Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cooking from the Farm's Bounty

Though I am not cooking quite as much as I had hoped to before this whole farm thing began, bringing our bounty home and making something of it is certainly one of the great pleasures of the experience. Our days are long, and by the time I get home and have cleaned myself up, I can already see bedtime creeping up on me. So during the week there is very little looking through cookbooks for new, unusual and/or creative dishes to cook; I just don’t have the energy or will for it. Of course, I still have to eat and I certainly don’t want to waste the opportunity and just eat convenience food or take out, so I concentrate on quick and simple preparations. Luckily, these are often the best ways to experience fresh, high-quality produce. And there’s always the weekend for something a little more involved.

Of course, I do love to cook, and I’ve often found that what strikes me as a pretty simple, straightforward thing seems very involved to other people. But really, I only have my own perspective to go by.

From the last week, my peak experiment was a dish called leeks vinaigrette. As our fresh bulbed onions (ailsa craig variety) gave out a couple weeks ago, we started harvesting our leeks to fill in the gap until our big storage onions are ready (we started harvesting them this week but they have to cure for a while before they can be properly stored and distributed to our shareholders). I’ve cooked with leeks before and enjoyed them, but I’m getting a better sense of their own flavors and uses now that I'm trying to find a place for them in the absence of regular onions. But they really need to be cooked; that’s one big limitation compared to storage onions. In any case, leeks vinaigrette: cut off the roots and tops of a few leeks (keep maybe an inch or two of the pale green) and boil them in salted water until they are cooked (but short of mushy or falling apart; a fork should slide into the center without too much effort). Let them cool a bit and slice them in two lengthwise and place cut side up on a plate. Make a mustard vinaigrette – equal parts Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar, two or three parts olive oil, maybe a little water for an appropriately delicate flavor or texture, salt and pepper. Whisk and pour over the leeks. Finally, grate a hard-boiled egg over the leeks and eat. Very tasty; somehow it was just what I expected except better, with a fuller, more integrated flavor.

This week we have been delving into fresh salsa as well, one of my favorite things to do with fresh summer produce. Though our tomatoes have had and continue to have great difficulties due to the blight, we have still gotten a few good fruits off of the vine, often green, that have ripened up pretty nicely and have good flavor (though except for our sungold cherry tomatoes which are just as sweet and delicious as I could imagine, these fruits that are ripening off of the vine are not as good as the best tomatoes I have tried in other summers). And now that we are starting to get hot peppers in as well that means salsa. Frankly, this time of year, I rarely stray from that most traditional and ubiquitous of Mexican salsas, pico gallo. Diced onions, garlic, tomatoes, hot green chiles, cilantro, lime juice and salt. Mmmmm. It is such a pleasure to make and eat. This week has also seen a couple major pesto excursions as we have a couple of bed of basil that are going gangbusters (I also froze a bunch of basil pureed with olive oil to keep summer alive later in the fall and winter), and last weekend I indulged in a classic American meal of grilled steak (from our grass-fed jersey cows) with our own yellow potatoes and grilled escarole.

I guess grilled escarole might be a departure of sorts from that 'classic American meal'. Escarole and all the chicories are delicious grilled. For escarole, dunk it in water before dressing and grilling so that it doesn’t burn too easily. Halve it, and toss it with a balsamic vinaigrette, salt and pepper. Throw it on the grill. Keeping it to the sides seems best, to keep it from burning before it wilts nicely, though some char and grill marks are entirely appropriate. The escarole will usually keep some chew unless you get fancy and blanch it a bit first, but that seems unnecessary to me.

And lots of even simpler stuff has been cooked and consumed, salads, boiled beets, steamed greens, scrambled eggs with herbs, etc. It’s certainly a pleasurable time of year to eat, though it is often too hot to want to spend much time over the stove or with the oven on, but we get by alright. In any case, as I sit here writing this it is raining and probably only in the upper sixties, so maybe I should go get a chicken and put it in the oven.

Adios, friends.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Dog Days of Summer

My deepest apologies for not having written for, what, three weeks? I was traveling, but then I wasn’t, I was back working at the farm, but I couldn’t seem to find the motivation to write. Why not? Don’t know. The weeks have been up and down, but that’s normal. There has been plenty going on.

The name of the game this past week has been survival. Surviving the heat. We had a heat wave, with temperatures in the low 90’s on Monday and Tuesday, very high 80’s on Wednesday and Friday, with Thursday a relatively mild 83 or something like that. As you can imagine, working very long days in this heat, under the sun, can be difficult. We are lucky, between the ocean’s proximity and the open fields around us, to have a good breeze much of the time, but there’s only so much it can do in extreme heat and humidity. Plus, many tasks take us down onto our knees and between rows of vegetables where there is often little wind. Weeding is definitely a challenge. I think the worse task this week, for me, has been harvesting cherry tomatoes. They are prickly and viney, full of mosquitoes, unfortunately full of rotting leaves and fruit due to the blight, dusty and hot with no wind. Though the sungold cherry tomatoes that we are still able to harvest are certainly wonderful. Let them go all the way to their deep orange, when they are ripest, and they are so sweet, so delicious. If you can wait, take a few home, cut them in two and put a pinch of salt on them and it is an awesome explosion of flavor.

Those are really some of the only tomatoes we are getting, along with a few other of the smaller cherry varieties. We have also harvest a number of green tomatoes, which are ripening in our barn, slowly. They are not quite as good, of course, as tomatoes gone to full ripeness on the vine, but it is what we can do this season. The blight is taking virtually our entire tomato crop, and anything of any size that approaches ripeness goes bad. Sad! Tomatoes are such a wonderful part of summer, in particular a summer on a farm.

But other exciting things are happening. We are harvesting cucumbers (including lots of little pickling cukes that I really enjoy), eggplant (one of the most beautiful of vegetables, in all of it’s many varieties), summer squash and zucchini, lots of peppers (including some purple peppers and hot peppers which are just starting to come in), leeks…lots of stuff. Though harvesting can be monotonous, I generally enjoy moving along a bed of vegetables, particularly things like squash, cucumbers and eggplant where it seems every plant holds a little (or big) treasure just a little different than all the others. I enjoy the mild anticipation, wondering if the next plant will have a lot of fruits or if it will be bare, and the little surprise at whatever it has. Surprise is maybe a bit extreme of a word for this, but you get the idea. Eggplant in particular, with its big soft leaves; poking around and looking, suddenly there’s this shiny black globe hiding against the earth below.

We are not the only ones affected by the heat. The heat, and in particular the lack of rain for the last two or three weeks is also difficult on the plants, the soil, and us as we start to worry about them and figure out ways to get water to them, and endless speculation about if and when it’s finally going to rain. I know I (and most of us) complained quite a bit about our rainy, cold June, but it just doesn’t take much temperature in the high 80’s with no water to make our plants very thirsty. Most of these vegetables are mostly water. So moving around and fixing our irrigation systems has been a daily task.

Our irrigation comes from a well that was dug on the farm expressly for the CSA’s use. We have three systems. One is a standard overhead sprinkler system, where a series of aluminum pipes with four foot rotating sprinkler heads are attached directly to the pipe. These can be moved, but are rigid once in place and take a couple of hours to reset for another set of beds. We also have something called the Traveller, which is a single hose with a sprinkler attached, which is slowly (slowly) drawn across the length of a bed by a contraption that is powered by the water pressure. Finally, we have a set of drip tubes, which is a hollow plastic tape attached to a header hose. The drip tapes are run along a row of vegetables, buried in the soil at root depth or just on top of the soil. They are perforated with tiny holes every couple of inches and essential drip water slowly directly into the soil. They lose far less water to evaporation and runoff than any other method that I’m aware of. I like them. We had a few lines that were torn up by the reggie weeder earlier in the season, and I spent a couple of hours today walking the lines, finding leaks or kinds that were preventing the water from traveling the entire length of the bed, and fixing them with fresh tape and connector attachments. It was kind of fun, a bit of problem solving, with noticeable, tangible improvements at the end and the added benefit of being sprayed by water frequently when working on the leaks.

That’s all I’m going to write for the moment; I’m getting hungry. But I’ll try to keep with it a bit more than I have the last couple of weeks.

Peace to all.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Off to the North Country

I’m off in a couple of hours to the airport, for a flight or two towards the north country, to meet my family for a week of vacation. I call it a dock vacation, as everything we do generally revolves around a dock, boating, fishing, swimming, sitting and reading, chatting, sunbathing, guitar strumming. If it’s not done on the dock itself it’s done within sight of it.

I am looking forward to this very much, and I think we all (my family) need to see each other. I could also use a break from the farmwork, to be honest, mostly from the physical side of things, give my limbs and hands and back time to rest and recuperate. Apart from that, I’m going to miss watching the farm grow this week, after these four months of watching and working so closely with the farm and all the plants we grow, the comings and goings of the birds, the constant change in the wild greenery around us. Though it’s a long growing season, a lot happens in just one week. By the time I get back to work in a week and two days, we will most likely be into our peppers, our eggplant and maybe cucumbers. The big question on the farm, regarding the health of our tomatoes, will probably be resolved one way or another (we are not optimistic right now – we have late blight in several of our beds; these are most likely going to die before their fruit can ripen and the blight may well spread to our other plants soon, if not already).

I am halfway, more or less, through the season, and now would be a good time for reflection on how things are going. As I still need to finish packing, I’m not going to go into any great detail right now, though I have a lot of things on my mind. We have had a great season so far. In particular, the weather of our first two months was spectacular and allowed us to get the farm into great shape for the first part of our distribution. Unfortunately, that period was followed by an unusually long stretch of wet and cold weather throughout June and early July, which has delayed the productivity of many of our summer crops. But hopefully this will just be a delay for the most part – instead of getting them in right now it will be another week or so for the meat of the harvest to really start coming in. We do have concerns about this delay for our winter squash, which have a very long growing season and potentially will back up into dicey weather.

Worst of all, this wet weather seems to have brought the late blight out in great force and much earlier than usual, and the tomato crop may well be a complete or near-complete bust for us and for almost every other organic farm in the northeast. We are contemplating building a hoop house for tomatoes over the winter, which would be a huge asset in the fight against blight. Fungicides would be even more helpful, but are restricted for organic growers. I would like to read more about the fungicides. I don’t think I will ever be interested in going down that road, but it is worthwhile noting that the main dividing line between products that are okay for organic and not okay is whether the product is synthesized or not synthesized. That in and of itself really says nothing about the harmful effects of a product. Residual contamination and harm to soil biota is also considered, but mostly as a way to restrict natural products; if a product is synthetic it is prohibited (note: I may be wrong on some of this; I need to research further) without much consideration for whether it is very harmful or not. In any case, I am interested in moving beyond even organic pesticides if possible, but running a business I would want to balance that with the need to be practical regarding the state of the land I have and, frankly, my own knowledge and capabilities. It is hard to see all of our beautiful tomato plants and not want to use every tool you can think of to save them, but such is the difference between long-term thinking and short term. But in some cases (not this one, thank goodness), what’s the use in long-term thinking when you lose the farm?

It’s a big world, with a lot of big questions and things to consider, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in farming. All worries aside, I love this job and am already looking forward to getting back to it in several days time, but in the meantime, I’m overjoyed to be able to spend some time with my family, who I just don’t see enough of.

Peace to all.