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!