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Acorn and Thistle

Beer Braised Short Ribs

Acorn and ThistleI don’t know about you, but some of my favorite foods aren’t necessarily the best looking ones. This recipe, for instance, is a fantastic example. The gravy is rich and flavorful; the meat is fall-off-the-bones tender … and there’s mashed potatoes! If there’s one food that I absolutely refuse to ever give up, it’s mashed potatoes. For me, they’re the ultimate comfort food.

The problem, if you want to call it that, with this recipe is that it’s kind of boring to look at. It’s just brown and white(ish). I guess you could throw some steamed peas or carrots in to give it a pop of color, but I usually just serve it with a side salad. That did not translate into awesome food photography, though, so you’ll have to trust me on this. It’s super yummy, and really fits the bill when the weather is such that you’re looking for something warm and hearty on a cold winter evening.

Oh, and it’s a slow-cooker meal! So not only is it super tasty, but it takes about 15 minutes of real time, not counting the potatoes, but the majority of it is the hands-off magic of the slow cooker.

Short Ribs | courtesy Campbell's Kitchen

Photo: courtesy Campbell's Kitchen

Beer Braised Short Ribs
(adapted by my wonderful sister from a Campbell’s Kitchen recipe. Click the photo for the link to the original recipe.)

You’ll need:

  • 3 pounds beef short ribs
  • Salt, pepper and garlic powder
  • Olive oil
  • 1 bottle (12 ounces) Guinness or other dark beer (I used Portland Brewing Co.’s Black Watch Cream Porter)
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
  • 1 can Campbell’s Condensed French Onion Soup
  • Hot mashed potatoes or cooked egg noodles

Here’s how:

  1. Season the short ribs by dusting with salt, pepper and garlic powder. I just sprinkle it on like I would season a steak, but if I had to guess, I use maybe 1 teaspoon of each for all 3 pounds of meat, total.

  2. Warm a skillet with a glug of olive oil in it, over medium-high heat. Sear the short ribs in the hot oil, turning once to get both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. They’re ready to flip when they have a nice lightly browned crust on them.

  3. Remove from heat. Place the ribs in the slow cooker. Carefully (mind the hot oil in the pan!) deglaze the pan with a little bit of water or beer. Make sure you get the browned bits unstuck – they’re loaded with flavor. Pour that liquid into the slow cooker as well.

  4. Add the brown sugar, flour, garlic and thyme. Toss to coat the ribs. Add the soup and the remaining beer. I usually pour the soup in first and then swish some beer around in the can to get the last of it out. I also generally taste test the beer a few times on the way to the pot. If this is how you roll, too, then you might need more than one bottle of beer. (I usually get a 22-ounce bottle for this purpose.)

  5. Cover and set your slow cooker to low for about 7 hours. Alternatively, you can cook it on high for about 5. Cooking it longer than 7 hours on low will not hurt it at all.

  6. Serve over hot mashed potatoes or egg noodles.

Helpful tips: You can set everything up ahead of time (like the night before) if your morning schedule won’t allow time for the searing step. Put everything in your slow cooker insert, except for the soup and beer, and put it in the fridge overnight. Just take it out in the morning, add the liquid and pop the insert into your cooker, then set it to low and go on your way.

Enjoy!

Planning Ahead Quick Tip

Acorn and ThistleEvery winter, I spend quite a bit of time just thinking about what I can do now to make my job easier come springtime. Between the animals, the garden and the fruit trees, once the weather starts warming up everything gets really busy and the time flies by. There are a lot of things that need to happen around a certain time, too, so a little forethought goes a long way for bigger tasks like pruning.

Generally speaking, spring is one of the best times to prune many plants, but definitely not all of them. I’m talking about things like roses, trees, and fruiting bushes that benefit from a haircut in the spring. Pruning, when done correctly, goes a long way to maintaining the health and productivity of your plants.

tree 

So, as soon as the leaves fall, I like to cut up some string and stash it in my work jacket. This way, any time I’m outside and I see a branch that needs to be pruned off in the spring, I can mark it. I do the same thing if I see branches in the summer, but it’s so much easier to see the overall shape once the leaves are out of the way.

Do you have any tips for helping manage future jobs in your yard? 

Cold Weather Tips for Chickens

Acorn and ThistleLast week, I wrote about how we have basically two different kinds of winter weather here in the Pacific Northwest, and how each one presents its own unique challenges with regards to the animals. Today, I wanted to go over a few things that I find helpful in keeping my chickens in good shape through the colder months, no matter what kind of weather rolls in.

chicken 

  1. Dry Bedding. This is probably the most important thing, in my book. I make sure I always have a bale of wood shavings on hand in the coop through the winter. I’ll toss a few handfuls down under the roosts each morning when I open things up for the day, to help absorb moisture and odors from their night droppings, as part of my deep-litter maintenance. I also add some, when needed, near the door to the run to help minimize the mud that gets tracked in.

  2. VetRx. This is a great product that can be used in a number of different ways, according to the package directions. I keep a bottle in the coop and, around once a week, l put a few drops on their roost bars in the evening. This way, the birds can breathe in the essential oils while they’re sleeping for the night. The idea is to help keep their respiratory systems in good health – I’d rather go the prevention route than have to deal with illness in the coop. (I believe the oils are also mite-repellant – so if you have issues with mites in your coop, you should check this out.)

  3. Apple Cider Vinegar. Whether homemade or store-bought, live apple cider vinegar (the kind with the mother in it) is a probiotic powerhouse. A tablespoon or two in their gallon waterers each day is enough to keep their digestive systems in good working order, and also keeps the slime down in the waterers themselves.

  4. Soaked grains. Once a week or so, I’ll soak a cup or two of their scratch grains overnight in some water (about twice as much as the grains). If the weather has been particularly gross, I’ll add a tablespoon of either ACV or whey from yogurt to the soaking liquid. Again, all I’m really doing here is boosting their probiotic intake (friendly bacteria and yeasts) and getting some extra nutrients into their systems. Since they’re not out foraging as much as they do in the summer, I feel it’s important to supplement their diets whenever possible.

  5. Protein. Along the lines of supplementing diets, chickens are omnivores, and they need protein in their diets to keep everything functioning at optimal levels. When winter rolls around – particularly in freezing spells – the bugs and worms are scarce. So things like canned tuna, canned pet food, and even table scraps can come in handy if the flock looks like they’re starting to drag a little bit. My girls go absolutely bonkers for canned tuna (in oil, no less) with some dry rolled oats mixed in. Meat scraps are great, too – chopped up nice and small – the chickens always appreciate extra protein. (As an aside: I don’t feed my chickens chicken. They’d totally eat it, though, but the idea just weirds me out, so ... no.)

  6. Ventilation. If it’s not windy, I’ll open one or both of the windows on our coop every morning. If it’s particularly cold, then I’ll make sure to close them up ahead of sunset so the coop can build some heat up before nightfall, but by and large I want to keep the air flowing through the coop as much as possible, to make sure things are staying dry inside. Chickens, depending on breed, can withstand some very cold temperatures – but excessive moisture in the air or the bedding can cause issues, like frostbite on combs and that sort of thing. Even with both of the windows closed on our coop, we still have covered openings in the roof that allow air to circulate to help keep things dry.

At the end of the day, it’s not a whole lot of extra work, nor is it anything particularly difficult. I find that taking a few extra steps this time of year keeps everyone happy and healthy through the chilly months, and that’s a fair trade, in my book.

What about you – what tips or tricks do you have for winter chicken care?

Frost Protection

Acorn and ThistleIt’s getting to be that time! As we draw closer to the end of October, the temperatures are dropping a little more each day. According to my calendar, in previous years we’ve seen our first frost here at the house any time between this past Sunday (10/26) and November 7th. While that doesn’t guarantee that we’ll have frost this year during the same time frame, it does mean that it’s time for me to gather up my frost gear for the garden.

I keep a box of light frost blankets standing by the back door, ready in case the temps suddenly dip. These blankets have a drawstring bottom and slip easily over the tops of my raised beds - I’ve already prepped the areas needed with a good layer of mulch and some PVC hoops, so I’m not totally rushing when the forecast changes. The blankets are a breathable poly fabric, and work well for the lighter frosts we see this time of year.

cold

Fortunately, here in the Pacific Northwest, our winters are typically quite mild and frost protection doesn’t have to get too involved. I do have some heavier duty green frost blankets for the inevitable week or two of really cold weather that we get periodically; those can get tossed right on top of the white ones already in place, for some extra help. The nice thing about the darker ones is that they help draw in some more heat when the sun is shining, which is perfect for our weather patterns here.

Plastic can also be used, but it needs to be raised up high enough off the plants so they aren’t touching each other, or else the plants will freeze wherever the plastic is in contact with them. In a pinch, I think it’s better to break out some old sheets instead of the plastic - they’re breathable like the poly blankets and can be in contact with your plants without worry. Plastic also needs to be opened in the daytime when the sun is shining, so that the heat doesn’t build up too quickly and harm the plants.

In researching other frost protection options, I came across a recommendation to use mylar space blankets in extreme cold situations. These blankets will retain much more of the soil’s heat overnight, but they need to be removed in the daytime to allow the soil to recharge. Space blankets are relatively inexpensive, and can be found anywhere camping gear is sold. 

Another idea I saw was to use Christmas lights inside a plastic cold frame, to help heat the space when the mercury really gets low. That seems like overkill here for the most part, but in places with extended periods of very cold weather, that sounds like it could be a great option!

What about you: Do you use frost blankets or other season-extending items in your garden, or do you just put it all to bed for the winter?

Apple Cider Update

Acorn and ThistleFor whatever reason, I’m having one of those spells where I can’t seem to settle on something to write about. It’s not for lack of ideas; I have a lot of things percolating around in my head. I hate to admit it, but I think I just need a break for a few days. Alex and I are heading out of town in the near future, going up and over the mountains to a friend’s tiny cabin in north-central Washington. There’s no power, running water, cell phones or Internet service … we will be 100-percent unplugged for a few days. I really can’t wait.

Apples Press 

So, to tide you over until I return refreshed and re-energized, I thought I’d give you a quick update on the hard cider. We’re almost ready for bottling – I’ll be doing that before the end of the month. About two weeks ago, I racked off the cider and rebottled it into 1-gallon jugs with airlocks for their secondary ferment/resting period. We did see a little additional fermentation in the jugs, which was expected – some of the yeast that had settled out of suspension was stirred back up in the process and was able to use up the last of the residual sugars in the brew.

Being curious, I had to taste a sample before locking everything up for its little nap. I didn’t expect much at all; I’d read that hard cider at this stage is dry and harsh. Well, somehow, ours isn’t. It certainly isn’t sweet, but it wasn’t unpleasantly dry or bitter at all. It was still distinctly apple, with a little bit of a yeasty taste that reminded me of a really light beer.

apples 

I will be back-sweetening the cider a little bit, before we bottle, but I am really impressed with the flavor thus far. We’ll probably use sucralose as our sweetener, because that’s not digestible by yeast and won’t over carbonate the bottles like honey or sugar would do. Although we will be adding a small amount of sugar in solution across the batch, as I do like my cider with some carbonation, as opposed to a flat or “still” cider.

As long as I get my bottling done next week on schedule, the final product should be ready to drink come Thanksgiving. I’m really looking forward to sharing our finished home brew with our family and friends around the dinner table. Stay tuned for photos of bottling day!

What about you? How are your fall ferments coming along?

Homemade Ravioli

Acorn and ThistleFood, for me, is pretty much always associated with something more than just a meal. It’s about those it was shared with, or the people who helped prepare it. Homemade pasta is one of those things that immediately transports me back to my childhood home in New Jersey – or more specifically, my across-the-street neighbor Joe’s house. Every so often, Joe’s grandmother would come to visit and spend the day making pasta. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 at the time, but I remember the day my mom and I were there helping like it was yesterday: the feel of the dough, the pasta drying on dowels all over the kitchen and dining room, and everyone chattering away in the kitchen. Heart of the home, indeed.

So today, I thought I’d wander down memory lane and make up a batch of homemade ravioli, in order to share my recipe with you. Making your own pasta is easy, but it does take a little bit of time – mostly because you need to rest the dough periodically, or else it’s just too tough to work with.

homemade ravioli

For the filling:

1 cup whole milk ricotta
1/3 cup shredded Italian cheese blend (This is one of the few situations where I really prefer using a pre-shredded mixture; not only is it less expensive than buying the components separately, but I prefer the texture of the drier cheese.)
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
3 to 5 roasted garlic cloves (optional, but totally worth it)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, mix well, and set aside. If you’re using the roasted garlic, mash it thoroughly first, and then add to the cheese mixture before stirring well to incorporate evenly.

For the pasta:

Measure out 2  1/4 cups all-purpose flour on a clean countertop, making a well in the center. In a small bowl, beat 3 large (or 4 medium) eggs along with 1 teaspoon salt, until mostly smooth and then pour the eggs into the well, like so:

well - homemade ravioli

Using a fork or your fingers, stir the eggs gently in the well, as you gradually pull in flour from the sides to combine. Take your time, or it can be a little messy. I like to have a dough scraper handy for this step; when the dough comes together it’s going to be pretty shaggy and will stick to your work surface.

Once the dough is combined, knead it a few times and then set it aside in a covered bowl to rest for 10 minutes. The dough will be pretty stiff by now, so you’ll appreciate the break.

After 10 minutes, take the dough out and knead it again, until it’s smooth and elastic. The gluten will have relaxed somewhat, so it will be easier to work with than before. Once you’re done kneading, cut the dough into 4 equal sized pieces and set them aside in a covered bowl to rest for another 30 minutes. Don’t skimp on the resting – set your timer and walk away.

After the 30 minutes is up, the dough is ready to be rolled out and then filled, one ball at a time. You can use a rolling pin if you like, but I prefer using a pasta machine – they’re not expensive and do a much better job of it than I would on my own. The end goal is to have your sheets of dough rolled out to a consistent 1/8th inch thick. Using the machine, that means making several passes with the dough through the rollers, making it progressively thinner with each pass.

Once you have your dough rolled out nice and thin, you’re ready for the filling. The first thing I do is figure out where the halfway point is on the dough – one half is going to get folded over the other once the filling is down. I like larger ravioli, so I use a tablespoon measure to portion out my filling. Make a ball with the filling, and space them out on your dough about 2 inches apart. If you’d rather have smaller ravioli, then go right ahead and use a smaller measuring spoon.

filling for homemade ravioli

When you’re ready to fold your dough over, go slowly and, using your fingertips, press out any air from around the filling, working your way out to the edges. Air bubbles will likely pop in the boiling process, so you really want to take your time to get them out. Once everything has been pressed into place, take a pastry cutter and trim the edges back. If you don’t have a pastry cutter, just use a knife and then crimp the edges closed by pressing down on them with a fork. You don’t need to go far, just a quarter-inch or so in, all the way around.

filled homemade ravioli

A word about trimming – set the trimmed-off pieces back in your covered bowl, until you’re done with the four main balls. If you have any filling left over, and if you have enough trimmings, you can re-roll the leftover dough after it has rested for at least a half hour.

Finally, you can either cook your ravioli (let them air dry for 1 to 1  1/2 hours, first) or freeze them for later.  To freeze, simply flour the bottoms well and lay flat in a single layer on a baking sheet in your freezer for about an hour. Once they’re frozen, you can put them in a sealed container without having them stick to each other. For added insurance against sticking, you could put parchment or waxed paper in between layers, if you’re so inclined.

To cook: Bring 5 quarts of salted water to a rolling boil. Drop your ravioli in one at a time, so they don’t stick, and boil for 5 minutes, or until the edges are tender. Frozen pasta just needs about 1 extra minute; you don’t have to worry about thawing them first.  Depending on how many you want to serve, you may need to do this in batches – you don’t want the pasta crowded in the pot. Once the time is up, drain thoroughly and top with your favorite sauce.

Once you have the pasta down, the filling possibilities are pretty much endless. Enjoy!

Circular Sock Machine Knitting

Acorn and ThistleThanks to a dear friend of mine, I have a new/old hobby to help keep me occupied through the winter: making socks on an antique circular sock machine. I’m still learning how to use it; the machine itself isn’t terribly complicated by design, but it definitely takes some finesse to get the process down. I’m also finding that it’s a rather ambidextrous operation, which is challenging for this extremely right hand-dominant gal. So, in addition to learning the ins and outs of the machine, I’m working on some fine motor skills that I’ve never had to try before.

CSM2

One of the things I love about the machine is its history: During World War I, the Red Cross launched a civilian campaign to help with a sock shortage being experienced overseas. Poor footwear coupled with the cold, wet conditions in the trenches were causing the soldiers to have serious problems with their feet. A fungal infection called trenchfoot could rapidly turn to gangrene if left untreated in those conditions. Wearing extra socks helped a bit, but they were in short supply. Since socks weren’t being mass-produced like they are now, it fell to knitters to make up for the shortage. However, even a fast knitter can only make so many socks in a week.

posterEnter the sock machine: An experienced sock machine knitter can crank out pair after pair, often averaging a pair an hour. Sock machines and supplies were distributed to women who would commit to making at least 30 pairs of socks per week for the war effort. In turn, they were allowed to keep the machines after the campaign was over.

After a while, many of these machines sat unused for years, gathering dust in attics and barns across the country. In recent years, a renewed interest has brought many of these machines out of retirement and back into service; a quick Google search on “circular sock machines” will bring up many results, and there are even a ton of videos on YouTube showing how to use the machines.

So, in addition to having some wonderful socks in my future, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help keep history alive by learning how to use my circular sock machine and sharing those experiences with others.

Do you have any hobbies that help keep the past alive?