Buttermilk Biscuits

Bread is one of my biggest weaknesses, and that weakness can be narrowed down to buttermilk biscuits. Amazingly, the same set of ingredients can be used to turn out many different styles of buttermilk biscuit! Each biscuit maker I know has a slightly different style to baking, which results in a different tastes and textures. My mom rolls her dough and makes thin, crispy biscuits. My mother-in-law hand forms her biscuits and shoots for dark, golden tops.

I make my biscuits like my great-mommaw Ruth–I do hand formed biscuits. (I’ve never mastered using a rolling pin, probably because I like a stickier biscuit dough.) I’ve been told that our biscuits are similar in taste and texture.

I like to start with the basics: buttermilk, flour, baking powder, salt, and crisco. I know crisco is sometimes considered a food no-no, but I’ve tried the original recipe which uses lard and it just makes too dense of a biscuit for me.

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I start with 2 cups of flour in my bowl. I add a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of baking powder. If you are using self rising flour, the baking powder can be optional – unless you want a really fluffy biscuit. Add 1/2 cup of crisco, pinched apart into small pieces. Blend all ingredients together with a fork or pastry cutter.

I have seen the recipe where the lard/crisco is replaced with butter. I have not tried this version before – but I think I’ll try it out next week just to see what happens.

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After the dry ingredients and fat are well blended, add in 1 cup of buttermilk. I like to use whole buttermilk, but low fat works just as well. Stir dough until sticky and all of the flour is worked in. Don’t over stir the dough or you’ll end up with biscuits that are dense instead of flaky.

Take an extra hand full of flour and put it in a bowl – be sure to dust your hands and the top of the biscuit dough. As you form each biscuit, re-dust your hands in the extra flour – this will keep the dough from getting stuck on your hands.

To hand form your biscuits, pick up a small blob of dough. I usually go with a blob that is slightly larger than a golf ball. I like to lightly pat my dough into a basic biscuit shape, then lay it out on the pan.

I like to finish off my biscuits with a dab of buttermilk on the tops. It adds a little extra flavor and it keeps the tops from getting too brown (I like really light biscuits the best). I’m not sure how common adding buttermilk to the tops is. Its just something that I picked up from my mom, and she picked it up from my dad’s mom.

Pop them in the oven on 450 for about 11 or 12 minutes – then you are good to go!

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Buttermilk Biscuit Recipe:

2 cups flour
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup crisco
1 tbs baking powder
pinch of salt

Oven – 450
Time- 11 – 12 minutes

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Beekeeping Blues

Well, we lost another hive. It’s a situation I’m becoming all too familiar with. After increasing to eight hives two years ago, we’re now down to three. We lost several hives last winter, one this summer, and one last week. I’m learning a  good hive can fail fast.

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The pitiful remains of a tiny cluster of bees that froze to death

We had a  drought this summer, and that was  rough on the bees. No rain equals no nectar equals no honey. Despite feeding sugar syrup, the bees never seemed to build up a large population. I’m sure varroa mites probably played a part. So far, I’ve taken the “head in the sand” approach to varroa, hoping that the tiny mites weren’t there or that our bees, which we caught from swarms, were somehow more resistant than normal bees. But, in my gut,  I know varroa is there and playing a part. We had a booming hive last spring that collapsed this summer. That’s a classic varroa sign. And to make matters worst, we not only lost all the bees, but we also lost their comb because wax moths (another pest) destroyed it. A lot of people have had success with the treatment-free approach for varroa, but obviously I’m not doing something right. This year I’m going to monitor mite levels and treat if need be with essentials oils, like thymol, and natural acids, like oxalic acid.

Overall, I just need to do a better job taking care of the bees, from feeding them (sugar and pollen) in times of dearth, to monitoring mite levels, and checking for queen productivity. Natalie is helping me now; she has her own bee suit. Having a second pair of hands while checking hives has made things a lot easier. If the three remaining hives make it, I’m going to try my hand at grafting and raising queens to increase our number of hives again.

It’s disappointing to lose another hive, but hopefully we can learn from it and become better beekeepers. I know it’s no fun to keep losing bees.

Old Man Winter is Here

A New Year is here, and it has finally turned winter. With lows in the upper teens, some collards couldn’t hold out and got zapped. It’s a shame because we finally had a buyer lined up who wanted to buy in bulk. One thing I’ve read in countless farming magazines and books is to always have a market lined up before you put the first seed in the ground. I guess that’s good advice, but I’ve never been confident enough yet in my growing skills to try to pre-sell produce. This year I planted 1,000 collards, hoping that I’d be able to find a market if, and when, the time came. Well, the time came and went for some plants.

I was able to sell a good number of collard bunches at the farmer’s market and a few by word of mouth. I had planned to set up a roadside stand, like we do for our tomatoes, but the endless rain didn’t allow for it. I scrambled to try to find a wholesale buyer. One lady who owns a produce stand said she could remember selling hundreds of collards for New Year’s. But she said now people just don’t cook anymore, and young people, if they like collards at all, like them pre-chopped in a bag from the grocery store.

After striking out there, I then called a chef who works in the café of a factory that employs 400 people. To my surprise, he wanted collards. I took him 30 lbs, which is a lot of greens, on Monday. It was a surreal delivery. To walk the boxes of collards through the plant to the cafe, I had to have my photo taken, after which I had to don a freshly-printed nametag with my photo on it, an orange safety vest, safety glasses, and ear plugs. This was a very modern facility, with people manning robotic-type gizmos and tools. The café in the facility would put many restaurants to shame, and the chef was trying to buy as much local food as he could reasonably afford.

He said he would go through those collards in no time, and, in fact, the next day he called wanting more. Unfortunately, the cold snap came through that night, so future delivers might not be as much as I would have liked.

As much as I’m disappointed I lost some collards, the contact I made might be even more valuable, as the chef said he would be very interested in buying tomatoes and strawberries this spring and summer. And that’s how things seem to go with farming. One thing leads to another. From roadside stand to farmers’ market to chef, from chickens to bees to pigs, from tomatoes to strawberries to collards, each is a little gateway drug to the next.

At some point, and maybe I’m beginning to reach that point, I think I’ll begin to “just say no” to new farming ideas. Still, it’s kind of hard with farming to know what works and what doesn’t and what’s worth doing and what isn’t until you try it.

Collards: A Southern Superstition

The New Year means resolutions for most of the country. But in the South, it also means it’s time to cook collards. Eating collards and black eye peas on New Year’s Day is a southern tradition, or really a superstition.

Collards represent cash, and black eye peas represent cents. If you eat both on New Year’s Day, you’ll make lots of money in the upcoming year, or so the superstition goes. And just so you’re prepared to make lots of money in the New Year, below is my mom’s recipe for cooking collards, with some photos of her collards at Christmas. She cooks them like my grandma used to, frying them after boiling them.

Have a Happy New Year and don’t forget to eat your collards and black eye peas!

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Here’s my mom’s recipe that she learned from my grandma:

  1. Cut the leaf off of the main vein that runs through the leaf. They seem to cook better if I have a large amount of leaves to cook at one time.
  2. If any of the little veins that runs through the leaf is of any size, I cut the leaf from around those also.
  3. Once I have my leaves, I wash them several times.
  4. Then using a large large pot, I boil the leaves until they get really soft (I usually cook for an hour or so)
  5. Then drain the leaves good to get rid of excess water.
  6. Then with my hand chopper, I chop the leaves up really small.
  7. Then in a large frying pan I put oil (enough to cover the pan but not deep).
  8. Place collards in pan to begin cooking process.
  9. Sprinkle some sugar over the collards and stir.
  10. Once they start cooking I turn heat down and cover with a lid. Keep checking. Sometimes I keep adding a little oil and sugar.

Do not let them dry out when cooking (Keep moist with oil). I let them cook slow for a while. Many people do not add the sugar, but that is the way we like them.

 

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Collards in the frying pan, ready to eat.

Dreaming of a Cold Christmas

This has been a year of extreme weather—a summer of severe drought, then the wettest November on record, and now the second warmest December on record. On a farm, weather is always simultaneously helping or hurting something. The severe drought this summer wasn’t very good for growing field crops, but vegetable producers (who nearly all irrigate) did alright. Lack of rain means less disease pressure for them.

The oddly warm weather we’re having this Christmas means some strange things are happening here on our little farm. First, we have some strawberry plants that are already blooming. They aren’t supposed to bloom till early spring.

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Strawberry in bloom on December, 20th

It’s almost January, and the apple trees are still clinging to their leaves. The oats and crimson clover are almost a foot high.

I tried to take a photo of the bees entering their hive, but they all turned out blurry. This time of year, bees would typically be huddled inside the hive to stay warm and conserve energy. No need to do that this year. Some were actually bringing in orange pollen.

All this warm weather is nice for a few days, but it can really mess things up if it persists. Instead of going dormant to survive winter, things will start ramping up for spring. Bees will begin using more energy and eating their stored honey. Strawberries will bloom in earnest. Then a cold snap will arrive and slaughter everything. So even if I don’t particularly like cold weather (I’d rather be hot than cold), I’m still dreaming of a cold Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…

From Brambles and Bradford Pears to Strawberries and Apples

We’ve owned our little 20-acre farm for about two years now.  One of the first items on our to-do list after we purchased the farm from Natalie’s grandparents was to plant some trees—apple trees. We had a good spot for a potential orchard, an unused quarter-acre patch of land that was grown up in brambles and wild Bradford pears. Wild Bradford pears are vengeful creatures, with spiny thorns capable of puncturing a tractor tire. In the spring of 2014, we carefully cleared the pear trees, burnt off the weeds and brambles, and then plowed the patch.

After that, we planted a summer cover crop of buckwheat (which the bees loved) and a fall cover crop of crimson clover.

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The cover crop of buckwheat

We also planted the apple trees in the fall, in November 2014. We planted 12 Winesap, 12 Arkansas Black, 7 Grimes Golden, and 1 Lowry.  These are all heirloom varieties, which we ordered from Century Farm Orchard in Reidsville, NC. The owner, David Vernon, was very helpful. Both the Arkansas Black and Winesap are nearly sterile, so he recommended the Grimes Golden for pollination. We ordered one tree of the Lowry variety for Natalie’s poppaw’s—his name is Lowry.

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You can barely see the apple trees sticking out above the thick layer of crimson clover in spring 2015

The trees are grafted on M 111 rootstock, so they’ll be about 15 feet tall when they’re full grown. We planted them with 20 feet in between trees.  It will take four to five years till they produce an apple. With the extreme drought this past summer, it may take longer. Thankfully, we didn’t lose a tree, but several failed to put on much growth this first year.

So what do we do for four, five, or six years? Well, we could just wait. But’s that no fun.  Hmmm. I’ve got it—let’s plant strawberries. Yep, that’s what we did: we planted 1,200 strawberry plants between the rows of the apple trees this fall.

Right now, the strawberry plants are under row covers, more to protect them from deer than cold weather. But so far they seem to be doing pretty good. If all goes well (and there’s a lot that could go wrong), we’ll have strawberries in four or five months—and apples in four of five years.

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Rows of apple trees and strawberries alternate–the strawberries are under the white row covers in this photo

Country Ham Cutting

Country ham is a staple food in our family – you can eat it on a biscuit, with grits, smothered in red-eye gravy….the options are endless. These days, most people get their country ham from the grocery store – nicely shrink wrapped in plastic. My Poppaw remembers when you just cut it directly off the ham hanging in the smoke house . Back then, most people cured their own meat at home, and his family continued to hang hams until the mid-1960’s when the weather became too unpredictable to continue doing it.

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Last January when we had our first pigs butchered, we decided to try curing our own ham in the smoke house my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents had used for nearly a century. It was a cold winter with the polar vortex spiraling across the South, and Poppaw felt like the weather would hold out long enough so that we wouldn’t loose the ham.

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First, we packed the ham in a layer of salt, brown sugar, and pepper. We set the ham in a homemade curing box with a slatted bottom, which allowed the moisture to drain. After 3 months, we cleaned off the salt, wrapped it in butcher paper, and hung it in an old pillow case in the smoke house.

And that’s where it stayed till last week when we finally cut into it.

If I am honest, I had reservations about what this ham would be like. I mean, how many people do you know that eat ham out of a pillow case? Despite all, I decided to trust the process…and I am glad that I did.

It was the best ham I had ever had (and I’ve had a lot of ham). Quite frankly, my first thought was that I had truly never had country ham until that very moment in my life. Matter of fact – we should all only ever eat pillow case ham for the rest of our lives.

We ate the fully cured pieces straight off the ham and pan fried the rest…which then lead to making biscuits and red-eye gravy.

Sometimes, on the farm we’ll try doing something the old way and it either won’t work or the new way is faster. While buying country ham from the grocery store is certainly faster….it isn’t better. So the next time that the stars align and we have a polar vortex and a ham on hand…we’ll be whipping out the curing box and an old pillow case. After all, you can’t beat this tried and true method of curing meat!