Friday, October 30, 2009

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

Before coming out to the orchard, I think the only time I really saw Ball jars in use was when I would drink milk from them out of my aunt’s kitchen cabinet of drinking glasses. I always thought they were neat since they had some sort of vintage feel to them, and I felt really cool drinking from something that wasn’t designed to be a drinking vessel. A great way to recycle or use glass jars…but not their true purpose.

To me it really seems that the practice of canning or preserving food is a lost art. There are probably boxes and boxes of dusty Ball jars scattered around peoples’ attics around the country from their grandmother’s generation, either being sadly ignored, or used for something like a funky flower vase, change jar, or, say, drinking glass.

As I grew older and my interest and passion for food increased, the concept of canning became more and more compelling to me. But I think what fascinated me more than the actual process of canning (which still remained a mystery to me), was why it had almost disappeared from most peoples’ habitual tasks of food preparation. It is just such a simple and lucrative concept. Bought too many tomatoes at the market in August, or have an overabundance in the garden? Don’t even think about letting them go to waste. Jar them and enjoy that succulent heirloom flavor in mid February when everyone else is eating the styrofoam, flavorless, sad excuse for a tomato that is grown to be packaged and is shipped from who knows where to your grocery store produce section. Hmf! Glad to get that off my chest.

Even with these sentiments, though, I still found myself on the loser side of the Clueless and Uninvolved. I was determined to learn, someway, somehow, but I knew it would have to be a situation that would force me to do it. That way I would have no choice. So, when Elane first explained that my potential duties on the orchard would be preserving and making value-added products to sell, you should have heard my reaction. “Elane,” I said, and paused on the phone (I may have even stuck out my arm sitting there on the front steps, as though she could see my need to have her stop and notice how important her last statement was). “You don’t understand how much I have been wanting to learn how to jar food.” Hook, line, and sinker, she had me at ‘preserve’.

Luckily I was able to find a situation where part of my work was literally to invent as many recipes as I could to preserve the fruit still left at the end of the season. Over these past 5 weeks they have become a part of me; my little jars of invention, experimentation, failure, success, deliciousness, profit, and creativity all at once. I feel the need to show off my little off-springs, and hopefully they will give you enough inspiration to start your own jarring tutorial too.

1) Zesty Pear Chutney
You wouldn't believe the amount of flavor that is packed into these little 8 oz. jars, thanks to Cedar's unbeatable recipe. The perfect balance of sweet from the pears and raisins, bite from the apple cider vinegar and the accompanying spices, and heat from the ginger and cayenne. It's been a hit at every market we've been to. My favorite part was seeing people's face light up after taking a sampling spoonful. Eyebrows raised, a surprised smile, "This is really good!" (Duh!) Excellent on grilled chicken or pork, stirred in rice or couscous, or my personal favorite, on a cracker with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese (Vermont cheddah of course).

2) Peach Jam
I became very acquainted with the peaches that went into this jam after a marathon of blanching and peeling each and every one that went into the stock pot. Elane showed me the ropes of basic canning procedures with this batch: cooking and heating the ingredients, adding the pectin, funneling the mixture into each jar, wiping the edges, applying the lid and ring, and boiling. It was one of the first things we had canned, and it captured the last hints of summery peachiness for us and our customers to savor into the fall and beyond.

3) Pear Conserve
Nope, I didn't know what a conserve was the first time I heard it either. Apparently it's an older type of recipe that combines fruit, spices, and some sort of extra sweetness. We were able to use the honey from the orchard's bees which was great, since guess what flowers the bees pollinate from? The fruit tree blossoms of course. It's a slightly similar idea to an applesauce, but replace apples with pears, and make it chunkier and thicker. Excellent on toast, spread on muffins or breads, in yogurt, and oatmeal. You can even replace oil with it when baking.

4) Peachy Green Chili
The first time I made this - sprouting from Elane's excellent idea of combining the sweet with the heat - I guess you could say I was a bit liberal with the amount of green chilies added to the pot. We stood there in the kitchen, faces red, mouths on fire, wondering how the heck we were going to cool this thing down. How could a girl with such bad chronic heartburn create a sauce this hot?? After a few attempts to cool it down, we finally said the heck with it and jarred it anyway. I guess people like things hot around here, since it nearly sold out the next day at the harvest festival. Used on anything you would with a regular green chili: on enchiladas, quesadillas, on eggs, in soups or stews, with nachos, or on meat. Love that peachy heat!

5) Zippy Pear Grilling Sauce
I turned to Cedar as we stood at the stove. "Something's burning," I told her - a statement no cook ever wants to hear, especially when making large batches of soemthing to eventually sell to other people. One of the pots we had split the 20 quarts of diced pears in had scorched at the bottom. Uh oh. It couldn't be salvaged to become more jars of Pear Conserve...but what about something that should already have a 'smoky' flavor in the background to begin with? We began brainstorming different ingredients to add to turn this initially intended sweet sauce to a savory one. The kitchen already had almost every ingredient we desired: onion, garlic, salt, cayenne, oregano, apple cider vinegar, even a lime! Hence the birth of the pear grilling sauce. Perfect on top of a juicy pork chop, grilled chicken breast, hearty burger, or grilled veggies.

6) Preserved Bartletts
Since the pears are so good on their own, I thought that preserving them in an ever so slightly sweet syrup would keep them going well through winter. I kept the skins on some, and peeled the others, just to have some variation. Sure beats any grainy, over sugared canned pear at your regular store.

7) Peachy Keen Sauce
The whole story of this recipe's creation is fully explained in 'The Peaches' Last Hurrah', but in short, this was my solution to the long process of making peach jam. Forget blanching, peeling, and pectin...and enjoy full peach flavor and great variance of texture from the left-on skins, not to mention the nice rosey hint of color to the strict orange. A Jack of All Trades in yogurt, with granola, on ice cream, in a smoothie, as a turnover filling, in baked goods...That is, if you can get past just eating it straight out of the jar first.

8) Lemon-Ginger Pear Jam
Have this on your favorite bakery toasted slice of bread with a skim of butter in the morning and you wont go back to any other fruit spread again. The bright lemon, spicy ginger, and distinct sweet pear are a trio to be reckoned with. The smoother consistency can also make it a great pair with yogurt too. This was a fun one to create, and an even better one to eat.

9) Chipotle Pear Green Chili
So we had done the Peachy Green Chili, but then the peaches were gone, and a whole sack of peppers remained. What to do? How about use some of the 100s of boxes of pears up...and that's what we did. Adding the smokiness of the chipotle pepper flakes really made this one have a great complexity of flavor, playing off the pears and the straight heat of the peppers. One family bought a jar at a farmer's market only to come back 20 minutes later with it completely empty. Once they had bought their breakfast burritos, the thing didn't stand a chance!

10) Apple-Raisin-Walnut Pie Filling
I can honestly say there aren't many more comforting foods than a serving of apple pie or crisp on a chilly night with a dollop of whipped cream or good vanilla ice cream on the side. Am I right people? So with all of the great Galas and Fujis around, especially with the holiday season coming up, I thought it would be nice to create a pie filling that people would be able to literally open and put into their favorite pie crust and have a taste-like-homemade pie ready for them in no time. In the same amount of time and effort you would put into baking a store bought industrial pie (bleck!) this filling though would have pure ingredients, showcase the superb flavor of the fruit, and encapsulate those wonderful spices of fall. And with the original twist of added raisins and walnuts, you have a pie that stands out from the rest. With this jar you have that comforting taste at the ready whenever you need it.

So there's the line-up. Recipes you say? Hmm, they may just be top-secret. But, if you convince me that you’ve decided to dedicate yourself to learning the indispensable life skill of canning, I think we could be able to work something out. And don’t be deterred by that supposed intimidation of it all. Just think about the trusty words of our old friend ‘The Little Engine That Could’, and you’ll be on your way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Life Gives You Lemons...Make Apple Cider

“Woah, so there she is,” I said, as I admired the beautifully crafted wooden structure before me. It was simple and concise, but still apparent that some engineer put a lot of thought into its design. That early Wednesday morning there was only one task on the day’s schedule: pressing. Apples, that is. Emily and I were excited to see the whole process go down, and the introduction to the fun toy in front of us made us eager to start.

The back garage door to the packing shed was lifted and we set up our station. All of the apple seconds (apples set aside for things like pressing, since malformations, hail damage, or extreme sizes prevent them from being sold directly as such) were taken out of the cooler. The towers of boxes stood up against the wall, and next to them we set up our chopping and inspection table, with the final destination of the apple press at the end of the table, placed just right to have the juice ‘luge’ hanging over the gravel outside. Despite our excitement, Emily and I knew there wasn’t much hope for the chilly morning to warm up with the blanket of grey clouds above us outside. So, after a quick addition of layers – including a pair of large, suspender style, kids snow pants, some long underwear, and a poncho – we were truly ready to get our press on…with style.

Paul gave us a run through of all of the different parts of the press in sequential order. First, we take an apple – either a Gala or a Fuji – and cut out any ominous black tunneling or spotting if necessary.

After, the whole fruit is tossed into the box chute that leads to the grinding blades. Here the apple is ground into small pieces about the size of peas, without extracting a large amount of juice.

Once the bucket below, lined with a mesh bag (similar concept to a cheese cloth), is almost full with apple pieces (called pumice), the full bucket is moved down the luge and the other bucket takes its place.

As more apples are being ground into the newly introduced bucket, the edges of the mesh bag are folded over the collection of apple pieces in the full bucket at the end of the luge. Next, a large wooden circle that fits just inside the sides of the bucket is placed on top of the bag. Once it is placed just below the metal crank, one of us would wind down the crank and apply pressure to the apples, slowly extracting the juice still held within the small bits of fruit.

Once we reached a firm resistance, we would let the final juice drip out into a large kitchen pot,
and the pressed fruit debris would be tossed out of the mesh bag into the large bucket of the backhoe. Repeat.

After just a few run-throughs, we found our groove and were in the apple pressing zone. Chop, toss, chop, toss, toss, toss, swap, crank, drip, dump, swap, chop, toss. We had become one with the press, and soon enough we had pots and pots of freshly squeezed juice surrounding our work hub.

All of our pressed juice was destined for 60 gallon jugs. These particular 60 gallons, though, were requested to remain unpasteurized for a Harvest Festival that was that following weekend. That meant we could literally siphon the juice directly from the stainless steel pots into the plastic gallon bottles. I learned quickly about the speed of the siphon once the juice was summoned down its tube. After a quick clean up of a minor ‘spill’, I kept my focus and carefully transferred the tube from opening to opening of each jug.

With every gallon we cranked out, the more and more the afternoon felt all-encompassing, for many reasons. One, as you can imagine, is the fact that I had been a part of the entire existence of the apple cider. We were using the same Fuji apples Elane and I had picked weeks before (a measly 2000 pounds). These were also the same apples we had sorted through, one by one, by hand, and now were escorting them to their final destination as an eager customer’s fall cider.

But apart from this, and apart from how great it was to learn the actual pressing process, I was creating something that had at one point lead me to exactly where I was standing at that moment. Needless to say, to many this cider would be nothing more than a fall staple, but for me, it was an incredible dictator of fate.

Let me explain. In fact, I’ll start at the very beginning.

When I first came out West, I had no idea Excelsior Orchards even existed. Actually, it was as far away on my radar as possible. I was not only on a different WWOOF location, but was literally almost on the complete other side of the state of Colorado.

During my first market with the initial WWOOF farm, I took a moment to browse the other booths surrounding us. Knowing me, I can’t just look at most booths and move on. Sometimes it’s physically impossible for me to not inspect what the different producers have to offer, and proceed to ask numerous questions about it all to the people behind the table. Again, bless anyone who has the patience to deal with me during any type of food venture.

On my browsing walk that morning I spotted a table that was offering fruit. Delicious! I meandered my way over and starting chatting with the two ladies there as I munched away on one of the more delicious peaches I had ever tasted. Not only did they have fresh fruit, but they had juices and cider too: my favorite being the creative and unbeatable tart cherry-pear. I had a nice conversation with the girl who had been working there for a few weeks, and she boasted about how much she had learned from the owners and what a great experience she had had working there. As I thanked them for the sample and the quick chance to chat, I walked away from the stand with one main thought: “Boy, that would be nice if that place had a WWOOF opportunity…”

But, the market went on, and I spent the rest of the day back at our stand selling veggies (enter the inappropriately shaped potato the old woman bought in "The Other Side of the Table") and chatting with the customers. One man in particular, named Ernest, perked up when he saw my ‘Vemont Hockey’ sweatshirt I was wearing. I heard not only all about his years living in Vermont, but also in Massachusetts. And once he got into describing all of the different hikes I needed to do in Colorado during my time here, he placed all of his purchases in his arms on the table in order to gesticulate all of his excited and intricate descriptions. We finally said our goodbyes, and Ernest quickly gathered his things to let the other customers have their time to check out what we had to sell.

After about ten minutes after he had left, I noticed that he had forgotten to grab his half gallon of cider that sat on the corner of the table where he had left it. I waited until the end of the market to see if he would come back to get it, but by the time everyone was ready to pack up, the cider still sat unclaimed.

I walked back over to the fruit stand with the jug in my hands. I explained to the two ladies there that a man had left it on our table and that I wasn’t sure if they wanted it back or not. The owner told me that she wasn’t even sure if they’d be back next week and that I should either keep it or bring it back with me come the next market and weekend. I said alright, and it was placed at my feet in the car to keep with me until the next market to hopefully give back to Ernest.

To make a long(er) story short, after the next few days at that first farm site, I knew that it wasn’t going to work out for seven weeks. Luckily I have some fantastic friends in good places, and David was able to pick me up with a quick rescue drive down from Colorado Springs. As I gathered my things to be ready for David’s arrival, I noticed the cider sitting there, staring at me like a sad dog who was about to be left home. I stood there conflicted. I knew it wasn’t truly mine. But then again, if I left it there, it would be surely abandoned since no one else knew of its connection with Ernest but me. I just couldn’t leave such a delicious tasting drink there to spoil, and in it went with me to Colorado Springs as part of my thank you to David.

If you have read an earlier post of mine, titled ‘PB&...what?’, you may know exactly what happened to that cider. If not, one afternoon David and I had an awesome food adventure by testing different types of sandwich combinations with peanut butter. To keep our taste buds on target, our perfect palate cleanser between samplings was none other than that single half gallon of cider. During my efforts to document all of the food items we had created before they were devoured, I decided to take a picture of the cider too, because, well, why not? And, mostly because there aren’t many things that I eat that aren’t photographed before consumed. Call me a weirdo, its okay, I even think so sometimes.

On I went to my next destination, which was Denver to stay with my other friend Charlotte for the interim while I figured out what the heck my next step should be. My initial plan for the fall was completely shot now, since my time slot set aside for WWOOFing lead me all the way up until the end of October. At that point it was still September…ugh. I spent a lot of time contemplating how I should handle this turn of events. I couldn’t move up my eventual plans to go to California, and my trust in WWOOF with the thought of trying another place had deflated rapidly. Do I throw in the towel and go back East? No matter how easy it would have been to do that, I just knew that I couldn’t fold on myself just yet.

One night, after a frustrating day of trying to figure out what I should do, I thought I’d humor myself and check the WWOOF website one last time for sites in Colorado. It was late, I was tired, and just before I closed my laptop, I noticed a name on the listserv that I could not pass over. Excelsior Orchard…why are you so familiar to me? I clicked on the link and read the description. It seemed like a pretty decent place. But where do I know this from?

Then it came to me. I couldn’t open my picture files fast enough, and finally the file opened that had all of the pictures I had taken during my time with David in Colorado Springs. I spotted the picture, and once it enlarged on my screen, I couldn’t help but gasp outloud “No Way!” “What?” Charlotte asked. I turned to her and presented her my computer, where the screen was taken up by a picture of a close-up of a label on a half gallon of cider (don't ask me why I felt the need that day to take a close up of just the label, because I have no idea. It makes you wonder though...) The label read that it was made by the one and only Excelsior Orchard in Paonia, CO.

Well, as luck would have it, my aimless wish I had as I had left the fruit stand at the farmer’s market the weekend before had actually come true.

And the rest is pretty much history from there. As you can imagine, I was on the phone the next day with Elane, one of the owners, and she told me that I would be able to try out working there. I bought a bus ticket a few days later, and off I went to Paonia. If you want the rest of that story, start with my ’22 Skidoo!’ post about my birthday, and read every post until now. You’ll get an idea of what I’ve been up to here, and, more importantly, how much I couldn’t have asked for a better place to have this sort of experience.

So, as I stood there chopping apples, pressing juice, and filling gallon jugs, you may now understand why it was such a special and full-circle moment for me. Without going to the first farm, without working at that particular market, without being a little nosy about farm stands, without Ernest’s charisma with his story telling, without David, without Peanut Butter and Jelly experiments, without my fixation with taking pictures of food, without taking a small leap of faith on one of life’s many coincidences, and without that one, lone half gallon of apple cider, I would not have learned, seen, heard, and experienced all that I have here on the orchard. Mainly, the story that I have been telling you would be very different indeed. I reflected on how life can unravel in these ways sometimes, and quickly went back to my chopping board. Those apples wouldn’t make themselves into life changing cider on their own, of course.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Paul, Emily and I piled into the grey truck right around 6:30PM. That’s when dinner was scheduled to start, but seeing that our destination was a literal two-minute car ride away, we still managed to pull into the parking lot on time. The bed and breakfast down the street, named Fresh & Wyld, hosts a dinner every Friday night for anyone who wants to make a reservation (guests and outsiders alike). The inn is appropriately named too, since all of the food served there is either from their own garden or from surrounding local producers. And as we turned the corner into the dirt parking lot next to the quaint periwinkle house, I spied the rows of veggies sprouting from their dirt mounds in that very garden. It was like seeing a preview for a movie; which one of you guys is going to take on the starring role on my plate tonight?

The inn looks just like a residential home, tucked away in a collection of trees with a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains. If I were an outsider visiting Paonia, this would definitely be the place to stay. Not only did the exterior exude a homey feeling, it continued on once we entered the door. “Well hello, come on in!” Dava, the head chef and owner, greeted us from her station in the kitchen. “So many great people we’re feeding tonight!” she continued to say as she took a testing spoonful of the night’s soup. You walk in and see a majority of the kitchen area over a half wall; something you’d often find at a friend’s house and what you’d never find in a restaurant. Instantly we felt more like guests than customers. Our waitress proceeded to tell us where we were sitting – ‘the big table in the second room’. We walked our way through three connecting dining rooms that were filled with different sized tables where your party sits elbow to elbow with everyone else there. The whole ambiance makes a such comfortable and friendly setting that getting to know the other people at your table comes with ease, since you almost instantly feel like a big family catching up while sitting down to a meal. The social aspect alone could be reason enough to come and enjoy the Friday night get-togethers, but the food of course makes the whole experience over-the-top.

That night was actually my second time attending a Fresh & Wyld Friday night dinner. The first time just Elane and I went to see what the whole experience was like, and we had such a nice time that we knew we had to go back. In fact, we looked at what dessert was that first night – a peach crisp made with peaches from a competing orchard – and thought, why can’t our fruit be the star of the show too? So the night Paul, Emily and I arrived, we came not only as eager guests but also as proud contributors. That night the menu read that dessert consisted of our very own Excelsior Orchard pears. How could we be a part of the menu and not show up to see how our pears were to be dolled up and received? Once the word got out of our connection, we became mini-celebrities of the table “Oh wow, you work there? Picked with your own hands, that’s phenomenal!” We sat a little taller with every confirmation.

But that was dessert, and first, there was dinner. Actually, first there was soup. The waitresses brought out trays of an assortment of different sized, shaped, and colored bowls – an assortment you’d probably find in your own kitchen cabinet – full of Dava’s supposed most popular soup: a Creamy Pumpkin and Sage Soup with Garlicky croutons. After my first bite I knew how it had gained its popularity. The sage really supported the pumpkin flavor of the soup, keeping everything very simple and earthy. I was very relieved, though not surprised, that it wasn’t doused with cream as some vegetable soups can be since the pure vegetable flavor is so often lacking. These ingredients were of course were fresher than fresh, so no cream was necessary to cover up lack of flavor. The consistency also made it such an enjoyable soup, not too thick, not too thin. It even had pumpkin seeds on top as well as the croutons. How interesting! All three of us were having small cases of deja vu since I made a soup very similar to this the night before (::See the ‘A Taste of Home’ post::) . We didn’t mind a repeat.

Our bowls were taken away and we sat waiting for dinner to be prepared. I was able to discuss a few different wines with Robert and Sally, a couple we had met the last time Elane and I were at dinner. It was great to see them again! They had previously lived in San Francisco and Robert had worked in the wine business. He was very eager to have me taste his 2001 chardonnay. He explained to me that its not as fruity as typical California chardonnays are, and that this bottle was a fun experiment for him since he kept it unopened for a bit longer than usual, leading it to have a nuttier undertone. It was great tasting this in comparison to the house Jack Rabbit chardonnay from Hotchkiss, the town over. It was much more acidic, that was for sure, with no lingering nuttiness that his own bottle had acquired. Our discussion of all of these variances led us up to the arrival of our dinner plates.

There are always two options on the menu, a meat and a vegetarian plate, and Emily and I got one of each so we could try them both. I had ended up with the chicken plate, and boy was I excited to dive in. It was roasted chicken with sourdough jalapeño stuffing, with a side of roasted butternut squash and steamed brussel sprouts. I didn’t know where to begin! The chicken was satisfyingly moist and you could tell it was roasted with my favorite chicken pairings – thyme, garlic, and lemon. They add such flavor to the meat that is subtle enough not to overpower but has enough presence to enhance that desired chicken flavor.

Next was the stuffing. While I was eating it, it confirmed my belief that stuffings made with sourdough bread are just that much more tasty – that sour flavor element just makes it that much more delicious and unique. Included were also mushrooms, walnuts, and even a sprinkling of goat cheese over the top. I must say, though, it was teetering on the edge of ‘too many players on the field’, if you will. If you say jalapeño stuffing, you should get just that, with a heat coming at you followed by some great jalapeño flavor. I had one or two bites that followed this expectation, but otherwise it was a more ordinary stuffing doused in the pan juices of the chicken. I was at no point to complain since it was still delicious, but perhaps could be either reevaluated for its construction or for its title.

Then I finally arrived at my favorite part of the meal: the veggie sides. I ate my roasted squash with a smile. It was definitely roasted with rosemary, another excellent herb-partner to winter squash, along with a bite of garlic. The sweetness of the squash really stood out as well, and I suspected she added a bit of honey to highlight that aspect of the vegetable. I then took one bite of the brussel sprouts and raised my fork in the air. Ding ding ding! We have a winner ladies and gentlemen. They were steamed perfectly; just enough to turn these little bundles of tight leaves bright green and a bit soft but still crunchy. It’s such a tragedy when vegetables are overcooked. They even take on the look of defeat from their grey-green color and lack of any natural crisp they once had. These sprouts were far from it, and I was so glad to see them cooked in a way to highlight their prime natural taste. The lemon aioli that she had spooned over them also supported their freshness, as citrus always does.

Emily’s dish was identical, except the chicken was swapped out for a cheese tart with caramelized red onions. It tasted just like a quiche, which I obviously supported, certainly made with very fresh eggs. The crust was also wonderfully homemade and you could tell by both the finger molded crust to the true buttery crunch it had. With either plate you could not lose.

And last but not least, we had dessert. The Big Show! Our pears came out peeled and halved and certainly baked or poached due to its cut-with-the-side-of-a-fork texture. The cored cavity was filled with a luxurious dark chocolate sauce, and it all was placed on a caramel custard that had similar flavors to a Spanish flan. We ate with curious and contemplative faces. We were so used to munching on these fall gems straight from the tree or from the cooler that we had to process this new transformation with all of these other added elements.

We sat and evaluated. I was the first to speak up: I thought the dark chocolate really brought out the sweetness of the pear and alternatively this sweetness highlighted the bitterness of the chocolate: a successful contrast of flavor sensations that heightens the dish instead of smothering it. The custard had a nice caramel/salty taste, but not the best texture (the graininess was too much of a reminder that it is based from eggs). Paul and Emily agreed. We had to admit we missed the traditional fall spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, clove…- that so often go with pears in, say, a crisp, pie, or with poached pears since they support, instead of overpower, the delicate floral taste of a pear.

But we knew deep down we were hard critics. You can’t expect much else from people who know the product so well, people who know it is so delicious that it could be served on a plate untouched as a dish in itself, and see this flavor masked by so many other things. We gave some major creativity points, though, as we had never seen pears served as such, particularly with these ingredients. In the end, our plates were certainly clean, and our pride grew with all of the other clean plates on the table joining ours too.

With our full bellies and satisfied smiles, we said our goodbyes to the others at the table and headed for the front door. I spotted Dava just outside the kitchen and got her attention to tell her thank you so much for the wonderful dinner. As she thanked us back for the pears, I swiftly pulled out a jar from my jacket pocket. “As a matter of fact,” I said casually, “I have here a new product we’ve been working on with these very pears.” I showed her the 12 oz. jar of the Lemon-Ginger Pear Jam we had created and jarred a few days beforehand. “Ohh yum!” She responded. “This looks delicious.” I proceeded to tell her all about the other products we had been making too, since she always has a basket of value-added products from other local farms in the area on the entrance table right inside the front door. “So you mean I could sell this too?” she asked. “Of course!” I said. “At the very least have it on your breakfast toast with a little butter, you won’t be disappointed.”

If you were in my family you would call this a little bit of a ‘Spag’ move, in honor of our Grampa, since he was always interested in hooking people up with ‘the best of the best’, as if it were an ‘inside-track only’ item in demand. As kids this meant getting twinkies handed to us from under the table, or doing shots of creamers in diner booths when Mom and Dad weren't looking. You’ve gotta add some excitement to the food you eat and make, right? Dava graciously received the coveted jam and said she would get back to us with her thoughts.

As we stepped back onto the dirt driveway and walked to the car, I thought about how another Friday night dinner at the Inn did not disappoint. It was a great night of sharing food, stories, and the enjoyment of them both. For me, even beyond the meal, it was seeing and being a part of such a healthy and successful network of regional food sources that impressed me the most. And off we went back up the hill on our two-minute car ride home.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Taste of Home

My mom is undoubtedly one of the most positive people I know. She sees the good, makes you laugh, and even celebrates good news with a cartwheel or two in your honor. I think it may even be impossible to be in a bad mood around her, seeing that she continuously exudes limitless support and enthusiasm to everyone she knows. One of her favorite responses, to, well, anything really, is to say that it’s ‘super!’ or that you did a ‘super job!’, and her saying and intonation has certainly permeated throughout our whole extended family’s vocabulary. Anyway, the other day I was craving something warm and delicious on a cooler afternoon and I knew exactly what would make me feel better: a recipe I have done with my Mom. I was sure the taste of the soup and the thought of her contagious energy would guarantee a success.

Elane and I had discussed making a soup for a couple of days and my craving for a warm bowlful and a comforting smelling kitchen increased intensively. While we browsed the aisles of the local market one afternoon I spotted a hefty sized butternut squash and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed. “I have a great butternut squash soup recipe and I think that should be our contender for our soup fix.” Elane was all for it, and I finished gathering all of the necessary ingredients. Not only was this going to be a special soup since I learned the recipe from my mom, it also involved apples, which, of course, we had in abundance of in the cooler back at the orchard; picked with our own hands not too long ago. Although the recipe was from out-of-state, the soup was local where it counted: in the ingredients.

After a day of different tasks around the orchard, including my first attempt at drying some Bartlett pears and helping move Nick’s (the horse) pen to a different patch of pasture, the sun finally started on its descending path down past the cherry tree horizon. As its final rays made it through the kitchen window above the sink, I stood at the counter with a cutting board and a knife. I stared at the seemingly innocent 5 pound butternut squash. I was about to take on peeling, coring, and dicing a large butternut squash which I well know is no easy task. And with my trusty chef’s knife remaining in Massachusetts (it’s name is Spartacus…he’s that good), I was sure this was going to be the most difficult part of the process.

Needless to say the end of the production left me winded and with a sore arm. “Man, what a workout!” I said while leaning on the counter. “What’d you run far today or something?” Paul asked. “No…I just cut up a squash with a dull knife,” I replied, assuming that I would get an understandable confirmation back. All I got was an odd stare. “It’s really hard, I swear!” and quickly gave my schpiel on not only the difficulty of man-handling large winter squashes but also the importance of a good, sharp knife in a kitchen. “Dull knives are more dangerous than sharp ones you know!” After I got that out of my system I finally returned to the real task at hand.

Next on the chopping list was a large, softball sized yellow onion followed by two fuji apples. They both were cubed in a similar way to the squash and were placed on a separate baking sheet since the squash took up an entire sheet by itself. With the last addition of a few cloves of slightly crushed garlic, the main ingredients were ready for their seasoning. Since they were heading into a 425 degree oven to roast, I started with a base coating of olive oil and the standard seasonings of salt and pepper. I also encountered some great additions as I browsed the spice section of the kitchen cabinet, and added some sprinklings of dried oregano, thyme, and red curry powder. Who said we couldn’t get a little exotic? That’s one of the reasons why I love this recipe so much – although the base ingredients are always the same, you can make the soup your own each time you make it since you can add any spices you’d like to it. That day we were going curry, and once the roasting veggies started wafting their delicious scent from the oven, I knew it was going to be a good pairing.

After about an hour, the veggies (and fruit) were at the right softness and had perfect caramelization along their edges. So perfect that Paul snuck his own bowl of squash cubes to munch on as a pre-dinner snack. “I’d eat ‘em just like this!” This meant the ingredients were ready for Step 2: blenderizing. And it really was simply that. I added all of the ingredients to the blender in small batches along with splashes of chicken stock to help along the pureeing process. Everything was poured into a tall soup pot, including another quart of chicken stock, to come up to temperature over medium-low heat. There was that soup smell I had been waiting for... I stood happily at the pot, slowly making figure eights in the golden yellow pond of deliciousness below me. Mmmm.

In the meantime, Emily spread out the seeds I had cleaned and reserved from the squash onto one of the cookie sheets. With a splash of oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, they went into the oven until we could smell their nuttiness and they had reached the perfect toasty brown color and crunchiness. At that point the soup had a slowly rising stream of steam coming off its surface which meant it had come up to temperature. "Time to eat!” I said happily and we all grabbed our bowls and large silver spoons.

Shockingly we successfully resisted eating all of the roasted seeds before dinner and therefore had some left to put on top of our soup as a most appropriate garnish. Our first bites were followed with nods of approval. The soup had such great levels of flavor without the feeling that you were being overwhelmed by too many ingredients at once. The freshness of the squash, onions, garlic, and apples were apparent. They all naturally have a subtle sweetness which was evenly balanced with the bite of the garlic and the kick of the red curry. We had also chosen a very well made chicken stock that left the soup without the need of any additional seasoning. The texture was creamy and stood at the ideal medium between too thick and too thin. And the final touch of a crunchy, nutty seed in the occasional spoonful tied the whole experience together.

I was happy about so many things as I sat at the table. For one, I had finally gotten my much desired bowl of homemade soup – a must have during the fall season. But not only was I enjoying it, Emily, Paul, and Elane were too, which is a feeling that it always incomparable to me whenever I see other people enjoying something that I have made. And finally, of course, since it was a recipe that I have only done with my mom beforehand, I thought of her as well as my spoon kept going in for more squashy-appley goodness. I laughed at the thought of how she would react to the whole scene. She would be so thrilled with the new spices and happy and grateful to have a soup made for her after a long day of work. “Super job honey!” I heard her say in my head. And, probably with the help of my cousin Becca, she would eventually have gotten to ‘soup-er job!’ which I thought was most appropriate to stand as the new name to this ‘Soup-er Apple Butternut Squash Soup’.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bears, pork chops, and crisp

Do you ever have days that start and end completely differently? As if the day could be easily divided, making two separate entities, and you could be convinced they were actually different days instead of the connecting stream of hours they really were? Well, that’s what the other day was like for me, and it was very interesting how it came to fall under this category.

That morning I woke up with two dogs bookending me in the bed, making any extra blankets completely unnecessary even in the chilly morning air. Actually, it was just us on the orchard for the time being (plus Miko, another dog, who sleeps outside) since Elane and Paul were both out of town and were returning later on that day. So with me, the dogs, and the guinea hens, we held down the fort as we carried out our morning activities. The air was cold and crisp as we headed out for our morning walk. There was a definite sense of fall in the air, and I could feel it both in the chill of my cheeks and in the vision of the colorful changing leaves that bordered our walking route.

I continued with some other tasks throughout the morning, including making some granola to test out how my ‘Peachy Keen Sauce’ would go with it once it’s mixed with yogurt (one word: YUM). Things were peaceful and quiet – no engines rearing to run along the ditch, no noises from Nick from the stable, no bustling of boxes in the packing shed – just us, the trees, and the occasional gust of wind. As the morning slowly crept away, the always reliable afternoon sun came out and cut through any lingering chill. I thought it’d be a good opportunity to fit another walk in for the dogs. We walked up the slight hill to the back of the orchard when all three dogs started barking and sprinting towards the fence. I was curious at first, and then saw a neighboring dog running along the fence as well. They had their greeting barks and mad dashes back and forth along the path and that was pretty much that. We continued on and my mind started wandering to other aimless thoughts.

I’m not really sure how to describe the next moment, since it came up so…casually, I guess, in terms of how one would think of this type of interaction would happen. All I can honestly say is that in one moment I was nonchalantly walking down the path next to the cherry trees and in the next moment I realized that I was 10 feet away from a very large black bear on the other side of the fence. A live black bear, just to my left! I froze and watched the dogs cautiously survey the scene and start to take a right towards the house. Huh, so I’m thinkin’ this may have been the real cause of the barks. It took me a few seconds to really realize that that large dark brown/black furry mass staring back at me was a real, live, intimidating, large bear, that appeared to be forcing its way through fence. I stood there dumbfounded as the bear kind of did the same, not moving an inch. Once I finally registered all of this, I think I said a few choice four letter words and finally came to what I should have done immediately; I slowly backed away off the path and started down one of the rows of trees. I patted the pouch of my sweatshirt – oh wow! I do have my camera! I took a few quick snapshots as I back-peddled – I have to be able to prove this really happened somehow! - and proceeded to turn around and walk briskly, with the dogs close by, back to the house patio. If you couldn’t already tell, this is when the day took its turn.

So there I was, on a 120 acre orchard, with three dogs staring at me, in the wake of just seeing a black bear that seemed to be trying to gnaw and claw its way through the fence….all by myself. Well this is interesting! I thought. Shortly thereafter Paul arrived with his friend Rusty and the new intern Emily. I jogged down to the gate. “Paul, you’ll never guess what just happened!” After my rushed and excited story, we all walked together to the fence, only to see the bear still there! It was in a lying down position and leaped up when it finally heard us, which made us leap back too. Then we realized what the situation was really about. The bear had caught itself in a snare on the bottom of the fence that was initially installed to catch the foxes that had been eating the guinea hens in the beginning of the summer. It all made more sense then, since I was so surprised to see a bear out during that time in the afternoon (the time they usually snack on the apples in the orchard is late at night or very early in the morning). So this bear probably had gotten caught during that time the day before, and had been stuck there since. After a few quick phone calls, Gary, the man who usually takes care of the creatures caught in the traps on the farm, was on his way over to take care of the bear.

At that point, my adrenaline was still high enough that an afternoon run seemed perfectly fitting (no bear in a fence to worry about now) and Sizzle and Xoey (the dogs) and I took advantage of the still warm sunrays and did a quick tour of some of the trails close by. But the excitement of the afternoon wasn’t over! I was only to come back to the house to find Rusty and Emily already started on dinner – dessert actually – as they diced away at pears and peaches, and mixed butter and oats into flour at the kitchen counter. A Peach-Pear Crisp! And once I heard that pork chops were hitting the grill shortly, I accelerated my pace to the shower.

We all sat down at the table enjoying some delicious Colorado beer alongside our tasty dinner. The best part about it was, though, that we were finally able to try some of the jarred recipes we had been creating for the farmer’s markets on an actual meal. The two contenders were the Peachy Green Chili and the Zesty Pear Chutney, and I must say they both passed with flying colors. The pear chutney was especially delicious on top of the pork (as we had predicted) since the slight fruitiness as well as the marriage of ginger and allspice and cayenne melded with the meat beautifully. And the hit of apple cider vinegar really highlighted all of the above. Success! We sat around the table and had a nice conversation, going back and forth from the bear incident to what was on our plate and otherwise.

And if the main meal wasn’t enough, dessert was still on its way. Rusty’s delicious smelling crisp had cooled on the counter just enough and we sat ready with our spoons and bowls. We cut through the satisfying crispy top and revealed the steamy layer of perfectly soft slices peaches and pears. Paired with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was everything you’d want in a dessert. Rusty’s heavy hand with the cinnamon perfectly blended with the flavors of the fruit, which complemented each other very well. All peach would have been too sweet, and all pear would have been missing that extra bright sweetness. Together they made a happy and well balanced crisp. As we scraped our bowls down to the very last crumb, Rusty assured us that it was even better in the morning once its been cooled completely in the fridge overnight. Oats, fruit…sounds like breakfast to me!

With Elane arriving later that night and Rusty’s son coming early the next morning, the orchard was full to its capacity. The weekend had some great activities and chores lined up, seeing that there were so many willing and helping hands around. With all of the moving bodies and parts going on that evening, it would be hard to picture what the quiet, eventless morning was like. I remembered it faintly as though it were days ago. Then I realized what I had really learned that day: 1) Nothing compares to the flavor of a homemade dinner made with ingredients that you’ve taken the time to care for and 2) Once a live bear appears in your schedule unexpectedly, you should know the rest of your day won’t compare to anything that came before it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Peaches' Last Hurrah

I stood at the stainless steel kitchen counter tapping my pen against the neon green index card. I felt a little like Winnie the Pooh; Think, Think, Think… Only instead of honey as my motivation, it was rows of jars waiting to be filled with some sort of peach concoction. What to make, what to make…With Elane gone for the whole week, I had been left as lead creator of all things made in the kitchen that would eventually be sold at the season’s last Farmer’s Markets. “So we have peaches and pears coming out of our ears…fill as many jars as you can with something preserved that we’ll be able to sell. Feel free to get creative, have fun!” Creative and fun I can do, yes, but I needed something I could do on my own that was manageable, delicious, and sellable. Otherwise it would be a waste of time, expensive jars and lids, and of course produce. All of this with my few week experience of large production jarring and canning. No pressure…right?

Okay Lizzy, lets think about this. We’ve done peach jam, and I can very well try to do that without any guidance – even though blanching and peeling all of those peaches, with the added x-factor of how much sugar to pectin to lemon juice, might take a lot of time and create some heartburn inducing stress. No jam should be made under stress, it wouldn’t taste good. Alright, well, how about something a little less congealed than a jam and a bit more rustic, but equally as peachy and delicious. Then it came to me, slowly but surely, and after a few scribbles of a game plan, out came the cutting board and knife and peaches were flying out of boxes.

Yeah, yeah, I think this will work I thought confidently as more and more peach slices filled the tall, silver pot. I had decided to skip peeling all together – rebellious, I know! – since I figured that after a good rinse, the skins could add a nice flavor, color, and texture to what I was making. And since these were the tail end of the saved peach crop, those added elements could really help save the true summer flavor of a fresh peach.

After the chopping was complete, I set the pot over a medium low flame to slowly heat up the mound of orangey-pink peachy deliciousness that stood before me. With a few teaspoons of lemon juice and a dusting of sugar, I let the mixture come up to a boil in order for the very soft pieces of peach to break down and the more sturdy pieces of peach to soften but still hold their shape – a contrast in texture, this is good. I continuously stirred the mixture to avoid any burning on the bottom of the pan. The pot gurgled and spurted small bits of hot peach purée at my exposed arms as the small air bubbles slowly exploded after building up within the thick mass. It was almost like watching slowly moving hot volcanic lava. I held strong though and dodged what I could, anything to avoid the hint of burnt peach flavor. The skins started to break down as well, which along with the evaporation, made the mixture a bit thicker in consistency due to its natural pectin content.

After about 20 minutes of babysitting the pot, the room started smelling of pure peach. Yum. I also liked the level of resistance the mixture was giving me as I moved my spoon around. Not too thick, not too thin. So…it’s not exactly a jam…not congealed enough. But it’s not strictly a peach purée either, not with the occasional chunk of peach, the sugar, lemon juice, and cooking process involved. I tasted it to see how the balance was. Mmm heavenly peachy. As I felt the texture and taste move about in my mouth, my mind instantly shot to different destinations…on ice cream! in yogurt! the make or break of a smoothie! a best friend to a hot bowl of oatmeal! Wow, this stuff could go the distance in a lot of different food categories. Heck, as I stood there, the spoon in my hand was all that I needed at that point. Once I finally succumbed to the reality that I couldn’t eat it all by myself and had to ration it to actual jars to give to other people, I cut the burner and ladled the batch among a group of Ball pint jars.

The jars hung out in their hot tub of boiling water and I finished writing down what I had done to create this batch of…huh, what should I call this thing? I thought about the texture and taste of the mixture as well as the different uses I dreamt of as I tried my first sample. Since it was no jam, it had to be some type of sauce. Yeah, a peach sauce, that’s what it was. But writing just plain ‘Peach Sauce’ on the top of the card didn’t seem to justify the great peach flavor these exceptional peaches have that comes out so well in the sauce. When you eat it, you just feel…good. Ah! That’s it! I reflected on how much fun I had while creating and making the sauce (the local radio station had some groovin’ tunes on that blasted out of the kitchen stereo) all with Sizzle, the 11 year old golden/lab mix, laying happily under my feet. What would I do without my supervisor? Not only did I think about that, I also took into account how great the rest of the day had been too. I had a great run with Xoey and Miko (two more of the orchard owner’s dogs) along the ditch trail, I was able to watch a FULL, and victorious, Patriots game on a big TV screen even when in Colorado (Ben is my hero), and had a great steak dinner with Paul to finish it all off. I wrote down my final title and placed the card on the windowsill. Hopefully I would be able to have time later on in the week to make another batch of ‘Peachy Keen Sauce’ at least once more.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Guinea Plate Special

The first morning I woke up at the orchard, I took a great walking tour with Elane around their property, learning about all of the different trees and their fruits, the irrigation system, and all of the different creatures that live in the area with them. Actually, in later mornings, we spotted a Mama black bear with her two baby cubs on the other side of the mountainside not too far up the trail, only to wake up the next morning to a bobcat in one of the claw traps off the driveway. Who needs coffee in the morning when you have a few predators around to get your blood going?

Anyway, that first morning we ended our tour at the main house right beyond the cherry trees. Before we went inside, Elane brought me to the back of the house near the patio towards some of the strangest noises I’ve ever heard. It was a mixture of squaking, squeaking, clucking… with a slight twang of noises similar to a creaky old gate and a squeaky bicycle wheel. Overall quite a symphony. We approached two caged pens and I finally realized where these sounds were coming from – around 20 small chicken-like birds that were strutting around their area chatting away at each other and at inanimate objects. “And these are our guinea hens,” Elane explained. “Huh, they look like…chicken/turkeys,” I told her as I knelt down to get a closer look. They were the size of a regular chicken but had feathers and heads (complete with the red flappy thing on their beaks…to be technical) just like turkeys. “Yeah, you can call them what you want, but nothing can change how delicious their eggs are.” Now she really had my interest. We proceeded to walk inside and my stomach grumbled with the thought of breakfast.

I sat down at the table as Elane opened the fridge and pulled out a large cardboard crate full of golf ball sized eggs. “Oh wow, look how cute they are!” I said as I examined their petite size in comparison to the commercial chicken egg. Besides the nice tope background color to them, each egg otherwise had its own unique pattern of brown specks, dots, and splotches, or a lack thereof. “Just wait until you see the inside,” she said while swiftly whacking the egg on the side of the bowl (the shells are almost three times as thick as a chicken egg). A little, golden yellow yolk plopped into the bowl and a small part of egg white followed. “You see that? The yolk takes up most of the egg, and that color signifies a healthy bird that eats what it should eat naturally.” At this point I was cursing myself that I didn’t bring my camera with me on the walk. “Umm, Elane, wait just one second, I need to go get my camera. It’s just that, I, uh, like to document things and well… I guess if there’s one thing you’ll learn about me, it’s that I like to take pictures of food...a lot. You’ll see.” It was no real time for explanation and I hustled out the door.

Out of breath, I ran back into the house after retrieving my camera, only to see that three more eggs were cracked into a new white bowl now (to enhance the color of the yolk) with other whole eggs circling around it to create a nice little showcase of guinea eggs. “I thought it’d look nice for your picture!” This is when I knew Elane and I would get along just fine. After my first photo shoot, she began to whisk the yolks with some whole milk and explained to me that the strong thickness of the yolk, in addition to its color, was due to the bird’s high protein diet (mmm grasshoppers) which in turn makes it one awesome and nutritional addition to any meal.

Elane stood at the stove and I sat at the table next to her, sipping some chai tea with their own harvested honey as she prepared breakfast. Even though our discussion moved away from guinea eggs to other topics, I still kept a close eye on what was going on in the skillet since I was so intrigued by this new form of a breakfast staple. First she sautéed some red onion, mushroom, and fresh baby spinach in some melted butter until everything was a bit soft and wilted. She moved that onto another plate off the heat and added more butter to the skillet so the beaten eggs and milk had something to slide around on and take on its flavor once it was introduced. In they went into the skillet for under a minute just to get them started. Once the smell of cooking eggs finally combined with the lingering smell of the sautéed veggies, everything was mixed into the pan. With the finishing touch of feta cheese on top, our scramble was complete. Slices of rosemary sourdough toast popped out of the toaster just in time to accompany our warm eggs, and we took our plates out to the patio just behind the house.

The morning sun was just as bright as it was earlier, and now the air was warming up too which made the patio area a perfect venue to enjoy our breakfast. I looked beyond the chair across from me to admire the rows of healthy cherry trees that looked so beautiful against the blue sky - only to look to my left and see Lamborn and Lands End Mountain looking tall and mighty in their majestic setting beyond the other 120 acres of their land. And then there were of course the guinea hens still in their cage right next to us. I lifted up my plate and gave them a nod; “Thanks for the breakfast guys”. Elane came out with her plate and a jar of her homemade sweet and sour cherry jam she had made earlier in the season. I took a bite of it on my toast and it was nothing short of exquisite – such a great cherry flavor with the perfect balance of sweet and sour, and without the over-sugary taste you get from store bought jams. It was delightful, and I was so pleased to have it as a toast topper. I finally took my first bite of the eggs and I couldn’t believe the flavor difference that was going on in my mouth. Even though most of the ingredients she added to the eggs you could find in any other omelet we’ve probably all had before, the sturdy – but not rubbery – texture of these eggs made this one one of a kind. Not only that, but the flavor was so rich that it wasn’t drowned out by the strength of the feta or the veggies, nor needed any hint of additional seasonings whatsoever. Everything worked together so well. I never knew I could taste such decadency in an egg dish, and I attributed it to both freshness and the natural lifestyle these guineas were living.

I laid down my fork on my clean plate and sat back to digest my hearty breakfast. I was ready to take on the tasks of the day, knowing well that I had good fuel behind me to lead me through them all. That’s when I thought to myself; who needs Wheaties in the morning when you have guinea eggs? Perhaps they need to reevaluate the contenders for ‘The Breakfast of Champions’.