in which we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

1a-pigking-graphicsfairy010

Hmmmmmm. Is it really St. Patrick’s Day already?

What should we talk about?  Irish Soda Bread?  NOBODY will be writing about THAT.  Irish Stew? Ditto. Irish ham? Colcannon? Guinness? Whiskey? The Corned Beef that actual Irish people don’t eat?  Yawn.

I have been working on some whole grain/wheat projects and spent a couple of weeks learning about and baking some authentic Irish soda breads. So far, one big thing I have learned is that aside from brief curiosity, my taste-testing friends prefer their Americanized fiction of Irish traditions much more than the real, farmstead and/or poverty-born deal.

Which fact has annoyed some enough to create an entire Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread with a very entertaining website and Facebook page.

IMG_2690IMG_2721

Call me odd, but I love the rustic character of irish soda bread. With very few ingredients, the freshness of the wheat flour is critical.  A perfect trifecta of  substantial whole wheat, rich, homemade butter & summer fresh peach jam. Who needs raisins?

_________________________________________________________________________

The real beauty of Irish farmstead food is that yes, it is simple, but because the home-raised and/or foraged ingredients can be so pure, fresh, wholesome and full of flavor, everyday food carefully prepared can be sublime.

Of course we know that Ireland has had her struggles with shortage and famine.  Simple things we Americans take for granted, like raisins and sugar for your soda bread  would have been special luxuries for too many Irish.

The last couple years I wrote about some pretty serious Irish topics, but really, who are we kidding? St. Patrick’s Day in America is just an excuse to misbehave, have celebrations, skip school, get rowdy and drink beer. Green beer. Lots of it, right?

IMG_2701

You first; No you!  It’s A Pig-Jam!  everyone’s afraid to jump off the trailer after a move. No point in rushing them, pigs operate on their own time. One day later, they’re jumping on and off with gusto. 

_______________________________________________________________________

Around here, those best able to devote themselves to the proper celebration of St. Patrick’s Day are the pigs. I know, I’ve been delinquent about filling you in on all the recent porky details, it’s true.  Raucus? Bawdy? Chaotic? Enthusiastic? Lawless, Loutish, Wild, uproarious, Unruly, Disorderly, Calamitous, Boisterous, Unrestrained and Pure-Gleeful-Mayhem?

I could go on, but I’m pretty sure you know how to use a thesaurus without my help. Let’s just say there’s face stuffing, racing in circles until they fall down, snuffling, brawling, barking, chasing, stealing, biting, snuggling, and some general rooting, mayhem & destruction.  Then, revelry over, the pile of snoring pigs catches up on their beauty sleep.

IMG_2743

Do not disturb:  A snoring pile O’ pigs

_________________________________________________________________________

Next comes the big, greasy morning-after breakfast (remember those?) to be followed by another power nap. The best nap ever they tell me. The restorative power of that grand nap gives them the energy they need to get up and do it all over again.  Every. Single. Day. It’s rough being a pig around here, I don’t know how they do it.

‘Tis shameless they are.

a steamy cuppa valentine love

teacupgfairy003d

Grand gestures are showy, but quiet, small ones are sweeter.

_________________________________________________________________________

Today is that favorite day of retailers, florists and restauranteurs everywhere, Valentine’s Day. And while I’m weary of the commercialized aspect of the day, you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted to not love one big collective day of appreciation for the special people in our lives.

We Pennsylvanians will tell you that this winter has been an old-fashioned, mettle-testing trudge. We’ve been very fortunate here in Western PA  - unlike our neighbors in Eastern PA who are suffering some real damage and hardship, we’re just inconvenienced and fatigued.  The kind of weariness that can be soothed with a steamy, creamy cup of home-made cocoa.

I nixed commercial hot chocolate powders a long time ago in favor of the old-fashioned, off the package Hershey’s cocoa recipe that my mom used to make. Real milk, cocoa, salt, sugar and a bit of vanilla – all things found in an average kitchen. Is it really too difficult to heat a pan of milk?

IMG_2522IMG_2535

But then , one day Molly at Remedial Eating wrote about something that stopped me in my tracks. Something I had to try ASAP. And I’m so glad I did. This is one of the nicest, sweetest DIY gift ideas around – a jar of chocolate ganache ready to spoon into heated milk for a perfectly delicious, creamy, real cup of steaming cocoa.

IMG_2536

Who am I kidding?? Try 3 or even 4…

_________________________________________________________________________

Of course, once that idea was planted, variants were inevitable. What about the hand crafted stoneground chocolate I bought from Rancho Gordo?  Maybe not for everyone, but definitely for me. A little grittier and cinnamon-ey, this is dangerous.

IMG_2573IMG_2572

How do I love thee Rancho Gordo? Let me count the ways…

_________________________________________________________________________

So, if you’re still struggling for not-too-big, not-too-small gift ideas, here you go. A nice jar of homemade chocolate ganache. A steamy cup of ready-made love for your beloved.

IMG_2578

 heating up the milk too difficult?  there’s always spoon truffles. Spoon truffles? You know exactly what I’m talking about – no double dipping!

Previous Valentine’s Day ideas:

Glazed Strawberry Poptarts

A Sweet Sack of Homemade Caramels

snow day

IMG_2588

Don’t ask me what she’s doing – she has an inside to go to.

This is Bess.  You know Bess.  She’s the cutie at the top of my blog every time you visit.  Hard to believe, time certainly flies.  Today Bess is a goofy mother-to-be, and a carbon copy of her eccentric mother Bling.

Yesterday during the snow storm I had to deliver fresh hay to the Ladies. Lots of it.  They’re hoovering through their hay twice as fast as usual and the streams are all frozen so it’s been a bit rugged around here.

Thankful for small blessings like tractors that start, hot running water and new hay bales not coated in a one-inch-thick crust I have to chip open (Note to self: devote a post to that muscle-soring ridiculousness), I round the corner and this is what I see:

IMG_2585

What?? Are you kidding me?

IMG_2586Whew! All is fine, just a little nutty.

Teenagers!

Check out these other snowy days:

in which we hear it for the boys

in which we decide we like it

in which we reflect on the beauty of a long winter’s nap

in which we laugh: good golly miss molly!

just passed: the law against common sense

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Okay eagle eyes, I know 37¢ stamps are a little behind the times

_________________________________________________________________________

What? A law against common sense? You didn’t know?

I’m pretty sure it was.  Of course it’s secret. Voted in a closed-door session, announced quickly late on a Friday afternoon then completely ignored by mainstream media.

I’m talking about the Food Safety Modernization Act, but you can probably insert your own business or industry since there is so much crazy flying around who can be in the know about all of it?

Like all common sensical infrastructure we depend on for our very lives,  we know frightfully little about food AND food safety. But it must involve lots of plastic, right?  

I’m a little smitten with a phrase I read recently in the Small Farmer’s Journal: Civilian Agriculture. That’s right, Civilian Agriculture. Let that sink in for a minute. I’ve been chewing on that for several days.

It’s time for civilians to stand up and pay attention. We’re being distracted and disarmed by non-essential bickering and we need to get our focus back. The engagement of citizens is the missing element that can reverse the craziness.

Let’s shake off the Facebook glitter and Virtual reality goggles and roll up our sleeves. Write some letters. Pay attention. Dig deeper. Ask why. Go outside. Get dirty. Wonder.  Learn things. Do stuff. Help out.

At the moment, as in immediately, it’s time to do a little reading about the new Food Safety Modernization Bill. Sure it sounds like a good idea to have safer food systems. I’m all for it.

But does this new Food Safety Modernization Act deliver safety? Or is it one step closer towards life 4.0, the hermetically sealed edition?   Irony of ironies, methods organic farmers use to build healthy soil are the items being restricted. Synthetics? Safe, but of course. And gaping loopholes allowing a pass for some very risky industrial practices.

And, seriously. Fencing wildlife out of entire crops to prevent any pooping in the field?  Have you any idea how much that will cost? And what about our horse-farming Amish farmers who raise so much local produce? Diapers? Sigh…

The FDA and USDA have not been enforcing laws in a manner that gives me confidence in their ability to be reasonable, informed and fair. Not sure? Ask Linda Fallaice of Mad Sheep infamy, or heritage breed pig farmers in Michigan. Or maybe the Dean family of Pasture Maid Creamery… 

Giving them the ability to shut down at will farms and artisan food makers, impose large fees on farmers and producers, impose costly weekly lab testing and a policy of shut down & confiscate without proof will be the final straw for many small farmers and food processors.

There is no unified guideline, so enforcement will be a little wild-wild-west  with every official able to interpret as they see fit. I’m not in any way suggesting that small farmers be exempt from safety practices and regulation. Though I am in favor of not killing small sustainable farms for the sins of massive industrial ones.

And, let’s face it. The government agencies are not staffed to handle it. Our USDA offices are being run with skeleton staff. I’ve read a variety of estimates that only between 1 – 15% of foreign imports are actually inspected by the FDA because of understaffing.  And, of the foods inspected, inspectors have only around 30 seconds to spend per item.

To underscore my point, as I write this, the government link for comments, regulations.gov has been shut down due to temporary difficulties. Are you kidding me? It’s time to hit the big guns people, PEN & PAPER!

Sustainable farming is a low profit labor of love for most. The cost of land and equipment guarantees we are on track to have fewer and fewer farmers in the near future. The profit margin of the average small farm is about 10% – very low compared to other industries. Implementing the new Food Safety Modernization laws will cost a small farm an estimated 6% of that 10%.

The result is that the burgeoning small farm movement is in danger of being cut off at the knees. Of which the FDA is well aware and has stated is expected.

Odds are because  you are here, reading this, you already know this and have likely taken action. But maybe we can all, in these final days before the November 15 deadline, spread the word to as many unaware people as possible.

Time is literally running out. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has done a great job hustling up letter writing events an easy to follow guide to help you navigate the process. Check it out here.

The Cornucopia Institute has also published a useful white paper if you’d like to learn more. They are staunch fighters for the organic standard, and do their best to keep Corporate Organic on their toes.

This is a heavy season for food-centric deadlines, let’s not let it pass unchallenged.  Now, get out there and mail some letters  - ready, set, go, write! What are you waiting for? Hurry!

Am I missing anything? Let me know if you have a good source of information to share too.

This post is part of Fresh Foods Wednesday.

It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food, fresh food production, consumption, activism, and awareness… not to mention a rant here and there…

You really should check it out:

foraging the farm: great balls of pork

burdock

Inspiration for Velcro? No kidding…

_________________________________________________________________________

There are few things I love more than looking at something reviled through a new lens and finding that it’s actually just misunderstood. And, the burdock I inherited from the previous farmer? Let’s just say that’s one thing I’ve been determined to beat understand.

Burdock, burrs, beggar’s button, wooly burr, cocklebur, and the inspiration for Velcro, everyone knows burdock though you might not recognize it by name.

It’s that annoying large broad-leafed plant with the prickly burrs that get stuck in your hair, your socks, your sleeves, the wooly coat of the dog, and matts up the pretty flaxen switches of the Ladies’ tails.

After reading my favorite The Seasons on Henry’s Farm, my opinion if not my experience of burdock has been turned completely inside-out. Maybe I’ve just not been looking at burdock through the proper lens.

Around here, burdock is one of the plants that sends most farmers sprinting for the nearest vat of Round-up. But, on Henry’s farm, they actually plant the stuff. You read that right. I had to wipe off my glasses and go back for a re-read, but it’s true.

And, while we post-Colonial Americans have no real custom of eating burdock, it appears our Indian predecessors were well familiar with its virtues. Burdock was dug in the fall during the Harvest and Hunter’s moons, then dried to provide sustenance during the long frozen winter months.

The Japanese too have long had an appreciation for the sweet, delicately flavored crunchy root cloaked in its plain dirty brown wrapper. Never knew it, but the massive root is nutritious, delicious and has significant medicinal benefits as well.

So, with subversive glee and high expectations, I set out to prove that burdock’s unsavory reputation has been a bad rap all along.

I decided to make the chicken broth with pork and kale recipe from Nigel Slater’s enviable book, Tender: A Cook and his Vegetable Patch. Which is really the story of my life, only much, much cooler. I cannot wait for the movie…

IMG_1597

You say you think chicken broth with pork and kale sounds boring? Nay, nay. Anything but. Modern, richly flavored yet fresh, light, herb-y and comforting at the same time. And substituting burdock leaves for the kale is bound to shake things up, right?

_________________________________________________________________________

IMG_1580IMG_1405IMG_1582

Fresh herbs are lovely, but Oregano Indio from Rancho Gordo gets ‘er done…

_______________________________________________________________________

I hunted up the more delicate, small leaves from the first year plants and gathered up a hefty bunch. Then I harvested green onions from the garden, mint from the pasture, and foraged roasted poblano peppers and ground pork from my freezer.

I made Nigel’s recipe more or less exactly as it’s written, but used my burdock leaves instead of the kale or cabbage. Here’s the printable recipe.

IMG_1592

My pork is slow raised heritage breed so I’ve got a bit more fat. Best of both worlds, just refrigerate & skim the fat from the top before serving.

_________________________________________________________________________

I so wanted this tale to have a different ending.  I mean, I worked those burdock leaves – I wanted them to be miraculous. But, even after boiling the burdock in water with salt & some vinegar to reduce the bitterness they were still peculiar and unpleasant. Washing-your-mouth-with-soap kind of bitter.

IMG_1424

baby burdock leaves – rinsed, blanched in water laced with salt & vinegar. Yikes! that’s some bitter shizzle…

_________________________________________________________________________

I have read tales of other people enjoying the flavor of burdock leaves and describing the bitterness as pleasant?  I suppose they’re telling the truth, but let’s just say it’s not for me. Acquired taste is kind of an understatement…

Now –  burdock roots? I’m still holding out hope for the crunchy-tender deliciousness of burdock root.

The pork balls on the other hand are simple perfection and not to be dismissed. Our American food culture is short on uses for unadorned ground pork, but when you buy a half or whole pig, guess what you have? Unless you have it all made into sausage, which is a bit limiting, you’ve got plenty of plain ole ground pork.

If you haven’t bought your pork in bulk, a good, old-school butcher shop that doesn’t get its meat in processed boxes should be able to grind you some.  I hope your town has one of those. If so, do check in and let us know about it. I love hearing about those kinds of artisan treasures.

I highly recommend keeping a bit of ground pork in the freezer. Nothing riches up your chicken stock like a long simmer with a few of these tender meatballs.They’re useful, versatile and freeze well.

Since the burdock turned out to be a not-so-great-idea, next time I went for the Savoy cabbage. Much, much better.  Cabbage and pork fat have a special bond, and the flavor of the cabbage doesn’t overwhelm the herby, delicate flavor of the pork balls.

But my favorite combination?  Definitely the kale. Delicious.  Far from being another kale cliché, kale & pork balls were made for each other.

What’s the next big weedy crop? Lamb’s Quarter. They say it’s like spinach, only better.  You know them, don’t you? They say a lot. I sure hope they’re right next time.

What do you say?  Do you have a favorite foraged green or excellent use for simple ground pork?

We love foraging the farm. Check out some of our other misadventures:

Monsanto’s got it all wrong: got weeds? don’t spray ‘em, eat ‘em

in which we lament: don’t hate us because we’re (not) beautiful

in which we say: My Haw!

cow tales: the stinkiest eye

IMG_2338

I’ve been wanting to mention stink-eye for a while now.

You didn’t know about stink-eye?  Well.  Stink-eye is a quirky cow thing that cracks me up.  I haven’t been able to properly share it with you because somehow or other, whenever a good stink-eye situation happens, it’s such a rare, unexpected and fleeting moment, I miss the photo.

Dopey as you think cows may/may not be, they have a pretty extensive vocabulary of moos, hums, growls and head tosses. What I call stink-eye is the body language cows use to warn others to back off, slow it down and respect their space. And, while it does crack me up, it’s no joke. Ignore cow stink-eye at your own risk.

Approach a cow too suddenly or introduce a new cow into a herd and you’re likely to see a good display of stink-eye. What will you see?

Zay

A half-hearted stink-eye from Zay… She’s not nearly so stinky as she used to be

_________________________________________________________________________

A cow will turn sideways to give an intimidating side view of their full puffed-up size, head down, chin to chest, back arched and posed to look as intimidating as possible. The eye will be widened to show a full white ring and there will be some huffing, blowing, pawing and possibly drooling.

Some cows are quicker than others to stink-eye, and no cow has a stinkier eye than Zay.

IMG_0851IMG_1376

Not Stink-Eye exactly, but typical Beatrice

_________________________________________________________________________

Except maybe Beatrice.

Beatrice is quick to give a good stink-eye.  Thing is, in the standard issue Bovine Dictionary, I don’t think stink-eye means what Beatrice thinks it does.

Beatrice is more happy-goofy Labradoodle than Rottweiler.  Somehow I think she’s got the signal for “HEY THERE LADY, COME PET ME RIGHT NOW! mixed up with the one for “BACK OFF RIGHT NOW OR ELSE!!!”.

She’s got the right-now part down, but Beatrice seems a little off with the rest.

Beatrice-miley

The only thing worse than stink-eye??  This!  I Saw her Twerking in the barn…

_________________________________________________________________________

Hopefully the Ladies aren’t making fun of her behind her back like your friends did when you were screeching out wrong lyrics to popular songs with all your might. But you know what? Somehow I don’t think Beatrice would really care what those silly Ladies say anyway. Beatrice marches to her own drum.

But Zay? Make no mistake – Zay knows exactly what it means…

Zay & Beatrice go way back. Here’s more:

beatrice: braveheart, bold or just plain bad?

two hellos and a kidnapping

Real Food Pantry Tricks: a freezer full of ratatouille

103_2268

A satisfying winter diet filled with veggies can be a challenge….

Sometimes, I need something warm, filling and rich that’s not soup. Something comforting and velvety in texture that can help me resist my cravings for calorie laden dishes like macaroni & cheese and mashed potatoes.

Yesterday we talked about what a flexible ingredient ratatouille is.  Today I want to show you my favorite lighter recipe and how doubling up each time I make it is one of the ways I preserve summer veggies for winter.

I found my ratatouille salvation in Martha Rose Schulman’s great cookbook for beginners, Light Basics Cookbook. Sadly, this book is out of print – it’s packed with gems, tips and tricks – particularly to those new to the kitchen. But, used copies are still available and Martha keeps a helpful online archive of her recipes, so all is not lost.

Here’s Martha Rose’s recipe for her less caloric version of ratatouille.

Except for one thing. Martha’s online recipe leaves out one slightly fussy step that makes the book version of this recipe such a treasure. Sure, you can skip it and your ratatouille will still be good, but why stop at good when you can have fantastic?

It’s only slightly fussy and the difference is well worth the effort.

The trick is reduction.  Making use of the power of reduction is one of the little-mentioned secrets of Kitchen Greats. Simmering a sauce until the water evaporates concentrates the flavor and thickens the sauce without adding flour or thickeners. It takes just a little more time and attention, but can boost a recipe from good enough to amazing.

A  reduction intensifies the flavors of my rustic fruit pies. Pan seared meat served with sauce made from reducing the pan juices and an added liquid is rich and elegant. I don’t love floury gravy for my beef stew, brisket or short ribs either. Instead, why not remove the meat & veggies to the serving dish and reduce the sauce?

Of course, you could finish by adding a knob of good butter which only makes the whole thing more plate-lickingly good…

So, how does ratatouille benefit from a reduction? Simple. After cooking, place a colander over a  large bowl. and dump the ratatouille into the colander.  The juices will drain into the bowl.

Transfer the juices to a saucepan and return the ratatouille to the casserole.

103_2269

Heat the juices to a simmer. Try to keep your boil as gentle as possible – the harder the boil, the faster the reduction, but also the more the flavor is altered by temperature. A slower simmer preserves the flavor.  And, any seasonings will intensify after being reduced so adjust to taste after the reduction, particularly the salt.

Reduce by half over medium-high heat, add your knob of butter if you wish (I wish you will), then stir the reduced juices back into the ratatouille.

This is a dish that is even better made the day before.  For best results, cook and refrigerate overnight.  Next day, serve at either room temperature or warm.

On seasoning ratatouille:  I admit that one reason I didn’t love ratatouille at first is because it tends to be heavily herbed/seasoned. Call me crazy, but I really don’t care for that.  Late tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion have more than enough flavor without and some fresh basil added just before serving is just right for me. So, if you feel the same way or just don’t have the thyme and/or oregano, don’t let that stop you. The flavor without is every bit as delicious.

103_2258

If you’re going to make one ratatouille, why not make two and save some for later?

When you’re done, take your leftovers, measure out the size you would be most likely to use at one time (if you aren’t sure, go smaller). Two cups per bag is my preferred amount.

I prepare quart freezer bags by labeling them,  rolling the tops down and standing them up on the table.

You may be wondering, so here it is: there is no way to know in advance exactly how many bags you will need, so label cautiously. You could label after filling, but it’s really hard to write on jiggly filled bags and messy & difficult for marker to adhere to frozen ones.

Carefully measure your rat into the bags, squeeze any air from the bag, seal and lay flat on its side on a baking sheet or flat plate.  Carefully stack your bags so each lays perfectly flat.  Place the stack of filled bags into the freezer, keeping as straight and level as possible.

IMG_0406

Freezing the bags flat on their sides on a plate or baking sheet is an important detail.  Skip it and the weight of the liquid will cause the contents to sink around the freezer racks.  The bags will become entwined around the racks, then freeze that way making it impossible for you to remove them from the freezer or stack them neatly.

Don’t ask me how I know this…

Next day, when your bags are frozen solid, you can stack them upright to save space. Plastic organizers and large freezer containers help keep everything tidy, visible and help you squeeze more in.

The more tightly packed your freezer, the more efficiently it runs. 

IMG_0438

Do this all summer and you’ll have a virtual library of preserved “books”.

What kinds of garden goodness is in my library? Pumpkin puree, fresh tomato sauce, squash, ratatouille, roasted beets, beet greens, cantaloupe puree, shredded zucchini, rendered lard and plum pie filling.

What’s in your freezer library? Any delectable secrets? Do share…