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Spice Up Your Life! Tomatillo Salsa Verde Recipe

ReneeI live in a predominately Mexican town in the middle of the Central Valley of California. Roughly 75% of the people here are from Mexico or are one or two generations away. Parts of the town have signs in Spanish and every where you go the people are bilingual or only speak Spanish.

As a matter of fact, the folks who live across the road from us don’t speak English at all. They are very friendly and we wave at each other but there’s no chance we will be discussing philosophy or anything beyond the weather. (“Muy caliente!” “Es verdad!”) They grow all sorts of things that you might see in Mexico and they have chickens, ducks, turkeys and goats and fruit trees. Their whole yard is devoted to growing vegetables.

When I saw that they were growing tomatillos I decided to dust off my Spanish and ask them about it. Sure enough. That’s what they were all-righty and sure enough they were willing to give me a bowl full.

The tomatillo (toe-ma-tee-oh) is also known as the Mexican husk tomato and is a plant of the nightshade family just like the ubiquitous tomato. It bears small, spherical and green or green-purple fruit that originated in Mexico and was cultivated in the pre-Columbian era. They are staple of Mexican cuisine and they are eaten raw or cooked in a variety of dishes, particularly salsa verde, chicken enchiladas and chili verde.

In general, you can grow tomatillos anywhere that’s warm all year round. If you feel like trying them they do best in well-drained, sandy, fertile soil conditions as long as it doesn’t get too cold. They grow best when temperatures range from 75 to 90 degrees. Temperatures at night should not be lower than 60 degrees and they prefer full sun exposure and warm locations. No wonder my neighbors have a bounty. The day time highs are pretty much over 95 degrees all summer long here and the soil is perfect.

Making salsa verde is very easy. Here’s how.

salsa 1

Tomatillo Salsa Verde Recipe

• 1 lb. tomatillos
• 1/2 cup chopped onion
• 1 tsp. minced garlic
• 1 serrano or jalapeno pepper*
• 2 Tbls. chopped cilantro
• 1 Tbls. chopped fresh oregano or 2 Tbls. dried
• 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
• Salt to taste
• 2 cups water

*A word about chili peppers: generally, the smaller the pepper the hotter it is. Therefore, serrano chilis, which are small, are hotter than jalapenos which are a bit bigger. Some like it hot. Some like it medium. To my way of tasting this salsa is medium when you use the jalapeno and hot if you use the serrano.

Husk the tomatillos. This is easily accomplished by bringing a pot of water to a boil and dunking the tomatillos in it for a minute or two. The husks then slip off easily. Discard discolored or shriveled ones. You might notice they’re sticky because the husks are sticky. Any residual stickiness is easily washed off in cool water.


Put the tomatillos, garlic, onion, and chilis into a saucepan. Season with cilantro, cumin, oregano and salt. Add the water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Simmer until the tomatillos are soft and squishable. Maybe 10 to 15 minutes. You can put all this into a blender if you want smooth consistency or simply squish the tomatillos and serve it chunky-style. Makes about a pint of salsa. When refrigerated it stays good for a few days.

My Special Cobb Salad Recipe

ReneeI always struggle with trying to figure out ways to use all my garden bounty. I’m a real estate agent and I wish I had time to can, pickle and preserve. I even wish I had time to beg, plead and cajole my husband into digging me a root cellar but, alas, he works at Tractor Supply and only has time for the essentials. Such is the life of a homesteader who hasn’t transitioned to making a living entirely from the homestead. As soon as I make my first million at real estate (laugh out loud) my goal is to retire and do all the canning, preserving and pickling that my heart desires. In the meantime, however, this salad is a great way to use fresh produce!

Summer’s Almost Over Cobb Salad Recipe

cobb salad

4 servings

Grampa Artie’s Vinaigrette Ingredients

This is my go-to dressing; I never measure the ingredients in this recipe because I’ve made it for many years. I hope you feel emboldened to mix and match, taste and decide how you want yours to taste.

• 1 part vinegar (I personally love balsamic. It’s kind of sweet. I also love unpasteurized apple cider vinegar)
• 3 parts oil (I like extra virgin olive oil)
• 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
• 1/4 teaspoon dried onion flakes
• 2 teaspoons prepared mustard (can be yellow, Dijon or any kind you like)
• 1/2 teaspoon sugar (I’ve been using 5 drops of liquid stevia)
• Salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients together and stir, process or whip well.

Salad Ingredients

Here again this is something you should feel free to experiment with. You could use tiny shrimp instead of chicken, for example. You could use crumbled tortilla chips to substitute for the bacon.

• 2 cups chopped lettuce (romaine, iceberg, green leaf, red leaf, whatever you have on hand)
• 2 cups boneless boiled chicken (try tossing it with 2 tablespoons of your favorite BBQ sauce before adding it to your salad)
• 3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
• 3 tomatoes, chopped
• 15 ounces black beans (canned and drained or cooked from dried)
• 15 ounces corn (canned, or frozen and thawed, or cut from the cob and cooked)
• 1/4 cup shredded cheddar, shredded Jack or crumbled goat cheese (try making your own!)
• 1 avocado, peeled and cubed
• 3 strips crispy bacon, crumbled or crumbled tortilla chips.

The lettuce goes into the bottom of the bowl. Arrange remaining ingredients in horizontal rows on top of lettuce. Serve dressing on the side.

The Scourge of the Barefoot Homesteader

ReneeI love going around barefoot. It’s an issue with me. I love the feel of the earth beneath my feet, but it makes my feet so very dry to the point that I had to invent a salve that helps and sometimes heals if I remember to apply it nightly. With socks. The other issue is that during this time of year we are always bringing in a Goat’s Head stickers every single day. You should see the tires on my wheelbarrow after I’ve been using it to move split wood from the area where it’s been drying to the place where I’m stacking it. Nasty little buggers.

Thus, I am no longer walking around barefoot outdoors and I probably shouldn’t walk barefoot around the house. But I can’t help myself. Next thing I know… OW! I’ve stepped on one.

feet WM

The Goat’s Head is also aptly named Puncture Vine and the sticker is called a “goat’s head” because, well, it looks like a goat’s head.

stickers WM

I never saw it in the Midwest when I was growing up. There we stepped on honeybees in the clover and thistles everywhere else. Out here in the dry Central Valley puncture vines grow in abundance. It’s a low-lying, vining plant and at this time of year it develops seeds. Isn’t nature a marvelous thing? Everyday I marvel at how well plants get along. Since they are stationary and can’t spread their seed by mechanical means plants evolve other ways to do what they need to do. They get poisonous or nasty tasting to prevent themselves being consumed out of existence. They make their seeds wind-borne or digestible by birds and animals and sometimes, as in the case of the Goat’s Head, they make themselves transportable.  That is to say, they attach themselves to a hapless victim and hitch a ride somewhere else. Marvelous, right? Yes, marvelous, indeed, until you step on one.

vine WM

Kind of pretty isn't it?

Here’s another example of plant ingenuity: A few years back I had a very unpleasant experience with agave. I was trimming agave – a very large agave maybe 4 feet tall like the one pictured – when I carelessly impaled my knee on the tippy top spine of the agave leaf. Pain shot through my knee like a corrosive bullet and I knew I was done for immediately. Two hours later in the emergency room my knee was the size of a melon and I could barely move the joint. Apparently, the agave spine has a substance that gets into the puncture wound and does a number. Don’t mess with me says the agave! I do you good!

Agave WM

The agave won that battle but I won the war when I returned to – very carefully – clip off each and every spine. Take that, you rat! Maybe you can fool with the errant animal but you better not fool with the wily human!

I haven’t figured out how to vanquish the Goat’s Heads for now. In the meantime, I wear shoes and watch where I tread if I’m barefoot. The poor dogs are not so lucky so if I see one going tripod I take a look and sure enough there’s always a goat’s head stuck there waiting for removal. Thank you, human, says the dog! Let’s go around with the hoe and do battle!

Gramma's Porch Swing

ReneeWe often hear the phrase “a house is more than a collection of bricks”. I don’t know what that might mean to you, but I can tell you what it means to me. I’m going to talk about my Gramma’s home. For me it’s a symbol for home and family.

When I was a kid we would visit my mom’s mom in Watseka, Illinois. Watseka was sleepy little eastern Illinois town in the middle of corn fields as far as the eye could see.  It was a 2-story, shingled house with a front porch that went the width of the front. I don’t remember what color it was. Maybe some kind of neutral gray green with white trim. There were two big Christmas tree-like pines that sat on either side of the walkway entrance to the porch. On the ground, next to the porch, there was a wide swath of lily of the valley. That was on the north side of the house and the lilies did well there.

Photo by Maxpixel

On the far end of the porch was the swing. It was close to the edge, so when my brother and sister and I got on it and swung back and forth, to the limit, it would almost go off the end of the porch. We never had a sensible thought if the porch chains were anchored securely in the ceiling. We just knew that we had our own private playground in the shade. When we swung we could see what was going on inside the house. Mom or Grandma never came out and scolded us, which in hindsight was kind of an anomaly because they scolded us right and left for everything else. Maybe they were just happy to have us out of their hair, but still be near enough to keep an eye out.

We spent our vacations on that porch. The backyard was an open expanse of weeds and short grass. No trees. Nothing. Entirely uninviting, unappealing, and hot in the southern exposure. Gramma worked at the local TRW plant making radio parts. She said she liked it because she could spend the time chatting with her friends. She said it was repetitive drudgery, but that the friendliness made up for it. When she came home all heck would break loose. Grandma was an energetic person. Mom said when Gramma was young she was the “life of the party”. She had a mischievous giggle and she would put her hand to her face when she thought of something that amused her that was on the edge of naughtiness, then she would giggle. Sometimes she would stick her tongue out a little bit between her teeth to put emphasis on it.

The interior of her house was immaculate and full of the most intriguing treasures that I could think of. I loved rifling through her drawers of buttons and knick-knacks, cheap jewelry and mysterious objects. Gramma let me. She didn't mind. The upright piano sat in one corner of the living room and Gramma would sit down and plunk away some kind of spontaneous combination of honkey tonk and German oompa. Sometimes my dad and mom stood nearby and sang along. We kids sat on her dark red, plush sofa and listened raptly. My parents could sing well. My dad had a smooth baritone and my mom had a fine alto. She could also harmonize and, later on, I picked up this talent and I don’t know to this day how to tell you how to do it. You just listen and you do it.

Gramma’s kitchen was small but efficient. She made her delicious angel food cakes and sold them to everybody in town. We toasted bread in her strange toaster that only had two sides. You opened a side by flipping down the tray, inserted the bread and turned it on. It only toasted one side at a time. Gramma baked everything in her old stove. She had a temperature gauge but, by habit from the old days when she learned on a wood stove, she opened the door and reached her hand in there to tell what the temperature was. Everything always came out scrumptious. It was never under- or over-cooked.

Up the banister stairs we climbed to the bedrooms when it was bedtime. The wood floors were polished and slick. The beds piled high with tie quilts Gramma made. Before bed she would bathe us in her claw foot tub. The water came out smelling sulfur, I guess, or iron. What does iron smell like? Gramma had pretty lavender tub salts that she put in the water. It covered up the water’s odor so it didn’t bother us. Then we’d clambered in with our little heads barely peering over the edge and up to our chests in warm water.

All dried off and in our jammies, we jumped in bed, pulled the covers up and called out to be tucked in and read to. The quilts seemed like mountains and even to this day I am partial to luxurious bedding and slippery cool sheets. Gramma or Mom read us fairytales from The Quiz Kid’s Book about Toads and Diamonds and Wild Swans.

Every time I go into a home as a realtor I think about the families that have lived there and what the walls could tell us about their joys and sorrows, successes and failures, and above all the love that lived between those walls and under that roof. That’s what the legacy of Gramma’s porch swing means to me.

Too Much Is Enough

ReneeI touched on this topic when I wrote about my advice for getting into your first country home. Now I want to go deeper: back-up supplies and systems. I’m simply going to share with you what we’ve done, and maybe it will give you some ideas about how to run your little homestead so it isn’t such a pain. Sometimes, and I’m telling you the truth, living on a ranch, farm or homestead can be a pain. We want to minimize this so we can have more fun faster!

Having back-up supplies and systems is a good thing when you want to be self-reliant. This is especially true when the shopping and services are a long drive away. If one system goes ka-putt, there are back-ups that can be pressed into service, giving you time to fix the problem.

We started out with no water storage tank. We relied on the well alone. This is kind of a risky proposition living in drought plagued California so we added a 500 gallon storage tank. We also added rain barrels to catch rain off the roof during the rainy season. If I could dig a cistern I would! That old-fashioned way is very handy indeed. We live in sort of a ranchette subdivision near the edge of town but if we lived way out I would be even more adamant about back-ups. The day we moved in the well pump croaked. Our neighbor Hector watched over the fence as the well guys fixed our well the next day. He said if your pump ever croaks again I would be happy to run a hose from my well over to you guys to get you by. Now that’s neighborly! If we were out in the boondocks we would be driving to the nearest water source to fill up tanks in the back of our pick-up. And we’ve done that! The first summer we were at The Ranch we ran out of water. To make the best of a bad situation I decided to consider it an adventure to shower in the back yard with my husband holding a hose over my head that was attached to the tank sitting in the pickup bed.

supply of gardening and homestead tools

I wish I could pop for owned solar. I would not lease solar equipment. It has a life span of about 20 years so unless you’re planning on living in your house 20 years I would not advise to lease solar. Most people don’t know that when you sell the new owner has to qualify for taking over the solar lease in addition to the mortgage. This can be a turnoff for many buyers. Until we can afford solar or a wind turbine, we have a generator in case we ever lose power for a significant amount of time like in the event of an earthquake and we need to pump water to the livestock.

We have two lawnmowers, two chainsaws, two tillers, and two light duty weed-wackers. If I could have a back-up tractor and back-hoe I would but that’s too expensive!  This is equipment we use almost every day and if one breaks it would be a real bummer. Here’s a little piece of advice: for those two stroke engines please use the appropriate gas! We buy cartons of the special 50:1 at the big box store. If you put ethanol gas in a 2 stroke the alcohol-based ethanol eats at your rubber parts and then you’re fixing them way too much!  We found this out the hard way and now we’re converts. Nothing worse than needing to use equipment and finding it doesn’t work!

We have a decent pick up and a used SUV. We've been known to have three, at times.

We get our food from the neighbors and our back yard as well as the store. Bartering works great!

We had plenty of excellent firewood at the Ranch. One thousand acres of Blue and Valley oak trees with a smattering of cottonwood and who knows what else. Here we have only what small trees die and they aren’t the best firewood. However, we have acres and acres of nut trees all around us. The trick is to plan ahead and cut the wood with two years in the future in mind so the wood has a chance to dry out. Recently a windstorm damaged our gigantic Sargent cedar so badly we had to push it over with the backhoe and cut it up. That giant tree was reduced to rubble in about 3 weeks and now the bigger pieces are laying out in the sun to cure. We used a log splitter for the bigger pieces. That’s another piece of equipment I wish I had two of but the price tag is too much for me!

Our equipment barn has at least two of every hand implement and even 3 or 4 extras. Many hands make light work if it comes to that!

What are things that you can’t do without and like having at least two or three nearby?

Your Country Lifestyle Will Be Different

ReneeIt’s Cheaper to Live in the Country… or Is It?

I have heard this so often I could gag. No! It is not cheaper to live in the country! If you are extremely handy and good at repairing things, if you have a double, triple green thumb and everything you plant grows in leaps and bounds, if you detest eating out or going to movies, and if you don’t mind wearing second-hand clothes you might be able to live in the country a bit cheaper than how you lived in the city. The bulk of your expenditure is going to be on gas and animal feed. You’re going to have vet bills. You might have to buy a truck load or two or three of water if you experience a drought. Tools and equipment, seed or sets cost money. If you have to hire someone to clean the chimney or service the air conditioner it costs you more because the technician charges you travel time. In town your acreage is comparatively small. Large acreage takes tractors, riding lawn mowers, and a host of other equipment. Some of it you can rent. Others you might need to buy. Let’s just say this right out loud: learn to be frugal or go broke. The good thing is once you’ve accumulated your infrastructure and learn how to take care of it you won’t have to buy a lot. After the initial start-up expenditures will go down.

ranch home
Photo by Pixabay

Shopping Is Different

The next thing that is very different from town life is the proximity of the store or the availability of goods. This is why Amazon is so popular with those who live in the country. The nearest decent store might be an hour or two away. You have to start compiling a list of supplies and postpone the trip until you have a lot of things to get all at once. It’s becomes quickly apparent that you can’t waste the gas or the time for one thing. Here’s a tip: when you go to the store (especially the hardware store) get two of everything. This is so when you need something you have a spare ready and waiting. This goes for animal feed, too. Always buy in bulk. Learn how to cook with creativity when you run out of an ingredient.

Health Services Are Different

If you live way out in the sticks you will have to fend for yourself most of the time. If you’re smart you will buy a rider on your insurance policy for helicopter medical service. We had an old gentleman fall off his horse once and get stomped by a cow. His ear was hanging by a thread and his arm was hanging limply by his side. And yet, despite this, he said, no, I’ll drive myself to the emergency room. He didn’t have health insurance much less a rider on his policy for a Medevac. We didn’t let him, of course, and his dog stood in front of his truck and wouldn’t budge so the old man couldn’t go anywhere. But we knew that it was futile to call for an ambulance because the ambulance would be slower than letting him drive himself to the hospital. We cleaned him up and drove him to the hospital ourselves. But what if his injuries had been life threatening?

Exercise Is Different

You don’t realize how much driving you will actually do. In the city you walk more. You walk home. Maybe up-hill if you live in a hilly city. You walk to the bus. You walk to the corner store. You might walk to your neighbors. The gym is close by. In the country you hardly walk at all. The kind of exercise you get in the country is the “weight” lifting kind. Lifting hay bales. Lifting water buckets. Lifting animals. Pulling weeds. Hauling lumber and fence posts. You can get as much aerobic exercise as you want but you have to make it happen.  You can take up cross country skiing, off road biking or running. Your lifestyle will not naturally enfold this type of exercise. You will have to make it happen yourself.

The House Is the Same

I write only a paragraph about the house because the house is like any other house you might want to buy, city or country alike. The things to investigate are the same things you would investigate if you were buying a home in the city. City or country but especially country, I counsel my buyers to purchase a home warranty policy. This kind of policy covers smaller things like the air conditioner, dishwasher, and well. When we bought our property I am glad we had a home warranty. The day we moved in the pump on the well failed. Instead of paying thousands we only paid a little over $1,000.

The Right Agent Is a Necessity

Once you’ve determined your area, have your must-have list and your finance ducks in a row then it’s time to find a good real estate professional from the area you want to look at. I don’t like to malign members of my profession but not all real estate agents are created equally. Most agents sell homes in the city. They don’t know anything more about country property than you do and the house is not the most important part of your country property. When you look at the listings on the search engines you might see a description that says it’s great property for livestock but no pictures of the land. Why is that? Because town agents don't think it's that important. Even real estate agents who live in the country may not know that much about the country. They live in the country, yes, but that’s all they do. They commute from the country to sell homes in the city. When we bought our property we engaged the services of a local agent. We had a simple list of what we wanted. Flat or nearly flat land, mature trees, and NO rock. What did the agent show us? Houses on the side of hills, lots of rock and immature trees. Some agents think you don’t know what you really want. If you can, make sure you get an agent who has lived a rural lifestyle similar to the one you would like to live.

Living in the country is a wonderful life. The birds truly do sing. The air is definitely sweet. It’s a very peaceful, fulfilling, natural and healthy choice of lifestyles. I recommend it to anyone who goes in with their eyes wide open. I know then that they will enjoy their life and not regret it.

I see you there waving from the porch as I drive by! Howdy, neighbor!

Renee grew up in Iowa and migrated to San Francisco in 1977. She lived and worked in an urban setting for years and then abandoned it all to live and work on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch in Northern California. Now she is part owner of a small acreage in the Central Valley of California where she has chickens, horses, dogs, cats and a substantial vegetable garden. She is a full-time real estate agent which sounds improbable when you think about all the projects on her property. Kudos to her husband Marty for filling in the gaps.

Buying Your First Country Property ā€“ Part Two

ReneeIn this part I want to talk about how to evaluate your property once you find it. Here’s where my real estate and personal experience comes into play: there are no 100% perfect properties. Let’s say that again for emphasis: there are no 100% perfect properties. If you have your list of must-have, do-or-die then you are in a better position to know what imperfections you can tolerate.

No matter what you want to do the kind of soil the property has and how much water it has is extremely important. Please don’t pick a property because it has a nice view unless all you want to do is sit and look at it.

Let’s say you want to raise goats or sheep. Perfect, fertile soil is not necessary. Most breeds of goats and sheep can subsist on forage grown on poor soil with a little supplementation. However, if you want to grow vegetables you absolutely must have good soil. Unfortunately, when you look at property it’s not always obvious what kind of soil it has. It could be a thin layer of topsoil with hard pan clay underneath or—god forbid—granite rock or even lava! When I look at property where the goal is to grow food I bring a shovel with me. I find the potential garden area and see if I can dig holes. If I can dig holes, then, yay! If I can’t then I have to find out why. However, digging a hole is just the start. That just shows you that the land is friable enough to get a spade into. What is the condition and quality of the soil? The area County Extension can give you more information about this and it’s wise to investigate.

veg garden

When we lived at The Ranch in Northern California I could not think of a worse soil for growing vegetables. I tried to improve the soil with loads of compost but ultimately I gave up because it also turned out that the soil—and the water—was highly alkaline. My tomatoes developed blossom end rot because they couldn’t get the calcium they needed. I had to buy a few yards of topsoil so I could grow what I wanted and had to supplement to offset the alkalinity. It was an expense I did not have money for.  If I had looked into this before we would have a saved ourselves a lot of grief. Take a sample and have the soil tested for the mineral and acid/alkaline condition. You can do a quick sedimentation test for basic information on clay, silt and sand components.

Is the land in a flood plain? Before you make an offer go to the FEMA Flood Plain website and see for yourself. If you’re looking at the property in the dry time of year the conditions during the wet time of year may not be apparent. Ask the neighbors what the conditions are year-round. People who have lived in the area will know what the history is.

Size Matters—But Only to the Budget

If you can’t afford a big piece of good, arable land it is better to buy a small piece of good, arable land. You might get a “deal” on the larger acreage but you’ll pay for it in spades with all the work you have to do. Get the best quality land you can afford and if that means buying a small piece then that’s best. You can get a lot out of a half-acre of land. After you develop it you can choose to sell it later for a profit. If you’ve handled your finances and credit wisely you will be able to leverage that into more land. You’ll also have a ton of experience to make an even greater success. John Jeavon’s book How to Grow More Vegetables on Less Land Than You Ever Thought Possible is indispensable.

He Who Controls the Water…

Water issues surprise many people who move to the country. They are used to turning on the tap and not thinking about it because their water comes from a seemingly endless supply. In the country water can be big issue because you will be dependent on your own personal source—the well. Even on a property in an abundant rain area it’s always a good idea to have the well thoroughly tested. What is the flow? Flow is also known as GPM or “gallons per minute”. If you have a well that produces only 5 GPM you might find you are trucking in water if you go through an extended dry period.

What is the quality of the water itself? Is there agricultural runoff or bacterial contamination? Hire a good well expert. They can test the well for all these things and more. You can make an offer on a property and within the 17 days contingency review you have time to find out all you need to know and if it doesn’t work out you can rescind your offer and not lose your deposit money.

If there is a water storage tank give that a good once-over. On our ranch we were dismayed to find out that the in-ground storage tank was an old fuel tank. It had been installed before anyone realized that was a bad idea and had been there so long it had rust-throughs around the cap. We took the lid off and saw a snake swimming around. Needless to say, we got bottled water to use for drinking!

The last thing in evaluating the water on a property is the water delivery infrastructure. If you’re lucky enough to have water lines and hose bibs that go right to where you will want your water then that’s a great property. If not, then you have to consider do you have the budget and ability to do what you need to do to make it right.

In the next part I will talk about how your lifestyle will be different in the country.

Renee grew up in Iowa and migrated to San Francisco in 1977. She lived and worked in an urban setting for years and then abandoned it all to live and work on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch in Northern California. Now she is part owner of a small acreage in the Central Valley of California where she has chickens, horses, dogs, cats and a substantial vegetable garden. She is a full-time real estate agent which sounds improbable when you think about all the projects on her property. Kudos to her husband Marty for filling in the gaps.

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