Sunday, September 26, 2010

Egg-cellent Layers


     Raising chickens is definitely worth the effort.  Farm-fresh, free-range eggs are undoubtedly in a world of their own.  The color of the yolk is bright orange and rich in flavor.  The whites are thick with albumen and coagulate well, unlike the store-bought watery, disappointment in a pan.  All natural, homegrown eggs are safer and cleaner too, lacking antibiotic-resistant bacteria found on the shells of crowded, cage-raised hens given strange medications and hormones.
      The latest outbreak of contaminated chicken eggs from the mass-producing companies owned by Austin "Jack" Decoster is quite pathetic from a cook's perspective, primarily since salmonella is only found on the shells of eggs.  This failure in our food security system is no different from the E. coli found on spinach, tomatoes, or anything else deemed a dangerous threat to consumers.  The solution, sadly enough, is washing.  Pre-washed foods sold to consumers present a false sense of security.  Steps once commonly taken when processing one's own store-bought produce have gone by the way side in the name of laziness.  Consumerism should be synonymous with vulnerability these days.  An endless amount of short-sighted trust has been given to these large corporations to do the right thing because they are 'regulated' by government administrations.  These administrations designed to protect the interests of the consumer are controlled by the same owners (or affiliates) of these large corporations.  The only solution is to raise your own food, and if not possible, cover your own ass by simply washing what you buy before eating it.  (Recently I have learned that this information is not entirely accurate.  Chicken's can have salmonella residing within their ovaries as a result of being fed recycled, infected chickens that die on the farm.  This practice, which is also how Mad Cow Disease occurs, combined with antibiotics and poor living conditions creates resistant strains of the bacteria which can overpopulate a chicken house very rapidly.  This link is quite helpful in understanding the shelf lives of foods.)



     Currently, our hens are happy and well.  Although, since my last post regarding the chickens, disaster struck in the name of predation.  One morning in May, I went to feed our 32 hens only to find one young pullet lying on the ground with a slashed throat.  Startlingly confused,  I thought at first, one of the other hens must have seen some weakness and turned on the young hen as can sometimes happen (chickens are REALLY dumb).  Then I noticed another, further back in the pen lying in a ruffled dead mess with the same mortal wound.  Another three inside the coup lay on the floor in the pine shavings.  All of the victims were young hens who had not begun laying eggs yet.  After mentally pushing past the initial shock and anger, I removed the lifeless birds from the pen to keep the surviving chickens from feasting on their dead neighbors.  I counted the remaining hens only to find 18 altogether.  I surveyed the perimeter fencing of the pen for undermining and could only find one small hole, 2-3 inches in diameter. There was no way a large predator capable of killing fourteen birds could have entered through this space.  But, how could this be?  I had only retrieved 6 carcasses, where were the others?
     I went inside to break the news to Ruby and Renee.  Also, I needed a second opinion to help solve this murder mystery.  Renee joined me on the case and we began our investigation.  I had a strange gut feeling that the culprit was still among us within the pen, yet there was no sign of life beyond our surviving hens, completely oblivious to their crisis.  It did not take long for us to start looking under the coup for the killer, yet visibility through the darkness was impenetrable.  We formulated a plan involving two bottle jacks (to raise the shed off its foundation) and a semi-automatic .22 rifle (to exterminate the vermin).  After an hour of digging at the foundation, we installed the jacks and started to raise the shed.  Before long, our murderer showed his fuzzy little face.  It was a mink!  Blood-thirsty, savage, little coat sleeve of a mink.  Unfortunately, he had to be removed from the pen and that meant dead, not alive.

     Mink are common in these parts, especially since we are along the creek.  In fact, before Renee bought this land, mink were raised for their fur in the barn across the creek from the house.  Apparently, mink will kill more than they can eat, sucking the blood from their victims and stashing the bodies for later.  That's exactly what this guy did.  We pulled 8 folded-up chickens out from under the shed in disgust of the gluttonous spree this little creature reaped on our newly expanded hen heaven.  It suddenly seemed more like a hell for those little birds of ours.  And, our soon to be abundance of fresh eggs seemed very far out of reach at the moment.
     Certainly, this was a common price to pay when raising livestock.  Perspective allowance for wild animal predation must be accepted, as this land belongs to the native beings more so than anything else.  Yet, complete annihilation; taking more than is needed, is very tough to tolerate.  Putting myself at odds with moral righteousness, I made a choice to save my chickens.  Not an easy choice to make, especially while conveniently reading Ishmael at the time.

     One evening, days later, Renee curiously left to run an errand.  When she returned, Ruby and I thought nothing of it.  Until the next day, when we awoke to feed our hens and noticed they had company did we realize where she had gone.  She had bought us some new, young hens!  What a surprise, not just to have new hens but they were exotic ones as well.  Among the new additions were a Pencil-Laced Wyandotte, Dark Cochin, Speckled Sussex, Buff Rock, two Buff Brahmas, and two Salmon Favorelles.  The luxurious Dark Cochin was decidedly named Aviana by Ruby and the two Favorelles aptly named Ruby and John because of their comical appearance and humble disposition.  One of the older hens, a Black Orpington, became increasingly featherless initially from the sexual advances of a previously owned rooster named Ygnacio, or "Nacho."  Later, even more feathers were lost due to a bad infestation of mites earning her the name Pucker-Butt, suggesting the primary location of the affliction.  The Speckled Sussex deserves a name as well, considering she is the obvious 'Mother Hen,' loudly demanding with a very rude, stubborn personality.  However, it seems irrational to name an animal due to its apparently negative appeal.  Then again, what about naming chickens is not irrational?


The nameless 'Mother Hen.'

John and Ruby (left to right).

     Many of the older hens, which were returned to us from a friend, had lost feathers due to Nacho's compelling romanticism.  Roosters often peck and scratch the backs of their hens while mating.  Unfortunately, the infestation of mites on our flock (during the fall last year) did not help matters improve for the birds.  It is not easy to see the bugs, but the effects are obvious.  Normally, chickens bathe themselves in dirt to remove dead skin cells and bugs.  These little dugout pits are used repeatedly for the fine particles of dust they contain.  When confined to a pen, the dirt is not as "clean" so to speak.  Adding fireplace ash to these wells provides a collection of particles so fine that they will suffocate and kill the bugs.  Pucker-Butt has since grown back little feathers just in time for winter.


It's business time.

Nine so far today!

     Our hens receive a diet of all-natural scratch feed and laying pellets.  Crushed sea shells tossed with the scratch feed adds much needed calcium to their diet for strong shell development.  The garden produces plenty of additional fodder for the flock with bolting beet greens, flowering broccoli, wrinkled cucumbers, and sun damaged potatoes.  The pen's proximity to the garden also helps eliminate one front of the grasshopper assault on our patiently awaited fruition.
     Right now, the 23 hens are laying an approximate total of 10 eggs each day.  Each morning we eat 5 eggs, at most, accumulating dozens after a week or so.  Newly laying hens produce tiny eggs at first, then slowly, larger ones in time.  In order to utilize each and every egg, I process the yolks into egg noodles and the whites are baked into meringue-based cakes like angel food or poppy seed cake.  Eggs may also be frozen, separating yolk from whites to use for later.

Waiting for grasshoppers from the garden.

     Pasta making is not very difficult with a pasta rolling machine.  I use a hand-powered Atlas 150 made by Marcato to make a wide variety of styles and shapes.  However, an egg noodle recipe learned from Chef Dylan Fultineer during my employment at The Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara is a household favorite of ours.  The technique is simple: mix flour and egg yolks into a dough, slap the dough to remove air bubbles, refrigerate, scale and roll, then cut into desired shape.  Either eat fresh, or dry by hanging to enjoy later.  So far, in the last two months of high egg production I have made two 5 lb. batches of dried noodles.
     I use a counter-top food mixer to prepare the dough, however, if not available making pasta by hand is not out of the question.  In fact, many traditionalist cooks prefer to make pasta by hand.

Three easy steps are involved when making any pasta:

  • Make a well in the center of the flour mound on the counter.
  • Add eggs to the well, breaking the yolks and stirring them into the flour.
  • Work and kneed into dough by incorporating the moisture from the eggs until elastic ball is formed, maybe 3 minutes or so.

     After this, refrigerate for an hour or more.  Limitless styles can be produced with a little practice and patience.  Remember to use flour when rolling so your pasta does not stick, and keep dough that is not being used covered so it won't dry out.  Roll consecutively smaller and smaller, being sure not to skip a setting as this can cause air bubbles and tears.  Cook in salted, boiling water for 7-10 minutes depending on shape and size.  I hope to elaborate on the various techniques some time in the future.

Egg Noodles

20 oz All Purpose Flour
17 oz Egg Yolk
*may need some additional cold water if too dry

  • Roll to #5 on pasta machine setting or less than 2 mm thick

Five pound batch drying on the pasta tree.

Egg noodles with bacon, brussels sprouts, tomato, onion, garlic and morel mushrooms.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Clear Creek Trout

     Last week I devoted some opportune time to a little fly fishing.  Tie Hack Lake in the Bighorn Mountains was my destination, while the base of the lake's dam and the very source of Clear Creek was my target.  My brother-in-law reported catching many large rainbow and brown trout in the pools below the dam on a trip here two years ago.  This was my first trip back to the lake since then so I was not sure what to expect.  I had a variety of dry flies, twenty-some-odd feet of leader, a cooler packed with ice for a creel, great weather, mild wind (for Wyoming), and solunar timing was excellent midday.  

     Hunting season is in full swing around here so it is wise to wear something bright in the woods.  Although I would love to fill my freezer with elk meat, I am not an experienced hunter.  My shot is consistently accurate but there are many other factors involved in selecting and stalking a kill which I feel should be learned appropriately.  Last fall I worked at the local slaughterhouse as a meat cutter throughout the hunting season and witnessed the resulting damage caused by eager hunters with no experience.  A shot through the gut or a that shatters a large bone can ruin most of the choice cuts surrounding it.  Until I learn the necessary skills, I fish instead.     
     Making my way into the Cloud Peak Wilderness in the Bighorn mountains, I travelled up through the geological layers of time, past craggy spires of multi-billion year old rocks (the Bighorn mountains are some of the oldest in our country), and finally up into the high meadows with views of the now hardly snow-covered peaks above yellowing aspen and birch trees.  With very few cars and plenty of trophy mule deer along the road, Tuesday was a good choice to get out into the hills.

      I parked at Tie Hack and hiked down the trail to the falls over the dam.  The main pool is very large, plenty deep, and well oxygenated.  I found a log to cross a few yards downstream and got right to it.  The light was coming from above creating visual access through the glare with a pair of polarized glasses.  I could easily see fish approach and strike but with a lack of conviction.  For two to three hours I watched these picky little trout examine and dismiss four or five styles of flies.  I tried everything.  Different techniques result in different presentations which the fish are very keen to notice.  Finally around 2 p.m. I began having some luck.  Small brown Adam's fly, elk-hair caddis and mosquito each caught two fish.  One by one I landed a total of six rainbow trout, all good fighters on the line.  However, none were over six inches in length: too small to feel good about eating.  I tried my luck with a wooly bugger in the lake on my way back out but in the end, came home empty handed.  Oh well, a bad day fishing is still better than a day working!

     Fortunately, for the sake of this blog, I managed to pull a ferociously fighting, big brown trout out of the creek a little upstream from our house two days before on a small elk-hair caddis.  I prepared the fish in my personally favorite method and took some photos to share.

     Simply put, this is pan-roasted trout.  It is a cleaned, whole fish stuffed with sliced lemon, garlic, onion, and fresh thyme.  Wrapped a few times with butcher's twine, seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, it is then seared in a smoking hot pan on one side until golden brown.  A heavy cast iron or black steel pan distributes even heat while achieving excellent searing temperatures.  The whole fish is then gently flipped and finished in a 500°F oven for ten minutes or so.  One method for testing the doneness of a whole fish is to insert the tip of a small knife into the dorsal muscles along the back near the spine, then quickly check the temperature by holding the tip of the knife to your lip.  If it feels hot it's done.  Of course, be very careful when doing this.  Oh, and this is not an approved method according to any comprehensive sanitation standards, anywhere. . . But, it actually kind of works.

     Serve family style with rice or what have you.  Be careful for the little bones and enjoy freshly caught delicious!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bountiful Harvest

Beautiful buttercup squash ready for the picking.

     Fall is rapidly approaching with every day shorter and cooler than the last.  Our garden is almost finished producing vegetables for the year; other than the kale and broccoli (which have been incredibly prolific with the mild weather this year) only winter squash, carrots and beets remain in the field so the starches convert to sugars as the temperatures drop to near freezing at night.  Many of our tomatoes are also still ripening slowly so a cover is needed to keep them from the frost at night.  I have learned many things throughout the cultivation, harvesting, processing, and storing of our produce.  Most importantly, I learned that the deer are the most voracious threat to food around here.  I am glad, however, that my most formidable opponent to making delicious grow is not the grasshopper, or weather but large, four-legged herbivores compelled by smell and curiosity.  The insects and weather can still take their toll nonetheless.  Small burrowing beetle-like critters took quite a few root vegetables and the green beans appealed to the appetite of many grasshoppers  probably because they grew among the perimeter of the garden.  A cold snap mid-September blasted both the squash and green bean foliage while oddly sparing the tomatoes from destruction.  Plants as broad and wide as squash are very difficult to cover with sheets and plastic.  Soon, the carrots and beets must be plucked from the soil due to -20°F temperatures which freeze the ground to impermeable hardpan.

     Deer destroyed three tomato plants on the edge of the lawn at first.  Then they became more brave by venturing onto the deck and pilfering bigger plants with more fruit.  Initially, they devoured the leaves, flowers and unripe tomatoes in one night.  My first attempt to prevent any further damage by staking up a net of fishing line around the plants resulted in an accidentally self-inflicted puncture wound and subsequent tetanus shot.  Definite bonehead maneuver.  The tomatoes were abundantly sampled as the tooth marks suggest on this poor beauty to the right.  Wire cage material is suitably the best for deer theft prevention.  Unfortunately, they proceeded to devour my chili peppers, plant and all.  I must say I felt a strong urge to fill my freezer with illegally poached venison at this point, yet it was ultimately my inexperience at fault.  The elderberry was absolutely ransacked, although it is kind of comical in its appearance, or lack thereof.  However, I still managed to pick a few clusters of berries which are now drying to preserve for later. Perhaps a sauce for leftover venison backstrap from last year is fitting since the deer love to eat them so much.  Foods which are linked in the natural world by sustenance often compliment one another when served together.

The Chili de Arbol was included in the list of casualties. 


     The garlic and onions both produced abundant crops although small in individual size due to the short growing season.  They must dry-cure for a week or so before being cleaned and the tops removed so they may be stored.  Altogether, our crop yield was approximately 2 lbs of garlic and 15 lbs of onions.  Almost half of our onions, however, did not develop a thick enough skin on the outer layer to store so I will probably make a large batch of onion soup to use them up quickly.  Additionally, I would like to try to dry some onion by slicing it very thin and placing the slices on a screen for a few days.  The brilliance of a low humidity climate shines only for cooks who wish to fill their pantry with preserved deliciousness. 


The garlic in particular is truly remarkable.  Creamy macadamia-colored orbs of splendid savory magic wrapped in purple skin; it is some of the best tasting garlic I have ever eaten! 

     Our potatoes grew well despite a few rotten tubers, which is normal, and a vole or something who snacked on a couple he dug up from the hulled mounds.  Each plant produced approximately 8-10 medium to small-sized waxy potatoes.  Around 25 lbs of red and yukon gold taters were uprooted altogether.  Although the red potatoes do not keep for very long, the yukon golds were packed into a large plastic bin with softwood shavings separating each layer.  Potatoes, garlic and onions must be stored out of any direct light, humidity, or high temperatures.

   As for the rest of our produce, traditional processing methods are used to maximize longevity of utilization while showcasing the primary essence and freshness of each product.  Some examples include:

  • dried chilies
  • dried berries
  • frozen, blanched broccoli
  • pico de gallo salsa
  • tomato soup
  • vegetable stock
  • zuchini bread 
  • potato salad
  • bread and butter pickles
  • canned beets

This jalapeno is the sole-surviving pepper!