Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Hogs, Beef...now Chickens!

I grew up on a farrow-to-finish hog farm in north central Ohio. As part of my 4-H projects as a youngster, I also had the opportunity to experience raising beef steers. And today, my family raises beef cattle. But who would have ever thought I'd get into chickens?!

First let me point out, I am by no means a big poultry grower.  I only have six chickens as a test trial to see how it works out. With this said, I still think my small flock is...well...cool!

Ever year around Easter time, the local farm stores supply dozens of egg-laying biddies for people to purchase. For the past two years I'd just watch them in fascination every time I'd go to the store to pick up farm supplies. Finally, this year I broke down and bought six of them.

Back in March I purchased six Ameraucana hens (at least that is what we think they are -- they weren't marked at the store). These are the kind that lay blue eggs. They are just about 10 weeks old and later this summer -- say September -- they will start laying eggs. 

My chicks at two weeks and five weeks old.

Every night when I get home from work, the first thing I do is water the flowers in the backyard and tend to the "ladies of the roost."  I call them my "diva chicks."  I make sure they have enough feed and clean water, and then I kneel down beside their coop and just watch them. They are such fascinating little critters!

I took one Poultry Science class at Ohio State as an elective just so I could learn more about a part of the agriculture industry I never knew before. I don't remember a whole lot from the class since that was 25 years ago, but what I do remember is the variety of breeds that are out there.

My "diva chicks" at almost 10 weeks of age. They are getting pretty feathers!
If my six birds do well, and I stay interested in this endeavor, I'd like to invest in a bigger coop and then get about 15 birds. Have you seen the creative coops that are out there? Maybe that is why I am so taken by the chickens; they can live in some really creative housing!  I am a creative person who likes to draw, sew and build things, so maybe this is part of the attraction. Whatever the reason, it sure has been enjoyable having the divas. I can't wait until they start squawking when one of them has the first egg. I might even squawk, too! The anticipation is killing me!


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Southern Cooking Staples

It is hard to believe, but I have now lived in the South the exact amount of time I had lived in my native Ohio (22 years). And, over the years I have learned to do some Southern cooking. I didn't even know what a collard green was until I moved to North Carolina!

In recent months, I have discovered the infamous "Crock Pot." I have used crock pots on occasion in the past, but now-a-days I keep my biggest one on the counter top at all times. It is a cooking staple for folks with busy schedules. Over the weekend I cooked beef tips and gravy. The weekend before it was the ever-so-popular pintos and ham hocks -- very much a Southern thing and a family favorite. 

There is nothing like cooking meat in a slow cooker, too. The slower the better....it will just melt in your mouth.

Tip:  Looking for a way to save money when you cook?  I read recently that if you use a crock pot for 10 hours of cooking, it will only cost you 50 cents! 

Julie's Pork and Pintos -- I use a large crock pot like this one to make hearty meals.
For this blog post, I thought I would share the pork and pinto beans recipe I mentioned earlier. Now, to make the meal complete, don't forget to include a box of Jiffy cornbread (or your favorite recipe) to go along with it. I will warn you that if you are watching your salt intake, you might want to hold back on the cured ham hocks and choose a different pork option, but according to my family this is what makes it so good. What I love about this recipe is that it is easy. Just toss everything in and forget about it -- and walla' -- a hearty meal for supper! Enjoy and get crockin'!

Julie's Pinto Beans and Ham Hocks
(Cooking Time:  8-10 hours)

Items you will need:
1 lb. bag of dry pinto beans
2 meaty cured ham hocks
One medium onion, chopped
2 Tbl. Garlic (minced)
2 Tbl. Ground Cumin
Plenty of coarse ground black pepper to taste
7-8 cups of water
(I use my bigger Crock to make this recipe -- see picture)

Prep the night before:  The night before you start cooking, place the pinto beans in the crock to soak overnight with plenty of water.

In the morning after beans have soaked in water all night, drain the water off and place the beans back in to the Crock Pot. Add all of the ingredients, including the 7-8 cups of water, and stir. Put the lid on and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. The mixture will thicken nicely as it cooks. About 30 minutes before your cooking is completed, take the ham hocks out and remove the meat from the bones and place the meat back into the crock pot for the remaining cooking time. Discard bones. While the meat warms back up, bake your Jiffy cornbread (takes about 15 minutes).

Now how simple is that for a hardy supper?! 

As I try new Crock Pot recipes that are really really good and really really easy, I'll be sure to share them.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lessons learned from the meat science lab

Isn't it funny how memories of your childhood never leave you?  Between me and my brother, Jeff, we just don't forget things that happened many years ago. In fact, my parents are amazed at some of the things we bring up when we are able to get together. My short term memory is not like it used to be (I blame information overload and social media on that one), but my long term memory is...well...incredible!

Those farm kid memories have often come in handy when I address others on how things have changed in the agriculture industry. I reminisce a lot about my responsibilities on the farm as a young person, and I have some pretty good tales about my days in the College of Agriculture at Ohio State, too. Like the time we toured a meat processing facility in Columbus as part of my 500-level meat cutting class. What do I remember most from that tour? I remember how skilled the workers were at cutting meat and how they processed every part of an animal to benefit us. It was amazing!

The Little Food Science Guy
Animal Science Building, The Ohio State University.
I also remember the little guy who was majoring in Food Science that had a hard time getting over the sound of bones cracking when we would be working on carcasses. He was just a little fellow and he always stood in the back of the class when a demonstration was taking place. As the class would start watching the instructor demonstrate how to cut a particular section of carcass (beef, in most cases), it wasn't too uncommon to hear a "bang" and then a "boom!" This usually meant we lost the little food science guy.

Like clock work, the little food science guy would be out cold on the floor with his knives strewn close by him. At first we were shocked and feared for his safety because we thought he had a medical condition. But as time went on, we soon realized what was up. He was just weak-kneed over certain sounds. We actually started taking verbal bets as to how long it would take for him to pass out in the next class. Poor little fellow.  We all thought he'd never be able to pass the class, which to my understanding was required for his major.  But our great meat instructor had a tactful plan to fix that habit!

Processing Demo Day
There is no other way to get really great training than doing something hands on.  And when it came time to learn every aspect of properly preparing an animal for processing, processing demo day was it. And like most of my fellow classmates, it also meant you didn't know what to expect. You had to react quickly. You see, our instructor didn't preselect who would be doing the different roles on processing demo day. He'd just point and say, "Do it now!"

It was nerve racking, to say the least. But honestly, looking back it was the best way to learn. It was also on processing demo day that we feared for the little food science guy. Nothing would be worse than to see him pass out in the processing area.   

The Test of Endurance
It was 5:30 a.m. in the morning when all the students gathered in the meat lab to prepare for processing demo day. The instructor told us we would be putting down an older heifer and went over each procedure we would experience that morning. While we were excited to learn the processes, we also feared where he'd place us for our specific job. Nobody wanted the sticking job. Period. Mostly because we didn't want to screw up. But who we really feared for was the little food science guy.

As the processing started, the instructor went around the room pointing one by one to individuals to start doing certain procedures. Then, he turned to the little food science guy and said, "You....you are doing the sticking...step right here and hurry....NOW!"

We all stood in silence as we watched, waiting in fear that this was it -- that the little food science guy was done for sure.

Behold how wrong we were! After quickly taking the sticking tool from the instructor, he did a picture-perfect procedure that would make any butcher proud. We all breathed a sigh of relief. But the most exciting part was that on this day he broke his fainting habit for good. (Well, at least in the meat lab!)  And I am happy to say, he passed the class with success.

This class was one of the hardest but most rewarding classes I ever took at Ohio State. It taught me a great appreciation for food animals and what they provide for us. We not only learned how to process animals the way they should be processed, but we also learned a lesson in facing the fear of the unknown. The little food science guy sure did! It was a class I'll never forget.   

Monday, February 20, 2012

In search of the ultimate mattress

I had every intention of being a regular contributor to my blog. I even told a friend I had hoped to write something as least three to five times a week.  Good one, eh?

Maybe it is the life of a writer -- always writing for others but never has time to share her own thoughts. Maybe it is my busy life in general as a wife, mom, farmer and employee of a corporation. I also am a migraine sufferer. I believe all the above play some part in my slackness.

But today I am in the mood to write. I have had a brain fog in recently weeks, and for some reason, today it was "slightly" lifted. You see, I often lack a good night's sleep, and I definitely keep too much stress in my life.  But help is on the way -- or at least I hope so! My husband and I just made a purchase....a new Sleep Number Bed!

The i8 Sleep Number Bed....it can't arrive soon enough!
I got the call last night that our new bed will be delivered in a few days and I can't wait.  The bed price was more than what I wanted to pay, but my hope is that it will be the last one we ever have to purchase. What makes me so excited over the thing is that it is adjustable!

Age and Sleep Habits
Funny how you age, isn't it? Things just change, and for me, sleep is one of them. I haven't slept through the night in months. I had been shopping for a new mattress for a couple of weeks, and my husband told me I should check out a Sleep Number Bed to see if I like it. He had received good reviews on it from friends and neighbors, so I decided to go see what was so special about them.

Finding "My Number"
Last week over my lunch break I went to a Sleep Number Bed store. I sat on the first bed that wasn't being tried out by other curious mattress buyers. My initial impression: "What is so great about this thing? It is just a bed, and it cost a lot!" When the sales clerk came over, she said, "Ma'am, you have to try this [bed] out the right way."

The right way? As I pondered over what she said, she had me to stand up.

She proceeded to put the bed on the firmest setting (100) and had me lay on it. "I want you to find your sleep number," she said. Taking the wireless bed remote in hand, I started lowering my number in hopes I would get that "squishy plushy" number I had always dreamed about, but had yet to find.

And then it happened. I got to "45." All of the sudden, this tranquil feeling came over me. Was I in Heaven on earth?

Then, to make things even better, the clerk gave me the adjustable base remote. First she showed me how to lift my legs and then my head -- and then she turned on the massaging feature. I was sold! In fact, I literally couldn't move because I was so comfortable. I wanted to fall asleep for the first time in days -- and in a store, no less! I didn't care who watched. All that mattered was that I was comfortable.

Now, my intent of this blog entry is to not sell you a Sleep Number Bed. But I will, however, tell you how important a good night sleep is, especially when you get older. I wouldn't call myself "old" by any means, but my body is definitely changing. Nothing is worse than waking up like a zombie.  I wake up with headaches all the time, and I can't breath because my nose gets stuffy at night.....it is just no fun at all!  I've been to the Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor and even had one of those sleep apnea test. Everything came back okay - no nasal issues and no sleep apnea.  So what is my problem? 

As my last resort, the only thing I can attribute to my poor sleeping habits is a lack of a good mattress (and our dogs that like to get us up at 4 a.m.).  I am crossing my fingers that Mr. Sleep Number Bed will do the trick. It can't arrive soon enough! 

As I left the store after making the bed purchase, the sales clerk said, "The only thing you'll have a problem with is getting out of the bed in the morning."

I surely hope so....I surely hope so.