Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Summer projects & rotten rooster remedy...

Summer is underway! We kicked off with a parental anniversary party on the solstice. Here's parents & "kids" in one of many pictures taken that day.
We aren't really supposed to start painting until this coming weekend, but couldn't resist seeing how the color looked. Fergus definitely improves any household project by his mere presence.
Another much-needed project is replacing the wavy panels covering the back porch roof. The fir trees overhead are constantly raining needles, pollen, and little brown dingles on it, and it wasn't installed properly in the first place. So we'll just reuse the framing to make it easier, and someday enclose it a bit more for additional outdoor workspace.


Warning!! A lot of the pics following aren't for the faint of heart (but there's a video of Fergus & Stew at the end). Out of 25 hatchery chicks we got this April, 3 have turned out to be roosters. The red rooster was turning out particularly mean to the hens, so we decided his higher purpose was chicken stock. Not much fat or flavor on a younger bird, but still way better than store bought.
Unfortunately, we didn't take a before picture of him. By the time we were ready to process him, we didn't want to prolong things any. So he got his head chopped off, and hung over the firepit to bleed out. The dogs are always very interested in any "crime scenes" so doing this part here meant we could light a fire later so they couldn't mess around with the blood.
The obligatory rooster head shot. The way we kill them is really quick. A loop of twine around their neck, twine hooked over a nail in the chopping block, hold legs with one hand and pull just enough to keep him steady. One big whack of the hatchet and that's it.
Another streamlining practice is to skin out birds that aren't going to be made up nice for roasting. You do lose a tiny bit of fat & flavor, but not having to deal with smelly wet chicken feathers more than makes up for it. And usually it's older laying hens that get butchered for stock, and they have plenty of flavor in them.
With this method, you nip off the wingtips once most of the bird is skinned. No sense trying to save those for the pot. Then you take him (or her) down to finish processing.
Nearly done here. The trickiest part is cutting around the vent (hiney) so as to avoid contaminating the meat. But once that part is cut, the innards come out in a package. Mostly.
Here are the parts we saved. As you can see, not much to this rooster at all, but enough to merit taking care of him this way. The dogs got a nice dinner of the parts in the blue bowl, simmered in broth.
And here are the parts we didn't save, at least not for us. This stuff went into one of the compost piles that won't be turned for a while. It will add a nice boost of nutrients to the soil once it's decomposed and ready to go on the garden next spring. We also add wood ash from our stove, and the results are wonderful.
Here is a quick harvest from the garden. A pile of rhubarb and some baby carrots & onion for the rooster stock. I also added some dried soup celery. The curly things are garlic scapes...the flowering stalk that hardneck garlic varieties grow. They need to be removed so the plants energy can go into making a big bulb. There are a lot of recipes online for using the scapes, but the few we tossed with oil & seasoning and roasted weren't my favorite. I think in the future we'll use them for soups (and stock) and not a featured table veggie.
And here's one nice ending for a naughty rooster. Nine pints of stock. We also had rooster salad for dinner, and the last bit of stock & meat will be turned into soup for tonight's dinner.
Here's a video of my silly family. The party theme was bacon (our family favorite), so that's what we're yelling....(I'll share more pictures next week)
Last, but never least, Stewart & Fergus enjoying beef bones as bis as their heads. After a few months of treats like this, we have to rake up the yard before it starts to look like a medieval knacker's yard!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Look at this lovely playground for meat-lovers! There is a firepit, big enough to enjoy sitting around and roasting a few hotdogs or marshmallows over. But this firepit has a higher purpose....a conduit from the left side channels the smoke to a tower-shaped smokehouse, and residual heat also fires the bake oven behind the black metal door. The whole thing is completed by a nice wood storage area, and topped by a handy and handsome work surface. This looks like it took a lot of time, and involves masonry skills we at Seven Trees haven't perfected yet. So we're looking at simpler smokehouse designs to keep us busy until we can build one like this.
The basic principal of cold-smoking (hot-smoking involves direct heat and higher temperatures) is to generate smoke far enough away from the food being smoked that it flavors the meat without cooking it. Moving the smoke from fire to smokehouse is usually managed by making the fire lower than the smoker and having an opening at the top to draw air. A smoker can be as simple as a metal drum with top & bottom removed, a covered trench in the ground, and a campfire.
Why smoke food? Here's the opinion of one aficionado:

Smoking offers many improvements for meat. Besides enhancing the taste and look, it also increases its longevity, and helps preserve the meat by slowing down the spoilage of fat and growth of bacteria. Smoking meat longer leads to more water loss, and results in a saltier and drier product, which naturally increases its shelf life. Man discovered that in addition to salting and curing meat with nitrates, smoking was a very effective tool in preserving meats..
The advantages of smoking meat are numerous. Smoking:
Kills certain bacteria and slows down the growth of others
Prevents fats from developing a rancid taste
Extends shelf life of the product
Improves the taste and flavor
Changes the color; they shine and simply look better
Smoked fish develops a beautiful golden color. The meat on the outside becomes a light brown, red, or almost black depending on the type of wood used, heating temperatures, and total time smoking. Originally, curing and smoking was used solely for preservation purposes; today it’s done for the love of its flavor.

For a more technical treatise on the art of smoked meatses, check out this online publication Curing and Smoking Meats for Home Food Preservation
from National Center for Home Food, University of Georgia.
Here's an above-ground, all-metal smokehouse set up. There are lots of pictures and inspiration at this website, including a a smoker made from a trench and tree stump that has been in use for 20 years.

Here's the one we're thinking about building. You can see the designers took the easy way out and built theirs to use a propane burner as the "fire".
But the size and shape of it, not to mention easy construction, make it a winner. It will be simple to add whatever height "foundation" we need to get the right angle for channeling smoke, but we need to decide just where it will go so we can build a new firepit in the right place.

Here's the smokehouse in action. Reason enough to get a weaner pig next spring! The plans for this smoker, plus pictures, instructions, ideas, recipes, etc. are here - Build Your Own Smokehouse courtesy of the
Connecticut State Department of Agriculture.
Until we get our own smokehouse though, we'll keep enjoying the tasty efforts of our favorite butcher, Silvana Meats. If you're in the area, definitely stop in and peruse their wares. So far everything we've tried has been wonderful (they also do the slaughter/butcher for Hemlock Highlands).

Monday, June 22, 2009

Blogger troubles....

For some reason Blogger & Vista aren't getting along on my home computer, so this week's post will be slightly delayed. In the meantime, check out the smartest dog in the world - Stew!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Don't worry, Bees happy!

Here's part of the garden so far. This is the cooler side, that gets a little less sun than the other, so we planted onions, beets, carrots, chard, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi & potatoes here. For some reason, the carrots got off to a slow start, but they are kicking into gear now. There is also a very fragrant rugosa rose in the background, and a clump of rhubarb, both of which need to be moved someday.
We're growing less beans this year (and canning all of them) so decided to try the old-fashioned teepee method. We used bamboo, which is relatively smooth, so the bean tendrils take a little longer to start climbing.
Reddale potatoes in flower. When all 3 kinds are blooming, it looks more like a flower bed than a potato patch. It's just about time to start sneaking new potatoes, but hopefully we'll manage to save a few to get bigger.
Some of the mixed greens we harvested this weekend. I think we ended up with 5 or so pounds of red & green oak leaf lettuce, romaine, and baby-leaf spinach.
See if you can spot the honeybee working over this mound of thyme flowers.
Here's another bee checking out valerian flowers. Valerian is NW native plant that usually grows in mountain meadows. One variety is domestically grown for its roots, which are used in a calming tea. The flowers have a lovely fragrance too, and the plant self-seeds into a bit of a privacy screen. Our front border bed is about 2ft wide and over 70ft long. We're constantly adding plants that we think the bees will like. Luckily they like herbs, so the thyme, valerian, sage, lemon balm, mint, oregano, etc. are very popular.
The blackberries are just starting to flower, and the bees are taking full advantage. This is their main nectar supply, and they're no longer using the sugar syrup we've been supplementing them with. Our blackberry patch is about 40 x 50ft, and buzzing with all kinds of pollinators on a sunny day.
See if you can spot the bumble bee visiting a sage flower. We planted the sage for cooking use, but they are very striking when they bloom. And also very popular with the bee crowd....
If you have lots of clover in your lawn, you have a great excuse not to mow too often. Mowing the clovery parts of our yard takes longer because we try to go slow enough that the bees have time to move away from the mower's path.
On our hive check this weekend, we were lucky enough to see some baby bees hatch. With all the activity in this picture, it's hard to spot the newborns, so I circled a few. there are more hatching, but kind of obscured by the nursery attendants. It was also time to put the honey super on, so as it fills, the bees are making honey for us to harvest. A very exciting milestone!
And here's Stew, showing off his incredible talent!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Planning for Martinmas

Doug & Buddy are about as tall as they're going to get, so this summer they will be filling out on nice green grass, beautiful local hay, grain treats, and later this year, apples and garden gleanings. Then, right about Martinmas, November 11th, they will be slaughtered for our freezer. One thing about rural life is that you have to plan ahead. Right now at Seven Trees, we're enjoying the beginning of summer at the Highland Games and hiking and brewing, but we're also working to make sure we have hay and firewood and food laid in for the long winter ahead. It's incredibly satisfying to spend our time and energy on something that feeds us and keeps us connected with our ancestors.
In Britain (and northern Europe) people couldn't afford to winter over much stock besides the family milk cows and prized breeding animals. So in November "spare"animals were sent to market. In country areas, families would go in together on a cow to butcher and eat immediately. These markets eventually became known as "marts" after St. Martin's day (also known as Martlemas), when the markets took place. Martinmas was also an important day in the rural legal calendar.

Hiring fairs were held at this time, with their opportunities for agricultural labourers to gain better employment and the chance of a holiday. It was also called Pack-Rag day, because they carried their possessions with them to their new homes. The hiring fair was also called a statute or mop fair, the latter because people for hire wore a mop or tassel as a badge - carters wore a piece of whip cord, grooms a piece of sponge, shepherds a lock of wool, and so on. Those wishing to be hired stood in rows for inspection by employers.

Quarter Days such as Martinmas (February 1, Lammas and Halloween were others) were also times in which feudal taxes were collected. Until the 1920s, Martinmas was the high point of the farm labourer’s year in the north of England and was also known as 'Rive-kite’ or ‘Split-Stomach Day’ (or, Tear-Stomach Day), firstly because food was generally more plentiful than usual, and because labourers got their holidays at this time and might return home, often to a family welcoming feast. Animals were slaughtered for Martinmas feasts as well as for salting as food for the Winter. In an old Celtic custom, some of the blood from the slaughter was spilt upon the ground or on the threshold as a protection for the year ahead, and after the slaughter the feast began. On Martinmas nothing involving a wheel, spinning wool, carting, plowing, was to be undertaken before midday.

Since the offal was the most perishable, people quickly made blood puddings and sausages from the butchered animals. Some choice parts were sold to butchers, who then sold them on to wealthy townspeople. The rest of the beef was often salted and smoked, much like bacon. Mrs. Beeton (of the famous cookbook) has a recipe for salt-beef, which we might try this winter:
630. This is preserved by salting and drying, either with or without smoke. Hang up the beef 3 or 4 days, till it becomes tender, but take care it does not begin to spoil; then salt it in the usual way, either by dry-salting or by brine, with bay-salt, brown sugar, saltpetre, and a little pepper and allspice; afterwards roll it tight in a cloth, and hang it up in a warm, but not hot place, for a fortnight or more, till it is sufficiently hard. If required to have a little of the smoky flavour, it may be hung for some time in a chimney-corner, or smoked in any other way: it will keep a long time.

Salt beef was never at the top of anyone's menu choice, but in the middle of winter, when nothing was fresh or plentiful, having any kind of meat was a bounty. One proverb of the time says:
When Easter comes, who knows not than
That veale and bacon is the man?
And Martilmass Beefe doth beare good tacke,
When countrey folke do dainties lacke.

The heathen calendar's entry for November says: "The name of the eleventh month, Blotmona├░ (blood month), which means the Month of Sacrifice, arises from the fact that without modern methods of fodder storage it was not possible to keep more than a limited amount of livestock through the winter. The surplus animals were therefore killed and the flesh smoked or salted down. The keeping of this as a sacrificial occasion, and devoting the killed animals to the gods, was perhaps an economical way of making a virtue of necessity. " There are a lot of parts of animals like organs, brains, feet, bones, that most people don't eat today that our ancestors made full use of. The painting above is of a butcher's stall from the 15th century.

Martinmas was also the kickoff of the winter feasting season. Farmwork was done, rents were paid, nothing much to do but make it through the winter without going stir crazy. Another proverb from Scotland says:
"Tween Martinmas and Yule
Water’s wine in every pool."
Meaning pretty much people were partying from Martinmas (November 11th) through Yule (mid-January). Not a terrible way to get through the cold barren months of winter, provided you had the foresight to put up enough beef at Martinmas.
One last bit of Martinmas cheer comes from this verse of an old English ballad:
It is the day of Martilmasse
Cuppes of ale should freelie pass;
What though Wynter has begunne
To push downe the Summer sunne,
To our fire we can betake,
And enjoye the crackling brake,
Never heeding Wynter’s face
On the day of Martilmasse.

Read more about Martinmas here -

Also at Seven Trees, we got so tired of losing tomato crops to the blight, we decided to try a few plants in this warm, dry, sunny corner of the house. So far thay are very happy and making little maters like crazy. We have more plants in the usual garden space too, which is great considering how warm the spring has been so far. Our cold weather greens aren't as happy as they could be, but we're already having a tough time keeping up with the lettuce & spinach. Kohlrabi is coming on strong too. The warm-weather crops, like beans, peppers, squash & melons, are going gangbusters already. And we splurged a bit on some strictly pretty plants for our front herb/flower bed. Lots of pretty perennials and a fragrant pink rose too. The bees are already in love!
The pullet flock is doing great. They should start laying in mid-August, and not a moment too soon. They aren't quite big enough to have free range of the barnyard, so they get lots of garden trimmings and grass hand delivered to the hen run.
A pause for breaktime in front of our July project. We'll be painting the house finally, and the chicken coops to match. New gutters will complete a task that's been on our list for a few years now.
Below is a sight & sound that isn't too common these days...peening a scythe. Scythes are incredibly versatile tools, once you get the hang of them. But they do require periodic sharpening while you cut, and peening the blade too. Sharpening involves a stone and water, which keeps the finer edge of the blade sharp. Peening involves hammering the blade to a fine edge that can be further sharpened when cutting. Long before tractors, and long before horse-drawn combines, hay was cut by people with scythes, and tedded by people with rakes. We've cut loose hay at Seven Trees, but mostly we use the scythe as a low-impact tool for getting rid of weeds. No electricity, no gas engine, and no chemical poison. Not to mention how soothing it is to find the rythym of scything and work while listening to birds and cattle.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Hay Day 2009

Friday night, after work, we decided to drive to the Gorge power station at Newhalem. There is a waterfall behind the powerhouse (reached by a sturdy new footbridge) called Ladder Creek Falls that is supposed to be backlit by colored lights after dark, and also a really strange rock garden full of water features. Unfortunately the lights weren't operating when we got there, and the garden is being rehabbed. It was still fun to poke around the tiny company town and the interpretive "Trail of the Cedars" as night fell.

Here's one of the old water features, not running, but still funky. Some kind of miniature waterwheel/mill that looks like a gnome hut.

In the background is a remnant of an old cedar tree with a cave-like area in the stump. The hanging moss & vine maples lended a spooky feel to our walk. The trail has all kinds of interpretive signs, but sadly describes a much wetter forest than is the case today.

Right beside the highway through Newhalem is this impressively restored locomotive engine. It was used in the 20's to bring supplies and workers up from the Skagit Valley during construction of the dam & power station. Newhalem is one of the country's last true company towns, with a lot of history and fun things to do and learn, including a boat ride up Ross Lake, tour of Diablo dam & chicken dinner!

Saturday was all about getting our hay in for the year. This place is only a few miles from us and the owners took advantage of the lovely weather to make hay. Here it is, freshly mowed and drying in the sun.
The big tractor-looking thing to the left is the mower, and the green and orange machinery that looks a bit like mechanical spiders are hay tedders. They are attatched to a tractor, and spin through the downed hay, turning and fluffing it to get it thoroughly dry before baling.

And all the nice little bales in the field, as we headed in to pick them up.

The trailer can take 25 bales with ease, more if we stacked it crazy-high. Since we really liked the quality of this hay, we decided to get 95 bales, which meant 4 trips. Each bale was around 50lbs. so after the first couple trips, the sun felt hotter and the bales felt heavier.....

But we persevered, knowing a few hours work would mean good food for cows & pony until next season. Here we are, toasting the hay castle we built in the garage. We still might pick up more hay later in the season, but this is like money in the bank as far as livestock are concerned.
Another weekend chore was a hive check. They still aren't ready for the honey super, but you can see the queen busily inspecting new cells to lay eggs in.

A well-earned dinner...chicken grilled over applewood, with Stew hopefully hovering in the background.
And below is a movie of the busy busy hive. Even with Mark yiping and a neighbor's car in the background, you can still hear the buzz of all those bees coming & going.