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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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One of the things I’ve learned living out here is that the wild things that grow and live on our little patch vary tremendously each year, due in large part, I suppose to the differences in annual weather. Some years the roadsides are full of Mullen, but this year there are only a few plants here and there. Last year this time, my neighbour’s fields behind our property were full of Black-Eyed Susans, this year there are only a few. We’ve had a hot, dry summer here, and so the crickets and grasshoppers are particularly abundant this year, making our chickens very happy indeed as they hunt the hoppers through the grass. Something else that has had a very good year this year is Wild Grapes:

There are always some wild grapes in the hedgerows, but most years it is too wet for them to grow well and mature without rotting. This year the hot dry weather provided a bumper crop of wild grapes, so I’ve decided to harvest some and see what kind of Wild Wine I can make. At first I was just thinking that I would get some juice to make a small experimental batch of wild grape-flavoured mead, but I might get enough juice to try a very small batch of wine.

I’ve picked over the bunches of grapes, only keeping the ripe ones to get the sweetest fruit. Following the advice on this website, I wore latex gloves while picking the tiny grapes off the clusters, to protect my hands. It also made it a little less icky when I had to pick the numerous spiders and various other bugs out of the grapes as I was sorting them!

The next step is to mash the grapes before pressing them for juice:

In traditional wine-making, the skins and seeds are left in for the first stage of fermentation, but my research has recommended not to do that with wild grapes because the very high ratio of skins and seeds to juice would make the resulting wine too bitter.

This is my pressing set up:

A stainless steel colander is lined with damp cheesecloth. The mashed grapes are poured in, and then a plastic bowl that fits inside the colander goes on top of the grapes. A weight inside the bowl presses the grapes, and the juice collects in the bowl underneath.

And here is the result, exactly one liter of dark red grape juice. So the question is, do I make wild-grape wine (which would actually be more of a fruit wine like rhubarb or blueberry wine, rather than a true grape wine), or wild-grape flavoured mead with it? I’m leaning towards the wine, because in a normal “bad” year for wild grapes, I’m still likely to be able to collect enough to flavour mead, whereas I don’t know when we’ll have another really good summer for wild grapes… In either case, the juice is now going into the fridge overnight to let some of the tartrate precipitate out before I do anything further with it. And if I’m going to try to make wine, it might be worth the effort to harvest another batch of grapes for more juice, though let me tell you, separating out all the tiny grapes is very  tedious work indeed!

I will edit this post to include links to the next steps in the process as I document them:
Wild Wine: Part 2

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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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This:

Goes here:

Needless to say, we don’t park our car in the garage. Even in the summer when it’s not half-full of firewood, it’s full of gardening tools and equipment, and usually a rototiller on loan from a friend. One day maybe we’ll have a barn or shed for the tools, but in the meantime we clean & organise the garage once a year in the fall to make room for the firewood.

This will be our third winter heating primarily with wood. We have the oil furnace automatically set to go on for an hour first thing in the morning, to heat up the house as we’re getting out of bed, and then I light the fire in our heat stove. For the rest of the day, except on the coldest, windiest days of the winter, the stove is (just) enough to keep the house at a livable temperature. The furnace goes on again for an hour at dusk, when the outdoor temperature drops significantly.

The first year we heated with wood, we bought 6 (face or stove) cords and had about a cord left over at the end of the winter; however we started heating late, since our stove was on back-order and wasn’t installed until the middle of October. The second year we bought 7 cords of wood and ran out at the beginning of April. It was a very dry winter (very little snowfall) and our neighbors all said they were burning more wood than usual – the lack of snow meant less natural insulation around the foundations of houses.

This year I didn’t want to take any chances, so we bought 10 cords. Once stacked it will run the length of the garage, in a pile as high as t! can reach and three rows deep. I won’t be doing all the stacking myself, though it’s nice to know I could if I needed to. I’m managing about a cord an hour, with regular breaks. Most of my elderly, retired neighbors still stack their own firewood (everyone heats at least partly with wood out here, as it’s about half the price of oil). It’s a good job for a day like today when I want to be able to see what I’ve accomplished; having the wood safely stacked in the dry garage provides a wonderful feeling of security, “No matter what happens, at least we won’t freeze to death!” my subconscious mind says as I’m working.

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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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This is a very fast and easy recipe that makes a yummy, satisfying desert for a family or a crowd. It’s perfect as a last-minute take-along dish to a pot-luck or a tea party.

Prep time: 10-20 minutes, depending on what kind of fruit you use

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup of butter or full-fat margarine (reduced-fat spreads won’t work)
  • 1 cup of flour (I use ½ white and ½ whole-wheat)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ cup of white sugar (or less, to taste)
  • 1 cup milk
  • ¼ cup applesauce
  • 2 to 4 cups of mixed diced fruit and/or berries
  • ¼ cup quick or instant oats
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon

Notes on the diced fruit: This is a great way to use seasonal fruit, so at this time of year apples and cranberries would work very well, and it’s a great way to use apples that are starting to go a little soft. In mid-summer, try raspberries and peaches! You can use any kind of fruit: fresh, frozen, dried, or canned. If  using dried fruit (e.g. chopped dried apple rings, raisins, and chopped dried apricots), reconstitute the fruit for a couple of hours in warm water or fruit juice, then drain. If using canned fruit, drain thoroughly.

Method

  1. Prepare the fruit and put it in a large mixing bowl. If using fresh apples, pears, or other fruit that browns when exposed to air, stir in a tablespoon of lemon juice. If using cranberries or other very tart fruit, mix in ¼ cup of sugar.
  2. Turn the oven on to 400°F (200° C). Put the butter or margarine in a 9×13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish, and put in the oven to melt (the oven doesn’t need to be at temperature). Keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t start to burn, and take it out when the butter/margarine is melted and the dish is hot. Leave the oven on to pre-heat
  3. In a second mixing bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, sugar, milk and apple sauce until smooth.
  4. Pour the batter into the warm baking dish.
  5. Ladle the fruit by spoonfuls into the batter, distributing it evenly. The fruit will sink into the batter.
  6. Mix together the quick oats, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a small dish. Sprinkle over the top of the fruit.
  7. Bake for 40 minutes, or until nicely browned on top – check the corners, which should be golden brown and “cakey”.
  8. Serve warm, cut into squares, optionally with a scoop of ice cream on top.

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Hi, and Happy New Year. Now buckle in, this one’s going to be a bit of a rough ride.

On December 6th of 2010, we got switched over to “Time of Use” pricing by our electricity provider, HydroOne (formerly Ontario Hydro, until they went bankrupt – more on that later). I decided that 19 days before Christmas was not the time to start changing how and when I did things like laundry, vacuuming, cooking, etc., and so I resolved to simply swallow whatever price hike we would have on our December bill, and figure out how to change things in January.

Our old pricing regime was that we (theoretically) paid 6.4¢/kWh regardless of when we used electricity. Our new pricing regime is as follows:

5.1 ¢/kWh off-peak 9pm to 7am, and on weekends and holidays
8.1 ¢/kWh mid peak 11am to 5pm
9.9 ¢/kWh on-peak 7am to 11am, and 5pm to 9pm

(This is for the winter, in the summer the mid-peak and on-peak times & prices flip, because of air-conditioning usage. And I say “theoretically” above because our kWh electricity consumption account for less than half of our bill – the other 60% is a whack of extra charges including service, delivery, and “debt retirement” – see bankruptcy, above, and taxes )

So here it is, the middle of the first full week of January, and my conclusion is that I hate it. I’m all for just about any strategy that gets people to consume less electricity, especially here in Ontario where only 25% of the electricity generated is from renewable resources (the other 75% being nuclear, coal, oil, and gas). But if you look closely at the charges and times above, you’ll notice that the only time that electricity is less expensive is overnight, and on weekends, and it is significantly more expensive all day on weekdays.

When we got the flyers with from HydroOne explaining the new rates, I figured it wouldn’t be such a big deal – I could do the laundry late at night, for instance, without really disrupting my regular daily routine. But having looked at the power consumption profiles of all the electrical appliances in my house, I have a major problem: I cook.

The primary “discretionary” use of electricity in the house is the oven & stove. Doing a load of laundry uses .2 kWh, at a cost of 2¢ during on-peak pricing and 1¢ during off-peak pricing. Cooking an average spaghetti dinner, on the other hand, uses 1.3 kWh, at a cost of 12¢ during on-peak pricing and 6¢ during off-peak pricing. Mid-peak would cost 10¢ Before the pricing change it cost 8¢. Running the vacuum uses a lot of electricity, but as I spend 15-20 minutes vacuuming once-a-week, it’s easy to shift that task to the off-peak weekend hours.

Some of these numbers, by the way, come from HydroOne’s interactive website, which, rather than tell me that 1 burner on an average stove uses x kWh, and the oven uses y kWh, gives me the kWh and price for a “spaghetti dinner” – is that with sauce cooked from scratch or out of a jar? The number for a pan of brownies (.9 kWh, 9¢ on-peak, 5¢ off-peak) is more useful, because I can assume that the brownies were baked in an oven for approximately 30 minutes…

You can go play with it here: Hydro One

Why am I bothering with all this and griping about a few cents here and there? Partly because we can’t afford to have our electricity bill double (which looks likely to happen if I don’t find a solution). And partly because I’m annoyed that what is theoretically a good energy-conservation idea is impossible for me to subscribe to without an almost-impossible change to my lifestyle. I cook from scratch, just about every day. I spend a great deal of time and money and effort so that we are eating healthy, local, sustainable, low-impact food. And now it seems that unless I want my electricity bill to double, I have to either do a week’s work of cooking every weekend (and then freeze, thaw, & reheat?) or do my cooking after 9pm. Option B is impossible – there is no way I can sustain cooking our meals between 9 and 11pm. Option A is incredibly difficult and full of pitfalls. Or we could just switch to microwavable frozen food. No, we couldn’t.

The crock pot is going to get even more use. I’ve plugged it into one of those voltage-measuring devices, and it uses .35 kWh for two hours on the “high” setting, which is 20% of the electricity it takes to cook a meal on the stove top. I may invest in a crock pot with a timer that automatically shuts off so that I don’t have to stay up until 11:30pm to turn our manual one off before going to bed. I’ll also investigate electric kettles, as they’re probably much more efficient than boiling the kettle on the stove top, loathe as I am to have another electrical appliance on the kitchen counter.

Apart from that, I’m open to suggestions. And more crock pot recipes.

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