Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cider pressing

Nothing says fall like fresh-pressed apple cider. Since we have some apple and pear trees on our property, and have plans for many more in Longhaul's future, we couldn't live life without our very own cider press.

Our used hand-cranked grinder
We knew we wanted to build our own. Most of the press can be put together with scrap wood - but the most costly and complicated piece of a press is the grinder. On a recent visit up to Kingston we stopped at our favorite junk shop to test our luck. Stan, the man, was about to close for the day, but when we told him what we were looking for he led us all the way to the back of his operation, pulled out a beauty (in this first picture), and sold it to us for only 20 bucks.

Finished product
With a bit of image-browsing on the internet, digging up an old car jack, and a few hours of sketching, measuring and cutting pieces to size, we put together our very first cider press with tender loving care. Next weekend we'll make a run to an orchard and press some freshness during our upcoming October-fiesta with family and friends.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Seed garlic

Garlic is the first crop sown of the season. And because it has such a long growing season, that means it gets planted in the fall for a summer harvest. In our neck of the woods, garlic is usually sown in October - late enough that you don't get too much green growth to be killed over the winter and early enough that the roots have enough time to establish before the ground freezes.

Seed garlic (L) and cooking garlic (R)
Garlic loves fertile ground, a slightly acidic pH, and good heavy mulch to keep it protected from winter's elements. So preparing the earth is a very important task.

Another important task is selecting good seed garlic. When you sow garlic, you plant individual garlic cloves. The bigger the clove, the bigger the head of garlic to be grown. Many farmers who grow garlic will sell their smaller heads to cooking customers and keep their larger heads (about 2.5") for planting. The picture here shows seed garlic and one of its large cloves on the left and garlic purchased at the farmer's market and one of its medium cloves on the right. Besides difference in size, there is also a huge difference in price: seed garlic goes for $15 per pound, while market garlic is usually $3-$6 per pound.

So we sourced our seed garlic from three places: a local farm in Westchester County who sold us seed garlic of the Porcelain Music variety; an organic seed garlic source in Vermont who sold us various varieties (Belarus - Marbled Purple Stripe, Georgia Fire - Porcelain and Killarney Red - Rocombole); and our local farmer's market who sold us cooking (not seed) German Stiffneck. We hope to plant these varieties with friends and family at our upcoming October-fiesta.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rainy season

Won't this rainy season ever end? Our fields have just drained their standing water and now we've got a week's worth of rain in the forecast. So still no digging, but at least there's time for planning sessions by the fire with some warm apple cider.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pulling plants

The inevitableness of pulling plants is upon us.

We are hitting cooler temperatures and plants that have been in the ground since April or May are seeing their dying days. We've got a bed of main crop potatoes to harvest before the first frost. Our squash and pumpkins have been pulled - unripe ones are now ripening in the sun rather than sitting in the wet field. Our tomatoes, which went into the ground earlier than in most farms we know of - in the first week of May - are just dry, brown stems with sparse sun-ripening fruit on them. And our basil, which produced and produced for us, is now stalky and browning. 

So, we pulled our plants, forked the land and sowed some fast-growing buckwheat, hoping to get a small cover crop to grow before the days are too short and the nights are too cold.

And there's still plenty to harvest: chard, kale, scallions, chives, parsley, celery, celeriac, Brussels sprouts, leeks, fava beans, radish, turnip, daikon, mustards, arugula, collards, tatsoi, spinach, Chinese cabbage, broccoli (we hope), carrots, parsnip, hot peppers and lettuce.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Harvesting rain

It feels like spring again... not because of the weather, but because of the wetness of our land. We are eager to dig six more vegetable beds before the season is over to get our total to 40, but it would be a mistake to get into the ground right now. The vegetables that have already been planted are surviving this soaking, but we don't want to destroy the soil structure by pick-axing and forking the land.

So as we wait to dig, we are planning our rain harvest system. After witnessing a stream in our backyard, not once, but twice, this year, it pains us to think about how much water we could be storing for the drier summer days (although there weren't too many dry ones this year). A sustainable water system will help decrease pressure on the existing well supply of water, protect against drought days, and treat water as a precious instead of unlimited resource.

The basic elements of a rain harvest system include:

·      Catchment surface: the collection surface from which rainfall runs off
·      Gutters and downspouts: channel water from roof to tank
·      Leaf screens and diverters: components which remove debris from rainwater before it goes to tank
·      One or more storage tanks or cisterns
·      Delivery system: gravity-fed or pumped to the end use

At this stage, we are siting our catchment surface and storage tanks. We hope to build a "rain barn" (for storing tools and fire wood) and use its roof as our catchment surface. The rain barn and storage tanks should be on higher ground than our demand site for water to use gravity to convey water from tanks instead of more expensive pumps. This will require some math, taking land slopes, distance, pipe diameters and tank sizes into account. Then, once we source our materials, we can start digging post holes and sinking them in with our old-fashioned rock-and-crobar method (as opposed to using cement). Let the land dry and the construction begin...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Preserving: Peaches

Peach season is coming to an end, so we took a quick trip up to a local farm and harvested 50 pounds of yellow peaches. Saving some fresh ones for a Labor Day crumble, we preserved the rest. In Argentina we preserved many peaches in the same manner I describe below. They were a perfect mid-winter treat, reminding of us childhood. We even had one jar remaining as we left the farm in Patagonia and managed to take it all the way to Buenos Aires with us (a 30-hour bus ride) so we could enjoy it on our favorite park bench before flying home to NY in January.

First, I make a simple syrup (300g sugar :1L water; ~1.5c sugar: 4c water), adding fresh lemon juice once it boils and then let it cool. We drop the peaches in boiling water for about 20 seconds to loosen the skin, cut them in half, removing pits and bruised bits, and stuff them in sterilized jars. Then we pour the simple syrup over the peaches (peaches maintain their color and texture best when preserved with sugar), seal the jars, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Preserving: Grapes

Labor Day weekend is the best time to harvest concord grapes in the Hudson Valley. So we took a trip to our secret spot, where we found dozens of grape vines crawling up highbush blueberries, hawthornes and lilac bushes. The grapes were perfectly ripe (but oh-so-sour!), falling off of the vines into our hands and baskets. We ended up with 45 pounds of them after 2 hours of picking.

When we arrived home, we got started on preserving them. We made grape jelly, using grapes and sugar as the only ingredients. First, we washed the grapes and put about 1/3 cup of water for every 4 cups of grapes into several big pots. We heat them until they softened and could be strained through a colander to extract the juice and pulp from the seeds and skins. Ninety-six cups of fresh grapes resulted in 46 cups of grape juice/pulp for jelly-making. We made the jelly in four separate batches, adding about 3/4 cup of sugar for every cup of grape. We boiled the mixtures until they jelled (testing it on a cold plate) and ended up with seven 4oz jars, 35 8oz jars, and eight 16oz jars of jelly... I hope everyone likes a good ol' pb+j.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Just the other day, we burned a brush pile at the south end of our field where we will soon till the land.

The garden, pre-burn in March
Our 2011 season started with a major burn. With a HUGE pile of cleared brush right smack in the middle of our garden-site, we had "BURN" on our first outdoor task list. If you were in the area this past winter, you'll remember that there were feet of snow on the ground until early March, and then a bout of warm weather that melted the ice and snow and flooded many areas with the thaw. So the first day we could get outside, we did. That day was March 15th. We will always remember this because it also happens to be the last day before the burning of brush piles is banned in Putnam County for two months. Nick called the County to advise them of our plan to burn that day, and he got word that we better finish all we could in the next 12 hours because burns were banned from March 15-May 15, a new policy effective in 2011, to prevent uncontrolled fires that could arise from the abundance of dry leaves and leafless, lifeless trees (although if you were walking in our fields at that time, you would have realized there was nothing dry out there).

So, we set to work on a pile that was 50 feet wide by 50 feet long by 8 feet high, full of fallen branches, cut-down thorn bushes, rotten logs, old wooden fence posts, brambles from behind the garden area and an occasional wooden door. I've never worked harder this entire season. We fed the fire for 10 hours straight, desperately trying to turn into wood-ash this huge pile that was potentially standing in our way of digging until mid-May.

But you can see the results in these photos. The pile was as good as gone. And our garden grew.

So this recent burn was a piece of cake compared to our first one. We started mid-afternoon and were finished by sunset. We even managed to save a few cubic feet of wood-ash, to feed our hungry soil with potash.
The garden in July 2011
August burn

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Recipe with tomatoes

Roasted tomato soup

Ingredients: tomatoes, onions, garlic, red wine, fresh herbs, water or broth, s+p

Tomatoes ready for roasting
Preparing: Roast your tomatoes (we cut them in half, single-layer them in a pan, pour on some olive oil, peeled garlic cloves and sprigs of oregano, and roast them in the oven for 2 hours at 350, or until they are nice and brown and some of the liquid has baked off). In a large pot, cook your onions and more garlic, if desired, in some olive oil. Add herbs of your choosing. Add and burn off a hefty pour of red wine. Then add your roasted tomatoes and as much water or broth as you want, to desired consistency. We use an immersion blender to make the soup smooth (also good since we leave the skins on the tomatoes).

Eating: Before serving we heat up the soup and add some cream. You could add some crunchy toppings (sliced radish, celery) or some fresh greens (cilantro, parsley, basil).

Dish history: We made this dish for our 2011 garden party, using lobster broth instead of water and serving it chilled. This is a great way to use your abundance of tomatoes. The soup freezes well.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to normal

It has been a hectic two weeks. Following our garden party, we both prepped for our first courses of the fall semester, cooked lunch and dinner for 160 people over the weekend at the Restoration Festival in Albany, NY, and weathered the tropical storm that left us without power for five days.

But despite no running water, internet, or lights for too many hours, the garden survived miraculously. Before we left for Albany for the weekend, we harvested any ripe or ripening tomatoes and stored them away in our deposito (knowing they don't like too much water) and we put extra mulch on our crops to prevent run-off. When we arrived back on the farm on Monday morning, every plant was in its place. Our backyard was a mini-pond, and the stream that surfaces only for the springtime-thaw was back running through the property, but thanks to all of our double-digging and mulching, all of our crops were spared.

So we've been off-routine for a few days, which is unsettling. But we have had some amazing community experiences. At the Rest Fest in Albany (a music festival whose proceeds go toward restoring historic buildings in Albany, in this case, St. Joseph's Church) we saw a collective of musicians, artists and friends pull off a two-day music festival in the middle of Irene's fury. Great music, seamless programming, fantastic church acoustics, professional volunteers, bailing out the flooding church, diverting drainage systems, fun times in the green room and getting to see my little brother pull-off such an event were some of the highlights. And on our local front, we had neighbors offering their freezer space, cold beers and generator-electricity to charge computers and cell phones. There's nothing like a community event to bring the community together, be it a planned celebration or one of nature's disasters.

Now it's back to normal... more blog posts, more planting, more fall-time prepping.