Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Freezing sweet corn

This past weekend was the start of my annual adventures in vegetable preservation.  It is a small attempt to take a piece of what is so great about summer and save it for a cold winter day.  While nothing beats a vegetable taken directly from garden to table, home freezing and canning are the next best thing.  I'm not quite sure why home preserved food tastes so much better than what you get in a store, but it does.  Is it using fruits and vegetables that are as fresh as possible?  Is it the lack of additives?  Is it the variety of fruit and vegetables that are grown on a smaller home farm?  Probably a combination of all of the above.  And you can ask my family about the corn that I freeze.  Every family gathering throughout the year I get the same answer when I ask what can I bring?  "You are bringing your corn of course!"  Ok, yes I am bringing the corn.

Sunday I picked, blanched, package and froze 11 quart bags of broccoli florets.  Sorry for the lack of pictures on this one, but I can assure you the broccoli looked great.

Monday was corn freezing day.  Mike said there were three different varieties of sweet corn that were ready so I figured about 3 dozen of each variety would do nicely.  So Mike picked the corn and dropped it off at the house for me to take over from there.

Now a corn freezing blog post would not be complete without a discussion of removing the husk from an ear of corn.  From the time I grew up, my family called this shucking corn.  My husband grew up on a vegetable farm in southern Ohio and the first time I talked about shucking corn, he started laughing uncontrollably.  When he stopped laughing, he told me that shucking referred to an old time method of taking the husk off of field corn back in the day before combines when much of the corn harvesting was done by hand.  Of course, he wouldn't tell me what was the proper term for removing the husk off an ear of sweet corn so I had to come up with something on my own.  Why husking didn't pop into my head, I will never know, but I chose the verb "peel".  So for the last 20 years, I have told my husband that I have to go peel the sweet corn to get it ready to cook.  This results more uncontrollable laughter from that farmer I live with, but I am quite used to that.

Now in getting ready for this blog post, I decided to do a little research on what exactly is the definition of "shucking" and I find out that one of the accepted definitions is "to remove the husk off an ear of corn".  Not just field corn.  Any ear of corn.  Shucking and husking are used interchangeably and both can be used when talking about sweet corn.  Take that Mr. Corn Man!  My family was not wrong after all.  Of course then he has to tell me that shucking must be a regional term because where he comes from it is called husking and nothing else.  Period.  Whatever dear.  I have to go peel my corn now.

With the corn husks removed, the first step in all this is to blanch the corn in boiling water.  Don't ask me how long because I don't really know.  The books say 3 minutes.  Most will also say to add the corn to a pot of boiling water, wait for it to return to a boil and then start timing.  Well, with a big stock pot of corn, it may take a good 10-15 minutes for the water to come back to a boil even with the pot lid on and the burner on high.  That always seems such a long time for those tender kernels of corn to be sitting in a pot of nearly boiling water.  So I just put the corn in the boiling water and wait until the water is just barely starting to boil.  This is usually in the 7-10 minute range for a large pot.  Just kind of winging it here.  I guess whatever I do is working because I am required to bring corn to all family dinners.

After blanching, the corn is plunged into a sink full of ice water and cooled for about 10 minutes.  Then into the other side of the sink to drain.

Next is removing the kernels from the cob.  A corn knife is not required, but it does make this job a whole lot easier I think.  My only problem with the corn knife is that I do have a tendency to slice off little bits of my thumb.  The thumb slicing is not the fault of the design of the knife.  More like operator error.  Someday I'll speak of the klutziness gene I seemed to have inherited.  Fortunately this doesn't happen too often and I am happy to report that this year, I came away injury free.

On to filling the containers.  I like to use plastic freezer containers with lids.  Freezer bags work too, but I find the plastic containers easier to fill especially for this next step.  I learned this one from my mother-in-law.  (Maybe this is the secret to making the frozen corn taste so good?)  I make a mixture of 1 cup of water, 1 tsp of sugar and 1 tsp of salt.  Stir until dissolved and then after the corn is put into the plastic containers, I pour this solution over the corn until it just barely covers the kernels.  Of course, you have to make sure to leave a little bit of room since the water will expand some when frozen.  One cup will do a few containers.  I just make a couple cups at a time and mix up more as I need it.

Then on go the lids, labels and into the freezer.  My nine dozen ears (3 of each variety) made 7 quart containers, 4 pint and half containers, and 15 pint containers.  And there you have it.  Summer time goodness preserved for a cold winter day.  Once you have eaten this, you will never go back to store bought frozen or canned corn again.

Monday, August 30, 2010

From farm to market

Things have just been a hoppin' here on the farm.  Vegetables are leaving the farm so fast it makes my head spin.  As I've said before, I don't get super involved with the produce part of the farm.  Between working at the clinic and taking care of the poultry, there is just not a lot of time left.  This past weekend however I did not have to work at the clinic so I tagged along with the guys to take pictures of what is involved in getting produce to our two main markets that are on Saturday mornings.

It all starts Friday while I am at work.  Since school has started, two of our high school boys are only available on some evenings.  So Ed who only goes to school part of the day is our main help on Fridays.  The tractor stays busy pulling wagon loads of produce from the field up to the driveway where everything is loaded onto the pickup truck for the trip over to Covered Bridge Gardens where everything will be sorted, weighed, packed and put into the cooler. 

The work at our farm is usually finishing up by the time I get home from work and get chores done.  This past Friday it was dark by the time I headed over to Covered Bridge Gardens to take pictures of the pre-market day festivities.  Ed was weighing out Swiss chard and Mike was working on broccoli when I got there and both were hamming it up for the camera.
There are two markets on Saturday: one at Shaker Square and one in Peninsula.  Mick and Kay cover the Shaker market and they take the "big truck".  Mike and Steve cover Peninsula market and they take our pickup truck and trailer.  Normally they load the truck in the morning, but Friday the low temperature that night was going to be only a few degrees warmer than the cooler so they decided to load at night.  One less thing to do in the morning.  Here are some pictures of the trucks in various stages of loading.
We finished up somewhere between 9:30pm and 10pm.  Then a quick trip into town to pick up the traditional pizza for dinner.  Saturday morning started around 4:50am.  I got up to feed the animals then a quick breakfast for the humans and off to market.  We pulled into Howe Meadow around 7:30am.  Saturday was a beautiful sunny morning.  This is the first time I had been to the Howe Meadow market.  It was fun watching the transformation from empty meadow to bustling farmer's market.

If you want to see the entire series of pictures from Friday evening through Saturday at market, they are all over at our Facebook Page.

Market ends at noon.  It takes about an hour to tear down and Mike, Steve and I headed to Bob Evans for lunch.  Finally got home at 3:30pm.  The barn cats seemed to have the right idea of what to do on a warm sunny afternoon.  Seemed appropriate for the humans to do the same.  Heavenly afternoon nap after a long day.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Those extraordinary days

There is not one day that goes by that I don't count my blessings for what I have. Most days are very ordinary. They are filled with tasks that get repeated over and over. You see the same people you see every day. I treasure those days. My life is blessed with good times and good people. But on the opposite side of all that, there are life's extraordinary days. These are days filled with new things. New people. New adventures. And Mike and I had one of those days last Friday.

I am a huge fan of the Zac Brown Band. It all started when I saw them play a live show a little over a year ago and I was dragged under hook, line and sinker. I love their music of course, but being a fan of theirs has opened doors to meeting so many wonderful people. One of those people is Chef Rusty Hamlin who travels with the band on the road and prepares their food. Well, not only does he prepare food for the band, but he also creates exquisite meals for a fan experience known as an "eat and greet". Zac Brown (who is also a chef himself) is always thinking outside the box and thinking of great new ways to interact with the fans. So he started these eat and greets where fans can have dinner before the show and the entire band eats and mingles along with them. It is a very cool experience. Zac and Chef Rusty are also big supporters of local farmers and try to buy as much of their food from the local farmers as they can. The menu is adjusted as to what is in season at the time. I first met Chef Rusty when I attended an eat and greet at a show in Fort Wayne, IN last month. It was there I talked to him about having Peters Creek Farm provide produce for the tour stop in Cleveland on August 20th. So a couple weeks before last Friday's show, we traded some emails and phone calls and finalized the details.

The adventure actually began on Thursday. I got home from work around 6pm. The boys had already picked the golden zucchini and cherry tomatoes that had been ordered. Mike had picked some cucumbers and green bell peppers. After chicken chores, we headed out to the field around 7:30pm to finish. I picked all the Swiss chard and Mike picked the sweet corn and cabbage and we finished at 9pm as it was getting dark. We drove everything over to Covered Bridge Gardens to sort, pack and store in their walk-in cooler. We then picked up few things in town and made it home in time for our customary work late on the farm 10pm dinner. I made 2 dozen blueberry muffins from berries from our farm and finally made it to bed at 1am.

Up at 5am to do poultry chores. Every once in awhile Mike will take extra produce to sell over at the Geauga Growers Produce Auction in Middlefield and since the auction is pretty much on the way to Blossom Music Center where the concert was being held, it seemed a good idea to stop there too.

The auction is right in the heart of Geauga County and serves lots of local farmers including the large local Amish community. It is very cool to see all the boxes of produce being lined up and delivered. When Giant Eagle or the other grocery stores advertise "locally grown", this is where they get some of their produce. The smells in the air from all the fresh vegetables are wonderful.

Then off we drove to Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. We actually beat the tour buses there by about a half hour, but soon they were there and we were able to drive our truck to the back stage parking area.  Here is a picture of Mike standing next to our truck with 2 (out of 4) of the Zac Brown Band's tour buses in the background.  Chef Rusty and his sous chef Josh Prichard met us in the parking lot and then they hopped in a golf cart and we followed them over to the area where the eat and greet was being set up.

From left to right:
Mike Hiener, Josh Prichard, Chef Rusty Hamlin, Diane Hiener

It was quite the cool experience for me to be driving around Blossom Music Center in the middle of the day in the farm truck.  I spent quite a few nights watching concerts at Blossom in my teens and early 20's.  I couldn't help but reminisce back to the days when you could take coolers packed with dinner and drinks and sit on the lawn and enjoy.  Those days are gone, but the mystique is still there for me.

Mike and I finished our produce delivery and headed home.  I only had 45 minutes to change clothes, hop in my car and pick up my friend Sue and head back to Blossom for the eat and greet and then the show.  Unfortunately Mike could not make the show because he had to get ready for the Peninsula Farmers Market on Saturday morning.  Sue and I met up with my niece Sarah and her friend Kevin at the gate area.  The eat and greet started at 5pm and when we got there, all the food was beautifully laid out on a buffet style table.  Here a few more shots of the magic that Chef Rusty created with the Peters Creek Farm produce.

The four of us had a great time at the eat and greet.  The food was gourmet and so very very delicious.  We got to shake hands with half of the band members who were there right at the beginning (the others showed up later) and Zac came over to our table toward the end to thank me for the produce and say hi.  But our adventure did not end there.  After dinner, we spent two hours working for the Soldier's Angels booth by walking the crowd and collecting postcards written to soldiers who are overseas serving our country.  The campaign is called Letters for Lyrics and is also sponsored by Dodge Ram Trucks.  When someone would write a postcard to a soldier, we would give them a free Zac Brown Band CD.  That was fun!

But the adventure was still not over.  I had purchased tickets through the fan club and to help cut down on scalping, the tickets had to be picked up by the purchaser at the will call window the day of the show.  I had no idea where our seats were until we got to Blossom.  Turns out we had front row seats.  How awesome is that!  I had never sat front row for a concert ever.  We missed the opening acts because of the Letters for Lyrics work, but no matter, Zac Brown Band played for nearly 3 hours.  I have seen these guys play a few times before and each time they just seem to get better and better.  If you missed the show review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer you can find it here.

So here ends my extraordinarily long blog about my extraordinary day last Friday.  There are so many other great details that I left out.  This really could go on forever.  Let's just say that lots of great memories were made that day.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Purple produce

Whew! What a Monday. Today was a very different day for me. Not because of what I did, but because of what I did on a Monday. Monday is my normal day off from the clinic. Once a month or so I will spend a half day doing spays and neuters at the local animal shelter on a Monday, but other than that, I rarely do any veterinary work on Mondays. But you see, I have a very very special day planned for Friday this week so I switched my days off. More on Friday's upcoming activities later in the week.

So this is how my Monday went. Up at 5:20am. Labelled the eggs I washed the past two days. Labelled and bagged trays of blueberries I had in the freezer. Out to the pasture to feed and water the meat chicks. Checked on the laying hens. Fed the barn cats and dogs. Got ready for work. Leave for work 8:15am. Work. Got home from work 7pm. Evening poultry chores. 8pm Mike and I head out to the field to take inventory of what produce will be ready this week. On the way, drop the beagles off at the briar patch between the pasture and the field. Listen to the sweet sound of hounds baying at a rabbit while we walk the field. Mike picks 24 dozen ears of sweet corn for the WIC market tomorrow. 8:45pm in the dark, I try to find the beagles that have now followed the rabbit into the neighbor's oats. I could hear them barking of course. I waited for dogs to come around back to our farm so as not to trample the neighbor's oats. Back to the house at 9:15pm. Mike took the sweet corn to the cooler over at Covered Bridge Gardens. Done! Ok, not done. Still have to eat a little supper.

We have some very special clients this week so I took a few pictures of some of the more unusual produce we have coming on this week. Namely a bright purple variety of eggplant. Mike won best of show in vegetables at the county fair last year with this variety. It is very striking and beautiful. Sorry for having to use the flash, but it was getting dark out there. We also have regular dark purple eggplant and white eggplant which is cool looking too.

We also have bell peppers just starting to come on. Regular green ones, but also purple bell peppers. They are really cool looking too. Again, the flash was needed.

Not purple, but there is some very colorful Swiss chard out in the field. Mike has planted something called a rainbow mix. I have to admit, I know nothing of Swiss chard. Probably should learn, eh? It is a very beautiful plant though.

Lots of other produce coming on as well. LOTS of broccoli this week. Green cabbage, yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers all are plentiful. Just starting are the cherry tomatoes and many of the pepper varieties including bell, hot banana and Hungarian semi-hot stuffing peppers.
The cantaloupe and watermelon are looking REALLY good, but not ready yet. We will be in between sweet corn patches by the weekend, but the next varieties look GREAT! Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and purple cabbage are coming along too.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Easy like Sunday morning

Sundays. The traditional day of rest on the farm. I love Sundays. Most Sundays I have nowhere to go and all day to get there. Animals still need to be fed, but instead of setting the alarm to wake me up at 5:15am, I wake up naturally which is somewhere around 6:30-7am. That feeling of waking up when your body wants to wake up is precious.

After chores, I always make breakfast for Mike and I. Usually it consists of bacon and eggs, toast and orange juice, but this morning since I had fresh blueberries on hand, I decided on blueberry pancakes. I had some buttermilk in the fridge too which is unusual so I used some of that. And last year we grew wheat on the farm and had some ground into flour to sell, so I used some of that. I took a basic pancake recipe changed quite a few things as it turned out and came up with this recipe. I'll call it Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes for Two.
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp milled flax seed
3 Tbsp sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 tsp melted butter
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

Mix whole wheat flour, all purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, milled flax seed and sugar in a small bowl and set aside. Whisk together milk, buttermilk, egg and butter. Add dry ingredients until just mixed. You can add a little more flour to make a thicker batter if you'd like, but let the batter sit for 10 minutes or so first. The whole wheat flour takes a little more time to absorb the liquid so it will thicken some as it stands. Fold blueberries gently into batter.

Heat a greased skillet over medium heat. Drop 1/4c portions of batter onto the skillet. Flip pancakes when bubbles appear at the surface and the edges look somewhat dry. Finish cooking until both sides are golden brown. This recipe made 11 small pancakes. More than enough for two, but Mike and I did just fine finishing them all off. Used some real maple syrup that we bought from one of the local dairy farmers that makes his own. Yum!

After breakfast the rest of Sunday is whatever I please. It may be cleaning the house, or mowing the yard or it might be going to a family cookout or a country music show. Anyway you look at it, Sundays are a nice change of pace from the hectic work week.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The life of a meat chicken: part 2

Sit back and watch them grow. On more than one occasion I have gone out to the barn in the morning to feed the baby meat chicks and when I come back in the afternoon to do the same, I swear they are noticeably bigger.

I left off at day 1 of the chicks life on our farm, all tucked into their new homes. At 1 week of age, I put a couple chicks back in the shipping box they came in. I put a large chicken egg in with them for size reference. Remember 1 week ago these chicks hatched from an egg this size and that 15 of them comfortably fit in one of these compartments in the shipping box.

2 weeks of age. They are starting to get feathers. They still have access to the heat lamp to stay warm. It's now getting crowded around the chick feeder. Pay attention to the size of the feeder because in the next week, I will start using the adult feeders.

3 weeks of age. Adult feeders in use. I put the chick feeder in the picture for size reference. They are almost fully feathered. They are still indoors, but the heat lamp is now turned off.

Between 3 and 4 weeks of age, they get moved outside onto grass and live in these bottomless "hoop houses". Good shelter from the rain, but since they are on grass, they get to eat the grass, weeds, bugs and anything else they find on the ground. The pens get moved to fresh grass once a day at first and twice a day as they get bigger. And the pens are light enough for me to move myself by pulling them along the ground with a rope. They are built in such a way that the sides act as skids for easy pulling. The chicks still get fed chicken food in addition to the grass and bugs they eat.

4 weeks of age. They are starting to look more like adult chickens.

Here is a picture taken some years back of a meat type chick and a Barred Plymouth Rock laying type chick both at 4 weeks of age. Amazing the difference in their rate of growth all achieved through selective breeding.

5 weeks old. It is now becoming easy to tell the cockerels (boys) from the pullets (girls). In case you don't know, the cockerels are the ones with the larger brighter red combs on their heads.

6 weeks old. The changes become less dramatic, but they are getting bigger.

7 weeks old. They know that I am bringing their food into the pen. It gets really hard to walk inside the pen at feeding time as they all cluster around my feet.

9 weeks old. Two days before butchering day.

Into the refrigerator on butchering day.

Into the freezer in the next couple of days.

And out of the oven all year round.

I have said this before, but I feel truly blessed to be able to raise my own broiler chickens for meat. I think these birds have a pretty good although short life. I guess it's hard for me to put into words, but it is a very satisfying feeling to be able to live this whole process from beginning to end.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thank goodness for leftovers

I have a friend who told me once that her husband will absolutely not eat leftovers for a meal. Really? Never thought there were people who would not eat leftovers. Now no worry about wasting though because my friend just takes their leftovers for her lunch at work. But in our house, we survive on leftovers during the week. With the unusually hot weather, I had actually been in some what of a I-don't-feel-like-cooking slump. Nutritional value of meals does seem to suffer when I don't cook. Thank goodness for a slight break in the weather this past weekend. I was cooking to my heart's content all weekend which has left us with a fridge full of leftovers. They have come in handy so far this week.

Actually, I am not even typing straight I am so tired. Had one of those crazy days at work. I have a job that involves hardly any sitting. On the go all day. We were extremely short staffed today. Most days I do get a decent lunch. Not today. 10 minutes. Oh boy. Grocery shopping after work. Poultry chores. Finally a little after 7pm I thought I might get to sit down. Went to make dinner and wanted to make a salad. No tomatoes. I'm sorry, I cannot make a salad without tomatoes. Mike thought there might be a few cherry tomatoes ready, but wasn't sure. We have not harvested any tomatoes yet this year. So off I go for a walk back to the garden. Of course I had to take the scenic route to check out the watermelon and broccoli. But lo and behold, I came back to the house with ................

our first cherry tomatoes of the year. Tasted oh so good in the salad that accompanied the leftover pasta and goat cheese marinara sauce.

I had to make one detour on the way back to the house though. I had dropped the beagles off at the creek behind the house about an hour earlier and they had been running a rabbit (or two or three) for that entire hour. I actually had to go track them down in the neighbor's woods next to us. Fortunately it is not hard to find two beagles who are barking loudly at a rabbit track.

Mike had a busy farming day. Got a nice order from the fine folks at Fresh Fork. 450 pounds of green beans which Mike and the boys picked, boxed and got in the cooler this afternoon. Tomorrow morning will be up early to pick 220 dozen ears of sweet corn before the Fresh Fork folks come to pick up their produce later in the morning.

Blessed are the busy summer days, but the body doth protest some. Looking forward to resting my head on my pillow tonight.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The life of a meat chicken: part 1

Here is the much anticipated time line for the life of our meat chickens. There is lots of information here so I am going to break it down into parts. Part 1 is the introduction and the arrival of the chicks on our farm. For meat, we grow a type of chicken known as a cornish cross. This is the standard meat chicken that is used by the big commercial growers. The are not a true breed but rather a hybrid. For you genetic buffs, they are F2 hybrids. What does that mean? Well unlike the lady that came up to Mike at the market asking if he raised hybrid varieties of vegetables because she heard that hybrid plants were poisonous, hybrid chickens (or vegetables or whatever) are not poisonous. They are just the offspring of a cross between two of something else. Think Labrador Retriever X Standard Poodle = Labradoodle. In the case of meat chickens it is a cross between a breed of chicken known as a Cornish and another known as a White Rock. I think the woman at the market was confusing hybrids with genetically modified which is a whole other topic. We've experimented with several different types of chickens, but we keep coming back to these Cornish crosses. They grow fast and lay down a huge amount of breast meat which is our favorite part. They can be prone to health problems due to their fast growth rate, but I'm starting to get the knack of things and it so nice to have a 6 lb (dressed weight) chicken at the end of 9 weeks. Yes, I said 9 weeks. 63 days. Uh, huh.

Before I start the chick time line, I just have to throw out this tidbit of information that is a really good piece of trivia. Remember it only takes 21 days of egg incubation for a chick embryo to hatch into a fully developed chick.

By the 44th hour of incubation, the heart and vascular systems join, and the heart begins beating.
Is that not the most amazing thing you have ever heard? The 44th HOUR! Less than 48 hours into incubation and the heart starts beating! Really, that has to be the coolest thing you have every heard, right? For the rest of the time line, here is an article from Mississippi State University.

And so I will begin with the arrival of the chicks at our farm. I order my chicks from
Meyer Hatchery in Polk, Ohio. They are great people to work with and have really built quite the hatchery from scratch. I am not shy at all about promoting them as I have been so so happy with the quality of their chicks. If you have a little free time, follow this link to a great video about Meyer's that shows the inside workings of a hatchery. It's very cool stuff!

One of the other cool things about baby chicks is that they hatch with left over yolk sac inside so they do not need to eat or drink for several days. Hatcheries and farmers take advantage of this and newly hatched chicks are boxed and shipped via the United States Postal Service. Here I am carrying a box of chicks into our barn.

60 one day old meat chickens have arrived at the farm and are ready to be turned loose in their new home.

The first thing they do is drink water. I like these Mason Jar watering systems for the first couple days. I think the chicks are drawn to the shiny glass. Remember they have no mama chicken to teach them what to drink and what to eat. Fortunately, they are pretty good at figuring it out on their own.
Next they start exploring the feed. I start all my chicks on paper towels and you can see I have sprinkle some feed near the feeder on top of the paper towels. Chicks instinctively peck at things and they figure out the food thing pretty quick. In a few days, I will remove the paper towels and they will be on wood shavings for bedding.

Baby chicks also need a source of heat. Around 95 degrees for the first few days to be exact. There is no mama chicken to keep them warm and they only have down covering their bodies. Once they get feathers, they will not need this source of heat. But for now, with their thirst and hunger satisfied, they snug in together under the heat lamp to sleep. And for those of you who are really on the ball, that little chick standing in the middle is not a chick at all, but rather a turkey poult. Everything else in the picture are baby chickens. Every once in awhile, I will raise a few turkeys and I start them together with my meat chickens for the first few weeks. It works very well.

And that is the end of their first day of life. From egg laid, to hatched 21 days later, to boxed up and shipped via the USPS, to being unpacked and introduced to their new home. In part 2, we shall sit back and watch them grow.