Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thrift: Dumpster Diving

There was a time, not so long ago, when grocery store managers and employees happily set aside their spoiled baked goods and produce. They liked the idea that it didn't go to waste. They might have even been a little jealous because they didn't have animals of their own that they could give those scraps to. But when the rumor started going around that a certain Mom and Pop eatery was taking away the scraps and serving them to paying customers, our friendly green-grocers became less helpful. I cannot blame them for wanting to stay out of the scandal, gossips being the way that they are. So, once again, we are the victims of small-town boredom and small-mindedness.

So now we must dumpster dive. The grocery store managers and clerks tip us off to when the trash has gone out, and we help ourselves. The permission saves us from any legal difficulty we could face; the pigs get their goodies, and the store staff can avoid any drama. It sounds like a perfect arrangement except for one small issue: Mr. Farmer has a bee sting allergy.

Two times in less than two weeks he was stung by dumpster-loving buzzers.  The first was on Little Miss Farmer's birthday. He was stung on the eyelid, and he finished his chores before coming home. It was at least forty-five minutes before he finally got a Benadryl, and the swelling was pretty intense. He was in bed all of Miss Farmer's birthday and mine, and it was sad to see. The next sting was on his arm, and he got his medicine sooner, but he was still pretty uncomfortable because of it. Multiple stings could actually be dangerous for him, as I have seen in the past, and now I feel that I need to worry every time he announces that it is dumpster diving day.


They Pollinate the Cucumbers,
and They Make Mr. Farmer Swell Up

So, we take our chances. The extra food is a great treat for the pigs, and they love it. It saves us a few bucks on feed, which is starting to get pretty intense now that we have so many of them. The baby pigs are even eating the produce now. You can't beat free!

The Piglets Love the Watermelon!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Skunk Wars: Part Three

That's right, this means war. I like skunks, I really do, but the fact that this one has eluded us for so long is getting to me. Now it's personal.

(In case you missed it, the stories of our previous attempts to catch the skunk(s) can be seen here: Part 1 - Opossum and here: Part 2 - Raccoon. If you don't feel like going back and clicking the links, here's a quick summary for you: I saw a skunk. We put out a trap. We caught a 'possum. We put the trap out again. We caught a raccoon. To be continued...)

We put the trap out again. And again. And again. The other day I thought I heard the trap rattling. It had not been checked that day, so I walked around and around trying to find it. I couldn't find it, but I heard a strange sound. There was scratching, and metal clinking, and water splashes. I followed the sound to a 55 gallon drum. I peeked carefully inside, through the spiderwebs that covered the top of the barrel, just over the edge in case it was something that could jump or bite or... gulp... spray me. When I finally got the guts to pull off the webs and look over the edge I saw.....

A soaking wet chipmunk.





The trap had been dragged off by some large animal. We dumped the chipmunk out and gave it its freedom, and reset the trap. That evening, when looking for Mr. Farmer right after dark, the fluffy white skunk walked right behind me. I swear I felt her little fuzzy tail brush against my heels. When I told Mr. Farmer of her brazenness, he told me she had hissed at him earlier in the day, and that he figured she was expecting. I went to bed a little freaked out, but with great hopes that we would catch her for sure. What pregnant animal could resist the DOUGHNUT we had baited the trap with? The next morning we checked it and FINALLY....

A neighbor's cat. Pole cat? Nope. House cat. Mr. Farmer released it before I could get a photo. I was more than a little disappointed about that. Then, to add insult to injury, he loaned the trap to a friend, dashing my hopes for skunk capture prior to reproduction.

So, for now, this story is still "to be continued." Arriving home late from work yesterday I watched the entire skunk family trot across my tomato garden in the light of my headlights. First the proud, sleekly black-tailed Papa, whom I had not seen before. Next came the fluffy white Mama with two black kittens in tow. They ducked under the house, and Mr. Farmer has vowed to put chicken wire reinforcements under the front porch to keep them out from underneath. Hopefully they will just move on. Otherwise, I guess we'll have to set that trap... again...

 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cooking: The Cake

Little Miss Farmer turned thirteen on July 19, 2011. When I asked her what kind of cake she wanted, she said she wanted a "Portal Cake". I knew what Portal was: it is what I consider one of the better video games available these days. You have to make your way through puzzles by creating portals with a gun that shoots virtual holes for you to pass through. Your motivation to proceed to the end of the game is cake. The children shout that "The Cake Is A Lie" over and over because apparently, if you get to the cake in the game, any attempt to retrieve it results in death of your character. Such an epic story could only end with a spectacular cake (and MY cakes tend to be delicious, not beautiful), so imagine my relief when I looked up a screenshot of the cake online and found this:

The Cake, as Seen in the Game "Portal"

Oh yeah. I got this. Further research showed that the cake was 3 layers and chocolate. So I made my famous chocolate cake from scratch (recipe below) twice, so that I would have 4 layers. We snacked on the extra layer while we waited for the final product to be ready. Once the layers were baked and cooled, I cut the tops off so they would be nice and flat like the cake from the game.


Tops Sliced Off
Then, since I needed to make white icing for the blobs on top, and since the only pictures of the inside of the cake are black and white so it is hard to tell what color the filling is, I stacked up the 3 layers with white buttercream icing between (recipe also below). Did I mention that I love buttercream icing? It is so easy to make and amazingly delicious.
  

At This Point I was Wondering
If the Glass Dome Would Fit.
It Didn't.
Next I frosted the outside with dark chocolate icing (you guessed it, recipe below).

  
Chocolate Icing Added

A closer look at the screenshot shows that the cake has some texture to the outside. It is unclear as to what causes that texture. I have seen chocolate shavings and cookie crumbs used for that purpose, but I went with chocolate chips.


  
Encrusted with Chocolate Chips
Then I added the final decoration: the white icing blobs and cherries. All done! (Four Hours Later!)

  
How Did I Do?


I am pleased with the result. Of course I have made this cake as a simple two-layer, extra-chocolaty deal on a number of occasions, usually just sprinkled with a little this or that as appropriate for the occasion. I have filled it with strawberry preserves or whipped peanut butter. The cake itself is easy and I have been accused of buying it or using a box on more than one occasion. But seriously, this cake (in its basic form, not the craziness I did with it for Little Miss Farmer's birthday), is a piece of cake to make (pun intended!).

The Cake


Ingredients

2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Cocoa powder (Dark is best)
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup hot coffee

Directions

1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans.

2. Sift together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes (or by hand until smooth). Stir in hot coffee (batter will be strangely thin). Pour batter into prepared pans.

3. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks (Or clean towels). Cool completely before frosting.

The Chocolate Icing

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

Melt butter in the microwave or in a small pan on the stove. Stir in cocoa. Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating to spreading consistency. Add small amount additional milk, if needed. Stir in vanilla.

Makes about 2 cups frosting.

The ButterCream Icing
Ingredients:
 
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter (softened)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar (approximately 1 lb.)
2 tablespoons milk


 
Directions:


 In large bowl, cream shortening and butter with electric mixer. Add vanilla. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl often. When all sugar has been mixed in, icing will appear dry. Add milk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Keep bowl covered with a damp cloth until ready to use.



 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Gardening: Cool Cucumber Trellis

I love cucumbers! My favorite is to peel them, slice them, and put them in a bowl overnight with onions and a LOT of salt. In the morning they are a great cool snack. Tasty! This year we wanted to get our cucumbers more sun, so we got them away from the house and put them at the front of the herb garden bed. Our next door neighbor was building free-form trellises with thin bamboo poles, and Mr. Farmer decided to follow suit.

The trellis looks a lot like a tent frame. A center support is held vertical by triangular sideways supports. Mr. Farmer hung some twine from the frame to get the cucumbers climbing without adding more poles.

The Trellis (May 2011)
Admittedly, we are several weeks behind our contemporaries at the base of the mountain as far as the growing season goes. That means that my co-workers who garden are up to their eyeballs in cucumbers already. I have only had two come ready so far, and one more is about ready to go in a few days. There are many more, however, that are an inch long and showing great promise. So tell me, do you think it is working?

The Trellis (July 2011)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gardening: Birthday Lilies

It just so happens that my favorite flowers are tiger lilies. These bright orange beauties have been a part of my life as long as I can remember. Tall, wild bunches of almost blindingly bright flowers explode open on country highways and side roads. The many giant blossoms are reminiscent of summer fireworks in the night sky. Best of all, there are new flowers every morning, so even though these flowers- also called "day lilies" because of this trait- die every night, there is always a new bunch every morning.

To those who know me personally, my other online persona might be a bit misleading. Daffodils are actually my second favorite flower. As much as I enjoy these spring beauties, they can't stand up to the wild and wonderful tiger lily. However, when setting up my very first email address all those years back, "tiger lily" just seemed too long to be practical. So, daffodils it was.

I must not dismiss, however, the possibility that the reason I enjoy tiger lilies so much is because of my summer birthday (today). I don't know if that's just a coincidence, or if it's emotional. My dream, however, has been to wake up on the morning of my birthday, go outside, gaze upon my very own patch of orange and green jungle, and cut a few for my table. Thanks to my boss last fall (who moved on from that position a few months back), this year is the first that I am able to actually do it.

Tiger Lily From My Bulb Garden
Oh, what are those lovely yellow lilies in the background, you ask? They were a gift from my brother-in-law, who loves me and who meant well when he brought them, thinking they were orange, not yellow. I like them, too. They smell heavenly.

Yellow Lily from my Brother-In-Law

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Pigs: Mamas Delivers

WARNING: Slightly Graphic Birth Photos

"Mamas" is what we call our pink breeder pig, so named because we were certain that she was going to be our first and most successful mama. She was not the first, however, having been beaten to that title by Wilma, who delivered 5 days before her. Saturday, July 16, 2011 was a big day for Mamas, and for me (since I got to watch)!

I got the text at about 11 am while at work that Mamas was in labor. She had made a nice nest for herself and settled in to pant in the heat and grunt uncomfortably for many hours. After work I went home, changed into shorts and sneakers, and drove to the farm with rubber gloves and sterile water. A short trudge up the hill, schlepping a gallon of water and a camera was rewarded with arriving just in time to see Mamas pop out her first little porker- a small female that our Pig-Partner's Girlfriend promptly named "Midnight" then changed to "Velvet" when her sex was revealed.


Mamas Delivers Her First Piglet Ever

Velvet was feisty. She poked and nuzzled Mamas every which way. She dug her sticky little nose in the soft dirt of the nest. She even found her way around to nuzzle and try to nurse before her umbilical cord was even completely out of Mamas.

Crazy, Independent Velvet

When she was finally loose, Velvet started exploring almost immediately. She climbed all over Mamas and even wandered a foot or so away a couple times. She climbed on Mamas' head and was greeted with a little friendly chatter from her hot and exhausted mother. In her excitement, she managed to wrap her cord around Mamas' ear and tear it free. She was off her leash and ready to go.


Velvet & Mamas


It was over a half hour before Mamas started pushing again. The time flew by for us, however, as we busied ourselves with ooh-ing and aah-ing over Velvet as she nuzzled every inch of her Mommy. We cracked jokes about how maybe she was trying to encourage her siblings to come join her. Mr. Farmer squirted milk at her from Mamas. We took pictures and laughed and tried to guess when the next one would arrive. It was Bootsie that came next with just two pushes and a plop on the ground. Bootsie was bigger, and Mamas was on a roll.

The rest of the piglets came quickly, maybe ten minutes apart or so. Number Three's jaw was stuck a bit, and Mr. Farmer had to help out a little by removing the cord from its mouth and widening the opening to let it out. Number Four was close behind, not even waiting for Number Three's cord to break loose before coming out. They were dubbed Midnight and Neo(politain), but I don't remember which was Three and which was Four.

Four of the first Five were
Black or Black and White, like Tiffany.


There was much nuzzling and climbing and nursing going on when, to our horror, and pair of white feet presented. We tried to let Mamas handle it as best she could, but even after two or three pushes the breech piglet was staying put. Mr. Farmer tried to grab hold and assist, but his rubber gloves made holding on impossible, and the feet went back in. We gave Mamas a rest and waited for the next push, at which point our Pig-Partner grabbed the feet, gave a little twist, and out came Casper- the only white pig in the bunch.

(I decided not to post the video, as it is pretty graphic. Sadly, I do not have a still shot of Casper just after birth.)
 We all gave a sigh of relief that Casper was well and alive and breathing on his own without trouble. Before long, Mamas started expressing placenta, and we sat back, watched the new piglets, and told her what a good job she had done. We rinsed her sore bottom with cool water and chased the flies away. Those piglets nursed for what seemed like forever! It made us all hungry, and we were also tired from the experience, so we went home for dinner and left the new family to its business.


Very Important Business

The next morning, Mr. Farmer and the kids went up to feed the pigs and take some more pictures. But instead of five piglets, SIX were nursing away on Mamas! Sometime after we left she had given birth to (naturally) "Surprise"- a reddish-brown little baby.



So that's ten newborn pigs this week: Four for Wilma and Six for Mamas, in case you are keeping score. Well done, Ladies, and well done Proud Papa, Tiffany, Prince of Darkness.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pigs: Gratuitous Baby Pig Post

That's right. The whole purpose of this post is to show off pictures and video of our first litter ever of piglets. Think of it as a brag-book of sorts.


Nursing Piggies Close-up
I love how Wilma nudges them to get them to go where she wants them.

I think she just got the pink one in the butt.
You know, Mom and Dad (Tiffany and Wilma) were cute little pigs once too....

Isn't it romantic? (About 12 weeks old, too young for romance.)
But we didn't have them yet when they were THIS little and cute:

That spotty one is my favorite.

Home Movies? Sure! (Very short, no sound.) Here's the babies tussling like puppies!

video

Here they are harassing poor Wilma and refusing to settle in while nursing:

video


And finally, a nursing piglet close-up... It's grainy from the zoom in, but it's still cute:

video

The piglets are 3 days old in all of the above. I hope you enjoyed!!!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pigs: My Son, MacGyver

Those slippery feeder pigs escaped again! (Click here to read what happened last time.) We recently moved the feeders to their bigger pen adjoining the breeder pigs at the Beta Site. We kept them separate from the huge breeders for their protection and to give them feed appropriate for their purpose. So imagine my surprise when I went to feed them the other day and found all the pigs in one enclosure!


They are MUCH Happier Loose!

The problem was discovered very quickly: the electric fence was malfunctioning. It took us several minutes to find the fault. The pigs seem to have pulled or knocked out one of the insulators, and the electric wire was sitting against a tree, grounding out the whole system. With no extra insulators on hand, we had to improvise. Mr. Farmer was not with us, and we were using my car, not the tool-and-part-filled van. We opened the trunk and dug around to see what we could use.

Young Master Farmer fashioned a new insulator out of 2 plastic forks and some foil from our "party box" (a case full of paper goods, salt & pepper, and all the other little things needed for a picnic on the fly). He used the foil to hold the two forks together, intertwined the tines, and put the wire between the tines. The fork kept the wire off the tree, and the zap returned to the electric fence.

I'm proud of Young Master Farmer MacGyver. He chased the escape-artist feeder pigs back into their part of the enclosure where they could eat in peace, and I tested the fence for my self for the first time (it doesn't hurt much). So long as the breeders leave those forks alone, the homemade insulator should hold until Mr. Farmer gets back from the store with a proper replacement. Who has a son who knows how to fix an electric fence? I do!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pigs: Surprise! Piglets!

I guess the post about Mr. Farmer learning how to make English Muffins will have to wait. The moving of the escape-artist feeder pigs to their new home isn't even going to be a post. As it turns out, these are not the most interesting things to happen this week after all.

On Monday, July 11, 2011, Mr. Farmer and Young Master Farmer packed up the feeder pigs and moved them to the Beta Site for fattening. The fence was ready and electrified, and the pigs were happy to be out of those dog crates and running around. As the men went about feeding the pigs, they noticed that Wilma sniffed at the food momentarily then wandered disinterestedly back to the hut. Young Master Farmer followed her back to the hut and called out, "Daddy? Wilma doesn't look right." Daddy replied, "What's the matter?" and Young Master Farmer said, "You have to come see." When he came to see he saw Wilma in the hut with four squirming baby piglets!


Wilma and Her First Litter

What followed was a flurry of activity: finding rubber gloves, calling everyone with the news, checking to see if more were on the way (nope), sexing the babies, making sure they were eating, and making sure Wilma was alright. All was well with the piglets that we didn't expect until October, so we set about the business of solving the mystery of Wilma's pregnancy.

We have two theories about how Tiffany managed to do the deed. The first possibility is that he got her through the chain link fence that divided the males and females prior to the installation of the center pen that held the feeder pigs. The other possibility is that he was quick about his work during his brief freedom while that center pen was being built. Our partner, who built that center pen, swears that he and the girls only fought while they were together, but, then again, he was a little busy at the time.

Now we are on piglet watch for Mamas, who appears further developed than Wilma is. She was showing signs before Wilma was, and she looks somewhat uncomfortable, so we are keeping a close eye on her. Oh yeah, and the little baby piggies are so cute!!!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Not a Skunk

I am shaking my head in disbelief. We had another skunk sighting the other day, so Mr. Farmer set the live-catch trap again. When morning came we found this little guy in the trap:

Not a Skunk
For the zoologically challenged among you, the animal pictured above is a raccoon. It is not a skunk. You see, skunks are black with a white stripe of varying width down the back, and they spray nasty smelling musk when provoked.  They waddle around looking all cute and maybe dig up your garden a bit and harass your dog. Raccoons, on the other hand, have a mask-like pattern on their faces and ringed tails. They are nimble and slick and generally prefer your trash cans (which skunks aren't clever enough to get into) to your garden. They don't stink, either. When provoked, they arch their backs like cats and... well... run away. Pretty much the only thing these guys have in common with skunks is that they generally creep around at night, and that they could possibly carry rabies.

Remember this nasty guy?


Pennsylvania Tree Rat
This is not a skunk either. This is an opossum. He's a nasty, tree-climbing, giant, white rat who also found his way into my trap when trying to catch a skunk.

I'm starting to get frustrated now. That trap has caught many things over the years: cats, 'possum, 'coons, and yes, even skunks. Our desired prey is elusive, however, and we just can't seem to get him. When will it end?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Thrift: Freezing Sweet Bell Peppers

Did you know that bell peppers freeze very well? That time of year will be upon us soon, and I absolutely hate waste. This time the sweet peppers came from the local grocery store. They were past their peak (definition: half of them had actual mold on them), and the pigs didn't seem to care for them. So, I sorted through them, pulled out the ones that were in better shape, and prepared them for storage.

First I washed them whole and removed the stickers. Then I took off the tops and removed the seeds. I cut them all into tiny dices and mixed them together in a big bowl. Then I rinsed them again one last time and let them sit in the fridge for a few minutes in the colander to drain. I bagged them up in zipper bags and stacked them in the freezer. A couple of the bags I mixed chopped onion with the peppers.

Admittedly peppers do lose some of their snap when frozen, but they still work well in a lot of recipes. Bang the bag against the counter a few times and they break right up, making measuring easy, right from the freezer! Toss them, still frozen, with your warm pasta to help cool it quicker for macaroni or pasta salad (you didn't really think I only had one method for speed-cooling pasta, did you?). Toss them into your spaghetti sauce. Add them to your homemade salsa. Fry them up with sausage and serve over pasta.

Sausage, Peppers, and Onions

Whether your garden is overproducing, your animals are being picky eaters, or your brother-in-law scored yet another just-before-closing deal at the flea market, don't throw out those peppers! Freeze them!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gardening: Early Harvest

Ah, the first fruits of our Spring labor! There's something about those first couple garden items that keep the hope going into summer. I mean, the fun part of the gardening is done. The dirt and mulch have been hauled. The rows have been cut in. The garden has been planned, laid out, and watered. Now, all that's left is weeding and protecting against bugs and critters. What fun would that be if not for:

The First Radish


AND....

An Almost Unending Supply of Fresh Herbs for Cooking

AND

Hope for the Future
(Garlic)

Admittedly, I do look forward to an August of being up to my eyeballs in tomatoes and green peppers. Making pickles and cucumber salad will be so wonderful when the time comes. But for now, I am happy with the herbs. I am overjoyed with the 2 small green peppers and 2 tiny heads of garlic. I am very pleased, most of all, with the huge bunch of garlic sets above - 2 years in the making -  that prove that I can grow garlic in my garden; I just need some patience. I'm excited about putting my many rows of garlic into the ground in October and perhaps being independent of the grocery store for garlic next summer. I can't wait!