Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Strawberry patchwork

Hubby picked strawberries at a local pick-your-own patch today for two hours.  It was hot and there was no breeze.  This is the last week the patch is open, and the berries had been picked over pretty well.  It was pretty miserable.  He only managed to find about 2 1/2 gallons worth.  Good thing we have about a zillion jars of jam in the basement still, because most of these berries will be going into the freezer for future shortcakes and poundcakes.  Next year, Hubby says, we are going to the patch the first day it opens and we are going at the crack of dawn. 

But the berries are oh so yummy.  It is a great feat of will to walk past the table and not cram a handful into my mouth.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pickled pink

One of the new things growing in my garden this year is beets. Chioggia beets, an heirloom variety that show red and white rings when sliced open. Last Wednesday, in the midst of drizzling rain, I went out to the garden and harvested most of the rosy rubies, bringing them inside for hubby and my wonderful big sis (visiting from St. Paul) to help clean and cut.

The stems and leaves were cut from the beets, and saved in a large bowl in case I get an inkling to do another southern meal this weekend. I must needs find a recipe for grits, so we can have fried chicken, greens and grits. Actually, I have no idea what grits are. Not a big demand for them up here in Minnesota. But I know what lutefisk and lefse are!

Bunches of beets boiling briskly on the burner. Beautiful!

After that, peel and dice. Chioggia beets don't have the dark red color that most beets do. But the flavor is very similar. At least, I can't tell the difference.

Because they lack the intense redness, these pickled beets ended up a lovely shade of pink. They look more like pickled peppermint than pickled beets. They are almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sirloin tips

I read an on-line article today about buying meat straight from a farmer. It's a good article, and gives good information for newbies. I was a newbie several years ago. Completely clueless. Didn't know thing one about farm raised meat or how to order it. But like most things I do, I didn't let my ignorance and stupidity get in the way. I just jumped right in.

I made some mistakes, but overall the experience has been very rewarding. I won't go into the details of why or how to go about ordering meat from a farmer -- there are numerous websites (some listed below) out there that have lots of helpful instructions. But I do want to share a few more obscure lessons (or tips, aka sirloin tips, haha) I've learned, that you might not find elsewhere.

First off, don't be intimidated by the effort involved, because it is minimal. Don't be intimidated by farmers thinking you're a complete idiot. You're not. In general, the farmers that sell direct to the public are more than happy to answer all of your questions, and they are very friendly. If you happen to find a farmer that's not very friendly, then go somewhere else. You are the customer, after all.

Tip #1: Know what the farmer feeds their animals.

The first quarter beef we ever ordered came from an organic farm about 50 miles from our house. The farm is very nice and well respected. It is run by friendly folks. I had ordered whole chickens from them in the past. So I figured, why not order beef from them as well.

The hamburger from the meat was good, as was the sirloin. But the rib steaks, short ribs, T-bones had an unpleasant flavor. It tasted fishy, almost. This was our first venture into locally-bought beef, and we were confused. Is this the way the stuff is supposed to taste?

If I had been smart, I would have just called up the farmer and asked him about it. But I wasn't. I was a newbie, and didn't want to look like an idiot. Instead, I did a bit of research. I knew that this farm was an organic farm that raised a lot of different animals. They also raised a lot of grains, including flax. In order to boost the omega 3 in the eggs that they sell, they mix a lot of flax into their poultry feed.

Now, I came across a study that found that chickens fed an excess amount of flax had fishy-tasting eggs. I put two and two together, and reasoned that the farmer might have finished his cows on grain a few months before butcher. It's possible that the farmer doesn't separate the grains he feeds his cows from the grains he feeds his chickens. So, perhaps the cows ate a bunch of flax, which in turn gave a fishy flavor to the meat.

That's my theory at least. To be honest I still haven't spoken to the farmer about it, and it's been over five years now. I just decided not to buy any more beef from him. Instead, I tried buying beef from another organic farmer across the border in South Dakota. Which leads us to the next tip.

Tip #2: Have the meat cut/processed at a reputable butcher.

We ordered our next quarter beef and were pleased to discover a distinct lack of fishy flavor. However, it was replaced by another unpleasant flavor. It took us awhile to figure out what it was. It was most noticeable in the hamburger. Again, if I was smart I would have called up the farmer. Not that he would have had a clue about it in this instance, but it would have been a wise first step. Instead hubby and I just gave the hamburger to the cats and muddled through the rest of the quarter.

A short while later I was watching an episode of Alton Brown's 'Good Eats', and heard him say that if you cut up meat with a grinder/saw at too high a speed, it will actually heat up the grinder blades to the point where it will sear the meat. This gives the meat a burned fat flavor. When I heard that I jumped up and said, "That's it!" That's what we had been tasting. Burned fat. The processor must have been grinding or cutting the beef at too high a speed.

At this point I did call up the farmer, and asked him about it. He didn't have a clue. I think he thought I was imagining it. I did find out where the meat was processed, though. And after asking around, found out that this particular butcher does not have the greatest reputation. In fact, most folks wondered how he was able to stay in business.

Needless to say, I didn't buy meat from this farmer again. And I made sure the meat we did buy wasn't processed at that facility.

Tip #3: If you have special requests regarding the meat, make sure you call the butcher to give them your instructions, well ahead of time.

Normally when you order a beef or a hog, you do so while the animals are still growing. It will be several months before it is butchered. Make sure the farmer calls you when the animal is sent, so that you can call the butcher with your special instructions.

Most butchers will have 'default' butchering processes. These may include cubing the round steak, curing the hams, and smoking the bacon. If you want your round steak uncubed, want fresh hams, or want unsmoked bacon (side pork), then you must call the butcher and let them know this. Processing costs add on to the total cost of the meat, so the less you have processed (smoking, curing, sausages, etc.) the cheaper it will be.

Also, if you want the more unusual pieces of meat (fat/lard, head, flank steak, kidneys, etc.) you should let the butcher know this. You might as well get it all -- you're paying for it regardless. At the very least it will make excellent pet food.

So, after two failed attempts at buying locally raised beef, my hubby was ready to quit and go back to store-bought. Good thing we didn't. The third time round we found a place with an excellent reputation, that raised grass-fed beef that was butchered at a well-regarded facility. The meat was tasty and the farmers were very helpful. And we've never gone back.

Here are some local farms in our area that sell direct to the customer. Their websites offer up a lot of good information on what and how to order.

Moonstone Farm
Pastures A Plenty
Murphy's Organic Farm
Morning Has Broken Farm

And here's a Fact Sheet from Oklahoma State Univeristy.

Keep in mind there are a lot of farms that don't have websites. Some state or univeristy Department of Agriculture websites might have more information about farms in your area. Check around at the local food co-ops, or ask around at farmers elevators if you have trouble finding a farm close to your home.

Good luck!

Sunday, June 13, 2010


The chicks (the remaining 31) have been moved out to the chicken coop. So far, so good. The older chickens seem curious as to what these little peeping things are doing in their home. You can see two of the three silkie chicks I have, the fluffy white things with the black beaks. Silkies have black beaks, feet and skin. If you've ever seen 'black chicken' featured on a Top Chef or Iron Chef episode, this is what they are. I got them for their reknown broody tendencies. Hopefully at least one of them is a female. The chick on the far right is a blue laced red wyandotte, a very pretty breed. They are all growing so fast.

The garden is growing with gusto too. As are the weeds. This week is going to be a wash (literally) for weeding, as I am out of town for several days and the days that I am here it is raining. Everything looks wonderful, though. Most everything. I think (hope?) most of my tomatoes will survive the wilt disaster. I had to yank out four plants because they were showing signs: wrinkly yellow leaves, brown spots along leaf edges. I'm not sure how they got the wilt, unless it is in my soil, which is a possibility. But these tomatoes are growing on new soil, never been gardened on. Beats me.

Something is eating my brassicas too. Not cabbage worms, but something else. I can't see what it is, but a couple of my plants have lost most of their leaves. Can't see any bugs anywhere. It's a mystery.

My wax beans have a few dead brown spots on some of the leaves. I've looked at disease websites and I can't match it up anywhere. I'll keep an eye on them, hopefully it is just a random thing and doesn't become more serious. Beans are a staple in our household.

I have been harvesting lettuce already, three heads so far. My spinach has started to bolt, so I must pick it all and freeze it soon. I also have a ton of snap peas hanging on the vine, so I must pick and freeze those as well. The beets are about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. And I have seen some flower buds forming on the potatoes.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Beyond ancient

I had a birthday last weekend, not a major milestone but a birthday nonetheless. I am 39 now.

My long-term memory isn't all that great, but I do remember some things. I remember when I couldn't even imagine being as old as I am now. When I was a teenager, 25 seemed old. 35 seemed ancient. I am now beyond ancient.

I have been alive for 39 years. It's hard for me to put it in perspective. 39 birthdays on the sixth of June. 39 summers of mosquitoes and thunderstorms. 39 leaves turning orange and brown in the fall. 39 carved pumpkins, 39 Thanksgiving turkeys and 39 Christmas trees. 39 endless winters of white and ice. 39 egg hunts and first spring robins. 39 lilac blooms, 39 blinking fireflies. And then another birthday, coming round again.

I remember when candy bars were 25 cents. Gas was 95 cents. I remember when computers first came out in stores, big plastic hulking boxes. Rotary telephones were standard. Audio tapes were the ultimate music recording device. Gas came in leaded and unleaded.

I remember when starting out a sentence with the words 'I remember when' meant that you were really, really old.

When you have children, birthdays begin to change. You pay more attention to your kids' birthdays than your own. The passing of time means more because they are getting older, not you. And you realize that Today is what they will be looking back upon when they get older. The Here and Now will become their 'I remember when.'

They will remember when candy bars were 75 cents and gas was $2.95. They will remember when computers had to be plugged into outlets and sat on top of desks. They will remember when phones had push buttons and music was recorded on disc and listened to with headphones. They will remember when cars ran on gas.

Instead of starting your sentences with 'I remember when', you begin to start them with 'I want my kids to remember.'

I want my kids to remember taking walks with their Mom out to the slough, down to the cemetary, through the alfalfa. Picking mulberries and making jam. Swimming and picnicking at the beach on the lake. Finding snakes and salamanders in the tall grass. Baby kittens born in the barn. Worms in the garden soil and planting squash seeds. Baking cookies and licking the dough off the spoon. Tireless games of hide-and-seek, pirates, treasure hunt, kings corners. Roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over the bonfire and watching the first stars come out at dusk.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Knocking on wood

The garden is doing so well. I have to pinch myself. And, I have to show it off. Just what you wanted, aye? More garden pictures. Well, I could show you pictures of my scruffy goats or my bare-backed chickens, or my messy house or my overgrown yard. But I'd rather give you the impression that we live on a lovely, organized homestead. So garden pics it is.

The tomatoes are planted! All of my basement-started tomatoes succumed yet again to the Verticillium wilt (at least I think that's what it was). So I ditched all of them and bought a bunch from a gardener friend of mine. She kept handing them to me, telling me what they were, but none of the pots had labels. So, I really don't remember what I ended up with. It'll be a surprise! Twenty-five tomato plants should give me plenty for canning this summer.

The potatoes are doing very well. Hubby weeded them and mulched them yesterday. I can't tell you how much I have appreciated his help in the garden this spring. He also dug the holes for the tomatoes above, and mulched those as well. Boy, when my kids are old enough to help out (really help, not just sorta help) in the garden, I'm just gonna sit back in a chair, sip lemonade and watch while everyone else does all the work. Ha!

My brittle wax beans have sprouted. I've got three 20' double rows of these beauties.

My zucchini have survived their transplant, as have the cantaloupe. Six zucchini and four cantaloupe. I've never grown cantaloupe before, and to be honest I don't have the highest hopes for it in my clay soils. Graham chose the seed packet from the store, and he loves melon so much that I thought we'd give it a go. If anyone has any words of wisdom for growing melons, feel free to share. For Graham's sake I hope it does well.

Carrots have been thinned and are about 4" tall now. These are chantenany carrots. I'm going to try to do a second seeding in early July, after my snap peas and lettuces have puttered out. I've never done succession planted before. We'll see if that actually happens.

Beets! Chioggia beets, for pickling. My sister loves pickled beets. I try to remember to give her a jar whenever I visit her home.

Dill and lettuce. Looking so lovely. Another week and we will be eating salads like there is no tomorrow.

Some of our spinach (Bloomsdale) and swiss chard (Rainbow). We had some leaves from these in our salad at supper this evening.

Last but not least, the garlic patch, growing strong. Also growing, but not pictured: onions, sunflowers, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, rutabagas, peppers and a smattering of flowers. And weeds. But the weeds are under control. For now. Knock on wood.

And, in case you were wondering, I decided against using the plastic mulch. I tried to put it down on my zucchini bed, but it was just so unwieldy and it didn't sit well on my bumpy clay ground. Straw is much easier, plus I don't have to pull it all up in the fall.

My husband mentioned the other day about building me a few raised beds for my birthday this year. I restrained myself from doing a happy dance right then and there. Instead, I very calmly replied, 'that would be a wonderful gift.' Don't want to show too much enthusiasm and scare him off the idea, you know.