Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Soul's Demands

Whew, too long.  No excuses, simple laziness.  It is (finally) raining long and hard in the Pacific Northwest after a mild panic in our house about possible drought this summer.  We have a rather shallow well with a pump that does not always keep up with summertime watering schedules and laundry.  Lots of drizzle is a comfort; more than three days in a row without a good rain leaves me itchy and anxious.

Last summer, its embarrassing to say, I neglected the garden, as in blackberries growing in the rose bushes kind of neglect.  I had no idea I could be so apathetic.  Growing another person in my uterus had me alternating between vomiting and napping, which leaves little room for pruning, mulching, or harvesting.  All those summer fruits worth waiting for -- cherries, raspberries, blackberries, apricots -- caused immediate upheaval in my digestive tract; the joy of summer was lost.  It was nothing but mashed potatoes and cheese sandwiches.  Not even watermelon would stay down.

But now, the end is near or actually the end should be now but its not yet and the next life should be here imminently outside of my swollen torso.  Down the road, little lambs are being born and are running around butting their heads into their mothers and teasing each other.  Even in the rain, robins and blue jays and little brown and white stripy birds are flitting back and forth between the apple and plum trees.  The first crocus came up (which was then trampled by the good-intentioned but intellectually deficient golden retriever).  One chicken started laying again.  I am hopeful for spring.  Each year February does this -- I start getting seed catalogs and imagine bouquets of peonies and roses and wild flowers not seen west of Sissinghurst.  I create vegetable garden plans on the computer with detailed crop rotations and interval plantings.  I plan a pantry filled with pickled everything, 20 kinds of jams and tomato sauce.  Then March comes with another freeze, everything shrivels inside of itself , we hole up and watch too much bad tv (but wait -- the next season of House of Cards AND Game of Thrones are out) and I go to Costco for tomato sauce and pickles.  Which brings me to the title.  In Ravelstein, by Saul Bellows, Ravelstein posits this question "With what, in this modern democracy, will you meet the demands of your soul?"  I don't know if I have an answer to this question, or maybe too many incomplete and incoherent answers.  Costco (God bless it) and Game of Thrones don't do much for my soul but the promise of Spring . . .

Monday, July 22, 2013

Summer loving

My deepest apologizes for the failure to keep writing and updating this blog.  The truth is the daily grind of maintaining two and half acres takes its toll on my creative writing juices (believe me, being this cheeky takes a lot of effort).  Interesting content comes at a premium these long, glorious summer days unless you enjoy reading minutia.   Would you really care to know that I took out the fava beans and planted broccoli this weekend?  Probably not unless I added that I had the fava beans with some human liver and a nice chianti.

It is a rare for this part of the country to have a sun-filled consistently warm summer.  Our winter was relatively mild without much rain so the vegetable garden got an early rototilling which did wonders for our potato crop.  These Yukon Gold potatoes was planted April 20th and without irrigation the plants started dying necessitating harvest.  The problem with the fruit of your labor is all of the vegetables that you have to process.   Might be time to brew some vodka.

The summer has been filled with trellising cucumbers and peas; planting acorn, butternut and summer squash, cutting garlic scapes; caging tomatoes; watering fennel; culling leeks, thinning lettuce; sowing kale; harvesting strawberries and eating raspberries.

All of the yard waste goes into the newly constructed compost center which was made from cast-off lumber from the old garden fence.  The rub is that if you take down an old garden fence you have to put one up in its place lest you concede all of your hard work to the deer and chickens.
Serious composting.
Not all of the summer botany has been wasted.  What was formerly consigned to the compost pile or the chickens now gets fed to the pigs.  This year, we got five tiny piglets at the end of May.  The pigs were advertised as Berkshire/Duroc mixes but judging by some of the coloration there must also be some Hampshire too. Incidentally, whenever you buy piglets, try to get the biggest and smartest ones possible. 

Our pigs were barely weaned and so small that they easily escaped through the hog panel.  Lola, our Golden Retriever, did a decent job of corralling them before we could entice them back into the pen.  This happened many times and we were glad that two of the piglets belonged to our neighbor who bore the brunt of piglet roundups.
Escape artists.
In years past, the pigs were purchased in the late winter and slaughtered by June.  This year, we hope to do the slaughter ourselves which necessitates either a walk-in freezer or cold enough temperatures to hang an animal in the garage.  Round these parts, late October or early November is slaughter time.

The advantage to having pigs in the summer and fall is being able to feed them garden excess and scraps.  Pigs love watermelon, peas vines, egg shells, apples, raw potatoes, grass clipping and rose hips.  Pretty remarkable living composter.
Rose hips.
This years' pigs are from the same litter but they are of disparate sizes and dispositions.  The largest pig is almost twice as big as the runtiest.  The runt is a small female piebald-colored sweetheart.  She has the cutest eyelashes and is very patient at the tough which may explain why she is the smallest.  Her older brothers are predominantly black with some white markings.  They can be brutish and not very bright.  Just this evening one of the pigs got his snout caught in the fencing and then proceeded to scream like he had just been stuck.  See for yourself.
Einstein the pig.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fingerlicking good

It is judgment day for some of our chickens.  Over a hundred days have passed since we picked up forty little chicks from the local feed store.  Within a week, we lost half.  Some were lost to gross negligence (one chick was crushed by the mobile pen) while others were killed by marauding raccoons who pulled chicks through the wire and gnawed their heads off.  Other chicks were taken by hawks and one chicken was mauled by Lola, our nine-month old Golden Retriever.   A more accurate way of putting it would be that all of the chicks were lost due to negligence.  The failure to fence the chicks well enough, shoot the raccoons or hobble Lola all falls on us, the newbie farmers.  Not even sure we can be called newbies now that we are in our third year of hobby farming but we going to ride that excuse till the cows come home.

Sexy home grown birds.
Regrets and laments aside, we eventually worked out a routine for the little cluckers.  Eventually we integrated them into the main coop with our full grown laying hens.  We had close to twenty-eight birds at one point eating upwards of fifty pounds of feed a week.  When the birds were not busy shitting everywhere they were out devouring every last bit of living vegetation in our garden save the late planted fava beans.  The feathered locusts managed to put on weight albeit at a snail’s pace thanks to their vigorous exercise routine practiced in the vegetable garden.  Most meat birds are ready at eighty days.  To be fair, those birds also develop problems due to their rapid growth so we opted out of the overbred frankenbirds.

While we lost all possible over-wintering vegetables we gained freedom from having to rototill and weed the  garden.   In addition, we were going to get some good eats from those filthy beasts.  Farming, from a macro-perspective, represents life’s zero sum game. 

Slaughter and butchering animals gets easier the more you do it (but it still is horrible says the wife).  Chickens have a very particular odor that can be tough to take.  Combine that with pulling their guts out and cutting their anuses out and you got the impetus for vegetarianism.  Once you get over the initial miasma it gets pretty rote.

Here is an overview.

Step one.  Choose your victim.  We go first for the roosters as they mature the quickest and are the biggest and most obnoxious birds around.  When they start to crow at five in the morning you will promptly make plans for their slaughter.

Step two.  Capture your victim.  Chickens are not the wiliest of creatures.   We use a net and keep the gate of their run closed.  Grab the chicken by its feet and hang it upside down and it will remain remarkable calm completely unaware of what lies in its future.

Step three.  Break its neck and slit its throat.  Granted this is the morose part but who said that slaughter was supposed to be fun?  We use a long iron bar to pin the chicken’s head against the ground with its eyes on top.  A foot on the bar will hold the bird down.   A few nice words are said thanking the bird for its life and then its feet are pulled over the bar breaking its neck.  If you pull hard enough you will pull the body away from its body.  We try to avoid this because the contents of its croup spill out all over the place depending on where the separation occurs.  Instead, slits its throat promptly to bleed it.
The bird will flap its wings involuntary and may jerk around in a disconcerting way.  Eventually this will stop.  If done properly, there is very little movement but it can still be difficult to witness.
Ouch.  That's gonna leave a mark.
Step four.  Blanch and pluck.  Set a big pot of water to boil.  We do this outside as plucking can be very messy.  Fortunately, we own a 155000 BTU propane burner that is used to make beer.   After several highly scientific tests, we found that the best temperature to pluck is between 155 and 165 degrees.

Scald the bird in the water for a minute or two.   Remember, there is a fine line between blanching the bird and cooking it.  The feathers will come out quickly and cleanly.  If your water is too cool then you will have trouble removing the pin feathers in the tail and the primary flight feathers on its wings.  It should take about five minutes a bird depending on how fastidious you want to be. 
There will be stray hairs and feather remnants in the skin.  Use a blow torch and flame away these bits.
Blanch(e Dubois).  "Deliberate cruelty is not forgiveable."
Step five.  Gut.  This is the diceyest part of the whole process because you are dealing with crap, real live crap.  Start by cutting into the chest cavity being careful not the puncture the croup.  The croup is the bulge at the base of the neck where the bird collects its food.  If you can, sever the croup and toss.  Any spillage will be eaten by the other birds which is kind of nasty (the other chickens are not actually eating any part of the recently deceased, just spilled grain) but those birds will likely get their croup grains eaten by other birds thus fulfilling the circle of life.  (Queue the song from the Lion King).

Cut around the anus which incidentally is the same orifice used by the chickens to lay their eggs.  See Louie C.K.’s bit about duck vaginas and you'll get the idea.  Keep cutting until you have separated the digestive track from all on the connecting tissue.  If you have done it right, you will be able to reach into the cavity and yank all of the guts out without getting any poop on yourself.  Be forewarned that putting your hand into a bird’s cavity is not for the faint hearted because it will be very visceral and still warm.

You might save the liver for pate and maybe even the heart.
Rinse the cavity and the entire bird and thoroughly clean everything before going on to the next bird.

Step six.  Hang or package your chicken.  It is up to you what you want to do with the carcass at this point.  You can refrigerate it, freeze it, hang it or cook it.  Bear in mind that chicken can go bad pretty quick so you will want to manage it accordingly.  In the past, we have cooked the birds right away but their bodies always seem so rigid like they are still in shock from being slaughtered.
Free bird!
This time, we hung the chickens in the garage overnight because the temperatures were below freezing.  Letting the bird hang a day or two mellows out the flesh.

Congratulations.  You have slaughtered and processed your first chicken.  Now repeat nineteen more times for the remaining birds.
Note the body language of the chickens.  They are saying, "Holy shit, they cut our heads off and roasted our asses."
The final verdict: The birds are delicious. Tougher than store bought and more gamey too but brimming with chicken goodness. The schmaltz was a lovely yellow which is how it should be.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cucumber Kimchee

The garden has been providing lots and lots of cucumbers lately.  We planted two varieties.  One was a pickling cuke and the other was a traditional elongated white fleshed variety.  Pickling cukes have a green center and they have black spines on them.  They are short and stubby, knobby and thick.
It's not the length but the girth that matters.
We made pickles earlier in the season but I thought I would try my hand at making some kimchee.  I have been really interested in fermentation the past two years.  First I started with pizza dough, then beer and hard cider, followed by the soppresseta disaster, then kefir and now fermented vegetables. 
I draw inspiration from great meals that I have had in restaurants.  There is a noveau Korean-styled restaurant in Fremont called Revel that had awfully good food.  As with most Korean food, I really enjoyed the side dishes almost as much as the main courses.  I also steal the good ideas of others and modify their recipes to what I have on hand.

So if you have an accommodating spouse or friends who have lost their sense of smell, try your hand at making some seriously spicy vegetables.  There is something not altogether right about kimchee.  It could be that it is decomposing or it could be that it reeks of foot and ass.

I tried making two varieties of kimchee.  Honestly, I doubt they will taste much different but variety is the spice of life.  In this recipe there is not too much variety but lots of spice. 

Wash your cukes and chop into good sized pieces.  Bear in the mind that they will shrink during the process.  The other cukes were quartered but not quite through.  The quartered cukes were put into a water bath with a generous amount of brine.  The bite sized bits were simply salted.
You spice up my life.
Let the cukes rest for a day.  They will release a lot of their water and feel more firm.  To the bite sized bits, add garlic chives, minced garlic, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and some Korean ground chili powder.  I am not sure I got the right kind of chili powder but it looked right.  Mix thoroughly then put in some glass jars and refrigerate. 

Add just the right amount of fish sauce to get the proper fetidness.
I did not have enough confidence to put the jars in the basement or in the ground.  Keeping the kimchee in the refrigerator seemed like a safer bet.
A chili paste was made with water, minced garlic and garlic chives for the quartered cukes.  The quarter cukes were put into a plastic container which I suspect will get thrown out once the kimchee is eaten.  Let's hope that the kimchee does not corrode the plastic like the blood of Alien did to the hull of the Nostromo. 
"Micro changes in air density, my ass." - Ripley to Ash

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Plum Job

"This jam is made by groovy people and fruit that agreed to be in the jam in the first place."  -Eddie Izzard

There is a fine line between purposeful procrastination, as in waiting for the Italian prunes to ripen and swell, and foolish laziness.

It has been a full year since we last picked plums from our three trees.  Last year, many bags were gathered and some fruit was made into terrific jam by our friend Ruth.  Lots of fruit wound up in the compost bin.  This year, I eyed the trees to gauge the ripeness of the fruit.  Wait too long and the plums start to soften and ferment but still yield a full mouthful of sweet pulp.  Wait too long and the raccoons will clean you out of the choicest fruit.

We wound up with a bushel of plums.  Our daughter chowed them like candy but still there was a surplus.  The excess plums were pitted.  Riper ones are easier to pit with amber flesh whereas the firmer fruit had tart flavor with green flesh.  The plums were cooked with a little water to not quite a simmer.  Eventually the skins slough off giving the stewed fruit a deep purple color. 

An equal volume of sugar (plus a pinch of pectin and a dash of almond extract) was added and the mixture was brought to a rapid boil for ten minutes to reach a "setting point."  The jam doubled in volume during the boil so it was a good thing we used a large stock pot.  The hot jam was put into sanitized jars, lids added and voila, plum jam.  Plum jam goodness.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Chicken Littles

We have had the worst luck with chicks lately.  Our current batch of hens we got two years ago as chicks.  The chicks were raised in our garage initially requiring a heat lamp.  Brooding chicks is not hard but very filthy work.  The chicks fouled (pun intended) their water and food supply just as quickly as their supply was replenished.

Don't count your chickens before they hatch.
The chicks grew fast.  The rapid growth of the chicks led to overcrowding and more filth which prompted many weekends working in the cold of January to build the coop.  Our exuberance and anticipation of fresh farm eggs outpaced our planning for and construction of proper chicken quarters.  Once the chicken mansion was completed, the juvenile birds were moved in and thereafter the birds required very little.  We slaughtered all of the cockerels save one who we kept with the idea of breeding our own birds.

After the messy experience of raising the chicks by hand, we believed that it would be best if we let mother nature handle the details.  This spring two hens went broody.  A broody hen remains on the nest and rarely leaves the clutch of eggs behind.  We left sixteen eggs in a nest.  Two hens sat together keeping the eggs warm while kibbitzing about the latest gossip.  The hens soon became infested with mites due to their refusal to leave the eggs and take dust baths. 

Chicken mites are incredibly prolific and will literally suck the life out of your flock.  The mites will bite humans too as our son learned.  Aside from constant coop cleaning, we found diatomaceous earth to be the best remedy.  For much of the wet spring and early summer, we suffered the mites, members of the arachnid family.  The mites finally went away when it got warm and dry. 

After twenty days, we moved the hens to a smaller enclosure because we did not want any hatched chicks to live with the other hens and the rooster for fear that they would be pecked to death.  The nursery did not have enough room for both hens in the nest so one hen sat in the box while the other did not.  The excluded hen would steal eggs from the box and sit on them but in the process she broke an egg which was a dud.  It stank just like when Templeton took the goose egg in Charlotte's Web.

The second hen was soon ousted.  She was most displeased and clucked sadly refusing to be reintegrated with the main flock.  We broke her broodiness by locking her in a dog crate alone just like they did to Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins) in Shawshank Redemption.

Obtusely optimistic.
We waited eagerly for our eggs to hatch expecting to have at least a dozen little chicks.  After a day, we heard cheeping from the nest and spied a lone baby chick.  Success!  Over the course of the next few days, we found a fully developed dead chick with a small hole in its shell.  It was either smothered or could not manage the energy to free itself.  Beside the stillborn chick there was no other action.  Chicks usually hatch after 21 days so any time after that the hen is forced to make a Sophie's Choice of abandoning the unhatched eggs or caring for the hatched chicks. 

Balut anyone?
The remedy, or so we thought, was to hatch the remaining eggs in our incubator and hope that the hen would accept them as her own if we could surreptitiously sneak them into the nest.  After consulting the Internet, we floated the eggs in water and found what we thought were duds.  Of course we had to test a dud and when the egg was cracked there was a fully formed chick inside.  Our son shouted, "The Internet killed the chick!"  Who knew that the Internet could be loaded with false information?  Makes us wonder if we will ever get our cut from that Nigerian Prince who so desperately needed our help.

In the end we hatched another two chicks in the incubator.  They were adopted by mama hen and are doing well.  Later, we tried to hatch another clutch of eggs in the incubator.  Of the dozen, only two hatched and one died within a day.  The other chick lived for a week before it was picked off by something.  In the end, we had twenty-eight eggs of which we managed three live chicks.

Two weeks ago, we ordered twenty-six chicks from a farm in Pennsylvania dutch country.  We were looking to raise some meat birds in our pasture since we did not get lambs this year.  The breed of chicken were known as "Freedom Rangers" which supposedly were better at foraging than their hyper-inbreed Rock Cross Cornish birds.  There are stories of Cornish Crosses dying from heat and dehydration because they could not figure out to move into the shade where water was awaiting them.  The Cornish Crosses also grow so fast that they can develop leg problems.  Apparently, the legs cannot keep pace with their gigantic breasts. 

The Post Office called early this morning to tell us that our chicks had arrived.  Our son insisted on going into town to get the chicks.  When he opened the box, all but two of the chicks were dead.  Nothing cuter than a box full of dead fluffy chicks.  The farm in Pennsylvania was nice enough to refund us the entire amount.

The sky has fallen.
Final tally is twenty-eight eggs unhatched or prematurely dashed eggs, twenty-six hatched but dead chicks and five live birds.  That's some good animal husbandry.

Undeterred, we ordered forty broilers from our local farm store.  Based on our prior track record, we fully expect to be ordering our fried chicken from KFC.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Apologies for the lack of postings lately but the truth is we have been very busy raising the hogs; putting in a new vegetable patch; old house repairs; and working full-time jobs to support our farming habit.  New and interesting content can be hard to come by because the reality of farming is that nothing happens quickly.  For example, our three little pigs took over five months to rear, another two weeks to orchestrate the slaughter and another month for the butcher to slice, dice and smoke the meats.

We toiled through a wet Spring putting in new vegetable plot and finishing the greenhouse.  More about the vegetable patch and the preceding winter of discontent later but first let's do the numbers...

$240 Total purchase price of the three pigs
$581 2420 pounds of grain
$85   15 bushels of corn on the cob
$11   Dewormer

$917  Total cost
$604  Butcher and slaughter

Bear in mind that these costs do not include fuel, labor or time which are not insignificant particularly when your dialy routine involves hauling twenty pounds of grain twice a day and watering the pigs at least three to four times a day.  The pigs loved to flip the water bucket to either make a wallow or to irritate their owners.

There is a formula to estimate the live weights of pigs which involves measuring the heart girth and length from ears to tail.  Hanging weight is roughly 70% of live weight.  Measuring a pig is not as easy as you might think.  If you have ever been in a pen with pigs you quickly realize why they say you should never trust a man who raises pigs.  The pigs are curious and interactive in the same vein that a diner eyes a lobster in a restaurant tank.  One misstep and you are going out Deadwood style.  Ironic.

Our best guess for live weight was 276 pound for Petunia, the largest animal.  She was 48" in diameter and 48" long.  Turned out that the estimate was close albeit high.  The hanging weights of Petunia, Piggy and Marigold were 196, 192 and 170 respectively.  By way of comparison, Lenny and Squiggy weighed out at 150 and 130.  To be fair, last years pigs were kept only three and half months versus five months for this year's batch.
Three not so little pigs.
The lowest pig on the totem pole invariably weights quite a bit less than the top dogs.  It is always better to raise pigs together as the competition fosters faster growth.  It can be harsh to watch the smaller pig squeezed out of the food action when the bigger pigs box out for a position of dominion over the food.  A good practice would be to have separate feeding areas or to have feed always available.

Petunia and Marigold were sold to friends at $3.49 per pound hanging weight.  This means that we recouped our out of pocket expenses and earned 194 pounds of Piggy, who incidentally is delicious.
Petunia Pig versus Lola Puppy