Processing prickly pears

Prickly pear season is here, and my husband got a big bunch very cheaply, from someone who picked them off the hedge on his property. When he came home with the loot, I foolishly forgot that the prickly pear is – well, prickly – and carelessly grabbed one. I had a quick, painful reminder of the fact that the prickly pear, actually the fruit of the opuntia cactus, is full of tiny fiberglass-like spines called glochids, which very easily get embedded in the skin and are very difficult to dislodge. Soaking my hand in warm water helped get most of them out, though, and I carefully proceeded to look for a pain-free way of utilizing this unusual fruit.

Rule number one: don’t touch the skin of the prickly pear with your bare hands. Wear thick gloves or, as I did, use tongs. 

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While holding the prickly pear down with tongs, use a knife to cut off the edges (“top” and “bottom”) of the fruit. Then cut several slits, length-wise, in the skin and pry it off with the tip of the knife. It’s a little tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Briefly wash your peeled prickly pear under a running tap, to make sure any glochids that might have stuck to the fruit are washed away. You don’t want them in your tongue!

At this point you can eat the prickly pears fresh, or juice them. To make juice, I first mashed the fruit with a potato masher, then strained the whole mess. The juice is great as part of cold beverages, and can also be made into syrup or jelly. The remaining seeds, mash and peels make a great treat for chickens (or, if you don’t have chickens, they can be composted).

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Mashing the prickly pears

I do have to say, though, that the whole process is somewhat labor-intensive: a whole lot of fruit gives comparatively little juice. Since the season of the prickly pear is short, it’s alright as a once-a-year project, but I wouldn’t do it on a regular basis.

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Above: prickly pear juice, for a refreshing cold drink or for making syrup or jelly. I love its bright orange color. 

I miss dairy goats

We used to keep dairy goats, and the milk, cheese and yogurt were really fabulous. Unfortunately, we were forced to give up on goat-keeping because of a combination of several factors: our goats repeatedly escaped and caused damage, and we knew we must either invest in a sturdier barn and extensive fencing or let them go. Since we were on the point of moving and everything was so uncertain, we chose the latter option. However, I do miss these cute, fun and useful animals and wish and hope we can have some goats again someday.

Also, we do love dairy products of all kinds, and milk, cheese and butter form a large slice of our grocery store bill every week. I sure would love to eliminate this expense – not to mention gain healthier, more wholesome, better tasting dairy products.

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Above: a goat kid born to one of our does two summers ago. His mother was a wonderful milker, prolific and patient

Because dairy animals of any kind are a major commitment, however, I don’t want to rush things. I know I want to go back to keeping dairy goats, and I know my husband does too, and I have a feeling that G-d is leading us in the right direction and it will happen eventually, at its proper time. And with the proper considerations, too:

  1. Housing. A goat barn needs to be sturdier than a chicken coop, with the possibility to lock the goats in if needed, and provide adequate shelter. There’s no way I’m ever getting into goat-keeping again without a very solidly made barn and goat run!
  1. Fencing. Goats are notorious for leaping over fences. If there’s even a slight possibility of doing so, they will find their way into your neighbors’ flower beds and get you in a very unpleasant situation (ask me how I know). Be a responsible neighbor and keep your animals securely fenced.
  1. Pasture. How much you can rely on pasture to feed your dairy animals will depend on the extent of your acreage and your climate. In Israel, the lean season is the summer, when everything is parched and dry. In colder climates winter is the hardest season. When you don’t have adequate pasture, you will need to buy hay and that can get expensive. You can also supplement the diet of your goats by giving them fruit and vegetable peels and weeds from your garden.
  1. Commitment. Once you have a dairy animal, it needs to be milked daily. If you need to be away for a day or two, you must make arrangements with someone to come and do the milking for you (though we could work around that by letting the goat kids have all the milk while we were gone). Also, if you have a high yield of milk, you will need to dispose of it by making cheese, yogurt, etc, on a daily basis, and this may be inconvenient at times. If you have several goats who produce a lot of milk and you skip a day of cheese-making, you may find your refrigerator overflowing with milk.
  1. Breeding. Unlike chickens, goats need to be bred to be productive; that is, a goat will not produce milk until after she’s kidded. You will need to breed at least once a year, and if you’re very small-scale, like us, keeping a buck may be inconvenient, in which case you will need to make arrangements to take your does to be bred, or borrow/rent a buck on a temporary basis. We have done it in the past, and we were lucky enough to have a friend within a short distance who had a good breeding buck and was willing to host our does for their “honeymoon” and then bring them back, but not everyone is so fortunate.

So are we getting back into goat-keeping anytime soon? Honestly, I don’t know. It will depend on our budget, time, how much longer we stay at this house, and more factors all of which are very uncertain. But I do have a feeling my milking and cheese-making days aren’t over, and that one day, two or three dairy does will make a valuable addition to our little homestead and take us one step further down the road to self-sustainability.

Foraging for edible goods

There’s an ongoing debate about whether growing your own food in your backyard is really profitable (in terms of money – there’s no doubt it’s healthy, educational and satisfying). If you are aiming for a productive vegetable garden that will reduce your grocery bill, it is important to stay focused on the goal, as with the prices of seeds/plants, potting soil and water, the scale really may tip.

Fortunately, no such considerations exist when it comes to foraging for wild-growing bounty – whether actually wild plants or domesticated species that grow in your area with little to no help from anyone. There’s no excuse not to pick up good food that is right there for the taking!

Every fall, our family gathers olives to pickle, from trees that had been once planted by someone but are now untended. There’s also a bounty of grapes, pomegranates, figs and carobs – all plants that grow well locally, require minimal water and care, and keep producing almost without effort once they are up and going. There are also old, productive pecan trees most people don’t bother with, because they like their pecans shelled and neatly packaged.

Figs are my favorites – they are easy to pick and process, delicious eaten fresh or made into jam or pie filling, and I love them dried, too, though I have not yet been able to gather enough for drying.

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Photo: the first figs of the season are ripe, and there are plenty more to come!

Furthermore, in many urban neighborhoods there are citrus trees planted for decorative purposes, which are actually insanely productive. Most people don’t bother picking those oranges and grapefruits because they somehow think the effort is beneath them or just not worth it. A year and a half ago, we spent a memorable morning picking miniature oranges. Though January, it was a warm day, and I was fagged soon – no wonder, as my son Israel was born a little more than 24 hours later! The oranges kept in the refrigerator for several weeks without spoiling, and they were still in perfectly good condition when I finally recovered from giving birth and found the time to make jam out of them.

Another local fruit to be picked around here for free is the prickly pear, an introduced species that has done so well in Israel it has become one of the symbols of the country. It grows practically everywhere, and its season is almost here now. Those who live in Western US and Mexico are surely familiar with it as well.

In every area of the world there is some wild food growing free for the taking, to be enjoyed by all who can appreciate the thrill of getting delicious goodies with very little effort: greens, fruit, nuts, berries, mushrooms. So why not pick up a basket and go exploring? Lots of fresh produce is waiting out there, all for free.

By the way… I am now on Earthineer. You can find me there as SmallFlocksMom. I’d love to connect with you! 

The secrets of soap

I had wanted to make soap for a long time, but was stopped by the mysterious ingredient called “lye”. I had no idea what it was or where to obtain it… until by pure chance, I discovered that lye is actually the caustic soda we always keep on hand to take care of severely clogged pipes.

We also had a bottle of olive+unspecified vegetable oil we once bought to light Hanukkah candles and discarded because it smoked. So it just sat for years on our pantry shelf, not fit for human consumption, lighting, or much of anything really. It was the perfect candidate for my soap-making attempt.

I started reading about soap-making and realized it’s a whole science/art, with all sorts of oil combinations with different properties, essential oils, etc. I decided to just do something basic for starters. I followed a very simple recipe, omitting the essential oil and using, instead of the different oils, the one I had on hand.

I’m far from figuring out all the intricacies of soap-making just yet. I didn’t use a scale. My measurements might not have been 100% accurate. My batch of soap never showed a proper “trace” and took forever to set. There was probably too much liquid. Nevertheless, the oil did turn into soap and I was thrilled, because I made something useful out of something useless.

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Above: soap cut into bars and set out to cure

These soap bars might not look very shapely, but I’m making good use of them for laundry. I cut off a piece of appropriate size and simply place it in a little mesh bag, which I then toss in with the load of clothes. It really works! It doesn’t have the potency of a commercial laundry detergent, but it’s fine for clothes that are slightly sweaty/dirty.

I intend to go on and learn more about making soap, and will keep you posted as I progress.

Chicks, seedlings and useful reading

Here is one of our newest chicks, hatched this week. Our current resident rooster is a Black Brahma, so we get a lot of black chicks with cute-looking feathered legs. Unfortunately, we don’t have a Black Brahma hen (I’d love to get one, so we can have pure-bred chicks), but in the meantime I’m hoping to get good birds from crossing the Black Brahma with our best hen, a mixed New Hampshire (I think). She’s a nice big brown hen and gives us plenty of big brown eggs. So hopefully I can get some pullets who will be beautiful, good-sized, and good layers.

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Black Brahma cross chick held by Shira (7 years old)

seedlings

Above you can see a mixed tray of cherry tomato, pepper and melon seedlings. I realize it’s rather late in the season to have seedlings indoors, but I’m counting on the long, warm days we usually have well into October and even November. Either way, I have nothing to lose, right? The tomatoes, peppers and herbs we already have planted outside seem to be doing nicely. We’ll see how they fare and whether we get any produce by the end of the season. I can hardly wait.

In my spare time (ha ha) I’m catching up on a bit of useful reading. My current read is The Backyard Homestead, and I must say I’m greatly enjoying it. It has everything outlined in such a clear, straightforward way – gardening, raising small livestock, useful landscaping – and it really showed me that, rather than wish we had more land (which of course would be nice), we should instead work towards making the best of what we do have – and I know that, being creative, we can do much, much more.

Modern technology and sustainability

“I don’t think the past was that simple, especially after researching the pre-industrial era. Rural life may seem idyllic to us, but the reality was often harsh and cruel. Children died from disease and ill hygiene. People worked and got by with so little, sometimes going for days without food to eat. 

Self-sufficient they may have been, but their life was pure drudgery, toiling from dawn to dusk without education or recreation. I don’t think the farmhands who ploughed and sickled by hand, enduring blisters,and the women who spent hours lighting fires and scrubbing clothes by hand really appreciated the simplicity of their way of life, haha. People died earlier too!”

Far be it from me to deplore modern technology. On the contrary, I am very thankful for all we have at our disposal today, modern medicine not the least of it. There’s no way I’d willingly give up my washing machine, which helps us do our laundry with so little effort; my nifty little grinder, which allows me to prepare freshly ground oatmeal with such ease and efficiency; the ability to control our room temperature with one press of a button; the Internet, which allows me to obtain a wealth of information and connect with like-minded people from all over the world; my cell phone, the ability to travel with relative ease, our refrigerator or any of the countless things we take for granted these days.

Being free of the drudgery of drawing water from a well or scrubbing clothes by hand frees me up to spend more time with my children, relax, and work on meaningful projects.

When it comes to people who desire simple living and the connection with earth and nature, I believe technology is actually what makes modern one-family homesteads possible. Things like solar panels, milking machines, incubators and modern agricultural techniques, for example, enable people to go off the grid and start their own small-scale farms.

Furthermore, even when building small-scale, off-grind cabins, people normally use electricity-powered tools such as saws, drills, etc.

In our neighborhood, we have a farm which is run by a very industrious family. They make delicious cheeses, yogurt, and a variety of other products. They use milking machines, a computerized irrigation system and, of course, extensive refrigerators for all their fresh produce. They work hard, that’s for sure, but if they didn’t have modern technology there’s absolutely no way they would have been able to accomplish all that work on their own, without employing a few workers (which I know they cannot afford). If you read historical novels set on farms, it will strike you how many people it took to do all the work manually, in order to accomplish anything on a serious scale. Most of these people were unpaid or very poorly paid and uneducated. These days, nobody would want to live like that, and that’s perfectly understandable.

It’s all great while technology is used as an aid at home; but when the coin flips, and technology controls you – when people are addicted to always having the latest gadget, to over-processed foods, to internet shopping, to online social networks; when people begin to spend a larger and larger portion of their life in front of the screen, that’s where I believe we do have a problem. It does take a particular balance to eat the apple, so to speak, and spit out the seeds. And this is precisely what I’m aiming for when I talk about simplifying.

Doing the Thrifty Thing

The ability to make a small income go a long way can be a make it or break it factor for a simple life at home. It can be the one thing that allows you to stay home with your children, helps your family get out of debt,  or enables you and your husband to pursue your dream of starting a self-sufficient homestead or starting your own business, rather than doing the daily 9-to-5 grind until you retire. It can tide you over a lean period, or help you save towards owning your own home. And in a way, spending less is more than earning more, because there’s no government tax on what you save.

I have had many people tell me that living on one income is “impossible”. It is not. In our family, we have gone through not so much poverty, but financial instability – periods of nice paychecks followed by some pretty hard times. We always made it, though, and not just survived, but thrived – and learned a lot along the way, too.

‘OK, OK, I agree with you. It is possible to live on one income. But why would you want such a miserable life? And why do you want to deprive your kids of everything their friends have?’

 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see anything bad or immoral about liking nice things, wanting to be dressed in pretty and fashionable clothes or to go on vacation. The problem starts when we become enslaved to these things. When we become so wrapped up in them that we forget what’s truly important.

 

What about children? Won’t they feel deprived because their friends have more brand-name clothes and go on vacations more often? Since I’m not a mother yet, I can’t know for sure. But here is my experience. I was raised by a single mother who worked very hard to support our family. We only had her small income and had to make it somehow. Occasionally, I wished I could have more new toys or clothes. But this is not what made me miserable as a child, and indeed, it isn’t what matters in the long run!

 

Frugality isn’t about being miserable. It’s about creativity and challenge. It’s drawing the line between what you need, and what you can do without. It’s homemade presents and costumes made from altered old clothes. It’s not signing up to a dozen afternoon activities, and instead having a blissful opportunity to explore freely and with curiosity. Playing outside. Climbing trees. Spending time at the local library. Drawing and writing, making stories, playing games… I loved doing all that as a kid, and I was never bored! My children, in turn, love it too. Who said a child needs a big house and a heap of expensive electronic gadgets to be stimulated? Look at us. We have lots of things. Does it make us happy?