Monday, September 27, 2010

Chickens, You So Crazy

The Stash
After a very exciting few days of finding an egg in the yard or behind the door of the coop, the egg laying seemed to stop. Most chickens stop laying in the Fall when they molt, and I was beginning to think this was the case with our flock. Today when I went out to check the coop, I noticed there were only five chickens in the yard(we have six). I searched high and low(mostly low) and couldn't find the missing chicken anywhere. I began to worry that maybe one of the neighborhood dogs had gotten her, but I'd been home all day and hadn't heard any commotion. I was running around the yard searching and growing more frantic every minute. I knew I was attached to our chickens, but the thought of one of them coming to grief caused me more pain than I thought it would. Our chickens aren't just chickens, they're pets. I'm pretty sure I won't ever be able to keep chickens for meat; the minute I started thinking about eating one of them, I'd see the look of betrayal in their eyes and go vegetarian. So I'm running around the yard looking for this lost chicken, and it occurs to me that they respond to my voice so I call her. "Chiiiiiiiiccckkkeennnn!" "Braaaawwwk-brble-brble," muffled, near the wood pile. I pull back the piece of plywood leaning against the front of the wood pile, and there is the missing chicken sitting on nearly a dozen eggs. She gives me a guilty look and warbles a chickeny apology. I laugh, giddy with relief and the joy of discovering a bounty of eggs I thought we'd never get. The parable of the Lost Sheep was never so meaningful to me as it was at that moment: "Again again I say to you, there will be more rejoicing in Lynnwood over a single chicken that is lost and then found, than over the other five chickens who were safe in the coop." I gather the eggs, then put three rocks that make very convincing eggs back in the nest. Chickens will sometimes stop laying in a hiding spot if they notice the eggs are being taken, but they can't count so you don't have to replace every egg with a decoy. One or two is enough to assure her that her chosen spot is a safe place for eggs; there are some eggs(rocks) in there now, so it seems reasonable to her to add more. Our homeschooling for the afternoon involves testing the eggs for freshness (thanks to Briana for suggesting it), and all the eggs pass. We have some for lunch. They are delicious, and I think about the correlation between responsibility and investment: the more we take responsibility for producing our own food, the more we're willing to invest in where it comes from. I can't wait anymore, I have to go check the nest.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

One Small Thing

Although it wasn't a great year for gardening, we did manage to sneak out a little produce. The chickens recently decided that they really like eating tomatoes, so now even the sad green ones left on the vines are in jeopardy. First my kale, now my tomatoes. "Ladies," I said in the sternest voice I could manage while addressing a flock of chickens, "I expect that if you're going to eat my hard-earned organic produce, you will at least lay some eggs in return." They stared back at me with their chicken eyes and made noises which I could tell were full of remorse. Then one of them crouched down and stuck her tail feathers up, which is chicken talk for "Let's get it on." Only a chicken who is laying will do this. I reached down and scratched her back, and explained politely but firmly that she and I cannot have that kind of relationship and while I think her feathers are just lovely, I think it's best if we keep things between us professional. She continues to fail to respect my boundaries, and every time I walk out into the yard she propositions me. Our chickens don't usually want to be touched, so the boys thought it was odd she was being so submissive. "What's she doing mom?" they asked. "Trying to make more chickens, but she doesn't know I'm not a daddy chicken." That is the kind of technical chicken language we use around here; 'daddy chicken' as opposed to 'rooster.'
The most organic, most locally produced meal I've ever eaten. Everything pictured grew within 50 feet of me.
Even though it's been a slim harvest, I still really wanted to make something that was exclusively produced on our property, even if it was just one small thing. Aaron asked what I was making for dinner. "First I'm going to make something that won't actually fill us up and later I'll make something else, but right now I feel a strong need to do this." "That's fine," he replied grinning. Five years of being married to me has taught him not to question what I do in the kitchen; it doesn't always work out, but he knows I'm going to do it anyway. I chopped, roasted and sauteed. I sprinkled, fried, and plated oh-so-carefully. It was totally worth it. While not exactly a feast fit for a king, it made a really satisfying snack for two. Everything on that plate came from our yard, except the olive oil and salt. Jack didn't care to try it, but when I told him that everything on the plate had been grown by us his whole face lit up and he said "Cool." The good news is that I would make this again, regardless of whether any of it was produced on my own soil. It was independently tasty, but was made even better by the huge dose of karmic satisfaction it gave me. Farmer's Breakfast(or lunch or pre-dinner snack) 2 medium-sized red potatoes, scrubbed 3 baby leeks, cleaned 5-6 cherry tomatoes 1 egg Fresh rosemary, chopped Fresh chives olive oil salt First, dig up some potatoes. This is best done while your kids are "helping" in the garden and your husband is installing the new nesting boxes he made for your chickens. Next, pull up a few leeks(which are actually thriving because they don't mind not having an actual Summer). Hunt around your sad tomato vines for a few gems the chickens missed. Check behind the door of the chicken coop for an egg, and tuck all your treasures carefully in a basket. Scrub and chop the potatoes, then toss them in a frying pan you've drizzled with olive oil. Roughly chop the leeks and toss them with the tomatoes, some olive oil and salt, then roast them in a small dish on 425 until they get wrinkled and soft. While those two things are going on, go outside and pick a little rosemary and a few chives. Chop the rosemary and sprinkle it over the potatoes, which should still be cooking. When they're done, transfer them to a plate and spoon the roasted tomatoes and leeks over the top. Carefully fry the egg and serve it sunny side up, nest it on top of the potatoes and sprinkle the whole thing with chives. Feed your husband a bite and feel a deep sense of connectedness to the earth and all living things. Then send your husband to the store for some halibut because, karmic satisfaction or no, you still need more food.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Officially not Messing Around

I would tell you the final count of eggs, butter and sugar that came in and out of my oven this weekend, but I'm tired.
I can tell you that I made Swiss Buttercream in obscene quantities. Those nine cubes of butter up there? All of them went into a single batch of frosting, which I need to re-post a recipe for because I've changed it since the last time I lost my head and thought, "I can make a wedding cake, it won't be that hard."
The good news is, I'm getting better at this every time. Last time, I didn't realize how long all that mixing was going to take. Knowing a little better what I had gotten myself into, I borrowed my sister's mixer. This was a brilliant move on my part.
The whole thing was still fairly stressful, mostly the part where everything took seven times longer than I thought it would. With this wedding, I arrived a full hour before the wedding began which is a huge improvement over my first wedding. It still took so long that at a few minutes after 4:00 I realized the wedding had started and I was still wearing jeans and cleaning up stray petals. I made a mad dash to the kitchen with my cake gear, stashed it in a corner, then sprinted out to my car which was parked in a corner that was hopefully out of sight enough that no one saw me get dressed for the wedding in the passenger's seat. I wore the same dress I did for the last wedding, at which point I realized that I hadn't shaved my legs since the last wedding. Which was July 24th. Luckily I have baby-fine leg hair and not a generous supply, but I still felt less than put together. One of these days I will be on top of this situation enough to actually do my hair for a wedding or(gasp!) wear actual lipstick, but for now I end up being the sacrificial lamb for the sake of a good-looking cake.
It was definitely easier the second time around, a trend which I'm hoping continues because I've got two more wedding cakes and one baby shower cake, all in October. I'm not wildly opposed to having a little break before then, and making things that are the opposite of cake. Like soup.
I find it shocking how much sugar gets used in American desserts. Shocking and distasteful. So in my cake, I took a bunch of the sugar out. I also don't approve of how flavorless white cake is, which makes sense if you're simply using it as a vehicle for frosting, but since I actually wanted people to taste the cake I took a bunch of sugar out of the frosting too. A whole cup, which is also how much sugar I took out of the cake recipe. My other white cake secrets are lots of vanilla and- my new favorite cake ingredient- freshly ground nutmeg. I was worried that it might make the cake taste Christmas-y or Thanksgiving-y, but it didn't at all. It made it taste donut-y and lovely, and if you use ingredients that have actual flavor you can get away with way less sugar. I tried several variations of this cake, and stopped when I left a cake out on the counter and everyone who walked by kept eating it. Aaron is not a big cake person, but as he said "I really just want to keep eating this cake." I told him that was the idea. A friend kept me company the night before the wedding, and was standing next to the pile of scraps I had cut off of the layers when leveling the cake. We were talking about something funny when she realized she'd been eating the scraps and said, "You know what's NOT funny? This cake." That's the amazing thing about this cake; it has the power to turn non-dessert people into cake lovers.
Buttermilk Donut Cake
Adapted from Ina Garten's 'Barefoot Contessa Family Style'
Makes one 12x18 sheet cake, or three 8-inch round cakes, or one each 10-in, 8-inch and 6-inch round cake.
2 1/4 sticks butter, softened
2 cups sugar
6 eggs
1 cup buttermilk or sour cream
4 tsp. vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 TB freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350. Butter your cake pan(s). If you plan on turning the cake out of the pan when it's finished, line the bottom of your pan with parchment paper and butter the parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt. Whisk together until well combined and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy.
With mixer(or egg beater) on low speed, add the eggs one at a time.
Add the vanilla and nutmeg, and mix until just incorporated.
Add the buttermilk, mixing until just combined.
Add the flour mixture in three parts at very low speed, scraping down the bowl between additions. Don't get lazy and skip this part, or when you pour the batter into the pan you're going to find a big pocket of buttermilk and eggs at the bottom. After the last of the flour has been added, finish mixing by hand with a rubber spatula making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl. Bake for 25-30 minutes(if baking wedding cake layers, check them after 20 minutes). When the sides begin to pull away from the side of the pan, it's done. I have found this to be the definitive test for cake doneness, and don't even bother to poke the middle with a toothpick anymore. I did several times, but whenever the sides are pulling away the toothpick ALWAYS comes out clean.
Cool the cake on a rack for five minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the pan and turn the cake out onto the rack to cool. If you're baking this cake for later, wrap gently but firmly in plastic wrap and freeze. If freezes beautifully and the finished cake will be exceptionally moist, since the wrapping and freezing trap lots of moisture that otherwise would have escaped as steam. You can eat this cake on its own, totally unadorned, or sprinkle it with powdered sugar(cinnamon sugar would be lovely also)(Oooh! or brush it with an orange zest glaze!). It tastes like donut holes. If you must frost it, I recommend the following:
Whipped Chocolate Chip Ganache Filling
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups chocolate chips
Heat the cream in a saucepan over medium high heat until steaming but NOT boiling. Pour into a bowl, add the chocolate chips, and let it stand for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, stir thoroughly to combine. Cool in the fridge until well chilled, then whip as you would whipping cream. Don't get hasty and try to whip it when it's still warm, it won't turn into whipped cream. Spread between cake layers.
New and Improved Swiss Buttercream
This makes a quantity of frosting, enough to frost a two-layer sheet cake. Recipe can be cut: 8 egg whites, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 6 cubes of butter, 3/4 tsp. vanilla.
12 egg whites
2 cups sugar
5 cubes butter
4 cubes unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla
Place eggs whites and sugar in a stainless steel bowl(a glass bowl works, but metal heats up so much faster) and place over a pot of simmering water, making sure the water isn't touching the bottom of the bowl. Whisk the egg whites and sugar until you can't feel any sugar granules when you dip your finger in the mixture and wipe it against the side of the bowl. This can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, depending on how hot your water is when you start. Do not use boiling water and do not walk away from the bowl or your egg whites will cook too much.
When the sugar is dissolved, remove the bowl from the pot of simmering water(wearing oven mitts is a good idea to protect against steam burn) and place it on a towel. You want to make sure to wipe all the water off the bowl so that when you pour your egg whites into the bowl of your mixer, they're not contaminated with condensation(which will keep them from whipping up properly). With whisk attachment, mix in a stand mixer on high until stiff peaks form and the bowl is room temperature when you touch the outside with your hand. While the egg whites and sugar are whipping, cut each cube of butter into eight pieces. When the egg whites reach the stiff peaks stage, turn the mixer speed down to medium-low and toss the butter pieces in one at a time. You can do this fairly quickly, but the idea is to get the butter evenly distributed. When all the butter has been added, add the vanilla and then turn the mixer back to high. The mixture will curdle. Don't panic. Keep mixing, eventually it will emulsify. I find it's best of I don't actually watch this part, because it freaks me out every time. Find something to do after you've added the butter; make yourself a cup of tea, check your e-mail, panic that you're a fake baker and not a REAL wedding cake baker, and after a couple of deep breaths go back over to the mixer and admire your beautifully smooth frosting. Don't worry about being away from the mixer for too long, I once walked away for fully 15 minutes and nothing bad happened. It might be possible to over-whip this frosting, but I haven't found that threshold yet.
I've made several versions of this frosting, and I think the 12 egg white version is my favorite. It is the lightest, not-too-sweet frosting I've ever had. The unsalted butter keeps it from being too rich, but it is still pretty decadent. That's nine cubes of butter we're talking about here. But let's be honest, we're making cake, not steamed vegetables. Although, I put butter on my steamed vegetables too. Just not nine cubes of it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Things

It's Sunday night at 8:30 p.m., half an hour past the boys' bedtime. We're driving home from my mom and dad's after a party, and I remember that we're out of coffee. I also want a pork shoulder for the crock pot, so I ask Aaron to drive by PCC on our way home. My plan was to dash in by myself and be back in the car in five minutes, but as soon as we pull into the parking lot Jack shouts "Baby carts!"
PCC has the cutest damn baby shopping carts which I never let my kids use unless Aaron is with us. But he is in fact with us this particular evening, and PCC isn't really a hotbed of activity this time of night so I agree that we can all go in and they can each have their own baby cart. We go over the Baby Cart Rules- no running, no crashing, no putting things in your cart without asking- and proceed to shop as a family. Whenever I pick something up, the boys beg to have it put in their cart. I alternate. The coffee goes in Jack's cart, the pork shoulder goes to Matteas. Aaron takes them down an aisle while I grab cottage cheese, and when I come around the corner I see the boys inching their way toward me slowly and carefully. Jack's feet are off the floor, resting on the frame of his cart and Matteas is behind him, his cart pushed against Jack's but. "Chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga-choo-choo!" says Matteas, clearly working hard to be the quietest choo-choo he can be. "Mom," he smiles proudly, "we are being a train!"
"That's a very good train Matteas," I say, smiling back. I can tell they are feeling the magic of an ordinary activity happening at an extraordinary time, and am suddenly very glad we were out of coffee.
A few days later we are back at PCC, this time without Aaron, so no baby carts. But- oh happy day!- the cart that has a ride-in car attached to the front is sitting in front of the door and there are no other children in sight. There is only one car cart, and it's always anxiety-producing to see if it will be our turn. It's right there, so I pull into the closest parking spot and we make a mad dash through the rain to the cart, which is dry inside thanks to the cozy roof on it. We have a peaceful shopping time, I remember everything on my list except for one thing and we even make it through the check-out line with both boys still in the cart. About every two minutes they ask me to run really fast, but I always tell them there are too many people in the store. Only one time did they feel the need to make siren noises, but they did it so quietly that I let them do it for a full minute before reminding them that we were in a shared space and we couldn't take up all the sound. "We were doing that so people will here us coming," Jack says.
"People will hear us coming, trust me," I reply.
We leave, and I put the groceries in the trunk and feel cozy for the boys, dry in their little car cart as the rain picks up speed. "Boys, you behaved beautifully in the store and I really appreciate that. Want mama to push you around the parking lot as fast as I can?"
"Yes!" they answer in unison.
The parking lot is fairly quiet, so I run as fast I can while still controlling the cart and we shoot across the parking lot at top speed, the boys screaming and hollering as loudly as they can. "Wheeee-holy-cow-this-is-so-fast-whooooo-hoooo-aaaaaaaaaaaaagggggggghhhhhhhh!!!!!!" 45 seconds of pure, unbridled, puddle-splashing joy.
"Mom," Jack says as he buckles his own seat belt, "that was the Best Shopping Trip Ever."
"I agree," I say, soaking wet and happy. Some days, this job is so freaking hard that I lock myself in the bathroom just to have three feet of space around my body and fantasize about what it would be like to live alone, all alone in a quiet space that stayed clean. But other days, I have the incredible luck to see an opportunity for shared joy and am able to seize it with both hands, even in the pouring rain.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles

Remember her? How tiny she was?
Well, she got bigger.
And then, after months of waiting, she up and laid an egg. I didn't even pose that feather on top, she did that herself.
We all remember where we were when we first heard(that is a whole lot of 'w's in one space). I was making dinner in the kitchen, Aaron was in the backyard with the boys. He was about to fill the chicken's feeder when I saw him pause by the door and smile. He waved the boys over, and suddenly I noticed that one of the chickens seemed be a little more clucky than usual.
"Aaron," I called out the kitchen window, "is there something in there?"
"Maybe," he grinned.
"It's and EGG!!!" Jack yelled, waving his hands in the air.
"IS DERE A BABY IN DERE?!" shouted Matteas, beside himself with excitement.
We all took turns holding it.
It was a little smaller than commercial eggs, and when I cracked it the shell was thick and hard, a sign our chickens are getting plenty of calcium.
We all agreed this, the first egg, should be fried. Aaron and I each got a single a bite, the boys got two bites each. It was amazing in a way which was largely to do with the fact that it came from one of our chickens, those little balls of cheeping fluff that we lost sleep over when they were babies, made fun of when they were awkward teenagers, and now follow us around like feathered, clucking puppy dogs.
After we ate the egg, I opened wine and we had a toast. I handed Aaron a glass of wine and we thought for a minute about what to drink to. I was feeling like the world was a more magical place and wondering if I was being overly-emotional, but before I had a chance to say anything Aaron looked at me with a sparkle in his eyes, then leaned over and kissed me. The world was more magical, it wasn't just me.
"To eggs," Aaron said, our glasses clinking.
We are enormously proud of ourselves. We figured that with the cost of the chicks($3 a piece), their feed, their litter, the heat lamps we bought, that our family snack of egg cost about $75. Of course, as the chickens lay more eggs the cost per egg will diminish, but I totally don't even care. We made an egg. We bought animals and cared for them, and that single, tiny egg was a huge triumph for our family. When we first got our chicks, a few people shook their heads and told us that if our goal was to save money it was a lost cause. It's not about the money. It's about getting a little closer to our food, about experiencing how real food is grown and not produced; it's about showing our kids why it's important to respect where our food comes from and why it matters that the animals we eat should be well cared for. Someday, I hope it will also be about not having to buy any eggs. I already knew about the awful conditions industrial laying chickens are kept in; they're crammed six hens to a cage, without enough room to stand up. They're never taken out of their cages, and most will go their entire lives without seeing sunshine or eating grass or bugs. I get incredible satisfaction out of doing the dishes and watching the chickens out the window. We keep them in what used to be an old playhouse at night, where the floor is lined with soft wood shavings that Aaron cleans out regularly. They sleep on a perch Aaron built them, and eat organic chicken feed and whatever they can scratch in the yard(including half of the kale I grew, which I have mixed feelings about). They have constant access to fresh water and are allowed to wander anywhere they want to in the backyard. An unexpected bonus of having free-range chickens is that they love to find cozy spots under bushes and shrubs, where they proceed to eat down all the grass and weeds.
For now, it's not about reducing our grocery bill. But some things are worth more than money.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Good to the Last Drop

The last sunny day of "Summer." I have always considered myself a devoted lover of the Pacific Northwest, but I have to say I have not been impressed by the weather lately. Or by most of the weather we had in the three month period preceding Autumn. I got a few red tomatoes, but my pumpkins never materialized and the carrots can hardly claim to be doing anything close to thriving. Most of my garden just sat kind of sadly in the dirt, wondering what I expected it to do with the long overcast days and weeks of drizzle. Then BAM!it's 95 degrees! for three days and then- just kidding! we didn't mean it! drizzle is what we meant! more drizzle! So it might as well be actual Fall, because we've been practicing all Summer.
We still managed to get in some beach time while the getting was good, and I really do love where we live. It's beautiful here even when it's gray, which is a hard trick to pull off in most parts of the world.
As soon as the weather turned cold, we all promptly got colds. Matteas had the worst of it, and one night requested "not soup, just broth" for dinner. I caramelized some vegetables, threw in some sprigs of thyme, some garlic and a pinch of cayenne(he likes it spicy) and simmered the whole thing with some organic beef stock. He drank every drop and was a noticeably happier boy afterwards. I realize that I'm turning my children into food snobs, but it's hard not to enjoy how much pleasure a bowl of well-made broth gave my sniffling little boy. Plus it was actually good for him, not sodium-laden bilge water from a can.
And since we seem to be moving into a stretch of weather that requires a slightly more substantial breakfast, I thought now would be a good time to share my World Famous Pancakes. Maybe not WORLD famous, but famous enough among the people who have had breakfast at my house. It is my most requested recipe which I find funny, because there are only four ingredients. And they are gluten free, provided you use certified gluten-free oats. Which I don't, because Jack isn't that sensitive. I started making pancakes this way out of necessity when we found out Jack couldn't eat wheat, but now I do it out of preference. These pancakes are light enough to still eat like pancakes, but also have a delightfully satisfying chew and pack enough fiber that they won't leave you feeling like you ate a big brick of sugary starch for breakfast. They are divine. Jack likes his with butter and brown sugar, while my favorite topping is cherry preserves and sour cream. They freeze beautifully, so make a whole batch and have a pancake breakfast ready in your freezer.
Oatmeal Buttermilk Pancakes
Makes about 12 5-inch pancakes
4 cups oats(not quick-cooking)
4 cups buttermilk
6 eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
The night before, combine the oats and buttermilk in a bowl. Stir until all the oats are saturated, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, beat the eggs with the baking soda and then stir the egg mixture into the oats. Cook on a non-stick surface over medium-high heat. The batter is a little sloppy, so I recommend keeping the pancakes small, about five inches across. You're welcome.