Another New/Old Review: Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ok, Ok, I know – everyone read this book in 4th grade, besides me.

But, I have to say, working my way through this delightful series, is perhaps even more meaningful as an adult, minded as I am towards real food, traditional ways of cooking, and family values of love, respect, and faith.

They resound in abundance in the Little House series! *I look forward to reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is on its way to me via the library reservation system.

Farmer Boy chronicles a year in the young life of Almanzo Wilder and his family (Almanzo, destined to become Laura’s husband later in life). Growing up in a farm in upper New York State, not too terribly far from New York City, but far enough that their life is truly rural, Almanzo develops a love of farming and animal husbandry early in life. This leads to, for me, the part of the book that truly made me think and reflect (as enjoyable as the whole of the book was).

When asked by the kind Mr. Paddock if Almanzo might soon be apprenticed to him as a wheelwright, Father is quiet and almost grim as he an ‘Manzo ride back to the family’s farmstead. Over supper, Father mentions the generous offer to Mother, who responds with vitriol:

“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the world’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”

“That’s true enough,” said Father. “But–“

“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, its bad enough to see Royal [the eldest son] come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days — he’ll never be able to call his soul his own.”

For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry. 

Almanzo is then asked to consider the apprenticeship, something that surprises him, in this age of absolute obedience to parents wishes. He considers what he really likes, and what he likes to do, as Father informs him of the various pros and cons of each way of life. Of farming, Father says,

“A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm. “

It strikes me that this idyllic vision of farming doesn’t exist, except for a select few, in our day and age. I don’t personally know anyone that raises sheep, shears them, and spins their wool into yarn then weaves it into cloth on a loom, like Mother, from start to finish. Nor do I know anyone that has a small and diversified far, like the Wilder’s had, with cows and grains and vegetables and maple trees for sugar, and who heat their house solely with wood they chop. Hmm…as I’m writing all of that an thinking of all the hard, back-breaking work, maybe ‘idyllic’ is not the exact right word, but they truly were free, as Father said — free to prosper or fail, depending on the weather and their own work ethic.

Some things have been lost since this series was written, but I truly believe that some things have flourished. What Father writes about farming could be re-written in a more inter-dependent style today. I am purchasing chickens, turkeys, and lamb from a farm in Western North Dakota. Beef from North-Western Minnesota. Honey from right here in the Fargo-Moorhead area. A 4-H hog from a family friend. (Also on the list to find? Rabbits and goats for meat). I shop at the farmer’s market and have a CSA, and, slowly but surely, I’m growing more and more veggies, fruits, and herbs, right on my own little patch of land. I can’t do it all, like the Wilder family seemed to, nor would I want to. I don’t think that is the overall call we receive from God, to be quite at the point of it. We should all help each other, using the gifts we were given, to give proper reverence to each other, and the world He created.

I will be said when I finish the last 3 books of this series, as Laura, Mary, Carrie, Grace, Ma, Pa, ‘Manzo and Royal seem to be friends (and who could forget Mr. Edwards, Nellie, and some of the other memorable characters). I simultaneously long for the simple hardworking times described, and am grateful that the burden of producing food for my family can be shared with other families.

What a treasure these books are!

Lost: Homemade Sauerkraut

The book Nourishing Traditions, which ennumerates the Weston A Price research and school of thought on traditional foods, many of them fermented or cultured, opened my eyes to new/old wisdom, and lots of new weird recipes!

One of these weird foods is sauerkraut.

Who could have guessed that something so smelly could be so good for you?  Before I became a weird person who sometimes ate weird smelly things, my memory of sauerkraut was related solely to almost throwing up at Valleyfair. I was in the old school ‘Pint Sized’ part of the park, since replaced by Berenstein Bears Land,…and is probably something else, now, as I haven’t been there in eons. Well, not literally eons. I’m not THAT old and weird. More weird than old. Anywho….

I was on a spinning ride (and, to further digress, why I can’t I go on any spinning rides anymore without thinking I might die? Maybe I’m older than I thought…) – and each time I spun around a certain point, I’d smell it – vile, vile sauerkraut. An old guy was eating it plain, with a spoon, resting against the gate near the turn-stile entrance to the ride. He was grizzled, gruff, and a large guy. Sauerkraut seemed to fit him, somehow, to my young mind.

The smell was locked in my mind, and I vowed never, never, never.

Well, now its the year 2012, and as Justin Bieber so keenly reminds us, “Never Say Never.” I think. I don’t know if I could recognize one of his songs, but he seems like a good kid, and I often am reminded that I could watch his movie instantly on Netflix. When I run out of foodie choices, I will consider it.

My 180 on Sauerkraut, or, Why is sauerkraut so-o-o goo-oo-ood?

From an article by Linda Forrestal in her article “Sauerkraut: the Miracle Cabbage”,

       Many sources say raw fermented foods are beneficial to the digestive system by increasing the healthy flora in the intestinal tract or creating the type of environment for them to flourish. Sauerkraut and its juice are traditional folk remedies for constipation. Fermentation actually increases nutrient values in the cabbage, especially vitamin C. Fermented foods are also said to facilitate the breakdown and assimilation of proteins. They have a soothing effect on the nervous system.

         Before the days of refrigeration, sauerkraut served as the only source of vitamin C during the winter in northern climates. It was used on long ship voyages to prevent scurvy. (Read the rest of the article, which includes diverse cultural varieties of fermented cabbage)

But, now I can also say, I don’t mind the taste and smell. Canned sauerkraut IS different than the stuff I make. Mine is crunchier, and tangier. Its not disgusting mush bereft of nutrients. Raw sauerkraut is alive with all kind of beneficial bugs, similar to the kind you’d find in yogurt or kefir or brined raw pickles. I use an anaerobic way of making it, right in a mason jar. The recipe I use comes from my FAVORITE COOKBOOK: Simply In Season. 

What you need:

– a beautiful local cabbage, green or red, like I picked up from the farm of Ladybug Acres, sold at the Veggie Barn on S. Univ (by Kmart) late last summer, Thank you, Amanda!

– some sea salt, or pickling salt, or regular salt

– a jar – I use quart jars, because its a good size for 1 – 2 meals for my family size

– a cool, dark place. My root cellar is ideal. Thank goodness for *this* old house.

How to make it:

– Chop up the cabbage finely. Honestly, mine usually ends up a bit chunky, because I’m usually multi-tasking.

Resist using a food processor, even though this would make it easier. But, it does something bad – like releasing too many enzymes or something, can’t remember. Look it up, and let me know what you find.

– Or, chop it with one of these — Lehman’s Triple Bladed Cabbage Cutter. (Watch your fingers)  On my wishlist. Donations accepted.

– Put a bit in the jar, and mash it with a utensil that fits in your jar. Mash, mash, mash away. You want to really, really bruise the leaves. Crack ’em. Just go to town.

– Sprinkle some salt, maybe a tsp per layer (I don’t know, I never measure! scandal!) over the bruised cabbage, and repeat until jar is full with 1 inch to spare. *You technically should let the cabbage sit, and let the salt draw out moisture from the cabbage. I am generally too impatient, and just smash it, salt it, and water it. My bad. It still turns out awesome.*

– Put in cool water, all the way to the top. Cover with sterilized lid, and screw band, and put in a cool dark place. A dark corner of a closet, root cellar, dark corner of the garage as long as it stays around 55 degrees so it won’t freeze, unheated dark corner of your front entry? All these are possibilities. You don’t have to be jealous of my 90 year old house, really.

Ready for the root cellar!

Place something under it — a single-use plastic container is nice, so it won’t be single-use any longer — because over the course of the next week, you might wonder, “What have I DONE?” because it will leak, ooze, and might even bubble a bit. That’s normal. It means all the yummy goodness is being prepared for you. It is ready in about 2 weeks, but the longer it sits, the better the flavor gets.

Variations:

Layer in onions, carrots, or jalapenos! Use alternating red and green cabbage. It will start out striped, then turn pink.

* Now, because air isn’t interacting with it, mold shouldn’t be an issue. But use your head – if its moldy, really fuzzy, or smells off, don’t take a chance. Just because I’ve personally never had a problem with this method doesn’t mean you should trust me explicitly.*

This is not the ‘usual’ way to make raw sauerkraut.  Another method is here. I have not tried it, but have tried to brine pickles using this traditional method, and I have not gotten the hang of it. My first batch of brined pickles was awesome – my second one was really slimy and rotten. If anyone has made sauerkraut with the barrel method, I’d love to hear about it.

Here’s a fun recipe:

Sauerkraut Soup

Open your jar of sauerkraut. Boil a few cut up potatoes in your homemade chicken broth (just enough broth to cover) until slightly soft. Mash half, leave some chunky. Add the jar of sauerkraut, juice and all. Spoon in cultured sour cream (I like the Cascade brand from the natural foods section at the Fargo Cashwise.). Eat with crusty bread to dip. Don’t heat it to0 hot – you don’t want to kill all the beneficial bugs in the ‘kraut.

What stinky food do YOU like? Is it as good for your as my stinky sauerkraut?

Lost and Found: A Way to Use a Whole Chicken X 3

This post is both a lost AND found.

When was the last time you made a whole chicken? I would challenge you to try it, or to do it more often. It is economical, and really healthy for you. I never really thought much of buying a bag of frozen chicken breasts, but as I started contemplating having backyard chickens, and looking at pictures of chicks on the internet (ha ha), I noticed something:

They had heads, legs, thighs, and backbones.

My hot chicks, last summer. Even though small, I hope its clear to see they have many parts.

Now that I’m a caretaker of a flock of chickens, I feel even more convicted that using the whole bird is better for the world, and for our diets. Being good stewards means, at times, learning about what we’ve lost along the way. One of those things is how to use a whole chicken.

Cooking a whole bird is so easy, and so delicious.

What I’m doing lately is using the crockpot to cook my bird (shhh — don’t tell my backyard hens). So, so, very, very easy.

Take a  4 to 5 lb fresh or defrosted chicken, preferably from your local farmer. Take out your slowcooker. Grease the inside. Cut up an onion or two, and put on the bottom. Make up a spice blend, or use one your like, such as the Wildtree Smoked Mozzarella and Tomato Blend. Place the chicken on top of the onions, and rub about 2 Tbl. of spice blend all over it. Set crock to high, and in about 5 – 6 hours (when chicken temps done and juices run clear), cut up to the best of your ability, and enjoy. Thank you to Lisa Leake at the 100 days of Real Food blog, where I found this recipe!

Important: Save the skin and bones! Even if someone has nibbled on it! Save it!

After dinner dishes are done by your husband, put all the bones and stuff back in the slowcooker. You don’t even need to clean it out (you could, if you want. But you don’t really have to, in my opinion). Fill up with water. You can add additional cut up veggies, like celery and carrots. Before you go to bed, turn the slowcooker on low, and in the morning,

take cheesecloth or a flour sack dishtowel and then put a colander over a large bowl or other broth-catching receptacle. Strain out the skin, bones, spices and veggies (you can use the veggies, but keep in mind their nutrients are now in your delicious broth. They still have some fiber, though).

I do like to squeeze the flour sack towel at the end to get out some more fat.

I like to then put the broth in a pitcher, and just put it in the fridge.

Broth, and you can see the layer of fat, even while still lukewarm, starting to rise to the top

Within a couple of hours, you’ll see the top of it hardening – that is chicken fat, or schmaltz. If you want to read a really wonderful, interesting, at times heart-wrenching book (that expounds succinctly on the highly valued schmaltz), check out 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, by Jane Ziegelman. Review to come. Use the broth when you boil pasta, make rice, or steam veggies. Broth is good for your bones, because it comes from bones. Makes sense.

I skim off the schmaltz

Hardened schmaltz, ready to be skimmed off

and put it in a capped jar which I keep in the top back shelf of my fridge. Its great for greasing a pan when I’m going to make something savory. You could also fry with it, though I don’t know what the flash/smoke point is, and I do keep it on the low side so it doesn’t burn, smoke, or destroy the nutrients present.

1 chicken – 3 ways.

For dinner, for broth, for fat.

B-gaaaaaawk!