Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cooking: The Christmas Ham

Our Christmas ham this year was our own. We raised it, slaughtered it, butchered it, cured it, and smoked it ourselves. But this post isn't about how this ham came to be preserved and flavored- it is about how it came to be consumed.

A couple years ago I saw a ham special by Alton Brown of "Good Eats" fame. He prepared what he referred to as a "country ham," which is a ham that is dry-cured then smoked. Country ham is drier and saltier than "city ham," which is wet-cured (brined, essentially). It requires special handling, or you get a stringy, dry, pork-jerky instead of a tasty, salty-sweet pork treat.

We soaked the ham for a couple days. Mr. Brown's suggestion of using a cooler with a drain plug was brilliant. That way you can change the water easily- just let the old water out and put new water in- No Lifting! We left the hock attached while soaking, while he suggested it be removed first. As far as I can tell, it didn't make a difference.

From that point you cook it like normal... oh, wait, no. Instead of just plopping it in a roaster pan (or in our case, our handy-dandy portable roaster oven- the same one we cooked down our maple syrup in), you plop it in a roaster pan with a bunch of Dr. Pepper! Alton's recipe called for a liter of soda, but our ham was big, so we got a 2-liter bottle. Sadly, even that was not enough to half-cover the ham as prescribed by the recipe. What to do? Well, Mr. Farmer is no slouch when it comes to food. He claims that he might even have a thing or two to teach Alton Brown. So, naturally, he came up with a solution: Why not cook a maple-cured ham in maple syrup? We still had a quart or so in the fridge, and another half-gallon unopened on the shelf from the last sugaring. The trees will start running again in just a few months, so we had more than enough on hand to splurge a bit on our Christmas ham. Two liters of Dr. Pepper and a quart or so of homemade maple syrup almost half-covered the bottom of the ham.

As you can probably guess, the ham was amazing. Would I be writing a blog post about it if it wasn't? Every time Mr. Farmer makes a ham (or bacon) I always say the same thing, "Wow, Honey, I think you really got the process down now. This is the best ham (or bacon) yet!" Somehow each one is still even better than the last. I can't wait for the next one!

(PS - I almost forgot - 400 degrees for half an hour, then 15 minutes per pound at 350 for the rest of the time. Cook the side dishes after it is out of the oven so that it can rest. Taa Daa.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

From my family to yours, a very Merry Christmas.  Thank you for your support and kind comments through the year. All the best to you.

Peace and Joy,
Mrs. Farmer
Mr. Farmer
Young Master Farmer
Little Miss Farmer

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pigs: You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Late last fall, when we purchased a number of pigs for a very low price, I had no idea what was to come. Of course Mr. Farmer said that some would be bred and some would be slaughtered for food. Naturally, some would be for our consumption, some for our Pig-Partner and his family, and perhaps some would be sold. But who would have guessed that we would do so many new things in such a short time?

(Author's Note: Most of these things are not technically "new" to Mr. Farmer. They were for me, though!)

When the new pigs came to live with us, a more spacious pen had to be build to accommodate the little darlings. Food and water troughs were built out of plastic 55 gallon drums, cut in half lengthwise. And naturally, the pigs ended up with names, whether we meant to name them or not.

Tiffany (front), Wilma(rear), and Mamas (right)
With this many pigs to process, we had to upgrade our equipment a bit. A metal frame for hanging hogs, sitting on the ground above a rock, was replaced with a huge tree-trunk cross member and a larger capacity pulley system.

Out With The Old

In with the New

Before we knew it, however, the Man caught up with us. We didn't know it at the time, but Mamas and Wilma were expecting. Tiffany: Prince of Darkness was nearing 400 pounds. Still, we had to move them to a larger property because township regulations did not allow us to keep them on so small a plot of land. It was no small feat to move them from their lifelong home.

This big boy did NOT want to leave his turf.
 Once again, we were fence-building. This time we even installed electrified lines for more security for our precious "piggers". Then, one morning, not long after we had begun to have suspicions that the ladies were expecting... Surprise! Piglets!

Wilma's First Litter
A mere six days later we were able to watch Mamas give birth to her first litter. We even got to assist in the removal of a breach. Mamas had five babies while we watched, and another after we had gone!

This is one of my favorite pictures EVER.
The piglets thrived, and before long, it came time to neuter the males. I tried my best to assist with them by holding the squirmy little guys so Mr. Farmer could stay clean. It worked. We got the job done, he stayed clean, and all the piglets remained infection free.

I got a little dirty, though.
So there you have it: a year (almost) in the life of a pig farmer and his novice wife. But let's not forget Little Miss Farmer, who never shies away from even the somewhat distasteful tasks of slaughtering and butchering (even if she is too young to do them herself yet), and my other hero, Young Master Farmer, who hauls water up this unforgiving hill almost every single day for the pigs.

I STILL don't know how he stays upright.
Who knows what our next adventure will be? I have many reasons to love Mr. Farmer, but one is that he feeds my love of learning by constantly bringing new experiences into my life. I don't know what I will learn next, but I just can't wait!

Friday, October 28, 2011


There is panic in the mountains of Pennsylvania today. News reporters on the radio and television are repeating a certain four-letter word beginning with an “S” with every rotation and before every commercial break. They are doing it in spite of who might be listening. They are saying it in October, before Halloween, in the presence of school children, the elderly, and anyone else who can hear….
* * * *
*  * *  SNOW * *  *
* * * *

Even Mr. Farmer was almost swept into the pre-storm panic. How can your mind help but rush back to the things that should have been done earlier in the week? How many times did Young Master Farmer promise that he would get to splitting that woodpile tomorrow? Why oh why didn’t we move one of the pig huts into the adult section of the enclosure sooner? How did the supply of straw for pig bedding get so low?

After setting all the pre-storm tasks on paper, however, he regained his composure and got to work. We put our heads together as he drove me to work and ran through the plan for the day. He could pick up additional straw right away in the morning. Rather than take the hut to the adult pigs, he could take the adult pigs to the hut. After all, the “babies” are fully weaned and large enough to hold their own against giant-boar Tiffany for a couple days. He split a fair amount of wood, and Little Miss Farmer brought it in the house to dry. A quick trip to the store for the items we had intended to purchase on Saturday, which is now Storm Day, and everything is settled for a long, cold weekend.

After the boy finishes spitting the rest of that firewood, of course….

Here we go again...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blogging: Cold, Lonely Internet

I know that I have been a little quieter than usual lately, and I apologize for that. It has been quiet here this fall, so there isn't much to write about. The pigs are far enough away that I miss out on their daily antics, and the weekly visits that I make to them don't always result in any kind of real story. The chickens are molting, and therefore not laying, but that isn't much to talk about. The garlic is planted for next year, and the garden has been put to bed for the winter. So, I have been filling the time I usually use for writing with reading other people's blogs and trying to promote my own a little.

I added a fan page on Facebook. As of today, I had SIX "Likes". That is sad, people. I am really pretty disappointed about that. Even adding a link to it on my sidebar isn't helping much, nor was recommending the page to almost everyone I know on Facebook. I do not update every day, so you don't have to worry about me jamming up your feed, if that was your concern. I do, however, post when I put up a new article, and post status updates when something happens that isn't long enough to write an entire story or essay about. If you want to follow me on Facebook, you can use the LIKE button here directly, or see my page HERE (then click LIKE, right?).

I set up a separate Twitter account for the blog as well. Like the Facebook page, it will include short updates, links to new and old posts, and maybe the occasional farm-related joke (I will keep the puns to a minimum, for those who know me personally and who have requested it). Of course you can send me @ replies and direct messages as well, and I will always answer (though not always immediately- I have a day-job, you know). Did I mention that I follow back? Well, I do. Here's my TWITTER PROFILE.

I want to thank you all for your support. I know that we crazy, chicken-chasing, dog-snuggling, wood-splitting, fruit-canning, yard-planting, animal-slaughtering, suburban hicks are a rare breed. This blog, and others like it, are a small niche, and I appreciate each and every one of you. See you on the InterWebz!!

My Dearly Departed Father-In-Law's
Top-of-the-Line Commodore Pet PC
Circa 1984
Belongs in a Museum, right?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Gardening: Fall Garlic Planting

We're trying garlic in earnest next year, so we have to start planning now. A friend gave me some garlic bulbs from a gardening store two summers ago. We planted it in the spring (WRONG!), and hoped for the best. It sprouted. It died. We left it alone for a whole season. The onions we also planted that year didn't get even a little bit bigger than they were when we planted them, so we left the garlic in the ground to winter over. In the spring, they sprouted many new tops, but when I dug them up, they were just the small sets you see above. So I put them in a dry, dark corner until fall.

Columbus Day weekend I planted the garlic sets. Mr. Farmer told me of a pile of fine soil made mostly of worm castings and leaf rot. So after I pulled out the last of the dead tomato & pepper plants, took the unripened, frost-killed fruit inside for pickling, and turned up the bed, I set out for the woods. I found the soil, filled the wheel-barrow, and mixed the new soil into the old.

Somewhere in that process I injured my shoulder. The pain was terrible, even after taking an anti-inflammatory, and many motions caused it to worsen. So, I took Saturday night off and rested. I sat like my arm was in a sling and pouted because I wanted to plant my garlic.

The rest did me good, and I was able to put the garlic in the ground on Sunday. They needed to be set 8 inches apart, so I used a wooden pencil (7.5 inches) as a guide and used a screwdriver handle to poke holes of the right width and depth. Twenty-four sets went into the ground at perfect distance, were patted over, and covered with a tarp. I'm hoping the tarp will keep my marauding, free-ranging chickens from disturbing them before they settle in.

Twenty four is more than enough garlic for my family for the year. I really hope we are successful this time. We LOVE fresh garlic.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Off Topic: Mushrooms

As I have mentioned, 2011 was a crazy, wet summer. The rain was almost unending, and the ground was almost constantly mushy and slick. The tomatoes drowned. The eggs (and the chickens themselves, for that matter) were constantly muddy. The park and lake flooded. The wild mushrooms, however, were amazing. I saw more interesting mushrooms in the late summer than I have in my entire life. I became almost consumed with hunting them down and photographing them. Here are some of my favorite photos.

There were white mushrooms:

Inside out mushroom
There were brightly colored mushrooms:

Something was nibbling on this red one

This one is SO bright yellow- the picture doesn't do it justice
Mushrooms in bunches:

Traditional Rotten Log Fungus

Amazingly Cool Orange Mushrooms
Right at the End of My Street

Mushrooms that stood alone:

Red Mushroom

I found mushrooms that looked like flowers:

Doesn't it look like a Daisy?

This one looks like a petunia
(Mr. Farmer says, "There's no such thing as a black petunia!")

And mushrooms that had some animal company:

Orange Salamander
Just hanging out with the Mushrooms

Giant Slug!

I even saw a pink/coral Indian Pipe, which is not really a mushroom, but grows in similar conditions:

Indian Pipe

Aren't they great?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Life Is Good: Ouch

"Many Hands Make Light Work." -Proverb

Fall is creeping up on us- and not too subtly, either. We have had several chilly nights already, and the wood stove is keeping us cozy.The humidity-eradicating side effect of the wood stove, cursed in previous years, is helping to ease the fall mold allergies that we all suffer from. The wood fire is driving the dampness out of the house, and the mold from this overly wet summer is dying off quickly- at least inside the house.

Of course wood fires need firewood, so the work begins. Big, strong, healthy Young Master Farmer can wield an ax or maul better than even his father or the very athletic neighbor next door. He mows through piles of wood like a scythe through grass. I loaded the wheel barrow with cut wood and moved it from one side of the yard to the other. Little Miss Farmer helped me stack the split wood and broke the dead treetop at the end of the street into kindling. The three of us had a very industrious operation going on, and we were very productive in just an hour and a half of work.

The Start of the Woodpile

Sadly, even an eight hour day of work for me usually means sitting at a desk and taking two to four short walks to the bathroom and perhaps three or four more to the printer or a co-worker's desk. That means that an hour and a half of bending, lifting, stacking, and breaking wood is a more than my soft body is used to. Ouch! It is a satisfying kind of ache, however. I earned it. There is a nice stack of drying wood and several buckets of kindling to show for it, and a cozy cabin to relax in afterwards.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Gardening: Potato Harvest

Little Miss Farmer
Helping the Potatoes Out of the Barrell

My previous post about growing potatoes was almost prophetic. The statement, "We don't exactly have huge potato crops each year," turned out to be a huge understatement when it came to the 2011 crop:

Yup. That's all of them.
We had a very rainy summer this year, and many of our plants suffered. One potato barrel yeilded only one small potato. The other gave the sad bowl of tubers seen above. It is barely enough for a single meal for the four of us. We may not even bother with them next year. I am considering repurposing those barrels and using them for flowers instead.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cooking: French Onion Soup

(No, I did not grow these.)
Last summer my Enabling Brother In Law dropped off bag after bag after bag of onions at my house. When I was bewailing my frustration over what on Earth am I going to do with all these onions, my other brother in law suggested I make onion soup. After all, that's what he was doing with the many bags of onions he was given at the same time! I had my fill of dicing and freezing onions at that point, so I was willing to try anything- even something as fancy as French Onion Soup.

I was kind of let down when I looked into the process for making French Onion Soup. After all, French Onion Soup is a big deal, right? In diners it is never the soup of the day. In fact, any restaurant that serves French Onion Soup charges extra for it- you cannot just get it as part of your meal. So, obviously French Onion Soup must be expensive and time-consuming to make, right?


Onions, as you know, are cheap. No, you do not need a special kind of onions. Broth is also cheap. You can make it yourself from leftovers. Butter isn't exactly out of the reach of the common consumer either. Most recipes call for some red or white wine, but it is not completely necessary, and chances are you have a little lying around. Bread? Cheese? So... where is the expense?

Time consuming? Not really. If you don't have a half hour to watch onions caramelize, you can even use the slow-cooker. Seriously.

Difficult? My kids could do this.

I'm not going to insult you with a recipe. Here's how you make French onion Soup:

Half and thinly slice a whole bunch of onions.

Saute slowly in butter until nice and soft and brown.

Add wine (optional).

Add beef broth (I have used other broths, still yummy), pinch of sugar, salt, pepper, thyme to taste.

Getting fancy? Serve in a heavy bowl with croutons or toast, top with cheese, and broil until brown.

Easy. Crazy easy. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Gardening: Final Tomato Harvest

Hurricane Irene passed by on Saturday, August 27, 2011. We are far enough inland and high enough in elevation that we had next to no damage, and the brief  3-hour power outage was a non-event, since we have a whole-house, standby generator to keep things running. The following week through the Labor Day weekend, however, was one of non-stop rain. The nearby creek flooded repeatedly. The opening of school was delayed by two days. Our Labor Day picnic was held under the gazebo in the downpour as we shivered and enjoyed good company and some of the best roast pork ever. My poor tomatoes, however, drowned.

It has been a pretty good tomato summer for us. The Lemon Boys came in first, then the red tomatoes came in. We had a tomato or two on hand at all times for several weeks- perfect for snacking and salads. When the sun finally came out the weekend after Labor Day, however, the plants were black, shriveled, and sagging.

It is hard to believe that our vegetable garden went from this...

May 2011

To this...

July 2011

To this...

September 2011
(How Sad!)

... in just a few months. Where did the summer go?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cooking: Scrapple

3  pounds processed pork parts
4  quarts broth
3  tbsp salt
4  tsp black pepper
2  tsp white pepper
1 1/2 tsp dried thyme
2  tsp rubbed sage
1  tsp ground savory
2  tsp granulated onion
3  tsp marjoram
1/8 tsp allspice
1/8 tsp nutmeg
3  cups corn meal
1  cup buckwheat flour

Making scrapple is actually more process than ingredients. The list of seasonings above, however, is the closest to the scrapple I remember in my youth. I am extremely proud of Mr. Farmer for working it out. The process usually takes us several days to complete.

The first step to making scrapple is the cooking of the first two ingredients: cooked pig parts and broth. Pork liver, tongue, etc. (basically anything you don't want to keep for the dogs - some people use snouts and such, but dogs LOVE those, so we don't) as well as bones with any meat left on them are boiled for hours and hours (sometimes we do this overnight) until fully cooked and meat is easily removed from the bones. The broth is strained off and put away to cool. The meat is sorted and separated to remove cartilage and excessive fat, then ground through a fine food mill.

When you're ready to cook, bring the broth and spices up to a near boil. Add the corn meal and the flour slowly. Once that is completely combined and smooth, add 3 pounds of the prepared meat. Simmer the scrapple low to medium low until the corn meal is soft and the flour is indistinguishable from the meat (they are about the same color, so we are talking about texture here). A slight increase in heat at the very end may be helpful. The mix is ready when a wooden or plastic spoon stands up on its own in the mixture.

Did you think I was kidding?

Once the mixture is fully cooked, pour into loaf pans and cool at least a full day (2 is better). Scrapple handles best when frozen and sliced. Fry it up - Thin and Crispy or Thick and Squishy - you decide.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pigs: Good Riddance

Back in the spring we purchased a number of pigs to flip. We got a good deal on them, and after a short visit, we resold them for about twice what we paid for them. We kept two gals from that purchase: one we had collected a deposit on for a freezer pig, and the other we promised to a local for a Labor Day picnic.
These two are the ones we refer to as the Houdini Sisters. When we had them in dog crates, they got out while we were away (click here for full story). When we tried to move them up with the breeders on the Beta Site, they got out of their pen and in with the breeders (full story), then later out into the yard. I guess we should have suspected they would be trouble. After all, they were related to Scooter, the precocious little runt piglet, who also had a penchant for escape (full story). So, to keep an eye on them, we moved them back to the house and put them on lock-down. They no longer escaped, but they took forever to grow!

At first we thought they were hungry. We fed them as much as and more than we fed the breeders. Tiffany needs only  a maintenance diet, and Mamas and Wilma need a bit more than that because they are nursing. When the Sisters failed to thrive, we wormed them more than once and gave them extra goodies from the dumpster. Still they cried and oinked and grunted almost constantly (a problem since they really shouldn't be at the house at all), and only put on a bare amount of weight. We were throwing away money feeding these two. It was time to cut our losses.

We had a big ham that we were going to cook for an end-of-summer picnic with our Pig Partner and family on Labor Day, but the buyer for the Labor Day Pig backed out. One thing led to another, and the two family picnic quickly turned in an event. A neighbor who complained about the pigs in our yard was quickly turned around when the person hearing the complaint responded, "The pig is at the house so that it can be served at the Labor Day Picnic. You're coming, aren't you?" The emails started flying, the phone started ringing, and the question, "What should I bring?" was handled over and over. Houdini Sister Number One was put down and dressed for whole roasting in the smokehouse. (Sister Number Two will be served at our Pig Partner's "Thanks For Helping Me Move" barbecue later.)

I am glad to see those noisy, under-performing pigs go. Our neighbor who put the deposit on the second pig is understanding and will wait for one of the new piglets to fatten for her freezer. The relief of being able to work in the garden without having to tiptoe so those two won't oink and squeal is a joy. I won't miss them at all. Good Riddance!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Off Topic: Blog Stats

I avoid checking my blog statistics too often. After all, this is a small blog, followed by like-minded people and people I actually know. I don't advertise; I don't go to Blog Hops, and I don't have enough followers on Twitter or Facebook to drive any real traffic here. I don't want to be disappointed when I see how few people are reading the blog that I put so much work into writing, so I usually keep my visits to the blog statistics page infrequent.

Imagine my delight when I recently saw that I had 159 views in one week! I just had to see what I had written that had caused such a buzz. Was it the usual front runner in my stats, the No Shell Egg post? No? It was the Piglet Castration post! I don't consider it my best work, and it certainly doesn't have the most compelling photos or any useful, step-by-step information. In fact, it is little more than a post about me complaining about how dirty and exhausting the process is, with just a sprinkle of me being proud of myself for actually helping out with the process. I must admit, I was surprised to see all those hits.

My curiosity got the better of me, and I just had to look further. Was I getting all those hits from web searches? No. Was I getting them from that "Link Within" widget on my own site? No. Then people must have been following a link from another site! Wait, I thought, that site name kind of sounds like... no, it couldn't be... (after visiting the referring site)... Good Lord... It's an ADULT site!!

(I guess it is clear now why I edited the name of the referring site out of the screen capture above.)

Apparently, since human castrations are illegal in this country except in cases of serious medical issues, there are a group of people out there who indulge their morbid curiosities by researching animal castrations. Again, since I removed the name of the site, I have the uncomfortable job of explaining that my post was of particular interest because I am a woman. (Shudders.)

The Internet is scary sometimes. Maybe I should stop looking at my stats altogether.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Off Topic: My September 11 Story

Everyone has a September 11 story, especially those of us in the Northeast. Since I have this blog, here's mine: ten years and 12 hours later.

Young Master Farmer was not quite six years old in September of 2001. We were between homes and living with my parents in the Lehigh Valley. He was home-schooled then, and we started our studies at 9 am. Before that, of course was the usual running around: breakfast, getting dressed, watching cartoons on the television. I believe Little Miss Farmer and I were watching Dora the Explorer or some other Nickelodeon show when the phone rang. My best friend from school was on the other end:

"Are you watching the news?"
"No, we are watching cartoons. (To myself: I have kids, silly thing.) Why?"
"An airplane just flew into the World Trade Center!"
"What? Was it an accident? (Of course it was an accident! What made me think that?)"
"I don't know, but it's bad. Turn it on."
"What channel?"
"ALL OF THEM!" (She almost squeaked.)

We watched the news like everyone else who was able at that time. When the second plane hit the second tower, my suspicions were confirmed. This was most definitely not the accident of the century. It was an attack!

Then the TV went black.

The home of my youth is situated nicely between New York City and Philadelphia. My whole life we had two of every TV station, even before we got cable. There were two ABCs and two NBCs and even two different PBS stations: One was from New York, and the other from Philadelphia. The only station we had just one of was the "local" station, which was actually from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (over an hour and a half away by car). Fortunately for us, this meant that we could still watch the news. The New York stations were gone, but the Philly stations remained. We watched over and over video of the second plane hitting, the smoke, the people screaming and scrambling, and the bodies falling (jumping?!?!) from those big buildings. When the first tower fell, the commentator fell silent for a moment then said, "I have no words."

We watched the coverage in stunned silence for what seemed like hours. Footage became available of the first plane. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon. The government reacted publicly. Another plane went down in rural Pennsylvania, and no one knew for sure why (did we shoot down one of our own planes?). I cancelled school, "because of a national emergency." Young Master Farmer was glad that he would not have to write his letters or do his math flash cards that day.

Little Miss Farmer was barely three years old. Recently diagnosed with PDD-NOS, an autistic spectrum disorder, she was not yet speaking, except to occasionally repeat us or read a word she knew from a book or song. I had not noticed that since we turned off the cartoons that she had been sitting there on the opposite couch, quiet, thoroughly engaged in the news that repeated that horrible scene for what seemed like hours but was really less than two. Her eyes were round and wide when I turned to look at her when she said, "Plane go boom." It might just have been her first sentence that she neither read from a book or repeated from one of us; I'm not sure, but I knew immediately that it was time to put the cartoons back on.

For the rest of the day, we shooed the children out of the living room when we watched the news. My office called and told me not to bother coming to work that afternoon as they would be closing for the day soon, but not to worry, as I would be paid for the shift nonetheless.  We learned of the terror plots, the bravery of the souls on the flight over Pennsylvania, and the panic in NYC. We watched millions of people walking across bridges back to New Jersey. We experienced difficulty using our phones. We felt pity for those trapped, lost, without news, TV, phone service. We cried and prayed for those who did not know if their loved ones were alive and for those who knew they were not.

You already know what happened next. There was grieving and bravery. There was fear and resolution. There was pain, and there was kindness. There were flags everywhere. And those of us with small children hoped that this war which seemed inevitable would be over before our little ones grew up and wanted to enlist in the military. I don't care if it's selfish; I really did the math in my head- twelve years and nine days until he's eighteen. Surely long enough to beat an enemy so small and so far away, even if they were evil enough to do all this.

That's my story. Thanks for listening.

A Pennsylvania Corn Field
October 2001

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Chickens: Dirty Eggs

It has been a very wet summer, and the chickens have not been able to dust-bathe, the poor things. They are dirty and ragged-looking. Their snow white feathers are thin, grey, and bedraggled. No matter how often we clean the run and coop, and no matter how much straw and grass we give them, we just can't keep them dry. As a result, with nowhere clean and dry to lay, their eggs are dirty, too.

I love dirty eggs! Little Miss Farmer has the job of feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs daily. Most days she brings them in, washes them right away, and leaves them to dry next to the kitchen sink. Some days, however, she leaves them in the bowl, still dirty, until the next morning. Sometimes, on those mornings, I can't help but grab the two least dirty eggs, dust them off, and have a treat of the freshest fried eggs ever. Unless you have tasted an egg that was laid yesterday (or today!), you probably wouldn't understand. I have a feeling that some of you do.

Some of Yesterday's Eggs

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chickens: Lazarus

Starting off with any animal project is going to be a chance for learning. It is one of my favorite things about raising animals or growing plants or learning a new food preservation technique. The correct amount and timing of food and water needs to be determined. Heat and cold must be accounted for. And all animals must somehow be contained so as not to be a nuisance, or destructive. We struggle with that last one from time to time.

One of our first sets of young chickens would rush the door to the brooder (a dog crate, reinforced with chicken and rat wire, perched on a wooden stand) when Young Master Farmer came to feed and water the little darlings. Alternately, perhaps he failed to close the door properly. One way or another, a young chicken had escaped, and we were worried for its safety. Mr. Farmer and I had to go out, so we left Young Master Farmer in charge of locating the loose chicken and returning it to the safety of the brooder while we were away. When we returned, we heard how the chicken had been killed by some animal, was removed from the back shed where it had tried to hide, and deposited in the trash. It was a somber dinner, and we were sad.

After dinner, Mr. Farmer went to look in on the chickens and replenish their water. When he approached the cage, he was surprised to see a chicken on the ground eating spilled feed! He counted the chickens in the cage, since he had secured the door himself the last time, and they were all accounted for ... the loose chicken had returned to life! He came into the house and told us all the story of Lazarus: The Chicken That Had Risen From the Dead.

Naturally it did not take long before Young Master Farmer confessed to his little white lie. Young chickens are very fast, and even when he had cornered it in the shed, he still could not catch it. He had grown tired of the chase, so he thought up the story of the dead chicken, figuring it would be the natural end for a ground bird so close to the edge of the woods. Lazarus blew the story when he came out and started hanging out under the brooder. Kids!

I don't remember which chicken was "Lazarus",
but this Bantam hen sure is pretty, right?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cooking: Homemade Mayo

We are a mayonnaise family. When I was a kid, I couldn't put my finger on what it was about my aunt's macaroni salad that made it so much better than my mother's until I found that she made it with mayo- not, well, you know.

I always knew mayo was made with eggs and oil, and we have had chickens for years now. I have been avoiding making my own, however, because I kept reading horror stories about stiff arms for days and mayo that wouldn't set or would separate within minutes of coming out of the fridge. In short, I was chicken. Then one magic day I found that you can make mayonnaise in the blender! It is super easy! Even with full-price (not on sale, no coupons) vegetable oil, making your own mayo is about a third of the price of buying it. I will soon start buying my oil by the case for even bigger savings.

Look how easy:

In a blender, thoroughly blend:
1 egg
1 tsp ground mustard
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
dash hot paprika
1/4 c oil

With blender still running, remove cover and add:

1/2 c oil

Once that is completely combined add:

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Let it blend and then:

1/2 c oil

That's it! I find the easiest way to get it out of the blender is to take off the blades, put the bottom into a wide-mouthed jar, and push the mayo into the jar with a rubber spatula. Now that wasn't so bad, was it?

NOTES: Yes, you can double the recipe, if you have a good strong blender. It will almost fill a standard mayonnaise jar if you do. You may need to use your spatula to help keep the blades running effectively, however. If you have a modern, $29.95 model blender (like one of mine is), you should probably stick to the small batches.

You can substitute vinegar for the lemon juice. I tried this and Mr. Farmer preferred the lemon.
You can use any red pepper of your choice for the paprika. Cayenne, Old Bay, etc. all work great.

Make your own gourmet mayo! Add a teaspoon of garlic powder, dried dill, or horseradish at the beginning of the recipe.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chickens: Pedro

As a rule, we do not name animals unless they live in the house with us. Pets get names, livestock does not. Our 19 chickens do not have names. Our 3 breeder pigs do, since they will be with us for quite a while, but they are an exception. We refer to most of the pigs by color (white, black & white, brown, rainbow), heritage (Mamas' "Tiffany Jr." , or Wilma's "Tiffany Jr." to differentiate between a couple piglets that look like their father), or purpose ("breeders" vs. "feeders"). Sure, we used to joke around, referring to our first three pigs as New Year's Eve, Super Bowl, and Fourth of July (followed shortly by Freezer and Dave's Pig, etc.), but naming animals is really only a recent change since our pig-partner's girlfriend came on the scene.

When we got our first set of day-old chicks, the children immediately wanted to name them. We tried to explain that some might not live, and that they were not pets, but they insisted. The two names that I remember from that first batch were Dirty Butt (there seems to be one of those in every batch of chickens) and Pedro.

The chicks were kept under cover to protect them from the elements and given a nice lamp to warm themselves under, but sadly, Pedro did not survive. The children were not to be deterred, however, so when we purchased our next set of chicks, they named another one Pedro.  Alas, poor Pedro did not survive. By the third set of starter chicks the children had learned their lesson, and they named none of the chicks that time.

It is common for day-old chicks not to survive. After all, they could have come with illness or injury already. They could be pecked to death by their cage-mates. They could be too stupid to stay under the light, or eat, or drink. So, when Mr. Farmer came in the house one chilly morning and announced that a young chick had died, the children, of course, asked, "Which one?" to which he replied, "Pedro, of course!"

All dead chickens are now called Pedro.

I'm Pretty Sure that One of These is Pedro...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thrift: Best Coupon Haul So Far

You know how weight loss ads usually have small print at the bottom that read, "Results Not Typical- Your Results May Vary"? Those Extreme Couponing shows should have the same disclaimer. Getting the great deals like they show on TV takes a lot more time and work than they would like you to believe. Many steps in the process are left out. When they say, "So-And-So's six hour shopping trip netted her $625 worth of groceries for $18," you hear "$625" and "$18" but did you hear "six hour shopping trip?" I bet you missed that one, didn't you? I'm going to give you the details of my best coupon stock-up deal to date, the good and the bad.

The Deal:

  • ShopRite had a special "Advantage" deal where the register printed out a $5 coupon and a free reusable shopping bag coupon for your next order for each 6 qualifying items you purchase.

The Steal:
  • Many of the qualifying items were less than $1 each with the regular sale price or coupons. With the right combinations of items, you could end up getting a lot of things for free, nearly free, or tax only.
  • That $5 coupon printed out as soon as the 6th item scanned, not at the end of the transaction, so it could be used on the same transaction!

The Catch:

  • Many of the items had limits on the number you can purchase at the special price. That means that in order to stock up and make use of the deal multiple times, you need to make multiple trips or multiple orders (something they gloss over on TV). This takes time to do, and it can be embarrassing. 

The Plan:

  • Qualifying toilet paper was 4/$3 (must buy 4). Qualifying tissues were $0.99.  A set of 4 rolls and 2 boxes would be $4.98 and the 6 items would return a $5 coupon and a free shopping bag.
  • Qualifying pasta was 8/$10 (must buy 8). I had coupons for those which doubled to $1 off each box, making the price 8/$2, and yielding a $5 coupon and a free shopping bag. CHA-CHING!$!$!
  • To keep within the limits, the TP/tissue combo could only be done twice per transaction. To be able to use the two $5 coupons on the same transaction, the total had to exceed $10 in merchandise (not tax), so I added a packet of Kool-Aid to get the total up.
  • Lost yet? OK, here's the fun part...

The Haul:

Actually, This Isn't All of It
  • 40 Rolls of Toilet Paper
  • 20 boxes of Tissues
  • 20 boxes of Pasta
  • 11 Re-Usable Shopping Bags
  • 4 packets of Kool-Aid
  • 2 packs of Paper Napkins (regular price, non-qualifying... I just needed them)
  • Retail Price (including sales, but not coupons): $75+
  • TOTAL COST: $5.92

How My Results Varied:

  • At some point during the scanning of my coupons, the coupon bin did not register one of the free shopping bag coupons. Having been distracted, I thought perhaps I had not placed it in the box, so I inserted another identical coupon in its place. In the end, only 9 coupons for shopping bags counted instead of 11. Loss: $1.98.
  • This deal took 6 orders to complete. I spent about an hour and a half in the store between the 2 visits.
  • I was so tired after this trip that I did NOT visit another store that had something else I needed on sale. I missed out on that deal because of it.
  • The next day I went to a different store for items for dinner as well as a few things we had run out of. I spent $35 on 9 items.

So there you have it: Coupons in The Real World. Of course this is one example, and there are people who spend all their time doing this. It really did feel good to spend a nickel on each item, and to have the peace of mind to know that I won't have to buy them again for a while. It is work, however, and does not work every time without fail. I guess I won't be buying tissues or toilet paper for a while - unless they are on sale and I can stack that sale with a coupon! 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Life Is Good: Cucumber Salad

It is the simple things in life that make me happy. A sunny day after a week of rain is a joy. A rainy afternoon after a heat wave is bliss. A salad made from cucumbers, tomatoes, and chives from my garden (with salt as the only dressing) is a summer treat beyond any other.

That’s right: the late summer harvest is upon us. It is cucumber and tomato time. Rhubarb pie dreams and died-herb fantasies will soon become reality. I’ve traded fresh eggs for a pile of fresh eggplant from a friend who lives farther down the mountain. The green peppers are small and thin-fleshed, but they are plentiful beyond our expectations. So far it doesn’t look like I will have enough cucumbers come ready at once to put up pickles this year, but there are more than enough for salads, snacks and sandwiches all August long!

I can't look at that picture without starting to sing the opening theme to "Veggie Tales." I hope your gardens are bringing you as much joy as mine are!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pigs: Assisting with Castrations

The Farmer is many things. He is Father to his children and Husband to his wife. He is Steward to his land. He is Master to his dog. To his animals, he is chef, housemaid, and protector. Sometimes, however, he is also the veterinarian. This time, I had the honor of assisting him with castrating the piglets.

Castrating piglets is hard work! Mr. Farmer had to keep his hands clean for the operation, so Young Master Farmer and I had to handle the piglets. He would snatch up a piglet, hand it over the fence to me where Mr. Farmer had set up a station in the vestibule. Then, while I pinned down the baby on my lap and held its mouth shut so it couldn't cry too loud, YMF would run interference between the very concerned adult pigs and the gate. You would be surprised how strong a 2 week old piglet is! It took all my strength to hang on to those wiggly suckers while Mr. Farmer made the incisions, removed the testicles, and sprayed a silver liquid bandage on their bottoms! Three times I handed the completed pigs back to Young Master Farmer, and they were returned to the family without incident (except that Surprise got a little bit of liquid bandage on her nose out of curiosity). I had to take a break to catch my breath between operations!

The two to the left were just castrated.
See the silver liquid bandage?
The brown one on the right is Surprise, a female.

Finding the last male piglet was a challenge. Wilma's litter had been castrated the previous week with our pig-partner in the position I was filling. That left just Mama's four male babies that needed the operation. We checked bottoms to find the one last piglet that remained intact, and Young Master Farmer guessed wrong several times! When we finally found him, he was the least wiggly and quietest of the bunch. I was so relieved when it was over.... and I was so dirty!!

I'm Covered in Mud, Poo, Pee, and Liquid Bandage.
See Why Mr. Farmer Couldn't Touch Piglets?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thrift: Dumpster Diving

There was a time, not so long ago, when grocery store managers and employees happily set aside their spoiled baked goods and produce. They liked the idea that it didn't go to waste. They might have even been a little jealous because they didn't have animals of their own that they could give those scraps to. But when the rumor started going around that a certain Mom and Pop eatery was taking away the scraps and serving them to paying customers, our friendly green-grocers became less helpful. I cannot blame them for wanting to stay out of the scandal, gossips being the way that they are. So, once again, we are the victims of small-town boredom and small-mindedness.

So now we must dumpster dive. The grocery store managers and clerks tip us off to when the trash has gone out, and we help ourselves. The permission saves us from any legal difficulty we could face; the pigs get their goodies, and the store staff can avoid any drama. It sounds like a perfect arrangement except for one small issue: Mr. Farmer has a bee sting allergy.

Two times in less than two weeks he was stung by dumpster-loving buzzers.  The first was on Little Miss Farmer's birthday. He was stung on the eyelid, and he finished his chores before coming home. It was at least forty-five minutes before he finally got a Benadryl, and the swelling was pretty intense. He was in bed all of Miss Farmer's birthday and mine, and it was sad to see. The next sting was on his arm, and he got his medicine sooner, but he was still pretty uncomfortable because of it. Multiple stings could actually be dangerous for him, as I have seen in the past, and now I feel that I need to worry every time he announces that it is dumpster diving day.

They Pollinate the Cucumbers,
and They Make Mr. Farmer Swell Up

So, we take our chances. The extra food is a great treat for the pigs, and they love it. It saves us a few bucks on feed, which is starting to get pretty intense now that we have so many of them. The baby pigs are even eating the produce now. You can't beat free!

The Piglets Love the Watermelon!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Skunk Wars: Part Three

That's right, this means war. I like skunks, I really do, but the fact that this one has eluded us for so long is getting to me. Now it's personal.

(In case you missed it, the stories of our previous attempts to catch the skunk(s) can be seen here: Part 1 - Opossum and here: Part 2 - Raccoon. If you don't feel like going back and clicking the links, here's a quick summary for you: I saw a skunk. We put out a trap. We caught a 'possum. We put the trap out again. We caught a raccoon. To be continued...)

We put the trap out again. And again. And again. The other day I thought I heard the trap rattling. It had not been checked that day, so I walked around and around trying to find it. I couldn't find it, but I heard a strange sound. There was scratching, and metal clinking, and water splashes. I followed the sound to a 55 gallon drum. I peeked carefully inside, through the spiderwebs that covered the top of the barrel, just over the edge in case it was something that could jump or bite or... gulp... spray me. When I finally got the guts to pull off the webs and look over the edge I saw.....

A soaking wet chipmunk.

The trap had been dragged off by some large animal. We dumped the chipmunk out and gave it its freedom, and reset the trap. That evening, when looking for Mr. Farmer right after dark, the fluffy white skunk walked right behind me. I swear I felt her little fuzzy tail brush against my heels. When I told Mr. Farmer of her brazenness, he told me she had hissed at him earlier in the day, and that he figured she was expecting. I went to bed a little freaked out, but with great hopes that we would catch her for sure. What pregnant animal could resist the DOUGHNUT we had baited the trap with? The next morning we checked it and FINALLY....

A neighbor's cat. Pole cat? Nope. House cat. Mr. Farmer released it before I could get a photo. I was more than a little disappointed about that. Then, to add insult to injury, he loaned the trap to a friend, dashing my hopes for skunk capture prior to reproduction.

So, for now, this story is still "to be continued." Arriving home late from work yesterday I watched the entire skunk family trot across my tomato garden in the light of my headlights. First the proud, sleekly black-tailed Papa, whom I had not seen before. Next came the fluffy white Mama with two black kittens in tow. They ducked under the house, and Mr. Farmer has vowed to put chicken wire reinforcements under the front porch to keep them out from underneath. Hopefully they will just move on. Otherwise, I guess we'll have to set that trap... again...


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cooking: The Cake

Little Miss Farmer turned thirteen on July 19, 2011. When I asked her what kind of cake she wanted, she said she wanted a "Portal Cake". I knew what Portal was: it is what I consider one of the better video games available these days. You have to make your way through puzzles by creating portals with a gun that shoots virtual holes for you to pass through. Your motivation to proceed to the end of the game is cake. The children shout that "The Cake Is A Lie" over and over because apparently, if you get to the cake in the game, any attempt to retrieve it results in death of your character. Such an epic story could only end with a spectacular cake (and MY cakes tend to be delicious, not beautiful), so imagine my relief when I looked up a screenshot of the cake online and found this:

The Cake, as Seen in the Game "Portal"

Oh yeah. I got this. Further research showed that the cake was 3 layers and chocolate. So I made my famous chocolate cake from scratch (recipe below) twice, so that I would have 4 layers. We snacked on the extra layer while we waited for the final product to be ready. Once the layers were baked and cooled, I cut the tops off so they would be nice and flat like the cake from the game.

Tops Sliced Off
Then, since I needed to make white icing for the blobs on top, and since the only pictures of the inside of the cake are black and white so it is hard to tell what color the filling is, I stacked up the 3 layers with white buttercream icing between (recipe also below). Did I mention that I love buttercream icing? It is so easy to make and amazingly delicious.

At This Point I was Wondering
If the Glass Dome Would Fit.
It Didn't.
Next I frosted the outside with dark chocolate icing (you guessed it, recipe below).

Chocolate Icing Added

A closer look at the screenshot shows that the cake has some texture to the outside. It is unclear as to what causes that texture. I have seen chocolate shavings and cookie crumbs used for that purpose, but I went with chocolate chips.

Encrusted with Chocolate Chips
Then I added the final decoration: the white icing blobs and cherries. All done! (Four Hours Later!)

How Did I Do?

I am pleased with the result. Of course I have made this cake as a simple two-layer, extra-chocolaty deal on a number of occasions, usually just sprinkled with a little this or that as appropriate for the occasion. I have filled it with strawberry preserves or whipped peanut butter. The cake itself is easy and I have been accused of buying it or using a box on more than one occasion. But seriously, this cake (in its basic form, not the craziness I did with it for Little Miss Farmer's birthday), is a piece of cake to make (pun intended!).

The Cake


2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Cocoa powder (Dark is best)
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup hot coffee


1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans.

2. Sift together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes (or by hand until smooth). Stir in hot coffee (batter will be strangely thin). Pour batter into prepared pans.

3. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks (Or clean towels). Cool completely before frosting.

The Chocolate Icing


1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Melt butter in the microwave or in a small pan on the stove. Stir in cocoa. Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating to spreading consistency. Add small amount additional milk, if needed. Stir in vanilla.

Makes about 2 cups frosting.

The ButterCream Icing
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter (softened)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar (approximately 1 lb.)
2 tablespoons milk


 In large bowl, cream shortening and butter with electric mixer. Add vanilla. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl often. When all sugar has been mixed in, icing will appear dry. Add milk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Keep bowl covered with a damp cloth until ready to use.