lunes, 28 de diciembre de 2009

chicken tv

With no cable television on the farm, we are frequently left to our own devices during our ample leisure time. No one offers better live entertainment than the chickens.
back in September

Recent coop drama has brought about big changes amongst our chicken familia. You might remember that since September, I've watched and waited to learn the gender of the four pollitos, crossing my fingers for at least 2 females. At around 4 months old, chicks begin to outwardly display their sexual maturity, but until then, they are physically identical. Keeping my hopes up, (and attempting to conjure some chicken voodoo), I gave each of them a girlie name.
Look how they've grown!

But, last week my little Pimienta, (now Pimiento), uttered his first croaky cock-a-doodle-doos!
As handsome a rooster I'm sure he will be, we decided way back to only keep gallinas--the coop can only accommodate four comfortably; hence, there is no need for an on-site sperm donor.
Upon learning Pimiento's true identity, he was abruptly removed from the coop as an impromptu christmas present for Don Chico. Little did we know what chicken stew pot we had stirred...
Up until now, Mama Canela has been an overprotective mother--call it empty nest if you will, this mother hen all but suffocated her adolescent chicks. She nudged the tastiest morsels into their beaks, and I caught her still trying to sit on them at night! With all of her attention focused on the big kids, Canela had yet to lay a SINGLE EGG.
The minute Pimiento's absence was felt, so was Mama Canela's grief. For days she clucked and puffed and keened, leaving her three young gals to fend for themselves. However cruel our intervention appeared, it also triggered the very act we'd been waiting for:
Coop dynamics have been overhauled. Gone is the sweet chicken family sitcom; today it is all HEN. Canela keeps her own company, usually pecking about the coop or resting in a dust bath until nature calls: with much squawking fanfare, she heads up to the laying boxes every day at noon!
Las muchachas are your typical teenagers--constant gossip and rustling feathers, cackling that can be heard throughout my garden.
Who will be our next layer? Will the threesome remain close once their eggs come in? Will Canela's lonely days in the coop incite her to become broody once again?
Stay tuned for more CHICKEN TV!

martes, 22 de diciembre de 2009

christmas coffee

It is all about red and green on the farm right now, or more specifically red OR green, as we are in the midst of COFFEE HARVEST!
The ripeness, and ultimately the flavor, is determined by the color of the coffee's fruit, the cherry. Ideally you want to harvest only the reddest cherries, leaving the green ones more time to mature. This usually means harvesting more than once during the season, as the fruit does not all ripen at the same time.
As the veggies and fruits are my gardening project, I have had little to do with coffee farming. But this past year I did enjoy a dark rich blend derived from our very own local harvest for about six months, when our "year supply" ran out. Since then, I've had my eye on the coffee plants, keeping tabs on the growing green fruits. I have been excited to get in there hands-on to be a part of the process. Luckily for me, these ladies are patient and friendly teachers:
Traveling from farm to farm during coffee season, November through January, Marta and her family pick the cash crop for 8 to 10 hours a day, earning their wages based on pounds picked per day.
With a wide basket strapped around my waist, I accompanied Marta in the coffee field. The women chatted over the rows, invisible to each other but for rustling amongst the branches and occasional singing or humming. I struggled to keep up, scanning the bushes for red and clumsily yanking the ripe cherries into my basket. Within an hour Marta's basket was brimming with the multi-colored fruit, mine like so:
Nonetheless i was proud!
We sell the majority of our coffee wet, meaning the unprocessed raw cherries, to a local buyer. By next year we plan to invest in larger scale processing equipment; currently the farm has only manual-operated machinery, which we used to process my contribution to the harvest. Our de-pulper is a charming antique device that separates the fruit skin from the seed of the coffee.
The seeds retain a clear, slimy layer that aids in an overnight fermentation. The following day they are rinsed thoroughly and spread out on a screen to sun dry.
From here, there is yet another hulling procedure to remove a papery layer of skin; then roasting (locally this is done over an open fire); finally, grinding and brewing!

While these seeds dry, I await the call for the next harvest. Hopefully my picking fingers will gain speed and agility so that I can pull in enough for the coming year ;)

lunes, 14 de diciembre de 2009

farm pup

Yet another new animal en la finca: meet Stella!
A 10 week old German Shepherd, Stella is bursting with energy! She is currently learning basic obedience and a vital lesson for all pups: socialization, which around here includes a wild array of different creatures.

I dub her rapport with the goats "playful animosity."
Happily, she and Chia are a perfect match!
Prone to high-speed indoor chases and zealous wrestling matches, chairs are overturned and water bowls spilled on a daily basis as these two develop their friendship.
Who, us?

Although the plan is for Stella to be our security dog, it is important that she first learn basic obedience. And contrary to popular belief, a properly trained security dog is treated well, not abused. Once trust and loyalty are established, Stella will undergo more serious attack training. This isn't to say she will be vicious, rather that she will be able to follow specific attack commands and will keep an intruder at bay.
For now however, she is all about loving attention :)

jueves, 10 de diciembre de 2009

La Purísima

Last week I enjoyed yet another new cultural experience: a week long celebration of the Virgin Mary, La Purísima (The Most Pure). A uniquely Nica tradition, and rooted in catholic ideology, La Purísima ironically has a funky, halloween-like energy.
During the days leading up to the Immaculate Conception, Nicas set out statues of the Virgin, creatively decorated and lit up near the front of their homes.
Each evening, devotees of the Virgin crowd into neighbors and strangers' front rooms to admire and sing to the colorfully displayed icons.
After the requisite singing, this is where things get fun: the hosts pass out brindi: homemade goodies, snacks, small toys and prizes, free stuff! I enjoyed traditional foods such as a baked squash with honey, raw sugar cane, and a gingery beverage that I plan on concocting myself.
The final night of the celebration is La Gritería, or The Shouting (are you feeling the halloween vibe now?)
At precisely 6pm all over Nicaragua, fireworks are ignited and people flood the street to shout:
Quién causa tanta alegría?
La Concepción de María!

What is the cause of our happiness?
Mary's Conception!

The joyful noise is to thank Mary for the miracles she performs. A deluge of people, young and old, rich and poor, then parade through town to visit the literally HUNDREDS of altars.
Doors remain open as hordes of people pour in and out, leaving with sacks full of cookies, chips, even house ware items such as laundry soap and matches.
La Purísima is an opportunity for more affluent families to share their wealth and hospitality with others. In many homes, canvas tote bags and satchels were handed out to be filled with brindi!More fireworks and shouting occur at midnight and the following morning at 6am, after which a sacred silence is observed. This is a very holy day in the Catholic church, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Visiting homes, making new friends, and just cruising the streets at night amongst a boisterous crowd made the event for me. Not to mention coming home with all my brindi!

martes, 8 de diciembre de 2009

28 days later

Ok, so it wasn't exactly apocalyptic, but 28 days is a long time to leave your garden, especially in a tropical climate. I felt a bit like Sleeping Beauty after that 100 yr stint when vines grew all up her castle....isn't that what happened?
All in all, i was pleasantly surprised. Having learned the hard way twice before, this Non-Sleeping, or rather Sleep-Deprived Up at Crack of Dawn Farmer Beauty was not going to siesta while the Voracious Vegetation Dragon devoured her garden. I was super diligent about leaving this time. A garden requires mucho preparation before abandonment: extra weeding, heavy mulching, pruning, etc. I even wrote out a numbered list for our caretaker to ensure that nothing would be overlooked.

Joyfully, this was the first time i didn't cry upon returning to my garden!
As usual, ayote squash sprawled like suburbia over garden paths, oregano plants, even the compost pile.
Humongous chayote was dripping off the vine: i filled this basket in seconds!

The chicken coop is shrouded in a weedy fortress!

Exciting surprises awaited me as well:

After 8 months, my gandul (pigeon pea) finally bloomed, and pods developed--
Aren't they gorgeous?!

For whatever reason, I've had a heck of a time getting cucumbers to survive, despite the cozy, shaded mounds and artful climbing fences I've constructed. However, I leave the farm for 3 weeks and a mysterious, hearty cucumber plant shoots up in an unfertilized rocky strip of soil along the concrete's already FRUITING!

Probably the most dramatic of all, the much-anticipated LUFFAS! these suckers are already an easy 12 inches long, the vine over 10 ft!!
Countdown to all-natural scrub-a-dub!

Los animales are a whole other post...stay tuned.

miércoles, 11 de noviembre de 2009

the incredible, edible.... luffa?

Of how many plants can you say: it's EDIBLE, ORNAMENTAL, and.....
What appears to be your common vining squash is oh-so-much more.

I didn't believe it at first either.
Luffa sponge: in the tub.
Luffa squash? must be an unfortunate incident of coincidental nomenclature.

but no.

The luffa is widely renowned for its life post vine, after having matured into a fibrous seed pod, peeled, packaged, and marketed in your local pharmacy as an all-natural exfoliant.
Nobody talks much about the flavor, or the culinary uses of the reputed "sponge."
Luffa acutangula

In truth, luffa is also named Chinese okra, silk squash, and silk melon, amongst others and is a savored veggie in Asian cuisine.
I am also elated to report, after devastating failures with zucchini and yellow squash, that luffa is a tropical plant! It LOVES the heavy rain! thrives on relentless sun! i'm talking a vining potential of 20 ft and fruit up to 2 ft long!
In mere weeks, my luffa seeds sprouted, grew several inches, flowered, and have now produced fruit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Luffa connoisseurs recommend harvesting tiny 2'' long specimens in order to yield a tender, nutty flavor. As of today, i have only one developed squash, but i decided to give it a try as we are about to abandon the garden for a several week vacation. (By the time we return, i fear most squash will have become sponge-worthy!)

This is what i got:

Chopped, sauteed, and tossed in to my tortilla soup, I confess the elusive luffa evaded my taste buds. Hopefully in three weeks time there will still be delicate, edible squash to sample. if not, to scrub with?

Let them eat sponges!

martes, 10 de noviembre de 2009

A Medicine Woman, A Soybean Project, & little old me

I was a lucky lady to spend a day with the knowledgeable and wise Doña Aura, a practiced natural healer and nutritionist, not to mention accomplished author, and director of the Ahualcatl Center of Natural Therapy. She hosts a series of hands-on medicinal plant/healthy foods workshops, (including the preparation of salves, soaps, teas, and foods) based on our local climate, crops, and culture--this was a Nutrition/Food Preparation class.

First Doña Aura revealed the unofficial four food groups of Latin America and which local foods fit into which category
We decided that my farm has a great start in each group! I was advised to plant yucca (a staple carbohydrate) and more sunflowers (with the intention to harvest and press the seeds into oil). Doña Aura was very impressed at my attempt to grow soybeans, a highly available plant protein source in Nicaragua AND the featured food in our workshop.

The Soybean Project
After an overnight soak, we rubbed the beans to remove the clear skins (which contribute to gas).

Next up, grinding the softened soybeans into a thick paste--Aura uses a hand grinder, a great arm workout, though a blender will also do the job.

Add the soy mash to a pot of boiling water and stir occasionally for about 15 minutes, until a froth forms on top.
Remove from heat. Once cool, squeeze the milky mixture through a cheese cloth, retaining the solids in the cloth and saving the liquid in the pot.
Said liquid IS your freshly made soy milk! Doña Aura prefers to add lemon leaves for flavor and also recommends vanilla, cinnamon, and a bit of sugar. yuuum!

On to those soy curds that were separated out from the milk.
Doña Aura actually makes this stuff on a regular basis and sells it as soy "chorizo" (sausage); it is that good!

We enjoyed each other's company over heavy chopping: feast your eyes on our rainbow of sliced and diced onions, peppers, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, and carrots.
The diced bits were mixed in with our soy "meat," along with a dash of salt, to create the coveted chorizo de soya:
Doña Aura's fresh soy sausage can be spread as is on bread or toast, or fried lightly in oil as a crispy patty.

As for our Homemade Four Food Group Luncheon Extravaganza, the larger veggies pieces were sauteed in a sumptuous stew topped with fried cheese. ¡Que rico!
It was an honor and a privilege to spend the day with a gardener and nutritionist of such enviable experience and delightful demeanor. ¡Muchas gracias Doña Aura!

viernes, 6 de noviembre de 2009

Minding my Qs

It's not a yam, it's not a sweet potato, it's....

What? ( pronounce it as KAY-KEYS-KAY)
Well, that's the local name for this world-popular tuber, more commonly known as malanga, cousin to taro. Despite its rather unattractive outer skin (they resemble burnt chicken legs, no?), quequisque reveals a tender white flesh when peeled.
I hear that this hardy root crop is cooked up in every way imaginable in cuisines around the globe; in Nicaragua is it mostly commonly incorporated into soups and stews. The flavor is, hmm how to describe it...... bland? Much like a potato. but with a stickier texture, lending a thickening quality to said soups.

Personally I admire quequisque in the garden.
This beautiful plant could easily pass for an ornamental!

Once I learned to identify the bright green flaps of quesquisque, I started recognizing its "elephant ears" along roadsides, bordering fences, amongst coffee farms, and in urban patios. The locals already have it figured out! Plant one of these hairy monster eggs in the backyard, and enjoy its splendid green foliage until harvesting its bounty. Is there anything cooler than an attractive edible??Folks around here do not seem practiced in eating the leaves; however, in other lands they provide a nutrient-dense source of roughage. But be warned! The leaves are known to contain needle-like calcium oxalate crystals which irritate the mouth and throat. This irritation is avoided by boiling the leaves for an undetermined period of time before consuming. maybe i'll try them, no rush. I am told it could be up to six months before the tubers are ready to harvest. Let's reconvene in febrero.

On to another Q in my garden, also an eye-catching edible:
Can you guess?
Even if you are as big a fan of this South American GRAIN, as I am, odds are you are not familiar with the plant. Or maybe you've never heard of it: Quinoa! (pronounced KEEN-WA)

Quinoa is a tiny seed championed for its incredibly complete protein content. For vegetarians, quinoa provides all the goods that typically require a legume + grain formula for plant-based proteins. It cooks up into a fluffy, nutty dish that is delicious at breakfast with milk and fruit as well as a compliment to a stir-fry, as a substitute for rice.
I look forward to the day when I shall harvest, eat, (and display online) my Qs. Until then, I will work on keeping both my Ps and Qs in order.