Saturday, April 9, 2011

I Don't Want To Talk About Sheep Today

A. returned home last night, so I can happily surrender my role of Reluctant (and Somewhat Incompetent) Shepherdess and resume my proper role: Master Gardener.

Okay, maybe just Gardener.

We have tomatoes sprouting! WHEEE!!! The first little bent backs of the seedlings started appearing yesterday, and this morning there are several that have straightened right up and started to put out their little leaves. Which means I need to move them into some light now.

So far all the varieties have some germination except the Baby Cakes. Those were some old seeds, so maybe they're done for. But they're no older than the Black Krims, which have germinated like crazy. So no excuses, Baby Cakes. I want to see some germination from you slackers.

A few days ago when it wasn't actually raining I got out into the garden and commenced the Battle of the Weeds. Specifically, I weeded the asparagus bed. I had to do it before the new spears started appearing, because weeds get right in the middle of the remains of last year's stalks and have to be dug out. I probably dug out two dozen tiny dandelion plants, and I pulled up a LOT of encroaching chervil.

That chervil is pushy, man.

I also dug up some dock plants in other parts of the garden. That's always a fun rite of spring.

While I was out there, I checked on the progress of the lettuce, dill, and radishes I planted awhile ago. More germination! WHEEE!!! The arugula first, of course, because arugula is practically a weed and grows like one. But the other varieties of lettuce are also showing signs of life, as are the radishes. No sign of the dill yet, but dill takes forever to germinate. It will come.

Cubby and I went out to the garden yesterday to visit the lettuce and I gave him a taste of the tiny arugula leaves. He didn't spit them out, so I'll take that as a positive sign.

Incidentally, I never liked arugula, but it has grown on me and now I find it delicious. Proof that even my taste buds can grow up.

Except when it comes to liver. I'll never be THAT grown up.

That's all from the garden for now, poppets. Happy Saturday!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Forget a Gold Star--This Deserves Platinum AT LEAST

Cubby and I were outside late yesterday afternoon, wandering around, picking up sticks, beheading the occasional crocus, admiring the sheep, when I noticed that one of the sheep was on the wrong side of the fence. By the road.

A. has been out of town for a couple days, the MiL was at work, and that left me as the designated reluctant shepherdess. And Cubby as my assistant. Sigh.

So I grabbed a bucket of corn and ran down to the road to lure Bonnie (the lead sheep that ALWAYS breaks out) back up the driveway and into the paddock. Cubby stayed on the lawn and watched his crazy mother run by with a sheep in hot pursuit, after which I had to open the gate and get Bonnie back in the pasture while shoving the rest of the sheep away from the gate and not get knocked over in their mad jockeying for corn.

Cubby thought that was pretty amusing.

He also thought it was amusing when I did it AGAIN about twenty minutes later. Because Bonnie jumped right back over that fence, even though I gave them extra hay, figuring if she was hungry that would keep her in. No. She wanted that green, lush, tantalizing grass right on the other side of the fence, and she would have it.

So back to the shop for more corn, back to the road to get Bonnie, running up the driveway again with a sheep on my heels . . . and this time I actually opened the paddock gate to let the others out and bring them all up to the more-secure upper pasture. Except six lambs didn't follow their mothers.

Those little punks stayed right there in the paddock, yelling for their mothers and refusing to move. So I left the gate open, figuring they'd probably find their way up the pasture eventually. Three of them left the paddock, but then they panicked and when the three lambs still in the paddock started running down the fence line, the three outside of the paddock did too. Straight for the road.

I said a very bad word at this point and raced off to the side of them, trying to get in front of them without spooking them and pushing them further forward towards the road. They turned back about ten feet from the road and ran back up, where, instead of going around the gate, they jammed themselves right through the gate's slats to get back into the paddock.

At this point, I picked up Cubby, who had been sitting on the lawn this whole time watching the action like a spectator at a country farce. The two of us then went into the paddock to try walking behind the (STUPID) lambs to gently persuade them they wanted to go towards the gate.

This will not work, in case you're curious, because lambs are STUPIDSTUPIDSTUPID. Also, dumb.

Eventually, a few of the lambs wandered out of their own accord and up towards their mothers in the pasture, where of course they would not go in the gate, but their mothers came out.

At this point I decided to just let the flock wander at will on the property, figuring they'd eventually find their way back to the pasture if I left the gate open. First I let them go back towards the paddock where three lambs were still (stupidly) bleating and once the lambs caught sight of their mothers and wanted to get out to them, I shut the gate enough that the lambs could get out but the ewes couldn't get in. Then I locked that gate.

Did I mention I was carrying Cubby this whole time? Because I was. And he is more giant than ever.


Bonnie, that absolutely exasperating and exceedingly stubborn leader ewe, decided that the grass on the front lawn looked delicious. So she headed that way. Bad news. The front lawn is only separated from the road by a somewhat flimsy electric fence that keeps dogs in but would do nothing to deter a sheep. And when Cubby and I tried to get behind her to encourage her back up to the house, she instead bolted for the driveway to go down to the road, with us in hot pursuit.

Thankfully, she changed her mind when she came to the deterrent in the driveway and went back near the house, with the rest of the flock following. They ended up in a corner outside the garden. The fence kept them from going in the garden, but the rhubarb was outside the fence. Rhubarb leaves are supposed to be toxic. The sheep love them. Don't ask me why. Perhaps because stupid lambs grow up to be stupid sheep?


I was not about to lose our just-now-growing rhubarb to those ridiculous marauders. So I covered it with a few Walls o' Water that were hanging around the garden.

Still, by the way, carrying Cubby this whole time. Can I get some applause for my arm muscles? Because I think they are the real heroes in this story.

The sheep were now near one of the gates to the ram pasture. This gate was propped open so the dogs could get in there to kill whatever varmints might appear in the hollow there and--THANK GOD--most of the flock eventually wandered through the gate on their own. Cubby and I once again tried herding the remaining two ewes (one of whom, of course, was that pain in the ass Bonnie) and three lambs still outside the gate into that pasture.

I'm sure you could guess by now that my herding skills are apparently not up to par and that did not work. AGAIN. So I just got yet another bucket of corn and led them in that way.

Then I shut the gate and carried Cubby inside, where I gave him a peanut butter cracker for being such a good shepherd boy and made myself a drink.

The End.

Update: Oh wait. No, not the end. That was so fun, let's do it again!

I just went out to move the sheep from the ram pasture to the main pasture, because A. called when I was in the middle of dishes and when I told him of my escapades, he said the ram pasture is not entirely secure. Okay, I said, I'll see if I can get them into the main pasture. So I went out . . . to find four ewes over the fence and on the neighbor's property.

Not entirely secure, indeed.

So, bucket of corn and up to the neighbor's (sans Cubby this time, as he is currently napping), and then bushwhacking through the brush to get to the upper gate to the pasture, with four large ewes lunging at my bucket and trying to knock me over. I got them in, put down the bucket, and then feverishly worked on opening up the fence between the ram pasture and the main pasture while they were eating, so the lambs and remaining ewes would join the wanderers in the main pasture. Meanwhile, the rooster was chuffing and dragging his wing threateningly around me as I was kneeling by the fence, and I was all, "DO NOT MESS WITH ME, YOU BASTARD. I AM IN NO MOOD."

After some more lamb stupidity, they all ended up in the main pasture.

It's too early for a drink. Perhaps I can just have some damn breakfast already, IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

It All Started with Potatoes

So how does a nice girl like me end up boiling an enormous pot of cow fat to render tallow? Well, it's a slippery slope. I suppose it can all be traced back to my addiction to french fries. I make my own occasionally, as I have mentioned once or twice. And the oil I used to fry them in was canola oil.

Now, canola oil works just fine and there will be no complaints from anyone eating those fries if that is the oil you use. Trust me. But do you remember what McDonalds used to use to fry their french fries before all this craziness about fats began? Yup, beef tallow. And they used it because A) It has a really, really high smoke point, which makes it perfect for deep fat frying when temperatures get insanely high and B) It supposedly makes for the best-tasting fries.

I say supposedly only because I can't really remember what McDonalds fries tasted like when they were still using the tallow. And I had never made my own with tallow. Which, it occurred to me, is frankly ridiculous considering the quantity of suet I have in my freezer.

Suet is the fat just as it comes off the cow (from around the kidneys, in case you were curious). Tallow is the pure fat that you get after you simmer the suet to separate the oil from the impurities. You strain the oil and that oil is tallow. The solids left are called cracklin's*.

I looked up various ways to render the tallow. Some involved the stove top; some involved the oven; some called for just cutting the suet into small cubes; some suggested cutting the cubes, partially freezing them, and then shredding them in your food processor.

A food processor full of shredded suet seemed pretty gross to me. Also unnecessary work. So I just cut the suet up into little cubes, about an inch square.

Because of the amount of suet I was starting with--which I didn't weigh but totally filled my big 6-quart Crock-Pot--it took quite awhile to cut the suet into cubes. Also, it made my hand cramp, because suet is pretty firm. It's waxy, like candles, and requires some force to cut through. And then, when you've been handling it awhile, your hands get all greasy and slippery, which adds to the fun (and safety!) of using a knife.

But once the suet was all cut up into pieces and and I managed to keep all my fingers intact, I just dumped it all in my Crock-Pot and let it go. See, fats like tallow and lard are rendered at a very low heat over a long time, which is exactly what a Crock-Pot is for. So I saw no reason to monitor anything on the stove when I could just forget it for six hours or so.

I started it on high to get the melting going, then I switched it to low and left it. It was done after about six hours, but I didn't get to straining it until a couple of hours after that. Didn't matter, though. I just switched it to warm to keep it liquid until I could strain it.

I strained it through both a fine mesh strainer and cheese cloth, pressing on the solids to extract all the oil. Next time, I think I'll just use the strainer, though.

And there was my tallow. A little over half a gallon of tallow, to be specific.

That's a lot of french fries.

I haven't actually used any of the tallow yet, but oh, I will. Beefy french fries, here I come . . .

* No terminal "g," you notice. I bet the people who eat cracklin's (yes, some people do eat them) also go huntin' and sugarin'.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Things I Do for Love

I do a lot of things for love, actually. For the love of tomatoes, I practically kill myself every summer caring for 24 tomato plants and canning the resulting harvest. For the love of my husband, I help him round up his lambs for slaughter and sit for hours at the sheep show at The Great New York State Fair. And for the love of my son, I get up multiple times a night (not so much anymore, thank God), carry him when it feels as if my arms will snap off, put various objects on my head to make him laugh, and make crackers from scratch.

Let's talk about that last one, shall we?

I am not a baker. I do not like baking. I find it tedious and boring and much too finicky. Which is why I sounded quite disgruntled a few days ago when I announced to A. with a big sigh that I was going to have to start making crackers for Cubby. He replied that oh, surely I do enough, it isn't really necessary to make crackers.

But when I told him that purchased crackers are A) a total rip-off (almost four bucks for a box of Ritz? really?) and B) total crap (nutritionally, that is--I must confess to a shameful fondness for Ritz crackers myself), he agreed that yeah, they're probably one of the worst things I could feed Cubby.

"Worst" might be exaggerating slightly, but they're certainly no nutritional prize. And when your kid is eating limited quantities of food, you really don't want to waste any of those calories on crap. Cubby loves crackers. He eats at least a couple every day. If he had enough teeth, he could be eating something like Triscuits, which are at least better than Ritz, although still a rip-off. But he doesn't have enough teeth and he needs a cracker that can be easily chewed.

So I made him some cheese crackers. These, to be specific. They're supposed to be a knock-off of Goldfish crackers, except I was not about to buy a little goldfish-shaped cutter to make these, much less poke eyes in the fish with a skewer. I don't love Cubby that much, apparently. So he got star-shaped crackers, because that was the smallest cutter we had.

I didn't exactly follow the recipe. I couldn't find the whole wheat flour (we had it, I just couldn't find it at the time), so I used half graham flour--which is whole wheat, just a very finely ground kind--and half all-purpose. And I didn't have any onion powder, so I used mustard powder.

As I was standing there cutting out all those tedious little stars, then re-rolling the dough and cutting out more little stars, over and over and over, I may have said, "I can't believe I'm doing this."

But I did. And you know, those crackers are really good. And Cubby loves them, so I guess it was worth it.

I also made some hummus while the food processor was already dirty, because when you have to wash all those pieces by hand, you may as well get as much out of one use of the processor as possible. Also, Cubby loves beans, so I figured he would love hummus. He did.

I also rendered tallow yesterday. But that was less an act of love and more an act of insanity. And something we will talk about in more detail tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making Believe

It's still dark right now. Which means I can ignore that suspicious splashing sound coming from outside and pretend that today won't be yet another gloomy, dreary day of pouring rain, but instead may look like this:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Good Housekeeping Foiled Again

In a rare fit of good housekeeping yesterday, I actually mopped the kitchen floor. I should do this every day, but I, um, don't. Not even every week. But yesterday I couldn't take the filth anymore and I got out the mop. This was really very stupid timing on my part, because I then spent two hours in the kitchen last night reducing the maple syrup A. made yesterday. This resulted in little invisible drips of syrup all over the fleetingly-clean floor that I can't actually see, but I can feel when I step on them and my slippers stick slightly. Lovely.

But no matter! Because with yesterday's third and final cooking of sap, we now have two gallons of maple syrup in the freezer. The best use for maple syrup in A.'s opinion is as a topping for vanilla ice cream. The best use for maple syrup in my opinion is to drown pancakes. Luckily, we have enough syrup for both of us to indulge in our favorite vehicles for syrup consumption.

In fact, we have enough that we could even try new ways of mainlining maple sugar into our systems. So, poppets, please share: What's your favorite use for maple syrup?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Yesterday WAS the Day

Cubby seemed to be fine yesterday. He had a good day (well, except for when he got into the cats' litter box right before bed, but we won't talk about that because OH GROSS) and took two good naps. Which means I had not one, but two opportunities to get things done. WHEEE!!!

Nap one: I gathered the trash so A. could make the dump run. He has to do it by himself now that Cubby requires a constant caretaker and the pick-up truck is not exactly child seat friendly. After the dump, A. was going to the butcher to pick up the cow we got from his uncle before he left for Belize. This meant that the new (except pretty old, actually) freezer in the Pit of Despair needed to be cleaned out and the old freezer in the shop needed to be assessed and organized. So, into the shop to take stock of the contents of that freezer (contents: NO ONE could possibly use that much suet, YIKES) and re-arrange what was left in there more neatly, and then into the Pit with bleach and rags to scrub out that freezer. This required many trips up and down the stairs with hot water and towels for drying and so forth, but eventually it was all clean and ready to receive a dead cow.

A lovely visual, I know.

Cubby woke up right before A. got home, so we all went outside together to deal with the meat. Well, Cubby didn't so much deal with the meat as wander around and play in the mud. But he did keep himself entertained while A. hauled boxes and I divvied the meat up and labeled everything.

Because we got a whole cow this time instead of a half, we had fifteen boxes of cow parts total. But a quarter of that was going to A.'s sister, which meant I needed to divide everything in the boxes. So we just put all the boxes on the driveway and I dove in, dealing out sirloin steaks and stew meat as fast as possible so it wouldn't all melt in the surprisingly strong sun.

Nap two: Tomatoes! I only bought two new packages of tomato seeds this year, but I had four packages that were two years old and really needed to be used. So just to use them all up I, uh, planted far too many seeds. I'm anticipating that the old seeds won't germinate as well. At least, I'm kind of hoping they won't germinate as well, because otherwise we're going to have WAY too many tomato seedlings.

The only new variety this year is Caspian Pink, which the MiL specifically requested. I've never had that variety, so I have no idea what it's like, but the other five varieties are all known entities. There will, of course, be Stupice, because they're the early tomato and The First Tomato is always the best tomato. Also Baby Cakes, because they are delicious and now that I know what to do with them (juice! so good for cooking!), I can handle their crazy production. Then there's the Black Krims, which are a really weird color but OH YUM. And the Primetimes and Jet Stars, which are kind of boring standard hybrids, but I had the seeds so I planted them.

Now, assuming these seeds germinate and the plants grow and I don't fry them in the cold frame and I transplant them successfully and don't almost kill them with over-enthusiastic mulching, we will have a LOT of tomatoes.

Tomatoes and beef. What more does anyone need?