Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thinking about backyard chickens?

As people hear more reports of contaminated food and worry about the ethics of factory farming, they want to take control of their food in whatever way they can. For many this means starting a garden, and for more and more, this means having a small flock of hens in the backyard. However, myths abound! Sadly, this misinformation slows people down or stops them entirely from having their own fresh eggs.

Myth #1: I can’t have chickens because I live in town.

Not so fast! Have you actually checked your city’s municipal codes? Many are available online. Cities such as Chicago, New York, Austin, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon, allow chickens. And in cities where chickens were not allowed, such as Madison, WI, and Wake Forest, NC, citizens have been getting the laws changed.

Myth #2: You need a rooster to have eggs, and roosters are noisy.

Although roosters can be noisy, you do not need one to get fresh eggs. Hens lay eggs, even if a rooster is not present. However, if there is not a rooster present, the eggs will be sterile and won’t hatch.

Myth #3: Chickens have diseases.

Chickens are not inherently sick, and if they are kept in clean conditions, they rarely, if ever, become sick. They are the healthiest animals on our homestead. If you’re still concerned, buy day-old chicks from a hatchery whose stock is certified free from diseases.

Myth #4: Chickens stink!

This usually comes from someone who lived or worked on a factory farm. You would stink too, if you had half a square foot of living space. Chickens do not stink. Mountains of chicken poo do stink. Three or four chickens do not create mountains of poo like thousands of chickens. In fact, your chickens will provide you with some great fertilizer for your yard or garden, in addition to the great eggs.

Myth #5: Chickens have lice, and they’ll give them to my children.

Okay, I admit this one slowed me down for a few years when I heard it. However, there are a few hundred different species of lice in the world, and most are host specific, meaning that chicken lice don’t like the taste of humans. And again, chickens don’t hatch with lice. So, unless your chickens are mingling with other chickens (at a poultry show, for example), the odds of them getting lice are pretty slim.

In fact, chickens are a great ally against bugs. We're especially grateful to our chickens for keeping down the mosquito and tick population on our farm. After nine years of having my own fresh eggs, I don't think I can ever go back to store-bought again. They taste so much better, and I know they're safe to eat. And there is also the entertainment factor -- chickens in the yard are just plain fun to watch!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Strawberry jam

It's June, and you know what that means? Strawberry harvest time! Even if you don't grow strawberries, you can visit farmer's markets or u-pick farms, and after you've had your fill of fresh strawberries, you can save the harvest by making strawberry jam. This was the very first thing I ever canned, and I bought the strawberries at a roadside stand in Florida more than 20 years ago.

This is a great recipe for getting started with canning jams. It is the old-fashioned recipe that does not use pectin. It has to be cooked longer than a jam with added pectin, and this results in a more concentrated jam. (That’s probably why I love the flavor so much.) By longer, I mean hours rather than minutes, so don’t get this started in the evening after your children have gone to bed. It is simple, and the results are delicious.

Makes 4 pints or 8 half-pints (jelly jars)

  • 2 quarts strawberries
  • 6 cups sugar

Wash the strawberries and pluck off the greenery. Using a pot that will hold all of the strawberries, add them a few at a time and crush them with a potato masher, and then add sugar. Cook over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Continue boiling, and stir every 10 minutes or so until it has reached gel stage. Since this will be a few hours, I usually plan something else to keep me in the kitchen (like making cheese or bread) so I don’t run off and forget about the jam.

There are several methods to test for gelling. A candy thermometer is the most scientific approach. The official gelling temperature is 220°F (or eight degrees above the temperature at which water boils at your elevation). Less scientific but equally accurate is the chilled plate test where you plop a spoonful of jam onto a cold plate and stick it in the refrigerator for a few minutes. If it sets up, it’s jam. If it runs across the plate when you tip it, it could use a little more cooking. For a beginner, the most challenging method of determining the gel point is the sheeting test. Scoop up a spoonful of jam and tip it. If the jam dribbles off in drops or streams, it’s not done. After it has gelled, it will slide off the spoon in a sheet. The best way to learn this is to do it early in the jam-making process; then you can see how it changes as it gets closer to the gel point. Don’t sweat the gel point too much. My husband tends to want to get it just right and initially overcooked a couple of batches, which made for a jam so thick it was a challenge to spread on bread. If that happens, the jam makes a great addition to hot oatmeal. On the other hand, I tend to be in a hurry and might decide it is done a little early sometimes, but then I just call it syrup.

After the jam has reached the gel point, it is ready to be canned. Turn off the burner and skim off any white foam that may have formed on top. It’s not harmful, just not attractive. Fill the jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the rim of each jar with a wet paper towel. Jam or syrup left on the rim increases the chances of seal failure on the lid. Tighten the lids gently, and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.

If you don’t want this much sugar in your jam, you will need to follow a recipe for low-sugar or sugar-free jam that uses special low-sugar pectin. The sugar in old-fashioned jam helps the gelling process and inhibits the growth of mold and yeast.
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