Monday, June 30, 2008

Just Call Me Granny, Y'all

Whatever personal conflicts I may have with my heritage, deep down, I'm ever so glad that I'm southern. True, I start shivering when the mercury drops below 50. Yes, I insert "y'all" in my emails and conversations with reckless abandon. But let's remember--y'all--just why the south, for all its peccadilloes, is a glorious place to call home: the symphonic evening swell of cicadas from April through August, torrential afternoon thunderstorms that leave the asphalt steaming, a literary legacy of characters so three dimensional you'd swear that they were your neighbors, and of course SOUTHERN FOOD. Watermelons, peaches, grits, fried chicken, pot likker, biscuits, pecan pie, and my new obsession, pickled everything.

My curiosity for pickling and canning was piqued last Thanksgiving. For the first time in recorded history, we celebrated that most delicious of days in Atlanta, rather than in Alabama, where my grandmother lives. Left to her own devices, my mother was suddenly free to tweak the menu to suit her tastes. She immediately began rummaging in our fridge (notorious for harboring quantities of food that make Mary Poppins' traveling bag seem amateurish) and making noises along the lines of "back in my day." I wandered into the kitchen shortly thereafter to discover an appetizer plate populated by several unfamiliar but aromatic items: pickled okra and pickled watermelon rind, she informed me. Having never been a huge fan of sweet "bread and butter" pickles, I was skeptical.

"These were from your great-grandmother Bess," my mother recalled fondly as she munched.

"You mean this was her recipe?" I volunteered.

"No, no," mom corrected me, "she used to can these and give them away."

"This being before she passed away nine years ago?" I queried, eying the plate with even greater distrust.

My mother airily dismissed my concerns. If it was pickled and canned, she insisted, I had nothing to fear.

I took a cautious nibble, and was immediately overwhelmed by the desire to buy pickling vinegar in bulk quantities.

Since Thanksgiving, I've become ever-more intrigued by the idea of preserving the harvest: jamming, saucing, freezing, drying, and especially pickling. The summertime glut of produce brings out the hoarding hibernator in me, and all I want to do is put up the surplus for the coming lean times. (Never mind that I am yet to experience truly lean times--ever--I need to find ways to save it all!) Unsurprisingly for those of you who've been reading since March, my first pickling experiment involved our bountiful beets. They were a smashing purple success, though as I didn't can them, I was forced to consume them in a matter of days. The harvest continued to roll in, and two weekends ago I stepped it up a notch with two gallons of dill pickles, one small jar of dilly beans, summer peach and caramelized onion jam, and several pints of zucchini relish. Finally, this weekend, Nature obliged me when a barely ripe watermelon split in the field. We retrieved the wounded soldier, set the flesh aside for watermelon lemonade (best new beverage of the year, by the way), and I set to work brewing up a brine for the rind.

Later, when I lined up my various conquests to admire them, Turtle couldn't help but laugh, "You're turning into a grandmother!"

Left to right: pickled watermelon rind, summer peach and caramelized onion jam, zucchini relish, dilly beans, and dill pickles in the back

Pickled Watermelon Rind
The best watermelons for pickling are the not yet fully ripe ones, which still have a good inch or so of white between the outer skin and the pink flesh. They can be hard to find at your local grocery--you may have better luck at a farmer's market if you ask around. As for the multiple straining steps recommended by Epicurious (source of this delightful recipe), I only strained and boiled the brine once, before I poured everything into jars to be processed in a water bath.

1 4-pound piece watermelon, quartered
8 cups water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
8 whole cloves
8 whole black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon pickling spice
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Cut watermelon pulp from rind, leaving thin layer of pink on rind (reserve pulp for another use, like watermelon lemonade). Cut green outer skin from rind; discard. Cut enough rind into 1 x 1/2-inch pieces to measure 4 cups (I had closer to 6 cups, and there was plenty of brine to cover it all). Combine 8 cups water and 2 tablespoons salt in large pot; bring to boil. Add rind pieces and boil until tender, about 5 minutes. Strain. Transfer rinds to large metal bowl.

Combine remaining 2 teaspoons salt, sugar and next 7 ingredients in heavy large saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour over watermelon rinds in bowl. Place plate atop rinds to keep rinds submerged in pickling liquid. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.

Strain liquid from rinds into saucepan; bring to boil. Pour over rinds. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Repeat straining and boiling of liquid and pour over rinds 1 more time. Pack the pickles into jam jars and pour the brine over them so that the rinds are covered. Close the jars tightly and process them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Summer Reading

If you could pose a question to a former president, what would you ask? In my pre-farmer days, I interned at the peace-waging, disease-fighting Carter Center, where I was fortunate to be given just such an opportunity. I asked President Carter for advice about peanut farming.

Before entering politics and eventually founding the Carter Center, President Carter began life as a farm child . I took the opposite track (sans the political interlude), interning at the Carter Center before I became a farmer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, I kind of idolize President Carter. Most folks probably associate his name with the presidency, public health work in Africa, or the Middle East peace process. All well and good. But pick up a copy of his memoir An Hour Before Daylight and you will discover that he is also an eloquent source for information about life in rural Georgia during the Great Depression.

President Carter grew up in an era when mules were tractors, children were cheap labor, and everyone was, by default, a locavore. Meandering through his hometown of Plains and his father's fields in nearby Archery, the memoir is both candid and detailed. The Georgia of his childhood seems infinitely distant, but still tethered to the present by small habits: breaking in a field with a watermelon crop, eating boiled peanuts, and walking barefoot through newly plowed fields. I would give my eye teeth (if I knew what they are) for the chance to walk a parcel of farm land with him.

In the meantime, I will think of my former "boss" and his farming advice as I tend to our small peanut patch.

Monday, June 23, 2008


The squash from outerspace

Question: What do your get when you leave summer squash to their own devises for the two short days of a weekend?

Answer: Uninhibited growth. And a rather entertaining edible.

By the time Monday afternoon squash harvest rolls around, there are always a few whoppers lurking under leaves. Because larger squash tend to have proportionally larger seeds, these Abominable Squash are not considered the most choice food items on the farm. But don't be fooled by the hype for miniature food--micro basil, baby pattypans, or the mini corn that populates plates in cheap Chinese restaurants (what's up with those? where do they come from?!?!)--the Super-Size squash are where it's at. The uses for these monsters are limited only by your imagination. An overgrown zucchini can double as a club, while a massive patty pan makes one heck of a UFO stand-in for home movies. I've been planning to make zucchini relish now for several days ("tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..."), but that assumes that I don't get distracted by the urge to make a stuffed zucchini--equally tempting. Baking with overgrown summer squash is probably the most standard use, and quite possibly the most sensible. For whatever reason, small squash give baked goods a slightly bitter taste. Jumbo squash, however, blend seamlessly into cookies, brownies, and cakes, and can even pass for chunks of apple, provided you remove the tell-tale green or yellow skin.

As you can see from the photo documentary, the squash it transformed from a garden nuisance to a bringer of joy and chocolate. Thanks for modeling my cake, dad!

Dark Chocolate Zucchini Cake

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups lightly packed brown sugar
½ cup butter, softened
2 large eggs
3 oz. baking chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup coffee
3 cups grated zucchini or summer squash

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees; grease and flour a 10-inch bundt pan.

Sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl, beat together the brown sugar and butter. Add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating them fully. Beat in the melted chocolate and vanilla. Add the flour mixture, alternating with the coffee, and beat until smooth. Fold in the zucchini and spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 45-50 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean or with only a few crumbs. Cool the cake on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert, remove pan, and allow cake to cool on the rack. Dust with confectioners’ sugar if desired.

Note: the item to the right of the cake is actually another incognito squash, this time masquerading as an apple crisp. If anyone would like the recipe, post and let me know; I'll happily oblige!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Birds and the Bees

Our farm is alive! Not simply with plants (and weeds), but positively overflowing with animals and insects as well. Admittedly, some of the denizens of our farm are less than welcome--the baby fawn that was lounging in our melon bed the other morning, the Japanese beetles that fall like grapes from the leaves of our fig trees, the squash bugs, or the Colorado potato beetles. Two days ago, as Turtle worked to make our perimeter fence deerproof, she encountered the greater part of nature's fury in the form of 2 bee stings, 5 ticks, and a near miss with a scorpion. But even the presence of pests reminds us of the health of our system. Our beneficial species need something to eat, after all, so it balances out in the end. You could say that we tip the balance in our favor, I suppose, when we go on bug squooshing rampages that leave our hands faintly yellow and smelling of paint, but we're running a farm here, not an all-you-can-eat bug buffet.

Yesterday Paige and Turtle discovered an insect in the cherry tomatoes that neither of them had seen before. It looked, they related as we scoured the green beans for Mexican bean beetles, like solid gold nugget and was so stunning that neither of them had any desire to kill it. While I've not had the privilege of encountering such an exotic creature, I'm every day delighted by the grasshoppers fleeing crazily as I mow a field, by the turtles and frogs and slick little lizards that hide in the shade, the hum of our honeybees, or the crane that was poking around our back fields today.

We could have weed-free, Round-Up Ready beds and a bug-less farm if we grew on a conventional monoculture farm. But by removing the countless other pieces of a natural pest control system (the worms, the ladybugs, the bats that eat their weight in bugs each night) we would, in my opinion, over-burden ourselves and drastically reduce the beauty of our farm. What hubris, to think that I could manage everything on my own with only the assistance of some chemicals and genetically modified seed! I am no farming goddess, presciently aware of the precise needs of every plant--we use the lifecycles of the farm's other inhabitants to guide us in our daily decisions and help us grow a stronger farm.

Our farm is by no means Paradise (weeding 5 beds of tomatoes proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt), but there are moments and even days when the overabundance of sheer life brings to mind the Eden of Milton's Paradise Lost.
About them frisking playd
All Beasts of th' Earth, since wilde, and of all chase
In Wood or Wilderness, Forrest or Den;
Sporting the Lion rampd, and in his paw
Dandl'd the Kid; Bears, Tygers, Ounces, Pards
Gambold before them, th' unwieldy Elephant
To make them mirth us'd all his might, & wreathd
His Lithe Proboscis; close the Serpent sly
Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine
His breaded train, and of his fatal guile
Gave proof unheeded; others on the grass
Coucht, and now fild with pasture gazing sat,
Or Bedward ruminating: for the Sun
Declin'd was hasting now with prone carreer
To th' Ocean Iles, and in th' ascending Scale
Of Heav'n the Starrs that usher Evening rose:

To which in Serenbe I would add, "Greeted by the flickering light of one thousand fireflies"

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Shameless Self Promotion

Let us pause for a moment and reflect on the sad loss of the strawberry patch. Yes, strawberries have passed out of season for yet another year, at least in Georgia. While I certainly tried to make myself sick of them by eating a year's supply in two short months, I know that I will inevitably be craving sweet red strawberry goodness again by January, if not sooner.

And now celebrate the arrival of blueberries! Blueberry season this year promises to be particularly spectacular, partly because last year's season was nonexistent (the 2007 Easter frost killed all the berry buds for that year, which caused the bushes to put double the energy into this year's crop), partly because I am strategically situated appriximately 2 miles from a 3 acre organic blueberry farm. And I just managed to score the position of "pick-your-own" queen.

I love my life.

So, when not farming, blogging, or cooking, I will be running the pick-your-own stand where anyone (cough, cough, that includes you, readers!) can come gather buckets of gloriously juicy blueberries. Just think: fresh blueberries, cheaper, fresher, and infinitely more local than Whole Foods. What's not to love?

The details:
The patch we are managing is located at 12000 Hutcheson Ferry Road in Palmetto, GA.
Picking hours are Saturday afternoons from 1-5. Show up, bring a picnic lunch or dinner, pick blueberries by the pound (Pricing is $2.50 per pound, unless you pick more than 5 pounds, in which case it becomes $2 per pound. Please bring a container to take them home in--we'll provide harvest buckets, but a take home container will cost $1 extra), and enjoy one of the best parts of summer. For questions or to check on the status of the patch, email me at The inaugural pick-off will take place this Saturday, June 21st.

I may have failed at really making myself sick of strawberries, but I have no intention of duplicating that mistake with the blueberries...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Zen and the Art of Pastured Pountry

According to my beginner's knowledge of Buddhism, attachment is the source of all suffering. Holding that thought firmly in mind, I opened two fiercely chirping boxes this morning and introduced our 100-odd baby chicks to their new home. Some of the tiny birds are intended to supplement our still dwindling flock of layers (these I am allowed to love); the vast majority will be "broilers," destined to be my introduction to the world of animal processing. In anticipation of this moment of truth, I've been schooling myself from Joel Salatin's comprehensive Pastured Poultry Profits. Among the many illustrations within is a series that demonstrates proper chicken processing procedure and includes instructions like, "Pull open the rear enough to get your hand in," and "Pull the heads off. No bone shards that way."

I was the kid in high school who felt sorry for the dissection specimens, and while I'm certainly less squeamish and empathetic today than I was then, I know full well that chicken harvesting won't be nearly as easy as picking strawberries.

Still, these broilers are an important challenge for me. In my opinion, if I can't stomach the process that brings my food to my plate, I probably shouldn't be eating what's on it. I'm looking forward to processing chickens with the same combination of fascination and dread with which I greeted my first rollercoaster. This could get ugly. My stomach will probably be lodged somewhere in my throat. But I've got to give it a try.

Because the baby chicks are just so darn adorable, I'm trying to cultivate a healthily dark sense of humor around them to prevent myself from lapsing into babytalk. I hailed them as my dinner, jokily speculated that the garlic (which is curing in the same garage where we brood the chickens) might season the young birds through a miracle of proximity, and debated with the other interns the finer points of slaughter (Will a headless chicken really run? Does it count if it then crosses the road?) All of this is to say that I'm trying my best not to get attached to these birds because I really, really like to eat chicken, and I'd hate to become a vegetarian simply because I can't deal with the reality of death. We will give our birds a natural, albeit brief, chickenly life. They will eat well, scratch in the dirt, and flap their wings. Then, having given then a reason for existence (domesticated animals like chickens would not exist were it not for human consumption of them), I will kill them humanely and eat them reverentially. Hopefully with lots of garlic.

The chickens are presently too small to be good for much of anything, so my cooking remains very vegetably based. Luckily, summer is a time when veggies can easily hold their own. Last week's heat wave inspired me to make a chilled cucumber soup, then the end of the week harvest set me into a cooking frenzy. Two recipes here call for whey, but that's only because I made ricotta and wanted to find a use for the protein-rich byproduct. You can as easily substitute chicken or vegetable stock where I call for whey.

Cucumber Soup with Smoked Salmon

1 Tablespoon butter
100 g onion, chopped
4 cucumbers, peeled, halved, deseeded and chopped
1 potato, chopped
800 mL whey
15 g dill, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
250 mL sour cream or yogurt
150 g smoked salmon, chopped

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat and saute the onion until soft. Stir in the cucumber and potato and saute for a further minute. Add the whey, dill, and salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, until the potato is tender. Puree the soup in a food processor or blender until smooth. Cool; chill the soup in the fridge for 3-4 hours. Stir in the sour cream or yogurt and garnish with the smoked salmon.

Roasted or Grilled Summer Squash

8-10 cups summer squash, thickly sliced
4 cloved garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons EACH of fresh basil, oregano, and thyme
2 Tablespoons balsamic venegar
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Mix all of the seasoning ingredients together in a large bowl. Toss the squash with marinade to liberally coat. If grilling, grill the squash rounds (put that George Foreman grill to work!) for about 5 minutes, until you get nice grill marks and the squash becomes tender. If roasting, roast at 425 for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stuffed Swiss Chard
Think of this as a more affordable recipe for stuffed grape leaves

2 Tbsp. golden raisins
1 c. lukewarm water
2/3 c. short grain sweet rice
4 tsp. olive oil, divided
1 onion, finely chopped
1 bunch swiss chard
1/2 c. reduced sodium vegetable broth
3 large dried figs or dates, chopped, or crasins
1 egg white
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

Preheat oven to 325. In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the lukewarm water until plumped, about 15 minutes. Drain. Meanwhile, cook the rice according the package directions--shortgrain brown rice takes a while; be forewarned. In a small nonstick skillet, heat 2 tsp. of the oil. Saute onion until it starts to turn golden, 5-7 minutes. Rinse the chard until cold running water. Being careful not to tear the leaves, cut out the thickest part of the stems. Finely chop the stems. Add the stems and broth to the onion. Cook until liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes. Stir in raisins, rice, figs, pine nuts, and egg white. Place 1 1/2 Tablespoons (or more, depending on size of leaf) of the rice mixture on each chard leaf. Gently wrap, envelope-style, and secure with a toothpick. Place the chard bundles seam-side down and close together in a 9x13 baking dish. Wish a pastry brush, coat the bundles with the remaining 2 tsp. oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add 1/4 inch of water to the baking dish. Bake until heated through, about 35 minutes.

Featured on the table: stuffed swiss chard, grilled summer squash, and a beet and new potato salad. Who needs meat?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Curds and Whey

Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey...

I arrived home this evening to an unpleasant discovery: ants have invaded my kitchen. I've been hearing rumors of the annual ant invasion for several weeks now, but I had so far escaped the plague. No longer. Our home, in addition to having sculpted carpet and tile counter tops (possibly the worst design idea in the history of kitchens), comes fully loaded with a host of additional residents who, as the summer heats up, are making their presence known.

I immediately wiped down all visible surfaces, ran the dishwasher, and began scouring the internet for organic pest controls. I calmed down, took a deep breath, and got to work making ricotta cheese. I've been making yogurt off and on for about 6 months now, so cheese-making seemed the logical next step for me. Making your own ricotta or yogurt requires approximately the same level of skill as boiling water; it's one of those handy talents that gets you loads of bonus points as a cool homesteader type without the hard work of making really good bread or your own sauerkraut. You bring 2 quarts of milk and 2 cups of buttermilk to an almost boil, stirring slowly to prevent the bottom from scorching. When the milk begins to really steam (at approximately 175-180 degrees) the curds will separate from the whey and float to the top. At this point you gently remove the pot from heat, ladle the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth (at least 4 layers thick), and let them drain. After about 5 minutes, twist the cloth up around the ricotta so that it forms a ball (don't squeeze) and give it about 15 more minutes of draining time. You then practice archly raising an eyebrow and saying "I prefer homemade ricotta over that store bought stuff."

There I was, nose in air, when I met the other resident of our home: a mouse. I screamed like little Miss Muffet and began hopping around the kitchen while berating the cat for not doing her job. She was unperturbed, and meowed before leaving the room. For those of you who would like to help complete this scene, I'll be accepting donations for the Serenbe Farms tuffet-fund as soon as I figure out how to set up Paypal. Or you could buy us a decent mousetrap...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Just Like Riding a Bike?

Technically, we still have a few days before June 21st and the summer solstice. But tell that to the squash and cucumber plants that are churning out flying saucer patty pans, warty yellow crooknecks, delicate green lebanese, and about 15 varieties of cucumber in a glut of plant fertility. Besides the heat (we've broken 90 each day this week) and the ubiquitous cucurbits (aka squash, cucs, and zuchs), summer's ostentatious entrance is signaled to us by the rapidly increasing weight of our harvest. We're tallying harvests in the hundreds of pounds--500 lbs of cabbage and more than 100 lbs of broccoli Monday, 400+ lbs of additional onions Tuesday. Then today: 2700 heads of garlic! Our garlic harvest was significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which because it signified one year since the arrival of Stephanie, our favorite volunteer. She began working with us last year on garlic harvest day, so after today she can be considered a bona fide veteran. Like many storage crops, garlic takes its time to reach maturity. The fat, white bulbs that are presently curing in the rafters of our garage were planted last fall in the form of single cloves. They sent up thin green shoots, braved the rigors of a Georgia winter, and will soon be ready to grace our tables.

As Paige demonstrated the technique (loosen the soil with a pitchfork, pull the bulbs and stack them in piles of ten, then tightly cinch their stems together with twine for easy rafter-hanging) she laughed and noted that this was the first year that she had felt no need to brush up on garlic trivia prior to harvest day. After all, as garlic harvest comes but once per year, this was only her 5th time ever doing it. This extreme task seasonality is one of the oddest and most intriguing aspects of farming, in my opinion. While I get to practice some skills almost daily--WEEDING!--others occupy a minuscule niche in our calendar and seem almost holiday-like in their rarity. It could take years to build up the confidence of habit for some of the things we do. I asked Paige if bunching garlic could be compared to riding a bike; will I remember this instinctively the next time I'm in a garlic field in June? She wished me luck.

With so much food practically spilling out of our cooler, I've got recipes galore to try. I'm lucky that my roommates are all adventurous eaters! Here are some yummy uses for squash, spring onions, herbs, and cabbage, all things that we have in abundance at present.

Squash and Basil Salad (serves 4-6)

Be sure that all of the squash get a good soak in the marinade!

3-4 medium summer squash, julienned
2-3 Tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
3-4 Tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated
1-2 Tablespoons garlic scapes, chopped
¼ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon sugar

Toss the squash, basil, cheese, and garlic together.

Whisk all other ingredients together and pour over the salad. Mix, chill for 1 hour, and serve. Best eaten the same day.

Also delicious with lettuce and chopped green onions.

Quinoa Taboule (Serves 6)

While I used lemon balm, you can also substitute the more common mint, or cilantro would probably be delicious as well. We still don't have parsley, but that would make an excellent addition if your harvest is more parsley-fied than ours.

2 cups cooked and cooled Quinoa (a wonderful protein-rich grain from South America)
1/2 cup chopped Scallions or Green Onions
1 small cucumber, chopped
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh Lemon Balm (or 1 tsp.dried)
1 Garlic Clove, minced or pressed
1 Tablespoon minced fresh Basil (or 1/2 tsp. dried)
1/2 cup fresh Lemon Juice
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 tsp Salt
1/8 tsp White Pepper

Toss together all ingredients. Chill for 1 hour or more to allow flavors to blend.

Mustardy Slaw (serves 4-6)

Soooo good with some barbecue, or on a really good bratwurst. This is ballpark food at its simplest and finest.

4 cups cabbage, grated or chopped (one mini head was the perfect amount of cabbage)
2 carrots, grated
¼ cup onion, minced
1/2-3/4 cup mayonnaise
3 Tablespoons yellow mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Combine the cabbage, carrots, and onion in a large bowl.

Combine the mayo and mustard in a small bowl, then pour over the cabbage mix. Stir until combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Refrigerate for at least one hour to allow flavors to blend.