In the Big Garden

In the Big Garden
The Farmer at work...

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