Friday, December 30, 2011

Mi Caucus Es Su Caucus

If I were a candidate for president running in Iowa, I would not be talking about ethics, or business savvy, or trustworthiness. No. I wouldn't bring up manufacturing jobs either. They're not coming back the way we imagine. What would I steer the conversation toward? Farming.

Iowa is American agriculture. An entire third of the state is designated a national heritage area in partnership with the National Park Service. It's soil and climate are ideal. I see too little reason why we are not looking for Iowa made products and no reason why we are not clamoring for Iowa grown produce. Except that Iowa, with the exception of a few forward thinking farmers and producers, is caught in the conventional agribusiness mindset and unwilling to unravel itself.

There are millions in this country willing to pay more for better quality, better agricultural standards, better livestock practices, and better labor practices. Most of us cannot buy pork from Flying Pigs, it's just too darn expensive. We need larger producers who are willing to maintain higher standards, use less additives (salt solutions for instance), enact much better labor practices, and charge 25 percent more (or even more) per pound. I can't afford Flying Pigs bacon, but I certainly can afford higher cost pork and do not think that I am alone.

Why can't Iowa be the heart of grass fed beef (and bison) in this country? Millions of acres of feed corn are waiting to be converted to this more sustainable practice. Consider lamb and goat while you are at it.

I think of all the discriminating Italian markets and other quality grocers who are already selling Iowa produced, value-added agricultural products like la Quercia pork. Check out what they have to say about their farmers and pigs.

Iowa, your state will never be a manufacturing hub, a cultural center, or a financial powerhouse, but you could have a piece of all those things if some visionary leadership was taken. Imagine people looking for that IOWA stamp on the side of cured ham, the grass fed beef, or organic produce.

If Iowans can't see it now, they may very well never see it. The Romneys and Gingrichs and Santorums of the world don't care much for these ideas, but they sure know good pork when they taste it.

Good luck Iowa. Caucus for all of us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Old Farms

Rex was surprisingly easy going once we got going on this project of mine. I was determined to clear his yard of a pile of chemicals, known and unknown, that he had placed under a tarp when he moved from his old place. They asked very few questions at the Hennepin county facility, other than asking about coming all the way from New York.

Old farms across our country have little hazardous waste dumps behind the barn or in the ravine. There's no telling what's in them, but old pesticides, transformer oils, heavy metals, motor vehicle fluids, and household cleaners are a good guess.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sunday, December 25, 2011

First Draft

I am so far not very impressed with blogger's mobile blogging interface. However, this is my first post using the application and I do hope it is a success. I am glad that the software is free, but would gladly pay twenty bucks for something full featured that could save me time. If twenty bucks gets me rich text formatting, landscape format typing, wysiwyg editing, photo placement and video upload, that would be a grand start! Because this first post is an experiment in mobile blogging, I have included a few images that I have no control over once they are added to the blogger application.

The weather has been exceptionally warm at near 40 degrees F. The lack of snow and frozen ground allowed me to walk into the wetlands and take some shots with the phone camera. I might add that walking on a wetland in winter is less tenuous than blogging semi-blind!

There was a brief snow on the day we arrived. Some other shots are of the thin snow in the woods.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

First Walk

The weather has been odd, on again off again raining, sometimes cool, sometimes almost tropically moist. We arrived in the evening after three days of travel, two nights of camping, one stop at Allerton State Park in Illinois (post later). First thing, after morning coffee, was to hit the woods to get reacquainted.

Betsy investigating the vernal pond for tadpole activity.

Garlic Mustard, as prevalent here as anywhere east.

One thing we had noticed was the cottonwood seeds. While driving, literally, like a snowing.

Rex's humor litters the woods, and betrays his awareness that several neighbors travel his trails.

It refers partially to this.

Jewelweed grows in some locations near the wetlands woods boundary.

Any idea what this plant is, growing in shady woods, growing about 18 inches tall?

These are the leaves.

And, any ideas on the name of this fern, the predominant fern of these deciduous woods?

The small wetland has standing water, which I have never seen at this time of the year.

It has been a very snowy winter, and wet spring, as many of you know from the reports from Mississippi River towns, and now Missouri River towns. Here, at our place in the Big Woods, the excess rain results in constant sump pumping and a brook-like flow in drainages that are normally dry by now.  The drainage burbles. Or is it babbles?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pasta, Pea Shoots, Woodsy Mushrooms, and Wild Garlic

The last thing I ever intended for this blog was to talk about food or cooking. To be fair, I began blogging with aesthetic gardening, flower gardening, with nothing of the vegetable kind, in mind. Since then, I began reading what others were saying around their gardens, and of that became an awareness of the accord between the garden and the kitchen.  It may be hard to believe, but I never gave that much thought, and most often saw the produce of any vegetable garden I have tended as a source of fresh vegetables to eat uncooked, there in the patch. 

But all this has changed, hasn't it? I am now a dedicated foodie, a forager, a farmer, my kitchen a forum for fresh and fancy foods? No, not really. Although I have a few tricks up my sleeve, my meal palette is actually quite limited, and my time for cooking quite the same. But the media does like talk of food way more than gardening, enough so that garden talk has become the preamble to food discussion. And I suppose that makes sense, especially as we talk of vegetable, ahem -food, gardening.

This Thursday I'll head down to the WNYC studios to record 20 minutes of talk with Amy Eddings about gardening peas, and more specifically pea shoots, and maybe some chat about city vegetable gardening, garden blogging, and community gardening. I hope to figure out a way to drop the word artist and in there somewhere, maybe as a .exe, one that surreptitiously opens only after the 20 minutes has been edited down to the broadcast five. In preparation, I'm constructing statements on the confluence of painting and gardening.

As it so happens, I have had WNYC over for dinner once before, several years ago. My family's turkey stuffing was on the table, and Leonard Lopate and Ruth Reichl were guests. Ruth, editor of the now defunct Gourmet magazine, mentioned that the recipe had reminded her of polpettone. If you were listening, you may have heard the crickets, because I had no idea what that was and had little interest in admitting to my ignorance (until now, apparently). So, like everyone else, I looked it up online afterward, to find it's essentially meatloaf, Italian style, albeit more interesting than your average American loaf of ketchup, onions, and ground beef.

This time my guests would like to have pea shoots for dinner and I've harvested just enough to experiment with a pasta recipe before my appearance on Thursday. Of course, my instinct is to relate how delicious it is to eat them raw, snipped right off the plant, washing optional. After that, wouldn't one want to have it in a salad with the slightly bitter and snappy fresh greens also harvested now, a dash of olive oil and lemon, salt, and pepper? Those really are the first things to talk about and two things I've already eaten this spring. A way to eat cooked pea shoots is in a simple stir fry, which I made the first time I ate pea shoots several years ago, after I bought a rubber-banded bunch for one dollar from Hmong farmers at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market.

Pea shoots are sweet, a little nutty, distinctively pea, but without it's starchiness. They go well with earthy, woodsy ingredients, so I went to the farmers' market on Cortelyou to pick up cultivated mushrooms more exciting than the usual baby browns I can get around the corner -but those would work, too, in a pinch of any kind. The yellow and gray oysters were 7.99 a half pound and the hen of the woods was the same. My brown paper bagful cost me ten even. Dry, fresh mushrooms are fairly light-weighted and you'll get your money's worth in flavor.

I went to Caputos on Court to pick up some guanciale, fresh ricotta cheese, parmigiano, pecorino toscano, fresh pasta (out of pappardelle, out of fettuccine, had to settle for linguine), and ravioli. I bought the "wrong" ravioli, and left that out of the evening's exploration, saved for Wednesday when I will cook them with farmers' market asparagus and the remaining mushrooms. The guanciale is a cured, but not smoked pig jowl, a delicately textured "bacon," that reminds Betsy of flavors somewhere between turkey skin and pancetta.

Wild garlicAllium vineale, has a very earthy flavor, with subtle hints of garlic and shallot. I foraged these from the fields at the beach farm on Saturday, clipped the roots and stems, peeled the first layer of skin, washing thoroughly, and chopped. You can find wild garlic in most any woods or unmowed field right now in the metro area.

I have been growing peas in house as well as at the farm. Those on the right are cut from mature, beach farm plants, earning them the right to be called shoots, as opposed to the sprouts seen on the left. There may be some confusion about which should be called shoots on the web, but there is no doubt in my mind about which is which. Recently sprouted peas should be called sprouts, while mature vegetation cut for eating can be called shoots, but should be called pea greens to save from any confusion. Don't confuse pea sprouts with mung bean sprouts, which are an entirely different food.

The field grown pea shoots are robust, leafy, and with flowers -a mouthful of fresh pea flavor.

The in house sprouts are similarly flavored, although I expected them to be less so, and slightly more tender, but without flowers, and an altogether different eating experience because of their diminutive size.

I sliced the guanciale, pronounced gwan-chee-ah-lay, and crisped it to a light golden brown over low heat. I poured the rendered cheek fat into a bowl for later use -it's liquid flavor gold. After placing the the guanciale on the side, I placed a couple of pats of unsalted butter in the pan and softened the wild garlic. Then I cut up some of the mushrooms, which were very clean and required no washing (nice! no water), and tossed them in. Meanwhile the salted water was boiling and ready to receive the fresh pasta.

I added a splash or two of cream, two spoonfuls of ricotta, two spoonfuls of the liquid guanciale fat, two spoonfuls of pasta water, some salt, some pepper, a dash of nutmeg. After draining the liquid from the pasta, I chopped the pea shoots into one or two inch pieces, and tossed them into the saute pan. The key to cooking with pea shoots is to not wilt them -just warm them up. Throw them in at the last minute and the heat of the food will do that. I stirred the whole mixture, quite sloppily, together and grated some parmigiano on top.

All in all, I think it came out pretty well, although I have some after eating thoughts. The first thing is more shoots -I wanted more shoots in the dish, yet I cut pretty conservatively at the farm because I am hoping for a few snap peas. The second is the ricotta, which I added haphazardly, and I think the dish could do without, or maybe just one spoonful. And lastly, the mushrooms: When I sampled the oyster mushrooms, I thought they were quite strong and opted for a greater hen to oyster ratio, but after cooked, the oysters lent a woodsy flavor and the hens seemed overwhelmed. Its possible that the dairy overwhelmed all of them and would consider making this with olive oil and butter, omitting the cream altogether. 

One final thought about eating pea greens (shoots). Eating the tendrils raw, they are tender and easy to eat. However, I find that when you cook them, they toughen up just a bit.  With this in mind, my recommendation is to cut the tendrils to one inch or less in length when cooking them, while leaving the leaves, flowers, and branches larger. Or you can simply remove the tendrils altogether, snacking on those while you cook.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Halal Meat

I braved Fairway in the middle of a Saturday, yet couldn't convince myself to pay 12 dollars for a Murray's whole chicken, nor spare the cash for the lamb I was thinking of. I did pick up some baby octopus, all the way from the Philippines, for $3.99 a pound, after being inspired by it at Babbo a month ago. When I am at Fairway, I am looking for deals, not getting caught up in the smorgasbord. 

Afterward, I stopped in one of my local halal butchers for a whole chicken, keep the head, and maybe some lamb or beef. The whole chicken was $4.50, sold, but the lamb the tough kind, and the filet mignon would only be let go whole. What they did have, which I haven't seen since last year when the butcher offered some for me to try, was the cured/smoked beef steak you see below. I do not know the reason that it is sold at this time -for a festival, or holiday, or just because now is a good time to start up the smoker. It's made in house, is only $7.99 a pound (and it's light weight), is very lean, and fairly tender. Flavor is smokey, of course, but the texture is closer to a salt cured meat than a dried jerky. Sliced thin, it almost melts in your mouth. If you can find it, try some. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

My Eyes Are Full Of Smoke

We made the hour and a half journey upslope to the patch-treed, rumpled farm landscape, snow and ice refracted illusions of shadow and light at high speeds on two lane highways. Then, downslope, treed, over the Minnesota River, into the town of New Ulm, Minnesota. Unprepossessing, downtown paralleling the river, low rise, unanticipated one story marketplatz, grain elevators, powerplant, and grid of house-planked streets.

New Ulm is the site of significant battles during the Dakota War of 1862. New Ulm is also the ancestral town of my wife's paternal family. Mention her last name on the streets of New Ulm and any devotee of local history will first say, "ahh yes, first white baby born in the county." It is hard to hear these words without focusing on inflection. I joke with Rex that his ancestor is like some sort of Abraham of the Midwest.

The Dakota war led to the largest mass execution in United States history -the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Mn. Hermann the German, rising above New Ulm from its heights above the river, is a monument to German settlement in Minnesota. To me it's a bit ironic that 'Hermann the barbarian' should rise above a town with this difficult history, that he should become the symbol, controverted, of civilization over 'savagery.'

First stop, the New Ulm Historical Society in the old post office building.

Rendition of the mass hanging.

Little Crow.

Hermann, from behind.

New Ulm, after sunset, from the heights.

Wilhelm and Wilhelmina. The expression on his face seems a little out of step with the portraits of the times. I detect a little smile and she may even be suppressing laughter. Or not.

Apiary was the norm.

Day in the yard at "Waldheim." There are people who name their property and those who don't. What drives this difference?

Apiary in the orchard.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lamb's Leg Adapted

From Marie's. Turned out quite well, though I suspect her leg was of higher quality than mine. Cooking instructions, just right. Pink inside, rested, tender. Nice.

Monday, January 3, 2011


New Year’s eve brought us a weather phenomenon. Ice pellets, sure, but these were round beads, fell hard like a heavy rain, then bouncing, rolling, collecting in piles at the base of roof junctions, and in tea cups.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Snow Ark

Snowmobiling is big, 2-stroke engines, motor oil-gasoline combustion, bvvvvewewewewew, cough exhaust. Leaving no softly laid snow untouched, it brings contrast to the landscape where before were subtle tones, shadow and refraction.

The motorized love the wetland portion of Rex’s dominion. They jump in just to the south of the drainage, next to the mat of sumac, in an ess curve, south across the tall ochre grass, then west to follow the utility lines. 

Driving down straight two laners, I’ve been outpaced at 60 miles per hour. Speeding along paved highways is never enough. The other day, on the evening news, was a picture of a snowmobile half submerged into one of the lakes. The ice has not been strong because of snow, an excellent insulator, yet the cold air convinced that it should have been.

Snowmobiling is undoubtedly fun, mad fun. Because it is cold, because we tend to be indoors, because I arrive too late in summer to see the obvious damage, I reserve my scorn for that other 2-stroke nightmare, the personal water craft, err, Jet Ski.

 Rime feathers on my personal snow craft, the van, floated down from trees from last year's rime event.