Thursday, 31 December 2009

How to raise your own chicken for the table

Many of us like to buy free range or organically raised chicken these days for our sunday roast, as well as free range eggs. And many more people are keeping the odd few hens in the garden for a fresh supply of free range eggs. Which is how I started. If you try keeping two or three chickens, and you enjoy doing it, it's not such a long way from trying your hand at rearing chicken for the table. In modern farming practice, egg rearing and chickens for meat are entirely separate operations, as are dairy and beef farming, but this is a modern convention, and traditionally both operations would form part of poultry, or indeed cattle husbandry. If you keep a traditional  breed of bird and allow them to breed, (ie you keep a cockerel) each year you will have on average half females for your egg supply,and the other half cockerels that you can fatten for the table.

Or, if you don't want, or can't keep a cockerel, you could just buy in day old chicks as I did this year for my first experiment in raising birds for the table. I used Hubbards, (from FAI Farms in Oxford,) a modern hybrid specially bred for free range production. They were very good, and not difficult to rear, but I would like to try some traditional breeds and next time I will probably have some Marans,or Light Sussex, and see how I get on. I have had Light Sussex before but I failed to fatten them effectively and they were a bit disappointing. With my Hubbards I fattened them on rolled barley, and if it weren't illegal to say so, I might say that I had given them a plentiful supply of table scraps, but of course, such cavalier disregard for the law of the land would be quite reprehensible. In fact, I think the current madcap Defra legality is that it's ok to feed scraps if you're going to eat the chickens yourself, but not if anyone else is going to have any. You might conclude that the best thing is to please yourself and say nothing, but of course, I couldn't possibly comment.

My Hubbard  chicks cost me about 80p each. If you don't have a broody hen, you have to keep your day old chicks under a heat lamp for the first few weeks of their lives, until they are well feathered enough to keep warm on their own. But the broody really is the way to go if you can, she does all the hard work for you, and after about six weeks, she will decide that they are old enough to manage on their own, and will gradually leave them to it.

Hubbards are hybrid chickens intended to be raised on free range or organic methods, and are expected to be ready for despatch at around 12-14 weeks. And frankly if they had been, my costs would have been quite a bit less.  Most supermarket chickens are killed at around 6 weeks or so  but my chickens were despatched at 22 weeks, and weighed between 4 and 8 lbs, most being around the six pound mark or three kilos. With hindsight, I would have preferred to have had some smaller birds, around 3-4 lbs and I could have killed these at an earlier stage. I also think I should have had the birds in their own enclosure, instead of just generally roaming around the garden with the layers and the ducks, as I think I could have kept a closer eye on their diet and probably fattened them a bit sooner. Also this would have enabled me to keep a closer account of the costs of raising the birds, since I really don't have much of an idea of what the total costs really were.

We have roasted two of the chickens so far, and the flavour is really lovely. I roasted them for slightly longer than usual, and at a lower temperature. The dark meat is darker than usual,and the breast tender and full of flavour. I have some birds jointed, but with Christmas getting in the way we have yet to try any stir fried etc. but I think it will be very good.

Raising your own chicken certainly isn't something you should be considering for economy reasons alone - it probably cost me than you would pay in the butchers, partly because this first effort was very much a learning curve for me and I don't mind paying for "education". I fully expect further efforts to be more cost effective. It did give me enormous satisfaction, and the chicken is indeed delicious.And I've got a freezer full of it!

Here are a few pictures of the birds from June to November this year. First from June,the broody, with the newly arrived day old chicks. I slipped them under her late in the evening and she took to them straight away. This old bird is an Araucana crossed with a Maran, she has raised several broods of chicks, is very hardy, and still lays a lovely blue egg on a regular basis. She's definately my best bird.

These two are from June - the broody still looking after the chicks, showing them how to find insects, in this case a delicious ants nest in the woodchip path in the veg garden, and all the while keeping a lookout for any danger

This is how they looked in September, growing well but not fat enough yet

October and still growing well


I know that lots of people have a problem relating the living creature with the roast dinner on the table. I think it's a normal reaction, and for myself  I still don't find the despatching of any living creature easy. But if you're going to have meat on your plate the simple fact is that something has to die in order for it to get there.  I have to steel myself to it, and ensure I acheive a quick end for the birds. On this occasion, because there were so many birds to go at once, I employed the services of Sid my retired butcher friend who killed the birds for me and with the use of his plucking machine, saved me many hours of work over that weekend.  And I have  the consolation that my birds had lived as good a life as any chicken could have wanted, enjoying fresh air, grass, small numbers and a quick and stress free end. I wish I had the means to ensure that every pork chop and beef steak we eat has had a similar history and provenance.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Florentines - recipe for luxurious little chocolate biscuits

Florentines are very expensive little biscuits to buy, and if you make them yourself they are frankly only as good as the ingredients you use, so you have to shell out for quality stuff. But having said that, a little goes a long way with this recipe,and once you've got the idea with them you can make yourself a large enough supply to keep a batch in the freezer and stll have some spare to take along with you when you're invited to friends houses around Christmas and New Year and need something luxurious other than wine to take along.

As I said this is the time to shell out on decent ingredients, don't waste your time and money on cheap chocolate, and ancient dried peel. I recommend Waitrose Italian candied peel, and a good 70% dark chocolate. I buy ready flaked almonds, as I don't have the patience to do them myself,  but get them from a source with a good turnover like Julian Graves, as the surface area of exposed nut means that they go stale quite quickly. You're supposed to have a little candied angelica in the mix, but I find it's quite difficult to find these days so I bought a tub of coloured glace cherries also from Julian Graves, as some of them are green and this gives the necessary hint of green-ness to the end product.
You will need
8 oz caster sugar
1oz flour
2oz butter
half a pint double cream
4oz candied peel
8oz flaked almonds
4oz pot red and green glace cherries, chopped
200g dark chocolate
Melt the butter and sugar together gently in a heavy saucepan. Stir in the flour to make a smooth paste. Stir in the cream and cook over a low heat for a minute, then remove from the heat and stir in the candied peel,almonds and cherries.
Drop teaspoonfuls on to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment or Bake-o-Glide, and bake in the middle of the Aga, Gas 5 or 6 for about 10 minutes, until golden round the edges, but keep an eye on them as they catch quickly and burn. They will still be soft when you take them out, so let them set for a minute or two, then transfer to a wire tray to cool and firm up.

When the little biscuits are cold, melt your chocolate in your chosen way, I put it on the Aga before I start and it's just about ready when I need it later. Holding the biscuits carefully at the edges, coat them generously with the dark chocolate and using a fork, mark them with the traditional wavy lines before it sets.
You can make lots with this amount, especially if you keep them small. You may find you need more than 200g of chocolate depending on how generous you are with your coating. And you could do some with milk, or white chocolate if that's what you fancy.
They freeze very well and take virtually no time to defrost, which means that very handily you can take a couple out, put the kettle on and they'll be ready to eat by the time it boils. All too convenient for the weak of will I fear.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

And now for something completely different...

Round about now, you just get a bit bored with all the trad festive fare and in need of something rather fresher tasting... try this delicious lemon tart - rich and luxurious but tart and refreshing as well. Just the thing for a jaded post christmas  palette

 For the crust
This is a very good use for my luxury almond pastry if you used it for mince pies and have some leftover or you can use a pack of ready rolled shortcrust from the supermarket if you're feeling too cooked-out from Christmas to be bothered.
Roll out and line an 8" deep metal flan tin. Because the filling for this tart is delicate and only lightly cooked, you really need to bake the pastry blind, which is not something I normally do, as it's a fiddle faddle, but in this case it's worth the extra effort. Just line the tin with pastry as normal, cover with a sheet of greaseproof paper and weigh it down with dried peas or beans, and bake for about 20 minutes, until firm but not browned. Remove beans and paper and allow to cool.
For the filling you will need
4 lemons, grated zest and juice
4 eggs
8oz 200gr caster sugar
 half pint/300g pot of double cream
Beat the eggs and sugar until pale and creamy, add the lemon zest and juice, and the double cream.  Pour into the flan case and bake for 40 mins in a slow oven, the bottom oven of the Aga or gas 3 until set but not coloured. Cool in the tin and chill in the fridge before serving.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Deck The Halls with Boughs of Cupressocyparis Leylandii..Fa-la-la-la la..

or how about "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Chamaecyparis Lawsoniana"? No, I know it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, but it does a lovely job of Decking the said Halls, all the same. You don't need to buy your Christmas greenery from a shop or garden centre.If you can manage to spare half an hour or so you can easily put together a lovely wreath for your front door from stuff you can usually find in your garden, or along a hedgerow, or a neighbour's garden. The ubiquitous Leylandii hedge will yield more than enough prunings to make a nice wreath for your front door as well as one for the neighbour in whose garden it's growing. And if you don't have your own shrubbery or hedge, you could always consider raiding the local supermarket car parks where there is often a good supply of shrubbery (far be it from me to lead you along the path of criminality),
Most instructions tell you to start with a base that you have to buy, but I never do. Just find yourself a good selection of reasonably bendy twiggy branches, things like willow, hazel, and more or less any wood produced during  the last summer  will be flexible enough to use. You will need a selection of sticks something like this

plus a roll of wire available from any garden centre, this on is sold as "Garden Wire Light Weight", and is the cheapest and is ideal.

and of course you will be armed with your trusty


Start by binding together your bare branches by winding the wire round and round, making a long "rope" of

flexible twigs.
Use plenty of wire for your first attempt as it will make life easier. When your twig rope is long enough bend it round into a rough circle  shape

and secure with your wire.

Snip off any protruding ends where the wood is too hard to bend and then  push in your branches of leylandii, holly, ivy or any other green stuff you can find, and wind on more wire to secure. Just keep going round and round with the wire and greenery until you're happy with the look. Something like this

I had a bit of trouble finding any red berries in my garden just now, since the birds have cleared up all the available supply, so I will probably get something in red plastic from the decorations box to finish the job, or I might just wire up a few cranberries for the finishing touch.
Fa-la-la-la-la Fa-la-la-laah!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Living In The Past

We were having a  conversation over a coffee, my daughter and I, and she said Ian was a fan of Jethro Tull, (that's Jethro Tull the pop group, not the 17th century agricultural engineer, although he might be a fan of him as well for all I know). I had no idea they were still going, (the group not the engineer, obviously) but I do remember their best hit from the sixties - it was called Living in the Past, and it's not only a good song, but has the unusual distinction of being written in 5/4 time, that is five beats to the bar. Almost everything in western music is written in variations of four or three time, and five time is quite unusual and distinctive. Not a lot of people know that. But why do I remember this obscure bit of information? It was in the sixties, and although nowadays, I frequently go upstairs and find myself wondering what I came up here for, it seems I still hve no difficulty remembering that Jethro Tull wrote a song in 5/4 time forty years ago. Humans brains are truly amazing,even mine.

Anyway Living in the Past makes a nice link to what I've been doing today, which is putting up the Christmas decorations, many of which are 30 or more years old. Obviously I hope I don't "live in the past", since that would be unhealthy and boring, but hanging up the decorations that your children made in primary school all those years ago is a lovely way of keeping a kind of family history. If you have small children do keep at least some of their efforts for the future. They will obviously go through a stage, usually in the early teens,  of being horrified and embarrassed at your displaying their childish efforts, but persevere, and eventually they will look back with you rather than just at you (in a horrified teenager kind of way) as the Blue Peter Red Hanging Bird Decorations come out yet again. The birds are made of red card with red tissue paper and tinsel for their wings and tails, and after nearly thirty Christmasses are a bit delicate, some might say tatty. There's always some discussion about what they are actually meant to be, turkeys, partridges, doves, or something else, who knows? Anyway, very Christmassy, very old, and very lovely don't you think?

Monday, 14 December 2009

Mince Pies

I've already given my  mincemeat recipe, and my favourite sweet shortcrust pastry recipe, so I'm not suggesting that you Dear Reader need any extra prattling on from me to just marry the two together to make the mince pies. Not at all. But I just thought I would give a recipe for a really luxurious sweet pastry that you could use, since let's face it, mince pies are a bit of a fiddle faddle, and you might as well gild the lily a bit if you're going to the trouble of making them. Mind you, from what I've encountered so far this year in the way of packet mince pies, you'd be better off donating them to the local cricket club for bowling practice than considering eating them. That's probably a bit unfair of me - you can get some quite nice mince pies if you shop around, but if you heard Delia on Woman's Hour on radio 4 in the week, she reckoned that home made mince pies cost about 9p each and decent bought ones anything from 30p to over a £1 each! And they still won't be as nice or as free from "stuff" as yours.

Luxury Sweet Shortcrust Pastry
8oz/250g flour
2oz/50g ground almonds
6oz/150g butter
2ox/50g caster or icing sugar
grated rind of 1 large or 2 small oranges
1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk

Put everything except the egg into the food processor and whizz to breadcrumb stage. At this stage I normally tip the mix out into a large bowl and add the egg by hand. This is because I have a Magimix processor that clumps the bottom layer into a, well a clump really, at the bottom of the bowl. If you have a processor with sloping sides it probably won't do that, but the point is you need to handle the dough as little as possible, and you certainly don't want to beat it to death with a Magimix blade. Anyway, beat the whole egg and yolk together and mix in quickly to form a smooth dough. This is a very rich dough and it's a good idea to rest it in the fridge for half an hour or so to firm up if you can.

Roll out and use to line bun tins in usual way, and fill with your lovely home made mincemeat. Should make a dozen and a half or more if you don't make them too big.

You'll notice from here that my mince pies are cooked in little bun cases. This is because my bun tin is a very ancient tinny thing, and I find the cases ensure that I can get the MPs out of the tin in quick order and onto the cooling rack so the tin's ready for the next lot (there's always a next lot), without having to hang about waiting for cooling down. Also any leaked mincemeat doesn't get so easily welded onto the tray. I might treat myself to a nice non stick one for next year.

In the interests of research my daughter Sarah is trying a frangipane topping on her mince pies, (she has a bit of an almond thing going on at the moment) and hopefully she will post a report on how she gets on with that and  the supply of mincemeat she took home with her this weekend, as it does sound rather delicious. And Claire down in Cornwall seems to be making MPs for the whole county, our little grandson can't be eating them all can he?

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Somethings still growing out there...!

I've been so busy with Christmassy stuff lately, that I've hardy had chance to get into the garden, so just to show that, somewhat surprisingly there's still lovely stuff growing out there (amongst the weeds and the mud), here's a couple of carrots, a turnip, and a rather overgrown, forked parsnip. Well nobody's perfect.

But it does represent the makings of a lovely vegetable soup, as I happen to have a big jug of chicken stock in the fridge just waiting for these. Simmered with a couple of chopped onions and a potato, a handful of parsley and served with a hunk of home made bread, lunch is covered for the next few busy days.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Mulled Wine

If you've ever been offered a glass of generic mulled wine at a pre Christmas bash, you will recognize the mouth puckering horrible-ness of the commercial product. I'm convinced most people say they don't like Mulled Wine because they've had the misfortune to be aquainted with the ready made stuff which Mr Supermarket makes with the cheapest rough old plonk, too rough probably to go in a bottle on its own, and whose taste is masked with tongue stripping artificial citrus and spice flavouring.

So get your own cheap plonk - nothing wrong with using an ordinary red wine for mulling, I used Tesco's Sicilian red wine,for our village do,  at around £3.30 a bottle it's full flavour makes an excellent mulled wine and is even ok for everyday vin ordinaire type drinking as long as you're not Jancis Robinson. Not the kind of stuff you'd want to offer your friends coming round for dinner, but still ok for Keith Floyd style casseroles (that's one for me and one for the pot, and then maybe another one for me). And a bottle of economy own brand dark rum. I know I seem to be always recomending economy options, - I make no apology for this, it's not that I'm mean you understand, I love a really good red wine, and will enjoy several over Christmas, but I don't believe in splashing out in a situation where most people just can't tell the difference. If you are Oz Clark, then go ahead and use your Chateau Lafitte Rothschild and your matured Jamaica Rum, but I really don't think the rest of us will mind.

Mulled Wine
1 bottle red wine
2-3fl oz / 50 -75ml dark rum
2 cinnamon sticks broken into pieces
10 allspice berries
10 cloves
1 star anise
about a half inch/1 cm of fresh grated ginger
a good grating of nutmeg
zest of half an orange and half a lemon (peeled off with a potato peeler not grated)
2 oz/60g sugar or up to 3oz/90g if you prefer

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and heat gently until warm enough. Warm enough means warm enough to be a hot drink, but not boiling, as you'll be boiling off the alcohol which you really don't want to do. It's a good idea to heat it gently once and then leave it for an hour or two with the spices in if you can, to get a really good flavour, and then gently re-warm it when you're ready to drink. Pour it through a sieve into a warm jug and serve with your warm mince pies, preferably standing round the village Christmas tree singing Jingle Bells. And think how much money you could have saved Oz and Jancis.

This is a very bad picture of our village christmas tree, I will go out tomorrow and try to get a better one.

And finally it's quite a good idea to have non alcoholic mulled "wine" as an additional option for children, and drivers, which can be easily made from a bottle of Ribena (don't use the low sugar version for this) diluted with hot water, and with a slice or two of orange and a cinnamon stick.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Sweet Treats for Christmas

Apologies for the lack of postings this week, I've been occupied, like almost everyone else, with Christmassy things entailing much baking of these,

and some of these

and also some of these
I realize these last ones are indistinguishable from a heap of rubbish from my terrible photograph, but they are in fact Christmas Wreaths, adapted from a recipe of Nigella's. If you want to see a picture of what they really look like, have a look at Nigella's Christmas, where you will find a sensible photo. I was making treats to eat at our village Christmas tree lights switching on ceremony last night, and although I made a good stack of mince pies, I know from past experience that small children often don't care for dried fruit generally and mince pies in particular, so I made these treats as an alternative. And very succesful they were too, allowing adults to consume generous amounts of Mulled Wine and mince pies, while they, the children got stuck into the Christmas Cupcakes, Gingerbread Christmas biscuits, and the aforementioned Christmas Wreaths, extracting extravagant sugar fuelled promises along the way from Santa who made his welcome appearance to switch on the lights. Fortunately for the health of the residents, other more sensible people brought some lovely savoury items to counteract the sugary overload of my offerings.

Christmas Cupcakes
I used an 8:8:4 recipe for all in one sponge for these. By which I mean 8 oz SR flour,butter and sugar and 4 eggs ( you see how simple this old imperial measurement is - far easier to remember than metric where the number of eggs, ie 4 bears no relation to the amount of other ingredients ie 250 grams, stop me before I start ranting again....).
Anyway, this amount made around fifty odd cupcakes, so you may like to halve the amounts unless you are considering entertaining the whole neghbourhood's offspring, or you could make larger ones using American style muffin cases instead of little bun cases. You can do the maths. You will need a spot of milk to make the mixture soft enough,and a teaspoon of vanilla essence and be sure to make them small enough to allow for the topping to cover them completely after they have risen.
The topping is royal icing, very easy to make if you have an electric mixer. Just beat 3 egg whites with a 500g packet of icing sugar for about five minutes until the mixture holds soft peaks. I use fresh egg whites because I have an abundance of eggs available to me, but I have used a packet of instant royal icing in the past and it works just as well. I always add a teaspoon of glycerin to the icing to stop it going rock hard, although you should not attempt to keep these little cakes more than a day anyway as they dry out too much. I'm amazed that Christmas Sprinkles for cakes are not available everywhere, at least not in the seasonal red and green colours I like - Tesco's missing an opportunity here - so you have to send off for them, either from Wilton, the US baking supplies people, or sometimes on Ebay. I've also made a lovely discovery that you can buy edible glitter for sprinkling on your cakes to give them that special magical touch - I got mine from the cake decorating department at Hobbycraft. It comes in a tiny pot that will probably last me forever, it looks just like ordinary glitter, but you can eat it without poisoning yourself. Lovely!

As for the little Christmas Wreaths, they are again based again on Nigella's idea

 ( strikes me this picture is almost as bad as mine!)

but I've messed about with the recipe a bit while still keeping to her lovely idea.

6 oz 150g butter
1 200g bag of marshmallows
1 200g bag of caramel toffees
half a teaspoon almond essence
half a teaspoon vanilla essence
 200g cornflakes
Melt the first three ingredients gently together, then bring to a full boil for a minute, then remove from the heat and stir in the essences and the cornflakes crunching them up quite a bit as you go with your wooden spoon. Leave until cool enough to handle and then form into balls, squash down and make a hole in the middle to form a wreath shape decorate with christmas sprinkles and leave to cool. Add little ribbon bows when cool if you like.
Make sure Santa gets some Mulled Wine, recipe tomorrow.


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