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Thanksgiving Day Prep

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Thanksgiving Day Prep

Turkeys in the field
Turkeys in the field

If you were to ask people, "What is your most feared meal?", chances are it would be Thanksgiving. The meal is always a large one, usually with many people around the table, all eyes on the pièce de la résistance. This is what we think of when we think about the Thanksgiving table, and no one wants to be remembered as the one who ruined an avian centerpiece. The fear is unwarranted, however, as with a few steps ahead of time and some careful planning the day of, you should be able to avoid a dry, tasteless turkey and have something remarkable for your guests and/or family.

Heritage vs. Broad Breasted

One of the main reasons people fear cooking a turkey is because conventional turkeys have been bred to the point of massive breasts and overall unnatural size and growth rates— weighing in well over 20lbs when they are processed! If there is one thing that's certain in this world, it's that a wild turkey or any heritage breed turkey, will rarely, if ever, weigh in past 20lbs dressed weight. You see, while the Broad Breasted Whites are the Kardashians of the turkey world, our heritage breed birds are far more in proportion, with a whole lot more flavor to bring to the table (pun intended). They have smaller breasts, much more proportional bodies and higher distribution of intramuscular fat [not to mention being far less obnoxious and way more useful than any Kardashian, ever]. All of these things mean that we need to cook these turkeys differently, but when done right, you'll be met with some superb flavor. If this is your first time having a pastured, heritage breed bird, well, you are in for quite a treat.

Snoozing on the job
Snoozing on the job

Cooking and Prep

Cooking a turkey is not difficult in the least if you pay attention and think it through. It all starts with the prep of the animal, and as far as I see it, there are three basic options as to how you begin the Turkey Day ritual. Lets take a look at these methods now.

Brining

It seems that the most popular way to prep a turkey is to brine it. Brine is simply a solution made up of water, salt, sugar and various other aromatics to impart flavor and water into the bird. Notice I said flavor AND water, which is key to understand. The water is what keeps the bird seemingly "moist", however it's a bit of a misnomer, as it's not so much moist so much as it is wet. When meat is tender, it's because of the fat, the protein breakdowns, etc. Think dry-aged beef for instance— it's the fat and the protein breakdown from the aging that improves the texture, not a brine. The same is true for turkeys.There is 0 shame in the brine, so long as you're aware of why it works and what it's doing. If you do happen to take this path, make sure to pull the bird out of the brine with adequate time to let the bird come up to room temp and for the skin to dry. Do not cook from cold, as this will both slow down cooking times, as well as begin the horrible uneven cooking process.

If you're interested in detailed science and studies around brining (I know this is odd), here is a fantastic article on it:  http://www.genuineideas.com/ArticlesIndex/brine.html

Turkeys Up Close
Turkeys Up Close

Pre-Salting

If we're keeping with common tradition and going to put a whole bird on the table, this is my go-to method. It's also incredibly simple, yet so very effective. Take 1/2 to 1 tbsp of salt per pound of bird, and very generously salt the skin of the bird. Place on a wire rack over a plate or pan in the fridge for 24-48 hours. About 2 hours before you're ready to cook, remove the bird from the fridge to allow it to come up to room temperature and then begin the roasting process. This prep method has proven to create the most crispy skin and evenly seasoned bird of the methods mentioned here. I use this very same method on pretty much any bird I cook, except duck, but that's a post for another day. What happens here is that the salt helps to pull out the moisture from the skin, as well as break down some of the protein in the muscle, creating tenderness, as it migrates throughout the bird.

Deboning

If you can get away from the traditional mindset of a whole turkey, trussed and stuffed, the absolute best way to cook a turkey is in rolled form. One of the biggest challenges with cooking a whole turkey is that different parts of the bird do best at different temps and different lengths of time [think legs vs. breast]. When cooking a whole bird, you're really in an exercise of compromise, trying to find the happy medium. However, if you modify your cooking shape, you can  unify the cooking times and create a much more evenly-cooked turkey, but in a non-traditional form. I know that boning out a turkey may seem daunting, but with a little bit of patience and a sharp paring knife, you can accomplish it with no problem. Here is a great video for deboning a chicken, which is exactly the same as a turkey, just on the obviously smaller scale. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAekQ5fzfGM

Temperature Control

Now that you have a prep method, you're going to need to make sure you cook it to the right temp. If you read any conventional cooking method instructions for typical turkey, they will suggest pulling the bird at a temp of 160 - 180. If you happen to hit anywhere near that temp with a heritage bird, which has smaller breasts, you will have a beautiful mount for your wall, rather than a delicious heritage bird.  Don't do it!  For a heritage bird, you want to cook to 145 degrees. A meat thermometer is essential, and for a whole roast bird, you're looking at 6-8 minutes per pound at about 400 degrees. When you pull the bird, you'll get carry over of about 10 degrees, leaving your dark meat at about 155, which is perfect. You can go lower temp if you choose, but the time per pound will obviously increase (325 is 12 - 15 minutes per pound). Invest in a good instant read thermometer to monitor the thigh and breast meat, they are indispensable. You'll want to ensure that your thigh is cooked to 145

Nike and Birds
Nike and Birds

Stretching the Bird

No, don't physically stretch your turkey out!  People splurge on holiday turkeys, we all know this, but there are way to extend your purchase beyond Thanksgiving dinner and Leftovers sandwiches. Save the bones and gristle that's left over and make a stock. Take that stock and remaining meat and make some pot pie. Save the bones again and make a remoulage.

Recipes to get you going

[Photograph:   Jessica Leibowitz  ]

[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

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Goodbyes and Bones

Winter waiting "My only complaint about the Old Spot breed of pigs we raise is that their amazingness and personable personalities make it even harder for me to take them to the processor. I say harder because regardless of the species of animal it will always be hard to transport them to the their end. The Old Spots have always made it too easy to love them with their playfulness and desire for human affection. These were my thoughts as I walked down the hill after having coaxed the group of pigs I am taking in tomorrow onto the trailer and closing the door behind them. The drive is beautiful on the back roads yet quite difficult emotionally."  —Donald M. Arrant, Jr., livestock manager at Glynwood Center

One of the best and worst things about having a small farm is your personal relationship with each animal.  Many people ask us, how can you name the animals you're going to eat?  We have so few animals here on the farm that, even without names, they would have names.  Whether we gave each pig a number, assigned each chicken a letter, or referred to each duck by their defining qualities, coloration, size... that would become a name.

"Oh, you wouldn't believe what Seven did today!"

If we didn't want to have these relationships with the animals, we wouldn't have them here.  But that doesn't detract from their ultimate purpose: meat providers, nourishment purveyors.  In their time here, they work for us in other ways, too.  Our pigs get to spend their days doing what they love best... destroying just about everything in their path.  We brought them here because of the untamed, poison ivy-riddled, burdock- and garlic mustard-filled, tanglewood old gardens left from 30 years ago when this place was a working farm.  Thirty years of untended gardens mean soft, fast-growing trees and weeds take over fertile soils.  One year of pigs means overturned earth, slowly girdled trees, and new beginnings.

Historically, pigs were kept by households as meat-producing garbage disposals.  Take them your kitchen scraps and garden waste, and they will create for you fertile garden beds and a winter's worth of meat preserves.  The onset of industrial agriculture meant more and more pigs, kept in IMG_4413smaller spaces, fed grain instead of scraps because what farmer can produce so many scraps for dozens or hundreds or thousands of animals day after day?

Despite efforts to turn pigs into "The Other White Meat," subsisting only in concrete barns, the instincts of a pig are incredibly strong.  A domestic pig, once escaped or turned loose, will revert to its wild roots in mere months.  Our boar Orson, who had never seen sunlight or dirt before coming home to our farm at the age of a year and a half, is an efficient rooter and joyful wallower.  He didn't need to be taught to root or wallow, he just needed to have the dirt in front of him.  At first, our plans were to let Orson do his boar duty [aka make babies] and then process him, but we enjoy watching him out in the world so much that he will probably be here to stay.

Kate & GoosieSuch is the nature of small farms.  Our decisions aren't always based in sound financial logic, but as a former boss told me once, "Sometimes you just have to give yourself that special animal."  Not every animal gets to stay for life, but every so often an extraordinary animal comes along to challenge your heart strings.  Our chicken Mother Goose is one of those.  She follows us around while we do chores, and even when I am working in the garden she is close by.  She will let you hold her, and eat swatted mosquitoes deftly yet gently from your hand, and maybe even snooze in your lap for a while.

On the other hand, we raised a batch of Freedom Ranger meat chickens this summer who were the most savage beasts we've ever had here at Ham Sweet Farm.  They pecked your arms with intent if you reached down for anything in their pasture, tore bits from my Muck boots as I waded through the flock, and refused to be contained in any sense of the word.  One actually met an early death after I removed it from Gnocchi's pen and it jumped back in while she was eating.  Gnocchi doesn't share, so when this chicken tried to sneak grain from in front of her, she swatted it away Chik'n DInnerwith her head, and caught it in the brain with a tooth.  Not exactly a USDA-approved means to an end, but we did eat it for dinner the next day.

For the animals who don't stay here forever, it's nothing personal.  But it is sad [with the exception of the Freedom Rangers, who we were happy to escort into our freezer].  You get to know the personalities of individuals as well as groups.  When a group of ducks reaches the age to be processed, you don't get to see them each morning dash out of their coop and beeline for the little duck pond.  No longer will they waddle around with wings folded across their backs like old Italian men in a piazza.  Maybe each duck didn't have a name, but "The Ducks" are their own character here.  They have a place, and when they leave that spot is open, empty.

There will be another group of ducks, more poultry, and other animals who might even live in the same place the ducks did when they were here.  It's the nature of farming, and necessary when you and your family, friends and customers eat meat.  It's the reason we save all of our bones, from every meal and every animal, and make stock and remouillage before the bones reach their final resting place, in our compost pile and then, once again, out on pasture.

 

 

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Piggy Fever

Sage in Bloom Wow.  So we meet again, blog space.  It's been a while!

Umm... so... we have piglets!!  They're 4 weeks old, robustly healthy and wildly polka-dotted.  Gnocchi has been a wonderful mother to them, and we couldn't be happier.  She was 5 days late so we did some major sweating and all-nighters while she remained cool, calm and collected and built a snug straw nest for them as she waited.

We will keep 4 of the piggies... one gilt, to breed, and 3 barrows to raise out for our next generation of pork.  Another gilt will be headed to Napoleon Ridge Farm near Cincinnati.  Two gilts will be headed Up North to live with fellow Grrls Meat Camp member Chef Lori Swonder.  The only boar we didn't castrate will be going to another local farm, Frosty Acres.  Looks like Gnocchi & Orson's babies will be taking over the world!

Gnocchi and newborn piggies

Mucca, 3 minutes old  <3

Piggie Butts!

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In Bloom

Last weekend we spent a rare weekend away, wining and dining our way through some of Chicago's best restaurants and bars, though there are many from which to choose— the storied Alinea, Nico Osteria, EL Ideas, Three Dots and a Dash, Billy Sunday, Avec.   You know, pretty much the exact opposite of our everyday farm lives.  It was wonderful to be there with my mom and brother, strolling along the city streets without many cares in the world.

But it is strange, too, to be away from the farm.  There's a feeling of being lost, when you realize in the hotel room that there's no dogs underfoot, no roosters crowing outside your window, no goats screaming for their dinner [even though it may only be 3 pm].  I couldn't help but watch people meandering as aimlessly as we were, wondering— what do they do with their time?  We've been making our dreams a reality at Ham Sweet Farm for a little over a year now, and I already can't remember what it feels like to wake up with nothing to do.  Even on our do-nothing days, chores are still happening in the morning and evening.  And when we're away, the desire to constant check in at home is almost obsessive-compulsive.  Oh, it's been 20 minutes, do you think so-and-so is ok or that goat jumped out the fence again?  Are the dogs behaving?  Did the basement flood?

When we left, buds on our fruit trees had been threatening to open, but weren't quite ready to commit yet given this year's wild weather patterns.  Nothing was really blooming, although the grass had started to green up.  But, oh, after 3 days absence...

Edible flowers everywhere!

It was a wonderful gift to come home to.  We will have apples and pears and maybe even peaches this year!  I guess life really does go on.  Mother Nature adapts far better than we ever could.  And on that note... we are officially on piglet watch!  Our beautiful gilt Gnocchi is due next Monday.  She has started to show the final signs of impending birth.  To say we are excited would be a vast understatement!  As a first-time mama, we will be watching closely to make sure things go as well as possible.  We'll be sure to keep you posted!

Gnocchi looking plump... beginning to bag up!

 

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How to become a better meat buyer

I've been wanting to write a post for quite a while on how to be a better consumer, but it wasn't until talking with a friend around Thanksgiving that it became a more clear how to answer the question.  She and her boyfriend are looking to buy a side or whole animal (both pork and beef) back in Colorado and she expressed hesitation over making such a commitment. " How do I know if it's the right farm and they are doing it right? " she asked.  This is similar to the question we get asked a lot, having worked on, and now owning a farm; " How do I know if the meat I'm buying is raised well? "  The simple answer is always, " Just go visit the farm! ".   Ducks in Lavender

There is a problem with that answer though— most people aren't farmers.  They are, at most, educated consumers, but by no means are they farmers or even owners of anything resembling an animal they'd eat.  So how would they know?  It's the same way I wouldn't know what a nice guitar is, I'm not a musician.  I know which ones "look" pretty, but that doesn't mean anything to the end product.  The only way to really know is to research the "supposed to."  What is a guitar "supposed to" sound and play like? What are animals "supposed to" be doing?

That begs the question then, " How am I 'supposed to' know? " By taking a little time learning about how an animal behaves. For instance, let's take pigs:

  • They love to root around and turn up the soil
  • They are social animals
  • They are destructive as hell
  • They are smart
  • They can't sweat
  • They don't do well in the heat
  • They can drink up to 5 gallons of water in a day

Guinea Hogs

What does this mean to a buyer though and how does it make you a better one. When you show up at a farm, see a lush green pasture and pigs roaming around.  It looks just like a postcard, so it must be perfect right?  Well, is there shade for the peak heat of the day?  Where is their wallow to bath in water to cool down?  What about drinking, where do they get their needed water? In reality, if the farmer is going through the trouble to put their pigs on pasture, then they probably have those things.  Knowing that they need them though, allows you to better assess the quality of the end product before ever tasting it.  Garbage in, garbage out, right? It's information that allows you to be a little deeper with your product knowledge and provides you with the right questions to ask.

chicken-tree

An area where I see the most disconnect around natural behavior with what consumers want is pastured poultry.  Turkeys for instance, love to graze and walk around, but they also very much love to roost in high places.  They also don't scratch like chickens do.  So if I showed up to a farm and the turkeys were all scratching around, I would be wondering if they are getting the right feed. If I didn't see a place for them to roost, I'd be curious what they did at night.  There is a nuance there that I'd like to point out though.  I'm curious and wondering, not judging and running.  The farmer could have sprayed scratch grain on the ground for them, prompting them to dig around a bit more.  There is even a hay bale over there because the two toms like to sit together and watch over their harem. They could be there only for the day time and go to a large roosting pen at night to be protected from predators. Again, information doesn't allow you to judge, just better understand the "supposed to" and what to ask. Because, in the above instances, they are not only allowing the essence of the animal to be there, but they are encouraging it by going above and beyond standard care.

Now the question most people would ask, is, where the hell do I find this stuff?  Use the Google! There are so many resources out there now, some would say too many, but it's there.  A few places to check:

  • Your local Agricultural Extension
  • Your local DNR ( Most domesticated animals are descendants of wild animals.  You can find a lot of documented natural behaviors here. )
  • Your local butcher
  • Your local farmer

But— and there is always a but isn't there— these resources and the subsequent research does not a farmer make.  No amount of reading or movie watching makes you a farmer.  You only get that by doing, and by doing it for years. The consumer -must- respect that.  The consumer has to respect the fact that on single digit winter days, they are most certainly not carrying buckets of warm water back and forth from their house to various pens.  That they are not running electrical cords to heaters and breaking ice.  That they are not dealing with the inevitable death that comes with animals on a farm.  There is no farmer in their right mind that partakes in farming to get rich.  Farming is a commitment and, for most, an immense source of pride.  You, the consumer, doing research gives you the ability to understand the "why" behind the farm a bit better.  Why a farmer has spools in the goat run.  Why the farmer hides nuts under trees in the pig area.  Why there are downed limbs and branches in the turkey pastures.  Most farmer will appreciate the questions and be willing to talk to you about what and why they did something.  We definitely do. At the end of the day, farmers do the best they can with what they have.  This includes the information, equipment, animals and, most importantly, money.  There is no such thing as the perfect farm.  There is always something lacking, and if you don't believe me, just ask a farmer. Regardless of all of that though, we are proud of what we do and there is no greater reward than an informed consumer who recognizes that and is willing to support us.

Nut and Apple Finished Pork

That brings us full-circle back to being a better meat buyer.  If you take the time to research and learn about the above mentioned things, I can promise you this, it will not be lost on any of us. With so many cheaper and more convenient options out there, we are thankful for every customer we have. We appreciate the effort being made to better understand what and why we do what we do.  Being a better consumer is as much about "paying it forward" and explaining to others what the essence of a pig is, as it is knowing it yourself.  It's a relationship built on trust and respect.  Do the research and learn, but enter into the relationship with a farmer with an open mind and a willingness to listen.  Share in the curiosity that is farming with a healthy, but respectful level of inquisition and even offer to help now and then.  After all, if both sides uphold their end of the deal, it will be a long relationship and not just a transaction.

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[Edit: I added local butcher here as that's an obvious choice.  Butchers work hard to source the best product and are a natural option to learn more from. ]

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Doing the Best We Can

These are the questions we continually get about our farm, and quite frankly, it's beyond annoying. These questions are almost always asked by people who don't farm, have never set foot on a farm and more often than not, completely their concerns.

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Happy Father's Day

Phil Collins and his eggs on Father's Day Everyone today is reminiscing about their favorite childhood memories with their Dads. Fathers are remembering when their pain in the ass teenager was cute and cuddly or their little girl was still their little girl.  Here on the farm however, we have a Turkey that seems to want to be a stay at home Dad as he appears to be "sitting" on two eggs.  We're not sure where he found them or when, but he seems to be finding his paternal side.

So, on this day in which we remember our fathers, Happy Father's Day from all of the animals and us here at Ham Sweet Farm, especially Phil Collins, the maternal tom turkey.

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Welcome to the Farm

Our Farm Welcome to the Farm! Virtually at least. We're a little farm located in Williamston, MI.  Just moved out here from Colorado. Kate and I have always wanted a farm and out in Colorado, given the limited water and cost of land, we knew we needed to move back to her home state, The Mitten. After searching for a house and going through a whole bunch of drama, we had some unexpected good fortune. We came upon this property in Williamston and bought it sight-unseen. Yup, you read that right— we bought a 30 acre farm without setting eyes on the property. In full transparency, we did have Kate's mom and our realtor go through it first before we bought it.

Porch

The house is pretty much the perfect house for us.  A 100 year-old rambling farm house, a wrap-around porch, a full Michigan basement, 3 outbuildings and absolutely beautiful pasture and woods.  To say we're lucky would be an understatement.  Lest you think we don't need the room, we did have an entourage that came with us in the way of 3 dogs, 1 sheep, 1 goat and 2 horses.  Since being here [about 2 months now], we've accumulated a few more creatures: 3 heritage turkeys, 17 chickens and 14 ducklings.  Coming in the next week are also 5 pigs and 2 more goats.  Life is busy to say the least.

Pastured Chickens

Kate and I both work full time jobs, so the goal for the farm is to sustain itself and be able to provide local area restaurants and residents with a high quality set of products that are cared for on a micro level.  We are not striving for quantity, it's all about quality of life for the animal and quality of the end product.  We plan on having a variety of eggs (duck, chicken and quail), heritage turkeys, free range pork as well as pastured lamb and goat.  That's the initial plan at least, but obviously we're still getting the infrastructure set up, so it'll probably be beginning early next year (2014).  We do expect to have chicken eggs and duck eggs this year, as well as turkeys this fall.  If you're interested, please contact us for availability and prices.

Barn at Sunset

We couldn't be more happy with where we are and the life we have.  We're proud of what we're doing and would love to share that with anyone who's interested.We welcome anyone to the farm to see a tour of what we're doing and enjoy a cocktail on our porch anytime you want.  We juts ask that you give us a heads up before you head out.

You'll continue to see updates from Kate and me over time, so keep checking back to check in our latest project.

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