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


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.