September 30, 2016

Live for Today, Prepare for Tomorow

I woke up this morning to a delicious cool breeze blowing in through the open bedroom window. It reminded me of mornings on the farm where we lived in Costa Rica. Those were golden days, a life out of time and space from our normal existence. It was during our year living on a farm in the rain forest, that our focus for the future and purpose for prepping changed. Before we left for Costa Rica my life focus had been trying on to survive a future cataclysm, always listening to what was "happening" and worrying about our what the future might bring...

Then late in 2008, my husband was diagnosed with a rare, life threatening brain disorder. Suddenly
A view of Volcan Arenal, the 10th most active volcano on Earth.
This is a view from our side of the lake.
all the world and its problems faded into the background as we came to grips with our new reality. My husband had brain surgery which remedied several of the problems he had, but one was in the frontal lobe and was inoperable. So once he had recovered from his surgery, we went about making plans to LIVE LIFE TODAY, since today might be all we had together. We reduced our possessions to what would fit in one room of our house, closed the door and rented the rest of the house to a friend who we knew would take enjoy and care for our gardens. We found good homes for all of our animals,(except for our pup Tagg who went with us), packed up a few belongings, and moved to Costa Rica to live on a farm with a view of Arenal Volcano. My husband and I have always loved traveling and living in different cultures, he speaks Spanish very well, so we decided that Costa Rica a great place to go to be together for as long as he was well enough to enjoy being there. 

We lived in a fairly remote area. We had internet, but it was sporadic. We had little news, only what we could cull from online sources when we had internet, and soon, day by day, our overall interest in what was going on in the world at large diminished. We had no "preps" with us, everything had been left behind in the USA. All we had was the skills that we had cultivated over the years and a farm full of exotic fruits, tropical birds and the rain forest. We got the opportunity to see what it would be like to live without much of what we previously considered necessary for daily life. We had no car at first, no computer, no TV, (we never did have a TV with programming in stateside life, but in CR if we were somewhere that had a TV, it was in Spanish),  we had no stove/oven, just a two burner counter top propane cook top, (similar to a Coleman camp stove without the cover). There was no water heater. There was little variety to choose from when shopping for groceries, I had to learn to make do with whatever there was available. Our well honed Stateside gardening skills were daily challenged by insects and soil issues we had never encountered before. We were basically starting over, learning how to make do and live a different life, one where we didn't always know the rules or know how to do what needed to be done.

This is the third time our son planted his tomatoes... both previous times, right before they
 bore ripe fruit the Cutter ants marched through and ate everything down to the ground.

            During the "Honeymoon Phase", it was all exciting and wonderful. An adventure.

Ripening mangos in the lane along the walk to the gardens. We also had manderines, avacado,
 oranges, star fruit, Mora (like black raspberries), water apples and many other wild
 tropical fruits I don't have English names for.

Bougainvillea and Trumpet vines growing wild 
Orchids that grew on the trees near the farmhouse.
But reality soon overtook the romance of it all, and we found ourselves working from daybreak to dusk just trying to stay ahead of the jungle.

Laundry done by hand hung under cover to keep the rain forest from
soaking the almost dry clothes
First Bean crop. The winds blew so strong it twisted the
 tops off of all the bean plants. 
Two planting later we finally managed to get a harvest by changing planting locations and building
 wind breaks to protect the plants from a constant 20-30 mph wind on the top of the mountain
We built a large, beautiful green house from rebar and covered it with plastic.The Tilawa winds hammered
 the rebar frame to the ground and the plastic was blown all the was to Sabalito
 at the bottom of our mountain. We had to learn to use low
 row covers and wind breaks to shelter our seedlings
But something wonderful was happening, I worried less, there was no sense of impending doom clouding the joys of everyday life. I had no time for podcasts full of bad news, extolling the virtues of acquiring silver and gold, stockpiling weapons and ammo, filling me with dread and fear. In its place I was having a real life experience, learning to survive in what easily could have resembled post apocalyptic life. Granted our experience was minus the fear of violence, looters, disease, etc, but what our experience lacked in those challenges it made up for in other. Vipers, jaguars and other wild creatures, insects that could bring on screaming nightmares, like scorpions the size of your hand getting into bed with you, Cutter ants that could carry off your entire mature garden in a matter of hours and ticks that were like heat seeking missiles and could find your soft flesh in seconds and cover you by the hundreds....

This scorpion one was 10 inches long tip to tail. It was hiding on the back of my cutting board and dropped between my feet when I pulled the cutting board off the shelf. It stung me on the toe when I went to stomp on it. Lesson learned, take your sandal off and smack it, don't step on it with your foot in the sandal!
Costa Rica was every day a dream and a nightmare. But we adapted, grew more saavy about how to contend with the challenges and soon we were living in harmony with our surroundings and learning to sway with what challenges a day in the rain forest could bring. Life was simple. Life was good. The world did not come to an end because we weren't keeping up with what was going on...

Bromiliads bloom on every tree

Howler monkeys serenade us while we work in the gardens
a Keel Billed Toucan. This male and his bride were nesting in a huge mango tree
 behind the cabina, (small cabin), out on the farm

While living in Costa Rica some of our fundamental attitudes about prepping changed. We no longer focused on how bad things might get, but focused on how we could make a good today. It became more about living and less about future survival. Now we are living back in the States, a transition that I am still struggling with... but I try to remember the lessons I learned in our year out of time. Live simply, work hard, make do with what you have, find creative solutions to challenges, have courage in the face of danger, but remember life is given as a gift from on high, and it was meant to be enjoyed.

A lovely view from one of the fence lines on the farm
We are of course still practicing our skills and constantly learning new ones, we are maintaining our food supplies, and staying debt free. We grow as much of our own food as possible, make our own medicines and do as much as we possibly can to be self-reliant and self-sustaining. But our focus is on being responsible for our lives and as self reliant as possible. So that whatever may come, in as much as circumstances will allow, we are able to face it on our own terms.We also spend a lot of time educating and encouraging others to be self-sustaining and self-reliant, sharing our knowledge and experience, in the hopes that others will discover what we did... that life shouldn't be driven by fear and worry, but should be lived in a simple and sustainable way, that gives quality of life day to day and provides the skills, knowledge and resources that may be necessary to live in this uncertain world. 

September 27, 2016

Making the Most of Your Food's Nutrition

When considering what foods to store in an emergency food supply, it is important to consider what
nutrition the storage foods have to bring to the table. While prepared, freeze dried convenience meals have their place in a long term food storage plan, it would be difficult to live on a diet of it for very long. They are often high in salt, sugar, starch and calories, but lacking in the kind of nutrition that is necessary to maintain long term health. So while prepared freeze dried foods may play a role in an emergency diet, they shouldn't be the only show in town.

There are many single ingredient foods that can be stored to be can be used in combination to make healthy, nutrient dense meals to feed a family. These foods alone offer much in the way of nutrition, but there are things that can be done to multiple the nutrient count with very little extra work. Since I employ these techniques on a daily basis, I thought I would share some of my nutrient boosting tricks with you. So over the next few weeks I will periodically highlight a food, and let you in on some great ways to make the food work harder for you.

I will start with something simple to illustrate just how little effort it actually takes to boost the nutritive value of your food. In my emergency storage supplies I have stored in mylar with an oxygen absorber, raw seeds and nuts, I keep the nuts stored in the freezer to further aid in keeping them fresh. For the most part the nuts and seeds are not stored in the shell. Storing them in the shell would give a longer shelf life, but adds substantially to the amount of work it takes to get a meal on the table, so I purchase raw, unsalted, unroasted nuts and seeds for storage. I also plan on using the stored seeds and nuts in rotation into our diet, since they have a shelf life of 2-3 years under the storage conditions I have described. 

Raw shell off sunflower seeds are one of my favorite choices for food storage and play a large role in our regular diet. Raw sunflower seeds keep very well, which is one of my reasons for favoring them, but they have many other virtues. These seeds are a good source of protein. They’re also rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fats such as linoleic acid and oleic acid. They are a good source of Vitamin B complex, folate (a must have for the body to reproduce healthy cells), and vitamin E, (a good source of omega 3, for lowering cholesterol, promoting heart health, preventing Alzheimers and more), as well as the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium and selenium. 

To be sure you are getting the most nutrition out of your sunflower seeds you should sprout them. Sprouting makes the nutrients in the seed easier to digest and assimilate. The enzymes, vitamin and mineral content in sprouted seeds is increased from 300-1200 times, depending on the nutrient, since the role of the seed is to feed the seedling until it can develop enough roots to take up nutrients on its own. A sprouted seed has 8 time the available carotene of a unsprouted seed.The sprouting process also produces vitamin C, which is a hard vitamin to supply in a crisis situation. 

Sunflower seeds are very easy to sprout and unlike many sprouting seeds, take very little rinsing and only a 12 hour soaking/sprouting cycle to be table ready. To sprout the raw sunflower seeds, place in a large jar with a lid that will breathe and drain. I use a 1/2 gallon Mason Jar, but depending on your family size and usage, you may want to use a wide mouth quart jar. Pour the desired quantity of seeds into the jar to fill no more than 1/4 of the jar, ( I use 2 cups of raw seed).

 Place the lid on the jar and rinse the seeds under running water until they run clear. Drain the rinse water off and pour in water to fill the jar to 3/4 full.

 Place in a quiet place on your kitchen counter and and set a timer for 4 hours. When the timer goes off, drain the water off and rinse the seeds 3 times. 

Then drain the seeds thoroughly and invert into a bowl with the jar propped at an angle that allows drainage, or do what I do and use a dish drainer, ( I found this one at Bed, Bath and Beyond and use it exclusively for sprouting). Set the timer for 8 hours. 

In 8 hours there will be tiny tails protruding from the seeds. 

 At this stage the seeds are at their optimal nutrient production, so do one final rinse, invert and let drain a little while, then put the sprouts in a storage container and refrigerate. The sprouts will last a week or so in the fridge, so make enough that you can use them several times in a week.

Your sunflower sprouts can be tossed in salads, ground into nut butter, eaten out of hand... but they are also quite good used as a protein source in meal preparations. I make a raw sunflower hummus spread that we use on sandwiches, in wraps, to stuff peppers, and eat as a dip with veggies. It can be seasoned in many ways, but should be used raw for the greatest nutritive and health benefit. If used in cooking you will kill the vitamin C and the enzymes essential for proper digestion, but will retain some of the other vitamins and minerals.

So why not give yourself a nutritional boost and try sprouting some raw sunflower seeds? It is tasty, good for you and a great project for kids!

*I purchase my organic raw sunflower seeds in bulk through my co-op, but they can be found at places like Whole  Foods and Earth Fare,
online at Amazon.

September 23, 2016

Fall Foraging: Edible Sumac

 It looked like rain when I got up this morning, so I hopped in the car and went in search of edible sumac to forage before the rain. It is a little late in the season for sumac here in the Piedmont of North Carolina, but I was still able to find lots of viable berry clusters. There are 250 varieties of edible sumac around the world, but the species most prevalent here in the Piedmont of North Carolina are the Winged sumac, Rhus copallinum, (also known as Shiny sumac and Dwarf  sumac), Smooth sumac, Rhus glabra, and Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina. Most of the sumac that I find where I live is the Winged sumac. It is often found at the sunny edges of the woods, roadsides and edges of old cultivated fields.

The Winged Sumac has multiple leaves on one stem and the stem between leaves is covered with wing-like leaf material.

The berry cluster, which is called a Drupe, is born on the tips of the branches, above the foliage.

The stems that branch off from the woody stem are covered in fuzz much like the velvet on deer antlers.

I am mostly interested in foraging sumac for use medicinally, but I also enjoy using it for culinary purposes. The berry clusters can be used to make a very pretty ruby colored Sumac-ade, since it has a nice citrus-like tang. It is because of this tang that I ran out the door to catch what I could of the sumac before the rain washed off the malic acid. The malic acid gives sumac-ade its signature tang. One of my favorite culinary uses for sumac is Zaatar, a Middle Eastern seasoning used on breads, in hummus and on vegetables. It is made from Smooth sumac, (Rhus glabra), a variety that is indigenous to the Mediterranean, but is grown here in the USA as an ornamental. Zaatar also contains thyme and sesame seeds. The sumac and the thyme are ground together into a fine powder and then the sesame seeds are added whole. My favorite way to use Zaatar is to brush pita bread with garlic infused olive oil and sprinkle a thick layer of Zaatar on top of the oil, I then broil the bread until the Zaatar begins to toast. It is delicious served with hummus and oil cured calamata olives!

Sumac has a long history of use as a medicinal herb. All parts of the plant have medicinal properties. The berries contain Mallic acid, tannic acid and gallic acid. The berries are infused in cold water to use as a gargle for a sore throat or as a swish for mouth sores, (heating the berries brings out an unpleasant bitterness, so it is best to infuse in cold water). The berries have powerful antioxidant properties, can be used to alleviate asthmatic symptoms, lowers blood cholesterol levels, and helps to lower blood glucose levels in patients with Type 2 diabetes. It helps to relieve constipation and has even been used to help with bed wetting. The bark and leaves are also used medicinally. The powdered bark of sumac can be made into an antiseptic salve. An infusion of leave can be used to treat asthma, diarrhea and stomach disorders. A poultice of sumac leaves can be used to treat skin irritations and rashes. In some cases of poisoning, treatment requires induced vomiting, the bark of sumac can be infused into a tea to bring on vomiting.

Sumac is a member of the cashew family, which also includes mangoes and pistachios. If you have allergies to mangoes or cashews do not ingest sumac. There is a plant called poison sumac, that is not a member of the sumac family, but is really a relative of poison ivy. Poison sumac, Toxicondendron vernix, is a skin irritant, leaf, berry or bark, as well as being toxic to ingest. The urushoil in this plant is extremely irritating to the skin, (like poison ivy on steroids...), causing wounds that look like burns with large blisters. But not to worry, it is easy to tell edible sumac from poison "sumac". Edible sumac has red berries presented above the leaves on the tips of the branches, the leaves are on green stems with fuzz, and in some species have serrated edges. Poison sumac has red leaf stems that connect to a green/gray branch, (much like its cousin poison ivy), with sparse white berries that are borne in loose clusters under the leaves. It gets its name because the compound leaflets look similar to true sumac, but the similarities stop there. It is a bog plant and in most circumstances it would not be encountered unless you are wading in swampy water, (which if you are a hard core forager, may actually happen...). It is most prevalent in the deep south and the northern rim of the eastern USA. It is pretty much non-existent in the Piedmont of North Carolina where we live. But in general, I am always cautious to keep my eyes open and watch where I am putting my hands and feet when foraging. I am not only on the look out for toxic plants like poison ivy, (or poison sumac),  but for animal and insect activity that can expose me to danger. It would be unfortunate to disturb a well hidden yellow jackets nest or a viper....

When harvesting in the wild, I am very careful not to disturb the plant environment, (I tread softly and look where I am placing my feet), so I don't disturb the natural microcosm where the plants grow. I also only take a small amount of what is growing in a location. I only harvest from wild plants when the plant population will not be affected by what I take. I never take all of what I find, but make sure that I leave plenty of plants to grow and spread for the next year. I also only harvest what I know that I will use. In the case of the sumac, I found several healthy stands growing in various locations in the countryside around our home. I cut only one or two seed heads from each plant, leaving the most mature seed heads to propagate next year's new plants. I found several spots where just one plant had grown up amongst the other hedgerow plants, like sweet gum saplings, pokeweed and honeysuckle,(the seed for this plant was probably fertilized and dropped by an obliging bird and in the future, if left to reproduce undisturbed, would grow into a healthy stand that could tolerate some harvesting). In cases where there was only one plant, I took nothing and went on in search of larger stands. In order to gather enough for my purposes, I visited eight locations and harvested from five mature stands of sumac. It was a lovely quiet time and refreshed my spirit as I reflected on the role of all life in maintaining the balance of nature.

Once I got home with my harvest, I sorted through and cut off the usable seed heads and separated the good leaves from the bug eaten or damaged ones.

I cut the seed heads in to small sections to insure good air circulation during the drying process.

I placed the seed heads in the new air dehydrator I bought at Prepper Camp and will put the leaves in my Excaliber dehydrator. Having both an air dehydrator and an electric one ensures I can still dry foods, even in a grid down situation.. But for regular use it is just nice to be able to choose which goes where. The Excaliber is a great tool and it runs almost nonstop at my house, but it tends to blow fine herbs and seed heads around too much, and I end up losing some of my harvest, so it is nice to have one that just allows me to air dry the more delicate things I harvest. It was raining outside today so I hung the dryer up in the sitting room to start the seed heads drying. As soon as the weather clears I will hang the dryer out on the front porch in the breeze. It will just take a day or so for the seed heads to dry if there is a breeze.

Once the seed heads and leaves are dried, I will begin the next step in the process, which will be either to store these herbs in mylar with an O2 absorber, or to use them in making herbal medicines. I will grind some of the berries for culinary use, but most of them will be kept whole since they store longer that way. I will tincture a portion of the leaves and the rest will be stored whole as well.

Well I hope that this inspires you to identify your local variety of sumac and try your hand at foraging. It is well worth the effort! Let me know about your foraging adventures or just leave me a comment for the fun of it :) I love hearing from you!

September 13, 2016

A Week in Our Life at Heart's Ease Cottage, Part Two

This post is a continuation of my "Week in the Life" series. Monday and Tuesday revolved around apples... Wednesday was not spent at home, we were at the hospital, but part of Thurday was pumpkin related. Wednesday was a difficult day for us, Da had to have a risky and invasive exploration done on his brain, part of a seven year saga of medical intervention to keep him alive, due to a rare brain disorder that he lives with. The outcome was unexpectedly good! Rather than telling us how bad things were and scheduling the next intervention, the Dr. told us that things looked so good that he was releasing Da from the program. No more need for exploratories and interventions! We are experiencing a true miracle from God and we are so very grateful! Someday soon I will tell the story of the journey God has had us on. It was full of miracles and opportunities to decide what was important in life... At first blush that may seem a bit off topic, but in truth, much of our prepping since 2008 has been to prepare for the possibility that Da wouldn't be here to be the head of our family. We had to simplify things so that I could manage our homestead and all that must be done around Heart's Ease Cottage on my own, should the sad day came that I needed to. It is worth a post for that reason, but mostly, God has done great things for us and the story needs to be told to give Him glory!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
 Since Da has to be very quiet for the next few days, I worked on tasks that only require one set of hands. One of my Thursday prepping tasks was to process 2 pumpkins that have not cured properly and won't store well for the winter.  For storing as whole pumpkins, I allow the pumpkins to ripen completely on the vine. Once the vine dies back and the stems are brown, I pull them out of the garden. I set them in a sheltered place out of the sun, up off the ground to deter sow bugs and moisture from damaging the skins. I then let them cure for a week or two. Once the skins have hardened up, I can put them in the 3 month storage pantry where they will last the winter. I actually still have a pumpkin from last year's harvest that is still in very good shape. But I had two pumpkins whose stems got soft so I had to do something to save them from going bad.

I split the pumpkins in half, scooped out the seeds, (setting them aside to process for seed next year), and set both halves cut side down on a baking sheet, in an 1/2" of water and baked at 350 for 45 minutes.

When the pumpkin was tender all the way through, I pulled them out and set them in a bowls to cool.

Once the cooked pumpkin was cooled, I scraped the pumpkin pulp from the skins completely, then put the pulp in a bowl and covered it with plastic. I let the bowl sit in the fridge for a few hours to chill, so that the unwanted liquid would drain to the bottom of the bowl.

 Once chilled I poured off the excess liquid I blended the pulp in batches and spread the blended pulp onto the silicon sheets I have for my Excaliber dehydrator. It is important to spread the pulp out evenly so that the pulp dries uniformly.

The pumpkin leather is dry when it is translucent, with no opaque spots and can be peeled away from the silicon sheet with not resistance.

After the leathers are removed from the silicone sheets, I stack them with parchment paper between them, pull them up together so that they are in an even stack, (these are spred out so you can see all of them).

 I begin to roll them up starting with one corner and rolling diagonally across the leaather to the other side. Then I tucked the excess parchment under and wrap the roll tightly with plastic wrap, tape the ends and label with contents and date.

The leathers can be mixed with seasonings, such as pumpkin pie spiced leathers for a low calorie, but delicious dessert treat on a camp out, or chipotle and garlic spiced leathers used as a wrap instead of a tortilla, to wrap up your favorite burrito ingredients. One note of caution, the leather is dehydrated, so make sure if you are using them to replace a tortilla wrapper, that you assemble and eat immediately, or the filling will begin to rehydrate the wrapper and you will be eating it with a fork! Preserved in this fashion and stored in a cool dark place, the leathers will last at least a year. I have had some leathers last for much longer.  I will try to add a recipe for a pumpkin pie leather to this post in a day or two, but if you want the recipe for Pumpkin Chipotle leather wrapped Fajitas, you will just have to wait until my cookbook comes out! <<Grin>>

Well, until next time, remember that preping isn't just something you "do" and then you are done... Prepping is a way of life. See you soon! Elle

September 12, 2016

A Week in Our Life at Heart's Ease Cottage, Part One

My intention in writing this post was to give a kind of "Week in the Life" glimpse of what goes on here at Heart's Ease Cottage during a normal week. But as I was writing I realized it was going to be too long, so I have broken it up into a few posts and I will post them individually.

We are long time preppers, so much of our focus has shifted from what we need to be prepared, to what we need to do in order to be self-sufficient. For us, being prepared is a lifestyle. Much of our "prepping" life revolves around the seasons. We have a year round garden, so in every season there is something being harvested and preserved, or just eaten outright. Right now the summer garden is winding down. We still have tomatoes, and some chard, kale, artichokes, pumpkins and lots of herbs, but everything else has kind of petered out. I will begin to clear the summer beds and lay down a layer of compost this coming week. I will put in the fall garden once we are back from Prepper Camp next weekend. It is a little later than I normally like to get things in, but I was late getting the summer garden in so that puts me behind for fall too. No worries though, we still have lots of time. I usually have an early fall garden and then a late fall garden, so I will blend to two and be caught up when it is time to put in the early winter garden.

This is apple time of year, so Monday we drove up to Hendersonville and picked up 5 bushels of apples. The Honey Crisp apples are in season right now and they are one of our favorite apples to eat fresh, so we got 2 bushels for us to eat, plus a bushel to give away to friends and family and one for someone who needed them but couldn't go themselves. We also bought a bushel of Golden Supreme "seconds", (small, mishapen or slightly bruised apples sold cheap), to make dehydrated apple rings. The Golden Supreme apples make the best dried apples as far as I am concerned. They are sweet with a little tang and hold very well as dried fruit. Then with 5 bushels of apples piled in the car we made our way back down the mountain for home. With all those apples in the trunk and back seat it was a fragrant ride home!
Ah! The aromas of fall...

Tuesday we washed dried and refrigerated as many apples as our two fridges would hold, (about a bushel), and then stored the bulk of the apples in our climate controlled 3 month pantry. Sometime this week I will individually wrap them in newspaper to slow the ripening process and turn the temp in the pantry down a little. They will hold until mid October, if they last that long... we eat a lot of apples. In late September we will make another trip to Hendersonville to pick up our fall and winter supply of Pink Lady apples, they hold better than Honey Crisp, and the weather will be cooler so they will last us fresh through January.

We started to process the Golden Supreme seconds that we got for drying. We have an Excaliber 9 tray dehydrator, it is in constant use year round. It was a little expensive but worth every penny to us!

So Da ran the apple gizmo, pared, cored and peeled the apples it would take to fill the dehydrator, (25 average sized apples).

Here is a look at what the apple gizmo does, it peels off the skin, cores and slices all at once. Beats the bageezes out of peeling coring and slicing by hand!

Then I soaked them in a citric acid solution, (1 Tblsp. citric acid to 1 gallon tap water), for a minute.

I cut through one side of the apple, which seperates the whole apple into rings, and placed them on the dryer trays.

When the dehydrator was full, I set the temp. for 115 degrees, (at this setting the temps. are low enough to maintain all the enzymes and the food is still considered raw), and set the timer for 12 hours.

The next morning I had a nicely dried, sweet and chewy apples rings to seal up with our food saver and store for later. We use most of these for eating as snacks, for backpacking and to fill in after the fresh apples are gone in late January. These dried apples when stored in a dry, dark, cool place, will last several years. They may darken some with age but it doesn't affect the nutritive value or the taste.

Tomorrow, is day two of a week in our life at Heart's Ease Cottage. I will post about making pumpkin leather in the dehydrator. Please feel free to stop by for a visit!

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