Monday, February 28, 2011

Winners and Losers

Having made a lot of hard cider that doesn't measure up to our admittedly lax standards, we've become increasingly interested in mixology. We weren't really cocktail people, tending to stick to single-alcohol beverages like beer, wine, cider, or single-malt scotch. Between needing to find a way to make our also-ran ciders more palatable and living near a town that has some spectacular bartenders (I'm looking at you Sean), we have been won over.

Something old: Sazerac--the classic New Orleans cocktail and Jim's drink of choice at Zambra
Something new:  No one cocktail comes to mind, but we're enjoying many of the drinks based on the new liqueurs that are coming on the market: St. Germain (elderflower), Canton (ginger), and Pama (pomegranate)
Something borrowed: the Dark and Stormy--The Admiral (Asheville's spectacular gastro dive) put their spin on this Commonwealth drink with their homemade ginger beer and Cruzan's Blackstrap Rum
Something blue: The Blue Hour--Alison loves Zambra's ginger beer, gin, mint, and lime combo

Anyone notice a ginger theme here? Can't get enough ginger--raw, cooked, candied, or booze-ified.

So, when we opened a bottle of last year's cider and it didn't have much flavor, we turned to Cruzan's Blackstrap. I never was a big fan of rum, but I've learned its value in mixed drinks. Being a huge fan of molasses, just getting a whiff of this stuff upon opening the bottle made me want to drink it straight. I had high hopes for it adding just the right level of interest and sweetness to our slightly tart, dry cider.

Before on the left and after on the right. In a word, fail. The flavor was a little more interesting but still too tart. We've had this problem before: adding sweet to tart just makes the tart more pronounced. Someone could probably explain the chemistry behind this counterintuitive outcome but not me. Adding bourbon or brandy usually works but we were over it at this stage. As a lightweight and a cheapskate, I'm not going to waste my limited capacity for drinking and my good booze by continuing to test further combinations. Boo.

That unhappy experiment was countered by a huge win with yet another successful drink recipe courtesy of Bon Appetit. Although the March issue seemed a bit late for promoting a warm drink (where was this in December when we were freezing????), I had to try Chinese Five-Spice Mulled Wine as soon as I saw it. I've loved mulled wine ever since I was handed a mug of the stuff along with a miniature mincemeat pie just for walking into a shop in London at Christmastime. Still, I'm not that good at making it. Getting the balance of sweetness right so that it still tastes like wine but without a nasty edge takes some talent or knowhow that I lack. I have similar problems with Sangria (still haven't found a recipe I like). Plus, the recipes always want you to throw in some orange slices or orange peel which I never have just lying around. Bon Appetit to the rescue.

Despite taking a flyer on a cheap bottle of Zinfandel that was not so nice to drink, the results were spectacular. The combination of wine, ruby port, and brandy gave the drink a wonderful smooth and full mouthfeel while the spice combo of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, and peppercorns lent a flavor that delighted without overwhelming. A little simple syrup holds everything together. Maybe that's what we needed for the cider, too. Maybe next time, but right now, I'm hoping for a little more cool weather so we can enjoy another batch of Chinese Five-Spice Mulled Wine before next winter.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Indian Feast

As the weather returns to normal (or even warmer than normal), you will probably notice a dramatic drop in the number and length of our blog posts. We are enjoying a run of days in the 50s and 60s and may even get up to 70 later in the week. So, most days for me and weekends for Jim will be spent outside clearing more pasture land. It's a lovely time of year to work since the bugs haven't emerged and the hated vines aren't yet growing faster than we can cut them down. 

We did, however, take a break last Saturday to cook a big Indian feast for friends. One friend in particular had an aversion to Indian food based on a bad experience long ago but was willing to give it another try. We put our inexpert but enthusiastic Indian cooking skills to work in hopes of winning a convert to one of our favorite cuisines. Here's the menu--all vegetarian:

Mango lassi
Poppadoms with assorted chutneys (all of these came from the store)
Palak paneer (spinach with Indian cheese)
Pistachio korma (tofu taking the place of chicken)
Mixed dried fruit curry
Potatoes, cauliflower, and cashews in a butter curry sauce (made by our guests)
Snowshoe bread (a great stand-in for naan, also made by our guests)

In case our friend didn't like the meal, we made a decadent non-Indian dessert so she'd end the meal with at least one very positive association: Meyer lemon curd with espresso ganache pie (recipe courtesy of White on Rice Couple's blog). Since Jim can't eat the pie due to the eggs in the curd, he got his own special treat of brown butter brownies with walnuts and cacao nibs (recipe adapted from Bon Appetit). 

By all accounts, the meal was a success. While I don't think our friend will be cooking Indian every night, she at least now has a good experience to counter the negative one. I think she'll be willing to try it again. Next time maybe I can go all-Indian and whip up a mango kulfi for dessert tho' I'm not at all unhappy to be eating leftover pie this week.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Warm Buffalo

Many folks have asked about how the water buffalo fare during a cold, snowy winter. Riverine buffalo seem to do fine as long as they have some way to get out of the worst of the wind and wet. Ours have an old barn, which while far from airtight, gives them a place to hunker down in a big pile of straw in the worst of the weather. They're free to come and go as they please and they choose to stay in at night and on snowy or really rainy days. I've seen them out in single-digit weather if it's dry and the sun's out.

We noticed that all of the buffs grew a winter coat to help keep them warm. Even Audrey, the hairiest of the bunch to begin with, grew longer locks. We didn't see as much beard on her but she has these funny, long tufts of hair extending out from her knees and you can hardly see her toes for the hair that has grown over them. All three have these great rings of hair on their necks. I wish the detail showed up better in these pix. At least you should be able to see that their horns are getting longer, thicker at the base, and curling in more. Here's Audrey:

Most helpful from a warmth standpoint is the fact that all three of them have put on weight. I haven't gotten out the tape measure to see how much but it's obvious to us that they're growing up. Eschol has changed the most. He came to us a bit on the skinny side and now he has filled out and grown so much hair that I sometimes mistake him for Audrey at a distance. Maybe I should put marks on one of their rubbing posts so I can see at a glance how much taller they have gotten. I was worried that Eschol might lose weight over the winter but clearly he is thriving:

Effie never got as much hair as the other two, though she has much more than she did in the summer. Maybe her less-hirsute condition explains why she is the most likely to wedge herself in between the other two in the straw pile. She's no dummy. Audrey usually stakes out the high ground against the wall where the deepest, freshest straw is (she'll skip dinner rather than lose pole position for the night). Eschol tries to get close in but Effie the Enforcer always makes sure he ends up on the side closest to the door where the straw has been trampled to its thinnest and he takes the brunt of any wind that makes it to the back of the barn. On the day I took these photos, there was a bitterly cold wind. The other two wandered around but Effie staked out a position along the lower barn that kept her out of the wind but in prime position for soaking up the sun's rays:

They definitely aren't thrilled about the cold and the snow but then again, neither am I. We all get in a better mood when the sun comes out and isn't thwarted in its warming efforts by an arctic blast. When the temps got up into the 50s and 60s recently, there was a massive lovefest. The buffs were incredibly affectionate and soaked up every bit of attention we were willing to give. Even Eschol toned down the testosterone surges long enough to get some tummy rubs. Jim nearly lost his Adam's apple to some very enthusiastic under-the-chin licking by both girls simultaneously. Sure wish I'd had the camera for that moment.

The grass is showing signs of wanting to regrow and the buffs are eagerly going after every green thing they spot. We've got another bad cold snap coming soon so it will be awhile before the grass really gets going. Fortunately, there was no drama when we switched over to new hay this month. They had previously rejected the second-cut hay in favor of the first-cut (no doubt because the former is lower in nutrients) but when we ran out of their favorite, they didn't hesitate to eat the newer hay. Good thing because I wasn't sure the airplane trick was going to work on these clever critters. For those keeping score at home, that was 100 square bales of timothy/orchard grass hay through the end of January. We've got 100 more to get us through until we're back to 100% grazing sometime this spring.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

January Clearance

To all our friends and family suffering through yet another Snowmaggedon/Snowpocalypse/Snowlocaust--one that may be nearly worthy of the hyperbolic descriptors that seem to accompany every major snow event these days--you have our deepest sympathies. Hang in there--spring will come. We got a brief glimpse of it this past weekend and it was glorious. Two full days of good weather meant we were able to get a lot of work done on the farm. And at this stage of the game, that means destroying stuff.

We've been working on clearing the rest of the Fish Pond--the long-dry, old retention pond that we're reclaiming to use as pasture. I'm not good about taking "before" pix but here's one from when we were first looking at the farm in the summer of 2008.

This was taken from where the beehives are. As you can see, there's only a tiny sliver of grassy area going back into the pond (the Black Walnut tree at the right is on the berm around the pond and is a good marker for seeing where the pond starts). Here's what it looked like when Jim was standing in the pond where that grassy bit ends and the wall of Blackberry canes began:

And here's how it looks now:

Yup, that's the same walnut tree on the right but now you can see all the way through to the old chicken coop.   We still have a lot of downed trees and annihilated vines to cart out but once that's done, we'll be able to fence off the space and let the buffs trim down all the remaining vegetation. One of the big chores has been making a path through the bamboo forest on the side closest to our house. The previous owners thought they had planted the kind of bamboo that doesn't spread. Oops! The photo doesn't do justice to how big a swath I cut through here but take my word that a lot of bamboo came out. Hopefully, it will be clear enough to get the fence through. There's still quite a bit just to the right of where the photo above ends. Let's take a closer look at it from the other direction.

Really, there's a path through here:

You'll have to take my word that this was solid bamboo from left to right. If you look closely, you may see a white pipe sticking out somewhat horizontally in the lower half of the picture. It's one of many interesting things we found as we cleared. There are two PVC pipes that appear to run under the driveway from the well house to the pond. I suspect they were used to pump water to the pond from the old hand-dug well. If they're still in good shape, we might be able to use them to run water to a stock tank for the buffs--that would be a huge score! It would save me from hauling as much water by hand and not require us to dig up the driveway to run pipes to automate the process. The water buffalo will eat the bamboo--the leaves at least and probably the young shoots--so that will help with keeping the remaining bamboo from spreading too much.

Another find was on the other side of the pond under this Box Elder tree that sits above the feeder creek:

This same dead or dying tree is home to what we think are oyster mushrooms. What I missed when I was focused on fungi, however, is how the tree has grown up on and around a bunch of stacked stones in the creek. Upon closer inspection, we think the stones were supports for an old bridge across to the Booth and Krabapplestan. But wait, there's more. We also found a large, cast iron pipe running from the pond and emptying out over this same stacked stone area. We haven't figured out where the pipe begins; only where it ends. And one of the stones appeared to have a channel cut into it to guide the water in a particular spot. We have no idea what all this means but have been trying to come up with an explanation for what we're looking at. Maybe instead of a bridge, there was some sort of gate to regulate water flow. We have found a concrete structure further down in the pond that looks like a way to bring water in or let it flow out. It may be time to call in the old timers and see if they have any clue.

We're learning to pay attention to where the weed-like Box Elder (locally known as River Ash) grows. Another discovery this weekend was that of a yet another Box Elder tree growing around a large iron hoop. We'd been working around this tree several times before but never noticed what appears to be some sort of iron wheel perhaps from some old piece of farm equipment. Funny that we missed the hoop when we found an old plow near the same tree a couple of years back. And then there was the tractor pedal assembly trapped by another tree on the other side of the driveway near where we found the old mower blades. At least we know our land isn't iron deficient.....

Just looks scrubby, right? That is the chicken coop behind it and that's a project for another month or year. Here are some closer shots to give you an idea of how well the hoop has been enveloped by the tree.

You can see a pin or dowel of some sort on the inside of the wheel (for securing spokes, perhaps?) as well as a piece of old barbed wire. This tree, like so many others in the fence line, was used as a substitute for a fence post and has grown around the wire so it now runs completely through the middle of the tree. Not good for the tree and not good for the guy who has to cut the tree down with a chainsaw. We will be cutting the tree and trying to liberate the hoop/wheel eventually.

So, it was a weekend of many discoveries. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and got a lot of exercise in the process. Next up: an update on the buffs who also had a lovely weekend.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Scotch Eggs

After enjoying a couple of meals of leftovers from Burns Night, I had the opposite problem that I do after Thanksgiving: no main course and lots of sides. What to do when there's still neeps and tatties but no haggis? Make Scotch eggs, of course.

If you are looking for a healthy meal to work off your post-holiday guilt, go to another blog. We behaved ourselves this year and thus feel no compunction about having the occasional full-fat meal in January. Something about the cold and dark makes for easy reminiscences about our time in London. Scotch eggs were a great grab-and-go snack from the chip shop when there was a long, cold slog home in the dark at the end of the day. Especially when preceded by a pint or two at our local.

I (just me now as this is a strictly carnivore dish) have tried to recapture the magic a few times at theme pubs in the US--most recently at a bar in Savannah, GA which specializes in Scotch whiskey--but have been sorely disappointed in their attempts at Scotch eggs. Once again, the NY Times came to the rescue. The writer of the article that accompanies the recipe shares my aversion to deep frying and she came up with a method that didn't require too much oil or special equipment, so I decided to give it a go. I skipped the horseradish and cornichons as they aren't part of what I remember eating and I just don't care for either.

The heart of the matter, of course, is the egg. The eggs must be hard-boiled like a good detective. Based on my experience, I would recommend getting very small eggs--definitely not jumbo or extra-large. If you have your own chickens, this recipe would be a great use for those small, early attempts by first-time layers. After cooking and peeling the eggs, it's time to get messy.

Each egg gets rolled in flour, completely encased in sausage, rolled in flour again, covered in beaten egg, and rolled in panko. This is the stage where you will realize your error if you used very large eggs: massive snowball effect.

The presence of my wonderful new digital thermometer means it's time to get the oil going. Fortunately, it's only half an inch of olive oil in a medium sauce pot.

Definitely verify that the heat is up at 350 degrees before cooking. I tried to eyeball it then checked with the thermometer. I can tell you that 250 and 350 look an awful lot alike if you're just looking in the pot. How gloriously fast the Scotch eggs browned up. Do be sure to leave them in long enough for the sausage to cook through. My big fat eggs took a bit longer than the recommended 7 or 8 minutes. You may want to just cook one first, cut it open, and verify doneness before doing the whole batch (if it's undercooked, finish it in the microwave).

This is what success looks like:

But wait--there's the final test: how does it look on the inside?

Perfection! I couldn't be happier with the look or the taste. In my enthusiasm, I made the mistake of eating two of them and that just about killed me. One of these big bad boys was more than enough for a meal. And as happy as I am with the result, I don't think I'll be eating these often. It's just fun to know that I have the option whenever London's calling. Or Edinburgh.