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7/21/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitMy name is Renee, and I’m a junk pile-aholic. There. I’ve out-ed myself. I freely admit I have a junk pile. This is really quite a revelation and really goes completely against the grain of my upbringing. You see, I am Midwestern born and bred, and we don’t do junk piles out there. If you see a junk pile it’s not from a native. It’s from a transplant from another place who hasn’t gotten with the program yet. I have remarked on this topic for years to my husband. He doesn’t get what I’m talking about. Last time I visited back home I took a bunch of pictures to show him what I was talking about. Iowa farmers are so neat. You never see old rusty machinery lying around in the yard. They’re always in the machine shed and well taken care of.

clean

“…you are brilliant and subtle if you come from Iowa and really strange and you live as you live and you are always well taken care of if you come from Iowa.” – Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Biography

So it’s with obvious embarrassment that I admit to having a junk pile. Californian farmers and agriculturists don’t seem to mind having a junk pile, and so in keeping with the adage “when in Rome …,” I have a junk pile.

I got swayed over to the practicality of the junk pile by my partner. Granted he is not from Iowa or anywhere in the Midwest. He is Californian through and through, born and raised here. He’s never been brainwashed by the Midwestern sensibility. He’s more akin to Otto Kilcher from the series Alaska the Last Frontier on The Discovery Channel. They both can make anything out of almost anything, and it’s ever so handy a skill to have on a homestead. He just goes to his “supermarket” behind the house, picks out a few things, goes over to his welding trailer, and the next thing you know you have this handmade door knob or other item, and you didn’t spend a penny or have to go into town. Well, you did spend a penny on the welding equipment. But at the risk of wearing you out with adages, what was the one about giving a man a fish as opposed to giving him a fishing rod? The welding equipment was a super good investment. If you’re of a mind to have a homestead and you want it to be as self-sufficient as possible, learn how to weld. (Tip of the Day).

Garden edging has come out of the junk pile. Sun shade for the chickens came out of the junk pile. The backyard fence came out of the junk pile along with the T-posts to support it. Speaking of fences, remember the blog I wrote a while back about the Easiest Fence in the World? You guessed it. The materials came out of the junk pile. So all I can say is, all you junk-pile addicts come out of the closet and be proud. The only thing I might ask is put it behind a hedge row so we Midwesterners don’t have to look at it when we visit!

junk

P.S. The tractor is NOT junk!



7/14/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitEver since I became a member of Seed Savers Exchange out of Decorah, Iowa, I have toyed with the idea of actually saving some of the seed from the plants I’ve grown. Before I came out here to the ranch and I was still living in the city, I just couldn’t carve out time to really study the topic. It seemed beyond me. What should I harvest? How long did I need to wait? Which plant of a particular kind should I pick from?

This year I finally got a lot of sunflowers to grow, among other things. We built a really good fence around the plot so the feral burros couldn’t eat them. Last year I planted them in front of our house because they were so cheery and beautiful. I loved to drive up with them to greet me. I mistakenly thought we could coast by and not have the burros notice that they were there and for the longest time this seemed to be true. Then one day I walked out the front door and stopped cold in my tracks. Nary a sunflower was left. Sigh. Hey, as one of my old woman friends said they just doin’ what come natural.

burros

Burros cleaning up after the cows this past winter.

OK, I get it but what about me? Ain’t I doin’ what come natural and does that entail letting the burros mow everything down? The fence wasn’t that easy to build. We have what I call unnaturally hard soil in our geographical area and pounding the T-posts took weeks even in winter. But by late winter the fence was up and I was all ready to have a bountiful harvest without it all going bye-bye.

sunflowers

Pollinators happy as they can be to find such a meal.

I’m thrilled to say I have skyscraper sunflowers of many types and colors. Then I noticed that some of the heads were drying up and getting crunchy. We had plenty of pollinators from early spring and even as I write they’re still out there doing their job in mid-July. I just looked at those dried heads and said to myself Seed Saving! What the hay!

Sunflowers are the easiest of seeds to save because they show you when they are ready. Just take the dried-up brown heads and pop the seeds out. It’s as easy as pie.

Step One: Cut off the dried head. It will be crunchy and brittle. Pick the plants that had the most beautiful flowers or whatever quality you enjoyed when they were blooming. That way you’ll have the best chance of having those same attributes when you plant them again.

heads

Step Two: Rub off the flower stamens. You might want to put on your gloves at this point. The heads can be tough on hands.

chaff

Step Three: Pop or rub out the seeds unto a clean surface.

seeds

Step Four: Pick out as much “chaff” as you can. Just neater that way.

Step Five: pour them in a clean dry jar. You can see I wasn’t that careful about the chaff and that’s OK because the big seeds are easy to recover. Puncture a few aeration holes in the lid to keep any residual moisture from collecting and store in a cool dry place until you’re ready to plant.

jar

Now I can hardly wait to try some other plants next year or maybe even later in the season. Maybe cucumbers. Maybe tomatoes. Happy seed saving!



7/7/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitWhen the thermometer gets up to 110 degrees like it did today, I have quite a few thoughts. The first thought is to get up and at 'em as soon as it gets light or maybe even a bit before. So today, because it was predicted to be real hot, we are up and at 'em at 6 a.m. Noel Coward wrote a song and in it he stated “Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun.” I’d rather not be categorized as either one, thank you very much. So let’s get all that dad-blamed work done before I turn into a mad dog!

First we add a shade screen over the chicken pen, give the chickens extra water and strategically place plastic milk jugs filled with frozen water so they can avail themselves of a cool place to rest. I also flood a large area in a shady spot in the run where they’ll go later on and scratch down to the cool dirt. All the horses and cows have shade and water. The dogs have shade and a small water-filled kiddie pool and the pup that will let me is shorn of his long fur. The garden gets an extra long drip. My husband is training a colt so he’s out there riding as soon as they’re done eating their hay.

We are done by 10 a.m. and then we shade up by the AC, which doesn’t work that great. It’s old and really needs to be replaced, but it’s costly and we’re on a start-up budget. By early afternoon, we can’t take being indoors any more so we look at each other and say in unison "The Lake!" As we leave through the front door, the blast of hot air hits us. I look at my husband and say, "Didn’t you know we live in the Mojave Desert?"

In weather like this, if I work outdoors for any length of time, I feel like ending it all within short order. I’m not accustomed to this. I don’t see how anyone can be accustomed to it. Maybe that’s why there are so few people in the desert. It was once a thriving metropolis but they all committed suicide because of the heat. I get cranky. Maybe they got cranky. I think is life worth living? The only reason why I don’t up and do it is because I’m too hot to move! Enough of that nonsense! My brain is addled.

heat

When we’re not at the lake, I’m in a cold shower. When I’m in a cold shower, I think life is worth living after all. Life is just a bowl of cherries. And I can eat them, too. I’m not at all worried about the “ruttle” effect. “Ruttle” a term my daughter coined when she was very young. In the bath she looked at her hands and said, “Mommy, my hands are all ruttle-y”. Here’s what I say, “I love ruttles!”

shower

As you can easily evaluate, I take this situation very seriously. So because we chose to live this life we have to find ways to cope. I think about our forefathers and mothers and wonder how did they cope without central air? In the recesses of my aging mind I remember the days before we had central air and it was quite beast-y. (Another daughter-coined term.) Can you imagine cooking in 110 degree heat in an indoor kitchen? I can and I shudder at the thought.

I guess it was probably a little bit better in the outdoor kitchen because at least there was a breeze. I guess any breeze is an improvement over no breeze at all. Can you imagine working your fields on a tractor without shade, much less cab AC, or behind a team of horses? Here's where the term "farmer tan" began. These were tough people, folks. Much tougher than you or I. Well, maybe you are tough, but I am not!

So while I go about my business, I give thanks for my less-than-stellar AC and my cold shower. Things could be worse. A lot worse.

Illustrations by the author, Renee-Lucie Benoit.



6/30/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitThere’s nothing as indispensable for an article of clothing as a hat. Gloves, rugged jeans and good boots are also indispensable, but hats have a special place. Certain types of clothing are really part of your tool kit, but they also make a statement and add panache. This is a hat. Life is good but not as good without a hat. I think this is true everywhere but it’s especially so on a ranch. Doubly so on a ranch in triple-digit weather.

Now within the hat genre is a wide range of brand and construction. Different types are useful for different jobs. One thing that is not negotiable about a hat is that it must have a brim. A brim is mandatory. The elements are always exerting themselves on you and the brim of a hat shields you even better than a good pair of sunglasses. Your eyes can function better without that visual barrier. Unless of course you’re nearsighted and, if that’s the case, what can I say? You have to do what you have to do and wear glasses. I’m kind of on the cusp. I can sort of see close up. So I’d rather wear the hat and no glasses. I’ll put them on only if I have to. My distance vision is pretty good so all in all I’d just as soon wear the hat alone. If I sit on my hat, I can re-shape it. If I sit on my glasses, it’s quite annoying.

I have a bunch of hats in different styles for every type of weather or job and fashion statement. I have the Maine lumberman, kind-of-backwoods, red-plaid wool baseball cap with the sewn-in earflaps lined with shearling. This is good for the sub-zero temperatures when you have to make a trek to the woodpile. And because it’s red, I can find it quickly. Not only that but people can see you a mile off and not mistake you for the odd caribou or wild pig that they may be hunting. I feel like Elmer Fudd when I wear it.

elmerfudd

(image courtesy of Wilderness Woolies)

I have another fleece-lined ear-flap hat. Ear-flap hats make me very happy on cold winter days. This particular one is the kind of hat that snowboarders use. I use it every morning in winter. It attaches under my chin with Velcro so it stays put on my head and ears. It covers most of my neck, too, which is an added benefit. The wind can’t get in when I’m up on a hay wagon and the wind is blowing something fierce. I wish it looked more like this hat. Or that hat.

whitelines

(image courtesy of Whitelines.com)

But it actually looks more like this.

boring

(image courtesy of svpply.com)

I have about six cotton or canvas baseball caps in every color as long as it’s some variation on dirty blue or brown. Here’s where I’m kind of fussy. I won’t wear wear someone else’s logo. The way I figure it is this: They should pay me for free advertising so until they do I choose to wear logo-free clothes. I’m just that way. I know it sounds nonsensical but that’s the way I am and I make no apologies. The baseball cap is good for pert near everything. I wear mine horseback riding and doing chores. I wear them going to town or to the Bull Sale. Baseball caps are a cowgirl’s friend. My friend Robert calls me the “chatelaine,” which is French for some kind of lady who runs the castle. So I’m a chatelaine who wears a logo-less baseball cap. Except for one glaring break in the rule. I got a baseball cap while I was back home in Iowa so now I wear a cap that says “Iowa.” I don’t think it’s a bad thing to promote Iowa. It’s a pretty good state.

iowa

I have a felt cowboy hat that has held up during the worst downpour coming in sideways. It has a stampede string to make sure. This hat lost its shape years ago but it takes a licking and keeps on ticking. I think it’s very picturesque. I wear it when I want to look authentic. You get to figure out what “authentic” means in this case. I stuck a feather in it but I’ve stopped short of calling it Macaroni.

felt

I have four straw hats for hot summer days. Two of them are cowboy-style hats. One has a really big brim. It’s a Deer Creek hat and it is the best sun shade. It’s sort of like wearing an umbrella. The other is a Stetson, and it has a string so when I’m riding the “out back” and the wind is howling, the brim flaps around but it won’t come off. Nice. They’ve both absorbed more than their fair share of sweat.

straw

My last two straw hats are simply for shade. I take them gardening or to the reservoir when we’re bobbing around in the cool green water in our truck tire inner tubes. One has a girlish big black ribbon and bow and the other is a serious utilitarian unit that I got at a Mexican mercantile.

I am almost never without a hat. If you haven’t tried one you really should. You’ll be glad you did. I guarantee it. Sorry, George. I just had to say it.



6/23/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitWe had been gifted recently with a rare sweet rooster and his companion hen. They are both “Heinz” chickens from a neighbor’s flock that needed to downsize after a glut of spring hatchlings. We had some room so we took them and all was well for a few weeks. Then one day I noticed the little gray hen, who I had christened “Ginty McFeatherfluffy” (Ginty for short), was going broody. I’m going to share with you a method I have found that works, but first let me tell you a little about broodiness.

A broody hen is a hen that wants to sit on a clutch of eggs in order to hatch them. It’s an instinct, and not all chickens have the urge so strongly. Ginty has it strong, but we don’t have a pen that is set up for chicks so it just wouldn't be a good idea for her to hatch any. If you don’t want your hen to hatch her eggs, you need to stop her broodiness as soon as possible. If she goes beyond the 21 days it takes to hatch eggs, she can die of malnutrition. You see, when a hen sits her eggs she doesn’t eat or drink but once a day, and having this go on too long can have unhappy consequences. You might think that if you just take the eggs away she will stop. I guess it could happen but I've never seen it. Once they’re in brood mode, they just sit there no matter what. They’ll even sit on infertile eggs or even an empty nest. They can’t help themselves. Nature flipped her switch and now she’s in the groove.

ginty1

So if you see your hen sitting in her nest all day long for a couple days, you’ve most likely got a broody. Take action right away. The longer they sit there the longer it takes to stop them. You might also notice that her behavior gets very grouchy. Luckily my Ginty is not this way. She still lets me pick her up and she barely tries to peck me. However, most turn into the Tasmanian Devil, and you can’t get anywhere near them unless you’re clad up to the elbow in leather. You might see that she plucks her own breast feathers to expose the warmth and moisture of her skin directly to the eggs. I think this is where the expression "to feather one's nest" came from.

There are a lot of methods on the Internet. I think this way is the most humane. You need a large wire cage. I got one from my rabbit breeder friend. When you get chickens, this might be an item you want to have on the side, just in case.

What you’re going to do is take your broody darling from her dark and private nest and put her somewhere safe that’s well lit but not in direct sun. You’re going to provide her food and water, and then you’re going to wait. Depending on how long she sat on the nest, it might take a few days to reverse the broody hormone urge. In the cage she might go right back to sitting but eventually you’ll see her up and about. You can try taking her out now and putting her back in her normal home and see what she does. If she goes back to sitting, you just put her back in the cage. If you elevate the cage off the ground it helps cool off her bottom. A hen's temperature goes up a bit while she's broody. Also sitting on the wire floor is not as comfortable as the lovely nest so that’s an added deterrent.

ginty2

This is Ginty in her cage within the coop. She’s in the shade. She has plenty of water and food but she’s still a bit upset. After all, this is odd and not what she had in mind. She settles down quickly because I put her favorite food – dried mealworms – in there with her along with the lay crumbles. Her pals flock around her for support. Later on I will take her some watermelon for hydration and some halved grapes. It’s for her own good. I hope it works for you. Let me know how it does.



6/16/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitHas your garden ever produced whoppers like these? See the quarter next to them for scale! I decided to try Walla Walla onions this year because locals told me they grow well here in our hot, dry climate. I was hoping for some large onions to make onion rings, but I never thought I’d get these gigantic beauties! Now what to do with them all? I can eat a lot of onion rings but not that many!

onion

By the way, if you didn’t already know, Walla Walla onions are named for Walla Walla County, Washington, where they were first grown. The story goes that their development began around 1900 when Peter Pieri, a French soldier who settled in the area, brought with him a sweet onion seed from the island of Corsica. (Wikipedia)

Onion Confit

This is my favorite Thanksgiving side dish. I got the recipe from my friend Lynne D. It tastes great on roast turkey. It’s also extremely good on pizza with fresh basil and goat cheese, too. Use lots! As a matter of fact, I think I’ll do it tonight.

Peel and slice sweet onions (rings, slices, quarters; whatever shape strikes your fancy. Bigger is better in my book.) Heat a bit of olive oil in a large frying pan. I use Lucero extra virgin because I’m lucky to have their orchard and plant just down the road. Add onions, sprinkle with a touch of salt, reduce heat to medium low or low and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are extremely tender and caramelized, about 30 minutes or more. Keep the heat low enough so the onions are cooking but not browning. Finish with touch of balsamic vinegar, if you like.

Freeze and store for later

(I’m going to be doing a lot of this since we were recently gifted with a small chest freezer.)

Chop your onions and place them in a flat layer on a cookie sheet and freeze. After they are frozen, remove the onions from the sheet and store them in bags or storage containers in the freezer.

Pickled Onions (my French Canadian dad made lots of impromptu pickles)

This recipe yields about 2 cups.

5 ounces sliced onions
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup rice, white wine or apple cider vinegar
1 cup warm water
Optional flavorings: a small clove of garlic halved, black peppercorns, allspice berries, small springs of thyme, a small dried chili

Peel and thinly slice the onion. If you use garlic, peel and cut the clove in half. Put all the ingredients except the onions in a mason jar. Blanch the onions by placing them in a sieve and pour boiling water slowly over the onions. Let them drain. Add the onions to the jar and stir gently to evenly distribute everything. The onions will be ready in about 30 minutes but are better after a few hours. Store leftovers in the refrigerator. Pickled onions are good on everything!

French Onion Soup (my dad loved this recipe)

Yields about 4 small or 2 big servings.

3 cups of beef broth (Make your own. It will be better.)
2 large sweet onions, sliced 1/4-inch thick (or one gigantic Walla Walla)
2 tablespoons butter
2 pressed garlic cloves
1 dash Worcestershire sauce
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese
4 slices toasted French bread

Place onion and butter in a large saucepan. Sauté them really slowly over medium heat until onions are tender. Cooking onions really slow is like roasting them in the oven. It brings out their amazing sweet flavor. Add garlic and sauté 1 to 2 minutes. Add beef broth and Worchestershire sauce. Bring to a boil for 1 minute. Fill bowl with soup leaving room. Place toasted French bread on top. Sprinkle cheese on top of that. Place under broiler until cheese is bubbly.

Onion Quiche

(Because I’m of French derivation. Call it Quiche aux Oignons, mesdames et monseiurs! The recipe I use is from Julia Child’s original Mastering the Art of French Cooking that I got when I was 18. Now I’m 63).

7 cups minced onion (perfect when you have a monster onion to deal with. One or two will do.)
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 1/2 tablespoons flour

Cook the onion in a heavy skillet with the oil and butter over very low heat, stirring occasionally until they are extremely tender and golden yellow. It will take about an hour. Sprinkle with flour and cook a couple more minutes.

2 eggs
2/3 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup shredded Swiss cheese

Beat the eggs, cream and seasonings in a bowl until blended. Mix in the onions and cheese. Pour into a partially cooked 8-inch pie crust and dot butter over the top. Bake in the upper third of a preheated oven 375 F until quiche has puffed and browned. Bon appétit!

Sweet Onion Sandwiches

(My dad always used bread from the little bakery down the street. It was just like homemade. Now I like GRIT magazine’s No Knead Artisan Bread.)

Take two slices of homemade bread. Spread them with homemade mayonnaise or butter. Place a slice of sweet onion on one slice of bread and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper. As an option add a big slice of fresh garden tomato. Then place your other slice of bread and eat!

Onion Rings (this is my favorite of favorites)

Peel and cut onions into thick slices and separate into rings. Dip in buttermilk and dredge in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and a bit of cayenne. Heat at least 2 inches of vegetable oil in a large, heavy pot until oil is about 350 F. You can get peanut oil really hot without it smoking. Fry onions rings until golden brown, drain, and season with more salt.



6/10/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitBread brought me to Capper’s Farmer. There I was standing in the check-out line at Tractor Supply and, as most of us do, I was browsing the magazines on the rack. My eyes landed on a copy of GRIT Country Series – Guide to Homemade Bread. I had to have it! I confess that I’m a bread freak. This guide has a world of great recipes in it, but the best one by far is the Easy No-Knead Artisan Basic White Bread on Page 17. The page is now dogeared and soiled I’ve used it so many times. I’ve sent to recipe to my friends and copied it to my personal blog. I’ve also made the bread and gifted it to friends. This recipe started me down the road to searching for easy bread items. By the way, it also got me to subscribe to GRIT, which paved the way to becoming a Capper’s Farmer blogger. “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow!”

Along about Christmas last year, I decided to experiment with making various small baked goods like grinder size French bread loaves, bagels and hamburger buns. I’m still working on the perfect French bread recipe and bagel. Maybe one of you out there in Capper’s Farmer Land has one? The husband says, “Bread should be soft and meat should be crispy,” and my French bread recipe doesn’t pass muster. He’s not much of a bagel fan either. However, I have found the most wonderful hamburger bun recipe. I’m pretty sure you’ll never want to eat another store bought one after trying these.

Brioche-type Hamburger Buns

four

If you’re like me and are always looking for ways to make it easier, you’ll need a bread-making machine for the way I do it. I’m sure it can be kneaded by hand as well. I got this recipe from the cookbook that came with my ancient “MK Home Bakery."

Yields 6 medium or 4 large buns

 

1 ounce water
1  1/2 cups bread flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Just under 3 ounces softened butter
3 small eggs
1 teaspoon dry yeast
beaten egg for glaze (optional)

one

Assemble the ingredients into the bread machine in the order given and follow the instructions for “dough.” I always have to add a little extra flour. You want the dough to be spinning and pulling away from the sides.

When the time's up – on mine a buzzer sounds about an hour later – remove the dough into a greased bowl. Cover it with wrap and let the dough sit for 20 to 30 minutes. I have let it sit for much longer when I got caught up in other projects and the outcome has not suffered so set your timer but don’t freak out if you get distracted.

two

Cut the dough into portions. This is where experimentation will help you. I have found that if I want 6 medium-size buns 6 portions works out well. If I want big buns, I cut them into only 4 portions.

Put them into a large, greased muffin tin or a specialty hamburger bun tin, and let sit covered with a clean cloth for 15 minutes. Again, don’t sweat it if you let them sit longer. I have let them set for up to a couple hours and the buns always come out nice.

Heat your oven to 350 F. If you want, this is now the time to brush with beaten egg glaze for shiny buns. You can also sprinkle them with finely chopped sautéed onions or sesame or poppy seeds at this time.

Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the buns tap hollow and are lightly browned.

three

Don’t they look good?





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