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Posts Tagged ‘farm’

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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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.

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A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.

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I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.

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On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))

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Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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A fatty!

Very, very few things give me as much pleasure as picking the first strawberries of the season. And after a number of years of picking after it had rained the night before (which was gross) and going at noon in the heat (only to plotz), I’ve worked out a practical system.

1) Per my first lesson above, choose a day after a sunny day to go. Mud is a bit of a bummer.

2) Wear jeans, an old t shirt, boots, a hat, and sunblock. Tuck your pant legs into your socks to ward off ticks. Bring a water bottle and more sunblock for the ride home.

3) Go to the farm first thing in the morning when it opens. If there’s still mist floating by, you’re on time. This guarantees the coolest weather of the day as well scarcity of crowds. Besides the farm staff, you’ll probably be the only one there.

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In repose. And about to be macerated in sugar. Don’t breathe a word.

4) While we’re on the topic, introduce yourself and remember to be respectful of everyone who works there. Barring Red Cross relief workers in Uganda, few people work as hard, amid as much uncertainty, while maintaining optimism, as a farmer. And besides that, they feed us.

5) Take a flat out to the fields instead of a basket if you can. Laying the berries in one layer means they won’t get crushed.

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Sliced and lightly sugared for the freezer.

6) Sit your sweet self right down onto the straw path between the rows of strawberries, which is dry because it didn’t rain last night, and pick and scootch along as needed. Sounds nutty, I know, but the benefit of sitting is twofold: it saves your back and quads from pain tomorrow, and you’ll see berries you would have otherwise missed standing and bending.

I’ve written before about taking the time to look beneath, and how much you can reap in doing so. It’s true whether you’re looking for berries or a loyal friend or pretty much anything of value. You need to look, to be deliberate. You need to have your eyes open and reach where others won’t.

You won’t always find something. But you usually will—that I can promise. You’ll get to the counter to pay for your berries and people will flip out. ‘How did you find so many? I was just out there and I only got a pint!’ Just smile enigmatically and whisper, ‘Look beneath.’

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Buttermilk biscuits pipin’ hot.

7) Choose berries that are evenly red, with as few white ‘shoulders’—that’s the top of the berry, by the stem—as possible. Get the darkest red berries you can find for deepest flavor, and eat those up first, since they’re the ripest. Get shiny red ones for firmness and bright flavor; they’ll be the ones that stand up in your showboat recipes like decorative tarts.

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They got creamed.

8) Eat a warm fat one right off the plant. There are many glories gone to us, never to return. This remains. Enjoy it.

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The best thing you can do with a heap of strawberries. Classic Americana: the strawberry shortcake.

 

 

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The following account details a situation I should have handled like an adult and, head bowed, I regret I did not. Or maybe, okay, that entire sentence was a total head fake.

So it’s fig season, running a little late since it was a cool summer. I am lucky enough to know a farmer who grows them, and luckier still that a fair amount of customers don’t even know it. The clear upshot of this is that I end up with a shameless amount of figs, and eat most of their fat gorgeous selves on the way home.* Locally grown figs aren’t all that easy to come by, and for that reason I include them with Italian white truffles, or patience on the New Jersey Turnpike, in their rarity and in the hushed tones in which I speak of them. I love them, and while normally I am a kind and sharing person, I leave that person in the back of my Honda with my yuppie canvas shopping bags during fig season, to come back out again at Thanksgiving time and thrive just until the stuffing is served.

I was at the farm last week, and asked the girl at the counter if I could please go fig slinging. I leaned. I whispered. She and the farmer discussed it, during which another woman overheard and squealed. ‘Oh, you have figs? I love figs! Where are they?’

Did I wail to the heavens? Did I go all Jeff Gillooly? No. I took down a couple of baskets and offered to walk the nice lady out to the trees.

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Quite obviously not figs but dried thistle flowers, or possibly artichokes (they’re in the same family) that grow alongside the fig trees. Coolness.

That totally smacks of Snow White and the hunter, but you can relax. Much wile can be applied under the guise of nice, as any Thin-Mints-quota-driven Girl Scout can tell you. As we walked, the woman asked how to tell if a fig is ripe. I told her it’s been a cool year, and that goodness me, it has been tough to find a ripe fig; and we’re likely to have the same situation that cool and drippy day.

She went on one side of the row of trees and I went on the other. She’s chatting and sharing fig recipes, I’m chatting and marvelling that not everyone eats them all on the way home, and she’s saying, ‘Are you getting many? Wow—you’re right. There just aren’t that many to be had,’ while I am making agreeable tut-tut-it’s-a-shame noises while slipping fig after ripe fig into my coat pockets. Well, I couldn’t put them into the basket or she’d see how many I was picking. And…I was wearing decades-old, secondhand shoes, and I don’t have any problem at all with ducking under leaves to look for hidden fruit. This very nice woman, on the other hand, looked like she was going straight from the farm to Ann Taylor Loft, with her skinny jeans tucked into smart leather booties, and hair combed and everything.

She went to pay (she told me she found five figs) and I stayed on. I live a half hour away, and she told me she lives three houses away. She’s going to end up getting more figs as long as she thinks to visit more often than I do. But then again, maybe not. She’d have to wear crap shoes like me and be willing to brush spiderwebs out of her nose. She really didn’t seem the type.

I did well, as the title reveals. And I’ll be back this week.

*I do have recipes, but due to my above weakness they don’t usually see the light of day.

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