Sunday, April 10, 2011

Article: Backyard Chickens Chapter 2

Willa, Rita, and Eliza roosting on their new branch

We've now had our chickens for about 10 days, and they are about 2 weeks old. They're getting big fast! The eight chickens under our care have gone through three quart-sized mason jars of organic feed.

They are beginning to develop their adult plumage, which makes them look a little ragged. It also changes their markings and colors... so there's an added challenge in keeping track of who's who.

The chickens have recently been fitted with a roosting branch, and they like it quite a bit. Three or four of them are on the branch practicing their roosting at any given time. The word on the street is that this helps them practice gripping, which serves them later in life when they roost for real. While we plan to keep their coop and yard free of chicken-eating predators, old habits die hard... and the chickens are more comfortable if they can perch somewhere off the ground.

Margo trying to escape
Within a few hours, Margo figured out how to use the branch to get to the top of the box. Time to find some wire mesh to put over the box.

Speaking of... the chickens have been upgraded to a larger box. The new box is about 2-feet square. They had been pecking at each other a bit in the former, smaller, box (roughly 16 inches by 2 feet). The pecking has died down a bit in the new box.

We've also lowered the box temperature to around 90 degrees F. We plan to start feeding them things like worms and kitchen scraps in the coming week.

Will Cash sharpening the chainsaw
While I have not yet begun building the chicken coop, I bought the lion's share of the lumber this weekend. I also transplanted a grape vine and an apple tree that needed to be moved from the planned coop and yard area.

The apple tree couldn't be moved until a whole mess of juniper bushes were cleared... which Will and I also did today. As a side benefit, Will learned how to sharpen a chainsaw.

The chickens are still very cute, and are developing their own "chickenalities." Willa, like her namesake Will, is the most curious and sociable of the flock. Margo, in addition to being adventurous, is also the largest. Let's hope she doesn't develop a complex about it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Article: Backyard Chickens Chapter 1

Our newly-hatched chicks hanging out in their makeshift brooder

Well, we've gone and done it. We went and got chickens. Our neighbors Kevin and Jenny inspired us to do it. You see, we eat a lot of eggs around here, and figured we might as well raise our own.

We also have two kids: Will (6 years old), and Elias (3 years old).  Both boys pretty much understand that eggs come from real animals and not from the grocery store shelf... but we'd like to make sure this important lesson is learned for real.

So we got some chickens 3 days ago. They include 3 Rhode Island Reds, 3 Black Stars (a cross of Black Australorps and Rhode Island Reds), and 2 Buff Orpingtons. Generally speaking, these birds are adapted for cold weather, friendliness, and egg production.

Here's what we know so far:
  • We have 8 baby chickens, or "chicks"
  • 2 of the chicks are for our neighbors
  • 6 of the chicks are for our family
  • The chicks we are keeping have names
  • Their names are: Silvia, Willa, Eliza, Gina, Margo, Rita (as in "margorita", get it?)
  • The chicks are very cute
  • They make adorable little chirping sounds
  • They need to stay warm at 95 degrees F or so
  • Pine shavings are the best bedding
  • All of the chicks think our 6-year-old Will is their momma
  • I need to build a chicken coop, pronto!

We'll keep you updated as we roll through this amazing journey of life, love, and tasty omelettes...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Recipe: Smoked Bison Prime Rib

Smoked Bison Prime Rib on the Weber kettle

This smoked prime rib recipe uses a Weber kettle. I used bison prime rib, but you can substitute beef if you like, or even cuts of pork or chicken. This recipe serves 8-10 people.

Weber kettle smoking is super easy. You create a charcoal fire just like normal, and then push the coals up against one side of the kettle. This lets you cook your meat for several hours without burning it to a crisp, and also allows you to catch drippings for an eventual pan sauce. 

Ingredients
  • 2 bison prime rib cuts (3-4 pounds each)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • oil
  • granulated garlic
  • 2 tablespoons flour (for gravy)
  • water (for gravy)
Procedure
The basics of making the smoking fire are very similar to those in my smoked chicken recipe. Here's how it works: 

Soak about 4 cups of mesquite wood chips (or chunks) in water for an hour. You can also use hickory, apple, alder, or other smoking woods.

While the wood chips are soaking, make your fire in the grill. I use a Weber kettle, but you can use just about any charcoal grill that has a cover. I recommend using hardwood "lump" charcoal chunks instead of charcoal briquettes (which contain coal dust, and a variety of other kinda nasty stuff). Because your bison roasts are going to spend several hours cooking, you want to limit any potential "off" flavors from chemical additives. Similarly, use a chimney fire starter to kindle the fire rather than lighter fluid to avoid a jet fuel aftertaste. You want a full chimney of hardwood lump charcoal. If you don't have a chimney fire starter, you can use newspaper and little bits of kindling. 

Once your coals are hot and the fire is ready, bank the fire to one side of the grill. Add half of your soaked mesquite chips on top of the banked coals. Place a medium cast iron skillet under the main grill surface, to catch drippings (where the charcoal would normally go on the lower "small grill" in a Web kettle). Put the main grill (the surface on which you'd normally place burgers and dogs) in place. Cover the kettle, and let it heat up and begin to smoke (about 5 minutes). Leave the top and bottom vents open to keep the fire going. 

While the barbecue is beginning to smoke, liberally salt and pepper your prime rib cuts. I also like to sprinkle a good bit of granulated garlic. Then, oil the cuts all over, and rub things around to cover the meat surface evenly. 

Clean and oil your grill surface, and place the prime rib cuts in the kettle. The biggest problem you are likely to have is the surface of the meat getting too dark, so keep it at least 6 inches back from the fire itself. Cover the kettle, and let the smoking begin.

Turn your prime rib every 10 minutes or so. Be sure to flip them over and rotate which sides are closest to the fire. The idea is to brown the outsides evenly, and make sure both roasts are done at the same time.

When you rotate and flip the roasts, give the fire and wood chips a stir to keep an even smoke going. If the smoke volume goes down, add more wood chips (you should continue adding the second half of your chips as you go). You may need to add more lump charcoal to keep the fire burning hot enough. I also find that keeping the lid just slightly ajar gives more air to the fire and helps to keep the heat up. 

Once about 45 minutes have passed, begin checking the temperature of your smoked prime rib with an instant read thermometer. You want to gauge the temperature, of course, but you also want to get a handle on how quickly the temperature is rising. This ensures that you don't get caught with your pants down by over-shooting your target meat temperature. 

I like my prime rib nice and pink, so I pull it at about 120 degrees F, and rest it so it comes up to about 130 degrees F before slicing. If you like it a bit more well done, pull it at 130 and allow it to come up to 140 degrees F at slicing time. If you like it any more well done than that, I recommend saving your money and buying hot dogs instead. 

When the temperature hits 120 degrees F (which will likely take 1 1/2 to 2 hours of total smoking time), pull the smoked prime rib off the grill. Place the roasts on a cutting board, and tent them loosely with aluminum foil for 15 minutes to let the juices redistribute. 

While the roasts are resting, prepare a pan gravy using the drippings in your skillet. You want to begin with 2 tablespoons of "liquid gold," which is the rendered fat, juices, and browned bits of smoky goodness that dripped into the skillet under your roasts. 

If you've got more than 2 tablespoons, pour off (or suction out with a turkey baster) excess fat.  Be sure not to remove any of the brown juice that you've got since this is the key to the gravy's flavor (only remove clear rendered fat).  If you don't have enough juice and fat left over, add butter or oil until you do.

Place the skillet on the stovetop over medium heat.  Add 2 tablespoons of Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free All-Purpose Flour (or just about any other flour) to the skillet.

Stir things around with a wooden spatula to form a thick paste, and then add about half a cup of water. Continue adding another half cup of water while stirring it, as the gravy thickens. After adding roughly a cup of water, you should end up with a thin gravy. Once you've got the water quantity dialed in and the thickness of the gravy has stabilized, lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer the gravy for another 10 minutes to cook the flour. If the gravy gets over-thick as it continues to cook, add small bits of water carefully.

Taste your gravy. You'll probably need to season the gravy with salt and pepper.

As your gravy simmers, slice the smoked prime rib into roughly 1/2-inch thick slices. When everything's ready, serve it all together with your favorite mashed potatoes.