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Paleo, shmaleo. July 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Yesterday, our friend Ben and I were grocery shopping. I’m always interested in checking out what my fellow shoppers are buying while I’m waiting (and waiting) in the checkout line; it beats the hell out of staring at those magazine covers about the Kardashians or “guess who this fat actress is.” Ugh!

Most of the time, I’m demoralized to see that the entire order consists of bags of chips and pretzels, sodas, gallons of ice cream, doughnuts, sliced lunch meat, a loaf of white “balloon bread,” and the like, with some sugary cereals and a jug of milk added to up the “healthy” contingent and the requisite dozen cans of cat or dog food. Maybe a few bananas and some orange juice. Basically a recipe for diabetes, obesity and heart disease. I’d never give my own pets canned food, but it’s probably better for them than all that fatty, sugary, chemically laden, nutritionless glop is for their loving owners.

Yesterday, however, the woman in line behind me had a quite different shopping agenda. I stared wide-eyed as she pulled gigantic package after package of meat from her cart: the biggest package of salmon I’d ever seen, a huge pack of organic shrimp, and huge pack of organic ground meat (turkey? it looked a little pale for beef). On and on it went, until the conveyor belt behind me looked like a slaughterhouse. Yet she had obviously gone to great effort to pick only the healthiest meats, and to seek out organic meats at that. Then, she extracted the only non-meat item from her cart: a skimpy bag of frozen, steam-in-bag mixed vegetables.

Gack! This time of year, the produce aisles are overflowing with beautiful, seasonal fresh vegetables and fruits. Our own shopping bags were bursting with them. Why on earth would a person who’d taken so much care to buy healthy meats and avoid all processed foods, much less junk foods, get a tiny bag of frozen mixed veggies when all earth’s bounty lay before her?

I was mumbling about this to poor OFB all the way home from the store. I just couldn’t understand it. I kept thinking she must be planning a cookout. But why would someone serve up a tiny bag of disgusting steamed mixed frozen veggies to their guests when they could grill corn on the cob and endless other grill-friendly veggies, scoop up some homemade guacamole, salsa and tortilla chips, offer big sides of homemade coleslaw and/or Caprese salad?

Then, finally, the lightbulb went on. We weren’t talking about a party here. We were talking about a woman on the Paleo diet. If anyone still doesn’t know, the Paleo diet is supposed to reconstruct what our ancestors ate back in the hunter/gatherer days, which in essence was damned little. They trapped, hooked, and shot what they could; they foraged for wild grains, berries and fruits, honey, roots, herbs, nuts, and shoots, and doubtless worms and insects and anything else they could find. Our pre-agricultural ancestors were opportunists, foraging for what they could find, the perfect definition of omnivores.

And yes, they were thin, the reason people embrace the Paleo diet today. They weren’t thin because they wanted to be, of course; they were thin because it was so hard to find food and to consume enough calories to offset the time it took to find them. They were starving most of the time. This put their body in ketosis, kidney failure, the exact same method all the meat-based diets like Atkins use to cause their clients to start burning their own muscle to lose weight. (Yes, I said muscle; they only burn fat once the muscle is exhausted.)

If our Paleolithic ancestors could have been fat and happy, never worrying about where their next meal was coming from, getting all the delicious fat, sugar and alcohol they could manage, there’s no doubt that they would have enthusiastically supported grain-based agriculture as their descendents who managed to stumble upon grain-raising as a way to ensure a supply of beer and in the process discovered breadmaking and prosperity. “Thin” was not an attractive quality in a perpetually starving population that were lucky to make it to their 20s, much less 30s. It was agriculture, a stable food-producing system that allowed us to grow crops and livestock in place rather than hunt and gather them, that gave us longevity. Not to mention civilization.

It might be worth remembering that next time you contemplate a Paleo diet, or raw food diet, or juice cleanse, or any extreme diet. Humans were never designed to be on diets, they were designed to enjoy a diverse diet of foods prepared in a diverse manner of ways, and to enjoy foods in moderation but not in deprivation. Anorexia was never considered to be attractive, just heartbreaking, the outward manifestation of an inner mental sickness. Eating whole rather than processed foods, prepared in delicious recipes and showcasing seasonal variety, will keep us fit, not fat. Let’s go for it.

‘Til next time,

Silence

The CSA conundrum. July 21, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Silence Dogood here. Last night, my brother and sister-in-law stopped by en route to pick up our nephew from summer camp, and our friend Ben and I took them to a lovely old country inn for supper. Rather than talking about anything most people would talk about, we got into a discussion about the problem with CSAs (technically “consumer-supported agriculture,” typically organic vegetable operations that are supported by advance subscriptions and provide “shares” of vegetables each week during the growing season).

Here in scenic PA, we have a marvelous CSA just five minutes from our house. It not only provides a diverse selection of organic produce throughout the growing season, but it has a fantastic U-Pick garden where members can pick strawberries and raspberries, flowers, green and yellow wax beans, hot peppers, cherry and paste tomatoes, and a wide assortment of herbs. The farmers also partner with local organic farms to offer fruit shares, cheese shares, bread shares, pizza shares, mushroom shares, and free-range, grass-fed meat shares, as well as wild-caught salmon.

It sounds like a dream come true, and we enthusiastically joined up and belonged for several years before finally giving up on it. Why would we do such a thing, when it was so conveniently located and the produce was so well grown (and we really loved the U-Pick garden)?! We could get things at our CSA that we could find nowhere else: garlic scapes, tender Japanese turnips that were great sliced thin in salads, French breakfast radishes that we ate as the French do on buttered slices of baguette. And the fruit share was full of incredible varieties you’d never find in a store. I drool every time I read about the mushroom shares, which weren’t available in our day.

But we had to stop. It cost a great deal to sign up for a full share, and what you got depended on what the farmers planted and which crops flourished, not what you wanted or would actually eat. So, on a given week, you might get one ear of corn, one tomato, and what seemed like 50,000 pounds of Swiss chard or turnip greens or radish tops or the like. Now, I love radishes, beets, and those Japanese turnips, but I do NOT love bitter turnip greens, prickly radish greens, or Swiss chard and beet greens, which both taste like dirt. (And don’t dare tell me that sauteing radish greens makes them taste good, unless you’re also fond of stuffing fiberglass down your throat.) Plus, how are you supposed to feed two people with one ear of corn or one tomato?!! And sure, if we got a half-share, we’d only have gotten 25,000 pounds of Swiss chard and etc. But then we wouldn’t have even gotten our one tomato and ear of corn.

We wanted to support our CSA. We loved our CSA. But we really needed to buy food we would eat, in quantities we could use. So we finally gave up and now rely on the farmers’ markets near us and on our own veggie beds. (You can’t get any of the other shares, like fruit and mushroom, if you don’t belong to the CSA, sob.)

I felt like a total failure because we stopped supporting our CSA. I was too ashamed to mention it to anyone. So you can imagine how surprised I was to hear my brother and sister-in-law start talking about their CSA subscription and how challenging it was for them. Now mind you, they live in a city—Washington, DC—not farm country like me and our friend Ben. And they only subscribe for a quarter-share (not an option here, we’d get a handful of stuff, but apparently they’re still overrun, lucky them). But their experience was still like ours. Their kids don’t eat vegetables, unless you consider French fries vegetables, so they need to consume the CSA produce each week by themselves. And they too are overwhelmed by things like beet greens and, in my brother’s words, “vegetables we’ve never even heard of.”

Like us, they hate to waste food, and since they get so much in their week’s share, they end up eating whatever it is frantically every night of the week. Okay, so let’s hypothesize that you get a gargantuan bag of spinach in your share. (Would that we’d ever been so lucky.) You can add fresh spinach to your salad, cook some into an omelette or frittata, saute it with minced garlic and olive oil as a side, cook it down in a tiny bit of water and serve it up with salt and balsamic vinegar, or add it to saag or palaak paneer, lasagna, pasta, or you name it. But what if you’ve gotten a gargantuan bag of amaranth greens or Jerusalem artichokes or amaranth seed heads?

Oh, dear. There’s no question that supporting our local organic farmers via CSAs is the right thing to do. Perhaps OFB and I are just suffering from a breakdown of the imagination. But until further notice, we’ll be patronizing the local Mennonite farm stands, farmers’ markets, and growing our own.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Addictive, easy, produce-rich pasta. July 16, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, produce season is in full swing. Green and yellow wax beans are ripening faster than we can pick them; our basil, thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, and oregano are exploding. The farmers’ markets are full of fresh corn. Our own hot and bell peppers and tomatoes are coming on strong, and we have high hopes for our tomatillos and sweet potatoes. Snap peas, garden peas, and lima beans are available at every grocery, along with yellow summer squash, broccoli, kale, and spinach.

And that’s just scratching the surface. But it’s plenty to start with when planning a luscious summer pasta dish. Here are some tips for taking your summer pastas over the top:

* Use long pasta. I like spaghetti or fettucine, rather than the penne, shells, or elbows I enjoy with other dishes. The longer pasta just seems to go better with the veggies and sauce. And skip the flavored pasta to let the delicate flavor of the fresh veggies and herbs shine. The exception is artichoke pasta (such as DeBole’s), which adds protein thanks to its Jerusalem artichoke component without distorting the flavor.

* Blanch these veggies. Rather than tossing some veggies raw into your pasta, blanch them to get the perfect degree of tenderness. Dunk broccoli florets, chopped green and yellow wax beans, yellow summer squash slices or dice, and shredded carrots in boiling water briefly to soften them before adding them to a pasta dish.

* Saute the savories (plus). Saute diced sweet onion, minced garlic, mushrooms, and frozen white shoepeg corn kernels or fresh corn cut off the cob in butter, extra-virgin olive oil, or a mix of the two before adding them to the pasta. Ditto for the fresh herbs and greens like chopped kale or baby spinach. In fact, it’s far better to stir the pasta into them immediately before serving.

* Chop the fresh and canned stuff. Dice fresh red, orange, and/or yellow bell pepper. Don’t cook it at all, just spoon it in before serving. There’s no need to cook olives, pickles, or artichoke hearts if you’re planning to add them, or fragile herbs like cilantro or green onions (scallions). Just chop everything up and add at the last moment. But don’t forget that the oil from canned or jarred treats like artichoke hearts can enrich the pasta.

* Now for the sauce. When the pasta’s al dente and the veggies, herbs and etc. are ready, it’s time to make sauce. Drain the pasta; if you’ve sauteed veggies, you already have the base for a sauce. If you haven’t, it’s time to add olive oil, butter, or a mix, folding in the pasta and steamed veggies, with fresh-cracked pepper, salt (we like RealSalt, sea salt, Himalayan salt, or Trocomare), and the finish.

* Finishing touches. To make the sauce that you want, you’ll need to add something to your base. For a sauce that lets you see all the ingredients and tastes light and luscious, add dry white wine. For a rich sauce, add cream. For a creamy sauce that’s not quite as rich, add plain Greek yogurt. For a sauce that adds a surprising depth of flavor, add your favorite salad dressing: vinaigrette (not balsamic in this case), ranch, blue cheese, Caesar, green goddess. (Just make sure the dressing isn’t sweetened.) If you need a touch of heat, the finest-shredded jalapeno or a dash or two of chipotle pepper sauce would do the trick, but remember, this is pasta, so use a very light hand.

* Don’t forget cheese. Adding fresh bufalo mozzarella, or the shredded cheese of your choice (mozzarella, white Cheddar, Italian mix, Mexican mix, Parmesan, whatever), is a great way to bump up your pasta’s flavor and oomph.

This is pasta, not salad, so I would say no citrus, no fruit, no nuts, no seeds, much as I love them on salad. In fact, they’d be great on a salad that accompanied one of these pasta dishes. And again, let me just note that citrus and melon make luscious, low-cal desserts that are perfect after a summer pasta dish.

Yum! Now I’m hungry.

‘Til next time,

Silence

The best summer desserts. July 14, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. It always astounds me that people waste so much time obsessing about desserts, especially in summer when there’s such an abundance of delicious produce to choose from. However, my own home, Hawk’s Haven, isn’t immune from this dessert mania. Our friend Ben is a sherbet fanatic, and his favorite sherbet is one that combines several flavors and colors in a single carton.

Yesterday, we were at the grocery and, as usual, OFB began ranting about sherbet when we got to the dairy aisle. We began to think the search was hopeless: ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, but no sherbet. Then, I saw a tricolored, three-flavored sherbet called “Twisted Cactus.” It was pink, orange and yellow, made from prickly pear, blood orange, and marula fruit.

Okay, this doesn’t sound like the sherbet we grew up with, or the tricolored orange, pineapple and raspberry sherbet we all knew and loved. But I love the red-orange blood orange and deep red prickly pear fruit (called tuna, but no relation to the fish), which makes the best margarita going. I didn’t know marula fruit, but was willing to take a chance. OFB gamely agreed: anything for some sherbet. I got some red raspberries to put on top, and we were off.

Once we’d had supper and were home, I made OFB a big bowl of sherbet and raspberries and had a spoonful myself, and whoa! It was sensational. So why didn’t I make myself a bowl? Well, because I had an even better, more refreshing dessert in mind: salted watermelon slices. They were so refreshing, so delightful, so salty/sweet, and so low-cal, the perfect summer dessert. Tomorrow, I’ll have some salted cantaloupe chunks with a few of those raspberries and maybe a few blueberries.

Yes, I did love the sherbet, it was really amazing. But I won’t be having more when I can have ripe fruit instead. (Even OFB has been grazing on our cache of grapes, cantaloupe, pineapple, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, and I can’t wait to add cherries and peaches—along with more watermelon—to the mix.) A ripe, sliced peach topped with red or black raspberries and blueberries: What could be better than that? Unless it’s, maybe, a bowl of ripe cherries or some ripe (but not mealy) watermelon or mango or…

Don’t get me wrong, I love grapefruit and oranges and tangerines and bananas and apples and pears. I love stewed rhubarb, especially over Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream. I love homemade jam made with ripe apricots. I love cranberry sauce. I love pretty much all dried fruits, especially dates. I love shredded coconut. About the only fruit I can think of that I don’t love, fresh or dried, is papaya. (I think it’s a texture thing, again, that mealy texture, but then why don’t I like it dried? Maybe it’s texture and flavor.) But in summer, I want fresh, ripe summer fruit. It’s the perfect summer dessert.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Shut up about supersizing. July 12, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I am SO sick of reading about how the giant portions served in restaurants are making us all obese. Good grief, we’re adults, we have eyes, we can see portion sizes. And all restaurants have a little thing called “doggie bags,” aka clamshell containers. Just because we’re served supersized portions doesn’t mean we have to eat them. Nobody’s holding our mouths open and shoving food down our throats like geese being fattened for foie gras.

When our friend Ben and I eat out, we split a favorite appetizer like spring rolls or tempura vegetable rolls or spinach balls or guacamole. A half-order of an appetizer kind of kills my appetite. I’ll enjoy every bite, but I’ll order my meal knowing that I’m unlikely to eat it then and there. I’ll order a salad with no croutons (empty calories!) and dressing on the side, so I can dip my greens into the dressing without sogging down the whole salad, which would cause it to rot within an hour, rather than staying fresh and crunchy for another meal.

Let’s say I’ve ordered fettucine Alfredo with grilled veggies, or bean curd Szechuan style, or a bean burrito as my entree. Yum! But oops, I’m already filled up from the appetizer. So I’ll get my food to go, and enjoy it for at least one and possibly two nights after our restaurant night. This is not just a delicious treat, but it saves money, since you’re paying for not one but up to three meals, and it saves calories, too. Go ahead and supersize that salad and entree, say I. OFB and I will happily split them tomorrow night.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Boston ferns as outdoor accents. July 11, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. This year, I’ve noticed a lot of big, beautiful Boston ferns for sale outside local groceries. I’ve been very tempted to buy one, too, but worried about where I’d put it, since to me, Boston ferns are Victorian-era houseplants, and there’s only so much room in the cottage home our friend Ben and I share for houseplants. What a shame to pass such fabulously healthy-looking ferns by!

Then, last weekend, OFB and I went down to Annapolis, MD, where the plantings in general were restrained and gorgeous, but Boston ferns of all things took the spotlight. Outside the Annapolis Visitors’ Center, containers of Boston fern, a purple-leaved coleus, and a red-flowered begonia stole the show. Such a simple grouping, but the impact was perfect. I couldn’t imagine Boston ferns surviving hot, humid summer weather (I could barely survive it myself), but there they were, looking like the top contenders on The World’s Healthiest Plants.

Seeing Boston ferns in such an unlikely setting taught me a few useful lessons: First, never assume a houseplant has to stay inside. Second, less is more when it comes to impact. And third, consider your placement and pots carefully and remember the importance of echoing.

Now I want to rush off to the grocery and make sure I can get some of those Boston ferns before they’re gone.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Fixing the Fourth’s leftovers. July 5, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. July Fourth’s eating extravaganzas may be over, but unless you planned perfectly or sent every last leftover home with friends and family, your refrigerator is probably groaning with the remains of yesterday’s feast. Assuming you took good care of your food, keeping stuff like deviled eggs and potato salad chilled on ice and out of the sun so they wouldn’t spoil and only bringing them out of the fridge at the last minute, I have some suggestions for transforming these dishes into new ones your family will love. And they’re all easy, because you’ve already done most of the work!

* Deviled eggs. Turn deviled eggs into easy egg salad by dumping them into a bowl and mashing them up with a fork until the whites and yolk mixture are blended. Voila! How easy is that? Now you have extra-yummy egg salad to spread on your morning toast, fill a sandwich of whole-grain bread with crunchy lettuce add tomato, or scoop up as a dip with celery, carrot strips or rounds (baby carrots are too slender and round for this), or broccoli florets.

* Potato salad. If your potato salad has a mayonnaise dressing (and you’re sure it’s been kept cold and covered), consider making a “composed” salad with layers of iceberg lettuce, potato salad, strips of red, yellow or orange bell peppers (curved ends removed), chopped scallions (green onions), arugula, sliced tomatoes, and sliced green olives. Make it in a circular ovenproof dish with straight sides or a glass brownie or lasagna pan (i.e., not in a bowl, or you won’t get even layers). Chill until serving time, then cut into individual servings, remove each serving with a spatula, and pass the salt, pepper and olive oil. If your potato salad has an oil-based dressing, on the other hand, you can heat it and serve as an extra-flavorful potato side dish. Yum!

* Pimiento cheese. Like egg salad, pimiento cheese is a great sandwich stuffer with lettuce and tomato. But don’t overlook its potential as a filler for omelettes and quesadillas, especially when coupled with crunchy red, orange or yellow diced bell peppers. It’s also a different and delicious topping for burgers and those leftover hotdogs. It’s a great dip for crudites, especially celery. And wait ’til you try pimiento mac’n’cheese!

* Grilled veggies. What, you have leftover veggies? Say it ain’t so! But if it happens that you do, it’s a real blessing in disguise. You have the perfect base for a great pasta dish! Just make your favorite pasta (spaghetti, fettucine, and penne all work well). Heat the veggies with a little extra-virgin olive oil and fresh basil or with storebought pesto. Mix them with the cooked pasta, top with shredded Parmesan, pass the salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes, and dried oregano, and enjoy! They’re also great reheated over rice, or used in a tomato-based spaghetti sauce, or added to an Alfredo sauce, or folded into quiche or an omelette or other egg dish, or reheated as the veggie portion of fajitas.

* Corn on the cob. This grilling favorite can be used in innumerable ways if there are leftover ears (again, gasp!). Stand each ear upright in a bowl (to keep the kernels from flying all over the place) or lay each ear on a cutting board and cut off the kernels. Add them to salads, burritos, or wraps. Mix them with canned black beans and heat for a yummy side dish, especially if mixed with diced tomato, jalapeno, bell pepper, and sweet or green onion just before serving. Saute them in a little butter as a side dish, with or without mushrooms and diced sweet onion. They’re great in quiche and corn pudding, and really enrich cornbread and corn muffins. Don’t forget corn pie and corn chowder!

* Coleslaw. What says summer like coleslaw? But what do you do if you have a big vat of it left after your Fourth of July guests depart? Well, here’s what I do: Use it as the ultimate flavorful topping on tossed salad. The combo of creamy slaw and crunchy salad is just about perfect. And if I’ve made one of my special slaws with tons of shredded red cabbage, carrots, diced sweet onion, cumin and cracked fennel seeds, oil and crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, plus lots of fresh-cracked black pepper and salt (we like RealSalt), I’ll mix it into a mixed lettuce base and won’t need to do another thing to have the best, most flavorful, healthiest salad anyone could ask for. If your slaw is oil- rather than mayo-based, there’s no reason you couldn’t roll it up in phyllo or eggroll sheets for a luscious hot snack or use it as a hotdog topping. And if it is mayo-based, I’ve heard that a popular sandwich is made from rye bread, corned beef, and coleslaw. Go for it!

* Veggie burgers. Gee, your guests didn’t go for the grilled veggie burgers? Not to worry. You can crumble those grilled burgers and use them as a salad topping, pizza topping, in spaghetti sauce, in a casserole, chili, shepherd’s pie, sloppy Joes, or lasagna as a meat substitute, or coupled with cheese in an omelette. Veggie burgers have come a long way: Some are really delicious, and some taste startlingly like meat. If you got them to appease vegetarian or vegan guests, don’t toss the leftovers. You may be pleasantly surprised.

* Buns. The bread bought for occasions like July Fourth is often an afterthought, but it’s still food that could potentially be wasted or saved, depending on your approach. Buns can easily be turned into garlic bread by smearing the inside surfaces with butter and chopped fresh garlic or granulated garlic or with jarred minced garlic with its oil, then heated. They may not reach the level of fresh-made garlic knots, but they’ll satisfy garlic bread-lovers’ tastebuds just as much as storebought, and you won’t need to do anything besides split each bun in half. You can also turn the buns into homemade croutons by cubing them, tossing them in a bowl with olive oil and herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary and basil, then baking them ’til crisp and golden. Think about brushing the cut surface of each bun with a little olive oil, then baking it ’til just hot and topping it with sloppy Joe spread or barbecue, potentially topped with coleslaw, or with egg salad or pimiento cheese spread.

* Melon. If nobody finished off the watermelons and cantaloupes you got, and you’re not prepared to eat all those leftover chunks with salt (as I do), try this: Make salad with Romaine, arugula, and frisee (watercress and baby spinach are also options). Add diced red (aka Spanish) onion, fresh mint, and melon cubes, along with crumbled feta cheese if desired. Top with splashes of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and pass the salt and pepper. Or blend the melons into a chilled soup, with or without a plain yogurt base. Or add blueberries and strawberries (for cantaloupe) or blueberries and kiwi (for watermelon) for a refreshing fruit salad, with or without a topping of plain yogurt and pomegranate seeds.

Enjoy, and don’t waste all that good food!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Patriotic pooch and cat. July 3, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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There are plenty of breeds developed right here in the USA, from coonhounds to sled dogs. But if our friend Ben had to pick just two breeds to celebrate this Fourth of July, they’d be the American foxhound and the Maine coon cat.

You see, the American foxhound was bred by the Father of Our Country himself, George Washington, in the 1770s and 1780s, using foxhounds imported from England and France. I guess our first president was as interested in animals as in agriculture. (Mount Vernon still has descendents of some of his favorite livestock breeds, including cattle and sheep, but alas, no American foxhounds, or at least, none that Silence Dogood and I saw on our last trip there.)

The American foxhound is recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), however, so it must still be out there, a long-legged, handsome breed. (Our friend Ben saw a recent photo of an entire pack, proving that they’re still alive and well.) But before you go rushing off to acquire one, bear in mind that, like all hounds, it was bred specifically to hunt. If you want one of General Washington’s hounds, you’d better be prepared to provide it with plenty of exercise.

Moving on to America’s most patriotic cat, the official State Cat of Maine, the Maine coon cat, is the obvious choice. These regal, gentle giants (think a majestic lynx and the personality of Hodor of “Game of Thrones” combined) have tufted ears, thick coats, and luxuriously furred paws, ideal for surviving the cold New England winters. They are also, in our friend Ben’s humble opinion, the most beautiful and affectionate of all cats, with their open, laid-back, loving, doglike personalities. (Full disclosure: We’ve been privileged to welcome five Maine coons into our home over the years, and would never even think of another breed.)

No one really knows how Maine coons came to be. Unlike American foxhounds, they weren’t bred, they simply turned up. As a result, numerous rumors have arisen over the years. One of the most popular was that Marie Antoinette, planning her escape from France before its citizens separated her head from her body, sent a ship ahead to Maine bearing her beloved cats, which subsequently went feral. Another is that Maine coons descended from cats on the Viking ships brought to America by Eric the Red.

The lack of knowledge of their origins makes the Maine coon even more All-American, since so many immigrants’ records and history were lost when they cast their lot and shipped out to the New World. But if you’re wondering about the breed’s name, the answer is easy: The original Maine coon cats’ coloring and enormous size reminded Mainers of raccoons. And like raccoons, Maine coons are drawn to water.

Now Maine coons are available in many colors, and they’re the ultimate lap cats. They love everybody (even dogs), have the most adorable tiny squeaky voices, despite their huge size—”Meep!”—purr like there was no tomorrow, and are perfectly happy as house cats. And, despite their often goofy, clownish antics, they’re really, really smart. (They had to be to survive the Maine climate, outside on their own, right?)

You might want to dispute my choice of breeds and say that the true All-Americans are the mutts, the cats and dogs who, like most of us, were forged in the melting pot that defines American freedom and have no distinct breed to call their own. Our friend Ben is not about to argue with that! Our shelters are overflowing with sad, discarded animals who need homes.

I can think of no more patriotic act on July Fourth than to bring one of these shelter dogs or cats home and give them their freedom with a loving, caring family. But—I cannot tell a lie—should you wish to follow our first and greatest President’s lead, or answer the call of American freedom and independence, the American foxhound and the Maine coon cat are, in my opinion, definitely the way to go.

Easy, yummy summer melons. July 2, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. When I was growing up in the South, my family loved melons in the summer. Well, we loved cantaloupe (aka muskmelons) and watermelon. Summers were sickeningly hot and humid, so a cold slice or bowl of cubed melon really hit the spot. But what took it over the top was salt. We salted our cantaloupe and watermelon, amping up the hydration and dose of minerals and enhancing the sweetness. Salted melons were our Gatorade.

These days, I read about grilled melon slices, and would really, really love to try them, but we don’t have a grill and I have zero grilling skills. Bet they’d be good, though. (With salt, maybe a brush of olive oil, maybe some fresh basil leaves and fresh bufalo mozzarella or crumbled feta.)

Then there’s the issue of honeydew melons. When they’re ripe, they taste like melon. When they aren’t, they taste like cucumber. My family hated cucumbers (unless they were pickled), so we grew up in a cuke- and honeydew-free house. It took me practically forever to appreciate raw cucumbers, and our friend Ben still won’t come near them. For those of you who appreciate cukes’ many virtues, I suggest adding honeydew melon chunks (if you get one that tastes like a cuke) to any salad or dish you’d normally put cucumbers in. I’ve yet to hear of honeydew dill pickles or honeydew raita or tzatziki sauce, but I don’t know why it couldn’t happen, and be delicious, for that matter.

I’m sticking to chunks or slices of melon with a sprinkling of salt (we like RealSalt) to give it that fabulous spark. Salt is the match that lights the flavor fireworks for July Fourth, or any other time you want some yummy melon.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Trading time. June 25, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , ,
2 comments

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have always loved our handymen. Neither of us is the least bit handy—screwing in a lightbulb and flipping the switch is a major accomplishment for us—and this trait runs in both our families, so it must be genetic. Our handymen (and our parents’ handymen, and presumably their parents’ handymen), by contrast, can do pretty much anything, professionally and affordably. From building a deck to repairing a leaky roof to replacing a faulty electric circuit to making a stone firepit to getting the clothes dryer back up and running, handymen are the best. We salute you!

But hey, what if your handyman worked for free? Most of us choose handymen rather than pros because we can’t afford professional service fees. A free handyman would be a huge boost to our tiny budget. So would a free tree pruner, petsitter, and auto mechanic. So you can imagine what a shock our friend Ben had this morning when I happened upon an online article from All You Magazine called ‘We Make Ends Meet Without Money’.

The trend to supply time-valued services for free in exchange for free services is apparently nationwide, but the article focused on five Vermonters who were connecting through a local time/service exchange, the Brattleboro Time Trade. Residents who sign up for the Time Trade can ask for services, such as lawn mowing and stacking wood, in exchange for babysitting, homecooked meals, dog walking, and clothing repair. Or, say, financial advice, massages, elder care, weeding, and music lessons. The possibilities are endless.

The article suggests checking out two websites, timebanks.org and hourworld.org, to see if there are already time banks, as they’re called, in your area, and if not, how to set one up. They suggest starting with at least 10 members and appointing a paid coordinator/administrator to take care of the online and phone work. They recommend that the members have clearly defined skills, post them on the site, and have the exchanges put in writing so both parties are clear on what’s expected and when.

In our case, that would mean exchanging our own highly honed writing, editing, vegetarian, cooking, gardening/horticultural/herbal, archaeological, paleontological, historical, collecting, art, chicken-raising, and in-depth knowledge of literature skills for some hands-on work. It would be so great!

But our friend Ben has a question: When will Big Brother, in the form of the IRS, show up and tax this classic form of barter?! Barter has always been popular with the underclasses, who are just trying to get by, and hated by the upper classes, who feel robbed of additional income, through taxation, of the goods/services being exchanged. Our friend Ben fears that this initiative will find itself taxed in a Hunger Games scenario, with The Capitol pouncing on the impoverished and helpless Districts and forcing them to give every last drop of blood in exchange for a crumb of food or a rag of clothing.

Barter is a time-honored means of exchanging goods and services the world over, from the earliest human history to the present. It enables those who couldn’t otherwise afford goods and services to have them. (Another Hunger Games reference: Those who know the books and films may recall the heroine, Katniss, exchanging a squirrel, destined for the stewpot, for a ball of yarn and the mockingjay pin on the black market.) Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood wholeheartedly approve of the barter system, and especially since it’s a great way to get to know your neighbors and make new friends.

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