• From the Ground Up: First the chickens, then the cows — the glories of barnyard cooking

    by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan

    Charlie English tends his backyard chicken coop in Davis and enjoys eggs in pancakes as well as egg salad sandwich for lunch, and his mother's signature Lemon Meringue Pie.

    In the old days, when people lived a sustainable rural life, often by necessity, a barnyard plus a small orchard and a big, year-round vegetable garden ensured that there would be food to sustain the family. Before refrigeration, storage was the issue so seasonality and preservation were very important. Vegetables could be stored in the root cellar or pickled, fruits could be dried or kept stored steeped in alcohol, milk from the barnyard cow was turned to butter or made into cheese, and grapes and apples became wine, vinegar, and brandy, and of course, chickens and ducks provided eggs and meat, and at least one pig a year was kept to provision a family with cured meats.

    But, leave it to the French to take sustainability to the highest gastronomic levels. No, not fancy French cooking, but simple rustic farmhouse cooking, which today exemplifies simple, seasonal foods, has become some of the most beloved bistro fare.

    The matrix provided by the sustainable farm provides obvious combinations. Potatoes from the root cellar sliced and baked in milk from the cow, then topped with cheese made from cow’s milk are the origins of Potato Gratin. Barnyard eggs combined with cow’s milk and sugar are the beginning of many a custard, from flan to crème brulee or a custard tart. Look to the pig for multitudinous sausages, for bacon, pancetta, pickled pigs’ feet, head cheese and more.

    Saskia Mills and her son Charlie English, together with their family, raise backyard chickens and a vegetable garden in Davis. Saskia enjoys using the fresh eggs in frittata and quiche. She collects about four eggs a day with her four chickens - which breeds are a Black Australorp, a Buff Orpington, a Delaware and a Barred Plymouth Rock. The family built their own coop, have attended the Tour de Cluck on bicycle, and been chicken owners about two years.

    Think of chicken. There are hundreds of classic barnyard dishes for chickens and each varies by season, depending upon what was in the orchard, garden, or cellar at the time. In fall, roast chicken with apples or stuffed with wild mushrooms, in winter with cabbage and chestnuts, in spring, chicken braised with fresh peas, and in summer of course, with tomatoes. From the barnyards of dairy rich Normandy, comes chicken poached in cream, and, from the south, cooked with olives, tomatoes and eggplants from Provence. In the north, chicken roasted with Belgian endive.

    Close your eyes and think of the barnyard story books of your childhood, where the chickens, ducks, rabbits, pig and cow lived together harmoniously, where they were fed fallen apples and pears from the orchards, fat cabbages and lanky carrots from the garden, along with kitchen scraps, leftover dried bread, and a bit of grain. Eggs were collected in baskets and the cow milked (remember the three-legged milking stools stationed by the cows?) daily.

    Chickens, one of the essential anchors of the barnyard, are more popular than ever today for backyard farmers, as the upcoming Tour de Cluck in Davis (see sidebar) illustrates. Backyard chickens are supplying families and extended families with plenty of eggs for scrambling, frying, poaching, and baking. But what about the milk necessary for the simple marriage with eggs to make basic custard, for example, or for cheese?

    If we continue to look to France as a source of backyard gastronomy, it is impossible to underestimate the importance of cow’s milk. It is, after all, a land of more than 300 recognized cheeses some of them so local, so regional, and so seasonal, that they can only be purchased within a small area at a particular time of year. And we here in California are beginning to see the same kind of special, local cheeses. Artisan sheep’s milk cheeses, for example, are always seasonal, since the sheep’s’ milk only starts to flow in spring.

    Pierce Point, a soft cows’ cheese wrapped in wild nettles, made by Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, is only available in spring when the nettles are abundant and tender, and their pungent Red Hawk cheese only in winter. Could this be a trend? Are we moving toward a new backyard barnyard? Are cows next? Or sheep? Pigs?

    Old-Fashioned Custard Pie

    This is a favorite of both of ours and is a classic of English as well as American cooking. Its light flavor and delicate texture make a delightful finish to any meal.

    Pastry dough for single pie crust (any recipe or purchased crust)

    For the Custard
    3 cups whole milk
    3 eggs, lightly beaten
    ½ cup granulated sugar
    ¼ teaspoon salt
    ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
    ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
    Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Prepare the dough and refrigerate it for 15 minutes.

    To make the custard: In a medium saucepan, heat the milk over medium-high heat just until bubbles form around the edge. Remove and set aside. In a medium bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla, and nutmeg just until blended. Gradually stir in the hot milk. Immediately pour the egg mixture into the pastry-lined pan.

    Bake for 15 minutes, or until the edges of the crust are browned. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees F and bake 35-40 minutes, or until all but the very center, an area about the size of a nickel, is set. Test this be gently shaking the pie. Remove from the oven and set aside on a wire rack to cook for at least 1 hour. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled. Serves 6


    (From “Holiday Eggs,” Ten Speed Press by Georgeanne Brennan)

    (Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo and partners in Evans & Brennan Consulting, specializing in food, agriculture and school lunch. Watch for their forthcoming book, The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, launching April 7, at the Davis Farmers Market.info@evansandbrennan.com)

    Tour de Cluck – A Bicycle Chicken Coop Crawl in Davis May 26, 2012

    Meet at the Davis Farmers Market at 9 am on May 26 for the kick off and annual “Courage to Cluck” contest, view and bid on the silent auction of chicken art and artifacts, taste chicken and egg food offerings by vendors at the market prepared in celebration of this day. Tour of the “coop loops” starts at 10 a.m. View various types of chicken coops around Davis and attend related educational workshops on raising chickens and more. Fundraiser for the Davis Farm to School which supports the Davis Joint Unified School District lunch, garden education and waste reduction programs.

    For more information: www.tourdecluck.org or info@tourdecluck. Tickets go on sale mid-April, watch the website and the local papers for more information.

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