Monday, March 30, 2009

Cayuga Egg

My little Cayuga hen, Daisy, laid her first egg today. She planted it smack dab in the middle of the front yard nowhere near the nest box I've provided near the pond. If you've never held a black duck egg in your hand, the black color is pigment on the shell. It rubs off easily to reveal a white shell underneath.
The ducks have split into two camps, each with one hen and three drakes. There's Camp Macaroni and Camp Daisy now that breeding season is here. I need more hens! My plan is to place about 6 duck eggs under the first broody chicken I get. Once they've hatched I'll take over mothering duties. I'll raise the hens and butcher the drakes that result. Of course this elaborate plan depends on having a broody hen. Why is it that they're never broody when you want them to be?

Lately I've been offering 10 extra large chicken eggs and two duck eggs for $2.50. It seems to be popular. I realize I'll never get rich selling my extra eggs but it sure is nice to have it offset the cost of feed and bedding for my birds. Not to mention it gives me a chance to talk to others who appreciate fresh, free-ranged eggs. And if we're very lucky the ducks will be putting on a synchronized swimming demonstration!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Experimenting With My Camp Oven

I put my new camp oven to work today making a pot of baked beans using the guidelines and recipe in the book, "The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook: Recipes for the Best Pan in Your Kitchen". In preparation for today's cooking adventure, I soaked the beans overnight. The only thing I was missing was a cup of beer. As luck would have it, a friend of ours who brews his own beer stopped by to visit us and he just happened to have a keg of beer in his trunk! How lucky can you get? The recipe called for a dark stout which was what he had. I asked for a generous cup; a little for the beans, a little for me.

The baked beans simmered for four hours over the fire ring. I sat in the Adirondack chair and enjoyed the warm fire on a chilly spring day while visiting with the chickens and reading a few recipes in the cookbook. It was a joy to the senses to cook outdoors with the smell of molasses, brown sugar and beans simmering and the sight of the ducks in the pond.

The whole process was fairly easy. The biggest challenge was keeping the fire consistent. Fortunately, the tripod has an adjustable chain so I can easily raise and lower the oven as needed. Jim made the cast iron tripod for the oven and it is very sturdy and perfect for the job.

The beans tasted delicious. The dark stout lent a deep, rich flavor to the beans along with the molasses. At the end of the cooking time, I put some hot dogs in a foil packet next to the coals to steam. We ate them on some homemade hot dog buns and had giant chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

Eating these "off the grid" beans was very satisfying and got some more ideas stirring. It was a very good learning experience and I am looking forward to cooking some stew and roasting some birds in the camp oven. Providing for yourself is so much more satisfying than buying everything you need. With some ingenuity and effort you can do just about anything!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seasoning New Cast Iron

My brand new set of cast iron cookware arrived yesterday. I set aside today to season it. Even though Lodge sends its cookware out "preseasoned" it's not a true seasoning. It's just a food-grade wax that they apply in order to keep the utensil from rusting. When you get it, you really need to take the time to do a really good first seasoning on it.

Since I got my cookware from Lodge, I followed their instructions, except when it came to the type of oil to use. Lodge says to use vegetable oil or spray but I wanted to use an animal fat because it doesn't create a sticky surface like vegetable oil will. I used my own homemade schmaltz which I keep in the fridge for browning meats. Lard works great too.

If you've never seasoned cast iron before, prepare for the smoke that will roll out of your oven at the start of the process. Open your windows and get your exhaust fans set on high. It's gonna stink!

There are as many opinions about how to season and care for cast iron as there are pans (some people use mild soap to clean, others don't). The important thing is to experiment and then develop a system that works for you and stick to it. Don't let someone else pursuade you into changing your method. Also, don't ever let anyone else clean your pans for you!

Here are Lodge's instructions for seasoning their pre-seasoned cast iron cookware:

"While maintaining the seasoning should keep your Cast Iron in good condition, at some point you may need to repeat the seasoning process. If food sticks to the surface, or you notice a dull, gray color, repeat the seasoning process:"

  • Wash the cookware with hot, soapy water and a stiff brush. (It is okay to use soap this time because you are preparing to re-season the cookware).

  • Rinse and dry completely.

  • Apply a thin, even coating of MELTED solid vegetable shortening (or cooking oil of your choice) to the cookware (inside and out).

  • Place aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven to catch any dripping.

  • Set oven temperature to 350 – 400 degrees F.

  • Place cookware upside down on the top rack of the oven.

  • Bake the cookware for at least one hour. After the hour, turn the oven off and let the cookware cool in the oven.

  • Store the cookware uncovered, in a dry place when cooled.

I bought a 12" skillet, a 20" x 11" grill and an 8 quart camp oven, in case you were curious. There will be more cast iron related entries in the near future!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Eggs Anyone?

My new Oster 4716 Egg Cookerarrived this morning just in time for brunch. I hadn't had my coffee yet so my brain was a bit foggy but I was able to follow the simple instructions and get some eggs started in it.

When I was in my early 20s, I learned how to make hard-cooked eggs using Julia Child's method from her book, "The Way To Cook". I strayed from her method once and learned my lesson by biting into a rubbery egg. It's fair to say that I'm very picky about how my eggs turn out. I wanted an egg cooker that would save me money on my propane bill, make an easier job of clean up, and save me time and effort in the kitchen. This little egg cooker had to withstand my scrutiny in order to stay in my kitchen.

First I hard-cooked 8 eggs, which took 15 minutes. Since I had let them age 1 1/2 weeks, they were a cinch to peel. Then I bit into one and was delighted to discover that the yolk was absolutely perfect--still very soft but not runny! The whites were soft, not rubbery!

Next I wanted to try the poaching feature. The egg cooker can poach 4 eggs at a time, but since I was just cooking for myself I only made two. I placed them opposite of each other to facilitate better heat circulation.

The eggs fit just right in the little non-stick cups. I watched them as they poached and it was actually fun to watch them. (I know, I need to get out more!) While they cooked I toasted up some of my honey oatmeal bread that I just baked yesterday. When the eggs were done, I slipped them out of the cups onto the buttered toast.

What I tasted surpassed my expectations. The whites were delicate and since they were cooked without butter I could taste egg, and nothing but egg. Fantastic! The yolks were soft set with just enough liquid to smear around on the toast.

I'm happy to say that the little egg cooker takes up very little space next to my cookbooks. It's definitely going to stay in my kitchen!

Here's a short video of the egg cooker in action.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Who's There?

I didn't order a pizza! Now go away!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Happy Spring!

In honor of the first day of spring I made a Peeps cake. OK, so that wasn't really the reason. I had egg whites to use up and I saw these purple Peeps and couldn't resist the temptation to stick them on top of a cake.

Easily entertained. Yeah, that's me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Cooking of the Irish Grub

I'm not Irish but St. Patrick's Day gave me an excuse to make a favorite stew recipe and my first loaf of Irish soda bread. The stew recipe is from Tyler Florence and can be found here. It's a fantastic recipe. I've thrown away all my other beef stew recipes because I've finally got the best one.
The Irish soda bread recipe can be found in any Betty Crocker cookbook in the "Quick Breads" section. You can also read it online here. Since I'd never made it before I wasn't sure what to expect. And this was the first time I've ever kneaded a quick bread! The texture reminded me of heavy biscuit dough and it smelled like pancake batter. The taste was mildly sweet and the raisins added a nice flavor. It wasn't a dry bread, but it was very dense. Here's how it looked when it came out of the oven.
I learned that the cross on the top is not a religious symbol but simply an escape vent for the carbon dioxide that is formed from the baking soda. Without it, the bread would take on an unappetizing exploded look by the end of baking.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Egg Laying Record!

They finally did it! All of my chooks laid an egg today for a grand total of 14!

Good job girls! You deserve a hug.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Glorious Day!

It's been such a glorious's warm and sunny, my birds are foraging in the lawn, I baked, and I feel great. Macaroni laid her egg in the nest box this morning. On the right are the duck eggs and on the left are two chicken eggs.

Since I had read about the benefits of baking with duck eggs I wanted to try them out in a cake recipe. I cracked them into a bowl alongside two chicken eggs. I could immediately see a difference in the whites. The chicken egg whites (on right) are a pale yellow next to the clear whites of the duck eggs! The yolks appear to be similar in color, however. I could also see that Macaroni's eggs were fertile, as evidenced by the pale "bulls-eye" on each yolk. The shells were incredibly thick and actually difficult to crack.

Lanny reminded me last night that duck eggs are also more nutritious than chicken eggs. If you'd like to read a comparison of chicken and ducks eggs, click here. After reading that, I'm thinking I might not sell any of my duck eggs after all. In fact, I'm considering hatching some out under a broody hen so that I can increase my number of laying ducks! I just have to wait for one of my hens to go broody. If you've ever hatched duck eggs under a hen, please share your experience in the comments.

Whenever I fire up the oven to bake, I try to get the most out of it. Alongside the "Vanilla Rich Chip Cake" (recipe here), I baked this weeks' worth of honey oatmeal bread. I love baking days. The smells coming from the oven are heavenly.

After the baking was done I went outside to enjoy the wonderful weather. I sat on the deck steps and watched the chooks foraging in the lawn. Betty came and sat on my lap for a long time and even dozed off briefly in the warm sunshine. The Australorps became very sleepy and fell asleep in a pile next to the foundation. Don't they look like they've died?

The ducks are also enjoying this beautiful day. They've been switching between napping on the lawn and swimming around in the pond. They stop occasionally to feed along the edge of the pond.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Macaroni Figures It Out

You may recall my blue Swedish duck hen, Macaroni, playing pranks on me with her eggs (here she is with 3 of our 6 drakes in tow). I was anxious to try a duck egg so I dragged an old wooden crate to the area next to the dock that the ducks enjoy. We've been feeding them there the past few weeks and they seem to like that area. I placed two golf balls inside the nest box and pushed them down into the soft mud to make them stay in place. A few days later, one of the golf balls mysteriously disappeared. (Picture ducks playing golf.) The ground is sloped under the box, so the golf ball is now in the pond under the dock somewhere.
I was outside this afternoon getting the grill ready to cook supper and on a whim I walked to the end of the dock and looked inside, hoping against hope that Macaroni had laid her daily egg there. To my surprise, there was a duck egg inside the nest box! What a good girl! It took her 9 days to get the hint.

The egg is pale olive green and the shell is very smooth. The photo shows the egg before I washed the mud off of it. I can't wait to try it and compare it to the eggs my chooks lay. Duck eggs are going to be a rare treat for me. I've only got two hens; the other is a Cayuga named Daisy. Cayuga eggs start out black and gradually fade to gray as the season goes by. I don't know if I should save them and try to sell them. I'm not sure if there is much of a demand for duck eggs around here. Maybe I'll try it this summer and see what kind of response I get. I hear duck eggs are good for baking but I have yet to test that theory.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chickweed and Lamb's Quarter

Last spring I wrote about chickweed and how much my chooks loved it. At the time, they were too small to let them out to forage on their own, so I picked bucketsful of chickweed each day and put it in their run for them. They devoured it with gusto.

Spring is almost here as evidenced by the return of the turkey vultures and song sparrows last week. Today the chickens were chasing and catching small flies that looked like large gnats, the first insects of the season. Some plants are beginning to come to life too, like chickweed. The chickens stormed the field on our property and feasted on the fresh, green patches of chickweed. While it is edible, I've never tried it. The plant is rich in vitamin C and it helps the chickens make some very tasty eggs with deep golden yolks. For a very informative website about chickweed,
click here.

There is a spring weed that I do gather and cook though: lamb's quarter. I learned about its culinary possibilities last year and I can hardly wait for it to reappear! It tastes exactly like spinach and you've never tasted lamb's quarter, you really should give it a try. I've added it to spinach salads and I've sauteed it in butter. It's absolutely delicious and it has nutritional value as well. It grows everywhere around our property and I really like its price--FREE!

With spring just around the corner and lots of uncultivated areas on our property, I'm looking forward to the return of the edible wild plantsthat grow here, for both man and beast.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spring Cleaning

We received a respite from the rain today. I took advantage of the sunny, warm day to do a bit of cleaning in the coop. Since the night temperatures are above freezing I removed the heated water font and replaced it with the unheated model. I like my birds' water to be very clean.

I cleaned the glass door and the plexiglass window. I think the girls noticed because I saw them gazing out the door as if they were admiring the clean view.

I replaced the nesting material in a few of the nests. The nests that get used the most often get bits of mud and whatnot tracked into them. Replacing the nesting material regularly also prevents lice and other unwanted bugs from setting up housekeeping. Here Rosanna waits for Esther to finish laying her egg so she can get in there and lay hers! It's funny how chickens prefer to use certain nest boxes. I wonder what makes them decide which nest to use.

I have some new egg customers so I really want the coop to be presentable. It doesn't have to be sterile, just clean enough that if someone wants to walk in and look around they won't gasp for air once they get inside.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Double Dose of Diving Ducks

I woke up this rainy morning to see four wild ducks in our pond. It's always exciting to have wild waterfowl visit the pond. I grabbed my bird guides and set about identifying our aquatic guests.
I have two bird books: "Smithsonian Handbooks Birds of North America Eastern Region" and "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America". I like the Smithsonian book slightly better because it uses actual photographs of the bird which makes it slightly easier for me to identify. I also like the feature at the bottom of each page that allows you to write down where and when you saw the bird.
The first pair is two Ring-Necked Duck drakes. I assume they are last year's hatchlings and unmated bachelors. They were relaxing and enjoying themselves, diving now and then for a bite to eat.
The second pair were a much smaller pair of Hooded Mergansers. These little ducks are just adorable. Mr. Merganser has a very dapper hat and pin striped suit. Mrs. Merganser looks a bit tousled, but has very interesting stripes and patches of rusty browns. What a pretty pair of ducks!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Avocado Ice Cream and Poppy's Pork Chop

The avocados that have been ripening on the counter were finally ready today. Time to make Alton Brown's Avocado Ice Cream (recipe link). It's a snap to assemble the ingredients since they all go into the blender, except for the heavy cream which has to be stirred in last. After blending the milk, sugar, lemon juice and avocado I put the Nickelodeon slime ice cream mix into the fridge to chill for a few hours.

While the green monster goo ice cream mix chilled, Derek and I spent some time out in the windbreak enjoying the warm weather. We burned some downed limbs, toasted marshmallows over coals, and talked...really talked. It was such a treat for me. As we talked about life, girls, and the future we were joined by an adorable and gutsy little screech owl who responded to our whistles. I'm sure he's the same owl I've been seeing in our duck nest box during the day. He was directly overhead and Derek swears he could see his little owl feet!

When the marshmallows were gone we headed back home. It's such a blessing to have a place in the trees where we can have a camp fire so close to home. I don't ever take that for granted.

I poured the chilled ice cream mix into the ice cream maker and let it churn for about half an hour. It's a lovely shade of pale green. Perhaps I'll paint the bathroom this color some day.

If you're a big fan of avocados (which I am) you'll love the flavor of this lightly sweet, fruity ice cream. The texture is the ultimate in smooth and creamy and definitely hits the "sweet & creamy" nerve. It's also a very healthy ice cream, if an ice cream can be considered healthy. Some of the nutrients in avocados simply can't be found in any other food. And the fact that the fats in avocados are "good" fats is a great excuse to eat this satisfying treat.

So what's Poppy's pork chop got to do with any of this? Nothing, really. But when Derek fed the kitchen scraps to the chickens tonight, our big Australorp hen, Poppy, got a hunk of pork chop. And she wasn't sharin' with nobody.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Homemade Mayonnaise

When my chickens started laying last fall I wanted to try making my own mayonnaise. I found a few recipes and settled on one that sounded good to me and set about making it. I had to use my hand mixer and it took an eternity to get the oil/egg emulsion made. It didn't have the consistency that I was hoping for--more like a thick sauce than mayo. Also, the flavor was horrible. The recipe called for a ridiculous amount of lemon juice which made the mayo taste extremely bitter. I threw it out and started doing some research.

What I really, really wanted was a mayonnaise that tasted like what I was used to. Something that tasted like Hellmann's or Miracle Whip would be fantastic! I read the labels on the mayonnaise jars and tried to come up with a blend that was similar. I think I finally found a blend of ingredients that tastes the way I think mayo should.

Here's my list of ingredients:

  • 1 cup canola oil

  • 1 whole egg

  • 1 tsp white vinegar

  • 1 tsp honey mustard

  • 1/4 tsp white pepper

  • 1/4 tsp sugar

  • 1/4 tsp table salt

  • 1/8 tsp paprika

The next hurdle to overcome was the length of time it took to blend the ingredients. Every recipe I read instructed me to slowly, slowly, drizzle the oil into the egg and whisk like a mad woman! The last thing I wanted to do was stand at the kitchen counter and attempt to drizzle oil with my left hand while whisking with my right hand. I'm not that coordinated so chances are the oil would be drizzled too fast, too slow, or miss the bowl entirely. It took me about 15 minutes my first attempt to make the emulsion, even with my hand mixer. There had to be a simpler method!

Then I read in Angie's blog, "Home Grown" how she made her own mayo using her immersion blender. Eureka! This was the answer I was looking for! I immediately ordered my immersion blender and when it arrived the very first thing I made was a cup of mayo. It worked in less than 30 seconds and there was no need to drizzle the oil. I combined all the ingredients into the handy little beaker that came with my blender and let it do the work for me. Truly amazing.

Of course I had to try my blender in other applications too, such as making smooth applesauce, creamed soups and chowders, and some tomato sauces. It's such a great time saver I would recommend it to every cook I know.

This is my immersion blender:

Cruel Joke

My ducks think they're funny. I've been wondering when the hens were going to start laying. It's late winter and it's high time I start seeing some duck eggs.

As I made my coffee this morning I looked out the kitchen window and saw this.

My question is, which one of you is going to go out there and get it for me?

I can feel it staring at me through the window. And the ducks are just laughing at me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chicken Eyes

It's hard to tell what a chicken is thinking by looking into her eyes. I often wonder if I should be afraid. After all, if I was just a bit smaller I'd be fair game for my flock of modern velociraptors. Betty doesn't look too scary in this photo but she was running up to me to bite my pant leg--something she does to get attention.

Rosanna seems to be a friendly chook based on her expression. But do chickens have expressions? Unlike Betty, she doesn't bite to get your attention. She tries to sit on you, wherever she can fit her big 6 pound rear end. She's very sweet and loves to be carried around. Derek and I just love Rosanna. (She is always dirty!)

Lily is also very friendly to people. But lately she's been very grumpy with her flock-mates. Yesterday she grabbed poor Violet by the neck feathers and threw her to the ground, WWE style! Then a few hours later I saw her do the same thing to poor Rosanna! What's wrong Lily? Why the bad mood?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Homemade Chocolate Ice Cream

Alright! Alright! I hear ya already! Seems folks are anxious to find out how good my new ice cream maker works. The first batch I made was egg nog ice cream. It was wonderful! I finished the last of it last night while watching "Saving Grace".

Yesterday I cooked the egg-based batter for today's batch of chocolate ice cream. I used this recipe from Alton Brown's show, "Good Eats".

Oh. My. God.

If you are a chocoholic and you have an ice cream maker you MUST make this ice cream. It is rich, creamy and so smooth you'd swear you're eating chocolate mousse. Hands down, it's the best chocolate ice cream I've ever tasted.

Without a doubt, custard type ice creams come out awesome in this ice cream maker. And since I'm always looking for ways to use eggs, it's perfect for me. Here's how it looks during the last few minutes of churning. At this stage, it's exactly like soft serve ice cream and would be perfect for serving in a cone on a summer day. I have definite plans to do just that.

I now have 5 avocados ripening on the kitchen counter. When they're ready I'll use them to make a batch of Alton Brown's avocado ice cream. Can't stop me now!

Ice cream anyone?

Here's my ice cream maker:

Duck Tracks

We have 8 ducks and we have a pond with a light dusting of snow on some of the frozen areas. The ducks left these tracks yesterday and each one tells a story.

It looks like four of them were in a hurry--flappy feet slippin' and tails draggin'. The others were more composed and left neat little triangles as they waddled along.

Some days my footprints probably look like the first group. But today I'm waddling along calmly.