Friday, July 19, 2013

Meet the chickens

The chickens were our first outdoor animals. When severe asthma made having cats impossible, I threw my energy into finding something that would feel like company, but live outside where my husband and son wouldn't have to breathe the allergens. Chickens have the side benefit of producing eggs, beautiful feathers, and if we chose, meat. They are also a lot like middle schoolers.

Cosmo and Ember, who is easily twice his size
Our old rooster Cosmo is best described as gallant. Smaller than any of the hens, he will still throw himself in the way of danger. He calls them over when there is food, pretending to drop it until they arrive to share. He steps into the tall grass when the path narrows, so the hens won't have to. He is also confident enough to let a wise hen make a decision if she knows better. Nuki (no he follows the advice of Devor becauce Nuki died) often has brighter ideas than Cosmo, and he will follow her lead, and make sure the rest of the flock does as well. One time he called out to a wild rooster just to fight it! The rooster he waned to fight was much larger. (I don't know the other rooster was bigger from sight but I have been told he was larger.

Peaches and Cream are the Seabrites. Cream is very feminine. She likes to be near Cosmo, and if he's not around she will cling to the other hens instead. She gets very upset when she's alone. Peaches is much more butch. She's the only hen we have who crows; a wild, high pitched sound with the same intonation as a rooster but in a higher key. I've seen her chest fight with Cosmo, but I've also seen them mating, and I've seen her lay eggs. Peaches has special problems with the neighborhood crows. Because she is so close to them in size, they target her for their cruelest bullying. Cream is usually near Cosmo, so she gets a little protection. Because Peaches likes to do things for herself, she sometimes loses a tail feather to a pestering crow.

Ember, the black Austrolorp, is a loner. For a while, we had a hen named Providence. She was unique. She had a spur like a rooster, but otherwise looked like a hen. She was the meanest bird I've ever known. She would pick on another hen even when the hen was trying to get out of her way. Providence had a soft spot for Ember and treated her like a consort, isolating her from the other hens but never picking on her. I could never tell what Ember thought about Providence. She's not a very expressive chicken. Eventually Providence became so hostile to some of the hens, we couldn't keep her.

Nuiki and Devorah are sisters. Nuiki is a genius hen, and always seems to have good plans. Devorah is the most people friendly.

Devorah is the only hen we have that walks up under your hand to get pet. She doesn't mind being picked up, although I don't think it's her favorite activity.

Rhode Island Reds are super reliable egg laying birds. Rosa and Poppy spend a lot of time foraging, then take a brief walk to the nest box and drop off an egg. Very business like.

Lemon and Lime are Copper Marans. I love pastel colored animals, so I was pleased to see that while the eggs are coppery in color, the hens are a pretty, soft blue. For some reason, these two like to nest on the ground.

Elevator got her name because we misheard her breed. She is an olive egger, and is supposed to give greenish eggs. Hers are brown but we love her anyway. She is friendly in a shy way with other chickens. We briefly had a larger rooster( Lorin? who was Cosmos son) , before he tried to kill Cosmo. Elevator loved him and spent all her time with him. They were like high school sweethearts. She does not appreciate Cosmo much. Elevator flies better than any of the other hens. She often gets herself into places she can't get back from, and is very forlorn about it.

If you spend time with chickens, you discover that they don't all fit gender stereotypes 100% of the time. Granite seems to have her own way of being, which is perfect for her but isn't quite the same as the other hens. We thought Granite was a rooster when she was little. She had sharp feathers, a big comb, and a very confident walk - all traditional rooster traits. When she started laying eggs, we decided she must be a hen. She does fewer of the other henny activities, like dust bathing and guarding a nest.

I do not believe that we can model ourselves on animal behavior, however tempting. But I do believe that animals act on impulses that still live in us. If 9 chickens can each express sexuality a little differently, is it too much to believe that 7 billion people won't have a huge range of identities?

Written by Sarah
Revised and published by Noah


Saturday, July 13, 2013

A flight of frozen treats

Recently, the folks at Tom Bihn asked us to make some different ice cream flavors for a block party block-party-at-the-tb-seattle-factory-youre-invited . We are excited to go and to see many of our friends - you're invited.

Our family tradition of making ice cream must have gotten out. David wanted to make sure any story about ice cream included a shout out to our beloved Ice Cream Boy freezer, which has its own freezer function and sits our on the counter, ready to turn ingredients into ice cream at any moment.

My first thought was to make a bunch of blackberry sorbet and some vanilla ice cream, our family favorites. But the idea of bee pollen ice cream kept coming up.

And I thought we could use honey as a sweetener for the vanilla. We found that Japanese knotweed honey was too strong and fennel honey was too medicinal. Mild, simply flavored blackberry honey was the winner.

Then it dawned on me - the common theme here is the blackberry. We can use its honey, its fruit, its pollen (mostly - we collect bee pollen but it's always a mixture) and maybe even the leaves. We can make a trio of blackberry themed ices.

When I moved to Seattle almost 20 years ago, one of my first cultural observations had to do with blackberries.

Where I had lived before, I had to beg and plead with friends to get them to come pick blackberries with me. They thought it was a waste of time, they fussed about bugs and dirt, they didn't know how to use the berries after they were picked.

Here in Seattle, picking blackberries just happens. People nibble them as they walk, or fill a bowl with them at the park. No one sees much bothered by the occasional bug, and although they may bring a bunch home and wash them, few shy away from eating them straight from the bush, dirt and all.

Partly, we do this because there are so many of these berries around. The Himalyan blackberry is a very successful invasive plant species. Wherever something isn't already growing, it pops up. The plants are pushy, thorny, and hard to erradicate.

The berries are not as good as the native blackberry, but they're still plenty good enough for normal purposes. They are good enough that most Seattlites even find the smell of the leaves appetizing, as it reminds them of the berries.

As beekeepers, the blackberry is one of the three main honey crops in our area. If it were somehow successfully erradicated, beekeepers would be hard pressed to find another nectar source so abundant in the early summer months.

Every Spring, bees get their first big shot of nectar from the maple trees, which have little, inconspicuous flowers but provide abundant nectar at time when little else is out.

Then come dandelions, which help out a bit but mostly give pollen. For those who can move their bees to the hills, the fireweed is another great source of nectar, but this is a huge round trip to make with a truckload of beehives.

During summer, at our low elevation, the blackberry crop is the source of most honey. We notice when the first flowers open, and track them closely. They only make nectar when the temperature is above the mid-sixties, and they only make a lot of nectar if they get enough rain. Rainy weather is usually not very warm. So - not every year is going to be a great one for the blackberry honey crop.

This year had been a good one for blackberry honey.
It's pale, sweet, low in acidity, and almost icy in its purity of flavor. Some other honeys have citrusy or syrupy or spicy notes, but blackberry honey tastes j like honey. It crystalizes very easily, forming "honey butter" that's great to spread on things, and then becoming even more solid, almost like a chunk of sugar. It was this iciness - both of flavor and in its ease of forming crystals - that first gave me the idea of using it as our honey of choice in ices and ice creams.

Then come the berries. Big, coarse, seedy, they only remain good for a few hours after picking. Then they grow tufty white mold. So when we get a big batch of them we process them ASAP. The seeds are big enough and numerous enough to be a real distraction in jam, so we tend to strain them out and use the pulp in sauces and syrups. But our very favorite is blackberry sorbet. The ripening season has just begun, so we made our sorbet using some of last year's harvest, which we can or freeze and enjoy all year long.

Blackberry leaf tea is used medicinally to help sore gums and to tone the digestive system. It's a mild astringent. Really I wasn't thinking about its health benefits though. My hope was to infuse the ice with some of the mouth watering fragrance of brushing past blackberry leaves and knowing the berries will be ready soon.Half the pleasure of blackberries is the anticipation, and to me the leafy scent is part of it.


Blackberries are so dark and rich in flavor, it's incredible that their honey is so pale and rarified. I love the contrast. If you make and serve this trio of desserts, I suggest enjoying them in the order they are listed.

We served them at home with shortbread, just to make sure they were good enough for the event.

All recipes assume you have an ice cream maker of some kind.

Honey Ice

The honey ice is richer than it sounds, and so intense it's almost painful. It's not sticky like eating honey. It has a sweetness that's at once over the top and rarified, like breathing mountain air that's a little too thin for comfort. It would probably be unpleasant to eat after the creaminess of the ice cream.


1 Cup Honey
2 Cup Water
1 Cup blackberry leaves (optional)


(Optional) Heat water to boil, pour over blackberry leaves and steep for 1 hour, strain
Combine water or tea and honey, heat and stir to dissolve
Cool in refrigerator at least 2 hours
Churn in ice cream maker until frozen.
Place in containers and freeze at least 2 hours

Honey and Pollen Ice Cream

The ice cream is smoother, easier to eat, and the bee pollen gives it a mysterious flavor that hints at fruit, dry hillsides, heat and late afternoons. It would be easy to eat way too much of this

Lots and lots of bee pollen!


2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1 cup honey
1 T bee pollen
2 T warm water
1 t vanilla extract


Heat milk to near boiling, turn off heat
Stir in honey to dissolve
Stir in cream and vanilla
Stir together pollen and water, crushing pollen until it mixes in
Add pollen mixture to milk/cream mixture
Chill at least 2 hours
Churn in ice cream maker until frozen
Place in containers and freeze at least 2 hours

Blackberry Sorbet

The berry sorbet is a perfect finish. It's color is a great contrast to the two pale recipes above, and the taste is generous and maybe a little sloppy, like a big wet kiss from a toddler.  


1 cup water
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 quart blackberries
2 T lemon juice


Heat water to a boil. Stir in sugar to dissolve, creating a sugar syrup.
Strain the berries to remove their seeds. You can either:

  • Strain through a food mill
  • Puree in a blender, then push through a seive
  • Strain through the fruit strainer attachment of a stand mixer
Add berry pulp to hot sugar syrup and bring just to a boil
Remove from heat, chill until very cold
Add lemon juice
Churn in ice cream freezer until frozen
Place in containers and freeze at least 2 hours

Naturally, we wouldn't want to bring anything to a party that we hadn't tried ourselves. Noah - waiting to get a sample. He declared the ice cream to be good.