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Friday, November 14, 2014

Asking some hard questions


I'm heartbroken about not having goats in my life anymore. The past few days have been sunny, and I've been outside more, walking by the glaringly empty, quiet goat barn, without anyone maahing at me as I stroll by. Our homestead feels fake without goats, like we are not real farmers anymore. I feel freer now, less busy with milking and making cheese, but I'm also emptier.
Balancing homesteading with our freedom is tricky. We love growing our own food, raising animals for milk and meat and eggs, but it takes a toll: You have to be there. Or if you want to go away, you have to arrange for people to milk the goats, feed the pigs, ducks, chickens, and dog, and water the huge garden. That's a tall order.

So here's the thing: Both my husband Steve and I have a lot of adventure and adrenaline in our genetic makeup. Steve grew up in Papua New Guinea for the first ten years of his life, and later he traveled the world, trekking for days in the Himalayas and other exotic places. He was a rock climber and got a thrill from dangling down for hundreds of feet off a slap of rock, secured only by a rope. He also (I shudder to imagine it) loved exploring deep, dark, scary caves.
Myself, I had plenty of my own adrenaline seeking going on. My only mode of transportation for years were various motorcycles, and I toured to faraway places like Alaska. I took off alone on a motorcycle trip around the country with my Honda 800. (Where I ended up creating an organic farm in the Ozarks in Oklahoma, for a millionare who was scared of Y2K and wanted to be self sufficient. But that's a story for another time.) Also, I was a hang gliding pilot, throwing myself off various mountains in the Pacific Northwest.

So you see, both Steve and I have plenty of adventure in us.
When you are homesteading, however, you have to be a homebody. When we met 13 years ago, we were both ready to settle down. And we did. We grew our roots deeply into this land of ours that we transformed from an overgrown alder forest into a productive homestead, nurturing all kinds of vegetables, fruits, berries, animals, flowers, herbs and eventually, three children.
We are lucky that we have an incredible community of friends and neighbors, and these people happily took on regular milking shifts for a decade. A decade! If it hadn't been for their help, I would have never gotten goats. Our family of five would have resented being tied down to the homestead. We were able to get away a lot: hiking, backpacking, road tripping.
But still... we had to come back.

I got rid of my goats so I could decrease my work load and stress. Because as much fun as goats are, they also deliver plenty of stress, say when a goat decides to give birth in the middle of the night, but things don't progress in labor, and then you have to push your arm into the screaming goat's uterus and pull out babies. Sometimes they are dead. That's hard. That's stressful.
And our children are getting older. They want to do things other than stay at home to play with baby goats (why, oh why is there anything more important than playing with baby goats???).
So for now, we have our freedom back, and that's okay with me, and maybe even a little exciting. And sad.

To celebrate our freedom, Steve took the boys on a canoe camping trip on the Skagit and Sauk River last week, in the beautiful sunny but bitter cold weather. I wasn't there because I really, really like my wood stove and soft bed, but the guys took pictures, and we want to share them with you, so you can celebrate our freedom with us.  And celebrate Luke's seven pound silver salmon!!!


And then you can come over for tea and cry with me, and let me show you pictures of the baby goats.

Packing the canoe.  Mama makes them all put on life vests immediately.
They packed massive amounts of food.
Dad kisses Eva goodbye.  Sorry, girl.  This is a boy's trip only.
There they go.  I let them go with a nervous heart.  Rivers scare me a little.
Bye, bye! Be safe!
They found this rotten King salmon head.  This is a size nine boot, so it's big.
Do you see the two eagles in the tree?
That's my boys, paddling in a side channel.
Steve, the best Dad in the world.  Really.
Pretty, yes?  There's fish in that water, I tell ya.
Did I tell you that the purpose of this trip was not only Dad-Sons bonding time, but fishing, fishing, fishing?

Looking at this picture makes me wish I had been there.
It was cold, really cold.


Luke, the fishing champion, has a big silver on the line. Steve stands guard with the net.
He got him!!!  He got him!!! Seven pounds!!!!!
It's a monster!!!
The mighty hunters and gatherers paddling home...
... to show off their prize to the women!
And tonight, my family is cooking me dinner (see salmon on the left).

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Makin' bacon... how to cure and smoke bacon without nitrates

You don't need to raise and slaughter your own pigs to make your own nitrate-free bacon. You could just buy naturally raised, organic pork belly and make bacon yourself, at a fraction of the cost of buying the stuff in the store.
I'm not here to preach to you about eating bacon without nitrates, but if you want to learn why it's important to eat meat without cancer-causing nitrates, you can read about it here. Steve and I take pride in raising our own organic meat, and since we had our four pigs slaughtered last week and needed to make room in the freezer, we decided to make nitrate-free bacon with last year's pig belly, patiently waiting in the freezer.
Our friend gave us a smoker he had fashioned out of an old stainless steel refrigerator. It worked like a charm!
Let me show you how we cured and smoked our own bacon, and – spoiler alert – it tastes damn good!

Start with about five pounds of pork belly, skin or rind taken off.
Mix ½ cup of sea salt,
½ cup maple syrup (you can use sugar if you want),
any spices you might want in there (we used organic salt-free spice mix from Costco).

Rub the bacon vigorously with this spice mix. Make sure you get every surface of the pig belly coated.

Put it on a rack (like a rack you cool cookies on) on top of a big enough cookie sheet or casserole dish to catch all the liquid that will be released.
Leave it in the fridge for a couple of days.  Opinions on the length of time vary widely.  We left ours in for three days, and it turned out almost too salty.
Remember to check it every day, to make sure it's happy and comfortable in there all alone, and to empty the liquid that will be released into the dish underneath the rack.




When it comes out of the fridge, it should have firmed up, leaked a bunch of liquid and look like this:


Now wash off all the spice mixture with water, and do a good job of it.  Pat it dry with paper towels and let it sit in the fridge to dry off for another whole day.
When that's over with, you could use the bacon just like that, sliced and "green", as they say, but do freeze it.  You don't want to get botulism by now hanging it from a rafter or something.
Or you can smoke it to add flavor, help preserve it, and make it perfect, which is what we did.  
They say apple and hickory wood is great for this, but we didn't have any, so Steve made alder chips from dry firewood he had sitting around.  He also ran some through his planer to make smaller saw-dust type chips.  The terrible, rusty looking thing is the fridge we used to smoke the bacon.


Steve put the alder chips in a cast iron skillet on a hot plate into the lower compartment of the smoker.  Soon, it built up smoke, and we put our bacon in the smoker.  It has a thermometer that shows us the temperature inside the smoker, which is very nice so you don't have to keep opening it.




The recipe wants you to smoke the meat at very low temperature until the inside of the meat reaches 150 degrees.  We spent hours on the internet looking through recipes and reading through meat curing forums, and there are lots of different opinions.  We ended up keeping the inside temperature of the smoker around 170 degrees (or lower) for five hours.  When the meat reached an inside temperature of 150 degrees, we took it out.



The whole backyard smelled like bacon, and both humans and dogs stopped by attracted by the smells coming forth from the ugly, rusty, smoke-spewing thing.
Once it came out, we fried up some bacon on the spot.  It tasted great, although a little salty on the outside.  I think ours turned out salty because our bacon had been cut into small strips instead of a whole belly, so it absorbed more salt.




Hopefully, this has inspired you to make your own bacon!  Let me know about your smoking adventures!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What's going on here?

I am allowed to brag about my kid, right?  Bear with me here.  Because the thing is: My ten-year old has been bringing home the bacon... uhmm I mean... the salmon. He and his Dad sneak out of bed in the wee hours so they can fish at the river just at day break. That's when the salmon bite, I hear. Not that I know anything about fishing. All I know is that the guys come back from some of these excursions with big, bright smiles, and a salmon in their arms. Literally.
Typically, it goes something like this: I sit bleary eyed at the breakfast table with little Eva and our eleven-year old son who doesn't care much about fishing. A car pulls up, the door opens, I jump up to see if they caught anything. If there is a fish, I yell and scream. Lukas always gives his Dad a knowing look and says, “I know she'd freak out.”
Then I run to get the camera, snap a picture, and drill the guys about every detail of their adventure. I'm so proud of those two providers. We've had some good meals lately.





Talking of meals: We smoked our the bacon from our last year's pigs the other day. We've never done it ourselves, and I will write a separate blog entry about how we did it and what recipe we used. The end result was good, albeit a little salty.
We smoke it with alder chips and don't use nitrate, so it's healthier.  Since we don't want to die from the ever so slight chance of botulism, we freeze it after it's smoked.  On the other hand, we might not even freeze it but eat all of it immediately, since our four pigs will get slaughtered on Friday, and we need to make space in the freezer.



Aside from bacon makin', we are free to pursue other interests, since it has been raining non-stop, and we can't play outside much.  That means that this here Mama spends a lot of time in front of her spinning wheel and behind the knitting needles, even when other people in the family do fun things like carve pumpkins.  I'm glad my knitting portable, so I can move where the action is, if I so desire to spend time with my noisy children.
The fiber in the picture below comes from an angora rabbit, and it is softer than a baby's bottom.  I got the fiber from my friend when we visited her last week.  If you want some of her awesome fiber, visit her website here.






While I knit and spin and avoid cleaning the house, my kids spend hours making noise music.  They are getting pretty good and are involving little Eva, letting her take over the microphone every now and then.  Our friends gave us a drum set.  I don't know what I was thinking, agreeing to this.
And Steve?  Well, Steve does manly things, like hoisting a 300 pound cast iron claw foot bath tub up into the second floor window of the new addition.  Or scouting out new fishing spots.  Or cleaning out gutters 25 feet off the ground.  Smoking meat.  Rounding up escaped pigs in the dark.  You know.  Stuff like that.





And you?  What are you up to these days?
I'm leaving you with some autumn-y images.  Stay warm, hear?