The electric root cellar

We’ve been honing our chops at Seven Trees Farm since June 2005, and love researching all aspects of diversified subsistence farming before jumping into new challenges. It’s still mad harvest time here, with onions, apples and potatoes looking for their winter homes. Most urban/tiny/newb farmstead publications extol the virtues (and necessity) of a root cellar for long term produce storage, and back in the day, we dutifully bought the books and bookmarked the many informational websites.

Welp, like many other ‘perfect homestead’ ideas/tools/livestock breeds, root cellars are not universally applicable. In Cascadia we are lucky to have a lovely climate for food growing, even with gloomy spring rains and ferocious summer droughts. But one thing the climate lacks is consistency. Root cellars generally depend on steady cold outside temperatures to maintain the steady cool in-ground temperatures best suited for keeping produce in good shape for the duration.

But here winter weather runs the gamut from sub-zero blizzard conditions to apocalyptic wind and rain to balmy brilliant 60F sun – sometimes all in the same few weeks. Not exactly the best for tucking crates of garden bounty away for safe-keeping.

So what to do? Much of our research and goals lean in the low-input direction, i.e. off-grid. But chances are pretty good that electricity access is going to be much more stable than access to decent root-cellaring temperatures. So we bought an electric root cellar.

Not just any old shop fridge, but one made especially for the range of temperatures our shop experiences throughout the year. A critical aspect of fridge/freezer combos is that when it is below freezing the compressor usually won’t trigger, meaning frozen food melts, and refrigerated food freezes (This website explains some of the magic involved.)

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Shiny happy new fridge from the Sears website.

But a freezerless fridge doesn’t have that problem since there is only one temperature zone to maintain. (With 2 chest freezers in the shop there’s no need for more freezer space.) Ours has seen some hard service over the years, and keeps on chilling. Right now it’s full of eggs, veggies, garden seeds, greens, rendered lard, and many jars of pickled goodness.

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The electric root cellar always has room for more.

 

Excalibur stays sharp

Not the sword Excalibur, but the spiffy 9-tray dehydrator we bought almost 10 years ago. excalibur

Our storage onions lasted from September through April, but May flowers means the onions are trying to flower along with everything else. After sorting through the 100 or so pounds stacked in harvest trays in the garage, we ended up with about half in good enough shape for processing.

File May 10, 8 10 04 AM

They are peeled and chopped, not so small that they fall through the dehydrator racks as they shrink, and spread out to dry. File May 10, 8 10 23 AM

After a brief cool-down, the wheelbarrow-load is reduced enough to fit into a gallon jar, and provides a ready supply of flavor boost to soups and casseroles when fresh onions aren’t available. File May 10, 7 03 28 AM

The jar on the right is a previous year’s batch, still tasty, if a little depleted. We also use the Excalibur to dry garlic and soup celery, plus a variety of herbs. If you like to grow and preserve your own garden goodies, this is the tool for you. Newer models have a lot more bells & whistles than our classic, but definitely worth the investment.

This spring has been one of the busiest ever at Seven Trees Farm. Job changes, new flooring, new windows, pond building and so on, pretty much non-stop from last fall. Sometimes nature intervenes with a rainy day recess (though a bit of hail crept into this shower)…

Lucky is adapting to being an only bird again, after losing Percy to age-related complications. He enjoys weather watching with a snack of sweet potato fries.File May 10, 8 12 14 AM

As our little trough pond gets established, more critters are finding their way to us. A huge, brightly-colored garter snake was sunning itself near the driveway, and took off nearly faster than I could snap pictures. While our native snakes take a toll on the frog population, they also eat plenty of bugs and small varmints, and it’s nice to know they feel welcome here. File May 10, 7 06 21 AM

We added a spigot to the trough pond so we can water plants without disturbing the goldfish, and also to run a trickle of water to the ground level bog that we’ll add soon. File May 06, 10 54 40 AM

See if you can spot the Pacific tree frog nestled in the watercress. File May 10, 8 14 00 AM

There are still plenty of modifications in the works for the pond, like raising the bog tub a bit more for better waterfall action and adding a better sun screen, but it’s already a peaceful oasis in the middle of our busy planting zones.

Martinmas Day – let the feasting commence!

2014 is almost over! Our livestock are ready for winter, either hunkered down in the henhouse, or chillin’ in the freezers. Thanks to modern food storage methods, our feasting isn’t relegated to a few special days, but it looks like our ancestors found ways to extend the party season anyway – “Tween Martinmas and Yule, water’s wine in every pool.”

Seven Trees Farm

Armistice Day is a relatively recent addition to our calendar of observances. An earlier tradition marked on November 11th is Martinmas Day, also know as St. Martin’s Day and Martlemas. It was a time to wind up outdoor work in the fields and start preparing for the long dark winter.

In Britain (and northern Europe) people couldn’t afford to winter over much stock besides the family milk cows and prized breeding animals. So in November “spare” animals were sent to market. In country areas, families would go in together on a cow to butcher and eat immediately. These markets eventually became known as “marts” after St. Martin’s day, when the markets took place. Martinmas was also an important day in the rural legal calendar. Hiring fairs were held at this time, with their opportunities for agricultural labourers to gain better employment and the chance of a holiday. It was…

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Too many tomatoes

Many of us here in the Pacific Northwest have been inundated with a flood of tomatoes. We planted salad tomatoes this year, since we still have a pantry & freezer full of goodness from recent paste variety harvests.

But what to do when confronted with 1.5# beefsteak behemoths? Even though we shared a lot with friends, the last-chance-before-blight harvest netted 20 more pounds. Armed with a shiny new seal-a-meal, the possibilities were endless….

After a few minutes searching keyword combinations like ‘preserving beefsteak tomatoes’ online, I ended up doing this:

  • Pre-heat oven to 350F
  • Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, then parchment if you have it.
  • Spread a little olive oil on the pan to coat.
  • Take the ‘greens’ off the tomatoes and cut them equatorially, not down through the core.
  • Make sure the skin side of each half has a good coating of olive oil, then set halves in the pan, cut side up.
  • Sprinkle halves with balsamic vinegar.
  • Drizzle a lot of olive oil over that (I used maybe 1/3 cup over 5# tomatoes in a 12×17″ pan. But I skimped on oil compared to some recipes).
  • Herbs! Fresh thyme, rosemary, basil if you have them (I was lazy and used dried Italian herb mix from Costco).
  • Garlic – I used about 1/3 of a clove per half, and scattered more in the pan.

Once you have a pan full of dressed tomato halves, put it in the oven for about 3 hours. The before and after photos give you an idea of how different sized tomatoes will cook up if left unattended. preroastFor more consistency it would be better to roast tomatoes of a similar size together, and adjust the timing. I put these in to cook while working in the yard, and like the variety of textures. roastedmatersAfter they cooled, I lined a big pizza pan with saran wrap, moved the maters onto it with a spatula, then into the freezer for an hour or so to make it easier to seal them. sealedmatersNow I’m on the hunt for just the right mozzarella-stuffed meatloaf recipe, because these would be unspeakably delicious on or in something like that. Pizza omelets, a regular menu item at STF, also come to mind. Or maybe something with feta…. 🙂

Fall happens

Wow! Here it is nearly a month since our last post, but we haven’t stood still for a minute of it. Neither has the weather, and even though we were in the mid 80’s last week, the rains have finally settled in for the long haul. fall2014

Stewart is recovering from his eye surgery; Hildegard graduated from puppy kindergarten (Thinking Dog w/Laura Berger); Fergus is still short and cranky. Puppy Class

Class wasn’t all work though. Part of being a civilized canine is learning how to safely interact with other dogs, so each class started out with a serious puppy pack rampage. puppyclass1We brought in our second crop of carrots. Even though things got too hectic to weed as often as we like, Scarlet Nantes outperformed the hybrid Nelson carrot we planted as a first crop. NantesFancyThis year we decided to treat ourselves to some Luscious sweet corn instead of the usual feed/meal/flour corn. Once we figured out that the ring-necked doves were pulling the sprouts out, and replanted, this corn did rather well in our former-rainforest-berryfarm-pasture soil. But the thing about sweet corn is that it starts to decline as soon as it’s picked. And the thing about corn in general is that you have to plant a certain amount to get good pollination. Which adds up to surplus!

So even though we like to maintain a gadget-neutral footprint, it was time for a FoodSaver… seal-a-mealOh wait! Not that kind… After poring over reviews, asking friends & family, and just plain impulse-shopping at Costco, we put this shiny thing on the counter. FoodSaverCertain food just doesn’t can well, corn being a prime example. It’s edible, but 55 minutes per pint in the pressure canner takes away from the fresh-picked, summer vibe. So far it is a solid addition to our appliance line-up. The bags are a recurring expense, but with some thrifty planning and bulk buying, they will pay for themselves in food storage quality. We also used it to freeze the sour cabbage we made (more on that later) for cabbage rolls. SourCabbageLast winter we realized we didn’t have time to press all the cider apples from our trees, so into the freezer they went. Naturally it wasn’t until both freezers were jam packed and we needed more space for the current year’s bounty that we got around to trying out our antique fruit/lard/sausage press. It’s not as efficient as our neighbor’s full-sized set up, but we got about 3 gallons of juice (which is now fermenting in a carboy). PressingMattersThe new dog palace is finally under construction. First step was building a raised deck that will soon have a roof for all-weather lounging. The dog house itself will be in one bay of the hay mow, insulated, with heat and light. The door will be just right of center in the wall, and the 12 x 12 kennel will be sited against the north facing wall. This will give the dog pack full view of the house, hen yard, and most access points. Not that they spend much time out in the weather…so spoiled! DougDogWe also made time for a recreational jaunt, our last one in Big Blue (our 2007 Dodge Ram truck), and Stewart’s first outing since his eye surgery. After pulling up the Google Earth view on the ipad, and some tricky route finding, we drove nearly to the top of 3200 ft. Sumas Mountain, the bit of North Cascades foothills right across the Nooksack river from us. Sumas2It was a bit hazy from all the recent forest fires, but still amazing to see our little piece of the PNW in panoramic view. Seven Trees Farm is nestled behind a treed area to the far left of this picture. SumasMtnPanoAnd speaking of forest fires, the constant blanket of smoke has meant some amazing sunsets this summer. Now that the rainy season has started, we probably won’t see many like this for a long time. Sunset

Minestrone!

The long and warm summer has left us piled with produce. Our favorite way to enjoy that bounty throughout the rainy season is to transform the harvest into heat & eat homemade meals. Here is a wonderful recipe for minestrone, not only tasty and restorative, but a good way to make use of late summer crops like cabbage, carrots, potatoes and onions.

This is the original family recipe from D’s mom. We tripled it for a canner-sized batch, bumped up the cabbage to a full head, added 1/2 a zuke that was hiding in the fridge, plus a couple pounds of fresh-picked green beans and a little leftover corn. It cans up like a dream, and we highly recommend the All-American pressure canner.

1# lean ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
2 small potatoes, peeled & cubed
2 carrots, pared & sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 cup shredded cabbage or kale
1 can (28 oz.) tomatoes

1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp basil
1/4 tsp thyme
1 tsp salt
1/4 to 1/2 tsp pepper

Brown ground beef and add all ingredients to soup kettle, stir thoroughly.
Add water and/or beef broth to cover. Bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer and
cook for 2-3 hours on simmer. Stir occasionally. Serve sprinkled with
grated parmesan cheese. Makes about 3-4 quarts. Freezes well.

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If you plan to pressure can this recipe, try a batch cooked the regular way first, to sort out what seasonings/ingredients you like best. Pressure canning does a lot more cooking, so you don’t need to simmer a batch first. It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but once you decide the best assortment of ingredients, just bring it up to temp enough to can, and let the canning process finish the cooking. If you simmer it for hours first you’ll end up with a mushier version of this recipe and lose some of the nutrients in the vegetables.

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Hildegard is growing fast and learning how to be a vital member of the STF team. She especially likes to help Fergus with the recycling.

The weather is just starting to turn cooler, with increasing rain showers in the forecast, and our resident porch frog is getting ready. It lives under a crate we keep on the porch for recycling, and commutes to a flat of fall veggie starts we have on top of the woodbox. The damp soil draws fruit flies, and Porch Frog hangs out in the plants, hunting for winter hibernation supplies.Porch Frog Wikipedia says Pacific tree frogs can change color seasonally, but we’ve noticed them swapping outfits in just a few hours. Knowing the plant flat is going to be moved to the garden soon, we bought a bushy coleus to repot and leave on the porch until it gets too cold for it. The frog didn’t take long to check out its new real estate, and even managed a quick color change to go with the decor. Coleus Frog

The bacon of fish – smoked salmon

After many years of eating and making smoked salmon, we finally found the *perfect* recipe, which is as follows:

Makes enough brine for 5 pounds of fish.

Prep Time: 24 hours, almost all of it passive in the fridge.

Cook Time: 6 hours, depending on your smoker’s temperature and how smoky you want your fish

  • 5 pounds salmon, trout or char
  • 1 quart cool water
  • 1/3 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt (about 2 ounces of any kosher salt)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup birch syrup or maple syrup
  • More birch or maple syrup for basting

The recipe is from the most amazing food blog – Hunter . Angler . Gardener . Cook

salmon1

 

We were lucky enough to get a great deal on salmon ‘ends and pieces’ from a neighbor that are just right for turning into smoky/tender/chewy bits of awesomeness. Once the brining process is done, the salmon needs to form a pellicle (the wiki explains it best).

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After a day of gentle breezes in the shop, the salmon pieces get basted with more maple syrup. The orginal recipe called for birch syrup, but we didn’t get that crazy.

salmon3Whenever we run the smoker, we also load up the top with slabs of Tillamook cheddar. The box that the smoker came in fits nicely over the top, capturing the smoke as it leaves the warm part of the smoker, adding all the smoky goodness without overheating the temperature-senstitive cheese.

salmon4Here is one batch of smoked salmon chunks. It was colder outside, and we used pans of cherry and apple wood for the smoke, about 8 hours of smoking, then resting overnight.

salmon5The next batch it was about 5-10F warmer out, which made the salmon cook a bit more for a drier texture. We used alternating pans of cherry/apple and alder wood chips, and let it rest overnight. Both versions are very tasty. One more tender and sweet, and the other closer to salmon jerky and more savory. We still have another 10 lbs to smoke, and are so happy to have a freezer full of healthy, local, food.

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