Thursday, April 17, 2014

Herbal Apothecary: The Aloe Harvest

Yes, you read that correctly. As our temperatures ricochet between 75 and 25 degrees, we've been experiencing high winds for several days. I know, I know--it's always windy here, so what's the big deal? Well, this go-around was enough to take out the cable, a massive tree limb, and our poor, domesticated aloe plant.

It was great to have the windows open over the weekend, but on Monday the wind really picked up, and our aloe ended up on the floor, with three smushed leaves. The photo above shows the plant after I trimmed off the broken leaves, which is why it's now kind of lopsided.

Two leaves I cut down to the base, but this one was only broken at the tip, so I decided to try to save most of it. Aloe leaves heal themselves pretty quickly, so it should be ok.

I wasn't planning to harvest aloe while the plant is still so small, but it would be a shame to waste the leaves that the wind so efficiently delivered to me. Turns out that I also needed to make some more soap, so…project time! Let's roll.

Harvesting the aloe vera gel from the leaves turns out to be a messy project, but that might just be because I'm not that good at it (yet). I also think that it would be much easier with bigger leaves, but you take what you get. Here are the steps I took to get at the gel:

1. Cut the aloe leaves as close to the base of the plant as possible. If you're really good, you can get an outside leaf off without cutting it at all--it will just separate from the plant. I managed to get one to break off this way, but the rest I cut with kitchen shears. 

2. Drain the sap. Also leaves have resin (which I think smells terrible, by the way) that is reddish or yellow. It's thick goo that needs to drain out or it will stain your hands and keep on smelling bad (I can't really describe it, but I hated it. Maybe it's meant as a deterrent to animals who would try to get at all the water the plant stores inside?). The draining is easy if you just put the leaves cut side down in a glass and wait.

3. Fillet the leaves:

I cut the leaves in half the long way, although you can see in the photo above that when it gets skinny, it's easy to slip off and leave some of the skin.

At this point they will leak goo (by this I mean healing aloe vera gel) all over your cutting board:

Try your best to scoop it up to save it, but don't be too disappointed when it's too slippery to manage. I feel like I lost quite a bit to the board.

4. Scoop out the gel.

I just used a spoon to scrape down each half of leaf, pressing all the way down to the outer skin:

There's loose, wet goo, but there's also a solid, gelatinous piece in the middle. You can sort of see some of the broken, solid pieces toward the bottom of this photo of the gel from the first leaf I did:

You can also see that I missed some resin (reddish orange) and a few bits of the leaf (green). If I were planning to try to save this in the fridge, that might shorten its life, but I was going to use it right away. (If I were planning to save it, I'd also add some Vitamin E from a capsule, but I didn't bother here.)

5. Crush up the solid pieces of aloe with a mortar and pestle to make a smoother consistency of gel.

Ok, soap time! 

As I have before, I used an organic melt-and-pour base, but this time I added all of my fresh aloe vera gel:

This is about 8 ounces of soap base and about 1/4 cup of aloe vera.

Then I whisked in pulverized calendula and comfrey:

This is just like the herbal soap I've made before, but now with aloe. Also, you can see that there are still a few white chunks of aloe that I should have been more diligent about processing. Oh well.

I also added some essential oils for scent at this point (a few drops each of lovage, rosemary, bergamot and just a tiny bit of rose). 

Once it's all mixed, it gets poured into molds to cool:

I used twice as much calendula as comfrey this time, and I really like the orange color that it gave the soap.

I also really like the texture of this soap. All that aloe makes for a very smooth bar that just glides over your skin. I don't think I'll have enough to add it every time I make soap, but I'll definitely make this again when I do have more to harvest!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Entertainment Budget, Part 2

Sorry if this is super lame, but I'm going to repeat myself.

Cut back the entertainment budget by (another) $40 per month.

It's true, we've already done this. But that's no reason not to do it again.

Now our entertainment budget is actually $80 per month less than it was at the beginning of 2014 ($40 cut in January, and another $40 cut now). And I have to say, just like we never really felt that tiny trim back in January, I don't think we're going to notice this one in April, either.

So our battered "Entertainment Envelope" is a little thinner, but that's a good thing. (As I mentioned before, we are on a cash-only basis with eating out and going to movies, so that we stay squarely within the budget we've allowed ourselves. This envelope stays on a desk in the living room where everyone can easily see what's left to spend, which helps us plan ahead and make decisions together.)

And even though this is a repeat, I think it goes to show that if you're really trying to cut back on spending and/or saving up towards a goal, you can always do more. If I had done $80 all at once, we would've been grumbling about it, but doing it in two small bites was a piece of cake. 

The lesson here: keep checking out that budget, and re-evaluate your spending on a regular basis. You might be surprised what you find to cut that you once thought you couldn't live without!

Savings per month: $40

Monday, April 14, 2014

Signs Of Spring

We've been on a springtime weather roller coaster here the past several days, bouncing from balmy to brisk and back again. It was another big weekend in the garden, with lots of bed prep and planting (leeks, onions, carrots, parsnips, radishes, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, and potatoes). My hamstrings and hands are still sore, but we got a lot done.

It would be a shame, though, to focus only on the to-do list without enjoying all the little changes that spring brings to the garden. Here's what's blooming:

Bulbs are up in the perennial border, and these blue glory-of-the-snow get better each year. We inherited them and they have naturalized nicely. There are also some darker blue Siberian squill, which are just starting to come up.

We removed the spills from the sugar maple now that sugaring season is done. The wound should heal over by autumn.

More blue! These sky blue muscari bulbs are in the cutting bed, but I never actually cut them down. 

Rhubarb stalks have also made an appearance. They're always a little on the creep side, but soon that curly bit will start looking more a life a leaf and less like brains. This year our rhubarb is fully established, so we can eat as much as we want!

One full "C" is planted already! This one has onions and garlic, and the part that looks like plain dirt has been sown with carrots, parsnips, and snap peas. 

One of our own seed potatoes (Kennebec) is sprouting and ready to be planted. The potatoes stored really well over the winter, and we made sure to keep a planting box's worth of both white and red in reserve for the this year.  

Finally, a stop at the nursery to grab radish seeds led me to pick up some pansies to plant in our containers. I don't think we've had pansies since we lived in the Red House, so I'm enjoying their cheery color quite a bit. 


…that's a weird bit of product synergy, no? Is there a ton of crossover with gardeners and sci-fi fans? 

Obviously, I have removed the tag. I'd prefer not to recall one of my least favorite cinema experiences while enjoying my spring flowers, thank you very much.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Maple Sugar Round Up

As of this weekend, our maple sugaring season is over. The trees haven't budded out yet, but the sap has slowed way down now that we aren't getting below freezing temperatures at nighttime any more.

We boiled down our last three pints of syrup over the weekend, and next weekend we will be dismantling the fire pit, taking out the spiles, and cleaning everything up to pack away for next year.

2014 maple sugaring stats:

4 taps (3 in our sugar maple and 1 in our Norway maple)

32 days of collecting sap

80-90 gallons of sap

17 1/2 pints of maple syrup

The one thing I didn't keep records of was the obscene amount of firewood we burned through to make this happen. I do now that we spent a LOT of money on it, because we were getting it at the hardware store by the bag. In the future, we plan to build a small woodshed behind the garage and order a half-cord or cord in the fall, which will see us through any emergency fires we'd need to light due to a power outage, and of course get us through maple sugaring in the spring at a much-reduced cost per log.

Finally, in the photo above you can see how the color (or grade) of the maple syrup changes over the course of the season. Our first three weekends of syrup-making produced Grade-A results like the medium amber jar on the left. This past weekend, though, is a Grade-B syrup. It's much darker, and Kirk thought it was a bit more like molasses in its taste. Its flavor is much stronger, with just a teensy touch of bitterness at the finish. I'm thinking those final three pints will be the ones I reach for this summer when I give maple-almond ice cream a try. (Recipe to follow once I figure it out, of course.) The strongest possible flavor is ice cream is a good thing, and it's probably just right for experimenting with in baking as a sugar substitute as well.

All told, we had a great time with this project, and will definitely do it again!