I don't follow the Chinese zodiac, but no matter what anyone else tells you, this was the year of the rat. And the bird. And the mole. It is unlikely I'll be able to dig up any photographic evidence since it wasn't a situation I took pleasure in.
It began in late summer when something devoured the stem of the tomato plant I'd carefully cultivated after my husband found it abandoned in a parking lot growing out of its styrofoam cup. The tomatoes were large and perfect and green one day, the next day they were dead. The next horror was the second Carbon tomato I was waiting for. The same day it reached ripe perfection I discovered something had eaten the entire back half of the tomato. Yuck. Then the perennial kale clippings that had taken root finally were eaten to the nub.
It continued in October, when THE BIRDS arrived. They ate everything. Everything. But I soldiered on and kept planting, planting, planting in a helpless mix of desperation and optimism. A few things made it for a while. Rats and birds do not prefer plants in the mustard family, but once everything else was gone those went too. The bok choy that had somehow survived the rats' notice and outgrown the birds was decimated by moles in the same bed I had fortified with wire in the fall. They ate away the roots and left the leaves to wilt. It was crushing.
By February I was considering building cages or some kind of electrified fencing when a friend I will refer to from hereon out as the Godfather suggested the obvious. Cats. CATS!!! I needed a barn cat!
Days later I found the cutest pair of rescue cats, and adopted them for what was probably an exorbitant amount of money. It's ok, it was a good cause. We put rat poison out everywhere and it started disappearing. We ordered more rat poison, but we appeared to have reached rat/poison homeostasis.
Life is good again, and just last week I saw one of our cute little cuddly kittens tossing a dead mole around with boundless enthusiasm. It was gruesome, but it sure was beautiful.
Kidding season was upon us two months ago. It was intense. Intensely fun. My good friend bred four goats and they were all ready to kid through March. I thought it would make a great refresher course for me, and she kindly allowed me to show up for all the action. The setup was along the side of her house, and each goat got her own pen for the kidding.
Goat number one kidded so quickly I barely made it there in time. Everything went smoothly. This will be the story of the second goat, Saffron, and how tuna onigiri became the official snack of goat kidding season.
Saffron seemed to take a lot longer, but mostly because there had been no waiting at all for the first one. So we all hung out. My kids (I realize I should refer to them as children now) were so excited to see the goat babies (kids!) that they asked if they could come along too. My sweet sweet friend thought it would be ok to have them there, and the party was about to get started.
It was a rainy, wet week, and the pens along the side of the house felt like all the wind and rain had begun to tunnel in, but we tacked up blankets and tarps until things felt warmer, if not quite cozy.
That evening my husband dropped the CHILDREN off to see the KIDS. They came spilling out of the car with a few extras. A few extras, you ask?
Sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, cup of ramen, boiling water in a thermos, tuna fish, a jar of mayonnaise, rice, bowls, green onions, juice, tea for me, graham crackers, cookies, a can opener, and a stuffed animal...
The children set up shop in the adjoining pen with the doe who had kidded the week before. Let the games begin! Come what may, we were ready.
So we just hung out and waited. Most of us, anyway. My son had other plans. Out came the tuna, the green onion, and the mayonnaise. What was the plan, I wondered. Tuna onigiri. No joke, he was preparing to make tuna onigiri in a kidding stall. But if Mary could have a baby in a manger, maybe it wasn't reaching too far. Still, I apologized to my friend as he popped open the canned fish. She graciously allowed the cooking to continue as long as he promised not to attract any predators by leaving garbage or tuna juice lying around. We turned back to watching the goats.
Minutes went by, and then, "Is he trying to cut the green onions with a can opener?!?"
I shrugged feebly and looked over. "Son, is there a problem?"
"Yeah, I forgot a cutting board..."
So this is how tuna onigiri became the official snack of goat kidding season.
A drained can of tuna fish
chopped green onion
cooked rice, preferably sushi rice
Please note that you will also need a knife and a cutting board, bowls, spoons, that kind of thing. You will already have those in your kitchen, but if you're in a kidding pen, be sure to think ahead!
Add the drained tuna to a bowl. Mix in a dollop of mayonnaise, chopped green onion, and pepper to taste. I don't like too much mayo or it's goopy, but dry is bad too, so it's your call.
With wet hands, stick a finger in some salt and rub it over the palms of your hands. Pick up a scoop of rice and begin shaping it into either a triangle or a ball. Once you're mostly there, poke a hole in the center and put maybe a teaspoon of the tuna mixture in. Cover it with more rice. Continue until your rice is gone.
Now you can either wrap the rice balls in nori and eat them immediately, or you can wrap them in plastic wrap and leave them out until you're ready to eat them.
Milking is fun, but not for the first week or so. I feel clumsy all over again, the goats keep telling me I'm screwing it up, and my husband always thinks I'm hurting them. The babies cry because, let's face it, I'm stealing their milk. (Shame face!!) Still, the benefits far outweigh the trials of milking and I'm motivated by visions of fresh cheese, velvety yogurt, and custardy puddings. I'm greedy enough to push through.
But this year there was an unexpected silver lining. My daughter, who just turned 9, was determined to master milking. So every morning she went out with me and squeezed and struggled while milk dripped down her arm. We worked on the routine together, and finally settled on separate bowls. She works the left, I work the right side. It was a pain at first since it would have been much quicker to just do it all myself, but I think it was Joel Salatin who said that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first. Great words for a perfectionist to live by, or anyone else, for that matter!
My little girl did it! She milked her side out perfectly today, and I officially declared her a Master Milker. It's a good thing too since she drinks most of the milk.
We have only been milking for about two weeks now, and I've been getting about a quart from each goat every morning, so if I were to milk them twice a day I would be getting nearly a gallon of milk a day from two dwarf goats! But I've decided I'm a once-a-day milker. The trick with this stuff seems to be making it manageable since I'm not a farmer. It's easy to get greedy and want more, more, more- but I have to remind myself that enough really is enough.
I made my first two batches of fresh cheese, ice cream, and vanilla pudding already. The kids are pretty happy.
My plan this summer is to milk only in the mornings. Once September rolls around I can sell the babies (if I have the heart to!) and either continue milking once a day, or begin to milk twice a day since summer vacation will be over anyway.
I use blackboard lids (I might have made that name up, but hopefully you understand me) to label the jars so we can use the oldest milk up first, but everything has been very fresh. Last year I kept freezing all the milk because I thought my milk wasn't cooling off quickly enough. This year I got advice from another milker (the Godfather) that the milk actually stays fresh for a long time, but it's important to filter it right away. This was excellent advice. Now I filter the milk right at the milking stand and just put the jar in the refrigerator when I'm done cleaning up. Raw milk stays fresh for quite a long time, much longer than I thought.
Some deaths are slow and especially painful; this one took a while.
I don't know why I love to cook so much. Every foreign dish I master at home is a trip I'd like to take. Every new technique opens a new door. Every meal has been my way of hugging my family and telling them I love them. But if that isn't their love language, isn't it time to stop?
I remember the days when I would make homemade tortillas from organic masa, eggs, and a fresh salsa for breakfast. Dinners were elaborate: fresh pasta from scratch, duck legs braised in red wine, roast chicken with quinoa and zucchini. I made all my bread from scratch from a starter. Ice cream made a weekly appearance and the flavors varied from the requisite chocolate, vanilla, and fruit flavors to cardamom banana and mint chocolate. I poured my love into my family through the kitchen.
It didn't stop there! I became obsessed with the idea of backyard chickens to provide my family with the best quality eggs. I wanted a garden in spite of my black thumb. I wanted bee hives and a milking goat- though I know now you never have just one, but whatever, it was a dream.
I still believe there's something beautiful about that. But what do you do when your family really doesn't appreciate it, or even like it that much? When you plan what you thought was a simple dinner and it took hours after all, when there is a huge mess in the kitchen, and when your family would rather season the meat with whatever their preferred combination of ketchup, BBQ sauce, and kekap manis??? Well? What then?
My last folly was a Persian meal. I had made it with friends after driving everywhere to find the barberries for the rice. The chicken was marinated in near lethal quantities of onion and then barbecued, and the rice was beautiful and tart. I was so sure my family would love it- but once I brought it out, of course the unholy trinity of BBQ sauce, ketchup, and parmesan cheese also made it to the table. What was I doing? If they don't care about what I put into the meal, am I just trying to force them into accepting something for my sake?
Not too long after the Persian debacle, I made a nice, safe meal of Chinese flavored rice noodles. My son, who loves Pad See Ew maybe more than just about anything else, wanted to know why I hadn't used the same sauce. I said these were supposed to taste Chinese, not Thai. And when he mixed up his own combination of black soy sauce and Golden Mountain sauce and drizzled the whole thing over his noodles, I was devastated. I wanted to cry, but it was as if I faced a religious difference between me and my husband and kids.
My husband defended my son. "What is different," he asked, "between adding some sauce and seasoning with salt and pepper? Isn't he just seasoning it to taste?"
And I bet my husband is right. But I QUIT!!!!
If you've always wondered what a tomato would taste like if it were a pineapple, you now have the opportunity to find out.
I try to grow something new every year. Last year I tried ground cherries. The seed label said it would grow like a tomato plant. While it was similar, it spread more; I planted three in a row in a four foot bed and the spacing worked out nicely. The fruit looks like a tomatillo, but it isn't ready until it actually falls off the plant. I suppose this is why it's called a ground cherry. My daughter enjoyed collecting the fallen fruit every day, and because of the papery skin it was always clean. Nearly everyone liked the flavor, but it was my son who made the tomato pineapple connection. Exactly right.
My mother, the keeper of all the family secrets, reported that while she wasn't a fan, my grandmother used to grow these and make jam with them. Who knew?
So if you're growing a few plants this year and want to try something new, I think this is a fun one. We bought our seeds from Baker Creek.
This is the strangest vegetable I have ever grown. I couldn't figure out what it was doing or where it was going. It's a very mysterious vegetable the first year. All the permaculturists throw out the benefits of Walking Onion since it is a perennial, and of course I was curious. In the picture above you see the knee-like joints growing halfway up the onion.
Eventually the papery joints split to reveal little baby plants that look, to this viewer, just like something out of the banquet scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Remember the little snakes? Well, at least the onions are much cuter.
Little mini onion bulbs grow from the joints. You can see them close up below. If you leave them on the plant, they fall to the earth, root into the ground, and eventually the onion arm that dropped them there dies and they form their own separate plant.
I wasn't sure how to use them. The bulbs are a little small, and the stems are a little thick, but ultimately they proved to be a pretty useful allium, if a strange one.
Nose-to-tail eating is great in theory, but this last experiment put that theory to the test. It was a massive FAIL. Massive. I wrote this post a few weeks ago and lost it, but I think I need to record the horror so that I'm not ever tempted to repeat the mistakes of the past, so here is try number two.
I had put off the effort for quite some time, but there was no forgetting about the pig head halves floating around in my freezer. They are large and oddly shaped, and many times flew out of the freezer when I was digging around for pork bones or the odd lamb chop. I don't have a dog large enough to justify feeding it a pig head, and I knew it. This had to be done.
Try not to cry. This is disturbing.
Lesson Number 1: Pig heads are huge.
A pig head is not proportionate to the body. They are massive. So even sawn in half and frozen, defrosting them is a horror. I couldn't take off the wrapping because there was no way I was going to tip my family off to what I was doing. And yes, it did make me feel a little queasy every time I saw it on the counter.
Lesson Number 2: Heads of all kinds contain unsavory bits like eyeballs and brains and tongues, and worse, teeth.
While there is some information on how to make head cheese out there, it does not constitute a wealth of information. I read one account where the blogger found that the butcher had already neatly hacked up the head into two inch pieces. This was not the case with my pig heads. So picking them up and fitting them into the pot was quite a chore, particularly since I was unable/unwilling to touch them. However, I performed a miracle and the pig head halves, the trotters (eek! an ugly euphemism for feet!), and the heart made it into the pot with sage, peppercorns, and onion. I'm pretty sure I did most of this with my head turned away. (Closing my eyes would have been cowardly.)
I put the lid on, since this was a sight I could live without. I couldn't remove eyeballs or brains without touching it, and the cookbook I referenced made no mention of removing unmentionables, so it all had to stay in. I hoped it would be like marrow, just fatty goodness that melted in and provides rich buttery flavor.
And I might have been onto something. As the defrosted horror show finally came to a simmer (with the lid still on of course), it smelled amazing. Rich. Piggy. The kind of thing you would really want to slice and gobble up on a cracker.
I remembered our next door neighbor from the house I grew up in, Mrs. Holmes, and the amazing head cheese she would bring over in old margarine tubs. My whole family would sit down together with a knife and a box of saltines and devour it the same day. Good stuff. Well, I was beginning to suspect that my head cheese would be even better.
Lesson Number 3: Pigs grow hair, and unless properly dealt with this results in a 5 o'clock shadow you don't want to mess with.
The time came to strain the awful mess, and oh no. No. No. I picked my way through a jawbone, intact teeth, and the remains of a hard palate. The tongue. My stomach did little flips and I was forced to breath through my mouth so there would be no association between the yuck and the good smells. I might even have broken into a light sweat, but I was determined. I had come to far to turn back. I was going to strain this mess, pick out the meat, and cook down the broth.
But I hadn't counted on the snout. Nothing I had read prepared me for that sight. It just lay there, deflated and hairy. I tried to think of how I could remove the hairs, but all the Nair in the world wouldn't help me now and I had to accept defeat.
I tossed it all to the chickens. They'll eat anything. Good riddance.
So if you are a fan of horror, you're welcome!!
I love these silly animals. Look at Buttons risking life and limb trying to reach a weed!
I love the morning ritual of milking. Because the mama goats are with the babies, I don't have to milk at night. I get exactly a quart every morning and it's been perfect. After they are milked I let the babies out to nurse.
The *kids* are old enough to sell, but there's no way. They're too much fun right now.
The eggs are still great to have. It never gets old for me.
We have a Blue Copper mix above. She has such beautiful gray feathers, and her eggs are dark brown.
Two birds have gone broody. Hopefully by this Wednesday something will hatch. I have to try to find some more fertile eggs to put under Snowfluff, the Silkie on the right. A lot of the better egg laying hens have terrible broody instincts, but the bantams seems determined to hatch something this summer.
No garden has made any fool happier.
Man-eating brussel sprouts. Still waiting for sprouts, but the plant looks really healthy. You can see from the side view where the sprouts will grow, and the leaves must be edible too. So far they've just been chicken food though.
Zucchini is coming up quickly, and hopefully all the other summer squash are not far behind. I learned about pollination recently and now every female plant that comes up I have to wonder if the bees are doing their job. But so far so good.
Last year's itsy-bitsy little walking onion is threatening to take over. I'm still a little confused about the whole walking part, so more on that once I've figured it out. I think the bulbs at the top get heavy, fall to the ground, and root, but I'm waiting to see. And more importantly, when can I eat them and what part??
This is my cheater greenhouse tomato. I bought this in March just in case none of my seeds germinated or I killed them all. I'm leaving that plant in the greenhouse in case the squirrels return and eat everything for the second year in a row.
Another gratuitous garden picture in case you were longing to see it from the other angle.
Chamomile on the left and yarrow on the right. I'm trying to grow more herbs and learn how to use them. The chamomile flowers smell amazing.
Flowering sage on the left. I saw a picture of it on Instagram this morning- someone bought it at the farmer's market and was planning on breading it and frying it. I'm not sure about that. I'll keep watching and see if they post about it afterward. On the right is chocolate mint, my son's favorite. It makes a nice tea fresh or dried.
Green and red shiso. The leaves are still really small, but when they get a little bigger I'll start using them in hand rolled sushi, pickles, and anything else I can think of. They taste similar to basil to me.
I planted the celery last fall and it took FOREVER to grow. I should've started picking it when it was smaller. This fall I will try a pink variety if I can get a hold of the seeds. On the right is a pepper plant. I forgot all the varieties I planted, but I bought them at the UC Master Gardener's sale in early May. It seems like you just can't start peppers early enough!
The beds above I replanted three times. Gophers!!! Three tomato plants and two watermelon plants sucked down from below. I tried the castor oil pellets and one of those annoying stakes that make noise, but in the end I had to line it with a metal mesh. So far, so good. I shouldn't have planted summer vegetables in these beds. They don't get as much sun and they get a lot of wind. I looked back and discovered that I'd make the exact same observation last year. If only I had re-read it in time! I'm trying ground cherries, melons, and Asian winged beans for the first time.
On the left are beans, both pole and bush varieties. Some lettuce, calendula and kale that won't grow and won't die, and a few tomatillo plants, also a first for me. We'll see how they do. The lettuce is pretty happy, so it probably isn't warm enough yet for anything else. On the right are tomatoes, melons, dying pole beans, and nearly microscopic basil. It's a little disappointing and I'm trying not to be impatient.
When you throw together a bunch of random ingredients and make something SOOOOO good you never write it down because it was so simple. You didn't even follow a recipe! Well, you will also never make it again. I speak from experience.
This morning's late breakfast was delicious, light, filling, warm... and I'll never make it again if I don't write it down. So here goes.
a spoonful of pork cracklings and lard (or other cooking oil)
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 inch knob of ginger, shredded or chopped
1/4 of a head of cabbage, shredded
4-8 ounces of steak diced into small pieces
a drizzle of sesame oil
2 Tablespoons sake
about a quart of broth
2 bunches of fresh Korean noodles
1 scallion, thinly chopped into rings
chili garlic sauce
chili bamboo shoots
1. Warm the broth and add a little ginger, the scallion, and salt to taste.
2. In a separate sauté pan, heat a generous spoonful of pork cracklings and lard. Once it's hot and bubbly, add the rest of the ginger and all of the garlic. Add the meat, and once it has browned a little, add the cabbage. Season with some salt, and add the sake while the cabbage finishes cooking. Drizzle a little sesame oil over it.
3. Cook the noodles in plenty of fresh boiling water, strain, and rinse. Divide the noodles among the bowls and top with the cabbage mixture. Pour over the hot broth and serve.
4. Season with chili garlic sauce and bamboo shoots.
I love trying new foods, cooking, and gardening. I hope to share these experiences on this site. Thanks for taking a look!