Even though the severe lack of rain this winter is probably leading to the worst drought year in California history, it’s still hard not to enjoy a beautiful summer-like weekend in March. I spent the entire day in the garden today–weeding, seeding and readying things for the big spring planting. I focused mainly on my herb garden–pulling out gone-to-seed cilantro, transplanting chives and mint and sowing some basil, parsley and marjoram.
I would have liked to start working my main vegetable garden (turning over and amending the soil) but unfortunately it’s still covered in the experimental winter wheat crop I planted back in October. I’m actually starting to get a bit annoyed by the wheat now because I have no idea when it’s going to be ready to harvest. I know what to look for in terms of it being ready (turning from green to yellow and with the grain hard but dent-able by thumbnail); I just don’t know how much longer it’s going to take before that happens. I’ve started to worry it’s going to seriously delay the crops which I care so much more about (tomatoes, zucchini, etc.)
Happily today I noticed a few of the plants starting to yellow! Hooray! Of course I still have no idea how long it still has to go, but at least there are signs of progress. I suppose the worst case scenario would be cutting it all before it’s actually ready and just using the stalks for green manure or drying them for nesting material for the chickens. Kind of an ignoble end after six months of growing, but at least it wouldn’t be a total waste. For now though I’m just watching and waiting…
I usually don’t eat much in the mornings, but today I started the day with fresh squeezed orange juice (from a local tree), Yukon Gold hashbrowns, fried eggs (from a friend’s chickens) and homemade breakfast sausage that the boys and I made yesterday afternoon. It makes me happy that my kids are almost always interested in a cooking project and when there are “power tools” involved (in this case, the food grinder attachment on my KitchenAid mixer) they really get into it.
The recipe we used for the sausage was basically like one I had read awhile back on the blog, Homesick Texan, except that instead of ground pork we started with 2 pounds of whole pork butt plus a half pound of fat back. I also changed up the spices a bit using fresh sage, thyme and rosemary from the garden as well as a little grated nutmeg. We ground it all up using the fine blade on my grinder, and then made a tray full of patties to freeze.
We don’t really eat this kind of heavy “country breakfast” very often (in fact, it’s pretty rare) but I try to expose the kids to a wide variety of foods as well as to the full scope of how things are prepared. It was definitely a tasty breakfast but in the interest of health we’ll probably end up keeping just a few patties and giving the rest to friends. Afterall, half the joy of cooking is in the sharing!
At the risk of seeming like I’ve turned this blog into an “all chicken, all the time” format, I have to update on the latest (much happier) developments with our Gallus gallus domesticus. Yesterday we brought home the third chick for our flock, a little black Australorp. In keeping with the convention they established, the boys named her Wednesday. She is very cute and seems to be doing well healthwise. It’s fun to watch her establishing her place with the two bigger chicks.
Tuesday is getting her white adult feathers now which makes her look like she is sporting angel wings.
Meanwhile Monday is going through an “awkward” (that’s the kind word, the more apt description might better be “ugly”) phase as her feathers are coming in in funny clumps and patches. But since today was unseasonably warm (80F!) I brought her outside for her very first stroll in the garden. She had a great time pecking around. (The same could not be said for Tuesday and Wednesday who were left inside peeping incessantly at alarming decibels for the return of their friend.) I can’t wait until they will all be able to be my little free-range garden companions.
I’m a big fan of fritters and croquettes. There’s just something about mixing up a few simple ingredients and giving them new life by frying. It’s also a great way to re-purpose leftovers. (See last November’s post on Turkey Croquettes.) Crispy pop-in-your mouth-size foods also seem to ease kids in eating things they might not otherwise like. (And you can keep it reasonably healthy by using a non-stick pan and a slight amount of olive oil for the frying.)
The other day I was reading a recipe for Paneer Koftas in Creamy Saffron Gravy on the blog, Monsoon Spice. It looked absolutely delicious, but I knew I wouldn’t have the time (or the energy) to make the full recipe this week. So yesterday I decided to make a variation of the Koftas (without the gravy) and serve them with just a fresh salad for dinner.
I modified the recipe a little further by substituting Queso Fresco for the Paneer (just because it was easier for me to pick up on my way home) and I also didn’t deep fry them. Turning the soft “balls” from side to side in the pan unfortunately made them lose their spherical shape (hence the strange triangular forms shown above) but that didn’t make them any less tasty. The potato and cheese mixture was creamy on the inside and crunchy on the outside. The kids loved them and I lost count of how many I ate!
After yesterday’s sad turn of events with the baby chicks, I started to really question my chicken-raising dreams. I tend to get swept up by the romance and beauty of ideas–in this case, the notion of enjoying these wonderful creatures who would also provide us with fresh eggs right in our backyard. While I also see the realism behind the romance (all the work involved etc.), I don’t tend to focus on or prepare myself for the really dark possibilities–like baby chicks dying right in your hands.
Since I’ve been dealing with a lot of loss in my personal life, I started to think that maybe this wasn’t such a good time to be inviting the potential for even more grieving. But as strong (and in many ways, reasonable) as this self-protective urge was, my larger belief system was ultimately stronger. Given the opportunity, I always have to say “yes” to the adventure of life. Even though being open and vulnerable to all of what life brings can at times be brutally painful, I wouldn’t want to trade it for being closed down and shut off.
With that in mind, I forced myself to get back on up to the farm supply store and get a new chick. Unfortunately they had sold out of the Barred Rocks and wouldn’t be getting any more this season. So my dream of having one in my flock (at least for now) died with “Tuesday.” But they did have White Rocks, the next best thing.
When I brought her home, the boys wanted to name her Tuesday in honor of the hen we lost. So now we have a “new Tuesday.” She is the quintessential little yellow “Easter” chick. While we all still feel very sad about the death of the original Tuesday, we are happy to have this new sweet addition to our family and to being open to everything yet to come.
I’ve wanted to raise chickens for a very long time. I’ve written about this before but since then I’ve been steadily researching and studying (breeds, coop designs, general care etc.) Besides my own personal interest in chickens, I’ve also been strongly motivated to have them for my kids. Not just as the usual “4-H” type learning experience but also because one of my sons has a really intense fear of birds. When he was two years old he was strapped in his stroller at the local county fair when a rooster went berserk right in his face. It traumatized him so profoundly that four years later he still is irrationally terrified by any winged creature. My hope was that by introducing him to tiny little chicks (which I knew he would love) and forming an attachment that way, then as the chicks grew he would also outgrow the fear. (Wouldn’t it be nice if there were soft and cuddly versions of all the things that torment us, that we could love and grow through? Or maybe that’s just what all of life is…)
So this Thursday I turned yet another dream into a reality. The boys and I drove up to a local feed store and brought home the first two chicks for our flock—a Rhode Island Red and a Barred Plymouth Rock. After we set up our brooder I told the boys they could decide what to name them. They surprised me with an interesting idea–they wanted to name one Monday and the other Tuesday (and continue on with the names of the week as we got more.) How could I disagree with such a cute idea?
The last two days were a non-stop a celebration of the chicks. Both boys were enchanted by them they actually asked if they could sleep with the chicks! I, on the other hand, was not sleeping at all because I was up all night checking on them, cleaning their water, adjusting and re-adjusting the heat lamp to make sure they weren’t too hot or too cold. It was just like having infants all over again.
Then yesterday afternoon I noticed that Tuesday (the Barred Rock) was droopy, panting and didn’t appear to be eating or drinking. My chicken mentor, Amy, came over and suggested dipping Tuesday’s beak in the water to make sure she was drinking and not getting dehydrated. As the evening went on, the beak-dipping still wasn’t making her drink and she was clearly getting worse. I spent most of the night on the internet reading everything about chick health I could find.
After reading and reading, I was still torn about whether I should leave her alone to rest or intervene. By midnight I decided I needed to force her to drink. So every few hours throughout the night I held her and gave her drops of water from an eye dropper. Each time I did this I hoped she would suddenly be revitalized and return to being the happy little chick that came home with us. But instead she just became more listless, barely able to stand up. Meanwhile Monday started to mercilessly peck at her (the way animals often choose to attack a sick or dying member–one of nature’s cruelties that is very hard to watch.)
Finally at 7:30 this morning when I was giving Tuesday another dose of water from the dropper, she died in my hands. It’s amazing how much sadness and loss one can feel about a creature that has only been in your life for less than two days. But there is something so deeply bonding about caring for another living thing. As the tears were streaming down my face, I couldn’t help but also think about my hypocrisy in not crying every time I eat chicken for dinner. Another reason to be close to the food you consume.
Rest in Peace little Tuesday.
Yesterday my good friend (and best collaborator in creative parenting) Jacqueline and her son brought us some tadpoles they had just caught in a local creek. Another wonderful sign of spring! The boys are just starting to grasp the concept of the life cycle of the frog and still keep referring to the tadpoles as “fish” so I’m really excited to see them witness the metamorphosis.
I haven’t kept tadpoles since I was a child myself so I actually had to research how to raise them. (They like cooked lettuce? Who knew?) One of my favorite things about being a parent is revisiting and relearning the wonders of the natural world all over again. But children aren’t necessarily required for this–anyone could benefit from raising tadpoles at least once in their adult life!
I’m constantly trying to migrate my children away from the great weekend breakfast triad (pancakes/waffles/french toast) toward savory dishes–for no other reason than that’s what I prefer! (Give me salt and some form of animal fat over sweets any day.) Since they love pizza I hoped a breakfast version might do the trick. But when I suggested this on Friday afternoon they gave it the big thumbs down, at least as far as Saturday breakfast was concerned. They were, however, willing to entertain the concept for dinner.
When I lived in Italy one of my favorite pizzerias made a wonderful pizza Margherita that you could also order with the addition of fresh ricotta and eggs. Thinking of that inspired my creation. I started with a great dough recipe from the blog 101 Cookbooks (originally from Peter Reinhardt’s “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice“). While the original recipe calls for an overnight rest for the dough, I’ve found that a decent two hour rise still makes a perfectly delicious thin-crust pizza.
I made half the dough recipe (using an equal mix of all-purpose unbleached four and white whole wheat)) and divided the results in half again (one for now, one to freeze for later). After stretching the dough out onto parchment paper coated with cornmeal, I topped it with a simple tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and fresh ricotta. I baked on a pizza stone at 550F for about four minutes and then poured each of the eggs (from a cup) onto the pizza and baked again for another five minutes. The crust was crisp, the cheese was melted and the eggs were perfectly cooked (slightly firm but still runny).
All and all a big success. Now I just have start serving it an hour earlier each day until we arrive at breakfast time!
Yesterday morning when I stepped out my kitchen door into the garden, I was delighted to see how healthy and vigorous my herbs are at the moment. The thyme is like a thick fuzzy carpet and the sage is so full and downright plush. The cilantro is practically tree-like. Since the herbs grow right up to my kitchen door, I really think of this section of my garden as my true potager. Just musing over that French word for a moment (and feeling slightly silly about it) put me in the mood to cook something French. Which made me focus in on the thyme. Then the beautiful sunny day with the crisp chill in the air made me think of spring leeks.(Which regretfully I’m not growing.)
Happily I remembered recently reading a delicious sounding recipe for braised leeks on the Smitten Kitchen blog (which she adapted from “Sunday Suppers at Lucques.”) Within a few hours my kitchen was filled with the wonderful smell of roasting leeks and shallots sauteing in butter and thyme. (And if there’s a better smell than this, I’m sure I don’t know what it is.)
I also ended up making the chicken thighs that were part of the original recipe. They were very tasty too but frankly not really worth all the extra effort (not to mention fat) involved. The leeks were by far the star of the meal–fragrant, buttery and delicious. Like Deb at Smitten Kitchen suggested, these would be a great main course accompanied by a hard or soft-cooked egg, a mustard vinaigrette, and a sharp salad and crusty bread. The perfect soothing transition from winter to spring.
Last night as I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner (a repeat of my quick chard & couscous pilaf) I noticed the full Moon rising from behind our redwood tree, making lacy silhouettes of the branches. Earlier in the day I had read that Native Americans of the Lenape (Delaware) tribe named the March full Moon, “Moon when Juice Drips from the Trees.” I always seem to have intense experiences during full Moons but this was a pleasantly quiet and uneventful one–just a peaceful solitary moment in a still garden. When was the last time you stood alone under a full Moon and a clear sky and breathed in the fresh night air?