Monday, October 27, 2014

Apple Cider Braised Pork Shoulder Steaks

+ Clara-style Braised Carrots

Impossibly tender. Overflowing with flavor. The best pork we've ever eaten. 
Paired with equally fantastic braised carrots.

I consider this simple pork shoulder steak recipe one of my greatest culinary achievements. Eighteen months ago, I didn't know what pork shoulder steaks were and I didn't know the first thing about braising.

I wrote an entire column about my experience with braising and these steaks. Here's one of the best excerpts:

I opened the package of steaks, took one look at the vast network of connective tissue, and thought, "Oh, gosh, I can't broil these."

So, I pulled out my trusty cookbook and tried to figure out how in the heck pork shoulder steaks are supposed to be cooked. My cookbook did a very nice job explaining what pork shoulder steaks were and said they are best when braised, but didn't include a recipe for braising them.

Where my cookbook failed me, the internet saved me. A search for braised pork shoulder steaks returned a handful of recipes. None of them looked very appealing, but they at least gave me an idea of how to attempt braising and some guidelines for cooking times.
Note: The second half of that column is about what happened when I tried to make these steaks with an herbed rub. And the reason why this recipe is now very simple.

Several packages of pork shoulder steaks later, I now have an amazing recipe for preparing these steaks. I'm guessing that most people don't go out and buy pork shoulder steaks from their meat counter. I probably wouldn't have – they look intimidating. Our steaks came from the pigs we raised, so I felt obliged to find a way to prepare them. And I had an abundant supply of steaks to practice with.

It's really too bad that pork shoulder steaks don't get as much attention as, say, pork chops or loin roasts, because, in my opinion, they are the best cut of pork. The secret, of course, is how they're prepared. For these steaks, braising is the key. By slow cooking, half submerged in seasoned liquid, these steaks become melt-in-your-mouth tender and immensely flavorful. The connective tissue melts away during cooking and contributes greatly to the flavor of the steaks and the braising liquid.

As Dan said after my first attempt at braising pork shoulder steaks, "This is the best meat ever."

Lots of recipes for braising pork include vegetables and complicated sauces, but I don't add anything to the roasting pan besides the steaks and the braising liquid. The braising liquid for this recipe is apple juice, cider vinegar, and tiny bit of seasoned salt.

One of the keys to braising is first browning the meat. I brown these steaks in butter, for two reasons. First, butter adds a savory flavor that pairs well with the apple and cider. Second, I always have butter on hand.

Melt the butter over medium heat until it's nice and bubbly.

Then, add the steaks. I brown them for three minutes on each side.

Just until they're lightly browned.

I used to make this recipe with two steaks, but that isn't enough to feed all of us anymore. So now I make this dish with three steaks. If you're using three steaks, add another tablespoon of butter to the pan before browning the third steak.

Once the steaks are all browned and transferred to the roasting pan, add a little apple juice to the pan, and stir with a rubber spatula to dissolve all the browned bits. Then scrape/pour this pan juice over the steaks.

Cover the roasting pan. If your pan has a tight fitting lid, use that. Or, use aluminum foil. I poke a couple holes in the foil with a meat thermometer. I've found that the steaks braise best when a little steam can escape.

Place the roasting pan in a 325°F oven and set your timer for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, work quickly to flip the steaks over, reseal the pan, and return the pan to the oven. Then cook for another 45 minutes.

When the steaks are done, they'll be fork-tender and well browned. The braising liquid will be reduced and full of flavor.

To serve pork, remove bones, trim fat, and break meat into small chunks. Pour braising liquid over meat before serving.

*     *     *     *     *

I (almost) always make these pork shoulder steaks with stove-top braised carrots. When there's about a half-hour left on the timer for the steaks, I start the carrots.

This recipe for braised carrots is a combination of two recipes. The inspiration for the seasoning came from a cooked carrot recipe our friend Clara made for us one time when we were visiting. The cooking method comes from Joy of Cooking.

I use peeled, ready-to-eat petite baby carrots from the grocery store for convenience. Feel free to use regular carrots that have been peeled, quartered, and cut into 2½ inch sticks.

Add water, butter, brown sugar, lemon juice and salt to a large sauté pan set over medium heat. The pan needs to have a tight-fitting lid and be big enough to hold the carrots in a single layer.

Once the butter has melted, stir to dissolve the sugar.

Add the carrots in a single layer and cover the pan.

When the braising liquid starts to boil, reduce the heat to low. The liquid should just barely simmer. Cook for 20 minutes and then check for tenderness. If you can press through the carrots with the side of spoon, they are done. If not, cover and cook for another 5 minutes.

When the carrots are done, there should be only a little liquid left in the pan. If there is more than a little, continue cooking, uncovered, until the liquid reduces.

I like these carrots with sesame seeds, but my kids don't, so I sprinkle the seeds on after I've plated my carrots. Otherwise, toss the sesame seeds with the carrots before serving.

Both the carrots and the pork make great leftovers. Just be sure to package the pork with the braising liquid.

Apple Cider Braised Pork Shoulder Steak

yield: 4-6 servings
time: 15 minutes prep + 90 minutes cook

2 - 3 pork shoulder steaks (1½ to 2¼ pounds)
2 - 3 tablespoons butter
1¼ cups apple juice (10 fl. oz.), divided
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
½ teaspoon seasoned salt

Large sauté pan
Roasting pan with lid (or use aluminum foil), large enough to hold steaks in single layer
Rubber spatula

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Combine 1 cup of apple juice (you'll use remaining ¼ cup later), cider vinegar, and seasoned salt in roasting pan. Stir to dissolve salt. Set roasting pan near stove.

In sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Once butter starts to bubble, place two steaks in pan and brown for 6 minutes, turning half way with tongs. Transfer browned steaks to roasting pan.

If making three steaks, add remaining tablespoon of butter to pan, brown third steak, and transfer steak to roasting pan.

Remove sauté pan from heat, add remaining ¼ cup of apple juice, and stir with spatula to dissolve browned bits. Pour pan juice over steaks in roasting pan.

Cover roasting pan. If using aluminum foil, poke 3 small holes in foil.

Place roasting pan in oven and cook for 90 minutes, turning steaks after 45 minutes. When steaks are done, they should be well browned and extremely tender.

Remove bones, trim fat, and break steaks into chunks (don't shred). Pour braising liquid over meat before serving.

Clara-style Braised Carrots
yield: 4-5 servings
time: 30 minutes

1 12 - 16 oz bag of petite baby carrots
½ cup water
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
sesame seeds (optional)

Combine water, butter, sugar, and lemon juice in a sauté pan over medium heat. The pan needs to have a lid and be large enough to hold the carrots in a single layer. Once butter has melted, stir to dissolve sugar and combine ingredients.

Add carrots to pan in a single layer and cover pan with lid. As soon as braising liquid starts to boil, reduce heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes. Check carrots for tenderness. If you can slice through them easily with a spoon, they are done. If not, continue cooking. As soon as carrots are tender, depending upon how tightly the lid fits on the pan, the braising liquid may be partly or significantly reduced. If carrots are tender and braising liquid remains in pan, remove cover and simmer until liquid is reduced to almost none.

Sprinkle braised carrots with sesame seeds, if using.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Monarchs, milkweed, and more

What started with the excitement of finding a monarch caterpillar on some milkweed buds  (below) turned into a summer-long learning project for our entire family.

At Bruce the Bug Guy's bug show, Bruce said that rearing monarch caterpillars was pretty easy to do. So when we found this one, we brought it back to the house with us, along with a couple milkweed leaves.

While trying to figure out how best to take care of this caterpillar, I read that rearing can increase a caterpillar’s chances of making it to adulthood by nearly 90%. So we brought a few more caterpillars in and then a few more. I accidentally brought a monarch egg in on a milkweed leaf, so we raised that caterpillar after it hatched, too.

Rearing the monarchs gave us a chance to observe the caterpillars up close and provided an opportunity to learn about the monarch life cycle.

It was also inspiring to think that maybe we were helping the monarch population increase, just a little. I've since learned that the best thing we can do to increase the monarch population is provide more milkweed and other flowering plants for monarchs to feed on.

Monarch caterpillars, chrysalides and butterflies

We hatched out several monarch eggs after I brought that first one in. It's almost unbelievable that such tiny eggs are where monarchs get their start.

We watched as the newly hatched caterpillars ate their eggshells (called chorions) and then the tiny hairs on the bottom sides of the milkweed leaves. Then they graduated to eating actual leaves. They molted and grew like crazy. Then they repeated the process – molt and grow – three more times. We got to watch the caterpillars shimmy out of their old skin and emerge all wrinkly and ready to grow.

After the last molt, the caterpillars' appetite and rate of growth would really increase. They filled out their velvety, wrinkly skin to become the plump caterpillars everyone thinks of when they think of monarch caterpillars.

One thing we learned is that monarch caterpillars' color patterns vary. Most have more black, but some have more white.

When it seemed like they possibly couldn't eat anymore, the really cool part started. The caterpillars left the milkweed and started climbing. Most selected a spot on the covers of the containers we kept them in. The caterpillar below chose a branch. Some would crawl around for hours, I assume trying to pick the perfect spot; others climbed up, picked a spot within minutes and started building their silk buttons.

Once their silk buttons were formed, the caterpillars inched forward until they could grab the button with their back feet. Hanging on tight, they would slowly let go with the rest of their feet and dangle down into a J shape.

After 12-24 hours hanging in J, the caterpillars transformed into chyrsalides. This is the part that prompted lots of questions from Dan and Monika, like, "How do they know when to make their chrysalis?"

Ten days later, the chrysalides darkened and the wing patterns of the butterfly inside became visible.

Like the forming of the chrysalis, the butterflies' emergence from the chrysalides happens very quickly. We still haven't watched a butterfly emerge from the very start.

Dan and Monika were really surprised that the shell of the chrysalis was clear. They thought it was tinted green, because for most of the pupal phase, the chrysalis looked green.

When the butterflies emerge, their wings are soft, small, and wrinkled from being tucked inside the chrysalides. Their abdomens are full of fluid. The butterflies contract their abdomens, pumping the fluid into their wings to expand them.

Once their wings reach full size, the butterflies hang with their wings pointing down for hours to let their wings harden.

The first time we watched a caterpillar pupate, I didn't take any pictures or videos. I just wanted to watch without watching through a lens. Dan, Monika, and I sat together and just watched. Before the transformation started, I had the kids hypothesize about how they thought the caterpillar would form its chrysalis. (I had seen pictures of the process, but never watched it happen in real life.) Neither child guessed that it would happen the way it did.

This caterpillar was only the second of the dozens we reared that I happened to witness pupating from start to finish. The container interfered with the pictures a little, but it also made it possible to see the pupa inserting its cremaster into the silk button, which was incredibly cool. (The cremaster is the black stem the holds the pupa to the white silk button.)

Once the pupa has emerged, its soft body contracts and then its skin hardens into a protective shell. A couple hours later, the gold markings appear. The word chrysalis comes from the Greek word for gold.

After emerging, it is imperative that the butterfly hangs onto its pupal case or something else, so that its wings can expand. If it falls before that and fails to crawl back up, its wings will harden with permanent wrinkles or bends.

We released all of the monarchs we reared in our yard. As summer progressed, it seemed like we saw more and more monarch butterflies flitting around. I even saw them resting near manure in the cow yard; at first I was concerned, but I learned later that they meet their mineral needs by drinking from puddles in mud and manure.

One day in late August, I went out to check for calves in our dry cow pen. I saw a butterfly zip around the corner of our windbreak. I thought it was the Tiger Swallowtail I had watched in that same spot a few days earlier. I followed, hoping to get a better picture of it. It wasn't the swallowtail; it was a monarch. As I followed it a bit further, I saw that there were too many monarchs to count resting in the trees and flying out over our alfalfa field (which was once again blooming due to a rain-related harvest delay).

It was so cool to see so many monarchs. I've heard others say, too, that they've seen lots of monarch caterpillars and butterflies this summer.

Hopefully that means the monarchs have had a good summer and maybe we'll see population numbers rebound. We won't know until they complete their migration to Mexico and the monarch watchers there can determine how many made it.


We spent so much time watching milkweed this summer that Dan and Monika can now spot a milkweed plant, like these ones in our fenceline, from an acre away. Even Glen started noticing the milkweed around the farm and checking it for caterpillars.

Did you know that the many species of milkweed are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat? That's just one of the facts Dan and Monika learned about milkweed.

One of the reasons monarch numbers are declining is due to a decline in the amount of milkweed across the nation.

Milkweed blossoms are both beautiful and very fragrant. I think they smell even better than lilac blossoms. The blossoms also provide food (nectar) for monarch butterflies.

Milkweed gets its name from its sticky, white sap. Milkweed plants and sap are toxic to species which are not adapted to consume them. Our cows will occasionally take a bite of a milkweed plant, but you can always see where they spit the leaves back out.

Milkweed's large seedpods are one of the traits I remember vividly from my childhood. Like the area where I live now, milkweed grew abundantly along the roadsides. At that point in my life, I didn't know that milkweed and monarchs went together. I just thought sticky, white sap and the seedpods were cool.

We have a number of small stands of milkweed, like the one pictured below, growing in our roadside ditches. We have even more growing in the fenceline between the pasture and cropland. We found eggs and caterpillars on milkweed in both locations this summer, but there were many more caterpillars and eggs on the fenceline milkweed.

I also found some Swamp Milkweed growing by one of the ponds in the pasture. There are a couple dozen different species of milkweed. I can't tell most of them apart, but I can differentiate Swamp Milkweed. First, because it grows in wet soils. Second, because it has long narrow leaves and brighter pink flowers. It smells just as good as upland milkweed species. Third, Swamp Milkweed has long, slender seedpods.

One thing I decided during our monarch project this summer is that, next summer, I will rear fewer caterpillars and make more of an effort to increase monarch habitat around our farm. There are several areas near the pond and in the grassed waterways that I'm planning to convert to milkweed and the other native flowers butterflies need for feeding and reproducing.

Other milkweed critters

While we were busy looking for monarch eggs and caterpillars, we discovered that milkweed provides food and habitat for several other critters, like these Red Milkweed Beetles.

And this bug, which looks a lot like a Large Milkweed Bug, but not enough for me to make a positive identification. It might just be some other sort of beetle/bug who stopped for a rest.

We found lots of other pollinators, namely bees and butterflies, like this bee collecting nectar from milkweed blossoms.

And this Pink-Edged Sulphur butterfly, who appeared to be resting there for the night.

Lots of more commonly known insects inhabited the milkweed stands – grasshoppers, aphids, ants, and ladybugs. I presume the ants and ladybugs were there to feast on the aphids.

Monarch caterpillars weren't the only caterpillars, either. We saw several tussock moth caterpillars, like this newly hatched cluster.

And these older tussock moth caterpillars, which will eat milkweed leaves right down to the ribs.

This caterpillar looks like a leopard or tiger moth caterpillar, but I'm not sure which. It was pretty cool, but I was even more excited to spot the treefrog next to him. I absolutely love frogs – after cows, they're my next favorite creature.

That treefrog wasn't the only one. We saw treefrogs almost daily, hanging out on milkweed leaves, I assume waiting for their next meal. With all the insects that milkweed attracts, the eating must have been good.

The treefrogs made our monarch project extra special for me.

We did most of our milkweed watching while we were getting the cows in from pasture, so I got to watch cows, frogs and monarchs all within minutes of each other. And I got to do all that while hanging out with my kids and helping them understand more about the natural world around us.

I'm definitely adding monarchs to the list of my favorite creatures.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Whole Grain Oatmeal Cake with Broiled Icing

A quick, easy cake with a coconut-pecan topping. 100% whole grain.

One of my college roommates, Rachel, was as fond of cooking as I was. And she had this great cookbook – The Joy of Cooking – that I fell in love with. My first favorite recipe from the cookbook's pages was Spinach with Currants and Pine Nuts. Rachel made it once and I was hooked.

I think the real reason I fell in love with Joy, though, was because it provided such a wealth of information on basic cooking techniques and ingredients. At that time, I was still pretty new to cooking – most of my childhood had been spent in the barn, not the kitchen.

After college, I lived without Joy until Glen bought me a copy for my birthday. For years, Joy and a spiral-bound collection of church recipes were my only cookbooks. My copy of Joy is now filled with bookmarks – including sticky notes, scraps of paper, a Dove chocolate wrapper, and junk mail envelopes. Many of the recipes are marked with the date I first tried them and the changes I made.

I still appreciate Joy's how-to advice. Even when I'm following a recipe from another cookbook or blog, I'll pull Joy out to reference a technique. Or when I'm trying to concoct a recipe of my own, I'll use a similar recipe from Joy to estimate quantities of ingredients or cooking times.

The date marked alongside the recipe for Oatmeal Sheet Cake is 4/10/2008. I can't remember what prompted me to try it that first time, but my notes say that it was "Excellent!"

I do remember that I made it another time that spring. And then I forgot about it. I really shouldn't have, because it's a super yummy cake that's really easy to make. I think my forgetfulness might have had something to do with the fact that we soon found out we had another baby on the way. That was the beginning of a period of time during which I did very little baking of any kind. Sadly, that period lasted so long that Dan asked me once, "Mom, why don't you bake cookies like Grandma does?"

Happily, that period in my life is over. Now, I bake quite a bit, usually as a form of stress relief and a way to procrastinate. And I am so glad that I remembered this cake a couple weeks ago. I will be baking it a lot more often.

Whole Grain Oatmeal Cake

Makes a 9x13 pan – about 12 - 16 servings


1 cup oatmeal (quick cook or old-fashioned)
1 ½ cups water

1 ⅓ cups white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose white flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (1 stick) butter (salted or unsalted), softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla


Heat water to boiling and combine with oatmeal. Cover and let stand for at least 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°F and butter a 9 x 13 inch pan.

In small bowl, mix flour, soda, spices and salt together with fork.

In medium bowl, cream butter and sugars together. Mixture will be crumbly. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Then beat in oatmeal. Stir flour mixture into batter with large spatula. Pour batter into pan. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

While cake is baking, prepare icing, below. Allow cake to cool slightly before icing.

Broiled Icing


1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
6 tablespoons butter (salted or unsalted)
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans (or walnuts)
1 cup shredded sweetened dried coconut


Melt butter in medium bowl. Add sugar, cream, vanilla and salt and mix until smooth. Stir in pecans and coconut.

After cake has cooled slightly, preheat broiler and spread icing evenly over cake. Place cake 4 inches below the broiler. Broil until icing is bubbly all over, about 1 to 3 minutes. Rotate pan after one minute so that icing broils evenly. Watch constantly so that icing does not burn.

Cake recipe adapted from Oatmeal Sheet Cake in The Joy of Cooking.
Icing recipe from The Joy of Cooking

Saturday, August 16, 2014

County Fair recap

Our summer wouldn't be complete without spending some time at the Stearns County Fair. Riding the rides, visiting with friends, checking out all of the exhibits, noshing on corn dogs, and showing our cattle – we love it all.

Now that the calves and heifers are all back in their pens and the show halters are back in the show box, I thought I'd share a few photos from the shows. Looking back at the photos from our first year of showing, I can't believe how much our little exhibitors have grown. I'm sure I'll look back at this post one day and think the same thing again.

We didn't show at the Central Minnesota Youth Dairy Days Show this year, so our only show this summer was the Stearns County Fair Open Show. Dan showed Lego and Monika showed Sparkle. Lego is an April crossbred calf out of Lucy, Dan's favorite cow. Sparkle is a March Jersey calf out of Star, one of Monika's favorite cows. Dan and Monika knew from the moments Lego and Sparkle were born that they would be their fair calves.

Even though we didn't spend as much time walking the calves as I thought we should have, the show went well. Dan and Monika did a great job telling the judge about their calves. They practiced watching the judge and walking slowly, too.

Photo by Tammy Frericks
Monika was excited to get a ribbon from Stearns County Dairy Princess, Sabrina Ley.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

Lego and Sparkle weren't the only calves from our farm that went to the fair. Our nieces and nephew showed several of our calves and heifers, too, in both the 4-H Dairy Show and the Open Show.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

Hailey showed Java, a crossbred spring junior yearling (above), and Gael, a Holstein spring calf.

Kallie showed Penny, a Holstein fall calf (above), and Honey, a crossbred spring calf.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

Bryce showed Wiggle, a Holstein spring calf.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

Hailey, Kallie, and Bryce all did a great job showing this year, too. Bryce had a lot of fun in the Cloverbud show. Hailey and Kallie did very well in 4-H showmanship.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

I wasn't organized enough to get a picture of our kids together after the show, but I love this picture my sister-in-law, Tammy, took of Hailey, Kallie, and Bryce.

Dan and Monika will join 4-H this fall, so next year's fair will be a whole new adventure for us, with both 4-H and Open shows and stalling our calves at the fair for the whole week, instead of just bringing them in the day of the show.

Dan wants to take two calves to the fair next year – and chickens – so we're already thinking about which cows will have possible fair calves next spring and which of this year's calves will go on to show next year.

Did you go to your County Fair? What's your favorite part of the fair?