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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

So,...Where does this meat come from?

Last week, a long time friend posted a question on Facebook "Do you know where your food comes from?"  The answer for my veggies was very simply ... "Yes!" The problem came when I looked at where I buy the protein portion of my meals. For three generations, my family has been buying from a small town, local butcher, Zimmerman's Meats, but the last few years, I have not been so consistent in buying my cuts of meat from there.

My father actually went to school with a Zimmerman, remembered going to the shop with his mother, and insisted that I drive the 45 miles from my house to pick up his favorite cuts when he lived with me. After his death, we still picked up cuts from the store, but I also picked up meat at the supermarket. After the big outcry against "pink slime," I started thinking, what am I actually giving to my family. Then I heard about the "meat glue," and this made me think that running the 45 miles was not such a bad trade for better meat.

I would like to say that I feed my family nothing but organic everything all the time, but I really can't afford to pay $8.99 a pound for Chicken, or $14.00 for enough ground beef to make a decent meatloaf. I try to buy the healthiest foods, without losing my home, and that is why I make a 45 mile drive to a good, honest butcher that my family has trusted for 74 years.

Unlike supermarkets, or those discount "Meat Markets," Zimmerman's cuts their own meat every morning, they will even cut special for you. I call and order a few months supply, and they package it properly for the freezer. The cost is no more than the supermarket, but I know that they are adding nothing to the meat, they are not "gluing" sections together or anything else you might find elsewhere. The butcher may not know exactly which farm or farmer the meat came from, but he can assure me that they are the best cuts, from a quality distributor, and nothing from outside of the U.S.

You may not live by Zimmerman's, or even close enough to drive, but you can certainly look around for a decent butcher in your location. I asked questions on what to look for in a good butcher, and here are the tips from a butcher:

  1. Don't trust a seller that is underpricing the meat. If something is being advertised as several dollars a pound less than everywhere else, this meat is probably imported from Mexico or another country, and is not quality. 
  2. Find out how long a business has been around, and then ask locals what they think. If it is a new butcher, where did they learn the craft. 
  3. Ask to have a special cut made for you. If the butcher is unwilling to do it, this is not a good butcher. If they are willing to make a special cut, then they take pride in their business and service.

Cleanliness! (This is my rule) Tiptoe and peek at the floor behind the counter, look if you can through the door into the back, look at the hands and nails of the butcher. At Zimmerman's, the floors are spotless, the counters are always clean, the butchers are immaculate, and the whole shop has a nice smell of faint rub spices. I have a pretty keen nose, and I only smell fresh when walking into the shop. Make sure that any shop you buy from is clean with no off-putting smells.

If you can afford the organic, local grown beef and pork, your best bet is to look for a farmer that will sell 1/2 or 1/4 sides of meat. There are butcher shops that will cut the meat for you, (the same as if you bring in a deer...hunters will know where to go!) or you can make the cuts yourself. This way you know exactly where your meat comes from, and buying in bulk will be less expensive that buying individual cuts, but you will not get to choose your cuts, you will get what comes from that side of beef or pork.

In the end, ask questions! The best way to take care of your family is to be informed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Pickled Radishes - A Delicious Addition to the Table

This spring during planting I ran out of carrot seeds, so I sent Robert to the garden center to buy more seeds while I finished planting the beans.  I am partial to organic, so he went with specific instructions on what to buy. When he came back home he handed me a package of radish seeds with a big smile on his face and asked me to find a spot for them in the garden. I was a little surprised, because after almost 10 years of marriage, I had never seen the man eat a radish. I did carve out a row for his radishes, and after they were planted I mentioned the fact that I had not a clue that he liked radishes. He then admitted to me that he really didn't care too much for them, but wanted to grow them because they have a 29 day growth period, and he gets so impatient with waiting to harvest that he thought it would be fun to grow them just to harvest them. He then threw me his biggest smile and I set out to find something to do with his radishes.

Radishes sandwiched between the beets and the garlic

I decided to try pickling them because of a comment from a friend, Becky, who was also contemplating what to do with all the radishes in the garden at Firestone Farm.  She first mentioned pickling them, and I became determined to try it as well.  I tried to find a recipe in one of my historic cookbooks, but no real luck.  So I decided to do a table pickle, the type we used to do at the farm with fresh veggies right out of the garden.  This is a super easy recipe, and we have used it for cucumbers mostly, but it works great for radishes too!

Start with about 4 - 5 radishes, not too large, and wash them with a veggie brush, and then slice them thin.  Place them in a bowl and pour half water and half white vinegar over them until they are covered.  If you like less vinegar, just make it 2/3 water and 1/3 vinegar. Add a pinch or two of salt and a couple pinches of pepper.  This can set out for a few hours, either on the counter or in the fridge, and then taste and adjust the vinegar, water, salt and pepper to your liking. This dish can last quite a while in the fridge, but we have only had them last a day before they are gone!

A Quick Radish Pickle

The pickled radishes turned out so delicious! The flavor is quite changed in just a few hours, and they add an awesome flavor to grilled burgers, fresh salads, and are exceptionally pretty as a garnish. I was also pleased when our neighbors tasted them and then accepted when I offered the whole bowl to them. (The bowl was returned empty the very next day!)  My brother-in-law just kept eating them and polished off half the bowl before the burgers were even on the grill. I am really glad that the radish is such an easy veggie to grow, because I am going to have to plant more, as our one row has been depleted only 4 days after my first dish of quick table pickles.

Now if I can get a whole couple of rows, I will have to see how they do as jar pickles...wish me luck!  

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Garden is up and running!

It has been quite some time since I have last posted.  Winter is a hard time for me to get motivated to do much.  I love my summers and my garden and I can barely sit inside for long, but I am a hibernating kind of girl. Around February I actually rouse myself from my slumber, though not my warm house, and begin to prepare my tomato seeds.  I have a couple green lights, just little ones from Home Depot, not the kind that will get me tagged by the ATF.  I set the seeds in the furnace room, and set the lights at about 4" from the planter.  As the seedlings grow, I keep the lights about 4" above. The furnace room stays at about 76 - 78 degrees, warmer than the rest of the house, which is really too cold for me or the tomatoes.

This year, because of a Senior graduating, a second-grader doing 1st Communion, and a flooded basement getting a complete overhaul, I decided to start my tomatoes be seed, but not my peppers.  Instead, I went to the Pontiac Farmer's Market and bought my peppers, eggplant, rosemary and squashes from an awesome lady who is local and organic.  The beans, corn, broccoli, beets, onions and peas were all started by seeds on May 12 - 15.

Before planting, the garden had to be prepared.  For Valentine's Day two years ago my wonderful husband bought me an awesome gas-powered tiller.  After the last of the veggies are harvested, and the largest plants removed, but before the ground freezes, we till the garden over with the compost and straw from the chicken coop.  The first warm and dry days in March, or early April, we till again, and when I say "we," I really mean Robert.  This year I was able to get my 18 year old to pull all the weeds out too!

I am a big fan of the Farmer's Almanacs, and they have not failed me yet. The recommended day for planting was May 12, and about a week before, Robert tilled the ground again, and I raked it smooth, pulled out weeds, and let the chickens have at all the bugs that were emerging from winter.

Ethel working in the Garden

Buttercup taking a break from feasting

 I also started hardening my tomatoes a few weeks before. I bring them out for a few hours, in the shade, on warm days, and extend the time and sun exposure until they are out all day in full sun. It is amazing how much faster and greener they grow with real sun. After the garden is smoothed again ... (Chickens can make some large holes and mounds as the dig.)

Rolling and digging in the fresh tilled soil

 ... I lay out the garden with sticks and twine.  I use grid paper with the measurements of my garden drafted out to make a map first of where my veggies are to be planted, and measure out all the plots from one specific corner. I save all my garden maps from years past so that I can keep track of crop rotation.

Plotting out the garden with sticks and twine

 Rotating helps keep plants safe from specific types of insects, like cut worms. If you plant your tomatoes in the same place year after year, you are just inviting the insect to cut down your stalks. Moving beans around also helps with soil nutrition.

Now that everything is in, I am getting excited about all the fresh meals I can make.  Over this past winter, I took several classes at  Schoolcraft College of Culinary Arts.  The classes are great, inexpensive for the quality of instruction, and you do not need to be enrolled in the Culinary program.

Tomorrow is Tuesday, one of the three days (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday)  that the Pontiac Farmer's Market is open, and it is strawberry season in Michigan!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dehydrating Carrots - Great for Soups, Salads and Toppings

The carrots are arriving in droves in the backyard, and at the Farmer's Markets.  Fresh carrots have so much more flavor that the "fresh" carrots that you buy in the store.  We usually make soups to preserve, and eat tons fresh, but there are still lots left over, so I freeze and dehydrate them for winter.  The dehydrated carrots hold most of the flavors of fresh carrots, and they make a wonderful addition to many soups, stews, and casseroles.  I even add them to veggie lasagna for a bit of color.  Dehydrated carrots can also add some crunch to a fresh salad, or can be sprinkled in a Caesar Chicken Roll-up.  Carrots top the "Favorites" list in this house, so they are used in many different dishes.

Carrots do need a small bit of preparation before being placed on the dehydrator, and how they are prepared depends on what they are going to be used for later.  If they are for soups and stews, you will want sliced carrots, and for salads, toppings or veggie lasagna, you will want shredded carrots.

Once you have decided how you are going to prepare them, you can get to work.  I usually do both shredded and sliced at the same time, because I only have two herb tray inserts for my dehydrator, and that leaves lots of room for sliced carrots as well.

To begin, I clean and peel my carrots, and then shred some of them in a food processor, enough to fill two trays in my dehydrator.  If you do not have herb inserts you can use cheese cloth.

Shredded Carrots

After I shred enough to fill two trays, I slice the rest of the carrots, or just enough to fill the rest of the trays.  Carrots can be sliced and then refrigerated for a day or so, if you are doing large quantities, but carrots are known for losing flavor fast in the fridge, so I try to cut only what is needed for one day.

Sliced Carrots

I try to slice the carrots 1/8th of an inch thick, and I like to use a knife.  The mandolin is not so good with carrots, and with a knife I can cut them at an angle so that skinny carrots will be a bit longer.

After the carrots are cut and shredded, I put the shredded carrots in a strainer, and set them aside until I am done processing the slices.  I put the sliced carrots in my veggie steamer, and drop them into a pot of boiling salted water for about 3 minutes.  I use the steamer because it is easy to remove the slices without damaging them.  I just pull up the steamer and place it in a bowl to drain.

Carrot Slices in Boiling Water

Drained Carrot Slices

To finish processing the shredded carrots, I place in the sink the strainer containing the shredded carrots, and pour the boiling water that was used to blanch the carrot slices, slowly over all the shredded carrots, making sure that they all get a good dousing.

  Shredded Carrots ready for a good dousing!

Once this is done, both sets of carrots are ready to be placed in the dehydrator.  I like to put my shredded carrots on the herb trays, but cheese cloth will work just as well.  Make sure that you spread them out, but do not worry about keeping every shred separate.  I just scatter them thinly around the trays.

Shredded Carrots on the Trays

I place the sliced carrots on the regular trays, and this is also why I like to cut them on an angle to make them a bit longer.  The very skinny carrots, when sliced without an angle, would fall through the larger openings on the regular trays.

Sliced Carrots on the Trays

I set the dehydrator at 135°F, and start checking back in about 8 -10 hours.  Carrots dry quicker than some other veggies because there is less water content.  Depending on the thickness, they may take a few extra hours. This is a great project to set up before heading to bed, and by the time the kids are off to school the next morning, the carrots are about done.

Dehydrated Shredded Carrots

Dehydrated Sliced Carrots

Once the carrots are done, I place them in a zip close bag and put them in the pantry in an air tight container.  I can use them for a couple months.  The slices do re-hydrate nicely, and I use them in many different recipes.  They are also a part of my "Instant Soup".  If you would like to read about making your own, check out my post "Powdered Beef Stock - Making Instant Soup with homemade Beef Bouillon.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Preserving Green Beans - Freezing and Dehydrating

I grow both bush-type green beans, and pole beans.  My bush beans are Royal Burgundy beans, which are purple beans that turn green when cooked.  My Kentucky Wonder pole beans are a great duel crop.  I can eat the young beans as a green bean, and if left on the vines for the fall, they make a great dry bean, similar to pinto beans, for soups.

Saving green beans is fairly easy, and if I still did not have way too many canned beans in my cellar, I would be canning them this year also.  This year, I am dehydrating them more, because they take up a lot less space than in canning jars.

I prepare my green beans in the same way when dehydrating and freezing, so I can process a whole bunch of them all at the same time.

Royal Burgundy and Kentucky Wonder Beans

When preparing the beans, I cut off the ends, any bad spots, and strip the strings down the sides of the beans.  I then wash them in cold water and cut them into 1 - 2 inch long pieces.  Once the beans are cleaned, I blanch them for about 3 - 4 minutes in boiling salted water.  The nice thing about the Royal Burgundy beans is that they turn green as they boil, and I usually use them to gauge the blanching.  When the purple is gone, the beans are blanched.

Blanched Beans

As soon as the beans are blanched, they need to be taken out and cooled quickly, to stop the cooking.  I usually dump them in a strainer and run them under cold water while I stir them around gently.  The beans can also be plunged into ice water to cool them quickly.  Once the beans are cool, I either place them on the dehydrator or freeze them in vacuum sealed bags.

To dehydrate the beans, I place them in rows on the dehydrator trays.  Once they are are placed, I set the temp at 135°F and will check back about 12 hours later.  The beans should be brittle when they are done, and can take from 12 - 16 hours or more.  When breaking them, they will not snap directly, but will have just a small bit of flexibility before they snap.

Green Beans on Dehydrator Trays

Dehydrated Green Beans

Once the green beans are finished drying, I place them in an air-tight container.  These green beans can be used in soups, and can be re-hydrated by boiling them.  If I am using them in my instant soup mixes, I cut them up into smaller pieces, as green beans take a little longer to re-hydrate than the other veggies I add.  If you want to make your own instant soup mix, check out my post "Powdered Beef Stock - Making instant soup with homemade beef bouillon."

When I freeze the green beans, I fill the bags with a family dinner serving size each, and use my food-saver to vacuum seal the bags.

Sealing the Green Beans

Once all the bags are sealed, I make sure that I mark what the contents are and when they were sealed, and place them in the freezer.  For more on vacuum-sealing, check out my post "Freezing Your Produce."  When you are ready to eat the green beans, just boil the beans, or add to soup.  When beans are vacuum-sealed, they can last for up to 2 years in the freezer.  Enjoy!

Ready for the Freezer

Monday, September 12, 2011

Powdered Beef Stock - Making instant soup with homemade beef bouillon

I have been dehydrating veggies all summer, and the pantry is getting full, along with the downstairs fridge.  The nice thing about all the dehydrated veggies, is they make hiking and camping easy, and several family members like to take a prepared soup mix along to school, work and hunting.

Along with the veggies, I have also been dehydrating roast beef for soup stock.  Though the tomato powder can be used to make a veggie based soup stock, a nice veggie beef instant soup mix is a nice treat on a cold day at school. 

I use dehydrated roast beef instead of beef jerky, because it has a much better flavor when re-hydrated, and it also dries extra brittle, which makes it so much easier to grind into a powder.  I usually just use the left-overs from a roast beef dinner for dehydrating, but if having home-made powdered beef stock is something you use a lot, cooking a whole roast just for dehydrating can be done.

I like to cook my roast in a slow cooker, after searing the beef in a tablespoon of olive oil with salt, onions and garlic in a saute pan.  I usually put a few cups of water and a cup of red wine in the slow cooker with more onions, garlic, salt and pepper, and cook the beef until it can be pulled apart with a fork. 

Once the roast beef is done, I pull it apart, and layer it with kosher salt in a bowl and let it sit for about an hour, letting it cool in the fridge until it can be handled without getting burned.  I then place the beef in single layers on the dehydrator trays, sprinkle more kosher salt over the beef, and set the temperature at 165°F until the beef is very brittle.  I start checking the beef after 6 hours or so, but it can take 10 or more hours for all to be done.

After the beef is completely dried, I use my spice grinder to grind it into powder, but I do set aside a few little chunks for re-hydrating as pieces of beef in my instant cup of soup mix.

To make soup stock, the flavor intensity I like is 3 tablespoons of beef powder to 1 cup of boiling water.  This soup stock tastes just like the au-jus from the slow roaster.

To make my instant cup of soup mix, I put the following ingredients in a zip-close snack bag:

3 Tablespoons beef powder
1 Tablespoon tomato powder
1 teaspoon dried onion
1 teaspoon beef chunks
1 - 2 teaspoons dried carrots
1 -2 teaspoons dried sweet corn
1 teaspoon of chopped dried green beans
a pinch of salt and pepper - can also be added later to your own taste.

It is best to keep these little bags in the fridge, as it will keep for months longer this way, and then on a hiking or camping trip, they can be kept un-refrigerated for a few weeks.

To make a cup of soup, just put the mix in a thermos of a large coffee cup and add 1 cup of boiling water.  Cover the cup, or close the thermos, and the soup will be ready to eat in about 3 - 5 minutes.  The kids take the thermos to school, and have it as a quick snack between breakfast and lunch.

The nice thing about making your own instant soup mix is you can add what you like to the mix.  You can get tiny pasta stars to add to the soup, or add dried mushrooms or more onions for a different flavor broth.  Your soup mix is only limited by you soup imagination, so have some fun and experiment with your favorite flavors!

Dehydrating Corn - Making Soup and Cornmeal with Sweet Corn

If you go to Farmer's Markets during the summer, especially here in Michigan, you will see sweet corn everywhere.  I love to roast it and freeze it for dinners, but sweet corn can be saved in other ways as well.  Dehydrated corn is easy to make, can be used in soups and stews, and can also be ground for cornmeal.  The sweet corn cornmeal will be sweeter than the Dent or Flint corn that is usually used, but if you are aware of this fact, it can be used to make a delicious sweet cornbread!

Before dehydrating the corn, you need to decide what you want to do with it.  If you are dehydrating it for soups and other dishes, you will want to boil it first to set the milk inside the kernel.  If you are going to grind it for cornmeal, you can just dehydrate it without boiling it.

When I am going to save corn for soups and such, I keep it on the cob and boil it in a pot of salted water for about 4 - 5 minutes.  I then pull the corn out and cool it under cold running water.

Once the cobs are cool, or if you have decided to not boil the corn because you are using it as cornmeal, it is time to get the corn off the cob.  I have finally broken down and bought a corn cutter.  It really does make stripping the kernels off the cob so much easier!

Corn Cob Cutter makes this so much easier!

I find it is easier to break up the corn kernels before dehydrating, but it's not so hard to do it after they are dry either.  I do have the herb screens that fit my dehydrator, and I usually use them with corn, but if the trays are being used to dry other produce, I use a layer of cheese-cloth cut to fit the tray.

Cheese Cloth keeps the Kernels from falling through the tray!

Both the boiled corn and the raw corn take quite a bit of time to dry.  I start checking after 16 -18 hours, but have kept them on for 24 hours.  These kernels must be brittle, especially if they are to be ground into cornmeal.

Dehydrated Corn for Cornmeal

Once the corn is dry, you will notice that they do differ in color.  The raw corn will dry a brighter yellow, while the boiled corn will dry a more dark yellow to amber color.

Dehydrated Boiled Corn for Soups

Once the corn is dry, you will want to keep it in a cool, dry place, in an airtight container.  If you are doing large quantities, you can put them in the vacuum bags for longer storage.  When you are ready to use the corn, just add it to hot soups or stocks and allow it about three minutes to re-hydrate, or you can re-hydrate the corn in boiling water and use it in your favorite corn chowder.  When you are doing cornmeal, it is best to grind it as you need it.  This will help preserve it longer.


Dehydrated corn is very easy to grind.  I usually grind it in my spice/coffee grinder on the fine or medium setting.  There are grain grinders that can be purchased from as little as $20 to as much as $400 if you are going to be doing all of your own grinding.

Here is my favorite recipe for cornbread that we used at Firestone Farm while I worked there.  I do not have the actual documentation of which cookbook this is from, but it is a delicious recipe!  This is for the less sweet Dent or Flint corn, so if you are using sweet corn, you may want to lessen the sugar, but this is your preference.  My kids like it sweeter, so I do not change the recipe.  Enjoy!

1 pint cornmeal
1 pint flour
1 tbls baking-powder

Sift meal, flour and baking-powder together.  Add 1/2 cup sugar, one more tablespoon of baking-powder, one tablespoon of melted butter, two eggs, and one pint of sweet milk. Mix well and bake until done.
(I usually bake at 350°F, in a cast iron fry pan, until I can put a knife in the center and it comes out clean.  You can also bake it in a buttered glass dish.)