Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thrift: A Case of Green Beans

Someone had scribbled "2/16" on the side of this case of green beans. The actual date, however, was 2/20. I was going to need to act quickly.

I opened the crate of beans expecting the worst. They had been given to us to feed to the pigs, but I love green beans, so I was really hoping I could salvage some of them for human consumption. On first glance, they looked marginal: the color was not very bright, and they had small brown lines on them. I grabbed one and bit it. Much to my delight, it was sweet and still crunchy. One or two of them tasted a little starchy, but they were edible. I set to work almost immediately.

Some vegetables can be cleaned and frozen directly, but most- including green beans- need blanching first. I did not consider directly freezing them for even a moment. They were from an unknown source and in just barely usable condition. So I set my biggest stock pot on the stove to boil. I also prepared an ice water bath in a stainless steel bowl to stop the cooking once I took the beans out of the water.

While the water heated up, I cleaned the beans. I started just squatting in the kitchen with a pair of scissors and 2 bowls: a small one to catch the snipped off stems, and a large one to accept the beans. After 15 minutes or so, however, I realized that the process was a bit slower than I thought it was going to be. I was able to remove the stems from a large salad bowl's worth of beans in that time, but it was too much on my back. Plus, the dog kept sneaking up behind me and stealing beans out of the crate, one by one, while I worked! So I loaded a grocery bag full of beans, latched the crate tight, and moved the operation to the living room.

The living room setup was easier on my back, and I was better able to defend the beans from the dog, but I still ran out of steam before I made much of a dent in that crate. I blanched the whole, cleaned beans for a minute and a half per bowlful, then plunged them into the ice water bath. I had to add more ice to the bath a few times. Then I patted them dry with a clean towel and packed them into gallon-sized freezer bags.

Day Two was lost to sloth, unfortunately, as the couch was too comfy and the movie on TV too interesting, so Day Three was my last chance at salvaging some of the green beans. I put the water on to boil, set up the ice water bath, and set up shop at the coffee table again.  This time I snipped off both ends and cut each bean across the middle for smaller cut beans. It was slower work, since I had to pick around some moldy and soft beans, sorting out only the ones that were suitable for eating. It didn't take long before I gave up and started blanching and cooling and drying and packing into quart-sized freezer bags. With less than a third of the case processed, I had to relinquish my beloved green beans to the pig feed stash.

The Final Yield was 5 Gallon-Size and 2 Quart-Size Freezer Bags of Green Beans

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thrift: An Introduction to Food Preservation

Sooner or later, the matter of thrift was going to come up. My family isn't a wealthy, well-to-do bunch of hippies that is experimenting with a lifestyle just for our own amusement. Most of the things we do because we feel that we need to do them. We behave in ways that support our beliefs: family, community, hard work, faith. Thrifty living is one of those things.

**** History ****

My skills of food preservation are legendary. They started back in 1997. Young Master Farmer was just 2 years old, and I was staying at home raising him. We lived in an antique store in Maryland, which I minded while Mr. Farmer worked. With an average of 2-3 customers per week, I really spent most of my time chasing the toddler around once everything in the store had been arranged. Mr. Farmer, on the other hand was busy at work cooking and delivering meals to a string of non-profit daycare centers. Once again, he was my inspiration.

The non-profit status of the daycare system gave us access to a local food pantry, where marginal groceries could be obtained at an unbelievably low prices. Cereal was purchased by the pound (box weight included) for pennies. Produce was sold for $5 per item- as much as you can carry of that item. So about once a week Mr. Farmer would cook, load up the van, deliver the food, then go to the food pantry and fill up the van again.

Children are not as fond of fresh vegetables as they should be. So sometimes there would be far more than could be logically used, or the boss might veto a particular dish that Mr. Farmer had planned. In these scenarios, case after case of borderline-spoiled produce would arrive in my kitchen, and with a quick kiss Mr. Farmer was off and running again.

The first was eggplant. In spite of his assurances that the children would assume it was meat once it was fried and covered in sauce, the boss refused. So, I began breaking it down. I sorted out the completely spoiled eggplants and put them aside. I cubed the partially spoiled and froze the cubes for use later in veggie sauce and Ratatouille. And the best eggplants were sliced thin and frozen or breaded, fried, and frozen for later use in Eggplant Parmesan. The tops and spoiled parts were put aside and delivered the following day to a local farm animal rescue where a very greedy pig was waiting. This process continued for months until I had preserved nearly every type of vegetable and fruit imaginable.

Leaving Maryland did not mean the end of my preserving career. Shortly after we settled in the mountains in PA, Mr. Farmer's brother came to live with us for a while after the passing of his boss/landlord of the previous 24 years. He came to be employed across the street from a large flea market, and frequently worked on Sunday. So nearly every Sunday, all season long, he would bring home whatever produce the vendors had not sold and were ready to sell at a loss. One day he brought 2 flats of strawberries, and we made Strawberry Pie, Strawberry Jam, and Frozen Strawberry Topping. A tall box of sweet red peppers was purchased for $2; the sliced/diced and frozen peppers from that box lasted a year! Three flats of cucumbers yielded gallon after gallon of every kind of pickles imaginable- and my new found love for pickling anything.   All at no cost to me, and very little cost to my brother-in-law.

Yes, there is a trade off of time for money when reclaiming nearly-spoiled and cast-off food. I invested in a mandolin slicer to save my poor fingers from the many knife blisters I have endured. Many a Sunday afternoon has been spent cooking and processing rather than relaxing. But the rewards are immeasurable: a homemade product, a lack of waste, and a savings of cash!

Preview: My Next Preservation Project
Details Soon!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Off Topic: Searching For Myself

I was reading an article recently that pointed out how a certain company had registered terms and phrases related to homesteading in urban situations as trademarks. The article spelled out how a number of cease and desist letters had been sent to bloggers and other authors using their trademarked terms, and how legal action was actually possible under these circumstances. There was even some controversy, as the terms are apparently common enough that numerous bloggers were using them, and a book had actually been published some 10 years ago with one of those terms in the title!

I had never really thought about the idea of trademarking, especially since almost no one reads my blog. I didn't even really consider the fact that perhaps the term "Stealth Farming" was clever or original. After all, the revelation of the Stealth Bomber in the days of my youth was such a dramatic one that in my generation's lexicon almost anything done secretly or even quietly was referred to as being done in "stealth mode". This article made me think, "Is this movement so widespread that I need to think about a copyright, or even a registered trademark?"

Naturally, all I could do next is a little research to see if the term "Stealth Farming" was actually original. So I visited a few search engines and found that maybe it is! The majority of results from that search were related to the kind of video games where you build your own world, and the farming was actually more of a code word for stealing. I was lead to a few blogs that were similar to my own, where "stealth" and "farming" were used in the same post, but not as a term in and of itself. Oddly, though many blogs were displayed and many of them were from this very same blog-hosting service, mine did not come up in any search engine (but that is an issue for another time). Perhaps my name is original after all!

Mr. Farmer thinks registering a trademark is a good idea. After all, there are a number of blogs like mine out there, and this country continues to grow in population. The more realistic sustainability movement is overtaking the pie-in-the-sky "green" movement on a daily basis. Additionally, this current weak economy is driving folks to creativity regarding how to stay afloat until this passes. Americans are endlessly creative and determined people. Adapting to the changes in the world by combining old technology with new- and combining agriculture with the need to house large numbers of people in limited space- might just be the way of the future. Maybe we won't even need to do it in stealth by the time my grandchildren are on their own. Until then, I'll be keeping the term Stealth Farming. Don't expect a cease and desist letter any time soon, though.

Stealth Pig???

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pigs: So Many Pigs!

How did this happen?!?!  How did I end up with 9 pigs in my yard?

FIVE Male Pigs!
As previously mentioned, we acquired 5 pigs just prior to Christmas at a great price. Some were for breeding, the others for eating. As soon as word got out that we had a few to raise up, the offers came in from family and friends who wanted to board pigs with us. So Mr. Farmer called back that seller and asked if he was willing to sell more. He was. In no time we had purchased another SIX male pigs! So, for several weeks, there were ELEVEN pigs on my tiny, less-than-a-third-acre property. 

Two of the males in the second batch were intact, so we traded one of the intact males to another breeder we know. In the spring, we will receive two females in trade. Subtract that one and the one we presented at the Super Bowl Party, and now there are nine.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hillbilly Ingenuity: Collecting Maple Sap

I'm in my second pair of socks of the day, and it is only just after lunch. With a cup of tea in hand and a nice warm fire in the cast-iron wood stove, I am relaxing after the midday adventure. I took the day off from my paying job today, and the weather outside is mild compared to the crazy winter weather of the past few weeks. So, naturally, I agreed to join Mr. Farmer in his newest experiment - tapping maple trees for sap.

After the usual Surveying of The Realm, I followed Mr. Farmer to the first tree. He tapped it last week, while the weather was still below freezing. The process is pretty low-tech (surprise, surprise): you drill a hole in a tree, jam a tap into it, and hang a bucket from the tap to catch the sap that runs out when the weather first gets above freezing for the spring.  In this case, the tree is just to the side of the house, along the well-trodden path between our house and our neighbor's that the children use to go back and forth. The tap was purchased at the local feed store, and the bucket was a standard 5 gallon from a major hardware/home improvement store that you may have heard of.

Day After Tapping - Sap Frozen in the Tap

We collected a full gallon of clear, watery sap from that first tree. It is quickly proving to be our best producer. Using a clean, bleached gallon milk jug and a plastic funnel, we emptied the bucket into the jug and capped it off. I was extremely pleased, since a gallon in a day is very good, considering you need FIFTY gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup!

Then we moved on to the other trees. After stowing the full jug and picking up an empty one, I followed Mr. Farmer down the path several feet before he turned and said, "Uh, oh. You are going to go right down through the snow. I had better do these myself." I already had snow inside my muck shoes, and it was rapidly melting and soaking my socks. I chose to press on behind him. The second tree had a large, plastic coffee can collecting the sap, and it was nearly full. The third- adorned with an approximately gallon sized, bright green cracker tin- had a fair amount in it as well. Those two trees yeilded about a half gallon of sap- and some very chilly toes.

Mr. Farmer would rather eat his pancakes and waffles with butter alone than ever put artificially flavored "pancake syrup" to his lips. I'm a little less particular, but I am still very excited about the prospect of our own homemade maple syrup... even if it does mean I have to get my feet wet.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Pigs: Preparing the Super Bowl Pig



Yesterday was a very cold February day, and the Super Bowl is this weekend. Slaughtering pigs in the winter is business as usual for us, since we often avoid keeping them in the summertime for reasons of offensive odor. The process is slightly complicated by the extreme cold, but Mr. Farmer and his current partner are hardy men. Three days is the minimum acceptable lead time between slaughter and cooking, so yesterday was the day- whether the weather cooperated or not.

The selected beast was a barrow (neutered male) of about 16 weeks of age. More than sufficient to feed the 20-30 guests we are expecting (with leftovers!), it was among the youngest and smallest we have at the moment. Its diet was one primarily of corn and alfalfa pellets, supplemented with vegetable table scraps and eggs. It was wormed a few weeks ago and had a clean bill of health.

We find the so-called Kosher-kill somewhat distasteful. Instead we use a variation of what is commonly called the "pithing" method. A small caliber firearm is placed to the animal's head and fired. The pig is immediately lobotomized and drops to the ground. Then the large artery in the neck is cut (or "stuck"- as it is often called) and all motion stops in less than a minute. Unlike the Kosher-kill, only the artery is cut, and not the windpipe. To do so would be noisy, messy, and unpleasant. Even small piglets, whose thin skulls make pithing ineffective (the bullet travels straight through without severing the brain stem), are only stuck through the main artery, never the windpipe.

The state of the animal at the time of its slaughter has significant effect on the meat, so a quick kill is not only humane, but also advantageous. If the beast is stressed,  like any mammal, the intense activity causes a build up of lactic acid in the large muscles of the body. Lactic acid is not delicious, and- in an animal destined for butcher- is even inconvenient to clean up. I have first hand experience in both butchering and eating a pig that had to be wrangled for a significant amount of time in order to put it down, and the difference in quality was obvious. The commercial practice of hanging pigs live for several minutes or longer, then Kosher-killing them, is unacceptable. A peaceful passing is best for everyone.

Some animals are for companionship, others are for consuming.

After the pig is dispatched, the real work begins. A pig destined to be roasted whole is a little more work than one to be butchered. First, it gets a good bath with soap and lots of good, clean, cold water. Then the hair is removed though a labor-intensive and repetitive process of dipping in boiling water (it takes longer to boil that water than it does to process the pig),  or laying sand bags dipped in boiling water on the skin, then scraping with a sharp knife. It is much like shaving a man's whole body- if all of his body hair was bristly like an old man's beard. If the pig was to be displayed, such as at a picnic or outdoor party, Mr. Farmer would even take a razor to the harder to reach places, like around the snout.

Once sufficiently cleaned, the entrails are removed. The process could be an entire essay of its own. In short, the pig is hung by the rear legs, and is cut around the anus. The anus is then tied off with twine. Another incision is made from tail to chin, and the digestive tract is removed in its entirety, then tied off at the esophagus and discarded. Heart, lungs, liver, etc. are then removed, and the chest cavity is washed again with cool water. Organ meat is sometimes discarded, but more often it is put aside for use in scrapple or dog food. The prepared pig is then wrapped in a clean trash bag to help prevent drying out and hung in the walk-in refrigerator to rest.

With practice, the process is a half-day's work, not counting the time it takes the water to boil. Since any meat is most delicious roasted whole instead of in parts, this will be a very special treat. I wish I had time to make homemade apple sauce....