Monday, September 26, 2016

Preserving Summer: Tomato Overload

I've reached total tomato overload.

It happens every year: I get to the point where I can't look at one more tomato without cringing. Though I have to admit it's usually after processing well over a hundred pounds of them, packing them away in my freezer in quart ziplock bags.

When tomato season first begins, I'm driven by the knowledge that sometime around March of next year, after profligate use of them in the soups, braises, risottos and pasta dishes that fuel my family during the winter months, I'll realize that…oh no!…there are just a few precious packages left. So I start laying out my battle plan, determined that this year, by gum, I'll have enough to last us until next tomato season starts up again.

Last year Dave and I basically picked and brought home 140 pounds of Astiana tomatoes from Ayers Creek Farm, not realizing that meant that they'd all need to be processed within a few days. Which led to five days of full-time, head-down tomato roasting, with the oven blasting in the kitchen and the grill blazing away on the patio. The good part is that we got it done in one fell swoop—I can't even write that without hearing my father saying "one swell foop"—the downside being that there was a major case of burnout for days afterward.

I've heard a similar story from other ants living the real-life version of this ant-and-grasshopper fable. One woman told me that she went cucumber crazy one year in her garden, and when she came to she found herself sitting on top of 140 jars of pickles. Or the guy who asked a few too many of his friends to send over any extra fruit they had. By the time he dug his way out of that one, he had made enough jam to last several lifetimes.

This year I took a more moderate path, bringing home a couple of 20-pound lugs of tomatoes at a time, which required a few hours to process, after which I'd squirrel away those precious bags, each time estimating how many more it would take to feel satisfied we'd somehow make it through the winter. Well, my friends, I'm here to tell you that I finally chopped, roasted and bagged my last quart of tomatoes, tossing it (carefully) onto the pile with 39 of its brethren.

I'm feeling pretty rich right now, and ready for the tomatoey free-for-all to come. Just as long as I don't have to (shudder) face processing any more. I'll keep you posted on how long they last (and what I make with them).

Check out my technique for roasting tomatoes!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Farm Bulletin: The Glory of Seeded Grapes

It could be said that contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm is somewhat of an outlier. He has championed the causes of flint corn and parched green wheat, choosing to grow the ungainly (but delicious) Sibley squash over butternut. Seeded grapes are also on this list, deserving of a cri de coeur.

As we have noted previously, the fruits developed at the New York Experiment Station in Geneva were named after hamlets and county seats in the state. The towns of Canadice, Interlaken, Steuben and Sheridan lend their names to the grapes we sell. This week, we arrive downstate at the big one, the New York Muscat, and like the burg it is named after it is big in the mouth with an outsized character. A hybrid, a melting pot of the best of American grape character with the exotic qualities of the Black Hamburg Muscat. There is a bit of seediness at its center, but that is the essence of its urbane nature, not a blemish. Just as Times Square must be appreciated as part and parcel of the city's complex character, not a blemish.

New York muscat.

We fully understand that some people are truly unable to chew the seeds because of dental work or diverticulitis. But for others, we urge you to approach the seeded grapes fearlessly. The maturation of the seed in a grape triggers biochemical changes in the fruit that are reflected in its flavor and aroma. The seedless grapes we sell are delicious and we enjoy them, but they suffer from a Peter Pan complex in that they are forever lost in childhood, unable to develop their mature character and flavor. To shun grapes because they have seeds is to shut out a whole range flavors that grapes develop. The complex black muscat flavors in the New York Muscat or the delicate rosewater notes in the Swenson White can never develop in a seedless grape.

Price grapes.

The seeds themselves have a wonderful spicy flavor when chewed, a fine counterpoint to the sweet flesh of the fruit. It is also a powerful little nutritional package which has the everything needed to generate a whole new grape vine; ponder that before you spit out the tasty morsel as though it is trash. Sakes alive, people heap praise on the soapy quinoa seed, which only produces a weedy annual, but shrink from a spicy grape seed that will produce a perennial vine than can grow a century of more. Makes no sense at all when you actually think about it. The seeds of Price and New York Muscat are thin skinned, so it is easy to savor the full character of the grape. Someday, the maturation of Portland's palate will include the savory grape seed, appreciating the flavors and nutrition of whole grape as much as whole grains.

Oh, dream on, you naifs of Gaston. This defense of seeded grapes has long been pursued by idealistic grape growers to no avail. Then again, as a friend would remind us, hope springs eternal. That is why we still grow and harvest them where less resolute have torn out their vines in favor of the seedless grapes. We will be ready for the great grape seed awakening.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lamb Raised Right: Braised Lamb with Fava Beans

When I first started this writing gig I had no idea of the opportunities I'd get to meet amazing, caring, thoughtful people who've dedicated their lives to providing their families and communities with food that is, as Slow Food likes to put it, "good, clean and fair." In terms of meat animals like cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens, it means that they've been raised humanely, on pasture, where they can live with other animals, feeling the soil under their feet and the sun on their backs. These farmers feed their animals none of the genetically modified corn and soy that most conventionally raised animals are raised on.

Really, it's exactly the picture of the farm that we all carry around with us from the stories read to us as children.

Les and her dogs at Jo-Le Farms.

Why am I so convinced that pasture-raised meat is better? Well, everyone's heard the phrase "you are what you eat" when it comes to junk food versus healthy foods. But I heard a phrase a few years ago that goes "you are what you eat eats," and it kind of blew my mind. In other words, if the animals we eat have a diet of the food that they are intended to consume—found in healthy pastures—rather than commodity grains laced with antibiotics and chemicals, then it follows that they'll be healthier animals and the meat and milk they provide will be healthier for us to eat.

Ben Meyer butchering lamb.

Not to mention that raising animals on pasture is better for the environment and actually sequesters carbon in the soil rather than contributing to climate change or groundwater pollution from waste products. (Read Nicolette Hahn Niman's Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production for more on the subject.)

And when it comes time to die, the larger animals are either killed in their pastures instantly with a swift shot behind the ear, or trucked a short distance to a humane processing facility where they aren't waiting in fear, listening to the panicked sounds of other animals.

It had been awhile since I'd bought a lamb (really a nearly-year-old sheep) because I hadn't found a farmer nearby who had pasture-raised sheep available. But when I visited my friends Kendra and Ivan at Shimanek Bridge Farm, who raise cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys on pasture, they introduced me to their neighbors, Les Carter and her husband Jon of Jo-Le Farms, who raise—get this—pastured sheep!

Meat from one lamb.

Les mentioned that they'd be slaughtering a few of their sheep in the near future, and I nearly jumped into her arms. She promised to call when it was time, and a couple of weeks later she contacted me to let me know when they'd be available. I then called my friend Ben Meyer of Old Salt Marketplace to see if he'd help me butcher it, a process I prefer because I get to decide whether I get chops versus racks and bone-in or boneless roasts.

Animals like goats and lambs are generally small enough to carry in the back of my Mini Clubman, Chili, so I pulled up in front of Ben's place and he graciously carried it inside for me. An hour or so later I walked out with a cooler-full of cut and wrapped chops, ribs, shanks and roasts, and I saved out a big bone-in shoulder roast for our first lamb dinner in some time.

Braised lamb with favas.

Braised lamb is the easily one of my favorite ways to cook and eat a lamb roast, though I've had several grilled boneless leg roasts that run a close second. Braising is also one of the easiest methods for cooking lamb, since all you have to do is add some vegetables and liquid to the lamb in a pot and cover it for two or three hours in the oven. The lamb slowly melts into fall-off-the-bone tender chunks, the liquid and meat juices meld into gravy and the vegetables and any herbs give it a marvelous depth. I added a pound of fava beans from Ayers Creek Farm, a cup or so of tomatoes I'd just roasted, and that night we sat down to our first lamb dinner in quite some time.

And now there are so many more lamby meals to look forward to this winter, thanks to the hard work of Les and Jon. I can't wait!

Braised Lamb with Fava Beans

1 lb. fava beans, soaked overnight
4-5 lb. bone-in lamb shoulder
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
3 large carrots, quartered and cut crosswise in 1/2" pieces
3 large cloves garlic, smashed
3 large bay leaves
5 sprigs of fresh thyme or oregano
6 c. chicken or lamb stock
1 Tbsp. salt plus more to taste

Preheat oven to 375°.

Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until it is tender. Add carrots and garlic and sauté until tender. Add lamb, bay leaves, herbs, salt, fava beans and stock. Cover and place in oven. Check every half hour or so to make sure there is still liquid; if it has all been absorbed, add water or stock. Braise for 2-3 hours until meat is ready to fall off the bone.

Remove meat, bay leaves and any stems from herb sprigs. Cut or pull the meat off the bones and chop into serving-sized pieces. Place in serving bowl and ladle beans, vegetables and gravy over it. Serve with hunks of artisan bread for sopping up the juices.

Check here for more recipes for lamb, then read farmer Les's recipes.

Dirty Hands Make Good Cooks

"I don't like salads," one young man announced at the beginning of class when he learned about the menu for lunch that day.

I'd signed up to take a class called "Kids Cooking at Side Yard Farm" with my nephew, a first-grader. I wanted to do something together that would be fun and interesting for both of us, and this class looked like just the ticket. Plus, though he's a good, if not adventurous, eater, I hoped that it might expand his culinary horizons a bit, too.

Talking, tasting, reacting—not always positively!

Joanna Sooper, an elementary school teacher and founder of Turnip the Heat Cooking School, said that helping kids discover new tastes and flavors and teaching them how to cook with fresh, healthy ingredients was an idea she'd been dreaming about for several years. During the fall and winter months  she offers classes for toddlers to teens at various locations around town, focusing on cooking delicious food from scratch with whole ingredients. But when the growing season rolls around she often partners with area urban farmers to offer classes on their farms, where kids can actually go out into the field and pick their ingredients themselves, then make a meal that they'll share together.

Making pesto.

This class was held at The Side Yard Farm, Stacey Givens's acre-sized plot in the Cully neighborhood of Northeast Portland. Long rows of raised beds bursting with herbs, vegetables and fruit that Givens and her crew sell to local restaurants proved irresistible to the five kids who'd signed up for the class. As Sooper led them on a tour through the rows, she talked to them about the five tastes—salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami—and how each was represented in the plants growing on the farm. Then she had each child wander the rows and stand next to a plant they'd never seen before, helping them figure out what it was and what it might be used for.

Salad with flowers.

Then it was time to start harvesting ingredients for lunch, which was going to consist of a salad with a creamy fruit dressing, pesto for pasta and, for dessert, a peach hand pie. After discussing what might be good things to put in a salad, the kids were unleashed to gather ingredients and bring them back to the table under the outdoor arbor. With much tearing of leaves, chopping of vegetables—yes, there are knives that the kids are taught how to use safely—and assembling of the salad, Sooper then described the history and ingredients that make a pesto, and the kids were sent out to gather those among the beds, too.

Peach hand pies: hands-down favorite.

When the pesto was made, it was time to assemble the hand pies that would bake while the students were eating lunch, and there may have been some sampling of the peaches during the cutting and stirring to make the dough and filling. Sooper and her students then set the table—napkins folded, silverware in its proper positions—and sat down to lunch, talking about what they'd learned and discovered, what they liked and didn't.

The hand pies? Hands down the favorite among most. And the boy who hated salads? He said the salad they'd made together was the best he'd ever had and, yes, he'd definitely have it again.

At the time, my nephew, a rather quiet sort, said it was fun and he wouldn't be opposed to doing another class like it. But I heard from his parents that, in the next few days, he'd mentioned that there was such a thing as purple basil, and it tasted just like regular basil. Oh, and that you can make salad dressing from a squished peach and it was really good.

There are lots of cooking classes for kids being offered in town, so check the calendar on the left for dates and times.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Farm Bulletin: A Cur From The Pound

I have learned from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm that farming is much more than just planting seeds in the ground, harvesting the crops and selling the results in the market (read any of his Farm Bulletins collected here over the years). Here he discusses a crop that appeared accidentally but has become a staple of the farm.

Konrad Lorenz, the founder of ethology (the study of behavioral patterns), recommended bringing home a cur from the pound rather than seeking out a pedigreed dog. He noted that mixed breeds have more genetic rigor, and have more interesting characters, than so-called pure breeds. Several years ago, staff's tomatillos escaped their garden and wound up in our cornfields and pretty much everywhere else. Tomatillos are obligate out-crossers; they typically don't self-pollinate. Freed from genetic bondage, any well-defined varieties soon become a chaotic mix. Tomatillos never interested us until we tasted staff's sauces; they were simply more flavorful, with lots of character and a sweet touch.

Tomatillo flower.

Mirroring Lorenz's observation about dogs, Zenón and Abel noted that topsy-turvey genetics of the cornfield tomatillos made their sauces more flavorful than uniformly big green, unripe fruits found at the supermarket, which they treat with distain. As you look at the tomatillos we grow, it is not unlike looking at the mix of dogs in a pound. There are tiny fruit, big fruit, yellow fruit, green fruit, purple fruit, pale white fruit. Some fruit remain demurely enveloped in their husks, while the gibbous fruit have split their shirts open, some of the plants reach almost four feet high while others sprawl barely three inches above the soil. It is a feral mix, and we keep it that way with staff's help.

Desiccated tomatillo husk with seeds.

But flavor is more than simple diversity, they told us, the tomatillo must be harvested when it is ripe and sweet, not immature like a cucumber. The tomatillo must fall off the plant. The ripe fruits are stored on the kitchen counter within their dry husk and never, ever refrigerated. We use a mesh colander which allows for air movement around the fruits. Stored this way, ripe fruit lasts into March or longer. In early August, Zenón brought us a tomatillo harvested last September that had escaped his attention, and it was still good. We will add seeds from that fruit to next year's planting, another genetic bauble to consider and admire.

As we noted in describing our work with the Astiana tomato, every crop needs its own design brief, a list of specifications so the crop does what is desired and remains profitable to grow. For some crops we are veritable genetic martinets, making sure they remain on straight and narrow path with military precision. For dry beans and soy, as well as squash, seed pumpkins and popcorn, this sort of strict attention is essential, any lapse in discipline and we would be out of the business. On the tomatoes and flint corn, our brief is a bit more relaxed, tolerating or even selecting for a smattering more of diversity. We like to have orange ears in the corn because they are pretty and create no commercial liability. Likewise those peculiar horns and creases on the tomatoes are tolerated because they are funny and have no effect on flavor. Then there are the cornfield tomatillos and migration barley where a beautiful anarchy takes shape and we stand on the edges of the genetic scrum as referees. We are simply making sure no deleterious traits get out of hand and some of the best traits defining the population's character are not lost in the scrum, the drunken walk of evolution.

Travels with Chili: Mountains of Fun, Part 3

On a trip to Eastern Oregon for a food conference in May (read my report here), I decided to take a couple of days to explore this incredibly beautiful part of the state. You can read part one about the trip to La Grande and Union; part two traveled to Baker City and Halfway, where I uncovered murder and mayhem on a bison ranch. The portion below follows up with adventures in the Wallowas, with stops in Joseph, Enterprise and tiny Lostine.

It was tough to leave beautiful Halfway and the stories of bison rancher Dave Dur, but my husband Dave and I were due in Enterprise for our farm stay at Barking Mad Farm, where owners Emily and Rob Klavins had arranged a meet-and-greet with local food folk. The trip was going to take three hours if we took the standard route back to Baker City to catch I-84 to La Grande, basically making a long circle around the western side of the Wallowas.

Barking Mad Farm.

But we'd heard about a short cut through the mountains on a National Forest highway that would slash our travel time by a third. Trouble was, no one could tell us for sure if the road—which is closed in the winter due to snow—had been cleared of debris and fallen trees. We were pretty sure the snow was gone, but I wanted reassurance that it was passable all the way through to Joseph. The forest service office in Baker hadn't heard, so Dave Dur called his buddies at the Halfway ranger station, and, while they couldn't officially announce it was open, they assured him that it was clear to Imnaha, just a few miles from Joseph. (Read about a previous camping trip to the Imnaha.)

So we took off in Chili, crossing our fingers that its low clearance wouldn't be a problem, and found our way to NF 39, a winding—and paved—two-lane highway that snaked its way through the mountains. At times it followed beautiful creeks that cut their way between steep forested gorges, at others it climbed zigzagging switchbacks to dizzying alpine heights above the trees. Eventually it dropped down to the Imnaha River and into Joseph, where we decided that our daredevil exploits deserved to be celebrated with a pint of local brew.

Well-deserved beers at Embers Brewing.

Unfortunately when we got to Joseph we found that Mutiny Brewing, our favorite area brewpub—and at the time the only woman-owned brewery in the state (now there's Covalent Brewing in Portland, owned by Meagan Hatfield)—had closed. Luckily we discovered Embers Brew House just down the street featuring 17 beers on tap and settled at the bar for our celebratory pints.

We pulled up to Barking Mad Farm with a half hour to spare, which gave us time to unpack and chat with Emily and Rob and meet their cattle dog, Roo. Their comfortable craftsman farmhouse is situated just outside Enterprise on the rolling plain at the foot of the mountains, which affords a spectacular view of the range (top photo) and an occasional peek at the its highest point, snow-covered Sacagawea Peak. The lawn and garden are studded with Adirondack chairs, with additional seating on the expansive deck, but I was drawn to the double hammock slung to take advantage of the view.

Michael and Jody Berry of Dandelion Wines.

Our room on the second floor of the house, called the Treetops Suite, was a large, airy room with sliding doors opening onto a private deck looking out at the mountains. I was ready to settle in with a book, but people were starting to arrive for the meet-and-greet. Emily had laid out a generous spread of breads and cheeses, along with dips and wine, and introduced me to the crew, including my friend Lynne Curry, a local author, food activist and blogger. Lynne had given the keynote at the food systems conference I'd attended—which led us into a discussion of local farms, CSAs and issues of food access in rural communities. (See my report here.)

After that we adjourned to spend a little more time catching up with Lynne, and she suggested a new wine shop in Enterprise that was having a rosé tasting that evening. We walked into Dandelion Wines, owned by Michael and Jody Berry, and saw not the expected lineup of four or five wines, but a counterlength formation of more than a dozen rosés from all over the globe ranging from the palest of blushes to a bright lipstick red. The just-over-ten-feet-wide by a hundred-feet-long space was also packed with locals exchanging hugs and catching up on gossip while juggling wine glasses and plates of noshes from a sideboard of delicacies that would be impressive at any catered event in the big city.

"This is Eastern Oregon?" I found myself thinking. "My, how you've changed!"

Wallowa Lake Lodge.

The evening continued at Terminal Gravity Brewing's pub, where you'd swear you'd walked into that Boston bar called Cheers where everybody knew everybody's name and the beer and food flowed freely in a spirit of community and conviviality. After that, retiring to our quiet aerie at the farm, we fell asleep as fast as our heads hit the pillows.

The next morning the coffee was strong, the pastries piping hot from the oven and the eggs were fresh from Emily's chickens, their bright yolks making up for the lack of sun in the sky. We drove off in Chili right after that, knowing we wanted to make a couple of stops on the way back, first an obligatory pause to admire Wallowa Lake and its historic lodge.

Original log chair at Wallowa Lake Lodge.

The lake was originally home to the Wallowa tribe of the Nez Perce band before settlers arrived, and the lake and the area surrounded it were guaranteed to the tribe in the Treaty of 1855. It was, that is, until gold was discovered in the area, and the tribe was displaced and banished. The Wallowa Lake Lodge was built in 1925 and is a gem among small lodges that still retain their rustic roots. The lodge's 22 rooms sit above the main floor with its stone fireplace and wood panelled dining room, and historic photos document the building of the lodge and grounds. This is definitely a place we want to come back to.

Our second stop was in the tiny town of Lostine. I'd read in none other than the New York Times Sunday Magazine about a fellow named Tyler Hays, who'd recently opened a shop in SoHo called M. Crow and Company carrying "a marshmallow roasting stick made of oil-rubbed walnut, copper and leather ($60). A child’s leather tool belt with a toy hammer made of cherry and Osage wood ($250). A pickle jar handcrafted from local clay and glazed with wood-stove ashes ($260). A pot of hair product made with homemade beeswax and hand-expelled oils ($120)."

M. Crow in Lostine.

What does this have to do with Lostine? Well, it turns out that the tony New York store is Tyler's second. The first is in Lostine, just miles from his hometown of Joseph. According the store's website, Tyler's family "were among the first few dozen families to settle the valley in the late 1800's" and the store in Lostine was run by the Crow family for 107 years. In 2012 he purchased the store "to prevent its closure and the loss of an iconic memory of my childhood" and to provide an outlet for his fascination with making everything he needs.

Interior of M. Crow in Lostine.

Much more rustic than the photos of the ultra-spare, white-walled SoHo store, the original in Lostine still has the creaking floorboards and dusty, old-building smell that I remember vividly from my childhood when I'd explore abandoned buildings and old cabins. It's got some of those expensive over-$300 jackets and fancy cutting boards, but it also features house-brewed beer and local honey (more of Tyler's hobbies). The article in the Times said "he plans to build a workshop in Lostine that will take over much of M. Crow’s production while creating jobs for area residents," providing an economic boost to the communities around the store.

Tap list at Ordnance Brewing.

It certainly gave us something to talk about as we drove home, making our final stop in Boardman at Ordnance Brewing to check out just what was going on in the big metal storage building by the train tracks. (In the first installment of this series we'd arrived too early to sample its wares.) While it isn't a glossy brewery with repurposed timbers and copper-topped tables, they make an impressive array of 30 beers from the expected IPA to a fruit beer called Bloops to a sour beer, a CDA, a saison and a host (literally) of others, eleven of which were listed on the whiteboard graph tacked up behind the bar. It's easy to enjoy one or more sitting on folding chairs at the cable-spool tables.

Read the rest of the Mountains of Fun series: Part One about La Grande and Union and Part Two about Baker City and Halfway.

Top photo from Barking Mad Farm; photo of Dandelion Wines by Lynne Curry.

Monday, September 05, 2016

End of Summer Prune Crisp (Yes…Prune. Not Plum!)

Planted as street trees all over Portland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian prunes were as synonymous with this city as the rose is today. By 1927, one source indicates, there were 55,000 acres of Italian prunes growing on farms in Oregon and Clark County, Washington. Despite the efforts of marketing types to rebrand them as plums—prunes being associated with the dried fruit used by elderly folk to aid…um…digestion—they are being grown by farmers all over the state to this day.

I love eating them out of hand and spitting out the pits (yes, I'm still five years old), but I also love them in desserts. The Italian prune crisp pictured above is one of my favorites, plucked, if you will, from my mother's 1950s-era Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook. So simple, it just involves pitting and slicing the fruit, sprinkling it with cinnamon and a mixture of flour, butter and sugar, then popping it the oven. The perfect no-muss, no-fuss, one-pan "modern housewife's" recipe.

Click here for more information on the history of these prunes in Oregon.

Italian Prune Crisp

For the filling:
4-6 c. Italian prunes, pitted and quartered
3/4 c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. water or fruit liqueur like cassis, triple sec, etc.

For the topping:
3/4 c. flour
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. butter or margarine

Preheat oven to 350°.

Place fruit in 9" by 12" pyrex baking dish. Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon and salt. Drizzle with water or liqueur.

Put flour, sugar and margarine in bowl of food processor. Pulse until the consistency of cornmeal. (If doing by hand, blend by hand with a metal pastry blender.) Sprinkle evenly over fruit. Bake for 40 min. or until bubbling.