Hen House Drama, a Timely Pardon, and Cornmeal Pancakes

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In the spirit of full disclosure, our adventures in backyard poultry rearing have not been without, um, shall we say,  challenges.  We started back in April with three Rhode Island Reds – Fred, Tweety and Sally.  Things seemed great at first – we were getting three eggs a day, the chickens seemed happy (we let them free range during the day, and put them back in the coop at night), and it wasn’t a tremendous amount of work.  We made sure they had food, water, and fresh air, and they provided us with a dozen eggs every four days. It seemed almost too good to be true.

And that’s because it was.  We lost Fred in August to what we believe was a black widow spider bite, and we lost Tweety in October to a predator of some sort or another.  We didn’t want Sally to be lonely, so we found her four new friends – Spot and Dot, two lovely black and white Barred Rock hens, and Fred, Jr. and Tweety, Jr., a couple of Ameraucanas.  We promised to keep them safe, well fed and watered, in exchange for eggs.  We were looking forward to four or five eggs a day, perhaps enough to share with our friends and neighbors.  This was in November.

At first, Sally wasn’t terribly keen on her new coop-mates.  In particular, she decided that Tweety, Jr. was her nemesis.  Every time that poor hen would get close to Sally, she would peck at her and pull her tail feathers out.  Tweety, Jr. became scared to leave the corner by the nesting boxes – she would huddle there, trembling, trying to make herself as small as possible.  Sally was like the schoolyard bully, exerting her dominance over the new kid on the block.  I’m not sure what it was about poor Tweety, Jr. (maybe it was her name), but after a while Sally left her completely devoid of tail feathers.

In addition to this little pecking-order drama, the egg production was not what we’d hoped it would be.  For a while, it was only Sally laying.  Then occasionally one of the Rocks would lay – either Spot or Dot.  We know it wasn’t an Ameraucana because all of the eggs were of the brownish variety – Ameraucana eggs are greenish blue (part of the reason we chose the breed).  From late October to late January, there was nary a green egg to be had.  We’d been told that the hens were 8 months old when we got them, so they should have been of prime laying age.  Had we been swindled?  Were these gals completely infertile?  Was the trauma being inflicted upon them by that bully Sally too much to handle?  We weren’t sure.  What we did know was that they were eating an awful lot of feed and not producing anything in return.

Over time, the drama subsided, and Tweety Jr.’s tail feathers began to fill in again.  Both Rocks began laying regularly, and things seemed to be on a more even keel in the hen house.  When the weather began to get cold (for those two days back in January) we decided we need to put a heat lamp in the coop to keep the water from freezing overnight.  The light seemed to make things even better – the egg production from Sally, Spot and Dot increased.  Tweety, Jr. and Fred, Jr., though?  Not so much.

My mother and my husband have “joked” on more than one occasion about sending the Ameraucana’s to the stew pot.  I chose to ignore them.

The other day I went out to the coop, as I do in the afternoon, and I lifted the door to the nesting boxes.  There, nestled in the straw, were four eggs.  Three brown and one green (!).

And there was much rejoicing.

The (theoretical) trip to the stew pot has been stayed.

This morning I used that beautiful green egg in some cornmeal pancakes I’ve been wanting to tell you about.  I made them for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about them ever since.  I make whole-grain pancakes all the time – usually a mixture of rolled oats and freshly ground wheat – but this is the first time I’ve really delved into the cornmeal variety.  I think it’s because I’ve been getting all of this lovely freshly ground meal from Rockin’ S Farms – I really want to showcase it.  The sweetness of the corn lends itself really nicely to a pancake application.  Together with some local raw honey, cultured buttermilk, and those coveted eggs from our backyard flock, they make for a delightful breakfast. 

Honey, Buttermilk and Cornmeal Pancakes
prep time: 5 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
yields: 16 4-inch pancakes

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 2/3 cups buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup honey (I’ve also used molasses here, for a deeper flavor)
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 Tablespoons melted butter
  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, honey, eggs and melted butter
  3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to combine.  Do not overmix.
  4. Ladle by quarter-cupfuls onto a hot griddle.  Allow to brown on the first side before flipping to the second side.
  5. Serve warm with warm maple syrup, honey or fruit compote (I used some warm blueberry jam).
  6. Enjoy!
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Soda Crackers for Days

Do you know Martha Hall Foose?   I don’t, not personally at least, but I wish I did.  She seems like the kind of woman I’d want for a friend.  Warm, welcoming, funny, full of stories to delight your soul and your senses.  Plus, we’re both from Mississippi, and that’s an automatic bond in and of itself.  Us Mississippi gals have to stick together.

I was thrilled to be offered a review copy of her latest cookbook, A Southerly Course, in which she shares recipes and stories of life in the South.  As I flipped through the pages, I was struck by the sense of ease and comfort that seeps from the pages.  Her words are effortless and her recipes are inspiring.  She offers passages that are juicy, concise in their construction, yet rich in meaning:

Peeking beneath the table’s pall in the mythic South to see how its patent qualities of deep involvement with family, observance of ritual, and celebration of eccentricity play out around Southern food today has been quite a trip.  It has taken me on an inner journey as well.  My ambition to understand this mythologizing to which we Southerners are prone has had me up nights in the kitchen.  The myths themselves seem to begin with stories told around tables.

There’s a sense of front porch simplicity, of Sunday dinners on the farm, of family traditions passed down through generations.  She writes of a life with which I’m familiar, of hardship masked by the fortitude and grace of the people of this region.  My people.  Her people.  If you’re from the South, or even if you’re not (maybe even especially if you’re not), I highly recommend this book.  Even if you never attempt one of the recipes, you’ll delight in the stories behind them, and in the insight into this strange and rich subculture of America.

I really, really, really wanted to try the Skillet Fried Corn recipe.  When I first got the book, I flipped through the various sections, and the book just sort of naturally fell open to this page.  For years, my mother and I have romanticized my paternal Grandmother’s fried corn.  It’s what many people have come to call creamed corn, but it’s a far cry from what we know today as creamed corn.  I can picture it now, golden kernels of corn, dotted with a surplus of black pepper, fried in bacon grease.  The “cream” came from scraping the milk from the cob after you’d cut the kernels off.  Ms. Foose’s recipe is the closest I’ve come to something similar.  Hers calls for butter in addition to the bacon grease, and garlic (which I’m pretty sure my Grandmother never used), but otherwise it’s close.  Unfortunately, corn season has passed in these parts, so it will have to wait until next summer.

As it turns out, the first recipe I decided to test was used more as a guideline than as a formula.  I needed a soda cracker recipe, and hers was the first I came to.  I followed her ratios, but the ingredients are mine.  It was nice to find a simple, straightforward recipe for a cracker in a modern cookbook, though.  I think so many of us have come to rely on store bought crackers that we forget that they can be made at home.  And perhaps they should – there’s something personal about serving guests crackers that didn’t come from a sleeve in a cardboard box.  Plus, you can store them in adorable mason jars – there’s not much cuter than that.

Sage Cornmeal Soda Crackers
adapted from A Southerly Course by Martha Hall Foose
prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
yields: 180 crackers

  • 3 1/2 cups stone-ground white cornmeal
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
  • 3/4 cup expeller-pressed (non-hydrogenated) vegetable shortening
  • 2 cups whole milk
  1. Preheat oven to 375F
  2. Combine dry ingredients
  3. Cut shortening into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until it resembles course meal
  4. Make a well in the center and add the milk
  5. Stir to combine and knead to form a stiff dough.  If it’s too wet, add some more flour or cornmeal
  6. Turn dough out onto a well floured surface and roll to a 1/8-inch thickness
  7. Use a pizza cutter or knife to cut into one-inch squares.  Prick with a fork and sprinkle with sea salt
  8. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.
  9. Allow to cool before serving.

They were crisp and light, if a little dry.  As I recall, though, that’s a feature of soda crackers.  The cornmeal gave them some texture, and the sage was subtle but still noticeable.  They paired very nicely with a sweet potato bisque that I served for dinner.  I think they would also be good smeared with goat cheese and topped with tomato jam.  I was pleasantly surprised when the recipe yielded almost 180 crackers – Ms. Foose’s version says it only makes 60.  Not sure why the discrepancy, but I’m certainly not complaining.  We’ll have soda crackers for days.