Sunday, August 29, 2010

Happy Times

Apropos of nothing: Here's a baby zucchini in my garden.

Apparently, I post on Sundays now. I keep meaning to post more often but man, I am SLAMMED! With work, and writing, and cooking, and of course, canning.

I'm up early today to put up some salsa verde before I go to work, and then we're heading to Sauvie Island for a 10 lb bag of pickling cucumbers to go with my 10 lb bag of beets. Half the beets are going to be pickled, and half will become beet relish. I also want to pickle some carrots, after nibbling some spicy pickled carrots yesterday...

Ahh, yesterday. Nearly a perfect day! We started out at the farmers' market for a nice long breakfast and some lingering shopping. I treated myself to a cup of lucious French press coffee, and a transcendent caprese salad - juicy, candy-sweet cherry tomatoes, halved and mixed with fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and torn chunks of a gloriously salty crusted baguette, all tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Unholy.

After we loaded up on fresh produce - OH MY G-D, the tomatoes are FINALLY in at a reasonable price! - we took a little walk downtown and browsed through Powell's Books, the world's largest independent bookstore, and then I went to work. Decent day there, and when Keith picked me up, we headed up to Mt. Tabor (Portland's volcano) for a brief hike; we left Mt. Tabor for The Moon & Sixpence, our favorite British pub, for dinner over the newspaper and the crossword. And then we saw the new Todd Solondz movie, Life During Wartime, which I've eagerly anticipated for over a year. All told, a fabulous day.

Does mean I have to catch up on the canning though, and I've also got some extra cream I skimmed off our raw milk, so tonight I'll be whipping up some butter. Now's when I miss having a food processor - it's so easier to make butter with one - but I'll get by.

Gotta love a weekend that is this pleasant AND enjoyable.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Yes, I Can! (A Lot.)

I have a hunch that very soon, I'm going to have enough grapes to share a few.

We need to get some carboys and get ready to make some white wine, I think!

I've been canning like it's 1899 these days. More corn salsa, some more peach salsa coming up... I've also put up blackberry jam, ginger-blackberry chutney (which is really too thin and runny to be called a chutney, but it'll taste good poured over baked brie at the dinner gathering I'm having tonight), some cherries in wine, and more.

We've been picking blackberries almost every day, since they're growing wild and abundantly all over the neighborhood; on Wednesday we went up to Sauvie Island to pick blackberries and lie on the beach for awhile. It was a nice break from work and cooking, but the canning work continues. Every time I get caught up, we go to the farmers' market or find a blackberry bush, and I'm off again.

I'm hoping to get started on pickles and tomatoes this week. I recently learned that the FDA, in their infinite... uh, wisdom, requires all tomatoes and tomato sauces to be canned with BPA in the can lining. Even the organic ones. As a woman who's hoping for pregnancy, I'd rather steer clear of BPA when I can, so that means I need to put up tons of tomatoes now because I use the heck out of canned tomatoes in the winter! Thank you, FDA, for giving me still more busywork. You never fail to impress me with the deepest depths of your competence.

And the pickles. Ahh, pickles. I'm currently looking at a 10 lb bag of beets we got for $9 on Sauvie Island, which is destined to become beet pickles and beet relish. And the pickling cucumbers are coming in, so I'll be putting up some dills as well as bread and butter pickles, which Keith has requested since we sampled some awesome bread and butter pickles at the farmers' market.

I had wondered just a month or two ago if canning season would come at all. Hilarious.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Peach Summer

This is the summer of peaches.

Last summer was all about cherries, due to the snowstorm we had the winter before. We dehydrated cherries, we ate them fresh, we canned them and froze them. We stayed up into the morning on nights too hot to sleep, pitting and slicing cherries until our hands dripped with a Shakespearean stain. And by winter, when they were gone, we wished we'd put away more cherries.

There wasn't a bumper crop of cherries this spring, although we've had our share of fresh ones, so juicy from our excess rain that they burst bloody in our mouths. I preserved some in spiced brandy - they'll be ready around Thanksgiving or Christmas - and I got some more today that I'll preserve in red wine with orange and cloves. But this summer, we're mostly about the peaches.

It started a couple of weeks ago when I won a free flat of them in a contest: "Tell us a little-known peach fact, and the best one wins a flat!" My peach fact, which I learned from The Little House Cookbook, is indeed an interesting one - back in nineteenth-century America, before tropical vanilla became widespread, peach leaves were often used as the standard flavoring for custards, pies, and other desserts.

That tidbit launched a love affair with Baird Family Orchards peaches. We blew through that first flat in two days and are halfway through our second one; as we picked up our box of peaches from the Baird stand at the farmers' market yesterday, Keith mused, "I think I found my brand." Yeah, I grew up in the South, but I can't recall ever having such juicy, succulent peaches in my entire life. You could get high just sniffing them like glue.

Keith took a bite yesterday, moaned, and sighed, "This is the kind of fruit that launches wars."

So sure, we've eaten them fresh, drenching our shirts, slurping from our fingers as our elbows grow sticky. But I'm saving some too. I combined them with some of the hot peppers from my dad's garden, several different kinds, with a bit of lime, garlic, and cumin, in a sweet-firey peach salsa that I wanted to call "Atlanta Is Burning."

Others went into a frozen pie filling with marionberries, tapioca, and a bit of cinnamon and cardamom; that'll be delicious later in winter. Later I'll be preserving some in brandy for our waffle brunches, and I'm sure I'll think of more ways to keep them, because these peaches inspire hoarding.

Soon, when it's thirty-four degrees outside in the drizzling rain, dark at 4 pm, perhaps one day I'll open a jar, or bake up a pie. And then we'll remember the summer we spent dripping peach juice and sweat. Already it's a warm baking memory.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Chicken Processing (Warning: Bloody)

Don't read this post or look at the pictures if you're squeamish!

On Sunday, we processed five of the seven chicks that were hatched in our garage back in April. One was too small to be worth killing, and the other was a Thank You gift to Dawn, the woman who brought her two kids into town to show us how to do this. (She preferred a live pullet to lay eggs, so that one also lived.) It only took us a couple of hours to completely process all five birds, but it most certainly made for an interesting day.

I was a bit anxious in the morning, worried about how it would go. We went to breakfast with some friends of ours, but first I whipped up a pie crust, and when we got home from breakfast I channeled my anxiety into a strawberry-rhubarb pie. It was just coming out of the oven when it was time to get our day started, so it cooled in the kitchen as we worked outside.

This is the killing cone, which we borrowed from the Urban Farm Store for free and hung on the fence. Underneath it are two gut buckets - one for the feathers and guts, and another to catch the feathers and heads during processing. We had planned to slit the birds' throats in two places, which is what Joel Salatin and some others recommend, but beheading turned out to be much easier. You can behead a chicken with a filet knife, or a paring knife! I had no idea!

We were joined not only by Dawn and her kids (who seemed to have a healthy respect for the process, but were not the least bit squeamish about it), but also by our friend Kelley, who has been primarily a pesco-vegetarian for many years and whose toddler daughter had never eaten meat before. Kelley also has egg-laying hens and has been debating whether to raise meat birds next summer, so this whole process was kind of a trial run for both of us to see if we could handle it. While we waited for Dawn to arrive, we sipped beer and wondered if we would pass out or scream.

Then it was time.

Dawn's teenage son processed the first bird, and then we did the rest, though Keith had to do all the killing of the other four (Kelley and I weren't quite ready for that yet). It was easier to get ready than I thought it would be; you simply hold up the chicken by its feet, and after a couple seconds of flapping around, the blood goes to its head and it loses consciousness. Then you slide it headfirst into the cone, so that it's neatly contained and the neck is easily accessible.

Then, you take your filet knife (or paring knife) and in one quick stroke - THWACK.

Now you leave the chicken there for a couple of minutes to bleed out. This is pretty quick and a lot less gory than I anticipated. There is a surprisingly small amount of blood in a chicken (and thank goodness for that). When it's done, you take your headless chicken, as Kelley does here...

...and dip it in some hot water for a second or two. This makes plucking a lot easier. Despite the blood and guts, I think the plucking was my least favorite part - most of the big feathers just come off in handfuls, but then you have to pick off all the little pinfeathers, the fluffy ones around the legs, and the soft hairy ones on the roosters, and you have to do it without ripping the skin. Two of them, we tore the skin and decided to take Dawn's advice and just skin them. It's a lot easier but you don't get the delicious chicken skin that way. So most of them, we plucked.

Ready for butchering now? This is when you cut off the feet, neck, and oil gland, and trim the wings. Here's Keith and Kelley double-teaming this process, while I helpfully snap pictures.

Now it just looks like meat! This is when you eviscerate them, cutting around the vent and scooping the guts out. Most of the innards come out easily in one scoop with your hand, but you do have to dig around in there for the trachea and esophagus, and you have to use your nails to pry the lungs off the ribcage. Those lungs really stick! And they're so very tiny, just about the size of a man's thumbnail. Hard to believe they can crow and cackle as loudly as they do, with those teeny little lungs.

If I were true to my heritage and the spirit of this process, I'd have saved the livers and hearts to fry up or cook into stock. But this is me, and I don't like organ meats. So they went into the gut bucket with the rest of the guts.

Rinse out the bird, take a good look to make sure you got everything out...

...wrap the bird in a plastic bag, and you're done!

It all went really quickly. Neither of us passed out; we handled the whole thing really well, despite not being ready for the killing ourselves. Keith did the killing just fine. There was one unpleasant moment when he hit the bone of one chicken and took two or three loud squawking strokes to decapitate it, but generally we all performed quite well and didn't let the carnage get to us.

(I do have a picture of the inside of that bucket. I decided against posting it. I also have some video footage, which I also haven't posted, but if y'all express an interest in seeing it, then I'll upload it for you.)

When all five birds were processed, Kelley took hers and went home to her family. Keith got the deck cleaned up...

...while I got started on dinner. Remember the Cuckoo Maran rooster, in the foreground of Saturday's picture? He woke me up on Sunday morning crowing enthusiastically, and on Sunday evening I rubbed him all over with schmaltz, sprinkled him with salt, and stuffed his cavity with salted lemons, fresh herbs, and elephant garlic. I roasted him up, made a lucious gravy with the pan juices, and served him with hot potato salad and that amazing gravy.

Kelley made beer can chicken with hers that night, outside in her lovely yard.

The verdict? Obviously the chickens were tiny, as these aren't bred for modern meat production and they take more than a year to reach full-size. Next year, we may get meat birds that grow faster. Each bird made multiple meals for our two families, though, so we can't complain about size.

The meat itself was quite chewy; I later learned that it's better to refrigerate the birds for 24-48 hours after processing to relax the meat. (Rigor mortis makes for chewy muscle!) So the next ones I cook should be much better. Despite the chewy texture, the flavor was incredible. We've got a running joke in our culture about the taste of chicken, or rather the lack thereof, but this chicken had a distinct and delicious flavor that must be what caused our ancestors to domesticate this bird in the first place. Think of the best European chicken stock you've ever had, then solidify that flavor into meat. I really enjoyed it.

On Tuesday I took the leftover carcass from my roasted chicken, all the lemons and garlic that were in it, some veggie trimmings and fresh herbs, and the chicken necks from Processing Day, and I made stock. I now have quite a lot of really awesome stock that I can use for a long time to come. And I still have two more chickens in the freezer!

So I feel pretty good about Sunday's work. It was deeply spiritual in a very earthy way; this is what eating meat is supposed to be like. I wonder if a lot of our social disconnect with murder and violence is rooted in this detachment from the death we eat. Factory birds, drugged and diseased, dismembered by machines and wrapped in plastic at the supermarket... Yeah, I can now say I consider that to be far more barbaric than the natural way. I have finally looked my meat in the face and taken responsibility for it, and I found it to be a positive and uplifting experience.

And that strawberry-rhubarb pie I channeled all my earlier stress into? I am pleased to say it didn't taste like stress at all. Once dinner was done and the kitchen cleaned, that pie tasted a well-earned reward for a good day's work (or a couple of days, if you count the day that Kelley and I spent picking and freezing the strawberries last month).

(I just noticed how many of my happy blog posts end in pie!)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Six-Piece Chicken Dinner

Tomorrow's the big day. I'm nervous.

It's been a good week; I didn't realize how long it's been since I've posted. Keith and I worked on a TV show for a few days, I had my birthday, we ran around Portland for a weekend having a wonderful time, and then we've been busy with gardening and other chores. Yesterday we went to the Bite of Oregon, a lovely tribute to gluttony that is held each year on the waterfront, and today we were going to go back but decided to be productive instead. And tomorrow...

We're killing chickens.

I didn't fully grasp the enormity of it all until we were in the backyard today, debating where to hang the killing cone we've borrowed. My friend Kelley, who is joining for the experience and is also one of its chief instigators, already called today just to talk about it a little more. She's been watching videos upon videos in preparation, and I need to do that too but I've been putting it off. I saw one. It was intense.

And yet this is NOT a big deal in the long run. How much chicken have I eaten in my life? How many chickens are killed for food every day? Or, how many meat chickens get to live to a ripe old age of 16 weeks, outside in the grass and sunshine, scratching around together and enjoying a chicken's natural life?

I went vegetarian at 11 years old, in the Delta of 1990. It wasn't easy; I pretty much had to learn to eat all over again. I remained a committed vegetarian for 12 years, guided by a set of ethics that still guides me today. It might sound weird to say that the same inspiration lay behind my vegetarianism and my plan to slit the throats of six chickens tomorrow, and I don't know if I can really explain this properly, but I do believe that homegrown meat is better for the body, the soul, and the planet than processed soy products shipped from distant factories. And homegrown meat comes with killing. I owe it to these birds, to the universe, and to all the meat I've eaten before, to go through the entire process at least once.

So there it is. These birds entered our lives as a carton of fertile eggs that we picked up on a spring day, from a farm in Scappoose. They were hatched in our garage in April, and moved to our backyard when their feathers came in to keep them warm. Keith and I (and my friend Ashly when we were out of town) have fed them, watered them, given them our kitchen scraps, watched them grow. For a few recent mornings we've woken up to the boys' first crowing attempts. And now that they're fully grown, they will return the favor and nourish us with (hopefully) delicious, healthy, homegrown meat. It's a beautiful thing, really.

Just got to get through tomorrow's bloodbath first.

I hope I don't chicken out.