Tilled soil feels soft and welcoming when you push a clove of garlic deep into it. But after two and a half hours and 1000 row-feet at a clove every 8 inches, soft dirt means worn down and sore fingertips. At least, it does if you don’t work in it every day. I don’t, but yesterday I helped Dennis of Blue Dog Family Farm plant his yearly garlic crop, and once I’d washed the dirt out of the creases of my fingers, I realized just how many creases there are. Even as I type this today, I can feel the abrasions of worn skin rubbing against smooth plastic. It’s a small reminder of how much my food depends on others’ bodies and the wear and tear they take. But as for myself, I’m not complaining. It was much needed sun-and-dirt therapy at a time when it’s hard to feel like we’re part of a world that’s growing and thriving. Knowing that each clove will bring forth six more next year balances just a little that growing pessimism. Alliums for all!
Well, yesterday was. We had some volunteer plants in our small front garden from spuds we obviously missed in last year’s digging, and we’d added a few others from extras my dad gave us. They’d died back weeks ago, so we were worried they’d have been gobbled up by under-the-surface critters. But no! Only a few bad spots on eight-ish pounds of Kennebecs. We microwave-baked a couple for lunch and had more in potato salad at dinner (along with burgers and slaw, ’cause it was a summery kind of day). Excellent in both instances. Naked with just a touch of salt and butter they’re moist, a little flaky, and have a slightly earthy but oh-so-potato-y flavor; dressed they happily socialize with their crunchier neighbors. (They also make great fries, so maybe this weekend we’ll have to do a steak frites night.)
Last year’s blogging was a sabbatical project, which ended abruptly when I somewhat unexpectedly had to take over as department chair at the beginning of July. People keep saying ‘congratulations.’ ‘Condolences’ is more appropriate. It’s mostly administrative work that no one wants to do. But it’s okay – new tasks, new challenges, and a chance to put my stamp on my program. I’m teaching too, doing a new course on Philosophy in the Food System, which is a little rough as all first-time-offered courses are, but pretty fun (for me, at least).
But I’m finding I miss writing about food-related stuff, so I’m going to make an effort to do something once or twice a week here, using my teaching as the springboard for a lot of what I write, and my kitchen time as the basis for most of the rest.
And if I can manage more farmer profiles, I will. I loved doing those, but they took a lot more time than I thought they would.
So stay tuned!
Last Wednesday evening, Chef Brian Polcyn, co-author with Michael Ruhlman of the now nearly biblical volumes on curing meat Salumi and Charcuterie, as well as being a well-known restaurateur, cooking instructor, and now wide-ranging food entrepreneur, gave a 4+ hour demo class in the theater kitchen at KVCC’s fabulous new culinary school building. In the space of 4 hours Polcyn broke down two sides of pork, one in the American way, where with the aid of a bone saw you get five primal cuts (shoulder [butt], picnic ham, center-cut loin, belly, and ham), the other in the traditional Italian method, which follows muscle seams and so doesn’t require a saw, and is designed to maximize cuts for dry curing. The biggest difference is in the front half of the pig, for the Italian method cuts the ribs further down the back in order to preserve the long neck muscle (coppa) as a cut to be cured whole, instead of leaving it as part of the shoulder to be roasted, ground, or whatever. Both methods remove the tenderloin (filetto), which is on the inside of the backbone, and both allow recovery of fat from different places, organs, tongue, jowl, ears, and tail (although Polcyn didn’t talk about the tail), as well as bits of trim that can be ground for sausage, terrines, etc.
In the hands of an expert like Polcyn, the American method takes about four minutes, the Italian method ten times that – and you really have to know what you’re doing. (The economics are obvious from the point of view of a meat processor. That’s why, if you lack a good local butcher, as, sadly, we still do in Kalamazoo, you can’t get some of the specialty cuts for curing that are common on the continent.) From all this Polcyn prepared bacon, pancetta, and guanciale, all of which are still in a fridge at KVCC in their initial salt-cure phase (no doubt under heavy security). He also prepared, with cooking help from KVCC chefs, spuma (lard from the belly fat whipped into a mousse-like consistency with salt and pepper, and sprinkled with the cracklings that came out of the lard rendering), a terrine of ground pork and seared pork tenderloin, and a porchetta-like dish whose name I missed which involved butterflying the meat cut from the pigs head, seasoning it, laying the ears and tongue on it (for some reason there were two tongues), rolling it, and braising it.
Seeing a master at work was a treat, but there were lots of takeaways for home curers like me and my friend Joan, who was there with me, and with whom I’ve been making sausage and salami for more than a year. Maybe the biggest thing was just seeing the lack of slavishness to the recipes. The books give the impression that precision is essential in terms of proportion of meats to salt and seasonings. Now, Polcyn has decades of experience, so when he has, say, a slab of belly in front of him, he’ll be able to judge by hand and eye many things that it’s still best for us to measure. But even so, it was clear that there was some wiggle room. Forgot to season the jowl for guanciale? Just scrape some of the seasoning of the belly that’s being made into pancetta. Need the right amount of fat in your sausage? Judge the fattiness of the meat by eye and don’t add extra if it looks good. And so on. Preparation of the recipes seemed more like cooking than baking.
More concretely, there are two things that I learned that I think will have the most effect on our ground-meat products (which have, to date, never been less than delicious). (a) Don’t substitute belly or leaf fat for back fat in salami. The back fat is harder and renders less easily, so it will remain in the sausage as it cures or cooks. We’ve had somewhat crumbly salami, I think because we substituted one of the soft fats, which weeped out as the salami hung. We used the soft fat because it was what we had on hand, and it seemed wasteful to go buy other fat, but now we know better. (b) It’s OK to mix the ground meat and fat by hand to get the primary bind (the goopy meat mess that gets stuffed into the casings). Following the books, we’d been hesitant to do that, because we were worried about the heat from our hands warming the meat too much. Joan asked about this though, and Chef Polcyn not only said it’s fine (provided you don’t overdo it), but showed a good test for when you’ve mixed enough: if you hold your hand up and the meat stuck to it doesn’t fall down for ten seconds, it’s sticky enough.
The evening ended with a nice meal cooked up by various supporting chefs from KVCC, including some of the dishes mentioned above, as well as fillets of (uncured) coppa, and a range of tasty non-pork offerings. The spuma was a little intense for me, I have to say, but I think it would make a great touch to appetizers that have some sweetness and acidity to balance its fattiness. The other pork dishes were great.
The pig, by the way, came from a Mangalitsa pig raised by Mike de Schaaf at 1936 Meadowbrook Farm in Benton Harbor. Mangalitsas are a very fatty, furry heritage breed from Hungary — click the link to see the pigs. I’ve got a (trotter-less) ham from one of them hanging in my basement, along with one from a Berkshire-Duroc cross (if I remember right) from Dave Warkentein of Young Earth Farm in Decatur (see my ProZooto post about my first ham made with his pork). I’ve made bacon from pigs from them both too, which is an order of magnitude better even than bacon made from the same pigs done by their processors. Now if only we could get a good butcher in Kalamazoo, I could get a nice coppa to work with!
Asafoetida. Ajawan. Jaggery. Fenugreek. Curry leaves.* Chaat masala. Urad dal. Life is getting spicy on Westnedge Hill! Despite not infrequently making Indian dishes, we’d rarely if ever used any of these — the big Cs, cumin, coriander, and cardamom always seemed to take center stage — but then we got Madhur Jaffrey’s latest book, Vegetarian India. A few months back we’d made a lovely radish and orange salad Lynne Rosetto Kaspar had included on her website after interviewing Jaffrey, which had just the right balance of crunchy peppery bite and sweet juiciness.
We checked V.I. out of KPL when it first came in, and it was immediately clear that we wanted to make everything in it. KPL got their copy back quickly, though: we decided this was a must-own book (gotta be able to make notes!). So now we’ve been eating vegetarian Indian food 3-4 nights a week for the last few weeks, and we’re nowhere close to being tired of it or bored with Jaffrey’s book.
Jaffrey’s dishes are not difficult to execute, despite the sometimes formidable ingredient lists. But we’ve learned that when she suggests serving one dish with a variety of others, those lists can get tangled and dinner takes a long time to prepare. So, we’re scaling back, making one- or two-dish meals, with just some rice or bread instead of the spreads she recommends, at least until we internalize recipes enough to more fluently combine them. It’s a good book for seasonal vegetable cooking too: we’ve had great dishes of spinach, potato, turnip, kale, and carrots, all bought at the winter market or Co-op, though, as the above picture attests, we haven’t been able to resist splurging on non-local cauliflower. But eggplant and pepper season approaches, which is also okra season! Jaffrey has several recipes that put it front-and-center, which we can’t wait to try. Dried legume dishes (chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils) are year-rounders, of course, and her book abounds in easy and satisfying ones. Make your own paneer (fresh cheese) and you can add that to the mix. Need a new favorite condiment? Try the spiced yogurt (raita). And homemade flatbread is the work of just a few extra minutes (double or triple the recipe and keep it in the fridge or freezer and you can make your day’s bread as needed). What’s not to love?
We wouldn’t be able to make most of Jaffrey’s recipes, though, if it wasn’t for World of Spices, a great little grocer at 5911 S. Westnedge in Portage. I’d driven past it countless times but had never gone into. But what a wonderful store! The spices speak, the dals delight, the rices regale. And the people are friendly and helpful – as who wouldn’t be if you got to breathe in those scents hours every day? I’ve yet to strike out in looking for a needed ingredient there. Now I find myself looking for recipes with new ingredients, just so I can go browse the aisles in search of them.
*Curry leaves, common in Southern Indian cooking, look like long, thin bay leaves, but, unlike bay leaves, they soften when cooked. World of Spices sells little baggies of them in the refrigerated section. Note that curry powder is something completely different: it is a standard-ish spice mixture for use in making curries (mostly by the British), and it rarely if ever has curry leaves in it. Note also that you can talk about a curry as a kind of dish (like one would talk about a stir-fry). If authentic, a curry almost certainly won’t call for curry powder, though it will likely use some of the spices that go into curry powders, and it probably won’t have curry leaves, unless it’s from a region in India that uses them.
Work recently required a trip to the Bay Area. There’s hardly anything that hasn’t already been said in praise of eating out there, but to those of you landlocked here in the upper Midwest, I present to you two words together that until now you have almost certainly kept apart: sushi burrito. While it sounds like some foul concoction that might spew from the kitchens of the corporate food-fusionists at Taco Bell, it is, in fact, perhaps the world’s most perfect lunch food. Most, upon hearing the name, think: sushi in a tortilla. Rest assured no tortillas are harmed or otherwise utilized in the making of the sushi burrito. (Though why people tend to recoil when they think of sushi in a tortilla, I do not know. Rarely does a tortilla make anything worse. Think about it: anything non-liquid that is good on its own could, in principle, make a good filling for a tortilla.) No, the sushi burrito is essentially just a sushi roll the diameter and length of a standard issue burrito — so seaweed where the tortilla would go — eaten in the same fashion: by stuffing the whole thing a bit at a time into one’s face while doing one’s best to make sure any dropped bits land where fingers can fetch them. I had two such works of magnificence in my days in the Bay, both in downtown SF near where I was conferring, the first at Sushi Taka, and the second at the small local chain Sushiritto, whose name mericifully saves you a syllable’s work when saying, thus giving you more time to eat their eponymous product. At the latter I had the Geisha’s Kiss, a raw tuna wonder that was good enough to make up for its name.
Better, though, was the shrimp tempura burrito at Sushi Taka. The tempura was like a culinary San Andreas fault line running through each bite: its crunch shook all the flavors together into soul-satisfying perfection.
An added bonus: with each burrito came a small cup of miso soup, produced like magic from a machine that looked like one of those devices from which “espresso” drinks now spew in every convenience store and gas station. The West Coast truly does deserve its reputation as being on the leading edge of technological culture. And the sushi burrito, well, I doubt we’ll see anything like that here in Michigan for at least a decade.
Dennis Wilcox doesn’t look like a an old-timer, but by the standards of the local food movement in the Kalamazoo area, he comes pretty close to being one. Dennis started working in Three Rivers for Sustainable Greens (supplier to a number of elite Chicago restaurants) in the late 90s, and, at their encouragement, began bringing their salad greens to the Bank St. market to establish himself there. He then started his own farm, Blue Dog Greens in 2002. I moved here in 2004, by which time Dennis had become known for being one of only two certified organic producers at Bank St., and the only grower selling the bagged, mixed salad greens highlighted in his farm’s name, as well as lots of other delicious, very high quality vegetables. Fourteen years later things are a lot more crowded at the market, and a lot has changed for Dennis, but he’s still got a table full of amazing greens and veggies, and plenty of optimism that his farm will continue to find its niche in the local food network. Continue reading “Blue Dog Family Farm”
I had to log some hours in the car on Saturday in what was a very unsustainable way to procure sustainably raised veal. I did a little online digging before I left in order to find some food-related podcasts to listen to, and I discovered two that were fabulous and fantastic: Radio Cherry Bombe and Gravy. Radio Cherry Bombe is done by two of the women behind Cherry Bombe, an indie food magazine about women in the food industry. It features interviews by Kerry Diamond and Claudia Wu of all kinds of interesting food-world people (mostly women, though in the 50th episode “boys” including the amazing Yotam Ottolenghi are featured). Great guests, smart and funny conversation, and insight into lots of areas of the food industry.
Gravy is put out by Southern Foodways Alliance, which is an amazing resource for anyone interested in Southern food and culture. (My folks are from the northern edge of the South, so I have some ancestral ties that I like to think explain my love of greens, beans, and chicken.) The episodes are more professional than Radio Cherry Bombe, the kind of thing you could find on long-form NPR or PRI shows, and are very thoughtful and informative. As is inevitable when talking about Southern food and agriculture, lots of the shows deal with issues concerning race, and they do (I think) a great job at showing how to have a smart conversation about something most of us have a hard time talking about. They’re accessible, but sophisticated enough for classroom use too. I’ll draw on Gravy when I teach my intro philosophy course in the fall on ethical and political-philosophical issues connected to food.
I also listened to a couple episodes of Taste of the Past, with culinary historian Linda Pelaccio. Good guests, but she isn’t as fluent behind the mic as other interviewers, so the conversations always felt a little awkward.Still worth listening to though.
Would love to hear other suggestions of good food and ag podcasts!
(For Part I, click here.)
About 90% of Green Gardens’ sales are direct-to-consumer, either through their CSA or at the local markets, with the other 10% wholesale to restaurants, the People’s Food Co-op, and through Sprout Urban Farm’s small food hub in Battle Creek.I ask whether it would be a benefit to Green Gardens to have a larger wholesale outlet close by, one that could take their excess produce, and Trent says “yes, definitely.” Tomatoes were especially abundant this year, for example, and it would have been great to have a place to sell them in bulk, even at the lower prices he gets for wholesale. For a farm of his size, though, the margins are so much better with the direct-to-consumer options that they will remain his focus, and the CSA is the foundation of those, since it provides for consistent predictability in terms of both harvesting needs and income. They’re hoping to grow this portion of their business as they make infrastructure improvements, but still, Trent notes, thinking both about their own operation and those of other vendors they see at the markets, “farmers have to be smarter about how they market and sell their product if they’re going to be competitive. I just don’t think you can keep throwing stuff out on a farmers’ market table and hoping it’ll sell.” They need to “find ways to reach out to people and get them excited about food, get them to come out.” One of the efforts in this direction that Trent and Ruthie are most excited about is an on-farm market they opened this year that anyone can come to, not just CSA members. “We’re doing all the veggies,” Trent says, and “I buy local fruit from other people,” including apples from Molter Family Orchards and The Country Mill. Chicken and (soon) pork come from Green Gardens alum Clay Smith at EarthSmith Food and Forest Products, and a variety of other things ranging from quiche to maple syrup come from other local producers. The goal, explains Trent, is “to be a one-stop convenience shop for people,” so they can get most of what they eat on a regular basis from local producers with just one stop.
Snow flurries swirl along I-94 as I drive out to talk to Trent Thompson of Green Gardens Community Farm, east of Battle Creek, a week before Christmas. It’s been an unusually warm fall, allowing field crops to continue to be harvested far past when they can be most years. Yesterday was a day to get as much picked as possible, so today is the semi-official end of the season, or as close to the end of the season as Trent gets. Several of his hoop houses are full of greens which, along with carrots and other vegetables in storage, will send him every week to the indoor winter market in Kalamazoo. This makes eating a lot tastier and healthier for those of us who try to source as much as we can from local growers, but it also means a lot less down time for farmers after the relentless work the usual spring-fall crops demand. Trent has had only two half-days off since May before today, something a January trip to Florida will only do a little to make up for. But Trent isn’t complaining.
Though I’d met Trent at a dinner Donna McClurkan organized several years ago, and though hardly a week has gone by when I haven’t bought something from his stand at the Bank St. Market, I’ve never been to his farm, either the original one he started on rented land in 2008 or this one, which is on twenty acres that he and his wife Ruthie purchased in 2012. I pull up and park in front of a long low barn sitting perpendicular to a row of six big hoop houses and next to a stately old white farmhouse with a wraparound porch, columns, and shade trees in front. Trent and Ruthie, along with toddler Jorah, will soon move into the main house out of an apartment built off the back that they’ve been renting, just one of many steps forward that they’re taking as their farm grows. Trent calls to me before I can ring the wrong doorbell, and I walk over to meet him where he’s come out of the barn. He greets me with a strong handshake and then we head inside to talk for a bit with Ruthie before he and his feline helper, May, give me a tour of the farm.