Maybe, It’s Not About You

Leda-sprouting acres mkt2

I had a pleasant and profound conversation with a family at the Madison farmers’ market today. They had driven all the way from Chicago to check out what they’d heard was a great farmers’ market. They were smiling and enjoying the fanfare, and I met them just as they had fallen in love with a robust and beautiful head of red leaf lettuce perched on our market stand. They glanced at it with clear admiration, talked amongst themselves, and then looked back at the lettuce. I thought for sure they were going to buy it and offered them a bag for the purchase. The woman smiled sheepishly and asked if I thought that the lettuce head would be okay in their car all day, explaining their story of driving in from Chicago…

My attachment to the lettuce was literally from farm to table. Yesterday morning, I had harvested it in the field, with the rest of our head lettuces, dunked it in cool water to chill it and shaken the excess water off before packing it in a cooler and seeing it safely into the walk in cooler with the rest of the produce we would be taking to market. Now, we were standing before the same head of lettuce and I was the bearer of bad news: patiently explaining that, no the fresh looking head of lettuce would not do very well in a car all day (sans ice chest) and would probably end up as a wilty mess if they were to purchase it. And here I thought my main job was to help bring fresh good quality produce to market and people would automatically buy it. As long as I did my job, there would be hoards of people waiting in long lines to be the first to purchase these beautiful (and tasty!) heads of lettuce that I had harvested.

I get it, we all like to think we’re in total control of our lives and actions. In many ways, we evaluate our actions as if they drive the world (and to some extent they do drive our personal world). We make statements like, “If only I had ______ then that would have turned out better” “I tried gardening once, but I just don’t have a green thumb” “I can’t seem to meet the right person” and on and on…But, maybe, some of these things that we think are our fault or to our credit would have happened anyway. There are other people with their own stories and nature takes its course and things happen that don’t necessarily make sense. Maybe that thing that just happened that you’re so upset about really doesn’t have much to do with you at all. Maybe, it’s not about you…

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How do you pass your time?

To me, time has been measured by these experiences that have touched my heart. This time of year time is expansive. Warmth permeates every crevice of the day and into the night. The sun pushes its luck and some days feels like a guest that has slightly overstayed her welcome. Right now is when I think of growth and the unfolding of a summer farming season. The heat loving crops are going into the ground: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, basil, eggplant…and my mind is already tumbling forward to the time when that first zucchini flower will appear and the first blush will creep into the strawberries. In the summer, I count time in how long it takes to cook a juicy burger on the grill and in tosses of the Frisbee before the light fades into the evening…

If I remind myself to live in the moment, I find myself relishing my current vegetable obsession: asparagus. I cannot believe how fast it grows! If it had not been me that had harvested the patch yesterday, I would be shaking my head at how many stalks got missed in that harvest. Today, the ambitious green spears climb towards the sun and it looks like it hasn’t been touched in a week! I’m finding all kinds of ways to love these tender little asparagi’s…marinated and grilled, lightly sautéed on the stovetop, and my new favorite way to enjoy it: cooked and pureed, then chilled as soup. In the spring, I am counting time in asparagus inches…

asparagus soup

To me, as the breezes cool and the rustle of leaves takes over the auditory landscape I can’t help but think of basketball. When fall sets in, the pull of my adolescent passion is ingrained in my memory. I hear the squeak of sneakers on hardwood floors and the sweet swish of the net as baskets are made. Sounds of high fives from layup lines, and whistles across gymnasiums….ah! I counted time in 15 minute quarters, two minutes until subbing in, 20 minute halves, and pickup games to 11…

Then, when the sun is on its way out, making shorter visits…I rely on the memory of warmth. The winter, to me, still means fires in a wood stove after a day of playing in the snow. Hiking in the mountains or skiing or curled up with a good book and a hot cup of earl grey tea with milk and honey. My winter is marked by softer time, like the gentle fall of a snow on pine and juniper branches…

How do you measure time? Is it in units of minutes and hours and days? As the cast of the musical Rent sings: “How do you measure a year? How about love?”

Grocery Store Price Setting

Have you ever wondered how grocery stores set their produce prices? I know I have! Luckily, with my job at the UC Cooperative Extension, I had the opportunity to explore this.

I interviewed our local co-op’s produce buyer and a local farmer about how they set their retail and wholesale prices. I hope you find this as interesting as I did:

http://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=13521

 

Farmer Safety

leda lunge

Here’s a blog post I did for my job with the UC Cooperative Extension. As spring starts up and the physical work load increases, it’s important to be thinking about farm safety. I hope you’ll enjoy the short video talking about how to work safely on your farm or ranch:

http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/blog/?blogpost=13231&blogasset=24945

It’s All Relative: Marketing with This in Mind

Marketing is all about influencing decision making. Check out this post I wrote on evaluating that decision making process and tips for farmers as they create marketing strategies for their products:

http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/blog/?blogpost=12646&blogasset=24945

FFF tomato picture

Foothill Farming Post

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how small changes and measurement can contribute to improvement or larger goals. On that note, check out how this relates to farming in a post I wrote for the Foothill Farming Blog:

http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/blog/?blogpost=11346&blogasset=24945

Farm on!

-Farmer Leda

Family Names

tobacco

tamarillo

tomatoes

                                            

Wouldn’t it be strange to meet someone for the first time and not exchange names?  It is not only the polite thing to do but it is also a necessary thing to do. There is no other piece of information that is so crucial for the beginning of a relationship. Nothing compares. So, assuming you are following social conventions, you learn the first name of your new acquaintance and maybe half the time you learn the last name. In our Western society, one’s last name designates paternal heritage. This is arguably the most telling and important label that you carry. Middle names and first names can hold family significance as well, but not to the degree that last names do. Your last name binds you to a family and thus to a history.

The point that I am trying to make is this: if we wish to know about the plants we are growing and the animals we are raising, we ought to first know their names. Just as a human’s relatives tell much about that person, inform who that person is and will become; so plant’s relatives dictate certain characteristics of that plant. As someone who is interested in growing food and in learning about agricultural plants, I have been remiss in not learning these names.

Until I become familiar (neat word choice, huh?) with those names I will be stuck with just a general understanding of what I am trying to grow. It’s almost as embarrassing as the exchange with a person whose name you forgot, “Heeeeeey, how’s it going…dude? Haven’t seen you in a while (dang, what’s his name?!) What have you been up to.” It is not good, but I think it happens all too often. As one of my friends says, if you don’t make an effort to learn a person’s name, you are sending a message that you just don’t care about them. Kind of harsh, but there is a kernel of truth there.

Back to the plants and the names of plants and the fact that I do care. I want to get better at this growing of food. And, in caring for the plants that I do, I want to show them that I really frickin’ care! Thus, my motivation to learn the latin names and genealogy of plants. One of the first families that I’ve looked up is the ubiquitously loved (and perhaps as consistently shunned in certain diets as inflammatory) Solanaceae or “Nightshade” family. Most people who cook a bit or garden a bit could name the big players in this family: the potato, the tomato, the bell pepper, the eggplant. All good. All tasty. I wish to learn their real names, though. We can be on a first name basis, but I’d still like to know their heritage. I would like to be able to call them Solanum tuberosum (potato) and Solanum lycopersicum (tomato) and Capsicum annuum (bell pepper) and Solanum melongena (eggplant).

With the extension of Genus and species, you can easily see that some of these plants are more closely related.  Just in my recent research, I learned that the tamarillo, a fruit commonly grown in New Zealand is of the genus and species, Solanum betaceum. This may help explain its colloquial nickname as the “tree tomato” . Also, it is interesting to learn which plants fall within the scope of a single family. For example, it was fun for me to learn that tomatoes (Solanaceae Solanum lycopersicum) and tobacco (Solanaceae Nicotiana tabacum) are from the same family. This is a fact that Homer Simpson exploited when he got rich off of his Tomacco crop on one of my favorite Simpson’s episodes. Just in case you’re curious; yes, somebody has tried this combination in real life. A dude in Oregon successfully grafted a tomato plant onto the roots of a tobacco plant (arguably possible because they are from the same family). I’m not sure if he ended up smoking the leaves or eating the fruit. If he had good judgment, probably neither.

So, already, with this knowledge that is trickling in about families and plant relations, I feel a greater depth of understanding. I feel that my family is growing. And that, my friends, is a special feeling. If you have a curiosity about what I am talking about, I urge you to explore this for yourself. There is no need to be intimidated by the science, it is just another way of looking at the plants we love. I hope you will also not be turned off by the formal-sounding latin names. I promise you, that this is not a dead language and I have found it to be a very logical language. This is not a pig’s latin, this is a farmer’s latin.

Happy Studying!

-Farmer Leda

(pictures from top to bottom: tobacco, tamarillo, tomato)

A Farmer’s Rapsody

Inspired by J-Live’s “I’m a rapper”

Lyrics by Ledacris

Performed by Ledacris and Hilldogg

Heads or Tails?

Do you lick your plate at the end of a meal? I do. My friends can attest to that. I don’t leave any food evidence after eating and rarely does the food in my refrigerator go bad. I’m not exactly sure what contributed to this instinct of mine, but I have a pretty good guess. Neither of my parents wasted food when I was growing up. Ever. I can remember my Dad eating spotted, mostly brown bananas, fruit flies circling, instead of tossing those things where they belonged: into a compost pile. But, that was my example and thus I am my parents’ child. So, when I started becoming involved in helping a few friends with butchering animals for meat, one of the first things I became aware of was how much of the animal is wasted in our current customs.

We eat the middle of animals, but somehow the extremities have been forgotten. Worse than forgotten, they have been stigmatized as food for the poor. In our arrogance of privilege, we have become weirdly snobby about our food choices. Hamburger and fries from a fast food joint? Yes, please! Cheek bacon? Ummmm, no thanks. Au contraire, says the rest of the world. Most of these wasted bits are actually delicacies in other countries with different food traditions. Or even in our country just a couple of generations ago (My grandmother tells stories of growing up on a farm and how they would use everything on the pig but the oink!). Just as we fear and ostracize that which we do not know, these foods have gotten a bad rep only because we have not been exposed to them. Here are just a few examples:

Chicken feet are considered perhaps the most prized part of the chicken in many Asian countries. Indeed, exported chicken feet from the U.S. contribute to a not small sum of profit for the large chicken producers here in our country.

Tripe, or sliced and boiled stomach, (usually cow’s stomach). Tripa Romana is an Italian dish where tripe is served like a pasta and covered in a spicy red sauce. In America, you would be wont to find this anywhere but a high-end, white table cloth laden restaurants. All I can say is: don’t look at me to pick up the tab at those places!

Pâté, (ground up liver, butter, and seasonings) could sit in the company of caviar. Expensive, for refined tastes only (read: very rich flavor, eat only in tiny bites and preferably on crackers or toasts).

Cheek Bacon (AKA jowl bacon or Guanciale), See previous post “Demystifying Bacon” to read all about how this is made.

My goal in helping my friend harvest this pig was to use as much of the otherwise disposable parts as possible. Not being a saint and not having copious amounts of time to spend on this endeavor, I narrowed my scope to a few spare parts that I was determined to find a use for: the pig’s head, the stomach, the heart, and the liver.

First, the head. The head should be one of the more highly prized parts of the pig. Why is this? There is a lot of meat on the head and the head contains the tongue, arguably the best tasting cut once processed. It also contains the cheeks or jowls, which can be turned into bacon. My intent for the head was to make scrapple, a dish originating with the Pennsylvania Dutch. These guys had a sense of humor, don’t you think? “Hmmmm, what do we call this stuff made from the hog scraps Earl?” “Well, I do declare, we outa up an’ call it scrapple!” Simply, the process would be to take the boiled head meat and grind that with seasonings, mix with cornmeal and press into a loaf pan. After the scrapple is cooled it is sliced cold and fried up like pancakes. To serve: spread with butter and drizzle hot slices with maple syrup. Just be sure to enunciate when you say scrapple. You don’t want people confusing your breakfast offering for that game with the little wooden squares with letters on them.

The day of slaughter, my friends and I set up a propane burner with large stock pot. Two of us began skinning the body of the pig, while one of us took the head, which we had cut from the carcass, and began to skin it. Skinning the head is like a final exam in pig skinning. The contours of the cheeks and snout provide for some varied terrain and challenges. Furthermore, there are eyes to avoid, ears to cut off (we decided that we weren’t quite skilled or motivated enough to skin the ears to use) and the precious cheek areas to piece out for curing and smoking. The eye’s were removed by severing the connective tissue and optic nerve (I believe) to free them. Within about 2 hours of trading off on this job, my friend and I finished the first pig’s head and into the stockpot it went! I attempted the second head by myself (to be given to a lucky friend, who would cook it up according to his family’s traditions, I believe they had raised animals) and meticulously skinned and cleaned it like the first.

The head we were preparing simmered away in the pot and after about 5 hours of cooking the meat had fallen off of the skull. We let this cool, reserved the broth, and ground the cooked meat. For the actual scrapple making, our recipe was as follows:

“Amish Spiced CAL Scrapple” (CAL is for the initials of the cooks who helped)

3 to 3 1/2 quarts reserved pork broth

3lbs. ground cooked pork

4 1/2 C cornmeal

3/4 C buckwheat flour

2t dried sage

2t dried thyme (whole)

2t dried nutmeg

2t black pepper

2 t sea salt

In a large stock pot, we brought the broth up to a simmer and then stirred in the cornmeal and buckwheat. We let this simmer for about 10 minutes, while continuously stirring (if you don’t stir it will get lumpy, think polenta preparation). Then, we mixed in the ground meat and spices. This addition thickens everything right up and you’ll want to keep stirring for another 5 or 10 minutes. Voila! You’ve got this big pot of what looks and smells like a pretty tasty spiced porridge. The final step is to pour it into loaf pans, or containers, and chill it. To eat, simply slice it up and fry slices in hot oil or butter much like pancakes. Serve with butter and maple syrup!

We made a double batch of this scrapple because we ended up with about exactly 6 pounds of ground meat from the one head (minus cheeks). We used all the containers we could find and even resorted to spooning some scrapple mixture into a little pastry or muffin tray (I’m not sure which it was designed for) with the hopes of ending up with a few nicely shaped rectangular patties. Fried up the next morning in a nice hot cast-iron skillet, the scrapple was scrumptious!

Although it made for a long day, I was pleased with how the scrapple turned out and the learning process was neat as well. I can’t think of a better compliment to give me than to call me thrifty. But, I had no idea how thrifty (and open-minded) I would become when given the opportunity and encouraged by some phenomenal accomplices! Eat your pork heads (and tails?) people…my parents would be so proud!

In the next edition, I’ll talk about what creations were made with those other “spare” parts: stomach, heart, and liver, stay tuned…

-Farmer Leda

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Demystifying Bacon

I- The Mystique of Bacon

Bacon: There are few foods that are worshipped with such a carniverous fervor. What is it about this substance that inspires such love? Such unquestioning devotion? Perhaps it is the flavor, the delicate ratio of meat to fat, set off by a carefully crafted seasoning and smoking process (Okay, now we’re talking about the real stuff). But, I think it is more than that. I think it has to do with the act of cooking bacon. Cooking bacon is in itself a bold contradiction to our societies’ widespread fat phobia. The aroma of sizzling bacon permeates a household. It is unapologetic and impossible to hide. Cooking and eating bacon is a statement. Bacon is tasty, but it is also a rich food. The fatty richness and distinct flavor mean dictate its versatility. It can serve as accompaniment to eggs, flavoring for soups or stews, or indulgently paired with the sweet of dates or yams. It is rich, also, because bacon is limited and as all scarce resources, highly prized and sought after. There is only so much, “bacon,” or pork belly on a pig. But, hold on, I am getting ahead of myself. As someone who chooses to carniverate, participate in the process of raising animals for meat, and enjoys cooking, I have been curious about where bacon comes from. I think this story, told from the beginning, can deepen our understanding of this food with such allure.

II-Pork Belly

Bacon, or at least the bacon most of us our familiar with, is made from the belly of a pig. Simply, bacon is pork belly that has been cured and then smoked. The day that I first started to learn about this bacon makin’ process, I was to help a friend skin and gut a pig. Then we would take the, “halves,” as they’re called to a local smokehouse. They would hang overnight in a walk-in cooler and be cut the next day into roasts, chops, spareribs…and hams and bacons separated to be brined and smoked.

We started off early in the morning on a brisk November day. My friend shot the pig in the middle of the forehead to stun it and then made a deep cut in the throat so that the pig would bleed out. For a few minutes, the pig went through its death throes or spasms and then it went still. We began skinning from the feet towards the middle and exposed the tendons on the back two legs so that we could hang the pig from these points. Once the pig was hung, our setup consisted of a gambrel on which to secure the pig and was hung with a length of chain from a raised front loader bucket on a tractor, we began the main work of skinning. The goal was to make precise strokes with the knife, pulling the skin taut away from the body of the animal and trying to merely separate the skin from the underlying layer of fat. This seemingly simplistic task quickly exposes inexperience. An expert’s hand will reveal a skinned hog with a smooth and even covering of pale, white fat. A beginner’s result is much less pretty. Each errant knife stroke is punished by a layer of fat remaining with the shedding skin. Those places where the knife entered too deeply reveal exposed meat, which is most cases can be salvaged into the underlying chops and roasts one would expect. The place that excuses no error is the belly of the pig. The delicate layers of belly meat, with fat overlaying them, are slangily (and appropriately) known as, “the bacons.” Cut too deeply in this zone and your bacons will be severely diminished.

We finished skinning the pig, the patchwork of fat and flesh, successes and mistakes staring back. Then, finally, we split the pig in two, cutting flesh with knife and bone with saw and pulling out the guts as they were exposed in the chest cavity. Once the guts were removed, there appeared a layer of leaf lard, which ran down the rib cage and could be pealed out by hand and ultimately rendered into what chef’s prize as the purest lard to come from the pig. This particular pig, we sent to the smokehouse, but the next pig we were set to process would be an introduction to the art of butchery.

On our next pig, we performed the same skinning and gutting procedure (with a few modifications- we skinned this pig in strips, which greatly improved the quality of our finished product). After hanging the carcass to chill for a night, we set to work the next morning. Butchering or breaking down into useable cuts of meat begins with the idea that meat is made up of muscles and muscle groups. It follows, then, that the cuts one makes are some what intuitive. Certain muscle groups are left in tact, bone and membranes serve as rough guidelines. The true test and teacher of a skill like butchery is in the practice. So, armed with a couple printouts of meat cutting charts and half a days worth of youtube video viewing, we began to cut.

Much of the meat we would grind and later season for sausage, but we were determined to preserve the prize pieces of recognizable cuts. The ribcage was cut in half, bisecting the ribs and leaving the top- loin and rack, and the bottom- belly. I took the belly and began separating the bacons from the spare ribs. Feeling along the edge of the ribs with my left hand, I took a sharp boning knife in my right hand and I began teasing the meat from the bones. I held the knife with a butcher’s grip, picture an overhand stabbing type grip (horror movie grip, maybe?). This way of positioning the knife was supposed to provide for better leverage and I felt it provided me with surprisingly good dexterity despite the nervousness it provoked in my co-worker. Once the spareribs were removed, we were left with a whole “side” of bacon.

III- The Cure

If we would have stopped there, we would have been left with uncured pork belly- tasting like, well, uncured pork: a pork chop perhaps? A fatty pork chop, but pork chop flavor nonetheless. How to transform raw pork belly into bacon? As simple as a cure and a smoke. First, there are two types curing employed: wet curing (aka brining) and dry curing. The majority of cured pork that we are used to eating is wet cured or brined: hams, hocks, bacon, ham lunch meat. Lesser known today, and more intriguing for me is dry curing. A traditional dry cure is performed on a fattier cut than the belly and yields a richer and rarer bacon. “Guanciale” is a traditional Italian bacon made from the jowls of the pig and is sometime also called cheek bacon. Having saved the two jowls from the recent butchering and planning to smoke some bacon and a ham hock anyway, I thought I’d try my hand at Guanciale.

My preparation:

The day of slaughter I rubbed the fresh jowls with the salt and spice mixture so that all surfaces were thoroughly covered. Then I placed these in a plastic zip-lock bag in the refrigerator and turned them every other day for 11 days. My Guanciale recipe is as follows:

2.18 lbs. fresh pork jowls

70g kosher salt

70g brown sugar

35 twists of coarse black pepper grinder

2T dried thyme

1 bay leaf, crumbled

The brine that I prepared for the hock and small piece of bacon was even more simple. I merely dissolved kosher salt and brown sugar in heated water. After cooling the brine overnight in the refrigerator, I submerged the bacon and hock in the brine in a food grade plastic container and weighed these down with a plate to keep them below the surface. My brine ratio was: 4 L water, 1 1/2 C kosher salt, 1 C brown sugar (packed).

Kosher salt or curing salt is used for both brining and dry curing because of the size of the salt crystals. The granules are different from those of sea salt (coarser) or table salt (finer, I believe?) and thus affect the surface area of the meat differently. The antibacterial or “curing” effects of the salt are two-fold. Firstly, salt itself has antibacterial properties, making the environment less likely to harbor bacteria and secondly, salt acts to draw water out of the meat itself. Water being an encourager of bacterial growth. Many people elect to include a nitrate or nitrite in their cure as well. The debate on this issue is a complicated mix of science, tradition, and lore and is best saved for another time. Suffice it to say, there are those who cure without nitrates/nitrites and this is what I chose to do.

IV- A Smokin’ Finish

The final stage of transforming raw pork belly into delectable bacon is the smoking. There are a plethora of recipes for the smoke process- types of wood, smoke heat and durations… But, the basic formula goes like this: make fire, add wet wood (creates smoke), suspend meat in a chamber away from the direct flame and sustain the heat until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Smokehouses serve such a purpose, as do smokers build simply with metal drums off of pit fires. I’ve even heard that you can smoke small cuts of meat in a charcoal grill by simply building a small fire on one side and placing the meat on the other side.

My options for smoking were made easy because I am lucky enough to know some friends with an electric smoker. The use of which was negotiated with the promise of some sample bacon. The night before I was going to smoke the meat, I took all the meat: the Guanciale (dry cure), the hock and belly bacon (brined) and rinsed each piece thoroughly. After patting these dry, I placed them back in the refrigerator. This process lessens the saltiness and also coaxed the last bits of moisture from the meat. The next day, the cuts were all a little bit tacky on the exterior, exhibiting this final drying.

I was hit with a little bout of nervousness on the day of smoking. With the mental energy attention I had put into this project, I was counting on not just an edible product, but one with a truly special flavor. The electric smoker was plugged in, I placed wet oak on the heating element and carefully positioned each cut of meat on the two racks sitting in the metal chamber above before setting on the lid, enclosing the heat and much of the smoke. The different sizes of the cuts meant various cooking times to reach the desired internal temperature. After 3 hours everything was ready. Back into the fridge it went to cool and set.

Then, arguably the hardest part of the whole process began: the overnight wait to let the meat rest until it could be sampled. The next morning, I eagerly awoke and pulled out the two types of bacon. I carefully carved off of slices from each. The Guanciale was slightly firmer, I noticed, probably because the dry cure pulled out more moisture. The smell from the sizzling fat was intoxicating, but I had just enough willpower to let the cooked strips cool a bit while quickly cracking two eggs into the greased pan. With anticipation, I cut a bite of the Guanciale first…the crispy texture was superb and the salty, sweet, and smoky response from my taste buds was the reward I was craving. Both types of bacon were fantastic. The delicious end product strangely justified and exalted the time I had spent reading recipes, examining the process, and executing the steps, in a way that a taste disaster would not have.

I can’t say I’m not completely biased about the taste, but, like many things, bacon is best if you make it yourself. I now appreciate how each step contributes to the finished product as a whole. The specific cut of meat, the pork belly, is fatty but inlaid with tender meat, the cure is necessary to impart those salty and sweet notes, and the rich smoking finish ties everything together. This, then, is bacon’s secret of attraction: just as an artist creates a masterpiece with brilliant colors, the best bacon is made with strokes of flavor at each turn. Oh, and what a masterpiece it is to behold!

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