Monday, July 25, 2011

A Day on the Farm

Yesterday we had the pleasure of visiting the source of one of our Farmers' Market staples. When we learned that REAP Food Group was having a "Day on the Farm" event at Dreamfarm, just outside of Cross Plains, we signed up right away. Dreamfarm, which is operated by Diana and Jim Murphy and their family produces several delicious goat cheeses we buy all through the season. They also sell eggs from the hens they raise on their twenty-five acre organic farm.

All of their chickens are kept outside on pasture. At night they move into white hoop houses that have laying boxes in them. They're allowed to scratch and feed and cluck contentedly until the area starts to show some wear and then the hoop house and fence are moved to the next area to allow the previous one to regenerate before being grazed again.

The Murphys have several breeds of chickens, one of which is the Bovan which they get from an Amish supplier in my home town. They're a reddish brown color and are reportedly good egg producers. I think they're just beautiful. When it comes time for us to get some chickens, it's going to be hard to choose among the various breeds available.

A little farther down the valley from the chicken pastures is a group of beehives. These aren't the Murphy's. They belong to someone else who is keeping them on their land. Jim said he might get bees of his own some day, but only to produce honey for himself and not for the market.

Back up the hill we met, to me, the real stars of the farm livestock. Right now they are milking twenty-four goats to produce their cheeses. The herd is a mix of breeds--Jim mentioned Nubians and Alpines but I missed the rest. They're bred yearly and the kids are mostly sold, although it sounds like they may try to increase their pasture space to keep more of them in the future.

Right next door is a small flock of Jacob's sheep. This is an ancient breed they keep to preserve the genetic stock. The spotted fleeces are used to produce a range of colors. A spinner/knitter demonstrating on the farm told me she sorts the colors to produce different colored yarns. Look at all those horns!

After viewing all this livestock, it was time for lunch! The meal was prepared by several Madison restaurants. It included a fresh green salad with summer squash, a beet salad with peas, green beans and dill, chicken shawarma, lamb kofta, hummus, tabouleh, and kind of a "heap o' gyro" with goat meat from the farm. I washed it down with a cold glass of rhubarb lemonade, something I've got to try making myself.

Just as I was saying it would be nice to have something sweet to follow up that hearty, spicy lunch we happened on the tent where they were serving goat milk gelato! We each got a scoop of plain and one of cajeta which is a cooked, carmelized goat milk essentially like dulce de leche. Fresh local berries, a sprinkle of granola and a drizzle of honey topped it all off. It. Was. Fantastic!

Sweet tooth satisfied we then joined the first of the formal tours of the farm. The tour started with a visit to the cheesery. Diana ran us through the process of how she makes her different cheeses. It's a painstaking process that requires a lot of skill and knowledge. She told us how the pasteurizer works and the differences in how the fresh and aged cheeses are made. It's all hand work and lots of it. Several years ago we attended the premier of a documentary film called "Living on the Wedge." It's about artisan cheesemakers in Wisconsin. I remember Diana making an appearance in the film just when she was working on the intern stage, I believe, of her cheesemaking education. It's so awesome now to see her producing and marketing such superior products on her own farm.

Visiting Dreamfarm reminded me how easy it is to get caught up in romantic fantasies about what country living is. The bucolic scenery and serene livestock can lull you into believing just shucking off the city life and retreating to "a place in the country," as the Co-Conspirator and I now refer to our hypothetical destination, will lead only to restful satisfaction. But we really do know better. I only had to get a whiff of the air in one of those chicken houses to be transported back to my younger days hauling water and feed to a flock of chickens. Farming is hard, endless work. My hope is that in the easygoing events of the day the message still gets through and that the guests to the farm appreciated what goes into what the farm produces. Bon appetit and thank a farmer.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Quick Garden Update

With temperatures approaching those found on the surface of the sun and humidity in excess of 150% we haven't been spending a lot of time in the garden this week. Still, an occasional visit is necessary to make sure everything's OK and to pick the beans so that they keep producing more than we can eat. We tell ourselves we'll freeze some and eventually we will. We're currently only picking the Pencil Pod (yellow) and Royal Burgundy (purple) bush beans. The rest of the beans are being grown on to the shell or dried stage. I harvested both yesterday.

All the while I was doing it the resident hawk was all, like "OMG! You're picking beans! That is so cool!!!"

I also checked how the other crops were coming along, especially the tomatoes and peppers. I picked a couple more really ripe Sungold cherry tomatoes that went straight into dinner's salad. There are a bunch more that will be coming on soon.

The larger varieties are holding a lot of fruit right now that just needs to start turning red, except of course for the Tasty Evergreen that never will. I wonder how I'll know they're ripe. Here are either some Carbon or Italian Heirloom. I forget which.

In the pepper department the first poblano is starting to get some color on it.

It's going to be dark and tasty while the Jimmy Nardello's Sweet Italian Frying Pepper near it is turning an inviting bright red.

A good bunch of Early Jalpenos are forming, too.

On the way out of the garden I passed one of the community fruit trees. It'll be interesting to see if the fruit is allowed to ripen. One of the drawbacks of community gardens is that there is pretty intense competition for shared resources. I don't even bother looking over the shared raspberry plants anymore. People are so anxious to get them before someone else does that the majority of them are picked when they just start to turn color. For the time being, the little pears are pretty and I can enjoy them at this stage just hanging on the trees.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Little Appetizer

Sunday was oppressively hot so naturally I decided to go the the garden and take care of a few tasks. I'd been reading up on when to harvest garlic since our plants were showing signs of slowing down. Bottom leaves were browning and drying up as were the tips of most of the rest of the leaves. I decided to take a chance and harvest the whole crop. I'd dug a couple of bulbs over the past week or so and they seemed ok. In the end, counting the two early harvests we ended up with forty-three bulbs from the forty cloves we planted. I think that's a pretty good success rate. The three double bulbs were all the same variety.

In the process of digging them up, I nicked one of the bulbs. Since it wouldn't keep for long in its damaged condition, I went ahead and roasted it in a little olive oil. The resulting, sweet/savory paste inspired me to make a little appetizer that ended up comprising most of my dinner. I toasted a couple slices of some grainy bread from Clasen's which I then further browned in a pan with some olive oil. Honestly, Clasen's makes some decent pastries, but their country style breads really are the Wonder Bread of artisanal loaves. But, they were two for the price of one so how could I pass that up? Additional heat helps.

I plucked some basil from the pot on the deck and sliced up a tomato from Flyte Family Farm. After spreading the lucious garlic paste on the bread I layed on the tomato slices, sprinkled with some basil ribbons and hit with another drizzle of olive oil. The bread was still too soft, but on the other hand it didn't shatter and send the toppings flying. I would definitely make this again but with a heartier bread.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Making it Up as I Go Along

Last night I came back from the garden with a random load of produce and no real plan what to have for dinner. The only thought I had was that I should cook some collards because, dangit! we've got a lot of collards. I decided a savory, flavorful braise was probably the way to go. Scouting through the fridge and pantry I assembled some ingredients I thought might work together.

For aromatics I grabbed one of the white onions from the garden and a clove of garlic from the Westside Community Market. Braising liquid would come from the tomatoes, also from the Market, and a super special rare ingredient. The jar contains tomato pepper water. When I make salsa I like it to be chunky. The problem with that is that in processing, a lot of water is forced out of the vegetables. Now, when I open the jar, I drain the salsa and keep the flavorful liquid for other purposes such as this.

The results were pretty tasty but I couldn't eat it all. I'm sure it will be good left over.

My second course starred fava beans. I wanted them to really be the center of attention so I paired them very simply with some French sorrel and scallions.

A lightly fried the onions in olive oil and then added the beans, tossing frequently to get them warmed--they were already cooked in the blanching/peeling process--and then allowing a little caramelization before I tossed in the chiffonaded sorrel. The herb may have cooked a little too much but it provided a tangy addition to the dish.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tapas Night!

When no specific dinner plan is in mind and the time to dine draws near, a familiar call is heard throughout the neighborhood--"Tapas Night!" Tapas Night is our cop-out excuse for throwing together leftovers on little plates. No, wait, I take take that back. At one time that might have been true, but I dare say the co-conspirator and I have evolved as cooks and, frankly, Tapas Night has become an opportunity to try out new tastes and small bites from whatever the fridge, pantry and garden present us. Tonight's was no New Year's Eve, but it was still pretty special.

After work I went up to the garden to take care of a few things and brought home a bit of the produce. When I got home we talked about dinner, a dish I had an idea for, and the fact that we really didn't have much of a plan beyond that. Activate Tapas Night. Sorry about the pictures, though. I was more into cooking than paying attention to lighting so most of these suck. I'm not a food stylist so if you have any suggestions on the light and color problems I'd be more than glad to hear them.

The dish I had planned on making was a chilled fava bean and pea soup inspired by our visit last weekend to Nostrano. My recipe was not much like theirs, but I think it showcased the flavor of the legumes. I started with the beans I had previously shelled plus the ones I picked tonight by giving them a long blanch in salted water. They then popped easily out of their skins and into a mason jar.

"Why a mason jar?" you may ask. I shall tell you. We learned recently that the base doohicky on our blender is threaded to match such jars and so is handy for making small batches of things like salad dressings and soups. Cool!

The favas were pureed with some peas (some from the garden, some from the freezer), mint, yogurt, salt and water. The result was delicious! The bean flavor was at the forefront. I served it in my grandmother's coffee cups. More on those at a later date.

Meanwhile, on another stretch of the kitchen counter the co-conspirator was whipping up something with little potatoes left over from the Fourth's potato salad and some cherry tomatoes from the Westside Community Market.

The par-boiled taters were given a quick roast in the toaster oven...

...while a tomato sauce was simmering on the stove.

The sauce (based on a recipe in The New Spanish Table) had a nice smoky note from the smoked paprika. We could have used some more potatoes!

Meanwhile, some less-than-baby carrots were waiting. After pruning and tying up the tomatoes, picking the favas and watering the cukes, I thinned the carrots--a task I'd forgotten to do for too long. Consequently I had a handful of carrots that were too big to throw away and just right for a simple small plate creation.

I lightly steamed them with some fresh chervil I'd picked on the outside chance we'd need it for dinner. Incidentally, I steamed them with some of the already hot water I'd used to blanch the fava beans. It had turned red! What's up with that?

Served with a pinch of sea salt smoked over Welsh oak, they were delicious. The marked difference in flavor between the orange carrots and the yellow carrots made me wonder why anyone would bother to grow the latter, which were part of a gimmicky "rainbow carrots" seed blend.

Meanwhile the zenith of our Tapas Night feast was being prepared on the sidelines. Half of our sweet basil plants have decided to be anemic, pathetic wastes of chlorophyll. The rest, on the other hand, are growing like kudzu and threatening to flower. I reined them in by harvesting a respectable number of stems this evening. Call us unimaginative, but pesto is the first thing that came to mind.

But what to pair it with? Pasta was suggested but quickly abandoned. Why not just sauce it on some sauteed shrimp? OK. Sounds good. Better than good.

The result was a perfect blend of the sweet seafoodiness of the shrimp and the savory, herbal contribution of the basil.

Now that we're in what I like to call "High Summer" here I'm looking forward to more spontaneous, experimental cooking events. The volume and variety of fresh ingredients that are available now is inspiring. Sometimes we like to put together a more normal main dish/side dish/salad dinner and that's fine. But when we've got the time, energy, ingredients and ideas it's way fun to just go with what we've got and savor the results.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Garlic at Last!

The co-conspirator has kind of been riding my back forty about when we can dig up the garlic. I understand. There are few things we're as keen on in this year's garden as the garlic patch. Since we carried our plot over from last year we were able to plant garlic properly. More specifically, we planted it last fall for harvest this summer. So, barring any unlikely disasters we should have a better crop than last year's spring-planted bulbs. I looked into some information on how to tell when garlic is ready to harvest on the Internet and there was some variation but it seems to boil down to the old "when it's ready" voodoo involving some dead leaves at the bottom and some live ones on top. Today I dug down next to one of our Tai Lang plants to see how big it was. It looked big so I went ahead and dug it up.

I'm pretty sure we can let the rest of the plants go for a week or so at least. There are only a couple of dead leaves at the bottom of each and I definitely won't wait until the whole plant is dry on any of them. We really want some of these to keep this year. There are only forty plants which I think will take us at least into the beginning of winter. Our experience of buying local garlic in the winter has been disappointing. The bulbs must have been mis-handled or stored wrong. Often they're bruised or containing one or two or more dusty, molded cloves. I don't want that to happen to ours so we're treating them with as much care as possible.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Fava Beans

Today I decided to pick a couple of the largest pods from our Windsor Broad Bean or Fava Bean plants, Vicia faba. They're getting big! I've never grown them before so I have no idea how long to let them grow. The first few I got were pretty undersized. The thickness of the pod is deceiving because it's lined with a thick, spongy material. I'll be blanching these and then peeling them before deciding what their final fate will be.