Friday, August 20, 2010

Detox on the Farm

Please tell me summer is almost over. Mine has been chock-jammed full of weekends away, weddings, music festivals, friends in town, running about, CSA challenges, bike rides on and on and on.  I wouldn't take back one single trip but August hit me hard.  Really hard.  Since Memorial Day weekend, I have been out of town 8 of the last 12 weekends.  Oiy.  It hurts more just typing that one out and rereading.  Really Jo?!  8 of 12.  No wonder I've been worn out. 

A good detox weekend away was in order and luckily, I have good connections with the folk out in central Missouri.  Hamilton, Missouri to be precise.  I dare you to look at that Google map and not be jealous.  I'm smack dab in the middle of fine USA soil surrounded by cornfields and soybeans for miles.  My roommate's grandparents saved up for years to buy their fine 40 acre farm.  Dean sold feed and Donna working at a beauty shop in town, kids went to school and the whole family would come home to tend their pigs, cattle, chickens and anything else Dean wanted to try his hand at.  At their peak, they had 30 sows and would raise piglets for 6 months, then sent them off to a feed lot.  Currently, D&D are hosting hoards of grand and great-grand children and only watching after a stray yellow calico cat who has yet to decide if he will adopt them as new owners.
What follows is a collection of memories from the weekend, and the intriguing farm facts that one gathers when all you do for four straight days is work and talk and swim and sleep.  Wisdom to be gained grows in them fields.
 Bounty from H&M Country Store, run by the Amish of Jamesport. Purchased: pineapple slices, flax seed, french burnt peanuts, whole nutmeg, candied ginger, tapioca pudding, garlic jelly, mini chocolate chips, banana chips, dried green beans, honey, local pasta, salted corn chips with flax, spicy black bean corn strings, steel cut oats, spearmint tea, agave nectar and tomato knives.  Successful trip.  Jamesport is full of stargazer quilts and oak furniture, funny beards and soft, unassuming smiles and the best club sandwich I've never had. 
Neighbors on the north side of the fence.  Black cattle are the hot commodity right now for beef raising. Dean couldn't tell me why but the black ones against any other breed are the most highly valued.  For 20 cows, you only need one bull and that's a lot of action.  Gestation period for cows is 9 months and typically you keep your bull away from the cows until early spring.  Even at a 20:1 that guy will never stop.
D&D's best friends.  We rode around their land for about 2 hours and three days later, my legs are still sore.  Smokey hadn't been ridden in over a year, and never by anyone save Bob.  I coaxed him around the pen a time or two but, again, heels still sore from kicking. A good stud should have eyes that are far apart, a narrow face and strong shoulders.  Colts are weaned and sold between 6 and 8 months and then broken at 2 years old.
After hours of work on the farm, running around Jamesport or riding, we took naps on the dock.  Above is the view from the dock up to the house from the pond.  First 14 inches were bathtub warm, the rest--cool from the spring that feeds it.  D&D built it when they first bought the land.
Evening walks past the neighbors' land, dogs, cattle-- we were an oddity walking down the gravel road, as if they knew we were just city girls posing for the weekend.  Sunset colors orange, magenta and deep blue every night, with clear views of the Milky Way and a good handful of shooting stars each night.
Slap a sign around my neck that reads "will work for food and quite space."  We dug little trenches, laid edging, trimmed trees, hauled rocks and dirt-- the burdens resting on D&D's minds became outlets to clear our minds.  As it happens, nothing cures stress quite like getting sore, sweaty and fatigued. 
When we pulled up, the corn had all been smashed down by a violent storm that blew through Friday night.  By Monday afternoon, it had all perked back up again, pulled up by the sun, according to Dean.  The green beans that I'm strolling through haven't been great this year.  D&D won't be able to can a fraction of what they normally do to make it through winter.  This summer, Donna had already canned beans, pickles, tomatoes and then freezes corn, peaches, strawberries and stores potatoes and onions in their basement. 
Sometimes, all a girl needs is a little bit of calm space.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Culinary School 1: Intro to Professional Cookery

 I ran across this picture the other day and realized that I haven't really gotten into the meat of what I'm doing at culinary school.  This picture is me, at Northwest Cutlery, picking up my knife kit and clothes.  My very first chefs jacket.  It's exciting and nerdy.  The point of this whole thing is, it's high time I tell you all what cooking school is like.  I'm in class 2-3 nights a week, at least 2 of those nights from 6:30 to 11:00 pm for practicum.  Most of the time it's fairly exhausting and sweaty and can be a bit gross but over and above all of that, all the time it is amazingly fun.  I find myself chopping carrots at 10:30 at night, knowing full well that I'll need to get up for work in 7 hours and I'm smiling.  First things first: Intro to Professional Cookery was the absolute basics.  For example how do you cut an onion?  First, place your cutting board on a paper towel so it doesn't slide around the table.  Second, align your board with the edge of the table, about 1 inch from the edge.  Third, grip knife with your thumb and forefinger on the blade, the rest of your hand on the handle.  Fourth, did you wash your hands before you started this project?  Fifth, realign board.  Sixth, grasp knife again.  Seventh, put down chefs knife and pick up paring knife.  Eighth, peel onion with paring knife.  Nineth, pick up chefs knife, slice onion from root to nose.  Tenth, realign cutting board (no doubt it has gone askew).  Eleventh, using the claw formation on your left hand, claw onto the root end of your onion and make many quick, thin diagonal cuts parallel to the veins of the onion.  Twelfth, cut two horizontal cuts with your knife parallel and flat to the board with your chefs knife.  Thirteenth, move your claw over your onion, so you're gripping the whole thing and slice it the opposite direction, making perfect small dice.

Thirteen steps for onion cutting and don't even get me started on tournee potatoes.  The photo on the left is my final from this class.  Tournee potatoes, batonnee carrots, small dice potatoes and onions cut in the manner described above.  All this to say, I've now learned how to properly slice onions, carrots, large chunks of beef, bone marrow, celery, leeks, potatoes, shallots, garlic, chicken, duck, flat fish (like halibut or flounder), round fish (like salmon or trout) and how to make tomatoes portuguese and all kinds of butter.  Clarified butter, butter for your steak, butter for your snails, butter butter butter.  It was a steep learning curve of a quarter, as evidenced by the lack of photo evidence.  I do promise that in the following posts, we will actually get to recipes and more photos.  For now, just the basics.

My first finger condom. Ouch.  

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The "how to" on urban chickens

This is getting a little odd.  Somehow, I didn't expect raising chickens to become a qualifier of my own identity.  You know that things have gotten a little too far that while standing in Grand Park, waiting for Lady Gaga concert, you see someone mouth "that's the girl that has chickens in Old Town."  No joke.  Despite my protestations it has become a qualifier of my life and .  No, I am decidedly not in love nor am I fixing to buy chicken diapers nor do I want little outfits, but this whole chicken thing definitely has its perks.   

A friend from Atlanta emailed me the other day about this beautiful blog saying, "I want to try an egg from your stores next time I'm up there!"  I started cruising 8.ate@eight and was delightfully intrigued.  As it happens Ms. 8ate and I have emailed back and forth: questions about 8-stranger-dinner-parties and chickens started whipping from Chicago to New York and back.  In the midst of it all, I realized that I have done you all a grave disservice.  I have never really explained what all is entailed in getting all the setups, keeping chickens happy and well fed and now laying.  So at her encouragement I am going to do so now.  Any of you urbanites out there who have thought about having chickens, it is my sincerest intention to tell you exactly how much work is entailed, and how delightful it is to have poultry in your very own back yard.

Do you have to get chickens in the spring? It just so happened that I was ready for chickens this spring but coincidentally, I do think that it's the best time to get them.  Here's the deal: you get chicks in the mail (it's true, the US post delivered a peeping box to my front door), and they need to live inside under a heat lamp for 6 weeks.  They end up getting pretty big, (8-10 inches tall) and really messy trying to flap their wings and kicking up the pine shavings all over your apartment.  We had a piece of dog crate to put on top of our cardboard boxes to keep them from flying out.  Point of it is, as chicks, the first week their box has to be around 95 degrees, then decrease by 5 degrees every week.  By the time week 6 rolled around, Chicago was around 65-70 degrees, which is what the weather ideally should be when they first get outside.  I suppose you could get chicks at time when it's not as warm out, but then you'd need to keep them inside for longer.  Another factor: heritage breeds start laying at 6 months old.  Hens hit their peak laying season in summer when they have plenty of sunlight.  I think ours started laying sooner because it was the full on summer and they were getting plenty of sunlight.  I have a friend that got his in June, and they did start laying in January, but not regularly until March...

How did you decide what chickens to get and what kind of coop do you have? I chose my breeds from  They have a great little quiz about where you live and what kinds of chickens will do best for what you want (this is good Tuesday afternoon entertainment for anyone, I think).  I know Rhode Island Reds & Barred Rocks are favorites among backyard chicken folks.  I bought my coop at MyPetChicken also. I have a little brick patio on the main level that is about 15ftx40ft.  95% of the time the chickens are in that coop, but from time to time, I let them out and let them run around my backyard and pick through the garden.  I know people that have them on top of their garages, without any dirt for the chickens to dig through, though chickens love dirt and need something to scrathc through.

How often do you check on them?  I probably check on their feed and water every 2-3 days, though I like to toss in kitchen scraps daily to give them a varied diet.  They eat EVERYTHING, though they shouldn't have celery (they can choke on the stringiness) or garlic and onion because it will effect the flavor of their eggs (my boyfriend still threatens to feed them ubiquitous amounts of basil and garlic just to see what happens).

How often do you clean their coop?  The thing with having your coop on the ground is that you can develop a sort of natural composting process and have to clean your coop less frequently.  Though, even on a terrace, you could do the same thing.  I have straw down on the bottom of my coop and have changed it twice since they moved outside in April.  It doesn't smell, and if you have any issues with bugs (which I've heard you can if you're on a terrace) you can use DE  to discourage insect laying in the bottom of your coop.  It is food grade, so it's safe for chickens to eat and scratch around in.

Can you go on vacation?  I have left them for 3 days without care and they have been absolutely fine.  Now that they're laying every day, I have arranged for a friend to come over and just be sure they have clean water and food, in exchange for any eggs that are laid.  You'd be surprised at how your good friends turn into willing chicken sitters!

How much does the whole setup cost? This really varies.  Obviously, the coop has been my biggest cost.  Other than that, I'm getting organic feed delivered to my door by a local guy.  I have used 3-25 lbs bags of feed that were $10 bucks each, plus  $10 for one bale of hay (yes, I'm storing a bale of hay in the basement of my apartment building), $20 for the feeder and water and $10 for the heat lamp.  And that's about it!

How long will chickens live for? I've heard that hens will healthily lay for 3 years but have heard of chickens living for 30!! No one really knows the life expectancy for chickens because usually they die of unnatural causes (predators animal & human)...

All I can say is, having chickens is really really great!  I am completely city girl, born and raised in Chicago and Chicago suburbs and never have worked a day on the farm (save once) in my life.  Though I've only had 6 eggs so far, it is SO worth it.

Here are some links you may find helpful:

If any of you have questions or are curious about chickens, please let me know!