Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Handmade Holiday Gift Idea

Do you love the idea of creating handmade gifts, but feel you’re not “craftsy” enough? Or are you rolling your eyes over lifestyle magazines, whose covers promise “a simpler season” then suggest “affordable” presents like a supersonic hair dryer ($500) or a moveable makeup table ($599)?

Well, angst no more. Here’s an inexpensive, hand-crafted gift idea that needs no glue gun, glitter, or any special supplies or tools: All-natural Face and Body Cream. It’s a luscious, buttery cream that’s so easy to make, you just might give up your store-bought products and starting making it for yourself! All you’ll need are some nice oils, beeswax, plus some kind of liquid like a tea or tincture, a little elbow grease, and voila!

Before I share the recipe, here’s a little background. When we first moved to the Foothills, I discovered some handmade face cream made by Delle, a local woman, who sold it at the village mom ‘n pop store. This cream was not only moisturizing, but had healing properties too, like soothing bug bites, scrapes, and any and all skin irritations. It was pretty pricey: $8 for a 4 oz jar, but the cream was so amazing, and I was happy to support a local business.

Within a year or so, however, Delle pulled her product from the mom ‘n pop to sell direct. Plus she raised the price to $14. The new price made me blink a bit, but since I was well and truly addicted to this face cream by now I had to have it. To order some, I phoned Delle, a fellow Foothills resident, and she invited me to drop by her place to buy my supply.

John and I made the 20-mile trip via several twisty-turny country roads to her house. After she showed us her garden where she raised many of her ingredients, I happily purchased a couple more jars of her cream. But I confess, when I did the math it wasn’t pretty. Forty miles of gas + an afternoon away from my own garden work and writing + $28 for two small jars of cream…Adding things up = time for a change.

I noted Delle’s ingredients: 5 kinds of high-quality oils and beeswax were the first 6 listed. Green tea was number 8 or 9. Then I went online to find a homemade skin cream recipe that looked similar. While I didn’t come across one with Delle’s extensive list (which was okay, since she had so many components most of them would probably contribute only tiny amounts), I did find a promising recipe with pretty affordable ingredients.
Ingredients, including beeswax blocks and right-sized jars

Since then, I’ve made my cream many dozens of times—John calls it “Sue doing her alchemy”—and had great results. So here’s my method:

All-Natural Face Cream
½ oz. beeswax, finely chopped (I buy 1 oz. blocks at my local food co-op)
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons almond oil (also purchased at the co-op)
½ cup distilled water
1 teabag green tea
A few drops Vitamin E
Small metal bowl
2 small heat-proof jars

One of Delle's original jars 
To sterilize the jars: Fill a large sauce pan with water and bring to a boil. Gently ease the jars into the boiling water for a few minutes, then remove with tongs and let cool.
A quick note on sterilizing: this cream has Vitamin E in it to act as a preservative, but no chemical preservatives, unlike your drugstore brands. Sterilizing isn’t strictly necessary, but doing this step does help your product last longer without getting funky. (A side note: This recipe makes 2 jars, and I keep one jar in the fridge. During really hot weather, I keep my whole supply in the fridge. Again, without chemical preservatives, the shelf life isn’t long.)

Next, turn the heat down to medium-low. Pour out at least half the saucepan’s water, then put the pan back on the burner, and rig it up as a double boiler. I have a metal steamer that fits inside my largest saucepan, which works fine.

Pour the oils into the small bowl, place the bowl on your double boiler and begin warming the oils. Into the warming oil goes your cut-up beeswax. With the saucepan at a moderate simmer, melt the beeswax—this should take about 5-10 minutes—then immediately remove the bowl of melted beeswax and oils from heat, and add several drops of Vitamin E.

While the beeswax is melting, make your liquid component. The original recipe that inspired this one called for rose water, but since that’s hard to find I’ve settled on green tea, which has antioxidants and a very light odor. Plus Delle used it! Boil your ½ cup of distilled water, pour into a mug with the teabag, and let it steep.

As soon as you’ve pulled your oil/melted beeswax off the heat, time to carefully watch it! As the mixture cools, wax will begin to solidify around the edge of the oil. Stir these bits of wax back into the oil to keep everything melted. What you want is the mix’s sweet spot: not too hot, or your product will be oily instead of creamy. But cool it too long, and tiny bits of hardened beeswax will mar the smooth texture you’re aiming for. So just at that point where the cooling beeswax isn’t quite melting back into the oil, pour in 3 tablespoons of semi-cooled green tea and start whisking!

I just whisk in the green tea with a fork, but you can use a proper whisk, or even shake everything up in a jar. (If you’re read my previous recipes, you’ll know I’m big on mixing by hand, not machine!) Whisk for about 10 minutes—either until the melted oils and tea has emulsified into a soft yellow, with the texture of whipped cream—or your arm feels like it’s going to fall off. When you’ve reached that lovely, buttery consistency, spoon the cream into your prepared jars. It will continue to cool, and solidify just a bit.

The final step: prepare to delight your recipients…I firmly believe that this cream gives your skin a luminous glow that store-bought products can only hope for!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Pickles in your Fridge!

Harvest Time is Pickle Time!

At a recent book event for Little Farm Homegrown, a local chef, Christy Fox from Evolve Chocolates + Café, stopped by to share a plate of her refrigerator pickles. She pickles pretty much every late summer vegetable: bell peppers, onion, zucchini, cabbage, even turnips! Chef Christy’s method turned out to be a lot like mine, basic and super easy. She recommends rice vinegar, to allow the vegetable flavors to shine through, garlic, spices, and herbs like thyme and tarragon, then allows the pickles to mellow in the fridge for 4 days before eating.

My cucumber patch exploded this week, so yesterday was pickle day at Berryridge Farm. Although I still use apple cider vinegar (since I like strong vinegar flavors), after getting pickling advice from a pro, I modified my recipe a bit: instead of boiling all the vinegar with the spices, I boiled only half as Chef Christy suggested, adding the remainder to the brine to cool it. I like sweet pickles, so I used sugar and honey in the brine too.

I often mix and match recipes for both sweet and savory foods, using my favorite elements of each recipe. I’ve been inspired by the recipes Scottish author Jenny Colgan shares at the end of her novels, which, for each dish, tend to be more of a method than an exact preparation. But hopefully following a basic method rather than a precise measure of exactitude allows for more cooking and baking creativity!

Back to Refrigerator Pickles and my basic method:

6 or 7 large slicing cucumbers, cut into rounds, packed into large jars or any containers of your choice. Add 1 large clove garlic, sliced thinly, to each container
2 cups apple cider vinegar (I use Bragg’s Organic)
½ cup water
1/3 cup sugar
Honey, seasonings, and spices

I bring 1 cup of the vinegar with the water and sugar plus salt to taste (I don’t like a lot of salt) to a boil, then remove the pan from the stove. After allowing the brine cool a bit, I add the 2nd cup of vinegar and 2 Tablespoons honey and stir well. When the brine has cooled to warm/lukewarm, I pour it into the  filled jars, hopefully covering most of the sliced cukes. After a quick visit to the garden for fresh dill and dill seed, I add a sprig of dill and a couple of spoonfuls of the seed to each jar. And into the fridge they go!

The refrigerator pickle recipes I’ve seen in magazine say the pickles keep for a month, but Chef Christy says they should be good to go for three. If you go for longer storage, sterilizing your jars first is probably a good idea, then store your pickles on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator, toward the back. Happily, that should keep you in pickled summertime veggies until the holidays!

So far, my pickling adventures have been a bit limited, mostly cukes, carrots and asparagus (in early summer). But I think with this kind of pickling, anything goes!   

Monday, August 6, 2018

Recipe for Blueberry Torte—Berry Bliss!

This summer, our strawberry crop was a bust. Last year, we had enough strawberries for weeks of breakfast berryfests and dessert shortcakes, and still had enough extra to freeze 40 quarts. Sadly, this year was a measly harvest: a few pounds for breakfast berries, but as far as freezing for winter? Zilch.

So we’ve doubled down on blueberries for putting up. Last week, John and I picked 28 pounds at our favorite U-Pick blueberry farm to freeze for winter eating. Then, as Berryridge Farm’s blueberry crop ripened, it became clear this year’s yield is crazy! And although I LOVE blueberries, after taking care of the 28 pounds of off-site berries, then harvesting and putting  up over 17 quarts of our own blueberries this weekend, I was actually hitting blueberry overload. Luckily the cure is only one recipe away: Blueberry Torte.

I found the recipe in a family recipe collection a few enterprising Brownes created back in the 80s. The original recipe is for huckleberry torte, but our 3 shrubs won’t have ripe fruit for another couple of weeks, and the birds usually get to it before I do. Also, I adapted the recipe to reflect more modern tastes. Out with the Cool Whip, and in with local whipped cream, and I also reduced the sugar by about two-thirds. It’s still very sweet, and a great way to use up LOTS of blueberries. The recipe is super simple too! Here you go:

Make a graham cracker crust for a 10 inch pie pan.

Next, make your berry sauce. Although it’s a topping, it takes several hours to cool, so it’s a good idea to make it well ahead of time. Put 4 heaping cups of blueberries in a medium sized saucepan and add a small amount of water, just enough to cover the bottom, and bring to a boil. Then add a scant ½ cup of sugar mixed with 1 heaping tablespoon flour. Return to a nice low boil over medium heat, and cook, stirring constantly, until the berry mixture thickens—this takes about 10 minutes, then set aside and let cool. The sauce should continue to thicken as it cools. Chill in the fridge.

The middle layer: mix 8 oz. softened cream cheese with 1/3 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla. In a separate bowl, whip 1 cup heavy cream with 2 ½ tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Gently fold the whipped cream mixture into the cream cheese mixture until it’s well combined. Spoon into the cooled crust, and when the berry sauce is cool, pour over the cream cheese layer. You can make additional whipped cream to spoon over the berries, but the torte is already so rich and creamy you don’t really need it. Chill for at least 3 hours, then prepare for bliss!

Tip: If you have extra blueberries to freeze, putting them up is easy: I rinse the berries in a colander, let dry on clean towels, then spread on cookie sheets. Freeze for several hours, then pile into gallon-sized plastic bags. They're best eaten within 6 months, but if you keep your berry stash in a deep freeze, the frozen berries are still pretty good by late spring! 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Homestead Envy and Special eBook Price!

About a mile from Berryridge Farm, there’s a new homestead to die for.

Tucked in the hollow of a logged-off foothill, the place is in the middle of a neatly mowed field, with all the backyard farming amenities—fenced veggie garden, chicken coop and run, berry patch, and orchard trees—any homesteader could ever want. If you’ve read this blog before, you might be thinking, “Wait—from what I can tell, you’re already raising fruit trees and berries, veggies and chickens.” Okay, that’s all true. It’s just that this property is so picturesque and tidy I can’t help but wish there was some kind of homesteady fairy dust that could transform Berryridge Farm into a similarly charming spot.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt a bit of homesteader jealousy. There’s a couple who live about five miles from us, who I call “The Boomer Homesteaders Down the Road.” With their stick-built home, cute mini-barn, hoop house and tractor, their little farm looks all-pro. Although they started an egg operation that apparently ended badly, they now have a U-Pick raspberry patch and a plot of sweet corn they’ll be selling—all within a few years of moving to the Foothills.

This new homestead, though, has the mini-farm beat by a mile. Owned by a sweet couple named Stu and Margo, retirees who sold their home in the Big City to move out here, the place has a manufactured home, like John and I have. But there the resemblance ends. Since I ride by the homestead on my bike every day, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to gaze longingly at it. Stu and Margo’s house not only has a steel roof and a beautiful deck, but flower boxes are perched on the deck railings, with more flowers in hanging baskets, and three patio tables protected by sun umbrellas create a perfect summer lounging spot.

Their chicken coop and shed are expertly constructed with real wood, the exteriors all stained a lovely golden brown so they match. The propane tank is even surrounded by matching fence so it doesn’t mar the place’s bucolic vibe, accented by a nearby antique cultivator parked among the wild daisies; everything neat, tidy and organized. If that isn’t enough to envy, just this month brought the homesteader’s pièce de resistance: a HUGE barn.

The framing and roof are already in, and it is a beaut. As I rode by today, all I could think was, Stu and Margo must have made a killing on their city home to afford a barn like this one. But then, I thought, Wait a sec—you’re sort of comparing apples and oranges. They've had two grown sons helping them build their infrastructure, and helping maintain the place. And from what I can tell, one son is building the barn too. 

Hummingbird visiting the bee balm
Here at Berryridge Farm, John built our coop and sheds by himself, and even if Hardie-plank siding and wood scraps aren’t pretty, the sheds are sturdy and serviceable. John and I don’t have a neatly mowed field, but surrounded by woods, we have privacy in spades. And instead of being cooped up in a small run, like Stu and Margo’s hens, our flock has two orchard spaces and a big patch of woods John and I cleared for them to scratch in.

And though I wish we had more time and energy to keep the weeds and brush from taking over Berryridge Farm (a battle we pretty much lost after an intense scourge or two from Mother Nature, which I talk about in Little Farm Homegrown) if truth be told, I wouldn’t change one inch of our place. Especially at this time of year, when the hummingbirds are zipping around our four bee balm patches. It’s a sight that always convinces me that we live in the loveliest place on earth.

Speaking of my new homesteading book…if you’d like a look at Little Farm Homegrown, here’s a brief sample, and you can find more about both Little Farm books at my website. And a quick heads up: Kobo Books has selected Little Farm Homegrown for "Beach Reads, a special promotion, this week in Canada!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

International Fairy Day and Special July 4 Price for New Backyard Farming Book!

New Backyard Farming Book
Fairy lovers unite!

The beginning of summer means International Fairy Day is not long behind...Sunday, June 24 is a great time to embrace your inner child and believe in the wonder and magic of fairies!

I'm welcoming the official start of summer with the release of my new backyard farming book, Little Farm Homegrown... a fun summer serendipity is that Kobo Books has selected Little Farm Homegrown for their Independence Day promotion: for the week of the July 4 holiday, June 28 - July 4, Kobo will have the ebook on sale in the US for $2.99!

The new book, subtitled A Memoir of Food-Growing, Midlife, and Self-Reliance on a Small Homestead, is Book 2 of my Little Farm in the Foothills series. Here's a brief sample--and please note that for the same July 4 holiday week, Amazon will also have the Little Farm Homegrown ebook for this special price too!

Back to fairies...As a fairy lover, I've included fairies in the storyline in two of my books: The Secret Well (an Irish short story) and The Mystery of the Christmas Fairies (a family-friendly middle-grade book). The Secret Well is a tender, mystical father-son tale that's perfect for a summer afternoon, and available for free at my website, www.susancolleenbrowne.com.

To all you gardeners, food-growers, and backyard farmers, may you enjoy these long summer evenings the best way ever: spending extra time "digging in the dirt," hanging out with your animals (if you have them), and after sunset, star-gazing to your heart's content...And may your summer dreams (sprinkled with a bit of fairy dust, of course) come true!

Friday, June 8, 2018

National Get Outdoors Day, Forest Bathing and a New Gardening Book!

Tomorrow, June 9, is National Get Outdoors Day…gardening or spending time in the woods is a terrific way to celebrate this special Saturday! For you gardeners or aspiring gardeners, I recommend couple of super-inspiring books I have on my shelf: The Country Garden: How to Plan and Plant a Garden that Grows Itself by Charlie Ryrie, and another that’s less practical but beautiful and inspirational is Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul by Elizabeth Murray.

Into food-growing? You might find lots of motivation in one of my favorite resources, The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe. If you don’t have a garden but believe you’d like to give one a go, you might consider buying a little basil start, re-potting it in a larger container (basil grows fast!) and setting it on a windowsill. It’s a pretty plant and now you’re set for homemade pasta and pizza sauce!

If you’re a tree-lover who enjoys cavorting in the woods, there’s a new term for that time-honored pastime, “forest bathing.”

Coined by the Japanese, “forest bathing” suggests that strolling in the woods lowers stress and improves your overall health. Researchers have confirmed that staying overnight in forests, or even simply walking through them, can have therapeutic effects.

New Gardening Book
As someone who is lucky enough to spend time outside every day, in the woods or close to it, I’m convinced this is true. I’ve always felt a sense of calm and serenity in our yard, surrounded by woodlands, and when I venture deeper into the trees, that sensation grows even stronger. If you do take a hike in the woods, however, beware of stinging nettles! (See my previous post, and how I learned this the hard way.)

My new backyard farming/homesteading book is a celebration of both gardening and the woods—Little Farm Homegrown: A Memoir of Food-Growing, Midlife, and Self-Reliance on a Small Homestead. Here’s an excerpt from the book, relating to “forest bathing”…

“One summer day, as I sat in my pollinator garden under a birch clump, the trunks swaying gently around me, I rose from my chair to lay my palm against the bark. And I felt something. A quickening…a life force. I sensed the spirit, even the soul of that tree under my hand, even of the woods surrounding me. Something infinitely precious…”

Here's a longer sample of Little Farm Homegrown... 

Little Farm Homegrown is now available for preorder at Amazon and Kobo! As for National Get Outdoors Day, even if your Saturday is full of chores and commitments, I hope you’ll take time to enjoy nature, if only for a moment… sit under your favorite tree, take a deep breath, and simply be!  

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Homestead First Aid

It may be too late to forage for stinging nettles to eat, but it's not too late to get stung.

I discovered this recently when John and I were hiking through the woods on our acreage. I understand if you want to eat nettles (say, for soup or to make tea), you need to pick them in early spring when they're no more than 6 inches tall--in the Foothills, that's usually the first couple of weeks in April. If the plants are any taller than that the leaves have turned bitter.

The day we embarked on our hike was an unusually warm day for May, over 80 degrees, so I was wearing shorts. Still, John and I had made one of our rare dates to visit parts of the property we hardly see, so despite the heat, into the woods we tromped.

The broken trees in our woods (from the last two winters' ice storms) are difficult enough to negotiate. But in late spring, the tangle of thick underbrush of thimble berry, wild blackberries (especially the trailing, very "trippable" kind), sword ferns and newly emerging brackenfern are almost impenetrable.

That day, in the far corner of our acreage, I was a few feet ahead of  John when I felt a sharp pain on the side of my knee--like I'd gotten several hornet stings. Man, that really hurt! I looked down to see a spreading redness on my leg. Before my eyes, welts began to appear on my skin. I'd never been stung by nettles before, but it didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened--especially when I saw I'd just stepped into a patch of nettles.

I understand the first thing you do when you've been nettle-stung is to quickly wash off the site, to removed the stinging substance. Well, we were a long way from the house, and would have a rigorous hike back for soap and water. While I was trying to figure out what to do, the sting got more intense.

It felt kind of like a burn, so my first thought was, aloe vera! But I was just as far from the aloe plants I kept in the bathroom. I looked around and spied the brackenfern that grows in nearly every inch of our woods. When you break off brackenfern tops, the inside is like a succulent, with a kind of sticky gel. I quickly grabbed some brackenfern, snapped off the young fronds, split the stalk to expose the gel, and smeared it on my stings.

It worked! The stinging stopped almost immediately--and the welts faded just as quickly. What I learned was that medicinals found in nature can be every bit as effective as the ones you find in the drugstore! I also learned NOT to wear shorts in our woods!

Okay, the shorts were pretty dumb (normally, this time of year I'd be wearing my thick, Carhartt pants) even though I was wearing mid-calf high socks. But this spring, we'd had so much warm weather the nettles were far taller than usual.

Anyway, later that day, when I Googled "nettle sting remedies" I discovered that aloe vera was indeed one of the treatments, as is rinsing the site with vinegar. When I shared my experience with one of my friends, a native Pacific Northwest gal, she said, "Did you know slug slime is one of the best ways to stop the sting?"

I had to admit, no, I didn't. But just thinking of squishing a slug and applying the slime was more than enough to make me glad I'd thought of the brackenfern!