Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Homespun warmth

Several years ago I picked up a moss-and-stone hued braid of wool roving. It was from the fleece of a Bluefaced Leicester ewe, soft spirals shorn, cleaned, carded and dyed...tamed and ready to spin.

I'd been playing around with my drop spindle but this was my first big bunch of roving. The colors drew me in--ranging from celadon to olive, gray blue to stone.

I worked on it on camping trips, sitting around the fire with K and the girls, drafting the thick roving into narrow pencil widths, twisting the spindle rhythmically to the crackling sap that sent sparks skyward. It went with me on long drives to the east coast, K driving while I spun and navigated, balancing my iPhone/GPS map on my lap, and my spindle occupying both hands. A juxtaposition of old tools and new.

The resulting yarn was not consistently one weight, as it should be. It definitely runs the range of weights, from lace to chunky. Kind of a spinning sampler, I rationalized. I chose to leave it as a single, rather than plying it double for a more balanced yarn. I rolled it into a center-pull ball and waited for inspiration, which left it sitting for a couple of years.

I found a pattern for a scarf knitted with handspun yarn, perfectly designed to compliment an uneven twist. Perhaps it will look like I spun thick-thin yarn on purpose? The stitch pattern was simple: Knit two, knit one into the back of the next stitch, then purl one. Repeated over an odd number of stitches, it created a ribbed look, with enough texture to please, but not so much that the yarn got lost.

The scarf-to-be went with me to dentist appointments, dance classes, tutoring appointments, and camping. On car trips and as a rhythmic background for family movie nights. Finally, while M was dancing in a class the other night, I reached the end of the yarn.

I wove the ends in and regarded it. I still liked the colors, and BFL is a very soft, mellow wool. The uneven spinning is easy to see, and far from perfect, but it's like a double weave of the past: I spun it lightly to the spindle while the girls celebrated crossing the Tennessee border on a trip east, then passed the same fibers a second time with knitting needles, while shoulder to shoulder with the girls on the couch, watching the Nancy Drew movie.

It is a good feeling to hold a finished project, a useful item that had been organized out of lengths of wool furnished by one roman-nosed cream-colored ewe. But the journey (and time) from roving to scarf makes this project's weight warmer by degrees.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Grapes and Grasshoppers and Yogurt, Oh My

Violet. "What? Do I still have some yogurt on my beak?"
Gertie, right, wondering if Lacey would mind if she took care of that yogurt drip.
People tell me their chickens will eat anything. "Hang a cabbage up and watch them go crazy," said one friend. But my hens sort of peck at cabbages with half-hearted interest.

Grapes, however, can cause squawks and shrill "Mine! Mine!" clucks. Feathers fly when I toss out a handful of the round fruits. Blueberries are met with the same frenzied excitement.

Broccoli? Cockeyed disdain.

Tomatoes? Cornbread leftovers? Peaches? A feathered frenzy.

Lettuce? Disgruntled disappointment. "Oh, we thought you had food."

Yogurt? Messy, but good. They smack their beaks together, surface for air, wipe their beaks on the ground, then go back for more.

The other day I had several leftover lasagna noodles. I cut them into long narrow strips with a pair of scissors and took them out. Lacey picked the first one up, and before I could toss another out, they were all off to the races, chasing Lacey in a chorus of clucks, as she tried to flee with... well, she had no idea what it was, she just knew she had to keep it away from everyone else.

But, far eclipsing any kitchen treat I could bring them: grasshoppers. I tried very hard to get a photo of them hunting grasshoppers. But the hens move so quickly and unpredictably, and eat them so quickly, that all I get are photos of blurry feathers or fuzzy faces. They wait expectantly, a grasshopper appears, and they dart toward it. Then they stop, watch, run again. One of them catches the ill-fated creature and swallows it whole. It's like watching chickens playing tag.

Ick. To be honest, I have always had a grasshopper phobia. Those sticky, stem-like, hinged legs are Hitchcockian. The other day, I saw one on the tomatoes. I could not bring myself to touch it. Several days before, I'd tried to herd a grasshopper toward a chicken's attention as the grasshopper sprang hither and yon. That didn't work. It hopped right in front of Violet and she was so busy looking at me to see if I was holding something good that the grasshopper nearly bounced off of her and disappeared. She never saw it. So when I saw the grasshopper on the tomato, I grabbed the nearest chicken--Gertie, of course--and held her up to it, her yellow feet hanging down like landing gear.

She hung there in my hands, and cocked an eye at me as if to say, "Uh, OK." She didn't see it. I touched her beak to it. She didn't move, wondering why I'd picked her up and was holding her in the air sticking her head in a plant. And then, all the sudden, the light went on. Before I knew it she'd nabbed that crunchy leggy insect. I put her down and she ran off with it, happily gulping it down.

From an evolutionary standpoint, that probably wasn't fair to the grasshopper. He was camouflaged and hiding high on the plant as the rules of survival dictated. One didn't count on a hen hovering in the air four feet off the ground. Gertie, however, wasted no time on pondering the complexities of the food chain. She was off busily looking for another snack.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Apple Tart

How autumn tastes.
My recipe box is a memory box of sorts. When I'm sorting through it for recipes, I'll come across one in my mother's hand, or one in my friend Molly's familiar script. Or I'll find a recipe I copied from someone else, and it will send my mind back to that time and place. A potluck at work, a baby shower, a dinner with friends. Holiday meals and traditions. Everyday favorites that bring back memories of simple weeknight family dinners.

Shared recipes are memory fragments that one can recreate--like conjuring an item from a photograph and rendering it into reality.

One of my favorite recipes came from my friends, Kathy and Terry. It's a fruit tart recipe that has never failed me, no matter what type of fruit I've tried. Kathy made it for K and I when we had dinner at their house one time. We had returned from a trip to England and were sharing photos and stories over a delicious meal. They are both accomplished cooks, and the tart Kathy made was memorable.

I had a handful of leftover apples from my applesauce making. I have made cherry tarts, huckleberry tarts, peach tarts, and plum tarts from this recipe. I think peach and plum are my favorite, but I haven't tried an apple tart with this recipe.

But it's a perfect fall day, and an apple dessert will spice it nicely. I'll include Kathy's recipe below. The only small change I made (because of the tartness of the apples) was to take about 1/4 cup of apple jelly, heated to melt. I added a 1/2 tsp. of vanilla to the jelly, then glazed the tops of the apples with the mixture, followed by the crumb topping.

Fruit Tart
 1 1/2 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. butter or margarine
1 egg yolk
2 T. milk

Mix dry ingredients. Cut butter into dry ingredients. Beat egg and milk together, and blend into flour mixture. Press into 11" tart pan with removable bottom.

Lay on approx 4 c. sliced and pitted fruit.

Sprinkle on crumb topping which is made by mixing together:
1/3 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar (or 1/3 c. brown sugar)
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon (nutmeg w/peaches or nectarines)
1/4 c. butter

Bake at 375 for about 45 minutes until crust is brown and fruit is tender. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Feeding the Neighborhood

K and I were both working in the backyard when suddenly, a corncob fell from the sky and landed at my feet after nearly hitting me on the head. I looked at K suspiciously, but he was innocently busy on the other side of the yard, completely unaware. I looked up through the ash tree above me, and saw a squirrel scurrying along the branches. He'd dropped the cob, much like my children drop their socks, anticipating that someone would come along and take care of clean up.

Birds on the run door, waiting for scratch grains.
The cob was picked clean with surgical precision. I'd made a batch of corn relish, but there was still plenty left on the cob so I'd dropped a few in the yard for the chickens. The hens were doing a pretty good job on them, but apparently the squirrels had claimed a few cobs and carried them to the treetops. I tossed the cob into the compost bin and considered that we were inadvertently feeding the squirrel population. And others.

We've had a big increase in bird traffic. I scatter scratch grains out for the chickens, and have seen small flocks of birds clustered on the ground after the hens have had their fill. At one point, on a warm day, there were so many birds in the bird bath that it looked like the wave pool at Water World.

Pigeons have been congregating on the coop roof and cupola. And I've seen a few squirrels hurrying by like fluffy-tailed looters with tidbits that the chickens have left. I've seen a few mice, which I assume is a change that pleases the neighborhood cats, who've also increased their visits to our yard.

Often, I see dozens of sparrows inside the chicken run. Some line up socially on the roost we'd put up for the hens. Others gossip noisily along the frame and perched on the coop door. When they see me they fly up in a whirling cloud--reminding me of the aviary at the zoo. Some are small enough to squeeze themselves through the chicken wire, but when I disturb them, most of them shoot arrow-like out the front door of the run, roost in the tree above, and watch me. Once I leave, they return to their perches, resuming conversation.

An interest in having fresh eggs has turned into an illustration of the food chain. I've noticed my neighbor's cat taking delight in the sudden smorgasbord of birds at her disposal. But the birds won't be the only ones drawn in by scraps and snacks. I really don't want to draw in skunks and raccoons (though they seem to be kept at a distance because we have dogs). And I don't want to attract bigger birds--who may find the chicken scratch a whole lot less interesting than the chickens themselves. 
Five impatient hens, wondering why I'm not letting them out right away.

So, while Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom is entertaining at times, we're taking a more measured approach to feeding the chickens. Instead of tossing scratch grains in the garden for them, I toss them in their (closed) run, and I give them a little less. They clean it up almost completely before I let them out to free range. Tasty treats are given in moderation so that no scraps get left behind, and bigger items--like corn cobs and melon slices--get placed in the run with the door closed, then cleaned up and covered in the compost.

It does mean that they spend more of the morning in their run. But that's not all bad. In fact, it's actually had a positive effect. Most of them lay their eggs in the morning... which might mean our free-spirit-lay-my-eggs-in-the-great-outdoors Marigold may decide the nesting box is an acceptable place to lay an egg. One can only hope.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

2011's Best Jam


I go a little overboard with jellies and jams. I can’t seem to help myself. I start out in moderation. A few half-pints of your basic rhubarb jam starts the season off. Then I wonder what would happen if I extracted the juice from the excess rhubarb I have, then let lemon balm leaves steep in it for several hours. Answer: It makes a very nice subtly sweet-tart rhubarb lemon jelly.

I just can’t seem to keep my jelly simple. I’ll make a batch of plain old sour cherry preserves, but I've discovered that if I add a tablespoon of almond extract to the pot just before ladling it into jars, it tastes even better. I add cinnamon or chili powder to peach jam—just a touch. Sometimes my experiments fail miserably (chocolate sour cherry preserves sounded good in theory, but not so much in reality).

Last year I made several experimental jams and jellies, but the best one was the peach peel & pit jelly. Not only was it delicious on biscuits, but I felt good about using peels and pits thoroughly, squeezing one more use out of them, before they headed to the compost pile.

Raspberry Peach Jam
This year, I made 12 varieties: rhubarb-lemon jelly, sour cherry preserves, almond cherry preserves, chokecherry jelly (with almond), spiced peach jam, cardamom peach jam, cardamom plum jam, apple cider jelly, apple peel jelly, red pepper jelly, yellow tomato preserves, and raspberry peach jam.

The raspberry peach jam has been named this year's winner by an expert panel of judges (K and the girls). The yellow tomato preserves, sunshine gold with bits of lemon and orange, were surprisingly a close second.

The peach softens and mellows the raspberries a little bit, and adds a tint of gold to the berries.

Raspberry Peach Jam
(makes about 10-11 half pints)
About 1 lb. raspberries (I used three 8 oz. containers so that pureed, it equaled about 2 c.)
2 lbs. peaches (skinned, pitted, and pureed or chopped fine)
½ c. lemon juice
two boxes powdered pectin*
8 c. sugar
Puree raspberries, place in large pot. Puree peaches or chop fine, and add to raspberries. Add lemon juice and pectin, stir to combine.
Bring to a hard, rolling boil. Add sugar. Bring to a boil again. Boil hard for 3 to 4 minutes or so. Pour into sterilized jars, clean rims, add lids and rings, then process in water bath for 15 minutes.
* I’ve made this with one box pectin, boiled hard about 6 minutes, and it sets up as soft jam.




Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hen Picked

Marigold behind the morning glories

Marigold has decided where she wants to lay her eggs. She’s new to this whole egg laying business, but she will not be convinced to use the nesting box. She has picked her own best spot.

We have the yard divided into three sections: The garden/coop section, the patio section, and the side/front yard. Marigold prefers a hollowed out spot behind the morning glories, next to the bay window. That means that she has to hop to the top of the gate between the coop and patio, then work her way across the patio, and hop another gate that leads into the space between the patio and side yard.

Several times yesterday I went out and picked her up, carried her to the coop/garden area, and thought the matter solved. Every time I went outside, she was gone again. After several tries at relocating her, I went back inside, to hear her bock, bock, bock, bi-gocking noisily next to the bay window, announcing the imminent appearance of an egg. Only after her egg had been deposited behind the morning glories would she consent to staying in the coop area.

It bothers me to not have all the hens together—I worry when one of them becomes separated and I feel the need to gather them all together. This morning, I went outside and counted only six hens in the garden. Marigold had gone AWOL again.  Olive, my gray cat, was following me as I went through the gate to the side yard, where Marigold greeted me, chased Olive, then eyed me imperiously. If chickens had chins, she’d have been sticking hers out.

I went inside. But it really bothered me to have her separated from the flock. And I wanted to go get some work done, but would worry about her.

I went outside, picked her up from the path where she was snacking on clover, and carried her back to the garden area. She waited all of five minutes before I saw her hop to the top of the gate, trot across the patio, hop on top of the second gate and into the side yard.

“Bock, bock, bock, bi-gock!” she announced seconds later, then settled herself behind the morning glories smugly. 

I waited awhile, then checked in with her. She was out pecking at weeds, and there was a nice, latte-colored egg sitting exactly where she had placed it. I picked the egg up and slipped it into my pocket, then picked her up to carry her back to the coop area. On the way through the patio area, I noticed Paprika, roosting behind the ornamental grass. The small red hen looked at me, then adjusted the grassy nest she’d made for herself and pointedly ignored me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Prodigal Chicken


A sleepy Marigold. Sometimes, life is confusing when you're a chicken.

Twice today, I’ve returned Marigold to the flock. This morning, when I went out to offer a snack, I was greeted by Gertie, Lacey, and Violet.  Usually, all seven of them come running, so I looked around. A quick check of the coop showed that Oreo and Clover, the two Bantams, were both vying for the same nesting box. (There are three boxes, but all of them want to use the same one.) I found Paprika roosting contentedly in the garden.

But there was no sign of Marigold, the smaller Buff Orpington. I walked through the backyard, and found an oddly shaped egg sitting on the gravel path—it looked like it might belong to a hen just starting to lay. Clearly, one of the girls has not gotten to the “lay your egg in the nesting box” chapter on hen etiquette.

I continued my search for Marigold, looking under bushes and clucking to her. Violet, who seemed concerned, followed me around muttering as if to say, “Nope, we already looked under there.”

I finally found her in the front yard, on the other side of the fence from her friends. She clucked and fluffed herself indignantly when I picked her up, and chirped noisily as if annoyed with me. I returned her to the backyard.

After closing the gate and heading back to the house, I discovered another light brown egg. This one was sitting in a patio container beneath a tomato plant. Since Marigold was the only hen in that part of the yard (and I still don’t know how she got through the fence) I assumed it must be her egg, but was beginning to feel like I was on an Easter egg hunt orchestrated by one golden chicken.

Later, I went out to work in the garden. I found Marigold and Gertie happily fluffing themselves in a bag of potting soil I’d half emptied earlier. They had decided it was the perfect place for an afternoon siesta. Happily tossing the dry soil around themselves, they curled up like cats, nearly turning themselves upside down. Marigold drowsed in the sun, her pale eyelids covering her eyes as she propped her beak on the edge of the fabric. All seemed well.

I left them to nap and went back inside to work. A little while later, I heard a chorus of alarmed clucks. I went out to see what was up, and again, Marigold was missing. It took me awhile, but this time I found her behind the morning glories next to the house, again in the front yard.

She was standing next to yet another egg. I picked her up, along with the egg. She muttered at me again as I returned her to the backyard. We're both confused—I have no idea what is going on with her. But I’ll be happy when she figures it out. Hopefully, she’ll decide to start using the nesting box, or it’s going to make egg gathering a game of hide and seek.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Stitches Saved

Yesterday, having finished a work project, I tidied up the garden a bit, visited with the hens, and dug up the onions that need to be cured for storage. But it's starting to be that time of year when I'm drawn to indoor projects.

In a 100-year-old house, projects are never in short supply. I need to finish stripping the wood trim upstairs. And the living room needs a new coat of paint. But for some reason, the projects that have been languishing since spring begin calling to me--the scarf I started knitting in February, and the socks that have been on the needles for M. I thought I'd go through my stash and take stock of my UFOs (unfinished objects).

On the way upstairs, I passed a quilt that hangs there.
It's not intricate or fancy. I'd probably pick different fabrics now than I picked 14 years ago. But it's a quilt that hangs on my stairwell wall and warms by sight, rather than by weight. The quilting stitches anchor top layer and batting to bottom layer, but they also hold something intangible.

I made it when we lived in a small town in Idaho. The building where our little community voted was an old, one-room building constructed around World War II. One cold November day, when I signed in to vote, there was also a sign up sheet for quilting. I added my name to the list.

We met one evening each week. There were usually four or five of us on a good day. In the summer, evening breezes would roll in across the pea and wheat fields, carrying their distinct scents through the windows where we sat quilting. In the winter, we'd arrive in darkness, stomping the snow from our boots while one of the women lit the little kerosene stove for heat.

The quilt frame was held together by C-clamps, and when we'd completed as far as our arms could reach toward the center, we'd stop, loosen the clamps, roll up completed sections, scoot chairs closer, and get back to chatting and stitching. By the time a quilt was nearly done, we'd be sitting nearly face to face, knee to knee. The stitching brought us closer together.

We talked about current events, local news, aches and pains, recipes and diets, grown children and new grandchildren. When I first started quilting, I didn't have children, but in the time I quilted with them, I became a mom.

Eventually, the log cabin quilt I'd made found its way to the frame. We talked over it as the tamarack trees turned from green to golden, and as the air became scented with woodsmoke instead of summer scents.

And then we moved away. It was probably six months later that I unpacked the box where the log cabin quilt was folded and stored, complete. I turned back one corner, and smiled. There they were, in green ink, signatures stacked up on the back of the quilt, slanting lines that reached out warmly to me.

The ladies had all signed it--Jamie, Mary, Dee, Ruth, Earlene, Sherry, Kay. And if you look carefully at the quilt, you can see that there are signatures of another sort. Their stitches were all different, but unique to them. Small and precise, longer and slanted, short and far apart. Each stitch made in the rhythm of easy conversation.

The pattern itself is fine, and the colors are still pleasing to me, but it's the stitches and signatures that make this quilt my favorite. Quilting with others around a frame, as women have done for generations, adds an invisible layer to a quilt, one that's there between the stitches.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pin-Up Rooster

Roosters are not always welcome in urban settings. They tend to make a lot of noise at the most inappropriate times. They don't really just crow when dawn breaks. Sometimes they jump the gun because they just like the sound of their own voice. There's a reason they put roosters on weather VANES: Because they think so very highly of themselves.

Adolescent Cadbury: Rooster incognito
We did not intend to have a rooster, but chicks are notoriously hard to tell apart. You can improve your chances of getting a hen if you don't buy straight run (that means that no one has "sexed" the chicks--you're just taking your chances). But even if you choose your chicks from supposedly all pullets (hens-to-be) you still have about a 10 to 20 percent chance of ending up with a rooster instead of a hen.

The girls really wanted a Cuckoo Marans hen--a breed of chicken that lays very dark, mahogany colored eggs. "Chocolate" eggs. So one of the chicks we brought home was a Marans. M&L named her Cadbury, in reference to the eggs they anticipated.

Cadbury grew very fast. In fact, Cadbury began to get bigger than some of the hens we'd had longer. And then, Cadbury began to crow. A little like a gawky adolescent boy, croaky and tentative. Then he really found his voice. He also bossed the hens around. They'd be busily scratching, looking for bugs, foraging for food, and he'd be walking around wondering if anyone else had noticed how impressive he was. He chased Gertie in circles while she protested noisily, and pecked at the other hens as if that was an effective courtship strategy. One of L's friends, while visiting, suggested maybe we should change his name from Cadbury to Cluck Norris. But when he began crowing at 4 a.m., it became relatively obvious that Cadbury/Cluck Norris's days were numbered.

We had a very short discussion about possibly letting Cadbury reach roaster size and then processing him. That discussion came to a tearful halt within about 10 seconds. Thankfully, Kirk's sister offered to give Cadbury a home in the country with her flock of hens.

A couple of days later, Cadbury was carefully placed in a large dog crate in the car. For about half the drive to his new home, he made little clucky hen sounds, as if trying to convince us that, hey, no, really, he was a hen. Then he lost all composure and crowed the last 15 minutes of the ride.

He settled in fine. His tail feathers are growing out in decorative curls (except where a hen removed a few feathers to keep him in line). And in exchange we took home two sweet little Bantam hens--Oreo and Clover.

Cadbury might be a little deflated to know that the hens didn't seem to miss him. At all. But just to be sure that the rooster-less flock wasn't completely without a handsome cockerel, M&L carried home a find from a local thrift shop: a gold-framed portrait of a very regal (and silent) rooster. It hangs just over their waterer, a pin-up rooster in the hen house.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Gertie's Big Egg


Gertrude is easily the biggest hen. It’s always been that way, even when she was a little peep. We got her the same day, from the same batch, as Marigold, but she just was always a little bit bigger. At one point, we were afraid she was a rooster, and waited to see if she started crowing.

I think she's outdone the other hens.
Thankfully (since we were all pretty attached to her big self) she is not. She’s just a big hen, and she lays big eggs.

Yesterday I heard Gertie noisily giving the “I’ve laid an egg” announcement, so I checked the nesting boxes and found one small bantam egg, with a giant brown egg overshadowing it. I picked them both up, and was amazed. The small egg fit easily in my palm, a little smaller than an average sized grocery store egg. The other egg more than filled my palm, and I glanced over at Gertie, knowing just where that egg came from. “You are an overachiever, aren’t you?” I said to her.

I carried it inside and put it in the refrigerator egg bin. It was huge. A double yolk egg, no doubt.

Curious, I looked up egg sizes online. There are six sizes, based on weight. Peewee is the smallest, at 1.25 ounces. Jumbo, the biggest, weighs 2.5 ounces.

As I was reading online about eggs, I decided to look up the nutritional content of “backyard” chicken eggs. I remember hearing that free-range eggs tend to have lower cholesterol and higher Omega-3s.

According to Lara Jackson’s article on Associated Content : “Backyard eggs have approximately 25 percent more vitamin E, 75 percent more beta carotene, and as much as 20 times the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids as do factory farmed eggs. Perhaps best of all for those who avoid eating eggs due to worries about cholesterol, backyard eggs contain only about half as much cholesterol as factory farmed eggs.”

Backyard eggs definitely taste better—and the color is a very deep orange compared to the paler yellow of even “free range” grocery store eggs. But I wondered where Gertie’s egg fit on the grading scale.

I pulled my kitchen scale out and carefully placed a bantam egg on it. It weighed in at 1.3 ounces—just a little over peewee size, but not big enough to be a small egg, which weighs 1.5 ounces.

I tucked it back in the egg bin and pulled out Gertie’s egg, balancing it on the metal surface. It tipped the scales at a hefty 3.0 ounces. Twice the size of the bantam egg, and a full half-ounce beyond the jumbo weight.

I glanced outside. There was Gertie, our extra jumbo hen, fluffed up and happily taking a dust bath in the garden. No wonder she’d been clucking loudly over that egg.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Woolgathering


On Saturday, I’m taking my drop spindle and various wool and fiber samples to a fundraising effort for a garden restoration. We'll be selling jams, baked goods, heirloom veggies and plants to help recreate the garden according to the original, 100-year-old landscape plan. There will also be beekeeping, canning, and weaving demonstrations. I agreed to bring my spindle and some fiber samples for a small demonstration, and as usual, my spindle and wool have languished a bit through the heat of summer, tucked under my desk in a large box. Some organizing was in order, but it was too nice outside to work on it inside.


I carried the box outside to sort through it, pull out fiber samples that I wanted to take, and to decide which fiber to use for the demonstration. I have a basketful of snowy white alpaca in pencil roving that spins like air, so I twisted a little onto the leader and spun enough to get a good start on it. I pulled out some lambswool—Wensleydale, curly lengths of baby wool, soft and delicate. Then some mohair from my sister-in-law’s pygora goat—it was silky white and easy to see why it has been used for years to replicate Santa’s beard in Christmas decorations.

Together with some lovely wool my friend Paula sent me from England, I had a good stock of samples to share.

"Can you hear me NOW?" says Violet.
I let my mind wander as I sorted, thinking about M&L, work projects, and weekend plans, worrying over pressing thoughts and distant concerns when all of the sudden I saw a flurry of feathers and heard the chickens peripherally. I was on the patio, next to the fence, and looked over to see Violet was sitting on top of the privet bush right next to me, attempting to climb closer, over the fence. She was looking at me with consternation. I realized then that they’d been stirring about making noise and looking at me while I was standing there sorting wool, completely oblivious to them. Apparently, Violet had taken matters into her own… wings.

I picked Violet up out of the bush where she perched uneasily, and she clucked, discontented. And then I noticed that the wind had blown their coop door closed. I put Violet down, then walked over and opened it as she escorted me. I propped it open more securely with a brick, and three hens rushed in like they were late to church. One to the nesting box, and the other two to their water.

By way of an apology I hurried back to the house, found a few overripe nectarines, and carried them back out as a treat that was happily pecked to pieces in short order.

I told M about it later, wondering if they were really trying to get my attention or just impatient for treats. It seemed so intentional to me. They've never really tried to climb the shrubbery before.

M nodded without a trace of doubt. “Violet is a smart chicken.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Red Apples for a Gray Day


 It’s drizzly and cloudy outside, and I can see the hens scratching and pecking industriously, in spite of the cool, gray weather. It feels like fall, and I watch them forage busily as I carry in a box of apples, my own work ahead of me.

Maybe it’s the anticipation of rows of quart jars filled with cinnamon-specked sauce to be opened in the bluster of winter. Or maybe it’s some genetic memory of preserving the harvest. Whatever the reason, being in possession of a nice box of crisp new apples makes me smile.

Akane apples
These apples are “Akane” apples, a newer, early season variety that originated in Japan and is a cross between Jonathans and an English variety called Worcester Pearmain. It’s an apple that shines up to a high gloss, a beautiful pink-red color with bright green brushstrokes giving it a jaunty look. It’s one of some 2,500 varieties of apples grown in the United States. With bright white flesh, these are a nice balance of sweet and tart, well-suited to applesauce and apple butter and pie, but sweet enough to eat out of hand. They were grown just up the road, in the shadow of the Rockies.

I have a glimmer of memory that my great grandmother made rosy applesauce. For years, I thought she’d colored her applesauce with red cinnamon imperials. She did make deep red apple rings with cinnamon hearts, but it was only after I made applesauce with red-skinned apples that I realized where her applesauce had gotten its pink color. The skin itself lends an appetizing blush.
           
With the whisper of her memory at my elbow, I pour the apples into a sink full of cold water. I make applesauce, using an apple peeler to core, peel, and slice them. Then I set the peels and cores aside. Once I’m done with the applesauce, I boil the peels and cores in about 6 cups of water, extracting a pink juice that works perfectly for jelly.*

The scent of apples rise, and I put up about 8 quarts of cinnamon-sugar laced applesauce, and about 8 half-pints of jelly. The world had troubles boiling up when my great grandmother stood in her own kitchen making applesauce. And the world rages onward beyond my kitchen walls. But for the moment, there is peace in this harvest ritual, and it scents my kitchen with comfort.

*Boil peels and cores from 30 or so apples in 6 cups of water; strain through jelly bag or cheesecloth then, add enough water to make 7 cups. Stir in one box of powdered pectin, boil; add 8 cups sugar, 1 T. cinnamon; boil hard 2 minutes and fill clean jars leaving 1/4 –inch headspace. Process in a water bath canner as directed for your altitude.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My cat is a chicken.

Olive, relegated to the front yard.
That is, my cat is a scaredy cat. His name is Olive, named by my youngest daughter because he is a dark, smoky gray. He's kind of shaped like an olive, too. But he's handsome, if slightly bug-eyed. He's always been a timid cat--easily frightened by just about anything. He rarely puts in an appearance when visitors come over. But he's also my muse, stretching out sleepily next to my computer, or sitting on the floor willing me telepathically to add more food to his bowl.

We weren't sure what the cats would think of the chickens, but have been surprised by their practiced ambivalence. Olive is really the only one of the two who is allowed to go outside. The other one, MuShu, likes to bathe in the middle of the street. He is not the brightest crayon in the box, and therefore must remain indoors, but he does escape occasionally.

Olive has always been my garden cat. If I'm working in the garden, he likes to join me. The garden was his happy domain.

And then, the large birds showed up. I watched one morning as he moved in slow motion, inching closer to them, conjuring invisibility. The chickens paid him no attention. He moved closer, not wanting to appear interested, but wanting to get close enough for a good look.

He approached Marigold. Slowly, cautiously, with all his feline stealth. She looked at him.

He stopped and slowly turned around as if he hadn't really meant to notice her, making no sudden movements. Marigold eyed him imperiously, then suddenly took a few hurried steps with her beak leading the way, appearing as if she was about to peck Olive's behind. Olive jumped a foot in the air then ran as if his life depended on it, landing back in the front yard. 

Marigold turned around, unruffled, and returned to busily pecking and scratching for bugs.

It was a few days later when MuShu--on a rare foray outside--decided he might like to stalk and get close to them. But as soon as he realized he was spotted, he, too, ran, his dignity in shreds.

Hen-pecked. My poor cats have lost their claim to the backyard. They will sit and glower at the chickens from time to time, but have lost all interest in approaching them. Their new domain is the front porch and the front garden. Occasionally, if I'm in the backyard, Olive will walk over and claim me, with a wary eye on the chickens. As soon as one moves in his direction, he's gone.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Cluck Clique


They hang around together, three feathered amigas: Marigold, Paprika, and Lacy. They are the three hens who aren’t yet laying, and they go everywhere together, like high school girls that have to go to the bathroom in packs.
Roosting in the coop: Marigold, Paprika, and Lacy

Marigold is a Buff Orpington like Gertie, only smaller and not nearly as matronly. Paprika is our little red hen—a Rhode Island Red whose favorite perch is under the patio table. And Lacy is a Golden-Laced Wyandotte. She has beautiful feathers, and until Clover came along, she was at the bottom of the flock, which is why she pecks at Clover whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The three amigas.
The other day, Paprika managed to get herself on the other side of the fence. She was still safely inside the yard, but not with the girls, and she panicked like Henny Penny. I heard her making a racket and went out to try to help. THEN she became panicked because not only was she NOT on the same side of the fence as her friends, but the FOOD PERSON (me) was on the same side of the fence as her and was CHASING her (or, from my human perspective, trying to herd her through the gate.) You would have thought that I was intent on having chicken soup and had my eye on her as the main ingredient, because she was Alarmed.

I stopped trying to help. Marigold and Lacy watched with their heads high and their necks long. Paprika eyed me suspiciously. If a chicken can give the stink eye, that’s what she was doing.

So I decided to ignore her for a while and pretended to be interested only in my potato plants. She began to wonder if I’d found something good in the dirt, and (forgetting for a moment her prey status) came over to see what I was doing. I picked her up and put her on the other side of the fence. She ran to her friends as if she had somehow figured out how to get back to them all by herself. They all three glared at me suspiciously.

I’m not sure which of the three will be the next to lay. Marigold is the oldest, but Lacy seems a little bigger. Paprika is square in the middle in terms of size and age. 

I’ll be curious to see if they remain BFFs once one of their party joins the laying group.  Will the new laying hen go hang out with Violet and Gertie, or stay with her friends?

Stay tuned. I’ll let you know when one of them switches cluck cliques.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

You’re my peach, you’re my huckleberry


Peach Huckleberry Pie
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law visited from the Northwest a few days ago, and they brought me a gift: a package of freshly picked wild huckleberries. Fragrant, deeply wild aubergine, Northwest caviar. Enough to make an Idaho transplant weep.

Since we moved from the Northwest to Colorado, huckleberries have become a lost pleasure. Every summer, in the early days of our marriage, we headed out in the truck, berry buckets holding nothing but promise. We drove out into the mountains, the air cool, our chocolate lab, Chip, sitting between us on the bench seat. Sometimes we had a destination in mind. The high alpine openness of Freeze Out Ridge. Or an old cow camp by Elk River where Kirk had gathered huckleberries and cattle. Sometimes we just drove until an area looked promising.

Once we found a spot, we picked in silence—all three of us. Chip liked to eat them off the bushes like a bear, and we shooed him from the bush we were picking. They’re small berries, and it takes time to pick a few buckets full. Eventually, we stopped, our fingertips purple, and pulled out the cooler to have lunch where we were. Then we packed up all our precious cargo and rambled back down to the warmer elevations. 

At home, I poured our harvest into the white sink, and an occasional white spider wriggled out between the berries (usually to be carefully returned to the great outdoors). I filled the sink with water, and let my fingers run through the masses of berries, then picked off pine needles and huckleberry leaves and small twigs. If there was enough, I made jam and froze some for pies and pancakes. Huckleberry buckle—a dessert-like coffee cake—was a must. 

But it’s been ten years since we’ve had a freezer full of berries, and that gift of huckleberries was not only a culinary treat, but a trip back in time.  When I opened our refrigerator door to be greeted by the strong scent of huckleberries, I suddenly felt myself carried home to memories of picking huckleberries with Molly and Stuart, of sharing it with my parents when they’d visit. Of Christmas dinners where we’d open a jar of jam for buttermilk rolls. Huckleberries seasoned our years there, and I miss friends and family who are now so far away.  

There was about ¾ cup. They had to be put to the perfect use, rare treasures that they were. My sister-in-law had, long ago, made a peach huckleberry pie that I still remembered for its perfect blending of scents and balanced sweet-tart flavors. 

It is peach season in Colorado, and I had five perfect peaches from my Colorado sister-in-law sitting on the kitchen counter.

A marriage that was meant to be. I rolled out my piecrust, thinking about how those huckleberries, dark and aromatic, had grown through cool Idaho mornings and ripened as deer and elk rambled by. They’d been through thundering, northwest spring storms, and bird-song evenings.

I skimmed the skin from the peaches, and carefully sliced them as the juice rolled to my elbows. They had grown on Colorado’s Western Slope, in the relative domesticity of a peach orchard, ripening under blue skies in the heat of Colorado’s sun, miles from where the huckleberries were ripening.

I mixed them together, deep purple blending with golden yellow, a touch of cinnamon, sugar and flour. There, in my pie pan, they spoke of our past and our present, of the place we loved and where our marriage was young, where our children were born, and of the place we’d come to where our children were growing and we were still finding our way. Sweet and tart.