On Cold

It’s slipper sock weather.

The floor is like ice this morning. Quickly throwing on a sweater, I try to forget that this week is scheduled to turn much colder, reminiscent of our first winter off grid. That was more than two years ago, when we began our adventure. And in this time, I have learned to love one particular thing about the cold – outdoor refrigeration.

Well, refrigeration may not be the right word. I can scarely believe it’s been over two years since I have had a working refrigerator. There is a real art to storing food for 8 people in a cooler, and I assure you it is an art I have not yet mastered. Running out of ice, waterlogged cheese, chicken juice leaking into the water…despite of my very best efforts, these are regular occurrences I have learned to accept. But in winter….

During the cruel heat of the Texas summers, the coolers are kept indoors. Not that is much (or any) less sweltering in the house, but at very least the roof keeps the intense sun from slow-cooking the cooler and its delicate contents. In winter, when the cold finally sets in, the cooler is abruptly set on a forced migration to the front porch. I can’t say for sure whether it appreciates being kicked out of the house, but I am so deeply grateful to reduce our ice runs from every single morning to once or twice a week. 

There is one caveat. If, say, you happen to be starving and it happens to be pouring down rain while it is bafflingly also below freezing outside, well, you have a choice to make. Would you rather be full, or warm and dry? When your stomach is the empty vessel in question, the decision is murky, filled with a careful weighing of pros and cons, along with several assessments of local weather radars. When the growling tummy belongs to your doe-eyed 4 year old, well, that’s a different story entirely. 


A Slower Season

Rain drops slide down the window. The comfortable gray light from an overcast sky fills the room with a sleepy glow. 

It’s winter, well, nearly, and the cold is finally arriving. I can’t complain. The fall has been unusually warm, affording us extra time to prepare for inclement weather. Not that we’re prepared. I don’t think you’re ever quite ready for winter when you live off grid. There is always more firewood to collect, animal shelters to mend, something to repair. But not today.

Rainy days in the country mean rest – forced rest for my husband who never lacks for a project to work on. Laundry can’t be hung to dry. Animals are idle, huddling together in their houses or under trees. Everything stands still for a day or two, except perhaps cooking, dishes, and keeping up with the mud brought in on rain boots. And tending the fire, which my husband and the boys see to diligently.

I suppose there’s always paperwork to catch up on, bills to pay, all the distractions of adult life, but today, may they be forgotten. Three giggly little girls are eager to snuggle under blankets and read princess stories, and, like the rain, these moments won’t last forever. 

The Rice Recipe to End All Rice Recipes

It’s really that good.

Okay, yes, I’m probably overselling it just a tad. But it is good. And I do think my husband would have it going directly into his veins…if, you know, that wouldn’t completely defeat the purpose of having great tasting food. The point is it’s a fast, easy, and rather delicious rice dish that pairs well with meats and vegetables of all sorts.

It started with a copycat recipe of a Texas Roadhouse side dish. If I had any idea where I got that recipe, I’d give them credit here. But as the recipe I have was printed nearly a decade ago on what is now a rather stained piece of paper with no web address, I’m at a loss. Wherever you are, nameless blogger, thank you.

Now, the original recipe…or first plagiarism, depending on how you look at it…calls for soy sauce. I’ve made this recipe a hundred times that way and it’s great. But this past time, I was out of soy sauce. I did however have Bragg’s Liquid Aminos.


If you have no idea what that is, it’s basically the health food version of soy sauce. It’s even made with soybeans. (It also happens to be gluten-free if you’re into that kind of thing.) I bought it because I found myself in a quasi-health food store looking for soy sauce, and there was not a bottle to be seen. I could have gone to another store, but having all five of the kids with me… Bragg’s Liquid Aminos will do just fine, thanks. And what a happy accident it was.

Now, I am not the type of person who will insist that you put bean puree in your cookies for health reasons and tell you that it tastes just as good, if not better. I believe such alterations in the name of ‘superfoods’ and whatever gobbledy-goop the health food fad followers are throwing around these days are culinary abominations. I have admittedly bought into those shenanigans before, but never again. I will eat my beans, and then I will eat my buttery, sugary cookies because bean cookies in fact does not taste better. They taste like someone put beans in my cookies.

Okay, end of rant. So I used Bragg’s Liquid Aminos instead of soy sauce and it took the recipe from great to marvelous. I guess Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (are you getting as tired of reading that name as I am of typing it?) is less salty than soy sauce, but still adds all the flavor. Salt is fantastic, but too much is still too much. Even my husband, who has been known to eat some food with his salt, agrees the substitution made a drastic improvement.

So, the recipe. Here we go. What should we call it? How about…

Twice Copycatted Seasoned Rice

2 cups white rice (You can use brown if you really, really want to, but you’ll have to adjust the stock and cooking time.)
1/2 cup butter
2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (or soy sauce, if you don’t have it and don’t want to track it down)
1 large white onion, diced
1 cup fresh chopped parsley
4 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 freshly ground pepper

Add the rice and butter to a medium pot. Cook over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until the rice starts to very lightly brown. Dump everything else into the pot. Increase heat to bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to low and allow to simmer until rice is cooked.

So easy. So flavorful. So good.

Birthday Brutality

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. This little girl was something of an odd duck. She was the type of girl who secretly enjoyed sick days simply because it alotted her hours to spend silently pouring over the dictionary. The incessant grumbles and groans from her rock tumbler occasionally drove her family to madness, resulting in its banishment to the garage. She enjoyed playing dolls with her little sister, but mainly because it allowed her to construct furniture and houses from an extensive number of carpet samples that had mysteriously been brought into their home. More often than not, she could be found hiding under a table playing paper dolls, or in the garden forcing the snapdragons to have lengthy conversations. She was odd, yes, but as she was also blissfully oblivious to the fact, it didn’t matter.

One year, on her birthday, she had a special request. Her heart was set on a pinata. Her very sweet mother agreed and allowed her to pick one out at the store. Perusing the selection, she soon settled on her favorite – a yellow and green non-specific dinosaur…or an anatomically incorrect alligator. The important part was that it had sharp (crepe paper) teeth and she was sure it was smiling at her.

Upon arriving home, her mother, trying to give her something to look forward to, casually mentioned that they would have to get some candy to put inside the pinata. The girl couldn’t imagine how this could possibly get better. First the perfect pinata and now they were going to get candy inside? But wait, how would they get the candy out? she inquired. Her mother looked confused and explained that of course it would be done by breaking the pinata. Aghast, the girl exclaimed that she didn’t want to break her pinata. When her mother asked her what exactly she did want to do with it, she simply replied with wide, desperate eyes, “Keep it.”

And keep it she did. For more than five years, that pseudo-dinosaur shaped pinata sat on her shelf. And, every now and then, she would pause momentarily to smile back at it.

Enough time passed that the girl outgrew the pinata and had decided to give it away (still unbroken) upon moving to a new house. In fact, so much time had passed that she was now a mother herself. She had her own little girl whose birthday was just days away. It had been so many years since she had given even the slightest thought to her almost-alligator friend. But when her oldest daughter gleefully asked for a pinata while shopping for party decorations, the memories flooded back.

“You really want a pinata for your birthday?” she asked her sweet, almost 5-year-old.
“Yes!” squealed the little mop of bouncing, golden locks.
“Now, you know pinatas get broken…” she cautioned her tender-hearted daughter, certain that her little girl would be equally as appalled by the thought as she once was.
“Yes!! We’ll smash it and get all of the candy!!”
“Oh.” She remained stunned for a moment, then smiled and replied, “Okay.”

Her daughter picked the classic colorful donkey pinata, and soon they were off to find the candy.


When, a few days later, it was finally time for the sacrifical beating of the poor four legged beast, she was still concerned that her pink, flowery little princess would have a change of heart. After checking several times with her birthday girl before giving the okay, she let the dainty two year old take the first swings. Tap, tap, tap.


Barely a crease in the paper. Phew, her daughter still looked happy about the ordeal.

“Okay, honey. Your turn!”

Her daughter took the stick and let out a low maniacal laugh. Thwack! Thwack, thwack!! She was surprised by the force from such tiny arms, but still no noteable damage.


Her older sons were now desperate for a turn. As they were boys and thus genetically accustomed to smashing things, she felt they may inflict unspeakable violence upon the pinata, potentially breaking her daughter’s heart to tiny pieces. So they were given a turn provided that they were blindfolded. Each of the boys, despite their disadvantage, got in a good hit. But the donkey made of cardboard and paper proved itself a force to be reckoned with.

As all of the eligible children had now been given a swing at the pinata, she was certain her daughter would now opt for a more humane removal of the donkey’s internal treats. After all, the poor thing’s only crime was containing sweet deliciousness. Instead, the situation took an astonishing turn. Her sweet, kitten-voiced daughter (who would admittedly hurt flies…many, many flies) assessed the current damage to the pinata, then methodically began beating it with directness and accuracy of a mob goon. Between the blows, she would hear, now in a lower, raspier voice, things like, “We’ve got to butcher this donkey,” or, “There’s still meat in there.”


At this point, she began to wonder if by  a “princess birthday party” her daughter had meant less Snow White and Cinderella and more Xena, Princess Warrior. Somehow, The Lord of the Flies was unfolding in her very living room. Her daughter continued the calculated butchering while the other three hooligans giggled uncontrollably and occasionally longed to be part of the massacre.

Caleb loves that she's dropping down to her knees here.

Even after the “meat” had been removed, her daughter gave the brutalized paper animal a few more carefully placed hits, just for good measure, then breathlessly authorized the tail removal, beheading and quartering of the carcass to be carried out by her elder brothers.

Umm...Maya, you got all the candy out. Maya? M-m-m-maya?!?

When the orders had been carried out, all four of the ruffians sat down to feast on their victory.

She was baffled. How could all of these crazed yahoos be her children? At five years old, she would have been an emotional wreck from witnessing such unnecessary human-on-pinata brutality. As she recounted the gory details of the event to her husband, a smirked spread across his face until he could no longer contain the delighted laughter within. Oh, that’s right. The kids take after their Daddy.

Grandiose Requests

Maya and Mary, my 5 and 3 year olds, do practically everything together. At any point throughout the day, they can be found hosting tea parties in princess dresses or dressing wounds on their baby dolls after terrible coyote attacks. (Coyotes have become the unspeakable evil to them.) But today, they had something else in mind. With their sweetest faces and their biggest puppy dog eyes, they came to me with a request – they wanted a bubble bath.

Immediately, it struck me how (sad, awkward, hilarious? I’m not sure which) it was that their big favor involved personal hygiene. Of course, they get wiped down daily with soap and water. But without a constant source of running water, their little heart yearned to be submerged in warm bubbles. My guess is that their mermaid tails were drying out. At any rate, it seemed like a valid request and who can say no to their sweet, little kitten voices? So I set out to grant it.

The first step involved my new favorite thigh workout. It’s called The Generator Haul. Every time I do it, I swear I hear a super spunky aerobics instructor in my head…

Alright, everybody! Let’s get started! I want everyone to find a large generator on wheels.


Got it! Great! Now, starting beside your house, where you last used it to indugently dry a load of clothes, grab that handle and drag it 200 feet to the well. Remember, intensity of workout can be changed by the amount if fuel in the tank. You can either pull the generator with your arms behind you, or walk backwards, depending on the muscles you’re targeting. Pull! Pull! Keep going! You’re almost there!

You did it! Next, hook up the well and pull that generator pull string! This will really work those shoulder muscles! Great job! Take a breather while you check in with the ducks, but keep those feet moving!

What's going on, guys?

Now, here you have two options. You can either fill up the well storage tank, shut the generator off, and haul the generator back to keep those thigh muscles burning.
OR, to work on your upper body, you can leave it running, and head back to the house to fill as many large tubs as you can find with water and carry them inside to warm up. Me, I’m going to go with the second option. Ready? One tub! Two tubs! Three tubs! Let’s fill those dish pans, too! Come on! You can do it!

More water! MORE! Mwahahahaha!!

Great job! Okay, a quick jog back to the well to turn everything off. Ready for that last 200 ft. haul back to the house?

I think it’s painfully clear that I have watched too many exercise DVDs in my life.

Honestly, I really am so deeply grateful for the generator, the access to fresh, clean water, and the extra exercise thoughout the day.

With all that done, the girls were a whole lot closer to their bubble bath dream. Except that the water was ice cold. Thus we got out a big pot and started boiling some of the water on the propane grill burner.

This burner saves the day on a regular basis. It makes it possible to wash dishes and make soup inside an hour. It also saves me from terrible brain freeze while washing my hair.

It took a while, but we made it. The girls finally had their wish. My little fish were in the water.

And as if their sweet giggles weren’t reward enough, the kids gleefully cleaned and put away the mountain of dishes that were piling up on me AND I was able to wash my hair.

Exercise, sweet-smelling children, a clean kitchen, and washed hair! I think this counts as a victory.


It’s hard to know what to say about this past week. I don’t think I’ve fully digested it all yet. Lots of gray areas and loose ends.

All three of our young ducks have disappeared, presumably becoming something’s dinner. Despite scouring the pond bank for clues, we are no closer to solving that mystery and eradicating the predator(s). All I can deduct is that the culprit is nocturnal, which basically only rules out chicken hawks.

The weather has been really cold, at least cold for us.

They get so excited about ice, which is hilarious to this Canadian.

While working in the sub-freezing temperatures isn’t particularly pleasant, the cold has certainly made food storage easier. I haven’t bought ice for the coolers in almost a week. The kids are thoroughly enjoying the fact that they are sleeping in a mountain of blankets and pillows in the living room near the propane heater.

The last piece needed to install our wood burning stove has finally, finally come in, all the way from Illinois. I am still baffled that stores here sell the wood stoves, but not the parts to install them. I can barely wait to have the stove going. Besides heating and cooking, it should help with the constant excess moisture in the house. Every time I put my head on a damp pillow, I’d swear I’m back in England.

We lost our first goat, who just happened to be my favorite goat, Honey. Of course, she was my favorite because she was unhealthy from birth, and thus she spent a lot of time in my care. Harder than losing her was watching her sister, Spots, very obviously mourning for her…in a goat sort of way.

Poor Spots...

I have seen all kinds of chicken death, but chickens really couldn’t care less if one of their own dies. They get over it in about a minute. So seeing an animal actually grieve over the loss of a family member has been both educational and gut-wrenching.

Speaking of chickens, the baby chicks are due to hatch around this weekend. One chick, for whatever reason, hatched days early and died not long after. It hadn’t even fully absorbed the yolk sack. Titus, distressed, asserted that, “…we are losing animals left and right!” It certainly does the feel that way.

But the gloom and hardships of winter will pass, and the refreshed beauty of spring is not far off. Already, we have extensive planting lists compiled. There are seed orders being made and soil amendments underway. Oh, and did I mention the temporary greenhouse under construction? No? Well, more on that soon…

Lichen (Not the Werewolf Variety)

It was raining and muddy today, and far too swampy to get any outside work done. It was, however, just right for a family walk on our property.


It took all of five minutes for me to become yet again completely captivated by the moss and lichen everywhere.


I have a particular fascination with lichen. Not only is it beautiful, it is unlike any other organism. In fact, it is not one organism. Though often confused with moss, lichen is not a moss or a plant at all. Lichenologist Trevor Goward insists that, “Lichen are fungi that have discovered agriculture.” A mutualistic symbiosis, the fungi live harmoniously with algae and/or cyanobacteria. As the fungi is unable to create its own food, it relies on a species capable of photosynthesis. The algae or cyanobacteria offer the fungi sustance in exchange for structured housing and protection from the sun, hungry herbivores, and dessication.


Highly opportunistic, lichen can grow in the harshest environments. All it really needs is an undisturbed location, time, and plenty of clean air. Being dramatically affected by air pollution, lichen can be used as an indicator for air quality – the more lichen you see, the cleaner the air is. Still, even in optimal conditions, lichen is extremely slow-growing, increasing only about 1 millimetre per year.


Contrary to popular belief, lichen is non-parasitical and does not in any way negatively affect its host location. It does not draw nutrients or water from trees, for example. In many ways, lichen actually contributes to its environment. It helps to renew the oxygen supply through photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria makes nitrogen bioavailable to surrounding plants by capturing and converting nitrogen from the air. Approximately 500 chemical compounds can be found in lichen that protect against UV light and herbicides, destroy microbes, and discourage competing plant life. Lichen also acts as a food source for a variety of deer, caribou, mountain goats, and even flying squirrels.


Humans occasionally utilize lichen as food in things like breads, soups, and jellies, but we’ve discovered a number of other uses for it as well. Throughout history, it has been used to make dyes and, in some parts of the world, was crushed into a topical antibacterial powder. Today, it is used in perfumes, deodorants, laxatives, and expectorants. Some believe lichen may in time be used to combat cancers or even HIV.


Oh, and did I mention it’s pretty?


On Broody Hens

I like chickens. Okay, well, sometimes they drive me crazy. Sometimes, like when they devour my orchid in a single hour, I dramatically vow to eradicate them from the face of the earth. But usually, I find them fascinating.

I’ve kept chickens off and on for a little more than a decade now. (A decade? Really? Am I that old?) And I’ve learned a few things about them over this time. I’m by no means a chicken expert, but I’m pretty comfortable keeping them these days.

Over the years, we’ve bought White Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Barred Rocks, Dominiques, Barnvelders, Welsummers, Ameracaunas, and both black and white Silkies. Today, I have all of the above, minus the white leghorns, plus a bunch of hybrids.

My favorite hybrid, Raven. She's part Silkie, part Barnvelder. Oddly enough, she's the best at flying in the group.

We keep them for eggs, except the Silkies whom we keep as live incubators. And boy, do they do a good job of it.

Recently, there were a couple days where, for various reasons, eggs weren’t collected. And wouldn’t you know, two of my Silkie hens saw this as an opportunity to go broody again.

Fluffy Mama and Marshmallow are at it again.

If you’ve never kept broody chickens before, there are a few things you need to know.

First of all, broody chickens are ever so slightly crazy. They make what I imagine an alien growling would sound like if you get too close. (My husband makes me watch too much sci-fi.) If they are not used to you getting near them, and sometimes even if they are, they will ruffle their feathers and peck ferociously at you if you push their boundaries. And, at random, they will do the same to other chickens in the coop, often seemingly unprovoked. Reminds me of myself during pregnancy…

Secondly, chickens can only successfully hatch a certain number of eggs at one time – about a dozen for larger breeds and 6-8 for bantams. However, this doesn’t stop other chickens from adding to their nests. Yesterday, for example, I found 21 eggs under one of my Silkies. That will never work and certainly not in the winter. Sitting hens are constantly turning their eggs and rotating them from directly underneath to the outer rim of their clutch for even warming of all the eggs. If the nest has too many eggs, the ones on the outer edge will get chilled and die. And since then hen will eventually rotate all of the eggs to the other edge, she will essentially be robbing herself of food and exercise for 21 days for absolutely nothing.

What can you do about this? Grab a pencil. Go feed the chickens as you normally would. Your broody hen should get up to eat. (They take 15-30 minute breaks, depending on the weather, for sustainance.) Determine the number of eggs she can hatch based on her breed and select that number of eggs and mark them with the pencil.

See those feathers in there? Broody hens pull out some of their breast feathers to allow more of their body warmth to escape to their eggs. It's called a brood patch, in case you were curious.

Remove the remaining eggs from the nest.

The extra eggs. Sorry, girls, but that was never going to work.

Now other chickens will probably keep laying under your sitting hens, so you will have to check for and remove new additions each day at feeding time. DON’T try to do this while your hen is on the nest. Not only will your hand pay the price, but if you disturb her too much, she may abandon the nest completely. This is especially true for non-bantams. The larger breeds have essentially had mothering bred out of them, so small disturbances can completely throw them off.

Be sure to mark on your calendar approximately which day your hen(s) started sitting, then mark 21 days later from your start date. This will be your estimated hatch date, though it could go a few days either way depending on the weather.

My hens started sitting about a week ago. The weather has been beautiful. However, whether the hens know it or not, we’re about to have some really cold weather. I have seen broody hens abandon their nest because they know that they cannot keep their eggs warm enough. Normally, I would keep my incubator on hand just in case. But as we aren’t using electricity right now, I plan on insulating their nesting boxes as much as possible with extra straw and hope for the best.

Winter hatching certainly has more risk involved, but who knows? Maybe will see some new baby chicks around here in a few weeks!