Sunday, February 22, 2009

It takes a village...

Or at least a handful of dedicated and amazingly cheerful friends, to run a farm.

Meet Michael and Ellen. They live in Seattle and lead very urban lives with their two elementary-age kids. We've known each other for about a decade - Michael and I worked together - but it wasn't until we built this house and embarked on this farming adventure and actually brought these wooly beasts into our lives that our two families really got down to this business of friendship.

It all feels so one-sided to Mark and me - these wonderful, hilarious people show up generally 4X a year and roll around in sheep dung for an afternoon in return for our company and a good meal or two while our kids frolic, help, explore, and sulk in succession. But they insist that they're satisfied with the arrangement - they love that their kids have a farm that's all their own. Their daughter is nothing short of gifted in catching chickens and their son is one of our son's favorite people. The kids all but disappear for the afternoon while we turn our attention to animal husbandry.

Sheep wrangling day takes place about once a season. With our busy lives, we have to pull out our electronic devices on the current wrangling day to schedule the next, 3 months hence. And sometimes, like last time, too much life gets in the way and it doesn't happen and our sheep go untended until we can get together. It brings it home to Mark and me how much we depend on them.

Yesterday was one of those times - our sheep have basically been neglected and we didn't know what we'd find. We'd also tooled up - finally buying ourselves our own shears - so in addition to worming and hoof trimming, we added shearing. Our 2 cotswold sheep are huge and were matted and just a serious mess. Also, pregnant. So, they took almost 2 hours just them. We discovered they are within a couple days of lambing - their bodies tell that story very graphically - and are otherwise pretty healthy.

Unfortunately, not everybody was doing as well. Once we got the fleece shaved off, our star ewe looked pretty bad. She's super thin and her skin is awful. So, we'll have to figure out what's going on.

But, otherwise the day was satisfying and fun and productive and important. We got our cotswolds cleaned up and ready to lamb and nurse, then put them in a stall together, away from the ram and protected from the elements. We figured out who else we could expect babies from this spring.

And we spent an amazing day with friends in the sunshine, rolling around in sheep dung, laughing, frowning, getting butted by the ram, getting our animals caught up on their maintenance, getting ourselves caught up on each others' lives. Planning camping trips, eating (hopefully) good food, drinking after-wrangling beer and wine, and setting the stage for next time, June, when the lambs will all be born and the weather, with any luck, will smile upon dinner under the stars.

Thanks Michael and Ellen. We literally couldn't do this without you. For you and anyone else, here's our recipe for Wrangling Day Lasagnette - an amazing way to enjoy lasagna without eating lasagna (what we had last night). Trust me, everyone who tries this - even my "white food only" kid - loves it. It's also a way to work eggplant into your diet in a way that is truly delicious. We had a long conversation about how most of us are trained to hate eggplant!

Michael Chiarello's Eggplant and Goat Cheese Lasagnette

1. Slice 2 eggplants very thin - use a mandoline if you have one. Salt the slices and let them sit for 20 minutes.

2. Dump a couple cups of flour onto a plate and season with salt and pepper.

3. Pour about 1/2 an inch of pure (not extra virgin b/c it will smoke) olive oil into a fairly large, deep-sided frying pan and turn the stove on to medium-hot.

4. Turn oven on to 375.'

5. Spread a large layer of triple-layer paper towels on the counter.

6. Dredge in the flour and then fry the eggplant slices until they sizzle in the oil; flip them and then take them out as they begin to brown. Put them on the paper towels.

7. When all the slices are done, pour about 1/4 of your favorite jarred pasta sauce (I use Newman's Own) into a lasagna pan and spread with a spatula. Then layer a layer of eggplant. Sprinkle a Tbs of parsley, a Tbs or parmesan, and about 3-4 ounces of goat cheese on the sauce.

8. Repeat the layering twice, ending with the goat cheese.

9. Finally, layer on the remaining eggplant and more sauce. Sprinkle with about a Tbs of parmesan and a tbs of parsley and top it all with a sprinkle of about 3 Tbs of Panko (japenese bread crumbs) or your own homemade breadcrumbs.

10. Bake about 30 minutes.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Change Afoot on the Farm

It's only February and - who knows - it may just snow again before we're done, but Spring is surely in the air and in our bones. A cold white winter spent musing on what's next for SSF is showing itself here and there about the place.

We are taking another run at this food gardening thing, older and wiser and, frankly, practically scared to death that the mysteries of gardening are simply too complex or nuanced for us. So, here we go again. We've got seed packets in waiting, we've set steel shelves up against a southern window, ready for tiny pockets of earth to nurture sprouts.

Our sloppy but fenced garden, now cut to a hopefully-manageable half-size, is all but fully carpeted in landscape cloth. Our plan is to erect cloches (mini greenhouses made of plastic stretched over PVC piping) over the raised and double-dug beds in the next few days to dry out the soil and give our transplants something resembling a hospitable abode by late March when they should, theoretically, be ready to head outdoors.

These efforts are born of experience, failure, and a lot of careful reading and inquiry. I have mentioned previously that the great thing about gardening west of the Cascades is that everything can grow here but that the downside of gardening west of the Cascades is that pretty much everything can grow here. The battle of weed control is hard to exaggerate. It has overtaken us 3 years running now.

The second challenge of this area, and our site especially, is dense clay soil low in potassium. We could make pots with our soil. So, we have to bring in lime and compost to build the soil's nutrients and cloche the beds now, in February, to dry it out for at least six weeks before planting. Liming has to be done in the fall, so this growing of food takes planning. But nothing motivates planning like failure, so after 2-3 dismal "harvests," we actually dove into our location-specific literature with gusto and discovered a few things. Like liming and cloching and the necessity of building and using a coldframe (also on our to-do list today).

Indoors, we've exchanged our dining room view of the farm for those steel shelves and our beloved first piece of furniture - a giant 2-person chair - for our first spinning wheel, a small used Ashford bought from a friend. With 6-9 permanent sheep and a depressed fleece market, the realization that learning to spin, at a minimum, is essential finally hit home. This coincides rather serendipitously with my son's discovery of knitting, so next fall and winter might produce some interesting and previously unexpected farm items.

We will be launching our line of gourmet infused olive oils at our local farmers market in mid Spring and baking bread to sell alongside our eggs down at the farmstand that Mark has generously offered to build in the coming weeks as well. The white paint on a little farm sign he built dries as I write this; with a little luck SSF will announce itself in true sandwich board style by later today.

But, the February sun is shining down on our little patch of messy paradise, so it's time now for me to head outside.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In Praise of the Crockpot

Almost everyone has one lurking on the bottom shelf of the pantry, hiding behind the stockpot in the cupboard, lying forgotten out in the garage with the bread machine and the Vita-Mix. Well, throw out the 2 pots or pans you use the least and haul your crockpot into its rightful place among your most useful cooking implements. Maybe even in between the coffee maker and the tea kettle because you just might get addicted.

Before downsizing, I had 2 crockpots and I used both of them. Living in 1500 square feet requires some hard choices, however, so I passed the smaller of the 2 along to a friend where I believe it continues to lead a happy and productive life.

So, why do I evangelize about the lowly slow cooker? Several key reasons:

First, contrary to general perception, the crockpot does not only excel in meals that consist of the contents of a few cans and a jar poured over ground beef and then revisited after work. I use my crockpot to cram as many healthful things into one dish as I can.

Second, it makes healthy eating easy. Once you get the hang of it, you can make your meals as simple or complicated as you choose and rarely need much of a recipe.

Third, it cuts down on clean-up, which leads to the most important reason, for me, which is:

Fourth, whatever work, mess, and clean-up you have to do is done in the morning, leaving right-before and right-after dinner as pleasure and leisure time for yourself or with your family. If you cook from scratch a lot anyway, you might find yourself truly surprised at the amount of time that opens up.

And, finally, it frees you from the tyranny of the stovetop. You can take your favorite soup, chili, or pasta sauce recipe and adapt it to the crockpot. You still brown and saute on the stove, but then you dump everything into that beautiful appliance sitting all self-contained and safe on the counter. You wash up your pan, throw your scraps out to the hens (or into your composter) and you, my friend, are out the door or in the garden or off to work. You no longer have to babysit those wonderful foods that just need to burble and simmer all day to reach their full yumminess.

Another myth: crockpots are for winter when we crave heavy foods. Not necessarily so. I find that my friends and I are much more inclined to cook during the cold season. Everyone's inside and it gets dark early and the rain is pelting the windows. Warm ovens and sizzling pans seem right at home. But, as the afternoons lengthen and the occasional warm breeze beckons, I find it harder and harder to motivate in the kitchen. I just long to be outside - whether its planting things or just sipping wine on the front porch. Spring is the perfect time to dust off this versatile machine and free up your evenings.

So, in celebration of your coming liberation, a pasta sauce recipe I adapted a while back from Pasta & Company's first cookbook, published in 1991.

P&C Bolognese Sauce

Make up a double batch and freeze it for easy pasta dinners anytime. We especially like this served over wide silky papperadelle noodles.

1. Brown about a pound each of bulk hot or sweet italian sausage and lean ground beef. When no pink shows, pour both into the crockpot.

2. Chop up one yellow onion and saute it over medium heat in the oil left from browning the meat (there shouldn't be more than a few tablespoons). After the onion has been cooking 3-4 minutes, throw in 3 each chopped up celery and chopped peeled carrots and 6-8 cloves of minced garlic. Saute all until the onion turns translucent. Dump into the crockpot.

3. Wash and quarter 8-10 mushrooms. Heat your pan back up to medium. When it's hot, pour in 3+ tablespoons of olive oil. Toss your mushrooms in, stir to coat them, then pour a healthy splash of dry white wine in. Saute mushrooms, careful not to stir often, for about 5-7 minutes. Toss into crockpot.

4. Cut 2 zucchini into rounds, then quarters. Add to the crockpot.

5. Crumble a healthy tablespoon each of dried oregano and basil over the contents of the crockpot. Throw in a bay leaf or two.

6. Open 2 28-oz cans of Muir Glen diced fire-roasted tomatoes and add them to the crockpot. Stir.

7. Add a little salt and pepper.

8. Turn crockpot to "Low" setting. If your version has a timer, set it for 6-8 hours. Stir occasionally if the spirit moves you.

Put a large pot of water on to boil 20-30 minutes before you're planning to eat. Cook and drain pasta and ladle sauce over individual bowls.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Clean Green Meat - You deserve it as much as they do

By now, most folks who are tuned in to this blog are interested or at least aware of the environmental and health consequences of the North American system of producing the hamburger or chicken nugget that appears on your plate or in your 40% post-consumer recycled take-away container. Today, I'd like to put down some ink on where our supermarket meat comes from, why - exactly - it's scary, and what our alternatives are.

CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are where the majority of your beef eventually comes from. These are the "feed lots" many of us in the west grew up with. I certainly did - one of my best friend's family ran one just outside of town. It was never pretty. And, now, the sad truth is, even beef labeled "grass-fed" and "all-natural" generally comes from cattle that spends their last weeks in a CAFO.

Why is this sad? Well, beyond the horrific environmental conditions, CAFOs are by definition unhealthy and unsanitary. While we North Americans routinely take our dose of lecture from our physician or local public service announcement on the grave consequences of neglecting to finish our next Amoxycillin prescription, the truth of the matter is that 70% of US antibiotics in production is given to cattle, not people. So, really, whether you complete 7 or 9 days of that sacred 10-day cycle has relatively miniscule impact on the grand antibiotic resistance horizon.

Take a minute: 7 out of 10 antibiotics in circulation are injected into or ingested by the food you eat...and this never shows up on any label.

Cattle in CAFOs stand around shoulder-to-shoulder, ankle-deep in their own waste. The prevalence of illness is why all animals are generally given routine medication for their duration there. When Michael Pollen wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, only two industries would not allow him to witness their operations: CAFOs were uniformly one of them. I don't know about you, but all things being equal, I generally prefer a restaurant with cooks out in the open to one where the cooks are hidden behind solid walls.

Same principle.

Even if you have little empathy for livestock, eating store-bought meat can be disturbing. Once you understand the conditions of CAFOs, the news that only a tiny, tiny fraction of all "USDA-inspected" meat is, actually, inspected should trigger true alarm. In fact, just last year, a midwest meat processor was actually sued by the USDA for implementing a plan to test all its beef. Seems the USDA felt that if it allowed such wanton testing to go unchecked, why, consumers might demand it and that, alone, would constitute "undue burden" on the other meat packers.

No, I am not kidding. Google it.

Chickens fare little better in their well-documented factory housing. A layer "house" the size of my (very small) bathroom can hold over 70 hens according to the government and industry standards. They never see the light of day, never leave their cage, are slaughtered when their production begins to fall. "Free range" hens and their meat-destined counterparts are, mostly, raised by the same people who raise the mainstream versions. These businessfolk construct an additional building with a door on one end and a small patch of grass outside. They are allowed to keep the chickens indoors the first 5 weeks or so, by government guidelines...and by then the habits are formed. The door opens, but the patch of grass goes largely unused. They are factory eggs and factory breasts and thighs in all but name only. But you, dear consumer, pay premium prices to feel that your eggs come from a higher source and are healthier. Not, I'm sad to tell you, so.

So. Why bother? You might as well just forget the whole thing and go back to buying whatever's on sale, right? Well, you can't be blamed for feeling that way. But, here's a couple alternatives and ideas:

First: It's cliche (as will be most of what follows), but vote with your dollars. If all that's available to you is "grass-fed" beef and "free-range" eggs from the main brands, buy it. Yes, you are paying extra for something that at its heart is not that different, but you are still creating a market. You're sending a message. Every time a Safeway egg buyer or butcher has to take stock of what's selling and sees that it's the organic or free range or grass fed...the market opens up a little and space for that small, sustainable farm is born. You can help create the next truly grass-fed ranch, the next truly free-range chicken farm. So keep buying.

Second: Please find your farmers market. You are being bludgeoned on this site about the importance of frequenting your local market, but it's really no joke. We can't afford to sell at supermarket prices, we depend on you to find us and tell us you care that we hand-raise our animals, kill them ourselves humanely, and carry the meat in coolers to your neighborhood. Is it more expensive than United Grocers? Yup.

Third: Join a buyers club or find a local butcher that works with area sustainable farmers. They're out there. If you're in the NW, try or You can buy hand-raised lamb, clumsily but carefully wrapped, from us or talk to farmers at your local market - they'll likely know someone.

We reached a milestone this week. We have a storage locker full of our own lamb, we have several cuts of grass-fed bison, raised in eastern Washington, and we've just contracted to share about a quarter of a Canadian-raised steer with friends of ours. We will basically buy no store-bought red meat during 2009. And we're aiming to begin meat chickens this summer. I swear, there is something amazing about going through the local supermarket and totally bypassing the meat section. It's empowering.

If you're not fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of the above, here's a couple suggestions: Ask for beef that has been, at a minimum, "pasture finished." This means it spent its last several weeks on grass and ensures an almost null ecoli risk. And if your "pasture-raised" beef isn't "pasture-finished," ask why. You might make your supermarket butcher a little uncomfortable (I did), but they'll probably investigate - and that will get back to the livestock producer. Believe it or not, a lot of those guys are still small operations.

Don't let labels that shout "all vegetarian diet" substitute for grass; this is a misnomer in the cattle and free-range chicken and egg front - cattle fed grain only must live on drugs because their systems can't tolerate grain; chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. An "all-vegetarian diet" means either someone is lying or these chickens are not being allowed to live a natural life.

And, finally, allow yourself to become connected with your food once more. Growing veggies and herbs in pots on the porch is a great start - but there is something deeply perverse about pretending that your meat never lived. We are the only culture in the world to insist on this. Meat = animal. It has always been so. Loving animals doesn't mean you can't eat meat or that you have to fantasize that steaks grow on trees.

It does, however, demand that you respect the animal that helped create your dinner. Loving animals does, I think, mean that you want their journey into your life to mean something, that consuming them should be a healthful privilege and not a risky business. You don't have to be an animal rights activist to know instinctively that all beings have a right to enjoy their time on earth, no matter how brief - and that as omnivores, we have a responsibility to ensure that the animal's life justifies its end.

The good news? It's easier than you think, and you can email me here for advice or suggestions.

Bon appetit-

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Accidental Rooster, Part 2

Uh, oh. One of our hens started crowing the other day.

We'd begun having suspicions when this particular "hen" grew more colorful and stunningly beautiful with each passing day. As we all know from basic biology, the more spectacular the bird, the more likely it is to be of the male variety. One need only recall the peahen as compared to her more vibrant male counterpart to envision the perfect example of this natural phenomenon.

Sigh. It is early days yet and the captain could turn out still to be that rare gentle rooster that struts about and gets along just fine with fowl and sapien alike...but I'm not holding my breath. Our last accidental rooster started out a wee fuzzy chick too, only to morph into a terrorizing demon by the time he was half a year old. We tried to make it work, we gave him chance after chance. But, in the end, after I lost one of the girls to his brutality, we called in the Chicken Assassin and peace reigned once more across the land. That's how it is in Layer Land - GRLZ Rule and roosters are expendable.

I wish it were different - I will hold out a little hope that it turns out that way, because I'd much rather create hens the old-fashioned way than ordering them from Iowa.

UPDATE:  I started this post over the weekend and shelved it to pen my depressing mid-life crisis post which I am sure started the week out for you all on an especially inspiring note.  I went out to get a photo of the big guy earlier today and, well, as you can see, he's found his calling.  I swear I did not plan this photo - I was zeroing in on him, completely unaware that he was zeroing in on her.  And, yes, like most barnyard activities, the reality bears little resemblance to what folks might imagine "chicken love" to look like.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On the Mend

No, no photo for this one. Just a brief update for any and all who are curious about my progress on the healing front.

A recap: I mysteriously fractured my tailbone in my sleep January 2nd. I had a CT scan and a doctor's visit (both things I meticulously avoid) and got my marching orders on no bending and no lifting (uh...ok....)

I was told 6 weeks by my doc and 8 weeks by my husband and so far we are managing the farmwork, with a few hiccups, OK. I am half-way there by Mark's benchmarks. At present, I actually feel almost fine - about 80% or even 90% with a glass or two of wine - but if I stand too long or walk too much, the fracture lets itself be known.

But, it's not been as awful as it could have been. A leg or even an arm would spell true hardship 'round here as I struggle to get around on crutches or in a sling.

Thanks, all, for your support.

The Age of Grief

One of Jane Smiley's shorter, less known, books is entitled The Age of Grief. Though I read it in my late 20's, I sensed even then that her insight into "middle age" - our 40's and 50's essentially - was probably profound. The story, a novella, centers on a professional couple with children, who live a seemingly enviable life until the husband stumbles upon the discovery that his wife is having an affair.

That the tale does not spin out predictably probably surprises no one who has read Smiley. But, story-craft aside, the real relevance of the book is its exploration of what happens when we grow into whom we become but we can no longer recognize who that is. She coins the phrase the Age of Grief because we are caught recalling the people we thought we would become and slowly we realize that one by one doors have been quietly shutting behind us. One morning it dawns on us that, no, we never are going to white-water raft down the Colorado. Or join the Peace Corps. Or invent the next big thing. That part of us isn't just napping while we're busy with Life. It's dead.

At some point, you cannot revisit ballet as a viable career choice. Nor are you likely to return to grad school and begin a PhD in bio-engineering. Our lives, our options, narrow day by day.

In my world, today, I think I hear doors slamming and houses shaking. Cancer and other diseases swirl all around our relatively young selves. Mark has conquered two cancers before nearing his half-century birthday. Many - honestly, many - friends have battled breast cancer or are fighting it now. Depression drags us down. We're losing our jobs and holding close our children against an encroaching adulthood threatening unbidden burdens.

Some marriages dissolve. Others develop elaborate roles and rituals that keep their inhabitants sane but constrained. As time marches on, a droplet of wisdom teaches us that every marriage, every friendship, every relationship is ultimately a black box to those uninvolved in it.

And inside, I fear we all are quaking like those houses as our doors rattle against their hinges. It feels like the future is too narrow too soon. Should we really be this sick and this tired and this vulnerable already? Should we really be this afraid?

The Age of Grief is in many ways the time in our lives when self doubt finds us for real and takes up residence in our gut. It clouds our decisions and complicates our goals. We are finally old enough to understand that we don't have all the answers and it paralyzes us. Self doubt gets between us and the people we love and holds us hostage before the future.


Every one of us knows within ourselves that January 2009 is a time of hope. We feel it. This both buoys and throws us. We stand at a precipice. We can fall, individually or collectively, into an abyss that has been a generation, or more, in the making. Or. Or we can sprout wings and learn how to fly. Together.

We can recall our younger selves and the possibility that lived within us once more. We can stand together and come together and create a future, together, that does not send icy chills down our spines. A future that lifts us up and takes us far. A future that starts now.

There's a lot of talk about what today and tomorrow mean for our children. But if me and mine are any indication? We need some 911 for ourselves, and fast. Please: work to create that future, but don't forget to create some Now while you're at it.