Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Quick Thaw

It got up to 51 degrees today!  Bye bye snow, hello lots of mud.  All morning long I could hear sheets of ice sliding off the steep pitch of my metal roof.  It sounds like a car crash every time, but you get used to it after a while. 

It was really nice to see the sunshine come out.  After nearly a month of snow on the ground for the month of December, my cooped up chickens were finally able to get outside and play.

We took a nice stroll around the yard in our rain boots, soaking up some sunshine and checking things out.

Ava scattering scratch for the girls.
The Pied Piper of Chicken Town.

The best part about having no rooster is that the hens readily submit to you. 
They hit the ground with a thump, crouching as you pass by.
It's not as easy as it used to be, but Ava still loves to pick up the chickens.

With so many chickens swarming about, it's hard to step lightly!

I went down to take a look at my bees and was sad to see so many bees lying dead on the ground in front of the entrance.  There were still a few coming and going from the box.  I suspect they got too cold; some died and were tossed out by other workers.  There were a few lying dead out front last year, but not nearly so many.  The instructions that came with my IPM bottom board said to leave out the corrugated sheet year-round, even in the winter (it is primarily used to chart mite counts), but another place online I saw a beek recommend putting it in for winter to help keep things warmer.  We've had a lot of chilling winds already this winter and I think I will be putting the sheet back in afterall to prevent drafts.  I'll be very disappointed if I lose these bees now after having such a good first year.  I am still learning and up until now they've survived my mistakes.  It is supposed to be even warmer tomorrow so I think I'll open the top quickly and give them a new baggie feeder.

I checked on the salad greens I have growing under low tunnels and all is well there.  I will leave this spinach to grow for now.

The radish tops were wilted, but the round roots beneath the surface were perfectly fine.  We've had several nights in the teens, but the tunnels do a great job protecting my winter salad veggies.

We pulled a couple dozen to enjoy in salads this week.

The lettuce is looking good too.  I just bought a bag of lettuce at the store, so I'll let this go a while longer too. 

The snow was hard on my PVC hoops.  A few needed straightened back out.  I think next year I will invest in some electrical metal conduit as mentioned in my Low Tunnel post.

Our enjoyment of this rare and beautiful sunny day was cut short when Ava somehow fell into the bucket of water I had brought down for the chickens.  I was busy collecting eggs when I heard a crash, a splash and a cry.  I think she came into the chicken barn not looking where she was going and simply walked right into the 5 gallon bucket.

Soaked and not happy.

I had to say something silly to get her to look at me!

(Ok Mom, I'm cold and wet.  Stop snapping pictures and let me go inside!)

As we walked back to the house, she bemoaned, "I should have stayed inside!"  No silly, be glad you got to go outside and enjoy the sunshine while you can!

I stripped her down, wrapped her in a warm blankie and nestled her in a recliner to watch some TV while I ran back outside to take water to the chickens...again.

There was a really nice sunset this evening.  I'm so glad to see the snow come off for now.  We'll get some more soon, I'm sure.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chickens Making Snow Angels

This has been my daughter's favorite book lately, "Merry Christmas, Cheeps!"  A very cute book for sure, but I don't think you're going to see my chickens outside making snow angels anytime soon.  Matter of fact, they won't step a foot outside when there's snow on the ground.

We got our first snow on December 1st this year--very early!  It has been a particularly frigid couple of days here lately and the snow on the ground is very powdery and slick.  The wind has been biting and relentless.  I've had the wood stove burning with the damper wide open trying to keep the chill off of the house.  Normally we get too hot and have to open a window, but the wind has been finding it's way in through every available crack and the back side of the house feels a little drafty right now.  Today's high was 17 degrees and overnight it has been running about 7 degrees.  Miserable!  But there are chores that must be done and critters that must be fed, so I bundle up well and brave the cold.

I've been making the chickens a hot mash every evening and delivering it to them just before they go to roost for the night.

My father-in-law used to recommend that I make dough balls of cornmeal and hot pepper flakes to keep them warm and laying.  I don't usually have cornmeal on hand, so I've been making them instant oatmeal every evening and adding serrano hot pepper flakes to it.  I toss in whatever other goodies I can find, usually whatever Ava has rejected from her meals that day:  toast, yougurt, a half-eaten apple, etc.

I serve it to them warm and they all press in to get their fair share.  They don't seem able to taste the hot pepper.  Given all the other weird things they'll eat, it doesn't surprise me.  I wonder just what kind of taste buds chickens do have? 

The old-timers will tell you that the hot peppers will keep them laying through cold weather and will improve their circulation and prevent frostbite to combs and toes.  Makes sense to me.  I get flushed and sweaty too when I eat lots of hot pepper.  (Except chickens don't sweat.)

Keeping the coop cozy and draft-free certainly plays a part.  My chicken coop takes up about 1/3rd of my little barn.  The barn is sided with rough cut lumber and has furring strips run over the cracks between each pair of boards, but still there are a lot of gaps and the wind can get through.

Around November, I make a trip to my local recycling center and pick up several large sections of heavy cardboard.  I use my staple gun to secure it to the south and west facing walls from which our prevailing winds come.  It goes up quickly and easily and really does a great job keeping the coop warm.  Leaving the sheltered side of the coop uncovered allows for good ventilation.  Moisture build up in the coop will cause frostbite and encourage respiratory disease, so you don't want to make it too air-tight.  On bitter days like today, I also close off their chicken door to keep the wind out.  They have no intentions of going out anyway.

I used to use a heated dog water dish to keep their water thawed, but now that I have tripled the size of my flock they require a larger waterer that won't fit down inside of it.  This year, I secured a red heat lamp over the waterer using chain to clamp it to and ran it through the wire hanging loop and backed it all up by securing the electric cord without slack.  There's no chance of it falling down.  I dust it off about once a week.  The cardboard along the walls makes it like a brooder and it works well to keep the water fresh and thawed out.

After being cooped up for a couple days, these girls have started pecking and pulling at the cardboard.  I've never had a flock do that before, but these Black Stars are a little more high-strung.  If it keeps them happy and busy and prevents them from eating each other or their eggs, that's fine with me!  They've been taking the little pieces and lining their nest boxes with them.

Our snowman is enjoying this weather and I think he is the only one.  This is not even the official beginning of winter.  We must really be in for it!

Best Dang Deer Jerky Marinade Ever

This is my own personal recipe for deer jerky and it operates on the principle that more is...well, more!  This recipe is for marinating strips of meat, although I am going to try it out, adding a little bit at a time to ground meat to make snack sticks with a jerky gun now that I have one.  It's a very forgiving recipe, so by all means feel free to taste and tweak.  I have fun omitting and adding different ingredients to get special blends.  This that follows is the basic recipe.

My Original Jerky Blend

  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • 1/2 tbsp. black pepper
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced (or 1 tbsp. garlic powder)
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 1/4 c. Worcestershire
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 1/8 c. white or cider vinegar
  • 1/2 c. of Tabasco sauce
  • 2 tsp. liquid smoke
  • 1 tbsp. sorghum molasses
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper
  • 3 lbs. venison, cut into 1/4" thick strips

I prefer to use the hindquarters for jerky.  Sometimes I'll toss in a few of the larger pieces from the shoulder.  You could use the tenderloin too, but in this house that is considered a sacrilege. 

I am very particular to say the least and I will remove all large sections of the tough muscle casing (silverskin) because it aggravates me to no end to bite into a piece of jerky that I cannot chew.  You can cut your strips with the grain of the muscle if you like or if you want it just a little easier to chew you can cut against the grain like you would for a steak.  Try to keep all your pieces about the same thickness (about 1/4") so that they will dry uniformly.

Mix all your ingredients together in a separate bowl.  Pour over the meat and mix well.  Cover and marinate in the fridge for 12-24 hours.

Take a wire cooling rack and set it on a cookie sheet that has been lined well with foil.  Lay out your strips.  It's OK if they touch a little, just don't overlap.

Bake in a 200 degree oven for 7-8 hours.  Rotate the trays (if you are doing multiple trays of jerky) top to bottom every couple of hours for even drying.  Halfway through your drying time, flip the strips over.  Alternately, you can use a dehydrator if you have one.  My mom just got me one the other day and I am getting ready to try it out. 

Either way, check on your jerky every so often until you achieve the perfect dryness.  You should be able to bend it, but it should be dry and dark all the way through.  If it is too hard to bend or it cracks, you've gone too long and overcooked it.  Store at room temperature in Ziploc bags or a container with a tight-fitting lid (assuming it hangs around that long.)

I've done a few variations on the recipe above and it's really fun to experiment and see what kind of blends you can come up with.  I have doubled the Tabasco and crushed red pepper for an extra spicy batch which was pretty popular with the guys.  Another favorite version was a sort of teriyaki blend where I omitted the Tabasco and red pepper and added in 1/4 c. of onion powder, 1/4 c. packed brown sugar and increased the molasses to 1/8 c. (sorghum is the best, but regular molasses will work too.)  Sometimes I will toss in a little steak sauce or horseradish if I have it on hand.  Spices like marjoram or rosemary would add a little something special to it too.

Play around with it and have fun.  Taste it before you put it on the meat to see if you want to add anything.  You'd think that with all those different things mixed in there it would be a mess, but it's really good!

I've got one more deer to butcher and I'll probably be done for now.  My dad has been quite the deer slayer this year and sent two extra does our way.  I am getting ready to do up some venison summer sausage next.  I've been keeping really busy (as you can imagine at this time of year).  Oddly enough, I have lots of things to blog about, but I have been really pressed for time.  I'll get you caught up here soon!  I've got some crafty projects coming your way in the near future.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ground Turkey: Kids, don't try this at home!

I woke up at 6:30am today with high hopes of getting a few things done and off of my mind. 

Thursdays are my favorite day of the week.  I love Thursdays because they are the next best thing to Fridays.  And don't we all know it--Friday is here and gone swiftly and Monday is back in your face again.  So I guess it is the anticipation of Friday that makes Thursday my favorite day.  But I am getting off track...

And much like this post, today was a day that got off track!

First thing this morning, while the wee one was still in bed, I decided I would sit down and finish all of my Christmas shopping online.  Normally, I save a lot of time and aggravation by shopping online because I am not a shopper at heart and I don't enjoy the hunt and I have no desire to step out of my house on Black Friday and brave the malls or the traffic--not for any kind of deal.

I've been so busy this week processing venison and trying to put my house back together after my husband's two-week hunting vacation.  A lot of things have gone by the wayside and I missed Cyber Monday.  I figured if I was going to have time for things to be shipped, I had better get 'er done.  I didn't have much on my list, but somehow I still spent a large part of my morning doing that.

By the way, I found a really nice deal on a Cabela's work jacket to wear when I go out to do my chores in the cold.  Part of what took up most of my morning was trying to get my husband's feedback on whether he would rather have his in cotton duck or canvas (like a Carhartt jacket).

Lunch and a few chores later, I decided it was time to get on with dinner.

I bought a 22-pound turkey on sale at Krogers the week before Thanksgiving.  It was a pretty good deal at 49 cents a pound and since it was limit one, I bought the biggest turkey I could find.

This turkey was supposed to be for Thanksgiving dinner with my husband's family.  My mother-in-law was supposed to work on Thanksgiving, so we were going to get together the day before on Wednesday.  I thought I would try to help out by cooking the turkey, but her schedule got changed around last minute and she did get Thursday off.

Well, the only problem was I had to be at my sister's for Thanksgiving at 2pm and wouldn't be able to stay home and babysit a big turkey.  They require much basting and close observation and I vividly remember one of my Mom's turkeys catching on fire when we were kids.  All of us kids had to run out of the house into the cold until they could get the thing under control, so I wasn't about to leave the turkey home by himself to cook.

So why didn't I take my turkey down to my mother-in-law's and let her roast him, you ask?  I did think of that, but her primary oven wasn't working.  All she could accommodate was a little turkey breast using the mini-oven over in the apartment where my husband and I used to live as newlyweds.

Giant 22-pound turkey was already unthawed so he had to be dealt with.  My husband wanted to know why wouldn't I just put him back in the freezer, but every good housewife knows that you'll ruin your meat by double freezing it!

I don't know about you, but for a family of three (one of which happens to be a picky three-year-old), 21 pounds of leftover turkey is a lot of turkey.  So this is where the catastrophe comes in.  Rather than cook the whole bird and suffer the leftovers, I got the bright idea to bone out the legs, thighs and wings to make my own ground turkey from it.

This is a cautionary tale about the horrors of beastly turkeys.  Believe me when I tell you it was the most disgusting thing I've ever touched.  I naively assumed that all poultry was created equal.  I was not prepared for the greasy, slimy mess that I unleashed when I cut into this turkey.

A few weeks ago we butchered another batch of chickens.  A couple of days ago I butchered two deer and even fleshed a doe hide for tanning.  I did not expect this store-bought turkey to make me feel so icky and squeamish.

He was so heavy and slippery that I could hardly keep ahold of him, but I did finally get the appendages removed and put the breast part into the oven to begin cooking.  I stopped short of removing the backbone because I didn't want to mess with it anymore so my turkey sat up on the roasting tray looking much like a big, melted blob and nothing like the store-bought turkey breasts I've prepared in the past.  (And before you get to poking fun at me, I'll have you know I have cooked a turkey before--and several!)

I set to work taking the remaining dark meat off of the bones.  This quickly got to be exhausting.  I could hardly keep ahold of the slippery legs and wings because of all the weird fat on the bird.  It took forever and I had to try to remove most of the muscle casings and tendon fibers because I knew they would clog up the grinder (a Kitchen Aid with grinder attachment).

After an hour or so I started to worry that the meat was getting too warm.  For fear that I would give my loved ones food poisoning, I opened my kitchen window to the 35-degree December day.  This made my hands cold, which made them even more clumsy along with the turkey grease, so I poked and cut myself a couple of times with the knife.  Not enough to really bleed--just enough to make me angry, so I lit into the turkey with a vengence, determined to get it done. 

With bits of greasy turkey slung all over my shirt, my counters and the wall above my sink, I paused to wonder what kind of gruesome and indiscriminate mechanical process it must take to render the ground turkey that you buy at the store.  I know they wouldn't take the time to cut out the fat and gristle like I do (because I must).  I've eaten a lot of turkey burgers over the past several years and enjoyed them.  Although they are widely regarded as a health food, I am not so sure about that now.  Sorry Jennie-O, I will never look at turkey burgers the same again.

I gave up on the neck meat, the mid-wing and tips.  I decided those would not be wasted if I cooked them up and gave them to the chickens.  I did make stock from them.  By now, my 49-cents per pound mega-turkey was becoming much more expensive by the minute as my precious time and labor increased its value.

I had been so involved in my greasy turkey massacre that I took little note of my daughter playing behind me so quietly.  She asked me for an "orangin" and when I turned around to tell her my hands were too greasy to peel one for her at the moment I couldn't believe the destruction she had wrought and quietly too.

This is just what she did to the kitchen...

I don't know what she did to the dog water to make it green, but they drank it anyway.

Grinding the meat was the easy part.  I ended up with 5 pounds of ground turkey that I mixed with finely crushed Pepperidge Farm herb-seasoned stuffing, salt, pepper and dried onion to make twenty turkey burger patties.  I've lost my appetite for turkey for the time being, but I'm sure that a couple of months from now when I'm over it, they'll taste really good.

Lesson learned; I will never cut up a turkey again as long as I live.

I got nothing else on my list accomplished today.  By the time we had dinner, I was just too tired to go on.

Stick a fork in me--I'm done!!