Leader of the Flock

Meet the new leader of the flock - Red Hen! The Wheaten is back with the group, but she's officially stopped being a bully. Red Hen the Red Sussex is finishing up a weird winter moult and has asserted her dominance over Wheaten. Yay! I still find Red Hen to be my favorite - she's the most friendly, curious, and outgoing of all the hens - the first out of the coop in the morning and the first to come up and say hi to me when I get home from work. Her comb turned pale during her moult - I guess that happens sometimes..... it's darkening now, and hopefully she'll be back to laying soon!

Speaking of moult, the two Black Copper Marans and Blondy the Buff Sussex are all going through a relatively heave molt right now. At first I was really perplexed about it - moulting is when chickens lose their old feathers and grow new ones - it's supposed to happen in the fall when they are 18 months old or so. These girls are just coming up on their first birthday, and it made no sense that they were moulting in February.

This girl is the worst off - her tail feathers are completely gone and her neck is almost naked. You can't see in this picture, but she has lots of nice pin feathers coming in and soon she'll have brand new feathers.

Blondy is looking a little worse for wear too. Her poor neck! Luckily we haven't had any subzero temperatures in the last few weeks. I'd be really worried for these poor girls!

Check out the pinfeathers coming in around her face and the back of her neck. They're little waxy tubes that the new feather grows into. They supply blood to the developing feather, and then when it's done the chicken gets rid of the tube by preening and the new feather unfurls.

After asking the group at BackyardChickens.com, I finally deduced why these hens were moulting at such an odd time of year. It's the light.

Chickens lay more eggs if they have more hours of daylight. I'd been supplementing their daylight with a bulb on a timer in the coop that came on early in the morning. When Dave moved out in January, I decided I didn't need all the eggs I was getting (about 4 per day), so I phased out the extra morning light I was giving the chickens. This effectively took 2+ hours of light out of their day. Their bodies thought that it was autumn since the days were getting shorter! Ah ha!

I feel bad for them - I thought taking the light away would let them lay less eggs and take it easy for a while - instead it's putting them through the stress of a late winter molt. Poor girls.

The Welsummer is the only hen still laying eggs. She's layed like a champ all through the winter - one egg a day for about 4 days, and then one day off. She's still got a pretty large bald spot by the base of her tail from the Wheaten pecking her a month ago - the feather's don't seem to be growing back at all. She holds her tail high and covers it well.

Here's the big bad Wheaten Marans (not to be confused with bad bad Leroy Brown) - she's been taken down a peg or two, but still all the hens other than Red Hen bow to her will. No doubt about it, she is a beautiful bird. I'm so glad I didn't have to give her away!

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A Mexican Meatloaf Monstrosity for my Valentine

Mexican Meatloaf Monstrosity? I couldn't think of better words to describe the dish I made for my special someone on Valentine's Day. I supposed I could have gone with a predictable romantic Italian pasta or seafood or fillet mignon; but once I got this idea in my head I just couldn't resist.

I just finished writing an article for the Co-op newsletter about our beef vendor, Black Earth Meat Market. In the article I contrasted this local ground beef with the industrial beef that's recalled all too often by the USDA. Industrial ground beef combines meat from slaughterhouses in a plethora of states and countries and generally contains the meat of hundreds of animals. This ground beef is made with the meat of one cow, and it can be easily traced...... just one of the reasons I love local meat!

I pulled these Poblano peppers from the freezer. They were part of what we picked at The Tree Farm and roasted on the grill way back in September.

Salsa Verde also from the freezer. The tomatillos were from The Tree Farm just like the peppers. This is the only bag I had..... next year I'll have to make way more of this stuff to freeze. It's really good!

The poblanos were a little soggy, but perfect for the meatloaf.

I chopped them up with an onion and added them to the meat.

Next came some breadcrumbs, two of my chicken's eggs, and spices. I didn't spice it too much since I wanted the poblano and tomatillo flavor to take center stage. A little chili powder, salt, and garlic powder was all it needed.

I mixed it lightly with my hands and ended up with this pretty "dough".

Now things get a little crazy. I decided to cook it in my bundt pan, layered with Chihuahua cheese. Meat on the bottom, then a layer of cheese, then meat on top and into the oven it went.

While it cooked I prepared a simple cabbage salad. This is one of my favorite salads of the winter so far. I used the last of this Napa cabbage that I've been slowly savoring for about a month. There aren't any more of these available at the Co-op, and I can't make it to market because of my work schedule. Napa is such a nice soft cabbage.... it will be missed!

Super simple did the trick. Napa, lime juice, sunflower oil, salt, and a touch of chili powder. Wow it was good!

I also whipped up some lovely mashed potatoes using red potatoes, milk, and a hint of garlic powder.

When the meat was close to done, I pulled it out......

.....plopped it on a cookie sheet, and I went to town with the mashed potatoes. the meatloaf fell apart a little bit when it came out of the pan, but it didn't matter so much with what I had in mind. I stuffed the middle with potatoes, and then bolstered the meat with a ring of mashers around the outside.

Next came the salsa verde. I don't remember exactly what I put in it way back in September- tomatillos and lime juice mostly. I must have used bottled lime juice - you could taste the stale flavor. I added a little fresh lime juice to brighten it up. Next year I'll take the time to squeeze fresh limes when I freeze my green sauce......

Last but not least, I covered the whole thing with more cheese and slid it back in the oven to finish baking.

OK, so maybe this isn't the most beautiful entree - it is called a Mexican Meatloaf Monstrosity after all.

Here's a cross-section of the finished product. Meat, cheese, potatoes, peppers, onions, tomatillos. It just doesn't get better than that.

The salad was a really nice texture and flavor compliment. It's such a shame the colors were so white and bland looking - the flavors were anything but......

Mexican Meatloaf Monstrosity

2 lb Ground Beef
3 or 4 Poblano Peppers, frozen, canned, or fresh
1 Onion
2 Eggs
1 Cup Breadcrumbs
Chili Powder
Garlic Powder
Shredded Chihuahua cheese
5 or 6 cups Mashed Potatoes
5 or 6 cups Salsa Verde (tomatillos pureed with lime juice, salt, and whatever flavorings you like)

Chop peppers and onion. Mix the peppers, onion, beef, eggs, breadcrumbs, and spices lightly with your fingertips. Put 1/2 of the meat mixture in a bundt pan. Layer some cheese on top, and then the rest of the meat. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes. When meat is mostly cooked, flip the loaf out of the pan onto a large cookie sheet. Place mashed potatoes in the middle and around the outside of the meat. Top with salsa verde and lots of cheese. Bake for about 15 minutes more, until cheese is melted and bubbly.

Simple Mexican Slaw

1 large Napa Cabbage
Sunflower Oil
Juice of 1 or 2 Limes
Chili Powder

Cut the cabbage into small chunks or ribbons. Dress with oil, lime juice, and spices. Don't get too crazy with the chili powder. A little goes a long way!

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February Blah

Oh February. This is by far the toughest month for me to live in Wisconsin. Winter is dragging on and spring is still so far off......at least in March I can begin to think about starting tomato seeds. We're expecting 10 more inches of snow tomorrow. In December that was exciting, in February it's just depressing.

On the bright side, my locavore habits are much easier this year than last. I'm still enjoying the summer's harvest through the magic of the chest freezer in the basement. The peppers, corn, pesto, and tomatoes I froze in the late summer are really coming in handy. The picture above was my dinner tonight - homemade Marina di Chioggia gnocchi, basil pesto from the freezer, and local Parmesan cheese. I guess I don't have too much to complain about.

Like the blue coats? Convincing the chickens to get along has continued to be a challenge. I introduced the wheaten marans back into the flock last weekend and she went right back to her bullying ways. If you haven't been following her story you can catch up on the background here and here. I put her back in the basement and started researching what else I could do to protect my other girls from her incessant pecking.

What I came up with were these fashionable fleece coats. They go around the wings and tail of the chicken and protect her back from pecking. They're not easy to get on the girls - I couldn't have done it without Stanley's help. The design is good, but they aren't yet perfected as you will see....

This black copper is wearing the prototype. I made hers last weekend and she's been wearing it for an entire week. It doesn't seem to bother her a bit.

We put the rest on this morning, with limited success. Blondie's fit really well and I think she likes it.

The Welsummer, on the other hand, hates hers. The first time we put one on her she managed to wiggle out of it in less than an hour. I put a smaller one on and it seems to be secure around her wings, but she's managed to get it off her tail. She has the most pecking damage from the wheaten, so I need to make sure she has a secure covering before the wheaten gets put back in.

The second black copper marans has also managed to get hers off her tail, twice. Argh! Why won't they realize that everything I'm doing is for their own good! I don't have a picture of red hen. She's molting (not supposed to happen in February but I guess she never read the manual). We got one on her, but it was too tight and I took it back off. I'll have to make her another one.

To top it off I decided that I was getting too many eggs (since I live alone now and I can't eat more than 2 eggs a day), so I turned their morning light off. Each hen is born with a certain about of potential eggs and it seemed to make sense to let them lay less now and keep laying later into their lives. Well, now they've stopped laying almost entirely! I'm lucky to get one egg a day. Ah well, oatmeal is a good winter breakfast in the absence of eggs.

My plan is to leave the wheaten out for a few more days and then put her back in to see how she does. Hopefully her extended isolation will chill her out a bit and the blue coats will keep her from doing any more damage and everything will be fine. If she keeps being a bully, I'm going to look for a new home for her. Marans are popular birds, and she does lay beautiful eggs. I'm sure I could find someone who might want her......

I can't wait for spring.

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Mom's Birthday

It was my Mom's birthday last week, and so I decided to throw a dinner party for her. I should also mention that my brother Dave moved out in early January, so this doubled as a celebration in honor having a house of my own (his old bedroom is my new dining room!). Plus it's just fun to cook elaborate meals for your loved ones in the winter time. Gardening and other outdoor pursuits leave me little time for such things in the summer.

The one catch to this dinner party was that Saturday night was the only night that would work for all my guests. My "weekend" is Sunday and Monday, so I had to work till 4pm and then prepare dinner on Saturday. The planned menu would take a lot more than 2 hours to prepare, so a lot of prep was necessary.

The planned menu consisted of: Olives Stuffed with Sausage and Deep-Fried, Eggs Fairy Style (kind of like fancy deviled eggs), A Jerusalem Artichoke and Apple Salad, Marina di Chioggia Gocchi with Sage Butter, Roast Pork with Apples, and Strawberry Shortcake (made with frozen strawberries preserved from the summer harvest).

Be prepared for lot of pictures in this post! I'll try to breeze through them quickly. If you're interested in recipes, please let me know and I'll get them to you.

Thursday night was my first night of prep. I did all my shopping after work and prepared a few things. The first was to make breadcrumbs for the stuffed olives. I chopped this sourdough baguette in half, cut it into chunks, and processed it in the food processor. This method worked relatively well. I put the finished crumbs in a open bag on the counter hoping that they would dry out sufficiently before Saturday night.

This vanilla bean was designated for the strawberry shortcake. I wanted the vanilla flavor to be strong, so I decided to flavor my sugar on top of adding the vanilla bean straight to the dessert.

I opened it up carefully with a paring knife. The black gooey vanilla substance oozed out. Mmmmmm.... This is one ingredient that's worth shipping over long distances!

Vanilla goodness. (no comments about my weirdly shaped thumb please!). I cut the opened vanilla bean in half and put it in with the sugar to "marinate" for a few days.

Fast forward to Friday night - the night before the dinner. My chickens haven't been laying much at all recently, but I had 9 eggs on hand. I picked these 8 for the eggs "fairy style".

I had a hunch that Julia Child had the best advise for hard boiling eggs, so I consulted one of her cookbooks. She warned that fresh eggs can be very hard to peel, but if you salt your water, pin prick in the blunt end of your eggs, and chill them well after cooking, your chances of success are higher.

Per Julia's advise, instead of boiling the eggs I coddled them. This means you put them in cold water and gradually heat them to boiling. When they reach the boiling point, you take them off the heat, put a lid on them, and wait for 17 minutes (not 16, not 18, but 17 minutes). I did all this and then put them in cold water and into the fridge to chill.

Meanwhile, I prepared the sausage stuffing for the olives. These are Andoullie sausage from Willow Creek Farm. I know Andouille isn't exactly the best sausage for an Italian recipe, but they were free at work (they had slightly damaged packaging and so couldn't be sold). Work with what you've got!

I took them out of their casings and cooked the sausage with some of my homemade tomato paste (cooked and frozen in August), and seasoned it with a little cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper. Once it had cooled, I added Parmesan cheese and put it in the fridge to wait for the olive stuffing the next day.

I also cooked the shortcakes on Friday night. The simplest recipe from The Joy of Cooking always works for me. Flour, butter, heavy cream, and baking powder. I brushed some melted butter and a little of the vanilla sugar on top.

Just perfect!

The eggs, on the other hand, were not perfect. I tried my hardest to peel them, but this is what I ended up with. Something to do with fresh eggs being more acidic than older ones, and acid apparently makes them harder to peel.

The idea of eggs "fairy style" quickly went out the window. That recipe is all about presentation, and these eggs just weren't going to cut it. I decided instead to make an egg dip.

I pressed the hard boiled eggs through a sieve......

.... and ended up with this nice egg puree. It was fluffy and pretty - like really dainty scrambled eggs.

I added some frozen basil from the summer (the basil log in the background is great! I've been cutting chunks off and using it all winter).

I also added some roasted cherry tomatoes that I had frozen from the summer. Tomatoes and basil in February? Freezers are awesome! I mixed in some apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper, tasted it, and called it good.

Next, I got to work on the strawberry sauce for the shortcake. Being a winter strawberry shortcake made with frozen strawberries, I decided it would be best to make a berry sauce and serve it warm. I added the vanilla beans, some of the sugar, and a squeeze of lemon juice and started them simmering over low heat.

While they were cooking I started working on the pork. This beautiful roast is from Willow Creek Farm (Their pork is so good I'm beginning to think that I'll never be able to eat pork from anywhere else!)

I rubbed it with butter, dried sage, salt and pepper and put it in the fridge to "marinate" overnight.

These Jonared apples from Ella Orchard were to accompany the pork.

I had seen recipes that say to marinate apples for a pork roast in white wine before cooking. I changed it up a little by marinating them in some home-made hard cider that had been open for a while and had become flat. These also went in the fridge overnight.

Finally, we're to Saturday night! Right when I got home at 4pm I placed the apples, cider, and pork in a roasting pan and got it in the oven. Dave and Erica came over to help before dinner. Erica set the table, and then I assigned them the olive stuffing and frying duties. They experimented with different ways of stuffing, and finally settled on the one on the top of this picture - slitting the olive open and stuffing rather than trying to get the stuffing in the hole.

While they did that, I cut up some local veggies to go with my egg dip. Yellow carrots, beauty heart (aka watermelon) radishes, and Jerusalem artichokes. The dip looked for all the world like hummus, but I think it tasted better.

The olives required three dippings - first flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs - before frying. Dave and Erica tried to use this egg (collected from the coop just minutes before), but as you can see, it was frozen. I've never seen such a thing! I've been collecting them in freezing temperatures all winter, but I've kept them in the fridge long enough to thaw out. I wonder if you can freeze eggs to preserve them..... hmmmmmm.......

Here are the finished fried olives. A lot of work, but my were they good!

I had just enough sage on the plant that I've been keeping inside this winter for the sage butter to go with the gnocchi. While everyone was enjoying the appetizers I chopped up the sage, added it to melted butter, and cooked it slowly for a few minutes.

I had made the gnocchi the weekend before, so all I had to do was heat up water to boiling, dump the gnocchi in, and wait for it to float. I drained it and tossed it with the sage butter. Easy peasy!

The roast wasn't all that appetizing right out of the oven......

.... it looked much better after slicing. Delicious in fact!

Here's my plate! I completely forgot to take pictures of the salad making - I guess it got forgotten in the rush to get everything together. It consisted of apples, Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, lemon and blood orange juice, salt, and a touch of thyme (mostly to add a little green color). It added just the right crunch to offset the gnocchi and the pork.

Erica, my two brothers and Mom, getting ready to eat. Dave said it felt a little weird to be eating in his old bedroom, but he got over it.

Here's the whole crew. It was tight, but we made it work.

Don't forget dessert! Strawberry sauce with plenty of vanilla, shortcake, and whipped cream. A wonderful end to a wonderful winter meal. Strawberry shortcake was especially perfect for Mom's birthday since she and I picked these strawberries together last summer. We usually have strawberry shortcake for my birthday in June - what a treat to have it for her's in January!

I'm not going to post recipes here, but again, if you want any, please let me know and I'll post them!

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