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.