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Peanuts!

I saw a packet of peanut seed from the Ontario Seed Co. this spring and bought it on a whim. I had no idea that peanuts would grow in our area, but the back of the seed packet said they would, so I thought I’d give it a try. Not many seeds in the packet, just enough for one 8-foot row. They came up, and they flowered, and then they didn’t seem to do anything else. I read up on peanuts and they are supposed to throw “pegs” out which arc back into the soil and that’s where the peanuts grow. Well, I imagined these “pegs” as large (or at least visible) shoots, and I never saw any… So I figured they hadn’t made any… We’ve had a bad, bad drought all summer, and I didn’t irrigate the peanuts, I just gave them a couple of gallons of water a few times during the worst of the drought. So I figured they hadn’t “set fruit” (or in this case, nuts).

This afternoon when I was picking the ripe tomatoes (yes, our tomatoes are still ripening in mid-September – we’ve had a rough year!) I decided to pull one of the peanut plants, just to see. The book said to leave them until the leaves turned yellow, and mine are still green, but curiosity finally got the better of me and low and behold – there were peanuts!

Just a couple (I pulled one of the smallest plants), but actual honest-to-goodness peanuts had grown in my garden! I’m totally thrilled, and will be planting LOTS more next year. The best part is that they grew with hardly any irrigation in a summer of severe drought. Since our local climate seems to be getting hotter & drier in the summer, this is so good to know!

I make all our jams & jellies, but we buy a fair bit of peanut butter and roasted peanuts. Knowing I can grow our own peanuts makes me feel like I’m one baby-step closed to self-sufficiency. We have hazelnut and walnut trees that should start to bear in the next couple of years, so the addition of peanuts and sunflower seeds expands our options for reasonably reliable non-animal protein.

It turns out that the “pegs” I was looking for and not seeing were the little shoots that come off near the bottom stems and burrow almost straight down into the soil under the plant. Next year I’ll know what I’m looking for!

Time to start researching my options for a food mill / grinder that has attachments to handle both cereal grains and oily nuts…

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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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Happy Spring everyone, and for the first time that I can remember, we are indeed having spring this week! The crocuses are up, the birds are singing, the chickens are laying, and maple syrup season (such as it was) is over. I even saw a ploughed field when I was walking the dog yesterday. Usually at this time of year, there’s still a fair amount of snow on the ground out here, and greetings of “Happy First Day of Spring” are greeted with a sarcastic “Yeah, right.” Being the realist (some would say pessimist) that I am, I’m not expecting our unseasonably warm weather to last. I think we’ll get walloped at least once more at the beginning of April. As I over-heard one old farmer saying to another this past weekend, “Remember that year we had snow on Mother’s Day?”

Unseasonable weather or not, I’m thinking about this year’s vegetable garden. Every year I agonize over when to start the seeds indoors, and when to plant them out. This year I started the peppers (bell and hot) an extra two weeks early, because last year they didn’t start setting fruit until September, and then the frost got the golf-ball sized still-green peppers. That may have had something to do with the drought we had for the entire month of July, of course.

I started the peppers on March 4th, and they are just starting to come up today. I’ll be starting the tomatoes this week, and crossing my fingers that I’ve guessed right. Start them too early and they get leggy in their pots, which makes the stems prone to snapping when you’re planting them out or when a breath of wind hits them. Start them too late and you don’t get them into the garden until June, and then you don’t get any tomatoes until August.

The seed packets, gardening books, and websites helpfully give you the following information, “Start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before last frost,” which seems simple enough, right? Find out when the average “Last Frost” date is in your area, count back 6 (or 7 or 8) weeks, and that’s when you start your seeds.

Problem #1: “Last frost” dates are listed for major cities, not small villages in the middle of nowhere. The weather is so variable in this part of the country that using the “Last Frost” date for Ottawa or Montreal would be about as accurate as throwing a dart at a calendar page.

Problem #2: The most recent and up-to-date “Last Frost” data available for Ontario is based on average temperatures calculated from 1976 to 2005. The climate is a-changin’, as seen by the fact that I’ll be walking the dog in shorts and a t-shirt this afternoon, when there is usually still a foot of snow on the ground this time of year. Tomorrow’s forecast high is 28°C – the normal high for this time of year is 4°C. Historical averages are becoming less useful. The best data available from Ontario, however, is here: Climate Zones and Planting Dates for Vegetables in Ontario (Note that most books and websites are using much older data, typically the American USDA maps which are based on a 1953-1980 data set).

Problem #3: (And this one is the “gotcha” that prompted this post) “Last Frost” is a fox terrier.

Ok, that obviously needs some explanation: a “fox terrier” in this context is a “canonical” phrase or idea that gets repeated by authors in texts without being examined or re-examined. The phrase was coined by the wonderful natural science author Stephen J. Gould. Gould was writing an essay on the evolution of the horse, and he found himself typing a description of “Hyracotherium” as being the size of a fox terrier. Then he stopped and thought to himself, “Why am I typing that, when I don’t even know what a fox terrier looks like?” His subsequent research on the topic found descriptions of this particular ancestor of the modern horse being compared in size to a fox terrier, in an unbroken line of textbooks dating back over 100 years. He asked around his department, and none of his colleagues knew what a fox terrier looked like, or in fact exactly what size it was, though they had taught out of those same textbooks for years. He then wrote a further essay on the topic, “The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone.” 1

Here’s the thing I realised that changed the way I think about planning to plant the garden: The idea that you “should” be able to prepare your soil for planting well before the average “last frost” date comes from gardeners writing gardening books in England, where it doesn’t snow, and hardly ever freezes! Like Gould’s dinosaur descriptions, authors of gardening books have simply repeated, “6 to 8 weeks before last frost” whenever they talk about starting tomato seeds indoors. “Aha,” I thought to myself one day, as the cartoon lightbulb lit up over my head, “‘Last Frost’ is a fox terrier!” If you are gardening under perfect conditions, in an “average” (whatever that means these days) year, then the Last Frost data is probably all you need. Spring comes, the snow melts, the ground dries out, you turn it over and prepare your seed bed, and you plant according to the information on the backs of the seed packets. No problem.

But in my experience out here, about half the time, the veg patch is still under water on our putative “last frost” date. We don’t have particularly bad drainage, but some years it rains for all of April, and there’s just no way we can get the rototiller (or a person with a fork) into the garden by May 11th (our official “last frost” date). So the seeds whose packets say “plant out as soon as the soil can be worked” (which in Oxford, England, where the gardening books were originally written, is sometime in mid-to-late February) get planted in late May, at the same time as the tomatoes and the potatoes and everything else, because that’s when I can plant!

Now I’m not faulting the books, websites, or seed packets for using “last frost” date as an instruction for when to start seeds. Of course you want to set our your young plants after the last frost, whenever that should be. And of course you want to give new gardeners some sort of guidelines other than “in spring” (though I’ve seen that on the back of a seed packet, too!) But I’ve come to realize that “in spring” is really the best we can do, most of the time. 8 weeks before May 11th, I have no way of knowing if it’s going to be cold or warm, wet or dry for the next two months. I don’t know if I’ll be planting out my tomatoes on May 6th or June 6th.

So I’ve changed my thinking from “I have to have the garden ready to plant the tomatoes out on May 11th,” and feeling like a failure every year that I can’t, to “It’s probably not wise to plant the tomatoes out before the second week of May or so, most years.” I’m hoping it’s going to make me a much more relaxed gardener.

Happy Spring!

1 Stephen J. Gould Bully for the Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. 1991.

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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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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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