Monday, March 28, 2011

52 Books in 52 Weeks: February/March


I am trying to keep up with this. 

February

 I started out with Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. While not as ground-breaking as Outliers, this did have a few interesting tales in the discussion of how people make snap decisions, for good or bad. Next came The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. I love travel fiction so this book of a train journey across Asia and back again sounded like a good fit. Instead I found myself slightly annoyed with Theroux, as he was often with the people around him. In February I also finished the Victorian fairy tale Phantastes by George MacDonald. Not as focused as some of his other work, but it had its moments. 

March

In March I finally finished Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed the World by Penny La Conteur. A really informative book on the history of chemistry. Very cool, but not something to read every night. I've been working on this one for several months a chapter at a time. Since I was behind I tried to catch up by reading the Youth novel Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech about a little girl mourning her mother's departure and trying to figure out her new life. Well written with a light tone. Another reason I'm behind is that I've been reading 688 page Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin as part of my January fairy tale celebration. I liked it, the beginning has a lot of magical realism. The second half of the book gets weirder and weirder. I definitely am interested in reading more Helprin in the future.

I have to catch up with at least one more this week! 

How's it going? Reading anything interesting this month? 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

From Snow to Ice to...Mud? Get Those Taps In!


The front yard looks like moon craters. The walk from the front door to the sap jug is full of peril. 

Which brings me back to our last topic. How do you boil down sap? 

People do this different ways. People with a lot of trees will have a grill going or a bonfire. I hear that with a lot of sap boiling a bit of stickiness goes into the air with the water vapor. Not everyone wants to clean up after that. 

With my measly 2 trees that is no problem. 

I fill my dutch oven (any wide-bottomed pot is best...more heat-to-sap ratio). I turn the gas fairly high. I've never had this scorch unless you burn it all up at the end. 

That's it. For a long time. I've had a gallon take between 3-4 hours. You can be walking around doing laundry or cleaning. The last hour or so you should be in the kitchen. Do the dishes. Bake cookies. Something. 

The reason I say that is because the first time I boiled sap I was close for the first 2 hours. Then I got bored. Boredom is a deadly thing in the world of gas stoves. I burned out the bottom of that pot and smoked up the kitchen, so please pay attention. 

Pay attention to what? Well, there are a few signs to watch for. The color will change (slightly). Light brown. There might be a slight sheen on the top of the liquid as some of the sugars form. And of course there's the taste. Sweet, (comparatively) thick, and (to me) a little vanilla-y. 

If you need something more concrete you can use a thermometer. Sap becomes syrup at the boiling point of water (220 F) + 30 degrees (250 F). Personally, I can never get my gauge to show this, but I boil such small batches (a gallon or so) that I can tell by sight when its done (it only covers 1/2-1/3 of the pot bottom). 

Then I put it in a plastic container and set it in the fridge. If you have a lot of trees you can can it in quarts or pints. 

And be proud of your accomplishment, even if its only an ounce. More will come tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Things to Do While There's Still Snow, Part 2


For those in Zone 4 and anywhere the days are above freezing and the nights are below freezing, there is still time to tap your maple trees

We've had our taps in for a week and today is the first day we had a good run, so I boiled down 2/3 of a gallon. 

What you need (cheap version): 
tree taps
drill or awl
hammer
empty milk cartons
strainer
large, wide-bottomed pot
something to hold the finished syrup (empty jar, mason jar, plastic container)

You should already have most of these things in your house. What you do need to buy are the taps. They run @$2-3 depending on where you buy them and their size. They're reusable (just make sure they're dry before you put them away). Most hardware stores and some whole food stores carry them.

Once you have the taps wash out the milk jugs with a teaspoon of bleach and a bunch of water. Get it good and rinsed out (no bleach smell or taste). Then drill a hole in the side 3/4 of the way up where it starts to narrow toward the lid. Keep the lid on the container. 

Next, drill a hole in your maple (only choose maples over 12-18" wide), no longer than your tap (1" is pretty standard). Hammer your tap in. Fit the hole in the jug over the tap. I promise you it probably won't fall if the hole isn't too big. 

Then check it every 24-48 hours. Empty the jug into a pitcher. Boil down. 

I'll try to have more instructions about the boiling process and more pictures as we go along. 

But get out there and get tapping! There's no knowing how long the weather will stay perfect and the sap will rise to wake the trees from their winter sleep.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Things to Do While There's Still Snow

Last week, when it was dripping everywhere, I remembered one more thing I needed to do while the weather was cold. 

Freezer thaw and clean out. 

I don't have one of those new freezers that de-ice themselves. At least I don't think so. (Remember when Mom used to get out the hair dryer to defrost the freezer? I loved that.) 
I got it from a neighbor at a garage sale. All her kids have left home and she didn't need it anymore. It's big enough to store a dead body (not that we have any of those) and the top doesn't latch well but the seal is good. 

Sorry, I'm not always green when the price is right. Sometimes you have to recycle something older and save up for the efficient one. 

So last week I decided I desperately needed to clean this big boy up and get the ice off the front so it would latch better. 

First I unloaded all the food and put it in the backyard. In the snow. Out of the reach of the dog (hopefully).
Butter. Cheese. Whole grain flours. Frozen berries. Ice cream freezers. Ice cubes.
Meat leftover from our share. Hamburger. Steaks. That tenderized chunk I never know what to do with.
Then I left it open an hour. To soften a little. When an hour was up the ice was still pretty frozen. Mostly on the front. 
So I knocked it off with an ice scraper for the car. After an hour of 'warmth' it sheered right off. 

Then I opened the garage door, threw the ice and snow out, and cleaned out the inside with water and vinegar. 

Once that was over I plugged it back in and after a few hours put everything back again (after a quick inventory). The outside temperature never rose above 28 so the meat was fine. Luckily no neighborhood predators found it because the garage was a little too warm to keep it that long. 

Back to normal. So now that the Midwest has a bit more snow...you know what you need to do. And if you have one of those new-fangled models go on out there and take an inventory. Or do some research into local meat or produce shares to fill it up.

Spring is coming. Gotta get ready to fill that thing back up again. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Time to Gear Up


They came (last month actually).

I ordered from Pinetree Seeds again. Tomatoes, beans, herbs, garden staples.

I'm going to try to fashion a small cold frame (again) this year. This time with pvc pipes, covering cloth, clips, and garden staples. I'm not terribly excited about all this but with the bug problems I had last year I figured it would be worth a shot. 

Have you ordered yet? Got your seeds? Do you go online or local?

I have a few things left, mostly herbs and flowers, to pick up locally. Jung's is local here so I can pick up things I forgot long ago in January when the snow was flying.