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Month: January 2014

In A Day

In A Day

I’ve heard it said that in the life of a mother, the days are long but the years dash by.  Even at this early stage in our evolution I can testify to the truth of this. My boys are growing up, no longer babies yet not grown yet, it is lovely (most of the time) but it makes me want to hold on to some of the little moments.

Of course there are many moments I’d love to forget.

At the end of each day it can feel like the work of the day has drained the fun out of it, in the rush to get everyone fed, read to, bathed, into bed…it is easy for the little moments of happy, or of simply being, to just be forgotten.

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Our day to day is pretty mundane, nothing earth shattering to my mind.  But the other day when Stephen and I were chatting he asked me if our life style could be seen as ‘radical’ and, after a little consideration I had to answer ‘yes’.  What seems very ordinary to us (and isn’t it strange how quickly something goes from new to ordinary?) would be quite unusual to most families these days.

We raise our own animals for food, chickens for meat and eggs, cows for milk and beef, pigs for pork.  We make most of our food and aim to be fully self sufficient when the garden is in full bloom.  We live in an eco-friendly house we built ourselves that has (thankfully) low energy costs and uses as much renewable energy as possible.  We homeschool our children and share our every day lives with them, including them in our farming activities, our daily work and even sharing our thoughts and philosophies with them.

DSC_0198 DSC_0200 DSC_0203 DSC_0204The very act of sitting at the kitchen counter with my boys while they make chinese lanterns on a Wednesday morning is, for a lot of people, a bit odd.  To us it is all we know and I rarely think about our choices in the context of the wider world, a world with very different values and priorities.  I surround myself with people who care about what they eat, how their children are raised, how they live on the earth.  They don’t all follow the same path as us but they are all living conscious lives, aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it.  So this is our normal.

The work of the farm, though sometimes onerous, is simply part of our lives now.  It seems strange to me that we’ve only been doing this for a couple of years, it’s so much of who we are.  Collecting wood for the furnace, hauling water for the animals, collecting eggs and spreading hay, all tasks that may come up on any given day, all part of the fabric of our world.

DSC_0206 DSC_0207 DSC_0209 DSC_0213It is as I would have it be, this life we’ve shaped for ourselves.  Each day may not be a triumph, it may not contain anything extraordinary or worth celebrating, yet within that is something exceptional.  We’ve made the life we imagined, we made it happen through our dreaming and our work.  Our boys are being raised the way we hoped, surrounded by nature with people who love them.  We’re living close to the land, learning the hard lessons and reaping the benefits of our work.  We have time to work on the little projects that bring delight and colour into our lives, exploring our own creativity and resourcefulness.  All the little things, woven together, that make up the fabric of our world.

Quiet Days

Quiet Days

January is, for me, a month to be borne.  It is incredibly cold, long and generally taxing, this year in particular.  With more animals on the farm this winter there come more chores, more outside work and that means more cold.  This year has been extremely cold, with a polar vortex pushing the weather of the central plains over to us.  It feels like we’ve been in a permanent deep freeze since the beginning of December and I don’t think it is likely to warm much between now and March.

My coping strategy this year has been to expect the weariness that comes with this time of year and try to build it into my plan.  This is a time for stories on the sofa, quiet afternoons of play or reading or even the odd movie.  It is a time to hunker down and hibernate, time to rest whenever possible.

DSC_0179 DSC_0180 DSC_0181This week I had planned to spend our time learning about Chinese New Year and getting our craft on.  I duly requested books from the library which were all ready in time for our Monday morning school time, I was going to take the boys to the library, pick up the books and spend the morning reading, reading, reading.  All was as it should be.

Until I opened the curtains to snow that is, snow which then gave way to gale like winds that blew the new snow everywhere creating drifts and covering roads; not a good day to be heading out with boys in the car.  So I adapted our day and we still had fun, who doesn’t like making dragons out of egg cartons and watching polar bear documentaries?  With a bit of sofa time reading and plenty of free play lego the day was still a success.  And there’s always tomorrow, right?

DSC_0190 DSC_0189Well, maybe not.  With one boy down with a cough that won’t quit and a general feeling of just being very, very tired, and another with an upset tummy that’s making life away from home a bit tricky, the library will have to wait another day.  Ho hum, that’s the good thing about our life, if it’s not working for us we just change it.

So instead of immersing ourselves in China (we might get there yet the week isn’t done!) it’s a quiet day of sleeping, medicine (the herbal kind is what works for us) and stories on the sofa.  Is there ever a bad time for stories?  If there is, I’ve never found it.

Broccoli Soup and Kitchen Philosophy

Broccoli Soup and Kitchen Philosophy

This winter I’ve been relearning how to make soup.  I’ve done it before but it’s been a good while and, for some reason, I felt nervous about reembarking on this process.  So I held off, ignored it, pretended it really wasn’t necessary.  But the truth is soup is a great, and thrifty, way to fill a family of permanently hungry chaps and when I was faced with the $3 per box price tag in the store (knowing I would need at least 2 boxes, that there would be no left overs and it wasn’t going to be packed full of nutrition like my own would be) I caved.  I started making soup again.

Then of course I kicked myself for delaying because it is pretty easy, very tasty, very thrifty and smugly satisfying to put yummy soup on the table.  I started with one of my all time favourite soups, broccoli.  I just love the vibrant colour and deep earthy taste of broccoli in the middle of an icy winter, it’s a vegetable that can be bought all year round, stores well and provides tons of goodness.  What’s not to love?

So I thought I would share with you my recipe for broccoli soup.  This exact method isn’t going to be a recipe that will work for everyone, because I use some home made stuff (like stock and lard) that makes it much less expensive for me.  But I’ll show conversions  and suggest ways to make it work with store bought ingredients too.

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But before I get down to the actual recipe part I want to take a moment to reflect a little bit more on the philosophy part, the musings that are constantly running through my mind as I spend regular hours in the kitchen producing not just food, but ingredients for my family’s consumption.

The other day I was talking to my friend about cooking, I offered to help her learn some basic skills, and it struck me how worried she was about it.  Her anxiety was palpable and it made me feel a bit cross.  Not with her of course, but with the idea that many of us are infected with that cooking is difficult.  That it is just so much easier to go to the store and buy something ready made, heat it up, and voila!  Dinner.  Cooking, for many, has become something far off on the distant horizon like spinning wool or basket weaving.  It’s complicated, difficult and hard to understand.  And a lot of actual cooks don’t help with this.  Cook books filled with ingredients you’ve never heard of, cooking shows that make us all feel inadequate (no I don’t have time to have a haute cuisine meal on the table with a perfect flower arrangement made out of organic kale Martha) and magazine after magazine and website after website telling us of all the wondrous possibilities which, when you get right down to it, is just too exhausting to contemplate.

And that is before you get into the minefield that is the ingredients themselves.  Organic or biodynamic?  Whole grains or gluten free? Paleo or fermented homegrown organic saur kraut?  Which one is best, which one should I choose?  Will my children be permanently stunted if they don’t eat kale grown by organic pixies under the light of only the fullest of moons? Will they?!

DSC_0441 DSC_0442 DSC_0443Before Christmas, at our solstice party in fact, I was chatting with my friends about this very subject, about how easy it is to get caught in this strange mind trap of comparison and faddishness.  I was relieved to hear that I was not the only person to stand in the grocery store thinking “Oh I read that regular spinach is not as good as organic spinach and they don’t have organic spinach so I think I’ll just buy this pizza instead”.  It may not seem rational but when over faced with competing and conflicting information without any one source we can truly trust, it is easy to get so lost that a frozen dinner really seems like the only safe choice.

So I’m going to lay out the rules I’m learning to live by, the rules I stick to when I get confused and worried and begin panicking that I’m just not doing it right.  I hope other people can take a little comfort from them too.

1.  Home made is best.

This really could be the beginning and end of the list. It isn’t but it is the most important part of how I choose to live.  How far you take it is up to you, it depends on so many very personal constraints.  Time, budget, taste, life style…and on and on.  We all have very different limits.  But I believe that anything you make yourself is an improvement on shop bought.  If that means using white flour and sugar to start with, go for it.  At least you are cutting out preservatives and additives as well as artificial fats and flavourings.  And if that’s as far as you ever get, that is still better than shop bought.

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2. Whole Foods are where it’s at. 

I won’t deny that organic is, to my mind, the best standard for foods.  It is what I think the body needs and what we would all benefit from.  But the reality is there are restrictions on availability and sometimes organic is not going to be the best choice for you.  There might be a cost restriction, you might prefer to buy foods that use less air miles, things may be out of season in your area…there are lots of reasons why conventionally grown vegetables may work better for you.  Rather than getting caught in the ‘oh there are no organic parsnips I’ll buy a bag of chips instead’ trap, I remind myself of the Michael Pollan quote, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”  I do not believe that pesticides are something we should ignore, or gmo or air miles, but sometimes it’s important to cut through the chatter and just do the best you can with what you’ve got.  So whether that head of broccoli was grown under your own loving gaze and sprinkled with fairy dust or flown in from Mexico and of potentially suspicious provenance, in my opinion it is still a lot better than any processed food, no matter how groovy it might declare itself to be.

I know that this might seem odd, coming from someone who makes her own butter and spends winter months poring over seed catalogues to choose which variety of heritage tomato to grow when the sun returns, but I do think that part of the obfuscation that surrounds food is deliberate.  It is designed to make us throw up our hands and just buy what is available at the store.  It is designed to make what is very simple, seem very hard.  But I really do believe that a bunch of carrots, no matter how they are grown, is infinitely better for us than the snazziest pack of organic crackers in existence.  Whole foods rule, get the best kind you can but pat yourself on the back if you manage to cut out any (or all) processed foods.

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3. Be Proud. 

This is my final and, I think, most important rule.  We live in a culture that tells us to buy, buy and buy some more.  Food, clothes, styling products, toys…an infinite array is available to us almost 24 hours a day.  To step out of that culture, to move away from that paradigm can be hard, it can be frightening, it can feel like just too much work.  But it’s not, it’s a little bit of freedom.  Freedom to choose the ingredients you have in your food.  Freedom from supermarket dependency.  Freedom to spend your money the way you choose.  Every time you make something from scratch, every single time, you are making a declaration about what you think is important.

It might be a birthday cake made imperfectly but with love.  It might be a loaf of bread risen in the warmth of your own kitchen, lovingly tended, it might, indeed, be a bowl of soup.  Whatever it is feel proud.  Give yourself a giant pat on the back and know that you stepped off the beaten track a little.  Even if what you cooked was roundly condemned by your children and the dog at least you tried, you took a risk.  Next time it will go better, each and every time will be better.  Be gentle with yourself, expect only small things at first.  Choose one thing to change and then keep doing it until it is easy and natural and even a little boring.  Then pick another thing.  Small changes, over time, build up into all sorts of wonderful things.  And, unlike in life, kitchen mistakes are usually not fatal and mostly yield something you can eat.   Imperfect food can still fill tummies.

I could go on about this at great length (and lets face it I probably will) and have many more things I could say on this subject but I’ll leave it there for now.  Instead I will continue my musings in my own brain as I potter about in my kitchen, knowing I potentially spend more time there than is rational but loving it all the same.  And so, to soup…

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Warming Broccoli Soup

Ingredients

1- 2 tablespoons of lard, coconut oil or olive oil

1 large onion (or 3 small), peeled and chopped

2 – 4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped (I use pre minced, it’s a lot easier but tends to lack the strength of flavour so use more)

2 heads fresh brocolli (about 20 oz) chopped, or 20 oz of frozen brocolli

2 potatoes, peeled and cubed (they need to be about the size of your fist, use more if they are smaller)

6-8 cups of chicken broth (home made is best here as it is more nutritious, lacks salt and is so much cheaper! If you don’t have any use store bought, but consider using less and adding some water to thin it out, also reduce the salt you are using by about half.  Add a little milk to thicken at the end)

1 tsp of salt, a good sprinkle of pepper and thyme if you have it

1-2 handfuls of spinach (optional)

Cream (optional) to serve

Cooking

1. In a large pot add fat, melt (if appropriate) then add chopped onion.  ‘Sweat’ the onion, which means cook on a medium heat until it is soft.  Add garlic.

2. Add in broccoli (chopped), potatoes and chicken broth.

3. Bring the mixture to boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the broccoli and potato are tender.

4. Add in fresh thyme and season with the salt and pepper.

5. Add spinach, when it has wilted you are done.

6. Pour the mixture into a blender and blend the mixture until puree-like or creamy smooth.  This is quite a large pot of soup so you may well have to blend in two batches or use an immersion blender.

7. Reheat gently to serve, adding a blob of cream to the finished bowl is always a welcome touch.  Eat, enjoy, pat yourself on the back and pop the left overs in the freezer for another day.

 

 

 

A Morning

A Morning

This morning, for the sheer fun of using my camera, I thought I’d document a little of what goes into a reasonably typical morning round here.  Nothing earth shattering but a slice of mid-January life.

For the last couple of weeks Stephen has been doing all of the morning chores on the farm, there are lots of reasons for this but one of mine is that it gives me the chance to rustle up a hearty breakfast for us all before the day begins.  I also like the fact that this breakfast can be cooked while I’m still in my pj’s rather than the layers of clothing required to head outside first thing!

DSC_0136 DSC_0138 DSC_0139 DSC_0143The first chore of the morning (after making the pancake batter ready for breakfast) is to process the milk.  This involves sieving and filtering it to get out any hair or particles that we don’t want to sup down.  Once it’s filtered it goes into a jar, is marked with the date and popped in the fridge.  Then I clean the milking machine (3 times) usually at the same time as cooking pancakes.

Speaking of pancakes…

DSC_0140 DSC_0141 DSC_0142These pancakes are the unsoaked version of this recipe as I am often not organized enough to remember the night before.  Last night (instead of soaking oats) I made fresh butter from our raw cream and that went on the top of the pancakes along with a good dollop of maple syrup.  If I’m lucky this will keep the boys going until at least 10.30 and maybe even lunchtime if they steal some of Daddy’s!

After a goodly amount of being threatened with sticks gently cajoled with fluffy rabbits, the boys will finally be dressed and ready for school.  Today, upon request, we started with science and this experiment.

DSC_0147 DSC_0151 DSC_0152The boys were so in love with this experiment!  3 pans of milk and colour later I had to drag them away to do our other school, which today revolved around board game frolics.  We don’t do homeschool via board games every day (I wish) but having triumphantly finished our maths chapter and spelling level a celebration was warranted.

Before that, while the boys rejoiced in their science fun, I put together our day’s bread ready to rise through the sunny morning.  I also cooked a second pot of beef stock from some of the bones we got in our beef pack, purchased from our beef raising neighbour.  I try not to do major kitchen projects during the week (like cheese making) but there is usually some broth/stew/soup/cake on the go each day along with regular bread making as and when it’s needed.

DSC_0144 DSC_0145I’m at the pleasant point of being able to juggle different kitchen tasks along with our every day work without it feeling terribly onerous.  A pot of bubbling broth, a bowl of slowly rising bread, yoghurt happily culturing away, a soft cheese setting up,  all of these require little tending but provide the back bone of our larder, allowing for other snacks and meals to happen.  At this point running out of broth would pretty much call a halt to half my meal plan for the week!

But enough of this and on with the board games…

DSC_0154 DSC_0155 DSC_0158Huwyl chose one of our cooperative games to start with, Neirin went uber classic with a jolly couple of rounds of Guess Who (of which I am undisputed Universal Champion of the Universe) and I chose Junior Scrabble because, yes, I am that cool.  Looking at the box of our not new Scrabble I noticed the picture of the little girl imagining herself as an astronomer and I wondered if a modern game would show something like that.  Firstly she wasn’t wearing an eye watering shade of fuscia, a current no-no if the clothing stores are to be believed, and I can’t imagine a new board game endorsing a little girl to wear a bun, glasses and indulge in too many books, not when she could be shopping or some such.  But I digress.

So there you have it, a quiet Thursday morning, nothing too strenuous or exciting, a pleasant trot through the morning like so many other mornings.  And yet, of course, not like any other at all.

Winter Critters

Winter Critters

This winter has been, without a doubt in my mind, the coldest we’ve experienced since we moved to Canada.  I can’t say for sure that is the coldest it has been, but in the past we’ve been wrapped up warm inside during the bitterest days.  No longer.

Even on the coldest days, in fact especially on the coldest days, there is work to do.  Keeping the animals well and safe takes extra work and that means time outside.  If a water pipe needs insulating it really doesn’t matter if it’s -20, it has to be done.  When the animal water freezes because is it sub -35, well you’d best get out there with a bucket and get them fresh water.  It’s simple and at times it is hard.

DSC_0060 DSC_0061 DSC_0062 DSC_0063I can’t say that I do most of the outside farm work because if I did I suspect a large bolt of lightening would come down and turn me to dust.  Nope, the majority of it is handled by a burly beardy chap who heads out with feed and buckets and milking machines no matter what the weather, while I am still cowering in my jammies hoping to make it through breakfast and indeed the whole day, without even thinking about heading outside.  While I am the lass is charge of the house, kitchen, kids, homeschool and most definitely the laundry, I am only an assistant in the winter running of the farm.  I help out but the tough stuff, I leave that to the beardy chap.  He’s just so good at it.

DSC_0065 DSC_0084 DSC_0085But thanks to the work of my very own Grizzly Adams, the farm is in good shape, bearing up well after the month long deep freeze we are just emerging from.  The chickens are thriving in the polytunnel, refertilizing it for us and providing us with around 30 eggs a day.  They can roam and scratch in protected sunshine, rejoicing when the new hay goes down as they pick through it for tasty morsels and desiccated insects.  No signs of frostbite as there were last year, despite our best efforts with insulation and heat lamps.  Even the water doesn’t freeze until it hits below -20, which is pretty good going I’d say.  They’ll be evicted come spring but for now life is as good as it can get for a winter chicken.

The pigs are cosy too in their house, each day they are treated to delicious scraps, leftover milk, tasty whey and disastrous feta experiments gone wrong (ahem) building a protective layer of fat to keep them snug when they snuggle up in their hay bed together.  Today, as I was walking away from their field after providing them with their breakfast, I heard them munching away on the hay bale near their house, munch munch snarfle munch…quite content they were, basking as we all are in the +6 temperature that is rapidly melting the snow and allowing for out-of-house activity not involving 18 layers of protective clothing on the ears alone.

DSC_0101DSC_0087DSC_0103But there is no doubt that the major preoccupation this year has been the cows.  This first year of them on our farm, turning it from a bit of a back yard affair into something much more in our eyes, has been a steep learning curve and no mistake.  The months of barn building, laying lines, wiring, putting up fencing, milking…the list goes on.  There has been so much work involved in keeping these critters safe and warm, but my chap never shirked it for a minute.  Even when the water line froze and he had to carry 12 buckets of water out to them in the utterly bitter cold, he marched on.  I’m so proud of that, I can’t even tell you.

The winter isn’t over yet, not by a long chalk.  We’ve months of cold and snow to come, deep freezes that have not yet arrive that will inevitably chill us to the very bone.  We live in Canada after all and this year she’s showing us what she can do.  But, just when you think you can’t take it any more (ok about 3 weeks after you know you can’t take it any more) you get a little reprieve.  A day above zero that feels like midsummer in comparison; a day where even though you are sliding on sheet ice and quite literally fearing for the safety of your bone structure as you try to find safe footing while carrying 5 gallons of water, you can’t help but feel grateful.  To turn your face up to the sky and breath in without your nostrils freezing or your chest hurting, without gloves even, as if such a thing were lady like. A day that makes you linger at the door, listening to the water dripping off the roof and the slow hiss of snow melting, knowing that just around the corner spring will come.

Winter Walking

Winter Walking

This morning it was just too beautiful, too sunny, too fresh to stay inside.  And frankly I have a new camera so I needed to go and take some pictures.  Needed to I tell you!  Luckily the gods of winter provided a perfect day outside for us to go burn off our morning energy. Ok the kids have morning energy I just wanted to get some fresh air.  And to take pictures.  Lots and lots of pictures.

DSC_0026 DSC_0027 DSC_0029 DSC_0034After 6 months with a slowly deteriorating camera (I haven’t been able to use my zoom or wide angle lenses since the summer) I’d forgotten the sheer joy of the shutter click.  The thrill of showing others what I see today, knowing they’ll see it just as I do.  It really is bliss.

DSC_0037 DSC_0042 DSC_0041 DSC_0040 DSC_0038After weeks of snow, freezing cold, ice rain and bitter, bitter winds a still day at -11c felt positively balmy.  Boys and dog ran free, navigating the 1 inch crust of ice hiding pockets of calf deep snow at random moments along our tractor path.

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As the boys explored the fun to be had with cracking the ice crust in a variety of inventive ways, I walked alone for a few minutes, noticing the strange shapes and swirls the drifting snow has made as the wind has swirled and twisted it up.  The path Stephen made is totally covered down in bottom field, the arctic snow clouds we’ve been watching from the house this week have drifted the snow right over it.  Even the dog gave me a ‘no thanks’ look before turning back.

DSC_0055 DSC_0080 DSC_0078 DSC_0074 DSC_0073After a visit with the cows the boys stayed out for a while to play a game of ‘Slide the car down the hill in a wooden bowl’, taking full advantage of the slippery surface coating everything right now.  Like beaten pewter the snow and ice gleam, reflecting the sun and inviting us to play out just a little longer.