Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

Posts from the ‘farming’ category

The Farm at Sunnyside

Asparagus season in Virginia has nearly ended since I jotted a version of this post on a notepad a couple of weeks ago, sitting under a tree at The Farm at Sunnyside in Washington, VA, where a friend of mine lives and works.

Asparagus spears burst from the ground and grow 5-6 inches a day in the spring, silky purple fingers shooting upward through the milkweed. When the weather gets warm, you have to visit them every day and harvest those that are ready to eat. You can eat the young stalks raw, juicy and sweet as fresh corn. If you let them go too long, they form tough skins—weatherproofing for vegetables—then bolt (turn to seed).

We’re out here this afternoon to pick what’s ready. The season is winding down and there are fewer spears than there were before: now you have to look for them. My eyes have some trouble differentiating colors in sunlight, so the purple asparagus and the green milkweed and the tan hay blend together in an abstract tumble of shapes and textures and levels. I run my hand along each row, three inches above the ground, until a smooth stalk brushes the side of my palm. I grab it with my left hand, use the knife in my right to slice it off near the ground, and drop it in a bucket strapped at my hip. I move on down the row this way, arm outstretched, reading garden braille.

The asparagus sway like raised hands in the breeze. I’d sway and sing praise, too, if this were my home, I think to myself, as the blue sky meets goldenrod meadow and the trees rustle greetings as I pass. The challenge, I suppose, is to rejoice even when the ground is wet and muddy, the sky a gunflint gray, the wind biting. The asparagus will reach even then, daring me to pick another, to bend again, to savor sweetness before it vanishes into flowers and fuzz no longer meant for me.

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The hens waddle up a wooden ramp into their little home on stilts at twilight, their usually watchful eyes drooping, woozy after a day spent pecking the ground and seeking shade. We goosestep over the electric fence to say goodnight and hear them coo and gurgle back at us, as if in mild protest at the fall of night and the necessity of sleep. At this moment, I feel for the first time as if chickens and I might have something in common.

***

I heard the coyotes celebrating last night, the frog chorus, the songbirds welcoming the morning, always the wind. I woke up hot and thirsty in our tent (a greenhouse for humans). We pull breakfast from the walk-in cooler room—eggs in a rainbow of pastels, so large they barely fit in carton; radishes still caked in dirt, reminding me that they grow underground. Two-foot long spring onions with thick stems that puff like balloons when I squeeze them: I hold the bunch together and see a giant squid. There is a head of red butter lettuce, full as a wedding bouquet. Bitter, pale green escarole, bright baby kale with delicate stems, long fronds of dill reminiscent of the Spanish moss I’d seen down south in March. We scramble it all together with salt, pepper, and creamy jack cheese, then wash it down with cold cider made from the ugly apples.

***

It’s easy to wax poetic about it all—I’m a tourist here, and I don’t depend on this land for income or sustenance. The reality of it is far from idyllic. I don’t have to spend hours trudging through the fields in rubber boots under a searing sun, pounding metal posts into unwilling ground or hauling around 50-lb. soil bags. In the city I buy food and I cook food: I do not make it. The city has allowed to me to indulge the myth of my independence, both as an individual and as a human. A dubious privilege.

It’s not only good but necessary to come to a place like this, to feel at once like a blind woman amidst the weeds and a baby whose eyes have just opened. I listen differently here, where there are so many soft sounds. I’m attuned to the movements of bugs, of water under the soil. I’m reminded that asparagus is not a given, and that even beer comes from seed

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My last day on the farm dawned foggy and already humid. The heat wave that the Northeast has been suffering through recently had fried the shelling peas and sugar snaps, which prefer cooler weather (much like myself). Elizabeth and I set to work pulling their desiccated roots from the ground, then chopping up their stems and leaves to return to the bed as mulch. We pulled the underperforming broccoli, too, and prepared space in the cold frames for new growth.

After mixing compost and peat moss to make a fertile growing mix and mulching the newly cleared beds with a layer of hay, we watered them to loosen the soil and shoveled our mix in rows over the top. I spread my index and middle fingers to form a “V” and pressed them into the soil over and over again down the rows, making dimples to receive each seed. We planted carrots, beets, and kohlrabi; arugula and lettuce; onions, pole beans, and radishes. We sprinkled a thin layer of topsoil to cover them, smoothed it with the flats of our palms, and hoped for rain.

It seemed fitting to end my stay on the farm with the planting of new seeds. This experience, albeit only a month long, has convinced me that I can and will become a gardener myself. I can no longer imagine paying $3.99 for only enough basil to make two tablespoons of pesto. Or the same price for an ungainly plastic box of greens, grown in California and trucked across the country, when I could plant myself a whole summer’s worth of lettuce for under $10.

When I am lucky enough to live in a place where soil, not concrete, surrounds my doorstep, I will plant herbs and salad greens there for easy pre-dinner access. In the meantime, there are window boxes, potted herbs, rooftop gardens, and community growing spaces to take advantage of. I will plant shelling peas, which are so hard to find in most American grocery stores. (Goodbye, mushy canned and frozen peas, and good riddance!)

Peas, beans, and zucchini can be trained to grow up poles or trellises, so they take up less space in a small garden. Kale and chard are hardy plants that require almost no work to grow and fit into the “dark, leafy greens” category that help prevent everything from depression to cancer. I’ll plant beets, the candy of the vegetable world, and strawberries, which will be smaller but sweeter than any you can find in the grocery store. But more than anything else, I can’t wait to grow my own tomatoes.

A homegrown tomato is an epiphany. Within its taut skin the taste of summer lies in wait for the firm bite that will release it in a brilliant gush. Its ecstatic burst of pulpy, sun-warmed juice leaves your tongue tingling with acid tang. Try achieving catharsis through a grocery store tomato: it will be a sad failure of an experiment.

My last day on the farm ended with a fresh and simple supper, inspired by the season’s first ripe tomatoes. I’d been awaiting these guys since I first caught whiff of the green, musty aroma emanating from their resin-covered vines. Elizabeth layered tomato slices with lettuce and fresh-grated Parmesan and Romano on olive oil flatbread for one set of sandwiches, then melted sharp cheddar on the other and topped them with tiny Sungolds.

We sat on the porch watching the sun set and feeling the breeze finally blow the day’s humidity away. I took a bite of my sandwich, closed my eyes, and felt my tastebuds stand up taller to catch every drop of tomato eruption. This fruit had developed under the same heat, breezes, and rains that I’d experienced on the farm. I’d watched its vine grow taller as I watered it in the mornings, tied it gently to bamboo stalks to support its growth, and seen its first tomatoes turn from spring green to red-orange. In thanks for my patience, it was mine to devour. What a reward.

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Garlic was among the first plants I learned to recognize here. It is unmistakable: while the white bulb that most of us know as garlic lies buried under the ground, its thick white stalk and slender green leaves reach three feet in the air when fully grown. A tapered green tube (the scape) shoots up from the center of each plant, falling into snakelike loops and coiling in on itself near the end.

Worrill and I harvested (that is, cut off with a scissors) the scapes from the farm’s 400 garlic plants a couple of weeks ago. Elizabeth pureed them with basil, olive oil, and walnuts into pesto,  and ground them up with chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice into hummus. She diced and sauteed them for use in pastas and salads, and brought them to a local pizza maker so he could incorporate them into his new seasonal, locally sourced pies.

Once the scapes have been cut, all the energy of the plant goes into increasing the size of the bulb. Around the longest day of the year, when the plant’s leaves have begun to wither and turn brown, it’s time to pull the bulbs from the ground. Claire (a new intern) and I undertook this task one morning last week. We wrapped our fists around each stalk, below where the leaves begin, and pulled upwards, hard. The ground bulges, quavers, and then peels back as the bulb erupts from the earth in a triumphant, redolent oomph.

Moist, fertile soil is not easy to come by in this part of Vermont, where hard clay underlies just about everything, so Claire and I carefully brushed the clods of earth that clung to each bulb back into the bed before placing it in a wheelbarrow for transport to the drying room. There, we laid out the bulbs on tables with tops made of wire mesh, where they will desiccate and await either a return to the ground or a trip to the kitchen.

One hundred and fifty of the largest bulbs will be split into cloves in the late fall and replanted to become next year’s crop. With each bulb holding between 5 and 7 cloves, that’s about 900 garlic plants shooting up next spring!

I take a few of the bulbs back to the kitchen to use fresh. I cut off the long stalk and the coarse hairs that cushion the bottom. The crisp, papery skin covering the bulb crackles as I remove it, and I discover that the cloves of a fresh head of garlic cling to one another much more tightly than do those of the heads I’ve always bought at the grocery store. Wedging a paring knife between them eases them apart. I’m surprised to find that the skin enrobing each clove is not the same papery thin wisps I’m used to, but rather opaque, moist, and leathery. The taste, too, is an epiphany: especially pungent, juicy, with an audible snap to it.

I used these first cloves to make a puree of white beans, fresh garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and handfuls of just-picked parsley and basil, mixed with a little salt, black pepper, and cayenne. We mounded it on rosemary foccacia at dinner, then spread it on open-faced cheese and tomato sandwiches that we broiled in the oven for lunch the next day.

Suddenly, 400 bulbs of garlic doesn’t seem like nearly enough for a year’s supply!

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Elizabeth doesn’t drink cow’s milk herself, but when I asked if we could get some so I could attempt to make my own yogurt and cheese, we hopped in the car and drove in the opposite direction of the grocery store. When it comes to milk, the organic dairy farm just down the road is the grocery store.

Mark and Sarah Russell have been raising cattle for two decades, and have been certified organic for 13 years. When Elizabeth, her niece and nephew, and Worrill and I arrive, we are greeted first by their exuberant cat Elvis, who loves nothing more than to be held like a baby and cooed over. Unfortunately for Elvis, we are more interested in the farm’s lovely ladies: the 96 cows whose milk makes the Russells a living. The family keeps one or two bulls (male cows) on the farm for impregnating the heifers (female cows before they have their first calf), but for subsequent pregnancies they use artificial insemination. It’s cheaper, more reliable, and allows them to differentiate the herd’s gene pool and breed for desirable characteristics.

The calves that were born in February and March aren’t quite ready to join the rest of the herd in the fields yet, but they crowd close to the fence to assess their new visitors. “That’s Fabian,” the Russells’ 9- or 10-year-old son David points out a brown and white calf holding his head above the rest; “I’m going show him at the fair.” After a quick sniff test, Fabian deems my outstretched hand harmless, and begins licking my fingers, then the back of my hand, my wrist and up my forearm. Cow tongues, it turns out, are as rough and prickly as a cat’s, and can stretch farther than you’d expect. “David won the Quiz Bowl tournament at his last 4H event,” Mark tells us with a half-smile. “Yeah,” David adds, “I was the only one who knew what calf diarrhea is called.” (In case you’re curious, it’s “scours.”)

Photo by Olivia Frank

In our next stop, the milking parlor, the Russells explain how the cows file in to their stalls each morning and evening during milking season (they “go dry” for a couple of months prior to calving), how they hook up the milking machines to the cows’ udders, and how the milk travels through a series of self-cleaning pipes directly into a huge tank. The milking machines shut off and release automatically when the utters have been drained, so the cows can let themselves out and get back to grazing as quickly as possible. Each of their cows produces approximately five gallons of milk daily, so the whole herd produces about two TONS of milk every day! It is kept cold in the tank until it is shipped to the Organic Valley co-op the Russells belong to, which handles the pasteurization, bottling, marketing, and distribution of milk from thousands of similar farms across New England.

We head down the dirt path towards the fields, and Mark unhooks one section of the electric fence surrounding the pasture so we can go meet the herd. We wade through the tall grass, avoiding the occasional half-baked cowpie. The most forthcoming cow, a golden brown Jersey named Firefly, saunters out ahead of the rest to greet us. Through some imperceptible bovine sign language, she gives the “all clear” to the others, and soon we are surrounded on all sides by curious cattle. If the herd stampeded, we’d be in trouble, but they are content to nod their heads up and down and bat flies out of the way with their tails.

Photo by Josh Frank

“My sister calls them the Motley Crew,” Mark says, and it’s easy to see why: there are plenty of black and white Holsteins (the most common dairy breed in the United States), but also red and white Ayrshires, Dutch Belteds, and other Jerseys like Firefly. They rub their noses against us, let us pet their powerful bodies, and blink their long eyelashes at us. When we start walking back toward the path, they gradually move apart from each other and set back to munching on the grasses that their four stomachs will turn into foods humans can digest–milk and meat.

Photo by Worrill Campbell

We make our final stop next to the milk tank, where we fill the four glass jars we brought with milk the cows gave just this morning. This is “raw” milk: unpasteurized, unhomogenized, and containing no additives or preservatives. Vermont allows farmers to sell a certain quantity of raw milk directly to consumers each year, but it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk on most store shelves throughout the United States. Pasteurization (heating to a particular temperature for a specified length of time) kills off any bacteria that may be present in the milk, but also zaps some harmless bacteria that may be beneficial to the digestive system. Many people who have become accustomed to drinking raw milk say they detect a “cooked” flavor in pasteurized milk, as well.Any milk labeled “UHT (ultra-high temperature) Pasteurized” has had any trace of life cooked out of it, and will not curdle into yogurt or cheese no matter what you do to it. Most organic milk sold in stores, unfortunately, falls into this category. It doesn’t move off the shelves as quickly as cheaper, conventional milk, and is therefore processed to ensure a longer shelf life.

I notice a pronounced difference in the flavors of milk from pastured cattle as opposed to corn-fed cattle (many conventional (non-organic) dairies feed their cows a mixture of corn, grain, and a variety of waste by-products), which tastes much weaker to me, but haven’t drunk enough raw milk to compare. However, I need all the probiotics (good bacteria) I can get for successful culturing into yogurt and cheese, so I am thrilled to have such a convenient source of raw milk nearby. Thanks to Mark, Sarah, and David, and especially to Firefly and her herdmates for sharing!

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In order to avoid a repeat of Tuesday’s case of mistaken identity involving the poor English pea seedling, I’ve spent my first week of work honing my weed identification skills while yanking them unceremoniously from beds with whimsical names like the “Four Directions Garden,” the “Peace Garden,” and the “Clothesline Garden.” The names of the weeds themselves inspire exciting mental pictures: I now recognize wispy, ubiquitous witchgrass; butterfly-attracting milkweed; and the edible leaves called lambsquarters. Tiny boxelder trees spring from the soil, unwelcome between the blueberry bushes, and prickly thistle and stinging nettles make me appreciate my work gloves more and more every day.

We pull clover when it appears next to the roots of the fruit and vegetable plants, but let it run wild in the yard, where Elizabeth’s three horses gorge themselves on greedy mouthfuls of it when we take them out of the paddock for grooming. “It’s like steak for them,” she says as she combs the sticky burdocks out of Benjamin’s mane; “full of protein but only good in limited quantities.” Elizabeth and Worrill taught me how to rub the nubbly curry comb in circles over the horse’s neck, back, and sides to loosen the dust and dirt from his coat, then to whisk first a hard-bristled brush and then a soft-bristled one across him “to undo the mess you just made.” Worrill and I leave the hoof-picking to Elizabeth, since the horses are fidgety from the flies and keep lifting their feet to swat at them from underneath.

Each day is punctuated by meal breaks, which on this farm maintain equal importance to garden work. In her former (city) life, Elizabeth ran her own catering business, and the pleasure she takes in creating delicious, innovative vegetarian meals drawn largely from her own gardens shows through on the plate.

I’ve been starting my days with one of her blueberry-banana-bran muffins followed by yogurt drizzled with maple syrup that her neighbors collected from trees along the road they share, and strawberries picked fresh from the plants in her yard. When the lunch bell rings (literally–there’s a large bell hanging outside the front door that she clangs to let us know lunch is ready), Worrill and I throw down our gloves to go enjoy lentil soup and a plate of local Vermont cheeses (for example) on cooler days, or whole-wheat wraps filled with homemade hummus and lemon garlic aioli, just-snipped basil, cilantro, and arugula, and creamy slices of avocado on hotter ones. Dinners this week have included black bean chili with cilantro and sour cream; a polenta casserole layered with fresh tomato sauce, Vermont cheese, and sauteed mushrooms, zucchini, and onions; and Thai veggie pizza that Elizabeth gets for free from a family-owned pizzeria in Middlebury in exchange for providing them with topping ingredients, cut flowers, and pizza recipes using local and seasonal produce.

I haven’t even gotten to dessert yet, but that deserves a post of its own…

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