Cooking From the Ranch Wife’s Garden

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Summer apples, grown on our trees.

A while back, I posted an excerpt from the book I’ve been working on (for the last five years). At the time it was a book about my garden. Now it’s a book about my garden and my kitchen, as the two are inextricably twined. Since I have no idea when I will have enough time to get back to the book, I’ll be posting excerpts here. It keeps the conversation going and allows me more time to do other things – like take care of pandemic patients and feed my own family. Hope you like it!

Power’s out? We can still make butter.

My family cooks (and eats!) Humans have been cooking, eating and enjoying food since Ugg (or more likely Mrs. Ugg, who was always on the lookout for ways to reduce her workload) first tried a little barbequed mastodon that had been hit by lightning or caught in a prairie fire. When you raise your own food, the concept of eating to live takes on a whole new meaning. You don’t, for example, plan a trip just when the asparagus starts to ripen. Missing even one harvest day can change those tender, delicate little spears into rock-hard feathery stalks.

I include a few things in my definition of cooking that might make the purists raise an eyebrow, but I’ve been causing raised eyebrows most of my life, so I don’t intend to start worrying about it now. I include making fermented dill pickles, raw apple cider, home-made pectin, corned beef, fresh sausage and similar delicacies under the heading of cooking. In the days before you could run to the grocery whenever you wanted a meal, the ranch wife had to keep such goodies on her larder shelves or in the spring house. I also consider the issue of managing the stored food supply as a kitchen issue. When you’re storing your potatoes and apples, you’d better check on them periodically to make sure one bad one doesn’t spoil the whole batch. In the process, I’ve learned a few tricks.

Stocking up for winter; fire cider and fermented pickles.

I like to cook and I like to eat (and my figure, such as it is, shows it!). Sometimes that means a salad thrown together with whatever’s in the fridge or a quick stir-fry with homemade plum sauce, and sometimes that means a thoroughly decadent chocolate cheesecake with caramel topping for my daughter’s birthday. There are times when life is completely crazy around here and the crockpot gets a workout on a regular basis. There are others when we have popcorn and a glass of cold raw milk for dinner.

I’m not a big fan of fancy tools unless there really is no other way to do something. Most of my kitchen implements are basics that can be used for a variety of tasks. I’m also not a fan of exotic ingredients that come from far-away lands, with a few exceptions, such as coffee, chocolate and spices. I admit my principles are elastic in this respect. For example, my brother, who lives in Oregon, likes to go deep sea fishing. He gave me a chunk of fresh tuna he’d caught. While I wouldn’t spend the money to go fishing in that fashion, I’m willing to have an occasional treat at his expense. I would not buy fresh-caught tuna, though, as it’s too expensive.

These eggs feed us, pigs, dogs, cats and (if hard-boiled and smashed) the chickens themselves.

You’ll notice that I don’t add any comments about what a particular recipe will serve. I find that many recipes vastly under- or over-estimate people’s appetites. The other thing is that real food, as opposed to the stuff that comes shrink-wrapped or in a box, is much more filling, so odds are you’ll eat smaller portions. Because my recipes use real ingredients rather than prepackaged convenience foods, there is normal variation between, say, the size of the potatoes or peppers or how wet the sour cream is, which affects the consistency of the batter. When your ingredients are home grown, you might be using the small potatoes that aren’t big enough for bakers, so you need 10 instead of four. And since much of my cooking is sort of made up as I go along, the final outcome can vary from one time to another. If you use bacon instead of sausage for breakfast burritos, for example, you’ll probably have fewer burritos because the sausage is bulkier. If you use potatoes instead of cooked rice, ditto. Soups and stews are another good example, as is any dish that incorporates leftovers. Ballpark, most of these will serve four to six people. If something really makes a lot, I’ll note that.

I also tend to cook by eye and feel, as many experienced cooks do. While there are some recipes I won’t tinker with – cakes are probably the prime example, as a cake needs precise proportions – with most others, I’ll adjust. I made some zucchini bread the other day, for example, and I could tell that I had more zucchini than the amount called for in the recipe, which meant the batter was wetter than usual. So I cut back on the fluid (soured milk in this case) and added a little flour.

A lot of what I serve isn’t really cooked in the traditional sense of the word, especially in summer. When it’s still 100 degrees at 8 PM, cooking has little appeal. After rummaging around in the garden for things like cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions and radishes half an hour before dinner, the best thing to do is just wash, slice and serve. Really fresh, tasty vegetables like that are much better as is – although you might add a little salt. When the blackberries are ripe, who wants to make a cobbler? Pour on a little raw cream and add a spoonful of raw honey.

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