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Perilla explosion and a fusion pesto

July 16, 2012

I have been sitting cross-legged on the living room floor for two hours. Spread around me is a semi-circle of plates, bags, stripped stems and a light sprinkle of soil. The scent of mint and anise hangs heavy in the warm air, and my fingers are stained black from the work, but I’ve finally finished prepping eight-pounds of fresh-picked perilla, also known as Korean sesame or kkaennip. There’s going to be a lot of kimchi this winter.

I let some of my perilla plants go to seed last fall, so I could gather seeds for future plantings – something I do with many of my favorite plants. A wind kicked up and I lost a small percentage of seeds from their husks. When tiny volunteers started popping up in the beds this spring, I transplanted some to a distant plot and turned the rest into the soil with the winter’s blanket of manure.

Cabbages went in those beds, and some curly kale, too. Perilla popped up in the walkways, and I let it grow. The caraflex and redbor mini cabbages didn’t seem to mind, and the kale did fine as well, so I let the perilla get bigger until it completely outgrew my cole crops.

Perilla surrounds curly kale, located at upper right in photo

Pointy heads of caraflex cabbage nestled in the perilla

I had to intervene. I pulled it all in one fell swoop. It filled a kitchen trash bag and promised hours of work in picking and washing leaves and making kimchi, pickle and pesto. Perilla goes bad quite fast, the leaves develop black spots then turn completely black and limp. I found it interesting that the cabbage grew to harvest-size with very few bugs bothering it. Cabbage is notoriously hard to grow organically in these parts; maybe the fragrant, minty perilla protected the little heads.

I’m resigning myself to potentially losing some leaves as I work through the stacks and bags as time allows, but I hope I can get it all done. There seems to be a lot of that sentiment around here these days. As they say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” I haven’t harvested any perilla from the other garden I transplanted to this spring, so there will be more to play with in the coming months and more seeds for the future.

Stacking leaves for jangajji and kimchi

I made pesto first, not the cooked pesto I wrote about back here, but a more traditional pesto. Or, that’s how it started out. After crushing and toasting almonds (no pine nuts on hand) and churning them in the food processor with perilla, olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese  and salt, I found it needed something more. I added mirin and toasted sesame oil – getting there. With an apology to the almonds I took a big scoop of fresh-ground peanut butter and sent it down the chute. Perfect! Now it tastes like a mix between pesto and peanut sauce, and it was very tasty on noodles. Perilla is hard to find in my locale, unless you feel like driving a couple of hours to the closest Super 88 Market (Dorchester, Allston or Boston in Massachusetts.) It is very easy to grow, however, and can even be a little aggressive, befitting a member if the mint family. Like lemon balm and mint, it smells fabulous when you walk through it.

I am not including the kimchi and pickled-leaves recipes, because I make them very much like this, and she even includes a nice video to teach you how to do it. If I happen to develop some kind of fusion perilla sauerkraut you’ll be the first to know. Or maybe rice and bulgogi-stuffed perilla leaves made like stuffed grape leaves?…

Fusion Perilla Pesto

4 C perilla leaves

1/2 C olive oil

3 cloves garlic, crushed or minced

1/3 C almonds, pine nuts or walnuts, crushed and toasted

1/2 C freshly-grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp coarse salt or a half tsp table salt

1 Tbs mirin

2 tsp dark sesame oil

3 Tbs freshly-ground peanut butter

Pulse the first four ingredients in a food processor until a paste forms. Add the other ingredients, one at a time, pulsing between each addition to incorporate fully. Cover tightly if not using immediately.

Pretty peas

June 25, 2012

Peas are always one of the first crops we harvest during the gardening season – right up there with spinach and mustard greens and arugula. This year offered a particularly early harvest, and we began picking snap and snow peas in the second week of June, after planting on St. Patty’s Day. Now that we are bringing in some two-pounds of edible-pod peas every couple of days, I think I might begin dreaming about curling tendrils and soft white blossoms, slender snows and rotund snaps, and pulling peas from outside the row then peering into the shadowy regions beneath the leaves, always hunting for hidden fruits. We inevitably miss one or two and find them a few days later hard, bulbous and practically splitting their seams.

It is oft repeated online that snow peas are among the earliest-known plants to be cultivated, 12,000 years ago, to be exact, and somewhere around the border of what is now Thailand and Burma. Without any references cited to back-up that fact, I searched botanical books in my library and found a bit of a different story. According to Botanica’s Organic Gardening, snow peas arrived in China from India during the Tang dynasty (618-907.) This reference goes on to report snow peas and pea shoots were favored by the Chinese and further refined. Hmm, is it possible that it was actually regular peas being cultivated 12,000 years ago?

D.J. Mabberley writes in The Plant Book that garden peas have been, “cultivated since 7000 B.C. (as long as wheat and barley)” in the Near East. Those are the peas you have to shuck. The most logical explanation of the origin of the snow pea can be found in Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, as well as in a few other places. Schneider writes, “Grown as early as 1536 by the horticulturally hyperactive Dutch… the “Holland pea” has a name that indicates its primary center of cultivation and refinement, as does its introduction into France by its ambassador to Holland around 1600.” She goes further and explains that the common name for the snow pea in China is hoh laan dau or he lan do, which means Holland pea. Londoner John Gerard wrote about snow peas in his 1597 Herball. Years later, Fearing Burr described nine cultivars of snow pea, as well as an impressive 65 additional pea cultivars, in Field and Garden Vegetables of America in 1863.

Snap peas are another matter altogether. There’s little mystery there. They were developed in the 1960s by Dr. Calvin Lamborn, who grew up one of seven children on a sheep ranch in Utah. The story goes he loved to sneak a snack in the family garden, as most children growing up in gardens do, but, as he explained to People magazine in 1979, “I remember chewing up the pods and having to spit out the parchment.” Years later, working as a botanist for Gallatin Valley Seed Co. in Idaho on the problem of twisting and buckling of pea shells, he came across a rare mutation (thicker shell walls) in a common pea plant, described as a one in a million mutation, that would become the basis for our beloved sugar snap peas. It took ten years to stabilize the cross between that odd plant and the common pea. Hoorah for the weird aberration. The ’79 People story warmly reported the inventor “still drives a 1959 panel truck between work and his Twin Falls home, where he and wife Bonnie tend a large garden.”

Whether you grow them, buy them or accept them from generous friends, this is a great time of year for snow and snap peas. Here are a couple of recipes we’ve been enjoying.

Chicken with Peas and Basil

(adapted from Martin Yan’s Asian Favorites)

3/4 lb boneless skinless chicken breast

1/8 tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper

2 Tbs veg oil

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1/4 cup finely chopped Chinese chives (garlic chives) or the same amount of minced onion

8 oz snap peas, halved

1/4 cup chicken stock

1 cup Italian or Thai basil leaves

1 Tbs fish sauce

1 Tbs soy sauce

2 tsp brown sugar

Thinly slice chicken across the grain and season with salt and pepper. Place wok (or large frying pan) over high heat until hot and add oil. Stir-fry garlic and chives or onions until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken and fry until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Add peas and stock and cook for 2 mins. Add basil, fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar. Cook for 1 minute and serve.

Brown Rice Salad with Radishes and Snow Peas

(adapted from The Rodale Whole Foods Cookbook)

To blanch peas, immerse them in boiling water for 25 seconds, then pour off hot water and rinse with cold water until they are completely cold.

2 cups cooked short-grain brown rice

1/2 cup celery, finely chopped

1/4 snow and/or snap peas blanched then halved

1 cucumber, seeded and diced

8 big radishes, halved and thinly sliced

1/4 cup finely chopped chives

1/3 cup minced parsley

2 Tbs rice vinegar

2 Tbs lemon juice

1 Tbs soy sauce

1/2 tsp paprika

1/4 tsp pepper

1/3 cup canola oil

In a large bowl, combine the rice, celery, peas, cucumber, radishes, chives and parsley. In a small bowl combine vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, paprika, and pepper. Slowly whisk in the oil until well blended. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and stir.

This salad is light and fresh tasting – flavorful enough to pair with blackened tuna while simple enough to compliment the delicate flavor of ginger-poached striper.

mixing before parsley and dressing

Two striper recipes for when you haven’t gotten skunked

June 19, 2012

I’ve never appreciated use of the word “skunked” as it pertains to recreational fishing. Getting skunked means an angler didn’t catch anything but a bad attitude. One can’t say they “were skunked”; it’s “I got skunked,” as in “I got screwed” or “I got robbed.” It is never the conditions that were skunky, though they may have been weedy, mungy or all churned up and dirty. You can’t say you offered the fish skunk retrieves or skunkish plugs or flies. The idea is that celestial forces, aloof fish, and angry fish Gods have conspired against the angler to deprive him or her of enjoyment, food and predatory glory. Those fish Gods were “hatin’ on ya.”

On the enjoyment side of things, I haven’t had many miserable experiences. If I have some time to escape from kids, chores, and other obligations, I might meander along a salt river’s edge, noticing bait flickering in the waning sunlight and birds eying that bait from above. I could be smelling the peat in the marsh and the brine of the water. I would most likely be enjoying the chance to think, unharried, and maybe let some thoughts go and just absorb the beauty all around. I’d make casts, working from point to point, trying to get into spots where bait presents itself nicely to a striper. Deep holes transitioning to shallow, edges and ledges of underwater topography, places that provide opportunities for ambush of prey by hungry stripers or places where they are funneling in to get to another spot – the striper highway.

I would look at the conditions (wind and water clarity) and just pick a plug I felt like throwing. Work it for a little while, and switch to something else if I didn’t get a hit. I might walk along the river for as far as I wanted to, then turn around and work my way back, now enjoying the great mural in pink, purple, and orange spreading across the evening sky. There could be great walloping hits on the plug, an assertive setting of the hook and a careful battle to bring a big fish in. That fish could have friends of the same 30- to 40-inch length and the evening would go from nice to awesome, sending me home breathless and wild-eyed to tell the story with one word tumbling over the next. There might be one 24-inch fish after another, or even one 18-inch fish after another. Pretty little silvery, shining things, some more yellow, some more green, gray or blue. I’d be sufficiently slimed from holding them tight to release the hook cleanly. Or, there might not be any fish biting. In that case, maybe I would go grab some blue crabs. There are days we might bring home both.

To have the opportunity and ability to fish this way is a blessing. Being able to do it here, surrounded by the unfaltering beauty of Cape Cod, is a blessing wrapped in another blessing.

What’s in the tackle bag? I might pack a Creek Chub popper for fishing topwater if conditions are weedy, as well as a Stetzko needlefish for the same placement in the water with a different behavioral presentation. I can work a needlefish plug like a darter to resemble fleeing bait or reel it in straight with no funny action from the rod, more like a real needlefish. It also pops, without pushing a ton of water. If squid were around it would be a white or pink needlefish. Bigger is usually better, unless small fish are desired. There would be swimmers in the bag: maybe an olive Mambo minnow and a yellow bomber, for daytime. There would be metal in there – Hopkins and Kastmasters and Stetzko darts, but I’d wait for heavy winds or surf fishing to pull those out – though they’re really nice to have if you see a feeding frenzy erupt far from shore. Oh yeah, and Mr Wiggly is in the bag, medium and large. I’d have a flatwing pattern fly tied on as a dropper.

This photo is borrowed, looks like sole and crumbs on top.

Striper wrapped around crab stuffing

I like to slice laterally through the thickness of a striper filet, making two thin filets, especially in the case of bigger fish and especially at the head end of the filet, where it is thickest. This technique makes pan-frying in butter and oil simple, and makes the following recipe possible.

1 lb crab meat

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 cup finely chopped celery

1/4 cup finely chopped green or red bell pepper

1 clove minced garlic

2 cups crushed Ritz-type crackers

2 Tbsp chopped parsley

1 Tbsp dry mustard

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 beaten egg

1/4 cup milk

1/2 cup melted butter

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Multiply recipe as needed depending on the amount of fish on hand.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the crab meat in a large mixing bowl. Stir in vegetables and dry ingredients, then add the remaining 4 ingredients. Mix thoroughly.

For smaller servings, cut filets to about six-inches in length. Place a rinsed and towel-dried thin fish filet in a greased baking dish and put a couple spoonfuls of stuffing about a third of the way in from the widest end of the filet. Roll up and rest the stuffed filet seam-side down in the pan. Repeat with remaining fish and stuffing, dot with butter, sprinkle with paprika and bake for 20-minutes or until cooked through.

Striper baked in tomatoes and peppers

I like a lot of vegetables with the fish, so I will use one-half of a 30-inch striper for this recipe. The original recipe calls for four fish steaks, which would be both sides of the same-sized fish.

adapted from Fanny Farmer

2 Tbs olive oil or butter

1 large onion, chopped, or a mixture of onion, garlic chives, chives, garlic scapes chopped measuring a cup

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1 green pepper, seeded and chopped

Cayenne pepper to taste

1/4 tsp oregano

1/2 tsp salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 Tbs lemon juice

1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 Tbs butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a skillet, heat the oil or butter and saute onion, garlic, tomatoes, and green pepper over low heat for 10 minutes. Stir in cayenne pepper and oregano. Spread half the mixture in a shallow baking dish. Season fish with salt and pepper, place them on the vegetables, and cover with remaining vegetables. Sprinkle with lemon juice and bread crumbs, and dot with butter. Bake for 25 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Raising Buff ducks for meat

May 30, 2012

We’ve been running a very informal experiment over here for the past year. It involved raising buff ducks for meat, as an added use for the low maintenance, low feed-cost waterfowl that provide us with eggs in all but the coldest months of the year (as well as year-round entertainment and manure.) I might have mentioned this project sooner, but I wanted to have it somewhat figured out before giving you any ideas.

With all our livestock projects, we’ve tried to get away from the “industry standard” breeds and work with more mixed-use and heritage breeds. Factory animals are usually those that have the fastest conversion of feed to meat. While it’s hard to argue with that from a financial standpoint, we don’t raise animals in a factory. We may need chickens that lay well in deep winter and also during heatwaves in the summer. We always want animals that forage the best, which also means they are quite active – not something that best fits the factory setting. I also like slow-growing animals, for a couple of reasons. First, they don’t hit the wallet all at once. While “meat-bird” chickens can grow to between four and six pounds in eight weeks, and Jumbo Pekin “meat ducks” can reach six to eight pounds in the same amount of time, they are consuming all the feed it takes to gain that weight in those two months. I prefer to spread the cost out over a longer period of time, and the slower pace allows me to supplement their diet more with produce and access to forage. I also believe a more complex diet and more exercise leads to a more flavorful animal and one that is more healthful. If that doesn’t do it for you, seeing animals in low density settings with a chance to free-range or graze in pasture or woodland rotation should.

The Buff is considered to be a “threatened” breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Originally called the Buff Orpington duck, it was developed by William Cook of Orpington, Kent, a town made famous by his creation of the still-popular Buff Orpington chicken. Cook’s Buff duck is regarded as a mixed-use breed, which means it should put on enough weight to make a nice dinner, as well as reliably lay eggs for breakfast. We have found our friendly egg-laying group to be excellent foragers who keep regular hours and stay together at all times. A drake and three hens have a hard time finishing one-and-a-half pounds of grain (approximately half-a-scoop, for you scoop people.) We give them only what they will finish, so they usually get a pound. They are completely free-range with daily swimming.

First incubator hatch, 7/11

We hatched 15 ducklings in our incubator at the beginning of July of last year. There were a couple of early casualties, and we moved 13 to the upper garage/meat bird house. The parent hens continued to lay heavily and hide their eggs in an ever-growing nest of hay, so we let one go broody and she hatched out 17 ducklings at the end of the same month.

fluffy ducklings gathered up

I tried to let her keep them, but I didn’t have the housing figured out and the little fluff balls were getting stuck everywhere, running through large-gauge chicken wire fences and having a hard time getting in and out of the duck hut, so I took them, a few a day, feeling very guilty. I kept them in my garage at night and let them scratch around in a homemade A-frame tractor I could drag to a new spot each day.

Soon, I moved them to the back of the upper garage/meat bird house. It wasn’t long before both flocks were running around free all day and testing out the pools. Two months later, back at the layer duck house, two hens decided to go broody together in a giant double nest. They hatched out a dozen duckings in late September and there was confusion amongst the offspring over who was mom, who to follow – who to attach to. They seemed to attach to both, and the moms doted over the whole gang as though they were all theirs. After a while, when the drake started picking on the ducklings, I removed them a few at a time and vowed not to let the hens brood any more hatches.

I butchered the oldest (incubator-hatched) flock at 11-weeks-old on September 25. They felt light to me, but I wanted to try some and I needed space for the other ducklings. I thought of halting the butchering day when I plucked the first bird. It was long, but very lean and there didn’t seem to be enough for a sandwich on its breast. The more I looked at it, the more acceptable it became. I effectively fooled myself into thinking it might be three-and-a-half to four pounds, even as my hand told me a different story as I carried it to the ice bath. I must have been really busy that week, as I did not put a bird on the scale until I had done in the whole group, chilled them, relaxed them overnight in a fridge and vacuum-sealed all but one for the deep freeze. When I started weighing birds to record on the sealer bags I got 2.5 lbs, 2.5 lbs, 2.5 lbs… It reminded me of a bad freshwater fishing pond I know where all the largemouth bass seem to be 2.5 lbs, forever and always. I had visions of cooking all the birds for one big dinner – with everyone getting their own duck. I felt bad thinking their beauty as a flock was worth more than their meat, at least to me. The female ducks’ value as egg-layers certainly surpassed the value of their carcasses as food. The flavor of the meat, cooked very rare, was very good. It was rich and clean and we ate the whole first duck standing in the kitchen slicing pieces off and dipping them in the fat collected in the pan. Oohs, ahhs, and mmms flowed freely. My daughter said it tasted like steak. The legs were exquisite, deeply flavorful and exceedingly tender.

I decided to merge the other two flocks together and let them grow for a few more months – which put us in the dead of winter. Backyard, outdoor butchering is wet and exposed and requires dexterity for plucking and all those knife-wielding moments, so that was a no-go. When spring came the drakes went into overdrive mounting and mating the hens. At one point I found a hen flattened, and she soon died. “This behavior will result in your hanging in a killing cone,” I thought, and I very quickly made good on that promise. We butchered the drakes at nine-months-old in April. I decided to keep the remaining hens for eggs. (See drake behavior video at the end of this post.)

The drakes were much longer than the birds at the two-month-old mark, their skin was more deeply colored and they had much more fat internally and externally. We did the job quickly, under tarps during a heavy rain-storm. That rain wasn’t the only thing that was heavy. I chilled the plucked, eviscerated birds in an ice bath and then in an ice-filled cooler, then moved them to an open fridge overnight. When I brought them to the vacuum-sealing station, I began weighing them and I found 2.5 lbs, 2.5 lbs, 3 lbs… I had a bit of a heavy heart. They just don’t get much bigger. It is possible the excessively energetic mating behavior slimmed the males down, but the females didn’t feel much heavier as I carried them down to the layer duck hut. Maybe they would fatten up if confined; they would get less exercise and be bored enough to eat more grain. I’m not going to try that. But I did try the meat and it was even better, more robust, and more wonderfully fatty than the first batch.

I think the breed is better suited to being kept for eggs, though my family and table size influences that opinion. If I were alone, or a couple, I would consider letting  the hens hatch a clutch or two every year. The ducklings are free, except for the loss of egg-laying during brooding and the cost of the eggs being brooded. The daily feed expense is very low. At our home, with an minimum of four diners nightly and an expansion to seven or eight not uncommon, this size bird makes it tough for chef. Cooking two or three birds at once seems… rude? Wasteful? Embarrassingly extravagant? Then again, feasting on three-pound ducks is a little like eating wild Mallards without the pellets – or Round-Up.

Gathering around the upper-house kiddie pools.

For information about the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, visit ALBC

Video of buff drakes in spring mating frenzy:

Screech and breech

May 14, 2012

I heard the crows sound their alarm, harsh cries above the maple trees. I was busy gathering things to leave, my son already clambering into the car. I glanced out the window and saw a flash of the raptor’s wings and tip of his tail above the coop, and then he was suddenly, impossibly inside the pen. The chickens had already retreated to the safety of the hen house, so I grabbed a camera and raced outside to capture a snap of the cornered hawk and get him out of there.

I locked the hen’s door to prevent the hawk from getting in or one of them from wandering out. As I focused the camera through the fence, the hawk perched for a moment then burst skyward, only to encounter the wire roof. He hung upside down there, wings spread and sharp talons wrapped around thin wire. His head swiveled, looking at me and examining the parameters of his predicament.

He let go and righted himself mid-air to land on the ground looking spry, if confused. Maybe he was thinking, “How do I get out of here?” Maybe he wondered, “Now, where did that dowdy faverolle hen go?” He hopped onto a little box and preened for a moment.

While he was composing himself, I walked around the coop to look for the opening in the roof. I didn’t find one. The hawk moved away from me with two hops followed by an easy little flight to the top of a pole. He clutched the top of the re-purposed fishing rod, all big feet and skinny legs.

I rounded the pen again and opened the outer door. He spied that opportunity instantly and silently glided out of his confinement with an air of cool nonchalance. He flew over the noisy pig, up into the maples, through the maples, and he was gone. He had been mine for a moment, this immature Coopers hawk. All his burgeoning power and speed, grace and skill, accuracy and strength were contained in my hen pen for a breath or two. I smiled as I let the low, slow, ruffled and unrefined hens out again. I guess you could say it takes all kinds.

I sent a couple of photos to a friend who knows a great deal about raptors. I thought the photo of the the hawk hanging upside down was a neat snap. He replied, “Cool photos, but keep in mind that if a juvenile bird breaks or even tips a tail feather or breaks a primary it’s usually a death sentence. It throws off their precision just enough so their hunting is thrown off. That bird has made it through the whole winter so he’s probably a survivor, but I’m concerned about his need to be around the coops to this degree.  Plumage looks good in the pics but the tail being jammed into the wire scares the hell out of me! Glad you chased him out easily.”

I instantly felt a little bad for wasting time taking pictures, but I assuaged my guilt with the knowledge that getting into a coop was at one time, in some local yards, a death sentence for a hawk. This policy must have been great for all the rodents on those farmyards. I was grateful for my friend’s wisdom, and it deepened my understanding of these birds. I saw the hawk’s fragility, his tail like the unscaled patch on the dragon Smaug’s chest in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Then again, a Cooper’s hawk was never really a dragon on our farmyard, though it may have been to sparrows at someone’s bird feeder. Our losses have been to red-tailed hawks and owls, and while the poultry free-ranger in me keeps a wary eye on tree-tops and dive-bombing crows, the gardener in me delights at the sight of a raptor taking a chipmunk off the land.

Ducks attacked

May 1, 2012

We lost a darling duo of ducks Sunday evening, but their disappearance was not without a trace – and not without forewarning. We’ve been on alert for the last couple of weeks. First, I discovered a young fisher scrambling away from the upper duck house two weeks ago. The low furry creature was illuminated by my headlights late at night and I was momentarily frozen in amazement as it sort of bounded and sort of undulated across the driveway. I quickly regained my wits and chased it with my vehicle through the brush, but he was long gone. I wondered if he had been responsible for the disappearance of a drake (male duck) a few weeks earlier, but as the ducks are free-range and always locked in tight at night, it could just have easily been the work of a fox, hawk, coyote or hobo.

Then, less than a week ago, a fellow chicken-keeper called to tell me she had seen a coyote coming out of the woods at the southern end of our land with a “big Buff Orpington chicken in its mouth.” It was 6:22 in the evening, and I was out in the backyard weeding the garden. My 4-year-old was in the front yard washing five-gallon buckets. I quickly performed a head-count and found all our chickens and ducks accounted for, but I was a little unnerved at the boldness of this kill and the coyote’s ability to move through the woods without anyone noticing. I think my neighbors are missing a chicken. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for coyotes during the day – something we don’t always have to consider as they tend to move through our area at night, just about every night.

Apparently I haven’t gotten used to the idea of smart predators winnowing our flocks during the day, because I left the property for two hours Sunday evening. When I returned 7 of our 9 ducks had settled into the lower house and the two young hens (female ducks) were gone. This hit illustrates the danger of the helpless operating outside the flock. Not only are the ducks unarmed, they also don’t fly particularly well as our domesticated waterfowl have had that escape tactic bred out of them. This helps farmers keep their ducks from flying away with wild flocks, but it stinks when they’re being attacked. Most varieties of domesticated ducks, including our Buffs, are descended from Mallards and nest on the ground. Muscovy ducks, on the other hand, roost in trees and have claws on their toes to help them grasp branches. A tree-climbing duck might be just the thing for this neighborhood.

While the flock doesn’t provide much protection for its individuals from a big, powerful predator operating in the daylight hours, our flock tends to stay very close to our house, as in hanging out on our front doorstep. We have an outside spigot there that invariably develops a leak in the y-connector and the ducks ignore their deep, clean pools in favor making a muddy mess right in front of the house. The hens that we lost were bonded together, being part of a younger flock that was pared of its excess drakes, and they often retreated in the afternoon to their spot in the upper house – even as all the other ducks remained hundreds of feet away in the lower yard.

They were off on their own, a pair of sitting ducks, and nature took its course. I felt terrible, wished I had just penned them all in together, and cursed the various elements that came together to take them apart. And I was mad that I didn’t get to eat them, if anyone was going to have that pleasure. I’ll bet those ‘yotes didn’t even make stock! I also recognized that the natural world is brutal, and being prey is sometimes the price of relative freedom. We’ve had them on grass since they were a few weeks old, and we’ve always allowed them the benefits and risks of  a free-range life. It’s easier, logistically, to pen them up, but they are healthier, cleaner and seem happier when out and about. Constant foraging in the woods and yards also provides them an excellent diet, which makes their eggs and meat healthier, and they gets tons of exercise. (For example, pastured eggs can contain as much as ten times more omega-3 fatty acids than those of factory hens. Read more about this here.)

With nothing else to do about the duck disappearance, I searched for clues and found a few. The fact that both disappeared so completely makes me think there may have been multiple assailants. I submit for your perusal evidence photos from the crime scene.

Photo A: Black arrow points to paw print, note more prints above the arrow. Red arrow points to blood. Blue arrows point to arcing wing-prints (hard to decipher here, but unmistakeable if you’ve seen them before.) Note the relative roundness of the print compared to the more elongated prints in photo B, which follows. Maybe it was the young fisher or even the crepuscular red fox.

Photo B: paw prints in the drive east of area shown in photo A. Note the tracks are made over the tire tracks. Suburban traveled down the drive at 7:30 pm, but may have rode the hump and not left track on the sand.

Photo C: Raccoon tracks over the tire tracks. Note elongated toes of the rear paw on bottom track. Highly unlikely raccoons attacked this early in the evening, but if one duck was taken and one scrambled to a hiding place in the woods, another predator like this one could have removed the other hen duck from the property in the wee hours of the morning.

April Squidding

April 22, 2012
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We had an errand to run that took us about an hour’s drive from home, and we knew of a small bridge there that spanned a salt river running from a cove to a salt pond. We’d heard of squid being caught there in the past, and though it seemed a bit early, the stripers and bait fish have been very early, too, so we figured squid might follow suit. We used 50-lb test monofilament line to make up 12-inch leaders with unweighted jigs (the top jig) and 24-inch leaders with weighted jigs (the bottom jig) and tied sets of both onto swivels then tied them onto our braided line. Rigged rods readied, we packed the ride with snacks for the kids and headed off.

Coincidentally, a squid-obsessed friend was heading up to the spot ahead of us. We thought we might be jigging together, but when we got to the bridge no one was there. Not only was it a bad sign that our friend had bailed, it was equally disheartening to find no one else fishing. News of squid travels fast, and when they’re being caught, jiggers come out of the woodwork to crowd the choice spots.

We had to give it a try, so I began getting my son ready to go, and Tony grabbed a rod and got started. My cell phone rang and our friend reported that the action had died down over the last 18-hours and he had just jigged for 2-hours without getting a bite. As I murmured my condolences I looked over to the bridge and watched Tony hoist a spinning, spraying squid over the railing.

“Hey, he got one!”

“Are you serious? I was just there…I just left! He got one? Really?”

Then another squid came over the rail, and another after that. Our friend laughed in disbelief and I quickly ended the call and grabbed my rod. A couple dozen squid later, Tony wondered, “What do you think we would have done if he had called 10-minutes earlier? We might have just skipped it.” We just looked at each other and smiled. Not likely.

(A few hours earlier I had started to set up this station in the yard for butchering ducks in the rain. It came in handy as a squid gutting area.)

Cephalopod Henna

A young helper

Pulling out the quill

fishing out the guts

cut, soaking in milk, almost ready for deep frying in the wok

There’s a recipe at the bottom of this post if you want to know how we clean the squid. That information is in the last paragraph before the recipe; just scroll down past all the yammering on about crabs and bait. Check out the recipe if you want to know how we fry them up. Our first catch is always ceremoniously deep fried, and after that we will start to make marinara and Asian stir-fry and even grill them. It is also essential to please the fishing Gods by giving away a substantial portion of any “first catch.” Unless it’s a first striper, and that of course must be kissed and returned to the water. For a quick, easy and delicious squid marinara recipe, check out this post – just scroll down past all the yammering on about goat milk and horseradish.

A few hours after hoisting the squid from the water, they were cleaned, sliced and sitting in a bowl of milk on my counter. I noticed color-changing cells on the un-skinned tentacle sections were still flashing. I took a little video and have included it below.