Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Learn a second language

Any time Gene and I watch a movie and there are chickens in the background, we always chuckle about how noisy the movie chickens are.  It's such a cliche.  Watch any western or medieval movie/tv show and invariably there's a loud clucking flock of chickens somewhere, bawk bawking like the entire flock is laying eggs at the same time: buck buck baw-KAWK!

We got our first batch of three chicks Memorial Day weekend in 2008.  Coincidentally, that's also when I met my good friend, Dena.  The law in our county states that you must buy a minimum of six chicks at once from feed stores.  It's meant to prevent people from buying cute baby animals they can't care for and will eventually kill due to neglect.  Dena was advertising on Craigslist to split a 6-pack of chicks.  I responded and we've been friends ever since, both of our flocks growing as well.  Though Tacoma has about 200,000 residents, Dena and I have found over the years that we know a number of people in common.  Small town, indeed.

I digress.

Of that starter flock, Gwen and Nugget are still with us.  We now have nine hens and I can tell you that hens are fairly low on the noise spectrum, making far less noise than the neighbor's dogs that never stop barking.  Ever.  The exception in our flock is the screechy Polish Crested named Beaker.  That neurotic bird can make a ton of noise when she's feeling insecure or the others are picking on her.

Last weekend I headed for the front yard to do some weeding and get my veggie garden started.  I took the dog - who at some point rolled in something horrific and later required a bath - and allowed the hens to come with us.  It takes them a while to build up enough confidence to stray very far from the bushes against the house but invariably a few always do.  This time I looked up and saw Gwen and Croquette scratching in the dirt where I'd just weeded.  Later in the day Miss Piggy, Curry, and even Dozer joined the dog and me on the parking strip.

I enjoyed the company of the animals while I weeded.  The dog kept watch (when she wasn't rolling in stinky compost somewhere) while the hens aerated the soil and did their best to reduce the various bug populations.  As I worked I listened to them and realized that I can recognize each individual just by her unique "voice".  It reminded me ot an article I'd read some time back that a researcher had discovered that chickens make about 24 different vocalizations. 

Without seeing the girls, I can tell you when Animal is getting picked on, when Croquette has found a black beetle (she's the only bird of the whole flock who makes that particular noise for that particular bug), when a broody Beaker has ventured out of the nest, when Dozer is watching the others, when Curry wants to be picked up, when Nugget is alarmed by the dog, and when Gwen is frustrated that I'm moving her away from where I'm swinging a hand tool.

From inside the house we know when an egg has been laid and when the girls are stressed or scared, such as when a falcon is parked on the telephone wire above the yard.  In the morning we can hear them in the coop, softly clucking their discontent at being locked up while daylight's burning.

Not only does each situation have a unique sound assigned to it, but each bird has a distinct voice.  When Curry wanders into the house we always know when it's her because of her deep "braaaaawkk".  Croquette is our little chatty Cathy, constantly cooing and blucking to us.  Dozer is also chatty but in slightly different situations.

If you have chickens, spend some time learning their language.  You'll come to understand them better and enjoy them that much more.  Besides, it's fun to listen to them and know what they're doing just by the sounds they make.  I'm not sure I could identify the 24 unique sounds, but I could probably come close.

As I was wrapping up my yardwork chores, my neighbor drove up, rolled down his window, and started to chuckle.  I looked up to see what was going on when he said, "you look like Doctor Doolittle with all those animals in the yard with you." 

I looked up to see Rosemary at the top of the little slope, surveying the domain.  Five hens were tilling the soil of the slope right beneath Rosemary, fluffy butts on full display.  And Mira, my 14-year-old black cat, was sitting primly on the stairs, eyeing the hens warily (she hates the chickens with a passion).

The sight warmed my heart and me chuckle, too.

Here are some sample chicken noises:
A broody hen
Hen showing her chicks where food is
The "egg song"
Content hens (eating)
Dust-bathing hens (and this, my friends, is what destroys your yard)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rhubarb coffee cake

I love the Smitten Kitchen.  A girlfriend turned me onto the blog right before I got married when she offered to bring a Blueberry Boy Bait to our wedding.

It was such a hit that I never got to try it.  I've since made - and enjoyed - it.

Ever since I've been a devoted SK follower.  Her recipes are seasonal and flavorful.  Her posts are not as frequent as they used to be because a) she has a toddler and b) she's writing a cookbook.  I'm not sure which takes up more time and energy.

About a week ago I found a baggie of chopped rhubarb in my freezer.  Since my recently transplanted rhubarb isn't mature enough to harvest yet, it was a little godsend to discover.  As I drifted off to sleep last Saturday night, I had visions of coffee cake fairies dancing in my head.

Since I now get up at the buttcrack of down, easily an hour or two before Gene, I was raring to go and dying to make the Smitten Kitchen crumbcake I'd dreamed about the night before.  I had made it once before and undercooked it.  It turned out as a disappointingly gooey mess of unmet promises.

This time, it would be different.  And different it was.

If you have the patience, this cake gets better with age.  Let it sit overnight, if you can, and the next morning you'll have a moist and crumbly cake that's the perfect accompaniment to your caffeinated morning beverage of choice.

Check out Smitten Kitchen's website for the Rhubarb Coffee Cake recipe (which she calls the "Big Crumb Coffee Cake").

Be the way, this is a great recipe to make when you feel like dirtying every dish or bowl in your kitchen.  It's a messy thing to make.  And don't undercook it!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


The mountain-o-limes I got a couple of weeks ago was not destined in its entirety for lime syrup or the disasterous burnt lime caramel.

With a crap-ton of limes, you can be creative.  Yes, I'm bummed about the lime syrup reduction fiasco - that took me a long time to juice - but it's not like I lost a huge amount of money.  Oh well.

One thing I made that was quite yummy was a lime sauce for salmon burgers.

Simply add the zest and juice of 1 lime to equal parts mayo and sour cream.  Mix well, then spread it on the patty or use as a dipping sauce for fries.

I also made lime curd, using Marisa's (Food in Jars) recipe and instructions for Meyer Lemon Curd.  Lime curd, I've discovered, looks and tastes a lot like lemon curd.  We happen to have a few eggs these days, so it didn't break my heart to use only the yolks from 6 eggs.  The girls happily devoured the leftover whites. 
I preserved a half pint og curd to make it shelf-stable.  The rest went into a plastic tub in the fridge, destined for breakfast and snacky goodness in the coming weeks.
I still have a couple of limes and plan to use their juice in this Orzo Salad with Spicy Buttermilk Dressing sometime in the next week.
What would you have done with 2 dozen free limes?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

When life gives you limes

A friend at work recently was responsible for a fancy award dinner.  She decided to make the 28 centerpieces and that they'd look like this:

They looked pretty good, though toward about arrangement number 15 we realized we were going to run short on the limes.  I discovered a hidden talent of stacking limes into pyramids that were hollow.  Who knew I could do that?

The next day at work there appeared in mailroom two ginormous boxes of limes.  We're talking well over 200 limes.  I took home 9 limes that night, and probably another 20 the next day.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, citrus fruits do not grow on trees and such a windfall is exceptionally rare.

On a side note, have you ever remarked how shockingly fast anything marked "FREE" disappears from an office?

Once home with my horde of limes, I didn't quite know what to do with them.  You see, limes and I have a difficult history.  Tempted by their bright green color I often buy 1-2 only to watch them shrivel on the countertop.

I ruled out lime marmalade: too much work, I probably wouldn't eat it, we already have a cupboard filled with jams and jellies, and Gene definitely wouldn't eat it.  I finally decided to make a lime syrup and a lime curd.

The lime curd seems a pretty obvious choice, and I'll show you how to make it in another post, but why lime syrup?  Making my own syrup was an efficient way to use and preserve all these limes as well as create something practical that I'd actually use.  See below the recipe for some suggestions on ways to eat and drink it.

2/3 cup water
1 1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup lime juice
Zest from 1 lime (optional)

Combine the water and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil.  Boil gently for 2-3 minutes, or until the mixture has reduced slightly.  It will be rather thick.  Remove from the heat and add the lime juice.

Allow to cool, then add the lime zest.  If refrigerated, the syrup will keep indefinitely due to its high sugar and acid contents.  But just use it, ok?  Makes about 1 pint.

Could be made with lemons or oranges, as well.

In France it's common to flavor drinking water with a sweetened syrup.  This is mostly for children but adults sometimes do it as well.  The lime syrup looks and tastes a lot like lemonade... in fact, I'm having a glass right now!

The syrup can be used as a mixer for a cocktail - imagine it with gin, vodka, or tequila - or stirred into sparklling water and served over ice for a summery beverage.  You could use it for sno-cone flavorings, granita, to sweeten a smoothie or a fruit salad, or shaken with some vinegar and oil to create a unique vinaigrette.


A word of caution... The French recipes I found for "sirop aux citrons verts" (lime syrup) instructed me to boil the water-juice-sugar mixture down for 20-30 minutes.  I set my timer for 15 minutes.  During that time a friend stopped by and we chatted in the living room while the syrup merrily boiled away in the kitchen.

When the timer went off and I went to check on my syrup, I discovered that I had instead made burnt lime caramel.  It was not tasty and it went into the trash.  What a waste of time and effort to have juiced all those damn limes.

Moral of the story: Content yourself with making a simple (sugar) syrup and don't bother trying to reduce it.  In fact, if you want a thicker syrup, start out with less water and... VOILA!  Reduced.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My most embarassing moment

There's a restaurant in town called Infinite Soups.  Every day they make some 30 varieties of soup.  Last summer I took this pic at the farmers market of their stand:
"Sold out"
Ah, the irony!

In all honesty, their soups are delicious, and the menu has something for everyone, vegans and carnivores alike.  The only thing they don't have is a place to sit: this is take-n-slurp only with no dining area whatsoever.

This evening their facebook status read: ""Due to some minor gas issues we will be closing at 7pm Tonight."

Being a twelve-year-old at heart, my brain instantly went there.  Haven't we all wished we could leave work early due a a "gas incident"?

In fact, that status reminded me of a "gas incident" I had quite a few years ago.  Because I know it'll make you laugh, I'm going to share it with you.

I'd been dating a guy named Mike.  Mike's was a tight family comprised of his mom, sister, brother-in-law, and the cat Mike and his mom co-owned.  They did virtually everything together and knew everything about one another.  They'd accepted me as one of their own and I really liked them all.

Mike was living with his mother while he saved money to buy a house, which he ultimately did toward the end of our relationship.  One day around Christmas, we all decided to go out to dinner.  We convened at his & his mom's house for pre-dinner drinks.

(Llittle did I realize at that time that they were all raging alcoholics.  My alcohol tolerance, normally pretty low, skyrocketed during this relationship.)

The time for our reservation was approaching and it was time to leave.  The house-leaving routine was always the same: everyone went out to the rambler's garage while Mike checked that doors were locked then set the alarm.

(I later realized, after he bought his own house, that Mike was not only an alcoholic, but one who struggled with OCD.  Part of his unseen house-leaving routine was to check every window 5 times, push the fridge and freezer doors 5 times, turn the oven on/off 5 times, etc.  It was pretty debilitating at times.)

I'd had an intestinal gas bubble building for a while and was rather... ahem... anxious to get outside.  Mike's sister and BIL were going to take their own car, giving me a brief moment to myself in the garage.  The double garage door was wide open and I stood in the entrance and released that painful gas bubble while Mike and his mom closed up the house.

The house locked and the alarm set, Mike and his mother walked into the garage and strode to the car.  Suddenly, Mike stopped dead in his tracks, right where I'd farted. 

He started sniffing.  First a little, then more and more intensely.  I watched, wondering what the hell he was doing.

Then Mike called out to his sis & BIL: "Shannon, John!  Get over here and smell this!"  Their mom got in on the action.  I stood a small distance away and watched helplessly while these four people standing in my ass gas, actively and deeply inhaling it.

I heard Mike say to Shannon, "Smell that stink?  That mechanic didn't fix your catalytic converter after all.  You need to go back and make sure he gets it right.  C'mere... smell it right here!"  The four of them wandered around the garage as my noxious cloud disapated, trying to get one last whiff of it.

Collectively they agreed that Shannon had, indeed, been taken by a greedy mechanic, and that the only course of action was to go read him the riot act. 

Meanwhile, I stood in the frosty evening, silently wondering what to do... besides run far far away.  The group turned and looked at me. 

In that split second I had a decision to make: I could let Shannon spend the money on an unnecesary mechanic visit - it wasn't her catalytic converter but mine that stunk - or I could fess up.  I've always been a terrible liar, besides, the truth of the source of the stench was all but emblazoned across my scarlet cheeks.

I burst out laughing, tears streaming down my bright red face.  Gulping huge breaths of air and fairly choking with laughter, I worked hard to regain my composure.  I finally was able to sputter that they had been inhaling and examining my own exhaust, not a car's.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to muck out a chicken coop

Hey there.  Yeah, I'm still around.  I've been taking a breather lately and deciding what - if anything - I wanted to do with this blog.  After a highly flattering kick in the butt from Karen over at The Art of Doing Stuff, I'm getting back on the horse again.

To be honest, I haven't felt like doing much of anything lately.  I've barely cooked, haven't knitted in weeks, and haven't worked in the garden beyond last month's work spree.  With the rain we've been having, that last one is kind of a given.  This is a busy season at work, with multiple evening events each week.  I've had nights where I've dashed home, let the dog out long enough to do her busines, then gone back to work.

(more after the jump)