What’s for Dinner?

When you live on a farm and butcher your own meat, and are putting that meat in the freezer for long-term storage, it’s important to label the packages clearly.

Unfortunately, try as we might, we don’t always remember to follow this rule. As a result, I’m not entirely sure what’s for dinner tonight.

Yesterday morning, I pulled a somewhat frosty Ziploc bag from the freezer. I made a quick inspection, and thought it looked like ground beef. I set the bag on the kitchen counter, to begin thawing it for lunch.

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By the time lunch rolled around, the meat was still mostly frozen — but thawed enough so I could tell it was most definitely not hamburger. Apparently, the frost had thrown me off.

But what was it?

Evidently, in the rush to get the meat cut into meal-sized portions, and off the butchering table, someone (probably me) forgot to write anything on the label. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a leg roast from a young goat that we butchered recently. But it could also be a leg roast from a deer that I butchered about three years ago. I really don’t know.

I put the bag in the fridge to continue thawing overnight, and then our eldest daughter put the meat in the Crock Pot this morning. We added some apple cider vinegar, an onion, salt, and various spices (rosemary, basil, etc).

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We then let it cook on low for a few hours, waiting for the fat to come melting off, before adding some chopped potatoes and stirring everything up. It’s been cooking together like that all afternoon now.

I’m still not positive about the meat, but it sure smells good. And with the little September snap we’re already sensing in the air, I have a feeling that this hearty roast is going to make a wonderful dinner tonight.

Whatever it is.

How the [Old] Goose is Cooked

What to do with an old goose that has escaped the butcher’s knife for several Christmases running? Geese are most tender at the end of their first year, and so we try to get all of a year’s hatchlings butchered in the late fall of that same year. That gives them plenty of time to get to a good size, but not enough time to get old and tough. It also means they can get virtually all of their nutrition from pasture, and won’t have to be fed grain over the winter.

Yet, every year, it seems that winter hits in full fury before I manage to get the last gosling butchered. There are few things as miserable as standing out in the bitter cold, or a November rain, trying to pluck a goose before one’s face and fingers go numb. So, every year, a handful of lucky geese have gotten to survive to see another spring.

And that was okay, up to a point. When we’d get a new batch of goslings, in April or May, we had a whole gaggle of adults all set (and eager) to adopt those goslings and raise them for us. It was only necessary to brood them under a heat lamp for a few days. We’d then turn them loose, and stand back as the adults swept in to take over. After several minutes of the most obnoxiously loud honking you’ve ever heard, the initiation would be complete. The new goslings were full members of the Fraternity of Goose.

Ever watched a pair of wild Canada geese taking care of their goslings? The adults stand guard for predators, chase off any interlopers, and make sure the young go where they’re supposed to go. Now, imagine a whole pack of geese doing the same thing, out in our pasture all summer. It’s great fun to watch.

Then, this past winter, things got completely out of control. We were up to 15 adults being over-wintered, and they were eating us out of house and home. Something had to be done. But what? We’d read in Carla Emery’s classic Encyclopedia of Country Livingthat it was best to allow a mature goose to live out its life and die of natural causes. They weren’t worth butchering, she said, because they were “as tough as shoe leather.”

We believed her.

Emery’s book is a fantastic resource, but with 15 adult geese that weren’t finding any natural causes to die of, I knew I had to come up with some kind of creative solution. And after a bit of research, I found it: brine.

An experiment with one goose confirmed it, and we’ve been following this method ever since with great success. We didn’t even buy a new batch of goslings this spring; this year, all we’re going to do is clear out the old ones.

Here’s what we do:

1) Butcher the goose as usual. My preferred method is to tie a piece of bailing twine around both legs, suspend the goose upside down from a nail on a beam in the downstairs part of the barn (dirt floor), slit its throat, and let it bleed to death. Once it’s dead, I dunk it in a large pot of scalding water to loosen the feathers. I then hang it back up on the nail, and pluck the feathers (stopping from time to time to dunk the bird in hot water again when necessary). The carcass is then transferred to an outdoor table, where I clean and eviscerate it. Lungs get tossed to the barn cats. Heart and liver get set aside to be added to other poultry hearts and livers (for “heart and liver night”). The other internals are tossed, along with the head, tail, and webbed feet.

2) Instead of freezing the carcass whole, as we do with a young one that we intend to roast, I next carve the goose into pieces: wings, legs, thighs, breasts. The breast meat is the only piece I remove from the bone. I don’t remove the skin, because it has a nice layer of fat trapped in and under it.

3) The remaining carcass, including the long neck and other stray pieces of meat (especially the back) gets put directly into a large soup pot. After adding a few similar carcasses from meat chickens that’d been butchered earlier in the summer and frozen, we add water and get a pot of soup going.

4) The goose pieces are rinsed and then put directly into a large Crock Pot. I use a quart jar to measure out just enough water to cover all the pieces. Usually it’s 3 quarts. I then add one quarter cup of salt to the Crock Pot for each quart of water, and stir everything up until the salt is totally dissolved.

5) The heavy brine will preserve the meat all by itself, because no organisms can grow in that environment. However, just to be sure, I like to put a lid on the Crock Pot and store it in our extra refrigerator. There it sits for at least a couple of days, with the salt and water penetrating deep inside the meat.

6) Early on the morning of the day we intend to feast on the goose, I pour the brine water out of the Crock Pot. It’s important not to dump this salt water in a place that will kill vegetation, or into a drain that goes into a septic tank (where it could kill the bacteria that process septic waste). I then add a half cup or so of apple cider vinegar to the Crock Pot, along with an onion and some spices (basil, thyme, rosemary, etc).

7) I put a lid on the Crock Pot, set it on “High”, and let it go all day, occasionally stirring the pieces of goose. As it cooks, the fat melts off the meat and makes a wonderful sauce. [ALTERNATIVE: if you’re up late the night before, you can start it going overnight on “Low,” and turn it down to “Warm” whenever it’s clearly done.]

8) At dinner time, I remove the meat, which is by now so tender it’s falling off the bone. We arrange the meat on a platter, toss the bones and skin, pour the liquid into a gravy boat, and serve. Any leftover meat and gravy can be added directly into the soup pot (which by now has of course been finished cooking, and has been sitting in the refrigerator, for a day or two.)

We prepared an old gander this way, for yesterday’s Sunday dinner, and it was absolutely delicious. This is probably the third or fourth of the old geese I’ve done so far this Spring / Summer, so there’s still a whole bunch more to butcher. We’ll most likely over-winter three females, and get a fresh batch of goslings in the spring for them to adopt. At least there’s no rush; at this point, they’re simply eating grass out in the pasture and not really costing us anything. I just want to make sure I get them done before it gets too cold this fall.

Looks like we’ll have lots of good eating between now and then.

Chickens: Ten Weeks Later

Been awhile since I’ve posted, but spring is a crazy busy time on the farm. Butchering the meat chickens has been my biggest job lately, and we’re finally down to the last handful. I find it’s best to butcher no fewer than four and no more than six meat chickens per day. Fewer than that, and it’s hardly worth the time it takes to set everything up, clean / sterilize the eviscerating table, etc. More than that, the scalding water begins to get too cold, my shoulders begin aching, and the flies really start to swarm.

I butcher the biggest chickens first, starting at about eight weeks of age. Most of them are males. After clearing them out, the pens become more spacious for the remaining birds — and the females in particular have the chance to reach more of their growth potential. I don’t weigh the fully-butchered birds, but each one gives us plenty of meat. Enough for our family and two guests, or enough for our family plus leftovers.

In case you’re wondering why virtually everyone raises some version of Cornish Cross chickens for meat, and uses other breeds pretty much exclusively for eggs, here’s a good picture of the size difference after ten weeks between a meat chicken and an egg chicken. I don’t need to tell you which is which:

Here’s another look inside the pen:

In the past, I would simply leave each butchered bird whole and freeze it that way. That’s fine if you intend to roast each bird whole, which we used to do. But as time went on, we found we much preferred cooking the chickens in pieces (whether on the grill, or in some other way). Also, a cut-up chicken takes up a lot less room in the freezer than a whole chicken. Bottom line is, I’m now cutting each bird up into pieces as I butcher it. All the pieces go in a big pile as I work, and then I sort them at the end. In each gallon-sized freezer bag, I put: two drumsticks, two thighs, two wings, and two breasts. I tend to skin the breasts, but leave the skin on the other pieces. All the remaining carcases (and necks, and feet) go into a really large turkey-sized freezer bag, to be used later for soup (one big bag of carcass scraps makes one pot of soup). Then I take all the hearts and livers and put them in their own small package. It’s taken years to settle on this approach, and for all I know I may refine it further next year, but for now it’s perfect.

And freshly-butchered-and-grilled chicken sure tastes perfect. This was our Memorial Day dinner:

So, I should finish up butchering the last of the chickens in the next couple of days. Then we’ll turn the egg pullets loose in the barn (they should begin laying this fall). And it’ll be “mission accomplished” for the chicken tractors in the garden. (Fortunately, we didn’t lose a single bird to predators.) Mrs. Yeoman Farmer will be able to plant her squashes very soon.

Note in the pictures above just how thick the grass is inside the pen. That’s what it looks like when the pen is first moved to a new patch of ground. Now see what the ground looks like that they’ve already gone over (this view is looking north; our hay field is the long grass just beyond the garden fence):

No wonder it’s called a “tractor” system. Here’s another shot, looking the other direction, showing the other pen:

Just imagine how great those squashes will grow in this nice rich soil. Squash soup and roast chicken…now there’s a combo for this fall.

Crazy Ducks

Ducks are a wonderful addition to any small farm, especially one with an area that’s perpetually wet or swampy (which seems to describe about 90% of Michigan farms). It never ceases to amaze me the way the ducks go rushing out into any kind of nasty weather; in fact, the wetter it gets, the more they seem to enjoy themselves. They even enjoy flopping around and soaking themselves in snow drifts.

A couple of other things to keep in mind about ducks: they are easily excitable, and virtually impossible to keep contained.

We’ve had several different breeds of duck over the years, and all of them (with the exception of Muscovies, which are genetically distinct from the Mallard-descended ducks which predominate in the USA) have been “hyper.” They see a person (or dog, or anything else) coming, and they all start running in a pack, flapping their wings, and making lots of noise. This does make them fairly easy to herd, once you figure out where to position yourself. The key is to get behind them, and start them moving away from you. If the flock begins moving too much toward one side or the other, they can often be “nudged” back into line just by holding one’s arm out toward the “wrong” side and/or moving that way slightly.

But if you get ducks, expect them to get loose. They’re narrow and very flexible. I’ve never seen birds that can squeeze themselves through such tight spaces. Leave a door or gate ajar just a bit, or put up a woven-wire fence with squares larger than 4×4, and they’re going to find a way through. Or if there’s any kind of gap at the bottom of any portion of a fence or gate, they will find a way to squeeze under it. It’s just what they do. They love to roam over a wide range, exploring and foraging — but if you don’t want them in your garden (and, trust me, if you have anything of value growing in there…you don’t), you’d better put a very tight fence around it. And be zealous about keeping the gate closed. Ditto any area with fruiting brambles or grape vines that are close to the ground — they will wipe out the fruit in the blink of an eye. Lately we’ve been fighting a losing battle keeping them out of the kids’ play area in our back yard; the photos I posted today are of the dozen ducks that I chased out of there this morning.

The last few years, we’ve been raising a breed called Anconas and like them a lot. For starters, they’re just plain beautiful to look at. But more importantly, they’re outstanding foragers, excellent egg layers, quite cold-hardy (we didn’t lose a single one this epic winter), pretty good at setting and mothering, and a reasonable size for eating. (We can squeeze a meal out of one of them for our family, but for Sunday dinner with even one other person, we usually put two of them in the Crock Pot and make soup with the leftovers.)

We like to get a straight run (unsexed) of 30 from Cackle Hatchery. The cost is about $4 per duckling, plus shipping, and that yields 15 adult females. In the laying season, that gives us plenty of large delicious eggs. We butcher most of the males when they’re a few months old, but leave a few so we can have fertilized eggs (and ducklings, if a duck decides to make a nest and go broody). As with all Mallard-derived ducks, mature drakes (males) are easily identified by a curly little feather sticking up on their tail.

Anconas stay pretty productive for a few years; after that, it’s best to butcher and brine them, before doing a slow roast in the crock pot. The process is similar to what I described recently for our old turkeys, but we usually brine and roast the ducks whole. Your plan should be to butcher the mature, burned-out layers while your juvenile replacements are growing in the brooder and confined pasture pens. Once they feather out, you’ll have a really tough time distinguishing them from the older birds. And if the two groups mix…good luck sorting them again.

Now that I think about it, we have several excess mature drakes out there that need to be culled. I think I know what we’re going to be enjoying for Sunday dinner this week…

Salvaging Turkey Lurkey

Generally speaking, turkeys — and other birds — are best eaten in the same year they’re hatched. We like to start a batch in April or May, and put them in the freezer that October or November. That ensures the birds are young and tender; an older bird can get tough.

We’ve also preferred to raise heritage breed turkeys. They’re significantly smaller than the broad breasted “Butterball” turkeys you see at the grocery store, but much more interesting to have on the farm. They tend to have higher survival rates in the brooder. They can fly and roost much like wild turkeys. They’re colorful. And, most importantly, they can reproduce naturally. (Broad breasted turkeys are so huge, they can’t actually mate. They need to be artificially inseminated. And that’s something I just don’t want to have to help them with.)

Most years, we try to get a mix of heritage turkeys and broad breasted birds. A heritage turkey is excellent for a dinner and a night or two of leftovers. The BB turkeys are really too big to be practical, unless we’re hosting a really large gathering, so we cut them up into pieces and freeze separate portions in gallon-sized ziploc bags. Each bag is just right for a meal or two.

Since we’re not particular about breeds, we tend to get a “hatchery special” or “surplus turkey assortment”. They send basically whatever is left over after filling orders for specific heritage turkey breeds. At a place like Cackle Hatchery, a batch of 15 surplus heritage turkeys will run $114, or about $7.60 per bird, plus shipping. Not bad when you consider that specific breed poults, such as Bourbon Reds, cost more than $9 per bird. (For comparison, 15 broad breasted white turkeys cost $87.75, or $5.85 per bird.)

Still…any way you look at it, turkey poults are expensive. And heritage breed turkeys can theoretically reproduce on their own. Why not keep a few hens, and a tom, over the winter and see what they manage to produce the next spring? Could save a small fortune, right?

Could. But never has – at least not for us. We’ve tried letting the turkey hens brood a clutch of eggs. A couple of them actually hatched, but the hen proved to be a better setter than mother; the poults were killed by something or other within days. We tried hatching the eggs ourselves in an incubator, but were never able to get the temperature and humidity settings correct. With more time and patience, and perhaps an investment in a really good incubator, we may have gotten better results. But at the end of the day, I concluded it made more sense to invest in a fresh set of hatchery poults each spring.

That left us with several mature heritage turkeys. They were fun to have in the barn, and we enjoyed watching them do their turkey antics out in the pasture. And the females did give us some eggs – at least for a few months out of the year, and for a couple of years. Then the eggs slowed to a trickle, and I realized we simply had a bunch of glorified, grain-consuming pets. And we don’t do “pets” with the livestock. Time to make a meal out of them.

Given the age of these birds, I was concerned that they would be tough. So, I did a little experimenting and hit upon a solution: brine.

The middle of last week, I butchered a very old Blue Slate turkey hen. After plucking and eviscerating her, I figured we had about six or seven pounds of bird. I then “disassembled” it by removing both leg quarters, both wings, and the breast meat. All of these prime pieces went into a big bowl, and everything else (the carcass, neck, and scrubbed-up feet) went into a large soup pot.

I then used a mason jar to measure out enough water to just cover all the pieces in the bowl; it took three quarts. A standard brine solution requires one cup of salt per gallon of water, so I pulled a bunch of the meat out, added 3/4 of a cup of salt to my bowl, and stirred until all the salt was dissolved, and put the meat back in. I covered the bowl, and put it in the refrigerator for a few days. (Theoretically, I suppose we could have left the bowl out at room temperature; the salt acts as a preservative. But we had room in the fridge, and I preferred to keep things cold.)

Sunday morning, I discarded the brine solution and put most of the turkey pieces into a Crock Pot. (The remaining piece I wrapped up and returned to the refrigerator, because my daughter wanted to make turkey curry out of it later.) I added a little apple cider vinegar, a little water, a chopped onion, and seasonings — and then set the Crock Pot on high and let it go. From time to time, I stirred the pieces around. Otherwise, it was the world’s easiest meal. By 5pm, the meat was tender and practically falling off the bone. And was the perfect centerpiece for Sunday Dinner.

So, out of one smallish turkey hen that was otherwise useless, our family got (1) an excellent Sunday dinner; (2) a dinner of turkey curry; and (3) enough soup for one dinner for all of us, with enough left over for me to have for lunches for the rest of the week.

Not bad. Now, to get started on the four other turkeys still taking up space in the barn…

Criminals

There are dangerous criminals among us. But you’ll be relieved to know that the federal government is on the case, and busy getting them off the streets:

A yearlong sting operation, including aliases, a 5 a.m. surprise inspection and surreptitious purchases from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, culminated in the federal government announcing this week that it has gone to court to stop Rainbow Acres Farm from selling its contraband to willing customers in the Washington area.

The product in question: unpasteurized milk.

It’s a battle that’s been going on behind the scenes for years, with natural foods advocates arguing that raw milk, as it’s also known, is healthier than the pasteurized product, while the Food and Drug Administration says raw milk can carry harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

But this line from the story jumped out the most:

It is the FDA’s position that raw milk should never be consumed,” said Tamara N. Ward, spokeswoman for the FDA, whose investigators have been looking into Rainbow Acres for months, and who finally last week filed a 10-page complaint in federal court in Pennsylvania seeking an order to stop the farm from shipping across state lines any more raw milk or dairy products made from it.

What????? Raw milk should never be consumed? Kind of makes you wonder how the human race survived, drinking that toxic “udder brew,” for so many millennia. In fact, I poured about a cup and a half of that poison onto my cereal this morning. I’m surprised I feel so healthy and vibrant, and that I haven’t collapsed under E. coli-induced convulsions. Even more remarkably, I’ve been poisoning myself in this way for weeks now — ever since our goats freshened — and in fact feel healthier than ever. No doubt the other ten million raw milk drinkers in this country (and the countless other millions around the world) would agree.

To paraphrase something Ronald Reagan once said about his political opponents: The trouble with our friends at the FDA is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.

And, I would add, that they have so much power to prosecute and crush the small farmers who dare supply a healthy product to the willing consumers who seek it.

Child-Friendly?

I got an interesting note from a good friend this morning. They’ve recently moved to the country, themselves, and like us have been eating in a more “crunchy” manner. Their children don’t have the allergy problems that ours do, but they’ve noticed that their kids have been much healthier on a more natural diet. What they apparently hadn’t realized is just how unusual (even radical) people like us can appear in the eyes of other parents.

He writes:

On a separate topic, we’re watching a friend’s child for the next few days. The mother asked if we could feed her more child-friendly food. We weren’t quite sure what she meant, as we had watched the daughter before and fed her what our kids ate. So we asked the mom, and she said nevermind; she would just send some food along. So, when the daughter was dropped off at our house, we saw what her mom brought. She packed 2 1-gallon bags of Fruit Loops and 2 boxes of macaroni and cheese. Oh, now we understand.

While we probably don’t eat as healthily as your family does, we were somewhat pleased that we probably do eat reasonably healthy foods, or at least avoid the truly over-processed foods most of the time. At the same time, we also felt a little disturbed that our friends lived on fruit loops. Probably ranks up there with Twinkies on the processed food spectrum.

I can only really add one thing to this: sometimes it’s heartening to get a good reminder that, even though our approach to nutrition may not be perfect, we sure have come a long way and are at least getting the big “child-friendly” picture a lot more right than we did before.