In the Big Garden

In the Big Garden
The Farmer at work...

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Last Supper

I am writing this from the hospital, at a small dimly lit table in the corner of our pleasant delivery room.  Erin has been induced and is fitful, but in decent spirits….for now.
Last night, her mother Kathy joins us for dinner and for a sleepover.  When we left for the hospital this morning at 5AM, she would would remain to make sure Dylan gets to the school bus before heading here later.
Erin wanted a hearty dinner yesterday, as it would be her last solid food for a while.  I pulled out an old favorite from my cookbook, a "one pot" dinner that I used to make for the hunting crowd.  It is absolutely delicious and easy.
Roasted Chicken and Sausages with Pears and Onions
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Take apart a nice young chicken into parts and place them in a good roasting pan along with a few sweet Italian sausage links.  Always use chicken on the bone for this recipe, and if you can…good juicy thighs, arguably the best part of the bird.  Nestle in some cored fresh pear halves and a few halved yellow onions.  Season with olive oil, garlic powder, dried thyme, salt, freshly ground pepper and some fennel seed.  Coat everything to prevent burning. Toss in a couple of springs of fresh Rosemary and then roast for about 40 minutes.  Remove Rosemary sprigs and discard.  Remove everything to a serving platter and drizzle with a little of the copious juices that will accumulate on the bottom.  Always serve this with really good bread because believe me, people will be fighting to dunk their hunks into the goodness!
Anyway, need to get back to business here.  Epidural has just been administered….

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Peach and Tacos

I am writing this early in the morning.  We had a nearly sleepless night, punctuated by Erin’s regular but distantly occurring contractions.  Today we head to the Dr. at 2PM; if Erin is dilated we will return tomorrow morning for inducement.  If not, she will be induced this afternoon and we will spend the night.  Time suddenly seems to me to be hurtling inexorably towards this moment of our little Peach coming to us. 
I feel strange.
I feel not ready.  I feel a little intimidated still.  I feel something akin to stage fright maybe, or the feeling you get when you stand on the edge before a bungee jump, that fluttering and knocking in your chest.
I wonder if I will feel the way I am supposed to when she comes out.  I don’t even know what that is. I feel like I am acting a part and it scares me because when you perform on stage you get to exit at some point and go home for the night.  And I won’t be doing that.
Oh Peach…I hope I am acting like any normal first time Daddy does, or as normal- no, as perfect a one as you deserve. I promise you that if I behave weirdly at first, it’s just because for the first time in my life I feel a little unprepared. I have no idea what to expect. Erin walked me through the steps of warming a bottle yesterday and I felt for a moment detached, like I was watching myself caught in the starring role in some comedy about a guy faced with…well, faced with what I am now.  I have been unattached most of my life, having had the luxury to take care of myself and my dogs mostly.  I was always that guy at the party who got up smiling and casually slunk away to grab a beer or check cell phone messages whenever baby pictures started being shown.  Oh, I have always been reliable for a couple of funny faces over some Mommy’s shoulder in the airport or a couple of polite diaper jokes.
But Holy crap.  Holy, Holy Crap.
Let’s get on to food because it calms me and makes Erin feel better (when it doesn't give her flaming indigestion).
Venison Tacos
These are awesome; of course, you can make them with beef or chicken, but last night, deer was what came out of our freezer.
In most parts of Mexico, a taco generally refers to a soft tortilla stuffed with meat and served with chilies and or a chile sauce on the side- not the crispy “shells” sold by Ortega-God help us. Born in Mexico City and with a parent still in that country, I retain many wonderful memories of eating them at small stands, especially with my father, who shared my love of them with fillings like Borego (mutton) and Carnitas de Puerco (roasted pork).  This version is nothing like those, but was terrific and easy. 
Season ground venison (if using ground meat) with cumin, salt, pepper, garlic powder and a little dried thyme. Heat some canola oil in a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and sauté a small chopped onion until  slightly browned and then add meat to pan, searing it, working a little carmelization into it. Turn down the heat and cover and finish until there is no more red left and then remove from heat.
On a baking sheet, place a couple of open tortillas.  Brush with a paste of roasted tomato (see my recipe for Jugged Harvest Tomatoes and just mash some into a lovely paste) and then top with shredded Monterey Jack and back at 400 until cheese is melted.  Remove from oven and top with whatever you like- last night I dolloped on some of my famous long simmered black beans, fresh avocado and chopped mesclun greens- basically cleaning out my fridge. AWESOME meal!
Talk you all soon...wish me luck!

Happy Farming.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fox in the House, Prolific Broccoli and a Super Desert

Yesterday morning as I harvest late season Broccoli from the field garden, I make a gruesome discovery.  On the southern side I find a large rabbit caught in between the links of the fencing, apparently while fleeing a fox.  The fox made an easy meal of the rear legs but was unable to pull the bunny through to finish and so the front end of the carcass juts through into the shade of my towering plants, incongruously plush and furry, eyes open and glistening. It takes me a while to extricate the carcass and while I carry him to deposit into the woods, the sun on my eastern slope reveals the sturdy frame of a young six point buck crossing the power line.  He pauses to watch me, his small horns in velvet.
The gardens are winding down for the most part.  Tomatoes are still filling basket after basket but that is as it should be now.  The big surprise is our Broccoli, which has been incredibly prolific through this hottest of hot summers.  I have never kept it in this long. I threw in a different varietal this spring called Heirloom Waltham.  The plants, 14 of them, grew huge, happy and leafy but delayed the formation of their heads to a point where it looked as though they were suffering from an over feeding of Nitrogen, not the case because we garden 100% organically and with fresh compost this doesn’t happen. The first compact heads arrived looking much smaller than usual and we harvested with not a little disappointment.  At that point usually I will let a few weeks more of tender secondary stalks develop before taking out the plants altogether.  But for some reason I left them longer and these massive plants have been pushing up quarts of shoots for the entire summer now.  And with the cooler weather returning again they have had a robust second wind, and we are piling up the harvests.
Fall Raspberries on our Everbearering shrubs are coming ripe now- sweeter and plumper than the midseason harvest.  We have six big bushes and they are prolific- they produce far more than we can eat or give away.  What we can’t use fresh Erin will freeze but believe me there are a lot of ways to eat them fresh, on cereal of course (in fact I will walk out with my bowl in a few minutes), pancakes, muffins, fresh in cream, on ice cream, on salads…the list is as long as your imagination.  Frozen, they can be brought out as a lovely sauce for pork or venison or my favorite dessert, Erin’s “Sophila”. The recipe was adapted by her from one given by a friend of Puerto Rican decent though am not sure from where this comes at all.  A “Sophila” is basically a fried fruit turnover.  They are addictive, especially when served hot over ice cream. Here is her basic recipe- try this with the best fresh summer fruit fillings like cherry, peach or raspberry below:
Erin’s Sophila:
Make the filling.  Use a couple of cups fresh or frozen raspberries. Add a lot of sugar, maybe as much as a cup, and then taste.  Frozen raspberries and some fruits can still be a little tart.  You want it sweet and for a little complexity, use some honey to round it out. Just don’t use all honey because you need thickener.  Let that mixture sit.
Take a medium store bought flour tortilla and lay on a work surface.  Scoop two or three tablespoons of the fruit, (letting extra juice drain) out onto the center of the tortilla and then fold into a neat package, essentially up from each side. Tie each package with thread.
Heat up canola oil in good Dutch oven and when ready to fry, gently place each bundle, one at a time to fry until golden brown, flipping once.  They should be crispy on the outside and hot in the middle.  Serve them on a plate in a drizzle of good melted chocolate or of course, over ice cream.  They are TO DIE FOR!!
And speaking of fruit, we have just harvested the last of our spectacular cantaloupes. To sit here and extol their virtues and superiority over anything bought from the store is an understatement.  They are simply exquisite, ambrosial.  Cutting them crosswise reveals a firm marigold flesh and almost floral bouquet…an assault of the senses- and that’s all before you put them in your mouth.  Which I have not had much opportunity to do lately because they vanish as soon as I bring them in and set them on our counter.  You see, my lovely Erin has developed a pregnancy fueled fetish for these delightful orbs and arises like some fruit loving vampire throughout the night to lap their nectar with Baby Peach, who undoubtedly shares her fervor from within.
Ah well, I will just have to grow more next year.
And speaking of Baby Peach, it looks like we will be inducing labor this Friday.  More to come!

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Hard Question, A New Generator and Jugged Tomatoes

Another very cool and grey morning dawns.  Crows sit as still as black rocks in the field behind our house.

As I take Dylan down to wait for the bus after breakfast, he squats suddenly to look at something in the grass.  It is a small finch, still warm and soft. 

"Is it dead?" he asks me.

I stoop to get a better look. "Yes, she probably flew into the side of the house, buddy". 

I take the small carcass delicately by a tail feather and we walk down to toss it off into brush across the road.  Dylan is quiet as we stand and stare out over our pond.  I ask him what he is thinking and he leans his head into my belly. 

"The bird is dead", he says in a small voice.

I look up at the first color in the trees on the hillside to the east, at the heavy apples hanging in our trees by the road.

"Yes" I say.

After a moment he looks at me.  "Why do people die?"

The question takes me momentarily aback.  I have never really thought about that, at least not directly. I do not suscribe much to the precepts of organized religion or the biased answers that they proffer to soothe us.  An incredibly pragmatic and possibly Pagan reply comes to mind and without editing, I share it.

"Well buddy", I say, "I guess people die because it's nature's way of making sure that there is plenty of room for all of us.  Otherwise you'd have to share your bed with Ben Franklin or Grandpa Hank.  And both of them snored."

He considers this solemnly and I impulsively take his little hand and turn him to look at the spot where I have tossed the bird.

"And just because something dies doesn't mean it goes away forever. Where I put that little birdie, after a few months she will be gone...but in the spring, something, a flower or some grass will grow up where she was.  And so in a way, that little birdie will come back again and again and again, every year, forever.  Pretty cool right?"

He smiles for the first time and nods.  The bus appears shortly afterwards to collect him and then when he is gone and the road is silent I stand and think about my answer to him. And I think about how much children can amaze you, about just how crazy it is that a five year old boy can still ask a question that not the greatest scientist or war leader, President or philospher can answer any better than he probably could in the first place. Just some musings for an Autumn morning.

Yesterday, Erin and I pick up our new 5000 watt generator that will be hardwired into the house through a load balancing switch, essentially a computer.  The unit will be able to be easily activated in the case of an outage and capable of supporting all of our basic power needs including my home office.  It is an expensive configuration but we rely on heat and power in the winter more than most people and a failure of the heat for several hours in sub 20 degree weather can mean frozen pipes or much, much worse.  I cannot be worrying during my hectic traveling sprees about Erin, Dylan and of course, our little soon to be Genevieve.  I am leaving nothing to chance. Call it "Man Nesting"- expecting a baby will do that to a compulsive like me.

Erin has another bad night, bad dreams, discomfort and sleeplessness.  This little Peach has got to get a move on...Mommy needs a break.

Dinners are a challenge lately with Erin's indigestion and I have to consider choices carefully.  She is in the mood for burgers last night, so I acquiesce.  We consider our meat very carefully these days.  If you do not yet understand the magnitude of the issue that we face as consumers of beef and other meat, read "Fast Food Nation" and read it NOW.  I won't horrify you here but it is imperative that you understand what is going on and take actions to protect yourself from illness or worse.

We stay with pastured raised and local beef that supplies a specialty provider down the road. For our burgers last night I use my tried and true basic approach- a mix, approximately 60 to 40 of good organic ground beef to ground venison.  I am a hunter of deer and can tell you that venison is one of the healthiest meats you can eat.  More importantly, because it is lean, it imparts a flavor that is distinctive, "beefier" many say than beef.  I hear this often from visiting Italians who have told me that my Bolognese with venison tastes like the authentic sauce of their childhood memory. I form the patties loosly and season with garlic and onion powder, a little salt and pepper.  Once formed, I chill them on parchment paper for about a half hour and then salt the outsides of the patties before grilling or frying, to develop a good crust.  And oh yeah, we ALWAYS have a rich assortment of toppings including but not limited  to avocado, homemade pickle relish, caramelized peppers, sauteed mushroms, Gorgonzola, thick pepper bacon, homemade mango chutney, marinated fresh tomatoes, grilled onions, local Blue Cheese, etc. 

Yeah, our burgers rule, hands down.

After dinner, I make a tray of one of my favorite condiments of late summer.  I call these "Jugged Harvest Tomatoes".  They are awesome in pastas, on bruschetta, in wraps or even in omelletees or salads. You must try them. If you don't have your own tomatoes, head over to the farmers market and buy some to use. There are as many variations as you can imagine- the one below is a basic one, but delicious.

Jugged Harvest Tomatoes:

Pre-heat over to 300 degrees. Wash a few Roma (plum) or your favorite tomatoes.  Slice lenghtwise and squeeze out the loose pulp and seeds  and discard. Place tomatoes on a baking tray.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, finally chopped garlic and sugar and drizzle with olive oil.  Bake for an hour and a half to two hours until tomatoes are reduced in size and slightly browned around edges.  Allow to cool.  In a canning jar, pack tomatoes in with sprigs of rosemary or fresh thyme and cover with olive oil and seal.  Store in refridgerator for up to 4 days.

Happy Eating!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bomb Sauce

Tonight, I finish making the soup from this morning.  The temperature has dropped here soup seems the inevitable call for our dinner.

I have rendered the carcass plus some aromatics and salt and pepper into a rich broth.  I reserve and pick meat from the bones into a seperate bowl.  From our freezer, I take out fresh frozen and local sweet corn, Brussel Sprouts, string beans and chopped Chard stalks- all of our harvests from the summer.  From our storage pantry I pull a handfull of plump potatoes and two cured yellow onions and from the garden, two long stout carrots. All are chopped and diced and then added to a few tablespoonfulls of hot oil in a french enameled pot.  After a brief sautee, I add the turkey broth and then cook until the potatoes are tender. I toss in the juicy turkey meat and cook until heated through.

How do we serve it?  This is Erin's touch: a puffy white and steaming island of rice in molded in a big bowl  and the soup is ladeled in around it...and what a meal it is!

But I am always perfecting and trying to accompish that state from what is available fresh from our plots.  A couple of  days ago I bring in two harvest baskets of  cherry bomb peppers, a varietal that grows well in our cool summers and as the name suggests, these peppers release a powerful combination of heat and sweetness. I decide that a good hot sauce will liven up this turkey soup in just the right way.

If you have never made a homemade hot sauce, if you are one of those people who spends tons of money of "rare" and interesting sauces with cool names and labels- and you think you really know what a good sauce tastes like...guess again. Here is my advice.  Head to your local farmers marlet and pick up a bag or two of their best "in season" hot peppers and make your own.  Here is how we do it at the farm:

Bomb Sauce

Take a bunch of nice fresh chilies and rince and slice; we grow jalepeno and Cherry Bomb- so I use those. Add them to a medium saucepan along with some minced garlic, chopped onion, a bay leaf and just enough vinegar to cover.  Bring to a slow simmer and then cook covered for about 20 minutes, or until the chillies are tender.  Add salt and then honey or sugar, or even fresh fruit (like a few hunks of melon) and cook for a few minutes longer.  Using a food processor, blend the mixture and then correct seasonings. Let cool and then place in a canning jar and refridgerate and enjoy. Note:  it can be frozen!

A few swirls in our fresh turkey soup tonight makes stars fly.  Erin eyes me from where she sits.  Reluctantly, she slides over her bowl of soup and I mix a few drops of "Bomb Sauce" in for her.  She is ready to get the baby out and spice is reputably the best medicine.  We'll see.

For the rest of this meal?  A hot, crispy loaf of artisanal bread; a leafy green salad with fresh sliced figs, cured olives and red onion and of course a pile of our best, ripe heirloom 'maters, sliced and drizzled with good oil and vinegar.

Wish you could have been there :)

False Alarm #1 and an Awesome Chutney

This morning Erin wakens me just before 5 with her first discernible set of contractions.  We lay in the darkness together watching the clock, terrifically calm, but they subside.  A false alarm for now.

In the darkness of the early morning I put back to simmer a fresh turkey stock that I started last night after carving the carcass of a plump young naturaly raised turkey that we decided to pull out of the freezer and roast. Dinner last night was splendid and a welcome constitutional after 4 days of back breaking work around here.  I am getting closer to the end of the list now, carefully cleaning chimneys and polishing and refitting the pipes on our woodstoves.  Every drop of creosote must be scraped and removed. The fire systems of our house cannot endure a margin of error or carelessness- the cost would be too great.

But back to dinner: I'll talk about turkey quite a bit soon I am sure in the coming days but  it is arguably the best done simply. We serve it last night with a  spectacular homemade Rhubarb Chutney that we make fresh in the spring and then freeze.

Here is the recipe- and believe me, it is killer on pork and chicken.

Len's Rhubarb Chutney:

We make this with the tenderest of early season Rhubarb- it is a rite od Spring for us here. Start by dissolving about a cup of white and golden sugar (3/4 to 1/4 ration) along with some red and yellow curry powder, ground cardamom and Turmeric, and a stick of cinnamon in an enameled saucepan.  Stir until dissolved over LOW heat and then add about 4 and 1/2 cups of peeled and coursley chopped rhubarb, cup and a half of chopped onion, minced ginger and some chopped dried fruit such as dates, mission figs, sultanas or even apricots.  Stir over low heat until rhubarb is tender and then take off heat and cool.  Freeze if you cannot use in a couple of actually freezes very well.

Anyway, enjoy.

Dylan's first day of school this morning.  I just saw him off.  The bus driver looks like he could  star in a remake of Deliverance.  Oh man.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Wonderful Late Summer Meal

It has been a long holiday weekend.  But we are not your average people and even when we have a holiday weekend there is always work to be done here on the farm. "Labor Day" is an understatement.  There is a perennial list of tasks that must be done every year to batten down the hatches for winter.  This includes repairing windows, stacking firewood, organizing machinery in the barn, etc. I won't bore you with the details, but tonight, after a long weekend of sweat and toil and with aching muscles, we retire at 4 to start our dinner.

Erin remains pregnant and with all the attendant miseries -not least of which is her persistent heartburn; her only request is a good meal that will not inflame her condition.  When we head out for a lunch break at a local farmers market I gain inspiration; the first of the Butternut squashes are out. I decide to make some magic with these first freshest of the fresh:

Spaghetti with Roasted Butternut Squash

For up to to four people, take one large butternut squash and cut in half and then in quarters. Using your knife, trim tough skin and then cut into half inch chunks.  Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees.  On a baking tray, toss squash with olive oil, garlic powder and salt and pepper.  Roast in the oven until golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, in about 3 large tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil, sautee one large chopped onion.  Add the squash to the sautee pan with the onions when it is done along with a heaping tablesoon of chopped fresh Rosemary and a teaspoon of minced Sage.  Toss and then cook for about 5 minutes over low and set off the heat.

Boil water for the Pasta.  Add salt and then the spaghetti and then cook until tender to the bite.  Meanwhile, warm up butternut and onion mixture.  Add 1 large ladle full of starchy pasta water to the sauce and simmer.  Drain pasta and add to the sauce pan and cook, stirring , until creamy.  Add a generous handful of grated cheese to your sauce and toss and then mound into small bowls, topping with a smidge of additional cheese and a swirl of olive oil.  Killer!

This needs a creative seasonal salad . With Heirloom tomatoes piling  into our kitchen the choice is easy:

Simple Tomato Salad:

Slice your favorite heirloom varieties into thick slices.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a dash on onion powder.  Drizzle with Balsamic Vinegar and then a good olive oil.  Thinly slice a REALLY good Mozzarella cheese and layer a few slices on top.  Maybe one more swirl of oil and then you are done!

Erin loves good bread, and if we don't make it, we buy it.  Tonight, a big hunk gets popped into the oven in foil to heat through and get crispy. With the pasta and tomatoes, it is a killer foil!


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Some Pictures

Got a few on the site this morning.  Scroll down and enjoy.  I will hopefully be adding a few more....

Now, time to get out and stack firewood.  It is actually cold here this morning.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Special Harvest Coming

It is a cool morning on the mountain finally and it looks like we are in for a succession of comfortable days.  The weather has been brutally dry and hot for some time.  In the gardens, German Striped, Brandywine, Pineapple, Roma and Sweet Cherry tomatoes ripen impossibly fast, as if by the minute. Since the heirlooms aren't bred to be stored, we generally cosume them throughout the day as fast as we can eat them, sometimes just sliced with a swirl of our favorite olive oil, sometimes chopped with fresh cukes in a salad with shredded basil, chilis and lemon juice, sometime just cut in half with a sprinkle of course salt or splash of Balsamic...and sometimes just whole and bite by bite, the way you would chow a ripe plum...they are fruits after all!

This weekend marks the beginning of Labor day and I will be on the big tractor all day and starting to winterize around the house, although the first snows are still a ways off. But this year, our fall is going to be a little more diverse; we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of our first daughter, current expected due date of September 9th.  Erin is beyond miserable but "Baby Peach" as we call her is still snuggling contentedly within, wiggling her little rear end against Erin's solar plexus and catching bubbly, amniotic Zzzzzzz's. 

Me, I am absolutely terrified.

I adore my son Dylan but he came to me when he was three, already a little boy, the incredible little boy that he is. I have no idea what to expect now. While my wife rests, I often wander to Genevieve's bright and cheery pink room and stand and stare from the doorway. The room does not yet belong to her in a physical sense but I am humbled by it and strangely intimidated.  A white stuffed bunny stares down enigmatically at me from the top of a country closet in the far corner as if in on some gentle joke that I am not yet aware of. Stepping in further, I take in the elegant modernistic curves of something called a "diaper Genie" and the assortment of contraptions that will soon wiggle, jiggle, hold, humor and soothe her. I run my hands along the cool ballisters of her walnut crib and then stroke the firm mattress. She will be sleeping here, breathing.

Above that on the wall, Erin has taped a festive garland of small cards that bear messages from our friends to welcome Genevieve into the world.  They are scribbled with bright, happy words, filled with love and the import of some great responsibility.  I know that every time I walk in here soon, that there will be a  little person here.  I know that she will look at me and want and deserve something huge and vastly important.  And I am so scared that I will not know what to do.

Baby Peach, I can't wait to meet you.  I am a little afraid of you now but for good reasons I think. 

This morning I am charging a second video camera so I can catch every single second of your life.  And I am counting down the second until you come to us.



Friday, September 3, 2010

Pasta Alla Libeci- A Must Try

My buddy Mike reminded me in a roundabout way tonight about one of my favorite cold weather pastas.  Ironic to talk about it during this hot dry summer but with fall right around the corner, I can dream, can't I?

The recipe owes its provenance to his mother, who is a fantastic, charming and prolific cook. My wife and I eat it often in the spring for obvious reasons but it is just so simple, so satisfying and so absolutely fine.  It wasn't a always a no brainer...when I first proposed the dish to Erin one night early in our relationship, she thought it sounded horrible.  She had grown up with a distrust of peas and the horrible ways that they can be exploited. But with our fresh peas and good country bacon, this recipe becomes an absolute, rib sticking killer in the early months.

Here is how we do it:

Pasta Alla Libecci

Start water boiling for your pasta in a pot.

Take about a cup of good thick belly bacon, chop it coursley and add it into a sauce pan over medium heat. (NOTE HERE:  Guanciale, cured pork jowl or pancetta is the ideal, but where I live, that is a distant dream- and of course we eat LOCALLY, so high quality locally produced bacon is our compromise). Cook the bacon about 10 minutes, allowing it to render and then add a couple of cups of chopped onions and a swirl of olive oil if necessary (I sometimes add some dried rosemary at this point).Cook until the onions begin to carmelize and then add a couple of cups of fresh peas (frozen are ok but use petite, they are sweeter), salt and freshly ground pepper.  Cover and cook until peas are tender but still intact.  Mike told me once that he likes the peas cooked until they are on the mushy side but with great peas I think you want to keep them alive.  However you like. The flavor of the rendered bacon, the sweet, bowned onions and tender peas will kill you.  Awesome sauce! Set it aside or keep on low heat.

Add salt and then pasta to the boiling water.  When it is a stage BEFORE aldente, take a couple of ladlefuls of the starchy pasta water and add to the sauce. This will give it creaminess that almost doesn't make sense (an old trick from an old Italian friend).  Drain pasta and add to the sauce and over heat, finish it, tossing.  It will develop a silky finish.  In the winter, I will add a couple of raw, whipped eggs, and stir in off the heat right before serving-in the fashion of a Roman Carbonara.  Either way, I serve it steaming and liberally sprinkled with a good grating cheese and a finishing swirl of olive oil to make it " smile".

Believe me when I tell you, THIS is rib sticking soul food.  It is manna for the early season gardner, the hunter, the skier and the sledder.

Try it this fall.  I know you have some fresh frozen peas somewhere :)

Good Farming.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Blue Snow and Tater Time

I am making a withdrawal of sorts on this humid late August day. I am pulling out of the market, selling at a high, getting out while the getting is good. I am reaping a dividend that has been a long time coming and I can wait no more. The spuds are finally ready to come out.

Back in mid-April on a cold, wet afternoon with skeins of fog draped across the fragrant pine trees above my pond, I am kneeling alongside a row of soil in my garden in a wool cap and insulated Carhardt’s. Spring on our mountain is wonderful, an event filled with dandelions, the roar of our brooks and a warming sunshine from the south and west. But spring is not yet here, not nearly. The air is still cold and smells of dirt. Fog rises from the flattened grass. Thin patches of dirty snow cling to our pasture like the desperate survivors of some natural disaster and our chimney spits a petulant stream of smoke into the grey sky. This is still part winter. But I am in the garden, hallelujah, and that is spring enough for me after a winter that will live in infamy here.

Let me detour here. Several months ago we endure two snow events that deposit over 50 inches of snow and more in some places. Power goes out for days in our region. Small trees and even road signs are completely covered, which proves to be a moot point because there are no roads left after the storm; they are impassible, buried. Town maintenance trucks and plows are helpless and every single person we know is trapped in their home- literally snowed in.

During the worst of it, as the snow falls thickly, I correspond with Erin hourly via cell from Boca Raton, Florida. I am on a work trip and she is smack in the center of it, hunkered down at the farm. She cannot use the land line because the power has been out for days. She is also pregnant and miserable. She tries to describe the magnitude of what is happening but I confess to suspect that she is exaggerating a bit. After all, here I stand on the balcony of my hotel room taking in the scent of bougainvillea, watching palm trees sway and white gulls bounce lazily over the blue sea. I gently reason with her. We get snow storms all the time, I say calmly, lovingly; it must be gorgeous outside. I ask her to look out the window and describe it to me. She tells me patiently and without apparent sarcasm that she is sure it IS beautiful but that she can no longer see out of the windows, they are covered. I try to steer to more cheerful subjects. How are Angler and Mirk, our dear dogs? She tells me that they are wonderful but that they haven’t been able to get out the door to poop in two days. I sigh and switch the phone to my other ear. I am in the rhythm of balmy south Florida and I try to match her level of concern but struggle. Lovingly, I suggest that she relax and get back to melting snow on the wood stove or she won’t be able to keep the toilets flushing. I make sloppy kissy sounds and we hang up. Chivalrously and to expurgate any lingering guilt, I make a quick finger thrusting call to National Grid and admonish them to get the damn power on for my poor family. I sit for a brief moment and try to picture snow covering our windows, then giggle and wave it away and head out for a balmy boat ride on the intercoastal with my co-workers. Later that evening, enjoying a couple of crisp cocktails and a particularly tasty meal of coconut crusted grouper with scented jasmine rice and curried mango, I reason to myself; Erin wouldn’t want me to feel bad, would she? We shouldn’t all be miserable, right?

The next afternoon I land in Albany, collect my bags and head home. There is snow at the airport but nothing extreme as I had suspected. Erin has warned me that there is chest high snow in the driveway and so I will humor her. I stop at a hardware store and purchase a new snow shovel, chatting and joking with the clerk, blah, blah, blah and then continue my drive west towards our home, radio blaring, singing along. Things begin to change soon after. Within another few miles the depth of the plow throw-offs bordering the road begins to deepen, slowly at first, then with alarming speed. Suddenly I am stopped at dead end after dead end on country highways where the plows have retreated and left the public to fend for themselves. Landmarks are missing, buried. I become disoriented, turn off the radio and drive feet at a time looking for ways home. When I finally find the turnoff to our road, I can only barely make it out- just the top of the sign is visible. And the sign is 7 feet high.

I am speechless when I arrive at our home. The snow bank blocking my driveway is easily 8 feet high and I can barely see the house over it. I beep the horn twice and get out slowly, dread rising. I am overwhelmed in every sense, shivering in thin slacks and a dress shirt in the frigid air and gripping a crappy 20 dollar shovel with the sticker still on it. My equipment- my big Arens snow blower, plow blade for my Troy-Bilt, picks and shovels- everything that could help me is entombed within the barn. I am alone without back up. I take a deep breath of the cold air and am aware of voices up in the direction of the house calling out happily. A tentative first shovel full horrifies me; the snow is as heavy as any that I have ever experienced; so dense is it with water that it literally looks blue in the daylight (some up here now refer to this event as the “Blue Snow of 2010”). I labor to throw the first load, dump it actually because there is nowhere to throw it- the snow all around me is over my head.

Paraphrasing wisdom passed on to me by Erin a few days later: “There are jobs for men and jobs for machines…and this was not a job for men”. But I have no choice now and the preface to my epic cleanup starts with reuniting with my poor wife and son. They have absolutely survived like champs (let me say briefly that my wife is a superstar, every bit as capable and resourceful as she is beautiful. She kept our home and son safe, remaining calm and poised through all of this). After struggling with them back into the house and warming up, I finally head out, properly attired, to start shoveling in earnest. It takes until dark, almost 5 punishing hours to dig a thin walking trench to my buried Chevy truck.

There is so much more to tell about the Great Blue Snow; about the weeks of being snowed in to our driveway; about the countless, superhuman hours of shoveling the ground, the roofs, the barn and helping several of our neighbors to do the same; about the bus accident and Calvary arriving finally in the form of enormous bucket loaders from the town to free us (they literally had to scoop it up, maw by great heaping maw and drop it over the towering banks into our pond- there was nowhere else for it to go.)

I will leave you with this to consider. Until late April, the only way in and out of our house is a tremendous carved embankment of snow and ice steps that I am forced to create for access. Spring’s true harbinger is ultimately marked here not by the first crocus but by a far more telling event. On a warm day, our hefty contractor and friend Rod plunges through a crusty frozen step up to his knees as he come in to do some work. Spring has sprung.

Sorry for the HUGE roundabout! What I started out talking about was harvesting potatoes so let’s go briefly back to that cold spring day in the garden when I plant them. Potatoes like deep, well cultivated soil that is chock full of organic goodies. In the cooler climates, a great rule of thumb is to wait until the Dandelions show up and the soil temperature gets into the 60’s. But the hell with that- this is spring enough for my purposes and I ridiculously decide to push it this year and get them in the ground. One consideration is that the soil be moderately dry when they are planted, and it seems to be…or maybe I am just seeing what I want to believe, which is more probably the case.

I dig my hands into the cool soil of the raised bed and bring them to my nose, cupping black, crumbly earth. Snuffling deeply, I register an aroma that brings to mind exotic coffee or dark chocolate and something else, something wild and elusive, fermenting. This is what healthy soil smells like and I have spent almost 10 years getting it right in this garden. But that’s the hardest part. Potatoes are wonderfully easy to plant and extremely prolific if they are happy. You know those high end “fingerling potatoes” that you spend so much dough on in a fancy restaurant or gourmet market? Put away your wallet; the big secret is that you can grow them, lots of them with a minimum of effort. You can grow all kinds; Yukon Gold are always a great overall spud but catalogues and specialty potato suppliers like Ronnigers (now the Potato Garden- will open your eyes and taste buds to a whole new world of amazing and exotic spuds. Be adventurous and try some red, black or even blue ones. Take my word for it; Willy Wonka won’t be the only one drooling over a buttery, creamy pile those bright blue mashed potatoes on your Turkey Day table!

A week before planting, I have prepped my seed potatoes for planting. Using good stock is imperative here- you cannot bury store bought potatoes into the ground and expect them to grow perfectly. Seed potatoes are bred to grow disease free and dependably through the season. Making them ready for the ground involves cutting the larger potatoes into individual pieces that each contain a minimum of 2 little growth centers or “eyes” that will send up the plant eventually. Once cut, I allow them to cure for a week in some sun and two things happen as a result; firstly, the cut sides “scab” over (allowing less of a chance for rot and disease in the ground) and secondly, the eyes will begin to sprout. That sprouting will give them a head start in the ground.

I start by digging a 10 inch trench along the center of two or three 30 foot beds. There are several traditional ways to grow spuds and this is one that I have used for many, many years. I lay each piece of seed potato cut side down, about 15 inches apart, backing in about 5 inches of soil to cover them. There is a reason for this; as the potatoes grow, it is necessary to move more soil into the trench around each plant to prevent the tubers from growing up and out on their stoats towards the sun. Exposed potatoes will develop skin green, a chemical process that also can create mild toxins in the affected areas. Relax, green areas can be cut off if only in a few places and I have never seen any documentation anywhere that a spot or two can hurt you.

Then I wait. We put in additional plantings of lettuce, peas, chard, carrots and shallots and more cold weather crops. Rhubarb pushes up with a bulbous red stalk, like some groggy prehistoric creature up from a winters nap. Our cherry, peach and pear trees erupt in blossom and dandelions explode in a bright patchwork across our lower lawns. I watch every few days for those taters to sprout. The weather continues to warm and asparagus appears shyly, tilting back a corner of matted mulch to peek out. Onions, shallots and garlic are already up, rigid green spikes reaching for the spring sun. A stubborn snow blows in one day but melts quickly and I am suddenly panicked that I really did plant too early. Did the seed stock die? Will I be denied one of my favorite of garden treats? In my blackest hour, the apple trees burst into glorious bloom and then one morning I see the first of them, just barely poking through the surface, rigid, dark green little florets that are resistant to the touch. Tater’s on!

The rest is a blur because the tops grow fast and furious as the weather warms, gulping water but sending up a dense, dark green and leafy canopy that makes any garden look like a raging success. But the best part is happening underground and by midsummer, as the first tiny white or purple or yellow flowers sprout, you can wiggle your hand into the soil and feel the first new potatoes, ready for roasting or tossing into a soup. A few long weeks later, the lush canopy starts to wither and die. And then it is time. It is this day. Time to dig out my treasures.

Digging our potatoes is one of our very favorite things to do in the garden. Plan to get your hands dirty in the process, very dirty, but oh the rewards for your effort! On a hot late summer day every year we head up to the garden with a tractor and wagon, several harvest baskets and a couple of potato forks, pitchfork-like implements with curved tines. Foot by foot we pull out the dead, brown vines and then use our fingers to grope and feel around in the soil excitedly for the prize; beautiful, fat spuds. A jumble of bright potatoes will usually nest at the base of each plant; these are the easy ones. Next, hands are required to dig around and catch stragglers. Yes, it is that elemental, it is a treasure hunt and no matter how many times I do it, squatting down like a toddler and up to my elbows in dirt, I have to smile.

You will not capture every one with your hands for all of your effort up to this point. The next step is to use a “fat” potato fork (wide tines) to loosen the soil and find the many more that you have invariably missed- they will grow in all directions on their long stoats, often confounding logic. But still you will miss some more, no matter how conscientiously you search and so a final combing pass with a “fine” fork (thin, sharp tines) is required to snare the most stubborn squatters. No matter how well you scour, you will always miss a few more yet and those will sprout next spring right next to whatever crops you have rotated into that bed. Bottom line: Potatoes are extremely prolific little buggers as I noted earlier- most growers plan on a pound of seed potatoes to yield about 10 pounds of taters. Revisiting my metaphor from the opening, digging out your tubers is like cashing out an investment after 3 months, with a 10X dividend- I wish I could find a CD like that somewhere!

But better than the sheer output of the plants, the very best reason to grow them is to experience the true taste of a potato, something that very few people, VERY few, will ever really know. There is a reason for this. The downside of a potatoes’ prolificacy is that they will need at some point to be stored. And when that happens, they begin to alter in appearance, nutritional content and flavor, much like any veggie. No amount of cash that you drop on that fancy plate of specialty potatoes at your favorite restaurant can change this fact. What I saying simply here is that you should be aware that most potatoes that you buy have been already been stored for many months, first by the growers and then by the retailers. By the time you get around to buying and storing them yourselves for a few more days more and then finally eating them, they should no longer even legally be called potatoes.

Do you want proof? Cut open a freshly dug Yukon Gold and guess what color you will see on the inside? Right- the flesh of a Yukon Gold right out the ground is a bright GOLD; not white and not yellow or any shade in between- hence the name. That beautiful color is only a faint memory by the time you start making your Sunday mashed potatoes at home. Now taste that fresh spud and trust me on this; the flavor is singular and unmistakable. It is actually sweet, as sweet as if its flesh had been dusted with some confection. Long storage depletes the sugars in the potato and converts them to starches, which is why you probably have never experienced this. I am not making this stuff up.

But please hear me- I am a realist and I agree; potatoes must be stored. My point is only that every day that they sit, they lose some of what their ideal is and should be; they lose, minute by minute in that cool darkness their very “potato-ness”. That is why eating as LOCALLY as you can guarantees in every way better quality food and ensures that it will not be 6 months before that potato gets to your supermarket from Peru or California or China or wherever. Hint: Buy potatoes from your local farm stands; they will have endured significantly storage and travel time and even after some additional storage they will get you closer to the real thing. If you want to grow them at home in your garden (even better), drop me a line and I can walk you through it without the drama!

And now for the best part: how we eat them. Let me count the ways. Actually, let me share a couple of recipe ideas; you deserve them after listening to me spout off today. Potatoes are like pasta, there are almost no limits to the variations you can concoct and they all taste terrific. Again, feel free to share. But make sure you use great potatoes!

Erin’s Roasted Fingerling Potatoes

This is the basic recipe and it is always a happy day when these come to our table, sizzling and crispy golden. Erin makes them better than anyone I know. Preheat your oven to about 425 and pull out a cast iron skillet. Take a couple of handfuls of good fingerling potatoes- we use the Russian Banana varietal that we grow- or use any good roasting potato. Wash and thoroughly scrub and then with a sharp knife cut them thinly into ¼” slices down the length. Note here: if you want them a little more chewy and dense, leave them a little thicker, maybe cutting them into halves. In the summer, we like them crunchy and light, just north of a potato chip and so choose the thinner slices. Serving in cool weather with a roast, we do them in halves. Either way, toss them with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika and a good swirl or two of olive oil and commit to the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes or until super golden and crisp. If you having more than two hungry people, make a lot; there are never enough.

Variation #2: Oven roasted “Pestoed “Potatoes

We obviously make our own Basil pesto here in season and it has absolutely no better marriage with anything than it does with roasted potatoes. Prepare the taters as above again and as they roast, add two packed cups of pesto to your blender along with 2 large garlic cloves, a teaspoon of salt, a handful of walnuts or pinoli, and ¼ cup of good olive oil. Blend until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a sauce pan over low heat and add 1 large tablespoon butter and a handful of grated pecorino cheese and heat to melt into a “sauce”. When the potatoes come out hot, pour the pesto on top and toss well. Serve hot.

Three variations on mashed potatoes: with Blue Cheese, and again with Horseradish, and again with Roasted Shallots and Garlic

You knew it would come down to mashed potatoes, right? But who can deny the magic? Hard to improve upon the basic recipe, but these three variations from my personal cookbook are simple, elegant and fabulous. To make the basic mashed potatoes, peel a few spuds and cut into quarters or halves. Place in a good sized sauce pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, add a good amount of salt and let them simmer covered for 20 minutes or so until fork tender. Drain. Add a few glugs of milk and a suitable hunk of butter into the hot, empty pot and set the heat back to low. When melted, rice or food-mill the still hot drained potatoes into the milk and butter, stirring to incorporate. Add salt and pepper to taste and any additional milk or of course butter- you will know when you get it right. You can serve right there and swoon or take it a step further. Try adding some crumbled chunks of a great blue cheese, a killer accompaniment for any steak (Erin and I threw this together on a drenched camping trip a couple of years ago and it remains still a hard to beat favorite). For another amazingly good variation, stir in some prepared horseradish (and yes, store bought works fine)! A personal favorite is my Thanksgiving preparation: Stir in some slow roasted caramelized garlic and shallots- so easy and so fantastic.

Anyway, remember. Eat well. Live well and live locally. We have a choice. Happy farming!


Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Putting Up" the Harvest and Some Perspectives on the Movement

On Sunday, we get the first really cool day of this summer; grey, blowsy and wet. Erin is couch bound, enduring the final days of a long and very tough summer pregnancy.

I have work to do today. The easiest part of the work up here is the growing of stuff; after all, once the ground has been lovingly jiggered with the right mix of compost and cow poop and planted, the elements and insects step in to do the rearing. It is the ultimate outsourcing exercise. All you need to do is keep the weeds at bay, provide supplemental water at times and wait. But once things start to mature, you quickly realize that there is more to do…and then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, there is a LOT more to do. It all starts the way a summer rain will on a tin roof. You look at your pickling cucumber vines that have begun to flower one day. It has taken so long for that to happen, years it seems. You watch them for about three days, follow the bees as they buzz and tumble drunkenly between the tiny yellow gold cups and then notice that voila, one of those flowers is attached to a tiny, prickly green cigar, a first pitter here. Your first little cuke has arrived! Then the same day another one or two pop up, a patter and pitter there. Then ten more show up. Pitter, patter, pitter patter and then suddenly there are fifty and they are all growing their warty asses off, a full blown cucumber storm and you are bailing out the vines for your life because not doing so means that they will be inedible at best and that your entire plant will stop fruiting entirely at worst. Substitute Zucchini into this scenario, or most other crop denizens. Suddenly, harvesting is the word of the day, an athletic event that tests even the strongest backs and knees. Baskets filled with daily picks line up on our counters, waiting for their next step. What we consume on a daily basis in our lavish raw salads doesn’t begin to make a dent. Something else needs to happen.

That something else is preserving the harvest or as locals say “putting up”. Putting up is a requisite when you grow the amounts we do because as creative as you may be in the kitchen you quickly learn that you can’t chow down peas, broccoli Swiss chard, carrots, beets or anything else- even in their different glorious forms- every night. One can use for example only a fraction of the cucumbers mentioned above fresh-they don’t like to wait around. And even if you could, if you stuffed them down the hatch morning noon and night, you still wouldn’t be able to eat as many as today’s prolific cultivars pump out. So we use time honored ways of capturing everything that we harvest here at the peak of its respective freshness and guaranteeing the deferred gustatory pleasure. But the enjoyment is far more than merely sensual and the real prize promises something more compelling. Because if you learn to do it and do it right, you capture more than just the flavor of food in its most authentic form and the satisfaction that can only derive from having grown it from seed or seedling. Paraphrasing a perspective of the writer Michael Pollan, harvest captures a moment, a beautiful, ephemeral and complex instance when that produce was ready to be harvested and made its wish known, taking part with us in a highly complex and evolutionary interplay between species, needs and desire. Cool stuff. I’ll sum it up in my own words this way. Come over for breakfast in February and I will crack open a can of our home-made Strawberry jam. You can spread that chunky, ruby red magic on to a hot piece of buttered toast all by yourself. Have a bite and you will understand.

Anyhow, there are many methods that we use to “put up” around here, such as freezing, canning, pickling and cold storing. There are other techniques such as drying and over-wintering that we make less use of but are equally viable. Usually, like today, we will employ a few different ones. The harvest du jour is composed of a large basket of freshly dug carrots, a pile of pickling cucumbers, a basket of Swiss chard, and a mass of Filet beans. I turn on some music, start water boiling and contemplate a strategy.

The carrots call to me first. Handling or eating a freshly picked carrot- or any other freshly picked vegetable for that matter- is an act of rediscovery. The carrot that we see in the supermarket bears little resemblance to the perfect archetypal form that we hold in our minds. They are a pale distant cousin in terms of their flavor, appearance or nutritional worth. That is an unavoidable consequence of their likely distance from harvest in the best case. In the worse, they can have been processed. You would think that nothing could be simpler than the perfection and simplicity of a natural carrot but our industrial food producers, not content to rely on nature’s foolproof blueprint for success, have found a way to “improve” upon them. If you are like most of us you have probably seen and bought bags of “baby carrots” from the supermarket chains. Far from being babies, those wee carrots are industrially produced and have been run through a machine that literally tools and rounds them to an “attractive” shape. Adding industrial insult to injury they are then washed and treated in chlorine and chemicals before being bagged. Don’t believe me? Buy a bag and put it in the fridge for a day. Open the bag and you will notice the smell of bleach and that the surfaces are a bit slimy. No, that is not your imagination. Welcome to the world of our processed, poisoned food supply. You have no idea. We are surrounded.

But we don’t have to be and you can have your perfect carrot. Once you do, you will never forget why it is so important. I scrub each of our home gown carrots under cool water this morning to reveal their startlingly flame-orange skins, their rich scent. My taste confirms the promise of what I see and I must munch as I go, feeling perfect mouth crunch and tasting a sweetness that almost doesn’t make sense, a vegetal fruitiness that only a gardener really knows because nobody else in fact eats food within footsteps of its source. I can vouch for their authenticity; I broke the ground around them in the spring. I planted the finicky little seeds and watered them and waited and watched them germinate and purpled my knees keeping the weeds away.

Forgive my fervor, but make no mistake. I am not today’s run of the mill food TV junky and fad follower. I consider myself pretty close to the real deal, having been gardening for most of my life, cooking passionately all that time and always a believer that food that you grew and touched and harvested yourself was the best. It seems so logical but it has only been in the last few years- more or less in synch with the ascendancy of food television- that the secret is out to the greater public, the consumerists: fresher food is better and knowing where it came from matters. Everyone is talking about it now, right? I grew up in the city but was fortunate to have both an Uncle and Grandfather who ran farm operations. I fell in dear love with that lifestyle at a very young age and spent every moment that I could with both of them which is why I now live out here again. Back in those days the truth, the real truth was that farmers were ignored by pretty much everyone. They were marginal entities in society and in the economy. You NEVER heard someone venerate a farmer. I get so annoyed now that every chef and food pundit suddenly has fond, misty eyed memories of growing up on a farm. Everyone wants to be a farmer or know one- farmers are in essence following the meteoric elevation in public opinion that chefs have been over the last few years and I don’t have a problem with that at all. That is justly deserved. I simply get annoyed because authenticity guised as the “Farm to Table” movement seems sometimes like just another marketing tool to sell more cookbooks. One thing is for sure: the whole Goddamn thing has spawned a legion of annoying “cidiots” who crowd our local farmers markets, pawing the produce, annoying the farmers with stupid questions and trying to feel like they are leaders in the movement. Most of them don’t really even like food, that’s the funny part; they are the people who follow a recipe for lentil soup but leave out the best parts: the smoked ham hocks, the salt and the chicken broth.

My point is that everyone is now a food expert and they are still the picky eaters they have always been and the six hundred dollar set of copper pots and pans from Williams and Sonoma, the autographed Rachel Ray cookbook and use of the term “Locavore” doesn’t mean crap. Don’t spout off about the “food chain” and “sustainability” and “organic” to me, or for GOD’s Sake quote Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan or Sir Alfred Rodale (all people whom I admire intensely) until you have spent a day out in the field or gotten mud on a freaking SHOE!!!!! Then we’ll talk.

Man! Don’t know where that came from, but let’s go back to better things, namely those home grown carrots.

In my opinion, nothing tastes more like carrot than a carrot freshly pulled. We eat them sliced or shredded fresh and raw over almost every salad in the summer. They are tricky when it comes to storage though. Provided that they mature late in the season they can be covered while in the ground with a layer of straw to be dug out fresh through the hardest winter. They can be sliced and frozen, but in the process lose that crispy texture and that limits them to use in stews. I decide to take it a different direction today and invent a soup that will solve the problem. A well made soup will always capture the best in any ingredient and will freeze well. I have some fresh ginger in the fridge, so here is what I decide to make:

Curried Carrot and Ginger Soup

Slice up 8 cups of the carrots into 1/8” slices and don’t peel them first. Too much of the good stuff in a carrot is in the skin. Swirl some canola oil in the bottom of a good enameled pot and add a small handful of chopped fresh ginger. Let it go fragrant over medium heat. Next, add about 2 cups of sliced onions and let that work a moment. Add the carrots and a generous dash of ground coriander, yellow curry powder and a few waves of cumin and toss. A little white wine gets added next and that sits partially covered for about 4 minutes. Next, I add enough strong chicken broth to cover, bring the mixture to a simmer, cover and let it go until the carrots are very fork tender. In the final step, remove from the heat and use an immersion blender to whip the mixture smooth, check for salt and pepper and finish on the stove for another 5 minutes. Soup’s on!

Erin has a bowl for lunch and declares it awesome. When it is cool we will ladle the soup into small ziplock bags and freeze for cold winter days.

Next up this mornming, the string beans. We will freeze these for use in a variety of different recipes so we start by “frenching” and trimming them. Frenching refers to the removal of the “string” between the ends and is essential when beans have grown a little long in the tooth. After that process, I dump them in boiling water for 3-4 minutes, and then drown them in an ice water bath to stop the cooking and fix the color. From there, we stuff them into small baggies for the freezer. A handful of the freshly blanched beans will not escape our dinner plates tonight though through this recipe:

Blackened Fresh String Beans

This is awesome. Erin and I had something like this originally at the Saugerties Garlic Festival last year and we were hooked. So simple. We are still perfecting this but here is how we do it: first, take a couple of handfuls of fresh, blanched string beans and place them in a mixing bowl. Pour a little melted butter over them and coat them in with pre-made blackening or Cajun seasoning (store-bought is fine, but if you want to do it from scratch, try your own mixture of Bay Seasoning, Paprika, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Salt, Pepper, Cayenne Pepper and a dash of Mexican Chili powder). Heat a cast iron pan over high heat until super hot and then drop them into the pan, searing them until smoking and blackened. Serve hot with a homemade “remoulade” sauce (2 parts mayonnaise, 1 part relish, 1 part ketchup, 1 minced shallot, a dash of garlic powder and a splash of good tangy Worcestshire sauce) and you will be very, very happy.

What’s next? The chard. Oh, sweet, dependable chard. Swiss chard is one of my favorite things to grow for its fecundity, color, healthfulness, hardiness and of course flavor. It is an amazingly prolific veggie and our dense patch, harvested correctly, will stand proudly until the snow comes and all but buries it. It is always the last dependable splash of color in the garden; one of the most well known varietals is called Rainbow and provides a palette of white, gold, ruby and green stalks beneath the sturdy leaves. A really cool thing about chard is that it is like growing two finicky crops, spinach and asparagus, at the same time. The thick green leaves have the earthy rich taste and appearance of the former; the tender stalks impressively ape the flavor of the latter…amazingly well. We use both stalks and leaves in a variety of ways in our kitchen. I separate the two usually for freezing when we cannot eat freshly, chopping the stalks coarsely and throwing both them and the broad leaves into boiling water, followed by a cold water bath. They are then drained, bagged and frozen into serving sizes. The stalks can be used in all the ways the leaves can, and we often mix and store the processed ones together. Email me for more chard recipes or feel free to send me yours.

Here’s an awesome way to use chard leaves, in this pasta:

Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Sausage and Swiss chard

Blanch enough chard leaves to yield about a dense cup and a half worth of leaves when done and drained. Chop and set aside. Sauté two links of your best sweet sausage until well browned in a good pan. Remove and chop up into rough pieces and set aside. Do not drain the sausage fat. Add a little additional olive oil to the pan and then 2 cloves of minced garlic and some crushed red pepper. Let them do their stuff but not burn and then add three cups of your freshest chopped, seeded tomatoes and the juice. Let that work a moment; then add a pinch of additional sugar, some salt and pepper and a little white wine. Bring up the heat and let the wine cook off its alcohol for a moment, stirring. Turn down the heat, add back in the chard and sausage and let the sauce simmer covered for about 5 to 10 minutes. While that is happening, boil plenty of fresh water in a large pot. Add salt after the boil and then a generous handful of good pasta. Drain it when partially tender and add to the pan with your sauce, tossing well. Turn up the heat and finish your pasta that way. Serve really hot with some grated cheese, extra hot pepper on the side and a swirl of Olive Oil over the top. Really good eating!

In the winter, I will often substitute our own canned tomatoes (or even good store bought ones) in this recipe, sometimes finishing the sauce with a little cream and dash of nutmeg for a nice warm fireside-ish feel. We serve chard mixed with high quality country ham as a filling for omelets, as part of a pizza topping or as a simple side dish sautéed with garlic, minced anchovy, Portobello mushrooms and a splash of soy sauce. Summer, spring, winter or fall, chard is always a winner.

Last but not least I tackle the cucumbers. Almost done for the day. One of our favorite consequences of hyperactive cucumber vines are those precious pickles that will follow. Now I will confess to being a pickling autodidact. My grandmother pickled EVERYTHING that she could get her hands on- in her later years there were some unfortunate combinations. And as bad as I am, she never measured at all (reflected unfortunately in the way she drank her booze). So I don’t have any childhood recipes from her to share- this city boy had to teach himself. But the one thing she absolutely did teach me was that the glorious alchemy achieved through a combination of salt, vinegar, sugar and spices and just about anything almost never fails to please.

Yes, I have all the canning apparatus and have canned pickles, many different kinds from cauliflower (great pickler) and Broccoli (NOT a great pickler) to garlic (awesome pickler but even better when pickled with Grey Goose). Yes, my Ball’s Blue Book sits slouched on a shelf with my farming resource books and is stained and worn from years of use. Yes, it is rewarding for Erin and I to look in our antique dry goods cabinet and see rows of colorful Coptic-like glass jars stuffed with pickles and preserves that will last for centuries, only asking for a little dusting annually in return. But the dirty little secret is that “refrigerator pickles” take a third of the time, are crunchier and just as tasty. They take up more space in our refrigerator and they don’t last as long, but the way we chomp them down it’s a non-issue in the end. Forgive the heresy; I agree that there is no other option for your Roma tomatoes, I agree, and possibly other things too. Open to hearing from you. But let’s agree that making ‘fridge pickles means you can do it fast and don’t need to haul out and fill your canner (mine could double as a wading pool for our son) and other tools….a huge effort saver when you have so much other crap to get done.

So here is a very basic and simple recipe to try. I say “try” because I am not a cook book author and am not stuck on measurments, if you haven’t noticed. Use my recipes as a guide and adjust as you like. Feel free to give me feedback if you make them better! Keep in mind that with a few variations, you can so this with a wide variety of items. Things that work: hot peppers, cauliflower, carrots, string beans, fennel, garlic…get the picture?

‘Fridge Pickles

Wash and slice some pickling cucumbers into thick rounds. Choose the smaller to medium sizes for their crispness and remember that regular cucumbers are not pickling cucumbers and don’t hold up well for any kind of pickling. More than likely your best bet is to grow pickling varietals or head to your local farm stand. Add them to a mixing bowl along with some sliced onion and whole dried Anaheim or Arbole chili peppers. Make your pickling juice next. Add about 2 parts of vinegar, 1 part water, about a ¼ cup of sugar and a little less of that in salt. Heat up the mixture to boiling until everything is dissolved. TASTE. If you don’t like it, add more salt or sugar or vinegar or water. There is no exact balance. Go with what you like. While the pickling juice is maturing, take a few canning jars, wire bands and tops and fill them with the cukes, onions and peppers (about 1 to a pint jar). Canning jars and tops are extremely cheap and double as cool, rustic drinking glasses- go out and by some by all means. You can also use them to freeze produce. Add a few tablespoons of generic “pickling spices” (I often make my own by combining peppercorns, crushed Bay leaf with and the seeds of caraway, juniper, coriander, Fennel, Dill and mustard and toss well. You can get really crazy and add hunks of Ginger, cloves of garlic…that’s the beauty of pickling!) Pour the boiling pickling juice (using a canning funnel!) into each jar, over the pickles until the liquid leaves about a ¼” of “headspace” with the top. Gently press on clean top and screw band on. Allow cooling and then label (really important) each jar and slide into the fridge to “marinate” for about two weeks. Then eat some home-made pickles!

Ok, so today’s post was supposed to be a short one on my Sunday but that is the way my Sunday’s are too; they seem simple and relaxed at first and then before you know it I have been working all day and am exhausted.

Let me leave you with a thought and perspective. Regarding my earlier rant about the clichés, hypocrisy and the “sound-byt-ing” of our many modern food movement pundits, I am in reality a huge fan and devotee of the cause. I get it completely and I am thrilled that so many people in our world now care about where their food comes from. I really am. I love the fact that Food TV personalities like Emeril Lagasse have taken the torch from Julia Child, democratizing and popularizing cooking in a way that is nothing short of astounding. In fact, I will go as far to say that today’s maturing societal awareness of food quality and sustainability may be more a function of this phenomenon than almost anything else. Hail to the cooking channel!

I also believe that we are living in positively thrilling times food-wise. We are looking around at each other slowly as if out of some long dormancy and realizing that the best ingredients are not actually the hardest to find and get…they are actually the easiest after all, the most local and ripe. Although it is a French word, “terroir”  no longer owes the provenance of it truest meaning to the French alone; it no longer can be exclusively uttered by Californians and stodgy oenophiles. Terroir now has relevance and belongs to all of us; it exists everywhere, in France yes, and in California, but also in Weehawken, New Jersey, in Stewart, Florida- look no further than that pepper plant next to your porch, that cut of pasture fed steak or bin of corn at your local Farmers Market.

We are all in this together, we are all part of a Revolution whether we like it or not, you, me and even Jared from Subway- every single person you pass in the supermarket or squeeze past at a farm stand. We are all increasingly paying attention what we eat and where we buy it and the fact that more and more average consumerists are contributing willingly to micro and even micro-regional food production economies despite ferocious white noise and propaganda from our industrial food friends shows that we are winning battles. If you have been reading the New York Times, you will note two recent articles citing pending legislation to ban confinement in cages for industrially raised poultry and another revealing that genetically modified sugar beets have been sent back to the lab for more testing. Exciting times and I am proud to be fighting next to you. Keep the pressure up. Buy or grow local and support your farmers.

So, welcome to my blog. Love to get everyone’s input, recipes and ideas, gardening successes and failures, farming adventures….see you next week.

Happy Farming,


Friday, August 20, 2010

Fun with a Three Point Hitch, Dusting off an Old Well for Action

Something you learn about bigger tractors pretty quickly is that you don’t glean the most important things from the manual. People learn about big tractors from using them, working on them or watching others work on them- period. They should put THAT in the manual. It would save people a lot of time… and maybe a finger or two.

This reality dawns on me as I contemplate the 3 point hitch on the rear of my 30 HP Yanmar. Let me set the scene: I am sitting in the grass, twisting the pages of the instruction manual into a frustrated Origami project as I search for the procedure to marry my first implement- a 40 gallon Fimco sprayer- to the rear. I can’t find a goddamn word about how to do it. The manual superciliously waves me away to the sprayer’s manual for advice, all 2 pages of it, and that route leads me precisely nowhere. Gnats are gang rushing every orifice above my neck line. It is hot, I mean Florida hot, and there is sweat dragging sunscreen into my stinging eyes. I have been at this for 40 minutes and counting and still the sprayer mount sits facing the tractor’s business end like a petulant 5 year old that refuses to play nice.

Harry Ferguson invented the 3 point system in Britain in 1926 as a way to provide a sturdy, dependable connection between a tractor and any PTO powered implement, be it a mower, post-hole digger, plow or pump. His invention was so popular that it would become, thanks to Henry Ford, the standard way to connect any implement to a working tractor. A 3 point hitch, if you’ve ever seen one, looks almost inviting at first blush. Two hydraulic draft linkage arms reach out, slightly spread, as if to embrace you. A third linkage on top provides stability. All three points should, in a perfect world, match up and couple with their counterparts with the help of a few lock pins. I know that much- what is much harder to discern is how I get to that penultimate point.

Let me digress, because I think some background will enrich the story. I bought the sprayer because as any good hobby farmer (read “greenhorn”) knows, the simplest way to solve problems is to throw heaps of money at them, gobs of it. And problems on a hobby farm are like weeds…weeds that grow on weeds. For me, it started last fall when I had the brilliant idea to add an entirely new garden to our operation- “weed” number one because I overlooked the fact that gardens don’t just happen by themselves. So I spend the hot fall breaking my back to cut the tenacious sod and then plow and till- all by hand- a brutal physical exercise. Then of course, I remember that the new plot will need deer fencing to protect it- “weed” number two and that after THAT is done, I will need to till in wheel barrow after creaking wheelbarrow of composted manure, and dig wide, rock free planting beds- “weeds” three and four respectively. See what I mean?

Erin shook her head patiently at me the whole time, but I wanted to grow more…needed to grow more, all the better to cram into our freezer with all of the stuff we didn’t eat from what I grew last year (you will soon see that as I hobby farmer I excel at anti-pragmatism). I persevered. I toiled. I swore and limped and groaned. But I got it done and in the winter with my tools cooling in the barn, I studied my catalogues hungrily over steaming cups of coffee in the darkness of early morning…drooling in my mind’s eye over the flavors of the crunchy Super Sugar snap peas that would be growing there, the peppery sweetness of the heirloom Waltham Broccoli and festive, Christmas colored Cherry Bomb peppers. But the one “weed” that I did not anticipate in my pre-prandial planting bliss and optimism, and even during the early months of spring as I assembled my seeds, sets and seedlings and sowed and tucked them lovingly into the damp earth, was the historic heat wave of 2010.

It didn’t start out that way. Memorial Day dried out spectacularly as we moved into planting our warm crops, our Triumph De Farcy filet beans, Brandywine, Pineapple and German Stripe tomatoes and oh so much more and Erin and I enjoyed our first wedding anniversary in beautiful sunshine and uncharacteristic heat. That glowing weekend stretched into almost a week without rain- rare for us here- and while I wasn’t concerned at the time, I began to roll out hoses and tap our well to keep our several large vegetable and ornamental gardens watered. But as anyone who lives off the water grid knows, water is precious, water is good. And water is not in endless supply. As the hot days continued and July arrived with a fiery, parched string of days, I realized that drawing from our house well to cover our growing gardens was not a sustainable strategy. I needed a solution and I needed it fast.

We are fortunate to live on a beautiful old property in the northern Catskills of upstate New York that was once a small cattle farm. As you might expect, a source of constant excitement for us are the discoveries that we make almost daily on our hilly 50 acres, treasures be they bits of discarded antique machinery, ossified cow horns or feathery patches of wild asparagus. And about two years ago in the woods behind our barn, as I was investigating the crumbled stone foundation of what we call the old barn, I made another find.

All that remains now of the old barn is a barely recognizable intersection of flat, lichen spattered stone walls but at one time it most likely served as the center of the original farm operation. We estimate that the structure is probably 200 years old. Today, large birch and elm trees grow up through the dirt floor of the site as part of the mature surrounding forest and provide a shady, cool, dark, quiet canopy. Wild birds flutter in the tangles of vine choked sumac and wild honeysuckle and deerflies hum and whir in the air. It is very hard to imagine that this was all open fields at one time, but it was.

Squeezing through the dense growth for a closer look that day I spied a rough, man-made bulkhead of stone, and atop it a large flat rock which was simply too conspicuous to have been randomly placed. Feeling like some sort of archeologist, I pushed it aside and as I did so, was met by an a gentle puff of cold, damp air. Through a perfectly cut circular hole in the flat large stone below I saw my shimmering image looking up at me on a canvas of water. It turned out to be a well, hand dug, stone lined and deep (I measured it with fishing line and a weight to 30 feet). Neat discovery yes, but at the time I simply pushed the stone back and figured at some point I would find a use for it later.

Fast forward to the drought.

I needed water, I needed it stat and that well was the answer- but how to pull water from the well and get it to my gardens, almost an acre away? “Weed” number 5 had spouted.

The first idea that popped into my head seemed most logical and leveraged my investment in my new Yanmar. I had seen sprayers used for watering plants in our town, large 40 and 50 gallon tanks that were hitched to the back of small tractors. What if I was to back up the sprayer to the well, fill it using some kind of sump pump and then capitalize on the maneuverability of my tractor to get water to all the beds? This seemed like the right line of logic, but it would cost me. Sprayers of the size I thought I needed that I looked at in Northern Freight catalogues went for 500 bucks minimum. And then what about a pump for the most important job- getting the water up and out- and what kind of pump would be required? After looking through some books and turning to the internet, I was more confused than ever. Would I need a regular submersible pump? A jet pump? A centrifugal or trash pump? The costs widely diverged. I was lost.

I stalled, hemmed and hawed and nervously watched the weather. But the dry days had unpacked to stay and I had to do something. And then the stalemate broke. At the family Fourth of July party, my Father in law John showed me an old electrical Gould pump that a farmer had given him (John is a self-proclaimed “garbologist” and works at the local dump). The pump looked ancient and skeletal; an incongruously heavy black unit with a large black belt connecting two spindles. The wiring was frayed and replete with an antique plug. It looked like an electrocution waiting to happen but we looked at the lube points and they seemed functional. We checked the priming cylinder and wrapped electrical tape to reinforce the wire. I decided to give it a go. Miraculously, John had also collected some heavy black plastic pipe that fit the 2” in and outtakes, and those he gave to me as well.

With an advance on the how-to-get-the-water-out-of-the-well front, I decided (of course without testing it) that I would pull the trigger on the sprayer, 500 bucks be damned. I made a trip to the local Country Tractor store, which is the absolute worst run retail store in our country, and that says more than you know. The first nimrod I spoke to, a spindly beanpole of a hick with zero knowledge of product was entirely useless. He could not tell me the tractor hitch rating on the sprayer, which was critical and one would think something that he would know. He couldn’t or wouldn’t look it up and there was no box, which I’ll get back to. I decided to take a leap of faith. I called for the manager. The manager was even more unhelpful. Because there was no box and just a small jumble of parts with no instructions, I asked him for a discount- again because it was CLEARLY out of box and the last in the store. He flatly refused and informed me that it wasn’t officially “out of box”; he had just removed it from the box this morning for display. I sucked down a flare of irritation because by God my plants needed water, paid the cashier and waited for help to carry it to the car. That’s when the fun started. I asked him how I would know that all the parts were there and he told me solemnly that the instructions would help. I agreed wholeheartedly but pointed out again that there were none. Flustered he disappeared to his office and appeared 20 minutes later with something he had printed out. I asked him with sarcasm why he had to print out instructions when in his own words he had just removed this unit from the box this morning. He had no reply and it wouldn’t be the last time for him either.

Not long after I got home (a thirty minute drive by the way), I of course realized that parts were missing. First a 96” powering cable that would convert the tractor’s battery power to the 12 volt sprayer pumps. I called the Manager but he wouldn’t take my call. A cable magically appeared at the service desk in Tractor Supply for me the next day. Getting home for the second time I realized that it was not long enough. Cursing, I made a trip to Napa Auto Parts and purchased primary wire and wire nuts and added several feet of play to the cable.

On try number two, I realized that the tank drainage nut was missing. Same drill. The manager hid in the back room, and the nut was left for me at the cashier. He was lucky.

And so here I was today. All parts apparently in play. All players ready for action. No instructions that help me understand this vital 3 point connection and start the party. So I decide the try John’s donated pump first. My plan is a simple hookup to see if it will draw water from the well. I cut the plastic piping into two sections, one for both the input and output, and slide them on, secure with band locks, and then drop the former down into the rock lined darkness. The difficult part will be the first leg, 15 feet straight up from the well water surface to the transfer, a steep climb for a heavy column of water that will have a weight of 8 pounds per gallon.

In preparation for the test, I spend the cool early morning with my chainsaw and brush cutter clearing out around the well bulkhead, enough room to back in my tractor when the time comes. Next, I run 200 yards of wire from the new barn outlet to the well staging area and prime the pump. I have no idea if this thing has been used in the last 50 years- it certainly doesn’t look like it. I consider how much it would suck to be found face down in the stubble, dead of electrocution. But my tomato plants are wilting day by day. And then, I connect the wires. To my surprise, the old pump whirs to life without effort, spindles spinning with the lubricated whir of a comfy old car engine. Victory!

To the output end, Batman! I run and pick up the warm out pipe and listen, the way you would to a garden hose to hear the water coming. I can detect small burping in the line and for a moment, a pristine, joyous moment I can taste, almost, the sweet feeling that comes when the hobby farmer executes according to plan. But it is not to be. I wait and wait and then return to check the input- only to discover that the water column is halted about midway between water surface and the transfer. Game over.

Before I continue here, I need to emphasize, that often things do go according to plan, especially at lunch and dinner time- so let me take you through some of that. Because at Stony Creek, we eat good- real good. Some of that is a function of our mutual passion for great food and some of our insistence on the absolute freshest ingredients- most of which we grow ourselves. I am fond of calling our food style “Catskill Country Artisanal” because we do most everything from scratch and we do it with flair and simplicity- every day. The area we live in is part of the Schoharie River Valley and is widely considered to be one of the most fertile patches of growing land in NY State. We have access to some amazingly fresh and exciting ingredients through our gardens, farmer’s markets, local artists and artisanal food producers. So, while I come from the outdoors sometimes in massive defeat or exhaustion, I am soon salved by preparing a fabulous meal with my beautiful wife and son- accompanied usually by one or more libations in the form of Gin and olives. I will share some recipes throughout these postings. You can pour yourself a glass of wine and try them any time. Here’s a couple from a recent dinner. I choose these because as everyone knows, Zucchini, Squashes and tomatoes are the order of the season now:

Summer Squash and Chipotle Soup

Tired of Zucchini bread yet? This is a great way to start a summer meal for many reasons: simple, flavorful, spicy, uses up all of those incredibly prolific squash plants you thought you needed of in the spring. We make it all the time during the summer and freeze into lunch and guest sized portions for a quick appetizer.

Start with 3 or 4 medium squash, preferably a combination of zucchini and yellow squashes, but you could use pretty much any of the varieties that can be grown. Cut them into half or whole rounds of about ¾”. Slice 1 very large or two medium white onions thinly and toss those in some butter to soften, about 5 minutes. At that point, add about a ¼ cup of your crispest white wine, and the squash. Toss to circulate the onions and season with ¾” tablespoon of cumin and a good shake of ground coriander. Allow for 3 more minutes and then add your best beef stock (chicken stock is fine but beef just adds a whole different depth) and then 1 and ½ chopped Chipotle in Adobo chilies and stir in. Cover and simmer until squashes are just tender. Remove the lid, toss in three or four handfuls of crushed stale tortilla chips (you know you have them lying around). Allow to incorporate and use immersion blender to blend soup until you have a chunky, chowdery consistency with some squash chunks still recognizable. Add salt or pepper as needed. I like to garnish this with the freshest minced Cilantro that I can pick from our herb garden. Super good!

Grilled Blade of Veal with Marinated Heirloom Tomatoes

We’re all about economical, fresh, flavorful and fast, easy cooking here. A lot of people have a chip on their shoulder about veal but I eschew any moral arguments. We generally source our meat from local producers and trust that everything has been done right. This is a great recipe. Veal shoulder blades pop up as a trimmed cut fairly often. They look like large, thin pork chops and most people overlook them or consider them only for braising. They are super cheap and super flavorful.

Start with your shoulder chop and marinate it for at least two hours in white wine, olive oil and some lemon zest. Separately, seed and cut a mixture of your favorite heirloom tomatoes (you can use regular cherry too) and toss in a bowl with some fresh thyme, mint and parsley, minced garlic, a pinch of brown sugar, olive oil, and good rice wine vinegar and let this sit for a long time, stirring occasionally.

Throw the chops on a hot grill after seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper (we always use an authentic Mojlcajate for this) garlic and onion powder and grill until medium. Remove to a plate, top with the tomatoes and you are ready to roll.

Ok, so back to my tales of weeds, wells, water and woe. With my re-purposed pump below task I am back to square one. I decide to make another investment (remember, this is what we Hobby Farmers do best) and purchase a lightweight Honda gas pump for another cool 500 bucks. I am dimly aware that this will be expensive water but the little unit is a powerhouse, and once primed, oiled and gassed, delivers an astonishing jet of cold clear water. I am back on track.

And so here I sit with my sprayer, the penultimate job. Without directions for consummating the 3 point hitch and the implement, I improvise. I start the tractor, lower the linkages and then attempt to wrestle the tank unit forward to where the holes in the draft arms holes line up with the sprayer frame pins. I am dimly aware as I am doing this that there are no link clips (these little pins hold the linkages together) for them, yet MORE missing items from this sprayer but with jiggling I am able to join all parts. I can worry about the clips later. I then lengthen the top linkage and connect to the unit and tighten down the lock nut. And that folks is when my luck runs almost entirely out.

I have to emphasize one thing here- and take it from a greenhorn who has learned a lot doing this stuff. Never, ever, NEVER ever operate a big tractor and/or its implements without ALL of the parts and pieces, no matter how seemingly mundane. When I complete the top linkage, my sand castle crumbles. The left bottom draft arm ball , unsecured by the locking pin, and lubricated with a hefty dose of liquid wrench, pops free from the implement pin and somehow- although I cannot remember for the life of me why- my thumb is below and between the bottom edge of the steel sprayer frame and the steel tow bar. The 100 pound sprayer and steel hitching frame smash down on my finger, crushing it against the immovable bar and the pain is horrifying and immediate, so horrible that at first I cannot breathe and then when I can I am screaming. I weigh 185 pounds, none of it fat. At one time before a shoulder problem last summer I was doing 500 pushups a day and able to throw up 265 plus pounds on a bench press multiple times with ease. Not a “tough guy” but man enough. All that weight down hard in one place, steel on steel brings me to my knees. The pain is so bad that I am blinded and in fact cannot remember now how I moved the frame off and freed my finger and then walked to the house with blood spurting in every direction. Erin, horrified, is at the sink and runs my hand in cool water but the pain and shock is so bad that I am forced to kneel again and fight the urge to vomit as she drapes cold compresses on the back of my neck.

Don’t want to spend too much time on this but it is hours before the blood begins to slow down and we are able to see an angry crack in the purple black of the smashed nail bed. After the initial pain there is no feeling whatsoever in the finger; it is pressed grotesquely flat and we debate going to the emergency room. I decide in the end to wait it out and heal at home. At the time of this accounting, after many days, the feeling and color have returned slowly to my finger and the nail has predictably died away. I’ll just say it one more time- make sure you do things carefully with big equipment. Every year, thousands of farmers lose not only digits and limbs, eyes and teeth, but their lives.

It takes me several hours of dealing with pain to focus all of my anger back at the source: Country Tractor and their poor customer service, inflexibility and the parade of missing parts. This has been a long episode but I will tell you that I make a surprise visit to the store the next day and find the invisible Manager hiding behind a check-out counter. He is cornered and turns white even before I get to him, which means he remembers me- and he clearly does. Holding my unwrapped, mangled finger in his face for ambiance, I explain to him as calmly as I can the sequence of events that led to my being here and that I want my money back fast, real fast. I think I am fine until that point but somehow, in a panic, he decides to rest in the comforting arms of “store policy” and ask for my receipt which I don’t have. I consider his fat sweaty, trembling face for a moment and then, for a few minutes I can’t remember exactly what I say (many people who know me well will probably giggle here) but then there are several people from the back of the store around us, including the assistant manager. They probably save the man’s life. Anyway, the Assistant Manager takes care of me immediately and issues an immediate refund.

I go home and the next night figure out the final solution to my watering problem. I have a series of 50 gallon rain barrels that have been in my barn forever. I place three of them in the back of my pick-up truck and back up into the well site. Using my new little Honda pump, I draw cold clear water up into the barrels. I drive my truck up into big field, park next to the gardens and start the pump again. Erin, my beautiful (and very pregnant) wife stands in the bed and transfers the intake to one barrel after another as they empty, and I maneuver the hoses to make sure the plants get a good, old fashioned soaking. Long journey to success, but victory is victory and a win here on the farm for me is always extra special.

And here I will leave you with one more recipe for this edition, so that we end on a double positive. I call this “Summer Stuffing”. Italians call this a Panzenella or bread salad. It makes use of the best of the season- your tomatoes and fresh herbs. I do all kinds of great variations on this…but consider this garden variety :)

Summer Stuffing”

Take a half loaf of good artisanal Italian bread and cut into 1and ½ to 2 inch cubes and spread out on a baking tray. Add salt and pepper and bake at 375 for about 20 minutes until toasted. In the meantime, head up to your garden and pick your best tomatoes (right now we are exploding in sugary cherries). If using cherry tomatoes, slice in half and add to a large mixing bowl along with 1 large minced clove of garlic, half of a small minced hot pepper (we grow Cherry Bombs but you can use whatever you can find) 2 minced anchovies, about ¾ of a cup of mixed and finely chopped fresh Parsley, Thyme, and Rosemary in combination with a few leaves of torn or chiffonaded Basil. How you apportion the herbs depends on what you like but I go heavier on the parsley and basil, and lightly on the other two for this recipe. Throw in some chopped cured black olives and then add olive oil and rice wine vinegar to taste, along with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Let this mixture sit for an hour.

When you are ready to serve, add the toasted bread cubes to the “dressing” and toss well. Serve as soon as possible with a sprinkling of good grated Romano. Believe me, if you have never had anything like this, you will love it and you will never be able to make enough for your guests!

See You Soon. Happy Farming