Lemon basil & lavender shortbread cookies

IMG_6055No video for this recipe, sorry!  I don’t actually have any lemon basil growing in my garden right now–my pesky chickens ate all of my baby basil plants earlier this spring.   So, I can’t make any of these delicious cookies until I can get my hands on some lemon basil.  And I don’t know of a source of lemon basil, so it might be a while before I can make these cookies again.  Which, if I think about it, is probably a good thing because when I first experimented with this recipe I ate the entire batch that afternoon (nearly 2 dozen cookies).  I’m not kidding.  Also I’m not particularly proud to admit that (or am I?).  I’m not into hot dogs, but if there were a shortbread-eating contest, though, I’d definitely be in the running to win.

I made a big batch of these cookies for my friend’s wedding earlier this summer (see my previous post) and somehow I managed not to eat a single cookie before I got to the actual wedding.  How on earth did I manage that?!  I suspect it had something to do with the gobs of cupcakes and icing I had consumed the day I was making literally hundreds of cupcakes and cookies.  Nothing like a little sugar overload to stave of a good shortbread craving…

For this recipe I prefer to use fresh lemon basil.  I use a mortar and pestle to grind the basil into a paste, and use a little bit of sugar as a grinding agent to help break down the basil.  Using fresh basil turns the sugar paste a brilliant green!  Unfortunately, the green color doesn’t hold–it gets diluted as more ingredients are added to the dough.  For the wedding, I only had dried lemon basil.  Honestly, I couldn’t tell a difference in the flavor–so if you happen across lemon basil, buy as much of it as you can and dry it!!  You can then make these cookies all winter long (assuming you have dried lavender flowers).  If you don’t have either of these, then your next best option is lemon-rosemary shortbread cookies, which may just be my second favorite flavor of shortbread.  You can substitute rosemary for the lavender and lemon zest for the lemon basil, but add about 1 teaspoon of lemon juice in addition to the vanilla extract.

Let’s just say that you need to find a way to make these cookies.  Buy yourself a pack of lemon basil seeds and set a pot in your windowsill.  Grow some lemon basil and while you’re at it, get yourself a lavender plant, too.  Besides being beautiful, you can harvest some of the flowers (before they open) to use in cookies, breads, teas, whatever.  And then leave most of the flowers to open because the bees LOVE THEM.  They go completely nuts!  And we all know the bees can use all the help they can get.  So help feed the bees while beautifying your garden!  Win win!

Go make these cookies!  Find the recipe here.

How green my garden grows

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I can water my garden from the water hose all summer long, but my garden never looks so green and happy than after a nice rain.  Rain droplets must pick up micronutrients from the atmosphere as they plummet to the earth–I can think of no other reason why a good soaking rain makes my garden so much happier than a good soak from the hose.

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Miss Rhodie–she’s at least 7 years old but she still lays eggs!

The chickens are also loving the yard and the garden.  Surprisingly, they have left most of my veggies alone and so I have not bothered to cover most of my boxes with bird netting.  The other day I harvested some spinach and all of a sudden it was like they discovered the spinach for the first time.  One by one, chickens hopped up into the boxes and began nibbling on spinach leaves.  I didn’t mind–I have so much spinach in the garden I’m willing to share some with the girls if it makes them happy.

I’ve got a terrific idea for using up gobs of rhubarb (and old bread)–I’ve made 2 batches of rhubarb bread pudding this week and it is soooooo good!  I should post a video this weekend.  The only problem is I don’t actually have a recipe with exact amounts and such.  I just throw things in a bowl and it turns out delicious.  I know, that’s not fair if you want to try to make it for yourself.  So I’ll try to come up with some guidance before I make a video.

Summer field work has begun so things will be fairly quiet around this blog for a while.  I’ll post when I can but it will be sporadic at best.  I’m doing lots of stuff, I just don’t have time to write it down!  Be patient with me.  Maybe photos will have to do the bulk of the talking this summer.  So, maybe I’ll do just that to show you what I’ve been up to lately and why I haven’t been posting more videos and recipes!  The reason is both for work and play but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.  That’s when I know I’m doing something right.  Right?!  Click on a photo and the caption will pop up.  ‘Til next time…

 

Spring is for lemon meringue pie!

I’m back!  I was traveling for work recently and once I got home I got hit with a whirlwind of writing reports, playing birthday dinner hostess, preparing for upcoming field work this summer, and my favorite: doing quality control on data entry into our master database at work (kidding).  And I think spring has FINALLY arrived in Helena–we’ve had 2 nice weekends in a row and I have spent as much time as I can outside working in the yard and garden.  And you know what?  The garden is alive! More on that later…

First things first: my little lemon tree produced 7 lemons this year, a record for me.  For many people growing lemons in a warm climate, this may seem unimpressive, but I was quite pleased to have 7 fully ripe lemons in Montana.  I gave away a couple of lemons to friends and I had 4 left.  What to do with my bounty?  Then one day it hit me: lemon meringue pie!  Of course!  And I can use eggs from my gals, too!  And it was settled.

Meyer lemons are quite a bit smaller than the lemons you find at the grocery store but they have a wonderful flavor.  I ended up using 3 lemons, which means I still have one more–maybe I’ll make some lemon rosemary shortbread cookies.

If you want to watch my kitchen calamities, the video will hit on a couple of good ones. If you just want the darn recipe without any of the monkey business, you can find it here.

 

Egg Salad!

The chickens haven’t slowed down the egg production, but I have managed to get rid of some eggs this week, opening up a shelf I haven’t seen in quite some time.

And then there were those Easter Eggs waiting to be re-purposed.  Nearly 2 dozen of them.  So of course I had to make egg salad this week.  I switch up the ingredients depending on what’s available in my fridge, my garden, or my CSA share.  There’s no real recipe that I follow, just whatever seems like a good idea at the time.  You can catch the experiment in action below:

Naturally dyed Easter eggs!

My chickens are really producing the eggs in quantity these days, so with nearly 8 dozen eggs in the fridge, I decided it was high time for some egg salad!  But also why not dye some of them first and share the experience?  So that’s what I did…

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SO BEAUTIFUL!

And pretty easy to make, you just need a little time and refrigerator space to dedicate to this project.  This is a fun one for the kiddos, too!  I made a video, too!  Check it out below.

 

 

 

An argument for keeping your own flock of backyard chickens

There is an abundance of information on the Interwebs on why raising your own chickens is such a wonderful adventure (and raising chickens really is an adventure).  For me, I chose to start raising chickens because I loved the idea of having my own fresh supply of eggs from the girls.  I didn’t realize the other benefits I would reap from my flock.

For example:

I love interacting with my chickens.  I talk to them, coo at them, cluck to them, and encourage them along, especially in the dark days of winter when they are complaining about the cold and snow.  “Soon, girls.  Soon it will be spring and the green grass will appear again an you can roam around the newly fenced yard!”

I laugh at my chickens.  I had no idea how funny chickens were until I had my own flock.  They are wonderfully social, and if allowed to range free, they will come check out every little thing you are doing, to the point of aggravation.  While living in the South, I grew peanuts.  While harvesting the peanuts, I pulled the plants from the ground and set them aside, with the peanuts still attached to the mother plant.  The chickens decided to ‘help’ me harvest the peanuts, so they began plucking the peanuts from the plants to eat (or partially eat, as was the case) and then they got right under me to dig in the freshly disturbed soil to look for bugs.  Have you ever tried to tell a chicken to ‘move it’ because she’s in your way?  The plea falls on deaf ears, I tell you.

I have fewer bugs in my yard because of my chickens.  When living in the South, we had all sorts of bugs–ticks, fleas (and subsequently, tapeworms that showed up in MaeBelle’s system every couple of months), grasshoppers, and the like.  Once we brought home chickens and let them have free range of our 5 acres, I no longer got ticks while walking around the yard and MaeBelle stopped getting tapeworms.  The chickens were eating tons of bugs!  I was flabbergasted at the impact 7 chickens had on the bug population of such a large area.

Currently I live on a quarter acre city lot.  With the footprint of the house, driveway, sidewalks, shed, and sidewalks, our free range space for chickens is much, MUCH less than what we had at our previous place.  But we still have 7 chickens and they have plenty of space to roam free and peck for their food.  Soon they will have even more space as we have fenced our front yard with all the garden boxes, and they will have the run of this space come Spring.  We don’t really need 7 chickens, we could get by with 3 chickens.  But with 7, we get around 3 1/2 dozen eggs per week, so I can sell some at the CSA, give some away, or make tons of ice cream and angel food cake in the summer.  Like I mentioned earlier, the main reason I wanted a flock of chickens is for the delicious, and nutritious, eggs.  There are studies that show the nutritional differences between commercially raised chicken eggs and those that come from free ranging backyard chickens.  One study showed that free range backyard chicken eggs had more vitamin A, more beta carotene, more vitamin E, more omega-3 fatty acids, less cholesterol, and less saturated fat.  I can tell visually that my girls lay more nutritious eggs, especially in the beta carotene department.  Just look at this photo below:IMG_3691

The egg in the front is a store bought egg.  During the last half of December, the girls stopped laying and we finally broke down and bought eggs from the grocery (thankfully we only had to buy 2 dozen before the girls began laying again).  These store bought eggs were the “free range, vegetarian fed” kind.  First of all, “free range” in a commercial egg producing setting does not mean the same thing as free range in my back yard.  Don’t believe me?  Look it up.  There are plenty of sources out there explaining what “free range” means and what commercial producers can get away with and still call the eggs “free range.”  Second, CHICKENS ARE NOT VEGETARIANS!  They are omnivores and believe me, they WILL eat just about anything.  I once witnessed 3 of my girls ripping a snake into 3 pieces and chowing it down (after fighting over it, of course) before I could stop them.  “Vegetarian fed” is simply another way of saying the chickens are being fed corn, soy, or some other cheap, nutrient deficient food source.  The result?  Pale yellow, nutrient poor eggs.

One of my girls laid the egg at the back of the skillet.  See how golden orange that egg is compared to the store bought egg?  There’s nutrients in that baby!  And this is the middle of winter, so my girls are not getting the green grass and bug-filled diet that they get during the growing season.  They do get kitchen scraps in the winter, courtesy of us AND some friends and neighbors who don’t have compost piles and hate to see their vegetable scraps end up in the landfill.  And I have bags of leaves, also courtesy of my kind neighbors, that I can dump in their run and let them scratch around in on those nice days when they actually want to come outside.  This gives them some exercise and they find little tidbits of bugs, grass, seeds, and other goodies that keep them busy and happy until the snow flies again and they coop themselves up, complaining loudly about how long winter is in Montana.

Also, check out this photo:IMG_3692

See how perky the golden yolk is at the back and how flat and limp the yolk in the front is by comparison?  The longer an egg sits, the more flaccid the yolk becomes.  The eggs sitting on the shelves at the grocery were laid weeks (and WEEKS!) before you bought them.  Sometimes I collect a (still warm!) egg and crack it into a hot skillet before it has a chance to go in the refrigerator!  It’s the best.

So what if you want to raise your own flock of chickens?  How many chickens should you have?  Where do you buy chickens?  Where should they live?  How much space do they need?  What if you have a dog?  What breed of chicken is best?

There are all great questions and there are many answers, and many variations and opinions on the answers to these questions out there.  For starters, I recommend talking to someone who raises chickens in a setting similar to where you live.  Live out of town on a large farm?  Talk to someone who lives out of town on some acreage who has chickens.  Sure, you can talk to someone who lives on a small city lot, but the issues and concerns you have will be different depending on where you live.  Fox predation is not an issue in town, but noisy squawking potentially bothering the neighbors is.  Then do some more research, either online or by checking out a book from the library on housing and space requirements.  Look at coop designs.  Read about the different breeds.  Do you want meat birds as well?  Do you want to raise your own chicks?  Can you have a rooster?  Do you WANT a rooster?IMG_6784

I’ll provide some information on the breeds I have in a future post and give some pros and cons of each breed.  In my experience I’ve found that chickens are pretty easy to raise as long as you provide them the basics:  food, a clean water source, protection from predators, space to roam, a place to lay eggs, and a place to roost.  IMG_7111

If you can’t raise your own chickens, or you don’t want to, then think about finding a source of locally raised eggs from a neighbor or farmer in your area.  Not only will you be supporting a local food producer and reducing food miles, you’ll be adding more nutritious eggs to your diet.  That’s a win-win for everyone.

Earth Day Fun Day

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Happy Earth Day, everyone!  I hope you all did something fun on this Saturday, and something that was mindful of treading lightly on this beautiful blue globe on which we all live.  We had a most excellent day today and now I am tired, but in the best way.

It was a beautiful day in Helena today!  This morning the Hubs and I took our dog, MaeBelle, over to the Scratchgravel Hills, just northwest of town, for a little bike ride.  What better way to celebrate Earth Day that with a mountain bike ride?  I’m a beginning mountain biker, and this trail system is perfect for me: it has mostly old 2-track roads that aren’t too rocky and some single track to give me little challenges to practice my technique.  Right off the bat we take a little single track side trail that has a pretty steep component to it.  A couple of weeks ago I cleaned the section, even though I hadn’t been riding my bike much.  This week I’ve been riding my bike a lot to the gym and to work and to run errands–my legs felt strong and I felt good.  My fitness level is at a good place.  I was confident….but.  That’s right, that dreaded word: but.  Near the middle of the section I somehow lost my balance and slipped off my bike.  I think I hit a rock funny or something, I’m not exactly sure.  What I do know for sure is that I have yet to master is hopping back on my bike while on a steep uphill climb.  I tried, and tried, and tried some more but eventually I had to push my bike all the way to the top.  I took so long that Hubs and MaeBelle came back to look for me.  At one point my chain fell of the chain wheel so I had to fix that, too.  I was pissed at myself for not cleaning that section.  Dang it, I just did it a couple of weeks ago!!  I always get upset with myself if I don’t perform well, and today was no exception.  Hubs got on me for being so hard on myself (the irony) but he gets it–he’s just as hard on himself when something trips him up, too.

Despite my rocky start, we had a lovely ride, complete with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and early spring wildflowers in abundance.  The ground was splattered with hues of white and lavender (Phlox hoodii), and fuchsia (Douglasia montana).

At the end of our ride I told Hubs I was going to ride the first section again–and clean it this time.  My legs were a little tired, but I was determined to get up that hill!  And true to my word, I made it to the top in a clean ride.  MaeBelle was at first a little confused.  I could just see the wheels turning in her little head, “Wait. What are we doing? Why aren’t we going to the truck?”  But she was a trooper and followed me dutifully up the trail.  Hubs couldn’t let me ride it again by myself–he’s not competitive or anything… but he rides a single-speed bicycle, and therefore does not have any gears to shift while riding.  Riding those steeper sections are a lot harder for him than they are for me–but he cleaned his the second time as well.  He’s a monster on a mountain bike: strong legs and a stubborn determination.  Plus he’s been riding for almost 3 decades.

MaeBelle was happy to hop in the truck and drink a lot of water.  She’s going to be 12 years old in a few weeks, but she’s still going strong!  What a happy gal she was at the end of our ride:

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By the we got home it was lunch time.  I made egg salad sandwiches (including from the garden: green onions & chives & spinach!) and they tasted SO. GOOD.  Then I was craving something a little sweet.  For a few days I’ve had this idea rolling around in the back of my head–a way to use up some frozen blackberries and one of the limes that I grew over the winter (That’s right, I grow citrus.  In Montana.).  And so mini lime-blackberry cheesecakes were born.  Since today is Earth Day, and the sun was shining brightly, I decided to use my solar oven to bake my little cheesecakes. I love my solar oven and use it every chance I get.  During the week I will throw together a rice pilaf or something, put it in the solar oven, then go to work.  When I get home the dish is cooked to perfection.  Gotta love that!  All part of my sustainable, low impact living initiative, not to mention a way to be an absent cook and not burn down the house.

Oh, and those cheesecakes?  They are SO. GOOD.  Hubs and I had to pry ourselves away from them tonight.  It was hard not to eat them all.  I will have to post a recipe and a video showing how to make them, but not tonight.

While the cheesecakes baked, I worked in the garden.  MaeBelle loves it when I work outside.  She lazes around in the yard eating compost (and I yell at her to get out of the compost) and chewing on sticks or just watching people walk by.  I weeded and got rid of a bunch of last year’s dead flower stalks in my boulevard jungle of yarrow, blue flax, sunflowers, sagebrush, and rabbit brush.  A woman jogged by and said, “You have a beautiful garden!”  Ah, it nearly made me blush even though I hear that a lot from passersby.  It makes me happy that they take joy in my front yard garden.

Later this afternoon I noticed a woman dumping some food scraps over our fence into the orchard where the chickens were.  She had a toddler with her and they sat on the grass and watched the chickens for a few minutes.  She lives on the next block and though she’d asked Hubs last year if they could feed the chickens some of their kitchen scraps and watch the chickens, I’d never met her or talked to her.  I packaged a dozen eggs of varying colors: green, white, and several shades of brown, and walked outside to offer her some eggs in exchange for feeding our chickens some goodies.  She and her daughter were delighted to receive the eggs.  I was delighted to see this little girl take such pleasure in watching my Girls gobble up the strawberry hulls and apple peels, clucking and squeaking with happiness.  It gives me hope that maybe someday, when she grows up and has a house of her own, this little girl will want her own small flock of backyard chickens.

For dinner, I made a quasi quiche–meaning it was sort of like a quiche souffle or… something totally made up.  I tossed in bunch of veggies like mushrooms, onions, more green onions & spinach from the garden, along with some smoked cheese.  I separated some of the eggs and beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.  There were way more veggies than eggs, so there was spinach poking up out of the eggs.  I used some leftover rice pilaf as crust to hold the egg mixture and it turned out really tasty!  Hubs and I both had seconds.  It was a good food sort of day!  I haven’t cooked like that in a looooong time, and it felt good to be back in the kitchen.  Unfortunately, by dinner time the sun was too low in the sky and clouds were beginning to gather, so I had to use my indoor oven to bake the quiche-thing.  Oh well.  There will be more sunny days and plenty of recipes to try in the Solavore oven this spring and summer.

Have a happy, healthy week!

 

Caring for Urban Chickens in the Winter

It’s been really cold in Helena lately.  This week we had our second arctic blast of the season–this morning when I checked the thermometer on the back deck, it read -14.9 degrees F.  Brrrr!  When it hits 0 degrees F, we turn on a heat lamp for them.  Most domesticated chicken breeds are pretty cold hardy, and providing too much heat in the winter can supposedly induce molting.  But when it gets below 0 degrees we like to provide a little additional heat to prevent things like frostbite on the comb.  Our Rhode Island Red (Miss Rhodie) is our old gal–she must be 5 or 6 years old now and she no longer lays eggs–and she has lost a few claws from each foot over the years.  During the winters?  I’m not sure.  But it’s plausible.

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When I walk home from work, I can see the red glow of the lamp in the coop.  You can see the silhouettes of a couple of The Girls settling in on the perch for the evening.

I always feel a little bad for The Girls in the winter.  They don’t like the snow (I don’t know that any chickens do) and their run doesn’t get much sunlight in the depths of winter because it is located on the north side of the house.  They spend most of their time in the coop.  Although they don’t like it, they do come out to eat and drink.  We use a large  heated dog bowl in the winter so we don’t have to break ice off their water.  With the recent cold snap we’ve had, even the heated bowl has frost around the rim, but it doesn’t freeze so The Girls have access to water all the time.  Their food and water are located underneath the coop where they can stay out of the snow, but they have to jump from their ramp onto the snow in order to get under the coop.  It’s funny to watch them crouch, hover, and make that leap of faith trying to get under the coop without touching the snow.  Sometimes they jump on top of one another in their comical attempt to avoid the snow.  A couple of The Girls don’t mind the snow too bad, and they will come out to eat scratch and other goodies I bring out for them.  This morning, for example, I gave them some cooked lasagna noodles for a treat.  They love pasta of every kind.  They are spoiled, but they are worth it.

They are especially worth it this winter because they continued to lay eggs all through the month of December…at least some of them.  We got some new breeds this past spring, and they must be more day-neutral (to compare them to onions) than the other breeds we’ve had in the past because we’ve never had chickens lay continuously through the winter–a couple of The Girls took about 3 weeks off during the shortest, darkest days last year.  But this year?  We are swimming in eggs!  It’s been great!  This morning I collected 3 eggs before heading off to work.  When I got home from work there were 2 more eggs in the nest box, but it was so cold that they both froze and split open.  Bummer…

I’m not sure exactly which gals are the laying troopers, but I’m pretty sure the Buff Orpington, the Brahma, and the Silver-laced Wyandotte were involved.  My Ancona and Araucana began laying last week, which is earlier than normal for them.  We specifically don’t put a light in the coop in the winter to promote egg laying–I like to give them a bit of a break if they want to take it.  But some breeds lay year-round, and so I like to reward them with special treats like lasagna noodles.  Why not?

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The Girls have pretty cozy digs to get them through even the coldest Montana winters.