In recovery mode

Two weeks ago I had a super intensive work week filled with meetings and important in-person discussions with my boss (which is unusual since our homes are two time zones away from each other). During my frantic week, I provided support via text messages to B while his father’s health faded.

One week ago we were at the funeral of B’s father. I only flinched during the first round fired by the military honor guard at the grave site, and was surprised that the shells were collected and presented along with the flag to B’s mother. (B’s father was a WWII Navy veteran who had served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

Because I needed to be back in the office last Tuesday, B and I traveled separately to and from his hometown, which is about 125 miles away. Between my trip back and forth for the funeral and another long driving errand last weekend, I put 500 miles on the Prius in three days. I’m not used to doing that much driving, and it was surprisingly tiring.

No wonder I have been getting into bed as early as 8:30 some nights over the past three weeks.

Last Thursday was my final work day of 2012, but my “home work” list of what I’d like to accomplish during this break is pretty long.

  • Complete a knitting project that has been taking me way to much time to finish.
  • Put up a batch of fig compote.  
  • Paint the upstairs hallway.
  • Organize the basement, which is still filled with stacks of boxes from when B moved in over a year ago.
  • Organize and clean my “office” which is basically just a junk room.
  • Complete my charitable contributions for 2012.
  • De-clutter the dining room table.
  • Finish organizing the bedroom closet.
  • Document, pack up, and drop off a load of stuff to contribute to charity before the close of 2012.
  • Read up on home charcuterie.

About that last one: I bought a very small pig from a farmer I’m acquainted with through the Chicago chicken group. My long drive the Saturday before the funeral was taken to pick up the butchered pig from the meat locker. The round trip drive was 219 miles, but my freezer is now filled with 75 pounds of pastured pork that promises to be delicious.

I got every bit of the that pig: the fat, the organs (heart, liver, tongue), and the head. One of my friends who has processed a pig at home lent me an enormous stack of books about charcuterie and whole animal cooking, as well as her supply of pink salt for making ham and bacon. I’ll process the head into head cheese, and I’ll likely have to borrow the neighbor’s Weber to hot smoke the bacon if I can’t find clear directions online on how to do with my propane grill. There’s no rush to do any of the processing since the pig parts are hard frozen. I’m sure it’s not ideal to do charcuterie with previously frozen meat, but I don’t think it’s possible to get meat any other way from the meat locker facilities.

So far I’ve accomplished one task on that list: putting up the fig compote. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen yesterday making preserves and creating a brine for the turkey I’m roasting tomorrow morning and taking to my mother’s house for Christmas dinner. (I get to transport a whole roasted turkey 55 miles one way. What fun!)

I’m making some progress on the knitting project, but it is a slog. Ugh.

The chances I’ll get through more than two other things on that list are pretty slim, but I’ll make an effort. I’m also hoping that I don’t come down with the ugly stomach bug that kept B down for nearly 48 hours. I frequently sprayed down the bathroom he was using with Lysol (including spraying the light switch, soap dispenser, faucets, and doorknob) and I exclusively used the upstairs bathroom throughout the entire day and night. Fingers crossed…

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The dark days

Winter solstice is nearly here and I’m looking forward to crossing over to longer days. It may be the general busyness before the holidays, but I’m exhausted most days and can barely make it to 9:30 PM before I find myself in bed, and asleep within minutes. I don’t like waking up in the dark, nor do I like dressing by flashlight (my concession so as not to disturb B in the early mornings).

And there are other aspects to the dark days. Since the week before Thanksgiving, B’s dad was in and out of the hospital, rehab center, and finally wound up in hospice. Last Wednesday, he passed away.

B’s father was in failing health when I first met him about three years ago. He’s pulled through so may health crises over his 87 years that to B and his family it must have seemed impossible for him to ever lose.

Tomorrow we’ll take the short journey to B’s hometown for the visitation. We’ll stay over for the funeral on Monday, and then I must return home to finish out the work week. It’s hard to plan how we’ll handle the holidays this year. We’ll just have to figure things out as we go along.

Making hard cooked eggs

This is the time of year when the chickens start producing fewer eggs due to the shrinking daylight hours and their annual molt. In spring and summer I usually get a minimum of three eggs a day from my five hens. Now there are days I only get one or even no eggs at all. But my hens are healthy and from good winter laying breeds, so I don’t expect to run out of eggs completely.

That means that in this household, egg dishes are on the menu pretty regularly. One of my favorite ways to enjoy the egg bounty is as hard-cooked eggs. They’re so portable and are great for breakfast, lunch, or as a snack.

There’s a saying that’s often used to demonstrate someone’s rookie cooking skills: “X doesn’t even know how to boil an egg.” It’s actually pretty difficult to make good hard-cooked (also called hard-boiled) eggs from backyard chicken eggs. Fresh eggs have very little air space between the white and the shell. While it is possible to hard cook them, it is impossible to peel them neatly. The few times I’ve tried hard cooking eggs that were less than 10 days old resulted in a disappointing mess with large chunks of white coming off with the shell. (I’m sure my chickens appreciated all that extra protein, though, since I always feed their egg shells back to them.)

So the first lesson of making good hard-cooked eggs is to use eggs that are about 10 days old. Eggs from the grocery store are usually at least a week old already, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to make those into hard-cooked eggs. If you have your own chickens or are buying eggs from a local farmer you have to plan in advance.

Some people are very picky about hard-cooked eggs that have a green ring around the yolk. The standard explanation for why this happens is that the egg has been overcooked. Sometimes I’m lucky and can avoid getting that ring, but since I want my hard-cooked eggs to be quite firm I find that I often get it when I’m making eggs this way. What I’m more concerned about is making sure the eggs aren’t rubbery. The few times I’ve purchased hard-cooked eggs at carry out restaurants they have universally been waaayyy overcooked and rubbery. (I’ve usually only done this because of travel or very poor meal planning on my part, so I try very hard not to do the latter and just make different choices when I’m traveling.)

A critical element to avoid over-cooking hard-cooked eggs is to only use eggs that are similar in size. Again, those purchasing eggs from a grocery store don’t usually have to worry about this since eggs are sorted for size/weight as they are packaged. Folks with their own flock and those purchasing eggs from farmers directly will usually wind up with an assortment of sizes, though.

OK, so now we have some eggs that are properly aged and of similar size. Now we just boil them, right? Well, no. First I pierce each egg with a floral pin at the round end where the air space is located. This is going to help me peal that egg much easier when it is done cooking. Next, I add cool water to just cover the eggs in the cooking pan and set it over the heat. I bring the pan just to a boil, then I put the lid on and turn off the heat.

How long one needs to let the eggs sit in the hot water until they are fully cooked depends on the size of the eggs, and this is why it is easy to over cook them and get the green ring. Some instructions say to let them sit for a minimum of 12 minutes, and even as long as 18 minutes for jumbo eggs; others say to let them sit for seven minutes. In my experience, 12 minutes would be way too long for any size egg and would the result would be guaranteed rubbery and unappealing. When I’m cooking some of the very large eggs my New Hampshire Red hens are producing, I usually let them sit for about nine minutes. When I’ve only let them sit for seven minutes the result was something between a soft-cooked and a hard-cooked egg; the whites weren’t entirely firm and the yolk was only about 95% done. If I wanted to try avoiding the dreaded green ring at all costs I would probably let them sit for only eight minutes, but I’m willing to risk it to ensure that my eggs will be firmly set. But if I was cooking a batch of the smaller eggs produced by my Speckled Sussex hens, then that seven minute time would work out just fine.

The final step is super important: once the time for sitting in hot water is reached, plunge the eggs into an ice water bath. Get the bowl of (mostly) ice and water ready while the eggs are “steeping” in the hot water. I use a slotted spoon to shift each egg from the pot of hot water to the ice bath, then I let them sit for another 10 minutes to be sure they are completely set and cooled. Then they go into the refrigerator with their shells still on until ready for consumption.

Because I’ve pierced the airspace of each egg with the floral pin, I find that there is a bit of water that dribbles out when I peal the egg, but I’m OK with that. When I haven’t pierced the eggs before cooking, they just don’t peel as neatly even if I follow all the other “best practices” for hard cooking eggs.

Recently I decided to try baking my eggs in the shell to see if this technique would produce better hard-cooked eggs. It didn’t. After peeling, the egg white was scorched in the area that had been in contact with the pan, and I found it easier to over cook the eggs this way, too. So I’m going to continue making my hard-cooked eggs the tried and true way: age, sort, steep, and chill. Yum!