Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Egg-cellent News!

About 18 weeks ago, we told you all about the new baby chicks that we were raising on our urban farm.  We gave each fuzzy little bird a name, fed them, and kept them warm.  Then we talked about how fast they were growing up and we moved them out into the coop we built in the backyard.  And now today we are very proud to share our latest milestone in chicken keeping.

We've been keeping a close eye on the chicken coop lately; checking the next boxes and glancing around the outdoor run.  And today we finally found what we've been looking for - our first egg!  

This little egg is a bit smaller than an average hen's egg.  That is common for young chickens and it shouldn't be much longer until we're getting full sized eggs from each one of our birds.  We didn't actually find this egg in the nest boxes either.  Evidently one of chickens decided she'd rather lay her egg outdoors.  When Greg spotted the egg, we were pretty sure that it hadn't been there long, but admittedly, we had been checking the next boxes more thoroughly than the rest of the coop.  So we thought we'd better make sure that the egg was fresh.

An easy test to check the freshness of an egg is to simply place it in a glass filled with water.  Our egg sank to the bottom of the glass and sat on its side.  That means that it's very fresh and we can feel confident about eating it safely.

To help you see that our egg is a little on the small side, we placed it inside the carton of local eggs that we recently bought at the grocery store.  Can you see which one is ours?

We aren't sure which one of our chickens actually laid the first egg.  It wasn't one of our Easter Eggers, because they lay blue eggs.  But our Plymouth Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and Rhode Island Reds will all lay brown eggs, so it could have been any one of them.  Whichever it was, we do hope that she starts giving lessons to the rest of the flock!

Edited to add:  After a couple of days observing the flock, we think the chicken that laid our first egg is the Rhode Island Red that you can see standing behind the water jug in the last photo.

This post has been shared with Simple Lives Thursday.

Friday, August 17, 2012

When Life Gives You Cucumbers...

Way back when we were buying seeds, we bought (or already had on hand) seeds for cantaloupe, butternut squash and cucumbers. The plan was to find a place in the lawn to dig out the sod and put in a vine patch. But with all the other work that we were doing on our raised beds, we simply never found the time to set this space up. Eventually we mounded up three hills in the very back section of the lot and planted seeds for those three plants, thinking at least giving them a try was better than not having it perfect. It seemed like a good plan.

Which it was, in theory. The trouble was that reality didn't agree much. The back of the yard was the former owners' garden area, and for whatever reason, has really bad soil. Maybe it was very intensively planted and never rebuilt with compost or organic matter, but it's never been able to hold moisture very well. So we should have been watering the plants pretty regularly, but for the second issue. We bought over 200 ft of hose, but even that doesn't quite reach the hills. When we'd irrigate, we'd have to get as close as we could and shoot the water up in a big arc, just barely reaching the plants. Probably not the best way to water. Add in frequent rabbit attacks, and by time the big drought came along this summer, it was an easy decision to just let these plants go and prioritize our water elsewhere.

Which was fine, except it meant we didn't have any of these:

And that's where the generosity of our fellow Iowans comes into play. A coworker of Stacia's had way more cucumbers than he could eat, and knew that we were into eating local, healthy produce. So he offered up a batch from his garden. The next week, one of Greg's coworkers had extra cucumbers and brought those into the office to share. Before we knew it, we had a pile of cukes we needed to use!

Some went into cucumber salad, others onto Chicago-style hot dogs, but we were still left with plenty, mostly the bigger, seedier specimens that didn't look as good for fresh use. We knew we couldn't let these go to waste, so we dusted off our trusty canner and took a look at the incomparable Ball Blue Book for a recipe. We settled on Dill Relish, since it wouldn't use the big seeds these particular cucumbers had, and well, because we like hot dogs.

The first step was to get rid of those seedy centers. This was easy enough; just slice down the center and use a spoon to scoop out the centers. You'll notice we also peeled ours since they were pretty big and had tougher skins. With thinner skinned cucumbers, you probably could leave them on.

From there, we just followed the step-by-step instructions in the Blue Book. We've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating that following the Blue Book is a really good way to go when home canning. Doing it wrong can make you very sick (or worse), so we tend to trust the experts. To make relish we started by finely chopping the cucumbers in a food processor. This was a bit tricky - we had to use very short pulses to make sure we were chopping and not pureeing them to mush. After this we sprinkled the chopped cukes with the prescribed amounts of salt and turmeric, then covered the mixture with water and let it stand for 2 hours.

It didn't look bad, but it wasn't particularly appetizing at this point. Not much changed over the course of the few hours, at least not visually. But we faithfully let it sit this way for a few hours before we drained the liquid off the cucumber solids. This was a good start, but it needed some seasoning to become actual relish. The recipe from Ball called for chopped onions, sugar, white wine vinegar and dill seed. Note that dill seed is not the same as dill weed, and they apparently have a very different flavor. We originally thought we could use the dill weed in our cupboard but had to run out to get a bottle of dill seed at the last minute. We cooked this all together for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, it was starting to look more like relish. Still mostly cucumbers but with enough spice, vinegar and chunks of onion that we felt pretty confident it would be tasty. Because of that vinegar the relish was acidic enough that it could be processed in a boiling water canner, not a pressure canner. We had started with about 5 pounds of cucumbers and ended up with 4 nearly full pint jars. Each one sealed with a nice audible POP! but we left them on the counter with the rings on until the next morning. Then we gently pressed on the jar lid to make sure it was sealed and we threaded the rings off. When they were done, they looked like this:

We haven't had any hot dogs since we made these jars of relish, so we actually have no idea how good or not good it might taste. Thus far everything we've made from the Ball Blue Book has been delicious so there's no reason to think that this will be any different. Either way, it was a great way to use someone's excess cucumbers. We did what we could to enjoy the fresh veggies when they were in season, but that time can be pretty fleeting. Canning is a great way to preserve the harvest for later, even if it's not our harvest.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

July Harvest Update

If it feels like it's been a really long time since we've posted, trust us, we feel the same. We've both been on the road a lot lately for our (non-farming) day jobs; Greg was in Atlanta last week, with Stacia in Dallas right now. That makes it hard to keep up with even maintaining and caring for our garden, much less finding time to blog about it. So here's a brief (and overdue) update on our fruitful July harvest, after which we should be back to our regular posting schedule.

As we mentioned last time, it seems that we have all the zucchini plant pests you possibly can. But those plants are real troopers, and just keep churning out zucchini after zucchini. We've been pretty diligent in harvesting them before they reach baseball bat-size, but it's still a heck of a lot of zucchini. This shows just the amount we happened to have on hand this evening, not counting the many we've already eaten or the three that are almost ready to pick. Considering the duress they're under, these are some pretty incredible plants!

Not surprsingly, zucchini lead the way in the harvest totals. Overall, in July we harvested:

0.4 ounces of snow peas
0.7 ounces of Poblano peppers
1.1 ounces of Roma tomatoes
9.8 ounces of Anaheim peppers
12.2 ounces of strawberries
12.3 ounces of kale
12.7 ounces of cherry tomatoes (52 tomatoes)
13.9 ounces of green beans
1 pound 13.1 ounces of garlic

And... 11 pounds 12.5 ounces of zucchini (8 zukes)!

Unfortunately, while the zucchini haven't seemed to show any sign of slowing under the attack of the various bugs, the same can't be said for our tomatoes. We've had a lot of the fruits split, most likely due to uneven watering with the intense drought we've been having this year. Well, the cucumber beetles have been using those soft spots as entry points into the tomatoes and just wreaking havoc. They don't all look this bad, but we do have our share of tomatoes that end up looking tunneled through and chewed up like this.

We should probably keep a better eye on watering so they don't split so bad to begin with, but for now it's been necessary to cut out the good bits to keep around the damage. They taste great, but it would be nice if they didn't look so terrible.

And of course, we still have chickens, and have probably been criminally negligent in not posting photos of them. The ladies still haven't laid any eggs, but according to what we read online and in books, we're very very close to that happening. Most likely within another couple of weeks we should have our first egg. Other than that, they're doing well - they may not enjoy the heat we've had but they've been dealing with it very well. And how's this for a fun chicken discovery: they seem to love the taste of Japanese beetles! Thankfully we don't have very many of those around the garden but when we find one, we pluck it off and give our hens a snack. With tastes like that, who wouldn't want backyard chickens?