Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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The Magic Crock

I've never been a picky eater....except for blue cheese....and organ meats....and black licorice...and just about anything from the ocean. OK, so maybe I'm a bit of a picky eater! In any case, I have never been a fan of sauerkraut.

As a kid I would turn my nose up at the stuff and always minimized my consumption of it to the smallest "no thank you" portion that I could get away with. Even though I tend to be someone who enjoys traditions, I never wanted any part of the whole eating sauerkraut on New Years' Day thing.

When Janet recently announced that she was going to make sauerkraut from the last of our cabbage, I did my best to conceal my lack of enthusiasm for the idea. I even spent an afternoon attempting to make a wooden lid for the crock that would fit inside on top of the cabbage. That didn't work out so well because of the conical shape of the interior made it a poor fit.

I watched as Janet rinsed, chopped, salted and placed the leaves into the five gallon crock. When she was done I said, "That's it? Just leaves and a little salt?" She assured me that nothing else was required. I didn't question her authority on the matter further because she was raised by her German immigrant mother who certainly knows all about sauerkraut.

The success of the pickling process depends on the exclusion of oxygen. After my failed attempt with the wooden stopper I tried a second idea that I saw in a book somewhere. I placed a large plastic bag in the crock on top of the cabbage and filled it with water. This idea seemed to work very well, it sealed very tightly to the sidewalls of the crock and provided weight to press the cabbage down.

The flaw in the idea wasn't apparent until a few days later when I checked the bag and found that all of the water was gone! My choice of bags wasn't the best and it ended up developing a leak and flooding the cabbage. With considerable effort, I lifted the full crock to the sink and drained the water back out again.

Janet wisely took the whole effort over from me then. She placed two dinner plates into a plastic bag and pressed them down on top of the cabbage. We moved the crock to a quiet corner and let it alone for about six weeks.

When the day came to open the crock and try the sauerkraut, I was dubious to say the least. I was expecting to find a moldy disgusting mess under those plates. When she lifted them out and we peered inside, I was amazed to see that the cabbage had been magically transformed into pale pickled strands that looked for all the world just like sauerkraut!

Janet rinsed some of the the sauerkraut and placed it in a pan. She warmed it up a bit and added a little red wine vinegar and a touch of sugar to taste. The children and I sat at the table wrinkling our noses as it was served out but became instant believers the moment we tasted it. To my surprise, it was delicious and we all asked for extra helpings!

I guess I have to admit that her skill in the kitchen has decreased my picky eating habit by one more item. We canned what we didn't eat right away and it is now now resting in the basement larder for whenever the mood strikes us. Despite my misgivings, I now find myself looking forward for the first time to resurrecting that New Year's Day tradition in our household. I know already what one of my resolutions will be.....to plant more cabbage!


Farmhouse Cooking

One of the unexpected challenges of our new life on the farm has been the need to radically modify our cooking. Janet and I have always taken pride in the food we have provided for our family. We have always put an emphasis on things "prepared from scratch" and have accumulated a large cookbook of favorite recipes.

What I didn't realize ahead of time is that our family recipes were mostly based on the "from scratch" items coming from the supermarket. As the fresh produce piled up this summer, it quickly became apparent that we needed a whole new set of recipes! We are now in the process of starting all over again to find appealing ways to incorporate an abundance of fresh produce into our diets.

Along the same lines, I have also been struck by the sheer number of chicken recipes that we have used in the past that only utilized the breast meat. These recipes are either going to have to be modified or replaced with ways to use the whole bird. It took the experience of raising our own meat to make me realize how wasteful recipes that use only the choice portions of the animals can be.

Now that we have loaded up our pantry with hundreds of mason jars full of preserved food, we also have to find a way to use those. Prior to this, we simply picked recipes for the week and stopped by the store to pick up whatever we needed as if it were an infinite pantry. Although we will never completely eliminate our dependence on the grocery store, we look forward to relearning the skills of meal planning to gradually reduce it.

Black beans are another example. From the picture you can see the beautiful little harvest of black beans that we grew in our garden. We already had a favorite recipe for Mexican black bean soup in our cookbook, but it called for the use of canned beans from the store. As another step in our education, we had to learn to divide the weight of canned beans from the recipe by a factor of 2.5 in order to know how many of our home-grown dried beans to use.

As we sit down to enjoy our meals, we feel a sense of pride and satisfaction at the increasing frequency of ingredients that we have grown. I think it will be quite a while until we can resist pointing out those items to our children. They invariably pick up the conversation and start dreaming with us of the day when we can have meals entirely produced on our own land.


Janet's Breadcraft

Janet has been refining her skill at breadmaking over the past few months. She began by creating her own starter by simply mixing flour and water and letting it grow. She worked with it for a couple of weeks until she had refined it to the point that it now makes very tasty soughdough. She keeps it in the refrigerator and each week uses it to bake a new round of breads.

The bread recipes seem to involve more steps of kneading and rising than those I have seen in cookbooks. She lets each batch rise four times for more than five hours in total before the loaves finally make it into the oven for baking.

The final rising step is done in flour-lined baskets as shown in the picture. Once they have reached the desired volume, she simply turns them out onto the baking stone, adds a little water to the oven to raise the humidity, scores each loaf top with a razor and bakes them to crunchy perfection.

She has been making some basic white and whole-wheat breads that have become quick favorites around our household. As well, she has been experimenting with added ingredients such as nuts, cherries and chocolate. I have done everything that I can to encourage her in this hobby of hers but we may soon have to retrofit our house with wider doors!
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