I have often talked about how quiet it is in the country, but truthfully, it can be quite noisy at times. The Canada geese are back, and they have got to be among the noisiest of God’s creatures. Some people think they are a nuisance, but I think geese are the first true sign of spring. There is always a gaggle of geese who choose the banks of our little creek as their nesting spot every year. Geese mate for life, I have heard, and although I’m not sure it is the same birds that return every year, it would be kind of nice if they were. Last spring, as I was working in the garden, I could hear but not see an argument between two couples trying to settle into the same spot. Honking and splashing angrily at each other, the disagreement escalated until I imagined them to be a little like the Hatfields and McCoys before one couple moved on and all was quiet again. This year, the geese arrived during our false spring. That was the lovely couple of days of warm weather we were teased with before Mother Nature got a bee in her bonnet and gave us two additional feet of snow. I don’t know about you, but that snow certainly interfered tremendously with my plans for spring. I had been out working in the yard when it started falling, and it fell fast and furiously, as spring snowstorms often do. Through the whiteness, I heard a couple of geese communicating with each other, and they didn’t sound happy. In fact the more I listened, the more they began to sound like an old married couple. Before you know it, I began to imagine their conversation. (Although you might find it a little strange to be imagining a conversation between two geese, it was probably the sanest thing that I could have done under the circumstances. MORE SNOW falling after a winter of SNOW and MORE SNOW and a spring that was finally here but cruelly snatched away is enough to make anyone lose their marbles, for crying out loud!) She: “I TOLD you to ask for directions! You obviously took a wrong turn and ended up somewhere in the Northwest Territory!” He: “Directions? Who needs directions? I could find my way just fine if you weren’t cackling at me all the time!” She: “Stop flapping your bill and start feathering our nest, because these eggs are coming whether you are ready or not…and while you’re at it, put the toilet seat down!” Although not quite as entertaining as the geese, there are also plenty of ducks quacking away and the pine trees are alive with the chirping of dozens of birds. Now that the snow is gone again, the spring peepers and other croaking frogs are singing so loudly back in the swamp that if there were any arguing geese, the noise would surely be drowned out. I can’t leave out my own hens, who are making happy clucking noises searching for worms and bugs while the roosters strut around and cock-a-doodle-doo a little more than they were before. Whether it be a symphony or a cacophony, the sounds of spring are music to my ears.
My dad was born in Hibbing, Minnesota in 1921 and raised in Chisholm, when he wasn’t spending time on his grandmother’s farm in Forbes. He was what is known as a true Ranger…..meaning the Minnesota Iron Range, that is. There are a few ethnic foods that are distinctly Iron Range foods, and one of them is the beloved Porketta. I learned while doing my research today that it is thought that Porketta came from the traditional Italian pork roast called Porchetta. The Italians (whom my Finnish grandmother always mispronounced as “Eyetalians”) immigrated to the area to work in the iron ore mines, and over the years the spelling and spices must have evolved a little to become gastronomic history. I like to keep my recipes simple and easy, and this is no exception. Many Porketta recipes call for a combination of fennel seed and fresh fennel, which I dearly love to eat raw, but the nearest bulb of fennel is a 60 mile round trip from my Little House Way Out in the Sticks, so it is not included in this recipe. Other recipes call for a deboned and butterflied pork roast (too much trouble) or a pork loin roast (too dry). To my daughter-of-an-Iron-Ranger taste buds, the best cut is a Boston butt roast, and the next best is a bone-in pork sirloin roast (whatever is on sale this week will be fine!)
Minnesota Farm Woman Porketta
1 pork roast (approx. 4 to 5 pounds) 1 tbsp. fennel seed, crushed 2 tsp. salt 2 tsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. dried parsley 4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 russet potatoes, peeled and cut in half 4 large carrots, peeled and cut into pieces
1 medium rutabega, peeled and cut into chunks
One or two days, or several hours before roasting, mix fennel, salt, pepper, parsley and chopped garlic together and rub into all sides of the meat, pushing the garlic into the nooks and crannies of the meat. Place in a zip-top bag or cover tightly and store in the refrigerator. This allows the spices to permeate the meat. Do not prep the vegetables yet. Remove from bag and place in a covered roasting pan at 325 degrees for 3 to 4 hours until meat is very tender and juices run clear. Add the vegetables to the juices in the roaster the last hour, and remove the cover the last 30 minutes. The meat is very tender and hard to slice unless it is cold. Skim the fat off the juices and drizzle a little over the meat and roasted vegetables. Save the rest of the juices for the leftovers….
Alternative cooking method: Cook the meat in the crock pot on low for approximately 9 hours. Cut the vegetables a little smaller, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes.
Shred the leftover porketta and warm up the next day, mixed with the juices. Serve in crusty rolls and top with pepperoncini (mildly spicy pickled Italian peppers) for some great sandwiches!
When I was in school, we brought home a list of spelling words, studied them, practiced them, used them in a sentence, and returned to class to take something called a “spelling test”. We then got a new list of words and started the whole process all over again. I know that sounds pretty boring to some of you, but I have always enjoyed words and their meanings, and besides, spelling was so much easier than math! I may not be the world’s best speller, but my skills aren’t too bad and I do know how to use a dictionary or use spellcheck on the computer. All of the new tablet computers and phones now have a program called autocorrect, in which the computer decides ahead of time the word you want to use, spells it correctly, and inserts it into your sentence. It is kind of like the computer is trying to read your mind and is supposed to save you a lot of time while writing or texting. On my tablet, I easily figured out how to turn the autocorrect off, but my new phone is a challenge. It is not a time saver for me at all, since I learned through a lot of trial and error to check very carefully before hitting the “send” button. Thanks to autocorrect, in one week only I have managed to call one of my friends a rodent, renamed my son-in-law and my mother, and confused everyone at work (including myself) about the schedule. Thinking it would be easier than texting, or perhaps being a glutton for punishment, I installed a voice-activated system that would not only give me directions, but also would allow me to speak and have my words automatically changed to text. “How wonderful!” I thought. “What a fantastic tool!” How wrong can one person be? The little mouse-in-my-pocket, as I called her, could not even get my name right, so can you imagine me trying to get her to understand the words Bemidji, Minnesota? (I was trying to get directions). In the meantime, I thought I would experiment a little and try to send a voice-activated message to my very patient daughter Amanda. The mouse-in-my-pocket chose to send the message to another Amanda on my phone list, and our combination text and voice-activated communication went something like this: Amanda: “Did you try to text message me? I got half a message that didn’t make sense…” Me: “Sorry. Playing with new phone and voice activated tenting mean for my daughter”. Me: “Ops! Tenting, not tenting.” Me: “Tenting!” Me: “TEXTING. Aughhhhhhh!!!!!” Amanda: ”Hahahahahahaha!” The voice activated program got deleted after a day or two. The autocorrect program will be deactivated as soon as I figure it out. In the meantime, a word of advice from the Mine so take Farm Womanly: Proofread!
Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in ~ Mark Twain
HEAVEN only knows, it can be difficult coming up with ideas for a newspaper column and internet blog every week. I often write about my adventures with the chickens, but since I separated the roosters, the only thing going on in the coop this week is that it is beginning to smell to high HEAVEN since the daytime temperatures have been staying above the freezing point. Sometimes it feels like I move HEAVEN and earth to think of something new and amusing to write about, but since this is the week that our taxes are due, I have found very little to be amused about. Gone are those poor but happy days when we were in hog HEAVEN with our big refund check. Back then, we had no money in our bank account until tax refund time, and now, we have money in our bank account until tax paying time. I can often come up with something interesting to write about HIM, but this week our marriage has been a match made in HEAVEN, so there had been little to discuss and/or make fun of ever so lovingly in that regard. I could tell you that having a new grandson is absolutely HEAVEN on earth for both of us, but then I would have to include all 172 pictures of the handsome little guy (the baby, not the husband) , and HEAVEN help you if I did that! I could talk about my garden, or lack of a garden, because the HEAVENS have opened up ever since Groundhog Day, giving us enough snow for what seems like six more months of winter. I am determined not to talk about the weather, because it seems that is all that Minnesotans have talked about lately. By the way, if you ever plan on moving to Minnesota, and HEAVEN help you if you do, you had better brush up on weather, politics, and sports. These hot topics are the only warm things around here most of the time. Oh for HEAVEN`s sake! I can’t seem to come up with a topic at all, and HEAVEN forbid I have to start doing reruns.
Last week, I was given the gift of three one-week-old Black Australorp baby chicks. They are supposed to be girls, but we all know that around here, things don’t always work out the way they were supposed to. The babies had been snug in their little cage under a heat lamp for nearly a week, and were surprisingly tame when I reached in to feed them, give them water, and of course, pet them, because baby chicks are just so darn cute! I have been keeping the babies on my breezeway, because it is the next warmest thing to the living room, and for some reason, HE frowns upon keeping barnyard creatures in the house. The breezeway is kind of a catch-all/storage/laundry room/kick your boots off type of room, and for all the aforementioned reasons, is always a mess. There are shoes and boots and coats and hats and potatoes and onions and a vacuum cleaner, and now…..a large cage on a card table and a bag of chick food. Please don’t laugh, this really is my life. Anyhow, I was in the midst of mopping floors and doing laundry and on my 27th time passing that cage I noticed that it held only one chick. I stopped in my tracks and immediately picked up Barney the Chihuahua, who had started sniffing around, and locked him in the kitchen. Slowly and carefully, I inched around, looking inside boots and boxes, carefully sorting through the laundry pile, finding no baby chicks. Fearing they had hidden behind the washing machine, I carefully picked up a sack of potatoes to move out of the way when I found one, who had managed to hide herself among the spuds. As soon as I picked her up and she started cheeping, the other escapee started making noise from across the room and it was easy to find her. Whew. Another disaster diverted. I couldn’t figure out how they had slipped out, but since the cage was wrapped in towels, I tucked the towels around it more carefully, securing them with clothespins and continued going about my business. When you are a Farm Woman, having a day off from your job does not mean you have a day off from work. When I passed that cage for the 40th time, I noticed once again that the two babies had escaped. What the heck? On my hands again, I began to search, and found them both under a bench, huddled next to the heat register. I spent the rest of the afternoon cutting out pieces of cardboard to line the cage, hopefully keeping them from escaping. That afternoon, I had an escapee from the big coop hiding in the shed, making me crawl around in the still foot-deep snow trying to get her out. I think that all chickens great and small must have a case of spring fever and are feeling the need to escape somewhere or anywhere. Who can blame them? I feel exactly the same way. Last year at this time was warm and I was considering an early planting of lettuce, beets and radishes, and the chickens were free-ranging in the yard. This year, there is more than a foot of snow still covering the garden, and the somewhat gloomy forecast is for more snow this week. Minnesota springs cannot be trusted, and neither can chickens.
Henry the Rooster has gone to a happier place. The combination of a long snowy winter and seven roosters in the coop has taken its toll. I don’t have to worry so much about the four small Banty roosters, as they keep to themselves. The three full-sized roosters have been the problem with their “who rules the roost” mentality. I read somewhere that chicken farmers should have one rooster for every 20 hens, but I ended up with a couple of extra boys for my 17 girls. Farm Women of old would have taken the extras to the chopping block, but I don’t have the stomach for that. They were beating each other up to the point of being bloody, and I don’t have the stomach for that, either, so something had to be done. My chicken coop is attached to the barn, which is actually an old garage in which we store corn, straw, and a bunch of junk. After one bloody battle which happened right in front of me, Henry got relegated to the barn. I chose Henry because he was closest to the door and could be shooed out more easily than the others. I started asking around, and finally found another Farm Woman who actually wanted a rooster, but now the trick was getting Henry to his new home. I had a good plan: I filled a large dog cage with straw, a container of water, leftover coleslaw, and bread. I made a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the cage and waited. Henry started circling the cage. I waited some more. After circling the cage a few times, Henry moved on. On to Plan B: I grabbed a long pole and started leading Henry toward the cage. It was working. Closer and closer, faster and faster, until I slipped and fell on some loose straw, tumbling down like some sort of giant flapping chicken and landing right in front of the cage. I’m not sure if it was fear or surprise, but at that exact moment, Henry jumped right into the cage, splattering water and coleslaw everywhere. There I was, lying on a filthy barn floor with spatters of old coleslaw on my face, crawling toward the cage to lock him in. Who rules the roost now, boys? Henry wasn’t too happy staying in that cage for a couple of days until he could be delivered to his new home, but you should have seen him when we carried that cage into his new coop, filled with hens that he could woo all by himself. The minute he saw them, he started making noises in his throat and puffing out his chest, excited at seeing all those lovely women. Yes, Henry has gone to a much happier place. The other two large roosters are happier, too. Just yesterday, one chased the other through the door into the barn. He probably thought if one rival disappeared through that door and never came back, the same might happen to the other. I can see the rooster wars have not ended, but unfortunately, I am still limping around and not quite up to another capture yet.
I love gumbo. It is as much fun to make as it is to eat. I think I am hearing a loud chorus of groans here, from my southern friends who are saying, “There is NO WAY a Farm Woman from Minnesota can make a real gumbo!” as well as my northern Minnesota Scandinavian friends whining, “Okra? Ewwwwwww!” or by HIM, who will just say “Why can’t we just have hamburgers like everybody else?” Y’all be quiet just a minute, because you might just get a little history here, too. Gumbo is simply a country stew, made from the fresh local ingredients that many Louisiana Farm Women had at the time. No sausage? Use bacon or ham. No chicken? Use ‘gator. It tastes like chicken, anyway. Did you know that the word ‘gumbo’ comes from African word for okra? I also learned while researching for this article that there are several types of gumbo, depending on the thickener, and that gumbo aficionados think that meat and seafood should not be mixed in a traditional gumbo. Well, I have always been a little bit of a rule breaker. Just ask my mother. My gumbo is good, despite breaking the rules. Here in Minnesota, it is hard to find fresh okra, so I often use frozen or canned, and it is just fine and not a bit slimy, all you groaners. You can also grow okra in your garden, but it is one of those vegetables that needs a long hot summer, and we Zone 3 gardeners can’t always count on that. I also use a Minnesota-grown sunflower oil (http://www.smudeoil.com/), which adds a nutty flavor to the dish. Before you try the recipe, you must know that although is isn’t hard, you must be a patient roux maker. Gumbo is only as good as the roux, or foundation of the dish.
Gumbo, Minnesota Farm Woman Style
1/2 cup sunflower oil 1/2 cup flour (approximately)
Heat the oil in the pan over low to medium-low heat in a heavy bottomed pot. If your pot is big, add a splash more of each until the oil covers the bottom of the pot. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring frequently until mixture turns the color of peanut butter. The mixture is not meant to be thick at this point. This takes approximately 30 minutes. Watch carefully, as it scorches easily.
1 medium onion, chopped 1/2 cup green pepper, chopped 1/2 cup celery, chopped 1/2 cup carrot, chopped
6-8 cups hot water or chicken stock, or a mixture of both 1 can diced tomatoes (no need to drain)
2 tsp. Cajun or Creole seasoning 1 tsp. salt 1 tsp. pepper 2 cloves garlic, crushed hot sauce (to taste) 1 tbsp. dried parsley 1 tsp. dried thyme 2 tsp gumbo filet powder (optional) 1 large bay leaf (remove before serving)
Add the chopped vegetables to the roux and cook for 10 minutes. Add hot water/broth and tomatoes and stir. It will thicken quickly at this point. Add spices and simmer for 1 hour.
Stir in 2 cups canned, fresh, or frozen okra
Add 2 cups smoked or andouille sausage, sliced or coarsely diced and browned or 2 cups diced boneless skinless chicken thighs, browned or 2 cups Minnesota-grown gator tail, diced and browned. Add them all if you want, because this is your dinner and not mine. Simmer for an additional 1 hour.
Add 1/2 pound fresh or frozen shrimp (peeled and tails removed), during last 10 minutes of cooking.
This is best served with hot cooked rice (white, brown, or Minnesota wild rice). Serve the rice on the side and let everybody add their own. Add more hot sauce if you dare, and garnish with chopped green onion. Serves six.
If you want to know where to find the elusive Minnesota alligator, they can probably be found in the swamp behind my house. I think I just found ‘gator tracks in the snow near the chicken coop.