Friday, November 26, 2010

The best laid schemes of ice and menus...

"But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley..."

(Robert Burns, To a mouse, on turning her up in her nest with the plough, November, 1785)

Normally our first holiday turkey slaughtering is planned for the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. This year I spent extra time in planning and organizing this event. We were expecting several people to come up and help with the slaughtering, some of whom were going to process the turkey they were buying from us. We were also listening with some apprehension to the weather forecasts: The barometer was falling, as were the temperatures. The chance of snow falling, on the other hand, was rising. While the predictions were for "snow showers," with possible accumulations of 1-3 inches, we both felt it would be prudent to have a Plan B in case conditions worsened either before or during the slaughtering.

On Sunday, November 21, it snowed lightly here most of the day; by the time the snow quit in early evening, we had maybe an inch on the ground. It cleared up that night, the temperature dropped to the mid-20s, and it was still clear when I got up Monday morning. "Great," I thought, "No more snow overnight. People won't have trouble getting up the hill." ("Snow showers," I reminded myself, "1-3 inches.")

Well, about 7:30 that morning, it started snowing again. A little before 9:30, our friend Giles drove up, bringing with him a large turkey he had raised and planned to slaughter here. At that point it was snowing harder, and there was about 3 inches of snow on the ground. We were pretty busy then, finishing the final preparations: I had a big pot of homemade minestrone on the stove, a kettle of water keeping hot for coffee and tea, the woodstoves were stoked. Outside, the tent was set up with the plucker and a table inside, and gloves, paper towels, knives and sharpeners, and cutting boards in place. The 20-gallon scalding pot was heating up on the propane burner outside the tent, and a large bucket of ice water stood ready for cooling the freshly-scalded birds prior to plucking.

This is our third year raising and slaughtering turkeys, and this was the first time we have had snow to deal with. It's usually cold, and of course the days are short, which is why we have previously done the processing over two days. This time we hoped to get all 12 turkeys slaughtered on one day, since we were expecting helpers. We had also done most of the setup on Sunday, thinking we would get an earlier start on Monday.

Shortly after Giles arrived, we started getting phone calls. It was snowing just as hard in Sequim and Port Angeles, and in the end (not surprisingly) Giles was the only one who made it to the farm. By late morning, it was getting windy, and the visibility was very poor. Because of the conditions, the guys decided to get three turkeys ready for eviscerating at once, instead of doing them one at a time. (We usually do the killing, scalding and plucking outdoors, then bring the birds inside to do the eviscerating.) The snow was piling up fast at that point, and I had to keep knocking it off the tent about every 10 minutes. The footing was very slippery, which slowed us down, too. Finally we took the three turkeys inside, grateful for a chance to warm up (the high temperature that day was 22F), get a bite to eat, and get out of the snow for a while.

While David and Giles worked on cleaning the turkeys, I gulped down a cup of tea, then headed back outside to check on the birds' feeders and drinkers. It was snowing pretty much sideways then, and the feeders and drinkers were accumulating snow, although they were under shelters. I also had to top off the drinkers with warm water, as the water freezes fairly quickly when it's this cold.

While I was outside, noticing that the snow had piled up to nearly 12 inches, I thought I had better go knock the snow off the tent again. I looked over toward the slaughter area, and guess what: The tent had disappeared. Between the wind and the snow, it had just come down. I went back in to report this to David, and we all agreed it was a good thing we hadn't been in the tent at the time! Although the snow continued to come down thick and fast, we were able to raise the tent again pretty easily. However, given the wind, the time and the cold, we decided to move the plucking operations indoors.

At that point, it was nearly 3:00. Since we knew that we would have only about another hour of daylight, we decided not to process any more birds that day. That evening, I got on the phone to most of the customers on our "turkey list," to let them know there was a possibility we wouldn't be able to get all the turkeys processed in time for Thanksgiving. Also, given the amount of snow on the ground, and the swiftly dropping temperature, it seemed questionable whether they would be able to get to the farm to pick up their birds. Everyone was very understanding, and several of them will be getting a fresh turkey sometime in December.

Monday night, our low temperature was 7F. (As David said, "You know it's cold when you have to bring the coolers with the turkeys indoors to keep them from freezing overnight.") On Tuesday, David and I slaughtered two more turkeys. Thankfully, it was sunny most of the day Tuesday, although the high that day was also 22F. We knew  it would get pretty cold that night if it stayed clear, and it did; our low temperature was 0F. We processed one more turkey on Wednesday morning, and went out past our gate to meet the customer, in case she couldn't get through the deep snow in the half-mile between the gate and the house. Fortunately the road crew had plowed Fish Hatchery Road as far as our gate, so she was able to make it that far.

We definitely learned a lot from this experience. Although I had spent extra time planning and organizing, all that went pretty much out the window as the snow piled up outside. As the snow was coming down hard that Monday morning, I had said to David, "I suspect the key to today will be flexibility." That certainly turned out to be the case!

On the positive side, the customers who didn't get their turkey in time for Thanksgiving will be getting a slightly larger bird, as we will not be slaughtering them for another couple of weeks or more. (We only sell our turkeys fresh, partly because we have no means of freezing them here, and also because we believe that when it comes to poultry, fresh is preferable to frozen.)

Once we had a chance to catch our breath and relax, we couldn't help but stare out at the gorgeous view: The frosty-looking Blue Mountain to the southwest, the beautiful snow-covered cedar and fir trees around our property, and our two pigs playing happily in their pasture, seemingly oblivious to the weather. Although the days before Thanksgiving didn't go much as we had planned, it all turned out all right, and we are truly thankful that we are safe and warm here at home in the beautiful Olympic Mountains.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Duck eggs are delicious, and great for baking

The other night, David and I had dinner at the fabulous Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim. As you may know, the Bistro buys virtually our entire production of organic chicken and duck eggs. Right now, as our young ducks have recently started to lay, we've had a few more duck eggs than usual. This week, in time for Tapas Tuesday, Bistro chef Gabriel Schuenemann came up with a deceptively simple, outrageously delicious dish to showcase these eggs.

At first glance, you might have thought it was a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. But wait... this IS the Bistro, after all! Embedded in the smooth, creamy egg were shavings of Washington State black truffles, and the first bite confirmed our initial impression: The eggs were positively swimming in butter. Nestled alongside the eggs were thin, crispy crouton slices large enough to pile a couple bites of truffly eggs on them. The combination of super-fresh, melt-in-your-mouth tender eggs with crunchy croutons and butter trying (not very subtly) to drip down your chin... oh, boy!

Duck eggs aren't always easy to find, but if you do, it's well worth trying them. We're often asked what the difference is between duck and chicken eggs. Aside from the size (our duck eggs average 3-1/2 oz., compared to the standard 2 oz. large chicken egg), our general impression is that duck eggs have a milder taste, and are somewhat richer and creamier than chicken eggs. The whites of duck eggs also have higher viscosity than chicken eggs, making them a great choice for baking. The baker at the Bistro likes to use our duck eggs for the Chocolate Bliss, a wonderful flourless brownie.

As I noted in a previous post, this year we are increasing the size of our duck laying flock. Mainly this is to keep up with the needs of the Bistro. There is also increasing interest in duck eggs around here; we've heard from a number of people who want to buy them from us as soon as we have any extra to sell. Although duck eggs naturally cost more than chicken eggs, no one seems to mind; the quality of the eggs, along with their relative scarcity, adds up to a good value. And like all our birds, the ducks free-range on pasture during the day and are also fed organic grains.

I mentioned in an earlier post that we had recently lost several of our ducks to some kind of poisoning. They were usually heading down the hill to the bog in the morning, spending most of the day down there, then eventually coming back up the hill for a bedtime snack before being tucked into their coops for the night. About a month ago, around the time of a rash of bobcat attacks, the ducks suddenly stopped going down to the bog. We're not sure why this happened, although David's theory is that one of the ducks was killed by some predator down there, and the others are avoiding that area now. Whatever the reason, I'm just happy that they're hanging around closer to the house now; besides knowing that they are safer, it's also a lot easier to collect their eggs when they lay them in their coops!

We expect that within a couple of months, our young laying ducks will be up to full production. These Khaki Campbell ducks are quite prolific, often averaging 340 eggs per year; that's more than most chickens lay, even in their prime. And even if we end up producing more duck eggs than the Bistro can use, there are always other customers waiting in the wings, so to speak.

Chef Gabriel also does amazing things with our chicken eggs. Recently he came up with a gorgeous salad that has smoked salmon, pickled onions and a poached egg on top! Delicious. Most of our chicken and duck eggs are used in their desserts, though; my favorite, the Creme Brulee, their seasonal organic carrot cake, an incredible hazelnut torte, and various seasonal fruit tarts (among others). If you're even thinking about coming to the Sequim area, you really should check out the Alder Wood Bistro; they're open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and can be reached at (360) 683-4321.

We love our ducks, and we love the Bistro! They buy so many of our eggs that our standard joke is that we have to go eat at the Bistro to have some of our own eggs. It's worth it, though; we never know what Gabriel is going to come up with next. He's committed to sourcing ingredients locally, and is always willing to try things we suggest, such as the duck eggs. Even though we're a small farm, we're proud to have a role in the success of our hard-working friends at the Alder Wood Bistro.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to cook your heritage turkey

If you've ever cooked a heritage-breed turkey, you probably noticed that it's a bit different from cooking a large, broad-breasted bird. Generally heritage turkeys are smaller, leaner, and with proportionately less breast meat. We've also noticed that heritage turkeys are a somewhat different shape; they are more elongated compared to the Butterball types, with longer legs, which can make it a challenge to find a roasting pan to fit the bird.

I won't go into stuffing questions here, but I do want to talk about brining, which in our experience makes a noticeable difference in the roasting process. Here is an explanation for this, from the wonderful book "Charcuterie" (Ruhlman and Polcyn, W.W. Norton & Co., 2005):

"Brines, more so than dry cures, are an excellent way to impart seasoning and aromatic flavors. A brine penetrates a chicken or pork loin rapidly and completely, bringing with it any flavors you might have added to the salty solution [garlic, onion, tarragon, pepper]. Chefs often use brines for pork, chicken and turkey, the three types of meat that benefit most from brining, because they result in a uniformly juicy loin or bird that's perfectly seasoned every time.

"Roasting a brined chicken or turkey and hitting at just the right point of doneness is easier than with an unbrined [turkey]. You can actually overcook it, in fact, and it can still be juicier than a perfectly cooked bird that wasn't brined. The brine seems to allow the breast to withstand the high temperature while the slowpoke legs and thighs continue to cook."

IMPORTANT NOTE: You'll need to plan ahead if you're going to brine your turkey. In addition to the actual brining time, allow extra time for chilling the brine before putting the turkey in the brining pot. Also, once the bird is removed from the brine, it needs to "rest" in order for the salt to equalize through the meat; allow a resting time of about the same as the brining time for best results. (Extra rest time doesn't hurt anything; it's better to have it rest longer than to shorten the rest time.)

Sound complicated? It's not, really. Here's how it usually shakes out, if you're planning for Thanksgiving: Make the brine on Monday and chill it overnight. Put the turkey in the brine on Tuesday and leave overnight. Remove the turkey from the brine Wednesday morning, then let rest until you're ready to roast it on Thursday.

To make a basic brine for turkey, combine in a large pot:

1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
Seasonings (for turkey, I like to use celery, onion, carrot, peppercorns, tarragon, and thyme)

Note: You may need to double this recipe, depending on the size of the turkey and the container you use for brining.

Bring all ingredients to a simmer, and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from heat and chill.

If your turkey is on the smallish side, you can use a large stockpot for brining. A food-grade bucket with lid also works well. This time of year, here on the farm it is cold enough outside to keep the brining pot outside, so I usually plan to put the turkey in the brine before we go to bed, and stays cold and is ready to remove from the brine in the morning.

Which brings me to the amount of time needed for brining. For a turkey of 10-15 pounds, allow 24 hours. If it's smaller than 10 pounds (like our Midget White hens), 12 hours is about right. (If it's more than 15 pounds, allow 24-36 hours.) Don't forget to leave time for your turkey to rest between brining and roasting!

Now, to the cooking part! If you have access to a smoker, I encourage you to try smoking your turkey. It takes longer, as usually the temperatures in the smoker are lower than your oven; my smoker generally cooks at between 200 and 225F. It's hard to say an exact amount of time for smoking, as there are lots of variables (size of the bird, smoker temperature, outside temperature, etc.). I suggest you just allow plenty of time and check the internal temperature of the bird every so often. I definitely recommend brining the turkey if you're going to smoke it.

In spite of its recent popularity, I personally do NOT recommend deep-frying heritage turkeys. In my view,  brining and then roasting (or smoking) results in the best-tasting heritage turkey.

Here is my preferred method for roasting: Preheat oven to 450F. Place the turkey straight from the refrigerator or cooler into the oven, then immediately reduce the heat to 325F. After the first half-hour of cooking, baste several times per hour with pan drippings or extra fat. (If you choose not to brine the turkey, basting is particularly important.)

If your turkey is under 6 pounds, allow 20-25 minutes roasting time per pound; for a 6-16 pound bird, 15-20 minutes; and for a turkey over 16 pounds, about 13-15 minutes. If using a thermometer, insert it into the thigh, taking care not to let it touch the bone; internal temperature should be 180-185F.

As is usual with all roasted meats, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 15-30 minutes before carving.

That's it! There are lots of ways to cook a turkey, but this is my favorite: brining and then either roasting or smoking. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them! I will be glad to provide ideas about stuffing, gravy, or anything else in another post.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Back to Standard Time, which the birds never left

Oh, goody. We've "fallen back" to Standard Time once again. Those of you who know me and have glimpsed my collection of various soap boxes will appreciate the fact that I can reasonably get on this one just twice a year. Honestly, now, don't you think "Daylight Savings" loses at least some of its purported meaning when it lasts for roughly seven months?

If you have poultry, specifically one or more roosters, you know how the change to Standard Time has affected them: NOT AT ALL. Our roosters, bless their little hearts, still go through their routine of crowing for a few minutes about an hour before dawn. Do they care that our atomic clocks re-set themselves at 2 AM last Saturday? They do not. Did they gather around the 3-gallon drinkers to discuss how to use the "extra hour of sleep?" Doubt it. I love it that these supposedly unintelligent creatures make this transition so smoothly, and you know why they do? Because nothing actually happened!

I have not been in the habit of wearing a watch for many years now, so it's interesting to me how much I still am aware of the time. And although the birds are blissfully unaware (I think) of what the hour is at any given time, they do definitely have their routines, which probably accounts for why we're paying attention to the time during the day! As sunrise approaches, the roosters start crowing. (It's a myth, though, that roosters crow simply to announce the arrival of dawn; if they do happen to crow right at sunrise, it's frankly just a coincidence.) Once it's fairly light, all the birds become active and want to leave their respective roosts and head out for a busy day of foraging, dust-bathing, sun-bathing, mating, and debating the finer points of the pecking-order rankings.

The ducks, who seem to stay up late at night partying (we can hear them talking to each other at all hours), are quite active and energetic for the first couple of hours in the morning, then settle into a nice long nap. Lately they haven't been going down the hill to the pond, but when they do, they always run up the hill once or twice during the day to get a snack; they are amazingly consistent about the timing of this.

The turkeys also have regular nap times, but mostly their routine follows ours: When we're outside, they follow us around. When we're inside, they walk around the house, peering in every window, trying to see where we are and what we're up to. (Makes me glad our bedroom is on the second floor.) On sunny, dry days, they like to dust-bathe with the chickens, always quite a sight to see. Birds synthesize Vitamin D from sunshine like we do, and the turkeys and chickens look quite funny when they're sunbathing; they recline in a sprawling, wings-outstretched position that sometimes makes them look, well, dead.

Toward the end of the day, about an hour before they head into their coops, all the birds gather around the feeding stations  for a bedtime snack and a nice drink of water. This time of year we generally start giving them extra corn at night; the additional carbohydrates help them generate body heat while they sleep.

What it comes down to is that our chickens, turkeys and ducks are not enslaved by any clock but their internal ones. They get up when it gets light; they rest when it gets dark. It's true that we humans have to find a balance between being completely schedule-driven and being completely selfish about how we use our time. However, I do think it's good to remember that it wasn't so long ago that we didn't have the benefit of 24-hour electric lights that allow us to artificially extend our waking hours. The birds know how to make the most of the available daylight hours at any time of year. Maybe they know something we don't.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"The Mind of a Turkey"

"That would be a great title for a book," David called from the kitchen yesterday afternoon.

"What title?" I called back after a moment. I was relaxing by the living room wood stove with a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.

"The Mind of a Turkey," he replied, walking into the living room.

"Well," I retorted, "That ought to be a pretty short book."

Okay, so that wasn't a very charitable remark. We have heard quite a few fairly uncharitable remarks about turkeys, usually from people who have never actually raised them. Several years ago, when we were contemplating the addition of turkeys to the farm, we heard this one frequently: "Why would you want to raise turkeys? They're so STUPID!" This was often followed by the recital of one or more supposedly funny myths about turkeys. Yawn.

If you've been following my blog, you know we love our turkeys. After raising both White Midget and Narragansett turkeys the first year, we settled on the White Midget as the right breed for us. Now that it's November, with Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, I thought I'd share some of our observations about, well, the mind of a turkey.

First, we don't consider turkeys to be any less intelligent than chickens. Stop snickering! Turkeys are people too, and they have feelings. Seriously, we do think turkeys have more personality than chickens, and their mannerisms are fairly adorable, at least sometimes. We especially love their habit of following us around; they seem to just be insatiably curious about what we're up to. Anyone who's visited the farm knows that the turkeys appear en masse to greet newcomers. (We had a funny incident last year with a substitute UPS driver, who positively leaped back into his truck when the turkeys approached; he thought he was being attacked.)

At this point, the turkeys we hatched this year are mostly between six and seven months old. The young males, at this age, tend to fight quite a bit, although we haven't seen things escalate to the point of drawing blood this season. They are also vying for the attention of the females (there are more females than males in the flock), and doing their best to emulate their dad by fanning out their tails and puffing out their chests. Their attempts at mating lack a certain finesse at this stage. I suspect that the boys are also trying to impress us, knowing that we will be keeping two of them for breeding next spring. Okay, maybe I'm giving them too much credit there.

After the recent rash of bobcat attacks, we have been reminded how much we appreciate the relative lack of trouble the turkeys have had with predation. I was nervous the first year we raised them, especially when they were small; I worried that when they began to free-range, their bright white color would make it too easy for predators (particularly hawks and eagles) to spot them. We think that part of their survival is due to their tendency to stick together and hang out as a group most of the time. They also don't usually wander as close to the edge of the woods as the chickens do. In a previous post ("Turkeys as guard animals??"), I mentioned the distinctive call the turkeys use to signal a ground predator in the vicinity. Say what you like about their brains, we love their instinct for survival!

Then there's the wonderful dance the toms do when trying to impress the hens, and the curious deep rumbling sound (like the sound of a Harley-Davidson starting up) you hear if you're close enough to a tom when he's expanding his chest. We're fascinated by the way the toms' face and wattles change color rapidly, from deep, solid red to a pale pink to bluish-white. What's this all about? We surmise it's some kind of mood ring, or maybe a hormone thing. And of course, the way they walk around the house, looking in all the windows trying to see where we are; adorable little Peeping Toms. Awwwwww....

As we gear up for the two days of slaughtering right before Thanksgiving, we're thinking a bit sentimentally about all we've learned and experienced over the past several years of raising turkeys. They are sweet, often funny and entertaining creatures. While they may not be the most intelligent animals around, they have definitely been an asset to our farm, and it's hard to imagine life here without them.