29 April 2012

Eau de Poulet

My parents used to bring us to the State Fair in Springfield when we were growing up.  My sister,  brother, and myself could give you the tour of Lincoln's home we did it so many times.  As boring as that is for kids, we were happy to get out of the Illinois summer humidity and even happier to escape visiting the livestock booths my father was so intent on showing us.  I love my sister dearly now, but we didn't get along swimmingly as kids.  There was one thing we agreed upon though: we hated those livestock booths.  My parents brought us to the fair to expose us to farm culture;  their two snotty suburban daughters sat outside the booths with shirts over their noses gagging from the smell.

You can imagine my parent's surprise when I told them I was moving to a farm.  The surprise was even greater when I told them we were getting chickens.  I'm sure the image of my sister and me with just our eyes and frizzy hair emerging from the neckline of our tank tops flashed through their minds.

In an effort to reclaim our family's food from the industrial void, my husband and I started growing and preserving our own produce, getting our milk from a local pastured cow to make our own dairy products, and established a beehive to aid pollination and produce our own honey.  The next logical step in the progression is our own eggs and meat.  And so now, despite my sensitive nose, we have chickens.

We ordered specialty breeds from a producer in Iowa.  We scheduled them to arrive on a Saturday so my husband would be here.  He raised chickens as a kid.  Although he's not extremely experienced with poultry, he's obviously more experienced than the girl who wouldn't even enter the chicken booth.  So, of course, they arrived on a Thursday. 

With my husband at work, my father-in-law was gracious enough to allow us to use his pick-up to go get the chicks from the post office.  As if picking up chickens wasn't already a leap into a different dimension, moving the rifle case, pack of Mt. Dew, and a collection of seed corn hats to pack Viv into the cab made it even more surreal.  We walked into the post office, heard the adorable cheep-cheep-cheep echoing through the building, and announced that we were there for the chickens.  The woman behind the counter smiled and told us, "that's the way to do it nowadays, with all the steroids and hormones in the food" and handed us this:

And so with much coaching over the phone, I filled the waterer, opened the package, dipped each one's little beak in the water, and transferred all fifteen layers and fifty meat birds to a new big box in our dining room.  The toddler was in heaven watching sixty-five chicks climb all over each other.  I was happy I didn't kill any of them.

We ate lunch and watched them a little more.  I put Viv down for her nap.  I came back into the dining area to the constant cheep-cheep-cheeping.  It was just me and the chickens and a familiar funky smell.  I planned on waiting for Nick to come home to get them in the coop, but their wet little feet and feathers along with the aroma in my formal dining area was quickly wearing on me. 

After another coaching call I went to the coop, set up the waterer, turned on the heat lamps and opened the far side of the brooder box.  I came back to my dining room and picked up the box of sixty-five chickens.  With my sweatshirt over my nose, I walked our little darlings across the yard to their new residence.  My sister would be proud. 

26 April 2012

Radish Thinnings

I thinned a few rows of radishes yesterday. 

well-rinsed radish thinnings

I hate wasting food, even the thinnings.  They can certainly go to compost, but they are much tastier in a Chopped Radish Thinnings Salad with Dandelion Vinaigrette.

the greens and roots are edible

It makes a delightful springtime first course.

Chopped Radish Thinnings Salad with Dandelion Vinaigrette:

well-rinsed radish thinnings, chopped
Dandelion Vinaigrette (recipe listed below)
a few tablespoons toasted seasoned breadcrumbs

Combine ingredients, toss, and plate.

Dandelion Vinaigrette:

1 cup dandelion petals, well-rinsed
1 cup boiling water
sugar to taste (1/2 cup to 1 cup)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil

Place dandelion petals in a glass jar or non-reactive pot.  Pour boiling water over petals and allow to steep several hours or overnight.  Strain petals from liquid.  Boil liquid with sugar to create syrup.  Once cooled, combine syrup, vinegar, and oil in dressing cruet.

19 April 2012

Foraging Ahead

I've been on a mission to find ramps, wild leeks.  The delicacy featured in all my food magazines must be somewhere on the property.  It would be a cruel joke for nature to deny me the elusive ramp when we live in prime ramp-growing conditions.  After almost falling in the creek and definitely falling in a patch of burrs, I'm miserably failing my mission.  However, my search for ramps has led me to thinking about other wild plants on which we could possibly dine.

I thought these were ramps.  They're not, but those are definitely burrs.

I am admittedly late to the wild edible plant party.  As I've been waiting to harvest our first spring crops, it occurred to me that perhaps there are culinary uses to all the plants I was relentlessly discarding as I cleared garden beds for planting.  I remember my sister-in-law talking about the nutritious qualities of dandelion greens and I vaguely remember reading about the superior nutritional quality of lamb's quarters and purslane in Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.  It turns out that I am surrounded with wild, edible, nutritious plants we all commonly refer to as weeds.  There are dozens of wild edibles in our garden, by the creek, and in the various pastures on the property.  After reading about them and looking at loads of photos to safely identify them, I've started experimenting with several obvious plants: dandelion, lamb's quarters, and stinging nettles.

yep, dandelion is edible and not half bad

Dandelion has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes for centuries.  There are established dandelion culinary traditions  in Europe as well as the U.S.  All parts of the plant are edible.  Upon reading nutritional information from several resources, I found that one serving contains over 30 % of daily vitamin C, over 100% of daily vitamin A, approximately 10% of daily calcium, and  9% iron.  They are full of antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals.   

how unassuming

This is of course terribly ironic given that Americans spend time, money, and effort eliminating a nutritious plant from their yards while maintaining the high-maintenance inedible lawn.  We have a health crisis in our country and we are spraying toxic chemicals on nature's spring tonic. Think about how perfect it is: we spend months without fresh vegetables in colder climates and with the first hint of spring emerges a plant loaded with necessary nutrients.  Rather than eating it, we kill it and then go to the grocery store to buy inferior products shipped in from all over the country and world to get these nutrients when it is literally in our own backyard.  Go ahead and fill in the blank on your own as to what that means in terms of sustainability, economy, and ecology.  

For those of you still reading I'll end the social commentary section of the program and move to the delicious part.  After reading enough about eating dandelion on the internet to ensure I wasn't going to kill my family with dinner, I went to the unweeded garden bed and harvested a heaping bowl of dandelion greens.  The main caveat in eating dandelion or any wild edible for that matter is to make sure it's in a chemical-free area.  You don't want to eat them out of a chemically treated/fertilized yard or from an area near busy roads. Also, harvest the leaves before the flower blooms.  As with any green the leaves become bitter once it flowers.

rinsed and dried dandelion greens

I introduced dandelion greens to the family palate as I would any other dark green vegetable.  I sauteed it in olive oil with garlic and peperoncini and garnished it with sea salt.  It was very good--slightly more bitter than kale or escarole.  It would nicely balance something sweet like mild sausage, pork chops, balsamic onions, roasted carrots, or sweet potato.

I also liked that they wind around the fork like spaghetti if unchopped
I tried it in a smoothie next.  I saw a lot of information about how it aids in weight loss so I was prepared to eat it, drink it, and bathe in it.  You can add just about anything to a fruit and yogurt smoothie and it will be good.  This one was sweet, creamy, with just a touch of lawn.

Lamb's quarters are also a nutritional powerhouse

one of many patches of lamb's quarters currently occupying the garden

A three-ounce serving of raw lamb's quarters (which would be very easy to mix into a salad or stir-fry) has three grams of protein, 195% of the daily allowance of vitamin A, 111% of the daily vitamin C, 27% daily calcium, and 6% of daily iron.   They aren't bitter like dandelion--a milder green in the vein of spinach.  We had a combination of the greens in pesto over capellini and on pizza with mozzarella di bufala and parmesan.

really, what isn't good blended with olive oil and tossed with parmesan?

the dandelion and lamb's quarter mix is a nice balance of bitter and mild

There were a few other experiments such as black beans and rice (good use for the Easter ham bone) with the greens and a batch of dandelion flower fritters.

beer-battered dandelion flower fritters

Also, it was necessary to do the obvious--a salad with wild edibles mixed in.  The dressing is a vinaigrette made with dandelion flower syrup.  It's a nice bright balance to the bitter edge of early spring greens.

baby arugula, dandelion, lamb's quarters, chard, spinach, violet, and homemade rye croutons

I was beginning to feel pretty confident about my new foraging skills and wanted to venture into more dangerous territory.  After reading about the benefits of eating stinging nettles, I decided it was time to identify and harvest the plant equivalent of the jellyfish.  Stinging nettles will burn and leave a rash if touched with bare skin.  They will also burn your mouth if eaten raw, but the young leaves and shoots can be eaten after a few minutes of blanching.  Although there are risks, the nutritional payoff of stinging nettles is great.  Most significantly, a cup of nettles has three times the daily allowance for vitamin A, is rich in iron, and provides 30-40% of the daily recommended amount of calcium. 

stinging nettles by the creek
After carefully identifying, snipping, and rinsing, I blanched and drained the leaves.  Before actually trying one I really wanted to make sure I had positively identified it.  I strongly debated rubbing a raw leaf on my skin to ensure it was the correct plant.  My inner wimp won and I opted to have my father-in-law identify it instead.  I'm happy to save myself the stinging sensation and I'm sure it provided him with entertainment as well.  The stinging nettles ended up in a ricotta-parmesan filling for some hurried ravioli with a scallion butter sauce.  I rarely make ravioli and forgot how good the homemade version are.

basic dough: 1.5 cups flour, 3 eggs, salt

filling: blanched and chopped stinging nettles, ricotta, parmesan

assembled ravioli sealed with fork tines

boiled and drizzled with scallion brown butter

The idea of wild edibles is exciting for several reasons.  First, many are abundant and obviously, free.  In an age where we pay more for organic, nutritious vegetables than exotic foods or a package of ground beef, it's refreshing to know that nutritious foods are truly available to everyone.  Also, imagine the resources saved by eating wild edibles: fuel, shipping, packaging, labor.  It's a nice lesson in economy and ecology.  Lastly, it's a return to a basic and simple food relationship of nature providing that which nourishes us.  Obviously, it's nice to be able to grow cultivated crops.  We live in a region that can a sustain a variety of foods although we will sadly never have our own olive oil or Nebbiolo vines, but perhaps I won't notice as much once I get my hands on some ramps.      

14 April 2012

Spring Celebration in Photos

The past few weeks have made it quite clear as to why Antonio Vivaldi began The Four Seasons with the Spring Concerto.  Go ahead, listen while you enjoy the sights of spring on the farm.

The trees are flowering.
cherry blossoms

Spring crops are sprouting.


Bull's Blood Beet

The garlic is tall.

The rhubarb is almost ready.


The area by the creek is painted in wildflowers.

They cover the north side of the hill.

Virginia Bluebells are the most predominant wildflower by the creek

Dutchman's Breeches

Prairie Trillium

Wild Blue Phlox

Dog Violet

Common Blue Violet:  these are more abundant around the house than the creek

Bristly Buttercup

Wood Anemone hiding in a very shaded, woody area.

Yellow Rocket

Garlic Mustard

Creeping Charlie

I stumbled upon a carpet of them between two oak trees.

There are a few I still haven't identified.
These were all over the hillside before our vacation and gone a week later when we returned.

These are a rare find.  Only a handful peeking out of the grass.

Spring is upon us.

Bloodroot catching the morning sun.

Tilly catching some morning sun.
Hillside of Virginia Bluebells

Spring Creek
Virginia Bluebell buds

Spring Prayer

For flowers that bloom about our feet;
For tender grass, so fresh, so sweet;
For song of bird, and hum of bee;
For all things fair we hear or see,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee!

For blue of stream and blue of sky;
For pleasant shade of branches high;
For fragrant air and cooling breeze;
For beauty of the blooming trees,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee!

Ralph Waldo Emerson