Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What's Cookin' Good Lookin?

It occurs to me that some of you, not having the benefit of daily contact with veggies, may be curious as to what exactly is in season here in Georgia. Most folks could probably match pumpkins with October or tomatoes with July, but what about the rest of the supermarket's bounty? In the grand tradition of 24 hour one-stop shopping and all-you-can-eat, the average grocery offers all "staple" crops and a gracious plenty of the fancier stuff year 'round. Often, the only clue as to seasonality comes from the price--the more expensive it is, the less likely it is to be in season. But even this can be misleading. With countries like Chile and Argentina operating on the Southern hemisphere's upside down seasons, this week's special might be a fruit no one outside of California could actually be growing.

Why would you want to eat with the seasons? The reasons are myriad, and if you've read this far you probably have at least an inkling. Flavor is perhaps the most straightforward reason; I won't even touch a peach (my all time favorite food) outside of peach season as the mealy, flavorless rocks that populate the grocery the other 10 months of the year are altogether useless, except perhaps as projectiles. The degree to which season and freshness affect taste varies from species to species, but it is not a stretch to say that produce always tastes better in its natural ripeness time after minimal transport.

As I put the trays of transplants in the bed of our truck to drive them out to the field for planting, I tell them to enjoy the feel of the wind in their leaves, as the 5 minute ride will be their first and last fossil-fueled journey. If you are the environmentalist type, the carbon footprint of a food increases exponentially as you eat it out of season. If it can be grown here, why not eat it when it is?

On a more philosophical level, anticipation breeds appreciation. After waiting all year long for those luscious peaches to ripen, I want to write hymns of praise to the first juicy orb that crosses my plate. I never do, though, as my mouth is always too full. Barbara Kingsolver says it best in her recent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint--virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. These virtues seem to find precious little shelter, in fact, in any modern quarter of the nation founded by Puritans. Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they shoud wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait, to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know its true value. "Blah, blah, blah," hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can't even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We're raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indescriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.
Though I could go on, I'll get to my point. I'll try to do this semi-regularly, both to keep y'all apprised of what we're pulling from our fields and (I hope!) to facilitate your developing a locavore's palate. If, on your next foray to the grocery, you decide to give this whole seasonal thing and shot, here is what to look for:
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Turnips (I'll eat Hakureis like apples; I'm not even kidding)
  • Swiss chard
  • Beets
  • Asparagus
  • Arugula
  • Spring onions, aka scallions
  • Lots of cool Asian greens for salads or stir fry: bok choy, tatsoi, tokyo bekana, and mispoona
  • Mushrooms
Or better yet, hit up a farmer's market this Saturday and see what treasures some local whiz-farmer has managed to coax from the soil!

The Deeper Questions

I actually saw a chicken cross the road today.

It was commuting from the rumored meth chemist's house at the end of the street to the Montessori school on the far side, so perhaps we can speculate that health had something to do with the journey? I like to think that I played a small part in this epic moment, as the sight of me on my bike inspired the cautious fowl to scoot a bit faster. Alas, my own speed was too great to stop and investigate further into moods and motivations, so the immortal "why" remains unanswered.

But I can now authoritatively say that chickens do, on occasion, cross the road.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Veggie Tales at the OK Corral

Serenbe is a public place to learn how to farm. Not only are there newly inhabited houses directly abutting the farm (be careful what tree you pee behind!), but people are always wanting to come tour the grounds. Often enough they simply let themselves in and wander aimlessly along the main road--slightly worrisome but rather hard to prevent--but on occasion we dabble in agritourism and show off the farm to school kids or wedding parties. I'm rather looking forward to one upcoming wedding tour, the guests for which are almost exclusively from L.A. Overalls, a good thick drawl, and possibly bare feet are in order that day, me thinks. This morning, however, our guests were rather smaller and less glamorous: 66 seventh graders from an Atlanta private school.

Despite our fears of junior high angst and calculated boredom, our kids were a pretty good group. They gamely followed Paige, Jack, and I around the farm, sampling viola flowers, pea tips (the aphids added protein, we assured them), and whatever else we endorsed as edible. We put them to work seeding squash and cucumbers for us, let them feed spinach to the chickens, and tried to teach them to difference between beds and paths. Having introduced them to the general principles of our organic, biointensive system, we decided that some recreation was in order in the form of my favorite ridiculous game: "Vegetabling Off." Imagine a Veggie Tales interpretation of Tombstone and you've got a pretty close approximation of a successful Vegetable Off. The two contenders begin back-to-back and at a caller's instructions take three steps in opposite directions. On the caller's mark, they then turn to face one another and impersonate in both action and sound the vegetable that the caller has just named. Observers then vote as to who has most captured the essence of the produce (or simply who has looked most absurd).

Much as I enjoyed helping self-conscious adolescents be goofy and unstudied, the experience showed me how limited the vegetable repertoire of your average 13-year-old is; when I shouted "eggplant" I was met with blank stares. So I limited myself to the more traditional fare of carrots, potatoes, broccoli, and peas and restrained myself from pulling out celeriac or turnips.

I, on the other hand, have been pulling turnips out of the ground in abundance. Slightly larger than a radish and pure white, our Hakureis have a crisp crunch and a clean, ever-so-slight sweetness that grants them easy admittance to my "eat it raw" list. Still, I feel that I don't really know a vegetable until I've applied heat to it in some form or fashion, and if you feel the same, you've got to try this.

Glazed Turnips with Scallions and Parsley

Be sure to use a sauce pan with maximum surface area, as you want to glaze to reduce down quickly, before the turnips get over-cooked. Don't be afraid to do as I did and remove the turnips from the heat while the glaze finishes reducing, as it allows the veggies to retain just enough of that wonderful crunch.

1/4 stick (1/8 cup) unsalted butter
1 1/2 lb turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch-thick wedges
1 1/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 scallions, finely chopped
1 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Melt butter in a wide 5-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, then add turnips, stirring until well coated. Add broth, sugar, and salt and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until turnips are just tender, 25 to 30 minutes.

Continue to boil turnips, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced enough to just glaze turnips, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with scallions and parsley.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tis the Season...

When you live and work on a farm, it's easy to eat locally and seasonally, right? Well...sort of. I certainly know what is in season on our farm: spinach, radishes, turnips, beets, and lots of lovely greens). But one of those pitfalls of being a self-professed foodie is that you quite often stumble across recipes that are willfully anachronistic: summer berry cobblers that you discover in the depths of February's doldrums, or the most divine-sounding curried sweet potato soup which you, of course, learn of in May. Then there are the fruits and veggies that appear at the store without any clue as to their proper season or provenance, kumquats for example, or mangoes. I've had an exotic produce fetish since elementary school, when my mother finally caved to my wheedling and bought me a star fruit (how a star fruit found its way into a Kroger in the early 90's I'll never know). So despite my best intentions to live simply, eat locally, and tune in to the seasons, the dual temptations of Epicurious and the Dekalb Farmer's Market have co-opted me on more than one occasion. For example, this weekend.

Lately, strawberries seem to be everywhere. I walk into the grocery store and am met by an enormous rack of them, on special. I visit The Hil, and the cake du jour is strawberry with strawberry ice cream. Or I open the latest issue of Edible Atlanta to discover not one but two recipes for strawberry shortcake in one 25-page magazine. Then there's the fact that Jack, Paige, and I have been weeding last year's strawberry bed off and on for about two weeks now--the strawberry plants had all sent out runners and merged into an enormous green mat on which weeds of every shape and size have flourished. While the weeding extravaganza seems to have put Jack off of strawberries for the foreseeable future, I found that bonding with the berries had only heightened my anticipation for the season. Alas, all that we have for now is an attractive carpet of white flowers which will not yield fruit for another several weeks, at least.

So after a bit of brainstorming, I found my justification for indulging my urge. Since Christmas, I have been eying a recipe for a strawberry, rhubarb, and caramelized onion preserves in Homegrown Pure and Simple, and I told myself that if I ever planned to produce this delightful concoction for sale (did I mention that I aspire to master canning, jamming, and pickling this year, along with farming, climbing, slacklining, and maybe guitar? I dream big) I ought to practice it several times before the season kicks off. Standing before the strawberry display at the Dekalb Farmer's Market, I had my second moment of truth: organic or conventional. The merits of organic strawberries are substantial--not only are organic growing methods better for soil health, but conventional strawberries get sprayed with a cocktail of 36 pesticides, which thin strawberry skins absorb like toddlers with swear words. I debated. I'm not particularly loaded (those organic babies would run me a good $2 more), and this was preserve-making session was after all only a trial run, and the Farmer's Market only accepts cash, on which I was running low... But I bought the organic strawberries, shipped all the way from Cali (as were the conventional), and told myself that I was at least trying to be a responsible consumer.

Finally, Friday arrived and I began prepping my
ingredients. The onions of course reduced me to tears within seconds; juicing lemons with my poor, battered farmer hands turned the onion-tears into a flood. But I really felt like crying when I started slicing strawberries. They had no scent! There was this lovely little box of firm, red berries, and not a whiff of the redolent strawberry aroma. I decided to take a taste. Even worse! While they looked like strawberries and had the texture of strawberries, I have tasted wild strawberries from my front yard with a more potent punch than those bland berries. I stared at my bowl. Looked out the window where thunder was rolling and lightening massing in the distance. Signed and reached for my keys. So I spent my Friday night sniffing my way through boxes of Publix strawberries in search of taste.

Once home again I continued with my recipe and, I am happy to report, successfully canned the resulting preserves. The recipe still needs tweaking, however, so until I have consulted with my uber-elite tasting squad and incorporated their feedback into batch two (or three, or four), I will resist tempting you, gentle reader, with an unseasonable recipe. In the meantime, grab yourself some Florida kumquats, as I just learned that their season ends this month!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Vegetable Lust

Some people like to think that they were someone famous in a past life: Sacajawea, Julius Caesar, or maybe Princess Anastasia. I think I was a rabbit. I've come to this conclusion because of my ever-growing love for all vegetable matter. I'll happily munch my way around the farm sampling crinkly spinach, tender curling pea tips, spicy mustard greens, or the flowering tops of collards. While I am not about the forswear that most human of rites, cooking my dinner, I am finding that our veggies are good enough to stand entirely on their own.

Lately, we've begun to harvest radishes. Radishes are another farmer favorite, as they have one of the shortest maturation periods on the books. Within 3-4 weeks, the red and white roots will be breaking through the soil, all but jumping from the soil onto your plate. Radishes are exactly the sort of unapologetic raw food that I'm drawn to at present--bright, crisp, and piquant. If you'll recall, my fetish is not a singular one: in the fairytale of Rapunzel, the pregnant mother lusts so mightily for radishes (or rampion, a similar green) that she sends her poor husband into the neighboring witch's garden to steal her a salad. On his third such expedition, the witch catches the husband and demands baby Rapunzel as payment. Remember that little exchange the next time you lament the prices at Whole Foods!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Beet it!

I first visited Serenbe in early December: it was a bright, crisp day shortly after the last CSA of the year. I caught the farm as it was settling down for its winter nap, and as a result the fields were appropriately subdued, with green and brown the dominant color scheme. I had trouble imagining the riot of color that would herald spring--it seemed a quiet farm.

Not so, any longer! Each day reveals fresh blossoms on peach trees, strawberry plants, and even our cover crop of vetch. My newly trained eyes catch colors where before I might only have seen a green wash. On field walks this spring I'm forever stopping in my tracks to admire tiny yellow buttercups or the brilliant purple stems of last season's beets. Those tell-tale purple stems in particular have become an obsession of mine, calling me to harvest every time I pass their bed. I can't get enough of the satisfying pop that ushers the beets out of the earth or the shockingly bright colors hidden beneath their dusty skin. Beets seem to me a good season-transitioning vegetable: nourished by the ground as it slumbered, earthy in flavor, but still suggestive (in that stunning purple core) of the colors of spring.

Because we have about bushel of beets still in the field, I'm always looking for ways to use them up. This slightly untraditional borscht puts the humble beet front and center (don't make it unless you like the taste of beets!) but gives them a bit of polish with lemon pepper, scallions, and dill. I served it with pasta, though a heaping beet green and spinach salad would be an equally delicious accompaniment.

makes 4 hearty servings; takes just over 1 hour start to finish

4 large beets (I used about 6 medium to small ones)
1/3 cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon local honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon pepper seasoning
2 cups buttermilk
2 scallions, white part only, minced
fresh or dried dill
plain yogurt or sour cream

Place the beets in a large sauce pan with water to cover. Bring to a boil and let simmer until beets are cooked, 30-40 minutes. Remove from heat and drain, saving at least one cup of the liquid. Set the beets aside to cool.

In a saucepan, cook the oatmeal on low with 1 cup of the beet water until all the liquid is absorbed. Meanwhile, peel and quarter the beets.

Place the beets, oatmeal, honey, lemon juice, and lemon pepper in a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Add the buttermilk and process until blended. Return the soup to the stove and heat until warmed through. Serve with a garnish of the scallions and dill as well as a dollop of yogurt or sour cream.

my thanks to Diana Shaw's Vegetarian Entertaining for the inspiration for this recipe