Sunday, August 25, 2013

Meet the Crew. Part II. Ana Paul.

Ana seeding onions, one of her favorite vegetables.

I caught Ana Paul’s eye at 6:30 at the CSA on Thursday. Maybe you were there, too. Knowing that she had arrived at the farm more than twelve hours earlier, and had personally harvested and washed up much of the produce now out at the share barn, I could see the exhaustion. However, she beamed a warm smile as I went by, and I remembered what she had told me the day before. I’d asked her what surprised her by working on this farm. She considered, and then observed that despite her tiredness at the end of each day, her motivation and desire to rise each morning to do this physical work hasn’t waned. In fact, she has found herself with more energy on days off than when she’s had less-physical jobs. That stamina is key to farming.

Ana didn’t grow up on a farm or even much of a garden; her family was too often on the move. Her parents were teachers for military children, and Ana was raised in Europe – Germany mostly, along with Spain and Italy. This upbringing did instill in her an openness to adventure, which is certainly another key to farming. She attended college in Virginia, but then returned to Germany. That is when she met her husband, Scott. Ana and Scott were both helping out with coaching the tennis team at Ana’s former high school. This was an apt place for them to meet, as both aspire to be teachers.

Ana and Scott moved to Amherst last August, and worked at Red Fire Farm nearby for the autumn. Then, while Scott earned his teaching degree, Ana decided to pursue a full-season farm apprenticeship. Her interest in farming developed as a key part of her passion to act on climate change. To her, the issues surrounding climate change keep coming back to agriculture.

Ana notes that Simple Gifts Farm, “is special, because the animals and vegetables work together.” She is also intrigued by soil fertility practices, and has worked with managing fertility to the crops here with the drip irrigation system. Her favorite job on the farm is chores, which rotates among the apprentices. During chores week is when one has the chance to interact with the livestock, and Ana enjoys the feedback, remarking, “Veggies don’t talk back so much.” In particular, she loves the personality and character in the pigs. She is finding the tractor work more challenging, especially lining up to put on implements with the 3-point hitch. She is ascending that learning curve, and anticipates getting to a certain comfort level, though she still doesn’t see herself as a “tractor girl.”

When I asked her what her favorite vegetable is, her answer Рgarlic and onions Рwas in line with her (well-deserved) reputation as an excellent cook. Many a great dish begins with saut̩ing this savory duo.

Ana plans to become a teacher, and to do advocacy work around climate change. She hopes to integrate her experience in the practice of growing food into the classroom, and also at a homestead scale with Scott. I predict that her calm personality, openness to adventure, and stamina will lead to a lifetime of inspired teaching, opening doors to adventures in food, stewardship and life to many students and citizens.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Late Summer Crop Outlook

We've been making a point to not complain about the weather this season--it just seems like too easy a target.  This year, we have had so many torrential rainstorms that it is hard to keep track.  It adds up to 22 inches of rain in the past three months, and much of that was in late May and early June (for comparison, we had 36 inches of precipitation in all of 2012).  We are doing relatively well for such a wet season.  Our soils are listed as "excessively well-drained" in the soil maps, and so we are doing much better than many of our friends who have wetter soils.  Still, there are spots on the farm where the lower leaves of our tomato, pepper, and squash plants are coated in mud from the flooding.  Our late fall carrot planting had to be replanted when we had a 4-inch deluge the day after it was planted, creating a huge washout through the lower section of the field.  Here is the outlook for some of the crops our crops, and a summary of how they have been affected by the weather.

Salad Greens
We had a difficult period in late June and early July when we had wet weather, making it hard to fields ready for planting, and then really hot weather, which inhibits lettuce germination.  We are seeing the effects of that now, with a really short supply of lettuce for the salad greens.  There should be some more coming in a couple of weeks, but for now there should be plenty of arugula, mizuna, baby bok choy, and other "mustard family" greens, which germinate better in the heat and which also grow faster than lettuce.  We should start seeing some more baby spinach in a few weeks as well--this is another crop that doesn't like to germinate in the heat.  Cilantro gets seeded the same way as the salad greens, and this popular pick-your-own crop suffered the same fate as our salad greens, but by the time we had better conditions, there wasn't enough time left in the season for another seeding.  We had one good crop of cilantro, at least, but have sure been missing it in our salsa this year.

Summer Squash and Cucumbers
We've had a great run of squash and cukes this year, but they are starting to wind down.  Our squash fields now are a compendium of squash diseases--we were joking today that the plant pathology class from UMass should take a trip out here because we have it all.  The wet weather certainly helps encourage disease pressure.  We do have a late cucumber planting in one of our greenhouses--it may have gone in too late to produce.  We'll keep you posted on that.

We're pretty sure that this won't be a fantastic tomato season.  Tomatoes don't like wet weather--they crack and split and have many diseases that affect them.  We have the dreaded late blight in our fields, no surprise given the conditions.  The good news is that while it won't be fantastic, it looks good that we will have a tomato crop this year.  All of our investments in hoophouses and other structures have paid off with a great early crop--almost all of the tomatoes we've given out so far come from the hoophouses.  The field plantings have been slow to ramp up in the cool weather we've had lately, but we picked almost 500 pounds from the field today, so look for the tomatoes to continue to increase.

We usually wait for our peppers to turn color, and only pick them green towards the end of the season when it is clear that they won't be ripening before frost.  This year, however, we've started picking off some green peppers because we are getting antsy about our chances with the ripe ones.  The plants are loaded with peppers--the best crop we've seen in years--but everything is slow with the cool weather, and one of the diseases we have in the summer squash field is also something that infects peppers, turning the fruits to mush.  We decided to hedge our bets and pull off a few green ones just to be sure that we get something.  

Fall Roots
We are happy to report that we will be having a parsnip crop this year. Parsnips are notoriously fussy to germinate, and we haven't had any luck.  After talking to some farmer friends, we finally figured out what hole to use on our planter to put a ton of seeds down and ensure a thicker stand.  They are doing well, and have been kept quite clean of weeds by our intrepid weeding crew.  Rutabagas are another fall root that has bedeviled us--this year we transplanted them and they are looking good.  We've had lots of trouble with beets, but we have a decent stand for our last planting for fall harvest.  And our earliest carrot plantings have done amazingly well.  We have actually been living off of our first planting for almost two months (usually they last about 3 weeks).  The last fall planting was the one that got washed out twice in July--it will be meager, but hopefully there will be enough carrots from our earliest plantings to cover the supply we need for the winter.  The sweet potato crop has an extremely vigourous set of vines, which should correlate into a nice bunch of roots.  All of our other fall roots--daikon, turnips, watermelon radish--are in the ground and looking good.

If there are other crops you are wondering about, please don't hesitate to ask the farm crew at pickup--we can always update you on how things are growing.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Salade Nicoise & Pan Bagnat, Photographed

Here is a brief, pictorial follow-up to last week's post on Salade Nicoise and its sandwich kin, the Pan Bagnat:
Adults and children alike found something farm-fresh and delicious in this meal.

And indeed, Pan Bagnat may be the ultimate sandwich. See below for recipes!
Sharing good food with love. This is at the heart of the human experience. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Summer Veggies, in Sun and Snow

The chilly nights of late have me recalling the frozen months of the year. I’m also remembering how happy I am in the winter when I have frozen vegetables and fruits on hand to provide a taste of summer through those cold winter months. We are lucky to have a chest freezer, and enjoy keeping it stocked up with good farm food. To have good-quality frozen food, there are three main things you need to do:
1)    Pack the food so it won’t be oxidized: use the freezer-quality (thicker) plastic bags, or freezer containers. Pack containers with just enough headspace for expansion during freezing, or squeeze out the air from bags.
2)    Don’t try to freeze too much at once, and make sure the food is chilled prior to placing it in the freezer. The idea is to freeze the food quickly.
3)    Some produce can go right into freezer bags, but some keeps better if cooked or blanched. You can freeze cored, sliced, peppers without blanching. If I’m freezing tomatoes, I like to oven-roast or grill them first, or cook them down into sauce. Some foods hold up better if you blanch them prior to freezing. These include vegetables such as green beans, peas, asparagus, and corn. These vegetables have enzymes that convert sugars to starch (among other things), and blanching prior to freezing stops this process.

Here are some details on blanching vegetables:

Have you found the Romano (flat) green beans? They're delicious.
To take green beans as an example, I personally like to blanch them right after picking. I bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil; I put the beans into a colander that fits nicely into the pot and blanch small quantities of beans at a time. The idea is to work in batches small enough that the water will come back to a boil in less than a minute. After 3 minutes of boiling, I remove the colander, rinse the beans under cool water, and then spread them out on a kitchen towel to cool quickly. They are then ready-to-go for cold or warm bean salads, or to freeze for the winter. To reduce the wasteful feeling of boiling a large pot of water for one use only, I try to be organized enough to blanch the beans, and then use the boiling water to cook up some pasta.

But back to Summer eating. In summer, what’s our favorite way to eat green beans? Well, at least once each summer, we enjoy a beautifully composed Salade Nicoise. It feels fancy. It showcases green beans, and so many other fabulous farm foods: new potatoes, crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and sunshiny eggs. Serve with warm French bread and some nice cheese for a beautiful dinner on a warm night.

Leftovers make excellent picnic food in the form of Pan Bagnat. You can slice a loaf of French bread lengthwise and crisp it up in the oven for a few minutes. In the morning, scoop out or press down some of the bread innards to make bread ‘boats,’ and then fill the bread with Salade Nicoise. Close up the sandwich, wrap in aluminum foil, and enjoy a great lunch. Sundays at Moosewood reports that: “Everywhere along the coast of France, a ‘pique-nique sur mer” is a popular family outing. Pan Bagnat, which means, literally, ‘bathed bread,’ is almost always taken along with the bathing suits.” One evening, our family fell out of our chairs laughing, because I was convinced that I’d read that the French traditionally sit on their ‘Pan Bagnat’ in order to meld the flavors in the sandwich. Incredulous, Jeremy looked up the recipe in Sundays at Moosewood and found nothing of the sort. My excellent brain had manufactured the entire anecdote, but thus was born the phrase . . . “butt panini.” Maybe this illuminates why we are well-suited to parent boys.

But wait! I just found this in the venerable NY Times. I am vindicated!

Whether or not you sit on the leftovers, here’s our method for Salade Nicoise. This version of the classic French summer dish comes from my hybridization of recipes from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant (The Moosewood Collective, Simon & Schuster, 1990) and The Way to Cook (Julia Child, Knopf, 2011):

First, prepare a lovely vinaigrette. Combine in a jar and shake vigorously to combine:
1/4 cup vinegar (cider, wine or herbed; or use fresh-squeezed lemon juice)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, pressed
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill, parsley or basil

You’ll also need:
1 pint new potatoes, cut into large bite-size pieces
1 1/2 pounds green beans (or a mix of yellow and green), trimmed
3-4 tomatoes, cut into small wedges
1 head lettuce
6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved lengthwise
2 cans good canned tuna
1/2 cup Nicoise-type olives
3 tablespoons capers
Sprigs of dill, parsley or basil

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Cook the potatoes until tender (sometimes I successfully hard-boil the eggs at the same time – but use your favorite hard-boiling technique). When tender, remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon. Once the potatoes have drained, toss them gently with some of the vinaigrette.

When the water returns to a boil, blanch the green beans for 4 minutes, and then refresh them under cold water.

Take a few moments to compose the salad: line a roomy platter or large salad bowl with lettuce leaves. Toss the beans with some of the vinaigrette. Place the dressed potatoes in the center of the platter or bowl; mound beans at strategic intervals, interspersing them with tomatoes and mounds of tuna. Ring the salad with the eggs. Spoon the vinaigrette over all; scatter on the olives, capers and herbs. Serve as soon as possible, at room temperature.

Wishing you a magical summer picnic at the beach, or a sunset dinner at home. For all of us at Simple Gifts Farm - Audrey

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Personal Review of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"

[Note from Audrey: I wrote this essay in 2008. I look back with gratitude that our boys are now so big and read their own books past bedtime, but also with some wistfulness. . . Barbara Kingsolver remains one of my writer-heroes. Find out more about the book here]

Interest in locally grown food has been growing steadily among people interested in good health, good taste, good soil, reducing their ecological footprint and enhancing their local economy – so much so, that best-selling authors are dedicating entire works to their exploration of the consequences of their sustenance’s provenance. Somehow the work we do has become trendy. We look at our ragged T-shirts, callused hands, and variously dented automobiles, and shrug. But isn’t that part of the beauty? Here is a trend with content: real health, good soil, carrots and lettuce, the essence of earthiness. 

Over the winter, in snatches of time between seed catalogs, packing lunch boxes, playing “Go Fish” again, and grouting tile, we read some of the fantastic and inspiring books that document this trend. Okay, it took more than this winter. Reading time is a premium luxury at this moment (thankfully I got in more than my share of reading time as a kid!). But that just adds to the endorsement, as I vastly prefer the escapist fling of fiction to any non-fiction writing, however brilliant, and I by default do not finish any book that isn’t good enough to keep me up past bedtime. 

To me, the best of the bunch is “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver (with Steven Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, Harper Collins, 2007). I stayed up past bedtime reading this one, for sure. I recognize that some of my enthusiasm was fueled by my long-time adoration of this author (tousling with Jeremy over whose turn it was to read “Pigs in Heaven”, giving a somewhat dog-eared copy of “The Poisonwood Bible” to Jeremy’s parents while they were volunteer teaching for a year in Ethiopia) . . . with her gracious, funny and insightful writing. This book is very personal – as eating necessarily is – and coming from a writer I admire so well, I found this really interesting. Also, I have a lot in common with Kingsolver (though sadly, not the skill at writing!): we’re both moms, biologists, try to transform anxiety about the future of the world into joyful action, and have the same attitude toward cooking and eating. So in a way for me, it was like reading an alternative reality of my life, written really really well. 

Those rather large personal biases stated, this is a book that I believe should appeal to and be a good read for many. Barbara Kingsolver has a big heart, and I believe will embrace and inspire many. The book documents a year in which her family embarks on a project to eat only what they can grow or purchase locally. This type of project is catching on, but it is a joy to read her version. Discussion of the big issues (energy imbalance of current food systems, the American obesity epidemic, the ethics of eating) flows naturally from and among the joyous and engaging recounting of the family’s local year. She gets on the soapbox just enough to prickle your conscience a healthy bit. Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp (an environmental studies professor) provides succinct sidebars on many big problems in agriculture and food systems. I initially read these with trepidation, expecting dreary finger-wagging, but instead found these little essays honest, well-stated arguments, and always with hope of a better way. Camille (their teenage daughter) contributes delightful, youthful notes and recipes. This gives me courage to keep cheerfully offering fresh vegetables to our young sons, who are usually skeptical but are enthusiastic when they give the veggies a chance. For example, when Jeremy pulled up some overmature salad turnips for Timmy to feed the calves – the calves turned up their little bovine noses, but Timmy took a look and started munching both root and leaf. He prefers raw vegetables, whole, and procured himself from crisper drawer or field. No lathe-shaped baby carrots for this boy. 

One great aspect of this book is that it shows how everyday, economical meals can be prepared with local foods in season. I have no problem with elegant restaurants and fancy food magazines extolling the virtues of eating local, but those meals are treats and cover about 1% of our dinners. Camille lists weekly dinner menus throughout their season, many of which are simple and pretty quick to prepare. 

Barbara Kingsolver bemoans the lack of an American food culture, as exists in many older and less heterogeneous countries. It seems that, given the decimation of Native American cultures, the melting pot America hasn’t had time yet to meld into something new and cohesive. Beyond McDonalds, I suppose. On the other hand, I’d argue that some distinctive regional food cultures have existed for a long time and others are taking hold, based on eating in season. 

Kingsolver is a great writer, but it is fascinating that food can have such an exciting story. Of course, this is a human story too, the journey of a family and what they learn in a year of eating food from their own backyard and region. However, the climatic final scenes are all about turkeys, and their struggles and triumphs were so moving I found myself tearing up at the end. I am not a natural turkey-lover (I was once locked in a turkey pen on a dark and stormy night, and did not like it), but this was a real drama played out in the domestic sphere, but with humans in the supporting roles rather than the stars. 

For everyone pulling miracles from the Simple Gifts soil,