Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Garden Kitchen

We'd wager that in our social circles, the phrase 'kitchen garden' would evoke romantic images of a small patch of vegetables and herbs situated just outside a kitchen window, lush and green, and frequented by friendly honeybees and hummingbirds.  The produce should be picked fresh, then brought inside, cleaned in the sink, and incorporated into a supper entree or side dish not more than two hours from harvest.  But we've found that in the heat of summer, such images leave out the important consideration of the temperature inside the kitchen, which, in the presence of a hot oven or stove, quickly rises to levels that are all but romantic.  To remedy the situation, we constructed a second piece of infrastructure (along with the Dakota rocket silo) to move some of our hottest cooking operations outdoors.  That is, in addition to our kitchen garden, we now have a garden kitchen.

We were fortunate enough to have been bequeathed the cabinet and sink by the previous occupants of The Lab, who left them in the shed where we wanted to put a chicken coop.  However, similar items can frequently be found on Craigslist (at least in our area), free for the hauling.

Opening the doors reveals two things: there is a larger amount of storage space than we'll probably ever use (partially due to the bumpy ride between the garden where we use it and the garage where it is stored), and that we built the chassis such that the cabinet doors open over top of the tires.  The second part took more than one iteration.  A couple of other notes: the chassis itself is just a simple box of screwed-together scrap 2 x 4s, with inside supports at either end and one in the middle to hold the cabinets up.  Also, our mechanism of attaching the tires is not quite satisfactory, since the axles are only long enough to pass through the outer board, held in place by a nut on the other side.  That configuration makes the wheels toe out (more visible in the last photo below), which increases the effort required to push the cart around the yard.  A better design would have the axles running all the way from one side to the other.

The connection for the sink line to the garden hose was at Home Depot.  The ferrule on the sink line side is facing the wrong way, but it doesn't leak under our ~60 psi water pressure.  The sink currently just drains into a bucket, but an enterprising fellow could easily run a drain line out the back if he preferred.

On one of the skinny sides, we put a handle to help steer (as in, 'lift this end and rotate the whole thing like a garden cart'). We also screwed the cabinets into the chassis to keep them from tipping up when we push the cart.  The cart currently lives in our garage, but we've considered building a temporary structure with a roof to keep it out in the yard.  So far it hasn't been too much work to push it out in the morning and back in the evening.  It also has worked really well for the first few batches of jam we made, providing enough flat space to fill and seal the jars, and running water to wash things up.

Do you process your produce outside in the fresh air?  What type of setup do you use?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An Emergency Apple Picker

We realized earlier this summer that the apple tree by our garage was growing apples in places that were going to be hard for us to reach while standing on a solid surface and using only our hands.  The tree was (is) of such a disposition that climbing to the very limits of its human weight support system (or setting up a ladder in the most clever way we could conceive) would not improve our harvest by much.  What we needed was an apple-picking device attached to the end of a long pole.

In typical fashion for us, we allowed this deficiency to persist until the last possible moment, when the apples were ripe and starting to pick themselves (with some help from the local squirrels and raccoons, who charge a fee of several bites per apple picked).  So, we needed an apple-picking device immediately.  The tool we needed is available from the local DIY centers, but for a hefty fee.  The tool can be found online for considerably less, but the urgency of our predicament would have required that we shell out for expedited shipping, again at an exorbitant sum.  And then, why pay anything at all when we could build one at home for free (save for a half hour of our time) from the leftover scraps of our other projects?  Thus, last Saturday saw the birth of our homemade emergency apple picker, and the collection of every last apple daring to dangle from our tree.

An example of the challenge with which we were tasked and the bounty that awaiteth.

The tool itself is pretty simple: a handle of leftover electrical conduit from the row cover chicken tractor and a section of woven wire fencing trimmed from the strawberry cage, held together with a section of scrap 2 x 4 and a 2" stove bolt. 

The connections of the wood to the pole and fencing.  We added some glue to the wire-holding holes for extra support.

Add a couple of old socks to pad the fall, and it's ready to go!

The reach can be extended significantly with some duct tape and a section of broken pole vaulting pole. (Who doesn't have one of those laying around?)

A small fraction of the harvest: delicious and pristine Macintosh apples, destined for apple jam, apple sauce, apple pies, apple crisps, and the like.

What do you use to pick your high-up apples?  What other tools for fruit picking have you devised?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, August 24, 2014


One of our favorite things about this time of year is the abundance of fresh vegetables coming in from the garden (or farmer's market, depending on the circumstances).  And one of our favorite things to do with those vegetables (because it's easy and delicious) is roast them into a ratatouille.  Chop 'em up, slather 'em with olive oil and some seasonings, throw 'em on a cookie sheet, and bake until they're done.  (We took a break from our theme of outdoor cooking for this recipe).  Makes the house smell tasty. Probably makes the inside of our stomachs smell tasty, too, which we're sure our gut microbes appreciate. 

Then we had a thought: all those vegetables would probably also be awesome in a strata.  Hence was born the concept of the ratatouille strata, or the stratatouille, as this month's strata incarnation.

We'll pick this story up at the point where the ratatouille is already made, since Katie made it before the camera was ready.  (A visual approximation of Katie making ratatouille is the cartoon tasmanian devil in tornado phase, moving around the kitchen chopping veggies.  Watch out!  She has a sharp knife!)  To make the ratatouille, we used 2.5 zucchinis, 2 summer squashes, 2 eggplants, 2 green peppers, 1 large onion, and 5 roma tomatoes.  The zucchinis, squashes and tomatoes made about 3 cups each when chopped, the eggplants were around 4 cups, the green peppers and onion around one cup each.  Mixed with olive oil, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and rosemary.  We also added some fresh chives, oregano, and basil.  The meat in this incarnation is about 2 cups of shredded chicken, seasoned to taste with garlic powder, salt, pepper, and Italian seasoninng. (1 teaspoon each for the garlic powder and Italian seasoning, and half a teaspoon each for the salt and pepper).  The cheese is a 50/50 mix of colby jack and monterrey jack.   The bread is whatever was available.  Layer them as shown in the picture: bread-vegetables-meat-cheese.  Make sure to only use half of each in the first set of layers...

...then lather, rinse, repeat.

Time for the egg mixture!  3 cups milk, 6 eggs, 2 teaspoons each garlic powder, rosemary, and thyme; half teaspoon each salt and pepper; 5 or 6 squirts of hot sauce. Pour it over the egg mixture, making absolutely sure not to spill any into a dryer with a clean load of clothes or into the nether regions of the dryer.

Into the fridge it goes to let all those wild flavors settle for a few hours.  Works best if set between apples and yogurt.

Then bake at 360 °F for 50-60 minutes until golden brown and whole house smells delicious.

Cut into big pieces to save the inconvenience of having to go for seconds.  That's a lot of veggies!  This is one of our favorite strata recipes so far.

 What do you do with all your incoming vegetables this time of year?  Have you ever put them into a casserole like this?  Let us know in the comments section below!

 The recipe:

3 cups each chopped zucchini, chopped summer squash, and chopped tomatoes
4 cups chopped eggplant
1 cup each chopped green pepper and onion
0.25 cups olive oil
1 teaspoon each garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and dried rosemary
2 tablespoons each fresh oregano, basil, and chives

10 slices of bread (at least)
1 lb shredded cheese (we used colby-jack and monterrey jack)

2 cups cooked, shredded chicken, seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning

6 eggs
3 cups milk
2 teaspoons each of garlic powder, thyme, and rosemary
0.5 teaspoon each of salt and pepper
5-6 squirts of your favorite hot sauce

Mix the chopped vegetables with the olive oil and first set of seasonings to coat, roast at 350 °F until the vegetables are soft, but not mushy.  Layer the bread, roasted veggies, chicken, and cheese in a 9" x 13" pan, starting with bread and ending with cheese, aiming for two layers each. Beat together eggs, milk, and remaining seasonings. Pour over layers and set in fridge for several hours or overnight. Bake at 350 °F for 45-55 min, until senses of sight and smell register 'awesome.' Allow to cool and cut into serving sizes proportionate to 'firsts' and 'seconds' combined.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dakota Rocket Silo

We've been looking for a way to move canning operations outside during the heat of the summer.  Not only does it help keep the house cooler, there's just something especially liberating about processing food outside.  Maybe it's because there's so much more room than in our tiny kitchen.  Maybe it's because we use combustion heat directly, which is more efficient than, say burning coal to produce heat to boil water to generate electricity that generates heat on an electric stove.  Or maybe it just feeds the soul of our inner caveman...

Anyway, until recently, we had no such capacity around The Lab to do outdoor canning.  Then we cobbled together a couple projects to remedy the situation.  On the docket for today: the Dakota Rocket Silo.  It's a combination of one well-known homestead technology (the rocket stove), and a similar, but lesser-used technology (the Dakota fire hole).  Essentially we built a Dakota fire hole and added a cinder block chimney to turn it into an underground rocket stove.  But anything related to underground rockets has to be called a silo.  Hence the full name.

Profile view of what the Dakota Rocket Silo (DRS) would look like if we sawed right down the middle of it and a couple feet deep into the yard.

Here's what it looks like in real life.  The two pieces of angle iron hold the pot off the cinder blocks so the air can still flow well.  Wait!  No!  Katie, that's not a biffee!! (EDIT: Katie says, "You can take that part out right now, buster!")

Before starting a fire, it's a good idea to make sure the bricks are level--we don't want a pot full of hot jam becoming unbalanced and tipping over!  Then we'd have to lick off the grass.

...Fire in the hole!

How long does it take to boil a quart of water?  When the DRS is still heating up (and making smoke), a little under 12 minutes.  Once it's good and hot, considerably less than that.  Accompanying the fire is a wheelbarrow full of old fence wood and our mobile kitchen.  All in all, not a bad way to start a Thursday.  Ok, Jake.  Time to go into work.

Later that night...

Hey, look! A successful batch of plum jam, cooked outside over a wood fire. It was so tasty, Katie let herself be persuaded to have a piece of toast, even though it was way past her bedtime.  We didn't take any pictures during this batch, but we learned quite a bit.  We'll do a follow-up post on that soon, but for now, suffice it to say that cooking jam outside by flashlight, and then coming back into a nice cool house is one of the more awesome sensations we've had all summer.

Have you canned outdoors?  What is your setup like?  Let us know in the comments below!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Spring Chickens 2014: Final Stats

We finally had a chance to compile the final numbers on our spring batch of chickens, so we wanted to put the numbers out there in case anyone besides us would find this kind of stuff useful.  Be forewarned: this is a data-heavy post!

Here's the pretext: we got 27 chickens from McMurray Hatchery on May 5.  The box of fluff that arrived in the mail contained 10 Cornish Cross Roasters (the slightly slower-growing version of the Cornish Cross), 9 Pioneers, and 8 Eggers.  For the Eggers, we ordered a Red Star, a Rhode Island Red, a New Hampshire Red, a Columbian Wyandotte, a Black Star, and an Easter Egger; two free rare breed "mystery chicks" came along as stowaways, which we've now figured out are a Silver Leghorn rooster and probably another Easter Egger. 

We had to cull one of the Pioneers at eight weeks, so we were left with 18 meat chickens.  We found a new source of organic feed, which, combined with the better conversion ratio of the Roasters, brought our cost of production down quite a bit from where it was in the fall.  We didn't keep the meaters and the eggers separate, so we had to make some assumptions about how much of feed they consumed.  After about three weeks, the Eggers made up about 15% of the total chicken weight, so we assumed they were eating 15% of the food. In reality, they probably ate less than that. But with that assumption, the final price came out to $4.93/lb, or $2.12/lb (30%) less than in the fall.  Considering how excited Katie gets about a 30% off coupon at Kohl's, this chicken should make her positively ecstatic!  Here's the breakdown:

For what it's worth, changing the assumption of feed consumption from 85% to 95% increases the price to $5.35/lb, so still quite a bit better than our fall batch.  Comparing to the fall, we also benefited from cheaper chicks ($2.38/each vs. $3.77/ea) and warmer temps (less electricity for the heat lamp).  Had we been lucky enough to be able to process the chickens in our own backyard, hatch them from our own eggs, and realize that hardware stores also sell grit, but in 50 lb bags (aka, construction sand), we could have cut our costs to a best-case scenario of $3.71/lb.  We had both the Roasters and Pioneers on pasture (in a tractor) for multiple weeks at a time and increased the ratio of kitchen scraps (and bathroom spiders) in their diet toward the end, but clearly the main cost driver is the feed.  We'll be embarking on a mission shortly to decrease the feed costs by growing much of our own protein, so stay tuned!

The other interesting thing about raising multiple types of birds side-by-side is a final weight and growth-rate comparison.  The Cornish Cross is far and away the fastest growing breed, but we were much heavier are they than other 'meat' breeds? And just how fast do they grow?  We butchered at about 10.5 weeks, and the roasters ranged from 7.7 to >11 lbs (the top bird maxed out the scale).  The Pioneers were between 4 and 5.7 lbs, which was less than the Rangers we had in the fall (despite McMurray's claim that the Pioneers grow faster and get larger.  Maybe next time we'll grow the Pioneers and Rangers side-by-side and see what happens).  But for the Cornish Cross, apparently you have to butcher them before 11 weeks or they start to gobble.

From the graph above, it's clear the growth curves were pretty linear for both breeds, meaning that they would have probably gotten a little bigger if we waited even longer.  But it's also interesting to compare these two breeds to the Eggers, just for fun.  The Eggers grew, on average, 17 grams per day. That number is skewed a little by one of the Easter Eggers, which hung tough with the Pioneers, the hefty girl.  Even now, she's the only one who can't fully fly up to the roost!  The Pioneers were almost twice that growth rate, at 33 grams per day, on average.  And the Roasters were nearly twice that again!  Holy smokes!

One other thing we wanted to mention was the health of the Roasters.  They are like the standard Cornish Cross in that they are thoroughly disgusting birds, apparently living solely to eat and poop.  They're dirty and poopy, but they grow fast.  So fast, in fact, that the high growth rate can cause problems if they get too old, or at high elevations (we live at about 5,600 feet, which counts as "high").  We took a chance on the fact that McMurray recommends against the standard Cornish Cross at elevations about 5,000 feet, but had no such warning for the slightly slower-growing Cornish Cross Roasters.  We had multiple days over 90 °F toward the later weeks, and lost nary a bird.  Keeping them outside nearly the whole time certainly helped, but we're happy to report that our batch did fine up to 10.5 weeks in high elevations and high temperatures.

So, there you have it! A breakdown of our spring 2014 chicken experience.  How do our chickens compare to yours?  Any questions you have that we didn't address in the post?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Update on the Row Cover Chicken Tractor

Last fall, we wrote about a chicken tractor we built to fit directly over our (at the time) only garden bed.  We hypothesized that the inherent stiffness of the woven wire fence top would provide some structural integrity, and help shed the snow off to the sides before it could pile up.  Unfortunately, we put too much faith in the fencing material, and one heavy snow was all it took to buckle it.  When we got some time this spring, we made a few improvements to it that will hopefully help it survive this next winter in a little better shape.

When it happened the first time, we put a stick in the middle to hold up the wire.  It worked for a while, as long as we only got snow in increments of one inch or less.  (Also, we didn't figure out a good way to close off the ends in time, and our kale died. :-(  In the spring, we found that covering the ends with garbage bags and holding them in place with sticks was a workable redneck solution for the coldest nights.)

When the heavy snow came, it pushed the stick right down into the dirt and buckled the fencing anyway.  (An unintended consequence of double digging in the fall!) Time for some repairs!

In the spring, we bolstered the structure with a 2 x 4, in which we cut grooves in the ends and screwed it into the hoop parts.  We couldn't find one quite long enough, so the far end has a couple of bridging pieces to cover the extra distance.  A real craftsman would have found the right length board, and put it in the center of the hoops!

We also upgraded the mechanism for moving the chicken catcher piece.  It's now fixed to a rope that goes from end to end, suspended from the main beam by screw-in eyelets.  Now we can just pull on one part of the rope to herd the chickens toward us, and on the other part to give them more room...and all from the comfort of the door side of the tractor!

Here's a shot of how the eyelet hangs at the door end.  Doesn't look like much, but it was cheap, and it works pretty slick.  Those are our two primary concerns.

How do your chicken tractors or row covers hold up in the snow?  Have you had to make any improvements to their structural integrity?  Let us know in the comments section below!