Sunday, December 27, 2009

Inherent Wisdom

Yesterday Glenn and I checked out a brand new Nepalese restaurant that just opened in downtown Asheville, Katmandu Cafe. Much to our extreme delight, the restaurant surpassed our expectations on just about every front (the pillowy naan, people-THE NAAN! I DIE!). Whenever I find a business, service, product, or individual that truly shines, I share it. I Tweet it, or mention it on Facebook, or talk about it here, or tell anyone who will listen. If you've wowed me, I want others to know. 

In a different, albeit mildly similar manner, honey bees also traffic in information. When a foraging honey bee finds a payload of nectar, it returns to the hive and begins dancing feverishly. As told in the video above, the bee who discovered the sweet haul tells its hive-mates, with wild precision, where they too might share the bounty. Using the sun as a compass, the bee who made the discovery uses inherent wisdom to communicate, through her movements, where her sisters should head. 

In a beehive, everything is shared. There is no such thing as greed when interdependence prevails. The hive is a symbiotic organism, where every bee's actions ensures the entire hive's success or failure. As I work on the "Keeping Bees" book, the fourth in the Homemade Living series, I continue to find myself enthralled by the inherent wisdom of these tiny creatures. Their model for living is one that humanity would do well to mimic. Beneficial co-dependency can be a beautiful thing, when all parties involved are working towards the highest, greatest good. 

Friday, December 25, 2009

My Best

Wishing you all my absolute best today and all season long. May your celebrations be full of love, laughter, happiness and warmth! 
*Image from here

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Crash Course

Well, that was unexpected. 

We got hit with the biggest snow storm this area has seen in years, decades even, this past Friday, just after my last post. Expecting the 3-10" forecast, we weren't too worried. Hindsight being 20/20, we should have been. We were slammed with 17" of snow and lost power for 4 1/2 days. With that came a very swift, rather challenging at moments, crash course in off-grid living. 

Our well is equipped with a mechanical pump. When the power fails out here, we lose water access, as well. I'd worried that might happen, so I filled the tub about a quarter of the way full on Friday afternoon. We also had nine 1-gallon jugs of water in the basement. The rest of our water usage came from melting snow. We'd gather up large mixing bowls and add it to a stock pot resting on our wood stove. That melted snow was used to wash dishes, flush toilets, provide water for the chickens, and in washing faces and brushing teeth. 

Fortunately, we have a wood stove. I feel for all of the folks who had to stare down nights that dipped into the teens without fireplaces or wood stoves to gather around. We also have propane fuel, used in our furnace, hot water heater, and stove. While the first two rely on an electric current for ignition, the stove only needed a match. We were able to cook food, boil water-hell, I even made butterscotch pudding! On day two, we emptied the refrigerator and freezer, placing everything in coolers left outdoors. I pounded the cooler containing frozen items into the snow, padding it an extra layer of frozen protection. 

On day three, we teamed up with our neighbors to chainsaw down a large amount of fallen trees that blocked the driveway. As we live about 1 mile from the road, this was no small feat. Finally, though, we cleared the road, only to find that we couldn't get our car safely down from the steep knob we live up on down to the level portion of the driveway. We're hoping the sun will melt the snow enough today to either make it passable, or we'll recruit a wrecker service. 

Lessons learned along the way include: 
-I really need some snow boots.
-How could we have gone this long living in a rural setting without a transistor radio?
-We'll take to buying firewood in late spring/early summer from now on, as the longer we wait to buy it, the more likely we are to end up with unseasoned wood that is extremely difficult to burn.
-Our pantry should be stocked with two weeks worth of water, animal food, and non-perishable items all winter long. We did good, as it was, but we can do better. 
-If any snow AT ALL is called for, we'll move our cars down from the knob and out to the road in advance. 

Being snowed in doesn't really bother us. We're home for days at a stretch as it is. Being snowed in, without power, with firewood of seriously questionable quality, and without a radio, or proper footwear on my part, was a hard lesson in preparation. Living in the country requires certain things of a person, certain expectations. If you intend to enjoy the beauty and solitude offered by a rural life, then you'd better intend to be ready for the less than idyllic moments, as well. 

On the upside, I learned not just ways to be more prepared, but ways to be more conservative in my energy use. I learned just how much water is required to make a toliet flush and how much goes into washing dishes by hand. I became acutely aware of all of the other electronic conveniences I've come to rely on. 

I also learned, though, that there are worse things to do on a cold winter's night then sit beside a toasty wood stove, playing Rummikub with my husband, while sipping on egg nog and listening to the Vince Guaraldi trio play the entirety of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on public radio. There are certainly far worse things. 

Friday, December 18, 2009

It's A Wrap

My "Small Measures with Ashley " column is up today over at Design Sponge. It's on sustainable gift-wrapping options, filled with all sorts of alternatives to traditional paper-wrapped goods. 

I'll be back at some point this weekend with photos of the current snow assault. In the meantime, drinks lots of hot beverages, layer up, and warm your house by baking something delicious! 

Be well! 
*Image from here

Early Stages

There's a call for anywhere between 3-10" of snow today. You're looking at the early stages. This is huge news for Asheville as, being situated in a valley, large dumps of snow usually glide right by us, coating the higher elevations instead. 

We're prepared. I picked up extra cedar bedding for the chickens yesterday, along with a large bag of layer crumble, food for the cats and dogs, and a few this's and that's for the humans. Glenn carried a good load of wood up to the house. We've got tons of candles and batteries and bottled water, should we lose power, as well as the wood stove to warm us and cook on. 

For now, I've got a chapter to complete in the "Keeping Bees" book (the fourth in the Homemade Living series-I can hardy believe sometimes that I get to do this for a living!) and a phone chat later this afternoon with a freelance writer working on a piece about backyard chicken-keeping. 

I'll post more pictures of the full accumulation. I've never minded the snow (except for when the occasion demands that I drive in it!). It pads all the external sounds, blocking out everything but the "whish" of falling flakes. The repetitive falling is hypnotic, rhythmic, calming. It brightens and lightens the forest, otherwise dominated by varying bits of brown and grey. I'm going to fire up the kettle, make some strong coffee, enjoy a slice of Panettone picked up from my local bakery, and let it all happen. 

Do you like the snow? Nuisance? Solace? What do you do when it snows? 

Stay warm, wherever you are! 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

At Any Given Time

I'm a bit of a philanderer when it comes to books. At any given time, my nightstand contains a multitude of texts, all at various stages of mid-read. A dog-eared corner there, a bookstore-issue book mark there. I'm all over the place. The subject matter, book length and tone are highly variable. And that's just fine by me. That's how my mind works, jumping from mental vine to mental vine, following the rabbit hole where it leads. 

Here's what's currently weighting down my nightstand: 
-Gardening at the Dragon's Gate, by Wendy Johnson
-Intelligence in Nature, by Jeremy Narby
-The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram
-Interworld, by Neil Gaiman
-The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
-The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, by Kathleen Flinn
-Food Inc., by Participant Media & Karl Weber
-The Good Life, by Scott and Helen Nearing
-Mindfully Green, by Stephanie Kaza
-The Edible Schoolyard, by Alice Waters
-The Sustainable Vegetable Garden, by John Jeavons & Carol Cox
-Will Write For Food, by Dianne Jacob
-The Sugar Queen, by Sarah Addison Allen 
-Second Nature, by Michael Pollan
-How to Cook a Wolf, by M.K. Fisher
-Sufficient, by Tom Petherick
-Easy Green Living, by Renee Loux
-Rodale's Vegetable Garden Problem Solver, by Fern Marshall Bradley
-California's New Green Revolution, by Desmond A. Jolly & Isabella Kenfield

What about you? Are you a book monogamist? Or do you wander, like me? And, more importantly, what are you reading? 

*Image from here. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

And the Spiced Pear Chutney Goes To...

Betsy D.! Thanks to everyone who entered. Welcome new readers!

I'll be back in the new year with yet another delectable offering. And with each passing month, we're moving closer to the release of the first two books in the "Homemade Living" series. "Keeping Chickens" and "Canning & Preserving" are on the very near horizon (coming this spring!), while "Home Dairy" and "Keeping Bees" (which I'm busy penning now, having wrapped "Dairy" last month) will debut in Spring 2011. 

I am tremendously excited for what the future holds and am so glad to have you all along for the adventure! 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nature's Operating Instructions

I first heard chef
Dan Barber relay this account of natural foie gras at the Slow Food Nation "Come to the Table" conference in San Francisco August 2008. It's a bit long, just over twenty minutes, but the message relayed is astounding. It's actually something I find myself increasing drawn to lately, this notion of "listening to nature's specific operating instructions." As Dan relays in his talk, if we find ways to work with the other sentient creatures we share the planet with, instead of in opposition to them for our own purposes, we often find mutually beneficial solutions. As he concludes his speech, he relays: "The most ecological choice for food is also the most ethical choice for food, whether we're talking about brussels sprouts or foie gras; and it's also almost always the most delicious choice, and that's serendipitous."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Another Way of Giving

My post is up this week over at Design Sponge. It's on "stuff"-free alternatives to holiday gift-giving, including donations to charitable organizations and gifts of "time" and "experiences." Come check it out! 

Hope you're all weathering this week's primer to winter well. It's cold, cold, cold here. Fortunately, I've finally begun to perfect and implement the art of well-appointed layering. Two thermal long underwear shirts, covered by a wool cardigan, accompanied by corduroy pants and two layers of wool socks (including one purple thigh-high wool/acrylic number that is the best $7 I've ever spent) seems to be the secret to staying warm. That and a wood stove, hot tea, a sweet husband, 5 cats and two highly affectionate dogs. 

Have a lovely weekend! A power outage on Wednesday, coupled with a corrupted Word file yesterday, got me  a bit behind on writing. I'll be catching up on odds and ends, while hosting my friend Katrina Saturday night (she's preparing to move to southeast Asia to teach ESL for the next few years!). Hot toddies, homemade dinner and much needed hang time with a dear lady will help make the house all that much warmer! 

*Image from here

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

No Place Like It

I'm a daydreamer, suffering occasionally from "grass is always greener" syndrome. I'm hit the hardest with entertaining ideas of living elsewhere. The highlands of Scotland. The south of France. The redwood forests of northern California. Most recently, the coastal regions of the Pacific northwest. 

And then I'm greeted with mornings like this one. I'm growing increasingly convinced that there is no better morning here on Sunray Cove than a fog-drenched morning. The forests are cloaked so mysteriously, the mist moving so fast across my face as I walk to the chicken coop. This beautiful plot of Earth becomes the most enticing place I know then. There really is no place like home. 

Monday, December 7, 2009

Which One of These Is Not Like the Others?

Can you spot the egg produced by my Ladies? The others are from a local, cage-free egg supplier. All that day-glow orange comes from the presence of beta-carotene in my girls' diet. For a run-down of egg carton labeling, check out this previous small measure post. In the meantime, I'm about to enjoy a bit of what we've affectionately dubbed "Frogs In A Bombshelter" (our cheeky play on "Eggs in a Nest").  

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sugar & Spice

The snow did come, after all. It didn't amount to all that much, though. Less of a snowfall and more of a snow gasp. I had very mixed feelings about it, admittedly. When the flakes are really falling out here, it looks absolutely stunning. It blankets the pines, bathes the rhododendrons, quiets the forest. It makes me want to stay inside, bake, drink tea, read, be silent. On the other hand, I knew that 20 or so ladies were due at my house in the afternoon for cookie-nibbling and merry-making. In the end, the snow tapered off, allowing the festivities to continue while giving just a hint of winter. Enough to savor but not so much as to override the sweetness.

And so, cookies were exchanged, glögg was imbibed, fondue was fondled, Pictionary was played, and holiday cheer was welcomed and spread. Each guest took home about 3-4 cookies of every variety, making for a pretty nice sugar haul.

To get things started, we gorged on:
*Gingered pecans
*Dried apricots with Point Reyes blue cheese & spiced pumpkin seeds
*Chevre with maple syrup & tawny port, topped with rosemary-pecans and dried cranberries
*Swiss cheese fondue with hard cider & local mustard, into which we plunged roasted carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, broccoli and toasted foccacia cubes
(Can you tell I just wrote a book on "Home Dairy"-making? Lord-look at all that CHEESE!)

My guests were a creative bunch and their cookies were varied, inventive and spectacular:
*Hungarian Pecan Cookies, aka "Butterballs", by Micah
*Bird Seed Cookies, by Rachel
*Shortbread Cookies layered with Salted Honey Caramel & dipped in Chocolate, by Jael
*Chai Shortbread, by me (recipe found here)
*'Lil Spumoni Slabs, by Jenny
*Poppy Seed Rugelah, by Jessica
*Lemon Rosemary Cookies, by Thalia
*Vanilla Butter Cookies with Homemade Lemon Ginger Jam, by Nicole 
*Cream Cheese Cookies, by Elizabeth
*Chocolate Ginger Cookies, by Marissa
*Organic Peanut Butter Cookies, by Meg & Alisa
*Lavender Tea Cakes, by Jodi
*Chewy Chocolate Gingerbread, by Kate
*Wheat-free Carrot Spice Cookies, by Theresa
*Ginger Molasses Crinkles, by Kelly & Clara

To see more images from the soiree, go here
Thank you to everyone who came out. It was the perfect launch to the holiday season. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go work myself into a sugar coma...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fire & Ice

There is snow in the forecast. I never put much faith in the snow forecasts, though. Historically, when snow is called for around here, folks run to the market in a frenzy, only to have little more than a flake or two to show for all their panicking. My mom and grandmother, however, usually get snow, if it's called for. They're at a slightly higher elevation, about an hour north of here, and if they say snow is coming, then snow is coming. 

Nonetheless, Glenn and I opted to "make hay while the sun shines," as it were, and stack the firewood we've been meaning to get to since it was unceremoniously dumped in a pile by our delivery person two weeks ago. After that, we had to wash the dogs, who'd decided that their devotion to whatever scent in the woods their nose was pulling them towards was greater than their devotion to me. They came back reeking of something foul and had to have an outdoor winter bath, which is their absolute least favorite thing. It took me some time afterwards to convince Dexter that we were still friends. 

Glenn then loped off some branches on the white birch and holly tree that were either blocking other trees' growth or venturing dangerously close to the power line. 

Simple things, but things that I find enormously gratifying. My friend Jenna, of Cold Antler Farm and Made From Scratch fame, is having a tough go of it this week at her place in Vermont. Seems an ill-informed and quick-to-judge neighbor decided she wasn't taking care of her livestock properly and meddled in Jenna's affairs, prompting her landlord to order the eviction of several of her beloved pets. It breaks my heart to know she's grieving, trying to find good homes for her furry friends. If anyone loves their animals with full, unyielding devotion, it's Jenna. 

Her struggle has made me all that more thankful for having a home of my own. It's full of challenges (most recently, I discovered several leaks in the ceiling over the stove, caused by a wayward old chimney flute, which allowed water to drip into the attic, over the stove, and into the basement), but it's ours. No one tells us to manage our animals differently or landscape a certain way. There are no noisy neighbors above, no car alarms waking us late at night-nothing, really, except for what must be an enormous owl in the woods, making its presence known with an arresting "HOOT" and legions of squirrels and birds, scurrying along the leaf-drenched forest floor. 

Our life out here is simple and quiet. It is characterized by rituals of feeding, cleaning, eating, reading, sipping, dozing, writing, and more. I'm never bored, never really have been in my life, that I recall. Sure, I get restless sometimes, and need to mix and mingle with the greater world. But this quiet life suits me. It's stillness echoes deeply inside, reassuring me, nurturing me, calming me. 

Maybe we'll get some snow after all. And that will be just fine. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sustainable Holidays

I came slowly to Facebook, as did my husband, Glenn. Myspace was old hat, but Facebook took some coaxing, on both of our parts. When we finally took a peek, we never looked back. Old friends from grade school, high school, college and beyond resurfaced, encouraging conversations and connections in need of some serious dusting off. 

One of the connections that Glenn made was with Katy Wolk-Stanley, a former college friend. An RN based in Portland, Oregon, Katy's blog "The Non-Consumer Advocate" has been gaining wider and wider notoriety, even gaining mention in such illustrious publications as The New York Times. Rich with thrifty and oftentimes ecologically-minded tips and insight, Katy's blog is a treasure trove of valuable information. 

One of her more recent posts, on "Sustainable Holidays", particularly grabbed my attention. Always on the lookout for ways to tread a bit more lightly on the planet, Katy's post is full of advice I either already practice or aspire to during the holidays, and beyond. I've posted below a speech she recently gave at the Vancouver, Washington public library. Practical and achievable, I'm forever in the debt of Facebook for reconnecting Glenn, and acquainting me, with such an inspirational individual. Happy Holidays! 

"Holidays present unique challenges because we are focusing our energy on gift giving and entertaining. The choices we make to live sustainably often go out the window when the stress of the holidays press down upon us. This doesn’t have to be.

Gift Giving

There are many ways to make sure that your holiday gift giving is within your goals of sustainable holidays:

  • Give second hand gifts (Can afford to give better quality.)
  • Give fewer gifts.
  • Give no gifts — Winnow down who you exchange gifts with.
  • Give experiential gifts – Doesn’t have to be pricey. Can be something as simple as a night of babysitting or teaching a skill to a friend.
  • Consumable Gifts – Can be as elaborate as dessert or dinner of the month; or as simple as a bottle of wine or a tin of cookies.
  • Handmade gift certificates –   Just must make sure to follow through.
  • Handmade gifts.
  • Gifts to charity in a person’s name.
  • Establish a system where everyone in the family is assigned a particular person to buy for. Just make sure to set a reasonable price limit.

If you are wanting to make changes with how your family exchanges gifts, the time to talk about it is now. Make sure to be clear and explain the reasoning behind the change and offer to replace what may have been events for gift exchanges with non-gift centric get togethers. Don’t simply present it as, “I don’t want to buy you a present anymore.”

Remember though, that many people are already in the full swing of holiday shopping, and it may be too late for any significant changes for the current year.

It is important to keep in mind that gift giving is a loving act, even if you are receiving items that are not to your liking. Be gracious.

Gift Wrapping

There’s nothing more depressing in my book than the massive mess of wrapping paper and ribbons that litter the floor on Christmas morning. Sure, some of it is reusable and recyclable, but it’s still a colossal waste.

Some alternatives to wrapping paper are:

  • Reusable gift bags.
  • Wrap your gifts in the Sunday comics.
  • Use a solid color pillow case for larger gifts, and tie with a pretty fabric ribbon.
  • Wrap gifts in decorated craft paper, (ahem . . .  inside out grocery bags.)
  • Use your kid’s artwork to wrap a gift.
  • Sew your own gift bags. I am not a crafty type, but even I can sew a straight seam.
  • Reuse last year’s wrapping paper.


Even if you’re not the type to throw huge holiday shin-digs, chances are you’re involved at some level with entertaining. This can be in the home or even an office party.

Here are a few tips to not let that holiday get together automatically fill your garbage can to the gills:

  • Use non-disposable dishes and silverware. This may cost more initially, but it’s worth it. Area thrift shops bulge with extra dishes, and you can even borrow, freecycle, or craigslist. Ask around and put the word out.
  • Make ice instead of buying it. Just start making ice for your party a few days early and you can eliminate the errand of buying ice in a big ol’ plastic bag.
  • Use cloth napkins and tablecloths. Not only is this the more sustainable choice, but it’s also so much of a festive look. Cloth napkins and tablecloths cost a pittance in thrift shops.
  • Using a free online service such as e-vite for the invitations rather than snail mail.
  • Give thought to your food waste. Try to make sure unused food is refrigerated in a timely manner and freeze what you can’t eat in the next few days or send home with guests. You can even let guests know to bring empty leftover containers.
  • Use holiday parties as an opportunity to help out those in need. This can be as simple as making your party into a canned food drive. This is an easy thing to do and people are usually happy to find opportunities to be generous. This is an especially good idea for work parties.
  • Make sure to clearly label your garbage, recycling and compost. (I’m sure we’ve all experienced helpful guests who throw everything into the regular garbage.)

Thank you very much to the Fort Vancouver library system for inviting me to come and speak. I had a great time!"

*Image from The Non-Consumer Advocate

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Small Measure Can-Do Contest, Round 6

It's the beginning of a new month, folks, which means that it's already time again for another Small Measure Giveaway! For those of you new to the contest, or to this blog, I'm staging a giveaway each month from now until the release of my book, Homemade Living: Canning & Preserving with Ashley English. Each month one lucky person will win an artfully crafted canned item featured in the book and made by yours truly. 

From my pantry to yours, this month I'll be giving away a jar of Spiced Pear Chutney. Right up there with Cardamom Apple Butter, this is one of my absolute favorite things to nibble on. It's applications seemingly endless (added to sandwiches, served alongside baked sweet potatoes, paired with hot naan and a zippy dal-it doesn't end), I somehow always end up spreading a bit of this chutney onto a wheat cracker and topping it off with a little knob of sharp cheddar. It's the perfect afternoon snack, or easy holiday appetizer (I speak from experience, on both accounts-guests LOVE it, and, of course, so do I!). Picked at their peak and slowed cooked with onion, garlic, crystallized ginger, raisins, vinegar, brown sugar, and spices, this chutney is about as redolent of autumn as you could imagine! 

To enter: Simply leave a comment to THIS specific post by telling me your favorite way of cooking or serving pears. Your comment MUST link to your particular blog or web site (and therefore to your contact information) or include your e-mail address. Otherwise, I won't be able to get in touch with you if you win! Any entries that do not include some way of getting in touch will be disqualified. 

Deadline: Comments must be received by midnight EST December 15th, 2009. Odds of winning will depend on the number of eligible entries received. 

Other rules:
1. You must have a mailing address in the United States of America (sorry international folks!).
2. Only one entry comment per person. 

How it works: Each comment will be assigned a sequential number. The winning number will be selected from a random number generator, so there'll be no favorites, simply a game of chance. 

Keep coming back each month to see what new tasty item is up for grabs!