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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Peace on Earth and in the back hall too

The chicks spent Christmas Day in a cage behind bars yet loved every minute of it! It had been a week of severe weather and they’d already been in the house a couple of times. When windchill predictions reach minus 25°F below zero at night, we all sleep better when under the same roof. The chicks are always eager to go outside the next day however, for fresh air and a chance to spread their wings.

Christmas Eve started out relatively warm and sunny and the girls stayed outside during the day protected from the wind but feeling the warmth of the sun. By the time we arrived home after our traditional Christmas Eve celebration and midnight church, the temperature was below zero. It had been a long day and we all wanted nothing more than to go directly to bed.

I really hadn’t expected cold weather that night so had no plans to bring the girls in. As we trudged inside I started debating with myself. I really didn’t want to bring them inside, after all I was all dressed up, it was after midnight and I was exhausted. Plus, we had company coming over the next day. On the other hand, how could I leave them outside in the freezing cold on this night of all nights? I didn’t want to leave the girls outside, but I really didn’t want to have our house smelling like a barn the next day with company coming.

As with children or household pets, chicken owners have a responsibility to provide safe care. So eventually my better side won out and into the house they came. I’ve developed a system for getting them into the house with a minimum of fuss, even when starting the process after midnight. I cover the back entryway with a large piece of heavy-duty plastic then place a large dog kennel on top. The floor of the kennel gets covered with paper grocery sacks. I’ve found through trial and error that grocery bags are much better than newspaper as chickens love to scratch, peck and eat newspapers creating a huge mess. I carry the chicks in one by one and cover the kennel with a large blanket, like you’d do with parakeets. The girls usually drop right off to sleep making soft mumblings that sound warm and very happy.

The chicks hardly made a sound when I brought them in Christmas Eve and they all went immediately to sleep. We slept in a bit in the morning and I awoke expecting to hear a chorus of hungry chicks ready for action. To my surprise, they were quiet all morning. Whether it was the spirit of the day, the warmth of the heat near their kennel or the Christmas carols playing on the stereo, they ate their special Christmas breakfast of fresh corn kernels and softly cooed while listening to the family opening presents in the other room. I waited for the noise and usual bickering to begin—the girls often act just like siblings when forced into too much togetherness—but they stayed quiet. As I readied everything for our Christmas Day celebration I kept waiting for them to give me a sign that they were now ready to go outside. Usually they let me know that they’re tired of being in the small crate but on Christmas they never let out a peep. It was as if they decided “If they don’t hear us maybe we won’t have to go into the cold today.”

We had a lovely Christmas Day party and the chicks seemed to enjoy it. They clucked along with the carols and seemed to love the commotion in the other rooms. A faint aroma of barn lingered in the back hall but no one seemed to mind. The chicks had a warm special Christmas this year and we learned it’s okay to bring a bit of living Nativity stable inside, especially on the most special of nights, Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Holidays



Still looking for that last minute present? Consider giving a flock of chickens. For $20.00 you can purchase a flock of chickens through HEIFER INTERNATIONAL. A starter flock of 10 to 50 chicks will be given to a family in need somewhere around the world. The flock can help alleviate hunger and poverty in one family. Your chickens can provide the lifesaving gift of food for the children. The sale of eggs can add to the family income, in fact, many families have managed to send their children to school through the sale of eggs. Even chicken compost has its benefits by building up the poor soil.

Contact to donate online or call (800-698-2511). I've been donating for years and am impressed by their work. They have received support and testimonials from such noted journalists, actors and politician as Walter Cronkite, Ed Asner, former Presidents Carter and Clinton and former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Under the category of "YOU REALLY SHOULDN'T HAVE," I received two white elephants gifts this year from friends who found cast-off gifts in the back of their cupboards they felt I really should have.

The first is an interesting retro gadget called the Egg Cuber. This device takes a peeled hard-cooked egg and compresses it into a square. Why anyone would want square eggs, I'm not sure, but hey, if the Japanese can sell square watermelons at top yen just think of where square eggs will lead me!

The second special gift is called an Eggstractor. This 8-inch plastic accordion-shaped device peels hard-cooked eggs. Apparently you place a hard-cooked egg in the center of the contraption and press. The egg pops out the bottom completely peeled (or should once you get the hang of it. According to the instructions it will take some practice.....)

Intrigued? You can find the Egg Cuber at for $2.99 or get the vintage model for $19.99 on eBay at

Get the Eggstractor at for $14.95 before supplies run out!

Or, make me an offer and I may be willing to re-gift as my friends did!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Salted Ginger Crisps

Espresso Chocolate Squares

A chocolate base and coffee filling combine the best of both worlds in this riff on a great cup of mocha java. I developed this recipe for the Wisconsin Butter Board. Check out this recipe and other great recipes on their website

Espresso Chocolate Squares
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1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1/2 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon instant espresso coffee powder
2 (8 ounces) packages cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 eggs

6 tablespoons miniature semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon instant espresso coffee powder

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 9x13-inch baking pan with foil; butter bottom of foil.

Whisk together 1 1/4 cups flour, confectioners’ sugar and cocoa together in medium bowl; add 3/4 cup butter. Using a pastry blender or 2 knives, cut in butter until butter is the size of small peas. Stir in 1/2 cup chocolate chips; press into bottom of pan. Bake 20 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean; cool slightly.

Meanwhile, stir 1/4 cup cream and 1 tablespoon instant espresso together until coffee is dissolved. Using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and 1/4 cup butter together. Add sugar, 1 tablespoon flour and allspice; beat until blended. Slowly beat in cream and coffee mixture. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth. Pour batter over crust.

Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until edges are slightly puffed and center is set; set pan on a cooling rack.

Melt 6 tablespoons chocolate chips with 1 tablespoon cream, 1/2 tablespoon butter and 1/4 teaspoon instant espresso in medium saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. Drizzle over bars and refrigerate until set. Cover and store bars in refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Makes 24 bars

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Northern Chicks

After wondering if I’d ever have more than one chick laying eggs this winter, Roxanne laid a perfect latte-tinged egg yesterday. It was cause for celebration! We really missed her eggs. Cleo’s been hanging in there by laying every other day and with Roxanne laying, we’ll now get double the eggs. Hopefully Lulu will get back on schedule shortly.

With the snow, cold and short days, I’m surprised any of them are laying. The first sight of snow stopped all three chicks dead in their tracks as they emerged from their coop a few mornings ago. They’d apparently wiped all memories of last winter out of their minds; it’s probably a good thing. Last winter was harsh, a far cry from the mild winters we had been experiencing. The girls responded by refusing to place their dainty feet anywhere near the snow. I made straw paths for them to walk on, but they rarely left their coop or enclosed run.

This year their reaction to the first snowfall seemed to predict a second year of self-imposed huddling in the run. However, by the second day they became brave and actually frolicked in the snow. They ran in the snow, scratched in it and ate it—Lulu in particular. She’d look up with a mustache of snow on her beak like she was posing for the “Got Milk?” campaign.

Got Snow?

Everyone is always interested in how I keep the chicks warm during the winter. Often they're surprised to discover the chicks live outside even during a Minnesota winter. Actually, a chicken can adjust to cold weather easier than it can to extreme heat. Chickens don’t have sweat glands so they have no way of cooling their body, especially because most of it is covered with feathers. If the temperature gets above 95°F. they begin to suffer and will pant like a dog.

Chickens rely on each other’s body heat to keep warm by huddling together. While the Beach Boys weren’t singing about chickens, the sentiment still applies “And the Northern girls…. keep their boyfriends warm at night.” My Northern chicks are each other’s best source of heat and keep each other warm at night.

To help them further cope with the cold I rely on technology. This year I purchased a new infrared heater for the coop from Sweeter Heater Because my coop is small I got the smallest model, and placed it on the ceiling where it radiates heat onto the birds as they roost. The best part about the heater is it will not burn the birds if they accidentally touch it. Roxanne stretches her legs so she can get her head as close as possible to the heater.

The birds also have an Igloo-Style Heated Pad that’s designed for outdoor pets The heating pad can be easily cleaned and rises to the animal’s body temperature as they sit on it. Cleo loves this.

I also provide a ceramic heat lamp in a protected shade. It’s the same type of heater that’s used in reptile tanks. It has a rheostat to adjust the heat. The lamp is located over the nest and Lulu has chosen this as her favorite spot. All three heaters work together to keep the coop warm. How warm varies with the temperature and the wind. I also cover the outside of the Eglu coop with heavy wool blankets to provide extra insulation.

The chicks’ run is covered in heavy-duty clear plastic. This acts as a wind break but allows the sun to shine in creating a mini greenhouse effect. Even the water dispenser is protected with its own heater so the water won’t freeze.

I’m able to keep an eye on the entire set-up by monitoring the temperature inside the coop via a wireless thermometer located in my kitchen. I can pour a latte and whip up Roxanne’s precious egg while at the same time making sure the girls are cozy and warm.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Spiced Pumpkin Soup

This year I decided to cook my Halloween pumpkin rather than relegating it to the compost heap. I was particularly excited to share the pumpkin with the chicks and give them a little variety in their diet. They love leftovers and kitchen scraps—it’s one of the great reasons to keep chickens—they’re better than a garbage disposal.

Wielding my foot-long chef’s knife I hacked the pumpkin in two. Instead of cutting it up I decided to offer the girls a little excitement on this chilly gray day by letting them have the entire half pumpkin to peck at during the afternoon. I proudly carried it out to them and placed it on the ground with a flourish. They didn’t jump up and down with excitement as they often do. They acted like I had just offered them a Halloween trick in the form of a Trojan pumpkin. With suspicion they walked gingerly around it, being careful not to get too close. Apparently they’re well versed in Greek mythology. Being aware of the Trojans’ fate, they decided not to open their gift and risk attack. Hoping to entice them, I sprinkled their favorite cracked corn inside, but to no avail. Their attitude said “You can’t fool us with the attack pumpkin trick.” The poor pumpkin sat there all day without a single peck.

The Trojan Pumpkin

Would they would have been more interested if I had shared some of the Spiced Pumpkin Soup I made with the other half of the pumpkin? Probably. I think I’ve created little gourmet snobs out of my chicks. See the Italian Chicks blog.

Spiced Pumpkin Soup
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This rich creamy soup is made without cream! Rice is the secret ingredient that creates the smooth richness in this soup as it’s blended into a silky consistency. It’s delicately flavored with the Indian spices of garam masala and saffron. Garam masala is a spice blend fragrant with cinnamon, cloves, cumin and black pepper. It can be purchased in the spice aisle or the ethnic section of well-stocked supermarkets, Indian markets or you can create your own. The tastiest pumpkin to use is a sugar pumpkin, also called a pie pumpkin. They’re smaller than the large jack-o-lanterns. Butternut squash and other squash are tasty alternatives for the pumpkin.

1 ½ large onions, chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced
6 cups cubed pumpkin or butternut squash (1-inch)
1 (32 oz.) container lower-sodium chicken broth
1 sprig fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon garam masala or ground cinnamon combined with pinches of ground cloves and cumin
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch of saffron threads, crushed
¼ cup basmati rice or white long grain rice
¼ cup plain yogurt (nonfat is fine)

Stir the onions and oil together in a large pot over medium heat until the onions are coated. Cover and cook 5 minutes to sweat the onions (the onions will glisten and be slightly softened). Uncover and cook 5 to 8 minutes or until the onions are golden brown, stirring frequently. Stir in the garlic and cook 1 minute, stirring continually. Stir in the pumpkin.

Pour the chicken broth over the pumpkin and stir in the thyme, garam masala, salt, pepper and saffron. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in the rice and reduce the heat to medium-low or to the point where it maintains a gentle boil. Cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and cook for 30 minutes or until the pumpkin and the rice are tender, stirring now and then.

If you have a hand blender (also called an immersion blender), use the hand blender to blend the soup in the pot until smooth. Otherwise, cool the soup to lukewarm and blend it in batches. Fill the blender container half to three-quarters full and pulse until the soup is smooth.

Whisk together 1/4 cup of the blended soup with the yogurt. Stir half of the yogurt mixture back into the soup and reserve the remaining mixture for the garnish.

Serve the soup warm with a dollop of the yogurt mixture swirled in the center.

Serves 4 (1 ½ cup servings)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Chickens are Good for Your Health

I knew it; chickens are good for you! Certainly their eggs are. A new study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that people who ate 2 eggs at breakfast lost 65 percent more weight, on average, than those who ate the same number of calories in a breakfast of bagels. Plus, egg-eaters had higher energy levels and didn’t experience an increase in “bad” cholesterol.

Free-Range Eggs from the Swingin’ Chicks

For more information, check out the following article from the National Health & Wellness Club newsletter for November 4, 2008 Eggs Help you Lose Weight:

Now, if only someone would do a study confirming my theory that holding and petting a chicken in your lap decreases blood pressure, then the Backyard Chicken Revolution really would take off.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Chickens are Hatching…. a Plot—not Eggs!

I’ve been working a lot of hours recently and I think the chickens are busy scheming. They’ve been in their run more than usual because I’m not home. By the time I do get home it’s soon dark so they haven’t been doing much running in the backyard. Today I came home early to discover the chicks had been up to something. I think they’re trying to escape.

They’d been digging in their run all day and there were three big holes. A deep hole under the water bowl, another one halfway down the run and a third one near the coop. It looked like they were enacting The Great Escape or maybe Chicken Run. (I think Crazy Lulu would love the Steve McQueen role, she seems the motorcycle type!)

Chickens love digging in the dirt. They spend all day scratching for food, grubs and other goodies. They also lay on their sides and kick dirt onto themselves forming shallow holes in the process. The dirt actually keeps them clean. As the hens kick, the fine dirt settles on their feathers and filters through to their skin. They’ll usually roll around rubbing the dirt into their pores before shaking like a wet dog scattering the dirt and debris away. It’s their way of keeping parasites from attaching to their skin. When they’re done, they walk away looking as clean as if they’d bathed in water. (Aren’t you dog owners jealous?)

If chickens don’t have a place to dust-bathe they’ll create one. My chicks usually love the scrubby part of the garden behind the garage and I’ll often find them there when they seem to have disappeared. For those who have or want an immaculate backyard, it’s best to provide an area for the chicks to roll around in or they’ll create one themselves. I’ve heard they’ll even bathe in a flowerpot or large pan of sand but mine seem to prefer the dirt by the garage. When they’re denied access to it I guess they start digging tunnels.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Israeli Vegetable Tart

I now have two chicks swingin’ their hips with feathers flying in the wind. Lulu has joined Roxanne and started molting. Casting off a coat of feathers and growing new ones takes a tremendous amount of energy leaving nothing additional for egg laying. With Roxanne still littering the yard with her own feathers, it means Cleo is the only one laying. She’s been trying to do her part but the weather is cool and she’s also slowing down.

We’re eating fewer eggs as a result. While longing for an egg dish, albeit one that needs only a few eggs, I came upon this wonderful recipe which uses only two eggs. It’s filled with Mediterranean vegetables and crowned with feta cheese and nuts.

Israeli Vegetable Tart
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I adapted this recipe from a beautiful new book on Israeli cooking The Book of New Israeli Food by Janna Gur. The tart is called a pashtida, which is Hebrew for any dish (with or without a crust) baked with eggs and cheese and filled with vegetables, meat or fish.

Dough for 1 (9-inch) single pie crust

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small eggplant, chopped ½-inch (about 3 cups)
1 medium onion, halved, sliced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 small zucchini, chopped (1 cup)
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 eggs
½ cup half and half
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

¾ cup halved cherry tomatoes
3/4 cup coarsely chopped feta cheese
2 tablespoons pine nuts or chopped walnuts

Place an oven rack on the bottom setting. Heat the oven to 400°F. Line a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom with the pie dough, extending the sides slightly above the top of the tart pan. Cover and refrigerate while preparing the filling.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the oil over the eggplant and toss in a medium bowl. Spread the eggplant in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until the eggplant is lightly browned. Cool completely.

Meanwhile, sauté the onion in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is lightly browned. Add the zucchini to the onion and continue sautéing 2 to 3 minutes or until the zucchini is lightly browned. Stir in the garlic and cook 30 seconds or until the garlic becomes fragrant. Cool completely.

Whisk together the eggs, half and half, salt and pepper. Scatter the eggplant over the bottom of the tart and top with the onion and zucchini mixture. Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables then float the tomatoes, cut side up, in the cream. Arrange the cheese and nuts over the vegetables. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and place the tart pan in the center.

Bake the tart with the baking sheet on the bottom oven rack 35 to 40 minutes or until the crust is lightly browned and a knife inserted into the custard comes out clean.

Serves 6

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chicken Terror

The chickens are terrified this week. Chilling sounds are emanating from beyond the arborvitae wall: The high-pitched whine of an industrial-size dentist’s drill, rapid-fire popping of metal interspersed with rhythmic clangs and banging doors opening and closing without end. The cacophony is brought to a crescendo by the high-volume blast of Classic Rock. Our neighbor’s house is being re-sided.

The chicks cannot see the workers, they can only hear the noise. With each new sound I watch the chickens as they visibly shrink, hoping to disappear. Their nerves are shattered and they’re not laying.

Yesterday gunshots entered the fray! A 3-shot gun salute blasted from the nearby cemetery. The chicks acted like they’d each been shot. With heads turning wildly and eyes bulging crazily, they darted for cover shrieking a chorus of high A’s.

Chicken Little times three.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Artistic Coops

Take a look at a couple of creative coops and a proud chicken owner in the Twin Cities. We visited them last month as part of the Parade of Coops! tour (see the September 16, 2008 post Parade of Coops!). We recently found the photos after they’d been lost and we’re thrilled to bring them to you.

A backyard chicken coop is more than just a place to house hens. It’s a landscape feature in your garden. Whether it's store bought, a kit or homemade think about how the color and design will go with your surroundings. Check out the Her Patch of Green feature in the current issue (October 2008) of This Old House magazine for inspiration. The artistic coop located in a Seattle backyard will interest you. For other interesting coop designs look at

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Lulu of an Egg

Crazy Lulu’s at it again. A few days ago while letting the chicks out to free-range I noticed her back area looked wet. With much concern, I tried to get a closer look. The Wild One didn’t let me get close. We were a funny sight as doubled over I almost tripped trying to sneak up on her. As she scurried away she suddenly began to waddle strangely and I became more worried.

All of a sudden in the middle a waddle out pops an egg! But it’s no ordinary egg—it’s a pre-peeled egg. The normal-sized egg was fully formed with a yolk, white and membrane. The only thing lacking was the beautiful pale blue shell. Because the membrane was surprisingly strong, I was able to pick the egg up and gently clean it before cooking it in lightly simmering water. It was delightful.

Egg Without Shell Before Cooking

After Cooking

We’ve had a few problems with Lulu laying soft eggs recently and we’re not sure why. Her diet is balanced and she eats oyster shells daily to add calcium for strong shells. She’s not sick and the other chicks are fine. I’ve discussed her situation with a vet who specializes in chickens and she’s stumped. I’ve also asked a local group of chicken enthusiasts but no one seems to have any answers. Maybe she’s starting to molt and it’s a symptom. I hope it stops soon.

I’ve never seen one of my chicks lay an egg in 1½ years. I know some people have put mini-cams in their coops but I don’t have a voyeuristic streak so I’ve avoided that route. Lulu’s recent egg drop was my first time. Even though it wasn’t a normal egg, it was still exciting.

I’ve created a dish in honor of Crazy Lulu’s egg. Even if you don’t have your own pre-peeled eggs, you’ll love the following recipe featuring softly cooked eggs.

Autumn Salad with Crisp Bacon, Apples and Softly Cooked Eggs

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I love the taste of softly cooked eggs in salads. In this salad the tender white of the eggs combined with the soft yolks create the perfect contrast to the crisp tangy apple and the smoky bacon. Use the famous applewood-smoked Neuske’s Bacon for the best flavor.

I’ve recently been introduced to Northern Lights Blue cheese and its creamy sweet peppery flavor is the perfect match for this salad. It’s made at the University of Minnesota and can be found in many Twin Cities cheese shops. For those of you out of state, try Maytag Blue from Iowa. It’s readily available across the country or check out their website at

Oregano Dressing:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 1/2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano or a generous ¼ teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Greek oregano)
Pinch salt and freshly ground pepper

4 eggs
3 cups mixed greens
1 apple, unpeeled, sliced (use a crisp sweet-tart apple such as Honeycrisp)
4 strips bacon, cooked, coarsely crumbled
¼ cup pitted Kalamata olives
¼ cup crumbled blue cheese or feta cheese

Blend the all of the dressing ingredients together in a small blender, hand blender or mini food processor until combined and slightly thickened. Or make the dressing by hand. Whisk all of the ingredients except the olive oil in a small bowl and slowly whisk in the olive oil until combined.

Cover the eggs with about 1-inch of water in a small saucepan. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium heat and boil 4 minutes, adjusting the heat when needed to keep the water at a gentle boil. Run the eggs under cold running water about 30 seconds or until they are warm, but not hot. Carefully peel the eggs, the whites will be firm but the yolks will still be slightly soft.

Meanwhile, place the greens in the center of two plates. Arrange the apples over the greens and scatter the bacon over the apples. Sprinkle the olives around the salads and top each salad with the blue cheese. Drizzle the dressing over the salads.

Place 2 eggs around each salad and cut each in half. (Because the yolks are soft you need to cut the eggs while on the salad plate so the yolks can gently ooze into the salad.) Lightly sprinkle the eggs with salt and pepper.

Serves 2 (this recipe can be easily doubled)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Italian Chicks

When chickens are molting it’s important to feed them well to keep up their energy. Protein is especially good for them. I don’t feed my chicks meat so I give them protein by way of cooked beans, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, cottage cheese, yogurt and cooked eggs.

My chicks eat a little too well sometimes. I feed them layer feed because it’s nutritionally balanced for laying hens. When I’m home the chicks have free-range of the garden, lawn and overgrown woods. On top of that, they often get leftovers from a day of cooking when I’m creating recipes for an article.

They love their treats, but I don’t think they realize how lucky they are. I kept track of their menu for a few days this week:

Saturday: Linguine with Tomatoes and Beans
Sunday: Scrambled Egg, Squishy Raspberries and Yogurt
Monday: Mascarpone Polenta
Tuesday: Leftover Bits of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Extra Ripe Tomatoes From the Farmer’s Market
Wednesday: A Cheese Plate of Leftover Fontina Cheese Accompanied by Apples and Pears

I’ll probably hear from my two sons that they didn’t eat this well growing up!

As you can see, it’s been Italian week at our house because I’m working on an article on Italian cooking. The chicks do a lot of running when they free-range or I’m afraid they’d start to gain a lot of weight. Not that they’d mind. I’m sure they’d bustle around like stereotypical Italian grandmothers, a little overweight but with a very happy smile on their face.

If you're getting a little hungry reading about all this wonderful food, I've included a recipe for my favorite no-effort pasta dish.

Tomato-Basil Pasta with Goat Cheese

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This is the perfect pasta to make in September when the farmer’s markets are overflowing with ripe red tomatoes. Look for a sunny warm day to serve this dish, the sauce requires no cooking and it will feel like summer is still here.

3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
½ cup slightly packed chopped fresh basil
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
8 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
8 oz. linguine, fettuccine or your choice of pasta

Toss together the tomatoes, basil, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper in a large bowl. If you have the time, do this about an hour before you want to eat and let it sit at room temperature. The tomatoes will infuse with the flavor of the basil and the garlic.

Gently stir in the goat cheese. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water according to the package directions. Drain and immediately toss the hot pasta with the tomatoes. The heat of the pasta will warm the sauce and melt the cheese to a creamy consistency. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Flying Feathers

Roxanne is in the full throes of her first molt and everywhere she walks there’s a cloud of golden feathers floating around her like the dust around Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen. It’s fall, we expect to rake leaves but not feathers!

Unfortunately the molting seems to be making her crabby. I wonder if it’s hormones? Chickens have natural hormones, just like people, that control their bodies. Roxanne is acting like she has PMS. She pecks the other two on their heads if they get anywhere near her food. She won’t let me near her to touch her or hold her. She walks around jabbering with an annoyed tone. Poor thing, I’m sure she’s wondering what’s happening to her.

On a side note, don’t be fooled by factory raised packaged chicken in your market that proudly announces “No added hormones.” It’s illegal to add hormones to chickens so not adding hormones doesn’t make a chicken more “natural.” Look at the USDA requirements if you’re interested:

Chickens molt once a year starting in their second year. They shed their old worn out feathers and grow new feathers. It can start anywhere from mid to late summer but usually it happens in the fall. Some chicks molt quickly in a couple of weeks then bounce back to normal. Others go slowly and take several months. They usually don’t lay any eggs during this time. Sometimes it’s so gradual that you don’t know it’s happening, other times they walk around looking very ragged. Poor Roxanne is looking rather mangy, like she ended up on the wrong end of a fight.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Parade of Coops!

The Twin Cities had its first very own Parade of Coops! this weekend. It’s the perfect alternative to the parade of McMansions that takes place this time of year. It was a huge success in spite of the gloomy rainy weather. I had to miss it due to a prior commitment but I sent a proxy who scooped out the latest on the backyard chicken revolution.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has a vibrant arts and creative community along with an established grassroots movement of eating local through farmer’s markets, co-ops and community supported agriculture programs. The Parade of Coops! showcased our area at its best with backyard eggs, home gardens and creatively designed coops.

The first coop hosted at least 200 people during the first hour alone. Chicken fanciers, those who already had coops and those interested in getting started surrounded Stephen and Stephanie’s new coop. The large red coop was a hit but their 7 hens seemed oblivious to the fuss. The coop is built off the ground with a large hinged front opening reminiscent of an old-fashioned root beer stand. In spite of having over half a dozen hens and a few problems along the way with mice and even lice (the chickens), they’d love to double their flock if they had the room.

The second stop on the tour was a coop built from the “Playhouse” design by Isthmus Handyman of Madison, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, due to a malfunction, the photos didn’t turn out for the next two stops but catch the link to check out this great coop ( A perfect design for the backyard, it’s been tested in cold weather but also works for those in the warmer climes.

We didn't make it to the coop Peat, the organizer of the tour, and his neighbor's share. But we visited it last year after his class on City Chickens. It's a quaint coop that houses their menagerie of chickens, ducks and geese. Their run is an interesting combination of two large dog kennels providing a large open walk-in space that's secure on all four sides.

Audrey’s charming coop in St. Paul was the last stop on our limited portion of the tour before the downpour started and we apologize that the great photos we took didn’t turn out. They normally keep 3 hens and are on their second year. Unfortunately, they’ve had a patch of bad luck. Last year one of their birds died and just last week one of their girls disappeared (literally into thin air)! A hawk is suspected. I guess we’ve been lucky—no near misses or large problems—yet. Perhaps the large oak trees in our backyard provide cover from flying predators.

In a discussion of chicken coops Audrey’s theory that “small is better” is the perfect justification for backyard chicks. Her view, with winter on the way, is chickens huddle closer together in small coops and the combined body heat helps keep the flock warm. Her flock has never suffered the frostbite others have had to contend with. I agree. Our chicks have always huddled together at night, it started when they were a few days old and has continued to today. Even with a small coop they don’t use the entire space; in fact, our girls use only about half of the available space so it’s clearly a choice they’re making.

We weren’t able to be part of the tour this year but we’re happy to have everyone view the coop. It’s much smaller than most on the tour but it suits our three chicks just fine. If we’re home they free-range all day in the backyard, otherwise they’re in the attached run. The Eglu coop (made by the Omlet company) is insulated for heat and cold but I add extra warmth in the winter by way of a pet heating pad and heat lamp. We’ve never had any problems with pests or predators. The coop can be easily disassembled and cleaned in minutes and has a slide-out tray for droppings that I empty every morning so the coop stays very clean. It can also be moved to different parts of the backyard or garden

Omlet is coming out with the bigger Eglu Cube next year. It's already sold in Great Britain but we've been told they'll start selling it over here in 2009. I can't wait! My girls will love the extra room in the run and their old Eglu will go to our lake cabin so I'll be able to take them with. We haul our cats, so why not the chickens? The chickens have ridden in the car several times as they've vacationed across town when we went away. (The coop can be disassembled and taken in the car.) They're quiet well-behaved travelers in their dog cage.

I hope the Parade of Coops! becomes an annual event as it is in many cities across the country. I promise not to miss it next time. In the meantime, I’d love to hear of other coop tours as they happen across the country.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Swingin' Chickens

Welcome to the Swingin’ Chicks: Three backyard chickens and their starring act on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota. I’ve decided to write this to let everyone know how easy it is to raise a couple of chickens in a suburban backyard. I’ll write about the many joys but also let you in on a few of the problems that have come up. I knew nothing about chickens before I brought home my 1-day-old chicks, but I’ve learned along the way. They’re warm incredible pets with amazing personalities who lay gifts of eggs almost every day. I’m also passionate about simple good food and decided to raise chickens because of the incredible taste of fresh eggs. I’ll therefore pass along a few original recipes now and then that I feel are worth making. (See the post below for my favorite pancakes.)

To introduce you to the chicks, Roxanne, a buff Orpington, is the leader of the trio. Her fluffy golden feathers should evoke images of Las Vegas showgirls. Instead, her wide hips give her a matronly look not dissimilar from a certain “pantsuit brigade” I admire. She uses those hips to push the others aside and is a born leader keeping the other girls in line.

Cleo is an Araucana/Ameraucana, a mixed breed otherwise known as Easter egg chickens because of the colored eggs they lay. She is the sweet chick. She runs over to join me when I sit on the stairs of the deck and climbs onto my lap snuggling in. She loves to be petted and hugged.

Crazy Lulu is my other Easter egg chick but she has the opposite temperament. I’ve never held her; in fact I’ve never been within an arms reach of her unless she’s in the coop and half asleep. Nevertheless, she lays beautiful blue eggs and she’s prolific.

The girls live in a royal blue Eglu made by the Omlet Company of Great Britain. I love it and the chicks love it. It’s a thoroughly modern practical coop that looks great in the backyard and comes with everything you need to raise 3 to 4 chickens including a fox-proof run. It’s also portable—not convenient to transport mind you—but doable if you’re going away for a couple weeks and need someone elsewhere to watch them. Check out the link.

This is the second year that I’ve had my chickens and they’re now heading into their second fall and winter, which is certainly the most difficult time for all of us here in Minnesota. I’ll be writing periodically through the year about the chicks’ health and lifestyle, and sharing some photos of them as well. I hope this blog will entertain but perhaps more importantly inspire some of you to join in the backyard chicken “revolution.” So for now, welcome.

The Best Fresh Raspberry Pancakes

In walking out to the coop these past couple of mornings my thoughts turned to pancakes. I don’t make pancakes often, but on the first weekend of fall they’re exactly what I crave. Fall raspberries are in abundance at the farmer’s market so I decided to make my favorite cornmeal pancakes sweetened with berries.

What makes these cornmeal cakes special, beyond adding a couple of freshly laid eggs to the batter, is the extra step of slightly cooking the cornmeal first. I’ve never been a fan of baked goods where the cornmeal adds particles of grit, like something the chickens would like. Instead, these cakes are thin, delicate and light, almost a cross between crepes and pancakes. For even smoother pancakes you can let the batter rest overnight, making them easier to make in the morning.

These cakes are perfect with just a sprinkling of powdered sugar and extra berries or better yet a light drizzle of superb real maple syrup like the Pure New York Maple Syrup made by the family of my friend Kathy.

Print This Recipe

½ cup cornmeal, finely stone-ground if available
2 cups milk, low fat or skim milk is fine
¼ cup unsalted butter, cut up
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
dash of salt
2 eggs
canola oil for frying
2 cups fresh raspberries

Dump the cornmeal into a large glass measuring cup and slowly whisk in 1 ½ cups of the milk. Add the butter and heat in the microwave on high until the milk comes to a boil. This will take 1 to 2 minutes or more depending on your microwave; but watch carefully so it doesn’t boil over. Once the milk is hot, the cornmeal will begin to cook and thicken so immediately whisk until the butter is melted. Whisk in the remaining ½ cup milk and pour into a large bowl. Let the mixture cool slightly, stirring often.

Quickly whisk in the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the eggs, one at a time, and whisk until the batter is smooth. The pancakes can be made immediately or the batter can be covered and refrigerated overnight for smoother pancakes. Either way is fine.

Heat a griddle to 350°F. or a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Brush generously with oil. (No nonstick spray please, while perfect for many things, with pancakes it will bake onto your griddle or nonstick pan and you’ll never be able to get them clean.) Pour a scant ¼ cup of batter on the griddle and scatter a few raspberries over each pancake. Cook until the bubbles have formed and popped and the underside is golden brown. Carefully turn; the pancakes are delicate so use a large spatula to get underneath the entire cake. Cook until the underside is golden. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar and accompanied by maple syrup.

Makes about 20 pancakes

Copyright Janice Cole 2008


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