Monday, November 19, 2012

Homemade Chicken Stock

With preparations for Thanksgiving dinner getting underway, I am making a batch of chicken stock.  Several of the recipes that I am making for Thanksgiving call for chicken stock or chicken broth.  I have been making my own stock since we began raising our own meat chickens.  I view it as a way of "honoring the sacrifice of the bird" by using all the usable parts.  I don't adhere to a strict recipe, so each batch is unique. 

A rough breakdown of the ingredients are as follows:

2 chicken carcasses  We throw all the bones from a chicken in a gallon ziplock bag after the meal and freeze it until stock time.
2 sets of chicken organs and 2 necks  We freeze these when the chickens are butchered so that I can just grab a bag out of the deep freeze.
4 chicken feet  Two chickens equals four feet.  The feet are high in collagen and great for stock.
3-4 carrots, thickly sliced
3-4 celery stalks, thickly sliced
1 medium to large onion, roughly chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2 sprigs of rosemary
4 sprigs of thyme
4-6 sage leaves
1 Tablespoon peppercorns

Throw all the ingredients in a large pot and cover completely with water.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn the temperature down to low, cover, and simmer for 2-3 hours.  I usually add water periodically as it evaporates. 


After it cooks, strain out the solids and discard.  I use a slotted spoon.  Then pour the stock through a fine mesh sieve and you are ready to go!  I usually don't need all of the stock at once so I have taken to freezing it in ice cube trays, then I pop out the cubes and put them in a freezer bag for future use.  Sometimes I only need a half a cup and it's easy just to grab out a few cubes.  Each ice cube is approximately 2 tablespoons, so 8 cubes makes a cup. 

Our family has really enjoyed the flavor of homemade chicken stock.  It is much richer than the broth that I used to buy.  I love that I know exactly what goes into it. It is wonderful to make something delicious out of bits of chicken I would have at one time dismissed and discarded!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Preparing for Winter

As I was preparing my bee colonies for winter I realized that I am doing the same things around my home that they are doing at their hives.

1.  Feeding and Food Storage.  I have been putting a 2:1 sugar water drink on the hives for the bees to eat and store for winter.  I have also been making tomato sauce from our garden tomatoes and preparing swiss chard and collard greens for the freezer.

2. Weather-proofing.  I have been covering our windows with plastic to keep out the drafts and keep our gas bill down.  The bees in the white, Langstroth hive have been filling in the gaps between their boxes with propolis (bee glue), which they make from tree sap.  I had planned on plugging up most of the entrance holes on the front of the green top-bar hive with corks for the winter.  The bees beat me to it!  They have already sealed up most of the holes with propolis and are now cozy and ready for winter.

3.  Last Minute Harvesting.  On any day exceeding 60 degrees Fahrenheit the bees have been out flying around looking for late season pollen and nectar to harvest.  Likewise, I harvested the last of the blooms from my wildflower patch before the recent frosty nights.  It is nice to enjoy one last bouquet before the snow flies.  Pictured below with rainbow swiss chard.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Poinsettia Postulate: Part 2 and Honey Winner!

The poinsettias have begun their "dark therapy" this month.  I had planned to start this on October 1st, but the appointed day came and went as I was still searching for a suitable location for darkness.  I did not have any plastic totes large enough, our garage gets too cold, and our closets leak light.  I finally came up with an unconvetional, yet perfect location.

The clothes dryer is just a few yards away from my desk where the plants spend their daylight hours.  I'm the only one in the house that opens and closes the drier.  Plus, it also forces me to remove and fold my laundry each night in order to place the plants inside!

 There is already the hint of color beginning to show in the stems of the upper leaves.  I am hopeful that by Christmas they will be as beautiful as they were last year!

The winner of a jar of honey from my girls is Kendra M. of Kansas City!  Congratulations, Kendra, be watching your mail!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

An Unexpected Bounty

The heat and lack of rain this summer had wreaked havok on our garden.  We were fortunate to receive 5 inches of rain from Hurricaine Isaac and fairly consistent rain since.  Our lawn was the first to respond by turning greener and lusher than it had been all year.  It was too late for most of the garden.  Before the rain, I was just hoping that my herbs would live to make it through another winter and be more productive next year.  I had given up on having any extra to dry and use over the winter.

To my delight, the herbs responded as well as the grass did to all the rain.  Last month, we harvested all of the basil.  We had more than enough to dry, plus I was able to make 5 meals worth of pesto to freeze.  The dill and parsley died early on in the summer, but the thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano and chives started to thrive.  Last week I was able to harvest herbs to dry for winter.

Clockwise from the top-left: chives, thyme, oregano, rosemary and sage.

To dry chives, I snip them finely with a pair of scissors and spread them out on a paper towel or paper plate to dry.  They are usually ready to put in a jar in about 3-5 days.

The rest of the herbs are hung by clothespins on cotton string along the soffit in our kitchen.  It can take up to a month or more for them to dry completely.  Once they are "crunchy" dry, I will take them down, remove the leaves, discard the stems and store them in sealed containers.  Herbs can be dried in a food dehydrator much more quickly than hanging, but I think they make nice decoration and make the kitchen smell "herby."

I love being able to open a jar of herbs from the garden in the middle of January.  The herbs have more flavor and fragrance than factory processed herbs.  It is also a cost savings over buying herbs, especially with the plants that are perennial.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Harvesting Honey and a Giveaway!

It has been about a month and a half since I processed the honey from our hive.  Things have been a little busy so I'm just now posting pictures about the event.

These are the honey supers with 12 frames of capped honey ready to go.  I removed the frames from the deep freezer 2 days before they were to be processed so that they would thaw.

This is a serrated, decapping knife for slicing off the wax caps with which the bees seal the honey.  The blade has a heating element to aid with cutting.  Nothing like a hot knife through wax!

Once the frames are decapped, they are loaded, three at a time, into the extractor.  This extractor is a hand-crank version rather than electric.  It spins the frames and the centrifugal force pulls the honey out of the frames.

The honey is then drained from an outlet at the bottom of the extractor.  It is filtered through a piece of cheesecloth to remove little bits of wax.  The honey is ready for use once it is filtered.  Honey is naturally antimicrobial and has too high of a sugar content to ferment without first being diluted.  It needs no further processing or heat treatment (pasteurization) to preserve it or make it ready for consumption.

The twelve frames of honeycomb produced about two and a half gallons of honey.  I will be doing a drawing on Halloween for one lucky reader to receive an 8 oz jar of honey.  In order to get your name in the drawing, leave a comment on this post!  The winner will be announced on this site on November 1st.  Good luck!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Field Trip: Arthur, Illinois

Today was a dreary, drizzly, fall day.  Since I finished my housework yesterday and had the day off from work today, I decided to head out on a field trip with my dear friend, Dusty.  Arthur, Illinois is a small town of about 2,300 in central Illinois and is predominately Amish.  It is about a 40 minute drive from my house - though I underestimate the time it takes every time I go!  Dusty and her husband farm in the country near Arthur, so a field trip is a perfect opportunity to catch up on each other's lives.

We met first at Beachy's Bulk Food Store.  I was impatient (and late) on my way out and turned a mile too early and found myself in the midst of dairy farms and buggies with no bulk foods in sight!  After "going around the block" and a mile further to the east I saw the sign and found the store.

It was a busy day in Beachy's so I didn't take any pictures inside.  It was also probably too dark.  The store interior is lit by skylights and on dark days, like today, gas lights.  I found the fine-ground wheat flour and vital wheat gluten that I use for bread.  Picked up a couple of beautiful, bartlett pears.  I also purchased some whole allspice and star anise for holiday baking - I usually only make it down to Beachy's once every 3-6 months. After we paid for our finds (cash or check only), Dusty suggested going to Shady Crest Orchard and Farm Market.  I had never been there before, though I have passed it several times on the way to the Great Pumpkin Patch.

Shady Crest had a beautiful outdoor display of pumkins, squashes and mums.

Inside, we found bags and boxes of apples, fresh baked pumkin bread, cookies and pies.  I was excited to find unpasteurized apple cider.  If you have never had unpasteurized cider, it is worth the effort to find some or make it yourself.  It is like drinking the very soul of an apple!  Shady Crest also had a full deli counter complete with Lebanon Bologna.  I did not think that anyone sold Lebanon Bologna this far west!  The girl behind the counter confirmed my suspicions that they order it from Pennsylvania.  My parents sometimes bring us a pound from Beilers Penn Dutch Market in Uniontown, Ohio when they come to visit.  Really, if you added electricity and a deli counter to Beachy's you would have Beilers.  So my NE Ohio friends should not despair of their distance from these fine stores! 

Overall, I had a wonderful visit with Dusty and brought home some treasures for my pantry.  A warm, bright spot for an otherwise dreary day!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Robbing the Bees

If I ever had the illusion that taking honey from my bees was anything but thievery, they have changed my mind.  Early yesterday evening, R and I gathered our tools, suited up, lit the smoker and cracked open the established hive in search of honey.

It has been a couple of years since there has been any honey to harvest.  My original colony, the one we robbed yesterday, produced nearly three gallons of honey its first year.  Then the winter of 2010-2011 came with months of cold, harsh weather.  The colony was quite weak entering the spring and it took all summer for the bees to build up.  By fall, they were looking great, but there was no time for them to make surplus honey for me.

Fortunately for the bees, last winter was mild and they came into this spring as strong as they had been the previous fall.  Maybe too strong for their own liking.  In May, the colony sent off a swarm into a dead tree on the property line.  Luckily, R spotted it and with his help, a 6 foot ladder, and a large plastic tote, we capured the swarm. About a week later, the hive sent off another, smaller swarm called an after-swarm.  We captured this swarm as well, but must not have got the queen because the bees disapperared from their new hive without any signs of swarming.  My assumption is that some went back to their old home and some joined the first swarm that was getting established in a single, Langstroth hive body nearby.

All that to say that the original colony has been very active and the queen has been laying new baby bees like a champ!

This spring I placed two shallow honey supers on the hive in anticipation of the May/June nectar flow.   By mid-June the bees had filled up the lower super with honey, but nothing in the top.  Last night, we smoked the bees in an attempt to drive them down into the lower hive bodies so we could take the top boxes with a minimum amount bees.  It did not go according to plan.  The bees would not leave.   We then removed the supers and carried them across the yard to blow out the bees using an air compressor hose.  This resulted in a lot of bees, now angry and disoriented, wildly flying around us.  It rapidly became apparent that we were not going to be able to remove enough bees to place the supers, complete with frames, in garbage bags as planned.  R then suggested that we clean off the bees a frame or two at a time and then place the frames in the deep freeze to kill off any remaining bees.  The frames could then be removed in a couple of days, placed back in the boxes and then into garbage bags where they could thaw before extraction on Saturday.

This worked better than anything thus far.  As R removed frames, I gave them a quick shot of air from the hose and hustled them into the garage freezer.  R observed that all the insanity with thousands of flying insects was almost as good an adrenaline rush as go-kart racing. That may have been the beestings talking.

To my surprise, after we finished cleaning up the mess, R wanted to move on to the top bar hive to see what the newer colony had been doing.  It was a good thing that we did.  The bees had been very busy making, what I consider to be, quite a mess.  In the 100 degree heat of July, I had propped open the lid of the hive to allow for better circulation.  The bees had designs for what to do with the newfound "attic space." They filled it wth burr comb and honey!  Though I hated to do it, the comb had to be removed, otherwise the lid could not be closed for the winter.  We layed out a plastic garbage bag in front of the hive and then placed all the cut comb on it.   As temping as it was to take this honey for ourselves, the colony is just getting started and will need all the honey it can store to get through its first winter.

The bees are busy today at both hives cleaning out comb and frames and should have all the excess honey back in their hives in a few days.  The empty honeycomb will be added to my "wax bucket" for future lip balm and candles.  Honey extraction will take place at my mentor's garage on Saturday.  I should be able to get better pictures without angry bees attacking me.  I will never fool myself into believing that I am just "harvesting" honey again.  I am definitely stealing it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

We saw this desperate time coming.  When the winter was mild and dry and there was never enough snow for E to use the sled he received for Christmas.  We saw it coming when spring arrived with 90+ degree days and no showers or thunderstorms.  It seemed as if we were panicky about the weather long before the Weather Channel started sounding alarms about drought.  We are not particulary prescient, the reason for the anxiety was this: we use a well as our primary source of water.

Last summer became hot and dry in late July and continued to be through August.  Not technically a drought for central IL, just "unusually dry."  However, unusually dry was enough to make us hit bottom on our well two or three times.  After a day or two of taking it easy on the water usage, the depression in the water table would level out and we would be back in business.

This summer has been different and worse.  We hit bottom on our well in early June.  We conserved, washed laundry at the laundromat, and, finally, stopped watering our garden.  For awhile, a month or so, this was enough and our water would return.  Then it got desperate.  As the temperatures stayed high and the rain stayed away, the water in the Mahomet Aquifer that we rely on dropped beneath the pickup for our well.

No amount of conservancy could help us now.  We simply could not reach the water.

We were blessed in early August by R's parents who presented us with an anniversary gift of a pickup truck water tank.  Romantic, I know.

Now we take water trips once or twice a week to a small town to the northwest of our home.  Quarters go into a metal slot in the brick wall of a small brick building and out comes life-sustaining water.

We then bring the water home and dispense it into our well.  It has been enough so far to keep our bodies clean, our dishes washed and our toilet flushed.  And for that we are grateful.  Not enough for laundry, but thus far, the City of Decatur has not yet restricted laundromats.

I am hopeful, so hopeful for significant rain from Hurricaine Isaac.   The latest storm track shows it covering the great state of Illinois by late Saturday or Sunday.  It won't be enough to end the drought, for that we would need close to 15 inches of rain, but maybe it will be enough for our well to once again reach the groundwater.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Poinsettia Postulate: Part 1

The first poinsettia plant that I ever owned was a huge, bushy beauty full of creamy, white flowers contrasted by dark foliage.  As a custodian at the college I attended, I was allowed to take the plant back to our apartment at the end of the fall term.  Any poinsettias that remained unspoken for would be tossed in the dumpster.  The students had left for winter break and the chapel was being cleaned and prepped for the winter term in January.

The plant was already losing leaves by the time I got it settled in the apartment.  I watered it and enjoyed the holiday spirit that it brought to our tiny living room.  In late December, my husband and I moved to Michigan to begin our post-college life.  The poinsettia was packed up in the back of our Ford Probe with the rest of the houseplants.  The move was difficult for all the plants, but the poinsettia seemed to suffer the most.  By the beginning of January it was nearly bare of all its leaves and flowers.  I eventually put it in the trash not knowing or understanding the way of the poinsettia.

Years later, I learned that poinsettias normally lose their foliage during the winter and then grow more to replace it.  The next poinsettia I received was a gift from a neighbor at Christmas '10.  It was a cute little number with pink flowers that had been glittered for extra pizzaz.  After the holidays, I moved it to my desk which sits beneath a southeast facing window.  I continued to water and care for the plant throughout the winter and spring, proud of the new growth that was appearing.  Our houseplants traditionally spend the summer out of doors in a shady spot along the front walk.  So, naturally, the poinsettia joined the rest of the houseplants.  I am still uncertain whether it was the heat and dryness of the summer or fact that it was outdoors at all, but the plant was dead by the end of summer.  Definately dead this time, not just changing foliage.

This past holiday season I picked up a deep red poinsettia on clearance at Walmart a couple of weeks before Christmas.  I also adopted an ailing pink poinsettia from my mother-in-law post-holiday. The plants have spent the past seven and a half months enjoying the light from the window above my desk.  After losing their colorful bracts and most of their leaves they have filled out again nicely.  I pruned them once in the spring and will do so again this weekend to help their shape.  I also hope to propagate some of the clippings to have more plants play with or gift to others.  The poinsettias with begin their "dark therapy" on October 1st where they will receive at least 14 hours of complete, uninterrupted darkness every night until their color returns.  I will give another update once their night therapy has commenced.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Mystery of the Thirsty Honeybees: Solved

Where my honeybees have been obtaining water for the past 3 years has been a mystery.  Well, not a complete mystery.  I have seen them drinking out of the interior of my son's sandbox tire after a rain.  They have also been known to frequent the backyard water spigot when the hose has been in use.  But where they haven't been drinking are their "designated watering holes."  Designated by myself, of course, their "all-knowing" and "ever-wise" beekeeper! 

The first watering holes that I provided were 5 gallon buckets filled with water.  Into each of the buckets I draped a length of burlap for the bees to climb down on so they wouldn't drowned.  I don't think that I ever saw any bees using the buckets, even during the drought last summer.

In addition to the buckets, I added a nice birdbath to the backyard to encourage hydration.  I had always figured the bees were heading to a drainage ditch in the middle of the field that border our property, but with the lack of rainfall it didn't seem likely to be holding any water.  Still, no drinking bees.

Then, by complete chance, I discovered their secret.  I was told by our neighbor to the south about an old concrete garden pond on the extra lot to the south of their house.  Thinking that this would be a great place to take my son, Evan, to find tadpoles we headed over their yesterday, Mason jar in hand.  We did not find any tadpoles.  What we found instead was a steady stream of honeybees flying on and off of the pond's edge!  

I knew they had to be mine as the only other colonies that I am aware of are about 2 miles away.  This was confirmed by the "bee-line" that they were making across my neighbor's backyard toward their hive.  They seem to be like most animals and prefer the icky water that they hunt out themselves rather than the fresh, clean bowl that it placed out for them.  Mystery solved!  Now onto the next mystery: which of my hens is laying the double-yolked eggs?