Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Recipe: Outstanding Tuna Salad Sandwich

The art of the tuna salad sandwich

A tuna salad sandwhich is a quick and easy way to squash hunger for the whole afternoon. Tuna is loaded with protein, and the addition of fresh veggies and herbs adds roughage and vitamins. There are two "secret ingredients" in this recipe that take it to the next level: chopped dill pickle and fresh Italian parsley.

Mayonnaise is ideal for tuna salad, but if you're looking for a healthier option you can use plain yogurt.

A note on tuna: For the best sandwich, you'll want to make sure your tuna isn't full of mercury, PCBs, or organochlorine pesticides. It's sad to say, but humans have pretty well poisoned the oceans, and large predatory fish such as tuna end up holding all the toxins consumed by the smaller fish they eat.

According to Seafood Watch, one of the safest tuna products is chunk light albacore tuna that's been line-caught or troll-caught. Troll/line caught tuna is more friendly to the oceans (less "bycatch" of other species) and also tends to catch younger, smaller fish that contain less toxins.

OK, back to the tuna salad sandwich. This recipe make enough for 4 sandwiches, and takes about 5 minutes to make.

Ingredients
  • 2 7oz cans of tuna in spring water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon finely chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoon finely chopped celery
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped dill pickle
  • a few sprigs of chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (or yogurt)
  • 1/4 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • salt and black pepper to taste
Procedure
Ingredients ready for mixing
This one's pretty straightforward... combine all the ingredients, and mix well. Be absolutely sure that you taste the tuna salad before you put it on a sandwich. Adjust the salt and pepper as necessary. It should burst with flavor... and if it doesn't, you need to add more salt.

Put it on a sandwich or over a bed of mixed greens, and devour it immediately!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Article: Campfire Cooking with a Dutch Oven

Camp dutch oven pot roast cooked over an open fire.

Camp dutch oven cooking involves applying heat from two directions: the bottom and the top. This dual heating, when done properly, simulates the even heat of a real oven.

I do all of my camp dutch oven cooking over a campfire (as opposed to using charcoal briquettes).

To my mind, charcoal briquettes are just one more thing to buy, another thing to pack, and are loaded with additives like coal dust, sodium nitrate, borax, parrafin, and other petroleum products.

If you search around for camp dutch oven recipes, you'll find that the vast majority of them use charcoal briquettes. But these days, a lot of home barbequers (myself included) are using hardwood lump charcoal instead of briquettes. These real-wood glowing coals are exactly what you'll harvest from your campfire for dutch oven cooking.

Here's how it works:

Preparing the Fire Rings

The main "coals" fire is seen at upper left, while the
dutch oven simmers at lower right in the "cooking" fire
Begin by preparing two fire rings. The first ring is for your "coals" fire, from which you'll keep pulling fresh hot coals to heat your dutch oven. The second fire ring is your "cooking" fire, where your dutch oven will sit and cook your food (see image at right for an example).

Depending on where you're camped (and the flammability of the ground surrounding your fire pit) your "cooking" fire ring may simply be a patch of ground next to the main fire ring.

If you're in a developed campground with one of those metal fire-ring-grill-combo thingys... you can usually plunk your dutch oven on a corner of the concrete pad on which the fire ring sits.

The Perfect Campfire for Dutch Oven Cooking

Once you've prepared your fire rings, make a large fire in your "coals" fire ring. Use smaller pieces of very dry wood to start this fire. The idea is to quickly develop a big pile of hot coals to put above and below your camp dutch oven. A large fire made of sticks (as opposed to logs) is the quickest way to develop a large pile of hot coals.

Grilling bratwurst over the "coals" fire while the
french fries roast in the dutch oven
Hardwood is better than softwood since the coals last longer. Out here in the west, the closest things we have to hardwood are locust, aspen, and cottonwood. Pine or other softwoods are also fine (you'll just have to replenish the coals more often). I often end up cooking with ponderosa pine and things work out great.

Once your "coals" fire is established and you've placed your initial pile of hot coals above and below your dutch oven (more on that in a sec) you can add logs to the "coals" fire to keep it burning more steadily. Of course, you may also choose to grill parts of your dinner (burgers, steaks, bratwurst, fish) over your "coals" fire, in which case you'll hold off on the logs until you're done.

When I'm making a recipe that involves a few hours of cooking, I prefer to make my initial fire in the "cooking" fire ring where I will eventually place the dutch oven. This warms the rock and soil, and helps provide more even heat. This means, of course, that you'll move your fire from one ring to the other. Moving the fire isn't as hard as it sounds, but if it seems like too much, don't bother.

Applying Heat to Your Camp Dutch Oven

Add plenty of top heat for a tasty strawberry rhubarb crisp
Dutch oven cooking involves applying heat from two directions (the bottom and the top). It's important to also rotate the base and lid periodically to even out any hot spots. The goal is to simulate the even heat of a real oven.

Most dutch oven recipes call for approximating a 350 degree F oven. Depending on what you are cooking, you may apply more top or bottom heat.

For boiling or deep frying, you'll apply all of your heat from the bottom. For making chili, stew, or other high-liquid dishes, put most of your heat underneath, and a little bit on top. If you're making pot roast, you'll split the coals pretty evenly between top and bottom. If you're baking crisps, cakes, or enchiladas, you'll put the majority of your coals on top, and just a few underneath.

For baking, you'll be preparing your meals in the cold dutch oven and applying heat once things are ready. For pot roast, soups, stews, and chili, you'll likely be browning meat, caramelizing onions, or doing other tasks in the hot dutch oven base prior to adding the rest of the ingredients.

Whatever you do, before adding food, make sure your camp dutch oven starts shiny (coated with oil).

Applying top heat to a camp dutch
oven with long-handled tongs
To begin heating the dutch oven, grab a single layer of coals from your main "coals" fire, and sprinkle them into the second "cooking" fire ring in a disc that roughly matches the diameter of your dutch oven. What you are doing is creating a "burner" for your dutch oven. The thickness of this burner depends on how much bottom heat you want. For boiling, it should be packed full and 2 inches deep. For simmering, maybe 1 inch deep and somewhat loosely packed (there should be spaces between the coals). For roasting and baking, start with just a few sporadic coals, and add more once you confirm that your food is not burning (more on that later).

Place the camp dutch oven on the disc of coals. If you're making a pot roast or chili, you'll probably keep the lid off and do some browning and searing first. Once things have settled down and you're ready to place the lid on the dutch oven, go ahead and pile some glowing coals on top of the lid.

For boiling, you'll probably skip the top coals altogether. For stewing and simmering, place a few coals on top to help move things along. For roasting, you should have a 1-inch pile of coals that mostly cover the lid. For baking, you'll pile the coals up to 2-inches high and cover the lid thickly with them.

It's also fair game to pile a few medium-sized flaming sticks (see picture above) on top instead of coals. You have to be careful of hot spots (more on that below), but sometimes this approach is easier than messing with a bunch of smaller coals.

Campfire Cooking
Dutch oven enchiladas

The #1 mistake of camp dutch oven cooks is applying too much heat and burning the food.

To avoid burning your dinner, check on your food frequently (at least every 5 minutes). This is especially true in the beginning when the first data points about how hot your fire really is are trickling in.

To check your food, lift the lid off (coals and all) with a pair of long-handled tongs. Place the lid on a clean surface so you don't end up with dirt or ashes in your food after replacing the lid. I usually use two smaller logs laid next to each other as a lid rest.

With the lid removed, visually inspect the food for any signs of burning, and try to get your nose down there to smell for any burning-food-type odors. Vigorous bubbling means your food is already burning or is about to burn.

I usually reach into the dutch oven with a wooden spoon and dig to the bottom to make sure nothing's burning or sticking (sticking is a precursor to burning).  If you're cooking something like chili or pot roast where stirring is no big deal, performing these burn-checks is easy. If you're making a crisp or a cake, you'll have to rely mostly on scent (that said, a little inter-mixing of layers is far superior to a burnt crisp).

When you're satisfied that nothing is burning (yet), rotate the base of the dutch oven by 90 degrees, and then place the lid back on top. When you place the lid back on top, rotate it by 90 degrees in relation to the base. Here's a tip: If you pick up the lid and put it back in the exact same orientation, when you rotate the base underneath it you'll have effectively rotated the lid in relation to the food. Don't worry too much about proper rotation as long as everything looks and smells fine inside.

Always err on the side of too little heat as opposed to too much. If, upon checking your dutch oven, nothing is bubbling and everything seems to be getting colder, go ahead and add coals. Never be afraid to remove your dutch oven from all heat (pick it up by the wire bail and set it on cool ground).

With a little experience, you'll get the hang of how much heat is needed and you won't have to check on your food as much.

Essential Gear for Campfire Dutch Oven Cooking

The dutch oven:
I use an 8-quart Lodge camp dutch oven. It's big enough to handle meals for 6 or 8 people, but not so huge as to take up half the car when packing for a trip. The lid doubles as a frying surface in a pinch.

I've posted more information on dutch oven care, cleaning, uses, and more on my camp dutch oven equipment overview page (warning: dork alert!).

A good pair of insulated gloves:
When doing any campfire cooking, I use a pair of leather welding gloves with a good-sized gauntlet to protect the wrist. They're not cheap (up to $40 a pair), but they beat the pants off kitchen oven mitts when working around a campfire.

It is a real bummer to burn your hands when you're out in the wild. It's an even bigger bummer to drop your dinner into the dirt due to burnt hands.

In campfire cooking... as in life... a good pair of gloves is a purchase you'll seldom regret.

A pair of long-handled tongs (maybe two):
I use two pairs of long-handled tongs when I cook with the dutch oven. One pair is for moving hot coals, logs, and lifting the lid of the dutch oven. The other pair is for touching food.

The tongs I use are 16 inches long. I've found that tongs made for grilling & barbecue are sub-par compared to restaurant utility tongs. Restaurant tongs are stronger, and have a better spring mechanism to keep them open without extra effort.

I got my tongs at a restaurant supply house. They have a website with online ordering, so you can buy the tongs online if you can't find them locally (no, I don't get any kickback).

A small whisk broom:
The whisk broom is really handy for removing coals and ash from the top of your dutch oven prior to serving. This helps keep unwanted junk out of your food.

Be sure to get a non-plastic whisk broom, since plastic will melt when it comes into contact with a hot dutch oven. In a pinch, you could easily make a simple whisk broom from some dried grass stems and string.

A bag for the dutch oven:
Initially, I felt a little silly purchasing a dutch oven carrying case. But a trip last spring to the slickrock desert outside of Moab, Utah cured me of my gear-fear.

A camp dutch oven should always be put away well-oiled, and sand will stick to it in a hurry!

Every night on that early spring trip to Utah we had blowing sand and dust. The dutch oven was ready to go first thing in the morning only because it had been protected by the carrying bag.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Recipe: Rice Pilaf

Rice pilaf garnished with fresh sage

Rice pilaf is an easy way to add flavor to rice. When I was a kid, we called it "good rice." At its simplest, rice pilaf is just rice that's cooked in broth instead of water.

I like to start my pilaf with caramelized onion, which adds sweet, bitter, and savory flavors to complement the salt of the broth. I also toast the rice prior to adding the broth, which adds a nice nutty flavor to the finished pilaf.

This recipe serves 3-4.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups broth (I usually use chicken)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 small pinch of thyme

Procedure
Begin by heating a medium stainless steel saucepan on medium heat. You can also use a dutch oven for pilaf.

Once the pan is hot, add the oil. After perhaps 30 seconds, when the oil is hot enough to shimmer (but not smoking), add the chopped onion.

Add the broth after toasting the rice
Saute the onion for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is beginning to turn golden. Add the rice and saute for another 3-4 minutes to finish caramelizing the onion, and to toast the rice a bit. Grind in some black pepper, stir things around, and then add the broth.

Immediately add the bay leaves and thyme, stir again, and then taste the broth. The flavor of the broth is pretty close to what the finished rice will taste like (minus some of the herb flavors). Adjust for salt if necessary.

Bring the water to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer and finish the rice just as you would normally (cook for another 10-15 minutes until the rice is tender).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Recipe: Skillet Fried Beaver Anal Glands

A tasty beaver with ripe young anal glands (Photo credit: NPS Photo)
Beaver anal glands have been a staple of the American diet for decades. In fact, you have almost certainly eaten many helpings yourself. You wouldn't know it, of course, since this fine ingredient is listed as "natural flavoring" on the back of most foodservice packaging. You can thank your congress for that. 

Disclaimer: This isn't a post featuring a recipe for skillet fried beaver anal glands (sorry, for those of you who really wanted to make this dish).

It is a post about how freeing Americans from excess government regulation is resulting in beaver anal glands (literally) being shoved down your throat without your knowledge.

How did I suddenly develop a keen interest in beaver anal glands?

It turns out I came across a blog by Bruce Bradley. Bruce is a former marketing exec who worked with heavy hitting corporate food giants like General Mills, Nabisco, and Pillsbury.

At Bruce's blog, you can learn about awesome lobbying successes such as disguising cow stomach, hair, feathers, and insects under innocuous-sounding ingredients like "enzymes," "cystine," "confectioner's glaze," and "natural red #4."

I thought you'd want to know.

Fried grasshoppers
And just to set the record straight, I'm not vehemently opposed to eating insects. My 7-year old made me eat some fried grasshoppers a few weeks back. They weren't bad. Tasted like shrimp.

But if I'm going to eat insects (or beaver anal glands) I want to know about it first. Is that too much to ask here in America?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Recipe: Clam Linguine with Crushed Red Pepper and Oregano

Clam linguine garnished with a sprig of fresh oregano

This is a surprisingly easy recipe to make. Surprising because it is really tasty. What's more, it is classy enough to impress any guest (those with shellfish allergies excepted, of course).

In the summer and fall, we have fresh oregano and thyme in the garden. Either herb works really well in this recipe, but I prefer to use one or the other for simplicity. If you're using dried oregano or thyme, only add about a third as much—since dried herbs tend to be much more concentrated.

This recipe serves 2, but can easily be doubled, tripled, or more. The recipe takes about 20 minutes to make.

Ingredients

Fresh oregano adds a brightness to the flavor

  • 14 ounces of linguine
  • olive oil
  • 3 cloves pressed garlic
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 3 - 6 1/2 ounce cans of chopped clams with juice
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh oregano or thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon of dried)
  • grated parmesan cheese

Procedure
Start by boiling water for your pasta. I use Tinkyada brand gluten free pasta (it being the only gluten free brand that doesn't taste like wet cardboard). You can, of course, use whatever linguine suits you.

Your pasta water should be well salted. It should taste more salty than soup. Remember, most of this salt will stay in the water, but a small amount of it will infuse the pasta with more flavor.

Undercook your pasta slightly, because you'll cook it for a few minutes with the sauce to meld the flavors.

Your pasta should be cooked and drained by the time you start sauteing the garlic for your clam sauce—since things move pretty quickly after that point. Immediately after draining the pasta, stir in some olive oil to prevent sticking.

To make the clam sauce, heat a medium stainless steel saute pan on medium heat. Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil.

While the pan heats up, open the cans of clams so you're ready. The clams (with their juice) are essential to prevent the garlic from burning... since they immediately cool the pan down and lift the garlic from the heated surface.

Sauteing the garlic will take less than a minute. To do it, heat the oil up enough to shimmer (it should not be hot enough to smoke), and then add the pressed fresh garlic.


NOTE: If the garlic burns or gets dark brown, you're better off starting over. Browned garlic imparts a strong bitter flavor to the whole dish. Toss out the oil, cool the pan and give it a quick scrub, and re-heat a new batch of oil. 


Clam sauce ready for linguine
Stir the garlic around with a wooden spoon, being sure to scrape any stuck bits off the pan surface to prevent them from burning.

After the garlic is golden, but before it gets anything close to brown, toss in a pinch or two of crushed red pepper flakes, and immediately add the white wine and all of the chopped clams with their juice.

Add the pasta to the saute pan, and stir things around a bit to mix the sauce in with the pasta. Gently simmer for 2-3 minutes, and season with fresh chopped oregano or thyme to taste.

Serve immediately with a topping of grated parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Recipe: Outstanding Caesar Salad

Caesar salad with cast iron croutons and home-made dressing
This recipe takes about 2 minutes, and beats the pants off bottled caesar salad dressing. I highly recommend pairing this with my cast iron croutons (the croutons add about 15 minutes of prep time).

I use red wine vinegar, but white wine, apple cider, and a host of other vinegars would be just fine. The only vinegar to avoid in caesar dressing is balsamic vinegar... which is to boldly flavored.

This recipe serves 4.

You can also make a larger batch of this dressing and save it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Ingredients

  • 2 cloves of garlic, pressed
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 large head romaine lettuce (or two romaine "heart" heads)
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 egg (optional)


Procedure
Smashing garlic and salt in a wooden bowl
Place your pressed garlic in the bottom of a wooden salad bowl. If you don't own a garlic press, just mince the garlic finely, and then smash it with the blade of a knife.

Add the kosher salt, and use a spoon to further smash the pressed garlic and salt together. The salt acts as an abrasive to help break down and smash up the garlic.

Once the garlic is nicely smashed (after 30 seconds perhaps?), add the olive oil. Use the spoon to scrape the garlic off the sides of the bowl where you did your smashing. Add the dijon. Dijon mustard is an important ingredient because it causes the oil and vinegar (once added) to form an emulsion instead of staying separated. The emulsion makes for a salad dressing that coats the lettuce leaves instead of running off them to the bottom of the bowl.

With your dijon, oil, and garlic mixed together, add the worcestershire sauce and red wine vinegar. Mix things around again, and taste your dressing. It should taste strong, but balanced. It should have a nice punch of salt, garlic, acid, and savory flavors. If any of these flavors is too strong, consider adding some olive oil and a slight bit of the not-so-strong ingredients. If you adjust to the point where you've got too much dressing for the salad, save a little off and use it later.

It's a good idea in any case to save off about half your dressing before adding the lettuce. You will very likely add all that dressing back, but it's much easier to add salad dressing than it is to remove it!

Home-made caesar salad dressing
So, with half the dressing saved on the side, add your washed and chopped (not ripped) romaine to the bowl. Toss the romaine with the dressing, and then taste a piece.

You'll likely add all that dressing back, but be sure to add a little and re-mix and re-taste to make sure the dressing doesn't become too thick or overpowering.

With your salad and dressing in balance, it's time to add your egg (optional). To do so, break a raw egg into your salad, and toss things around until the egg evenly coats the lettuce (with yolk broken, of course).

Add your grated parmesan and re-toss.

Toss your cooled croutons on top, and crack some black pepper for garnish. Serve immediately, or at least within 10 minutes.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Recipe: Gluten Free Fried Chicken

Fried chicken in a cast iron dutch oven

Fried chicken is a fine thing. It's been around for centuries, but didn't really come of age until the 1700's when cast iron cookware became available to the masses by virtue of the industrial revolution (Yay capitalism!).

Lately, fried chicken has gotten a bad name. I attribute most of this bad press to the money-grubbing numbskulls who bought out Colonel Sanders in 1964.

Fried chicken can't be rushed. It should be moist but not greasy. It should be full of savory chicken flavor and not loaded with synthetic chemicals. Most importantly, it can't be made from chickens that have been force-fed chicken manure, arsenic, and dead chicken mince (why does this even need to be said?). For this reason, use organic chicken. Organic chicken is the cheapest of all organic meats... and is even cheaper when bought whole.

This recipe is pretty easy and results in some damn fine dutch oven fried chicken. It serves 4, and takes about 1 1/2 hours.

A butchered whole organic chicken
My preference is to buy a whole chicken and butcher it into skin-on and bone-in pieces, but you could of course use fryer parts (breasts, thighs, drumsticks).

It is best to brine your chicken for 24 hours, but if you don't have time for that, you can still make this recipe (add one extra tablespoon of salt to the marinade).

As always, you can use wheat flour in place of the gluten free flour, and things will work out fine.

Ingredients
  • 1 whole 4-5 pound organic chicken (or equivalent pieces)
  • salt and water for brine
  • 2 quarts canola oil for frying

For the Marinade:
  • 4 cups buttermilk
  • 2 tablespoons table salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • dash ground thyme
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
For the Breading:
For the Egg Mixture:
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup marinade (once the chicken is out)
Procedure
Brine the chicken (whole, or in pieces) for 24 hours. The brine should consist of 1 cup kosher salt (or 1/2 cup table salt) to 1 gallon of water. After 24 hours, remove the chicken from the brine, and pat dry with a paper towel.

Butcher the whole chicken into drumsticks, wings, bone-in breasts, and bone-in thighs. Cut the breast pieces in half the short way to make smaller pieces (which cook through more quickly).

Mix up the marinade, and add the chicken pieces. Marinate for 30 minutes.

Use a candy thermometer to measure the oil
Begin heating your oil in a 5 quart cast iron dutch oven. As the oil heats, mix up the breading and the egg mixture.

When the chicken has marinated for 30 minutes and the oil has reached 350 degrees F, remove 1 cup of the marinade and stir it into your egg mixture.

Prepare the chicken pieces by tossing them in the egg mixture, and then breading them thoroughly in the breading mixture.

Place them gently into the hot oil. Add 4-5 pieces to the dutch oven, but don't over-crowd the pan.

You may need to turn up the heat if the oil temperature comes down below 300 degrees F. Keep monitoring the oil temperature, and don't let it get much hotter than 350 degrees F.

Fried chicken ready to be turned
As the chicken fries, you'll need to turn it a few times to ensure even browning.

Larger pieces will take 20-25 minutes to cook through, smaller ones 10-15 minutes. Measure the pieces as they cook with an instant read meat thermometer to ensure you get it right.

Remove the fried chicken pieces from the oil when the thickest (coldest) part of the meat reads 160 degrees F. Lay the pieces on a bed of paper towels, and cover them with foil to rest. As the pieces rest, they'll come up to 165 degrees F.

Continue breading and frying pieces until it's all cooked! Serve immediately for hot fried chicken, or put them in the fridge for a cold fried chicken picnic.

Fried chicken with potato salad and bleu cheese salad
Needless to say, fried chicken goes great with potato salad, cole slaw, and fresh corn on the cob.

You can cool down, strain, and then freeze the canola oil for re-use. You can also re-use it in other chicken dishes, or in dishes with lots of flavor (where the taste of fried chicken will blend in).

Be sure to clean up thoroughly with bleach or vinegar any raw chicken juice. Salmonella isn't as big an issue with organic chicken, but it's still a risk.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Article: Backyard Chickens Chapter 4

Our backyard chicken run, with the multicolored coop visible through the door
Wow. So much has changed since my last update in Backyard Chickens Chapter 3. Back then we had just put the chickens outside after their indoor growth period in early spring. We had a smaller coop, and a smaller chicken yard.

Here's how it all breaks down nowadays:

Egg production

One of our first eggs
We get 3-4 eggs a day at the moment, but that's only because only 3 or 4 hens have started laying. We expect we'll get 6-8 eggs per day in the summer, and a bit less during the winter.

The eggs started small, but got bigger after a week or so. They're really tasty! The chickens somehow know to go into the nesting boxes to lay them.

Will Cash predicted it. About 10 days ago, in the morning before I left for work, he assured me that we'd have an egg that day. He was right! That boy is in tune with the universe for sure.

The passive solar chicken coop

Passive solar chicken coop to catch winter sun
Our chicken coop is a modified play house that our babysitter and her fiancee brought us from south Denver.

The floorspace of the play house is roughly 4 feet by 3 feet, and it is about 3 feet tall. It is WAY overbuilt, and practically airtight with caulking, paint and such. This is good, as I've read that chickens hate drafts in the winter.

To make sure we have enough room for 6 hens, I put on an addition that's 4 feet wide, about 30 inches deep, and about 5 feet tall.

The added-onto chicken coop has a passive solar design: the taller addition has a 12-inch overhang to shield the coop from summer sun, but will easily let in the lower-angle winter sun.

Our plan is to not heat the coop in the winter, but to insulate it and hopefully let the passive solar chicken coop do its thing.

Chicken bedding

For bedding inside the coop, we began with pine shavings like we used in the early days, but quickly shifted to straw.

Straw composts much more quickly, and the chickens seem to prefer it now that they are older. Wood products also take nitrogen from the soil if they have not fully composted, so even partially composted straw bedding can be used on the garden for mulch or compost sooner than pine shavings.

Willa and Eliza dusting themselves clean
Composting
We compost all our chicken bedding (from inside the coop), and also rake the predator-proof chicken yard from time to time for more straw/manure.

We put it all in a composting bin for several months to temper the high nitrogen content of the chicken manure. We then spread it on our garden beds as mulch, and let the worms do their work of pulling it deeper into the soil.

Chicken feed
We use organic chicken feed. We can get it at a local feed store, Lafayette Feed & Grain, and they also have lots of great advice about bedding, care, and other chicken-raising odds and ends.

Predators
We had a hawk come by for a visit a few days ago while the chickens were out in the garden. Will saved three of them, and the other three had enough sense to get under cover. The hawk was literally perched on top of the post of the chicken yard. Guess we'll have to be careful about letting the chickens out into the garden!

More updates coming soon. If you've got a question, please leave a comment!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Recipe: Quick Tuna Salad Over Mixed Greens

Tuna salad over summer greens
This recipe has absolutely nothing to do with cast iron cookware. But it's tasty and quick, and I just had to share.

Some version of this recipe serves as dinner at least one night a week during summer when we don't want to heat up the house by cooking. This time of year the garden is also bursting with greens, cherry tomatoes, and other goodies.

You can adjust quantities depending on how hungry you are.

This recipe serves 2, and takes about 5 minutes to make.

Ingredients
For the tuna salad

  • 10-12 oz. canned tuna, drained
  • 1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
  • a small wedge of onion, finely chopped (roughly 1 tablespoon of chopped onion)
  • cracked black pepper
  • salt

For the green salad

  • a pile of mixed greens or mesclun
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • cracked black pepper
Procedure
Drain your tuna, and then add the mayonnaise, dijon mustard, chopped celery and onion. Mix things around to combine. Salt and pepper the tuna to taste. It should burst with flavor. You can also add finely chopped pickles and/or dill if it suits your fancy. 

Wash your mixed greens and spin them dry. Drizzle the greens with perhaps a tablespoon of olive oil, and then squeeze in the juice from your half-lemon. Again, salt and pepper the greens to taste as you toss them around. The dressed salad should taste good on its own. 

Arrange your mixed greens on plates, and add half of the tuna salad mixture in the enter of the pile of mixed greens. I happened to have some fresh cherry tomatoes from the garden, so I tossed those on as well. 

Serve immediately. 


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Recipe: Charcoal Grilled Salmon

Grilled sockeye salmon with loose chives tossed on top

Grilled salmon is a real treat when done right. The key, as with just about any fish, is not to over-cook it.

This recipe comes from my days cooking at an adventure lodge in Alaska. Just about every time we served this grilled salmon rendition, a handful of guests would exclaim that it was the best salmon they had ever had in their life... and demand the recipe. We were happy to oblige, because we knew that an earnest request for a recipe is the finest praise a cook can receive.

Now, I bring this recipe to you.

As for the fish... I'm a sucker for wild-caught sockeye or silver salmon. Of course, this recipe works great with whatever salmon variety you've got on hand. NOTE: If you have yet to make your salmon purchase, you can review my article (rant) about the different types of salmon.

You'll want to marinate the salmon for 6-8 hours, so plan accordingly. This recipe serves 8.

I use a charcoal-fired Weber kettle to do my grilling, but you can do just fine with a gas grill. You can also use skinless salmon filets or even steaks... just be sure to closely follow my guidance on when to pull the fish off the grill—as it applies to steaks and skinless filets as well.

Ingredients

  • 8 skin-on salmon filets
  • 2 cups soy sauce or tamari (for a gluten-free experience)
  • 1 1/3 cups water
  • 1 1/3 cups brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup grated ginger
  • 7 large cloves pressed garlic
  • 1/4 cup sesame oil

Procedure
In a large glass bowl, make the marinade by combining the soy sauce (or tamari), water, brown sugar, black pepper, grated ginger, and pressed garlic. Make sure all ingredients are well-mixed. There should be no brown sugar sitting on the bottom of your mixing bowl.

Salmon marinating in a Ziploc
I typically marinate the filets in a Ziploc bag. If you're using a bowl, cover the top with plastic wrap so the parts that stick out of the liquid don't dry out.

Marinate your salmon filets for 6-8 hours. Ideally, give things a stir or shake every 2 hours to ensure even coverage, and to eliminate un-marinated spots that occur where two pieces of fish are pressed tightly together.

Be sure not to marinate for longer than 8 hours, otherwise the salmon gets too salty. If you need to marinate overnight (up to 24 hours), double the water in the marinade.

When you're about 45 minutes from serving time, light your charcoal grill with a full chimney of hardwood lump charcoal. When the coals are glowing at the top, dump them out in an even spread, and then place your grill surface over the coals to heat. Always let your grill heat for 5 minutes and then clean it with a grill brush before adding the food on top.

When grilling tender and/or lean meats (like salmon), be sure to oil your grill surface before adding the food. Otherwise, the meat will stick and make a mess of things.

Oil the hot grill surface with canola or some other relatively high-heat oil. I typically pour a quarter cup of oil into a small glass bowl, and then immerse two folded paper towels and pick them out with grill tongs to oil the grill with them. You can also use spray-on oil... just be sure not to blow yourself up.

Grilled salmon started skin-side up
With the grill well-oiled and hot, toss on your salmon filets skin side up (i.e. red flesh side down). You'll probably want to cover the grill to keep the heat from getting too intense. Grill the salmon for 3-4 minutes, or until you've got some nice grill marks.

Then, flip the salmon filets over so they are skin side down, and finish them off. You'll likely want to cover the grill for this portion as well.

It will probably take another 7-8 minutes to finish the filets, but it depends entirely on the thickness of the filets, the heat of your grill, and the alignment of the planets.

Therefore, you should be in the habit of gently peering inside your salmon filets to check doneness. Do this by gently separating the flakes of flesh—working with the grain of the meat. Salmon filets can go from "just right" to "dry and tough" in less than a minute.

If you will serve your salmon filets immediately onto the plates of your guests (with all other side dishes plated and ready), pull your salmon when there's just a hint of deep red (not fully-cooked) color left in the thickest part of the filet.

If the filets will sit around for 5 minutes after grilling, pull them when there's a good bit of deep red left—maybe half an inch of thickness. Because the filets are being cooked at such a high temperature, they will continue cooking until eaten.

If the filets will sit around for longer than 5 minutes after grilling... save your salmon for another time and cook hot dogs instead.

Just prior to serving, brush the filets gently with sesame oil. This gives them a nice sheen, and also helps keep the filets from losing moisture. It also adds a nice flavor complement to the soy-ginger marinade.

Serve and enjoy!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Recipe: Cast Iron Skillet Omelet

A cast iron skillet omelet
For many, the idea of cooking an omelet in a cast iron skillet is overwhelming.

That's why Teflon was invented, right? (wrong).

Sidebar: Teflon was actually invented to help lubricate the insides of nuclear weapons. But the cold war dragged on for 43 frickin' years without the thrill of all-out nuclear war... and those nuclear warheads just didn't get used up at the revenue-producing rate the marketing team had predicted. No wonder DuPont diversified into cookware. Unfortunately, Teflon emits PFOA at stovetop cooking temperatures. PFOA is a known carcinogen. When building components for nuclear weapons, emitting cancer-causing chemicals at stovetop temperatures is not particularly problematic. When building cookware, however, it is problematic. I encourage you to check out my Ignite Boulder presentation for more info on this topic.

I believe it is imperative that you learn to cook omelets on cast iron cookware. Your family is counting on you! Fortunately, it's really easy.

For starters, just about any old (or new) cast iron skillet will work. If your skillet has some rudimentary seasoning and a good coating of oil, things will turn out great. Of course, the more well-seasoned your cast iron is, the easier a time you'll have of it.

A small bunch of chard
I typically use two cast iron skillets for omelets—one for sauteing the filling, one for the omelet itself. You could do it all in a single skillet by sauteing the filling first, and then setting it aside in a covered bowl until ready. If you use the one-skillet method you'll probably want to wipe out or rinse your skillet before beginning to cook the eggs to avoid unsightly vegetable residue on the outside of your finished omelet.

Speaking of the outside of your omelet... Escoffier himself relished a well-browned exterior. So don't be afraid to let those eggs set and set well.

For this recipe, I had on hand chard, onions, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes. But you can put just about anything into an omelet as long as you taste the filling and it tastes good.

This recipe serves 2-4, depending on side dishes and appetites.

Ingredients
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 small onion, sliced
  • 1/2 pound of mushrooms, sliced
  • Small bunch of chard, chopped
  • 10 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 pound (4 oz.) grated cheese (cheddar, jack, what have-you)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Canola oil
Procedure
Any time you cook with cast iron, your skillets should start out shiny with a coat of fresh oil. If they weren't put away shiny, you should wipe them with oil until they are.

Begin by heating a medium cast iron skillet on medium heat. This skillet will be used for the filling. Slice your onions, slice your mushrooms, and roughly chop your chard. When the skillet is hot, add a tablespoon or so of oil, and toss in the onion to begin sauteing. Saute your onions for 2-3 minutes, and then add the mushrooms and chard. Continue sauteing until the onions are caramelized and the mushrooms are soft and tasty (pull them out and taste them). Perhaps another 5-7 minutes.

While your filling is finishing up, heat a large cast iron skillet on medium heat. This skillet will be used for the omelet. As the skillet heats up, crack four eggs into a mixing bowl, add a pinch or two of salt, and beat the eggs well with a fork.

Turn on your broiler.

Omelet fillings ready to go
Back in the "fillings" skillet, clear everything out from the center of the skillet and add your halved cherry tomatoes face-down.

After 2-3 minutes—when they've developed a nice brown crust, add your minced garlic, and stir everything together after about 30 seconds.

Remove the skillet from heat and set aside. Taste your filling, and season with salt and pepper as necessary.

Meanwhile, your "omelet" skillet should be nice and hot. Toss in your butter, stir it around for an even coating, and then pour in your eggs.

Massage the eggs gently as they cook: pop bubbles, smooth out rough spots, and tuck the ragged edges back in.

The goal is not to scramble them... just to move things around and to create bit more structural integrity for the omelet.

An omelet cooking in a cast iron skillet
Once the bottom of the omelet begins to firm up, stop stirring, and add your grated cheese on top. Place the whole affair under the broiler for 20-30 seconds.

The idea is to melt the cheese and give the top layer of eggs a chance to cook a bit more.

BE CAREFUL! It's really easy to burn the whole thing at this point. Do not walk away once you've placed the omelet under the broiler.

As the cheese melts and the eggs begin firming up (but before they cook through), pull the skillet and turn off the broiler. Again, this will take 20-30 seconds.

Omelet filling ready to be covered up
Add your filling to half of the omelet. Then, using a spatula, gently turn the empty side over to cover the filling.

Remove the omelet from the skillet and serve immediately. It's easier to get it out of the skillet if you cut it into sections for serving first... that way you don't have to get the whole thing out in one piece.

If you do wish to get the whole thing out in once piece... it can be done with two wide spatulas and a little bit of skill.

Enjoy!


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Recipe: Camp Dutch Oven Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp (Gluten Free)

Strawberry Rhubarb crisp prepared over an open fire
This recipe is a slight variation of my camp dutch oven apple crisp recipe. In this recipe I've doubled the flour and oats since we all agreed that a thicker crisp was tasty. Accordingly, I added more butter, sugar and salt to ensure enough flavor in that extra crisp bulk.

This is a gluten free rendition, but you could easily just use wheat flour and regular oats.

This recipe serves 8-10 people, and takes about an hour to prepare. We used strawberries and rhubarb because that's what was in the garden, but you could use just about any fresh fruit. We used about 2 pounds of strawberries and maybe 18 foot-long stalks of rhubarb.

Ingredients
  • Roughly 12 cups of sliced fruit
  • Roughly 1 cup sugar
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 1 cup gluten free flour
  • 1 cup gluten free rolled oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • cinnamon
Procedure

2 fire rings: one for dutch oven
baking & one for a steady supply of coals
As always with camp dutch oven cooking, begin by preparing your fire rings. You'll need two fire rings: one for your maintenance fire from which you'll pull fresh hot coals, and one for cooking food in your dutch oven (see image at right).

In one of your fire rings, make a large fire with small pieces of wood. You want a bunch of hot coals to put above and below your camp dutch oven... and a large fire made of sticks (as opposed to logs) is the quickest way to get there.

Once you begin cooking, of course, the story changes entirely. You'll keep a medium-sized "maintenance" fire in one fire ring to provide fresh coals. It's important that this fire stays small enough so as not to burn the food in the dutch oven nearby. You'll likely add logs to the maintenance fire at this point to sustain an even burn without throwing off too much heat. The camp dutch oven itself will cook your food in the second fire ring at relatively low heat (mimicking a 350 degree F conventional oven for this recipe). 

So, with your fire started, it's time to prepare your crisp. 

Wash your rhubarb in cold water and slice off the leaves (they're poisonous). Also cut off the bottom part of the stem that was underground. Then, slice the rhubarb stems into roughly 1/2 inch thick sections. For the strawberries, wash them in cold water, and then cut the tops off and cut them into roughly 1/4 inch slices. 

The fruit mixture
Toss all your fruit into the camp dutch oven. Add lemon juice, 3/4 cup sugar, and 1 stick of butter (sliced into 1/4 inch thick pieces).

Stir the fruit around, and then add roughly 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Taste it. You should be able to detect a general increase in fruit flavor because of the salt, but you don't want the fruit to actually taste salty. Add salt if you feel it isn't salty and more flavor might be nice. You may also feel it needs more sugar. The raw fruit mixture should taste quite sweet. The proportions provided in this recipe are good guides, but the sweetness of the fruit you are using will also play a role. When in doubt, taste it!

When you're satisfied with the flavor of the fruit, add a pinch or two of cinnamon, stir things around, and taste it again. You should detect a hint of cinnamon, but no more. As the crisp cooks, the fruit will cook down and concentrate the cinnamon flavor, so don't overdo it!

For the topping, combine the flour, oats, the rest of the sugar (roughly 1/4 cup), another dash or two of cinnamon, and the other 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Mix things around, and then taste a pinch of the dry flour/oat mixture. It should taste sweet, salty, and good. If you aren't tempted to eat more of the flour/oat mixture, you need to add more sugar and/or salt.

There's no such thing as too much butter
Sprinkle your flour/oat mixture on top of your fruit mixture, and then add the remaining stick of butter (sliced) on top of the crisp.

To begin cooking the crisp, grab a single layer of coals from your main fire, and sprinkle them into the second (empty) fire ring in a 1-inch thick disc that matches the diameter of your dutch oven.

You are effectively creating a "burner" for your dutch oven. Place the camp dutch oven on the disc of coals, and then pile glowing coals on top of the lid about 3 inches high.

It's important to check in on your crisp frequently. To check your crisp, lift the lid off (coals and all), and place it on a clean surface (so you don't end up with dirt or ashes in your crisp after replacing the lid).  Visually inspect the crisp for any signs of burning, and try to get your nose down there to smell for any burning-sugar-type odors. I usually also reach in there with a wooden spoon to push things around a bit to make sure nothing's burning on the bottom.

The crisp cooking under a pile of coals
When you're satisfied that nothing is burning (yet), rotate the base of the dutch oven by 90 degrees, and then place the lid back on top. When you place the lid back on top, rotate it by 90 degrees in relation to the base.

The idea here is to even out the heat from top and bottom in relation to the food inside the dutch oven. Just make sure you rotate in the same direction... and don't worry too much about it as long as everything looks and smells fine inside.

Your crisp should bake for 45 minutes to an hour. Keep checking it every 5-10 minutes (depending on how quickly it seems to be cooking), and always be on the lookout for burning. It can happen quickly. That said, you will almost certainly need to add coals above or below the dutch oven to maintain a constant temperature. Keep rotating base and lid every time you check.

After 35 minutes or so, grab a piece of fruit out of your crisp and taste it. Keep doing this from here on out every five minutes... and once your test fruit pieces are coming out sufficiently soft, pull the crisp from the fire, remove lid coals, and serve after 5 minutes of cool-down.

Crisps are pretty robust, so if you aren't yet ready for dessert, keep a few lid coals on top and set it next to the fire to stay warm. Rotate it every 5-10 minutes to provide even heat.

If you have the means, serve with ice cream or whipped cream. You can also just pour heavy cream over the crisp when serving. If you're particularly adventurous (or happen to be French), you can add a few dollops of goat cheese on top of your crisp. It is divine.

Enjoy!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Recipe: Sausage and Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta (Gluten Free)

A tasty pasta filled with all five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. 
I've always been a sucker for a creamy pan-sauce pasta. Especially one with with sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary. We don't typically keep a ready supply of heavy cream in the house. But on a recent camping trip we had made whipped cream for a strawberry rhubarb crisp, and happened to have half a pint left.

This recipe contains each of the five basic tastes: sweet (cream, caramelized onions), sour (sun-dried tomatoes), salty (salt, butter, sausage), bitter (rosemary, sun-dried tomatoes), and umami (sausage, sauteed mushrooms and onions, sun-dried tomatoes).
The essential ingredients of
flavor come together in this recipe

This means it's packed with flavor. Thankfully, it's also quick and easy to make. It takes about 30 minutes, and most of that is just waiting for the pasta to cook.

My rendition is gluten free, but you could make it with wheat pasta as well. If you go for gluten free pasta, use Tinkyada brand. Everything else tastes like monkey balls. Note: if you follow that link, you'll have to pardon the Tinkyada website (I thought animated GIFs had gone the way of the coelacanth).

OK, here's how this recipe breaks down:

Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 large mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 small onion, diced
  • 4 sausage links, sliced into 1/3 inch sections
  • 1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
  • cracked black pepper, to taste
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 loose teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine (e.g. chardonnay)
  • 8 oz elbow macaroni
Procedure
Start the pasta water first thing. Make sure the water is nice and salty. Pasta water should taste like a somewhat too-salty soup.

While the water works up to a boil, slice your mushrooms into 1/4 inch slices, dice your onion, and chop your sun-dried tomatoes.

Once the pasta water gets within a minute or two of boiling, heat a medium stainless steel saute pan on medium heat. Add the canola oil to the pan. After perhaps 5 minutes of heat, when the oil shimmers (but before it smokes), toss in your diced onion and sliced mushrooms.

While you're working on the sauteed ingredients, begin cooking your pasta as soon as the water reaches a rolling boil. Just after you add the pasta to the boiling water, make sure to stir things around a bit to break up any clumps that form before the water gets back to a rolling boil.

Mushrooms, onion, and
sausage cooking. 
Saute the mushrooms and onions for 5 minutes—stirring or flipping often. Add the sausage and continue to stir/saute.

Don't forget to keep track of your pasta while it boils. When it is al dente (a tad underdone), strain it and then toss it back into the (empty) pot in which it boiled. Stir in some olive oil and then cover the pasta and set it somewhere off heat (trivet, cutting board, etc.). Give it a stir in another minute as well.

Cook the sausage and saute the mushrooms together until they're done—stirring quite frequently.

It's almost time to eat. The sausage doesn't have to be completely done, but it should be pretty darn close. Mushrooms should be essentially done (taste them!).

Deglazing fond from the pan
Toss in your chopped sun-dried tomatoes, stir things around briefly, and then deglaze the pan with white wine.

Scrape the browned bits of goodness up off the bottom of the pan for 30 seconds, and then add the heavy cream and rosemary.

Stir things around some more, and let the whole concoction come back up to heat for 2-3 minutes. This helps reduce the cream volume and concentrates the flavors.

Taste the sauce. You'll almost certainly need to add salt and cracked black pepper. If it doesn't burst with flavor, keep adding salt until it does.

Add your pasta to the sauce, and stir things around for 1-2 minutes.

Serve immediately.