Pleasant Valley Farm

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

 
 

Late Season Hay

We've had such lovely Indian summer weather lately! It's a refreshing change from the rain we've had for too long this fall. It has truly been an extreme growing season- either far too much rain, or not nearly enough. We were so excited to have the earliest-ever hay made this year- we had it dry and in the barn on June 1. The second cutting was looking great as of late August, but with rain in the forecast and falling every day or every other day, we had to wait. We needed 4 or 5 days of clear weather for the ground to dry, then cut and rake the hay, then load it up and get it into the barn. That clear weather finally arrived on Wednesday, and Dan cut the entire hay field. That is a massive undertaking for us and the horses, as we usually cut the field in 2-3 sections. This time, however, we didn't foresee any other possible time to get it in, plus delaying the cutting had allowed weeds to take over in places. We thought it best to cut the whole field, and even if we didn't use what was cut, it would at least mow the weeds away so part of the field wouldn't start out with a weed problem next year.

After cutting hay, we were fortunate that Dan and his brother spotted a rotary hay rake for sale nearby. They were able to bring it home Thursday. While by no means new, it's new to us and in much better condition than the one we would have been using. After greasing up the moving parts, Dan put it to good use on Friday and it worked great. Yesterday, the hay had finally dried and Dan and I were able to bring 3 large wagon loads into the barn, the equivalent of about half of the hay field. Although I love watching my Steeler football games, it was too pretty of a day to be inside and too important a job to skip out on. (I did have the game on the solar powered radio and my Hines Ward sparkly jersey on while driving the hay wagon and walking down the hay loads. I sometimes wonder if I'm the only person in the country that combines things like that- Steeler football and making hay with turn of the century methods & equipment.)

Making hay is the most important thing we do each year, even more important than spring planting. Hay is the staple that gets our livestock through the winter. It's what keeps our cattle growing and healthy through the winter, it feeds the sheep and goats and provides food & bedding for the pigs, and fuels our horses all winter & early spring, so they in turn can provide the pulling power to clean the barn or plow the fields. So seeing the mow fill up with hay is always a beautiful sight! It's always exciting to get hay into the barn without it getting rained upon. Dan finished up the final load alone on Sunday, and let me go off to do another important job, making dinner. Haymaking is hungry work!

By the time he came in, I already had a tasty potato salad (with our heirloom Mountain Rose potatoes and bacon) done, as well as a no-bake cheesecake type dessert I make with homemade blueberry butter and caramel. For the main course, I had T-bones from our grass-fed beef. Dan also talked me into making it surf-and-turf by cooking up some shrimp to go with it. Seafood is one thing we don't raise, but we do grow and process so much of our own stuff I don't feel bad about treating ourselves to some good seafood every so often, and this seemed like a perfect excuse! So as the shrimp were defrosting, I quickly headed outside to my secret chantrelle patch to see if I could scare up some late season mushrooms. Sadly, any I found were too old to be much good to eat, so I turned around and headed back to the house. On the way out of the woods, I spotted another kind of mushroom. It turned out to be an oyster mushroom, also very prized for eating. So I made shrimp with wild mushrooms, sauteed with a bit of garlic and my own champagne vinegar, making a wonderful sauce. I even had some curly parsley on the counter to dress up the plate, it really looked like a meal from some sort of 5-star restaurant. It's been crazy busy around here lately, so much of my cooking has been quick stuff, it was good to make a really nice meal. And I do get really excited when I can make something great by using a lot of what I've made here. Anymore I can just throw things together and it turns out great, I really don't follow a lot of recipes, unless I'm canning, and then consistency is very important.

Today, Dan and I along with Matt, got another 2 loads in the barn. Some of the hay is weedy, so Dan is out raking it to the edge of the field where it can smother some of the weeds along the fencerow. It doesn't really have enough edible stuff in places to make it worth the work of bringing it in. Then he'll rake the rest of the field once more, collecting all the bits that escaped the fork into one big row. We'll put that up, and that will be the end of the 2011 hay season. Ironically enough, although the first cutting was the earliest-ever, this will be the latest into the fall that we've ever successfully put up hay!

 
 

Lost Arts

I don't think it's a big stretch to say that we do many things here at the farm that are rapidly becoming "lost arts".  The most obvious is our choice to depend on draft horses and antique machinery for our field work and hay making.  Raising heirloom plants and heritage livestock is another area we've ventured into.  It's no surprise to me that most people have no idea how to blacksmith, making tools and useful items with hot metal, coal and a hammer, although I think it's really neat that Dan can, and one of these days we'll find some elusive spare time to do it more.  What is surprising to me, however, is how cooking is becoming a lost art as well.

Although I've seen articles touting the resurgence of home canning, and I think that's great, what I see more often at our stand is that people simply don't know how to cook whole, unprocessed foods anymore.  We have beautiful bone-in hams, but many people are so accustomed to deli food that I frequently get requests for a pound of ham.  When I explain that it is a several-pound piece of meat that will need to be cooked thoroughly, plenty will find another item to buy that isn't "so much work."  Folks don't have a clue how to pick out a good squash, or what to do with it when they get it home, so they put it back down on the table. I lose sales by offering only whole chickens and not skinless thighs or breaded, frozen chunks of white meat.  Folks either don't know what to do with a whole bird anymore  or feel that it would be wasteful since there would be leftover food.  How self-reliant can Americans really be these days if we can't put together a meal for ourselves or our families without step-by-step directions on the packaging?

I have to admit though, it wasn't long ago when I considered making a Hamburger Helper meal to be "cooking".  I'm proud of how far I've come, how I can make an entire meal with only what we've raised on the farm, other than a bit of olive oil or a dash of black pepper.  I guess what is surprising to me is that it really isn't that hard if you just give it a try.  Sure, a chicken or ham might take 2 hours to cook, but once you put it in the oven, you really can just go about your usual routine, watching TV or helping the kids with homework, while it cooks. The longer cooking time seems a small price to pay for knowing exactly what is in your meal (ever read the ingredients on packaged convenience food?  It doesn't really tell you what's in there unless you have a degree in chemistry!) not to mention controlling the fats and salts that we all know we eat too much of anyway.

I also find the more I learn about cooking from scratch, the less I waste.  This really isn't much of a surprise, as the virtues of cooking the way our grandmothers or great-grandmothers did valued feeding your family even when food was scarce.  While virtually all my kitchen scraps get fed to another creature on the farm, there are ways to stretch each meal a bit further and I try to master new ones all the time.  Pigs are omnivores and enjoy most everything we do.  I could give my boar, Wilbur,  the scraps of the chicken I made for dinner last night, but it was so good, roasted with a bit of my white wine vinegar and home grown sage and rosemary, that I'm making chicken stock with the whole carcass today. This again, isn't hard, but it's something I haven't really tried before.  After picking off all the meat I could, I put the whole picked over bird into a big pot full of water, added some big slices of onion and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, put a lid on it and turned up the heat.  It's been simmering for an hour and a half now, and all those last little bits of meat are falling off the bones, the liquid is deep golden yellow and it smells like something you can't get enough of on a rainy fall evening.  I imagine I'll strain out the bones soon and then I'll need to decide how it will become dinner.  A hearty stew, or maybe a rice dish, cooking the rice right in that liquid.  I do know it will be good, that it will be healthy, and that it will be worth any effort it took to make sure I respect the chicken that gave its life for our meal by not wasting any more than necessary. 

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Cooking in the Living Room

2010 is here, and it's brought quite a winter storm with it!  We're forcasted to get up to another foot of snow by Sunday night, with wind chills of zero.  There have been a number of snowmobiles riding up and down the road, and other than the state plow trucks there haven't been too many travelers our way.  I'm just glad to be home before it hit, as I was visiting family in North Carolina for a few days earlier in the week.  In my opinion, the only thing worse that a 9 hour drive home is a 9 hour drive through a blizzard!

I was gifted with some new cast iron cookware for Christmas, and it's something I've wanted to become better at using.  It's been really cold here, and we heat the house with a cast iron woodstove in the living room.  The stove is very hot and has a flat top, so I've been wanting to try cooking on it...it's kind of like a primitive crock pot, and I love cooking with my crock pot! So I decided to try something fairly foolproof.  I defrosted a smoked ham hock and added some beans and the other necessary ingredients to make barbecue beans (crushed tomatoes, cider vinegar, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, etc).  I mixed it up and set it i the middle of the stove.  After a few hours, the meat was falling off of the bone, and other than a slight amount of scorched beans,  Dan and I declared it a success, and a perfectly warm and filling meal for a cold January night.

 

 So, why bother when I have a perfectly good crock pot?  Even though a crock pot uses only a little electricity, it does use some.  And my home is no colder for using the woodstove as a cooking surface.  Plus, I do have a wood burning cook stove in the kitchen, perhaps someday I'll be bold enough to cook meals on it, just to see if I can.  I like to challenge myself to learn new things.  In the past, for instance, I have taught myself to can and to make balloon animals.  While at the time they didn't seem like necessary, everyday skills, you'd be surprised how often I find myself making pink parrots or blue elephants, and of course the canning became a big part of our farm stand this year.  I'm never sorry when I learn something new, except that I may not have enough time for everything I'd like to be doing!

So, I guess you could say learning is always my New Year's resolution.  I'm also planning on learning to make my own vinegar from wine or cider this year, and when it is warm enough that the sheep won't need their fleeces, I'd like to try doing something with the wool, perhaps making a braided rug or something easy.  (I don't know how to knit...yet, at least!) So best of luck to all of you on your resolutions as well, if they haven't been broken already, and Happy 2010! 

 

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Homegrown Watermelon and Bananas..sort of

The leaves are rapidly changing and it's starting to smell like fall here.  So it was a bit of a surprise when Dan came in from the garden with a watermelon yesterday.  Melons usually conjure up thoughts of summer picnics, but with the short growing season here in northwestern PA, we're just seeing ripe ones in our garden now.  The one we had with lunch yesterday was small, about 8" across, and round like a ball instead of the longer ones usually found in grocery stores.  Perfect for two or three people!  It tasted like a stolen bit of summer.  Last year we didn't have any luck with watermelons, but we planted 3 varieties this year and 2 kinds of muskmelon.  If it stops raining, I just might have to go see what other surprises are lurking under all those big green leaves, but I know this was a hard summer for them and I'm not sure all my varieties did well enough to bear fruit.

 

I do most of the catalog shopping for the garden in late winter.  Dan knows what varieties have been successful here in years past, and we rely on that knowledge quite a bit.  However, something unusual always catches my eye, and I like to try something different every year.  We always find a little room for my experiments, and if they do well, we'll make them regulars in the garden.  Past successes have been a variety of Swiss chard with colorful stems and an open pollinated ornamental corn. This year, I stumbled across the giant pink banana squash.  The description stated that they could grow to be up to 50 lbs each, so we figured if they weren't delicious, at least it would be a lot of garden food for the pigs!  They are named because the squash is long and tapered at the ends, kind of like a banana if it were straightened out.  They turn a salmon pink color when ripe, and are called a pink banana because there is a blue variety out there too!  The banana squash did quite well for us, the ones we've picked and taken down to the stand so far have been big, but in the 12-25 lb range.  That's still a lot of squash!  I cooked one yesterday, and they have that rich, almost sweet taste of a good winter squash.  I sliced into it and was happy to find they are easy to clean out, hollow like a pumpkin but not so gooey.  They have lots of big plump seeds, and although I saved these ones to plant next year, next time I'd like to try baking them.  They look like they'd be delicious baked with a sprinkle of salt & spices, just like a pumpkin seed.  After cleaning, I sliced my squash into several pieces and baked it until it was tender.  Then I took 2 pieces and removed the skin and mashed it up, kind of like mashed potatoes, but wonderfully orange-yellow with a bit of butter, nutmeg and a pinch of brown sugar. Mmmm!!  The rest I cubed and put in the fridge...I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it yet, I may make soup or I may freeze it for later.  I've seen recipes that say the banana squash make better "pumpkin" pies than real pumpkins,  but I' not much of a baker.  I may have to get my mother in law, who is the best baker I know, to try that out and see if it's true.  These squash are supposed to keep well also, so we'll see later this winter how that works out.  I know that they will be back in our garden next year too!

 
 
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