Archive for the ‘urban farm animals’ Category

The Fall Summation III: The Firepit

I was happily involved in writing in the multiple parts of my fall summation IV post, when I suddenly realized that I never remembered to publish fall summation III. So here it is.

I have always enjoyed grilling as a wonderfully tasty way to cook meat and vegetables, but late this summer I acquired a firepit in my front yard, and it is fair to say  that it is one of the best small investments we ever made.  The pit itself is just a literal pit, a big hole in the dirt, skillfully lined with bricks by a landscape crew. Then there is a drop-in steel grill with a grate which is easily raised and lowered for precise control, and I wish I could remember where I bought it because it is the best ever.  Most important is the fuel, almost completely hardwood in my case although I start fires with twigs and small branches scrounged off the nearby walking path.

Cooking with wood is a whole different experience than cooking with charcoal, and I had not done it for about 25 years, so it took some time to get back in the swing.  When I want to just fire up the grill and cook something without undue fuss, I resort to my beloved Big Green Egg.  Cooking on the fire pit is more a process and an experience than just getting dinner ready. First, there is building the fire. Then, there is sitting next to it feeding it the right kind and amount of wood and giving it a few pokes at the right time to end up with a wonderful bed of red-hot coals  a couple of hours later.  Then there is cooking the food itself, and this is a hot eye-stinging experience that is somehow more pleasurable and more primal than any charcoal cooking could ever be.  The finale can then go one of two ways: either the coals can be damped with a bucket of water so that you end up with biochar for the garden or a bed of charcoal for the next fire, or more wood can be thrown on the fire and the diners can gather around it contemplatively with wine and marvel at their good fortune to be alive at this particular moment.

Don’t think that this is only an activity for carnivores. Pescatarians will find that wild-caught salmon is perfect for the grill, as long as you’re careful not to overcook.  Any vegetarian or vegan would love firepit cooking, for the rich meaty belt that hardwood smoke lends to vegetables. Eggplant, zucchini, and carrots are all wonderful sliced and grilled. I like to rub them with olive oil mixed with salt and a little chile chipotle. Wild mushrooms are lovely grilled, and store-bought mushrooms approach the savor of wild ones when grilled. Oyster mushrooms are especially suited to grilling.   Potatoes and sweet potatoes are both really good when pre-baked, pressed flat and about half an inch thick with your hand or the bottom of a glass, salted and brushed with olive oil or bacon fat, and grilled  just until the outside gets crisp and browned.  Sweet potatoes are very quick to burn because of the sugar they contain, so they need to be kept on a cooler part of the grill and be brought along more slowly and cautiously.  I understand that some people grill kale leaves very successfully, although so far I have not made that work well. And the more tender leaves of romaine lettuce are really delicious when the heads are grilled in halves.

One of my favorite recent dinners involved large shrimp seasoned and grilled in their shells, served on a bed of grilled romaine lettuce made by cutting heads of romaine in half, drizzling them with my mother’s marinade, and grilling them over very hot coals for 2-3 minutes on each side.  I am in favor of taking the grilled romaine into the kitchen and slicing it crosswise before plating it, for more graceful eating. The ribs of the romaine  leaves become softer, sweeter, and a culinary revelation. I would think that the same thing could be achieved with Chinese cabbage. Another small drizzle of marinade when on the plate adds to the general savor.  In the photo above you see the grilled treatment given to little dark blue Magic Molly potatoes, which I intend to write about in another post.   In general we eat low-carb and avoid foods like potatoes, but the occasional treat does not come amiss. Overall, this is a meal that makes you realize that nothing more miraculous has ever happened in human history than the taming of fire. It made us more civilized and brought wolves in off the tundra to be our companions. We co-evolved with them for the next 40,000 years to the benefit of both parties, and their descendents still seem to enjoy hanging around the firepit.

For more on the entrancing world of wood fired cooking, read anything by Francis Mallman, particularly his first book, Seven Fires.

Pollinator Autumn

Fall in New Mexico is quite possibly the most beautiful season to be found anywhere in the world.  But it’s also the last hurrah for our pollinators, who have a brief time left to get a winter’s worth of provisions stored. I’ve been taking note of the plants that will help them with this last push for survival.

Our native chamisa, or rabbitbrush, is first and foremost. It’s in full bloom in late September and is mobbed with bees whenever the sun touches it, perhaps because in sunlight it exudes a warm heathery-polleny fragrance. Interestingly, I find honeybees working it in the early evening, hours after their forays usually stop. It self-seeds readily and gets big, so steps have to be taken to keep it under control, but find a neglected corner where it can ramp away into a great bush and it will literally hum with bees in autumn.

If you cut your hollyhocks back after their first bloom, they bloom again in late September and are greatly appreciated by bees. In the dry high desert they are blessedly free of the diseases that can make them unsightly in the eastern US, and they are so robustly healthy that they can become nuisances.

Morning glories bloom until the frosts start, and although the bees pay little attention to them earlier in the season, they are very popular in September and October.

Sunflowers bloom early in our hot climate, but some always germinate late, in May or June. I make sure to let a few of these stragglers grow up, because they bloom in early Zoctober and seem especially attractive to bumblebees.

Urban homesteading is not just about growing your own food. It’s about creating viable ecological oases in urban areas. Eating some of the bounty is your privilege, but you have a billion partners in your enterprise, including your own animals, birds, toads, worms, pollinators of all kinds, fungi, and the huge array of microbes without which plants and soil, and therefore us, could not survive. The end of a growing season is a good time to stop and honor them all.

Post 300: Magnolia

This is a poignant post for me to write, because one of my very first posts written on this property was about my new Sanaan doe goat Magnolia. Beloved Maggie is over nine years old now, and no longer  holding body weight well when she’s in milk, and I’ve concluded that for her own good, this is her last lactation. So I’m filling the freezer with goat cheese, and Magnolia will retire and live out the rest of her life in leisure. Goats are smart and interactive and, like dogs, incredibly painful to lose. I hope that Maggie will be with us for a few years yet. She is a big part of my daily life, and I can’t think of a better subject for my 300th post.
If you are interested in having a dairy animal, bear in mind that they need excellent nutrition and eat a lot of expensive food and occasionally have veterinary needs, so don’t even think in terms of producing economical food. Think in terms of having a lovely pet, with benefits. Do remember that periodic male offspring are almost inevitable and you have to have a plan for what to do with them, so if you are vegetarian yourself this may be a real issue for you. Female offspring can often be given to good homes, but can very seldom be sold at a profit.  Also, I trust it goes without saying that when in milk they have to be milked out every day, not just when you feel like making cheese, and have to be milked when you travel, which is not a job that the average pet sitter will take on. Be aware that excellent fences are required to keep goats out of your own shrubbery and trees or your neighbor’s, and in my area an 8 foot fence they can be secured behind at night is needed for protection from coyotes. All of this costs money.  If any of this discourages you, there is an abundance of excellent cheese including the superb Mount Vikos halloumi available at any upscale food store or co-op.

One of the reasons that I wanted a dairy animal in my suburban yard is that I like to make cheese, and currently it’s pretty hard to make cheese from most commercial milk. This is because milk is being pasteurized at increasingly high temperatures to extend its shelf life, and the milks in your local dairy case that don’t say “UHT” were probably still pasteurized at near-UHT temperatures. This affects the proteins, and such milk will not form a proper curd when rennetted. Therefore, unless you have access to fresh-from-the-animal milk, success is by no means certain with any cheese recipe except ricotta. Since it’s illegal or very difficult in most areas to sell raw milk, a dairy animal is your ticket to cheesemaking. If you don’t have a dairy animal or access to milk that wasn’t processed at high temperatures, I am very sorry to say that I do not recommend cheesemaking because it is going to be too disappointing. Personally, I find it absolutely weird to think that most commercial milk is so denatured that you can’t make cheese out of it. But these are the facts.

If you have access to  clean milk that was not pasteurized at high heat, go immediately to Ricki Carroll’s wonderful cheesemaking site and go to town. She has all the supplies and cultures as well as reams of recipes and advice.
My own choice has been to stick to fresh cheeses and halloumi, because they are quick and easy to make, can be frozen for later use, and do not require any special attentions as they age because they don’t age. I’m especially fond of halloumi because it can be grilled to such a wonderful crusty brown, and I do love a good Maillard reaction.
Rather than give my own haphazard procedure for making halloumi, which might not be perfect but fits into my kitchen routine and produces a good product, I am going to have you start off on the right foot by linking to Ricki’s recipe.  I will only add that I don’t use any herbs in finishing the cheese, because it is more versatile if it isn’t already carrying an herb flavor.  Any herbs that you want can easily be added at the cooking or serving stage, as the green onions pan-grilled with the halloumi in the top picture.  Also, a salted but unseasoned halloumi is an excellent stand-in for paneer if you feel suddenly moved to go Indian rather than Mediterranean.  And a wild greens saag paneer with your own greens fed cheese is as delicious a dinner as I know of,  and likely to contribute to your health and longevity as well as your immediate gratification.

A quarter cup of ricotta  is a byproduct of making halloumi,  and makes a nice Cook’s Treat to reward yourself for your enterprise.

Here,  fresh goat cheese serves as the bulk of a dinner, a strongly seasoned ground meat with sweet spices in the Arabic style is part of the flavoring, and an elaborate herb pesto is the other part.

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Pork Belly: Theme and Variations

Recently I was checking out my local farmer’s market and saw a young man sitting in front of a card table, with a big cooler behind him but nothing that I could see indicating what he was doing there. Curious, I approached, and it turned out that he was from Polk’s Folly, selling pork from a few pasture-raised heritage pigs being grown on his family land. And yes, he had some pork belly to sell. I scored a three pound chunk.

At the time I planned to make it into bacon, and so I put it in a brine of one cup salt to one gallon of water and stuck it in the refrigerator. But a couple of days later I found myself daydreaming about it and decided to cook it for dinner. I put eight bay leaves and 3 cloves’ worth of sliced garlic on the meat side, rolled it up with the skin side out and tied it with kitchen twine, put it in a cazuela with half a cup of good white wine, and roasted at 350 until done through (160 if you tend toward exact measurements,) turning up the heat to 500 right at the end to brown the skin a bit.

Thin slices were served with oyster mushrooms sautéed in butter and adorned with the garlic slices from inside the belly, and skimmed pan juices were poured around liberally. It was a delicious meal with a good cabernet but, for two people, just the beginning of three pounds of belly.

A few nights later I hauled out the belly, cut two slices about a half inch thick, and cut the strips into chunks that ended up about 1/2″ square by 1″ long. I chopped up two big cloves of garlic and a 1″ piece of ginger. A huge scallion out of the garden was cut in 1/8″ slices, white and green kept separate. I got out gochujang, soy sauce, and artificial sweetener to equal two teaspoons of sugar (of course you can use 2 teaspoons sugar if preferred.) I microwaved some cauliflower rice. The belly chunks were sautéed over medium-high heat in a wok until they were beginning to brown nicely in their own fat. Then the scallion whites were added and stir-fried for about two minutes. Next the scallion greens and the chopped garlic and ginger were added and given one further minute of stir-frying. Then a rounded tablespoon gochujang and a good squirt of of soy sauce, along with two teaspoons of sugar or the equivalent in artificial sweetener. Boil hard until the sauce comes together and glistens, less than a minute if you were using high enough heat. Serve over the cauli rice. Add some pickled veggies if you like.

The third meal moves into Southeast Asia, one of the many parts of the world where the succulent pork belly is appreciated. One of the great treats of summer is an occasional perfect mango, and I had one ready on the counter. I was planning a Thai-style curry based on the superb Hand brand green curry paste, but ultimately decided that I wanted more veggies and less sauce. Using the inspiration of Six Seasons, I decided to make something that was a hot salad rather than a curry per se.  Besides the leftover belly, mango,  and the curry paste, ingredients were two large scallions sliced, a cup of pure coconut cream, some fish sauce and sweetener, and a wide assortment of veggies from my garden and freezer but just a handful of each, i.e. four Tuscan kale leaves slivered finely, about a third of a head of broccoli (with its peeled stem) blanched a few minutes and chopped, two small purple carrots, and a handful of chopped mint for the final garnish. This is a great place to use up any plainly cooked veggies that may be tucked into your refrigerator awaiting a purpose.

To make the “dressing,” boil  the coconut cream in a small sauce pan for a few minutes, stir in about a tablespoon of curry paste or more according to taste and boil a minute more, and add fish sauce and chosen sweetener to taste,  make in the mixture a bit on the salty sweet side because there is a large volume of veggies fruit to season.  Then set the pan aside while you finish the main ingredients.

Cut two half-inch slices off the belly and cut into lardons. Put in a skillet over medium-high heat to b own and render some fat, turning frequently. Meanwhile sort the veggies into fast-cooking and slower-cooking, putting the scallion greens in the first pile and the scallion whites in the second. When the belly chunks are browned, add in the slower-cooking veggies and stir fry until crisp-tender, add the quick-cooking veggies, and cook until thoroughly heated through. Put in a little fish sauce with the veggies but not too much, since the belly is already salted.

Now toss half the hot veggies in the saucepan with the curry sauce, plate them on two plates, put the unsauced belly and veggies on top for an unmuddied appearance, slice the peeled mango over the composition, and top with the chopped mint. Dip down into the “dressed” part of the meal with each bite. Have some Thai sriracha available for drizzling if you like.

By the fourth meal, there was one strip of belly roast about 3/4″ thick still left. I decided on a Thai meat salad. Since we were quite hungry I decided to add two Thai-style fried eggs to each plate.  In addition to the belly strip and four eggs, I used a small head of Romaine lettuce, one large scallion, a generous handful of coriander leaves, and two partially ripe plums.  If you are using plums from the grocery store, it’s pretty easy. Almost any two will do and will still be somewhat green, firm, and not too sweet. Or use cherry tomatoes if you prefer.

First have an appropriate dressing ready. Mine was a rather elaborate concoction based on some pickled kumquat rind that I made a month ago and ground coriander stems, but you can use the simple spicy-sweet dressing described at the bottom of the page.

Cut the belly strip into lardons and fry them in a hot skillet with a spoonful of coconut oil until browned. Remove and drain on paper towels. Add a little more coconut oil to the pan and fry the eggs over medium-high heat, turning them a few times and salting on both sides, until they are cooked through and browned around the edges. Remove and drain. Slice the romaine into strips about 1/2″ wide. Cut the plums in slices. Slice the scallion fine and chop the coriander leaves.

Plate the lettuce, cut the eggs in thirds or quarters and arrange around the edge, and put the crisp lardons in the middle. Decorate with the plum slices and scatter the scallions and coriander on top. Dress with the dressing and eat. If you had everything on hand, total elapsed time is about 15 minutes.

If you have read Tamar Adler’s marvelous book An Everlasting Meal, you know all about main dishes that keep on giving. If you haven’t read it, please do so immediately. Frugality in the kitchen is a common thought for most of us and you may already cook that way, but Ms. Adler will show you the poetry and grace of it. Cooking is in some ways a ghostly process anyway, with our great-great-grandmother’s transparent hand guiding our own, and we are further informed by the ghost of each meal contributing to the next.

Hot-sweet Thai Dressing: this  doubles as a dipping sauce and is very handy to have in the refrigerator. Finely chop four cloves of garlic and a piece of ginger about an inch long. Thinly slice a couple of Serrano or Jalapeño chiles, removing the seeds and ribs unless you’re a real heat freak. Mix the chopped and sliced stuff with half a cup of fish sauce, a quarter cup of rice vinegar, a quarter cup of water, and  two tablespoons of palm sugar or the equivalent in artificial sweetener. Let sit fifteen minutes and taste cautiously. Adjust the various elements until it tastes well-balanced to you.

Deconstructed Thai Egg Salad

If you have chickens, there are inevitably times when you grow tired of eggs. I had one of those times recently and started to grope for a new way to think about egg salad. Since I love Thai food and keep a lot of the necessary seasonings around, some sort of Thai egg salad seemed like the perfect way to reawaken my enthusiasm. I wanted to make it quick and easy, too, so cupboard condiments played a large role. I used coconut milk, fish sauce, some artificial sweetener (people with no blood sugar problems can just use sugar,) Shark brand Thai  sriracha sauce (important, because it tastes very different from standard Vietnamese-style sriracha,) the excellent Hand brand Matsuman curry paste, and chopped peanuts, and all I added to them was eggs and sliced mint leaves.

For two people I started with three hard-boiled eggs each, and chopped them roughly leaving them in large chunks. I heated the top fat off one can of coconut milk, stirred in a heaping tablespoon of Matsuman curry paste, and cooked a few minutes until thick and smooth. I added fish sauce to taste and sweetened it a bit. I pooled this elixer on a plate, put piles of chopped eggs on top, salted the eggs to taste and then dribbled Thai sriracha (which is not very hot) liberally all over the eggs. Peanuts and sliced mint finish up the seasoning, and a bit of sushi ginger on the side is my own very weird addition.

If the eggs are already hard-boiled, you will be plating your lunch in about ten minutes. It’s ketogenic except for the sugar in the sriracha, which isn’t much. You can use your own sweet-hot dipping sauce for the dribbling if you prefer. The mint could be replaced with Thai basil or cilantro. I speculate that finely slivered leaves of lemon verbena might be interesting here but I haven’t tried it yet. This is of course in the Thai-ish category and I feel free to experiment and find new tastes.

This is a good time to say something about producing the best eggs you can: in addition to a good commercial laying pellet high in an Omega-3 source such as flaxseed, feed your chickens all the greens that they will eat and a good source of calcium. In addition to oystershell I save all eggshells, dry them in the microwave and grind them, and feed them back in any soft foods from the table or kitchen that I have occasion to give my birds. I grow alfalfa patches in the back yard so that I can cut fresh alfalfa for them. Chickens are busy little machines that convert the 18-carbon Omega-3 fatty acids found in plants, which we absorb poorly, into the 20 and 22-carbon Omega-3s EPA and DHA, which we absorb well. (More structural info here.) One small commercial egg producer who feeds this way says he has hit about 600 mg Omega-3s per egg, verified by testing. I haven’t tested mine, but when I watch my chickens chow down greens, I know that it’s happening and that they are the best eggs I can get.

 

Full Flavors: Hop Shoots and Goat Chops

“”Boy, I could go for some goat right now” said no American ever. But I have no idea why that is. If you are an urban or rural  homesteader you have probably considered goats because they are hardy, compact, dual-purpose, remarkably productive for their size, and extremely friendly. But you have probably thought, or been told, that the meat is strong-flavored and unappealing.

If you are dealing  with an old goat, this is certainly true, but I can’t imagine butchering an old goat. Goats under a year old are delicious, with a full robust flavor that people who shop at the supermarket can hardly imagine, but nothing that can fairly be described as gaminess. The ones that I occasionally produce for our household are 100% alfalfa-fed. If you are lucky enough to have access to such meat, cook it with respect. For the chops, that means marinating with garlic and herbs and grilling medium-rare because the meat gets tough if allowed to dry out. If you can’t get young grass-fed goat, apply the same principles to lamb chops, another meat that has not yet had the flavor bred out of it. Sear on the grill to medium-rare, let rest in a 200 degree oven for 10 minutes, and serve with a veggie that works with robust flavors, such as the pan-grilled hops shoots shown here.

I sometimes think that the direction of mainstream American agriculture is to eliminate anything that has a distinctive flavor. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve rediscovered dry-aged beef and gotten away from chicken breast, which (unless you raised it yourself) is the most tasteless and cottony part of a tasteless and cottony bird. I have tasted prime-grade beef that had no discernible beef flavor, just a fatty faint sweetness.   Spinach is sold in the baby-leaf stage when it has no intrinsic flavor. Corn is as sugary-sweet as cotton candy, with no “corn” flavor to speak of.  It makes me grateful beyond words for my tiny patch of land where I can grow hops shoots and chicory and grape leaves and wild weeds and herbs of all kinds to feed my desire for food that tastes of itself.

By the way, I cook hops shoots a lot in the spring and after trying several methods, I’ve decided that the only one worth pursuing is to cut the shoots in lengths about 1.5 inches long and stir-fry  in a hot pan with some very good olive oil, a hefty pinch of salt, and nothing else. Continue to cook, stirring intermittently, until there are browned spots and the little nascent leaves are fried crisp. This gives them the richness to accent their slight wild bitterness and makes them truly delicious. Like good goat chops, they are a feral and flavorful treat

I mentioned marinating goat and lamb, and my favorite marinade is the one that my mother used when I was growing up, with a tweak or two from me. It’s great for goat, lamb, and beef.  Tinker with it as you see fit, but at least once  try it as written here, with the finish described:

Red meat marinade:

1/2 cup good olive oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon Red Boat fish sauce or 2 mashed fillets of anchovy

2-3 crushed cloves of garlic (I prefer 3) or a couple of stalks of green garlic, sliced fine and then crushed in a mortar and pestle

a small handful of celery leaves, chopped

Mix all ingredients and let sit half an hour, then pour over chops in a dish and let marinate at least four hours and preferably overnight in the refrigerator.

Finish: remove from marinade and salt lavishly on both sides with alder-smoked salt. Sear on a hot grill to produce the ultra flavorful Maillard reactions. Lower heat and grill until done, but no more than medium-rare. Rest in a low oven. Eat and weep. The alder salt makes the meat jump into deliciousness. It’s a case of robust meeting robust and the flame of love being kindled.

If you get interested in producing a bit of your own meat or supporting a farmer who does, study the book “Goat” for more cooking inspiration. Goats and sheep produce milk and meat from land that wouldn’t support crop agriculture, and their meat still has its own distinctive and wonderful flavor. This book was published years ago but, regrettably, there is still nothing else like it.

 

Perennial Saag Paneer


Yesterday I wrote about making Paneer with my grass-fed goat milk. Today I’ll talk about making saag paneer, one of my favorite dishes, and for a permaculture twist I’ll make it with perennials as much as possible. If you don’t have a weed patch, you can use a bunch of spinach. You will also need fresh ginger, cumin seeds, garam masala, heavy cream, and butter.
Assuming that you have the paneer, the next step is to catch your greens and alliums. I used equal parts each of nettles and bladder campion, and 4 stalks each of green garlic and perennial Welsh onions. The nettles and bladder campion were blanched for about 90 seconds so that the nettles could be handled easily, then drained, pressed, and chopped. The alliums were cleaned, trimmed, and sliced in 1/4″ cross section.

When ready to cook, heat a nonstick skillet, cut the paneer in 1″ cubes and salt it, and fry in mild oil of your choice (I like Macadamia nut oil) until browned. Set aside.


Chop a piece of fresh ginger about an inch square finely, and have ready a teaspoon of whole cumin seed and a heaping teaspoon of garam masala.
Heat a saucepan, put in a couple of tablespoons of mild oil, and fry the cumin seeds briefly until they darken a couple of shades. Immediately add the chopped ginger, stirfry furiously until it is cooked but not browned, and add the chopped alliums and lower the heat to medium-low. Add a half teaspoon of salt and sauté the alliums until they are softened, lowering the heat if necessary to keep them from burning. Add the garam masala, cook another minute or two, and add the cream. Add the blanched chopped greens and cook over low heat until they are thoroughly cooked, probably about another 10 minutes. Put the paneer cubes on top, pushing them into the greens mixture a bit, and cook over low heat until they are heated through. Serve with rice or, if you are a low carb eater, gloriously naked on the plate. Drizzle some melted butter or ghee over the top.

I was taught to make this dish a few decades ago by an Indian woman in Manhattan, and I am pretty flexible about the greens used as long as they’re mild. No bitter green has a place in this dish. The green garlic and onions are great in season, but chopped garlic and onion are traditional.  I’m very rigid about the seasoning, though. Sometimes I add a chopped hot pepper but that’s my only variation. The whole cumin seeds fried quickly in hot oil are not negotiable, and burning or scorching any of the seasonings or alliums  means you need to start over, so work carefully.