Thursday, September 29, 2011

Song of Drought & Fire

Onion Pie
This has been, without a doubt, the worst gardening year in the 10 years we’ve lived here! Spring was bad enough and it went downhill from there. The wildfires began back in April, followed by triple digits early in the summer and continuing through the end of August. More wildfires this month and everyone’s been on pins and needles every time a breeze picks up. We’ve had a light smattering of rain over the last few weeks, but it hasn’t even been enough to germinate garden seeds. Everyone’s ponds are dry and hay, if it can be had at all, is running about $120 for a round bale and  $12-$14 for a square bale of coastal. The really sad part is that if we get no rain in October, there will be no more precipitation until at least February. That’s just the way it works in Texas.

But still we plod on and we’re hopeful. The fall garden is planted even though I had to germinate it with a sprinkler. Grasshoppers decimated the flats of cabbage and broccoli I’d planned on setting out this month so those will have to come from the grocery this winter. I wasted no expensive or rare garden seeds on the fall garden. Everything is very basic and planted in large quantities – there’s 40-foot beds of spinach, turnips, carrots, green beans and summer squash. And that’s it! I will miss the beets this year, but with triple digits all during August, I saw no point in wasting the seed.

We do have chicken though! At least there’s that. The hundred that arrived at the beginning of August are now 8 weeks old and growing like little weeds. The feed bill is higher than I would like, but there’s simply nothing else for them to eat – no bugs, no grass, nothing. And the other day I looked up and realized that in addition to the hundred I ordered, we’ve got probably another 40 of our own needing to be thinned out. So at least 3-4 days a week, a chicken has been going into the skillet, the soup pot, the roaster or the freezer. For that I am thankful.
The Horrendous Hundred

I am also thankful that we have so much food put back. Even though much of our fresh produce is coming from the grocery right now, there are always our own treats to round out the meal: canned corn and tomatoes, picante sauce, pickled peppers, wild plum jam and pancake syrup, frozen blackberries, all kinds of frozen fish. The chickens have moulted and there are fresh eggs again. Not a lot yet, but at least they’re of good quality, unlike the few eggs we were getting during the heat of the summer. And I still have some turnips and carrots packed away in the bottom of the fridge from back in the spring. We are definitely not starving or malnourished! But little treats go a long ways right now.

Last weekend we re-fenced our broiler yard with chain link. The old fence made of chicken wire was rusted, sagging and falling down. Even though we let them free-range most of the day, it’s nice to have a place to confine them when needs be. Like when the garden is germinating or we need for them to leave us some tomatoes unmolested. Or I have errands to run and don’t want to have to worry about coyotes or stray dogs. So there are good things going on right now too.
New Fencing on Broiler Yard

With the weather turning a little cooler, I’ve been enjoying getting back in the kitchen every day and using the oven again. Breads, soups and stews have been on the menu a lot these last couple weeks. And then there are the pies, both savory and sweet…. I think pies are my favorite food group. J


A couple months ago, a friend gifted me with a very unassuming little cookbook: “The Country Kitchen Cook Book” by Edward Harris Heth. It was first published in 1956 and the introduction is by Euell Gibbons, famous “stalker” of wild foods. My friend knows my affliction and affection for older cookbooks and this one instantly made it into my Top Ten! The book is worth reading for the stories and anecdotes alone, but the recipes (which are loosely written) have also proven noteworthy. This morning I enjoyed “Boiled Coffee” for the first time. I thought it would be bitter, but it wasn’t. The caffeine content, on the other hand, is right up there with an illegal drug and I thought Curtis might have to Taser me when he got home!

Anyway, there’s a recipe in the book for “Onion Pie” which I’d never heard of. I’ve made it a couple times now and want to pass along the recipe. It’s one of the easiest pies I’ve ever made and we’ve been enjoying it both for breakfast and late night snacks. Even the butter crust is easy to make and I am NOT good with pie crusts! Mr. Heth assumed (back in 1956) that EVERYONE knew how to throw together a pie and maybe they did back then, but I’m going to give a few more instructions than the book gives. In the picture above, I added some ricotta cheese to the filling, but it didn’t improve the original recipe so I won’t be doing it again. The only thing I’ve added to the original recipe is some dill. This is a nice way to use up some of the onions that are starting to sprout. If you don’t have an 8” pie plate, use a 9” – the pie will be a little thinner or you can add another onion, a little more bacon and sour cream and another egg yolk to fill the pan. Don’t get hung up on the details – they really don’t matter much!

Onion Pie

Butter Crust:
1 cup flour
¼ cup cold butter
Pinch salt and sugar
2 tablespoons milk or cream
Egg wash (optional)

2 large onions, finely chopped
4 slices (ounces) bacon, chopped
2 teaspoons caraway seed
Salt and pepper to taste
½ - ¾ cup sour cream
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon dill

Preheat oven to 400. If you already know how to make pie crusts by hand, go ahead and do so; otherwise place the flour, butter, salt and sugar in the food processor and whirl until the butter is incorporated. Pour in the milk or cream and whirl until mixture comes together into a soft ball. Roll the crust out and press it into an 8” pie pan. (A fluted edge is pretty, but not necessary.) Prick the crust all over with a fork (be sure and get the sides!), brush on an egg wash, then bake the crust for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute the onions, bacon and caraway together until the onions are soft. For best results, sweat the onions by covering the pan for a few minutes, then remove the lid and evaporate the water. (This will keep them from sweating in the pie later.) Season with salt and pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the sour cream, eggs and dill. Pour the onion/bacon mixture over and mix thoroughly. Pour all into the cooked pie crust and place in oven on center rack, reducing heat to 350. Bake for about 40 minutes.

Pie is best served warm with a dollop of sour cream on top.

Chicken and Dumplings with Spinach and Mushrooms

This makes quite a large pot and is very filling. For a larger family, add another quart of broth, some more seasoning, then double the dumpling recipe cooking each batch of dumplings separately.

1 whole chicken, boiled in 3-4 quarts of water, deboned and chopped
2 tablespoons chicken fat or butter
1 large onion, chopped
Fresh garlic, to taste
2 stalks celery, sliced
2-3 carrots, sliced
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
2 quarts chicken broth
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules or 2 teaspoons salt
Pepper to taste
1 recipe Buttermilk Biscuits
½ pound spinach or other greens, chopped or thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 cup cream
¼ cup flour

In a large stockpot, melt the fat or butter and add onion, garlic, celery, carrots and mushrooms. Saute until almost done. Add the broth, bouillon and pepper and bring to a boil. Add dumplings all at once, cover and simmer on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to break up the dumplings. Stir in chicken, spinach and tarragon and bring to a gentle boil. Adjust seasoning. Whisk together cream and flour in a small bowl. Add to soup and heat through until thickened.

Buttermilk Biscuits

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup melted chicken fat, butter or oil
Buttermilk or thin yogurt, about ½ - ¾ cup

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Using wire whisk, cut in fat or oil until mix is crumbly. Stirring with a fork, add buttermilk a little at a time until dough just comes together. Knead a few times, then roll dough out about ½” thick on a well-floured counter. Using a pizza cutter, cut the dough into 1” cubes (or smaller). A tablespoon of chicken bouillon granules may be substituted for the salt. These are also super easy to make in the food processor.
Chicken & Dumplings

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Power of Barter

Whole chickens ready for the freezer, bar-cut shown on right
We are fortunate to have recently acquired some new neighbors who enjoy hunting and fishing. The wife has family in the South Texas area that loves to fish the Gulf. Back in the summer, she went fishing with them and brought back a considerable amount of Red Snapper. I recently traded her a couple of chickens, some eggs, salsa and jam for several bags of the wonderful fish. There’s nothing like good ocean fish, filleted and frozen within hours of being caught. That’s just not something we’ll probably ever manage to acquire ourselves and we were thrilled to get it.

They aren’t the first people we’ve traded with. We had another neighbor (who’s since moved away and we rarely see him) who LIVES for hunting and fishing. With him, we traded for wild pork, elk, venison, Spanish mackerel (kingfish) from the Gulf and rockfish from Alaska. There’s a retired couple who live near my mom who spend almost every waking moment trout fishing in Arkansas. I always send them some eggs and chicken in return for the delicious, delicate little trouts. At one time, I also used to trade eggs with a woman with milk goats until I decided it was too far to drive to her house every week.

And I’ve only recently become acquainted with my mom and stepdad’s new neighbors. He loves to garden, keeps a few chickens and leans heavily towards permaculture. He’s also a fount of knowledge regarding fruit trees and heirlooms and owns many unusual species of plants and trees. We exchanged some seeds, bulbs and plants awhile back and I’m now the proud owner of some of those unusual things. (The succulent Cuban Oregano is just too cool!)

People are always asking me if I sell produce, chickens and eggs. Well, I used to, but that ship sailed a long time ago. To be frank, I finally got fed up with the public I was having to deal with and came to the conclusion that mere money is not an acceptable form of payment for the quality of goods that we produce. Food laws have also become so ridiculous I don’t like having to navigate them. And God forbid if someone should get sick and blame it on something they ate from my farm, even if that’s not what caused it!

The last time I accepted money for eggs was about 5 years ago. One of my regular customers requested a dozen eggs for a friend of hers. Next time I saw her, she told me that her friend had told her all of the eggs were bad. “What do you mean by ‘bad’?” I asked her. She didn’t know. That’s all her friend had told her. I was puzzled and astounded! I have NEVER sold an egg that was more than a day old (fresh) or that hadn’t been promptly refrigerated on the day it was laid and sold within a few days. I never pick up eggs outside the next boxes unless I put them in a separate basket for us to eat. And I’m a control freak about keeping track of the lay dates. The only thing I can figure out is that perhaps the woman had never seen fertilized eggs, or perhaps she had never seen or tasted the golden-orange yolk of a free-range egg?

I’ll never know, but that was too close for comfort. And it could have gone very badly. I haven’t sold an egg since that day, but that doesn’t mean we don’t use them for trade.

Barter is a really wonderful thing on a small homestead. For us, it means we don’t have to do EVERYTHING ourselves. Not that we don’t try! But if we short ourselves in some way, there’s likely to be an abundance of something else we can use to trade for things to fill in the gaps. For instance, last year we got bumper crops of tomatoes and wild plums. I ended up with something like 6 cases of wild plum jam and pancake syrup, and I canned tomatoes, salsa and sauce every few days for almost 2 months. If you lift the skirt of the bed in the guest bedroom, you’ll find cases upon cases of tomato products!

The beautiful jars of pickled peppers at the top of this page were also canned last year. The year before that it was pickled okra. Three years ago, I processed some 800 ears of sweet corn, much of which ended up being canned. Another year there was a bumper crop of green beans.

The people who buy all their food from the mart “Tsk Tsk” at me and say “Whatever are you going to DO with all that stuff? You can’t possibly eat that much yourself!” Well, WE don’t have to. But we can use it to trade for stuff we don’t produce ourselves.

One of the great things about barter is that you’re dealing in the same coin. People who purchase all of their food expect everything you sell them to look pretty and uniform like it does at the grocery, only to taste better and be grown with organic methods. It has never occurred to them that the REASON that food is flavorless is because it was grown to be pretty and uniform! If you sell them something that looks different or is more trouble than what they’re used to, they’ll usually turn their noses up at it no matter how good it tastes. And they think that if they dangle money in front of you, that should be more than enough to secure your goods and services. But they aren’t dealing in the same coin because money simply can’t buy the same quality you can produce yourself. You can’t take their money (no matter how much they want to give you!) and buy food of equal or greater value with it. It just can’t be done!

And that’s especially true with meat. People think all chicken should be butter-tender and plump. But after you get used to eating free-range chicken that has foraged it’s whole life, grocery store broilers are nothing but flavorless mush compared to them. And the meat stinks from the high protein feed they’re fed to make them reach that size in 6 weeks instead of the 4-5 months it would normally take. The other day I found chicken on sale for $.50/lb. and bought a couple bags of it to feed my little mini-Aussie. It smelled fine in the package but my house stunk to high heaven for 2 days after boiling that down. I’m glad WE didn’t have to eat it!

But people who hunt and fish and raise their own meat KNOW what to expect from wild and farm-raised meat. They know that pork is NOT the “other white meat” since wild and free-range pork is almost as red as beef. They know that pastured beef tastes almost exactly like venison and little like the grain-fed marbled slabs you get from the grocery. And they understand how much trouble you’ve gone to when you offer them your own goods for theirs, because they know how much trouble they’ve gone to! You’re dealing in the same coin when you trade with them.

Another great thing about barter is the quality that’s a result of specialization. We don’t yet have larger livestock than chickens and I get little enough practice cutting up venison and wild pork. But my chicken butchering skills are quite advanced and the chickens I have to offer for barter are immaculate. They will always be butchered WHEN they should be and they are cleaner and in better condition than store-bought birds. You won’t find wing tips missing and broken, bruised drumsticks and I use a bar-cut to tuck the legs in tight to the body cavity for freezing. The skin will be soft and supple and each chicken is clearly labeled as to the age and condition of the bird, plus the date it was butchered. I use a freezer wrap that will keep them in great quality for much longer than the 3 months most freezer manufacturers recommend.

My canned goods are also top quality because I’ve been around canning my entire life and I’ve been doing it hard and heavy for about 10 years now. Another barterable skill I have is baking bread. If I include a stick of Italian Peasant Bread in with a gift of barter, I must like you very much indeed!

That quality is also present in the bartered goods that we receive. The Red Snapper was in large boneless fillets and vacuum-sealed for freshness. Our neighbor told me her mom is the expert at cleaning the fish and you can certainly see it in the quality of the cuts. The trout we trade for is filleted so carefully and expertly there looks to be almost no waste. It’s also vacuum-sealed and the little trouts look like works of art the way he stacks them in the package. The raw goat’s milk I used to trade for was chilled immediately after milking in a clean, sterile sealed container so there was never an “off” flavor. That’s the kind of quality you get when you trade with people who are experts at what they do. It’s not something you’ll ever find at the grocery store.

Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s good to be generous with our friends and neighbors who homestead, hunt, fish, garden and brew. You just never know what kinds of wonderful treasures you’re going to end up with!


I had some Red Snapper left over from the last batch of fillets I cooked and I’ve been making them into a delicious sandwich spread. You can use any kind of mild-flavored fish, both ocean and fresh-water. It’s an especially good use for fish that are too small to fillet, like bluegill, small bass and crappie, since you can remove the bones after they’re cooked. For fast meals, put your leftover cooked fish pieces into a zip-loc and freeze them for reheating in the microwave later.

Take one 3-4 ounce piece of cooked, leftover fish (fried, baked, grilled) and crumble/flake it into a small bowl. Add a little minced onion (maybe 2 tablespoons?), some sweet or dill pickle relish (or chopped pickles), about ½ teaspoon of dried dill and a generous dollop of tartar sauce or mayonnaise. Mix well. Makes enough for 2 open-faced sandwich halves.

I like mine with some tomato and lettuce on the bun, salt and vinegar chips on the side and a dark beer to wash it down. Shiner Bock’s “Black Lager” is perfect with this dish. J

(clicking on this link will take you to the King Arthur Flour website)

These are just delicious! And so easy to make. I add a ¼ cup of powdered milk, ¼ cup of potato flakes and 1 teaspoon of onion powder. I also substitute 1 cup of the flour with 1 cup of soft pastry wheat. (And it always seems to take a little more flour than what the recipe calls for.) Instead of brushing them with butter, I use an egg wash so the toppings will stick. My favorite topping is cumin seed. Curtis likes the ones with dill seed or caraway seed best. You can also use poppy seeds, sesame seeds or just plain kosher salt.

Make sure you get them VERY flat before the last rise. After shaping them into disks, I let the dough rest for a few minutes, then flatten the disks out on my tortilla press to about ½” thick. You can go a little thicker, but not much. We haven’t bought bread in 7-8 years and this is one of our staple sandwich breads.
Beautiful Burger Buns with Dill & Sesame Seeds