Saturday, February 28, 2009

Okay, Back to the Puppies

I know, I know. What was I thinking, posting photos of my new (pretty!) liquor cabinet yesterday when there are puppies to be photographed? An egregious error on my part, and one that I will now remedy with a puppy close-up. Ready?



All together now: AWWWWW.

I should probably mention that not all the puppies are black like this. Without getting too far into the genetics of collie breeding (because I don't really understand it myself, but we'll pretend I do), I'll just say that since Otty is a smooth (short-coated) tri-color (black) collie and she was bred to a rough (fluffy) sable (brown) collie, the puppies could have been either black or brown, smooth or rough. At the moment, I believe we have three roughs, three smooths, three blacks, and three browns, but I can't remember how many of the brown ones will be fluffy and how many of the black ones will be smooth. There are a lot of variables, and it's all very confusing. You can trust me on this, though: They'll all be cute.

And just because I don't want Mia to think I don't still love her best, even though there are all these new, small, precious little bundles of wriggling puppy flesh about, I'm going to post a photo of her. Also because she's weird and amusing, and I wanted to share that with you.

I looked out the dining room window yesterday and saw Mia perched on top of the pile of garden compost, surveying the land from her great height for all the world like a monarch on the throne.

Weirdo

And now that everyone has had their puppy fix, I'll be going now. Have a lovely day.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Just In Time for Friday

It's Friday! Let's talk about liquor! Again.

A long time ago, I explained to you (with photos!) our lame and very trashy liquor storage system, involving cardboard boxes and the floor. Classy. But I ALSO mentioned at that time that my dad, the amateur carpenter extraordinaire, was working on a liquor cabinet for us. A liquor cabinet built to my very own specifications. My very own specifications being, of course, approximate measurements and the request that I be able to get my damn bottles off the floor, already. To all other questions involving design, type of wood, color of stain, and so on, I deferred to my dad's superior knowledge on the subject of wood furniture. Basically, I told him to use his own judgment and I'd be happy with whatever he came up with.

So he did. And I am. Check THIS bad boy out, y'all:


Woah, daddio

I KNOW. Is that not the most awesome liquor cabinet ever? It fits perfectly in the space I wanted it in. It has 18 slots for wine bottles (most of which are being used for liquor bottles at the moment, but whatever), it has a shelf for bottles, it has those little slotty racks for wine glasses . . . it has inlay. Look:

LOVE

The inlay is that strip of darker wood that runs around the edge, and the "V" in the middle. Those are small strips of wood that he cut out and fit together into a groove. But not just ANY wood. That's OUR wood. It came from a dead black walnut tree on our property that we cut down a few years ago. A. thought my dad might want some of the wood for his woodworking, so we shipped him some. And he used some of it in our liquor cabinet. Isn't that COOL? Yes, it is.

Somehow, although I grew up in a house with many pieces of furniture made by my father, I never really appreciated what a skilled and talented carpenter he is. But he is. His status is officially being upgraded from amateur carpenter extraordinaire to just carpenter extraordinaire, because there ain't nothin' amateur about this liquor cabinet.

Thanks, Dad. You done good.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Are You Sitting Down?

Yes? Okay. Get ready, because look what I found in the barn this morning . . .


PUUUUUPPIES!

EEEEEE!!!!

They were NOT supposed to be born in the barn. Mama there (that's Otty the show dog) was bred at the end of December. She was supposed to have the puppies on Monday, in a nice, heated, carefully prepared whelping area. She showed no signs of imminent labor last night when the MiL put the dogs in the pasture for the night. But still, I went up to let the dogs out this morning at 8 a.m., and Otty wasn't waiting by the gate in her usual spot. She came out from the barn briefly, then ran right back in. That's pretty much when I knew what had happened.

I glanced in the barn, saw the pile of wriggling flesh in the hay, and literally ran back to the house, bursting into the kitchen and announcing the puppies to the MiL, who in turn ran up to the pasture in her robe and slippers. The next 15 minutes were intensely chaotic, as the MiL grabbed one puppy that wasn't moving and tried to revive it while I hurriedly finished setting up the whelping area in the house and moved Otty and the puppies down there, trying to keep the other dogs away at the same time.

There were a lot of lucky breaks here. It was relatively warm last night, otherwise the puppies would have died of cold. The MiL was home this morning--Thursday is the only day she doesn't go to work at 7:30 a.m. Otty didn't start to have the puppies until about 6 a.m., so I found them not too long after they were born. In fact, she had one in the time it took me to get to the house to tell the MiL, and that one was inexplicably deposited in the open, in the middle of the pasture. But because we got up there immediately after it was born, we could grab Otty and make her take care of it right away. And lastly, I went up there earlier than I normally do. Most of the time, I leave the dogs in the pasture until about 9 a.m., when I feed them.

Sadly, one of them did die. It must have been the first one born and just gotten too cold, or maybe Otty didn't take care of it right away. This is her first litter, and she's doing well caring for them, but she was probably a little confused as to what was happening. We still have three, though, and more are on the way. She could have as many as eight, though it will probably be more like six. Which means there are probably at least two more to come.

And people think living in the country is boring.

Update: Okay, we now have six live puppies. One is kinda sickly and a little dubious, but at the moment, they're all nursing and happy. And yes, they do kind of look like guinea pigs. Give 'em a week to fluff out, though, and the cuteness will be so overwhelming, you won't be able to look at the photos without shielding your eyes.

Of Sheep and Shearing

The recent shearing post elicited two responses: questions about the wool, and comments like, "Why the hell don't you have electric shears, you masochistic maniacs?!" Or something to that effect. So I thought I should address these issues.

We will wash the wool (with plain old dish soap), just to get the worst of the dirt out. It will then be brought to a nearby woolen mill that will wash it more and card it. Carding is when the wool is basically combed over and over until it's all fluffy. The fluffy stuff is called roving. Roving is what spinners spin into yarn. The woolen mill will do the spinning, too, if you give them a certain amount of wool. We have not yet collected enough wool for them to spin. One of the MiL's cousins spins, and she offered to teach us. We just haven't gotten around to it yet. The MiL knits. I do not. I tried it once. I'll just be polite and say it wasn't for me (repeat after me: Kristin is NOT krafty). But if we could get to the yarn stage, we could certainly get something knitted from our very own sheep's wool. We're working on it.

Now. As to why we ("we" meaning A., of course) use hand shears: Hand shears are much, MUCH cheaper than electric shears. Like, hundreds of dollars cheaper. We've only been shearing a few sheep, and buying electric shears for that would not be cost-effective. Once the flock grows to the point that we have enough shearing to warrant electric shears, we STILL will not buy electric shears--we will get a professional shearer to come with his or her own electric shears and shear the flock.

In addition, A. is not a professional shearer. He had never sheared a sheep before last year. He had no training or experience; he just threw the sheep down and started cutting the wool. A. is of the opinion that for an inexperienced shearer, hand shears are a lot safer than electric shears, mostly because they force you to go slower. I can imagine it would be all too easy to get to buzzing quickly with the electric shears, and then . . . WHOOPS! Did you just shear off a nipple?

Yes, it can happen. And yes, I would promptly throw up if such a thing occurred.

The shearing is not particularly stressful for the sheep, as someone suggested. Our sheep aren't fazed by much. Once they're down, they just accept their fate and wait for it to be over. One of them even nibbles grass while she's being sheared. Hardly the behavior of a traumatized sheep. In fact, I think the worst part of it for them is watching the rest of the flock eat the bucket of corn we use to catch the sheep we want. They really like corn.

We don't worry about a lot of second cuts (this means shorter tufts of wool that are usually cut in a second go-round--these are not as desirable from a spinning standpoint because you want long fibers), because we are not commercial wool producers. A. actually does do an excellent job with the shearing and gets the wool off basically in one big mat (which is the goal), but even if he didn't, we can be choosy with the wool and just take the best of it. We're not really trying to maximize the amount we get; we're just trying to get it off the sheep.

In the end, of course, it comes down to this: The shepherd wants to use hand shears. And the shepherd's word is law. Amen.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Yet Another Half-Assed Recipe from Kristin's Kitchen

What I make for dinner is often dictated by the meat that's at the top of our big, black hole of a chest freezer. This thing is packed with cardboard boxes of meat, and if a particular kind of meat is at the very bottom of the freezer underneath hundreds of pounds of meat, I have to REALLY WANT IT to risk frostbite to my fingers, a pulled back muscle, and the inevitable cussing that occurs when I go freezer diving. So. Easily accessible meat! It's what's for dinner!

Yesterday I opened the freezer, grabbed the first package I saw, and ended up with a sirloin tip steak. Okay. Then I pondered what to do with it. My sub-conscious must have been hard at work, because it was only after I decided to make grillades and grits that I remembered yesterday was Fat Tuesday.

(Wait. Before I go any farther . . . have I mentioned that my mom is from New Orleans? Yes? Okay. Let's continue then.)

Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is, in turn, the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, the 40 days culminating in Easter. Got all that? Fat Tuesday is also the last blow-out for Mardi Gras, a festival celebrated with particular abandon in New Orleans, the city that is also known for grillades and grits. Do you see how this all fits together? It's magical, really.

Okay, so maybe grillades aren't (isn't?) really KNOWN by the general populace. First of all, let's get the pronunciation right. My family always pronounces it "gray-odds," so that, of course, is correct. Even though some people pronounce it "gree-odds." It tastes good however you say it, though, so let's move on. Grillades is (are? this is a hard one, man) a beef preparation. It is very similar to Swiss steak, except it's NOT Swiss, because the recipe calls for a roux. But of course.

Grillades are (is? oh, screw it--who cares) also cheap, because you take a cheap cut of meat and simmer it a long time to make it succulent. Yay for cheap! Though I used the sirloin tip steak, Mama Sue (WHY do I keep calling her this? NO ONE calls her this) always used cube steak, and my recipe card calls for round steak. Any lean, thin, stewing kind of cut will work, I think. And I don't know them all, so don't ask me what the others might be. Do some homework, ask your butcher, whatever. Let's just get to the recipe, okay?

Once again, copied off a recipe card of my mother's that she probably doesn't even know she has.

Mama Sue's Mardi Gras Grillades and Grits

1 and 1/2 pounds round steak, about 1/4 inch thickness

1/3 cup flour

1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (like canola)

1 large onion, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

3 toes garlic, minced (remember, "toes" are Mama Sue-speak for "cloves")

1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes, with juice

3/4 cup water

3/4 cup parsley (I never use this, because I never have it)

1) Cut meat into 3-inch strips. If your meat is thick, you can pound it thinner with a frying pan or mallet. Or you can be lazy and just cut it into smaller squares. This will be discussed later, so make sure you read the directions all the way through. (Who just flashed back to third grade?)

2) Mix flour and salt together on a plate and dredge both sides of the meat pieces in this mixture, saving the remaining flour.

3) Heat 1/4 cup vegetable oil in a large, non-reactive (meaning not cast iron--tomatoes do bad things to the seasoning on cast iron) skillet on high, then brown the meat on both sides.

4) Remove meat and lower the heat to medium. Add reserved flour to the oil in the pan and make a roux, as described in the red beans and rice recipe. You'll notice that there's a lot more flour in proportion to the oil in this roux, which means it can burn easier, so be careful.

5) Add 2 more tablespoons of oil to the pan, then add the chopped onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook until the vegetables are soft.

6) Stir in tomatoes, water, and parsley. Check to see if you need to add salt. Then nestle the meat in there, making sure to spoon some of the sauce over the meat.

7) Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer about an hour. You want to be able to cut it with a butter knife. The time depends on the thickness of the meat. If your meat is thicker and you don't want to pound it thin or wait for-damn-ever for it to get tender, you can cut it into smaller squares instead of strips. That's what I ended up doing last night. The sauce is going to be pretty thick because of the flour, so you'll want to give it a stir and scrape the bottom of the pan every 15 minutes or so to make sure it's not sticking and burning.

8) Serve over grits. If you're afraid of grits, then you're a total pansy. You can use rice instead, if you have to and can live with your cowardice.

And there you have it--a feast fit for Mardi Gras. Now, get to cookin', y'all!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bored, with a Side of Boring

That's how I'm feeling lately. There are lots of things coming up soon*, but nothing has happened yet. And it's cold still, and gray, and there's snow on the ground. So. Yeah. Bored. And boring. And you know what THAT means!

It's Audience Participation Day! Also known as Kristin-doesn't-feel-like-providing-all-the-entertainment-today Day.

So, I want YOU to entertain ME. And I want you to do this by telling me about a blog that you think should have been on Time magazine's 25 Best Blogs list (the link to which I saw on Bossy yesterday, and Time? Why is Bossy not on that list, dammit?), which really should have been named Time magazine's 25 Blogs that Kristin Never Wants To Read, Except for Confessions of a Pioneer Woman. That list sucked, and I'm sure you can all do much better. So, give me your recommendations of the undiscovered yet fantastic blogs that you think are so much better than the lame techie and political blogs endorsed by Time. Because what I really need are more excuses to waste time online during the day.

Thank you for your cooperation.

* Unfair teaser: Baby animals! And not just of the ovine variety! Trips far afield! Farther than the farm store, even! Blessed nuptials to be celebrated at Blackrock! Life is about to get much more exciting.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Saturday Fun: A Roll In the Hay

When we left our heroes (that would be A. and me), they had finished shearing Coco the Sheep and were ready to move on to the next Saturday chore: the hay.

Sheep are really low maintenance in the summer. You stick 'em out in a pasture full of grass, make sure they have water, and wait for the lambs to grow big enough to eat. In the winter, though, they require a bit more effort. Procuring hay, for instance.

A. buys his hay from a farmer a few miles away. He's a commercial farmer with a big operation, which means that he makes very large bales of hay. Not many farmers nowadays make the small, 75-pound square bales (except it just occurred to me that they're actually rectangular, so why are they called square bales?) so familiar to all of us from Halloween decorations. Modern hay bales tend to be huge, either rectangular or round, and they weigh hundreds of pounds. They are always handled with machines. They can't be lifted by a person. But the round bales can be rolled.

So on Saturday, A. drove Big Red up to Farmer John's (yes, that is his real, honest-to-God name) to get hay to replenish the sheep's store. Farmer John has a machine he uses to lift the hay bales and put them in the back of A.'s truck. Then, when A. gets home, he positions the truck so that we can roll the hay bale off the back of the truck and to the barn. Then he unwraps the plastic that keeps the bale together and starts pitching the hay into the barn. The bale is rolled up kind of like a cinnamon roll (mmm, cinnamon rolls . . .), so he basically unwinds the hay in strips and then uses a pitchfork to move it into the back part of the sheep barn.


Pitching hay is just an impossibly bucolic activity.

The hay is kind of fluffy when it's pitched in, and it fills the hay mow quickly. The first time we did this, the hay mow was full and we still had more hay that we needed to put in there. That's when I remembered that Laura Ingalls Wilder used to go out with Pa and trample down the hay in the wagon when he was pitching the hay stacks in at haying time. So I climbed up into the hay mow and trampled the hay, just like Half-Pint. I knew my obsessive reading of the Little House books would come in handy one day . . .

I basically fling myself into the hay mow and then stand up and stomp around on the hay to press it down. It's kind of fun, although climbing into the hay mow is a little bit awkward.

After the flinging and before I got to my feet. See? Awkward.

I'm sure you noticed Mia's head peering up at me from the bottom of that photo. I think she wanted to play in the hay mow, too. Or maybe she was just bemused by what the crazy human was doing now. She likes to hang around when we're working. She's not very helpful, but she is good company. And she doesn't mind getting covered with hay.

What a good farm dog.

This should be the last hay bale the sheep will need this winter. The grass will start growing soon and then they can be let loose on the pastures, where they can graze with no assistance from us.

And that's the end of our Saturday fun. But who knows what next Saturday will bring? It's always a party at Blackrock!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Saturday Fun: The Shearing

Yesterday was a busy and productive day for us. We took last Saturday "off" for Valentine's Day. For us, that means running away from the property and all its attendant chores. The only way we can really have a day off is to distance ourselves physically. So we did. But that meant some catching up to be done this weekend. Fun!

We didn't exactly hit the ground running at dawn, though. Unless "dawn" is at 8 a.m. and it counts that we hit the ground and ran down to the kitchen to eat blueberry pancakes and drink our coffee by the woodstove. So let's say we moseyed out the door well after the sun came up and hauled all the trash to the dump. Then we went to the feed store to get corn. When we got home, A. powered up the chainsaw and cut up a bunch of tree limbs that have been sitting around blocking paths for the whole winter. Then we hauled them to the burn pile. And then we commenced The Shearing.

Shearing is not one of my favorite chores. Not that I DO a lot other than hold the sheep and clean up afterwards. A. does most of the work. And it's a LOT of work, because he uses non-electric hand shears. But the awkward, hunched positions we're in for the hour or so it takes to shear one sheep leave both of us tired and sore, him more so than me. Those people that shear whole flocks of sheep in mere days must be a race of superhumans.

BUT ANYWAY.

We last sheared the sheep in late April, so it's been almost a year. A. decided not to do it in the fall again, as we normally would, but to wait until just before lambing. This way the ewes are cleaned up and everything is more, um, accessible for him if he needs to help them, and for the lambs when they're nursing. We're expecting the lambs at the beginning of April, so we figured right about now is a good time to shear, before the ewes get too pregnant and while it's still cold, so the ground is frozen and not muddy.

Because it's still cold, he didn't worry much about getting the wool very short. Last weekend, we sheared Bonnie the Sheep. (And I didn't tell you about it--I KNOW. How could I keep such a thing from you?) Yesterday it was her sister Coco's turn. These are the two Cotswold ewes. Their wool is very long and very hard to cut. It was particularly long this time, because it's been so long since the last shearing.

Even though I was supposed to be holding the sheep, I ran off to get the camera, leaving A. swearing and struggling with an agitated sheep that thought that since I had run off, she should get to run off, too. Whoops. But I got the photos. For you.


The bright blue tarp is our shearing platform. Professional.

And a close-up of the wool:

That bright white patch there is the bald spot that's been sheared so far.

Coco had a lot of good, clean wool on her. We ended up with a kitchen garbage bag stuffed full, which will be washed and eventually brought to the woolen mill to be carded and then spun into yarn for knitting.

We only did the one sheep yesterday, because there was another chore waiting. And that brings me to the teaser for tomorrow's post . . .

Tomorrow on Going Country: A roll in the hay with Kristin. Stay tuned!