Sunday, October 5, 2008

Keep On Keepin' On

The three-ring circus we're being treated to these days can be very upsetting and distracting. We're not sure that any amount of (deficit or imaginary) taxpayer money will be enough to save the big Wall Street firms that made big bets on leverage and sold them in every country in the world. Our IRAs and investments whipsaw up and down, but more down than up. It's a tough time, and nobody knows what it will be like next year. It's easy to get into a tight loop, waking up early in the morning and worrying about the future. If you have a reset ARM mortgage or your home is "under water", of course, you've got even more to worry about. And practically nobody's job is that secure.

I'm not the best example of someone who can just go on about doing the things that need to be done, and not waste my time and energy worrying about stuff that I can't do anything about. But really, friends, that's what we need to do.

Important Financial Moves
First: pay down your debt, as fast as you can. Especially credit card debt, or any high-interest loan. Paying ahead on your mortgage is good, but should be prioritized with the next two items, depending on your situation. Having a paid-off house IS very reassuring, however.

Second: do home improvements to make your home more energy efficient, and prepare for utility outages, etc. So many of us are totally dependent on electricity: to cook our food; run our lights, computers, and refrigeration; to run the fan and thermostat on the furnace; and if you have a well, to pump water out of the ground.

Having some non-electric ways to heat, cook, and cool is a wise thing to do, regardless of whether we get a financial meltdown. A winter blizzard could take out electricity, or if you live near the coast a hurricane, or here in Colorado a tornado. Having some extra blankets and sweaters and heavy socks is also good. Store some water, at least 1 gallon per day per family member for 2 weeks, just to be sure.

Make sure you have enough insulation; insulated blinds or other window coverings are good. If you are ready to replace a furnace or refrigerator or other appliance, get a high-efficiency one.

Third: start storing food. Again, you don't need to wait for a financial meltdown for this to make sense. If you lost your job, and couldn't find another for a while, or ended up in a low-wage job, having 6 to 12 months of food stored would be very handy. If money is tight, just buy a small amount of staple goods each week when you shop. You will build up your stock over time. If you can buy staple goods (like rice, beans, flour, etc.) in 25 lb bags, you'll find that they are much cheaper that way. (And learn how to cook with those stored foods, fixing foods your family will eat.)

The very best online resource I can give you is Sharon Astyk's blog: Depletion and Abundance. She talks about the hard issues (the problems coming), but mostly about the important issues: how to feed your family and keep them warm, what foods to store and how, and how to build the community around your family that will help us all weather the coming storms. It's worth it to look back through her posts for at least the last year, if not further. Goodies include lists of useful books and tools. It's nice to know we're not facing this alone. She keeps a can-do spirit, tackling the challenges that we could all face with grace and courage.

Anyway, the way to go forward is not to get paralyzed with worry, but to put one foot in front of the other, doing the daily ordinary activities to prepare for the unexpected; learning the mundane skills of cooking, sewing, fixing things, gardening, etc.; thinking about low-energy, low-cost alternatives to take care of ourselves and our families.

Month 11: September and the perfect Nectarine

I see I haven't posted since the Month 10 report. I've been distracted (perhaps one could say "driven to distraction") by the Wall Street bailout, and other financial and political stuff. I've also been busy putting up fruits and vegetables, and working (I have a job that shows up once or twice a year for 3-4 weeks).

The perfect Nectarine: picked on Colorado's western slope, just about three days short of ripe. As soon as the nectarines get a little soft to the touch (anything but hard), they are ready. Wow! I think I like them better than peaches. It's been so many years since I had a good nectarine. We've been eating a bunch and I've also canned several batches for the winter.

Canning Nectarines
Canning nectarines is like peaches but easier. I didn't bother to take the skins off, though I do with peaches. For the full story on canning, you should get the Ball Blue Book of canning (also has info on freezing, drying, etc.).

But here's the simple story, for waterbath canning. Put clean pint jars into your canning kettle, and rings, and cover with water. Bring to boil. Jars should boil 10 minutes, but more doesn't hurt. Meanwhile, for nectarines, wash and cut each into 8-10 slices. A pint jar holds about 3 med nectarines. Also, bring to a boil 4 cups water and 1 cup Colorado honey, and in another (small) saucepan, simmer the lids for your jars for 10 minutes and leave them in the hot water. This is 3 burners worth that you've got going.

Now, put a couple of handfuls of nectarine slices into the boiling syrup, bring back to boil, set timer for 2 minutes. Fish out with a slotted spoon and put into jars that you have taken out of the waterbath. Use a canning funnel to keep from spilling. They will settle a bit, so you will have to keep putting a couple more into each jar until they are pretty close to the rim. When all are cooked in syrup and put into jars, pour syrup into the jars right up to the rim (shoulder) (not up to the top). Should be about 1" of head space. Get the lids out of the hot water with tongs, then screw on the rings tight but not too tight. Place the jars back into the canning kettle (the water should still be boiling). You may have to scoop a little water out of the kettle, since you are putting full jars in, in place of the empty ones. Bring back to boil (don't be fooled by the air bubbling out of the lids), and set your timer for 20 minutes. Then pull jars out of the water, put on counter, and wait for the ping!

There is a gadget you must have to get jars in and out of the canner, special tongs that grasp the jar on each side and allow you to lift it without tipping. Another little set of tongs for the lids, and the canning funnel, are really all the equipment you need.
Always use fresh lids each time. You can save the used ones for use with jars of dried foods, beans, etc., just don't can with them again.

If you are doing peaches, it is somewhat more involved. Bring a saucepot of water to boil, put peaches in for 30 seconds to 1 minute (depends on ripeness), and then into a bowl of cold water. The skins just peel off. Now slice into a big bowl, and proceed as for nectarines. You can peel and slice all the peaches, then bring the syrup to boil and simmer them; otherwise you'll look like one of those Hindu goddesses with eight arms.

If you have syrup left after topping off the jars, lucky you! It makes a wonderful refreshing drink, diluted 4:1 or even 8:1 in cold water. The flavor is honey + fruit; delicious!

After your jars cool off all the way, check to be sure that each lid is down, by pressing gently in the middle. If a jar didn't seal, or if it pings when you touch it (which means it didn't seal properly), put it into the frig and use soon. Otherwise, they're good for a year or more.

Colorado's fall bounty
September brings us the last of the peach and nectarine harvest, with pears and apples coming soon. The fall Colorado lettuce is superior to the spring lettuce, in my opinion. The heads are bigger and the flavor is better; also they keep very well. We can also get fall spinach, again superior to spring, and arugula. The cooler days and nights are good for the quality. The braising greens keep improving: chard, kale, etc.

We're still getting sweet corn, tomatoes, and all kinds of peppers, until the first freeze. I'm still putting up tomatoes, and my last two jars of lactofermented cucumber pickles.

Next come the winter squashes and pumpkins, just starting to show up now. They'll keep at a cool room temperature, as themselves, through the winter to early spring. Keep them out of the sun, and at 50 to 60 degrees. Look through your stash every so often, to see if any are getting soft spots, and use them right away.

September is Wild
September brings a frantic activity to take care of the harvest and store it for winter. Even if you don't put up food, you will probably feel it, as a general angst that winter is coming, hard times are coming, and we need to be prepared if we're going to eat next winter. Eating as a Locavore brings this anxiety to the front, as you work to fill up those jars while the fruits and vegetables are available. You can't substitute peaches from Argentina in the winter (not that they're worth eating anyway).

I think of what kind of meals I can prepare next January, and what I need to have on hand. It seems there can never be enough tomatoes. I have put up tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, tomato juice, and chopped tomatoes. I will be making a lactofermented salsa today, with tomatoes, peppers and onions from Cresset Farm. That will keep under refrigeration for months. I've made jars and jars of pesto for the freezer, and dried many batches of fresh basil and other herbs.

I've been filling up my staples jars for the past 5 months, and I'm fairly well set there. The local meat, dairy and eggs are available year round (though eggs can be a little hard to find in the winter). We live in a beautiful and bountiful state, never more bountiful than in September. And it's hard to say which is more beautiful: the cool, bright days of September or the days of April when the trees are in blossom. Happy Autumn to you all!