Sunday, March 27, 2011

Potatoes and Peas are in

The garden section planting began yesterday.  This is the area we recently cleared and the pigs grazed on last year.  They did a good job cleaning up invasive plants.  Tilling was very smooth and the bedding and manure from the animals left a rich soil behind. Potatoes, Peas and early crops are going in this spot.

Last week we finished burning the brush from the two large pine trees that were overhanging this spot and the Russian olives that had overtaken the area.  The coals and ash were spread out before tilling, which should be a beneficial additive to for the potatoes.

The Potatoes were the first priority to get in the ground.  They've been greening up for about three weeks to break dormancy and stimulate the growth of sprouts before they go in the ground.  The varieties we're planting this year are:

  • Kennebec
  • Yukon Gold
  • Irish Cobbler
  • Adirondack Red
  • Adirondack Blue
  • Red Pontiac

Two 50' rows of Wando Peas  went in to the right of the potatoes.  It's very tempting to companion plant in between the potato rows, but last year the dense planting strategy ended up being very difficult to maintain and we're going to keep things spread out and mulched this year.

38 Pounds of Seed Potatoesaa
We're starting this next stretch under row cover with six foot metal hoops for frost and pest protection.  The furrower attachment on the tiller was used to clear the trench for the hoops and spread out the dirt for laying on the fabric to secure it.  A variety of early vegetables will go in this spot.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Spring Chicks

The weather has been beautiful the last few days - perfect for the arrival of our spring broilers.  We got a batch of 100 Cornish Cross chickens from Purely Poultry, whom I've found to be very reliable and one of the best deals on broilers on a small scale.  We also get a discount because we're repeat customers.

Cute fuzz balls on arrival
Chickens and other poultry can be shipped when they are a day old because right before they hatch, they suck up the extra fluids in the egg and have enough protein, fat and water to last three days before they need replenishment.  This provides enough of a window to priority ship the birds to the farm.  The hatchery usually adds a couple extra birds because there are generally a couple birds that die during shipment.  Surprisingly, all 104 chicks survived the trip and were particularly perky, so we're off to a strong start with this batch.

Jayla loading chicks in the brooder
They spend two to three weeks in the brooder, then they're off to pasture where they supplement their diet with grass & bugs.  That should be just in time for the arrival of our Guineas and Muscovy Ducks, which will go through a similar process.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Seed Starting

The seed flats are starting to really spread out.  Last count we're up to 21 trays that we've reasonably timed for placing outside, not including the six varieties of Potatoes we're greening up before planting next week.  This is the most prepared we've ever been for the garden and I'm hoping we can produce a larger yield to share with friends and family with less routine maintenance.  We're also using Quick Hoops for the first time, which will really give us a boost with an early start from frost protection and later on significant pest control.  Last year we lost 75% of the squash and melon plants due to squash beetles, which the row covers should help with.

The peppers we started in late December didn't germinate well, so I have a fresh batch I'm trying before I break down and buy plants from the store.  The quick hoop bender and row cover arrived this week as well, so the planting is about to begin.  Last year was a bit of an anomaly with the last frost on May 15, but I'm planning on May 1 as the safe frost free date.

Seed flats with southwest exposure
Years ago I read about soil blocking in Eliot Coleman's "The New Organic Grower" and I purchased a micro and a medium blocker this year.  I'm really enjoying this process over using plastic pots.  It's much more flexible and there's far less plastic waste.

Soil Blockers

The micro blocker is really neat because it sets 20 3/4" blocks in a group, fitting 300 blocks in a single tray.  That's a lot of seeds on small real estate and I'm testing several varieties inside that I would ordinarily sow outside, which should help out a ton with weed control.  Last year I tilled in the entire parsnip crop because the weeds took over so badly.  Giving the crop a head start makes a huge difference.

300 spots for Lettuce, Tomatoes, Broccoli and Cauliflower
I was a little hesitant with the micro blocks because you simply drop the seed on top of the tiny little piece of dirt and I wasn't sure how germination would go.  So far I'm very encouraged and the only issue I've run into is the cat walking through the seed flats and making a general mess.  The turnips are sprouting after only three or four days and I'm delighted that I can get them in the ground properly spaced and mulched all in one shot.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Exploring Brining - Charcutepalooza Challenge 3

The third Charcutepalooza challenge was focused on brining.  I had never brined anything before, so this challenge was some new territory.  My perspective on brining was that it was something the meat industry did to mask inferior tasting meats and add weight to get a better price for Thanksgiving Turkeys. After getting excited about a couple recipes however, I was ready to dive in and explore the technique.

Chicken with Garlic Pepper Rub
The first dabble at it was barbecued baby back ribs and chicken.  The challenge I've had with homemade ribs is that they often end up tough, dry or charred when just grilling them.  The alternative has been to tent them in foil and slow cook them in the oven before putting them on the grill.  This steaming softens them up, but it's usually too much and the ribs don't hold together enough and can end up bland.  Brining them for an hour not only struck the perfect balance in texture, but introduced a depth of flavor that was stunning.

The brine was very basic:
  • 1 Gallon Water
  • 1/2 cup Kosher Salt
  • 2/3 cup Brown Sugar
The ribs and chicken cold soaked for an hour and were set out for another hour before grilling.  I made a rub out of several spices, which I have a feel for rather than a specific recipe.  Generally, I add
  • Healthy handful of Garlic Powder
  • Kosher Salt
  • White Pepper
  • Black Pepper
  • Dried Onion Flakes
  • Paprika
  • Chipotle Powder
  • Other stuff to suit the mood

  • Brined Chicken & Ribs
The barbecue sauce is homemade from the garden.  I discovered a neat trick with making barbecue sauce last year by drying some tomatoes before adding them to the sauce, which gives it a deep tomato taste and makes it nice and thick without overcooking.

Second Experiment 

The next brining exploration was an herb brined & roasted chicken.  

Store Bought "Chicken"
Honestly, the jury is still out on this one.  We raise our own chickens and they are delectable and moist right out of the oven.  The brining ended up imparting a pleasant herb flavor into the meat, but it was also very salty. I may play around with the concentration and time, but it's really hard to compete with our fresh chickens.  Here's the recipe for the herb brined chicken:

The Brine:
Brine mixture
  • 1 Quart Water
  • 1 Cup Kosher Salt
  • 1/3 Cup Sugar
  • 1 Tbs Tarragon
  • 2 Tbs Oregano
  • 3 Bay Leaves
  • 2 tsp Lemon Rind
  • 6 Juniper Berries
  • 1 Onion
  • 1 Head of Garlic, Cloves Split
  • 3 Quarts Water & Ice

Simmer the Brine ingredients in 1 Quart Water for 15 minutes.  There's no need to peel the garlic or onion.  Fill one quart measuring cup with ice, fill with water and repeat 2 more times to bring liquid to one gallon.  If cool to touch, place chicken in the brine and refrigerate overnight, otherwise chill the brine first.  Remove chicken 3-4 hours in advance of cooking, rinse, pat dry and refrigerate until cooking time.  Place in 375 degree oven until done.

The real test for me with a roasted bird is the quality of the gravy.  Again, the gravy was better than I've had in any restaurant, but a bit too salty.

Herb Brined Chicken with Candied Carrots
Final Brining Experiment

The final experiment is a taste off between Beef and Pork, cooked two different ways, for a four dish meal - foodies salivate.  Since the Charcutepalooza challenge is to make a corned beef, why not also try the technique on a hunk of pork along with a beef brisket?  I've also become a big fan of confit and happen to have a significant amount of goose fat waiting for a job, so why not try out a beef confit along the pork confit I've been planning and see how the techniques differ?

Pork shoulder for Salt Pork, Pork Prosciutto, and "Corned Pork"
Once the pork shoulder and the beef brisket were split up, both went into respective cures together.  The Brine and Pickling spice recipe for the Corned Beef (and Pork) came right out of Charcuterie, except I added juniper berries to the pickling spice.

Pork Shoulder and Beef Brisket curing for confit
The dry cure for the confit came straight out of the Pork Confit recipe in Charcuterie.  I need to schedule a tasting event for the final products, but can't wait to see how the techniques and character of the different meats play out.  Almost forgot, the extra hunk of pork shoulder is curing in the fridge to make a sweet salt pork.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


A couple weeks ago I set some of the Ossabaw Island Pigs loose on the garden. Pigs are natural rooters and we've been using them to help prep the garden for spring for the last two years. They turn over the first couple inches looking for roots, grubs and other foods - natural rototillers; or Pigatillers.  The leftover plant material from the previous year and the early spring weeds get turned over while I'm inside keeping warm.  They also leave wonderful fertilizer in their wake, which is much easier than spreading it yourself.

In this picture you can see the early weeds sprouting to the right and the fresh look under the pigs.  Since all but the top couple inches are turned over in this process, it is very good approach for maintaining the subsoil structure that is so helpful in long term soil health.  Tilling down six inches is pretty damaging to the worms and other beneficial creatures in the earth.

The final benefit is the pigs dig to the last inch in the garden.  Running a heavy duty tiller along a fence line is nerve racking and I've had more than a couple rough moments when the tines get caught in the wire on a tight turn.  The pigs are much more thorough and I don't need to worry about fence repair or untangling the tiller tines.

The main issue with using the pigs in the garden is keeping them in too long.  Once they've turned over the soil, their running around compacts the earth and you need to go back in to till it up for planting, which offsets some of the benefits.  This year, we're planning to keep them on a short leash and move them out while the soil is still fluffy.