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Homemade Ricotta Cheese

We have nuns here in Brandenburg. They hail from Malta, originally, which is near enough to Italy that they like the same kinds of food. Like ricotta cheese. Not the store boughten kind, either. The nuns make their own ricotta, fresh, whenever they want. “Oh, it’s easy!” they told me in their heavy accents. “You just warm the milk and add a little vinegar, and then maybe just a little bit more, and then it’s done!” Well, I wasn’t finding it so easy. My curds wouldn’t come at all, or coagulated into a dense, sticky, not ricotta-y mess. But, I figured, if the nuns could do it, I could do it, so I kept at it, feeding my many failures to the pigs. At last, I have it all worked out, so my ricotta comes every time! Here’s what you do:

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First, you’ll need a gallon of milk. I hope your milk comes in glass jars. If it comes in plastic jugs, we maybe need to talk. You can make ricotta out of your boughten milk, but fresh-from-the-farm would be so much better, don’t you think? You can skim the cream off or use it whole. I usually use it whole, but if I didn’t have umpteen gallons of milk going through my kitchen every day, I’d probably save the cream for butter or coffee and use just the skim milk for cheese.

You’ll also need 1/4 cup of vinegar, but have a little more handy, just in case. Not too much; too much vinegar makes the curds clumpy and gooey.

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All right! Pour the milk into your pot, put a thermometer in it, and heat it up to 200°. Make sure it doesn’t scald on the bottom. Our old electric flat-top range always burned the milk if I didn’t watch it closely and stir often, but our new gas range hasn’t burned a thing yet, no matter how often I get distracted. Since it takes a while to heat the milk, and I’m easily distracted, I’m really appreciating this feature of our new range.

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Are we at 200° yet? Great! Go ahead and turn off the heat. Now, stirring constantly with up and down motions to draw it through, pour the vinegar slowly into the hot milk. You should see small curds developing.

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If it still looks quite milky, add a tiny bit of extra vinegar, just a teaspoon at a time here. Give it a minute to work. We’re looking for a good, clear separation of curds and whey without going overboard.

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See how the whey is kind of greenish now?

We’re going to let this sit for 10 minutes, so all the curds can rise to the top.

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I use these ricotta cheese baskets to drain my curds. I usually have some on hand for shareholders, along with extra rennet, but I haven’t placed an order with the cheese supply in a while. We’ll fix that in a couple of weeks. If you don’t have one, you can probably use a square of muslin in a colander. Don’t use cheesecloth; the weave is too loose and your curds will go right through!

Just scoop your curds out of your pot and lay them into your basket or muslin to drain. Ten or fifteen minutes is usually just right. If you let them drain too long, the cheese is pretty dry.

Stir in a 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of salt and you’re done!

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I like to eat it in the summer with some fresh, in-season peaches diced on top. The children like it with two tablespoons of sugar added along with a dash of vanilla extract. I scoop it into bowls like ice cream and put a dollop of strawberry jam on top. Brenna swears by drizzling a bit of honey on while it’s still warm. And although it is most commonly used to make lasagna, it’s a star player in all sorts of dishes, both savory and sweet.

Try a google search or just stay tuned to this blog. I’ve been on a ricotta kick lately and we’re making all sorts of yummy treats!

The Case of the Wandering Pig

“A little help here!”

Brenna and I were happily chatting away over the steady rhythm and hum of the milking machine when the call, slightly garbled, came to us from behind the barn.  I looked at her quizzically.  “Did you hear something out back?”

She shrugged and got up to check.  A moment later, she ran back in.  “Daddy’s back there with a pig!”  I was in the middle of milking a cow and could not leave her to help just yet, but Brenna grabbed a bucket of grain to try to lure the wayward pig inside.

Miss Piggy was disoriented and scared and having trouble seeing in the gathering darkness.  They were having a hard time enticing her in when I turned off the machine a few moments later.  “Here’s a feed pan,” I said.  “If she can get a taste, she should follow it right in to the stall.”  That did the trick!

Now that the pig was safely secured, I asked, “How’d she get out?”  She’d been grunting for her dinner when we left for the barn, so she hadn’t been out long.

“She went out through the corner by the apple tree,” David panted.  “I called, “Pig’s out!” but nobody came.” He looked at me a little accusingly.  “Then she got confused and she ran all the way down to the neighbors’ house and all the way back again.  I could have used some help.”

“Well, we’d have surely come if we could have heard you,” I said cheerfully, “but we can’t hear much over the milking machine, you know.” He knew, but he’d been distressed to find himself out chasing a pig after a long, tiring day and he’d lost his cool a little bit; that had made the job harder. Escaped animals are already scared and they won’t be caught if they sense any angst.

My baby heifers.  Unrelated to this whole story, except that they slept in the barn, too.  But they're pretty, aren't they? :-)

My baby heifers. Unrelated to this whole story, except that they slept in the barn, too. But they’re pretty, aren’t they? :-)

So Miss Piggy slept in the barn last night.  Daisy was displaced from her usual stall.  Maybelle was surprised and mildly alarmed at the strange grunting, slamming noises coming from next door.  Annabelle, who gets the main barn floor, poked her head over the door to see what she was dealing with.

I gave the pig a little alfalfa when I fed the cows, and a little more grain, and checked that the door was sturdy enough to withstand her powerful snout.  “Y’all are good hostesses,” I said to the cows.  “Be good, don’t worry and sleep tight.  All will be well.”

Morning brought it’s own problems.  The cows were upset by the change in their normal routine, and the pig was grunting anxiously from the corner stall.  We acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary, calmly cleaning stalls, brushing cows and going about our usual activities.  The cows followed our example and settled down.  By the time we had the third cow in for milking, it was light enough – and the barn was empty enough – to safely move our pig back home.  David carried a bucket full of milk, which she followed willingly enough, but I couldn’t get the gate unfastened in time and she lost interest and wandered off again.  It took David a few minutes to get her back to the gate.  Then, she wandered through easy as pie!  I had the bucket by now, but I couldn’t see her dish to pour the milk out for her.  “Where is your dish?” I said aloud, and she ambled along in front of me with obvious purpose.  “I guess you know where it is.” So I followed.

Meanwhile, David repaired the fence, so, hopefully, she won’t get out again.  At least, not that way!  As we walked back to the house, she seemed to be investigating the gate that she hadn’t known was there…

At Least It’s Not a Polar Vortex

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It’s cold, but it could be worse!  Last year around this time, we experienced our first ever polar vortex.  I don’t think anybody had ever heard that weather term before!  It was so cold that we kept the cows indoors all that day, and most of the next, too.  We just didn’t want to risk the frostbite.  I was thinking we’d have to do that again yesterday – keep them inside – but it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d expected.

After the morning milking, we let them out to graze for as long as they could before the temperature dropped to unreasonable levels.  I spent a lot of time walking back and forth between buildings, so I had plenty of opportunity to evaluate the wind and the cows.  Interestingly, it just wasn’t that bad.  Nobody seemed to be suffering from the cold, the wind didn’t feel too sharp on my not-fur-lined skin, and the sun was shining, so we just let everything ride.

Around 2:30 or so, there was a definite change, though.  My cheeks were starting to feel like they’d been cut by tiny slivers of wind-driven ice whenever I went out.  We went out for the evening milking an hour later, before it got much worse.

Sometimes, in the height of summer, we have a hard time getting the cows in early if we need to change up the schedule for some reason, but we never have that problem in the winter.  They can’t wait to get tucked into their cozy stalls, safe from cold and wet and coyotes.  So when they saw me coming, they hightailed it over to the barn and met me at the gate.  It was a nice treat to milk in full daylight again!

Then we bedded them down in fluffy stalls, with double rations of hay.  We wanted to close up the chicken coops then, too, while were still outdoors.  The chickens were a little more ornery, but we got them all rounded up.  Meg and I were freezing by the time we finished our chores, and we were grateful to get back indoors to the cozy fire!

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On the Farm

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It’s been a quiet winter thus far.  No extreme cold, no heavy snows or crusts of ice.  Our biggest issue is actually mud.  Our biggest issue is always mud. :-)

The cows are milking well, and we’re getting ready to start breeding them back for next year.  Truth be told, I should have been on this a couple of months ago, so our calves will be born a tad bit later than I’d like.  And some will have to wait till spring.  Our late summer calves this year, though, were so beautiful, so sturdy and obviously well nourished, that I’d really like to lean toward fall calves.  I suppose that’s why the old timers do it that way?  Once again, we have much to learn from the conventional farmers.  There are reasons they do things the way they do, and to completely ignore their wisdom just because we don’t like some facet of their business, well, that’s like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

So we watch and test and learn from our mistakes, always seeking the best, both for ourselves and for our livestock.

The Chicken or the Egg?

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This one hen escaped from her coop some months ago and has been running willy nilly around the farm.  For the past few weeks, she’s been laying in the barn somewhere, but sleeping outside on the manure wagon.  Last night, she decided to go ahead and sleep in the barn, too.

Did I ever tell you that chickens can’t really see in the dark?  They’re fairly helpless.  And we milk long before dawn.

This poor little hen spent the first 45 minutes of her morning circling the main floor, clucking in angst.  Finally, she spied the remains of a bale of hay and, with relief, made herself a cozy nest.

And that’s just where I found her egg tonight.

A Decision to Be Made: How Much Do We Care About GMOs?

We’ve been using a soy-free feed on our farm since we purchased our first cow back in 2009.  In my mind, soy is the most deadly foodstuff on the market, and I absolutely do not want my children consuming any more than they have to.  I am fairly satisfied with our current feed mix, but I have talked to both shareholders and prospective shareholders about trying for a GMO-free feed, too.  Let’s talk this through.

Are GM Foods Actually Dangerous?

I am not personally convinced that genetically modified foods are dangerous in and of themselves.  Most people who believe they are will say something like: “We’re consuming DNA now that our bodies were never meant to utilize.”  The reality is, though, that we change the DNA of our plants and livestock all the time.  It’s called selective breeding.  Every time we save the seeds from that one tomato that didn’t get blight, or hatch the eggs from just our best layers, we’re altering the characteristics – and DNA – of the species.

The GMO crops in question have been altered in the lab, primarily for resistance to the herbicide Roundup.  This allows farmers to spray their fields in order to kill weeds without affecting their crops.  I don’t think the main problem here is the change in the plants’ DNA; the existence of Roundup-resistant weeds suggests that, over time, corn, too, could have naturally mutated into a resistant variety.  I think the real problem is the Roundup.

I’ve read a fair bit of research lately about the effects of the miniscule amounts of Roundup residue that may be in our GM foods, and it’s pretty bad.  I also checked to see if the cows could possibly act as a filter for the residue, but it seems Roundup passes through milk.  Not only that, but it appears to build up in the body, like mercury.  Lifetime exposure matters.

Our Current Feed

We have our feed custom-mixed by Richard Uhl in Corydon, Indiana.  It contains:

30% distillers grain
20% corn gluten
30% wheat
20% oats

The distillers grain actually comes from our local distilleries, and wonder of wonders, they do not accept GMO grains.  The corn gluten is trucked in from Cincinatti, and Richard suspects it is probably a byproduct of ethanol production.  That means it will be from GM corn and will most likely contain Roundup residues.  The wheat is all locally sourced, and in spite of an article circulating to the contrary, none of it has been sprayed with any herbicide.  Also, there are no GM wheat varieties on the market.  Oats are not GM, either, but they aren’t grown around here; our oats arrive from somewhere up north.  I suspect that the oats, like wheat, are actually not routinely sprayed, especially by smaller farms, and can be considered safe.

That means we have a single ingredient that can not be assumed to be free of Roundup residue – the corn gluten – and each cow consumes approximately 1.6 pounds of it each day.

To put this in perspective a little bit, the daily diet of each cow in the winter consists of about 40 pounds of grass hay, 10 pounds of alfalfa, and 8 pounds of our grain mix, which includes the corn gluten.  They also still forage a little in the pastures.  The corn gluten makes up less than 3% of their total diet.

Alternatives to Corn Gluten

We’re looking at legumes, probably peas or lentils.  Legumes are the only feedstuff that approximates the protein and energy profile of the corn gluten.  On the positive side, I think it’s a more nutritious option for the cows, and therefore for us who drink their milk.  On the negative side, peas and lentils are not grown locally, and like oats, they’re going to be expensive.  I may have to adjust the balance of the other ingredients, too. I feed alfalfa hay summer and winter, and that is also a legume.  Too many legumes in the diet cause loose stools.

The Bottom Line

Unless I’m able to locate a cheaper source of peas or lentils, it’s going to translate into a $4.00 increase in monthly share costs, as well as increases in the price of cream, butter and cheese.

What do you think, prospective and current shareholders?  Is eliminating GMO corn gluten important enough to you that you’re willing to pay for it?  Or are you willing to live with the small amount of GMO feed in the cows’ diet?  This is going to be entirely up to you!