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Renee-Lucie BenoitWe're embracing the culture of the area of the San Joaquin Valley that we've have moved into. The culture here is decidedly Hispanic. I've found Hispanic peoples to be some of the most amenable and friendly cultures of the world. They're hard-working and intelligent, creative and fun loving. They have one of the best cuisines in the world. That's the place we start to enjoy another culture. The food.

I've travelled all over Mexico and I went to Spain once. In Spain we enjoyed Mediterranean cuisine of renown. In Mexico we enjoyed regional cuisines that were at once familiar and exotic. We ate grilled fish and chicken by a river cascade. We ate street food in Mexico City and San Cristobal de la Casas.

Back in the States it's Mexico's 4th of July, also known as Cinco de Mayo. This day celebrates the unlikely victory over French forces by the Mexican army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza. We're celebrating by making a sumptuous version of enchiladas I like to call Deep Dish Enchilada Pie. I make it a few different ways and it's easy to modify to any old way you want it.

Deep Dish Enchilada Pie

Half a yellow onion, diced
Half a bell pepper, diced
2 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Small can of green chilies (hot or mild) or fresh jalapenos (hot) or Anaheim (mild), chopped
Taco seasoning (homemade or packaged)
1 breast chicken or 1/4 pound hamburger or both (I make my chicken in a crock pot with onion, garlic, chicken broth, salt and pepper, and cumin)
1 cup cheese (cheddar, Colby or Monterey Jack or a combination)
1 cup enchilada sauce (canned or homemade)
Cornbread (from a mix or homemade) enough for 3-4 cups of batter

Saute your onions and bell pepper in olive oil until soft. (If using hamburger meat set aside the onions and bell pepper and add this now and brown it. Drain fat. Add the onions and bell pepper back in after it's browned). Add drained green chilies and heat through. Add green onions and heat through. Add taco seasoning, cooked chicken, cilantro and stir.


Make your corn bread according to instructions. Pour half the batter in the bottom of a Bundt pan or springform pan or any baking pan. I use a Bundt pan if I want it to be extra festive or a springform pan (line the bottom with parchment paper) if I want to make it look like a Mexican Chicago pizza. You can use any pan (wipe it with some crisco, lard or olive oil, or spray it with Pam) if you are fine with scooping it out with a big serving spoon.

fourth layer

Spoon the mixture around evenly inside the pan on top of the cornbread batter. Then spoon more cornbread batter on top of that so you have a cornbread layer. mixture layer, cheese layer and finally cornbread layer. Bake in a preheated 375 F oven for about 40 minutes. If you use a Bundt or springform pan let it cool a bit before unmolding it. Pour warmed enchilada sauce over the whole thing and more for serving. If you're using a pan just go ahead and scoop and eat while hot.


Serve with margaritas or shots of tequila. Happy Independence Day!


Renee-Lucie BenoitWe live in one of the premier almond growing areas of America if not the premier area of the world. The San Joaquin Valley. Just down the road from us there are acres and acres of almond groves. So naturally I'm taking an interest in almonds. Just so you know, if you grow almonds you pronounce it "eh-muns". If you're a manufacturer or consumer it's "all-muns". Which are you?


I love almond milk. I started drinking it when I noticed that I got "phlegm-ish" (not "Flemish") after I drank cow's milk. Now that I have a really big market from which to get organic almonds I decided that I should make my own. My grandmother would not have made her own almond milk. She was from Illinois and almonds don't grow there. But if she had been from California I am 100% positive she would have made it. She was a homemade girl.

Making almond milk is super easy. Here's how I did it. This recipe makes about 2 cups. You make a little at a time since homemade doesn't last as long as store bought. It's not pasteurized.


2 cups raw almonds, preferably organic

3-4 cups water, plus more for soaking



Fine mesh strainer

Measuring cup


Fine-mesh cheese cloth


If you didn't buy blanched almonds (and I didn't because blanched are oh-so-expensive) remove the skins by boiling water and then immersing the almonds in it for about 5 minutes. Test one. You're looking for the skin to slip off easily.


Once you've got them all skinned soak the almonds overnight or up to 2 days. Put them in a bowl and cover them with water. They will plump a bit as they absorb water so cover them with a little extra. Covered with a cloth or refrigerate for up to 2 days. The longer the almonds soak, the creamier the almond milk will be.


Drain the almonds and rinse them under cool running water. Discard the soaking water. It contains phytic acid which works against the body's ability to absorb nutrients.

Put the almonds in the blender and cover with 2 cups of water and depending on how thick it becomes as you blend add more water until it is the consistency you want it. You can always add more water later but you want enough water so the almonds don't turn into paste.

Blend at the highest speed for 2 minutes. You're looking for the almonds to be broken down into a very fine meal. The liquid should be white and opaque.


Pour the whole business into a fine mesh strainer. Stir the liquid to get as much milk out as you can and then put the meal into fine mesh cheesecloth. Clean your hands and then gather the cheese cloth around the almond meal and squeeze to extract as much almond milk as possible.


Taste the almond milk. If it tastes good to you, you're done. You can add sweetener or flavoring. I add a little bit of vanilla and honey — that's it.


Store the milk in a sealed container in the fridge. Try to use it right away just as you would any fresh homemade beverage. It hasn't been pasteurized and won't keep really long. That's the benefit, though. It hasn't had all the nutrients cooked out of it. Be aware that it will separate when stored. Just give it a good shake to mix it.


Use your imagination for what to do with the leftover almond meal. You can add it to cooked cereal, smoothies, and muffins as it is. I'm actually going to add some to a pie crust for a treat. You can also spread it out on a baking sheet and bake it in a low oven until completely dry (2 to 3 hours). Dry almond meal can be kept frozen for several months.


What will you do with your homemade almond milk?



Renee-Lucie Benoit"Spring has sprung. The grass is riz. I wonder where the flowers is?"

Answer: They're everywhere!


In the meantime I'm getting ready to plant my victory garden. First I need to see what I'm working with.

Do It Yourself Soil Sediment Test

Soil is where the garden starts. If you don't have good soil you're not going to have healthy plants. Healthy plants resist insects and disease. Plant health begins with what they're sitting in.

People used to think all you had to do was add fertilizer. Then compost became all the rage. All that is good and fine, but the best approach is to know what you have. Then you can amend according to what you actually need without guessing so you'll be gardening more accurately. Take a tip from commercial growers. They know their soil inside out.

On our new place I have decent soil to work so I'm getting with the program. When I put the fork to the soil it goes in easy and turns easy. I'm so happy after 4 years of terrible, awful, very bad, no good, heavy clay soil.

This simple, low cost test will help us get off to the right start for the rest of the garden.

What You Need:

straight-sided, flat-bottomed clear jar

something to measure with

dish soap (optional)

calculator (if you're fractionally impaired, as I am)

First, dig a soil sample from the plant root zone in the area your garden will be. Discard any plant material as best you can. Dig enough to full the jar by 1/3.

 soil in jar

If you find any worms, of course, remove them and put them back in their habitat! Yay, worms! Crumble the soil and pick out any pebbles or roots, etc.

Fill the jar to 1/3. I add a little tiny drop of dish soap. This helps get the soil particles wet and separated but this step is optional. Now fill the jar with water within an inch of the top, put the lid on tight, and give it a good shake to get all the soil wet and suspended. Keep shaking until nothing is left on the bottom or sides. Set the jar on a flat surface and watch it settle.

Sand settles first because the particles are large and therefore heavy.  The sandy layer will look coarse.  If you look close you will actually see the sand particles. The silt and clay layers do not look coarse. They will just be a color. Dark brown or light brown. Mark where the sand ends and the next layer begins.

Silt is the next layer to settle out. This will take about an hour. You will notice it is a different color. Most often it is darker. Mark where the silt layer begins and ends.

Clay is the slowest of the soil particles to settle. Heavy clay layer will settle out in a day. Finer clay might take two days. You can let the clay settle for up to a week. It all depends on your soil.

Measure the depth of each layer and the total soil depth. These measurements are used to calculate the percentage of each soil component.


My jar shows 1-1/2 (1.5) inches of sand, 1/2 (.5) inch of silt, and 1/4 (.25) inch of clay, for a total of 2-1/4 (2.25) inches. Divide each particle depth by the total soil depth to get the percentages:

1.5 divided by 2.25 = .66 or 66% sand

.5 divided by 2.25 = 0.22 or 22% silt

.25 divided by 2.25 = .11 or 11% clay.

Interpreting the Test

Using a soil triangle chart, I am able to figure out what kind of soil structure I am dealing with. It gives me a foundation to work from for how to amend my soil as needed. Here what the triangle chart looks like, you can find all sorts of variations on the web.


Here's how I use the chart. (For fun you can download an excel version from the USDA that will calculate it for you).

Find the numbers that correspond to your percentages. You're basically drawing a line from your percentage number to where the 3 percentage numbers intersect. From the clay side draw a line from left to right until the intersection. For the silt draw from right to left until intersection. For sand draw from bottom to top until intersection. My test results in sandy clay loam.

So I'll be adding compost, manures, bio-char, and old mulch to enhance the moisture holding properties.

What will you do with your soil?




Renee-Lucie Benoitgarden

This is where our huge garden is going to go.

Dear Reader,

We finally did it. It took months — maybe even years when I think about it — to find our own place and now it's happened. We bought a few acres of arable land, with plenty of water and a few outbuildings in need of repair. We're thrilled and terrified at the same time. I think of my grandmother Frieda when she was a young woman starting out and she's going to be my mentor. I wish I had been able to do it the way she did it and maybe the terror would be less. We always welcome the thrill but the terror... it's a big job. Are we up to it at our advanced age? We know how to work smarter instead of harder so maybe that will help us.

Anyway, Gramma did not fall far from the fruit tree and stayed close to where she grew up. She had all her many sisters and brothers to help her, not to mention Mum and Dad. Well, I had to be different so I strayed far from home into a "foreign" land and now I'm paying the price. I'm also benefiting on other levels, so it's not all one-sided. You know the old saying you get what you pay for? There's another saying: Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.

If I had stayed in Iowa I would have made it a lot easier on myself in many ways. But harder in other ways. For one thing, even though the weather is a lot more user friendly out here in California — most of the time — the subject of soil is a completely different kettle of fish. When I first came to California and encountered adobe soil I was shocked. Up to that time I had been spoiled by the incredible glacial soils of Iowa where all I had to do — practically — was put seeds in the ground and sit back and watch while they grew gangbusters. Ever since I've been in CA I've had a hard time of it — no pun intended. But I've had some success and it's been a very interesting learning curve. Stuff does grow here, and well, I might add. After all, California is the truck farm capital of the US of A, isn't it?  You just have to know what you're doing, and isn't that really how it is in real world farming?

So we embark on our project. I lay awake at night and have a hard time getting to sleep. I'm making plans in my head. What about this? What about that? On the positive side I already have some posts written in my head. How to make your own almond milk. Almonds grow here like gangbusters. Raisin and table grapes are grown all around us. How about: how to make your own raisins the natural way and grapevine wreaths? Then there's homestead projects like an easy rose trellis for the garden entrance.

This is the thrilling part. Sharing all our experiences with you, my wonderful readers. Gramma would be proud. I wish she was here to give me advice across the kitchen table over a cup of tea or coffee with some of her famous coffee cake. Well, maybe she is.


Renee-Lucie Benoit"In times like these it helps to recall there have always been times like these." — Paul Harvey

I don't know what made me think of Paul Harvey the other day. I guess I was sick with one of the worst head colds I've ever had and I was sending a letter to my sister to let her know what was going on in our side of the country. The phrase "Now you know the rest of the story" popped into my little pea brain which is been known to be full of useless information but, oh, so interesting. At least to me.

Paul Harvey was part of my life growing up in Iowa in the 50s. We'd turn on the kitchen radio in the morning and there it would sit blasting away the Farm Report and everything all day long every day. Our local radio station was called KFJB. We kids decided that this acronym stood for Krazy Farmer's Jazz Band and we looked forward to listening to Man On The Street every day at noon when the guy would walk down to the local Kresge dime store and there, by the donut machine, he would interview people passing by.

Sometimes the radio would play Patsy Cline singing one of her famous songs. I still love "Sweet Dreams" to this day and it reminds me of piles of French fries, cherry cokes and dinner plate size pork fritters at the counter at that very dime store.

Mr. Harvey was not a shock jock. He never said a bad word and he was always entertaining. I guess he was the Rush Limbaugh of his day because he was known to be conservative but I never thought of him as anything except a good story teller. He didn't say stuff just to get people riled up. That was true conservativism.

He always said "Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for NEWS!" at the beginning of his program. He always ended his program with, "Paul Harvey ... Good day." A story might be called "This day's news of most lasting significance" and at the end of a report about someone who had done something ridiculous or offensive, Harvey might say, "He would want us to mention his name," followed by silence, then would start the next item. The last item of a broadcast, which was often a funny story, would usually be preceded by "For what it's worth."

I also think that in a lot of ways Paul Harvey was a precursor to Lake Woebegone because of the folksy nature of a lot of this stories. One famous broadcast was called "So God Made a Farmer" and it just seems like something you might hear on that radio show.

The speech began as a continuation of the Genesis creation story and referred to the actions God took on the 8th day. In it, Harvey stated that God needed a caretaker for the land he created. In the speech God expressed the characteristics needed by the person he was creating:

"I need somebody with arms strong enough to wrestle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild; somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to await lunch until his wife's done feeding visiting ladies, then tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon, and mean it."

They just don't make 'em like that anymore.


Photo by Fotolia/tanawatpontchour


Renee-Lucie BenoitWe're packing and packing getting ready for our Big Move to our four acres in Madera. I reach back into the recesses of our closets and cupboards to remove everything and carefully wrap and box it up. Things that I put in the cupboard up high and back are things I forgot about. Now that I bring them back into daylight I re-visit some nice old memories.


When my mom and dad went to Mexico in 1948 they took my Aunt LuVerne with them. Aunt LuVerne is my mother's sister and she is a great lady still with us very much so at age 95. She served as a WAC (Women's Air Corps) in World War II and later she was an English teacher. She still corrects my grammar for which I am very grateful. Nothing like having a living, breathing "Elements of Style" in your family if you're a writer.

They drove a classic Ford Woody all the way from Chicago to Mexico City. My mom bought the car with her wages from teaching art at the University of Illinois in Chicago and it was her pride and joy. All along the road the three friends had adventures and they told us the stories off and on during the years. In a little nameless village my mom and her sister went shopping while my dad took a nap with his brand new Panama straw hat over his face. When he woke up the hat was gone. A brazen thief had taken it very carefully from his face and my dad did not wake up once.

Later a total stranger proposed marriage to my beautiful redheaded Aunt LuVerne. Everywhere they went the local people were enthralled with her. One day the three of them enjoyed at day at the beach and thought it strange that everyone was packing up to go while the sun was still high. Minutes later they were covered with biting flies that the locals knew all about but did not know how to warn the English speaking gringos. After finally arriving in Mexico City they got pick pocketed at the Post Office. But that deterred their enthusiasm only a little bit. They kept going and outside Mexico City Mom found a St. Christopher's medal on the lava at the ruins of an old city after a volcano erupted. Only the church steeple was still visible. She made up a story about a villager fleeing the volcano and dropping their necklace never to return.

My mom brought home many treasures. When she passed away the most beautiful treasures were given to us kids and her surviving brother and sisters. The rest was sold to pay expenses as is often the case. I got The Plates. They're most certainly painted with lead based glaze so I never use them to eat off of. I just look at them and think about the artisan who made them and then I remember my mom and dad and the good times they had before I was born.



Renee-Lucie Benoitrainbow

This is not our new farm but isn't it beautiful? Our old ranch.

We bought the farm.

Not the way you think but you've probably figured that out already. We bought a small farm. Just north of Fresno near the little town of Madera. Madera is in the middle of California and the raisin growing capital of the world. But the road to get to Madera was anything but fun. What got us through is that we are stubborn when we really want something. We don't give up easily.

By the way, I'm going to re-name my blog once we get there so I'm entertaining any ideas from out there in the peanut gallery. Bring 'em on!

I'm going to miss this ranch a lot. What I'm going to miss most is the utter peace. No freeway noise. No neighbors mowing lawns. No nothing. The only thing breaking the silence is the honking of geese flying in to the lake or the random motorcycle way out on the road. Our new place will be peaceful but not like this. The neighbors will be within a stone's throw and there isn't a lake for the geese to fly in to.

But this will be a place where every little dirt clod kicked over has a purpose and makes a contribution. A place where we can build things that make sense to us. According to our plan. That we come up with.

We almost didn't get it though. It's a seller's market for fixer upper property in California. Buyers from all over the world and mostly the Orient are coming in to California and buying up property cheaply with cash, fixing it up and re-selling it for a profit.

We started looking in July of last year. We made offers on 3 places only to be skunked by cash buyers every time so when we saw this place on the internet we called up the listing agent and, sight unseen, we made an offer. We knew from painful experience that we needed to get our foot in the door immediately or the place would have an offer on it and we would be left out in the cold. This way we might have a chance. We could always back out if we saw and it wasn't right.

So we made an offer for more than the asking price that was still in our comfort zone and not out of line with the comparables. Then we took a chance and agreed that the owner could stay on a bit after closing to move herself out. Lo and behold, we got it! Just so you know, we did see the place and we did decide it was perfect.

Honestly, it feels like a bit of a miracle.

Four acres, flat and arable, with plenty of water, trees, outbuildings (in need of repair but, so what, we can do it!) and a modest house. You're going to be hearing a lot about our homestead in the next few months. We're starting from scratch on just about everything including the kitchen garden, livestock, chickens, pigs, geese, and ducks.

Now we just have to get a mule!

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