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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Making Me Laugh

I saw two news items today confirming the continued popularity of chickens across the world. The first came from Sunset Magazine proclaiming backyard chicken coops as one of the Top 100 Cultural Trends in the West. It's part of "The ideas, people, places, and things that are making life out here better right now."

The second news item came from Dorset, England, where they're experiencing a rise in chicken thefts. The reason? The price of a purebred chicken has risen because of the popularity of raising chickens. "The Domestic Fowl Trust says chicken thefts, driven by rising prices, are happening more regularly across the country. When you could get a bird for £5, no-one cared. But now that keeping poultry is more popular and prices are higher, we are seeing these thefts increase. It is a really popular hobby – it is the fastest growing pet market there is at the moment.”  Shouldn't we have a "Domestic Fowl Trust" in this country too?

I think that one under-appreciated reason for the chicken craze is because chickens brighten your day and make you laugh. Take this morning for instance. My day started out with six knobby chicken knees peering through the window at me. I was late with the girls' warm breakfast mash and as I entered the run I looked up to find a line of scaly legs as the only thing visible through the coop window. Kinda' looked like the Rockettes - if the Rockettes were made up of chickens.

Everyday it's something new. Yesterday Roxanne didn't want to touch the snow but she was also tired of being held by me. So, off she flew from my arms, bounced twice on the snow-covered path like a deflated basketball and finally landed up to her neck in the snowbank. She haughtily scrambled out of the snow attempting to keep her matronly dignity intact.

Then there's Ruby, who wears as much food as she eats. As her beak gets coated with a mustache of yogurt she swings her head causing it all to land on her head. Yesterday she wandered about with a cape of arugula perched on her back.

Chickens are pets that provide many diverse dividends. Yes, they give us eggs, but they'll also give you something to smile and laugh at. In spite of yourself.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Smoked Wings with Cilantro Dip

It's been a fun week. Everyday something new comes out about the book (Chicken and Egg) and I hear from people who've bought it, such as this lovely note I received from reader Lisa H:  
"I purchased your book "Chicken and Egg" at Crate and Barrel. Every aspect shines-writing photographs and recipes. I read it cover-to-cover. As a fellow Suburban Homesteader, and flock owner of 12 hens, I was drawn to your personal story of poultry ownership, and we are always looking for new egg recipes. Thank you for sharing your story and recipes."
The chicks appear to be totally unfazed by their emerging publicity. Their attitude seems to be that fame is probably fleeting, and what's really important in life is that the food bowl is full and treats come often. But, if there are fans out there with time of their hands, I'm sure the girls would each love a pair of hand-knit leg warmers, as our cold weather continues!

I'm excited to share one of my favorite recipes from the book, I hope you like it! It's a great recipe for Super Bowl week because it's perfect to serve during the game. The recipe calls for the wings to be grilled, but if you're one of the many readers who have suffered through the storm of the century this week, I've also adapted it so that you can cook the chicken in the oven. I think you'll like it either way. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Smoked Wings with Cilantro Dip

These wings are addictive. The smoked paprika, cumin, and chipotle chile powder are key to their smoky, bold flavor. Don't be put off by the length of the ingredient list; it's a very quick and easy recipe. Simply measure and dump, then marinate the wings for up to a day before grilling.

2 1/2 lbs. chicken wings (about 16 wings) separated at the joint, or 32 chicken drumettes
3 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dried oregano, preferably Greek
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
14 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Cilantro Dip:
3/4 cup lightly packed coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup chopped pecans
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Place the wings in a large resealable plastic bag, Stir together the remaining wing ingredients, except the oil, in a small bowl. Add the olive oil and stir until smooth. Add the seasoning mixture to the chicken wings, seal the bag, and squish the bag to coat the wings with the seasoning. Put in a shallow pan and refrigerate overnight, or up to 24 hours. (I just tried it without marinating and there's still a lot of flavor, so don't worry if you can't let it sit overnight.)

Blend all of the dip ingredients together in a blender until smooth. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Heat the grill.* Remove the wings from the rub and discard any remaining seasoning mixture. Grill over medium heat, covered, for 10 to 12 minutes or until no longer pink in center, turning every 3 to 4 minutes to brown on all sides. Serve the chicken wings with the dip.

*Alternate Oven Directions: Heat oven to 425ºF. Line large rimmed baking sheet with foil; coat foil with nonstick spray. Arrange marinated wings over baking sheet in one layer. Bake 25 minutes or until no longer pink in center, turning about every 10 minutes.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Chicken and Egg Released

My book Chicken and Egg; A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes is officially out! I kept hearing reports from friends and family across the country from Boston to Bethesda to Kansas City that they'd seen it at their local Crate & Barrel store and they'd send me photos as proof. But it still didn't seem real to me until I made the journey this week to our local C&B to see it on the shelves.

You'll have to excuse the photography as I did my best with the less than perfect lighting available in the store, but there it was, beautifully displayed! The excited sales staff I talked with told me that, "It's our favorite cookbook right now!" and "We all want to get one." They all loved the photography and artwork. I agree, it really makes the book!

If you're still waiting for the book to come to your area or your favorite store, don't worry. The official release date was 1/26, which means the books should have left the warehouse on that date but it may take weeks before they're actually on the shelves. You'll have plenty of choices from Crate & Barrel, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Williams Sonoma, and Anthropologie and possibly more. Let me know when and where you see the book in your area and send me a photo if you'd like. I'll do a shout out on Facebook and Twitter for you!

In honor of the book's official release, next time I'll share one of my favorite recipes from the Late Winter chapter in the book.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Protecting Chickens Against Frostbite

The chickens were not happy with me yesterday. Roxanne was particularly vocal with her complaints. It's because I decided to put Vaseline on their combs and wattles to protect against frostbite. This "little dab'll do ya" business has put us all in a bad mood.

The girls didn't see the point. What they did see was me being mean and nasty as I smeared sticky goo over their crowns while they flapped and squirmed. Have you ever tried putting Vaseline on a chicken? It gets everywhere. I now have Vaseline on my coat and my gloves as well as their entire heads not just the intended parts. Of course the girls immediately tried to rub it off and I saw Ruby eating a glob off Roxanne. They'll eat anything once.

If you're wondering why I was doing this, it's a matter of guilt. With the overnight temperatures predicted to be -15ºF to -20ºF I knew that even with additional heat the coop temperature would drop below freezing and I wanted to add as much extra protection as I could. Gail Damerow, the nation's foremost chicken expert, advises "Coat combs and wattles with petroleum jelly as insulation against frozen moisture in the air." Who am I to disagree?

Well, the chickens weren't buying it and just looked at me accusingly with their sticky heads covered in bits of straw and food.  I could almost hear them thinking "If you're so worried about us, why can't we spend the night in your warm cozy house?" I didn't let them guilt me quite that much. I just put another layer of Vaseline on each one when I put them to bed last night.

As of this morning, the girls seemed to have survived the night frostbite-free. Thank goodness. However, they're filthy dirty. Everything sticks to their heads and their feathers are black. I now have four grease balls bobbing around still looking at me accusingly.

This weekend? I'll probably have to bring them inside for a shampoo, blow dry, and "comb out". Life with chickens is never dull.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Catalog Dreams

The new poultry catalogs started arriving in the mail this week and the chatter online has turned to baby chick orders. As I page through the catalogs I find I have a bad case of chick envy.

Aren't they just the cutest?

 I'm not planning on ordering any chicklets this spring, but as I look at all the cute pictures I'm really tempted. The more you learn about chickens and read about the marvelous varieties available, the more you want to try them all.  Chicken owners are much like gardeners with their new garden catalogs: each variety seems more promising and, like kids in a candy shop, we want them all!

The trouble with raising chickens in a suburban backyard is there's only so much room, so you're limited in how many chicks you can manage. I'm aware that plenty of backyard chicken owners start a whole new flock every year or two, but in order to do that you have to be willing to dispose of the original flock either by processing them (read: butchering) or giving them away. I'm not willing to go there with my girls. Hence, my options are limited.

Right now I've got four chickens who are laying like crazy in spite of the frigid weather. In fact, I can hardly keep up with all the eggs they're giving us, so I really don't need any more chickens. But I still can dream.  Someday I'd love to have Marans for their dark chocolate-colored eggs, striped Barred Rock for their plumage, or Silver Spangled Hamburgs for their regal look.  And of course I'd like to have Silkies just because they're so cute. These tiny bantam chickens with black skin and feathers as soft as fur don't take up much room at all. (Maybe......just maybe.....I could get a couple this year?)

If you're wondering which breeds of chickens would be best for you, they all have their own qualities. While I love the elegance and the unique blue and green colored eggs laid by the Easter Egg chicks, my plain brown egg-laying Rhode Island Red hen Ruby has laid more eggs than any hen I've ever owned. And my Silver Wyandotte Coco is not far behind.

Good luck on your own chick hunt and let me know what you're ordering. (I'll be jealous, but it's okay.)
As I mentioned, lately we've had almost more eggs than we can eat, so I've been eating an egg every day for lunch just to make room for the next day's collection. I usually throw together a salad and top it with a 4-minute cooked egg. The combination is perfect and oh so satisfying, especially when you know the hen that laid your egg.

Warm Winter Salad with Backyard Eggs and Sherry-Walnut Dressing
I vary the ingredients in the salad with whatever I happened to have in the refridgerator. I usually blanch any of the firm vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, etc. and toss them warm into the salad. I also try to keep the eggs warm until I place them on the salad. 

1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup walnut oil

4 eggs
6 cups mixed salad greens
2 cups cut-up vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, blanched
2 tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1/4 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or crumbled blue or feta cheese
1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted

Whisk sherry vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper together in small bowl; slowly whisk in walnut oil.

Place eggs in small saucepan; cover with hot water. Bring to a bare simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low or low and simmer 4 minutes (eggs should not bounce or rattle and the water should lazily bubble). Place in ice water until just cool enough to handle; peel.

Arrange salad ingredients except cheese and walnuts on plates; top with halved eggs; sprinkle with cheese and walnuts. Bring dressing to a bare simmer by heating in the microwave or in a saucepan. Drizzle the warm dressing over the salad. Sprinkle with additional pepper.

Serves 4

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nighttime Magic

It's hard to convince people this time of the year that keeping chickens can be fun when the weather fluctuates from freezing cold to nose-biting frostbite, gentle snow to blizzard whiteouts, and bone-chilling wind to hurricane-force gales.  All in one day!  No one wants to be outside--for any reason--let alone take care of chickens.

In spite of the weather, there is a certain sense of magic whenever I head outside to the coop, especially late at night. I must admit I'm not eager to take time away from what I'm doing to pull on my heavy winter jacket, Sorel boots, ear muffs, neck scarf and ski gloves and tromp outside into the cold. But once I'm outside I often linger. The backyard has a different quality in the winter darkness.  The snow and ice luminously glisten in the pale light, making the snow look so fluffy, so precise, and so perfect it looks fake. The crunch and squeak as my boots cut through the path, however, quickly prove that it's real as I head out to tend to the chicks.
Chickens put themselves to bed when the sun goes down (something most parents wish their children could learn), but I add extra light during the winter months so they'll continue to lay eggs. I therefore head out around 9 pm to tuck them onto their roost and turn off the light (the light's on a switch, so there's no timer). They know the routine and are waiting for me. They've had their suppertime snack and are usually on the roost although flighty Ruby has a hard time settling down and keeps thinking I'm bringing her more treats at bedtime. But, eventually they snuggle down and I switch off their light then head back to the house. The short walk is quiet and peaceful. Yes, it's cold and yes it's hard to leave the warm house, but the stillness and gentle cooing of the chickens more than makes up for it.  It's often the best part of the day.

Bedtime snuggling right before lights out.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Three's a Crowd

Latest Book News: My book Chicken and Egg has been spotted on the shelf in Crate & Barrel and is featured on page 60 of their latest catalog!  I can't wait to get over to the store to see it in person. Let me know if you catch sight of it.

I grew up in a family of three sisters. I was recently reminded of my teenage years and the hours spent battling over use of the bathroom with my two sisters as I watched three of my hens last week trying to use one nest at the same time.  Watch the video below and you can almost hear their mutterings translated as "It's my turn now--you've been in there forever!" and "I can't hold it, I have to come in now!"

Ruby, the red chicken on the left, was the first one in the nest. She's then joined by Cleo on the right, while Coco, the black and white hen, demands to be let in too. The video starts with Coco's attempts to barge her way in. Listen to the gutteral cooing Ruby makes as she's laying her egg (which sounds like growling in the video). Ruby finally manages to lay her egg through it all but watch carefully as Cleo seems to claim the egg as her own and even pushes poor Ruby out of the nest.

I must admit, chickens are a lot calmer than teenage girls, with no shrieking, shouting or crying. All three hens eventually laid their eggs that day and they've taken turns ever since.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cabin Fever? Make that Coop Fever

Snow Birds
The tension is building in the coop tonight. It's cold and the girls are tired of being literally cooped up in the coop and the run. They're used to having the entire backyard to roam in and this winter cold and snow is cramping their style. So they're starting to take it out on each other.

Tonight when I brought the girls their suppertime snack they crowded around me as usual, each wanting to be petted while at the same time getting to the treat first. They started eating and I was tidying up the coop when I began to hear short little barks coming from below. As I looked down I saw Cleo giving a bark-like warning cluck while simultaneously nipping at the head of whoever got near her. There was no way she wanted to share her treat tonight and this grand dame was going to make sure that everyone else stayed away.

I think I understand how she feels. I'm getting a little crabby and feeling cramped having to constantly be inside too. We all need a break from this year's vicious cold. Tomorrow I'll give the girls some special sprouts to eat and something new to play in. I've saved some bags of dry fall leaves and they'll have a fun time digging in those, at least for a day. I don't think dry fall leaves will cure my cabin fever, however; if only it were that easy. 

This is my perfect antidote to the winter blues.
Julia Child's French Onion Soup

This recipe is from The French Chef Cookbook and is the best French Onion Soup I've ever tasted. I added a little more wine and a little more sage, but otherwise the recipe is pure Julia.
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 lbs.thinly sliced onions (6 cups)
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 (32 oz.) containers lower-sodium beef broth
1 1/2 cups red wine
2 teaspoons dried sage
1/2 teaspoon pepper
sliced baguette
shredded Gruyere cheese

Melt the butter and oil in a large heavy pot and toss the onions until coated with the butter mixture. Cover and cook over medium-low heat 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender and translucent. 

Uncover the pan, increase the heat to medium and sprinkle the onions with salt and sugar. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are deep golden brown.  Sprinkle with flour and stir until coated; cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the broth, wine, sage and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a nice simmer and cook 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 425ºF. Brush the baguette slices lightly with olive oil and bake on a baking sheet for 6 minutes, turn and continue baking 2 to 3 minutes or until lightly browned. Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF. 

Ladle the soup into ovenproof bowls and top with toasted croutons and Gruyere cheese. Bake at 350ºF. 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted.

Serves 6 to 8

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from the Three Swingin' Chicks (plus one)!

The chicks have presented us with wonderful Christmas presents: eggs, LOTS of eggs. After not laying since March 27th, Roxanne started laying a few weeks ago and now she and other three chicks haven't stopped. I've been getting 3 to 4 eggs a day on a regular basis for the last three weeks. It must be something about the spirit of the season. Or it could be the beautiful snow, the Christmas carols playing on the coop radio, or the warm mash I've been feeding them each morning. Either way we feel lucky to have such generous girls.

I hope you all enjoy your holiday times with friends and family. If you're not too overloaded with cookies, you might try one of our favorites, chewy Almond Drops. Simple cookies of almond paste and egg white, these gems are perfect. Plus they're gluten-free! I've altered the recipe only slightly from the original version posted by King Arthur.

Almond Drops
10 oz. almond paste (look for the kind in the can not the tube)
1 cup sugar
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
powdered sugar for sprinkling 

Heat the oven to 325F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Beat the almonod paste and sugar in an electric mixture on medium speed until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add the egg whites gradually until a smooth paste is formed. Beat in the almond extract.
Spoon 1 teaspoon amounts onto baking sheet. Sprinkle generously with powdered sugar.

Bake 20 minutes or until pale golden brown. (do not over bake.) Cool completely on a wire rack. Makes about 3 1/2 dozen.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Adrift in a Blizzard

Sometimes taking care of chickens is hard. Like today. We're in the middle of a blizzard. This is the view as I stepped out back this afternoon: waist high drifts on the way to the coop.

 The snow has been falling since midnight last night. We've already got 18-inches on the ground with more on the way.  

Everything in town has been called off, the airport's closed, buses aren't running and Christmas concerts and plays are canceled. But chickens need care no matter how much snow we get, so out I trudge.  I'll be back out later in the evening to bring them lots of cracked corn and scratch feed. The corn and goodies in the scratch digest slower in their tummies keeping them warm through the night. Kind of like covering them with an extra blanket. With the wind howling and temperatures plummeting to below zero tonight, keeping them warm and protected is crucial.

We plan to warm up our own tummies tonight with my family's special holiday drink: Tom and Jerry's.  My grandfather's neighborhood bar was known for this drink and customers came from miles around to warm themselves up during the cold holiday season. Keep warm everyone and cheers to all!


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