Friday, May 30, 2008


I've heard that some people decide where to move based on the quality of the public schools, job prospects, the prevalence of microbreweries, or other minutia of life. As for me, I find myself daydreaming about future residences in terms of the their soil, growing season, and occasionally the cost of land. Seeing as I have no money to speak of, however, I really don't pay much attention to the last one. Long live guerrilla gardening, y'all. I have been vastly assisted in my fantasizing by a new posting on Epicurious which allows you to get a sense of what is in season in any month in any state. Admittedly, the variation within a state the size of Georgia means that you've got no guarantees that your local farmer's market will carry what Epicurious advertises, but I can dream.

As the Southern summer sets in, the Pacific Northwest is looking mighty nice...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

In Which I Put my English Degree to Good Use

In honor of Paige's grandmother's hollyhocks:

Soliloquy of a Tortoise Upon Revisiting the Lettuce Beds After an Interval of One Hour, While Supposed to be Sleeping in a Clump of Blue Hollyhocks

I cannot get enough
Of this delicious stuff!


I heartily concur.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Coming In, Moving Out

Up to this point, the harvest has been an ever swelling abundance: nothing has truly passed out of season except asparagus (which we don't grow yet, anyway) and our bok choy (which I can live without). With the summer solstice fast approaching, however, I feel as though I'm on board one of those flying spaceship rides so popular at amusement parks and carnivals, swinging incrementally higher and higher as the sun sets later and later. The apex of the year's arc seems simultaneously endless and instantaneous before the rushing plunge back to earth; we're at an summit of the season, raking in spring from every corner of Serenbe. But the farm year operates like an extended swap meet, or maybe a game of poker. At the moment, we consumers are in the lead, reveling in a bounty so fulsome that it makes me want to cook ALL THE TIME. It will pass; the house will win, and eventually winter will send me scrounging in the pantry when nothing but the collards survive the cold. Given that we are yet to hit the dog days of summer, I'm sure this seems a rather long perspective, but the knowledge that the days will soon be growing shorter rather than longer naturally sends my mind racing ahead to winter. Not to mention, we're about the lose a crop I'll sorely miss.

Our peas are dying! For the longest time our pea plants lounged near the base of their trellising, thin tendrils tugging gently at the air above. When we weren't looking, they staged a rapid accent before exploding in a profusion of white and purple pea flowers. This was our cue to start watching for pods, and within a week the sweet crunch of sugar snaps was gracing our plates. Bolstered by abundant rain and biodynamic love, our pea crop grew beyond anyone's expectations. Before long, vines heavy with peas were falling off of the trellis and nearly blocking the path with a wall of leaves and pods.

So we harvested and harvested--munching as we went and dreaming of stir fries. It was this harvesting that ultimately did the peas in. Friday, as we gathered the peas for market, the threatening clouds opened and drenched us in minutes. Pea-picking in the rain was actually surprisingly tranquil, so we continued our slow movement down the path as raindrops slid down our noses and our shoes squelched in the mud. Alas, the rain, in addition to our inadequately strong trellising, fostered some sort of downy mildrew, which we in our wet picking passed on to the bulk of the crop. The leaves are turning white; the vines are growing limp, and slowly our pea pods are succumbing to the blight.

So I'm having to come to terms with flux and change and the fact that I can't have all my veggies and eat them too. I tell myself that I am trading in the peas for a bumper crop of eggplants, and in the meantime savoring this last lot as much as I can.

I'm also getting excited about a funny little cabbage relative called kohlrabi. In my internet sleuthing I have learned that a great many people think kohlrabis look like the Russian satellite Sputnik. Not having grown up during the Cold War, I prefer the description that one of our market-goers coined: kohlrabi as a "predatory turnip." It certainly makes an interesting addition to our beds with its vivid purple skin and sprouting, antenna-like leaves. Despite its exotic appearance, kohlrabi has a relatively mild flavor, akin to a sweet turnip, and the texture of a broccoli stem or water chestnut. This lovely recipe celebrates the things that are coming in (kohlrabi, potatoes, onions) while still rejoicing in the last of what is going out (goodbye, dear sweetpeas!) My unending gratitude to the wonderful Athena for sending me three fantastic Mennonite cookbooks (does she read my mind?) one of which (Simply In Season) is the source of this delicious curry.

Kohlrabi with Peas and Potatoes
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 cup kholrabi bulbs, peeled and chopped
1 cup potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 cup tomatoes, chopped (sigh...I had to use a can)
1/2 cup water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
kholrabi leaves, finely chopped
1/2 cup peas (I used sugarsnaps and chopped them into 2 or 3 pieces)

Saute the garlic and onion in some oil for about 3-4 minutes. Add the spices and stirfry for 30 seconds, until aromatic. Add the kholrabi and potatoes and stir briefly. Next, add the tomatoes, water, salt, and sugar; bring to a boil and simmer until the veggies are tender-crisp, about 15 minutes). Add the leaves and simmer for an additional 8-10 minutes. At this point, taste and determine if you want to spice it up with more mustard, cumin, etc. Throw the peas in last, and cook for a few moments, until peas are done. Serve over rice.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Guest Author

I'm not usually a fan of poems named after months (or seasons for that matter), but when it comes to Mary Oliver I'll take anything she gives me. Before May passes into June I wanted to share a poetical morsel that perfectly captures the heady rush of our flowering, fruiting, leafing farm. Would that I could say it so well!

May, and among the miles of leafing,
blossoms storm out of the darkness –
windflowers and moccasin flowers. The bees
dive into them and I too, to gather
their spiritual honey. Mute and meek, yet theirs
is the deepest certainty that this existence too –
this sense of well-being, the flourishing
of the physical body — rides
near the hub of the miracle that everything
is a part of, is as good
as a poem or a prayer, can also make
luminous any dark place on earth.

p.s. For those of you who had complained that only registered blog-people could leave comments, this is no longer the case. Comment away and make my day!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Weeding and Weeping

"Dirt" is simply matter out of place, notes anthropologist Mary Douglas in her (highly recommended) ethnographic study Purity and Danger. By that, Douglas means that the things we consider dirty are not innately unclean, but rather become impure to us due to their position in either space or time. As she moves from the dietary laws of the Israelites to the death rituals of the Dinka, Douglas notes that what is dirty to one group of people under one set of circumstances can become integral to the most sacred rites in another place or time.

Applying Douglas's logic to farming, weeds are simply plants out of place. Anything that is not slotted for our beds, no matter how pretty, tasty, or unusual, becomes a weed to us as soon as it begins to compete with our harvest for soil and sun. Thus the sunflowers that have "volunteered" in the potato patch, the random tomato plant that cropped up in the herbs, and the great drooping squash plants that are sending out creepers in several beds are all weeds to us and slotted for destruction. We've almost finished the seasonal transition from beginning to maintaining; if the emblem of my first few months here was the hose with which we watered the greenhouse, my new emblem is the weeding tool, or possibly the stirrup hoe. We have a lot of "plants out of place." Or we did, until the past few days.

This week we descended on the beds with a fury and a fine tooth comb, uprooting everything that did not belong. Whereas a conventional grower might chose to apply herbicides to knock out the interlopers, we weed by hand, wheel-hoe, and weedwacker. When I consider herbicides from the Purity and Danger perspective, weed control via Roundup (a chemical cocktail that many conventional growers use to keep down the unwanted plants) doesn't make much sense to me. Consider: many growers have turned in recent years to patented Roundup Ready seed varieties, seeds that have been bred to resist the chemical onslaught of Roundup so that the harvest crop remains standing when all other plants have succumbed. But if weeds are simply plants out of place, Roundup Ready seed grows plants that assume they can never be weeds. How arrogant! On a less philosophical level, Roundup has also been accused of creating super-weeds (by killing off the weak plants so that only the hardiest weeds remain), of contributing to cycles of farmer debt (through ever increasing input costs for new, patented seed with matching, patented herb- and pesticides), and of generally being toxic.

So at Serenbe, we use our dirty, cracked farmer hands and pick the weeds out with all possible speed and efficiency. Shortly after a rainstorm is the best time for weeding, as the moist soil relinquishes weed roots with little resistance. We weedwack around the perimeter to keep our electric fence from grounding out on grasses; we wheelhoe the paths where nothing green can stay; we maneuver the stirrup hoe between the plants, carefully avoiding the tender shoots and leaves; then we get down on a hands and knees and massage the soil around the plants until we are satisfied with our beds. Our before and after shots would put Trading Spaces to shame.

Perched as we are on the cusp of the real harvest season, summer, we are still gathering a gracious plenty. Today we brought in about half of our onion crop and laid them out to cure in the shed. The harvested onion beds are the first that we have emptied this year, and it felt more than a little strange to walk down the middle of a bed as we carred our 40 lb onion bins to the truck. We couldn't cure any onions that we dropped (they would rot), so I carried home a small pail of rejected Spanish Yellows, Stockton Yellows, and Big Boys. Looking like a distraught Ray Charles in my sunglasses and oniony tears, I sliced them into an onion pie for a dinner I'll host tomorrow. One of my dear friends is gluten intolerant, so I decided to make a crust with ground peanuts and pecans instead of flour.

Cheddar Cheese and Onion Pie with Nut Pie Crust

For the crust:
2 cups ground nuts (peanuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts--whatever you prefer)
3 Tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the filling:
1 medium boiling potato (5 oz)
2-3 cups sliced onion (I used two small and one large)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream or whole milk
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley or 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary (my choice)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
9 oz good-quality sharp Cheddar, coarsely grated (2 1/2 cups)

Combine the ground nuts, butter and sugar. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate.

Bake at 350°F for 10 to 12 minutes. While the crust is baking, make the filling.

Peel potato and cut into 1/4-inch dice (3/4 cup). Steam potato in a steamer set over boiling water, covered, until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.

Cook onions in butter in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to plate to cool.

Whisk together 2 eggs, cream, thyme, salt, and pepper in a large bowl until combined well. Stir in potato, onion, and cheese.

Pour the filling into the prepared, baked crust and bake at 425 for 35-40 minutes until aromatic and golden.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fowl Deeds By Night

Something wicked our way comes. Or at least, something hungry, with very sharp teeth and a taste for poultry. For the past week and a half, some fell beast has been stalking our chickens, and every few days we learn a bit more about chicken anatomy when we stumble across the remains of the latest victim during our morning egg run. The electric fence has been less than perfect due to grounding out on tall grass, so we don't know whether the hungry hunter came from above or managed to cross the fence unscathed. This series of events has led to a fair bit of dark humor from the apprentices as well as a number of hair-brained schemes to catch the perpetrators. Jack and Ben (our newest addition to the farm) favor an old fashioned stake out with a BB gun and a bottle strong enough to warm the cold night. Two of our neighborhood children proposed that a CCTV chicken cam would reveal the guilty party. (Perhaps this blog will soon feature a live feed?) I've been trying to strengthen the fence by flattening the weeds and tightening the corners, but we've still lost one hen since I began my efforts.

Meanwhile, our survivors go about their business seemingly unperturbed by the ghost in the darkness. Despite my fears of a declining egg count cutting into my free egg quota (I am troubled by the idea that I might eventually have to pay for eggs while working on a farm. This will not do.), the chickens seem to be producing at or only slightly below normal. This would seem to confirm Paige's optimistic appraisal that perhaps the murdered chickens were in fact our egg eaters. We've found the occasional egg shell and faint residue of yolk lately--tell-tale signs of chicken cannibalism--so if our predator has culled the flock of the offending bird(s) we won't begrudge it the free meal.

If not, well, perhaps we need to call in Val Kilmer.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

First fruits!!

The strawberries have arrived! Unsurprisingly, harvesting strawberries has skyrocketed to the top of my "favorite farm tasks" list, despite the hot sun and the careful dance that I have to perform while navigating within the confines of our crowded strawberry bed. Strawberries are finicky little fruits--sublime during their window of optimal ripeness but criminally unappealing if harvested too early or too late. So I make a point of conducting regular quality control tests as I squat barefoot in our bed and pluck them for market.

Occasionally, a few berries actually make it off of the farm and into my kitchen, where I have a shelf of recipes waiting. My first strawberry concoction this season was a chilled strawberry dessert soup which really could as easily have been melted ice cream, it was so delicious.

Strawberry and Cardamom Soup
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
4-6 cardamom pods, crushed
zest of one lime
1 lb 2 oz strawberries
7 ounces creme fraiche or mascarpone

Put the sugar, water, cardamom and lime zest in a a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside and allow the syrup to cool for 20-30 minutes.

Put the strawberries, syrup, and creme fraiche in a blender and liquidize until smooth. If you want to get rid of the seeds, strain through a fine sieve.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Prelude to Tomatoes in Several Movements

What do farmers do all day? This seems to be a particular question among the uninitiated (ie: those who don’t talk to plants). This question always leaves me at a bit of a loss—I don’t have a pat answer like “I milk the cows” or “I mill the grain.” On a fruit and veg farm like Serenbe, farmers are the original jacks of all trades and our daily work varies depending on everything from the season to the most recent rainfall. Last Thursday, however, was a red letter day for us: we planted out our tomatoes.

We’ve been babying these particular tomato plants for several months now. They’ve grown from fragile shoots delicately testing the air to bushy transplants with furry stems and frond-like leaves. In total, we’re growing approximately 40 different varieties with names that run the spectrum from the evocative (Green Zebra) to the colorful (Cherokee Purple), from the techy (X3R Red Knight), to the positively mouth-watering (Big Beef).

The steps from farm to table, however, begin long before we harvest the first juicy red fruit. Two weeks ago, our tomato fields were waist high in cover crops of vetch, clover, and rye grass. We keep our fields cycling through a rotation of cover crop and vegetable production, both so that the soil is never left bare (which would cause erosion and a general leaching of nutrients from the soil) and so that the cover crops can fix nitrogen back in the soil once our veggies have removed it.
We began by mowing the fields in bed-wide swaths and left our cover crops as a mulch on the soil. About a week later, we attached the tiller to our tractor and ran over the field again, this time incorporating the cover crop into the soil and facilitating faster decomposition. Again, we let the field sit for about a week. Finally, the cover crops died down to the point where we were ready to plant.

As a final prep before planting, we use an attachment called a spader, which looks like it could have been invented by Dr. Suess. The spader resembles a box on skis, which contains 8 spades (oversized trowels, really) attached to a system of pistons. Running behind the tractor, the spader fluffs up our beds and breaks up clots without destroying the soil profile. After a good spading, our hard, red soil magically becomes brown and velvety. We then pull our 45 lb row marker (not to be confused with the markers, aka tags, that we use to indicate the beginning of a new variety, or the marker, aka pen, with which we write on the markers. As you can imagine, we are often a bit confused ourselves…) over the bed to establish a grid for planting evenly.

We prep our plants for transplanting by watering them thoroughly—they come out of the cells much easier when wet, and we don’t want to shock them in their new home by transplanting them dry. One person lays out the tomato plants in 1’ or 1.5’ intervals down the center of our bed, while the following farmer quickly sets them in the soil and firms the ground for good soil-to-root contact. The third person follows with a bucket of compost, ringing each plant with a small berm of the rich, black super-dirt. ** As a side note: compost is NOT poop. Once upon a time it may have been, but it has been processed by bacteria until it becomes ultra-nutrient-rich soil. Compost does not smell like anything other than fertile soil. I feel the need to clarify this point as everyone from my friends to my father has mistakenly assumed that I am regularly up to my elbows in manure. ** Tomatoes are notorious for catching diseases from the soil, so we hope that by keeping any low-lying leaves on semi-sterile compost, rather than dirt, we can save our plants from STDs (sucky tomato diseases).

Lest the weight of their fruit send them toppling into the dirt, our tomatoes require trellising on which to drape themselves. As our next step we pounded about 200 7.5’ conduit posts into our bed. We’ll eventually string them with wires, but as our plants are still wee young things we put that off for another day. We ran drip tape—our irrigation fallback when Mother Nature serves up a drought—down the center of the bed, weaving it in and out of the posts so that it lay immediately adjacent to our plants. Then we mulched. Covering the bed with a thick layer of straw will hopefully keep weeds low and soil moisture high. Finally, we hooked up our drip tape to the main irrigation line, checked for holes or leaks, and turned it on to water in the plants. Transplants must be watered in (either by rain or drip tape) within 12 or so hours of planting.

Of course, that wasn’t all that we did. Planting 700 fragrant tomato seedlings only consumed the better part of the day after lunch. Prior to that we seeded 500 bed feet of peas, watered in yesterday’s transplants of celeriac, fennel, and assorted herbs, and spaded several beds in anticipation of the afternoon’s tomato blitz.

Our work varies from day to day, but one thing remains constant: the indescribable refreshment of my end-of-the-day beer.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Hau Do You Do?

Googlemaps has betrayed me. Last weekend I decided to take a multitasker's vacation: after finishing market and getting in a quick tutoring session with one of my students, I hit the road for Athens, GA and its surrounding farmland. My plan was the visit Cedar Grove Farms--a small organic farm some friends recently established--rush back into Athens for the later half of my cousin's play, and then visit my grandfather, who had recently been involved in a car accident. I had everything timed down to the minute.

Alas, 6:15 found me sans cell reception at the tail end of a dirt road in what could easily pass for Deliverance country. This was not the farm I was looking for. After some backtracking, the interrogation of one rather bemused jogger, and several frazzled cell phone conversations, I found my farm, in the process relinquishing all hopes of accomplishing many tasks in a single day. My hosts were extremely gracious about my delay (perhaps because of the baked goods I brought?) and kindly gave me the tour of their young operation.

At three years old, Cedar Grove and Serenbe are close in age, though Cedar Grove carries the distinction of having been started by total rookies. My friends had never farmed before setting up shop at Cedar Grove, but they have learned fast. As proof of their resolve and hard work, they are already nearing the end of their first asparagus harvest. That may not sound like such an accomplishment, but consider this: it takes three years for asparagus to produce a first harvest. They must have hit the ground running.

I spent the better part of three hours touring the three acres they have under production, swapping stupid chicken stories, favorite plant varieties, and general growing advice. As the late spring twilight settled into the corners, we moved inside and our conversation moved to the future: for their farm, for Athens' Farmer's Markets, and for the world in the face of a global food crisis. By the time I finally left Cedar Grove my headlights were turned to highbeams and my backseat was stuffed with produce. Their greenhouse is an unheated hoophouse, in which they grow greens all winter long, so their Swiss chard and dwarf Siberian kale were farther along than our own. In addition to the chard and kale, they supplied me with two of my favorite springtime treats, fresh asparagus and tiny, succulent strawberries. I'm hard pressed to think of a better birthday present!

Swiss Chard Gratin
Serves 6
This is a phenomenally tasty yet simple recipe that celebrates chard. Do it right by using good cheese and whole milk. Your tastebuds will thank you, I promise.

2 lb (12-16 leaves) swiss chard, stems sliced and leaves cut into 1-inch ribbons
4 tablespoons butter
1 onion, halved and sliced
2-3 shitake mushrooms, sliced (optional)
1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 cup grated Gruyere or Asiago cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup dried bread crumbs

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the chard stems and cook for 2 minutes. Add the leaves and cook and additional minute. Drain well and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 and grease a 1 1/2 quart casserole dish with butter.

Melt butter over medium high heat in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes. Wish in the flour to form a paste. Whisk in the milk and bring to a boil. Reduce the hear and stir in the cheese. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat. Fold in the chard.

Transfer to the prepared dish and sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs.

Bake for 25-35 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the top is browned.

Portuguese Kale Soup
Serves 4
I had a lot of veggies on hand this week (more so than usual) so I did quite a bit of cooking. As a matter of fact, all of that time in the kitchen--coupled with full days on the farm--are probably the reason for my rather sporadic blogging as of late. Hopefully, after sampling this recipe, you'll agree that my absence was worth it. I was introduced to kale less than two years ago, and I can still remember eying the massive, tough leaves with apprehension. Luckily, the CSA program I had subscribed to included a delicious recipe (which I have since lost...good one, MK) and I have been a fan ever since. This soup is a snap to make, filling enough to stand alone as a meal, and according to my cookbook is one of the national dishes of Portugal. When I first read the recipe I feared that it was too simple to be particularly flavorful. How wrong I was!

1/2 lb chorizo sausage, sliced
8 cups chicken broth
2-4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
12 oz. kale, stems discarded and leaves chopped (8 cups lightly packed)
salt and pepper to taste

Combine the chorizo and stock in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer while you prepare the potatoes.

Combine the potatoes with water to cover in a medium-size saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil. Boil until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and briefly mash with a potato masher for an uneven, lumpy texture. Add to the chicken broth along with the kale.

Simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the kale is quite tender. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.