Thursday, April 20, 2017


Yesterday afternoon I opened the incubator so I could put the eggs on what is called "lockdown".  All this means is that you help prepare the eggs for hatching.  Up until now the automatic turner has kept them rotating gently through the day, but that part is done.  Now is the time for the chicks to rest, absorb the last part of the egg yolk and position themselves to hatch. I think I should have done it the day before but time has a habit of getting away from me lately. So yesterday it was.

The turning rack comes out and the brooder gets lined with paper towels.  It makes cleanup easier and gives the little ones better footing than the mesh wire that the incubator comes with.  Next, I candle each egg one more time.  I'm looking to make sure the air cell has increased, and I mark the lowest "dip" in each cell with an X. This is the spot that the chick is most likely to "pip" or start to hatch from.  When the eggs are put back into the brooder, I make sure that the X is facing up. I also take note if I can see a chick moving around in the egg. If so I mark the egg with a ^ check mark.  If I see a chick but no movement I make a little :( drawing.  Because the eggs are mostly tinted blue and green I also use a ? if I can't really see anything or if I just see veining but no chick.

The incubator is in the kitchen and this evening I was standing at the sink after dinner, kind of staring into space and heard a small "peep". What? Surely not. But there it was again "peep!"

It's happening. Two of the blue eggs have pipped. Can you see them? They're the two in the middle. Sorry for the poor picture - you're really not supposed to open the incubator during this time if you can help it - the humidity needs to be steady.

It's been unseasonably hot and muggy all day now there's a line of black clouds rolling in.  We are expected to get some pretty good storms tonight and I'm really hoping the power does not go out (the incubator runs at 102 degrees) if that happens I will just have to cover the thing with a blanket and hope for the best.

Can't wait to see what these chicks look like!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Trout season opener, bacon wrapped trout nibbles

Opening day of trout season for us was last Saturday.  I don't believe that we have native trout in our area because the water temperature of the streams gets to be too warm for them in the summer (they do up in Erie and around the Great Lakes but those are the bigger lake trout - I'm talking small rainbows and browns).  Someone please chime in here if I'm mistaken because I am sure as heck not an expert on fish.  All I know is that each spring PA stocks rivers around the state with literally millions of hatchery-raised trout and then people like me buy a fishing licence plus trout stamp (about $32 total) for the privilege of going out and trying to gather them back up.


I consider this day a personal holiday and it's a big thing to get together with my family for two reasons. Number one, it's a celebration of spring and the un-official start to the fishing season.  Number two, my mother actually passed away on the opening day of the season.  This day marks our second year without her.  So it's especially nice to get together with everyone.  My father and I go out along with my brother in law and his father. My husband came out before we had our little guy.  Last year my uncle came from across the state with my cousin too.  It's a peaceful morning of enjoying the quiet beauty of the river and then we all have a meal together.

The place we fish is a river that runs between two railroad lines.  It's the place my father grew up fishing when he was young.  The banks are terrifically steep with loose gravel and you have to be very sure of your footing going up and down. Once you're at river level picking your way up and down the stream to fish the holes is a task that requires the total of your concentration lest you fall in the water.  There is no river bank to walk along. Just loose rocks and railroad debris.  Sometimes trains go by, practically overhead, while you're fishing.  But it's worth it.

It's normally packed with people on opening day but pretty wild and lonely the rest of the year.  As a woman, I would never fish there by myself because  it's too remote for me to feel safe.  We see deer there; turtles, foxes and many types of birds as well.  This year I saw an eagle and a kingfisher glided past me over the river as I fished.

And these wildflowers. I don't know what they are.

Things like this antique brick are common in the banks.

Usually it's pretty easy to catch your limit of trout (5) without too much effort but this year was a total bust for me.  Cast after cast produced not even a nip on my spinner. It was disappointing.  The season opens at 8:00 in the morning and by the time the clock hit 9:00 I was getting pretty frustrated. I  thought about the strength of the current and the visibility of my lure. How it acted in the water.  Where the fish might be resting.  Nothing was happening no matter how I changed up my lure, added weight, subtracted weight, changed the speed of my retrieve.  Nothing.

It was at this point that my brother in law made a big scene downstream reeling in a fish (for the benefit of his fish-less dad, not me, I later found out).  I nearly cried tears of anger.  Honestly, I was standing in a stream, blinking them back  Damn it! Do NOT act like a girl! Pull your shit together!

It got worse.  Shortly thereafter my dad came by to see if I was having any luck.  We were talking as I was reeling in a cast - nope, nothing, not a bite - and at that very moment a fish hit.  As I tried to set the hook the damn thing literally flipped though the air and back into the water.  In slow motion.  I'm pretty positive it extended a middle finger as it went by.

I was done.  I drove straight to McDonald's and ordered a breakfast sandwich.

And the fish started hitting half an hour after I left.

The bright side is that my father had caught a nice trout while I was there and sent me home with it.  I made it into a little appetizer and took it back to his house to share with everyone later that day and we had a very nice Easter together.  There were children and dogs everywhere and it was chaos and it was wonderful.

Bacon wrapped trout nibbles.  

1) Have someone catch a fish for you because apparently you are incapable.  Bring it home and clean it.  Don't bother scaling it because you'll be taking the skin off later.

2) Stuff the cavity with shallots and orange slices.  Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Bake at 350 until done (15 min?)

3) When the trout is cool, flake the meat into a bowl and add minced garlic, Old Bay, parsley, panko crumbs and an egg.  Mix.

4) Shape into patties the size and shape of scallops.  Pan fry until golden and cooked through.

5) Wrap with bacon, fix with toothpick and put under broiler until bacon is cooked. Serve with a dip made of mayo, Worcestershire sauce and sriracha.  Ever people who profess to hate trout will eat these up.

One trout makes about 12 nibbles. I think trout in the store is about $7 a pound while cost of two fishing licences with trout stamps = one $64 trout.  Time standing in a steam = priceless.  Even on a bad day.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter cakes, rhubarb & asparagus

So here it is, the evening of 4/17 and I'm blogging instead of finishing our taxes. Sigh.
Another half hour of procrastinating won't hurt.

Here are some cakes I made this weekend for Easter that I thought turned out pretty nice in spite of one being from a box mix and the other flat-out purchased at Wal-Mart because I couldn't find my angel food cake pan.

Angel food cake with homemade whip topping and strawberry rhubarb topping.  I whipped the cream with very little sugar and added a lot of vanilla, the topping had honey in it.   Violets looked lovely. Took it to my in-laws for Easter.  My mother in law and I also enjoyed some amazing rhubarb bellini from Jamie Oliver's website.  Thank you SO much to Tracy at Our Smallholding Adventure for the idea and to my dear friend Lynn for the rhubarb advice.

This is just a box mix carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.  The "nests" are tinted coconut and the "eggs" are these adorable (and yummy) malted milk type chocolates I found at Aldi's.  Took it to my parent's house to celebrate with my dad, my little family and my sister and her family.  

Lots to talk about this week.. opening day of trout season was this weekend and I have a new recipe to share for a trout appetizer.

Lots of things sprouting in the garden - greens everywhere and the potatoes are showing. Also -  the best part - OUR ASPARAGUS IS UP!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Freezing eggs the fast & easy way

All of the chickens and ducks are laying now and eggs are piling up fast.  When I first started keeping chickens I remember being startled to learn that eggs were actually a seasonal item.  Like, I knew that fact in an abstract kind of way but it hadn't applied to me personally until suddenly the hens shut down. Then I was really sad.

Hens lay a ton of eggs in the spring and summer then they mostly stop laying in the colder months.  Which makes sense from a hen's perspective of wanting good weather to raise chicks in.

If you're staring at a refrigerator full of extra eggs, it's really easy to freeze them for the future.  Just crack the eggs into a bowl, mix well and put into a freezer container.  Those are the basics. Some people add a pinch of salt or sugar to the mix but it's not necessary.  It is nice to package them in quantities that make sense in your kitchen. Here I do packs of 5 (omelette, Pad Thai) 2 (baking) & 1 (baking).

It's hard for me to get the yolks and the whites totally incorporated stirring with a fork and this makes them kinda lumpy when they're thawed out.  Not a tragedy in baked goods but it is noticeable in scrambled eggs and no one really likes it. This week I came up with a better way that was faster too  - the Nurtibullet.

Using the Nutribullet I zipped through a tray of 30 eggs in about 5 minutes.  It was awesome.

A pint glass makes a nice extra hand to hold the freezer bag open.

Ready for the freezer.  Try to squeeze most of the air out of the bags but they don't have to be perfect.  What is great about using bags is that they freeze flat and you can stack them. I have a box for eggs in the chest freezer so they don't get lost.

It would be nice to freeze enough eggs to get us through the winter rest period because I'm really trying to avoid buying eggs at the store again if I can help it.  Also, it's kinda hard to justify owning (how many?) chickens to your spouse if you have to purchase eggs at the store.  And we all want to avoid that, don't we?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Quail tractor done, quails outside

The quail are now over two weeks old.  This weekend I finished the quail tractor and kicked  installed the quail out in the garden.  It was for the best.  The quail were fully feathered out and they had crossed that point where they ceased to be adorable and were starting to be what I could only politely call annoying as hell.  The top of the brooder was totally covered in wire mesh but every day, every damn day, I would go out the garage in the morning to find that they had knocked the cover aside and several of them were running loose around the garage.  Meanwhile I had a child in the house waiting for breakfast and a husband leaving for work.  Luckily they are easy enough to catch - I put a pet carrier containing food and water on the floor near the other quail - eventually the runners would get bored and just go hang out in the pet carrier where I could scoop them up.

Also every time I walked into the garage they would all panic and flush straight up and hit the wire cover.  It sounded like popcorn popping. I was having dreams of tiny grilled quail kabobs (which would probably be very good). Neither they, nor I, could take it one more day of it.

Enter the quail tractor.  It's actually this "TSC Farmhouse Expansion Pen" that I bought at Tractor Supply Company a couple of months ago.  I promise you - I did NOT pay that listed price for it, no way.  The store near us put out a bunch of seriously marked down pens for sale and with a coupon  I got it for less than 50% of retail.  Tax included. That's much more reasonable.  

It's actually pretty sturdy, was super easy to assemble and just needed another couple coats of stain and some more/better latches and handles added.  Maybe another $15 in parts?  The stain we already had.

So I finished it today.  Put it inside the garden, for now, and added a large pet crate inside for shelter (bought a a yard sale for $2).   The little guy and I collected a bunch of fallen pine boughs and added those inside the pen for cover.

If the quail could talk, I believe that they would call today the "best day of their lives'.  Honestly.  When given a more natural environment they turned into completely different birds.  Immediately.  They soaked in the sunshine.  They took dust baths.  They scratched in dirt.  They lounged.  They chirped. They were so content that they totally ignored my little guy and one of the birds stood still under a pine branch while he petted it.  Because it takes a toddler about 2.5 second to figure out how to work a barrel latch and open the pen up himself.  

Large enough to house a toddler?

Those quail are totally ignoring a near two-year-old playing with the feeder. It was full before he found it.

Overall I am super happy with this product and the quail are too.  I did add some additional things to try to varmint-proof it.  Bricks on all four corners to add weight and also slid panels of fencing under the edges to deter digging. Let's hope it works out. So far so good. It's inside the garden fence for now but the plan is to move it around the yard over fresh grass once the weather evens out.

Anyone else keep quail or want to?

***Edit with some more information.***

The pen doesn't have a bottom on it so the quail can be directly on the ground.  They LOVE bugs and dust bathing and (to me anyway) it seems a far more natural life to give them then being on wire all of the time which is how they are commonly housed.  Here is a picture of the hutch I kept my little group of quail in previously.  They did OK in it but I like this idea better.  The weather is starting to settle here and the idea is that they can be moved to fresh grass every day. This will provide them with new opportunities to eat insects, seeds and also keep the ground underneath them clean.

The shelter for the quail is currently a plastic pet crate.  Quail don't roost and in my experience most times don't even bother to seek shelter from rain or wind and prefer to always be out in the open.  However, this will provide them with shade and a nice cozy area to shelter in if they choose to use it.  Additional shelter is provided by all of the pine branches - really we stuffed a TON of them in there. 

There are 27 quail currently and the pen measures 55 inches long by 33 inches wide.  As they grow I'm expecting that's going to get crowded.  I have several fencing panels here from old rabbit crates and am thinking that I will be able to put a temporary addition on this quite easily.  Quails hit maturity at 8 weeks so at that point I will put all of them but about 6 in the freezer (the remaining birds being kept for eggs).  These were purchased as straight-run so if the males are fighting before the 8 week mark they will be butchered early.  

Why bother?  Well, as much as I like to grow plants, fish, forage and grow birds my big hobby is actually cooking.  All of this here happens so I can have the best quality, most diverse ingredients to play with in the kitchen and feed my family.  Quail eggs are amazing to top little burgers, hard boil for on salads and pasta or crack on little grilled pizzas. 

Plus, I've found that poultry of all kind are a real joy - sometimes I just like to sit out in the poultry yard and watch everyone go about their day.  Quail are beautiful, curious about life and make the most lovely noises.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Chicken ultrasound - day 7 - VIDEO

You know when you're pregnant and you go for an ultrasound and the technician waves the magical wand over your stomach?

Yeah, that's basically what happens to chicken eggs, except with a really bright light.

It's pretty awesome.

To see what's inside we "candle" the egg - because it used to be done by candlelight back in the day.  Now we do it with a little penlight with a cup on the end.  It's absolutely amazing to be able to peek inside an egg and see what's going on.

Today is day 7 of the chicken incubation and I took a look at all of the eggs to see how many were developing properly and to pull out any ones that were duds.  Well, I was pretty shocked.  They were ALL fertile and all but one was was alive and well.  Our former rooster, Mr. Rooster, had his favorite hens and other hens that he totally ignored.  Those second tier girls couldn't get action no matter what they did and it was really kind of sad watch them literally throw themselves on the ground in front of him and be totally ignored.  Apparently Nigel, God bless him, loves all of the ladies equally.

Of 21 eggs, 20 are alive and well. The one that didn't make it had a blood ring - a sign that the embryo started to develop and then quit very early on.

 This is a great example of a blood ring - very obvious on a light colored egg.

I took a little video so everyone can see the little chicken moving around in the egg at what is, effectively, the end of its first trimester of incubation.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Starting seeds & direct sow - zone 5

It's the first full week in April which means it's time to sow more seeds.  Here in zone 5 our last frost date is May 30th so it's time to get our 8 week seeds in flats.  Yesterday I sowed 10 kinds of tomato, eggplant, bergamot, hyssop and zinnias. This would also be the time to sow pepper seeds but I buy those as transplants every year because my luck with them stinks.  There must be some kind of magic to starting peppers and I haven't got it.  That's ok because it's a good reason to go to one of the local greenhouses and see what's new.

It's been an amazingly productive spring so far. The spring side of the garden is well on the way to being planted.  The key I found was organizing this little basket with all of the seeds that need to out, along with the the labels (made from paint stir sticks).

The little basket sits by the door and every day when the little guy and I go out to play we grab something from it.  Then I rake away the straw mulch, scratch up a small patch of dirt and we plant the garden one packet at a time.  We've been no-till for a couple of years and there are earthworms everywhere - even worms are a crop to be gathered soon as the opening day of trout season is April 15th.  Counting down the days until I'm standing in the river.

In this way he and I have already put in 10 lbs potatoes, orach, spinach, chard, tatsoi, radish & fava beans. AND for the first time it actually looks organized!  Gardening every day with the little guy makes me so happy and I really wish my mother were here to see him helping. Gardening was her main passion and she would have enjoyed this so much.

Hope everyone is enjoying the really wonderful spring we've been having.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Start your incubators

I love hatching eggs.  It's so exciting - every part of it - from collecting the eggs to candling to lock down and hatching.  The process is so much fun that the chicks are kinda besides the point.  My incubator is a cheap-o styrofoam Hova-Bator bought off of Amazon a couple of years ago and paired with the automatic egg turner.

People give the inexpensive Hova-Bators a bad rap, but I've never had a problem with mine.  I think the best hatch I ever had has only been about 70% but that was mostly because of eggs that I pulled early because they turned out to be infertile.  The heavier breeds (like Mr. Rooster was) aren't known for the highest  fertility.  BUT the babies are stunning. Easter Egger hen + Cochin rooster = feather footed chicken that lays green eggs.

And who wouldn't want to hatch chicks from Baby Daddy Nigel?

Yep, Nigel.  I thought it was the name of the rooster on our beloved Peppa Pig so that's what I started calling him. Then it was pointed out to me that the rooster's name is actually Neville. Oh well.

Anyway. I've been collecting eggs and finally fired up the incubator on Saturday.  There are 20 puttering away in the little racks.  I run my still air incubator at about 101 degrees with roughly 40 humidity but I don't care much if it fluctuates as long as it doesn't get too hot. Regular candling will tell me how to adjust the humidity to ensure there's a large enough air cell for the chick to hatch.

So, fingers crossed.  Chicks hatch in about 21 days so that means if everything goes well I should be checking back in around April 22nd or 23rd.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

No-knead buns, thoughts on food?

I baked buns yesterday.  Who cares? What's the big deal?  Well, I've never made them before and maybe this might help someone else.  I bake bread here 4 or 5 times a week and do a very basic but versatile no-knead bread.   It couldn't be simpler and you can alter it a thousand ways.  If you can stir you can make this bread - promise.  I also do various sweet breads and a very good naan but rolls/buns always seemed.... fiddly.  Like you had to actually measure ingredients.  Then knead and shape the dough.  It makes my head hurt to think about.  Probably because I have a teething toddler yelling "MAMAMA!" and climbing up my leg at all times. It's nice to feel needed. 

Store bought rolls and buns are so gross...  they're like soft flavorless sponges that yes, I guess they hold a burger but that's it.  There is absolutely nothing redeeming about them and they taste like paste. So whenever I cook anything requiring a bun I re-visit this problem and think to myself  "I really, really wish I had some sort of pan with holes in it that could hold little balls of dough.  And a lid for it".  Yesterday it occurred to me.  "You do, dumbass.  Everyone with an oven does.  It's called a muffin tin".  Literally smacked my forehead with my palm.

The lid? An inverted cookie sheet.

So I made a batch of dough and added to it two leftover egg yolks from making macaroons the night before.  Added a bit more flour than I usually would.  When it came time to bake I put the muffin tin in the oven along with the cookie sheet to pre-heat. While they were heating I cut off 12 chunks of dough roughly the same size as golf balls, rolled them into balls and let them rest.  When everything was hot I sprayed the muffin tin with olive oil, tossed in the dough balls and put it in the oven.  Set the hot cookie sheet, inverted, on top to act as a lid to proof the buns during the first 10 minutes of baking.  After that I took the sheet off, put an egg wash over the buns and baked for another 15.

They're amazing.  More the size of sliders than full buns, they were great with the pulled pork we had last night.  Or to just eat on their own.

It reminded us of the first time I made homemade noodles.  It was a revelation to us that something so simple that we took for granted and didn't even taste while we were eating was elevated to a thing. An actual contributing ingredient to a meal when done well.

Makes it worth the effort.

Anyone else make something humble that tastes amazing? Did it change the way you think about cooking?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fairy Duck Egg

I don't pen the ducks up at night during the winter but I have to when spring comes around.  If I don't then they tend to lay their eggs willy-nilly all over the yard.  Last year the crows discovered duck eggs made a pretty good breakfast and would wait every morning for the eggs to be laid. Then they would swoop down and steal them before I could steal them.  So every night into the duck ark they go.  They're really good about laying in nests and I know just where to look in the morning - the Pekin makes a straw nest under the little ramp and lays there.  Sometimes the Runners will use her nest but more often than not they go upstairs and use the little chicken nest boxes.  So every morning I check both spots.

What did I find today?  Our first ever fairy duck egg.

It's so tiny.  Smaller than a bantam egg.

This tiny egg was in the nest box with another full sized egg.  Called "fairy eggs", "rooster eggs" or "witch eggs" they are either due to a blip in a lady bird's system (if she's a seasoned layer) or a young bird's first attempts at laying an egg.

(They are also, God help me, known in this country as "fart eggs". I am not making that up. While it is a well documented scientific fact that rainbows are the product of bunny toots I refuse to believe that a duck has ever tooted an egg. Unless that duck is the kind of duck that may have been a guest on the Jerry Springer show. Just. Gross.)

So, a fairy egg.  I actually squealed when I saw it because, come on, it's adorable.  I didn't know when I brought it into my house that it could have possibly been the work of the devil.  I should have thrown it over the roof of the house to ward off evil but I didn't.  It's sitting in the refrigerator.  Harmlessly. So far.

So where did it come from?  We have 5 female ducks and have been getting 3 eggs a day like clockwork - 1 Pekin and 2 Runners.  The stray duck that showed up in our yard is too old for this kind of thing so I think it was the first laying from the spotted duck that was born here last September.

We are knee deep in eggs.  I think there are about 3 1/2 dozen in the house right now.  Eggs for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and baked into treats.  Everyone's cholesterol level, including the cats' is probably through the roof.