The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Visit to Shelton Laurel

Christopher and Maisey and I took a much needed weekend trip to the wilds of Madison County, where our dear friend Dana makes her home.  Dana (proprietress of the thoroughly enjoyable "Dana Dee") is a mountain medicine woman, homesteader, naturalist, sometimes plumber, writer, and generally one of my all-around heroes.

She lives in Shelton Laurel, way up in the mountains, near the Tennessee border in what is most definitely the backwoods. Her home is full of good food, medicinal herbs drying, goofy humor, fascinating projects in progress, and comfy places to curl up with a book.  

I love visiting Dana. I love the little shrines to beauty and wonder and family and plants and animals  that are everywhere in Dana's world - the otter pelt that she tanned, delicate teacups in a beautiful battered old china cabinet, tinctures and syrups and dried roots, little scraps of paper full of notes and poems and tidbits. I also love Dana's clever wit and general hilarity, and her deep appreciation of the absurd.  Basically, I just think she hung the moon, as my mom would say.

Being in the home that Dana created with the help of an all-star cast of friends and roaming the woods around her home place was just lovely.

Great for toddy drinking

Homemade medicines
Little note from Dana's sister Jenna...including tiny usnea tree

Wild pears for a possible future project growing pear rootstock
One of my favorite moments was when D. whipped out the candied ginger that she and Sally made from *fresh locally-grown ginger* -- FOR REAL.  Dana's friend Skelly grew it at Aardvark Farm up in Yancey County. Dana and Sally candied it. You really cannot believe how delicious it was.

Then, just for good measure, they DIPPED SOME OF IT IN CHOCOLATE. I usually try to avoid the all-caps, but there are times when you just have to bring out the all-caps.
 We made short work of some chocolate-covered candied ginger.
The fortunate by-product of this candied ginger project of Dana and Sally's was ginger syrup. As if the candied ginger weren't enough.
We used the ginger syrup to make the best hot toddies ever with some Rebel Yell whiskey.

 As if that weren't enough, Dana made some chicken pot pie.

We brought some chicken from East Fork Farm and Dana sauteed up some carrots and celery from her garden along with some storebought onions.

Softening up the veggies

Working on the chicken

Rolling out the piecrust
Shaping the crust

Filling the pie


The finished pot pie

It was the first chicken pot pie I've eaten in more than 20 years. 

I felt kind of like this guy after eating my first piece.

Then we got to sit around the fire with Susie and Todd and all of the dogs, laughing about some of our favorite things to laugh about and trading tales.

In general, a good time was had by all. We brought Maisey, who spent some down time with the pink plush unicorn.

For breakfast this morning we fried up some Hen of the Woods mushrooms that our friend Alan found on a recent forage and mixed it with some eggs.

Hen of the Woods

Wild mushroom omlet

Looking out over Dana's garden, we had a chance to talk a little about the history of Shelton Laurel, including the period known as "Bloody Madison," guerrilla warfare in The Laurel, mountaineer indifference to the Confederate cause, and the horrible Massacre of Shelton Laurel.

We reflected for a while on the fact that all that most of Shelton Laurel's residents wanted during the Civil War was a little bit of salt to preserve their meat and vegetables.

Later, Dana showed us her ram pump, which was very impressive. 

She pumps spring water up the hill to her house using only the power of gravity.

Then we headed over to Leonard's to get a tour of his off-grid homestead. He lives just across the way from Dana on the side of a mountain.

The power shed and bee hives at Leonard's

Water catchment
Leonard has mad electrical skills and is great at figuring things out and cobbling together systems out of whatever is at hand. When we expressed how impressed we were with his inventor-style innovations, he revealed that Eli Whitney was his 8th cousin.

Leonard and his PV system

Leonard's automatic chicken coop door opener is somewhat legendary - it was great to check it out in person. He's got it set up so that a light sensor triggers a pulley system to close the coop door so that if he's away from home when it's time to close the chickens up at night, it just happens without him when the sun goes down.


Also Leonard has an impressive stockpile of beautiful honey from his three hives and a lot of fabulous little customized setups for himself and his animals.

These are quart jars of honey. There are lots of them.

Cat porch

We had a nice time roaming the woods around Leonard's place with Pixie, his little Blue Heeler, and talking about goats, gardens, and electricity.

A little part of Leonard's woodpile

Happy Maisey
By the time it was time to go, we had all three had a healthy dose of respite.

Thank you Dana and Leonard and Susie and Todd and Hopey and Ruby. And Jenna for letting us borrow your sweet sister for the weekend.

And thanks for reading, readers...I'm hoping this inspirational trip will get me back in a regular habit of posting here!

Favorite little note from Jenna to Dana
Spotted on a bumpersticker
by Susie and Jenna one day
and recorded for posterity

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Nightshade Preservation Projects...and Chickens

In my attempt to return to the practice of blogging, I'm just going to post a few recent food project pictures.
Wapsipinicon Peach Tomatoes

First up: Fuzzy Peach Tomato Salsa.  The velvety Wapsipinicon Peach tomato is so soft, fuzzy, sweet, and delicious.  It's a delicate, diminutive treasure of a tomato - terrible for market because it's so tender and easily bruised, but wonderful for the kitchen.

Inside a Wapsipinicon Peach
The Peach tomato makes great salsa, which you can either waterbath can or just pop in the freezer.  I made mine with onions, garlic, a couple of very hot Aurora peppers and some Mexican gerkin cucumbers I got from Andrea at the market. Yum.

Purple Aurora Peppers
Every spare moment these days is spent barely managing the ongoing tomato and pepper overload. Tomato sauce is the easiest way to dispense with a large quantity of tomatoes (like the 4 gallons pictured here) quickly.

The 4-gallon stock pot is in constant tomato action most weekend hours.
Bring it, basil and garlic.

Victorious! Coping with the tomato and pepper onslaught via  sweet pepper hash and  tomato sauce.
I've also socked away a bunch of sweet pepper hash, one of my perennial faves. Here's the recipe:

Sweet Pepper Hash
12 small onions
24 ripe sweet peppers of various varieties
2 cups honey
2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 Tbs Salt

  • Peel the onions and remove the seeds from the peppers.
  • Chop the vegetables by hand or use a food processor to chop into relatively small pieces.
  • Put your chopped onions and peppers in a big bowl and sprinkle with the salt.
  • Pour boiling water over the vegetables and let stand for 15 minutes.
  • Combine the honey and vinegar in a large pot and bring to a boil.
  • Drain the peppers and onions and add to the boiling syrup.
  • Reduce heat and cook slowly for 15 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, sterilize jars and lids in a boiling water bath
  • Pack into sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space.
  • Adjust lids and process for 5-10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

And then when there are still more peppers, I've resorted to roasting, roasting, roasting. Which makes the house smell amazing but gets tedious around hour 3 or 4 or so.

Roasted sweet peppers packed in olive oil ready to be piled
in the freezer with  rest of gigantic nightshade stockpile. 
And finally, a longer-term food project: the 6 week-old Welsummers and 15 week-old Speckled Sussexes that just joined the flock.  Bringing the total chicken count to fifty-five.

A Speckled Sussex pullet

Welsummer babies captured on video below...still photos just can't capture the cuteness of peeping.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Pimento Cheese!

Roasted homegrown pimentos
After a long, long period of neglect of my beloved Milkweed Diaries, I'm breaking radio silence with a short little ode to pimento cheese.  Oh pimento cheese, I love you!

A classic staple of the American South, this delicious and creamy treat is traditionally made with Duke's mayonnaise and canned pimentos. My slightly pretentious, healthy, homegrown version is made with raw goat cheese and fresh roasted peppers.  As I spooned this experimental concoction straight into my mouth fresh from the food processor, I announced to Christopher: "I believe this is the best thing I have ever made."  Even in the clear light of day a week later, I'm pretty sure it's true.  

Here's how to make it:
  • Roast the pimentos. I did this at 450 degrees using the broiler setting of my toaster oven.  I drizzled  them with a scant bit of olive oil and broiled them until they had begun to pucker and develop black spots on one side and then flipped them and broiled on the other side.
    Roasting the pimentos
    • Let the pimentos rest in a paper bag.  This will make them easier to peel.
    • Peel the pimentos. This is the tedious and slightly time-consuming part. Remember, it's worth it.  At this point you can store the pimentos in a jar for a day or so if you need to sit the project down til you have time to complete it.
    Mixing in the food processor
    • Mix the pimentos with fresh raw goat cheese. I used a basic soft goat cheese I had made the night before from our goats' milk using Ricki  Carroll's recipe - a raw, cultured goat cheese made with mesophillic culture.  Any good mild, cultured goat cheese will do - the slight cultured tang adds a really nice zest.  I did the mixing by dumping the pimentos in the bottom of my food processor and gradually adding cheese until the consistency, color, and mix looked right. 
    • Enjoy immediately!  This cheese stores well in the fridge and also freezes well, but I find it tastes best at room temperature.
      The final product: Pimento Cheese!

    One important tip: use good pimentos - as fresh as possible.  I was inspired to make this by the abundance of pimentos rolling in from our garden this year.  I used about 25 homegrown peppers - the beautiful, plump, and prolific Ashe County Pimento from the High Country of Western NC via Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
    Ashe County Pimentos
    I also threw in some Doe Hill Golden Bells which are supposedly a bell pepper, but to me look like a small, golden pimento. This seed was also from Southern Exposure, and has been a great addition to our pepper production bed this year. The plants have produced abundantly, and the flavor is wonderful.  According to Southern Exposure, this little gem is a pre-1900 family heirloom from the Doe Hill area in Highland County, Virginia.

    Doe Hill Golden Bells

    This cheese is so delightful spread on toast, noshed upon with crackers, as a garnish on tomato salads, and eaten straight up with a spoon. I froze a ton of it and am envisioning pimento deviled eggs, pimento grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, and all manner of pimento goodness through the months to come. Yum!

    Sunday, February 5, 2012

    Chicken Ethics II: The Sequel

    One of our Black Australorp hens

    I linked to my Chicken Ethics post on Facebook, and the responses and discussion there were so good I wanted to post them here. Special thanks to Ashley at Small Measure and Kristina at The Rocking Horse for permission to repost their comments. Thank you to everyone (that's you, Ellen, Desta, Lynn, ahd KJ) for engaging with me on this difficult and complex topic.

    I'm so grateful to be part of a community where this conversation is happening. I'm reposting exactly as is from FB - so ignore the informal punctuation and etc that is part of the culture of Facebook communication!

    Thank you friends


    Kristina Mercedes Urquhart: when i first got into keeping chickens, i wasn't aware of the "disposal" practices that big hatcheries had for male chicks. after our first order of chicks, i quickly learned there were at the very least tiers of humanity with hatcheries...for instance, i wouldn't purchase chicks from TSC for the way they treat the chicks once they had them, and directly ordering from the hatchery is just slightly more humane. but like you Beth, we chose to do things the easy way the first time by buying directly from the hatchery, and lucked out not having received any males.

    unfortunately, the alternatives to traditional hatcheries are not always available to everyone. first, the issue of straight run. while sand hill is great (and i considered ordering from them the first time around), we couldn't order even the minimum of 15 birds - it was too much for us.

    obviously, straight run inevitably leaves you with some percentage of males... at the time we were not considering "processing" our own chickens, and certainly don't have the capitol to have 7-8 roosters as pets (nor the space or patience!). for many, if not all, small-scale urban backyard chicken keepers, male chicks are a huge no-no in city limits and if they were to buy straight run, having to figure out what to do with a handful of roosters is beyond their scope of experience.

    i don't know what the solution is for straight run, but the second major alternative to buying from hatcheries is to buy chicks from a local farm, and that also has its risks. buying locally hatched or raised chicks presents biohazard issues, particularly with marek's disease (which is the #1 reason why we buy vaccinated hatchery birds). you could get vaccines to administer yourself, but that must be done in the first day of life to be effective (and come in packs of 1,000s).

    the third alternative is to buy started pullets, or laying pullets, which, if you're starting a flock from scratch (no pun intended!) is just fine. but if you already have an established flock and want to add in a few more, this also presents biohazard issues in the form of spreading disease (even birds raised on soil a mile away have still been naturally inoculated to different microbiology in the soil). so, yet another risk.

    the bottom line (after the longest facebook post i've EVER WRITTEN) is that i have no idea or solution. for ian and me personally, we one day hope to get local, heritage breeding stock, with several genetically diverse roosters, and breed, hatch and raise our own chickens. til then, we take good care of our hatchery chicks and learn the best flock management skills we can.

    Feeding the flock

    Desta Rudolph: With the rooster I would keep it until it became a problem I also got an accidental male from Eagledove and have become fond of his male presence in the flock it seems to be the prefect equalizer for our little flock

    Ellen Green: Oy vey, I am getting a headache thinking about this topic. I love my roo, but at the moment he is having his own crisis. Sad that their significant contribution is protection (of a large group), fertilization, and .... a lovely crowing in the morning...More than one breeds fighting.

    Even if you get older birds, the ugly truth is, there is still a disproportionate number of males hatched. And it needs to be "addressed" -- doesn't that sound nice??? So at what point in the chain do we intervene? As soon as they are born? The process sickens me. Later, when they have at least had the chance to have a life? How do we handle them until then? I am a firm believer that animals raised for food accept that fact, even come into their life with that purpose. Those that embrace veganism would disagree, but I feel it is quality over quantity, and a short life is better than no life...Why would you deny any creature a life, regardless of how short? Eww, does that mean I am for hatch-to-grinder????? No...

    We had two roos that we raised from day-old chicks, not voluntarily, we thought they were hens... Surprise...They got along well until they were about 9 months old...Then the testosterone kicked in and the fighting began... Men....In the end we had to choose.

    Lynn Johnson: my first thought was a less eloquent verion of your sharon astyk quote. that death is part of the process of eating, regardless of your diet, though certainly more 'in your face' when eating meat. if it doesn't make sense to raise boy chicks for meat**, then humanely killing them as soon as possible is what feels right.

    i imagine i will continue to think about it, especially when i have my own beautiful cluckers:)

    Beth Trigg: Wow, thank you for the conversation, friends. Kristina Mercedes Urquhart I so appreciate your experience and your advice and your super-thorough and thoughtful response....that's the direction we are heading as well - local, heritage breeding stock. Maybe our farm will get to the point of breeding for sale to local chicken-keepers one day, who knows. The Marek's issue is a big one when moving away from the big hatcheries. Ellen and Desta, I'm not opposed to killing some roosters - although it is not Harvey's fate anytime soon. I'm glad for the hawk protection and I like him. If he gets too macho and mean, we'll see - but I've heard that Ameraucanas are terrible meat birds. All of the other breeds we are raising are "dual purpose" - a lot of the traditional homestead heritage breeds were bred with this very issue in mind.

    My latest one-liner on the subject is: if you're raising chickens for eggs, you're either going to have to kill some chickens or outsource the killing to someone else.

    Ashley Adams English: Oh, it's SUCH a dicey issue. Kristina Mercedes Urquhart beat me to writing what I'd have written, if I'd been around earlier in the day when you sent this. It's actually a large part of the reason we recently got a cockerel, so that we'd have our own fertile eggs. We've long had a broody Australorp, so between her habits and those of the 3 pullets we picked up with the cockerel (Blue Wheaten Ameraucana's, all of them), we hope to be able to take care of this issue our selves. That said, lots of people taking up chicken-tendering don't have this as an option, as they live in no-roo areas. For such folks, it's simply a matter of either purchasing from no-kill hatcheries (to the best of their abilities) or getting straight runs and re-homing their cockerels (knowing that might very well entail, ultimately, their demise-I can't tell you how many "free" ads I've seen for roos in the Iwanna).

    As Sharon said, death is inextricably linked to animal husbandry. It's linked to all food, for that matter, really, as she also states. Hank Shaw wrote that "we all have blood on our hands" and that, as a hunter, his is simply visible to him.

    Also, the protection the roo will ultimately offer the flock is huge. We have loads of predators out here, and lost two birds to a raccoon last year. That said, if he turns out to be mean (he's super sweet and docile right now), as my mother's former roo "George" was (he attacked me years ago and I still have the scar on my leg to prove it), I'll have no issue putting him in a pot.

    During my classes at AB-Tech, this subject has been raised repeatedly. Telling folks that the big hatcheries cull most males is something I never hesitate to mention. People should know how their birds arrive in their possession, for better or for worse, and then make an informed decision from their. It would be great if the larger hatcheries would keep all of the unwanted males and allow them to age a bit and then process them for food. Either way, though, ultimately, as I said above, animal husbandry involves death. Lots and lots of life, too, but death is in the mix. Death with dignity and mindfulness on the part of the hatcheries is the issue to seek out. I'm so glad you raised this issue on your blog and here, Beth Trigg. It often gets lost in the chicken-keeping love shuffle.

    Kristina Mercedes Urquhart: you're very welcome Beth! you're right that roosters serve a very beneficial and often critical role on the farm - to protect the hens as individuals, but also your investment. no one gets rich farming, and when you get in the triple digits in birds, i imagine feeding a flock that big gets pricey! i've read that you should average a rooster for every dozen hens or so, even if they're one large flock, you'll need multiple roosters to keep eyes on everyone.

    Ian and i have considered "processing" our own birds one day... our personal belief is that if you're going to eat meat, it's only fair to understand just how that chicken breast arrived on your table (the reason why i'm also taking up hunting this year, but that's another story entirely!). until we get our own dream farm, we can't do a lot of that in our fairly residential backyard.

    on another note, for those birds that may not be "fit" for human consumption, we've tossed around the idea of feeding them to our cats and dogs (after a good life and a humane death, of course). i know i'm going to get a lot of raised eyebrows and some folks might stop reading). but the truth is, our domestic pets are carnivores and omnivores by nature (respectively). ian and i feed ours the BARF diet as much as we can (acronym for "biologically appropriate raw food" - and endless google topic). that's a fabulous way to keep the the food loop completely closed on a farm that has working herd dogs or barn cats. just some food for thought! :)


    KJ Laurro: I agree Beth, for if one chooses to eat chicken it is best to raise them ourselves and there is a way in honoring their lives. I also agree with seeing how things work with more than 1 roo. sometimes they do okay and sometimes they do not. I feel I have a responsibility to allow them to live safely and that includes within the flock. I have taken on the responsibility of keeping them all safe.

    When I walk into the group, it is I who is at the top of the pecking order even with my roos. I talk to them to set the tone. They get along or someone is going to be chicken soup. If I don't want to eat chicken then I keep the flock to a minimum and do not allow them to continue reproducing. It all depends on what each farmer wants.

    We had some girls that where getting injured by our roo who was a huge buff orph. and wasn't too good at his job of mounting, I had to separate him for a while and tend to healing some of the girls back up. He was a protector and he also was extremely excellent in his manners with me. He was extremely tame even when he came into his own sexually.

    I think in caring for animals there comes the responsibility of culling... for food, if they are injured beyond help, in pain that can not be alleviated.etc. I do not agree with hatcheries and the killing of male birds just because they are male. I also know of a farm that does not kill any of the animals because they do not eat meat at all. They keep it simple for them and keep the flock from reproducing until needed. They find homes for the few males when they need to. It all depends on the farm.

    When I have had to cull chickens it was because they had a disease that broke my heart to watch what it did to them physically. They all had it and I had to end their lives. It is not easy. It never is easy. I don't want it to be easy. I thank them every time for sharing their lives with me and bringing me joy.

    When the day comes that I cull for food, I will do the same. It will be "sacred" and not mindless when I do it. I will be grateful and I will do it in the fastest/painless way I can. To follow such a path in ending a life for food or other reasons is a sacred act for me. I will have them again, but I will not get be a part of a place that culls babies just because they are male and they mass produce them. I am not interested in mass produced birds and think a lot of health issues happen from it. I thank you for a place to share how I feel.


    Beth Trigg: I am so grateful to participate in this conversation with you all - Ashley Adams English, I am so glad you are out there facilitating honest conversations about this in your classes. I feel lucky to be part of a community where people are willing to look at these hard issues head on with eyes open. Kj Laurro, thank you for sharing your own perspective.

    Producing my own food has radically shifted my perspective on the world in so many ways. I never thought I would be thinking about "culling" and killing chickens myself, but it is a very short path from eggs to meat.

    I am hopeful that with all of the consciousness and caring that's out there now about food we will transition to a system that makes more sense. We ARE transitioning, and I believe this conversation is part of that process.

    KJ Laurro:I would love for more of us to become even more aware. I have sometimes wondered how different it is those of us who cull our own chickens for meat and those who go out and hunt and use the meat for food? I only think that leaves me with the question of how fast the animal dies when someone goes hunting. That is what is first and foremost in my life whenever it is time to cull: "what is the fastest way for them?. I do it where the others can't see or hear what is happening.