Menu Plans


If you make the piecrust ahead and keep it in the freezer, dessert doesn’t take long.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley – Robert Burns
I suspect Jean Armour, wife of the poet, would have added that men don’t have a clue when it comes to menu plans. I am a planner – I like to make lists, cross things off and try to stay organized so I can get things done. This last is not always an easy task. Interruptions are the norm around here, whether it’s a hubby-originated “come help me with this mechanical-whatever,” a bear wandering into the front yard, a herd of cows come to visit, a kid pelting in to ask “do you know where my *** is?” or a cat squabble to break up before major damage occurs. However, there is one thing I don’t try to plan – menus.

Ratatouille – good hot or – should dinner be delayed – good at room temperature.

The concept of a menu plan sounds great. It’s supposed to help decrease costs by allowing you to buy on sale, cut waste because everything gets used and make sure your food intake has some semblance of nutritional balance. However, menu planning makes some basic assumptions, which I have found to be untrue in my situation.

Fast food: home-grown ranch eggs, poached in raw milk, with diced home-grown bacon as garnish. Total time, 10 minutes.

Assumption #1 – you buy most of your food at the grocery and go shopping once a week. You peruse the food ads in the local paper or online and plan your week’s eating around what’s fresh and on sale. What about what’s in the freezer? What about what’s getting ripe in the garden? What about buying staples in bulk? What about your home-canned foods that should be rotated and used to make room for next year’s canned foods?
Assumption #2 – leftovers are minimal. Maybe if you have a family in which no one ever says, “I’m not really hungry,” or “I don’t like broccoli.” Maybe if your rib eye steaks don’t come from older cows, which means they often weigh close to two pounds. Maybe if you always cook for the same number of people. Maybe if you don’t want to have some leftovers to take for lunch at work the next day.
Assumption #3 – no one will be late, there will be no interruptions and you’ll all sit down to dinner at the same time, so something like a souffle won’t go flat.

Making applesauce with a food mill for freezer storage.

Garden to dinner plate!

My menu planning consists of a quick check the day before – what’s ripe; what’s leftover that I can incorporate into another meal; what do I need to take out of the freezer or put to soak (like beans or grain) or rotate off the pantry shelf; what time will I be getting home from work/what projects do we have on the to-do list? All of these factors are fluid and change without notice. A two-year-old kid comes into the clinic with febrile seizures and has to be shipped to the hospital – no time for meatloaf, it’s hamburgers instead. You go to do the irrigating and the stud has gone to visit the mares because Someone-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless (not me!) forgot to put the chain on the gate. The birds have gotten under the netting and stripped the strawberries or cherries – guess it’s applesauce or canned peaches for dessert.
So, menu planning doesn’t work around here. What does work? Staying flexible (bacon and eggs work just as well for dinner as for breakfast), stocking the freezer with leftovers and things like soup that can be quickly reheated, and keeping your sense of humor.

I figure if you’re going to make soup, make a BIG pot!

Posted in Food, Money Matters | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Latest on Violet


Violet on day 3 of life.

Seems hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since we were bottle-feeding Violet. She was born Christmas day and her mama, Maybelle, died three weeks later. Since we’re coming up on her birthday and it’s been a while, I thought I would give you an update.

Even though she lost her mama, Violet got raw milk, not milk replacer.

Small fry on bottle detail.

Violet is half Jersey and half Angus. This cross makes a good family milk cow in many cases for several reasons. First, of the beef cow breeds, Angus tend to be better milk producers than most. Not that they usually approach what a good dairy cow can produce, of course. Second, the Angus also generally has a slightly higher butterfat concentration than other beef breeds. High butterfat is what gives you more cream for such goodies as cream for your coffee, butter and cream cheese. One of the disadvantages of purebred milk cows is that they tend to be more fragile health-wise than a beefer (that’s especially true of Holsteins). Producing high quantities of milk over a long period isn’t natural. Dairy cows have been bred for milk production to the exclusion of other qualities, which makes them more prone to problems like milk fever, mastitis, acidosis, low fertility and such. They need careful attention and expert management to stay healthy. Milk cows crossed to a beef breed are often less prone to such problems. A cow that is about one-quarter beef and three-quarters dairy is typically a good producer and often healthier over the long run. Dairy breed crosses also tend to be healthier than purebred dairy cows. The local raw milk dairyman uses mixed dairy breeds for just that reason. His cows’ bloodlines include Jersey, Holstein, Guernsey, Milking Shorthorn, Brown Swiss and Normande.

It’s feeding time; I’m waiting!

Violet at three months.

So my plan was to raise Violet to breeding age and make her my house cow. While she has certainly been healthy, there were a couple of crimps along the way. First, she is a small cow. At two years of age, she is close to six inches shorter and much lighter than another heifer in the herd who is younger. It’s not that you can’t milk a small cow, but she is small enough that she would have to be milked by hand. Hubby has had back and neck surgeries; I have carpal tunnel problems – daily milking by hand is out for us. She is also short enough that we’d have to build a milking stand. If you’re going to use a milking stand, your cow must be pretty much bombproof.

She does look more like a dairy cow than the beefer side of the family; she’s about 16 months here.

The red heifer in the middle is several months younger than Violet, but as you can see, she’s taller.

That’s the biggest negative to my original plan; Violet doesn’t have the right temperament. Hubby and I have both reached the age where we need a placid, relaxed, totally trustworthy and easy-going milk cow. Face it – us older folks don’t dodge as well as we used to and we don’t bounce as well, either. Not to mention that we’re just going to keep getting older (darn it). Violet, despite plenty of handling and people contact, is not placid and easy-going; she’s a rambunctious live wire. A friendly live wire and not mean, but a live wire nonetheless. While it’s possible that breeding her would help settle her down, it still doesn’t solve the size problem. So it looks as though she’s going to wind up in the freezer, probably next year, as I have another cow in line ahead of her. Anyway, the freezer is a bit full at the moment, what with the usual fruits and veggies, last year’s beef, two deer and hubby’s elk. In the meantime, I’m looking for a new milk cow.

Posted in Farms | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Old-Fashioned Cooking – Christmas Candy


In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.

Almost everyone has a sweet tooth. In medieval times, honey was the source of sweet treats, typically combined with fruit, ginger or other spices (assuming you had the wherewithal to procure said spices). Dates were another potent sweetener and dried dates kept very well. But for most people, fruit – either fresh or dried – was about as sweet as a treat got.

Sugar – known as “white gold” – made its way onto European plates after Columbus took his little jaunt in 1492. By the 1500s, Europeans were hooked. To support their sugar habit, slavery became the norm in most areas where sugar cane could be grown. Even then, sugar was still very expensive (it was even taxed in England until 1874), and considered a treat. Sugar and its byproducts like molasses were used only for special occasion cooking. Christmas was one time when the cooks in the family rolled up their sleeves and produced a bevy of sweet treats usually only seen once a year.
When you read the recipes below, remember that they didn’t have electric mixers – all that beating was done by hand. Prior to 1850 and the first commercial mill for making powdered sugar, they also had to powder the granulated form by hand. Since the resulting confections were so expensive, kids were lucky to get one piece at a time, and with the larger families more common in earlier days, the sweeties were usually gone by New Year’s Day. Here are several classic Christmas candy recipes. Never make candy on a humid or rainy day – you are courting recipe failure.

Molasses Taffy (probably dates from the mid-1800s)

2 cups sugar
1 cup molasses
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Lightly grease a baking sheet. Bring the sugar, molasses, water, and vinegar to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook and stir until a small amount of syrup dropped into cold water forms a rigid ball. Remove from heat and stir in butter and baking soda. Pour the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet. Allow to sit until cool enough to handle, 10 to 15 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, grease your hands with butter, fold the taffy in half and then pull to double its original length. Continue folding and pulling until the taffy has turned golden brown and is too stiff to pull anymore. Cut the taffy into bite-sized pieces, and wrap in waxed paper. Store in an airtight container.

Chocolate Fudge (probably late 1800s)
2 3/4 cups sugar
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
3 tbsp unsalted butter plus more for greasing pan
1 cup half-and-half
1 tbsp light corn syrup (our great-grandmothers didn’t have corn syrup, which was invented in 1902. They made a sugar solution from 1 ? cups granulated sugar dissolved in ? cup hot water – but I won’t tell if you cheat and use Karo!)
1 tbsp vanilla extract

Grease an 8 by 8-inch pan with butter. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar, chocolate, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter, half-and-half and corn syrup. Over medium heat, stir with a wooden spoon until sugar is dissolved and chocolate is melted. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the cover and cook to the soft ball stage – a teaspoon of candy dropped in cold water forms a soft ball. Remove from the heat and add the remaining butter. Do not stir. Let the mixture cool for 10 minutes. Add vanilla; mix until well-blended and the shiny texture becomes matte. Stop beating immediately when it reaches this stage. Pour into the prepared pan. If you have a lot of air bubbles, you can give the pan a firm rap or two on the counter to pop the bubbles. Let sit in cool dry area until firm. Wrap cut pieces in parchment paper and store in an airtight container or sealable plastic bag. Fudge stored at room temperature can last from seven to 14 days. Fudge can also be stored in the refrigerator wrapped and in an airtight container for two to three weeks.

Divinity Candy (somewhere between 1900 and 1915; my hubby’s favorite)

2 egg whites, at room temperature
2 & ? cups granulated sugar
? cup water
? cup light corn syrup (see note for Fudge, above)
? tsp salt
? cup chopped nuts (pecans are traditional)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside. In a large saucepan, heat together the sugar, water, corn syrup and salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about seven to 10 minutes or until a teaspoon dropped in cold water forms a hard ball. At the five-minute point, beat the egg whites on high speed using an electric mixer or stand mixer until stiff peaks form. VERY slowly beat the hot syrup into the egg whites. It should take you at least two minutes. Continue beating the mixture until it’s no longer glossy and it holds its shape, about six to 10 minutes. Stir in the chopped nuts and vanilla extract until combined. Drop rounded tablespoonfuls of the divinity mixture onto the parchment-lined baking sheets with buttered spoons. Allow the candy to set at room temperature until dry to the touch and no longer sticky. Once set and dry, you can keep it at room temperature for up to five days in an airtight container. (I once lost some for two months in an airtight container and hubby said it tasted just fine.)

Mashed Potato Candy (this is a Depression-era recipe)
1 small russet potato, peeled and sliced
6-8 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup peanut butter (I use almond butter since I’m allergic to peanuts)

Place potato in a small pan and cover with water. Cook until very tender. Drain and place in a large bowl. Use a hand mixer to beat the potato until it is lump-free. Add 4 cups of powdered sugar and beat until mixed well. Continue to mix powdered sugar in 1 cup at a time until thick. (It should have the consistency of putty or cookie dough. Place on a large piece of waxed paper that has been lightly coated with powdered sugar. Sprinkle some more powdered sugar on top.
Roll potato mixture out into a 1/4-inch thick rectangle. Spread evenly with peanut butter. Starting at a long side, roll up tightly like you would cinnamon rolls. Wrap in wax paper, cut in half and place both pieces in a large ziptop bag. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes or until ready to serve.
Remove wax paper and cut into 3/4-inch slices.

Caramels (the original candy was created sometime before 1725, when the Spanish used the name caramello to describe the darkened, crystallized sugar; somewhere between 1650 and the mid-1800s, someone added milk or cream)
1 tablespoon plus 1 cup butter, divided
2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups light corn syrup (see note in Fudge, above)
2 cups half-and-half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans, optional

Line an 11×7-in. pan with parchment paper; grease with 1 tablespoon butter and set aside. In a large heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and remaining butter. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly; boil gently for four minutes without stirring. Remove from the heat; stir in cream. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring constantly, to soft-ball stage.
Remove from the heat; stir in vanilla and optional pecans. Pour into prepared pan; cool. Lift from pan using parchment paper and cut into squares. Store at room temperature.

Posted in Food, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment