Unwanted Gifts

Unwanted Gifts

Now that the holiday hiatus is truly over, the pool of memories from which to dip for writing subjects has refilled, although the Midwest weather this weekend has it rather frozen-over at the top.  Having pick-axed my way through the surface (that means downloading photos from my iPhone to my computer), I will start this year with the subject of Unwanted Gifts.

Part of the peril of living in a rural setting–and having a house that is almost 100 years old–is the intrusion of various forms of wildlife when the temperatures outside become frigid.  Spiders hide out in my upstairs bathroom.  Mice leave their calling cards in the potholder drawer of my kitchen.  Snakes slither their way up the drainage pipe end from the ditch by the road into my basement.  None of them are invited, nor welcomed.

IMG_2450One morning about a month ago, I found my Roomba stopped dead in the middle of the living room.  Programmed to run daily in the early morning hours, the little sweeper is usually done with his task and back on the charger base by the time I wake up.  If he stalls and shuts down, it is typically because he got hung up on a floor register, or his dustbin got full, but this was not the case that day.  Picking up Roomba and turning him belly-up, I saw something wrapped around the paddle wheel that sweeps debris into the device.  Sheesh, that looks like a snakeskin, I thought.  Indeed, it was, and what’s worse, the snake was still in it.  My best guess was that one of the cats had found the little rat snake in the basement, played with the thing until the snake went belly-up, then brought the prize upstairs to leave in a highly visible area where I could not fail to find it come morning, like somewhere between the stairwell and the coffee pot.  “See what I brought you?  I am a fierce protector!” Roomba had simply foiled the surprise by trying to do his job.  No cats were praised.  IMG_2453

 

This week, as I was on the phone in my office, a stramash broke out in the living room.  It sounded as though Bindi the Very Good Dog had turned wrong-side-out as she scrambled her way out of a previously peaceful nap on the couch, only to stand in the doorway and stare at me with a look that  spoke volumes.  Thanks to the convenience of cordless phones, I was able to investigate, whereupon the party to whom I was speaking was treated to something unprintable, also spoken at volume.  Another rat snake, this one in a heap on the floor, mostly dead.  But as Miracle Max says in The Princess Bride:  “Mostly dead is also partly alive”, which was apparently as unacceptable to Bindi as it was to me.  Tripod Jack the ornery cat was perched on the kitty tree by the window, pretending with great nonchalance to watch the birds outside at the feeder.  I hadn’t actually seen him bring the repulsive reptile up from the basement and drop it onto the sleeping dog, so I couldn’t officially blame him for the episode, but once again, no cats were praised.

Today, no snakes.  No spiders, no mice, and no major upsets in the household.  There’s a thin layer of snow on the ground, and the wind chill is brutal. But the sun was out, and I managed to bundle up and get to the barn, where the chickens were thankful for some kitchen scraps, and for fresh grain in their feeders. They rewarded me for my efforts with several nice big, brown eggs.  Upon my return to the warmth of the house, I rewarded myself with a bit of that St Louis specialty, Gooey Butter Cake, which I had been hoarding in the deep freeze since Christmas, when it arrived courtesy of my wonderful Daddy & Mother.  THIS was NOT an unwanted gift.  This brought back my attitude of gratitude. This, with a cup of fresh coffee, made all seem well with the world.  And no cats were blamed.

But they weren’t praised, either.  If you know cats, they’re probably plotting something, right this very minute.  IMG_2520Happy New Year!

 

Pumpkin Time

Pumpkin Time

If you bought a pumpkin before Halloween, but ran out of time to carve it for a Jack-o-lantern, be not dismayed.  A better use for it–in my opinion–is to cut it up and cook it, and then to use it in your favorite recipes for the season, such as pumpkin pie, bread, or cake.  Yes, you read that correctly.  You do not have to buy pumpkin in a can.  In fact, I can honestly state that I have never done so.

The scariest part of cooking a pumpkin is the dissection process; especially making that first equatorial cut to split the thing in half.  A sharp, heavy knife works best for this job, along with a large cutting board.  This is probably the part where Mother would want me to add a disclaimer of some sort about being particularly careful with knives of all types, so here it is.  Know your tools, and proceed with caution.  If you’ve ever tried this project with an electric knife, I’d like to hear from you about how well that works, because that is one of the few handy-dandy little cooking gadgets that is not yet in my kitchen!

After the pumpkin is split open and the seeds and stringy stuff scooped out, the halves can be placed on a cookie sheet and baked, or the pumpkin can be cut into chunks, placed in a stockpot with about an inch of water in the bottom, and simmered on the stove until tender.  Today I used the latter method, bringing the water to a boil to get things started, then turning the heat down to low and covering the pot with a lid.  After about 40-45 minutes, when the flesh of the pumpkin was easily pierced by a paring knife blade, I turned the heat off, but put the lid back on and left the pan on the stove for another 15 minutes.  After that you might want to remove the pieces to a bowl or platter to let them cool a bit, before removing the thin layer of rind from the outside.  Peeling the outer layer off is extremely easy after the pumpkin has been cooked, and the photo above shows the cooked chunks, the peelings in my compost bucket, and the “meat” of the pumpkin.  A few simple squishes with a potato masher makes it looks like this:

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This particular pumpkin weighed about 11 pounds before it was cut, and was slightly larger than a basketball in diameter.  It yielded 12 cups of the good stuff, which is enough for 6 pies.  I put 2 cups of cooked, mashed pumpkin into each of 5 freezer bags for later, and used the rest for some yummy pumpkin bread.  Here’s the recipe:

PUMPKIN BREAD

3 1/2 cups flour

3 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

a dash each of ground ginger and allspice

Sift the dry ingredients together into a medium large bowl.

In a large bowl, mix the following:

2 cups cooked, mashed pumpkin (OK, use the canned stuff if you must)

1 cup cooking oil

4 eggs

1/3 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir in the dry ingredients just until moistened, then pour the batter into greased loaf pans.  My stoneware pans are fairly large, so I used two, but you could use three smaller ones, or a combination of regular size and mini-loaf pans; just shoot for filling them about half full with the batter.  Bake at 350 degrees, about an hour for the larger loaves.  Cool for 10 minutes before removing from the pans to finish cooling on a rack. . . unless you can’t wait, and choose to eat it warm, like this:

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Enjoy!

A Bountiful Harvest

A Bountiful Harvest

If you read the post on this site last Spring regarding all the blossoms on my apple trees, you might appreciate this update on the results.  (If you missed that one, check the Archives, or follow this link:  http://jcrainbooks.com/?p=444.)  I am happy to report that the heavenly scent of those blooms might just be trumped by the odors that wafted from the big stock pots that were on top of my kitchen stove yesterday.  The idea of cooking apples with cinnamon, cloves, a pinch of ginger and another of allspice was a moment of genius for someone, once upon a time.

Thanks to the priceless assistance of my friend Michelle Furnell, a great number of those apples have now fulfilled their destiny in the making of vast quantities of apple butter.  By vast quantities, I mean almost five gallons worth!  In addition to that, there’s a gallon of applesauce that needs to be divided into smaller containers, but I need to get more rings and lids for the jars, or succumb once again to the convenience of the deep freezer.  Plus, the smaller tree with the red apples still holds plenty of fruit for eating fresh, or making cakes and pies and caramel apples.

As a bonus, (again, with full credit to Michelle for washing, cutting, and soaking), I managed to put up one last batch of pickles this morning, so that four and a half quart jars of dill spears are now ready to take their place on the shelf next to the dill slices and the triple-recipe of bread and butter pickles.  Those cucumbers really produced well this year!

Autumn can be difficult sometimes.  The dwindling hours of sunlight per day, the many trees now starting to shed their leaves, and the cooler temperatures that signal the end of Summer can lead to the doldrums.  And if you were rooting for the same football team that I was during the afternoon game today–well, let’s just say they weren’t at their best.  I think I’ll go out to the pantry and rearrange the items on a shelf or two.  Then, I’m going to line up all those pretty glass jars and bask in the pleasure of a Bountiful Harvest.  Oh, yes, and then eat an apple.

Happy Fall, y’all!

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Possum on the Half-Shell

Possum on the Half-Shell

Half-shell may not be quite accurate to describe the bony plates protecting the armadillo; they look more like a two-thirds or even three-fourths shell now that I study the photo. The title of today’s post is my half-joking nickname for them, but it is possibly more derogatory than it ought to be.  Maybe . . . but maybe not.

Possums are (to me) like big ugly rats.  Snarly, hissing, narsty barsteds when they climb up onto the front porch of my farmhouse to eat the food intended for my cats, or raid my chicken coop and wreak havoc on my laying hens. Can you feel me trembling with righteous indignation from just typing that?!?  Despite the fact that some people have actually kept a possum as a pet, the very idea of such a thing just gives me “the all-overs” as writer Barbara Kingsolver calls it.  Now there’s an author who has a way with words!  But I digress.

Armadillos are indeed omnivores, but if they are predatory enough to try for a chicken, I haven’t heard about it.  They do tunnel around in the ground, rooting out beetles and termites (hey, there’s a bonus!) and other insects.  In the process, though, they might also dig up all those tulip and daffodil bulbs you worked so hard to plant, or disturb the root system of your favorite rose bush.  If the burrow they’ve dug for themselves–where they tend to sleep about 16 hours a day–happens to be in your lawn, it creates an even bigger hazard than a mole tunnel for turned ankles and bruised bums.  Take another look at the claws on those feet.  These guys are digging machines!  Their long shovel-nosed faces are custom-designed for pushing through the soil to find their favorite treats, which helps just one of these critters to make a mess of a carefully tended yard in short order.

Because their eyesight is poor, this nocturnal mammal can easily become road kill, and has sometimes been called a Hillbilly Speed Bump.  The first time I saw one like that alongside the road was on a trip to Texas, maybe 30 years ago.  Normally a warm-weather animal, armadillos have migrated over the decades from our most southern states, up through Arkansas and Oklahoma, and have now been spotted regularly in Missouri for several years.  But you won’t catch me inviting one to stick around my place; besides the risk to flower beds, did you know that armadillos can carry the bacteria for Hansen’s disease, more commonly called leprosy?  My research for today’s post told me that only about 5% of the human population is susceptible to catching that, with the rest of us having a natural immunity, and that it’s actually treatable now, but I’m not taking any chances.  The short legs, triangular faces, and long skinny tails remind me way too much of a possum.  And you already know what I think about those.

Who’s your outdoor nemesis?  Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Unlikely Success

Unlikely Success

If you live, or work, or have travelled in West Central Missouri much, you’ve probably seen the subject of today’s photo.  Stationed like a sentinel along the south side of Highway 50 between Sedalia and Warrensburg, a tenacious tree spreads the canopy of its branches atop an old farm silo, catching the eye with its audacity.  It seems to defy the odds by its very existence.

Since moving to this area back in October of 1992, I’ve driven across that stretch of road countless times, and marveled at this tree each one of them.  How did it get started there?  How long had the roof been off the silo when it sprouted, or was there just a little glimmer of sunlight getting through somewhere that allowed it to grow? How many seasons did it take the trunk to stretch up high enough so that we could all see the valiant efforts made by what started as one tiny seed?

Apparently, my inquiring mind is not the only one to ponder these questions.  Type the words “silo trees” into the internet search engine of your choice, and you’ll find articles galore, from all across the country.  The Missouri Department of Conservation website’s archive has an article that mentions this specimen–and several others in the state–that was published in 1995.  If you’re interested, the link is here:  http://mdc.mo.gov/conmag/1995/10/silo-tree

I like to think of it as a lesson in perseverance; sort of a “Little Engine that Could” kind of story.  Seemingly insurmountable odds may not be as bad as we think.  That snarl of a problem that has you all knotted up inside probably has a workable solution, one way or another.  Remember that old joke about how to eat an elephant?  (one bite at a time!)  If you’re struggling with something today, look again at the picture of this tree. Deep breath.  Say a prayer. And just take the Next Step.

The Nose Knows

The Nose Knows

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what about odors?  Why in the Sam Hill do some dogs think they simply must roll in what we consider the foulest-smelling substance they can find, and then trot, grinning from ear to ear, back into the house, looking for all the world like they’ve just solved the Mysteries of the Universe? I am darned if I can figure this out.

Bindi, the very good dog who showed up here at the farm on the day after Thanksgiving last year, and who has been a true Godsend for 99% of the time since, is one of those types.  She seems to think she’s applying perfume by flopping down onto her side, forcefully pressing one ear and the side of her neck into a particular spot on the ground, and pushing forward with her head and shoulder to smear who-knows-what substance deep into her otherwise pristine fur.  Sometimes she wears Eau de Catpoop.  On occasion it’s Eau de Cowflop.  But a few times it was–horror of horrors–Eau de Dead Raccoon.  Yecchh!

My dear sister-in-law Abby told me yesterday on the phone that her vet told her there’s a technical term for this, and that it’s called “scent ecstasy”.  This intrigued me, so I Googled it.  All I saw were a bunch of links pertaining to drug-sniffing dogs and something called MDMA.  No doubt the Internet Police will be keeping a watchful eye on me now.

Then I did a search for “why dogs roll in stinky stuff”, since sometimes the non-technical terms tell us just as much, and maybe keep us out of trouble.  All sorts of theories abound, with the most likely one being something about dogs–as hunters–wanting to disguise their own smell to make it easier to sneak up on potential prey.  An instinctual behavior, so to speak, that no amount of Purina products can completely overcome.

Thankfully, though, in all the years I’ve lived in the Boonies, only one of my dogs has been victim of the Ultimate Odiferous Offense: that of being sprayed by a skunk. I called the vet’s office, where Heather L. was (as usual) able to provide excellent advice.  She told me to mix a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda, and a bit of dish soap (the kind with degreaser) and apply that (outside, of course) to the area of the dog that had been squirted by the skunk’s oil.  After vigorous massaging of this solution into the dog’s fur, a warm water rinse, a regular shampoo, another thorough rinse, and a long airing out, the dog was actually able to come back inside the house that evening.  Amazing.

Now it’s your turn.  Leave a comment with your dog’s favorite cologne.  And here’s hoping he or she (or you!) never gets skunked!

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Mr. Tur-tell

Mr. Tur-tell

At last Sunday’s annual family reunion, there was–as always–enough food brought in to feed far more than the 76 people in attendance.  If there’s one thing we know how to do well, it’s eat. Another area in which some of us excel is in jokes, both the spoken and the practical. For instance, as we worked our way down the buffet line, I discreetly pointed out to my sister the warm crockpot filled with deep-fried, breaded turtle meat.  Call it a hunch, but I just sorta figured that Sis wouldn’t be hankering for any of that delicacy, yet she might not identify the crock’s contents in all the excitement of the day.  She waited until we’d parked ourselves at the table with her husband and our parents before casually mentioning that No, she really didn’t think she was ready to try eating turtle just yet.

With his fork paused in mid-air, my dear brother-in-law’s face was priceless.  “Turtle?” he rasped, in an almost choking voice; “there is turtle over there?” Then his eyes switched downward to his own plate of now partially-consumed food. “Is there some Here?”  Sweet as ever on the surface, but with just an undertone of orneriness, Sis let the question hang for just a moment, before assuring him that no turtle parts had crept their way onto his plate. His relief was obvious.

Some folks, however, actually look forward to a meal that includes snapping turtle, and apparently it’s been a long tradition in the May Clan.  (See last year’s post “Safety in Numbers”). When you’re struggling through the Depression with eleven kids to feed, you often eat whatever you can catch.  I know my cousin Jeffrey liked turtle, but I’ve never gotten up the nerve to try it, myself. I did stop the truck to snap the photo that I’m using with this post when I spotted one in the road on my way home recently, though, and looked up Snapping Turtles on the Missouri Conservation website. They’re legal to harvest (except for the Alligator Snapping Turtle, which is endangered and protected), as long as you have a fishing license. They consume fish, snails, bugs, birds, small mammals and some water plants, and have been known to turn up on the hooks of trot lines or jug lines instead of the catfish for which those devices are usually intended.

Getting back to the jokes, though, it’s difficult for me to look at a terrapin without thinking of a story my dad told us when we were kids, all gathered around the family supper table.  It involved three unlikely friends:  the proverbial tortoise and the hare (or at least cousins thereof), and a buzzard.  They were poor and barely scraping by, but they all got along just fine.  As time went by, the bunny was separated from his buddies, and was therefore not in on the windfall that resulted from their chance finding of some valuable commodity.  While the buzzard and the turtle moved onto a large estate with expansive gardens and uniformed servants, the rabbit struggled to survive by running a lawn care service. One day he was called upon to bring manure for the gardens at the residence of his old friends.

The rabbit’s knock at the handsome door was answered by a snooty butler. “Yes?” he drawled, looking down his nose at the humble bunny.

“Hey, is Ol’ Turtle around?” the rabbit asked.

“Mr. Tur-TELL is down at the well.” the haughty servant replied.

“Huh.  How ’bout Ol’ Buzzard, then?”

“Mr. Buz-ZARD is out in the yard” spoke the butler.

“I see” said the bunny, who by now had suffered just about all the pretention he could tolerate.  “Then would you be so kind as to inform Mr. Tur-TELL down at the well, and Mr. Buz-ZARD out in the yard, that Mr. Rab-BIT is here . . . (and here Daddy made a quick glance toward Mother, who had almost imperceptibly stiffened in anticipation) . . . with the Fertilizer!”

Thanks, Daddy, for always keeping us laughing.  You still know how to tell ’em.  Happy Father’s Day!

A Garden Experiment

A Garden Experiment

Are you a hunter or a gatherer, or both? How about a gardener or a farmer, either by nature or nurture, or maybe a combination thereof?  Whatever the reason(s), I think at least a smidgen of all of those names would apply to me, in addition to several others, some of which are even printable.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of planting and tending gardens with my mother and other relatives.  Uncle D. wanted his potatoes in the ground by St Patrick’s day, weather permitting.  Aunt C. told me the sweet corn should be tasseling by the 4th of July.  A distant cousin whose name I don’t even recall taught me that one of the sweetest vegetables in the world is the garden-fresh pea, popped out of the pod and straight into a 10-year-old’s mouth, right off the vine . . . and I didn’t even like peas!

After several years of hiatus from the hobby, I’m thankful to have a garden growing out back of my house again.  The weather’s been so wet that it’s not as far along as I would have liked, but I’m experimenting with a new system this season. With rare foresight, I’ve been saving the triple-layered paper sacks that formerly surrounded 50 pounds of feed for my chickens.  With a stout pair of scissors, I nipped the folded-in bottom corners and made long cuts up the sides, then placed the opened flat bags end-to-end between the rows of squash, cucumbers, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, etc. The paper was then covered with thick flakes of last-year’s hay.  Straw would probably be better for this, but hay is what I have available.  Additional tufts of hay were tamped down between the plants within the rows of the larger items.  I’ll still have to weed the lettuce row, for instance, but in a large part of the garden this method should (hopefully) block the weeds, hold in the moisture, give me clean material on which to walk, and add the bonus of being biodegradable.

I’ll keep y’all posted on how it goes.  Feel free to leave a comment with your garden solutions if you like, and if you have any ideas on what is eating holes in the leaves of my eggplant, and what I can (organically) do about it, let me know.  Happy Gardening!

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Strawberry Pie Recipe

Strawberry Pie Recipe

This week I heard something that caught me by surprise:  a strawberry isn’t truly a berry.  What?! This sounded like one of those urban myths you read about, so I did a tiny bit of research. True enough, the botanical definition of a berry is “a simple fruit having seeds and pulp produced from a single ovary.” Conversely, our friend the strawberry is termed an “aggregate accessory fruit”, as is the dewberry, the raspberry and the blackberry. Weird, huh?

But berry or not, the unmistakably lush flavor of a sun-ripened, locally grown, freshly picked strawberry ranks fairly high on my list of Favorite Things in Springtime. And years ago, while living in Springfield, Missouri, the following recipe for Strawberry Pie was given to me by my neighbor, a dear, kind lady from Galesburg, Illinois named Jeanne Wallace.  If you’ve ever had a better strawberry pie than this one, I’d sure like to know about it, because Jeanne’s version (like all of her recipes that I ever tasted) is really top notch!

Here’s the recipe, in my own words:

1 prebaked pie shell (I prefer homemade, but suit yourself)

4 cups strawberries, washed & decapitated (you know, cut off the green stuff at the top)

3/4 cup sugar

1 Tablespoon cornstarch

1 1/2 cups cold water

1 small box strawberry gelatin

Stir sugar and cornstarch together in a medium saucepan. Slowly add cold water, stirring to dissolve the cornstarch. Begin cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, and when it gets hot, add the gelatin. Cook and stir until thick and clear. Cool syrup, then pour over the strawberries you’ve placed in the baked pie shell. Chill a few hours to set. Serve with whipped cream if you like.

As you can see in the photos below, I placed some of the berries upside down in the pie shell first.  This looks nifty, but it didn’t seem full enough, so I quartered more strawberries and sprinkled them over the top of the arrangement before adding the glaze. Another option is to halve or quarter all the berries, and just pile them in, which tastes just as good. And don’t worry if the glaze seems thinner than you expect when cooked or even cooled; a few hours in the refrigerator will set the gelatin nicely.

Enjoy!

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It’s All the Buzz

It’s All the Buzz

Amid the Springtime rituals of planning and planting a garden, oohing and ahhing over the procession of crocus, hyacinth, daffodil, jonquil and tulip blooms making their brief but spectacular showings, and possibly cussing over the mower and the tiller and the trimmer that aren’t sure they’re ready to emerge from their winter hibernation, arrive those perfectly pleasurable days when the fruit trees are blooming.  A good year means that no late ice storm or deep freeze or wind so strong that the blossoms get literally “nipped in the bud” occurs.  Thankfully, this appears to be one of those years.

Yesterday my friend Michelle was here.  We set metal t-posts in a 20 x 30 perimeter, stretched and secured 4′ high woven wire around it to keep the varmints out, and hung an old gate for the entryway to my new garden.  It has been several years since I’ve had a garden, and the truth is, I’m so excited about it I can barely contain myself!  Maybe it’s the strong farmer influence in my genetic history manifesting itself, but I’ve always felt somehow incomplete during those years without a vegetable patch.  Witnessing the growth cycle of the plants and enjoying the bounty of the produce is such an elemental pleasure, but a strong one that pulls me in, year after year, just as the orchard does.

After the garden perimeter preparations, we worked on refreshing the mulched areas underneath the two apple trees near the garden.  Both of these trees were here when I moved to the farm, and I’ve never figured out the specific types.  I just know that one gets yellow apples that stay fairly crisp and somewhat tart when ripened, while the other produces red apples with a softer texture and a juicy, sweet flavor.  It was interesting to note that the blooms of the “yellow” apple tree had more pink tint to them than the ones for the “red” variety.  What made the task of mulching so much less like work, however, was the amazing aroma of those apple blossoms.  The air around their branches was perfumed with a lilac-like sweetness, one of those smells it seems I can almost taste.  The honeybees were tasting it, or at least giving the impression that they were.  Michelle and I were careful not to disturb them, knowing that they were doing a more important job than we were.  After all, the mulch just makes it easier to mow around the trees, and helps to hold in some moisture underneath.  The bees, though, help in the pollination process that allow those blossoms to become the fruit for next Fall’s harvest, which is what it’s all about anyway.

So, here’s to the Buzz!  Do you have an orchard?  And what’s in your garden?

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