Backyard Eggs Made Easy

Fresh eggs right outside your door… for many of us, it sounds too good to be true! I have several neighbors and friends who have started keeping backyard chickens recently, and while I always loved the idea of it, the details were too overwhelming for me to actually take the plunge.

In fact, if it were not for The Easy Chicken, I would still be dreaming about backyard eggs instead of watching the kids bring them in each day.

The Easy Chicken is a Saint Louis company that provides everything you need for backyard chickens, from the coop and feed to the hens themselves, as well as help with any regulation compliance necessary in your area. Here’s a peek at how they calmed my backyard chicken fears…

Where does one buy laying hens, anyway?

Or a coop or feed or a nesting box or whatever else chickens need to be happy, for that matter? These are not things I see on my weekly shopping trips. The Easy Chicken not only solved that problem by providing everything we needed, but they delivered the whole package to our yard. I didn’t have to figure out how to transport chickens home in my car, and I didn’t even have to haul that huge bag of feed up my driveway.

Is my yard even suitable for chickens?

Our yard is small, full of kids’ toys, has a lot of rocks and mulch and not a lot of grass, and we live in a city neighborhood. This was one of my biggest mental blocks: figuring out if chickens were even feasible or could be happy in our yard. Seth and Maria at The Easy Chicken helped us determine the best way to keep the chickens where we wanted them, and it turns out our yard is working just fine for them. Even if we didn’t have a fenced space where the chickens can free range during the day, the coop they provide is built to be mobile, so 2 to 4 hens will be comfortable living full time in the coop if necessary. All we would have to do is wheel it to a new spot now and then to give them a fresh space for hunting bugs and other goodies out of the grass and dirt.

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What if I get chickens and they go and decide not to lay any eggs?

Apparently figuring out why a hen isn’t laying can be a bit like sleuthing out a mystery, but that is one mystery I won’t have to solve (unlike where in my house is hiding the left shoe of all three pairs of my toddler’s shoes).  My hens from The Easy Chicken are guaranteed to lay, so if I have any trouble, all I have to do is give them a call. But so far, no trouble!

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Am I going to be housing chickens in my basement over the winter?

One of my favorite things about our chickens is that the kids consider them delightful pets, but they never have to come into my house (it resembles a barn often enough without actual animals inside). If we keep the chickens over the winter, they should be nice and cozy in their coop. But the hens’ egg production goes way down in the colder months (did you know eggs are truly a seasonal food?), so with the rental package if we decide we would rather only have charge of the chickens when they are laying, we can simply return the whole package to The Easy Chicken at the end of the peak egg season.

Do I need a license? Do chickens carry any diseases? What kitchen scraps can I feed them? Are my chickens going to take flight over my fence resulting in me chasing a flock of flapping birds up and down the street while the neighborhood kids chuckle from their porches? Do chickens pose any threat to my kids if they’re sharing space, or vice versa? How long does a hen lay? If we purchase a package, what do I do with a hen when it gets too old to lay? Will the chickens destroy my lawn/landscaping? Is it going to be like an Easter egg hunt every day, searching out eggs the hens lay all over the yard? Are they noisy? Can I use the poop in my compost or garden? Are there chicken predators in this area?

The folks at The Easy Chicken took care of all my questions before we decided to get the chickens and even more questions during our initial set-up and consultation, and they had some other useful tips as well (thank you, chickens, for preparing my garden beds for planting!). That’s the final calming piece of their offering: a hotline for any and all hen- and egg-related questions that might come up as you get to know your backyard flock.

And let me just reiterate that my kids could not be happier. They fill the food and water, collect the eggs, close up the coop in the evening, let the hens out in the morning, feed the chickens scraps, and want to know everything there is to know about chickens.

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And did I mention the eggs are delicious? I guess that goes without saying. And if you’ve been finding it difficult to locate non-GMO eggs (from chickens fed non-GMO feed), you can even upgrade to the organic non-GMO feed The Easy Chicken has sourced.

It’s kind of like they thought of everything.

So if you are in the St. Louis area and want to learn more about backyard eggs made easy, check out The Easy Chicken web site, find them on Facebook, or just drop them a line:

The Easy Chicken Contact Info
Telephone: 314.852.2802
Email: contact@theeasychicken.com

They will also be at a few farmers’ markets on various dates this summer where you can stop by, ask questions, and arrange for your own flock of backyard hens:

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The peak laying season is just around the corner – contact them now to get the most out of your backyard hens this summer!

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*Obligatory disclaimer: We are happy to call Seth and Maria, owners of The Easy Chicken, local friends of ours. But friends or not, I would not have made our backyard hens a reality without The Easy Chicken, and I would not have written this post if I wasn’t truly happy with our experience with both our chickens and their company as a whole.

Top 17 Cook’s Illustrated Recipes

I basically credit Cook’s Illustrated (by America’s Test Kitchen) with teaching me to cook. I had no idea what was possible in my kitchen until I started reading that magazine, and later subscribing to the web site. Important notes about the magazine/recipe site:

  1. It’s not free. BUT that’s ok because…
  2. There are no advertisements (YAY!) and…
  3. The recipes are all tested and re-tested and quite delicious. It’s a far cry from sifting through junk and more junk and millions of reader reviews on free recipe sites in search of the occasional diamond in the rough.

Even though I find it a lot easier to browse though CooksIllustrated.com than a lot of other recipe sites, thousands of recipes can still be overwhelming. So, after about ten years of subscribing, here are my tried and true Top 17 Favorite Cooks Illustrated Recipes (I don’t know why there are 17; I started with a Top 10 and this is where I ended). These are the recipes I use week in and week out with my family, and hubby and our four young kids are no easy critics.

  1. Chicken Tikka Masala – I would pay the price of a year’s subscription just to get this one recipe. I stopped going to Indian restaurants after I mastered this, because the restaurants weren’t as good.
  2. Beef Tacos – Kick those little packets of taco seasoning for good! It’s easier than you think, and worth it.
  3. Chicken Enchiladas with Red Chile Sauce – Again, canned enchilada sauce? No where near as good as this.
  4. Beef and Cheese Empanadas – Are you seeing a trend here? Yes, we like Mexican food. And these little pockets of delicious meat and cheese in a flaky crispy dough are as good as it gets.
  5. Tinga (Mexican Shredded Pork Tostadas) – Ummm, yep, more Mexican food. But it’s pork this time! And this recipe is so easy… you can do it! We usually eat it over soft corn cakes instead of the tostadas.
  6. Samosas with Meat Filling – Back to Indian food! Have you ever had a Hot Pocket? This is like that, except it’s delicious authentic food, not a weird food impostor from the microwave (a.k.a. a weird oven impostor). So really it’s nothing like a Hot Pocket.
  7. Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs – No spaghetti for us, but try these meatballs and sauce with a side of fresh ricotta cheese and a green salad. Perfection. Stop buying jarred spaghetti sauce full of weird sugars! (Shout out to Colombo’s on Cape Cod – we first had meatballs with ricotta there and it was a revelation.)
  8. Coconut Red Curry Sauce over Sauteed White Fish Fillets - If you need a 20 minute meal with flavor that will blow you away, this is it.
  9. Beef Kebabs (both Southwestern and with Asian Flavors) – Kebabs are so great for the summer grill! Both of these marinades are worthwhile and offer lots of options for combining the meet with various fruits and veggies.
  10. Silky Butternut Squash Soup – One of the only soups my husband will eat. Toast a piece of sourdough bread with a generous spread of butter and have the perfect winter lunch.
  11. Falafel – We lived in New Haven for a while, and in the food world, New Haven is known for two things: pizza and falafel. I have never and likely will never match their pizza, but this falafel is wicked close.
  12. Restaurant Style Hummus – Stop paying a fortune for prepared hummus from the store. This is easy and delicious and great with all kinds of veggies! My kids love it.
  13. Rosemary Focaccia – We don’t each much bread now except the occasional sourdough, but when I was making a lot of bread, this was hands down my favorite. Don’t be scared by the time frame. Good bread is worth it.
  14. Best Crab Cakes – Crab is often prohibitively expensive, so we make these with wild caught white fish, sauteed with the aromatics until *just* barely cooked through so that it flakes apart, and use that in place of the crab. This is my kids’ favorite Meatless Fridays meal. And since the binder is an ingenious shrimp mousse, it’s very easy to make grain free.
  15. Chinese Orange Chicken – Chinese done right! We love this.
  16. Flourless Chocolate Cake – Everyone who has ever tried this cake wants the recipe. If you need a gluten free or grain free dessert that all eaters regardless of diet will fall in love with, this is it.
  17. Spiced Carrot Cake with Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting - After one bite, a friend asked me to make this for his wedding cake.

Ok, I know by now you’ve clicked on a couple links and are yelling at me that you can’t see the recipes without a subscription. I already admitted that this site is not free. BUT the subscription price for a year is less than one average cook book and you can save and/or print as many recipes as you want. PLUS you can get all of these recipes with a FREE 2-week trial. And if you already subscribe but weren’t sure where to start, well, now you know. Enjoy!

If you are a Cook’s Illustrated fan and have any favorites I’ve left out, please let me know what they are!

Thanks. : )

Obligatory Side Note: I have no affiliation with Cook’s Illustrated at all. They have no idea I or this blog exist. I just like their recipes.

Homemade White Sweet Potato Chips

Would you like to hear a funny conversation between a traditional-food-eating mom and a Fit Gentleman Shopper concerning fried potatoes? Read on.

One of our favorite real food treats is homemade veggie chips. I’ve sliced up all sorts of veggies on my mandolin and dropped them in hot fat to see what will happen. It’s a worthy experiment, I promise!

We regularly eat butternut squash chips and orange sweet potato chips, and they’re both very good, but my absolute favorite right now are chips made with Japanese White Sweet Potatoes. They fry up just right without burning too quickly, and they stay crispy for a long while after cooking (the squash chips have to be eaten immediately as they get soft rather quickly).

So a couple weekends ago I was shopping at my local farmers’ market, baby on my back, toddler at my side. As I’m picking out a large bag of white sweet potatoes, a Fit Gentleman Shopper, fresh from a bout of yoga in the park, steps near the booth. Clearly a regular at the market, he is proudly helping a few companions navigate the different booths and the array of produce. He steps in next to me and starts singing the praises of the White Sweet Potato, a lower starch alternative to the evil white potato that tastes like… (his companions wait eagerly, as this is the first white sweet potato they have encountered)… a buttered white potato! He notes the large bag I’m collecting and I comment that yes, they are very similar to regular white potatoes and we enjoy them very much, to which he replies that they don’t taste like “white potatoes,” they taste like “buttered white potatoes.”  I smile, finish my selection, and as I put my bag on the scale I innocently mention how they also make fantastic homemade chips when you slice them thin and deep fry them.

At the words “deep fry”, the Fit Gentleman Shopper’s head does a cartoon double-take and his mouth drops open. He quickly scoops up his jaw and shoots a look and a little snicker towards his companions and says, “Oh, honey, I would never fry them. I might slice them and bake them up into delicious little potato buttons though.”

“Oh,” I reply, “Potato buttons. Sounds lovely.”

As I gather my potatoes and my toddler to head to the next farmer, the little group exchanges raised eyebrows which, if I am interpreting my Fit Gentleman Shopper’s nonverbal speech correctly, say, “Oh dear, can you imagine what else she is feeding those poor children? I hope she takes my baked-potato-buttons idea to heart!”

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t mention that I prefer to deep fry in pure lard, or that when I want something to taste buttered, I put real butter on it; his Fit Gentleman Heart might not have been up to the news, and his companions might have thought it necessary to have some child protection agency follow me home and confiscate my lard.

Now, I’m well aware that my view of healthful eating runs counter to that of the Mainstream Health Nut at this point, but I have done enough research and seen enough first-hand results to be completely confident in what I eat and feed my family.  A few snickers from a Fit Gentleman Shopper and his market companions don’t bother me at all, and I definitely know better than to offer unsolicited justifications for my lard habit; he doesn’t want to hear about the health benefits of natural fats any more than I want to hear about whole grains, low fat dairy, vegetable oils, and lean proteins. But if you’d rather have a crispy fried white sweet potato chip than a dry baked white sweet potato button (that, I promise, does not taste like it has butter on it unless you actually put butter on it), then it’s really pretty simple.

Tips for home frying potato chips:

  1. Safety! Hot fat burns. Bad. Use a back burner and always turn pot handles in so they aren’t hanging over the edge of the stove top (did you know that handles extending over the edge of the stove top is the number one cause of kitchen accidents?), especially with kids in the house. Most veggies and potatoes have a fair amount of water in them that will make the hot oil or fat bubble up when you drop them in, as well as produce a lot of initial steam, so use a tall pot and long utensils.
  2. Use a good, stable fat. Don’t fry in most vegetable oils – the molecules get all messed up at the high temperatures and turn very bad for you. Lard, tallow, and coconut oil are great choices.
  3. Uniform slicing is key, paramount even. A mandolin is almost a requirement for this unless you have ninja knife skills, but again, go with safety. Any decent mandolin will slice the top of your finger off without skipping a beat. They come with hand guards for a reason, people!
  4. Don’t walk away. These go from perfect to burned in literally a few seconds.
  5. If you don’t want to use gallons of fat or oil, use a smaller pot and fry more batches. I often use a medium/large sauce pot with a few inches of lard in the bottom, frying only a large handful of potato slices at a time. They cook so quickly that it doesn’t bother me to wait through five or six batches.
  6. Use a thermometer. If you go too hot, the fat can smoke or quickly burn your chips without cooking off the moisture (so your chips aren’t just burned, they’re soggy and burned – weird). If you start with the fat not hot enough, the potatoes will absorb the fat instead of cooking in it (again, soggy chips). So use a thermometer to be sure the frying medium is at 375 degrees before starting, and let the fat come back up to temperature between batches.
  7. Don’t forget to sprinkle with some good sea salt while they’re still hot!

So, in a nutshell:

  1. Scrub your potatoes well (I prefer to leave the skin on) and slice thin. My favorite setting on my mandolin is 1.3mm for white sweet potatoes. Super thin (.5mm) is nice also, but they cook in seconds, so be ready!
  2. Heat fat to 375 degrees in a pot with high sides.
  3. Fry potato slices in batches. Don’t crowd the pot with too many – there should be plenty of room for them to move around freely.
  4. Paper thin slices (.5mm on my mandolin) cook in less than 30 seconds. Thicker ones (1.3mm or 2mm) will take a minute or two.
  5. Use a slotted spoon, tongs, or wire spider to remove the potatoes when they just get a hint of brown going. For some reason, they are always darker than they looked once you have them out.
  6. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with sea salt.

These are the thicker sliced chips (1.3mm) served alongside a grassfed beef burger topped with pickled watermelon rind salsa. These have a great sweet potato chip crunch.

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You could also pack them in a paper bag for a picnic snack, or just stand there and eat them as soon as they’re salted. These paper thin chips are light and crispy and almost dissolve in your mouth.

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So, would you go for baked buttons or fried chips?

Dishware Jenga

The contributing factors to Dishware Jenga are such:

  1. There are five (almost six) eaters in my house.
  2. We don’t eat out (allergies, budget and what not).
  3. We don’t eat boxed food (preservatives, non-food ingredients and what not).
  4. I’m very bad at planning ahead so that multiple meals/components are completed in one prep session (no excuse whatsoever).
  5. I don’t have a dishwasher (because I’m not convinced they save that much time – am I totally off on this one? Feel free to weigh in.).

The result is a lot of dishes. Dishes in the sink, dishes on the counter, dishes on the table, and if I’m being completely honest, occasionally the floor. And even when I stay caught up on the dishes, the amount created in prepping, cooking, and serving one meal is usually more than my dish drainer can handle.

Which is why I’m now such a champ at Dishware Jenga.

Dishware Jenga

You can see that the keys to a successful round of Dishware Jenga are threefold:

1) At least one support wall in the form of a large cutting board or baking sheet.

2) Organization in the beginning, such that regularly-shaped and heavier dishes build the bottom foundation.

3) A steady hand for the tower toppers.

I know what you’re thinking: building the tower is only half of Jenga; the real challenge is removing the bits on the bottom without toppling the whole thing.

Don’t worry.  I accomplish that part every time I’m already on to preparing the next meal with a baby in one arm so I have neither the time nor the hands to put away the entire tower in order to get to the one measuring cup or spatula that I need that happens to be buried on the bottom of the stack.

So next time you have to do dishes, turn up some music (we currently have Sigur Ros — not as creepy as the new album artwork looks — on the turntable) and see if you can top my Jenga tower – leave no dish dirty!

Just don’t turn on the garbage disposal.

Peas in a Pod

I picked up what I thought was a box of sugar snap peas at the market this weekend.

Nope.

Turns out they’re actually shell peas, you know, the way peas grow, in a shell? Two things resulted from this accident:

1) My children now understand the phrase “peas in a pod”.

2) My children now understand the value of the 5-pound bag of frozen peas (already shelled) in our  freezer.

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Adventures in real food continue…