Well, it sounds odd, but it’s true. In the midst of making some Turkey shepherd’s pie, Amy suggested that we watch Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, UK edition. TV is not a regular thing for us since our “entertainment system” consists of Amy’s laptop and a video projector propped on a chair. Finding something we both want to watch that is easily had adds to the makeshift nature of the viewing. Whatever I thought going into it I am officially hooked on the hour long episodes. I may be teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design in the fall of 2013, and if I do I will certainly be showing a couple of the episodes to my architecture students: some of the lessons are that good. Cook what you know, keep it simple, know and listen to your customer, don’t do too much, let the ingredients speak: all simple lessons that need repeating. They are of course repeated along with a lot of expletives courtesy of Gordon Ramsay. Not sure if I could swear that much in a design studio, though I have come close.
Before I go on, I should say that Turkey can make a very credible shepherd’s pie, especially the braised turkey we had left from thanksgiving. I sauteed some onion, broccoli stem, and beet greens while I par steamed some carrots, all of which was mixed with the turkey of course. The image above captures the concoction just before a liberal helping of left over gravy was slathered in, and the whole mess was topped with mashed potato. . . oh, and butter, don’t forget the butter. When I made the thanksgiving mash, I deliberately did it last so that the “hot and fluffy” would offset what would otherwise be perceived as a lack of butter in the potatoes. . . something I made up for in spades on the rebound. The beet greens held up beautifully by the way, and Amy barely noticed the broccoli stem. . . there is still good broccoli to be had.
This comfort food hit the spot, as did the ersatz TV we watched afterwards. I’d be lying if it did not inspire me to clean out the fridge and scout the back reaches of the pantry cabinet. I also took that much more care on the mornings popovers and scrambled eggs. Even more than that, it made me reflect on my ramblings here. Is it a journal?, and exploration of what it means to really live farm to table in the backyard?, or just another blog with some recipes. I can say fairly firmly that it is not the last–almost deliberately so, as I have regularly omitted the recipes. . . save for the moments I am really off the beaten path. If it is a “farm to table journey”, today’s grocery shop completely blew it, as I could not resist the produce deal out front: $10 to fill a bag with items of your choosing. . .that is items of your choosing selected from pale tomatoes, oranges, apples, peppers, and a slew of other items that were entirely conventional in their origin. The home economist in me could not resist strategically stacking the bag. . .first with a layer of apples, then oranges (things I could pack tightly). I finished with some of those piss poor looking tomatoes and handful (in the sense of their being 6) green peppers. Not produce I went to the store for, or otherwise would have bought–but I could not resist a bargain I did buy some beautiful kale in the store. . . but at $5.oo, that bunch of kale was half the price of the bounty bag. At least I did not buy any meat–that all still comes from our freezer, and the grass out front. That, and after watching Kitchen Nightmares I got this bee in my bonnet that I had to give store bought pasta, an occasional short cut, the heave ho once and for all. . . . so, I left the store with a bunch of conventional produce in a 10$ bag, some fancy kale, a six pack of local micro-brew, and not much more. The rest of the day was spent organizing the “catch” for the week, and cooking those items the pantry brought forth. . . lentil salad anyone? Oh yes, and making pasta for the freezer (the trick, by the way, is to swirl your noodles through a bit of flour before making those neat little nests).
I cut up three pounds of oranges to make marmalade. Orange cranberry marmalade. The good were set aside for eating, the bad and the ugly trimmed and prepped. There are enough oranges for fresh juice this week. While the doing was being done, I went ahead and prepped a pork shoulder. I ground garlic, salt and oregano using the mortar and pestle until it was creamy. After a few hours of rest with this rub, I roasted the shoulder at 325 for a couple hours–until the internal temp hit about 145. I’d be lying if I did not cop to the fact I am using fewer ingredients after watching Gordon Ramsay. . . . . it will be interesting to see what becomes of the rest of the produce.
The ritual of cooking is an act of giving thanks, whether on Thanksgiving day, or any other time for that matter. This year thanksgiving was simply for us as we had no company, leaving extra time to play and experiment. I started the day by making aebleskiver. I stuffed them with jam. Although it seems like a great idea at first, it makes flipping the buggers a bit of a high stakes proposition lest one leak. That, and the jam is absorbed into the cake, leaving more of a purple spot than a filling. Still, it was fun and tasty. Over all, I managed a better ball by having the batter at room temperature. I warmed the eggs and buttermilk in a hot water bath. Having room temperature batter reduced the differential in temperature in the ball during cooking, and made it easier to manage the browning. I have my temperature and my technique, but I still want to fill some. That will have to wait for another post. Just like the sriracha noodles, one can’t get it right the first time out.
As soon as the dishes from breakfast were away, I parted out our little hen, carefully dis-articulating the joints and cutting the limbs free, then separating the back from the breast. The breast of our farm raised turkeys is much narrower than those you buy in the store. Over all, the bulk of the meat is in the breast and thigh. The thighs have a lot more connective tissue, and there is scant meat in the wings. My plan was to braise the dark meat and wings, while roasting the breast. As the proud owner of a single oven, this meant that I had to do one, then the other. No big deal.
One of the things that I have from breaking down my parents house in Detroit is a beautiful terracotta goose dish that had never been used. I don’t know if it was a gift, or if my mother purchased it, but I have been eager to use it. Something about a shaped dish just says “holiday”. The braise started with an onion and some celery. I deglazed the pan with some champagne. I did the same after I browned the joints, and I placed everything in the clay pot, along with some cranberries, olives, and a cup of apple cider. I put the entire affair in a cool oven, set things at 250, then 325, and let it go for a couple hours. I set the temperature in two steps to reduce stress on the clay pot. I also left my baking stone on the rack just bellow the rack I used. All of this shielded the goose from too much differential heating as the oven warmed. I knocked the temperature back down to 225 for the last hour so I could go on a bike ride with Trigger, lest he be a noodge all afternoon.
One thing I did not bank on was how much fat was in the back. If I had to do it again, I would have put it in the pot with the rest of the trimmings destined to become gravy. The stock was remarkably clear of fat, and my poor goose was laden. So much so that I ended up removing everything from the goose, separating it all, and removing the fat. While I was at it, I stripped the meat from the bones and tendons, just to make it easier to eat. The meat was delightful–good flavor, and good mouth feel. Braising did the trick for sure.
Working with our own fowl has been enlightening. I feel like I understand the American preoccupation with breast meat now. I can imagine a time before modern breeding and farming techniques where the thighs and legs would have seemed inedible to many. Similarly, I realize how lean modern breeds of fowl are. That an animal can grow so large and so fast, with so little fat is truly amazing. If one were to judge turkeys simply on the quantity of meat and universal tenderness, there is no doubt that a bird raised by modern means would win. Similarly, if you took a heritage turkey from a farm like ours and placed it in the hands of someone who had never cooked a bird the results would probably not be good. It drives home for me the degree to which our tastes and cooking techniques are intertwined with the way we farm. Turning back the clock and farming as we did eighty years ago won’t meet the tastes of most Americans. If things are to change, cooking and farming will need to evolve together.
Returning to our Bourbon Red hen, the breast was a sheer delight. I roasted it with nothing more than some salt on the skin. Following family tradition, I tented the breast in a brown paper bag, and simply cooked it at 375 until it was golden brown, and the internal temperature was just shy of target. The interior of the bird continues to cook during the time you rest the bird after cooking, and stopping shy ensures that you don’t over cook. The meat was moist and flavorful. Taste is one place where modern birds have nothing on our little hen.
Since it was just Amy and I, I stuck to traditional sides. One thing I wanted to be sure of was that the cranberry sauce had some texture, and was not gloppy. I feel like cranberry sauce of late has become an exercise in flavorings, ginger, spices, all manner of zinger added to what is in itself a very flavorful berry. Much of the time, the poor little berry is simply obliterated. I should also note here, that if I hear Susan Stamberg’s cranberry relish recipe one more time I am going to toss my radio from the window. So, in light of my cranberry distress, I started by browning a small onion. I deglazed the pan with a champagne, and a cup of apple cider. Following that, I added a couple spoons of bakers sugar. The picked and rinsed cranberries went in last. I did not stir despite all temptation! I just backed the heat down, and let the buggers simmer until they were tender. The result, a crisp slightly sweet sauce with tart balls of cranberry goodness. On the bird, potatoes, and other things a real joy. I am going to play with this recipe in the coming months. . . today after all, is the day where I go to the market and buy the cranberries that will invariably be on clearance so that I can stock the freezer with a few.
The gravy was traditional, starting with a rue of butter and flower, heart and liver chopped, and stock, reduced in a broad pan. Mashed potatoes the same, butter and salt through the food mill. While it all was good the first time through, the wheels were turning, and I was looking ahead to making shepherds pie with mashed potatoes, gravy and dark meat. Shepherds pie is one of Amy’s favorites. Good thing she’s a shepherd. Lastly, I rounded out the meal with Brussels sprouts fried in a little butter, then steamed in turkey stock. I slit the sprouts so they would take up the flavors of the pan, and cooked the stock off entirely–leaving firm tasty sprouts. We skipped the pie, and opted instead for a baked apple apiece.
With the candle light, there was hardly a chance to get a picture of the spread, so we just ate, gave thanks and enjoyed the meal.
The last few days on the farm have been a mix of highs and lows, animals dying, born, and slaughtered. It all started Thursday morning when young ram Stormy was not interested in eating. Amy was hesitant to call the vet, but as soon as she palpated his abdomen we knew he had to go. Dr. Barton got us into the back door of Washington Family vet immediately.
I kept my hand on Stormy as he lay on the floor through tests and an ultrasound as Dr. Barton began to puzzle things out. Amy contacted Lyle McNeal at Utah State University. He formed the Navajo Sheep Project to restore the Navajo Churro Breed and knows more about Churro than anyone out there. Although we momentarily doubted it, he delivered what would be the ultimate diagnosis, Urinary Calculi, stones preventing urination. Waiting for the diagnosis, I looked into Stormy’s eyes as he lay there. I knew at that moment that he was dying: he told me with nothing more than a look. He died a few hours later in the back of the van, on the way home. Amy simply turned around, and Dr. Barton performed a necropsy that confirmed Lyle’s suspicion. As it turned out, Stormy’s bladder had burst.
On larger farms it is common for animals to simply die in a field. It is sad to say, but it is true. We pride ourselves on not letting that happen, so it was a severe blow to loose Stormy. Only after he died did we discover that the loose mineral we had been feeding had an incorrect balance of calcium, even though it was sold as a sheep mineral. We had been extremely careful to determine that the mineral did not contain things that the sheep should not have, but did not realize that it was missing something that it should. So began our search for a proper mineral. We have found some temporary substitutes, the best mineral can’t be had for less than an eight hour drive–Grand Junction CO, Gallup NM, or Bakersfield CA. Even if we were willing to pay the shipping, the suppliers will not ship. It really drove home for us how few people are in fact doing what we are doing. The Navajo Churro Yahoo Group has been invaluable, both with support and information. Amy was consoled to some degree by the fact that this has happened to some of the most experienced people that she knows; she only wishes that it had not happened to us.
We had Stormy cremated. It’s a bit unusual to do this with a farm animal, but neither of us wanted to dig a coyote proof hole. More importantly, I wanted to bring his ashes to the sweat lodge, where I thanked him for his life and prayed for his spirit. Stormy had the “Mark of Palm”, a white spot on his head where the creator touched him. A sheep with Mark of Palm is not supposed to be sold or slaughtered, he was to remain on our farm for his life, whether long or short. I apologized to him, for not feeling his belly sooner, but somehow knew that it was alright. I saw him as I prayed, bigger than he had ever been, a midnight black sheep with full curled horns against a sky of stars. I will spread his ashes on the rocky hill that overlooks the pasture and paddock, a place where I have left prayers in the past, so that he can watch over us and his animal friends.
Saturday morning was not easy for me, as I tend to be emotional the morning after a sweat lodge. Our day was brightened by the arrival of two chicks in one of the Silkie houses. Winnie, our prize winning Silkie hen, had gone broody a few weeks back, so Amy left her some eggs. Just as Amy was thinking that the eggs were duds, Winnie and grandma chicken Lady Gaga had managed to see them through. One of the chicks is a splash (a mix of blue and black), and both have the correct number of toes. These just may be next years show chickens. After breakfast we checked the remaining sheep for stones. This meant giving each of them a bikini trim. After sharpening the tools, we did a hoof trim as well. From there we simply got off the farm and searched for more appropriate minerals, and took a break from it all. A late lunch of Sushi certainly helped.
I started Sunday by making aebleskiver. I had long eyed the pans in the farm stores, and finally picked one up on Saturday. It made for a festive Sunday breakfast, and got my culinary idea wheels rolling. Even with the distraction of breakfast, my mind was elsewhere because I knew that Sunday was the day that I would have to slaughter the thanksgiving turkey. I spent the morning preparing. I sharpened the knife, and gathered my supplies, and got my head in order. By noon I was ready, and I went and gathered one of our year old hens. I have held them all so many times as we have shuffled them about that she was hardly bothered by me holding her. That is, after I caught her.
The sheep watched as I walked her up the hill to the stone where I slaughter poultry. They were absolutely still, watching the turkey. The sheep knew. I draped a cloth over her head and set her on the stone. I ran the knife through her neck swiftly and her life was over. Her head sat on the stone as her body drained into the bucket. Things went so fast that there was hardly any blood on the knife or the stone. The plucking and cleaning was similarly smooth. Preparing the meat takes on a new meaning when you know the bird. I feel in many ways that I am honoring the bird when I do it well. I was not sad to have killed the turkey hen and Amy was not said either. I might describe the feeling I had as a quiet joy or contentment. Our hen completed her life. We gave her the best life we could while she was alive and we honored her death. She will nourish us as we nourished her. It is why we have a farm, and it feels right. Life and death, whether by accident, sickness or slaughter, is a fact of life on the farm. The chickens ate the giblets we did not save, and by three o’clock, life seemed normal.
Life outside has been hectic, which means life inside has to be on autopilot. The male turkeys have started fighting for dominance. As we can’t be watching every moment of every day, we miss a fight now and again, and one of them was bad enough that we had to set up a Turkey ICU, lest one be pecked to death. Turkeys don’t tolerate the weak for very long, and if a turkey is loosing a fight others will pile on. We will be eating some of the boys in the near future, but, we don’t want them to go like this.
With my job as nurse done (Amy does all the doctoring, I am just the Turkey holder), I retreat to the kitchen. One of the joys of living “farm to table” in our own backyard is that I am always engaged in preparing something. Often, preparations from one meal flow naturally to the next–weaving meals together. Cooking is a constant.
Last night’s dinner was no exception, small fried chops with Caesar salad and roast pumpkin. The croutons were prepared in the very oven that the next weeks bread was already baking in. Out with the stale. . . If anything, dinner was simply a side project to what was otherwise happening in the kitchen. When there is too much to put in the oven, I just do it all at 500 degrees, and manage it by using foil where needed, and juggling items in and out of the oven–except that there was no room for the chops!
The dressing was made from the Aioli I made for last weeks sandwiches. While I was forming the second loaf of bread, enough dough was set aside for a small pizza. Roast a pumpkin for dinner in the still hot oven while the bread cooks, and, roast another to put up for another day. We’ll probably have some pumpkin for breakfast. The irony is that as cooking becomes a more continuous series of activities I spend less time in the kitchen than I would if I were preparing a series of discrete meals. Want chilled somen noodles for lunch?, boil them in the morning while you are making coffee, dress and chill them, so all you need to do is chop a couple cucumbers and vegetables.
Being in the kitchen is less about any one meal, than doing the things one does while cooking–preparing one meal, the next, and a couple down the road. Something is always in process, which means picking up another day is not overly time consuming. Just like cleaning as you go, having more than one iron in the fire makes cooking that much more efficient. It also means that a good dinner is just a hop skip and a jump away at any time.
Back to last night’s dinner. . . .
With the oven full, I ended up frying the chops. . . . the key here being to start with a dry, room temperature chop. The surface was salted with some smokey salt gifted by a good friend, and the oil was kept at a moderate heat, so the center would be pink but not raw, and the outside sufficiently crisp. Mind you, these chops came from a small lamb, and are the size a dietician would pick–I don’t think I would do this with anything much bigger, just for the size of the pan. A fried chop does not have to be greasy, and frankly, if you crisp the outside, and blot the whole thing, there really is not that much oil on the surface–just a bit of crispy goodness. Crispy goodness, of course, being the essential benefit of frying! When you eat as much lamb as we do, you start to appreciate all the different ways it can be prepared–and a broiled chop is different than a fried chop, and both are very different from a sous vide chop. All can be done well, and all deliver their own flavors.
Now to relax and think about what I might put on that pizza. Don’t think Amy is expecting it.
We’re lucky to have good friends who bring us food scraps for feed and compost. Not only does it provide a nice treat for the chickens, it also saves us a little feed. We are always happy to reward our donors with eggs as well. Today I formalized our drop off system with a little spray paint and some home made stencils, and a couple of tightly lidded cans. With dogs, racoons, coyotes, and all manner of animal out and about, we needed to get our drop off point more secure.
In addition to neighbors, we are lucky that a friend who works at a local market rescues items from the dumpster for us. Friends and relatives are also on the lookout. Just today, Amy’s brother provided us with a small heap of surplus pumpkins from the garden center where he works. These are the second load of pumpkins we have lucked into, and, what is not moldy on the inside is being put up as part of our winter stores. Between our own stomachs and all the animals there is a place for just about anything.
Of course, with the success of the chicken and worm stencils, it was not long before our beloved natural gas powered van (animal transporter) was tagged with chickens too.
So, if you are in the neighborhood to drop off scraps there are two cans–one for chickens (with the chicken on it) and one for compost (with a worm on it). Don’t worry about using the wrong can–we sort it anyways–just use your best guess as to what goes where. And thanks for making our little farm that much happier.
Infrequent posts are a simple consequence of the fact that life is sweet at the moment, and the idea of sitting down to write a post seems less important than drinking in what is good. Much of the last two years has been spent caring for others needs. The last few days I have felt a slight lifting of those responsibilities–that things are shifting into a new phase of life. That my father is no longer with us is a fact we can never escape, and the hole left by his absence will never be filled: that said, today I can conceive of feeling whole despite his absence, and that is new. I’ll get to the cooking, but follow me as I digress a moment longer.
We started the day at good friend Wilma’s garden. Wilma is only days away from being 94, yet she was out irrigating, running her pumps and diverting water just as she always has the 11 years I have known her. We left with a bounty of tomatoes, basil, garlic and squash that would make any farmer blush for its plenty. Even if the basil had gone to seed, the taste was still great. On returning home I started separating the leaves from the stems. As little of the basil as we took, it was an hour and a half before I could even begin making pesto, or start my tomato triage, or even think of baking the bread for the week.
The entire kitchen was fragrant with the smell of basil and tomato leaves. The braided garlic that Wilma gave us before we left took a place of honor in the kitchen, waiting for many a winter meal.
Of the tomatoes we picked, a good many of them were just perfect, set aside here with two dollars worth of pairs bought from the side of the road.
While I sifted leaves and tomatoes, I also had the good sense to roast some pumpkin. After October 31, they are practically given away. Those tomatoes that would not keep were immediately diverted to become sauce.
While I was “putting up” some winter stores, Amy took some welcome time with the Turkeys. Beaker, a favorite, immediately found her lap for a cuddle while the young Tom’s strut their stuff. Some of last years young are near to slaughter, but Beaker had the good sense to be extra friendly, so she will be spared as a pet. She’s a Bronze: the rest of our flock consists of Narragansetts and Bourbon Reds.
While it might seem all day would be spent in the kitchen, a good amount of time was spent mending fences, and erecting fences to protect our grapes from the aforementioned Turkeys. American Heritage breeds they might be, but you’d think they were Greek after seeing what they will do for a grape leaf. In the end though, I returned to the kitchen to finish the bread, and concoct a fitting end for the day (see, we made it to cooking after all). Tonight’s meal? Rack of lamb with a pesto rub, puree of pumpkin, and fresh pasta cooked in tomato sauce.
Pumpkin Puree is one of those things so often ruined that it can be an utter surprise when done well. Doing it well in my book means roasting it first, to develop the natural sweetness of the pumpkin before cooking it on the stove top. I cook at 425 for an hour before switching to the stove top–a little salt, butter, brown sugar, and honey–but, only very little, as the pumpkin has what it takes naturally.
I roasted the tomatoes at the same time as I did the pumkin, and tonight’s pasta was dressed with noting more than roasted tomato passed through a food mill. The only caveat is that I cooked the pasta to a near done state, and then finished it in the sauce so that the starch from the pasta would lend a velvety texture to the entire affair. Having only one oven meant that the lamb and the bread were done simultaneously at 500 degrees–the lamb for twenty minutes before being scorched by a high broiler, 25 minutes total. The dressing nothing more than some of the fresh pesto.
In the end, a delightful and romantic dinner, made from what was at hand. That the lamb came from this very land meant a lot to us both–as we ate, we realized that the lamb it had come from was born on this land, and it had lived out its entire life and been slaughtered here. As difficult as the last years have been in some respects, there is no doubt in my mind or Amy’s that we are truly blessed, and truly happy.
It might sound odd, but grass is what I wanted when I set out to make Risotto tonight. I mentioned making Risotto to Amy yesterday after hearing a story about a tremendous group meal being conducted across Italy to show solidarity for cheese makers in Parma who suffered large losses during the recent earthquakes. I had no Reggiano Cheese, and more than that by the time I heard the story last nights dinner was well in hand. So I set out today to make something entirely different with our own cheese, delightfully fresh and grassy Chevre. This was the last of the last batch from our dairy goat Peanut’s milk before we dried her off for the season. It had to be put to good use.
I started with a few cloves of coarsely chopped garlic in olive oil, followed by two shots of gin. . . in the pan. I did not have any white wine, and even if I did, I am not sure that I would want the sweetness. I thought the gin would do the job, and might be a good backstop for the other flavors. I put in a pinch (literally) of pork, mainly to add a little fat to the affair, since I had no stock on hand. That was followed by 2 cups of Vialone Nano rice. The rice was well washed by virtue of the fact it had been infiltrated by some bugs, and a thorough washing was required! A brief check revealed that these were domestic bugs, as none of them spoke Italian. As I toasted the rice, I brought 2 cups of milk and 4 cups of water to just below a simmer. I added this ersatz stock to the rice as one would normally do with Risotto, a cup at a time, stirring as I went.
After about the fourth ladle of stock I began to add the goat cheese, about a cup total, crumbling it to distribute. After the fifth ladle, I tossed in the coarsely chopped leaves of a bunch of spinach. I thought the spinach would work well with the flavors. I also slowly salted the entire affair, gently, and added the tiniest amount of basil–not to overwhelm, just enough to add. As the last cup of stock cooked in a ground in a little black pepper. I cooked it all until the rice was toothsome–just at the point where it did not seem dry. What I ended up with was fairly subtle and bright–with good texture. It was certainly a light risotto. Something I would do again, though only when I had the cheese on hand. Next time I make cheese I am going to set aside some whey–that may be an interesting ingredient for something like this.
When we do get some cheese from Parma, I will be sure to try the recipe in the radio story I heard–even if it is late solidarity, it’s solidarity just the same.