Over the Top Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts.  One of those vegetables you either love or hate.  We had them for every major holiday in my childhood.  We used to call them ‘Texas Cabbage’, and I love them.  Although I don’t remember my mother ever cooking fresh Brussels sprouts (they were always frozen), she did make a wonderful white sauce that she poured over them just before serving.  To this day they remind me of family and holidays.

When I moved to the farm, we were planning our first Thanksgiving dinner when Val confided that she really didn’t like those Texas cabbages.  What?  Thanksgiving without Brussels sprouts?  Since then, I was determined to find a treatment for those little gems that might excite her.  I have roasted them with pancetta, sautéed them in chicken broth and finished them with fresh lemon juice to mixed reviews.  Then I came across a recipe for braising them in chicken broth and white vermouth, then finishing them with a Dijon sauce.  After experimenting with it and making some adjustments for my own personal leanings we decided it was a winner.  Val can finally say, “I love Brussels sprouts.”

Browning the halved Brussels sprouts.

Braised Brussels Sprouts with Two Mustard’s:

  • 1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup white vermouth
  • 3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
  • 3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon coarse mustard
  • 2 tablespoons flat-leafed parsley, chopped
  1. In a large, heavy skillet or Dutch over, heat butter and oil over medium heat.  Arrange halved sprouts in skillet, cut sides down, in one layer.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, to taste.  Cook sprouts, without turning until undersides are golden brown, about 5 minutes.  If sprouts don’t all fit,  brown in batches, then return all of them to pan before continuing.
  2. Sprinkle the sliced shallots over the top of sprouts, add vermouth and stock, then bring to a simmer.  Once simmering, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pot with a lid and cook gently until the sprouts are tender and can be pierced easily with a paring knife, about 15-20 minutes.
  3. Remove Brussels sprouts to a serving bowl.  Increase heat to medium, and add cream. Simmer for about 3 minutes, or until slightly thickened.  Whisk in mustard’s.  Adjust with more salt if necessary.  Pour sauce over sprouts, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.

Two mustard’s sauce just before pouring over sprouts.

Over the top Brussels sprouts with two mustard’s.

This side dish is good with chicken, tenderloin filet or bone-in pork chops.  The sauce alone would also work well with sautéed cabbage.

” The only stumbling block is fear of failure.  In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”  –Julia Child

 

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Putting Up With Each Other

As our farm season slowly comes to a close, the tempo at the farm slows down as well.  It always seems like a long exhale after tomatoes (we harvested almost 5000 lbs this year).  As little as three years ago, after our heirloom tomato season was done, our market stall looked pretty bleak.  This year we have gotten our fall crops down.  Our stall is teaming with shelling beans, mustard, kale, Swiss chard, collards, leeks, fennel, rutabaga, turnips, arugula, herbs, beets and carrots.  The more we understand how seasonal changes affect what we grow, the greater our chance for success.  Overall we have had a great year in spite of the record breaking drought.  The cooler temperatures have all of us thinking of cooking something savory again, putting up food and preserving it before the first hard frost.

We have been putting up food all season long.  Many of our customers wonder how in the world we manage after a full work day and preparing for market.  Yet its one of those times that you snooze, you loose.  It kills us to purchase produce at the grocery store during the winter, when we grow it ourselves.  So far we have roasted tomatoes, made salsa, tomato sauce, tomato soup, dried herbs, dried tomatoes, dried sweet and hot peppers, frozen corn and shelling beans.  We will also make pickled beets and freeze greens.  Tonight a hard frost is predicted so we decided we better get out and harvest some Swiss chard.  After breakfast we donned our rain coats and headed out for the back field.  The rows of chard looked so vital and lush.  It loves the cooler weather, but will not survive temperatures below freezing without damage.  We set about picking 20 gallons or so of the stuff.

20 gallons of plump chard ready to be put up

We filled a large kettle with water and put it on to boil.  In the meantime, we trimmed the stems, then washed the leaves.  Next, taking several leaves at a time, we rolled them up into a fat cigar (Fidel, you’d be jealous), then sliced them in 1-inch pieces.

Val ribbons the Swiss chard

The next step was to blanch the ribbon-ed leaves in boiling water for 1 minute, then put them in cold water to stop the cooking process.

Blanching the leaves

After cooling down the blanched leaves, we needed to remove the water.  A salad spinner did the trick.

Removing the excess moisture before bagging

If you don’t have a salad spinner, you can wring the leaves out gently between tea-towels.  It’s important not to have too much water clinging to the leaves before you freeze them.  We have a Food-Saver vacuum bag system.  Our unit is over 6 years old and going strong.  They are really worth the investment as food that is vacuumed-sealed lasts for up to 3 years without freezer-burn.

Vacuumed-sealed for winter

In just 90 minutes, Val and I had seven 8 cup bags of Swiss chard ready for the freezer.  We know its chemical free, grown with love and will end up being enjoyed in various ways from casseroles to soups and stews.  We look forward to eating our greens.

We then decided to put up the 4 large heads of cauliflower we purchased from our good friend John Platte.  This went even quicker than the chard.  We were done in a mere 45 minutes.

Beautiful, locally grown cauliflower

We ended up with 10 bags of flowerets ready to be turned into soup, gratins or roasted for pasta.

 

Heading down to the freezer

Putting up produce helps us stay local even in winter.  We feel good about filling our larder with vegetables grown either on our own farm or in our area from other local farmers.

“There is no dignity quite so impressive and no independence quite so important as living within your means.”  –Calvin Coolidge

 

 

 

Posted in Essays, Farm News, Farmer's Market, Food Issues, Raves, Uncategorized, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Waste Not Want Not

After a three month hiatus, I’ve decided to return to blogging about food and our farm.  It was impossible for me to juggle all the demands of the summer and have anything left to think coherently, much less write.  We are just starting to turn the corner on the most intense part of our year, so now was a good time to recommit to posting on the blog.

When I returned home from market on Friday and unloaded the van, I went into the barn to find every available surface covered with tomatoes.  I went about pulling and packing for the following market day.  I started sorting tomatoes and tossing the fruit that has ‘gone south’ and can’t be used into a wheelbarrow.  This gets divided between our chickens and our compost pile.  The tomatoes that are merely bruised or damaged in some way I put to the side.  Last year I used some of these and made a fantastic roasted heirloom vodka sauce.  This year is different.  Our tomato yield had quadrupled due to using a new guide-wire system, creating a larger percentage of usable ‘seconds’. By the time I was finished sorting for Saturday, I had a two whole tub of heirlooms.  It was time to roast them in batches with a few adjustments and can them for winter.

No such thing as a wasted heirloom. Here they are ready for the oven.

I brought them all into the kitchen.  I got out my roasting pan and decided it would hold at least half of them at one time.  With Val’s help we proceeded to cut out the spots, imperfections and bruises, then cut them up in manageable pieces.  We seeded them by holding each topped tomato in our palm, then giving them a slight twist, turning them 20 degrees and repeating this twist.  Most of the seeds and jelly will fall out.  You don’t need to be a perfectionist about this process.  Coring, seeding and chopping went pretty fast and we had the whole roasting pan filled in about half an hour.  I set the oven at 325, drizzled them with olive oil, then sprinkled them with salt.  I added 1 head of garlic, peeled and chopped, 1 tablespoon each of salt, dried basil and oregano.  In they went.  I set the timer for one hour later.  When the timer went off I opened the oven to give it a stir, and removed the first 4 cups of liquid from the pan with a ladle.  This would be repeated twice more for a  total roasting time of four hours.

Now we’re getting somewhere!

The whole house started smelling like a kitchen in Italy.  I had 4 pints of pulpy seasoned broth I would water-bath and use for soups or risotto’s, and half a roasting pan of the most beautiful condensed roasted sauce you could imagine.  Two batches of this roasted sauce yields approximately 5-7 quarts of sauce that can be frozen or water-bathed for 15 minutes.

The uses for this sauce are limited only by your imagination.  Add vegetables, turn it into a  pizza sauce with a quick turn in the food processor or make lasagna.  Tonight I added fresh arugula and poured it over cavatappi pasta.  You can also grill assorted veggies like eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, red or yellow sweet bell peppers and onions.  You name it.

Rich and delicious!

“The federal government has sponsored research that has made the perfect tomato in every respect, except you can’t eat it.  We should make every effort to make sure this disease, often referred to as ‘progress’, doesn’t spread.”  –Andy Rooney

 

 

 

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What’s the Buzz?

Our new top-bar Warre-type hive.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve sat down to do a blog post.  Late spring is an impossibly busy time for us.  We are nearing the completion of planting crops, going to market 3 times a week, along with managing watering, weeding and harvesting.  In spite of it all we still enjoy our evening cocktail, great food, good friends and rousing games of dominoes!

Three years ago we had a thriving bee hive that was essential for pollinating our 5.5 acre vegetable truck farm.  Without our bees, our vegetable production is noticeably smaller per acre.  We, like many amateur and commercial bee keepers have experienced CCD or  Colony Collapse Disorder.  Studies have shown that CCD is possibly the result of environmental stressors, such as an excess of cold and damp weather.  This along with overuse of pesticides to control mites, has resulted in pesticide poisoning.  In addition,  exposure to GMO crops have affected the honeybee population in unimaginable ways.  In an effort to bend nature to our will to produce larger yields of commercial honey, we may just have endorsed an environment that will lead to the destruction of beekeeping as we know it.

Many small-scale beekeepers looked for a more natural and self-sustainable way to keep bees that not only benefited us, but put the bee and its needs ahead of the harvesting of the bees cherished product: honey.  This turned out to be the top-bar hive.  Originally developed by Abbe Warre (1876-1951) a Frenchman who after experimenting with over 350 hives of various designs and types, came up with the People’s Hive.  His goal was to find a hive system that was simple, natural, economical, and bee-friendly.

Inside view of our top-bar hive.

It is our good fortune to have a friend who is not only interested in having his own top-bar hives, but was willing to build and manage one for us as well.  Dennis, who I’ll describe as a brilliant eccentric, has embraced his new hives with a passion to match his intellect.  He and his wife Julie live largely off the grid and off their land.  Beekeeping was a natural extension of this lifestyle.  Learning from Dennis about our new hive is an ongoing adventure.

Dennis’ approach to his hives has some simple rules:

  • Interference in the natural lives of the bees is kept to a minimum.
  • Nothing is put into the hive that is known to be, or likely to be harmful either to the bees, to us or to the wider environment and nothing is taken out that the bees cannot afford to lose.
  • The bees know what they are doing; our job is to listen to them and provide the optimum conditions for their well-being.

Area for bee ‘food’ or syrup to get them started and acclimated to their hive.

Some of the features of our hive are as follows:

  • The hive-body box internal dimensions are 300 x 300 x 210 mm, with projecting handles
  • There are eight 36mm centered 24mm wide top-bars resting in rebates in each box
  • Wax starter strips are under each top bar (NO FOUNDATION)
  • Flat floor, notched with 120mm wide entrance, alighting board
  • Coarse weave cloth covering the top-bars of the top box
  • 100 mm high ‘quilt’ boxed with wood, filled with straw, sawdust, wood shaving etc., retained with cloth
  • Gabled roof containing a ventilated ‘loft’ and separated from the quilt by a mouse-proof board
  • New boxes are added at the bottom

Dennis, being Dennis also added little peak windows of plexiglass covered by small shutters that allow us to observe the interior of the hive without disturbing the bees.  So far the new queen is happy and producing ‘brood’, and the worker bees are busy making comb and bringing pollen to the hive.

Dennis and his beautiful hive.

We are new to beekeeping and look forward to learning from and observing our bees.  Maybe, just maybe they will be happy and content enough to bless us with some honey after a busy season of pollinating our crops and building a healthy hive.

Zucchini flower waits for our bees.

With temperatures soaring beyond 90 for the Memorial Weekend it certainly feels like summer, without the abundance of vegetables coming off the farm.  Fortunately we put up a lot of frozen corn which turned into a great summer salad (even if it’s not summer on the calendar yet!)  This is great when it’s hot and you don’t want to heat up the kitchen.  Serve it with anything from the grill and you’re good to go….

Summer Corn Salad:

A fresh salad ready to be tossed!

  • 2 cups fresh or frozen corn
  • 1 jalapeno minced and seeded
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  1. Mix together first five ingredients.
  2. Mix together oil, lime juice and cumin.  Pour over salad, toss and chill for 45 minutes.

Serves:  4-6

The taste of summer!

Additional suggestions:  Serve with guacamole and chips for a fast lunch.  Use as a filling for quesadillas.  Use as a filling for a frittata.  Yum

“I dreamt — marvellous error! — that I had a beehive here inside my heart. And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.”
― Antonio Machado

Posted in bees, Essays, Farm News, Food Issues, honey, Raves, Vegetables | 7 Comments

Challenges Mean Finding Solutions

Sad, frozen tomato plants.

It’s been quite a week!  We’ve been busy transplanting hundreds of tomato plants for the up-coming market season.  This involves moving the trays that are transplanted to our hoop-houses for them to ‘beef-up’ and harden-off for selling.  With temperatures above average in March, it was disappointing to see them far below average for April.  The hoop-houses can usually deal with a frost and temperatures dipping to the low 30′s, but when we experienced temperatures in the low 20′s on Friday, they were not able to survive.  We walked into the hoop-house to find about a 90% loss.  After a brief melt-down, we put our big-girl pants on and knew we would have to bust ass to get them all replanted by next Saturday.  There is a reason we plant over 8100 plants…and this was it.

Then we were informed that when our newly renovated farmer’s market opens this coming Saturday, it was going to be without the market stalls for the farmers.  For any of you that have dealt with construction projects of this magnitude, you are probably aware of the glitches that are inevitable.  Many farmer’s markets don’t even supply stalls and expect that anyone interested in selling will supply any tables they may need.  Our market has always had stalls, adding to a intentional and uniform look for the market and a sturdy and secure space for each vendor.  To complicate things further, in the event of inclement weather, the vendors will undoubtedly get wet without the protection of their beloved ‘tarps’ that were attached to their stalls.

Ample space, wider isles and protection for our customers!

Now of course, there has been much grumbling from the peanut gallery concerning what has or has not been done ideally.  But Val and I feel there is a ‘shelf-live’ to complaints.  So many people gave selflessly to the creation of this new market with the idea of it being a beautiful destination for those looking to support their local farmers and community.   What is…is.  It is time to come up with solutions that will make the temporary inconveniences tolerable.  What a great time to cooperate with your vendor neighbors and find what might be beneficial for all parties.  The pluses of our beautiful new market will far outweigh its temporary shortcomings.

Val constructing our temporary stalls.

We started by constructing four modular market stalls; two for our beloved market neighbors Fred and Linda, two for us.  Val (being a licensed contractor) came up with a design which we constructed on the farm and transported to market.

The master at work.

Fred met us there with a great design for our market tarps that was inexpensive and ideal for a quick install for bad weather.

Fred checking his design for our tarps.

Val, Fred & Me

We are looking forward to our 2012 market season with all its fun, glitches and laughter. We can’t wait to renew our relationships with our terrific customers and get their impressions of their new and improved market.  Let the fun begin!

“Believe it is possible to solve your problem. Tremendous things happen to the believer. So believe the answer will come. It will.”  –Norman Vincent Peale

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The Real Dirt on Spuds

The promise of a great harvest.

It’s been a wild week for us!  We received our seed potatoes and onion sets on Wednesday from Moose Tubers in Waterville, Maine.  We try to get our ordern to them in early January, hoping for the best selection.  This year we are growing 10 varieties of spuds.  I remember when I first came to the farm five years ago, I had thought that potatoes were virtually all the same, regardless of the variety.  Oh contraire!  Not only do they vary in skin and flesh color, but their texture and flavor are unique to each variety as well.  Some are good for baking or roasting, while others are better mashed or in salads.  There are some varieties that can literally make me swoon, like Purple Vikings, Rose Finn Apple Fingerlings and Katahdin.

Potatoes prefer well-drained fertile soil.  As some of you know, we grow in clay which is a blessing and a curse.  A blessing when most things go well and we get plenty of sunshine, a curse when Mother Nature sends too much rainfall.  I’m not much of a gambler, but farming can certainly be a crap-shoot!  Normally you plant potatoes when the soil is about 55-60 degrees and dry enough to work easily.  We had near perfect conditions this year, as we have not seen rain for over a week.  It is also suggested, to plant potatoes when the dandelions are in bloom (which from the looks of it are more than abundant)!   Planting has been much easier for us ever since Val’s Potato Rickshaw was constructed.  We use this not only for potato and onion planting, but for garlic and tomatoes as well.  It saves our knees, backs and our dispositions.  Within three days we were able to plant 7,000 sets of onions and 650 pounds of seed potatoes!  The rule of thumb is for every 10 pounds of seed potatoes planted, we should yield 100 pounds of potatoes.  As we are not mechanized, that’s a lot of digging!  Although extremely labor intensive, it remains a favorite crop.

There are early, mid-season and late-season varieties of potatoes.  Fingerlings are mid-season and are 5-7 times more expensive than traditional potatoes.  This year we opted for two varieties:  LaRatte and Rose Finn Apple.  LaRatte is yellow-skinned and yellow-fleshed that is plumper than most fingerlings.  They are all the rage in Europe and have been described as having a  perfect texture.  Rose Finn Apple has been a favorite of our farm for several years, with pinkish skin and light yellow flesh.  Considered waxy with a dreamy creaminess that is as unforgettable as its name.

Our early potatoes are the ever favorite Yukon Gold, its relative Red Gold, and Chieftain.  Yukon has a yellow-buff skin and yellow flesh.  Its familiarity bodes well at market for those customers who hate change.  Red Gold is quite similar to Yukon  and comes on even earlier, which makes it all the rage as a ‘new potato’.  They need only a light steam and a toss in butter, and a touch of salt.  Chieftain comes on a little later,  with its red skin and white flesh.  Its texture is more floury, which makes it suitable for roasting.  Unlike most of the early’s it also stores well.

Our mid-season varieties are Purple Vikings and Yellow Finn.  Purple Vikings, one of my personal favorites, has pinkish-purple skin with white flesh.  Don’t be fooled by its good-looks alone, I found that it really shines in potato salad and is also good baked or roasted.  I enjoy combining it with an additional color like Chieftain when I make our Brickyard Farms potato salad.  Yellow Finn are pear-shaped with yellow skin and flesh.  They are excellent for both roasting and baking and are raved about for home-made gnocchi.

Last, but by no means least are our late-season varieties:  Bintje, Red Pontiac and Katahdin.  Bintje, grown originally by the Dutch (who know a thing or two about potatoes) since 1905.  It is the most widely grown yellow-fleshed potato in the world, due to its adaptability to a wide range of soil types, storability and growth habits.  It is reported to have  exquisite flavor.  Red Pontiac with its red skin and white flesh is a favorite for mashed potatoes.  This historical potato has been cultivated since the 1800′s and is known for its sweet flavor and creamy texture.  Finally we have Katahdin.  Known by the Irish and Maine potato growers as the choice winter potato.  I have never had a better mashed potato in the life!  Its texture is so creamy that I close my eyes as I eat.  It also stores well, as do most late-season types.

Now you might think that with all this potato talk that I might share a recipe for a gratin or potato salad; and that was my original intention.  However my sister-in-laws surprised us with 12 of the most beautiful Meyer lemons from the tree in their back yard.  We decided to be spontaneous and make Val’s Lemon Bars with them instead.

Beautiful Meyer Lemons.

Val’s Lemon Bars

Crust:

  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more to sprinkle on finished bars
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 8 Tbsp (1 stick) sweet butter, softened but still cool, cut into 1 inch pieces
Filling:
  • 7 large egg yolks, plus 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup juice & 1/4 cup finely grated zest from 4-5 lemons
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) sweet butter,  cut into 4 pieces
  • 3 Tbsp heavy cream

  1. FOR THE CRUST:  Spray a 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.  Fold two 16-inch pieces of foil lengthwise to measure 9 inches wide.  Fit one sheet into the bottom of the greased pan, pushing it into the corners and up the sides of the pan, the overhang will help in removal of the baked bars.  Fit the second sheet in the pan in the same manner, perpendicular to the first sheet.  Spray the sheets with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Place the flour, confectioners’ sugar, and salt in a food processor and process briefly.  Add the butter and process to blend, 8-10 seconds, then process until mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse meal, about three 1-second pulses.  Sprinkle the mixture into the prepared pan and press firmly with your fingers into an even layer over the entire pan bottom.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  3. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Bake the crust until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

    Preparing filling

  4. FOR THE FILLING:  Start the filling as soon as crust is in oven as it will need to be poured into the warm crust.  In a medium nonreactive bowl, whisk together the yolks and whole eggs until combined, about 5 seconds.  Add the granulated sugar and whisk until just combined, about 5 seconds.  Add the lemon juice, zest and salt; whisk    again until combined, 5 seconds more.  Transfer the mixture into a medium nonreactive saucepan, add the butter pieces, and cook over medium-low heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the curd thickens to a thin sauce-like consistency and registers 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 5 minutes.  Immediately pour the curd through a single-mesh steel strainer set over a nonreactive bowl.  Stir in the heavy cream; pour the curd onto the warm crust immediately.
  5. Bake until the filling is shiny and opaque and center 3 inches jiggle slightly when shaken, 10-15 minutes.  Cool on wire rack to room temperature, about 45 minutes.  Remove the bars from the pan using the foil handles to a cutting board or decorative plate.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar.  Cut into 2 1/4 inch squares, wiping knife clean between cuts as necessary.

Almost ready.

Beautiful and delicious!

Life is uncertain.  Eat dessert first.  ~Ernestine Ulmer

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Tomato Dreams

I was staring out our kitchen window this morning,  taking in all the beautiful spring green around the farm.  I’ve already mowed the grass twice, and many of the trees are in an advanced stage of leafing out.  After the warmest March on record, nature seems to have tapped the breaks with the return of evening frost warnings.  Spring fever hit me hard this year.  I recognize with seasonal temperatures back in the 40′s, that getting out the shorts and sandals, was indeed premature; but I just couldn’t help myself.

It begins with all those little seeds.

Grow, grow, grow!

The brief burst of warm weather did allow us to get a jump on a few things.  Our land has been tilled for spring planting and we have our garlic, beets, carrots, lettuce and spinach planted.  Our greenhouse is filled with over 8100 tomato seeds, along with peppers, herbs and cabbage.  It’s hard to believe that market starts in less than a month!  It will be interesting to see all the new renovations that have taken place during the winter months.  We are labeling soaps during rainy days, and are trying to get more time in the shop for making spoons and salt cellars for something new this year.

But the thing that keeps me going right now is the dream of warm days to come.  I am anxious for three things: garlic, tomatoes and basil.  As a foodie who loves growing food, life would be a little empty without the sweet, pungent, aromatic taste of those three things.  For me it borders on a religious experience.  We are almost through our stock of sauces, pesto and salsa.  As much as I enjoy using all those wonderful homemade foods, nothing will ever beat fresh.  When the tomatoes are on, I will eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.  BLT’s, uncooked tomato sauce, caprese salad, gazpacho, salsa, bruchetta and pesto are all on the menu for summer eating in the screened-in porch with lake breezes and good friends.  In the mean time I will practice being in the present with the beautiful Swiss chard from our  hoop-house.  My two favorite ways are sauteed and topped with a poached egg or combined with garlic-cream and pancetta for Swiss chard casserole.  My brother-in-law who “hated” Swiss chard had seconds, twice.

Swiss Chard Casserole

Preparing Swiss chard for the casserole

  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 3 slices pancetta, diced
  • 1 large bunch Swiss chard, washed & drained, stems removed & chopped into 1/4 inch slices, leaves cut into ribbons (stems = 2 1/2 cups, leaves = 7-8 cups)
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Butter a shallow 5-6 cup ceramic gratin dish.  Melt 1 Tbsp of the butter and toss it with the breadcrumbs; set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan, bring the cream and garlic to a boil.  Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes, reducing the cream to about 3/4 cup.  Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Meanwhile, in a 12 inch nonstick skillet, cook the pancetta over medium heat until crisp and browned.  Drain on paper towels reserving 1 Tbsp fat in skillet.  Add the remaining 1 Tbsp butter to skillet and melt.  Add the chard stems and saute over medium heat until they are soft and slightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Add chard leaves.  Saute about 2-3 or until wilted.
  4. With tongs, transfer the contents to gratin dish, leaving any excess liquid in skillet.  Spread evenly. 
  5. Sprinkle pancetta over chard.  Top with pecorino cheese.  Pour the seasoned cream over all and top with buttered breadcrumbs.  Bake until golden and bubbly, about 25 minutes.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Creamy and savory.

Serves 4-6
“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.”  –Voltaire
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Occupy Your Garden!

Need we say more?

So let me ask…..how many of you have vegetable gardens?  How many of you frequent farmer’s markets?  Until I lived and worked on a farm, I was pretty clueless about growing food.  So why should we be concerned?

Food gardens and orchards were once common in the western world, but have been replaced by manicured lawns and a few ornamentals.  How is this possible when surveys show gardening as our favorite pastime?  Yet when it comes to whole food, the closest most of us get is the local produce section of our grocery stores.  The enlightened might venture out to the farmer’s market and hopefully spend their food dollars with a genuine farmer.

Not long ago we were an agricultural rather than industrial society.  Most farms were family farms until the 1940′s.  These farms were not mono-cultures, but grew and raised a variety of vegetables, fruits and livestock.  These were largely self-sustaining farms that grew their own feed grains to feed their livestock, using field rotation and organic methods.  They would compost and return their manure to their fields to fertilize the soil.  Pests were controlled by having multiple crops in smaller fields.  Although it was labor intensive, the hoe and the plow were the weed control methods of the day.

Enter WWII.  Many left family farms to serve, creating an exodus to the cities by many who no longer valued agrarian life.  There was opportunity in the city.  With this change came the battle cry of bigger is better; mono-crops replaced the thoughtful and common sense approach to farming.  Cheap petroleum, along with new science, created the world of pesticides, to address the new push of agribusiness for mono-crops.  Commodities replaced food.  Herbicides were the preferred weed control method.  Free range animals were sequestered into feed lots, resulting in the need for preemptive antibiotics.  Chemicals were more cost-effective than manual labor.  The family farm was lost.

Rachel Carlson was before her time when she wisely commented: “Future historians may well be amazed at our distorted sense of proportion.  How could intelligent human beings  seeking to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

Our food system is more fragile than we realize.  Dr. Vandana Shiva stated, “Seeds controlled by Monsanto, agribusiness trade controlled by Cargill, processing controlled by Pepsi and Phillip Morris, retail controlled by Wal-Mart–is a recipe for food dictatorship.  We must occupy the food system to create food democracy.”

As these concerns play out, organic farming and the local food movement has tried to respond by educating the consumer about how to change our food system to become more sustainable.  Concerns about quantity over quality, profit over sustainability and the environment, will need to be seriously addressed in our lifetime.  Our current industrial practices are not sustainable.

I had never put up food before I came to the farm over 5 years ago.  I would simply purchase whatever I needed whenever I needed it.  I was not conscious of the connection between food and health.  When fresh became my motto, I learned that if I planted it, raised it and harvested it, it’s going to taste better than if I bought it.  Fresh herbs and whole foods became my passion.

Becoming a partner of a 5.5 acre vegetable truck-farm was what it took to turn the proverbial corner.  Growing food has changed my life in a multitude of ways.  Now I can tomatoes in all their various guises:  sauce, whole, chopped, salsa, as well as my own Puttanesca relish.  I freeze dozens of trays of roasted tomatoes to use in future recipes.  I can homemade apple sauce and fruit butters, pickle beets and ginger peaches.  I freeze fresh corn and pole and shelling beans, along with strawberries and blueberries for smoothies.  We harvest eggs almost daily from our laying birds and feed them our vegetable scraps.  Val has learned to make home-made bread, and has turned into an excellent baker.

Now you might ask, “How in the world do you find the time?”  My response to that is twofold; one, we are NOT television watchers, and two, it’s a labor of love.  The flavor of home-grown vegetables is so superior, I literally find the time.  Since doing this we have cut our grocery food budget by more than half, saving thousands of dollars annually.  But the monetary savings is only one form of wealth.  We are so much richer for the life on our farm.  The sound of birdsong, the physical labor, the smell of fresh earth, the excitement of watching seeds grow into mature plants, which produce vegetables so good that you close your eyes when you eat.  This is not a need for nostalgia, but a prayer of gratitude for seeing with new sight.  Knowing what is possible when food is home-grown or grown locally, makes me want to sing its praises and encourage others to dynamite their lawn and put in a food garden.

Family relationships become deeper when you work together and a family food garden is a great place to start.  When seeds are planted, there is a sense of purpose; a stewardship of your plot of land.  With attention to what’s needed your efforts will be rewarded with food grown with your own hands for your own table.  I know each spring when row after row of seeds are sown, there is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing rows of tiny green seedlings breaking ground and reaching for the sun.  It’s a birth and there you stand like a proud parent.

Then it starts.  You read, you experiment, and you want the best for those seedlings.  How much water is too much; how much too little?  Those little seedlings will inform you whether or not you are on the right track.  You will weed and weed again.  Each day you will observe.  Didn’t it grow twice as big after the last rain?  You will curse the cut-worm or slug that caused it to fail.  You will take it personally.  You will uncover your creativity and discover solutions for problems and challenges.  All the while, each of you will be invested in the outcome.  With shovel and hoes in hand, your investment will bare fruit as you slowly become closer to the earth and each other.  You will find that you do indeed reap what you sow.  If your space is limited, you might consider incorporating vegetables in your perennial garden as borders or backdrop.  Many vegetables offer both color and texture to the aesthetic eye.

So start now.  Whether it’s a few pots on your balcony or deck, or planning a small 10 x 10 plot; learn what it takes to grow food.  The learning curve is immense, but the reward will more than match your efforts.  What I have learned about farming and growing food is not planted in the soil, but in the heart.  In these fields of plenty, we are all asked to the table.

“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”  –May Sarton

Posted in Essays, Food Issues, Rants, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

March Madness!

Does this look like March in Michigan to you?

No, it’s not hoops and the tourney, but some of the oddest weather we’ve ever seen.  We just finished up with an extremely mild winter.  We only had three significant snow falls, which were literally gone 3-4 days later.  The entire season was back and forth, up and down.  But now, what do you say to temperatures over 35 degrees above normal?  We have set record after record already for this time of year.  If I thought I was disoriented during the winter, I’m totally confused having late May in mid March!

Our family in California is having colder than normal temps, while we are in shorts and sleeveless shirts!  Although there are still some hold-outs claiming that climate change is bad science and a conspiracy, I for one am quite convinced of its truth.  The question is what do we make of all this weather stuff anyway?  As a farmer, if the weather can’t teach you flexibility, nothing will.  So here we are getting a jump on our season, by tilling six weeks ahead of schedule.  What the heck, just take each day as it comes, stay flexible and get going!

Towanda and I getting ready to till one of our fields.

Towanda and me getting ready to till one of our fields.

Beautiful soil, ready for planting.

For those of you who have followed our adventures in farming, you know that our garlic crop has been a lesson in itself!  We have had success and failure due to weather extremes and growing in clay.  We have lost thousands of dollars in seed stock, yet stay committed to a crop that gives us such joy we refuse to give up on it.  After three consecutive years of frustration, Val decided to get completely out of the box.  When traditional methods fail, its time to rely on your own knowledge of your land, its cycles and its personality.  We have purchased seed stock for many years.  Last year, we had some seed stock that did not look viable and I was heading for the compost pile.  Just before I was ready to chuck it, Val told Zac and I we were going to plant it.  We couldn’t believe it!  Quick frankly, it looked like crap, not to mention it was the wrong time of the year.  Yet plant it we did….when will I learn?  By fall, we had some of the highest quality single bulb seed stock we had ever seen! We were clearly on to something!  Seed stock adapted to our land and climate could be the ticket to success.  Time will tell.  It takes two years for this method to come to fruition.  If it works, we will no longer need to purchase garlic stock, which could save us thousands of dollars annually.

Seed stock

So since it’s May in March, we have opened up the screened-in porch and have already enjoyed gin and tonics, along with a rousing game of Mexican Train dominoes.  Today after tilling we decided to retrieve some fresh-frozen cannellini beans from our freezer and make a warm bean and herb salad.  The hoop-house herbs are looking great, particularly because of our mild winter.  It’s one of the many ways to use fresh beans, and pairs well with anything on the grill.

cup

Fresh herbs from the hoop-house.

Warm Bean Salad With Olives and Herbs

  • 3 cups drained cooked white beans, such as cannellini, navy or flageolets; (reserving 1/3 cup of cooking liquid)
  • 2 Tbsp good quality olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/2 cup sliced Kalamata olives
  • 1/4 cup  chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 large fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
  • 3-4 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

Yummy ingredients


  1. Place beans in a medium nonstick skillet and set aside.
  2. To make the dressing, in a small skillet, combine the olive oil and garlic over low heat, and cook until garlic is soft, about 3 minutes.
  3. Increase heat to medium and add the rosemary and thyme.  Cook for an additional 3 minutes.  Do not let garlic brown.
  4. Add the bean cooking liquid and olives, increase heat to high and boil for 30 seconds.
  5. Scatter the parsley and basil over the beans and pour the dressing over the beans, tossing to coat.  Heat until beans are warm and most of the dressing has been absorb by the beans.  Serve warm.
Serves 4

Wonderful, warm and satisfying!

“It’s spring fever.  That is what the name of it is.  And when you’ve got it, you want – oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ”   ~Mark Twain

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The Devil’s in the Details

Being vegetable farmers, we don’t eat out a lot.  When we do go into town and want to eat out, we tend to stay away from chain restaurants.  In a pinch we are willing to eat at Panera or Chipotle.  There are many reasons for this that I won’t go into now, but suffice it to say, we can eat better at home.

We did however find ourselves in Panera the other day for lunch.  I was desperate for the restroom at the time, so while Val was ordering I hurriedly headed in that direction.  I opened the door to find a man standing there.  He looked surprised, then annoyed.  I gave him my best disapproving look and slipped into a stall, promptly locking myself in.  I waited until I heard the thud of the restroom door and let out a sigh of relief.  What was he doing in here anyway?  Hopefully he wasn’t a pervert!  Maybe he was just confused?  No, I thought and settled on jerk.  I finished my business, unlocked the stall and headed to the sink to wash my hands.  It was then I noticed the urinals to my right.  My face flushed bright red in the mirror.  I gathered my pride, picked up my 2 inch self and quietly slithered out of the restroom, hoping desperately to go unnoticed.  They really should make those signs bigger!  Walking briskly past the gentleman who had been in the men’s room, I flashed him my best smile, although my flushed face was a dead giveaway.  I sat down across from Val and said, “I think I’ve lost my appetite.”

“How come?”

I was full of humble pie.  All the way home we would look at each other, laugh hysterically and I would just shake my head.  I was so sure.  Once home it was clear that I needed some comfort food.  We settled on homemade Mac-N-Cheese.  At least it was something I could be sure of!

Assembling the ingredients

In the beginning, mac-n-cheese for me was made with good old-fashioned Velveeta and plenty of it.  Then we upgraded to Kraft, as it was cheep and easy.  Sometimes we would even jazz it up with a little diced ham.  After having my fill of this approach, when I was single and low on cash, I started looking for the real thing.  I soon found there are many approaches to homemade mac-n-cheese.  I now use a version which enables me to use many different kinds of cheese, along with protein and vegetable additions.  I appreciate a recipe that offers so much flexibility and that can be adjusted to the diners preferences.  Top it with homemade breadcrumbs and bake it for a real down-home and satisfying dish.

Flexible Mac-N-Cheese:

For the topping

  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 cups coarse, fresh breadcrumbs, lightly toasted
  • 2 Tbsp finely grated Pecorino cheese

Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees F.  Place bread crumbs on cookie sheet or jelly roll pan and toast lightly (about 8-10 minutes).  Place toasted bread crumbs in bowl and toss with butter, garlic and cheese.  Set aside.
For the cheese sauce
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 cups whole milk
  • Kosher salt
  • 3-5 cups of freshly grated soft cheese such as: Sharp Cheddar, Gruyère, Comte, Gouda, Fontina, Monterey Jack or Havarti
  • 1 cup finely grated accent cheese such as:  Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, Feta, Chevre or Mascarpone

Melt butter in a heavy-duty saucepan or Dutch oven on low.  Whisk in flour and continue to whisk over low heat for about 3 minutes.  The butter and flour should gently bubble without coloring.

Making a roux for the cheese sauce

Slowly add the milk, while whisking constantly.  Whisk until the sauce is smooth and has the consistency of heavy cream, about 6-10 minutes.  Raise the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a simmer, continuing to whisk constantly.  Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook for 10 minutes.  Turn off heat and gently whisk in your cheeses and any herbs and spices you have selected.

  
Optional Herbs or Spices
  • 1 1/2 tsp fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, sage or 1/4 cup of parsley (no more than two)
  • 1 tsp of freshly ground black pepper, dry mustard or toasted and ground cumin or 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper or nutmeg (no more than two)
Add-Ins (optional)
  • Combinations of vegetables and/or proteins up to 3 cups such as:  frozen peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, ham or prosciutto, scallions, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, chard or kale, bacon or pancetta, jalapeno or Serrano chiles. 
Make sure you cut and cook your vegetables until just tender or al-dente before adding them.  Fry your bacon or pancetta ahead of time, then drain on paper towels.                        
Pasta
  • Use 16 oz or 1 lb of pasta such as:  elbows, shells, penne, campanelle, ziti, cavatappi, rotini or pipette.
Boil the pasta according to package directions, less one minute.  Drain and place it back in warm pot to combine the rest of the ingredients.  I do this while I’m making the cheese sauce.  Mix pasta, cheese sauce and  add-ins to combine.  Place in 13×9 inch casserole dish, and top with reserved breadcrumbs.  Place in 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until hot and breadcrumbs are golden.  Serve immediately.
Serves 6

This version has spinach, ham, Monterey Jack, Fontina & Pecorino

“Swallow your pride occasionally, it’s non-fattening.”  –author unknown

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