Saturday, June 22, 2013

Apres Mead

Busy summer here...

We've got babies all over the place - to wit:

Mockers (Northern Mockingbird babies)

Swallows (trust me - on the other side of that fluff there's at least 3 baby Tree swallows, honest!)

Chickens - although they are growing fast.

It feels like time to sit and mellow in quality, watching time glide by.

Yup, tomorrow we could regret our frivolity - all this mutton, mead, bird watching and chair sitting. But right now it feels pretty perfect. Except for naughty cats trying to sneak out the back door when we're not looking...

Otherwise, we're pretty euphemistically fat 'n tangibly happy. Right Mr. W? Right?

He seems unconvinced. Too bad. I am too busy contemplating flowers to care.

because that is what summer is all about - dirty feet and green growing things! Am I right or what!?

Mutton and Mead

A couple of years ago our local food bank, Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, hosted a medieval/ ren fest sort of event at a local rod and gun club. I love a good festival. First, you can be braless and no one even cares. You can wear odd footwear, fairy wings, and a corset and people applaud. Second, there's usually some sort of libation involved (in this case, mead from Green River Ambrosia). The first year it was fun, but a significantly stepped down version of ren fests I've attended previously. This year it is apparent that the Mutton and Mead is not only a "here to stay" presence, it's growing. We had a blast. From shows to jousting to mead and really good food, this is an event worth showing up for! Got mutton? Got mead? No? Then you should be here! 

 Pig on a stick!
 Belly dancing!
 Best REAL Thai in the valley, hands down.
 Strange beasties.
 Stranger beasties...
 Really, jousting!
 Tilting, even.
This is our guy - he won!
 This is Brook - he'd shoot better if they had decent arrows and bows.

This is Brook with Uncle Greg, making a cool aluminum hook for $3 - totally worth it!

We had a blast. But don't tell Yoshi...

 Yup. Dogs allowed. Who knew??

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Recipe for Nothing Like Disaster

I've been trying to focus on designing and I am totally hung up on one pattern, so I am taking a mental health morning - and I guess that means I can blog! I recently finished this Elise Shawl.

I LOVE it. I added dagger beads along the edge because 1.) I had them and 2.) I love sparkly things. It was a fast crochet experience, blocked out beautifully, and even Yoshi approves.

Maybe a little too much on the Yoshi approval there...

Six year old me wishes I was my own grandma.

These are heading for Texas soon for Grandbaby April who is no longer any kind of a baby, but I still call her baby. I will have to work on giving that up soon, I think.

This past weekend was Father’s Day. It’s also shortly before Mr. W’s birthday, so it seemed a good time to gather the three local children around, with spouses, and celebrate the man. There was, as sometimes happens on these occasions, a fair amount of beer and wine. When it was all over, as I struggled to recover from being bitten by the wine bug, I concocted a really yummy seafood stew that I just have to share with you. Regardless of the brilliance of the stew, it’s a really good thing these sorts of events only happen a couple of times a year. Nothing slaps you in the gracefully maturing face like a long night.

Now, in order to properly prepare this recipe, you'd ideally have a clambake of sorts in your back yard, and get tanked with your adult kids. If you need to skip that step, I understand. The clambake part could probably also be avoided, but in case you want to indulge I am including that "recipe" too. For the clambake we used a combination of Martha Stewart and Ina Garten’s “Stovetop Clambake” recipes and came up with a fitting compromise, outlined below.

In the bottom of my big enamel canner we put three big Spanish onions, quartered. I set the canner rack on top of the onions and lined this with a large piece of cheesecloth – big enough so that the four corners of the fabric extend out of the pot and hang over a good bit. Next we added, in order, 1 ½ lb of small red potatoes (about 2 inches each), 1 lb of Andouille sausage (four links), 5 ears of corn (husked and cut in half), 4 pounds of steamers (scrubbed and rinsed) and 2 pounds of mussels (de-bearded and washed well). On top of this we placed 4 quarter lobsters. Quarters weigh between 1.25 and 1.5 pounds. We then poured a large (24 ounce) can of Rolling Rock (yes, Rolling Rock. Save the BBC for a glass, thank you very much) beer over all, and a second beer can of water for good measure. The cheesecloth was then tied twice on the diagonal, corner to corner, over everything to make it easier to retrieve the good stuff once steaming was complete. The canner was put on the side burner of our gas grill, which was set on high.

Unfortunately we lost track of time – I think it was the sangria - and our intended half an hour steam turned into something more closely resembling an hour. I don't recommend this step. Stick with the half hour. Set a timer. Anything. My rule is that when the lobster is red and the clams are open, it's all done. I am sure some official warning someplace says something different, but this is how I roll. We removed the neatly bundled shellfish and vegetables from the pot (the cheesecloth thing worked brilliantly) and dumped them into my big roasting pan. I squeezed two lemons over the whole mess. The broth from the clambake was strained into bowls, and a pan of melted butter was set out. On a platter to the side was a pair of very large, perfectly prepared (by stepson #2) sirloin steaks, my generous nod to Mr. W's birthday. I don't cook beef any more if I can avoid it. We all gathered, standing, around an eight foot banquet table, hacking into shellfish with various and yet entirely appropriate tools, and everyone ate until they were stuffed. There were leftovers. No matter how I fuss and plan, and think I am going to run short, there are always leftovers. The leftovers went into the fridge, and strawberry shortcake (the kind you eat, not the cartoon one) came out, followed by a not insignificant quantity of further imbibed cheer. I think the party drew to a close around 1:30am. I say “I think” because, well, I frankly wasn’t doing a lot of thinking by then. We all went to bed.

I woke up at around 5 am, definitely the worse for our evening’s debauch. As I lay there in my discomfort, I alternately contemplated my age vis a vis my stamina (is that the right word for 'complete inability to party anymore'?), and wondered what I could do with the leftovers. It came to me that a rich, beer-based, flavorful stew would hit the spot just right, if I could remain vertical long enough to prepare it. Not wanting to disturb the other members of my family - who were still recovering their feet - I slept (if you can call it that) until around 8. After I’d made breakfast for the stragglers, and everyone had headed off to their proper homes, and Mr. W. and I agreed that we are really much too old for this kind of behavior, I started the stew. It’s pretty amazing, and it definitely hit the spot at lunch time – and for a couple of days after! I even took some to my father and stepmother and they both expressed approval. So here I present to you this charming recipe, but only on condition that you follow the rules, including the above celebration of excess (with or without adult children), in order to make it.

Hair of the Dog Seafood Stew

Leftovers from the night before (or new if you're wimping out on the party part):
1 cup BBC Lost Sailor IPA, the dregs of a growler (feel free to substitute your own beer selection)
1 cup corn (previously steamed and stripped from ears)
2-3 small cooked red potatoes, cubed
3-4 ounces leftover lobster meat, chopped roughly
6-8 ounces leftover mixed clams and mussels, chopped roughly
4 ounces andouille sausage, chopped roughly

New stuff the morning after:
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 carrots, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt-free Creole seasoning; we like Tony Chachere's (if salt is allowed in your house, feel free to use the regular kind)
1 - 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 - 15 oz. can diced tomatoes 
1 - 15 oz. can stewed tomatoes (I used my own pints of canned tomatoes for these)
2 cups water
1 - 15 oz. can seafood stock

Prepare all leftover steamed seafood and vegetable from the previous evening’s clam bake. Chop potato and seafood and sausage, and remove corn from cob. Set aside in a bowl.

Chop onion and carrot. Add oil to 6 quart stock pot and set on high. When the oil is hot, add the carrot and onion and stir. Allow to cook down for a minute or so before reducing heat to avoid burning. Let sweat for a few minutes, and chop the garlic while you wait. Add garlic and sauté until garlic begins to change color and the onions are translucent. Add Cajun seasoning and stir all well.  Add beer and let reduce for 1-2 minutes.

Add seafood stock, tomatoes, water and tomato paste all at once. Bring back to a low boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes, then add the leftover seafood and vegetables. When the leftovers are hot, the soup is ready! 

In fact, it was SO ready that before I could take a picture of it to show you it was all gone. Made me want to go buy a ton of expensive shellfish and start all over again. But maybe next year...

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dear Number One:

So since you almost just died before some nice surgeon came along and put a new valve in your aortic artery and bought us all some of that precious commodity we call "time", I think now is a good time to say a bunch of things that I have wanted to say for a long time and need to say, so you know how I feel – because feelings are important! I learned that from you, and from Mr. Rogers. I could get you a card, but this is so much more fun. You might want to grab the tissues now.

When I was small you were the only person I knew for SURE was smarter, stronger and better than me. Because I really thought I was big enough and smart enough to take on the whole world - except you. 

You are the biggest presence in my life and have been for as long as I can remember in spite of your being quieter than all the rest of the adults.

Yeah, fine, you’re not a saint. I have always known that – you are wholly human with all the faults and foibles that entails. What I know is this: you are a man of strong convictions. You believe wholly in the rightness of your convictions, and you live them – not just now and then, but daily.  You feel the pain of people who suffer, especially of children, and you want to make the world a better place for them and for us all. You are silently (and with reason) proud of most of the things you’ve done in your life, and outwardly very proud of your girls – but rarely to our faces, only to those around us – although I think we find out how you really feel when it matters most. 

There was a twinkle in your eye when you found out that I slapped Robbie Mann in the face for kissing me without my permission in second grade, even as you told me not to hit people. When I was supposed to be out of earshot you said “Next time, kick him in the crotch”. When I used the white house paint in the EasyBake oven, I could see the crinkles around your eyes – you even had to turn away and come back to give me a lecture about paint, light bulbs and fire. The way you tell the stories of our babyhoods, like Laurie and her cookies that you dutifully swallowed down – makes my heart so glad that you are my father.  
You showed me unconditional love when everyone else around me had given up on me, and I had given up on myself. You believed in me when I didn’t believe in anything. Thank you for holding out and not giving up on the idea that I could be better than I seemed to want to be. Your silent strength is what kept me aware that I was, could be, and deserved better. I think I turned out all right in the end, and if I did it’s probably all your fault – remember that when you contemplate what you’ve done with your life.

Long drives to places I remember and some I have probably forgotten at times when I most needed anyone to just be with me without effort or pain, long talks about what you believed of life and nature and the spiritual, the way you listened to me and my endless rambling and babbling (at which I excel) as I tried to make sense of the world, reading stories at my bedside, tripping through my bedroom from the attic space carrying Christmas morning in your arms, telling me I was dreaming – and I believed you and went back to sleep! – bailing me out of huge scrapes that I was so, so sorry for with grace, humor, love and a gentle “Did you learn anything?” - Who you are has gone into making me who I am. I cannot stop being grateful for that. I screwed up so much as a mother, but what I got right – really, really right – I learned from you.

It’s so beyond what you did or how you did it. It is about your very presence; forever firm and constant, unyielding, unchanging, chastising when necessary, and at the same time ever loving, tolerant and forgiving. If ever on earth I saw God, it was in you and you probably didn’t mean for that to be the outcome. Your presence mimicked the relationship between God and His children, and without it I would not have come to know God (as I have come to know Him). I thank God for you every day. 

Daddy's lap was where I went to curl up and suck my thumb and listen to a strong heart beating in my ear, and fall asleep knowing that no matter what happened in the regular day to day of insanity of my life, it would be ok because Daddy had a hold of me.

I am saying this here because it’s worth saying all of this publicly. That one dedication in that first book, that was nice and all. Thank you, more than I can ever say, more than I can ever express, more than I can ever explain for being exactly what and who you were supposed to be. Thank you for being my father.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Chicken Play Gym

(with death and mayhem at the end of the post)

I love my birds. This is probably not new news. The fact that I sometimes eat them in no way diminishes that love. In fact, it may enhance it.

Witness the chicken play gym:

This is also an Ikea hack - I used part of the old gate (it was double wide door from the old dog yard, but I only used a single wide gate when the fence was dismantled, moved, and rebuilt for chickens instead of dogs). I added two Gorm shelves for fun, and two plastic plant pots to lift the whole thing up off the ground a little. There's also a 2x4 bracing the Gorm shelves at the base to give some stability. Will it last the whole year? Who knows. For now, they seem to like it.

It even got the Old Lady Stamp of Approval from Pet!

I think if you have to be a chicken it probably does not stink to be one here. Unless you come with "MEAT BIRD" or "SURPLUS ROOSTER" stamped on your head, in which case you'll have a really great life and then it will end in a blaze of glory on the edge of my blade. But unless or until that happens, life is good...

I'll even let you peck my toes if you want. For now. If you turn out to be a hen, you'll get away with the toe thing for a few years until you go out of lay (stop laying eggs). If you're an errant rooster, maybe not so much. Time will tell if I let you stay or not.

We processed birds this weekend. The next images are from processing. I am not going to shy away from blood, but I am also not going to glorify it. If you're squeamy, stop here and run from the room. There is one picture involving blood. If you're curious, stick around. It's only a couple of shots, and not any of actually cleaning. I cannot, as of today, clean a bird and take pictures of myself at the same time. I am working on it, and as soon as I develop that second set of hands, you'll be the first to know. We set up in the backyard pretty early. Later than I wanted this time, but still early for a Saturday.

(From left to right: chill tank, plucking and evisceration tables, holding tank, plucker, electricity on a dolly, scalder)

It's really easy to set up here. When we had the electrical upgraded we asked the contractor to put in two outside outlets - one for winter to run cords for the bird's water heaters, and a second to run the plucker and scalder. Smartest thing ever. Second smartest - we moved the umbrella over to the cleaning and final plucking area so we wouldn't drop in the sun. And third - we recently had frost-free faucets installed, and asked our friend Walter if he could put one out there for hot water as well as cold.

That cuts the scalder heating time significantly! The equipment is from Featherman. I treated myself a few years ago to a Featherman Set-Up Special that included the plucker, scalder, kill cones (some people call them restraining cones, but since I put birds in them to kill them that seems slightly disingenuous) with stand. There was also a catch basin for blood, and a dunker, neither of which we ever used. We sold the dunker at a tag sale, and I have no clue where the basin went. I prefer my orange Homer bucket from Home Depot.
The birds are caged up the day before slaughter, generally about 18 hours before I think I'll be ready. In my perfect world I would have proper confinement coops for them that would restrict their ability to get up and over each other. They're not cheap, but they're awesome. For now we use old rabbit cages.

I don't want to stress them with prolonged confinement, but I also don't want their crops full of food. It's harder to clean them, and makes it more likely that there could be contamination of the carcass with crop contents or fecal matter. I do catch the meat birds during the day. They are slow by the time we process, and it's easier for me to get them when the sun is out - it also means I can get closer to that 18 hour point.

This batch included three old Buckeyes; one rooster and two hens. This is called a cull, when birds that are no longer laying or are just not useful to my long-term plans are pulled from the laying flock and slaughtered. I do not waste them. Although they're three years old, they still cook up - it just takes longer. I slow cook them generally for a whole day, until the meat falls off of the bones. The meat is intensely flavorful, and the texture is not something most modern mouths are used to - perfect fricassee though!

The rooster went first. Because he's used to being at liberty with the laying flock, and because he's a full-grown rooster with all the chicken-y testosterone that entails, he was alarming everyone else and generally stressing out the meat birds waiting to be killed. Not fun for anyone. Generally freaking out and head stomping your cage mates is just not a good idea.

He started my day off with a bang by taking a huge chomp out of my hand when I tried to get him into the cone. In the end, I always win, but I am not above tolerating the birds trying. In fact, I figure I deserve every brutal peck, violent wing flap, or big scratch that I get on slaughter day. I have it coming, so I take it on the chin.

This whole process is about paying a price - I pay a price for consumption of animal protein. It costs me money and time to rear them, and it costs me some physical discomfort on slaughter day, and it costs me mentally every time I use that knife. Responsible living should be a little uncomfortable at times. But it feels better in my heart and in my head to know that I paid the price for this. I know exactly how they lived and exactly how they died. I know they had ventilation, exercise, sunshine and safe, healthy food - and gallons upon gallons of fresh, clean water. They haven't been stuffed with hormones or drugs, and they get a fan in their house when the temperatures go up. Their bedding is cleaned every week to few days, depending on how badly they stink. Buying meat in a store has become very uncomfortable for me. Buying poultry in a store can make me downright weepy - and no, I am not kidding! Having to buy turkey because I don't have space to grow it is an ethical and moral dilemma. If I could farm all of my own meat, I would. For now, processing my own chicken for food is the biggest dent I can make in my quest for responsible consumption of animal protein.

At the end of the day everything is scrubbed to within an inch of our lives, dried, and put away for next time. The birds are put on ice (literally). Some are cut into pieces, ala grocery store. Some are frozen whole. The livers, hearts, necks and lungs are sometimes saved for Yoshi although sometimes we eat them ourselves (that is to say we may eat hearts, livers and necks... I don't eat lungs!)

Yoshi spends the day inside, and when we bring him out for potty after slaughtering is over he makes a beeline, dragging us along, to the spot where the killing cones were set up. Then he sniffs in a meandering line from the cones to the spots where the scalder, plucker, tables and chill tank were. Then he stares meaningfully up at me, whines, and begs. I relent and give him some delicious bit I've saved out for him.

Now his interest in the live chickens is high. Very high. Draggin'-Daddy-along-Momma-please-give-me-a-WHOLE-chicken-NOW high. This usually passes in a few days. We all hope so, or it's going to be a long life for Yoshi. Live chickens are pretty important around here, just as important as the dead ones!