Art of Proprietation

Sunday, September 23, 2007

MVM Harvest Festival and Potluck

We threw our annual Harvest festival potluck dinner over the weekend. As long as I have owned this house, I have had a potluck dinner every fall and invited friends and family from hither and yon to join us. A lot of my friends are far flung, so it is always a crap shoot who will show up. Every year the party is new and different.

I generally cook a couple of entrees, at least one turkey, provide beverages and hoers devourers. I let guests bring whatever they like. I figure, if they bring their favorite dish, there will be at least one thing they like. I once read in some etique column or book about the ghastly trend that was sweeping the nation, potluck dinners... It said hosts who threw these potluck dinners were just being lazy and making their guests provide the meal. I felt a little funny about it for a while, like maybe Emily Post wasn't going to come to my next dinner. But I got over it.

For us, throwing the party means prepping at least 48 hours in advance and cleaning up about 24 hours afterwards. Planning and shopping for the party starts things off. I try to do the shopping in one trip and usually spend about $200 on groceries, etc. I like to cook a turkey, an easy, inexpensive entree that looks good on the table. Sometimes I do two. I brine the turkey at least 24 hours in advance. I also like to make some bread and pizza dough a day ahead so they can rise over night. This year we also served a pork shoulder roast that we brined for 6 days in advance of the party. The day of the party is mostly baking. This year we managed to use three ovens. We now have a range with a separate bread oven that gives extra flexibility. In addition to the meat, bread and Stromboli, we also needed to roast vegetables, stuffing and pies. And we cooked some incidentals on the stove like potatoes, etc.

There is always a fair amount of vegetables that come from our own garden. We also use our own eggs, ham from my brother's pigs and now milk and cheese from our goats. I won't say that we have made a big push on it, but we seem to be in keeping with the whole localvore movement. The thing we seem to import the most is guests.

I think this years dinner was one of the most sedate for me. In the past I rarely actually get to sit down and eat because I am so busy getting things on the table, greeting guests, addressing minor emergencies, etc. This year, I delegated a lot at actually dinner time and was able to sit down myself. It was a pleasant change, probably something I will repeat.

We had guests arrive with pies, entrees, side dishes and even homemade ice cream (Maker, it was made during dinner). We had an extension on the dinning room table, an extra table in the dinning room and still needed a table in the kitchen and the billiards room. It wasn't a giant turnout, but certainly respectable.

One of the reasons I like the potluck model is it automatically grows with attendance. I have never had a party run short on food. As attendance rises, so does the arrival of food. But if we have a lightly attended party, I haven't broken the bank on the groceries. And this year, like any other, proves that attendance and attendees will be different every year.

After dinner, many of the guests take their leave. But generally, we have at least a few stay over night (one year there were twenty five over night guests). For those hearty few, there is a tradition of lighting a bonfire in the backfield and reveling into the wee hours. It was a warm fall night this weekend, and the fire was hardly needed. But we burned one anyway and stayed up too late.

In the morning, I like to say nobody can leave until all the deserts are gone. I don't really enforce it, but there is a lot of pie eaten for breakfast. It's always a leasurly affair in the morning, coffee on the porch with pie and maybe some eggs and bacon. There is also generally a little help getting the house back in order. Most of the dishes are done the night before, but there are always more made in the morning and a few we didn't find. A good vacuuming and taking out all those table clothes.

There is always a rush of anticipation leading up to the party. I send out invitations, but I rarely get rsvps back. People always ask who is coming, I say I'll let them know the day after the party. Just before the party, there is often an anxiety that no one will show. There are always surprises, someone who we never thought would make it will, and someone who was a forgone conclusion to attend won't. But I have always enjoyed having the party. It is a chance to show off what we have done at the house in the past year, a chance to sit in the same room with good friends that don't know each other yet. And with some, it may be the only excuse that gets us to see far flung friends we have lost touch with. Even if Emily Post won't come, I think potlucks are a great tradition and a warm way to spend time with friends.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Stockpanel Arches

It's fall and time to think about coming frost and putting the garden together for the winter.

Over the last couple of years we have been working on developing a greenhouse design we like. We needed something that would extend our growing season into the fall, provide our chickens with a protected area in the winter, open the garden earlier in the spring and be easy enough to remove for the growing season. It also needed to be inexpensive.

From a couple of sources, we worked out the arched stock panel design we use now. My brother had been talking about arched hoop houses he uses to winter his chickens and a friend of mine showed me arched stock panel sheds he uses to house his yard equipment. I put the two ideas together into a hoop house made of stock panel over our raised beds to house the chickens in deep winter and a greenhouse on either side. And during the growing season, the plastic comes off the greenhouse and it becomes a trellis for climbing plants like beans and tomatoes. And since the stock panel is only staked down, it's easy to lift it out one panel at a time and set it up in a different location. Interestingly, my friend showed me the article he had gotten his idea from, an article about greenhouses... All my life's a circle, so to speak.

To make these stock panel greenhouses, we use three sections of stock panel (hog panel) 16 feet long and 52" wide. The panels are bent into arches about 8 feet in diameter set in a line to form a 12 foot long greenhouse. We drive a couple of 4 foot stakes that enter the stock panel 2 feet off the ground and go through the lowest rung of the panel. The stakes help define a 2 foot high vertical wall. A series of guy ropes (cords for geometry students) pull the panel in to form and stabilize the curve of the arch. This year, we also added some 46" spars that follow the same path as the guy ropes. The guy rope / spar arrangement use up about 6 inches of the headroom, but they also make the arch strong enough to handle our snow load. A couple of pieces of bailing twine lace the sections of panel together. A 10 by 9 foot piece of 6 mm plastic goes across each end and a 13 by 17 foot piece over the arch. Around the rim of the arch, we use those metal binder clips to clip the plastic to the arch. We run battens the length of the arch to keep the plastic from luffing in the wind. A couple of 8 inch long blocks of wood screwed to the battens from the inside secure the battens to the arch. For extra insulation, a second layer of plastic can go over the battens, forming about an inch of air gap between the layers of plastic. I frame up a door on hinges but it could also be just a flap cut in the end. A vent window will also be necessary to prevent over heating in warm weather.

Our 2006-2007 greenhouse as it finished the winter and started our spring plants

2007 tomatoes and peppers starting in the greenhouse in May

Frame for the second greenhouse going up on new raised beds in June

Young plants growing in the new East greenhouse as a trellis

West greenhouse with plastic removed and tomatoes and peppers uncovered.

Tomatoes and peppers growing in the west trellis in July. Beans hanging from the panels.

A variety of plants growing in the East trellis in July

The east trellis covered in plastic against frosts in September.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Making Chevre

Earlier, I talked about getting goats this year. We now have two Saanen dairy goats. We milk everyday getting about 3/4's of a gallon. The majority of the milk we drink. We also skim off some of the cream for ice cream, make yogurt and cheese. We have been making a simple farm cheese, just vinegar and lemon juice to form a curd, herbs and spices and drain the whey through a cheese cloth and eat. No culture or aging involved.

Recently, we tried making a cultured cheese, chevre. We used a recipe I found at Fias co farm, with culture and rennet from Dairy Connection . I did struggle a little bit with the rennet ratio. Apparently, there are different strengths of rennet out there. I ended up going with .72 ml of single strength DCI classic animal rennet (plus an ounce of cold, non chlorinated water) for my half gallon of milk.

After milking, I combined the diluted rennet, culture and the still warm 1/2 gallon of milk in a sterile stainless steal pan. Then the pan went into a well insulated cooler. We were trying to maintain an even 72 F for the culture for the following 18 hours.

The culture had worked over night awhen I checked the milk in the morning and found it had curded up nicely. I was a little relieved because the first batch had not setup and came out as a yogurt. That was the struggle with the rennet.

I ladled the curds into a double layer of cheese cloth lining a large colinder and the whey drained into a bowl underneath.

After most of the whey has drained off, we picked up the corners of the cheese cloth and tied them to make a bag and hung the bag under a pot lid. Then the bag hung in a tall pot for a couple of hours, drining the rest of the whey.

The cheese came out nicely. It has a tangy taste with a texture similar to cream cheese. It spread nicely on bread and crackers. I think I'll try some herbs in it next time. Definitely worth doing again.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

turning over stones

Turning over a tenant is a process.

Change the code on the front door. Make sure they don't leave any surprises in the fridge or around the kitchen. Check the room and give it a good cleaning. It always amazes me how much gets tracked into an upstairs bedroom. I am a little particular about getting the area rugs clean to protect the floors. Then clean the rest of the house. Got to have the house project how I want it treated.

When the new tenant arrives, first things first, resolve any lingering paperwork. Review and sign the contract with them. Get the deposit and the first periods rent. Give them a tour of the house, point out the amenities. Put their name on the answering machine. Log them into the wireless network. Ask if they have any questions. I often run on with my patter about the house such that I forget to ask if they have any questions.

Then, give it a rest. Let them settle in in their own time. And don't be so up tight. The time to be uptight is when you are looking at their references and making the decision. Don't let them move in if your going to be uptight about it.

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