Peeling Chicken Feet - a homesteading adventure story

I am a first generation homesteader. Well, in a way.  The skills I am learning are not new skills.  This knowledge I am soaking up about learning to grow vegetables, save seed, preserve my harvest - and raise animals for meat - are all skills my grandparents and great-grandparents definitely had.

They knew the basics of how to store root vegetables in a cellar, of how to make their own bread, and probably ...

...how to peel chicken feet.  

But me?  Well, let me tell you my story.

chicken

We've been raising chickens since our firstborn was tiny.  Both  my husband and I had chickens growing up, so raising them for eggs was natural.  But neither of us had much chicken farming experience beyond egg production.


Once we made the decision to try and grow as much food as possible - we began to see the chickens as more than a hobby.  We wanted them to be put to use in every way.  As we learned more about soil health and composting, they became even more crucial to our homesteading success.  

Learning how to butcher our own chickens was another way to make sure we were valuing these animals.  You can read more about that process HERE.

So that is where we were last year.  We had spent a couple of years learning to butcher, process and prepare our own chicken and rabbit which we had raised.  It felt good knowing we weren't wasting anything. 

But were we?

We are big believers in home made bone broth.  We use our vegetable scraps and any leftover bones regularly.  (Here's a simple way to do it) One of the reasons bone broth is so beneficial, is because of the vitamins, minerals and gelatin that releases from the bones.  They are extremely healing to the immune system. (Read more details HERE.)

One secret to a really nutritious bone broth, I'd read, was CHICKEN FEET.

Chicken FEET?  Really?

Now .. it only takes a little observation to realize that chicken feet are... really......

NASTY.

They are the hen's best tool to scratch, dig and fling all sorts of things around in the compost pile.  And no matter how clean you keep your coop - those claws are going to be downright dirty.

Now, not having a relative to pass down this knowledge to me - I was truly mystified. How ON EARTH would I be able to clean those feet well enough to get them anywhere near our food? After burying many feet into the compost pile along with the feathers and innards (from butchering)  ... I finally got the courage up to save some for the pot.   The girls used a brush and we scrubbed them outside as best we could.

Once I got them into the kitchen sink, though - the problem became apparent.  These feet have scales, and the scales get dirt and junk under them - kinda like fingernails. (are you gagging yet?)  No matter how much I scrubbed, I coudn't get them clean enough.   

I'd seen chicken feet for sale in Asian markets and even at Natural Food meat counters before - but they didn't look like these.  They were clean.  What was I missing?

I picked up the phone and called my friend Will.   I'm grateful to have a few friends with some of this rare homesteading knowledge to share.  He tried not to chuckle while I told him I was nearly gagging trying to get these feet clean. What should I do?

BOIL THEM for a few minutes.  He said.  And the outer layer of the feet will peel off like a glove. 

 Well I wouldn't have thought of that.

We did as he said, and sure enough - the outer scaley skin layer peeled off - very reptile-like.  WEIRD.  What came next, Will forgot to mention.  The chicken's toenail popped off revealing a totally clean, new one underneath.   WHAT?!  

So here I am at my kitchen sink doing this bizarre thing  - calling for the girls to come look.  First it was 'EEW!' but it then turned to 'LET ME TRY!'.  The peeling and popping off toenails was strangely fun.  And true enough - we had some beautifully, without-a-doubt CLEAN chicken feet at the end of it:


I had to take a quick video.  Here we are peeling chicken feet for the first time - still in our GROSSED OUT/SHOCKED state:


Learning this new skill somehow warms my heart.  It makes me feel connected to the generations that went before me.  Sadly, we have about a 100 year knowledge gap in our society.  Since the rise of convenience foods, grocery stores, mass produced meat and factory farms, we have all but lost much of this important food knowledge.

 We did add them to our next batch of soup stock.  Gia helped me:

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chicken feet in soup stock


In case you were wondering, the feet did not add any new or different flavor to our stock.  It tasted as delicious as always.

I'm wondering if this bizarre sight will become a bit more normal to us with time.  Not sure, really.

What I am sure of though, is that little by little - the homesteading skills and knowledge that generations past took for granted - are becoming important to many of us again.

Yep, it's worth it...

A winter storm blew in this week. 

Our cozy homestead is sitting quietly under 10 inches of Colorado snow.  The fire is blazing as I sit here typing by the fire.  And my heart is full to bursting.

wood fired stove, alternative energy source

I have ample reason to be joyful.  A quiet house full of the ones I love ...  everyone asleep but me.  I just put my plant babies to bed for the night too.  I sat and stared a bit, looking admiringly at the first real sets of leaves that distinguish the Tuscan Kale from the Savoy Cabbage. Broccoli, Cauliflower and Collards.  

These cold weather crops are the first seeds that I plant each year, and they carry with them the hope that my garden will not always be asleep under a blanket of snow.  These tiny winter promises of future food abundance keep me sane as the last few months of cold weather drag on.  Our storage vegetables were sparse due to the early deep freeze last fall,  so starting fresh for next year's crop is exciting.

seed starts in the basement under grow lights, starting seeds

This Spring... I have more than just my seedlings in the basement to celebrate and keep me sane.  This is the first year I have a crop of winter greens that actually survived the winter.  It's been a few years in the making.

So this is why my heart is so full tonight.  It's hard to describe the thrill I felt  as the snow was falling this afternoon, I crunched out into the frozen side yard, crawled inside our simple hoop house and harvested this gorgeous basket of color:  

winter greens under our high tunnel, winter gardening, cold hardy greens

 Perhaps it's the drab landscape that my eyes are used to this time of year that makes this about the MOST BEAUTIFUL THING I'VE EVER SEEN.  

Or perhaps it's the fact that I thought all of my efforts of planting the seeds this fall was wasted when the deep freeze hit and everything seemed lost.  Shortly after the heartbreak I could be heard saying things like "I've decided I don't want a winter garden! I need a rest!  Who needs to be worried about plants under cover all winter.  It's just too much and I'm not sure it's worth it!"

It's true. I was SO hopeful to have a bounty of winter greens - so amazed at the beauty of the tiny seedlings when they first got their start in the fall... and planning on having a small crop to sell or trade with neighbors.  OUCH - it hurt to think they were all gone. 

Winter greens in October - off to a good start (before the deep freeze in November)

Winter greens in October - off to a good start (before the deep freeze in November)

Though my multi-colored carpet of greens isn't as lush and full as I had hoped (we did lose about 2/3 of the total we planted) - what DID survive thrills me.  1/3 of that beautiful driveway garden is STILL a lot of greens!!!  I've planted new seedlings in the bare spots - and being inside that little dome covered in snow (when everything else outside is quiet and dormant) feels magical.

These long winter days when my little house full of girls is messy, chaotic and loud - I can escape to my hoop full of greens and pick... eat... and think.   It won't be long now until we are all outside, working, sweating and playing... but for now - this is good.  

kale, beets and spinach, cold hardy greens in hoop house

I can't help myself as I'm harvesting for a salad or omelette... for every four or five leaves picked - two get shoved into my mouth.  The spicy bite of Arugula and Tatsoi mustard, my beloved Italian Kale, a few leaves of smooth spinach, and the wonderful texture of Asian Mizuna.  YUM.

The closeness to the soil, these leaves spending only a split second in my hand and then being eaten so fresh - seem to carry with them superpowers that I can almost feel as I eat them. 

In our climate - the first home grown and harvested salad would not normally arrive on our table until late April or early May.  To be picking a beautiful salad in February on a day with a high of 22 degrees ... still kinda blows my mind.  

A few years ago, I'd read about growing cold hardy crops under cover.   We'd experimented with cold frames, tried keeping things alive in our greenhouse but had never succeeded at keeping things alive through the winter.  I got more determined last year (after reading Eliot Coleman's book 'The Winter Harvest Handbook') and purchased Remay (cloth frost blanket) and used it inside of a hoop house to cover things, but lost most of it by January.  

We finally got the help we needed after meeting some local friends who were operating a small CSA in a nearby town.  I reached out to her via Facebook - asking for a tour of her farm.  Hannah and Simon have become dear friends.  Besides nominating us for Mother Earth News' Homesteader of the Year  - (that was all Hannah's doing...) they have generously shared with us their knowledge, experience and friendship.

Some of the things we were doing wrong in our previous attempts at winter gardening were:  

  • trying to keep mature crops alive too long vs. planting new ones (at the end of the season, some were weak with aphids and were just done)
  • not planting the winter seedlings early enough in the fall to develop a good enough root system to withstand the cold temps
  • not using the correct greenhouse plastic on the outside of the hoop
  • not planting on the southern exposure side of the house with optimal winter sun
  • not building the hoops out of metal - we tried pvc which collapsed under the weight of heavy snow

Even this year with a partial successful harvest - we have learned more about how we can improve.  There will be changes for next year - a tighter setup and tweaks here and there.  I'm filled to the brim right now with optimism and excitement.  The success and failure of this past year (like every year prior) has given me more resolve, more inspiration, and more conviNcing that yep,  it's all worth it.  

harvesting greens in the snow, growing food in winter, colorado



Embracing Heartbreak

This November, we returned to California for my grandmother's memorial.  The temps in Colorado dropped drastically while we were away.  Though the weatherman had predicted temps in the 40s and 50s for the week, an 'Arictic Freeze' swooped south from Alaska.  The weather in Colorado went from 60 degrees and sunny,  to 10 below zero.  

A 70 degree drop in the space of 24 hours.

Though our neighbors and friends who were on duty to help feed animals and vent greenhouses did a GREAT job caring for the place, there are things that I might have done (and wouldn't ask them to attempt) if I'd been home to think about saving things.

While I was in California with family enjoying 70 degree weather in November... 

This was the reality back on the homestead:

A typical snow in November wouldn't have done any damage to the cold weather crops we had out in the garden still... cabbage, kale, collards & peas can usually tolerate a snow - and temps even down into the 20's.  But 10 below zero?  

Nope.

If I'd have only been home I could have picked cabbage, covered kale, harvested a TON of veg and frozen or dehydrated more.

But I wasn't home.  (And I'm truly grateful to have been with family for such an important time.)  But it was VERY hard to return home to this harsh, wintery reality.

After our long road trip, I ventured into the garden in the dark. I picked one of our TWENTY-TWO cabbages that were buried in the snow - hopeful that I might be able to sautee it with enough garlic and olive oil to salvage it's flavor.  Sadly, it was frozen solid - all the way through.  Even after a sautee - it was a mouthful of watery mush.  This is why greens and vegetables are typically blanched before freezing.  The cell structure is damaged by freezing when the vegetables are in raw form. 

What about fermenting?  I had hoped to store these cabbages in the cellar, and then turn many of them into sauerkraut for winter storage.  But fermenting, too requires that you begin with fresh, undamaged vegetables.  Nope.  None of these TWENTY-TWO cabbages would become sauerkraut.

IF only I'd known that these TWENTY-TWO beautiful cabbages should have been picked and stored before the trip!  Did I mention there were TWENTY-TWO of them??

Those first couple of days I picked armfuls of frozen kale - rinsing them off and sauteeing them too.  Because they didn't hold as much water - these were a bit more tasty when crisped up in the pan.  The flavor was more sulfury, instead of the typical fresh and sweet flavor that the cold weather usually adds.

I whizzed batches of this kale into some kale pesto.  Since this method requires a quick blanch and puree.  This, too - was ok - but not like it could have been if I'd picked it before the hard freeze. 

The 'IF ONLY' kept creeping in.   We didn't lose any animals in the weather - and for that I was grateful.  But the loss of these plants was just as much of a heartbreak to me.  

I start my cold weather seedlings in my basement in late January, or early February.  This means, these twenty-two cabbages, rows of kale and collards I lost had been under my care for more than 10 months of the year.  Watering, transplanting, moving to greenhouse, hardening them off, mulching them, rinsing off aphids,  picking off slugs.  

In actuality, I've probably invested more work into them - than the animals that we raise for meat.  These plants would have provided us with nutrient-dense greens for at least a couple more months or longer - if I had been able to pick, store or cover them.

After the snow melted, the unpicked brassicas began to stink.  The odor of rotting cabbage began to waft toward the front door.  It was time to face facts. I needed to feed them to the animals.  This, at least brought some solace.  The rabbits and chickens were able to draw some nutrients from these dear plant babies of mine.

If I WAS relying completely on our own hard work to provide food for our family (like many do in other parts of the world - and have in the past) - the heartbreak would go much deeper.  

The reality of losing so much food would not cause mere heartbreak - it would likely feel more like panic. 

The effect on the health of a family - struggling through a hard, long winter without the necessary vitamins and minerals that vegetables supply (not to mention flavor) would be terrible.

I DON'T enjoy buying vegetables from someone else after I've grown my own all year. Even supporting a small, local organic grocery store is tough for me.  (It's been hard on the budget already this month! )

But I am once again thoughtful of my ancestors who knew how to grow food.  Thoughtful of the small, sustainable farms who make their living by working with the soil and what nature offers.  Thoughtful of the years that it takes to really absorb the knowledge, experience and skill needed to survive.  

This is not something I should expect to have mastered after only 4 years of homesteading.

This is a lifelong, hard-earned skill.

I am learning through these mistakes.  SO VERY MUCH.

It's December.  The garden beds are now covered in heavy mulch.  We have some frozen, blanched collards in the freezer, some dehydrated greens, frozen tomatoes, some canned tomatoes, our rabbit & chicken meat in the freezer - and a good supply of winter squash in the basement.  Our winter hoop house greens are still alive - (at least half of them are) and we have lots of potted herbs in our sunroom.   I choose to be thankful for that.

AND...

I choose to remind myself that my children will go into adulthood with more experience and wisdom about raising food, homesteading & sustainability than I did.  

That is enough to balance out the winter hearbreak for now.