Mack Hill Farm

Making Maple Syrup


I didn’t grow up with real maple syrup. I lived in Far West Texas (El Paso), and was pretty poor. My step-father used to dole out toppings for pancakes in those little plastic medicine cups. We had a choice of either powdered sugar or Aunt Jemima. (I looked at one of those ingredients lists the other day. Ack! That’s not food, it’s “food”!)

I confess that when I have pancakes for breakfast now, I’m a little heavy handed with the powdered sugar sprinkles … mmm, with melted butter. But I always ALSO have plenty of real maple syrup, too. Yum! I'm spoiled! 

I love to cook with maple syrup. I put it into my bread recipe. I like it in savory dishes, too, especially when combined with soy sauce and black trumpet mushrooms. I always make my Thanksgiving sweet potatoes by dicing them up small, roasting them and some pecans, and then drizzled with maple syrup.

Sweet Potatoes with maple and pecans 

Making maple syrup is something really special. We have quite a few maple trees on our property, and are slowly trying to improve our sugar bush. Every year, we tap more and more of them, using tubing and ever larger containers. We are tapping enough this year to make the farm show at least a small profit in a season with few other income opportunities. It’s too early to plant even seeds indoors, and too muddy in the woods to log.

We have a hobby level evaporator, 4 feet long by 2 feet wide, just called a “2 x 4.” We use all of the slab that is left over from running our sawmill as well as the slash, the tops and branches from harvested trees that would otherwise be left in the woods to rot. The rule of thumb is a cord of wood for 25 gallons of syrup. Fossil fuel has been too expensive to use since the oil embargo in 1973, and besides it’s just wrong to burn oil in the middle of the woods. There’s never a problem getting rid of scrap wood in New England.

 Blue tubing in the sugar bush 

It takes a lot of sap to make syrup too – 40 gallons of sap will turn into 1 gallon of syrup after you boil all the water away. Sap has about 2 percent sugar in it, and we boil it until it has 66 percent. A tree can have one tap for every nine inches of diameter. Like most small operators, we use a mixture of pails, one hanging from each tap, and runs of tubing fed by several trees into a larger container at the bottom of the hill. Big operators use all tubing, and use vacuum pumps to pull out more sap.

While I’m boiling it, just like when I make stock, I skim the surface of the bubbly scum that rises to the top. Sometimes the steam is so thick that it’s really hard to see what I’m doing, but I’ve learned to use gusts of wind to my advantage.

For the first three years, I just boiled out in the open, because though I keep putting “sugar house” on my wishlist, it still hasn’t appeared. Darn it! Then last year, I scored a truck camper shell off of The Freecycle Network. I thought I might be able to use it for a roof for another chicken coop, but we never got around to building it. This year, when it was getting close to sugaring season, I suggested we use that shell for a roof on top of a sugar shack, and we got it done just in time. So at least this year we have a start on our sugar shack.

 Camper shell over evaporator 

I don’t do the whole process out on that evaporator, though. We get as close as we dare, and then draw it off and finish it in a big stainless steel pot on top of a propane burner. It’s so easy to scorch it and burn it as it’s getting close to syrup that I’m not willing to try it in huge batches with burning wood. I think you have to have done it for decades before you are that good! Even many people whose grandfather taught them to finish on the evaporator now use a finishing pot as it’s called. 

 Maple Syrup in glass canning jars 

As the season starts out, the syrup is lighter in color and more delicate in flavor. Many people use this lightest stuff to make things like maple candy. As the season progresses, the syrup naturally gets darker and darker, until the very end of the season, when it's almost black. That's my favorite! It's so flavorful and holds up in cooking with other strong flavors. Yum.

[Ed. Note: Check out this video of Lisa running her syrup evaporator.]


How Many Zucchini Plants to Plant

A photo of Lisa Richards If you are like me, you are thinking about what to grow in your vegetable garden this year. Maybe you’ve already ordered all of your seeds, or like me, are doing it in batches. We’ve got most of it ordered, some already received, but still have some decisions to make for the rest.

The subject of zucchini came up the other day. How many plants do we want? We have an amazing harvest last year. Evidently so did most of the region, as we got truckloads upon truckloads to feed to the critters, too. By the end of the season, even covering them up with yogurt wouldn’t get them eaten. The sheep hung in a little longer than the pigs, but by the end of the summer, we were all DONE!

It got me to do lots of new things to preserve them, though. As I sit hear snacking on curry-flavored zucchini chips, I’m thinking that several of these new things are keepers.

  • Slice them length-wise with a mandolin and dry in the dehydrator. This is quick to do during your busy season. We pick ones that are the same width as our mandolin and fill up all dozen trays of our deydrator. It usually takes about 12 hours to dry them. Then we put into plastic bags that we seal on our vacuum sealer. (We found zip bags inadequate at keeping them dry during the summer -- rotting zukes is one of the most disgusting smells around, just for the record. Vacuum seal or freeze. Trust me.) All winter I’ve been adding those strips to things like lasagna and potato gratins.  If I cook noodles of some flavor, I’ll add a handful of zuke strips to the pot as well.  
  • Slice into rounds and flavor with spices, salt, pepper. Again, we use the mandolin to quickly slice up the zukes. Then put the slices into a big bowl and toss with the spice mixture. I did curry powder this year for one batch. Chili powder on another. Garlic and onion powder on another. Then spread them out of the dehydrator sheets and let them dry until they are crispy. Store in a vacuum sealed bag or in the freezer. I use canning jars in the freezer. We nibble on them like chips all year long.  I like them with a little sour cream dip, but Frank likes them straight out of the bag. I like to take them in the truck with me when I have a long drive to make. It keeps me from stopping somewhere and buying crap. (Oh, a couple of times when I was doing a bread crumb / parm cheese topping, I whirred up some zuke chips in the food processor and added them to the mix. Yummy topping on mac and cheese, tuna casserole.)
  • Shred on a box grater. Every year, I do at least a dozen gallon size freezer bags filled with zuke shreddings. I shred onto a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper. I cover it about an inch thick all over, then stick it into the freezer over night. The next day, I break it up and pack into gallon plastic bags. It makes it really easy to grab cup fulls as I need them for quick breads. I’ll add handfuls to regular yeasted bread sometimes, too. Also, chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies, brownies, chocolate cake.  It’s good promise! Zucchini goes really well with chocolate, or cinnamon, really.  I like zucchini muffins and bread, too. Oh, and meatloaf. I almost always add a cup or two to meatloaves, and it makes them so moist and yummy. And we have an orzo and zucchini dish that was featured in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that works really well with both fresh and frozen shredded zucchini. It’s additively good. 
  • Puree and freeze. I roughly chop up cubes of zucchinis until I fill my biggest crockpot. Turn it on high, and after about two hours, hit it with your stick blender. I fill pint size canning jars and pressure-can. I use this mixture when I’m making soups all winter. It goes really well in potato soups, both regular white potatoes but also surprisingly well with sweet potatoes, too. It’s a quick way to thicken beef and lamb stews, too. 

Even after going through all of that, I think I’m only going to plant a few plants this year. Last year was a bit much!

Cold Weather Farming Outerwear

A photo of Lisa RichardsI had a hard time figuring out a really warm and farming friendly coat that would work well in cold and snowy weather. I mean, I know there are lots of great coats out there by Carhartt and companies like them, but I've never been able to afford that. I lust after some of the stuff from Rosie's Workwear, too, but again, too expensive for me.

I think I've really become a cheap Yankee, finally, after only 20 years of living in New Hampshire. Farmers are a pretty frugal bunch, though, aren't we?

My criteria were that it had to be waterproof, warm, and I didn't want hay to stick to it. I spend a lot of time kneeling in hay, hauling hay, and petting critters who are covered in hay.  It also must be really, really cheap. Those are some stiff requirements!

Lisa and a Tamworth hogI finally figured out that really a high quality ski suit was the answer.  How is that cheap, you might ask? Ebay and thrift shops. I find that the type of women who can afford those suits change them often to follow the current fashion trends and improvements in form or style, and they like to try out different colors and fabrics. I can often get one for $20.

The one I'm using right now I bought four years ago, and, despite heavy use, it's still in great shape. Ski suits are meant to be used! I've lost enough weight after farming full time for four years that it'll  now slip easily over jeans and a sweater. I love how easy it is to put on and dash out quickly. The leggings are meant to go over ski boots, so cover up my work boots just fine.



Delightful Ducks

A photo of Lisa RichardsOne of my favorite chores of the day is bringing water to our flock of Saxony ducks.

It really doesn’t matter what else is going on that day, but there’s going to be a few minutes of absolute pleasure when the ducks get fresh water, no matter what the weather. 

ducks wading pool 

When the weather is nice, I fill up a little wading pool for them every morning. We have other spots for them to swim, but I guess because this is the pool I used when they were ducklings, they like this one the best. They are so funny. They love to get right into the stream of water, and much merriment is had by all. Quack quack quack! We have both geese and dogs that would also like to play the game, but I make sure the ducks get some uninterrupted pool time of their very own. They are pretty wimpy, and easily scared away. I often turn over a bucket and sit with them for a few minutes. It’s such a lovely way to start my day.

ducks bug bar 

Ducks are fantastic at foraging for their own food. I love to watch them strip the seed heads off of grasses and weeds. They love bugs best of all, though. Every new puddle that appears is going to have ducks looking for bugs in it. When the weather is warm, we put out solar lights in their paddock. The bugs flock to the lights and the ducks gorge themselves on the feast. In the evening, they start to congregate around the lights, giddy with anticipation. They’ll tap tap tap on the lights -- can we get some service here please?! We sit out in our gazebo on warm summer nights and laugh at their impatience. It really cuts down on our grain bill.

poached duck egg 

Ducks are great egg layers. They lay early in the morning, very reliably. Duck eggs are fantastic for baking, making things rise higher than you can imagine, with a great texture. I also like to make maple custard with duck eggs and our very own maple syrup. Yum! I use duck eggs in homemade pasta, and because they are bigger than chicken eggs, I tend to use them for lunch rather than breakfast. A poached duck egg on left-over brown rice is the perfect fast lunch when I’m really busy.

duck soup 

Duck meat is just plain delicious. For special occasions, I will roast the whole duck, very simple and easy. But for a regular meal, I often split the duck into quarters and do something different with each part. There’s a lot of dark meat on a duck, which I love. I make stock with the carcass and make all sorts of Asian-inspired soups. Every year on our wedding anniversary, we take a couple of our ducks (one for us, one for the chef) to our favorite Chinese restaurant, where they prepare Peking Duck for us. That crispy skin is something I look forward to all year long!

duck fat 

Let’s not forget the duck fat! Duck fat is something quite special. It’s so easy to render. I do mine in a slow cooker, on low, overnight. I just strain it in the morning into a glass jar. Liquid gold! It gets pure white after it’s cooled off. My very favorite thing to do with duck fat is to simply fry potatoes in it. It’s so tasty. I keep meaning to do other more fancy things with it, but once I have a batch and do some potatoes, we just keep wanting to do it that way until it’s all gone. Freshly dug potatoes and duck fat is a marriage made in heaven.

We first tried Pekins because we were attracted to how quickly they would reach slaughter weight. But we turned out not to like them at all. The ducks laid their eggs any old place and searching for eggs every day got old really quickly. The only two duckling that hatched were two that got stuck under one of my turkey hens. The drakes were horrid – mean and nasty. They actually killed many girls by opening up wounds on their necks during mating. I had one who would rape a goose sitting on her eggs. We quickly got rid of all of them.

saxony ducks 

So we looked for a better breed, ones with good broodiness and mothering, a calmer disposition, drakes who were nice, reliable egg producer and tasty meat. Saxony ducks fit the bill! As an added bonus, they are also gorgeous. I like that you can tell the boys from the girls by color at a fairly young age. (Trying to find a drake feather on a young Pekin duck was almost impossible, and the ideal slaughter age is about 7 weeks.) The Saxony ducks are quite hardy, not bothered by the cold or the heat. They are listed as critical on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and we are happy to help preserve this fantastic breed. We got our ducklings originally from Holderread Waterfowl Farm.