Sunday, April 30, 2017

A very long weekend update

It's been an unusually busy weekend around here. I have talked and texted with literally about 30 different people about the camper since listing it for sale and I think I have it sold.  We'll see tomorrow but after talking on the phone with one lady multiple times and emailing another 20 pictures to her I'm confident that I've accurately represented the camper.  She's making a two hour drive tomorrow morning to see it.  Here's hoping.

Saturday morning was the auctioning of my grandparents' estate. I had agonized for weeks about if I should go or not; how I would feel when I got there and saw strangers buying their posessions, if things would feel incomplete later on if I had stayed away from it.  I woke up in the early a.m. and laid in bed realizing that into matter how badly it might upset me to go I would feel worse staying at home knowing it was happening.

 So we got up with plans for me to go the auction which started at 10 and while playing on the floor before breakfast the little man managed to shove a massive splinter up under his big toenail.  It was his first major boo-boo. The splinter was so large it went the entire length of the nail and into the nail bed. I nearly passed out.  It was broken off and we ended up taking him to the pediatric ER to have it removed. The people there were wonderful and he had mostly forgotten about the whole ordeal by the time we got home. The bag of goldfish crackers and toy the nurses sent him home with helped.

I got to the auction very late. Let me set the scene: I was already feeling uneasy. It was raining and overcast and muddy. My grandfather's garden was being used a parking lot.  People were carting things away from the barn and house. I squared my shoulders and prepared for the worst. But immediately I saw some of my mother's cousins, and my uncle and his family.  I went over visit and heard the news: my second cousin had bought my grandparent's house and some of the property.  The barn and fields had been lost to someone who bought them for hunting land but the home and some acreage would stay in the extended family.  It was like the clouds had parted and I could have wept with relief.  Maybe that sounds dramatic but for some reason knowing this made everything else so much easier to deal with.

 My grandfather and his brother bought a 100 acre farm together in the 1950's, split the land and built homes next door to one another.  They both had big families and it came to be that one of the babies came very quickly.  So quickly that my grandmother ran outside and helped deliver her sister-in-law's baby in a car in my grandparents' driveway.  The cousin who bought the house? His mother is the baby my grandmother helped deliver. He literally bought the property his mother was born on.  My grandfather's brother's family has managed to keep a large part of the original farm together and I admire that greatly and am grateful for it.  I am grateful that it wasn't bought by a stranger.

So it turned out to be a good day after all, and I am very glad that I went.

It's been raining here this weekend but otherwise beautiful.  And HOT. 84 degrees today. For anyone who forages, morel mushrooms are up already.  I haven't had a chance to go picking yet but maybe tomorrow.  We had a very good dinner from the garden tonight.

Lots of thinnings from the garden: orach, spinach, chard and radishes sauteed in bacon fat along with shallot, garlic and red pepper flakes.  Deglazed with lemon juice and tossed with pasta and asparagus .

My apprentice was also hard at work.

Because it was so nice and warm today all little ones spent the day outside airing out and enjoying the weather.  The goslings ate grass and the chicks and ducklings hung out in the old rabbit hutch where they were out of the reach of cats.

Also because it was so nice today, the not-so-little ones enjoyed some summer drinks: half Sierra Nevada beer, half carbonated strawberry lemonade.  Over ice with frozen strawberries.  

If this were a video you would see a lot of hand waving and hear: "ma. MA. MAMAMA!" the volume of which increased as he realized he wasn't getting that cocktail.

So, minus the terrible splinter incident, it turned out to be an excellent weekend after all.  Here's hoping for some more good days. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Camper for sale, baking day

It's time to sell the Shasta. We parked it in the front yard last night with a sign out front and I posted it to 5 different Craigslist sites within an hour and a half radius.  Still more than a little depressed about this because there are so many things that I LOVE about the Shasta (the light!) ( the room!) but this just isn't the right camper for us at this stage in our lives.  It WOULD be perfect for someone to decorate and turn into an outdoor guesthouse but that person is not me.  We don't have overnight guests and our property looks hillbilly enough without parking a camper in the yard permanently. I listed it at $1,800. It has brand new tires and the bearings were just packed.

So far I've received six different scam offers and a gentleman offering to trade me for a boat.

It's been so depressing that the only thing to do today is bake. I'm making rhubarb coffee cake and bread.  Maybe alternating between eating myself into a coma and playing with the new goslings will take my mind off things.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Weekend adventures & the great peep hatch

What a weekend.  In a good way.

The little guy and I spent Friday and Saturday with my sister and her family near Cleveland.  On Saturday morning my sister, my niece, the little man and I went downtown to participate in the March for Science.  President Trump's proposed cuts to funding the Environmental Protection Agency  by 31% should be alarming for everyone but to the residents of a city who actually saw their river catch fire? Not once, but MULTIPLE times? Let's slow that down.  THE DAMN RIVER CAUGHT FIRE PEOPLE.  I've read that we were in a group of 8,000 people who showed up on Saturday.  It was a lot of fun. We didn't carry signs and mostly just hung out but my niece dressed in her Halloween dinosaur costume and we had a really nice morning downtown.  The little man was blown away by all of the sights of a city; buses, helicopters, police on horseback.  I am usually not a person that participates in this kind of thing but it was a really good time.  My favorite sign?

Translated:  "people who study birds agree Trump is a huge bird's anus".  Ok, come on.  That's funny.

When we left on Friday I double fed and watered everyone and left my husband with instructions to "do nothing".  There were 6 peeps that had hatched at that point.  "Don't worry about the incubator, don't touch it, don't even think about it.  They'll hatch or they won't".  I said.  Well, hatch they did. And how.  

Baby Daddy Nigel delivered the goods. I came home to EIGHTEEN peeps from the original 21 eggs.  I was hoping for, oh, maybe 7 or 8 and ended up with 18.  They are adorable.  All of them have feathered feet but interestingly none of them have slate colored legs?  Two of the four mothers had slate legs.  It was absolutely impossible to take a picture of them all in the brooder without someone being blurry so here you go:


Here is a picture to show the 4 colors they came in.  I am assuming that the light one is from my Red Ranger hen and the other ones are Easter Eggers.  

Here's another because: bird butts.  I cannot get over how adorable they are.

The plan is to keep them until they feather out, select the few that I want to keep and Craigslist the rest.  Also  I'm going to call McMurry hatchery and adjust my order for June to delete the egg layers and buy all meat chickens.  I had no idea when I placed the order that my rooster was so, um, fertile.

Which led me to do an actual head count on Sunday morning.  I still count on my fingers and needed to do the maths with a paper and pencil. Currently there are *cough* 70 *cough* birds on the property.  And another 6 ducks and 4 geese arriving on Wednesday.  And a bantam sitting on a nest.  BUT.  That number should fall drastically by the end of May.  And be down to about 25 by fall.  And the freezer should be full and that's the point. 

Cooked our first meal with homegrown asparagus.  I loosely followed this recipe from the New York Times for chicken breasts with lemon and added the asparagus on top.  Used de-boned and butterflied chicken thighs instead of breasts.  It was lovely but I'm looking forward to a day very soon where we can cook chicken without feeling like we have to get out the bleach and hazmat suits.

The little man has been obsessed with "choo-choos" of late so Sunday we took him to the railroad park in town.  It's pretty awesome.  You never really know how large a steam engine is until you're standing right up against one.  They're absolutely massive.  He loved it and we all had a really nice morning.  This picture is courtesy of the Google since all of the ones I took had our faces plastered all over them. 

What else did I do... Listed some things on Ebay.  Did more work in the garden.  Planted snow peas, shallots, two kinds of cabbage, broccoli and some herbs.  Also planted cannas tubers and gladiolus.

Here's looking forward to another exciting week. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017


Yesterday afternoon I opened the incubator so I could put the eggs on what is called "lockdown".  All this means is that you help prepare the eggs for hatching.  Up until now the automatic turner has kept them rotating gently through the day, but that part is done.  Now is the time for the chicks to rest, absorb the last part of the egg yolk and position themselves to hatch. I think I should have done it the day before but time has a habit of getting away from me lately. So yesterday it was.

The turning rack comes out and the brooder gets lined with paper towels.  It makes cleanup easier and gives the little ones better footing than the mesh wire that the incubator comes with.  Next, I candle each egg one more time.  I'm looking to make sure the air cell has increased, and I mark the lowest "dip" in each cell with an X. This is the spot that the chick is most likely to "pip" or start to hatch from.  When the eggs are put back into the brooder, I make sure that the X is facing up. I also take note if I can see a chick moving around in the egg. If so I mark the egg with a ^ check mark.  If I see a chick but no movement I make a little :( drawing.  Because the eggs are mostly tinted blue and green I also use a ? if I can't really see anything or if I just see veining but no chick.

The incubator is in the kitchen and this evening I was standing at the sink after dinner, kind of staring into space and heard a small "peep". What? Surely not. But there it was again "peep!"

It's happening. Two of the blue eggs have pipped. Can you see them? They're the two in the middle. Sorry for the poor picture - you're really not supposed to open the incubator during this time if you can help it - the humidity needs to be steady.

It's been unseasonably hot and muggy all day now there's a line of black clouds rolling in.  We are expected to get some pretty good storms tonight and I'm really hoping the power does not go out (the incubator runs at 102 degrees) if that happens I will just have to cover the thing with a blanket and hope for the best.

Can't wait to see what these chicks look like!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Trout season opener, bacon wrapped trout nibbles

Opening day of trout season for us was last Saturday.  I don't believe that we have native trout in our area because the water temperature of the streams gets to be too warm for them in the summer (they do up in Erie and around the Great Lakes but those are the bigger lake trout - I'm talking small rainbows and browns).  Someone please chime in here if I'm mistaken because I am sure as heck not an expert on fish.  All I know is that each spring PA stocks rivers around the state with literally millions of hatchery-raised trout and then people like me buy a fishing licence plus trout stamp (about $32 total) for the privilege of going out and trying to gather them back up.


I consider this day a personal holiday and it's a big thing to get together with my family for two reasons. Number one, it's a celebration of spring and the un-official start to the fishing season.  Number two, my mother actually passed away on the opening day of the season.  This day marks our second year without her.  So it's especially nice to get together with everyone.  My father and I go out along with my brother in law and his father. My husband came out before we had our little guy.  Last year my uncle came from across the state with my cousin too.  It's a peaceful morning of enjoying the quiet beauty of the river and then we all have a meal together.

The place we fish is a river that runs between two railroad lines.  It's the place my father grew up fishing when he was young.  The banks are terrifically steep with loose gravel and you have to be very sure of your footing going up and down. Once you're at river level picking your way up and down the stream to fish the holes is a task that requires the total of your concentration lest you fall in the water.  There is no river bank to walk along. Just loose rocks and railroad debris.  Sometimes trains go by, practically overhead, while you're fishing.  But it's worth it.

It's normally packed with people on opening day but pretty wild and lonely the rest of the year.  As a woman, I would never fish there by myself because  it's too remote for me to feel safe.  We see deer there; turtles, foxes and many types of birds as well.  This year I saw an eagle and a kingfisher glided past me over the river as I fished.

And these wildflowers. I don't know what they are.

Things like this antique brick are common in the banks.

Usually it's pretty easy to catch your limit of trout (5) without too much effort but this year was a total bust for me.  Cast after cast produced not even a nip on my spinner. It was disappointing.  The season opens at 8:00 in the morning and by the time the clock hit 9:00 I was getting pretty frustrated. I  thought about the strength of the current and the visibility of my lure. How it acted in the water.  Where the fish might be resting.  Nothing was happening no matter how I changed up my lure, added weight, subtracted weight, changed the speed of my retrieve.  Nothing.

It was at this point that my brother in law made a big scene downstream reeling in a fish (for the benefit of his fish-less dad, not me, I later found out).  I nearly cried tears of anger.  Honestly, I was standing in a stream, blinking them back  Damn it! Do NOT act like a girl! Pull your shit together!

It got worse.  Shortly thereafter my dad came by to see if I was having any luck.  We were talking as I was reeling in a cast - nope, nothing, not a bite - and at that very moment a fish hit.  As I tried to set the hook the damn thing literally flipped though the air and back into the water.  In slow motion.  I'm pretty positive it extended a middle finger as it went by.

I was done.  I drove straight to McDonald's and ordered a breakfast sandwich.

And the fish started hitting half an hour after I left.

The bright side is that my father had caught a nice trout while I was there and sent me home with it.  I made it into a little appetizer and took it back to his house to share with everyone later that day and we had a very nice Easter together.  There were children and dogs everywhere and it was chaos and it was wonderful.

Bacon wrapped trout nibbles.  

1) Have someone catch a fish for you because apparently you are incapable.  Bring it home and clean it.  Don't bother scaling it because you'll be taking the skin off later.

2) Stuff the cavity with shallots and orange slices.  Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Bake at 350 until done (15 min?)

3) When the trout is cool, flake the meat into a bowl and add minced garlic, Old Bay, parsley, panko crumbs and an egg.  Mix.

4) Shape into patties the size and shape of scallops.  Pan fry until golden and cooked through.

5) Wrap with bacon, fix with toothpick and put under broiler until bacon is cooked. Serve with a dip made of mayo, Worcestershire sauce and sriracha.  Ever people who profess to hate trout will eat these up.

One trout makes about 12 nibbles. I think trout in the store is about $7 a pound while cost of two fishing licences with trout stamps = one $64 trout.  Time standing in a steam = priceless.  Even on a bad day.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter cakes, rhubarb & asparagus

So here it is, the evening of 4/17 and I'm blogging instead of finishing our taxes. Sigh.
Another half hour of procrastinating won't hurt.

Here are some cakes I made this weekend for Easter that I thought turned out pretty nice in spite of one being from a box mix and the other flat-out purchased at Wal-Mart because I couldn't find my angel food cake pan.

Angel food cake with homemade whip topping and strawberry rhubarb topping.  I whipped the cream with very little sugar and added a lot of vanilla, the topping had honey in it.   Violets looked lovely. Took it to my in-laws for Easter.  My mother in law and I also enjoyed some amazing rhubarb bellini from Jamie Oliver's website.  Thank you SO much to Tracy at Our Smallholding Adventure for the idea and to my dear friend Lynn for the rhubarb advice.

This is just a box mix carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.  The "nests" are tinted coconut and the "eggs" are these adorable (and yummy) malted milk type chocolates I found at Aldi's.  Took it to my parent's house to celebrate with my dad, my little family and my sister and her family.  

Lots to talk about this week.. opening day of trout season was this weekend and I have a new recipe to share for a trout appetizer.

Lots of things sprouting in the garden - greens everywhere and the potatoes are showing. Also -  the best part - OUR ASPARAGUS IS UP!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Freezing eggs the fast & easy way

All of the chickens and ducks are laying now and eggs are piling up fast.  When I first started keeping chickens I remember being startled to learn that eggs were actually a seasonal item.  Like, I knew that fact in an abstract kind of way but it hadn't applied to me personally until suddenly the hens shut down. Then I was really sad.

Hens lay a ton of eggs in the spring and summer then they mostly stop laying in the colder months.  Which makes sense from a hen's perspective of wanting good weather to raise chicks in.

If you're staring at a refrigerator full of extra eggs, it's really easy to freeze them for the future.  Just crack the eggs into a bowl, mix well and put into a freezer container.  Those are the basics. Some people add a pinch of salt or sugar to the mix but it's not necessary.  It is nice to package them in quantities that make sense in your kitchen. Here I do packs of 5 (omelette, Pad Thai) 2 (baking) & 1 (baking).

It's hard for me to get the yolks and the whites totally incorporated stirring with a fork and this makes them kinda lumpy when they're thawed out.  Not a tragedy in baked goods but it is noticeable in scrambled eggs and no one really likes it. This week I came up with a better way that was faster too  - the Nurtibullet.

Using the Nutribullet I zipped through a tray of 30 eggs in about 5 minutes.  It was awesome.

A pint glass makes a nice extra hand to hold the freezer bag open.

Ready for the freezer.  Try to squeeze most of the air out of the bags but they don't have to be perfect.  What is great about using bags is that they freeze flat and you can stack them. I have a box for eggs in the chest freezer so they don't get lost.

It would be nice to freeze enough eggs to get us through the winter rest period because I'm really trying to avoid buying eggs at the store again if I can help it.  Also, it's kinda hard to justify owning (how many?) chickens to your spouse if you have to purchase eggs at the store.  And we all want to avoid that, don't we?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Quail tractor done, quails outside

The quail are now over two weeks old.  This weekend I finished the quail tractor and kicked  installed the quail out in the garden.  It was for the best.  The quail were fully feathered out and they had crossed that point where they ceased to be adorable and were starting to be what I could only politely call annoying as hell.  The top of the brooder was totally covered in wire mesh but every day, every damn day, I would go out the garage in the morning to find that they had knocked the cover aside and several of them were running loose around the garage.  Meanwhile I had a child in the house waiting for breakfast and a husband leaving for work.  Luckily they are easy enough to catch - I put a pet carrier containing food and water on the floor near the other quail - eventually the runners would get bored and just go hang out in the pet carrier where I could scoop them up.

Also every time I walked into the garage they would all panic and flush straight up and hit the wire cover.  It sounded like popcorn popping. I was having dreams of tiny grilled quail kabobs (which would probably be very good). Neither they, nor I, could take it one more day of it.

Enter the quail tractor.  It's actually this "TSC Farmhouse Expansion Pen" that I bought at Tractor Supply Company a couple of months ago.  I promise you - I did NOT pay that listed price for it, no way.  The store near us put out a bunch of seriously marked down pens for sale and with a coupon  I got it for less than 50% of retail.  Tax included. That's much more reasonable.  

It's actually pretty sturdy, was super easy to assemble and just needed another couple coats of stain and some more/better latches and handles added.  Maybe another $15 in parts?  The stain we already had.

So I finished it today.  Put it inside the garden, for now, and added a large pet crate inside for shelter (bought a a yard sale for $2).   The little guy and I collected a bunch of fallen pine boughs and added those inside the pen for cover.

If the quail could talk, I believe that they would call today the "best day of their lives'.  Honestly.  When given a more natural environment they turned into completely different birds.  Immediately.  They soaked in the sunshine.  They took dust baths.  They scratched in dirt.  They lounged.  They chirped. They were so content that they totally ignored my little guy and one of the birds stood still under a pine branch while he petted it.  Because it takes a toddler about 2.5 second to figure out how to work a barrel latch and open the pen up himself.  

Large enough to house a toddler?

Those quail are totally ignoring a near two-year-old playing with the feeder. It was full before he found it.

Overall I am super happy with this product and the quail are too.  I did add some additional things to try to varmint-proof it.  Bricks on all four corners to add weight and also slid panels of fencing under the edges to deter digging. Let's hope it works out. So far so good. It's inside the garden fence for now but the plan is to move it around the yard over fresh grass once the weather evens out.

Anyone else keep quail or want to?

***Edit with some more information.***

The pen doesn't have a bottom on it so the quail can be directly on the ground.  They LOVE bugs and dust bathing and (to me anyway) it seems a far more natural life to give them then being on wire all of the time which is how they are commonly housed.  Here is a picture of the hutch I kept my little group of quail in previously.  They did OK in it but I like this idea better.  The weather is starting to settle here and the idea is that they can be moved to fresh grass every day. This will provide them with new opportunities to eat insects, seeds and also keep the ground underneath them clean.

The shelter for the quail is currently a plastic pet crate.  Quail don't roost and in my experience most times don't even bother to seek shelter from rain or wind and prefer to always be out in the open.  However, this will provide them with shade and a nice cozy area to shelter in if they choose to use it.  Additional shelter is provided by all of the pine branches - really we stuffed a TON of them in there. 

There are 27 quail currently and the pen measures 55 inches long by 33 inches wide.  As they grow I'm expecting that's going to get crowded.  I have several fencing panels here from old rabbit crates and am thinking that I will be able to put a temporary addition on this quite easily.  Quails hit maturity at 8 weeks so at that point I will put all of them but about 6 in the freezer (the remaining birds being kept for eggs).  These were purchased as straight-run so if the males are fighting before the 8 week mark they will be butchered early.  

Why bother?  Well, as much as I like to grow plants, fish, forage and grow birds my big hobby is actually cooking.  All of this here happens so I can have the best quality, most diverse ingredients to play with in the kitchen and feed my family.  Quail eggs are amazing to top little burgers, hard boil for on salads and pasta or crack on little grilled pizzas. 

Plus, I've found that poultry of all kind are a real joy - sometimes I just like to sit out in the poultry yard and watch everyone go about their day.  Quail are beautiful, curious about life and make the most lovely noises.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Chicken ultrasound - day 7 - VIDEO

You know when you're pregnant and you go for an ultrasound and the technician waves the magical wand over your stomach?

Yeah, that's basically what happens to chicken eggs, except with a really bright light.

It's pretty awesome.

To see what's inside we "candle" the egg - because it used to be done by candlelight back in the day.  Now we do it with a little penlight with a cup on the end.  It's absolutely amazing to be able to peek inside an egg and see what's going on.

Today is day 7 of the chicken incubation and I took a look at all of the eggs to see how many were developing properly and to pull out any ones that were duds.  Well, I was pretty shocked.  They were ALL fertile and all but one was was alive and well.  Our former rooster, Mr. Rooster, had his favorite hens and other hens that he totally ignored.  Those second tier girls couldn't get action no matter what they did and it was really kind of sad watch them literally throw themselves on the ground in front of him and be totally ignored.  Apparently Nigel, God bless him, loves all of the ladies equally.

Of 21 eggs, 20 are alive and well. The one that didn't make it had a blood ring - a sign that the embryo started to develop and then quit very early on.

 This is a great example of a blood ring - very obvious on a light colored egg.

I took a little video so everyone can see the little chicken moving around in the egg at what is, effectively, the end of its first trimester of incubation.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Starting seeds & direct sow - zone 5

It's the first full week in April which means it's time to sow more seeds.  Here in zone 5 our last frost date is May 30th so it's time to get our 8 week seeds in flats.  Yesterday I sowed 10 kinds of tomato, eggplant, bergamot, hyssop and zinnias. This would also be the time to sow pepper seeds but I buy those as transplants every year because my luck with them stinks.  There must be some kind of magic to starting peppers and I haven't got it.  That's ok because it's a good reason to go to one of the local greenhouses and see what's new.

It's been an amazingly productive spring so far. The spring side of the garden is well on the way to being planted.  The key I found was organizing this little basket with all of the seeds that need to out, along with the the labels (made from paint stir sticks).

The little basket sits by the door and every day when the little guy and I go out to play we grab something from it.  Then I rake away the straw mulch, scratch up a small patch of dirt and we plant the garden one packet at a time.  We've been no-till for a couple of years and there are earthworms everywhere - even worms are a crop to be gathered soon as the opening day of trout season is April 15th.  Counting down the days until I'm standing in the river.

In this way he and I have already put in 10 lbs potatoes, orach, spinach, chard, tatsoi, radish & fava beans. AND for the first time it actually looks organized!  Gardening every day with the little guy makes me so happy and I really wish my mother were here to see him helping. Gardening was her main passion and she would have enjoyed this so much.

Hope everyone is enjoying the really wonderful spring we've been having.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Start your incubators

I love hatching eggs.  It's so exciting - every part of it - from collecting the eggs to candling to lock down and hatching.  The process is so much fun that the chicks are kinda besides the point.  My incubator is a cheap-o styrofoam Hova-Bator bought off of Amazon a couple of years ago and paired with the automatic egg turner.

People give the inexpensive Hova-Bators a bad rap, but I've never had a problem with mine.  I think the best hatch I ever had has only been about 70% but that was mostly because of eggs that I pulled early because they turned out to be infertile.  The heavier breeds (like Mr. Rooster was) aren't known for the highest  fertility.  BUT the babies are stunning. Easter Egger hen + Cochin rooster = feather footed chicken that lays green eggs.

And who wouldn't want to hatch chicks from Baby Daddy Nigel?

Yep, Nigel.  I thought it was the name of the rooster on our beloved Peppa Pig so that's what I started calling him. Then it was pointed out to me that the rooster's name is actually Neville. Oh well.

Anyway. I've been collecting eggs and finally fired up the incubator on Saturday.  There are 20 puttering away in the little racks.  I run my still air incubator at about 101 degrees with roughly 40 humidity but I don't care much if it fluctuates as long as it doesn't get too hot. Regular candling will tell me how to adjust the humidity to ensure there's a large enough air cell for the chick to hatch.

So, fingers crossed.  Chicks hatch in about 21 days so that means if everything goes well I should be checking back in around April 22nd or 23rd.