Wednesday, 20 April 2016

DIY Seafood Chowder



I am so not a food blogger!
I want to post this recipe for seafood chowder, because I’m making it today and because it’s yummy, but I’m hesitant to do so because, well, it’s not really a recipe at all. It’s more of a “choose your own adventure” – a list of potential ingredients, and a potential process by which you too can achieve creamy salty fishy deliciousness. Some months ago, when I first started making seafood chowder, I Googled recipes looking for a how-to guide. I took input from various sources, then just sort of improvised to create my own concoction. I’m not inclined to go out of my way to purchase fancy ingredients simply because a recipe calls for it. I just don’t believe a recipe will fail because you only have flaked almonds on hand instead of slivered, or because you leave out the celery. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those who will substitute cinnamon for cumin (although that’s happened before in our household by accident). It’s more that I’ll happily use yogurt instead of sour cream, or a flour-milk roux instead of cream, or oregano and thyme instead of specially-purchased herbs de provance, or decide to omit the basil altogether. Take this recipe, for example:


I am sure that Donal makes a fine seafood chowder, but I am not about to go out of my way to acquire cod, salmon, smoked haddock, smoked salmon, AND mussels in their shells, just to make this recipe. I also like a lot more vegetables in my chowder than Mr Skehan does, apparently. I only have curly leaf parsley, so that will have to do. And I don’t have any double cream or pancetta. Does that mean I will just sit home and eat potatoes? No siree bob. Instead I’ll just use this recipe as a frame and… wing it from there. (Isn't that what everyone loves in a home cook? A strong sense of adventure?)

So without further ado, my kinda-sorta kitchen sink version of seafood chowder. As I usually do, feel free to tweak this “recipe” – double it, treble it, add or omit vegetables, mix and match the fish and shellfish, add different herbs, it’s all good! The goal is to create something that appeals to your palate, and that’s going to be different for each of us. No need to be a fussy rule-follower.

Time Involved:

About 1 hour 15 minutes (if just for chowder). It will take longer if you need to cook fish, make stock, etc.

Necessary Ingredients/Tools:
(but feel free to tweak as it suits you)

Large Pot

Additional pot/mixing bowl

Celery

Carrots

Onions

Potatoes

Fish, cooked and flaked (I will be using pollock and salmon, but you can use what you like or have on hand)

Shellfish, cooked, in or out of the shell (I will be using shelled mussels and cluaisins (baby scallops) from our bay – if you don’t have access to fresh shellfish or find it too pricey, you can often find good value seafood mixes in the freezer section of the grocery store)

Thyme (fresh or dried)

Parsley (finely chopped)

Bay leaf

Fish stock

Butter

Flour

Crushed garlic

Cream

Salt and pepper 

Directions:

1.) Roughly chop celery, carrots, onions and potatoes. Heat about 1 tbsp butter in a large pot. Add celery, carrots and onions; cook until soft.

2.) Add roughly chopped potatoes, bay leaf and fish stock (enough to well cover all vegetables) and simmer for 20-30 min, until all veg are soft.

3.) Let cool slightly, then pour everything into another pot or mixing bowl. Remove bay leaf.

4.) In the bottom of the now-empty cooking pot, lightly cook the garlic in a few tablespoons butter and sprinkle in an equivalent amount of flour to the butter, stirring constantly, to create a thick paste. This is called a roux and is a great way to make cream sauces, cheese sauces, or gravy. It seems really fancy, but couldn’t be easier. The trick is to keep the temp low and stir constantly.

5.) Once the roux is smooth and thick, slowly add one ladleful of fish stock at a time until a velvety soup base forms.

6.) Add in the remaining fish stock and all veg, stirring constantly.

7.) Add flaked fish, shellfish, thyme, parsley and pepper and heat thoroughly.

8.) Add ½ cup (or more or less) cream, being sure not to thin the chowder too much. If too thick, add more fish stock or water.

9.) Once you’re happy with the consistency and everything is good and hot, taste and adjust salt, then serve immediately with crusty bread.

Bon appetit!

Sunday, 10 April 2016

A Second Thought

I have to admit I don’t feel good about my involvement (or lack thereof) in the death of Queenie. Oh, it’s not guilt for having allowed her to die – I am coming to terms with the fact that there was likely little I could have done in that regard. It’s more the fact of her actual death, and how I hid cowering behind little L’s bedtime routine rather than acknowledging or participating in the bird’s removal and burial. I thanked her for her service and delicious eggs in the last hours of her life, but I didn’t memorialize her death in any way. Instead I sent Sam out to deal with it, relying on his steady nerves to bundle her up in a feed sack and his strong shoulders to dig a burial pit on the back of the property. I don’t think it bothered him – at least, he didn’t question this arrangement – but it’s been niggling at the back of my mind ever since.

I have always been squeamish about the physical effects of death, and have a complete aversion to dead animals. I get a strong urge to run, hide, do anything to avoid having to actually touch something that is dead. Once it’s been packaged into a form that resembles food, I have no problem. I don’t mind handling raw whole chickens from the grocery store, and didn’t have any issue seeing/touching our pigs once they were sawed in half and hanging in the butcher’s cold store. But an animal that was recently alive? With feathers/fur still on? Fuhgeddaboudit. Ugh. My guess is that this sense of revulsion is common and entirely normal, probably even protective from an evolutionary point of view. In an age without soap and antibiotics, those who went about touching diseased and decaying corpses probably weren’t long for the world themselves. But if we are going to raise animals, and more importantly eat the animals we’ve raised, I am going to have to get over it to some extent. You can’t pluck a chicken, or eviscerate a rabbit, without touching it. I also feel that there is something in my squeamishness that is disrespectful to the creature itself. Yes, in death the life-giving spirit of the animal has departed so that there is a physical change. But, at least for a time, the body remains, and the body itself is the same as it was in the moments before death. If anything, it’s even more harmless because it’s inert. My aversion suggests that the transformation upon death is so extreme that I reject the creature entirely, body and spirit, and that’s just not right. I am not sure I have a point here, except to recognize a weakness in myself and to understand that it’s something I’d like to work on.

The upshot of all of this is that our second sick hen, Lulu, is not doing all that well. She is able to move about of her own volition and clucks disapprovingly when we approach her cage, which are both good signs. But she’s not eating or drinking much and is still diarrheal. I’d hoped she’d have made more of an improvement by now. So we’ll see. I may have the opportunity to put my squeamishness to the test again sooner rather than later. Sigh.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Death on the Farm

We lost Queenie, one of our hens, last night. On Tuesday morning she seemed fine. By Tuesday evening she was unable to fly up to her roost. By the time I realized she was really ill - on Wednesday morning - we quarantined her from the rest of the flock and began treatment. It seemed to be a bacterial / gastrointestinal infection (symptoms: weakness, lethargy, fluffed feathers, runny sulphur yellow diarrhea), so we started antibiotics, but it was already too late. She began vomiting up the water we were syringing down her throat, and by Thursday evening she was gone.

I don't really know what happened. We recently combined our four old girls with the new battery rescue hens, so it's possible she caught some sort of virus from the new hens. It may have been an e coli infection exacerbated by the stress of the newcomers to the flock. It's possible she picked up fowl typhoid from wild animals or parasites in the yard. Sam thinks that she died of a broken heart after being usurped from her throne by the newcomers. (She was the queen of our old flock, but found herself significantly down the pecking order once the new mean girls arrived.) We shall never know. At any rate, I am keeping a close eye on the rest of the flock for fear that whatever she had was contagious and will spread rapidly. Another of our older hens, Lulu, has been looking pretty bad the last couple of days too, though with Queenie's decline I haven't had time to deal with her. But today she too has runny poo and just seems kind of blah. I've immediately quarantined her, and am glad to say that she is eating both raw garlic (which is apparently an anti-microbial) and the yogurt probiotic mash** I made up for her. While she is not well, she doesn't seem as dire as Queenie did at this time on Wednesday. I still have hope that she might pull through.

While I am not devastated by Queenie's death (she was only a chicken after all), she is the first casualty we've had and it gives a new perspective to this farmyard endeavor of ours. I consider myself to be a conscientious chicken steward, and I feel responsible for her death, as if I should have seen it coming or taken more steps to prevent her from getting sick. However, chickens are strangely fragile creatures, and we had adopted an extra hen from the battery farm in the expectation that at least one would die along the way. I have to keep reminding myself that death is an inevitable part of farmyard life. Animals get old; they get sick; they attract predators. While we try to be vigilant against these risks, there is only so much we can do. Our girls are a wonderful addition to our homestead, but they are not pets. First and foremost, they are egg producers, and the harsh reality is that, if something else doesn't get them first, all our girls will have a date with destiny when their egg production drops off. At the end of the day, they are only hens. We are not willing to spend vast sums to treat their illnesses (even if we could find a vet willing to treat a chicken, which can be challenging). At some point, if and as we expand into other, larger animals, we may be confronted with more difficult decisions and steeper losses. Our recent experience with Queenie gave us a first glimpse into that reality, but we are fully cognizant that there may be tougher lessons ahead.

In the meantime, RIP Queenie. You were a good hen.




** Recipe for yoghurt probiotic mash / hen diarrhea remedy:

3 tbsp layer pellets
3 tbsp milk
1 tbsp probiotic yoghurt
2 tbsp applesauce on top (to attract hen's interest)

Serving size is for one hen. Repeat 2x/day. I'll let you know if it works!

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Difference a Year Makes

My how time passes! I have thought of this blog frequently in the past year, and have often wanted to record a moment or capture an image of our life here in the little cottage on the green hill. Unfortunately I have allowed those moments to pass, and, as they are wont to do, the minutes have turned to days, then to months, and now more than a year is gone. And so much has happened in that time!

For one things, many creatures have come to live with us on the farm. In addition to Chewy the not-very-farm dog, we now have eight laying hens. Four joined us in March 2015, and we rescued another four from a battery farm about a month ago. We love them much more than we thought we would, and have been endlessly amused by their distinctive personalities and the vagaries of their feeble chicken-logic. Two naughty male pigs (Yorkshire/Old Spot mix) joined us in early July 2015, and enjoyed the fresh air and mud under their trotters until mid-November, when they moved from their makeshift (I just mis-typed that as "makeshit" - which is strangely apt since that was their main job!) enclosure into our chest freezer. The pig run went from an overgrown patch of brambles and gorse where wise men feared to tread to a delightfully manured quarter-acre garden plot. It's seriously amazing what those two pigs were able to do in less than six months - the ground is down to bare earth, wonderfully turned over, copiously manured, and ready for planting. This past autumn Sam and my dad put up a polytunnel for me in part of the pig yard, and Sam's been up to his knees in muck this spring diligently forming up lazy beds to create the outdoor garden. Some girls' husbands give them flowers on special occasions - mine gives me the raw essentials to grow my own! Although why would I waste such prime real estate on flowers when I could grow the most fabulous garden produce the West of Ireland has to offer? I've been dreaming vegetable dreams for weeks now, and have already had a few chances to get my hands dirty. The first seedlings have already germinated, and the earliest of the baby pea plants and lettuces are in the soil.

In addition to all of the above, I managed to grow a small kitchen garden this past year where our front lawn used to be. The garlic was superb, the parsnips were show-quality, and the kale is STILL going strong nearly a year later! Sam managed to beat back some of the gorse and cleared a path around the perimeter of our property (which was no mean feat I can assure you). We took down trees and overgrowth to give us a clear view of the ocean, and did some other home projects, including giving the house a much needed paint job. It's now a sweet little whitewashed Irish cottage with green trim, completely befitting of the pastoral surroundings.

Oh, and minor detail, we had a baby! Our lovely daughter L made her appearance last July and has been a very welcome (though time-intensive) addition to the family. She's not much help around the place yet, and creates more messes than she cleans up, but I'm on the look out for baby gardening gloves and have high hopes for her as the resident egg collector... just as soon as she's big enough to reach the nesting boxes.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Reaching Toward the Sun

And really, isn't that what we're all doing at this time of the year?
Some of my seeds have germinated! The mustard leaf mix is really taking off, with nearly every planted seed germinating. This means I have way too many seedlings in the container, so in another week or two I will attempt the delicate procedure of transplanting them. (I could just thin and discard, but I always feel so much empathy for these little plants that so clearly want to live! Plus, more seedlings means more lettuce, and we eat a LOT of lettuce 'round these parts.) My other lettuces and leafy greens are coming along too, albeit a bit more slowly. The "bigger" plants have yet to emerge, but that's okay - it's early days for their likes. I can be patient for a few more weeks. It's still far too cold to plant out yet, anyway.

Developments of note:
Mustard leaf mix - pak choi, mizuna, tatsoi, mustards and cress: Germinated 13 March 2015 (5 days after planting)
Lettuce mix - red salad bowl, green salad bowl, lollo bionda, lolla rossa:  Germinated 14 March 2015 (6 days after planting)
Peas: Germinated 15 March 2015 (6 days after planting)
Spinach - bordeaux: Germinated 15 March 2015 (7 days after planting)

Still waiting on:
Corriander/cilantro
Basil
Spinach - matador
Serrano peppers
Jalapeno peppers
Leeks
Cumin

Monday, 9 March 2015

While the Sun Shines

The first proper "Spring-like" day of the season arrived yesterday. And not a moment too soon. After weeks and weeks of blustery, cold, windy, rainy, even snowy weather, a glimpse of the sun was long, long overdue. So when we woke to a morning that looked like this....

View from our front porch - not too shabby
...we knew we had to get out and enjoy it! We ventured into the foothills of the Nephin Beg mountain range, which is just north of our house (only about a five minutes drive), and walked along the back lanes, through gentle, rolling hills and along hedgerows and stone fences. The views back into Newport town and of the imposing Croagh Patrick behind it were inspiring, and as we came over the last little ridge Clew Bay and its many drumlins opened up before us. It was a soul-stirring sight, as it always is, and I regretted not having my camera to hand.

After the walk was over we knew we had to take advantage of the glorious weather, so Sam got to work on his pig-pasture project (full explanation in a future post), and I got the first seeds of the season into the soil! It's still far too chilly to even consider an outdoor planting, and the risk of frost persists for a few more weeks, but I got my window beds ready to go. And, for the first time, I planted some seeds that I hope will be transplanted into their permanent homes, either outside or in the polytunnel (yet to be constructed), once the weather warms up.





I planted the following seeds yesterday (8 March 2015):
(check back in a few weeks' time for a germination and growth update)

Lettuce mix - red salad bowl, green salad bowl, lollo bionda, lolla rossa (3 pots)
Mustard leaf mix - pak choi, mizuna, tatsoi, mustards and cress (1 window box)
Corriander/cilantro (1/2 window box)
Basil (1/2 window box)
Spinach - bordeaux (2 pots)
Spinach - matador (2 pots)
Peas (1 pot)
Serrano peppers (5 starters, for eventual transplant)
Jalapeno peppers (7 starters, for eventual transplant)
Leeks (18 starters, for eventual transplant)
Cumin (6 starters, for eventual transplant)


Now to find room for them all on the window ledges....

I also resuscitated my chives plant, which had been cruelly left outside over-winter and looked soggy past the point of salvage. When I went to clear out the pot, with the intention of starting over from scratch, what did I see but little green signs of life! I divided the root-bound plant into three smaller pots, cleared away the detritus, and am hopeful it will make a full recovery.


Today, it seems that Mother Nature is back to her old tricks, as we woke up to driving rain and sustained 40 mph winds. It makes the memory of yesterday's sunshine, and the lingering scent of freshly dug dirt, that much sweeter.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Yoghurt and Other Culinary Experiments

Ever since we moved to the little cottage on the green hill, I've started making a lot of our weekly consumables from scratch. Well, that's not strictly true. For one, from 'scratch' implies that we produce the raw products - milk, flour, tomatoes - ourselves, which, at least at this point, we don't. For two, I've been playing around with making more complicated food items from simple raw ingredients ever since we lived in Micronesia. There, it was a matter of necessity. Want yoghurt that's not moldy? Make it yourself from a smuggled-in starter and a box of milk. It was the same with a lot of our edibles, although to be fair by the end of it we had figured out all kinds of sneaky ways to get what we wanted/needed from off-island sources. When we moved to Ireland, my cooking and DIY skills in the kitchen really ramped up. For that first year, when I wasn't yet working, I had a lot of time on my hands and, for the first time, really taught myself to cook. Now I make about 90% of what we eat, including soups and stews (sooo many soups and stews), chicken broth, pizza/spaghetti sauce, salsa, many of our bread products, and, of course, the aforementioned yoghurt.

I'm not really sure why I do it. Some of my efforts, like my weekly loaf of bread, aren't even that good. (I've mastered a lot in the kitchen, but I just can't pull off a soft, flaky-crust, well-risen loaf of bread. But I keep trying, much to Sam's chagrin, as he's the main bread eater in the family.) I guess there's just something I like about the process of taking a few simple ingredients - flour, yeast, salt and a little olive oil - and turning them, like magic, into pitta bread (which, unlike my loaf bread, really is quite delicious). I like the fact that I control the ingredients in my soups and stews, which means they're often quite creative and also means I know exactly what's in there. It is satisfying to know that I have the resources and abilities to whip together something good to eat out of a few basic household staples. And, in many cases, it does save a bit of cash (though never quite as much as those holistic, all-natural sites would have you believe, especially when you figure in labour and fuel costs).

Anyway, I thought I'd share my trusty yoghurt recipe with you all today. I know there are a million yoghurt recipes on the web (I think I stole this one from somewhere myself), but of all that I've tried over the years, this is the best and easiest. It really makes good, thick yoghurt every time, and keeps the time and effort involved to a minimum. Plus, it saves at least two full euros* on every litre of yoghurt we consume (again, not counting time, effort, and fuel). Given that we eat about 3 litres of yoghurt a month, that's a cool 72 euros' savings in a year. It doesn't sound like much, but that adds up to a special meal out, an extra splurge at Christmas, or a bottle of really nice whiskey. Not too shabby for simply heating a pot of milk on the stove every couple of weeks!

* The cheapest yoghurt with live cultures that we can buy in Ireland is about 1.50 for a 500 ml pot if you get it on sale. You can buy cheaper yoghurt for sure, but it doesn't have live cultures, which kind of defeats the point of yoghurt in my opinion. A litre of milk costs somewhere around 1 euro.

Time involved:

30ish minutes of active preparation
9+ hours to let the little beasties in the yoghurt work their magic


Necessary ingredients/tools:

1 litre Milk. Whole milk is best, but it will work with any kind of milk, even UHT (although other sites say it won't, I can tell you that UHT was the only milk we had in Micronesia and it totally works fine.) You can also use more than one litre of milk - that's just all our mini-fridge can handle, and the two of us can't eat much more yoghurt than that in a week.

1/4 cup live culture Plain Whole Milk Yoghurt. Again, this will work any kind of yoghurt, including low fat (I don't know about nonfat yoghurt but you should try it and let me know). It will also work with flavoured yoghurt, although you might get a slight taste of strawberry or whatever in your final product. The main thing is that the yoghurt has live cultures. I assumed that live cultures was what makes yoghurt yoghurt, but there are lots of brands in Ireland that don't have live cultures! So double check. After you've made the yoghurt yourself once, you can save a little container of it to use as a starter the next time, so you really never need to buy yoghurt again after the first time.

Cooking thermometer. There is a way to do this on a wing and a prayer, based on the bubbles forming on the hot milk and the back of the wrist / baby formula test for determining how cool the yoghurt is when you add the culture. I did it this way in Micronesia. But I'm warning you, results may vary (and did!) It's WAY easier with a thermometer.

1 largeish Pot.

1 Whisk or Something Similar to Stir With.

1 empty Milk Jug.

1 Thermos Cooler.

2+ Clean empty Containers for Yoghurt

1 small clean empty Container for next week's starter.


Directions:

1. Fill an emnpty milk jug half full with boiling water, then top up with cold tap water. Put the milk jug in a cooler and seal tightly. Place in a warm spot. This helps bring the cooler's internal temp up a bit to facilitate the live cultures in the yoghurt, which need a warm place to get it on.



2. Remove yoghurt starter from the fridge to allow to come to room temperature. (My starter here is in the baby food container, left over from a previous yoghurt-making effort.) Remove milk from the fridge.



3. Add milk to a largeish pot and attach thermometer to the side of the pot. Have a whisk or other stirring implement at the ready.


4. Slowly bring the milk up to 185 degrees F. You will want to stir the milk regularly. DO NOT let it boil or burn. This is a good time to do something in the kitchen - dishes, cleaning, reading a book while perched on the counter - so that you don't forget about the milk and end up with a disaster on your hands.


5. Now is choose your own adventure time. You can either maintain the now-hot milk at 185 degrees for 10 minutes, OR you can turn off the heat now and let the milk slowly cool to 110 degrees F. I always keep the milk at 185 degrees for 10 minutes, because I think it makes the end product a bit thicker and smoother. If you do this, it does require careful attention for the whole 10 minutes so the temp doesn't spike or drop off. You should be stirring constantly. This is a great time to catch up on your favourite podcast while you pay close attention to the milk.

6. Slowly let the milk drop in temp to 110 degrees. You don't have to keep too close an eye on it during this time, but don't let it drop below 110.


7. Once the milk gets to 110 degrees, carefully remove the nasty plastic-y skim that's undoubtedly formed on the milk and discard. Then slowly add the 1/4 cup yoghurt with the live cultures to the pot of warm milk. Stir briskly until the yoghurt is fully incorporated and is not at all lumpy.


8. Carefully pour the warm milk into your clean dry containers. Make sure to fill an additional little container to set aside. This will form your starter next time. You can use as many containers as you need/want, bearing in mind that they must all fit in your cooler. Wipe up the inevitable milk spill mess and ring marks you've made on the counter. Ahem.


 9. Place the containers filled with warm milk into the cooler, which should now be toasty warm. Leave the milk jug in there. Close up the cooler tightly and place in a warm spot. I leave mine sitting next to the wood stove, but in your kitchen or near a heat vent would be just fine.


10. Leave the cooler alone for 9+ hours. I wouldn't leave it alone for more than about 12, but overnight is totally fine. 

11. When the time is up, remove your now-solid yoghurt containers from the cooler, and VOILA - you can now marvel at the amazing properties of live bacteria! You have taken ordinary milk and turned it, like magic, into yoghurt! After you're done ooh-ing and aah-ing, place the containers in the fridge. "The experts" would probably tell you to eat it within a week, but we've gone closer to two (or sometimes more, shh, don't tell!) without any problems. Use common sense, of course - if it smells or looks funky, don't eat it! But it will probably look and smell like milky-yoghurty goodness, and you will scarf it all up long before it has time to go bad.

We use yoghurt for all kinds of things. I eat it plain, which I actually really enjoy, but I'm weird. We also add fruit or berries to it, top it with cereal or oats, add honey or sugar for sweetness, cook with it, and use it as a substitute for sour cream in all kinds of recipes. It is super versatile, and, of course, packs a mean probiotic punch. Plus all that calcium and good fat. You really can't go wrong. So eat up, and up, and up!