Monday, January 30, 2012

My favorite photos 2011

Our friend Freda joined us last winter. As anyone who has met her will tell you, she is a very memorable character that loves attention and is more than willing to sit on your lap as long as there are pets involved.

We didn't have the snowiest winter but we did get a few good storms. This one in particular drifted over the roads and required daily plowing if we wanted to be able to leave the ranch.

This is Susan. She was one of our first calves of the year, born on the coldest day of the year. It was a hard labor for her momma, Muzzy and she required some help to get the calf out. Unfortunately because Muzzy was in labor for so long, Susan's legs had started to freeze and she wasn't able to get up to nurse. After watching for twenty minutes with no progress and the calf's ears beginning to freeze solid, Lloyd and Nathan loaded Susan up in the Jeep and hauled her down to the house. We spent the next hour in Lloyd's sunroom (with a cozy fire in the woodstove) trying to warm her up. We used a blow-drier and toweled her dry and brushed her coat to fluff up all the hair to insulate better. After a warm bottle she loaded back in the Jeep and was deposited on a pile of straw out of the wind and next to momma. We left her and hoped for the best. The next morning we peeked in the pen and Susan was not only up and about (though a mite wobbly), she had nursed on her own and the pair seemed well bonded even after the temporary separation.

Susan and Muzzy rejoined the herd and other than her permanently crinkled ears from the frost damage, Susan did just fine and was an excellent big sister to all the little calves to come later in the season.

This is another memorable calving story. When Margaret had her calf last year the little heifer was bright-eyed, perky and up wobbling around in no time. Usually we like to see calves standing by 20-30 minutes after birth and nursing within the hour. "Razzie" as we named the calf has a good grasp on the first part but wasn't comprehending the part about nursing. We decided to give it some time and would check on the pair in the morning. Still no progress.

You can test to see if the sucking reflex is working by putting a finger in the calf's mouth. Razzie had the reflex but no desire to find the udder. By late afternoon on day two I gave the calf a bottle of warm water which she took greedily. When Nathan went out to do checks on the remaining heifers to calve at midnight, Razzie had still not nursed. Bless Margaret's patient demeanor because she let him try to get Razzie to nurse for over an hour - he would spray milk in the calf's face, bring her to the teat, foce the teat in her mouth, put his hand over her nostrils to force her to swallow (an old stockman's trick) and all Razzie would do is look uninterested and spit the teat out.

Day three - since the calf would take the bottle eagerly we ended up mixing a few bottles of milk replacer throughout the day since her energy levels were starting to wane. By evening time we decided to run Margaret through the chute and milk her out (after all, mother's milk is always best and poor Margaret was so engorged you could tell it was uncomfortable for her too). I can remember resting my head on her warm side as I milked Margaret while Razzie bumbled and bounced around. We tried to get her to latch again but no use. We gave Razzie a bottle with half the milk and put the rest in the fridge for tomorrow.

Day four - same old stuff. We try to get the calf to nurse, she's uncooperative. We give in and give her a bottle and she is happy as a lark. We are quickly approaching a point where if the calf doesn't learn to nurse then we will have a bottle baby on our hands. While cute, bottle-feeding a calf several times a day adds more work to the daily chore list and Margaret would make a far better mother than I ever would for this calf. When I come out to check the pair in the afternoon Margaret is laying down, her huge udder pointing skyward while Razzie is nosing around - licking the panels, sucking on a length of chain, chewing on mom's ear. As she bumbles around she finds one of the skyward teats and I'll be damned if she doesn't think that she has discovered some lost wonder as she starts nursing vigorously. I roll my eyes and make my way back to the house - my job here is done.

Every time I take a picture like this, I am reminded that we live in an absolutely beautiful place. I could not imagine living anywhere else in the world. Yet what continues to astound me is that our friends and family find the ranch to be a special place too and go out of their way to come visit us out here in the middle of nowhere.

I really love this photo. Ian probably has no idea how much this little piggy will squirm and wiggle and kick and scream once he gets a hold of it but he is so absolutely committed to the experience (and seems genuinely excited about it) that he never flinches.

We had a big bunch of teenagers give us a hand for branding this year. I love this shot of all the kids and calves sizing up each other though the fence.

This is a photo about bull balls. There are probably few folks in the world that could find a magical beauty in a shot with such subject matter but I sure do. I passed my camera off to one of the kids during branding and from perched high atop the fence came this photo. I love the perspective. I love the antique box and instruction manual in the foreground for "The Elastrator". I love the seamless teamwork: from the tension in the arms of Jake (in the red shirt) to the perfect outline of the "gems" cupped in hand so there is no doubt about what is happening next. If photography is about capturing a moment, I think this image qualifies.

This is The Bread. It is not the best composition or lighting for food photography but for me it represents sharing the recipe with others on the blog and the overwhelming response it received. You don't have to have the latest gadgets or be a great cook to create quality food.

Ahh Indian paintbrush. You are one of the most beautiful wildflowers here at the ranch and it took me over four years to find not just one plant, but a whole field in bloom.

I laugh when I see this photo. In farming, some lessons leave a lasting impression.

Papa the Peacock showing off in the plate-glass window. I was able to take one photo through the dirty glass before he noticed me and dropped his display completely. Luckily, one photo was all I need.

Glorious poppies reaching for the sun. Even now I can't wait to see their showy displays again this summer.


A lesson in flexibility: no matter how well planned out the day may be, there will always be bumps in the road (or lurches in the truck).

The essence of a summer ride on the ATV. I can almost feel the warm sun on my skin and breeze in my hair.

Poor, pitiful calf covered in flies. I am sure she was relieved when we gave the entire herd a good spraying.

Another one of those staggering landscape beauty shots featuring friends we adore. Hi Ian and Dara! Look close, they are two of the "ants" in the upper left.

Fire 047
The fire. Well the first and closest fire of the season. I can still remember seeing that sinuous plume off on the horizon after a dry lightning storm and that dread that hits you - How big is the fire? How close? How fast is it moving? Is this just a burning juniper or something that needs more attention?

I remember the first evening when well after dark, Lloyd and Nathan staggered in to the house. Not only did they reek of smoke, they were smoke. Just blood-shot, irritated eyes peering out of tired ash-colored faces.

The next day they were called up again to come help with the fire (which had jumped the line and changed direction in the night of course). By the end of day two, when I knew that the ranch was not likely to be affected and BLM and Forest Service crews had arrived to assist the weary local ranchers, I began selfishly worrying that our first trip away from the ranch since moving here four years ago was in danger of being cancelled.

Fire 029
Halfway through day three of fire-fighting, Nathan came home mid-day, showered and we hopped in the truck and drove to California.

Our California adventure centered around the wonderful wedding of our good friends Ian and Lauren.

What a wonderful reminder that no matter how much time passes between visits, true friendships never fade.
Back to the grind and baling sweet alfalfa.

West Coast Summer 2011-9

One of Ian's photos from his visit. This ladder is a hundred years old and recently repainted with the random can of vintage paint Lloyd picked up at a junk sale. I'd walked by it for weeks without taking a moment to pause and appreciate the simple beauty.

My first experience with prescribed field burns. The intensity of the heat on your face is truly unforgettable.

A fire casualty.

The most motley turkey you ever did see.

The ash tree on the patio and the fantastic flame colors of fall.

A bucket of grapes and one of the final bounties we glean from the garden each year.

Our first snow - always eagerly anticipated.

And finally the crystals of frost on the windshield. So crisp, clean and fresh - the perfect start for a new year.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lazy Sunday recipe: Seitan (wheat meat)

I live in the middle of nowhere and host many guests over the year. No matter how many times I ask about dietary restrictions before our guests arrive, invariably a couple people each year let me know twenty minutes before dinner that they have allergies or intolerances that mean they are unable to eat all or some of the prepared meal. The provider in me always wants to make sure our guests leave the table with a full belly regardless of dietary restrictions so I keep this recipe filed away to accommodate vegetarian and vegan needs, though I like to eat it too and it makes a good dish for Meatless Mondays. Most of all, it freezes well for quick changes in meal planning as needed. Of course seitan is made from wheat gluten and is obviously not gluten-free but luckily I have yet to be surprised by a gluten-free, vegan that did not let me know in advance. Thank goodness!

The recipe today is an easy one but takes a little bit of time to prepare (though not all hands-on time). It is well worth the wait and creates a cheap and protein-rich meat substitute that has more structure and texture than say tofu and is easily made at home. When we make seitan (pronounced say-tan), we separate the gluten from the starch in the grain. This may sound complicated but is actually a fun process that is a little bit science and a little bit magic. Let's get started!

Step 1: Make the dough
There are shortcuts to making seitan that involve using vital wheat gluten (essentially pure gluten) but today we are going to start from scratch with plain old flour. I used some of our homegrown, whole wheat ranch flour but an all-purpose or bread flour will work just as well (whole wheat flours take a little more time for reasons discussed later). You will need 6 cups of flour mixed with 3 cups of water (plus a little more if needed). Stir this mixture together to create a sticky dough and make sure all the flour is incorporated. You can do this by hand or in a mixer. Now let the dough rest for 30 minutes (a little longer won't hurt it). The purpose of the resting step is to let the gluten develop (the purpose of gluten in breadmaking is to give bread that chewy texture by developing this network of entangled gluten "fibers")


Step 2: Wash the gluten
The next step is the fun step. If you have kids, get them in the kitchen to help, this is just the kind of cooking science that kids love. Put a large pot in the bottom of the sink, place the dough blob in the pot and half fill with cool water. Now start kneading and stretching the dough. The water will become cloudy as the starch rinses away and the stretchy, stringy gluten is left behind.

Change out the pot of water as needed or rinse the dough in a colander or just hold it in your hands under running water - whichever you prefer. The gluten does a pretty good job of holding together so don't worry about it washing away down the drain. Note that if you used whole wheat flour, in addition to rinsing the starch away you will also have to rinse away the darker colored pieces of bran. This is why using whole wheat flour takes more time than a white flour, there is more "stuff" that needs to be separated from the gluten. Continue the rinsing process until the water runs clear. This means there is no more starch in the dough, only pure gluten. You may notice that the size of the dough ball has decreased dramatically. From my original six cups of flour, I was left with a ball of gluten about the size of a large orange.

Step 3: Flavoring the seitan
If you were to eat the seitan at this stage it would be like trying to eat a big tasteless glob of chewing gum. Mmm! The purpose of step three is to impart flavor and firm the gluten up to a chewy, meat-like texture. For this we will simmer the seitan in a flavored broth. This is an excellent application for "fridge broth". You don't know of fridge broth? Sure you do! You take that rubbery carrot and that half an onion you forgot was in there, you add that dried up ginger that has been slowly desiccating on the counter the last few weeks and pair it with some herbs that are almost over the hill. Essentially what goes into the broth doesn't have to be pretty because all it is doing is providing flavor. I have also gone the lazy way and used only water and soy sauce and it turned out OK (you will have other opportunities to flavor the seitan in the final meal prep) Here's what ended up in my fridge broth:

- 2 cups chicken stock (if making vegan seitan substitute vegetable-based broth)
- 1 cup of water
- 2-3 Tablespoons soy sauce or Bragg's liquid aminos
- 2-3 carrots
- 2-3 ribs of celery
- half an onion
- a chunk of ginger about the size of my thumb
- 3 cloves of garlic
- a handful of chopped parsley

Add the seitan blob to the broth and bring to a boil. I prefer to flatten the gluten ball before adding it to the pot to make for more even flavoring and to make it easier to slice later. Once the liquid comes up to a boil, turn the temperature down and simmer covered for two hours. The seitan could also simmer in a crockpot all day for this step. It will expand some while cooking. 


After two hours, remove the seitan from the broth and let cool on a plate or rack. Once the seitan is cool, it is ready to be sliced and used as an ingredient in final meal prep. It will keep in the fridge for about a week or can be frozen in an air-tight container. I do recommend lightly pan-frying to crisp up the outside; it gives it more of a meaty, resilient texture.

What do you do with it now? Well treat it like meat in any other dish:
- chop it up and add to a soup or curry 
- slice thin, thread on skewers and grill while basting with a favorite sauce
- slice thin, slather with BBQ sauce and serve on a hamburger bun
- chop or crumble to use in tacos, chili or sloppy joes
- cover in seasoned bread crumbs and fry to make cutlets
- use in stir fry

I ended up cutting the seitan into thin slices, pan-frying in a little olive oil with some broccoli and serving with thai peanut sauce over rice. It tastes kind of like chewy chicken and while you will probably not completely mistake it for chicken, even Chuck and Lloyd, who were a little skeptical, thought it turned out pretty good. Mission success!


Did you make some seitan? What did you think? How did you end up preparing the final product?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Check in

Hi friends!
I know the blog has been a little (ok, very) neglected over the past few weeks. I've been busy, sick, bored and overall uninspired to write much of anything. But as I dodge things like end of year reporting and tax prep and I am reinvigorated to write more on the blog. Tune in next week where I promise at least a post a day. That should help me keep the momentum going and give Ranchsteady a little pick-me-up.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ian and Lauren


Good friends and frequent guests, Ian and Lauren made their yearly holiday stop at the ranch this week. The weather wasn't the most cooperative so the "ranch hand experiences" were somewhat limited but we seemed pretty content to stay in and enjoy the cozy wood fire for the most part. We did manage to tip out a bale for the cows even in the mud and Ian had his first tractor driving experience so at least there was a little authentic ranch flavor to the visit.

We always look forward to their visits and this was the first time we had seen them since their amazing wedding this summer. There is just something about being ole married folks at the same stage in our lives and sharing similar experiences that makes the bond of friendship really strong. We just love those guys and are always sad to see them go. Hopefully they will return this spring for an extended gathering of all our old friends in April. I can't wait!

Revised layout

I keep trying to convince myself the current layout will grow on me if I stare at it long enough but apparently the layout is also completely broken on Ipads which is one more strike against it. I'll be reverting to the older, more accessible format but it might take me a while to get all the kinks out and images displaying properly. Thanks for understanding!