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Monday, July 28, 2014

Another week, another six feet of zucchini

Here’s why I don’t like to cook. First, you have to hang around the kitchen a lot. To watch, listen and smell for signs of food over-boiling or burning. I tend to have a short attention span. One minute I’m in the kitchen spreading butter on bread, the next I notice something happening with the horse out the window so I have to pull boots on and go outside to see what’s up. Ten minutes later the garlic bread is burnt. Or the pasta has boiled to mush. Or the tomato soup has boiled over. Again.
Second, you never have $500 dollars worth of exotic spices and special ingredients in your kitchen with which to complete the recipe, so you have to substitute. Also, I just cannot stand the idea of putting two cups of refined white sugar into anything. This is where I really get into trouble. Today I decided to tackle the two rather large zucchinis (that didn’t even fit in the kitchen sink) by making some muffins. I used gluten-free flour, until I ran out. I added hemp, chia, flax and quinoa because I love to think I’m making something healthy. I brought up the dry ingredients to the right quantity with some rolled oats.
Then it came to the wet ingredients. Eggs, vanilla, olive oil, but I’m not adding sugar, so I poured in some maple syrup instead. But that made it really wet, because syrup is wet whereas sugar is dry. Hmm. Add some more oats. And some quinoa flakes for good measure. Pour in the cocoa powder, mix well, spoon into muffin tins. It still looks really wet. Oh well. Hopefully we have muffins in half an hour, and not 48 servings of chocolate-flavoured zucchini porridge.
That used up one third of one zucchini. I have four more. I am planning to force them on dinner guests tonight but I still want to use up some on my own. I am not going to waste anything that grows in that garden. I am determined. Mother Nature is up there laughing because she is making me cook and bake. I’ll show her.
Next, I seed the rest of the two large zucchinis and slice them into strips like they do in the pub. Of course, my veggies are so large, the strips are rather curved. I’m quite proud of the way my gluten-free breadcrumbs turned out. If it wasn’t for this food processor, I would never set foot on the business side of the kitchen island.
The Farmer doesn’t like me in his kitchen on Sundays. Any other day of the week, fine, but Sundays he likes everything and everyone in place and on schedule. Throw a half-confident, disorganized cook into his kitchen prep area and he gets very stressed. So I move my stuff out onto the porch. We have another stove there. I take my zucchini slices and dip them first in egg, then roll in breadcrumbs. So far, so good. Now comes the tricky part. You have to have the oil hot enough in the fry pan to crisp the batter but you don’t want it so hot that it burns. Each zucchini stick has to be in there about 4 minutes on each side to cook through.  Most of mine were half-cooked and a little burnt. The sun porch filled with smoke and all the dinner guests stood between me and the doorway, commenting on the situation instead of helping or getting out of the way. The Farmer came in and tried to take over but I managed to divert his efforts. In the end,  everyone who dared try my cooking had to admit, they were pretty good. There’s nothing like fresh zucchini from the garden. The taste was lacking in something, so I added a little garlic salt. Yum.
Paulina found the old deep fryer in the basement, so there’s that. But I am going to try to perfect the less greasy method of cooking gluten-free breaded zucchini sticks. I’m not ready to throw in the dish towel yet.
The chocolate muffins turned out perfect. I’m better at this cooking gig than I thought. Still don’t like it though.  I would rather leave the cooking to the Farmer. At least on Sundays.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Getting back to nature, with the bites and rash to prove it

You never know what you’ll find in a garden. To the untrained eye, my garden seems to be a mass of green with no veggies or fruit just yet. The tomatoes are green, the beets, carrots and onions have not yet started to crown and the potato plants aren’t flowering so I don’t think they are ready to dig yet.
Just for fun, I lifted one of the vines the other day. It’s covered in prickles so you have to have gardening gloves on or you’ll be suffering with hair-like slivers for the rest of the day. I didn’t expect to find anything under the vine. There were a few green gourds and ovals – squash in the making. And there, lurking like the great crocodile of the garden, was a two-and-a-half foot zucchini. Wowza.
I remember my friend said you could stuff those, so I set about finding a recipe for the Farmer to use at Sunday dinner. The two seeded halves of the zucchini were trimmed down to fit on the cookie tray. I put out the ingredients and watched as my husband mixed together hamburger and tomato sauce (spaghetti sauce leftover from night before worked just fine), sliced sausage, rice and egg to glom it all together. Then he stuffed the zucchini and covered each half with a fine layer of shredded cheese and a sprinkling of parmesan. It was delicious. Victory over mutant zucchini.
I was quite disappointed that none of my beans or carrots came up this year from the seeds I planted. I guess I’m better off with plants. Or maybe they would have come up if I hadn’t left the sprinkler on that night back in May. All night. Anyway, I’m looking forward to my tomatoes ripening so I can make salsa.
On Saturday I was back in the garden for our weekly weed-tackling session when something rustled under the pumpkin vines. Immediately I thought of the little black snake I had seen in the field that moment but no, it was just a barn cat seeking some shade away from flies.
I don’t like it when animals surprise me in the garden. One year I stuck a pitchfork into the flowerbed at the stone fence, only to hear a scream from something not human. Immediately I pushed the giant toad off the end of my fork and then threw the fork into the bushes. The toad looked at me. He actually looked at me, and then he hopped away, seemingly unharmed. I saw him again later that year – at least I think it was him, because he gave me the hairy eyeball like we had something to settle. No more pitchforks for me. I stick to a hoe and spade now.
My vegetable garden is behind the miniature house that the Farmer built for his girls when they were little. We keep the door closed so the barn cats can’t get in but we did have a nest of wasps to contend with. I saw the hole leading under the structure but never saw who made it. There is a group of baby groundhogs living under the school bus shelter at the end of our lane so I just assumed that, once weaned, one little groundhog had decided to make his home under the playhouse.  The Farmer tried to catch it in a live trap with smelt and catfood for bait. No luck. Mustn’t be the right food for his liking.
I was yanking fistfuls of weeds out of the garden when I met the playhouse occupant. One of the fattest groundhogs I’ve ever seen came bounding across the meadow and nosedived into his dug hole under the structure.  So I may have some help weeding my garden and harvesting veggies in the near future, if we don’t discover the right type of bait for the live trap.
Oh and there’s one more surprise in my garden. It isn’t poison parsnip, poison ivy, hogweed or stinging nettle, because I know what they look like. But something is the cause of this lovely rash I’ve got running up my forearms.
Maybe it would just be easier to sign up for a farm share and let someone else do the gardening. Please pass the calamine lotion.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tale of a smart chicken and a dumb dog

This week we have a story about a smart chicken and a stupid dog. Chicken first. It was Sunday dinner, and Amanda and Paulina were missing from the dinner table. Carey shrugged his shoulders, picked up his fork and said “Amanda is worried the chickens have no water.”
Of course, the chickens have water. They are on an automatic watering system with these little dishes suspended from tubing dangling over the barn rafters. They need only to push down on the bowl with their beaks and presto - water fills the dish. It doesn’t give much water in each go, however, as too much water equals trouble for poultry. They will get their feathers wet or find a way to drown in it. The Farmer just shook his head and proceeded to serve dinner to 20-2 people, muttering under his breath something about people wandering around in other people’s barns.
Five minutes later, a breathless Amanda arrived. She explained that the chickens really did have no water. She should know – she raises her own little feathered family at home. She said they were pushing with all they had on the bowls, to no avail. One chicken even took it upon himself to leave the coop in search of H20. A self-appointed scout. His loud frantic chirping caught Amanda’s attention, and saved the day. When she finished chasing that bird back into the pen, she followed the piping to the source of the problem: the tube was no longer attached to the water pump. The Farmer knew exactly what had happened.
We often have to move things around in order to accommodate new creatures on the farm and the arrival of the chicks meant we had to steal the water from the main pump in the barn.  That water used to be the horse’s main source, on a float, always fresh. She didn’t appreciate having to pick her way through the muck to the cow’s side of the barn just to get a drink. So she bit down on the piping attached to the pump and pulled it free. Water sprayed everywhere, and she had a nice drink and a shower.
You learn to respond to strange sounds from the animals on the farm. It usually means something is amiss. Like when Cody the stupid Gordon Setter let out a yelp on our walk. He had found the electric fence. I was afraid his old 14-year-old heart would stop beating but no, he just shook it off and bounced across the meadow to report to me: “I’m ok!” Idiot.
As soon as the fields dried up I started walking Cody in the back 40 instead of down the road. There are a couple reasons for this. First, he drags me on the end of his leash down the road, making it a rather unpleasant experience. Secondly, he loves to run off leash, like a young pup instead of a geriatric pooch. I showed him the electric fence and told him every time to stay away from it. Does he listen? No. Of course, he probably can’t hear me either. And he has no short-term memory to speak of.
I wonder if he will remember the fence next time we go out. I hope so. Anything strong enough to stop a bull in its tracks cannot be safe for a dog.

The Farmer read my column last week. He pointed out that a sheep does not have a herd, but a flock. Well of course I knew that. I just momentarily forgot. Like when I say I’m going to the garden to pick some salad. Of course I mean lettuce. You get the gist of it. These columns are stories; not documentation of knowledge of any kind. But I argued, if the man who cares for the sheep is a shep-herd, why can’t you call a group of sheep a herd? He isn’t called a shep-flock. Besides, I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about. I’m an Accidental Farmwife, remember? Not a real farmwife. Can’t even bake a pie. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Optical illusions and a new partnership on the farm

“Well that’s something you don’t see every day.” The Farmer was standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window at the pasture.
I craned my neck to see what he was looking at. Misty the big Belgian horse was lying on her side, her back to us. Just then her tail flipped up and something moved under it.
“Ohmigod she’s giving birth!” I yelped.
“No….go get the binoculars.” And a moment later, “that’s just Donkey.”
“Wha?” I took the binoculars from him to confirm the sighting. Yep. Donkey was lying in mirror image to Misty, right in front of her. Basically they appeared, from our vantage point, to be spooning.
“She gave birth to a Donkey,” my husband smiled, patting me on the shoulder.
Just then my horse rolled around on her back for a minute, her favourite back-scratching technique, huge dinner-plate hooves in the air, bicycling and stretching. Then she got up, shook her mane out and proceeded to graze. Donkey followed suit, a scruffy gray copycat.
Sigh. We have bred Misty twice now, with zero success. We won’t try again. She came back from her two-week conjugal visit the last time a little more world-weary, and looking a bit sad and confused. The next time she leaves the farm for any reason, it will be for training. I would still like to be able to ride her through our forest trails and meadows.
I remained at the window. “Where’s my sheep?”
Since we sold the rest of the herd early spring, Gracie my tame ewe has been going through various stages of adjustment. First she did a bit of crying and looking for the rest of her herd. Sheep hate to be alone. I kept her in a pen for a while to ensure she wouldn’t go running off into the field, a fat, fluffy snack for a coyote.
She was a bit thin after her last birthing so I left her on the lawn in front of the house to take advantage of the fresh new greens we had growing. Unattended, she decided to follow the Farmer’s truck down the road. It was, after all, the very truck that she witnessed carrying the rest of her herd away. As he gathered speed and lost her at the bend, she veered right and wandered into the woods. Now, sheep don’t like to go into the forest, but Gracie probably saw the cows, Misty and Donkey and decided she needed to find a quick way back into the barnyard. Unable to breach the fence, she headed into the bush. I was notified by the neighbours and had to spend my morning retrieving her. No easy task, rolling a fat, stubborn sheep under a wire fence.
Next, Gracie got a long, sharp piece of grass wedged between her teeth. This caused her considerable discomfort, along with the parasites that caught her before we could give her the monthly shot that keeps her clean and healthy. The tooth abscessed and she was left with an open wound on her cheek. I had to woo her with sweet feed and tackle her every day so I could treat the wound and the Farmer could inject her with penicillin. She regained her strength and became smart to my daily ritual. Soon she was much better at getting the sweet feed from me than I was at getting medicine into her. I worried that having one lonely, mischievous sheep might indeed be too much trouble for one farmwife.
Then, like a miracle, Gracie decided to team up with Donkey and Misty. Instead of standing in the barnyard, looking longingly at the pasture and pining for the herd, the fat little sheep now follows that horse and donkey everywhere. If there is a threat of any kind, she just stands behind Misty.
Which is where she was at the exact moment that I was peering out the kitchen window.
“See that rock? It’s your sheep.”
The rock suddenly lifted its head and became a sheep again. She had been mimicking the exact movements of the horse and donkey, her trusted friends.
She got up and shook out her fleece, as if to say, “are we going now? Ok, I’m ready. Let’s go.”

Anyone need a sweet calico cat or snappy sheepdog?

Over the last month, every time I opened the spare door to the room that housed the new cat family, the mama looked at me as if to say, “WHEN. When are you taking these kittens that bite my tail with their sharp little kitten teeth and nurse for hours every day?”
I found homes for the three kittens born to the calico cat that was dropped off at our farm by her previous owner. I waited ‘til they were eight weeks old and comfortable with solid food (climbing into the food bowl and growling as they ate). I let her sniff and lick each one on the head as I put them in the carrier to leave. I spoke to them and they seemed to understand. But now that they are gone, she is pacing back and forth in the basement, crying.
She is calling for them, looking for them, and complaining. She doesn’t know what she wants. Now that they are gone, she is for the first time since she arrived, venturing out of the spare room to explore the rest of the basement. I have to keep her locked up for her own safety. We don’t want her getting outside and getting impregnated again by a roving tomcat. Next weekend she will be checked over by a vet, and given shots and any treatments she might need. In a week to ten days her milk will be dried up and it will be time to get her spayed.
By the end of June we will have a lovely, pleasant-natured, diminutive calico ready for adoption. I can’t keep her because we already have two cats that have claimed the house as their own (much to the Farmer’s chagrin) and that is plenty. She doesn’t want to live in the barn – she openly displays her distaste for the smell and the wet mud under her feet in there. She is someone’s housecat.
At the other end of the farm, we have an unemployed sheepdog. Chelsea, our purebred Border Collie is, like many of that breed, high-strung. She likes people but she doesn’t trust us so she looks all smiley and tail-waggy but if you linger just a moment too long when you pat her on the head, she will snap. She needs another sheep farm. Our sheep are gone, so she has nothing to do. She spends her days notifying us of every hourly activity of the dogs next door. Every vehicle’s arrival to and departure from the farm. Every bird flying overhead. She is bored. If you know a sheep farmer who needs a good working dog, give him my number. Chelsea loves to work the sheep.
One day Chelsea got off her lead and after a quick tour of the neighbourhood she returned to the farm to sit under her shade tree, beside her doghouse. Then she noticed the sheep were beginning to venture out of the barn after their midday nap so she herded them back into the barn. When we got home from work there she was, in the barn, pacing back and forth to keep her herd of 100 sheep tightly packed into the corner. Some of them were panting, in need of water. We put Chelsea on her leash and brought her back to her doghouse. The sheep ran over to the water trough and started gulping. Chelsea is a good sheep dog.
This is supposed to be our down season on the farm, as the water is on a float and the animals feed themselves out at pasture. Still, we find plenty to do, weeding the vegetable garden and perennial beds, cutting the grass, mending fences, cleaning the house, cooking Sunday dinner for 20 family members and friends…I left the sheets out on the line just past sunset and now they are wet with dew and we will have to wait til they dry before we can put them on our bed. The Farmer doesn’t like my spare sheets because they are red and he says they make him feel like Elvis. And so we sit on our bare mattress and grab ten minutes to talk before turning in.
I think the Farmer is afraid he will be bored without 100 sheep to shear by hand this year. And so he bought an old farmhouse to renovate. Never a dull moment, here on the farm.

This is for the birds

We missed the first shipment of chicks so we started our brood a bit late this year. The nice thing about raising chicks in the summer as opposed to the spring is you don’t have as much damp chill and drafts to worry about.
In spring you have to hang heavy blankets over the windows and doors of the chicken coop and stuff feed bags in the gaps and cracks to keep out the weather. Then you have to hang a heat lamp over each bundle of chicks to ensure they stay toasty, warm and dry.
The chicks pile on top of one another to get closer to the lamp and inevitably some smother. It’s an art, hanging that lamp just low enough that everyone is warm but not too hot and squished.
This year the Farmer separated the chicks into five groups and put them in plastic half-barrels – each with its own water and feeder. The chickens were pretty hardy but the turkeys taught us right away that they still need the heat lamp – even when it’s thirty degrees outside. I think we only have about six turkeys left. I hope these ones make it to Thanksgiving.
The chicks will drown if you give them too much water to mess with so they have these upturned mason jars with bowl lids. These are set up on bricks so they are at eye level for the chicks. Still they manage to tip them over and get themselves all wet. And waste the water. By the end of a hot day the water feeders are empty and I have to go in and refill them.
I’m the kind of Farmwife that likes to plant and weed a garden and perennial beds, keep the dog walked, fed and clean, manage the cats, clean the house and feed cute baby farm animals. Thankfully the Farmer is used to doing most of the dirty work on his own and he is happiest working alone, because mucking about with manure in the summer heat, being attacked by mosquitoes and deer flies, is not my idea of fun.
And yet the chicks needed me. So I grabbed a bucket and went over to the other side of the barn, to fill it from the trough. The cows have full access to the barn, and the water room is the coolest refuge from the midday sun so they have totally mucked up the floor, as they do. I filled the bucket, lurched in the sticky mud trying to lift it, and stepped ankle deep into wet muck. Damn cows. Blasted chickens.
Of course, the Farmer pointed out later, it was my fault. I had my little gardening shoes on and not my rubber boots. It’s a good thing I didn’t fall right over into the mud or I would have been really mad.
I trudged back to the chicken room and started filling the water – my foot squelching in the wet muck of my shoe. As I finished the water and started pouring cups of chick feed into the feeders, the mosquitoes discovered me. By the time I was done five minutes later I had a half dozen bug bites and one deer fly sting. But the chicks were fed and watered and chirping happily to themselves.
When you stick your hand into a mound of chicken chicks to scatter them and save the ones that are being trampled, first they scream at you and then they start pecking your hands. They aren’t my favourite birds. Later, when they are full grown, I refuse to get into their pens because they literally peck your ankles. Again, boots are required.
The turkeys are much more pleasant to deal with. They coo at you and wander over to stand at your side and inquire as to what you are doing. They look you in the eye when you talk to them. They wait until you are finished filling their feeders before they start pecking – at the food; not the human. And when you speak, they all answer in unison. Turkeys are cool. I like turkeys.
Chickens are delicious. And ours will be especially delicious this year, raised steroid and antibiotic-free in the old lambing area of the barn, with free access to the fenced yard outside. They are going to be happy, and everyone knows a happy chicken is a delicious chicken.

Another Canadian summer begins

I remember one Canada Day years ago, when I was a teenager. I went with friends to Parliament Hill to join the biggest party in the country. We had to park south of the city and bus in to downtown. Never comfortable in the high energy of the city I was a little overwhelmed and anxious but managed to get on the right bus at the right time.
When we made it to Wellington I couldn’t believe the number of people swarming up the street to the Hill. As we passed the eternal flame I saw the throng on the grounds and thought not one more person would fit inside the gates.
Somehow we found our way in. We wiggled and squirmed our way up through the crowd until we were close to the stage, where the musicians whose names I cannot remember – likely Glass Tiger or someone – were playing in the hot sun. I looked around and soaked it in, thought ok, so this is nice, sort of. It’s a little loud, a little crowded and very, very hot. Just as I turned back toward the stage, I got thunked on the back of the head with a beer bottle. It didn’t hurt much. I had a bit of a goose egg from it – but that was it for me. We left the crowd and watched the rest of the festivities from a safe spot on the edge of the insanity. And since that day I trust my instincts. I stay away from crowds.
When I was in Taiwan someone organized a Canada Day celebration on the beach for all the Canadians. It was a bit odd, singing O Canada and waving a tiny homemade flag on a popsicle stick while the scent of barbecued squid lingered in the air. Another year I went to a pool party with a bunch of Canadian friends and we were told it wasn’t safe to go in the pool due to the recent outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease. I just kept thinking of the Bill Cosby monologue of my youth. The one where he talks about the cows getting shot for hoof and mouth. The cows are being led to a hole and as they run one cow says, “Hey. Where we goin’?” “We’re goin’ to get shot.” “What for?” “Cause we got hoof and mouth.” “What’s hoof and mouth?” “See that foam around your mouth?” “Yeah.” “That’s hoof and mouth.” Of course you have to deliver this scene in the Cosby drawl. I delivered it poolside. Not one person laughed.
When my kids were little they decorated their bikes with red and white streamers, balloons and Canada flags and had a parade through our Hunt Club subdivision. We had friends over for a barbecue and then we packed up the kids for fireworks at night. I continued the tradition of bathing and dressing the kids in pajamas to take them to the park as night fell. The only night of the year when Moms do this. As kids it upset the natural order of things and we loved it.
Every year, right after Canada Day, Dad would put us in the station wagon, hitch up the camper-trailer and head to Bon Echo Provincial Park. For the next two weeks we would get up at dawn, eat a quick breakfast and then head to the beach for the day. We chose a spot on the beach, spread out our towels and anchored them with our flip flops, books, and beach bags on each corner. We went to Bon Echo the same time every year – the first two weeks of July – so we always saw the same people. The Kozaks, the Falles. Every July we met up on the beach and picked up where we left off the year before. We swam across the lagoon to the cliff, climbed up, jumped off into the lake and then did it all over again, until our empty stomachs growled and we had to head back to a campsite to forage for food.
Early morning and at sunset, my Dad hooked the tow rope onto the back of our speedboat. We waited at the lagoon to see who would show up for ski lessons. Only as an adult did I realize how generous he was with his time and his gas money. Always a teacher, even on vacation. He gave us summers to remember.
Canada Day officially marks the beginning of summer. Let the fun begin.