farms and farming

Fresh Corn Pancakes

by Caroline

When my husband and I decided to get married, I told him I could imagine making a life in his native San Francisco as long as we spent one week every summer somewhere I wouldn’t need to wear a scarf.

That means, happily, an August week in Northwest Connecticut, visiting my parents, and that also, very happily, means corn. Usually, we’re eating my Dad’s corn, but this year the crop failed so we’re getting it from local farm stands. My Dad likes the one the First Selectman sets up at the end of his driveway (presumably because he can get caught up on local political talk); my Mom (and I) like the bigger one that also offers fresh, homemade mozzarella. Either way, with this much corn around, you are bound to have leftovers, and this recipe is my new favorite way to use them. Don’t be put off (as I nearly was) by the somewhat fussy step of blending and straining some of the corn with milk: it makes a difference.

You can eat these the way my kids do, drenched in maple syrup (and when the syrup’s homemade, I won’t stop them), but you can also eat them savory, as I’ve pictured, with guacamole and fresh tomatoes. It’s summer on a plate.

CSA Season

by Caroline

Our CSA* resumes today after its winter break, and I am unreasonably excited. It’s not like we don’t have access to excellent produce in the winter. We visit a Sunday farmer’s market just two blocks from home, so we can track the winter’s progress from pear to pomegranate. I chat with the egg farmer about how her “ladies” hunker down in their coop when it rains. I buy honey sticks from neighbors whose bees live in the community garden, four blocks away.

But, still; the CSA means spring to me. Despite twenty years living in a state where something can always be harvested, despite witnessing that winter harvest every Sunday at the market, I still, deep down, expect a winter shutdown. Winter is for seed catalogs and spring, now, is for the first sprouting seeds.

I love the CSA because of all the ways it differs from choosing food at the market. I don’t get to choose green d’anjou pears over red, I don’t get to pick out the easy-peel satsumas instead of minneolas: I take what they give me and figure out what to do with it (a task really made easier by the fact that our CSA share always comes with recipes; I think many others do, too). We’ve learned that we all really love agretti and that cardoons are an interesting change of pace. I love the schedule (a midweek collection fits perfectly with my weekend market habit) and the pick-up location (my sons’ school) can’t be beat. As a lucky bonus, our CSA farmer happens to be a terrific writer, so the vegetables come each week with a newsletter with his musings about dirt, windbreaks, strawberries or whatever else strikes him that week. I look forward to the newsletter each week almost as much as I do the vegetables.

Are you signed up for a CSA? I’m curious to hear when it begins, and how it affects how your family eats. I’ll start posting some of our favorite CSA-inspired recipes in the coming weeks. And if you’re not signed up for a CSA, you can look for one in your area by checking out Local Harvest.

* Community Supported Agriculture produce pick-up

Hayes Valley Farm

by Caroline

A lifetime ago, pre-husband and pre-kids, I lived in the not-yet-gentrified Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. My top floor apartment looked out over a vacant lot which had once been shadowed by the 101 freeway off-ramp, but after the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the road, the ramp was torn down and the lot — in all its weedy, broken-asphalt ugliness — was exposed to new light. The weeds started growing denser and scrubby trees started to sprout; the lot was surrounded by chain link fence, but that didn’t stop people from camping in it. I used to sit in my window looking out over the space, wondering if the city would ever pay attention to the lot and make better use of the area.

The rest of the neighborhood started improving; hip shops and cafes moved in, and although I moved away, I’d drive past frequently on my drive to graduate school in Berkeley. Eventually a sign went up on the chain link fence, announcing a condo development, but nothing happened. Then last winter, a new sign went up, and then lots of new signs:

We had to go see it.

We love to visit farms. We tend our own little garden in the backyard and for inspiration we have visited farms on the prairie and on the coast and even one tucked behind a suburban development.

I discovered that when the condo development plans fell victim to the recession, the city opened the site up for “temporary green space use” and the community has taken it from there. On our visit, one group of folks sorted through packets of donated lettuce seed to plant out in flats:

We planted some of it in flats ourselves:

And we admired the healthy salad bar that’s growing from seeds planted earlier in the season:

We saw another group sorting and stacking cardboard, some of the over 80,000 pounds the farmers have used already to create the farm’s “soil” out of layered cardboard, wood chips, and horse manure:

The ingredients for soil (like the seeds) are donated; the community farmers collect the cardboard, wood chips and manure free and with the city’s thanks, from the local waste stream.

These folks are serious about their farming. They are developing dwarf fruit trees that thrive in pots, so that apartment dwellers can harvest their own apples and pears:

They are refining potato columns, which grow in simple, portable chicken wire towers and yield lovely potatoes that my kids couldn’t resist harvesting:

“It’s really not scary to grow food,” commented our tour guide; indeed, for all their innovations here, they are also doing some things in ancient ways, studying the terraced farms of the Incas because San Francisco’s climate mirrors that of the Andes mountains.

The farmers are making it fun, too, hosting volunteer work parties followed by free yoga sessions, movie nights and picnics, plus classes on topics ranging from medicinal plants to soil health to permaculture to emergency preparedness. “The main thing we’re growing is a community,” our guide commented, and it’s growing beautifully. It’s like turning swords into plowshares: the Hayes Valley volunteers are farming the freeway:

Nicoise for Kids

by Lisa

When I was in high school, my boyfriend and I went to Manhattan to see some show or other, but before that, we went to a classic French bistro for lunch. I suppose I ordered onion soup, and he ordered something else, and when we done ordering the server, who was an older, very severe, motherly kind of French woman looked sternly at us an asked with more than a little “And what will you have first?”

“Nothing,” we replied, not really understanding the concept of appetizer (beyond that plate of cheese and stone-wheat crackers we sometimes saw at parties), suburban kids that we were. She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows and seemed absolutely to judge us.  But a few minutes later she returned with two perfectly composed plates of salad.  “You will eat this first,” she said. “It is Salad Nicoise.”  And we did, and we thanked her, and it was delicious, and we understood. Since then, I’ve always loved a good Nicoise (in the style of Nice), which is a classic composed salad: rather than tossing the lot of vegetables together, each is tossed separately and arranged artfully on the plate. Or if you’re a real purist, the vegetables (and sometimes tuna) are arragned artfully and just drizzled with the vinaigrette.  A good composed salad is a meal in itself. The classic ingredients for a Nicoise will vary, but are selected from tomato, green beans, boiled egg, tuna, red pepper, maybe lettuce.   Debate rages about whether or not the vegetables should be cooked.  A purist will say all should be crudite.

Basically, all you need is the following vinaigrette recipe and whatever fresh (or leftover) produce you have on hand.  You can add fresh tuna, canned tuna, the rest of that grilled pork tenderloin you have lying around, that sausage you didn’t eat (see above), steak…or not.

With apologies to the French and the purists, Salad “Nicoise” works beautifully for a family for the following reasons:

  • On a busy night, you can whip up the dressing and toss it with whatever fresh vegetables you have around.
  • You can use up leftover green beans, corn, and all manner of meats swiftly and
  • The pretty plate makes it look like it’s not “leftover night” even though you know better
  • It’s healthy
  • It can be vegetarian or not
  • You can use whatever you have on hand–whatever is seasonal, local, fresh around you
  • You can cook or not cook, depending on your family’s taste
  • Your picky eaters won’t complain about different food touching each other.

The original recipe is here, on Epicurious.

Just the dressing :

  • 1/4 cup red-wine vinegar
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons minced shallot
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Rounded 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

Make dressing:
Whisk together vinegar, shallot, mustard, garlic paste, and anchovy paste in a small bowl until combined well, then add oil in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified. Whisk in thyme, basil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Giveaway! Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid

by Caroline

I love food and cooking, love raising and feeding my kids, love to write. Sometimes, as in this blog, those interests intersect and I get to write about the food I feed my kids. Sometimes, almost even better, I get to read about someone else doing all of that. This is one of the many pleasures of Melanie Rehak’s new memoir, Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

A few years before her first son, Jules, was born, Rehak began to read more about food and food production – she read Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and Wendell Berry – and the more she read the more she wanted to learn, first hand, about the food she bought and cooked each day. That growing interest , coupled – at the birth of her child – with a growing person for whom she was (with her husband) responsible for feeding, brought her curiosity to a head:

“What really happened…was the unavoidable collision of two worlds of information—parenting and eating. To begin with, there, in the form of my baby son, was an actual person for whom I wanted to leave the planet in decent condition. That goal was no longer just a noble abstraction. Then there was the amazing fact that I had before me in a highchair someone who had literally never tasted anything, whose body had yet to be tainted by MSG in bad Chinese take-out, or clogged by palm oil ‘butter’ on movie theater popcorn, or compromised by pesticide residue. I was unprepared for both the sheer weirdness of this – was it possible that I actually knew a person who had never eaten chocolate?—and the huge responsibility I felt to get it right. . . .Some part of me resented the fact that something that should have been a pure pleasure, teaching a person to eat, was now so complicated. ”

Oh, Melanie, I hear you.

Now, some of us would spend more time at the library or bookstore, reading everything we could get a hold of about food, nutrition, parenting. Others might just throw their hands up in confusion and defeat, and continue feeding their kids the way, for better or worse, they were fed themselves. Some of us join CSAs, buy local, visit farms. But most of us don’t make the decision Rehak did, which was to volunteer to cook at a local restaurant, Brooklyn’s applewood (yes, applewood, “the lower case a,” Rehak writes, “being a choice the owners hoped would convey plenty in contrast to the sharp, aggressive point of the capital A they had foregone.” A small point, but to me, unfortunately, it never looked like a proper name no matter how many times I read it in this book, and always like a typo). She decides the best way to learn about food is to make it herself, in a small, family-run restaurant whose generous and amazingly accommodating owners, David and Laura Shea (the parents of two young children themselves) buy their restaurant’s meat and produce from small local farms. She also visits those food producers –a cheesemaker, a farmer, a fisherman, a food distributor – riding along in their tractors and trucks and seasick-inducing boats, not just taking notes, but hauling and picking and cleaning – to get a better understanding of the exhausting labor behind writing the restaurant’s menu each night. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes tour, and Rehak’s prose brings these individuals vividly to life.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is offering ten free copies of Eating for Beginners to Learning to Eat readers. Just leave a comment below saying why’d you be interested in reading the book; the first ten to comment get a book!

Edited to add: For any of you on Goodreads, Melanie Rehak is participating in a Q&A there for the next couple weeks, so click on over to contribute!