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Posts Tagged ‘farm’

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I love game — venison and the like — but I have zero clue where my affinity for it comes from. My family was into watching MTV or sitting on the flagstone patio eating Carvel ice cream while my dad puffed on a pricey cigar. We were not and are not sportsmen. Living a mile from the Atlantic, we were more inclined to have our bare feet in the sand, not in camo boots and sitting in a deer blind*.

The craziest thing I used to eat at as a grade-schooler was snails. Escargot. I genuinely have no idea what compelled me to order them at a restaurant; I wasn’t exactly an adventurous kid. But I adored them.

My mom couldn’t stomach the thought of game. Just the mention of it made her turn a delicate shade of chartreuse. Once I ordered pheasant at a French restaurant and she practically retched right there on the 400-thread-count white tablecloth. I’m not ashamed to say that was part of the fun of ordering pheasant in the first place. And it was pretty tasty to boot.

Since then I’ve had alligator sausage in Florida, moose and elk burgers in Colorado and most recently, venison here in the great state of New Jersey. Loved it all. The gamier, the better. My cousin’s husband is a fervent hunter and fisherman, and we barter deer meat and striped bass for baked goods.

Again, I really need to emphasize that most people here don’t go looking for their food anywhere that doesn’t feature rewards cards. Many wouldn’t even venture to a farm — and this is the Garden State, no less. When I told my friend Brian that I buy eggs at a farm, he reminded me that Wegmans sells eggs, too.

I recently came into an old edition of Joy of Cooking that includes recipes and directions for large and small game. (The copyright page is missing; the publishing date is unknown. But in true Don-Draper fashion, the book’s first chapter is Drinks and it unironically offers several recipes for canapes, so it’s likely mid-century**.) And there are six pages devoted to game. They feature rabbit and deer along with opossum, muskrat, boar’s head, woodchuck, porcupine, beaver, raccoon, peccary — which, as everyone knows, is also called a javelina or skunk pig — and bear. There is also a page and a half devoted to airy and casual discussion of eviscerating the above, as if it’s something you’d mosey out to the woods and do before Don Draper’s cocktail party at six.

Never have I done this; never have I even seen this done. I was so unnerved at the thought of dissecting my fetal pig in Bio 101 that my college prof did it herself. But I am transfixed reading these directions.

Every piece of meat we omnivores eat comes from the big-box store’s refrigerator, wrapped in Styro and celluloid. Where is it from? Under what conditions was the animal killed and processed? We don’t know; we don’t want to know. We pluck chicken thighs from the fridge bin as dispassionately as we choose paper towels or shampoo. We cook and eat it the same way. From a connection standpoint, it couldn’t be farther from the source if was FedExed from Jupiter’s 37th moon.

Maybe explaining how to process and prepare an animal as something you and I can do, something people have always — directly — done, feels like reconnecting ourselves with our food.

Maybe — and I know I’m going into fraught territory here, but I’ve come this far — processing and preparing meat ourselves is the most honorable way to eat meat.

I came by this venison secondhand. But I can tell you eating it feels profound, even with that one degree of separation. I am reminded with every bite of its provenance. It feels right and proper. The gap closes.

As far as the pot pie recipe goes … there isn’t one. I winged it. To the farm carrots I froze last September I added potatoes and red onion. Found some wild chives on a walk to the lake and tossed in some dried wild purslane, also squirreled away from last summer. Browned the meat partway. Made a thick gravy with chicken broth, Worcestershire, malt vinegar, and hot pepper flakes. I loaded up my mom’s little 1970s earthenware pots, topped them with my pie dough, and baked them for half an hour. She’s nauseated, looking down. But I had a great, and grateful, lunch.

*Just Googled ‘hunting hideout.’ Do you sit in a deer blind or behind one? Are camo boots even a thing? I know my hunting prowess is shining right through. I’m practically Artemis.

**It’s apparently also a book that Point Pleasant Borough High School librarians have been missing for 24 years. I won’t name the perp, but I will say his homeroom was Room 207. Doing you a favor, Mr. 207. Shirley Jones’s Marian would have been all over Robert Preston’s case.

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Disney World’s EPCOT is one of my favorite places on earth, which should confirm any suspicion about my sanity; and when I go there, I head straight to their Living With the Land ride*. It features a farmhouse so beautiful and romantic that I want to move into it. Tall shade trees planted around it, gracious front porch, friendly mongrel wagging his tail, chickens warbling. It is late afternoon; the family bustles around after a long day.

The drive out to my job slices New Jersey in half, like a belt across its waistline. The road I take, Route 33, used to drive my mom crazy. A serious point A-to-point B driver, she derisively called it ‘that little two-lane farm road.’ But I like it. When you’re an earthy type who’s at a desk all day, it’s nice to have reminders all around of earthiness.

I started foraging for wild Concord grapes two years ago. Before then I never saw grapevines anywhere. Now I see them everywhere — especially on the little two-lane farm road. It’s not far from where I harvest grapes every August, actually. I also see elderflower shrubs and lots of beautiful rich green corn. I’m sad to see For Sale signs in front of huge cornfields. Development has hit farmland hard in the Garden State. New farmers are starting to take back the land, some of it, but it’s not fast enough for me. I fantasize about the corn slowly surrounding the For Sale signs and swallowing them up in a massive leafy maw.

The Route 33 extension in Freehold was built across more farmland. Back in the eighties my dad used to buy corn there on his way home from work in the summer. Mr. Matthews knew my dad from a distance and they’d speak to each other in code across the fields: My dad would get out of the car and hold up fingers for however many ears he wanted; Mr. Matthews, on his tractor, would nod and pick that amount. Next to hour-old corn, supermarket corn is ridiculous.

The road runs right through Mr. Matthews’s farm. I think of him every time I drive over this part of the highway. I don’t even know if he’s still alive, this farmer I never met, and wonder what he’d think if he heard the daughter of that guy who held up fingers for corn remembers him every time she drives across his land, and so many years later.

In the distance just before the extension is a beautiful old farmhouse with shade trees planted around it. I think about how high and healthy they are, that the way they are now is what the owners had in mind when they planted them, and how lucky I am that I get to see them as they were intended, surrounding a gracious front porch. And I imagine a friendly mongrel wagging his tail and chickens warbling. If I walk across the cornfield and peek in the window in the late afternoon, will I see the ghost of a family busy getting dinner?

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*Google it; it’s awesome, but it’s probably not kosher to post a link. I don’t want to mess with the Mouse.

 

 

 

 

 

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This is a lemonade-out-of-lemons thing. Well, technically I got a pie out of it. And it concerns figs, not lemons. But saddle up and let’s ride this metaphor out.

A couple of weeks ago, after a hard and surprising first frost, I wandered out to the fig trees at the farm to do triage. Most customers don’t know the trees exist, which I’ll admit to you is a fairly greedy thrill, and those who do aren’t thinking about them in November; plus the girl behind the counter said anything I happened to find was mine for the taking. Take not lightly an ambitious woman with a berry basket.

The figs were small, but I was excited to discover many were soft. So! These could be a pie. These, after being sliced and hit with a drizzle of butter and honey, and sizzled around a little in a pan, could be a pie. A drizzle + a sizzle = redemption. I cleared out every last fig.

One of my biggest challenges* these days is looking at reality head-on and working with it as is. Wishing and wanting aside, and it’s bloody hard to do that, we’re left with the truth in its stocking feet. A big surprise is how often the final product is improved when we create without the benefit of inherent bells and whistles. A bigger surprise is how much pressure falls away when we’re left to retool on our own, and how sometimes we kind of impress ourselves.

They made a pretty nifty pie.

*or irks, depending on the day.

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I haven’t had a second to write since I pulled the Easter bread out of the oven! This is a first, and I’m not jazzed about it. Being a contractor means you’re never bored and always busy. Which, as any contractor can tell you, is simultaneously great, and blows. Today was the first day in months that I haven’t gone Mach 2 with my hair on fire.* I’ve been so happy to relax a little, to start cooking again (brownies for my teenage cast and crew)…

Three sticks of butter plus cake flour mean they’re essentially a semi-solid.

to eat ice cream (hoooo doggy. Twice this week, actually, and both bloody spectacular)…

Chocolate-orange and coconut ice creams plus hot fudge sauce, all homemade, at the bent spoon in Princeton.

My beloved peanut butter moose tracks, greedily gobbled an hour ago.

I am unusual in that I am oddly, inextricably connected to nature; I must see and smell and touch everything new each season. This past month I missed my ephemerals. I only barely nuzzled the Kwanzan cherry blossoms before the rain took them down. I’ve never missed these, and the lack of them has affected me powerfully, like trying to breathe with the only one lung’s capacity. Subtracting them has not been not healthy for me.

But I’m dreaming about visiting the farm (finally open), foraging (wisteria right now, and much more to come). And I had the loveliest surprise a couple of days ago:

I thought I had missed the lilacs, too, blooming so early this year. Drove in between rushed errands to try to find some blossoms that weren’t spent so I could bury my nose in them, and didn’t have much luck. Then I happened upon a huge, lush group of bushes next to the art building at my alma mater, where I was finishing a prop contract. The school is at the opposite end of the state, and I’d forgotten that flowers there bloom later. The wind off the lake blew their fragrance around me before I even saw them, fresh and sweet as could be. I remembered the strange miracle of more: my theory that whatever we miss, somehow the universe makes it back up again. And then some.

*Gratuitous Top Gun reference.

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It’s Fall, and come Fall, I start wanting to melt stuff until it’s goopy and eat it with the shades pulled. Chocolate is a big draw, and so is cheese.* I started thinking about grilled cheese sandwiches and issued myself a challenge to come up with new combinations.

A half-hour’s trip to Whole Foods provided a beautiful crusty loaf of levain**. They bring in some of their bread from Balthazar, and this was one of them. Pullman shaped, it was perfect for sandwiches. Then I bought two kinds of cheese, and then I went to the farm and picked things.

The first sandwich! This is sliced figs (of the six hard-won ripe ones I found in the trees at my favorite farm, but worth the rain in my hair to dig for them), Canadian bacon that I crisped up in olive oil, little tiny caramelized red onions, mascarpone cheese, a little balsamic vinegar, and lots of black pepper. Cooked the whole thing in the same pan that I used to crisp the Canadian bacon. I call it ‘Pigs & Figs.’

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Second! I made Marcella Hazan’s luminous pasta arrabbiata sauce and left out the pasta. It calls for really ripe tomatoes, four cloves of garlic, red pepper flakes, and one hot stuffed cherry pepper. I toasted it up with some oozy Monterey Jack. It was a stunner, and I named it ‘Hot Stuff.’ I think I’ll make it again tomorrow for breakfast.

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One more sandwich to go, with lovely Macoun apples from the farm and more Monterey Jack. I haven’t even made it yet, but I’ve already named it ‘Applejack.’

* And sometimes chocolate and cheese together. I once reviewed a fancy-pants macaroni and cheese place that had a French-trained chef, and he made me grilled chocolate and Brie. It was completely out of control. I still dream about it.

** Not for long. With a proper counter and a dishwasher to boot, soon I’ll be rekindling my affair with the yeast stored in my freezer. It could use a spark.

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I was heading to the blackberry field at my favorite farm recently when I heard the old iron gate above swinging in the wind. It opened with an awkward squeak, then graduated to rich middle notes, then closed to a low baritone, jabbing its voice through the clear day and green landscape.

A 360-degree view of the August farm showed spring asparagus gone to seed and a few weeks off from another appearance, ripe blackberries, raspberries, corn, squash, and more crops beyond. I stood in the middle of LIFE, in exhilaration and exultation.

But the thing is, a farm isn’t a still frame of lush beauty. It’s hundreds of still frames that make up a continuous feature. A farmer knows that, but it just occurred to me that day when the gate whined back and forth, open and shut. A farm is the whole life cycle. It is both lovers’ bed and deathbed, nursery and graveyard.

In spring, the farm is fragile and palest green, a greenhouse full of teeny shoots a few weeks off from being planted because the soil is still too cold.

In late spring and early summer, it’s stretching its legs, testing boundaries, getting cheeky and rosy.

Now, in high summer, the farm is saturated with sun and rain and sugar and bite and intense color. Mid-life is when everything shines and bursts. Corn kernels pop when a fingernail is pressed into them. A ripe melon, at a single, infinitesimally small piercing, splits ahead of the blade wide open with a CRACK on the kitchen counter. Little potatoes dug from dusty soil are washed and roasted, and at first bite their skins, loose from the flesh, snap.

But as the crops lose the light bit by bit every day, that snap gives way to profound sweetness, softness, mellowness. Apples lose their sharp astringent bite, and are finally ready to pick. Tomatoes—boy, if the frost holds off and we can get tomatoes into September or even October, their flesh becomes deeper and richer than any July specimen. Green bell peppers turn lipstick red, and tender. Pumpkins become sweet and earthy. The farm is going to seed. It’s like everything is settling in to resignation, the innate knowing that the honeymoon is over, long over. But the farm is okay with it. We can actually taste that it’s okay with it.

Late Summer into Fall the farmer tosses spent squash and overripe tomatoes right into the fields to nourish them. Nothing is wasted; everything feeds everything else. Even the winter snow helps to fortify the soil. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day, in the 19th century, farmers called fresh snow “poor man’s fertilizer,” and sent the kids out with the plow to turn it under the soil. They didn’t know why it did the job so well, but they knew it did. Now we know it’s full of nitrogen, the most essential ingredient for healthy plant development.

So in August, in the wind, that old gate was the farm’s mouthpiece, singing, reminding me of how it all works. The baby’s squeak to the young adult’s call to the elder’s hum, it’s all a song. It gets sung every year. We’re moving into the baritone hum. Enjoy time’s pendulum and the old iron gate swinging closed, and the flavors that come with them. I think they’re the best of the year.

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Lanterns, carried to the barn to do the milking before sunup and after sundown.

It’s one of my contentions, delusional or not, that objects can be charged with power. I’ve written before about where I will and won’t forage, and when I visited an antiques store after Hurricane Sandy. In both cases, it’s choosing a setting that’s calming and positive. (Of course that choice is totally subjective; there are those who find the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas comforting, and would find my pastures and creaking wooden floors about as appealing as watching paint dry. To each his own.)

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Enormous scale, decorated with a sprig of bittersweet.

A farm store loaded with antique tools, now—this is a place of great power for me. Native nations here in the US wore the pelt or teeth of a specific animal to take on the powers of that animal. Much in the same way, when I see and touch an old utensil, I like to think I can take on the power of its maker and owners.

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Pan, griddle, mill, and other antique heavy kitchen tools, along with the triangle that called everyone to supper.

There’s a grey dustiness to everything here, but it is all still useful. These tools weren’t meant to snap in half, lose their handles after 27 uses, and be replaced with something just as poorly made. I like to think the tools are sitting there quietly, smugly, knowing they have it over everything comparable in the Home & Bath section at Target.

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Another scale and a stuffed tenant.

Very little of the stuff in my kitchen was purchased new. Muffin tins, brownie spatulas, Pyrex bowls and pans, prep bowls, my hand mixer—all were found secondhand at antique shops or at garage sales. Sometimes they were cheaper, but that’s not why I bought them. (Not entirely, anyway.) It’s because new stuff has no power.

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Not a tool, but still way cool. Wooden cream cheese and egg boxes.

Give me the potato masher that could have fed dozens of hungry farmhands in the fifties. I want the wooden-handled cookie cutters that were used to make Christmas cookies during wartime, and cheered everyone up for a little while. I’ll pass on the brand new bowl in favor of the cracked wooden one from Vermont, the one that has proofed hundreds of loaves of bread. It can proof mine now.

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Third scale. The handwritten sign on it reads, ‘Please use very gently. I’m very old. No watermelons.”

Antique tools combine the history of our forefathers and mothers, their thrift and ingenuity, their resilience. I want all of that. Who wants to be alone in the kitchen when you can have company?

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Cast-iron food mill and grinder.

And there’s more. Recently I wrote an article that mentioned a small-town baker of 50 years who wanted to retire. He passed up the tattoo artist and all of the other retailers looking to rent his space, refused to rent it to anyone but another baker. He said, very simply and very adamantly, that he was tired of everything changing.

I feel the same way about my kitchen. I’m not insane (maybe delusional, but not insane); my suped-up Cuisinart makes very quick work of marzipan, and I can’t imagine my world without parchment paper and my Silpat. But for the most part I like the idea of filling my drawers with equipment that outlasted its owners and will last for generations more. Stability: another power.

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The cast-iron stove and more heavy tools of the housewife’s trade. She must have been ripped. Kettle at top left, with a handle that could be suspended over a fire; flatiron at top right. I love the detail on the front of the oven, and its little handle.

Now then. Out of the store, onto the grounds (of unfathomable power), and into the kitchen again. Figs in the forecast.

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