Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Roasting Pumpkins (While Drinking Wine)

Don’t you just love autumn?

We are nearing the end of the harvest season. The leaves are brightly colored and drifting to the ground, one by one, like the coming snows. The sky is an incredible blue. The geese flocks that live along the river behind us are taking to wing.
Doukenie Winery is a favorite of ours.

Your favorite uncle and I took a recent Saturday to head towards northern Virginia for wine and winter squash to put up for the winter. Our favorite wines are grown and pressed in Loudon County. We belong to a couple wine case clubs with the wineries we visit twice a year. We combined the journey with our search for pumpkins, butternut squash and colorful winter squashes that will go in our baked goods, soups and as side dishes for the colder months.

The past several years, we’ve gone to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for our winter squash. The farms there product an abundance of lovely produce – bright orange and red squashes, striped turban squash, tan and sweet butternut squash, deeply green with red streaks acorn squash, sweet yellow corn, crisp green onions and tart and sweet red onions. We come home with our car filled with boxes of pumpkins and squash and veggies ready to be packed and frozen for later.

But with the case clubs waiting – and who am I to keep a bottle of wine waiting? – we headed West this time.

Since the end of the 1970s, vineyards and wineries have been a growing endeavor in Virginia. The past 15 years, though, have seen one of the few positive effects of climate change – northern Virginia now has areas that are comparable to California’s Napa Valley for growing wine grapes. (The downside – prediction models are showing that by 2050 those same wine regions might no longer be suitable for wine grapes. Something to drink about.) Thanks to the ancient glaciers and the run off from the melting ice, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast are fortunate to have the sandy and loamy soil grapes like. The foothills of the Appalachian Mountains offer gentle slopes for the vineyards to wind around.

So off we went.

Drinking local wine is a new experience for many people. The localvore movement has helped to introduce many people to wines from their own regions, rather than ones grown in France or New Zealand. Delightful wines now come from the Finger Lakes of Central New York and the hills of Northern Virginia that have bright flavors and fun names.

Pairing those wines with locally grown fruits and vegetables is a natural step – and one several chefs have taken when opening farm-to-table restaurants. For us, the rich flavor and color offered by winter squash is a natural pairing. One of our favorites is a smoky pumpkin soup. And there is always the traditional savory pumpkin pie.

 Next to our case of wine is a box of pumpkins and squash. I’ll roast and drain these squashes, freezing the puree for this winter’s baking and dinner. Having the prepped squash makes baking and cooking so much easier. I know what I have, no mystery squash in a can from the grocery store. The acorn and butternut is already prepared with a touch of maple syrup and spice, just waiting to be heated in the toaster oven for a weeknight dinner.

I prefer to make and freeze pumpkin and squash purees. For me, it’s the ultimate in convenience. Thaw a freezer jar and I’m good to go. However, if you are interested in canning your pumpkin and squash, you will need a pressure canner and canning jars. To can your pumpkin, you will need to cut the flesh into cubes and can in a liquid. I suggest you follow directions on Home Preserving Pumpkins  from the National Center for Home Food Preservation for canning.

Keep in mind, an average sized pumpkin will often give you up to 6 cups of pumpkin puree. That's enough to make 3 pumpkin pies or 6 savory or sweet dishes. A smaller pie pumpkin will yield enough puree for two pumpkin pies – a really small pie pumpkin will make one pie.

Freezing Pumpkin and Butternut Puree


  • 1-2 good-size pumpkins or butternut squashes (a pumpkin circumference of 20-23 inches and a butternut length of 10-12 inches) You can roast smaller squashes but will need to adjust your time.


  • Pans for roasting (baking bans or dishes work just fine here)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Cutting board
  • Pumpkin carving knife – the kind sold as safety “knives” for jack-o’-lanterns
  • Spoon for scraping out the strings and seeds
  • Colander 
  • Basket-style coffee filters
  • Large mixing bowl
  • Sandwich plate
  • Weight (I use a bag of popcorn kernels)
  • Immersion blender

For Freezing:

  • Plastic freezer jars or straight sided, wide-mouth canning jars with plastic lids
  • Plastic wrap (if needed)


The Roasting:
Turn your oven on to 400 degrees to preheat.

Wash your pumpkin or squash with a vegetable wash and place on your cutting board. Make sure all the dirt is gone from the skin. There are two reasons for this. The first is you don’t want to transfer any possibly nasty germs or bacteria from the skin of the pumpkins or squash to the flesh. The second reason is you will be saving the juice and water that cooks out of the pumpkins and squash and you don’t want dirt in that liquid when you’re done.

Slice the pumpkin or squash in half. The best method I have found is to use a pumpkin carving knife. Many jack-o'-lantern carving kits come with a dull serrated knife for carving the face of your jack-o-lantern.  The blade won't cut you but when applied to the flesh of a pumpkin or winter squash easily slices through the hardest of skins. I keep my pumpkin knife with my other cooking utensils all year.

Once slide in half, scoop out the seeds and strings. If you want to save the seeds, you can roast the seeds for a snack or dry them to plant in the spring.

Place your pumpkin or squash in the roasting pan with the cut side up. Pour a quarter of a cup of water into the pan. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. You want the pumpkin or squash to steam while roasting.

Pop your roasting pan into the oven and set the timer. For a large pumpkin or squash, roast for one hour. A smaller one, pie pumpkin size, roasts for 45 minutes.

The Scooping:
When the timer dings, pull out the roasting pans and allow to cool while still covered. Depending on how warm your kitchen is, that may be for an hour or two. While you’re waiting, line your colander with three overlapping coffee filters, so that the holes are covered. Set into a large mixing bowl and set aside until later.

Once cool, open up the foil and take out one of the halves. It should be cool enough to handle without
Clockwise, freshly roasted pumpkin; scooped pumpkin about
to be pureed; and the finished but undrained puree. You are
working for a thick but smooth texture.
burning yourself. With your serving spoon, scoop the tender pumpkin or squash flesh from the skin and into a large mixing bowl. Discard the skin. Repeat with the other half.

Using your immerse blender, puree the pumpkin or squash until smooth. Once you have a contestant texture – it should be a puree similar to whipped potatoes – spoon the pumpkin or squash into the waiting colander. Once you have transferred all of the puree, place a sandwich plate on top and then your weight on the plate. Put the bowel with the colander into the refrigerator.

You want the puree to drain for at least overnight and up to 24 hours. During this time, the squash water or pumpkin juice will drain out of the puree. This step is important! Undrained pumpkin and squash is too watery for most recipes – I made a mess of a pumpkin pie by skipping this step.

The Packing:
The next day, scoop the puree into your freezer jars. I use one and two cup jars for freezing. A one cup freezer jar is the right size for most baked goods and my favorite soup recipe. A two cup freezer jar is perfect for pumpkin and butternut pies.

Once you’ve scooped out the puree, gently pour that beautiful squash water or pumpkin juice into another freezer jar. It’s good to use soups in place of vegetable broth, in pumpkin soup especially, and can be used in smoothies or homemade pumpkin beer. (Oh, yes. Auntie makes pumpkin beer. We’ll get to that this Christmas.)

Freeze your puree and your squash water or pumpkin juice. To use, leave in the refrigerator overnight or put the jar in water to defrost on the counter if you’re using it immediately. It’s ready to use out of the jar, just like commercial canned pumpkin – but so much better!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Spooky bags for trick-or-treaters

Halloween Trick-or-Treat pillowcase bag
A boo-tiful Halloween trick-or-treat bag.
It's the spookiest time of the year. And Halloween crafts are fun!

I've been making market bags, tote bags, purses and computer bags for a year now for St. Denis Sundries. Last Halloween I made a set of pillowcase bags for my niece and nephews to take trick-or-treating.

I’m working on a new set of Halloween bags for this year. Part of last year’s learning experience was finding out that burlap bags will wear through when small children drag them on the ground.

I like making pillowcase bags for Halloween, which are simpler than market or tote bags. Just like the name, they are measured and sewn like pillowcases, without a floor or flat bottom. These bags are handy and lightweight, perfect for little kids gathering up all the candy in the neighborhood. (Auntie calls dibs on the peanut butter and chocolate cups!) I’m making this year’s trick-or-treat bags out of burlap again, but I’m adding a section of denim to the bottom edge, along with making them a little bit shorter.  I’m hoping this will prevent holes if – okay, when – the bags are dragged over the gravel road.

Last year I found delightfully printed burlap with Halloween kitties, goblins and pumpkin faces. This year the bags are spooky black and I’ll use an adorable printed Halloween fabric for decoration. The handles are made out of burlap ribbon in matching black. For safety, I’ve added a strip of reflective ribbon so the bags and their trick-or-treaters can be seen by passersby.

Make your pillowcase Halloween trick-or-treat bags

  • Printed or solid color (I’m going with black) burlap – plan a half a yard for one bag
  • Colored denim or heavy canvas to match the burlap – plan one quarter yard for one bag
  • A quarter yard of fabric in a color matching the burlap – you’ll use this to make fabric tape for the raw edges of the burlap
  • Colorful and fun Halloween printed fabric – plan one quarter yard or one fat quarter


Sewing Tools:
  • Sewing machine
  • Denim needle for your sewing machine (optional)
  • 25 mm bias tape maker (This is the one I use: eKingstore Set of 4 Size Fabric Bias Tape Maker Tool)
  • Scissors for cutting burlap
  • Scissors for cutting fabric
  • Rotary cutting tool, ruler and mat
  • Paper grocery bag with a handle, pencil


1. Find out how tall your kiddo is and how far it is from the palm of her hand to the ground. Assume about 3 inches for the handle drop. Your paper bag is a helpful tool here: Have your kiddo stand with her arm at her sides, holding the bag. If the bag touches the ground, measure up from the floor, giving your kiddo’s bag at least 4-6 inches clearance from the ground. This will give you the bag’s length. For the width of you bag, divide the length of the bag by 4. Subtract your answer from the length. That amount is your width.

For example, a bag that is 16 inches in length:
16 ÷ 4 = 4
16 – 4 = 12

This bag will be 16 inches long by 12 inches wide. This is my taller niece’s bag. Her younger brothers’ bags will be:
12 ÷ 4 = 3
12 – 3 = 9

The nephews’ bags will be 12 inches long by 9 inches wide.

Cut your burlap to be 3 inches shorter than your intended finished length. This is your bag panel. Cut your denim or canvas to be 3.5 inches high and the same width as your burlap. This will become the bottom edge of the Halloween bag, sturdy enough to withstand the occasional drag across the ground.

If you don’t have your kiddo with you, a taller child would have a bag with two panels of burlap that are 12.5 inches long and 12.5 inches wide. Cut two strips of denim or canvas 3.5 inches wide and 12.5 inches long (or one piece at a double length of 25 inches) to go at the bottom of the bag.

Burlap and denim are sold on the bolt and are about 60 inches wide. I like to measure and cut my panels on the fold of the fabric, like a book. This is one less edge that needs to be sewed and similar to the construction of most pillowcases. If you do cut two separate panels and denim strips, sew one side first to make the larger pieces before continuing.

2. Make the fabric tape

The fabric tape binds the inside raw edges of the burlap and makes the seams sturdier. For this you will cut 2 inch wide strips of your matching fabric the length of the fabric piece. You can cut the fabric straight across or on the bias; I cut my straight across for bag making.

Feed the fabric through the bias tape maker, gently coaxing it out the tip. Using a large pin, tack the end of the fabric down to your ironing board and carefully pull the tape maker down the length of the fabric for a few inches. Iron the folded fabric as it emerges, pressing the edges of the fabric towards the middle. Here’s a tutorial on making bias tape [http://m.dritz.com/sites/default/files/tutorials/dritz-tutorial-how-use-bias-tape-maker.pdf].

3. Make the edging and decorative panel

Making the top of your Halloween bag
Making the top edge.
For the top edging: Cut a strip of your Halloween fabric the same length as the unsewn bag is wide plus 1 additional inch (in my case, 33 inches long) and between 2-3 inches wide. The width depends on your pattern and your preference.

Iron the strip of fabric flat and then measure a half an inch deep, folding over the fabric and pinning it in place. Measure and pin all the way down the length of the fabric. Iron the folded edge, pulling out the pins as you go. Repeat the process on the other side so you have two folded edges.

Fold the fabric in half this time so the folded edges meet and you have a fabric tape. Iron flat.

For the decorative panel: Cut a strip of your Halloween fabric the same length as the open bag, plus 1 inch (again, for me that was 33 inches). I cut my panel to be 4 inches wide; you can vary the width based on how long your bag is, making sure to have at least 1 extra inch for the hem.

Just as you did with the edge, measure and iron a half an inch from the edge of the fabric on both sides. This creates your hem. Do not fold the fabric again, since we are not making tape.

4. Assemble your bag

Yay, sewing! It seems like so much of the sewing process of just pinning. Your first step is to lay the

burlap on your work surface, best side up, and line up your denim piece, wrong side up (so the right sides of the fabric are together), with the edge of the burlap. Use your matching fabric tape to fold over the edges of the burlap and denim and pin in place. Sew together.

Layout our your pieces for the proper placement
Layout your pieces and check placement.
Turn the bag over so you are now working on the right side of the fabric. Take your edging piece and fold it over the top of your bag, tucking the raw edge of the burlap to the fold inside. Pin in place. Using a matching thread, sew along the edge of the hem, so the stitches are next to the fold of the fabric. You should have about a half an inch of extra fabric sticking out from either side.

Lay your decorative panel, right side up, on the bag and judge where it looks best; that might be in the center of the bag or a little higher or lower to your liking. Pin the panel in place. Again, sew in matching thread at the edge of the hem. You should have a little bit of fabric running off the burlap on either side.

Lastly, take your reflective tape and lay it across the bottom of the bag, where the denim and burlap meet. I used the middle width piece, which is three-quarters of an inch. Measure the length to match the width of your bag, plus one-quarter to one-half of an inch extending past the side. In black thread, sew the reflective tape to the burlap on both sides in the black edging, not the reflective portion. (This is an iron-on reflective tape but I found sewing it down to be more effective at keeping it place than ironing.)

Once all the pieces are attached to the bag, fold it with the right sides inward and touching. Trim away the excess fabric and reflective tape. Using the matching fabric tape folded over the raw edges, pin and sew on the fabric tape to close the seam.

Turn the bag right-side-out. Looks great, doesn’t it?

5. Attach the handles

Cut two 13 inch lengths of the burlap ribbon. Don’t use your good scissors! Most burlap ribbon will have a thin metal wire running along the edges to give it shape. Find the center of your bag and then find the quarter measurement, between the center and the side of the bag. Line up the outside edge of the burlap ribbon with that point and place the bottom edge of the ribbon 2 inches down from the top edge of the bag opening. Use a pin to hold in place.

A niece with the finished trick-or-treat
bag. The reflective tape helped to make
 sure she and her friends were seen while
roaming the neighborhood this year.
I sew each end of the handles separately; however, you can pin them all in place before stitching. First sew down the part of the handle that rests of the black burlap with your black thread. Sew all four edges down, using a box with an ‘X’ pattern through the center. Then go back to your matching fabric thread and sew a seam across the top of the bag where the handle strap crosses the edging fabric to hold the handle in place.

There you have it: Your kiddo’s custom-made trick-or-treat bag!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Learning to knit cute things

I can't knit. I have tried knitting; I have even done knitting stitches with knitting needles. And yet everything I make comes out to be an ugly knitted thing. So what is a village homesteader to do when she can't knit?

And then I came across sock knitting on loom. It's kind of nifty. The loom is a frame lined with pins.
Knitting on a sock knitting loom.
The pins have grooves on one side and a rounded head. You loop the yard around the pins and use a knitting tool which it looks like a small hook to loop the yarn and create the knitting stitches – depending on the direction, you can create a knit, purl or flat stitch. You can use knitting looms to make socks and hats or use a larger version to make scarves or even blankets.

This seemed to be the knitting solution for me.

I've been using a sock loom now since early spring. I’m actually on my second loom, the first having contributed to my learning experience. I’ve managed to complete two socks, though I hesitate to call them a “pair of socks” even though I made them from matched yarn. One sock is decidedly bigger than the other. The other sock doesn't fit around my foot. For both socks, I have the wrong weighted yarn and the wrong number of pegs on the loom.

Did I mention that I still learning to knit with the loom?

There are a couple types of looms on the market. I am currently using the Authentic Knitting's 9"x3" Sock Loom Knitting Board, made from heavy wood and metal pins. I started using this one after finishing up the second sock – I broke a plastic pin on the first loom I purchased. The entire loom was made from plastic but I had thought the pins were metal. I was wrong. I attempted to glue the broken pin in place, which worked until I was knitting the sock’s toe. It snapped again and I ended up moving that stitch to a neighboring pin. With that experience, I strongly recommend getting a loom that has metal pins rather than plastic ones.

Another thing to keep in mind when using a sock loom make sure to use sock weight or fingerling yarn. This makes a big difference, as I learned in the first pair of mismatched socks. The yarn I used was too heavy and hard to work with, making the stitches too tight. Plus, it’s fun using the lightweight sock yarn. It has a nice feel and there are several different types, even including several cozy baby weight yarns. If you use variegated yarns, like I have, you end up with striped socks. It’s like an unfolding surprise to watch the stripes form as you knit.

The mismatched practice socks.
I am still at risk of making ugly knitted things. Of course, ugly knitted socks might be a fashion statement….  But the idea of making cute, soft and cozy socks to curl up in on a snowy day is definitely an attraction. If I get talented enough they might even find their way into Christmas baskets. Next year’s Christmas baskets, maybe.

I suggest anyone who is struggling to knit or to do other yarn arts, like crochet, have a try at a sock loom. It's not difficult, although you still have to count your stitches and how big a row is. There are several good sock loom knitting books available and I suggest checking them out. Your local library might have them and certainly your craft store and online.

So while I have a quilt top basted and ready for the hoop, you’ll find me in the late evening, curled up on the corner of the couch, actually knitting. And it might even turn out to be a cute knitted thing!

Friday, September 9, 2016

Garden Fresh Cherry Tomato Ketchup

Ketchup. Who doesn't love ketchup?

I’ve been making ketchup for a little while – just over a year now – after several dismal attempts using canning tomato paste. I even assembled all the ingredients for a fermented ketchup by one of my favorite bloggers. Just never got around to making it.

I didn’t have success until I opened up five or six recipes and asked, “What do these have in common?” Spices, tart vinegar, touch of sweetness. Thirty pounds of fresh tomatoes.

I have a husband who is the master of cherry tomatoes. Seriously, half of our brand-new garden bed is a tangled jungle of beautiful red and gold orbs of tomato perfection. I take lots of pictures because their color and size amazes me.
Yellow cherry and pear tomatoes.

They’re awesome. He eats them by the bowlful as a snack.

Except…I cannot stand fresh raw tomatoes. Ever since I was a little girl, the taste, texture and scent of raw tomatoes is so distasteful to me that I have taken to proclaiming that tomatoes are evil and must be purified…into ketchup.

Ah-ha! Let the purification begin!

Homemade Cherry Tomato Ketchup

I created this recipe after reading up on various ketchups, their histories and the ingredients most commonly found in traditional ketchup recipes. I recently shared this creation with a good friend who found himself with several baskets of cherry tomatoes and a day home from work. Once it was done, he asked his little girl to try it.

Her response? “Wow!” she said. “It’s good. It tastes like ketchup.”

I’ll take that.

You can use this homemade ketchup anywhere you’d normally reach for a bottle of commercial ketchup. We use it on burgers and I’ve built on it for a quick barbecue sauce. One four-ounce jar goes into my homemade meatloaf. The nieces and nephews dunk french fries in it.

You will need a few kitchen tools for this beautiful creation:
  • Canning jars, either 4 ounce jelly or half-pint jars, plus new lids
  • Hot water bath canner
  • Pot for cooking. I use a Red Lodge Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven, 4.5-Quart
  • Mixing bowl or similarly-size pot
  • Wooden spoon, flexible spatula, potato masher
  • Food mill with a fine sieve or disk, I have an OXO Good Grips Food Mill
  • Sharp knife for cutting and chopping and cutting board
Homemade Red or Yellow Ketchup

This recipe can be doubled or tripled depending on amount of cherry tomatoes you, along with the size of your pot and how much time you have to dedicate to the slow reducing of the tomato sauce into paste.

  • 1 basket/quart of cherry tomatoes or small tomatoes. Can be all red, all yellow or a mix of both.
  • 1 small onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 Tbsp. white vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. brown sugar (for red ketchup) or white/unrefined sugar (for yellow ketchup)
  •  ½ Tsp salt
  • Optional: 2 hot peppers for hot pepper ketchup or 1 small beet or a piece of beet about an inch in diameter (for a brighter red ketchup)
  • ¼ Tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ Tsp ground ginger
  • ¼ ground clove
  • ¼ ground allspice
  • Optional:  ¼ ground turmeric for the yellow ketchup

Red ketchup slowly reducing. 
You'll start by putting your canning jars into the dishwasher if you plan to store your ketchup for longer than a week in the refrigerator. Even if the jars are already washed, this helps to make sure everything is sparkling clean and as sterile as possible in the home kitchen. (If you’re looking for more information or tips on home canning, visit The National Center for Home Food Preservation.)

Wash the tomatoes (and peppers, if using these) with a food-safe vegetable wash and set aside. Peel onion and garlic.

Cut the onion into either 4 or 8 pieces, depending on size. Roughly mince garlic. Add both to the pot. If you are making the hot ketchup, seed and roughly chop your peppers and add to pot. If you are making bright red ketchup, peel the beet and cut into halves or quarters depending on the size. Add to the pot.

Slice your cherry tomatoes in half. Larger cherry tomatoes should be cut into quarters. Add to the pot. Gently press the tomato, onion and garlic mixture with a potato masher or the back of a spoon to release some of the tomato juice. Turn heat to medium.

Stir tomatoes, onion and garlic every few minutes as the mixture cooks. The tomatoes will continue to release their juices and begin to simmer in the pot.

When the tomatoes are cooked and soft, remove from heat. Using a food mill with its finest sieve or grinding plate, grind the tomato mixture in a waiting bowel. The tomato skins and seeds, along with the skins of the onion (and peppers) will remain in the food mill. Discard skins.

Pour the tomato sauce back into the pot. Add bay leaf. Gently simmer on medium low to reduce.  Be patient, you’re reducing the sauce to a paste. Stir frequently, using a rubber spatula to scrap the bottom and sides to prevent burning. Your goal is a beautiful, silky tomato paste.

Reduce to a paste that is a little bit thicker than you want for the ketchup. Once the paste can hold its shape on the spatula, add the vinegar, spices (add the turmeric only if you are making yellow ketchup), sugar and salt. A dash of additional hot powder could be added at this time if you’re making a spicy ketchup.

Simmer for about 5 minutes on very low. You’re giving it time for the flavors to meld. Taste the ketchup and make any additions in spice or vinegar it needs at this point.

Ladle your freshly made ketchup into 4oz or half-pint (8oz) canning jars. Wipe the rims and put a new canning lid on top. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Sundry Updates

Oh, my dear new reader! I get you interested and then seem to take the summer off from this little blog.

What have we been doing on our village homestead? Not enough sewing! And I have supplies for soap tucked away in the dining room buffet but haven’t gotten to use them yet. We’ve done some traveling to visit with family and we’ve dedicated some time to our social club. And, following the resignation of our village association president, I find myself the highest elected official in our small community. So, we’ve been busy!

So, what has been happening at our village homestead?
  • Herbs are being dried and packaged for the winter.
  • Tomatoes are being turned into ketchup and tomato base sauce.
  • Sourdough bread is getting baked.
  • Water kefir is being brewed.
  • Sour cream and yogurt is fermented.
  • Homemade treats are getting made (key lime frozen pops and banana pudding pops!).
  • Cucumbers are becoming pickles.
  • Peppers are finding themselves pickled, dried and blended into hot sauce.
  • Garlic and onions have been pulled from the garden and cured.
  • Gardening is constant – watering, tying up, harvesting, picking, weeding.
  • Finding new ways to terrify the groundhog away from my summer squash. Hollering “Hey! Critter!” out the kitchen window is effective – and very amusing to the husband.
We’ve had some gardening failures, though. Deer ate all of our bush beans. The strawberries didn’t survive the hot Maryland summer and I’ll have to replant them next spring. The parsley just hasn’t grown the way I’d like it to so there won’t be enough for drying. Grass seeds from the mower were blown into the lettuce bed and now I’ve lost that bed to a small lawn. The asparagus we planted this spring never took and we’ve had a garden bed lay empty all summer.

Canning jars have taken over my kitchen countertop. We’ve manage to get strawberry jam put up this spring with bright, fresh berries from our favorite local farm. The abundant cherry and grape tomatoes are becoming jars of homemade ketchup, or joining the Roma tomatoes  to become tomato base sauce – an unseasoned thin sauce that I can use later to make chili, or soup or pasta sauce. Vegetables from the garden and the local farm are starting to fill up our freezer and the dehydrator is running constantly, with either fresh herbs or tomato slices on its trays. And pickles and pickle jars are crowding everything else out of the way.

Seriously, pickles. And now I’m eyeing up fresh, deep red beets to be pickled for the winter.

In the meantime, the husband helped me find a beautiful antique desk chair for my sewing corner. Made by an Ohio office furniture manufacturer in the 1910s, it’s a nice addition to my treadle sewing machines. I’m looking forward to sitting there to work on my sewing projects this fall. And while I’m daydreaming about the new quilt to piece with reproduction fabrics (and maybe a twin with tropical fabrics?) and the completed quilt top that I’ll be putting in a hoop soon, I’ve been using a sock loom for the first time and just completed a pair of (imperfect) blue and white socks.

In all of this busyness, I had a moment that caused me to pause in my plan: A plastic pin on my sock knitting loom broke. As I hunted Amazon and Joanne Fabrics websites to replace the loom, I found different types and sizes of sock looms. I could buy sock knitting looms and hat looms and this really nifty and complicated blanket knitting loom! Oh, and the joy of yarns! And maybe a new knitting tool. There could be socks! And hats! And blankets! And scarves! And fingerless gloves! And… And…And!

And in my excitement, my professional sense walked over, poured a cup of coffee and calmly said, “What are you doing?”

What am I doing with St. Denis Sundries? I have great ideas of a homestead crafting business in a 100 lovely directions. That was just not going to work.

So, ordering one sock loom to replace the broken one, I closed out the pages and considered some old advice. To do a few things, do them well, and keep your focus on that. Quantity is the enemy of quality. I can either do one type of sock to add to my repertoire, or I can only make knitted things.

This also means I can make soap but not candles. I don’t need two collections of supplies filling up the buffet cabinet.

Sewing is what I enjoy but I should keep the Sundries collection to bags and the occasional toy. I don’t need to be sewing ALL THE THINGS as I originally planned.

What can you expect to see from me?
  • Homesteading crafts. There will be soap adventures. We’ll dry some herbs. There will be canned foods in beautiful mason jars. I’ll make stuff as the mood arises.
  • Gardening. We’re planning on expanding the garden next spring so you’ll hear plenty of this.
  • Sewing bags, toys and quilts. Because denim bags are St. Denis Sundries’ foundational products.
  • Sock knitting. Because after a lifetime of trying to knit, I finally found something I can do with yarn.
  • Adventures in village homesteading. Follow along as I try to answer the question: Can I have chickens in the backyard?
So, stay tuned my dear reader. I promise, there is a blog on homemade ketchup coming up.

Friday, May 27, 2016

What to do when the herb garden goes bonkers? Dry herbs!

Our herb garden has gone bonkers from all of our recent rain. This is the earliest I've started to dry herbs for the season, but I need to started bringing in the oregano and lemonbalm – they’re crowding out the other herbs. The lavender is also blooming, so it's time to start gathering those flowers.

My goal in the past two years had been to put up enough dried herbs to carry us through the entire year without having to buy more. The garden had become so abundant, that I am now looking at putting up herbs that will become part of Christmas baskets. I don’t yet have the needed paperwork to offer them for sale, though.

Have you ever tried to dry herbs? It's easier than you would think. There are two basic ways of drying herbs. The first is to tie your herbs in bunches and hang them upside-down in a cool, dry place in your house. After a couple weeks, the herbs will be crisp and ready for you to crush for storage.

The other way is to use a dehydrator and dry them on low. There are some thicker herbs, or ones which woody stems (hello, thyme, yes, that would be you) when I will use the medium setting for at least half the drying time. I avoid “high” for herb drying because I have found that you lose flavor and color at the setting and end up with a burned leaves.

Some people dry them in the microwave or in the oven. I don’t recommended either, especially since I have burned herbs doing both methods. I also don’t like the idea of using a microwave on the organic herbs I spend months carefully tending. Nope. Just, nope. When I haven’t burned my herbs, I still find that the oven and the microwave affect the color and flavor. Again, when you spend so much care raising herbs, it just doesn’t make sense to have a less-than awesome product at the end of the process.

Oregano has been the first herb to be dried this season. It grows quickly and likes to spread out. Since it seems to have decided that the parsley should move, I started cutting stalks on that side of the garden. Parsley is important for ranch salad dressing, and by golly, you don’t mess with the ranch dressing!

Oregano is also a very versatile herb. It goes in broth, soups and stews, tomato sauce and pretty much anything else I’m making on the stovetop. Since we go through it pretty quickly, I tend to put up more of this herb than others.

The stalks are easy to clip; just use your scissors and cut close to the base but above a leaf join – this will encourage the plant to send up two stalks in its place. It's best to clip your herbs in the morning after the dew has and before the day gets hot.

I like to carry a cup of water out with me when collecting herbs. This works well especially if you're gathering something like basil or chives, which will quickly wilt or get a little bendy before you're ready to use them in your meal or dry for later.

You want to wash your herbs before you use them. Remember, they came from outside and even if you’re careful to keep them clean, the rain and the birds tend to think differently. Wash tender herbs gently to avoid bruising, since bruises can discolor. Bruises also release the herb’s essential oils (which make them smell so yummy) and cut down on the scent and flavor later.

I prefer to use the gentle swishing method. I place them in a bowl with water and a little bit of vegetable cleaner. Swish them nicely to make sure there's no debris on the leaves and rinse under gently flowing water. Pat them dry and set them aside until you're done.

Once you have washed all your herbs, you wanted to give them one more look over and discard any leaves that are bruised, yellowed or have been chewed on by garden the bugs. Those bruised leaves can go straight into your compost pile.

It’s time to take the oregano apart. Since I try not to dry anything I don’t have to, I clip the stalks apart. The leaves, two large and two or four little ones, grow in joints, so I clip the stem away from the joint and leave the leaves attached to a small bit of stem. Once you've clipped the oregano, spread the leaves and joints on your dehydrator racks.

Herbs will vary in drying time from a few hours to a few days, depending on the herb and the humidity where you live. Oregano takes about 24 hours for me, but that can be as long as 36 if it’s very humid for us.

I check them every so often, at least once every six hours. Usually, I'll check them before retiring for the night and first thing in the morning. Rotate the racks so that the leaves dry evenly. You have to have the herbs nice and dry before you can crush them and put them into storage. Any moisture still in the herbs can make them go sour or become moldy. Neither is a good situation.

Check your herbs for dryness by gently crushing a leaf between your fingers or checking how easily stems break. If you can crush or snap them easily and cleanly, they’re done. If not, close the dryer back up and check again in a few hours.

Once your herbs are dry you can store them in a clean glass jar or give them a nice crushing. Crushed herbs are ready for sprinkling or measuring, but can lose their flavor more quickly than whole herbs, so if you plan to store for more than year, you might want to keep them whole.

I prefer to use the chopper tool for my stick blender for crushing my herbs, but you might want to use your blender or food processor. The old-fashioned way would be to throw them in the mortar and pestle and give them a good swirl until you have crumbled herbs.

Herbs keep their freshness for at least a year, and if they're stored in a dry, dark area they may stay fresh for about two years. After that you'll start to notice a drop-off in flavor. Anytime you open up a jar and the leaves have turned brown and you don't smell the fresh scent, you know that your herbs have gotten too old. They won't give you much flavor for your food. At that point you can add them to your compost pile. They can help the next batch of herbs grow.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A pair of favorite jeans

A couple my husband and I are friends with came to dinner last weekend to celebrate the thorough scrubbing of the porch – which is the beginning of summer for us. While we enjoyed a glass of wine, My friend pulled a pair of old overall jeans from her bag and looked to me hopefully.

“These are my favorite jeans,” she said. “They were my mom’s, too, in the ‘70s. I wore them everywhere, even on a humanitarian trip to South America. I remember hanging a hammer from the loop on the side while I was working there.”

She handed them over to me, her hands running over the large hand-painted patches on the knees. “Do you think you can make them into a shoulder bag for me?”

Oh—boy! That's a lot of confidence she has in me.

I agreed that I could make a bag for her and accepted the jeans. They are very soft, patched and worn but in durable condition. I would expect her to wear them teaching her animation courses rather than ask me to remake them into a bag to carry her course notes in around campus.

Last night I sat with her jeans, looking over the construction, the differences from the usual pairs I work with, the patches and the original labels. The stitches are in white thread, not the usual blue and gold, and the front bib is held closed by riveted buttons that I need to figure out how to keep in place. I can use the original fabric for most of it and supplement with a few pieces from my denim stash.  My favorite idea is to use one of the smaller fabric patches on the knee to make the decorative side tag.

I’ll keep both the hammer loop and the straight pocket at the side of the other leg and put them on opposite sides of the new bag. The bib and waist with pockets will be the front of the bag, with some extra fabric to square out the sides of the bib. The shoulder straps will become the handle for the bag and the two big pockets on the seat will be on the back of the bag. A large snap will close the top. I have a very cool button from my stash to cover the snap.

For the inside, I’ll find some durable fabric that looks like another one of the fabric patches. I’ll use that great patch on the knee to make a pocket on the inside and the patches on the other leg will be used on the hammer loop side of the bag.

Denim bags are my specialty but I think this one will be special. It is the first I’ve made specifically for another adult (the kids got burlap trick-or-treat bags last Halloween).

And since the forecast is rain every day for another a week, it’s going to be a good project to have.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Sundry adventures in village homesteading

Our corner of Maryland seems to be experiencing a little bit of rain – for the past 16 days. We’ve even
hearing this is a record of some kind for our area. Even though it’s not my kind of achievement, it’s given us a little bit of time to work on St. Denis Sundries.

We did manage to have a few sunny hours on Mother’s Day to plant seedlings in the garden. If all goes well, we have plenty of cucumbers for pickles, cherry tomatoes for ketchup and barbecue sauce (and popping into salads and snack dishes) and a variety of hot peppers for this year’s hot sauces and hot powders.

Maybe even a few sunflowers, too? Because we need as much as we get at this point! Did I mention it’s been rainy and cloudy for 16 days?

I love the feel and scent of the earth in our gardens when it’s just been turned over. We were fortunate to have a couple of our younger cousins help this year in preparing the garden beds. We just expanded the beds, doubling the amount of garden space we have. Their help made a huge difference this year. We’ve had a wet and dreary spring, which delayed us from pulling out the remnants of last year’s crops and turning over the soil. In two days, though, they had the beds pulled and turned and we were ready to pick up our plants from a local farm to start this year’s garden.

We had been looking forward to a bumper crop of strawberries this year – and this is the year to make strawberry jam! But we’ve had a disappointment! While it has rained almost every day since we came home from our vacation, there were two or three hot and dry days while we were away. A good friend who was carrying for our little homestead made sure the indoor plants were well-watered, along with our cat, but missed the barrel of strawberries at the side of the shed, near the herb garden. We eagerly checked on the strawberry barrel, hopeful for the first of this year’s sweet fruit, and found the sun had done its damage! The young fruits were shriveled and the plants were dry and damaged.

In the few weeks since then, I’ve made a point to stop at the strawberries twice a day, check the soil for moistness and speak softly to the plants. They’ve poked back up and there are new, green leaves growing, so I’m hopeful that there will be bright, sweet berries to cover with homemade yogurt or include in tangy lemonade. If not, I might just pop what strawberries there are straight in my mouth and savor them while sitting on the grass.

My husband and I are products of the suburbs; he, from Central Maryland and me from Western New York. We met on a cold and rainy night at a warm and sunny spot (a local group of parrothead friends). From then on, I’ve made my nest with him – but I didn’t want to return to the suburbs! I had spent my post-college years living in the countryside and preferred to stay there. As luck would have it, we found an old village filled with country charm and ancient trees tucked away near Baltimore City and we knew we were home.

Why have I called our venture St. Denis Sundries? Actually, he came up with the name and I thought it was perfect. The dictionary defines “sundries” as “various small things that are not mentioned specifically.”

A little bit of this, some of that, and we have an old-fashioned country store. Denim bags over here, newly knitted socks in the corner, fresh jams, jellies and pickles on the pantry shelves and the scents of new soap and candles throughout. Maybe some candy, too, in the glass jars by the counter.

I am a cook, crafter, writer and novice village homesteader. I guess these are our sundry adventures in village homesteading and self-sufficiency.