Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas Gift Idea from the Oprah magazine: Chickens in the Road

Here's a gift idea for that homesteader, backyard farmer, or farm animal lover on your list: Chickens in the Road: An Adventure in Ordinary Splendor by Suzanne McMinn, which I recently discovered in the Oprah magazine (November 2013 issue). It's a delightful memoir about a romance author and single mom of three who embarks on a new life by starting a country farm. Living among her extended family, she shares her rural adventures, taking on not only chickens, goats, cows and sheep, but learning lots of old-time country skills like making lard, cheese, and milking her animals by hand.

The book also includes 46 pages of recipes--I made her cornbread recipe (page 237) the other day, and it was delicious. (I substituted whole what pastry flour for the white flour, and since I used stone-ground cornmeal, I soaked it first in the milk. Worked great.) Next on my list is trying her sweet potato pie recipe (page 263), which looks amazing. Suzanne has a generous hand with the butter and sugar, but hey...the holidays are a great time to splurge! 

For DIY fans, the author also includes loads of crafts too: she provides detailed instructions for making practical items like soap, candles, and household cleaners. Her recipe for beeswax moisturizing cream (page 285) is similar to my own, but I use a mix of almond and olive oil, and I use strong green tea instead of the water. Chickens in the Road is so entertaining and useful, you might want to buy a copy for yourself!

If' you're looking for a Christmas story to give as a gift, I highly recommend The Wee Christmas Cabin of Carn-na-ween by Ruth Sawyer, a picture book for readers of all ages. Despite its rather mournful theme, the Christmas Cabin is a tender, mystical tale that will stay with you long after you close the cover. You'll find this book and more on my list of Irish books and movies at my website at In the meantime, I hope you have a wonderful holiday!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fun with Goodreads

I joined Goodreads a few weeks ago, and I had the same thought I did about waiting till I was 18 to taste rhubarb: what took me so long? Although I'm just now learning how it works...with a little help from my Goodreads pals. What's been great is not only discovering what your friends are reading, but  pulling together your book list, and revisiting all your faves from days of yore.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, was a book I discovered when I was nine. Unable to put it down, I would try to sneak read at my desk in the fourth grade. It never worked, but then, Mrs. Wolff, the teacher, didn't punish me for reading! Turns out, Alcott took a lot of the story from her own life, like Jo March's parents in the novel: both Mr. March and Mr. Alcott never really were gainfully employed; also Marmee March and Mrs. Alcott were extraordinarily strong women who kept the family going.

Gone with the favorite read when I was fourteen. My heart still goes pitter-pat, remembering all the romantic chemistry between Irish-American heroine and hero Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. Author Margaret Mitchell was also of Irish ancestry...and knew a thing or two about forbidden love: she divorced her first husband, and remarried the man who'd been her first husband's best man at the wedding! Sounds like plenty of romantic tension going on in her life before she married Mr. Right.

What's really fabulous about Goodreads is the chance to give away copies of your books! I've scheduled a giveaway of my first novel, It Only Takes Once, which goes until December 8. If you'd like to take a look at the giveaway, here's the Goodreads link.

As you've probably guessed from my Village of Ballydara series, I love Irish stories...both writing them and reading them. If you enjoy books set in Ireland too, I've assembled a list on my website...
Until next time, happy reading!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Halloween Disguises and an eBook Freebie!

The October issues of Real Simple magazine has a piece about a mom who has Halloween anxiety: she wasn’t afraid of witches or goblins or other evil spirits, but she was apparently very concerned that she wasn’t creating enough fun for her kids!
Aw, c’mon. The ancient Celts, now, had reason to be scared...they believed that on the eve of Samhain, our modern Halloween, spirits walked the earth, so they dressed in disguise to make sure any evil ones wouldn't recognize them.

Besides, dressing up, slathering oodles of your mom’s make-up on your face, and getting free bagfuls of candy is most children’s favorite fantasy! Of course, costumes have changed since I was a kid—then, you mostly scavenged around in your mom or dad’s closet for ratty stuff to borrow. When I was in 6th grade, I found an old scarf and skirt of my mom’s, and put on tons of her blue eye shadow and red lipstick, and voila, I was a gypsy! If you were really lucky, they’d get you a super-cheapo store-bought rig:
In 2nd grade, I was one of the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, wearing a silky blue garment that was so flimsy the seams ripped while you were taking it out of the package.
These days, costumes are a serious business. I just got a look at the Museum Replicas Limited catalog, and there you can order all kinds of wild outfits, from Renaissance-era to Hobbit-themed to steampunk! You'll need to spend about $300 just for the basics. My 6-year-old grandson is going to be the Incredible Hulk, with the must-have accessory, a giant pair of padded green hands. It’ll be a challenge for him to hang on to his candy sack, is all I can say.
In my Halloween story for kids, Morgan Carey and The Curse of the Corpse Bride, my 10-year-old heroine gets more than she bargained for when she dons her disguise for Halloween. To celebrate this coming Halloween and Day of the Dead, Morgan Carey is coming out in print…and the ebook will be free on October 31, November 1 and November 2!
I'd love to hear about your Halloween the meantime, Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Irish Chef Darina Allen Jam recipe a winner!

John and I had raised oodles of berries for years, but I’d never made jam. For one thing, I didn’t really eat jam—I put so much sugar in my morning tea I figured jam on my toast would be overkill. Second, faced with a huge bowl of our favorite cane berry varieties—raspberries, loganberries, boysenberries, and marionberries—I’d always made a gigantic berry crisp, and that would take care of any berries we hadn’t eaten fresh. But this berry season, I had more berries than I knew what to do with. Maybe it was time I took the big leap into “putting up” all the lovely fruit I was picking.

I pulled out my favorite cookbook, “Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best,” and dove into Darina's “Preserving” section. In her Raspberry, Boysenberry or Loganberry Jam recipe, Darina writes, “If you’ve never made jam before, this is a good place to start.” Okay, I’d come to the right place. She goes on, “Raspberry jam is the easiest and quickest of all jams to make, and one of the most delicious.” I was sold.

I wasn’t ready to do any actual canning—in Ireland, they call it “bottling,” but I figured I could freeze half the recipe. 

Raspberry, Boysenberry or Loganberry Jam recipe:
2lbs fresh or frozen berries
4 cups sugar, warmed (I use organic)

Being a bit of a rebel when it comes to cooking, I’m always up for modifying a recipe. And 4 cups of sugar just seemed like so much sugar! So I used 2 ½ pounds of fruit: for a quick measure, that’s 2 quart yogurt containers filled to the brim.

I followed the directions to put the berries into a large saucepan, mash them a little, then cook for 3-4 minutes over medium heat until the juice begins to run. Then add the warmed sugar and stir over low heat until the sugar is fully dissolved. Increase the heat, bring to a boil, and cook steadily for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Within moments, the berry mix started to splatter. I turned down the heat, but I was still getting dark red juice all over the stove. Plus risking burning my stirring hand. OK, time to swap out the saucepan for my big soup kettle. I got the berries back to a boil, and gave them six minutes—on account of the interrupted cooking process—then with more than a little trepidation, pulled the kettle off the heat.

I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favorite passages in the book “Little Women,” when Meg tries to make jelly as a new bride and the stuff just won’t jell! What if I cooked all these beautiful fresh berries and expensive sugar and all I got was runny berry sauce? 

But Darina was spot-on! The berries did indeed set—I had actually made jam! And if I may say so, it was sublime. I put half the jam into two small jars, and the other half into a glass freezer container.
And I do eat jam now—I still have peanut butter sandwiches as just PB, not PBJ, but a couple of spoonfuls of homemade jam on cooked cereal is delicious. And I like to think the vitamins in the ground flaxseeds in my cereal will sort of cancel out all the sweetening!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bobcat Attack at Berryridge Farm

I’d just finished breakfast when our four hens started cackling like crazy. They were even rattling their fencing. What are they up to, I wondered, some kind of girl fight? I went outside to toss them a few greens from the garden, to get them to mellow out a bit, and there, on the other side of the chicken pen, hardly fifteen feet away, was a bobcat.

The bobcat’s reputation for shyness must’ve been a rural legend. Because it locked eyes with me for a long moment, and didn’t even move when I yelled at it. It pounced against the fence one more time, as if to say, “Ha! You don’t scare me!” and melted into the woods. Then I saw the feathers.

They were all over the inside of the pen. Three hens, Marilyn, Daisy, and Dottie, emerged from their favorite hidey hole next to woodshed #3, out into the main chicken run. But where was Chloe? “John,” I called to him inside the house, “You need to come out here.”

He rushed into his work clothes, and just in case, “weaponed up,” as I call it, with a Bowie knife and a loaded .380 pistol, in case the bobcat got aggressive, or was even rabid or something. “Chloe,” we coaxed, peering around the usual hen hangouts, but there was no sign of her. I got on my muckboots and finally went inside the fenced coop area. In the corner right next to the fence, a hen lay crumpled and motionless. Chloe.

How could the bobcat have killed Chloe, from outside of the fence? We investigated the fence line—and concluded that the cat must have waited for a hen to come near the edge of the pen. Maybe Chloe had been taking a dust bath, and the cat sneaked a paw through some small gap we hadn’t realized was there and mauled her. Well, at least the cat wouldn’t get to eat its kill.

John and I grieved for a bit, then he went to get a shovel. With a heavy heart, I left for my daily bikeride. This month marked our three year anniversary of keeping hens, and after a hawk had gotten one hen, and illness got another, we’d now lost 50% of our original flock. 

I returned from my ride to meet John by the woodsheds. “I want to show you something,” he said. I rounded the corner and what do you know. There was Chloe, standing, if just barely, on our splitting stump. Head drooping, eyes mostly closed, she was still taking tiny sips of water from a little tin camp cup John had unearthed. He carefully parted the feathers on the back of her neck to show me the wound—a bloody patch, but it wasn’t bleeding. “See, maybe it’s just a surface wound,” John said, “and she’s just in shock. She might bounce back.”

Through the afternoon and evening, Chloe hung on, with John encouraging her to sip more water every few minutes. He’d always had a soft spot for Chloe, whom he’d named after the feisty analyst Chloe O’Brien on the TV show, “24.” Since we didn’t want to put her into the coop with the other three hens, who might peck at her injury—the “girls” had often picked at the bald spots of their molting sisters—John fashioned a little temporary coop for the night. He tenderly settled her in, with food and water just inches away. Now we just had to wait.

We never saw it coming.

This morning, I went out to check on Chloe, hoping against hope she'd still be alive, if not kicking. We’d either overestimated the safety of the temporary shelter, or underestimated the determination and ingenuity of the bobcat. Because all I found was a new pile of feathers, and a small mound of entrails studded with flies.

John and I felt terrible. Did the bobcat snake a paw through the steer wire and kill her, or climb the fence? We’ll never know. But the days of our hens ranging freely all over the orchard are over—just like our days of sharing eggs. With only three aging hens, chances are remote we’ll have any extra.

In my Little Farm book, as well as my novels, I generally focus on the lighter side. But this loss really brings home that whether it’s weather, predators, or the sheer unpredictability of life, Mother Nature can be seriously relentless.

I added this Monday, July 15: A sad ending.
Two days after we lost Chloe, I went outside to greet our three hens...and found another death scene. The bobcat had returned, and had not only gotten inside the covered chicken pen, but through the small hen door into the coop. I found Marilyn and Dottie in pieces outside the coop, and Daisy nearby, her body intact but her head bitten off. Our little flock, whom we'd nurtured for three years, and was such a part of Berryridge Farm, was gone.

I'd never thought I could be fond of chickens, but I miss them. I miss the companionable hen clucking and chatter, clamoring for some scratch or to come and hang out with them. I even miss the rattle and squeak of the feeder. I've always loved the silence of our Foothills life, but now the quiet seems unnatural. Even eerie.

All that remains is all the scattered goldy-brown feathers. And the empty chicken run and coop feels haunted.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A-List Chocolate Cake--Perfect for Mother's Day!

Mulching the blueberry patch this week, it came to me that you can always make room for one more blueberry plant. The same goes for chocolate cake recipes!

In my new Irish novel "Mother Love," the main character, Grainne Larkin, loves sweets--especially chocolate, and most especially, chocolate cake. So in her honor, I just baked a celebratory chocolate cake. I tried a recipe new to me, from Irish chef Darina Allen's "Forgotten Kills of Cooking." It was a lovely cake, on the small side, and since it's a one-bowl process, quick to make. But if you want a really luscious slab of chocolate yumminess, here's the recipe for the best chocolate cake I've ever tasted. A friend gave it to me, passed down to her from her grandmother. I renamed the recipe "A-List"... with "A" = Amazing!

A-List Chocolate Cake
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup butter
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons soda
1cup hot water
1/2 cup cocoa
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix sugar and butter. Add eggs. Put soda in buttermilk, stir well and add to mixture. (The soda-buttermilk mixture really foams up, making this big cake nice and light.) Pour hot water over cocoa and add to mix. Add flour and salt, then vanilla.

I use a well-greased 9x13 glass baking dish. Bake about 1 hour in 350 degree oven.

It's an easy recipe, and so forgiving you can even mix it by hand--no special time requirements for creaming or beating. I always add extra cocoa and vanilla, and because I like a super-moist cake, substitute some oil for the butter.

I frost the cake with a basic chocolate buttercream frosting, with lots of cocoa--using half-and-half in place of milk makes it extra delicious! But a cooked glaze icing works too. This is such a rich cake, it's perfect for special occasions--you might try it for Mother's Day!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day in the Garden

St. Patrick’s Day has always held a special significance for John and me. Besides the fun of celebrating our respective Irish ancestry, his mother’s birthday was March 17. She was a McDonald, and her Irish forebears took part in the Oklahoma Land Rush back in the 1890s. She was fond of putting on the traditionally American St. Paddy’s Day feast of corned beef and cabbage…but if you ask me, parsnips are the perfect veggie to serve this time of year.

In our Foothills garden, parsnips are the best overwintering crop we have. Parsnips are unfazed by our climate’s repeated freeze-and-thaw cycles, and aren’t bothered by weevils or other insects. Plus you can store them in the ground, and harvest as needed in between freezes! Long after we’ve run out of carrots, beets, and apples, and just as the potatoes are getting kind of gnarly, parsnips are still going strong. I harvested our last row today, and while a few parsnips had rust around the tops, they were otherwise firm and useable.

Lately, parsnip recipes have turned up all over the place. Magazines like More, Whole Living, and Sunset recently featured parsnip salad, parsnip soup, and chicken with braised parsnips. I put parsnips in all our soups and stews, but to me, roasting is the best preparation of all. Simply peel, cut into chunks, drizzle with olive oil and add a pinch or two of salt. Then bake at 350 degrees until tender—easy-peasy, sweet and delicious!

A lot of gardeners swear by planting early spring crops around March 17—potatoes, spinach, peas, etc.  Despite our luck of being in sort of a warm zone—unlike our neighbors down the hill whose yard is in a super-cold sink—our soil here on Berryridge Farm is still too chilly and wet for even the hardiest crops. So we wait until mid-April for planting…which gives us a few extra weeks for early spring tilling, weeding, and raised-bed building.
I’d love to hear about your early-spring planting success stories…but in the meantime, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and Happy Spring!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Homesteader's Resolutions

I’ve always been big on resolutions, New Year’s and otherwise.

And generally my resolutions were all about writing…I would finish my novel, do more blog posts, write every day. But after we moved out to the Foothills, our priorities completely changed…as did my resolutions.
A while back, I resolved to learn how to split wood. So I went out to the woodsheds with John, pulled on my trusty ear protection, and set a small log—a piece of birch, a nice soft wood for a beginner—on our splitting stump. I positioned the wedge onto the log, swung the mallet down on top of it, and Bam!
Ouch! I’d split the piece, but the impact reverbed into my wrists, and shot up both arms into my shoulders. Jeez, that really hurt! I tried five more logs, each time the impact zinged through me harder than the last. My arms were numb for two days. At that point, I made a new resolution: to give up wood spitting forever. It would have to be the one Berryridge Farm chore that I just wasn’t suited for. John could take full responsibility for our wood supply.
Then recently, some unforeseen circumstances put me in charge of our woodpile. Here it was, early January—the dead of winter, with the coldest days ahead. But we had only several days’ worth of firewood. I had to get up to speed on splitting, and fast.
Luckily, since my original attempt, I’d gotten some physical therapy to treat neck and shoulder stiffness—the souvenir from intensive gardening by hand in my Boomer years. Still, with that awful wood-splitting reverb still fresh in my memory, I wasn’t too optimistic about filling our empty woodshed.
However, John had just bought a new, heavy-duty splitting maul. Plus Santa had brought me a great pair of leather gloves—much better than gardening gloves for using sharp tools. So, after a quickie tutorial with the new maul, I was on my own. I set a nice dry piece of fir on the stump, lifted the maul as high as I dared, and swung. Thwack! It worked!
True, I felt the reverb, but not near as badly as before. So I did a couple more pieces, just to give my arms a chance to get used to the impact, then quit for the day. From then on, I resolved to split a few pieces every day. It’s one of the few resolutions I’ve actually kept—avoiding a freezing house is a powerful motivator—and I’ve actually learned a few things.
So after 3 weeks of splitting wood, here are my Top 5 Woodsman’s/Woodsgal’s Tips for Newbies:
*Get to know your wood.
After years of schlepping wood with John and feeding the woodstove, I could identify most kinds of wood—maple, alder, birch, fir, etc. But for splitting, you need to look at the grain, and figure how each kind of wood splits a little differently. There’s a reason maple is called a hardwood, as opposed to fir being a softwood—if you’re splitting maple, you really need to put some oomph into it.  
*Make sure your wood is seasoned.
If there are cracks, or “checks” on the ends of the log, you’re good to go. If you swing your maul and it bounces right off the log, you can pretty well conclude that puppy is too green for a newbie splitter.
*Watch for knots.
If you try splitting a log, especially maple, with a knot in it, you just created more work for yourself. Because your maul will probably get stuck in it. I learned this firsthand, with my maul lodged in the log tighter than the Sword in the Stone. I had to hack at the log with a hatchet to free the maul. But if a log is really, really dry, you aim your maul in between the knots, and luck is with you, you’ll wind up with a nice split log.
*Keep your eyes on the log.
It’s like in baseball, or golf—you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball.  John will tell you, I can’t throw worth a darn, and my aim in pathetic. However, employing intense focus, I’ve actually split some jagged logs—windfall that broke apart in various places—by aiming my maul into one of the crevices.  But I still can’t throw.
*Focus is everything.
No multi-tasking allowed! When I’m splitting, I can’t be daydreaming about my heroine’s escapades in the novel I’m working on, or what to eat for dinner. You don’t want to miss the log and hit your leg with that big old maul. Which brings us back to: keep your eyes on the log.
One last homesteader’s resolution. I resolve that John and I will start splitting next year’s firewood this June—and by September, we’ll have two woodsheds’ full!