Friday, March 26, 2010

I'm Gonna Fix That Rat, That's What I'm Gonna Do

I didn't want to tell you all about this little issue we've been having on the farm. It's one of those things that gives folks the serious heebie jeebies at the slightest mention. Rats. There, I said it. Those who have no stomach for the discussion of vermin execution, read no further. This is today's topic.

I thought I had the matter under control, my definition of control being that I could just live and let live. But when I woke up yesterday morning and found that my entire garden, which had grown a solid six inches high over the past few weeks, had been completely decimated, mowed down to bare earth without a single green stem left standing, I realized that I had seriously underestimated the problem.

I don't know why I thought I could avoid all this. My neighbors had always complained about rats in their basement units, but we had never seen one. Odd since we are butted up against a Chinese restaurant and produce bodega, not to mention the other three restaurants sharing our block. Even for the first six months of having livestock, we saw no signs of these dreaded creatures. Our luck eventually ran out and when it did... oh brother!

It started with the onset of the rainy season. I began to notice droppings around the animals' feed dishes. The Disgruntled Farmhand operated the first line of attack, glue traps and snap traps, after hearing the screeches of rat gangs fighting for territory along the fence lines. The only thing the glue traps caught was our dog's tongue and the snap traps had a tendency to fall short of the finish line, leaving the DF to end the ugly business with a shovel. This was messy and not as humane a death as I would have hoped for.

For advice, I turned to other urban farmers who assured me that this was a seasonal problem. They dealt with it by using poison just to get it over with quick and easy. I didn't feel like this was a good option for us because of the number of stray cats and pets wandering our neighborhood. I didn't want to kill someone's unsuspecting Fido seeking out a late night rat snack. Poison is also a painful death, and though I was fully poised for murdering the bastards, I'd like to think of myself as somewhat of a merciful henchman.

I did some online research and found that electrocution would be quick and cause the least amount of suffering. We bought a rat zapper. It worked perfectly when it caught that first rat, but since the zapper died the next day, shorting out in a rainstorm, this didn't seem to be a great option either. Plus, it can only off one rat a night. With a 40 plus dollar price tag, this was going to be an expensive and lengthy massacre. So I let sleeping dogs lie. Other than the blood curdling, vaguely human-like squeals, emanating from somewhere near the compost pile in the deep recesses of the backyard, they seemed to be harmless. Oh I know, there's that whole plague thing. But when have you heard about a recent plague outbreak?

I love how my thinking can spiral downward into unconscionable levels of denial as some sort of avoidance of action. We all find ourselves there from time to time. It's not that I'm lazy, more in a state of paralysis due to ignorance of rodent killing methods that would meet my criteria: not causing harm to other creatures and being as humane as any killing can possibly be. I didn't even go there with all the disease related issues attributed to rodents, let alone that rats are one of the most destructive forces in agricultural crops worldwide and a huge food security issue. But this total and utter annihilation of my beloved plants that I've babied since the first shoots popped through the damp, crusted soil was a rude awakening to exactly how big this problem actually is.

The breeding capabilities of the Norway rat (this is the specific vermin we are having the problem with) along with the laws of mathematics indicate that within the span of a year, one pair of rats can produce up to 5,000 descendants. Let's just hope that the exponential population growth capabilities have not been fully realized, as I have been sitting on this dilemma for almost a full six months. I suspect, however, that the infestation is substantial. Last night, I went out at dusk to put the animals to bed and saw more rats than I have seen combined in the past half year. This is a very bad sign.

What are we going to do? I'll tell you what we are going to do; wage war on these little mother fu*&$%#! This weekend we shall enact Operation Rid Ourselves of All Rats. OROAR will have multiple lines of defense consisting of

  1. electric fencing put on a timer for nighttime, so that when those pesky varmints try to enter the yard or garden bed - BOOM! - ouch is right you dirty little rat!
  2. extruded metal on major thoroughfares into the yard. Critters hate this stuff because it cuts up their tender feet.
  3. the Zimbabwe bucket trap which consists of a bucket filled with water buried in the ground, and a dried corncob smeared with peanut butter (I'm going to add some animal feed sprinkles to further entice) that can rotate freely on a stick, laid over the top of the bucket. The rat scurries out onto the corncob smothered in goodness and then falls into the bucket from which it cannot get out. Drowning is not ideal, but it's better than blood and guts. I'm certain this method will be most effective since I have so far found three drowned rats in the goats' water bucket. Ack, poor goats!
I will keep you posted on how successful we are with OROAR. As the goats will be on holiday in Lake County starting this Sunday, we will be a lot freer to experiment with the electric fencing without shocking our girls. Hopefully it won't be a case of free electroshock therapy for the DF.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wrapping Up with Winter

As winter draws to a close, the oranges have been hanging heavy on my neighbor's tree, many succumbing to a moldy, liqueur-stenchful fate. I hate seeing perfectly good produce go to waste. When we visit my in-laws in Fresno, it pains me to watch the folks, living in poverty stricken neighborhoods, bring loads of fruit home from the grocery store when their own backyards are bursting at the seams with sun-kissed ripe oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes. My neighbor is a diabetic, so she has a good excuse. I offered her a dozen fresh eggs in exchange for some of her oranges, even though most of us here at Itty Bitty have a sensitivity to citrus. I figured I could serve some O.J. at our next soiree or brunch. Feel free to invite yourself over.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Saint Patrick's Birthday Party

Ethel turned one today. At the request of the Chicken Whisperer, a.k.a. my six year old daughter Ute, we had a birthday party complete with a vegetable cake - Ute's idea, which she fully executed by herself - and birthday hats - that was my idea. Ethel thought her cake was mighty tasty.

She even offered to share with her buddy, Lucy.

Except for the coveted apple slices.

Check out Fruit Loop in the background, hoping to score a little treat-y.

"Seriously guys, you're gonna share with me, right?"

That's a good birthday girl.

Ethel, that is not how you wear your hat!

That's better.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Knock at the Door

I was awoken this morning by the doorbell ringing. An odd event for a Saturday morning around here. The DF answered the door in his jammies, hair sticking up like a cat run through a dryer. I went to the kitchen for my morning cuppa, figuring that it was just a neighbor or FedEx delivery. When the DF returned, I asked him if it was someone from next door.

"Nope," he said.

"Well who was it," I demanded.

"Some guy who wanted to buy our goats."

"What? How did he know we had goats?"

"He said he saw one of them from Mission Street, sticking her head up over the fence." Must have been Ethel. She's always checking out what's happening in the neighborhood.

"So what did you tell him?" I asked.

"Well I said no, they weren't for sale. He figured the SPCA would have busted us by now. I told him that it was legal for us to keep them." I'm glad to hear that the DF isn't SO disgruntled that he would actually make a move on this offer. We're making progress here people.

"What kind of person rings someone's doorbell and asks to buy their goat?"

"He was some Greek guy who lives up in Petaluma. He has a contracting business down here. His wife is really into goats and wants to get some. He says they like to make goat cheese." Now we're talking my language. As a cheeseaholic myself, I can completely understand why someone might ring a bell or two to get a line on the source. "I told him he could have the babies since we're breeding them this year. He gave me his card" Hot damn! THIS solves our major dilemma with getting some milk on this farm. We don't have room for anymore mammals of substantial size. And I know this might come as a shock to some of you, but we can't get milk without reproduction. I wonder if this guy would be willing to give me some cheese making lessons in exchange for a goat baby.

In two weeks, we will be sending Lucy off to Lake County for a six week romantic rendezvous with a real stud. Ethel is going too, but won't be bred. We wouldn't be able to handle that much milk, let alone that many babies. I miss them already, but it will give me a chance to spruce up their living quarters.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ground Score

I am a bona fide, true blue, thriftaholic, garage-estate sale-ing, street scrounging pack rat. Drives the DF nuts. I can't help it. There is nothing I would rather do than sift for precious nuggets of discarded goodness hidden in the massive mounds of crap that fill our wealthy urban environs, a veritable goldmine for us bottom feeders. In a city where the rivers of unwanted junk flow like a flooded mountain stream after a spring snow melt, you must have rules, otherwise you would end up buried under an avalanche of your own making like on that TV show about hoarders that I can't quite muster the courage to watch. Contrary to what my DF might tell you, I don't bring just any stray knick knack into my house. Like I said, there are rules.
  1. Don't purchase or pick up anything that needs to be repaired. I have occasionally made exceptions, like in the case of a good piece of furniture that just needs a bit of TLC, but for the most part I avoid this trap. I have learned through personal experience that these are the items that tend to cobweb up the house.
  2. Don't pay more than $10 for something unless it is super, super, SUPER cool.
  3. Don't buy something that is only "kind of" what you're looking for. Hold out for the real McCoy.
  4. Never pick up something off the sidewalk that cannot be washed or disinfected. 
Last week I broke the rules. On the walk home from picking up my daughter at school, I stumbled on one of those recipe collecting folders, lying on the sidewalk in a pile of mildewing clothing and random papers and books that were sullied beyond recognition. It had a great cover, circa 1981, of a country kitchen still life, complete with rolling pin and wire egg basket. How could I resist? Well, other than the fact that the folder and its contents were a touch damp from all the rains we've been having. I knew that taking this musty booty home would violate at least two of my above rules, but when I saw that most of the recipes contained real food ingredients rather than a load of processed, canned crud, I snatched it up and brought it home to air out. 

I pulled out the limp recipe cards with the kind of care reserved for handling antiques and spread them around the dining room and kitchen. What a find! As I meandered through the culinary world of this unknown soul who had discarded these recipes with as much thought as one might give to junk mail, I was struck by a pang of guilt as if I had stolen something that wasn't rightfully mine. All of these handwritten cards, yellowed with age and stained with use, seemed so intimate and personal. I inherited my grandmother's old, spill-splattered recipes and I treasure them above all of my cookbooks combined. They tell the story of the daily life of my family at a time when I was not around to share in the eat, drink, and conversation. These recipes are a soupcon of a glimpse into that world. I know what my grammy liked to cook based on how thick of a coating of batter is stuck to the page. It's a small thread connecting me to a person that I didn't have a lot of time with in this life. When I use my grandmother's recipe books, I feel as if I am cooking with her or touching some part of her and her life that is now gone.

So from where I'm standing, I can't figure out why someone would dump a bunch of well loved recipes in the street like a used tissue. Aren't other people the least bit sentimental for old family dishes or am I just corny that way? Well this eggnog pie looks positively delish so I'm more than happy to be an overly schmaltzy kind of gal if this personality quirk scores me some quality sh*#.

How about a lamb and lentil soup with beer?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

End of Winter Comfort Food

We are so fortunate here in coastal California to have a year round growing season. While the rest of the country is buried under a couple feet of snow, we can usually find something green and edible sprouting up in the garden. Currently, our CSA is providing us with loads of leeks, beets, carrots, cabbage, greens, broccoli, winter squash, and cauliflower. The Disgruntled Farmhand and daughter turn their noses up at over half these items. I'm sure many of you out there are all too familiar with the challenges of feeding picky eaters so I thought I'd send along a few tasty recipes that go over well at Itty Bitty.

A Wonderful Winter Salad

I came up with this salad with the need to clear out some of the veggies that were piling up in the fridge. This was a great way to get some cabbage into the more finicky folks around here and to add some dazzling color to the table.


  • orange beets
  • carrots
  • purple cabbage
  • apples
  • pecans
  • maple syrup
  • olive oil
  • balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper
  • feta (optional)
Peel and shred beets, carrots, and apple. Thinly slice cabbage. Toss with good quality olive oil, balsamic, salt, and pepper to taste. While flavors mingle in salad, cover pecans with maple syrup and roast in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Top salad with pecans. For a bit of decadence, add some feta cheese.

Roasted Chicken Soup with Leeks

Have you been tossing out your roast chicken carcasses? Shame on you if you have. Nothing beats a stock made from one when it comes to depth of flavor. (Handy tip: if you don't have time to make stock, throw the carcass in the freezer. Having a stock making day is a fantastic time saver for those of us who prefer homemade stock.)

But the real secret to this recipe is the way the leeks are prepared. My dear friend Joe Evans, a former cook at Chez Panisse, taught me how to properly cook leeks. Prior to this lesson, I consistently charred my leeks to the point of being inedible. It would always happen so fast, regardless of how high I set the flame. Joe explained to me that leeks are very fibrous and need time to break down. He suggested sauteing them covered, using half butter and half water for approximately 15-30 minutes under a low flame. This gives them an abundant amount of time to lose their woodiness and caramelize.

  • carcass of leftover roast chicken
  • a couple leeks
  • carrots
  • celery (optional)
  • potatoes (optional)
  • greens of some sort (optional)
  • 2/3 cup of rice
  • butter
  • seasoning salt (I use something like Lawry's or my own mixture that resembles it.)
  • pepper
Cover chicken carcass with plenty of water. Simmer on stove top or roast in a 350 degree oven for a couple hours. I often leave it in the oven for several hours. Don't worry about what types of seasoning you used on the roast chicken; they will add to the soup flavor. Strain broth from carcass and pick out usable meat. Toss meat back in with the broth. Bring soup base back up to a simmer and add rice, carrots, and any other veggies that you think might be tasty such as celery, potatoes, or some types of greens (note: add greens at the end with leeks). I usually add baby bok choy as we get a lot of it from our CSA and no one here, except me, will eat it cooked any other way. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until rice is done. Meanwhile, melt a couple tablespoons of butter in a saute pan, add leeks, and top with a bit of water. Cover and simmer for 15-30 minutes, checking frequently to make sure there is enough water to prevent burning. When leeks are fully soft, add to soup with chopped greens during the last five minutes of simmering. Serve with crusty homemade bread.

Squash with California Chile Sauce

The DF detests squash. There's something about the texture that sends him running for the hills whenever there's even a mention of the gourd. But this recipe has completely reformed his squash hating ways. My brother tells me that if I figure out a way to bottle the sauce, I'll be a millionaire. Seriously, you're gonna kiss my ass for sharing this with you. If for some reason you find it completely repugnant, I'll give you your money back. Disclaimer: no guarantees for squash haters. I may have converted mine, but I refuse to be responsible for yours.


  • winter squash - Delicata or butternut make a good choice, but you could use any kind you have laying around.
  • butter
  • California chile powder (This is a mild chile. You can find it at any Latin grocery. Feel free to go with a chile that has a bit more heat. I just prefer this one because I'm sensitive the super hot spicy stuff.)
  • lime
  • salt or garlic salt
Cut squash in half and roast, face down, on a baking pan with a touch of water at 350 until soft. Prepare sauce by melting about 4 tablespoons of butter. Add chile powder, at least a tablespoon or more, and salt to taste. I make it a deep brick red color. Juice one lime and stir into sauce. You can either pour the sauce over the squash left in their skins or remove squash meat, mash, and smother in sauce.

P.S. Let me know if you like the recipes. I'm thinking about trying to post the best of my kitchen experiments on a monthly basis. What do you think?