Thursday, February 26, 2015

Scream for Snow Cream!

A couple of days ago, my friend, Sue Ellen Brookshire, stated she was going to make snow cream, store it in her freezer and, when next summer turns unbearably hot, she plans to pull out the frozen winter treat and savor it.  Her words stirred a childhood memory and I remembered the stacks of bowls in my grandmother's upright freezer.  Countless times, after we worked in her summer garden, we would rest on her porch and she would serve snow cream.  As the sweet confection melted on my tongue, I would marvel at how Granny preserved snow in such a delicious way. 
Snow cream with sweet black cherries
When I was a child, snow cream was a favorite seasonal treat.  My parents cautioned my brother and me, Space Age kids who drank astronaut-inspired Tang, watched The Jetsons on our black-and-white tv and built a lunar module kit, not to eat the first snow of the season.  I am not sure why, but there seemed to be some vague warning about radioactivity or something that needed to be cleansed from the atmosphere with the first snow.  Impatiently, we waited for a second snow so my mother would make snow cream for us.  A simple dish that requires no sharp objects or cooking, we quickly mastered the technique, learned to gather scoops of pristine white snow and make our own snow cream.
Snow day view from my porch

This morning, about six inches of fluffy snow piled around our home, the perfect fresh ingredient for snow cream.  Aside from the basic recipe, I made buttered pecan, black cherry with sweet cherries we harvested last spring and preserved in the freezer, orange and chocolate versions.  For the chocolate one, I substituted powdered sugar for granulated and the resulting consistency was almost like pudding.  An unusual breakfast, but Richard did not complain as he tasted each dish and declared chocolate and black cherry to be his favorites. Perhaps those should be combined?  Hmmm. . . when it comes to snow cream, the recipe possibilities are endless.

If you happen to have snow at your home today and perhaps some children who would enjoy making a special treat, scoop some snow into a large bowl and stir up a dish of snow cream.  Screams are optional. 
Buttered Pecan Snow Cream

Clockwise, from top left: Mandarin orange, black cherry, buttered pecan, vanilla, chocolate (center)

Basic Snow Cream Recipe
4-6 cups fresh snow
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup milk or whipping cream

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir until smooth.  Adjust sugar and cream to achieve desired sweetness and consistency.  
For Buttered Pecan:  melt 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet, add 1/2 cup small pecan halves and 1 tablespoon brown sugar.  Stir nuts with butter and sugar over medium heat until toasted and sugar is melted.  Allow to cool before adding to basic snow cream recipe. 
Black Cherry: Add 1/2 cup frozen sweet cherries, chopped, to basic recipe.
Mandarin Orange:  To basic recipe, add 1/2 teaspoon orange extract and decrease vanilla extract to 1/2 teaspoon.  Peel one or two fresh Mandarin oranges or Clementines (seedless) and chop fruit.  Stir into other ingredients.
Chocolate:  Substitute 1/4 cup powdered sugar for granulated.  Add 1/4 cup Dutch process cocoa powder and stir to combine.  Chocolate chips (about 1/4 cup) may also be added and for a Rocky Road variation, add 1/4 cup chopped nuts and 1/4 cup mini marshmallows.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Forage Winter Fields For Wild Greens

There is something particularly beautiful about winter fields.  Devoid of summer's lush growth and holding the last of autumn's dried weeds, these fields are sometimes adorned with temporarily abandoned farm implements or hay bales the farmer did not store before inclement weather struck. Covered with ice or snow, it is easy for a passing traveler to see the defined area that will consume a gardener's time during the growing season.  On cold days, frozen weeds and grass crunch underfoot and a stroll through a winter field stirs a longing for spring that only grows stronger with each footfall.  But wait, what is this?  There, a small patch of dark green, leaves that are springtime crisp and full of life.  What is this plant that thrives when others around it lie brown and lifeless?  This is Creasy Greens. 

Creasy greens contain impressive amounts of Vitamins C & A

Today, winter fields at Heart & Sole Gardens are covered with inches of fluffy snow, but when the white stuff melts, patches of creasy greens will be visible.  I do not plant creasy greens, but these valuable plants reseed themselves and unlike other weed pests, I welcome these perennial visitors.  

Technically a type of cress, creasy greens grow wild throughout the Appalachian Mountains and historians credit the hardy green with saving many pioneers from scurvy, a nasty condition caused by Vitamin C deficiency.  When harsh winters prevented early settlers from obtaining or growing fresh foods, creasy greens were a natural source of Vitamin C.  As the weather warms, creasy greens become more peppery in flavor, but with recent cold temperatures, the taste is more like spinach than mustard. 

Before spring arrives, plan to seek out a winter field for a stroll.  With permission from the landowner, gather a "mess" of creasy greens and enjoy a delicious dose of natural Vitamin C.  Add a handful of creasy greens to a pasta or stir fry or just dress them with a nice vinaigrette and eat them as a fresh salad. You might not have to worry about scurvy, but wild foods like creasy greens provide just the spring tonic our bodies need.  

Creasy Green Omelet 
Briefly cook 1/2 cup shredded creasy greens in a small skillet with 1 teaspoon melted butter or oil.  When greens wilt, remove from heat and season with a pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of pepper.

Melt one tablespoon butter in a 8-10 inch skillet over medium heat.
Quickly whisk two eggs in a small bowl, working to incorporate as much air as possible and pour into hot skillet.
Use a spatula to loosen the side of the egg as it cooks and flip when it is solid enough to turn or, if you are brave and skilled, flip the egg while tossing the skillet (Over a sink is best for a first attempt at this!)
Turn heat off and top the center of the egg with grated Fontina cheese, creasy greens and any other toppings you like.  
Fold the omelet in half and allow the cheese to melt.
Slide the omelet onto a serving plate and enjoy.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

When Food Service Goes Awry

We've all been there.  A friend recommends a restaurant.  It's his favorite; he promises the food is great and the service is exceptional.  We arrive and anticipate a delightful experience, but somehow, somewhere, something goes awry.  The service is sloppy, the ambiance is off or the food is not as delicious as we anticipated.  Upset, we complain.  Do we expect an adjustment to our bill?  A free dish or beverage?  A heartfelt apology?  Whatever our expectations, our actions and the reactions of restaurant staff will forever color our perceptions of that restaurant and will determine whether or not we will be repeat customers. 

Recently, Richard and I enjoyed a much needed and long overdue vacation.  Frigid temperatures and snow in our local forecast meant we could not work in the garden, so we looked forward to a warmer climate where we could enjoy those fresh-from-the-farm fruits and vegetables we missed.  Although southern Floridians told us the weather was chilly for them, we strolled along, wearing only light jackets, and anticipated a delicious meal at a restaurant that was about a mile from our hotel.

The fresh shellfish menu includes several varieties of oysters

After the hostess seated us at an outdoor table, we looked over the menu and made our selections.  Lively conversation surrounded us and we enjoyed watching the strategically placed over-the-bar mirror where we could view employees as they shucked fresh oysters and cracked in-season stone crab claws.  After a pleasant greeting from the hostess and a friendly exchange with our server when we ordered, nothing seemed to go as we anticipated or expected.  

Oyster shuckers in (partial) action

Three different servers carried our oysters and crab plates to other tables before one finally delivered them to us with no apology for the health code violation.  Our original server dropped by to inform us the restaurant was out of one of the oyster varieties we ordered, so she substituted another that was not on the menu, without first checking with us.  Although the oysters were served on the half shell, the shuckers neglected to detach them from the shells, making them difficult to eat.  The Nicoise salad did not include traditional ingredients of olives or eggs, the bread was soggy and, worst of all, our original server ignored us as she polished glassware.  By the time a server dropped a beverage at our table that was not what we ordered, we were disappointed and ready to leave.  

Thankfully, the manager stopped by to chat and she assured us she would address our concerns with her employees.  When I told her we did enjoy some components of the meal, including a rich tomato soup and fresh arugula in the salad, she replied, "I hate to hear you say lettuce was the best part of your meal!"  I explained to her, as a grower and restaurant supplier, I appreciate good quality produce and the arugula was particularly tasty.  

After our conversation with the manager, Richard and I left the restaurant in better spirits.  During our walk back to the hotel, we discussed how easy it is for restaurant diners to ignore poor service or food that does not meet expectations, while calmly addressing concerns with someone in charge can completely diffuse an upsetting situation.  On the other hand, when guests receive exceptional service and food that knocks the socks off, we should be eager to praise the restaurant staff for delivering a pleasant dining experience.

Now that we are back in NC and the warm Florida sunshine is a distant memory, I keep thinking about that arugula base in the not-quite-Nicoise salad.  Since my own greens are covered in snow and ice, I look forward to harvesting them when they rebound from winter's hold.  Chances are, when I do get the opportunity to pick arugula, it will be the best part of a meal.  

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.