Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Eat a Root

This kohlrabi is the size of a healthy newborn baby, weighing in at 6.5 pounds. It represents everything that seems challenging about winter vegetables. What do you do with this thing?

For the first time, we have joined a winter CSA (Hillside Farm in Media) and that means roots. At our biweekly pickup last week we got 16 pounds of sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, watermelon radishes, and rutabagas. (You're right, cabbage isn't a root, just a great storage vegetable.) What's amazing is how these dirty, dense, heavy vegetables, once they're cleaned up, cut up, and treated well, can make delicious slaws, soups, stews, and pickles. Or you can always just roast them. And they have a nice long storage life. Did you hear that, peas and asparagus? Are you paying attention, zucchini blossoms? A root can wait patiently for its destiny.

Still and all, it's dispiriting to flip through cookbooks past all the tomatoes and peas, when your CSA won't have any for months. But one day in the fall as I was browsing at the Reading Terminal Cookbook Stall , the actual stall, not their website, I found the perfect answer to season envy, Recipes from the Root Cellar, by Andrea Chesman.

Winter is the best time to have a specialized cookbook like this. No distractions, just an immersion in the present. The other day I made her Shredded Root Vegetable Linguini. I shredded carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, and a big radish in the food processor, and then sauteed them with onion and garlic, added a little white wine, and tossed it with the pasta. Delicious! A root vegetable, when shredded, becomes delicate and amenable to being mixed with many grains or other vegetables. I had leftover shredded vegetables, so I tossed them with lemon juice, avocado oil (my new thing), a little sesame oil, and toasted walnuts for a light, late supper.

As for that kohlrabi? I used 3 pounds of it to make a half gallon of refrigerator pickles, and they are delicious, slightly sweet and tart and a little hot. This particular recipe, Quick Kohrabi Pickle, is actually from the blog Hungry Tigress.

Only 3.5 pounds left to go.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Chickens, Part Two

Here are four of the chickens as pullets in September, before they were laying. The two Ameraucanas are on the wall, Violet and Isobel. In the garden are Sojourner and Harriet. Sojourner is a Plymouth Barred Rock and Harriet is a Buff Orpington. Mrs. Patmore, a Salmon Faverolles, and Lucretia, a Black Australorp, are elsewhere in the garden. All the girls are flufflier and bigger-bottomed now. No more squeezing through the picket fence, like Violet did once. (She popped right back.)

They love scratching in the garden and looking for grubs and worms and who knows what else. They also poop in the garden. Both of these activities are fine things. I did learn to keep them out of the just-getting-established rhubarb. Though the leaves are toxic to humans, they are lovely salad greens for chickens. Seriously, chickens are great for the garden in between seasons. The garden above is mostly herbs and perennials they're not interested in, so that's why they're allowed.

Isobel was the first to lay an egg, in late September. All her eggs are a light blue-green. Next was Violet, whose eggs are a more muted blue-green. They are the Ameraucanas, and one reason I got them was for their beautiful eggs. The other chickens' eggs are brown, and a bit bigger. One of them lays quite a large egg, but I'm not sure who, and Mrs. Patmore is not laying yet. At least we've never seen her hanging about the coop in the daytime and we've certainly never seen her laying on all the eggs keeping them safe and warm.

Mrs. Patmore is a character, and seems to have some kind of leadership role. When I let the chickens out to roam, she will sometimes stay closest to the coop and squawk if she can't see where anyone else is. She likes to forage under the butterfly bush. I will try to get you a good picture, as she has an extra toe, feathers on her feet, and feathers sticking out of the side of her head as an homage to Einstein.

The other standout character is Sojourner, who engages in standoffs with our collie Zane, in which she wins. She has pecked Zane a few times, and he whines and walks away. Harriet in her younger days could be a bit hard to lead back into the coop. Lucretia likes to jump up vertically to eat leaves, which is fun to watch.

Zane, let me add, is fine with the chickens. I don't need to worry. The first time I put them out there, he ran around the coop for a couple of hours, barking at a horribly high pitch I had never heard. But soon he got used to them to the point of just passively accepting their existence. Sometimes he gives them a halfhearted, momentary chase.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Chickens, Part One

The coffee is brewing in this chilly old house, and the rest of the family is sleeping. This January day, poised between night and dawn, seems like a good time to tell you about the past year here.

After two years of research, we finally made the commitment to get chickens. In March we commissioned a local coop builder to make a coop and run. The run is six feet high so that most people can walk around in it without ducking. the coop is inside the run, on stilts. Under the coop hang the chickens' feed and water containers. The chickens walk up a slanted walkway to get to the coop. We get the eggs out by opening a door in the back at coop level, and that's how I clean out the coop as well. We did add a clear plastic roof over the coop to keep it drier, but that's the only modification. Oh, and yesterday, the bottom of the door came loose because Mr. Polar Vortex froze the wet ground so fast that it swelled and prevented the door from opening, and I forced it a little too hard. (Also I had to pour boiling water on the ground to soften it.)

In April I ordered some chicks from Pickering Valley Farm and Feed, in Malvern, and picked them up in early May. Beforehand, I had repurposed our dog crate to become a brooder, by lining the lower sides with cut-up brown bags and duct tape. Glamorous! I had read that the little creatures are messy, and yes. They were. I had made an earlier trip out there to Pickering Valley to get a brooder light, chick feed, and a waterer and feeder, so we were all set up when I picked up the little darlings.

I had to keep the chicks in the sunroom, because that's the only place we could lock away the cats. At three weeks I started "hardening them off" by putting them outdoors in the coop for longer and longer periods when it was warm enough. The cat carrier was perfect for mass chick transport.

At five weeks the girls spent their first night out in the coop. By then I had hooked up the adult-size waterer and feeder. I had to show them how to walk up their little gangplank to the coop, by picking up a couple chicks and pushing them up it, but they learned quickly. Chickens want to roost up high. It's what they do. They go up there when it begins to get dark, not without a lot of shoving and complaining and blocking the door. It's a comical half-hour production.

Next: their breeds, names, and personalities, and how we are not going to eat them.