Early Spring on the Farm

The following photos come from a farm walk on March 18, 2015.  The day was cool and damp, misty, and one of my absolute favorite kind of days.  There is hope and renewal everywhere, the signs that spring is well on its way, though it’s not here yet.  As I finish writing this in the first of April, it’s amazing how much has changed since these photos were taken.

 

The other farming -- Pleasant, meandering cow paths on our side of the fence; rigid, imposing tire-tracks on the other.

The other farming — Pleasant, meandering cow paths on our side of the fence; rigid, imposing tire-tracks on the other.

The creek, just before it flows onto the neighbor’s land.  Our first summer here, in 2012, was a summer of historic drought, and the creek was dry for much of the year.  With more moderate years in 2013 and 2014, the wet-weather creek has had water almost year-round.

The creek, just before it flows onto the neighbor’s land. Our first summer here, in 2012, was a summer of historic drought, and the creek was dry for much of the year. With more moderate years in 2013 and 2014, the wet-weather creek has had water almost year-round.

Grasses and clover, greening up.  A few short weeks and the grass will be tall enough to graze, and the cows will be turned back out to pasture, much to their delight.

Grasses and clover, greening up. A few short weeks and the grass will be tall enough to graze, and the cows will be turned back out to pasture, much to their delight.

There’s a lot of nice seasoned oak firewood tied up in this handy bridge across the creek in the woods.

There’s a lot of nice seasoned oak firewood tied up in this handy bridge across the creek in the woods.

The first green leaves in the woods, tiny though they be, belong to the wild gooseberry bushes.

The first green leaves in the woods, tiny though they be, belong to the wild gooseberry bushes.

Clustered buds of the blackhaw tree, which open up into broccoli-like flowers come mid-spring, before yielding to dark, sweet fruit clusters by fall.

Early buds on a yet-to-be-identified tree back in the woods.

Multiflora rose, an introduced species originally intended as a hedge plant for a ‘living fence,’ is one we must fight nearly continuously.  It does, however, have a certain beauty about it.

Multiflora rose, an introduced species originally intended as a hedge plant for a ‘living fence,’ is one we must fight nearly continuously. It does, however, have a certain beauty about it.

The old, worn-down wooden gate covering the ‘water gap’ where the old creek bed enters the farm from the back.

The old, worn-down wooden gate covering the ‘water gap’ where the old creek bed enters the farm from the back.

The surprisingly purple canes of the wild black raspberry plants.  It’s always a pleasant surprise to stumble across the ripe berries, so soft and tender they nearly fall apart in one’s hand.  They are, of course, best eaten on the spot.

The surprisingly purple canes of the wild black raspberry plants. It’s always a pleasant surprise to stumble across the ripe berries, so soft and tender they nearly fall apart in one’s hand. They are, of course, best eaten on the spot.

Showing the paths two chicken shelters took during the last batch of 2014, the value of chicken manure as fertilizer now readily apparent as the grass turns greener.  Our hope is that after a few years of improving the fertility of our soils via rotational grazing and multiple livestock species, such sights will be rare indeed, as the soil will be so fertile the difference the chickens make is not nearly as apparent as it currently is.

Showing the paths two chicken shelters took during the last batch of 2014, the value of chicken manure as fertilizer now readily apparent as the grass turns greener. Our hope is that after a few years of improving the fertility of our soils via rotational grazing and multiple livestock species, such sights will be rare indeed, as the soil will be so fertile the difference the chickens make is not nearly as apparent as it currently is.

The pigs have certainly done their job this winter, clearing, manuring, and generally preparing the garden for the next year’s crops.

The pigs have certainly done their job this winter, clearing, manuring, and generally preparing the garden for the next year’s crops.

View of the homestead, overlooking the fledgling orchard.

View of the homestead, overlooking the fledgling orchard.

2015 Providence Farm Poultry CSA Share

White Plymouth Rock cockerel

White Plymouth Rock cockerel

We are very excited to announce that 2015 will see the inaugural season of our poultry CSA share, what we hope is the first of many! Our pastured poultry CSA share runs from May through December, and will consist of approximately 12 lbs. of meat per month, packaged as whole birds, for a total of approximately 100 lbs.

At Providence Farm, we raise exclusively heritage breeds of poultry. While I could write at length about how and why we have chosen these breeds (you can read more on our Why Heritage Breeds page), the long and short of it is that our heritage birds are healthier, livelier, and in the end just plain better tasting than any others you will find locally. Of this we are confident. Our slow-growing birds are raised on fresh pasture, allowed to forage freely and supplemented exclusively with non-GMO grains, and are processed in small batches on our farm. This ensures that the utmost care is taken from start to finish, resulting in a truly superior product.

The poultry share is designed for the adventurous eater and cook. By participating, you will receive a variety of poultry species in a variety of ages and sizes, giving you the opportunity to experience first-hand the seasonality of meat production and allowing you to consume poultry the way very few people can nowadays. Where once meat chickens were prepared using different methods at different times of the year to reflect the inherent differences in the birds, in today’s world of industrial sameness and cheap throwaway commodity chicken such differences no longer exist—except with our old-fashioned heritage breeds. Each month’s share will come complete with a newsletter containing information on the birds offered that month, photos, cooking tips, and other interesting info.

Why a CSA?

There are many advantages of the CSA model, a few of which we will briefly touch on. One, it facilitates seasonal production and consumption, which is the backbone of good land stewardship and sustainable farming, and consequently sustainable cultures and communities. This benefits everyone. Two, more directly, it is mutually beneficial for farmer and consumer alike. We, the farmers, get capital for our production up front, at the beginning of the season, allowing us to produce good food without going into debt and without the persistent worry of finding a market for our product. You, the consumer, are rewarded for your up front payment with a discount off the retail price, plus a discount on additional purchases at our market booth or from the farm. You also have the guarantee of good food and a darn good reason to expand your kitchen repertoire. Three, it gives the customer a direct connection to the farm, giving the customer a more in-depth look at how his or her food is raised, and facilitates a longstanding relationship between farmer and eater.

As often as possible, the offerings of any given month will be fresh, not frozen. This gives you the opportunity to prepare and consume a truly fresh meat product, as well as the option to freeze what you want for later use. Even for the items you freeze, we strongly recommend that you thaw and use them as soon as possible to experience the seasonal nature of the individual birds.

The CSA Season

The season starts in May with a share chock full of our tender and delicious poussin, or “spring chickens.” You can think of these as “Cornish hens,” though we prefer the French term to further differentiate them from what you’ll find at the supermarket. The poussin are 8 to 9 weeks in age and weigh approximately 1 lb. each, a comfortable serving size for an average adult.

In June the main batch of chickens will have grown a fair bit bigger, and the share will reflect this, with young “broilers” harvested at around 12 weeks of age and weighing in the ballpark of 2 lb. each. This terminology hearkens back to the days prior to the advent of industrial chicken production when birds of this age were deemed perfect for hot, fast cooking under the broiler or on the grill.

By July the chickens will be at their peak of growth, the optimal time for processing. These would be best known as “fryers,” and will weigh in at around 3 lb. each at 16 to 18 weeks of age. As now is summer grilling season, we will also include a few more of our poussin to round out the share.

The chickens in the August share will be “fryers” as in the month before. But we’ll finally be able to add some species variety by including a couple of pond-raised Muscovy ducks in the mix. Muscovies are known for their rich dark meat, more akin to beef than poultry.

The September chickens will be “fryers” once again. Though we doubt you’ll get tired of these delicious birds, we’ll throw in something unique to keep things interesting. We’ll make no guarantees at the outset, but if all goes to plan this will be a couple of guinea fowl, a bird indigenous to Africa and commonly eaten in France and Britain. Guineas are similar to chickens but with more dark meat and a richer, fuller flavor reminiscent of game birds.

By October colder weather will be on its way, and the month’s share will reflect this. The chickens will be large birds known as “roasters,” processed at 20 or more weeks of age and weighing in at 4 to 5 lb. each. These make a great centerpiece for a belly-filling autumn meal. The share will be rounded out by a couple of stewing hens, retirees from our egg-laying flock, which are delicious in slow-cooked dishes like chicken and dumplings.

November’s share will consist entirely of one of our beautiful, old-fashioned, slow-growing heritage breed turkeys. These are the birds of yesteryear and are about as far from a Butterball as one can get. You’ll never look at turkey the same way again.

What better way to celebrate in December than with a pasture-raised heritage goose as the centerpiece to an old-fashioned Dickensian Christmas? If you’re not feeling up to roasting a goose, we will be more than happy to substitute a turkey, a couple of big roasting chickens, or even a larger drake duck, subject to availability (though, naturally, we’d love for you to try the goose). Depending on the size of the goose, the remainder of the share will be filled by your choice of chicken (poussin, broilers, fryers, or roasters).

Thus ends the poultry CSA season. We will aim to keep our freezers full of chickens and other poultry through the winter, to keep us selling until the first batch of the next spring is ready, and because we’re confident that after a few months of eating our delicious slow-growing heritage birds you’ll be rather reluctant to go back to whatever you were eating before.

The chart below displays approximate amounts and weights received per month. The numbers in parenthesis are the number of individual birds of each offering.

Bird #1 Lb. Bird #2 Lb. Total Lb.
May Poussin (12) 12     12
June Broiler (6) 12     12
July Fryer (4) 12     12
August Fryer (2) 6 Duck (2) 8 14
September Fryer (2) 6 Guinea (2) 5 11
October Roaster (2) 8 Hen (2) 4 12
November Turkey (1) 12     12
December Goose (1) 8 Hens/Roaster 4 12
97

 Cost & Pickup Time

Cost for the poultry share is $475.00 for approximately 100 lbs. of poultry meat. That’s 15% off the retail price of the component items purchased separately. In addition, by becoming a CSA member you receive 10% off all additional poultry purchases from our farmers market booth or from the farm. Though the first CSA pickup isn’t until May, the farm work and expenses will start by March at the latest. Therefore, we respectfully ask for at least half payment by March 15th, with the balance due by the May pickup, though we can work with you on a payment schedule if need be.

Please make checks payable to:
Providence Farm

5147 Pleasant Hill Rd.

Seymour, MO 65746

Pickup is the first Saturday of each month, at our booth at Farmers Market of the Ozarks, from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm.

Heritage Turkeys available for pre-order

Turkeys roaming pasture, October 2014

Turkeys roaming pasture, October 2014

This year we are growing out a small batch of heritage breed turkeys for your Thanksgiving table. These guys (and gals) were hatched out back in May and have free range of the entire farm, foraging for all sorts of goodies, and are supplemented with only non-GMO grains. This year we are raising the Bourbon Red, Norfolk Black, Blue Slate, and Royal Palm breeds. (You can see them roaming one of the pastures in the picture above.) Like our heritage breed chickens, these turkeys take nearly twice as long to grow out as their fast-growing industrial counterparts, resulting in amazing flavor and texture. Expected dressed weights will be around the 12 to 15 lb. range, and we are expecting the price to be $5.00 to $5.50 per pound. (We’ll know for certain once they’re processed and final costs are tallied.) You can reserve yours with a $10 deposit. This will be applied to your total price, with the balance due upon pickup. Pickup date is not yet confirmed, but we are expecting it to be Tuesday, November 25th, at the special pre-Thanksgiving market at Farmers Market of the Ozarks. We’ll let you know for certain once it’s settled.  You can contact us for more details, or to place an order.

Roosting in the gnarly oak.

Roosting in the gnarly oak.

Meat Thrift — Three Meals from One Chicken

Here at Providence Farm, we only sell our chickens whole.  When folks ask if we have boneless skinless chicken breasts, we smile and kindly inform them that the breasts grow on the rest of the chicken, that they can have the breast meat as it comes: attached to the wings, thighs, drumsticks, and back.

Perhaps this is poor business practice.  Likely it is off-putting to customers who prefer to minimize their contact with raw meat.  But as farmers (and home cooks) we feel that comfort in the kitchen, knowledge of where food comes from, and ability to fully utilize such ingredients is vitally important for a vibrant, healthy local food community.  As such, we are committed to educating customers on exactly how to use a whole chicken, and how to get the most for your money.  It is in that spirit that we offer this post.

First, I’d like to offer up a few words about meat thrift generally.  Or rather, I’d like to offer up someone else’s words about meat thrift, as his writing is more eloquent, and certainly more effective, than my own.  The following quote comes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, excerpted from his River Cottage Meat Book:

Meat thrift is all about respect.  Respect for the animals that have died to feed you.  Respect for the farmers who have (assuming you’ve chosen your meat well) worked tirelessly to keep those animals healthy and contented, so their meat is as good as it can be.  And respect for the whole history of animal husbandry and meat gastronomy–endeavors that  until recently scorned any practice that was wasteful of the livestock on which they depended.

So how, exactly, can you be thrifty with a whole chicken (or any meat bird, for that matter)?  I won’t bother with specific recipes, as they are endless, but I will provide a general method for getting the most bang for your buck.

First meal: Cook the bird.  At our house we tend to roast chickens whole (look for a “how-to” page specific to heritage birds, coming soon), but the bird could also be braised or stewed, cut up and roasted, fried, grilled, you name it.  Assuming you’re not planning on half a chicken per person (and you probably shouldn’t: spending your food dollars on lesser quantities of great meat, rather than piles of industrial slop, is a good idea), this will feed up to six adults: two breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks.

Second meal: Pick off the bits of meat from the remaining carcass.  If you didn’t use all six larger pieces mentioned above, pick those as well.  There is a surprising amount of really tasty meat tucked in along a chicken’s backbone, so don’t miss that.  With these bits you have plenty of options: stir-fry, a replacement for ham in a sort of pasta carbonara, lunch salad with chicken sprinkled on top, soup, fried rice, pot pie, and on and on.

Third meal: Make a stock.  For this you will need the carcass, neck, skin, and bones from previous meals: in other words everything you haven’t used yet.  Some folks take stock-making pretty seriously, with specific quantities of this and that and the other, but our method is more laid-back.  Fill a stock pot with water, throw in the chicken carcass and whatever else is left, and if you like add in some veggies like onions, carrots, celery, and garlic, and perhaps some herbs (fresh or dried).  Don’t forget the salt and pepper.  (Vinegar is also a good idea–for an informative article on the benefits of bone broth, check out this page from the Weston A. Price Foundation.)  Then set it to simmer for maybe three or four hours–though it won’t hurt to go longer, say overnight–and when it’s done strain it.  To do this we set a large colander atop a large metal mixing bowl and pour (carefully!–it’s hot).  You could filter this through muslin or cheesecloth or some such to arrive at a crystal clear end product, but we feel this is mostly unnecessary.  Voila, chicken stock.  Now you have a base for soups of all kinds, a liquid for cooking risotto or other rice dishes, beans, you name it.

And there you have it: three meals from one chicken.

An Informal Heritage Chicken Tasting

On Sunday afternoon we hosted a small, informal heritage chicken tasting at our house with a few friends.  The birds were roasted in two batches of four.  To prevent other flavors distracting from the taste of the actual chicken, it was a simple roasting affair: each bird was rubbed down with butter, salt, and pepper, then roasted at 425 degrees for one hour (15 minutes on each side, to thoroughly cook the leg/thigh meat, and 30 minutes with the breast up).

After they cooled enough to handle, the meat from the breasts, drumsticks, and thighs was cut up into bite-size pieces, the meat from each breed put on its own plate.  The plates themselves were marked “A” through “H” without any breed identification.  Participants took a few pieces of each and scored them for flavor and texture on a scale of 1 to 6, adding comments to their scorecards as they went.  When we were finished the scores were totaled.

Prior to the tasting I gave our friends a brief overview of our project, explaining that the American chicken industry is dominated (to the tune of 90+%) by the Cornish-Rock Cross (CRX), but that we wanted to determine how some of the heritage breeds compared, both to the modern hybrids as well as to each other.  Since we raised eight breeds, as far as they knew they were tasting the eight breeds that we raised; however, one of the breeds we raised (Buff Orpingtons) turned out to be all females so we didn’t process any of them, instead replacing them in the tasting with a local pasture-raised CRX.

The first batch.

The first batch.

The second batch.  Can you guess which is the Cornish-Rock Cross? (Hint: it's obvious.)

The second batch. Can you guess which is the Cornish-Rock Cross? (Hint: it’s obvious.)

Our friends, it should be noted, did not see the birds prior to carving (as seen above); they only saw the meat after it had been cut into pieces and put on plates for serving.  When all were finished, out of 48 possible points for flavor, here is how they stacked up:

  • Speckled Sussex: 37 pts.
  • New Hampshire Red: 34 pts.
  • Dominique: 34 pts.
  • Silver-Laced Wyandotte: 32 pts.
  • Naked Neck: 31 pts.
  • Delaware: 31 pts.
  • White Plymouth Rock: 30 pts.
  • CRX: 21 pts.

So the Speckled Sussex was the clear consensus “winner” and the CRX was the clear consensus “loser.”  But to me, the real takeaway was that they were all good (with the exception of the CRX, which most agreed was just bland), and that they were all different.  Hopefully we can get away from this notion of “tastes like chicken” and realize that different chickens taste different, and indeed that “tastes like chicken,” when we’re talking about the modern hybrids, usually just means “tastes like whatever flavor was added to it.”

In the end Ame and I amused ourselves with the observation that we used to think the heritage breeds looked pitiful and scrawny, but after more than a year of eating them exclusively we now find the CRX to be disgustingly obese and disproportionate.  Maybe it’s no wonder we, as a country, look the way we do when we eat chicken that looks the way it does.

Everything But The Oink: Headcheese

Note: This is not a food blog.  Nor is this a photography blog.  What follows is headcheese as I made it, with some on-the-fly camera photography.  If you want to see artfully done photos of making headcheese, I’m sure you can find them elsewhere.  (Here is a good source.)

Also note: This post may contain images deemed “objectionable” by some.  Headcheese, after all, is made from a head.

Headcheese is an unfortunately misnamed product that is essentially a terrine made from the meat (and skin and fat) from the head of an animal, usually a pig or, to a lesser extent, a sheep.  It has everything to do with “head” and nothing to do with “cheese.”  My intent here is not to argue for the use of the whole animal (though that is itself a right aim) or to delve into the history and variations of headcheese (though that would certainly be interesting), but to give a fairly quick and dirty demonstration of headcheese as I made it.  (If you want more information on headcheese in general, Wikipedia, as usual, has a good overview.)

Two weeks ago we took three hogs into a local butcher, and as I was giving cutting instructions to the butcher I noticed that the cut sheet had the options to keep the head whole (rather than boning it out for cheeks/jowls, as we did with one of the hogs).  I had recently watched a three-part video series (On The Anatomy of Thrift) that included making headcheese, and I wanted to give it a try, so when I picked up the fresh meat from the butcher a week later it included one whole head.

I won’t bother giving an exact recipe here.  For one, there are many variations, and I have no knowledge to claim one is better than any other.  But more importantly, in the kitchen I tend to measure more with my eyeballs than with teaspoons, so I don’t have an exact recipe.  “A handful of salt, a good bit of pepper, some bay leaves…” wouldn’t be too terribly helpful.  But my process was influenced in equal parts by the video series linked above (the “Harvest Day” episode specifically) and the books Odd Bits and The River Cottage Meat Book (that version is repeated in The River Cottage Cookbook).

Typically when hogs are processed they are scalded and the hair scraped off, while ruminants are skinned.  Unfortunately our butcher, being a fairly small-scale affair, skins the hogs too.  In a headcheese the skin will help provide gelatin to allow it to ‘set,’ which is essential to the product.  But this one seemed to work just fine without it.

Step one: put the cleaned head in a large-ish container.

Put the cleaned head in a large-ish container.

Step two: add brine.

Add brine.

The brine can be as simple or complex as you want.  The simple version is salt dissolved in water.  The complex version is salt dissolved in water, with just about anything else.  Seems that headcheese recipes that use a simple brine will make up for it by adding other herbs and spices to the cooking liquid, while recipes with complex brines won’t.  I adapted the suggested brine from the Odd Bits book, omitting things I didn’t have and generally adding what seemed reasonable.  Basically this was kosher salt and brown sugar dissolved in boiling water, to which was added crushed black peppercorns, eastern red cedar berries (the recipe called for juniper berries, but the cedar–a relative of juniper–made a nice and local substitution), crushed garlic, and a few bay leaves.

Make sure the head remains submerged in the liquid (I set a glass Pyrex container on top and filled it with water) and refrigerate for a few days.  When it was time to cook I rinsed the head in cold tap water, stuck it in a large pot, and covered with cold water, then added some chopped up carrots, celery, and a small head of garlic.  Then turned the head on medium-lowish and waited.  Took three to four hours until the meat was falling off the bone, at which point I removed the head to a cutting board to cool, strained the cooking liquid, and commenced boiling the cooking liquid down.

Simmer in a large stockpot.

Simmer in a large stockpot.

Once the head was cool enough to handle I began picking and cutting the meat off the bone until it was pretty well cleaned, then chopped the meat (and the simmered carrots) into smallish chunks.  Once the liquid was sufficiently reduced (this took a while) all that remained was assembly.  There are special terrine dishes to be found that are used for this very purpose, but a loaf pan seems to work just as well.

Meat ready to be picked off the bone.

Meat ready to be picked off the bone.

Picked & chopped.

Picked & chopped.

Pack it into a loaf pan or terrine dish.

Pack it into a loaf pan or terrine dish, then cover with the reduced cooking liquid and refrigerate.

Ready to turn out.

Ready to turn out.

The finished product.

The finished product.

I was pleasantly surprised with how it came out.  Two things I would change: (1) pack the chopped meat less tightly into the loaf pan, to allow the liquid to better work its way through rather than just sitting on top; (2) cook a little longer to allow the meat and fat to break down a little more.  But the flavor was better than expected.  It’s certainly porky, and really quite intensely flavored–I see now why headcheese is usually eaten with pickles and mustard and such, to cut through the intense flavor of the meat.

Headcheese is now on my radar.  It takes a while to make, but it’s really quite easy and most of the time is hands-off anyway.  I think blood sausage would make a fine next foray.