tattletales

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Hey Lady! Hey! Lady! We’re telling! not fair!

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Does anyone like a tattletale? Maybe this goes back to playground 101, but I’ve never been a fan of tattlers.

Did you know that kids have nothing on cows when it comes to ratting out their friends? It’s true. And, just like with people, some cows tattle more  than others. But unlike people, cows are kind of funny when their sense of fairness is violated.

I knew right off something wasn’t quite right when both herds were bunched up by the front fence of their pastures. As soon as they saw me, the indignant bawling began.

Apparently I’ve been elected to right the injustices in their world.

What’s the big injustice? Ask Regina. She’s pretty, sweet, shy and ladylike.  She’s also super-smart in ways I have to admire, but don’t always appreciate.

Previously, I noticed some footprints in the garden that were a little large for our dainty-hooved deer. Only thing, everyone’s right where they’re supposed to be; inside their respective fences. Curious and more than a little concerned, I tracked the prints straight to the pasture fence.

The Ladies paid me zero attention, focused as they were on stuffing their faces. All but one that is.  Regina.

Regina was watching my investigation intently from a distance.  Hmm.  Clue?

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Miss Regina pretending to be busy: Not so innocent

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Next morning, all was peaceful, except for one thing. Regina was grazing with the rest of the girls, but on the wrong side of the fence. Gently, without getting anyone excited, I guided her back inside through the gate. Battery still charged, wire still hot but a little tangled, I figured she got a good shock when she slipped the fence and wouldn’t be trying it again.

It looked like my theory was correct and several days passed with no further incident.

Problem solved, right?  Not so fast. Last night, wires were down and  tangled again and a few telling manure piles were found in places they shouldn’t be. Amazingly, Regina was inside the pasture, right where she was supposed to be.

So it seems I have a cow who not only lets herself out, she lets herself back in. Ask her about it and Regina innocently blinks her long lashes and licks your hand.  Slick.

Yesterday, I watched Regina carefully from afar. I was fussing around doing chores in the pasture and eventually she forgot I was there.  Sure enough, I saw her slip out, then back in when she saw there was a fresh delivery of her favorite mineral blocks. I swear I even saw her whistling…

It’s a quiet, peaceful little crime, but the herd is onto her.

They say it’s an outrage – the UNFAIRNESS!  Listen up Lady - we have demands!

I hate to break it to them. Life’s not fair. I wish it wasn’t so, but that’s just the way it is. Can we please now move on and turn our thoughts back to the fresh grass you’ve been looking forward to all winter?

The grass is delicious on both sides of the fence … see? Fingers crossed my little pep talk works. The last thing I have time for is a whole herd of escape artists…

Want more cow tales?

In which Saralee has a crush
in which we ask: boss or bellwether
in which we give thanks for good friends

building a real foods pantry: everyday cornmeal cookies

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Closest I’ll get to sunshine this cold, gray early spring day

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Sugar  Corn Pops, Bugles, Niblets, Jiffy Cornbread Mix, Fritos, and summer’s long-awaited treat corn on the cob was my childhood understanding of corn.  Then Chi Chi’s changed everything when they showed up with the tortilla chips and salsa.   And, if I hadn’t married a man who loved polenta, that would have been the complete, quickie version of my entire corn history.

Somehow, without any informed, factual reason, corn just got pushed to the back of my brain and marked second-class; lesser somehow than other whole grain options.

Is it because Corn’s crackie relatives are always attracting controversy for their freakish DNA , their miscreant behavior and their Big Food/Big Ag shenanigans?

Not sure, but  my brain somehow decided corn = not so good and locked it away.

Well. Boy, do I ever owe Corn an apology. Turns out there’s a lot more to her than the few commercial varieties used by industry in about a gazillion-and-one products. Check out what the Whole Grains Council has to say about this useful, delicious and nutritious grain.

My deeper exploration of corn started with polenta. Then came  home made cornbread. And is there any more filling and satisfying breakfast than a steaming bowl of cornmeal grits with their delicious pool of melted butter or, even better, cheese?

I have yet to grind my own cornmeal, explore hominy or make my own tortillas, but that’s sure to happen eventually.  Particularly since planting my own corn is one of this summer’s projects, and I’m very excited about the open pollinated Early Riser variety waiting in its box for the soil to warm.

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But you know what is a truly underrated use for corn? Cakes and cookies. Ask the Italians-  they know. Corn makes some super-delicious (not too) sweet treats.  Recently one chilly gray day I made these Italian cornmeal cookies, masa zaletti.

In case you haven’t noticed, I am an unashamed lover of cookies.  There is no occasion that isn’t improved with a cookie, and if there’s a person who isn’t cheered by one, I sure haven’t met them.  Since I am so helpless to resist, I prefer to keep cookies around that are more rustic, wholesome, less processed and not so sweet as store-bought brands.

And, of course anytime I cook something entirely from ingredients raised here and/or bought from local farmers instead of the grocery store, it’s a real bonus to say the least.

This particular recipe from Whole Grains for a New Generation adds a more savory element by mixing the raw fine yellow cornmeal with the New World ingredient masa harina.  Check out the printable recipe here. 

The whole batch only calls for 1/3 cup sugar, and no white flour at all, so I’d say these were a truly guilt free way to make a little sunshine of your very own.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy corn?

a pregnant pause

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Winter has been exactly as long as it’s supposed to be, no longer and maybe even shorter. A couple of weeks ago I was starting to feel a little whine-ey for lack of sunshine and grass, but once again I have no complaints. I almost forget I was whine-ey at all – it’s been balmy and sunny and productive. Humid even.

Grass is back baby, grass is back.

While tonight temperatures are dropping once again – fingers crossed for the apple trees – spring is definitely upon us. Soon enough the flat-out sprint begins once again… get stuff planted, fuss, weed, mow, harvest, process, plant, weed, mow, harvest, process, plant, weed, mow, harvest, process… figure out how to store it all… before I know it, it’ll be time for frost.

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Relentless isn’t it?  Anyway, the Ladies can’t figure out what all the rushing around is about. Their bellies are full, their days are spent hanging out, grooming their friends, resting, cud-chewing, napping, stuffing themselves and waiting.

Waiting?  Last year by this time, the calves were nearing a month old. Not ideal by my standards, but luck smiled upon us (sort of; drought to follow) with an unusually warm and balmy winter, so all was well. Only one, Suzette, was born in the quiet dawn just before a snowstorm but I was able to get her safely inside and tucked into a fluffy hay nest.

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The class of 2012. All a bunch of awkward shaggy juvies now

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Not willing to push my luck, this year I timed everything to sync with the flush of spring grass and safer weather. So today, we wait. My calendar says to look for calves beginning April 22, and judging by bellies & udders, Suki, Zay, Molly and Bling are all in a race to be first, with Femme, Sprite, Saralee, Regina and Hannabelle hot on their heels.

This race could go any way really, and is still open for a straggler to take the lead.

Our oafish friend Ellis the Destroyer is still up to his old tricks – he’s added flipping gates off their hinges and popping fence posts to his resume – but I cannot fault him on his professionalism and efficiency.

What are your spring to-do’s?

worth every dirtied dish: walnut waffles

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Beautiful waffles, my favorite slow morning treat. Warm, sweet, their crisp-yet-tender pockets puddled with farm-fresh (whipped!) butter and (real!) maple syrup.

Mmmm…

Or maybe not swimming at all; the right kind of waffle is pretty darn good dry, eaten out of hand and on the fly too. And trust me, these are definitely the right kind of waffle.

As much as I love eating waffles, my brief dabbling in making them led me to the conclusion that many things are more delicious when homemade, but waffles aren’t one of them. I never could master that delicate crisp exterior that makes a waffle worthwhile.

Were the waffles holding out because they knew I didn’t enjoy making them? Who knows, but they just never gave me their all.  I decided it wasn’t worth the mess, effort or the calories when they were so easy to get at the diner down the street.  I made my no-waffle decision years ago, and I’ve never once so much as looked at a recipe for waffles since.

If you’ve been following along, you know  I’ve been working my way through Liana Krissoff’s Whole Grains for a New Generation with From Scratch Club’s cook-along book club.  And, from my very first riffle through Liana’s book, I was smitten with her recipe for walnut waffles. —————————————————————————————————————–

Wafflemaker,  food processor,  small saucepan, two bowls, hand mixer, cooling rack, dry measuring cups, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons… dirty, dirty, dirty.

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Now, I will not lie.  This recipe exceeds the number of procedures and dirty dishes I’m willing to take on most days. This may not bother you, but ask me to dirty more than one appliance and I consider that a deal-breaker.

So, while I love waffles, and this promised some dreamy results, this recipe sat earmarked, admired, but untried. Until today that is. And guess what?

Not only am I very glad I made these waffles, I will be making them again soon. They are rustic in the very best way, perfectly crispy and delicious. The flavors are deep and rich and plenty (but not too) sweet and the walnuts are subtle.

My local diner can’t even come close to making waffles like this…

The trick of beating the egg whites together with the sugar strengthens the batter so it holds up as you cook one waffle at a time, AND makes the waffles nice & crisp.  Oh yes… the secret is revealed.

The whole grains have not a whiff of bitterness and there wasn’t a single sacrifice – I’m eating these waffles because I love them, not because they’re a cardboard stand-in for the waffle I really love…

What’s the other reason I kept coming back to drool over this recipe? It fits perfectly with my quest to fill my freezer with time-saving, extra-ordinary, home-made convenience food.  Here’s a link to the printable recipe.

If you’re going to dirty up all those dishes and appliances, do yourself a favor.  Do it up big and double the recipe.  The waffles freeze very well and you can simply pop them straight from the freezer into the toaster or a baking sheet and heat in a 350° F oven for 15 minutes.

Note: if you’re like me and enjoy your waffles a little on the dark side, take them from the iron before they are as dark as you like when making them for the freezer. Your waffles will continue to brown as you reheat them and the outside may burn before they are warmed through.

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What’s your recipe deal-breaker?  Is there a special treat that entices you to go for it anyway?

More delicious things I learned from Liana Krissoff:

In which we share a fruity secret
build your real foods pantry: rice
building your real foods pantry: preparing for cookie emergencies

in which we ask: are you hungry enough?

Hungry enough for change I mean.

By now you’ve probably seen or heard about this on Facebook or someplace… it’s a pretty spectacular argument for eliminating or reducing food stamps benefits, don’t you think?

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Image source: unknown, circulating via email & social media

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This was confirmed to be factual and did in fact lead to the shopper being charged with welfare fraud. His intent was not to live it up on lobster and porterhouse which offends many but is fully legal.

Instead, his plan was to sell the items for a profit, which is a crime.

Now, I don’t claim to understand the demand for black-market cold water lobster & porterhouse steaks, but apparently there is one.  And it makes perfect sense to see this incident as indisputable proof that food stamps programs should be eliminated or at least sharply edited.

And my goodness, has the line been drawn. On one side are those who feel the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program feeds a culture of dependency and slothfulness. On the other are those who believe assistance should be freely available with no demeaning limits or restrictions attached.

Bumper sticker arguments and memes pile up and every over-simplified one is absolutely confident.  And more often than not, just a tad sensationalized and slanted.  But can we set our opinions aside for a moment?  Who’s really getting the handouts? Hint: it’s not the “Welfare Queen” you think it is.

Please read this report from EatDrinkPolitics(dot)com. Please. It’s thought-provoking, well-organized and packed with very readable and eye-opening info.

You see, in the 1940′s the Food Stamp program was designed to accomplish two significant needs. First to improve nutritional access to those in need, and second to support agriculture. At that time, agriculture meant produce and farmers, not big business and multi-national conglomerates like Cargill, Walmart and PepsiCo.

And did you know that bailout-receiving Big Bank JPMorgan Chase dominates SNAP servicing with contracts for 24 states, Guam and the Virgin Islands. Very nice for them. How nice?

“In 2010, SNAP EBT operating and

equipment costs (split 50-50 between
the states and the federal government,
as are all SNAP administrative costs)
amounted to more than $314 million,
according to USDA data.”

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Yikes. It is a large and convoluted issue.

Judging each other and pointing fingers at those we don’t understand and can’t really relate to is exactly the smokescreen needed for Big Food to continue squeezing out small farms and retailers and compromising the health of those least capable of fighting back.

All in the talking point spirit of “Preserving Choice”.

Don’t allow your judgement of the system’s abusers squelch your desire to help those in real need. This program is truly about giving America’s children the best start in life possible: it’s time for us to get a little closer and look clearly at the people behind the statistics.

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This film, A Place At The Table,  will pull all the scattered bits of opinion, judgement and misinformation into perspective. Get yourself to a theater asap, or gather a group and watch it at home via iTunes or Amazon, and I dare you to not be inspired to roll up your sleeves and get busy doing something.

I know this past election season was an exhausting one, and we’ve all had more than enough. But don’t drift off just yet.  We need to tell Congress Federal Nutrition programs are crucial to hungry children. While they may be imperfect, the program we have is the best we’ve got.

Follow this link to a form from No Kid Hungry that makes it painless to contact your local senator and stress how important it is to keep food available to those in need. Then we can get to work on making the programs more effective and corporation-free.

What are your thoughts about the role of government in food and helping those without financial and/or physical access to healthy food? 

building your real foods pantry: preparing for cookie emergencies

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Golden Raisin Icebox Cookies

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You didn’t know? Yes, there are legitimate cookie emergencies and times when a shortcut to a batch of homemade cookies is a real lifesaver.

I always thought refrigerator cookies sounded kind of stale and frumpy and would flip through those recipes to get to something better. But, as often happens, looking back through the dated and discarded,  this 1930′s trend is actually a perfectly modern solution to many snacking, entertaining & gifting needs.

Maybe the word “Refrigerator” just made them sound boring and blah. “Icebox” somehow sounds more hip & delicious so around here, we have Icebox Cookies. 

Icebox cookies add a simple, convenient and downright elegant trick to your pantry that will help preserve that element of snacking spontaneity we all love so much.

Modern convenience foods have nearly eliminated the distance between craving a snack and popping it into your mouth. Making your own snacks inserts a larger gap between the idea and the eating, naturally improves the healthfulness of the item and reduces the frequency of consumption.

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Salted Rye Cookies

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Why do I love prepared snacks in my freezer?

  • simple strategy for portion control – divide the dough into smaller logs and only bake what you need
  • a quick, fun after school treat kids can make themselves
  • something special on hand to feed unexpected visitors
  • strategy to keep those overly processed commercial cookies out of your pantry
  • a neatly wrapped log of dough is a perfect last-minute hostess gift
  • your kid tells you at 9 pm they need to bring cookies to class tomorrow: you can handle it

Basic icebox cookies are adaptable and delicious. They come in filled swirls, basic shortbread styles, with and without fruit and can be dipped in chocolate for an extra degree of fanciness.

As usual, I’m more of a get-’er-done sort so I don’t spend much time making my swirls fancier nor do I especially care if my logs are perfectly round. But if you’re the sort to fuss over perfection, refrigerator cookies can be beautiful too.

Me, I slap together a dough in the morning, divide it into four separate logs, and wrap the logs in plastic wrap or waxed paper.  I write baking instructions on a freezer bag with a Sharpie, seal the logs inside and pop into the freezer for baking later.

The logs require almost no time to thaw enough to slice, arrange on a baking sheet, bake & cool. I doubt you could make a trip to the store or bakery any faster. All with no mystery ingredients.

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Here are three of my current favorite recipes for Icebox cookies:

  • Golden  Raisin Icebox Cookies – tender, crisp & rich, these are both rustic and sophisticated.
  • Fruit Swirls – an extra bonus to this one is the recipe uses no processed sugar. Instead, use honey and dried fruit. They’re tender, rich and easily adaptable for a variety of flavors.
  • My current obsession: Salted Rye Cookies. I love crunchy sugar crystals and was completely taken by this idea: these earthy rye rounds are rolled in a crunchy, crystal-ey mixture of coarse sugar and salt. Brilliant.

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Fruit Swirls – from Freezer to Plate

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Not so hard, right?  What real foods snacking tricks do you have tucked up your sleeve?

holy pan-seared pork chops: lip-smacking revelation

Oh, Pork Chop. I get it now.

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These are two smoked pork butt roasts. I know it’s not a chop, but this is the best illustration I have. On the left is a heritage breed, pastured roast, on the right the same cut from a conventional, CAFO raised pig. The difference in texture is visible to the eye – the roast on the left was much more succulent, rosy and the meat had a tender, open texture.  On the right, you can see the well defined muscle fibers and the stringy, strongly grained texture. You could cut the pastured roast with a fork, not even close with the roast on the right. Of course, the roast on the left was twice the price, but worth every penny. I knew the pastured pig had a good life and the farm pollutes no one which is worth a lot to me.

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I never understood the big deal about pork chops. How can a colorless, dry hunk of jaw-tiring chewiness with a gristly bone attached possibly be the centerpiece of one of America’s favorite Sunday suppers?

I suppose it’s tasty and tender if baked or braised long enough, sauced & seasoned to the gills – a chef’s art, surely not a farmer’s. A nice steaky chunk of veg, beans or even tofu would make me happier; why torture the pig for such mediocrity?

But now, I see. It’s not us; it’s them. The pigs. Nothing illustrates the wedge driven between our food knowledge and purchasing habits by commercial interests quite as plainly as the maneuvers of the pork industry post WW II.

We’ve forgotten, been lured off the path by all that “pork, the other white meat” business. But, glimmer of hope, slowly we’re remembering. Chops from the right pig, raised the right way are packed with succulent, juicy, rosy deliciousness and make the most beautiful pan drippings imaginable. And it’s so simple. Which is not to say easy.

This is a recipe with very few steps and components so it is important to use impeccable ingredients and be very intentional in the execution. No multi-tasking, chatting on the phone, watching TV or other distractions while you’re about this recipe –  it deserves your full attention.

We rarely think of farming as an art anymore, but trust me: the art of the farmer is just as important as the art of the chef. We’ve just forgotten because it’s so rare these days. An artful chef can make industrial food pleasurable, but pair that same talented chef with an equally artful farmer and your axis will be shifted.

One of my deepest wishes is to help in some small way to restore the reverence and specialness meat so richly deserves. And, I swear, pork chops like these are darn near spiritual. An awakening, a happening, or maybe even a tiny miracle.

Let’s say a prayer of gratitude for the pig.

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Before you start:

The single most important step: buy the right pork chops. Supermarket chops are almost always industrially raised, commercial breeds. Commercial breeds of pigs are bred to be extra-lean and to grow to slaughter weight super-fast which we have been taught is good and efficient. True for the producer – but not for the pigs or the eater. Pastured heritage breed pigs shine, allowed to take their time growing slower, happier, healthier and more delicious.

Buy thicker, bone-in chops. I like mine at least 1-inch thick, even better up to 1 1/2″ but you can go too far. Chops  2” or more begin to behave more like a roast. Do not be put off by the rich, rosy color of heritage breed pork – that’s due to the older age of the pig, the fact the pig actually got to use his muscles and variances in breed.

Two tools that will help tremendously in your journey to mastering well-raised meats are the instant thermometer and an old school cast iron skillet. And keep handy this reference chart from Shannon Hayes, the farmer who literally wrote the book on pastured meats.

Standard temperature recommendations for cooking meats are calculated by the USDA to temper the pathogen loads common in the industrial meat industry. If your meat is from a trusted source, ideal cooking temperatures are much lower.

In fact, there’s no reason to not enjoy your pork a bit pink (shock & horrified gasps!). Since Trichinae are destroyed at 137 degrees, as long as you cook above that temperature, you are well within the safety zone. Well raised pork can be safely cooked between 145 – 150° F maintaining those delicious pink juices, whereas the USDA recommends a dried out range of 160 – 180° F.

Cooking your chops:

Prepare your pork. If your chops are frozen, allow them to thaw gently, preferably in the refrigerator. PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT THAW FROZEN MEAT IN THE MICROWAVE!!  Bring your meat to room temperature for at least 30 minutes before cooking and blot dry.

  1. Rub a bit of olive oil into the chops, seasoning modestly with salt, cracked black pepper and if you must, rosemary, oregano or other favorite herb. If using, insert your thermometer probe into the thickest part of a chop, away from any bone or gristle. 
  2. Bring a seasoned cast iron or stainless ( not non-stick) skillet to screaming hot (high heat) on your stove burner.
  3. Place your chops in the hot skillet – do not overcrowd. They will give a good, satisfying sputter and sizzle; if you don’t hear this, the heat is too low and your chops may sweat which will cause them to dry out. Very important: resist the urge to fuss & flip to check the browning progress for at least 2-3 minutes. Your impatience and lack of faith will cause the delicious crust to tear which would truly be sad.
  4. Using tongs – do not pierce the meat with a fork – flip your chops and do the other side, for 2 minutes.

Since these chops are so thick, a bit of a braise will cook them through without ruining the beautiful exterior crust. Add a cup of liquid: wine, vermouth, apple cider, beer or stock – I use what I’ve got here, usually stock,  it’s all good.  Also add any onion, shallots, herbs or garlic if using.

Lower the burner to medium-low, cover and simmer until chops are cooked through, about 145 – 150°F.  All ye thermometer resisters; guesstimate your chops will be done in about ten minutes.

Note: If your chops are the standard variety cut to a more common half-inch thickness, this step is not necessary, you can stop at the pan frying, but it won’t be the same…

Resting the meat:

I would not kid you about this; the resting is nearly as important as the cooking. Remove the chops from the pan to a plate. Tent with foil for 10 minutes to allow the juices to re-absorb into the meat.

Crowning glory – the pan sauce:

Raise the heat and bring the pan drippings to a boil, scraping up any browned bits. Stirring constantly, reduce the sauce to a thick, syrup-like consistency. Taste and adjust spices; a knob of good butter, a splash of cream or half & half is a lovely but not necessary addition, as is a whiff of grainy mustard. Keep the seasonings simple, and allow those gorgeous chops to shine.

Go for richness and quality with the sauce, not quantity. It’s better to have a thimbleful of amazingness than a cup of watery gravy.

And that, friends, is the way to properly thank your pig.

How do you honor your pork?