Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bringing back the birds

The house next door to us has had a fascinating garden history. When we moved here in 1986, the next door yard was the territory of two big mean dogs. Separated from us by a flimsy wire fence, they prevented us from even walking through our back yard, let alone using it. We used to have to get to our garage by going through the yard on the other side when those dogs were out.

Mercifully they left 18 months after we moved in. The people who replaced them never had an idea they didn't like, and had a chaotic but charming garden with every plant known to humans, structures, ponds, walls and walkways. Maybe 8 years later new people moved in and imposed some order on the chaos. Then after about 12 years, they sold it to a young family who didn't really take care of it, but didn't actively destroy it either; however, they were victims of a bankruptcy and bailed on the property.

And there it sat for more than 2 years, with no resident. I did what maintenance I could, as did the neighbor on the other side, but over the years it got wilder and wilder, becoming quite literally a wildlife habitat, to the benefit of the entire neighborhood.

But eventually, new people moved in, and completely destroyed the garden. They took out every structure, path, and plant (yes, the plants too) including 25 year-old lilacs and hydrangeas, and a 15 foot tall redtwig. They filled in the pond. With the garden went the wildlife and we suffered through a summer with no birds or insects, except large flocks of pigeons that kept coming because the new people kept throwing out bread "for the birds." (Hey, if you want birds, leave the plants, idiots.) What we did get were all the little furry things that had taken refuge in the tiny wilderness- voles, moles, rats, mice, rabbits, coons and possums- and now had no homes.

In an effort to lure the birds back, I completely reconfigured my garden. I added a bed with shrubs and berries, constructed a trellis (we don't have any large trees in our yard) redirected paths, and upped the number of bird-and-butterfly plants like coneflowers. We put in bird feeders, something we never had to do in the past.

Last month, counting along with the annual backyard bird count, we observed juncos, cardinals, a robin (in February!), two different types of apparent sparrows, a catbird, two types of woodpeckers, flickers, those shiny black ones that I can never remember the name, and crows.

And in honor of our feathery co-habits, of course, a chicken recipe (sorry, couldn't resist)

Papaiachne (pa-pa-ya-chnee)
Cut up whole chicken
1 large onion
1 large carrot, sliced
2 large potatoes
2 stalks celery
1 can whole peeled tomatoes (no salt added)
2 cups fresh green beans
2 T fresh oregano, chopped fine, or 1 T dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste

Make broth with the back, neck and wings of the chicken plus the onion and potato skins and celery ends, plus salt and black peppercorns. Use enough water to make 2 cups of broth.

Brown the chicken in olive oil in a deep pot, turning once. Add the onions and celery and sautee until soft. Add the broth and tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the potatoes and carrots and simmer until soft. Add the green beans and cover, simmering until beans are al dente (about 15 minutes).

Serve over rice.

This was a staple of our diet when I was growing up, and I have always known it as Greek chicken stew. However, it's one recipe I have never found in a book or on line quite in this form. I've never been able to find the Greek word transliterated, so the transliteration is my own; anyone with a better spelling, please let me know. I suspect this dish is an export from my grandmother's turn-of-the-century childhood in an ethnic Greek village near Smyrna, Turkey, and possibly a dish typical only of her village, or even her family. Which makes it kind of wonderful.

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