Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Family Jewels

If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you've probably picked up on the fact that we treasure old things here- heirloom plant varieties, heritage livestock breeds, antique farm implements, traditional ways of working the land.  As a general rule, I'm happier with vintage anything than brand-new.   There is a wonderful feeling in bringing home something old and putting it back into real use, in rescuing it from oblivion.

 I also love to cook, and collect cookbooks to the point where Dan thinks it may be a problem.  Used, new, cooking magazines, I love them all.  But with these, too, I have a special place for the old stuff as well.  So many of our modern recipes call for pre-packaged, pre-chopped, pre-wrapped, pre-cooked whatever, so we can eat in 30 minutes or less. But convenience and REAL food seldom go hand-in-hand, so it's wonderful to have recipes that utilize whole foods and emphasize using the whole thing (like making soup from the carcass the day after your roast chicken dinner).  

This is the way our grandparents and great-grandparents cooked, and since I have a pantry that is stocked more like it's out of the 1910's than the 2010's, these are the recipes I often treasure most.  And, like so many other things, I think our family recipes, our personal food traditions, are too often being lost as well.  So I am always extremely grateful when such treasures find their way to me.  Last summer, an older gentleman who lives nearby offered me his wife's recipe for bread & butter pickles.  This was something I had already hoped to add to the farm stand lineup, so I was very excited.  I was touched, however, when he handed me not a copy, but a yellowed piece of notebook paper written in his deceased wife's hand.  I was honored when, after giving him a jar in thanks, he reported that they tasted just the same, except mine were sliced a bit thinner.  

This past month, my grandmother passed away just a few weeks shy of her 95th birthday.  At the viewing, we were blessed with baked goods from friends & family.   The next morning, I had the most  delicious zucchini bread I have ever tasted.  Turns out, it was baked (with love, of course!) by my grandmother's older sister.  Aunt Kay is 96, still lives alone in a multi-story home, and still does the polka in her living room when it comes on the radio on Sundays "as long as no one moves my furniture"! So I asked this incredible lady if she would share the recipe with me.  I was very excited when, a week or so later, a small, handwritten envelope appeared in my mailbox.  Inside was her recipe, hand written, of course.  She had dated it and signed "Good Luck and enjoy! Aunt Kay."

 It is now tucked safely in my recipe box, and I'm anxiously awaiting the summer day when I've got zucchini on hand and see if I can make it taste as good as she does.  These things are truly heirlooms, like family jewels, to be treasured and passed on.  I encourage everyone to ask their relatives for the secrets to treasured family flavors;  too often, our elders are only too willing to share, but no one asks, and that is how jewels get lost forever.

 
 

Cheesemaking

Around our house, we don't really make a big deal of Valentine's Day. But this time of the year, Dan is at home more, and we had a lovely day together. So, what do a pair of farmers do to celebrate? In our case, we made cheese. We've seen that our eldest Dexter cow, Lil, has been losing some weight, so we decided to wean the calf and put her in the barn so she could get some extra feed. And since we're going through all that trouble, we decided she should pay us back in milk. Dan milks her twice a day, by hand. Being a Dexter, she doesn't produce gallons like the big black & white Holstiens many dairies use, but it's been more than enough for the two of us.

Dan started out by making some farmhouse cheddar. To make cheese, you need to heat the milk to a pretty exact temperature, and hold it for a certain length of time before introducing a starter culture. I am still amazed that a few minutes or degrees more or less can turn your cheddar into colby. The recipes for many cheeses, for the most part, are very similar. (exceptions are things like Swiss or blue, which require some special cultures.)   After we strained the curds, which are the solids that will form our cheese, we had a quantity of liquid left, called the whey. I decided that, rather than just feeding the whey to the pigs or chickens, we should make ricotta. Ricotta is traditionally a way to make a second batch of cheese from the whey. We did add a bit more whole milk just to get a bit more yield in the end. This time, we heated the milk and then added some vinegar. Again, we strained it, and got ricotta!

After the cheeses drain out through the cheesecloth, there is still more work to do. We mixed in a bit of cheese salt, and then for the cheddar, we put it, wrapped in cheesecloth, into a press. The press uses a spring to put pressure on the cheese, which is in a cheese mold that has plenty of small holes. This way, it presses out the last of the liquid to give you a firmer, harder cheese, which will continue to firm up over the next 60 days as we age it. (This is a food safety requirement for cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.) The ricotta, however, is ready to eat the same day. I mixed in a tiny bit of salt and then crushed up some basil I had dried last summer.

This also solved my problem of what to cook for our Valentine's Day dinner. I decided to make homemade calzones. While calzones may not sound all that special, when they are made of lots of homegrown ingredients, they really can be! (And, for the record, there is no thing as delivery in Tionesta...we literally cannot call any restaurant, not even a pizza shop, and have them bring it to us!) I made pizza dough and crushed up some more basil and oregano. Fresh ricotta and canned tomato sauce went inside, as did the onions we have been keeping since the stand closed, as well as some homemade pepperoni. I added a bit of grated Italian cheese (the kind with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic & basil we offer from Whispering Brook Cheese Haus), sealed them up, and put them into the oven on my preheated pizza stone. They came out crispy & delicious, and I firmly believe everything is better when you use ingredients you've grown and/or prepared yourselves.   The only downside to this delicious feast was the mess in the kitchen.  However my kitchen is almost never cleaned up completely, because I spend so much of my time cooking there, or washing dishes by hand.  

 ...and for those of you inclined to kitchen adventures, ricotta is really easy to make, and can be made with pasteurized milk from the store.  All you need in some cheesecloth & vinegar or lemon juice.  There are plenty of recipes online, and I even noticed it's included in March's edition of the Food Network Magazine.  I encourage anyone curious to give it a try!

 
 

My Personal Cooking Challenge

The first week of December sure has been a snowy one here!  It seems it's been coming down steadily for a week now, with a foot or so on the ground here on the farm and road conditions that make me happy I can stay home instead of travelling.  

Maybe it's the allure of a warm oven, or maybe it's the Christmas spirit, but I've been  baking this week.  While I love to be in the kitchen, cooking and canning and making vinegar and mustards and all kinds of other things, the truth is I am a miserable baker.  I can screw up brownies from a box mix.  I bought a bread machine thinking I could surprise Dan with homemade bread, which he loves, from time to time, but it almost invariably fell and turned into something so rock hard I was afraid even the pigs would have trouble swallowing it!  I don't know exactly why I have so much trouble with this form of cooking, since everything else comes fairly naturally.  Maybe it's because I love creating my own spin on things and rarely follow a recipe without adjusting it a bit?  No, that can't be it...canning is very similar in regard to substitutions and I have no problems there.  Maybe it's because of the living yeasts that make things rise?  Well, as a farmer, I'm so used to living things, raising animals tending plants, and I've even had success making cheese (using living enzymes) and vinegar (using living mother of vinegar) so I'm sure I can learn to get along with my little yeasty friends.  

A mental block?  Probably.  For years have I told myself and others that I can't bake, I don't like to bake, and I won't bake.  Add to that total strangers demanding it of me for the past year and a half, and there is probably something to this idea.  For years, our farm was locally famous for Betty's homemade pies, breads, sticky buns, pumpkin rolls...you get the picture.  I've been asked, cajoled and have even been given rude demands to take some baking lessons from my mother in law and begin to offer these goodies for public sale again.  Now, we get along really well, and I'm sure she'd be happy to share her recipes with me, but the truth is, I just know if I had to do it weekly I would certainly hate it.  I like to can and enjoy doing it, so that's what I concentrate on making for sale, along with the veggies, meats, chicks, eggs, field work, weeding, stall cleaning, the list of responsibilities around here never ends and I'm hesitant to add anything major onto it!  

However, there is something about a warm kitchen on a cold, snowy winter's day.  In the summer, I run my sauce tomatoes though a food mill and freeze them, saving the squished result in the freezer until right about this time of year to spend hours boiling it down to make my own spaghetti & chili sauces. I took care of that last week.  I have more than enough jellies and pickles to both give as presents for friends and family and to last us through the winter, so I really don't need to be making any more of it at the moment.  I was stuck in the house and low on bread though, and the newest issue of Mother Earth News had a cover story about easy, practically no-knead bread, so I figured I could give it a try.  Plus, using only flour, milk, egg, yeast and salt, it has to be so much healthier than the store bought stuff that contains preservatives and HFCS.  It was...not a total disaster.  Not as fluffy as I'd hoped and a bit on the chewy side, but definitely edible.  Dan loved it.  While I wouldn't call it a huge success, it had a glimmer of hope to it.  For me, part of the enjoyment of the long winters here is to challenge myself to learn something new.  Last year, I really became comfortable cooking with cast iron, and even made some meals by simmering them on the woodstove.  This year I had planned my goal to be to teach myself how to play guitar, but the winter is certainly long enough to allow for more than one project.  So I mixed up another bowl of dough this morning and am letting it rise as I type.  I really love learning skills that allow us to be more self-sufficient and many of them have lots of practical uses on the farm or result in a new product to sell.  But sometimes it's necessary to do something just because you want to, not because you have to or for any financial reason.  So I'm going to continue to see how this goes...they say practice makes perfect! 

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Mustard Madness

For Christmas, I received a cookbook with recipes for over 400 sauces in it.  I've been flipping through it ever since, and the rainy, chilly and generally dreary weather today made it seem like a good idea to stay in the kitchen.  I'm always looking for new flavors and things I can try out that I may be able to make for the stand as well, so I decided to make a few different mustards today.  I made a wonderful, simple, whole grain honey mustard.   The only change I may make is to thin it out a bit...it's a bit thick for dipping, but would spread well with a knife.  With a bit of tweaking, I'm sure you'll see it at the stand this year!

Next I tried a horseradish mustard.  It was everything you would expect it to be: yellow, creamy, with a spicy kick.  Not a mild mustard, but it wasn't supposed to be.  Another success.  I've been very fortunate, in all my canning adventures, there have been small glitches, but never big disasters where I ruined a whole batch of jelly or something.

 However, I've found one mustard recipe I just can't seem to succeed with.  I bought a small jar of champagne dill mustard a little while ago, and it was fabulous. We could have eaten the whole small jar in one sitting, it was that good.  Mild, with hints of vinegar and dill.   The ingredients were pretty straightforward, so I tried to duplicate it, just substituting white vinegar for the champagne vinegar, since that is something I just don't have on hand here.  It was horrible!!!! So hot, it made me cough and my eyes watered!  Now I know that if you leave mustard sit at room temperature, it will mellow out.  Since I made this about 3 weeks ago, I tried it again today, and the initial taste was much closer to what I was aiming for, but still finished overpoweringly hot.  So I put the lid back on the jar and returned it to the pantry.  This new cookbook, which just gave me 2 delicious new recipes, had one for tarragon-champagne mustard.  I figured that if I substituted dill for the tarragon, it should be close, as the description was for a mild, herbal mustard, which sounded like what I was aiming for the first time. Again, no champagne vinegar either, but I had some rice wine vinegar, which I find mild and pleasant and close enough to give it a try.  (Just ask my husband, unless I'm canning, I'm basically incapable of following a recipe.  I'll get about halfway through and then start making substitutions which I think will be better.  These almost always do turn out more to my liking than that boring old printed recipe, which of course only encourages me to try such things again!) Well, the first problem with this mustard was that there was so little liquid, I was basically making a paste which threatened to blow up my blender, and that was after I cut the amount of dry mustard in half!  So I added a cup of water, which saved the blender and made a nice consistency.  It was looking better, until I tasted it.  Again, it was hot and bitter enough to take your breath away!  So I checked online to make sure that ground mustard and dry mustard powder were the same thing, and all sources seemed to say it is, so that isn't the problem.  So again, I put it in a jar, dated the lid, and placed it in the pantry to age.  Maybe it is like making champagne or fine wine, it may need to age 6 months or more before it's palatable.  Or maybe I really do need to follow a recipe the whole way through and find a place to buy champagne vinegar.  Who knew making dill mustard could be this hard?

 
 

Tastes of Winter

It's been a cold and snowy new year...so far we haven't had a day without being under a winter advisory or warning of some sort.  Currently, we have about 18 inches of snow here.  A lot more has fallen, but it's been fluffy snow that compacts, so while the white stuff keeps falling, and the cars need to be cleaned off every morning, it's not too deep, which is a good thing!

Since it's not nice outside, I spend a lot of time in my kitchen on these cold winter nights.  The hardest part of learning to eat seasonally is picturing what winter dinners will look like...no one wants to eat boiled potatoes and turnips all winter, so how to you stay seasonal and love what you're eating?  My first suggestion would be to buy a freezer!  I have lots of dinner choices since we have frozen beef, pork, lamb and chicken in the freezer.  Corn and green peppers freeze well and aren't hard to process at all, so we can still enjoy those as well.  Of course, we have squash, onions and potatoes which keep well in a cool, dark place like our basement.  The chickens are also laying reasonably well, providing us with fresh eggs.  Combine that with the things I canned over the summer and we can eat well all winter long.

Earlier this week, I came home from work and defrosted some pork chops.  After browning them in a pan with some olive oil and butter, I put them in an oven proof dish.  Then I caramelized an onion in the same pan and topped the chops with the onion, a dab of butter on each, and some herbs I'd dried from my garden (I used thyme and sage this time, but this recipe adapts well to whatever herbs you prefer/have on hand).  I put it in the oven at 350, covered with foil.  Since I had some room in the oven, I added a kabocha squash, seeded and halved, cut side down on a baking sheet as well.  In about an hour, I pulled it all from the oven and had a simple, but seasonal and delicious meal! 

The next night I made a half leg of lamb.  I slow cooked it in a crock pot all day with water & cooking sherry, garlic, onion and rosemary. I did cheat a bit on this one and also added some fresh ginger root which was store bought, but I love the taste it adds! A side of pasta completed a very filling meal.

Last night I made enchiladas with our ground beef, my homemade salsa, and the raw milk cheese we sold at the stand this year.  I only have a few blocks of cheese left, and I'm sure going to miss it when it's gone! Although we grind our own cornmeal, I haven't yet tried to make my own tortillas, so those came from the store too.  Besides, I am back to work full time now and I don't always have the time or energy to make everything from scratch every night.

So, no matter where you live, it is possible to eat seasonally, and eat well! And for those of you starting out, don't feel bad if everything isn't completely homemade or local...we all start somewhere, and the first step is being aware of our food choices and learning to recognize what seasonal looks like.   Just one or two local, seasonal items added to your everyday cooking does make a difference! 

 
 

Sweet!

As the year goes on, I'm finding more and more of our home-canned goodies are selling, but I've had a few comments that too much of it is hot for some tastes.  I like a good spicy sauce, but I realize not everyone appreciates it and some people have bigger a sweet tooth.  So I went back to my big book of canning recipes to see what inspired me.  I found a great recipe to use up carrots that hadn't sold over the weekend...a carrot cake jam!  Spreadable carrot cake was just too intriguing to past up, so I collected all the necessary ingredients and went to work.  I must confess, I was fearful of a flaming disaster when, after the 20 minutes of boiling was up, I still had a pot of fruits and veggies without much visible liquid.  I expected it to look more syrupy, and thought there was no way in the world that the large amount of sugar I had would ever dissolve without adding water or something my recipe didn't call for. But there was nothing to do but grab the big bowl full of sugar, dump it in and stir. To my surprise and delight, it stirred right in and the result makes a plain piece of toast into dessert!  

Since we're all but done with butchering, I feel like I have more time to create in the kitchen.  Even though I'm not home all day now, it gets dark out so early that canning a batch of something seems like a great way to pass a chilly evening.  Also, with the garden being done I feel like I have more freedom to choose what I'm doing.  Although I try my best to let no tomato, hot pepper, green bean, etc, go to waste, the only home grown veggies I have left to can are tomatoes I've already run through the food mill and frozen.  So there is no hurry to get to them before they go bad.  We try to be as self sufficient as possible, but sometimes it's ok to buy some of the ingredients, so I'm looking for tasty treats now instead of a way to use up all these hot peppers or whatever I was overrun with at the time during the growing season.  Next up, I have my eye on a Black Forest preserve...cocoa and cherries and sugar! Yum!  It should go well with the ice cream maker that arrived via FedEx today that we're excited to try out. Or maybe I'll do gingered pears, or a recipe for spiced pumpkin that sounds like a holiday treat.  I'm going to try to set aside time for canning tomorrow, as I have the day to spend at home, but Finniat is coming in the morning and I'm not sure how much of my day will be wrapped up in that!  

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