Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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New Seasonings

Lately I've been making some new seasonings. I started an herb garden when I came to the farm, and I really enjoy cooking with things I've grown. Fresh herbs are, of course, the most flavorful, and you just can't beat the flavor of something that was cut and then brought immediately into the kitchen. But every night this time of year brings the chance of the first frost (we've had lows of 34 already!) and so I like to plan on different ways to ensure I have delicious herbs all through the winter. I use the dehydrator a lot, and then place the dried herbs into glass jars. Another great way is to simply freeze herbs; many retain more of their flavor that way, although the texture is lost.

I have what some might call a “cookbook problem”. I collect them. I have subscriptions to multiple cooking magazines and never throw any out. I justify this by telling myself that I probably use them more than most people. I cook, from scratch, pretty much daily. I send out recipes in my monthly farm newsletter. I love reading about or adapting recipes to make the best use of whatever is in season. When folks ask me where I get the ideas for all the things I process and offer for sale at the stand, saying “I buy a LOT of cookbooks” really is no lie. One great idea I found recently was for basil salt. It's pretty simple and makes great use of the basil that is so bountiful now, and is a great way to keep that flavor around beyond the first frost. It involves chopping up the basil in a food processor, adding salt and blending it together, then drying it briefly in the oven and chopping it again. The recipe recommended sprinkling it on fresh tomatoes, but I'm thinking up lots of other great ideas, too...for instance, I'm planning on making homemade pizza soon just so I can try adding it to the crust! And since it worked so well with basil, and I'm overrun with sage right now, I made some sage salt too. It's already a winner in my book as a rub for meats! So that has been a fun success recently, and I've made enough to have some for sale at the stand as well.

Another project I wanted to try this year was making my own paprika. Did you know that paprika is simply a type of pepper, which is then dried & ground? It's great for adding color, but most of the store-bought stuff doesn't give a dish much flavor, in my opinion. So, in the winter when I poured over seed catalogs and planned this year's garden, I was intrigued by the thought of growing a few paprika plants. Like the rest of my pepper seeds, I started them out in the sprout house in mid-February, nurtured the seedlings and eventually planted them out in the garden in late May. It took until mid-September to get some red, ripe peppers from the plants. I picked them, cut them up, and put them in the dehydrator. They were good and dry today, so I tossed the pepper bits into the processor and began to pulse them until the small chunks of peppers became a rusty red powder in the inside of the glass. I carefully poured the resulting powder into some small herb jars I have, and was plesently surprised at the yield. I'm excited to do more, and if I end up with enough, I may sell some, but first I want to stock my own pantry. Just for fun, I compared my newly-ground seasoning to the container of store-bought paprika in my kitchen. My freshly ground paprika has an aroma of peppery spice, with a smidge of heat, and is fresh and colorful. In comparison, the other stuff smells like dust and is more brown than red. There's no debate about the winner of this taste test, and I'm anxious to feature it in a dish, maybe even tonight.

It took about eight months to go from pretty seed package to useable spice, but I've learned to savor the rewards of being patient. There is little opportunity for instant gratification on a farm. Time, patience and loving care are the main ingredients in pretty much all I cook (or sell), from the veggies to the meats to canned goods and, as you can see, even the seasonings. Still, I've yet to find anything that tastes better.

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Home Cooking

Isn't it amazing how it feels like fall the minute the schools open again? Just a night or two before our local schools started the new year, we had lows in the 40's and I'm seeing the first blushes of color in the leaves of the trees. The garden says fall is near as well. Although there are still plenty of tomatoes and peppers to pick, the corn and beans have given their last picking. Weeds have gained control of much of the rows, and instead of spending my days weeding them, we'll just till them under when we put the garden to bed for the year. It has a feeling of winding down, despite the fact that there is still more picking to do. We'll wait for the first frosts to harvest the winter squash, so until then, it's not quite the frenzied feeling when picking and prepping Saturday mornings before the stand opens. There is lots to can during the week as well, but it also feels like the downhill slide.


One part of the garden is still getting my attention though, and that's the herbs. Part of it is because they don't get as tall as lots of other plants, and would quickly be shaded out if I didn't keep up on the weeding. But mostly, I think it's because I love weeding there. Even gently brushing by the various leaves as I weed, I'm rewarded by the fragrances. My nose alone can tell if I'm caring for the thyme, the sage, the basil. The dill is blooming so strongly right now I can smell it when I pass by on the riding lawnmower, even above the motor and fresh-cut-grass smells. The herbs were the first garden plants that I really tended myself as I came to the farm, and still, they feel like the part of the garden that is mine alone. I plan it, I pick it, I decide whether to freeze or dry them or what to season with them. I like that. And most importantly, I've learned how to use them in my cooking.

Anise & Rosemary

 

I grow a decent variety of herbs, so I can pretty much season any dish I like. This year, I had success with chives, oregano, lemon balm, basil, lime basil, borage, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, anise, thyme and sage. I also planted garlic chives from seed, and they've finally gotten to the point I think I'll be cutting a few before too long. About the only thing that didn't take was the Thai basil, which isn't bad considering I plant from seed, and herbs are notoriously tricky and/or slow to come up. Ancient wisdom said that parsley had to go to the underworld and back seven times before it would sprout, it takes so long to germinate!

 

Thyme & Parsley  

Believe it or not, before I came to the farm, I wasn't much of a cook. Cooking was something that had to be done, but not because I enjoyed it. “From scratch” was something other people did, Hamburger Helper was good enough for me. My idea of seasonings ran toward garlic salt or grilling seasoning mixes. Now, I've done a complete turnaround. When bringing ham barbecue to a gathering last weekend, “I made it myself” meant not only did I cook the pork and make the sauce instead of pouring it out of a bottle, I gave the piglets their baby shots and loaded them onto the processor's trailer. I find I enjoy cooking so much more now, and the flavors are just incredible when you can walk out the kitchen door, scissors in hand, and walk back in with the flavorings. No salts, fats or preservatives, just fresh clean flavors. I like being able to say that the sage in our sausage is our own, or the cilantro in my salsa was cut just before I added it to the pot. But most of all, I just enjoy having them for myself, when I'm cooking for Dan and I. I love being able to take chances and throw things together and see what tastes I can come up with just mainly ingredients we make ourselves. And Dan is the farthest thing from a picky eater, over the last five years there have maybe been two times we decided to pass on whatever dish just didn't turn out right. Not bad, considering most of it was created on the fly, without much guidance from a recipe book!

Borage, Dill & Cilantro/Coriander

To me, being able to do that is the epitome of eating seasonally, and that is something I really strive to do, because the tastes are unbelievable. I even threatened that last night was my last night to cook, ever, because I'm not sure if the meal could be topped. I started out with the idea of making chicken alfredo, so I cooked up a breast of one of our chickens. I made the sauce from homemade chicken stock from the freezer and cream cheese. (No, that wasn't from my own cows, but even I'm allowed to cheat once in awhile!) Then I grated up some pattypan squash to add to the mix. For flavor, I put a good deal of fresh parsley and a bit of basil in my hand-cranked herb mill, and threw in some of the smoked cheddar we sell. Now it was getting some good flavor. Usually I would use garlic and a lot more basil, but I wanted a milder, creamer flavor so as not to overpower the most gourmet of my ingredients- more prized than naturally raised chicken or artisan smoked cheese- my mushrooms. Earlier, just an hour or so before, Dan and I had investigated our secret patches. I had a few chantrelles, but they still aren't coming on as strong as I expect they will after the next rain. And chantrelles retail for something like $50 per pound, and are one of the three gourmet mushrooms of western Pennsylvania that are highly sought after by chefs and cannot be grown, they must be harvested wild from the forests. We're lucky to have a good patch. The other two such forest fungi treats are morels (sadly, I have yet to pick one of those) and hen of the woods. I also found a hen last night and harvested part of that large mushroom as well. That went into the mix too. The result, served over some whole wheat pasta, was truly worthy of a five star restaurant. It likely would have cost a pretty penny at one of those places, considering the number of gourmet items that aren't always easy or possible to procure that went into it. However, I made it for (literally) the cost of some butter, cream cheese and noodles. So to me, eating seasonally means eating well, and life was sure good last night. So good I probably won't top it for awhile, but on second thought I don't think I'll give up cooking just yet. Ordering pizza in just wouldn't be as good!

 
 

Saving the Harvest

On a grey day like this morning, I'm reminded that dreary days in fall and winter won't be far behind.  It gives me extra incentive to put up what I can for those cold months when growing anything that won't fit on a windowsill is impossible.  So the dehydrator is humming in the background this morning as I type.  I've sliced tomatoes thinly, and they will keep forever if they dry thoroughly.  I love to put them on homemade pizza or in pasta salad.  I love them so much, but I'll probably sacrifice a few to sell a the stand.  We are most likely done having fresh tomatoes for sale, the blight has pretty much wiped out our plants.  It seemed so sad to me, the bucket full of blighted tomatoes filled up so much quicker than the one for the useable/sellable tomatoes.  Dan told me not to get down, however, because many, many people got no tomatoes at all.  And our pigs love to eat the less than perfect vegetables, so they weren't going to waste.  Still, I love to make my own sauces- spaghetti sauce, salsa, chili sauce- and that isn't going to happen this year unless I buy tomatoes from somewhere else.  So it was hard to feel lucky just then.    

 With temperatures reaching down into the 40's, it's time to start planning for the first frost too.  So I dry herbs or freeze them depending on my plans for them.  The ones that are best fresh I'll try to keep on the window sill during the winter, but I dry a lot of sage for one of our sausage recipes.  I've also been saving seed to sell, give away or use myself.  I have chive and parsley seed already, I'm sure dill isn't far off either.  I also have lots of  cilantro seed, which is the spice coriander if you crush it in a pepper mill.

Our corn has done pretty well, except the raccoons (or possibly the black bear that's been sighted in the neighborhood) found the ripe sweet corn the night before market.  They seem to have an uncanny ability to sense when the corn is at the peak of flavor, and then it's hard to keep them out.  Luckily we had plenty, and what is left over I'm going to freeze.  Last year I bought a vaccuum sealer and tried freezing corn on the cob.  It was the most amazing treat duing the long winter, like a little taste of summer.  Of course, it loses a little texture, but  we were happy with it and plan to do a lot more in the next few days for this coming winter.  I always freeze bags of whole corn as well, it's great to have on hand when making chili or winter soups, or just by itself!

  

 
 

Summer is Over

Well, we knew the school buses would be rolling by beginning this week, but we were hoping for summer to stick around a bit longer since it took so long to get here.  Over the weekend it seemed cool and almost fall like, and our low overnight temperatures are hitting the lower 40's now.  I'm just hoping we don't have an extra early frost, since we did have a very late one June 3rd.  But as we all know the one thing you can't control is the weather, even when your crops depend on it.  We're just glad to see the sun again.  Dan cut hay again yesterday, and we're supposed to have clear skies until the weekend.  Or maybe it will just freeze dry, who knows?

The herb garden is winding down in many ways now, and so I've been collecting the seed of my cilantro, which is the spice coriander.  It was quite nice out and very peaceful although I heard more wild bird noises than I'm used to.  Then a roaring, wooshing sound came out of nowhere.  At first I thought it was a big truck going way too fast on the road.  As I looked up, the sky was black with birds.  Too small to be crows, I think they were grackles or starlings- I always get the two confused.  But there had to be thousands of them, all rising at once from my little half acre patch of field corn by the road. It was impressive, in a sppoky way that just seemed to be reminding me that Halloween can't be far off.   

 
 

Thyme...is on my side

It finally stopped raining here in Tionesta just in time for the 4th of July weekend.  I was finally able to get around to weeding my herbs.  I was thrilled that Dan and I were able to find some lime basil under all the weeds!  Now that the little seedlings will be getting some sun, I hope to be harvesting some leaves before too long, they smell delicious!  I was a little disappointed that we didn't find any Thai basil sprouting, but herbs from seed can be fickle and we've had some real extremes in both precipitation and temperature this spring and summer so far.  I was able to harvest the spent chive flowers and have a nice collection of seeds for starting them indoors when winter approaches.  I've got extra if anyone is interested in starting their own.  Many of my other herbs are bolting quickly this summer, so I spent a good bit of time trimming the cilantro, thyme, basil, sage,and oregano to keep the production in leaves a bit longer. I especially want the sage to keep producing leaves.  Not only is it one of my favorite cooking herbs, but I dry the leaves and use them in the sage sausage we make from the hogs we raise.  It worked so well last time that hope to dry enough to use in all our sausage orders this time! 

The sky is blue, with big puffy clouds right now, so of course we're preparing to make another field of hay.  The nice weather is supposed to stick around for a few days.  This will pretty much wrap up all of our first cutting hay.  We'll then wait a bit to cut second cutting, which simply means making a second crop in the same field.

The old farmer's adage is that corn should be "knee high by the 4th of July"...in this case we are in great shape, as much of it comes nearly to my waist!

 
 

The Start of Summer

Well, Memorial Day weekend is here and has brought summer's heat!  We planted lots of seedlings last night.  The peppers have a few blooms and I can't wait to be picking them! We hope to do some more work after the heat of the day and I'm planning to get my herb garden seeded for this year's annuals.  I'm planting Queenette basil, a Thai variety I was very pleased with last year.  Some new ones I have this year are borage, white mustard and lime basil.  I'm trying catnip again and hoping it does better than last year, it didn't really germinate.  The oregano, chives, parsley, sage, thyme and lemon basil all overwintered well and are really taking off.  I'm also glad to see peppermint coming up neat the creek, and my pineapple mint is coming back despite the prunings the goats gave it last year! I can't wait to be picking fresh vegetables too! 
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Cultipacking and other farm adventures

I did my first fieldwork with the horses by myself!  Dan was finishing planting the hay field when I got home from work last week.  As he was sick of spending so much time up there, I got to drive the cultipacker.  It's like a big roller that presses the seeds into the ground just enough so they can sprout.  Dixie and Dolly, our Belgians, have gotten used to the rhythms of field work again this spring and were wonderful to work with. They are a mother (Dixie) and daughter (Dolly) team and both were born, raised and trained at the farm.  It's an amazing feeling to be out there working with them.  I look forward to doing more, possibly with my horse, this weekend.  It's supposed to be near 80 degrees and sunny.

Our seedlings are doing so well we'll be transplanting to larger pots this weekend.  We'll use peat pots and put them out under floating row cover when they start to outgrow these new pots.  We've done a little planting outside- spring onions, a few potatoes and Dan transplanted garlic so he could plow the garden last week.  I started to move the hay off of some of my herbs as well- the hay was starting to sprout!  This is my first year overwintering them and I am simply amazed at how well they've done.  I have so much green oregano I could make a great pasta sauce if my tomatoes were more than 2" seedlings!  The chives look great, I may have to try them on a baked potato if we grill out this weekend.  My sage seems to be coming back, as does the thyme and the lemon basil is huge!  It must not be directly related to real basil as that died at the first nip of frost last fall.

The rhubarb is well on its way up and will be ready for harvesting soon.  We have 2 great patches that produce the nicest you'll find anywhere.  I don't bake, so I have lots for sale if anyone out there is interested!!

Butchering went very well, other than running out of pepper for some of the sausage.  We let the sausage marinate in the spices for a day or two before grinding anyway, so I was able to fix it.  But I'm so happy to have a freezer full of pork again! We do have a a limited amount of extra sausage, chops and roasts for sale if anyone is interested.  Mmmm...pork chops on a charcoal grill...

 
 
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