Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Season's End

It's my last week on the farm since the CSA season has officially ended. I am thrilled to be leaving the farm and heading back to the city, yet I know I will miss it here. I will miss the folks I've gotten to befriend, the dark nights and fresh air, and yes, I'll even miss being inundated with vegetables! Actually, I never did tire of being surrounded by wonderful fresh veggies although, I will admit there are a few that I'll be glad not to handle for a while: can we say leeks and fresh onions?

It's been a truly wonderful experience overall to witness this side of the food chain. It was a challenging season in so many different ways and I feel I am definitely better for facing up to the challenges, many that were unexpected, and that I feel have helped me to grow. I am grateful for having this intense growing opportunity. I guess that's what a farm is for; growing things, people included.

I'll be spending the next few weeks reflecting on this experience and hopefully coming up with some ideas in my mind as to how we, as communities, can better support local agriculture and what kinds of legislation, programs or projects can be created to benefit both consumer and producer, ending the cycle of waste and destruction that is our current food system. Experiencing the system on the food production end really puts into perspective the stupidity and wastefulness the system has created.

An example: Wednesdays we process loads of freshly harvested vegetables to prepare for market the following day. Thursdays we toil all day, washing, bunching, trimming and packing for the weekend farmers markets in the city, some 200+ miles southeast of Norwich. Friday morning somewhere around 1am Zaid and Haifa head to the city for market, one driving the truck and the other driving a large van. The routine is repeated on Friday and Saturday and another driver is sent to bring fresh produce into the city for Sunday and Monday farmer's markets. The truck returns on Tuesday afternoon and we unload everything and sort through all the unsold produce. Often we end up throwing enormous amounts of perfectly fine food away because they may be a bit wrinkled, soft, bruised or blemished in some other way that would not be acceptable for purchase by most market shoppers. So the energy in sunshine, human labor, fuel and more human labor, essentially ends up in the compost. We sort what is fine and it goes back to market, either to be sold or returned once again to be sorted and composted. For the field worker, it is truly heartbreaking to see your hard labor end up in the compost and equally heartbreaking for us to have to unbunch and unpack what we spent hours doing a few days prior. For the farm owner, they have to pay for the labor, fuel and other energy costs that is required to keep it up all season long. This cycle is just plain inefficient and stupid.

Now I have nothing against the farmer's market. It is the bread and butter for many small farmers and I love to support them. But there has to be a place for farmers to sell what is left over at the end of the day, at a fair price so all the food does not have to be trucked back to the farm or tossed. With all the restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions in NYC, why is there no system in place for some kind of mutually beneficial exchange?

I have learned to truly appreciate the simple brilliance of the CSA model, one where veggies move in one direction: out. There's no returning once it leaves the farm. And because the produce is already paid for and distributed amongst many, the percentage of waste is most likely low. Restaurants also purchase a fair amount from the farm and that is another model that I see works, again a one way affair.

It will be an interesting challenge for the next few weeks to reflect on this problem. There is a lot to ponder and much research to do. I'm ready to head back to the big city and see what good work can be done so that farms like Norwich Meadows can continue to exist, and folks like Zaid and Haifa can continue to provide nourishment for our communities here in the city while maintaining a decent livelihood they so well deserve. It takes serious love, dedication and physical stamina to be a farmer as well as a farm worker. We all need to recognize and be thankful for those who willingly choose to take on the tremendous responsibility of providing us with clean, delicious food, and I am proud to have been for a season, one of them.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Winter in Fall

This past week has been freezing on the farm --literally! Tuesday night the temp hit a low of 27 degrees. There was ice on Betty Blue's (my car) windshield. I had to carve a little hole out of the ice to see just enough to get myself to work somewhat safely, although I'm being very liberal with the use of the word "safe". I learned later on from the upstate guys that I could have easily just let the car warm up for ten minutes. I woke up early Thursday morning to find snow covering everything. It was a gorgeous sight to see houses, trees, the entire landscape covered in a serene powder of white, the kind of snow that's light enough where you can see individual snowflakes and that packs perfect for awesome snowballs. I still can't believe there's snow in mid October! It has been a very freaky weather year. It's also been a busy week preparing for the freezing temperatures, as everything that can come out of the ground, must. The field hands have been harvesting furiously, and in the shed we've been moving crates of food around trying desperately to find a home for everything. In fact, we just got an additional trailer to fit all the winter storage veggies. We are packed to the gills with celery, celeriac, onions, potatoes and winter squashes of multiple varieties, beans, green tomatoes, and beets, carrots, turnips, brussel sprouts, and cabbage galore. The carrots are especially sweet and delicious as the cold weather forces them to gather all the energy they can (for plants that means sugar!)

One thing for certain is that the storage veggies sure are heavy! Moving crates of root veggies, cabbage and potatoes around provides an incredible workout. Forget the gym folks, the farm will buff you out! I will be returning stronger in many ways than one. Watch out NYC.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Can it

The end of tomatoes is near. Despite the tomato blight that destroyed much of the tomato crop early in the season throughout the Northeast, we were fortunate enough to have had a good tomato crop on the farm this year. Not the best but considering the awful weather, we were very lucky to have any tomatoes at all.

The best way to preserve the flavor of fresh tomatoes is to can them. On the farm we tossed away criminal amounts of tomatoes since fresh tomatoes, especially heirloom varieties, do not have a long shelf life, and they are very easily bruised or damaged. I had very little time to can this season but I did manage to save a few crates of badly damaged tomatoes from the compost and now have some jars of wonderful bursts of summer for a cold winter day.

Heirloom tomatoes are especially wonderful to can since the flavor is so intense and the thin skin makes peeling unnecessary. I usually roast the tomatoes to release the liquid since tomatoes are mostly liquid. I cut up the tomatoes in big chunks and throw them into the oven for about half an hour or until plenty of liquid is released. The roasting also intensifies the flavor and adds another layer of depth. I scoop out the tomatoes with a slotted spoon and place them in a jar, follow basic canning directions and voila, summer in a jar. The remaining liquid could also be canned and used in soups, braising, cooking rice dishes or simply drinking. The color of the heirlooms are also wonderful. I canned orange, yellow, red, and striped varieties that look so enticing, it will take some will power not to crack those jars right away.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

More Food

Flageolet Beans with Tomato and Fresh Sage
Cook the beans slowly in fresh mashed tomatoes. Simmer until the beans are done and season to taste. Add a bit of olive oil and sage and cook a little while longer. Simple and satisfying in cool weather. I had this with a crunchy baguette and aged sheep's milk cheese, produced locally of course.

Broccoli with Peppers
I like my broccoli with a bite, not raw but with texture and some crunch still intact. I've met enough folks throughout my life who said they hated broccoli as a kid because it was always overcooked and mushy, only to rediscover the beauty of broccoli later in life. If you are a parent, please do not ruin broccoli for your kids by boiling it to death or any other such hideous preparation for this wonderful food. My mom always blanches broccoli before putting it in a stir fry but I'm lazy and sometimes just throw it into the wok. Okay so it takes a bit longer to cook, but it still comes out really good. I seasoned this dish with soy sauce and some sliced chilis and garlic, finished with a touch of toasted sesame oil. I made an arrowroot slurry to thicken the sauce a bit. If I had some sesame seeds, I'd toast 'em and throw them on top.

Pickled Jalapenos
I can't get enough of my pickles, in case you haven't noticed. These were the most unusual chilis. I first took a bite of the tip and they were sweet, which was disappointing. Then I took another bite, and at first there was a bit of sweetness and then the heat nearly burned my face off. These jalapenos are no joke! It was a shame to see them shrivel up and go to waste so I pickled them in brine and some garlic. Well, that was quite a few weeks ago and when I recently revisited them, they were hot as ever with wonderful flavor but the chilis were very mushy. I have learned my lesson never to make fermented pickles with old veggies. I had to toss away many pickles with veggies I tried to salvage only to learn weeks later that they turned into mush. Well, all is not lost necessarily with these chilis since I have decided to try yet another experiment and turn this jar of pickles into a tasty fermented burn your ass hot sauce. I will report later on the results.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gifts from the Underground

I'm a beautiful flower in the summer, a tasty food in the fall and a permaculturist's dream. What am I? A sunchoke aka Jerusalum Artichoke! Sunchokes are a native of the US and is a species of the sunflower producing an edible tuber beneath the stalk. This was the first crop of the sunchoke on the farm and they are the biggest sunchokes I have ever seen, huge knobby clusters gorgeousness. Sunchokes can be eaten raw, but in my opinion, are sweeter and more delicious cooked. They are a perennial although they need to be kept under control since they are prone to spread and will take over if given the space and opportunity. I haven't had a lot of experience cooking with sunchokes but this recipe was pretty yum.
Sunchoke Fritters
Chop celery and onion very fine. Grate the sunchoke and mix together with salt, pepper and some flour to bind. Heat oil and brown on each side. My first batch was done with medium to low heat and it took a while to brown. My impatience got the better of me and the second batch I turned it up a bit and also didn't add as much oil. The first batch was much better as the slow cooking allowed the super sweetness to be released, not only from the sunchoke but the onion and celery as well. The oil also creates a crispy edge. Very tasty indeed!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fall Reflections

It is getting very chilly on the farm these days. The first hard frost is expected this weekend so the field workers are trying their best to get all the delicate veggies out of the field. The fall veggies are looking gorgeous with many variety of winter squashes, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and other brassica. Root veggies are abundant and there's been a whole lot of washing going on since everything that comes out of the ground is caked in dirt.

CSA will end in just a few weeks and I'm gearing up for the end of the season. I will not tell a lie, I cannot wait for the season to be over!! I'm done with the super long hours, long trips back and forth to and from the city, not sleeping in my own home and eating meals late and alone, with no wine to boot! It's been an interesting season with many unexpected challenges. I feel this has been a growing season for myself as well. I've learned a great deal about myself and how much I can handle, and I feel like I've faced all the challenges with maturity and surprising patience I didn't know I had in me! We all go through periods in life where we experience spurts of growth and this has certainly been one for me personally. Professionally, the time I've spent on the farm has also given me the opportunity to experience the other side of the food chain and has made me realize just how screwed up our food system is and how very tough it is to produce food for a huge population. It has certainly made me even more aware of the enormous problems we will be facing in the near future around our food supply if significant changes are not made to our current food system.

I'm looking forward to November when I will return to the city from the farm and hope to spend some time reflecting and writing more about these food systems issues we face and possibly come up with some viable and realistic solutions.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Farewell Summer Squash

It's amazing to watch the cycles of harvest throughout a season. What was once abundant, everywhere you looked, and couldn't seem to get rid of, is now waning and will soon be gone until next year. Take summer squash for instance. When it was at it's peak there was a small city of crates of squash filling up the cooler, for several weeks even. We spent many hours loading and unloading it, sorting it, and sending a criminal amount to the chickens or the compost. At times it seemed like squash that left the farm for market over the weekends just took a tour of the city and came back. Restaurants ordered a few bushels here and there but certainly not enough to make a dent in the supply. Squash was a CSA regular for weeks and sometimes members even received 2 or 3 pounds of it. Our field manager Khaled would joke that we should give a crate to every member (and there were times we almost could!). I definitely ate more squash in one season than I ever have in my life.

Now that summer squash is on it's way out, we are unable even to fulfill all our orders for it. Everyone seems to want some all of the sudden. Today I packed more orders of squash than at any time while it was peaking out a few weeks ago. Perhaps it's the taking over of the winter squashes that have folks scrambling for that last bit of summer, or perhaps I didn't notice as much before because whatever amount left the farm, there was always more left behind.

Caramelized Summer Squash and Basil
This super simple dish I prepared many times this summer with variations. Heat a pan, toss in a generous amount of butter, add thinly sliced onion and burn a little, then add thinly sliced squash and keep the heat at a medium high. Let the squash brown before you turn it and keep rotating the pieces until they all get nicely browned a bit. Just before it's done add some basil, I like it chiffonaded, sliced in thin ribbons. Salt and pepper to taste. Delicious!