Shakshuka Warms the Heart

On a recent trip to the Denver Central Market, I had my first taste of Shakshuka, a traditional North African dish of roasted peppers, tomatoes, and invigorating spices that creates a beautiful flavor. Two large eggs are perfectly poached in the sauce, something to eat with fresh bread for breakfast or as a hearty cold-weather meal when you need that flavor to give your mood a boost. Shakshuka
Coming home to Virginia, I’ve tried several versions. Of course, I found that Melissa Clark has once again proven steadfast with an easy recipe for any night of the week or brunch. With two fresh eggs from the chicken house, homemade bread, and tomatoes from the summer garden, this meal brought North Africa to the Northern Neck of Virginia. It was a very welcomed visit and perfect when you need a bit of warmth on a chilly fall day!

Shakshuka

Shakshuka Recipe

Here is a modified version of Melissa Clark’s recipe for Shakshuka. It serves 4 – 6 people, but is easy to scale up or down depending on how many you are serving. I highlight recommend a good crusty bread and salted butter served alongside for dipping. If you try it out, let me know how it goes. If you need help, come on over, and we’ll make it together!

Ingredients

  • 1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
  • 3-4 large fresh tomatoes coarsely chopped OR 1 (28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes with juices, coarsely chopped
  • ¾ teaspoon salt, more as needed
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper, more as needed
  • 5 ounces (about 1 1/4 c.) crumbled feta cheese or something like a Bulgarian sheep’s cheese (very good!)
  • 6 large eggs

Preparation

  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Heat about three tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. I prefer a cast-iron skillet as it retains the heat beautifully when you serve it at the table.
  3. Add onion and bell pepper. Cook gently until very soft, about 20 minutes. Add garlic and cook until tender, 1 to 2 minutes; stir in cumin, paprika and cayenne, and cook 1 minute.
  4. Pour in tomatoes and season with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; simmer until tomatoes have released their juices and thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in crumbled feta. Note: If using fresh tomatoes, you may want to add more of less depending on their size and how juicy they are.
  5. Gently crack eggs into skillet over tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer skillet to oven and bake until eggs are just set, 7 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with hot sauce.

I serve my eggs just when they’ve set, allowing the yolks to run and integrate with the sauce, making it rich and creamy. I serve one or two eggs per person.

The Graveyard Shift

One of my favorite places on the property is the graveyard. Unfortunately, keeping it cleaned up seems to slip my mind. Granted, I drive by it at least twice per day but once I pull up to the house, a million other things command my attention. Usually it’s an animal or six.

White Plains Graveyard

But this week, just a few days before Halloween, the wind blew in just the right direction and I ended up walking down to the old cedar tree that once stood tall, sheltering the graves. All that’s left is the main trunk, splintered from what must have been a loud crash of its upper limbs. Thankfully, after all these years, the last pieces remain. Perhaps because it’s growing in a graveyard. There’s something sacred about graveyards. Either we’re afraid of what might happen if we do too much meddling, or we believe that it’s truly not ours to meddle with.

White Plains Graveyard

Beyond meddling, there may even be a certain amount of respect for the very tangible and instant connection to the past that you get by being in a graveyard. The person who slept and ate in the rooms where you now sleep and eat, who planted the trees that you now sit under, and who created a story of his or her own, is right beneath you. You can almost touch them. Or at least their mortal remains. At the very least, you can’t deny their existence or their contribution to the place that you now share.

White Plains Graveyard

I spent about an hour pulling weeds, touching the gravestone markers as I passed. They are beautiful. There are larger headstones and smaller footstones, each of stunning white quartz. There is something slightly ethereal about them. They are veined in greens, reds, and golds, sparkling when the sun catches them at the right angle.

White Plains Graveyard

One of the graves is the daughter of Randolph and Laura Owens. She was born around October 7th, 1893 and died on October 10th 1893. She was only three days old and  buried at White Plains, in the grave by the cedar tree. That was 125 years ago this month.

There are two other unknown graves, marked simply with quartz and then there are the Gouldmans, Alexander and Virginia. I imagine how much they loved this place to be buried here. Either that or they had no choice! But considering the number of church graveyards nearby, I like to think it’s the previous.

White Plains Graveyard

Maybe I too will be buried here in the front yard. Maybe White Plains will kill me trying to rejuvenate it! In a 21st-century culture that values the transient nature of things and ideas, who’s to say where any of us will be in another 10 years. So much can change in only one year. But families like the Thornleys, the Gouldmans, the Quesenberrys, and others made their home here and died here. It’s the least I can do to stop by every once in a while to weed.

White Plains Graveyard

“Flower Drift” Makes an Appearance

Although they are all gone now, the daffodils were abundant this year, and the storms stayed away long enough for me to enjoy them longer than usual. My favorite this year is the classic “Flower Drift,” a beautiful double Narcissus that was first registered in 1966, originating in the Netherlands. As the heat of summer sets in, I am already anticipating next spring!

 

Deviled Goose Eggs – Go Big Or Go Home!

Growing up in the South, I learned about the importance of deviled eggs as a staple at almost every type of social gathering from church picnics to cocktail parties. Like potato salad, every home cook has their own recipe and unique twist on the classic. With controversial ingredients like pickles, mustard, hot sauce, and even the brand of mayonnaise, there’s no shortage of debate when it comes to whose recipe is the best.

While I can’t say that my deviled eggs are the best, for one short time span during the spring, mine are definitely unique. Why, you ask? Goose eggs! Go big or go home sounds like a good theme for these deviled eggs. Although a predator recently took out one of my beautiful American Buff geese, one remains, and she continues to remind everyone of her royal status.

Goose Egg

Guess which one is the goose egg!

 

Because geese only lay eggs for a couple of months during the spring, you must enjoy them while you can. I’ve found them to be the closest in consistency and function to a chicken egg – great for baking, omelettes, and now as an appetizer.

Hard-boiling them the way you might for a chicken egg, at a full thirteen minutes, made them easy to peel. I found the white to be a little more delicate than a chicken egg, requiring steady hands and patience to carefully remove the thick shell.

Hardboiled Goose Eggs

The yolk was a beautiful yellow and so rich. After removal, I added a few key ingredients but didn’t need much because the flavor was already so good.

Hardboiled Goose Eggs

For serving, I cut the filled eggs into quarters, offering them as perfect bites to the bourbon cocktails at hand. Like the daffodils, they come in spring only come once a year – enjoy them while you can!

Deviled Eggs

 

Timber Frame Repairs On The Upper East Side

It happens to all of us. Life takes over and we forget where we are sometimes. It’s as if the train is going so fast that the view of the landscape through the window is blurred as it whizzes by. Then there is this moment when you stop to take a breath, usually it’s in one of your happy places, and you remember all of those things you had forgotten. Your senses come alive again as you savor the taste, smell, and feeling of the moment. You breathe. It feels good.

So, here I sit in the peony garden, one of my favorite places to let everything slow down around me. It’s the end of a holiday weekend and a perfect time for catching up.

Peony Garden

I saw a friend earlier this year who said, “I’m so glad you’re done with the restorations at White Plains!” I’m not sure if it was the confused look on my face or the involuntary crinkle of my nose, but she followed with, “You are done, right?” I had to break the news to her. Even though it’s been a productive spring, finishing a lot of major projects, it’s been a busy push to the finish line.

What’s Going On Under There?

One of the first big projects of the year was a structural repair to the eighteenth century timer framing on the north-east side of the house. Having identified some old termite damage in the floors near that area when we first purchased the property, we knew it would be on the docket at some point. Although we had already overseen replacement and stabilization of other major structural beams in other parts of the house, I still felt pretty nervous about this one. Maybe it was the unknown that is ever-present when opening walls of such an old structure or maybe it was seeing my summer vacation budget get converted to an emergency work fund!

Thankfully Jason at Rappahannock Restorations eased my stress from the start and gave us a clear plan on how we would move through the unknown. The first step was to remove siding from the outside to assess what might be happening underneath. Removal began between the chimney and second floor window, where it appears water had been entering for many years, causing not only direct damage but also creating an environment that’s very appealing for termites.

Historic House Repair

As more siding was removed, almost to the brick foundation, you could easily see the trail that the water and termites took through the framing. They had almost fully dissolved several main posts and beams, requiring a bit more work than we had originally anticipated. Thankfully, the damage stopped just before the impressive locust corner post and ran up to the chimney on the other side. This made access to the problem much easier, tackling it from the outside and without requiring us to break into the interior plaster walls – one of my biggest fears!

Historic House Repair

Jason and his crew expertly stabilized the compromised framing, replacing and adding as necessary. After the old 1940’s insulation was removed and new added, it was time to replace the siding. Unfortunately, most of the old siding was too brittle to be saved, but we were able to replace it with a new cedar siding in the same colonial bead-board style. Hopefully it will last for another couple of hundred years.

Historic House Repair

Construction Marks In Eighteenth Century Timber Framing

One really cool thing about the excavation of structures is what you find underneath the layers. Here we found the roman numerals used by carpenters to match up the timber frame components. These marks are commonly found at the joint with a matching roman numeral on the corresponding piece. This method ensured that custom-hewn joints and timber sections weren’t mixed up in either transport or when they were installed on-site. You can easily see them in the unfinished attic here, but it’s always a treat to see the hidden ones. I’d guess they don’t get unearthed but about once every one hundred years or so!  Check out this post from our friends over at Historic House Blog for more about 18th century construction marks. 

Historic Carpenter's Marks

As stewards of this old house, sometimes we have to tackle projects that we’d rather leave for someone else. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that someone else will come along and take care of it in the way it deserves. As we complete the final stage of this restoration and renovation, I’m often reminded that we all have a role to play in the preservation of our historic assets. This work is just a small part of that.

 

A Gift Of Liquid Gold From The Bees!

Although spurts of snow and freezing night temperatures persist, signs of spring are starting to appear. Besides the robins that engulf the yard en masse, one of my favorite signs is the buzzing of bees around their hive, beginning to explore for open flowers and fresh pollen. Although a bit early yet, it’s almost time to start feeding them with spring syrup to ignite their drive to make comb, brood, and honey.

Beehive Condo

Early last fall, after finding the most spectacular bee hive configurations and two queens, I was able to pull two frames of honey to attempt extraction of my first honey harvest. Not having a fancy automatic extractor, heated elements for cutting comb, or other tools that one might use for processing large amounts, I went the old-fashioned route.

Honeycomb

With a sharp knife, I ran across the tops of the honeycomb, uncapping the cells to release the honey. I simply let it drain overnight into a colander, catching any large pieces of comb. With a final strain through a fine-mesh strainer, I had a beautiful quart of unfiltered raw honey.

Honeycomb

Honeycomb
And you can only imagine the first taste. The flavor was not only rich and complex, but I felt so triumphant having been patient for these past three seasons of loss, splitting colonies, and keeping these two hives protected and nourished.

With just two small frames as payment, the return was far more rewarding than I expected.  While it’s amazing on toast, my preferred way to enjoy it is simply with a spoon. Here’s to the upcoming season and more honey!

Honey

Fox Hunting in Virginia

One of my favorite things about living in Virginia is the deeply rooted connection to equestrian sports. You can drive down most any country road and find horses and a rich culture of working, showing, and fox hunting.

I recently visited the Caroline Hunt in Caroline County, Virginia, for its Opening Hunt, the season’s first formal day of fox hunting. Originating in Virginia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fox hunting has deep roots in the Commonwealth, continuing today through many active hunts. According to the Masters of Foxhound Association, the oldest continuing hunt in the United States is the Piedmont Hunt of Virginia, established in 1840. As the MFHA points out, fox hunting in North America has evolved to focus on the chase, rather than the kill. Most hunts are no-kill hunts, ultimately trying to ensure safe passage for the fox.

Fox Hunting - Opening Hunt

With most hunts starting early in the day, you often wake up before the sun has even considered getting out of bed. Although you have likely bathed, groomed, and prepped your horse the day before, you will still need to get everything together, being sure you haven’t forgotten something important (like boots, cap, or flask!).

Arriving at the day’s fixture, or location of the meet, can be a social affair, seeing old friends and tacking up your horse for the day’s ride. Stirrup cup, or a nip of something to warm the bones on a cold morning, is a fun way to loosen up those tight muscles – and nerves! Depending on the day, stirrup cup can be more or less formal.

Fox Hunting - Stirrup CupAbove: An informal stirrup cup and snacks from an earlier fall hunt. Photo by Paige Riordan.

Fox Hunting - Stirrup CupThe group then convenes for a blessing of the hounds that is performed each year at Opening Hunt. It is also an opportunity to thank the landowners for their contributions and generosity of allowing passage through their land and along their fields.

Now the group and hounds are ready to hunt. Riders in the field follow a leader as part of a flight. First flight is fastest, includes jumps, and is for experienced riders, while second flight is for those wishing a somewhat slower pace and no, or less, jumping. In Virginia, the terrain can be a mix of hills, wooded lands, open spaces, and jumps such as logs and fences. It’s very common to pass through working farms and planted fields.

Fox Hunting - The Caroline HuntAbove: Riders at the Caroline Hunt. Photo credit unknown. Fox Hunting - The Caroline HuntAbove: Riders in the field follow through the woods. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.

While it’s a very social event, there is a technical side that drives the day. The hounds are well equipped and trained to identify the scent and track the fox long distances across the varied terrain. The Huntsman and hounds maintain the trail while hunt staff hold perimeters to ensure safety of the hounds. In a modern landscape, roads, railroad tracks, and other potential dangers are never too far away. When the hounds are gone “away” on a trail, the route can be a fun and exciting journey for riders in the field.

Fox Hunting - The Caroline HuntAbove: The Hounds are working hard. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.

Fox Hunting - The Caroline HuntAbove: Tony Gammell, former Huntsman at Keswick, after Opening Hunt in Caroline County. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.

After a long day in the field, there is nothing better than coming back for the Hunt Breakfast, a time to share delicious food and drink with members and guests. The nourishing power of a home-cooked meal and a welcoming community of people committed to the land and nature warms even the coldest of winter days. Thank you to the Caroline Hunt for always being welcoming and hospitable.

For more information about fox hunting, visit the Masters of Foxhound Association website. Also, check out the video below demonstrating riders and hounds of the Caroline Hunt in 2012.

Additional Resources
The Museum of Hounds & Hunting of North America
Masters of Foxhound Association
National Sporting Library and Museum

Burn, Brush, Burn!

When we moved to the farm in 2013, the grounds had been overgrown for many years. With an elderly owner, much of the accumulating brush and fallen trees were simply piled high by volunteers to be dealt with in the future. One such pile was a monster, with approximately 900 square feet of huge logs, brush, and overgrowth. Adding our own rubbish to the pile, it just kept growing.

After our first encounter with the King George Fire Department, which didn’t go as planned, we determined it would be best to include them at the beginning this time. With the volunteer fire department on our side, we started the day with a water truck and Ray, the team’s finest, to keep the flames under control.

With the very first ignition, the pile of dry, aged wood took off with no problem. It burned fast and hot for most of the day. Chris and Ray successfully managed the fire, even saving a few black snakes along the way.

Check out the video below to hear the crackle of the hot burn. Can you feel the heat?

When it was all over at the end of the day, this was the sight I found – burnt and exhausted! I don’t think those clothes will ever come clean.

With the fire smoldering well into the night, it was the perfect excuse to enjoy its warmth with a beautiful fall sunset and cold beer.

We cannot thank Ray and the King George Volunteer Fire Department enough for their help controlling the burn and helping us remove this enormous pile from the field!

Two Queens Are Better Than One!

If there’s one thing people remember about the farm and this blog, it’s the bees. People love the bees, and it’s often one of the first questions I get. I often answer with something like, “Oh, they’re great!” But deep down inside, I know I’ve been neglecting my hive duties for one-too-many months.

One of my last attempts to manage the hives left me with countless stings covering my legs, even through my canvas pants, and on my hands, through my gloves. It was a painful experience because I’m slightly allergic to them, and frustrating because it occurred due to my poor choices. I wasn’t careful about the time of day, air temperature, and adequate smoking.

After a few weeks of sulking and walking the long way around the bee yard so I didn’t have to face them, I finally tried again. With no stings this time, I realized how much I needed an experienced beekeeper to walk me through hive management after many weeks of neglect. It was time to get them ready for winter.

Help Is on the Way!

I called Mike Church, King George County’s resident bee expert to help me out. Mike taught the beekeeping class through the Gateway Beekeepers Association that got me inspired and trained to take on my first hives. In fact, my first hives came from Mike. Now, he would help me gets things back to a manageable level.

Can you find the queen? Click on the picture above to zoom in.

As we dug into the first hive, we found a vibrant colony with lots of brood but little honey. This will be the first one to boost, giving them as much opportunity and food stores to survive winter. The second, and largest, hive was a bit more challenging. It contained a lot of honey, good brood patterns, and then something unusual… evidence of two queens! As we got to the bottom of the hive, we realized that the second queen had to be in the last box, but she was no where to be found.

As we lifted the bottom box, there it was, a beautiful “underground” hive built beneath the larger bee city. There’s something so beautiful about free-form comb that reminds you how both scientific and creative bees are. Complex structures with no template other than the innate blueprints with which each is born.

Mike and I decided to give each hive a chance to survive. Working with a little ingenuity, we fashioned a structure that would allow the lower hive to move into one of the boxes. The upper hive would still remain above, with its own queen.

Thanks to Mike for helping me get reacquainted with my hives and for teaching me countless new things along the way. If you’re ever interested in keeping bees, I highly recommend taking a class through your local beekeepers association.

Beehive Condo

As we roll into fall, I’m already lamenting the loss of summer. Thankfully, there is one dozen ears of sweet corn left from Locustville Plantation Farm, after a pass through Ottoman, Virginia. If you’re in the area, check out the old house from 1855 and the little farm store with interesting local goods. You won’t leave without a story or two!

 

Spring Has Landed and Chicks are Here!

Spring has landed and it’s hard to miss around here. Despite the weather roller coaster that we’ve been on in Virginia, we are finally back to “normal” spring weather with beautiful sunny days, chilly nights, and colorful blooms taking shape.

There are still a few daffodils ready to open but many of them blossomed early under warm temperatures, only to be swept away during the past two storms and hard freezes.

Blue Grape Hyacinth Blue Grape Hyacinth cover the roots of the ash tree

Thankfully, the grass is starting to fill in all of the patches created from ongoing construction last year, and the peonies are just starting to poke their heads out of the ground. It’s definitely one of my favorite times of year.

Heirloom PeoniesThe Peonies beginning to rise above ground through the periwinkle

The Hatchery

About five weeks ago, we put over two dozen eggs into the incubator, thanks to my friend Dave. Las year, I traded him four guineas pullets for four of his buff Orpington chicks. Unfortunately, we ended up losing all but one to a fox. The late winter weeks were particularly hard as predators, primarily fox and coyote, roamed the area looking for any available food. Our flock seemed to be their all-you-can-eat buffet! Dave was kind enough to save two dozen fertilized eggs for me to try again this season. With better predator guards in place, I’m hopeful for this round.

Eggs in the Incubator

The egg colors were stunning and I couldn’t wait to see what would pop out. There were sure to be a few Orpingtons, some Sex-links of black Australorp, Copper Maran, and Easter Egger. My primary goal this season is to have some hearty layers to keep my kitchen well-stocked all year. Having only bought one dozen store-bought eggs last year, I got spoiled with a steady supply of the very best, richest farm eggs.

New-born Chicks

After just 21 days, we saw our first pip. It didn’t take long before a few had sprung free, running around the incubator like little dinosaurs, bumping into other eggs and each other. We ended up with twelve chicks of different colors and varieties, two requiring a bit of assistance to break out of their shell walls. It’s a very difficult thing knowing when to assist their hatch and when to let Mother Nature know best. There’s no doubt that had we not assisted in the last two cases, they certainly wouldn’t have made it.

Mother Goose

The chickens aren’t the only ones with eggs this year! After much observation and deliberating, we have finally decided that our two geese are indeed a happy couple. Mother Goose now has about 10 eggs in her clutch and we hope they are viable for hatching, assuming she gets broody along the way.

Mother Goose

They are definitely impressive, rich-tasting eggs, each equalling about a half-cup of liquid. I equate their texture and taste more to a chicken egg. One of our favorite recent recipes was from our friend Lolli who placed an over-easy goose egg on top of a bed of corned beef and potato hash. Can you say perfect? Although I have loved baking and cooking with them, I plan to see how she will treat her current clutch considering they are only good layers for a few months out of the year.

As the season progresses, I have a lot of work to do in my garden (I’m really behind this season).  When I’m not working to pay the bills, other moments have been dedicated to sitting by the fire, eating oysters, and enjoying good company. I hope you are able to enjoy the same this spring.

Springtime Fire