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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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It’s tomato time out here, which means that very soon it’s going to be green tomato time, too. In fact, last Saturday when I was filling in for the manager of our local Farmer’s Market, a customer asked the vegetable seller next to me if he had any green tomatoes. He said he had lots, in his field, and if he had known people wanted to buy them, he would have brought some. He promised to bring some for her next week. She wanted to make green tomato pickles, which in my house growing up we always called Green Tomato Chutney. I make a big batch every year, and eat it with Egg Pie, or on toast with or without cheese. I find it particularly welcome in May when the winter is over, but none of the fresh veg is available yet. The funny thing is that my British mother’s “family” recipe for green tomato chutney actually comes from her French Canadian neighbour, Andrée. Here it is:

Ingredients:

  • 8 pounds (approximately 3.5 kg) of green tomatoes (about 32 medium-sized tomatoes)
  • 6 large onions
  • 3 cups (750ml) vinegar
  • 3 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon each of ground cloves, cinnamon, and mace

 

Method:

  1. Chop the tomatoes and the onions, and put into a large stock pot.
  2. Bring the mixture to a boil in it’s own juice.
  3. Simmer on low heat for 30 minutes.
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients and let simmer, uncovered, until the mixture starts to thicken. Then let it simmer for another 20-30 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent it sticking.
  5. While it is thickening, prepare your canning jars, lids, and rings.
  6. Ladle hot chutney into hot jars and seal. Process in a boiling water bath canner for 15 minutes.

Makes approximately eight 500ml (1 pint) jars.

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After all the picking, and picking over, and pressing, and settling, and filtering was done, I had 1.35 liters of very strong, very dark, very bitter wild grape juice. Cobbling together a recipe from various sources, but relying heavily on the information here and here, and the wine-making section of my copy of The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency by John Seymour, I decided to add enough water to bring the volume up to 4.5 liters, enough sugar to (hopefully) achieve a sweet dessert wine, and to make a trip to a local home-brew supply shop for a packet of real wine yeast. If, John Seymour, the Grandfather of self-sufficiency thinks it’s worth the $2.30 for a packet of wine yeast, then I believe him!

So I added 2.65 liters of water to my grape juice, and stirred in a half a Campden tablet (to “sterilize” the grape juice, or kill the wild and rogue non-wine yeast that are likely to be in it) because my kitchen is full of bread yeast, which apparently makes poor wine. Then floated my hydrometer in a liter jar of juice. I got a beer and wine-making kit for my birthday with included this neat gadget that measures the specific gravity of a liquid via Archimedes’ principal, and thus tells you how much sugar (and therefore potential alcohol) is in your grape juice. As it turned out, not very much, which was no surprise at all. Eastern Ontario is not known as a grape-growing area, and despite the blistering heat we had his summer, my wild grapes were still far from sweet.

I added 1 kg of sugar, aiming for a quite sweet, fruity dessert wine, (which I figure I have a better chance of hitting than I do a “nice dry Chablis,” for instance) which gave my grape juice a specific gravity of 1.12, and a potential alcohol content of 16.5% I’m aiming high rather than low because all the sugar might not convert, and you need enough alcohol for the wine to preserve itself once it’s bottled, otherwise it will go off instead of maturing.

Then I added the yeast. And absolutely nothing happened. Now, this is my first attempt at wine, and I don’t know what is supposed to happen. My first batch of mead bubbled and frothed nicely when I added the (instant bread) yeast. The grape juice just sat there. I covered it over and left it overnight. In the morning I looked in the bucket, and still nothing, or not much of anything, anyway.

Time for intervention. I brought the temperature of the grape juice (which I should probably start calling “must,” to use the technical term) up to 75°F (my wine-making instructions are all in either American or 1950s British, which is OK, because my canning thermometer is in 1905 British units) by sitting a tall glass jug of hot water in the bucket, in case the problem was that the yeast was too cold. And I added a quarter teaspoon of “yeast accelerant” (those of you keeping score will have noticed that my home-brew shop purchases went slightly beyond a single packet of wine yeast).

Then I covered it up again, and sat it in a sunny corner of the kitchen, and tried hard not to check on it every 10 minutes. 12 or so hours later, it is definitely doing something that is starting to look like fermenting. Pinky-purple-y foam is forming on the surface of the grape juice must. Now all I need to do is figure out how to keep it warm for a week. Right now the bucket is sitting in the corner of the kitchen by the stove, because I just took two loaves of bread out of the oven. I’m hoping it doesn’t get too cold overnight, but I’m not turning the heating on just for the wine, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll drape a blanket or something over it.

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I love my Sun Oven!

A few years ago, back when we still lived in Montreal, I bought a Sun Oven. My idea at the time was to have a way to bake in case of an extended power failure, plus it was a fun “off-grid” kind of thing to experiment with. I used it a few times while we were still in the city, and then a few more times after we moved out here.

Last summer, as you may remember, was quite rainy, but this summer has been hot and dry and most importantly, very sunny. So with Ontario Hydro’s new Time-of-Day electricity pricing to contend with (which means that unless I do all my baking at weekends or after 7pm, my electricity bill doubles…) I decided to see just what the Sun Oven could do. It turns out that it can do just about anything!

Baking:

I’ve used it for my regular weekly baking of two loaves of bread, dozens of muffins, and chocolate cupcakes:

It takes about 30 minutes in full sun to heat up to 350°F, and I give whatever I’m baking a few extra minutes, depending on quantity and what sort of pan I’m baking in. The cupcakes take 30 minutes in the Sun Oven compared to 25 in the regular oven, but my regular dozen breakfast muffins need about 45 minutes, as compared to 25 normally, and two loaves of bread take about an hour; twice as long as I bake them for in the regular oven.

One of the biggest factors is the actual colour of the pan or dish I’m using, the darker the better to absorb heat! So chocolate cupcakes in a black mini-tin bake quickly, whereas a loaf of white bread in a silver tin takes a lot longer.

Boiling:

Something I was thrilled to discover I could do in the Sun Oven is boil dry beans. I use dry beans rather than canned for environmental reasons and for the big cost saving. I soak beans (we eat a lot of black turtle beans, red kidney beans, and chick peas) overnight as normal, and then they go into this dark glass dish with a lid:

It takes three to four hours in full sun to cook two to three cups of dried beans, which is enough for two meals. I freeze the extras for later use. I like the way they come out even better than when they are boiled on the stove. As we’re getting to the end of the summer, I’m trying to build up a store of cooked & frozen beans for use over the winter. I freeze them in washed and re-used milk bags, sealed with a second-hand vacuum sealer that I bought at Value Village for $5. The Sun Oven also makes great brown rice.

Roasting:

I roasted garlic for a batch of humus, again using a dark glass dish with a lid. Lids help to keep the heat and moisture in, though enough steam escapes such that nothing has turned out soggy. The next thing to try will be roasted vegetables (potatoes, etc.):

Slow cooking:

The black ceramic insert for my slow cooker fits in the Sun Oven, so on a sunny day, anything I would cook in the slow cooker I can make in the Sun Oven! I’ve done beef stew, lentil (dahl) soup, etc.

As we move into fall, it will be very interesting to see how late in the year I can continue to use the Sun Oven effectively. The box itself is insulated, so theoretically the air temperature shouldn’t affect its ability to cook too much. I think the shortness of the days and the angle of the sun will have more bearing on how many hours of cooking time I can get later in the year.

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Recipe: Pork & Potato Potage

Spring has sprung, but we’re still having some icky cold, rainy/snowy days. This thick, hearty soup is a great winter warmer. Like all my soups & most of my stews, I make this in the slow-cooker. If you are making this on the stove-top, use the heaviest-bottomed large pot you have.

Ingredients:

  • Pork sausages or cubed pork (leftover pork chops work too!)
  • 2 cups small white beans (Navy or Great Northern)
  • 1 large onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (or more to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 3-4 large potatoes
  • 6 cups water or stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (or more to taste)
  • Salt to taste if needed

Note about the white beans: small white beans don’t need as much pre-cooking as kidney beans or black beans. I poured boiling water over the beans, let them sit for about an hour, and then drained them and added them to the slow-cooker. They cooked just fine in the soup.

Method:

  1. Saute onions and garlic. Once they begin to soften, add the oregano and thyme, and saute until the onions start to caramelize. Transfer to slow-cooker.
  2. In the same pan, brown the sausages or pork, reserving the fat. If using pork chops, sear both sides – don’t worry about them cooking through as they will simmer in the soup.
  3. Take pork out of pan and allow to cool.
  4. While the sausages/pork is cooling, scrub or peel potatoes and dice into small cubes.
  5. Cut the sausages/pork into bite-sized pieces.
  6. Put the potatoes, sausages, and stock into the slow-cooker and turn slow-cooker on to the “high” setting.
  7. Cook on “high” for 4 hours. If cooking on the stove top, simmer for about an hour, or longer, stirring regularly.

We like our soups really thick (hence “Potage”1), so I make a basic roux using the reserved pork fat and add it to the soup once it comes to a simmer in the slow-cooker. The better quality sausages or pork meat you use, the better this soup will taste!

1 My Oxford English Dictionary defines Potage as “A thick (vegetable) soup.” Wikipedia is more descriptive, and pretty close to the mark with “a category of thick soups, stews, or porridges, in some of which meat and vegetables are boiled together with water until they form into a thick mush.” But very tasty mush!

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There’s nothing like being snug and warm when it’s cold and blowy outside, especially if there’s something yummy-smelling simmering on the stove, and I have a few minutes to sit and do some knitting…

The last of our Christmas turkey simmering for stock:

 

A pair of socks I knit for my three-month-old nephew:

 

Our kitten Whiskey, in action:

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