Friday, April 29, 2011

they're here!

Well I was going to post about the birthday fun around here (picture some handmade gifts, darling dollhouse furniture and cherished books received by a delighted little girl), but something a bit more exciting has grabbed our attention. We are pleased to announce the hatching of our chicks!

So far five chicks have hatched out; we're waiting to see if the other five will make an appearance. The kids were ecstatic watching the action, and we were able to share it with lots of friends who came to join in the hatching-day fun. There was plenty of excitement and drama as we waited to see if each chick would be able to make it out of the shell.

Once the chicks were dry and fluffy, we transported them to the brooder (a cardboard box lined with paper and heated by lamps) where they will grow for the next few weeks. Each of the children had a basket lined with cloths in which they carried the chicks in a parade of over-the-top cuteness.

We watched attentively as the chicks settled into their new home, drank their first drops of water and eventually pecked at their first bits of food.

These chickens are Dominiques, an endangered breed of fowl that are considered the oldest breed in America, dating back to Colonial times. Hardy foragers, dually capable of producing eggs and meat, Dominiques were declared by the USDA in 1862 "the best fowl of common stock that we have, and the only common fowl in the country that has enough distinct characteristics to entitle it to a name."

It all sounds so very noble for this humble bird.

There are sure to be plenty of chick updates as the weeks go by. It will be about 6 weeks before we can determine if our chicks are hens or roosters. Then we'll have to decide which hens will be staying on in our yard (I don't think the neighbors will appreciate any rooster wake-up calls!).

For now, we are enjoying their sweet "cheep cheeps" and laughing as they wobble about, pecking at every spot they see before comically flopping, exhausted, onto the floor. They are wonderfully entertaining for us all, and the kids are seeing to it that each of these little chicks is plenty loved...

Monday, April 25, 2011

from the weekend

The weekend was full of...

baskets, egg hunts, good food and family to share it with

explorations and water

baking and decorating, crafting and creating

and lots of reasons to celebrate.

This week, we'll just keep right on celebrating as we prepare for the official birthday tomorrow, gathering with friends in honor of the birthday girl, and the (hopeful!) hatching of our chicks!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

coloring and cooking

I'm a sucker for traditions, and so it should come as no surprise that this time of year finds us coloring eggs, baking treats and awaiting the hide-and-seek of an Easter morning egg hunt.

This year, we used natural dyes that were easy to make and gave such lovely spring colors. With a head of red cabbage, a handful of beets and a few heaps of turmeric, we were able to blend and create a lovely variety of colors.

There are so many natural elements that can be used to create these colors, such as onion skins, spinach, teas and blueberries. Here's what we used this year:

(also pictured here is the coffee we soon abandoned; it did color the eggs, but they turned out the same hue as the brown eggs already in the fridge!)

For blues - 1 chopped head of cabbage
For pinks - 4 large beets, diced
For yellows - 3 Tbs. turmeric powder
White vinegar

Each of the first three ingredients went into its own pot with 1 qt. of water, 2 Tbs. white vinegar and 2 Tbs. salt. Bring the pots to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. We then filtered the dyes so that only the liquid remained.

You can use these dyes cold or hot, which is appealing when working with little hands in the pots. When cold dipping, the longer the eggs soak, the deeper their color. We double dipped a few eggs, taking the yellows over to the blue pot to make green, blues into the pink to make purples, etc.

Another Easter tradition we love comes from the Sicilian side of my family. Using a thick dough similar to biscotti, we shape cookies, using a colored egg as part of the creation. The cookies are traditionally shaped as baskets, but we let our creativity come through for these annual masterpieces. This year, three generations of family gathered around our table to share in the tradition.

Grandma's Sicilian Easter Cookie Recipe

1 stick butter
1 c. sugar
3 beaten eggs
1 t. vanilla
4 c. flour
1 1/2 T. baking powder
1/4 c. warm milk

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix in dry ingredients a little at a time, adding milk when the mixture becomes hard to stir (this dough is very thick). Let rest before shaping. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes until golden. Baking time varies based on the shape and thickness of the cookie.

We used the cold dip method to dye raw eggs that were used in the cookie shapes (the eggs will cook as the cookie bakes in the oven).

cold dipped colors

When the cookies are cool, decorate them with colored icings.

Icing Recipe

1 lb. powdered sugar
1/3 stick of melted butter
1/4 c. warm milk
1 t. vanilla extract
splash of lemon juice
food coloring

Mix the first five ingredients until smooth, then separate into different bowls for coloring.

a few finished cookies, some awaiting icing

We used the hot dye method to color the eggs the children will search for tomorrow morning, boiling the eggs directly in the pots of dye.

Using a white crayon, we drew designs on some of the eggs before dying, creating swirls and patterns in the color.

I'm excited for tomorrow morning, when the kids will seek out the hidden eggs, dig into their baskets, bite into their cookies, share meals with family and continue to carry on the traditions of family and festivity.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day

Good morning... It seems a lot of you are popping over here from the Chicago Tribune article today. Welcome! We hope you find lots of inspiration and good advice within these pages.

We enjoyed being interviewed for this feature and sharing some of the simple, everyday changes that can help reduce our output. Many of those ideas are shared here on the blog.

In honor of Earth Day, (and since so many of you are local) I'd like to ask what are your favorite green tips? I'd love to hear from you all about what you do, where you go and who you know to help take care of the planet. Here's your chance to promote some good green local businesses, blogs and web sites that inspire you and pass along any personal practices you'd like to share.

Looking forward to reading the comments, and thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

all day long

Yesterday found us happily in the kitchen all day long. Some days, the repetition of meals and dishes and snacks and cooking feels a bit daunting. At other times, there is a rhythm that carries us through the work and even propels us on to more than we usually take on in a day. That rhythm was strong from the start yesterday.

The morning started with a familiar breakfast.

soaked grain pancakes

After that, we moved on to making applesauce. We just made three quarts of the stuff not one week ago, but we're already into the last jar and these apples were ready for cooking.

The chopping and simmering carried us through to lunch...

spinach ravioli with steamed artichokes

...after which we got started on making dinner. This left us with one more stash of chicken bones to add to the stockpot with some herbs and vegetables.

And while that simmered away, we tried our hand at making yogurt from the fresh milk we brought home from the farm yesterday.

Making yogurt is another one of those kitchen jobs that is easy and rewarding. It costs much less than storebought yogurt and results in less waste when you can store it in reusable glass jars. Did I mention it's easy, too?

Begin by heating one quart of milk to 110 degrees. For true raw milk yogurt, you want to avoid overheating the milk, which would effectively pasteurize it.

Allow the milk to cool to about 100 degrees. Once it's cooled, stir in your starter. You can purchase powdered culture, or use 3 Tbsp. of plain yogurt (which is what we used). This was our first time making yogurt using raw milk, and as I had heard that it can be difficult to get a nice, thick consistency from fresh milk, I also added 1/3 cup organic non-fat dry milk along with the starter to help thicken the yogurt. Once it is all stirred in, pour the mix into a clean jar.

(photo courtesy of Daniel)

The yogurt then needs to spend some time held at a steady temperature of 100 degrees. There are a variety of methods used to accomplish this -- placing an electric heating pad under the jar and covering with a towel will work, using an insulated cooler, a warm spot by a woodstove, etc. We used our oven. The jar was wrapped in a cloth and placed inside one of our market bags (so handy, I tell you) and put in the oven. I had preheated the oven just a bit, and we stole the thermometer from the incubator to keep an eye on the temperature. When it dropped too low, I turned on the oven for a moment until the heat increased.

(I had a picture of the yogurt in the oven to share here, but then I decided you didn't really need to see the inside of my oven this morning. No one deserves that.)

The yogurt should be done after about 5 or 6 hours. Leaving it longer will make for a tangier finished product.

While ours was warming, we moved on to dinner, a delicious white bean and chicken chili inspired by a few different versions.

Here's how we did it:

White Bean and Chicken Chili

1 rotisserie chicken
1 diced yellow onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups stock or broth
4 cups white beans, rinsed
2 cups mashed white beans
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. oregano
1/2 t. cayenne powder (more or less to taste)
1 T. olive oil

Saute onion and garlic in oil. Stir in shredded meat from the chicken. Add broth and seasonings. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and add the beans. Simmer for about 30 minutes.

We served it topped with cheese, cilantro, yogurt and a squeeze of lime. The kids stirred in frozen corn to cool the chili and loved the sweet crunch of the corn.

After dinner, we tested the yogurt. The taste was just right, creamy and tart, but not too tangy. It's a little hard to describe the consistency... thick but slippery. It was still warm out of the oven, so it may still set more as it cools in the fridge. Either way, it made for a nice snack before bed.

Some days, it's all I can do just to get toast on the table. Other days, like this, we're happy to work together, cooking and creating, filling the freezer and pantry (and our tummies) all day long.

This post is part of today's Pennywise Platter at The Nourishing Gourmet and Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

spring coming on

Oh, spring. It sure does seem to be taking its time. A few glimpses here and there of what it might bring, even a day or two of summer preview, but spring as we know it best has yet to take its place outside our window. We're doing our part to bring spring inside, even if it won't show its face at our door.

Despite the chill in the air and the recent snow on the ground, I can tell spring is surely around the corner. It must be, for the ducks are busily waddling through the backyard, the kids are asking to dye eggs, and just the other day there was the annual spring piano recital.

It must be spring coming. There is the rising, hard-to-contain energy in the little ones romping about, the heightened interest in the environment that accompanies this time of year (and an Earth Day interview with a local newspaper -- more on that soon!), and the flapping and stretching of a variety of wings...

Ah, springtime... We'll keep playing the part until you decide to join us.

Friday, April 15, 2011

on the way

We're all pretty excited for the projects we've taken on these past few weeks and the sense of success that comes along with completing these sorts of undertakings. Of course, among all the triumphs, there have been a few flops.

One of our recent experiments involved building our own incubator. Each week, we return from the farm with cartons of fresh eggs. Well, I thought, why not try to hatch some? With a good stack of trusty library books to educate ourselves (and a variety of internet resources, too) we took on the task of making an incubator.

We learned the basics; the required temperature in a still air incubator is around 103 degrees with humidity at 60 percent. Using a clear sided storage container, we drilled holes for ventilation, added a lightbulb for heat and a water source for humidity. Then we tried to perfect it. We needed stronger wattage for greater heat, more water for increased humidity, more ventilation to balance the two. When we thought we had it right it was a sight to see, with a child's dragon-shaped humidifier feeding steam into the container through a make-shift duct, the lid propped open with a screwdriver handle that was just the right size to maintain the required settings.

All seemed to be going well for our first dozen hatchlings (okay, eleven total after I dropped one) until one day I returned to find the temperature had inexplicably spiked to over 110. Anything over 107 is fatal. The signs of growth we had seen when candling the eggs had stopped. Some remained just a small, dark spot within the shell. Others showed the watery lines that are a sure sign of an embryo's demise.

Not to be deterred, though, we started again. With a fresh dozen eleven eggs (alright, so I broke one this time, too) and a more sophisticated incubator on loan from the farm, a new batch began incubating.

It takes 21 days for the eggs to hatch, and we are now ten days in (almost halfway there!) Last night when I candled the eggs, I could see the dark shapes inside the shell taking form and -- so exciting -- I saw the chick move! Maybe my giddiness seems a bit silly, but there is so much about development that I find incredibly fascinating. Watching leaves form on the branches outside our windows, seeing the seeds sprouting in the dirt where we placed them and observing the life within these simple eggs take shape delights me. Such common, everyday things yet they are so complex and awe-inspiring.

With any luck, (and without any more dropping on my part) we will have a few of these soft little bundles hatched out here in a short while.

Cheep, cheep!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

in the garden

As the season moves forward, we're busy making preparations for all the growing we're hoping will take place out back. This will be our second summer in this house, and we're eagerly trying to catch up to all our big plans for the planting and playing we've envisioned. Making all these plans come to life is a mix of working and waiting; working to afford and create all we dream up, waiting for the means and the time to put it all together.

The kids are excited and eager to help, so the warm days have found them in the dirt, helping to weed and turn the soil in the existing garden beds. Matt has been hard at work preparing new beds for planting. With a shovel in hand and the sun overhead, he dug out a new 3 foot by 12 foot bed.

Using reclaimed lumber, he built a frame for the space. We found the pine boards (previously used as interior paneling, I'm sure) curbside, bundled neatly for the taking.

Once filled with a good mix of sand and soil, this bed will be ready for planting. We're hoping to add at least three more beds of the same size, in addition to the two 10 foot beds from last year. We'll need plenty of space to accomodate all the seeds we've started inside.

Sophia took over the work for this project, carefully measuring the dirt, placing the seeds and marking the trays.

Charlotte was content to watch, happily shaking the seed packets and trying to foil Sophia's organization by stealing the little flag labels she had made for each variety planted.

So far, we have peas, basil, zucchini, eggplant, gourds, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash, cantaloupe and watermelon started. There are plenty of seeds that will go straight in the ground when the dirt is ready, joining the first sets of onions that have already been planted.

There's still a good deal more working to be done before this part of our plan is complete, and in the meantime, we will continue to wait. Wait for the seedlings to emerge, for the earth to warm, for the sun to grow stronger, all the while dreaming of the good things to come.