"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

March 30, 2012

Dinner from the Pantry

Braised short beef ribs in a tomato-ginger sauce, creamy polenta with cheese and pan-grilled zucchini.

We've been "eating down the freezers" these past few months (yes, I said freezers) and making a wee dent in our vast Apocalyptic Pantries (yes, that's also plural). Believe me, I was a food hoarder gatherer well before the 2012 craziness but I have to say that with the continued high price of gas, living far enough from any store to justify a quick run, and very far away from certain products that I like to have on occasion, it's great to have food at the ready on the farm. It's also economical as we build our cattle herd and face other farm costs: I can count on one hand how many times I've been to a big grocery store since January 1st. 

I also know that, in a pinch, if we lose power for an extended period on our ridge, as has happened in ice storms of the past, we will have a lot of food to share with our neighbors from our melting freezers. I say this because I find it appalling how some food gatherers hoarders as portrayed on television shows seem to stock up as much on weapons as on food to keep it away from their neighbors and other marauding bands of hungry crazy people (or is it zombies?). [The writer and community-minded self-sufficient living expert, Kathy Harrison, featured on Doomsday Preppers, is not of this vein and I highly recommend her blog for useful information on sustenance living.]

This excellent Italian polenta has been in my pantry, unopened, since 2007
when I purchased it in Boston's North End. Because it was vacuum-sealed,
it was perfectly fresh. It also has the delightful and nutty addition of buckwheat.

While I've been trying to be gluten-sugar free this Lenten season, I've not been as vigilant as I might be (I lasted three weeks, however). This meal, except for the dessert, was just that (assuming that my corn-buckwheat polenta mix has no wheat in it because I can't read Italian). I've been dabbling with new ways to eat that don't have to involve traditional gluten-dependent baking or cooking methods (very hard habit to change after forty years of baking and cooking this way) and also being more portion conscious, too.

Five medium zucchini, sliced, and stir-fried in the skillet with a bit of olive oil and butter.

Pears from the pantry are just as great
from the jar as they are in a fruit dessert.
So here are the basics of this meal that evolved in a few hours while I was puttering this afternoon:
  • I thwawed some short boneless beef ribs out yesterday that I needed to use asap;
  • I had five zucchini to use up;
  • I have some canned tomatoes (not my own) to use up;
  • I found that the potatoes we got at a local (unnamed, because it's sort of "you get what you pay for") produce place the other day were punky and pathetic (and not even seed potato-worthy by the looks of them: they were in a huge bag) so I remembered a packet of polenta (vacuum-sealed) from an Italian foodie tour of Boston's North End that I took with some dear friends (Oh my, was it way back in 2007?? How can this be?);
  • I wanted to do something with some of the pears that I canned last fall;
  • I found a bottle of ginger-soy-sesame sauce that I got at a recent "dented cans" store (with an expiration date looming).

Braised Boneless Beef Short Ribs

This made eight ribs, enough for four people. I like beefy cuts with a bit of fat and some marbling and prefer these to pork ribs. I cooked them slow and low in the oven, after braising, for just over 2 hours in my four-quart Le Creuset while I prepared other things and did laundry. This is one of my favorite meals for busy days. You could probably do this in a slow-cooker, too, but just remember to braise the meat first. It locks in the flavor and also allows for the slow tenderization that occurs at low temperatures over several hours.

  • One packet of boneless beef short ribs (enough for two per serving)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 Tablespoon crushed/minced ginger
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-14 oz can diced tomatoes (reserve juice)
  • large pinch each: sugar, Kosher salt, ground pepper and cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup of ginger-soy dressing (this comes in many brands)
  1. Set oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Heat 1 Tbsp of the olive oil in a large four-quart, heavy-lidded pan.
  3. Chop onion and add to heated olive oil, along with garlic. Cook until translucent and browned. Add ginger.
  4. In the meantime, braise (on all four sides, about a minute a side) the short ribs in skillet with remaining olive oil. Remove to a plate or dish, if still doing sauce.
  5. To the onion-garlic mixture, add 1 can diced tomatoes, with juice, as well as all seasonings.
  6. Simmer for a minute and add 1/4 cup of the ginger soy dressing.
  7. Place each rib on top of the sauce mixture (which should come up the sides of the beef ribs).
  8. Cover with aluminum foil and seal with heavy lid.
  9. Place in 300 degree oven and cook for 2 to 2.5 hours: slow and low!
Creamy-Cheesy Polenta

The flecks are the unexpected addition of buckwheat to this Italian polenta mixture.

Polenta is indescribably delicious and a rustic staple in Italian country cooking: it is creamy, warm, comforting and the perfect accompaniment to short ribs. And polenta is almost as easy––and fast––as making hot breakfast cereal (and just as inexpensive: after all, it's cornmeal!). I was surprised that one cup of cooked polenta makes four hearty portions or eight regular ones (we had a lot leftover after the four of us were finished).

  • 1 cup polenta (or a good stoneground cornmeal will do nicely)
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 Tbsp herb of choice (I used dried marjoram but most any herb works)
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (or other dry, flavorful cheese)
  1. On medium-high, bring milk and broth to almost a boil but not quite.
  2. Add 1 cup polenta, and 1 Tbsp herb, and stir constantly until the boil.
  3. Once it boils, turn heat to low and cook, while stirring, for 5-10 minutes. [You want it thick and porridgy and for the liquid to absorb.]
  4. Stir in butter, salt, pepper and cheese. 
  5. Keep warm until serving.

Pear Cobbler-ish

OK, I admit. I cheated. I had a can of Pillsbury® Cinnabon® rolls in the fridge that Henry got the other day. I won't do this again. It was "eh," especially as my husband removed the rolls and ate the pear filling underneath (which I would make again) and the boys ate the rolls. Either way, I'm not caving into Henry any more at the grocery store! The good news is that this took about five minutes to make and another 20 or so to bake. You can use any fruit, fresh, frozen (drain first) or canned.

  • 1 quart canned pears in light sugar syrup (preferably homemade, no, I insist: HOMEMADE!)
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 can of biscuits or cinnamon rolls (or homemade shortbread biscuits: next time!)
  1. Grease a 9x9 dish and set oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Drain juice from pears into a saucepan (mine were done in a light syrup so I did not add extra sugar). 
  3. Place pears at bottom of greased dish.
  4. Stir cornstarch into heating juice and whisk until thickened (add a bit of water if too thick).
  5. Add cinnamon to thickened juice.
  6. Pour juice mixture over the pears.
  7. Place biscuits or buns or what-have-you over fruit mixture.
  8. Bake for 15-18 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream, yogurt or ice cream.

 You come back when you're ready!


March 23, 2012

Kentucky Wildflowers

One of my favorites, the Common blue violet, viola sororia, often seen along roadsides (a fall leaf above center shows scale).

We had such a strange, warm winter that I suppose it makes sense that we have had a very early spring. The redbud came out a month early and peaked in a day, it seemed, in the recent warm spell––in cooler weather, they will last for several weeks. My peach tree bloomed a month ago (so I'm not expecting peaches to sustain through any cold snaps, but you never know), the forsythia is almost spent and the Bradford pear trees, always the first bloomer, have come and gone. I saw a full bush of blooming lilacs further down the ridge today (easily three weeks early here). Our peonies have even budded and have ants crawling on the now tight, round future blossoms. A gardener in nearby Casey County is already picking asparagus and has noticed both blooms and green fruit on her strawberries!

The elusive Yellow Trout Lily (Dogtooth Violet, or Erythronium Americanum).
It was growing in a small clump of other emergent ones in a loamy creek side area.
The Trout Lily can apparently grow in established clumps over 300 years old.

A creekside bank covered with Dutchman's Breeches
with Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox Divaricata).
But what I enjoy most about our glorious (usually prolonged) Appalachian springs here in Kentucky are the many wildflowers that speckle the roadsides and woodlands. The cooler hollers and woodlands do slow down the plants but even this year the wildflowers are emerging earlier. I have a few spots where I look each year and I'm never disappointed. In fact, one such place in a creekside holler yielded several new discoveries this year: Dutchman's Breeches and the yellow Trout Lily. Both had established themselves in an area that I'd not seen them in before and that I drive past almost every day.

Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra Cuculleria, are surely related to the Bleeding Heart.

A Kentucky woman carrying a bouquet of flowers.
© Wallace Kirkland, November 1954.
I will post more photos in the coming weeks as things emerge. Spring has sprung!

You come back when you're ready!


March 7, 2012

During the Storm

Heading up the hill towards the farm to feed the calves: timing not so great.

The water tower on our ridge, about a mile from our farm.
This was that funny, pinky sky you hear about.
We realize our good fortune in escaping what could have been a very dangerous bullet. The storm last Friday, March 2nd that thickened and swelled and danced over our farm went on to create a large funnel over Somerset, our Pulaski County seat ten miles to the southeast of us, and then turned into a killer tornado less than an hour due east of us in Laurel County.

We had been storm-watching all day (see Before the Storm blog post) and by 6pm it seemed imminent. We still had to feed our two bottle-fed calves and went over together to our farm to do that (our doublewide, sans storm shelter, is across the street). I dropped Temple and Eli off at the cattle sorting building and waited in the car. As I did the sky darkened to almost night-like and the rain started. Then it hailed. Temple came out and told me to move the car under the shed (which was in vain–he had to do it!). Then the storm passed almost as soon as it started. I was glad to see the moon.

Before we got hammered.

We returned home after taking some photos and gathering some hail (Henry had done the same at the doublewide). The house was dark as we'd lost power so we sat with our flashlights for a bit, had another brief burst of wind and rain, and then decided to go see if our Mennonite friends, Melvin and Anna were OK over in Casey County. They were fine and had experienced more of a blast two days prior when they had a hard hail storm. We returned home, able to sleep a bit easier, but unaware of the tragedies that were unfolding in other parts of Kentucky and Indiana.

I will always be fascinated by tornados but I have a healthy respect for their power and randomness. It is possible to observe and see the weather here before it arrives, to be as prepared as possible, and to enjoy the awesome beauty–and ferocity–of nature. It is exhilarating in a strange way because you realize that, despite our best intentions, we are not in control.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Definitely trying to be a funnel cloud: view of the clouds over the southern part of our farm.

Trying to be funnel clouds.

All of our farm buildings were spared: we really just had a bad hail storm.

The cloud formations were amazing and all going in different directions and at different speeds.

The bad storm that hit us and moved along to the east.
The background was so black it appeared blue.

I was glad to see the moon above us, even as the clouds continued to move around us.

The view to the west after the storm at our farm: this passed over us.
Thickened tornadic layering over our knob after the storm passed through.

You come back when you're ready!


March 5, 2012

Before the Storm

Thickening cumulonimbus clouds over our
knob field, to the south, later in the afternoon.
It began with a "7" on the Dr. Greg Forbes' now infamous TOR:CON scale. Before bed on Thursday I thought it an unusually high number for south-central Kentucky. By Friday morning, Forbes had bumped it up to a 9 out of 10 and we were clearly in the bulls-eye for what promised to be a dangerous and active weather day. A "9" is a 90% chance of having a tornado within 50 miles of your location. Not only was this a high number but it was March 2, not April. Tornado season had arrived a full month early, capping off the oddest winter in recent memory (for everyone, it seems).

My adrenalin was already going full-tilt and would remain that way for the rest of the day and into the evening. All of my life I have had recurring tornado dreams, left over from being truly terrified of their possibility in suburban Akron, Ohio (where, really, they are extremely rare) and the realization that, unlike a hurricane or large-scale snowstorm, they are random events and still unpredictable. We can only predict the conditions and the potential. It's like waiting for the angry fingers of something on high to come down and randomly play with us, poke at us or sometimes create complete devastation and chaos. As the local Lex 18 weather station kept repeating, "Stay Weather Aware!" That's really all you can do (that and watch Weather Channel like an obsessive, hyper-aware crazy woman!).

Since moving to Kentucky four years ago and following spring weather outbreaks more closely, I've never seen a 9 on the TOR:CON index. During the morning hours Forbes further predicted the potential for "dozens" of tornadoes and several sustained tornadoes of longer duration (and above **F-3) before the day ended on Friday. You have to take this kind of prediction seriously and Dr. Forbes is always serious (after all, he studied with Dr. Fujita and helped develop the famous **Fujita scale of tornadic wind speeds that were devised after the "Super Outbreak" of April 1974, which also severely impacted Kentucky).

All day it was blustery, balmy and filled with gathering cumulonimbus clouds. Most of the time it was even sunny with patches of blue sky. It was hard to imagine the potential for severe weather because it wasn't even hot. In reality, the advancing cold front–that cut an angular swath from the west, with temperatures behind it in the 40s–and the warm winds coming up from the Gulf provided a "perfect storm" scenario that would only develop later in the day. Coupled with the split in the jet stream, literally to the north and to the south of Kentucky, and you had all the right ingredients for a severe tornado outbreak at Ground Zero. 

When Jim Cantore is heading to your state, you know it's going to be big.
At one point in the day the radar map looked like this: Kentucky seemed like
it was safe with the winds and bad stuff all around it, or coming up the Ohio River.
One of us said, "But there's no clouds here!" I said, "It's more like the eye of the storm."

I worried about our cows but most seemed to find cover in low areas.

Early in the morning we had a hard thunderstorm with much rain and a bit of hail that came in advance of the cold front. The rest of the day there was almost an electric quality to the air, like you knew something would happen. My husband and I had just made the decision, around 11:30, to get our boys early from school (based on the predictions) but the school (and other schools in the region) beat us to it. By 12:30pm the boys were home and we were all on the farm doing necessary chores and some yard and porch stuff (that, frankly, I should have done last fall). The breezes and winds were picking up to the south but there wasn't a storm cloud in sight. We battened down the hatches, secured gates and doors, and we waited. I even unplugged my computer and put it in a canvas duffle bag, along with some other stuff, in case we had to leave quickly (we have no cellar and just a small storm cellar to the east of our doublewide).

Looking north towards Carter Ridge, and Mintonville, just over the line
in southern Casey County. Green River Knob is off camera to the left.

While watching the local and Weather.com coverage and radars, every hour or so I would drive around our knob field and over to the lookout from our ridge towards the northern part of our county. There I can see Green River Knob (the highest point in the state, west of the eastern Kentucky mountains) and a ridge that divides Casey and Pulaski counties towards Mintonville: this is often the dividing point for severe weather as it had been only two days before on Wednesday when we had another bout of tornado weather that skirted us to the northwest (and caused hailstorms in nearby Casey County). Five years ago, in early April, there was a tornado that danced through the Mennonite valley in Casey County, hopped around Mintonville and on down Carter Ridge, a mile as the crow flies, just to our north. 

The view towards Mintonville a few hours later.

I will write about the storm itself in my next installment. This is not to minimize the major, catastrophic events and tragedies suffered by others in the state and in other areas hit by this storm, but to share our own experiences, which were blessedly safe.

You come back when you're ready!