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Keep your Christmas plants alive. December 7, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, pets.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were determined to get some poinsettias and cyclamen for our mantel and Christmas table yesterday. We didn’t want anything fancy—just two white cyclamen and two scarlet poinsettias for our mantel, and one large red poinsettia and two smaller white poinsettias for our Christmas table. We’ve found that the mantel plants are perfect with our Christmas tree with its red balls and twinkly white lights, and the kitchen table is too small for anything more elaborate than our poinsettias and two red candles.

As we were driving back from another classic display, the Goschenhoppen Historians’ Christmas market, we passed a small greenhouse that had been on the road from Green Lane to Red Hill just about forever. It was a classic mom-and-pop operation, its signs said it was open, and one of them said they grew their own poinsettias, a real rarity in this age when most greenhouses, groceries and the like buy theirs as “plugs” (started plants) from one or two enormous poinsettia greenhouses. Silence and I screeched to a halt, turned around, and returned to the little greenhouse.

It was a horrible, cold, drizzly, miserable day, the kind where you just can’t wait to get back inside and crank up the heat or turn up the fire. No wonder we were the only customers, and Grandma was the only person minding the store. But the plants were gorgeous, and Grandma was full of good, easy advice for keeping them healthy. Since we only bought the cyclamen and poinsettias, this is what she told us:

To keep cyclamen fresh and healthy, don’t water them until the soil is dry. The leaves may wilt, but the second you water them, they’ll perk up and the plant will look beautiful, including those gorgeous patterned leaves. Choose plants with plenty of buds coming on (look at the base inside the leaves), and you’ll have gorgeous blooms continuing through Easter.

As for poinsettias, Grandma said the only thing that could make them wilt was to overwater them. We’ve heard that before, too: That you can kill poinsettias by overwatering them, but otherwise, you’ll enjoy them through the summer. Our small white poinsettias (free from our local bank last Christmas) lasted through the summer. Who’s to know what these will do? Let us know how yours hold up.

Shiny hair at home. December 3, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was just reading an article on how to protect your hair from drying, brittleness, and a lifeless look now that winter is sucking humidity out of your home and your home’s heating system is making the situation worse.

Their experts suggested making an infusion of vinegar, fresh mint leaves, fresh rosemary, and lavender, then pouring boiling water over it and letting it steep. Once it had reached room temperature, you were supposed to strain it, then pour it over your hair after shampooing, work it in, and then rinse it out with COLD water.

No, thank you. It’s horrible enough to get into the shower when it’s cold, without pouring COLD water over your head. I expect this would certainly add shine, since the vinegar would strip off dulling residue, and the herbs would add a nice fragrance. But it seems like a lot of trouble to go to for one shampooing (the recipe makes enough for one use). And did I mention the COLD water?!

Fortunately, when I was in grad school, a Pakistani friend taught me a simple secret for healthy, shiny, hydrated hair, one I’ve never forgotten. She put plain yogurt on her hair about a half-hour before her shower, worked it in, then wrapped her hair in a warm towel. (Easy enough to warm a towel by tossing it in the dryer for a few minutes, and oh, the luxury! Not to mention that the heat will help open your hair’s pores so the treatment will be more effective.) When it was time to shower, she took off the towel and shampooed as usual. The result? Beautiful, healthy hair.

These days, I’d use plain, full-fat Greek yogurt if I were doing this, since the yogurt’s already been drained of whey—no fuss, no muss—and the full-fat content will add more shine to your hair. You won’t be racking up bills, either, since you can use half a single-serving carton and the other half will keep perfectly in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. (Depending on how long or short, thick or thin your hair is, you might even be able to get away with 1/3 single-serving carton per use.) And don’t forget to heat your towel! Your hair—and cold body—will thank you.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Saving money on cheese. December 1, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I was reading an article from Cook’s Illustrated comparing different brands of artisanal Cheddars. They were trying to see if they could find something that compared to a real English Cheddar, with a bite and a flaky texture, rather than those rubbery blocks of plastic-wrapped Cheddar we’re used to picking up in the dairy aisle. A Cheddar, in other words, that you could eat with crackers, fruit, crudites, or even ploughman’s lunch.

The problem with many of these artisanal Cheddars is that they can cost up to $25 a pound (not including shipping) and are often only available regionally, and not in groceries even where they are regional. (The one exception seemed to be a Cabot super-sharp white Cheddar, which the Cook’s Illustrated staff thought was the best grocery-store Cheddar.) The cheeses have another problem as far as I’m concerned: Many are aged in lard-soaked cloth, a definite no if you’re vegetarian like me.

So what do you do if you’re not up for shelling out $25 for a block of Cheddar and still want a flaky eating Cheddar that tastes great out of hand? I say, buy Asiago instead. Nothing beats an aged Asiago cut straight from the wheel at the cheese stand, but a mellow Asiago from the grocery (I believe the Cook’s Illustrated folks voted for Bel Gioioso the last time they compared grocery-store Asiagos, but please don’t quote me on that) will beat any grocery Cheddar hands down. Its delicious sharp but nutty flavor and flaky (but never crumbly) texture makes it a perfect accompaniment for dried and fresh fruit and nuts. Yum!

My fallbacks here are Black Diamond Cheddar (on the pricey side) and Cracker Barrel Reserve (in the black wrapper), which has great Cheddar flavor but that inescapable rubbery texture. When I was a child, before Kraft bought the Cracker Barrel cheese brand, my grandfather loved to buy his favorite, that day’s equivalent to Cracker Barrel Reserve. It was called Coon Cheese and featured a raccoon on the package, and we would eat it with apples. Ah, the good life! There was an even sharper Cracker Barrel cheese called Rat Trap, which was sold on the store shelves along with all the other Cheddars. My grandfather loved that, too (and it was quite good), but when Kraft bought the brand Rat Trap vanished. I guess their marketing department didn’t approve!

I’ve found that it’s easy enough to save money on Swiss cheese as well. Our favorite Swiss is Jarlsberg, with its smooth texture and rich, nutty flavor. It’s so delicious sliced and served on flatbread crackers with grapes, hazelnuts or almonds, and dried fruit like apricots and cranberries. (I prefer Swiss on crackers, unlike Cheddar, which I enjoy eating out of hand. Maybe it’s because those flatbread crackers, like Rye Crisps, add a satisfying crunch to complement the creaminess of the cheese.) But nobody ever said Jarlsberg was cheap! A chunk of it can eat a chunk out of your grocery budget.

What to do now? Easy. This time, Kraft has come through. I don’t know if it’s because the creamy texture of Swiss neutralizes the plastic packaging, but I’ve found that a block of Cracker Barrel Baby Swiss makes a perfectly good eating Swiss, and you can often find it on sale. You’re not going to end end up eating Jarlsberg, but you will be eating a nice table Swiss to enjoy with crackers, fresh and dried fruit, and nuts. You’ll enhance the experience if you add a little salt—but just a little sprinkle—over the cheese. And you will be saving lots of money while still enjoying Swiss cheese rather than something that tastes like stretchy plastic.

If you have other tips for saving money on cheese—but please, no tips about freezing cheese—please let us know!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Healthier mashed potatoes. November 12, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes? Here at Hawk’s Haven, we make ours with Yukon Gold potatoes, then mash them with lots of butter and add half-and-half, salt (we like Real Salt or Trocomare, herbed salt) and fresh-cracked black pepper. If our friend Ben insists, I’ll toss in a little cream cheese, too. Talk about indulgence in a pan! It’s the ultimate comfort food, and it goes with practically everything but pasta, Thai and Chinese food, and the like.

But, though delicious, I wouldn’t exactly call this butter- and cream-filled dish a health food. What to do? Fortunately, our neighbors across the pond have figured out two ways to combine the creamy goodness of mashed potatoes with our beloved superfoods, kale, cabbage, even Brussels sprouts, to come up with sides that are nutritious as well as delicious and comforting. In Ireland, this dish is called colcannon; in the UK, it bears the delightful name of bubble and squeak (for the sounds it makes while cooking).

Bubble and sqeak originated as a way to use up leftovers. Basically, you minced up whatever was on hand—cooked cabbage, a few carrots, even scraps of meat—folded them into mashed potatoes, formed patties, and fried them until they were crispy outside and creamy inside. Because these originated during WWII rationing, they were typically served for Sunday night supper, but once rationing ended, they became stalwarts of the standard British breakfast, alongside meats, sliced tomatoes, and eggs.

Colcannon, by contrast, more closely resembles mashed potatoes (though the mashed potatoes may be green!). The basic premise is to make mashed potatoes as you usually would, then prepare an equal amount of shredded green cabbage, kale, or Brussels sprouts. (I don’t see why you couldn’t mix them. I also don’t see why you couldn’t start with a package of pre-shredded green cabbage for coleslaw and/or pre-shredded Brussels sprouts). Saute several large halved and sliced leeks (tough outside green leaves and ends chopped away) or diced sweet onion in plenty of butter until the onion clarifies adding ample salt, black pepper, and (if desired) a pinch of mace. Then add the greens and cover the pot until the greens are wilted and shiny, stirring several times as they cook and adding a little vegetable broth or water to prevent sticking if needed. Once the greens are cooked through, add the mashed potatoes, stir to combine, bring back up to heat, and serve as a side.

Now for the best part. Apparently the Irish serve a big dollop on each plate, but they don’t stop there. They spoon out a depression in the midst of each serving and fill it with a big piece of butter. It still may not be the healthiest dish in the world, but it sounds wonderful to me on a cold winter’s night!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Harvest time. October 28, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silnce Dogood here. It’s a mild October day, and normally I’d be sitting out on our back deck listening to the corn talk. (The farmers in front and in back of our little cottage here in the middle of nowhere, PA, grow corn, and once it gets tall and dries out, it “talks” with every slightest breeze.) Today, however, I’m hiding in the house.

That’s because the farmers are harvesting the corn behind the house. There’s a terrible noise, and every few minutes a rhino-like, John-Deere-green creature passes in front of our deck doors, bellowing and presumably cutting down corn. This of course isn’t corn on the cob, it’s dried corn and cornstalks to make silage and sustain their milk cows through the winter.

I wonder what our poor chickens make of all this. This will be their first winter, and they love the dried corn in their scratch grains, but I doubt that they’re loving the racket that machine is making. People always tell you that country living is quiet and peaceful, but apparently they forget about the machines.

It’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking about a move. Not to mention all the toxic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and so on. There are plenty of upsides—we have lots of great deck-sitting days—but downsides too. Days we see toxic bubbles from farm chemicals in our stream and wonder if our well water is drinkable. Days we can’t breathe outside because of chemical application. How wonderful to live surrounded by organic farms!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Time for homemade cream of tomato soup. October 22, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. The leaves are falling, temperatures are dropping, and harvest season is coming to an end. This means it’s time for warming comfort food, like cream of tomato soup. I don’t know if a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of cream of tomato soup with a pat of butter melting on top was your idea of childhood cold-weather lunch heaven, but it certainly was mine. Yum!!!

Unfortunately, a check of the grocery aisles will reveal a selection of cream of tomato soups packed with high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch or flour, and all sorts of other ingredients that I don’t want in a simple soup. But, thank heavens, it really is easy to make this one from scratch in just minutes and get the benefit of all that healthy antioxidant lycopene without stuffing yourself with things that are bad for you. Here’s all you have to do:

Silence’s Homemade Cream of Tomato Soup

1 6-ounce can tomato paste
3 cups whole milk
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 stick butter
salt (we like RealSalt), Herbamare or Trocomare, white pepper, and/or hot sauce to taste (we’d choose Tabasco Chipotle or Pickapeppa for this, if we wanted to use hot sauce)

That’s really all you need. Heat the milk and half-and-half in a heavy pot, never allowing it to boil. Once it’s hot, add the tomato paste, mashing with the back of a large spoon until it dissolves into the milk/half-and-half mixture. Add the salt and whatever else you want, stirring to blend. Chop the butter into pieces, reserving two for the tops of the bowls, and add the rest to the soup, again, stirring and watching carefully to make sure it never boils (which would destroy he texture). When the soup is quite hot, pour it into two bowls, top each with a pat of butter, and enjoy, with or without the accompanying grilled cheese!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Frozen vegetables are frozen vegetables. October 21, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. If you walk down the freezer aisle in your preferred grocery and look at the vegetable options, there are almost as many choices as n the toothpaste aisle. No longer do you only have plain frozen vegetables and that horrid mix of peas, corn and diced carrots. There are lots of vegetable mixes, lots of frozen veggies in buttery sauces (those Green Giant people are no fools), and lots of boil-in-bag and steam-in-bag options.

But what if you just want a particular veggie, without sauce, and can’t find it frozen as is, but can find it frozen in a boil-in-bag or steam-in-bag version? Can you just open the bag and treat the contents as if it came from a regular frozen package?

I think we’ve all heard by now that nutritionists agree that frozen veggies are really good for you, better than fresh veggies picked out of season and shipped green, like, say, winter tomates. Frozen veggies are picked at the very peak of ripeness and flash-frozen to retain their nutrients. (Admittedly, I’ve never seen a bag of frozen tomatoes, but jarred tomatoes are wonderful for you, since they concentrate the protective, antioxidant-rich lycopenes in ripe tomatoes.)

I have no microwave, nor do I want to boil anything in a plastic bag and then eat it—aaaggghhh!—but one of the staples I love keeping on hand for cooking is frozen white shoepeg corn. The season for fresh white corn is so short, and I love sauteeing it to add to a meal, adding it to corn pudding at the holidays, and tossing it into chili. But I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to find a bag of frozen white corn, much less white shoepeg corn, in this area. What I can find, however, are bags of frozen white shoepeg “boil-in-bag” and “steam-in-bag” corn. And in my experience, the’re every bit as good added to a dish or sauteed as plain old frozen shoepeg corn could ever be.

So if you like boiling your veggies in a bag or cooking them in a bag in the microwave, I have no doubt that both methods work fine. But if you’re a traditional cook who simply needs to stock up on frozen staples you can’t find, don’t fear the boil-in, steam-in veggies. They’ll work wonderfully for you as well. Just keep away from the ones in sauces.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Another reason men aren’t like women. October 14, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. A friend just e-mailed me, telling me that she had an upper respiratory infection and was making garlic-onion soup to try to get rid of it. I understand this completely. When I was recently ill, unable to keep anything down, all I could think about was miso soup and white rice. Healing, soothing: ahhh!!!

But when our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders was recently stricken with agonizing kidney stones, unable to eat, moaning and groaning for days while taking powerful narcotic painkillers nonstop, what was the first thing he wanted to eat once he’d passed the stones? He wanted a “California burger” with the works—mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion, provolone, pickles, potato chips, and a giant order of fries with plenty of ketchup. And a salad and breadsticks on the side, please, with butter for the breadsticks! Our friend Ben and I took him out to get one. He ate every bite, too.

The mysteries of the differences of the sexes will never end, but yowie kazowie. Easing back into health doesn’t seem to be on guys’ agendas. Richard isn’t the only one. God knows, OFB is ready to get up and go the minute he’s able. No miso soup or garlic-onion soup for these guys, bring on the burgers or wings or fried chicken or pizza or whatever. And don’t forget the sides! (Actually, pizza doesn’t sound so bad. Hmmm…)

‘Til next time,

Silence

Cold enough for chili. October 6, 2014

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Brrr, is it ever cold outside! Silence Dogood here. Temps dropped to the 30s here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, last night. Our friend Ben and I managed to keep all our plants alive, but yowie kazowie, that is cold for early October. We weren’t so cold inside our cottage home, thank goodness, but it certainly made us start craving cold-weather food, like chili.

Chili is one of those forgiving foods that tends to taste good no matter how you make it or how you serve it. (Our friend Ben loves it over rice, my favorite is over buttered spaghetti with shredded Cheddar, which is apparently called Cincinnati chili, and of course, you could always serve up a big bowl plain.) I have lots of chili recipes, including one with pumpkin puree (it really is delicious, trust me), but here’s a basic recipe:

Saute 2 diced sweet onions, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, in olive oil. Add 6 teaspoons minced garlic, a generous tablespoon each granulated garlic, salt (we like RealSalt), cumin, dried rosemary, thyme, and basil, and hot sauce (we like Tabasco Chipotle or Pickapeppa for this), plus a minced fresh jalapeno pepper. Add a diced bell pepper (any color), a diced fresh tomato, 2 tablespoons chili powder, and a splash of Frank’s RedHot Sweet Chili Sauce. Stir, adding splashes of vegetable broth or water as needed to keep everything from sticking, until the onion has clarified.

Now, add a large can (28 ounces) of crushed tomatoes and a can of Ro*Tel diced tomatoes with hot peppers or a large can diced tomatoes, and a large can (40.8 ounces) of kidney beans (light red, red, or dark red all work fine). Cook until the tomatoes cook down, stirring as the chili cooks, until it’s the consistency you like. (We like thick chili, like a thick spaghetti sauce.)

Once it’s as thick as you want it, you can turn it down or turn it off while you make the rice or pasta or whatever you’d like to serve it with or over. I think slices of polenta, sauteed or baked until molten with butter and cheese on top, would be delicious floated on chili. If you like yours soupy, adding grated cheese and sour cream to each bowl, then serving it with your favorite soup crackers and passing the hot sauce or salsa sounds good.

Finally, let me remind you that, like spaghetti sauce, chili is very forgiving, so it’s a great way to use up leftovers. If you have an ear or two of corn that’s passing its prime, or half a carton of fresh hot salsa, or a softening avocado or tomato, go ahead and throw them in. Your family will probably wonder why the chili is so much better than usual!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Love your pets, love yourself, love your home. October 5, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, pets.
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, your three bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, are all history buffs. Silence is especially interested in the domestic history of past times. When the three of us get together, it’s a topic we often talk about. As in, how did the royals and nobility in earlier times, who clearly loved their lapdogs, manage to survive living with their fleas and with their unspayed, unneutered pets?

When our friend Ben and Silence first moved here to Hawk’s Haven with our two cats, we didn’t realize that the cat of the previous owners had left fleas everywhere. We’d never experienced fleas at all, nor had our poor cats. The experience left us with bloody, itchy bites all over our lower legs, and nearly killed our cats from blood loss before we realized what was happening. Fortunately, there are now flea sprays that stop larval development in your home, breaking the vicious cycle. We’ve never had a flea problem again.

Every month, we feed our dog Shiloh a chewy treat that also happens to prevent heartworm disease. We used to dose her with a poisonous flea-and-tick preventive on her neck at the same time, but now they’ve developed a chewable. She loves her “treats,” and it’s such a relief to be able to feed her something she loves once a month rather than rubbing something she hates onto her neck.

This is easy, but it’s not cheap. It’s still better than dosing your house, your family, and your pets with God-alone-knows-what, though. And it’s far better than being bitten alive by those fleas (or, shudder, ticks). I still wonder about royals like King Charles I and his queen holding their beloved spaniels in all those portraits. Were their legs bleeding and itching the whole time? Don’t let it happen to you. Give your pets their meds.

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