Katherine rides him two or three times a year. Now that she's already counting down to leaving in two and a half years, I'm asking myself if I want to be responsible for these horses. If they had not been here, my Tuesday would have been a piece of cake, almost.

I did have to figure out how to get hay out to the sheep. What was I thinking when I put their pasture so far from the hay storage? Pushing a wheel barrow full of hay was out of the question, as I would be walking into the snow, and I could hardly see when walking short distances. Finally I tossed a bale in the van and drove down the snow-covered road to the sheep. I loathe driving in snow, but I figured I could easily walk home if I got stuck or went into a ditch.

At 4:15, with the sun going down, I walked back into the house, pulled off my coat, scarf, and hat, and ran my fingers through my cold, sweaty hair. At least Margaret would be home tonight to milk the goats. I went upstairs and took my shower, happy that my children will be here for most of this winter.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Our first parmesan!

Saturday night, I remembered that Mike had made parmesan cheese 18 months ago and put it in our cheese cave, the four-foot by four-foot area under our kitchen porch. There is access through the basement, so it's not quite as primitive as it sounds. When we built this house, I specifically told the man pouring the concrete that we needed the space under the kitchen porch for a cheese cave. (He was going to fill it in with gravel!) Mike had become discouraged the last time he looked at the cheese more than a year ago, because the mold had seriously taken over. Well, as you can see, the mold thrived in the dark, moist environment of our cheese cave.

I told Mike that the books say you should scrub the cheese with a vinegar-soaked cheesecloth, which he dissed because, first, it would undoubtedly ruin the cheesecloth, and second, he questioned the need for vinegar. I have no idea why you're supposed to do those things -- I just repeat what the books say. So, I left him and his cheese in the kitchen. When I returned, the cheese had an interesting brown, speckled look to it, but the fuzz was gone, so it seemed promising. First, Mike tried to cut off the skinniest bit of rind, but it was very hard -- literally, hard! Then he decided that it might be better if he just cut a huge chunk off. He reasoned that perhaps it was softer once you moved away from the edge, since it probably would not have dried out as much. That appeared to work.

Then he proceeded to cut the parmesan into more useable sizes and cut off the hard rind from the edges. We gave a piece to Porter, and he survived, although considering what dogs can survive, I don't think that it's a good judge of whether a food is safe or not. After all, they eat raw meat that is seriously deteriorating, and they're perfectly fine -- like the coyotes that ate the six-month-dead beaver that had been decomposing in a tree for Katherine's skeleton collection. But I digress . . .

I had been in another room when Mike was cutting up the cheese, and I told him that was a bad idea, because now all those edges could start to grow mold. Then he got an idea -- why don't we use that fancy vaccuum sealer thingie that I bought on sale last week? So, that's what we did! The cheese is quite sealed, so I hope it lasts!

Last night we melted some of the grated parmesan on garlic toast, and it was delicious! Goat milk parmesan does have a different taste than the stuff you buy in the store, but then everything homemade tastes different. Like most homemade things, it has a stronger, fresher taste with no strange aftertaste at all. At the risk of sounding like an alien (since everyone eats and thinks they know all about food), once you're accustomed to eating all made-from-scratch foods, you start tasting every little nuance, and you recognize it. Yeah, that's kind of scary. As I was eating the garlic toast, I was thinking, "Yeah, it's parmesan! But what's that taste? Ah, it's the goat milk!" It's way better than eating some packaged food with 18 ingredients and wondering, "What is that weird aftertaste? Ah, it's monoturbophenomenabarbaracidal-stuff!" Yeah, now that's really scary!

Monday, December 15, 2008

A new wall!

It is amazing how a person's standards can go down. Three years ago, I would not have thought a new wall would warrant a blog post, but since we haven't had any new walls in . . . I don't know when we had anything as exciting as a new wall! Mike still has a week left to teach, but this weekend, he put up three pieces of wall board! Woo hoo! The two horizontal pieces behind the wood stove are concrete board, which now we realize is overkill. Concrete board is fire retardant, so it seemed like a good idea at the time. In the summer, when we can open the windows, we'll cover this wall with ceramic tile. (Opening windows when installing tile is important, because the adhesive stuff stinks!) To the right of the wood stove is standard drywall. The basement stairs are behind this wall, so until now, this was a pretty ugly site. Of course, this is far from finished, but at least you don't see all the junk under the stairs any longer. (Except for that junk on the left, which can't get covered because the left-over piece of drywall is only 16 inches wide, and that space is 19 inches.)

You can expect more house updates during our winter break. Next week, Mike will be putting the polyurethane on more bookshelves for the library. Our goal is to have the bookcases completely done before we have to go back to teaching in January.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas gifts

If you're drowning in holiday preparations and wondering how you'll ever finish shopping and mailing gifts in time, I can help! Everyone uses soap, which makes our goat milk soap a perfect gift for everyone. And I have a special offer for blog readers. If you want to send a variety of four bars ($20), or more, to a single address, I'll choose four different fragrances, wrap them up and ship them for free!

For more information on our soap and other bath and body products, check out our website.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I'm home alone today, and it's making me think about the changes that are coming to Antiquity Oaks. Margaret is leaving next fall to go to college, and Jonathan is also wanting to leave, although he is not talking about college. Katherine is 15 and already has her life planned out, so I know I only have her here for another three years, although she has started taking classes at the community college, so she is not around as much as she used to be.

I did all the evening chores by myself today, and it's the worst imaginable day to do chores. One minute I'm trudging through foot-deep snow, and a few steps later I'm sliding through mud. It's been raining and in the 40s all day. The temperature is supposed to drop into the teens (Fahrenheit) tonight, which means a few inches of snow on top of the newly frozen ice that resulted from all the snow that melted today and had nowhere to go.

Margaret told me that she doesn't want her goats any longer, so I'm going to buy them from her. She happens to have some of the best milkers on the farm, even though she was into showing. However, I certainly don't need this many goats if I merely want to provide dairy products for the family -- especially when the family is going to be shrinking! It is a problem, however, deciding to sell goats that have spent their entire lives here. I am telling myself that I must sell all the kids born in the spring. It is tough letting them go after they've been here and developed a personality. They become more like friends, and who amongst us could say, "Okay, I don't need this many friends. I'll get rid of Myrtle."

I was surfing the Internet today (when I should have been grading), and I was looking at farm internship programs. I also saw ads from individuals who are looking for an internship or apprenticeship on a sustainable farm. And I was thinking about how I've been saying that I'd like for our homestead to have a more educational focus, since I don't really see us becoming a corporate behemoth of food production for Greater Chicagoland. We've been at this for six years now. We certainly don't have all the answers, but we've learned a lot, and we have a long list of how not to do things!

So I am pondering the possibility of developing an apprenticeship program for the farm. I like the idea of apprenticeship more than internship because it sounds more hands-on. Even though I teach college, I prefer being a mentor, rather than a teacher. I certainly have a large library of reading materials available, but apprentices would learn mostly by doing. Depending on when they are here or what they're interested in learning, their days could be filled with gardening, goat birthing (or waiting), washing wool, constructing farm buildings, etc. I view it as an opportunity for people to learn about sustainable homesteading, not commercial farming.

If you know of any programs like this, I'd love to hear about them!

Sunday, December 7, 2008


It's that time of year -- time to cuddle up with a few good catalogs in front of the fire. The garden catalogs have already started to arrive, and yesterday I scored big when I found one of those freezer-bag-food-sealer-thingies for $17.49!!! Those things normally sell for about $50, but who would want one in December, right? It had already been marked down to $34.99. I'm glad I didn't see it then, because I would have snatched it up at that price. Now that we're growing more of our own food, we can certainly use one of those because it seals the food and prevents freezer burn. I know Ziploc wants you to believe that they do that, but they don't. Six-month-old vegetables look like a block of ice in a Ziploc bag.

Last night's temperature was 3 degrees Fahrenheit. 'Tis definitely time to be staying inside. The wood stove is running constantly now, and I should be sticking a chicken in the oven for lunch, instead of blogging. I also have a big pile of grading to finish. This is the last week of school for me, and then I can focus on Christmas baking and gift making.

Over the Christmas holidays, Mike is going to finish the bookcases for the library. Yes, we have been in this house for four years, and it's not done. He did half of the bookcases two years ago during Christmas break, then last year we decided to go on a vacation. That was a mistake. He got another pair of bookcases stained but didn't get the poly on them, so they've sat in the shed office for the past year.

I am also hoping we will get a couple of goat kidding pens completed in that building. I would love to be able to sit in the warm office and watch goats in labor through the window, rather than sitting in the straw with them for hours and hours, feeling my butt freeze and my nose go numb. It would also be preferable to listening to a baby monitor in the house and then running through the snow when I hear a goat scream. Every year, Sherri kids in the middle of the night in January. And being the stoic mom that she is, she makes no sound at all until the head is coming out. Then I fly out of bed, pull on the clothes that were sitting next to the bed, and run to the barn. As I open the door, I hear the kid screaming. On those cold winter nights, a wet kid can get hypothermia and die pretty quickly.

It happened last winter when I was at school. I don't want it to ever happen again, so the new system is as much for the human kids as it is for me. If they can sit out there in a warm room, hopefully they won't miss any births when I'm not at home. Of course, they're not going to be here much longer -- college acceptance letters for Margaret have started arriving -- but that's a post for another day.


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