Monday, October 31, 2011

Oh dear

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Why yes that is a mule deer standing in our fenced-in garden. At first I thought I must have left one of the gates open. Nope! They have figured out a clever way to jump around the fence where it meets the retaining wall to the corral below. A few deer in the garden is not that big of an issue this time of year- most all the harvest is complete and they can clean up the wind fallen fruit. However, where there is one there is soon to be more. We saw this deer and her fawn morning and eve for two days. The next morning though she had taught her trick to others and there were five does, three of this spring's fawns and a nice sized buck. That is too many for my poor garden. I'll add fence work to this week's chore list.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Field burning

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We are in the process of plowing up some new fields to replant with a wildlife mix in the spring. When some of these fields were planted originally, it was with soil erosion in mind. The perennial grass does hold the soil in place and keep out weeds but does not create a very diverse habitat for wildlife. Lloyd ran a couple passes along the field edges with the disc to churn up the soil and create a bit of a fire break and then we planned to torch the grass off. The plants are spaced so far apart though that without a good wind the flame would not carry from one plant to the next. The wind was not cooperating and after messing with some slow, incomplete burns we just decided to wait for another day to try again.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Picking grapes

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Gathered all the cab and pinot and ran them through the crusher to make fall farm wine. The white Concords on the arbor aren't much for making wine but we had our killing frost this week and if we don't at least pick them soon it will be one huge mess all over the patio. We'll see if we get some time to do something with them.
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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Meat CSA cuts: pork shoulder steaks

In our Meat CSA we distribute a wide variety of cuts from every part of the animal. Many of these cuts are familiar like steaks and pork chops but some cuts are relatively unknown or have a different name from what we purchase at the market. Don't let these cuts lurk in the back of the freezer! Knowing what the cut is, where is comes from and how it is best prepared will help bridge the gap between package and plate.

Today's cut is: Pork Shoulder Steak

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This is a bone-in cut from the front shoulder of the hog. This group of muscles sees a lot of work and contains quite a bit of intramuscular fat making it well suited for low, slow cooking. One of the most common uses for pork shoulder is for pulled pork (commonly made from boneless pork shoulder roast, also called pork butt roast) due to the higher fat content which keeps the meat from drying out while cooking. These pork shoulder steaks are one of my absolute favorite cuts for the crockpot - they are the perfect size and I can dump the pork in the crock frozen (though these steaks need to be thawed just enough to remove the plastic layer between the two steaks - nobody wants slow cooked plastic for dinner!) add my of choice of seasonings and come home to an amazing smelling kitchen in the evening.

Basic Pulled Pork
Slow-cooked Coriander Pork

Ranch recipes: Slow-cooked coriander pork

To me, this recipe is the perfect fall dish and one we recently served at our fall harvest meal. There is something magical about the flavors of pork, apples, onions and coriander melding over a long, slow cook time and the results are melt-in-your mouth deliciousness. This is also one of my go-to branding day recipes. It scales well, serves a crowd and I can get it started early in the morning so I can join the crew in the field instead of slaving in the kitchen all morning. Yay!

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Slow-cooked coriander pork

2 pork shoulder steaks
1 large sweet onion, sliced
2 Tbsp freshly ground coriander (cilantro seeds, but they don't taste anything like the green parts for all you cilantro haters out there!)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 cup unsweetened applesauce ( I use homemade applesauce but any will do)
1/2 c water

1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a dutch oven pot or casserole (with a lid) add a layer of onions. Mix seasonings together and season both sides of pork liberally and place on onions. Add another layer of onions on top of pork, cover with applesauce and water.

2. Cover pot leaving lid slightly ajar. Cook for four to six hours or until pork starts to fall apart.

I'm a big fan of serving this meal with pumpkin risotto, baked Brussels sprouts and a warm loaf of The Bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. For our fall harvest meal we served the pork with cornbread stuffing and salad. Or if it is lunchtime and the house is full of yummy food smells, you could just stand over the pot and eat it plain like Nathan and I did. Then I remembered I wanted to take appetizing photos to share on the blog. Oh well, I saved you a bite :)

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Ranch recipes: Basic pulled pork

An incredibly simple recipe for the crockpot that yields moist, flavorful shredded pork.

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Basic Pulled Pork
 2 pork shoulder steaks
1-2 Tbsp steak seasoning or rub (go light on the seasoning if it contains salt)
1/2 an onion, sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 c water or stock

1. Add oil and onions to crock pot. Season both sides of meat liberally and place on top of onions. Add liquid.

2. Turn crockpot to low and cook six to eight hours or until meat starts to fall apart. Remove pork to cutting board and shred with two forks careful to remove bone.

Now you have a pile of shredded pork and many options for what to do next. You could return the meat to the crockpot to soak up come of the juices. Or add it to a bun and slather with some barbeque sauce for a BBQ pork sandwich (my preferred method). Use for tacos or carnitas. Or just eat it plain off the cutting board until you decide you are too full to make anything for dinner.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ranch questions: chickens and egg production

A two-part ranch question today:

What does it mean when you say, "the chickens are molding"?
Haha. Well if the chicken is molding, the leftovers have probably been in the fridge too long and it is time to toss out but I suspect that this question relates more to chickens moulting than molding. Moulting simply refers to shedding old feathers and regrowing a new set. Of course they can't drop all their feathers at once or they would have no way to keep warm so they moult in stages. Chickens moult about once a year, usually in the fall as the number of daylight hours wanes which is related to the second part of the question:

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And how does moulting influence egg production?
In the fall months, the change in daylight hours triggers a change in the chicken's biological clock. If we think of chickens outside of the commercial egg production system and just look at their "chicken goals in life" they are to lay a clutch of eggs in the spring and hatch a batch or two of chicks during the long, warm days of summer. Once that task is complete and the seasons change, she stops producing eggs, sheds and regrows her feathers and packs on a little extra fat for the cold winter months. Come spring time she is ready to start again.

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The key element here is the number of daylight hours. In the chicken brain - if days are long, it is time to lay eggs but if days are short, it is time to rest. Commercial egg operations have lights in the hen house to mimic the hours lost in the winter months.

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Egg production can drop for a variety of other reasons including stress or changes in diet but for the most part, it drops in the fall because the hens are going through their annual moult. Some hens will jump right back into laying after their break but others will not start laying again until the spring.

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Here at the ranch the chickens are moulting in full force and there are feathers everywhere! They blow into corners like dust bunnies and litter the entire barnyard. For the most part we let our girls take a rest and don't force increased production with extra lighting but this comes at an extra cost. We have a layer flock of about 75 hens. In the summer months when everyone is laying like crazy I have an abundance of eggs and the cost of feed per egg produced is low. However, yesterday I collected only 12 eggs yet I'm still having to feed the entire flock, making those few eggs much more expensive to produce. Egg numbers should pick up in December as some of our girls finish moulting and hopefully dive back in to laying.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The ranch through time: One heck of a hay load


In honor of all the work we still have to do to get all the previously baled hay into the barn, I present this photo that shows that even back then there were days where the main goal was not always a tight, straight stack but simply to get the hay out of the field and bumped down the road to the shed. We made a couple trips this summer with equally sketchy loads. Some things never change.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ranch recipes: Homemade chicken stock

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There are so many reasons to make your own delicious chicken stock: it tastes better, you control the quality of ingredients and it is not chock full of sodium like store bought brands. I make stock maybe six or eight times a year and freeze the liquid gold in various size containers so I can add it to any recipe. A good stock is essential in soups or stews but also jazzes up other dishes like mashed potatoes or rice by infusing them with a rich flavor.

Making your own stock is not difficult and makes a great weekend task but before we get started on the step by step, let's a address a very fine line between stock and broth. Stock in general is made from simmering the bones of meat or seafood while broth refers to the liquid from simmering meat (with or without bones). Veggies, spices and salt can be added to either stock or broth but the general distinction comes from the ratio of bones to meat. Technically if a whole cut up chicken is poached, the resulting liquid is a broth - richly flavored from the meat. Simmering a picked chicken carcass low and slow for many hours will result in a stock which derives some of the flavor from the collagen and marrow.

Whether making stock or broth, the process is relatively simple - simmer for a long time, strain and enjoy!
Today I am making the simplest type of stock - unseasoned with no salt, no seasonings and no veggies, just chicken.

Basic Homemade Chicken Stock

Ingredients
- Chicken bones - this could be a previously cooked whole chicken carcass that has been picked clean or chicken backs or necks. If you don't plan on making stock right away with a leftover chicken carcass, bag it and freeze it. In our Meat CSA, we offer packages of chicken backs and necks as extras for making stock. Due to their odd shape and pokey parts, the vacu-bags lose their seal quite frequently leaving me with several packages of meat a year that are too frosted to send out in CSA, but still just perfect for making stock.
- Water
- Optional: 1 onion, 2-3 carrots, 3-4 ribs of celery (a great use for carrots and celery that are starting to get a bit rubbery), 2-3 cloves garlic, 1-2 bay leaves, pepper 

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Chicken backs ready for making stock

1. Add chicken parts to a large stock pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and turn down to a bare simmer. Simmer three to four hours on low or until the liquid is a rich yellow color. Some folks will simmer stock for 12 to 24 hours until the bones are soft but if you are interested in picking off any remaining meat from the bones, do so before four hours or everything starts to fall apart and tiny bones can easily be missed.

2. When the stock is done cooking, turn off the burner and gather another stock pot and top with a colander. Carefully pour the stock into the colandar to strain out the meat and bones. Put the pile of bones and meat in another bowl, we will return to them soon. Wash the first pot (the one the stock simmered in on the stove) and rinse the colander.

3. Now we want to strain the stock again to clear away any little bits of meat, bone and the layer of yellow fat that floats on top of the pot so all we are left with is the golden stock. Arrange the colander over the top of the washed pot and line the strainer with a couple paper towels. Carefully pour the stock into the lined colander.

4. The remaining clear liquid is the basic chicken stock. Use the stock fresh within three or four days or put into containers (leaving an inch of head space for plastics, more for glass to accommodate expansion during freezing) and freeze for up to six months.

Or if you plan to use in the next few days, just put the stock pot in the fridge. The next day when you take it out, the stock may have set up into a jello-like consistency (as the gelatin renders out when simmered for a long time). This is perfectly normal and will return to a liquid again once heated. The first time I made stock I had a minor freak out when the spoon stood straight up in pot and I didn't have anyone to pat my shoulder and tell me that it was OK and that just means that I made it right. So here is your reassuring shoulder pat in advance, <pat> <pat>.

Since this is the absolute simplest type of chicken stock recipe, it may taste a little flat at this point due to a lack of seasonings. Personally I am a fan on unsalted stock because it gives me the freedom to season to taste in my final recipe but if you prefer, feel free to season now.

5. Now we return to the bones. For this step I like to use a pair of disposable, food grade gloves to pick the chicken from the bones. For one, if the chicken is still really hot, the gloves protect my hands and for two, I don't much care for greasy chicken fingers. Pick around and pull the meat away from the bones being very careful to not accidentally add little bones to the pile (the neck is one place to be extra careful). Don't worry about getting every little tidbit, just the bigger chunks. It can be pretty surprising to see how much meat comes off the bone.

Use the meat for chicken soup, chicken and dumplings, chicken pot pie or even mix it up for a chicken salad sandwich. I like to freeze this "picked" chicken in vacu-bags and then for evenings when I have no time to defrost and cook meat, I add it to whatever I am cooking (we added such chicken to our chicken coconut curry last night and it was very good) for a quick meal.

That's it. It really is that easy. Homemade stock is so rich and flavorful and you control the quality of the ingredients. No spending $3-4 dollars a carton for chicken flavored salt water and now you have several quarts of homemade stock for delicious soups all season long.



Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The ranch through time: Feeding poultry


Chuck Sr and Chuck Jr feeding chickens (and turkeys) in the late fifties/early sixties. There are fewer trees on the hill and the fence and roof are a bit older now, but the view is pretty much the same today.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A different perspective

Each year we host dozens of people at the ranch. Some are old regulars that have been coming to the ranch for longer than I have been alive. Others experience the ranch for the first time and I am always fascinated by the photographs they take. I could walk by the same tree dozens of times a day and never stop to appreciate the unique character until I see it captured in an image.

Today I share a collection of images courtesy of Ian (and Dara) that show the character of the ranch through their eyes. Thanks for sharing you two!

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Prescribed burning


The other day we did a controlled burn on one of our grass fields. Why burn? Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem out here and a quick burn kills off weeds and pests without the use of pesticides and reinvigorates the grass to come back bigger and stronger next year.


The grass field consists of an established stand of native Great Basin wild rye (Leymus cinerues) that was hand collected from wild plants on the ranch and replanted in a solid stand to grow for native seed which is used in restoration projects throughout the west. The grass gets rather tall, up to five feet high, but the seed stalks had already been harvested and the stubble height was about 18-24". Leaving that much debris in the field year after year creates a haven for pests and bugs that winter over in the crop and come out swinging the next season hence the management plan calls for a controlled burn.

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"Controlled burn" is obviously the key phrase here. With little rain and plenty of dry tinder material in all directions, we were still in the peak of fire season so extreme caution and planning is required before starting fires of any sort. First you need good weather - warm and dry with little or no wind. Then of course you have to call the neighbors in advance to let them know you are planning a burn - this gives them a heads up if they see a bit of smoke and a chance to get their fire supplies at the ready in case something goes awry.

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Next we do a bit of a back burn along the perimeter of the field. To the east of the grass patch is a green alfalfa field - too much moisture to sustain a burn and to the west is a summer fallow field with no fuels at all. However, the north and south ends of the field touch grassy range land areas and we certainly don't want the fire getting loose out there, hence the back burn. A fire will not burn though an area that has already burned, there is simply not enough fuel, so this back burned area acts as a good fire break to keep the fire from jumping the line. Nathan and Lloyd sprayed the ground along the pipe with water and burned in about 20 feet or so on the north end of the field. Once the fire had burned away from the established fire line, we moved to the south end of the field and started a burn on that end. The two fires will burn towards each other and meet in the middle with little chance or opportunity to burn anything else.


With help from very cooperative winds, the plan went just as intended and we got a pretty complete burn on the field. There were some patches where the grass and some weeds were a little green, but overall, it was a perfect controlled burn.

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Of course in any traumatic event to the ecosystem there will be some casualties and I did find a burned up snake, a praying mantis and many pocket gophers and field mice. But if we take a step back and look at the benefit the burn will have on the entire ecosystem, future generations will benefit from a more diverse habitat due to the burn - from the smallest mice, snakes and praying mantis to the larger deer, elk, raptors and game birds. The grass will benefit from reduced predation by bugs and pests resulting in bigger, more healthy plants and clear ground, free of weed seed will enable new rye plants to establish without competition. And finally, we will benefit by having a healthier crop that sets more seed to sell without having to expose ourselves or the environment to harsh chemicals and pesticides.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The ranch through time: A moment with the geese

We are so lucky to be able to carry on the farming and ranching traditions of our family through to the next generation. Over the last century or so, the ranch has been a special place for so many people. Beverly was generous enough to share a trove of old ranch photos and each Tuesday we will take a look back at the ranch through time.


Today's photo is one of my absolute favorites of the collection. This timeless image of Chuck Sr. with his three pet geese not only captures an overall spirit of the ranch but also the calm, quiet mannerisms of Chuck Sr. himself. The way he crouches down to engage the geese you could almost imagine the exact same image with his three children thoughtfully pondering his words of wisdom. But which silly goose is too busy playing in the food?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hop Harvest

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I don't write about it much on the blog, but we (and by we, I refer to the royal "we" - meaning Nathan) do our fair share of home brewing out here at the ranch, building on a tradition of generations before us. Over the last few years many of our ranch guests have shared a home brewed pint of ranch beer with many more helping to brew up batches of one-of-a-kind, truly artesanal batches of beer.

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Nathan likes to joke that we are one of only a few places in the country that brew an "estate" beer meaning we grow and malt the grain, we grow the hops, we culture the yeast and use our own sweet well water. It is pretty darn difficult to get any more "local" or close to the source than that.

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The other day we spent the afternoon collecting hops from the happy hop that lives in front of Lloyd's south-facing sunroom. Collected by hand, we will allow the hops to dry before packaging them up and storing until the next brew day comes a callin'!