32 Days

The rabbit breeding went without a hitch today, much to my surprise considering how flighty this doe can be. It took the buck a few minutes to figure out what he was supposed to be doing, but he got the idea in the end, and it was pretty much by the book after that. I mated them twice, once in the morning and again several hours later. Rabbits are induced ovulators, meaning the mating will trigger ovulation in the female to occur about 10-12 hours after the initial breeding. Mating the rabbits again later in the day can give a better chance for a successful breeding and possibly also a larger litter, or so I’m told. We shall see! Rabbit gestation is about 31-32 days, so by breeding her today we should expect kits the weekend before Christmas if she takes.

Baby Crazy

The New Zealand White doe is about 7-8 months old, and seems to be having a false pregnancy. She’s pulling fur and building a nest in the back corner of her cage. From all my research and consultation with more experienced rabbit raisers, this indicates that she has reached sexual maturity and can be bred whenever I like. I had been planning to breed her around Thanksgiving anyway, so I’ll just move my schedule up a week! I plan to breed her on Wednesday so that she should kindle the weekend before Christmas. If she takes, and is a good mom, we should have rabbit ready to eat by Easter/Ostara!

Harvest and First Snow

Apologies for the radio silence; I’ve been battling a cold-turned-sinus/ear-infection and sleeping just about every minute I haven’t been at my day job. Of course, the farm keeps turning no matter what else might be happening. Last weekend, with the help of some friends, we held a big harvest day to process our poultry. We had 8 large Muscovy drakes, 3 female Muscovies, a couple of chickens, and a trio of turkeys traded from a friend and fellow homesteader. It was the biggest poultry harvest we’ve ever done. We were able to borrow an electric chicken plucker from our landlord’s plumber/electrician, and it was a great help. I’m sure we’ll be looking to build our own sometime down the line. He even sent along an electric scalder with a temperature control. It was much fancier than what we’re used to. I wish I’d been able to take some photos; the machinery setup was pretty impressive and I loved getting to introduce some new friends to the process of slaughtering and bringing birds from wing to table.

We did our first big farm-to-table supper as a celebration that evening. While we’ve certainly hosted plenty of dinners that featured some home raised components or even a home raised main course, this was by far the most complete meal we’ve done from things we’ve grown ourselves. The only exceptions were the apple cider, which came from a nearby orchard, and some Parmesan cheese. We used the cider to braise one of our pork shoulders in the crock pot for pulled pork, and served it with acorn squash, kale, cauliflower, and broccoli. We also cooked up the duck hearts we’d harvested that morning.

Last weekend we also got the call from the butcher saying that our smoked meats were ready, and they were picked up on Wednesday. The bacon is absolutely the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m eager to try the ham; I’ve been disenchanted with commercial ham for the last several years, so I’m excited to see if this will change my mind!

With impeccable timing as we finish our harvest season, the first snow arrived overnight last night. Of course it all melted away by this afternoon, but it was a treat to wake up to a beautiful light coating of snow this morning. A lovely transition towards winter!

Summer’s End

So much catching up to do since my last post! When last we spoke, your intrepid farmeress had just taken her two pigs to the butcher. Everything went smoothly, and the following weekend we were able to pick up all of our fresh meat: chops, roasts, ribs, sausage, scrapple, etc. Both hogs dressed out at 180lbs hanging weight. Out of this we got about 220lbs of fresh meat, including 72 pork chops, four (of course) racks of ribs, 25lbs of sausage, one 17lb fresh ham, 20 roasts ranging from about 2.5-3.5lbs, and 50lbs or so of scrapple. In another week or two we’ll be able to pick up the other 3 hams and the bacon, which are all being smoked. The fresh meat just about filled my father-in-law’s car! We’ve tried both the chops and the sausage so far, and both were absolutely spectacular. The meat is so dark compared to store-bought pork; you can really see the difference in the way they are raised. Check it out!

ChopsWhile Avery and his dad were picking up the pork, his mom and I were on our annual trip to the NY Sheep & Wool Festival, aka Rhinebeck! We had a fantastic time shopping for knitwear, visiting the sheep in the breed exhibits, and spectating (but alas, not bidding) at the bred ewe auction. We have a great time every year, and this one was no exception. The fall colors were even more stunning than usual.

IMG_20141025_191013061 IMG_20141030_201736675When we got back, autumn was in full swing at home. The pumpkins and squash are ripening up, although a little behind schedule for October 31 due to the early nibbling by deer. I did manage to scrounge up one fully orange pumpkin for a Jack O’Lantern, though, and by an incredible stroke of luck, it is absolutely perfectly shaped for the job! We carved it tonight, so it’s all set for tomorrow evening.

Next weekend we’ll be paring down the ducks to those we plan to keep for breeding next year, with the help of some friends and a borrowed chicken plucker. My friend Rabbit Darling will be there enthusiastically gathering duck livers and gizzards. If you’re curious about cooking with offal, you should check out this post for a very seasonal Dracula-inspired paprikash!

Promising Pork

Today was butchering day for our pigs, Bacon and Pork Chops. As their names imply, they were always intended to be meat pigs. We knew this day would come, and in fact have been eagerly awaiting it. This was our first foray into raising our own pork, and I’m having a predictable assortment of feelings as it comes to an end. Overall, I consider it a resounding success. Our pigs had a joyful life. They loved every minute of the time they had on this earth. When my time comes, I will not be able to say as much. I am very happy that I was able to provide that for them, and that I will be able to remember their happiness whenever I eat pork in the coming year. I feel, as I always do when I take the life of an animal I’ve raised for food, a deep and profound sense of gratitude. In this case, I am not only thankful for their sacrifice that I might eat, I am also so thankful for everything they have taught me. I will miss the particular character they brought to the barnyard. I will miss their squealing for treats every time we approached. I will miss their contribution to reducing our waste by eating food scraps. I will miss watching them root through straw or roll in the mud on a hot day. But I will never forget them, and I will see them in every pig I raise for the rest of my days.

The pigs on their first day with us

The pigs on their first day with us

We took them to a small local family butcher shop, mostly because I was unable to find a mobile slaughter unit in my area, and because I had a personal recommendation for a butcher that a friend had found to be reliable, clean, and kind. It was harder on me than I had expected, but I think much easier on the pigs than I had feared. I did not particularly like taking them in a trailer on a ride to a new pen where they’d never been before. I worried that they would be frightened and uncomfortable. In truth, it bothered me far more than it bothered them. They loaded with little difficulty (more caused by distraction with all the new things to investigate than any true reluctance to enter the trailer). When we opened the trailer after the journey, they were snoozing in the thick straw, not a care in the world. We guided them down the ramp into a comfortable pen, and they started looking around curiously, and without concern. If in the future the option is available, I think I would still opt for an on-farm slaughter, because I think it would be more satisfying for me and my human sensibilities. But I certainly don’t think that there is anything inherently cruel about taking larger livestock to a responsible small-scale butcher, and that belief is borne out by my experience with these pigs.

All grown up

All grown up

Our setup here is not conducive to raising pigs over the winter, so the pig pen is empty for the moment. We plan to plant some winter rye to keep the soil from eroding and to get some green growth on the ground. In the spring, we’ll look for another pair of pigs to raise up for next year’s pork. The cycle will go on. And it’s all possible because I chose to take the first step, and take the risk, of bringing these two little pigs home, and they rewarded me beyond my wildest dreams. Thank you, boys. For everything.

Weekend Update

This has been a forward-thinking weekend. We got a lot done, mostly work that needed to be done to set us up for the next thing. Not terribly exciting in itself, but the things to come are definitely going to be very exciting indeed.

First things first, my father-in-law and I went to pick up the trailer we’re borrowing from a friend of his for taking the pigs to the butcher. We gave the whole thing a good power-wash and removed one wheel that we discovered needs the valve stem for the tire fixed. (We’ll go ahead and fix the stem, as a thank-you for the loan of the trailer).

Next major task was taking 3 ducks and my older black drake down to a friend of the family who had lost most of his Muscovies and wanted to replenish. I gave him one of this year’s white ducks, and two of my older black-and-white females. In exchange we added a chocolate drake, which is a new color for us. One of my favorite things about Muscovies is the wide variety of colors available, so I’m very excited to be branching out from black and white. My next goal will be blue!

We also did some significant work in the garden. We picked the last of the peppers and froze them for winter use. Then we ripped out all of the pepper plants, so those beds are done. Our Tante Alice cucumber vine is dying back, but we are leaving the last few cucumbers to harvest seed to save for next year. We gathered a bunch of seed this weekend, and will do more next week or the week after. Once we’ve got our seeds, we’ll pull that out too. We still need to rip out the tomatoes and eggplant, but then we’ll be done with the main garden.

Our fall plantings have been hit or miss. Part of that is the fact that, being caught flat-footed this year, I was using some old seed, which I knew would be a gamble for germination. The beets didn’t come up at all, and only a very few carrots. The spinach was pretty lackluster also, but we got several lettuces. The real standout of the bunch has been the kale. We’ve got a ton of it! Last night we had kale chips with dinner, and tonight a wilted kale with garlic topped with fresh kohlrabi. Speaking of kohlrabi, all of the brassicas we transplanted are doing fantastic. The collard greens have seen a lot of action as well as the kohlrabi, and the cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts are getting huge. The pumpkin patch is coming along as well. There are plenty of butternut squash and some acorn. The Jack Be Little mini pumpkins are abundant. I’m seeing several huge green pumpkins as well – I’m so excited for a home-grown Jack O’Lantern this year!

IMG_4474We’re getting ready to plant garlic in a couple of weeks, so we moved the chicken ark again into the bed we’ll be using for that, so it will be weed-free and ready to go. All the beds where the chicken ark has been are getting mulched heavily with rabbit and/or chicken manure, which will help to keep the weeds down until spring.

We also cleaned out the freezer in preparation for the upcoming pork harvest. We bought a new energy-efficient 20 cubic foot chest freezer, so we moved everything from the old freezer into the new. We took an inventory and threw out the few things that were freezer-burned beyond salvage. Thankfully there was not much; we started using a whiteboard last year to keep track of our freezer stores and it has made a huge difference in avoiding waste. Things don’t really sink to the bottom and get forgotten, since we can look at the list and say “Oh, those pork chops/chicken breasts/etc are getting old, we’d better dig them out and eat them!” before they are too far gone. Between the new freezer and the investment in a vacuum sealer, we should do even better this year. Avery has a plan to convert the old freezer into a drinks fridge, freeing up some inside fridge space.

In the spirit of the last post, did I mention that while all of this was going on, I made a batch of turkey stock? I hope this validates my verbosity last time around. On Saturday the bones and necks went in the oven to be roasted while we were busy processing the pepper harvest, getting everything sliced and frozen and vacuum-packed and such. Then we took them out and put them in the fridge overnight. On Sunday I threw them in the stock pot with all the veggies and such, and let them simmer all day until after dinner. Then we strained, cooled, measured, and put the stock into the freezer, all in plenty of time for our normal bedtime! Maybe an hour or two out of the whole weekend was active time on the stock. Simple!

Homemade Stock

I recently ran out of my homemade beef stock, so my day off today is a perfect time to whip up a new batch. Making your own stock or broth can seem intimidating in the beginning – I know it did for me! – so I thought a little summary post might be worthwhile.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably have at least some idea why making your own stock is preferable to buying it at the store. The basic idea of stock is easy. Sometimes when reading about making stock, it sounds like you need to be a master chef just to make the stock itself – that’s not even discussing the skills needed to make the recipes that use the stock! But here’s my secret: I can’t cook worth a damn. Making stock is so easy, even I can do it, and that means you can too! This post got a bit rambly, but I promise, all the tangents are about options for making this easier, not harder!

Part the First: Preparation

First off, I suggest training yourself to look at your meal preparation and grocery usage differently before you actually start in on a batch of stock, unless you want to just straight-up buy all your ingredients (which I don’t, usually). Plenty of “scraps” are actually the perfect basis for stock. Did you grab a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for a quick dinner? Do you have a mess of bones and a weird bag of organs from your Thanksgiving turkey? Did you get some fancy bone-in steaks for a special anniversary dinner? Those can all be used for stock! (Except the turkey liver. But the neck? That’s gold. Save it.) Start a large ziplock bag in the freezer for all those random bones – one for beef, one for poultry.

Lots of stock recipes start by instructing you to roast the bones. This can be really daunting for the novice stock-maker, because it makes things look much more complicated than they really are. Now, don’t get me wrong, roasting the bones is well worthwhile. (Maillard reaction, it’s a thing. Chemistry is delicious.) But here’s the secret: look back at the last paragraph. Notice anything? That rotisserie chicken is cooked. Your turkey has been roasted. You probably seared those steaks nicely, even if you like them rare.

Could you re-roast the bones that were inside the chicken and turkey and get an even better flavor out of them? Probably. They’ll get more benefit because they’ll be roasted directly rather than while covered in meat, leading to more direct browning. But if you compare your roasted-in-the-bird bones to raw, you’ll definitely notice that they smell richer and more flavorful. I’m officially giving you permission to go with that.

There are also plenty of things you can do to make roasting the bones less of an undertaking. For instance, you could give everything a good hard sear instead of a slower roast, if you need to do it on the day you plan to make the stock. Or, roast them ahead of time. You can roast the night before and make stock the next day, or simply roast them on a cold night and freeze them for making stock later. If you roasted the bird (or the beef roast, or whatever) yourself, carve the meat and then pop the bones back in the oven while you eat to brown a little more. But in the end, you’ve got a bunch of at least partially-roasted bones, and its time to make stock!

Part the Second: Stock Time!

So you’ve got your bones, they’re all roasted and ready to go. Start by putting them in a large pot, preferably one that is tall rather than wide. Tip: if your bones are picked super-clean of meat, add a bit of meat as well – preferably cooked or seared, again for those Maillard benefits. Your bones will give lots of good stuff to the stock, especially gelatin which makes it velvety, but a bit of meat will really boost the flavor. There are a couple of ways to approach this. First is to take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by making stock AND cooking your dinner in the stock pot. You could use some stew meat in the pot for the first part, to cook it, then pull out the meat chunks and have them for dinner with some noodles, potatoes, or other accompaniment. Or add some chicken breasts, then pull them out and make chicken salad from them. This is of course a great tip, but takes some planning and coordination, which I generally lack. If you are me, instead you would check and see if you have any leftovers that are in danger of outstaying their welcome. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you should compromise on the quality of your stock ingredients. Never use meat that’s gone bad or that you wouldn’t be willing to eat. But also, don’t bust out the most expensive cut of steak in your freezer just to beef up your stock (heh, heh). I’ve been known to pull out a steak that got a bit freezer-burned, cut off the worst of the damage, and toss it in the stock pot, and my stock turns out delicious, thankyouverymuch. You can be frugal and still come out with a quality product.

Cover your bones and meat generously with COLD water. Starting with cold water will allow for maximum flavor extraction, and also removal of elements that compete with the good stuff for space. Make sure you use plenty of water, since you’re also going to add veggies. Turn on the heat and let the pot slowly come up to a simmer while you prepare your other ingredients. Try not to let it boil (although it’s not the end of the world if it does, just pull it down to a simmer asap). There are two more components to your stock: vegetables and aromatics.

Let’s tackle the veggies first. Traditionally you’ll want to start with celery, carrots, and onions. This is called mirepoix, because gods forbid we don’t have a fancy French word for every damn thing in the kitchen. Technically a standard mirepoix is 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, and 1 part carrot (it’s easiest to figure this out by weight with a kitchen scale), but I typically just use plenty of each, heavy on the onion. Once again, you’ll want to use good quality ingredients, but with a healthy dose of frugality. If you typically eat only celery hearts, buy the whole head instead, and use the more flavorful outer stalks for your stock. Save the leaves and tops when you trim your celery for the stock pot too. Use the larger, tougher carrots as well, as long as their flavor isn’t too bitter. Another confession – I’ve taken just-sprouted onions, and removed the baby stalks to put the rest of the onion in the stock pot rather than waste it. Just cut all the veggies into rough chunks, nothing fancy. You don’t even need to peel the carrots, just give them a little wash.

You can certainly supplement with other veggies, but don’t skip out on the core three. Leeks, parsnips, turnips, and even mushrooms all go well in stock. (And we’re not even discussing vegetable stock – that’ll be another post!) Some sources also recommend that you add a tomato (or some tomato paste) for a brown stock of beef, veal, or duck, to add color, flavor, and a touch of acidity. If you are feeling ambitious, and you want to do things strictly by the book, you can also roast the veggies. But in the spirit of this post, I will repeat: it’s OK if you don’t. Your stock will still be way better than storebought. I would rather have great homemade stock that isn’t soul-sucking than skip making my own because I felt like a failure for not roasting the veggies.

Before you toss in your prepared vegetables, go ahead and check on your stockpot. It may not even be simmering yet. If there’s any foam on top, skim it off with a spoon and discard it. Add your veggies, and now let’s discuss aromatics.

Aromatics are basically herbs and spices, and their primary purpose in stock is purely flavor. Again, even more so than with the vegetables, you have some core traditional elements, and some options. Namely, the core flavors are going to be bay leaves, thyme, parsley, peppercorns, and garlic. How much to use depends on how big a batch of stock you’re making, and how much you like the flavors of each. A tip regarding parsley: you can use the leaves for something else, and just use the stalks in your stock. They’re packed with flavor and usually end up being discarded.

In addition to these, you can add other components like rosemary, fennel or fennel seed, juniper berries, oregano sprigs, cloves, mace, and others, depending on what will complement your meats. The main thing you do NOT want to add is salt. Your stock, once it’s made, is a blank slate. It can go on to be used for soups, sauces, cooking liquid for other foods such as rice, braising liquid for the crock pot, all kinds of things. Some of these uses might call for the stock to be significantly reduced, thus concentrating the flavors immensely. You can always add salt later when you know what you’re making with your stock.

Add your chosen aromatics to the pot, and skim any more foam that’s accumulated. Once the stock comes to a slow simmer, reduce the heat. Keep an eye on it for the next 30 minutes or so, and skim off any foam that rises to the surface. This is actually important, because the foam will not only affect the clarity of your stock, but will in fact compete with more desirable elements like gelatin that you’re trying to extract. I know this post has gone on for a while now, but keep in mind our actual timeline. You pre-roasted your bones, so you just had to fill your pot with water and toss them in. While the liquid came up to a simmer, you chopped your veggies, prepared your aromatics, and cleaned up. After a half hour of simmering and skimming, you’re pretty much done for the next 6-8 hours. You can go on about your day while your stock cooks. You want the heat nice and low, just enough to maintain a slow simmer. I’ll stir the stock 2 or 3 times during the day, but it really requires very little attention.

Yum!

Hours later, you’re ready to finish up your stock. The general idea here is that you’ve got to strain out the bones, meat, veggies, and other ingredients, leaving you with just the cooking liquid, which is now full of delicious goodness. A colander lined with cheesecloth is your best bet, and you can pull the larger chunks out with tongs or a slotted spoon. You’ll want to cool the stock quickly, since the longer it spends cooling, the more chance bacteria have to take up residence. If possible, strain the stock into another large pot or bowl, which you can put in an ice water bath in your kitchen sink. The next step depends on whether you plan to freeze or can your stock for storage.

If you’re planning to can your stock, you’ll want to chill it until the fat rises to the top, then skim it off. At this point you can either prepare your pressure canner, bring your stock back up to a boil, and can it immediately, or refrigerate the stock overnight and do the canning the next day. You MUST use a pressure canner to safely can meat stock. It is NOT SAFE to can stock using a water bath canner! I freeze my stock, so as soon as my large batch is reasonably cool, I measure it into freezer containers in either 1 quart or 1 cup increments, then transfer it to the freezer. If freezing, you can  wait and skim the fat when you’re ready to use it. The fat will form a good seal that protects the stock itself from the air, which is the enemy of freshness in the freezer. If you want smaller portions to use in making sauces, try freezing stock in an ice cube tray! Just pop the frozen cubes out and put them in a freezer bag to store.

Just like anything else, your first couple of batches are going to be a lot of trial and error as you learn what setup gives you the best workflow in your kitchen. Start with smaller batches while you get things figured out. Once you’ve got the hang of things, though, you’ll be able to do a nice big batch of stock with less than 2 hours of active work time, split between setup and cleanup. Today’s batch was the least work-intensive one yet, and I filled my big stockpot chock full. My final yield was 8.5 quarts of stock!