Last spring marked our first foray into the area of "keeping" animals. We have had a dog or two, a cat and a few various and sundry fish but that had always been enough.
We decided to follow the example of a few friends and ordered day-old chicks from a reputable hatchery and combined orders with those friends to save on shipping. When we picked up our box of live chicks at the post office our more knowledgeable neighbors sorted the birds and we went home with our little peepers.
This particular hatchery is in the habit of sending a mystery chick along with the others you order and our friends generously told us to keep it. The hatchery does not keep records of the breed or gender of the chicken they send. The "mystery bird" was a great source of excitement around here.
As we watched our chicks grow we all became chicken fanciers. We read up on the different breeds in an attempt to learn what our mystery bird was. All our reading was not without its uses. We realized fairly quickly that our friend had mixed up a couple of the chicks when separating our order. We had ended up with one of their meat birds while they ended up with one of our layer hens. Since they wanted another layer it was agreed that we would simply keep the meat bird and butcher it when that fateful time came.
For those of you who are novices like we were, let me explain. A meat bird is one that is bred from two fast-growing breeds of chicken in order to get large and meaty quickly. They get gigantic in very little time and are usually butchered at between 6 and 8 weeks old. When that time came my kind-hearted husband had a "Charlotte's Web" moment and went all E.B. White on me. He came in the house and said, "I can't do it. Meat Bird just looked at me and I know she was begging me. She lets me pet her beak." And that was that.
Meat Bird -- yes, that is her name -- became one of the flock. She's not the prettiest thing to study. She is, unlike the other graceful birds, squat and clumsy. She positions herself in front of the feed tray and doesn't move until every last morsel is gone. Her personal hygiene is abysmal. Can you even say chickens have personal hygiene? I'm not sure. All I know is the rest of them are clean and she is decidedly not. But she won't go into the roasting pan until she croaks on her own time.
It wasn't until a couple months ago that we learned our mystery chicken's breed -- Golden Laced Wyandotte -- and it wasn't until last week that we learned it was a rooster. Our eyes weren't trained enough to spot differences that might have been obvious to someone with more poultry experience. We decided patience was the best bet and were rewarded by the sound of crowing one morning early last week.
While Meat Bird had kept her moniker, the rest of the chickens had gone mainly unnamed. The presence of a rooster inspired us, though, and we decided to name him "Thor."
A couple days ago my husband came in from doing chores in the coop. Loudly, he announced, "Thor is hot for Meat Bird!"
Five little pairs of ears perked up, five little heads wheeled around to look at their father and my 10-year-old inquisitor piped up, "Hey Dad! What do you mean? Why is Thor hot for Meat Bird? Does he have a fever?" This was quickly followed by the rest of the boys shouting their questions about why Thor was overheated.
I stepped in quickly and said, "Boys. Dad is going to explain to you right now exactly what he means when he says that Thor is hot for Meat Bird."
My husband looked at me with a horrified look on his face. His eyes were large and pleading much like I imagine Meat Bird's eyes looked like when she "begged" him to spare her.
I clapped my husband on the shoulder, wheeled on my heel and, while leaving the room, said, "This is a great opportunity for him to have a talk with you that he's been meaning to have for some time.
The following recipes use no chicken but make ample use of eggs. Use farm fresh eggs if they're available. The difference in flavor and color is astonishing.
Baked Ham and Swiss Eggs (Oeufs en Cocotte)
This classic French dish is incredibly simple to prepare but delivers an amazingly sophisticated flavor and texture. The ease of preparation makes it a wonderful last-minute dish for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You will need four oven-safe ramekins or custard cups to prepare this dish.
4 large eggs
2 c. chopped ham
1 c. shredded Swiss cheese
4 T. heavy cream or half and half, divided
6 T. butter, divided, plus extra for buttering ramekins
1 large onion, minced
1 lb. mushrooms, sliced thin
4 thick slices bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the center.
Generously butter the ramekins and set aside on a baking pan. Evenly divide the ham and then the Swiss cheese between the ramekins. Crack one egg into each ramekin and top with 1 T. of the cream. The cream helps prevent the eggs from drying out while baking. Bake until eggs are set up and whites are cooked through. For runny yolks this will be about 12 minutes. For semi-set yolks, bake closer to 15 minutes. For firm yolks, allow to cook for nearly 18 minutes.
While the eggs are baking, melt 3 T. butter over medium high heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Add the onions and mushrooms and salt to taste. Sautee the mixture until the onions are softened and the mushrooms are golden brown. Remove to a bowl.
Return pan to heat and melt the remaining butter. Toss bread cubes in the melted butter, salt to taste, and cook, stirring, until bread is toasted evenly and is golden brown. Remove pan from the heat and set aside.
Remove ramekins from the oven and top with generous amounts of the onions, mushrooms and bread cubes. Because the ramekins hold heat for quite a while, put a small piece of dampened paper towel or a lettuce leaf on each plate before adding the ramekin. This helps to prevent it from sliding around and burning folks. Serve immediately.
Soy Sauce Glazed Hard Cooked Eggs
These delicious eggs make a healthy snack or a light lunch but they also round out stir-fry or other rice-based meals nicely. Do yourself a favor and try these. They're quick to prepare and they're delicious!
This has been a regular in my stepmother Valerie's vast culinary repertoire. The version below is from Madhur Jaffrey's "World of the East Vegetarian Cooking." Feel free to make it your own by adding a few crushed red pepper flakes or a small slice of fresh ginger to the sauce. Either way they're superb.
4 hard-cooked eggs
2 T. canola or vegetable oil
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
1/4 c. Chinese dark soy sauce
2 T. dark brown sugar
In a medium-sized, heavy saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 10-20 seconds. Add the soy sauce and brown sugar at the same time and bring to a simmer. While that is coming up to temperature, turn your attention to the eggs.
Starting about 1/4 inch from the top of the eggs, score a shallow vertical line into the eggs to within 1/4 inch of the bottoms. Repeat at 1/2-inch intervals around the egg. Do not let your lines touch at any point or the eggs will fall apart while glazing.
Place the scored eggs carefully into the simmering soy sauce mixture. Turn the eggs frequently and spoon the sauce over the eggs until they are evenly colored and the sauce is reduced to thick syrup.
Valerie cautions me, from experience, to warn you all to eat them immediately or to store in a tightly covered container or the eggs become rubbery and difficult to eat. Believe me when I tell you the trick is more in having leftovers than in eating them quickly!
You can read more of Rebecca's recipes, kitchen tips and parenting adventures at www.foodiewithfamily.com .