Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Great Meal with Bold Flavor!

On the most perfect Sunday afternoon, I walked out to the Swiss Chard row and was looking at the beautiful leaves with bright red stems.  Swiss Chard is delicious.  I was looking for another way to prepare it and stumbled across This Recipe for Coconut Curry Chicken that looked very interesting and we were anxious to try it out.  We like the bold flavor of curry and the flavor of coconut milk and we had fresh Swiss Chard and carrots growing in the garden.  After looking at the recipe, we decided to double it since we were all very hungry.

Swiss Chard in the Garden
So we assembled the ingredients that were called for in the link posted above, but doubled the recipe and made a couple slight alterations for items we didn't have on hand:

4 Tablespoons butter
2 large chicken breasts, cut up
2 medium carrots, diced
2 medium onions, sliced
3 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 cans coconut milk
2 Tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 cans garbanzo beans
2 bunches Swiss Chard

All the ingredients assembled
The first thing I did was process all the ingredients, dicing the carrots, slicing the onions, mincing the garlic and ginger.  While I was doing that, Tricia was cooking the chicken.  We were trying to get this prepared before church so we were racing the clock.  We added the diced carrots to the chicken and cooked for about 2 minutes.

Cooking the chicken and carrots
Then we added the onion and ginger and after a couple of minutes of cooking, we added the garlic, curry, cumin and chili powder.  We stirred it all up and allowed the flavors to get friendly.  I wish I could adequately describe the wonderful aroma that filled the kitchen.  Russ and Benjamin came in and were impressed (so far) with the recipe based solely on the aroma filling the kitchen. 

Adding the spices
Then two cans of coconut milk were added to the pot.  We filled the cans with water and poured that into the pot as well.  The recipe called for this to simmer for 20 minutes.

Now adding coconut milk
While that was simmering, I had a little time to process the 2 bunches of Swiss Chard I had harvested.  I simply cut the stem out, leaving the broad leaves for the dish.  I roughly chopped the chard and stacked to the side of the cutting board.

Removing the stems from the Swiss Chard
Nothing, and I mean nothing, goes to waste around here.  I walked to the pasture fence and threw the bright red stems of the chard over the fence for Bully, our Jersey bull, to enjoy.  In no time he wolfed down every stem.

Yes, bulls ARE attracted to the color red
I added the chopped up chard and the salt.

Adding Swiss Chard
Then I added the garbanzo beans, stirred, and allowed to cook for an additional 15 minutes.

Adding chick peas
We put a pot of rice cooking on the stove and everything was done in time for us to run out the door to church. When we returned, we opened the door to the smell of coconut curry chicken, beckoning us to get our bowls.  We served some rice and generous serving spoonfuls of the wonderful concoction over the rice in our bowls. The recipe passed the smell test, but how did it taste?

Coconut Chicken Curry with Swiss Chard
We served our bowls, sat down, held hands, thanked God for our meal, and tasted the dish. Everyone said, "Mmmmmmm...."  Delicious!  It was outstandingly flavorful and everyone went back for seconds.  This recipe is a keeper!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Counting the Days

One of my favorite movies is Gladiator and yes, as the title suggests, it is chock full of violence as one might surmise by the title of the movie.  Gladiator is an epic drama about good versus evil, loyalty and betrayal, and one in which you are drawn to the character Maximus, who is played by Russell Crowe.

Maximus is a General for Marcus Aurelius and is a skilled military tactician and leader of men.  One of the things that is of great interest to me, though, is a glimpse into his personal life that takes place during a dialogue between him and Marcus Aurelius.

Image Credit
After an opening battle scene in which Maximus and his Roman army defeat the Germanic army in a hard fought campaign at the cost of many lives, the Caesar calls for his General.  He wants to talk to him.  The dialogue pulled back the curtain on what really drives men.  Man is more than his work and although he may do his duty day in and day out, there is more than performing your 9 to 5 job that drives you.  You may be wondering how in the world Gladiator has anything to do with farming, right?  Well, stick with me for a minute...

Here is the dialogue between the Marcus Aurelius and Maximus: Dialogue Credit  I've bolded and highlighted in red key parts (at least to me).

Maximus: You sent for me, Caesar?
Marcus Aurelius: Tell me again, Maximus, why are we here?
Maximus: For the glory of the empire, sire.
Marcus Aurelius: Ah, yes. Ah, yes, I remember. Do you see that map, Maximus? That is the world which I created. For 25 years, I have conquered, spilt blood, expanded the empire. Since I became Caesar, I have known four years without war, four years of peace in twenty. And for what? I brought the sword. Nothing more.
Maximus: Caesar, your life...
Marcus Aurelius: Please. Please, don't call me that. Please, come sit. Let us talk together now, very simply, as men. Maximus, talk.
Maximus: Five thousand of my men are out there in the freezing mud. Three thousand of them are bloodied and cleaved. Two thousand will never leave this place. I will not believe that they fought and died for nothing.
Marcus Aurelius: And what would you believe?
Maximus: They fought for you and for Rome.
Marcus Aurelius: And what is Rome, Maximus?
Maximus: I've seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, Rome is the light.
Marcus Aurelius: Yet you have never been there. You have not seen what it has become. I am dying, Maximus. When a man sees his end... he wants to know there was some purpose to his life. How will the world speak my name in years to come? Will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant...? Or will I be the emperor who gave Rome back her true self? There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish... it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter. Maximus, let us whisper now, together, you and l. You have a son. Tell me about your home.
Maximus: My house is in the hills above Trujillo. A very simple place. Pinkstones that warm in the sun. A kitchen garden that smells of herbs in the day, jasmine in the evening. Through the gate is a giant poplar. Figs, apples, pears. The soil, Marcus- black. Black like my wife's hair. Grapes on the south slopes, olives on the north. Wild ponies play near my house. They tease my son. He wants to be one of them.
Marcus Aurelius: Remember the last time you were home?
Maximus: Two years, 264 days, and this morning.
Marcus Aurelius: I envy you, Maximus. It's a good home. Worth fighting for. There is one more duty that I ask of you before you go home.

That really touched me for several reasons. First, despite conquering the world and re-writing the map, Marcus Aurelius was concerned about his legacy. The Caesar knew that he was dying and was was wondering whether or not his life had purpose.  He changed the world and yet he was worried about whether or not he accomplished anything meaningful.

He turned to his loyal servant, Maximus and wanted to hear about his General's personal life. Maximus' answer was poetic,descriptive, emanating his love for his family and his land.  He spoke of his home, his wife, his son.  He was not a warrior at heart.  He was a FARMER!  He described the soil like only a farmer would, comparing it to his wife's hair, for crying out loud!

Did he love his home?  Yes, in fact he was counting the days that he had been away, down to the very hour.  That is very meaningful to me.  He had a job to do that came with great cost and sacrifice and he did his job well.  But he longed for his home and his family and he loved his farm.  In fact when leading his troops into battle, he spoke the following: (I think Fratres means 'brothers'):  Dialogue Credit

[addressing his troops]
Maximus: Fratres!
[cavalry addresses Maximus]
Maximus: Three weeks from now, I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so. Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you're already dead!
[cavalry laughs]
Maximus: Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity. 

In what could have been his last act, he envisioned doing what he loved - farming and being with his family.  He was looking forward to the harvest as any farmer does.  Then he spoke the profound phrase : "Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity."  

And it is true, what we do in life really does echo in eternity.  Decisions, actions, choices that we make in our relatively short lives affect our eternity.  And those same decisions, actions, and choices have the potential of affecting others around us as well.  Our days are indeed numbered and we must ensure that as we count the days, we make our days count. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Time for the Livestock Shows

Mid to late January always marks the time at which the Parish Livestock Shows are held and it requires some preparation.  The animals are all halter-broken, gentle and tame (except for Bully, but that's another story).  We get out the clippers and shave their winter coats off and groom them as best as we can.  Then we brush up on the showing techniques that the judges are looking for.

Dairy showing is relatively easy.  You simply walk them around in a circle in the show ring, maintaining eye contact with the judge, hold the animal's head upright, and when the judge motions for you to stop, you stop.  The only tricky part is setting up the back legs.  If it is a dairy heifer that you are showing, the back leg on the side facing the judge should be positioned farther back.  If it is a dairy cow (one who has calved), the back leg facing the judge should be positioned forward.

This takes a little practice, so the weekend before the show, we got in the backyard and went through the exercise to refresh everyone's memory.  Here's Benjamin with Amy, his dairy heifer walking her and getting some practice before the livestock show.

Amy and Benjamin
Tricia was providing expert instruction to our showman.

"When you walk, keep eye contact with the judge."
Benjamin walked in more circles with Amy than he would have liked, but perfect practice makes perfect.  In no time he had Amy responding favorably to his commands and was able to set her up with ease.  When the animals get in a strange show barn with other animals though, sometimes things aren't so serene.  We've had animals lay down in the ring before.  The exacerbate their discomfort, you don't milk them prior to the show as you want their bag to "bloom."  That means be filled with milk.  So that doesn't exactly make them docile.

Setting up Amy
On the night before the show, we put Amy and Rosie in the cattle trailer, transported them to the Jeff Davis Parish Fair Barn and unloaded them.  We got them all settled and put hay in their hay socks and then took them to the washing stalls and scrubbed them with brushes and soapy water until they were spic and span.  You clean the wax out of their ears and they don't much like that.  Of course they were shivering in the cold, but we dried them off and then took out the clippers and fine tuned their haircuts.

The next morning was show time.  Benjamin and Tricia arrived in the barn and got the girls presentable for the show.  Sometimes overnight they'll lay down in their poop and will need to be touched up.  Fortunately, they were discerning in the spot that they slept and just required a quick brushing to remove some wood shavings from their bellies.  Now, you just sit and wait until your class is called over the loud-speaker.
Sitting with Amy
Before you know it, it was time for the show.  The cows were a little skittish, but Benjamin kept calm and managed his animals well.  The practice paid off as he did a great job.  The judge was very helpful and always gives the showman good tips and constructive criticism to make you a better showman.  4-H teaches good manners and behavior in showing and at the end of the show, all the exhibitors go shake hands with the judge.  I like that the formation of good character is reinforced.
In the ring
Between the shows, Benjamin is able to run around and visit with his 4-H buddies. I remember doing the same thing when I was his age.  Although we don't eat much fast food, we've started a tradition that Benjamin looks forward to.  At the end of the show, we go to Popeye's Fried Chicken and get a box of spicy chicken to chow down on as a reward for doing a good job.
And he did do a good job.  He got three nice ribbons, including two rosettes that he'll add to his bedroom display.  
Benjamin's ribbons
Now that the Parish show is over, the Southwest Louisiana District Livestock Show will be coming up in a week and a half in Lake Charles, Louisiana and we'll start preparing for that.  Good Job, Benjamin, with Daisy and Rosie!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Cracking Pecans - the 2014 Crop

Sunday afternoon was one of those days that the weather was so spectacular there was no way that staying indoors was an option.  After church, we enjoyed some coffee and chicory and nice raspberry truffles and then I was out the door.  I knew exactly what I was going to do for a couple of hours.  We have 3 1/2 onion sacks full of pecans that Tricia and Benjamin picked from our pecan trees that needed cracking.

I poured a 5 gallon bucket full of pecans from one of the sacks and walked around in the backyard to find the perfect spot.  I wanted a spot that was not too shady since it was a little cool, but not in the full sun.  I found a nice place under the tangerine tree and I quickly set up my assembly line.  It involved the bucket of pecans to my right:

The raw product
On a picnic table bench, I fastened down the 'Reed's Rocket,' a pecan cracker that belonged to Bumby & Poppy (my grandparents), with a ratchet strap and a zip tie.  I positioned it an an angle since I'm right-handed, so that it would be ergonomically pleasing.

The tool of the trade
To my left, I positioned the bucket in which I'll toss the cracked pecans one by one as the process gets underway.  Then I got busy.  The bucket quickly began to fill up, but I wasn't in a rush.  It was so nice outside, I was just enjoying the day.  The cows came up to the fence in a curious manner. Anytime you have a bucket, that is going to spark their interest.  Once they became aware that there was no feed in the blue bucket, they meandered off.  Then I watched a hawk circling high overhead and looked out at the hens running for cover into the chicken tractor.

Pecans are cracked and ready for shelling
Last year I posted about the Reed's Rocket Here, but I'll explain how this contraption works again.  It has a threaded cradle on the end that can be adjusted to fit the size of your pecans.  You place the pecan in the cradle...

Ready to crack
And you push the 'piston' type mechanism forward with a lever against the cradle holding the pecan. You hear a sharp crack and will see that the shell has basically exploded. 

Most of the time they will come out perfectly whole, but sometimes you have some breakage.  In that case, I'll adjust the threaded end of the Reed's Rocket so that it is backed off a little bit.  That will keep the next one from breaking.  Broken pecans eat just fine, though.  Once you get in a rhythm, you can get really fast, almost like a machine.  Crack, Crack, Crack.  It is mindless work that allows your mind to drift as you sit outside and enjoy Creation.

Fresh shelled pecans
Cracking the pecans isn't the end of the work.  Once the blue bucket is full, I'll bring it inside by the fireplace and at night, Benjamin and I will sit by the fireplace and shell pecans.  With two people shelling, it doesn't take long to knock a bunch of work out.  We've found that in just a short period of time we can shell about 10 cups of pecans each night.  That ain't too shabby!

An 8 cup measuring container overflowing with pecans
We'll eat on them and will also pack them into gallon freezer bags and put them in the freezer for storage until Tricia makes some good old pecan pies with Steen's Cane syrup.  After two night's work, our blue bucket is almost empty.  That means this weekend we can set up our assembly line and get the Reed's Rocket back cracking, if the weather allows.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Milking Stools

I was tempted to make the title of this post, "Stool Samples," but I thought better of it.

Each morning and evening when Tricia and I go out to milk our cows, we sit down. It is one of those jobs where "sitting down on the job" is a positive thing and not a disparaging comment.  When we first started milking, we simply turned a 5 gallon hydraulic oil bucket over and sat on that.  It did the trick.  After we had milked for a while, I figured that we better get a little more professional.  You can't just plop down on a bucket and be taken seriously in the milking community.  Sitting on an overturned milk crate was out of the question since it caused an affliction I call "waffle butt syndrome."

I shopped around on line and couldn't find anything cheaper than $24 including shipping for the old-fashioned style 3-legged milking stool.  There had to be something else to sit on that we had around the place that would fit the bill.  The photo below is the seat that Tricia has been sitting on for about 7 years.  Not that she has been sitting down for 7 years consecutively. let me rephrase that.  This is the seat that the milkmaid sits on when she milks Daisy.

The Easy Chair
The top of the chair has been worn smooth over the years.  Although you would never confuse me for a carpenter, I built this seat and it has lasted over the years. Years ago lightning struck a tall pine tree in my parents' yard.  It was a pine tree that grew straight toward the heavens and had few limbs.  My Dad had the tree taken down and a gentleman with a portable sawmill came to his house and cut up the old pine into lumber.  Dad dried it and stacked it in the shop at the farm.

The pine smelled rich and aromatic, like opening a bottle of Pine Sol.  We used some of the lumber to build my kids a nifty tree house that had a zip line coming off the second floor and an observation deck with a pulley and a rope where you could pull up a bucket full of whatever you wanted.  I used some of the leftover pieces of wood to build the chair that Laura Lee, Russ, and Benjamin would sit on up in the tree house.  Unfortunately, the wood wasn't treated and we didn't paint it and after 6 or 8 years, the tree house rotted and was dismantled and burned.  It lives on in our memories, though. Surprisingly, the chair didn't rot and I rescued it and repurposed where it now lives on as the milkmaid's chair.  And a fine chair it is.

A second life for the tree house seat
My chair has an equally storied past.  Here she sits in all her glory.  Behold my milking seat.  This, in its former life was a rocking chair.  The rocking chair that Tricia sat in with each of our three kids when they were babies, nursing them, singing them to sleep, and nurturing them. One day, as things always do, it broke. One of the curved bottoms of the rocking chair broke.  What good is a rocking chair that won't rock?  It was too hard to throw away the chair that rocked our babies.

Well, I pulled the arms, the back and the curved bottoms off of the rocking chair and it was transformed into a serviceable milking seat that is leaps and bounds better than an overturned five gallon bucket.  Pretty?  Nah, but it is a chair that does the job and also evokes fond memories of an earlier time in our little family's history. 

Off my rocker?  Nope.
My milking chair, unlike Tricia's has an ever so slight indentation where your bottom comfortably finds a home for twenty minutes each morning and night.  It's surface is spacious and expansive, allowing for future growth - although hopefully that won't be the case.  

Flying Milking by the seat of my Pants
It is sort of poetic, in a way that a chair previously used to give milk is now used to get it.  Funny how things change.  I think there's a lesson in there somewhere.  In a disposable world, if we look hard enough, we can always find uses for things that would otherwise be thrown away.  When you think you're at the end of your useful life, don't give up.  Reinvent yourself.  Keep on keeping on!

Monday, January 19, 2015

It's Seed Starting Time

In fact it is almost three weeks later than I normally plant tomato, pepper, and eggplant seeds.  Those seeds take longer to germinate, so usually on January 1st, I plant those seeds ensuring that the seedlings will be of good size when I transplant them directly into the garden rows.  We were vacationing around the first of the month and to be honest, I've kind of been dragging my feet in not getting the work done.

This weekend the weather was absolutely beautiful.  The stellar weather was just what I needed to get some chores completed - planting seeds was one of them.  I lined a tray with some little plastic seed pots that I saved from back when I used to purchase my plants.  Then the next thing that I do is mix up a bleach/water solution and spray the little plastic containers.  The idea here is that the bleach will kill any disease on the plastic that may weaken the germinating seeds or young plants.

Sterilizing the seed pots
Then  I fill the seed pots with some seed starting mix.  It is light and easy to work with and doesn't seem to pack.  That is important when separating the seedlings to re-pot later on.

Filling the seed pots with seed starting mix
I'll get my seeds out and plant two seeds per seed pot.  I'll plant the seeds on either side of each seed pot.  I use an old plastic fork to smooth out the soil and cover the newly planted seed with seed starting mix.

Planting 'mater seeds
I plant 12 different varieties of heirloom tomato seeds.  Each row in the tray is planted with 2 seeds. This means that if all the seeds germinated, I would have 12 seedlings of each heirloom tomato varieties.  The germination over the years has held constant at around 95% each.  Once finished planting all the seeds I enlist Benjamin and his friend's help in watering the soil over the newly planted seed. Hopefully this will help provide moisture to the seed and spur germination.

Watering the freshly planted seed
I also planted 6 different varieties of peppers and two varieties of eggplant. Benjamin and his friend were eager to help and I was glad to have them lend a hand.  I was teaching them that you wanted to simulate a rainfall - not too light, but not too heavy either.  My grandfather helped get me involved in planting a garden and hopefully I can help pass on a love for the land and growing things and these boys will "catch the fever" and pass on that love to their kids, keeping the cycle going.  Savings accounts are paying less than the rate of inflation and many companies are cutting dividends or cutting people.  It is nice to know that investing time in your kids is, in a sense, a solid investment with solid returns.

Simulated rainfall
When everything is planted, I put the two trays of planted seed on top of the freezer in our utility room.  For some reason it stays nice and warm above the freezer and this helps raise the soil temperature and assists in helping the seeds to germinate.

Warming the soil
I'll also cover the soil with plastic wrap.  I find that this holds the moisture in the soil and that definitely helps with germination.

Covering the try with plastic wrap to lock in soil moisture
One more thing I do is that as I plant, I label each row with the seed variety.  You can figure fancy ways to label the seeds.  I normally look for a quick, cheap way to do the job.  In this case using a Sharpie marker, I write the seed variety name on a strip of freezer tape and place it on the side of the container to denote which seeds are planted on each row.

Labeling the names of the seeds
Now it is just a waiting game.  I keep the soil very moist each day by spraying water over the soil and then re-covering with plastic wrap.  Then I check the progress each day.  Once they start to sprout, we'll take a deeper look at the different varieties I've planted this year along with the germination percentage for each seed variety.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Can you take a little off the top, please?

When it is cold outside, it is nice to have a thick, warm coat to wear.  For animals, it's no different. During the winter, the cows grow think winter coats.  It doesn't get exceptionally cold around here, but when it is raining AND in the thirties AND with a stiff north wind blowing, you can tell that the cows are uncomfortable - even with their winter coats.

It is unfortunate that the livestock shows are always in the January - February time frame.  That's generally the coldest time around here.  Livestock shows mean that we have to pull out the clippers and give the animals a shave.  They don't enjoy it and neither do we, but it's gotta be done.  This is Amy our 15 month old Jersey heifer.  Her thick, luxurious coat is about to be shaved off.

Amy's winter coat
She feels so warm and snuggly.  Amy and her mother, Rosie, grow thick coats. Daisy, our other Jersey cow, doesn't grow a thick coat at all.  We're only bringing Amy and Rosie to the shows this year, so Daisy will get to keep her coat for the remainder of the winter.

Let's start clipping
When I got home from work on Friday, Tricia had mostly shaved Rosie, so for Amy, it was my turn. I oiled up the clippers and turned them on.  They are kind of noisy and we notice that the closer that we get to the animal's head, the more jumpy and uneasy they get.  That's why we start on the end.

Clip, Clip
We put a little hay and some alfalfa pellets in the trough and clipped Amy's head to a lead rope tied around a post so she wouldn't go anywhere.  It's not a bad job, just a slow one.  You simply rest the clippers against the skin and push upwards.  Long tufts of hair will fold over leaving a smooth, clean-shaven look that makes Amy look sleek and aerodynamic! 

In the Barber Shop
When we're done, all of Amy's coat is gone.  The judges at the livestock shows want the animals clean shaven so that they can assess the animals' lines.  A full coat can hide imperfections.  Of course my barber job leaves imperfections as well. Sometimes, if the animal gets a little too jumpy, I've actually cut their ear by mistake, causing some bleeding, but nothing serious.

All done
Just like at the barber shop, once we're done, the floor is littered with a lot of hair that we'll need to sweep up.

Lots of hair on the floor
I mentioned earlier that when we start clipping close to the head, they don't like the sound or vibration one bit and they start acting up and moving around.  We have to get their halters off in order to shave their head, so one little trick that we do is use the nose clips.  The nose is a real sensitive area.  When we put the nose clip into the cow's nostrils, they immediately respect it.  That's the reason that you see rings in the noses of bulls sometimes.  With the nose clip in, you can lift her head and get the clippers all around her ears, eyes, nose and mouth.

Tricia with the nose clips on Amy
Amy looks totally different now without her winter coat.  She's a nice looking heifer.  

Amy Lou
This afternoon was a beautiful afternoon and we were able to get out in the pasture and pretend that we were the judges as Benjamin walked both Amy and Rosie around and set them up.  They have to be checked in at the Jefferson Davis Parish Livestock Show tomorrow night beginning at 6 pm with the actual livestock show taking place on Tuesday morning at 9pm.
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