farms and farming

Car-what? Cardoons.

by Caroline

Learning to eat isn’t just for the kids in our house. Recently we’ve taken to picking up a bi-weekly “mystery box” from a local farmer. She comes to the city to make restaurant deliveries, and makes her extra produce available to those who are willing to pick up an unpredictable assortment. The benefit to us is that for $25, we generally wind up with over $50 worth of fabulous fresh vegetables, some of which we have never seen before.  So then it’s a little homework for me as I figure out what to do with the bounty. Our recent mystery box included cardoons and agretti; I knew that from the list tucked into our pile, but had to do a quick Google image search to match each vegetable with its name, and then do a little more research to figure out what to do with them.
Cardoons look somewhat like celery:

cardoon

The various sources I found advised peeling off the tough outer strings and then blanching them; prepping them only took a couple minutes, after which they looked like this:

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They taste rather like artichoke — a mild, sweet flavor — so I tossed together a quick pasta with marcona almonds, lemon zest, and olives (green olives would have been prettier, but I didn’t happen to have any):

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My picky boys are these days more interested in brand new things than the old familiar foods, so they tried this eagerly, and although they probably wound up eating more of the almonds and olives than the cardoons, I’m calling this a success.

Simple.

by Lisa

In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail” and called for “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a milion count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. ”

It’s good advice for a busy parent, and it’s excellent advice for recessionary times.  While not so many of us can uproot ourselves as radically Thoreau did, there is a lot to learn from his advice about self-sufficiency, living close to the land, and keeping scrupulous track of your accounts.  Thoreau  is, in fact, in some ways, the spiritual grandfather of the urban farming movement, which has a lot of lessons to teach us, even if you’re not ready to raise chickens in your backyard.

For my part, it’s spring in Northern California–or at least the vegetables think so.  This means the markets are filled with seasonal things  we can eat raw, and which go right to the table with a quick rinse:  snap peas, baby carrots, English shelling peas, radishes, tender baby fennel, baby gem lettuces. Even young fava beans can be shelled and peeled and eaten raw, dipping as you go in olive oil in salt.   We have cucumbers for slicing and a few early tomatoes, too.  Artichokes get done with a simple steaming, as does the Bloomsdale spinach, which has a really meaty leaf and it is the only kind Ella and Finn will eat.  And then there are the eggs: fresh, gorgeous, eggs, with bright yellow-orange yolks, which my kids will eat in any form they can get their hands on.  I actually have to ration them, but that’s another story.

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While I have to confess to liking labor-intensive things, like frying zucchini blossoms as often as I can, most school nights I want to live like Thoreau, which means dinner consists these days, as often as I can get away with it, with whole, raw, simple food.  The good things about eating this way are legion:  It’s fast, healthy, and economical.  You can offer your kids a choice of 2 out of 3 things, and let them begin to self-monitor and make good choices about what they eat.  Small individual pots or larger bowls of different colored and shaped vegetables looks really pretty on the table and satisfies a simple aesthetic urge in me.  But eating this way also teaches children to eat real food that looks like real food.  In this way, they learn to appreciate color, texture, shape, and the basic flavor of the food in front of them.  They learn that fruits and vegetables have seasons, and that they taste best when eaten in that season. (Even Finn, who is only four, asked me last night “When it going to be pomegranite season again? I love pomegranites.”  Next winter, I answered, and he was fine with that, as he knew there were strawberries waiting for him, and peaches and plums to come….).

Ella and Finn have lately developed an obsession with soft-cooked eggs, which they love to eat in the old-fashioned way: out of egg cups. (I told you, kids like mini-meals, things that are their size.)   Three minutes in the boiling water, a cold rinse, and you have an elegant source of locally, humanely sourced protein accompanied by whatever I dig out of the vegetable bin.

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The one thing I do to make it a little fancy, is provide a salt sampler. I have a salt problem, as in I collect salt the way my kids collect Japanese eraser buddies.  (We all continue to have really low blood pressure, so health isn’t an issue.) In the center of the table, I placed about 5 or 6 of my salts, and let the kids pinch or sprinkle very small amounts onto their eggs as they ate them. We had Provence Salt, Black Cyprus Flakes,  Red Hawaiian Salt, the gorgeous salmon-colored Murray salt,  Sel Gris, even a smoked sea salt (in the middle) which Ella bravely sampled.  The jars were a lovely present from a good friend, and the rest were purchased at Farmers Markets & Whole Foods.

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From my kids point of view, there’s not a meal more satisfying.  Certainly, the time will come when things get more complicated.  So for now, this is another way to continue following Thoreau’s advice. Life really can begin at the table.

“Simplify, simplify.  Instead of three meals a day, if it be necesary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”

Dessert, (urban) homestead style

by Lisa

Unlike Caroline, I don’t bake a lot. We were joking the other day about our families and how although we have many things in common, there are some major differences. The fact that we eat meat for one. The fact–as she joked–that I’m going “going urban homestead.”  I demurred, but she’s not entirely wrong.

This fall, as we do every year, we roasted and froze 40lbs of tomatoes, made and froze about 20 family-sized servings of pesto, froze 3 flats of raspberries, and picked over 300 apples. My freezer is a sophisticated and delicately balanced puzzle of epic organization.

I do this because it saves me time and money, it adds some variety to our winter diet, but I do this mostly because all this produce tastes better than the canned kind. Bring home mountains of fresh, organic produce, freeze it immediately, and you have a farmers market in your freezer all winter long.  Yes, it takes time in those weeks that you’re canning and freezing, but then when school starts and you need a quick dinner, just reach in your freezer and there it is: emergency pesto, tomatoes that cook to the richest, sweetest sauce you’ll ever make, a surprise dessert.

But now, with the weather not turning, the apples are not lasting as well as they should.  So this weekend, it was time to invest in an automatic apple peeler and make apple sauce.  The gadget worked like a dream, and while I roasted beets and peppers (because, okay, the hoarding & stockpiling instinct is still strong within me), Kory, Ella, and Finn went to town. In about ten seconds flat, a four year old can peel an apple.

And so can his sister:

Or they can peel, core, and slice into cute spirals in the same lightning speed:

They ate a lot of apples, and Ella chomped down the skin like it was a long string of candy.

I made the apple sauce by instinct after reading a few recipes online.  Honestly, I made it for the kids. I don’t think I’ve eaten applesauce for 30 years. But after tasting our homemade version, I’m guessing that Ella and Finn will be lucky to have two more bowls.

We ate it warm that night for dessert. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  It tasted like fresh picked, intensely sweet apples. Dessert gets fancier, and more chocolate-y, but I’m not at all sure it gets any better.

Homemade Apple Sauce

20-30 small apples

1/4 cup organic white sugar

1/4 cup organic brown sugar

2-3 strips lemon zest (from an organic lemon)

juice from 1/2 lemon

1 cup water

1 cinnamon stick

1. Peel, core, and chop or slice the apples. (Alternately, try leaving the skin on for flavor).  Put them in a large pot with the other ingredients. Bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer until apples are nearly dissolved.

2. REMOVE lemon zest and cinnamon stick.

3. Mash with a potato masher for a thicker, chunkier sauce. Or pass the mixture through a food mill.

Note: If you use fewer apples, just reduce the amount of sugar and zest accordingly, as long as you keep the brown & white sugars of equal proportion.  But you can also freeze this in individual or family-sized servings, just in case you’re compelled to start your own stockpile.

Peppers, The Prequel

By Lisa

The padrone-eating incident (now updated with pictures) was not without precedent.

One of our family staples, especially when it’s high pepper season, is dish of roasted red peppers bathed in olive oil, with capers, garlic, and anchovies.

Before you stop reading at “anchovy,” please consider this: a mysterious alchemy occurs when the peppers meet anchovies and garlic in a bath of olive oil.   The peppers mellow and deepen in flavor, the anchovies sweeten and lose some of their bite.  You can choose not to eat the anchovies.  Or if you are still squeamish, you can, if you must, leave them out altogether, though you will be missing something.

I have served this dish many, many times at parties, to unsuspecting friends, and it disappears quickly. I have served it to children, at dinner parties–not just my own–who have devoured it.  I have served it to my father-in-law, who hates anchovies, but still loves the peppers.

Truly, this is a dish that is more than the sum of its parts.

Every Sunday, all summer long, I made a large dish of these peppers and stashed it away in the refrigerator to marinate. I am not exaggerating when I write that this dish came out nearly every night, as appetizer or side dish. Ella tucked into it with abandon, piling her bread high with peppers, sprinkling a caper or two, then soaking the whole thing in a spoon or two of the marinating oil.  By the end of the summer, even Finn, who is a more cautious eater, was fighting her for a pass at the olive oil, which is liquid gold in its own right.  At parties and barbecues, Ella’s self-appointed job was to make the plate of the pepper-crostini. They’re bright and pretty on the plate, and they go just as well with beer as with prosecco.  We never got tired of them.

In the winter time, or for big parties, I make the same dish from jarred roasted peppers. In summer, when peppers are in season, I bring home my weekly stash of red, yellow, chocolate peppers, and roast them on the grill. If I’m really pressed for time, I can throw the peppers in the convection oven, but they aren’t quite as good this way.  It will keep easily for a week, covered in the refrigerator.

The recipe comes from the pages of Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking,  one of my go-to books when I have a fresh, local, seasonal ingredient and want inspiration.

Below is the basic recipe, with my notes & variations. Once the peppers are roasted, there’s nothing simpler. Consider it insurance for those pre-dinner hunger attacks.

Roasted Peppers with Garlic, Capers, and Anchovies

Ingredients:

  • Roasted peppers
  • Whole smashed garlic cloves
  • Capers
  • Anchovies
  • Oregano
  • Olive oil
  1. Slice peppers. Smash garlic cloves with the flat edge of the knife, peel and discard skin.
  2. Layer peppers in a shallow, flat bottomed dish. On top, place a smashed garlic clove, 2-3 anchovies (or more or less to taste), a sprinkling of capers, a sprig or dash of dried oregano.  If you roast the peppers yourself, you might sprinkle a very little coarse salt on them. Do not do this if the peppers are jarred.
  3. Repeat the layering process until your peppers are gone.
  4. Bathe the entire dish in olive oil.
  5. Refrigerate overnight.
  6. Serve with sliced Italian bread

Ingredient notes:

Peppers:  Red are traditional and the sweetest, but try different varieties as accent colors and flavors if you’re so inclined.

Anchovies: Only buy anchovies packaged in glass (not tins). My experience has been that the more you pay, the better product you get. There is a vast difference in quality between cheaper and more expensive brands.

Oregano: Dried is just fine. Fresh sprigs are fine.  My favorite is to dry sprigs from my bush, and use these. They’re pretty and flavor is best.  If you use dried sprigs, you’ll likley need only 3 or so for a large dish.

Capers: If you use salt-packed, rinse them well.

Olive oil: Just a good, decent extra-virgin is fine. Nothing fancy. You need a lot of it, so I just pour from whatever big tin I’ve got on hand that week: Sagra, Whole Foods, etc.

In the case of this recipe, for me, omissions are very often accidents. I’ve forgotten to add: capers, oregano, salt. I’ve run out of anchovies before I started, then it was too late to get to the store. You can assemble it meticulously, so it looks like a beautiful strata of color, or you can throw it together in a haphazard flash.  The dish may be best with all of the ingredients, but it’s still delicious in whatever configuration you and your family prefer.  Just don’t leave out the garlic.


Some Like ’em Hot, a Pepper Conundrum

By Lisa

Most of the time, we want our kids to eat what we eat, right? And most of the time, we work really hard to get them to eat what we put on the table, right?

It’s been our general philosophy that the kids eat what we eat. End of story. In our home, this has happened pretty much since birth.  Both were breast fed, so they quite literally ate what I ate.  Both had fewer jars of baby food than I can count on my hands.   I steamed, mashed, pureed, froze.  And now both eat what I cook or they don’t eat at all.  Evidence the new chalkboard door as Exhibit A.

This has generally made for a happy and stress-free family food life.

However, there are some things that Kory and I jealously keep to ourselves. Things we don’t want the kids to eat because that means, well, less for us.  And while we want our kids to have good taste, and to taste good things, some things we just don’t want to share.

One of these things is pimientos de padrones,  grown by Happy Quail Farms.

Padrones are small green peppers, flash fried in olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt, some are hot, some are sweet, all are addictively delicious.

They’re eaten tapas style. We eat them every week in the summer. We serve them at every party we give. We bring them as hostess gifts. They never fail to please.

Kory and I discovered padrones nearly the moment they were introduced to Happy Quail’s gorgeous kaleidoscopic stand of peppers nearly ten years ago, and like the rest of the fanatic cabal, we spoil ourselves on the bags of green gold weekly ($6) when they’re in season .  As far as we know, Happy Quail is the only producer of true padrones in the area, and they supply markets and restaurants throughout the Bay Area.  The legend I remember of their local origin, told to me by the farmer more than half a decade ago, is that a faithful Happy Quail customer, dining in Spain on padrones, decided that Happy Quail needed to culitvate them and smuggled back the seeds….

And so, for many years, Ella and Finn have seen the padrones on our table week after summer week after summer week.  We haven’t offered them to the kids, or have done so only half-heartedly, in jest.

But the moral of this story is that it is absolutely true, that boring, old-fashioned truism that your mother and grandmother and all those expert books tell you: expose a child to something for long enough and she will eventually eat.  Just leave it there on the table, within reach, within eyesight, eat it yourself. Just wait and see. I dare you.

Because one very sad-happy day, Ella ate a padrone. And there was no turning back.

And from that day on until the end of padrone season, If Kory & I didn’t get to the table fast enough, they’d be gone. Plucked from the plate like so many pieces of candy in the hands of a more normal child, they’d disappear down her gullet faster than she could say “Polly-Piper picked a peck of pickled….”  The only good thing to come out of it (for me and Kory) was that our lovely pepper farmer presented Ella with her very own bag of padrones the next week at the market, with the benediction, “Welcome to the Club!”

Of course, this kind of growth is what one wants for one’s child isn’t it? A life full of education and opportunity and new experiences?

It’s wrong to hoard, I know.  One is supposed to overflow with goodness, selflesslessness, and generosity for one’s children. One is supposed to share.

Whoever thought that one up probably never had a padrone.