Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer Sunday Dinner: Fried Chicken Grown Right

Fried Chicken with Peanut Butter/Honey Dipping Sauce
Today was a very special day indeed. The chickens from our first hatch this year (back in April) finally came of age and it’s time to start butchering the males. And what precious few of them there are! We’ve had nothing but trouble this year with snakes and hawks. We had one hawk in particular that became so gluttonous it only left us TWO chickens out of a hatch of 26! In fact, out of 3 hatches of about 20-25 chicks each, we only managed to raise 10 to maturity.

Which is just ridiculous. Awhile back I was surfing about on the net trying to find out if there were any special depredation loopholes that would allow me to legally shoot hawks that cause this much trouble. (It’s against Federal law to kill ANY raptor, for any reason, even though hawks haven’t been endangered for many years.) What I found instead made me see red! A guy from Texas complained of the same problem on some wildlife forum and got all kinds of ridiculous responses from the bleeding hearts of the world:

“Poultry netting is inexpensive – are you just too cheap to pen up your chickens?!” and “Oh, let the little hawks have a couple of chickens, they don’t eat much.” and “Hawks are such majestic creatures – how could you even think of killing one?!”

I say let every one of those idiots starve! The problem with people who buy all of their food from the supermarket is that they’ve never had to fight Mother Nature for the privilege of eating meat from a styrofoam tray. Nor have they ever had to stare down one of those “majestic” hissing, snarling, snapping beastards that would happily rip them to shreds were the raptors the size of their dino ancestors. And those same people will pay extra for meat they’ve been told is “free-range”. I’m sorry, but REAL “free-range” chickens are not raised in pens or “chicken tractors,” even though they are sold to a very gullible public under that label.

You see, it’s not enough for a chicken to have a few new inches of grass and dirt to peck around in every day. A caged chicken is not a happy or healthy chicken – at any age. And when it comes to exercise, they’re like Forrest Gump – if they’re going somewhere, they’re running! Chickens are the rogues and free spirits of the homestead world. They will happily scour every particle of dirt and debris on your property every single day if they can. (Cause they mighta missed something the day before!) They eat ticks, mice, small snakes and you should just see the excitement when someone stirs up a grasshopper or grub! In fact, I recently found out that eggs from chickens that eat a lot of bugs are high in Omega-3’s, just like the eggs from chickens that are fed flaxseed and fish meal. Except that bugs are much cheaper than flaxseed and fish meal. J

Kitchen scraps are another delicacy and word spreads fast on the day I clean out the fridge. I always have the best of intentions of getting a compost pile going, but it seems to me a better use of scraps is converting them to meat and eggs. About the only thing I’ve found they won’t eat is citrus peels. (And granulated white sugar – chickens are not completely stupid, after all!)

I once heard Chef Mario Batali comment that he prefers the chickens we grow in America to the “roadrunners” that are standard fare in much of Europe. Indeed, the Cornish-cross broilers that were developed for the poultry industry grow much faster and have a lot more meat than standard breeds. But they don’t have the same flavor, they can’t breed naturally and they are absolutely incapable of foraging for their own food. They cannot be raised alongside standard breeds easily and they have too many health problems to mention. I’ve raised over a thousand of those birds in the last 10 years and I’ll never raise another one.

A few years ago, I tried the slower-growing Red and Black Broilers that are available from hatcheries. They’ll grow fastest on a high-protein feed, but they don’t require it like the Cornish Frankenbirds. They also have no health problems and can breed naturally (the females anyway, I haven’t tried breeding the males yet). The Black Broilers are truly beautiful birds, none of them solid black and having varying degrees of gold, green and purple feathers. Some have white skin and some yellow, which is a nice trait if you eat chicken prepared lots of different ways or render the fat.

I’ve been holding out some of the females from each order and crossing them to my purebred White Plymouth Rocks for meat. The resulting offspring are excellent dual-purpose chickens. The females lay well and make nice, plump stewing hens afterwards. The males are large and heavy.

But as happy as I am with those birds, they aren’t really sustainable as long as the parents are having to come from a hatchery. I’ve raised most of the “Standard Heavy Breeds” of chickens available and finally settled on White Plymouth Rocks as my dual-purpose breed of choice. The hens lay steadily through the winter and the males are about half a pound heavier at butchering time than other standard heavy breeds. (And I’ve never had a mean rooster from that breed!) Plus anytime I hatch out a pure white bird, I know it’s purebred and can be kept for breeding stock without diluting the breed. My only regret about that bird is that I can’t sell off the extra hens, as most homesteaders want more colorful layers than just plain white. Such is life.

The bird pictured on the platter above was a Standard Heavy Breed cross I butchered yesterday. His mother was probably Australorp and his father was White Rock. He was right at 5 months old and just beginning to crow and become obnoxious. He has free-ranged since he was 3 days old. The difference in the meat between them and the commercial breed is the size of the breasts and thighs. (And the flavor!) The breast is smaller than grocery store chickens, but it’s also much more juicy and succulent. The thighs are larger and firmer because the bird was actually able to run and walk without falling down or having a heart attack(!). And of course, the drumsticks are always longer than the short, stubby little legs of the Cornish Cross.

The flavor was El Primo! No grocery store bird could ever taste that good.

But Thank God for hatcheries. After the hawks and snakes thinned out our own chicks so much this year, I knew we weren’t going to have enough chicken to eat if I didn’t make other plans. “The Horrendous Hundred” arrived the first week of August. The order was for 50 straight-run “Black Broilers” and 50 “Assorted Heavy Breed” males (meaning the little guys that didn’t get sold alongside their female counterparts). Beautiful little things they are – so many different colors! I’ve never raised this many meat birds at once and I was questioning my sanity the first week into it! But baby chicks are seasonal and there won’t be any more until next spring, and no more to eat until next summer.

We’ve mostly gotten the hawk and snake situation under control and we’re guarding this batch carefully. There will be periods of time we’ll have no choice but to pen them up for a week while we transition them from one sleeping area to another, but other than that, they’ll be free-range birds all their lives. For now, they’re running loose in the front yard. Which provides for a heck of a lot of entertainment during morning coffee hour. J There will be “Cornish-Hen” -sized birds ready to eat in a few more weeks and a steady diet of chicken-on-the-hoof until February. By then, I’ll need to thin out my older hens to make way for the new layers. A homestead with no free-range chickens running amuck is no proper homestead at all. J

Fried Chicken Marinade

1 egg
1 cup cultured buttermilk or yogurt
1 teaspoon salt
1 heaping tablespoon Herb Shaker

Mix together in deep covered bowl and marinate cut-up chicken for about 24 hours in the fridge prior to dredging in flour and frying.  Enough for 1 small chicken. Also excellent for chicken fried steak and pork chops.

Herb Shaker

This recipe is from “The Whole Chili Pepper Book” by DeWitt and Gerlach. They developed it from one that was recommended as a salt substitute by the American Heart Association. It has a wonderful flavor that’s made even better if you have your own herbs and spices to put in it. Curtis uses whole herbs and spices (rather than ground) and mixes it up in the spice mill by the pint for me to use. Good stuff and it really packs a punch when he uses his own peppers!

3 teaspoons (heaping) cayenne pepper flakes
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground basil
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon ground parsley flakes
1 teaspoon ground savory
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground sage
1 teaspoon marjoram
A few of "The Horrendous Hundred"

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Long-Term Food-Storage Pantry, Part 2

Whole dried cayenne peppers
For “When-The-Stuff-Hits-The-Fan”

Last night we sat down to watch the new Wall Street movie: Money Never Sleeps. I wasn’t so impressed with the movie, but Gordon Gekko’s speech to “The Ninja Generation” was fantastic.  (NINJA is an acronym for the current crop of 20-somethings with a college degree who have No Income, No Job, No Assets.)I won’t repeat the entire speech, but you can view the jist of it here:

He certainly hit the nail on the head talking about our economy:
“…It is greed that makes my bartender buy three houses he cannot afford with no money down. And it is greed that makes your parents refinance their $200,000 mortgage for $250,000. Now they take that extra $50,000 and go to the shopping mall so they can buy a new plasma TV, cell phones, computers and an SUV. And hey, why not a second home while we are at it…”

“…It is clear as a bell to those who pay attention. The mother of all evil is speculation -- leverage debt. The bottom line is, it is borrowing to the hilt. And I hate to tell you this, but it is a bankrupt business model. It will not work. It is septicemic, malignant and it is global. Like cancer, it is a disease.”

Folks, there has NEVER been a better time to be free of debt and to be living as self-sufficiently as you are able. And by debt-free, I mean mortgage and cars paid for, no outstanding balance on your credit cards and no loans. Yes, it is hard when your family, friends and neighbors are driving new cars, living in McMansions and always sporting the latest electronic gadgets. But it can be done.

When we moved here ten years ago, we carried nearly $30K in credit card debt. We both drove new vehicles with the mandatory full-coverage insurance that’s required on vehicles you don’t own outright. And we were stupid enough to go out and buy a new tractor, a trailer and implements to the tune of $18K, payable over 5 years! “What were we thinking?!” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.

But we at least had the good sense to stop there. We were in over our heads and we knew it. I think the bottom of the barrel was reached the day I had to sell some roosters to pay for groceries for the week! We got rid of one of the vehicles and I started driving an old, decrepit 1985 Chevy S-10 that had belonged to my father and that we paid my mom $1200 for. (It already had nearly 400K miles on it when we moved here!) The other vehicle was paid off some 5 years ago and we’re still driving it. We put a couple thousand into it every year for maintenance and repairs, but that doesn’t begin to equal a new car and insurance payment. When the S-10 finally breathed it’s last, we bought a very used 1997 Chevy 1500 for $4K.

We own ONE computer (still on dial-up!) and our cell phones (which we seldom use) are pay-as-you-go. Switching over to Go Phones reduced our cell phone bill from $900 a year to $200 a year. And I don’t give a flying flip about texting and being able to surf the net from my phone. The phones are for emergencies and when we can’t be reached on our regular phone or by e-mail. Our biggest unnecessary expense is satellite television and I’m starting to question that seeing as how we’ve hundreds of channels and often can’t find anything worth watching!

We kept the tractor and even though I realize now it was a totally unnecessary expense, we love the thing and have no intention of parting with it in this lifetime. (But I DON’T recommend such a ridiculous purchase for homesteading!) Our old credit card debt is almost paid off and (fingers crossed) we’ll be free of that in less than a year. What’s left of our mortgage is next and we intend to own this house and land outright in 15 years instead of 30, which means it WILL be paid for in 5 more years.

And we’re fairly sensible people when it comes to spending. Curtis makes a nice income and I try to earn my keep by growing food and preparing most of our meals completely from scratch. But honestly, when I look at the lifestyle of friends and neighbors, I don’t know how they keep their heads above water. I know we have a higher income and spend less than them, and we’re not debt-free yet – how are they living like they are unless they’re putting EVERYTHING on credit?

Economists are predicting another recession. I’m not convinced we ever recovered from the last one! What I do know is that things are not EVER going to go back to the way they were 20 years ago. Gas prices are not going to go down, which means the cost of getting back and forth to a job is going to cost you a larger and larger percentage of your wages. Food prices are going to continue to skyrocket due to the increased cost of growing and shipping. There has never been a better time to be debt-free and focused on self-sufficiency!


We made our annual pantry re-stocking trip this week to purchase the items we either can’t find locally or won’t pay the local price for. As usual, it was a sobering experience! A can of coffee -- $10.48, a small bottle of maple syrup -- $6.24, a half-gallon of olive oil -- $20.48, even dry beans and rice are running over $1/pound and that’s for the cheap, non-organic varieties! We decided bacon has become completely unaffordable and didn’t buy any, even though we love the stuff. We spent just under $600 for food, medicine, clothing items and a few other necessities. Of course, when I look at the things we’re buying now as opposed to the things we were buying 10 years ago before we produced any of our own food, the list is completely different.

There are no purchased canned veggies outside of baby corn (for stir-fries), mushrooms, olives and pasta sauce (which I buy mainly for the re-usable canning jars). We haven’t purchased store-bought bread or chicken in 7-8 years. Nor have we had to look at the pale, watery things that pass as eggs at the grocery for 10 years. We still buy meat and dairy locally, though I never buy meat unless it’s on sale. (And I’ve been cleaning out the freezer this summer in anticipation of refilling it with venison, wild pork and maybe even a couple of goats purchased from some neighbors!) I no longer buy buttermilk for cooking with now that I can make yogurt for less than $1 a quart. So the list of what we put up ourselves far outweighs what we’re still having to purchase.

People are always asking me how I store food long-term without it going bad or getting bugs in it. Truth is, most WHOLE foods have a very long shelf life and it’s pretty easy to keep the bugs out as long as you keep an eye on your pantry and keep things rotated. Here are some of my storage solutions:

Glass jars are nice, but they’re heavy. However, for storing larger pieces of dried foods (like the dried peppers in the picture), you really don’t have much choice. Some people use their vacuum sealer attachment to seal the jars. I have one of those and can’t stand the thing for sealing frozen food and I wouldn’t waste the money on one just to seal jars, but I suppose it would get the job done. Then again, it’s really not necessary for the jars to be tightly sealed, just tightly closed. If you like the plastic screw-on lids that are sold in the canning aisle, just be sure to put a regular dome lid underneath it to get a tighter seal. And by the way, weevils LOVE dried peppers so if you make ristras, be sure and store them properly after the peppers are dried!

Even better than glass jars (in my opinion anyway) are plastic bottles that were designed to hold liquids. Certain types of plastic bottles are completely air-tight and bug-proof once you screw the lid on tight. They will expand and contract with changing temperatures rather than let air in and out via the seal. Two and three liter soda bottles, water bottles and juice bottles are ideal for dry food storage. And if you don’t buy such things yourself, you can always ask others to save them for you. The type of food you store in each bottle is dependent on the size of the bottle’s neck. Small grains and dried sweet corn will go through the neck of a 2-liter soda bottle, but dried okra and sun-dried tomatoes will need a bottle with a larger neck, like a V-8 or other juice bottle.
Dehydrated Fruits & Vegetables

Bottles with handles are also nice, like the gallon jugs used to sell cooking oil. They’re a bit hard to get clean, but worth the trouble. Gallon milk jugs are nice and compact for storage, though they aren’t air-tight. To use them for long-term storage, wrap several turns of masking tape around the cap and jug neck after filling them. For filling jugs and bottles, consider buying an “oil-change” funnel from the automotive department and cutting the slender neck off with a hacksaw. It’s especially handy for funneling flour into bottles. By the way, a gallon jug will hold approximately 7 pounds of small, whole grains (like rice or wheat).
Gallon jug of brown rice

And while whole grains and processed flours (with the germ removed) store well at room temperature without going rancid, NEVER grind more whole grain flour than you can reasonably use within a month to six weeks. My Kitchen-Aid grinder will grind about 7 cups of whole grains before needing a break, so that’s how much of each one I grind at a time. One exception I’ve found of a processed product going rancid is Corn Masa Flour, so if you’re not making your own a batch at a time, the 5-pound bags don’t store well without putting them in the freezer (which I just won’t do!).
Grain-grinding day

For storing large quantities of grains, nothing beats a 5-gallon water bottle. Keep an eye on the lid, as they crack over time. You can use several layers of plastic wrap and some rubber bands or tape to seal the bottles if the lids crack. A 5-gallon bottle will hold about 35-40 pounds of whole grains. For flours and sugar, nothing beats a 5- or 6-gallon bucket with a Gamma Seal lid. The lids are a bit expensive, but I’ve never had weevils get past the rubber seal. The lids screw on and off easily, so they’re also very convenient. (The company I’ve linked to is out of Texas, but better prices can be found on the lids.) Grains expand when they’re ground, so a 5-gallon bucket will only hold 25-30 pounds of flour. You can use a dinner plate to compact the flour into the bucket if needs be.
Five-gallon storage containers

Another excellent choice for storing large quantities of grain are the “cubes” that hospitals and labs receive sterile saline in. (I notice some home-brew companies are selling them as fermentation tanks and there’s even special air-locks made to fit them.) The cubes come in 20-liters (5.2 gallons) and the collapsible plastic tank is inside of a heavy cardboard box with a plastic handle. You have to open the box to clean and fill the tank. Seal the box back up with heavy duct tape. They’ll stack three high (about 110 pounds total) filled with anything lighter than anti-matter! J

And never pass up a popcorn tin! Even though they don’t have an air-tight seal, you can use a heavy plastic bag as a liner. For long-term storage, seal the lid of the tin onto the can with masking tape. I keep all of my pet meds and supplies in a popcorn tin in the bathroom.

One time I acquired a quarter ton (500 pounds) of good quality, hard red winter wheat from the feed store. It was unusually clean and untreated, so I set about finding ways to store it. Some of it went into 55-gallon drums lined with two heavy contractor trash bags, taped shut. I still have a box of it in the pantry – it’s in a heavy cardboard liquor box inside of a heavy plastic bag that’s taped shut, and all the seams of the box are also taped. It’s been in there for about 7 years now and bugs haven’t made it past the first seal yet. (I also acquired some VERY clean pearl barley from the feed store at one point. I was going to feed it to my quail, but it ended up in the pantry!)

For daily use, I’m quite fond of the clear glass crocks shown in this picture. (Further, the crocks can be used for pickles and sauerkraut when I’m not storing grains in them.) The 3-gallon crocks shown in this picture are less than $20 at Wal-mart and smaller sizes are available. They aren’t impervious to bugs though. A bulb of fresh garlic and some fresh bay leaves are good repellents. And any grain or bean that will be rinsed before cooking or grinding can be made bug-safe with a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth. You can also put down a paper plate inside the crock on top of the grain and sprinkle the DE on that to keep it from mingling with your food. (It won’t hurt you to eat it, but it’s gritty and hard on your grinder!) The paper plate in the pinto bean crock is separating the older beans from the newer ones.
Dent corn, buckwheat, steel-cut oats, pinto beans

There are lots of mail-order sources to buy clean, whole grains and other dried foods. One of my favorites is Honeyville Grains. They’re a little more expensive than some, but you make up for it on the shipping. They have a flat-rate shipping cost of $4.49 that doesn’t change whether you order a pound or a ton. Another favorite is Purcell Mountain Farms. (Order two pounds of each variety of beans – one for eating, the other for planting!) I order wild rice from North Bay. They also have a good selection of dried veggies. And herbs and spices I can’t grow myself come from the Spice Barn.

I’ve also been known to order from several “emergency food supply” companies, but they’re usually more expensive than the others. The one exception may be powdered milk (GOOD powdered whole milk, not like the fat-free crap you buy at the supermarket), but they’re usually sold out of it anyway. I’ve not found it cost-efficient to order flour, sugar, rice and steam-rolled oats on-line, so I just fill the grocery cart up with those things once a month or so. Wait til you see the look on the cashier’s face when you roll up to the counter with 50 pounds of flour in your cart! J

Food co-ops will often offer grains and dried foods in bulk quantities and at one point, I contacted Whole Foods supermarket and asked if they would order and sell in 50 pound bags. They were more than happy to do so, though I would’ve had to drive into Arlington to pick it up. So, there are lots of options out there in addition to growing as much of your own as possible. And when TSHTF, if you survive it, you’ll be glad you planned ahead. J