No Caffeine, No Migraines

Image courtesy of I Can Haz Cheezburger



Mrs. Homegrown here:

A while back I posted about my coffee addiction and search for coffee alternatives. Again, thank you so much for all of your suggestions–I’ve enjoyed them.

As nothing is more tedious than listening to other people rattle on about their health concerns, I’m going to try not to belabor this post. All I have is a simple message, and that is if you are a chronic migraine sufferer, you may want to consider cutting caffeine from your daily diet.

Of course this is hard to do, as most migraineurs live in an intimate tango with caffeine. All I have to say is that I’ve had migraines all my life, and they were becoming more frequent. My first impulse was to attribute them to other causes, but my gut told me to try caffeine. I tapered off caffeine over the course of a month, then went totally clean for a couple of weeks, after which I assumed I was “clean.” (That’s when I wrote that last post–in retrospect I’m amused by its cheery outlook. I was about to get slammed with true withdrawal)

You see, the headaches did not stop. They actually got worse. I wondered if my theory was wrong. And, of course, I really wanted caffeine whenever my head started hurting. That craving told me perhaps I was still in withdrawal. So I persevered, for perhaps two months of total abstinence and complete misery, and then the headaches stopped. Just stopped. It was like magic.

The lesson here is that it takes a long time for your body to adjust to the lack of caffeine, so you’ve got to be patient.

Since then, I’ve allowed a little caffeine back in my life. It seems important for me to not take it in the morning, because that’s where the habit is most strong, but I will have green tea or iced tea or decaf in the afternoon sometimes, and I get away with it. However, it is a slippery slope. While traveling this Christmas I got cocky and started playing with fire–drinking the straight java–and I ended up with my first migraine in a long time. That just served to confirm my theory. Overall, I’d say my migraines have been reduced by 80 or 90 percent.

Everyone is different, and migraines are a complex phenomena. This may not work for you, but it has worked well for me, so I just had to put it out there. As much as I loved my coffee, it wasn’t worth the pain.

The Making of a Great Olive Oil

Kelly admires the olives

Thanks to our good friend Dale Benson, Kelly and I got to see how a really high quality olive oil is made. Dale knows Matt Norelli, the wine and olive oil maker at Preston Vineyards of Dry Creek, an organic family farm near Healdsburg in Northern California. Matt was nice enough to let us watch the complicated olive oil machinery in action.

First the freshly picked olives go into a big hopper (above). They are then crushed and churned (below).

After the churning process (called malaxation) the pulpy olive mass goes into a high speed centrifuge:

Matt (left) Dale (right) with the centrifuge

At the end of all this machinery the oil pours out of a spigot and into a steel drum:

We all had the great privilege of tasting the freshly squeezed oil. I won’t soon forget that heavenly flavor. Matt told us that it takes around a ton of olives to make 25 to 30 gallons of oil. The olives come from a thousand trees that are tucked around the vineyards.

If you’re ever in Northern California the Preston Vineyard is well worth a visit. We got to taste a Barbera wine that they make–quite amazing. They also bake a delicious sourdough bread, keep a flock of laying hens and sell cured olives. And the scenery? Let’s just say it was difficult to come back to gritty Los Angeles.

Preston Vineyards website with visiting hours and map.

Lou Preston’s olive curing recipe (scroll down towards the bottom of the page).

A Fast Bean Friday: Khichdi

Lame, lame, lame. I can’t even get it together to put up a picture. I’m just too crazy getting things together for the holidays. I suspect many of you are in a similar state. But I did want to post this, because I think you might want something wholesome and mild to eat over the next week, during your HRD (Holiday Recovery Period).

I learned about khichdi, a lentil and rice dish, very recently. Our friend Ari sent me a link to a basic recipe. It was nothing more than lentils, rice and cumin. I could not help but add some minced onion, but otherwise I followed this simple recipe and came out with something sort of bland but somehow extremely comforting and pleasant.

So I looked up khichdi, and discovered that it is an Indian comfort food–perhaps the Indian comfort food, if I can trust what I’ve read. Plain khichdi is baby’s first solid food. It’s also good for people with delicate stomachs. But it doesn’t have to be plain–it can be spiced up and elaborated with vegetables and toppings of ghee and yogurt. It’s the kind of food that college kids learn to cook when they first go off on their own. It’s the kind of food that each mom cooks a little different.

I’ve been playing with the basic formula, and it’s becoming one of our go-to “fast foods” around here. It cooks up in about a half hour, and you don’t even have to stand by the stove for that half hour. You just saute up the spices, add the rice, lentils chopped veggies and water, put a lid on the skillet and walk away. It’s also a great way to use up vegetable odds-and-ends. You can throw just about anything in there, and the great khichdi magic will make it all work, somehow or another.

I’m going to send you to this excellent post at One Hot Stove for the technique. It’s the best I found in all my research, and I’d just be copying them if I wrote it up here.

(ETA: I’ve been thinking about this over the holidays, and have decided to post the outline of the recipe here, just in case One Hot Stove ever closes up shop. I hate it when posts end up with dead links. I’d encourage you to read the One Hot Stove post if you have the option, because there’s more detail there, and a recipe for another dish called kahdi.  My recipe after the break –> )

Okay, khichdi is just rice, lentils and whatever spices and veggies you might have on hand cooked up into a pleasing mush in a skillet. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to get dictatorial about a recipe. It’s a technique.

This basic khichdi formula, as it lives in my head, is all you really have to remember–the rest is improvised:

The ratio of lentils to rice is 1:2, and the water is twice the measure of the rice and lentils.

For example, for two servings, I’d combine 1 cup of rice and 1/2 cup lentils. That’s 1 1/2 cups total of dry stuff. That means I’d need 3 cups of water.

The basic cooking methodology is to first rinse your lentils and rice, then lightly saute up the onion and spices in a deep frying pan. Then you dump in the lentils, rice and water–and veggies, if you’re using them– bring it all to a simmer, cover and cook on low for 1/2 hour.

(This is a recipe for white rice. Brown rice is better for the body, yes, but it does take longer to cook. Since khichidi is what we make when we’re starving and want food fast, we’ve been using white rice. If you use brown rice you’ll want to adjust the cooking time and water accordingly.) 

The details are where you get to swing. The details are both the vegetables and the spices. These you can add as you please.

Veggies:

This is your chance to use up whatever you have in your fridge, or those singleton veggies coming in from the garden, anything from chopped greens to peas to cauliflower…anything at all. Tomatoes, fresh or canned, are always a good addition. Pre-cooked, leftover vegetables would be fine, too. Chop it all up smallish. If you add lots of veggies, particularly the drier, root vegetable types, you’d want to add some more water to help them cook.

Spices:

It can be as spicy or mild as you like. I think whole cumin seed is a really important part of the flavor profile. I love the scent of whole cumin seed when it hits a hot pan, and it makes the rice fragrant. If you don’t have any whole cumin, I’d encourage you to hie off to the nearest ethnic market and get a goodly sized bag of it. Beyond that, it’s up to you, spice-wise. Salt and cumin only is a fine place to begin.

Still want more specifics? 


My procedure:

This is what I do, more or less. Say I’m making the two serving batch described above. I’d heat up a deep skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of oil and toss in:

1 small chopped onion, or 1/2 a big onion
Let that cook until translucent.

Then all at once, I add the spices, letting them heat just until they’re fragrant:

1 heaping teaspoon of whole cumin
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
A big pinch of hot pepper flakes
Maybe a teaspoon of coriander seeds, since I’m into those lately
(One Hot Stove recommends garam masala, which I don’t have (yet), but you might.)

When the pleasing scent of roasting cumin starts rising from the pan, I add the lentils and rice and water. You don’t want to burn the spices.

Once the lentils, rice and water are in, I add maybe a half teaspoon of sea salt, stirring it into the slurry to distribute it evenly.

Next I’d add my veggies, if I have any. Anywhere from 1 to 3 cups, chopped. Sometimes we just have the lentils and rice, especially when we’re really tired and don’t feel like chopping. Or thinking.

Bring the whole mess to a simmer, then cover, turn the heat to low, and walk away for a half hour.

Come back to find dinner in a pan.  Scoop it up and serve with yogurt. Top with chopped parsley or cilantro, if you’re feeling fancy.

More Medlar Mania

We blogged about the medlar, a rare fruit that tastes kinda like perfumed apple butter, last week. We left out a few bits of medlar trivia and linkages.

First off that Caravaggio painting above, “Boy with a Basket of Fruit.” Please note the medlars:

In other breaking medlar news:

The fine folks at Winnetka Farms, responsible for this outbreak of medlar mania, have in-depth medlar factoids on their blog.

Graham Keegan, who went on the medlar harvest, shot some glamorous photos of us and, of course, the medlars:

Want to buy a medlar tree? Check out the selection at Raintree Nursery–enter “medlar” in the search thingy.

Anduhrew has a post on his blog about medlars, including Shakespeare’s shout-out to medlars in Romeo and Juliet.

And, lastly, CRFG Operative left a comment on our blog about growing medlars in San Diego with a warming about fire blight:

I was able to grow medlars down here in San Diego county with no problems. They were grafted on a pear tree and eventually fire blight killed the limbs they were on so I lost them. We are in a colder spot but still are only about 15 – 20 miles inland from the coast. If you have an existing pear tree you may want to graft medlar onto that so you don’t have to plant a whole tree to see if they will do well in your area. Make sure you sterilize pruning tools and grafting knives between cuts and do not share infected scion wood. This will help to control fire blight. If it does develop cut it out a couple of inches down into non-infected wood before it takes further hold.

Medlar: The Best Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

This week we were luck enough to tag along with Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms on a jaunt to the hills near Tehachapi to help harvest an allusive fruit called the medlar.  Erik and I were just extra hands–the plan was hatched between Tara and Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. See, Craig has a place up in those hills, and just happened to know his neighbors had a little grove of medlars, and these neighbors agreed to sell them to Craig and Tara, provided Craig and Tara picked them. For us, it was a great excuse for a trip to the mountains with a bunch of friends for some laughs, fresh air and gorgeous fall scenery. Also along for the medlar hunt were Joseph Shuldiner and Graham Keegan. As a group we gathered 100 lbs of medlars in a couple of hours of easy work, which are going to be sold to foodies, rare fruit enthusiasts and perhaps some enterprising chefs at this weekend’s Santa Monica Farmers Market. There’s an article about medlars and this particular expedition in todays’s LA Times.

What is a medlar, you ask? It‘s Mespilus germanica, a small deciduous tree and member of the rose family. In fact, to me, medlar fruit look exactly like giant rosehips. The fruit is smallish, ranging from about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and ranging in color from rosy rust to dusty brown.

Medlars are native to Southwestern Asia and Southeatsern Europe. They were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, doted on by Victorians and mentioned by Shakespeare. I believe they are still popular in their native lands, such as Iran and Turkey. However, they’re almost unknown in the U.S. today, primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that they have to be eaten when almost rotten–a process properly called “bletting”–similarly to how you have to wait for Hachiya persimmons to soften before you can eat them. This leads to reason #2, because medlars have to be eaten when bletted, they either have to be eaten right off the tree, or they have to be picked early, then put aside for a few weeks to blet. Then, when they’re finally bletted, they’re have to be eaten immediately. There’s not a huge window of edibility. This level of persnickety-ness just doesn’t jive with our industrial food distribution system.

Beyond that, when they’re ready to eat, they look like they’re ready for the compost heap–brown, squishy, a little wrinkly. It takes some getting used to–well, it takes about as long for you to eat your first one before you figure out rotten=darn good.  I’d describe them as tasting like really good apple butter. People will describe them as holding delicate notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, wine, etc. I don’t know about that–I just tasted really, really good apple butter, delivered to me in a convenient skin instead of on toast. The flesh even looks like apple butter. Of course, like all persnickety fruits, they have a few big seeds that you have to work around as well–sort of suck clean and spit out later. It’s worth it, though.
 
We can’t grow medlars here in Los Angeles–it’s too warm. Otherwise I’d plant one right now. Medlars need hot summers and cold, frosty winters. If you live in a place like that, I’d highly recommend you plant a medlar. It’s a small, attractive tree, topping out at about 10 feet, and can be kept bush size. The ones we were harvesting were only 4-6 feet high. They are not widely available, but Raintree Nursery has a selection here.

After the jump is a little photo gallery from our trip:


Craig sorting medlars in the grand countyside

Is this bletted? Tara giving the medlar an evaluating eye
Medlars have beautiful fall foliage, and the fruit remains on the tree after the leaves fall, which is quite striking


There’s me. I’m shaking a branch. We picked up good looking ground fall, gathered what would fall when the branches were given a gentle shake, and picked any fully bletted fruits off the tree. The rest wait for a second harvest. 
Graham, looking more stylin’ than me as he works.


Here’s Joseph. He’s writing a cookbook. Notice how the trees are kept small for easy picking.
All sorted. Getcha medlars here!

medlars to market

Return of Bean Friday! Chickpea, Pasta and Tomato Soup

This is the soup at day two, when the pasta started to fall apart. It was prettier day one, with all the pasta whole and springy. But you get the idea.

This one is a keeper. I had to share. We forget how good chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) can be. They get relegated to hummus duty and not much else. This is a mistake. When cooked right, chickpeas take on a sweet creaminess that ought to make them the queen of beans.

This recipe highlights chickpeas, using them both whole and pureed to make a rich, surprisingly creamy soup flavored with tomato and the faint perfume of rosemary. It also is a very simple recipe, requiring only 3 major ingredients, no stock, and not much in the way of prep. It does take a while to cook, but very little of your time is spent in the kitchen.

I found this recipe in the very useful The Silver Spoon cookbook, where it’s called Pasta e Ceci alla Toscana. The quantity made by the recipe was pretty small, and when I make soup, I make a lot, so I doubled their quantities. This is my interpretation.

————

Allow three hours of cooking time

You need:

2 cups dried chickpeas. Please don’t use canned beans for this recipe–I don’t think it will work. I also doubt other types of beans would work quite as well.
1 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes, or the equivalent fresh or home canned, chopped to spoon size if necessary.
8 oz. (approx.) of dried penne pasta, or any other shape pasta you prefer.
4 garlic cloves, peeled (and chopped if you don’t have a garlic press)
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Fresh Parmesan for topping, optional

The recipe called for not only an overnight soak for the beans, but also for three hours of cooking time. That seemed like overkill. What I ended up doing was letting my two cups of dried beans soak on the counter for 2 or 3 hours, by which time they’d doubled in size.  I’m not sure if pre-soaking is necessary at all, really. The long cooking time may be necessary to get the beans silky enough. This will all be the subject of future experiments.

Put your (maybe) soaked beans in a big pot and cover them with about 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. At that point, scoop out about 2 cups of the beans (about half of the total) and a little of their liquid and puree them until smooth. Return the puree to the pot. (This step is the secret to the soup’s creaminess) Cover again, and cook for another 1 1/2 hours.

In the last half hour or so of cooking time, heat up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a deep skillet. Using a garlic press, squeeze the garlic cloves into the oil (or added chopped garlic) and add the chopped herbs. Immediately add all of the tomatoes to the pan, including their juices. In my case, I just dumped in a 28 oz can of chopped tomatoes. Simmer this mix for about 15 minutes.

Add the cooked tomato mixture to the soup pot, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Return to a simmer.

Finally, add the dried pasta (the original recipe called for fresh tagliatelle, just fyi). I added about 8 oz. of penne pasta, because I thought the penne would look nice with the whole garbanzos. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 15 more minutes.

Add more water at any time during the process if it’s starting to look too thick. This soup can be as thin or thick as you like it, really. 

When the pasta is ready, do any final adjustments with S & P. It’s amazing how little seasoning this soup needs.

Pour into bowls and dress with lots of fresh grated Parmesan, fresh ground pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. The cheese makes it extra rich and tasty, but you can also serve it vegan style.

——

I’d classify this soup as kid friendly, vegan friendly, and husband friendly. Erik really liked it, and he is often suspicious of soup–he just doesn’t think soup is real food. (I know! He a lunatic.) But the pasta in it fooled him into thinking it was more of a pasta dish than a measly bowl of soup. Win-win!

Is Kombucha Safe?

We love to ferment things, with one notable exception: kombucha. During the last kombucha craze, in the mid-90s, we picked up a “SCOBY” blob and dutifully fed it tea and sugar until we stumbled upon an article written by mycologist Paul Stamets, “The Manchurian Mushroom: My Adventures with “The Blob.” In that article Stamets tells a convoluted story of having a kombucha culture tested by a lab. He didn’t tell the lab what it was.The lab was very excited about the results on this mystery substance, and Stamets soon finds himself “sitting in a board room of a pharmaceutical company with lawyers and contracts discussing the particulars of patents, sub-licensing agreements, market territories, and dollars running into the millions—if FDA approval was granted for a novel drug.

Then the folks in the meeting turn to Stamets and ask him to reveal the identity of this culture:

I told them that, as best as we had been able to determine, from analyses by several independent mycologists, that the Blob was a polyculture of at least two yeasts and two bacteria, living synergistically.

The silence was deafening.

“Say what?”

Perplexed looks crossed their faces, soon followed by exasperated expressions of deep disappointment. Which of the organisms are producing the potentially novel antibiotic? Was it one or several? Was it one in response to the presence of another organism? Was it one in response to several organisms? The sheer numbers of permutations would complicate trials and given the FDA’s disposition, a polyculture is de facto contaminated.

The meeting was abruptly adjourned.

So kombucha does indeed have medicinal properties–including “novel antibiotic” properties– but therein lies the problem. Stamets concudes,

Those who might benefit from Kombucha need a credible and experienced professional who could best prescribe and administer it. I do not see the advantage of taking Kombucha by people in good health. Given the detrimental effects seen from prolonged exposure to antibiotics, the repeated, long term use of Kombucha may cause its own universe of problems. I wonder about those people who have adverse reactions to antibiotics? What about those with sensitivity to the microorganisms in Kombucha? I personally believe it is morally reprehensible to pass on this colony to sick or healthy friends when, to date, so little is known about its proper use. At present there are no credible, recent studies as to the safety or usefulness of Kombucha, despite decades of hype.

Stamets also expreses concern over contamination. A German study found three out of 32 samples of kombucha cultures taken from German households to be contaminated with Penicillium spp. and Candida albicans. While describing the contamination rate as “low” (nearly 1 out of 10 samples seems high to us) it goes on to recommended that immunosuppresed individuals buy commercial kombucha instead of making it at home. A literature review conducted by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the UK concludes, “the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha,” said risks including, “suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections.”

We’re all for fermented foods, and support the home fermentation of classic pro-biotics like yogurt, sourdough and lacto fermented vegetables. The last thing we want is for people to get spooked away from home fermentation. But kombucha is different. The problem, as Stamets notes, is that kombucha’s sugar and tea medium is a kind of open house for cultures, some good, some bad. Yogurt, sourdough and salt brines are very selective mediums in which to ferment things. With komucha it’s much more of a crap shoot.

Basically, like Stamets, we’re intrigued with the notion of kombucha being tested as a medicine and used with care by both western medical types as well as herbalists. And even if we were guaranteed a pure culture and a solid methodology for keeping the culture uncontaminated, we’d still be too leery its antibiotic properties to consider it a casual beverage. So we just don’t do the kombucha thing.

Appletastic Apple Cake

Here’s something easy and delicious for you to make this weekend. You might even have all the ingredients on hand.

It’s a light, flavorful, not-too-sweet cake which is comprised mostly of apples held together by an egg batter. I suppose you could think of it as an apple quiche. It’s very pleasing, and versitile, too–it would be a good addition to brunch, or an afternoon snack, or, if dressed up with ice cream or whipped cream, it would be a fine dessert. This morning, I ate the leftovers for breakfast.

The recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook, by Patricia Wells, which I’ve mentioned before.

The key to this recipe is good apples. The better the apple, the better the cake. Wells prefers acidic cooking apples for this recipe, recommending Cortland, Gala or Gravenstein. But she says sweeter cooking apples, like Jonagold, are good too. I used Fujis because that’s what I had on hand.

You’ll need:

Equipment:

A 9 inch springform baking pan. (These are pans with sides which open up and disengage from the bottom.)  If you don’t have one, you could make it in a regular round cake pan, or even a square one. It’s just that the final product is a little sticky, and the springform helps with a clean release. You’ll lose points for presentation if you have to dig it out of a regular pan, but it will still taste mighty good.

The cake batter:

1/2 cup flour
1/3 sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup whole milk

Apples, about 2 pounds worth. Wells says that’s about 4. I found it took 5 Fujis to add up to 2 lbs.

Peel and core the apples, cut them in half and slice the halves into thin slices.

The topping:

1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 Tablespoons melted butter

Put it together:

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F.

Butter the pan heavily and set it aside.

In a big bowl, combine the batter ingredients in the order listed. The dry come first in the list. Fork or whisk them around to blend them before you add the liquids. I cleared a well in the dry ingredients,  added all the liquid ingredients (vanilla, eggs, oil, milk) into the well, then used the whisk to draw the  dry stuff into the liquid, bit by bit, until I had a nice smooth batter.  But really, this isn’t fussy cooking so I suspect you could just dump it all together at once and stir it up.

When the batter is smooth, add in the apple slices and toss until they’re coated.

Pour the this apple batter mix into the greased pan and sort of jiggle it around until the apples are all lying more or less flat.

Put it on the center rack of the 400 degree oven. Bake this until the top turns golden, and the batter doesn’t look liquid anymore. You should be able to touch the surface and not encounter wet batter. Wells calls this “fairly firm.”  She says this should take 25 minutes.  For me, it took 35 minutes, but my oven may not have been sufficiently preheated.

While you’re waiting for it to bake, mix together the topping ingredients in a small bowl and have that standing by.

After 25 minutes or so, when the cake reaches this dryish, fairly firm state described above, take it out of the oven and pour the topping over the surface, then put it back into the oven to finish.

Finishing takes about 10 minutes. What you’re waiting for is for the surface to turn a yummy deep golden brown, perhaps a little dark on the high points (like a well cooked quiche), and again, for the surface to dry and firm up.  When it’s not quite done you’ll still be able to see liquid bubbly stuff broiling away at top. When it’s ready, it will mostly dry up, and the cake will feel firm when pressed.

(Edit: Comments have helped me remember that while 10 minutes was the recipe’s rec’d time, it took longer for it to brown–more like 15. Don’t pay as much attention to the clock as to color, and the dryness of the surface.)

Take the cake out, let it cool for at least 10 minutes, then ease a knife all around the sides. The browned sides of this thing are my favorite part, so be careful to keep that crusty stuff intact. It also looks nice. After you finish loosening the edges, release the springform.

This cake is meant to be served at room temperature. Wells specified that it should be served in thin slices, but we didn’t really follow that advice. It’s more like we each took half.




Slaughtering Turkeys for Thanksgiving

A noble Royal Palm tom. This photo by Kevin Saff. The rest are ours.

This post is not for everyone, so we’ve concealed most of it behind the jump. This week we helped our friend, Steve, slaughter and dress four turkeys for Thanksgiving. There will be pictures, so those of you who are interested can get some idea of what the process involves.

Steve is an especially conscious carnivore, because he raises and slaughters all the meat he eats, and he does this in a small back yard in Los Angeles. This means he does not eat a whole lot of meat.


He doesn’t have the time or space to put meat on his table every night, or even every week. Beyond those logistics, he also doesn’t have it in him to slaughter frequently, because the act is intense and emotionally draining. Though Steve is now well practiced in killing birds, he has not become callous about the act. He loves his birds–he raises chickens, ducks and turkeys with care, and does not take killing them lightly. Each kill is difficult for him, and he believes that it should remain so, always. He strives to remain open to the complex emotions that accompany the slaughter, instead of shunting them aside. This, he claims, is the hardest part. And that is why he is our teacher.

Erik and I first met Steve when we were researching our upcoming book. It’s a how-to book, and we wanted to include how-to slaughter a chicken instructions, and we wanted to present the most humane technique we could find. Homegrown Neighbor introduced us to Steve, and the day we met, we helped him kill three young roosters. Well, I’m not sure how much help we were, blundering around, green around the gills and frantically taking notes. I suppose we helped with the plucking.

When Steve invited us back for this Thanksgiving slaughter, we accepted. First, it’s just neighborly to help others with heavy tasks. “Many hands make light work” and all that. And we like hanging out with Steve. And we wondered if it would be easier the second time around. (It wasn’t.)

We had a fourth pair of hands, too–our friend, Christine. Christine is a meat eater who eats very little meat, who volunteered to help because she wanted to see and understand the process.

And in this Ominivore’s Dilemna sort of world, I suppose I should also define Erik’s and my stance on meat eating, so you’ll know where we’re coming from. Erik eats meat only when he knows it was well raised. Functionally that means he never eats meat. I’ve been a “fishatarian” since high school, and I eat fish only when I go out to restaurants, or when I go home, because the parentals don’t think they’re feeding me properly unless they serve me some sort of flesh. Erik eats fish when out, too. We never cook meat or fish at home.

However, lately we’ve been wondering about eating our own chickens. This notion will need its own post to explain, but suffice it to say that we returned to Steve’s driveway abattoir in part to evaluate whether or not we could do this at home–and also to continue our training.

***

Okay, so let’s get down to business. This is an overview of a turkey slaughter. I didn’t write this to be a how-to guide, just an orientation to the concepts. It’s slim on details, but big on pictures. We describe the chicken slaughter in more detail in our upcoming book, Making It, which comes out in the spring.

The first step is to collect the turkey, quiet it with gentle words and petting, and hang it by its feet. Birds don’t seem to mind hanging like this–they are remarkably calm at this stage. Ideally, they are just as calm all the way through.

You can see how pretty this turkey is. Steve raised his little flock from eggs. They’re a heritage breed called Royal Palm, a beautiful white bird with flashy black markings.

The next step is to slit the big veins on either side of the bird’s throat, just under the jaw. Steve prefers to use an extra sharp grafting knife–sort of a disposable scalpel. This time he used a brand new razor blade, which works, but isn’t as maneuverable.

There are many ways to kill a bird, but Steve researched them all and decided this quick, almost surgical opening of the veins is the least painful. It’s the kosher method without the rest of the kosher elements. It is not, however, the fastest method. For the human, it would be easier to lop off the bird’s head and walk away.  This method requires that Steve remain with the bird for its final minutes while it bleeds out.

This process doesn’t take long for chickens, but turkeys are bigger and tougher, and have more blood to drain. All the time, Steve sits by them, talking in a soft voice and holding the neck out stretched to facilitate bleeding.

They experience brain death shortly after the cuts, because blood is no longer traveling to the brain. The death of the body takes longer, and there are some reflexive flurries of wing flapping along the way.

Even though you know the flapping is automatic, it is hard to see. Christine, as a first timer, wept while she watched the first turkey die. There is a gravity and a pathos to this moment that you can only deny if you close down all your emotional organs.

I’m very moved by the spreading and flapping of the wings, which I think of as not blind reflex, but as the body’s last protests against death, against the great stillness. Witnessing it reminds me of my place on the wheel of life, and what I feel is mostly awe–awe and sadness for the loss of a beautiful, vibrant bird. The moment hits us all differently. It sends Erik’s mind back to melancholy memories of the deaths of our loved ones.

There is a justice to this. In order to to eat another life, to profit from that death, we have to embrace our own mortality. To me, this makes sense.

Neither Erik nor I have yet wielded the blade. I’m afraid of screwing up the cuts, and making the bird suffer. I’ve never been a fan of dilettante slaughtering. But next time we help Steve, I think I will try.

The next step is to immerse the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers. When Steve slaughters, he’s got a big pot heating on a propane burner standing by, heated to 158F.  The bird soaks for just a minute or two.  Here Erik is using a stick to hold the carcass beneath the water.

The smell of wet, dead poultry is…uh…distinct.

Next, plucking begins. The big feathers come out easiest, you just pull them out in the direction of growth. It’s the little pin feathers that will drive you crazy–more on that to come.

The good thing about plucking is that it quickly reduces the corpse to something that looks more like you’d see in the market.

 
Turkey feet are pretty amazing things:

The next step, for ease of cleaning, is to take off those amazing feet. Using a blade, Steve teases the joint apart with a blade. As you can see, they separate cleanly, leaving the classic drumstick behind.


Next comes evisceration. Birds have one hole for both excreting and egg laying–it’s called the vent, or the cloaca. It’s that little button structure you see in the picture below, just above the tail. The first step is to cut a careful circle around it. It will come out like a plug, and the intestines will slither out, attached behind it. Have a garbage can ready.

Next, you can enlarge that hole and reach in to pull out the other organs. In the photo below it looks like Steve and Christine cut a second hole–and I’m not sure why they did that, to tell the truth. I was off getting a breath of fresh air, because this part is the hardest for me.

I’d have to clean a lot more birds to be able to face this stage without gagging. It’s not the appearance or even the texture of the guts in my hands–I’m pretty sturdy about yucky things–it’s the smell. It hits me hard.

Christine, however, was a complete trooper and dove right in, and by the end of the day was gutting like a pro. She even sawed off a turkey head. At least one.  I think everyone who does this will discover both their strengths and their weaknesses, and the form these take might surprise you.

At any rate, the two holes you see above merged into one at some point. It doesn’t really matter, except aesthetically.

You can see above that the organs came out in neat sack. It may not always happen so neatly–you may have to fish around in the cavity to make sure you have everything. See the little green blotch? That’s the bile sack. This has to be removed and discarded carefully–you don’t want to spill bile on the meat.

Here’s one of four big fat livers Steve collected. We tossed them in a bowl and coated them with olive oil to help keep them fresh:

Our last step outdoors was chopping off the head. Of course this doesn’t have to be done last–it could be done at any point in the process.  Unfortunately I have no pics of that.
Finally, the carcasses go to the kitchen sink for detail work. I made that my job, so that I could cravenly avoid the stinky intestines. 
(I can’t help but see this as a Lynchian baby pool)
The first thing I did was wash eac carcass well under cold running water, rinsing out the cavities. Then I plugged the sink and immerse the birds in cold water–both to keep the flesh cool and to help with cleaning. 
After the first plucking, there are a lot of feather barbs left in the skin, some of them small feathers, others broken barbs. These all have to be plucked out of the skin one by one. Some are very resistant to extraction, and have to pried or squeezed out. Some have puss at the base–sort of like turkey zits–and these are particularly disgusting to pull. It’s tedious work, very detail oriented. I kept myself vigilant by imagining one of Steve’s family biting into a barb I’d left behind. But in the end, I found it rewarding. It appeals to my nature to put final order to things, and to clean until the water runs clear. (Out damned spot?)

When you’re done, you have turkeys that look like they came from the store–except they’re not grossly inflated through the breast.

While you could slaughter and eat on the same day, if you’re new to this it might be wise to slaughter the day before. Steve finds he doesn’t much want to have anything to do with poultry after slaughtering them for a day or so. So he brines his birds before cooking. It gives him a chance to recover, and makes the bird taste better, too.
Mr. Homegrown here: Allow me harangue for a moment. My guess is that if most Americans sitting down to Thanksgiving supper had to slaughter and eviscerate their own meat we’d have a lot more vegetarians. It’s a hell of a lot of work, both physical and emotional to do this. Even the meat eaters would be eating meat a lot less often.

Oatmeal: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

(we’ve really gotta get us a live-in food photographer)

Mrs. Homegrown Here:

Okay, this is one is a little weird.  I’ll tell you right off that Erik won’t eat this stuff (it just seems wrong to him), but I love it.

I’m exploring the world of savory oatmeal. I’m sure there are savory oatmeal recipes on the web, but I haven’t looked because I’m enjoying working without a map.

What I’m doing right now is making oatmeal with seaweed in it, inspired by both my love of Japanese style breakfasts, and half remembered things about the Irish eating dulse in their porridge. I don’t like sweet cereal, so this suits me fine in the morning–but I also like it for lunch or dinner.

What I do is start the oatmeal water boiling and toss in shreds of dried seaweed. I’ve been using roasted nori, the sushi sheets, and also the flavored nori strips, because that’s all I have on hand. But there’s a whole world of more interesting seaweeds to try–including dulse. Anyway, after I shred a lot nori in the water, I add a dash of tamari and a dash of soy sauce, then the oatmeal. And finally I stir in a big pat of butter. This doesn’t jive with the Japanese thing so well, but I find butter just takes the whole thing up a notch in terms of savory, unctuous goodness.

I think this would be spectacular with a little salmon on top. And I’m going to move forward and try adding things like mushrooms, or cooking the oatmeal with stock.

Do any of you make savory oatmeal?