Archive for February, 2016

Arugula, my favorite weed

Arugula is still my favorite weed, and this is the right time of year to get your seeds and scatter them in a likely spot. Keep the ground moist and wait for spring.

This is an old post and I’ve gone low-carb since then so now I enjoy my arugula in salads or sautéed, with some garlic cooked in and crumbled feta on top.

My urban homestead

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At times I’m very surprised by what grows well in my high desert garden. I wouldn’t have guessed that arugula would not only grow well but would naturalize and happily spread itself about. Arugula is my favorite salad green, and I’ve learned to love it for cooking too. Something about its tender nutty sharpness is like watercress gone to heaven. It likes cold weather, and manages with surprisingly little water.

First, get your seed. I don’t recommend the wild-type often sold as “sylvetta” because the leaves are small leading to low yield, and in dry conditions it can get too sharp to be pleasant. Try to get the type designated as ‘cultivated” or the named variety Apollo, although the latter lacks the frilly leaves that make such a nice show on the salad plate. In winter or very early spring, scatter the seed in drifts on prepared ground and rake…

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Animals, Waste, and the Urban Homestead

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Many years ago now, in one of my earliest blog posts ( hard to imagine that I’ve been doing this for eight years now,) I posted the picture above of a carrot from my hard soil, because I thought it was funny and I had little else to talk about that day. Now, I think that my ardent carrot is part of a much bigger picture, and that picture is the ugly landscape of food waste.
Globally, unbelievable amounts of food are wasted, enough to feed a lot of hungry people, and you can read about that and about what one lively activist is doing about it in this article.
My own interest in the subject is smaller and more local. What can be done to reduce waste around our homes and neighborhoods? Start with the carrot above, and with imperfect produce in general. Are you willing to buy it and eat it? If your favorite grower at the farmer’s market sold imperfect stuff at a somewhat reduced price, would you buy it? Let them know.
When you are the grower, the task can be more satisfying, and small livestock can help. Eat what you can yourself, and share with others. People have been so market-conditioned to demand perfect produce that I can end up giving my friends the most perfect specimens and eating the imperfects myself. Get yourself a good nose-to-tail vegetable cookbook to help you eat and like the “nasty bits” of your veggies. Then look at what’s left and who will eat it, because a lot of it isn’t ready for the compost yet.
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Chickens are your best friends when it comes to reducing waste. They will eat and relish greens in huge quantities, and will eat carrots, winter squash, and other chunky things if they’re cooked soft or ground in the Cuisinart. They love the residue out of the juicer, and will dispose of most of your table scraps if they are chopped finely. Personally I do not limit my chickens to a vegetarian diet because chickens are among the most profoundly omnivorous animals around, along with pigs and we ourselves. Any arguments that feeding them “garbage” is inhumane are absurd when said “garbage” was on my own plate and would have gone down my own gullet if my appetite had lasted a bit longer. They scratch over, poop on, and compost what they don’t eat, providing you with increased bounty down the road. I have read the argument that feeding them in this informal way malnourishes them, and can only reply that as long as extra calcium is supplied, my little flock shows admirable vigor and my hens lay industriously through age 4. A good laying pellet is available to them free-choice.

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Goats occupy a different place in the waste-eating structure. Contrary to general belief they are fussy eaters and will nose at and play with anything but will only eat things that are choice in goat terms.  Goat treats include anything that’s woody and fresh, which is why you don’t keep them loose in your yard: all trees and shrubs will be killed in short order. It is also why they effortlessly absorb things that you have no other use for, such as rose prunings (unsprayed, of course.) My goat loves rose trimmings, corn stalks, carrots, pumpkins, celery and other things that the chickens have no use for, eats all my fruit tree trimmings and some excess fruit, gnaws every edible bit off broccoli stems and other large coarse plants that are otherwise hard to dispo, and will eat some large coarse weeds but only the ones that she personally selects. Amazingly, she rejects kale, lambs-quarters, and other things that I consider delicious. We do have a major trash tree in my area, the Siberian elm, and she adores them, so I cut down the ones that are growing where I don’t want them and leave the stumps in place, coppicing them for future goat food. She also eats a lot of expensive alfalfa, so believe me when I say that there is no such thing as a free goat. On the contrary.

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Pigs are among my favorite animals, and throughout the third world they are prized for turning waste into human food.  I wish that I could recommend them for the urban homestead, but they smell too bad when kept in small areas and get too big. A full-grown hog of breeding age is practically the size of a dining room table but stronger and more determined. Urban Farm Online has a good brief summary of why  they don’t recommend pigs. I have heard it suggested that the much smaller Vietnamese pig might be good for urban bacon, but I don’t know anything about that and don’t know if anybody has tried it. If it could be made to work, it could be interesting.

I would not want any of the above to be taken as saying that you can feed animals free on household scraps. If you have animals, you can plan to spend plenty of money on feed. You will also spend time learning to care for them, and then attending to their daily needs. But they will utilize some garden and kitchen leavings and supply you with a nice end product.

 

Chickens for meat

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The picture above is courtesy of the wonderful blog site the Self Sufficient Home Acre, about which I will say more later in this post.
There are a number of reasons to grow and process some meat chickens at home, but one reason stands out for me: the conditions under which commercial broilers are raised and butchered are appalling. My home-grown meat birds are healthy eating because of the way that I feed them, but even if they weren’t, I can provide a better life and a better death than happens on a commercial basis.

The question of what type of chicken to raise is an important one. The chickens that are seen everywhere from chain grocery stores to fancy butcher shops are all Cornish crosses. They are extremely fast growing, being ready for harvest in about eight weeks, and have the extremely broad breast that appeals to American consumers. The meat is soft and doesn’t take much chewing. I don’t like them, personally, because they are so fast-growing that all they do is lie on their heavy breasts and eat. They don’t act like real chickens. Also, the meat doesn’t have time to develop deep flavor, and these birds do very poorly at high altitudes like my home area. On the other hand, the males of most laying breeds make a scrawny-looking eating chicken and they start crowing long before they are big enough to eat, a serious problem in my urban area. My personal preference is for Pioneer hybrids, which are relatively large and fast growing but look and act like real chickens. They are pretty to see, and reach edible size in 3-4 months. I butcher the males as soon as I hear crowing, and let the females grow on a bit. I have kept some for laying hens and they are pretty good layers.

The  picture above illustrates something very important to understand about body morphology.  This particular picture is of commercial versus heritage turkeys, but the chickens are quite similar to this. The rounded bird on the right resembles the Cornish Cross which is used commercially, and the long bodied light-breasted bird on the left resembles the Pioneers and heritage breeds. American consumers are used to looking at a fairly spherical bird, and can find the natural configuration of a chicken startling. Some also find the meat a little tougher. I find it utterly delicious in flavor, the way chicken is supposed to taste, and don’t mind using my teeth a little bit. I often choose moist cooking methods such as braising to increase tenderness, but also grill these birds and am very happy with the results. And I really like it that these chickens can run around, forage, and flap up to the perch in normal fashion.

I came across a self-sufficiency blog that has wonderful material about home meat production, The Self Sufficient Home Acre. The author has a great post about the process of butchering chickens, and another about mindset and preparation for butchering. The photos are graphic, so don’t go there out of casual interest. But if you can imagine that a meat animal could be regarded respectfully and even reverently, then you may want to consider raising some of your own and taking responsibility for how it is treated and harvested, and this blog can help.

I also strongly recommend the book Mini Farming by Brett Markham. He has an excellent discussion of meat chickens and a great set of instructions for butchering. My set-up is based on his. His book is also a wonderful source of information about serious vegetable gardening and home-business laying flocks.

I feed the chicks a starter mix that’s 20% protein until they’re about 10 weeks old. They get grit right from the beginning, and at age three weeks when they have had time to eat some grit, I start giving them greens from the garden finely chopped, starting with small amounts and increasing over time. After the ten-week point I change their ration to the flaxseed-spiked layer pellet that my hens get, continue greens, and add additional protein with goat milk, table scraps, eggs that weren’t used up in a timely way, or whatever is handy. My goal is to produce maximum omega-3s without using too much flaxseed, which can give an off taste.

I have only one more thing to add, and that is that I incorporate every by-product of butchering back into the growth cycle. To me, that is part of taking the animal’s life seriously.  Each year I choose a spot where I want to grow trees or berries later, choosing a fenced-off area that my dogs can’t get to, and dig a series of deep holes in a large circle six feet or more across. After each butchering, the feathers, entrails, etc. are buried and covered with a couple of feet of soil. Then I set a straw bale or something similar on top to keep the fence-leaping coyotes out. Early the following spring I plant my chosen fruit tree or berry bush in the middle of the circle. They thrive. Five years after growing my first batch of meat chickens, the plum tree planted in that circle yields bushels of plums.

Ultimately, the proof is in the eating:
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Urban Livestock I: Hens

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Many people love the idea of urban farm animals and wonder what’s practical on a city lot. So I’ll spend a few posts ( not necessarily consecutively) talking about laying hens, meat chickens, and goats. There are other urban/ suburban possibilities, including bees, rabbits, small pig breeds, and even mini-cows. I may explore these in the future, but for now I’ll stick to what I know.

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Laying hens are easy and delightful but need to be thought out. If you start with chicks, it will be 5-7 months until your first egg. Started pullets are available in many areas but of course are more expensive. Check Craigslist if you want to find pullets. I suggest two hens per egg-eating household member. That should provide enough eggs for eating, baking, and giving away occasionally. Many people who get hens fail to realize that they don’t necessarily lay every day except during the spring glut and don’t lay at all when they are broody or molting, or in midwinter unless you supply supplemental light.

Housing doesn’t need to be elaborate but does need to be safe. Raccoons are a concern in most urban areas. In my area we also have urban coyotes who can get over 6 foot fences, and they wiped me out of laying hens before I had the chicken run roofed over with sturdy welded wire. A safe coop at night is not enough, since I regularly see coyotes during the daytime. So no free-ranging for my ladies. I cut grass and leaves to bring to them instead.

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Feed the hens to produce the best eggs possible. I like a laying pellet with flaxseed that produces high omega-3s in the egg, and I also provide daily heaps of greens for three seasons of the year, usually including fresh alfalfa. Extra calcium is a must, and in addition to oyster shell I save the shells of all eggs used in the kitchen. They can be briefly dried in the microwave and kept in a paper bag to be ground when they accumulate and mixed into leftovers of various kinds to be fed back to the ladies. If you have some spare time in the winter you can sprout seeds and grains for the hens, but I seldom bother. I did invest in a big bag of organic food-grade kelp meal a few years ago, and I dry some kale every year to make “kale meal,” both good winter supplements for hens.

Hens lay well for one or two years, moderately for another two, and very little after that. This means that after the first two or three years you have to have a plan to bring in some new ones each year and move out the oldest ones. Old hens are not good for most cooking methods but make the best broth or stew imaginable, full of flavor and collagen. To manage your flock well, you need to be able to tell fairly reliably how old your hens are. I start a few new hens of a different breed and color each year, so for instance the Rhode Island Reds in my flock are all four years old, the gold Pioneer hens are three years old, etc.  This way I know that at the end of the upcoming season the Reds need to go in the broth pot and some new color of hens needs to be started. You will need to learn to butcher or be prepared to sell the old hens very cheaply to someone else who wants real chicken soup

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Consider whether you want a rooster. They are beautiful, protective of the hens, and also very loud indeed. In some areas they are actually illegal. In my area it’s legal to have one, but legality doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are unhappy. I keep enough hens to supply my immediate neighbors with eggs, and that helps a lot. A few neighbors now have hens of their own, so be aware that you may start a mini-epidemic. Roosters can be aggressive, but most of mine have been fairly easy to handle. If they do get aggressive with you, a broom is a good humane instrument for shooing them away with no damage done.

If you do have a rooster your eggs will be fertile, and if a hen goes broody, she can be allowed to hatch out the eggs. A separate small coop should be provided for the hen to sit the eggs and rear her brood. Have a plan for what to do with them, and bear in mind that the young roosters should be butchered or otherwise disposed of the minute they start to crow. But it is a real delight to watch a mother hen care for her little family.

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Sometimes I get questions about the “best” breed of hen. I have had Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, leghorns, Pioneers, buff Orphingtons, and several of the layer hybrids like black sexlinks and red sexlinks, and they have all layed well.  For purely aesthetic reasons I prefer brown eggs and usually choose layers that produce them. Heritage breeds like Welsomers and Barnvelders go broody too easily to be great laying hens, but they excel at hatching eggs and caring for chicks, and I keep two elderly heritage hens just for the purpose of raising several chicks each year. I usually have an Americauna or two around to add soft sea-green and blue eggs to the egg basket. If I were more organized than I am, I would keep a rotation of Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, black sexlinks, and red sexlinks, since these are the best layers that I have found among the brown-egg breeds. My roosters are either Pioneers or Red Rangers, both large meat birds whose chicks, even when crossed with the laying hens, will be large and meaty. Personally I look at the Murray McMurray hatchery catalog each year to see which breeds are designated “best” for laying, and I never bother with chickens bred for appearance rather than production or with flighty little bantams.  But if a flock of strangely alien-looking Frizzles pleases you and you don’t like eggs that much anyway, well, this is your flock and should gladden your heart in addition to its other benefits.

More on Carrot Steaks

A few days ago I wrote at some length about purple carrots and you can find that post here.

Today I want to talk about the common orange carrot which I also grow, for its vivid color on winter plates as well as flavor and nutritional value.
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I don’t grow the tiny baby carrots. My preference is for the immense Chanteney-style variety Autumn King. I plant them at some point in May and let them grow all summer. By late fall they have reached the proportions shown. They are very tender and flavorful as long as they get enough regular watering during the growing season. I store them for winter by doing exactly nothing. They stay right where they grew. This works because this variety is quite hardy and because I live in a relatively mild climate where the ground doesn’t freeze more than an inch or so deep, and I can break the frozen ground with a shovel when I want to harvest. Dig up at will, scrub, and eat. In colder climates further protection would have to be given. I would experiment with putting straw bales a layer or two deep over and around the carrot bed rather than fuss with a root cellar. Readers in colder climates, please let us know what methods you like
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For cooking, I’m very fond of the carrot steak method that I wrote about yesterday as well as other, more conventional methods. The immense Autumn King can be sliced into carrot steaks that are about the size of  porterhouses. They can be seasoned in a lot of different ways. My default seasoning is olive oil and salt for the grilling or pan-grilling, then a glaze of thyme butter before eating.  It has recently occurred to me, though, that Carrot Steak Tandoori could be really wonderful. The only carrot dishes that I really dislike are those that are sweetened. Carrots are loaded with natural sugar and don’t need any added. Just let them shine.

If there are leftovers, carrot steaks are wonderful brought to room temperature, sliced into julienne, and dressed with a good vinaigrette.

I have often read that carrots left in the ground become woody. I have found this to be true only if they are left there until they resprout in the spring. So any carrots that are left when new tall green fronds start to emerge go to my goat and not to my kitchen. She couldn’t be happier. If you are goatless, chickens will scarf up carrots if they are chopped up finely in the Cuisinart. A carrot is also a necessary ingredient in the broth pot and woody cores don’t matter in that context.

A Carrot of a Different Color

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I like carrots in general, and this year I’m especially enamoured of the carrot variety named Deep Purple. As you see above, it is not a wimpy purple-blushed orange carrot. It is a startling deep indigo-violet right to the core. It is packed with anthocyanins, which can only do us good, and the flavor is a bit less sweet than many modern hybrids, which suits my preferences. I like carrots, not candy bars.

If you are accustomed to boiling carrots you will need to rethink your strategy, because the rich anthocyanin content in this one makes it bleed on the plate like boiled beets. This is not attractive, and I am no fan of boiled vegetables anyway, so a cooking method that keeps its juices inside where they belong makes sense.

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I am cooking a lot of carrot steaks lately and this is a great method for quick vegetable accompaniments that requires no forethought. The prep is quick. Catch your carrots, scrub them thoroughly, cut off the tops and bottoms, and cut the body of the carrot lengthwise into “steaks” of the thickness that you prefer. I like 1/4″ because I like them to cook quickly and get a little cooked clear to the center. I cook all the odd-shaped side slices because they are all delicious; the tapering parts get a little gooey and caramelized, which adds depth and savor. I salt the slices lightly, rub them with good olive oil, and add any seasoning that I might want. In the case shown here they were to accompany blackened fish chunks and so I dusted them lightly with blackening spices.

After you cook your entree, or in a separate nonstick skillet, heat the pan over medium-high heat and lay in the carrot slices, not letting them touch each other. Let them cook at a brisk sizzle until the underside looks cooked and is deep brown in spots, flip, and repeat. Serve and eat.

Incidentally, when I say “nonstick skillet,” these days I mean seasoned cast iron. The newer ceramic-lined nonstick skillets might be safer than the older ones, but their nonstick qualities rapidly break down if used over high heat and they are not considered safe for use under these circumstances. I also dislike the mushy not-really-a-crust that is produced over lower heat, and only fairly high heat will produce a true sear. So cast iron it is. Keeping a skillet seasoned takes a little extra work but not much. The Maillard browning reaction is the cook’s friend for deepening flavor and it happens happily in hot cast iron.  The meaty tang that browning produces makes carrot steaks an ideal vegetable entree.

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The same general method can be applied to purple carrot quarters as shown in the steaming plateful above. In this case I cooked them over lower heat for a longer time with no seasonings but salt and olive oil, and added thyme butter just before serving.

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Grilling is another great way to cook purple carrots. The ones shown above are a purple-blushed variety that I grew before I discovered Deep Purple, seasoned with garlic and ginger midway through grilling so that the garlic doesn’t burn and topped with chopped turmeric leaves to accompany a dish of southeast Asian grilled shrimp.

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