Sunday, August 24, 2014

Wedding Beef Cheeks

Arrowhead ranch barn
Yesterday Steve and Joella got married at Arrowhead Ranch. Audrey read the hillarious Book of Love poem by Stephin Merritt. And Rose read the serious Pablo Neruda love Sonnett #17. Great herds of clouds lumbered over the mountains and across the prairie, churning up drenching bouts of rain and dripping trees. And in between the towering white shouldered beasts with their dark flanks, blue autumn filled the sky as still and patient as paint on canvas. And I thought, well Steve and Joella got the rain, but they got the clouds too. 

For the wedding supper, I braised a dutch oven of beef cheeks. It's a special dish we usually only have at harvest time. The bittersweet harvest of our beautiful steers. I'm thankful for the skill and compassion of the mobile harvest service. I'm thankful for the healthy animals we raise that feed so many families. And I try to show respect by using as much as we can, like the beef cheeks. Which I had never cooked until a few years ago.

Dales Mobile Harvest 
One of my heroes

Trimmed beef cheeks browning
Ready for veggie roux and wine braise

First I trim the cheeks, brown them and then braise them in wine, with roux of cooked down veggies. Hours of slow, patient cooking rewards us with a rich and tender dish fit for a celebration.  A long marriage is kind of like a braising cut of meat, that complicated web of muscle, tendon and fat that takes patience and time to meld into something worth savoring.

The vegetables at the wedding were no less delicious. I tasted Mary's first slaw of the summer from her own beautiful and perfect cabbage (grown under netting), with her first green pepper so fresh it seemed to burst when she sliced it. And tiny yellow tomatoes that you could eat by the handful, and fat red tomato slices lolling in fresh basil leaves.  
Morning harvest
This morning I waded into the garden, searching under the sprawling squash plants to find the cucumbers. I was rewarded with enough for another batch of honey curry pickles.

I first learned to make these with Linda Donnelly, from the Old Fashioned Recipe books our husbands gave us for Mother's Day. The husbands had gone to town for supplies. When one of them saw the books on sale at the merc, they had the brilliant idea of purchasing us each one. It was my first Mother's Day gift.

Honey curry pickles

These pickles are zippy, crunchy and perfect on sandwiches. I hope to make enough this year to give some away, maybe for a wedding gift.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Paradox of Summer

 When I started grad school I left Mike and the three kids back in Wallowa County and headed to the U of Iowa in Iowa City. I rented a room in house with three other adults, and soon after my arrival something happened that told me, "You're not in Oregon any more..."
The beginning of one of many fires
My roommates had watched a movie that included a scene with firefighters eating a meal at a large camp. They asked me,"Why were those people all wearing yellow shirts and green pants, like some kind of uniform?" "Because they are firefighters, it's nomex, fire retardant clothing."  "Firefighters? You mean firemen?" "No, firefighters, you know like for wild fires..." No they didn't know.
Sara mowing toward the Pumpkin Creek Cabin

The concept of wildland fires was outside their experience. No waking up to smoke so thick you can't see more than a half mile. No worries that fire will race over the ridgetop to consume the winter range you depend on for your cattle, destroy your pain-stakingly constructed fences, burn up your home, threaten your cattle, or threaten the lives of people working to fight the fires.
Mike is really fast with his scythe

It's a paradox, one of the most beautiful and fun times of the year with blissful river swimming in rushing rapids and deep pools, the harvest of berries, fruits and yummy vegetables. The wonderful feedback from customers ordering more delicious Bunchgrass Beef shares.

Golden plums at Magpie Ranch

And then the worry, hundred degree temperatures, forecasts for wind gusts up to 50 mph, thick smoke in every direction, the reality of climate change that increases our fire frequencies, challenges our actions and decisions, and brings people we love into dangerous situations.
Hoses and sprinklers

Fire pumps
Sigh. We do what we can for fire protection at the ranch. We enjoy each moment of summer fun. We give thanks for the hard work of fire fighters and we pray for a change in the weather, for no wind, for cooler temperatures, for rain.

Sara cools off on 100 degree day

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Happy Bulls, Baby Elk, Bounty of Apricots

Mike took the bulls out to the Zumwalt to reunite with the cow herd in June. We winter all our animals together on the Imnaha, but we separate the bulls from the cows in the spring time. That way the cows will be bred to calve to when the grass is abundant.
"I'm back ladies!"

Blade bellers and Tank befriends a heifer

The bulls were also eager for a good scratch and rub on the pine bark.
Tank and Blade getting a rub

We saw a lot of cow elk when we returned to the canyon to pick up the last of the horses. Their adorable long legged calves bounced alongside as they moved up the ridge from the river. One cow and her calf took up residence in the box elder grove, visiting the orchard daily and cleaning up the windfall apricots. 
Elk cows and calves at the river

The apricots came on with a vengeance in the hundred degree weather. The fruit went from green to falling off the trees in three days! Luckily the hot weather also made for good river swimming, although the water was still too high and fast to really embrace the current. 
A few of the hundreds of pounds of apricots

Dawson and Cammie water fight

Even with the heat, the water was cold enough that the warm rocks felt good. 
Dawson warms up after his swim

Wes practices rock throwing

Dried, canned and jammed, apricots

We only get a big apricot crop about every four years as frost often nips the buds in spring. Between marketing beef, herding steers, and my day job, the apricot bounty was jammed, canned and dried. We're looking forward to the sunny taste of this beautiful fruit all winter long.

Last evening, we headed out to the steer pasture, hoping to get in a wayward steer who had fallen in love with the neighbor's cow herd.
Mike and Chester, off to bring in the awol steer
 It turned into an adventure, with the steer covering most of the 300 acre pasture. I watched Mike and Chester exhibiting their skills, jumping irrigation ditches, cutting and sprinting to head the steer, riding quietly behind the herd, gently nudging through and poking a small bunch toward the gate. At the last minute, the big steer and a bull charged for the open gate, I swung my bullwhip as Mike surged forward cutting between the two animals. Crack! The bull turned back. Crack! The steer, trying to bolt past me, turned into the next gate and the pasture where he belonged. I was impressed. We got him in, that stubborn steer.

Ten minutes later, with Chester in the trailer, we headed for home, only to see the steer jump a fence and trot back toward the cows. Sigh, we'll be back another day....

The end of my bull whip

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Branding, Trailing and Family Meeting

No wonder the past month is a bit of a blur. We gathered, sorted, branded, trailed the cows to the summer range, hauled steers to mountain valley pasture, planted the garden, and started on the fruit harvest!
Jordan sorts cattle on branding day

The day  before branding, Mike and I gathered the cattle after I drove down from town. We rode to the southern end of the ranch and down to the riverbar, where the yearlings and two-year olds practiced their shenanigans while we got the herd pointed uphill. Once they climed to the bench they settled into an easy trail down river.
Steers sorted and waiting to head for mountain pasture

Almost home, dusk began to creep in and we saw Gabe and Cammie's headlights coming down the canyon and knew they'd have dinner waiting. Then right above the house, the yearlings and two-year olds staged a mutiny, running everywhere but down the trail, testing the patience of dogs and herders, before they finally climbed off the bench to the river and through the gate.

Jacinda and Zeke, ready to work

Next morning,  Zeke and Jacinda came down and Jordan came and brought a horse. And Jerry and Liz showed up from Flora. And Paul and Molly and 'the doc' in residence from the clinic in Enterprise where Molly works.

Jordan with calmest calf 

It was  hot, but not too hot. We had a good crew and all went smoothly, other than one near-disaster at the end when Mike's horse got a rope under his tail, and set off bucking and tying himself up in knots.
Jerry, 'Doc', Liz, Molly

Luckily, Chester stayed upright and Mike stayed on. The doc didn't have to practice his medicine (he confessed he had no kit with him) and we all got to retire to the shade for a well deserved meal.

Gabe and Bird, Jerry, Zeke and Mike on ground crew

We feasted on pork from Amaranta Farm, salads, cold watermelon and cobbler.
Jacinda and Zeke - after

Weston rides the chow line 

A few days later the cows were topping out. 

Above Log Creek

Prairie and Gabe spent Fathers Day with Mike, trailing to the head of Alder Creek. The temperatures were blessedly cool and the cattle traveled easily.
'Mound scabland' ecological site  

That night we gathered for a family barbecue, the gift of a new wheelbarrow to Mike, and a meeting about the future of the ranch.

Mike and Chester, head of Alder Creek

It felt good to be together, to have accomplished another move from winter range to summer and to enjoy the delicious beef we raise.

Family meeting at Cammie and Gabe's

It felt good to share what is important to each of us, to hear about what the ranch gives to each of us, and what we each give to the ranch.

Wes contributes to the discussion

We listened to each other and we made a few decisions. It was good.  

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Storms, Puppy Training and 'Slow Life'

I'm freezing, the wind is whipping around and a cup of coffee sounds real good. Then it's hot, beastly hot, and I'm looking for my water bottle. Summer storms in the canyon -- roasting one minute, shivering the next. A storm blew through while Mike and I were finishing up corral work in preparation for branding this coming weekend.
Storm headed in from the south

Noon-day dark

Dark skies midday, but only a sprinkle of rain. It's still green, and the grass is lush and tall, but we could use more precipitation. The specter of drought never leaves us for long and we are thankful for every bit of moisture.
Old friends, shady locust tees

After the storm passes,  Mike goes back to hanging a gate and I mow the yard.  Last week Mike spotted seven snakes in one day, three rattlers, two bull snakes and a couple garter snakes. Mowing will help the snakes decide to steer clear of the yard and make it easier to spot them if they come close to the house. With grandboys and a pup, we are especially vigilant.

Bell practices her 'eye' on Punch

Bell, the pup, is growing like crazy. She races after the big dogs with amazing speed and shows her natural instinct to stalk and head everything that moves. But she's still a pup, dragging off shoes, getting underfoot, ignorant of snakes, trucks and horses. It will be a year before she really starts to work.

For now, we focus on having her bond with us for life, instilling the desire to please, to come, sit, down, and stay. We're watching her personality develop, reminding her that we are the top dogs, while trying to keep her safe and confident, avoiding bad experiences and harsh judgments that might limit her ability to thrive as a working dog. I often say that the dogs are worth their weight in gold. We couldn't run the ranch without them.

I've been taking time to draw and paint each time I'm at the river. It feels decadent sometimes, to wander off with a sketch pad or my little watercolor set, instead of heading out to work on the new fence or prune the fruit trees or any of the other myriad tasks awaiting attention.

I believe that work is a way of honoring place, of knowing it and knowing ourselves. But so is wandering, just looking at rocks along the river bank, admiring the softness of a fuzzy mullein, the way it catches light. Or sitting in the shade of a sprawling box elder tree, listening to the voices of birds that I can't name without seeing. 

Sainfoin flower
Recently I heard a community development colleague use the term 'slow life' to refer to his vision for Northeast Oregon.  Like 'slow food' that encourages us to savor and appreciate regional and seasonal food, and  'slow money' that encourages us to move our investments from frenetic disconnected Wall Street to local businesses owned by people we know, he was trying to go one step further, to 'slow life' - where we can savor our relationships with people and places.

Music box from the Black Forrest

 Back at the house, I notice the wooden music box on a corner shelf. Sent to us by friends in Germany, it has a playroom scene. When you wind it up, Beethoven's Fur Elise plays, a toy train revolves around a little boy, a mother jiggling a baby carriage nearby.  Far across the ocean, our friends picked out this gift, thinking of us taking time to enjoy it with our grandsons and other children who grace our lives.  

I dust off the music box, wind it up and place it in the middle of the kitchen table. While tinkling notes brighten the quiet kitchen, Mike and I savor glasses of fizzy water floating golden orbs of home canned peaches and topped with rare cubes of ice from the tiny freezer of our propane fridge. We raise a toast to 'slow life'.

Slow life  


From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bloomin' Barrels o' Cactus

Barrel cactus - in bloom! 
 Never before in my life have I seen the barrel cactus in bloom on Cactus Mountain! What a glorious and wonderful surprise awaited us when we took a picnic and headed north for an excursion with guests, Judy and Rick, winners of the Magpie Ranch stay at the Fishtrap auction.
Judy and Rick at Lone Pine Saddle

Rick and Judy traveled from Rattlesnake Canyon in the Columbia River Gorge to spend the weekend with us. We had some great discussions, exploring the intersections of our lives and pondering Oregon's geology and the massive basalt flows that link our two canyon homes. 

Rare sight - barrel cactus - AND its BLOOMING! 

Rick and Judy could probably tell from my near hysteria that the blooming barrel cactus meant a lot to me.  It was a fine day, with a hike to Lone Pine saddle, a picnic near the Palisades and a glimpse of the McClaran girls working on the new bunkhouse at Cow Creek.

Sunflowers, plox, brodia, gilia... 

Looking south from Cactus Mountain

It had been several years since either Mike or I had been that far north on the Dug Bar road. Grinding up the steep rutted switchbacks, I was reminded of my one trip over Cactus Mtn. in a two-wheel drive Suburban.

Mike was working at Dug Bar that winter and the kids and I were headed down to spend some time with him. Going in wasn't so bad, but coming out there had been a snow storm. After topping out on Cactus Mtn., I headed down the switchbacks toward Cow Creek with the automatic transmission in low gear and quickly found myself sledding out of control, hoping I'd make the next corner. We sold the Suburban right after that.

Picnic at the Palisades

The weather threatened squalls during our picnic, but we lucked out and the storms held off until we made it back to Horse Creek. I planned to cook some delicious Bunchgrass Beef for our dinner and right after Mike got the fire going, the rain and hail hit. 

Stormy cooking
 Cookie protests working conditions

The downpour was short-lived and dinner only briefly delayed while the cook protested working conditions.  The meal turned out great, T-bones and balsamic-marinated round steaks, with asparagus fresh from the garden. 

We savored the harvest with our guests.

Storm's over, cook is happy again.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.