Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Best Laid Plans

Late last night, I finally watched the film Julie and Julia--the parallel story of Julia Child and here twenty-first century devotee and blogger, Julie Powell. Unsurprisingly, half way through the film I found myself guiltily reflecting on my lax blogging as of late while simultaneously chastising myself for the self-aggrandizing thought that anyone other than me had lost any sleep over this lapse. I sincerely hope not. But here I am, back, more in love than ever with butter (the taciturn third protagonist of the film), and ready to recommit.

I also have news of next year, which I am very excited to share! Having apparently learned nothing from the climatic disaster that was the past year in Massachusetts, I am sticking out another season in the frigid Northlands, this time in Barre, MA at Misty Brook Farm. Misty Brook is primarily a raw milk dairy, though they also raise veal, beef, pigs, chickens, hay, feed corn, several field crops, and two small children. As you can see, about the only agricultural thing they don't do is vegetables, which is where Andrew and I come in. Brendan and Katia (the farmers) want to create a Whole Farm CSA using their meat, eggs, and milk, so they have offered me an acre of their land on which to grow vegetables for the CSA and their farmstand. Andrew, who has wanted to learn about raw milk dairying for several years, will divide his time between the animals and the vegetables while I will remain a full-time vegetable grower. Rather than paying us a salary, they will allow us to use their equipment, to live in their house, and to keep all of the proceeds from the vegetables.

This is, quite possibly, the best deal I EVER could have imagined, short of someone saying, "Here are 50 acres of Class I, weedless soil, tractors, and a room full of hungry locavores. And next season will have perfect weather. Merry Christmas!"

Since I finished at Caretaker, we've been making periodic pilgrimages to Barre--to plant garlic, to hammer out the details of our arrangement, and most recently, to discuss the website Andrew and I have designed. As of yesterday, it launched! Interweb addict that I am, this is an extremely pleasing development to me.

The coming season will be what I make of it, and I have the whole winter to plan. I've been plotting yield numbers (hopefully conservative ones), laying field plans, researching greenhouses, selecting seed varieties, and accumulating tools. Along the way, I am reminded of how fortunate we farmers are in our seasonal rest. I have the time and the mental space to envision next year from start to finish, to design new efficiencies, to rethink old habits. As a natural list-maker, I eat this stuff up.

It seems appropriate to me that this is the season of Advent within the church. Advent is (at least in theory) a time of expectant waiting and preparation. Ecclesiastically speaking, these are the days to get your house in order, to prepare for the Christmas season and all of the new life that follows. True, winter has only begun to sink itself into my Massachusetts soil and will not relent on December 25th. A few days ago, I tried to dig up a frozen parsley plant for its root. I had read that you can "force" a parsley root to sprout as you would an endive, simply by bringing it inside and keeping it in a pot of moist sand. The prospect of fresh greenery sent me out into the cold, to stab at the rigid earth with an old trowel. I was rebuffed. The Advent of the earth is not yet over, nor will be for some time. Though I sometimes long for it, I am not yet ready for the imperative that is spring. Patience is a wintery virtue.

Now is the time to sleep deeply and dress warmly and to dream of the year to come.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bringing Home the Bacon (Fat)

Given the glut of food propaganda, I think it is high time for me to join the fray. The way I figure, vegetables have plenty of champions, from Michael Pollan to Michelle Obama. Meat has Joel Salatin, a staunch defender if ever I met one. Even high fructose corn syrup has its defenders (though I'm more a fan of the rebuttal, myself). So I'm going to defend fat: poor under appreciated, unloved fat.

I like fat so much that I've got jars of lard, schmaltz, and tallow (that's pork fat, chicken fat, and beef fat, for the unitinitiated) in my refrigerator, as well as the old standby, butter. Oh, and that's next to a package of bacon ends, which is essentially bacon fat with a tiny bit of bacon attached. As a social experiment, I've taken to showing off my collection to friends and gauging their reaction. Some folks (women especially, I find) shrink back in horror, as though my jars might reach out and slap love handles on them just for looking. Others give me a polite "wow...that's a lot of fat" before skilfully changing the subject to a less disturbing topic like animal slaughter. But a few--the enlightened, I like to think of them--smack their lips and ask me how my pie crusts have been turning out lately. "Golden and flaky, thank you very much," I reply.

Why this sudden enthusiasm for the pariah of the food pyramid?

Well, flavor, for starters. Fat molecules make the bits of food they are attached to move more slowly across the tongue, which gives our tastebuds time to register flavor. When used judiciously, fat, like salt, is a flavor enhancer. This would be the reason why Lean Cuisine tastes disturbingly similar to its cardboard packaging (among other reasons made clear by the ingredient list).

But beyond purely epicurian reasons, I love my fat because I know exactly where it all came from. The chicken fat and beef fat were the byproducts of my stock. The long simmering of the stock rendered the raw animal fat into a purer, less perishable form, and once my pots had cooled, I easily skimmed the fat off the top. The lard I made from pork fat (also from Polyface), cooked down in a crockpot over about eight hours. The best part is that animals fats acquired in this way--from skimming the fat of your stock or rendering lard--are cheaper than anything at the grocery store. We bought 10 pounds of pork fat at $1 per pound (a pretty standard price, I think), and from that we rendered one gallon of lard. That price is equal to or only slightly more than the price of canola oil at the groceries near my house.

Fat, animal fat in particular, is not something I would acquire just anywhere, however. Animals store the residues from any chemicals, antibiotics, or hormones they are exposed to in their fat, where it will be passed on up to foodchain to whomever dines on them. You can bet that the lard on sale in big buckets at the grocery store did not come from pastured pork. Too often nutritional advice lumps all products of a sort together, without any recognition of the difference that production and processing can make. (This is one reason why so much conventional wisdom advises health-conscious consumers to avoid beef. In nutrition studies, feedlot beef has been linked to health problems for the consumer and environmental degradation--but the nutritional composition of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef are quite different. Equating the two would be like comparing grapefruits to lemons.)

My choosiness extends to other, non-animal fats, however. Particularly because I cannot be a part of the production and processing of vegetable fats, I like to look for fats that are relatively unprocessed and unlikely to go rancid. (Rancid oils are carcinogenic.) Thus olive oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil are all in my larder, while canola, safflower, and cottonseed (seriously, who thought that eating the oil from cotton seeds was a good idea?) will not find welcome there.

You can argue all day long about the merits of saturated (animal) versus unsaturated (plant) fats, but the way I see it, the best fat is one the provenance of which I know. And boy does it ever taste good...

How To Render Your Own Lard

First, cut the fat into pieces, the better to fit it into your crock pot. If you notice any remaining bits of meat on the fat, trim them off, as they will give the lard more of a porky flavor (I prefer a more neutral cooking oil).

Stuff the crock pot as full as you like, but be sure that the lid seals. Set the heat on low, and return in 6-8 hours, depending on how much fat you began with. (If you have a crockpot with a timer, you can do this overnight). The lard is finished when it is mostly liquid (not all of the fat will render). It's a judgment call, really.

Once finished, strain the liquid lard though a fine mesh colander to remove any residual solids and let it cool to snowy whiteness. Lard will keep longer in the fridge, though you can leave it on the counter if you are using it up in a matter of months. In hot weather at room temperature, it will be liquid, though if you keep it in the fridge it will be solid enough for pie crust-making.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pastured Poultry Preservation

Recently, preparing to leave Massachusetts for a sojourn in the sunny south, I surveyed my winter stockpile of provisions with a critical eye. I needed stock. Chicken stock. Lots of chicken stock. What, after all, is a cold winter’s day without a pot of soup steaming on the stovetop and a mug of cocoa reanimating my frosted fingers? Admittedly, homemade stock has never been my strongpoint—for an embarrassingly long time I suffered under the illusion that one chicken’s worth of bones, if simmered long enough, could magically transform an entire pot of water into a rich, fragrant base for soups. This is patently untrue, as a succession of “subtle” (read: watery) stocks demonstrated. With vegetable stocks I had equally unfortunate results, primarily because I could never bring myself to sacrifice a sufficient quantity of perfectly good veggies to the stockpot. (The one time I did manage to achieve vegetable broth nirvana, as part of an over-ambitious soup-in-a-pumpkin spectacle, I ran a tab of about $50. For soup. Never again, Whole Foods).

But this time around I had several secret weapons: The River Cottage Meat Book, the most scrumptious treatise on carnivory ever composed, 75 lbs of chicken backs and too-small-for-sale birds, and a knowledgeable assistant. OK, so maybe Andrew was actually in charge. He spent the season working at Polyface Farm, our source for stock birds and a perfect stopping point in my seasonal migration from north to south. When I learned that we could borrow a kitchen and two pressure canners in return for one night of feeding the crew, I decided that it was time to purchase additional canning jars, and perhaps buy stock in the Ball company.

Do not be deceived by my history of failure: making a good stock is fantastically simple. As long as you avoid the two great sins of stock-making—overboiling and underpacking—you cannot fail. First, you must pack the pot tightly with your bones and/or meat and add only enough water to cover everything. Second, you must maintain your pot at the most tremulous of simmers for 3-6 hours. We added a few carrots, some celery stalks, and several quartered onions to our brew, but eschewed the addition of any salt. While “salt to taste” seems to be the directive that commercial stock companies cook by (check out the sodium content on that Campbell’s soup!), we wanted to save the salting step for the distant day when we use our stock. Besides, our stock was so flavorful that we didn’t need salt in order to taste the chicken-y goodness.

Several hours later, with the afternoon sun streaming into the kitchen, we began to decant our stocks one by one, first pulling out whole birds, necks, and backs, then carefully straining the broth through a fine sieve. Internet sleuthing had revealed that the fat in our stock could interfere with a proper canning seal or cause the stock to go rancid, so we covered the pots, stashed them in my cat-proof car to chill for the night, and made plans to regroup in the morning. Chicken as air freshener—I think it will really catch on.

Then we cooked dinner for 12 hungry farmers.

Morning found us in the kitchen again, skimming off the risen fat and preparing the safe-like pressure canner for duty. Low acid foods like stock require the high heat of a pressure canner for safe home canning. Please don’t ever use a water bath and call it even—it isn’t. You can, of course, freeze your stock and store it for at least a year, but with our freezer bursting from 130 lbs of veal, we felt that canning made the most sense. We saved the chicken fat (schmaltz) for matzoh balls, stir-fries, and spreading on bread, and we canned our eighteen quarts of stock in just a few hours.

Coming soon: What We Did While the Stock (tremulously) Simmered or In Defense of Fat or Why “Lard-Bucket” is Really a Term of Endearment

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization

Lacking Visigoths banging at the gates, we must look for subtler clues that our civilization is in decline. I found one yesterday, much to my chagrin, on the packaging of mason jar replacement lids. The title of the recipe read: Enjoy Mild Fiesta Salsa Year-Round!

Sounds good, right? A recipe for home canners? About that... The recipe calls for 5 cans of diced tomatoes, 1 package of "Mild Fiesta Salsa Mix," and canning jars. So basically you take the tomatoes out of the can, add salsa mix, and re-can them.

Let me first say that I have nothing against store bought salsa. Many a Superbowl party would not exist were it not for the good people of Tostitos and Green Mountain Gringo. They make good stuff. And I'm not even going to complain about salsa mix, even though it wouldn't be my first choice. I do have a weakness for cream cheese and onion dip mix, after all. What appalls me is the absurdity of combining canned tomatoes and premade salsa mix and canning the results! It flies in the face of the whole ethos of canning. It would be like bringing a McDonald's apple pie to a bake sale and calling it your grandmother's secret recipe. Canning is, to me, a labor of love. It is about saving energy (rather than shipping something around the globe and then preserving it not once but twice). It is a call for authenticity and traceability in food.

It is not a call for Mild Fiesta Salsa.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Real Deal on Veal

I’ve never been a big fan of traditional signs of love and commitment: flowers, rings, buying a dog together. Instead, Andrew and I bought a veal calf and a chest freezer.

This is the culmination of my quest, begun one year ago, to confront my own questions about the appropriateness of eating meat. I’ve had my doubts, guilty moments in between the ecstasy of bacon and a heaping portion of Thanksgiving turkey. But I always deferred my uncertainty by vowing to give the issue more thought—someday—later—when I had more control over my plate.
And eventually that day came. Last year, at Serenbe, we raised meat chickens, and I learned the tricks of a quick kill and a clean evisceration. I surprised myself by my lack of squeamishness after the first lightheaded moments of slaughter. My actions had purpose and continuity. I felt not guilt but gratitude. Honestly, though, participating in a chicken slaughter is not particularly hard on the emotions. It is easy to view chickens as something close to a crop; indeed, a flock of Cornish Cross broilers can be raised to slaughter weight in less time than it takes to grow a tomato.

Cows are an entirely different story. Here at Caretaker, we name our cows: Lucy and Lukey, the beef cow mamas, Albert and Rusty, their offspring (and future beef steers), Chloe, dairy cow and queen of the farm, and Jingle Bells, Chloe’s male Jersey calf. They are endearing. They have personalities. And in the case of Jingle Bells, we helped shepherd him into the world. Don pulled; Chloe strained; the slick little spindly calf fell out onto the hay, and we all released breaths we hadn’t realized we were holding.

Once we recognized his sex, however, his fate was sealed. A functioning farm does not have room for purposeless beasts, either human or animal. Just as we will rise each morning and tend to the crops and chores, the animals must earn their keep. Barn cats are mousers, chickens lay eggs, Chloe gives milk, and a male cow can only, unfortunately, be meat. We had hoped for a heifer calf, which we could raise up and sell to be someone else’s dairy cow, but the chromosome lottery had other plans.

Why not keep Jingle Bells, or at least raise him up to be a two-year-old steer? As a Jersey calf, rather than an Angus or a Hereford, for example, he would never put on the weight to justify the hay he would eat all winter long. Additionally, Jersey genetics, which give their milk its richness and their butter its golden color, would render his fat an unappetizing yellow, were he to grow to maturity..

His purpose could only be meat, and in that we tried to value and respect him. So he lived with his mother every day on pasture. He drank his fill of milk (occasionally more than his fill, perhaps), and sometimes liked to race us down the hill. Probably, if cows had any concept of the arithmetic of domestication, they would not have chosen to live so closely with us. But then again, perhaps they would. Chloe seems none the worse for the loss of her calf. She likes people and the treats that they bring her. She trots up when you call and still plots ways to eat pumpkins.

As for me, I am at peace with the contents of our extremely retro freezer. My meat was not a disembodied commodity, but a piece of this farm, which I dearly love.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Watermelon Manifesto

Seedless watermelons. I can't stand them. Well, secretly, I too have been victim to their charms (so much easier for cooking!), but when it comes to my garden I flatly refuse to grow them. It's a philosophical stance for me, as well as an aesthetic one. Unquestionably, they look silly. What's the vivid pink and electric green of a watermelon without the unassuming black seeds holding it all together? But more than that, seedless watermelons represent all of the single-minded striving for ever greater convenience that defines the age of happy meals, disposable clothing, and climate control at the touch of a button.

This is not to say that I want to start washing my clothes on a wash board. No, Margaret has already commandeered the one we found in the barn for her band. Convenience is not the villain: in a sense, canning, freezing, and all of the other methods of food preservation that I champion are ways of creating future-convenience. But whereas putting up food for the winter requires forethought and planning, throwing out jeans at the first small hole in the knee or purchasing a happy meal in desperation is a sign of a lack of prudence or economy.

So how do watermelons relate to prudence and economy, you ask? Not directly, perhaps, but consider what you loose when you watermelons loose seeds. You loose watermelon seed spitting contests on the porch stoop. You lose the childish superstition of a swallowed seed lodging in your gullet and growing a watermelon-child. You loose the promise that you too could grow a watermelon, if you only had inclination and soil and sun. You opt out of the ancient tradition of saving seed and instead entrust the future of your food to the plant technologists who would patent life and profit from sterile seeds. You teach your children that they can have exactly what they want in the moment, unobstructed by bread crust, peach fuzz, or cherry pits.

And so that is why I spent the spring time digging rocks out of my garden. So that I might eat watermelons in September, after waiting all season, and spit out the seeds into a bowl. That is why I spend this evening in front of the stove, sipping wine, and finally darning the holes in my winter socks before frosty chill slips off of the mountains and into our valley for good.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Economies of Scale

Under normal circumstances, I'm not one to advocate for economies of scale. They have their place and purpose, I know, but I'm of the opinion that we Americans are a bit over-attached to the concept, to the detriment of both our food system and our waistlines. But when you need to make enough tomatillo salsa to feed a hungry crew of farmers all through the winter and spring, you're going to need some very large pots.

Since we arrived in April, we've gone through gallons of the glorious, spicy stuff--its the perfect accompaniment to any meal with even a hint of the Southwest. As a result, our pantry has lately been overflowing with empty mason jars, and the canned good stash beneath the stairs has begun to run low. The time had come to replenish the larder, to fill the hungry jars with a long winter's worth of applesauce, dilly beans, and tomatillo salsa.

We began by husking, washing, and weighing the 25-ish gallons of tomatilloes we had harvest the day before. Tomatilloes are, after all, the limiting factor in our salsa operation. Once we had a tally on our tomatillo total, we began scaling up the rest of the recipe to match: 4 cloves of garlic became 256, 1 teaspoon of salt became 1 1/3 cups. It tried the limits of my conversion skills to translate pounds into bushels, teaspoons into shovel-fulls, but eventually we assembled all of our ingredients (they occupied every bowl in the house, as well as most of the pots) and began the laborious process of peeling garlic, washing cilantro, and prepping onions and peppers. We roasted the tomatilloes, jalapenos, onions, and garlic in the bakery oven, then pureed our potion in batches, with a hand blender.

Don and Bridget are the lucky owners of an Amish waterbath canner--a deep, rectangular tub that covers two burners on the stove and easily holds 15 quart jars at a time. I actively fantasize about the day when I can call one of the babies my own. We cranked up the stove, sloshed the massive canner atop, and pressed on. At long, long last, we pulled the final jar out to cool. The lids popped loudly into an airtight seal, and we stepped back to admire our handiwork.

That was two weeks ago. Last weekend we had our first frost, a wake up call for me to finish my own canning projects or forever hold my peace. I wanted to put up my own small stash of salsa, but our epic process seemed a bit daunting for my own purposes. So I scoured the Internet and found the ideal salsa recipe for someone slightly less ambitious that our Caretaker army. It calls for a pressure canner (fun new skill!) but is very, very simple, and it scales up by 10 (my style) or 64 (if you want to feed farmers, a la Caretaker)

For your canning pleasure (many thanks to food blog Doris and Jilly Cook!):

Tomatillo Salsa

1 lb tomatilloes, husked and washed
water to cover
1 onion
2 jalapeno peppers
cilantro to yield 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
salt

Put the tomatilloes in a pot with just enough water to cover them and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, until the tomatilloes change color and become squishy.

Remove about half of the water, but save it, in case you want to thin your salsa at a later stage.

While the tomatilloes are cooking, chop the onion in a food processor. Chop the jalapeno. Chop the cilantro. It is simplest if you chop each ingredient separately, as they all have different textures.

Puree the tomatilloes with a hand blender, then add the other ingredients and blend everything with the hand blender. Salt to taste.

Process in a pressure canner at 10 lbs pressure for 5 minutes (pints) or 10 minutes (quarts).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Don't Tell My Professors...

Ever since I was in elementary school, I have loved Wallace Steven's poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird" for its dark wintery mysteries. But as it is not yet dark and wintery here, I think that a small homage (or parody, depending on your perspective) is in order.

Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Chicken

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the chicken.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a roost
In which there are three chickens.

III
The chicken bathed in the dust on autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a chicken
Are one.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The chicken clucking
Or just after.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the chicken
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
O thin men of Williamstown,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the chicken
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the chicken is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the chicken ran out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

X
At the sight of chickens
nesting in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For chickens.

XII
The river is moving.
The chicken must be laying.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The chicken sat
In the barn’s-basement.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Working On My Forehand


Last winter, while in New York City, I heard that the Museum of Modern Art was showing a Van Gogh exhibition which highlighted Van Gogh's night skies. Of course, "Starry Night" was the centerpiece around which all other paintings orbited. It fame is certainly justified, and the turbulent skies over the village seemed even more celestial when I saw them in person. But what caught my eye and held me transfixed was a smaller painting entitled "The Sower."



The image of a peasant sowing wheat or oats or barley was a fairly stock one in art--Van Gogh himself did several different studies on the theme. Nevertheless the painting captivated me, drawing me out of the crowded gallery and away from the chilly city streets. The colors of "The sower" are more muted than the brilliant blues and shocking oranges of some of his other works. And yet the sun, hanging large and low on the horizon, glows with a hazy late afternoon light that is familiar and beloved by me. The tree in the foreground could be just putting on the new growth of spring, or sliding into autumnal fire.

The sower returned to me today, as we seeded our open fields with our winter cover crops. Normally, we use a "spinner" slung over one shoulder to distribute the seed evenly. Walking steadily in a straight line, we turn a crank at the base of the seedbag and fling seed out over the soil in a fertile arc. But our spinner is broken, and the covers need to be sown, so we grabbed a few buckets and did it by hand. Truth be told, there is satisfaction and a simple pleasure in playing the role of the sower. Don showed me how to find my rhythm--step, reach in, pull out, release--and he fine-tuned my technique until with a flick of my wrist and and open hand I could broadcast the rye in a wide, even spray. At first, the bucket of seed hung heavy and clunked awkwardly against my knees. My right arm and shoulder ached from the snapping throw. I worried that I might oversow here, or undersow there. A poorly seeded cover crop would leave out fields vulnerable to erosion or provide opportunities for our overeager weed populations to take off come spring. I got the hang of it, gradually. All the while, I thought of Van Gogh's sower: his inward look and his empty fields. The haystacks and the vegetables will come again, but first we must rest.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Can She Bake A (Husk) Cherry Pie?

In some respects, the process of becoming a good eater is almost more fun than the actuality of being one. The road to good eating is paved with firsts--my first portobello mushroom, thick and savory, the piquant crunch of my first pickled okra, the vivid nourishing freshness in my first bite of kale. I may never be the National Geographic explorer to which I once aspired, but I fill my hunger for adventure in the kitchen and the fields. The more unusual the vegetable, the more unexpected the flavors, the more interested I become. As life goes on, however, it becomes harder and harder to surprise me with new tastes. Kohlrabi? I've eaten loads. Cherimoyas? I'm already a fan. I even managed to snag some Colombian fried ants this winter, thanks to a care package from Alina. Thankfully, even as my tastes expand and the realm of the yet-untasted shrinks, I savor my quirky comfort foods: Swiss chard gratin with nutmeg, melon and basil soup, and lemon-cilantro roasted sweet potatoes.

I wonder sometimes how my far-ranging tastes will be expressed in my own future farm. I am, as Andrew reminds me, a bit more daring than the average consumer, for whom eggplant is a walk on the wild side, rather than a seasonal staple. If I grow the unusual varieties and unorthodox veggies which send me into raptures, will I be able to convince anyone else to buy them? My characteristic enthusiasm may be contagious, but rare is the brave soul who has yet taken me up on my suggestion of chocolate-covered radishes (seriously--try it. The sharp, juicy crunch of a radish is perfectly mediated by the rich creaminess of dark chocolate. But then, what isn't improved by a dunking in cacao?) I plan to offer lots of free samples.

Husk cherries (aka ground cherries, uchuvas, or cape gooseberries) are the latest revelation in my quest for novel edibles. Enclosed in a papery shell like a miniature tomatillo, ground cherries hang from their low-growing plants like Chinese lanterns. Within the husks, the fruit resembles a golden marble with an tart, almost tropical flavor. Husk cherries are perfectly delicious on the own as a summer fruit snack, but if you're feeling fancy and want to truly impress, I recommend a ground cherry pie.

Husk Cherry Pie
adapted from the excellent Mennonite cookbook Simply in Season

for the crust:
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 t sugar
1/3 cup butter
3 tablespoons ice water

for the filling:
3 cups husk cherries, husks removed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter

Prepare the crust: mix the dry ingredients together in a food processor, then add the cold butter, chopped into 4 or 5 pieces. Pulse the butter and dry ingredients until they resemble coarse crumbs. Add the cold water and pulse until the dough forms a ball. Remove from the food processor, shape it into a ball, wrap it in cling wrap and chill it in the fridge for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 425. Roll out the dough on a well floured surface until it lines a 9 or 10 inch pie pan. Prick the crust with a fork, cover it with alumnium foil, and blind bake it for 5 minutes. This will make the crust crispier.

Prepare the filling: Sprinkle a little of the sugar in the bottom of the crust. Mix the remaining sugar with the flour, the fruit, and the lemon juice. Pour into the pie crust. Sprinkle the top of the pie with the cinnamon and small daps of the butter. (I find that the golden berries are so pretty that a lattice crust is completely unneccesary) Bake at 425 for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 350 and continue baking for an additional 25-30 minutes.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Signs and Miracles

In the evening of my first day at Caretaker, a perfect rainbow spanned the valley as I stepped out of the house to walk down to my cabin. At the time, I took the Biblical interpretation, and inferred that it was a promise of a wonderful season, definitely one without too much precipitation. Well. I've seen about 10 perfect rainbows since, and I have now come to the conclusion that rainbows are actually a promise of lots and lots of rain. It's raining now, as I write this, as a matter of fact.

But we have a new sign on the farm, so I'm not worried. A few days ago Katie mentioned that she had seen a dove fluttering around the farm. As anyone who graduated from Sunday School can tell you, a dove brought back an olive branch to Noah, indicating that dry land was nigh. All week long, the sun has shone and the fields have flourished. My garden has been churning out eggplants; we're eating raspberries by the pint; Chloe isn't even kicking the bucket any more. Today brought the greatest miracle of all, however.

While pulling up black plastic yesterday afternoon, we noticed something red though the opaque plastic walls of the hoophouse. We closed the hoophouse 3 weeks ago in defeat, convinced that the blight had finally invaded even that safe haven. The plants were beginning to die back from disease, and the fruits lacked even the merest pink blush. In their prime, the hoophouse tomatoes had grown into a jungle, so we anticipated a huge hassle in removing the dying vines. To simplfy our task, we decided to hasten their death by roasting the tomato plants to death. We left the sidewalls down, the doors shut. We stopped running irrigation to the plants. We imagined their leaves shriveling from 145 degree heat, the blighted fruit withering even as it rotted.

Instead, we seem to have created juicy, sweet, California-style dry farmed tomatoes.

Late blight is a fungus like disease, technically classified as a "water mold." It spreads through the air, but can only really infect a plant when the leaves are wet and the temperatures are between 60 and 80 degrees. Our benign neglect prevented the introduction of cool, humid air, and the brutal daytime temperatures within stopped the blight in its tracks. Even better, the sudden stress seems to have kicked the tomatoes into high gear. When we opened the door this morning, we found plants so heavy laden with fruit that they could barely support themselves on their trellising. Sure, there are some blighted fruits and dead leaves in the hoophouse. But to haul a cart full of ripe, red slicers up the hill felt like the greatest victory of the season.

Oh and that dove? It is actually a white pigeon with an affinity for compost piles. Better than a rainbow, I say!

Because these tomatoes are such precious commodities, I can't offer recipes that utilize the normal summer abundance of tomatoes. For us, raspberries are the wonder crop this year, which has inspired me to try an unusual take on chilled berry soup. While I'm sure it seems crazy to put jalapenos in a berry soup, the peppers actually add the perfect piquancy to turn a dessert soup into something a bit more substantial.

Chilled Garden Berry Soup with Lemon Verbena
Recipe courtesy of Homegrown Pure and Simple, by Michel Nischan
Note: Lemon verbena is an unusual herb with lanceolate leaves and a heavenly lemon aroma. It is a perennial, so if you can purchase a plant and find a spot for it in your garden, you will be richly rewarded.

1 cup honey (I imagine that you could reduce this a bit, depending on the tartness of the berries)
1 cup lemon juice
2 Tablespoons grated lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
4-5 teaspoons seeded, finely minced jalapeno (the seeds are where the real heat of hot peppers is, so do NOT include them in this recipe)
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 pints garden berries (I used raspberries, but the recipe assures me that any combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or strawberries would be delicious)
1/4 cup loosely packed lemon verbena leaves, sliced
whatever lemon verbena stems the leaves were on

In a small saucepan, combine the honey, lemon juice, lemon verbena stems, lemon zest, cinnamon, the chopped pepper, and the verbena stems. Simmer for about 5 minutes over low heat. Season with the salt, remove from the heat, and let sit for 10 minutes to cool.

Put the berries in a food processor or blender. Add the honey mixture, pouring through a fine sieve. Process until smooth.

You can sieve the soup again to remove some of the seeds, or simply stir in the sliced lemon verbena leaves and chill until serving.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You Can Take the Girl Out of Georgia...

When I first came to Caretaker to interview, Don warned me of the brutal heat of a Berkshire summer. "There will be about a week in the 90's," he said seriously. "Only one week?" I asked incredulously, "I think I can handle that."

That week, in all of its sun-baked glory finally arrived last Friday, and I have spent every sweaty moment since in a heat-addled bliss. It is finally hot enough to swim.

Water, as I have noted, is abundant in the Berkshires (this summer in particular). Long-ago glaciers gouged ponds in the earth; streams bisect the valleys and trip mellifluously one into the next. Frankly, I'm not sure why farmers in these parts even both to establish irrigation systems. Unfortunately, most of this water is frigid, a shock to the system on all but the warmest of days. If I'm to cool off at 6 pm, when I get off work, by jumping in a swimming hole, it had better be a scorcher of a day. I've gone swimming for five days running now, and I couldn't be happier.

Of course, the ironic counterpoint to my love affair with cold water is that these hot days also send me into the kitchen to slave over a cauldron of hot water canning jams, pickles, salsas and just plain fruit. Rutabagas will only carry me so far through winter. Alas, my dreams of a pantry red with tomatoes is not to be, nor the "tomaisins" (sun dried cherry tomatoes) I had so eagerly anticipated. I'll replace them with pickled beets, dilly beans, and tomatillo salsa.

And peaches. Just as it wouldn't be summer unless I immerse myself in water, nor would the season seem complete until I have consumed and canned at least a bushel of peaches. Katie was kind enough to bring me back two bags of gargantuan Pennsylvania peaches when she returned from vacation, so I spent Tuesday night racing to can many of them before they crossed the fine line from ripe into rotten. I've improved since my first marathon cannings last year, when I managed to sully almost every pot in the house over the course of far too many hours. This year I'm avoiding the newbie mistakes: I started my canning bath water first--though after I had ensured that my pot was deep enough to hold my jars. So I skinned and I chopped and I pitted and I boiled, until the dust settled and I was left with 5 quarts of peaches in a light honey syrup just waiting for the winter doldrums to strike.

How To Can Your Own Peaches

First and foremost, set a large pot of water to boil--this will be your hot water bath. Place some sort of rack in the bottom of the pot, so that jars will not rattle against the bottom of the pot when processing.

Set a second, smaller pot to boil, and fill a small bowl with ice water. Cut a shallow "x" in the bottom of each peach, and when the second pot comes to a boil, immerse the peaches one at a time for between 30 and 60 seconds to loosen the skin. When you remove a peach from the hot water, immediately plunge it into the ice water (the goal is not to cook the peaches.) If the peaches are ripe, the skin will slide right off.

In the meantime, in a small saucepan, bring 1 quart of water and a scant 1 cup of honey or sugar to a simmer. This will be your canning syrup. The sweetness of your syrup is a matter of taste--my recipe is considered "light". Depending on how many peaches you can, and how full you pack your jars, you may need more or less syrup. I made 5 quarts of peaches with 1 batch of syrup.

Once all the peaches are peeled, cut them into halves or slices. Pack your (very clean!) jars with the peaches and pour the canning syrup over the peaches until it comes up to the bottom of the neck of the jar. Poke and prod the peaches to release any air trapped at the bottom. Screw canning lids on your jars--they should be sealed, but you don't need to really jam them down: the processing will do the real sealing.

Carefully lower the filled jars into the first and largest pot of boiling water. Water needs to cover the lids completely. Once the peaches have been processed 25 minutes in boiling water, remove them from the pot and allow them to cool on a counter. Store in a cool place for up to one year.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Delusion/Delimma

I've been lax as of late, for which I apologize. In part, my sporadic posting has been the result of over stimulation: I first went on vacation to Virginia, where I visited Andrew at the now-famous Polyface Farm; then I attended the Northeast Organic Farming Association Summer Conference in Amherst, MA. Between processing 600 chickens in 4 hours, taking notes on 7 excellent workshops, and participating in a pie-eating contest, it has been a busy couple of weeks. But perhaps a larger explanation for my silence on the blogging front has been a series of challenges, which this season keeps throwing at us.

It began with out strawberries, which received rain almost from the moment they first blushed red. Not only did the lack of sun make the berries watery and less-than-optimally sweet, but it also allowed fungus to spread rapidly, killing the plants and rotting the fruit. Then, on June 1st, we suffered the latest frost in anyone's memory. We covered everything we could to protect our fragile transplants, but a strong wind in the night bared the melons to the frosty air. We lost a huge fraction of our early crop, and then the ensuing rains of June polished off the rest of the crop, other than a few hearty vines. Before that, Don had never lost a crop in 15 years of farming.

The cold and wet of June and then July brought other disasters as well. Phythophthora infestans, also known as Late Blight, traveled swiftly from Ohio to Maine, killing every tomato in its path. Eschewing dangerous sprays (even certified organic sprays can be extremely harmful if the farmer contacts them in the process of spraying), we watched as our gorgeous, luscious tomato plants swiftly rotted before our eyes, literally days before our first harvest.

The weather then perked up for a bit, and we hoped to recoup our losses and move on with life. Until a storm system dumped 5 inches of rain on us in 1 day, followed by another 2 inches two days later. (As a point of reference, the average month here recieves around 4 inches of rain). My garden all but became an aquaculture site*, and our bare summer fallow field moonlighted as a small pond. A few days later, a new disease surfaced in the peppers, and possibly in the summer squash. Plant pathologists from the extension service gave us the grim news: a different strain of Phytophthora, this one a soil borne disease which can survive in a field for years and will attack solanacious crops and cucurbits--aka everything tasty from summer.

Agriculturally, this season sucks.

Increasingly, I've come to empathize with the position of conventional farmers, the sort of folk who wrote the essay "The Omnivore's Delusion" (not to be confused with Michael Pollan's best-selling book, The Omnivore's Dilemma). But before anyone starts advertising conventional fungicides to me, allow me to reiterate my commitment to our growing practices, even in the face of (some) crop failures.

"The Omnivore's Delusion" is an important essay, I believe, one that should be read by anyone who considers him or herself an advocate of sustainable, local ag. This is not so that you can "know the enemy" and thereby outsmart them (such an antagonistic mindset only serves to repackage and recycle a long-standing and singularly vicious mistrust between city and country, conservative and liberal). No, I cite Blake Hurst's essay because it offers a long overdue reminder of the complexity of farming.

I agree with the author, that a great many people seem to revere Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma is the Word made print of the sustainable ag gospel. Pollan is a good man, and one of the most articulate advocates for me and other farmers like me. But he is not a farmer. There are a great many things he either does not know, or does not have the space to include in a book. Reading Michael Pollan no more makes you an expert on agriculture and food policy than sleeping at a Holiday Inn Express makes you a heart surgeon (despite what the commercials would lead you to believe).

It does make you a more informed consumer, and it provides a certain amount of critical vocabulary with which to then may seek out a deeper understanding.

Take late blight, for example. Hurst, hearing of the tomato blight in New England, would probably say, "for the sake of your family and the financial solvency of your farm, you should spray fungicide and save your harvest." I, on the other hand, view late blight this year as a reminder of the value of diversification and of our CSA community. Our shareholders have supported us stalwartly in this challenging season and frequently expressed the sentiment that this year, more than any other, is an example of why they joined a CSA. Not everyone can or wants to be a CSA farmer. But it is one way, just as surely as commodity corn is another way of farming (and one dependent on federal subsidy largess).

My kind of farming is not a rejection of technology, just as growing corn is not (inherently) a rejection of soil stewardship. The theme that I kept coming back to again and again as I read Hurst's piece is this: look closer. In this sense, he offers a valuable perspective.

*Though, miracle of miracles, it survived the deluge and has been thriving when all else fails. Continue sending good thoughts my way, whoever you are!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Scream, You Scream

I've learned quite a bit about cows this year. Of course, I came to Caretaker knowing little more than that cows are the first step in ice cream, and therefore worthy of all due reverence and respect. Having spent the past few months living around them, moving them from pasture to pasture, and, as of late, milking Chloe, my appreciation has matured, and I have come to consider them a critical element for a farm.

First and foremost, we keep cows for fertility. All winter long, our cows spend their nights in the barn, where they ruminate, moo, and poop. Every morning, we send them back out to a snowy pasture and muck out their stall. The accumulated manure from a winter's worth of long nights forms the base for all of the compost that we spread on our fields and use in potting on our transplants.

Additionally, our elderstateswomen cows Lucy and Lukey provide us with two calves each year, which we raise for beef. Chloe's calves will be sold either as 4-H Heifers (if female) or as beef (if male). In that respect, then, our cows are a renewable resource, giving back to the farm each year.

In my opinion, Chloe is the real star of the show. Learning to milk has been a lesson in bovine anatomy and health certainly, but it has also reinforced farm values of patience and persistence. As I now know, you have to milk out all of the regular milk in order to get to the cream. There are no shortcuts or exceptions, and if you neglect to "milk her out," she'll give less milk the next time you milk. So you have to milk for as long as she keeps giving, even when she kicks with devilish precision for the bucket, even when she shuffles sideways into a corner, even when she somehow knocks the lid off the grain container, sticks her head in, and somehow contorts herself so that she is perpendicular to her normal milking position. Despite all of this, I'm totally in love with Chloe and the daily gift of milk which she gives us.

Walking out to work in the fields, I used to look in at the cows (who don't often deviate from a strict schedule of graze-ruminate-graze-chill-ruminate) and think to myself, "what a sweet life. they just eat and sleep!" Recently my perspective shifted, however, when I realized that cows require the near constant feeding to sustain their body mass on a diet of grass. If you or I tried to eat grass, we'd literally starve, as the energy to extract nutrients from pasture would exceed the caloric gain. But cows, with their four bacteria-rich stomachs, are able not only to survive on grass but to thrive on it. For our cows, grazing is quite literally their job, and they do it with a diligence that would make a drill sergeant proud.

In honor of our cows, here's a recipe (I've been terribly lax in my recipe posting, though I have been cooking plenty of delicious things) worthy of truly good milk. If you have the good fortune to have access to Jersey cream, try this one out. You won't be disappointed.

Lavender and Honey Ice Cream
This is a custard-based ice cream recipe, so it works best if you make the custard ahead of time and then throw the cream in and churn it all while you are eating dinner. The ice cream will be ready as soon as you finish you meal. It goes extremely well with a chocolate zucchini cake...

6 T honey
4 egg yolks
2 t cornstarch or arrowroot powder
8 lavender spikes (the flowery bit)
2 cups milk
2 cups cream (whipping cream, if you are buying it at a store)

Put the honey, cornstarch, and egg yolks in a medium-sized sauce pan. Whisk them together, and add in the lavender flowers (stripped from the central stem) and a little of the milk.

Pour the rest of the milk into a small saucepan and heat it to a boil, stirring. Pour the milk over the egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly as you pour.

Return this custard mixture to the stove top and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until it thickens (this will happen sooner the creamier your milk is. Don't use skim, I beg you. ) Do not let it boil. Once the custard has thickened, remove from heat and let cool in the fridge for a few hours.

Once the custard is cooled and thick, add in the cream and churn in an ice cream churn.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Ode to Chloe

When did I become a farmer, rather than simply a curious person who wanted to grow food? I don't think it was the day that I signed up for the next agricultural census, or my first garlic harvest, or even when I worked through summer's heat in Georgia or a month of rain in Massachusetts. Of course, such a stepping into self doesn't occur in the course of a day, any more than I wake up each year on my birthday feeling a full year older. I do feel, however, that milking a cow is a milestone worth noting.

Chloe calved for us on a Sunday night near the end of June. We sat outside her stall, transfixed by her straining labor--Jerseys are notoriously melodramatic, Don says. Finally, with a little bit of help from Don, the slick, skinny calf slid out onto the straw. He lay there, limp and discombobulated, and Chloe busied herself by licking him clean like a fussy mother. In short order, his hunger got the better of him, and he began floppily stretching for his mother's teat. This continued for a while, Chloe cleaning, the calf balancing precariously then tipping over under his mother's ministrations, until finally satisfied, Chloe let him have his first draught of milk. Micah, Don's 3-year-old son, had already christened the calf Jingle Bells.

For about the first week after calving, a cow produces a super rich milk called colostrum, which is critically important for her calf's healthy development. We milked Chloe that first week so that her milk production would remain high, but allowed Jingle Bells to drink as much as he wanted, and we fed the surplus colostrum to the pigs. I waited impatiently for my turn. Finally, the following Monday, we began milking Chloe for ourselves. Jersey milk has the highest butterfat content of any of the common dairy breeds, and truly, you can taste the difference. The beta carotene in the milk gives it an ever so faint ivory tone, and if you let the cream rise, it will form a thick almost golden crown on the milk. I used to drink milk as an excuse to eat cookies; with this kind of milk, it is the other way round.

Even with Jingle Bells freely nursing, we're getting up to 2 gallons of milk a day, and even making butter, queso blanco, sour cream, buttermilk, ricotta, paneer, feta, and whipped cream, we're still practically swimming in the stuff. Its a good life.

Meanwhile, on Monday, I began my week on the milking rotation. Milking Chloe is both incredibly fulfilling and terribly frustrating. Frustrating because Chloe is getting used to me, and thus has a tendency to kick at the bucket. Twice now I've had to discard a partial pail of milk after a dirty, well aimed cow hoof splashed into its contents. Even with my stops and starts, though, I love the rhythm of milking.

We tend to our animals with respect and care, but rarely do we have time in our days to sit with and observe them. Not that I really want to bond with our pigs, or our chickens, or even really with our beef cows. All of those animals are transient, serving a short term purpose for which we appreciate them. They will be eaten with gratitude, not remorse. But Chloe is our milk cow. She'll give us milk and an yearly calf for twelve or more years, and her manure will fertilize our fields and pastures. We can love her. And every morning when we milk her, we can sit close, with our heads resting against her side. We breath in her sweet cow smell--not of manure or barnyards, but a fresh scent, like clean laundry with soft animal overtones. We sing to her in time with the sound of the milk hitting the pail.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stone Soup

So in my free time this year, I've taken on a new hobby--gardening. I admit, part of my motivation for creating a garden is the dumbfounded looks I get from shareholders and friends when I say that when not farming, I garden. But really, my gardening project was mainly a Southerner's rebellion against the constraints of a Northern CSA farm. In April, I was appalled to discover that we don't grow eggplants, watermelons, cauliflower, or sweet potatoes, all of which I consider practically food groups in their own right. Because I have a strange farmer complex, in which I can't fathom purchasing produce which I might instead be able to grow myself, I immediately began adopting a bad British accent and querrrying Don, "might I have a bit of earth?" I think he missed my Secret Garden reference, but he did spade up a patch of sod down near the cabins and he invited me to do with it as I saw fit.

All eagerness and anticipation, I raced down to view my domain. There I encounteredmy first challenge: rocks. New England is notoriously rocky (Andrew informs me that the early settlers honestly feared that the land was cursed, as every winter's frost heave brought new stones to the surface), but my plot was almost absurd in its stoniness. As I hunkered down and began pulling rocks, I began to fear that there might be nothing left once I had cleared my field. What little soil thinly coated the rocks was mostly the sandy runoff from the nearby stream. I knew that my land would drain well, but I feared that my crops would be starved for nutrients in such poor conditions. While my seeds grew into transplants in the greenhouse, I passed my weekends carrying bucket after bucket of rocks to the growing pile at one corner of my garden. Once the ratio of soil to stones had shifted in my favor, Don brought down a huge load of compost and spaded it into my field. My soil was still a far cry from the nearby beds in which I spend most of my time, but I finally felt like a plant might not die immediately if subjected to life in my garden. Besides, I was beginning to find earthworms, which I took to be a hopeful sign.

The second major challenge of my garden is the quantity of sun it receives. This summer has been unusually wet and overcast (undeserving of the name "summer," if you ask me) and to make matters worse, my garden only receives direct sunlight for part of the day. I ordered eggplant and watermelon varieties which claimed to be suited for Northern growing, but decided not to take any chances. After measuring out beds, digging pathways, and raking everything flat, I laid black plastic for my eggplants and watermelon to heat the soil. I also opted to cover all of my transplants with row cover, both to deter pests and to hold in extra heat at night. Finally, after what seemed like endless preparations, I put my plants into the ground. (Sadly, the sweet potatoes were not to be, as I was never able to find affordable slips--a.k.a. baby sweet potato plants--anywhere nearby)


As my transplanting drew to a close, I discovered an unanticipated problem; I had more land than I had plants to fill it. Well, I might have been able to fill it with eggplants, but even I wouldn't know what to do if all 22 of my plants started bearing fruit. I decided to give away my surplus eggplants and fill my extra space with extra flower transplants that had been languishing outside the greenhouse. I filled the end of my garden with flowers: gazanias, black eyed susans, statice, and several husk cherry plants. I mowed the clearing to remove slug habitat (all of the rain in June and now July has turned Caretaker into escargot heaven), and then stopped to marvel at how rocky, sandy soil in the midst of a grassy meadow had become my tiny garden.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Blessed Event

It is a good year to be an apprentice at Caretaker farm: we've had buckets of rain almost daily, leading to rampant weed growth in every available patch of soil. New England is naturally a less-than-ideal climate for strawberries, but the rain has been particularly brutal to our berries. Without any chance to dry out between the rain and the overcast days, mold is running rampant in our strawberry beds. Two weeks ago, one of the tires on our smaller cultivating tractor got a puncture, and since tractor tires are filled with liquid calcium (the weight acts as a safety measure to prevent roll-overs), we had to call out special tractor-tire-replacement-mechanics. All other machines on the farm then took their cue from the tractor--the lawn mower died, the washing machine broke, the brand new mixer for the bakery has been a headache from start to finish, and some nasty creature has picked off five of our chickens over the past week and a half.

Meanwhile, on the farm where Andrew is working, their scalder broke repeatedly on a day in which 300+ chickens were scheduled for processing, the replacement scalder sputtered in and out of service so that only 120 could be completed, and 450 beef cows escaped from their pasture, where 8 then wandered into the path of an oncoming AMTRAK train. The train won.

I'm not being ironic though, it is a good year to apprentice both here at Caretaker and there at Polyface.

If this were one of those lucky years where our greatest worry is what to do with our excess lettuce, our education as farmers would be sorely lacking. In reality, something is usually less than ideal on a functioning farm. If the weather is perfect, the machines break; if the machines run like clockwork then you might want to start monitoring the weather radar more closely for those unexpected storms. It can become infuriating and depressing, but unless you learn how to accept the inevitable, problem-solve a jerry-rigged solution, grit your teeth and work a little bit harder, you will begin to lose your mind. But once you emerge on the other side--to a sunny Sunday, when you wave goodbye to the mixer and hop on a borrowed mower to tool around the yard--you'll appreciate good fortune more than ever. And when, in the evening, your milk cow gives birth to a spindly, big-eyed, wet-nosed calf, your prayer of thanksgiving will be as natural as the throbbing call of the bullfrogs outside.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fecundity

Under normal circumstances, we don't spend much of our time across the creek in the so called "River Field." Most of the crops in the River Field are low maintenance storage crops: potatoes, winter squash, cabbage, carrots. Our hope is that we can do our bed prep and planting in a day for most things, come out maybe once more to take off row cover or weed, and not have to check in on our plants again until harvest. Plenty of other things on the near side of the river keep us busy trellising tomatoes, weeding, or harvesting for weekly distribution. Lately, however, the river field has been the busiest spot on the farm and the site of a great deal of entering and exiting of life.

First, the potato beetles arrived. The inaptly named Colorado potato beetle (actually an invasive exotic from Mexico) is a major pest in New England. Potato beetles go through two full life cycles every year before burrowing into the soil for a long winter's nap. Along the way, they eat every green potato-looking leaf they can find. Whether they arrive is never a question, the only uncertainty is when. This year, whether due to lingering cool, damp weather, an overabundance of beneficial ladybugs, or good farming last year, the potato beetles were a full 2 weeks later than usual. This beetle-free window allowed our plants to grow big and strong, strength that they will need in the coming weeks. But, as we knew would happen eventually, the beetles finally emerged. And thus we added a new task to our daily repertoire--scouting for and squishing potato beetles.

In truth, I actually kind of enjoy the process. We walk slowing through the rows, scanning the leaves intently for the coppery color of adults or the smaller red-thoraxed enstars (babies). When we find one, we stop, squish it crunchily, and then examine all neighboring plants for additional enstars or the neon orange eggs on the undersides of leaves. There is something meditative about the narrowed focus and the slow walk, even if having bug guts on your fingers seems rather un-Buddhist.

Playing beetle Terminator is not the only allure of the river field, however. We've also been checking each day on a killdeer nest hidden in the middle of one bed of potatoes. We first noticed the well camouflaged eggs from the mother bird's frantic display. With their shrill call, killdeer always sound a bit panicky, but as we ventured near to her nest, the mother amped up the drama with pitiful calls and a Tony-winning performance as an injured bird. Finally, one day last week, Don called us all over to observe the new hatchlings, which froze like little fluffy stones in their nest as they sensed our presence. Mama, of course, would have none of it, and was doing everything in her power to distract these bipedal beasts from her brand new hatchlings. Within a day, she had taught her young ones how to run, and by the next beetle scouting mission, they were already racing around the field on toothpick legs.

And now, even more new life has entered the picture. Last weekend, our two beef cows, Lucy and Lukey, birthed two gorgeous bull calves. We named the first almost albino calf Albert, and his young brown speckled cousin Rusty. For the first few days of life, calves are less skittish than usual and mama cows for some reason permit humans near their babies. Taking advantage of our brief window of compliance, we shanghaied both calves this morning and quickly "elastrated" them by slipping rubber bands around their testicles and thereby bloodlessly castrating them. They'll sing a lovely soprano now, we hope.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Escaping Cows and Other News



For all of you visual learners, I've finally figured out how to post a slideshow of pictures to my blog. Hit play to take a tour around Caretaker's fields. My techno saavy has limits, though, and I'm yet to figure out how to include captions. So here's some commentary to explain the slideshow: Katie has planted an learning garden for children, complete with a Native American "three sisters" planting, bean huts, and assorted interesting plant varieties. The bales of straw were used to mulch all of our tomatoes, tomatillos, and husk cherries. Hopefully, the mulch will help prevent disease and shade out weeds, as well as making everything smell straw-sweet. "Early Jersey Wakefield" cabbage are just beginning to head up--they should be ready in a few weeks. Our hoophouse tomatoes are coming along nicely. They are a relatively new variety of hybrids, and thus have lame cyborg names like BH152, or something like that. I suggested that we rename them something more interesting, but the only suggestion, courtesy of Margaret, was to called them "inside" and "outside." Note the innocent looking cow under the solar panels (Don has been wanting someone to take a picture like this all season). This same cow escaped from her lovely pastures and took a morning stroll through our carrot beds, only narrowly avoiding our delicate (expensive) row cover. A few carrots lost their lives, but thankfully most of our veggies were spared.

If, on the other hand, you are an experiential learner, here are a few more recipes which have received positive reviews on my cook day.


Beet Greens Gratin

Don't compost your beet greens! Beets are in the same family as swiss chard and spinach, so it stands to reason that their leaves would be both healthy and delicious. The real secret of this recipe is the nutmeg. Nutmeg complements any of the members of the Chenopodiaceae family, taking average dishes and making them exquisite. I'm estimating on my quantities here, as I made this recipe up as I went and didn't really measure my ingredients. Adjust to suit your taste.

Beet greens (I'm guessing about 6 cups loosely packed. They will cook down significantly)
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
3 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped (or garlic powder, if your garlic has all green sprouted)
1 1/2 t nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c walnuts

Blanche the beet greens until wilted and just cooked. Drain. In a bowl, mix together everything else except the walnuts. Add the drained greens, mix thoroughly, and taste to see if your seasonings need adjusting. Scatter the walnuts over the top and bake at 350 until the cheese is melted and the walnuts are golden, about 15-20 minutes.

Spinach and Feat Borek

"Borek" is a generic Turkish word for dishes that contain filo dough. I was first introduced to the miracles of Turkish cuisine by my good friend Zey's mom, who might just be the best home cook I know. Store bought filo dough is surprisingly easy to work with (just keep it covered with a damp towel so that it doesn't dry out) and guarantees a flaky, crispy, pastry of a dish. I was cooking for a bunch of ravenous farmers, so I made two casserole dishes worth. You could easily cut this recipe in half)

1 box filo dough, defrosted
8 cups spinach, loosely packed
1 medium sized onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, diced
1 T olive oil
2 T fresh dill, chopped
feta cheese
2 eggs
1 c milk
2 T butter
salt and pepper to taste
sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 390 F.

Saute the garlic and onion in the olive oil until transparent and fragrant. Add the spinach, cover, and cook until the spinach is wilted, stirring occasionally for even cooking. Remove from the heat and add the dill, salt and pepper. Meanwhile, beat the milk and the egg together.

Grease a large (9x13 is good) baking dish with s0me of the butter. Begin layering the filo dough in the pan, brushing each sheet with the milk and egg mixture before you add the next. after about 5 sheets of filo, add a layer of spinach. Dot the spinach with crumbled feta cheese and small pats of butter. Repeat with 5 more layers of filo, followed by another layer of spinach, and then more filo. Brush the top generously with the milk and egg mixture and sprinkle with sesame seeds. (Use the remaining filo dough and filling to make another pan, if you can. )

Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, until the filo and sesame seeds are golden.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Matter of Perspective


Growing weather; enough rain;
the cow's udder tight with milk;
the peach tree bent with its yield;
honey golden in the white comb;

the pastures deep in clover and grass,
enough, and more than enough;

the ground, new worked, moist
and yielding underfoot, the feet
comfortable in it as roots;

the early garden: potatoes, onions,
peas, lettuce, spinach, cabbage carrots,
radishes, marking their straight rows
with green, before the trees are leafed;

raspberries ripe and heavy amid their foliage,
currants shining red in clusters amid their foliage,
strawberries red ripe with the white
flowers still on the vines--picked
with the dew on them, before breakfast...

from The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer, by Wendell Berry

This evening, after an afternoon of long anticipated food experimentation (chronicled below--hooray for the return of recipes to The Raw and the Cook!) I was finally set loose in the strawberries. We had a rain yesterday morning as we harvested for CSA, and as a result, any ripe berries will rot on the vine if they aren't harvested quickly. We handed out quart containers to our Saturday shareholders and let them pick away, but as the steady stream of members slowed to a trickle red berries still winked from the patch.

I've been eyeing these tantelizing morsels for about a week now, with only the occasional indulgence when Don and Bridget's kids harvested the first few to share. We all ate those first berries with the exquisite slowness of folks who don't know when they'll get their next. Shareholders come first, afterall, even if farmers do get to glean.

With our next distribution not until Tuesday, however, the berries in the field this evening were now fair game. I danced down the pathway with a basket and an empty stomach. In the silvery late afternoon light, I crouched by the bed and hunted for the maroon-ripe berries. As I tasted my way from plant to plant, Wendell Berry sprang to mind, and I let gratitude for all of the blessings of the season settle into my soul. I could not think of anything I would rather be doing, or any place I would rather be, than right there, with juicy fingers and a heavy basket of fruit.

And yet. Soon after, another reference to strawberries sprang to mind, from Eric Schlosser's excellent book Reefer Madness. In Reefer Madness, Schlosser explores the workings of America's three largest illegal enterprises: marajuana, pronography, and illegal immigrant labor. As a case study for the labor chapter, Schlosser takes a closer look at the strawberry fields of California, where, more often than not, illegal immigrants--rather than excited shareholders-- are the people picking the strawberries. There, strawberries are commonly nicknamed "the fruit of the devil" for the intensity of their cultivation, the physicality of their harvest, and the low associated wages. Even as I am in my personal heaven, I can already feel a crick in my back from bending over and looking beneath the leaves, and I've only be out for about 30 minutes. Additionally, I'm harvesting in the pleasant temperatures of dusk, rather than the brutal sun of a California afternoon.

Schlosser reports that there are better and worse strawberry companies (a job picking for Driscoll is reported to be the most desireable, by far), but even so, conventional strawberries are one of the most pesticide laden crops on the market. Strawberries' thin skins absorb any chemicals with which they come into contact.

Sitting in the field and eating berries is an immenently simple pleasure for me. And yet these little fruits are are part of something far from simple, anything but pleasureable. The stories that bring us our food are not often so straight forward as mine was this afternoon, and we are not the only ones who stand to loose from this obscurity.

As I mentioned, it was an afternoon of culinary adventuring, and I am happy to share the results with any other daring eaters. From the excellent traditional American cookbook Country Tastes (Beatrice Ojakangas) I found a recipe for Rhubarb Marmelade, and from my fantastic soup cookbook, Soup (Pippa Cuthbert and Lindsay Cameron Wilson) the instructions for Rhubarb, Mango, and Jasmine Soup. Admittedly, I should have made the soup in Colombia, when I actually had local access to both mangoes and rhubarb. But I didn't. So I did today. And, if you believe in labels at least, it was a fairly traded mango. My guilt is mostly assuaged.

Rhubarb Marmalade

8 cups sliced rhubarb
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 T chopped fresh ginger
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 T grated orange peel
2 t grated lemon peel
2 oranges, peeled, seeded, sectioned
21 lemon, peeled, seeded, sectioned
1 1/2 cups walnut halves

In a enamel or stainless steel pot, combine the rhubarb, orange juice, lemon juice, and ginger. (There will not be much liquid initially, but once the heat gets going the rhubarb will basically juice itself). Bring to a boil and cover to keep the steam in. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, until the rhubarb is soft.

Stir in the sugar and return to a boil. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the peels and orange and lemon sections. Return to a boil, then promptly remove from heat. Add the walnuts.

Pour into hot sterilized pint jars and cap with sterilized lids and rings. Process in a boiling water bath fpr 15 minutes.

Rhubarb, Mango, and Jasmine Soup
(this is a dessert soup if ever there was one. Exotic and sweet, but certainly not suitable for a main course! My apologies for the weight measurements--my cookbook is British)

800 mL water
3 jasmine tea bags OR 3 T loose jasmine tea leaves, in a strainer (I used a Teavana mixture of Jasmine and Tropical Rooibus tea.)
750 g rhubarb, chopped
750 g mango, chopped (about two mangoes)
250 g sugar (you can cut this back without hurting anything.)
2 T finely chopped ginger
1 vanilla pod (or you can just add a bit of vanilla extract)
250 mL yogurt

Bring the water to a boil and add the tea. Let it steep for 15 minutes. Discard the tea leaves and add the rhubarb, mango, sugar, and ginger.

If you are using the vanilla pod, slit it to get the seeds and add the seeds and pod to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the fruit is tender, about 20 minutes. If you are using vanilla extract, add it after the fruit has simmered.

Remove from heat and cook slightly, Puree until smooth, then whisk in the yogurt, and chill until ready to serve.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sous Chef Supreme

My phenomenal ex-roommate, Athena, has done me the honor of writing about me and my cooking on her blog. I'd like to return the favor:

I adore food. I'm an unapologetic, make-it-from-scratch, rehash-every-culinary-exploit-in-painful-detail foodie. I wasn’t always sent into raptures by summer’s first eggplant or fresh chevre. I could say that it started with a boy, and there would be truth in it. But let’s not give him all the credit—there was a girl as well.

My warrior goddess former roommate looks an unlikely fighter, smiling coyly from her throne-like wheelchair. But she has fought more battles in her 24 years than a bevy of prizefighters: first to speak and walk through the bodily revolt of cerebral palsy, later to elicit respect in a society that equates physical disability with mental handicap. She wore business suits, she once told me, through four years of high school so as not to be mistaken for an escapee from special ed. Far from it: she’s brilliant—the oxygen deprivation that slowed her speech, unsteadied her gait, and gave her hands a mind of their own did nothing to affect her higher faculties. She’s a writer, an actress, a wit, and an award-winning speaker, but she needed me at meal times, when her slippery-eel hands sent forks careening every which-way but into her mouth. My assistance was my rent, and I quickly realized what a phenomenal deal I had.

I moved in with Athena on the eve of my second semester of graduate school. Having spent my first semester commuting 45 minutes by bike through London fog, my new address, just across Waterloo bridge from campus, was a thrillingly proximate change. Similarly exhilarating was the shift in my finances. I had been living (room, board, transportation, everything) on a little more than £100 a week, what I could scrounge from a job in a bunker-like café in the bowels of campus. Rice and beans featured prominently in my diet, along with leftover café sandwiches, which I froze to keep them from going bad. Well, worse, really; they weren’t particularly good to begin with. Becoming flatmates with Athena eliminated rent from my expenses, allowed me to cut back my hours in front of the Panini grill, and, most importantly, it gave me someone to cook for.

Cooking for one is a depressing endeavor. Without companionship (literally, “one who breaks bread with another“) dining had degenerated into a thrice-daily refueling, hurriedly practiced while checking email or standing over the sink. I ate oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly and an apple each day for lunch. Recipes rarely scale down to a one person serving; baked goods hang around for a dangerously long time. Pasta had become the path of least resistance.

Athena did not ask me to become her personal chef; my commitment was simply to provide three meals per day and to feed them to her. But when she told me that she would try anything I prepared (except salad), I found myself reading cookbooks and food magazines in bed and taking time over our weekly menus as though I would submit them as an addendum to my dissertation. Each evening, as the lights came up on the London Eye and twilight turned the Thames silvery grey, I would move to the kitchen to begin my ministrations. Our kitchen was small and square, but more than spacious enough for the two of us. Athena, back against the wall and legs drawn up to her chest, would sit by the door and keep me company while I puttered between the stove and the oven.

On Friday afternoons, we navigated the uneven sidewalks and narrow alleys of Southwark to Borough Market, my foodie heaven. I fed Athena morsels of baklava and truffle pate, quince paste and Jamaican-spiced cashews. We dipped bread in eight different balsamic vinegars and as many olive oils, then chased it all with burnt butter fudge. Produce I had never before seen entered our diets: spicy parsnips, nourishing kale, and wrinkled celeriac. I learned that coriander and cilantro are actually the same thing, that clotted cream elevates strawberries to celestial heights, and that sometimes, you really do need fish and chips. Our friend Adam worked weekends as a cheesemonger at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and through the seething hordes of hungry shoppers, he offered us suggestions (and slices) of pungent British cheeses. Each week we tasted everything we could, regardless of whether we’d sampled it last week, and Athena laughed that she had blown my cover as an inveterate sampler. Her chair is massive, electric, and able to balance on two wheels, so we didn’t exactly blend. Thus sated, we would make our frugal purchases and turn our footsteps homeward.

Athena is a slow eater, a tiny bite taker, and as the semester progressed I found myself altering my own pace to match hers. We lingered over meals, discussing my classes or her work. She listened as I agonized over the boy wreaking havoc with my heart and we sang a rousing duet about the lack of wheelchair accessible public transit. We talked about food. Or rather, I talked, and Athena patiently listened. I gushed about restaurants I wanted to try or newfound recipes I was certain she would love. I learned over time that her comment, “this is subtle” more accurately meant, “spice it up! I can’t taste anything!” I discovered salt and pepper and the miracle that is vinegar.

Had I retained my little room beyond Hammersmith where the Richmond line clattered just beyond my bedroom and where leftover sandwiches formed a pillar of my diet, perhaps I still would have found farming. I tasted kale for the first time while living there, when I invited two friends for dinner and actually cooked something besides stir fry or pasta. But I would argue that my months with Athena were singularly shaping, for they taught me the pleasure of cooking as a daily act. Food and companionship grounded me through the dark grey of London winter and excited me when nothing else did.

Athena still lives in London; I farm in Massachusetts. But when our paths cross again, I know exactly how it will end: her crouching in the kitchen and spinning tales of wonderful, weird London, me chopping vegetables, waxing poetic about the zen of weeding, and railing against the insanity of patented seed. I can’t wait.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Change in the Weather

Almost since my arrival, we've been vacillating between summer and winter: a week of weather in the 80's hit in mid-April, but we soon sank back into cold, with rain and several frosts. The last frost occurred Sunday night and it sent us scurrying every which way Saturday laying row cover on all of the tender tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, flowers, and strawberries. Sunday afternoon the wind whipped across our white-sheeted fields and stole the sun from the air. I slept deep within my sleeping bag that night. In the morning, patches of shimmering crystal skated across the corners of the fields as I crunched through the grass. This was unjust, I decided. It's June! Leave us alone, old man winter!

When I woke up this morning, I could tell that something had shifted. The first sign was probably the dawn chorus, which has become so raucous lately that I can scarcely sleep past 5 AM for the trills and chirps and warbles. I didn't really take notice of the change, however, until I had stepped out of my cabin and begun walking up the hill. The warm perfume of summer rose up from the grass, and I knew that we have finally left winter behind. More than visual cues or temperatures, smells have always been my signal that the season is changing, whether to the crisp, leafy smell of fall, or the fresh green scent of spring. This morning, for the first time I noticed the humid aroma of summer.

I woke to certitude: winter has retreated. It is time to grow.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Just Being Neighborly

According to some of our neighbors from across the street, who come out to volunteer every week or so, the hills around here are rife with bears. Whether day or night, so they say, they can't walk past their dumpster without interrupting some nosy black bear's snack. News of our neighbors' furry visitors came as something of a shock to us, caregivers to 5 large, yummy cows, 8 scrumptious pigs, and 80-odd small but juicy chickens (not to mention several steaming piles of composting food scraps). As I am generally the last to make the trek to my cabin (inevitably well after dark and without anything more threatening than an oversize fleece), this news kicked my imagination into overdrive.

For whatever reason, however, the bears seem unwilling to cross the road. Perhaps they recognize that our side of the valley is coyote territory, and the bears dare not trespass. I've grown accustomed to the sound of coyotes howling as I drift off to sleep, and I actually rather like it. Coyotes know better than to bother our cows, our pigs are safely stowed in the barn, and the chickens so far seem secure within the electrified netting that surrounds their coop. But. The coyotes do seem to be getting bolder. We've noticed tracks in the back of our main greens and roots field, and several days ago Don saw one in the early morning just beyond the fence in the river field. Now Katie has begun reporting sightings as well, a lone canine, trotting through the garlic and sniffing around as though he owns the place.

As we all thought that coyotes travel in packs, the current theory to explain this particular pup is that he is perhaps vegetarian, and therefore a pariah among his kind. Whatever the truth, he had better remain a vegetarian, at least as far as Caretaker Farm is concerned, lest we "take care" of him.

Then again, though, if those pesky groundhogs near our cabins were to "disappear," we certainly wouldn't ask any questions.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Case for Working With Your Hands

If anyone is struggling with the question of what to get me for Memorial Day (what? no one told you that we swap presents for Memorial Day now?), look no further than Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, an excerpt of which was adapted recently into an extended essay in the New York Times. While the article is, admittedly, on the long side, it is also the most eloquent, insightful defense of manual labor I have ever read. If you've enjoyed anything on this blog, you'll like this essay better, I promise.