Sunday, September 7, 2008

We've Got Chickens!

They are finally here! We got four chickens from the great folks at Anoka Farm and Feed, two Barred Rock hens.

Two red Sexlinks (the one below was named Bernie Mac by daughter Alice, and the name has stuck) and two silver laced Wyandottes, whose photos will come later.

And best of all, they came home to a beautiful coop made for me for my birthday by my amazing husband. I wanted a little replica of our garage, since the coop would be positioned against the center of our garage. He did a great job:

The four chickens are about four months old, so won't lay eggs for another couple of months, but we plan to have them laying all winter, so stay tuned for the first egg.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Schooled in the Ways of the Barn

If you’ve ever been part of a large barn where everyone boards their horses, you know about this topic. Boarders’ barns are like school, where everyone has a reputation that follows them around like white on rice. I’m not talking about people’s reputations here, I’m talking about the reputation of horses. I’ve been a teacher so I know a little about this. When a kid in school gets a reputation with teachers, it follows the kid through all his or her school years. No matter what they tell you, teachers talk about kids, and all it takes is one teacher deciding that a kid is trouble, and no matter what, that kid will be trouble forever in school.

Albert the horse got branded as trouble pretty quickly. He started his career at the barn as a “schoolie,” a horse in the teacher’s herd that everyone takes riding lessons on. My husband Scott rode him on a few trail rides when he was a schoolie. It didn’t take long for Albert to diplay his insecurities. It started as a bad attitude and blossomed into bucking children off in lessons. But we saw something different in Albert. It’s a talented horse that can take the stress of different, inexperienced riders day after day. Albert wasn’t one of them. The more riders he had the more insecure he got until finally, he would just explode. So, when he went up for sale, we bought him, thinking that one rider would work for Albert.

Albert’s first trip to South Dakota for a week of riding and camping didn’t go so well either. Scott never had trouble riding him, but Albert’s insecurities didn’t go away, they just switched to a new source: other horses. First ride up the trail Albert kicked three or four other horses; one well-placed kick resulted in another horse with a bloody hoof mark on her chest. This wasn’t aggression, it was fear and insecurity. You could see it on Albert’s face. He was so confused and upset about his place in the herd he lashed out. But Scott got pretty good at changing Albert’s mind about kicking other horses. A leather bat that makes a big noise when you use it was applied to Albert’s neck every time he thought about kicking another horse. Albert is smart, it didn’t take him long to understand that thinking about kicking meant the bat. So he stopped thinking about it.

Scott and Albert in South Dakota. Notice the bat in Scott's right hand.

I am going to digress into a little horse training talk. I’m a teacher, remember, and anything about learning fascinates me. If Albert got the bat every time he kicked it would be too late. He’d already experienced the insecurity, it escalated into fear, he’s examined his options and KICK! The trick is to catch him as he’s experiencing the insecurity, before he’s started examining his options. Every tap of the bat changes his attention from all the other horses to his rider. The bat isn’t punishment, it realigns his thinking to pay attention to his rider instead of worrying about the other horses. As soon as Scott was able to catch Albert thinking about his insecurity, and change his mind, the kicking stopped. Now Scott rarely has to use the bat - he reconditioned Albert’s mind so Albert no longer worries about other horses.

This doesn’t work so well with people. Albert hasn’t kicked another horse for years. He’s never bucked when Scott is riding him. But according to all the people at the barn, Albert is trouble. Last year when we went to South Dakota, someone recommended that we tie a red ribbon on Albert’s tail to warn other riders that he kicks. When one of our friends wants to ride Albert, the teachers at the barn warn them away. We’ve had teachers tell our friends that if they want to learn to ride, they should ride a different horse. It’s like the kid at school who did a couple of dumb things in first grade and now a sixth grader, still hasn’t escaped his reputation. Applying the bat to folks at the barn to change their minds about Albert isn’t an option. So we ignore them. My sister is riding Albert now with great success. Albert is still insecure, but he’s learned to handle it. If only people were so easy.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

No Cat Shall Go Hungry

I am honored by Kris’s invitation to be a guest blogger on Krisapolis, to share one of my more amazing Christmas gifts. Late fall 2007 Kris’s brother Matt (Peick) invited me to join him and some of his buddies on a three-day canoeing adventure in the MN boundary waters. While the trip was an interesting saga in itself, enduring 40 mph winds and the first snow of the season, the many solitary hours of paddling gave Matt and I another opportunity to brainstorm Rube Goldberg engineering solutions to everyday problems. Kris and I had been doing a lot of 2-day business trips and long-weekend camping adventures over the last year and finding an affordable and reliable way to feed our nameless cat (A.K.A. "Slipper", "Whitster", "Steve", "Electron", "Kitty" ...) had become an issue. I was telling Matt there had to be a better option than the professional cat caretaker who forgot to feed our cat for an entire week or the $50 highly unreliable automatic feeder that covers a maximum of 4 meals (two days for our cat).

Matt is a mechanical engineer by profession and has always been a maker of things. In the past he has created some incredible holiday gifts ranging from fully-automatic rubberband machine guns to kid-size iceboats. Two Christmas’s back I bought him a subscription to Make magazine (, a cross between Popular Mechanics, ReadyMade magazine and Heath Kit ingenuity. Make magazine is all about modifying and building new things from existing components. Getting back to the story, Matt and I both remembered an early issue of Make that contained plans for a cat feeder made out of an old meat grinder. Matt and I discussed ways to improve this design at length eventually discarding the meat grinder, considering the potential advantages of other more accurate mechanisms. The brainstorming ended as we reached our final 270 rod portage to the truck.

Months went by and so did many possible design ideas I had while dozing off at night. For some reason I have always found it to be relaxing to dream up creative solutions and art projects as I drift off.

Fast forward to Christmas day at Kris’s sister Katie’s house when Matt announces he has my name (we draw names for gift giving) and has made me something special. We open presents from oldest to youngest, and when my turn comes around, Matt carefully deposits a large 2’x 4’ x 1’ wrapped box in front of me labeled “This side up” and “This side forward”. He asks me if I know what it is and it isn’t until that moment that it comes to me. An automatic cat feeder!
He smiles and laughs as I rip it open to reveal the Here Kitty, Kitty Automatic Feline Feeder, a tightly designed and engineered King of cat feeders.

The thing is beautiful and industrial strength made primarily of finished oak with burgundy sheet metal enclosures. The brains of the unit is stored within an ominous looking, bomb-proof metal cabinet with a green glowing “on” light, an on/off switch and a Jog (manual feed) button. Inside the metal cabinet is a industrial grade microprocessor, a small LCD display, a digital audio chip, a speaker and a USB connection to allow the programs to be uploaded and downloaded from an external PC. When activated, the feeder plays a digital recording of Matt calling our cat “Here Kitty, Kitty” followed by the machine dispensing a predetermined amount of cat vittles. To take it just one step further, he also had our mutual friend Tony Horning design an excellent retro-looking logo which is printed on the feeder as well as a pair of handsome his and her's t-shirts Kris and I were issued.

The next day, Matt came over to help me get the feeder up and running. We programmed the unit to feed that cat daily at 7:00am and 5:00pm. We have not manually fed the cat since that day. The feeder is a major convenience and has greatly reduced the cat’s relentless begging.

So what does the cat think of it? It’s hard to say… Within the first hour of the feeder’s installation she was on her back with both paws up the delivery shoot trying to figure out how to get the food out. Luckily Matt took cat safety into consideration and there have not been any lost paws. I think the feeder is her new god – the magical thing that produces food. Overall, I’d say she approves of it since it’s more consistent and never forgets like her pet humans sometimes did.

Here Kitty, Kitty!


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tina the Pig

Tina arrived right before Christmas, after being lovingly raised all summer by my friend Bev. Actually, half of Tina arrived, and I split her with my sister. Hop on over to Glitter Goods to see what my sister is doing with Tina. Bev raises a pack of pigs (herd of pigs? Group of pigs? What do you call a bunch of pigs?) and names them all beginning with the same letter, a different one each year. Last year we had Nathan, and Nathan bacon was the best. This year it’s Tina, who inspired a batch of sausage and clams.

I saw Cat Cora serve this on Iron Chef, and I knew I had to figure out how to make it. I have used Italian sausage too, it’s good with two sweet sausages and two hot. If you use plain sausage add some chili pepper flakes to spice it up. I’ve also made this for four people, go ahead and double the recipe if you need to. Next time I make this I’m going to add fennel cut into large matchsticks and sautéed after the sausage but before deglazing the pan. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Tina and Clams

Serves 2

French baguette or country loaf
2 cloves garlic, put through a press
3 Tablespoons olive oil plus more for browning sausage
1 pound pork sausage or Italian sausage out of casings
¼ cup white wine
½ cup fish stock, clam juice or chicken stock
salt and pepper
olive oil for drizzling
¼ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put 2 large cloves of garlic through a garlic press and add ¼ teaspoon table salt and 3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Set this aside while you tear or cut 2 cups of 1-inch white bread cubes (from a baguette or country loaf). They are going to be bigger than usual croutons, that’s what you want. Put the bread cubes on a baking sheet and drizzle the olive oil through fine-mesh strainer evenly onto the bread, tossing to coat all the cubes. Bake until golden, about 30 minutes, stirring and flipping once halfway through. Set the croutons aside.

Brown the sausage over medium high heat in a little olive oil in a skillet with plenty of room. Once all the sausage is browned, deglaze the pan with ¼ cup white wine, then add ½ cup stock and clams. Cover the pan and let simmer about 5 minutes or until all the clams have opened. Taste a little and add salt and pepper if needed. Discard closed clams, and spoon sausage, clams and broth into shallow bowls. Top with croutons and drizzle a little olive oil over the top of each serving, then sprinkle with chopped parsley and dig in!