My coop runneth over: Backyard chickens are the best

With the arrival of spring weather, it’s time to restock the long-dormant chicken coop here at the Hot Dish Kitchen.

We ventured into small-scale urban chicken farming for the first time last summer, and quickly fell in love. When you’re overwhelmed with work or life in general, there’s something incredibly centering and calming about chickens. Walking out across dewy grass at first light, opening the coop door to hens just starting to stir, and watching them jockey for position for morning treats of fresh fruit or vegetables pretty much guarantees you’ll start your day with a smile.

Naturally, we checked with the neighbours first, and over the summer welcomed a steady parade of curious local children and grandchildren who wanted to see (and usually feed) the chickens. Having a retired chicken farmer next door to provide some much-needed advice was a huge help. And we are incredibly lucky to have young nieces and neighbours eager to check on the hens and collect eggs when we’re away.

matt-chickens

We would – and do – recommend it to anyone with a yard. Some of the most common questions we’ve been asked:

Is it legal?

Probably. Most municipalities have bylaws related to backyard chicken coops. Typically these prohibit roosters (noisy boys who will make your neighbours unhappy), and establish the number of hens you’re allowed to keep.

Are they noisy and smelly?

Not really. Our hens sounded more like hungry cats meowing for a treat. They poop, so naturally there’s some minor odour. Change their bedding regularly (once a week or so), and you shouldn’t have an issue.

Don’t you need roosters to get eggs?

Seriously. We hear this surprisingly often. You only need roosters to get fertilized eggs – and those are generally not the ones you want to eat. (Best explanation I heard from a nurse: “Well, do you need a man around in order to ovulate each month?”)

Where do you keep them?

Many hardware stores (Home Hardware, TSC, etc.) stock ready-to-use chicken coops. In our case, hubby, being a civil engineering tech, plus an all around handy guy, designed and built a safe and roomy coop, moveable to ensure a supply of fresh grass and bugs to our ladies.

chickens in dustThe basic needs: A safe, elevated space for them to roost at night; nesting boxes for them to lay eggs, a food and water supply, and a large run, ideally boxed in with chicken wire to keep them safe from predators (hawks love free-running chickens). To keep them safe, we let our chickens roam the yard only when we’re there to keep them from wandering (no fences in our neighbourhood), and to keep an eye out for predators.

How much work is involved?

Unless your coop has an automatic door that opens and closes with the sun (chickens naturally go inside to roost when the sun sets), you’ll need to spend a few minutes each morning checking food and water and collecting eggs. We would normally get one egg first thing, and the rest before noon. That meant a second egg collection and check at mid-day, and closing the coop once the girls were all roosted at night. Weekends meant about an hour of coop cleaning and maintenance – with old straw going to the compost pile and fresh straw added as bedding.

backyard breakfastDo backyard eggs taste different?

Yes – in a good way. Depending on what you feed them, the yolks are darker and more flavourful. They just taste fresher. One of my favourite summer breakfast traditions is to fry up a fresh egg with a handful of kale or spinach from the garden, and serve it with a slice of toasted homemade bread and honey from our bees. The taste of self-reliance!

What happens to the chickens in the winter?

With an insulated coop and heated water source, chickens can be safely overwintered, although they lay fewer eggs without an artificial light source. In our case, we choose to butcher ours in the fall. As laying birds, their meat is too tough for them to be used as roasters, but they for make excellent soup.

eggsWhat do you do with all the eggs?

With a small setup like ours, we ate most of them and shared the surplus with friends and family. Some people sell them. (Free range eggs can sell for up to $5 per dozen.) As someone who cooks, I’m always on the lookout for new egg recipes. But I have a couple of favourites.

Recipes

berry-potsBerry custard pots with citrus drizzle

A simple but pretty dessert, best served in clear glass containers

Custard

In a large bowl, whisk together:

  • 4 egg yolks
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • 2 tbsp. corn starch
  • 1 tsp. vanilla (or vanilla bean seeds, if you have them)

Meanwhile, in a medium-to-large saucepan, combine over medium heat:

  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 2 cups milk

Heat milk and cream combination, stirring regularly, until small bubbles begin to form around the sides. Remove mixture from heat.

Stir ¼ cup of heated milk mixture into egg yolk mixture (this is necessary to “temper” the eggs). Whisk thoroughly, then add slowly incorporate the rest of the milk into the egg mixture.

Pour custard mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens. Pour into a bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Citrus drizzle

In a small saucepan, on medium heat, combine:

  • ¼ cup Cointreau
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ cup white sugar

Bring to a boil and continue to stir over medium heat until sauce thickens to a syrupy consistency. Cool completely.

Assembly

Starting with custard, layer custard and berries to top of clear glass serving container. Just before serving, top with citrus drizzle and mint leaves.

meringue kissesChocolate meringue kisses with sea salt and toffee

Wondering what to do with all those leftover egg whites when you make custard? Light, crunchy meringues are a pretty, popular dessert.

In a large bowl or your stand mixer:

  • Whip 4 egg whites at medium-high speed until frothy
  • Add ¼ tsp. cream of tartar and continue whipping until soft peaks form
  • Gradually add ½ cup of white sugar and continue whipping until peaks are stiff and shiny.

In a separate bowl, sift together:

  • ½ cup icing sugar
  • ½ cup cocoa

Gently fold icing sugar/ cocoa mix into meringue. Scoop into an icing bag with a large icing tip. On a large cookie sheet covered in parchment paper, pipe into individual “kiss” shapes (about 2-inches in diameter).

Bake at 250F for 1 hour, then turn off the oven and let them sit in the cooling for another 20 minutes. Remove from oven, drizzle with melted dark chocolate and sprinkle with toffee bits and coarse sea salt.

Store at room temperature in a covered container.

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