in which it’s trouble

in which it’s trouble

Good cooking, that is.  Paul Bertolli says “…as with all things made by hand, cooking well always involves some form of trouble.”  And it’s true. When you care about something, you give it your attention. And the reward? Well, those days you have no time for cooking… on those days you get to eat fast food of the very best kind – home cooked meals tucked into the freezer or preserved in jars.

I’ve had these feelings. Impressions without words. Fleeting fancies.  After working on this farm for three years, I’m not the same.  But I really didn’t understand why until I stumbled across the work of Paul Bertolli.

I know. I’m late to this party. Most of you have moved on. After all, Cooking by Hand is so 2003.  Except that it’s not. I can cook for the rest of my life and still not tire of the simple beauty of this book. Or extract all it’s wisdom.

In so many ways, efficiency is the enemy of greatness.  Don’t get me wrong – efficiency is very important; I appreciate an efficient, effective system.  But without inefficient exploration – the pure, selfless act of following one’s senses into the seemingly dreamy, directionless act of observation – there would be no Greatness.

For example, the essay on polenta is deep. And, oh my, four beautiful pages about ripeness and so much I didn’t know about pasta! But what really gets my attention?  Twelve Ways of looking at tomatoes. “What a waste of time,” you 30 minute meal lovers must be thinking, “spending so much time chasing so many tomatoes down so many dead end trails.”

Time spent:

“…talking to growers, visiting markets when the first tomatoes appear, and tasting…as many tomatoes as we can get our hands on.”

That’s not work, is it?? How will all that touchy-feeliness increase the bottom line?

“In this way, I am brought up to date on the new varieties, and I get a feel for the timing of the season.  I also have a chance to understand a little more about the way in which geography, farming practice, climate, and other factors can influence the taste of tomatoes.”

He hosted a tasting of more than 100 varieties of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes of all sizes, shapes and colors.  He created a rating sheet and invited the “proud parent-farmers” to tell their stories and the origins of their tomatoes.

From the book: tomatoes and tasting notes

His co-chefs then experimented wildly – turning the conventional upside down – breaking all the rules. Tomato ice cream? Don’t judge it ‘till you’ve tried it.  Admittedly, “not all of these dishes were worth repeating.”  I notice tomato ice cream didn’t make it into the book, but ginger ice cream with tomato syrup did.

Without the failures and so-called unproductive time spent exploring the nature of those tomatoes, there would be no “Twelve Ways” structure that so well serves as a template for deeper understanding of ingredients.  And without that understanding of the ingredients  unique to your home – a pure savor if you will – you’ve got a parody of other people’s food traditions.  Your own cuisine will emerge when you understand your native ingredients and when they are at their best.

With the confidence that firm understanding brings, your good cooking becomes as much “a matter of deciding not what to add, but what to allow to be.”  Cooking like this needs no slogan, no qualifiers, no trendy foodie descriptions on the menu.  It speaks for itself.

That’s art.

Today, it’s winter and the only 12 ways I can consider tomatoes are picking twelve kinds from the catalogs on my desk.  This drab January day, what I can do 12 ways is the beef in my freezer.

The 12 areas to explore are:

  1. Color
  2. Juice
  3. Essence
  4. Shape
  5. Sauce
  6. Conserva
  7. Complement
  8. Braise
  9. Container
  10. Condiment
  11. Side Dish
  12. Fruit

Granted, this list was designed for tomatoes and presents a few challenges for beef. But, I’m game and consider the list a springboard, not a law.

Sinkful of Roma tomatoes: a pure savor straight from my backyard

What about you?  What local item would elevate your cooking if you took the time to deeply understand it?

in which we have a Steak in the outcome

in which we have a Steak in the outcome

Can you tell I really liked this book? Entertaining, bright and funny...

Bacon, called by some “the gateway meat”, is often the animal flesh that rocks the strongest vegetarian resolve. Crazy as it sounds, my path to beef farming began with my attempts to be a vegetarian.  Obviously, a not very good one.

For me, the irresistible wasn’t bacon. It was steak.  A manly steak; New York Strip or rib eye, medium rare at most.  A beautiful, one-and-a-half-inch thick piece of well-raised beef, sporting a perfectly browned crust and sitting well rested and alone on a generous plate…

I know, I’ve said this before, but it makes me sad that consistent has come to define good with regard to food in America. And that’s exactly and all commodity grain-fed beef has become: consistent.  And now, being generations of Americans who have never tasted anything other, we believe tender = mushy, and flavor = rub, marinade and/or sauce when it comes to good beef.  Steak as we know it has become the chef’s blank canvas rather than the farmer’s art.

I suppose that’s why a truly extraordinary steak is as rare, haunting and mythic as the Loch Ness Monster. It’s amazing how many people can tell you exactly where and when that nostalgic meal took place. And one man, Mark Schatzker, loves his steak so much, he took it on as a Quest.  Capital Q, Quest, that is.

The book Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef is exactly what it claims to be: Mark Schatzker’s search around the world for the tastiest piece of beef. I’m a bit jealous, I admit, but he writes about it in such an entertaining and conversational way, I almost feel like I got to tag along. He starts in Texas (wow), heads to France (super-wow) where he finds a herd of ancient auroch, then Scotland, home of the esteemed Aberdeen Angus. After that, it’s Italy where I find the words to describe the thoughts I’ve had about my farm.

“There is a term that describes this [a distinctive taste for each distinctive region] phenomenon.  It is a foreign word—from France—and one that is often bandied about by pretentious people who stifle the atmosphere at dinner parties.  It is, nevertheless, a good word: terroir.”

It is a good word and Mark’s description is the perfect illustration of why I rarely use it. It makes me feel like a pompous ass. But, it is an important word here, since it describes everything I do.  Mark’s Italian friend Tilda uses the term “pure savor” which may be even more descriptive to me:

A pure savor is “any food where you can taste the nature that produced it.”

So, “ A Podolica [a breed of cattle indigenous to Italy] steak raised on Monte Tresino is a pure savor, but a feedlot steak from Texas, fed Nebraskan corn, coated with Montreal steak rub and swimming in a puddle of canned broth produced in some unknown factory, is not.”

Now, don’t let me get stuck in Italy. Mark moves on to Japan (fascinating), Argentina (nothing’s sacred), back home to Canada where he raises his own cow, then returns to the Heartland to wrap it up with his American team of grass & beef experts.  Each location contributes something unique, insightful and remarkably consistent  about what makes the best beef.  And, can I share a secret? Not that I recommend it, but:

“Start with good meat and it will be good even if you boil it.”

 “The secret to great steak isn’t the thickness, or ultra-low heat or ultra-high heat.  It isn’t dry aging, either, which is commendable but overrated— any rib eye that needs to be aged for sixty days isn’t a good rib eye to begin with.  The secret to great steak isn’t salting the day before, marinating in olive oil, or any other lost technique from the old country.  The secret to great steak is great steak.”

And, the USDA grading system isn’t even close to being comprehensive about what makes meat good. Tip: it’s not all about marbling.  Put all your steak buying decisions in the hands of the USDA grading system and you’re pretty much guaranteed to miss out on that elusive, mythic experience of a pure, beefy savor.

Time and time again, the flavor dial tilts in favor of grass-fed.  But, some of the worst steaks were also the grass-fed.  Grain-fed feedlot beef is easy to make consistent. Rations are mixed to be the same, all you have to do is dump the bucket full of grain into the trough and watch the cows get fat.

Grass-fed beef on the other hand is more complex – it  requires the farmer to demonstrate some thoughtfulness and skill.  You need to orchestrate your grasses, birth and slaughter times and even deeper, become a master of enriching your soil.  Because, it is true that two cows of the same age and breed can consume the same types and quantities of grass but live on different farms. You may expect them to taste the same, but no. They will taste different. The minerals in the soil of their different farms make their contribution to final flavor as does the level of contentment/stress the cows experience.

It takes more than simplified labels to identify good beef. A grass-fed label does not say anything about flavor, quality & texture.  It just tells you that cow did not eat grain.

I worry because some of the beef I see being sold as grass-fed has not been finished at all. I know that the farmer simply did not feed his cow grain which means that while it may be healthier, it will not be enjoyable.  And you are likely to blame your  disappointment on the fact the cow was grass-fed instead of the fact that it was the beef “equivalent of bad home-made wine.”  Mark has much to say about this:

“Grass isn’t so easy. Williams likens finishing cattle to playing guitar. ‘Feeding grain,’  he explained to me,  ‘is like knowing a few chords and playing an easy song. Finishing on grass is like being a virtuoso.’ ”

and

“One snowy winter day, I visited a farm where the farmer was letting the wrong kind of cows eat the wrong kind of grass.  The farmer and his wife were salt-of-the-earth types-three dogs, five kids-and lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse.  Most of their cows were fed corn, but a few of them ate grass and only grass, because growing numbers of precious foodie types down in the city had been clamoring for healthy, earth-friendly grass-fed beef.  I drove back to the city with a grass-fed sirloin and grilled it that night. …While chewing it, I debated whether the meat would make a better sandal or boot.”

So, someone who values well—raised beef and its healthful benefits is in danger of spending good money and getting a disappointing hunk of shoe leather.  And, ever after, believe the experience is proof that while grass-fed beef may be better for you, it is more health food than treat.  Which is completely false and leaves you in danger of missing out on the best steak experience of your life.

I was pretty excited also to see my belief that  old—fashioned unimproved breeds of cattle produce the most memorable beef was confirmed by experts. In particular, the old, un-“improved” British breeds are recognized as being superior in both flavor and texture and science is now beginning to demonstrate why.

Great news for our herd of compact Devon cattle - exactly the type of breed grass-fed beef experts recommend

Our Devons are as close to their original, smaller, slower growing British ancestors as can be. And their milk is high in butterfat, which, surprise surprise, is a significant indicator of good beef.

There is a documented relationship between cows producing milk with high butterfat content and superior marbling. And, a scientific reason the flavor and texture of the meat from smaller breeds who are slower to mature is so much finer.

So, you see, this book means a lot to me, especially since it reassures me that my farming decisions, exploratory and intuitive as they’ve been, are supported with data and the experience of farmers, experts and scientists I don’t get to chat with here in my small town.

Here, I’m the eccentric lady with the herd of “exotics” even though my “exotics” pre-date Roman times and the locally popular and hefty grain-fed Angus Hummers are evolutionary babies.  I could go on and on and actually paraphrase the entire book for you, but I won’t torture you that way.  I want you to read the book—it’s a four hooves up.

I could have highlighted the whole thing - important steak-y stuff from all around the world. Tag along on Mark's road trip and find yourself really hungry for something not so easy to find...

If you love beef but have felt it is somehow mysteriously lacking, you’ll gobble it up and learn something in spite of yourself. Makes me excited to get back to my work preserving and sharing something we are in real danger of losing.  And it should make you want to go out and find yourself a great steak.

If you decide to take up the Quest yourself, Mark has a website featuring contacts for some of the farms featured in the book. Also, be sure to check out eatwild.com and localharvest.org to find farmers in your area raising breeds you won’t find in the grocery store.

OK people, you have your mission….. readysetGO! And don’t forget to come back and share what you’ve found….

in which we come bearing gifts

in which we come bearing gifts

It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! Come on, you know it, perfectly said by the King of Christmas Grinchiness himself, Dr. Seuss.

I’m not much in the mood for cookie baking, gift wrapping or braving the crowds this year. I’m a Holiday Dropout I suppose, feeling more introspective than extroverted.  Nevertheless, whatever my whim, it’s always impossible for me to be untouched by the solemn wonder of the holiday season.

Most holidays, my enjoyment comes as much from my preparations as from the generosity I receive from others. While addressing Christmas cards, I am washed with fond thoughts of the person I am writing to. Preparing gifts of baked goods, wrapping holiday gifts and finishing them all with personalized tags makes me feel the same warm appreciation for the intended and gratitude for the people in my life.

This year, it’s a different sort of holiday due to my relatively homeless state; one that is broader in its scope of giving and receiving. Without a house of my own for the holiday, the usual activities are not so usual and feel odd and impossible.

But I’m far from homeless – while I have no actual house, I surely have a home.  And, since my home lives in the realm of imagination this year, so also do my thoughts of holiday giving.  The gifts I want to share this year are not ones found in shopping malls or grocery stores, but ones that have expanded the boundaries of my heart.

I find it often happens that serendipity plays its part in delivering the very message or salve you need in mundane, unexpected ways. This year I have been fortunate to have received many such synchronistic gifts just when I needed them most.

Here’s a few I’m happy to share with you; I hope they bring the same pleasure to you as they did to me. But I expect it’s possible that what’s magic to me may not say much to you. Or me either when I encounter it later at a different time and place in life.

That’s OK and as should be.  When the student is ready, the teacher appears, isn’t that how it goes?  You get the idea – if my gifts don’t speak to you, maybe they will remind you of synchronistic gifts of your own that meant much to you this year. And maybe you can pass those on too – someone you don’t know somewhere you’ve never been is waiting to hear from you.

I love this authentic and special holiday CD produced by Pat Humphrey with her daughters Lynn and Amy. These old carols are from around the world, and their angelic, ancient harmonies are so soothing to me I listen to them all year. Click the arrow below to begin listening or click on the title to visit The Rosa Minstrels site and listen to the whole CD.

[bandcamp track=2675635637 bgcol=FFFFFF linkcol=4285BB size=venti]

The internet is such a mixed blessing. It steals as much as it gives, but what it gives can be a delicate thread of human connection when your world rotates on a slightly different axis.  This heartwarming advent calendar from a complete stranger  Gloria Nicol at The Laundry Etc. in the UK made me feel much less Grinch-ey this  year. Click here to enjoy the calendar yourself – there’s still a few new surprises to come.  A photographer, writer, jam maker and shop keeper, you can visit Gloria here.

A Special Jewel of an Advent Calendar from Gloria Nicol of The Laundry Etc.

In sustainable farming circles, Wendell Berry is all that and more. Don’t take this the wrong way – I’m a huge Wendell Berry fan. But let’s not forget another old friend of the farmer, E.B. White. Not often mentioned in sustainable farming circles these days, E.B. White’s gifts rest in the realm of childlike (but far from child-ish) wonder and observation. His writing about his lovely and simple life in rural Maine in One Man’s Meat is a quiet joy that leaves you with tidbits you’ll be mulling over for a long time.

A gift that keeps on giving. Enjoy the reading first, plenty of rumination sure to follow...

I think it’s time to re-introduce real, old-fashioned mail. Written on paper, by hand, smudges and all.  This hand-made holiday card was just the balm I needed at a moment it meant the most.

The prayer-like and devotional quality of farm chores makes this card so true for me. Caring for the land and God's creatures is most certainly a way to kneel and kiss the ground...

The Digital Library of the Sketchbook Project is a bottomless source of fascination. Enter this rabbit hole at your own risk – you may be gone a while! I am so in love with this project and am blown away by the submissions. True gifts from the heart from not so ordinary people all over the world.  A live exhibit too: what a treat it would be to be able to spend a quiet afternoon with my nose tucked into the real pages – one of these days I’ll be there!  (Video of artist Lauren Nash and her very personal experience with the Sketchbook Project. Shows there’s a bit of magic for giver and receiver.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4CAQFDEXMs?rel=0]

How do we find this stuff? Well, one way is by visiting our our friends at Sustainable Eats who host a wicked good blog hop called Simple Lives Thursday each week.

I hope the boundaries of your heart are expanded this holiday; after all isn’t that the true reason for the season?

The Merriest of Christmases from the Ladies of Auburn Meadow Farm

In which we are still under the spell

In which we are still under the spell

A door to another world....

I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. As a kid, our library trip was the highlight each and every week. I would take out as many books as I was allowed, I think 12, and couldn’t wait to get home to review, stack and prioritize. Which should I read first? Such abundance and possibilities….

Once I tore into the stack, I was relentless until I had finished them all. I was a re-reader too and some would be read again and again. Today, years and years later, I can still get lost in favorites like Charlotte’s Web, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Harriet the Spy.

It’s sad that as grown-ups we have to leave behind that kid-on-summer-break abundance of time.  As kids, we struggled to fill that time up, staving off what was, after all, boredom really. But just on the other side of that boredom lies magic if we can just stick with it a bit longer. True creativity takes plenty of aimless meandering through tedium, boredom and solitude before it decides to kick in. I wish I could have a do-over so I can appreciate the lazy slowness of it more this time around.

Don’t you hate it when you’re wrapped up in a good book and see the pages coming to an end?  I know I’m about to be ejected back into my real world where the light is too bright, the noise is super loud and I have a clock to race. But it is nice to savor the feeling of being lost in the world of my book as I go about my day; a kind of country cousin to that delicious tweener place between being awake and asleep.

Anyway, I wander. This summer, I made it a point to read more. Not cookbooks or raising cows books or improving the pasture books but fiction. Or, if not fiction, at least books with a little enchantment and expanding vistas.

The Seasons on Henry's Farm by Terra Brockman

This week, I read a book that at first glance would seem to belong in the doesn’t-count category (it’s about organic farming) but in reality belongs in the counts-for-sure pile. I finished it day before yesterday and it’s with me still.

I learned plenty about the typical workday on an organic vegetable farm. Somehow, even without any farming experience, everyone knows it’s hard work; multiply that by ten and you’re getting warmer. Honestly, I don’t know if I could do it. Loading up that truck so many days each week with freshly picked and washed veggies of an impressive array feels overwhelming from the comfort of my living room. Could I manage to pull it off for real? Do I have the right stuff?

But that’s really just one element of the book. I never knew it before, but burdock roots are enthralling; I have a new crush on apples and a bruise on a peach is an incredible badge of honor. After reading this, who would want a whiny perfect one? Truly.

There’s magic in these pages – the kind of magic known by ancient Druids and fairies that’s only understood while lying on one’s back alone in the middle of a wintry field looking up at the nighttime sky. There’s also lots and lots of love. Love for the land, love of literature, the love of family, the love of good food and simple pleasures; it’s all there. A rich and rewarding read indeed. I recommend it highly.

As we find ourselves pinching pennies as individuals, families and a nation, it is so important to remember how important things like public libraries are. Many of us are a little spoiled by the ease of Amazon(dot)com – please take a moment to remember your local library. You may not be a user yourself, but the programs and access to hope, tools and possibility for those who can’t afford a bookstore habit is invaluable. Many people will never have the freedom to see places like Henry’s farm in person, but if they have a library, they too can know more about the choices and possibilities this great world has to offer.

Libraries are in need of your attention, time and donations; it’s one of the best ways we have to help others help themselves.

What are you reading these days?

Show some love for your local library!