Friday, May 28, 2010

Home-grown eggcitement

The concept of the “3000-mile Caesar salad” has always perplexed me some. Between shipping costs, seasonal differences and a general lack of support for local farmers, the entire construct seems both irresponsible and completely unnecessary. It’s with this in mind that I can very proudly (and gratefully) say that there is a grand total of 20 feet between our eggs and my frying pan.
Paul was the first to discover our very first egg. I wasn’t there, but he insists that the noise he made was far louder than anything that has come from the chickens thus far. Somewhere between a gasp and guttural moan, I imagine.
The eggs, at least at this stage, are still quite small. A size you would never see in your grocery store, if I’m honest, but there’s really something so special feeling about plucking a still-warm egg from your backyard coop – regardless of how hungry you may still be afterwards. A little wash-up and a lot of excitement later, and we were ready for our first taste. We gathered around a very buttery pan, cracked Baylik’s spherical bounty, and all waited with wide eyes for the white to go opaque.
Initial impressions are that you really can’t match this level of freshness. The yolk clings very tightly to the white (normally after a few days, the yolk becomes easier and easier to separate), the color is a bright yellow, you almost want to swig it down raw, Rocky-style. The yolk is rich and coats your mouth with a mineral-ish taste, the whites basically taste like butter, but the general consensus is that they have a “warm” texture, very viscous and molten.
For the first while, Baylik was the only one to lay anything for us, because she is the older hen. More recently, however, a trip to the coop yields contributions from Hebsebah as well. Equally delicious, equally exciting. Jacob and Paul have even started stamping the eggs with our blog address.
Frequently asked questions:
How are you getting eggs without a rooster? We don’t need one. We’re getting one a day from each hen, roughly, they’re just not fertilized.
Can they fly? No, but they will give a flappy jump if you hold a worm in front of them.
Do they have personalities? Oh yeah. Baylik is a total rebel, usually the first to explore things, and will be the most fervent out of the gate when you open it. Hebsebah is a little more tame, but a bit louder. This might be due to younger age.
Long story short, the eggs are delicious, and they come from very happy chickens.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Grandma's Sorrel Soup

The best part of vegetable gardening has to be eating the fruits of your labour. Produce from ones own garden is more fresh and satisfying than anything that can be found at grocery stores or farmers markets. For me, enjoying veg from the garden doesn't get any better than using my Grandma's sorrel plant to make her fantastic sorrel soup. If you remember one of my past posts on the blog, I transplanted my Grandma's sorrel plant to our garden from her backyard in Scarborough.

Last week the sorrel plant yielded enough sorrel leaves to make a big pot of soup and go to her new assisted living residence to enjoy it with her. I got the sorrel soup recipe from my Grandma along with about a thousand other recipes she has accumulated in a black book throughout her lifetime. The sorrel lends a delicious citrus flavour to the soup, and once combined with the cream has a smooth velvety texture. My Grandma enjoyed it a great deal, but I must admit that I still have some work to do before It's as good as hers. I also didn't have any of the beautiful edible flowers that used to be her signature garnish.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gambling With Cold-Frames

Using cold-frames is a good way to get a jump on the season and have your hot weather loving plants in the ground well before Victoria Day weekend, the traditional day to transplant these vegetables. My introduction to cold frame gardening came as I was wandering the streets of Little Italy and noticed all sorts of plastic coverings placed over planters and some directly on the ground. The "cold-frames" that made me most curious appeared in gardens all over the neighborhood. These were 2 liter pop bottles with the bottoms cut out and placed over top of plants. Thinking that all the vegetable gardeners in Little Italy had gone completely insane, I asked a lady who was working on her pop bottle covered plants what she was doing. She explained that the pop bottle creates a miniature green-house that traps in the heat from the day and prevents frost from landing on the plant at night.

Realizing the brilliance of these simple green-houses I went home to do some research so that I could construct my own cold-frames. After a little research in a readers digest book called Back to Basics, I learned that cold-frames can be as simple or as complex as you want, ranging from a simple pop bottle to a walk-in green-house. I decided to construct something in the middle.

The Back to Basics article that I read suggested the best material for cold-frames to be old windows. This gave me an opportunity to perform one of my favourite activities, riding my bike around and rummaging through peoples garbage to find thrown out treasures. Eventually I did find a set of great old windows which I attached together so that it could run overtop of the tomato plants. For the cucumbers I made a simpler cold-frame, constructed out of clear plastic sheeting and wires bent to shape.

I put both of these cold-frames in place just before the last couple of frosts and have been worried about whether the plants are going to make it. I raised the tomato's and cucumbers from seed and don't have a back up set of plants if they die, so there is a bit of a gamble here. But if it is successful we could get an extra two weeks of production out of the plants.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Holy Shiitake, Thats A Lot of Mushrooms... And Other Garden Updates

Mushroom logs are something that I think are really cool to have in a garden, and are perfect for small lots, as it doesn't take up much space. They also take very little care to grow, since you don't really need to water the logs, a single soaking at the beginning of the growing period will suffice. To grow mushrooms all you need is a recently cut log of Oak, spores of the mushrooms of your desire, and an inoculation kit to inject those spores into said log. Or you can do as I did and purchase already inoculated logs from FunGuy Farms, which is the more practical and cheaper way to do it if you are looking to cultivate only a couple of logs.

Growing your own mushrooms does provide a significant amount of savings, especially if you grow high end mushrooms like Shiitake's that will often fetch between 10 and 15 dollars a pound. The inoculated logs cost 25 dollars each and will produce about 8 pounds of mushrooms. After this most recent rainfall I noticed a ton of mushroom caps poking through the bark of the logs, and two mushrooms that were already big enough to pick, though we have yet to eat them.

The rest of the garden is looking great. The early crop of radishes, spinach and lettuces that were sown a couple of weeks ago, have sprouted nicely and are near ready to eat. The Hops plant has come back to life and is providing some beautiful green shoots of leaves. I'll have to build a trellis to train it to soon, or else it will take over the entire garden. The Sunchoke sprouts have also started to poke through the soil, and I've heard that once this happens it's very little time before they are 8 foot tall flowers. The Cabbages are also coming along great, as long as we can keep our two hens from eating them.

Monday, May 3, 2010

At long last, cheese.

This afternoon it became too much to bear. I had to try some cheese.

About a month ago I started a batch of Gorgonzola style cheese with some blue mould from my trip to Glenngarry in early March. The recipe calls for at least another 30 days of aging, but not to worry. Using some curd left over from making three wheels of what will hopefully turn out to be that tasty Italian blue I haphazardly pressed a little experimental wheel.

Hoping to end up with a crumbly, Stiltonesque cheese, I tried to get a good amount of moisture out of the curd. I pressed the curds with a moderate amount of pressure for 24 hours then let the resulting wheel sit at room temperature for the mould to take effect. It was with surprising speed that the pale blue veins crawled through the little cheese wherever a crack had formed. I waxed it and threw it in the back of the fridge with little hope of an edible result.

So it was with low expectations that we sliced open the little orange wax covered wheel early this afternoon. The firm curd inside is still moist with little veins of blue mold. Creamy in texture it has a pleasant acidity and very mild blue cheese bite. We agreed over bites of the hamburgers on which it was crumbled that the outcome was very tasty indeed.

In the spirit of Paul's beer making, lets call it "Beginners Luck Blue".

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Fowl: Making a Home for the Ladies

No, this is not a letter for the penthouse forum, the ladies I speak of are from the galiforme species. As discussed in my last post on chickens we had decided to construct the coop based on plans recommended by the blog Toronto Chickens. Toronto Chickens is a fantastic blog that works to promote the legalization of backyard chickens in Toronto as well as provide people interested in raising chickens with useful information.

Two types of coops are recommended by Toronto Chickens. One is the Eglu, which is a ready made coop that comes in a wide range of colours. Though these coops may be a great design they are expensive. The prices range from 500 to 1300 dollars, and the one sized to our needs is in the 1300 dollar range. The much cheaper, and better suited option, was to purchase plans from a company called Ready Coop.

The price tag to buy the plans and all the materials for the coop was 270$. Not only was the coop affordable, but the way the plans outlined the steps of construction made its assembly very easy. I took advantage of my Dad's wood shop to do all the cuts, and then transported all the pieces to the farm for construction. The transportation of wood nearly broke my bike trailer and garnered me some strange looks. Both of which are bound to happen when you strap three 4x8 sheets of plywood to the back of a bike and fly down Christie hill. Once I arrived home, having all the pieces already cut to size made constructing the coop almost like putting together Ikea furniture. The process of building the coop also gave me a much more satisfying feeling than I think having a ready made coop, such as the Eglu, arriving in the mail could have.

The coop provides an area large enough for 6 hens to roost, and has two laying boxes for the hens to share. There is a short case of chicken stairs so that the hens can traverse down to their run. This is where the feed and water are kept and there is 16 square feet of room for them to stretch their legs and peck at the soil. A door in the coop allows the hens access to the rest of the yard so that they can hunt for little grubs and slugs and have a dirt bath. The coop seems really secure from predators, especially with the addition of a chicken wire skirt we attached to prevent raccoons from digging under the coop walls. It would take a particularly clever raccoon to break into the coop and do any damage to the chickens, and if one is capable, it probably deserves its dinner.

The completed coop looks great, and Jacob's suggestion to paint it a barn red makes it even more bad-ass. The place is starting to look more like a legit urban farm everyday.