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Quality of Life

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September is National Fried Chicken Month

As you may have guessed from the title, we at Ham Sweet Farm have officially declared September, Fried Chicken Month. Now, no one should ever need an excuse to cook fried chicken, but this now makes you unpatriotic if you don't partake. So, why fried chicken you might ask? Why not? This month's chicken is the last batch of the season (we do still have a ton in the freezer) and represents the oldest birds we've processed for meat to date. They were approximately 16 weeks old and the breed was Speckled Sussex. They are a heritage breed that is incredibly active and were often found sprinting around the farm getting into trouble. All this activity, combined with their older age, came together to produce a supremely flavorful bird that we couldn't be happier with. These birds are smaller birds and as such make a fantastic fryer bird. You'll be getting the bird cut into 8 pieces, just how you need it for Fried Chicken Month.

Adobo Fried Chicken

 

Never made fried chicken? No problem, because we have the most amazing recipe for you. We tested this recipe a couple of weeks ago and everyone involved remarked that it was the best fried chicken they had ever had. I would have to agree, as the flavor and tenderness were superb. So, what's the secret? It's arguably sacrilegious, but the secret is par-cooking, or cooking until almost done at low temperature so that when you fry it, there is no worry of it being uncooked. The recipe comes from Ed Lee out of Kentucky and is easy peasy to follow.

Little pro tip to plus up the chicken. Heat some honey in a pan with a few berries of all spice or juniper until fragrant. When the chicken is plated and ready to serve, drizzle the honey over the top. You won't be disappointed.

In addition to the chicken, you'll have some great steaks and brats for the final months of grilling season, so make sure you enjoy the nice weather while it's still here.

Adobo Fried Chicken

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4ZkeajFPig

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Hot off the Grill - It's the May CSA

It's grill time people. IT'S GRILL TIME!!!! This month's share celebrates this by bringing you products that are meant to get you outside and over that open flame. IMG_3054

First up, the beef. In this month's share, you'll find some burger patties that are flat-out delicious with just salt and pepper, but also a flank steak. The most common use for flank steak is fajitas. While fajitas are a perfectly fine preparation, with a little bit of work and awareness of how to cut the steak, you can create a grilled steak that everyone will love. When cooking flank steak, we simply use salt and pepper, but this steak is well suited for any marinade or rub. When you're ready to cook, generously season the meat and then cook over a high heat for only a couple of minutes per side (depends on thickness of course). You want to be sure to not overcook the meat, as it has the potential to get tough if given the opportunity. You're also going to want to ensure adequate resting time, generally about the same amount of time that you took to cook the steak. Once well rested, slice the meat and serve to your family and/or guests. It's not your standard slicing though, as you're going to want to slice it -across- the grain to help tenderize the cuts. Here is a good video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_WF-aUCOCk

Once you're all set with the cutting, there's nothing left to do but open a beer or a bottle of wine and enjoy the beautiful weather.

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Pork chops are probably the best grilled item on a pig, at least in my opinion. They have great marbling (at least ours do ;) ), a nice fat cap and don't take too long to cook. That's where people go wrong with pork chops though— they overcook them. This country has been told for so long to cook pork to 150 or 160 or even higher, but really, the optimal temperature in our opinion is about 135-140. They'll be just a little bit pink in the center and absolutely perfectly juicy. With this being the first opportunity to try pork raised our way, I suggest using the opportunity to just do salt and pepper for seasoning so that you can clearly taste the difference. As for cooking, you're looking at 3 - 4 minutes per side for a room temperature pork chop and the same rules as above for resting. After that, slice and enjoy with a nice spring salad or even some smashed potatoes. There really is no wrong side when it comes to pork chops, so just enjoy the flavor with whatever you enjoy on the side.

Please remember that the fat on this pork is not the fat you know from the grocery store!  These pigs were finished on barley, which makes their fat snow-white, softer, more flavorful [some would say "nutty"]— you may even notice that it looks and feels different on your hands as you prepare it.  You may be tempted to cut the fat off, but this fat is partially unsaturated, like olive oil.  It's good and good for ya!  If nothing else, you can save it and use it when you're cooking something else, to grease your skillet or flavor a soup.  But, you might find that you like it just as it is, on the chop as part of the bite.

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Jasper & Sage

IMG_6281After the wild success of Christian's post about The $18 Chicken last week, we've been playing catch-up on calls, emails, comments and messages.  If you haven't heard back from us yet, we apologize... we're not ignoring you.  My phone died among some other things, so, ya know, try to get in touch with us again if would! The other, arguably more distracting thing happening here on the farm is the arrival of two very sweet baby goaties.  They were born 5 days apart, and are best friends.  Jasper is the brown w/black stripe buckling, while Sage is his wildly-colored and fuzzy half sister!  I could go out and sit with them forever, just watching them play.  They love to jump on and off of just about anything, including their mamas, the barn, and chickens!  Sage also loves to chase and butt the chickens.  Jasper is more interested in people.

There are few things as adorable as a baby goat, so we're just taking time to sit with them and enjoy it.  Soon they'll be big enough to get into trouble, and they won't be quite as cute.  Well, that might not be true.

Everything is but a hop, skip and a jump away when you're a goat.

Look at that face... <3

 

 

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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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Oh hi, it's me, Nike again

This is my morning face. Um, hi.  Typing is hard because, well, I don't have thumbs.  And I don't like things touching my feetsies.  But I like some things.  Not the biting fence.  The biting fence bites me.  Mom and Dad said to leave the biting fence alone, but I toucheded it once and then I ran away fast.  And I cried.  Now I don't go near the biting fence.

Sometimes they tell other hoomans not to touch the biting fence, but stupid hoomans touch fence anyway.  Just like me, Nike.  Um, hi.  DON'T TOUCH THE BITING FENCE, HOOMANS.  It's bite-y.  When you are here, maybe you shouldn't touch anything unless Mom or Dad says.  Because when you touch it it will bite you.  Or if you eat poop like my sister Pinot, they will yell at you.

Well I would love to stay here because I am on the couch, but I have some toys to squeak and some grass to roll in, and maybe I will find a sunshine spot for sleeping.  It's a ruff life.

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Spring is In the Air...

IMG_4452The chorus of birds has reached fever-pitch each morning as the sun breaks.  Not just our local songbirds, but the turkeys, and chickens, and ducks seem to awake just before dawn to start their daily warbling, crowing, quacking, gobbling, cooing and clucking. Long gone are the mornings when our alarm clocks would sound in what felt like the middle of the night, and we would rouse in pitch blackness, prying the dogs out of their cozy beds to venture outside for chores before winter's bleak dawn.  While that was our reality for eternity this winter, it has all been forgiven now that tulips are starting to peek out under mulch, and tree buds grow fatter by the day.  Wispy, watercolored clouds usher summer closer as the sunshine banishes all traces of Winter 2013-2014... We'll forgive but never forget!

IMG_4337There is a marked difference in the behavior of all the animals since even just a few weeks ago.  The chickens, who had barely set foot outside their coop since December, have been ranging all over our yard and the woods surrounding.  They're finding tender new shoots, sprouted seeds, worms and newly hatched bugs.  The color of their yolks has deepened already to a rich golden hue, and they just look healthier.  They even venture into the pig pasture sometimes, scrounging for spilled grain or grubs that the pigs have turned up while rooting around.

Everyone feels playful, too.  Finally, it's been warm enough for our chicks and ducklings to spend time outside.  When they haven't grown their adult feathers, even a chilly draft can be enough to sicken or kill them.  But in the sunshine, they strut and flutter and preen while learning to scratch around in the grass and dirt.

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There is a certain sense of serenity among the frenetic energy of spring.  We have so many projects to do, both inside and out of the house.  But just as our ducks are busy building nests in which to lay their eggs, just as the bees are slowly circling the property in search of those first blooms that will carry nectar to rejuvenate their hive, just as the grass reclaims its green luster from high summer, so, too, do we feel the need to build and create and maintain.

"A high windy day, with sunshine and the blue jays calling.  Snowdrops in bloom, first of all, and the bees active, finding something, I think, among the chickweed buds.  But the year has not yet come alive. . . . Blessed quiet, thinking and working." — David Grayson, A Countryman's Year

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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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A Farmer's Binding Contract

con·tract [n., adj.]noun 1. an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified. 2. an agreement enforceable by law.

All farmers share in an underlying responsibility to be a diligent steward of the land they farm.  The philosophy of leaving this world better than when you entered it is nowhere more applicable than in farming. Whether you grow vegetables or raise livestock, the weight of the responsibility is significant, all of us entering into a binding contract, closely detailing the mutual relationship between you, the farmer and them, the produce, earth or animal.

Saying hi to Jack Sparrow

True, we have virtually no experience raising produce or crops at scale, but we do have quite a bit of experience raising livestock, both currently and in the past. So, speaking specifically about animals, this contract specifies a small, but weighty set of requirements that have a direct and monumental impact on the quality, quantity and longevity of your relationship with the other party.

 

  1. Pigs in the Woods

    It is the expectation of the livestock to be provided with adequate shelter, quality feed and ample hydration.  They expect to be provided with these necessities on a daily and routine basis to ensure adequate growth rates and quality of health.

  2. It is the expectation of the livestock that they will be handled with a level of force that is commensurate with their size and personality.  No undue stress or force shall be pushed onto each animal than is absolutely necessary.
  3. It is the expectation of the livestock that they are allowed to exist with natural behavior. The farmer shall provide an environment that ensures both adequate freedoms and safety to support stimulation.
  4. It is mutually understood, that as most livestock exist for the provision of food, that the farmer ensures a quick and painless death.  Post-mortem, it is expected that life of the animal and the former relationship be honored and minimal, if not zero, waste is produced.

It's by these basic rules and stipulations that we try to abide daily.  While mistakes are an inevitable part of the process, working in an earnest and honest fashion towards these principles is non-negotiable. It would be the same expectation that any human being would expect from a positive relationship with another human.  It's much the same as how parents enter into the expectations of the life of a child.  While it's not nearly the same relationship, nor should it be, the overarching principles are the same— to uphold your end of the deal as best you can.

Blood and Axe

The impetus for this post was this past weekend's processing of chickens.  There was no drama like the previous post and really nothing remarkable to speak of. However, as we cleaned the chickens and saved out the comb, feet and innards I felt a sense of satisfaction, and yes, maybe even superiority over how the average person eats.  A badge of honor that I know how to not waste an animal.  But what I realized, as I thought about it over the next few days, was that this sense of superiority was unfounded.  This was us, simply upholding our end of the contract we entered. No pats on the back deserved, and certainly no entitlement to any other feeling other than doing our job. It's this part of the contract, the lack of waste of life, that is arguably the most important. You, the farmer, have the responsibility of thrift and respect that is the foundation for all farmer-animal relationships. This responsibility is perhaps the largest difference between a farmer and even the most conscientious consumer.  We have no luxury of ignorance. There is no ignoring the taking of a life, the waste produced and even the economic impact of making those decisions.

Hanging Chickens

In the end, the existence of farming is to produce an edible product.  In our case, to raise an animal for the purpose of food, a plate on the table for friends, family or our customers.  That's a heavy responsibility when you stop and consider it.  For the provision of food on the table, it is your agreement to provide them the best life possible, with respect for both the pre- and postmortem. It's simple, 100% doable and the first philosophical agreement one needs to have before even thinking about raising an animal for food. It's also one of the most difficult pieces for the consumer to wrap their head around, the idea of building such tight personal relationships and commitments with an animal you're going to eat.

It's in those times and discussions that I'm reminded of something told to me by a NJ farmer, Jonathan White of Bobolink dairy.  He told of a story where he was at a market and sharing some cured meats that he had made from one of his beloved cows, Gertrude.  I don't recall the exact place of Gertrude in the herd, but I know she was at least one of the oldest members of the herd, perhaps even the first.  The story went something like this:

Jonathan: " Try some of this bresaola.  " Customer: " Wow this is great.  Is this one of your cows? " Jonathan: " This is actually Gertrude.  She was one of our first cows and one of my favorites. " Customer: " How could you eat a cow you know? " Jonathan: " How could you eat an animal you don't? "

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