Friday, March 22, 2013

Pressure to Simplify

“The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their food in summer” prov 30:25

The reality of living with incurable autoimmune conditions, is something that is definitely a catalyst for change. Some are good changes, others, not so much. One thing I have learned is that there will be good days and days that are so debilitating, I can do nothing. Lately, there have been more of the latter than the former. So it is against those days for which I must prepare. It isn’t a HUGE departure from things I do anyway, but there is incentive and more of a plan to what I will do. 

Sharing with some of you who experience the same kind of limitations and challenges is what this blog entry is about. But not just for those of us who have limitations, but also those who have limited free time, like working moms even.

Primarily, I am the one who cooks the meals and living as far from town as we do, pretty much everything is made from scratch. That means baking all the breads, making dairy products and canning food. Therefore, that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing on a ‘good’ day. I bake bread ahead of time and slice and freeze it so we can just grab a few slices when we need. I wrap it in plastic wrap then foil and it thaws out like fresh. I always double the recipe when making waffles and freeze the extras for a quick breakfast with a tasty whole wheat waffle as opposed to spending hard earned cash on L’eggo’s which aren’t nearly as good.

I’m a big believer in gadgets and things that simplify my life and save me time. I have large water troughs for the animals that only need filling once a week instead of daily. I have automatic feeder for my chickens and dogs (not all dogs do well on this, but ours do).

Having a garden is something I do, but the garden goes on a drip system which is run by automatic timers (operated by battery and not all that costly). Because I like fresh food and because I don’t like wasting money or buying substandard ingredients, I took up canning.  But now my canning has a purpose beyond just preserving food. I can to ensure that on days I simply cannot feed us, there are meals available. This is pretty easily done, really and I actually enjoy it more than just canning up the regular stuff...tomatoes, jams and fruits. (Let’s not forget making that pie filling so pouring a jar into a crust and baking it gives a quick and tasty dessert!)

I pressure can appropriate foods instead of freezing them, when I am able. That way there is enough room for our beef, lamb, chicken and venison and in the case of freezer failure, less food is going to be lost. There is also something very comforting about seeing jars and jars of food on my pantry shelves.

Lots of people are afraid of pressure canners. There is no need to be. To begin with, there are foods that can be “water bath” canned and others that require a pressure canner. High acid foods like tomatoes and jams/jellies are usually done in a water bath environment. When water bath canning, altitude adjustments are made by lengthening the TIME an item is in the canner.  With pressure canning  the altitude adjustments are usually made in the pounds of pressure. There are charts in most canning books as well as online for how long something needs to remain in the canner and the psi for your altitude. It’s very important to follow the directions about stopping the canning process. When to remove the pot lid, how soon to lift out the jars, allow the internal and external pressure to equalize and make sure your jars seal properly.

The procedure is really pretty easy. Decide what you are going to can and get it prepared. Most things are canned hot. A few can be canned cold or 'raw pack' such as chicken, but you will get that information and the details out of your canning book, which I recommend everyone have. It's been invaluable to me and there is no point in preserving your food unless you are going to make sure it is safe for consumption.

Grab your materials. This would be your:

Pressure canner (and weight, if yours is like mine)
jar grabber
canning funnel
plastic knife thingy for getting air out
white vinegar and a paper towel
lids & rings ( I love the Tattler reusable lids)
and I use a placemat to put everything on once it is sterilized and to set the hot jars on when done so the glass doesn't crack.
  • Sterilize  jars, either in the dishwasher, or boil/steam them in the canner
  • Fill to the recommended level, wipe the rims with papertowel dipped in white vinegar to prevent any food or oil on rim causing a seal failure.
  • Put on your lids and if using 2 piece metal lids, tighten finger tight.
  • *If using the plastic tattler reusable lids, only tighten enough for the ring to catch the threads. These have to be much looser in the canner to seal properly.
  • Set the jars in/on the rack. Never place them directly on the pot bottom or they will shatter from heat induction.
  • Make sure the water is at the proper level per your canner's instructions
  • I put a touch of white vinegar or cream of tartar in the water to prevent the aluminum from discoloring. It also helps remove the blackness if you didn't do it last time.
  • Set the lid on and tighten it so it is sealed.
  • Let it 'vent' for 10 minutes. (It is much, much easier than listening to someone else vent, although nearly as monotonous)
  • Set your weight on it's little jiggly post.
  • Once the weight begins to jiggle, adjust your heat so it is jiggling at a rhythmical there is a strange word to spell. Rhythmical. Honestly, who makes these decisions anyway???
  • Pull yourself together.
  • Set the timer.
  • Once the timer goes off, turn off the heat.
  • When  the pressure plug drops, remove the weight, usually for 2 minutes.*your recipe will tell you*
  • Remove the lid and usually wait another 5 minutes for jars to pressurize properly
  • Remove jars to placemat.
  • Re-tighten lids and be SURE to tighten the tattler lids now.
  • Let sit 24 hours.
  • Remove rings, check for seal
  • Mark jars what they are and put on date. I no longer use the paper labels as they are too much work to remove. Instead I write on the jar with a permanent marker which washes off easily before using again.

Done! Nothing terribly difficult there. I just double or triple a recipe I was going to make anyway, and can what is left over. This way I really only have to make that dish once a year. It frees me up to do other things.

The resource that I use the most is Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving. It has all the information you need on both water bath and pressure canning and 400 recipes to boot. Most of them I have tried are great.

If I were to start over, I would purchase an “All American” pressure canner. In fact, it’s on my wish list. It is definitely an investment. There aren’t going to be problems with getting your canner loaded and finding out your seal is bad and having to wait a week or more for a new one...which is something I have some experience with. Just try eating 7 quarts of the same something in less than a week! Freezing for me, is not usually a favorable option, as we have 3 freezers full. Space is at a premium here. The All American is a higher quality canner. I currently have a different canner which was a thoughtful gift from my step mom. It’s done an excellent job so far with the exception of needing replacement parts now and then. 

You could use your pressure cooker for water bath canning as well, if you have a regular lid that fits it. I just chose to buy one of the inexpensive graniteware canning pots so I don’t confuse myself and pressure process something by accident, which again, I have done, as my brain rarely remains on what I am doing at the moment and tends to wander off to greener pastures a lot, leaving me to do the work all by myself. You are able to cook in your pressure canner, but you can’t can in your pressure cooker. I don’t pressure cook much stuff, and personally, since the canner I have is made of aluminum, I wouldn’t cook in it anyway. Just my thoughts on it.

Some of our favorite soups: (I have put in clickable links to the recipes)

We have made great use of canned French Beef Dip this year. It’s very easy to do. I just put two big cheap roasts in a crock pot after cutting off the fat, add all the seasonings and let it cook down until the meat is tender. Then I fill the sterilized canning jars with meat and the au jus and process it. For a quick meal we have just pulled a jar off the pantry shelf, heated it in the micro wave and stuffed it in french rolls.The au jus from it is amazing. Have a side salad and you are good to go! Another meat I have happily canned this year is pulled pork or kalua pig. It’s delicious heated up on a french roll, or cooked up in a breakfast burrito, or mixed with BBQ sauce for a BBQ get the picture.

We’ve had several chickens that needed to be culled. Typically, older hens or rooster tend to be very tough and stringy, albeit tasty and full of flavor. You can often find chicken quarters on sale. Canning them would save you a lot of money. The easiest way to make use of them is to separate the drumstick and thighs, put them in a jar bone in, fill it with hot broth and can it. Same thing with the breasts. It becomes a tender, deeply flavored shredded chicken that is ready to be used in your casseroles, or taco salads, or whatever you like to do with shredded chicken. There are hundreds of things I can think of. It's just another great thing to have on hand.

This week I canned up a double batch of meatballs. I canned them in spaghetti sauce so we can have meatball sandwiches in a snap. I'll can some more in broth to use in albondigas soup or swedish meatballs. The neat thing is, we don’t have to use any of these for a year or more, but it's there whenever I want something quick and easy. This makes living with RA quite a lot more tolerable for me. I think this would make life a lot easier for many of you, as well. 

I try to can SOMETHING every week or two if I feel good. I always have left over chicken carcases and beef soup bones in the freezer waiting to become stock, if nothing else. Stews, chili, fruit for pies, there is always something that you can jar up and make good use of. I even can potatoes. I buy a big bag whenever we go to the store but with just 2 of us, I rarely can use them all, so into the can they go. It's quick to make fried potatoes then, or roast them with butter and herbs, or heat and mash them. If someone shows up for dinner unexpectedly (which doesn't happen very often here anymore) all you need to do is grab another jar.

I hope all  of us, who suffer or not, are able to look ahead and see how life can be both amplified and simplified with just a few easy steps. I try to do what I can and that which I cannot, I try to leave in the Lord's hands.  "Try", being the key word, as, like most women, I tend to be a bit of a control freak. Yes, I said it. Maybe in my case, that's what this disability is all about. Learning how to trust.

I've been flat on my back most of this week and I can sure appreciate the time I spent earlier doing this.

Do you have things you can share, that make life simpler? 

My kitchen in Christmas past, which is probably the last time it was this clean...just sayin'....

"Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.   Eccl. 2:24

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Of Agony and Ecstasy

“For His anger is but for a moment, but His favor is for life. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” psalm 30:5

Mornings aren’t really my best time of day, but I can sometimes tell if the pain has lessened when I first wake up. It’s just typical of this disease to be unusually stiff and swollen on waking. I hate to get up as it hurts to use my body but that is what it takes to get the swelling to go down and relieve some of the pressure.

It was a roller coaster of a week. The weather was up and down which played havoc with my autoimmune issues, sometimes causing intense pain. One day I would be totally disabled, the next, moderately functional. I’m grateful that the better days coincided with the days Annie and the sheep decided to lamb. It enabled me to be there in case they had trouble and to iodine the navels of the newborns to prevent bacteria from traveling up the cord and causing joint or navel ill which can be fatal. The highlight of my days is to watch the babies skipping and jumping and crawling all over their mamas.

Thursday evening I intensely wanted to ride my horse, because Randyman finally fixed a gate so I could actually open and close it by myself. It's been close to 8 months since I've been able to do what I once spent a lifetime doing all day and loving every minute of it. I had a dream job. 

I awoke Friday morning with less pain, but more weakness and fatigue. I decided to drag myself out and bring Mister in anyway, even if just to brush him. I needed to be around him. 

I was able to groom him without much trouble and took him out back into the sheep pasture with a longe line as it was the least slippery spot I could find. He ran and bucked and jumped and played, slipped and scooted around. Not bad for an old man. I was glad I hadn’t been up to saddling up and riding him because with my balance issues now, it would have been another disaster. The Maremma pups showed up. They laid down where they could still see the lambs but kept a penetrating eye on Mister, challenging him to dare try doing anything they perceived might endanger me. I figured it would take a few days to work the kinks out of my old horse, but didn’t mind as long as I could be in his company. I took him back to the corral and brushed him down good and returned him to his pasture. 

I got back to the house energized and ready to do things. I honestly think the smell of horse sweat must be like crack. I felt better than I have felt in a year. I cleaned house, pruned fruit trees, covered garlic and strawberry plants to protect from the chickens, made sour cream and clabber and put on a leg of lamb for dinner. I still had energy to go play with the lambs and was even able to do dishes that evening. All day my face hurt from smiling, it was so great to feel good again. All day I was joyfully thanking God for the experience.

The next morning I felt tired again, but the pain levels were surprisingly way down still. I assumed I would 'pay' for overdoing it and I went to get Mister and he was moving slowly and stiffly, like myself. I laughed and agreed with him that getting old really does suck. I put him on a line and he had no inclination of bucking, running or even moving. (bwahahahaha!) Deciding it was best for him as well as for me to stretch out the sore muscles, I rode him for about an hour in the corral, mostly walking, just working on lateral movements, foot placement and verbal cues. It felt so good.

Now this morning, the pain is back in full force along with another storm. But I had two fabulous days and I know that more are coming my way. Maybe even tomorrow.

There are a thousand things I used to do daily, that I took for granted. Now they are precious rarities. But when I could take them for granted, I often found myself discontent and dissatisfied because of OTHER things I could not do. Always reaching, always wanting more, I set myself up for a great deal of disappointment and strife. If my condition has brought me suffering, it has also brought me clarity. In the book of Philippians 4:11, Paul said “...I have learned in whatever state I am in, to be content...”
Contentedness is not something that happens to us, but something we LEARN. It is often in the fire of affliction that our eyes are opened to what actually surrounds us and is provided for us and we learn to be grateful. A grateful heart is a happy heart because gratitude and discontent cannot occupy the same space.

There are so many examples of people who have walked through this world missing much of the joy of life until they, ie: survived cancer, had an accident, lost a loved one...went into the refiner’s fire and had a epiphany of some kind. After they suffered the pain and loss their eyes were opened to the world around them and the many wonders it contains. Sadly, we don't always chose to let this be the result of our trials, but God's purpose is always redemptive and He does bring beauty out of the ashes.

This disease I would give up in a minute, but the lessons I have learned and the awareness it has brought to me, the depth of life, the awareness of colors, smell, textures, beauty, wonder...never. 
And there will be more glorious days. 
The simple things have become priceless and no longer to be disregarded or taken for granted. All of life, even the difficult side, is richer.

So, for that, I am grateful.

“I come that they may have life,and that they may have it more abundantly”