Friday, March 22, 2013

Making bagels

I've been on a baking kick lately. That's how I roll -- doing activities in fits and spurts. Maybe it's because of the weather (still wintery) or maybe it's because I'm supposed to be working on a proposal right now and I'm doing everything else but.

So yesterday I made bagels. While bagels have in recent years earned a villainous reputation for being high carb/high calorie, these delicious ringed treats are in a baked good class of their own -- chewy, sometimes crisp, on the outside, and all spongy and doughy on the inside. Toasted or not, topped with butter or cream cheese or just plain, fresh-out-of-the-oven bagels are worthy of an occasional indulgence.

They're also fun and relatively easy to make, especially when you employ the bread machine to make the dough.

The ingredients for my simplest bagel recipe are:

• 1 cup water
• 1 1/2 tbsp sugar
• 1 1/2 tsp salt
• 3 cups bread flour
• 2 tsp active dry yeast

In my breadmaker it takes about 30 minutes to mix the dough followed by a one hour rise cycle, which is useful for times (like yesterday) when I wasn't paying attention to when the mix cycle had ended and I'd wandered off and gotten immersed in some other form of procrastination (cleaning the barn, making potting soil -- anything but the dreaded proposal).

When I finally pulled the dough out it had that lovely soft-as-a-baby's-bum texture, all springy and puffy and alive.

Careful not to handle the dough too much, I gently stretched it into a longish loaf -- not as long as a baguette, but not as plump and stout as a regular loaf. Like a jelly roll.

From there I scored and cut the dough into 12 roughly similar-shaped sections. With each piece I gently massaged the dough back into a circular shape (as the cutting tends to flatten it a bit) while pressing a hole through the centre with my thumbs. (A photo here would have been useful but I always seem to be covered in sticky dough and flour at this stage with no little hands around to man the camera.)

After doing this with each piece, I placed the uncooked bagels on a greased tray covered with a clean dishcloth and then placed the tray in a warm spot to rise. (Near the woodstove works well.)

While the bagels were rising, I filled my stockpot halfway with water and about 2 tbsp of sugar and brought it to a rolling boil. When the bagels were ready, I dropped three at a time into the boiling water, simmering for three minutes, turning each bagel once.

I then fished the bagels out with a slotted spoon and placed them on a greased cookie sheet. Then I (or one of my helpers, who had since come home from school) painted each bagel with a beaten egg and sprinkled it with our favourite toppings, either poppy seeds, sesame seeds and onion flakes (our version of the "everything" bagel), or just plain poppy seed.

The last step is to bake at 400°F/204°C for 20 minutes for crispy bagels, less for chewier bagels.

The only bother with making bagels (besides the calories) is that they don't last long around here. That and I still have my dreaded proposal to finish...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

New feature: Subscribe by email

One of my readers asked if there is a way to be notified of blog updates by email rather than through the Blogger interface. And the answer is yes!

I've added a "Subscribe by email" widget to the right-side pane (beneath "What I write about"... scroll down... way down) so now you can stay up-to-date on all my madcap adventures here on the farmstead.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

cheers, Fiona

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Baking away my (spring) blues

Yesterday was a cold, blustery and snowy day, one of those chilled-to-the-bone kind of days, so for dinner I cooked a great big hearty and gooey lasagna, served with a side of salad and bread for sopping up every last drop of sauce. As the kids and I raised our glasses and toasted the coming of spring, we said goodbye to Old Man winter and all of its (now tiresome) habits.

Today may be the first day of spring, but it's still cold and blustery and snowing. While some folks in the northern hemisphere are marking today's vernal equinox with seed starting and fits of cleaning, I retreated into my kitchen for some bread making, a decidedly wintery activity. Not to say that I don't bake bread year-round, but there is something particularly nurturing in the way a thick slab of still-warm bread slathered with fresh butter (or not, for you purists) takes the chill off a bitter day, filling the belly and warming the heart.

I have my staple breads -- caraway rye, whole grain, cinnamon raisin, and bagels, which rarely last long enough to see a new day -- but when Miriam at Mucky Boots Farm posted her recipe for Lentil Salad from Still Life with Menu from Mollie Katzen of Moosewood fame, it inspired me to break out of my recipe rut and revisit my cookbook shelf. (And if you're pining for a (virtual) breath of spring, visit Miriam's post on her "United Nations" garden. Get ready to swoon...)

I, too, am a Mollie Katzen cookbook fan, with a fondness for her hand-decorated pages and whimsical line drawings, and her simple mission to make vegetarian food beautiful, delicious and accessible.

I have several of her cookbooks, but I thought I'd try her Sunflower-Millet Bread in her The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest, named after the fanciful yet tasty recipe that features broccoli trees planted upright in a bed of herbed rice pilaf.

While I've long been a fan of baking with seeds, millet is a relatively new-to-me grain, one that is rich in nutrients and provides high-quality protein, B vitamins and minerals. It's also a pretty grain resembling tiny and delicate butter-hued pearls.

It's a time consuming recipe with several steps over several hours: first, you make what she calls a "sponge" with yeast, water, honey and flour and let that rise for 45 minutes, while preparing "the mix" consisting of water, cooked millet, butter, honey and salt. You then beat the mix into the sponge, adding a cup of sunflower seeds and more flour (whole wheat + white), then carry on with the usual kneading, rising, punching, shaping, etc.

There are busy days when I'm quite happy to whip together a quickie loaf of bread and even use the bread machine to do the kneading, rising, punching for me. (Though I always bake the loaves in regular bread tins as I can't stand those giant box-shaped loaves that come out of a bread machine.) But while the end result is a delicious loaf, I miss out on the satisfying, almost spiritual, pleasure of the process.

Then there are times like today when I'm content to putter in the kitchen, working at a slower pace, and experiencing each stage of  the making. Part release of tension, part meditation, I knead the dough until it loses its stickiness and becomes "springy and alive," remembering, writes Katzen, that my job is to "[guide] the dough, making suggestions to it -- not forcing it, tearing it, or otherwise employing intimidation."

It's an exercise in acceptance and patience, about taking time, and not rushing to the next step, which just so happens to produce a subtly flavoured, firm-textured, non-crumbly loaf with a satisfying crunch from the sunflower seeds.

So while soon I'll be spending long days working the soil until it, too, feels "springy and alive," for now I'm content to enjoy winter's last hurrah and with it, its gift of time.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

(Belated) Madcap Monday: Chicken spring fever

"Psst, Frank... it's March Break. How 'bout a road trip?"
Frank, aka The Boss *
Tommy, aka Frank's lackey *
"Run for it!"
"You get the keys, I call shotgun!"
"Hey lady, give us the keys!"

"Frank, no dice on the keys!"

"What now?"
"Don't look at me. I've been here the whole time..."

* Yes, both brutes lost part of their combs to frostbite.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Giveaway winner!

Cinnamon gurl, you are the winner of the Country Women book! (Based on the number of comments I received, I guess I didn't do a great job sharing how wonderful this book is... oh well!)

Please email me at fiona [at] rowangarthfarm [dot] ca with your mailing address. Thanks!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Giveaway: Country Women

"We were shy of one another, of ourselves, and of the whole concept of woman identity. Most of us were preoccupied with the demands in a completely new environment. We were somewhat surprised to find ourselves drawn together -- surprised, curious, attracted, unsure. We met together week after week for almost two years, slowly and often painfully searching out who we were and what we wanted for our lives. We talked, laughed, and cried together; we taught each other how to believe our dreams and helped each other to live them. That small group was the nucleus of a change that spread woman to woman, acre to acre, gradually touching the whole area and then reaching tentatively beyond. We heard of other small groups in other isolated areas and began to realize how much women needed to be in touch with one another in the "new communities" of the back-to-the-land movement..."

These lines are from the Introduction to "Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer" by Jeanne Tetrault and Sherry Thomas, that told 1970s back-to-the-landers what they needed to know about "how to negotiate a land purchase, dig a well, grow vegetables organically, build a fence and shed, deliver a goat, skin a lamb, spin yarn and raise a flock of good egg-laying hens, all at the least possible expense and with minimum reliance on outside an professional help." (Yes, that's the subhead.)

It's filled with how tos, beautiful line drawings, eloquent poems, black & white photos and personal journal entries, and is dedicated to every woman who has shared or will share this dream.

I found a used copy shortly after we moved to the farm and I was immediately taken with its vintage Mother Earth News feel and empowered earth mother vibe. What's more, the book helped me feel less alone. While moving to the land was a different path from most of my friends and family, I wasn't breaking fresh ground, or doing something entirely new -- I was joining a sisterhood of strong women who had been inspired by similar dreams for connection and self-reliance, but knew first hand the struggles of learning so many new things. As written elsewhere in the introduction, this book is meant as both an encouragement and a tool.

As it was published in 1976, it is definitely dated and there are perhaps more relevant how to books on the market, and even the authors admit it's not the perfect reference book for new farmers, but there is still loads of practical information for "the new farmer whose small-scale productivity is as old as America itself."

And as I now have a second copy, I'd like to offer it as a giveaway in honour of International Women's Day.

To have your name entered in a random draw, all you need to do is:

1.) Be a follower of the blog. Not because I'm looking to boost my stats, but because I find every time I offer a giveway, people drop in just for the free swag, never to be heard from again.

2.) In the comments section I'd like you to share something (even one thing) about yourself, such as: where do you see yourself in five years; what are your homesteading/farming dreams; what does International Women's Day means to you; or tell me about a woman who inspires you. (And you don't need to be a woman to comment -- men are absolutely welcome too!)

Blogging offers me the opportunity to keep an online journal, but also to build community with like-minded dreamers and doers. While our meeting place is a virtual one and we may be unsure of ourselves first, I believe, over time, this kind of sharing will help us to believe in our dreams to the point where we can start living them.

P.S. For another chance to win, please share this post with other likeminded readers/bloggers and leave a comment when you do. I learn so much from reading other people's blogs and from hearing from folks who read mine.

Giveaway closes on Sunday, March 10th at 12:00 a.m. EST.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Meeting our meat

The first time I read Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” was the last time I ate a chicken wing, or any other animal flesh for that matter.  Previously ignorant to the horrors of intensively managed factory farming and the cruelties of industrialized animal husbandry, I decided then I could no longer support a system that was predicated on the suffering of animals. It was my introduction to eating as a political act – and that was over 15 years ago. 

My husband, however, is not vegetarian, so when our children, now 11 and 8, were born, we decided to raise them as omnivores. Still more vegetarian than not (as I do most of the cooking), they are given free-choice of what to eat. I struggled with this for a long time; I’d eschewed animal flesh for a reason that I felt passionately about, but I didn’t want to “wrong” my children’s father (or other family members) in their eyes, which I felt I’d essentially do if I promoted a strict and exclusive vegetarian diet. And while I certainly wouldn’t call them particularly enthusiastic carnivores, they do like their meat.

To reconcile this inner conflict I decided if my children are to eat meat, I want them to know where it comes from -- the flesh-and-blood animal, one with a face and personality, not the shrink-wrapped package of cuts from the grocery store. And that means connecting their food with a farmer. Except for a ornery, make that nasty, goat that we butchered for the freezer a few years ago, I’ve been buying meat from local farms that raise their animals humanely. I could feel good, or at least better, about the meat they were eating. The meat is more expensive, sure, but it's not like we need to eat meat every day. (Remember the specialness of the Sunday evening roast?)

And then I got the turkeys. 

As small farms in Canada can only raise 50 turkeys a year outside of the supply managed system (and as quota is extremely expensive, most small farmers can only afford to raise non-quota birds) eaters (in my area, at least) usually need to pre-order their Thanksgiving and/or Christmas bird in February direct from the farmer. I’m just not that organized, so most years I'd end up buying a grocery store turkey. But the year before last, as I rubbed it with seasoned butter thinking about the life it had before arriving in my kitchen – the stress and overcrowding, the crippling leg conditions brought on by growing oversized (and more profitable) white breast meat, the fear, the pain – I decided it seemed an inappropriate and hypocritical way to celebrate the seasons of gratitude and giving.

So last spring I decided to try raising our own Ridley Bronze turkeys. During the 23 weeks they lived on the farm I can honestly say they had an amazing life with long days spent roaming in the sunshine, scratching for bugs and pecking at greens. The day that they went to the abattoir was a sad one, but when the time came to prepare the Christmas bird, I did so with heart-felt gratitude, knowing that I had given this animal the very best life possible. And while I still didn’t eat any of the meat (at the moment I’m just not interested in eating animal flesh, no matter how it’s raised), my family (including my dad and husband, who both love meat) raved that it was simply the best, tastiest, most delicious turkey they had ever tasted.  I don’t think the bugs and sunshine can take all the credit.

Shortly afterwards I started re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and I came upon this passage:

“I can’t claim I felt emotionally neutral as I took these creatures [baby turkeys] in my hands, my fingers registering downy softness and a vulnerable heartbeat. I felt maternal, while at the same time looking straight down the pipe towards the purpose of this enterprise. These babies were not pets. I know this is a controversial point, but in our family we’d decided if we meant to eat anything, meat included, we’d be more responsible tenants of our food chain if we could participate in the steps that bring it to the table…. You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened, or you can look it in the eye and know it. I would never presume to make that call for anyone else, but for ourselves we’d settled on giving our food a good life until it was good on the table.”  

As Kingsolver’s book has inspired countless people to take steps away from today’s industrialized, processed-food pipeline, it inspired me to take a broader look at the meat consumed in our home and my place in putting it there. 

This coincided with a revaluation of how I’ve been managing the farm and a realization that I can no longer afford to keep the barnyard animals simply for the sake of loving them. They needed to provide some sort of “function” and/or further my steps towards a more self-reliant life. For example, the chickens fit the bill as they provide eggs, but the donkeys -- while I loved Cinder and Leeroy dearly, I sold them last fall because I couldn’t justify keeping them as I didn’t yet have a large flock that needed protecting and the cost of hay was skyrocketing. Besides they really liked eating the barn.

While I could “participate in the steps that bring [meat] to the table” (to quote Kingsolver) by buying meat from farms I trust, it felt a bit like I was passing the buck, this “leaving the killing to others.” More importantly, I love raising animals. But could I raise them knowing I was going to kill them? 

Then I read Catherine Friend’s book “The Compassionate Carnivore.” In a chapter where she asks the question if raising an animal and taking it to the butcher is such a hard thing to do, why raise animals for meat at all? Her answer comes in three parts: one, she loves meat and believes that raising meat is a responsibility she can fulfill; secondly, not all land is suitable for growing crops, but can grow grass, and while humans can’t digest grass, animals can. 

But it’s her third reason that reached out and grabbed my heart: “The third reason might strike people as the oddest, but I continue to farm because I love animals. The irony of this isn’t lost on me. You’d think people who raise animals then actually eat them must not like animals very much, but most of the time the exact opposite is true. It’s why we do what we do. But unless a landowner can afford to keep animals around just to look at (this is called a hobby farm, by the way), the rest of us animal lovers must find a way for the animals to earn their keep and contribute to the economic health of the farm.” 

This reasoning jives with a recent conversation I had with a farmer who explained how raising heritage animals for consumption is the best way to, in fact, preserve their genetic heritage. While few farmers could afford to keep them in sanctuary-type facilities (though I am in no way criticizing or dismissing farm sanctuaries), raising rare and endangered livestock for meat builds consumer demand; the more demand, the less rare they become. (It’s called the principle of eater-based conservation.)

Putting aside the ethics of whether we should eat animals (though even that is something I still have to reckon with, and books such as Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s “The Pig who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals” certainly muddies the waters on that front), I’ve decided this year to raise part of the meat that will make its way to the family table. I’ve arranged to purchase two Katahdin meat sheep (a spring lamb to butcher this fall, plus a pregnant ewe that will lamb this May), two Berkshire weaners, eight Ridley Bronze turkeys and about dozen meat chickens. We’ll keep enough meat for ourselves, but I’ll also be selling some to help offset the costs. (Note: In Canada, it's illegal to sell on-farm butchered meat. All meat for human consumption must be taken to a provincially- or federally-licensed abattoir.)

Over the next year I plan to explore this notion of “ethically-raised meat” by visiting and speaking with other farmers, butchers, abattoir owners, chefs, food security experts, ethicists, hunters, among others, and writing about that, while shadowing (and hopefully, illuminating) that research with my own narrative of experience here on the farm.

People who know me and my long-standing vegetarianism are a bit surprised, even skeptical, by my plan for this year. And to be honest, I have reservations about how difficult it will be when butchering day comes. But as a writer, mother and someone who cares deeply about both food and animals, it seems the most honest way to truly understand the arguments around ethical meat and whether, given our current food and farming systems, it’s even possible and sustainable on a small, let alone a larger, scale. 

Field writes, “When people find out I farm and raise animals for meat, many smile, shake their heads, and throw their hands up in mock horror. “Just don’t remind me that meat’s an animal. I don’t want to know that.”

“Why not?” the farmer in me splutters as I think, Don’t we owe the animals that much?

 Yes. Yes, we do.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Coming soon!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Discovering celeriac

OK, I know I'm late coming to the kitchen table on this one. It's not like celeriac is this year's 'must try' vegetable. In fact, it's so 2009, based on my Google searches on what to do with this odd, knobby and gnarled, bulbous-headed root vegetable.

While I'm not intimidated by funky looking vegetables, I admit to not always being the most adventurous produce shopper. While my kids are both enthusiastic greens eaters (Ella actually asks for Brussels sprouts and Jack can put away a shocking number of fresh-off-the-vine cherry tomatoes), they're not the most intrepid when it comes to trying new things. But if they're never exposed to unfamiliar ("weird looking" in kidspeak) veg because I don't want to listen to the chorus of "what is that?" or "you're not actually going to make me try that, are you?" then their palates will never evolve. That's what I lecture tell then at least.

Truth be told, I have another reason for trying celeriac: I don't want to grow celery. Celery has the reputation for being fussy -- hard to start from seed, a gluttonous feeder and a voracious drinker -- and while it's easy to grow bitter, stringy celery, growing tasty celery (I'm told) is much trickier.

I'm not up for growing ornery vegetables this year, so I thought about trying celeriac instead. Even though it doesn't replace celery entirely, unlike its greener cousin, it's much easier to grow and it stores well.

While it looks tough on the outside, I simply topped and tailed it, then used a paring knife to remove the skin, which is thicker than a potato but more forgiving than a rutabaga.

While celeriac is wonderful in soups and stews (so I've read) I wanted to taste the flavour on its own, so I kept the preparation simple: I chopped it into a few large pieces, doused it in some cold water with a shot of lemon juice to prevent browning while the water was coming to a boil, and then boiled until soft. I drained the pot, smashed the celeriac, and only added some butter, milk and salt and pepper. That was it.

The kids likened it to a cross between potatoes and celery. While it was definitely more fibrous than mashed spuds, I thought it had a similar comfort food quality, with a celery-like taste and nutty undertones. Nice.
While this could be a side dish on its own, I'm going to try cream of celeriac soup next.

And while celeriac will never take home any prizes for perfect-looking produce, I think I'll include a few plants in this year's garden. For as Ashley Miller writes in her article from the October 2000 issue of Kitchen Gardener Magazine on "How to Grow Celeriac" ugly is only skin deep.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The not-so-sustainable but oh-so-yummy muffin

The first two days of the week were tied up in  deadlines, while the next two were bogged down by yet more snow. While I love, love the beauty of the farm while it's covered in a thick batten of fresh snow, and one of my favourite places this time of year is parked in front of the wood stove (usually with a mug of tea and some knitting), by now I am getting pretty grumpy about this winter thing. This moroseness always hits me this time of year and peaks after my son's birthday the third week of the month.

One activity that always brightens my mood (and heightens my popularity with the rest of the family) is baking -- the delightful fusion of disparate ingredients, the wet and the dry, into cohesive treats that induce smiles and lips smacks and pips of "can I have some more?"

I love trying new recipes and my oft-mentioned fondness for books includes cookbooks, so I recently picked up new one called "The No Grainer Baker" by local author Ann Preston. It may be a small spiral-bound book, but it contains a wonderful cross-section of 45 gluten-free, grain-free baked yummys, such as muffins, cakes, cookies, squares and biscuits.

While none of us has food sensitivities and I'm not baking gluten-free for health reasons or because bread seems to be the latest buzz-worthy diet prohibition,  I am trying to reduce the amount of carbohydrates we eat. Not in an Atkins-type way, but just becoming more conscious of how often we pop some kind of grain in the form of bread, crackers, muffins, etc., into our mouths, especially in the winter. Recent reports have argued that the high glycemic index of bread (which is the comparative effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar, i.e. a high GI number leads to a spike in blood sugar) is a leading contributor to type 2 diabetes,  as well as heart disease and even cancer.

That said, bread make with whole grains, especially heritage grains, versus store-bought flour that's had most of its nutrition stripped and replaced with stabilizers and other synthetics, ranks lower on the glycemic index, say researchers. While I try to bake much of my family's bread, I admit to still using some "conventional" flours (though this blog post is perhaps motivating me to take the next step to sourcing more local grains...)

I've been working my way through the book and yesterday I made some Seedy Nutn' Honey Muffins with our own eggs and honey. Instead of using flour, Preston uses four ingredients: ground almonds, coconut flour, ground flaxseed and psyllium. In addition to that, her recipes calls for the usual -- eggs, brown sugar, honey, buttermilk (I make soured milk), baking powder and soda, plus nuts and four different kinds of seeds: raw sunflower, sesame, poppy and hemp seeds.

While they look like something you'd leave out for the birds, they were absolutely delicious -- sweet but not cloying; moist but not heavy; and seedy without being too crunchy. I liked that the kids thought them a treat, but didn't suffer from any post-sugar infusion crashes afterwards.

I did feel a niggle while baking these in that they're not very sustainable if you're thinking about feeding yourself using local, seasonal or low-impact ingredients. For example, while I can get Red Fife flour from down the road, I don't know any farm in Ontario growing coconuts. But then again, I still drink (fair trade) coffee, treat myself to the odd avocado, and include bananas in the kids' smoothies, alongside with local berries.

While food has become so politicized and an ever spinning carousel of pundits tell us what we should and should not eat, I'm trying to create our own "diet" -- one that is tasty, nutrient-rich, chemical-free, seasonal, local, sustainable and humanely raised, while taking into account the limitations of living in a northern climate. It's still a tall order, but I think it's important to at least consider these criteria when selecting ingredients and recipes. I'm by no means a purist, and some might call me hypocritical as I often feel like I'm working with a moving target, but it can be exhausting, overwhelming and downright paralyzing to vet every morsel of food that comes into my kitchen. (Still, there are some places I won't compromise -- I refuse to buy factory-farmed grocery store meat anymore, for example, because I will not support a system that is predicated on the extreme and long-term suffering of animals and the degradation of our planet.)

Perhaps rather than preach a particular food dogma, we need to get back to to enjoying, no celebrating, food as something more than just fuel for the body. And sometimes that means baking a really delicious muffin, coconut flour and all.
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