Sunday, November 30, 2008

First snow of the season

Katherine took the camera outside this morning to capture some of the beauty of our first snow. It's hovering around freezing, so the snow is very wet and sticking to everything. The pond is not even completely frozen. The forecast is for continued snow through the day and tonight.

And since I just posted about chickens yesterday, I thought I'd include some pictures of our chicken house. The door is opened every morning and closed every night, so the chickens have a safe place to sleep. Mike dug down and put cement blocks around the perimeter, so that it would not be easy for a coyote or other predator to dig under the chicken house and get inside. Basically the varmint would have to dig down eight inches then under the blocks another eight inches towards the chicken house, then several more inches to be able to get its body into the house. I really don't think your average predator is willing to dig a total of more than two feet for a midnight breakfast. We wanted a dirt floor in the chicken house because chicken poop would eventually eat away at a wooden floor and cause it to rot.

This is a design that was supposedly created by University of Illinois Extension in the 1920s or 30s as a poultry or hog house. They were originally created much larger than this. The windows face the south, so that the sun can warm the house during the day. The steeply pitched northern roof causes the north winds to easily blow over the building, and there are no windows on the north side. Driving through the countryside of Illinois, one can still see many of these houses, usually falling into disrepair or being used for storage. When I discovered the origin of the buildings, I told Mike this was what we needed to have for our chickens because of its passive solar design.

And from the pictures, I see that I need to send someone out there to close the windows! There is a small chicken yard (with a six foot fence) on the south side of the house, so chickens can go out there and get fresh air before we get up in the morning. There is a small chicken door under the window on the left, and we keep it open almost all the time.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chickens, pollution, and sustainable ag

While reading this article in the New York Times today, it occurred to me that I have not eaten commercially-produced chicken in almost 20 years. For the past five years, I have eaten chicken and other poultry that was raised on our farm. So, what's the difference? My husband and I became vegetarians in February 1989 after I read an article about factory farming. We decided to raise our children as vegetarians also. We simply could not support an industry that was so focused on greed while essentially torturing animals for their entire lives -- forcing them to live indoors, in cramped conditions, and being fed a steady diet of drugs so they could survive in those conditions.

The NY Times article is about the pollution being caused by the poultry industry in Maryland, but it includes basic information about the system of confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) that provide close to 100% of the meat in the U.S. Here are a few of the facts from the article:

Just inland from the shore, the scope of the farms overwhelms the senses. The 500-foot-long chicken houses stretch from the roadways like airplane hangars.

Inside each house, 20,000 to 35,000 chickens cramp the floors farther than the eye can see. Feed and water are delivered in automated pipes that stretch the length of the houses.

Corn and soy fields separate the houses from the roads, and three quarters of the state’s crop go toward feeding the birds.

Gigantic fans suction ammonia from the birds’ waste, filling the air for miles around.
I have met people who have worked in such places, and they cringe when they hear we have chickens. They start to tell me how much they hate chickens ... "They stink worse than anything you've ever smelled," "It was the worst job I ever had," etc., etc. I tell them that chickens don't stink. Their manure stinks -- but so does ours. We wouldn't smell too sweet if we were forced to live in our manure either. It's too bad the Times decided to run a picture of chicks only a couple days old. When you look at that picture, imagine each one of those birds weighing 3-5 pounds rather than a few ounces, and you'll realize how cramped they will be before they're butchered in 6-8 weeks.

The pollution problem in Maryland is a logical result of a non-sustainable system. Raising chickens in buildings is not sustainable. Chickens poop. Duh! And if they're inside, someone has to eventually remove the poop, or it will just get higher and higher. When chickens are outside, they poop on the ground, where it can be eaten by earthworms or washed into the soil by rain where it fertilizes the grass. Then the chickens eat the earthworms and the grass. It's a perfect system.

But BigAg will be quick to respond that they couldn't produce enough chicken for everyone if they were growing all of them free-range. The problem with that argument is that they're assuming there is a real need for people to eat as much chicken as we currently consume. We don't. Humans are completely capable of thriving on a vegetarian diet, and I have a couple of vegetarian daughters (ages 15 and 21) to prove that even children can grow up healthy on a vegetarian diet. I'm not suggesting that everyone become vegetarians -- just that they understand that Americans eat far more meat than is necessary or healthy. I think it's healthier to eat a piece of free-range, organic chicken that to eat some bizarre 21-ingredient vegetarian faux meat. I firmly believe that if you can't pronounce the ingredients, you probably should not be eating it.

Whenever I hear Corporate America's arguments about why they do things, I am reminded of Ian Malcolm's line from Jurassic Park when he says, They were so busy trying to figure out how to do it, they never stopped to ask if they should do it. He was talking about bringing dinosaurs back to life, but I think that a lot of what BigAg does is certainly as unwise as bringing back the dinosaurs. I once knew a young girl who contacted Jello to ask why they use artificial strawberry flavor in their gelatin. They told her that there are not enough strawberries in the world to naturally flavor their product. Okay, but we don't need to eat strawberry Jello, nor do we need to eat meat (or fake meat) every day. But the food industry needs to make a profit, and the bigger the profit, the better.

It's frustrating that no one in this country is interested in educating consumers about healthy eating. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is staffed mostly by people who have worked in BigAg for years. They don't understand sustainable agriculture, but they know what needs to happen for maximum corporate profits. As Michael Pollan said in an interview with Bill Moyer recently, the school lunch program should not be run by the Dept. of Ag if we want our children to eat healthy diets. Currently school lunch programs are used as the dump for excess ag products, such as butter and meat. There is no emphasis on fresh, local fruits and vegetables. It would make more sense if the school lunch program were run by the Department of Health and Human Services or the Department of Education.

But what's wrong with giving the people what they want, you may ask. If people want to eat lots of meat and junk food, why not give it to them? Pollan had an excellent response to that. As food has gotten cheaper and more plentiful in the U.S., we are consuming an average of 300 calories more per day, and we weight 10 pounds more than we did before. And what's wrong with that? Pollan says:

And lo and behold, we have a serious epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, diet-related cancers. All these chronic diseases which is now what kills us basically pretty reliably in America are adding more than $250 billion a year to healthcare costs. They are the reason that this generation just being born now is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, that one in three Americans born in the year 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control, will have type 2 diabetes, which is a really serious sentence. It takes several years off your life. It gives you an 80 percent chance of heart disease. It means you are going to be spending $14,000 a year in added health costs. So this is about how we're eating.

This is just the tip of the information iceberg on this subject. I hope you'll take the time to watch Pollan's interview and perhaps read his books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Getting ready for Thanksgiving

The menu is planned:

Turkey with stuffing and goat milk gravy*
Mashed potatoes+
Butternut squash*
Green bean casserole*
Broccoli casserole (provided by SIL)
Cranberry muffins+
Multi-grain rolls+
Pumpkin cookies+
Pumpkin cheesecake+
Apple Spice Upside-Down cake*
Chocolate truffles (made with goat cheese)*
Hot apple cider (locally grown)
Hot chocolate with Irish cream*

*Home-grown ingredients and made from scratch
+Made from scratch

Now, I just have to find a few good recipes for some of the things I haven't made before. I'm thinking I'll use this recipe for pumpkin cheesecake, but I'll substitute goat cheese. I'll be creating my own recipe for the apple spice upside-down cake. If it turns out edible, I'll post the recipe!

Backyard chickens

The other day, Mike told me about a news article he read that stated that backyard chicken keeping is gaining in popularity. Then today I happened upon this humorous column written by a man in Arkansas who seems amused by a town's proposed ordinance to allow people to have up to four hens in their backyard. If you like double entendres and puns, you'll love this story.

Canadian city wants goats

The Canadian city of Prince George is looking for goats to rent! They've decided that goats are a better option for controlling weeds than herbicides, which can cause diseases and have been banned in numerous parts of Canada.

In one report, Dr. Booth noted that Prince George spent $90,000 in 2003 to apply undiluted herbicides and pesticides on 365 hectares.

While figures weren't available for the cost of weed control at the test sites, in 2007, Prince George spent almost $13,500 on herbicides just for dandelion control on the boulevards and medians of two streets, a 4.25-hectare area.

The goats cost $100 each.

For more on the story, click here.

And if anyone in Illinois wants goats for clearing the weeds on their property, drop me an email!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pasture rotation and that 35-pound turkey

Although we have been using the electric netting to allow the sheep to graze on different parts of the hay field, I really did not expect much benefit this fall, since we started so late. We had to use the electric netting since most of the hay field is fenced in barbed wire. And I figured it was good practice for next year when strip-grazing the hay field will provide us with more grass for the sheep to eat. However, I was apparently wrong about when grass goes dormant. From this picture you can see that the grass where they were grazing a couple weeks ago is green again; the area they just finished grazing is mostly brown. (Look at the grass to the right of the llamas. The sheep are being moved from the top of the photo to the bottom. The next section of ungrazed grass is not in the photo.) In real life, the difference is even more striking than the photo. It looks like we will not have to start feeding hay to the sheep until sometime in December, which is really exciting!

Last night, we finally cut up that huge 35-pound turkey. The legs weighed about three pounds each, but since they have so many tendons in them, they tend to clog up our meat grinder, so they have been frozen for using in turkey and rice soup at a later date.

We ground up the thigh meat and made burger patties. Each thigh made about six patties that were 4-5 ounces -- 1/4 pounders! Mike cut the meat into pieces that were small enough to put into the meat grinder, which Jonathan was operating. I scooped up the ground meat and made it into patties, which I separated with wax paper for freezing.

Then we ground up the turkey breast and packaged it in freezer bags. We put one pound in each bag and will use it for turkey chili, meatballs, and meatloaf. As we were doing this, it occurred to me that this turkey weighed more than our yearling lambs -- and it only cost $6 for processing, compared to $35 processing for a lamb. Before I get too excited, however, about turkeys being cheaper, I have to remember that the lambs eat nothing but grass and hay from our own hayfield, whereas the turkeys eat a lot of organic grain that we have to buy.

What about the remaining carcas, neck, and organs from the turkey? They were given to Sovalye for dinner last night. We gave the thigh bones to Porter, which made him very happy.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's Twitter?

Some of you may have noticed "Twitter Updates" in the left sidebar of my blog. In case you're not familiar with Twitter, it's sort of like a blog, except you're limited to only 140 characters per "tweet." To see my profile on Twitter, click here.

Today, I tweeted about Sovalye fighting with something at 1:30 this morning. It was good for a tweet rather than a blog post, because that's just about the whole story. We don't know what he was fighting with, and by the time we got outside, it was gone. (I'm guessing it was a coyote, because when he gets a coon or something small, he doesn't let it go until it's dead.)

I use Twitter to post quick updates on things that are happening around here, and sometimes, I post a link to an article that I think people might find interesting. If I don't have time for a complete blog post, I'll post a quick comment about something on Twitter, and then I'll blog later. You can "follow" me on Twitter, either through your computer or your mobile phone, or you can just keep reading my tweets in the sidebar of the blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"We need a little Christmas!"

Shortly after the stock market crashes in the famous play and movie, "Mame," they sing the song, "We need a little Christmas!" and they bring out all the holiday decorations to raise their spirits. So, today as I listened to experts on the radio argue about whether we were in a recession or a depression and was looking at the headlines, The Coming Pink Slip Epidemic and Unemployment: How to Stop the Bleeding, I started to remember that song. When I heard another expert say that the odds of getting a job this holiday season are about 1 in 45, I thought that maybe a few of my blog readers might need a little Christmas now.

So, here goes ... Today, I started making cookies to prepare for the holidays. Three years ago, Katherine and I made cookies a couple times a week starting in November, doubling the recipe every time. We'd eat half the cookies now and put the other half in the freezer. Freeze them on a baking sheet so they don't stick together, then put them in a freezer bag or other freezer container. When you have guests over for the holidays, you can pull out a variety of five or six home-baked cookies and impress your guests. They only need about half an hour to defrost.

Today I baked one of my personal favorites, Scottish shortbread. My apologies if there are any people here from Scotland, as I'm sure I'm not doing it properly, but in my defense, I have to say that it works, and the cookies taste better than the ones you buy in the store. So here's my quick recipe:

3 sticks of butter (1 1/2 cups or 3/4 pound)
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups flour

Blend the softened butter with the sugar, then add the flour, one cup at a time. It will become crumbly, and you'll think that you've made a terrible mistake, but as long as you can pick up a handful of it, and it sticks together when squeezed, you're okay.

I pour out some of it on a piece of wax paper, then fold over the wax paper, and roll it to about 1/2 inch thickness with a rolling pin.

Then I use a knife to cut it into squares or diamond shapes. Place the raw cookies on your baking stone or pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Since there is no egg or leavening, they won't rise, so you can space them 1/2 inch apart and not worry about them running together.

I put the ugly (imperfect) ones out on a plate for us to eat now, and I freeze the perfect ones to bring out when guests come over during the holidays. When we did this three years ago, we had six different kinds of cookies by mid-December, so we could put out a platter of a dozen cookies, with only two of each kind. It looked very impressive, and our guests were so surprised to see a variety of home-baked cookies.

Before you write off the shortbread as too expensive because of the amount of butter, check the price of similar cookies at your local store. Yesterday I checked the price on a 12-ounce tin of Danish butter cookies, and they were almost $3! Now I have twice as many cookies for about the same price, and they are all natural.

By the way, if there are any Scottish blog readers, feel free to post your recipe in the comment section!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Updates on this-n-that

In case you're wondering whatever happened ...

Katherine's wrist
The doctor said she has a tiny cyst in her wrist, so tiny and so buried that they probably couldn't find it to remove it, so she will just have to live with it. Occupational therapy starts tomorrow. Katherine was actually hoping for something more dramatic that could be fixed by surgery. Being told that hand therapy is her only option was upsetting. She told me that she doesn't complain about it much anymore because it just hurts all the time, so she's learned to not use her left hand and just live with it.

We have so many fencing projects around here, I don't think there's any chance we'll be done before the ground freezes. I thought Mike had treated some more posts, but he hasn't. He only managed to get them cut from downed trees that he found across the creek. Tomorrow is Veteran's Day here in the U.S., which means no school for him, so he's hoping to get the posts painted with the waterproofing stuff, so that he can get them in the ground this weekend around the pond. Once we get that area fenced in, we are hoping it will reduce our poultry losses to coyotes.

The fence in the far pasture is still wrapped in wool. The llamas seem to be doing a good job guarding those pastures now, so that fence is not a top priority.

Naughty turkeys
The turkeys that flew up into the tree Thursday night don't seem to know what to do with themselves now that most of their friends are gone. They used to stick pretty close to their house when the whole flock of 20 was there, but now that there are only three, we are finding them all over the place. A couple of them are exceptional flyers. They were in the front yard when I got home from teaching this afternoon, and I sent Jonathan out there to chase them back to their pasture. They flew about 200 feet, looking like pterodactyls. Their wing span is four or five feet.

What's on the menu?
We're eating a lot of turkey and chicken now. Last night we had a roasted turkey breast, goat milk gravy, homemade rolls, baked potatoes, green beans, and apple crisp. All of it was homegrown, except the potatoes. We also had an Illinois wine to go with it, so although we didn't make the wine, it was local. We planted eight grape vines last year, and only three made it to this year. I hope they come back next year, but we should probably plant a few more. I don't know if three vines will produce enough grapes for us.

The turkey breast came from a 20# bird, so it was huge. Tonight I'll be making a Mexican casserole with some of it, and tomorrow will probably be turkey tetrazzini. The Mexican casserole is a great way to use up the tortilla chip crumbs that are in the bottom of every bag.

Mexican turkey casserole

1 chopped onion
1 T. oil
1 pound of peeled tomatoes (16 ounce can, if you don't have frozen)
1/2 cup canned banana peppers (a 4 ounce can of chilies works if you don't have banana peppers)
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
enough crushed tortilla chips to cover the bottom of the pan
1 c. broth (I use vegetable broth, but if you have turkey broth, that works also)
3 cups of cubed turkey meat
8 ounces of shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 2-quart baking dish.
Saute onion in oil for about five minutes or until tender. Add chopped tomatoes with juice, tomato sauce, and peppers.
Crush enough tortilla chips to cover the bottom of your baking pan, and pour broth over them. Spread chopped up turkey over the chips. Sprinkle cheese on top of the turkey, and pour the onions and tomatoes over the cheese. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Garnish with sour cream, taco sauce, and/or green onions (my favorite).

Sunday, November 9, 2008


I went out to the sheep pasture while my potatoes were baking for lunch, because I wanted to see if I could spot any testicles on the young rams. I'll spare you the suspense and tell you that I don't see anything, so I'm hopeful that the Burdizzo method of castration worked! These are two of the little guys who were castrated. I'm really excited to have another gray wether. I love gray wool, and it sells very well. We originally said we were going to butcher the three wethers, but their colors are turning out so beautiful, I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to follow through with that plan.

Here's a picture of the third wether in front of the ram that is currently living with the ewes -- and checking out a ewe when I snapped this picture. He was just born this spring. Isn't it amazing how fast they grow! He's only about five months older than the little guy!

The adult rams that are not with the ewes are letting it be known that they are not happy about the living arrangements. They have messed up the livestock panels between their pen and the other pen, so I went into their pen and tried to fix it. I finally gave up on one section and decided to let Mike do it when he gets home from delivering turkeys. The whole time I was working on the livestock panels, the four rams just stood there and watched me quietly, but as soon as I got up and headed for the gate, Teddy started running towards me with his head down. Yes, sweet Teddy -- the ram whose life I saved after he was attacked by coyotes this summer.

This was the first time I've ever found myself on the same side of the fence with a ram in a bad mood, and I hope it's the last! My left thumb and my right wrist do not feel good. I put my hands down in front of my knees to ... to protect myself, I guess. It's amazing how your brain just does not work very well in some situations. Finally, I got behind a tree, which confused Teddy. He then walked up to the tree and looked around it at me. He put his head down and started to run towards me again, so I moved again to put the tree between us. I looked at how far it was to the gate and knew I'd never get there without being rammed several more times, so I went over the fence. Thank goodness it's only woven wire over there. I'm not sure if I'd have made the same decision with electric.

This is Margaret's little brown ewe lamb out of Ophelia, and it didn't seem fair to take pictures of the boys without also taking her picture. Isn't she just adorable!

The softest hands and the tastiest baked potato

Today for lunch I had a baked potato and pampered my hands at the same time. How? First, scrub the potato under running water and set it aside. Then pour a small amount of oil in your hand and about a teaspoon of salt. Rub your hands together and get the oil and salt all over your palms, tops of your hands, and between your fingers. Then pick up the potato and rub the oil and salt all over it. If you are making multiple potatoes, you might want a friend nearby to pour more oil and salt into your hands as needed. Place the oiled and salted potatoes in a baking dish and wash your hands. If they still feel a little oily, use a paper towel to dry them, and within a couple of minutes, your skin will absorb whatever oil is left. Congratulations! You've just had a salt scrub treatment on your hands for free!

There is no need to cover the potatoes while they're baking, and you wind up with a crunchy, salty skin -- like fried potato skins without all the fat from soaking in oil. Yum!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Turkey trouble

A 10.85 pound heritage turkey on the left and a 34.78 pound broad-breasted bronze turkey on the right -- You can see how the breast bone on the heritage turkey sticks out in the middle of the turkey's chest, whereas the broad-breasted turkey has so much breast meat, there is an indentation in the middle of the turkey's chest. We'll be grinding up the meat on the big one and using it to make sausage, burgers, and chili.

Raising turkeys on a small scale is quite a challenge. Most years we take reservations until all but two turkeys are reserved. But since we've had trouble in recent years with not having enough big turkeys, this year I decided to have reservations only in March, and I said that we would keep whatever was left for ourselves. I doubled the number of reservations, and ordered the turkey poults in May because our turkeys had not provided us with poults by then. First mistake -- I should have known that the odds of having poults by April or May were ridiculously low. I think I've written on here in past years that it is almost impossible to have decent-sized Thanksgiving turkeys that were incubated, hatched, and raised in Illinois. The hens don't start laying early enough for it to happen. Our own home-hatched turkeys this year hatched in July, and right now, they're probably about six or seven pounds each.

Then there is the issue of ordering the poults at just the right time. Order them too soon, and the boys will reach sexual maturity and start trying to kill each other before Thanksgiving. Order too late, and they just don't get very big. Order too early, and more will die from hypothermia en route from the hatchery. But if they don't get big enough by Thanksgiving, people aren't happy. But those are the typical issues we deal with every year -- and it's enough for me to say almost every year that I'm never selling turkeys again.

This year, something new happened.
Mike and I were both teaching Thursday afternoon and evening, so our teenage children had to catch the turkeys and put them in the pick-up for the drive to the processor Friday morning. Unfortunately, they arrived home after dark, so several turkeys had already decided to roost in the trees. Since Mike had to leave before dawn, there was no chance they would come down before he left. When the kids tried to get them down, they just went up higher. That means several turkeys did not get processed. Of course, only heritage turkeys can fly, so it was heritage turkeys that went up into the tree. So, we didn't have enough heritage turkeys for our customers, and the ones we did have were smaller than normal. I couldn't believe those big Spanish blacks were only 12 pounds!

I was ready to throw in the towel last night for good! I didn't want to deal with unhappy customers. I sent emails to everyone explaining the situation, and asking if people could take smaller turkeys or broad-breasted turkeys. One person responded immediately (a new customer) with a short response that merely said to cancel her reservatio
n. I went to bed thinking that today was going to be terrible. However, when I started calling people, most of them laughed when I told them about the turkeys flying up into the tree, and they were happy to revise their orders. So, maybe I'll do this again next year.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Naughty goats, good goats; lucky turkeys, unlucky turkeys

This morning I looked out the window and saw an unusually large number of dark-colored turkeys in the middle pasture. Then I realized it was wild turkeys! It usually surprises people to hear that wild turkeys almost never come to visit our turkeys. In fact, this is only the second time in six years that I've seen wild turkeys near our birds. Since I went running out there to get a picture of the wild turkeys, I thought it was only fair that I take pictures of our turkeys, especially since they will be going to the processor tomorrow.

Most of our larger heritage turkeys this year are Spanish blacks. The largest heritage turkey we ever raised was a Spanish black five years ago, and it dressed out at 18 pounds. It's very hard to judge turkey weights because of their feathers, but I'm thinking one of these boys just might weigh that much this year. They sure do seem big! Tomorrow Mike will be taking the turkeys down to Arthur for processing, and I am taking Katherine to the doctor to get the results for her MRI. (I'm thinking it's bad news since they won't tell us over the phone.) I'm a little jealous that Mike will be going to Arthur. Although I don't like getting up at 3 a.m., I do love shopping at the Amish stores -- not the tourist spots, but the stores where the Amish shop. Since they cook at home most of the time, they have the best kitchen equipment for great prices!

This year, we ordered "hatchery's choice" of breeds, so we wound up with a little bit of everything, including broad-breasted turkeys. This is a broad-breasted hen in the front with a gobbler behind her. I love the iridescence of their feathers. I wish I could capture it with my camera, but it just does not come out as beautiful as it is in real life.

We have raised broad-breasted bronze for the past four years for people who wanted large turkeys that were free-range and drug-free, but this is the first time we've ever had broad-breasted whites. This is one big boy, and I'm wondering what he'll weigh! I've already decided his breast meat will be our ground turkey and turkey sausage for this year. He will simply be too big to roast. I'm guessing 36 pounds with about 20 pounds of breast meat. I'll let you know how close I got!

When I was outside, I noticed the naughty goats had gone through the electric fence. I know they think the grass is greener on the other side, but it really is NOT. In fact, there is less grass on the other side! But I suppose they think it's all a conspiracy -- "The humans are trying to keep the best grass from us!"

Luckily, my two finished champions are staying in the pasture where they're safe ... at least for today. Those are the top three strands of six strands of electric, which are about nine inches apart.

And finally, here's my 2-year-old lavender gobbler. He's the proud papa of the eight young turkeys that were hatched on the farm. Two other mama turkeys would have hatched eggs, except the coyotes got them. This past weekend, Mike cut up logs and painted them with waterproofing stuff, so he can get them in the ground as fence posts this next weekend, and hopefully next year, all of the mama turkeys will be able to hatch babies!

Pintos: my favorite beans

I grew up about three hours from the Mexican border in S. Texas. We had a couple sit-down restaurants that served the usual meat and potatoes fare, a Mexican restaurant, a couple of hamburger places, and a little fast-food Mexican place. At home, dinner was usually steak, ground beef, or beans, specifically pinto beans. I don't think I even knew other types of dry beans existed until I was a teenager. So, it should come as no surprise that I love pintos.

Pinto beans are the typical bean used in refried beans in Mexican dishes like burritos, nachos, and tostadas (called chalupas where I grew up). Typically, cooked pintos are mashed and fried in lard for traditional refried beans, but since I've become health conscious in my adulthood, I've just been mashing and reheating the pintos in a skillet, adding water if necessary to keep them from sticking as they're heated.

If you're in a hurry, you can buy refried beans in cans, and at less than a dollar a can, they're not a bad deal. However, if you cook beans from scratch, you can make a lot more beans for the same amount of money. To save time, money, and propane, I cook up large amounts of pintos at one time, since three or four pounds of beans will cook in the same amount of time as one pound. Here's what I do ...

Get three or four pounds of pinto, whatever will fill your largest pot about 1/3 full. Sort through the beans to pick out any dirt clods or small stones that may have been missed by the processing equipment, then rinse the beans in a colander under warm running water. Put them in the pot and fill the pot with water until it is about 2/3 full. The beans will double in size as they soak. If you can soak them overnight, you can use tap water, but if you need the beans today, you can turn on the stove and heat the water. As soon as it boils, turn it off, and cover the pot. They'll be ready to cook in a few hours. I'd wait at least two hours for the hot soak, but if you have more time before dinner, don't worry, they'll be fine. The longer the soak, the quicker they'll cook, so soaking will save you money in electricity or gas. When I soak beans overnight in cold water and turn on the heat in the morning, they're done within 90 minutes to two hours. If you wake up in the morning and decide you want pinto beans today, it's cheaper to plan the for dinner, although with a hot soak, you could have them done in time for lunch.

Some people say you should dump the soaking water -- they claim you are less likely to have gas if you do that. I've tried dumping the soaking water or not, and I haven't noticed a difference, but then most of my family members don't get gas from beans, so I don't know what I was expecting to see by even trying the "dump the soaking water" method. If you have gas problems, dump the soaking water and let us know if it helped.

When it's time to cook the beans, they have doubled in size, so the pot is getting pretty full at this point, and I fill it up with water, coming to within an inch or two of the top. If you soaked the beans overnight, you don't need as much water, because the beans have already absorbed so much. Don't get wrapped up in being perfect. Beans are very forgiving. If the water level falls below the top of the beans, add another cup or two until the beans are submerged. As long as the beans are covered with water, they'll cook just fine. Cook them on your smallest burner on low, or you could have a mess if the beans boils over.

Once my big pot of beans is cooked, I generally put about four cups in my skillet and mash them for whatever dinner I was planning. Often we have a Mexican buffet dinner, which includes:

  • Burritos -- soft flour tortillas, shredded cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos.
  • Tostadas -- fried corn tortillas, and all the same ingredients as for the burritos. The chalupas I grew up with had beans spread on the tortilla, then cheese sprinkled on top and melted under a broiler. The chilled vegetables were placed on top of the cheese when it came out of the oven.
  • Nachos -- fried corn tortilla wedges, shredded cheddar cheese, and jalapenos. Real nachos look like lovely little canape-style appetizers with the refried beans nicely spread across each tortilla wedge, cheese sprinkled on top, then melted. A jalapeno slice tops each one.
If your local supermarket doesn't sell "tostada shells," you can make your own. In fact, it's usually cheaper to make your own anyway. Buy soft corn tortillas, put about an inch of oil in a skillet, and when it's hot enough, place a tortilla in the oil and leave it there until it's hard. If the bottom is browning faster than the top, use tongs to turn it over. When you tap the tortilla with the tongs, it should make a loud "tick" as it would if you hit something solid with the tongs, meaning it's done. Remove it from the oil with the tongs and place it on a paper towel to drain.

So, what do you do with all those beans that are left in the pot after you've had your Mexican buffet? Freeze them! We normally have five people for dinner, so we freeze four cups at a time using either freezer containers or freezer bags. Aside from the fact that freezer bags are disposable, so not very environmentally friendly, I do prefer them because when I'm in a hurry, I can pull a bag out of the freezer, stick it in the microwave for about two minutes, and the beans are soft enough that I can break the block into several pieces and drop them into the skillet. Add about a cup of water and once the beans start melting, you can start mashing with your potato masher. In less than 15 minutes, including the time it takes to chop vegetables and shred cheese, you can have another Mexican buffet ready to feed your family.

Mexican pizza is another favorite with refried beans. Spread the beans on raw pizza dough, sprinkle with cheddar cheese and cook in the oven as you would any other type of pizza. When it's done, you can sprinkle with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, jalapenos, and taco sauce. I recently had an amazing revelation -- why do we put cheddar cheese on Mexican food when it's from England? Since I make queso blanco, which is a Mexican cheese, I decided to put it on the last Mexican pizza we made, and it was delicious! If you have any tortilla chip crumbs in your pantry, you can sprinkle them on top of the pizza to add a little crunch.

For more money-saving tips, visit Frugal Friday over at Life as Mom.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Turkey attacked

Although I didn't buy the llamas to protect our poultry, we haven't lost any turkeys this year since the llamas are living in the pasture that surrounds the turkey house. And we know the coyotes are still here, since we had a turkey hen get attacked on Friday afternoon. The coyote obviously grabbed her in his mouth since her skin is ripped up on her right thigh and the left side of her back, and we can even see where it happened because feathers are scattered across the grass next to the goat pasture. As with the attack on Teddy the ram, I'm assuming the llamas didn't know the coyote was in the pasture until the hen was attacked, then they ran over and scared him off.

The turkey hen is so injured, unfortunately, we need to butcher her. She is one of this year's Thanksgiving turkeys that would be going to the processor on Friday, but it doesn't seem humane to let her suffer. Although she ran from us when we first found her, since we put her in the turkey house, she hasn't left. In fact, she hasn't even moved from the spot where we sat her down on the ground. And turkeys are not nice to one of their own that's injured.

I'm afraid we are going to be losing more goats, because they started going through the electric fence like it's not even hot, even though the fence tester says it is hot. Thursday as I was about to leave, I saw goats behind the chicken house, and I knew there wasn't anything I could do about it. I hate the feeling of helplessness. It started with four goats three years ago, and now they've convinced about 3/4 of the herd to follow them to greener pastures. You know, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. They get alfalfa hay morning and night, and there is still plenty of green grass where they are, but they think there is better food to be found closer to the creek. I can't put them in the inner barn pasture, because that borders the buck pens, and when they were in there a couple weeks ago, one of the bucks jumped the fence. I don't know if anyone was in heat, but I've marked the calendar, so if someone kids in five months, I will know which one is Daddy.

I have some fencing ideas, but that takes time and money, and it's not something that's going to happen very quickly. This weekend, Mike is working on the fencing around the pond so the chickens, geese, and ducks will be safe.


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