Saturday, June 19, 2010

All Cows Eat Grass

That's what Mrs. Sateika told me. She was my childhood piano teacher. Or it might have been Mr. Finney who first clued me into the cow diet. He was my very first piano teacher, though not for long. He was very old and I think that he died shortly after I began lessons. So it was more likely Mrs. Sateika. Of course it was in reference to learning the notes of the spaces of the bass clef (A,C,E,G) and not, really, about cows at all.

I suppose that it is good that I really didn't know what cows ate (at least cows raised in commercial dairies). It wouldn't have contributed to my abilities to read music. There is no "H" note. The "H" refers to haylige. What, you may ask, is haylige? Well, it is silage made of hay instead of corn. Around here (the Pacific NW) this is what is most commonly fed to dairy cows, as well as grain and straight hay.

Yes, there are a few lucky herds who get to occasionally graze. But this is not the norm.

When we got Rustina she was living in a dairy barn and had not been outdoors for all of her milking life. After she came to live on Haldan Farm we kept her, at first, in a coral and a small barn-like shelter. She could go outdoors, but the coral had no grass though she got very good at sticking her head through the fence to graze around the edges of the coral. We fed her hay and supplemented with some alfalfa and a small amount of grain at milking time. We didn't know her and were not ready to allow her to go out to pasture for fear that we wouldn't be able to get her back in!

This spring we've been able to have her on pasture. It has been an enlightening experience. If All Cows Eat Grass was true the world would be a different place. Milk from a cow on pasture is completely different from anything any of us have ever tried. The cream is yellow from the grass. The butter is so yellow that I said the other day that if I bought butter this yellow I'd return it and accuse the company which made it of using too much anatto coloring. The yogurt is so good it is hard to stop eating.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The cow spa

When we got our cow we wondered if we weren't a little bit bonkers. Getting a cow is a huge commitment in time, energy, and presence. We already feel badly when we depend upon friends and neighbors to feed and water chickens, sheep, and pigs and do minimal management of our garden if we go away, but to ask someone to learn to and then actually milk a cow seemed ludicrous! Well, we never even got to the point of asking someone to learn to milk - people have been coming out of the woodwork *asking* to milk our cow! So many people love our cow (she is pretty lovable) and her products (they certainly are yummy!) and are very interested in how it all works. Woo hoo!

Joann Grohman in her book "Keeping a Family Cow" extolls the benefits of keeping a cow to the point that it all sounds so unreal. How could this one animal do all that she says? She is right, though. To have a cow is to have wealth. We are awash in dairy products which, besides providing food for the humans on our farm, also provide nutrition for our chickens and pigs. For the humans, besides liquid milk, we make the creamiest and most delicious yogurt, ice cream, butter, soft cheeses (cream cheese, cottage cheese and others) as well as hard cheeses (gouda, romano, and others), sour cream, buttermilk, and ghee. We give away a lot of ice cream. We laugh when we think that most families make ice cream one or two times a year, but we make ice cream one or two times a week! We have a condition in our house called "dairy-itis," which is when you open the house refrigerator and nearly everything in it is a dairy product. We have taken to awarding "points" to anyone who finishes a container of dairy product. We don't actually keep track of the points, but it is a moment of pride when you take that last bit of milk from the bottle or use that last piece of butter and you can exclaim "I get a point!"

Our cow, Rustina, came from a local dairy. She had given birth to one calf successfully, but had lost a second calf part-way through a pregnancy. At the time she lost the calf she was still lactating from the first birth and so the dairy continued to milk her. After a while, though, her production fell to the point where it was costing a lot more money to raise her than she was getting for her milk. As a side note, nearly all cows cost more money to raise than they earn from their milk which is why dairy farmers get subsidies, but Rustina was costing *a lot* more money since her production, after 450 days of lactation, was pretty low (well, low for a dairy).

We bought her for relatively little money. She was living in a dairy barn and hadn't been outside since she had started to give milk. When she first arrived she was a little out of sorts - she didn't remember the great outdoors. She was very dirty and it took several days of brushing her before each milking before she began to look clean. What a beauty she was!

We joke that we have a cow spa because we brush her before each milking, during seasons with flies we put a non-toxic, made for humans, body oil on her which (in theory) repels flies, and she gets to be out in our pasture happily chomping every day. She has a new calf and they graze together, sleep together, and just hang out together. She is very social and the calf has greatly increased her happiness. She thanks us by providing a shocking amount of milk which is unbelievably creamy.

Our biggest problem now is what to do with her beautiful heifer calf. We thought, originally, that we could just sell her, presumably to a dairy, as she is quite valuable (she is 15/16ths Jersey). We find that we will not be able to do that. We could not put her in that situation. I think our only option is to find a situation for her similar to ours - where someone wants a cow or two and is compelled (by their own desire) to have a "cow spa" of their own. Only then could we feel comfortable selling her. In lieu of that we'll just keep her.

The butter we make, since putting Rustina on pasture, has gotten so yellow! I looks as if I've dyed it, but it is just the result of the grass. Here is how we do it:

After milking the cow we strain the milk into one gallon glass jars and put them in the refrigerator to chill. After a day or two there is a clear cream line where the cream has risen and separated from the skim milk. There are actually two layers of cream though they aren't visible from the outside of the jar. The top layer is a thick layer of "heavy" cream. We remove this first with a small ladle into another jar. The next layer of cream is "light" cream which is much thinner and this goes into a different jar.

The heavy cream is what we use for butter. To one quart of heavy cream we add about 1/4 cup of cultured buttermilk, put the lid on the jar, and let it sit for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours at cool room temperature (if it is hot out we might reduce this considerably or find a cool location).

After that time the cream should have a distinctive, nice, cultured smell. We pour this cream into our stand mixer which is outfitted with the whisk attachment. We mix it on medium to high speed for just a few minutes until we can see clearly that the butter has separated from the buttermilk. It looks like butter particles swimming in buttermilk.

We strain the butter with a small mesh strainer and put the buttermilk into a jar in store it in the refrigerator. It is cultured buttermilk, now, and can be used to inoculate more cream and also can be used for baking.

We put the butter back in the stand mixer bowl, add cool water and stir to wash the butter. We want to get all of the buttermilk out of the butter because this is what makes butter spoil. We strain and repeat this until the water is clear.

Next, we transfer the butter to a wooden board and begin to knead it with a wooden paddle. The goal is to get all of the water out of the butter. We knead and knead until we are tired of kneading or until it seems that all of the water is out. We add a small amount of salt, knead that in, and then form the butter into a block with the wooden paddle. The butter is wrapped in wax paper, labeled with the date, and stored in the freezer until we need it.

Homemade butter from fresh cream is an experience not to be missed. Thank you, Rustina!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"I'll do it myself," said the little red hen...

What do you do with old hens? You make delicious sausage!

During the summer of 2009 we raised meat birds. When it came time to butcher them we thought we'd also do some of our old hens who were no longer laying. Old hens are not very good to eat - they are tough and stringy. They are good, though, for making stock. We butchered about six of them and put them in the freezer.

I've been mulling over the idea of using old hens to make sausage for a couple of years and today I tried it. Wow! It really works and is the best use of old hen I've found yet. I made up my own recipe utilizing standard sausage ratios of fat, salt, and meat.

Here it is:

600 grams of chicken meat, trimmed of all fat and sinew and diced
300 grams of pork back fat, diced
20 grams of kosher salt (this might be a bit too much salt for some people. You might want to start with about 16 grams and add more after you taste the sample (see below)
just under 1 gram of ground black pepper
24 grams (dry weight) of dried tomatoes, soaked in boiling water, drained, and chopped fine
24 grams of basil pesto (basil, olive oil, parmesan cheese and pine nuts ground together)

Mix all of the above together and refrigerate.

Chill until ice cold 24 grams *each* of red wine vinegar, olive oil, and dry red wine.

Grind the meat mixture using a 1/8" die into the bowl of a standing mixer. Add the ice-cold liquids and mix for about 2 minutes until the mixture looks sticky.

Make a very small patty, cook in a pan, taste and adjust the seasoning. If it doesn't seem like it has enough salt, add a few more grams to the mixture now, after tasting.

Use a sausage stuffer and about 4 feet of hog casings (soaked and rinsed for at least 30 minutes) to stuff the sausages. Alternately, you could just use this like bulk sausage and not stuff it into casings.

Because this sausage contains poultry it needs to be cooked to a temperature of about 165 degrees F.

I have only tasted this sausage as a sample bit (it had very good taste), but I plan on cooking the stuffed sausage by braising it in a pan, covered, for about 20 minutes, drain the water and then pan fry them slowly to brown them.

My 4 and 7 year old, looking at the finished sausages in the tray, admired them and thought that they looked like "real" (i.e. store-bought) sausages!