Monday, January 26, 2015

Smart Birds

It began last year.  I first noticed the squirrels, desperately digging through our yard and even plant containers, searching for any morsel of food they could find.  Scrawny, with lackluster coats and bloody ulcers visible on their skin, signs of the work of parasitic bot flies, these creatures eagerly gobbled leftover bread from my deck rail.  Soon, other hungry wild creatures came calling.  Numerous birds, nocturnal opossums and raccoons all ravenously ate the food we shared with them.  It was a lean year for foraging wild animals.  After a cool, wet summer and early winter, many of the plants that normally provided animal sustenance did not yield enough nuts, berries or seeds to satisfy a hungry population.  
After stuffing on leftover bread, a squirrel relaxes in the sun
Thankfully, wild animal food is more abundant this winter and we have far fewer beggars on our deck, but there is one notable presence who remembers last year's easy bounty and demands a daily ration of bread.  Some days, the strident calls begin at daylight; if we are lucky, the hungry bird will wait until a light is switched on in the house.  When I peer out the kitchen window, I see her clearly, perched in the bare branches of a poplar tree and with every passing minute, her calls are louder and more insistent.  She is a crow and, although I reluctantly confess it, I am afraid I am her pet.
Woodpeckers also love "fast-food" bread

Farmers, especially those who grow corn, often regard crows as nemeses, but I admire these intelligent birds.  Several years ago, I planted sweet corn seeds I purchased from a local source and, in another area, I planted heirloom corn seeds I ordered from an online store.  As soon as the tender seedlings emerged from the ground, crows descended and pulled every last heirloom plant, but ignored the other field.  It was one of my first lessons in judging which plants are the tastiest and most nutritious.  Did I really want to eat something a crow would not touch?  Since that season, I only grow heirloom corn and I take some pretty drastic measures to deter hungry crows from eating my plants before they have a chance to produce.  
Whirling pinwheels deter hungry crows

Because I admire her intelligence and her tenacity, I feed the crow.  Maybe because there is a good supply of other food this year, she is now a picky eater.  Last year, she gobbled white sandwich bread, but this winter, she disdainfully looks at it and screeches for something with more substance.  I can't blame her, but her preferences are more expensive than white bread.  Croissants, homemade biscuits or cornbread are her current favorites.  After eating a few bites, she gathers as much as she can carry and flies away to eat, or possibly share, the rest.  Maybe there's another lesson there?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Farm-to-Table Restaurant Reservations: More Than a Courtesy

As a farmer, delivering fresh produce to a restaurant chef is an exciting task.  After cultivating land, planting seeds, defending plants from pest, weather and weed attacks, harvesting, cleaning and packaging, it is satisfying to know the fruits (and vegetables) of my labor are in the hands of a talented professional who appreciates my efforts and strives to prepare these ingredients in intriguing and delicious ways.  An added bonus for both farmer and chef is the loyalty of frequent restaurant guests who appreciate high quality, locally grown foods. 

A "few" items from one day's harvest in August, 2014
With a burgeoning group of savvy restaurant diners who appreciate knowing the source of their food and a rapidly increasing number of farm-to-fork restaurants, it is time to discuss something we, as a community, can do to support this healthy food movement.  If you consider yourself a true local food supporter, then, by all means, make reservations early for your favorite farm-to-table restaurants.

Restaurant reservations are something diners often neglect completely or phone in from cars while driving to a dining destination.  For meals at most chain restaurants, it is usually not a problem for the restaurant management to accommodate unexpected guests.  These restaurants stock frozen, canned or prepared food items and receive regular deliveries from
centralized sources to support a standard menu that changes infrequently.  However, in the case of farm to table restaurants, reserved tables often dictate what ingredients will be served and last-minute calls for reservations or unannounced guests can play havoc with a menu.   
Fresh produce, washed and ready to package
Farm-to-fork restaurant chefs love to receive beautiful ingredients
 Consider this: in order to snag the most desirable ingredients, the farm-to-table restaurant chef races to local farmer's markets or places order with local farmers.  Because chefs hate to waste food or spend money to purchase foods that have a short shelf life, most rely on reservations to budget purchases for each week's operation.
When chain restaurant chefs simply pull out a frozen ingredient, farm-to-table chefs must prepare farm fresh ingredients to order and when restaurant guests fail to reserve tables in advance, one of two situations may occur.  Either restaurant management must refuse last-minute table requests or chefs will be forced to substitute or eliminate menu items.  How disappointing is it for the guest who really looked forward to that special dish, only to discover someone at another table just ordered the last one?  

When I harvest heirloom tomatoes, these fruits ideally should be served within a couple of days, for optimum flavor and texture.  Impractical for restaurants to store excess fruit that may deteriorate before it is sold, it is not unusual, during tomato season, for me to receive calls from my chef customers, requesting additional produce because the restaurant needs to accommodate last-minute reservations.  Since all of my chef customers are small business owners and I realize their livelihood depends upon sales, I try to fulfill these orders, but sometimes, it is impossible.  

So, next time you plan to visit a farm-to-table restaurant, pick up the phone or make online reservations in advance.  Plan to eat well and pat yourself on the back for supporting local chefs and farmers.  After all, is it really a surprise when someone you love has a birthday, your anniversary date arrives or a special holiday is on the calendar?  




Monday, January 12, 2015

Get Well Soup

When my children were young, a favorite read-aloud story at our home was The Bunnies' Get Well Soup, by Joan E. Goodman.  In this book, which is reminiscent of one of my childhood favs, Stone Soup, by Marcia Brown, Mother Rabbit tells her young bunnies she is going to make a special soup to help them get rid of a case of sniffles.  Soon word gets around to neighbors who are also under the weather and a cast of animal characters shows up at the Rabbit home, bearing various vegetable offerings to add to the soup, in return for sharing in the bounty and getting well.  Not only did this story encourage my children to make and eat vegetable soup, it added to our family vocabulary and, to this day, when one of us is feeling sick, invariably, someone will suggest we make "get well soup."  

This winter, with so many people suffering through stomach bugs, respiratory infections, influenza and pneumonia, get well soup is a good recipe to make and deliver to someone who feels ill or enjoy it yourself, whether you are sick or well.  Although any vegetables, herbs or seasonings may be added to water or broth to make get well soup, Richard and I made a potato soup variation on Saturday and delivered it with hot cornbread to a cousin, whose wife was hospitalized with a case of pneumonia.  It probably had more to do with medications and good care, but we received word that the soup hit the spot and made our family member feel strong enough to leave the hospital. 

Get Well Potato Soup with Fresh Kale 


Like mashed potatoes, which this recipe incorporates, Get Well Potato soup is a great comfort food.  With fresh kale I picked at the farm, it packs a nutritional punch that will help keep illnesses at bay.  Enjoy this recipe or create your own Get Well Soup and while flu runs rampant this winter, do all you can to stay well.

Get Well Potato Soup

In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups water, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and onion granules, to a boil.  Add about 2 cups washed, peeled and diced potatoes to the water and gently cook until the potatoes are very soft, about 15 minutes.  Drain water and add 2 tablespoons butter to the potatoes.  With a potato masher, press the potatoes until the butter is melted and add about 1/4 cup cream or whole milk.  Mash until smooth, but slightly lumpy.  Cover mashed potatoes and keep warm.

In a large stockpot, boil 6 cups water, seasoned with salt and pepper, and add about 4 cups potatoes, washed, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces.  Gently cook until potatoes are fork tender.
While potatoes cook, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet.  Add 1 cup onion, diced, and 2 garlic cloves, minced, to the hot oil and briefly toss, cooking until vegetables are transparent, but not brown.  In hot pan, add about 1 cup dry white wine and stir to combine.  Season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper.  Gently cook until wine reduces by half.

When potato es are fork tender, drain water from the pot, reserving 1 1/2 cups cooking water.  Add the vegetable/wine mixture to the potatoes and stir to combine.  Add mashed potatoes, alternating a large spoonful with about 1/4 cup potato water and stirring until mashed potatoes are incorporated.  Continue until all mashed potatoes and water are used.  Add fresh thyme leaves, stripped from 3 sprigs, about 3 cups fresh kale, shredded, and 1/4 cup green scallions, chopped.  Stir to combine and, over low heat, slowly add about 1/4 - 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream, heating the soup until kale is bright green and soup is hot, but not boiling.  Adjust seasoning, if needed.

Serve with hot cornbread, on the side or crumbled into the soup.  
Stay well!
  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

We Bring Food . . .

Warm.  Kale.  Salad.  Just saying those words in my head brings comfort and peace.  With a rich nutrient content and flavorful depth, kale is one of our family's favorite vegetables and I often prepare warm kale salad on cold winter days.  Hearty enough for a main, or only, course, this dish gives a sense of freshness when icy winds blow and summer produce is a distant memory.  When I picked a basket of fresh kale at Heart and Sole Gardens on the second day of 2015, I marveled at how robustly the plants were producing and as I munched some bright purple Ragged Jack leaves, the incredible sweetness led me to wonder about creating a dessert with kale.  Why not?

Ragged Jack kale leaves are sugar-sweet and become dark purple during cold seasons

Today's dreary North Carolina weather is a backdrop for my mournful mood.  A friend, my next-door, across the street neighbor, died last night.  This vibrant soul who taught me to pickle cherry tomatoes and shared her trick of lining a plastic cup with a styrofoam one, for better insulation, succumbed to an unexpected illness that ravaged her body for the past weeks and ultimately claimed her life.  Left with Christmas gifts piled under her tree and aching hearts, her daughter and grandson will, hopefully, find solace in happy memories during the coming weeks.  Meanwhile, friends and neighbors will do what we usually do when death comes to those we love.  We will bring food . . .

As a young child, I often perched on my grandmother's porch steps while she relaxed in her wrought iron chair and looked through the evening newspaper.  After a quick glance at the headlines, she would turn to the back page to read the obituaries.   When she read about the death of a friend, acquaintance or fellow church member, she would head to her kitchen.  I followed along and marveled at how quickly she could mix and bake a cake, then deliver it to the grieving family while it was still warm from the oven.  Usually, I rode along with her and watched as she placed her cake in an unfamiliar kitchen.  Someone would record her offering on a notepad and make note of the plate so it could be returned to her.  Along with Granny's cake, there would be what looked like gallons of green beans, mountains of potato salad, hundreds of deviled eggs, platters of ham, fried chicken and an endless sea of casserole dishes.  In our part of the South, food was the pipeline we used to offer comfort and share sorrow. 

Today, as I prepare a warm kale salad, I hope the grieving family finds comfort and love tucked in among the green leaves.  This dish is not strictly recipe, as much as it is expression of shared sorrow and friendship offering.  As I make it, I will remember a throaty laugh, raucous Gator rides through bumpy fields, reflected fireworks in bright eyes and a welcoming smile.  Through warm kale salad, I will remember and find my own comfort.  After all, what we do for others is a gift we give ourselves. 

A satisfying plant to grow, heirloom kale reseeds and, undisturbed, will grow biennially, for years

Warm Kale Salad

Hard-boiled eggs, allow one for every two servings, diced
For each serving, a large handful of fresh kale, shredded

Fry three or four bacon strips in a large skillet until the bacon is crispy.  Alternatively, for a vegetarian version, heat one or two tablespoons olive oil in the skillet.

Remove bacon and add kale to the hot skillet, tossing to coat greens with bacon fat or olive oil.  When leaves are bright green, only about 1-2 minutes, remove from heat and add diced egg, a dash of salt and pepper and red pepper flakes, if you like a bit of heat.  Stir to combine and top with crumbled bacon, if using.  Grate a bit of hard cheese over the top and serve warm with herbed or balsamic vinegar on the side. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Winter is Prime Time for Starting Alpine Strawberries

When I was a young child, one of my favorite spring activities was gathering wild strawberries.  Tiny red fruit ripened on plants that grew low to the ground and my brother and I would spend hours searching for and plucking berries for my mother's delicious jam.  The fruit was so delicious and tempting, we ate as many as we placed in our small buckets and the task never really seemed like a chore.  When I began to grow Alpine strawberries several years ago, I rediscovered that unique flavor punch that is completely absent from supermarket strawberries, which are usually pretty tasteless and dry.  If you also love real strawberry flavor, include growing Alpines on your New Year's resolution list. 

Alpine strawberries sport beautiful, delicate blossoms


Starting Alpine strawberry plants from seed is relatively easy, but does require patience.  Before placing seeds in a small amount of sterile soil, store them in a freezer for a couple of weeks to trick them into a dormancy period.  The seeds are very tiny and although it is possible to sow them and thin later, I find it easier to take time to place single seeds in individual cells and transplant seedlings when they are about two to three inches in height.  It is necessary to keep the soil moist throughout the germination process and a plastic covering works well to hold in moisture.  Seedlings may take weeks to appear and a daily misting of water is helpful.  There are several varieties of Alpine strawberries, but I like Yellow Wonder and Red Wonder.  I find yellow seeds usually have a higher rate of germination and seedlings appear more quickly than red, but for an interesting combination of color and flavor, I love to grow them in close proximity.  Since birds typically avoid the yellow fruit color, that is a good choice for gardeners who have trouble protecting ripening fruit from hungry birds. 
Alpine strawberries are known by several names, including fraise des bois (berries of the woods)
With no runners, Alpine strawberries are excellent container plants and because they produce better in slightly cool growing conditions, they can be grown indoors.  When the plant blooms, whisk a small, soft brush across each blossom to help pollinate the plant.  Outdoors, pollinators will take care of this job and Alpines grow equally well in containers or raised beds.  Once established, Alpines are perennial plants that should produce fruit in the first season.  With just a few plants, you should have enough ripe strawberries to serve as a nice addition to morning cereals or evening desserts, if you can restrain yourself from just eating them as they ripen, fresh from the plant. 
Grandpup Winnie loves Alpine Strawberries, too!

Friday, December 19, 2014

What's Garden Trendy for 2015? I'll Take a Guess. . .

This is the time of year when we read and hear a lot about what is going to shape our lives for the coming year.  What color should we paint the living room?  According to which paint seller you believe, it is either a shade of coral or green.  Technology buffs tell us drones will be THE techie gadget to have and fashionistas are touting a 1970s influence on women's spring wardrobes.  Just when I thought I might not live long enough to endure the return of fringed jackets and earth-tone pantsuits . . .

Although I do not claim to be an expert garden forecaster, I do think there are a few heirloom plants that may prove to be trendy among North Carolina farmers.  You don't think foods can be trendy?  Perhaps you are not old enough to remember all those tasteless no-fat cookies that lined supermarket shelves in the 1980s and frozen TV dinners that made us 1960s kids feel like we were dining with the Jetsons?  While my crystal ball may be a bit cloudy, I offer the following list of heirloom plants I think will be popular additions to this year's backyard gardens and large produce farms. 

1.  Pink Okra
 In recent years, okra has been a darling of fine dining menus.  I'm not sure why we Southerners always sliced, battered and fried this versatile vegetable, but it is delicious grilled, stuffed and baked or eaten raw, fresh in the field, which I just tried this summer, and loved.  Pink Okra is perfect for those who do not like the "slime" associated with most varieties and although this plant is more hibiscus than true okra, it produces an edible pod with mild okra flavor and beautiful, deep pink blossoms that are delicious.  Shelf life for the flowers is very short, so pluck them from these compact plants and add them to salads for a wow factor.  Seed source:  www.rareseeds.com

Pink Okra is beautiful in both flower and vegetable gardens

2.  Christmas Beans
For bean lovers, this one is a special treat.  Large, creamy white lima-type beans and deep red striping make Christmas beans a beautiful dish and the pot liquor (cooked bean broth) they produce is rich and meaty.  Boasting chestnut flavor, these beans are great to lightly cook, chop and add to stuffings.   I received seeds from a Western NC man whose family heirlooms include Christmas beans, but they may be purchased at www.purcellmountainfarms.com.  Warning:  Christmas beans need a long growing season and lots of trellis to climb.  
Cooked in water, Christmas Beans make a hearty broth

3.  Peppers (Sweet & Hot)
North Carolina is an ideal growing climate for a variety of heirloom peppers and with a burgeoning regional palate that appreciates spicy foods, (think Thai, Indian and Vietnamese dishes) fresh peppers are in demand.  On the hot side, red and yellow Thai peppers, Lemon Drops and Omnicolor are some of my favorites.  Piquillo and Anaheim are two varieties that pack a flavorful punch, especially when roasted, without scalding the tongue.  Prolific producers, a single pepper plant will satisfy the needs of most backyard gardeners and most plants require little growing space.  Seed sources:  www.chilepepperinstitute.org or www.rareseeds.com  or www.sowtrueseed.com

4.  Interesting Eggplants
To produce a variety of interesting flavors and intriguing colors and shapes, it is hard to beat growing eggplants.   Resolve to include some new additions to your garden plan and prepare to wonder why you always grew only large purple eggplants.  One of my favorites is Aubergine Burkina du Faso, a compact fruit that is the perfect individual serving size, although the plants grow taller than most eggplants.  Be sure to take every measure to protect seedlings since every pest loves an eggplant.  Seed source:  www.rareseeds.com

Aubergie Burkina du Faso eggplants range in color from yellow to red
5.  Cream Sausage Tomatoes
Cream Sausage tomatoes are my absolute favorite canning tomato.  Creamy white, the fruit is shaped like a Roma and is a bit mealy and dry when fresh, but cooking these tomatoes releases intense flavor.  Perfect in soups, stews, pies, and salsas, Cream Sausage plants are compact and seldom require more than a small stake to keep them upright.  Caution: Cream Sausage plants appear to wilt and their leaves sometimes have a dusty appearance, but after observing them for several years, I now accept their puny appearance as part of their appeal and the abundant fruit they produce makes up for the plants' drab style.  www.rareseeds.com
A determinate tomato variety, Cream Sausage produces abundant fruit

As with all heirloom plants, select the best fruit or vegetable specimens to save for seed.  After an initial purchase or gift from a gardening friend, heirloom seeds may be saved and planted every year of your gardening life.  And, unlike those 1970s fashions, these trendy foods will be welcome guests at your dinner table. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Farm is the Main Thing

Recently, I sat in a hospital waiting room while a family member was in surgery.  Surrounded by others who were equally anxious and hopeful for their own loved ones, I attempted to lose myself in the latest copy of Edible Charlotte.  One of my favorite publications, Edible never fails to deliver intriguing recipes, offer new planting ideas and showcase the best of Charlotte's food scene.

While reading, I overheard the man sitting next to me mention the word "farm."  I kept my eyes on the page, but shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversation between the man and the older woman to his left.  His words made me reflect on the growing emphasis on locally produced food, while inwardly I chuckled at his idealistic vision of the lives of restaurant owners and farmers.  Not that I doubt this man may someday live his dream, but as he talked, I remembered the heartbreak of crops I lost to drought, flood, freeze and blistering heat.  I recalled many chats with farm-to-table chefs and how these talented men and women struggle to maintain that delicate balance of stocking adequate fresh food ingredients for customers who may drop in unannounced, while attempting to provide an enticing menu for those who reserved tables in advance. 

Perhaps it is our hurried, busy lives that make us long for simplicity, a connection to the Earth and a renewed appreciation for the source of our food.  Maybe this man has a need in his life and he believes working with the land will fill that void.  I hope he overcomes the challenges ahead and I hope he realizes his dream.  Maybe someday, I will stumble across a restaurant, surrounded by a pastoral farm, that serves Saturday dinner only and the man's dream will echo in my memory.  I hope he lives his dream and I hope customers will come . . .

Hospital Waiting Room Soliloquy

I really want to farm.  When I retire, I hope to go where God leads me and have a farm.  I will work about 35 hours per week at my regular job and the rest of the time, I will work at the farm.  Gradually, I will only work at the farm.  I will plant vegetables and fruits.  One day, I will have cows and maybe pigs.  And chickens.  After I build the farm, I will open a restaurant.  I will serve food I grow.  Maybe I will do lunch or breakfast sometimes, but I will only open on Saturdays for dinner.  I will only serve two meal choices.  I don't want the restaurant to be too much; I will only do Saturday dinners and people will come from all around to eat.  The restaurant will not take much of my time.  The farm is the main thing.