About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Roast Duck Dinner (From Post Office to Plate) - Part 3

The following day brought a fresh perspective, some new ideas and much better weather.
In evaluating the previous day's successes and failures we decided that:
1.  We needed to scald for longer than we thought and at a much higher temperature than is generally recommended. We think this is because our ducks are older than most that are harvested commercially.
2.  The ducks seemed to continue to loosen their feathers for a while after coming out of the scald so we would try streamlining the process through scalding on all of the birds were were going to do and then concentrate on removing the feathers as a separate project.
3. We needed to resign ourselves to the fact that if we wanted skin-on ducks there was going to be a serious amount of hand plucking work involved.  There was no magic gizmo (at least not within our reach) that was going to miraculously de-nude the birds completely.  Further research into commercial duck processing came across some other techniques that might have applicable merit.  One method: the easy feathers were removed after scalding and then the ducks were dipped into molten paraffin wax then into ice water to harden the wax which was then peeled off - taking with it most of the remaining feathers - sounded promising but it required a LOT more of the wax than we had on hand for this session.
After setting up our various stations for the day (see previous post for details) we decided to kill and scald 4 birds in short succession then work together on the plucking.  That would give us a total of 6 in the fridge.  Plenty to see if this was all going to be worth it.
Work progressed smoothly.  After killing and bleeding-out, we scalded the birds in the soapy water at 170-180F for a full 3 minutes and by the end some feathers were almost falling out on their own.  A quick check showed no signs that it was cooking the ducks.  Once all four were scalded and piled in a large bus tub, I began working on them with the Hillbilly Plucker.  They were still quite hot and the plucker got off a lot of feathers.  When the first one was as done as I could get it, Kathryn started the hand work on it while I "HIllbillied" the rest.
By the time I'd finished pre-plucking all four, she had the first one almost done.  Things were definitely going faster but it was still very fussy work.  Despite our super-scald, some of the feathers were still so well anchored we had to pull them with needle-nose pliers. Working together we plucked three of them until as done as possible, sometimes exchanging the birds we were working on.
"Here.  You take this one for a while.  I'm tired of looking at it"
Once the first three were done I started the gutting and Kathryn finished the last one.
When all four were plucked, gutted, washed off and in the ice bath we, again, moved inside to finish the work of peeling feet and singing hair (and pulling the occasional missed feather here and there).
All in all it took us about 4 hours to process the four ducks today and get them in the fridge to rest.  Half the time per-bird of the previous day's efforts, but still a lot longer than we had hoped.
Two days in the fridge and the ducks should be nice and relaxed and I can start treating them like food!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Roast Duck Dinner (From Post Office to Plate) - Part 2

The thing about eating roast duck is that you really need that nice crispy skin to complete the dish as a whole.  We raise and butcher about 30 Cornish-Rock cross cockerels (male chickens) a year.  They are an amazing meat bird going from hatchlings to table in 8 weeks or less.  Their feed conversion rate is astounding with most of what they eat going directly into muscle growth.  Anyway, when we butcher the chickens we skin rather than pluck their feathers.  It's very fast, easy and have never missed eating the skin even once.  I knew this wouldn't be so with the ducks.
Plucking birds is messy hard work, and especially so with waterfowl like ducks.  The traditional way to pluck birds is:  Kill and bleed the bird, give it a quick dip in very hot water, yank out the feathers.  There are a number of poultry plucker machines of various sizes and duty ratings available to help with the "yanking" part.  They range from several hundred dollars to a few thousand. We were only planning on butchering out 10 drakes at most and it didn't seem to make any sense to invest in any of these machines.  On the other hand, we knew all-hand plucking was going to be a real chore. 
A little online research came up with a  gizmo variously called a "slum- ghetto-, or hillbilly-plucker".  It was a home-made attachment for an electric drill made from a PVC pipe fitting, some rubber bungee straps and a bolt. There were a few YouTube videos of them in action and they seemed effective (on chickens at least) so I splurged on $20 in materials and cobbled one together.
Scalding the birds is also messy and the whole process is much better done all outdoors.  These ducks were getting BIG and I was going to need my big 15-gallon stock pot for the hot water.  Well I didn't have any kind of burner big or sturdy enough to hold that pot except for my candy stove and NO WAY was that going outside for a slaughter day!  Online shopping to the rescue again and I found a very nice LPG Cajun Cooker Burner designed for handling large crawfish-boil dinners.  Perfect. Pass the credit card, please and thank-you.
Once all the necessary equipment had been delivered, built or, otherwise readied we set the date and prayed for good weather. 
The night before Slaughter Day we closed as many of the ducks as we could wrangle into the chicken coop area and took away their food. This makes for a much cleaner butchering experience and lessens the severity of one of the many unpleasant aspects of the process (the gutting).
The following morning, as soon as possible after all the morning chores, we set up our poultry processing station near the pen where the birds were being held.  I'm not going to go into great detail about our set-up(see pictures below) but there were the killing cones, the scalding station, the hillbilly plucker station, the hand/finish plucking table, the gutting station and various washing and chilling buckets, tubs, knives, cutting boards, thermometers, timers etc. 
Our plan was to catch and kill the first duck and while it was bleeding out, catch and kill a second.  We would then take the first and scald/pluck and gut it while the second one bled.  The first one would go into the ice bath to chill and we'd scald/pluck and gut the second one.  With any luck we'd be able to get a third one killed and hanging somewhere during all of this and just keep working our way through all the drakes we'd selected.
<Sigh>  My wife has a saying "People plan: Goats laugh".  It's a reference to the fact that despite all best efforts goats will usually come up with a way to outsmart/outmaneuver/out-something we humans with the theoretically more highly developed brains and those marvelous opposable thumbs.  This day the people planned and the ducks laughed.
To start with, the weather could have been better.  It was way too windy for comfortable outdoor work, making everything harder than it should have been.  The plastic wrapping on the stand for the killing cones was flapping all over the place, the burner for the scalding pot kept wanting to blow out etc.  It's a busy time of year for us  and we weren't exactly sure of when the next opportunity for a couple of open days for a project like this might be, so we forged ahead anyway. 
The first part of the plan went flawlessly the ducks were easy to catch and calmly went to their demise.  We were concerned that the killing cones we had made years before for chickens would not be big enough for the ducks but they worked perfectly and the first two volunteers died quickly and cleanly, bleeding out well without any fuss or drama. 
Next up: Scalding...
Remember I mentioned that plucking waterfowl was especially messy and difficult?  I'd read that in a book.  A couple of books, actually. I had NO IDEA how difficult they were talking about!  Try just this side of impossible!  The best info I could glean suggested scalding for maybe a minute in 140 degree water "just until the tail feathers come out easily". Ha, ha, ha, ha. Very funny! One minute in the hot water and the tail feathers wouldn't budge. Two minutes and one feather came out with extreme effort.  Three minutes and a small handful did come out as did some of the large wing feathers.  I was afraid that any longer and I was going to have boiled duck. 
Onto the Plucker...
I'd mounted the drill-wielded Hillbilly Plucker on one of the forks of my tractor's forklift attachment.  It was as solid as a rock and I was able to set it at a comfortable working height.  There was no easy electricity where we were working so I'd brought over one of our portable generators to power the drill.  It fired up on the first pull and the plucker spun into life but after a few minutes of trying to hold the very heavy, soggy and hot bird against the flapping fingers I realized that this was not going to be as easy as all those YouTube videos had made it look. In the videos they were, of course, plucking chickens and the feathers absolutely FLEW off them, leaving 95% denuded carcasses in about 2 minutes flat.  Definitely not so rewarding with ducks.
After several very soggy minutes of holding the bird against the flappers I'd gotten off maybe 40% of the feathers and had gotten completely soaked in the process.  Imagine that: soaking wet bird meets fast-flying-fingers.   At least as time went on it was cool water instead of very hot water I was getting sprayed with.  Anyway, I tried with the grain, against the grain and  perpendicular to the grain of the feathers, but nothing gave that satisfying cloud of flying feathers I had been hoping for.  I was making progress especially on the middle-sized feathers (the big ones definitely needed hand pulling and the tiny fluff feathers seemed determined to stay no matter what) but it was slow and tedious. 

After another few minutes of work we decided that the bird was as plucked as this method would accomplish so we moved it to a table and Kathryn started hand working it while I scalded the second duck.  I'd left the burner under the scalding pot on full blast and despite the wind fighting it the temperature had gone up quite a bit during the protracted plucking work.  It was almost to 170F but I figured "What the Hell..." The lower heat wasn't great so what did I have to lose?
Again with the timer... one minute - nothing, two minutes - barely a budge on the feathers, three minutes - seemed about right again so off to the plucker we went.  This time I actually did get a couple of explosions of feathers off the bird and the plucker was definitely getting more of the feathers off with less work.  After a couple of minutes I had about 80% of the feathers off (which sounds pretty good until you think about the remaining 20% as being the hardest ones still needing to be dealt with).
By this time Kathryn had about half the first bird once-over hand plucked and it was starting to look a lot more like food than road kill so I joined her and we each worked on a bird until they were close to done.  We figured we could fine-tune them inside, out of the elements, so I quickly gutted them (saving the hearts and livers), tossing the heads to the dogs.  
After a fresh water rinse we transferred the ducks to an ice water bath and moved the operation indoors.
Inside, in more comfortable working conditions, we were able to get the rest of the stubborn feathers persuaded out, get the feet peeled of their outside skin layers and, using a Mapp gas torch (hey, it's all I had), singed off the remaining hairs.
Finally they looked like something that belonged in a kitchen and I had hopes that this whole fiasco was going to be worth it.  Maybe.  Time expended: 4 hours for two people to ready 2 ducks.  Ridiculous!  The ducks went into the fridge for their resting period (time to allow the muscles to pass through rigor mortis).
We obviously needed to improve and refine our technique but were way too beat to try any of our new ideas until the next day.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Roast Duck Dinner (From Post Office to Plate) - Part 1

A reporter wrote an article about us for Edible Phoenix Magazine a few years ago and included a joke we'd told her when she asked "So, how do you make goat cheese?"
We had told her that we started with 280 acres of land, 25 happy, healthy, free-range Nubian goats contributing their super-high butterfat milk twice a day.  We then proceeded with our standard commercial recipe.  She thought it was a hoot and included an expanded-to-the-ridiculous version in her article. Now it's become a standard response around here when anyone asks about any of our Ranch-raised or grown products.
"Wow, this is a great steak!  What's your secret?"
"Well, first you birth the calf.  Then your raise him free-range on his mother's milk and high-desert browse for 18 to 24 months, then..."
The really funny thing is that it's completely true and similar stories apply to most of the food we eat here. 
An exchange at a recent open house for the dairy...
"So, what do you do with all the goat poop and barn cleanings from around the Ranch?"
"We eat it."
"Excuse me?"
"We eat it.  First we compost it, then we spread it in our garden, then we plant vegetables in it, then, when they're ready, we eat them".
Today I'm going to tell you about a duck dinner I cooked for Kathryn and myself a few weeks ago.  The story of this dinner starts, predictably enough, about 8 months ago when the hatchling Moscovy ducks arrived via US Mail at the post office of a friend in Phoenix.  27 feisty and healthy little ducklings, just a few days old.  Their successful arrival was a relief because the first order from the company (which we'd had shipped directly to us) had all arrived dead.  It turns out that our location is too rural to get guaranteed next-day delivery from the duck breeder's location, but our friend in The Big City got them in less than 24 hours from the time shipping.
Anyway, the second batch of ducklings arrived safe and sound and our friend, who has a goat dairy in Buckeye AZ took them to her farm and got them all settled in.  Our agreement with her was that she would care for them until she brought them up to us when she came for a long- planned visit a few days later in exchange for a duck dinner sometime down the road.  All went well and the ducks made the 4-hour drive with her with no problems and quickly adapted to life in their new brooder/digs.
About a month later TERROR STRUCK the duck colony.  Kathryn walked in and was surprised to see all the little ducklings cowering in a corner.  Looking around she soon saw why... a very large Gopher Snake was in the duck pen about half way through swallowing one of their siblings whole! Kathryn ran back to the dairy, grabbed her snake hook (and the camera!) and promptly removed the 6-foot long predator by wrangling it (and its meal) into a 5-gallon bucket and driving it in our Polaris Ranger about 1/2 a mile away down to the big dry wash that runs through our property.  Catching the snake red-handed in the act also solved the mystery of what had happened to a couple of our baby laying hen chicks that had disappeared into thin air earlier this spring.
The rest of the ducklings' time in their "baby" pen went quickly and smoothly and before long they were being moved into the main chicken coop.  The coop features a 20x20' fully fenced and roofed outdoor run for security from owls etc.  A door to the pen is normally kept open so the birds can come and go as they please but we closed it now so the ducks (now quite good-sized) would have to stay and get used to their new quarters.  This would be their last move until they were allowed to go free-range in another few weeks.
At about 4-months old we began opening the door during the day so the ducks could start exploring the world.  Within a week they had become sufficiently comfortable out-and-about that we opened it up fully and permanently.
With great delight we watched the first clumsy flights of the most adventuresome of the flock and before we knew it they were all flying short distances across the main compound (usually from one feeding area to another), though they seemed more at home walking most of the time.  By this point we could begin to distinguish the males (drakes) from the females (hens).  We had originally wanted ducks primarily for bug control around the dairy but chose the Muscovy breed because of their highly prolific nature.  Even so, it was obvious that we had way more drakes than we (actually the hens) needed to perpetuate or even grow the flock. 
A duck-butchering day was planned.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Winter Tomatoes

There's nothing better than winter tomatoes! 
Let me be more precise...
There's nothing better than fresh, warm-off-the-vine, red ripe tomatoes especially in winter. Believe it or not, that's something I've been taking a bit for granted recently.
We have a small greenhouse here on the Ranch.  It's original and still-primary purpose is for early spring seed-starting for the vegetable garden.  Several years ago it occurred to me that it went largely unused in the winter and decided to see what I could grow.  I'm not particularly interested in flowers so food plants (surprise, surprise) became the focus.
The Greenhouse in January
Getting the tomato plants started last fall
Pots of herbs and some salad greens have all earned their places of honor in the tightly packed space but it was the little tomato seedlings I set in the center bed that first autumn that really surprised me by taking off and, bearing fruit all winter long.
I've been growing a bed of winter tomatoes ever since. Some years have been good and others pretty dismal but the last couple have been phenomenal with regular harvests of 6 to 12 medium-sized tomatoes every 5 days or so.  As much as I love just eating sliced tomatoes as a side dish or wedges in a salad I've actually had to cook with some of them this winter because I can't keep up with their production.  When you start feeling like you HAVE to eat something, no matter how special it is, it loses some of its appeal.
I was fortunate to have two sets of visitors to the ranch over the past couple of weeks both remind me of just how wonderful they are and how lucky I am to have them.
The first visitor was a good friend from Phoenix who came for several days to help us with an intense section of our goat-kidding season.  I think we about worked the poor woman to death and don't know how we would have done it without her help.  There were just so many things going on at once and the hours were so long and difficult and the sleep so fleeting, that we had her picking up our slack in countless different ways. 
Yesterday's Harvest
One night I remembered that I hadn't even been to the greenhouse in days and asked her to run out there and see if there were any ripe tomatoes.  It took her a little longer than I expected but back she came with a nice basket of them, many of which made it to the salad we had with dinner that night.  She couldn't stop talking about the tomatoes and at one point, between bites, confided that all the tomatoes had not made it back to the kitchen - she had popped them off the vine into her mouth while picking the rest!
Then,  just today, we had some other friends from the other side of the state make the 6+-hour trip here to pick up some goat kids and a Dexter heifer which they had purchased.  They arrived early having made most of the drive in the pre-dawn dark so we offered them some breakfast (fresh fruit, sausage and egg hoagie sandwiches, and sides of home-fried potatoes, sliced tomatoes and some jalapeno peppers).  Again, the tomatoes, which I served simply sprinkled with a little salt, pepper and basil, were a big hit.
The "fresh legs" of a ball player coming off the bench can rejuvenate the whole team.  "Fresh eyes" on a project gone stale is a good way to jump-start problem solving solutions.  This week I've learned that "fresh taste buds" can work magic at re-inspiring a cook.
I am so lucky to have so many delicious and extraordinary ingredients to work with on a daily basis here.  From our Ranch-raised and butchered meats and poultry, to our own garden produce fresh or preserved by canning or freezing and, of course, all the wonderful fresh and aged goat cheeses we make here from our herd's milk.
I am going to try very hard not to take a single one of them for granted, ever again.