Monday, May 30, 2011

Pigs for butcher

I am not a crazed animal rights activist or even 100% vegetarian. Yeh yeh, meat is tasty, I get it. We have to kill animals to get the meat, got that too. I mean, what is Memorial day without a grill out? And what is a grill out without ribs, or steak and BBQ chicken? All I'm trying to say is why not allow whatever animal you're eating to live a somewhat normal life before it's killed and butchered?

If you eat pigs, you should at least treat them well; seems kind of logical and basic to me. I choose not to eat pork or any meat unless I know where it came from and the basics of the life it lived. What a lot of people don't know is that pigs are smart animals and if properly cared for are clean and good-natured often making for wonderful pets. It is easy as an American with so many food options to put out of our mind's the actual process of raising livestock and butchering it. Ignorance is bliss and until about 5 years ago I was happy with being ignorant. I can't recall what woke me up to the truth of industrial farming. Those creepy pictures PETA puts out never effected me, reading Charlotte's Web really only made me hungry for a pork sandwich and I never shed one tear for Bambi's dad. Maybe it was browsing the grocers meat section and thinking $2.50 for an entire pack of chicken legs and thighs, that's like 5 chickens, how is that even possible!? Something didn't seem right with that scenario...

Whatever it was, once you see the reality of industrial farm to plate its disgusting, its horrifying and I cannot believe it's legal.  I'm not against grilling a steak on a nice summer day and my particular weakness is pork in any form; whether it be chicharrĂ³n, bacon, pulled pork or spicy chorizo sausage. There is no denying pork's tastiness. But every American has a vote: It is with their fork. Every time you purchase industrial farmed meat you are casting your vote that it is OK how their livestock is raised. If everyone refused to eat meat that was not sustainably farmed, then the industry would be forced to change.

Would you place 50 puppies in a 20 x 20 cemet floored pen with just food and water and 'grow' them until they are around 3-4 months old to butcher? Or how about your beloved cats? Would it be fair to place 100 cats in an enclosed pen until they are fat enough to dress out with little to no sunlight and very little human interaction? So why do we allow this to happen to cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other livestock? My favorite argument to this: "because they are tasty." Well, for a few dollars more you can purchase meat that has been sustainably farmed and support an industry that respects the livestock it raises. The product of sustainable farming is also more nutritious, better tasting and overall better for the workers and the environment in which it was raised. And best of all, you can have that 12oz NY Strip steak guilt free and with much less of a risk of e coli contamination or harmful bacteria.

Basic pig shelter with a large fenced area
Choosing to raise your own livestock can save you money and also give you the benefit of raising the animals how you think they should be treated; that is if you have the room and the time for such an endeavor. Alternatively, any local meat markets offer sustainably raised livestock if you ask and Whole Foods and Trader Joe's of course carry a wide selection and are willing to educate you on what they offer. In my opinion it is best to meet a local farmer and purchase directly from them - this allows you to see the conditions first hand that the livestock was raised, gives you a personal connection with the farmer and will also generate local business while potentially saving you money. Buying local reduces the carbon footprint by removing most of the cost and effort of transportation, packaging and processing.
Basic pig shelter in the woods

Over the weekend my husband and dad built my mom a pig pen and she had 2 piglets delivered from a local farmer that she will raise and butcher in the fall. My parents are also concerned about the environment in which their food comes from and have been wanting to start a small backyard farm for a while now. We helped build her a coop and gave her 6 hens earlier this year so she could begin collecting eggs, the next most natural step was for her was to get pigs. Better her than me right now, I need an example so I can see if I have what it takes to raise and butcher an animal. It's so easy to forget that that is how food arrives in grocery stores and restaurants: Oh yeh, you actually have to kill and process an animal in order to eat it - surprise, there is no magic!
Only little for now!

Hampshire/Duroc cross piglets. Pretty cute!

Just this year my husband and I invested in 7 hens (well, now 6 since 'Big Bertha' actually turned out to be a rooster, re-named as 'The Bishop Don Juan') so that we could enjoy free range organic eggs year round. I have considered purchasing 2 pigs to butcher in fall for profit and our own consumption, but to be honest, I just don't know if I can kill a pig I raised and watched grow from an adorable piglet. 

I feel like when the time comes to take one of the pigs lives, as long as I remember how much more respectful the life of my pig was than the life of one that was raised inhumanely and I just ignore that fact and buy off the store shelf, then I will have the courage to do the job that needs to be done and hopefully I will ultimately feel really good about the entire process and what I have learned. It won't hurt that those 2 pigs will also be damn tasty.

Make your vote count.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lentil "meatloaf" with fresh sage

Lentil meatloaf; looking like the real thing.
On the way home in my carpool yesterday I mentioned I was attempting a meatless meatloaf (what's the point huh?). I was stating this out loud in an attempt to convince myself that maybe it would be good; I gotta say I wasn't buying it though. Frankly it sounded gross a little bland and not like meatloaf at all. But I consider myself an adventurous cook and have wanted to try a meatless meatloaf recipe for a while now. I used to love meatloaf and mashed potatoes, a taste I have found difficult to replace since I've become a 90% vegetarian. We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up so it was a rare 'treat' to have a meal that consisted of more than 30% meat. Meatloaf night was always exciting. Usually my mom would buy a package of ground beef and spread it out between like 10 meals to make it last. It was only once every two months or so that she would use the whole package of meat for one delicious meal: meatloaf. I can't say I get excited over meatloaf like I did when I was 8, but it is a comfort food; a slight reminder that we weren't completely poor back when I was a kid (though my worn out LA Gears probably gave another impression). A reminder that maybe my life was like the other kids I went to school with who ate steak and potatoes on the regular and grilled large portions of meat for sport. I appreciate my upbringing now that realize it was healthier and has made me more appreciative of meatless dishes. The 8 year old version of me at the time was not so impressed.

I never tell my husband what I'm making as I cook it. I requested that he cook lentils in vegetable broth and cook brown rice for it to be ready when I get home and I would finish dinner. If I leave it a mystery, he can't pass judgment before he tries it - it took about 3 years for me to learn this handy trick. I recommend it for both husbands and children ('communication is the key' is marriage BS).

I always just guestimate when I add ingredients to a dish, but here is more or less the recipe I used for lentil "meatloaf". Make modifications where you deem necessary.
  • 1 cup dry lentils
  • 3 cups vegetable broth (I prefer organic low sodium)
  • 1 1/2 cups of cooked brown rice
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 clove of garlic minced
  • 2 tablespoons Olive oil
  • 1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs (thats the only kind I had in the cupboard)
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 BBQ sauce
  • 2-4 tablespoons ketchup (definitely organic ketchup!)
  • 1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon Cumin
  • Chopped sprig of fresh sage (about 1 loose tablespoon)
    So excited to already have sage in the garden!
  • Salt and pepper to taste
My husband cooked the lentils in the 3 cups of vegetable broth. I strained and saved the vegetable broth once the lentils were done to save for vegetable gravy.

Mash the lentils until half of them are mashed, leave a few whole for texture.

In a saute pan cook the garlic and chopped onion in the 2 tablespoons of Olive oil just until the onions become slightly translucent (5-ish minutes). You could also add some mushrooms and green pepper to this if you prefer. I added a little salt and pepper at this time too.

Lentil rice mixture with fresh sage from the garden
In a large bowl mix the lentils, cooked rice, onion/garlic mixture, breadcrumbs, flour, egg, BBQ sauce, mustard, cumin, some salt and pepper and sage. I also squeezed in about 2 tablespoons of ketchup just because I was on a roll.

Press this mixture into a bread pan and to the best of your ability spread some ketchup over the top to make it look pretty.

Cook @350 degrees for an hour. I only cooked mine for 40 minutes and it wasn't as firm as I wanted. I recommend the full hour and also allowing it to cool for 10-15 minutes after you take it out of the oven for it to firm up a bit. 

The Shed BBQ Sauce. Pure Magic.
I was so shocked how delicious this really was. I think I even used some explicit language with the reaction of the first bite. I think some of the incredible flavor attributed to the BBQ sauce I used; we recently went down to Mississippi and had dinner at The Shed. A local favorite in Ocean Springs, MS. I used the BBQ sauce we purchased and brought home from the trip. Highly recommended. If you make this dish, use a quality BBQ sauce, it really does make a difference.

On the side I made mashed Yukon Gold potatoes with vegetable gravy. For the gravy I just sauteed some mushrooms, garlic and onions in olive oil and about 2 tablespoons of butter. I added some fresh sage, salt and quite a bit of pepper. When the onions and mushrooms were cooked through I added in the remaining 2 or so cups of vegetable broth that I cooked the lentils in, well mixed with 3 tablespoons of whole wheat flour. Continually stirring until thick. Who says vegetarian can't be comfort food?

And the leftovers? Slathered a little more of that magic BBQ sauce with a slice of lentil loaf on a whole wheat bun for a mock BBQ pork sandwich. Can't wait!
The finished product.
Lentil meatloaf, yukon gold mashed potatoes,
vegetarian gravy and organic salad mix.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Best chicken coop ever

thick layer of chicken dust that now covers
everything in my house
It's done. Finally. The most beautiful and way too over-planned well thought out chicken coop ever. I started planning 3 months ago. I used Google Sketchup, I made excel check lists, I budget planned, material planned and searched through any blog that mentioned chickens for any pertinent information available. I purchased the chickens April 1st. They rapidly grew out of their blue plastic bin and we moved them into our large dog cage converted brooder. Slowly their dust and stench took over not only the back room they were in but my entire house and then my life. My decision to raise chickens turned into doubt. Would this coop ever get built? Would I be destined to become a redneck with chickens permanently living in my house? Why not tie up some goats in the kitchen and raise catfish in the bathtub at this point. I had sudden urges to chew tobacco and buy a straw hat - I MUST get these chickens out of my house! And then, just at my breaking point, the husband came through and put in three straight long days and finished the coop.

ramp platform
He did a few things different than what he did for my moms chicken coop. We extended the actual coop house by one foot making it a 5' x 4' structure. Since our chickens will be free range most of the time this gives us a little more room when they roost at night. The ramp from the coop into the fenced run seemed too steep so he added a platform half way down giving it a nice tri-level feel.

custom branch roosts
The roosts in the fenced run are my favorite. Hubby put some real time and thought into them. I always think I need to be there supervising so that everything gets done right, but he sure can surprise me with some nice creative touches on his own when left to make decisions for himself. Who knew huh? He made somewhat of a ladder style row of roosts out of thick sticks from the yard. He also used sticks to add in two lower roosts in the corners of the run. It looks great and it works great.

Again we are using the deep litter method. I marked a 6" line on the wall of coop so I can keep the bedding at around 6" all the time as it begins to compost down. I bought one of those plastic rake pitch fork style things to turn the bedding over. The idea is that as it composts down, as long as I keep turning it under and there is proper ventilation the moisture will stay under control and (theoretically) their will be little to no smell and the chickens will be happy. And I will be happy. Theoretically.

deep litter method with the rake to turn it under

The hubby made the pop door a little different this time around. He tried a removable door, again on the side of the coop. To be honest, it might get annoying but the beauty of such a simple coop is it's always possible to make changes to fit our needs. For now it works fine and I'm just excited the coop is done!

hardware cloth open top with plywood
to keep some heat in while it's still cold 

The Garden Coop style we used has an open hardware cloth top. It is still cold at night in Michigan, low of 35-40 degrees some nights, so the hubby cut a piece of particle board to lay on top to keep some of the warm air in. I did not want to cover the entire top of the roof area, proper ventilation is apparently even more important than warmth. Right now I am also closing the pop door at night to keep warmth in and also to teach the chickens to stay in that is their 'new home.'

All this time, hard work, planning and effort for just seven chickens. You think they would be chirping our praises. You would think they would be all over those custom crafted stick/ladder roosts. It's possible I have estimated the intelligence of my 'advanced' chickens a little too much. I like to think it's not that they aren't appreciative of the effort we put into their new home, but just that they're kinda dumb.

Happy chicks!
view from our deck

inside view from the main cleaning door
showing the roosts and hanging feeder

predator proof coop

outside nest boxes on The Garden Coop
style with a Plexiglas window

happy chickens

high handle to keep the youngin' out

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Organic gardening

Just the words 'organic gardening' make me think of lush patches of dark green lettuce and the most beautiful bright red tomatoes one could dream of. Why doesn't it turn out this way for me? For the past two years my husband and I have tended to a medium sized garden in our backyard. Neither of us really know anything about gardening, soil, PH, what the word 'heirloom' means or compost. So trial and error have gotten us by. Our tomatoes however are far from something to be desired.

watermelon plant that never actually produced
any ripe watermelons the first year
We have a somewhat dense clay type soil where we live. Not ideal for gardening. The first year we had not yet even invested in a tiller and opted to just call over a relative and ask kindly for him to bring his tractor and till us a nice 10 x 10 patch of soil for us to begin our great adventure. I went in the house for a while, came back, and there was a 35 x 25 patch of soil tilled. I guess the husband was feeling overly ambitious.

We didn't think about compost that first year. We actually didn't know what/where/when to get it, so just skipped it and hoped for the best. We started a few plants indoors in early May just to let the seeds get a jump start on life. They looked so radiant poking through the soil in the little pete pots under our living room window that I was sure our garden would be a huge success. And then we returned home one day to find that our dog tore most of them out of their pots, managed to throw the dirt everywhere including under the couch cushions which was sort of impressive since he doesn't have opposable thumbs, and also managed to rip each and every one of the pot markers out of all of them. It was a little too late in May to start them over and I was afraid he would just tear them up again, so we went straight to seeds in soil at the end of May and planted the few remaining indoor plants we started even though we weren't quite sure what they were due to lack of marker.

The first gardening year was somewhat successful considering our lack of knowledge and the stunt from the dog. We had a lot of very delicious lettuce. The husband was very persistent about planting corn and potatoes, the corn however was a complete failure. Not even one ear of corn.  The potatoes were a success. We had a lovely watermelon plant that never actually produced any ripe watermelons. Carrots failed. Tomatoes failed, they all had blight and rotted before they were even ripe. Cucumbers, zuchinini, summer squash and green beans were all a success. And pumpkins were a success. Come to find out all of the 'vined' plants that survived the massacure of the Boston Terrier were all pumpkin plants. Not knowing one vined plant from the next we assumed it was maybe a mix of squash and cucumbers. Nope. All pumpkins. Six pumpkin plants grew that year. We ate a lot of pumpkin pie that fall, and my poor newborn must be sick to death of eating pureed pumpkin to this day. I attempted to torture the dog by making him eat pumpkin in his food on several occasions but he seemed to love it so much it was really defeating the purpose of the exercise. Boston Terrier: 2, Me: 0.

We didn't use any pesticides, or fertilizers. Just water and hand picked off any worms or bugs we saw on the plants. Nothing fancy the first year. You could say it was a success, but it wasn't the organic garden I dreamed of. All of the plants were small in size and produced only a minimal amount of produce. But it still felt rewarding every time I put dinner on the table that consisted of something provided by our garden, and I was determined to try harder the next year.

Brussels Sprouts in year two
Year two my husband had a big idea; he helped his buddy clean about 100 fish for a fish fry, he saved the carcasses and without my knowledge mixed them into the garden. To say the least I knew something was 'fishy' per-say after the first day. The smell was gross. And my dogs looked incredibly guilty every time they came in the house smelling like fish. It was impossible to completely mix the carcass in the ground so you could see fish tails and bones in the garden for about a month until the local animals ate them or they began composting down. When they say fish makes a great fertilizer, I can't say I would interpret that as throwing a pile of fish guts and bones right onto the soil. I raised a fit for about 10 minutes, but the deed had been done, there was no removing this stank from my backyard.
Apparently this method did have some benefit - though I will not recommend it. Year 2 of gardening went a lot better. We were successful with Brussels Sprouts (ohhhh so tasty!) and cabbage, both things that did not fair well in year one. Our lettuce was bigger and more productive and our zucchini was non-stop! Everything in the garden seemed darker green and much larger this time around. I think part of the success of the Brussels Sprouts had also to do with my diligence of worm picking. Those suckers will kill a plant within a week if you don't get to them. I'm really against pesticides, especially on a garden of this small size. I have found with some effort and dedication you can just use an all natural dish soap and water to spray the plants and remove any visible bugs. I have also had success spraying plants with neem oil to ward off insects.
Lettuce in year two

The fish smell eventually faded early in the summer and though I initially questioned his sanity and mine for marrying him, 'Grandads farming method' as he called it, seemed to do the soil some good and year two was considered a success.

This year, year three, we plan on being a huge success. And we have already put a plan in place for year four; 'the year of the profitable garden.' This year I read up on compost - the good the bad and the ugly. Words like 'blood meal' freak me out but 'green manure' sounds lovely. What I did learn is that I'm too late in the year to start some of these compost methods, hence, year four being the 'year of the profitable garden' and not this year.

This years garden plot, tilled and ready to add compost
This year my husband met with our neighbor who raises 2-4 free range cattle every year for meat. They are completely grass fed and naturally raised. They have about 6 piles of cow crap from the past 3 years composting down in the back of their yard. Every organic gardeners dream is a hot steamy pile of composting cow shit. I'm quite excited. They need a hand cleaning out some stalls for the spring and are willing to trade a few hours of labor for compost. Does this seem strange? Actually doing backbreaking work for piles of shit? Seems like someone is getting the short end of the stick in this deal...

Since the cow crap it's already composted down we should be able to add it right into the garden in the next few weeks with plans of planting at the end of May. I'm hoping this will make a pretty dramatic difference in the quality of our soil. We are also planning on using raised beds for our tomatoes this year since we have had so much trouble getting tomatoes to grow in the past two years. Ideally I would like to use raised beds for all of our garden, they are easier to maintain and also look really classy, but time and money are not on our side at this moment. Since our tomatoes have been plagued with blight the past two years I am hoping that by bringing in new top soil and compost for the raised beds and rotating where our tomatoes have been in the past will give us some better luck.

already busy eating bugs with their butts in the air
Year four I hope to be more self sufficient when it comes to fertilizer. Though I am incredibly excited about finding piles of pretty near organic cow crap available just across the road, there are a few other methods I'm eager to try. First and foremost: chickens. I have 7 now. They are 6 weeks old and moving to their coop this week, I hope they will be little bug eating, egg laying, poop making machines. I have read over and over how great chicken poop is for fertilizer. My chickens started on a medicated feed but I have now switched them over to a regular laying feed and will soon switch to the organic laying feed (not available anywhere convenient for me.. ugh). Once they are on the new feed I can start placing their pine shavings from their coop in the compost to use on the garden next year. Chicken fertilizer is very hot, meaning there is a lot of nitrogen and needs to be composted down before you can add it to your garden.

organic pest control
The second part to the year four fertilizer plan is what is called green manure. The simplistic explanation of green manure is planting a quick growing, nutrient dense crop in your garden at the end of the season. Alfalfa, mustard, rye and clover are all examples of crops that will work for green manure. Simply throw seed down and let the crop grow. In early spring turn the crop down into the soil while it is still too cold to plant, yet the soil is fairly dry. This is an excellent and very easy way to add nutrients to your organic garden.

This year and next year the chickens will be put to work eating those damn worms off of my plants. Tomato worms are just freaky, what I wouldn't give to have a chicken eat it instead of me having to pull its spiny little worm hands off my plant. From what I understand, a chicken is the best organic pest control available.