The Saddest Day of the Year

The saddest day of the year is the last day for produce stands at the local farmer’s market.

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I turned and snapped this picture as I was leaving. I always go the last week to see what’s marked down for quick sale, and I feel kinda bad about that. I know the farmers don’t make a lot of money doing what they’re doing, but I do love a bargain. I did that this year. I have to hold myself back from buying as much as I can pack into my car since the produce stands won’t be back until May or June. I just want to hold onto that last little bit of Indian Summer by buying up winter squashes, peppers, tomatoes, and whatever else the farmers have spread out.

This year, I bought a half bushel of tomatoes to can. I already canned tomatoes back in August, but I felt like I needed more… squirrel mentality, I guess. I also picked up several beets that were marked down. I’ve never made pickled beets before, but the Hubs really likes them, and they can’t be that hard to make. Mom and I found a recipe in the Ball Blue Book that was pretty simple.

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Be prepared for your kitchen to look like you murdered someone. Making pickled beets is messy. Actually, anytime you cut open a beet, things get pretty messy. But they make beautiful jars.

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These beets are delicious. I’ve only recently discovered I liked beets. I like them much better roasted than I do pickled, but you can’t beat these beets (did you see what I did there? Har har) on a salad. They pair especially well with tangy goat cheese and honey mustard dressing.

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I think I have enough pints of these to last me until the farmers market opens back up for produce. That day can never get here soon enough.

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PROJECT RECIPE: Slow Cooker Beef and Barley Soup

It’s soup weather. And there’s not much I love more than to come home from work on chilly rainy days to dinner already hot and ready to eat. This is why I think the slow cooker was one one of the greatest inventions ever.

It was particularly nice since I had to work late earlier this week. (A funny story though… It almost didn’t happen. I realized during lunch that I forgot to actually turn on the crockpot and had to run home and do that. Luckily I live only a few miles from where I work. First time that’s ever happened.) These kinds of evenings, I’m just not in the mood to cook. I just want to come home and put on sweats and eat a hot bowl of stew.

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I think I found this recipe for Slow Cooker Beef and Barley Soup from the Picky Palate blog on Pinterest.You remember my binder busting at the seams with recipes. Most of the time, I can’t remember where I got the recipe from. My pinterest feed is mostly full of mouth-watering pictures of food. It’s pure torture for me to look at it right before lunch.

At any rate, I’m sure what grabbed me about this particular recipe were the words “slow cooker.” And since I have a half a beef in my freezer now, I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to make beef.

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PROJECT RECIPE verdict: Keeper! It was ridiculously easy. (Slow cooker cooking usually is.) It was hearty and chunky right out of the slow cooker, and it only got better the longer it has been leftover. We are still eating on it. The Hubs even commented on how it like that it was something different. It was a little heavy on the mushroom flavor (and I really like mushrooms), so next time I might halve what is called for. I almost didn’t brown off the meat before adding it as a time saver, but I’m glad I did because that thickened the soup and made it luscious and silky. Since I have a freezer full o’beef from the half beef we bought earlier this fall, this recipe will definitely be in the rotation again very soon.

How I changed the recipe: I omitted the zucchini because I didn’t have any. I also didn’t cook the vegetables before putting them in the slow cooker. I just dumped them all right in. I also used one quart of venison stock and one quart of vegetable stock, because that’s what I had on hand.

Hooray for a Hoop House!

IMG_3880I’ve been wanting a hoop house for a very long time. Ever since I discovered how easy it is to grow lettuces and radishes, I’ve wanted to extend the season. They are some of the easiest vegetables I’ve ever grown, aside from potatoes. The problem is, I live right on the edge of Zones 5 and 6, so I don’t have the climate for year-round gardening without some help.

A few years back, I bought some old windows and built some raised beds to fit them, so I could have cold frames. They were great, but they didn’t survive a particularly severe thunderstorm. And they didn’t sit high enough, which limited what I could grow.

Now, I don’t have to worry about that–I’ve got two hoop houses! In case you weren’t in the know, hoop houses are basically a frame that holds plastic above the ground to protect vegetables from frost and ice. They can extend the growing season here to hopefully 10 months–maybe longer if we don’t have a particularly bad winter. They don’t hold as much warmth in as a full-on green house, so you couldn’t grown warm weather vegetables, but they are perfect for cool-weather crops like lettuces, radishes, beets and kale.

I planted some arugula, kale, radishes and black seeded simpson lettuce a while back, and it’s not quite ready. I’m hoping that this lets me continue to harvest these veggies until it gets too cold. They might even last all winter if we don’t have an extended stretch of days below freezing.

There are a number of DIY instructions on line for making a hoop house, but in the end, it’s pretty simple. I bought several pieces of two-foot rebar at Home Depot, which I pounded down into the corners of my raised beds. I also bought several feet of plastic tubing at the local ReStore for next to nothing. It was about one inch wide. I picked up some heavy-duty clear plastic at my local lawn and garden store. I just popped the tubing down over the rebar, spread the plastic down over the hoops, and stapled the heck out of it to the sides of the raised beds. Easy peasy. Speaking of peas-y, I might try some of those bush pea plants early next year under these hoop houses.

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They look a little trashy in the back yard, maybe, but I’m pretty excited! If any neighbors complain, I’ll just offer them some radishes.

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I just have to remember to not let the soil dry out. That could be the only thing holding me back from near-year-round gardening.

Diet Advice and the Holidays

I read two interesting pieces recently regarding what makes an optimal diet. Couple that with the oncoming parade of fall and winter holidays focused on food, which has me thinking about what I eat.

Here are the links to the two pieces:

A story about sugars from Kris Carr’s blog.

A story about yet another study singing the benefits of a Mediterranean diet on the Take Part webpage.

Kris Carr’s story is a nice little refresher about sugar. All sugar isn’t evil. We need some of it in our diet so that our organs function properly. But a pattern of too much refined sugar can lead to organ damage like chronic disease and even cancer. And remember, sugar naturally occurs in foods like dairy, fruit and vegetables. So a little extra added sugar adds up fast. This is something I need to keep reminding myself of as the holidays roll on. Moderation is key!

Kris Carr is so inspiring. I love her website. It’s so positive and motivating. Ten years ago, she was diagnosed with incurable (but very slow growing) stage 4 cancer. Faced with those circumstances, she grabbed life by the horns rather than wallow in sadness and fear of the disease. She gave herself a complete health overhaul, and is now a healthy lifestyle advocate that we can all learn something from, even if most of us are not facing the same odds she is. I encourage you guys to check out her website KrisCarr.com.

Seems like every year at the holidays, I throw caution to the wind and overindulge in treats and alcohol. Show me someone who doesn’t do this and I’ll give you $10. The Hubs and I have joked the last couple years “that it just ain’t the holidays unless you’re borderline diabetic and alcoholic by the time they’re over.” Then comes the January crack down.

The second story was about yet another study, this one published in The Annals of Medicine, confirming the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, particularly for women. Women who largely followed the Mediterranean diet, were 40 percent more likely to live past age 70 with fewer cognitive and physical ailments. That’s pretty astounding. Isn’t that what we’re all after: living into old age with few medical problems? The study confirms what is pretty much common knowledge now. Eat a lot of vegetables, some fish, very little red meat, copious amounts of olive oil and enjoy a little wine for a healthy long life.

I like all of these kinds of foods: lots of vegetables, nuts, fish, and especially wine. It shouldn’t be hard to follow that diet since that is what I really like to eat. Something else to remember, also as the holidays approach. That piece of store-bought pie and whipped topping at any one of the myriad of holiday gatherings isn’t going to be as tasty as homemade, and is simply not worth it. Just skip it. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself during the holidays, I just need to make sure it’s something I REALLY want like the Hubs’s aunt’s kraut balls (Hi, Drema!) or his Maw Maw Doris’s recipe for baked beans, and it’s a reasonable portion. No need for seconds!

The two stories couldn’t have come at a better time. Neither is very long, and worth a read. It’s time to get ‘ya mind right for holidays and not turn into sugar zombie. More shrimp (U.S. wild caught) cocktail and maybe fewer cheese cubes from the deli tray.

Definitely more of this for lunch:

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And a little less of this come happy hour:

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PROJECT RECIPE: Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffins

Y’all know I love a good muffin. Grab-and-go breakfast is my M.O. This one is right in the thick of “all things pumpkin” season.

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I can’t even remember where I found this recipe for pumpkin muffins with a cream cheese filling, but I’m always on the lookout for muffin recipes. I probably got it from Pinterest, everyone’s favorite source of genius/procrastination. The recipe is from Gourmade at Home. What an adorable blog! You should check it out.

PROJECT RECIPE verdict: I’d probably keep them. I really liked these. I like them because they are not overly sweet. I’m never a fan of a super sweet muffin for breakfast that tastes like it could be a dessert. These are just perfect. The recipe only calls for a half cup of sugar (plus a little more for the filling). And the cream cheese middles give them a little something extra!

How I changed the recipe: I used butternut squash puree instead of pumpkin because I had some on hand. They are pretty much interchangeable in baking (except for maybe pumpkin pie!). Butternut squash is a darker orange, meaning more of that healthy beta carotene! It made the muffins REALLY look orange and pumpkiny, which was nice. I also subbed out the canola oil for apple sauce like I almost always do in baking. Save yourself a few calories and some fat. You cannot tell the difference. Actually you could have just used another 1/4 cup of pumpkin or butternut squash puree the same as applesauce for the oil.

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There’s no reason to buy canned pumpkin. It’s so easy to DIY, and you don’t have to worry about BPA-lined cans. The process is the same for either pumpkin or butternut (or blue hubbard, Long Island cheese, or almost any winter squash). Cut it in half, scoop out the seeds (save them to roast), and bake cut side down until tender. Then just peel, cut into chunks and toss in a blender or food processor with just a little water. Volia! Easy as pie… er, muffins. Or quick bread. If you buy your winter squash at the Farmers Market right after Halloween, you’ll get a rock bottom price, too.

A New Perspective on Eating Local

Around the end of last year, I was reading The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. It’s about a man who was a vegetarian for many years, but decides to take up hunting and eating the game he brings home. It’s a worthy read for anyone who’s interested in hunting.

The Hubs has been hunting all his life, and I’ve become very interested in it as I’ve become accustomed to processing, cooking and eating the meat that he brings home.

I decided that my New Year’s Resolution would be that I would hunt in every season available in West Virginia. I hoped I would be successful in providing some of the meat that we eat, but even if I wasn’t, I knew I would enjoy just being in the woods.

It was a lofty resolution that I’m certain I won’t fulfill.  But it certainly did drive me to leave my comfort zone, because I’m such an animal lover. Hunting is a way of life in West Virginia, but it’s an issue that there’s plenty of discussion and debate about. I’m not going to delve into that, but I will say that I do understand the full gravity of hunting after my first successful trip.

Last weekend, some counties had an early antlerless season. The Hubs suggested we go. We had been squirrel hunting together a handful of times since I bought my license, but I hadn’t even any squirrels on those trips. I do enjoy being in the woods, and with the amount of hiking involved, I feel like it’s a good workout (always important to me). The Hubs borrowed a gun from his sister, who is an avid hunter, for me to use (his rifle is too big for a first timer like me).  We took it to the shooting range near our house to practice, and I was a terrible shot. A few years back, I shot his rifle a couple times and was dead on, but I guess those shooting skills waned since then. I began to worry, because like the author in A Mindful Carnivore, my biggest fear was not getting a clean shot, and actually mangling a leg or otherwise wounding the animal so that it died a slow death and terrible somewhere deep in the woods.

We set up in an old rough-built blind on the farm of a family friend that overlooks a big field. There were a handful far away, and the Hubs told me to take my shot for the closest one. I missed altogether, not once that afternoon, but twice. We waited and watched until it began getting dark, coming home with no meat that night.

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Waiting.

The second day, the Hubs swapped the gun I was using for a youth model that also belonged to his sister. I’m not too proud to say that the youth model felt very comfortable to me. It is lighter and smaller, and I liked the scope a lot better. We walked to the edge of a field and two big does were laying in it. The Hubs encouraged me to take a shot again at the closest one, which was still laying down. I missed again, twice! I was beginning to wonder if I had any business hunting. We sat and waited another 20 minutes or so. I saw another one come into the field by itself far away, but walking right toward us. We watched it slowly amble toward us for what seemed like forever, stopping to eat here and there. Finally, he said it was close enough to shoot. Having already missed 4 times, I tried extra hard to hold still and take my time. I finally not only hit one, but I hit it cleanly in the chest cavity. As a hunting enthusiast, the Hubs was way more excited than I was. We waited a few minutes before going to check on it.

My heart absolutely sank when I saw how small it was. There was no doubt it was a yearling. I felt like if I was actually going to take the life of an animal, I should try to get one that yields as much meat as possible. This seemed like a waste to me. The Hubs got down to field dress it, and realized it was a button buck. That made me feel marginally better, because the day before we’d seen a buck run off several does feeding that were too far away for me to shoot. Bullies.

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The Hubs had me pose for the obligatory game hunter photo. Note my little gun and teeny tiny deer.

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I insisted on dragging it myself. It wasn’t too difficult though.

Now came the part I was most excited for: the process of turning this animal into meat. We checked it in, then took it back to his sister’s and brother-in-law’s house to hang it up in their big shed. Venison, like any other large animal, benefits incredibly from at least a day hanging in cool dry conditions. The next day, the Hubs helped me skin it, but I butchered the whole thing by myself. I mostly followed the step-by-step instructions for butchering a deer in my Afield cookbook. It’s a wonderful resource for butchering and processing game and fish, and comes with several incredible recipes for each type of meat.

This week, we’ve eaten pretty good. Before I got the Afield cookbook, I had only eaten venison a few different ways: as a replacement for hamburger, fried loin steaks, as a pot roast,  or after canning, made into barbeque sandwiches or soup. I always knew there had to be more ways to highlight this very unique meat. I’ve learned the qualities of venison depend on the deer itself, and can vary. Big does killed in December naturally have more fat in the meat. Young deer like the one I killed are markedly more tender and have less of a wild taste. Sometimes bucks are very tough and have quite a wild taste.

Because it was  a young tender deer, I decided to grill the tenderloin following the recipe in Afield. It was amazing. The flavor was so delicate and it was so juicy. The tenderloin was marinated very simply in olive oil and salt with fresh parsley and rosemary for a couple hours. Grill it whole for only a few minutes on each side. It was the best venison I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of venison.

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I made some calovo nero kale to go with it. That’s the really dark green wrinkly Tuscan variety of kale. It was delicious with the venison!

This week, I also made breakfast sausage with the shoulders. I got a Kitchenaide meat grinder attachment last Christmas, and I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t used it until this week. Last winter, in anticipation of making sausage with my meat grinder, I also ordered a fresh pork belly from the Monroe Farm Market. It had been in the freezer ever since. The ratio of venison to pork is 3 to 1, which makes perfect sausage. Not too greasy, but just enough. I learned a lot from my first foray into sausage making. It’s a pretty messy process, but I do know how I want to adjust the recipe for the next batch. More spices and a coarser grind. Nonetheless, what I made was delicious though. I even put 2 pounds in the freezer.

Tomorrow, I am going to grill the heart, another recipe from Afield. The shot went through the lungs, luckily, which is just as an effective kill shot as through the heart, but I preserved this protein for eating.

I told the Hubs that my favorite part of this hunting trip for me was turning this animal into meat. I have volunteered to be the butcher for all deer from now on. And I ordered myself a meat processing kit with several different types of knives and a saw. I think I could have done a much better job with the deer I killed had I had the right tools.

It’s a different kind of satisfaction eating meat that I killed myself. It puts it in a perspective that I couldn’t have imagined. Not only is it one of the most sustainable sources of meat, it’s very healthy and lean and full of unique nutrients because of the deer’s diet of vegetation and nuts. Not to mention it’s also very, very delicious!