Homebound Adventures: Expecting a Ton of Tomatoes

•September 23, 2009 • Leave a Comment

While it hasn’t seemed very adventurous around here lately (other than the mystical yet physical act of growing, birthing and loving a new baby), someone suggested that I blog about the food happenings at 502 Meade Ave this summer.

But to speak of summer, we have to remember the seasons before it, because a single season cannot be examined on its own.  Last winter I pored over the catalog from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (a ‘local’ business, being situated in Louisa) which specializes in heirloom seeds and contributes to a nationwide seed saving network.  With some help from my gardening guru (and handsome, papa-type partner) I arranged for potting trays, sterile soil mix, wooden labels – the Sharpie and the squirt bottle were already important parts of the homestead.

After much deliberation, I selected an array of perennial herb seeds, with an eye toward handsome, flowering plants that would also attract beneficial insects.  As a cook-gardener, herbs magically link gardening with cooking, and  over the years I have appreciated the presence of herbs more than anything else in my garden.  I use them whole to garnish professional plates, I dry them and scatter them in musty drawers to dispel spirits (or whatever), in particularly desperate cooking situations I put herbs in my hair to ‘lighten up’ and to crack up my co-workers, and throughout the year I crush fresh herbs and add them to nearly everything in the kitchen.  In addition to perennial herb seeds, I also ordered various vegetables and annual herbs, trying to balance enthusiasm with the certain knowledge that, come August, everyone has tomatoes.  So I only ordered six types?

I took the temperature of various rooms in the house, factoring in perches near and on radiators, in full sun, in part sun, and even scoping a closet for valerian seeds (which require darkness to germinate).  When the seeds arrived, I created a spreadsheet with all their attributes, their needs, and the dates of sowing, hardening off, and transplanting.  Each day I duly checked the seeds in the office, in the guest room, in the closet, rotating them, shoving my fingers in the soil to determine dampness, and elbowing the curious dogs away from the precarious trays.  As the weather warmed, I carried trays outdoors to take advantage of a very sunny yard (and to kick start the daily indigestion), then carried them in again in the evening so that I wouldn’t feel like a bad mommy (more indigestion).

I’ll save you most of the details, but suffice it to say that I was totally surprised at how predictable the results were.  Huh?  That is, some successes and some failures, and if I had it to do all over again I could get much better results.  Major victories were the tomatoes, which gamely sprouted and duly bore a lot of fruit in a first-year garden; I even gave some plants away, and people tell me that they thrived.  Other success stories:  Potomac greenbeans bore for nearly 8 weeks with excellent flavor and an admirable growth habit – they held up the tomatoes!  Our squash was sufficient, lettuces good, ‘Everona’ tomatillos are ripening now, and last year’s find of ground cherries have proved delightful (if smaller than those we bought at the market).  I’m told we’ll have ground cherries forever!

Failures — o, why didn’t I listen?  A Wise Woman (OK, Rachel Willis)  told me that perennial medicinal herbs are notoriously difficult to cultivate – as if they know they have all the time in the world, they don’t really try very hard the first year.  Hyssop, bee balm, valerian, lovage, rosemary from New Zealand…you limped along, I nursed you, and then when transplanted you…disappeared into the soil.  Perhaps you’ll come back next year?  In my hope that something would reappear, I grew a terrific pokeweed (!) and allowed a few volunteer sunflowers to mature – they were worth it – but I still don’t know what valerian looks like.  So, for 2010, I’ll sprout the same seeds in moderate numbers, and then I will transplant them to small pots, then larger pots, and maybe they’ll see the soil in the fall.  Or I’ll dig some up at a Wise Woman’s house…

On the bright side, we have eaten at home all summer, and into the fall, based largely on our CSA from Roundabout Farm but also delighting in our tomatoes, greenbeans, squash, lettuces, and basil.  I have a freezer full of pesto, so no worries there (although the basil plants melted into the soil as well – I augmented with $1 Genovese plants from Double H Farm, certainly the best buy going).  The herb garden looks better than it ever has, and I predict that trend continues next year.  Our first year garden, measuring 5 feet by 30 feet and carved out of the side yard in one day (I napped while Geoff took advantage of the sunny day) was surprisingly prolific, and I hope to treat it with some good ole horse manure this fall to give thanks for all the food.  In fact, I credit all this good food when I report that we welcomed a healthy baby boy on July 17th.  Announcing Lincoln Woodward Shaw, whose arrival coincided PRECISELY  with our first ripe tomatoes, just as I predicted.  Next year I’ll have a toddler to look after…but I won’t have indigestion, so I have high hopes.


Sayonara, strawberries…

•June 29, 2009 • 1 Comment

The date was May 5 2009, and despite days and days and days of cloud cover interspersed with rain, strawberry season had come to Central Virginia.  A few days before, a friend in-the-know (Daniel Perry, of Jam According to Daniel) had his buddy ‘jump the season’ by picking berries in North Carolina and then dropping them off in Charlottesville so that he could begin jam production for the year.  By burning up the ‘U-Pick’ phone lines, working websites, and lots of personal inquiries he had discovered that ripe red strawberries could be picked at any number of local operations – if you didn’t mind wet weather and wet berries.

For our first foray, we selected Seaman’s Orchard (a division of Flippin-Seaman Orchards) in Nelson County, just down the road from Appalachia Star Farm and Saunders Brothers (which Daniel informed me is a great place to pick up peaches in the summertime – terrific quality, best prices, nice knowledge of fruit varieties and an attempt to forecast harvest dates).  We also passed a mythical spot known to me as ‘the Secret Thai Restaurant in Nelson’ but also known as Thai Siam – it was only 9 AM as we passed it on the way, but already we knew where we’d be getting lunch!  Daniel is great company (I recommend fruit picking with him if you ever have the chance) and we talked about food access, farming practices, favorite strawberry incarnations, and his jam-plans for the upcoming season.

When we arrived at Seaman’s there was just one woman already picking berries; during our stay, perhaps ten other folks came and went, for the most part just harvesting a pint or two and then leaving.  In contrast, we picked about 70 pounds (Daniel brought 40 pounds to the jam kitchen, then helped me with my 30 pounds).  That amounts to about 5 heaped ‘flat’ boxes, which maxed out the space in my little station wagon.  Piling strawberries more than a few inches high tends to squish the fruit, especially if it is ripe and watery, as were these – thus the wisdom of the pint-pack that is industry standard.  I had also made arrangements with Seaman’s to purchase picked berries for an event later that week catered by Harvest Moon Catering.  Volunteering to source local berries for Harvest Moon served my purposes as well as I was scheduled to speak on the topic ‘Keeping your Kitchen Green’ at the University of Virginia Women’s Club Spring Meeting later in the week; I figured that having a local strawberry shortcake on their plates as I spoke would sweeten and strengthen my message.  And it did.

Picking strawberries is easy, provided you don’t mind squatting.  Typically the rows are built up to a height of about 18 inches, then the row is covered with black plastic to warm the soil early in the spring, to discourage pests while the green plants are growing, and to further protect the hanging berries as they mature by keeping them off the ground and away from the slugs and ants.  One thing to know about strawberry picking – it will always appear that there are more berries in the next row over, but really the berries right around your flailing fingers are obscured from sight by their arching green leaf ‘umbrellas’.  These leaves also protect the berries from the sun as the season progresses, and probably protect from hungry birds as well.  As we learned that overcast, rainy day, strawberries ripen according to temperature rather than exposure to sunlight – it seemed as though they were ripening before our eyes.

Once the tab was paid and the car loaded, we headed down the curving road at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and traded stories about Nelson County (moonshine, marijuana, VDACS stings, Appalachian Trail, etc.) and made for Thai Siam.  Their theme of contact-paper counters, open kitchen, mostly to-go food and a large, community table was at first slightly strange (especially in such a rural context) but the presence of a cheerful lunch crowd drinking hot tea and socializing affirmed that the restaurant is an important part of the community.  While we were encouraged to take our food to go, we ended up sitting outside at a picnic table and digging the deliciousness – I had a tofu, mushroom and coconut milk soup spiked with lemongrass, citrus and a bit of spiciness; Daniel had some noodle concoction that seemed to get yummier with each bite.  We each took a menu, hoping to pass that way again soon.

Our second strawberry foray was about a month later, also on a rainy, overcast day.  This time we went to Critzer’s, just off of 151 and close to Blue Mountain Brewery, a.m. fog, Veritas… While they didn’t have their sign out, and honestly seemed surprised that we were there to pick berries, Daniel, John and I donned our rain gear and got right out there.  The berries this time around were noticeably larger, but more watery because of the wet, wet month of May; I do think their flavor was a bit more developed by being ‘later season’ berries, which fit right into my plan for dehydrating some of them.  Perhaps I would even venture a dessert?!?  The water stood a few inches deep between the heaped, black plastic rows so we made quick work of our task, again picking upwards of 60 pounds and purchasing some berries that had already been picked the day before for my catering friends.  Daniel’s fame among the U-Pick community is growing, and now most folks recognize him and give him the ‘industry’ scuttlebutt – but no access to a bathroom.

Fast forward a few weeks, when I meet Daniel in the jam kitchen at his parents’ home and prepared to lend my labor to the Jam Cause.  He and his buddy John have been hard at work before I arrive, washing raspberries and macerating them with sugar prior to cooking them down.  Daniel suggests that I cut strawberries, ‘the last of the strawberries’ he says, which are small but very juicy and perhaps the best ones I have tasted yet.  He takes care of making the jam in a handled copper pot – really he is just cooking the fruit down and will make the jam later, but finds that if the cooked fruit sits at room temperature it builds flavor and consistency that makes better jam.  We tour the garden, we sample my first attempt at homemade yogurt mixed with cherry jam, cashews, and granola (Greek breakfast, I call it, and have two portions), we put stickers on jam jars, we talk more about food and access and City Market happenings.  I snip strawberries and drop them into a rectangular Cambro container; the table in front of me is covered with a protective layer of plastic, and piled high with other lidded Cambros that hold macerating raspberries.  Daniel has hoarded some strawberries in a large freezer that he will intermingle with other fruits throughout the year – peach + strawberry is a winner, he says, and I imagine other future flavors as the juice coats my palm and drips up my wrist and onto my apron.  I snip the berry tops into a compost box that is loaded with lemon peels, and the strawberry/lemon combination is so intense it seems that I can see the aroma all around us.  When I am ‘hired’ to sell jam at the Meade Market, I am able to tell the good folks about jam production – finding, picking and transporting fruit, cleaning and processing it, mixing flavors, getting it into labeled jars and to market – so I don’t feel like a poseur; mostly I just accept compliments on his behalf, and encourage people to visit the Saturday City Market so that they can experience Jam Daniel in person.

Sayonara strawberries…you’ll live on in jam and in dehydrated form in my cupboard, waiting for winter’s oatmeal to plump you back up.  But HELLO raspberries, cherries, blueberries, peaches, blackberries, plums, apples and persimmons…hope I can help rope you and bring you in to the table.

Kidding season at CaroMont – Feb 5 2009

•May 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

or ‘Fifteen Degrees?  You MUST be Kidding’
(excerpted from ‘cut’ portions of “A Day on the Farm:  Making Cheese at CaroMont Farm” by Lisa Reeder, published in Edible Blue Ridge, Number 2 – Spring 2009)
Although the sky is still grayish black, the farm is unmistakably stirring to the smells of coffee and oatmeal with fresh Jersey butter and the sound of the televised weather forecast.  Last night the temperature fell to 15 degrees, and Gail is concerned about her flock of dairy goats. Sheathed in scarves, hats, thick coats and work coveralls, we move outside at a brisk pace as Gail explains the merits to living onsite. “In a farmstead tradition, the animals are here; part of cheesemaking is learning animal husbandry and getting them through that first phase so that they do produce…a large amount of milk so that you can make your cheeses from it.”  Our breath and Gail’s coffee bravely steam in the frigid air.  She also repeats a farming adage that goats (and sheep, and cattle) tend to have their babies in the most adverse weather, a theory which I am hoping will prove true as I have spent the night at CaroMont hoping to see the arrival of baby goats.

What follows is a flurry of activity leavened with apprehension; the night was cold enough that the very welfare of the goats and their brand new kids is in question.  Gail flicks on the lights and walks quickly around the Moo-tel, which is filled with straw, hay feeders, and her entire dairy herd. Gail circles the pen to assess any acute problems, and to formulate her plan to get through the morning with everyone intact.  One by one she checks the new babies, sorting who belongs with whom, drying them with towels from the house, calling out ‘it’s a doe!’ or, with less enthusiasm, ‘a little buck!’.   Gail encourages her girls, pats them and rubs their faces, all the while assessing their physical condition and keeping up a stream of lighthearted banter which cannot entirely hide her sharp concern for their welfare.  She gives the new mothers molasses dissolved in hot water to reward them for their labors.  “Molasses has a lot of calcium in it, and everyone deserves a good drink after they’ve had a baby,” she says with a smile, then moves on to the next one.

Meanwhile, I use my boot (and the frozen foot inside) to crack the ice on the top of the water trough (which has frozen two inches thick since yesterday at 5 PM).  The girls push forward to get a drink and nibble at my coat.  Despite the extreme cold and the presence of a stranger, their eyes are calm and their movements peaceful, even those whose flanks are ballooned out with their unborn kids.  According to my tally, it looks like Portia kidded with a buck and a doe, Charlotte with a buck and a doe, and Lizzie with two black and white la Manchas just like her.  She has rejected the buck, and the poor little guy just keeps bravely bumping into other does, hoping for a reassuring nuzzle or possibly an udder full of milk.  Brave Penelope birthed three yesterday afternoon, the first of which had to be pulled into this world through a breech presentation by Michelle Bessette.  This round of kids was sired by a ‘meat buck’ and is causing some problems with their larger frames and heavier birth weights.  “I won’t do that again,” says Gail, marveling at the unforeseen repercussions of a seemingly pragmatic  decision.  “That buck is for sale.”

As Gail cycles the new mothers through the milking parlor, I sit on a hay bale and feed the ‘older’ babies milk through plastic nipples on recycled water, beer and wine bottles.  The newest babies get colostrom soon after birth; the yellowish pre-milk fluid is imperative for immunity and immediate nourishment, and makes the kids skip and kick immediately.  Gail gives each one a thorough once-over, checking eyes, legs, and general health while she cleans them up and begins to love them. Each weighs less than a cat, although they are leggy and feisty from the first, wagging their bitty tails and nibbling on the fingers of my black leather gloves.  The bottles have been warmed in a milk pail filled with hot water; the little ones can feel the warmth and snuggle up against the pail, then fall asleep in a pile of hooves, ears and knees.

Old World Traditions vs. New World Regulations

We continue chatting about the famed cheeses and meats of Parma, Italy which have evolved together over time into una filiera integrata, or integrated row or thread: The pigs that are destined to become prosciutti are fed whey that is a by-product of the manufacture of Parmigiano-Reggiano, giving their meat a distinctive odor and flavor that has become famous the world over.

While European customs allow for this exchange and recycle of farm by-products, and in fact encourage filiera integrati as a means to establish and protect regional terroir, in the United States a more regulatory approach to food safety has been the rule.  For instance, it is unlawful for a farmer who produces pigs for resale (as opposed to personal consumption) to feed those pigs any by-product of the dairy industry, even nutrient-dense whey from Gail’s cheesemaking.  Recently, smaller farmers and food advocates have been critical of the parallel development of large-scale agricultural operations and the sprawling bureaucratic agencies charged with their regulation. They argue that legislation developed for large-scale producers places an undue financial and managerial burden on smaller food producers.

the Power of Food 2 – and beets, and kale, and pork belly

•January 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I arrived at the final Charlottesville City Market at 8 AM and pulled into a miracle:  a convenient, legal parking space!  Ordinarily this would be a great omen, but on October 24 2008 it merely indicated the anticlimactic finish to a great farming, market, and eating season in Charlottesville.  The chilly rain was heavy at times, and nearly half of the vendors had bowed out of this last market day (number 30 of 30).  Unfortunately my intent this particular morning was to purchase all of the produce necessary for a cooking class for 40 people, and so I dutifully hauled out my reusable bags and Coca Cola crate (surprisingly useful!) and headed around the stalls.  Rather than shopping for a specific menu, my plan is always to see what’s available and then come up with a menu that highlights seasonal, local produce.

At Double H I loaded a bag with baby bok choy, sufficiently beaded with rainwater that it required some shaking and wringing out before loading into the bag.  I bought the last chicken (‘A whopper’ said Richard, ‘seventeen dollars!’).  So much the better for my purposes – we would be making chicken, fennel and barley soup as a means to illustrate stretching meat dollars, the healthfulness of homemade broths, and easy integration of whole grains into ‘familiar’ dishes.  I thanked Richard for the beautiful produce (Jean was to join him a bit later) and he in turn thanked me for my support throughout the year.  Then he turned and told one of his regular customers to call him if she would like an order delivered with his once-weekly wholesale orders on Thursdays — a good option for those of us worried about running out of sausage!

Next I bought heirloom kale from Appalachia Star, and mixed in a few bright purple mustard greens.  Then, looking around, I decided to base the rest of the menu on items from Roundabout that I could have delivered to my house and to hope for some interesting items to be available the following day at New Branch Farm after the class’s farm tour.

What class?  ‘The Power of Food:  Nutrition, Food Policy and Local Food’, offered through the UVa School of Continuing and Professional Studies as a collaborative effort between Susan Del Gobbo, Lynda Fanning and myself.  As class coordinator, I had set out the syllabus to begin with nutrition and food policy, and to end with the ‘antidote’ of local food – in the classroom, on a farm, and in the kitchen.  Our intent in teaching the class had been to empower people to be more active and aware of food choices and their impact, both locally and nationally; we wanted to provide tools and resources for individuals to serve as their own educators and advocates, whether that meant cooking at home or starting a garden or writing to policy makers.  So on the chilly, rainy market morning I had completed the second of my classroom lectures, was preparing to lead the class to New Branch Farm the following day (let’s hope this weather clears!) and, for a grand finale, taking the class into a real kitchen to prepare an all-local menu.

Bob Bressan, Culinary Arts Instructor at CATEC (and student) had offered his commercial-kitchen classroom as the site for our final class – Cooking and Eating Local Food.  In comparison to my vision (or nightmare?) of cooking on a hot plate in the Darden classroom, this seemed like the big leagues and an opportunity to do some real cooking.  I stopped by a few weeks prior to the end of the class just to see the facility, and realized not only that I had died and gone to cooking class heaven, but also that CATEC is a tremendous community resource that offers adult education, career training, and cooking classes in conjunction with Charlottesville Parks and Recreation.

After receiving my Roundabout delivery, I sat down to craft the menu.  I had already decided on chicken soup with fennel and barley; I knew that cooking kale would be a good activity for a group heading into the coldest part of the year, when kale is often the only green with enough integrity to stand through the winter.  Megan also offered escarole, a flat Italian lettuce that would pair beautifully with pears or apples and local chestnuts. A student suggested preparing a multi-vegetable dish that had been covered in the C’ville Weekly just a week before.  Beets materialized on my doorstep, and of course I pre-ordered a newly-created boule from Albemarle Baking Company featuring Vintage Virginia Apples and apple cider (available Wednesdays only!).  While we were lacking the traditional ‘entree’, the class had been enthusiastic about a vegetable-centric meal given what we had learned about the resource intensive production of most types of meat.

A menu that seemed initially to be limited by the season ended up being too ambitious – the class went over our time allotment by 45 minutes!  We prepared oven-roasted beets (peeled, then dropped into homemade apple cider vinegar and macerated onions, then seasoned with dill), kale two ways (simmered with pork belly, vinegar, and cannelini beans, and lightly sauteed with garlic, clarified butter, and resurrected grapes); chicken, fennel and barley soup; escarole salad with mystery ‘asian’ pears from New Branch Farm and ‘tooth cracker’ candied local chestnuts and honey vinaigrette; bok choy sauteed with olive oil (oh so delicious and so simple); and an Autumn Vegetable Medley that didn’t quite have time to come together – an oversight on my part.

The runaway hit of the evening was the roasted beet dish – a thoughtful student reminded me to tell those folks new to beet-eating that they would likely get a surprise on their next trip to the bathroom (if you don’t know what I mean, try eating some beets and you’ll see).  While nobody broke a tooth on the chestnuts (to my knowledge, at least) the slightly bitter chicory salad with sweet dressing, crunchy nuts, and pears was my personal favorite, especially crafted as it was out of a famous but locally rare Italian ingredient (ciccoria), an item given to my by Brett and April of Horse and Buggy Produce (local chestnuts, which I prefer raw), and a scavenged item (the pears from New Branch Farm, which Stephanie was reluctant to even charge money for!).  Bleu cheese would have fit right in…

I left CATEC slightly footsore but light of heart; many students had stayed late to eat, clean up, and continue talking about food.  The most enthusiastic were kind enough to share their satisfaction with me.  I felt that all the uncertainty in conceiving and building the class, researching my segments, and hustling for local ingredients was more than worth it.  Once again I feel fortunate to am able to observe the moment of connection – when people are able to taste simple, fresh local food that is lovingly prepared, their eyes light up and they smile even as they chew.  No amount of academic approach, nor empirical example, can equal simply putting the food in someone’s mouth and smiling with them.

November is for Hog Killin’

•November 23, 2008 • 2 Comments

I got wind of the hog killin’ in October through several friends, and wondered if I would be invited.  This is just my kind of thing!  I thought, and hastily send e-mails and offers of treats if I could please be included.  As time went by and the date drew near, it became clear that there was no shortage of help needed; not only would we be killing and processing three yearling pigs, but we were doing it outdoors in the rain.

The hostess seemed at first excited, then intimidated, then downright panicked.  She admitted that she was trying to recreate an event from her childhood that had, in all likelihood, caused her great emotional turmoil at the time.  Having grown up on a farm in North Carolina, she watched her parents navigate numerous days like we would face, and they had seemed to know just what to do!  She laughed as she admitted that part of her anxiety was based on playing both father and mother; that is, assembling the equipment and running the thing (father) and cooking, cleaning and hosting out of town guests and children (mother).

My role was clerical – find and buy the items needed to wrap and freeze the pig parts, and try to line up tents, knives and cutting boards.  And bring bagels.  After consulting with the good butchers at the Organic Butcher, it became clear that we wanted freezer paper (which has a waxy side and a matte side) so that the meat could be wrapped and frozen to best advantage.  Ziploc bags were also seen as necessary to protect the wrapped meat from getting wet as it was iced down in coolers; because of the warm-ish temperatures, the hogs did not chill before we processed them, so we had to get them immediately on ice.  I packed my knives, a cutting board, some aprons, my camera, raingear, water bottle, and a sturdy boyfriend armed with the same.

When we arrived with bagels (rather late, I admit) the hogs had been killed, but just recently.  The two pink piggies from Polyface were ready to go; their caregivers complained of their acorn-abetted corpulence and their piggy petulance, culminating in an attempted bite on the hand that fed.  Hmm.  “It’s SOOO time for them to go,” the hostess said with a sigh.  “It’s sad, but true.”  On the fateful day, they were shot in the head, slit from stem to stern (their tails looking like stems, and stern maybe being short for sternum?) and gutted, bled out into 5 gallon buckets, then hoisted by their hind legs from the bucket of a tractor.  Hamstrung, you’d call it.  Within sight of their wooded oak lot, the pigs were scraped of their hair (scalding was out of our reach that day), cut down the backbone (using a SawzAll, if you must know) and then cut into primal cuts on a plank table.  Their blood was mixed with flour, eggs, salt and parsley, then sluiced into casings and simmered in cheesecloth to make blood sausage, which we ate on fresh bread with dijon mustard (some folks also may have sipped cognac, even though it was well before noon).  The blood sausage was delicious, dark purplish red like liver, and as smooth a consistency as I have ever had in an animal product.  While it did have the mineral tang of liver (or blood, I suppose) the mustard complemented it perfectly.  I felt very French.

Throughout the day the rainclouds and sun fought for control, sending us scurrying for shelter and then seducing us into taking off our gear.  Gusty winds and spitting downpours made the lard-fire difficult to start and challenging to maintain, but the fire brigade built a wall, found a tarp, went for dry wood, and prevailed over the elements, eventually manouever-ing the iron cauldron over the fire for the slow rendering of lard and cracklins (the former being the purified fat from the pig, suitable for cooking and baking; the latter being the tiny pieces of meat that are suspended in the fat and thus turn into nature’s original bacon bit).  Meanwhile, under the tents the piggies were gradually being broken down into more recognizable cuts; pork belly, loin and tenderloin, ribs, chops, ham…there was talk of scraping and cooking the head, but I could never figure out what the outcome might be.  All hands took turns trimming lard and seasoning and grinding sausage under the tutelage of the Sausage King of Charlottesville (no names here); he casually sipped Corvoisier on the rocks while wielding his grandfather’s cleaver, eliciting the butcher’s praise “That’s beautiful.”  And so the pink piggies turned into food.

The third piggy did not go gently into that good night.  Whispers throughout the day warned of two bullets, still wiggling, brain-dead but moving.  I thanked the Agents of Death for taking that drama on my behalf.  This third piggy was of the famed Ossabaw Island family, a distinct and isolated population from Ossabaw Island, GA which is descended entirely from Spanish hogs brought to that area nearly 400 years ago.  Because of their concentrated genetics, these hogs are smaller than most, but are able to put on fat at a greater proportion to their body weight than any other hog.  Her name was Bonnie, and she was the more devilish of the dynamic female duo Bonnie and Clyde, fattened on acorns and peaches, whey and grape lees, romaine lettuce and empanadas.  While her death was not quiet, her meat was beautiful, smaller in proportion that the pinkies, and darker in color, but with a distinct ‘lumpy’ quality to her fat that bore little resemblance to the vast, smooth expanses of our larger specimens.  I believe her rear legs were turned into prosciutti — if all went well, perhaps we’ll be eating it in 18 months.

Other products!  Coils of sausage in casings (original French recipe, with garlic, salt and pepper; ‘chorizo’ with red pepper, paprika, hot sauce, and anything else red; and garlic and black pepper with Rausse Cabernet Sauvignon); large, coarse pates covered in the net-like caul fat (mercy me, I mistook mine for a meatloaf and botched it good); lots of lard; cracklins; lots of loin, tenderloin, ribs of all shapes and sizes, rib roasts, chop roasts, and regular old roasts; pork belly and bacon.  Cleanup at the end of Day 1 was a bit grisly, with 5 gallon buckets full of head, feet, skin and miscellany; our host kindly buried the evidence somewhere on the property, and we joked about biodynamics.  The wondrous intern filled a cooler with hot water, and we scooped out bowlsful to mix with cold water from the pump, along with degreaser and dishwashing liquid for cutting boards, knives, bustubs, grinder attachments, and buckets.  For good measure we doused most items with strong bleach water in the fading light of the day, eager to finish cleanup before the sun went down.

In addition to bagels (my weak, weak contribution) the ladies in the ‘neigborhood’ rallied and put together one of the best spreads I have seen in a long time.  Our host made french onion soup, redolent of sherry and bay and dark as night; an epic minestrone graced the stove, complete with lentils and bones and pasta and every vegetable in the world; a crockpot of homeraised and made chicken and dumplins was decimated (by me) along with fresh bread, fresh Jersey butter (yellow as a dandelion), two cheese boards featuring local aged goat cheese (possibly illegal, certainly delicious) and beautiful, exotic cheeses of unknown origin looking stately and mysterious and drooping deliciously in the warmth of the house.  Hot apple cider.  Blood sausage.  Local wine a la Rausse, Blenheim and King Family.  Starr Hill beer.  French brandy.  Aged single barrel bourbon.

Around the fire (and the fire’s fort made of singed tarp, a rickety windfence, a flagpole, some twine, and what appeared to be a hurdle) we marveled collectively about our Charlottesville-area community.  We are country enough to kill a pig, foodie enough to process it ourselves, worldly enough to cherish such European presentations as blood sausage, headcheese and rillette alongside lard and cracklins, and hippie enough to grind flour and bake bread for the occasion.  If the death of an animal can be justified by our appreciation and consumption of it, then I for one would like to testify that those three pigs offered sustenance for my body, my brain and my heart.  Thank you.

Hawking Peaches at the Charlottesville City Market

•September 24, 2008 • 1 Comment

My part-time ‘administrative and marketing support’ position at Vintage Virginia Apples has included a wide variety of services and (as an added bonus) a significant amount of education in the history, heritage, and reality of apple cultivation.

Last fall I coordinated several meals for family and friends assisting in the seventh annual Apple Harvest Festival, as well as attending the festival in order to present some notes and ideas for the future.  That autumnal training also included a stint pressing (and drinking) fresh cider for sale at the festival, and led to my premier as an apple-press saleswoman (commission?  two bottles of Rausse wine) and a successful experiment in fermenting cider into apple wine and, eventually, delicious apple cider vinegar.  Along the way I learned about the qualities that contribute to flavor in fresh apples, cider, and cooking fruit, as well as Mr. Jefferson’s favorites and the challenges to fruit cultivation in Central Virginia (hint:  it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity).

Next step in Apple 101 was the wintertime activities, consisting of a course of four workshops presented by Vintage Virginia.  I served two all-local foods meals to just over 80 people; lest you feel badly for me, I also got to taste 8 varieties of hard cider from around the world, including Foggy Ridge Cider (www.foggyridgecider.com) which represents the resurrection of commercial cidermaking in Virginia.  I observed classes on planning a home orchard, pruning, grafting, and cidermaking – while I did not absorb all the information, this course of studies helped me to contextualize apple (and other tree fruit) production in Virginia and to imagine how it might be highlighted and integrated into the rest of the system.

Charlotte had made it clear that my help would be needed in moving peaches; while the crop last year was almost entirely ‘snapped’ with cold, this year the crop was bountiful and intensely flavored (probably due to so little rainfall during the ripening process).  Beginning in mid-July and continuing through Labor Day, I met the Sheltons at the City Market around 6:30 (all those folks get up VERY early to get produce to market, so at 6:30 I was ‘late’!) to help unload and display the fruit.  The first week was evenly split between peaches and plums; in my opinion, the plums stole the show, with their cunning shapes and intense colors (not to mention unparalleled ability to attract wasps and flies).  Shiro, Damson, Kirke’s Blue, Green Gage – when customers hesitated in making a purchase, I half-encouraged and half-scolded them to buy the plums as their season is so fleeting.  As the peach crop began to mature, we cycled through 15 to 20 different varieties, ranging from white to yellow flesh, cling and freestone, large and buxom, small and shriveled. Each week we were likely to have one ‘repeater’ from the week prior, and my favorite part of the day became ‘peach breakfast’, or the moment when I walked down the display of large cardboard boxes, checked the signs, and tasted each peach to determine which one I would recommend that day.  While this may seem obvious, one of our most successful tactics is to cut samples of ripe fruit; that way, every customer can determine which type is most appealing that week.  Beekman, Contender, Madison, Georgia Belle, White Lady, Champion, Intrepid, Challenger, Monroe…even now the names make me salivate. Each week I took home nearly a case of peaches, and experimented with dehydration, jamming, and even fermenting into vinegar (not sure if that w=one worked or not – I am afraid to taste it, but it smells like heaven!).  I grilled peaches and served them with ice cream; cooked them into pancakes; ate them over granola; a clever friend folded them into a beef stirfry that had gotten a bit spicy, and while I could not pinpoint the flavor, the fullness of flavor was easy to admire.  Peaches every which way.  At one point, a customer recalled her days growing up in crozet, when everybody worked in the orchards in the summertime ‘pullin’ down the peaches.  Course in those days, didn’t have no refrigeration out there, and not on trucks either, so my brothers would work all day in the orchard teeming with bees, then have a bit of supper, then resume work sorting the peaches in to the back of trucks for overnight delivery to Washington DC and northerly points.  It was a 24 hour affair, and they didn’t stop ’til it was done, some five six weeks later.  Didn’t sleep much.’

As the peach varieties started to fade, the apples appeared (a seamless transition, really) – first the tart, ‘baking’ apples that don’t ripen to sweetness, then the first ‘dessert’ apple (I believe Arlet filled that role), then finally the well-rounded flavors of Razor Russet, Gravenstein, McIntosh with the true ‘storage’ apples yet to come.  Its first week of availability, the Summer Rambo practically knocked my socks off with its huge silhouette and the crisp, sour taste akin to Granny Smith; the Arlet allures with pinkish flesh, a small footprint and a heady aroma.  All hail the advent of our local hero the Albemarle Pippin, and apple that actually improves while it is in storage and that serves triple duty for cooking, cider and dessert or ‘out of hand’ eating.

Now I know that the reason orchards are clustered West of town has to do with drainage, south-facing slopes, and most of all the inability to use that hilly land for other types of agriculture.  Apparently Claudius Crozet built a railway spur just to move fruit and sugar as far into Sugar Hollow as possible before loading it onto horseback and into wagons; the fruit was fermented and the sugar added during distillation to make illegal liquor.  I bet it was delicious. 

Show on the Road: Maine Lobster and Steamer Clams

•July 28, 2008 • 1 Comment

So there’s a pickup truck heading to Maine for five days in July, and the hunky guy in the driver’s seat says ‘Bring ya anything?’ with a twinkle in his eye. My response is quick and decisive, and involves $100 cash, a couple of coolers, and vague instructions to buy as much crustacean as possible.

Summertime is lobster time in Maine, where the famous Maine Lobster (or American Lobster) is pulled in by lobstermen (and women?), cooked in seawater or steamed in seaweed, then dipped in butter and devoured. While I know a fair amount about lobster, I have never been exposed to the briny culture surrounding their cultivation, harvesting, preparation, or marketing. This is my chance to experience fresh lobster and to get some of the lobster lore.

Geoff returns from Maine with eight lobsters wrapped in paper bags and packed on ice in a cooler; the cooler lacks a drainplug, so the cold water drips out (which keeps the lobbies from drowning) but the ice keeps them sluggish and alive. They each weigh between one and 1.5 pounds live, which is deemed by the Mainer to be the perfect size as larger lobbies have heavier shells and meat that is not as tender. When I open the bags for a peek, they seem to be all beady eyes and antennae; I am glad their claws are safely banded. Their combative claw-waving suggests freshness and health, which is confirmed by the vibrant mottled grey-green, blue and strips of red on their exoskeletons.

When I have cooked lobsters in the past (while working at Hamiltons’ at First and Main) I was vegetarian, but my fellow cooks insisted that I ‘take the plunge’ (that is, throw them in the boiling water seasoned with mirepoix and bay, lemon and wine and absorb their death as part of my karma). Anyway, when I cooked them at Hamiltons’ we turned off the radio to hear the high-pitched keening that indicated either death or steam escaping from the shells (depending upon your belief system).

We appetize with lobster rolls, which is claw and leg meat tossed in mayonnaise and lemon juice and seasoned with parsley, black pepper, and salt, then served on toasted white hot dog buns. We season the lobster-water with a lot of salt (to replicate seawater), and Otis and I make a brown-butter and lemon vinaigrette to replace the uber-rich drawn butter that typically accompanies lobster. Geoff grills 15 ears of bicolor corn in the husk (also from Maine – how do they have it ready so soon???), which fills the air with a delicious popcorn perfume. I rinse the steamer clams in water, looking for responsiveness and intact shells as an indication of life. I haven’t worked with steamers before, but they have a distinctive neck or siphon that protrudes from the gray shells and that withdraws a bit when tapped; this neck lolls unappealingly if the clam is dead. ‘They’re pissers!’ Otis exclaims when he squeezes one and it shoots water at him; we wonder if this is the origin of ‘wicked pissah’, which people apparently say in New England? Wicked or no, we pop the steamers in a steamer basket for about 8 minutes, then dip them in warm water to get rid of any grit, shuck the dark grey ‘sock’ off of the siphon, and pop them in our mouths.

While the steamers are cooking, I try to get someone else to lob the lobbies in the boiling water; in no uncertain terms I am told to buck up and do it myself, so I drop them in one at a time. When I cooked them at Hamiltons’, I heard the scream; I didn’t hear it this time, but then again I didn’t turn off the radio. When the food is ready, we sit outside on the wooden-door turned table, crack lobsters, dip and eat steamers, and unwrap the sweet summer corn to dredge it in a compound butter of garlic, basil and parsley. The lobster is crimson red and beautiful (in an insect-like sort of way); the steamers taste super nutritious, perhaps like iodine or rich clay mud. I agree with the Mainer – the claw meat is the sweetest and most tender, while the tail is too chewy for my taste (not unlike shrimp). Otis amasses a pile of shells on his plate in moments, sucking the legs and moaning ‘the lobster I can get is NOT like this’; Lydia reaches for the pliers and focuses on cracking claws and legs, admiring the flavor amid bites of meat. We toss shells into the nearby trash can, wondering aloud if the woodland creatures will rouse at the tantalizing smell and disturb the trash in the night.