The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Coldest Winter Ever?

March 3rd, 2015 by Ed Bruske


We’re passing a second winter on our new farm and we’ve been tested. Last year was one of the snowiest on record, with more than six feet of total snow. This February turned out to be the second-coldest ever in the Albany area with the mercury averaging 12.6 degrees. Only February 1934 was colder–by a mere half a degree–going all the way back to 1820 when they first started collecting data in these parts.

There are signs cabin fever has set in. A few days ago, my wife announced she’d had it. She was ready to move. A short while later she amended that to say, maybe just for January. But why just January? Heck, February would be a great time to spend on a beach somewhere south.

As you can see from the photo, our animals have no idea we’re setting records for cold. All they care about is having food to eat and water to drink. In the case of chickens, a snow-free area to scratch around in also is appreciated. We’re still collecting eggs from our two small flocks. I make the rounds about every hour, snatching eggs before they freeze or before the chickens eat them. One group of hens especially seems to have developed a habit of just hanging around inside the coop instead of outside with the grain feeder. They wait for an egg to hit the floor in one of the nesting boxes, then pounce. All I find is a pool of residual yolk, often with one of the hens pecking at it. There’s hardly anything more frustrating than paying good money for feed, only to have the eggs vanish like that.

My day starts with trucking hay to the livestock: half a bale to the four goats, a bale for the sheep, another half for the Jersey heifer. The goats then get a bit of grain and minerals. I set out four bowls, and they start their crazy game of musical bowls. The boy goat–Tigger–claims ownership of all four bowls. So he’s constantly running from one to the next, forcing the females to relocate to an unoccupied bowl. Then I hand-feed Emily, the cow, her grain out of a bucket. She’s eight months into her pregnancy now, showing a growing udder. She’s due a month from now–that will be a first for us. We’ll be learning how to milk and what to do with it.

This time of year, it pays to have some good reading material on hand. We can order anything online from a library system that includes a huge area of Upstate New York. We have electricity, a supermarket 15 minutes away. No gas lamps, no relying on canned goods. I’ve got plenty of modern gear to keep me warm. Really, except for the times you have to plow through a foot of snow to get to the chickens, winter could hardly be easier.

The nights are so quite, I mean utterly still. Standing outside on a cold, clear night I get lost in all the stars and the almost scary calm. Everything is completely frozen over: no buzzing insects, no chirping frogs to break the silence. I am in awe.

Still, a week on the beach sounds awfully nice.

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Wow: Mutton Shanks

February 27th, 2015 by Ed Bruske


Recently we dipped our toes into our new world of mutton with a simple stew and our sheep passed. But last night was the real test: shank, our favorite cut. The results were superb. Even my wife judged this slow-braised dish “excellent,” which is extremely important for the viability of our little farm. Years ago, when I was a freelancing food writer, my wife lost her taste for lamb after I subjected her to too much in the way ovine recipe research. Now that we are herders of sheep, the basement chest freezer is bound to fill with meat needing to be eaten.

We claimed for ourselves one of the two ewes recently culled from our flock. Both these ladies were nearly three years old. Could the meat possibly be edible? My own view is that mutton–from older sheep–is superior to young lamb, much as an aged Cabernet Sauvignon would outshine an ordinary red wine. The texture is very much the same, but the flavors are deeper, earthier, more complex. Yet there’s none of that “gamey” taste that people apparently fear from mutton. My guess is that very few people have ever eaten true mutton to actually know the difference. Or, they have eaten mutton that was incorrectly labeled “lamb” from the supermarket and didn’t even realize.

We are partial to the heartier cuts of meat that require long, slow cooking. Unfortunately, one sheep has only four shanks to give, so do take care in how you prepare them. The recipe I used derives originally from the Union Square Cafe in New York. The meat is initially seasoned and browned, of course, then cooked in a 250-degree oven for three hours in a broth of white wine and stock flavored with rosemary and mint. When the meat is practically falling off the bone, the lid comes off the pot and the dish bakes another 30 minutes with the oven temperature raised to 500 degrees.

Along with a salad, we served it with a mash of potatoes and celery root–a perfect winter meal, to our minds.

Bon appetit!

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