Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chicken Update

Imagine a dandelion just as it's going into seed. Imagine it the day before it completely turns white and the seeds blow away and scatter everywhere. Can you see it? The small spikes of the seeds with pale pieces of fluff on the ends. Now, imagine that dandelion is trying to sprout feathers.

That is exactly what my chicks look like right now. Apparently, adolescence is awkward for humans and birds alike.

Many things have happened with the chickens lately, but perhaps the most dramatic was when one of them tried to escape from the cardboard box. One day I came home from work to find the one yellow chick in the corner of the room, outside of the box. She was terrified. A terrified chick makes a shrill, piercing chirp, the chicken equivalent of yelling "help, help, help." I told Kent about it, and he said, "Which chick?" I said, "The yellow one." He said, "Oh, you mean Franny?"

He was being spontaneously cute, and he caught me off guard, but I got to thinking...Franny is a really good chicken name, and it fits.

So, my chickens now have names! Franny, Zooey, and Boo Boo* and then Kent--insisting that he would feel more invested in these chicks if he could name one-- named the runt, Scrambly. As in I can't wait to make scrambly eggs. [* Do you know why three of these names belong together?]

Obviously, it's a problem if the chickens begin running rampant in the laundry room. Part of my solution was to give them more space. I have added an entire wing to their box, with a little chicken sized door between the two areas.

Alas, it did no good. Now that the chicks have enough feathers on their wings to see some actual air time, they just want to perch on the edge of the cardboard box. However, we seem to have an understanding. The "ladies" don't ever jump off the box or out of the box, save for Franny's one mishap. So perhaps Franny has warned the others of the horror of getting lost outside of the box.

In the meantime I am ramping up production on the poultry palace. I now have perches that I salvaged from the woodpile in my back yard.

In the photo below are all the chickens from left to right: Boo Boo, Zooey, Scrambly, and Franny. They grow so fast, though that I have to keep a constant watch on who's who. Poor Kent, who has been very busy with the end of semester finals, papers, and portfolio grading didn't see the chicks for a couple of days, and he then couldn't even tell which one was Scrambly.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I Know I'm a Ceasar Salad Addict

When do you finally admit I am powerless over my addiction.?

For me, it's when I found myself at 10 o'clock at night, desperately clutching a tube of anchovy paste, scraping at it with a butter knife, trying to get every last little bit of salty, fishy goodness out of the tube--and realizing that I have consumed an ENTIRE tube of anchovy paste in only one week. You see,

I am powerless over Caesar salads.

I suppose this is a side effect of eating seasonally. I haven't had a Caesar salad in months. In fact, I haven't even wanted one in months. But, when the weather kicked it up to something like balminess last week I craved raw, leafy greens. Now I've made Caesar salad my dinner for the last three nights in a row, and even as I write this, I'm contemplating a midnight snack of Caesar salad--I mean someone needs to christen the brand-new, never been squeezed tube of Reese's anchovy paste that I bought today to replenish my severely depleted stock.

All of this gorging on Caesar salad has a perfectly rational explanation. This is what happens when you have too many outdoor projects going on. I have been: amending garden soil with composted manure, rearranging large swaths of sod in my front lawn to make room for said garden and to cover dead spots (with Laura's help), mowing the lawn for the first time (with my new mower)* and working on the poultry palace (against the wire as the lovely lady hens are rapidly outgrowing their cardboard boxes).* What this means, is haven't had much time to do any cooking except literally throwing a salad together.

This is where Caesar salad, with a made-from-pantry-staples, dressing comes in handy.
Caesar dressing is so alluring because of the complexity of flavors. Tartness of lemon juice, coupled with the creamy fruitiness of a quality Mediterranean olive oil, balanced by the spicy bite of fresh garlic, slivers of aged Parmesan hidden amongst the sweet, yet slightly pepper crunch of romaine leaves. This salad has it going on, not to mention the addition of anchovy paste!

Anchovy loathers, you need to get over yourselves. Anchovy paste is know for it's umami properties. Umami is simply the recently discovered fifth taste, ranking right up there with salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. Umami comes from the Japanese word meaning "yummy, keen, or nice." Most Americans describe the flavor as "meatiness," "relish," or "savoriness." Umami--which is the flavor receptor that MSG makes ring bells and whistles--is simple a response to the amino acids or glutamates in foods, which not suprisingly reside in salty, aged, and or fermented foods like anchovies.

Ceasar Salad

(this is an adaptation from Fannie Farmer, and I've made it so many times I make it now by eyeballing it)

For the Dressing:
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil (splurge in the most expensive you can afford)
juice of half a lemon
2 inches of anchovy paste (or to taste)
fresh ground black pepper

Mince the garlic. I use a mini food processor for this and then add each ingredient in one after another, blending at each addition. Lacking a food processor, you could mince the garlic by hand, and the whisk in all the other ingredients until emulsified.

For the Salad:
Romain Lettuce (buy full heads or hearts, DO NOT used bagged lettuce, you'll regret it because it tastes stale.)
Parmesean cheese (or other hard, aged cheese. For instance, I used Pecrino early this week when I ran out of Parmesean, and it worked quite well.)

Wash and dry lettuce. Tear in bite size pieces or leave leaves whole, your choice. Toss with dressing. Then, grate cheese over salad. Depending on my mood, I either use a microplaner, or my vegetable peeler to grate the cheese.

If you want you could also add capers or croutons, or small pieces of leftover roast chicken.

*Blog Posts Coming Soon!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Which Comes First...

When I sent Kent off to Ohio to find us a place to live I wanted two things: the space to garden, and the space to raise laying chickens. I imagined an old farmhouse somewhere in the Ohio country side. Instead, Kent found us a cozy little Craftsman house on the south side of Bowling Green. The property has narrow, but long grassy yards open on all four sides of the house. The front lawn in it's entirety will make a sizable garden (the back and side lawns are too shady). When I saw the property, I momentarily gave up my dream of chickens. We are in town, we have no fence, we have neighbors on all sides of us. It seemed hopeless.

One should not be so quick to give up dreams or so unimaginative.

In the last two weeks circumstances have transpired rather quickly when these pieces came together:

1. It is legal to keep chickens within the city limits of Bowling Green as long as they do not "run at large."

2. Chickens, especially Buff Orpingtons, do not need a huge amount of space. I'm figuring 4 square feet per bird.

3. Chicken tractors, essentially a chicken coop and chicken run on wheels, are ideal for backyard chicken keepers as they allow you to wheel the chickens to fresh grass everyday. This means the chickens constantly get new forage and new bugs to eat, they evenly fertilize your lawn so chicken manure smells are significantly less, and they won't kill the lawn as they would if they were left in one spot.

Even though I knew all of this, I was still reluctant to start. Chicken tractors are expensive. I saw many for sale over $500. But then, I started trawling Craigslist. I found this:

For $15 dollars I purchased this old rabbit hutch, and am currently in the process of remodeling it into the "Poultry Palace" for these four lovely, ladies:

Chickens are incredibly low-tech. For now, the chicks reside in my laundry room, in a cardboard box lined with wood shavings. They are under a heat lamp, to simulate the heat of being nested on by a mother hen. Apparently, the ideal temperature under a chicken's butt is 95 degrees. I bought a red tinted heat-light bulb at the feed store, because it's supposed to be easier on the chicks' eyes. But, it also makes them look evil:

So far, the chicks have been a fascinating project. First of all, they are a bit narcoleptic. They have the tendency to nod of instantly, sometimes this means they'll fall asleep face down in their food. It also amazes me to think the chicks were only 2 days old when I got them, meaning that if a fertilized chicken egg takes 21 days to mature, 23 days ago these chicks were simply a freshly layed egg.

I'm also a bit astonished by how fast they grow. Out of nowhere, overnight, they have sprouted wing feathers! Here you can see how much faster the yellow chick's wing feathers have grown compared to the buff colored chick's:
We have yet to name the chicks. It is apparent that chickens aren't pets in the traditional way. It's not about the companionship; it's about the delicious, organic, free-range eggs. The 20 dozen eggs each chicken will hopefully lay in the next year. However, as they grow older--and each lays unique eggs-- we'll need names to distinguish them, so let me know if you have any ideas for names.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hot Cross Buns

Earlier this week I was asked what my Easter menu was going to be and honestly, as I thought about indispensable Easter foods, I'd rather forgo the ham or the lamb and just focus on sweets.

Spring, among the women in my family, is usually marked by the arrival of Cadbury Mini Eggs in the store. There seems to be an unwritten agreement that the first person to acquire the first bag of mini eggs of the year is "the winner." (Kent happened to win this year, beating Holly by about 18 hours.) The Easter ritual of mini eggs (and Russell Stover's Chocolate Coconut Nests) simply involves consuming as much of said candies as one can without getting sick or gaining a pants size until they disappear altogether for another year. Being from an entirely Protestant family, it could be argued that rather than celebrating the denial of lent, we celebrate the opposite: the splurge of sugar gorging.

Easter would not be complete, however, without one homemade sweet: the hot cross bun. My mom has made hot cross buns for every Easter I can remember. They are a rich yeast bun. Their dough is fortified with a whole stick of butter, several eggs, and studded with dried currents. The bread is barely sweet and the additions of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg give the slightest perfume of spice to the buns. But really, these buns are nothing without a healthy, fat, criss-cross of vanilla butter cream frosting.

Growing up we were taught the the cross on the buns symbolizes the cross Christ died on; however, the tradition of hot cross buns may in fact pre-date Christiandom, and may have been merely adapted to a Christianized tradition. Food Timeline states, "The pagans worshipped the goddess Eostre (after whom Easter was named) by serving tiny cakes, often decorated with a cross, at their annual spring festival. When archaeologists excavated the ancient city of Herculaneum in southwestern Italy, which had been buried under volcanic ask and lava since 79 C.E., they found two small loaves, each with a cross on it, among the ruins." Other theories imply that the cross symbolizes the four quarters of the moon, important in pagan ritual.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the stigma surrounding these hot little buns. At one time, protestant England tried to ban hot cross buns because they were too much like Catholic communion wafers and considered a threat to the church; however, the buns were just too good to be excommunicated entirely, and instead the church of England relegated their consumption to Eastertime (and Chrsitmastime) only.

Superstitions involving hot cross buns are many, but perhaps the most fascinating is that by "
hanging a hot cross bun in the house on [Good Friday] offers protection from bad luck in the coming year. It's not unusual to see Good Friday buns or cakes hanging on a rack or in a wire basket for years, gathering dust and growing black with mold--although some people believe that if the ingredients are mixed, the dough prepared, and the buns baked on Good Friday itself, they will never get moldy."

If you do make a batch of these hot cross buns, don't do it for good luck because in all likeliness you won't be able to help yourself from eating every last one...long before they gather dust.

Hot Cross Buns

5 1/2 cups flour, divided
2/3 cup sugar
2 packages dry yeast (approximately 5 t.)
1 1/2 t. salt

2/3 cup whole milk
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup butter, cut in chunks
2 eggs (+ 1 egg for egg wash)
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup dried currants (take the time to hunt up dried currants...raisins will work if the situation is dire, but the results won't be nearly as good--you want the delicate texture and flavor of currants here.)

In mixer fitted with dough hook, mix together 2 cups of flour, surgar, yeast, and salt.

Heat milk, water, and butter until very warm, but not hotter than 120 degrees or you will kill the yeast.

Gradually beat liquid mixture into flour. Add two eggs and gradually add the rest of the flour. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and currants. Mix until dough is elastic.

Let rise, covered in a warm place 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Then, roll dough into 2" balls and place 2" apart on parchment lined cookie sheets. Pre-heat oven to 375. Let dough rise a second time, for about 30 minutes.

Just before baking brush buns with 1 egg beaten with 2 T. water.

Bake ate 375 for 15 minutes.

When cooled, make iced crosses with vanilla butter cream frosting. Makes about 24 hot cross buns.

P.S. What indispensable Easter candy was in your basket this year?