Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Farm Musings

Grandma turned 80 this year. She's been the cornerstone of the farm since she married my gramps in 1948. Prior to that she was raised on her own family farm down the road. Running a farm is her identity.

She's a simple gal; we wanted to throw a big polka party, but all she wanted was to go to the casino. My aunt will testify that she had to drag Gramma away from the slots kicking and screaming. It runs in the blood; isn't farming all a gamble?

As Grams celebrated her entrance into octogenarian-ism and warned us all that "she wouldn't live forever" (I beg to differ) we all started to think: what will happen to the farm? One thing was clear: we still want it to be our farm. The process began to place a conservation easement on the property.

We're currently in the middle of this interesting process that requires many banal things such as tax documents, etc. I won't bore you with any of it. But at one point I was asked to write a very short pursuasive essay to support this easement. It was the most gratifying thing I'd written in a long time, and I wanted to share it with you.

We’re a farm family. We’ve been sustainable before “sustainable” was a buzzword and organic before “oraganic” implied a certain social status. In a day and age where obesity is an epidemic, we have a healthy relationship with food and manual labor. We’re American. We’re middle-class.

None of us are full-time farmers. We have careers: a chemical engineer, a research biologist, a project manager. We shop at large grocery stores, drive non fuel-efficient cars, and live in 1970’s-era subdivisions. You wouldn’t call us environmentalists, but our farm is our world.

We divide our year by the season: June is for strawberries, July is pea and pickle season. August is for cauliflower and tomatos. April is spent in the greenhouse, November finds us winterizing the chicken house.

We practice farming because we know we have an incredible gift of land to which a decreasing amount of people have access. We do it because we always have. We do it because it is our heritage and because it is immensely satisfying. We do it because we believe its incredibly inportant to pass it on.

Of course this farm is special for one thousand or more snapshots in time: for the myriad summer evenings the pond has given up its sunfish to ecstatic grandchildren; for the 40+ years that the woods have sheltered bands of campers and ordinary families singing like a world-class choir around a campfire; for the simple mystery of filling a plastic milk jug with crisp spring water straight from a hillside spigot; for the grove of pines that have provided years and years of Christmas Trees, for the sugar maples and the sugar shack and a rich warm maple perfume that cuts through cold spring air. For innumerable nights of catching fireflies in mason jars. For teaching brothers and cousins how to work together to get the ATV out of a mudhole or to construct cauliflower boxes at a rapid pace or to move an entire irrigation system in the 30 minutes after ice cream cones and before sunset. For teaching three generations how to be good stewards of our earth.

It’s not that you can’t encounter these attributes elsewhere. This type of tradition binds families and generations across the US; its our American heritage. Organic peas, berries and pumpkins can be grown anywhere. Instead, whats makes this farm unique is the people it has produced. Two married farmers built a system that produced four generous, hardworking individuals who will testify that their moral fabric is a direct result of their farm upbringing. Those four adults have in turn produced ten principled, productive members of society who choose to spend their summer vacations taking part in the familial-bound food production process. We, the human products of the Zenner Road Farm are instilled with sense of unique tradition, responsibility and a tie to the earth that we are determined to pass on to generations in perpetuity.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ravioli with Dueling Fillings

I’ve been saving this nugget for a rainy day. And by golly, that’s today. After a week of 70 degree-sunshine, rainbows and Picasso, we’re back to reality. Fortunately, ravioli is a proven remedy for any damp spirits out there.

Eric and I were inspired to make these pasta pockets after we found the most adorable and intriguing mushrooms at Ellwood Thompsons: Lobster Mushrooms. Aside from the fact that they look like little gingerbread men in their dried form, it’s entirely way too fun to discuss the mushrooms. “The lob-stahs are enjoying their hot soak”. “The lob-stahs are ready for sautéing”. I suppose they get their name from their reddish hue because they neither taste, look nor smell like lobsters. Still, they are meaty and delicious.

We went all out and made a ravioli packed with 3 types of dried mushrooms enhanced with regular white button mushrooms (because those dried suckers are expensive). Even after all that we STILL had more dough than filling. Eric got creative with a kale, walnut, and ricotta salata filling to use up the rest of the dough. I was, by all accounts, impressed.

These ravioli are especially good on a cold night with a light white wine and lemon sauce with a dash of cream and smattering of chopped parsley. Bonus points if you eat them while watching a Hawaii episode of Dog, The Bounty Hunter. Just sayin.

For the Dough and Ravioli Method

The general rule of thumb is one egg per 3/4 cup flour, which I follow closely. If my eggs are really small, I'll add an extra yolk at the end.

Lots of people like to make a pile of flour on the counter and put a well in it and dump the beaten eggs into the well. Rather than make a big mess and have the eggs spill out of the well and form a slimy waterfall off the counter and onto the floor, I put the flour in a bowl and make the well in there.

Also, it seems to me that Italian Grandmothers always have the exact perfect ratio of egg to dough to make a silky noodle. I generally have shaggy dough that requires a little water. Go ahead and add it. We did 6 eggs for this recipe which made an enormous batch.

After incorporating the egg into the dough, flip it onto the counter and knead for about 8 to 10 minutes until silky and smooth. Wrap whatever dough you aren't immedietly using with plastic wrap.

We used our pasta roller to roll out thin ravioli sheets one or two at a time. We then used a ravioli cutter (you can use a biscuit or cookie cutter) to identify where the filling would be dropped by lightly cutting into the dough, but not all the way through. We dropped a little spoonful of filling on the assigned parking space, lightly moistened the dough around the edge of the inside of the ravioli with water, and dropped a second pasta sheet on top and pressed it down around each mountain of filling. Then, we used the ravioli cutter to fully press through the dough.

We coated the raviolis in flour and let them sit out awhile to dry up. When its time to cook, drop them into boiling, salted water and let cook five minutes after they float. Generally you let them cook just until floating but for some reason these needed more time.

To freeze your extra ravioli, coat with flour and let them sit on a cooling rack for at least 1.5 hours to dry out a bit. Lay flat in a freezer bag or Tupperware. If you must stack, place sheets of parchment or plastic wrap between layers.

For the fillings:

Mushroom filling

1/3 ounce each dried lobster, porcini, and shiitake mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
1 large shallot, finely chopped
½ cup white mushrooms, finely chopped
3 tablspoons chopped fresh roma tomato
¼ cup white wine
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

For mushroom filling:
Put the three types of mushrooms in separate bowls. Add hot water to soak your dried mushrooms for at least 30 minutes. Reserve two tablespoons of the porcini soaking liquid. Chop cooled mushrooms finely. Melt butter in a non-stick pan and sautee shallot until soft. Add white mushrooms and sautee until soft. Add your other mushrooms and sautee together over high heat for 1.5 minutes. Add the wine and porcini soaking liquid and chopped tomatoes and simmer until the liquid evaporates. Add the bread crumbs until the mixture comes together. Only add more bread crumbs if you really need it. Season with salt and pepper and let cool a bit. When cooled, toss the mixture with the grated parmigiano. Let it cool to room temp before filling the raviolis.

Kale Filling
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup finely chopped roasted walnuts (to roast, put in 300 degree oven for 8 minutes)
2 large bunches kale, finely chopped and pre-steamed in the microwave (and drained)
½ cup ricotta salata, broken by hand or grated into tiny pieces

For the kale filling:

Wash and chop the kale. Put it in a microwave-safe bowl and add a sprinkling of water. Cover with plastic wrap or a plate and microwave for two minutes to wilt the kale. Toast your walnuts in the meantime.

Heat the olive oil and add the chopped garlic to sautee until fragrant and translucent. Add the chopped kale and sautee until all the water is evaporated. Remove from heat and toss with the chopped walnuts. We added the ricotta directly to the dough and put the filling asa layer on top of the cheese. HOWEVER. If we did this again, I would definitely use regular ricotta and mix it right into the filling. I suggest doing that, I just don't know how the ratio would work out. You'd most likely want about 3/4 cup.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I swear I still cook

I'm sorry, but I'm a little rusty. It's like going back to the gym after months of laying on the couch. Or going back to school after years of using a lesser portion of your brain. I don't really have a good excuse. I moved, changed jobs, experienced a major (but happy!) transition in my relationship. And I caught writer's block. I'm sorry I haven't written. But you should know that I've cooked.

Goodness, have I cooked. When you live in a new place with significantly less friends and obligations, you turn to what comforts you. I was reminded that for me, cooking equals comfort.
It's good to be back.

Speaking of comfort...

Immedietly prior to leaving DC I was the guest at a fabulous party hosted by my friends at Social Epicurean in honor of Chef Joan Nathan and to benefit Martha's Table, a DC-based non-profit with the mission of breaking the cycle of poverty by providing family-strengthening programs. What a party! I bought Joan's new book "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France" and sampled food from the book. I fell head over heels for Babka a la Francaise (a rich brioche-type bread stuffed with olive tapenade) and had to make them as soon as possible.

This was the first thing I baked in our new kitchen in Richmond. It's beyond fragrant and delicious slathered with butter and when the two of us couldn't finish all that bread we turned them into really gorgeous croutons.

Babka a la Francaise
This is taken directly from Joan Nathan's book, but I've made a few parenthetic notes where I made some intuitive changes. I really had a hard time incorporating the butter into the dough like they describe in the recipe in my Kitchen-aid. In the end, I took it out of the mixer and kneaded it by (greasy, messy) hand.

2.5 to 3 cups all purpose flour (I used closer to 2.5)
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp yeast
1/2 cup whole milk, room temperature
1 large egg plus 3 to 4 yolks- enough to make 1/2 cup egg mixture total
1/2 cup unsalted butter cut in small chunks plus 2 tbsp melted butter
1 1/4 cups pitted black pincholine olives ( I don't know what pincholine is: I used a mixture of kalamata and oil cured)
2 canned anchovies, drained ( I used 1 tsp anchovy paste)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, pulverized ( I would have reduced this to 1/2 tbsp)
1 to 2 tablespoon olive oil

Put 2.5 cups flour, salt, and all but 1 tbsp sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with dough hook attachment.

Put yeast and 1 tablespoon warm water (110-115 degrees) and the reserved sugar in a small bowl and let dissolve. With the mixer, using the dough hook on low speed, pour the yeast mix the milk and egg mixture in and mix into the bowl and mix on low speed. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 min, adding more flour if needed.

Add the pieces of butter one at a time until incorporated, then knead on low speed about 5 minutes until silken and rich ( I couldn't get there in the mixer and used my hands).

Transfer to a clean, greased bowl, cover with plastic and let rise about 2 hours. When doubled in size, punch down and press into plastice and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight.

To make filling: put olives, half anchovies and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a food processor (a mini one works best). Process until smooth and taste to correct for salt.

To assemble: grease two 9 inch round pans (HA! I didn't trust this part of the recipe and I should have. I used one 10" round pan which is why my photographs look like Dr. Suess Whoville Babkas- they were really overcrowded).

Take dough from refrigerator and divide in half. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece into 12x16 inch rectangle. Spread half of the filling over the dough leaving a 1/2 inch border. Tuck in the ends of the long side and roll it on up tightly. Cut, or use dental floss to divide into 12 equal pieces and place with cut sides up in each pan. There will be lots of extra room...that's ok.

Let them rise again while you pre-heat to 350. When they're ready for the oven, brush them with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until golden. When cool, pull apart into babkas. PS: they are even better with more butter if you can believe it!

Even if you don't like anchovies, I'd suggest giving this a try.

So I hope you're ready: I've a few months of pent up postings. In the meantime, check out my baby brother's blog! He's taking after his big sis with his own blog and is doing some impressive writing about some of our down-home family recipes from Buffalo while he learns the traditions for himself. I was going to write about our family tradition of Wigilia, but he beat me to it.

And ladies: he's single.