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Sunday, February 28, 2010

I Can See Clearly Now

Have you ever wondered what it is chickens see that you don't as they constantly peck at invisible bits? Well, I came across a fascinating new study this week. It turns out that the eyesight of chickens and their ability to see color is far more advanced than our human eyes or most mammals. 
They can see a large range of color that we cannot, therefore allowing them to see things that we cannot discern.
The scientists at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis were amazed at how advanced chickens eyesight is. It enables them to distinguish and pick up minute bits of food and also plays a role in courtship, hence the exotic plumage and coloring of chickens. The scientists are hopeful the information they've found will help them in their search for new techniques to help with blindness and other visual disorders. Read the article for more information.

In the meantime, my chicks are complaining that they'll lose their great eyesight because they are going snow blind from all the whiteness. I agree, the sunlight bouncing off the snow is beautiful, but it is blinding.

The girls are venturing out of their coop and run more each day. It's been over 32ºF. this week -- a virtual heat wave in this Northern land. But the chicks rarely travel much beyond the straw covered 2-foot path outside their door before quickly heading back in.

They're like stodgy gentlemen who go out for their brisk morning constitutional. They strut to the edge of the straw, stomp their feet, shake their feathers, then flap their wings as if testing to see whether they're still in possession of the entire wingspan or maybe to see if the wings have thawed enough for them to unfurl.

After a few puffs of fresh morning air, it's back into the plastic-covered run where they bask draft-free in the filtered sunlight as if in a solarium or greenhouse. Yes, they are the ultimate in spoiled chicks, and they love it.

If you're still experiencing cold weather, perhaps you'll enjoy this soup I made last week. I always crave a bouillabaisse-style fish soup this time of the year. It warms me up and also brings memories of the sunny Mediterranean as I combine shellfish, tomatoes, saltwater fish and herbs. The fragrance reminds me of the sea.

Winter Bouillabaisse
Print This Recipe

I never make the same recipe twice because it's based on what I find at the fish counter that day. The base of the soup is very easy to make and can be made ahead of time. Choose the freshest shellfish and fish possible and add it to the broth right before serving. Enjoy!

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
3 large garlic cloves, minced
3 cups seafood stock or 2 cups clam juice and 1 cup water
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
3/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch cayenne
12 ounces halibut, skin removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound peeled deveined uncooked large shrimp (21 to 30 count)
12 ounces mussels (in the shell)

Croutons and Aioli
12 thin diagonal slices French baguette
extra-virgin olive oil for brushing
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon broth from fish soup

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat until hot.  Add the onions and saute for 3 to 5 minutes or until starting to soften.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add all of the remaining ingredients except the halibut, shrimp and mussels.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low or low and simmer for 20 minutes or until flavorful.

Soup Base

Meanwhile, make the croutons and the aioli.  Heat the oven to 400ºF.  Lightly brush both sides of the baguette with olive oil and place on a baking sheet.  Bake 5 to 8 minutes or until lightly browned, turning once.  Stir together the mayonnaise, garlic and 1 tablespoon broth from the fish soup until blended and set aside.

Add the halibut to the soup and cook for 2 minutes.  Add the mussels and shrimp and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the shrimp turn pink, the mussels open and the halibut just begins to flake.  Remove and discard any mussels that don't open.  Remove from the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of the aioli.

Serve the bouillabaisse garnished with croutons topped with aioli and pass the remaining aioli to stir into the soup as desired.

Serves 6

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Egg and I

Glorious Cleo the Egg Layer

I've never felt the need to Twitter any chicken news, until today. What could be so important that it had to be instantly shared across the world? Well, today I witnessed something that I wanted to immediately tell everyone I knew: Today I watched Cleo lay an egg!

This afternoon when I went into the coop to collect the eggs, there was Cleo sitting in the nest cooing and making all sorts of soft maternal sounds. She didn't seem bothered by my presence, so I settled down in the coop and proceeded to wait and watch. It can take a chicken 20 to 30 minutes to lay an egg, so I had no idea how long I'd have to wait. In the meantime, I patiently sat there wishing I'd brought the camera.

She cooed and wiggled her butt, used her head to throw nesting material around and a few times repositioned herself to get the perfect position, all the while keeping up a low gentle murmur. Finally, when my legs were starting to cramp and I wondered if I should leave her to it, she raised her legs and rear keeping her head low, and in an instant out popped an egg. The egg was shiny and wet with the bloom that dries quickly but keeps bacteria from entering the shell. She instantly went to work moving the egg with her beak into the corner of the nest, presumably to protect it and keep it safe.

At that moment, as I watched her gently and carefully move that unfertilized egg that would never hatch into anything, I felt an overwhelming sadness that maybe I shouldn't be snatching her precious eggs and eating them for breakfast. But of course, they will never hatch and tomorrow she will lay another one and such I guess is the life of a chick. However, her gentleness and care was a good reminder to me of the precious gifts my chicks give.

Cleo's Egg

I do personally thank each of my chicks every day for the eggs they lay, but I especially thanked Cleo today for letting me witness her miracle. I'll eat that egg with extra blessings and wonder.

Cleo's eggs are beautiful. They are olive green on the outside, but blue on the inside! The color of an egg will not change the flavor, but it does make it more interesting to peel. Lulu's eggs are light blue inside and out, while Roxanne's eggs are brown on the outside and white on the inside.

Sometimes the best way to enjoy backyard eggs is the simplest. Today for lunch we had egg salad sandwiches. added a touch of spring to this sunny winter day.

Backyard Egg Salad Sandwiches
Print This Recipe

6 eggs, preferably at least 1 week old organic, free-range eggs
1 large shallot, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup mayonnaise
sliced artisan bread
mixed baby greens

Place eggs in a medium saucepan, cover with hot water and bring to a gentle boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer very gently for 9 minutes (the water should lazily burp and bubble occasionally, but the eggs should never bounce or rattle; adjust the heat as necessary). Place the eggs in a bowl of ice water until cool. Peel and chop the eggs.

I usually chop them in my hand just as my grandmother did and mother still does. Does your mother or grandmother do this too? I know it's not the safest, but I fall back into old habits when making this recipe. Just for the record, it's safer to use a cutting board.

Toss the eggs with the shallots, pepper and salt.

Gently stir in the mayonnaise.

Makes 4 huge sandwiches or 6 normal-size sandwiches


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