Friday, September 20, 2013

Roasted Tomato Paste

One thing I've really missed since I moved away from Iowa is the delight of vegetable gardening in the summer.  The first summer here, I had no garden because I only moved into the house in June, and it was too late, and there was far too much to be done inside.  The second summer here was the dreadful summer of working at the blueberry factory and floundering in the pit of despair, so the tomatoes didn't do very well then either.  This year, finally, I had enough tomatoes to make roasted tomato paste.  Gardening here in Nova Scotia is a short-season affair, so growing tomatoes is a bit challenging compared to what I had become used to in Iowa.  If I had a greenhouse, it would be much easier, but still, I managed to get a decent yield this year - at least enough to make a pan of roasted sauce.  I was used to making say 30-40 pans of sauce in Iowa, but that's the benefit of a warmer, longer summer!  If I'm lucky and the frost doesn't hit for another week or so, I might get 1 or 2 more pans done.

Here's what I do to make my roasted tomato sauce (which is closer to a paste, really).

Select a good assortment of tomatoes and wash.

Chop roughly and put the tomatoes into a glass roasting pan - I generally use an 8 x 13" pan.  I drizzle olive oil over them and then add some Italian seasonings.  Some people add onions, garlic, or other herbs.  Be creative - do as you like!

I set the oven to 400 F and put the pan on the middle rack for about 2 hours, turning the tomatoes with a spoon now and then, until the liquid is considerably reduced.  Here's how they looked when they came out today.  Keep an eye on them - you don't want the top layer browning too heavily because it will give a burnt, acrid taste to the paste.

After they are out of the oven, I let them cool for a while.

I have a stainless steel manual food mill.  This was very handy when I was making a lot of tomato paste, and is great for other vegetable purees and fruit purees.

I had an electric food mill for a while but it was cantankerous and inefficient - I much prefer this manual one. Mine has 3 different sizes of metal plates for the bottom that allow different sizes of particles to pass through. I use the one with the smallest holes for tomatoes because I don't really want lots of seeds.

If you don't have a food mill, you could crush the tomatoes with a potato masher or forks, and then use a medium-mesh strainer to achieve the same end product.

I place the food mill over a bowl and pour in the tomato mixture.

After some elbow grease has been applied, the remainder in the food mill is just skins and seeds (which the chickens will get as a snack in the morning!)

The resulting tomato sauce can be further reduced if you wish to make it even thicker, or it can be frozen immediately.  This stuff is wonderful - it is the pure essence of ripe tomato, concentrated and thickened into a dose of summer.

I freeze it in freezer bags because it makes for very efficient storage.  Squeeze the air out of the bag when it is laid flat, so that the paste is almost at the top.  Lay flat in the freezer to freeze, and then once frozen, the bag can be placed on its side or end in a "library" of bags.  I used to make paste with red, orange, yellow, and mixes of tomatoes, so I always had many colours of paste to choose from.

It's great in winter for lasagna or other pasta dishes, soups, stews, and almost any recipe where tomato sauce or paste is used.  Give it a try if you have a lot of tomatoes on hand!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I think a bear was there!

This morning on the way down the driveway for Jet's walk, I noticed that a tree limb was hanging at a strange angle.  It definitely wasn't like that yesterday.  You can see it in roughly the middle of this picture, hanging out from the right side of the drive.

As I got closer, I could see it was quite definitely broken, and that it was a reasonably large branch in terms of the diameter.  I figured the goats had been up to mischief as usual.
Then I noticed, when I came closer, that the vegetation to one side was really squashed down.  It appeared to me to be more squashed than I would expect to see from a few goat hooves, or even a goat that had decided to lay down for a while and ruminate.  It's a little hard to tell from this picture, but the area that is squashed is about a 3 foot diameter patch.

Then I noticed that on the other side of the branch that was broken, there was another completely squashed area where something large had crushed all the vegetation.
Here you can see where the branch was broken from the main stem - it's not an easy break for a small animal to make.
Black bears live in this area and they're preparing for hibernation at this time of year.  They eat a lot of berries.  This tree has berries on it - I think they are service berries or choke cherries - I'm not entirely sure. There were still berries on the broken branch though, so if it was a bear, it wasn't terribly efficient.
Overall, I'm not sure if there was a bear, there, or not.  I tried to look for any hair or evidence of bear fur (or droppings) but there was nothing I could find.  No goat droppings either!  I thought I detected a very faint musky smell, but that could have been my overactive imagination.  Still, something definitely did break the branch and cause a lot of vegetation damage in the immediate area.  The other clue was that Jet was really very excited about sniffing that area.  He could definitely smell the visitor!
I guess I'll be keeping an eye out for large mammals on our walks!

In the meantime, signs of fall are beginning to show.  I love the colour of the Virginia Creeper vine, even if it is a nuisance plant!  There is still plenty of lovely green grazing for the goats and sheep though.  I hope the hard frosts are still a long way off!

On our afternoon walk, Jet and I went across to the open pasture over the road.  We found definite evidence of bear!  This, my dear readers, is bear poop!  I put a small apple on it for scale.  You can see all the berry seeds in it.  That's no small animal leaving evidence, that's a full "power dump" from a big ol' bear!
Jet did a lot of sniffing over there too.  He definitely is on the bear trail!  I was just enjoying the lovely blue skies and gentle breezes.
We also found a destroyed paper wasp nest.  Quite possibly a bear would do that.

I believe this is some kind of Viburnum species, and I suspect the bear likes these berries too.   They provide a lovely splash of colour in the sea of green.

There are also a few last apples hanging on.  I think the bear will be feasting around here for a while!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The silver lining I never expected

In my last blog post, I talked about the changes in my career and professional direction over the past year. Things have changed in that same time period for my personal life as well, although not quite so quickly and confidently.  Before I could even begin to think about moving forward personally, I had to spend a long time recovering from the mistakes I'd made in choosing to leave Iowa and trusting the seller of this property, not to mention recovering from misplaced trust in a relationship I never should have entered in the first place, especially considering the fact that it was the primary reason for my leaving Iowa and all that I'd built there. We all make mistakes, but I wasn't used to making quite so many serious mistakes with such far-reaching implications in such a short period of time - implications not only for me but also my parents and friends.  I felt like I was dragging everyone down into that dark cave of mine!  It took me a long time to begin to believe in myself again and trust my ability to make good decisions, not to mention trusting anyone else.  I gave up even considering relationships - I was in no condition to share time with anyone, and I had no desire to do so.  I just wanted to be left alone and I knew I needed time to think about my priorities and needs.

When spring rolled around and my work life was improving, I thought maybe it was time for me to consider some investigation of my "social life" options, but I had a fairly laissez-faire attitude about it.  I didn't really expect to find anyone suitable, especially given my rather remote location and my somewhat atypical lifestyle and unusual personality quirks.  I signed up for a free online personals service without much conviction, but I wrote a lengthy profile that was essentially intended to put off all but the most stalwart of contenders, because the majority of people wouldn't even bother to read the whole thing before moving on.  Aside from deleting the initial flurry of offers from entirely dreadful (and some rude!) candidates who no doubt target all new users, it was something I mostly ignored and didn't put much effort into pursuing.  I scanned profiles from time to time, and received some messages expressing interest, but found myself having to send polite but firm responses to those whose own profiles made them sound either scary, boring, barely coherent, or otherwise unappealing.  A few messages I responded to, but quickly determined there was nothing worth further exploration.  I maintained my "This is definitely not going to work" attitude. Above all, I didn't actually initiate any contact with any profiles I read because (a) there weren't any that interested me sufficiently and (b) I'm not actually that brave.  I spent time thinking about what I was looking for and essentially concluded that it was far too unlikely to exist, especially not around here, and that even if I saw an interesting profile, I'd be too inhibited to respond.  Good thing I had goats and sheep to keep me company, not to mention Jet!

So it was, that I was all the more surprised one evening when I found a profile that (a) interested me significantly and (b) challenged my aforementioned lack of bravery.  After considerable thought, a couple of glasses of wine, some more considerable thought, and the writing, editing and re-writing of about 2 lines of text about 10 times...I did actually attain the stage of sufficient bravery to press the "send" button on my 2 lines of entirely bland text.   I determined that the worst possible thing that could happen would be that he would respond in the same "Thanks but no thanks" kind of response I'd sent in the past.  Slightly less worse, he might just ignore me.  Having pressed send and determined this "worst case scenario," I then pretty much forgot about it. That's just the way I roll - because sending 2 lines of non-committal text that essentially said "you have an interesting profile" was unlikely to generate anything in return!

Imagine my shock when I received a response!  I stopped myself from going into total panic mode (which would mean I couldn't possibly respond back), and I did manage to write back, somewhat shakily.  And so it went, back and forth for a while.  And then one evening, quite unexpectedly, it went back and forth, and forth and back, and back and forth some more, and suddenly, 9 pm had turned into 4:30 am, and we were still "talking." Furthermore, I wasn't all that tired - and I usually turn into a pumpkin if I haven't gone to sleep by midnight!  Some long-forgotten and neglected neurons, deep in my brain, began stretching themselves and shaking off the cobwebs that had accumulated during their long dormancy, not quite remembering how they were supposed to operate.

Then I realized with alarm...I might actually have to meet him someday!  Gulp.  I had really lost a great deal of self confidence in the previous couple of years, and the thought of meeting someone new suddenly seemed too much to contemplate, but I told myself (strictly and with conviction that I didn't really feel), "Claire, you can't keep on being a bump on a log forever."  There are some good things about being single, and some people prefer to stay that way, but I'm just not one of them.  Nobody was going to show up on my doorstep though - I had to put in some effort.  I had to push myself to make that effort because I really didn't feel all that positive about my chances for success.  So that's how I ended up having dinner in Amherst with Marc, and walking around town afterwards, talking about all sorts of things, and eventually sitting in the gazebo in the park downtown, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and not really noticing the growing number of bites!

When we finally met in person, suddenly, that imaginary person that I'd always wanted to find but never really believed existed was sitting right in front of me.  From that very first date, it was kind of a magical experience. Despite a fairly long history of long-term relationships in my past, I don't think I have ever connected with someone so quickly and deeply as I have with Marc.  We really "get" each other, and that is so very rare for's been a great many years since I have had a partner who understands me so well, right from the beginning.  Please forgive the clichés, because I really do mean it when I say that he makes my heart sing, my soul dance, and my imagination soar, not to mention the fact that he makes me laugh, and isn't that the best medicine?  He did what nobody else could do - he made me believe in dreams again.

Now I know that despite the trials and tribulations I've faced as a result of my decision to move back to Nova Scotia, and all the heartache that went along with that, there was a reason for it - something far more valuable than I could have guessed or imagined a year or two ago.  It feels like winning the lottery, without having bought a ticket - I never would have guessed that I would find such a wealth of love and joy.

On one of our early dates, we watched the movie: HappyThankYouMorePlease.  (yes, the title really is supposed to run together like that).  It wasn't a huge success with the critics, but it did well at the Sundance Film Festival.  I really enjoyed it, and its primary message about gratitude, happiness, and acceptance was particularly well timed for me.  As one of the characters explains early in the film, we need to remember to reflect gratitude to the Universe.  As such, when we are happy, we should say so, and reflect our gratitude back to the Universe for whatever has come our way.  There are a lot of great scenes, but the one that really struck a chord with me (and which Marc even predicted would have an impact), is this one:

And that's what it's like, every day, with Marc.  He asks me to accept being adored, even though it's difficult for me.  Effortlessly, I adore him in return.  I'm so very happy!  Thank you!  More please!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Reflecting on a year of change and transition

It has now been just over a year since I started my own business.  I have been reflecting upon that recently, and thinking about how much has changed since that time.  I remember the five months before I started the business, I was working at a frozen blueberry factory in the microbiology testing laboratory.  Although I was glad to have found a job at the outset, since I was living in the middle of nowhere and very worried about even finding any sort of job, it was undoubtedly the most boring and thankless job I've ever had, and I hadn't been paid so little since the early 1990s, which was simply soul destroying for me.  I spent my days in mindless drudgery, wondering how on earth I could get myself out of the mess in which I'd found myself. Those were dark days indeed, and I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning to face another day.

When I was offered the opportunity to work on a major writing project, with a payoff that would last me for several months of bills, at a rate that more than tripled the factory pay, I made that decision - it was time to make that leap.  As my father said, it was a "bold decision" at the time, but it was necessary.  It was not only a financial improvement, but it was necessary for my mental health.  I was drowning in a pit of self-pity and anxiety, made worse by a dead-end job and badly damaged self-confidence.

I thought when I started out the business that I'd find work that was pertinent to my former life as a patent agent - assuming that I would fit in somehow as an intellectual property writer and researcher, doing work for small companies or Pro Se inventors.  I also thought that most of the work I'd end up with would be related to agriculture or at least the biological sciences, since that was also my strongest area of experience and knowledge.  I was wrong about both those things!  It has turned out that my writing skills have led me into new areas that I didn't really expect to work in, supplemented by other skill sets that I acquired along the way in my career.  Now, much of the work I do is based on helping small companies achieve ISO 9001 status, meaning that they follow a set of quality guidelines established by the International Standards Organization.  I also have done work for the offshore industry in oil and gas, primarily pertaining to health, safety and the environment.  I've edited a self-help book, done some grant proposal work, and am also doing some risk assessment work as a subcontractor.  I even have a website that you can visit if you wish - just click my logo below!

In the year's time since I started, I have developed a regular client list, and in the past 8 months, I have surpassed the "small supplier status" here in Canada, which means that I need to charge sales tax to my clients now.  For a one-person small business, that's not too bad for the first year.  I've learned a lot about running my own business and the up-and-down nature of freelance work. I haven't been able to do as much with repairing the house as I'd like to have done, but progress has been made.  Most importantly, I'm a happier and healthier person with a far better outlook on the future.  I never thought I'd run my own business in the past - it just wasn't something I'd considered.  Now, I have a lot more freedom and a lot more power to make my own decisions, which has been very beneficial in helping me heal the wounds of the past.

In fact, by the spring of this year, I was able to begin to re-examine my personal life, which has taken me on another significant journey, but that's a story for the next blog post, so you'll just have to stay tuned...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

And finally, she is Manuka

Sometimes, I am scared to give names to my animals.  It seems that sometimes, when I give names, they are suddenly taken from me.  This is how it was with Manuka.  I felt that she was always at risk.  Sadly, her dear little silkie friend was taken from her, by the fox, and it hurt.  I felt like I'd failed them both.  It took me a long time to get over that loss.  But now, my sweet hen deserves a name.  Here she is, off to the right amongst the flock at feeding time.  The only hen with honey-coloured feathers.

For a while, she was very tightly bonded to me.  She greeted me in the mornings.  She flew up to the window ledge to accept feed from my hand.  She followed me around the chicken yard like a puppy.  She sat on my lap.  She took all the love that I could give.

It couldn't stay that way.  When she flew up to the window ledge, Jet was there, ready to take her for his next meal.  She didn't interact with the flock in a normal way.  She wasn't learning the ways to stay keep herself out of harm's way.  She didn't understand that danger lurked in the sky, on the ground, all around her.

So, I let her go.  I let her become part of the flock.  I stopped giving her morning cuddles and encouraging her to eat from my hand.  She integrated.  She became part of the flock that she was meant to run with.  She learned to be cautious and wary.  Now, she does not approach me.  She stays back, with the others...watching...waiting.  She likes to spend time with Foxmorton, the larger rooster.  He seems to have an affection for her as well.

I ache a little, in my heart, to know that she no longer trusts me.  But she is better off that way. She was nearly passed over.  I never intended to buy a production hen chick.  I only got her as a companion to the silkie chicks I bought.  The sweet silkie chicks that I lost, one at a time.  She is the only one who remains. An "ordinary" brown egg layer production hen.  To me, she is Manuka, a gorgeous girl with honey coloured feathers who stole my heart and shares the chicken yard with my motley flock.  Here she is eating an apple that has fallen from the tree.

In case you don't know, Manuka honey is a special honey from New Zealand that has potential antibacterial qualities.  I like to use it in my oatmeal.

In any case, sweet Manuka is a lovely hen, and  I am so glad she is part of my flock.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Joining the flock

Update:  A couple of hours after writing this post, I went out to check on them.  The silkie is gone.  I have no idea what happened.  No sign of her anywhere, no fence breach.  It must have been a hawk or an eagle.  I am really upset - I bought 3 silkie chicks because I really wanted silkies again - and now I have none.  The poor little gold one is really upset too and following me around now.  I feel horrible, I must have put them out too soon.  But they seemed ready.  Ugh.  Farm life can really hurt sometimes.

Remember those little chicks I couldn't resist buying in this post?

Well, as you may recall, sadly, two of them didn't survive, but the one black silkie and the production hen of unknown breed (brown layer) did survive.  Yesterday, I took them out to the coop to join the flock.  Integrating hens into an existing flock can be tricky.  The pecking order needs to be re-established, and the new ones are almost invariably at the bottom.  These two are likely to stay there for a while at least, until they  gain some size.

I put them into the coop in late afternoon, a couple of hours before roosting time.  This gave them a chance to spend some time alone in the coop before the flock returned.  It also meant that they would not be subject to a long day of hassles from the other birds.

They ended up on top of the nesting box (former desk) and I took a couple of flash pictures of them together.  They are bonded with each other and will likely remain close as they get older.
 In the nesting unit underneath them, there is a hen sitting on wooden eggs, and she's been sitting for at least 3 weeks now.  I wish she'd hurry up and get over her broody spell!  Unfortunately, others lay eggs in her nest box but she eats the other eggs.  Silly bird.
I still don't know exactly what breed of brown-laying production hen I have.  I thought she would be a little darker.  She's really very pretty - a sort of golden brown with light coloured tail feathers.  She may be a Golden Comet or Gold Sex-Linked hen. You can really see that she is quite a bit bigger than the silkie.  The silkie seemed to settle down to roost, but the layer hen was more active even after dark when I went in to take these pictures.  She will figure out the routine soon!

I hope they'll continue to be good friends and that they will integrate into the flock without too much difficulty.  They are a funny little pair but I enjoy adding the diversity to my flock.

Friday, June 7, 2013

More Moths!

I know, some of you are probably less than excited about moth pictures *again* on the blog, but hey, it's my blog, and I love these moths - both their fabulous diversity and fragile beauty.  It must be "moth season" because every time I leave the porch light on overnight, there are at least a few!

Marigold the goat commented on my last moth post about sphinx moths being the ones who produce those voracious tomato hornworms.  Fortunately, none of these that I've photographed are the specific variety of sphinx moth that produces the tomato hornworm.  That moth is the Five-spotted Hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata).  You can click on that link to see its picture.  So far...I haven't seen any of those, thank goodness!  The ones I've been seeing are primarily moths whose larvae feed on native plants on my land, including apple, poplar and birch trees, as well as marsh and river plants, which are in abundance here.

This newcomer is Paonias excaecata, whose common name is the Blinded Sphinx moth.  It is so named because of the spot on the hind wing, which you can see (because my finger was pushing the forewing aside).  As you can see, it looks like a blue eye, but without a pupil.  Thus, blinded sphinx.

You can compare it with the One-eyed Sphinx moth (Smerinthus cerisyi) which has a "pupil" in the blue spot, as shown below.  Sorry about the shadow in the picture - it's from my porch light and was unavoidable.

The third one in this group is the Twin-spotted Sphinx (Smerinthus jamaicensis), which has two blue spots separated by a dark stripe.  I managed to take a picture of one of these a couple of days ago, but when I tried to get the eye spot, it flew away, so you'll just have to trust me on the double spot story!  Or, you can see a picture of one here.  This is the one that I phographed - a really stunning moth.  (Sorry about the copyright but I submitted it to a moth photography site that required it and now I can't remove it)

Here is another lovely moth - the Northern Apple Sphinx moth (Sphinx poecila).  I loved the fact that it was on the old red painted wood around the door frame - really made it stand out.

A couple of smaller and more subtle moths were also present.  Here's one that goes by the delightful common name of the Agreeable Tiger Moth (Spilosoma congrua).  I have no idea why it's agreeable, and I'm not sure that I'd want to meet a disagreeable tiger moth.  This one really looks like it's wearing a furry hood, like a sort of winter fairy-robe.  I absolutely wanted to pet it on the head.

This is a Spotted Tussock moth, also known as a Yellow-spotted Tiger moth. Common names can vary a lot and that's why I prefer the proper Latin taxonomic names, which for this little guy is the lofty Lophocampa maculata.

I noticed this little guy in his brown furry hat!  He's a Ruby Tiger moth (Phragmatobia fuliginosa).  I couldn't get a picture of his body, but if you could see it, it would be a deep red colour.

Last but not least, here is the impressively large and beautiful Modest Sphinx moth (Pachysphinx modesta).  I'm not sure why it's modest but perhaps it doesn't show off around the other moths.  So furry!

So there you have it - my moth menagerie.  Back to work for me!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Moth Morning

There was some fairly heavy rain during the night, and this morning when I took Jet out for his walk, I noticed quite a few moths on the front wall of my house, presumably where they had sheltered during the rains.  I took some pictures and set about making identifications of these lovely visitors.  I thought I'd share the interesting variety in these Lepidopteran species that make their home in this area.

There were two of these beauties - Twin-spotted Sphinx Moth (Smerinthus jamaicensis).

As you'll see in these close-ups, the top one of the two was a little darker than the bottom one, but they are definitely the same species despite the variations in their wing details.

I love how the body of the moth is arched in a sort of S-shape as if it were designed to have a little rider on its back!

This is the Yellow Slant Line Moth (Tetracis crocallata).  It was sitting on my propane tank, taking a rest. A rather uninspired name choice for its common name, but it does make it easy to identify.
Here's an interesting moth that sort of looks like a curled up dead leaf.  It goes by the name of Sigmoid Prominent (Clostera albosigma), but if you like, call it the curled up dead leaf moth.  If you look closely, you'll see that there's another moth disguising itself against the wood in the picture below.  It's some kind of geometrid moth but I'm not sure what species.  There are over 1,200 geometrid species native to North America, and I don't have the time to positively ID this one!
Here's a close up of the Sigmoid Prominent.  You can really see the way it wraps its wings around itself to give it that curled leaf appearance.  I love those fuzzy antennae!

Just above this moth was another interesting species - the Modest Furcula moth (Furcula modesta).  It is also quite easy to spot because of its distinct black markings.

Finally, another moth vying for the prize of looking like a dead leaf.  This one is the American Lappet Moth (Phyllodesma americana).  It reminds me, a little bit, of a furry hedgehog with wings.
There were also quite a few June bugs on the same wall.  Probably they were the same ones that kept on slamming themselves into the windows last night.  I'm not sure why they don't all get concussions, based on the sound of those thumps every time they hit the window, but somehow they just keep on going!