Saturday, December 24, 2011

Eating: Saturday (aka Christmas Eve)

If you happened to tune in yesterday, you are privy to the sketch of the menu for our week-long family celebration. It's a week-long celebration because that's how long we'll all be together in Charlotte. We being my folks, my brother and me. This celebration happens to include Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The first a meal with just the four of us, the latter a slightly bigger event including some family friends who live in the neighborhood. Nothing formal (formal as in attire, expectations or snobbyness), everything fun. The thing about our family is that we always end up putting a delicious and wonderful meal on the table, and we have a good time preparing and sharing it. However, we never really set a determined meal time, as the final hour of preparation is more of a flexible, rolling, to-be-determined sort of thing.

The tendency is for my mom to have a nice mental list of the things she would like to eat for the holiday. We exchange subject line only e-mails that read, "What would you like for Christmas dinner? <eom>" We all shoot back a slurry of responses, never sure which ones make the menu. Sometimes ingredients are sourced before we arrive (especially those coming from the farmers' market) and sometimes they are not.

So as we drove to the grocery store yesterday, I asked my mom exactly what we were preparing, and for which meal. This was all still up for debate, although she did have a shopping list. Since I end up (happily) doing most of the cooking, this makes me slightly nervous, so last night we made a list.

Here is what we have determined we will eat tonight for Christmas Eve. Roast duck, with crispy skin. Last week my mom purchased a whole young duck, about four pounds, from Windy Hill Farm. She says this is their first attempt at raising ducks. I say I am happy to be their duck guinea pig. This has inspired me to render fat, aim for cracklings and have an extremely fun epicurean adventure. Let's just hope it will work out. Brussels sprouts, cooked by my mom in the only fashion in which my dad will eat them. Kirk is protesting, but we are hoping we may convert him tonight. An arugala salad, with greens procured from the folks at Puzzle Peace Farm this morning (who I was so excited to meet in person). And scallops, scallops that will be pan cooked in duck fat. Sorry heart.

Then there is the matter of the Christmas morning breakfast. Traditionally, this is bagels, cream cheese, lox, capers and thin-sliced red onions. Ambitions has taken the lead this year, and mom wants to make bagels. This process will also start tonight, and along with the honey wheat dinner rolls for tomorrow, inspired a last-minute family adventure to Target to purchase a Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer which we have all predicted will get used in equal proportion to the number of times I come to visit. This was Kirk's commentary, not mine. We'll be attempting a recipe adapted from The Bread Bible (irony?), my favorite bread book and the closest version I could find considering I didn't schlep the real thing down south with me. 

There's nothing like trying something new for a major holiday - we are an adventurous and forgiving bunch - and this is how we ferment our best culinary traditions (and fiasco stories). And so as to not eat too late tonight, I should probably stop blabbering and start scoring this lovely duck.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Eating: Yours & Mine

I try my absolute darnedest to not let this evolve into a food blog.

There is no need for another diary of what I ate, beautiful pictures of freshly prepared meals dancing with sunlight, or how to recipes. I have nothing against these blogs, in fact I enjoy them significantly. This is where I find aesthetic inspiration for a new ingredient, or that just perfect dish, cookie, tart, preserve, pickle or home brew in my imagination that someone else has, undoubtedly, already created. My favorites, Darcy over at the Garden of Eden, The Traveler's Lunchbox & Delicious Days. I love the pretty pictures, the recipe and the personal narrative all in one place. I don't want to do this, mostly because there is no way I can do it as well as others. And I don't think anyone wants to hear my shopping list or eating list for the week.

But sometimes, just sometimes, there is so much goodness in family, food and celebrations that it's too hard to resist sharing all the good things we're going to eat. This is not to say that overwhelming abundance occurs only once a year. In our tiny household of two cooks and a dog we tend to eat like royalty, albeit on a peasants budget. but I'll spare you all the stories about pickled beets, rendered duck fat and the dynamo pickled relish inspired by Miss Polly. To me, sharing these stories feels too much like writing in my middle-school diary for all to see. Regardless, we just wrote a list, and it looks something like this...

Friday - Caviar & Oysters
Saturday - Duck & Scallops
Sunday - Standing Rib Roast
Monday - Leftovers
Tuesday - Buffalo Burgers
Wednesday - Chicken

Friends, this is triple the amount of meat I eat in one year (ok, maybe not so if you include cured meats) packed into less than one week. And these meaty labels are just placeholders to whole, entire, actual meals. I haven't been clued into the recipe pile yet, so I don't know what we are actually cooking, but do far I have heard dishes such as stuffed cabbage, lettuce wraps, molded marzipan cookies, homemade bagels, latkes, brussels sprouts and homemade honey dinner rolls bandied about the house and the car ride to the grocery store.

I will say this, as our family carpool scurries out of the house. The caviar and oysters on the list tonight is a cooking class. The daughter of a family friend invited my mom and I to join her and her mom for a cooking class highlighting oysters and caviar. I am not sure what cooking is involved, but if it means shucking and snacking (and possibly savoring some fermented sweets) I couldn't say no. More to come after the "class"...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Young Farmers & DIY Crafters

What do the eager, fresh faced young farmers of today have in common with the clever artists of the DIY craft movement? Everything. 

I've been ruminating on this topic for the past few weeks, spurred by my enrollment in the pasture-based dairy and livestock business planning class and an overdose of DIY holiday arts and crafts. Somehow, from the outside, the idea of being a farmer or crafter is very appealing, and attracts a certain type of person (myself included, on both fronts) - but doesn't always live up to the expectations when you cut to the nitty-gritty of running a small business.

I began noticing the similarities after Thanksgiving, when we headed to Milwaukee for the annual Art vs Craft extravaganza. This craft show is hailed as the end all be all of craft fairs and holiday gift hot spots for people who appreciate local, handmade, crafty home wares, jewelry, posters and letterpress get the picture. Housed in a humdrum, beige conference-center-like space at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, this event was teeming with your trusty craftacular favorites: woodcut prints of vegetables, letterpress stationery, scrap fabric goodness, jewelry made from typewriter keys, clever handscreened t-shirts, and much much more. Tables and tables full of unique displays, one-of-a-kind handcrafted projects and eager artisans promoting, selling, hawking and highlighting their wares. There is sometimes a certain desperation. I've made all this pretty stuff. I know you like it. Please like it enough to buy it.

This was no small event either. It was just us and over 3,300 other lovers of crafty goodness who visited this one day craft fair. How's that for a big show of support for small, local artisans? And this is not only a Milwaukee phenomenon, there is a surge of crafty love across the country. There's the Renegade Craft Fair in various locations, Crafty Wonderland in Portland, and the vast internet craft fair on Etsy...just to name a very small sliver of the action. Professional crafters and their DIY counterparts alike (kind of like farmers and their corresponding home-gardeners) are a culture all their own.  

Perusing the tables and tables of inspired crafts, I felt an enormous parallel between these homespun crafters and the wave of new and young farmers taking over the nation. A growing movement of young, motivated, creative, idealistic folks desiring to create their own path in life. And to meet them, a paying consumer base making deliberate purchasing decisions to support the small, the local and the handmade. Sounds like the enormous, and still growing, support for small, local farmers, no? 

Maybe you are catching my drift here. Without referencing the 2007 Census of Ag or the 2010 Census of Craftiness (which I just made up), there has been a growth in both of these industries in the past handful of years.

The parallels between the craft and young farmer populations are significant. These are groups of younger folks drawn to a self-designed lifestyle cultivating seeds and soil or thread and needle into a fulfilling meaning for each twenty four hour day. Energetic self-starters (I hate that term) desiring to engage with the world on their own terms, motivated to carve a niche outside of the existing system. No daily desk routine, no working for someone else, a willingness to live without a steady paycheck and with a certain uncertainty. All with a vision of molding natural resources and personal skills into a sustaining income stream, and with a life-encompassing passion. Read more from last week's NPR piece on attendees at the Stone Barns Center's Young Farmers Conference for an accurate picture on the farmer side. Sure, these are generalizations, but I can say this because I've been there, and I want to be there again - this time on the farm, not in the studio.

From the outside, the lifestyle of the professional crafter and farmer seem appealing - somehow simple and idealistic. You are your own boss, your life is in your hands, it's all about the art of growing or making and you dedicate your time to being lost in your art. Mornings in a heavy flannel shirt, coffee in hand, soaking in the panorama of the fields. Mornings straight to the studio, coffee in hand, to immerse yourself in the creative process. Yes, both are wonderfully sumptuous visions - and also rarely true. 

This is because the truth behind both of these endeavors is that they are small businesses. And the bottom line about a small business is that it has a bottom line. And for the individual who wants to be the solo-act in a small crafty or farm-based business that means being a jack-of-all-trades and dedicating a significant amount of time to actually running the business. There is little to find creative or pleasing in administer the sinister and often forgotten aspects of running a business, like dealing with credit card processing companies, keeping the books, paying taxes, advertising and promotion, insurance, food safety regulations (well, that one's not pertinent to crafters), permits and on and on and on. It can quite quickly put you back behind a desk and away from the things you truly love.

And that seems to be the biggest piece that new farmers miss, and maybe crafters too. The big difference between these two parties is that farming (depending on how you do it) requires a hefty up front investment in either land, equipment or operating costs and it takes a bit longer to raise a pig and get it to market than it does to make an adorable note card on a vintage letterpress and sell it on Etsy. Many going into this field ignore, forget or are oblivious to the fact that farming is more than a lifestyle, it's a business. And a business, especially one as complex as a farm, requires lots and lots and lots of planning. The USDA is throwing money at agencies and non-profits to provide business planning classes for new and young farmers. The classes, which are wide spread and easily accessible in person or online are a wonderful resource, but ultimately only effective if students actually write a business plan...which requires research, sitting behind a desk, running lost of numbers, playing with Excel and feeling a bit disheartened to see a bottom line that is not profitable, at least for a while. But that's what the planning is for. Planning is not sexy, it's not the same as being in the fields, planting tender transplants, creating new designs or perfecting your craft - but it's important. Very, very important.

So here's a toast to the new farmers and crafters that are creating local economies and personal economic opportunities. Thanks for being brave enough to go it alone and create beauty and tastiness and self-fulfillment. Just don't forget about the less-palatable stuff along the way.

On our end, we're preparing as much as possible for our venture-to-be. Business planning, time working for other people, being smart about investments, networking, conferencing and researching - a lot. It's hard to balance the impatience of wanting to farm now, especially during these winter months away from Dreamfarm, and finding a contentedness in where I am now. I guess patience, and planning, are key!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pens to Pasture ~ Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm

Do you peruse the newsletter delivered with your weekly CSA share or subscribe to the e-mail list of your favorite farmers at your local market? I do, and I savor them. So many of my friends and family also love the stories their farmers seemed like a good time to share these stories more widely. Farming provides abundant fodder for writing and consumers provide a natural audience...and hence the perfect environment for brief, well-articulated pieces highlighting the thoughts and daily life of farmers.
At Pens to Pastures: Fodder from the Field we celebrate the agricultural life, the hard work of farmers and the grace and openness with which they share it all through writing. Dig in, enjoy and be sure to share the writings of your farmers by sending an e-mail here.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm
Robin & Gigi
Harris, MN &

It's obvious there are thoughtful and creative women behind Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm from the name alone. The words and pictures on the farm blog only make this clearer. In this case, the crispness of the words speak for themselves, and I especially admire the stillness conveyed in this short end of season message - a brief pause to relish before the cycle begins again. There is plenty more to read and see at both the farm and wool blogs mentioned above, just be sure to scroll to the bottom of the blog to access the archive.
December 9, 2011

Happy winter, holiday and solstice season to all of you from Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm.
We have had a pleasant time with the long fall getting pens ready for the animals, lights hung for the poultry, heated buckets set up for winter watering and round hay bales moved for feeding the sheep and putting up wood for the woodstove.  The feeders are hung for the wild birds and Robin made a batch of suet, a mix of lard, peanut butter and bird seed for the woodpeckers and flickers and an occasional cardinal. 

It seems quiet at mealtime with just the two of us but before we know it, our first two interns will arrive in time for lambing and goat kidding.  Soon after that, we will be pulling out the equipment for collection maple sap, and setting up the cooker to turn it into syrup.  In the meantime, we are still milking one goat, Novel who is giving us a very rich quart of milk a day, just enough for milk on granola, in our coffee and Gigi's favorite - goat milk white russians.  

The seed catalogs have begun to arrive with colorful pictures of mouth watering varieties.  The fields are not completely covered in snow yet but we are hopeful for a deep snowfall over the next few months to help provide much needed moisture for next spring, (not to mention good cross country skiing).  
We wish you joy in this holiday season in what ever way you celebrate.  Blessings to you all.

Robin and Gigi 

Below is the membership form for the 2012 season. 
We are reducing the number of shares so sign up early.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pens to Pasture ~ Grateful Growers

When friends and family began raving about and forwarding to me the weekly CSA newsletters and farm updates sent from their farmers, I paid attention. I also laughed (and even teared up) at these genuine writings intimately describing all it takes to grow our food. It didn't take long to realize that these stories must be shared with a wider audience. So...welcome to Pens to Pasture: Fodder from the Field where each week we feature one farm and the stories they share with their customers through CSA newsletters, blog stories and e-mail updates. We celebrate the agricultural life, the hard work of farmers and the grace and openness with which they share it all through writing. Dig in, enjoy and be sure to share the writings of your farmers by sending an e-mail here.

Grateful Growers
Natalie and Cassie
Eastern Lincoln County, North Carolina

The slogan on Natalie and Cassie's website is Real Food, Real Farmers, and that tagline sums them up pretty well. Not only do they run a successful small hog farm, mobile (delicious) food cart and brick and mortar restaurant (both called the Harvest Moon Grille), these women are racking up the awards. With a focus on sustainably raised Tamworth hogs, processed for farmers' market and restaurants, Grateful Growers developed an early name for themselves. Their reputation is well deserved, but not just for the food they create, but for the community too. These women are "passionate about creating a sense of community" around food, and do an outstanding job of education and educating customers and creating a true sense of community around their food and the local food movement. They are persistent and devoted too! Earlier this year their bright orange mobile food truck was stolen, and with great gusto they plugged on, purchased a new truck (the blue moon), and created even more opportunities to sell their delicious foods.

Much of the weekly newsletter announces the location of the mobile Harvest Moon Grille, farmers' market offerings and latest news from the full-on restaurant. But what I savor most is the What's up on the Farm? section toward the end. These brief sections provide a clear, concise snapshot of life on the farm and the trials and tribulations of raising animals and working with nature. Enjoy these passages from a recent and past Grateful Growers e-newsletter, and thank them for putting pen to paper to share their stories. Visit the Grateful Growers website for more stories, to see the list of incredible awards they keep winning and learn more about their vision of food and community.

December 2, 2011

What's up on the Farm?

Did you miss me (or at least, the newsletter)?  It's been a wild couple of weeks.  We had a great time at the restaurant serving an amazing Thanksgiving dinner (if you missed it this year, be sure to make it next time - great food and you get to enjoy visiting with your family and not having to wash dishes!).  I'll admit it was nice to be home from markets last Saturday, but I can assure you it was not all leisure.  We had a firewood splitting party and the gang who joined me also helped with the always spontaneous "fence mending" and accompanying pig relocation projects.  We had a great time creating a mighty pile of wood and afterward, enjoyed an amazing dinner that Julia brought with her.  Big thanks to Dr. Bob, Amy and Julia for their wonderful company and hard work!

Our neighbors are stringing Christmas lights.  We are stringing heatlamps.  Again, it's time to break out the hundreds of feet of extension cord and the little orbs of warmth for our litters of new piglets.  There are four huts full of them, cuties that they are, all snuggled together under in the straw beneath the glowing lamp.  Just when we catch a break on the electric bill because the freezers aren't working so hard, we get to spend up because of the heatlamps.  Small price to pay, though.  The extra warmth can make the difference between life and death on a real cold night for a very young piglet (who has no body fat to keep him/her warm).  Beyond helping with the odds for survival, pigs who have the supplemental warmth also tend to grow out more efficiently.  Like so many other things, we'll tolerate the web of cords (and the bills) for our little ones.

See you here at the Moon and the Markets!
Natalie, Cassie + Jeremy

 June 2011

What's up on the Farm?


The sheep have settled in to their new home at our place nicely. We brought home 4 young ewes (females), which we will keep for breeding. They are almost 3 months old and are incredibly cute. We named them Marilyn, Madelyn (for my mom and her twin, whose birthday it was on the day we got the sheep), Esther (for Cassie’s mom), and Annie (for Charles + Lamar’s daughter, who was among the first customers at our cart and introduced us to her very cool parents). We also brought home 3 rams (boys with their “package” intact) that we’ve named Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. They are about a year old and will hang out at our place for several more weeks to bulk up before they are featured at the restaurant.
 Because sheep aren't as destructive as pigs, we have put the ewes in our side yard, fenced off by an "electric net".  We wanted them close by to keep an eye on them, and because we are farm nerds, we sit on the deck and watch them instead of TV.  They are also taking care of the grass, so we don't have to mow.   We put the boys out back near the henhouse and they have been devouring the patches of clover back in what we formerly called "the poultry pasture".  With the very cool electric nets, we will move the sheep all over the property to simultaneously nourish them and maintain the grass.

Sunday evening we had a bad storm here, resulting in a bunch of busted up trees and lost power. We were so fortunate that no buildings or the house were damaged. We were also blessed that our neighbor Del and our friend Bess came to our place that evening and checked in on things, since we were up at Charles’ having a lovely evening. They were relieved to find that all the animals were okay and not running all over the neighborhood. A large limb fell on the power line feeding our barn meter, meaning we had no power to our well or to the walk-in freezer.  They called the power company who had somebody out to fix it quickly, so the animals had water and we didn't lose any meat. The tops of several huge trees were broken out, so much of the week has been devoted to cleaning up.  The top of a giant oak fell onto Del's tractor (parked at my place), but caused only cosmetic damage.  I carefully cut the limbs away from it, drove it out from under the mess, then used the tractor to pull the limb away from the tree to cut it up.  As a kind of poetic justice, the wood is now in a pile at Del's, awaiting use for this winter's heating. So, this week can be summed up into "chainsaws + sheep".  Lots more of both to be happening for weeks to come.   

Off to the garden to weed and harvest onions. We hope to see you at the markets and/or the restaurant this weekend!

Natalie, Cassie + Jeremy

Sunday, December 4, 2011

7-Up, Saltines & War Wonton Soup

Do you have vivid food memories associated with your childhood?

For me it’s grandma’s potato dumplings and cabbage with kielbasa on Christmas Eve, a homemade Polish tradition. There’s dad’s letter-shaped, weekend-morning pancakes poured carefully into the electric countertop griddle with the classic early 80s motif on the lid. And then there were the regular dinner rotations: taco night, beef stroganoff, chicken casserole... Always with a green salad of iceberg lettuce, carrots and bottles and bottles and bottles of half empty salad dressings to choose from, served from the same polished wooden salad bowl. And there were the months when mom was determined we each put a heaping tablespoon of ground wheat bran on top of our cold breakfast cereal. Talk about an effective way to ruin a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios.

This past week I was reminded of a different kind of food memory from childhood: sick day food.

I never minded being sick as a kid. In our house, being sick meant a day of special attention (an extra story or an super secure tuck-in at night), maybe the tiny television from the kitchen temporarily perched on my dresser, but mostly it meant 7-Up, Saltine crackers and war wonton soup. I, gratefully, never suffered any serious ailments as a kid, so I saw my few sick days as sort of special

There was the 7-Up, the first line of defense again sick day woes. Sometimes it was ginger ale, or even Hansen’s Fruit Sodas, but there was always a straw. On occasion there was even a flexi-straw, bent at a kind ninety degree angle toward my mouth. No matter the ailment, this was always a soothing balm, although mostly reserved for upset stomachs and sore throats. We didn’t drink much soda as kids (they rot your teeth, did you hear?), and I have a vague memory we were only allowed ‘clear’ or orange sodas – but that’s beside the point. It was a treat, and those effervescent, sugary bubbles always managed to do bring a bit of peace.

The Saltines were reserved for upset tummies, the first solid food when ready and able to eat again. The perfect combination of salt, crunch, blandness and dissolve-in-your-mouth texture. I remember the Volvo station wagon would make special trips to the store if someone was under the weather and the house was empty of these miracle crackers. To this day, I only eat them when I’m recovering from a rough stomach.

Then there is the war wonton soup. This is harder to explain, although on second thought it’s the same as chicken noodle soup – just from another culture. The cure-all war wonton soup was picked up from Jade East, the ‘hole in the wall’ Chinese restaurant between mom’s Pasadena Freeway freeway off ramp and home, the final stretch. Not just the average sick day food, growing up war wonton soup seemed to be mom’s cure-all.

Takeout orders were presented from behind the counter in cut-down cardboard boxes, the sides just tall enough to prevent the white waxed cardboard boxes of rice with the thin metal handles and the plastic containers of soup from knocking over and spilling on the car ride home. I only remember picking up those boxes once or twice, and we never ate in. The restaurant had an odd layout, and I still have the image of four heat-from-above buffet trays casting an orange-red light from the middle of the room. What I remember most was the short-sided box sitting in mom’s trunk, and how the smell permeated the whole car.

It’s nearly impossible to find any thing nearly as good as the Jade East war wonton variety in Charlotte, New Haven, Jamaica Plain, Portland, Madison or any of the places where I’ve been in dire need of this remedy. The liquid broth was watery, but flavorful, and one serving would fill the special big bowls reserved for this purpose alone. The broth was swimming with ‘fresh’ snow peas, carrot coins, bean sprouts, hearts of palm, water chestnuts, baby corns, slivers of white onion, scallion rings and bok choy - not to mention the thin ‘pork’ slices, uniformly brown around the edge and pink in the middle. And then there were the wontons; my reasoning always involved eating all the vegetables first in order to save these gems for last. They were ghostlike characters floating in the remaining broth, the thinnest rice noodle wrapped around an undistinguishable yet delicious meatball of pork or chicken or shrimp and onions…almost melting in your mouth.

Undoubtedly unconventional, this tonic soothed my stomach, refreshed my appetite and made everything better. So this past week, when I was struck with an out-of-nowhere stomach bug and finally regained my appetite…there was one thing, and one thing only, I wanted…war wonton soup.

Ok, and maybe I wanted my mom to come tuck me into bed too.