Friday, January 28, 2011

The Secret

We've had a whole lot of winter this year, too much. This picture was taken Wednesday. Last night we got another three inches. We are covered in snow.

Winter weather came early this year, and it has stayed. Snow in the winter is normal here. It sticking around is not. I haven't kept an official count, but I bet the number of days without snow on the ground since December could be counted on two hands.

Thankfully this time around it isn't horribly cold. In fact, it is great winter play weather. Just cold enough to keep the snow, but not so cold that you have to bundle up like an Eskimo to go out. 

Unfortunately, the kids have also had enough of winter. They've sledded. They built snowmen. There have been forts and snowballs, but the thrill is gone. Even though the weather is great (for winter,) they have no desire to go out and play. Unless there is a video camera involved.

I'm not sure what the attraction is, but apparently middle school students love to video themselves. My nephew Miles has a bunch of short videos of himself doing silly things posted on YouTube, and Kellen loves to help him make them. Those two are quite a pair.

Today, Miles had a snow day and is here with us. When I informed all the kids that after lunch they were all going out to play, I was met with groans and sighs and complaining. They didn't care when I promised that the snow was great for packing, and the temperature was perfect for sledding. No, they didn't get excited until Miles and Kellen realized that they could go outside and make videos in the snow.

Out they went after lunch. They made a plan for what they wanted to video. They rehearsed, and then they got the camera. They made videos of an "Epic Sword Fight." There was one of Miles wrestling with the dogs, and then this one of Miles talking about how wonderful winter is. Hmmm funny he didn't think that before the video camera. 

They made videos until the camera ran out of charge. 

Who knew the secret to getting them to go out and play would be a camera? It isn't exactly what I had in mind for them to do this afternoon, but quite frankly I don't care. It got them out and active, and it got me a little quiet. What else can you ask for?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Walk Down Memory Lane - Romance

Tim posted this picture on Facebook today, and asked if we should make it a date for Valentines Day. He is so romantic (as I roll my eyes.) So, today, as I was looking through old posts, I thought this one from February 2006 was very appropriate. I love this man! 

If you read Tim's blog you know he said that we aren't very romantic because we don't do anything for Valentines Day. Actually, we don't really celebrate any of the occasions in the typical way. We don't do cards, flowers, or candy. If you do, and enjoy it good for you! Keep doing it. It isn't that I don't like those things, but I tend to be very practical (maybe too much so) and those things really aren't. We do (for some occasions) do small gifts or dinner out (sometimes).

I do think Tim is romantic though. I guess to me "romantic" just means letting me know he loves me. Which he does everyday, not just on Valentines, birthdays, anniversaries or other "special days" Romantic to me is . . .
-Last night he let me take a nap while he made dinner, fed the kids and cleaned up.
-Working his normal week, trying to keep up with endless projects around here and picking up the house too b/c I can't keep up and never complaining!
- After a day of the trying to clean the house with the whole family he says in frustration, "I will always work out of the house, don't ever think we will switch places again. It isn't going to happen!" It made me laugh! Translation - trying to do anything with these kids is hard work. I so appreciate what you do! For those of you who don't know, when Kellen was 2 I worked full time and he stayed home with Kellen and the foster kids we worked with. We switched after Lydia was born. On my most frustrating days I threaten that I am ready to go back to work and he can stay home again.
-He brags about me even when I am not around! (Actually I prefer to not be around for that!)

I could go on but these are just a few examples that popped into my head from the last couple of weeks. So some may look at us and say, "Boring" and some women may be disappointed by the lack of gifts, but I think our life is anything but boring and I am not disappointed. I love my husband and our idea of romance!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Morning on the Farm

Wake at the crack of dawn to the sound of a goat wanting milked.
Fall back asleep.
Wake again to the sound of children bickering underscored by the cries of a goat wanting milked.
Drag self out of bed in search of coffee.
Husband goes out to feed animals.
Bundle up to go out and shut that goat up.
See brand new lamb.
Milk goat.
See lamb is not nursing well.
Milk sheep.
Attempt to bottle feed lamb.
Worry about lamb.
Ask husband and daughter to check on lamb frequently today.
Help get family ready and out the door for church.
Take a deep breath, and enjoy the quiet.
Ingest caffeine and vitamin C in preparation for the day ahead.
Try and convince self to get off the computer and go get ready for work.

(Obviously still working on that last one.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pigs are Amazing.

That room looks like a pig sty. He eats like a hog. Fat Hog. Pearls Before Swine. Lipstick on a Pig.....

Poor piggies, they get a bad rap. Now, those sayings are rooted in the truth, but our colloquial sayings have somehow missed pigs really are quite amazing animals. Though they do wallow in the mud, it is simply a way to cool off because pigs do not sweat. They really are quite clean, and will potty train themselves. They are smart and trainable. But the most amazing thing about pigs is that they breed like rabbits.

Sows can be bred twice a year. Their gestation is about 3 and half months. They give birth to relatively tiny piglets each weighing about three pounds. The photo below is of a larger than average litter of 24 hour old pigs. It is normal to lose a piglet or two in the first couple days, but on average a sow will raise up eight piglets in each litter.

And piglets eat like pigs from day one. They grow quickly, and in addition to momma sow's milk, will nose around in the feed in the first couple days. The piglet below is two weeks old.

We normally wean at about 8 weeks or so depending on the time of year and our breeding schedule. The piglets continue to put away the food, and grow seemingly before your eyes. In a mere six months they have gone from piglet of a few pounds to tipping the scales at around 250 pounds.

At this point they are ready for the freezer, and momma sow has either had another litter or will soon.  That is a whole lot of pork production. . . delicious ham, bacon, chops, sausage....oh excuse me I think I just got lost in dreams of pork fat.

And before you tell me how fatty and bad pork is for you, please know that pork raised here, pork that is pastured is a lot leaner and contains a lot less of the bad fat than pork that has been raised indoors and exclusively on feed. It seems that the studies on this are just beginning, but you can tell when you cook it that is much leaner than the store bought pork you're used to.

So say what you might about pigs. Here, we are living high on the hog.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Our Family Christmas

It has become tradition for the Miller's to be untraditional for Christmas. I can't remember when exactly it started, but I do believe it was before we moved to West Virginia, that the Miller's do not get together for Christmas. We get together after Christmas. When we started celebrating later we kidded that we were only following tradition by celebrating Amish Christmas, but since then our celebration has moved even further away from the traditional date to Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

Waiting until later has its advantages. The primary one is that all the other Christmas gatherings are done. Families don't have to pick and choose who they are going to visit with, or run around from one place to the other on Christmas day. The kids who are in public school have Monday and sometimes Friday off which makes for a nice long weekend for the family gathering.

This year we were missing some family. Their absence was felt, and made our celebration feel a little off at times. But with nine kids in the house there really wasn't much time (or quiet) to reflect on the absences.

The cousins played and played and played. Nolan and Jude are especially close, and it was hard to find them apart. Saturday was our big celebration day. We had a big breakfast of pancakes with strawberry topping and sausage. Then we opened presents, and got everyone cleaned up quick to head to the movie theater. Since someone looked at the movie times wrong....we had a bit of time to kill. We shopped at a local bookstore that had tons of books marked down to $1. I brought a bag of books home with me. Then we saw Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

After the movie it was time for the best part of our gathering. Not holding much to traditional holiday foods, we have Seafood Stew every Christmas along with homemade rolls, and cheesecake. Eating great food is better than presents any day in my book! The kids may not agree.

Below are a few pictures from our morning. And yes, that is my real Christmas tree still up. I'd like to say that I carefully preserved it in order to have it up for our celebration. Truth is I just never took the time to take it down. It is starting to look pretty sorry.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Trip Down Memory Lane - Life Language Live

I plan to take a trip down memory lane every so often to revisit some my favorite stories or important events here on the farm. This story was originally shared in February 2006. I have since changed my mind about Nolan being a doer. He did help me in this case, but I now think that was a responder responding to please me. Of course, Vivian was not yet born. She is the true doer. Anyway, it is a still a story that makes me smile.

I realize some of you don't know what Life Languages are. I think you will still enjoy this story, just think of it as the difference in kids instead of Life Languages. I am just telling it to you this way because it is exactly what I thought of as it happened.

Just for a quick intro though, Life Languages is about our communication style. It is like a personality test only much more in depth and accurate. The test is helpful, but the workshop was where it really clicked. Tim & I attended a workshop almost three years ago. I can't tell you how much it helped us understand each other. (And we had been married for about 8 years at that point) Here is the website if you would like an overview of the languages.

The cast
Kellen age 7 Influencer - Lydia age 4 Resposnder - Nolan age 1 1/2 Doer - Me Doer/Shaper - Tim Influencer/Responder The kids haven't actually taken the test. This is just what we think they are!

Yesterday (before Tim came home) I left the three kids in the kitchen with snacks and drinks. (big mistake!) I was in the next room on the computer. I was gone maybe two minutes when Kellen comes running full speed out of the kitchen yelling, "I have to get out of there, AAAH, I can't be in there!" He ran all the way to the other side of the house.

Now most moms probably would have gone running into the kitchen to see what happened expecting something horrible. What would you expect? Barf, blood, poop, maybe Nolan eating his snot? Well, I know my son and the Influencer's flair for drama and I didn't move from the computer. I sat thinking, "Oh now what!" Then I told him (ok I was probably yelling) to walk back in here and tell me what happened. He walks back still saying, "I can't go in there!" and we go into the kitchen together.

What was going on in my kitchen? What horrible thing could cause such a reaction from a seven year old? It was spilt milk. Yes, one glass of milk spilt on the table and dripping off both sides. Oh the horror!

What, you may wonder, were the other two children doing? Miss Responder, who was still sitting at the table eating her chips, looks at me sweetly and says, "I am sorry mommy. I knocked my cup reaching for more chips." (note: she didn't get up to DO anything about the problem) My little Doer is pointing at the mess like "Look what happened" Ok, he didn't do anything (yet) either but he is 1 1/2!

So, I am explaining (yes I think I was still yelling at this point) to Kellen for 1000th time that his reaction would be appropriate for maybe a cut off finger, someone throwing up or Nolan pooping on the floor (it has happened!) It was not an appropriate reaction to milk being spilled. As I am explaining this, I have gotten several rags out of the cupboard and am wiping up some of the milk. I continue to say (as Lydia munches on chips) that next time they should either grab a rag and start cleaning or calmly tell me what has happened so I can start cleaning.

Then, I look at the other side of the table and there is my little Nolan. He has grabbed one the rags and is wiping up the milk on the floor. Oh, finally a child I can relate to!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lydia's Birthday

Lydia turned nine on Wednesday. To celebrate we asked friend to join us at The Pottery Place. The girls had a great time painting their pieces, chatting, and giggling.

The boys had fun too, but they spent less time painting and more time eating! 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Adventures in Rendering Lard

A few trips ago to the butcher with pigs, the butcher asked me if we would like to save the lard from our hog. The word lard brought to my mind the neat little tubs of lard that they sell in the predominantly Amish area in which I grew up. This thought was closely followed by the memory of flaky pie crusts made with lard, and  my mouth began to water. Do I want the lard? Oh yes, I do.

You may imagine my surprise when we went to pick up the meat and there were no neat little tubs of lard waiting for me. No, my lard was in the form of big slabs of fat, like the one pictured below. In fact, there was a whole bag of these frozen fat slabs awaiting me. My mother informed me that I had to render the lard to create my own neat little tubs of the stuff. It sounded like work to me.

So, the bag of fat slabs went home with me, and went directly in the freezer. I Googled rendering lard, and browsed a few instructions, and put render lard on my mental, "I'll get to it someday" list.  That bag sat in the freezer, and at the bottom of my to do list, for quite some time, about a year I think.

Then a few months ago suddenly there were posts everywhere about people rendering their lard, and I re-discovered that bag of fat slabs in the depths of my freezer, and the kids were out of town with their grandparents for the week. I decided it was meant to be. All these things happening at the same time could only be a sign that it was time to add a little lard to our lives.

To the interwebs I went searching for best way to get the lard that I was seeking. There are 100's of pages out there about rendering lard. You can render it in a large pot on the stove, in a crock pot, in the oven, or in a kettle over a fire. In fact, I think every single page of instructions I read was a little different, but they all involved cutting the slabs of fat into little pieces and applying heat.

So, I cut up some slabs and filled the crockpot. I cut some more and filled a 9x13 baking dish. I cut the rest and filled a pan for the stove, and then I turned on the stove, oven and crockpot to low settings. The heat melts away the fat which eventually boils the bits of meat that are left; the cracklings.

Rendering lard seems to be one of those things you can only eyeball to know when it is done. It is one of those skills that when learning, it would really be nice to have someone next to you who has done it before. I was on my own, and it was a guessing game.

One thing that I somehow missed in all the instructions that I read was how long it takes. It took a long time, much longer than I expected. I started the lard in the afternoon, and by night it still wasn't done. I didn't want to leave the stove and oven on over night. So, I poured off all the melted fat and combined the rest of the fat pieces in the crockpot to cook overnight.

Other people warn of the horrible smell. I didn't really think it was all that bad, until the middle of the night. Maybe it was because I had been in the smell for too long. Maybe it was because a body is not supposed to smell melted pork fat at three AM, but that smell kept me awake that night half nauseous.

By morning I was done with the rendering lard process. The lard really wasn't done rendering, but that is beside the point. As a result, my cracklings were not exactly cracking. The crispy  pieces were quite delicious with a bit of salt, but the majority of them were not crispy. Although I found those soft pieces rather revolting, the chickens did not share my opinion. We let them enjoy them. I did later wonder if the premature pour off of the lard contributed to the under cooking of my cracklings. Something to consider on the next lard adventure I guess.

But even with my missteps, five and a half quarts of lard were rendered from my bag of fat slabs. You can see it below in various stages of solidifying.

No mouth watering pie crusts have been made yet, but we've been enjoying our lard in other ways. Instead of frying our eggs and potatoes in butter, we've been using the lard. It makes those things taste delicious, and we've found that a little lard goes a long way. We've also enjoyed making cornbread with it.

It took me awhile to finally tackle those big slabs of fat, but I am glad that I did. Next time though, I will start earlier in the day. I will cook it outside on the camp stove in one pot, and not remove any of the fat until the cracklings are done. The process wasn't perfect, but the results were good. That is all part of the adventure of learning new things.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Little Hams

Six day old piglets. Aren't they cute? They'll be even tastier in six months.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

We're Molting

The weather is nasty. The sun is hiding, and we hens are  in a state. It is so stressful on a girl.  I'm quite embarrassed at our bedraggled appearance, but this just happens every now and then. It is part of being a hen.

Our apologies to all our fresh egg customers out there, but we just can't produce when we are like this. We are getting a little extra light, and some extra yummy treats with our feed. We're trying to pull ourselves back together, and get back to producing. Thank you for your patience.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Cooking a Skinned Bird

If you keep chickens, at some point you will have to decide what to do with the hens that are no longer laying. There really are three choices. You can keep them as pets. You can give them to someone else. Or you can use them for meat.

You've already invested a significant amount of time and money in these birds. The most frugal choice is to butcher them to get a little more out of your investment.

And if you've made that choice, the next choice you face is how to process the birds. You could choose the traditional way of plucking the bird, or you can skin the bird and avoid the plucking process. We've tried it both ways. We like skinning best.

Skinning the birds takes a little skill, and a little practice, but once you have it down, it is a very quick process. The end result is cleaner looking, and we don't eat the skin anyway. So, for us skinning the birds just makes sense.

From a cooking perspective though, it is a little different. We are all used to getting whole birds, or really any chicken with the bones, with the skin on. How do you cook a whole chicken with out the skin?

If you are cooking an older hen, the best way to cook it, with or without the skin, is to stew it. Simmer it in a big pot of liquid and spices for a couple hours, let the carcass cool, debone the meat and use it with the broth for dumplings or soup. Or the meat can be used for creamed chicken sandwiches, in casseroles, or chicken salad, and the broth can be reserved for later use (even frozen.) The same result can be achieved in a crock pot using less liquid. Older hens (or roosters) are too tough to be cooked any other way.

We normally skin our younger roosters and our meat birds also. They can be cooked the same as above. The majority of the time I cook them in the crockpot. Adding liquid is not necessary with a younger bird. I just season them, and let them cook. The skinned birds come out of the crockpot tender and moist.

To get the most from your whole chicken, debone it and use it to make many meals. I once challenged myself to see how many meals I could get out of one chicken. This was before we had many chickens. So, the challenge was taken using a store bought bird, but that bird was about the same size as the meat birds we raise now. I stretched that chicken for five meals. See a Stretched Chicken to see what all I made.

Honestly though, I rarely try to stretch a chicken like that anymore. I still like to make the chicken in the crockpot, but now we carve off the meat for a meal. Any remaining meat is picked off and that with the broth are used for soup, or the like, later in the week.

A skinned chicken can also be cooked in the oven. I like to brush it with olive oil, and then add spices depending on my mood. Ginger is one of my favorites, but often I use rosemary, curry, or other spices. Really, a skinned bird can be prepared just as you would a skin on bird for roasting except a skinned bird needs to be covered while it cooks. The end result will look a little different, but the taste is excellent.

To skin or pluck? Both have advantages and disadvantages. Skinning birds is our preferred method of processing. Cooking a skinned whole chicken (or duck) only takes a slight adjustment in your cooking method. The crockpot is my favorite way to produce a tender, moist and tasty bird. The oven works well also if you have a young bird. Sinned birds need to be cooked a little differently, but they produce delicious results.