Thursday, September 5, 2013

Recipes For Dad's Birthday

Produce from The Sonnenhof

Today is my dad’s birthday. He would’ve been ninety. From him, I inherited, or maybe learned, my love of good, whole food. He was a cotton farmer in the Texas panhandle. We also had a big garden every summer. He reserved about an acre of ground right in the middle of the cotton patch and behind the house. Every April, while he still had the cotton seed planter on the tractor, we planted two long rows of sweet corn, okra, black eyed peas and green beans. The rest we planted by hand – yellow squash, cantaloupes, watermelons, tomato and pepper plants. By that time, the spring radishes and onions were ready to pull and the potatoes had been planted. There wasn’t much fresh produce available back then at supermarkets, especially in rural areas, and we ate really well from that simple garden. My dad loved all of it, and I mean LOVED it! We knew he was happy when he smacked his food loudly, or when sweat was rolling off his bald head while he ate jalapenos, one right after the other. Hot peppers were some of his favorites.

He also had a great fondness for Mexican food -- REAL Mexican food, even though that hadn’t really caught on in restaurants in Texas back then. We had Mexican hands on the cotton farm that prepared some wonderful dishes (especially homemade tortillas!) and my dad was always on the lookout for new varieties of seeds to try. A few years before he passed away, he managed to acquire some tomatilla seeds and they became his obsession as he had eaten them in Mexico years earlier. I don’t think he was ever terribly successful at growing them, but he was determined. Little did he know he probably tried too hard – I’ve found them to be a weed that’s almost impossible to control once they get loose on the farm! I always think of him whenever I make Salsa Verde, a treat he probably never had, but would’ve loved.

Here are a few recipes in his honor, made with the abundance we’ve been receiving from our garden this summer.  Enjoy!

Chicken Corn Chowder
We have a few too many chickens right now and far too many eggs. We also have too little freezer space, so I’ve started butchering some of the older hens and using them right away. Once a hen has been in egg production for a couple of years, she’s awfully small and there’s not much meat left on her, but you get some of the best flavored broth imaginable – very healthful because it’s so rich in gelatin. I used to believe one needed to pressure cook the older birds to get them tender, but I’ve found that a big oval crock pot will stew down two small birds at once. I always add a splash of cider vinegar to the pot to help extract as much of the wonderful gelatin as possible!

I bought and put up two bushels of sweet corn a couple months ago and there is an abundance of pepper and garlic varieties from the garden right now. This hearty soup makes the best use of everything. If you don’t have pumpkinseeds, you can substitute pecans or simply add a bit more corn grits for thickening.

*1/4 cup butter or olive oil
*1 large onion, chopped
*3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
*1 red bell pepper, diced
*2-3 poblano peppers, roasted, skinned, seeded and diced
*1 teaspoon ground coriander
*1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
*2 cups fresh or frozen corn
*2 cups chicken broth
*1/2 cup pumpkinseeds, pureed in the blender or food processor
*1/4 cup quick-cooking grits
*2 cups cooked chicken
*2 cups whole milk
*1/2 cup feta or farmer’s cheese, crumbled
*1 cup heavy cream
*chopped cilantro to taste

In a stockpot, sauté the butter/oil and the onion, garlic, peppers and spices until tender. Stir in the frozen corn and sauté until cooked, 2-3 minutes. Add the broth, pumpkinseeds and grits, then cook for about 5 minutes, or until the grits are thickened. Add the chicken, milk and cheese. Heat until the cheese is melted and the milk is scalded. Add the cream and cilantro and heat gently.

Chicken Corn Chowder

 Curried Okra
I find it sad that more people don’t love okra. It doesn’t have to be slimy and it doesn’t have to be a deep-fried nightmare. We grow the Louisiana and Emerald Green Velvet varieties of okra, which we like much better than the Clemson everyone else seems to grow. After dining at a Vietnamese/Thai restaurant in Fort Smith, this flavor combination has become one of our favorites. Be warned if you use Madras-style curry powder – it packs a lot of heat by itself without the addition of the hot peppers! Oh and, always start with dry okra pods – water activates the slime while cutting.

*1/4 cup sunflower or extra-light-tasting olive oil
*chopped garlic to taste
*fresh chopped or dried hot peppers to taste
*1 pound-ish of okra, cut on the diagonal into 1” pieces
*1 teaspoon sea salt
*2 tablespoons curry powder (more to taste)
*1 small can coconut milk (5.6 oz)
*a little sugar to taste, if needed
*2 hard-boiled, chopped eggs (optional)

Have everything ready before starting. Heat a wok or large heavy pan on high heat. Add the oil and wait for it to be almost to the point of smoking. (It should be VERY hot!) Quickly toss in the okra, garlic and peppers and stir like mad to coat the okra with the oil. (This method prevents the slime from forming.) Stir-fry the okra for about 5 minutes, or until tender. Reduce heat, then stir in the salt, curry powder and coconut milk. The mixture will thicken almost immediately. Turn off the heat and taste for sweetness, adding a sprinkle of sugar if necessary. Stir in the chopped eggs.

Salsa Verde
We love this stuff. Hans often orders it at Mexican restaurants instead of the standard salsa they usually bring you with chips. I use it by the pint-sized jar on chicken enchiladas. This is the simple version. It’s even better with some fire-roasted poblanos and if you can manage it, cook the tomatillas over an open fire as well.

In a deep saucepan or stockpot, cover your clean, whole tomatillas with water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let them sit, covered, for 20 minutes. Gently (very gently!) lift them out with a slotted spoon or pour them through a colander. Transfer them to a blender or food processor and puree.

For each approximate quart of pureed tomatillas, prepare/add the following:

*1 large onion, finely chopped and cooked, covered, in the microwave for about 5 minutes
*3-4 cloves of garlic
*1 chopped Serrano pepper
*1 teaspoon salt
*1 tablespoon of lime juice (opt.)

Blend/puree thoroughly, then pour into a saucepan to heat until just boiling. Add a handful of chopped cilantro. Ladle into clean, sterilized jars and water bath for 20 minutes. If you don’t make much at a time, just cap the jars and put them in the fridge to eat fresh.
Salsa Verde
Five-Spice Honey Yogurt
This is a wonderful light dessert after a heavy or spicy meal. The spice mix is a digestive and the honey is carminative (soothing to the digestive tract). You can use most any kind of fruit. We keep gallon bags of blackberries in the freezer year round and when peaches are in season, those are great too.

*1 cup fresh chopped or frozen thawed fruit
*2 tablespoons sugar
*1 cup yogurt
*1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
*1-2 tablespoons honey

Sprinkle the sugar over the fruit, mash it up a bit with a fork or pastry cutter and let the sugar draw out the liquid for at least 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Delicious at room temp, cold or even slightly frozen.
My first watermelon from Dad's garden

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Paws 'n Claws

Chicken Noodle Soup with Homemade Egg Noodles

 A few months ago I was at the Asian market in Fort Smith when I saw something that sent me into a fit of giggles. They sell chicken feet by the five pound bag labeled “Chicken Paws”. Now, I’m no stranger to the Asian marketplace, been shopping there for a good 20 years, and I know a good many cultures use chicken feet in their cuisines; but NEVER had I seen them referred to as “paws”. Then again, I’ve read enough half-English translations on their food packaging nothing should surprise me. But why use chicken paws at all?

Well, tasting is believing. I’ve been butchering chickens pretty heavily for the last 12 years and I’ve always tossed the feet into the gut bucket for the dog or wildlife to pick out. It’s not that the feet gross me out – the scaly skin comes off easily enough during scalding and the nails can be easily clipped off so the feet are very clean when you’re done with them. But it’s always been another step, something else to do, so I’ve always tossed them aside. What a waste! Last time I butchered a rooster I tossed the feet in with the soup parts and what a soup it turned out to be. The feet are the difference between chicken FLAVORED broth and having to add some chicken granules to the soup to get a strong chicken flavor. Actually, it’s even better than that. It tastes almost like adding cream to the soup – it’s that rich.

But even more importantly, the feet have a very high concentration of gelatin. Gelatin is very, very good for us. As are most of the parts of an animal we tend to waste when we purchase meat by the slab or roll. From Sally Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions” cookbook:

“A lamentable outcome of our modern meat processing techniques and our hurry-up, throwaway lifestyle has been a decline in the use of meat, chicken and fish stocks. In days gone by, when the butcher sold meat on the bone rather than as individual filets and whole chickens rather than boneless breasts, our thrifty ancestors made use of every part of the animal by preparing stock, broth or bouillon from the bony portions.”
I’ve been intending to write this article for several months now, but just as I’d given up the idea for this year due to spring encroaching upon us, I awoke this morning with a sore throat and the beginnings of a sinus infection. I haven’t had a cold or respiratory infection in probably 10 years, but the last few months have been very stressful and I’ve let my body get out of balance. And then WHAM! We get one last winter storm that sends temps plummeting and the humidity to dangerous lows.

I have a theory on why people get respiratory illnesses and it has absolutely nothing to do with germs (other than allowing them to set up shop). It is a combination of ambient humidity and physical hydration.  I spent the first 14 years of my life with chronic respiratory infections and allergies. I grew up in the arid Texas Panhandle with butane and propane heating. From the time I left that climate and house until 12 years ago when we moved into another house with propane heat, I had only occasional colds and infections, and only during the winter when the central heat was cranked up. Two years into that, I discovered that keeping a large pot of water simmering on the kitchen stove during the coldest weather prevented any and all respiratory problems for two people for some ten years!

Sorry folks, but you just can’t beat those odds. If you’re a modern-day, allopathic pill-popper who scurries for the antibiotics at the first sign of a sniffle, your mind will probably snap shut faster than a Baptist in a Mosque at this idea. I had a young schoolteacher look down her nose at me one time and say “The reason I’m sick all the time is because I’m around sick kids all the time. It’s NOT humidity, they have germs!” Funny, she was sick all the time BEFORE she became a schoolteacher too….

Fact is, there was a time in our very recent human past when there was ALWAYS liquid simmering on the stove or over an open fire during the winter months. It was called a soup pot or cauldron and it’s where everything that didn’t get eaten right away ended up. From Edward Harris Heth’s “The Country Kitchen Cook Book”, first published in 1956:

“From Ruth Hummock I first learned of the dignity of the soup pot; she and it are inseparable all winter long. A pot is always on active duty at the rear of her stove, and into it go many unlikely things. Since her family is large and are sturdy eaters of meat, there are always big bones left from roasts or boiled dinners. Into the pot. Scraps of meat, a leftover potato or turnip, a spoonful of stewed tomatoes. Into the pot. A cupful of leftover sauerkraut, potato water, a chicken or duck carcass divested of every shred of flesh, a bowl of unwanted gravy, a neglected prune, a chunk of celery half chewed by one of the children (Ruth does cut off the tooth marks) – all go into the ever-simmering pot to make a surprisingly flavorful and varied broth.”
Many cultures have long recognized the health benefits of broths and stocks.  The Asian cuisines have always included fish heads in their fish stocks. Now we know that the thyroid glands in the fish heads may be responsible for the belief that fish head broths contribute to virility and energy in humans. And of course, in most ancient cultures chicken soup seemed to be a cure-all for everything from the flu to diphtheria to arthritis.

And could it be, just maybe, that in addition to the nourishment and physical hydration we receive from broths , stocks and soups, the very fact that the pot itself is giving off humidity in the background may be at least partially responsible for our immunity to winter colds and infections? I just had a big bowl of homegrown, homemade chicken noodle soup and I feel better already!


So. Some things have changed since I blogged last. Awhile ago, a friend posted a link to Derek Siver’s blog entry titled “Everything Is My Fault.” I consider Derek to be one of the more enlightened humans walking this planet today, so I wasn’t surprised when I got a chuckle over the opening line:  “I cut two chapters out of my book because they were too nasty.” 

Yep, that’s the main reason I haven’t blogged in so long – I couldn’t tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth AND BE NICE ABOUT IT AT THE SAME TIME! I still can’t. Especially when half the county I’m living in now has heard only half-truths and omissions. But I refuse to sink so low as to air that dirty laundry any more than it’s already been aired. Most people are not complete idiots when it comes to hearing both sides in a divorce.  Those that take a side usually HAVE to because they are family or they’re taking pity on an old friend. And there’s not much you can do about anyone who’s stupid enough to take sides randomly. I know I won’t ever do that again!

Anyway, my husband of 15 years and I have split up. He is a wonderful, kind, caring person and I wish him all the best. I am now living with a new partner on a 7 acre homestead in NE Oklahoma. We have gardens, chickens, etc., and not much has changed lifestyle-wise. It is too early to announce any future plans, but I’m very happy here and feel that I made the right decision.  There is nothing else I can say about this situation that is ANYONE else’s business.

I’ve certainly learned a lot about people the last few months though. Things I probably already knew but had forgotten.  I have been reminded most especially that there is a BIG difference between compassion and pity. Compassion and sorrow (feeling sorry for someone) are emotions one feels through empathy. We recognize that something bad has happened to a good person (or even to a not-so-good person!) through no fault of their own. Their spouse or child died, they were in a horrible car wreck, laid off work,  etc. – terrible things that we recognize could happen to any of us at any time for no reason whatsoever.

Pity is another thing altogether. Pity is what you feel for someone who grovels at the feet of the world, refusing to recognize that ANYTHING comes about by their own design, whether for good or bad. Not only are they unable to recognize their own grace and goodness, but whenever something bad happens to them, it’s always someone else’s fault. They are the kind of people that you cross the street to avoid rather than hear them tell one more time about how miserable their lives are and about how they did nothing whatsoever to deserve whatever ill has befallen them. Of course you can feel compassion for them, but it will do them no good whatsoever. I believe we often do more harm than good by helping people wallow in their pity.

And then there’s religion. I’m probably going to offend some of my readers but maybe it’s time for that.  In all the years I’ve been involved in social networking (groups, blogs, etc.) I’ve mostly kept my religious opinions to myself. Most of my online activity has always centered around homesteading and really, there’s no need to bring religion or politics into that as so many always insist on doing.

But over the last year, I’ve been reminded of my true feelings about religion and especially regarding the Christian faith in general. By and large, most people on this planet are at least halfway decent folks. But once you throw religion into that, I think you get a large pool of people with some of the darkest souls I’ve ever met. They are not all that way. My in-laws are some of the most wonderful Christians I have ever known, even though they have tunnel vision just a bit regarding their own beliefs. But almost always, they are kind, caring, decent, good people. You do not hear them talk unkindly about anyone or gossip, EVER. On the other side of that equation, I have relatives of my own that do a very good job of assuring I will NEVER return to organized religion. And some of the people I’ve met recently in this state are just downright scary! Or crazy. Who knew ANY state was more fundamentalist than Texas?!

You do not need religion to embrace your own spirituality. In so many cases, I believe ORGANIZED religion exists for people who do not like to think for themselves. Organizations are about people, not God. I’m more convinced than ever before that churches exist so people can congregate together for acceptance and approval from each other while denigrating everyone outside their little sandbox. Or litterbox, as the case may be...

And of course, I’m really tired of the stones being thrown. For months I’ve been watching and listening to a woman call another an adulteress and a whore. Her friends and congregation cheer her on in the most unchristian of ways. They go on and on about how “karma” will catch up to the woman, and with the man she’s seeing. However, I happen to know that this particular woman started living with her most recent husband when he was still married to another. Wonder if she’s admitted that to the crowd with torches and pitchforks? And if karma is some universal truth, doesn’t it mean that when something bad happens to her, she probably deserves it too? Just sayin’.

In any case, a lot of very painful things have happened in the last year but I believe life is too damned long to be unhappy. In the end, we can’t save people, we can’t fix people and we can’t live our lives for them. Most of the time, selfishness ends up being the only path that makes sense. And anyone who thinks their own motives aren’t purely selfish is probably in denial.

Thanks to all who have been supportive of me and my life-changing decisions this last year. Now, I think it’s time for another bowl of Chicken Paw Soup!