"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, May 30, 2016

Friends and Hymenoptera

Memorial Day weekend. Old friends came in from out of town. I've been down to see them - Portland, Oregon - fairly recently, but they had not visited the farm since our housewarming party nine years ago, when it still existed mostly as potential.  

They arrived Saturday afternoon, in the middle of a cold rainstorm. We hugged, and ate tacos, and commiserated about the weather. They had been planning to camp, but decided to take advantage of our commodious and dry RV instead. Having made preparations for a barbecue the following day that including buying three dozen local oysters, I hoped and prayed that the weather would change.

It did. Yesterday, Sunday, was an absolutely perfect Pacific Northwest day. There has not been such a perfect Pacific Northwest day yet this year, or perhaps ever. The sky was mostly a clear cerulean blue, but decorated with impressive and towering cumulonimbus clouds that bore watching and incited speculation. The temperature was high enough to be hot on the shoulders and brow, unless you deliberately sought the breeze, which was cool and sea-scented and right there waiting to be found. 

After a breakfast of sourdough pancakes and our own ham, I took their 9 year old daughter with me to do chores and she learned how to milk a goat. She and Paloma, my 11 year old, hit it off quite well and spent the next little while looking for eggs in the hayloft and jumping on the trampoline. 

Later I took them to Lynden. Lynden has lately been undergoing a sort of renaissance and has some very nice new shops and bookstores to explore. In the beautiful Lynden city park, our children played while we sat by the stream and watched ravens bathing in the cool, quick moving water. A pileated woodpecker landed a scant ten feet from us and began hammering for his breakfast, until the ravens chased him off. 

On the way home, we stopped at a U-pick strawberry farm. The five of us spent about twenty minutes picking berries and brought home twenty pounds of fragrant, beautiful fruit. Then my girlfriend and I spent a leisurely afternoon drinking beer and preparing side dishes. The menfolk drowsed in the shade and the children took turns falling on their backs, arms spread wide, into the head-high grass. 

Around five o'clock, we roused ourselves and wandered slowly about gathering chairs and folding tables and tablecloths and firewood, setting up for the feast. Homero did his usual fire-starting trick involving a blowtorch and a little bit of home-brew biodiesel. My sister and her family arrived bearing tofu-dogs and corn on the cob. 

A long afternoon slowly faded into evening as we shucked oysters and gnawed on corn and drank local microbrews. The adults talked about everything and nothing: politics; philosophy; the pressing minutiae of our lives.  The children ran about and hollered. The fire leaped high and orange as the sun set and the stars came out. I saw an amazingly bright meteor in the southeastern sky that nobody else saw. My sister and her family drifted off. The ice in the cooler melted and the shells and the empties piled up. The beers became lukewarm and unattractive. Eventually we turned a hose on the fire, and staggered off in various directions to sleep. 

This morning dawned fine and hot. Not a cloud overhead. My friends wanted to get an early start home, so I only brewed coffee and used the leftover steak from last night and some canned ranchera salsa to make a quick breakfast, folded into hot corn tortillas with a smear of goat cheese. Farewell. Happy Trails. Drive Safe. 

Back to bed. A while later, leftovers and more coffee. Netflix. Too beautiful to stay inside. Out with the goats and the last beer. It's hot, really hot. All the blackberry blossoms are open, and the smell of the vines is strong after the rain. As I sit in a folding canvas chair, book opened and turned upside down over my knee, I close my eyes and I can hear the thrum and the buzz of hundreds of bees. It seems to me that I remember this sound from a dozen occasions of my childhood. 

The apple tree in full blossom, and the blue sky seen through the young leaves as I lay on my back underneath.  A lone hawthorne in a neighbor's field, alive with bees in the snowy blossom. Red clover; bull thistle with its fine purple hairs; the climbing roses behind the garage, a bee in every pale pink rose's heart. Such a hopeful sound, a hundred bees, somehow both soporific and energizing. 

I think this will be a weekend long remembered.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The High Cheese Season

I took all the milk products out of my fridge to take stock. We are in the high cheese season now for sure, friends and neighbors. More or less from left to right, we have:

- Four separate hard cheeses, in eight half-cheese packages, vacuum packed and aging slowly in the fridge. The vacuum packing is something new I'm trying this year. I'm hoping the cheese will keep for several months this way. The oldest vacuum packed cheddar was packaged on 3/13, according to the label, and I haven't broached it yet to try it it. Looks fine though. No mold. I think, altogether, there is about 12 pounds of hard cheese. 

- in the jars at the rear there is a half gallon of fresh milk and a half gallon of yogurt. 

- the ziplocks bags in the middle foreground hold chèvre. 

- a big bowl of chèvre, on the right front. This particular batch was a tiny bit watery and I made the mistake of trying to let it dry a bit through evaporation by leaving it out in the hot sun with a screen over it. I don't know what I was thinking. I should have remembered that too much heat will only develop the caprine compounds - read, make it taste like a randy buck goat. I may be able to salvage that chèvre by using it in some kind of disguised application like a lasagna. Or it might only make randy buck goat-flavored lasagna. 

Temperature, arguably, is the most important variable in cheesemaking, after the type of culture used. Not only do you employ different temperatures during the inoculating and curd-cooking phases of cheesemaking, but the temperatures at which the cheese is held afterwards will result in very noticeable differences. Temperature is also the most difficult variable to control in the home kitchen. During this recent heat wave, I probably shouldn't have attempted to make chèvre at all, because room temperature was well over eighty degrees and unpleasant flavors are likely to develop when the cheese is held at that temperature for long. 

- in the stockpot on the stove in the far background is another batch of cheddar, which I will press this evening. That will be with red pepper flakes. 

There's enough cheese here to feed the Russian army, as my mom was wont to say. But I have to keep making it! I have only a month left before we go to Oaxaca for the summer and dry off the goats. All of this year's cheese has to be made before we leave. 

I wonder if chèvre can be frozen? 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Getting' Grubby

It is only during the short window of time after the grass begins to grow and before the fruit sets on the trees that we can let the horses graze in the orchard. There's nothing to eat before growing season, and if we let them in there after the fruit sets they would eat all the green fruit and get colic. But right now, the window is open, and we are putting the horses to graze in the orchard almost every day. 

Which means there is always fresh horse poop in the orchard. 

Which means this: 

Haku loves to roll in fresh horse poop. He loves it almost as much as he loves tearing up feather pillows and chasing the sheep. And he does not understand why we insist on removing all his lovely smelly horse-poop camouflage by rubbing him with a soapy towel before we let him back in the house. He only wants to jump back into our bed and roll around in it, to give us some of his beautiful fragrance. Because he loves us. That's all. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Fermentation Files (Sourdough)

A couple of months ago, a neighbor gave me some sourdough starter that had been in her family for a very long time. The label on the container said "Skilly Dough, Alaska, 1890." While I can't vouch for the history, I can vouch for the deliciousness. 

For the first few weeks I used it only to make pancakes. I had never made sourdough pancakes before, but that was how my friend used the leaven, so I decided to try it. The pancakes were incredible, with a complex tang I had never tasted before. 

Next I tried making naan - Indian flatbread. That was a revelation, too. The flatbread went from being merely a way to convey curry into my mouth to being the star of the meal. The curry became merely a seasoning for the chewy, delicious bread. 

I made challah - sweet egg bread - for Easter, but I wasn't very happy with it. It was too dense, almost a kind of bread pudding, moist and rich with egg yolks and sugar. It tasted good, but it was not what I was trying to make, and nobody could eat more than a tiny bit of it. 

The same thing happened when I tried to make seeded rye rolls. I didn't get the lift I needed, and the bread, though flavorful, remained dense and wet, without the airiness I wanted. 

I let the sourdough languish in the fridge. A thick crust formed on top, and I thought that I might have let it die entirely. As a test, I took about a tablespoon out of the jar and mixed it with a cup of flour and a cup of warm water. The next day the mixture was bubbling vigorously, so it obviously hasn't died. 

Today, I took that mixture and mixed it with a cup of fresh warm goat's milk, a half cup of sugar, half a stick of melted butter, and more flour. I kneaded it for five or ten minutes and let it rest for a few hours. It didn't double in bulk, but it definitely grew. 

I kneaded it again, formed it into an oblong oval, places it on a greased cookie sheet, and let it rest another hour. Then I slashed the top, preheated the oven to 375, and baked it for 45 minutes. 

As you can see, it's freaking gorgeous. A little bit of the bottom crust stick to the cookie sheet and so I had to pry it off and eat it (I HAD to) with butter. It was perfect - shatteringly crunchy, slightly sweet, and toothsome. I am currently waiting impatiently for the loaf to cool and finish cooking on the counter, before j can slice it and slather it with butter and devour it. 

It smells so good in my kitchen I had to go disturb my husband, who was watching a movie, and make him come into the kitchen and smell the bread. He agreed with me that it smells heavenly and that furthermore I am a genius and he is a lucky man to have married a woman who can bake such a miracle. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Fat of the Land

What's in these jars? Honey? Apple cider?

No! Lard!

I finally took the big package of pork fat out of the freezer and rendered it all. It was a slow day. I don't know how many pounds of fat these six quarts represents - probably about fifteen or sixteen. The sliced fat filled my largest cauldron.

It's not all from our last pig - when I went to the butcher's to pick him up, there was no fat, which I had specifically asked for. The lady behind the counter said  - "oh, let me go look."

A suspiciously long time passed. When she reappeared she apologized and said that the order to save the fat hadn't gotten written down. She gave us a big bag of pork fat that was clearly from a much fatter pig than our had been. I hope nobody else is missing their fat! Not likely - most people don't even want it.

Which is kind of hard to understand. Lard is a wonderful thing, assuming you like pork. Home rendered lard will not be odorless and tasteless like the lard at the store; it will have an unctuous, rich, porky taste. And contrary to popular belief, lard is not a terrible fat, health wise. In fact, it is probably better for you than butter or coconut fat, which is so trendy these days.

To render lard from pork fat, keep the heat on medium to medium-low. Even if all the pieces look like pure fat, there will always be skin and connective tissue, and you don't want to scorch it. As the fat starts to melt, add a cup or two of water. This will help you regulate the temperature (water is simmering = good) and also help avoid scorching. The water will boil off as the fat melts completely.

Occasionally stir and turn the fat to make sure all parts come in contact with the hot bottom of the kettle. The connective tissue and skin and little bits of meat here and there will start to fry, eventually becoming dark, crispy cracklings. These are not the same as chicharrones, which are made from pieces of actual skin. These cracklings will probably be too fatty or greasy to be good, except for the occasional piece of deep fried meat. They do make good dog treats, though in small quantities!

When everything is melted, the water has boiled off, and the cracklings are dark brown, you are ready to store the lard. I am storing mine in quart jars in the chest freezer, plus one jar open in the fridge, for everyday use. There's no need to actually can the fat - it will keep virtually forever in the fridge or freezer.

Simply wait an hour our so with the kettle on the lowest possible heat, for all the solid bits to settle at the bottom. Then you can ladle the clear lard off the top. The last little bit can be poured through a coffee filter. The lard in the photos above is still hot - when it cools it will turn almost pure white.

Lard has a myriad of uses in the kitchen. I probably wouldn't use this lard for pie crust, unless I were making a savory pie like a quiche. Might taste a little funny in a sweet pie. But you can use it as a regular sautéing fat; it's especially good for frying eggs or making fried rice. A spoonful of lard is the best medium for making refried beans. However my favorite use for lard is in tamales. There is nothing like the lard from a real pastured pig to make tamales taste fantastic. One of these days when we are all home and have nothing to do, we will get together and make a whole bunch of tamales together as a family. Here's how my mother-in-law taught me do it. 

I don't think we will get a pig this year. We are going to be gone most of the summer and lately I've been feeling that we have quite enough animals already, thank you. Plus the pasture is still recuperating from the last pig. We have eaten most of that pig already - there's just some unflavored sausage and a ham left. But with all this lard I can have some pig flavor whenever I want, for the foreseeable future.