You guys! Things are going swimmingly well with our duck incubation. Out of 7 eggs that made it to lockdown, we now have 6 happy, healthy ducklings making a mess in the brooder. I love them already.
That’s a pretty fantastic hatch rate, especially considering it’s my first time hatching ducks (in a styrofoam incubator, in a dry climate). And I’m not giving up on egg #7 yet! Runner ducks can take a while, and when I candled it a couple hours ago I saw an internal pip (through the membrane) that I don’t think was there before.
And that’s not all.
Remember those orphaned eggs from my good friend that we added to the incubator just after the first pip? After I got the last duckling out of the incubator I candled the eggs, and all but one of them are still alive! I saw internal pips in 3 of her eggs as well, so they’re grouped with egg #7 in plain view where we can watch for pips. I can’t even express how happy this makes me. Some of her eggs are due around the 8th, and others are a couple weeks behind. I’ll be keeping an eye on them and will get the hatch cam rolling again as soon as there’s some action.
Finally, if I may say a few words about the Eco-Glo brooder that the chicks are sleeping under, made by Brinsea*: This thing is fantastic. I bought it back when I hatched chicks a couple years ago, and have used it multiple times and loaned it out to friends (the parents of these ducklings slept under it too!). It is basically an adjustable table that keeps its underside heated at just the right temperature, and both chicks and ducks love to huddle under it as they do a mother hen. Chicks also like to roost on it, so fortunately it’s very easy to clean. But here’s the best part: it totally removes the heat lamp from the equation, which eliminates a big fire hazard and saves quite a bit of energy. You don’t have to raise the heat lamp every few days and worry if your hatchlings are too hot or too cold. And if you happen to be brooding ducks in the height of summer, it’ll save your sanity too. No more heat lamps here!
*This post is in no way sponsored by Brinsea, my opinions are my own.
The runner duck eggs are due tomorrow, and we already have our first two pips in the incubator! You can view their progress on the hatch cam here.*
We also had some last-minute additions to the duck incubator this morning. We got the first eggs from friends in our old neighborhood after their duck hen went missing, and then they found the missing duck sitting on a huge clutch of eggs. Soon they had both of their duck hens sitting, so we made plans to build a duck shelter and keep a few of the hopeful hatchlings here.
Sadly, this morning my friends woke up to find both their duck hens were killed by a predator overnight. With no way of knowing exactly how long the eggs were without their mother, we figured we had to at least try to save the ducklings inside. So she nestled them in a big basket filled with pine shavings and immediately drove them up here to join the other ducklings in the incubator.
In my 5 years of keeping chickens, the predator losses have been the hardest part. There’s a lot of guilt that comes with not having been able to prevent the attack, but the fact is that protecting your animals from predators and keeping them happy can sometimes be mutually exclusive. Sometimes foxes happen by later than usual. But does that mean you should keep your chickens in the coop all day? Both are devastating. But I’d rather my birds have one free day than a lifetime of captivity.
The good news is that where there’s pain, there’s usually a silver lining.
The day I lost my first flock to the fox, that silver lining was getting to know my wonderful neighbors. I went over to give them a heads up about the late-morning predator attack, and later that day I opened my door to find their sweet daughter holding a plate of lemon bars and a vase of sweet peas. We became fast friends, and in the years since I’ve learned so much about life, death, joy, and generosity. These are the people who taught us how to butcher chickens and press apple cider on crisp fall afternoons. They helped save our birds when the coop flooded, despite the flooding on their own farm.
I’m so sad at the loss of their ducks, but it gives me a measure of joy that we were in a position to put the eggs right in the incubator. Some are due on the 8th, and others are a couple weeks behind, so we’ll know pretty soon if any survived.
On a similar note, we also have an incubator full of chicken eggs growing for another friend that lost her whole flock overnight (the predators in that neighborhood are motivated, to say the least). So the hatch cam might be pretty busy during the month of July! Stay tuned.
*I haven’t hatched ducks before, and apparently runner duck eggs take a LONG time to hatch (24-36 hours from the time they pip), so we might be waiting a while. The first pip happened about 10 AM today (Friday) so we’re expecting to see hatching starting tomorrow. You can also search for “HatchCam” on the Ustream app for iOS and Android if you want to check in on the ducks from your BBQ. Happy Independence Day!!
My good friends (and former neighbors) have an old cider press and a big apple orchard, and during the fall they often invite friends who also have a lot of apples over when they’ve got the press out. A few weekends ago, my sister and I grabbed a couple of boxes of apples from the big old tree in the front yard and headed over for the afternoon.
Tradition at the farm is to mix all the different types of apples (and crabapples too!) so you get a little of the flavor from each. Our two boxes of bug-bitten apples paled in comparison to the 10 or so bushels of huge, unblemished apples that greeted us when we arrived, but I like to think that our tart little Macintosh-type apples added a special flavor to the mix.
We worked outside on picnic tables, first mixing and washing the apples. Then they were cut into big chunks, cutting out any blemishes but leaving the cores. I got to be the “mix master,” plucking apples from each basket and throwing them into the washtubs, then carrying big bowls of clean apples over to the cutting table. I happily volunteered for some apple washing, having already processed way too many apples from our trees (but we’ll leave that for another post).
When we cut enough apples to fill the press, the real fun started. One person turned the wheel on the grinder as another threw apples into its maw. The smashed apples dropped into a cloth bag inside the press, and when it was full we turned the big screw on the press until it could turn no more, as the rich brown cider poured out into a pitcher at its base.
When all the apples were finally pressed into cider, we delivered the scraps to some very excited cows.
And then we reminisced about the last time I was here for a cider pressing, and one of the cows (impatiently waiting for apples by the gate) bumped the electrical pole and sent a shower of sparks raining down from the power lines above. In a split second I was all the way across the yard, still clutching my butcher knife. “Oh good,” my neighbor laughed, still calmly seated at the picnic table. “You’ll be able to call 911 if we need it.”
This time, the cows left the power lines alone and we had an uneventful cider pressing (unless you count waving off a few dozen hungry hornets, and the bite I received from a large wolf spider that was lurking in one of the bushel baskets). Afterward, we spent some time hanging out at the farm and visiting all the animals.
The highlight of my day was seeing one of the hens I hatched for my friends back in February, who is now raising chicks of her own. This hen is the granddaughter of Kung Pao and General Tso, and she’s an excellent mother.
She led her five chicks all around the barnyard while we were there, pointing out good things to eat and giving a reproachful side-eye to the “feral” barn cat (actually friendlier than most house cats). The cat kept her distance, casually licking a paw whenever the hen looked at her. Clearly, she’s already learned a lesson or two from Mother Hen about messing with the chicks.
The not-so-feral barn cat, affectionately known as Mama Kitty
We headed home that afternoon with three big jugs of cider (more than our fair share, to be sure). Apple cider still contains all the sediment that’s normally filtered out of apple juice, so it’s dark and rich and cloudy. I’ve been drinking it cold, hot, and sometimes spiked with a bit of rum — just the thing for a crisp fall night.
During the coldest days of the year, I make frequent trips out to the chicken coop. The hens are fine of course, they’re rated to about -20F (-30 if you speak Celsius), and a few of them will happily wade around in snow up to their egg-holes as long as the sun is shining — but the eggs freeze solid and explode if left in the nests for too long.
I’m nowhere near as cold-hardy as the chickens, but once I’m outside I marvel at the stark beauty of the icy yard and almost manage to forget about the cold.
In the end I’m always glad to be forced out into the elements, because it makes the house seem that much warmer when I come in.
Especially when I have a batch of these toasted anise cake slices fresh out of the oven. They make the house smell heavenly, and the crunchy texture (similar to biscotti) is perfect alongside a steaming hot cup of coffee or tea. Or a bowl of sorbet, when the days get warmer again.
These toasty cake slices are similar to biscotti, and are delicious with a hot cup of coffee or a bowl of lemon sorbet.
1 3/4 cups flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoons anise seeds, finely crushed
mortar & pestle
8 1/2 by 4 1/2" loaf pan
Put rack in the middle of oven and preheat to 350F. Lightly butter and flour loaf pan.
Crush anise seeds using mortar and pestle.
Sift together flour, baking powder, anise, and salt in a small bowl.
Beat eggs and sugar in a mixer bowl at high speed until tripled in volume, and thick enough to form a ribbon that takes 2 seconds to fall apart when beater is lifted (about 12-18 minutes)
Sift flour mixture over egg mixture in 3 batches, folding in each batch.
Gently stir in butter, and immediately pour batter into loaf pan and smooth top.
Bake until loaf is golden brown and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-45 minutes. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, and then turn out onto a cutting board (right side up) and cool for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400F.
Trim ends and cut loaf into 1/2-inch-thick slides. Arrange slices on a baking sheet and bake until undersides are golden brown, about 7 minutes. Flip and bake until the other side browns, about 5 minutes more. Serve warm or at room temperature.
We’ve barely begun 2014, but the sun sets a bit later each day and I can feel the promise of spring on the horizon.
The hens are feeling it too; egg production is ramping up and it’s getting harder to enforce their early winter curfew.
Most of the chickens follow me right out to the coop, but I almost always have to round up a few stragglers at bedtime. It’s normally a quick and easy affair, but the other day was something else entirely.
It was sunny when I let the chickens out, so they happily plowed through an acre of snow just to get to the bird feeder. Then, a cold front came through and they didn’t want to walk back through the snow to get back home.
A couple of the hens started to follow me out to the coop, but I came back to find they’d given up and planted themselves in the garden, fluffing their feathers like little down jackets. One after the other, I scooped them up and carried them to the coop, their feathers warming my hands as they settled into my arms. I’m pretty sure they were grateful.
I soon realized I wasn’t done giving free rides out to the chicken coop, and that not everyone would be as cooperative. The other hens huddled together, eyeing me uneasily, reluctant to be picked up but not wanting to run out into the snow.
Most allowed themselves to be caught without any trouble, but not Shelly. She dodged me several times, but finally I managed to come within an inch of grabbing her. That is when she completely freaked out.
Shelly is a pretty small chicken, and I knew from her past adventures that she is better at flying than most. But I was shocked when, with a series of loud squawks, she launched herself off the ground and flew across the entire garden, about 150 feet. And then she started gaining altitude and fluttered up onto a tree branch, about 8 feet off the ground.
I scrambled up onto a piece of lawn furniture and grabbed hold of her tail before she could fly up to a higher branch, prompting her to go hide under the big spruce tree instead (with four of her friends). It took me over an hour to get them all in for the night.
Today, most of the hens are out in the snow again, pecking at the door and lurking on the back steps. Probably waiting for me to give them a ride home. Or maybe they’re just hoping I’ll let them in, where there’s freshly baked gingerbread and chai tea, and it’s (slightly) warmer than outside.
As excited as I am for the spring weather to get here, I’m always sorry to see gingerbread season end. In case you’re wondering, gingerbread season starts when the first chill of autumn creeps into the air, and ends after the last blizzard of April — if to you gingerbread means houses and cookies shaped like little men, you’re definitely missing out on the best part of the season. Fortunately, you still have time to catch up.
My sister and I moved into the old farmhouse during a particularly snowy March. With miles of huge old cottonwood trees shading the lines between our neighborhood and the rural electric company that serves us, we had a lot of power outages that spring.
But as soon as we bought a portable generator, Colorado experienced two of the driest years on record. We didn’t use the generator at all, other than starting it up periodically to keep it in working order.
But last spring, we got a fewdecent snowstorms and the generator started earning its prime spot in the shed. And then the flood happened, and our trusty generator kept us running for a full 3 days. Internet, sump pump, fridge, phones, and incubator — without backup power, it would have been so much worse.
And now, I can start the generator in my sleep. Gone are the days of nervously re-reading the instruction manual by the light of my headlamp before I pull the cord. We’re friends now, the generator and I.
Fortunately, I also have a gas stove and plenty of matches at my disposal. So once the the essentials are hooked up to power again, I always head for the comfort of my kitchen.
I love cooking during a blackout, with only the glow of candlelight (ok, and my headlamp) to light my way. Somehow, the food always tastes better.
Last time, it was a couple of beautiful grass-fed steaks from Windsor Dairy. So in honor of the oncoming winter and the end of grilling season, today I bring you my tips for a perfectly pan-seared steak (and one of my favorite salads). It’s a meal best made by candlelight.
For a perfectly seared piece of meat, use a heavy pan (cast iron is best). Throw in some fat, like butter or bacon grease, and get it really hot but not smoking. Make sure you leave plenty of room around each piece of meat as you put it in the pan, so it can brown. Then, don’t touch it.
Seriously, just leave it alone. I know how tempting it can be to peek; I’ve ruined many nice cuts of meat this way. You have a mouthwatering steak sizzling in the pan, and even though the recipe says to cook on high heat for 5 minutes each side, it sounds like it’s burning. Sure enough, when you try to look it sticks to the pan, and then you panic and end up with a mangled piece of meat that’s barely even lost its pink. And it’s now it’s never going to brown.
If you think it’s time to flip whatever you’re browning, grab the sides with a pair of tongs and –very gently– try to jiggle it. If it doesn’t move easily, it’s not ready to be turned yet. Sticking to the pan is part of the process as the meat starts to cook. As long as you’ve greased your pan sufficiently, the meat will lift up as it browns and you’ll be able to turn it without leaving half of it on the pan.
Instead of trying to peek at that steak, pour yourself a glass of wine, be patient, and listen to the noises it makes as it cooks. Over time, you’ll learn to recognize the difference in sound (and smell) when it starts to brown.
Then, let it rest. When you cut into a juicy piece of meat as soon as you take it off the heat, the liquids bubble out onto the plate and you’re left with a dry, disappointing mess. But if you let it rest for 10-15 minutes (or 20-25, for larger cuts like roasts), the juices will settle back into the meat instead of running all over the plate.
While the steaks rested under a loose covering of tinfoil, I pulled out some leftover salad ingredients from the night before. Toasted pine nuts, fresh basil, chewy prosciutto, and nutty grated parmesan melting together under a warm balsamic dressing. Add some crusty bread, and the best steaks I’ve ever cooked, and it was almost a shame when the lights flickered back on.
So bring on the snow and the wind (mostly snow, please). I’m ready.
Apologies for the long lag between posts. I had so many plans for this fall — posts about preserves, my favorite autumn dishes, and lots of photos to celebrate my favorite time of year.
Instead, the joy of harvest season came to an abrupt end when Colorado experienced a 500-year flood last month, washing away our pepper patch and all of my spare time.
But we were very, very lucky. Some of our neighbors lost everything, but our house was on a small island with the river flowing around us. The water didn’t make it past our garden, and I evacuated the August hatchlings from the chicken coop before it filled with knee-deep water, so we didn’t have any immediate losses from the flood.
But the past several weeks have been rough, with sleepless nights, plenty of manual labor, and far too much time spent dealing with flooded belongings and malfunctioning sump pumps. And though it’s not over yet, our cellar is finally drying out.
It’s been a sad but necessary thing to let the site lie fallow as I struggle to keep my head above water. But as I get a little more breathing room, I’ll be getting back in front of the stove and behind the camera. And I can’t wait.
After a busy weekend, I looked at the chicks and realized they’re getting their wing feathers already. They’re nearly a week old now, and they’ve also mastered scratching in their feeder and in the clumps of grass I put in the brooder; seconds after I place them in the freshly cleaned box it’s trashed again.
They’re adorable though, and all eight appear to be thriving and will shortly be moved to their private quarters in the chicken coop. And then this Saturday, incubator #2 is due to hatch so we hope to have a few more joining the fun.
The big chickens have also been going through a lot of changes this week. We found our first tiny pullet egg this week, and the rest of the girls from our April hatch should start laying anytime. And of course, the young roosters found their voices and started trying to put the moves on the ladies. It’s been an awkward few weeks, steeped in rejection, frequent ambushes, and plenty of dominance battles. Visiting the coop was like being in middle school again.
Ideally, the ratio should be 10 hens for every rooster. And as the boys matured, I learned firsthand that chickens aren’t meant to live in equal numbers. Our once-harmonious flock grew edgy and out of balance as the hormones kicked in, and we knew it was time.
With this flock, we planned from the start to harvest all but one of the boys. And so on Saturday morning, we followed through and butchered nine beautiful roosters. It was hard and sad work, but ultimately gratifying to see an entire shelf full of meat that we raised with care, from egg to freezer. Most roosters never even have a chance at life, they’re just an unfortunate byproduct of egg production — for each of the 18 female chicks we’ve purchased from hatcheries, a male chick was sent off to a rendering plant.
And so I think it’s more ethical to hatch my own laying hens and raise the roosters for the freezer, because I can ensure they’re well cared for and treated with respect. Even so, I get the occasional comment to the effect of “I wouldn’t kill a good looking rooster like that, send him to a nice farm!” (Actually, I’m pretty sure we are that farm). Butchering is bloody, brutal work to be sure, but I consider myself fortunate to be part of the process and know that my birds are treated with respect — really, I feel like I had more blood on my hands back when I was buying factory-produced chicken and eggs without acknowledging the source.
Butchering includes several steps, and as novices with nine roosters, my sister and I had our work cut out for us. Fortunately, our wonderful neighbor came over to help and even recruited her three houseguests to join us — maybe not what they were expecting on vacation, but they were excellent sports.
With six people on the line, the work passed quickly and the emotional burden felt a bit lighter too (or at least, having other people around helped me keep the water works under control). After just a few hours, we were all freshly showered and drinking a champagne toast to the boys, who were cleaned and chilling in the fridge.
I put brunch together the night before, since the kitchen would be devoted to packaging chickens and I doubted I’d feel like cooking afterwards. This dish is one of my go-tos when I’m having people over, because all I have to do in the morning is pop the pan in the oven. It’s usually improvised in my house, sometimes with bacon, sometimes with jalapeños, always with cheese — so just think of this recipe as a template for your own creation.
It’s happening! After 20 days of waiting, we got our first pip at about 10 this morning, and I’m starting to hear a lot of muffled peeping from the incubator as I type this. It could be another 24 hours before this chick hatches, or things could progress fairly quickly like they did last time.
The first chick from the April hatch, who popped out much faster than expected
If you’re on Facebook, like The Homegrown Gourmet to receive the latest updates as they happen. If not, you can still read our recent posts in the column to your right. And of course, you can watch the live video stream from the incubator here!*
*To view on mobile devices, download the (free) Ustream app and search for “fall chicken hatch due 8-21-13”
This year, we have so many green beans (and purple, and yellow) that it’s a little hard to keep up. Between a 4′ x 4′ plot of bush beans and a couple trellises of climbing beans, I’m lugging a big basket of pods into the house every morning.
And when I find myself staring at a pile of fresh beans that I don’t feel like blanching and sealing for the freezer, I turn to the easiest possible method of preserving them, quick pickled green beans:
Note that these pickled green beans are not the standard hot-processed “Dilly Beans,” which I’ve tried to embrace on many occasions but always found limp and aggressively vinegary. These beans are another story altogether. I included instructions for hot-processing these as well, if you feel you must, but I almost never bother canning my beans.
Quick pickles are great for two reasons: First, they aren’t all limp like their boiled counterparts. And more importantly, they couldn’t be easier. Just cram your vegetables and some spices into a jar, add vinegar and water in a 1:1 ratio, and pop it in the fridge. They don’t keep for years like hot-processed pickles, but once you taste them they won’t be sticking around longer than a month anyway.
Delicious, crunchy, and perfect alongside a Bloody Mary (or a sandwich).
3 pounds green beans, stems intact, washed and dried
9 cloves garlic, crushed
3 cinnamon sticks
3 bay leaves
3 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
3 tablespoons brown mustard seeds
6 tablespoons dill seeds
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
9 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 to 2 1/4 cups white distilled vinegar
a handful of washed fresh grape leaves (optional)
Pack green beans evenly into quart-sized jars, along with garlic, salt, spices, and grape leaves if using.
Fill jars halfway with white vinegar, then top off with cool filtered water.
Put lids on jars and flip upside down for a few minutes to distribute the spices.
Refrigerate for at least 3 days to develop flavors. Pickles will be at their prime in 2 weeks, and will last up to a month.
Heat vinegar, water, and salt to a boil first, and pour over beans and spices in sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes, adding time for altitude (I process for 15 minutes here at 6,000 feet).
Adapted from Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It by Karen Solomon.