Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Chickens (and the Eggs!)

Although we're fortunate enough to have plenty of excitement and unpredictability in our lives, many days here on the urban farm fall into a comfortable, familiar routine. We go to our day jobs, spend 8 or more hours doing whatever it is that engineers do, come home, gather fresh eggs, and prepare dinner. Oh, wait... That may be our routine these days, but of course the egg part is sort of new, not to mention unusual for city dwellers like us. Our chickens are just so easygoing and low-maintenance that they've become part of our new normal with hardly a second thought.

Part of that may be because we see them every day, but it's been a little while since we've shared any chicken news here on the blog. As you can see in the picture, they've continued to get bigger, and the coloration of some (particularly the Easter Eggers) has changed slightly. But they're still very much the same in temperament. They like to beg for and devour pretty much anything we give them, from the storebought chicken treats to old kitchen scraps to the bugs we want to get out of the garden. And they loved scratching and pecking at the fresh grass in the photo, from the chicken run addition we put on a few weeks ago.

As fun as the chickens are to watch, we got them for a more practical reason: eggs! And in that area they sure haven't disappointed. From the mention last month of our first egg, production has steadily ramped up to the point where we now expect 6 to 8 eggs to be laid each day. Some days every single hen lays an egg and we have nine! From day one to today, we've gathered a whopping 286 eggs.

Now, we both like eggs, but that's a heck of a lot for us to eat. In addition to giving them to neighbors and friends, we've found that keeping a stash of hard-boiled eggs helps use them up. A quick breakfast when we're running late, or chopped up on a salad for lunch, it's just a great thing to have around. But hard boiling farm fresh eggs is more difficult than you might think. You see, we're trying to boil our eggs within days of harvest, whereas a grocery store egg has sat for a few weeks before it even gets to you. This allows some separation to occur between the shell and the membrane inside, so the peeling process goes better.

A really fresh egg doesn't have that gap, so when it comes time to peel after boiling, the shell sticks to the outside of the egg white, and you end up tearing up a lot of egg trying to get the shell off. So, what to do? The secret is to help create that separation yourself. That way you can enjoy fresh eggs without the frustration of a "bad peeler." Here's how we do it.

Use an ordinary pushpin, and poke a hole into the fat end (not the pointy end) of each egg you want to hard boil. This is the scariest step, because the first time you'll feel sure that you're going to shatter the egg. At least, we did. But if you keep up gentle pressure, possibly while rotating the pin back and forth a bit, you'll end up punching just through the shell and not through the membrane. Another reason to like pushpins for this step is that you can usually just push down all the way to the hilt of the pin, and the hole ends up being that proper depth. Sometimes it may push just into the white, but that's actually okay too.

Here's what a half-dozen prepared eggs looks like. You may have to look pretty closely, but you can see the tiny pinhole in each one. Now they're ready to boil! Everyone seems to have a slightly different method for doing this, but here's ours: Bring a pot of water to a boil, place the eggs in using a slotted spoon, bring the water back up to a boil if the eggs have cooled it, then cover the pot and let it sit for 15 minutes. There's actually enough heat in the water at that point to perfectly cook the eggs, and you don't have to keep using gas or electricity to heat it any further.

We mentioned that it's possible the pushpin will poke into the egg white in some instances. Well, again, that's nothing to worry about. You'll just notice a thin ribbon of white stream out of the hole for a bit, then it will separate off and float around in the pot. That small portion of egg is lost, but it's really an insignificant amount, and once it separates away, that should be all of it. The peeled egg may have a small depression in that area, but it's truly worth the risk because...

The eggs will peel perfectly! Here's a batch of ours, following the procedure we just went over. Each one was an absolute dream to peel, especially after the struggles we've had before we discovered this method. We've been happy for a long time to be gathering fresh eggs from our backyard chickens, but it makes it even more rewarding when we can enjoy them that much easier. We've seen a lot of so-called "guaranteed" methods to hard boil eggs, but this is the only one that's worked consistently for us. Give it a try next time you've got some fresh, local eggs, and enjoy!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Where Have We Been? (and Sept Harvest Update)

It's been a really long time since we've posted on here - probably a longer gap between posts than we have ever had before. So what's the deal? Don't worry, we haven't run out of ideas or gotten tired of the blog. It's just that in the past week and a half, we've been... well, all over the place. But even though we haven't been local, we've still managed to eat local.

We started by going 305 miles to see Greg's family in the Chicago suburbs. It was great to spend time with them all again, considering it had been quite a while since our last visit.

We'd only been there a day before setting off 101 more miles to Milwaukee to coordinate winter storage for Greg's Dad's boat. Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped at our favorite little locally owned bakery, Wild Flour. Everyone chowed down on delicious sandwiches made with breads baked fresh on-site. A popular (and tasty) choice was the Cranberry Bog, a turkey and Swiss sandwich on cranberry-walnut bread, topped with spinach, tomato, carrot, plus hummus and cranberry mustard. Yum!

The next leg saw the 101 mile return trip from Milwaukee plus a short jaunt (11 miles) out to the Arcedium Coffehouse in St. Charles, Illinois. This cozy coffeshop not only crafts fantastic lattes, it does so using coffee beans roasted right inside the store. In fact, the coffee roaster is the centerpiece of the entire shop, highlighting the importance of fresh and local roasting of the beans. On a cool fall morning, a pumpkin or chestnut latte made with freshly roasted coffee is hard to beat.

Since we were so close to Chicago, we had to go in to the city, so a short 39 miles later, we found ourselves wandering around Greg's sister's neighborhood. A highlight of this part of Chicago is Uncommon Ground restaurant, which specializes in locally grown food. Entire posts could be written about Uncommon Ground (oh, hey, they have been!), and this return visit didn't disappoint. The three of us who ate there got vastly differing entrees: a pork belly BLT, perch tacos, and clam linguine, and each one tasted as great as the next. Cocktails also made from local ingredients provided the perfect accompaniment.

The drive back home was long, so we decided to break it up into smaller increments. An even 200 miles from Greg's family's home is the small town of Elkader, Iowa. In many ways it's a typical rural Iowa town, but the fact that it has Schera's is pretty noteworthy. Probably the only Algerian restaurant in the entire state, the unassuming exterior belies the exotic flavors found in the perfectly crafted food. From flaky samosas to the spiced-and-seared apricot chicken, and even down to the beverages. One of the featured drinks is the Lemon Verbena drop, in which roof-grown lemon verbena is steeped on-site in vodka to create a real one of a kind flavor.

So you can see that even though we've been far from home the last week or so, we've still been staying true to our mission to support the ideas and producers of the local food movement. And, in the time that we haven't been traveling, we've been eating even more locally: from our backyard. September is long since over, but here are the numbers for what we harvested in that, one of our most productive months yet.

1.0 ounce of kale (though we could have gotten much more, but opted to leave it on the plants)
1.9 ounces of carrots
2.5 ounces of strawberries
2.7 ounces of Nebraska Wedding tomatoes
6.3 ounces of Poblano peppers
10.3 ounces of green bell peppers
12.7 ounces of Anaheim peppers
14.5 ounces of red bell peppers
1 lb 8.2 ounces of cherry tomatoes
2 lb 14.5 ounces of Early & Often tomatoes
3 lb 8.2 ounces of sauce tomatoes
3 lb 8.8 ounces of zucchini

and 120 farm fresh eggs!

After so much travel in such a short time, here's hoping we get to stay around the urban farm a little bit more in the near future. There always seems to be something to do around here, and it makes it hard to get it done when we're not here. The harvests will slow down as we get further into the fall, but construction, upgrades, and future planning continue on. We'll be sure to let you know how that goes.