Taco Soup

The final weeks of pregnancy are here, and the nesting urge is in full force. At the Cwach farm, that means prepping freezer meals – and lots of them.

I’ve already lost count of the number of casseroles, lasagnas, soups, roasts and prepped meats and vegetables that have piled up in our deep freezer, but suffice it to say we have enough frozen meals to make it through at least three months of meals post-baby. My sisters have kindly reminded me that I will want to see the sunlight after the baby is born, but somehow I cannot stop myself from filling my freezer with an ever-growing number of ready-to-eat meals. At this rate, Baby Cwach will be a teenager before he finds out what the inside of a grocery store looks like.

While freezer meals are not always the most exciting meals in the world, they are a fantastic way to stock up on easy meals that turn dinnertime into a breeze – particularly for new parents or folks on the go. After a lot of research and experimentation in the kitchen, I’ve learned the following best practices that I plan to incorporate into our lifestyle long past baby’s arrival.

  • Always double up. Making a batch of enchiladas for dinner? It’s just as easy to double the ingredients and make a second pan to freeze. Start viewing every meal as a potential freezer meal. Jonesing for fresh fajitas on the grill? Marinate a second batch of meat, chop more vegetables than necessary and throw an extra pack of tortillas in the freezer. You’ll still have to cook when it comes out of the freezer, but think of all of the prep time you’ve saved (and all of the dirty dishes, too!)
  • Invest in foil. I hate waste as much as the next person, but when it comes to freezer meals, you don’t want to bury all of your bakeware in the freezer for months on end. Go to a warehouse store and invest in disposable foil pans in a variety of sizes, good-quality Ziploc bags, lots of aluminum foil and a black Sharpie. Don’t forget to label your food with the date, type and cooking instructions.
  • Buy in bulk. Whenever possible, buy in bulk! The savings in time and money will add up significantly.
  • Freeze flat. When making soups or freezing other meals in Ziploc bags, fill the bag halfway full, squeeze out any remaining air and lay flat on a sheet pan until frozen. This will prevent freezing food in awkward shapes and save a ton of room in your already-full freezer.
  • Cool completely. Do not place any hot or warm meals in the freezer, or you risk causing other frozen foods in the freezer to start de-thawing and changing the taste and texture of your food.
  • Make basics. Make smaller bags of prepared meat for smaller meals, like lunches. Seasoned ground beef can become tacos, taverns or used in spaghetti sauce, and shredded chicken can be combined with BBQ sauce for sandwiches or used to make nachos.
  • Prep assembly-style. Having a freezer meal marathon? Snag a couple of helpers and give everyone a specific job. One person can be chopping onions in bulk while another can be grating cheese. Prepping food in bulk will minimize the number of times knives, cutting boards and other utensils have to be washed and will save valuable time.

One of the freezer meals I’m most looking forward to devouring during maternity leave is our favorite taco soup. It’s incredibly simple to put together – after browning the beef with onions and seasonings, you simply pop the lids off the canned items and dump the ingredients together. It freezes beautifully and is easy to double (or triple) in a big stockpot. Just don’t forget the fixings – a hearty dollop of sour cream, a pile of freshly-grated cheese and crunchy corn chips take this soup from good to great!

Taco Soup

Ingredients
2 pounds ground beef
1-2 diced onions
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1 (10-ounce) can Ro*Tel® diced tomatoes and green chiles
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans
1 (16-ounce) can pinto beans
1 (15 1/4-ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
2 (4.5-ounce) cans chopped green chiles
1 (1-ounce) envelope taco seasoning
1 (1-ounce) envelope ranch salad dressing and seasoning mix
Optional garnishes: Corn chips, freshly-grated cheese, sour cream, green onions

Directions
In a large skillet, brown beef and onions over medium heat until beef is no longer pink. Add taco seasoning and water as indicated on package. Drain, using a slotted spoon, as you transfer browned beef and onions to a Dutch oven, stockpot or slow cooker.

Add diced tomatoes, Ro*Tel, black beans, pinto beans, drained corn and green chiles. Stir in the ranch salad dressing mix.

If you’re cooking on the stovetop, cover the pot and simmer soup over low heat for 30 minutes up to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. If you’re using a slow cooker, cook on low heat for 6-8 hours.

Let cool, then package in plastic bags. Freeze flat.

Reheat, then garnish individual servings with corn chips, cheese, sour cream and green onions, if desired.

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Baby on the Farm

Only a handful of weeks remain until the newest member of the Cwach family joins the farm life, and the countdown is officially on.

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve discovered that planning for the arrival of a firstborn baby on the farm – particularly one that is scheduled to arrive near the onset of calving season – introduces some interesting conversations that other to-be parents may not experience.

My chief concern lately has been balancing the potential need to have the farmer both in the calving barn and the delivery room at the same time. Farmer Dan has assured me that friends and neighbors are lined up to be on call to watch any of his other “mamas” that may be giving birth soon. Still, I’m no stranger to emergencies arising on the farm, no matter how much planning is done in advance. So needless to say, I have a lingering concern that this mama may be forced to head to labor and delivery alone if disaster strikes and Dan finds himself stuck helping one of his herd, which I’ve learned can be a long, exhausting and laborious process (at least I’m under no illusions about what giving birth is like for a first-time mom!)

But if farm life has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t control what happens, so I’m doing my best to prep myself to expect the unexpected.

As part of that preparation, Dan and I have spent the past month attending a number of birthing and nursing classes, which have been both educational and a bit entertaining for me. While he may have changed out of his muck boots, Levis and dusty baseball cap, it was abundantly clear that my farmer was still fully engaged in “farm mode” during the classes. When our class leader began discussing nutrition and nursing, I could see the wheels spinning as he studied the pamphlet, looking for all the world like he was reviewing rations for his heifers. When the leader mentioned that adding oats into a diet could be used to help increase a mother’s milk supply, Dan sat up a bit and nodded, joking quietly that he could also add some alfalfa to my mix if I needed.

Later, when I asked him if he was uncomfortable talking about anything related to birthing or nursing, he shrugged and matter-of-factly replied, “It’s kind of a big part of my business.” As a first-time mom, I may not know entirely what to expect, but it’s comforting to know I’m experiencing this with someone who grew up witnessing the circle of life at work.  When it comes to unexpected sights and sounds in the delivery room, I don’t think there will be too much that can surprise a farmer.

While my farmer has (wisely) avoided using too many cattle comparisons during my pregnancy, I have to admit that now that I’ve lived on the farm for a few years, I find myself unconsciously doing this very thing. Not only is calving a subject that gets discussed often as spring approaches, but humans and cows share a lot of similarities when it comes to pregnancy. They both go through nine months of gestation, diet and rations play a huge role in the health of the baby and changes as energy requirements are increased near the end of pregnancy, and once that baby is here, the mothering instinct kicks in – for some, a bit more strongly than others. We often joke about what kind of mother I’ll be – will I be like #38, who charges anyone who comes near her newborn, or #35, a docile mama who watches over her calf closely but calmly.

Cow1

The next few weeks are bound to be full of excitement and surprises as our pregnancy journey nears its end and the next chapter of our lives begins. Only time will tell how we tackle this thing called parenthood – but there’s nobody I’d rather face it with than with my farmer on the farm.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Bacon and Apples

Eating well during nine long months of pregnancy can be a tricky thing.

The first trimester for me was a breeze. As someone fortunate enough to experience no nausea, the only challenge I faced was an overwhelming desire to sleep at least 13 hours a day.

Farmer Dan, who loves to cook and experiment in the kitchen, would lovingly allow me to crash on the couch after work, waking me up from my comatose state only to eat whatever he had prepared, then allowing me to fall right back to sleep without so much as washing a dish. In the beginning, this meant eating his favorite meals – a lot of sautéed kale doused in lemon and garlic, roasted vegetables and grilled meats, which was a perfect way to start off a pregnancy. This was an arrangement I happily agreed to, and I dutifully ate whatever was placed in front of me without argument.

Then pregnancy insomnia and heartburn hit, and suddenly I was awake enough to realize that take-out Mexican, carbs and heaps of cheese sounded a whole lot better than kale or lean meats. And the baby in my belly seemed to agree.

Still, despite my aversion to anything green, I knew how important it was to eat as healthy as I could, so I sought out recipes that could be quickly and easily made on a weeknight and didn’t make me want to go running to the nearest basket of chips and salsa. And while it may sound surprising to those who remember only bad experiences with boiled, overcooked Brussels sprouts, it turns out that Brussels sprouts have been the only green vegetable I’ve been able to get excited about my entire pregnancy.

Now, the key to really amazing Brussels sprouts is to roast them at a high temperature so they caramelize and become crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. The other secret – which is really no secret at all – is to add thick, slightly salty bacon and sweet roasted apples to the mix and toss in a bit of acidity with either red wine or balsamic vinegar. It’s a fast, easy way to prepare a healthy side dish that makes you want to eat your vegetables and head back for seconds.

A few tips: When selecting the bacon, spend the extra money to get the really thick-cut, good-quality bacon at the meat counter. It’s worth it. I like to bake the bacon on a metal rack over a tin foil-lined baking sheet so the fat drips to the bottom of the pan, leaving the bacon crisp and evenly cooked. Watch the bacon closely as it bakes, because the timing really depends on the thickness of the cut. After it’s cooked to your liking – we like it to be crisp but not overly crisp or burnt – simply chop the bacon into large half-inch slices and toss the tin foil for an easy clean-up. No mess, no fuss. When the Brussels sprouts have finished roasting, just toss the bacon and apples on top and heat until the bacon is warm and the apples are softened.

For this recipe, I prefer to use Gala or Honeycrisp apples, but really any apple you have on hand will do. You can easily tailor this recipe to suit your tastes by adding yellow onion and minced garlic, adding honey to the vinegar or replacing the vinegar with freshly-squeezed lemon juice or a sprinkle of smoked paprika.

With only 48 days to go until my due date, I’m prepared to eat as many Brussels sprouts as I can to keep my baby strong and healthy. And when prepared right, that’s really no hardship.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Bacon and Apples

Ingredients
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
4 pints Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and halved
Olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 red apples, cored and cut into ¼-inch slices, each slice halved crosswise
2 tsp. red wine or balsamic vinegar (or to taste)

Directions
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange bacon in a single layer on a rack over a large, tin foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Bake until browned, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, add Brussels sprouts to bowl with generous drizzles of olive oil and toss using hands to coat thoroughly. Once bacon is browned, remove the bacon from the oven and chop into ½-inch pieces. Remove rack and discard tin foil, adding new tin foil to baking sheet if desired. Add Brussels sprouts in a single layer; sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast until they begin to brown, about 10-15 minutes.

Remove from oven, and toss in apple and cooked chopped bacon. Return to oven; roast until Brussels sprouts are browned and tender and apple has softened, 10 to 15 minutes.

Toss vegetables with vinegar, and serve immediately.

Farm Winter Wonderland

There’s nothing quite like the beauty of a white winter wonderland when you’re out on the farm.

For me, waking up in the early light to snow-blanketed fields and tree branches glistening, heavy with morning frost, is pure magic. On these days, the only sign of even the slightest disturbance is from the tracks in the snow made by our Australian Shepherd, Bodie, who paces around the farm during the night like a diligent watchman, guarding us as we sleep.

It’s the kind of morning where you lazily relish a steaming cup of coffee by the window, snug in your flannel pajamas and slippers, watching as the snow whirls in the air, as though you’re part of your own private snow globe.

At least, that’s what happens when you’re 30 weeks pregnant, on holiday vacation and under strict instruction from your husband not to go outside lest you fall and go into early labor. When you’re a farmer, on the other hand, even on a holiday, the work has just begun.

Though you won’t hear him complain, Farmer Dan and those in his profession are undoubtedly weary of the mundane and unappreciated work that comes hand-in-hand with heavy snowfalls. For the past few weeks, he’s been diligently clearing snow off our gravel roads, making sure the cow yards are dry and bedded with fresh straw, and scooping the cement bunks where the herd eats its hay and grain. So far, it’s been the type of winter when as soon as the snow is cleared, more is already on its way, and it’s back to putting on the heavy coat and flannel-lined jeans that are still slightly damp from the last time my farmer was outside.

When you’re a farmer, on the other hand, even on a holiday, the work has just begun.

While the monotony of snow removal and the discomfort associated with South Dakota’s stinging cold weather may be enough to make some complain, the farmers I know seem to have the uncanny knack of seeing the positive in every trying situation – especially Farmer Dan. Ever the optimist, he chooses instead to focus on the much-needed moisture the fields will get from the snow – an ever-present thought on our minds since experiencing record drought conditions during our first full year of farming in 2012.

And though the days may seem long, cold and gloomy now, it won’t be long before springtime is upon us, and it will be time for calving and for the seed he just ordered to be put into the ground. South Dakota weather may be temperamental, unpredictable and inconvenient at times, but it always brings something new with each season, and nobody appreciates that more than a farmer.

Hot Spinach Red Pepper Dip

New Year’s Eve is just around the corner, and for many of us, it’s one last binge of decadent dips and desserts before the inevitable post-holiday commitment to better eating habits and exercise.

Of course, for those who would like to start pretending that their eating habits are already improving before the New Year hits, this crowd-pleasing hot spinach red pepper dip should do the trick. There are two vegetables listed right there in the recipe’s name – so it must be good for you, right?

Okay, while I can’t promise much nutritional value from this recipe, I can attest to its phenomenal taste. By far, it’s my favorite spinach dip recipe to make – rich and creamy from the combination of cheeses, with just enough of a kick from the red pepper flakes to make you immediately want to dive back in for more. And it’s the perfect hot dip to prepare for a New Year’s Eve party, as it can be made earlier in the day and kept warm in a Crock-Pot or even made the day before, refrigerated and reheated.

As you prepare this dip, be sure to squeeze out as much water as you can from your softened pepper and spinach using a colander and paper towels. Excess water could make your dip runny rather than thick and creamy, so spend the extra time pressing firmly down on the vegetables to remove any leftover liquid.

When chopping your bell pepper, don’t waste any unnecessary time and effort by cutting it in half and de-seeding it, as many people do. Instead, my favorite way is to cut off the very top of the pepper to remove the stem, then cut the very bottom of the pepper to stabilize it. Then, simply cut the lobes off, leaving the middle section with the seeds intact. To avoid any waste, you can then trim the usable red pepper off the top and bottom slices and dice that as well. To finely dice the pepper, start by cutting the lobes into equally-sized matchstick-shaped slices, then taking those matchsticks and chopping into small, uniform squares.

This hot spinach red pepper dip can be kept warm and served from a Crock-Pot, or it can be transferred to a serving dish or bread bowl. I prefer to buy a sourdough bread bowl from the bakery, hollow out the loaf by cutting a wide circle from the top, and then pull out chunks of bread from the inside. The removed top of the loaf can be cut or torn into small, bite-size pieces of bread and used along with the chunks of bread from the inside of the loaf for dipping. This spinach dip is also delicious served with salty tortilla chips or cut-up vegetables. This recipe is enough to fill one bread bowl with dip, or it can be doubled or tripled and placed in a larger Crock-Pot for bigger crowds.

Serve your bread bowl on a platter atop of leafy greens. If making ahead of time, garnish with diced red bell pepper right before serving. If desired, red pepper flakes can be reduced or eliminated for a milder flavor.

Hot Spinach Red Pepper Dip

Ingredients
1 c. water
1 c. diced red bell pepper
1/2 c. thawed frozen chopped spinach
1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese
2 Tbsp. milk
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (or more, depending on how hot you like it)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 pinch freshly ground pepper
1 Tbsp. finely diced red bell pepper

Directions
Bring the cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat and add the one cup of diced red pepper and the chopped spinach. Bring the water back to a boil, turn the heat down to medium and simmer until the pepper is very soft, about 10 minutes. Drain the spinach and red pepper in a colander, pressing out as much liquid as possible.

Combine the cream cheese and milk in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until hot and softened. Stir in the cooked spinach and red peppers, Parmesan cheese, crushed red pepper flakes, salt, and ground black pepper. Continue to stir until well combined and heated through.

Spoon hot dip into a serving plate or bread bowl and serve with the tablespoon of finely diced red bell pepper sprinkled on top for garnish. For an artsier touch, add leafy greens underneath the bread bowl.

Serves 8 (1/4 c. per serving)

The Power of Farming Communities

I’m always amazed when I hear about farming communities pulling together for one of their own.

Not surprised – amazed. Awestruck. Inspired. But never surprised.

It’s a thought that keeps coming back to me this week, as I listen to friends with farming backgrounds share their stories of tragedy and comradery. One, another South Dakota native, relayed how neighbors immediately and unquestioningly took over caring for the family’s livestock after her father-in-law was severely hit by a distracted driver. She and her husband had not even reached the hospital when they received the unexpected phone call from the neighbor that the equipment was put away because of the coming snow, and yes, the hogs were taken care of for the night, and for tomorrow, and for as long as they needed help, so don’t worry about a thing. Now, as her father-in-law works through his second major surgery and faces a lengthy rehabilitation, their tight-knit farming community continues to pull together to ensure the family farm is taken care of and the family can spend time with their recovering farmer.

Another farming friend shared how her family was called late at night this week by a neighbor who thought their cattle were out near the highway in Yankton. After spending 30 minutes frantically driving along the highway with flashers on and spotlights in hand and multiple trips of heading back to the farm to count their cows, they discovered it was not their herd that was on the loose. Still, although the hour was late and they were exhausted with kids in tow, they continued to drive for miles, searching for tracks and hoping to help another farm family bring their livelihood home safely and prevent a possible accident from occurring.

As my friend later mused on Facebook, “The moral of the story is, farming families – whether close or acquaintances – are all looking out for each other and respect the lifestyle. They help when in need and they deeply care for each other!”

It’s something I see again and again in our own small farming community, and it doesn’t take a tragic accident or a crisis for farmers to come together to help each other. There are a number of young farmers in our area who are always willing to help each other, never expecting anything in return and often when they themselves have more than enough work to do. It’s heartwarming and humbling, and it makes you cherish the small-town environment around you. We are so blessed to have neighbors who offer help without question when we are in need.

The moral of the story is, farming families – whether close or acquaintances – are all looking out for each other and respect the lifestyle. They help when in need and they deeply care for each other!

As a soon-to-be mother, I couldn’t be happier and prouder that my son will be raised in this lifestyle. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of sacrifice, kindness and community, and another to actually see these principles lived out on a daily basis. During a time when even turning on the local news can be stressful and terrifying for parents-to-be, it’s heartening to see that your children will grow up surrounded by men and women of great character.

I’ll admit – when I first moved to the farm, I remember not always understanding why Dan had to work late or leave dinner early to help a neighbor, particularly when the need didn’t seem incredibly urgent and I was feeling lonely and alone on the farm.  I remember Dan repeatedly telling me, “It’s the neighborly thing to do, honey,” until it finally clicked. Farm families are in this together. We depend upon each other, and we help each other during the good times and the bad. Not because it’s going to help us later on, but because it’s the right thing – the neighborly thing – to do.

So no, I’m not surprised when I hear about these acts of kindness and sacrifice from our farm families. But I am inspired.

Chicken Wild Rice Soup

Here on the Cwach farm, the days are getting colder, the nights are getting longer, and its inhabitants are getting hungrier (namely, the mother-to-be!) That means only one thing- it’s soup season.

Each year, as soon as the first snowfall hits, hearty soups become a permanent fixture in the Cwach kitchen. It’s a great way to sneak in plenty of vegetables, while keeping my farmer warm during the frigid winter days when he’s out checking cows or moving snow. We are constantly on the hunt for new recipes that are full of flavor, deliciously creamy and most importantly, fuss-free.

Needless to say, when I saw this recipe for chicken wild rice soup shared by a friend, I was instantly intrigued. Too many times I’ve suffered the disappointment of a bland wild rice soup that tastes watered down, not rich and creamy. After making a big pot of this the first time, we quickly put it on the next week’s menu, and then the week after that. In a short time, it’s become our favorite soup to throw together on a cold winter’s night with little effort spent in the kitchen.

This soup starts with the classic mirepoix, a French culinary term for the combination of onions, carrots and celery. We’ve changed the original recipe slightly to use more carrots and celery than the typical mirepoix ratio (traditionally two parts onion to one parts each carrot and celery), but the idea is the same – to instill flavor into your soup. We just happen to love hearty vegetable soup so we add plenty of extra carrots and celery, but feel free to cut back the amount to suit your tastes.

As you prepare this soup, be sure to season liberally with salt and pepper, starting with a light seasoning and adjusting as you taste your soup. Remember, while you can always add more salt to the dish, you can’t take it out! You can poach or roast your own chicken breasts, or use pulled meat from a rotisserie chicken. If you don’t have a can of evaporated milk on hand, you can put 2 ¼ cups whole milk in a saucepan and simmer until reduced to one cup. We prefer to use the whole-fat evaporated milk over the low-fat or non-fat varieties for a richer, creamier taste, but any of those varieties will work.

This chicken wild rice soup is special enough to be served on Christmas Eve, but can easily be prepared in 30 minutes or less on a weeknight. Garnish with shaved cheese, chopped green onions or minced chives for a simple yet stunning presentation.

Chicken Wild Rice Soup

Ingredients
¼ c. butter
1 large onion
2 c. chopped carrots
2 c. chopped celery
¼ c. flour
Salt and pepper
2 c. chicken broth
12 oz. can evaporated milk
1 c. cooked wild rice
1 c. cooked chicken
4 oz. cream cheese

Directions
Melt butter in a stockpot and cook onion, carrots and celery until carrots are tender. Add flour and chicken broth, and season liberally. Add in evaporated milk, wild rice, chicken and cream cheese and stir on low heat until cheese melts.

Season to taste and serve.

*If you don’t have evaporated milk, put 2 ¼ cups whole milk in a saucepan and simmer until reduced to one cup.