Thursday, April 22, 2010


Almost two weeks later, and I still think this is one of the prettiest plants I've ever seen.

On my last day at the farm, Carden walked up to the house with a bushel basket full of what looked, at first glance, to be broccoli. Except the "heads" were red. And, well, Courtney already told me Carden was out cutting rhubarb.

Yep, that's rhubarb you see there, and that lovely, colorful broccoli looking part is the seed head. You can't eat it, it's poisonous. You also can't eat the leaves. Nor can you eat the stalk to which the seed head is attached. But you CAN eat the stalk that ends up becoming the leaf.

Just cut the leaves off, chop the remaining part, and voila. Rhubarb. But what on earth do you DO with it? The obvious choice (to some folks) is pie. Either rhubarb pie or strawberry-rhubarb pie. In fact, most of the options for rhubarb involve lots of sugar, as this is a very tart vegetable.

Toting home about two pounds of the chopped rhubarb, I had 8 cups to work with. Enough for a few different things. So, I made muffins and pie, both with recipes from Simply In Season. I say the muffins were quite good, while Derek gave them the stinky cheese face. Not a fan of rhubarb, that one.

On with the recipes!

Rhubarb Pie

2 eggs
Separate yolks from the egg whites. Beat egg whites into stiff peaks. Beat egg yolks separately. (there is an alternative for this below, and how I made the pie)

1 cup sugar
3 TBSP flour
1/4 tsp salt
Mix in with egg yolks.

3 cups chopped rhubarb
Add to egg mixture. Fold in the beaten egg whites.

9-inch pastry shell, unbaked (c'mon, make your own!)
Pour mixture into shell and bake in oven heated to 425 for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350, and continue baking for 30 minutes, or until set.

Filling variation: Instead of separating the egg whites and yolks, add the whole eggs to the flour, sugar and salt. Flavor with 1 tsp vanilla and/or 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg or the grated rind of one orange. Mix well. Fold in rhubarb and pour into pie shell.

Crumb topping variation (HIGHLY recommended and pictured above):
combine 1/2 cup flour or rolled oats with 1/4 cup sugar or brown sugar. Cut in 2 TBSP butter until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle over rhubarb mixture, then bake as above.

Rhubarb Muffins
1.5 cups flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (you can use all whole wheat if you want)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
Combine thoroughly

1 cup buttermilk, sour milk or plain yogurt
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 egg (beaten)
2 tsp vanilla
In a separate bowl, mix well. Stir in dry ingredients until just moistened.

1.5 cups diced rhubarb
1/2 cup nuts (toasted and chopped; optional)
Stir in. Fill greased muffin tins 2/3 full.

1/4 cup sugar
1 TBSP melted butter
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp flour
Combine and sprinkle on top of batter. Bake in oven heated to 375, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Remove from pans and cool on wire racks.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The miracle of dandelions

I've been derelict in posting, particularly about my last visit to the farm ... and I'll get to that one this evening. There's a rhubarb pie in the oven right now that's tied to that visit, and pictures will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, I thought I'd wax poetic about the wonder that is the dandelion.

While walking Cookie on her morning excursion, I noticed that the dozens of dandelions that were in the backyard the day before seemed to have vanished. Instead of opening their yellow faces to the sky, they'd closed up under cover of darkness. All that seemed to be left as evidence that they'd been there was the parachute seed pod.

As the morning progressed, the dandelions opened up, seemingly marching down the hill of the backyard. I've seen it before, but this was the first time I really thought much about it. It is one of life's little miracles, the dandelion.

It is, for so many people in this country, a bastion of the evil side of spring. Millions of people spend millions of dollars trying to eradicate this sunny little thing from their lawns. I think they're absolutely nuts. Insane, I tell you.

Dandelions never fail to make me smile. There are a couple of hillocks along the road I take to get home from work everyday and they are positively blanketed with dandelions. Second to the farm with the baby donkey along the same road, it's my favorite spot on the road.

As a culture, we spend so much time going after this flower, that we forget it's actually quite important. Dandelions are food for butterflies, and who doesn't like butterflies? They also attract bees, though the dandelion doesn't reproduce by pollination. And bees pollinate other plants, thus carrying on the cycle of life.

But dandelions are food, too. Most commonly, they're used in Mediterranean and Asian foods. Historically, they've served a medicinal role, even in the U.S., though we seem to have forgotten that. Teas can be made both from parts of the plant, or by using the whole thing, and have been used in Chinese medicine for liver detoxification, as a natural diuretic and for reducing inflammation. According to the dubious-in-accuracy Wiki, but it's as good a source as any right now: "Unlike other diuretics, dandelion leaves contain good amounts of potassium, a mineral that is often lost during increased urination. There is also evidence that this property of dandelion leaves may normalize blood sugar."

Dandelions also are credited as being more nutritious than spinach, and "A cup of dandelion leaves contains 112% daily recommendation of vitamin A, 32% of vitamin C, and 535% of vitamin K and 218 mg potassium, 103 mg calcium, and 1.7 mg of iron. Dandelions are also an excellent source of vitamin H, which is proven to aid in weight loss when ingested."

So there. Stop killing your dandelions, and enjoy them for the simple miracle that they are! If you do decide to consume them, make sure you clean them thoroughly, and that they come from a spot/area where pesticides have not been used (our yard definitely qualifies).

For more information ... check out Healing Plants by Ana Nez Heatherly.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A tree in phases

This morning while I took Cookie for her morning walk, I noticed that the tree in the backyard was absent its crispy brown leaves that refused to fall in Autumn. They started falling a few days ago, as the leaves made room for the new buds, harbingers of spring.

But this morning, I noticed that about 1/3 of the tree's budding leaves were opened and uncurled. Another 1/3 were just starting to curl out of their bud like some bizarre science fair experiment. And 1/3 were still tight little green and white buds.

It's a tree in phases. I for one am quite happy the old crunchy leaves are gone, and that the green is returning. Spring is here ... even if tonight's temperatures don't reflect that.

In just a few days, the world outside will go from tight little buds to a glorious explosion of green. Trees along roadways look almost like they're on fire with green, or at least sporting a bizarre green glow. And before you know it ... BAM! All the leaves are out.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The need to use our hands

My mother recently lamented that the "old" knowledge, consisting of skills once common, was lost. We'd been talking about my most recent farm experience, in which I helped Courtney process four hens and how thoroughly fascinated I was (not grossed out like some folks would be).

"Sad, the skills that have been lost with the passing of the old-timers. Most I have known were quiet humble men but were willing to share their knowledge when they realize you are genuinely interested."

I countered saying that the skills were still there, one simply had to ask around. Those quiet humble men, and women, are still more than willing to share their knowledge to those who are genuinely interested and willing to ask. The problem isn't that the old skills are lost, it's that people aren't asking for them as much as they used to.

That conversation came to mind this morning while I waited for my tea kettle to whistle. After my last farm experience, I decided to pick up, again, a book I borrowed from my mother awhile back: The Foxfire Book. Talk about learning the old ways. I'm currently on an early chapter that discusses building log cabins. The chapter gives instructions for a lavish log cabin, a not so lavish one, and then variations. But the last two paragraphs of the intro are what brought to mind my mother's comment.

"To those who would look upon such a project as a farce, or a chore not worth the time, we have little to say. We speak instead to the individual who feels some loss in the realization that this age of miracles, miraculous though it is, has robbed us of the need to use our hands. We speak to the individual who feels that someday, somewhere, the use of the instructions contained in these pages will be a source of tremendous satisfaction. And we speak, in a sense, to the child in man - that free spirit still building tree houses in the woods.

To the enthusiastic, all-things-are-possible child spirit, and to the man who longs for the peace that independence and skilled self-sufficiency brings, we address ourselves in this chapter. And we wish him well. He's one of us."

In our age of iPods, iPhones and iPads, internet and cable/satellite TV, we HAVE lost the need to work with our hands. Ask me what it is I like about my farm days, and that's just it: the need to use my hands. The need to stick hand in dirt (or in chicken!), wrestle with prickly weeds and free carrots from the clutches of crab grass, to spend a few hours on the back of a potato planter poking at spuds with a tobacco stick and trying not to fall off.

And if I had the resources, I'd totally be building tree houses in the woods. All things ARE possible. :)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

From farm to pot

The smell wafting through the house right now is mouth watering. In my trusty soup/stew pot is a chicken just shy of 3.5 pounds, some chopped carrots and celery, a bit of leftover garlic and some salt and pepper.

Little more than a day ago, the chicken was still living the good life running around in the grass, clucking away with her coop mates, eating bugs and grass - in short, what chickens are supposed to do. But yesterday morning, with thanks from Courtney, this hen's life came to an end, as did the lives of three others.

I arrived to the farm apparently just as Courtney dispatched the second of the four hens, while Carden rounded up a third. Courtney apologized if I'd seen the fatal cut as I drove up. While I had seen two hens hanging by their feet, I didn't see the act. But I shrugged. It's part of the process. Chicken does not come to us in sterile (hopefully) cellophane wrapped packages in the grocery store, but from live, clucking, feathered birds who are ... well, entertaining.

Carden and Courtney hung the third bird by its feet. While Carden headed back to the coop for the fourth bird, Courtney knelt down, thanked the chicken for the life it had lived and the life it was about to give, and gracefully cut the bird's neck on both sides. Nearby, the second chicken hung suspended, wings outstretched in stillness. It sounds strange, crazy and a bit macabre, but it was an oddly beautiful scene. This was part of an age old cycle of life.

After all the birds were dispatched, we set about the task of scalding the birds in a giant pot of boiling water, and then plucked them of their feathers. Carden departed for the farm next door to do potato cuttings for the afternoon activity of planting potatoes. After the removal of chicken heads, we made for the kitchen, where the hens' feet were cut off, and we set about the task of eviscerating the chickens - or, for those of you who are unfamiliar: disemboweling and removing the organs.

I watched and learned, truly fascinated, while Courtney took care of the first three hens. Two of them, including one we dubbed "weird belly" for her, well, weird belly, had fully formed eggs. One hen was so fatty, she felt like she'd been soaked in olive oil. Early on, Courtney offered me the chance to process one (or more) of the hens. A lot of people might balk at that - but I'm keen on experiencing things. And, hey, if I'm going to know WHERE my food comes from, I might as well know HOW to take it from life to table, right?

Being hand deep into a chicken is interesting. Identifying the internal organs by feel is nothing short of an art form (the gizzard is large and relatively hard, the heart small and firm, the lungs small, soft and bright pink, and the livers smooth, soft and quite squishy). Removing them whole in some cases is tricky. Perhaps I'm just that much of a geek, but it was fascinating to see the innards.

After we cleaned up and put the eviscerated birds in an icy bath, we departed for the neighboring farm where I helped plant potatoes with John Brugman, standing on the back of a piece of machinery whose name I do not remember (but was, I'm assuming WAY better than a tobacco setter), pulled by a tractor driven by John Grant. Carden and John's wife, Bonnie Cecil, expressed concern over the state of my arms (which were pink, but not bright red, and now are browning quite nicely).

It was a day of good, hard work, and after retrieving my chicken (I chose the one I gutted) from Courtney, ventured home. Courtney also sent with me two gizzards for the dogs. The gizzards were rather greedily hoovered by the dogs, who seemed to wonder if I had anything else interesting in that green bag.

Time for the recipe:
This is not what you'll find at places like Cracker Barrel that's essentially overblown chicken and noodles ... this is a chicken stew with a biscuit top. And it is a GREAT cold weather meal. This is comfort food in our house.

Chicken & Dumplings
(a la the Betty Crocker cookbook)
3 to 3.5 pound stewing chicken, cut up
4 celery stalk tops (you can use the whole stalk, really)
1 medium carrot, sliced 1/2 cup (go for the gusto and add more if you like)
1 small onion, sliced
2 sprigs parsley (optional)
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
5 cups water
2.5 cups Bisquick (patooey! if you really want something good, make your OWN baking powder biscuit mix and the recipe follows this one)
2/3 cup milk

1. Remove any excess fat from the chicken (or not, it adds flavor to the broth you're making). Place everything but the biscuit mix and milk in a dutch oven. Cover and heat to boiling, reduce heat to low, and cook for about two hours, or until the juice of the chicken is no longer pink when centers of the thickest parts are cut.

2. Remove chicken and vegetables from Dutch oven, skim 1/2 cup fat from broth and reserve. Remove broth, reserve 4 cups (if you have extra, freeze it for later use).

3. Heat reserved fat in Dutch oven over low heat. Stir in 1/2 cup of the baking/biscuit mix. cook, stirring constant, until mixture is smooth and bubbly; remove from heat.

4. Stir in reserved broth. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir one minute. Return Chicken & veggies to pot and heat until hot.

5. Mix remaining 2 cups baking mix and the milk until soft dogh forms. Drop dough by spoonfuls onto hot chicken mixture (recipe says to not drop it into the liquid, but you honestly can't help that part). Cook uncovered over low heat 10 minutes. Cover and cook another 10 minutes, or until biscuits are done.

Notes: Sometimes I double the amount of veggies (not that I actually measure) to make the stew go a little further. Throw the whole chicken carcass into the pot ... even the back and neck, though there's not a lot of meat there. It all adds flavor to the stock. This time, I also added what was left of some smashed elephant garlic.

Baking Powder Biscuits
(adapted for chicken & dumplings from the Betty Crocker cookbook)
1/2 cup shortening (or butter for a really tender biscuit)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 TBSP sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
(STOP HERE and mix the above ingredients for use in the chicken and dumplings. But, to make some really good biscuits, carry on)
3/4 cup milk

1. Heat oven to 450
2. Cut shortening into dry ingredients using a pastry blender or criss crossing 2 knives, until mixture looks like fine crumbs. Stir in ilk until dough leaves sides of bowl (dough should be soft and sticky)
3. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly 10 times. roll or pat 1/2 inch thick. Cut using floured 2.5" round cutter. Place on baking sheet about 1" apart for crusty sides or touching for soft sides.
4. Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Immediately remove from cookie sheet, serve warm.

Notes: Roll out biscuits and cut with a cutter? Pffffffffffffffffffffffft. I hand shape mine when making for biscuits and gravy or for cheddar-garlic biscuits (I'll save that recipe for another day). If you use self-rising flour (patooey), omit the baking powder and salt).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I'm disappearing, shrinking I tell you!

It was some time in January when I decided to step on the scale. The truth glared at me - 218 pounds. I knew I'd gained weight, I could feel it. And here I was approaching the weight that I'd told myself was the "drastic measures" point, and my clothes were getting uncomfortable.

For well over a year, I'd pondered getting a gym membership, but the closest spot was a 24-hour place in La Grange that, to be honest, looked kinda foofy. I may be a woman, but a foofy woman I am not. And I dinna like foofy stuff (for example, I am allergic to the color pink. True fact).

Some of my better years in college were spent in the dungeon of a weight room at the University of Evansville where, along with a few other rats, I squatted, benched and deadlifted the days away as a member of the powerlifting team. And just about every day I went to school the first two years, I rode my bicycle the two miles (maybe it's more, I honestly don't know) from campus. I was, undeniably, in the best shape of my life. My resting heart rate late in my first semester of my freshman year was in the 40s. I weighed about 125 pounds when I got started.

Oh, I gained the freshman 15 sure enough. But it was 15 pounds of muscle, and by the end of my freshman year I weighed around 145 lean pounds. That was 15 years ago. Over the next couple of years, I put on more muscle, and as I started driving to campus, well, I wasn't using my legs near as much. By the time I graduated, I was somewhere around 175, but still packing around a lot of muscle. I loved it. And to be honest, I miss those days in the gym, with Coach Jeff Sellers barking at me (and everyone else).

But it smelled like a gym. And I don't mean it smelled like sweaty football players (though it sometimes did). I mean it smelled like iron. It smelled like 45-pound barbells, and the 2.5-, 5-, 10-, 25-, 35- and 45-pound plates. It smelled like dumbbells. It smelled like rubber floor mat. I've judged every gym since then by that standard, and none have quite measured up. But I have another standard - the gym has to be within 15 minutes of where I live, or I know damn well I won't go.

But here here was the truth staring at me on a white dial. 218 pounds. Foofy or no, it was time for a change.

I started out eliminating snacks, particularly at work, and making sure I was eating exact portion sizes. If I got the urge to snack, I drank a glass of water or hot tea (no sugar, ya whimps!). I tracked what I was eating on's Daily Plate feature I lost 12 pounds in the first two weeks doing that. TWELVE.

Finally, I swallowed my anti-foof standard and signed up for the foofy gym. They at least had a Smith machine (patooey!), dumbbells, and more than enough machines. There's an arsenal of treadmills, two elliptical machines, and one (count 'em, ONE) stationary bike, and one recumbant bike. There's no proper squat rack or bench, but this is better than nothing.

I started off relatively slow for me - 40 minutes of cardio (I prefer the bike) , some of the machines. After about 3 weeks, I decided to give squats on the Smith machine (patooey!) a try. I will never like this machine (and ignored the owner's attempt to direct me into a hack squat to, "save your knees"). It prevents a normal range of motion, but it's better than nothing, and I forgot how much I love, and I do mean LOVE the feel of the weight across my shoulders, lining up with my hips.

After a month, I could feel the weight loss in my hips and butt. My husband said the weight loss was noticeable (MOTIVATION!). My reporter asked me one day if I'd lost weight (MOTIVATION!) Now, almost two months later, I can feel it in my waist, and legs. And dammit, pretty soon I'm gonna need a belt, or my pants won't stay up. That's such a wonderful problem to have ... and it's motivation!

As of yesterday, I've lost 20 pounds. Since I've started keeping track, I've lost 8.125". Almost half of that came off my waist. More motivation!

I refuse to say I'm dieting - I'm not. "Diet" is a four-letter word when used in that context. I'm watching what I eat, but not really denying myself anything (except ice cream, which I didn't really eat that much of anyway). And I'm eating recommended serving sizes. I've probably cut about 1,000 calories a day out, compared to where I was - and it really was too much. I set goals and rewards for meeting them:

Goal 1: get to 200. Reward? BLIZZARD ... but I could only get down about half of a small one before my stomach protested.
Goal 2: Lose 20 pounds. Reward? Heine Brothers' sweat pants (Cuz I want Heine on my heiny!)
Goal 3: Lose 25 pounds. Reward? Dunno yet. I'm still working on that.
The BIG goal: Lose 50 pounds. Reward? A new tattoo.

The big goal would put me at 168 pounds. It'll be tough getting there, but if I keep this up, I'll be there by the end of the year, and hopefully .... by my sixth wedding anniversary in September. I have no designs of looking like I did in college (though, if I get there, fantastic), I just want to lose weight and feel better than I did Jan. 15.

Anything after that is, shall we say, gravy.