Sunday, August 31, 2014

Happy spring!

I do believe that my favourite thing about living in our tiny house is the way it makes us super aware of and in tune with the seasons. 

For most of the year, we eat our meals outside at our big hardwood table. It's beautiful, being as it is almost in our vegetable garden, and we can see what's growing, we can watch the birds and the wildlife and the changing sky.

But when the weather's cold (Bega gets cold in winter!), and darkness comes before dinner time, we retreat inside for our evening meals. This is pleasing in its own cozy way, but by the time the days lengthen and the weather warms up, we're busting to get back outside.
2 nights ago, it was warm and light enough to eat outside, so we made the transition. Just like that. And it was delightful! The kids did their thing of flitting back and forth between the cubby, trampoline and table, shovelling in mouthfuls as they passed us, as Pearl and I sat and enjoyed our dinner.
To celebrate this minor but also significant seasonal turning, I'm going to share the recipe for the dinner we had. I'm calling it Autumn Farm Fried Rice, and it's loosely based on the fried rice my mum made for us when I was growing up, though with a more seasonal, use-what-you've-got kind of ethic. It's a great meal for using up bits and pieces of veggies from your garden or the fridge, and you can adapt it in many sundry ways - go wild! Have a go! It's super delicious and nutritious, and you can make it with pretty much whatever you've got hanging around, like I said. Peas are nice, as is corn, in summer... This recipe is basically the quantities I used to make dinner for the 4 of us, with no leftovers.

First, you'll need to put your rice on to cook. We use rain-fed Australian brown rice, which is quite delicious! Cook 2 cups of rice in 4 cups of water until all the water is absorbed. Set it aside, with the lid off, so that the rice kind of dries out. Of course, if you've got it, you could use leftover rice too!

Next, make an omelette. I used 6 duck eggs, a little bit of salt and 1 shallot, chopped up. Whisk this all together, then pour into a frypan with very hot oil in it. When it's cooked through, set it aside.

In the same pan, cook 2 chicken breasts, so they're nice and crispy on the outside. Set these aside with the omelette.

Now, in a big wok, heat a few tablespoons of oil (I used sesame oil). Add a couple of tablespoons of grated or minced garlic, and the same of grated or minced ginger. If you have shallots or something like that they can also go in now. I also added 3 smallish carrots, finely diced. Just fry them for a little minute til they start to cook.

Then I added the rice! Stir it all around, and add a bit more oil if you need/want to. 

I then chucked in the omelette and the chicken, which I'd kind of torn up into small pieces, and some sunflower seeds. Almonds are also nice if you have them.

Keep stirring!

Then I doused the whole lot in tamari. I have no idea how much - just til it tasted nice.

Right before it was served, I stirred through about 3 bunches of tatsoi that were grown by our awesome friends Thea and Tim who grow the most amazing veggies around. Luckily for us, they're happy to trade awesome veg for chicken. Yeah!

And that's it! We served ours (the grown-ups) with green tomato chilli jam, which just takes it to another level of deliciousness.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Bell and a Sock and a Violet Von Hungry-Face

One of the ambitions of a sustainable system is that it should be a 'closed loop'. This means that things entering the system (eg resources, energy etc) and leaving the system (eg waste) should be reduced as much as possible. 

We are still a ways off a closed loop system. Honestly, I don't believe we'll ever achieve it because there will always be things we want/need that we can't produce for ourselves. As farmers, we are bringing nutrients onto our land (in the form of chicken feed) and taking nutrients off our land (in the form of chickens for our community to eat). No closed loop there. But that doesn't mean that we can't do everything possible to reduce what we bring onto and take off our land in other ways. And most of it's pretty easy - we compost our waste (yes, even our humanure); we buy food in bulk, using our own packaging, so we don't generate much rubbish; we grow as much food as we can, so that nutrients cycle around our land; we collect and use our own water and solar energy. None of these are closed loops, but they're a conscious effort towards localising energy production and usage on our property.


And then we got 2 chook guard dogs from a local sheep farmer, and were very surprised to discover we had a closed loop on our property after all. Without even trying.

The inputs required for pets has weighed quite heavily on my mind since reading a bit about the ecological footprint of pets in the West. This information came as a bit of a shock to me, and was something I'd never even considered, in a whole life of pet-loving. But with our pastured chicken enterprise booming, we were wiling to take the plunge into dog ownership in order to fortify our fox defences.

Tiny dog teething on a chook feeder

The first 2 dogs we got - Bell and Sock - are brother and sister  kelpie-collie cross sheep dog rejects. This means that they're trained for farm work, but didn't quite make the grade for intensive large-scale sheep farming. The most recent addition to our working dog family is a little thing called Violet Tiny-Dog Von Hungry Face. She's also a farming dog, whose parents are integral to the workings of our friends at Symphony Farm, and, when she's big enough, she will also be doing her part to deter hungry foxes from our chickens.

A Sock

So the dogs are working for us, protecting our chickens (and herding the chicks who have strayed from the group), their waste doesn't leave the property, and all that they require in the way of inputs (ie. food) is some chicken feet/heads/gizzards/necks, which are left over from our chicken processing. An additional bonus is that the completely unrefined, fresh and unprocessed nature of their diet means that they're healthy and non-smelly. Yay!


And while they're not cats (card-carrying 3rd generation crazy cat lady right here...) they are kind of cute, in their own doggy way.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The story of chicken (part one)

Chicken on grass in sunshine, a very simple equation
One Sunday a little while back we roasted a chicken. You may think this is nothing special given we raise pastured chickens. They must have chicken all the time, you think to yourself. But the thing is we don't. This is partly because there is more demand for our chickens than actual chicken available so we often end up selling part of our own share. But it's also because we think chicken should be special. For us, chicken is not an everyday food. We think vegetables and herbs and fruit are everyday food, meat is not. 

I know we've all been sold the notion of cheap chicken. You can get the stuff for $5 per kg in the supermarket. It's probably the cheapest protein around, but there's a price to be paid for this kind of cheap protein. It's the price of a chicken that has literally lived its life in shit and never been outside and the price of anti-biotic resistance and the price of a farmer that is forced to farm so intensively to make a semblance of income and the price of chicken meat seriously bereft of nutrients and the price of environmental catastrophe and the price of forgetting what food can actually taste like....

There was something pretty special about this roast chicken dinner. It happened amidst Annie's chemo regime. Our eating throughout her chemo consisted of a lot of broth and kale and miso and really whatever we could throw together that might satisfy our kids and Annie's very unwell self at the time. Chemotherapy and small farm life and two little kids is a very particular type of chaos. Needless to say, roast chicken dinners were not at the top of the dinner list. But this Sunday we had time and Annie was feeling ok and we had this whopping 3.5kg chicken in our freezer so we fired (literally) up our wood oven and created a little something special for ourselves. 

Big fella out of freezer

Holy smoke - what a delicious sight
A 3.5kg chicken, WTF?! I know I know... we'd grown it in Autumn. Autumn is a very good time for growing chickens. Not too hot, not too cold. the pasture is lush from late Summer - early Autumn rain. It's not windy, chickens are calm and they grow and they just keep growing, if you let them. This big guy was about 14 weeks old when we killed him. 

In your conventional shed raised industrial system the chickens are killed around 5 weeks of age. This includes so-called free range. Basically these chickens live in sheds in their own shit. They live with thousands of other chickens and they often have the lights on for up to 20 hours everyday. Lights on means they will eat more, hence grow more quickly and be ready to slaughter at 5 weeks of age. In most pasture raised systems the chickens are killed around 8-9 weeks of age. They don't have lights on at night so only eat during daylight hours which are also spent foraging, nesting, walking, running, flapping ie. using more energy and growing more slowly. We were interested to see what would happen if we let our chickens live longer than nine weeks.  We liked the idea of a longer lived chicken. Better taste, better texture we surmised. But there is so much mythical scare mongering about the Cornish Cross meat chicken that we were nervous - it's a fast growing monster... It can't walk past five weeks of age... It'll die suddenly of a heart attack... It just sits around eating all day...  Regardless we gave it a try and it was as we thought. Better! The meat has more texture and flavour, the leg meat is darker and richer and there's just so much of it that no one misses out. I remember pulling the chicken out of the oven and tearing off a little bit of skin. Oh my! It was transcendental. I dug a little deeper and pulled off a chunk of flesh. I exclaimed out loud, it was just so good. Normally in a collective context one would feel some guilt about hoeing into the chicken before anyone else but when you have 3.5kg of the stuff you can please yourself knowing there is plenty for everyone. This night I felt rich. 

Note - much darker leg meat
We ate well that night and the next day and the next day -  A sensational dinner followed by some pretty spectacular sandwiches for a few days and all culminating in a very lovely bone broth. 

Quality leftovers indeed
Regarding the Cornish Cross disparaging. It is, in the main, related to context. Chickens raised in their thousands in a shed probably don't move very much. Where would they go? And how would they get there? Of course they can't move. Their circadian rhythms are all out of whack from being kept awake most of the night so they probably do have a lot of health problems and are destined for a short life. To a certain extent this is linked to their breed. The reality is that a chicken bred to grow big breasts and fast will lose something in the way of resilience. To a large extent it's about context and it's about good grasses and sunshine. We can easily grow our meat chickens to 21 weeks and beyond because they have ample access to good grasses and sunshine. Their legs and hearts and livers are strong. It may sound simplistic but it's "the truth". Our animal husbandry is almost entirely premised on sun and grass. We aim to let our chicks out of the brooder into the sun and onto the grass for periods of the day by five days of age (weather permitting). Those that get this are noticeably more robust, active and resilient than those that have to remain inside due to cold or overcast or windy or wet weather. 

People ask us why we don't grow more chickens. We could. We have a waiting list of potential customers so the demand is most certainly there. But we can't because it's about the grass, man. The grass needs time to recover. It won't get the time it needs if we have too many chickens walking on it, eating on it and profusely shitting on it. To create and maintain a healthy pasture based system that regenerates the land rather than denudes it requires much keen observation, some restraint and some acceptance of limited profit. This is why chicken is special. 

Chicks being chicks on a sunny day OUTSIDE
I've got another couple of big guys in the freezer - 3.3 and 3.6kg. The 3.6er was a 21 week old rooster we called 'Big Daddy'. I'll probably write about him at a later time as he had a special place in my heart. In the meantime I'm planning how exactly to cook him for my birthday lunch in Spring.