North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Reclaiming the Kitchen

February is the time of year when an eager band of Northland College students take the snowy trails down from Ashland to join us for three Sundays of our “Sustainable Foodie:  Making a Meal, Making a Life” wellness class, which features preparing and sharing a meal together each week based on the theme of building healthy food skills. 

For the first class, we experienced “a meal in comparisons,” where after a lengthy farm tour and discussions about the value of local foods systems, we made a side-by-side trial for the accoutrements to a roast turkey dinner (featuring a pastured turkey from our farm).  The students split into two teams, each preparing the same dish using from-the-farm ingredients vs. processed supermarket ingredients. 

An aquaponics lettuce salad with fresh radishes, beet greens, broccoli, and organic carrots sat across the counter from iceberg lettuce with limp cucumber, pale hydroponic tomato, and bleached baby carrots.  From-our-soil potatoes, riced and mashed by hand, were pitted against “Idaho Spuds” from flakes out of a box.  From-scratch apple cranberry sauce from our apples and local cranberries stared down Musselman pale applesauce (which we dressed up with a little cinnamon to make it even remotely tasty), and still-a-little-warm homemade chocolate chip cookies met pre-packaged “chocolate-flavored chip” cookies from the store.

As we sat together and thoughtfully enjoyed the meal in courses, everyone had to take at least some of each team’s potatoes or applesauce or salad or cookies and compare their taste, texture, smell, mouth-feel, and overall appeal side-by-side. So often the pre-processed foods are chemically enhanced with “natural and artificial flavors,” MSG (mono sodium glutamate), and emulsifiers of all sorts to trick our brains into thinking that the food is good or that we like eating it…and that we want more! 

But when you place the pretender next to the real, whole food straight from earth to table, the mask falls away and the metallic aftertaste in the flaked potatoes, the grainy, gritty bitterness of the canned applesauce, the lifeless chlorine smell of the white salad, and the gummy rubberiness of the cookie are both starkly apparent and rather revolting.  How sad, we reflected, that some people consider these things to be good food and never have the chance to taste the succulent pastured turkey, the vibrantly green aquaponics salad, the spicy tang of the applesauce, the creamy fluff of the potatoes, or the soft but crispy ecstasy of the cookie when made from scratch fresh off the farm.

So, there arises the question of how do we break away from these addictive but false processed foods that are so ubiquitous to modern life?  This is not only a dilemma for contemporary college students with busy class schedules and limited cooking equipment and skills but also for families with demanding work schedules and afterschool activity lists that keep everyone on the go.  These are the challenges we tackle in class two.

First, we have to start by reclaiming our kitchens.  Pre-processed foods are advertised to make life easier, take the work out of cooking.  But that also means that we lose control—especially over what we’re eating.  Processed foods are chuck full of preservatives, emulsifiers, additives, colorants (plus even more unpronounceable ingredients to preserve the colorants), fillers, flavorants, texture conditioners, and more.  And while all of these additives have been approved for human consumption “at safe levels,” many are still quite harmful, including triggering cancer development.

One of the exercises we have the students complete in the second class is to bring in a food wrapper from something they ate that week—a wrapper that contains an ingredient list.  As each student reads their granola bar, peanut butter, Hostess Cake, or bag of chips ingredients, I’m whirring away on my laptop Googling any item that stumps us.  What’s soy lecithin, tocopherol, or sodium acid pyrophospate?  Some turn out not so bad (like acacia gum, which comes from the sap of a tree) but others are downright terrifying.

Here’s an example from one student’s wrapper.  TBHQ (Tertiary Butylhydroquinone), a preservative made from butane, is widely used in the food and cosmetic industry.  According to www.naturalnews.com:

The FDA allows amounts of up to 0.02% of the total oils in food to be TBHQ. This may not sound like a lot, but it does tend to make one wonder why there needs to be a limit on the amount if it is apparently a 'harmless additive.' Mind you, anything which derives its origins from butane could hardly be classified as safe, no matter how small the dose.

Consuming high doses (between 1 and 4 grams) of TBHQ can cause nausea, delirium, collapse, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and vomiting. There are also suggestions that it may lead to hyperactivity in children as well as asthma, rhinitis and dermatitis. It may also further aggravate ADHD symptoms and cause restlessness. Long term, high doses of TBHQ in laboratory animals have shown a tendency for them to develop cancerous precursors in their stomachs, as well as cause DNA damage to them. It is also suggested that it may be responsible for affecting estrogen levels in women.”

Ok, takeaway message?  Let’s reclaim our kitchens.  And that’s exactly what we did with our six Northland students this last Sunday.  After crock-potting last week’s turkey, we picked the meat clean and used the delicious broth to make Gypsy soup, chopping and peeling carrots, sweet potatoes, peppers, and onions, as well as including a jar of our own home-canned tomatoes from the garden.  Mixed with cancer-fighting spices like tumeric, the fragrant smell filled the class space.

We dived into making our own bread, churning our own butter, and canning our own jam.  We dried fresh herbs from the greenhouse, cinnamon-sugar dipped apple slices, and turned some of the left-over homemade applesauce into fruit leather, sprinkled with coconut shavings.  We froze extra chopped onion and detopped tomatoes for next week’s lasagna, and we baked and Foley food-milled fresh pumpkins for next week’s pie.  We even made our own miniature batch of gelato from scratch to serve on our from-scratch apple-cranberry fruit crumble!

It was enough food for an army (or at least a very hungry troop of college students), and not only were our labors full of sensory delights—the zesty cinnamon and nutmeg, the sizzling onions and garlic, the tangy kale salad, and the succulent lightly golden butter, but it made everything taste all the more special because of our care and attention to every detail.  And if any of this sounds pretty delectable right now, here’s one of the recipes we used to get you started in the kitchen this week.

English Fruit Crumble

1 1/2 pounds fruit (whatever is in season, apples, cranberries, blueberries, peaches, rhubarb etc.)

Sugar to taste, depending on fruit

1 cup flour (alternative flours are delicious here too!)

1 tsp. mixed spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc., depending on what you think sounds tasty with the fruit)

1 stick (4 oz.) butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 oz. chopped walnuts or almonds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Layer fruit in pie dish and sprinkle with desired amount of sugar.  Cut the butter into the flour and spices, then mix in brown sugar and nuts.  Sprinkle in thick layer over fruit.  Bake 30-40 minutes, until the top if browning and the fruit is bubbly and cooked through.  Serve hot with ice cream or yogurt (especially if it ends up tasting like it could have used a bit more sugar) or cold over oatmeal is fabulous as well.


***

But how to crack the nut of the busy life issue?  Yes, we all have our days when there just isn’t much time to prepare and enjoy a meal, but there are also many traditional food skills—canning, freezing, drying, etc.—where we can bank food time on slow days to make life as a sustainable foodie easier on the hectic days.  It’s also a great time to gather together for those large “putting up the harvest” tasks.  No TBHQ for me please, I’m heading to the kitchen.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

Oh Groundhog

I’m imagining some fat, brown, furry rodent, all snug and cuddled in its warm little burrow, curled into a comfy circle of slumber.  Then an entourage of persons wearing top hats arrive with pomp and ceremony, dig the poor fellow out of his hole, and proclaim across the news whether or not the unsuspecting creature has seen its shadow.

The sun is shining!  Oh dear, six more weeks of winter!

Considering last year’s weather patterns, when an 18-inch snow dump pummeled the farm in mid-May, this sounds like we’d be getting off easy.  Let’s see, six weeks would take us not even to the end of March.  Does this sound terribly plausible, given this frigid and snowy winter?  I’m not holding my breath.  Besides, did anyone actually ask the groundhog if he had bothered to look at his shadow?

Equally, it could have been noticed by any the ceremonial folks in top hats that the trees, the cars, or they themselves were casting shadows, and there was hardly any need to bother a sleepy, rotund rodent with the whole affair.  What did it matter to the groundhog?  If they’re anything like the wood chucks that used to sit all fat and sassy in the barn door, they’re smart enough to come out when spring has officially arrived all on their own, without any particular human meteorological proclamation.  And in the meantime, they know exactly where you store your feed…

But winter isn’t entirely a season for moaning and groaning about how long we have to go before the earth warms, the snow melts, and the grass needs mowing again.  Personally, I’m enjoying every day that chicken chores do not include being attacked by a perilous swarm of mosquitoes, awaiting wood ticks, or biting gnats!  It’s the little things like this that sometimes become forgotten in the endless hours of shoveling.

But if you’re still stuck in a mood of doom and gloom over the groundhog’s shadow-seeing exploits, here’s a folk tale about animals in wintertime to bring a bit of cheer.

How Bear Got His Short Tail

Of course, there are lots of stories about Bear.  That’s because Bear was really rather vain.  Everywhere he went, Bear was showing off his big, long, bushy, black tail.  “See!” demanded Bear.  “Don’t you like my tail?!” 

The other animals cowered away, nodding, “Oh yes, Mr. Bear, we love your tail.  It’s the best tail in the whole forest.”  That’s because they knew that brother Bear would get very angry if they didn’t agree, no matter what their personal opinion on tails might be.

But Fox had had quite enough of Bear’s antics.  She too had a long, bushy tail, all sleek and curving with a white tip.  Of course, hers was really the best tail of all, but there was no telling that to Bear.  One of these days, he was going to need to learn his lesson for being so prideful.

It was wintertime when Fox made her plan.  Down to the lake she went with rod and reel, and after cutting a hole in the ice of the lake, she fished most of the morning.  She fished and fished and fished until she had a whole stringerful of graceful, sleek northern and perch and walleye.  Stashing her tackle, she sauntered back up the bank of the lake, humming a pleasing tune to herself.

Bear just happened to be passing by, and the pungent smell of fresh fish caught his attention.  “Fox, say Fox, how did you get all those lovely fish, I say?”

“With my tail,” she grinned, blinking her long, foxy lashes.

“With your tail?”  Bear’s lips were dripping.  Those fish looked so delicious.  With great force of self-will, he just barely held back from swiping the whole lot away from Fox.

She dangled the stringer, teasingly.  “It’s easy, really.  I’m surprised at you, Bear, what with your long and illustrious tail, that you don’t already know how to fish this way.”

“Um, uh, well…”  Bear was trying to hide his ignorance on the subject.  “Maybe you could remind me.  I’m sure it’s just the winter sleepiness that has made the trick slip my mind.”

“Well,” Fox began, speaking low so as not to spoil the secret on other small ears in the forest.  “Take that big claw of yours and cut a nice hole in the ice, big enough so your tail can fit through.  Then slip your tail down in that hole and wiggle just the tip, real gentle.  The fish will think it’s bait, and they’ll bite your tail.  It will hurt just a little bit, but when you feel them biting, pull out your tail, and you’ll have a fish!”

Bear was so excited, he didn’t even bother to thank Fox.  Down the banks of the lake he tumbled, until his big, black form skidded out onto the ice.  “Ha ha!” he chuckled to himself.  How silly of Fox to give away her fishing secrets.  If Fox could catch a stringer full of fish in just a morning, why, he would work all day and catch twice as many—no three times as many fish as she!  Why, with his wondrous tail (the best in the whole forest), how could the fish resist?

He took that big claw of his and cut a circle in the ice, just as Fox had said, then sidled backwards and dropped that big, black tail into the hole.  The water was COLD, oh it was COLD!  But Bear gritted his teeth and twitched that tail ever so gentle.  “Ouch!” he yelped, then covered his mouth, for he mustn’t spoil this new secret he had learned.  That must have been a fish bite.  Should he pull his tail out now?  No!  He should wait for another one—ouch—and another one—ouch—and another one.  Surely, if he just waited long enough, his entire tail would be covered in fish, and he’d have them all to eat at once!  The thought pleased Bear very much indeed.

But when Bear finally decided the pull in the catch, he found himself stuck.  That tail wouldn’t come out!  He pulled and tugged and pulled and tugged.  Surely, this must be a lot of fish indeed!  They must be plugging up the hole in the ice and not coming through!  Straining even harder, Bear tried one last time and them, POP, found himself face-first in a snowbank.

All the forest animals began to howl with laughter because Fox had told them to come to the edge of the woods and see.  And when Bear looked behind him, instead of finding the ice covered in fresh fish, there was his tail, frozen solid into the lake. 

Horrified with embarrassment over the loss of his tail and being so foolishly taken by Fox’s story, Bear ran deep into the woods to hide.  And that is how Bear got his short tail.  But remember not to ask Bear to share this story because he still hides in shame each winter in remembrance of the day Fox tricked him so.

***

Oh groundhog, stay in the warm little burrow and wait until spring.  We humans, in the meantime, will keep on shoveling and telling stories about our wild animal friends.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

Memories of Meg

I remember the first day I met Meg—black as the northern black bears, square of face and jowl, glistening.  Her year-old nut brown Labrador eyes looked right through me.  Her wagging tongue looked to be at least a mile long.

It had been a while since Grandma and Grandpa’s previous dog, Honey (with her curling golden locks) had passed, and we as yet had no pets in our house.  Meg was eager yet timid, still adjusting to her new home from a previous life with rambunctious small children who weren’t the right environment for a dog at the time.

I remember petting her short, waxy fur—best suited for dipping in and out of the lake or shedding snow like water off a duck’s back—leaving my hand sticky and a little brown.  How odd.  Now my hand smelled like dog and felt greasy.  I went to the sink to wash it off.

Grandpa laughed, “You’ll have to get use to that, I’m afraid.”  There were more than a few things to get used to with Meg.

Just as every person has her quirks, so do our beloved dogs.  This is true for talents as well.  For Meg, her crowning glory was her nose.  I’m certain that, with the proper training, she would have been an excellent bomb sniffer, drug detector, or survivor finder.  Taking Meg on a walk was an exercise in keeping your arm attached to your body.  Rabbit track?  Tug!!!  Signs of another dog?  Pull!!! 

Often, that nose got Meg into trouble.  No garbage can or sack of groceries was safe—anywhere!  Either lock it in another room or put it up high (really high) or you’d be picking it back up more than once.  Don’t even leave the pan of brownies near the front edge of the counter…at least not during Meg’s younger and more ambulatory years.

But when that nose of hers found the dead porcupine in the woods…well, that was not a happy day for Meg.  Quills in the nose, whimpering, you think she might have learned.  But no, that scent beckoned like Bali Hai, and the next morning she returned with more trophy quills and stench of decay.  So Grandpa went trundling out to try to find the carcass and move it farther away.  But the next day—voila, that nose had found the porcupine again!  So we buried the poor thing, may it rest in peace. 

And yet, for years, on Grandpa’s morning walks, she would still have to check that spot just in case.  You never know when something good and stinky might turn up, when you’re a dog.

Meg was really our first farm dog, and she took her job of monitoring the property seriously.  Announcing the arrival and departure of vehicles was one of her specialties, even phantom vehicles.  There was also the most important task of monitoring the wild animals too—deer, rabbits, and squirrels in particular.  She would sit for hours under the trees in the farmyard, holding the scolding red pine squirrels to their positions, dodging the occasional hurled pine cone.  Perhaps Meg in all her supreme blackness thought this was a siege, and surely someday she would win.

“Come down you rascals and fight like a dog!”

In true Labrador style, Meg also loved the water.  A little creek runs through the farm, which is a tributary to the nearby Hay Creek that eventually connects to the Chippewa Flowage.  By mid summer, unless there have been recent rain, there isn’t much to see but marshland.  But in springtime the water rushes and gushes under (and occasionally over) a culvert in the road.  Meg knew exactly where the banks of the lane sloped down by the culvert to the creek.

Summer can be incredibly hot for a black dog.  It just really isn’t fair.  And that water called and beckoned like a Greek Siren.  And a few hours later, here would come Meg, as slippery as a newly minted coin, dripping and shaking and smelling like lakebottom and weeds.  “No coming into the house!” was Grandma’s high command, “Until someone gives that dog a bath!”  What, more water?  As far as Meg was concerned, there was no problem with this sentence.

The first fences on our farm weren’t for the rabbits, or the deer.  They were for Meg.  Everything was worth a good grab, especially if it felt anything close to tug-of-war for her big, slobbery mouth.  Randomly ambling by one of the spreading maples in the lawn, without missing a step Meg would bite off a hunk of bark the size of a fist and chew it up, leaving the bits to trail out the sides of her mouth as she went.  Mmmm, doggie dental floss with a daily dose of insoluble fiber.

Ah, but the garden was too tempting.  Sweet corn was ever so fun to grab and rip from the earth.  Those were easy, especially when the soil was damp.  But tomato plants were even more fun because that was a real tussle!  But the humans caught on to this game and put up a fence around their horticultural labors, and that was the end of pulling out the garden for fun.  Bummer.  Well, long grass could do in a pinch, as well.

Meg, of course, was fond of attention.  Not in the style of being dressed up, no, that held sour memories of her life before our family.  But she loved being petted.  As far as Meg was concerned, you could forget the chores or the garden or anything else and pet her all day!  But the more you petted, the farther she would inch away from you.  First she’d lean a bit.  Then she’d shuffle her feet over or lay down.

“Meh-eh-eg,” Grandpa would scold.  “My arm doesn’t reach that far.”  Meg would look back at him longingly, then with an internal “oh yeah, that’s right,” skooch back closer for a while before slowly leaning and moving away again.  Maybe it was one of her many games with us on the farm.  Or maybe she thought that one of these days we’d grow stretchy arms, just to be able to pet her better.

Meg passed this morning on her big doggie pillow, still black and shiny, in a position of rest and peace at the age of 15.  We will miss her very much but we remember her fondly and with a few good laughs as our first farm dog.  This week, take some time to share your memories of favorite canines past.  They touch our lives and leave behind footprints on our hearts.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

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