This week was a tough week for our household. Sadly, we lost Wynnie, our silver lace wyandotte hen. Some people have indifferent relationships with their birds. I am not that person. The movie Bambi always makes me cry, I still have a hard time watching PBS shows that showcase predators and prey, and though I respect the hell out of Darwin, my emotional side can’t comprehend the whole ‘survival of the fittest’ routine. You’d think I’d be a vegetarian, right? I used to be. More on that later.
We live in a cabin in the middle of a birch forest in the rolling hills surrounding Fairbanks. The immense amount of space, coupled with the independent, self-sufficient nature that comes along with living in the Alaska territory in general really grew on me when I moved up here. I started studying books about homesteading and fantasizing about subsisting off our little plot of land. Still, subsistence is HUGE in Alaska. Native Alaskans and Alaska Natives who live in either the cities or the bush rely heavily on the flora and fauna to get them through the long, cold winters. I truly admire the old ways of respecting the land and accepting its gifts graciously, predators and all.
Homesteading is a full time gig, and since Christoph and I both have full time jobs, I thought it would be a good idea to start small with a couple hens and a small garden. We bought Wynnie and Henrietta as chicks at a local feed store in May. Summer weekends were spent watching them grow, explore the land, and get their fill of sun, of food, and of each other. Izzy, our big yellow mutt, even loved watching them! She’d sit with her ears perked up, head tilted, curiously watching their every move.
Long story short, both hens would peak their heads out of their hen house and stare at us through the wired gaps of the coop wall anytime they heard a car door slam. This past Wednesday, I came home from work and Henrietta was making a desperate noise and her sister was nowhere to be found. After investigating a bit, we found a hole the hungry predator had dug under the coop frame and a pile of feathers in the yard.
I was sick over it. I’ve grown quite fond of the birds, their quirks, and the responsibility of taking care of them. The more I think about it now, it’s quite fitting that the proverbial “fox in the hen house” scenario play out in my back yard, and it’s my hope that the trickster a) doesn’t eat the others (we got 2 more on Thursday) and b) stores up some of that fat long enough to get through the long season we have ahead of us.
A Wilder Shephard’s Pie
* Depending on your preference (or if you’ve had a traumatic chicken experience), meat can be omitted.
- 3 Tbsp olive oil or butter
- 1 pound of buffalo ground meat (ground moose, hamburger, or venison will work, too)
- 2 leeks, finely chopped
- 3 carrots, chopped
- 1 sweet potato, chopped
- 2 turnips, chopped
- 2 cups crimini or white button mushrooms, quartered
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 3 Tbsp all purpose flour (I used King Arthur’s Gluten Free A.P. Flour)
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2 Large glasses red wine (separated)
- 3 cups beef stock
- 4 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce (I didn’t have any, so I used Nam Pla and Mushroom flavored Dark Soy Sauce)
- few thyme sprigs
- 2 bay leaves
- Several sage leaves
For the top
- 5 potatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 milk
- 2 egg yolks (optional)
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 cup of horseradish cheddar (Sharp cheddar +/- 1 Tbsp horseradish
- Start sipping one glass of vino.
- Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large oven proof skillet or dutch oven and cook meat until browned. Remove meat and drain if there’s excess fat in the bottom of the pan. Put the rest of the oil into the pan, add the vegetables (except garlic) and cook on medium heat until soft, about 20 mins. Add the garlic, flour and tomato paste, increase the heat to medium high and cook for a few mins, then return the meat to the pan. Pour in the wine you aren’t drinking and boil to reduce it slightly before adding the stock, soy/mushroom/worcestershire sauce and herbs. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook until the gravy is thick and coats the meat. After about 30 minutes, if the gravy hasn’t reduced, turn the heat up a bit for the last 15 minutes. Season well, then discard the bay leaves and thyme stalks.
- Drink more wine.
- While the liquid in the gravy, meat, and veggie mixture is reducing, cover the potatoes in salted cold water in a large saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer until tender. Drain well. Return to pot and mash with the milk, butter, egg yolks and three-quarters of the cheese, then season with some salt and pepper.
- Spoon potatoes on the beef and veggie mixture and spread to cover. Sprinkle on the remaining cheese.
- Cook at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.
While I was cooking, I was listening to:
Whether you knew of Old Crow before Darius Rucker covered Wagon Wheel or not, I bet you didn’t know this: