Friday, December 19, 2008

Onward! Upward!

Despite all of the heat of summer, there are some perks to life in Georgia. At present, it is 61° in Atlanta, and creeping slowly towards a daytime high of 70°. Despite the misconceptions of wayward New Yorkers, who think that Atlanta is always this tropical, this weather is rather bizarre. I noticed a cherry tree putting out its first tentative blooms yesterday as I went for a run, and I lamented the fact that the poor tree will be slammed when winter returns in earnest.

I'm particularly appreciative of this respite from winter, as I just returned from the frigid north lands of New England. I escaped before the recent ice storm truly vented its fury, but I did still get to partake of animal chores in 9° weather, which was invigorating, to say the least. I made the trek North on a three-fold agenda: visit Andrew in New York City, attend the Young Farmer's Conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (pictured at left), and tour and visit potential farms for next year's apprenticeship. In case you hadn't guessed yet, this farming gig has me hooked.

I decided to look in New England for a number of reasons. Paige spent her formative farm years in upstate New York at Sister's Hill Farm, and she can't say enough in praise of her old farm boss, the general beauty of the area, and the fertility of New England's rocky soil. In addition, many of the more established organic farms in the upstate New York/ Western Massachusetts area encourage their apprentices to participate in the CRAFT program (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training). CRAFT farm apprentices have the option of fortnightly road trips to nearby farms, where the farmer provides a tour of the operation and gives a lecture about a particular specialty of the farm (pastured poultry, compost, food justice, or value-added dairy, for example). The apprentices at CRAFT farms are thereby connected to a larger network of mentors and fellow young farmers whom they can call on for friendship and "technical support." CSA farming, an idea native to Europe and Japan, first came to the United States by way of Massachusetts, so there is both an unusually robust demand for local, seasonal, organic vegetables and an established community of very successful farms. Some very prominent activists in the Food Justice movement--Elizabeth Henderson, the Hartford Food System, Just Food, and Added Value urban education farm--are working in New England, so I knew that this was an environment with soul as well as roots.

All of these factors drew me north, lured as well by the spell-binding apprenticeship descriptions on ATTRA--my fantasy farming go-to website. What began as a road trip to visit two or three farms expanded to an epic seven day farm touring extravaganza that left Andrew and me inspired, exhausted, well fed, and smelly. We had hoped (ok, I had hoped, Andrew was, by this point, merely going with the flow) to tack on two additional farms to bring the total up to nine, but the weather conspired against us and we returned to the city--and showers--instead.

Some highlights of the grand tour included:
  • Learning the finer points of scythe selection at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield, MA. Farmers Tevis and Rachel also fulfilled a holiday dream of mine by allowing me to put hay in a manger (sans baby Jesus) for some very plaintive sheep.
  • Hearing about Holcomb Farm's long history of partnership with the Hartford Food System. They also had the coolest market truck I have ever seen: envision a small barn meets circus tent constructed in the bed of a pickup truck.
  • Touring the under-construction milking parlour and cheese-making facility at Woodbridge Farm in Salem, CT. Woodbridge also has the distinction of being the only certified biodynamic farm that I visited, and they are pioneering a new two year biodynamic apprenticeship program that will involve biodynamic farms across the country.
  • Witnessing the construction of Simple Gifts Farm's new irrigation system. In order to bury the pipes deep enough to escape freezing, farmers Jeremy and David had hired a backhoe to dig a one-and-a-half mile long, seven-foot deep pit, which was vaguely reminiscent of WWI trench warfare. They also showed off the best greenhouse irrigation system I have ever seen: the hose hangs in coils on tiny pulleys that run along a suspended line This allows the farmers to pull the hose from one end to the other without ever dragging the hose through a bed or kinking it around a table leg. Genius!
  • Seeing the yogurt making facility at Sidehill Farm. Farmers Amy and Paul hope someday to move to a larger piece of land, so when they decided to invest in yogurt making equipment, they built the whole ensemble in a trailer truck. Should the perfect piece of land suddenly become available, they can load the ladies (read: cows) on another truck and move the whole operation wherever. If you are ever in Massachusetts, try their maple yogurt! Amy and Paul also have the distinction of coolest farmer accommodations in their round, strawbale house. (Not, unfortunately, mobile)
  • Discovering, at Homestead Farms, that pigs are not only delicious and good for turning manure, but will also uproot certain noxious weeds better than anything else (take that, Roundup!) Linda's pantry of canned goods is an inspiration to me.
As I traveled from farm to farm, I found myself pulled in seven different directions, wishing that it were somehow possible to work for all of these wonderful farmers in a madcap season of vegetable love. I had to chose one, however, and after carefully considering my goals for the season, I finally settled on Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA as this yeoman farmgirl's next piece of earth.

Caretaker is a strictly CSA farm with 200 members, 1 milk cow, several head of meat cows, pigs, laying hens, a bakery, an orchard, two adorable children, and the most engaged and vibrant CSA community I have ever seen. I am thrilled to be joining the Caretaker family as well as the western Massachusetts CRAFT program. I look forward to sharing this beautiful farm with all of you in the coming season. In the meantime, I will be heading south of the border come January. Having realized that my Spanish will never progress beyond babytalk without an immersion experience, I'm traveling to Colombia for two and a half months. I'll still blog in English, of course, as I visit the coffee farms and savor the fruits of Medellin. Trading January in Atlanta for Colombia's "city of eternal spring" sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Reflections on a Year Well Lived

I'm not a farmer anymore. Tuesday was my last day at Serenbe: we harvested kohlrabi, beets, and carrots; we washed the bins of veggies harvested Monday; I weeded a bit. And then, in the evening, we opened our Tuesday night winter farm stand for the first time this year. The routine was familiar, though the specifics (that this was no longer my job) made it strange. I felt antsy going home; though the farm looks close to immaculate as of late, I felt irresponsible leaving bins unwashed and the weeding unfinished. The sweet potatoes at my house still need sorting, and the winter squash as well. Paige will tend to the farm, I know, but I feel so invested in this earth that it is hard to disentangle myself.

Our house has been slowly emptying over these past few weeks. First Jack left, to pursue holiday employment in the big city, then I took Andrew to the train station, so that he might spend Thanksgiving with his family. I had my last two nights alone in the house to think back on the year and what it had meant for me. In the same way that you cannot appreciate the growth of a child without caring for her day in and day out--watching the tottering, the gurgling, the toothless grins--you cannot know the earth until you have made it your livelihood. I've witnessed bridging, the first hint of a seedling emerging from the earth; I've heard the mewing of a baby mousling nestled among the eggplants; I've watched earth wake up to spring and sink back into the slow doze of winter. And even in all of that listening, looking tasting, touching, I've missed so much!

Lately I've been learning another facet of farming's seasonality. While winter does not mean the absence of life that some customers at our market seem to expect, it is better classed as a "harvest season" than a "growing" one. With even the ever-present Bermuda grass dormant, weeds are no longer a problem. Many of the bugs are living out the larval stage of their life deep in the soil, and they leave our pretty green leaves alone. Established plants can thrive in the cold (particularly hardy crops like root veggies and crucifera), but now is not the time for epic days of transplanting. So we farmers harvest what we need, protect what we can with white poly row cover, and turn our remembrances of the past year into dreams of the one to come.

There is balance in this seasonal fluctuation, the nonstop rush of summer traded for a mild hibernation, and I know that many farmers cherish this respite as their reward. Time to read the paper in the morning over a cup of steaming coffee. Time to visit family or do quiet, reflective work on the farm. As an apprentice, this is a time of mixed blessings. I will soon be traveling north, to visit New England farms where I hope to apprentice next season. I'm looking forward to having time to write and to sit in bookstores on weekdays. But I am simultaneously in limbo, drifting between one home and the next. I'm a landless farmer. If I leaf through seed catalogues, it will be vicariously. What I can do, is study.

Perhaps surprisingly, a year of farming has given me a newfound appreciation and understanding for the shape of our educational system. The logic of school from September to May makes sense when juxtaposed with the crazy business of summer farm work. Spend winter indoors, learning from books. Spend summer outside, learning with your hands. And all of that elementary school clutter, the stuff to which you rolled your eyes and said, "I'm never going to use this": surprise! As a farmer you will. You'll need geometry as you lay out your fields, algebra as you calculate yields. Science there is in abundance, from the chemistry of the soil to the physics of machines both simple and complex. Geology will help you understand the lay of your land, and why, every spring, your fields seem new-sown with rocks. You'll wish you recalled weights and measures as you cook what you've grown, converting pounds to quarts to cups. You will need politics, history, and civics to understand how our agricultural system has become what it is and why yeoman farmers are a still a fundamental part of our national psyche. Writing you'll need to market yourself or compose newsletters to a CSA. Agricultural poetry will feed your soul and you'll find yourself singing the cheesiest songs from elementary school chorus as you struggle down the last prickly row of okra. Even handwriting comes in handy, as you letter the signs for your market stand. As for me, I'll spend my winter with Small Scale Livestock Farming and The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, both of which address topics not covered in my elementary school.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I offer up my gratitude to my teachers: past, present, and (fingers crossed) future.

Monday, November 17, 2008

To See the Universe in a Slice of Pie

To slightly misquote author and scientist Carl Sagan, "if you want to make a sweet potato pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

Before this past week, I might have thought that this was simply a metaphor, a reminder of the length and complexity of the subtle chain of cause and effect that makes up every action in every day. I am now convinced that he was actually talking about pastry. I'd be willing to bet that he was coming down from an extended pie-making jag too--eyes bloodshot, oven overheated; flour coating his clothes and egg in his hair. I'm channeling Carl Sagan in a big way.

Nothing about a farm is small, so it seems. An epic harvest begets epic efforts to put everything to good use. As you may recall, we had a massive sweet potato haul immediately before the first frost (even as I type, frost's frigid fingers are grasping at the covers on our fields once again). Most of our hundreds of pounds are destined for CSA, market, or restaurants, but even so we are still left with several hundred pounds of aesthetically challenged seconds: sweet potatoes with cracks, or nibble marks where a mouse sampled one end. We can't sell them, but nor can I stomach the idea of letting so much good food go to waste. Enter the pie pan. Inspired by the example of Pie Ranch in California--a farm with a food justice and education mission that they underwrite by selling homemade pies in San Francisco--I decided to take our sweetie tater seconds and make them into pies. The proceeds from the sale will form the nest egg for several subsidized CSA shares next season in partnership with the Palmetto Food Bank.

"Food Justice" is a passion of mine that I am yet to fully explore, either on this blog or in my farming experience. While hunger and malnutrition are conditions more commonly associated with Ethiopia or Sudan (and the accompanying parental guilt trip to clean your plate), they are unpleasantly present in our more affluent society as well. Though the United States produces almost 3,900 calories per person per day, it does not distribute this food wealth in a healthy or equitable fashion. Think about all of the food that gets trashed on a daily basis, as well as the surplus wheat, dairy, and soy that we dump on developing nations under the guise of aid (but I digress...this is the subject of another entire post). For many Americans, the cheapest food is not the simplest--fruits and veggies, grains, and rice--the cheapest calories come heavily processed, heavily packaged, heavy with the weight of our conventional industral agricultural system. Drive around a less affluent part of town and look for a grocery; you'll see why they are often called "food deserts" for the dearth of healthy, affordable options. An organic product is usually outside of the price range of a food insecure family in the US, and to me this is the height of injustice.

So I'm baking pies. Lots of pies. My goal is to raise $650, enough to make two CSA shares half price. In classic MK fashion, I did not fully grasp the monumental size of this undertaking until I had 16 pie orders and more likely to roll in. Thus far I have learned several things:

1. Pie tins have slanted sides for a reason: so that the dough doesn't slide down the sides. I see reconstructive crust surgery in my future...
2. No-stick silicon mats are a prime example of false advertising.
3. I would trade my first-born child for an industrial convection oven.
4. Sweet potato pies have the most complicated baking sequence known to man: roast and mash the potatoes; mix the pie crust; prebake the crust for 12 minutes at 425, covered, then 10 minutes at 350 uncovered; mix the filling, pour into the crust and bake it at 400 for 10 minutes, then 350 for 25, then at 375 for the final 10 (with optional praline topping). Repeat ad infinitum.

I'm a little sleep deprived, yes, but taste test reviews have been positive and I'm improving with every batch of pies. I just hope that this doesn't put me off sweet potato pie!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Frosted Tips

Let me begin by saying that Jack Frost is an dangerous, dangerous man. You may have believed, from Christmas carols or holiday films, that he was a benign seasonal figure, etcher of ice crystal window or frosty windshields. Try brutal vegetable serial killer.

To be fair, we at Serenbe escaped from Jack Frost's clutches without nearly the carnage that might have occurred. Still, I spent a disproportionately large portion of last week in prayer, waiting for the frost to burn off to see whether our harvest was forfeit. Slowly, the ice dripped away; slowly the chard rebounded as the lettuces waved in the breeze.

It began Sunday night, when I received an email from Paige warning me that the first frost was imminent. Jack, Andrew, and I had been running the farm in her absence, and we had worked hard to get ahead on our list of tasks. In the course of one email, our to-do list expanded swiftly. We now needed to harvest all remaining summer crops: eggplants, peppers, sweet potatoes,edamame , and peanuts. This may not sound like a particularly steep order, but considering the fact that it had taken us almost a month of sporadic harvesting to get half way through our sweet potato bed, we knew that we had a long day ahead of us.

Sweet potato vines had carpeted the bed with a tangled mat of leave and stems, so I went in swinging, chopping off the vines just above the roots and clearing the way for Andrew and his pitchfork. Andrew and Jack loosened the potatoes with pitchforks and then we three dug our way down the bed on hands and knees, sorting out the rotten potatoes as we went. This method had worked well in the past, when two of us would go out and harvest 100 or so pounds over the course of two hours. On Monday, however, we harvested 1243 pounds of sweet potatoes. As the afternoon wore on, we began to eye the peppers and eggplants with anxiety--how would we get everything finished in time?

Finally, with a little help from the tractor, we finished the sweet potatoes and shuttled them all to our house for curing. Sweet potatoes fresh from the ground are still actually alive, and ought to be "cured" in a warm, moist environment for several weeks to allow cuts to heal and to prepare them for storage. With evening temperatures on the farm bordering on freezing, we couldn't leave the sweet potatoes out in the shed.

We moved on to the peppers and eggplants, only to discover (once again!) that the task in question was far larger than anticipated. We normally only harvest the peppers which are fully ripe and colorful, but with frost in the forecast we needed to get everything: green, red, yellow, purple, and everything in between. Before long we had filled nine harvest bins with 275 pounds of peppers in varying degrees of ripeness. It was all we could do to get the eggplant. Tired, running low on bins, and relatively certain that the actual frost wouldn't hit until Tuesday night, we called it a day.

We awoke Tuesday for a frigid morning of 31 degrees. A fine layer of frost had indeed blanketed the farm, but the edamame and peanuts seemed none the worse for it. We couldn't pick up where we had left off, though, as Tuesdays are our CSA day and we needed to harvest and wash 60 shares of produce. In the afternoon, while Andrew wrote the newsletter and I prepared dinner, Jack set to work on theedamame . Andrew joined him while I manned distribution that evening, and they finished pulling the peanuts by the headlights of the truck. As the last of ourCSA members walked off into a chilly night, we convened to discuss our frost strategy. The harvest was complete, but we were undecided as to whether or not to cover our more tender fall crops. The forecast predicted a low of 31--frosty, but not serious enough, we thought, to warrant an extra hour or so of work covering crops by moonlight and headlamps.

The thin, white polypropylene fabric that sometimes covers our crops serves several purposes on the farm. We install some as a physical barrier between pests and their plant prey; at other times, we use the covers as shelter from the elements. A row cover can retain an extra four to five degrees of heat, which can be the difference between a cold night and disaster. Many plants are improved by a frost. Sunchokes, beets, carrots, kale, collards, and other brassica relatives become sweeter after the first freeze, as the plants compensate for freezing temperatures by producing sugars in their cells. Just as salt keeps sidewalks from freezing, sugars in plant tissue keep cell walls from freezing and rupturing, and, as an added bonus, they taste delicious too. Lettuces, while hardy to a point, cannot tolerate the same extremes. If the mercury drops much below 32, the leaves will either get frost burn or the entire plant will die.

Wednesday dawned a clear and frigid 28 degrees. Out on the farm, everything was thoroughly frozen. I began to pray. The pepper and eggplants stems had withered to blackened husks overnight; the beet greens and chard drooped forlornly. We stared balefully at our lettuces, which in their frozen state silently rebuked us, "Why, oh why didn't you cover me?" The damage was done. All we could do was wait for the sun to melt the ice and hope that the thaw wasn't as gruesome as we feared. The loss of our lettuces alone would cost the farm hundreds of dollars, so I dreaded the prospect of greeting Paige upon her return with such bad news.

Somehow, amazingly, our lettuces survived. A few of the Black Seeded Simpsons looked a bit charred around the edges, the outer leaves of the largest Forellenschlus never perked back up as they should, but the majority of our harvest escaped unscathed. Not wanting to invite another nervous night or anxious morning, we adopted the precautionary principle and began covering everything remotely delicate. Our fields have taken on a slightly patchwork look, but I, at least, can sleep at night.

The excitement did not end there, however. When Andrew and I returned from our Wednesday night market, we discovered that the greenhouse had short circuited. The walls, which normally roll open during the heat of the day and close automatically as temperatures drop, were stuck open, leaving several tables of transplants exposed to the night air. The plants needed warmth, and the only climate controlled environment readily available was our house. One swift furniture reorganization, four trips to and from the greenhouse, and an hour and a half later, we were farming in our family room. With sweet potatoes curing in one room, peanuts drying in the garage, winter squash filling up an alcove, and seedlings covering the floor, we almost didn't have to leave home to go to work.

While Jack was harvesting edamame and Andrew wrote the newsletter, I was working on a first-frost-feast (in retrospect, perhaps I should have relinquished my Tuesday afternoon break to farm work rather than cooking). However, this meal was the bright spot in an otherwise long and eventful week. As is often the case with Martha Stewart recipes, both of take a bit or effort and planning. Then again, the cake may be the best baked good I've ever made.

Butternut Squash and Sage Lasagna

3 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 large egg yolks
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated (2 cups)
Freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup loosely packed fresh sage leaves, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cups homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
Lasagna noodles, cooked
4 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese (1 1/4 cups)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss squash, oil, and 1 teaspoon salt on a baking sheet. Season with pepper. Bake until light gold and tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool.

Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Combine ricotta, cream, yolks, mozzarella, and a pinch of nutmeg in a medium bowl. Season with salt.

Melt butter in a small saute pan over medium-high heat. As soon as it starts to sizzle, add sage, and cook until light gold and slightly crisp at edges, 3 to 4 minutes. Place squash in a medium bowl, and mash 1/2 of it with the back of a wooden spoon, leaving the other 1/2 in whole pieces. Gently stir in sage-butter mixture and stock. Season with salt and pepper.

Spread 3/4 cup of ricotta mixture in a 9-cup baking dish. Top with a layer of noodles. Spread 1/2 of the butternut squash mixture over noodles. Top with a layer of noodles. Spread 1 cup of ricotta mixture over noodles. Repeat layering once more (noodles, squash, noodles, ricotta). Sprinkle Parmesan over ricotta mixture.

Place baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake until cheese is golden and bubbling, 30 to 35 minutes. Let stand for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Boston "Scream" Pie
With pumpkin, chocolate, and holiday spices like ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg, think of this as an Halloween-improved version of Boston Cream Pie.

For the cake:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder, plus more for pans
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 can (15 ounces) solid-pack pumpkin
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup heavy cream
5 ounces (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pans
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 8-by-2-inch round cake pans dust with cocoa powder, and tap out excess. Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Whisk pumpkin, oil, and cream in a medium bowl. Beat butter and sugar with a mixer on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then add vanilla. Reduce speed to low, and add flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with pumpkin mixture, starting and ending with flour. Divide batter between pans, and spread evenly.

Bake until testers inserted into centers of cakes come out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in pans on wire racks for 15 minutes. Invert cakes onto wire racks, remove parchment, and let cool.

For the spiced pastry cream:
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) unsalted butter

Whisk yolks and sugar in a small bowl. Mix cornstarch and flour in another small bowl. Bring milk, salt, and spices to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove saucepan from heat. Whisk cornstarch mixture into yolk mixture, and then immediately whisk 2 tablespoons milk mixture into yolk mixture. Whisk in remaining milk mixture in a slow, steady stream.
Return mixture to saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it begins to thicken and registers 160 degrees on a candy thermometer, 1 to 2 minutes.

Strain mixture through a fine sieve into a heatproof bowl, and whisk in vanilla and butter until smooth. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on surface, and refrigerate until cold and thick, at least 1 hour (or up to 1 day).

For the chocolate glaze:
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon honey

Bring cream and honey to a simmer in a small saucepan, whisking to combine. Pour over chocolate, and stir until smooth.

To assemble the cake, place one layer on a plate, scrape all of the spiced pastry cream onto the top and spread eveningly to the sides. Top with the remaining cake layer and pour the chocolate glaze over everything.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Chicken: It's What's For Dinner

Ever made that joke, as you waited for slow-as-Christmas food service, that they must be slaughtering the main course somewhere out back? Now you too can add extra hours (technically months!) to your dinner preparations with The Raw and the Cook's handy DIY home chicken processing guide. Dismayed by the dearth of instructional video footage online, I decided to film clips of our last chicken harvest from field to fry pan--well, technically roasting dish. My camera, alas, is anything but professional, and I'm afraid that my video editing isn't going to win me an Oscar. Nevertheless, for those of you who, like me, like to follow a process from start to finish, this will hopefully provide some guidance in your own poultry adventures. For those of you who would really rather not know your dinner on a first name basis, I believe that this is still an important explanation of the process behind your food. If you can stomach the kill footage and guts don't make you queasy, observe how swiftly our chickens transition from animals to meat. You don't always have to do something yourself to appreciate it, I believe. As for the rest of you, those who would really rather kill a turnip than a turkey, I'm including an excellent recipe for brining a chicken, as well as the sauteed kale dish with which we accompanied our delicious bird.

Brined Roasted Chicken

1/2 cup sea salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 gallon cold water
1 chicken (ours was 3.5 lbs)
1 T roasted garlic puree OR minced fresh garlic
3 t fresh oregano, minced
1 T dried rosemary
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon
black pepper

In a large pot (large enough to submerge the entire chicken) mix the sea salt, sugar, and water until the sugar and salt dissolve. Add the chicken and refridgerate it for 6-24 hours.

Drain the pot and pat the chicken dry. Discard the brine. Preheat the oven to 375. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, oregano, dried rosemary, and olive oil. Carefully loosen the chicken's skin over the breasts, thigh, and drumsticks and spread the garlic mixture between the skin and the meat. (N.B.: This sounds harder than it is. The skin should seperate easily from the meat)

Place the chicken on a roasting rack or in a roasting pan, breast side up, and squeeze half of the lemon over the chicken. Cook the chicken for 20 minutes for each pound of weight. Half way through, remove the chicken from the oven, turn it over, squeeze the remaining lemon over the chicken, and season with fresh black pepper. It is done when the thickest part, between the leg and thigh, reaches 180 degrees. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving.
Fall Greens Sauté with Sweet Peppers and Onion

8 sundried tomatoes
½ cup boiling water
2 cups onion, sliced
1 sweet bell pepper
4 cloves garlic
5 cups greens, torn (kale, chard, or collards will all work nicely, though in a different season you could also use lambs quarters, tatsoi, or mustard greens)
1 cup chicken or veggie broth

Soak the sundried tomatoes in the boiling water for 30 minutes. Drain (save the liquid as flavoring for stews) and slice.

In a fryingpan, sauté the onion, bell pepper and garlic in some olive oil. Add the tomatoes.

Stir in the greens and broth and bring to a boil. Simmer until the greens are tender, 15 minutes. Garnish with Parmesan cheese (if you want). Great as a side dish, or can easily become a main when served over polenta.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Undercover Farming

When I first visited Serenbe, in December of 2007, most of our fields were incognito, hiding under a winter cover crop and resting until spring. To my untrained eye, however, Serenbe seemed a very small farm, only growing in a few patches here and there on the farm. Once I began working here, in March, I gradually learned to distinguish the covers of vetch, clover, winter peas, and rye from the green grass between beds. This was a critical skill to develop, as grassy lanes function as roads for our tractor and truck, but woe unto you who drives through a covercropped bed. The weight of a tractor or truck will instantly compact our carefully cultivated fields, destroying the light, fluffy tilth that we have teased in the hard Georgia clay with deep-rooted covers, spading, and the addition of organic matter. Over the course of the season, covercropped fields gradually came into production: we mowed the covers, tilled in the dried grains, grasses, and legumes, and dug our hands into the rich soil beneath.

I now approach December from the opposite end, no longer waking our fields up to the fertility of spring, but tucking them in for a long winter's nap. We've spent the past few weeks covercropping with a vengeance, as we didn't want to miss the window of warmth in which our covers will establish themselves before the first frost. We've sown our fields with oats, rye, clover, and vetch, all hardy winter crops. Each cover has different properties, so we vary our covercrop application to the needs of the particular bed. Oats are a good cover for fields which will come into production in the early spring, as oats "winter kill," naturally dying down toward the end of winter. This creates less work for us as we integrate the dead cover back into the soil. Clover provides bee fodder, fixes nitrogen from the air into the soil (it is a legume), and is easy to kill, making it an excellent choice for early spring beds as well. A healthy crop of clover has self sown in the beds and paths of our current brassica field. We're happy to let it thrive, as it grows low enough not to interfere with our broccolis, cabbages, kale, and collards, and it chokes out more noxious weeds.

Whereas clover simply blankets the ground to out compete other weeds, rye has what is called an alleleopathic effect on the soil and actually discourages weeds from growing. Hairy vetch fixes the most nitrogen of our covercrop quartet and adds a great deal of biomass in its many leafy tendrils. It, however, is a total pain to kill, and tends to get wrapped around the tines of our tiller.

To spread our covers on a field before tillage, we use an Earthway brand hand-operated bag seeder, which looks a bit like a cross between a knapsack and a hurdy-gurdy. We adjust the bottom aperture according to the size of the seed we are spreading, before filling the bag with the desired seed. Then, keeping a steady, fairly swift pace, we walk the field in straight lines, turning the crank on the seeder to scatter the seeds. Crocs, for the record, are NOT good shoes for an activity that involves quick-stepping through tall grasses and grains: the first time I covercropped I lost my shoes repeatedly. Once we've seeded the entire field evenly, we till the old plants in along with the new seeds and hope for a rain the next day. If the seeds stay in the ground without being watered in, they are liable to lose viability, or get eaten up by passing bids. The drought that descended on us for most of September set us back in our covercropping, as we had nary a raindrop for almost a month. Finally, we ponied up and bought overhead sprinklers so that we could get our covers up in time. Of course, about a week later, the rains finally came.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Meet Your Meat

So you'd like to learn about chicken harvesting? Well, here's your chance. This Friday, October 24th, we'll being slaughtering what may be our last round of broilers. We're looking for any intrepid locavores who would like to lend a hand in the slaughter, whether as executioners, pluckers, eviscerators, or camera folk (I'm hoping to make a little video post of the process). We'll teach you everything that you need to know, or at least, everything that we know.

If you're interested in taking part or just keeping us company, give me a shout!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Time to Visit the Newsstand

While I work on my epic composting/vermiculture post (when I finally post it, be sure to have a comfy seat handy), check out this week's fantastic issue of the New York Times Magazine. Among other awesomeness it features interviews with Food Rock stars like Severine von Tscharner Fleming (director of the forthcoming young farmer documentary The GreenHorns), an open letter to the future president from Michael Pollan, and a piece on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's work on agriculture in Africa.

Take a break from monitoring the stock market or the elections. You'll probably be happier for it!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I'll Have the Venti Compost Tea, Cream, No Sugar

When it comes to composting, my spirit has always been willing, but my body (and mind) have always been weak. For starters, what literature I have read on the subject always begins by boring me and ends by offering intimidating formulas (30 parts "brown" material such as leaves to 1 part "green" material such as food scraps). Seeing as I have a ready supply of food scraps and, until recently, no dead leaves, I didn't often feel inspired by my reading.

Cut to Friday. Clifford, director of the local Montessori school, brought down an old friend of his who is a master composter from New York state. Adam-the-compost-master is a wiry, energetic man who came equipped with a ready willingness to stick his arm up to his elbow into piles of decomposing horse poop. Unlike my books, Adam is a pragmatic composter and a fan of simple explanations. Adam toured our two on-farm composting sites (both sorely in need of remedial attention) and helped us design a system for the future that will allow our CSA members to participate, offer an educational model, and give us rich black compost quickly without the wretched odor of anaerobic bacteria at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I was so inspired by his advice that I am overhauling our intern house compost pile (lately tending toward the "dump and run" variety due to stink factor) and offering his suggestions for a simple home system in hopes that you, too, can participate in the transmogrification of food scraps into fertilizer.

The Ethics of Compost

Before you roll up your sleeves and pinch your nose, let me first explain why composting is so beneficial. I've often heard that decomposing matter in landfills is responsible for the release of noxious quantities of Carbon Dioxide and Methane, but I've never understood why home composting would be any different and better. I'm still breaking those food scraps down, right? So won't those gases be released anyway? The answer to that is a qualified yes; while the process of making compost will indeed lead to the release of carbon sequestered in plant matter, it will not include the attendant carbon footprint of landfill transportation. Perhaps surprisingly, it is this process of moving your trash from point A (your house) to point B (the dump) that accounts for much of the worst emissions of waste management. Consider, the carbon in your food scraps is part of the natural carbon cycle--it was in the air, got taken up by the plants, and is now re-released: zero sum. The carbon being burned in fossil fuels for transportation was sequestered long ago, and had not been a part of the atmospheric balance for several millenia. When we add it to the air, we change the present day balance of the atmosphere.

Making your own compost at home fulfills the first two (often neglected) of the three Rs of environmental stewardship, Reduce and Reuse. Besides eliminating of all of that extra food waste, making compost creates a valuable soil amendment. Good compost provides soil with organic matter for tilth--something our dense, cloddy Georgia clay desperately needs--and with beneficial microorganisms (the agents of the decomposition process) which encourage a healthy ecosystem for plant roots.

Essentials of Composting

A healthy compost pile consists of four elements: water, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. Simply put, nitrogenous material is anything "green" or "fresh"--your food scraps, animal manure*, or green debris from yardwork, for example. Carboniferous materials are the "browns" of a good compost pile: dry scraps such as fall leaves, straw, sticks, shredded newspaper, or other plant matter that is good and dead. If you are building a home compost pile, you will probably want to fashion some sort of receptacle, so that your compost area is more of a large bin than a pile. The rules of compost bin construction are lose, use what you have on hand but aim for something close to 3' by 3' by 3'. One model that I would like to try is constructed by stacking straw bales for walls and making your compost in the middle. The straw walls will gradually incorporate into your compost. However, many other designs will work equally well.

Sticks should form the bottom layer of your pile in order to keep your pile aerated. Your goal is to encourage aerobic (oxygen-using) bacteria, which work quickly and at higher temperatures without bad smells. If your compost pile brings to mind words like "rotting" and "putrescence", you've cultivated a colony of anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria are less than ideal for more than just their stench--the lower temperatures at which they work will take longer to form finished compost and will not be hot enough to break down the protein in meat or dairy products.

But wait, aren't you not supposed to add meat or dairy to compost? As it turns out, that depends. Many people avoid adding meat and dairy to compost piles because of the risk of encouraging scavengers, but if you establish your pile properly, there is no reason why your compost pile has to remain vegan. If you are worried that your compost pile may not reach the temperatures necessary to break down animal products, just leave them out. If you want go all out, however, consider animal products like meat, dairy, or feathers as "green" material.
As a general rule, other approved "Green" compost inputs include:
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags
  • Citrus rinds
  • Grass clippings
  • Animal manure (the nitrogen to carbon ratio of animal waste will vary depending on the animal. If this is a regular addition to your compost pile, it may be worth checking to see where your animal falls on the nitrogen scale)
  • Small, fresh garden clippings
Some suggestions for "Browns" are:
  • Dried leaves
  • Bark, wood ashes
  • Shredded newspaper or white printer paper (none of the glossy stuff)
  • Wood chips
  • Straw
Ok, so what are your ratios then, and how do you get this pile going? Remember these principles: more air than water, more carbon than nitrogen. Also, bear in mind that "green" material already contains a great deal of water in its cells, so you probably don't have to soak your pile unless you are experiencing a drought or you are overloading your pile with carbon. Completely cover your base layer of sticks with a layer of "browns;" pile your browns up a bit more on the sides so that it forms a bowl shape. Now add your "greens" as an even layer. Finally, cover your greens with another layer of browns so that no food scraps are showing. This final covering layer serves several purposes. From a strictly aesthetic perspective, a layer of browns is far more attractive than exposed decomposing veggies or animal manure. Additionally, it keeps your carbon to nitrogen ratios more more appropriately balanced. If you are composting something especially much larger than two fists, consider chopping it in halves or quarters to expose more surface area and speed decomposition up a bit. The same principle goes for large woody additions: break them into sticks or run them through a chipper, rather than just chucking a yule log on top of the pile and crossing your fingers.

Your compost is finished and ready to apply to your garden when the original contents are no longer discernible, having morphed into something crumbly, black, and wonderful smelling. Depending on your climate and how intensively you monitor your pile, this could happen in as little as a matter of weeks, though 8-12 months is probably a more accurate time frame.

Fall is the ideal time of year to begin a home composting operation, as nature is showering you with all the brown material you could ever want: leaves. Rather than sending your leaves to the city dump, set aside a pretty, sunny Saturday to stockpile leaves for the next year's composting. Bag the dry leaves and store them somewhere out of the way (the rafters of the garage? In a garden shed?), leaving one bag handy and somewhere near your compost pile. Saving your leaves will not take significantly more effort than you'll already expend raking and bagging and shipping them off, and it will make future composting infinitely more effective and simple.

*This probably goes without saying, but limit yourself to animal manure. While it is possible to make so called "humanure," its applications are limited. It is generally inadvisable to use even a well-cured batch on any soil that will touch the food that it grows. So if you have a composting toilet and an orchard, go ahead, make humanure and fertilize those trees! If you're planning on growing veggies, however, limit your compost additions to animals and vegetables.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Farewell My Chopsticks; Hello My Spork

I used to know that fall was coming when lunchboxes went on sale and my mother suddenly decided that I needed new shoes. One week ago, fall signaled its arrival with far less fanfare: a leaf landed in the brassica bed as I was weeding. I've become accustomed to the man-made signs of fall (tax holidays, first days of school, and Halloween decorations), so I'm quite enjoying a seasonal transition that is signaled almost entirely by the weather. The morning air is laced with the musky aroma of muscadine grapes; the nights are cooling; the crops are changing.

We're in transplanting mode again, and with most fields turned over to winter cover crops, we can devote ourselves to the care and maintenance of what we still have. The fields have never looked better.

All of this change makes me hungry for something earthy and simple, which probably explains my current obsession with soups. Long ago, in July, we harvested our winter squash and began curing them for storage. I've resisted the temptation of butternuts and pumpkins for months as I reveled in the fruits of summer, but now I finally feel justified in introducing orange to my diet. One of my favorite cookbooks, Serving up the Harvest, informs me that scientists and nutritionists somewhere have declared sweet potatoes are the world's single greatest food, in terms of nutritional content and growability. To that, I would add that is also happens to be the tastiest excuse for a vegetable that I have yet encountered.

Thai Pumpkin Soup

Yum. Pumpkin with a kick. This recipe can also be made with precooked pumpkin, you just don't need to simmer the soup for quite as long. Don't skimp on the cilantro, though, as the lemony-ness really makes the soup shine.

1 T olive oil
5 shallots, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 red chili, desseded and chopped
15 g fresh ginger, grated
2.5 lb pumpkin, deseeded and chopped
14 oz. can coconut milk
18 oz chicken stock
cilantro, chopped
salt to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the shallots, garlic, chili, and ginger, and saute for 3-4 minutes. Add the pumpkin and stir to coat in oil. Add the coconut milk and stock, stir, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the pumpkin is tender. Remove from heat and add the chopped cilantro.

Puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Taste and salt as needed.

Squash, Potato, and Peanut Butter Soup
This recipe requires a bit of foresight, in terms of saving the time to roast the butternut and mash the sweet potato. But boy is it worth it! Be sure to use good, unsweetened peanut butter, and I guarantee that leftover will not be a problem.

1 butternut squash, about 2 lbs
1 large sweet potato, chopped
4 T butter
4 oz smooth, UNSWEETENED peanut butter
1 L vegetable stock
1 t grated nutmeg
1 T honey
1 t salt
black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350. Cut the squash into quarters and scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff. Place the quarters flesh-side down on a baking tray and roast for 1 hour or until soft. Remove from the oven and cool.

In the meantime, place the sweet potato in a saucepan, cover with cool water and boil until tender. Drain the water and puree. When the squash has cooled, scoop out the flesh and puree.

Heat the butter in a large saucepan. Add the pureed squash and sweet potato and peanut butter. Add the stock, nutmeg, honey, salt, and a pinch of pepper. Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Taste for seasoning and serve.

Creamy Turnip Soup with Carrot Julienne
I used a mixture of our sweet hakurei turnips and the spicier, magenta Scarlet Queens. The resulting concoction had a delicate pink color and a find balance of sweetness and spice. I garnished it with raw carrot slivers and a a few slices of our beautiful Mizoto rose radishes, rather than additional turnips.

3 T butter
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 1/2 pounds turnips, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 medium russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
5 cups (or more) canned low-salt chicken broth

1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup whipping cream
Pinch of ground nutmeg

2 carrots, cut into matchstick-size strips
1 turnip, peeled, cut into matchstick-size strips

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Melt butter in heavy large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks and onion and sauté until onion is translucent, about 12 minutes. Add 5 sliced turnips and potato and sauté 2 minutes. Add 5 cups broth. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Puree soup in blender in batches until very smooth. Return to Dutch oven. Add milk and cream. Bring to simmer. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper

Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more broth if necessary. Ladle into bowls. Garnish with carrot strips, turnip strips and chopped fresh dill.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The College Board Weighs In

An analogy:
waitresses: underpaid :: farmers:
a) overworked
b) underpaid
c) unappreciated
d) all of the above
e) rock stars

When I'm not on the farm, I moonlight as an SAT tutor in the big city. Among the countless reading comprehension sections about Frederick Douglass, time travel, and art appreciation, I occasionally get lucky and am able to use the SAT as a segue into farming. One short reading comprehension passage always makes me laugh, as it describes the rigors of farm life in language more suited to the soviet gulag:

The farm family does physically demanding work and highly stressful work at least 14 hours a day (often at least 18 hours a day during harvest season), 7 days a week, 365 days a year, without a scheduled vacation or weekend off"...Farmers lose perspective on the other things in life. The farm literally consumes them."
Don't get me wrong; farming is hard, sometimes disgusting, work. I've seen more sunrises this season than I did in the 23 years that came before it. I can speak eloquently about the various nauseating smells associated with rotting produce (potatoes are, unquestionably, the worst, though onions, tomatoes, and squash are each their own special kind of awful). I've trellised tomatoes until my hands bled, tromped through chicken excrement, battled the endless Bermuda grass rhizomes with everything short of a blowtorch.

Despite all of that, I can't think of a better job. Overworked? Even at the height of harvest season, I worked fewer hours than my best friend, an investment banker. I'm more than willing to put in long hours, but if Paige had called for repeated 18 hour days in July, I think any of us would have revolted. Underpaid? While I wouldn't want to try to raise a family on my apprentice's salary, I still feel like I've gotten a pretty sweet deal. My housing is provided; the farm's bounty is mine to feast on; and I still receive a monthly paycheck which, carefully managed, more than meets my expenses. In effect, I'm being paid to learn. Not bad, huh?

Perhaps you still doubt. What if I did have a family, if I needed more than an apprentice's wages? Can a farmer make a decent living simply by following her bliss and selling fruits and veggies? I believe that I can. I know that I will have to economize, delay gratification, or forgo some of the pleasures that contemporary culture has taught me to consider my due. I will have to balance my farm between the demands of the market and the conditions of my environment. I'll struggle to find affordable land near good markets. More than likely, credit will be limited, making capital investments (tractor, greenhouse, irrigation) catch as catch can. I'll need to be adaptive, committed, not to mention way more diligent about sunscreen application. I'll not be jetting off to Aruba in June, that's for sure. Nevertheless, I've met farmers who are making it work. Most of them are small farmers, as I hope to be. Slowly, steadily, they are challenging a paradigm, that farmers can only succeed by working more land and growing more crops. By some standards, I'm sure I will be underpaid. My standards, however, are not strictly economic.

But unappreciated? Far from it. I was fortunate to hear poet, essayist, and pioneering farmer Wendell Barry speak at Slow Food Nation. As he looked out over a rapt audience, he noted that he had sensed a change in attitudes in the past ten years.

I said, look, you’re gonna go on doing this [advocating for a "resettling" of America] and you’re gonna be virtually alone. And you’re gonna die and go under the surface and there will be a little bubble that will pop and that will be it. And it wasn’t very long after that this other thing started and it’s been remarkable. About 1994 or 95 I began to look at myself in the mirror and I said there are people out there doing what you wish they’d do! You got to go help ‘em.
The simple fact that you are reading my words is proof enough for me. Some folks at least think that farmers are interesting and that food is a subject worthy of contemplation. Either that, or you are all very hard up for recipes. More soon, I promise.

In the meantime, the takeaway from my little soapbox speech is clear: don't put too much stock in the old SAT.

Our new apprentice, Andrew, has just showed me how to embed video in my blog. Click below to see Wendell Berry's full address.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Further Evidence that Chocolate is Good for the Soul

Earlier this season, I noticed that some of our neighbors on Hutchinson Ferry have a small garden in their front yard which contains, among other things, banana trees. Now this is an inspiration to me. For one thing, bananas are practically the Antichrist of the local food movement. When are they in season? Who knows, as none of them come from anywhere closer than Mexico. But I'm excited by these hyper-local bananas for another reason entirely. Perhaps, if bananas can grow in Georgia, then I could grown cacao as well...

Realistically, this is probably one of my more ludicrous pipe dreams. And even if I could somehow pamper a cacao tree into fruiting in this phenomenally foreign environment, I wouldn't have a clue what to do with my beans: roast them? Eat them raw? Just add milk and sugar? Since bootleg, homemade chocolate is not likely soon to grace the menu of chez Serenbe, I am instead a huge fan of fairtrade chocolate. Several companies source their cacao beans from small farmers in Africa and Latin America to whom they have contracted to pay an equitable living wage. When you buy Fairtrade chocolate you are not only purchasing a far tastier piece of chocolate than the average Twix bar, you are also helping to prevent child labor (a common practice among large scale conventional cacao farms) while supporting small family farmer cooperatives.

With Halloween on the horizon, I encourage all of you to take a look at Reverse Trick-or-Treating, a website that will send you free samples of fairtrade chocolate for you (or your children) to distribute on Halloween. I'm sure no one will mind if you do a bit of quality control sampling before the big night...

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Fine Foundation

Check out September's National Geographic for an awesome cover story all about my favorite underrated subject: dirt. Read it--I promise you won't be bored.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Robert Frost and Charlotte's Web

I've never understood arachnophobia. To me, spider webs things of beauty, especially viewed through hazy morning light. I appreciate the diligent way their denizens make and maintain their homes, the neat predictability of a web. Spiders stay put, never scurry across the kitchen floor when you turn on the light in the morning. Unlike ants, spiders don't bite, in my experience. I've encountered more black widows while moving rocks on the farm than I'd care to dwell on, and yet here I am, unscarred.

So when , as I picked flowers for bouquets, I ran across a strange white spider with overlarge, crablike front legs, my first response was to recite poetry, rather than squeal or move away.


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right.
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night
What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.

-Robert Frost

Despite the eery similarities (white flowers, a white spider), Frost's poem didn't fit, however. An innocuous white spider as an agent of darkness? Nothing about the scene, with or without moth, filled me with dread or even the faintest suspicion of divine foul play. For while I recognize the appeal of a zero sum and slightly ominous cipher, I can't reduce Frost's vignette to a simple equation whereby life for the spider comes at the price of death for the moth. This would be a limited, misleading sort of truth, as if I found a photograph of someone and assumed from it her whole history.

Looking around the farm, I can scarcely comprehend the scale of the infinite, constant shifting-between what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn calls "manifestations." A raincloud manifests as a raindrop, then the brilliant new green of a carrot sprouting; a moth manifests as a part of a spider before joining the flower patch in the guise of a bloom. Viewing the farm as I do through snapshots, a montage of daily events, I am hard pressed to recognize these transformations as ongoing.

In my perceptual limitations, I'm much like the cicada that snatched me last night from sleep. Trapped in my windowsill, it buzzed hysterically from side to side and rattled the glass. Spiderwebs and freedom both stretched above it, but ten minutes passed before the cicada found the edge of the window and climbed with blind trust upwards. It had no sense of my watching or more than a vague idea of direction. Confined by limited information of its senses, the cicada threw itself into the glass until, by chance, it found a new path.

There is design to it all, but not an appalling one--death opening new avenues for life in the flux of a healthy system. I will never grasp the expansiveness of the farm any more than the cicada will someday draw a schematic of my window, but I can still appreciate the elegance of the design that places a white spider atop a white flower, waiting for a white moth to venture near. All three will be transformed.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

15 Reasons to Move to California

1. Peaches
2. Plums
3. Pluots
4. Pears (Asian and standard
5. Figs
6. Apples
7. Meyer Lemons
8. Melons
9. Dates
10. Strawberries
11. Blackberries
12. Raspberries
13. Nectarines
14. Pomegranites
15. A California law which states that any fruit on branches above public land (regardless of where the tree's roots rest) is fair game for foragers. Did someone say paradise?

In the meantime, I'm striving to bring the Fallen Fruit ethos back to Georgia. I began by sampling the "camouflage" apples that draped across our neighbor's fence. (Then I got permission to pick and found a ladder and a bushel basket). Shortly thereafter, I discovered pears in a friend's backyard--they are now ripening on my kitchen counter. Chef Nick at the Farmhouse informed me that there were figs on the property, so I wandered through their gorgeous gardens until I finally found my prize, down by the goats. Despite much bleating on their part, I did not share. And as I biked home with my figs, I pulled over for the first persimmons of the season on the edge of the woods along Hutchinson Ferry.

Maybe Georgia isn't so bad after all...

I brought a sampling of plum varieties back from California and put them to good use this week. Admittedly, as the Georgia plum season has come and gone, this isn't the most local of recipes if you haven't just gotten back from Eden (aka California). Still, it is the season for Cali plums, so I won't begrudge you some awesome sorbet and a killer salad.

Beet Salad with Plums and Goat Cheese
12 2-inch-diameter beets, shredded
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup walnut oil or olive oil
1 1/2 pounds firm but ripe plums, pitted, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium-size red onion, sliced into rings
9 oz. fresh greens (I used arugula, beet, and sweet potato greens)
8 ounces soft fresh goat chevre, crumbled

Saute the shredded beets in a bit of olive oil until tender.

Combine vinegar and sugar. Gradually blend in vegetable oil, then walnut oil. Season vinaigrette to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss beets with 1/4 cup vinaigrette. Toss plums and onion with § cup vinaigrette in another large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Combine greens, beets, onions, and crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle with additional vinaigrette and serve.

Red Wine Plum Sorbet
This sorbet recipe is my response to a posting by Freakonomics economist Stephen Dubner against the need for more locavores. Maybe he can't make good sorbet, but I certainly can.

1 pound ripe red, black, or prune plums, halved lengthwise and pitted
3/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
2 (3- by 1-inch) strips lemon zest (removed with a vegetable peeler)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
8 black peppercorns

Stir together all ingredients and a pinch of salt in a heavy medium saucepan and cook, covered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until plums fall apart, about 25 minutes. Discard cinnamon stick and zest. Purée in batches in a blender until very smooth. Force purée through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding solids. Cool, uncovered, then chill, covered, until cold, at least 2 hours.

Freeze purée in ice cream maker, then transfer sorbet to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 1 hour.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Go Slow!

Remember when being called "slow" was an insult? Ok, perhaps in some circles it still is. But for me, it has become not only a badge of honor but something of a life philosophy. I came to this realization today while cruising on the tractor at the positively reckless speed of .1 miles per hour. Needless to say, I wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. Far from it, every fiber of my consciousness was straining to maintain my pace while sending the tractor in something akin to a straight line, all without digging too deeply or too shallowly with the spader. Given that I find spading one of the most difficult tasks on the farm, I probably should not have been meditating on slowness.

The six trowel-shaped spades on our spader fluff the soil for planting without destroying the soil profile, creating a hard-pan base layer, or slaughtering the earthworms busily enriching our soil (all common problems with tillage-heavy agriculture). We spade our beds as the final step before planting, and it never ceases to amaze me how one run of the spader can turn a cracked patch of dirt into soil so soft I could sleep in it. Given spading's sluggish pace, watching someone spade a bed is probably about as entertaining as watching someone else watch paint dry; actually doing it yourself, however, is a bit more engaging. When the tractor moves slowly, it becomes increasingly difficult to judge a straight line. Only after you have gone through an area will the straight (or scoliotic) appearance of the bed offer judgment on your skill. By then, of course, you have to live with the consequences. The tilt of a bed can send soiling spilling into the path; too much tilt in the spader results in a mess of clotty dirt rather than a silky bed for planting. Sure, plants will grow in straight lines or curvy ones. But the sight of one of my spading jobs snaking across the landscape makes me red with embarrassment: we farmers take great pride in the appearance of our farms. This machine has brought to the brink of tears on more than one occasion.

Luckily, I've been able to take a lesson from all of my angst and frustration. For starters, I've developed an abiding appreciation for slowness and the skill that often goes with it. Living slowly requires patience (never a strength of mine), consciousness, and fortitude. I live slowly when I wait for bread to rise, when I put down my fork between bites, and when I wait two full years for Slow Food Nation. You knew I was building to that, right? If you haven't already heard of Slow Food USA's recent smörgåsbord of all things "good, clean, and fair," get ready for an earful. I've been anticipating this past weekend since I attended its international cousin, Terra Madre, in 2006. As much as any one thing, Terra Madre set me on this winding journey from school to table to farm, and Slow Food Nation was just the catalyst for future discoveries I had hoped it would be. I was thrilled by the number and dedication of participants fighting for radical change to our unbalanced agro-ecological-gastronomic system. I was inspired by the farmers I met who are operating agriculturally innovative and socially progressive small farms. Truly good food--food that was grown responsibly, prepared with artistry and equity--was the common thread connecting all the disparate elements.

I savored every bite.

p.s. You haven't heard the last of Slow Food Nation, friends. In all likelihood it will be cropping up in future posts with all the ubiquity of okra in August. In the meantime, make me a happy farmer by checking out (and signing!) the brand-spanking new Food Declaration, which lays out a set of 12 principles that can guide everyone from policy makers to former English majors in the steps to a better-fed future.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fantasty Farming

Forget Life, Trivial Pursuit, or that ancient computer game Oregon Trail. My new favorite game is a Serenbe exclusive: "So You Want to be a Farmer?" After a morning of normal farm work (weeding , harvesting, moving our chickens to fresh pasture) we retired to Paige's house with MacBooks in tow for an afternoon surprise. She emerged from her office with a stack of seed catalogs and the rules of the game: we had just acquired 1 acre of flat, fertile Northwest Georgia farmland (is there such a thing?). We had committed to feed a 25-member CSA for 28 weeks, with a minimum of 5 items in each share. Labor and tractor work were taken care of. A collection of excel sheets--for seed ordering, crop planning, and harvest predictions--whooshed into our inboxes. We had 1 hour 45 minutes to plan our strategy.

Ok, so an hour forty-five is hardly enough time to figure out everything from seed varieties to succession timing, to crop rotations. (Especially when you're an English major who can barely convince Excel to give you a sum). Still, the challenge was a thrilling one, the giddy excitement of Christmas laced with the adrenaline tang of a test. I eat this stuff up. Through trial and error and many questions for Paige (how many bed feet of kale should we plan on per member? How many harvest weeks can we expect from an eggplant?) we each began to craft our imaginary farm. I began by picking my crops: beets can grow here year round, so I planned for them as a constant. I'd plant kale, turnips, and cabbage for spring with a corner plot for strawberries to add color to my share. I'd transition to early summer by adding beans, onions, and potatoes, as well as cucumbers. High summer would usher in tomatoes, eggplants, and unkillable okra, then back to my spring crops as the days dwindled into fall. Of course, I wanted to plant about 30 additional crops, but time and space forced me to move on.

First lesson: planning for a CSA is hard. Or at least, it is difficult to plan a full year of growing so that your harvest is consistent, never too large or too small. Second lesson: Excel can do magical things. Paige has created a spreadsheet that, with the entry of bed feet and number of successions can tell you exactly how many ounces of seed to purchase and how many pounds of produce to expect. Third lesson: one acre is a surprisingly large amount of space. Jack, Steph, and I all found ourselves with large swaths of land uncultivated by our modest models. "I guess I'll just cover crop the rest," exclaimed Steph.

As we raced against the clock, Paige threatened to hit us with challenges--pests, weather, and the like. Luckily, with the tractor work accounted for, we knew that our oxen couldn't die, as had ruined many a game of Oregon Trail.

In the end, we didn't fully finish planning our season. Then again, Paige admitted that it took her almost a full week to plan her first year here at Serenbe. As we relinquished Paige's dining room and packed up our things, all three of us continued to mull over unfinished business. I, ever the Ag nerd, hopefully inquired whether we might continue our work and perhaps make presentation Monday (on tri-fold posterboard? please?). Paige laughed, promised that we would try similar games in the future, and reminded me that I probably didn't want to spend my Labor Day weekend leafing through seed catalogs. Maybe I'll start looking for farmland instead...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Defense of Dirty Fingernails

What feature of yourself are you most proud of? Until recently, I wouldn’t have known how to answer such a question—far easier to say what bothers me, what I would change. After five months as a farmer, I now know: I am inordinately proud of my hands. My fingertips are pitted from the horse nettle thorns hiding among more innocuous weeds. The skin on the sides of my index fingers refuses to come clean—it is cracked and stained brown from winter and weeding. My fingernails have never been shorter, and yet somehow, when I think that they have no quick left, the dirt still finds a way beneath them. The skin on my left index finger has blistered away at one point from the sharp, taught line of the tomato trellising twine. My hands are callused, cut, never quite clean. They declare, more eloquently than I ever could, that they are useful.

My mother likes to call me her “over-educated farmer,” a reference to the assortment of degrees (none of which have the word “agriculture” anywhere on them) that I have accumulated. Academically speaking, I’m a love child of the humanities; I’ve studied literary analysis and anthropological theory, political science and economic history. Come my first day on the farm, however, I felt anything but overeducated. Where was the line between too wet and too dry? How did everyone else move so quickly from task to task? Why, despite detailed instructions and intense concentration, did I seem utterly incapable of filling the bucket of the front-end loader? Until then, the closest I’d come to farming was the semester of college spent wandering the cross country trails and identifying trees for a Dendrology class. I loved to hail the trees by their lyrical Latin names—Liriodendron tulipifera, Liquidamber styraciflua, Fagus grandifolia—but we learned little else. We never grew anything ourselves, used the wood, or even climbed the limbs. Before that, long ago, I had a children’s gardening book, narrated by friendly raccoons and mice, but I lacked suitable land in which to put theory into practice.

Juxtaposed like that, “theory into practice”, the two words seem like equals, or perhaps two parts of a single larger whole. Sadly, we have, in our rush to the city, to culture, to art, to have forgotten this most basic reality, that theory is meaningless without practical skill, just as action is often pointless without reasoned thought. We praise intellectualism as the pinnacle of success and assume that those who work with their hands for low pay couldn’t cut it in school. Tradespeople do not become wealthy, we learn, and wealth is the post-academic measure of worth. As for me, I’ve long since stopped measuring the significance of my days in dollars and cents; the satisfaction of a well-stocked market stand or the sight of new-hatched seedlings bridging the soil brings me more satisfaction than an extra $10 per hour. But I will argue fiercely that the physical skills of the farmer are as valuable as is the cerebral culture of the city. To privilege intellect over physicality is to ignore our bodies’ yearning desire for use. On my knees, feet bare, digging like a dog for potatoes, I feel a scale within myself moving toward balance after disproportionate years of sitting, thinking, reading (which, at the time, I reveled in as well).

Practice is a deep, intimate, integrated type of knowledge, so infinitely expansive that I sometimes feel as though I’m becoming lost within it. Even as my vision narrows to the 4 acres of Serenbe, the countless decisions constantly being weighed and tallied grow and grow, and I feel dizzy at the thought of even managing ten such acres. Let us seek this sort of narrative knowledge, information learned not by formula but by functioning in context.

That is why I, a theory-loving, textbook collecting, front-row-of-the-lecture-hall sitting school nerd, surrendered my desk and my number two pencils for a classroom that gets under my fingernails and between my toes. I’m learning farming as an apprentice rather than as a student, by imbedding the practice of it on my battered farmer hands.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Signposts of Summer

For anyone who read about our massive tomato-transplanting day so many moons ago, it probably comes as no surprise that the prospect of our twice-weekly tomato harvest inspires in me more than a little dread. My tomato anxiety, however, has less to do with the epic proportions of our harvest (we pulled in slightly more than 450 pounds of salable tomatoes today, for example), and more to do with the number of culls that never make it out of the field. Tomatoes might just be the most finicky fruit* on the farm--they wither from disease, crack from too much rain, or wilt from underwatering. They're the petulant toddlers of the vegetable world: nothing but trouble to the folks who raise them, but to everyone else, the darling of the market stand.

Some of our tomatoes are luscious, delectable specimens. Others have passed their prime or lost the war against bugs until all that remains is a pulpy mess of wrinkled skin and tomato splooge. I have no problem babying the first and discarding the second. What kills me, positively stops me in my tracks, are the single-fatal-flaw tomatoes, the tomatoes with a hairline crack that I know will soon become sploogy (but which hasn't't yet!); the tomatoes with a barely perceptible bruise, or a tiny tell-tale bug hole. Without fail, I pause and deliberate. Salvage it? Find it a good home, or at least the makings of a decent BLT? Reason usually triumphs (with 450 lbs of other, perfect tomatoes to chose from, who will want this one?), and I toss the rejected tomato to the paste-covered ground. But not before taking a bite.

This valedictory bite has become a compulsion for me. Particularly in the back field, where my absolute favorite tomatoes proliferate, I will not discard a tomato without affirming its value with my own personal taste test. So I work my way down the row, tomato juice dripping from my chin, carrying a faint but unmistakable tomato perfume, and leaving a twisted fairy tale trail of half-eaten tomatoes in my wake. Given the number of field-culls on any normal harvest day, I'm beginning to worry that lycopene may be replacing blood in my veins. At least I won't be catching scurvy any time soon...

*While tomatoes are, biologically speaking, a fruit (they bear seeds), in 1893 the Supreme Court ruled that they occupied a place in the meal customarily filled by a vegetable, and were therefore a vegetable in the eyes of the law. I'm holding my breath that they will soon rule as to the proper interpretation of such classic Southern "vegetable" dishes as baked apples, hushpuppies, and macaroni and cheese.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Let them eat chicken

It was a bit like a scene from Macbeth: thunder rolling in the background, a cauldron-like stockpot seething atop our grill, and across from me, Jack brandishing a shiny new chef knife.
It was chicken harvesting time.

Since out broilers first arrived, I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about slaughter. Not that I relish the thought of killing and cleaning a chicken (far from it!), but I wanted to be mentally prepared to take a chicken’s life respectfully, cleanly, and without excessive girlish squealing. I knew that the last bit might prove difficult after the execution of a rat snake recently found hiding in the chicken coop provoked some very undignified noises. We’ve lost two of our Cornish Cross broilers recently, once to an animal attack and once to dehydration, and in each case I have looked at the carcass and wondered: “could I turn that into dinner?” It seemed an awfully large transition from that limp pile of feathers to fried chicken.

An unfortunate side effect of the Cornish Cross’s unparalleled ability to put on breast meat is that these hefty birds sometimes grow so fast that they break their own legs. A chicken with a broken leg is a sad little creature, and no amount of athletic tape and popsicle sticks is likely to send it back to pasture. Once we realized that we had one such chicken, we knew that it was our duty to kill it as quickly as possible. I decided to view the process as a test run for our first real chicken harvesting day, and I convinced Jack to help me, at least by providing moral support.

I began by reading everything that Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profit$ had to say about slaughter. Unfortunately, the pictures are rather grainy, and the anatomical descriptions are only helpful if you can tell the difference between a gizzard and an esophagus. Let’s just say it’s been a long time since freshman biology. I then began scouring the Internet for tutorials, home videos, or anything else related to cleaning a chicken. Alas, the closest I could find was a PETA video about factory farming (not what I wanted to model my harvest after) and various clips of people dancing the funky chicken at weddings and bar mitzvahs. On Wednesday night I discovered that Sandy, the manager of the Hil Restaurant, used to kill and process her own chickens, but while she was more than happy to offer advice, she was busy with the Hil for the next five days. It would be all me.

A storm had been building all of Thursday afternoon when I finally set an enormous cauldron of water on the grill. While the pot heated up, Jack helped me do the deed. Beheaded chickens tend to flap, flutter, and inflict psychic scarring on all parties involved, so Jack and I decided to approximate the killing cones that most small-scale producers prefer. With killing cones, the chicken is inverted (for some reason this calms them) and its head pushed through a small hole at the bottom of a large cone (in our case, an old plastic flower pot). While I help the pot and the chicken’s feet, Jack cut our chicken’s jugular vein and we let it bleed out. From what I’ve read, the chicken dies instantly, though the heart continues to beat long enough to flush most of the blood out. Thanks to the cone, our bird did not do a grisly chicken death dance, though it did flutter enough for me to yell at Jack “are you sure you did that right?” One look, however, confirmed that our chicken was indeed going gently into that good night.

I checked that the water had reached 140°, then, once confident that the chicken was unquestionably dead, I dunked it repeatedly to loosen the feathers. Then, to my amazement, our chicken became dinner table fare. The feathers came off easily in soggy white clumps, and I was left with a slightly puny version of a grocery chicken. I finished the job that Jack had begun by removing the head, then I chopped off the feet. Now came the real challenge, the sprint before home plate—eviscerating the chicken. I had worried that I would find this inherently gruesome process both appetite destroying and just plain hard. By then, however, I was in full dissection mode. My curiosity kicked in, and I stopped carrying that an animal was becoming food in a setting reminiscent of Frankenstein’s laboratory.

I can’t watch the medical drama House without becoming squeamish; gory horror films still give me the creeps, yet there I was, with a smile on my face, happily studying the body cavity of a chicken to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything. I guess that’s how you know you’re a farmer.

Smothered Chicken with Mushrooms

According to my cookbook, Country Tastes: Best Recipes from America’s Kitchens, “Sunday chicken dinner on the farm was often prepared this way.” With an endorsement like that (and an abundance of shitakes in the fridge), I was an easy sell on this recipe. The sauce cooked up thick and mushroom-mellow and tasted far richer than it actually was.

1 frying chicken, cut up
salt and pepper, to taste
1 T butter
2 T vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
3 T flour
1 ½ cup chicken broth
½ cup cream or milk
shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)
chopped fresh parsley, to garnish

Preheat oven to 350. Wash the chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

In a heavy skillet heat the butter and oil over high heat. Add the chicken, skin-side down. Brown on one side, then turn over and repeat. Remove the chicken to a casserole dish and cover the bottom of the dish in a single layer.

Pour off all by 2 T of any fat in the skillet. Now add the onions and mushrooms and sauté over medium heat 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the flour, then the broth, whisking until the sauce thickens. Add the milk or cream and remove from heat. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Cover with the cheese, if desired.

Cover the casserole dish and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the cover and bake for 30 minutes more, until the chicken is tender but not falling apart. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with mashed potatoes.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Good to the Last Drop

When I was in college, my friend Laura gained a reputation as the best free food scavenger on campus. Once clear of the mandatory freshman meal plan, Laura seemingly never paid for food again, instead managing to show up with uncannily perfect timing and large quantities of Tupperware wherever food was being given away. On occasion, this made her diet a bit monotonous (one particularly massive haul of peanut butter mouse seemed like it would never end and became the inspiration for many pranks), but on the whole, she and many of her fortunate friends ate well off the would-be-wasted food of campus.

We Americans have become accustomed to cheap food, readily accessible 24 hours per day. As a result, many people don’t think in terms of making due with what’s available or finding uses for leftover food. This habit of disconnecting our meals one from the next is merely a symptom of our aimless American diet, disengaged from the seasons and guided by fashion or supermarket specials. Rather than letting what we have suggest what we should next consume, we take the path of least resistance, throw out leftovers and eat whatever is easy and familiar. Keeping a household compost pile is a simple way to decrease food wastage, but I’m a “whole hog” kind of girl, preferring to find uses for every edible part of anything in my kitchen.

Several weeks ago I purchased 3 gallons of raw milk with grand intentions of a home dairying bonanza of ice cream, yogurt, and mozzarella cheese. Alas, as I stood poised above the stove, I realized, much to my chagrin, that citric acid and lemon juice are not the same thing. I toyed with the idea of fudging it, came to my senses after considering the cost of milk, and turned my attention to ice cream instead. A few days later my roommate Ben informed me that the remaining milk had gone sour.

Now I was really annoyed--had I just thrown $6 and a gallon of delicious milk down the drain? I turned to the modern magic eight ball of Google. "What can you do with sour milk?" I queried. As it turns out, plenty, particularly since my milk was unpasteurized. Pasteurized milk tastes spoiled when the microscopic carcasses of all the zapped bacteria (both good and bad) begin decomposing. Ewww. In raw milk, on the other hand, beneficial bacteria eventually begin converting the sugars in milk into lactic acid—effectively turning your milk into buttermilk or yogurt.

All milk has naturally occurring bacteria in it, which are harmless or even beneficial. If, however, a milking parlor is not meticulously hygienic, nasty bacterial beasties can sneak into the raw milk and make any ensuing milk drinkers sick. Fears of contaminated milk, sparked by the deaths of children from food poisoning, led scientists in the early 20th century first to the creation of evaporated milk (clean, cheap, and easily stored for long periods), then to pasteurization, where a flash heating process kills all bacteria, both beneficial and harmful. Though a few diehards held out on the benefits of raw milk, pasteurization quickly gained a monopoly on consumer confidence and within a few years many states had made pasteurization mandatory and the sale of raw milk illegal. While pasteurization renders unclean milk safe for consumption (yay?), it also decreases the vitamin content and denatures various enzymes that facilitate digestion. This is why people with mild lactose intolerance often find that they can drink raw milk while pasteurized milk will make them sick.

As I was saying, my milk was not spoiled, only soured. As long as your milk has only begun to turn, you can still use it for all sorts of culinary experiments. On this particular evening I was feeling like Indian food, so I decided to make paneer cheese, a staple dairy item of India often made with slightly soured milk.

A favorite Indian dish of mine is palak paneer, which features cubes of paneer in a thick, pureed spinach sauce. Unfortunately, spinach has not been seen on our farm since summer reared its sunny head. We do, however, have an abundant supply of lambs quarters, a native weed that volunteers in any bed we forget to weed for more than a week. Lambs quarters is incredibly nutritious and tastes, at least to me, quite similar to spinach. I decided to try a substitution. The resulting dish was green and lumpy (both positive qualities in Indian cuisine) and tasted like sweet success. I like to think that Laura would have been proud.

Mock Palak Paneer

1 t chopped fresh ginger
1 fresh green chili, seeded and minced
1 t ground coriander
1/2 t sweet paprika
1/2 t ground cumin
1/2 turmeric
2 t ghee (if you have it) or oil (I didn't)
2 large bunches lambs quarters (err...I just grabbed a solid handful of stems)
4 T cream or whole milk
paneer cheese, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 t garam masala
salt to taste

Strip the leaves of the quarters from the stem, wash, and drain them. Steam the lambs quarters with some water for 4-5 minutes, until it becomes soft and cooks down.

Blend the lambs quarters in a food processor or blender until smooth. Set aside.

Blend the ginger and chili in the food processor or blender with a few teaspoons of water. Add the coriander, paprika, cumin, and tumeric and blend to form a paste. Set aside.

Heat the ghee or oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the spice mix and fry for 2-3 minutes until the paste is aromatic and starts to sticl. Fold in the pureed lamsquarters. Cook over full heat for 2-4 minutes.

Fold in the cream, paneer cubes, garam masala, and salt. Cook for an additional 5 minutes and serve hot.