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.
|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.
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.|