Pretending, and other stuff.

Hello friends

You may have wondered whatever happened to me and my sometimes blog.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Last spring I was offered my dream job.  I was hired to design, build and manage a teaching garden for the Marvelwood School, a small Connecticut private school that both my sons attend.  I get to spend part of each day planning, organizing and actually digging in the dirt.  It was a very successful first season, and it just keeps getting better.  I was offered the use of a small greenhouse on the campus so I can continue puttering about with growing things this winter.  I’ll tell you a little secret…I’m experimenting with aquaponics too!  I already have 8 little goldfish working hard to produce nitrogen for my sprouts.  Well, they actually produce ammonia that will turn into nitrites that will turn into…that’s a story for another day, though.  Today we’re gonna talk about a freakishly warm December.

It’s freakishly warm, right?  What the heck!  I waited until late late late in November to plant garlic, which I usually plant in the end of October, and still the garlic has sprouted and is 4 inches tall.   Further disturbing evidence of this unusual weather is the fact that my parsley is actually growing.  I have been pulling it in fist-fulls to use in the kitchen, but still it grows.  Hard not to when it’s 60 degrees out.  IMG_0679

I have still been able to plant narcissus bulbs, as the ground isn’t nearly frozen yet, and whenever I hit one that’s already there I find it has sprouted and is trying to pop out of the earth.  My strawberries have actual flowers, for crying out loud!  What gives?  Anyone?  Even I, who loves growing things, am ready for the season to end.  Enough already.

I’m trying to pretend it’s winter.  Despite the fact that they are still green and healthy, I pulled out my leeks today.  IMG_0677They last almost as long in the fridge as in the ground, and I keep telling myself there has to be a hard freeze soon, so I might as well get them out now.  Of course I was wearing a T-shirt while I dug, so it really was pretend.  I could have probably left them in another month.

I decided to make a real one pot winter style meal tonight with some of the leeks and other put-up foods to try to get in the winter mood.  I used the parsley, some potatoes and onions I have in the cellar, and some pheasant leg meat I had left over from a broth I made.  IMG_0682

I also had the good fortune to trade a venison sirloin for some guanciale with my good friend Sarah.  For those of you who are scratching your head (like me the first time I heard of it), it’s a pork jowl.  That’s right…pig cheeks.  and I’m here to tell you that it’s one tasty item!  It’s an Italian specialty food traditionally used in carbonara, and it is super yummy.  More delicate than pancetta, and with a stronger taste than bacon, it ramps up the flavor of any dish.  Here I sauteed it until crisp, removed it with a slotted spoon and cooked the leeks and onions in the fat left in the pan.

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The potatoes I diced and cooked until soft in salted water, added them to the leeks and fried them until a little crispy.  After that I added the removed guanciale, the parsley, the pheasant, salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of cayenne and finally shredded Havarti on the whole thing, covered it and turned off the heat.  Meanwhile I had a nice winter cocktail to get me in the holiday spirit.  Nothing wrong with rum and eggnog, am I right?

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The final product was a stick to your ribs one-dish meal that made everyone happy.  It’s still about 50 degrees out, but I’m going to go decorate my Christmas tree and pretend.  Happy Holidays!

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Pheasant Season

As I’ve mentioned, fall is one of my very favorite seasons, in part because beginning in late October and running through Christmas, Connecticut hosts a hunting season for pheasant.  Throughout the state there are controlled releases of birds on state land at irregular times during the week.  These are then hunted by upland bird hunters, usually with dogs to help them find, or flush, the birds.  Peasant is by far my all-time favorite animal to hunt, and I look forward to the beginning of the season all year.  They not only are a blast to hunt, but they make a delicious addition to the November menu!

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I first hunted pheasant, as well as chukar and grouse, with my dad.  I was perhaps in my twenties (I can’t remember because it was SO very long ago!) when he invited me along on a private hunt.  At a private club, the way it works is that when you arrive you determine how many birds you want to hunt, usually 2-4 per person, and the guides will set them out for you in the hunting area.  The birds are raised in huge pens nearby.  You relax for a while and then off you go to find the birds.  We didn’t have our own dogs then, so we used the dogs that came with the guide service.  This may seem to some like an unfair advantage over the birds, but let me assure you it is not.  Pheasant are not like wild chickens.  They are crafty and very fast and can often outsmart a dog by leaving a confusing scent trail, running in circles, or just generally blending into their environment the way God made them.  It is neither easy to find the wily creatures after they are freed nor is it easy to fell them, although I must say that pheasant are slower in the air then the average game bird. That’s one of the reasons I like to hunt them!  I need all the advantage I can get.

Back then with my dad I was an average shot.  I remember missing the first bird, but I got some that day.  Over the years when I lived in Colorado, my husband and I would often head south and east to Blanca in the fall and hunt birds there.  I was never a crack shot, like he was, but I hit most of what I aimed at.  Recently, when we were back in Connecticut, he and I decided to tune up our game by going over to Millbrook  New York and spending the day at the Orvis shooting grounds called Sandanona.   http://www.orvis.com/sandanona  They have a world class sporting clay course for wing shooters.  This was a real treat for us, and not something we could do very often.  100 clays at 20 stations each to practice on.  By the end of the day we had sore shoulders and tired arms, but we were smiling. He was smiling somewhat more than me, as he had schooled me at each station, hitting  approximately 70% of his targets to my somewhat less then 50%.  Needless to say I was a bit discouraged.  So the following Christmas, after a whole bird season of listening to me gripe about what a bad shot I was, my darling husband gifted me a trip to the Sandanona shooting school, where I would be taught the proper techniques and principles of wing shooting in a half day class with an expert.  I couldn’t wait.

The class was super fun, and I learned a ton about how to shoot.  I learned that my gun doesn’t really fit my body.  It’s too short, and canted too little to line up with my eye when I draw it up.  But I love my gun.  My dad gave it to me and I’ll never get rid of it.  I learned that even though I am right handed, I am “left eye dominant”, which means that my left eye leads and my right eye follows.  I learned that because of this I should be shooting left handed.  So I tried that.  It’s like walking with shoes on the wrong feet tied together. Not even safe.  I learned that I could compensate by using a patch over my left eye, to force my right eye to work.  I tried that and actually fell down. With a loaded gun. My shooting went below 30%.  I spent the next season practicing closing my left eye instead of my right while I draw.  Draw, close, aim, fire.  I hit a few birds, but didn’t even make my bag limit for the season.

What now?  I’m trying to get back to a place where I can forget my limitations and just shoot.  Where I can let instinct take over for ability.  I need to un-think shooting.  I’m trying to be OK with the fact that, for whatever reason, I’m just not a very good shot, and I’m trying to remember that even though I love to shoot, what I really love is to walk in the woods on crisp fall days with my husband and my son and my dog.

Here is a recipe for one of our very favorite fall meals.  If you want leftovers, you had better make 2.  It takes a bit of work, but is well worth the effort.  FYI the easiest way to get the meat off a pheasant is to cut the skin of the breast and peel it back, and then filet the breasts off the bone.  Then continue to pull the skin down over the thighs, exposing the legs.  Break the leg joints at the end of the ‘drumstick’ and again at the hip.  Use a knife to separate the legs from the body.

Pheasant Pot Pie

6 cups water

1 pheasant, breasted, and legs skinned

salt and pepper to taste

1 tsp parsley

1 tsp. thyme

1 bay leaf

1 cup diced potatoes

1 cup diced turnips

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced leeks

1/2 cup frozen peas

1/2 cup chopped onion

4 tbs butter

3 tbs flour

1-2 bullion cubes

1 pie crust.

In a stock pot, bring the water to boil and add the pheasant and the spices.  Reduce heat to low and simmer the pheasant for 20 minutes or until cooked through.   Allow to cool, reserving the liquid.  Meanwhile, chop the vegetables and mix in a large bowl.  In a heavy cast iron pan over medium heat melt the butter and then add the flour, stirring constantly until the roux begins to darken.  Stir in the bullion.  Add about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the reserved liquid broth to the roux and stir until you have a smooth gravy.  Freeze the remainder of the broth for future use.  Mix the gravy into the vegetables.  Cut the pheasant into bite sized pieces and mix into the vegetables.  Put all of it into a pie plate or a 9″ round cake pan,mounding to fit.  Cover it all with the pie crust, sealing the edges to the pan.  Bake in a 350 oven for 1 hour.  Serve warm with a nice salad.

Grandma Sadie’s Deer

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Last week my Dad sent this email to my boys.

Dear Nate & Simon:

Your Great, Great, Great Granny Sadie Smith (your mom’s dad’s mom’s grandmother) lived on a farm in southern Quebec.  One crisp fall morning, all the men went out hunting and left Sadie at home with the kids and the chores.  Later in the morning, she spied a large buck out by the edge of the garden.  Taking a rifle in hand, she snuck out onto the back porch and dropped the deer where it stood.  She gutted it and managed to drag it into the barn and hoist it up.

When the men returned from hunting, they complained that the deer were scarce and it would be amazing if they got any venison this year, at which Sadie told them not to worry, there would be no concern about that.

The men started to argue with Sadie and tell her that they knew the woods and they knew the hunting and they knew about the scarcity of deer in the area and that she should tend to her chores and her obligations.

She agreed to do that and advised them that her chores did not include butchering the big buck in the barn so:   THEY should get to their chores and finish them before they could eat any supper.

Love you all.

Grampa

This fall I proved to be my great, great, grandmother’s, er…..great, great, granddaughter.  I got a tag for private land deer in Connecticut and filled it with a small buck that I shot early one morning from the back porch.  I shot the deer while I was expertly concealed in a rocking chair behind the climbing hydrangea, ensconced in camouflage, under which I  still had on my jammies.  I had spent the previous four mornings in a tree stand out at the pond, seeing nothing and freezing my butt off.   It was a lovely shot, and felled the deer instantly.  Before school Nathan and I gutted it and dragged it back to the house.  We hung it to cure under the porch.  I was very pleased with myself.  It was the first whitetail I had ever ‘hunted’.

I’ve been a hunter for most of my adult life.  I have hunted elk in Colorado, caribou and moose in Canada,  pheasant, chuckar and partridge, even squirrel and rabbit, and now deer in Connecticut.  The first large animal I killed was a young caribou in Newfoundland.  Afterwards I cried.  I still cry.  And then I pray.

I kill animals to eat them and to feed to my family.  Do I like to kill?  No.  It’s the worse part of hunting.  Do I like to hunt?  Yes.  It’s great fun.  I hear so many people bash hunting and hunters while gobbling a  hamburger that it makes me sad.  Choosing to eat animal flesh and tricking yourself into thinking that you have no part in the death of animals  lying to yourself.  It’s like putting a bag over your head and telling yourself no one can’t see you.  If you eat meat, you participate in the  killing of  animals, just indirectly.  And participating in something  you condemn indirectly, in my mind, makes you a coward.  Worse of all, in most cases it’s  participation in abhorrent practices, like the American beef industry.  How can any person watch the documentary  Meet your Meat (I won’t put the link because it’s too gruesome) Or Frankensteer,   (http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Frankensteer), or even Food Inc. (https://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Food_Inc.) and still choose to purchase beef in the grocery store , while condemning hunting at the same time is beyond me.  It indicates the extreme alienation we have from our food.   Choosing to kill animals, whether domestic or wild, and therefore taking responsibility for yourself, or becoming a vegan, is the only sane response.  In choosing to hunt I can have some control in the death of the animal, and strive to make it as humane, painless  and respectful as possible.  My killing is done with skill, honor and gratitude for the lives I take.    It’s not easy either.  I’ll probably always cry.

But enough about that!  What’s for dinner?

VENISON STEW (makes about 6 servings)

Here is a recipe for venison stew that is an old standby because it is so easy and versatile.   Stew likes to cook long and sit, so make it in the early part of the day.  It’s perfect for those days when you have a busy evening schedule and don’t want to end up stopping for pizza on the way home.  This stew comes out differently every time, depending on what you have and what you add.  Feel free to experiment.  I’ve even used a half cup of bourbon instead of the wine.

INGREDIENTS

3 tbs Olive Oil

1.5 lbs Venison, Chopped into small cubes 1/2 inch

Salt and pepper

1 Large onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic or more if you like it, chopped

1/4 cup organic cornmeal

Some old red wine (a cup or two will be enough) The flavor will be different depending on the wine, but it’s all good.

Dash of Worcestershire

Broth (chicken, beef, turkey, vegetable.) enough to cover the meat and vegetables completely and then another 2 cups. Perhaps 5 cups total

Bouquet garni: either fresh or dried.  If dried, I make a spice packet and put it in a empty tea bag.  Just fold it up and staple it again. Use 1/2 tsp. each of rosemary,parsley, basil, oregano, bay leaf.

Vegetables, chopped into small bites. (here’s where you can get creative) Use what you have in the fridge.  This can include  parsnips, turnips, white potatoes, carrots. For green vegetables try green onions, celery, leeks, peas, parsley.   You don’t need a wide variety, but make sure you have about 4 cups of vegetables total.

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy cast iron pot or dutch oven on medium heat.  Salt and pepper the meat generously .  Add half of the cubes of venison and  fry until browned.  Remove from the pan and repeat with the rest of the meat, saving the juices.  Next, turn the hear down to medium low and add the onion, cooking  until translucent.  Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and soft, but not browned.  Replace the meat and juices  in the pan with the onion and garlic.  Sprinkle the cornmeal over the meat and onions and stir. De-glaze the pan with the wine, and add the Worcestershire sauce .  Then add the vegetables and enough broth to cover the food plus another two cups.  Add the herbs, and turn the heat to high.  When the stew boils, put it onto the smallest burner on the stove and turn the heat down to low.

Now leave the kitchen and do all the busy things you have to do for the next  3 hours.  If you happen to think about the stew, give it a stir.  Make sure there is enough liquid in the pot that the vegetables and meat stay covered.  Later, when you smell something wonderful coming from the kitchen, turn the stew off.  It’s fine to leave it to sit on the stove for the rest of the day.  It must cook for at least  2-3 hours, but can be cooked as long as 5 if you happen to forget about it.  Serve the stew with a green salad, crusty bread, cornbread, or even crackers.

What’s for dinner in April?

It’s all well and good to say you eat locally in August, when the bounty of the harvest is just falling out of the garden, but when the cool winds blow through the months of spring, and nary a sprout is available at your local farmers market, if it is even open, what do you eat then?  Daffodils?  Grass?  Here I’ll give you some examples of what truly is available that fits the bill for Local, Seasonal, Sustainable, and you can feel good about what you put on the table.

Spring is the season for cod fishing, and if you live on the Atlantic shore, or anywhere in the North East, fish caught off the Connecticut Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts are considered local, especially if you catch it yourself!  “What?!” You ask?  Relax.  It’s easier than you think.  Many charter boats go out regularly for cod, and provide you with the bait, tackle and knowledge to fish on your own.  A Google search will help you find one nearest you and the times and dates they fish.  The best part is you might come home with many pounds of cod for the freezer or dehydrator, and with luck you’ll have enough for many suppers to come.  Cod freezes remarkable well, and as it is a firm fish, holds its texture and flavor even through vigorous cooking techniques such as stews and casseroles. Try fresh sauteed cod with saffron risotto, or perhaps baked cod with cream, leeks (you might find leeks overwintered) and new spring green onions.  If you look for cod in the supermarket, ask if it is caught locally, and with rod and reel (line caught).

It’s also turkey season in Connecticut, and many a hunter is anxiously awaiting opening day.  This year my husband has to miss the beginning of the season, and my son, an avid pre-hunter, has asked me to take him out.  Having never turkey hunted before, this is somewhat of a daunting request.  We’ll see how it actually goes.  It would be a miracle if I actually got a spring turkey.  Other good protein sources would be chicken, venison, grass fed local beef and rabbit.  The chickens are starting to lay again with the warmer and longer days, so eggs are always a good choice.  A nice quiche is a perfect light spring meal, especially with sauteed garlic scapes.  Scrambled eggs with local goat cheese, roasted garlic and baby spinach would be delicious.

As for dry goods and staples, this morning I had polenta made from cornmeal purchased from Young Farm in East Granby Ct.  It is called Canada yellow flint cornmeal, and it is stone ground the traditional way.  The corn it comes from is New England open pollinated heirloom variety flint, an “antique” corn that has much higher nutritional value than corn harvested with conventional methods as per agri-business in the Midwest.  Young farm is an exceptional company that produces delicious and nutritious, not to mention sustainable and morally acceptable corn and wheat products, as well as vegetables.  Lean more about Young Farm here.  http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=2752#profile.  The polenta, with a spot of honey and some of last year’s frozen blueberries, was a fabulous start to the day. We eat it with salt, pepper and butter and a sprinkle of Parmesan when we want something savory instead of sweet.

“Vegetables?”, you ask. Not many, to be sure, but some.  I have started a variety of lettuce in my bathtub, so I can add some micro-greens to whatever organic lettuce I buy at the market.  I have had basil growing in pots since January and that always adds a bright spring flavor to any dish.   Kale seems to be always available, as it lasts throughout the winter.  Cabbage and sweet potatoes, carrots and onions are also over-winterers in the root cellar.  Garlic scapes are coming out of the ground now and it’s almost time for the luscious asparagus shoots, the star of spring.  I have frozen peas and spinach and tomatoes from last year’s harvest and even some acorn and butternut squash.  A lovely squash, kale or spinach soup with some flat bread makes a lovely spring meal. IMAG0262.jpg

As for fruit, we have our trusty freezer with its dwindling supplies of frozen blueberries, peaches and strawberries.  Not fresh, but still great for smoothies and the occasional pie.  I can’t say enough about investing in a good chest freezer.  The simplest way to store meat, vegetable, and fruits is to freeze them as soon as possible after picking or harvesting.  It maintains the vitamins and nutrients far more than canning or other methods, and in most cases keeps the food safe for months or even years.  It is the easiest and fastest way to put up a harvest at its freshest, and to store produce for the winter months.  I have a deep chest freezer that I bought new from Sears for about 350.00, and I store thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh meat and vegetables in it every fall to last through the winter and spring months.  If you don’t have one, or can’t afford a new one, there are several on-line sites where you might shop for a used one for much less.  So much of the excess produce from my kitchen garden goes into the freezer right after picking, and it is such a delight to browse the shelves for a cooking idea knowing that my choices are ripe, delicious, healthful, and clean.

Last night we had grilled marinated venison with sauteed onions.  It was simple, and simply delicious.   I used a shoulder roast and just sliced it into half inch steaks, mixed it with salt, pepper, olive oil and good balsamic vinegar, left it in the fridge of a few hours and grilled it over high heat.  Quick and easy.IMAG0260.jpg

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Contrary to popular myth, venison, if well treated and well prepared, is neither gamy nor tough.  While it has an unmistakable rich flavor altogether different than beef, it is a succulent and delicious addition to our menu.  Miss-treated it can be an awful chore to eat, and I am reluctant to eat venison unless I personally know the hunter and the manner in which it was killed and dressed. More about venison in particular and hunting in general later.  Happy spring!