Up-scaled Natto

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See them beans on the rice?  That’s natto.  If you’ve ever found yourself talking about Japanese food with someone from Japan, it’s probably safe to assume that they asked you if you’ve either heard of or tried natto.  Natto holds this strange place in the pantheon of food in Japan.  One might even suggest that, if you were in, say, New Orleans, a Cajun might ask you if you’ve ever had Boudin (they pronounce it, “Booo-dan,” with an extra emphasis on the “Booo” part)–blood sausage.  In both cases, the speakers have this odd twinkle in their eyes when they say, “Boo-dan” or “Natto.”  One might even go as far as to suggest that the twinkle has a perverse quality to it.  All for good reason.

So what is natto?  It is nothing more than soybeans fermented through exposure to Bacillus subtilis–a common bacteria found on rice straw.  Natto fermentation is different from that of miso, which relies on Koji-kin fungus.  However, like miso, natto is also jam-packed with probiotics.  Unfortunately, unlike miso, the odor of natto has been compared to smelly socks.  Then again, if you like gorgonzola cheese, that shouldn’t be a problem.  It also is slimey, gooey, and sticky.  When you stir it, gossamer-like threads form that can stretch over a foot in distance.  Maybe not so good if you wear Armani and are adverse to bringing your bowl up to your chin.  For more in-depth information (history, medical benefits, etc) on natto, consider going to Wikipedia, via this link:  Natto.

So what’s so great about natto?  Lots.  I have a friend who gushes over it.  She claims she can actually feel the probiotics kick into gear when she eats it.  Entirely possible.  Back in the days of my reckless youth, after a night of drinking and waking up with a raw stomach, I used to hit the store for a bottle of Odwalla Royal Papaya Ginseng smoothie.  That would instantly bring my gut back to feeling normal.  Too bad you can’t get it anymore.  But, of natto, much has been said about how it helps prevent blood-clots, could be useful in preventing or treating diseases like Alzheimer’s.  The list goes on.  But that’s less of a concern for me.  I’m more interested in turning natto into some quite palatable.

If you manage to find a grocery store that sells natto–I know of only two retailers in the greater Seattle area that carry it:  Uwajimaya and Shoreline’s Central Market–you will find it in a refrigerated or freezer section of the store and packaged in a stack of styrofoam squares.  I’m not so keen on the styrofoam scene, but that’s how it comes.  Additionally, since Margaret says she’s sensitive to MSG, I have to carefully read the list of ingredients to see which doesn’t feature it in the “Flavor package.”  Actually, as you will see, that is a moot point.

When you get home with your natto pack, you’ll typically find inside of the styrofoam box  two tiny condiment packs of yellow mustard and some kind of soy sauce juice sitting on top of the square of paper that covers the beans.  My preference is to throw these flavor packs away.  Why?  Well that’s where the “Up-Scale” part of this post comes in.

You see, I am very picky about my mustard.  I dislike the kind of yellow mustard you find at most pubs, hot dog stands, burger joints, and the like.  It’s the kind of yellow mustard I grew up with.  The day I discovered Plochmann’s stone-ground, German mustard was like a revelation.  I liked mustard before, but I really loved this stuff.  As time went on, I tried Grey Poupon and even Guelden’s brown mustard before that.  All wonderful, spicy mustards with tons of awesome flavor.  After that, generic yellow mustard just couldn’t keep up.  So now I throw away the yellow mustard I find with natto.  As far as the second plastic bindle of soy, I’d rather stick with tamari.  I like the subtle difference in flavor from regular soy.  Tamari is made from only soy and not with wheat.  Works for me.  Actually, it makes a significant difference.  Especially if you are gluten intolerant.

In preparing natto, obviously the most common way is to whisk the beans with the mustard and the soy sauce and use it to top-off a bowl of hot, freshly made Japanese rice.  A no brainer.  As the previous paragraph pointed out, choosing your own soy sauce and adding a spot of, say, Grey Poupon dijon, will make a difference–a surprising difference.  The flavor of dijon is magical when it combines with the funky flavor of natto.  Both have a umami quality about them, as well as the soy sauce.  But there is something about the the tang of dijon that seems to work as a parallel layer or perhaps as a bridge to the taste of the natto.  It somehow convinces the palate that smelly socks is not a part of the taste equation.  I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s as if a mysterious harmony is achieved.  But, wait!  There’s more!

In the pantheon of Japanese cooking, there is another item that rivals natto for gooey viscosity.  For those who live in fear–real fear–of food-borne illness, you best steer away from this one.  We are talking about Egg and Rice.  Umm…  Let me try that again:  Raw Egg and Freshly Steamed Rice.  Yep.  An uncooked egg scrambled with some soy sauce and dumped raw over hot rice.  Mix all that together and the hot rice partially cooks the egg.  Is it still raw?  Enough that it would come with a health warning–like a Caesar Salad–if you were to have it at a restaurant.  Mind you, I have my own chickens in my backyard, so I feel confident enough the birds are healthy and their eggs are very fresh.  Salmonella poisoning?  Hasn’t happened yet–even since the first time I tried this as a child.  To be honest, I’ve had more gastro-intenstinal issues eating hamburgers than I’ve had with eating food that features raw eggs.  Go figure.

So what’s the connection with Egg & Rice and natto?  Take another look at the picture above.  Yep, that’s natto with a blop of dijon mustard on top, all sitting on a hot bowl of Egg & Rice.  Welcome to a Japanese breakfast.  Yummers!

–Dave

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Up-cycle Your Onion Skins

See the arid loveliness of the onion and garlic roots and skins? Their shared destiny need not be the rubbish bin, the sink’s garbage disposal unit, or even a direct routing to the compost heap. No, no, no! Save all your veggie cuttings and make stock. It’s a no-brainer. And it’s not like you have to wait for the Thanksgiving turkey to martyr itself for the cause.

You would be utterly amazed by the end result of detouring those veggie cuttings into a container for the freezer and scrounging up enough to fill even a modest pot. Just keep cramming until full a quart yogurt container. When it has reached its limits, it’s then time to find a suitably sized pot to boil and then simmer the contents of your humbly generous yogurt container.

The great thing about the quart size is that the amount of stock you generate is about the amount most recipes tend to call for. And the other great thing about something as modest as dried-out onion skins is that they will make for a deep and robust broth. Use that to super charge your next dish!

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Whoops Mr. Moto…

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I still think I’m a nut for getting Margaret this little kettle for Christmas.  I think it was either late November or early December when she showed me a picture of this same stainless steel kettle positioned next to another, though beehive-shaped (made by Hario, as it turned out, and popular amongst coffee enthusiasts).  She liked the simple smooth sides, the wood-clad handle that both points away from the heat and insulates your hand, and the swan-curved spout.   I don’t recall at what blog or website Margaret first noticed the kettle, but it got me curious.  I must have spent either weeks or a very furious few days searching the Internet for this particular object of desire.

As it goes with any Internet search, keywords make all the difference in the world.  Notice that I call this little pot a “kettle” and not a “pot”–as in “Whoops, Mr. Moto, I’m (not exactly) a coffee pot.”  And so it is.  It took me a long while before I figured out that this was not a tea pot.  Not tea.  Nor pot.  What clued me in was my stumbling upon the beehive pot… I mean kettle.  Once I realized these were not just kettles but pouring kettles for brewing coffee, I finally started making ground.  Up until a point:  Everywhere I searched at best turned up  only the Hario beehive kettle.  I also was another kettle, made by Takahiro, but its handle was metal and I worried it would become too hot for the touch.  Deal breaker!  You see, Margaret owns several water kettles for making tea and such.  Unfortunately, the handles always become too hot.  The mystery kettle was the only one where the handle was pointed away from heat and clad in wood.  Nice combination.

A month after finding the pouring kettle, I still have no idea how I actually discovered the website where I was able to purchase it.  Needless to say, it was sheer perseverance that took me to that distant webpage after countless hours of googling.  All the way to Japan.  Yes, Japan.  As far as I can tell, the kettle Margaret had seen is not being sold in North America or any English-speaking land.  It was probably a fluke that brought me to the Global Rakuten website.  Luckily, they actually have a section translated into English, though done so by a computer program.  I suppose there will be those who will derive gleeful pleasure from the curious word choices on the part of the computer’s translation.  Oh well…

From what I can gather, Global Rakuten is some kind of Japanese Amazon.com.  They connect thousands of smaller stores under their umbrella to provide Internet shoppers access to an insane variety of goods.  Did you look at their website?  If you did, it was probably a couple of days before you got back and continued reading to this point.  In case you weren’t able to find the featured pouring kettle on your own, here’s the link:  http://global.rakuten.com/en/store/cranes/item/0601028/  Don’t forget that the value of the Yen is maybe in the ballpark of 77 Yen to the Dollar.  Either way, Rakuten does state the price in U.S. Dollars.  They also provide a shipping calculator at some point during the transaction.  Makes things simple.

Anyway, when Margaret finally opened up her gift, she had to give it a try.  Yep, that picture was taken on Christmas.  There were a few things about the kettle she really liked.  First, the handle did stay cool after the water came to temperature.  Second, though the handle is off-set to one side, the kettle fell into balance while pouring.  That provided a lot of control while in the act of pouring.  Third, the thin swan-neck spout further regulated the flow of water.  We’re talking about serious pour control from top to bottom.  So simple and so modest of a kettle, but so very effective.  Just for kicks, I tried pouring into a glass and then stretching my arms apart while still pouring and then bringing them together to finish the pour.  Not a spill dropped, except for a very little splashing.  Cool!  I only wish I knew the brand name of the kettle.  I think it might have been something odd like “Natural Wood.”

Oh, by the way, I didn’t have any problem with the transaction or delivery.  There were some email messages that arrived in Japanese script.  No good with me.  I did reply back to them in English, and they eventually sent me a message in English.  No big deal.  As it was, the delivery was swift and with no hassles.  The only bug-a-boo was that I chose airfreight to insure arrival before Christmas, and the shipping came to near the on-sale price for the kettle.  Ouch!  Still, it cost less than buying a Hario kettle locally.  Win!!!

–Dave

BTW, if there is an advertisement below, I have nothing to do with that.  Needless to say, I do not receive any revenue from any links or advertisements that appear on this blog.  Which is not to say that I couldn’t use the extra bucks.  So, like, would someone please ask me to host some advertisements in exchange for some moolah?  I’d love to have a little extra change, so I can take my poor and impoverished friends out for some beers and such.  I’m a merchant seaman, and sailors like me love to haul out our less fortunate friends for brews.  We love to share our bounty with good friends.  Anything wrong with that?  That’s why I think advertisers ought to support my friends in this way.  Anything wrong with that?

–D.E.

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Hindsight

Once again, I cook something that looks and tastes good but forget to note the process. Behold:

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This started out with the intention of being some kind of pilaf, maybe even a pollo con arroz, or a dirty rice.  In the end, ingredients dictated the final direction, and rice and saute were kept separate and not folded into each other.  Lovely thing, saffron.  Sometimes it looks so beautiful when imbued into rice, you end up not wanting to obscure its color.

The thing is, as I was cooking, I was so caught up in figuring out the direction of the dish that I totally neglected to photograph the display of ingredients and all those lovely steps of stuff going into the saute pan and such.  Then again:  Not like I have one of those “studio” kitchens or that I own a DSLR camera that’s both waterproof and hot oil proof.  No, all I’m working with is my iTouch.  Not terribly sophisticated or able to zoom in from outside the thermal penumbra of a hot skillet.  No, lots of forethought has to happen when working with those parameters.  Worse than that is the interruption of the creative process that must happen when documenting the cooking.  Ahh, very problematic for me.

So what is this dish called?  I have no idea.  Is it difficult to make?  Not really–especially if you own a rice cooker!  Does it take long to make?  No longer than it takes to cook the rice.  How does it taste?  Good enough that, given how little time it takes to make, the ratio of taste/(time + effort) = complete gratification.

Recipe:
Rice
2 Tbls Olive oil
1/2 yellow onion
Pinch saffron
2 “rice cooker” measuring cups basmati rice

Saute
2 chorizo sausage links
2 Tbls Olive oil
3 or 4 chicken thighs, rinsed and patted dry
1/2 yellow onion, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic chopped
1 Tbls cumin powder
1 Tbls paprika/pimento powder
1 Tbls chipotle powder
1 large handful medium-sized crimini mushrooms, sliced to bite-size
1 large carrot sliced into 1/16″ thin, approximately 3/4″ squares (more or less, this not rocket science, )
1 14 oz. can garbanzo beans, drained, rinsed
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup french green beans chopped to bite-sized pieces

1 cup chopped cilantro for garnish

The beauty of this dish is how easy it is to make.  Your first and best tool is the rice cooker.  I own a Zojirushi 5-cup fuzzy-logic rice cooker.  Damn nice device!  As some might know, you can even program them to finish cooking at a specific time.  But that’s less important than just having a functional rice cooker.  Why?  Because coping with rice can be a major hurtle when it comes to managing the time and space around a kitchen stove-top.

Beginning with the rice, simply start with dicing up a yellow onion (reserve half for later).  Heat your olive oil in a saute pan, until it begins to shimmer.  Add the diced half onion and cook until soft.  Add a crumbled pinch of saffron and stir until all the onions are evenly colored.  Remove pan from heat.

Measure out the basmati rice into rice cooker liner pan and rinse until water is mostly clear (Be sure to use the measuring cup that came with the cooker to measure the rice.  These units of measure correspond to the water level marks on the inside of the cooker’s liner pan).  The rinsing is to minimize stickiness of the final rice.  When filling water to the level marks, do not cover the line with water.  Just bring the water to barely touching the mark.  This will further insure loose grains.  Add the saffron onions in with the rice and mix throughly.  Turn on rice cooker.

Begin the saute by steaming the chorizo links in a covered large saute pan, over medium heat, with 1 cup water (I have found that Seattle’s own Uli’s Famous Sausage makes a wonderful chorizo sausage for this recipe.  This is a fresh sausage and not dry-cured.  Their lamb and merguez sausages are also amazing).  They will be done well enough when the water has evaporated.

While this is being done, slice up the carrots (a very sharp santoku knife or a mandolin planer would be very useful tools for this job) to size and the crimini mushrooms to bite-sized pieces.  For this kind of cooking, where you are envisioning a pilaf of sorts, smaller and thinner pieces of vegetables that cook quickly and easily and are bite-sized are desirable.

Yes, yes, pictures would be helpful about now.  20/20 hindsight says I’m sorry.

For newbies to cutting carrots down to nibble-size, the easiest approach is to cut that root down to pieces two or three times the final length.  Starting with one chunk, cut off a thin slice, so the round log has a flat side to keep itself from rolling about.  Then you start trimming off 1/16″ slices.  Keeping your fingertips curved behind those first knuckles and using those same knuckles as a knife blade guide will allow you greater speed and control over your cutting.  If the slices are too wide for a comfortable bite, it’s easy to cut them length-wise.  After all of the carrot is sliced up, it is now easy to cut the pieces to final length.  Thumbnail-sized pieces should be the final result.

Damn, I wish I had pictures!  Still, the concept is easy.  The hard part is that you need a very–and I mean VERY–sharp knife.  Those thin Japanese santoku knives are the cat’s meow, as they can be made extremely sharp and their thin blades don’t get stuck like their European brethren.  Otherwise, a good mandolin slicer will do as good of a job.

By now, the chorizo should be cooked through.  Remove them from the skillet, add a splash of olive oil, quickly cut the chicken thighs into thirds and add to pan.  Raise temperature to high.  Slice up the sausages to 1/4″ to 1/2″ pieces and return to pan.  Brown the chicken and sausage together.  About 7 to 10 minutes.  Remove from pan.  Lower temperature to medium.  Add onions and garlic, saute until soft.  Return chicken and chorizo to pan with the mushrooms.  Add cumin, paprika, and chipotle powder and stir until everything is coated (I think it was chipotle that I used.  It smelled like paprika/pimento but a lot stronger.  I mean, it could have been chipotle.  The point is, the “same-but-stronger” ratcheted the dish up to where it needed to be in flavor).  Saute for 4 minutes more.  Add the carrots and stir.  Add the cans of diced tomatoes and garbanzo beans.  Stir and let reduce for about 10 minutes.  At this point, the saute should be fairly dry, though still moist.  Add the chicken stock and let simmer over medium-low heat.  Add the green beans.  This needs to reduce uncovered until the saute is firm and not runny-wet.  Hopefully, by the time the green beans are al dente tender, the saute will be ready.

Once the saute is finished, the rice should also be done.  When you open the cooker, the rice should be evenly colored by the saffron, though the onion might have separated to form a layer across the top.  Now is a good time to mix everything back together again.  Incidentally, the moment the rice cooker is done, it’s always a good idea to take a rice paddle spatula and toss the cooked rice, to loosen and separate the grains.  This helps to prevent unsightly sticking prior to plating.

At this point, you have the choice of folding in the rice with the saute, to create a de-facto pilaf.  Yes, normally a pilaf has the rice cooked with the other ingredients.  However, this method of creating a pilaf spares the cook the added concentration of having to mind the rice cooking with the rest of the ingredients.  Should you decide to not make a pilaf, you retain the option of simply topping the rice with the chorizo and chicken when your lovely partner is ready to sit down.  Don’t forget to garnish with the coarsely chopped cilantro.  All so good!

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Tuppence Becoming A Proper Rooster

It has been a while since the latest chicken post. It’s December, cold, and dark. Daylight seems to last for less than eight hours. And the girls aren’t laying as many eggs per day as they did before.

It’s hard to blame them, really. It is winter, after all. On top of that, Edie and Henny are in their fourth year and are acting more like nuns than hens. I guess I might be speaking for Boy Tuppence in this respect. Of course, he’s always going to be looking for “luv” where ever he can find it. But every now and then, I will hear a commotion and see one of the Ameraucanas angrily chasing Tuppence off. I suspect that it’s actually Edie putting her foot down when he is trying make a move on Henny, Edie, and maybe even Daisy.

You see, Edie and Henny never had a rooster around before, so I’m certain his “overtures” must strike them as absurd and ridiculous. Additionally, since Edie is at the top of the pecking order, things have to pass her judgement first. So there’s going to be a lot of, “WTF are you doing, boy?!”

Early on, when he was still developing into his rooster-hood, Edie and Henny would beat him up if he would eat with them. After a while it became clear that they were telling him that his job was to watch for predators. That’s a real concern, as we have eagles and Cooper’s hawks in the neighborhood, with the latter being a bird eater. By now, it seems Tuppence has finally figured it out. We now see him perched on available chair backs, surveying the sky and watching the fence perimeter. He even first does the “Dropped Wing” dance for a hen, if he’s feeling amorous. I actually suspect he only does that for Edie, Henny, and Golda, because they’re either higher up in the pecking order or play “hard to get” (meaning they will beat him up on occasion if he irritates them). I guess that’s all the same thing, hmm?

Sadly, the same can’t be said for Daisy and Aurora. These two somehow do not have the kind of piss and vinegar that the rest possess. Alas, it would seem that Tuppence doesn’t bother to grace them with the dropped wing dance. I wonder if those are the times when Edie gets angry and I see her squawking and chasing Tupps around the backyard. “Gads…” is all I have to say about that.

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It Never Gets Any Easier…

Well, I am a bit disappointed that I didn’t seize upon the opportunity to write during the last weeks of November.  Why?  Because I started December with knee surgery to repair my right ACL and meniscus.  That was ten days ago, and I’m still on crutches and opiates.

My first night back was brutal.  The knee brace I left the hospital with managed to shift a little out of place during the day and during the night.  Either that or the person who put it on me did a lousy job.  Whatever the case, there was a point when I got up to use the bathroom, and, despite taking two percocets every four hours, my pain reached teeth-chattering levels.  Once I figured out it was my brace and adjusted the placement, everything got better.  Imagine the brace hinge being out of alignment from the knee’s pivot.  That much leverage in the wrong place makes me think of a medieval torture device.  Teeth-chattering pain is the result.

I can’t wait to be able to freely cook in the kitchen again.  Presently, it takes me two to four times as long as normal to do anything.  And I break a sweat in the process.  All not good.

Happy Holidays to you all!

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Gluten-Free?

Well, Margaret thinks she’s gluten intolerant.  It all started when she had this mystery ache in one of her fingers.  Arthritis?  I dunno, but, after talking with friends and acquaintances, she started thinking along those lines.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as she knows a lot of people who possess all kinds of ailments that apparently are connected to sensitivity to gluten.  After making my last visit to our local Puget Consumers Co-op, I found they’ve color-coded all items that are gluten-free.  Look for the light orange labels.  Simply amazing.

My one gripe with gluten-free is that bread, pasta, and pizza are not.  Yeah, sure King Arthur makes a G-F flour, but I’m skeptical about its ability to make a good pizza crust.  I already am missing good pizza just thinking about this dilemma.  People are experimenting out there, I know, but I won’t be happy until a pizzeria of the caliber of Tutta Bella, Pizza Veraci, or Via Tribunali (all certified as authentically Neapolitan by the city of Naples) makes a good pie.  I wonder if Delancey has pondered the question? 

In the face of this tectonic shift in our postage stamp sized house, it appears the only saving grace I’ve found has been in Asian and other non-European cuisines.  What it comes down to is either rice or non-wheat noodles.  Snooping around the Asian food section of Shoreline’s Central Market, I was consoled by the availability of noodles not only made from rice but also seaweed, yams, and beans.  Thank goodness for all the Asians living in Shoreline!  Also, I’m amazed by the ingenuity of the Japanese in making noodles without wheat.  On top of that, one can buy whole grain sprouted brown rice (aka  GABA rice), which is supposed to be the healthiest form of brown rice.  GABA stands for gamma amino butyric acid, “exists in people and works as a neurotransmitter that lowers anxiety, increases the sleep cycle giving deeper rest, lowers blood pressure, and improves other cardiovascular functions.”  Well, at least that’s what the bag says.  At least it tastes better than regular brown rice and cooks up like white rice.  Works for me.

While looking for new recipes, I’ve turned to an old classic of mine:  Quick and Easy Japanese Cuisine For Everyone by Yukiko Moriyama, pub. Joie Inc.  I mentioned this book before in a previous post, titled Daizu no Nimono & Kamameshi.  It doesn’t take too much to adapt something like Oyako Donburi to a noodle instead of a rice bowl.  Another great book is Ghillie Basan’s The Food and Cooking of Malaysia and Singapore.  I’ve been to Singapore on numerous occasions and can attest to the excellence of the cuisine.  They be foodies there! 

Though the prep for those recipes can consume both time and space, the actual cooking time is usually fairly quick.  The end result?  Extremely excellent!  Will there be a post on some of these dishes?  Umm, not right away.  After a solid week of working that book, Margaret wants something different.  I suppose part of the problem is how the kitchen smells after using shrimp paste.  I mean, that stuff has some serious skank going on.  However, it does add a very important flavor component to the dishes it’s used in.  Just keep a lid on the tub/jar, and all should be fine.  Just don’t go around sticking that crap under people’s noses.  You ruin them from some of the best food they’ll ever find the opportunity to try.  Despite all that, there are plenty of recipes to make that don’t call for shrimp paste. 

Ghille Basan has tons of cookbooks, covering not only SE Asian cuisines, but also Middle Eastern.  What’s cool about her approach is that her books are less regional than nation and culture specific.  They literally bring to the table the people and the culture with the food.  It’s like having an anthropologist with you in the kitchen.  Now how cool is that?

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Beauty

As often as I do, I was perusing BoingBoing.net and came across this YouTube series on the Nobel Physicist, Richard Feyman.  Ever since I read, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feyman, I’ve been a fan of this lovely and brilliant eccentric.  So here he’s talking about “Beauty.”  Do listen closely, as Feyman shares some very interesting and profound thoughts.  He comes pretty close to what I call “cosmological humility.”

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The Trouble With Tuppence

What’s wrong with this picture?
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In case you might have missed the obvious in previous picture, Tuppence is a rooster. And a fairly handsome one, at that. However, as it is with roosters, the one thing we dreaded has finally bore fruit: He has finally found his voice. Fortunately, his crowing hasn’t gone so far as to occupy the dawn hours of late summer, let alone all of the rest of the daylight hours. He actually seems to be a fairly modest vocalist, maybe offering up only one or two utterances over a whole day–if even that at all. We hold our breathes and cross our fingers that Tuppence not find a reason to increase the frequency of his broadcasts. Fortunately for everyone concerned, our local zoning does permit Tups. The only remaining issue is that of a neighbor’s complaint. And a dark day that will be if or when that might happen.

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Quick Pic of Tuppence

Here’s a quick pic of Tuppence, Aurora, and one of the Buff Orpingtons. See how they’ve grown!

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