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Archive for the ‘chickens’ Category

My friend Amanda writes a food blog called The Mindful Table. Recently she linked to an article written by someone who raises their own backyard chickens, and who tried to make coq-au-vin with one of her old laying hens. I say “tried” because she gave up after simmering the chicken for 4 hours, deciding that the meat would “never be tender” and she substituted a store-bought chicken. I was disappointed to read this, because it implied that older chickens are inedible, even in a dish specifically designed to use them, such as coq-au-vin. I have been planning to make coq-au-vin for a while, and we had plans for a dinner guest this past Saturday evening, so the article inspired me to make my own attempt at coq-au-vin.

I used Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe from The River Cottage Meat Book. In the description of the dish he says, “This is a great dish but there is no doubt it has fallen out of favour. The reason is simple: the central ingredient – a farmyard cockrel… – is almost impossible to lay your hands on.”

As we have our own chickens, and thus, “spare roosters,” there was no problem in obtaining the central ingredient:

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may well remember the Saga of Speedy – how he got his name by being too fast to catch for slaughter during our first year of chicken-keeping, and then how he was too rough on the girls, and Chief (our alpha rooster) started chasing him off. How he spent a summer living on our (very accommodating, elderly Estonian) neighbour’s front lawn, and how once we had a replacement rooster (one of The Twins – who have their own story – livestock keeping is full of anecdotes) we dispatched Speedy. He’s been sitting well-wrapped in our freezer ever since, and this weekend he was going to make his (hopefully) triumphant final exit.

The actual difficult-to-obtain ingredient was “250g salt pork, pancetta, or bacon, in chunky pieces.” I.e. un-sliced. Unsliced bacon (or salt pork) can be bought in your average North American supermarket. But we only eat local /  organic / naturally raised meat. And I wasn’t going to let the results of the commercial pork-farming industry anywhere near one of my own organic chickens!

While working at the Champlain Commercial Fair this past March, I met the folks who run Bearbrook Game Farm and asked if they might have any unsliced bacon. They kindly found me a piece of wild boar bacon – so I had the other key ingredient for the recipe in my freezer. 250 grams ended up being half of this piece. Expensive, yes – but it was the only expensive ingredient in a fancy dinner for 4 people (after all, the chicken was “free,” right?)

Having taken both Speedy and the bacon out of the freezer to defrost in the fridge on Friday morning, Saturday morning I was ready to start preparing the dish. The only major departure I made from Hugh’s recipe was that instead of cooking covered “over a very low heat, or in a very low oven (120°C Gas Mark 1/2) for about 2 – 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is completely tender,” I simmered it on “low” in the slow-cooker for 5 hours. I have learned through experience that I enjoy the experience of having dinner guests a lot more if the meal I’m going to serve is done and bubbling gently in the slow-cooker when my guests arrive!

Ingredients:

Tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded, and finely chopped. I was, unfortunately, using conventionally grown vegetables, due to the time of year. Next time I make coq-au-vin (and there will definitely be a next time), I’ll do it in the fall when I can get local organic veggies. I noticed that the skins on the tomatoes were much thicker then the ones I grow (or the ones I buy at my local farmer’s market) for processing into home-canned tomato sauce – to better withstand transport, of course…


Garlic. The recipe calls for “4 garlic cloves, bruised” I used “a bunch” of garlic – we like our garlic – and decided that “bruised” meant “sort-of-crushed with the flat of the knife.”

My other departure from the recipe was to dump a teaspoon of thyme and a couple of bay leaves into the slow-cooker with the vegetables, rather than making a “bouquet garni.”

“250g salt pork, pancetta, or bacon, in chunky pieces.”

Now comes the difficult part – difficult, because I don’t have a whole lot of practice at it – jointing my chicken. In February of this year I spent an afternoon taking lessons on how to joint a chicken and chop vegetables efficiently from a local vegetable-grower who used to be a professional chef (he has flat feet and couldn’t deal with the 12-hour shifts in the kitchen, so he quit chefing and now grows vegetables for the local farmer’s market on his family farm instead…) It was time and money very well spent, and I mostly remembered what I was doing. The illustrations in Hugh’s book helped remind me of the finer points. The legs come off easily. The hardest part was splitting the breastbone with a heavy cleaver to separate the halves of the breast while leaving them on the bone.

2 leg portions and 2 breast portions.

The neck and the back in a pot, ready to be boiled up for stock.

The leftovers, 2 wings and the tail. As is traditional, these pieces went to the dog and cats.

Because this is a Hugh recipe, you start by frying the chunks of bacon in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and approximately 3 tablespoons (50 grams) of butter. A couple of chopped onions get browned in the fat, and then in go the chicken portions for browning:

Hmmmm…. I think I need a larger frying pan.

Now for the FUN part! The recipe calls for 1/2 a wineglass full of brandy and 500 ml of red wine. The brandy is French. The red wine is my favourite VQA (local Ontario wine) from Pelee Island Winery.

Speedy flambé.

Simmering in the slow-cooker. A couple of hours later I tasted the sauce. Delicious (and not at all too salty, which I was a little worried about, considering how salty the bacon tasted to me) but very, very fatty. I ladled off 500ml of sauce into a Pyrex measuring cup and put it in the fridge, so that I could separate out some of the fat. An hour before my guest arrived, I took the chicken pieces out of the slow-cooker, strained the liquid into a pot, and started reducing it. I took the reserved portion out of the fridge, skimmed off the excess fat (Gods!The fat!) and added it to the reducing pot. I probably should have boiled it down more than I did.

I returned the reduced liquid to the vegetables, bacon, and chicken pieces, and let it simmer gently in the slow-cooker until we were ready to eat. We had the chicken and sauce with kugelis (traditional Lithuanian potato pudding) which our guest brought, and a bottle of Château des Charmes (VQA) red wine.

It was absolutely delicious. The meat was perfectly tender, and tasted of chicken – despite having been simmered in red wine and bacon sauce for 5 hours! And it probably took less time to make the recipe than it did to write this post – the longest part was jointing the chicken. I will certainly make it again, served with boiled new potatoes if we don’t have a guest bringing Lithuanian kugelis.

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Last year, during our adventures in trying to get our Chantecler chickens to hatch out and raise some of their own eggs, we learned a lot about broody hens. After last year’s mostly unsuccessful attempts, this spring I bought a trio of Bantam hens to act as surrogate mothers for the Chantecler eggs. And I waited for one of the banties to go broody. And waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, just over month ago, one of the banties decided to start fighting her way into the Best Nest Boxtm and trying to sit on the same eggs that two or three of the Chanteclers were trying to sit on, but which I kept taking away from them (for our breakfast, and my baking!) We were about to head off to Kaleidoscope Gathering for 6 days, so I ignored them, plus I thought it was too late in the summer for the chickens to start hatching eggs. When we got back, the banty was still sitting, and the Chanteclers weren’t (much), and I talked to a chicken-knowledgeable local friend. She had some eggs being sat on, and didn’t think it was too late in the summer for baby chicks, “Think of it this way,” she said, “by the time the really cold weather gets here they’ll be three months old. And they’re tougher than we think they are, usually!”

So we decided to let the Banty sit on some eggs. I picked (pretty much at random) half-a-dozen of the (Chantecler, as opposed to bantam) eggs that were already in the nest box, and marked them with a big X in pencil so that I could tell them apart from the new eggs layed subsequently. For the past couple of weeks I have been taking the Banty (and no, like the rest of our livestock, she doesn’t have a name) off her nest daily, retrieving all the non-Xed eggs, and letting her hop back onto her eggs. In the past few days, however, the Chanteclers have started trying to get back in on the act, and have started sitting on the clutch of eggs, sometimes shoving the poor little Banty off “her” nest. I put “her” in quotes, because of course she’s sitting in the “best” next box, which is the one they all want to lay their eggs in.

So today I decided it was time to build her a Broody Coop, an enclosure in the corner of the coop to keep the rest of the chickens away from her and her nest.

Materials:

– a bunch of off-cuts and leftover bits of wood, some from the set of last year’s local community theatre production

– two gauges of galvanized wire fencing

– screws (a dozen or so different sizes & kinds)

– nails (3 or 4 different sizes & kinds)

– glue

Tools:

– electric drill, bits

– jigsaw

– extension cord

– backsaw (hand)

– measuring tape

– pencil

– shears

– cup of tea

– hammer

– and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t end up using but was good to have on hand in case I needed it…

The top and bottom frame were leftover pieces of theatre set; I wouldn’t normally choose 2″x3″ lumber as a construction material for this size of project, as it’s much bigger and heavier than needed, but they were the right size & shape, so I used them.

Step 1: Cutting the uprights, marking them, drilling pilot holes for the screws, starting the screws in the holes:

Step 2: Assembling the frame:

Step 3: Cutting and attaching a wooden “shelf” to one end of the frame to hold food & water containers:

Step 4: Cutting the wire fencing to size and attaching it to the frame. I used a combination of staple gun and roofing tacks:

All done:

The nesting area of the coop before:

(The smaller hen with her back end to the camera is the bantam who’s supposed to be sitting on the nest, she’s just been shoved out of the nest box by one of the Chanteclers).

And after:

She looks quite comfy in there:

The eggs she is sitting on might start to hatch as soon as Friday, or as late as Monday, since I don’t know exactly when they were laid. Hopefully we’ll get some healthy baby chicks!

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New additions

Those of you who follow this blog and have good memories, may recall that last year’s attempt to hatch out our own chicks didn’t go very well. Our Chantecler hens went broody, and incubated their eggs, but then didn’t seem to know what to do with the chicks once they hatched, so the chicks died. We ended up raising the two surviving chicks under a heat lamp, and they turned out to be roosters. So I planned to acquire a Bantam hen, because it is commonly agreed in the farming community that “bantams are good mothers”. Bantams are not a distinct breed, but rather the “miniature” version of standard-sized breeds, sort of like miniature poodles, but unlike miniature poodles, they seem to retain more of the “wild” bird characteristics, including foraging and broodyness – I hope.

On Saturday I went to the Inter-provincial Bird Association‘s bi-annual auction. They were selling not only all kinds of chickens, ducks, geese, pheasants, and pigeons, but also all kinds of pet birds from canaries to parrots and exotics such as peacocks. And for some reason rabbits… Since my experience is limited to our own Chanteclers, I looked at everything that was on offer, and felt kind of at sea. Most of the bantam chickens for sale were fancy breeds that I wasn’t familiar with, and not what I was looking for. Hoping for the best I bid on, and won, a trio of “Bantam hens” – no breed or age listed on the little descriptive ticket attached to their box, for the sum of $15. The box they were sold in is a regular cardboard box with a big window cut into one side and chicken wire fastened over it. This is so you can inspect the chickens you plan to bid on, and so that they get air and light.

So I brought them home, installed the box in a corner of the coop, and then opened up the well-taped top to give them food & water. I used our baby chick feeder & waterer, which they promptly knocked over, so I had to re-fill. Then I closed, but did not re-tape the top of the box. My plan was to leave them in their box inside the coop for 24 hours for them to get used to their new environment and for our flock to get used to the sight / smell / sound of them, to help them integrate into the flock without incident. However, when I went to close up the coop that evening, the three banties had escaped from the box and were sitting up on the roosts with the rest of the chickens.

From their characteristics, two of them (the two with the blue, yes blue earlobes and blueish-greyish legs) are  probably Ameraucana/Silkie crosses, and the third (the one in the middle) could be anything. The interesting thing about Ameraucana chickens is that they lay blue/green eggs! These are the two our new chickens have laid so far, next to two of our regular Chantecler eggs for comparison:

Fun, yes? I’m beginning to understand how people get drawn in to the world of fancy chicken breeds, because I’m a lot more excited about these miniature chickens that lay blue eggs than I expected to be…

I haven’t yet managed to get a picture of the banties next to the Chanteclers for a size comparison. They’re not quite that well integrated into the flock yet. I don’t know if we’ll be keeping all three. One of my neighbors asked me to buy her a mating pair of banties at the auction, if they were going cheap. I didn’t find a pair going cheap for her, but she may want one of the three hens I bought. I’m thinking I might want to keep two of them, because the plan is to have them sit on & hatch & raise Chantecler chicks for us, and looking at the size of the banty hens, I can’t imagine them being able to sit on more than a half-dozen eggs at a time!

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Wishful Thinking

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Chickens are easy.” I heard this many, many times when we were planning to start our foray into livestock-keeping with a small flock of heritage-breed chickens. Folks at the farmer’s market, our neighbors, people we met at community events in the months after we moved to the area would ask what our plans were, and I would answer that we were going to start with some chickens. “That’s a good idea. Chickens are easy!

And you know what? They were right. Chickens are easy to care for. This was brought home to me at the end of July when I wrote out, in exhaustive detail, complete with accompanying photos, the instructions for taking care of our chickens for some friends who were going to be house-sitting for us for a few days:

1. You don’t have to do anything about them on Friday evening when you get here. They’ll be in the coop and they’ll be fine until Saturday morning.

2. On Saturday, morning, as early as you’re up and functioning, go out and open the chicken door so that they can go out.

  • Open the people-sized door
  • Slide the chicken door up
  • We usually leave it propped up outside for the day because if we leave it inside the coop the chickens knock it over and poop on it.

  • *IMPORTANT* Close the people-sized door when you’re not inside the coop, because they may escape out that door otherwise.
  • IF A CHICKEN ESCAPES they will follow you at dusk to the people-sized door. Open it and step back; they will hop in. Don’t worry about Carter harassing an escapee, he’s very good and doesn’t bother them at all.

3. Fill the waterer

  • Take the waterer out of the coop. It will probably be full of sawdust.
  • The hose is lying on the lawn

  • You need to turn the water on – the tap is back here. I will clear the weeds out a bit more for you!

  • The waterer has this locking mechanism. Turn the handle, and the top should slide up.

  • Dump the old water on the grass. Use the hose spray to clear out the soggy sawdust. Fill with fresh water. Carter likes to drink from the waterer while you’re filling it up.
  • Put it back on its little platform in the coop.
  • ***VERY IMPORTANT*** Please remember to turn the water to the hose off when you’re done.

4. Fill the feeder


– The chicken food is in this black garbage bin in the garage.

  • Fill the black bucket.

  • Take it back to the coop and pour the feed into the feeder from the top. Don’t worry it some spills, the chickens will find it. You don’t need to fill the feeder all the way up, one bucket-full is plenty.

  • You probably won’t need to feed them on Sunday or Monday, they will probably have plenty of food left (how much they eat depends in part on the weather).

In the evening, around dusk (8pm-ish), when you see that the chickens have gone into the coop:

5. Close the chicken door.

  • You’ll probably need to brush the sawdust out of the track so that it slides down all the way. There are work gloves in a basket on the wall behind the front door so that you don’t get chicken poop on your hands.

  • If you feel it’s getting late, and you get worried that they aren’t in yet, put a scoop of food in the black bucket (they recognise the black bucket) and carry that into the coop and pour it in the feeder. They will come rushing in.
  • Don’t worry about the board. It’s their ramp to get in and out, but they knock it down constantly, and can get in without it.

Eggs:

If you’re happy to collect the eggs from under the chickens, please do. If you don’t want to bother, that’s OK. There won’t be any embryos, because it takes over a week for the embryo to develop, and the chickens will only have been sitting on the eggs for 2-3 days. There will probably be some eggs lying around on the floor of the coop that aren’t being sat on (so if you want to collect and eat those ones, go ahead). Three “eggs” are not eggs at all, but decoys made of wood designed to encourage the hens to lay in the nest boxes. Some of the hens will get off their nests to go outside when you open the chicken door, some will stay sitting. Check any eggs you collect for cracks. Carter gets the cracked ones, hard-boiled.

Any questions?

And now, next time we have house-sitters, I can direct them to this post for instructions on how to take care of the chickens.

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I’m trying to get back into the swing of updating this blog regularly, and so I’m starting with a photo post. Enjoy!

Beans and corn growing in our vegetable garden. They are both local Native American varieties.

Yarn I dyed using Queen Anne’s Lace (the yellow parts) and onion skins (the orange parts). I call the result “Butter Toffee”.

Chief, our alpha rooster, looking regal.

Sunflowers.

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