Keep up with the goings on around the farm!

Keep up with the goings on around the farm!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Preserving the Harvest...including a fruit leather tutorial!

It is spring. For us this means fresh strawberries. Lots of fresh strawberries. They taste like heaven, especially since the only strawberries we see throughout the winter are last seasons frozen surplus-tasty but so clearly lacking the sun kissed warmth of a freshly picked berry.  Strawberry season not only brings juice dripping smiles, like every successful crop it brings endless hours of processing in the kitchen. This year the patch is just a tad bit bigger than last year yet is producing twice as much. Sweet news.  Right now we are picking baskets like this one daily.
Now let's take this bounty into the kitchen.  The first thing we do is trim the tops, they go into the chicken scrap bucket, I think the chickens love strawberry season as much as we do!  Trimmed berries  fill a casserole dish headed for the freezer. This year we started using a Foodsaver. The berries absolutely must be a little frozen to be vacuumed packed. Ben has learned how to operate the device and he is now in charge. 
Now this prepares us for a sweet winter. One of our favorite meals is flaxseed pancakes topped with homegrown strawberry syrup. These berries will cheer up a chilly morning when they are cooked up with a little maple syrup!

We also use the berries for fruit leather. This is a great way to pack a lot of nutrition and savings into a lunch box. My boys love strawberries but they do not always get eaten when I pack it in the lunch box, actually that is the case with most fruit. With fruit leather if the kids don't finish it, we can save it. It packs home well, unlike the half eaten pear or apple.  Whenever we have a surplus of fruit I take the time to extend its life by making fruit leather.  So here we are, two weeks of lunch box packing left and lots of strawberries. Let's make so e fruit leather!

First we prepare the fruit. For this batch I used our own strawberries and four mangos leftover from the last co-op order.
I purée the fruit in my food processor. I think a blender would work just fine. We are looking for a chunk free slurry!  I have found that color is a huge factor when making fruit leather for kids. If it is red they will eat it guaranteed. Yellows maybe, brown (typical of fig purée) slim.  I always try to add something red! Each fruit will impart its flavor so the kids are developing their palate without too much risk.
Once you have your pure fruit slurry (that is right no extra stuff!) you can move to the next step. I have done fruit leather in the oven, in a small circular dehydrator, and now in a large temperature controlled dehydrator. All work fine but you have to pay attention, especially in the oven.  The ideal temperature is between 135 and 145 degrees. If you find your family likes the fruit leather I totally recommend making the purchase of a food dehydrator or sharing the expense with a friend or neighbor! I finally talked myself into spending g the money for an Excalibur dehydrator and I do not regret it. It is temperature controlled, has 15 square feet of space, and has fruit leather mats.  Last year I was cutting all my mats out of parchment paper which was a total pain when I was making a lot.  No matter what you need a mat, if you don't have one line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and pour your slurry.
Shake out the slurry gently trying to get level coverage. It is recommended to try to make the center slightly thinner than the edges since the edges will dry our more quickly. I have yet to be successful in this...
Load up your device of choice. 
Set the temp.
Wait. It usually takes between 4-6 hours. You have to check it periodically. You are looking for pliability.
When you like the pliability you can peel it right off. I like to roll ours up and slice it. Usually the first peel goes straight to the kids! 
So good. So nutritious. So easy. So pure.  I encourage you to give a try. Find a local farm or farmers market and when the fruit is ripe, process it. I have made many batches of fruit leather at once and frozen it in rolls. It is a great way to eat fresh and whole without bumps, bruises, or stains in the backpack or lunch box!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Culling the Flock-with an entourage

Today I traded a dozen eggs and a luffa for a hired gun, that's right-a sharpshooter. I needed help. My poor hens were suffering from a non stop show off of "I have more cock-a-doodle-do than you do" game amongst the resident roosters.  Here is a little history about our "roo-splosion," then I will explain the bit about my entourage.

Last August we received our first mail order shipment of chicks. It was a "bargain bag," meaning an assortment of leftovers. What a deal right? Not so much. Twenty six adorable chicks arrived. Of those twenty six we have had to dispatch eighteen roosters. One still remains, or I should say at least one still remains as we are still a little unsure of the sex of two more, which secretly deep down means we think they might be Roos too.  Don't get me wrong, when I orderd straight run chicks I knew I was going to have to cull roosters, however I didn't expect it to be quite as dramatic as it has turned out to be. 

About six weeks ago my husband and I, despite chilling rain took care of nine. I was totally tired of feeding so many roosters, not to mention tired of watching them begin to torment the hens.  It was cold and wet outside and the kids wisely stayed inside to play Legos. As my fingers were starting to numb around rooster number six I began cursing myself for allowing this to happen. Removing feathers is a total pain. The birds looked so skinny. (Because they were heritage birds, not a standard grow super fat quick meatbird) It was beginning to feel like a whole lot of work for a little bit of meat.  On the bright side, not growing up on a farm, I was gaining confidence in dispatching and eviscerating a chicken. Afterall apart from a few well chosen books recommended from Mother Earth News I had learned all of my skills from an assortment of YouTube videos including but not limited to a chicken evisceration performed by a young woman with a toddler wrapped in a sling on her back and a dispatch done by an authentic hillbilly under his deer stand. Anyway, I was thankful that I had only managed to catch nine. I would have cried if I had had to pluck one more bird under the slow and steady drizzle of a winter rain in Georgia.

Fast forward a couple weeks. I head to the coop to let the chickens out. On my way I resolve that if I can catch a rooster I will engage myself in the gruesome task of rooster culling. At this point I have attempted a few catches before and the roosters seem to be up on my game, so much to my surprise I was successful in catching not one but three more. Here goes. This time I go at the whole thing alone. Husband and boys spending quality, non violent time together. Three is bearable I say to myself. I can do this. I did. I was super proud of myself.

Another week or so, I catch one more. Only one more. The others are getting savy and my tricks of treats are no longer effective. Neither apparantely is cornering.  Well, I have one. He is bothering the hen. Better get to work.  Again, all by myself. Something about being all by myself is peaceful, even though I am hardly doing anything peaceful. I am killing a chicken and ripping its guts out. Gross.

I keep trying to snag the remaining roosters. I would like to admire their tenacity and allow them to live. I can't do that though. I love my hens. I love my eggs. My hens are suffering a relentless assault of rooster ego. And dinner is good, my family needs dinner. So I keep trying.

Now here we are back to today. I resolve to get help, aim and shoot help.  This may seem cruel but my hens really were suffering. I ask my husband to invite a gun loving friend to help us out.  Now comes the entourage. The friend comes with his two beautiful children, eight and two. My kids love friends. Now I have four kids curious about this rooster killing thing. My kids know what has been going on. They know where their dinners come from. My first kill both boys were there, eager to learn.  The second time they understandably asked to play somewhere else and were rather reserved about eating meat at dinner. Apparantely they have come full circle. They watched the last rooster evisceration with curiosity, questions, and respect. Still I wasn't quite prepared to do the whole job with four big pairs of eyes and hands.

At the coop my hired gun gets two Roos. I bring them back to my chopping block and sever the heads. This is where it got a little weird. The kids were very interested in the head. They were very interested in the death throws. They had questions. Why is the beak still moving? Thus the resulting stick poking at still moving chopped off chicken head. The death throws at our house are explained as the chicken flapping its spirit away helping it make its journey to its friends. My kids are used to this, it seemed to go over well with our visitors. Let's all help wave the chicken spirit off to chicken heaven and honor their lives.  

Now I have two chickens handing upside down bleeding out and I am beginning to wonder if this is an appropriate activity for a group of kids to be a part of on a Sunday afternoon. It is just kind of gruesome, it makes my heart beat faster, I get a little ache in my stomach, and honestly I can't wait for it to be over.  I want a beer. Or two.

It's not over. Time to scald and pluck. Yes, the kids help. Curiosity still the motivator. The question is still rolling around my brain, what kind of mother am I? Nightmares anyone? 

I move my operation and begin cutting off the feet, cutting the poor bird open and removing the guts. Interest is peeking on the kids part so as each part is removed we talk about it and look at it, the heart, lungs, never ending intestines, and the windpipe. The teacher in me approves of this. Anatomy. Biological science. In house field trip. I am a good mother.

Wait a second. These children just watched me point out a kill and finish the deed with my own hands. I am a murderer. Bad mother.

Why am I conflicted about this? What is my adorable little entourage teaching me about my choices? 

Luckily the children's interest had waned for round two. I had a good bit of time to think about these questions as I moved through the motions on my own.  I am bravely concluding that I am not a bad mother because I allowed my children to watch me kill an animal, more than once. I am not a bad mother because I plan on allowing them to watch me do it again and again. I am not a bad mother because I hope they participate more as they grow.  I am making a conscious choice not to shelter them from the sometimes unpleasant realities of life. I take pride that our friend felt it was a good choice to bring his kids and encourage them to participate in a brutally real event.  This is closing the circle allowing it to continue going round and round. The circle of respect. The circle of thankfulness. The circle of need. The circle of giving and sacrifice. The circle of life.

We ate curried rooster and biscuits for dinner. It was good. I had a homebrew with it. I deserved it. My kids are happy. I don't think they are going to have nightmares. Their father is reading stories to them  right now. I hear giggling. There are two more dinners in the freezer. Tomorrow we are going to transplant some strawberries. Tomorrow is not going to be gruesome. This spring will be sweet.  If it ever comes. I am tired, but I am smiling. 

Sweet dreams.