Sunday, December 26, 2010

Winter Chores

This winter, more than ever, we love our truck. The Toyota Tundra with its 4-wheel drive has been a godsend for hauling water up to the big barn in the snow and cold.

Jim's been a big help, too! Nice to have a friendly farmhand for these challenging days. We got our brag tag for the truck this week but haven't been able to get into town to show off yet.

But we did get to try out our new snow plow. Not on the truck, mind you. This one attaches to our walk-behind tractor. After last year's 18-inch snowfall that trapped even our mighty truck for a few days, we thought we were buying an insurance policy against another big snow. I really expected the snow blade to sit unused for 10 years. Instead, we found ourselves ready for it almost exactly one year later. The truck can get out ok without plowing for now, but our neighbor's car (we share part of the driveway) cannot.

After much wrestling and only partial success getting the blade attached--it's on but not locked in--Jim found he could get it to work despite the poor connection.

And it works a treat. From the workshop to the top of the driveway and back in less than half an hour.

Frankly, I was impressed that we even were able to get the tractor started after letting it sit for months unused in the unheated workshop.

We're back in the house warming up before heading out for the next round of feeding and watering the buffs. Here's Eschol from yesterday when Jim had just filled the water tank in the barn:

Now he's considering whether to keep drinking or come play with the photographer....

...the way he made Jim pay the love toll before letting him deliver the water.

I wish I could convey in pictures how much fun it is to throw hay from the upper level down into the troughs below. The camera can't quite capture the full effect of three heads pushing through to get at the hay all the while getting covered in it as they can't wait for me to finish dropping it before they dive in. I'd really need to have a sound recorder going to give you the true picture with all of the attendant huffing, chewing, and horn-clanking-against-wood sounds.

Oh. If you're wondering why you're not seeing any adorable pictures of the buffs frolicking in the snow, it's because they don't like the snow. They seem to have no use for it. All it does is cover up the grass they'd like to be grazing. They are staying in the barn as far as we can tell except for the very occasional and quick trip to the mineral block. Just as well that they are not venturing out much as the wind is picking up. And the snow is making it hard for the solar fence charger to do its job.

So, we're all doing well for now. Fingers crossed that the power stays on, so that we can continue to draw water from the well. Hope everyone is warm and well wherever you are!

Winter Wonderland

We've got at least 6 inches of snow on the ground (everyone around us is reporting more like 9 inches, so maybe it's just compacted as it's fallen) and they say we may get 3-6 inches more before it's done tonight. The wind is picking up and the temperature is dropping, so the fun part of a big snow is probably over now. Still, it's been pretty.....

Fortunately, the creeks are still flowing, but here's what Sandy Mush looked like a week or so ago:

Stay tuned for pix of chores in winter.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Menu

Assorted Neal's Yard cheeses (including our all-time favorite: Lancashire Poacher)
Black Trumpet Mushroom Pate
Carbonnade a la Flamande (for her)
Mashed Yukon Gold Potatoes
Wild Mushroom Shepherd's Pie with Mushroom-Pinot Noir Sauce (for him)
Cranberry Compote
Mincemeat Pie

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Buffalo? They Can Walk on Water.

One of the questions that we often hear is: "Why water buffalo?"  There are a lot of ways to answer that. I'll skip the snarky ones to save time. For us, the answer is: because we find them fascinating.

For most people, meeting a water buffalo for the first time is a revelation. They are incredibly alert and interactive. If you've ever stood by a field where cattle are grazing, they probably didn't take much notice of you or if they did, they probably went back to eating as soon as they ascertained that you weren't an immediate threat. Water buffalo, however, will typically watch you with great interest and often will walk right up to you. Whether you're a threat or not, they want to check you out. And if they feel comfortable, it won't be long before they are trying to lick you, get a chin rub, or lean up against you. If they feel threatened (yes, I'm talking to you dogs), then that lean may involve the head, horns, and some serious pushing.

Even experienced cattle people who will tell you that some individual cows have lots of personality are often quite taken with the buffs. Some of our cattle-owning neighbors get a kick out of riding their ATVs by the pasture because the buffs always race them up and down the fence line. And they are quite good runners and jumpers. It's both heart-stopping and fascinating to watch them run up and down the hilly pastures at full speed. Their agility is remarkable and they cover a lot of ground quickly. That can be challenging when trying to get some work done in the barn without their help. They are very aware of what's going on all around them and they can sneak up quickly and quietly when they want to.

More often, however, they make funny little grunting noises when they are running toward something they really, really want (like food). Another endearing quality is the gentle huffing noises they make when they are content. They don't low or bellow or trumpet. They just make this gentle exhaling noise when they are eating or getting a tummy rub. Yes, they roll over for tummy rubs. How could you not love that? If that weren't enough to convince you, then you need to see/hear them when they blow bubbles in their water tank. And just look into those eyes.....

OK, so that's kind of the soft and fuzzy side of the answer. They're cute, smart, lovey, and they make us laugh. But what justifies the care, effort, and expense required to keep these huge animals? Do we really want or need 900 pound (and growing) pets? They're incredibly useful and versatile farm animals. They make great dairy animals as their milk is incredibly rich. The high butterfat content makes for spectacular cheese (e.g., buffalo mozzarella), yogurt, and ice cream though I have yet to be fortunate enough to try the latter. Our plan is to use the water buffalo for home dairy purposes (it's too expensive to try to set up a commercial dairy).

Water buffalo make for great eating, too, for those who eat meat. Much like bison, theirs is a very lean red meat. With about half the fat and cholesterol of beef, it's a relatively healthy choice for carnivores. I had the pleasure of dining on water buffalo tenderloin a couple of years ago and much as I wished Jim could have tasted it, the meat was so delicious I was kind of glad that I didn't have to share. If we end up with bull calves that no one wants to buy from us, then we will be filling our freezer with buffalo meat.

While we don't really have any call for it on our little farm, H2O buffs also make excellent draft animals (think oxen). More typical of the swamp variety of water buffalo, even our riverine buffs can be trained to handle hauling and plowing duties. People who've seen buffs at work in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia will probably have seen swamp buffalo with the horns out to there. One of the reasons that they are preferable to cattle in rice paddies is that their hooves are wider and don't sink into the mud as readily. Plus they are more resistant to hoof rot in wet environments.  Here's an image of a Thai farmer which I borrowed from the American Water Buffalo Association website.

working buffalo

Although it may be in large part due to the fact that water buffalo have not been factory farmed like cattle, they tend to be healthier and more disease-resistant than cattle. They are susceptible to many of the same diseases but often fare better. They are also more efficient at turning low quality forage into good nutrition meaning that they can survive on scrubby, weedy grassland where cattle would need grain supplementation.

For us, that means that the buffs eat a lot of vines and weeds. Not only are they helping to rehabilitate long-neglected pastures by keeping the weeds down but they are improving the soil quality with natural fertilizer. We don't have to add fertilizer or plow up whole pastures to re-seed with grass. That saves money, time, and fossil fuels.

If we lived in an area where invasive water vegetation was a problem, we'd use them for clearing it. The whole reason water buffalo were brought to the US in the 1970s was to help clear waterways in Florida. Water buffalo are excellent swimmers and are reported to be willing and able to dive as much as two meters underwater to get at vegetation. For our part, we're trying to keep the buffs out of the creeks here to prevent erosion of the banks and limit the amount of manure that ends up in the water (excessive nitrogen is not good for creek life).

Existing in climates ranging from the tropics of Asia to the frigid plains of Canada, water buffalo have proven to be highly adaptive--a quality that may become increasingly valuable with the weather extremes that climate change may bring. They do need a bit of shelter from extreme conditions--access to water or shade in the heat and protection from wind and wet in the cold--but with just a bit of care, they can do quite well.

Are they perfect? No, of course not. Like all animals, they have their challenges. The upside is they're smart. The downside is they're smart. Much like dogs, the smart ones are often harder to handle because they're harder to fool. They can be stubborn. And their heat cycles are often short and silent (not showing signs) which can make breeding by artificial insemination a bit more challenging than with cattle (the bulls know when the cows are in heat even if the humans can't see the signs so the old-fashioned way of breeding works fine). And they are huge, powerful animals with horns. Even a good-natured, well-intentioned buffalo could do some serious harm just by swinging its massive head around when you're not paying attention. And not all of them are equally good natured. They most definitely have individual personalities which can vary greatly.

Do they walk on water? Yes. If it's frozen. They continue to surprise me nearly every day. This week, when the creek between the main pasture and the Booth was frozen solid, they seemed to avoid it. Then one day, there they were--at the top of the Booth, soaking up what few rays of sun were to be had. I feared that they had skidded across the ice and gotten stuck on the wrong side of the creek away from food and water. I took some water across to them. No sooner had they lapped it up than they came back across the ice to see if I'd brought more goodies. Not one of them slipped or skidded. They walked across the ice as if they'd been doing it all their lives. Actually, better than I ever walked on ice and I have been doing it all my life.

They are strange and wondrous creatures and that's why we have them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Drink Warm Thoughts

Freezing. Cold. Really, really cold.

On the plus side, I'm spending more time indoors so I have time to blog. On the minus side, I have to go outside to haul water to the buffalo thrice daily. Back on the plus side, being out in the dry, frigid air inspires me to drink lots of hot tea with milk from my Frigidaire. OK, it's a Whirlpool, but I couldn't resist the rhyme.

Ever since I first went to England as a junior in college, I have loved strong black tea with milk. Hot tea managed to cut through the cold and damp in a way nothing else could while the milk added a soothing element. Even now that Jim has hooked me on coffee, my first and last cup of the day still has to be tea. But it was the memory of many a petit déjeuner in France that left me longing for something better than a cup or mug from which to slurp the steamy goodness.

Thanks to winning a giveaway on the blog A Spicy Perspective, I was finally able to acquire the necessary vessel. A Pillivyut drinking bowl. OK, the CSN store whose gift certificate I won calls it a coffee bowl but I consider it an all-purpose drinking bowl. 

I have such fond memories of dunking my toasted bread into my bowl of Thé Éléphant. Although it took a little adjustment, it wasn't long before I was buttering my toast and dunking it like the locals even if it meant a weird oil slick would develop on the top. Nowadays, I'm content to deal with the soggy crumbs in the bottom of the bowl but don't really see the need for butter.

And then there's the matter of dunking into hot chocolate.

Sheer heaven. Makes for a great late afternoon snack.

Actually, I have been preparing for this moment for a long time. Years ago, I went on a hunt for a toaster that could accommodate a sufficiently long piece of bread (preferably a big hunk of baguette sliced in half). It took quite awhile, but eventually Jim found a Cuisinart that was perfect: just one very long slot that can handle wide slices. Ours is too well-loved at this stage to be photographed nicely and I can't seem to find a picture online, so use your imagination.

I'm not sure why I'm so enamored of drinking tea and cocoa this way. Maybe it's just nostalgia for France or that little thrill that comes from drinking out of a bowl when you were raised to believe that it's not proper to do so. And for you cafe au lait drinkers, this is the best. Not into hot beverages? Then put your cereal in and slurp up the extra milk when you're done.

Now for my next quest: authentic French cider bowls. Sure, I could use the same bowls (it's basically the same shape) but I have my heart set on a very rustic-looking cider bowl (preferably one that says "cidre") from Normandy or Bretagne. I can see the Platonic ideal of cider bowl in my mind but have yet to find one that I can order online. Perhaps we'll have to take a trip to France so that we can learn to make their distinctive style of cider and pick up the necessary accoutrements in person.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Buddha's Hand

Some time back, I saw one of these on a food blog and thought "How cool! But I'll never be able to buy one."

After last year's love affair with Meyer lemons, this strange and wondrous relative of the lemon seemed a likely candidate for my next crush if only I could lay my hands on one. As luck would have it, a little gourmet grocery store in town that I rarely visit (The Fresh Market) brought one in from California two weeks ago. Actually, they had several, but at $8 a pop, I had to show some restraint. Introducing the Buddha's Hand Citron:

If the wild shape wasn't enough to recommend it--Jim calls it the squid lemon--it has a delightful scent and flavor. Definitely in the lemon family but on the sweeter side and with a floral component. I think it's what you'd get if you combined Meyer lemons with rosewater. The strangest non-shape-related aspect of this lemony food critter is that is has no juice. Nor pulp. Nor seeds. It's nothing but rind and pith. 

That does somewhat limit its usefulness if you were hoping to use it in place of a traditional lemon. From what I've read, some people use them as natural air fresheners but most seem to use them for infusing vodka. We're not big on flavored vodkas, so I decided to take advantage of its all-rind-all-the-time nature and use it for candied lemon peel. And candied lemon peel just begs to be dipped in chocolate.

I confess, I was in such a hurry to get the goodies into Christmas packages going out to friends and family that I neglected to take photos of the best examples before I dipped them in chocolate. And I shipped those out before snapping pix of the dipped peel. What's left are the odds and ends but what tasty odds and ends they are! There's also some Buddha's Hand simple syrup resulting from the candying process and it's just hanging around waiting for the resident mixologist to get creative at cocktail hour.

I hope more Buddha's Hand comes my way. The more I think about it, the more ideas I'm having for using the zest/peel in other dishes. Or I might just put one in a big jar of alcohol just to preserve so I can look at it every day. Whimsical fruit makes me happy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ray's Weather

Like you need one more person complaining about the weather, right? It's cold, it's snowy, it's windy, it's dreary....we're all in the same boat. Well, if you're not in this boat, you can just swim silently 'cause the rest of us are not in the mood to hear about your nice weather. When I lived in Chicago and worked in customer service, I hated being stuck on the phone in January with some gloating guy in Florida or Texas just had to inquire about our weather just so he could regale me with excruciatingly specific details about his balmy weather ("why, I'm in shorts today and am about to go throw a steak on the grill").

Since one of the reasons for living in NC instead of Chicago is to avoid weather like this, I'm especially resentful. The biggest insult to injury is that we're getting lake effect snow. Yes, Lake Michigan snow. That's just wrong.

As you might imagine, this brutal cold snap makes the farm chores just that: chores. Bundling up against the sub-zero wind chill wouldn't be so bad if it were just a matter of tossing some hay to the buffs a couple of times a day (thank goodness I kept all that Chicago-style winter wear). The real pain is water. Water freezes in their tanks quickly and even my backup supply, the creek, is frozen so I have to haul water several times a day so they have some in liquid form. Since it's too cold to use the standpipe outside, I have to fill the containers in the house then take them out to the buffs. I've been using a sledgehammer to break up ice in the tanks but it reforms awfully fast and today the buffs seem disinclined to leave the protection of the barn to seek out water if they don't have to. We have one tank in the barn which doesn't freeze as quickly but it is the most challenging to fill and will succumb to the extreme cold of the next two days (teens and single digits with much lower wind chills). On the bright side, the snow isn't deep, so I'm not fighting through snowdrifts on top of everything else.

Speaking of bright sides, when it comes to winter weather, I'm usually hard pressed to find something cheery to say. Much like a trip to the dentist, reading a winter weather forecast is not something I expect to bring a smile to my face. Yet I've been lucky with my time in the South. Not only did I have a dentist in Atlanta who made me laugh so much (sans nitrous oxide) that I actually looked forward to my appointments, but now I have an independent weather source which makes me happy even when the news is bad. Ray's Weather is a quirky little website devoted to weather here in the mountains of western North Carolina. Based around Boone (home to Appalachian State University), it draws on the bevy of professional meteorologists in this area to come up with independent forecasts. Something about our myriad microclimates, funky topography, and playing host to the National Climatic Data Center attract meteorologists to our area. And these folks have a sense of humor.

Given that so much of the appeal of our area is the great outdoors, Ray's has a system for quickly assessing the day's potential without having to wade through a lot of pesky details like temperature, wind, and precipitation: the Golf-O-Meter. The number of golf balls appearing on the day's forecast tells you whether you want to be outside.

Sadly, today was the first time I've seen a no golf balls indication. Still, it made me smile when I reviewed the official definition of a no golf balls day. I think my favorite forecast was the day after Leslie Nielsen died and the entire extended forecast was interspersed with random quotations from Airplane and no explanation was offered.

Oh, and the forecasts are very good. Even when they're very bad.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving Post-Mortem Pictorial

Since I hate letting food get cold, I confess that my attempt to capture our Thanksgiving dinner in pictures was more than a bit hasty. Nevertheless, here's how it all turned out:

The Farm & Sparrow bread was perfectly crunchy on the outside and moist inside. The loaf was so big that it took the place of carving a turkey for testing our knife skills.

The main event, the mushroom lentil pot pies topped with a gouda biscuit, were out of this world. The porcinis and lentils gave the dish a ridiculously meat-like taste and the Yukon Gold potatoes did an heroic job of keeping their shape while soaking up the flavors. The biscuit was fun but we probably didn't need that as well as bread. We'll definitely be having this one again with or without the biscuit.

The root vegetable mash and sweet potatoes in sage brown butter gave us the thrill of traditional side dishes while remaining remarkably easy to make and awfully darn healthy.

And let's not neglect the fennel gratin. Our first foray into using panko breadcrumbs has turned us into converts. I don't think we've had such crunchy goodness since we crumbled potato chips on a long-forgotten dish many, many years ago. The fennel's retained structure made a nice counterpoint to the mushier potato sides though I didn't think the flavor was a strong as I would have liked. 

Here's a plate of sides (isn't that what everyone really wants at Thanksgiving?) with the cranberry compote for color and textural contrast:

And last but not least, the pie. The photo definitely doesn't do it justice. The pepita/ginger/pecan/almond topping was a nice crunchy and spicy addition to the traditional pumpkin pie. I think the recipe made twice as much topping as was strictly necessary, so next time I'll reduce it--or better yet--save the extra for snacking. The topping had the added benefit of holding down the filling while cooking so there were no near-overflow scares in the early stages of baking.

A bottle of our best cider and a 7 Deadly Zins for wine topped it all off. We really couldn't have been more pleased with the way it all turned out. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


For many years, I clung to my traditional Thanksgiving menu of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, rolls, jellied cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Jim brought green bean casserole into the relationship and got me to swap out the rolls in favor of biscuits. Once he was forced to go vegetarian (that story's a post for another time), it became more complicated. In those years when we had company, I could still justify cooking a turkey and we'd make a special entree for Jim--usually a Tofurky roast with Tofurky gravy tho' we also tried Quorn roasts, someone's Field roasts, as well as stuffed acorn squash.

This year, we find ourselves without company and increasingly disinterested in the traditional menu. Maybe it's the foodie magazines or the food blogs I've been reading or maybe it's just the pent-up desire to get cooking again in a big way, but we have decided to wipe the slate clean. In searching for recipes for our feast, I was looking for dishes that we both could share so that meant vegetarian food that didn't involve a lot of eggs or heavy cream (neither of which Jim tolerates well) but would feel festive and out of the ordinary. An added bonus would be recipes that wouldn't be so stressful and complicated that we couldn't enjoy the day off.

In a nod to tradition, pumpkin pie still appears, but with a twist. Cranberry compote is the only one of the dishes that we regularly eat and we have had the sweet potato dish at a previous Thanksgiving (mostly because Jim loves sweet potatoes and this is the first recipe involving said orange vegetable that I actually like to the point of wanting seconds). Best of all, I found a vegetarian main course with protein. Despite the lovely trend of more vegetarian recipes appearing this time of year, too many magazines, papers, and blogs seem to think that vegetarian eating is simply a matter of leaving out the meat and adding more vegetables. More on that rant another day. Here's the menu:

  • Mushroom and lentil pot pies with gouda biscuit topping
  • Root vegetable mash (potatoes, parsnips, rutabagas)
  • Fennel gratin with pecorino and lemon
  • Sweet potatoes in sage brown butter
  • Cranberry compote (see earlier post for recipe)
  • Pumpkin pie with pepita, nut, and ginger topping.
  • Farm & Sparrow farmhouse bread (from our outstanding local baker) with crabapple jelly
  • Homemade hard cider
OK, so if you read Bon Appetit, you'll know where I got most of my new recipes. If you don't, you may be wondering how two people will eat all that food. We won't. But since we won't have turkey or faux turkey leftovers, we'll need something to eat this weekend.....

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Crabapple Jelly

You may recall from an earlier post about cider that we have a wonderful supply of crabapples here on the farm. Each year I try to squirrel away enough of these tart gems to make jelly. The juice is so good for making tasty cider that it can be a challenge to keep them from all going into the press. Last year, I tried making do with the pomace that was left after the press had extracted juice for cider but all I got was very cloudy jelly that didn't taste nearly as good as the previous year's.

After washing and stemming the apples, the next step was to quarter them. You'd think that wouldn't be so bad with little apples but these boogers are hard! They also stain like crazy. The flesh looks white when you cut into it but it quickly turns orange-red. After a couple of hours of chopping, the skin on my hands looked like someone had colored in every line and wrinkle with henna. The chopped crabs went into a pot with some water and boiled until the flesh was soft.

I don't have a picture for the next step because it is just too messy and requires too much coordination for me to manage the camera, too. I strained the resulting juice and fruit through several layers of cheesecloth, trying not to burn my hands from the steam (note to self: don't make evening plans on the day you're making jelly so you have time to let the fruit cool a bit before straining). Also, this time I resisted the urge to squeeze the fruit to extract every last bit of juice--it makes for cloudy jelly. I ended up with lovely, clear juice--not as deep red as some years, but pretty nonetheless. That went into a saucepan and got boiled to within an inch of its life.

Hmmm....that does a nice job of showing bubbles but not the pretty juice. Let's try this one:

Better. From here it was mostly a matter of trying to get the temperature up to jelly stage on my candy thermometer without the whole thing boiling over. Each year I struggle with getting the timing right. The first time I waited too long and the jelly set up like fruit leather. The next time I took it off too soon and ended up with, well, juice. The third time was just right. Still, I don't feel that I really know why. Temperature hasn't been a great indicator, though that may be a function of having a cheap and probably inaccurate thermometer. I have yet to perfect the spoon test, never having achieved the ideal sheeting action.  I decided to err on the side of less jelling, figuring I could always redo the process if it came out too runny. So juice went into jars and they, in turn, into the canner for a water bath.

In the final analysis, this year's jelly was a bit on the underformed side. It started to set up but is a bit runny. Still, after a day in the fridge, it was good enough for home use, so I didn't bother to redo it this time. And the flavor is fantastic. This year, I followed the recipe and used the full amount of sugar so someone other than me (the lover of tart fruit) would enjoy eating it. I think I'll do another batch for giving away and see if I can get the texture up to socially-acceptable levels, too.

If anyone has a recommendation for a good, accurate candy thermometer, I'd love to hear it. Candy-making season is almost here and I would love to go into caramel and sponge candy making mode with confidence.


Well, that was unexpected! I just chased off a coyote. It's no secret that we've had coyote around. They are quite bold in leaving their scat prominently displayed in the middle of paths, in barn stalls, and most recently on the logs demarcating our compost piles. Still, I wasn't expecting to see one in broad daylight.

The buffs had been dragging their hooves, so to speak, this morning about crossing through the fish pond to get to the lower pasture. I went to play with Buddy in the yard while waiting for them to make the move. Eventually they crossed and I closed the gate behind them. When I went back to get Buddy for her walk, I whistled to get her attention (her nose was well stuck into the dirt in her usual mole-hunter pose). As she looked up, I saw the coyote about 50 feet past the fence doing a quick about-face and dashing off toward Krabapplestan. Leaving Buddy in the yard, I followed as far as the creek but saw no trace of it.

I suspect the coyote was on its way up the creek to our neighbor's cattle. We spotted a newborn calf there yesterday and it occurs to me that birth smells must be mighty tempting to a coyote. I doubt the coyote would be any match for the bulls but it might make a run at the calf if it were far from the herd. If nothing else, I think I now  know why the buffs were being balky this morning. And why they kept a close eye on us as I walked Buddy. They must wonder why I keep company with a little coyote.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cranberry Compote

I realize that this blog has strayed a bit from its original concept. The farm and its newest inhabitants have provided so much fodder for posts that the musings on omnivorous happiness have fallen by the wayside. I promise to reform my ways eventually--probably over the winter as my interest in cooking and all things indoors increases. For now, however, I'll simply offer up a recipe that we enjoy throughout the year but is especially good for Thanksgiving: Cranberry Compote.

The name of the recipe's author is a mystery to me. The recipe came to me by way of a friend, Leigh Hilger, who got it from a student in one of her nutrition classes. Would that I could thank its inventor by name. This wonderful dish works as a side or a dessert. It dresses up a dry or otherwise boring meat or fake meat dish (I eat a lot of Quorn patties when I don't have the time or inclination to cook a proper meal). As the Hungarians and the Moroccans know, meat and fruit go great together. It is also friendly to vegetarians, vegans, and those on a gluten-free diet. And it has the added bonus of being awfully darn healthy without feeling that way. So much so that it did what no other cranberry dish had done before: it knocked the canned jellied cranberry sauce off of our Thanksgiving menu.

Cranberry Compote

3 cups coarsely chopped peeled apples (granny smiths work well)
2.25 cups coarsely chopped peeled pears (red bartlett pears are my fave but bosc will do)
3/4 cup fresh apple juice ("cider")
1/2 cup fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Combine all ingredients except lemon juice in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes until fruit is tender. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Serve warm or cold.

That's it. Make a double batch and freeze the extra for when you need a quick side dish or dessert.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Houdini's Last Trick

Bru is gone. For good this time, we think. Still, one never knows for sure with this dog. A little background:

Bru was the last of the three pets to join our little family when we lived in Atlanta. We really thought we were doing just fine with one cat and one dog. Then this gorgeous, gregarious dog started making appearances in our neighborhood. Ours was not a neighborhood where dogs tended to roam unaccompanied, so we took note when we would see him happily trotting from yard to yard without an owner in sight.

Having seen the evidence on our daily dog walks of way too many cats killed by cars, we were worried that this pretty boy with his mahogany red coat and black bandit mask would meet the same fate. And then our neighbor started working on us: "You should really take him in." "Honestly, two dogs are just as easy as one." "You only have one dog. Don't you think she'd be happier with another dog to keep her company?" "I'd take him in if I could have dogs in my apartment but it's not allowed."

We resisted but by Memorial Day weekend our resolve had weakened and over brunch at the Flying Biscuit, we agreed that we'd feel terrible if anything happened to him. So, we decided to take him in. Never having been good at coming up with names for pets, we had narrowed our choices by using a food theme for all of our pets. Our newest addition had a strikingly jet black back that contrasted with his reddish brown fur everywhere else making him look almost burnt on top--but in a glossy, appealing way. Creme brulee came to mind but it was too pretentious (we'd already had to back off of Butterscotch for the first dog and let her retain some dignity with the modified name of Buddy). We settled on Bru. Derived from brulee but sounding like beer, we thought we were set.

I wish I could show you a picture that does him justice but he has never photographed well. Our friend, George Veltri, got some shots of him early on that certainly show off his personality if not his looks:

Oh, did I forget to mention the dotted line running up the middle of his tongue like lane markers on a road? Our best guess was that he was a Rottweiller/German Shepherd mix with just a touch of Chow--thus the black spots on the tongue. He certainly had the naturally affectionate nature of a Rottie and their habit of leaning on people and exploring the world with his tongue. His shape and shedding habits were more Shepherd but the Chow kept him at a nice size c. 60 pounds.

We think he was about 18 months old when he found us. He seemed to be in good shape, was already neutered, and had a collar with no tags. Our neighbor confirmed that he'd been in the area for weeks but no signs or ads appeared for a missing dog. We took him to the vet to get checked out.

The news came back: he had heartworms. Immediately, they began treatment which consisted of administering arsenic to kill the worms. We then had to keep this dog who was used to roaming freely confined with no activity or excitement for 4-6 weeks. Let's just say that Bru and I did some serious bonding during this time as I tried to keep him company in the small guestroom that became his well-appointed prison for the next month or so. He was remarkably cooperative (didn't chew or pee on the futon--good dog!) and seemed to enjoy being in a place that was climate-controlled, dry, and served good food twice a day along with tons of attention.

As soon as the vet gave us the all clear, we added him to our daily walks around the neighborhood. We soon discovered that we were not the first to try to rescue Bru. Everywhere we went people greeted Bru but not by that name. "Foster!" "Sparky!" "Houdini!" Had we taken on a total con dog who kept switching identities to stay one step ahead of the law? Turns out, the truth was in that last name. He was indeed the world's greatest escape artist. No one had been able to keep him for long. Our five-foot privacy fence would prove no match for a dog who could climb over or dig under a fence with ease and one time literally climbed a tree to avoid being recaptured before he was ready to come home. But he always came home--he just liked making his social rounds in the neighborhood. We did our best to keep him entertained, socialized, and at home when he wasn't accompanied by one of us, but we did spend a lot of time chasing him to prevent him from getting into trouble and annoying our neighbors.

Nine years ago, we moved to North Carolina and discovered the joys of an Invisible Fence. The electronic fence managed to keep our canine Houdini at home better than we ever could have hoped for. It probably helped that neighbor dogs could come and play with him, so he didn't feel as much need to go to their homes.

Getting older probably helped, too. By the time we moved to our farm two years ago, he was getting arthritic and didn't seem inclined to escape much, despite having only a four-foot chain link fence to keep him in the yard. Only when the temptation was great (e.g., the first time the horses came over to graze in our pasture) did he haul himself over the fence to go lick them on the noses and then he came right back.

July 4th weekend this year, he disappeared for four days. Given that he was nearly 14 years old, suffering from cancer, cauda equina (spinal nerve compression), and laryngeal paralysis (floppy vocal cords making him sound like Darth Doggie and making it difficult to keep his stomach contents in his stomach), we were pretty sure he'd gone off to die. We live on the edge of a 2600 acre conservation area which makes for a great place to disappear so we weren't surprised that no one responded to our "lost dog" signs. As I made my way to check the shelters after the long holiday weekend, who should I find trotting along the road heading towards home but Bru? He was tired and sore and thirsty, but happy as always. We were ready to euthanize him, if necessary, but he bounced back after a few days rest. Despite his lengthening list of health problems, he continued to think like a puppy and seemed to be having more good days than bad, though he had started insisting on sleeping outside at night around the time he started having accidents in the house. Good dog.

Two weeks ago, he ran off again. He hadn't been eating much for a few days (and this is a dog who never turns down food) probably because the regurgitation was getting worse. This time, he disappeared in broad daylight when I was working nearby on the electric fence for the buffs. Having grieved prematurely in July, we waited this time. After four days had passed and the weather had turned bitterly cold, we suspected we wouldn't see him again. There have been no reports of him near here or at the shelters, so we're pretty sure he's gone for good. Sure, it's possible he's found an old barn with a nice straw bed and loads of mice to eat but I'm working on the assumption that we've seen Houdini's last trick. And it better be, because if he shows up again I am going to be pissed! So will Buddy. She's enjoying being the only dog in the house again.

Oh, and about that two dogs are just as easy as one? Total lie. But he was worth the trouble.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Eschol Becomes a Man

Well, to be more accurate, Eschol has entered adolescence. And he hasn't changed species. It's just that our baby bull is showing signs that he is a baby no more. He's all bull now.
One fine October day--our wedding anniversary to be exact--Eschol began taking a very adult interest in Audrey. Yes, love was in the air that day. I remember it not just for the romantic associations of the date but also because I had just installed the electric fence around the fish pond. 

Not being too confident in whether the electric rope would be a sufficient deterrent if the buffalo were determined to get out, I really didn't need to see Eschol showing off his newly-discovered testosterone surges. I must admit it was equal parts fascinating and nervous-making as I watched him make his initial advances just a few feet from where I was standing.

While I was aware of the risk of being this close to a frisky bull, he and the object of his affection were blocking my primary escape route. It quickly became apparent to me that he was only interested in one of the three females in the immediate area: Audrey. Effie and I were chopped liver. Still, the situation required keen attention to staying on my toes in case the action suddenly moved in my direction.

How can I describe it? No, I can't use a picture because I didn't have my camera with me. Technically, I suppose one would say that Eschol mounted Audrey. But that terminology hardly does justice to how very ungainly and ridiculous the whole process looks. Truly, Eschol would just fling himself up in her general direction and kind of splay out his front legs over her back. He'd only get a few seconds to try to get his groove on before Audrey would trot off, leaving Eschol in her wake. 

I really don't know if Audrey was in heat and that was what got Eschol going or if he's just starting to get testosterone surges and thus decided to practice his breeding moves.  They are both at an age where they could breed but it would be at the early end of the range. Audrey is the oldest of the two girls, so it wouldn't be surprising that she might be the first to go into heat. On the other hand, she's also the most docile, so if Eschol just wanted to practice, she's the one most likely to put up with his antics.

And boy does he need practice. Of his many, many attempts that day, the funniest was when he launched himself over the front end of Audrey. I tried to remind him that not only would he have little success with this method, his breeding days would be short-lived if he landed on her increasingly long and pointy horns.

 In fact, she only pushed him away when he tried to mount her while she was eating hay. That seems entirely reasonable to me. In fact, I think she was very gracious about the whole thing seeing as Eschol made dozens of attempts. Effie was the one who got fed up with it and tried to push Eschol off of Audrey. 

In retrospect, I think Audrey was in heat. After a day and a half of breeding attempts, Eschol suddenly stopped. Water buffalo have notoriously short and hard-to-detect heat cycles, so it's entirely possible that she was showing no other signs than that of Eschol's attention. 

He made a couple of half-hearted attempts yesterday which seems a little soon for another cycle (three weeks would be reasonable), but just now he and Effie were fighting like I've never seen them before: locking horns and chasing around the pasture like mad. I wonder if she's in heat now but is aggressively resisting Eschol. Maybe last night he smelled an opportunity but went for Audrey out of habit (or because she won't try to kill him). He is being persistent despite rejection and I fear for his internal organs. Effie does not hesitate to use her horns to make her displeasure known. Audrey has already had to intervene several times to break up the fight and convince Effie to let it go. 

I hope they sort it out before the really cold weather moves in tonight. I don't want Eschol kicked out of the barn for bad behavior. He's going to need the protection from the cold and wet. I know the girls won't let him snuggle up with them, so I've put some straw piles in stalls well away from their area in hopes that he can find some comfort there.

Pray for us all......

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Winter's Coming

Much as I have enjoyed the long-lasting warm weather, I know that reality will soon rear its ugly head and once again, it will be cold. Cold for real--not the 28 degrees at 7am but then 75 degrees by 3pm--all day and all night cold. Granted, winter in Western North Carolina is nothing compared to the Chicago winters of my youth. Warm days here are a possibility. We've enjoyed 70 degree weather on more than one New Year's Day. Those lovely days, however, are breaks and not normal weather for November through March at least.

After last year's harsh weather wherein we set a record for most days with sub-freezing temperatures and had a monster snowstorm that wreaked havoc for a week just before Christmas, we're feeling that we're due for a milder winter. The forecasters say La Nina may grant us that wish. Still, many nights will be below freezing even if most of the days are not.

Here's a bunch of the things I've been doing to get the farm ready for winter:

- Pulling the remaining plants out of the garden (must look for recipes to use up large quantity of fresh herbs now sitting in my fridge)
- Emptying the rain barrels
- Draining and storing the many hoses used for conveying water to the garden and to the water buffalo
- Making room in the worm composter by taking a layer of castings to the garden (could do this anytime but it's a much less pleasant chore in the cold--especially the part where I have to clean the bin and end up drenching myself)
- Purchasing and spreading straw in the big barn for the buffs to snuggle into on cold nights
- Giving the buffs' water tanks a thorough cleaning (again, a self-drenching issue)
- Closing up the beehive (leaving a small opening for "cleansing flights") and piling straw bales around it as a wind break
- Moving the buffs to a new pasture to keep them eating grass as long as possible (so I don't have to feed as much hay) and to keep the thatch and vines from taking over
- Worrying that the buffs don't have enough fat on them yet so feeding them some hay anyway
- Scanning the hay ads (and you thought Craigslist was just for apartments and adult services) in case I decide  that my current stockpile won't be sufficient
- Using rainy days to plant orchard-grass seed wherever the pastures are thin on good grass
- Cleaning out the old feeding troughs in the big barn so I can drop hay from the top level to the buffs below when it's too cold or rainy to be outside
- Locating the heat lamps and extension cords for placement on vulnerable pipes when the temps get into the low 20s

Ack. I know there's more but I'm getting tired just thinking about it all now.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Normally I'd leave this subject to the resident cider master, Jim, but I fear he is consumed with paid work at the moment. And since that work funds our lovely farm, I won't pressure him to blog for free. I'll try my best to do justice to the subject of cider in his absence.

We began making cider four or five years ago. When I say cider, I mean hard cider. It is a peculiarity of Americanese that we have to clarify the term. Anywhere else in the English-speaking world, cider means a fermented apple beverage (alcohol!). Here in the US, however, it has become synonymous with apple juice. Both of us were quite fond of the ciders we'd encountered in our overseas travel, particularly those of England and France. Living near a great apple growing region (Henderson County, NC), we decided to take up the hobby of making cider with local apples. Sadly, most of the commercially-available apples aren't that good for cider. What's good for cider is often not that great for eating, so there's not much of a market for cider apples. The need to generate our own supply of strange and sometimes nearly inedible apples provided much of the impetus for us to leave our log cabin in the oak woods and buy a farm with room to plant an orchard.

Fast forward to this autumn. Our young orchard of heirloom cider varieties is not yet producing apples and most of the existing trees on the property did not produce apples this year. Apple trees left to their own devices are naturally inclined to produce biennially. Between last year's great crop and a heavy pruning last winter (a first step toward encouraging yearly apple production), we had few apples to work with. The exceptions being Old Creaky (or the Snake Tree as loyal readers may know it) which we didn't bother to prune assuming it was a goner and our wonderful stand of native crabapple trees which seem to produce yearly no matter the conditions. Crabapples are the only native apple trees in the US, so perhaps they don't suffer from the delicate affectations of their EurAsian counterparts. And they are wonderful for cider!

A few hours in the remote section of our farm known affectionately as Krabapplestan yields a bumper crop of hard, green crabapples. Two bushels of crabs, a bushel of Old Creakies (tasty, yet tart enough to make interesting cider), and a few Royal Limbertwigs and Fall Pippins purchased from a local farmer gives us enough ammunition to bring out the cider press.
After a bath and some minor surgery to remove stems, rotten spots, and worms, the apples are ready to go into the grinder.
Once the first barrel in the back is full of ground apples (pomace), we reverse the barrels and the one with the pomace is placed in front under a large cast iron screwpress. The screw is gradually turned, compacting the pomace and squeezing the juice out which then runs through a piece of cheesecloth (to filter out any large bits of apple and to keep the wasps out of the juice) into a bucket. It's always nice to have some additional free labor to help with the grinding and pressing (thanks, Mom!).

Once we have a gallon of juice, it goes into a glass carboy (3- or 5-gallon in years when we have many apples) or gallon jug.

The crabapple juice always has a gorgeous deep red color. As soon as it's in the carboy, we put an airlock on the top to allow gas to escape as the juice ferments and to prevent oxygen from getting in along with any contaminants that might cause the cider to get "sick." Two fermentation cycles and many months later (usually about a year in all), we get to drink our cider. The following is a picture of our most successful cider yet. Pressed in 2009 and bottled mere weeks ago, we are pleased to present Old Orchard Blackberry Cider:

The name refers not to any berry adjuncts but rather to our names for the as yet unidentified apple trees on our farm (one located at the edge of what we think was an old orchard and the other in the middle of a blackberry patch) that gave their apples so that we might drink well. Sadly, there wasn't enough to make more than a gallon of cider last year so we will be hoarding what little we have. And you can be sure that we will be working diligently to protect and propagate the wonderful trees that gave us the best cider ever.