Farm Fresh and Frugal

Spirited Vanilla Pears

MaryAnnI guess I should count myself lucky that we have a good climate for pears and peaches. Currently we have two of each that produce fruit. The two pear trees I purchased from Arbor Day, and they were tiny little twigs when they arrived. One is a Kieffer, the other is a Bartlett. They are now full grown and incredibly productive, almost too productive. Both are great varieties for canning. Last year I when I canned them I did two variations, one I added cinnamon and ginger to, the other I added a bay leaf, lemon peel and pepper. This year I decided to step it up a notch and make some spirited pears. 

I’ve been putting off canning them for a few weeks now but it finally came down either pulling out the canning pot or having to compost them soon. I half-heartedly tried to convince my husband we needed a fruit press so he could turn them into alcohol but he wasn’t buying it. It seems he still has enough work to finish from all the fruit I had him ferment last year. Instead I had to settle on adding alcohol to them as I canned. There were a couple of variations but I opted for Kahlua and a vanilla bean. I admit, this was due in part that I had a bottle of Kahlua in the cabinet that wasn’t being used and it avoided having the take a trip to the liquor store for a bottle of good brandy.  

Spirited Vanilla Pears

After sorting through what seemed like a couple of hundred pears, I had them broken down to two piles, one for canning and one for the cows. Even after canning 10 pints of spirited pears, I still have more left than I'd like. Tomorrow I’ll make a batch of pear butter for holiday gifts, and I’ll probably still have 10 pounds left. I did see an article for freezing pears and Christmas is coming soon. Maybe a nice fruit press would be an ideal gift. Having some pears on hand to thaw and ferment sounds like a perfect test run for a new press.

Spirited Vanilla Pears

  • One batch light syrup
  • Pears, peeled, seeded and cut in quarters or halved
  • Kahlua (brandy or rum will work also)
  • Vanilla bean

Directions: Make a batch of light syrup. I use 5 1/2 cups water and 2 cups sugar for mine. 

As you peel and cut the pears, treat them against browning with a solution of citric acid and water.

Heat the pears through in the syrup, about 15 minutes. To each jar add 1/2 tablespoon Kahlua and about a 1/2-inch piece vanilla bean.

Using a slotted spoon add pears to sterilized jars. Fill the jars with syrup leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Wipe the rims and seal the jars. Boil can for 20 minutes.

Shopping for Flooring

MaryAnnSo I’ve finally caved in and agreed that putting off the kitchen and dining room remodel is not really an option any longer, it simply needs to be done. I’m calling it the project from hell and already have anxiety from it and it hasn’t even begun. Yesterday I ventured out to start doing some research and gathering some ideas on what might be possible. The countertops and cabinets aren't the issue. The problem is the choice in flooring materials.

The worse part is that we've already been out looking and discussed the options for years and I still don't know what to do. The only thing I do know is that I don't want tile. I have tile now and after a day in the kitchen my back is killing me from standing on it. I also hate the dirty grout, everything shatters on it when dropped and that it is so cold.

I had managed to narrow it down to linoleum, vinyl sheeting or hardwood, but this is where I got stuck. I'm a 'tree-hugger' and in all of the decisions we make I take into consideration the sustainability factor, hence the metal roof and solar panels. Linoleum wins for the 'green' factor and I'm not opposed to it. The floor is going into the kitchen, dining, mudroom and entry. It's going to see plenty of abuse.

The warranty on linoleum is the weakest of all the options and I'm not positive it will hold up to the abuse although I’ve heard stories of it being found in applications 60 years old and it still looks good. The color choices are limited and it does need to be sealed every year and I’m just not sure I need any more annual projects.

Vinyl would be the best option when it comes to possible water issues, comfort level and low maintenance but it is worst for the 'green' factor and will possibly need to be replaced at some point.

Hardwood is somewhere in between. Not as hard on my back as tile, durable and should last forever. I’d need to make sure it blended with the existing wood floors and of all the options it is probably the most expensive. Whatever I choose, I want to make sure I do this once and it outlasts me.

George's Floor Covering

So what to do? I took a ride back down to the flooring store today to see if I could get some more answers. I didn’t have much hope of accomplishing anything by it since I had my 5-year-old sidekick along, but for once I lucked out.

First the owner’s daughter was there today and she had her dog with her, otherwise known as instant entertainment, so I actually got to speak to someone and hold a conversation, which is no small miracle when shopping with a child. Thank goodness for that big bundle of fur!

The trip got even better because her dad, the owner, came in. I’m assuming his name is George since the shop name is George’s Floor Covering, but I could be wrong. Well, George learned the trade from the bottom up by starting in the business working for someone when he was 16. He’s seen it all and done it all, and it was so nice to actually talk to someone who knew their trade instead of some chirpy sales guy who’s full of lip service and can’t truly answer a thing.

While the giggling child was entertained by the big wonderful fur ball, I managed to have a substantial conversation and make a decision on what to do for the floor.

Engineered hardwood was the winner when it was all said and done, and I even found one that will coordinate perfectly with the existing wood floors. Not the cheapest of the options but one that will last my lifetime and I’ll never have to do this again.

I love shopping the small local businesses. Chances of finding someone who knows what they are talking about are worth the added cost. It’s harder and harder to find the old-school kind of knowledge I lucked out locating today. As the older generation retires, we are losing so much knowledge that can’t be replaced. Hopefully someone will care enough to learn the trades and preserve the knowledge before all is lost to the big box do it cheaper way of thinking.

Collard and Sausage Risotto

MaryAnnMonday night was typical, it was 5:30 and I had no idea what to make for dinner. Katie and I had just gotten home a short time ago, and I was mentally exhausted from running around all day. I’d been absently staring at the collard greens on the counter for about 15 minutes and had no clue what to do with them other than the fact that they needed to be used for dinner. I had picked them up Saturday with our CSA basket and by Tuesday they probably would have been chicken snacks, not that the girls would have minded. I had intended to make homemade noodles for dinner but given that it was late and I was hungry that wasn’t going to work. I hadn't had time to make the noodles in the morning and then after Katie got off the bus, I had to take a ride to my dad's and before coming home drop off a video at the library.

Ever since Katie was very little we've referred to the hours of 4 to 6 as the "witching hours," the out-of-control, I-needed-a-nap-and-haven't-had-one time when my patience is put to the ultimate test. Tonight was no different.

Fortunately my husband had taken some sausage out of the freezer the day before and never got around to using it so I had something besides the collards to work with. Since pasta was out and I didn’t have any potatoes that meant risotto, rice or couscous. I opted for risotto. Out came the pressure cooker and 20 minutes later dinner was served.

Collards and Sausage Risotto

  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 8 to 10 stems of collard greens
  • 1 pound bulk sausage
  • 1 cup risotto
  • 2 cups chicken broth

Add chopped onion and a tablespoon or two of butter to pressure cooker and sauté until translucent.  Add risotto and broth and bring up to pressure. Cook on medium pressure for 7 minutes. Let pressure reduce on its own.

While the risotto is cooking, add sausage to separate pan and cook through until no longer pink.

Wash and chop greens. Add to sausage with a bit of broth, cover and let cook until greens are bright and wilted. Add sausage and greens to risotto pot. Mix it all together and serve.

organic collard greens | Fotolia.com/Brent Hofacker 

Organic collard greens. Photo: Fotolia.com/Brent Hofacker

Trash to Treasure

MaryAnnIn an attempt to de-stuff my house I have come to love the thrift store. I think I may now have my 6-year-old hooked on it also, only her love affair with it isn’t necessarily for de-stuffing purposes. Previously when I had a pile of stuff that needed to find a new home I would call Big Brother Big Sisters and have them pick it up, which truth be told was easier than lugging it all away myself. I forget the purpose for my initial trip, but I do remember my friend Lyle and I going to the thrift store at the Southbury Training School looking for who knows what. When I saw all the items they carried and would accept, I fell in love. When I purchased a couple of small items for next to nothing, I fell deeper in love.

I’ve made the trip now four or five times with the car loaded. Many of the items I know I could attempt to sell and try to earn some money for. Some I have tried with no success; bikes and an area rug are just a couple. Tag sales are great but I don’t have the patience and in the end there is still leftover stuff to get rid of. I’ve used Craigslist, but I always get nervous of who is coming to my house to pick the stuff up. I’ve never had a problem, but I am always afraid after reading stories on line. Honestly, I just want the stuff gone, out of my house, and the space it occupied back. Occasionally I’ll put it out on the front lawn, but then there is always the chance of rain and you are lugging it back inside again. Now it all goes in the car and to the local bargain hunters' paradise.

Many years ago I used to go to the antique stores quite often with my mom and stepfather. I never became a collector of anything valuable; I liked to look around, it was like a treasure hunt and always exciting when I found something I liked. For a while I collected old hats, now Katie plays with them for dress up. Some odds and ends of old glass bottles I have kept, but most of the stuff has been passed on to some happy new owner. Finding things in the thrift store produces the same excitement just at an even lower cost. For example, after one trip to unload stuff, I had some time so I browsed around and found a nut grinder and a small stainless steel fry pan. Both items on my wish list for the kitchen, but because of cost I always put them off and made due with what I had. For less than $2, I now have the perfect pan for frying eggs and the nut grinder I wanted for baking.

I love it even more that they accept pretty much anything, especially children's toys. Recently I dropped off my beloved collection of Disney VHS tapes. I collected them for years for myself, and after the TV needed to be replaced, we could no longer connect the VCR. I had them in the closet for a while and finally decided it was pointless. I couldn’t watch them so why hold on to them? Sure I could have had them converted, but honestly, it costs me a lot less to replace the ones I really liked with used DVDs than to pay someone to convert them, so off to the thrift store they went.

This week I had a box full of hinges and door knobs that I dropped off. They were all perfectly good and usable so I didn’t want to throw them out. The thrift shop was happy to have them. When I dropped them off I spent time shopping around and found a tube pan, something else on my wish list. It cost me $1. If I find I don’t use it often enough for it to earn its space in the kitchen then back to the thrift store it will go, and I won’t feel guilty about wasting $1.00 purchasing it.

I’m thankful that the thrift store is there. So much of what myself and others no longer use avoids the landfills and finds a new purpose. It reduces so much waste from resources to packaging. There are a few things I still prefer to purchase new like shoes and bed linens, but everything now is going on a wish list for the thrift store treasure hunt. Of course for everything one thing that comes home I try to send at least two out, the last thing I need is to collect more stuff.

items for resale | Fotolia/Kellis 

Photo: Fotolia/Kellis

When Less is More

MaryAnnI don’t remember who I was talking to recently or what the conversation was about but I do remember one thing that person said, “It’s all about finding balance.” That one statement could not be any simpler and yet so powerful. It is something I strive for daily. The problem with trying to achieve balance is that it is not something you ever really complete because as soon as you find it, things shift and you are left searching for it all over again.

I’m not sure what happened between the time I was a child and the time I had one, but something in society has changed dramatically and I have a problem with it. It is almost impossible to find a balance in today’s world. Everything is rushed and planned and plugged in, “more” seems to be a common motto for everyone. I tend not to fit into this mold and sometimes I feel very out of place in common society, but I’m OK with that. I don’t want “more,” I want less, much less.

Maybe I just didn’t know any better, but it seems like when I was child the one thing there was more of was time. Time for dinner. Time for family. Time for fun. We all ate dinner together as a family, at home, around the same table. It wasn’t drive through at the golden arches on the way to some scheduled event. We talked together. All the children in the neighborhood played together. We’d gather at someone’s house and play outside together, it wasn’t organized. Today children are all “plugged in” to some electronic device or another, no one plays anymore much less communicates. Heaven forbid you don’t have your child registered in at least five organized clubs, sports, events or whatever. You’ll get a note sent home asking what is wrong. When did we stop letting children be children. Now we barely see most of the family because everyone’s so busy with travel camps and classes and whatever else is deemed important nowadays.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with children doing sports or being involved in an activity but again it’s about balance. Katie has one after-school class, it’s an hour every week, and it’s enough. I don’t want to spend my time rushing around stressed in traffic in the car running from place to place. We spend our time at the farm visiting, or outside in the yard, or home playing. Although I have more things to do than time to do it in I still try to find a balance and at least one day a week I put it all on hold and spend time with her, doing things, going somewhere, visiting friends.

Take the time to smell the roses, or go fishing | iStockphoto.com/sculpies 

Stop and smell the roses, or go fishing, to find your balance in life. Photo: iStockphoto/sculpies

I also find that everyone feels you need to have “more” stuff, especially when it comes to children and toys. Stuff is a big issue for me. Children don’t need more stuff, they need you. I bet Katie wouldn’t remember one thing she got for Christmas if you asked her, but she remembers going to the ice skating show we got tickets to for at Christmastime. It’s time spent they remember not the stuff.

I am constantly going through closets and bins getting rid of stuff. Every year each closet and cabinet gets cleaned out. I have a rule, if I haven’t looked for it or used it in a year out it goes. The only exception is funeral and wedding attire. I never understood when people say they need a bigger house because they don’t have enough room for their stuff. Maybe the problem really is you need less stuff, not more room. You’d be surprised how much of that stuff you really don’t need and how good it feels when it’s gone.

In the quest to find balance I’ve tried to keep it simple. It isn’t always easy and sometimes you have to learn to say “no.” Sometimes you need to let go of things you’ve been hanging on to. I had a number of my grandmother’s items for years that I finally passed on. I realized it was my memories of her that I cherished not the lamp that was stored in the basement. Someone else is now enjoying that lamp, and I still have all the memories of time with her just the same without it.

Sometimes you just need to stop and really consider what’s important and what really matters. Finding a balance is one of the hardest things to do but the closer you get to it the better you feel. I’ve found the simpler the things are in life the easier it is to find it.

Bribing Cows

MaryAnnIt was inevitable I suppose, but my cow Ed was finally sent to the butcher. To make matters worse, the older cows that I spent two years bribing with apples and corn got sent to auction the same day. In the summer, they wander through close to 100 acres of pasture so I don’t get to see them as often. In winter, they tend to stay closer to the feed troughs so it is easier to visit. While summer provides a variety of choices for grazing, winter brings a steady diet of silage so apples are a treat worth coming for. I assumed I’d have a long winter of bribery ahead of me before I could coax any of the remaining cows to come to me.

Eddie's Girlfriend 

Eddy's Girlfriend

I work for a neighboring farm in the summer helping the farmer’s wife at the market on Saturdays and occasionally in the fields when the need arises. There are usually plenty of apples stored in the old milk house all winter and occasionally I’ll go and pick out the ones that are starting to go bad and take the bucket of yummies down to Paul’s to bribe the cows with. With the apple harvest being poor this year and another extremely cold winter predicted I didn’t expect any great success.

We have two very prolific pears trees in our yard, and last week, while cleaning up and working on mulch, I picked up all the fallen pears and headed to the farm; no sense letting them go to waste, with pigs, sheep and goats, I figured someone would eat them, besides if the cows liked apples maybe I could bribe them with pears as well. Katie and I gathered our bucket and took a walk out to where the cows were grazing. As luck would have it we made a few new friends.

Bribing Cows

The cows are funny, most will avoid you, but all it takes is one curious cow to see what you’re offering and the next thing you know you’re surrounded. As soon as the rest see one eating from your hands, they suddenly become curious and within a few minutes there is a whole bunch of head butting going on. After a few trips into the pasture with pears, I now have two that will readily come to me. One is female that was born two or three winters ago that we named Ditto. The other I refer to as Eddy’s Girlfriend since she and Ed were often found together in the pasture. Both are sweet, and Ditto will actually now come with or without the pears. A couple more buckets of treats and hopefully I can coax a few more to come to me. Maybe it won’t be such a lonely winter after all.

Chicken Dumpling Soup

MaryAnnI hate to waste food so I try to stay on top of what is in the fridge and make sure it gets used up before it gets thrown out. It makes for some interesting meals. Lately Monday seems to be ‘clean out the fridge’ day. After taking into consideration what was in the fridge and the weather, I decided on soup for dinner. Soup is one of the best ways for using up leftovers since you can put just about anything in the pot and still have it come out tasting great regardless of your cooking skills.

If you are the type of person who needs precise recipes, you probably want to stop reading this now and go elsewhere. I’m not that good at measuring and my recipes (if you can call them recipes) are loosely defined at best. For as much as I cook, I could never write a cookbook for this reason alone. About the only time I take care with measuring is when making soap. I’ve learned the hard way that soap is not as forgiving, pretty much everything else that comes out the kitchen is, fortunately.

In cleaning out the fridge I found half an onion and yellow bell pepper, chicken stock, cabbage, a few old carrots, some leftover rice and a whole chicken that I roasted on Sunday. It was a toss up between soup and fried rice, but with the chilly fall weather I was in the mood for soup. I checked the freezer and found a jar of potato and corn chowder that was leftover from a previous meal and figured that would work well as a base. I was going to make biscuits to go with the soup, but time was an obstacle so I decided dumplings would work just as well. Overall it was a great meal and very filling. The recipe below made enough for two for dinner and leftovers for lunch; you can easily double it for a larger pot.

Chicken Dumpling Soup

Chicken Dumpling Soup

  • Half onion and bell pepper diced
  • 2 carrots diced
  • 2 cups potato/corn chowder
  • chopped cabbage (about 2 cups?)
  • quart chicken stock
  • 1  1/2 cups diced chicken

Since you probably don’t have the leftover chowder in your freezer, I would recommend leftover mashed potatoes or some diced potatoes instead.

Add onion, pepper, carrot and diced potato (if using) to a large pot with a couple of tablespoons of butter or olive oil and cook for about 5 minutes until the vegetables are softened. Add stock, chowder (or mashed potato), cabbage, and chicken and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. If you used diced potatoes, you may want to cook it a bit longer until the potatoes are softened. While simmering make the dumplings to add to the soup. After the dumplings are added, cook for about 7 to 8 minutes longer until all the dumplings are cooked through.

Dumplings:

  • 1  1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (you can substitute milk for the cream)
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter

In a bowl mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Add milk, cream and butter to flour mix and stir until just combined. If it is too dry to come together, add a bit more milk and knead into a dough. Break off small pieces of dough and drop into simmering soup.