Monday, December 19, 2011

Dual Purpose Breed

I got a dual purpose breed of chicken for one reason: I was planning on eating them.  In hindsight, I really should have gotten a bunch of different breeds like my friend, Paula. She had 5 chickens and each of them lays a different coloured egg. This is a good way to get into raising chickens because you can learn first hand which is the right breed for you and you can tell which hen is laying which egg based on the egg colour which helps you weed out poor layers. Also, it's just fun seeing the different markings and temperaments displayed by chickens. They really do have distinct personalities.

I really enjoy my Speckled Sussex hens. They laid well last winter, they're docile, and they're very attractive birds. The only downside is that they're huge. I mean, they are ginormous birds. Which translates into a very low egg:feed ratio.  I think I'd like to try a couple of different breeds and choose one that I really like before I get a rooster of the selected breed.

Initially, I wanted to get all the same breed for a couple of reasons. The first is that I didn't want to be able to tell my hens apart.  My three rules for killing an animal are that one must never anthropomorphize,  name, or otherwise know said animal on a personal level. Secondly, I was hoping to get a rooster of the same breed as my hens and then get chicks every year. I'd raise the pullets for egg production and eat the cockerels when they were big enough to be processed.

I figured I would have no problems killing my chickens. I'm not a particularly squeamish person.  I step on mice, I kill spiders with my bare hands,  I had a job harvesting organs from lab rats. But for some reason the thought of killing my birds makes me terribly sad. They get so excited to see me ( rule #1: out the window) and they have such distinct personalities that it's hard not to be able to tell them apart. For example: Mean Chicken jumps at me every time I bring treats into the coop for them.  (And there go rules 2 and 3)

So at this point I'm attached to 4 huge chickens who AREN'T LAYING EGGS!

They molted in the late fall and since then, I've gotten maybe 5 eggs from them.  Practically speaking, they need to go.  Now I have 2 options that I can see if I want to switch breeds.

Plan A:  Since it's a bad idea to stick new chickens in the same coop with your established flock, I'd need to build a second coop, get new pullets, and then let my old hens free-range until they die of old age or get eaten by a coyote. The latter will probably come first. I call this the "Let Nature Take It's Course" plan.

Plan B: Find a sharp knife and slaughter my hens.  I call this the "Man Up" plan.

So that is my dilemma. Suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Puppy It's Cold Outside

In the summer, Oatmeal is miserable in our Tennessee heat. He sheds and pants and is generally a very unhappy camper. Meanwhile, Emmy is happy and comfortable as all get-out.

In the winter, the tides change.  Emmy gets a downy undercoat but it's not particularly thick. My little girl gets all cold and shivery so I bought her a jacket. If you'll allow me to anthropomorphise my dog, I'd say she's incredibly embarrassed to be seen in the little pink number I bought but she tolerates it like the good little girl she is.   I love this picture where she's looking at Oatmeal thinking, "Why doesn't he have to wear this dumb thing."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Homemade Granola

Ben and I love granola but it's really expensive to buy.  I like to make my own using ingredients that I buy in bulk. I bet you can make this using ingredients that you have in your pantry right now.  Like most of my recipes, this one is an amalgamation of a bunch of different recipes that I found online.  It's simple and you can change up the ingredients so you're not eating the same thing every week.

Ben's Favourite Granola


3 c old fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
2 c nuts
3/4 c shredded coconut
1/4 c brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 c vegetable oil
1/4 c maple syrup
3/4 t kosher salt
1 t spice
1 t vanilla or any other extract (optional)
1 c dried fruit


In a large bowl combine oats, nuts, coconut, and brown sugar. I usually do a mixture of nuts. My standard is 1 cup pecans and 1 cup slivered almonds. But you can jazz it up by adding walnuts, macadamia nuts, or a mixture of whatever you have in your pantry.

In a smaller bowl whisk together oil, syrup, salt, spice, and vanilla. Again, feel free to experiment with the spices. I've been adding apple pie spice, but you can add cinnamon, a pinch of cloves, or a mixture of whatever you have handy. Oh I just thought of something: You could even go crazy and add a little pinch of cardamom, I bet that'd be good. Mmmm, cardamom... Where was I?  Oh yes...

Pour spice mixture over the dry ingredients and stir to coat.

Pour mixture onto 2 sheet pans (preferably pans with sides because you're going to stir the granola as it cooks and you don't want to lose any of the deliciousness). Place the pans on the middle rack of an oven preheated to 250F for 1h15m. Stir every 15 minutes. I like to use two timers. I set one for 1h15m and the other I set in 15 minute increments as I tend to get distracted easily and will often forget to stir.

Finally, transfer the granola into a large bowl and add the dried fruit. I typically add raisins because they are cheap and delicious but you can add craisins, chopped up dried apples, or whatever you have handy.

Once everything is cool I like to store my granola in glass jars.  Enjoy this as a snack served on top of yoghurt, in a bowl with some milk for breakfast, or just munch on it out of the palm of your hand!

Let me know if anyone comes up with fun flavour combinations!

Monday, December 5, 2011

I Like Burnin' Stuff

While Ben and I always intended to turn the garage into a living room, we initially didn't think about adding the wood stove until my brother Matt said "You should put in a wood stove." He's always full of grand ideas and this was one of his best.  I love my wood stove.  It's a large, 650-degree, cast-iron toy. I think that if you're going to heat your house with wood you've got to think of it as a hobby or else it will become tedious very quickly.

There are many different kinds of stoves out there.  Pellet stoves, for one, burn compressed wood or biomass pellets. They're efficient, and require a lot less work than a wood stove. I, however, love the romance of a wood fire. There are essentially two different kinds of wood stoves, catalytic and non-catalytic.

Catalytic stoves send the exhaust through a honeycomb shaped ceramic catalyst that burns smoke at significantly lower temperatures (about 600F). This turns smoke and other pollutants that would normally be sent up the chimney into usable heat.  The result is a long, slow, and cleaner burn.  From what I know of non-catalytic stoves, they use air injection to burn combustible gasses in a secondary combustion chamber.  The benefits of each are as follows:

Catalytic : Cleaner exhaust, more even heat output, an overnight burn, higher efficiency

Non-Catalytic: More "lively" fire (I'm not exactly sure what that means), no catalytic combustor to maintain and replace, easier to operate

Ben and I want to supplant most - if not all - of our heating by using the wood stove so we decided to install a Defiant catalytic stove from Vermont Castings. I think the company tries to sell this stove as a two-in-one catalytic and non-catalytic stove. But you would operate it in the same manner as a catalytic stove.

Operating a Catalytic Stove
To get it started initially, what I like to call a 'cold start,' crumple up about 5 pieces of newspaper. One of the drawbacks to having a catalytic stove is that you must be watchful about what you're burning, meaning no glossy magazines, or cereal boxes though I suppose that's a good thing because burning the coatings on those types of things leaches toxins into the air and are, generally speaking, not very earth-friendly to burn. I even avoid newspaper pages with lots of ink on them, meaning the Art's section usually gets tossed into the recycling bin.

Next, place small kindling on top the paper (your sticks and twigs) followed by larger kindling (your branches and small logs).

Light the fire, starting at the back of the firebox so that you don't burn your little fingers.

Close the door. In theory, a well engineered stove and chimney will do the rest. The paper will light the twigs. The twigs will light the logs and you've got yourself a rip roarin' fire.  However, sometimes you may need to "prime" your chimney to give yourself a good draft. You can do this by loosely crumpling up some newspaper and throwing it in the back of the fire box. Repeat until a good draft is established. The goal is to warm the chimney so that the warm air starts rising and creates a draft.  The best chimneys are shorter and located in the interior of the house.  The heat from house keeps the chimney warm and makes it that much easier to create a draft.  Furthermore, a chimney that runs up the interior of the house will repay the favour and warm the house better than a chimney on an exterior wall.  Ben and I designed a tall chimney on the exterior of the house.  Subsequently, we need to prime the chimney to get a good pull, especially on really cold days.

Once you've got your fire started, keep feeding it logs until the ember bed is about 1-2 inches thick.  Once the ember bed is established (this could take up to an hour), and the surface heat is above 450F, close the damper to operate the stove in catalytic mode.  If equipped, use the primary air handler like a thermostat to adjust the heat output.

When it's time to go to bed, I load up the firebox and push the air handler all the way back to reduce the amount of air getting into the firebox to create a slow burn.

A Hot Start
In the morning I awake to a stove that's about 350F and still has a good ember bed.

This is a good time to de-ash the stove.  To do this: open up the damper. Take a fireplace shovel and move the ashes around so that they fall through the grate into the ash pan below. While wearing gloves, swing open the ash pan and carefully lift out the ash pan. Properly dispose of the ashes and return the ash pan.

Put in a couple of smaller logs and when they catch fire close the damper. When the fire reaches 450F use the air handler to control the heat output.

Wow. That was lengthy, and I really just scratched the surface of the Wonderful World of Burnin' Stuff.  A couple of take away thoughts are as follows for those of you who just look at the pictures and forgo my verbosity.

Tips for Buying and Operating a Wood Stove
The number one tip I would offer is to be honest about how much work you want to put into the stove.  If you don't want to spend a couple of weekends hauling and splitting wood, it's probably best to buy a pellet stove.

Secondly, look for a stove with as many conveniences as possible.  A swing out ash door may not seem like a big deal at the time, but when you've got to clean out the ash every day, it makes a big difference.

If you're set on a wood stove, try to gauge what is important to you.  If you want your stove to fire through the night or you are looking for a stove that burns clean consider a catalytic stove.  If you want as little maintenance as possible and to have a lively fire (I still have no clue what that means) opt for a non-catalytic stove.

Lastly, buy a wood stove thermometer so that you can better control your heat output and avoid overfiring your stove.

Preserving Beet Greens

I try to preserve vegetables from our garden using methods that do not require the use of the freezer and, subsequently, energy. I find canning and drying to be the best methods to preserve. However, sometimes those methods don't yield a pleasing result, especially with delicate items with a high water content such as beet greens.  Beet greens are actually quite delicious. You can substitute beet greens for any recipe that calls for spinach or Swiss chard but be warned that the dish will turn a rather dramatic pink. I made pasta in a white sauce and threw in some beet greens and informed Ben that we were eating "Princess Pasta" that night. You can mitigate the aforementioned pink-ness by cooking the greens separately from the main dish and then throwing them in right before serving.

The best method I've found to preserve greens is to freeze them. The downside is that you use up precious space in your freezer, but the benefits - good texture and colour, and nutrient retention - far outweigh the drawbacks.

The Process

First, clean off a space to work. My mom informs me that the key to safe preserving is to make sure anything that comes in contact with the food is really clean. Microorganisms are the source of food spoilage. By reducing the amount of bacteria, mold and yeast that are present at the time of preservation, the food will be safer when it comes time to eat.

Start a large pot of cool-fresh water on the stove.

Clean off any dirt on the greens by rinsing the whole leaves under cold water.

Cut off the tough red stalks.

On a clean cutting board, chop up the greens into nice, bite-sized pieces. At this point, I sometimes give the greens an extra rinse under the water but if you did a thorough job on the first rinse, this may not be necessary.

Make sure the pot of water is at a strong boil.

Place all of the greens in the water and boil for about 3 minutes - a process called blanching. The point of blanching is to kill off any microorganisms that may be present.

When the timer goes off, drain off the hot water and stop the cooking process by running cold water over the greens or placing them into a large bowl of ice water.

Drain off the water and place the greens into containers. If you want to save space you can place the greens into sealable plastic bags. I'm generally wary of plastic being around my food so I place the greens into glass containers. I put enough in each to make up a family sized serving. Then just place the containers in the freezer where they'll be fresh for up to a year.  The morning that I'm going to use the greens, I simply take the container out of the freezer and place it into the fridge to thaw by dinnertime.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Hearth Room

Ben and I fell in love with our land immediately. It featured an adorable little farm house, a super-cool barn, lots of space for our dogs to roam, a fenced-in pasture, a chicken coop, rabbit hutch, goat run-in, oh the list goes on... There was just one little hiccup. The interior of the house was not as super-awesome as the aforementioned amenities found on the property itself (though it did have a lot of charm).  We decided to just go for it - the manner in which most of my good decisions are made (see generally: Emmy).  But while I was signing purchase agreements, and other real estate type documents, in my mind,  I was tearing down walls.  I wish I would have taken more pictures from before we embarked upon our renovation, but I'll share what I do have, and try to take corresponding pictures so that you guys can see just how far we've come.

The Exterior

My idea was to turn the garage into a living room.  We're not garageless now though. There is a detached garage that we always used, even when the garage was still a garage. You can see it in the back left (marked with a star).

We hired someone to build a chimney (though I think we could have done it ourselves) and framed in the wall where the garage door was located.

The chimney is really quite striking. We'll need to repaint the house at some point and I'd like to change the colour of the roof. But for now, I'm happy when I pull in the driveway and see smoke gently puffing up from the chimney on a cold winter's eve with the Ash and Oak standing silently guard... Actually I'm lying. We have a catalytic stove so there's no gentle puffing but that makes for poor imagery - albeit a happier earth.

The Interior

When we first bought the place and I gave tours to people, I would open the door into the garage and say: "And this will be the living room." A comment to which I received mainly silence and politely skeptical looks. To their credit, the garage looked like this:


Ben did the electrical in our remodeling project. He's a genius with electrons and circuits and the like. The door you see in this picture led to our future master bedroom (more on that later). We framed in the door. The wall to the left was removed. We put in shiny new ducts for central air - which will help with resale as well as make me a happier lady during the hottest of our Tennessee summer nights. Now the room from this angle looks like this: 

Ben and I read... a lot.  Right now one of the upstairs bedrooms has books piled up to the ceiling and falling all over the floor. We were thinking maybe we'd turn this little adjacent room into a library:

We tore out another wall for access to this room. We also put in some windows along the front wall and reworked some of the electrical. We dug out a bunch of pavers - which are being used for a lovely composter that is in the process of being built - and poured concrete for the slab.  Now this little room looks like this:

The washer and dryer used to be in the front entrance hidden by a partition wall. We moved the plumbing into another room, which we like to call the laundry room, and removed the partition. We also framed out a small closet under the stairs for winter coats and shoes and such. We ripped up the carpet, tile in the front entrance, and laminate going up the stairs and installed a rustic looking bamboo floor from Cali Bamboo. We chose the scraped wide plank java.  It's tough as nails, which is wonderful if you have two crazy puppy dogs. 




The best part is the catalytic wood-burning stove we installed. Ben and I installed the stone veneer in one weekend, it was fairly simple and it makes such a dramatic backdrop to the cast-iron stove.

We still have a couple of things that we need to finish up but all the big stuff is done. Sometimes when Ben and I are sitting in the hearth room I like say: "Hey, remember when this was a garage?"