Chicken from scratch

We never thought about eating the chickens we kept. For one thing, we were not adept at killing them, and we weren’t all that sure how to clean them properly. Eggs are enough, we said.

Once in a while, Ali would take a few chickens over to the neighbors to kill and clean and he’d leave some for them. I was never privy to these sessions, and always felt a bit sad about cooking them. It made no sense, because logically they should have been the birds I was the happiest to eat– being good, healthy clean-living, bug-eating birds — but they weren’t, somehow.

Our flock grew, and we started to incubate eggs, so it grew more, and faster. About a month ago, we found ourselves with a coop that was suffering from an overabundance of roosters (things get pretty tense when there are too many guys in the coop and not enough gals to go around). Bob, our first rooster, was showing his age after five years with us (and he was a grown up when our friends from Sundance Camp brought him up to us with a five hen harem to populate our first chicken coop) — he had stopped crowing altogether and his tail was getting raggedy. It was time to bid Bob a fond farewell, move a younger rooster into his place and relieve our other coop of its overpopulation problem.

First glimpse of a new hatchee from our latest batch of incubated chicks (now about three weeks old).
First glimpse of a new hatchee from our latest batch of incubated chicks (now about three weeks old).

Ali said he would do the actual dispatch, a great relief to me because I lack the decisiveness needed to do the job quickly and well. We would pluck and dress the birds together. I looked through a few books for pointers, and Ali told me what he could remember from doing it with the neighbors.

Many things loom large in my imagination before I do them and then shrink to size when it comes down to it, and I am pleased to say that this was one of those things. I learned that plucking a bird while it is still warm really is very easy, that even the biggest feathers come out with a little attention. The wings are the hardest bit, because flight feathers are so big. And once the initial fidgeting is over — there is a reason we have sayings about chickens with their heads cut off (though that’s not how we kill ours) — it is quite peaceful to be with the bird.

My mom brought that batch of eggs from NY, actually; she wrapped them in socks that my cousin got for Kaya.
My mom brought that batch of eggs from NY, actually; she wrapped them in socks that my cousin got for Kaya.

I dressed the first rooster on my own and I made a few mistakes, but it wasn’t so bad. We did it together after that and each time we learned a little something else. It’s a little puzzle, figuring out how everything is connected.

And one thing that really surprised me about the whole thing was how clean the birds smell. I have spent a lot of hours cleaning coops and whatnot, and that can be smelly work. Chicken manure is amazing for the garden, but it is not always super nice to interact with. But the birds themselves smell so sweet and clean while we are plucking and dressing them. You could kiss their skin; I’ve never felt that way about a supermarket chicken.

This was my first time eating young birds, since in the past we had only culled older hens, so I was surprised at how tender they were.  They taste great, too. They are far smaller than the birds we buy in the shops — they look like streamlined models of the same animal. And perhaps because of their age (they are about 3 or 4 months old when we dispatch them), their bones are so white.

Special birds deserve special treatment. I read this post at Chica Andaluza’s blog with an amazing recipe for chicken with saffron, hazelnuts and honey. It’s a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, and emerges from the oven sticky, fragrant and utterly seductive. Talk about finger licking good.

One day my mother made a favorite dish of my father’s, a dish so good they made a campaign promise out of it — poule au pot (= chicken in a pot). It is the simplest thing ever, but that just lets the flavors of everything shine. We had some fingerling potatoes from the garden left, and leeks and celery. The carrots are not ours, though — I grow pretty sad carrots. It was such a great meal, I asked my mom to write out the recipe. This is what she wrote:

chicken in a pot

Back in our courting days in Paris, your Dad would take me to “Le Petit Zinc” in the 6th arrondissement for that French classic La Poule au Pot. It still is one of my favorite dishes and pure simplicity to make.
Put one cleaned chicken in a pot along with peeled carrots, a rib or two of celery, fingerling potatoes, a few leeks, chopped up cabbage, bay leaf and fresh thyme. Add water to cover all the ingredients . Bring to a boil, skim and put it on simmer for 1-1/2 hours. Skim off the fat, if any. Add salt and freshly ground pepper.
Remove the chicken from the soup and remove meat from the bone and skin and separate into nice serving pieces.
In each serving dish of chicken soup, arrange chicken and vegetables . Sprinkle chopped parsley over all.
pot on table
p.s. — Another nice thing about eating our own chickens is that we have a nice collection of chicken feet to eat for Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. The festival is on the 19th, so don’t forget to take a peek at the moon! Chicken feet are optional…

Channel your inner granny

Now, by “granny” I mean the kind of person who has a china hutch with little figurines inside. And under that there is a cupboard where there might be some bottles sitting in the dark. And if you have been a pleasing guest, the cupboard might be opened and a bottle pulled out and opened. Tiny stemmed glasses will be pulled out from among the china dogs and shepherd girls, and a dark ruby liquid proffered. It is sweet and spicy and there is a warm memory of alcohol in your throat when you drink it. It’s so — sour cherry liqueur.

Sour cherry season is here again, and although I have nothing against sweet cherries, this is the time of year that I really wait for. Now, personally I can find no higher purpose for sour cherries than a pie (and I just made a humdinger of one using this recipe from the venerable Bartolini Kitchens. Go look at this recipe just to see the beautiful top crust of the pie. Breath taking!) Ali, on the other hand, is partial to a little glass of cherry liqueur from time to time, so I make it every year. The best thing about this recipe is that you don’t have to pit the cherries, because everyone knows how fiddly a job that is. And aside from that, it’s easy to do and it tastes good. It does take a while, though, so it is not for those in a hurry. Grannies have to be patient.

I got the recipe from a website called Uçan Martı (Flying Seagull), which seems to have folded in 2010. However, the original post (in Turkish) is still here, so you can look at it if you like (and you will see one of those little glasses I was talking about). I used this recipe because I wanted to ferment the cherries a bit. The recipe is for one kilo of cherries (2.2 lb), but obviously you can adjust the amounts.

Sour Cherry Liquer


1 kg (2.2 lb) sour cherries

500 g (1.1 lb) sugar

12 whole cloves

4-5 cinnamon sticks

1 glass (250 ml or 1 cup) vodka, or alcohol of your choice

1. Stem the cherries, but don’t pit them. Give them a rinse.

2. Put the cherries in a big glass jar in layers — cherries, sugar, cherries, sugar, until they are all in there. Screw on the lid tightly and let it sit in a sunny spot for one month (the author of the original post sensibly advises that you put a label with the date on the jar).

This may look like a lot of sugar, and that is because it is. However, a lot of it will become alcohol. Not all of it, by any means — it is a sweet drink — but don’t be too alarmed by the amount of sugar.


3. After a month, it will be juicy in the jar, and you can add your spices. Tie them up in a cheese cloth and throw them in. Then close the jar and let it sit another month.

This is after just a week of sunbathing, and already things are getting pretty liquidy. The smell is enough to bring tears to your eyes, too.
This is after just a week of sunbathing, and already things are getting pretty liquidy. The smell is enough to bring tears to your eyes, too.

4. Now that you have patiently waited two months, your liqueur is ready to drink. This is also the moment that the vodka has been waiting for. Fish out the spices in their swaddling and pour in the vodka – you are now ready for bottling!

And the cherries? Well, there are several ways to approach them. If you strain them out, you could freeze them and then use them in cake (I like them very much in my fill in the blanks cake) or you could just put them in a jar and cover them with liqueur and serve them. I bet you could cover them in chocolate! Mmmm… Of course, if you do anything like that, you ought to pit them, or at least warn your friends before they dig in.

While the sugar is melting, it's a bit like snow in slow motion, which is a nice chilly visual for these sultry days.
While the sugar is melting, it’s a bit like snow in slow motion, which is a nice chilly visual for these sultry days.

p.s. — I would love to say that I made this with cherries from our garden, but we harvested exactly 4 cherries from our sour cherry tree this year. Maybe some other time. These ones I bought from a jolly old lady in the market. Come to think of it, she could have been someone’s granny…

UPDATE (20/07/14)
i’ve made two slight adjustments to my original method of making cherry liqueur. One is that I now leave some of the cherry stems on to add flavor. The other adjustment I made after enjoying this post over at Rachel Eats and reading “…how the heat of high summer halts fermentation but precipitates maceration. ” and having one of those moments like you see in films where a montage of events flashes before you — bottles of cherry liqueur on terraces in full sun at my mother in law’s house and at other homes I have visited.

20140720-133759-49079420.jpg“The liqueur will sit in the full, blazing sun!” I cries, and that is where it is for the month.


Peking duck part 1

Happy new year, everyone! I haven’t been able to read as many of the great new year/old year posts that everyone is writing lately, because we are moving this week. It’s all a bit sudden, and we have many, many books to pack, not to mention all the other stuff. This is when I realize that i really ought to acquire/keep fewer things.

My mom is still here (poor, long suffering mom), and she was trying to count how many times she has moved in her life. She gave up — it has been that many! (Consequently, she is a real pro. Oh thank you long suffering mom for helping me with this insane move!!) She moved plenty before she got married to my dad, and things just got more interesting after that. The first place they moved to, after meeting in Paris and getting married in Greece, was Nairobi. This was in 1969.

My parents’ landlord was the owner of a bookstore, and my mother said she got a lot of great books from there, many of which we still have and some of which we are packing up this week. One great favorite that she kept with her own collection (now in NYC) was a book called Chinese Gastronomy, by Hsiang Ju Lin. It is out of print under that title, but she bought a copy for me some years ago under its new name, The Art of Chinese Cuisine (same exact book inside). It is a fantastic book, written in a calm and conversational style that is a real pleasure to read. The book is so good, in fact, that the recipes are gravy. But they are very good recipes. And that is the book that my mother has always referred to when she is getting herself psyched up to make Peking duck.  Here is an irresistible little quote, in the lengthy introduction to the Peking duck recipe: “It is very difficult to think of a comparable dish in Western cooking. It most closely resembles a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich in its distinctions between textures and delicate flavors.” I know. Just buy the book.

We made two in one week, and I have to say that it’s not so hard, it’s just that you can’t decide to do it on the spur of the moment. The reason for this is that the duck has to get really dry before you roast it so that the skin will be nice and crispy. To achieve this, you hang the duck for at least a day. We hung ours for two.  First we rubbed the inside of the body cavity with salt and hung it up for a day, then rubbed vodka all over it and hung it all day and that same evening we rubbed it with sugar water (2T sugar + 1T water) and let it hang another 24 hours before roasting it. This is more or less how the book describes it, although the process is shorter in the book. At the end of all that, we ended up with a sort of duck jerky:

dry duck

(To see what it looked like before, I refer you to the post previous to this one. You will notice that duck looks soft and flabby while this one is more wizened. You may also notice that the duck is hanging the wrong side down. This we corrected shortly after the photo was taken!)

Notice how my mom tied the wings to lift them up from the body? We did that on day two, when my mom noticed that the skin wasn’t drying much under the wings. Then you heat your oven to 375 F/180 C and place a tray with some water at the very bottom of the oven and the rack at the middle and roast the duck for about an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half. We found that we needed to turn it once after an hour, then turn it again about 15 minutes later, so we did it for an hour and a half. And boy does it get brown:

roasted duck

I guess some people like their duck in pancakes, but we like it in steamed buns. I will post that recipe tomorrow and show you what the duck looked like when we ate it!

My parents left Nairobi in 1970, and my mother was terribly sad. She was sure she would never go back, and I suppose it was a perfectly reasonable expectation. But we moved there as a family when I was 8, and we stayed for six years which just goes to show that you can be sure of something and feel it in your bones, but that doesn’t mean it will turn out that way necessarily.

Fill-in-the-blank cake


When we first moved down here, we brought along with us two scraggly little lavender plants. They were so small and insignificant that we planted them together, side by side, in front of the house. Four years later, they have cascaded down the hill, a formidable hedge of silver and purple. Ali doesn’t like to make wide paths, and with the lavender asserting itself in spite of being cut back rather severely, we now have to lean into it in order to walk down the path into the garden. This results in heady perfume, and finally my mother came to the only possible conclusion — we had to make a lavender cake.

I was going through a moment of butter fatigue, so we found an olive oil cake recipe on Saveur magazine’s website and adapted it to our needs. I used a souffle dish with a ceramic cup in the middle, but a bundt pan would also be fine.

Fill-in-the-blank cake

You will need:

butter and  flour for cake pan

3 c. flour

4 eggs

3/4 c olive oil

2/3 c milk

1 T baking powder

2 T lavender, stemmed and finely chopped

Heat your oven to 325 F. Butter and flour your cake pan. If you are using a cup, butter the outside of that as well.

Beat the eggs and sugar until pale yellow, about 1 minute. Add the flour, oil, milk, and lavender and stir to mix. Add the baking powder and mix again.

Pour into your pan, with a finger on the cup to keep it from shifting (and use a heavy cup — I tried with a stainless steel one and it wandered during the baking).

Bake about 40 minutes.

It’s a lovely cake that really tastes like lavender through and through. It’s a bit on the dry side, not a gooey thing, so it’s just right with a nice cup of tea.

I call it fill in the blank cake because it converts very handily into any kind of cake you like. I will be posting some variations in weeks to come, in which I have used this cake to recycle some by-products of making beverages!

Not too hot for some

It’s hot! Today it is 106 F in the shade (41 C) and it’s paralyzing. We have all been drenching ourselves with the hose or in the tub in the garden. Any amount of heat is bearable to me when I’m soaking wet. (For additional tips on dealing with the heat without AC, Celi at the Kitchens Garden just posted a link to this fine vintage post.)

Some of the garden inhabitants, however, are quite unfazed by the weather. The butterfly above was flitting about in the heat of the day. I came out of the shadows only long enough to take a few shots and then immediately high-tailed it back into my hidey hole.

Another hot weather survivor is a plant known here as semizotu. It is known in Latin as portulaca oleracea, and in English as purslane. The word semiz in Turkish means “fat” (as in chubby) — its leaves and stems are succulent. (You may also be familiar with portulaca grandiflora, or moss rose, which is even juicier looking.) Perhaps this is what helps it survive the heat. It grows into a thick mat wherever it pops up, and given that it produces thousands of seeds, it pops up a lot once it finds you.

Purslane, making itself at home among cucurbits and peppers in one of the keyhole beds.

Purslane, making itself at home among cucurbits and peppers in one of the keyhole beds.

Is it a weed? Weed is, of course, a relative term. In theory, anything in your garden that you didn’t plant there could be considered one. It all comes down to tolerance. However, being useful is a good way to avoid being regarded as a weed, and in this sense purslane shines.

It is a very nutritious vegetable, and is the richest vegetable source of Omega-3 fatty acids. It is commonly seen in vegetable markets here, and is eaten both raw in salads and cooked. I dislike all slimy foods intensely, and I have noticed that there is a slight sliminess to wild purslane that does not seem to be a problem in the cultivated varieties (my mother, who is far more slime-tolerant — she likes okra, for example — does not notice this at all). Since I am pulling it as a weed in my garden, I tend to eat it cooked and thought that I would share a simple recipe for anyone who has it growing in their environs, as an resident or an uninvited guest.

KIYMALI SEMIZOTU — purslane with ground beef

1 bunch purslane (about a pound)

1 onion, chopped

1/4 pound ground beef

tomatoes — one can, or 3 to 4 fresh, chopped

1/4 cup stock (if needed)

yogurt to serve

To clean the purslane, the best strategy is to cut it off at the roots. Then, all you need to do is rinse it and chop it up, stems and all (which is an advantage to cooking it over eating it raw; using it in salads involves plucking all the leaves off the stems, which is very fiddly work).

Saute your onion in some olive oil until it turns translucent, then add the beef and cook until it loses its pink color.

Then throw in the purslane, top it with the tomatoes, and cover. After a few minutes, a smell not unlike earth will emanate from the pot. Breathe it in — this is the goodness of soil in the leaves. Have a peek and give it all a stir. This is when you will need to decide whether or not to add any more liquid. If you use canned tomatoes, probably not, but if you do need a bit more moisture, add some stock or water.

Let this all cook until it is done enough for you. For me, this is usually about 10 minutes (I like the leaves still green; they go a bit gray after 20 minutes or so). Taste them as you go.

This is so good with some plain yogurt on top!

One thing to be aware of if you are gathering this wild is that there are euphorbias that resemble purslane, and they are slightly toxic. All you need to know is that euphorbias have milky sap. If you are picking something that looks like purslane and it has milky sap, it is not purslane!

If you don’t mind picking all those leaves off, you can also make a salad with yogurt and olive oil and a bit of pomegranate syrup, and my mother recently added it to potato salad to good effect.

Hope you are all staying cool!