Friday, May 27, 2011

That Great Chicken House in the Sky

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ian-knauer-elvis-dog-h.jpgThe menacing-looking Elvis has nonetheless been trained not to kill my chickens

I have trained my dogs not to eat my chickens. So far, they're following orders. Elvis, a boxer-pit bull mix, stands in the barnyard and drools as he watches the birds peck around in the grass, but he hasn't tried to kill any of them as of yet.

But lots of visitors come to the farm in the mild seasons, and they're encouraged to bring their dogs. The visiting pooches have not necessarily had the blood thirst trained out of them. Last weekend one of them killed one of my chickens.

ian-knauer-barnyard-chickens-h.jpgThe unknowing chickens

I brought the dead bird inside and put on a pot of water to boil. I also cued up Johnny Cash's "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog" on the stereo. The song is about a dog that eats eggs and kills chickens. It's full of clever rhymes. (If, somehow, you've never heard this song, do yourself a favor and buy it. It's a great piece of Americana.)

I plunged the bird into the boiling water to loosen the feathers and plucked them. I cleaned the chicken and removed the organs, including the liver.

Here's where I could give you a recipe for roasted month-old chicken, but last week's recipe was for roast chicken, and really, how many of you are likely to have a dead month-old chicken in your fridge? So instead, let's talk about chicken livers.

I keep a resealable plastic bag of chicken livers in my freezer. Every time I cook up a bird, I add the livers to the bag. When I have about half a pound I saute them with some shallots, butter, and whatever else looks good (this time of year, that means radishes). Then I serve them as a side dish for a larger meal or on toast for lunch. They are easy to cook, cheaper than cheap, and everyone always goes gaga for them. For all those reasons, sauteed chicken livers are one of my favorite ace-up-the-sleeve kitchen tricks.

As for the chicken-killing dog? He gets a pass--this time. He can come back to the farm this summer to play and frolic with my dogs, but he'd better not kill any more of my chickens, because...

...if he don't stop eatin' my eggs up [or my chickens, for that matter]
Though I'm not a real bad guy
I'm goin' to get my rifle and send him
To that great chicken house in the sky.

--Johnny Cash

ian-knauer-chicken-liver-sandwich-h.jpgSauteed Chicken Liver Open-Face Sandwiches Photos by Ian Knauer

Sauteed Chicken Liver Open-Face Sandwiches
Serves 4 as a light lunch

1/2 baguette
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter plus more for toast
1 medium shallot, sliced
1/2 lb. chicken livers, rinsed, patted dry
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. honey
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Parsley leaves
Radish slices

Cut baguette into 4 open-face slices, then toast.

Heat 2 Tbsp. butter in a medium heavy skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add shallot and saute, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 4 minutes. Add chicken livers and 1/2 tsp. each kosher salt and pepper, then saute until livers are browned but still pink in the center, 4-6 minutes. Stir in vinegar, honey, mustard, and 2 Tbsp. water and simmer until liquid is reduced to a sauce, about 2 minutes.

Spread additional butter over toasts, then top with livers, sauce, parsley leaves, and radish slices.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Smells Like Spring...Garlic

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There is a moment each spring when I find myself standing in the garden, just staring at the garlic. It's a moment I dread because it means it's thinning time. Thinning requires decision making, and when I'm forced to make decisions--in the garden and in life--I often fear that I'll make the wrong one. So I just stand there for a while, feeling the cool spring air on the back of my neck, and stare at the too-thick rows of garlic. I know I'll have to pull some of it out of the ground so the rest will have enough space to grow. It's a sacrifice for the common good. It's just hard to be the druidic executioner, so to speak, and choose who will live and who won't.

I plant garlic every fall. It sprouts an inch or two before winter, then sits, waiting for early spring, when it skyrockets, sending forth foot-tall shoots and leaves. In another month it will send up flower stalks, or scapes, which I'll remove so the bulbs will have all the energy they need to plump up into heady garlic. But before that happens, I'll have to pull out some of the weaklings, giving the hardier stalks space to grow.


This practice isn't limited to small family farms like mine. Garlic farmers with plots much larger than mine also thin their plants. And for those of you who aren't faced with the heart-wrenching task of deciding which stalks to pull, that's good news. You can often find spring garlic at farmers' markets, and as you might imagine, it's pretty good stuff.

Spring garlic has the sharp flavor of aged garlic (the garlic you buy in the store has been hung and aged for some time, extending its shelf life and producing that papery skin on the outside), but it lacks the muskiness and bite that generally come with garlic that's not right out of the ground. Its cologne fills your head. And remembering that aroma makes the need to pull some of the stalks out easier for me. Much easier, in fact, because roast chicken with spring garlic and butter under the skin is a real treat that's around for only a couple of weeks each year.

Here's a recipe for that spring garlic-heavy roast chicken. I'd say it's worth sacrificing the lives of several of these little lilies.

ian-knauer-roast-chicken-h.jpgPhotos by Ian Knauer

Spring Garlic Roast Chicken
Serves 4

1 3 1/2-lb. whole chicken
2 stalks spring garlic
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 lemon, halved
1 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Position a rack in middle of oven and preheat to 450 degrees F.

Rinse the chicken and pat it dry. Beginning at the large cavity and being careful not to tear the skin, gently run your fingers between the skin and the meat to loosen the skin.

Remove any tough leaves from garlic, then finely chop the pale-green and white parts. Stir together garlic with butter, 1 tsp. salt, and 3/4 tsp. pepper.

Push garlic butter under chicken skin, including around the thighs and drumsticks; massage skin from the outside to spread butter evenly.

Season chicken inside and out with 3/4 tsp. each salt and pepper. Place lemon halves in the cavity and loosely tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Place chicken in a roasting pan on its side (one wing up; you may need to lean the chicken against the side of the pan) and roast 15 minutes. Turn chicken over to the other side and roast 15 minutes more. Turn the chicken onto its back and continue to roast until skin is golden and has begun to pull away from the base of the drumsticks. This will take about another 20-25 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest 15 minutes before carving.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Looking For A Legacy? Here's An Easy One: Rhubarb

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It has finally happened. Spring, that is. Farmstands in my area of Pennsylvania are teeming with ramps and asparagus and chives, all of which I've been cooking daily. It feels so right to eat something other than root vegetables. (Nothing against turnips, but a little green is very welcome after the winter we had.)

I've been eating a lot of rhubarb, too. One of those practically care-free plants, it shoots up pretty pink stalks every spring and, like my watercress, just keeps on giving, year after year. In fact, given its ease of cultivation, it's a wonder that only one bunch of it is planted here on the farm.

Yesterday morning, as I spread rhubarb compote over freshly baked biscuits, I decided to change that. I took a ride to the local Agway and bought eight rhubarb crowns for $1.50 each. Twelve bucks is a small price to pay for a lifetime of rhubarb. And if these plants take, it's likely they'll outlast me. (The one plant that's growing here has outlasted the man who placed it in the ground, my grandfather.)


Rhubarb crowns aren't much to look at. They come in a little plastic bag and are packed in sawdust. Chances are they've been sitting around for a while, so the first thing I like to do is give them a good soak in water for several hours. Then I grab a shovel and pick a spot that will get lots of sun but be out of the way. You should put some thought into picking that spot. It will be your rhubarb patch from now on.

Some folks like to fertilize or add compost to their rhubarb, and it can't hurt. But it's not necessary. Rhubarb wants to live, and it will send its roots as far down into the soil as it needs to find food. To plant, loosen the soil about 10 inches down, place the crowns in the ground at a depth of two inches, and cover them up with soil. Then wait. Next year, you'll have rhubarb (though you should go easy on the first harvest). And your grandkids will have rhubarb, too. Even if you're not around to see it.

ian-knauer-biscuit-484.jpgPhotographs by Ian Knauer

Here's an easy way to make a quick rhubarb compote. I eat it for breakfast on biscuits and for dessert with vanilla ice cream.

Rhubarb Compote
Makes about 1 1/4 cups Be sure to trim the leaves from your rhubarb stalks (and don't eat the roots). They contain a high concentration of oxalic acid, which is poisonous.

1 lb. rhubarb stalks, cut into 1/2"pieces
3/4 cup sugar
Kosher salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Bring rhubarb, sugar, a pinch of salt, and 2 Tbsp. water to a boil in a small heavy saucepan. Lower heat and cook, stirring often, until rhubarb has broken down and sauce is thickened, 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Let cool to room temperature.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Gift From My Great, Great, Great, Great Someone

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I spent the better part of yesterday tilling winter rye into the garden. It's fragrant stuff. Not in a great way, either, but in a wheatgrass-juice way. In fact, I find it to be a little nauseating.

As the rye decays into the cool spring soil, it adds nitrogen and other beneficial elements that will help this summer's vegetables thrive. One of the local farmers calls the practice of turning young rye grass into the earth adding "green manure." Given the way it smells, I can see why.

The process requires some foresight. I sowed the rye last October. Now that the garden has been tilled, the ground there is a stark and empty contrast to the rest of the farm, which has (finally) taken on the most brilliant shades of pale green. Aside from the garlic and onions I planted last fall (again, foresight required), the garden is barren.

Luckily, there's a source of edible greens that will fill in the salad gap until the garden is ready. This was the well-thought-out work of my ancestors.


Every year, sometime around early April, watercress starts to pop up in a little spring that feeds into the pond. It grows slowly at first, but then kicks into full gear by the beginning of May. This week, there's so much of it that I could eat watercress for every meal and still not make a dent in the patch. Someone, generations ago, planted it; since then it's been flourishing in the same spot. My father tells me stories of its bounty. My grandfather told the same stories, as his grandfather did. In fact, no one in the family knows exactly when it was planted. A long time ago, for sure.

And it requires zero care. No need to add green manure (or any other kind) to the plot. No need for weeding or tilling or cultivating in any way. It's a gift from well over a hundred years ago, and it's still just as wonderful. Now that is foresight.

Watercress is an exceptionally peppery and crisp green and, of course, it's terrific in salads. But now that there's a ton of it, I like to cook it and serve it alongside roast chicken.

Here's a recipe for Creamed Watercress that uses the starch from a cooked potato for thickener. I add a little mascarpone cheese to round out the richness, but even without the dairy, this is a great version of poor man's creamed spinach.

watercress-process-h.jpgPhotos by Ian Knauer

Creamed Watercress
Serves 4-6

1/2 medium waxy potato, peeled

1 Tbsp. plus 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, divided
1 1/2 lb. watercress
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup mascarpone
Freshly ground black pepper

Cut potato into 1/2" pieces. Cover potato with water in a medium pot; add 1 Tbsp. salt. Bring water to a boil and cook until potato is very tender, 15-20 minutes. Remove potato with a slotted spoon and transfer to a food processor. Bring the water back to a boil and add the watercress. Blanch watercress until it's bright green, about 1 minute. Transfer watercress to a colander and press on it to remove as much liquid as possible, then add it and the butter, mascarpone, and 1/2 tsp. each of salt and pepper to the processor. Puree with the potato. Season to taste with salt and pepper.