Are You Ready for the Present?

For the last few years, I’ve been introducing my classes on climate change with a line like, “You know how you’ve spent your whole lives hearing that climate change is really going to be a problem for our children, and so we should really do something about it?  Well, it’s been 20 years.  You ARE those children, and this is the world that everyone was worried about.”  Poor students take a few weeks to adjust to that new reality!

I’ve spent a few days weirded out by my own adjustment to the new reality this week.  Since the middle of 2014, I’ve been waiting for the repeat of 2008/9; not with any specific deadline in mind, just knowing that the economy was going to crash again before the “recovery” was complete.  Sure enough, in the second half of 2014, oil prices started dropping.  Then the Albertan, Canadian and other oil economies started to feel the pain.  How long would it take before the stock market collapsed and the recession began?  As long as the powers that be can keep it going, apparently (not a coordinated conspiracy, just that the 1% that benefits so much from keeping the ship afloat that it keeps the money circulating as long as possible).

So the world economy is teetering on the edge, and the edge gets closer every day.  Greece is bankrupt and headed to default, Puerto Rico is bankrupt, China’s bubble is bursting.

In the meantime, we’re in the hottest year ever, both globally and locally here on the West Coast.  In my area, we’ve had the driest spring on record, leading into the warmest May and June on record.  July and August are normally hot, drought months, and in recent years that’s been true for September and often October as well.  We’re irrigating our lush, vibrant veggies and fruit, strategically watering the rest where we want to keep something alive, and letting some things die.  We had a terrible broody hen hatch, with only one surviving chick, which I’m blaming on the heat.  All the heat and dry ground is bringing constant fires.  On the news, our provincial fire service reported that they expect 30 new fires to start each day…indefinitely.

Our land is literally burning up.  The skies are a strange, surreal shade of rosy grey; our air quality as bad as Beijing.  At least the smoke is keeping the temperature down a little, though!  And living by the water, we’re starting to get enough wind to have the grey skies turn slightly toward blue from their creepy red…

Adaptation’s a bitch.  Preparing for the future is one thing.  Experiencing the reality is something else all together.  There’s this attitude among doomers and preppers (I try not to count myself among these, although the line blurs sometimes) that we just have to get our food storage ready, make our gardens productive, stock up on gas and propane, and we’ll be an island of calm in the middle of everyone else’s chaos.  It’s the Rapture fantasy, you know–we’ll be rescued by God because of our virtue while everyone else burns in hell.  But it doesn’t really work that way, of course.

Psychologically, it’s a very strange feeling to watch a slow, global collapse while also going about your daily life as normal.  Chop wood, carry water while the world crumbles around you.  I don’t live in Greece…yet.  The economic crises are at a distance, until the construction work dries up around here for the Skipper, which I expect to happen over the next year.  And even through 2009, he managed to keep working, more or less steadily, so that could still happen again.  My job is secure until we become like Greece, which I don’t expect to be in the short term.  We continue to make plans to reduce our housing costs and increase our security of access to land.

The ecological collapse is another story.  I feel a bit queasy already about buying and eating fish this year; in theory we’re getting ready for our bulk Sockeye purchase.  But the rivers are so low, the oceans so warm…our stocks aren’t going to hold up much longer, and it feels wrong to fish them now.  We’ll have enough water to get through our veggie growing season (I hope), but then it’s all about how much rain we get this winter.  And all the ash in the air?  It’s ok for the soil–maybe even good for the soil.  Not good for anyone’s respiratory systems (including the animals).  All food prices will be going up, and even the local supply is more vulnerable.

I’m doing my best to be stoic, to be Zen, to be flexible, and I try to remind myself of my MANY blessings each day.  But living through interesting times is a very strange feeling.  Nothing seems reliable or predictable, there’s a disconnect between what’s going on in the wider world and what’s going on in my local community.  Everything seems a mix of joy and fear.  I’m nervous.  And aware that there’s only so much adapting and preparing that’s possible; that one day it might well be me that’s joining the line of refugees leaving a home that’s no longer inhabitable.

The Homestead Bank Yields Dividends

As it seems most months are around here, May was interesting.  A family health emergency came up and the Skipper was needed; he ended up being away for three weeks and away from work for almost a month.  Then, as May wound down and June ramped up, work at his employer went through a quiet phase (as sometimes happens as projects complete and new ones haven’t begun yet).  He’s ended up home more often than at work over the last six weeks.  Although he’s using up some vacation time, and we’re tweaking to accommodate the smaller paychecks, and though we know it’s a temporary lull, there have been moments where I’ve looked at the bills and wondered how all this was going to work.

I have a distinct memory of attending an introduction to Permaculture workshop some years back, when we were new to this community and the idea of the homestead project.  During a Q and A session, a participant put up his hand and asked the Permaculture teacher, “is there a point at which this all pays off?  I mean lately it feels like all the money is going out—irrigation, seeds, building supplies, soil amendments–is there a point at which we start to see some financial savings?!”

I’m sure the answer was some version of “Yes”, but I actually only remember the question and how it spoke to likely what so many people were anxious about.  Over the years, I’ve participated in lots of discussions about whether growing food or raising chickens saves you money; mostly the answers look something like “Yes, but not if you compare it to the cheapest food you can buy;” “Yes, if you don’t factor in the cost of the original infrastructure, only the ongoing costs of maintenance;” “Yes, if you consider this a hobby/entertainment and don’t think of your time invested as something that should also have a $ value;” “Yes, if you factor in the health care savings of a healthier diet/lifestyle.” You know.  It does save you money, sort of, in the abstract.

I don’t track and quantify our homestead outputs.  For me, this homestead work is part resilience project for possible decline scenarios, and partly just how we want to live, how we want to spend our time.  We have the luxury of two “off-farm” incomes and don’t worry too much about “breaking even” with our products; for me the community-building social capital of sharing our surplus has become as important a part of the fun and resilience-building as any financial gain would be.

That said, there is no question that we save money thanks to our homestead production.  I don’t know about where you live, but around here food prices have noticeably increased over even the last year, and that’s only expected to continue.  The homestead keeps me out of the grocery store enough that I suffer sticker shock periodically when I do need something.  This past winter/early spring I remember balking at an $8 organic cauliflower and it’s $5 conventionally grown counterpart and wondering how on earth other people are coping!

So, over the last year or two, as I have backed away from the goal of self-sufficiency, I have nonetheless been regularly grateful for the way our homestead acts as a financial buffer.  Our stored foods and ongoing production have meant that the things that we still need to buy–and there are many–are still *supplementary* to our comfortable lives; they are not essentials.  Sharon Astyk talked about this in one of her books (Depletion and Abundance I think?): that it’s important to do whatever you can to make your home a productive one, in whatever circumstances you find yourself in, because every bit you can do for yourself *extends* the ability of your income to stretch further than it otherwise would.  Word.

Anyway, payday came and went last week, with Skipper’s cheque much reduced again.  I looked at the bills, paid what I could, shifted and strategized some other bits, and realized that, for the next two weeks, we needed to get by on…$125.  Ouch!  Now don’t worry, we do have a variety of safety nets, but I don’t like to draw on them if I don’t have to.  And because we don’t like to, I wasn’t thinking about them in that moment, I was just thinking about our bottom line.  Which looked depressing.

I stepped away from the computer and started to putter around the house, talking myself down from the panic of that moment.  I started to tidy and move through the fear, reminding myself where the money had gone, that this was temporary, that we were fine.  I thought about what we might need to buy over this next week or two.

And then it hit me.  We didn’t need to buy anything.  We had enough food stored and coming in from the garden to last us for months.  Neither one of us needed to drive anywhere, and both vehicles were full because Skipper was rotating through some stored gas and had just emptied the stored fuel into the truck.  There are two months worth of chicken feed in the shed, stores of homemade soap in the bathroom, I even just bought 2 large packages of toilet paper that was on sale, lol.

It suddenly sunk in that so much of the disconnect that I have often felt between watching the bank account shrink and yet knowing that we’re not spending money on anything frivolous was because this was where all of our money is going: into the homestead bank.  We ARE saving and investing.  It’s just that the savings don’t tally up on numbers on a spreadsheet.  They’re outside in the garden, in the soil, in the berries and the fruit trees, in the chicken run, in the stocked pantry, in the piles of wood on their way into the woodshed, transformed into the butter, pork and fish in the freezer (and whose purchase had in turn gone into the savings accounts of the friends and colleagues who had provided us with them).

Without really paying attention, we have taken significant steps out of the money economy.  Not by eliminating money, but by using it to invest in a real, tangible savings bank, rather than investing it in financial vehicles that are intended to grow more money.

Isn’t this what resilience actually means?  We’ve spent years building up this savings account.  Now, when the money economy is more fragile for us during this particular time in our particular circumstances, it’s time to draw on that account.  Rather than spending money on continuing to build our infrastructure and pantry over these next few weeks, we can coast on our savings for a little while.

So this is the answer to that question from years ago.  Yes, setting up a homestead takes money (though as with all things, the spectrum of how much is needed is vast).  But at some point, magically and mysteriously, the homestead reaches a point of dynamic stability (I know that’s an oxymoron, but it’s true!) and becomes a bank of stored value.  And then it really starts to yield dividends.

So I think I’m Back

So, ummm….yeah.  Hi!  It’s been a while.  Almost 2 years!  That went by fast.

From the outside, not much has changed.  Skipper and I are still here on our small homestead.  We are still growing food, still raising chickens.  I’m still teaching; he’s still building.  But on the inside…well.  Did I mention that I turned 40?  I told a friend the other day, “I’m not exactly sure what happened, but somehow, between the years of 39 and 42, I feel like I’ve become a totally different person!”  Ok, not really.  I’ve read through some of my old posts in preparation for coming back online, and I was pleasantly surprised that I am actually quite consistent in my values and voice.  Kinda neat to see.

But the last couple of years have felt like both a huge and deep process of re-learning who am I in the world (and who I would like to be) and a huge, deeply satisfying shedding of beliefs, fears, and habits that I’ve been carrying for the last 20 years.  I’ve questioned and wrestled with life, death, and Everything over the past few years.  And, of course, the journey isn’t over.  But I’m feeling like I’m ready to embrace my voice as it is now, to really step forward.  And blogging again feels like the right way to do that.

When last I was writing, I was also still wrestling with the implications of my research into serious climate change and resource scarcity.  I taught my course on these issues for 3 years, and worked through the issues again and again alongside my students.  It feels like it’s taken these last years to really work through my fear, the implications, more fear and grief, practical considerations…and to some degree, come out the other side.  That’s not a process that’s over either, of course, but I feel like I’ve regained my footing in the world as it is, and I have some conclusions to share in the weeks and years to come.

I’ve also, in these last years, spent a huge amount of time online, reading other people’s blogs.  It’s been sad to see some favorite blogs go dormant and wonderful to discover some new ones.  I feel like I was part of an explosion of women’s voices online in the blogosphere there for a while.  And then, I suspect, many of us had to face the blogging crossroads: maintaining an active, well-produced, beautifully photographed, regularly contributed to blog is equivalent to a part-time (at least!) job.  So for some, it became one.  For others, it had to end.  But I’m also seeing a new, middle ground open up, and I’m hoping that’s where this will take me now: a spontaneously contributed to (we’ll see if a pattern emerges 🙂 ), occasionally photographed, but still read and valued comfortable space.  I do so much reading of other people’s blogs that it seems only fair I start contributing again.

And, all of that reading and thinking has helped me to feel a little more concrete about my purpose here.  When I started the blog, I was under-employed and interested in free-lance writing, particularly about food and our local food movement.  Then I started thinking seriously about farming and other career possibilities.  Then my job stabilized, then I started going more deeply into sustainability…

But now I see a new need, a space that needs more voices.  It’s the space I’m in right now: inhabiting and embracing the messy balancing act of life on the so-called “undulating plateau” of this Transition time on the domestic front lines.  It’s the space that women traditionally occupy: the home, the garden, the home economics, our relationships and emotions.  But I’m (possibly like you) navigating all these through the deeply conflicted pull between environmental sustainability and the requirements of daily life in the industrial economy.  I think we need more women online talking about what this life really looks like, in all of its untidy, stretched-thin, emotional, financial, and time challenges.  It would be great to feel more solidarity around the trade-offs and the imperfections, while continuing to find the beauty and the creativity and to celebrate the resourcefulness.  I’ve decided that if I would like to see more of this online, then I’d better start by sharing my own stuff.  Here goes!

Just Contemplating…

I don’t know where the last few months have gone.  I feel like I’ve blinked, and now it’s almost June!

I’m not being flippant, though.  We’ve been working hard.  I put in another intensive 4 months teaching one semester, and I’m halfway through another one.  Around the homestead, we’ve made soap, renovated the pantry, built a second chicken run, started seeds, planted, hauled topsoil and mulch, cleaned, cooked, eaten our way through the winter food stores, and built fire after fire in the woodstove.  We’ve bought a bigger sailboat!

I would love to have been blogging about it all along the way.  I did, in my head.  But I never seemed to have the energy to take the photos, edit the photos, load the photos, and then write.

And true to myself, through it all, I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking.

I told a friend recently that one reason the Skipper and I get on so well is that we stress out over the opposite things.  The small stuff never bothers me.  Day to day, I am calm as anything; feathers rarely ruffled.  Skipper?  He trips over his computer cord and the wrath erupts.  When I met him, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” was on his bedside table. 🙂

I sweat the big stuff.  I am constantly working through The Implications of things, making Plans, wondering about the Repercussions for my Identity and my Future.  I remember the inner turmoil I felt at 15 when my mother suggested I get a job at the local corner drugstore.  Working at the drugstore was not what I was Meant to Do with My Life!  I’ve been a bit of a drama queen in my day.

So I have spent the last 5 months Contemplating.  Life, The Universe, and Everything.  The blog.  The homestead.  I turn 40 next week, and Skipper turns 50 in the fall.  We are talking about what we want to do when we Grow Up.  You know, sometime over the next 10 years.  What’s most important to us?

I started my career late.  I’ve been working at it for a long time (finished my PhD 5 years ago! Been teaching…ummm…wow, almost 12 years, I think!), but only at the end of this year have I really felt the shift into actual career mode, as in, I should be dedicated to contributing to my field, not just putting in my time teaching as the job that pays the bills.  But the people I have watched with professional careers really just work and then have a hobby or two that they enjoy during their downtime or when they get a short vacation.  The career is really the primary focus.  Creating a productive homestead farm?  That’s another full-time job.  That never ends.

Having a sustainable life–emotionally, spiritually, physically, creatively–has always been a primary value of mine.  I’ve been through burnout more than once (have been teetering on the edge of it again this month), and I structure my life to have balance and sanity.  I’m not the “work hard/ play hard” type.  But I don’t see a lot of balance around me at the moment.  I have other colleagues who are full-time professors and trying to farm.  The models seem to be either professional sacrifices to farm, or emotional/health sacrifices to do both.  So I’m contemplating my priorities.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about fear.

Spiritually, I have come to understand that in any given moment, any given decision, there is only Love or Fear.  Either I feel grounded, free, expansive–in alignment with Life’s energy–or I feel afraid: constricted, alone, small, and disconnected.

I have spent months then trying to make peace with my fear of the future in the face of coming crises.  Wrestling my mind, because if I don’t fear death, if I believe that the way forward is to listen to Nature’s voices and to de-industrialize over time; if I believe that transformation of our current civilization is absolutely necessary, then what is there to fear?

And yet fear has largely driven my homesteading goals; fear has been the source of my energy to learn more, build more resiliency, more infrastructure, more security.  If I disconnect from my fear of change, of transformation, where does that leave me?  I don’t know yet.  I’m contemplating.  Do I want to keep blogging?  I don’t know.  I’m thinking.

Anyone who knows me well hears me go around in circles of ways I imagine my future.  Maybe I will travel! Maybe I will farm!  Maybe I will write!  Maybe we will move!  Maybe we will Liveaboard!  Around and around.

But I said to a close friend a couple of years ago, that’s just my mind, just my words and my thoughts.  When you look at my actions, I’m very steady; very predictable.  I took almost 8 years to do my PhD, and dreamed in all kinds of different directions over those years.  But I also just kept plugging away, month after month, doing what needed to be done.

And though I still tell Skipper each day about a new direction we Could take, we still just make plans and buy supplies and start the projects that need to be done.  Finish the painting, put siding on the shop, plant the seeds, grow the food, make plans to take out the dead plants from last year and put in the new ones.  Chop wood, carry water.

So thank you, if you’ve still been checking in, wondering if I’m still here, and wondering if there will ever be another update.  I think so.  I’m hoping this post is breaking back in to writing, that teaching is winding down and that there is a flood of creativity ready to flow again.  I’m tired though, and also need to go slow and take many breaks.  So I’m contemplating.  I’ll keep you posted.



Moving Towards the Light: Goals for 2013

Technically, it’s the winter solstice that marks the longest night.  But around here, it takes a little while longer before the days themselves actually get longer.  Yesterday, Skipper began the ritual that tells us we are moving towards towards the increasing light of the new year:  he adjusted the timer on the automatic chicken coop door up 10 minutes!

I know lots of people scoff at new year’s resolutions, and I think it’s because often making them feels like making an abstract list of things one should do, usually in order to become a “better” person by society’s standards in some way.  It becomes a list of socially acknowledged flaws that one is supposed to overcome in order to more acceptable and therefore, instantly happier.

So, I’m long over that!  I’m sure my list of social flaws is long, but most of the time, it doesn’t cross my mind to care.  It’s AWESOME not being 20 any more! 🙂

Instead, I feel the ancient sense of reflection and rebirth that this time of year brings.  I was telling a friend over the holidays that there’s something special about the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  It’s the only time of year that the Skipper and I get holidays at the same time, unless we plan and schedule them to do something specific.  The week at the end of the year, if you don’t fill it with shopping, is an odd kind of limbo space, neither the old year over nor the new year yet begun; an in-between, threshold time.  It seems to me that to honour this time between cycles by reflecting on the year that’s been and making decisions that will impact the year-yet-to-be is worth doing.

I don’t know about you, but for all the debate about the significance of 2012, the year was intense!  It was a year of huge growth, awakenings, and emotional shifts for me and those around me.  I spent much of the year studying climate change and peak oil research, and then trying to learn how to be in despair and move through life in a functioning way at the same time.  The good news?  I’m getting the hang of it, I think!

Despite the despair, I’m happy with how the homestead evolved in 2012.  We have a really good supply of winter food this year, which was one of my major goals.  We expanded the vegetable beds, and learned a lot more about raising a small flock of chickens, including processing and eating the roosters.  We started officially eating meat as a staple of our diet, including our first side of pork from a local farm.  I canned with determination this year, and we have a stocked pantry to show for it.  I’m feeling like I’ve got a handle on the vegetable production after 3 years, and I’m ready to take on some modest new projects.

So in 2013, my goals are about taking more baby steps toward resiliency.  I mean baby steps, though.  After the year that was, I’m not up for major projects…rainwater harvesting in a big way, for instance, will likely wait for another year.

My gardening goals are to renovate 3-4 small flower beds to include more medicinal and culinary herbs, as well as pollinator-attratcting flowers.  In the last few years we’ve been taking out ornamentals to make room for vegetables, but it’s time to put some of the flowers back into the ecosystem.

I want to get a handle on using green manures and cover crops this year, and get a good supply of winter greens in the greenhouse for those frosty and snowy days when the crops under cover are frozen.  Always hard to do in the heat of the summer, but would be so nice to have right now!! I’ll also be slowly building up the soil in the places where a few more future beds will go, but I’m not going to worry about planting them yet.

My last gardening goal is to start getting serious about seed saving.  Buy a book, start with the easy plants (beans, peas, lettuce, tomatoes), where you don’t have to worry about cross-pollination, and actually select for the traits I want.  In other words, start saving seeds from the first tomato that ripens, instead of the last straggler, which is the one we don’t want to eat! 🙂

Beyond the garden, I’d like to build a simple solar oven and learn to use it.  When the summer days are too hot to cook, I want this to be my go-to option.   I’m hoping that the Skipper also finds time this summer to build us a simple solar dehydrator.  We have a few other small infrastructure building projects to work away on, so those 2 additions to our food production system seem reasonable.

Lastly, I’m feeling ready to take on the biggest step towards building more security in uncertain times.  No, it’s not learning to hunt, or buying MRE’s to stash in the basement!  It’s being willing to come OUT of my homestead, and start joining with others to build stronger community and social networks.

I’ve intellectually given this idea lip service for some time, and have certainly found like-minded friends and recognized the vital importance of their support.  But too often, given an intensely social job, I have spent my off-time hiding, and in my moments of panic for the future, have busied myself in worrying only about my immediate family.  But after some emotional processing and deep thinking, I am ready to embrace the fact that in my relationships with others lies not only my security, but also my well-being and release from panic.  I’ll write more about this in another post, but here are my social goals for 2013.

I’m going to actively join and participate when possible two local groups working hard at resiliency: the Cowichan Green Community and Transition Cowichan.

I’m going to make sure that Skipper and I host at least one party for our immediate neighbours so that we can all meet and get to know each other better.  And we’d also like to host at least one other gathering for all of those friends we have made across the local area.  These are both things that we have talked about doing since we moved in, but it’s time to make them a reality.  The key for me is to see them as joyfully celebratory, community-building fun, rather than another task I don’t have time for!  If you’re reading this locally and would like to come, let me know!

To find the down-time to myself that I need in order to balance the extroverted job, I am also going to make a conscious effort this year to wean myself off of pointless internet surfing.  I’m feeling conflicted about my screen-time these days; truly, the internet is a source of amazing information, community, and entertainment.  We don’t have tv, don’t buy music, and love to learn.  However, I spend a LOT of time at a computer for work, and I’m wary of the creep that happens between work hours and off-hours when I’m online in my off time.  I also feel like the internet is another industrial grid-system that it isn’t good to be dependent on, which right now, it feels like we are.  Clearly, this is totally out of habit and not necessity; the Skipper and I are both old enough to remember life without it very clearly!

I’m really aware, too, though, that the internet-suck is preventing me from having time to work on other, creative projects, to procrastinate less, housekeep more, and to build community with the actual people around me, instead of the virtual people in other places–wonderful though you are and as much as I learn from you!  Interestingly, I’m actually feeling like I want to blog more–that doesn’t count as an internet time-waste, LOL.

And the last thing that I want to free up time for by decreasing internet time is meditation.  I don’t have a specific goal around this, although perhaps I should set one.  I just know that some regular meditiation time keeps me calm, keeps my fears for the future in perspective, keeps me focused on the joys of my life as it is now, and reminds me that there are mysteries of the universe that I do not understand that may be working in ways that I cannot see.  I know all of this keeps me much saner and healthier.

With all of this to look forward too, I’m ready to move into 2013 with excitement and anticipation.  Here’s to sunny skies ahead for all of us!


Cooking a Heritage Turkey

We’re having a slightly different sort of Christmas this year.

A few months back, close friends called and said, “we’re coming for Christmas!”  “Great!” We replied.  A few weeks ago, as we started to make preparations, we thought, “What the heck.  Let’s see if our favorite farmer down the road has any turkeys left.”

Adele and Michael Gelling raise heritage livestock and garlic.  What could be better?  We LOVE watching their beautiful Narragansett turkeys grow up; they’re such mellow, friendly, and stunning birds.  We’ve often come home from a visit scouring our yard for a spot we could tuck a few.  No luck so far.

This year, we were in luck; there were a couple of turkeys left, though the smallest she could do was 15lbs.  We thought we’d be 5 adults, and would be able to make a suitable dent in that much meat.

A week or two later, we got the text–our dear friends couldn’t get away and weren’t going to be able to make it down after all.  So sad.  And slightly daunting–what would we do with our big bird?

Last week, we got a text from another friend, who was travelling with his blended family of 6 across the island for Christmas.  Could they stop in on their travels for a quick visit?  “Great!”  We said.  “How about a turkey dinner?!”

So yesterday, December 23rd, we had a fabulous Christmas dinner.  We went all out: our potatoes and rutabagas from the garden, stuffing made with our potatoes, apples, onion and bacon.  Brussel sprouts, gravy, Skipper made a pumpkin and an apple pie (both from our garden), and of course, the bird.

First things first: It was the best turkey we’ve ever eaten.

Second things second: we were incredibly confused about how to cook it, based on all the contradictory information on the interwebs and other various sources.  So we took a deep breath, combined some of the better tips and instincts based on cooking our roosters over the last year, and dove in.  Because it turned out SO well, I thought I’d share, and because we likely cooked our turkey days before anyone else, I thought it might be helpful to get the recipe out now!

Roasting a Heritage Turkey

The big goal is to end up with crispy roasted skin, a cooked-though bird, and super-moist meat.  Not an easy balancing act.  The trick with non-supermarket poultry, according to my new bible, The River Cottage Meat Book, is to do a hot initial sear, and then a longer, low-temperature roast.

We started with a very fresh, never frozen turkey (15.6 lbs).  Obviously not everyone can do this, but I’m sure it made a difference!

Chefs roast a bird that is dry and at room temperature.  After our bird sat in the fridge for more than 24 hrs (which also makes a difference with a fresh bird), we took it out of the fridge, dried it off, and let it sit on the counter for an hour or so to warm up.

The next key thing is to add fat to the bird which helps to crisp the skin and to retain the moisture.  So the Skipper buttered the dry bird, and then added salt, pepper, and herbs.  We also quartered a couple of our apples and stuck them in the cavity (my father always used to do this with oranges, which is also delicious).   Butter inside and out.

Then we realized that our turkey wouldn’t fit in our roasting pan.  Luckily, because it wasn’t actually Christmas yet, the neighbours had something we made work.

The turkey then went into a preheated, 400 degree, hot oven for 20 minutes.  Then, to the hot pan, we added a half-cup or so of white wine, and on went the roasting pan lid, tightly.  We turned the oven down to 325.

Recipes had varied as to how long to roast a turkey, from 20-30 minutes per pound.  With 15 lbs, though, that’s a huge range!  There’s also some debate about what the final temperature of the turkey should be, with the USDA guidelines at 180, but many cooks saying this is WAY too hot, and a guaranteed way to get a dried-out (though safe to eat!!) roast.  Chefs argued for 160-165, especially if you were comfortable with the provenance of the bird, which we were.

We decided to go with 20 mins per pound, and aim for 165, and see what we ended up with.  That math would have given us 5 hours, and we were expecting our guests at 5pm.  So we put the bird in at 12pm, and then decided we’d check on things at 3pm or so, to see if the turkey needed basting, uncovering to crisp or brown, etc.

At three o’clock, we pulled the bird out and uncovered it.  It was stunning!  The skin was crispy and had pulled away from meat in places.  The meat looked juicy, and there was lots of yummy smelling juice at the bottom of the pan.  We stuck the thermometer into the thickest parts of the meat–it was off the charts!  The bird was way over 180.  Ummm, that meant it was done.  2 hours early.

We crossed our fingers that the high temperature didn’t mean a dry bird, texted our friends to see if they could come a little sooner, and left the bird covered in the pan to rest while we pulled together the side dishes.

An hour later, our friends were here, and we had 8 hungry people to do justice to the most succulent, moist, flavourful turkey any of us had ever tasted.  And today, as Skipper and I nibbled on leftovers, we can report that even after a day in the fridge, the meat is STILL MOIST.  Amazing.

So tips we’ve learned about cooking heritage turkey:

Free-range, heritage birds have less meat and more bone for their weight compared to their fattened counterparts.  This throws the cooking times off.  Be warned!

Next time, we will again do the hot initial sear, and we will again cover the bird for the rest of the cooking, after adding a little liquid to the pan.  But Skipper says next time he would lower the heat even more, down to 315 or so.  We’d still use 20 mins per pound as a general guideline, just in case (especially at a lower heat), but again, we’d plan to check the bird early, after 10-15 minutes per pound.  Our bird took 3.5 hours for 15.6 lbs.  But the point is that there is a lot more variation in the heritage, free-range birds, and you can’t just plug in a formula.

We did not brine our bird, and opinions on this for heritage birds varied.  But given that our bird was so fresh, and so potentially tasty, we were worried about over saturating the turkey with water and salt.  After all, in theory a good quality, traditional turkey shouldn’t need to be altered too much to add flavour where there might not be any…We have no regrets.  We think that keeping the bird covered while roasting with extra liquid took the place of brining, and was much simpler.

So there you go!  Hope that helps someone else have a very merry turkey-mas, and whether you’re having a turkey feast, or, as we’re doing tonight, a Ukrainian wheat-free vegan Christmas even dinner, have a wonderful holiday.  On to the garden goals of 2013!

Taking Stock and Stocking Up

It’s no coincidence that I’ve been AWOL between Labour Day weekend and the first week of December this year.  Can you say “School semester?!”  Sadly, this was one of those semesters that just didn’t leave me 2 hours free to put a post together.  I’ve considered dropping the blog altogether, but that doesn’t feel right either.  So my goal is to post once a month or so and see where that takes me.

The fact is, there’s been lots going on around here, and I want to share it.  It’s been a busy and productive fall, and all the reading and grappling with the transitions underway have had some transformative impacts on our lives.  There are also still many things that I remain unsettled and anxious about.  I continue to swing regularly between despair and acceptance about what’s happening in the world, and my homestead work calms me to some degree.  But I also recognize that the real work needs to happen at the community level, and I’m reflecting on how I want to participate in that broader picture.

In the meantime, I thought I should report a bit on what we accomplished this fall!  One of my goals after last summer’s chicken-ravaging of my winter garden was to do a better job of extending our garden’s production for as long as possible.  About halfway through the season, I also got serious about preserving and stocking up the pantry, even if that meant buying some local produce from off the property.  The results have been so heartening–and a giant leap forward!

The Well-Stocked Larder
The Well-Stocked Larder

This fall, we are looking at a pantry with

  • 48 pints of thick tomato sauce, plus some stewed tomatoes and salsa
  • almost 100 lbs of potatoes stored–enough to get us to spring, if I can keep them from sprouting!
  • umpteen jars of assorted pickles: cucumber, zucchini, beets
  • canned cherries and peaches, frozen berries, and umpteen jars of jam
  • a decent supply of onions, as well as a garden full of leeks, some garlic
  • a garden bed full of huge rutabagas and parsnips
  • a successful patch of cabbage and (hopefully!) brussel sprouts–enough cabbage til May
  • 40 lbs of winter squash
  • a few lbs of stored dry pinto and fava beans
  • a covered bed of salad greens that we should be able to eat from for another month or so
  • a solid patch of healthy chard also covered to pull from for another month or two
  • a decent bed of winter kale
  • a freezer full of corn, green beans, chicken (ours and some heritage roosters bartered with a friend)
  • eggs and…a half-side of pork raised by a farming colleague!

And…from a half-dozen espaliered and dwarf apple trees: 450 lbs of apples!!

The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes
The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes

These have been taken off to the local u-brew to make cider (we don’t yet have a press/grinder), frozen for deserts, and made into apple sauce.  We’re still working our way through the last of the processing; I’d also like to try drying some slices by the wood stove.

In other words, we’ve got enough of our home-produced food to keep us going for a number of months yet, supplemented by a few basic grocery staples: rice, oats, pasta, bread, milk, cheese, etc.   I have accepted that our homestead (for now!) will not produce grains and dairy.  But I’m so impressed that we’ve produced so much else, and very curious to see how long it lasts!

As the December break rolls around, I’m setting new garden goals and getting ready to order seeds.  I want to improve my carrot and beet production, and continue to clear brush and ornamentals to make room for more food.  I got an expanded strawberry patch and an asparagus bed set up last year, but I killed off most of the blueberry starts 😦 .   And I’m planning next year to make a concerted effort to save seeds.  We managed a few beans and sunflower seeds this year, but I want to start settling on my favourite varieties of my crops and starting to strategically and systematically save seeds from those where viable.  Right now we just save a few once the plants are done and the harvest over, but that isn’t actually selecting for the best traits!

Beyond the garden, we’re also starting to think more strategically about our overall homestead and its sustainability and resilience.  We continue to count our woodstove as one of our biggest blessings, and with its help, we’re trying to reduce our energy use even more.  The Skipper has decided that using the dishwasher–though a high efficiency model–can’t possibly be as energy-efficient as heating water on the woodstove to handwash dishes.  We’ve bought some cast-iron enameled pots to experiment with cooking on the woodstove.  In BC, we have a two-tiered billing system for our electricity, and the Skipper has set us the challenge of trying to get our consumption down to the first tier: about 22 kwhrs per day.  We bought a bigger freezer to accommodate the food storage, and with a new energy-star model, we got rid of an older extra fridge and the small freezer and are now using less energy with more space. Win!

Also on the priority list is some rainwater catchment.  We’re on a good well here, but resilience is about redundancy, and at the moment we are completely reliant on our well and it’s electric pump.  There are manual pumps available, and we might also look into one, but rainwater storage makes a lot more sense as low-hanging fruit.  I’ve been angling for this for months now, but the push came last night, when the Skipper said a colleague of his is stuck at the moment because his pump went, and it’s (of course) thousands of dollars and a huge hassle to have someone come with a machine to pull out the pump (!), repair or replace it and put it back in.  That’s the kind of personal emergency that Sharon Astyk reminds us about.  I don’t know how we would pay for that kind of problem at the moment, and of course, while all of that decision-making and work is in progress, you have no water!!  There’s a strong case for a back-up plan!

There’s lots more to share, but I’ll stop there for now.  Hope you are also looking forward to a winter with a full woodshed, a warm fire, and tasty food shared with good company.