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Start of March... Start of the Season!

Oh look.  More snow.

A tantalizing whisper of a change in season started a few days ago.

Last week, as I was headed to work in a whiteout blizzard after finishing morning chores, I cried. Because WINTER.  It was the snowflake that broke the farmer's back, I suppose you could say.  That day, Christian and I were talking about my melancholy and he confided that he, too, felt that winter had finally broken him.  The good news?  That's how every Michigander feels at the end of February.  The bad news?  A common saying about March is, "In like a lion, out like a lamb."

"So what does that mean?" a weatherbeaten Christian asked me.  It means we're not in the clear yet.  There are likely still freak snowstorms in store for us, and plenty of wet, cold, icy, muddy, unpredictable weather in our future.  But it does mean we're in the home stretch!  It means green grass will replace the two feet of snow and ice that has been here since Thanksgiving.  It means the front porch is open for business again.

 

Front Porch Snoozin'

 

The sun has put everyone in a good mood.  The dogs no longer jostle to get back into the house as soon as they've done their business.  The chickens have actually ventured out across the yard to forage in the newly-bared patches of earth and grass still nestled in between snow drifts.  The pigs have been sunning themselves on the edges of their huts, while the ducks have delighted in the puddles and mud everywhere.  Our tom turkey, Phil Collins, has been strutting around for days trying to impress his harem of hens despite breaking through the melting snow crust with his feet.  Our little soccer ball-shaped goat, Bootsie, couldn't be persuaded to get off her new lawn chair...

Things will be changing quickly around here in the upcoming months... baby animals, harvest dates, sowing, planting, reaping, weekend projects and Monday exhaustion.  All tenets of farm life.  We were able to devote half of the weekend to relaxation and the other half to outdoor projects, which felt so good after the bone-chilling winter weekends that have made even the most simple tasks burdensome in the last few months.  Sometimes the greatest reward for a day's work is a sore back and tired hands.

And, just one week after winter's wrath brought defeated tears to my eyes, I cried the other day because IT WAS JUST SO GODDAMN BEAUTIFUL OUT.  Michigan, you always make Spring worth the wait.

 

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It's been a long winter

It's been a long winter but, spring is around the corner.  So they say at least.  We continue to hold onto that hope on the farm, as do the animals. With over two feet of snow on the ground in some spots and an unrelenting cold spell, to say we've been beaten up this year would be an understatement. We've had the worst winter in 130 years with an average temperature of 21 degrees and 68 days below freezing.  It's easily the worst winter I've ever been through in 34 years.  A hell of a first year to own your own farm.  Lots of lessons learned. Iced over fields

Spring is an enormous amount of work on any farm.  It's when you lay the groundwork for the next 6 - 8 months to be successful and tenable.  You need new fencing, tilled garden areas, new coops and anything and everything in between.  In short, if your hands aren't covered in dirt and your back isn't sore, you're probably not preparing hard enough.  Spring is the season of extreme tangibility though, it's the time when you see the most significant change over a short period of time. Things happen fast on the farm in the Spring and it's easily one of the most rewarding times of the year.  It's when the end of day rewards of a drink and cigar on the porch starts to become a regular payoff.  Well worth it we think.

The Girls and Badger

The plans for the Spring are numerous.  We have pigs that are going to farrow (give birth... fingers crossed!). Goats are being bred. We have chicken tractors to build and fill with our current batch of chicks.  There are the new coops to be built for the new batch of egg layers.  Maple trees ready to tap and buckets to be hung. Don't forget the aviary for the turkeys we have arriving in a month and half.  Last, but most certainly, not least, we are expanding our garden area significantly this year.  We've decided to forego our CSA membership and try and do it ourselves with the occasional supplement from the local farmers markets.  It's a big undertaking for sure, but one that's quite exciting.  We have high hopes given our success last year, however, I'm sure we're now jinxed.  All kidding aside, the plan is to give it a go with seed starting occurring in the next few weeks or so and hopefully digging in the dirt in the next 30 - 45 days.  Kate has been bouncing off the walls to do so and has started to just dig in our potted plants to satisfy the needs of dirty fingers. Perhaps our biggest expansion this year is with a Meat CSA.  It's something that's unique to this area it seems, but the concept is simple.  You sign up and pre-pay for a monthly supply of different types of meats.  Different size shares for different size families and tons of options to make it the perfect fit for you.  We currently still have spots open if you are interested.

Nut and Apple Finished Pork

The lessons learned this winter are numerous, but perhaps the biggest lesson is to keep focused on spring when the winter feels long.  This season was a stern and constant reminder of this lesson.  It's a lesson we've known, and one that's easy to lose sight of when you're not farming, but on a farm it's your only hope.  The 60 gallons of water a day you haul, the falls on ice, the chainsaw work for downed trees from ice... it all makes sense and feels purposeful when spring rolls around.

Barn with Sunset

We've done a lot well on the farm overall, and look forward more than ever to the upcoming spring and 2014 Season.  We have animals bred, some still working on getting bred, chickens in the brooder and more birds on the way.  Maple trees are getting closer to being tapped and seeds are ready to be started.  It's oh-so-close, any day now and so exciting.  We think 2014 is going to be a great year and look forward to sharing it with everyone.

 

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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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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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Busy couple of weeks on the farm

Having a farm brings a lot to your plate in more ways than one.  There are unexpected expenses, unlimited supply of chores and a seemingly endless need for new fences and structures.  While it's a daunting task to set up a new farm on any scale, particularly where lawn once prevailed, we're motivated by the love of challenges and the satisfaction that the work brings at the end of the day.  We love the tangible aspect of farming, turning around after 2 hours of pounding t-posts to find your fence and pasture secure and ready for animals for instance. Having a farm brings you a few other things as well. It brings you an endless supply of entertainment with the idiosyncrasies of the animals and the opportunity to build mutual bonds with them.  Perhaps most importantly, it brings you a space and forum to enjoy time with your friends, neighbors and family.  It creates constant discussion around what you're up to, their own questions and philosophies and even a supply of food for them.  Having a farm is fantastic.

https://vimeo.com/69324077

As you'd expect, we've been busy realizing all of that and more.  Over the past couple of weeks we've been making significant enhancements on the farm.  We have completed our mobile chicken coop, built a mobile duck coop and set up a few new wooded pastures for the goats, pigs and one odd sheep.  Things are progressing surprisingly well (knock on wood) and we're continuing to push forward with our plans.

You may have missed the subtle detail, but if you caught that we mentioned ducks, pigs and goats in the plural, you're right.  We have added, since the last update:

  • 14 ducks (Buffs, Swedish Blue and one cross of the two)
  • 2 more Blue Slate lavender turkey hens
  • 5 Duroc/China Spot-crossed pigs
  • 2 adorable Alpine-cross dairy goats

The story behind the goats and pigs is a great one that represents what's so great about farmers.  Kate and I have done a fair amount of butchering in our lives and over the past year she attended something called GRRLs Meat Camp, a butchery workshop by and for women only.  It's a pretty remarkable experience and also a way to forge great relationships with women working in Food and Farming all over the country and world.  One of those is Tricia Houston of Napoleon Ridge Farm down in Kentucky.  Upon finding out that we got the house of our dreams, she graciously  offered us a pig and goat as a housewarming present.  We were blown away by the generosity of Tricia and her husband Fran, and were looking forward to them coming up to attend a BBQ we were hosting called BizareBQ (more on that later).  Along for the ride with them came two goats and five pigs and, after a 6 hour drive, they were all ready to get out and enjoy some pasture time.  The animals are beautiful and we look forward to seeing them grow and provide for us.

So, BizzareBQ, what's it all about?  It's in it's 5th year and was created by John Patterson.  The idea behind it is simple, "obscure foods", "obscure drinks" and friends.  This year we decided to stray away from what folks would expect with us, pork, and went to a whole roasted goat (provided by Tricia and Fran as well).  John went with cabeza, which is a smoked and roasted cow head, shredded and used in tacos.  Both were fantastic and were appropriate centerpieces for the party.  The party went off without a hitch, people loved it and we had a great time sharing the farm with everyone.

In case it wasn't obvious before, as you can see we've been quite busy and loving every second of it.  We feel so fortunate to have friends that will drive 6 hours to bring us a housewarming gift of a goat and a pig.  Family that show up days before the party to help set up and prepare the house. Most of all, we are happy we have such a great property that others enjoy as much as we do.

Another great couple of weeks!

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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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Goat Shank Ragu with Cherry Rickey

Today was all about bumming around and keeping things easy at the house.  We had our friends Butter andWildFoodGirl coming over for dinner, so we didn’t want to skimp out too much, but we did want a nice one-pot-meal kind of thing. Enter goat… Goat is delicious, flat out, and it’s something that people in this country don’t tend to eat.  Oddly enough, it’s probably one of the animals that is most inline with what the current sensibilities are, lean without sacrificing flavor.  Goat is an animal I use a lot in all areas of cooking— soup bones, ragu and even in charcuterie as you can find over at Eat the Pig.  We get our goat from our friends Kim and George over at Leistikow Farms in Boulder, and I’ve had nothing but great red, rich meat from them.

Ragu is a classic Italian red sauce and everyone I know who makes it does theirs a little bit differently.  For instance, as you’ll see in mine, I prefer far more of a paste at the end of the process, and less of a loose sauce.  I think this is one of the factors that makes ragu distinctive, that final paste.  Others however, have grown up with ragu in a jar and insist on it being of the loose variety.  But the one common thread is that like all Italian cooking, it’s simple and just requires patience.  From start to finish, this dish will take about 4 – 5 hours, depending on how big your shanks are and amount you’re making.  I would err on the side of longer than shorter, just monitor the sauce in the oven to make sure the meat and sauce don’t dry out too much, but if you see it starting to get too dry, simply add in a bit more wine and/or water and let it go a bit longer.

In addition to the ragu, we served alongside it some charcuterie we got from Cured in Boulder, as well as some I had made myself.  The Coppa I made myself and you can read about that over at Eat the Pig, but the rest was Iberico Lomo (cured acorn-fed pork loin from Spain) as well as Olli Lardo on top of some freshly warmed bread that we also got from Cured.

Kate was on cocktails and whipped up a Cherry Rickey, which is simply gin, lime juice and Leopold Brothers cherry liqueur, topped with a bit of sparkling water.  As with anything good, it’s about the ingredients, andLeopold Brothers is always amazing.  This Michigan tart cherry liqueur is no exception.  The gin came from Rob’s Mountain Gin, Formula No. 11, which is a non-traditional gin in a couple of ways.  The first is that the proceeds of that gin go to Growing Gardens, which is a youth gardening project local to Boulder and a fantastic organization.  The second is that he’s using non-traditional botanicals, besides juniper, which make this gin much softer and more floral than your average gin.  This softness definitely makes for a fantastic gin and tonic, however, the cherry overpowered the gin, so we ended up moving to Dry Fly, which is much stronger in the juniper, and this proved to be the best gin for the cocktail.

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Delicata Squash and Polenta with Trimbach Gewürztraminer

Kate and I went to Cured in Boulder to go get some goodies and while we were there we picked up a delicata squash for dinner.  We had also just purchased some Trimbach Gewürztraminer, 2004 Reserve and it’s one of the best pairings for squash in my opinion.  For those not familiar with delicata squash, it’s fantastic.  One of the best things about this squash is that it’s entirely edible, sans stem of course, and this means skin and seeds obviously.  It’s easy to cook, has a fantastic flesh and the taste is full, sweet and not too “sweet potato” if that makes any sense. When Kate and I first met, we were talking wines, and she mentioned that she’s never been a huge fan of white wine.  So over the past few months I’ve challenged myself to get white wines in front of her that helped change her mind.  This varietal is one we had up in Michigan last week while tasting on the peninsula, but this vineyard and maker is one of the premier makers of the varietal in the world.  It’s a true Alsatian wine, and is the epitome of what I think of when thinking Gewürztraminer.  This particular bottle especially, was fantastic.  It was a deep rich golden color with melons on the nose, some lavender and a touch of citrus.  On the taste, it is bone dry for a Gewürztraminer, but does have a little bit of sugar on the finish.  You get all that citrus and melon for sure, along with some vanilla and even a bit of pepper.  Gewürztraminer, for me at least, is one of those wines where the nose very much mimics the taste.

The squash, as I mentioned previously, is entirely edible.  It is probably my favorite squash for sure, and was a nice easy meal after being at a workshop all day.  It also was a bit of a change up from the meat-heavy week we had, but of course being pork dorks, we had to wrap it in bacon to make it even more tasty.  The meal was great and as expected, the wine was perfect with the squash.  The season of fall on a plate, pretty delicious.

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Red Wine Braised Short Ribs and Cranberry Cobbler Cocktail

We finally made it back, begrudgingly, to East Lansing and decided to make a meal for the family.  Kate’s brother came back from college, her grandmother came over with her apple pie and we cooked with her mom for the rest of the meal. While we were up at the cottage, we flipped through some of my food magazines for recipes in order to create a list of ingredients for Sunday’s dinner, as well as to give her mom a headstart should we get a late start on the day.  This is exactly what happened, as it’s never easy to leave paradise.

The menu we picked came from Bon Appetit Magazine, and most of the recipes were not followed line by line, but rather our own “interpretations” of them.  One of the great things about cooking is the latitude you have to make the foundation of a recipe your own, as well as to simply adapt a few things to whatever it is you have in your cupboard.  The meat had to go in two different pots and we didn’t strain the sauce, we used white wine vinegar instead of champagne and on and on.

Cooking, at its core, is about sustenance.  No one wakes up and says, “Today I’m only going to eat if it tastes good.” Eating is, and always will be, first and foremost an exercise of necessity. You make a decision to make the ingredients you have on hand taste good.  That’s where the fun of cooking comes in— more salt here, 2 tomatoes instead of 4, etc.  It’s all about making the recipe work for you and your tastes.  To finally put a end to this rant, this food tasted fantastic and was perfect for the meal we set out to have.

I’m not going to print the recipes we used, I’ll just provide links below.  But I also am not going to go into detail about what we changed, as it’s an opportunity to make a family meal your own, with the help of some recipe guard rails.  The one recipe not here is Rose Baker’s apple pie, as she can’t give it to me because she “just knows”.  She gets a firm apple and sugars them based on how they taste, but that’s as much as I got out of her, so stay tuned for that as I keep prying.

Cauliflower Soup with Chive Oil and Rye Crostini

Brussels Sprouts with Walnut Vinaigrette

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

Cranberry Cobbler Cocktail

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Michigan Tart Cherry Spritzer

Sometimes you just don’t want a cocktail.  I’ve found that, since being in arid Colorado, there are many nights when my cocktail choice is influenced heavily by how hot the day was or whether I’m dehydrated at all.  I love bourbon, but when I’m feeling thirsty a bourbon cocktail just won’t do. Last night I just wanted something refreshing and quick.  I put some crushed ice in a glass, poured about an ounce to an ounce-and-a-half of our delicious Leopold Brothers Michigan Tart Cherry Liqueur over that, and topped it with sparkling mineral water.  For anyone out there who has been “burned” or disappointed by natural cherry flavors in things, Leopold Bros have it figured out.  Sure, everyone loves cherries and sweet cherries especially.  They’re great to eat.  But for spirits, it has taken some time for distillers and vitners to realize that tart cherries are far more interesting.  This spirit is absolutely worth buying… it’s tart and sweet and smooth and soft and… yum.  Tastes like home!

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Butternut Squash Soup

Fall is all about the squash and root veggies.  It’s also about comfort food and being able to curl up on a couch and eat your favorite soup while watching a good movie.  Butternut squash soup is probably one of the best examples of a fall soup and with a special twist that makes this one of my favorite soups that I know how to make. The key to a good soup is acid, and it’s probably one of the most overlooked pieces of the puzzle for making soups great.  In this soup in particular, I used apple cider vinegar to give it that nice little contrast and bring out that sweetness and earthiness of the squash and partner root veggies.

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Pork Heart Ragu and Wild Grape Tonic

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Pork Heart Ragu and Wild Grape Tonic

A big pet peeve of mine is how wasteful people in this country can be when it comes to making use of a whole animal— many great parts of the animal are simply overlooked or, worse, thrown out.  I purchased a pig a few months ago for my Eat the Pig project and when I talked to the farmer and butcher, I requested the internal organs, head and leaf lard.  The farmer was kind of shocked and ended up offering them all to me (she was taking 16 hogs to be slaughtered) for free.  I jumped at all of it, with the exception of the heads as I only had room for 6, and ran home feeling like I just made out like a bandit. Livers, hearts and heads are some of the best parts of the animal, and when you’re talking cow, even the tail and tongue are fantastic. Both Kate and I were going to be out all day, and I wanted to make something in the slow cooker so that when we came home there was something delicious and easy to eat waiting.  I decided to go with a ragu with pig heart.  I knew I could bust through the prep while the meat was browning in about 35 minutes and still get out of the house by a little after 8 to meet a friend in Boulder.

The friend was Butterpoweredbike [Butter for short], author of Hunger and Thirst for Life, who Kate was going foraging with.  They were heading out to look for generally whatever they could find, but had a specific interest in plums and black walnuts.  They ended up finding both in abundance as well as some ponderosa pine bark, cow parsnips and pineapple weed that may end up as components of future recipes.  However, the surprise ingredient of wild grapes would end up being one of the stars of the night.  Kate juiced the grapes and used the the juice with some Dry Fly Gin, as well as some tonic for a beautiful refreshing fall cocktail.

Pork Heart Ragu

  • 4 Pork Hearts
  • 2 Cans San Marzano Tomatoes Seeded and Crushed
  • 3 Sprigs Rosemary
  • 5 Cloves Garlic Minced
  • 4 Bay Leaves
  • 4 Carrots Diced
  • 4 Celery Stalks Diced
  • 2 Onions Diced
  • 1 Cup Red Wine (Chianti or similar Italian red)
  • 3 Tbsp Olive Oil
  1. Place olive oil in a hot pan and brown the pork heart till they have good color.  When done, remove pork heart and place into slow cooker
  2. Add in carrots, celery and onion into pan and saute for approximately 4 – 5 minutes.  You may need to add another Tbsp of oil depending on how dry the pan is.
  3. After 5 minutes, add in the garlic and stir until garlic is fragrant but not burned
  4. Pour in wine and deglaze pan to ensure all good bits are off the bottom and captured in the liquid.  Remove from heat
  5. Pour tomatoes into slow cooker, and then add in the vegetable and wine mixture, bay leaves and rosemary.
  6. Set timer for 8 hours on high and enjoy the smells.
  7. After timer has gone off, remove pork heart and either chop finely or grind through meat grinder.  Add into a large stock pot.
  8. Remove rosemary twigs and bay leaves from slow cooker mixture
  9. Use a stick blender or food processor to blend the remaining mixture.  When done add into stock pot with the ground heart and stir well
  10. Bring to a simmer for 20 – 30 minutes and season with salt and pepper to taste

Wild Grape Tonic

  • 1 3/4 oz of Grape Juice (2 bunches of grapes.  White concord grapes are closest grocery store grapes)
  • 1 3/4 oz of Dry Fly Gin
  • 1 oz Tonic

Combine all ingredients in a glass over ice and stir.  The grape is a perfect fall accompaniment to this very refreshing drink.  Kate does it again …

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    Fall Vegetable Flat Bread and Cassis Lime Tonic

    In the fall, root vegetables and squash are plentiful and especially early in the fall, squash are sweet and delicious.  Tonight’s meal was a bit of a kitchen sink meal, cleaning out the fridge for this week’s market run.  We had some remaining dough from Pizza night, some goat cheese and a few different veggies we could use as a topping. I got the grill started again, but this time managed the heat better and kept it a more reasonable 450 – 500 degrees, as opposed to the red hot grill I had earlier in the week.  In addition, I also threw in some cherry wood to add some smokiness to the bread, and got back to making the bread itself.

    As I mentioned, it was a bit of a kitchen sink kind of night, so as you construct this flat bread, experiment and add items in however you want.  The goal is to use logical pairings and be able to taste the layers of fall after you take it off the grill.

    It was hot earlier that day, we had run around and taken care of some errands so we were definitely thirsty, which had a direct impact on our drink choice.  We decided to keep it easy and refreshing with a Cassis Lime Tonic.  The Mathilde Cassis is fantastic, syrupy, earthy and that nice blend of pepper and sweet that you’d expect from good cassis.  We also used the Hangar One Kaffir Lime vodka and some generic tonic.  All in all, it was a fantastic drink.  Simple, yet refreshing and some layers of flavor.  Kate for the win again…

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    Pasta, Bacon and Eggs with The Bitter Apple

    Last night we had the pleasure of visiting farmers we met through the Boulder Farmers Market at their farm nearby.  They don’t have a website, but they raise lamb and goat, all pastured for the most part (goat not so much).  We ended up staying for almost 2.5 – 3 hours.  While we were there we saw their produce operation which encompassed grapes and veggies, as well as the livestock program.  But I digress… In short, this got us home around 8pm which means we had to whip something quick to not be eating at 9:30 at night.  I decided to head to an old favorite of mine which is full of flavor but quick and easy.  Pasta with bacon and eggs— the goal is to create a nice sauce with the help of some reserved water from cooking, as well as the sunny-side-up egg on top.  Combined in the dish with some bacon, you get a nice rich sauce and a salty punch from the bacon.

    Kate took on the cocktail duties and decided to use some Spicebox Canadian Whiskey and some of the great Calvados apple brandy, in keeping with the fall theme, to create what we called “The Bitter Apple”.

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    Almond Mascarpone French Toast and Negroniesque

    When we were kids, there was nothing better than Breakfast for Dinner.  Strangely enough, not much has changed as adults, as whenever you think about having breakfast at night, well, 1. you rush back to being a kid and 2. You still get excited. We decided this weekend that at some point I was going to make what Kate calls, “The Famous French Toast”, however, this is just my french toast.  I did add a bit to it for the purposes of making it more savory, but on a whole, there isn’t a whole lot different about how I made this tonight and how I usually make it for breakfast.  We did however, cook up some Guanciale from Woodlands Pork for a side, and as usual, it was amazing.  Pinot, the butcher’s assistant, made an appearance as well during the slicing.

    Today though, unexpectedly, was a horribly stressful day at work.  I knew by 11am I was going to need a pretty stiff cocktail to go along with whatever dinner I made.  Kate was up to the challenge and was already on making what I’ll call a “Negroniesque”.  The drink was pure alcohol, but also pure love.  It hit the spot, paired so well with the “dinner” and used one of my favorite ingredients, Antica Formula Vermouth.

    Antica was introduced to me by a local New Yorker, while at WD-50.  He was a regular and when he entered they went down to get “his” vermouth.  As we talked about manhattans and what makes a great one, he bought me a glass of this vermouth.  Now, unless you’re extremely into cocktails, my guess is your idea of drinking vermouth straight is about as appealing as putting your finger in a door.  As I obliged this awesome old school east coaster, I was shocked to see how great this was.  It was sweet, toasty, a little syrupy and even a bit floral.  In short, it was amazing.  When I introduced this to Kate, she pretty much followed the same exact script I did, even down to the awesome old school east coaster [read: me].  Anyhow, buy some, make a manhattan or better yet, make the Negroniesque and enjoy one of the best vermouths on the planet and save money on Campari.

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    Ginger Carrot Cocktail and Frittata

    Right now one of the best foods of the season has to be carrots, especially out here in Colorado where the minerality of the soil has great effects on the taste and sweetness of them.  As I came home, Kate had already conceived our next concoction and was ready with the juicer to start using some of those beautiful carrots. With the carrots juiced, we used some Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, along with a bit of the recently made clove simple syrup, to add a bit of earthiness.  Topped with some ginger ale, we had a beautiful fall cocktail with a great blend of sweetness and heat from the ginger liqueur.

    This cocktail was beautiful with the meal for the night.  Kate whipped up a beautiful frittata using some leftover gratin we had from the other night.  The frittata was made entirely on the stove top as the oven was being used for some Salame fermenting, and the results were definitely acceptable.  Topped that with some of the cracklins, salt and pepper and we had a beautiful fall meal outside.

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    Wild Apple Margarita

    while back Kate and I went foraging with a friend for a variety of different items— near the house there is an old road where you can grab wild apples.  While most of the apples represented a more tart Cripps Pink [aka Pink Lady®], we came across these small, almost crabapple-size gems that were incredibly tart and sweet and would make an excellent baking apple… but a sweet-and-sour mix alternative came to mind too.  I believe my first words were “This would be great in a Margarita”. So we juiced the apples and sure enough, this was a perfect match for a margarita and was absolutely as good as I’ve ever had.  When shared with friends they agreed, and everyone was sad when our supply ran out. We paired this with a quick little cheese plate and sat outside on a beautiful night.

    Now, what does one do if you don’t have access to wild apples? I would use an unripe granny smith or any kind that is very tart and sweet, and put them through a juicer.  Make sure there is little to no pulp to keep it nice and smooth.

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    Pizza Bianca with Elder Tonic

    Pizza is by far one of my favorite things to make and we usually make it in the oven, but tonight we decided to make it on the grill to try and get that great wood oven flavor and crust.  The pizza is one similar to what I’ve made before, think bianca-style [white, sans tomato sauce], but this time I added a bit of arugula and tomato to the top to change it up.  While it’s in season, roasted sweet corn on the top instead of arugula and tomato is just amazing. This pizza uses mascarpone instead of ricotta as is usually used in bianca, as well as mozzarella as expected, however the mascarpone adds a lovely layer of sweetness and a nice runny layer of cheese goodness.  To really take the flavor over the top… once it was baked and beautiful, we sprinkled freshly-made pork cracklins over it.  Because who isn’t rendering lard on a Friday night?

    The Elder Tonic is a nice switch on the normal gin tonic by adding in some elderflower liqueur to give it a nice floral note on top of the juniper notes that we all love about gin.  Thatcher‘s elderflower is a shining example of the organic liqueurs they make, and are a nice little nod to Kate’s home state of Michigan.

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