"The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land."
-Abraham Lincoln

Homemade Dog Food

Our dog is an important member of our family.  She's our pet.  She's a protector of our family and our home.  She's a playmate for our children.  She's a companion for my husband and myself.  When we have to go out and work in freezing cold temperatures or during the wee hours of the morning or in the blistering heat of the sun, she's right there with us.  She doesn't complain about the cold or the rain or grumble that she's just too tired.  She just wants to be with us.

It's true that the life of a farm dog can be a hard one.  There are hazards and harsh conditions not experienced by those dogs living the high life in Manhattan apartments or neatly manicured suburban homes.  We counter the harshness of farm life by making sure we keep her up-to-date on her shots, get her regular check-ups at the vet even though she hates that, and feeding her  nutritious food. 

Years ago, when I was still relying heavily on convenience foods for myself and my family, I saw no problem feeding my dog cheap, store brand dog food.  I figured it was sound nutrition and really didn't worry about it.  It wasn't until I started to research nutrition for my family and started to change our diets that I began to reconsider what my dog was eating.  I started to realize that dog food suffered from many of the same, if not worse, problems that overly-processed, pre-packaged foods meant for human consumption suffered from. It was low on nutritive value, it was full of weird fillers and chemicals and it could lead to problems like obesity, heart disease, allergies, cancer and diabetes.  So we decided to go a more natural route for our dog.  We wanted to feed food that contained natural, healthy ingredients but good quality pre-made dog food is downright expensive.

After talking to her vet we came up with an even better alternative.  We would make her food ourselves.  Let me stop here a minute.  If you are thinking about making your own dog food for your furry friend it's important to talk to their vet first.  They can give you a handle on what your individual pet will need in terms of balance, supplements, amount, etc.  That's what we did for our dog.  We sat down with her vet and came up with a recipe for her that includes chicken or beef, sweet potato or oatmeal, brown rice or oatmeal, and spinach or kale.  I try to prepare two weeks worth of food at one time and I'll switch out the recipe the next time I prepare it to keep her from getting bored with it.  So, for one two week period it will be chicken, sweet potato, brown rice and kale and the next it will be ground beef or liver, oatmeal and spinach. 

The preparation is super simple.  I really just put everything except the kale or spinach into a large pot of water, bring it all to a boil together and then let it simmer for an hour or two or however long needed to cook the meat through, then I throw in the greens and simmer a few minutes longer, drain everything and dump it all into a really large bowl.
If I've made chicken I will separate the meat from the bones and shred it before adding it into the bowl.  Then I simply mix it all up, mashing the sweet potatoes as I go, until it's all combined.  The end result isn't much to look at, but, as you can clearly see, she thinks it tastes great.
The result of feeding her homemade food has been remarkable.  Her coat is much healthier.  She has more energy.  Her eyes are brighter.  She has less gas (that's something we ALL benefit from) and even her poo is smaller and more solid.  And she no longer has anymore problems with dry itchy skin.

All told making her food ourselves has been no more expensive than buying a bag of the cheap store brand dog food and not much more effort either.   Win/win.

Corn cob Birdfeeders

A couple of days ago the kids and I took the popcorn we had been drying in the garage and brought it into the house to be shelled.  Even though we had sold quite a few ears at the pumpkin stand this last fall, we still had more than enough left over to last us through until next fall which means I will be finding plenty of popcorn recipes on Pinterest.  That's ok though because, really, who doesn't love popcorn?

Anyways, after all the popcorn shelling fun was finished we ended up with ten to fourteen little bitty corn cobs.  Normally I would have simply tossed them out into the garden or the thicket and let nature take it's course but this year we decided to do something a little different.   This winter has been hard to say the least.  We've have bitterly cold temperatures, by bitterly cold I mean Antarctica temperatures, and several snowstorms bringing many inches of ice and several feet of snow.  As unpleasant as it has been for us humans living in a cozy home with plenty to eat, I imagine things have been even worse for the little woodland creatures in our area. 

So, in the spirit of looking out for our neighbors during difficult times, we decided to make bird feeders out of the left over corn cobs! 

The process was a simple one and consisted of tying some yarn tightly around one end of the cob, smearing peanut butter (we used peanut butter from an almost empty jar) over them and then rolling them in some store bought bird seed.  

Then we hunted around the property for the best trees to hang them from, ones with several branches below the hanging cobs so the birdies could sit and dine in comfort and not too far from the view of the kitchen windows.   After trekking through several feet of iced over snow across several acres of land we finally had them all hung and ready for our fine feathered friends to feast. 

Welcome 2014!

The new year has started off with a bang.  With the record breaking cold spells we've been having in the Midwest, most of our time so far this year has been spent trying to prepare for, survive through, and repair after the bitter arctic temperatures we keep experiencing.  You know you're in trouble when it's warmer in Alaska than it is in the lower 48 states. 

Cleaning the chicken coop and collecting eggs have become two of my least favorite chores, as the chicken coop is in the large barn clear at the other edge of the property from the house.  Walking out there in -40 degree wind chills has been no picnic.  We prepared the barn well for the first blast from the polar vortex by sealing up as many holes as we could find, shutting both of the large doors and putting up temporary windbreak walls made out of sheets of plywood wherever we felt necessary.  That prep has kept the chickens well and happy but, even with all of that, our eggs have not fared nearly as well.  We average a dozen eggs a day, even during the winter, and the last few weeks we've lost more than half of them to freeze. 

Still the ones that we manage to salvage are beautiful, large and extremely nutritious.  We've built quite a large client base around the area for our eggs.  We sell a little more than half of the six to seven dozen we bring in each week, not to shabby if I do say so myself.

The cold weather has taken it's toll on more than just our eggs.  We all have been getting cabin fever.  I've been grouchy, the kids are grouchy, the hubby is grouchy, heck even the dog is grouchy.  So to lift our blues away I decided to make one of our favorite treats, homemade fruit leather!  I went with an old standby of mixed berries, banana, half a lemon (for kick) and a drizzle of honey for added sweetness. 

The berries were ones that we had frozen from the spring and summer.  I used a mixture of rasberries, blueberries and wild strawberries.  The banana would have been a bit better if it had been a little more ripe, but, hey, you use what you have, you know? 

Anyways, put three cups of any mixture of berries that suits you into a medium sauce pan.  Add one whole banana and the juice from one half a lemon. Turn the heat to medium low and simmer until you get a nice berry, banana, lemon sauce going.  I simmered mine gently for about a half hour until it looked like this:

Let me just say that after about ten minutes of cooking these berries your entire kitchen is going to smell AMAZING!  

Now there are two schools of thought on the next step, those who strain and those who do not strain.  Either way is fine but if you choose not to strain it will take the fruit leather CONSIDERABLY longer to set up and "leatherize" in the oven.  I choose to strain the liquid at this point and it finishes for me in less than half the normal time.   

After simmering and straining, you place the mixture into a blender or food processor and blend it until it is smooth.  Then you spread it out as evenly as is humanly possible onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.  You'll make your life much easier if you tape the parchment paper edges to the cookie sheet before hand, just a little tip.  

After smoothing it out, you'll place the cookie sheet into an oven preheated to the lowest setting possible, in my case that would be 170 degrees.  Leave the oven door open a bit and wait, and wait.....and wait.  At 170 degrees and after straining it took my fruit leather approximately 4 hours to set up.  With a lower temperature and/or omitting the straining you'll be looking at six to eight hours, approximately.  You'll know the fruit leather is finished when it is no longer sticky and no longer wet but still soft and pliable.  If it's brittle and cracking you cooked it too long so it's not a bad thing to check on it every hour or so.  

Once out of the oven you can invert take off the tape and invert it onto a clean cutting board.  At this point I trim up the parchment paper and cut the fruit leather into long, 1 inch wide strips.  Then I roll it and give it to the kiddos and the hubby.  If there is any left, and that's a big if, it goes in an airtight container in the fridge where it will keep for at least a week (that's the longest we've gone before eating it all).  

Now isn't that pretty?  And yummy too.  

A Season of Harvest

Have I mentioned yet that I love fall?  I hate winter but I LOVE fall.  The weather is wonderful, the colors are fantastic and, of course, it's harvest time! This is the time when all that hard work really starts to pay off.  Sweet corn, popcorn, Indian corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, gourds, apples, cabbage, heck we even have watermelons still coming up and ripening for us.  Yep, it's an all around pleasant time of year. 

The picture above is some of our popcorn this year.  We set it out at our pumpkin stand with the plan to take store and eventually eat any of it that doesn't sell.  Given modern society's woefully poor appreciation for the joys and usefullness of Indian corn and homegrown popcorn, I think there will probably be plenty left over for us.  With the type of summer we had this year I was very pleased to see how well the Indian corn and the popcorn colored up. 

I've been bringing in tomatoes and watermelons from the garden almost daily this last week.  The kiddos are loving the watemelons.  I grew the smaller, "personal" sized watermelons this year and it's turned out really nicely.  We can generally slice up and eat one whole watermelon between the six of us in one night without any leftover to take up space in the fridge.  

The kids have been having a blast making drums out of last year's dried gourds.  We took one of our smaller round dried gourds, cut it in half and cleaned it all out and made a rubber mallet out of one of a larger sized bouncy ball, some super glue and a dowel cut down to size.   Then the kids put the gourds into a basin of water, cut side down, and they drum away.  This is definitely a project for everyone with kids to try, it's easy and fun and the sound will surprise both you and them.  

Even the chickens that we bought this summer are getting in on the action by laying their first eggs (2 weeks early)!  It was a pleasant surprise to find them already laying fairly large for first timers, beautful brown eggs. 

I sincerely hope your fall has been a blessed one so far, as well.  :)

Today We Make Butter...and Buttermilk!

Ok, I may already have a post on here somewhere about making butter.  In fact, I'd say it's pretty likely.  However, I can't find it so I'm going to blog about butter anyway.  I mean, butter is kind of like bacon, it may not be good for us but we love it all the same.  Why bother making it at home, you might ask?  Well, for the love of butter of course!  Butter made at home is generally made of higher quality cream for less money. It's customizable.  You want honey butter?  Done.  You want rosemary and thyme butter?  Done. Garlic butter?  You betcha.  Plus it's easier than you might think.  You don't have to dress in colonial era clothing and spend all afternoon toiling away at a butter churn. So let's get on with it.

 Step 1: Add heavy cream to your mixer bowl.  I used cream from our cows but if you don't have that luxury you can always get some from your local grocery store.  If you want organic, by all means, go for it.  If you have a dairy down the road where you can buy your cream good and fresh all the better.  But even if you have to go with plain old heavy cream from the refrigerator aisle of your local Walmart you'll still be doing just fine. 

Step 2: Mix away until your cream starts to thicken.  Start on low unless you want to be cleaning cream off your walls, counters, fridge, and everything else in your kitchen.   Once it thickens some you can turn up the juice.  You could stop here, at the point of the above picture, and you could add a little vanilla, fold in some confectioners sugar and you would have wonderful homemade whipped cream perfect for your hot cocoa or anything else you want whipped cream on but that is for another day and another post.  Right now, we're making butter so we move on.   
Step 4: Keep mixing.  A short time after the whipped cream stage, and I mean a very short time, you will start to notice a change in your bowl.  The cream will separate into two components, liquid buttermilk and solid butter fat.  At this point you've hit paydirt!  You're butter is officially churned.  

Step 5: It's time to get your hands dirty.  You need to reach in there and mash the butterfat together into a ball.  Reserve the liquid left behind, DO NOT THROW IT OUT.  It's honest to goodness, actual factual, buttermilk.   Grab up your butter ball and place it in a clean bowl or you can use cheesecloth if you have that.  

Step 6: Rinse.  You'll want to put your bowl with your ball of butter under a running faucet of clean water.  Rinse and squeeze your butter then dump the water.  Repeat this process until the water in your bowl is clear and clean. Squeeze out any and all remaining liquid.  This is an important step because it will help keep your butter from going rancid.   At this point you can add salt, I usually only add a pinch, if you want salted butter.  You can also add honey, garlic, herbs or anything else that you think would make for good flavored butter if you'd like.  

Step 7: Pack it up.   You can put your finished butter in a small mason jar and store it in your fridge if you like or you can roll it into a log in some plastic wrap if you prefer.  You can store it in the freezer as well, just put it into a freezer safe container or take your log in your plastic wrap and place it in a ziploc freezer bag.   For the butter milk you'll want to run it through a strainer and put it in a clean mason jar and store it in your fridge.  It'll be ready to use for your next batch of buttermilk pancakes.   

Canning Apples

 My jars are sterilized and ready to go in the waterbath canner

In the last post I mentioned picking a giant bushel of apples.  What did I do with those apples, you may ask?  Well, truth be told, we ate most of them fresh.  My kids can pack away fresh apples like nobody's business.  BUT, I did can some.  That's right.   I canned them.  Good old fashioned Mason Jar type food preservation.  You can can too.   Little play on words there...anywho, on to the tutorial!

There are really two big rules in home canning.  1. Plan before you can and 2. When in doubt, throw it out.  Keep those two things in mind and you will do just fine. 

Apples are an easy starter food to get your foot in the door to home canning.   They are fairly acidic so they can be canned using a waterbath canner instead of a pressure cooker, they generally hold up well to processing and they are versatile.  

Step 1 in the canning process is gathering your supplies.  You will need:
  • Several sterilized quart sized mason jars with new lids and neck bands
  • A peeler
  • An apple slicer  *this isn't "necessary" but it is helpful and makes the job go much faster
  • A waterbath canner
  • A jar lifting tool
  • A spatula 
  • A saucepan
  • About 30 apples (to get around 3 quart sized jars)
 Tip: keep the lids in a pot of simmering water until you are ready to use them. This softens the adhesive on the lids and makes for a better seal.

 Step 2:  Make your syrup.
  • You can choose to make either a medium or a light syrup.  If you are going to be mainly eating them straight from the jar, I personally like a medium syrup.  However, if you are going to be using them for applesauce or baking, then I prefer a light syrup.  In this case I used a light syrup.  For a light syrup I use 3 c. of sugar to 6 c. of water.  For a medium syrup I go with 4 c. of sugar to 6 c. of water.  Heat the sugar water to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the sugar completely dissolves.  Reduce the heat to low to keep warm but don't allow it to boil down.  
Step 3: Prepare your apples
  •  Peel your apples and then core and slice them.  If you are worried about discoloration you can use citric acid or a fruit preserve powder, both of which you can find in your canning aisle at your grocery store.   Just follow the directions on the package.  Personally, I don't really worry about a little browning, that's me.  
Step 4: Packing the apples
  • Apples are a hot pack process.  That means that you cook the apples a bit before processing them in the jars.  Add your apples to the syrup and bring them both back to a soft boil at medium-high heat.  Boil gently for 5 minutes.  Pack the apples into the hot sterile jars using a slotted spoon, leave 1/2 inch head space (that part is important so check the chart below to see how to determine head space). Pour syrup of the apples, still leaving 1/2 inch of head space. Using your spatula, press the apples around in the jar to remove air bubbles.  Wipe down your jars, especially around the rim, center the lid and place the band.  Twist the band until just tight.

Step 5:  Process the jars.
  • Place your jars in the water bath canner and fill the canner with water 1 in. above the tops of the jars.  Process your jars in boiling water for the amount of time specified for your altitude.  Don't start timing until the water is actually boiling.  If you are at sea level, boil for 20 minutes.  Add 2 minutes for every 1000 feet above sea level.  So, for example, 1000 or less feet above sea level=20 minutes, 1001-2000ft above sea level=22 minutes, 2000-3000ft above sea level=24 minute and so on and so forth.
 Step 6: Allow your jars to cool
  • I sit my jars on a folded towel on the counter to minimize heat damage.  Allow them to sit for 24 hours.  You may begin to hear random pinging/popping noises...don't be alarmed, that's a good thing.  After 24 hours check your jars for a good seal.  If your jars have sealed properly the center of the lid will not move, or have any "give", when you press on it.  If all goes well, your newly canned jars of apples will last about 12 months, IF you can keep from eating them for that long!

Change is in the Air

It has been unseasonably cool this summer, not that I'm complaining or anything, but it has certainly felt more like fall than summer.  Even as I'm typing this I'm sitting with an afghan I made a few years ago wrapped around my shoulders.  I have a couple of windows open and the chill is working it's way through the room.   Tonight would be a good night for a warm glass of tea. 

Today was filled to the brim with hustle and bustle.   First it was check-ups at the doctors office for two of the four munchkins, then swim lessons and a workout at the Y, then home to make dinner and clean.  Our upstairs shower and toilet have been less than perfectly functional for the last two weeks or so and we are finally getting a plumber in to take a look at it tomorrow so the upstairs bath needed a good scrub down.   After that it was out to the orchard in the late evening to pick a giant bushel of apples before the last bit of sun was gone. 

With the cooler weather my thoughts have been turning to those of sweaters for the youngsters.  Oldest needs a couple of new ones as does Middle and the baby.  I have been spending much of the precious little downtime I've had lately scouring the internet for cute patterns to try.  I may break out the knitting machine and work a few up on it this year.  It might be fun.   I also need to be working on a warmer blanket for DS number 3.

It seems like lately I have more projects than time.  I'm going to have to slow down eventually.  I'm already tired just thinking about everything that still needs done.  The apples need put up, the sweaters need made, the house needs cleaned, the laundry needs washed, I need to start getting the kids ready for schooling, then there are the dinners to be made, the shopping to be done, the bills to be paid, and on and on it goes. 

This weekend we are making a trip to the zoo with the kiddos.  It will be a much needed distraction and break from the daily grind.  I think stepping back, even just for a day, will do us all a world of good.   I love this lifestyle, I've been doing it for many, many years.  The country is gorgeous.  Life is "simpler".  We work hard and we sleep well.  But even something as well loved and as wonderful as the simple life can become overwhelming if you don't take a break now and again to regroup. 

Blessings be unto you and yours until next time.