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.

1 comment:

Alexandra said...

Phew, glad everything worked out alright, despite the frost. And that cake sounds AMAZING, as does the lasagna. Anything with pumpkin or sage is so autumnally delicious.